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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 53. Trading For Phyllis
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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 53. Trading For Phyllis Post by :mattscotney Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :1331

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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 53. Trading For Phyllis

CHAPTER LIII. TRADING FOR PHYLLIS

This afternoon was cooler than any of the three before it.

Change of latitude, assuredly; but also a sky half blue, half gray, and a brisker air. Yet for that small minority of the ladies, who rather craved than feared the sunlight, the boat's roofs--since custom debarred them from the boiler deck--were still its most inviting part. After a few modifications of dress a very pleasant refuge those roofs were, although when the boat's course led her into the wind it was good to shut a sash or two if you were in the pilot-house, or to draw your chairs into the lee of something if on the open deck. Madame Hayle, urged by all to seek repose in her stateroom, said to Hugh and the Californian, behind one of the chimneys:

"Me, I fine it mo' betteh to breathe on that deck than to bleach in that cabin."

Her presence was to the Californian's advantage also, in his desire to be near Ramsey, and indeed the same was true of the two younger clerks and the cub pilot. And this advantage was heightened by the fact that there were such definite things to be considered wherever two or three came together. The need to keep up the passengers' spirits was as real as ever and a number of resources for doing it required to be discussed. Ramsey mentioned the unidentified man with the cornet but found no seconder. His "Life on the Ocean Wave" was thought hardly convincing and his "Bounding Billow, Cease thy Motion" seemed to clash with the sentiment for an ocean life and to suggest uncomfortable symptoms. Undaunted, she tried again. Through Basile she had early discovered three striplings of the circus ring, the "Brothers Ambrosia." Their true name, her cross-examination had revealed, was Vinegar. In star-spangled tights they would give some real "acrobatics," then some "aerial globe dancing," equally star-spangled and even more up-side-down, and finally a bit of "miraculous walking" on champagne bottles set upright on the dining-table. This proposition was accepted without audible dissent, only the parson's wife not voting. Then the Californian spoke for a self-styled "young gent" and "amateur professor" who had eagerly volunteered to "take everybody's breath away" by the magic of his tricks with hats, handkerchiefs, and cards, and to "throw them into convulsions" with his "evening cat fight among the chimney-pots." But "Beware the laugh that sours overnight," Mrs. Gilmore said, and the decision was prompt, Madame Hayle voicing it, that as convulsions could be brought on and breath taken away by the cholera itself the young gent, through "California," be gratefully requested to await a situation either less desperate or more so.

The gold hunter admitted the wisdom of this action, though his humble spirit felt acutely its discrediting reflection on himself, especially when--with only the kindest meaning--Ramsey laughed. He bravely kept his pain to himself and said nothing to disown the "amateur professor." With a brief aside to Hugh, to which Hugh nodded, he slipped away to the lower deck and for nearly two hours made his nursing skill so valuable to "Harriet" among the immigrants that her fearless mind overlooked the main object of his stay; which was to defend her from any stratagem of the twins and others, that Marburg might not detect in time or might be unable to cope with. At length, puzzled to know why Mrs. Gilmore did not appear, he was leaving, when at the foot of the narrow stair under the kitchen he met Lucian coming down. They stopped. He smiled. "Howdy!" he said.

Lucian stood silent.

"Can't come down here, you know," said the gold hunter, and instantly Lucian was white hot.

"Who tells you," he drawled, "what I may or may not do?"

"Who? oh--just a little black dog."

"Black--_what?_"

"You heard. He's a funny little cuss; like you, a trifle puny. Has coughin' fits. Coughs six times each fit. Spits up a chunk o' lead ev'y time he coughs. Want to see him?"

Lucian's unaffrighted eyes blazed down, though his reply was as if to himself. "Great God! if my brother----"

"Oh," kindly said the Californian, "he ain't fur off. Go, get him. I'll follow you, lock-step."

Lucian turned and went, the speaker adding as he followed close:

"Ladder's no place for scienced fighting, you know."

They found Julian, evidently waiting, on the passenger guards just forward of the pantry gangway. But before words could be exchanged the cub pilot came along by way of the main staircase, escorting the physician from the lower deck. The latter passed on up the wheel-house steps to the roof, but the "cub" hung back. "California" faced him.

"What's the fraction? The captain?"

The youth nodded. His inquirer waved him away.

"All right. I'll come. You go on." The boy complied.

Julian had swelled for encounter, but a warning look from Lucian checked him and he let the Californian speak first.

