Read YOUNG BLOOD : CHAPTER XIII of The Battle Ground, free online book, by Ellen Glasgow, on ReadCentral.com.

CRABBED AGE AND CALLOW YOUTH

With the morning came trustier tidings.  The slaves had taken no part in the attack, the weapons had dropped from the few dark hands into which they had been given, and while the shots that might bring them freedom yet rang at Harper’s Ferry, the negroes themselves went with cheerful faces to their work, or looked up, singing, from their labours in the field.  In the green valley, set amid blue mountains, they moved quietly back and forth, raking the wind-drifts of fallen leaves, or ploughing the rich earth for the autumn sowing of the grain.

As the Governor was sitting down to breakfast, the Lightfoot coach rolled up to the portico, and the Major stepped down to deliver himself of his garnered news.  He was in no pleasant humour, for he had met Dan face to face that morning as he passed the tavern, and as if this were not sufficient to try the patience of an irascible old gentleman, a spasm of gout had seized him as he made ready to descend.

But at the sight of Mrs. Ambler, he trod valiantly upon his gouty toe, and screwed his features into his blandest smile ­an effort which drew so heavily upon the source of his good-nature, that he arrived at Chericoke an hour later in what was known to Betty as “a purple rage.”

“You know I have always warned you, Molly,” was his first offensive thrust as he entered Mrs. Lightfoot’s chamber, “that your taste for trash would be the ruin of the family.  It has ruined your daughter, and now it is ruining your grandson.  Well, well, you can’t say that it is for lack of warning.”

From the centre of her tester bed, the old lady calmly regarded him.  “I told you to bring back the boy, Mr. Lightfoot,” she returned.  “You surely saw him in town, didn’t you?”

“Oh, yes, I saw him,” replied the Major, loosening his high black stock.  “But where do you suppose I saw him, ma’am? and how?  Why, the young scapegrace has actually gone and hired himself out as a stagedriver ­a common stagedriver.  And, bless my soul, he had the audacity to tip his hat to me from the box ­from the box with the reins in his hand, ma’am!”

“What stage, Mr. Lightfoot?” inquired his wife, with an eye for particulars.

“Oh, I wash my hands of him,” pursued the Major, waving her question aside.  “I wash my hands of him, and that’s the end of it.  In my day, the young were supposed to show some respect for their elders, and every calf wasn’t of the opinion that he could bellow like a bull ­but things are changed now, and I wash my hands of it all.  A more ungrateful family, I am willing to maintain, no man was ever blessed with ­which comes, I reckon, from sparing the rod and spoiling the child ­but I’m sure I don’t see how it is that it is always your temper that gets inherited.”

The personal note fell unheeded upon his wife’s ears.

“You don’t mean to tell me that you came away and left the boy sitting on the box of a stagecoach?” she demanded sharply.

“Would you have me claim a stagedriver as a grandson?” retorted the Major, “because I may as well say now, ma’am, that there are some things I’ll not stoop to.  Why, I’d as lief have an uncle who was a chimney sweep.”

Mrs. Lightfoot turned uneasily in bed.  “It means, I suppose, that I shall have to get up and go after him,” she remarked, “and you yourself heard the doctor tell me not to move out of bed for a week.  It does seem to me, Mr. Lightfoot, that you might show some consideration for my state of health.  Do ride in this afternoon, and tell Dan that I say he must behave himself properly.”

But the Major turned upon her the terrific countenance she had last seen on Jane’s wedding day, and she fell silent from sheer inability to utter a protest befitting the occasion.

“If that stagedriver enters my house, I leave it, ma’am,” thundered the old gentleman, with a stamp of his gouty foot.  “You may choose between us, if you like, ­I have never interfered with your fancies ­but, by God, if you bring him inside my doors I ­I will horsewhip him, madam,” and he went limping out into the hall.

On the stair he met Betty, who looked at him with pleading eyes, but fled, affrighted, before the colour of his wrath; and in his library he found Champe reading his favourite volume of Mr. Addison.

