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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesColonel Carter Of Cartersville - Chapter 4. The Arrival Of A True Southern Lady
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Colonel Carter Of Cartersville - Chapter 4. The Arrival Of A True Southern Lady Post by :Hugh_de_Payen Category :Long Stories Author :Francis Hopkinson Smith Date :May 2012 Read :934

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Colonel Carter Of Cartersville - Chapter 4. The Arrival Of A True Southern Lady

CHAPTER IV. The Arrival of a True Southern Lady

"Mistress yer, sah! Come yistidd'y mawnin'."

How Chad beamed all over when this simple statement fell from his lips! I had not seen him since the night when he stood behind my chair and with bated breath whispered his anxieties lest the second advent of "de grocerman" should bring dire destruction to the colonel's household.

To-day he looked ten years younger. His kinky gray hair, generally knotted into little wads, was now divided by a well-defined path starting from the great wrinkle in his forehead and ending in a dense tangle of underbrush that no comb dared penetrate. His face glistened all over. His mouth was wide open, showing a great cavity in which each tooth seemed to dance with delight. His jacket was as white and stiff as soap and starch could make it, while a cast-off cravat of the colonel's--double starched to suit Chad's own ideas of propriety--was tied in a single knot, the two ends reaching to the very edge of each ear. To crown all, a red carnation flamed away on the lapel of his jacket, just above an outside pocket, which held in check a pair of white cotton gloves bulging with importance and eager for use. Every time he bowed he touched with a sweep both sides of the narrow hall.

It was the first time in some weeks that I had seen the interior of the colonel's cozy dining-room by daylight. Of late my visits had been made after dark, with drawn curtains, lighted candles, and roaring wood fires. But this time it was in the morning,--and a bright, sunny, lovely spring morning at that,--with one window open in the L and the curtains drawn back from the other; with the honeysuckle beginning to bud, its long runners twisting themselves inquiringly through the half-closed shutters as if anxious to discover what all this bustle inside was about.

It was easy to see that some other touch besides that of the colonel and his faithful man-of-all-work had left its impress in the bachelor apartment. There was a general air of order apparent. The irregular line of foot gear which decorated the washboard of one wall, beginning with a pair of worsted slippers and ending with a wooden bootjack, was gone. Whisk-brooms and dusters that had never known a restful nail since they entered the colonel's service were now suspended peacefully on convenient hooks. Dainty white curtains, gathered like a child's frock, flapped lazily against the broken green blinds, while some sprays of arbutus, plucked by Miss Nancy on her way to the railroad station, drooped about a tall glass on the mantel.

Chad had solved the mystery,--Aunt Nancy came yesterday.

I found the table set for four, its chief feature being a tray bearing a heap of eggshell cups and saucers I had not seen before, and an old-fashioned tea-urn humming a tune all to itself.

"De colonel's out, but he comin' back d'rektly," Chad said eagerly, all out of breath with excitement. Then followed the information that Mr. Fitzpatrick was coming to breakfast, and that he was to tell Miss Nancy the moment we arrived. He then reduced the bulge in his outside pocket by thrusting his big hands into his white gloves, gave a sidelong glance at the flower in his buttonhole, and bore my card aloft with the air of a cupbearer serving a princess.

A soft step on the stair, the rustle of silk, a warning word outside: "Look out for dat lower step, mistress--dat's it;" and Miss Nancy entered the room.

No, I am wrong. She became a part of it; as much so as the old andirons and the easy chairs and the old-fashioned mantelpieces, the snowy curtains and the trailing vine. More so when she gave me the slightest dip of a courtesy and laid her dainty, wrinkled little hand in mine, and said in the sweetest possible voice how glad she was to see me after so many years, and how grateful she felt for all my kindness to the dear colonel. Then she sank into a quaint rocking-chair that Chad had brought down behind her, rested her feet on a low stool that mysteriously appeared from under the table, and took her knitting from her reticule.

She had changed somewhat since I last saw her, but only as would an old bit of precious stuff that grew the more mellow and harmonious in tone as it grew the older. She had the same silky gray hair--a trifle whiter, perhaps; the same frank, tender mouth, winning wherever she smiled; the same slight, graceful figure; and the same manner--its very simplicity a reflex of that refined and quiet life she had always led. For hers had been an isolated life, buried since her girlhood in a great house far away from the broadening influences of a city, and saddened by the daily witness of a slow decay of all she had been taught to revere. But it had been a life so filled with the largeness of generous deeds that its returns had brought her the love and reverence of every living soul she knew.