"Here," said the gold-digger, "I'm fixed. You're not. True, I could loan you the twin to mine, but----"

Julian's lip curled. "'But'--you're not hungry to fight."

"Oh, other things being equal, I have an appetite! Yes, sir-ee, Bob Hoss-Fly, and a red dog under the wheelbarrow! But"--smiling again--"let's do things in scientific order. You two claim that you Hayle folks own that forty-year-old white gal down-stairs which you call a runaway niggeh, and which we'll allow she is one. Well, I'll buy you two's share in her--providing I can buy the rest of her from your two ladies up-stairs--and fight you afterward or not as the case may require. Now, what'll you take for your said two shares, right here, cash down, gold; not dust but coin, New Orleans Branch Mint? Going at--what do I hear?"

The spendthrift pair stared on each other, thinking with all their might. But they failed to think that on the deck above them, in group with Mrs. Gilmore, Hugh, the parson's wife, Ramsey, and old Joy, the ownership of Phyllis was being fully set forth by their mother to their own whilom champions the senator and the general, or that Ramsey was about to be sent down to the stateroom of the mother and daughter for documentary evidence.

"What do I hear?" repeated the Californian, watching his own hands as the right drew double-eagles from his belt and stacked them in the left.

Eagerly asking themselves what might be their tempter's motive, the pair thought primarily of the white slave's well-preserved beauty and the rarity of women in the far West. With that came a stinging remembrance of her glaring Hayle likeness and then of their father's old scheme--averted by their mother--to sell the girl forever out of sight and reach. And then came the pleasanter thought that at any rate here was a chance to put this daredevil at odds with the hated Gilmores as well as with their own mother and sister, the Courteneys, and all the Courteney clan. Till now they had felt that, if only for self-respect and good standing, they must recover their property, seize Phyllis on the spot, if they could possibly command the backing to do it. But this was now very doubtful. Something had happened to the senator's mind, while the general was but his echo and the element called "others" was strangely sluggish. And, finally, or rather, first and last, the brothers were thrilled with the prodigal's lust for ready money. So far they saw and no farther, but so far so good; here seemed to be an unguarded opening in the enemy's line--to use a phrase the great valley was one day to know by heart--and the warier of the pair ventured in. Said Lucian:

"We're Uncle Dan's sole legatees."

"Then name your price for her, lock, stock, and barrel."

"Want to take her only to Kentucky, or to California?"

"Californy--maybe Oregon."

"To keep house for you--single gentleman?"

"Yes, sir."

"When do you expect to come back?"

"Never."

The questioner glanced back to his brother. Both were gratified to note that the bargain would work no relief to Hugh or the Gilmores, but Julian wanted better assurance that it would not free a runaway slave or make her a lawful wife. He turned abruptly, and so it happened that all three failed to see Ramsey, in dark attire and with Joy close behind, emerge an instant from the pantry gangway and shrink again into it. On the return from her stateroom to the roof, for mere variety, she had taken this direction. Said Julian as he turned:

"You're a Kentuckian, sir. Henry Clay man?"

"No. Only don't allow anything said again' him."

"Abolitionist?"

"No, sir-ee." The emphasis was sprightly.

The twins looked at each other once more. Julian nodded.

"One thousand dollars," said Lucian....

Let us go back a step or so and up to the hurricane-deck. We have named Hugh as in the group about Madame Hayle; but he went and came. In his absences the matrons debated the Phyllis matter as it involved the Gilmores, trying to find some way not to leave it an undivided burden on Hugh and the _Votaress_. It was on one of his quiet reappearances, reporting his father "easier," that Ramsey put in:

"Mom-a, the senator's a lawyer. Send for him--and the general--and talk them over to our side. You can do it. You can talk anybody into anything! You always could!"

Madame Hayle and Hugh looked at each other very much as the twins were doing about that time on the guards next below, and Hugh said:

"I will go bring them."

"Ah, if you please, yass, go."

He brought them and they were among madame's auditors when later she said, addressing her words wherever they fitted best, so that even old Joy got her share:

"Had it not have been for Phylliz, Dan Hayle, he wouldn' neveh took that troub' to wride that will. But I insiz' he shall wride it, biccause--Phylliz. Tha'z all. An' biccause Phylliz he wrode it. But he say to me----"

"When was this?" inquired the senator.