“I hope you aren’t scratching up my books, sir,” he observed, eying the pencil in his great-nephew’s hand.

Champe looked at him with his cool glance, and rose leisurely to his feet.  “Why, I’d as soon think of scrawling over Aunt Emmeline’s window pane,” he returned pleasantly, and added, “I hope you had a successful trip, sir.”

“I got a lukewarm supper and a cold breakfast,” replied the Major irritably, “and I heard that the Marines had those Kansas raiders entrapped like rats in the arsenal, if that is what you mean.”

“No, I wasn’t thinking of that,” replied Champe, as quietly as before.  “I came home to find out about Dan, you know, and I hoped you went into town to look him up.”

“Well, I didn’t, sir,” declared the Major, “and as for that scamp ­I have as much knowledge of his whereabouts as I care for. ­Do you know, sir,” he broke out fiercely, “that he has taken to driving a common stage?”

Champe was sharpening his pencil, and he did not look up as he answered.  “Then the sooner he leaves off the better, eh, sir?” he inquired.

“Oh, there’s your everlasting wrangling!” exclaimed the Major with a hopeless gesture.  “You catch it from Molly, I reckon, and between you, you’ll drive me into dotage yet.  Always arguing!  Never any peace.  Why, I believe if I were to take it into my head to remark that white is white, you would both be setting out to convince me that it is black.  I tell you now, sir, that the sooner you curb that tendency of yours, the better it will be.”

“Aren’t we rather straying from the point?” interposed Champe half angrily.

“There it is again,” gasped the Major.

The knife slipped in Champe’s hand and scratched his finger.  “Surely you don’t intend to leave Dan to knock about for himself much longer?” he said coolly.  “If you do, sir, I don’t mind saying that I think it is a damn shame.”

“How dare you use such language in my presence?” roared the old gentleman, growing purple to the neck.  “Have you, also, been fighting for barmaids and taking up with gaol-birds?  It is what I have to expect, I suppose, and I may as well accustom my ears to profanity; but damn you, sir, you must learn some decency;” and going into the hall he shouted to Congo to bring him a julep.

Champe said nothing more; and when the julep appeared on a silver tray, he left the room and went upstairs to where Betty was waiting.  “He’s awful, there’s no use mincing words, he’s simply awful,” he remarked in an exhausted voice.

“But what does he say? tell me,” questioned Betty, as she moved to a little peaked window which overlooked the lawn.

“What doesn’t he say?” groaned Champe with his eyes upon her as she stood relieved against the greenish panes of glass.

“Do you think I might speak to him?” she persisted eagerly.

“My dear girl, do you want to have your head bitten off for your pains?  His temper is positively tremendous.  By Jove, I didn’t know he had it in him after all these years; I thought he had worn it out on dear Aunt Molly.  And Beau, by the way, isn’t going to be the only one to suffer for his daring, which makes me wish that he had chosen to embrace the saintly instead of the heroic virtues.  I confess that I could find it in my heart to prefer less of David and more of Job.”

“How can you?” remonstrated Betty.  She pressed her hands together and looked wistfully up at him.  “But what are you going to do about it?” she demanded.

For a moment his eyes dwelt on her.

“Betty, Betty, how you care!” he exclaimed.

“Care?” she laughed impatiently.  “Oh, I care, but what good does that do?”

“Would you care as much for me, I wonder?” She smiled up at him and shook her head.

“No, I shouldn’t, Champe,” she answered honestly.

He turned his gaze away from her, and looked through the dim old window panes out upon the clustered elm boughs.

“Well, I’ll do this much,” he said in a cheerful voice.  “I’ll ride to the tavern this morning and find out how the land lies there.  I’ll see Beau, and I’ll do my best for him, and for you, Betty.”  She put out her hand and touched his arm.  “Dear Champe!” she exclaimed impulsively.

“Oh, I dare say,” he scoffed, “but is there any message?”

“Tell him to come back,” she answered, “to come back now, or when he will.”

