"Oh, Judge March, it's too late to draw back now. That were cruel!"
John clambered into his high chair – said grace in a pretty rhyme of his mother's production – she was a poetess – and ended with:
"Amen, double-O-K. I wish double-O-K would mean firecrackers; firecrackers and cinnamon candy!" He patted his wrists together and glanced triumphantly upon the frowsy, barefooted waitress while Mrs. March poured the coffee.
The Judge's wife, at thirty-two, was still fair. Her face was thin, but her languorous eyes were expressive and her mouth delicate. A certain shadow about its corners may have meant rigidity of will or only a habit of introspection, but it was always there.
She passed her husband's coffee, and the hungry child, though still all eyes, was taking his first gulp of milk, when over the top of his mug he saw his father reach stealthily down to his saddle-bags and straighten again.
"Go on with yo' suppeh, son." Under the table the paper was coming off something. John filled both cheeks dutifully, but kept them so, unchanged, while the present came forth. Then he looked confused and turned to his mother. Her eyes were on her husband in deep dejection, as her hand rose to receive the book from the servant. She took it, read the title, and moaned:
"Oh! Judge March, what is your child to do with 'Lord Chesterfield's Letters to his Son?'"
John waited only for her pitying glance. Then the tears burst from his eyes and the bread and milk from his mouth, and he cried with a great and continuous voice, "I don't like presents! I want to go to bed!"
Even when the waitress got him there his mother could not quiet him. She demanded explanations and he could not explain, for by that time he had persuaded himself he was crying because his mother was not happy. But he hushed when the Judge, sinking down upon the bedside, said, as the despairing wife left the room,
"I'm sorry I've disappointed you so powerful, son. I know just how you feel. I made – " he glanced round to be sure she was gone – "just as bad a mistake one time, trying to make a present to myself."
The child lay quite still, vaguely considering whether that was any good reason why he should stop crying.
"But 'evomind, son, the ve'y next time we go to town we'll buy some cinnamon candy."
The son's eyes met the father's in a smile of love, the lids declined, the lashes folded, and his spirit circled softly down into the fathomless under-heaven of dreamless sleep.
It was nearly four o'clock of a day in early June. The sun shone exceptionally hot on the meagre waters of Turkey Creek, where it warmed its sinuous length through the middle of its wide battle-field. The turnpike, coming northward from Suez, emerged, white, dusty, and badly broken, on the southern border of this waste, and crossed the creek at right angles. Eastward, westward, the prospect widened away in soft heavings of fallow half ruined by rains. The whole landscape seemed bruised and torn, its beauty not gone, but ravished. A distant spot of yellow was wheat, a yet farther one may have been rye. Off on the right a thin green mantle that only half clothed the red shoulder of a rise along the eastern sky was cotton, the sometime royal claimant, unsceptred, but still potent and full of beauty. About the embers of a burned dwelling, elder, love-pop, and other wild things spread themselves in rank complacency, strange bed-fellows adversity had thrust in upon the frightened sweet-Betsy, phlox and jonquils of the ruined garden. Here the ground was gay with wild roses, and yonder blue, pink, white, and purple with expanses of larkspur.
A few steps to the left of the pike near the wood's strong shade, a beautiful brown horse in gray and yellow trappings suddenly lifted his head from the clover and gazed abroad.
"He knows there's been fighting here," said a sturdy voice from the thicket of ripe blackberries behind; "he sort o' smells it."
"Reckon he hears something," responded a younger voice farther from the road. "Maybe it's C'nelius's yodle; he's been listening for it for a solid week."
"He's got a good right to," came the first voice again; "worthless as that boy is, nobody ever took better care of a horse. I wish I had just about two dozen of his beat biscuit right now. He didn't have his equal in camp for beat biscuit."
"When sober," suggested the younger speaker, in that melodious Southern drawl so effective in dry satire; but the older voice did not laugh. One does not like to have another's satire pointed even at one's nigger.
The senior presently resumed a narrative made timely by the two having just come through the town. "You must remember I inherited no means and didn't get my education without a long, hard fight. A thorough clerical education's no mean thing to get."
"Couldn't the church help you?"
"Oh – yes – I, ch – I did have church aid, but – Well, then I was three years a circuit rider and then I preached four years here in Suez. And then I married. Folks laugh about preachers always marrying fortunes – it was a mighty small fortune Rose Montgomery brought me! But she was Rose Montgomery, and I got her when no other man had the courage to ask for her. You know an ancestor of hers founded Suez. That's how it got its name. His name was Ezra and hers was Susan, don't you see?"
