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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 55. Love Makes A Cut-Off
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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 55. Love Makes A Cut-Off Post by :mkproductions Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :3043

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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 55. Love Makes A Cut-Off

CHAPTER LV. LOVE MAKES A CUT-OFF

But the grandfather addressed the adventurer. "You'd rather not, I fancy."

"Rather not; looks too unanimous the wrong way."

"Would you still like to have Hugh's advice?"

"I would! I'd like to hear yo'-all's argument."

Ramsey dropped into her chair with a tired sigh and up-stream gaze though with an inner ear of keenest attention.

Hugh glanced toward his father's door, whence at any moment, as every one realized, the actor might beckon.

"I have no argument," he began.

"You have," breathed a voice, unmistakably Ramsey's; "you always have."

"You know," he continued to the Kentuckian, "there's something in all of us, I don't say what, or whether wise or foolish, that says: 'Don't do it.' You feel it, don't you?"

Madame interrupted: "_Mais don't do w'at?"

Ramsey faced the group as if to answer just that question. "Now we pass between Cedar Point and Pecan Point and head for the Second Chickasaw Bluffs!"

"Ah bah, _les bloff'," murmured madame and repeated to Hugh: "Something say, 'Don' do it'? _Mais w'at it say don' do?"

"Don't mix the great races we know apart by their color."

"Umph! An' w'at is thad something w'at tell uz that?"

"Grandfather calls it race conscience."

"Grandfather!" whimpered Ramsey, while madame asked:

"Of w'at race has Phylliz the conscien'? An' you would know Phylliz' race--ad sight--by the color?"

"I'd know it!" put in the Kentuckian. "She's white, to all intents and purposes."

"No," said Hugh, "not quite to all. Not to all as organized society, in its----"

Ramsey, with eyes up the river, sighed: "Mrs. Grundy?"

"Yes, but Mrs. Grundy in her best intents and purposes."

"In her race conscience," wailed Ramsey to the breeze.

"In her race conscience," assented Hugh.

Ramsey whipped around. "Thought you had no argument."

"I'm giving grandfather's," said the grandson.

"Humph! it's yours. I'd know it at sight--by the color."

"Miss Ramsey," said the old man, toying with his cane, "Hugh and I have been finding that, right or wrong, Mrs. Grundy or Mr. Grundy, race conscience is a wonderful, unaccountable thing for which men will give their life-blood by thousands." His voice failed. He waved smilingly to Hugh.

"And when," broke in Hugh to Ramsey, "when Mrs. Grundy, in her race conscience, says Phyllis is not white no one ought to snap his fingers in even Mrs. Grundy's face merely to please himself or to relieve some private situation."

Ramsey stood up, flashing first on him and then to her mother, dropped again, and with her face in her elbow on the chair's back recited drearily--from her third reader:


"You can hear him swing his heavy sledge
With measured beat and slow,
Like the sexton ringing the village bell
When the evening sun----"


"Ramzee!" exclaimed madame, while the old nurse groaned: "Oh, Lawd 'a' massy!"

The girl rose, laughed, and flashed again: "Well, if Phyllis ain't white what is she? She's got to be something!"

"Yes," said the youth, "but not everything. I know her wrongs. But none of us, with whatever rights and wrongs, can have, or do, or be----"

"Oh, don't we know all that?" Ramsey turned to the grandfather and with sudden deference sprang to help him rise. He faced her and the Californian together.

"Miss Ramsey, Hugh has all your feelings in this matter."

Madame, "California," and old Joy eagerly assented.

"But poor, blundering old Mrs. Grundy, always wronging some one," the old man smilingly continued, "is really fighting hard for a better human race. That's the greatest battle she can fight, my dear young lady, and when----"

"Well," rejoined Ramsey with eyes frankly tearful, "she fights it mighty badly."

"Ah, a hundred times worse than you think. Yet we who presume to fight the blunders of that battle must fight them unselfishly and to help her win."

Old Joy groaned so approvingly that he turned to her.

"What do you think, old mammy?"

"Who, me? Lawd, I thinks mighty little an' I knows less. Yit one thing I does know: Phyllis ain' gwine. She know' you cayn't make her white by takin' her to whah it make' no odds ef she ain't white. Phyllis love' folks. She love' de quality, she love' de crowd. White aw black aw octoroom free niggeh, Phyllis gwine to choose de old Hayle home and de great riveh--full o' steamboat'--sooneh'n any lan' whah de ain't mo'n one 'oman to de mile. Phyllis ain't gwine."

The closing words faded to soliloquy. For every one stood up, and even the old woman's attention was diverted to Watson's apprentice approaching from the captain's room. On his way below for the doctor he came, in the actor's behalf, to ask if he might bring up also Mrs. Gilmore.

Assuredly he might. How was the patient?

"Very quiet," the boy hopefully replied. Whereupon madame begged leave to repair at once to the sick-room, but neither of the Courteneys would consent nor either of them allow the other to go. The steersman passed on down.

From enviously watching him do so, "California" turned to the company and in open abandonment of his amazing proposition said drolly that never before had he failed, in so many ways "hand-running," to make himself useful. He reseated Madame Hayle and would have set the daughter beside her, but the mother bade Ramsey give Joy the chair and leaned wearily on the old woman's shoulder. Both Courteneys urged their seats on the girl, and when she would not accept while either of them stood for her servant to sit, the grandfather left Hugh debating with her, took "California's" arm, found other chairs a few paces away, and engaged him in a gentle parley which any one might see was an appeal to his sober second thought. It was Ned's shift up at the wheel, but the change of watch was near; his partner stood at his elbow. Their gaze was up a reach between the two most northern of those four groups of bluffs whose mention even Ramsey was for the moment tired of, yet they studied the three couples on the roof below.