“Or when he will,” he repeated smiling, and went down to order his horse.

At the tavern he found Jack Hicks and a neighbouring farmer or two, seated upon the porch discussing the raid upon Harper’s Ferry.  They would have drawn him into the talk, but he asked at once for Dan, and upon learning the room in which he lodged, ran up the narrow stair and rapped upon the door.  Then, without waiting for a response, he burst into the room with outstretched hand.  “Why, they’ve put you into a tenpin alley,” were his words of greeting.

With a laugh Dan sprang up from his chair beside the window.  “What on earth are you doing here, old man?” he asked.

“Well, just at present I’m trying to pull you out of the hole you’ve stumbled into.  I say, in the name of all that’s rational, why did you allow yourself to get into such a scrape?”

Dan sat down again and motioned to a split-bottomed chair he had used for a footstool.

“There’s no use going into that,” he replied frowning, “I raised the row and I’m ready to bear the consequences.”

“Ah, that’s the point, my dear fellow; Aunt Molly and I have been bearing them all the morning.”

“Of course, I’m sorry for that, but I may as well tell you now that things are settled so far as I am concerned.  I’ve been kicked out and I wouldn’t go back again if they came for me in a golden chariot.”

“I hardly think that’s likely to happen,” was Champe’s cheerful rejoinder.  “The old gentleman has had his temper touched, as, I dare say, you’re aware, and, as ill-luck would have it, he saw you on the stagecoach this morning.  My dear Beau, you ought to have crawled under the box.”

“Nonsense!” protested Dan, “it’s no concern of his.”  He turned his flushed boyish face angrily away.

Champe looked at him steadily with a twinkle in his eyes.  “Well, I hope your independence will come buttered,” he remarked.  “I doubt if you will find the taste of dry bread to your liking.  By the way, do you intend to enter Jack Hicks’s household?”

“For a fortnight, perhaps.  I’ve written to Judge Compton, and if he’ll take me into his office, I shall study law.”

Champe gave a long whistle.  “I should have supposed that your taste would be for tailoring,” he observed, “your genius for the fashions is immense.”

“I hope to cultivate that also,” said Dan, smiling, as he glanced at his coat.

“What? on bread and cheese and Blackstone?”

“Oh, Blackstone!  I never heard he wasn’t a well-dressed old chap.”

“At least you’ll take half my allowance?”

Dan shook his head.  “Not a cent ­not a copper cent.”

“But how will you live, man?”

“Oh, somehow,” he laughed carelessly.  “I’ll live somehow.”

“It’s rather a shame, you know,” responded Champe, “but there’s one thing of which I am very sure ­the old gentleman will come round.  We’ll make him do it, Aunt Molly and I ­and Betty.”

Dan started.

“Betty sent you a message, by the way,” pursued Champe, looking through the window.  “It was something about coming home; she says you are to come home now ­or when you will.”  He rose and took up his hat and riding-whip.

“Or when I will,” said Dan, rising also.  “Tell her ­no, don’t tell her anything ­what’s the use?”

“She doesn’t need telling,” responded Champe, going toward the door; and he added as they went together down the stair, “She always understands without words, somehow.”

Dan followed him into the yard, and watched him, from under the oaks beside the empty stagecoach, as he mounted and rode away.

“For heaven’s sake, remember my warning,” said Champe, turning in the saddle, “and don’t insist upon eating dry bread if you’re offered butter.”

“And you will look after Aunt Molly and Betty?” Dan rejoined.

“Oh, I’ll look after them,” replied the other lightly, and rode off at an amble.

Dan looked after the horse and rider until they passed slowly out of sight; then, coming back to the porch, he sat down among the farmers, and listened, abstractedly, to the drawling voice of Jack Hicks.

When Champe reached Chericoke, he saw Betty looking for him from Aunt Emmeline’s window seat; and as he dismounted, she ran out and joined him upon the steps.

“And you saw him?” she asked breathlessly.