"I think I make it out," drawled the listener.
"But she didn't any more have a fortune than I did. She and her mother, who died about a year after, were living here in town just on the wages of three or four hired-out slaves, and – "
The younger voice interrupted with a question indolently drawn out: "Was she as beautiful in those days as they say?"
"Why, allowing for some natural exaggeration, yes."
"You built Rosemont about the time her mother died, didn't you?"
"Yes, about three years before the war broke out. It was the only piece of land she had left; too small for a plantation, but just the thing for a college."
"It is neatly named," pursued the questioner; "who did it?"
"I," half soliloquized the narrator, wrapped in the solitude of his own originality.
He moved into view, a large man of forty, unmilitary, despite his good gray broadcloth and wealth of gold braid, though of commanding and most comfortable mien. His upright coat-collar, too much agape, showed a clerical white cravat. His right arm was in a sling. He began to pick his way out of the brambles, dusting himself with a fine handkerchief. The horse came to meet him.
At the same time his young companion stepped upon a fallen tree, and stood to gaze, large-eyed, like the horse, across the sun-bathed scene. He seemed scant nineteen. His gray shirt was buttoned with locust thorns, his cotton-woolen jacket was caught under an old cartridge belt, his ragged trousers were thrust into bursted boots, and he was thickly powdered with white and yellow dust. His eyes swept slowly over the battle-ground to some low, wooded hills that rose beyond it against the pale northwestern sky.
"Major," said he.
The Major was busy lifting himself carefully into the saddle and checking his horse's eagerness to be off. But the youth still gazed, and said again, "Isn't that it?"
"It is!" cried the officer, standing in his stirrups, and smiling fondly at a point where, some three miles away by the line of sight, a dark roof crowned by a white-railed lookout peeped over the tree-tops. "It's Rosemont – my own Rosemont! The view's been opened by cutting the woods off that hill this side of it. Come!"
Soon a wreath of turnpike dust near the broken culvert over Turkey Creek showed the good speed the travelers made. The ill-shod youth and delicately-shod horse trudged side by side through the furnace heat of sunshine. So intolerable were its rays that when an old reticule of fawn-skin with bright steel chains and mountings, well-known receptacle of the Major's private papers and stationery, dropped from its fastenings at the back of the saddle and the dismounted soldier stooped to pick it up, the horseman said: "Don't stop; let it go; it's empty. I burned everything in it the night of the surrender, even my wife's letters, don't you know?"
"Yes," said the youth, trying to open it, "I remember. Still, I'll take its parole before I turn it loose."
"That part doesn't open," said the rider, smiling, "it's only make-believe. Here, press in and draw down at the same time. There! nothing but my card that I pasted in the day I found the thing in some old papers I was looking over. I reckon it was my wife's grandmother's. Oh, yes, fasten it on again, though like as not I will give it away to Barb as soon as I get home. It's my way."
And the Reverend John Wesley Garnet, A.M., smiled at himself self-lovingly for being so unselfish about reticules.
"You need two thumbs to tie those leather strings, Jeff-Jack." Jeff-Jack had lost one, more than a year before, in a murderous onslaught where the Major and he had saved each other's lives, turn about, in almost the same moment. But the knot was tied, and they started on.
"Speakin' o' Barb, some of the darkies told her if she didn't stop chasing squir'ls up the campus trees and crying when they put shoes on her feet to take her to church, she'd be turned into a boy. What d' you reckon she said? She and Johanna – Johanna's her only playmate, you know – danced for joy; and Barb says, says she, 'An' den kin I doe in swimmin'?' Mind you, she's only five years old!" The Major's laugh came abundantly. "Mind you, she's only five!"
The plodding youth whiffed gayly at the heat, switched off his bad cotton hat, and glanced around upon the scars of war. He was about to speak lightly; but as he looked upon the red washouts in the forsaken fields, and the dried sloughs in and beside the highway, snaggy with broken fence-rails and their margins blackened by teamsters' night-fires, he fell to brooding on the impoverishment of eleven States, and on the hundreds of thousands of men and women sitting in the ashes of their desolated hopes and the lingering fear of unspeakable humiliations. Only that morning had these two comrades seen for the first time the proclamation of amnesty and pardon with which the president of the triumphant republic ushered into a second birth the States of "the conquered banner."
"Major," said the young man, lifting his head, "you must open Rosemont again."
"Oh, I don't know, Jeff-Jack. It's mighty dark for us all ahead." The Major sighed with the air of being himself a large part of the fallen Confederacy.