They laughed, pushed and smote one another, and went, while he mounted the stairs; they, strangers to the sufferings of his mind, and he as ignorant as many a far vaster autocrat of the profound failure of his words to satisfy the applauding people he left below him.
In the hall Jeff-Jack let Barbara down. Thump-thump-thump – she ran to find Johanna. A fear and a hope quite filled her with their strife, the mortifying fear that at the brook Mr. Ravenel had observed – and the reinspiring hope that he had failed to observe – that she was without shoes! She remained away for some time, and came back shyly in softly squeaking leather. As he took her on his knee she asked, carelessly:
"Did you ever notice I'm dot socks on to-day?" and when he cried "No!" and stroked them, she silently applauded her own tact.
Virginia and her mistress decided that the supper would have to be totally reconsidered – reconstructed. Jeff-Jack and Barbara, the reticule on her arm, walked in the grove where the trees were few. The flat out-croppings of gray and yellow rocks made grotesque figures in the grass, and up from among the cedar sprouts turtle-doves sprang with that peculiar music of their wings, flew into distant coverts, and from one such to another tenderly complained of love's alarms and separations. When Barbara asked her escort where his home was, he said it was going to be in Suez, and on cross-examination explained that Flatrock was only a small plantation where his sister lived and took care of his father, who was old and sick.
He seemed to Barbara to be very easily amused, even laughing at some things she said which she did not intend for jokes at all. But since he laughed she laughed too, though with more reserve. They picked wild flowers. He gave her forget-me-nots.
They did not bring their raging hunger into the house again until the large tea-bell rang in the porch, and the air was rife with the fragrance of Aunt Virginia's bounty: fried ham, fried eggs, fried chicken, strong coffee, and hot biscuits – of fresh Yankee flour from Suez. No wine, and no tonic before sitting down. In the pulpit and out of it Garnet had ever been an ardent advocate of total abstinence. He never, even in his own case, set aside its rigors except when chilled or fatigued, and always then took ample care not to let his action, or any subsequent confession, be a temptation in the eyes of others who might be weaker than he.
Barbara sat opposite Jeff-Jack. What of that? Johanna, standing behind mom-a's chair, should not have smiled and clapped her hands to her mouth. Barbara ignored her. As she did again, after supper, when, silent, on the young soldier's knee, amid an earnest talk upon interests too public to interest her, she could see her little nurse tiptoeing around the door out in the dim hall, grinning in white gleams of summer lightning, beckoning, and pointing upstairs. The best way to treat such things is to take no notice of them.
In the bright parlor the talk was still on public affairs. The war was over, but its issues were still largely in suspense and were not questions of boundaries or dynasties; they underlay every Southern hearthstone; the possibilities of each to-morrow were the personal concern and distress of every true Southern man, of every true Southern woman.
Thus spoke Garnet. His strong, emotional voice was the one most heard. Ravenel held Barbara, and responded scarcely so often as her mother, whose gentle self-command rested him. Not such was its effect upon the husband. His very flesh seemed to feel the smartings of trampled aspirations and insulted rights. More than once, under stress of his sincere though florid sentences, he rose proudly to his feet with a hand laid unconsciously on his freshly bandaged arm, as though all the pain and smart of the times were centring there, and tried good-naturedly to reflect the satirical composure of his late adjutant. But when he sought to make light of "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," he could not quite hide the exasperation of a spirit covered with their contusions; and when he spoke again, he frowned.
Mrs. Garnet observed Ravenel with secret concern. Men like Garnet, addicted to rhetoric, have a way of always just missing the vital truth of things, and this is what she believed this stripling had, in the intimacies of the headquarter's tent, discerned in him, and now so mildly, but so frequently, smiled at. "Major Garnet," she said, and silently indicated that some one was waiting in the doorway. The Major, standing, turned and saw, faltering with conscious overboldness on the threshold, a tawny figure whose shoulders stared through the rags of a coarse cotton shirt; the man of all men to whom he was just then the most unprepared to show patience.
Outside it was growing dark. The bright red dot that, from the railed housetop, you might have seen on the far edge of Turkey Creek battle-ground, was a watch-fire beside the blackberry patch we know of. Here sat Judge March guarding his wagon and mules. One of them was sick. The wagon, under a load of barreled pork and general supplies, had slumped into a hole and suffered a "general giving-way." While in Suez the Judge had paid Cornelius off, written a note to be given by him to Major Garnet, and agreed, in recognition of his abundant worthlessness, to part with him from date, finally.