“It was pleasant to think that you came to meet me for my own sake,” he returned; and at her impatient gesture, caught her hand and looked into her eyes.

“I saw him, my dear,” he said, “and he was in a temper that would have proved his descent had he been lost in infancy.”

She eagerly questioned him, and he answered with forbearing amusement.  “Is that all?” she asked at last, and when he nodded, smiling, she went up to Mrs. Lightfoot’s bedside and besought her “to make the Major listen to reason.”

“He never listened to it in his life, my child,” the old lady replied, “and I think it is hardly to be expected of him that he should begin at his present age.”  Then she gathered, bit by bit, the news that Champe had brought, and ended by remarking that “the ways of men and boys were past finding out.”

“Do you think the Major will ever forgive him?” asked Betty, hopelessly.

“He never forgave poor Jane,” answered Mrs. Lightfoot, her voice breaking at the mention of her daughter.  “But whether he forgives him or not, the silly boy must be made to come home; and as soon as I am out of this bed, I must get into the coach and drive to that God-forsaken tavern.  After ten years, nothing will content them, I suppose, but that I should jolt my bones to pieces.”

Betty looked at her anxiously.  “When will you be up?” she inquired, flushing, as the old lady’s sharp eyes pierced her through.

“I really think, my dear, that you are less sensible than I took you to be,” returned Mrs. Lightfoot.  “It was very foolish of you to allow yourself to take a fancy to Dan.  You should have insisted upon preferring Champe, as I cautioned you to do.  In entering into marriage it is always well to consider first, family connections and secondly, personal disposition; and in both of these particulars there is no fault to be found with Champe.  His mother was a Randolph, my child, which is greatly to his credit.  As for Dan, I fear he will make anything but a safe husband.”

“Safe!” exclaimed Betty indignantly, “did you marry the Major because he was ‘safe,’ I wonder?”

Mrs. Lightfoot accepted the rebuke with meekness.

“Had I done so, I should certainly have proved myself to be a fool,” she returned with grim humour, “but since you have fully decided that you prefer to be miserable, I shall take you with me tomorrow when I go for Dan.”

But on the morrow the old lady did not leave her bed, and the doctor, who came with his saddlebags from Leicesterburg, glanced her over and ordered “perfect repose of mind and body” before he drank his julep and rode away.

“Perfect repose, indeed!” scoffed his patient, from behind her curtains, when the visit was over.  “Why, the idiot might as well have ordered me a mustard plaster.  If he thinks there’s any ‘repose’ in being married to Mr. Lightfoot, I’d be very glad to have him try it for a week.”

Betty made no response, for her throat was strained and aching; but in a moment Mrs. Lightfoot called her to her bedside and patted her upon the arm.

“We’ll go next week, child,” she said gently.  “When you have been married as long as I have been, you will know that a week the more or the less of a man’s society makes very little difference in the long run.”

And the next week they went.  On a ripe October day, when the earth was all red and gold, the coach was brought out into the drive, and Mrs. Lightfoot came down, leaning upon Champe and Betty.

The Major was reading his Horace in the library, and though he heard the new pair of roans pawing on the gravel, he gave no sign of displeasure.  His age had oppressed him in the last few days, and he carried stains, like spilled wine, on his cheeks.  He could not ease his swollen heart by outbursts of anger, and the sensitiveness of his temper warned off the sympathy which he was too proud to unbend and seek.  So he sat and stared at the unturned Latin page, and the hand he raised to his throat trembled slightly in the air.

Outside, Betty, in her most becoming bonnet, with her blue barege shawl over her soft white gown, wrapped Mrs. Lightfoot in woollen robes, and fluttered nervously when the old lady remembered that she had left her spectacles behind.

“I brought the empty case; here it is, my dear,” she said, offering it to the girl.  “Surely you don’t intend to take me off without my glasses?”

Mitty was sent upstairs on a search for them, and in her absence her mistress suddenly decided that she needed an extra wrap.  “The little white nuby in my top drawer, Betty ­I felt a chill striking the back of my neck.”