While she sat and talked to me of her journey I had time to enjoy again the quaintness of her dress,--the quaintness of forty years before. There was the same old-fashioned, soft gray silk with up-and-down stripes spotted with sprigs of flowers, the lace cap with its frill of narrow pink ribbons and two wide pink strings that fell over the shoulders, and the handkerchief of India mull folded across the breast and fastened with an amethyst pin. Her little bits of feet--they were literally so--were incased in white stockings and heelless morocco slippers bound with braid.

But her dress was never sombre. She always seemed to remember, even in her bright ribbons and silks, the days of her girlhood, when half the young men in the county were wild about her. When she moved she wafted towards you a perfume of sweet lavender--the very smell that you remember came from your own mother's old-fashioned bureau drawer when she let you stand on tiptoe to see her pretty things. When you kissed her--and once I did--her cheek was as soft as a child's and fragrant with rose-water.

But I hear the colonel's voice outside, laughing with Fitz.

"Come in, suh, and see the dearest woman in the world."

The next instant he burst in dressed in his gala combination,--white waistcoat and cravat, the old coat thrown wide open as if to welcome the world, and a bunch of red roses in his hand.

"Nancy, here's my dear friend Fitz, whom I have told you about,--the most extraord'nary man of modern times. Ah, Major! you here? Came in early, did you, so as to have aunt Nancy all to yo'self? Sit down, Fitz, right alongside of her." And he kissed her hand gallantly. "Isn't she the most delightful bit of old porcelain you ever saw in all yo' bawn days?"

Miss Nancy rose, made another of her graceful courtesies, and begged that neither of us would mind the colonel's raillery; she never could keep him in order. And she laughed softly as she gave her hand to Fitz, who touched it very much as if he quite believed the colonel's reference to the porcelain to be true.

"There you go, Nancy, 'busin' me like a dog, and here I've been a-trampin' the streets for a' hour lookin' for flowers for you! You are breakin' my heart, Miss Caarter, with yo' coldness and contempt. Another word and you shall not have a single bud." And the colonel gayly tucked a rose under her chin with a loving stroke of his hand, and threw the others in a heap on her lap.

"Breakfast sarved, mistress," said Chad in a low voice.

The colonel gave his arm to his aunt with the air of a courtier; Fitz and I disposed ourselves on each side; Chad, with reverential mien, screwed his eyes up tight; and the colonel said grace with an increased fervor in his voice, no doubt remembering in his heart the blessing of the last arrival.

Throughout the entire repast the colonel was in his gayest mood, brimming over with anecdotes and personal reminiscences and full of his rose-colored plans for the future.

Many things had combined to produce this happy frame of mind. There was first the Scheme, which had languished for weeks owing to the vise-like condition of the money market,--another of Fitz's mendacious excuses,--and which had now been suddenly galvanized into temporary life by an inquiry made by certain bankers who were seeking an outlet for English capital, and who had expressed a desire to investigate the "Garden Spot of Virginia." Only an "inquiry," but to the colonel the papers were already signed. Then there was the arrival of his distinguished guest, whom he loved devotedly and with a certain old-school gallantry and tenderness as picturesque as it was interesting. Last of all there was that important episode of the bills. For Miss Nancy, the night she arrived, had collected all the household accounts, including the highly esteemed pass-book,--they were all of the one kind, unpaid,--and had dispatched Chad early in the morning to the several creditors with his pocket full of crisp bank-notes.

Chad had returned from this liquidating tour, and the full meaning of that trusty agent's mission had dawned upon the colonel. He buttoned his coat tightly over his chest, straightened himself up, sought out his aunt, and said, with some dignity and a slightly injured air:--

"Nancy, yo' interfe'ence in my household affairs this mornin' was vehy creditable to yo' heart, and deeply touches me; but if I thought you regarded it in any other light except as a short tempo'ary loan, it would offend me keenly. Within a few days, however, I shall receive a vehy large amount of secu'ities from an English syndicate that isinvestigatin' my railroad. I shall then return the amount to you with interest, together with that other sum which you loaned me when I left Caarter Hall."

The little lady's only reply was to slip her hand into his and kisshim on the forehead.

And yet that very morning he had turned his pockets inside out for the remains of the last dollar of the money she had given him when he left home. When it had all been raked together, and its pitiable insufficiency had become apparent, this dialogue took place:--

"Chad, did you find any money on the flo' when you breshed my clothes?"

"No, Colonel."

"Look round on the mantelpiece; perhaps I left some bills under the clock."

"Ain't none dar, sah."

Then Chad, with that same anxious look suddenly revived in his face, went below into the kitchen, mounted a chair, took down an old broken tea-cup from the top shelf, and poured out into his wrinkled palm a handful of small silver coin--his entire collection of tips, and all the money he had. This he carried to the colonel, with a lie in his mouth that the recording angel blotted out the moment it fell from his lips.

"Here's some change, Marsa George, I forgot to gib ye; been left ober from de marketin'."