"Tha'z when those twin' make him thad visit, Walnut Hill'. He say: 'W'ad uze to you if I make my laz' will? I give any'ow everything to those twin'.' An' tha'z biccause" (to old Joy) "thad chile w'ad die----"

"Drownded," murmured the nurse. "Ayfteh dat transpiah he take a shine to ev'y man-chile he git his ahm aroun'."

Madame resumed: "An' I say to him: 'Give all the rez' to who' you want, but Phylliz--to me.' 'No!' he say, 'you, you'll put her free!'"

"Why didn't he want her set free?" asked Ramsey.

"An' you are there--an' silend! I forgod you!"

"Why didn't he want her set free?" insisted the forgotten.

"Ah!" said the mother to the senator as though the inquiry were his, "Dan, he seem' to thing tha'z a caztigation on him. An' he say: 'Neveh mine, I figs thad so she can'd be free pretty soon.' An' me, I thoughd he leave her to those twin' till I'm reading the will."

Ramsey stood up elatedly. "I know what he did! I see it!"

But as her mother chidingly murmured her name she reflected the maternal dignity and accepted a bunch of keys.

"Go, if you please, ad my room," said madame, "open----"

"Your little trunk, and pop-a's tin box inside," the girl interrupted, but deferentially caught herself again and with the corner of an eye felt about for Hugh. But Hugh had gone back to his father and thence to the deck next below.

"Yass. You fine there manny pape'. One is mark'--you'll see. Fedge me thad. 'Tis the h-only tha'z blue."

Ramsey sped away over skylights and down a back stair.

The senator spoke: "Who were that will's executors?"

"Ah, of co'se, my 'usban', Capitan Hayle, al-lone."

"The heirs, I dare say, have seen it?"

The lady smiled. "Not at all. Biccause h-anybody can see it if he want, nobody eveh want, an' leaz' of all those twin' when they are getting everything. Nobody speak abbout Phylliz, biccause Phylliz is su'pose drown', an' drown' peop' they don' count."

In the stateroom Ramsey knelt, opened the trunk, then the tin box, and then, despite old Joy's reprehending moan, the document itself.

"I knew it!" she whispered elatedly, relocking the box and trunk. "I guessed right!"

When at the forward end of the pantry gangway she came upon the twins and "California" and shrank back into hiding, the will was in her hand. In a tremble between staying and fleeing she heard the gold hunter, as he stood with his hands full of yellow coin, declare himself a Kentuckian and no abolitionist, and therefore understood instantly the significance of Lucian's response:

"One thousand dollars."

Too eager for speech, she glided forth and at the Californian's back halted before her brothers. But he had already smitten a fist into the hungry palm of either twin and was saying as he unburdened it there:

"A hundred on account to you--same to you--balance when you show title--she's mine!"

"She's mine!" cried the laughing girl.

The three men stared, but the twins hurried the gold into their pockets while she laughed on to them: "Hand that back. You've got no title. This is Uncle Dan's will and she's been mine for eleven years." On the stair close by them she began to step up backward but stopped to add to the Californian: "Take back your money and come trade with mom-a."

The twins showed instant conviction, but to them all dispossession was robbery and Lucian broke out, first on Ramsey, "We don't give back one dime!" then to the Californian, "You pushed it on us and we'll keep it!" then to Julian, "He hasn't the faintest right to it now in law, morals, or custom!" and then back to the Californian: "You sha'n't ever see a copper of it!"

Ramsey was quick-witted again. She threw the gold hunter a glance which conveyed to him the realization that to leave the money with the twins was to put them at a hopeless disadvantage. Almost as quickly Lucian saw the same thing and flashed it to Julian; but in that brief interval their sister disappeared on the deck above, old Joy following, and while the brothers lost another moment in a motionless contest of impulses the Californian vanished after her. Lucian, with his breath drawn to call up the empty stair, started forward but struck his knee-cap on a light, gilded chair left there by some child. Burning with rage and trembling with nervous exhaustion, he barely saved himself from lunging into two men of slight stature who had just come from a neighboring state-room: a slender old man leaning feebly on a thick-set youth, whom one flash of his eye identified as the commodore and Hugh, though as they passed toward the stair they betrayed no sign that they had observed him.

He gave his speechless brother a single look, caught the chair by its back, lifted it over his head, and with a long, smothered cry, half moan, half whine, crashed it down upon the balustrade--once--twice--and again, again, hurled the last fragment underfoot, and with eyes streaming stamped, stamped, and stamped, while the commodore and his supporter went on up to the roof and beyond view without a glance behind.

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