Yet the magnanimous Cornelius, still with him when the wagon broke, went back to Suez for help and horse medicine, but trifled so sadly, or so gayly, that at sunset there was no choice but to wait till morning.
John, however, had to be sent home. But how? On the Judge's horse, behind Cornelius? The father hesitated. But the mulatto showed such indignant grief and offered such large promises, the child, of course, siding with the teamster, and after all, they could reach Widewood so soon after nightfall, that the Judge sent them. From Widewood, Cornelius, alone, was to turn promptly back —
"Well, o' co'se, sah! Ain't I always promp'?" —
Promptly back by way of Rosemont, leave the note there and then bring the Judge's horse to him at the camp-fire. If lights were out at Rosemont he could give the letter to some servant to be delivered next morning.
"Good-bye, son. I can't hear yo' prayers to-night. I'll miss it myself. But if yo' dear motheh ain't too ti-ud maybe she'll hear 'em."
It suited Cornelius to turn aside first to Rosemont.
"You see, Johnnie, me an' Majo' Gyarnet is got some ve'y urgen' business to transpiah. An' den likewise an' mo'oveh, here's de triflin' matteh o' dis letteh. What contents do hit contain? I's done yo' paw a powerful favo', an' yit I has a sneakin' notion dat herein yo' paw express hisseff wid great lassitude about me. An' thus, o' co'se, I want to know it befo' han,' caze ef a man play you a trick you don't want to pay him wid a favo'. Trick fo' trick, favo' fo' favo', is de rule of Cawnelius Leggett, Esquire, freedman, an' ef I fines, when Majo' Gyarnet read dis-yeh letteh, dat yo' paw done intercallate me a trick, I jist predestinatured to git evm wid bofe of'm de prompes' way I kin. You neveh seed me mad, did you? Well, when you see Cawnelius Leggett mad you wants to run an' hide. He wou'n't hu't a chile no mo'n he'd hu't a chicken, but ef dere's a man in de way – jis' on'y in de way– an' specially a white man – Lawd! he betteh teck a tree!"
The windows of Rosemont had for some time been red with lamplight when they fastened their horse to a swinging limb near the spring-house and walked up through the darkening grove to the kitchen. Virginia received her son with querulous surprise. "Gawd's own fool," she called him, "fuh runnin' off, an' de same fool double' an' twisted fo' slinkin' back." But when he arrogantly showed the Judge's letter she lapsed into silent disdain while she gave him an abundant supper. After a time the child was left sitting beside the kitchen fire, holding an untasted biscuit. Throughout the yard and quarters there was a stillness that was not sleep, though Virginia alone was out-of-doors, standing on the moonlit veranda looking into the hall.
She heard Major Garnet ask, with majestic forbearance, "Well, Cornelius, what do you want?"
The teamster advanced with his ragged hat in one hand and the letter in the other. The Major, flushing red, lifted his sound arm, commandingly, and the mulatto stopped. "Boy, can it be that in my presence and in the presence of your mistress you dare attempt to change the manners you were raised to?"
Cornelius opened his mouth with great pretense of ignorance, but —
"Go back and drop that hat outside the door, sir!" The servant went.
"Now, bring me that letter!" The bearer brought it and stood waiting while the Major held it under his lame arm and tore it open.
Judge March wrote that he had found a way to dispense with Cornelius at once, but his main wish was to express the hope – having let a better opportunity slip – that President Garnet as the "person best fitted in all central Dixie to impart to Southern youth a purely Southern education," would reopen Rosemont at once, and to promise his son to the college as soon as he should be old enough.
But for two things the Major might have felt soothed. One was a feeling that Cornelius had in some way made himself unpleasant to the Judge, and this grew to conviction as his nostrils caught the odor of strong drink. He handed the note to his wife.