And the colonel gathered it all in, and went out and spent every penny of it on roses for "dear Nancy!"

All of these things, as I have said, had acted like a tonic on the colonel, bracing him up to renewed efforts, and reacting on his guests, who in return did their best to make the breakfast a merry one.

Fitz, always delightful, was more brilliant than ever, his native wit, expressed in a brogue with verbal shadings so slight that it is hardly possible to give it in print, keeping the table in a roar; while Miss Nancy, encouraged by the ease and freedom of everybody about her, forgot for a time her quiet reserve, and was charming in the way she turned over the leaves of her own youthful experiences.

And so the talk went on until, with a smile to everybody, the little lady rose, called Chad, who stood ready with shawl and cushion, and, saying she would retire to her room until the gentlemen had finished smoking, disappeared through the doorway.

The talk had evidently aroused some memory long buried in the colonel's mind; for when Fitz had gone the dear old fellow picked up the glass holding the roses which he had given his aunt in the morning, and, while repeating her name softly to himself, buried his face in their fragrance. Something, perhaps, in their perfume stirred that haunting memory the deeper, for he suddenly raised his head and burst out:-- "Ah, Major, you ought to have seen that woman forty years ago! Why, suh, she was just a rose herself!"

And then followed in disconnected scraps, as if he were recalling it to himself, with long pauses between, that story which I had heard hinted at before. A story never told the children, and never even whispered in aunt Nancy's presence,--the one love affair of her life.

She and Robert had grown up together,--he a tall, brown-eyed young fellow just out of the university, and she a fair-haired, joyous girl with half the county at her feet. Nancy had not loved him at first, nor ever did until the day he had saved her life in that wild dash across country when her horse took fright, and he, riding neck and neck, had lifted her clear of her saddle. After that there had been but one pair of eyes and arms for her in the wide world. All of that spring and summer, as the colonel put it, she was like a bird pouring out her soul in one continuous song. Then there had come a night in Richmond,--the night of the ball,--followed by her sudden return home, hollow-eyed and white, and the mysterious postponement of the wedding for a year.

Everybody wondered, but no one knew, and only as the months went by did her spirits gain a little, and she begin to sing once more.

It was at a great party on a neighboring estate, amid the swim of the music and the whirl of soft lace. Suddenly loud voices and threats, a shower of cards flung at a man's face, an uplifted arm caught by the host. Then a hall door thrust open and a half-frenzied man with disordered dress staggering out. Then the startled face of a young girl all in white and a cry no one ever forgot:--

"Oh, Robert! Not again?"

Her long ride home in the dead of the night, Nancy alone in the coach, her escort--a distant cousin--on horseback behind. Then the pursuit. The steady rise and fall of the hoof-beats back in the forest; the reining in of Robert's panting horse covered with foam; his command to halt; a flash, and then that sweet face stretched out in the road in the moonlight by the side of the overturned coach, the cousin bending over her with a bullet hole in his hat, and Robert, ghastly white and sobered, with the smoking pistol in his hand.

Then the long, halting procession homeward in the gray dawn.

It was not so easy after this to keep the secret shut away; so one day, when the shock had passed,--her arms about her uncle's neck,--the whole story came out. She told of that other night there in Richmond, with Robert reeling and half crazed; of his promise of reform, and the postponement of the wedding, while she waited and trusted: so sad a story that the old uncle forgot all the traditions that bound Southern families, and sustained her in her determination never to see Robert again.

For days the broken-hearted lover haunted the place, while an out-bound ship waited in Norfolk harbor.

Even Robert's father, crushed and humiliated by it all, had made no intercession for him. But now, he begged, would she see his son for the last time, only that he might touch her hand and say good-by?

That last good-by lasted an hour, Chad walking his horse all the while before the porch door, until that tottering figure, holding to the railings and steadying itself, came down the steps.

A shutter thrown back, and Nancy at the open window watching him mount.

As he wheels he raises his hat. She pushes aside the climbing roses.

In an instant he has cleared the garden beds, and has reined in his horse just below her window-sill. Looking up into her face:--

"Nancy, for the last time, shall I stay?"

She only shakes her head.

"Then look, Nancy, look! This is your work!"

A gleam of steel in a clenched hand, a burst of smoke, and before Chad can reach him Nancy's lover lies dead in the flowers at her feet.

It had not been an easy story for the colonel. When he ceased he passed his hand across his forehead as if the air of the room stifled him. Then laying down his pipe, he bent once more over the slender vase, his face in the roses.

* * * * *

"May I come in?"

In an instant the colonel's old manner returned.

"May you come in, Nancy? Why, you dear woman, if you had stayed away five minutes longer I should have gone for you myself. What! Another skein of yarn?"