Betty threw her armful of robes into the coach, and ran hurriedly up to the old lady’s room, coming down, in a moment, with the spectacles in one hand and the little white shawl in the other.

“Now, we must really start, Congo,” she called, as she sat down beside Mrs. Lightfoot, and when the coach rolled along the drive, she leaned out and kissed her hand to Champe upon the steps.

“It is a heavenly day,” she said with a sigh of happiness.  “Oh, isn’t it too good to be real weather?”

Mrs. Lightfoot did not answer, for she was busily examining the contents of her black silk bag.

“Stop Congo, Betty,” she exclaimed, after a hasty search.  “I have forgotten my handkerchief; I sprinkled it with camphor and left it on the bureau.  Tell him to go back at once.”

“Take mine, take mine!” cried the girl, pressing it upon her; and then turning her back upon the old lady, she leaned from the window and looked over the valley filled with sunshine.

The whip cracked, the fat roans kicked the dust, and on they went merrily down the branch road into the turnpike; past Aunt Ailsey’s cabin, past the wild cherry tree, where the blue sky shone through naked twigs; down the long curve, past the tuft of cedars ­and still the turnpike swept wide and white, into the distance, dividing gay fields dotted with browsing cattle.  At Uplands Betty caught a glimpse of Aunt Lydia between the silver poplars, and called joyfully from the window; but the words were lost in the rattling of the wheels; and as she lay back in her corner, Uplands was left behind, and in a little while they passed into the tavern road and went on beneath the shade of interlacing branches.

Underfoot the ground was russet, and through the misty woods she saw the leaves still falling against a dim blue perspective.  The sunshine struck in arrows across the way, and far ahead, at the end of the long vista, there was golden space.

With the ten miles behind them, they came to the tavern in the early afternoon, and, as a small tow-headed boy swung open the gate, the coach rolled into the yard and drew up before the steps.

Jack Hicks started from his seat, and throwing his pipe aside, came hurriedly to the wheels, but before he laid his hand upon the door, Betty opened it and sprang lightly to the ground, her face radiant in the shadow of her bonnet.

“Let me speak, child,” called Mrs. Lightfoot after her, adding, with courteous condescension, “How are you, Mr. Hicks?  Will you go up at once and tell my grandson to pack his things and come straight down.  As soon as the horses are rested we must start back again.”

With visible perturbation Jack looked from the coach to the tavern door, and stood awkwardly scraping his feet upon the road.

“I ­I’ll go up with all the pleasure in life, mum,” he stammered; “but I don’t reckon thar’s no use ­he ­he’s gone.”

“Gone?” cried the aghast old lady; and Betty rested her hand upon the wheel.

“Big Abel, he’s gone, too,” went on Jack, gaining courage from the accustomed sound of his own drawl.  “Mr. Dan tried his best to git away without him ­but Lord, Lord, the sense that nigger’s got.  Why, his marster might as well have tried to give his own skin the slip ­”

“Where did they go?” sharply put in the old lady.  “Don’t mumble your words, speak plainly, if you please.”

“He wouldn’t tell me, mum; I axed him, but he wouldn’t say.  A letter came last night, and this morning at sunup they were off ­Mr. Dan in front, and Big Abel behind with the bundle on his shoulder.  They walked to Leicestersburg, that’s all I know, mum.”

“Let me get inside,” said Betty, quickly.  Her face had gone white, but she thanked Jack when he picked up the shawl she dropped, and went steadily into the coach.  “We may as well go back,” she added with a little laugh.

Mrs. Lightfoot threw an anxious look into her face.

“We must consider the horses, my dear,” she responded.  “Mr. Hicks, will you see that the horses are well fed and watered.  Let them take their time.”

“Oh, I forgot the horses,” returned Betty apologetically, and patiently sat down with her arm leaning in the window.  There was a smile on her lips, and she stared with bright eyes at the oak trees and the children playing among the acorns.