"Judge March is always complimentary. Read it to Jeff-Jack. Cornelius, I'll see you for a moment on the back gallery." His wife tried to catch his eye, but a voice within him commended him to his own self-command, and he passed down the hall, the mulatto following. Johanna, crouching and nodding against the wall, straightened up as he passed. His footfall sounded hope to the strained ear of the Judge's son in the kitchen. Virginia slipped away. In the veranda, under the moonlight, Garnet turned and said, in a voice almost friendly:
"Cornelius, why did you go off and hire yourself out, sir?"
At the last word the small listener in the kitchen trembled.
"Dass jess what I 'How to 'splain to you, sah."
"It isn't necessary. Cornelius, you know that if ever one class of human beings owed a lifelong gratitude to another, you negroes owe it to your old masters, don't you? Stop! don't you dare to say no? Here you all are; never has one of you felt a pang of helpless hunger or lain one day with a neglected fever. Food, clothing, shelter, you've never suffered a day's doubt about them! No other laboring class ever were so free from the cares of life. Your fellow-servants have shown some gratitude; they've stayed with their mistress till I got home to arrange with them under these new conditions. But you – you! when I let you push on ahead and leave me sick and wounded and only half way home – your home and mine, Cornelius – with your promise to wait here till I could come and retain you on wages – you, in pure wantonness, must lift up your heels and prance away into your so-called new liberty. You're a fair sample of what's to come, Cornelius. You've spent your first wages for whiskey. Silence, you perfidious reptile!
"Oh, Cornelius, you needn't dodge in that way, sir, I'm not going to take you to the stable; thank God I'm done whipping you and all your kind, for life! Cornelius, I've only one business with you and it's only one word! Go! at once! forever! You should go if it were only – Cornelius, I've been taking care of my own horse! Don't you dare to sleep on these premises to-night. Wait! Tell me what you've done to offend Judge March?"
"Why, Mahse John Wesley, I ain't done nothin' to Jedge Mahch; no, sah, neither defensive nor yit offensive. An' yit mo', I ain't dream o; causin' you sich uprisin' he'plessness. Me and Jedge Mahch" – he began to swell – "has had a stric'ly private disparitude on the subjec' o' extry wages, account'n o' his disinterpretations o' my plans an' his ign'ance o' de law." He tilted his face and gave himself an argumentative frown of matchless insolence. "You see, my deah seh – "
Garnet was wearily turning his head from side to side as if in unspeakable pain; a sudden movement of his free arm caused the mulatto to flinch, but the ex-master said, quietly:
"Go on, Cornelius."
"Yass. You see, Major, sence dis waugh done put us all on a sawt of equality – " The speaker flinched again.
"Great Heaven!" groaned the Major. "Cornelius, why, Cor —nelius! you viper! if it were not for dishonoring my own roof I'd thrash you right here. I've a good notion – "
"Ow! leggo me! I ain't gwine to 'low no daym rebel – "
Ravenel, stroking Barbara and talking to Mrs. Garnet, saw his hostess start and then try to attend to his words, while out on the veranda rang notes of fright and pain.
"Oh! don't grabble my whole bres' up dat a-way, sah! Please sah! Oh! don't! You ain't got no mo' right! Oh! Lawd! Mahse John Wesley! Oh! good Lawdy! yo' ban' bites like a dawg!"
Ravenel paused in his talk to ask Barbara about the sandman, but the child stared wildly at her mother. Johanna reappeared in the door with a scared face; Barbara burst into loud weeping, and her nurse bore her away crying and bending toward her mother, while from the veranda the wail poured in.
"Oh! Oh! don't resh me back like that! Oh! Oh! my Gawd! Oh! you'll bre'k de balusters! Oh! my Gawd-A'mighty, my back; Mahse John Wesley, you a-breakin' my back! Oh, good Lawd 'a' mussy! my po' back! my po' back! Oh! don't dra – ag – you ain't a-needin' to drag me. I'll walk, Mahse John Wesley, I'll walk! Oh! you a-scrapin' my knees off! Oh! dat whip ain't over dak! You can't re'ch it down! – ef I bite – " There was a silent instant and the mulatto screamed.
With sinking knees a small form slipped from the kitchen and ran – fell – rose – and ran again across the moonlight and into the grove toward the spring-house.
Barbara's crying increased. Ravenel said:
"Don't let me keep you from the baby" – while outside:
"Oh! I didn't mean to bite you, sweet Mahse John Wesley. 'Fo' Gawd I – oh! – o – oh – h – you broke my knees!"