"Yes," she said, seating herself. "Hold out your hands."

The loop slipped so easily over the colonel's arms that it was quite evident that the role was not new to him.

"Befo' I forget it, Nancy, Mr. Fitzpatrick was called suddenly away to attend to some business connected with my railroad, and left his vehy kindest regards for you, and his apologies for not seein' you befo' he left."

Fitz had said nothing that resembled this, so far as my memory served me, but it was what he ought to have done, and the colonel always corrected such little slips of courtesy by supplying them himself.

"Politeness," he would sometimes say, "is becomin' rarer every day. I tell you, suh, the disease of bad manners is mo' contagious than the small-pox."

So the deception was quite pardonable in him.

"And what does Mr. Fitzpatrick think of the success of your enterprise, George?"

The colonel sailed away as usual with all his balloon topsails set, his sea-room limited only by the skein, while his aunt wound her yarn silently, and listened with a face expressive at once of deep interest and hope, mingled with a certain undefined doubt.

As the ball grew in size, she turned to me, and, with a penetration and practical insight into affairs for which I had not given her credit, began to dissect the scheme in detail. She had heard, she said, that there was lack of connecting lines and consequent absence of freight, as well as insufficient harbor facilities at Warrentown.

I parried the questions as well as I could, begging off on the plea that I was only a poor devil of a painter with a minimum knowledge ofsuch matters, and ended by referring her to Fitz.

The colonel, much to my surprise, listened to every word without opening his lips--a silence encouraged at first by his pride that she could talk so well, and maintained thereafter because of certain misgivings awakened in his mind as to the ultimate success of his pet enterprise.

When she had punctured the last of his little balloons, he laid his hand on her shoulder, and, looking into her face, said:--

"Nancy, you really don't mean that my railroad will _never be built?"

"No, George; but suppose it should not earn its expenses?"

Her thoughts were new to the colonel. Nobody except a few foolish people in the Street, anxious to sell less valuable securities, and utterly unable to grasp the great merits of the Cartersville and Warrentown Air Line Railroad plan, had ever before advanced any such ideas in his presence. He loosened his hands from the yarn, and took a seat by the window. His aunt's misgivings had evidently so thoroughly disturbed him that for an instant I could see traces of a certain offended dignity, coupled with a nervous anxiety lest her inquiries had shaken my own confidence in his scheme.

He began at once to reassure me. There was nothing to be uneasy about. Look at the bonds! Note the perfect safety of the plan of finance--the earlier coupons omitted, the subsequent peace of the investor! The peculiar location of the road, with the ancestral estates dotted along its line! The dignity of the several stations! He could hear them now in his mind called out as they whistled down brakes: "Carter Hall! Barboursville! Talcott!" No; there was nothing about the road that should disturb his aunt. For all that a still more anxious look came into his face. He began pacing the floor, buried in deep thought, his thumbs hooked behind his back. At last he stopped and took her hand.

"Dear Nancy, if anything should happen to you it would break my heart. Don't be angry, it is only the major; but yo' talk with him has so disturbed me that I am determined to secure you against personal loss."

Miss Nancy raised her eyes wonderingly. She evidently did not catch his meaning.

"You have been good enough, my dear, to advance me certain sums of money which I still owe. I want to pay these now."

"But, George, you"--

"My dearest Nancy,"--and he stooped down, and kissed her cheek,--"I will have my way. Of co'se you didn't mean anything, only I cannot let another hour pass with these accounts unsettled. Think, Nancy; it is my right. The delay affects my honor."

The little lady dropped her knitting on the floor, and looked at me in a helpless way.

The colonel opened the table drawer, and handed me pen and ink.

"Now, Major, take this sheet of paper and draw a note of hand."

I looked at his aunt inquiringly. She nodded her head in assent.

"Yes, if it pleases George."

I began with the usual form, entering the words "I promise to pay," and stopped for instructions.

"Payable when, Colonel?" I asked.

"As soon as I get the money, suh."

"But you will do that anyhow, George."

"Yes, I know, Nancy; but I want to settle it in some safe way."

Then he gazed at the ceiling in deep thought.

"I have it, Major!" And the colonel seized the pen. The note read as follows:--


On demand I promise to pay Ann Carter the sum of six hundred dollars, value received, with interest at the rate of six per cent, from January 1st.

Payable as soon as possible.

GEORGE FAIRFAX CARTER.


I looked to see what effect this unexpected influx of wealth would produce on the dear lady; but the trustful smile never wavered.

She read to the very end the modest scrap of paper so suddenly enriched by the colonel's signature, repeated in a whisper to herself "Payable as soon as possible," folded it with as much care as if it had been a Bank of England note, then thanked the colonel graciously, and tucked it in her reticule.

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