"Runs smooth at the present writing," said Watson.

"Clair chann'l ef noth'n' else," responded Ned. The allusion was neither to boat nor stream but to a certain opportuneness of things, whose obviousness to them, looking down, was mainly what kept Ramsey standing. While she stood beside the two empty chairs cross-questioning Hugh with a fresh show of her maturer mildness and he stood inwardly taking back his late farewell to sweet companionship and softly answering in his incongruous pomp of voice with a new tenderness, and while the worn-out mother gradually let her full weight sink on the tired slave, this obvious propitiousness was embarrassingly increased by the two weary ones falling asleep.

True, the clearness of channel--this channel in the upper air--was not absolute, but its obstacles nettled mostly the pilots. To Ramsey, even to Hugh, obstacles were almost welcome, as enabling them to show to a prying world that nothing beyond the grayest commonplace was occurring between them. One such interruption was the upcoming and passing of Mrs. Gilmore and the physician to the sick-room and the cub pilot's parting with them to join the younger pair. The boy found Hugh confessing that he should not know exactly how to word Phyllis's "free papers" but adding that the first clerk would be pleased to make them out at once if Ramsey's eagerness so dictated. It did, and presently the modest intruder was hurrying away on a double errand: to bear this confidential request to the clerk and then to seek the Brothers Ambrosia and with them and the two under-clerks arrange for the evening performance, the giving of which, however, Ramsey insisted, must depend on the captain's condition when evening should come.

"Wish it were here now," she said as they watched the messenger go. "Don't you?"

"I could," he replied, "but it will be here soon enough."

The conversation which followed remained in their memory through years of separation.

She spoke again in her new tone: "You think your father will get well, don't you?"

"No, Ramsey."

At those words her heart did two things at once: stopped on the first, rebounded on the second. But it fell again as he added: "I fear I must lose my father to-night."

She stood mute, looking into his eyes and pondering every light and shadow of the severe young face that to her seemed so imperially unlike all others. "He's great," she said in her heart. "And he loves with his greatness. Loves even his father that way; not as I love mine or love anybody, or ever shall or can, or could wish to, unless I were a man and as great as him--he. I never could have dreamt of any one loving me that way, but if any ever should I'd worship him." Suddenly her sympathy rose high.

"Oh, why not just think to yourself: 'He _will live'?"

"Why should I? Should I be fit to live myself if I were not true to myself?"

"You are! You always are!"

"No one can be who isn't truthful to himself."

Ramsey gazed again. A sense of his suffering benumbed her, and for relief she asked: "Is that why you don't wish it were evening, when really you do?"

He smiled. "I can't wish the sun to get out of my way. That's what it would mean, isn't it?"

She fell to thinking what it meant. All at once she pointed: "That's the First Chickasaw Bluff.... Yes, I s'pose it does mean that.... It's terrible how thoughtless I am."

"It doesn't terrify me. I promise you it never shall."

Was he making game of her? She narrowed her lids and looked at him sidewise. No, plainly he was not; so plainly that she took refuge in another question. "Don't you like night better than day sometimes?"

"I do, often."

"Why?"

"For one thing, we can see so much farther."

"Oh, ridiculous! we can't see nearly so far!"

"We can see so much farther and wider, deeper, clearer. The day blinds us. Spoils our sense of proportion. At night we see more of what creation really is. Our sun becomes one little star among thousands of greater ones, and we are humbled into a reasonableness which is very hard not to lose in the bewilderments of daylight."

Ramsey sank to the arm of a chair, but when he remained standing she stood again. "Wasn't you saying something like that the evening we left New Orleans?" she asked.

"To my father, yes. I couldn't have said it in daylight then. I couldn't say it in daylight now to any one but you, Ramsey."

Her heart leaped again. Her eyes looked straight into his; could not look away. He spoke on:

"You're a kind of evening to me, yourself; evening star."

Her bosom pounded. She glanced up behind to the pilots. Watson had the wheel. As she strenuously pushed back her curls she felt her temples burn. She could have cried aloud for Hugh to cease, yet was mad for him to go on.

And so he did. "You are my evening star in this nightfall of affliction. I tell you so not in weakness but in strength and in defiance: in the strength I summon for the hour before me; in the defiance I fling to your brothers. I may never have another chance. If ours were the ordinary chances of ordinary life I should say nothing now. I should wait; wait and give love time; time to prove itself in me--in both of us. I _ask nothing. I am too new to you, life is too new--to you--for pledges."

She flashed him a glance and then, looking up the river, said, with the ghost of a toss: "I'm older than you think."

He ignored the revelation. "But I will say," he went on, "--for these three days and nights have been three years to me and I feel a three years' right to say--I love you; love you for life; am yours for life though we never meet again. For I believe that we belong to each other from the centre of our souls, by a fitness plain even to the eyes of your brothers."

(Illustration: "For I believe that we belong to each other from the centre of our souls, by a fitness plain even to the eyes of your brothers")

Still looking up the flood and red from brow to throat, Ramsey murmured two or three words which she saw he did not hear. Yet he stood without sound or look to ask what she had said, and presently repeated:

"I believe in God's sight we belong to each other."

"So do I," said Ramsey again, with clearer voice and with her brimming eyes looking straight into his. A footfall turned her and she faced the relieved pilot.

"Isn't this Island Thirty-three," she asked, "right here on our starboard bow?"

"Thirty-three," assented Ned. "Alias Flour Island; but _not Flow-er Island. Flour-ladened flatboats wrecked there in the days o' yo' grandfather, Eliphalet Hayle, whose own boats they might 'a' been, only Hayles ain't never been good at losin' boats. But his'n or not, _can you suspicion they wuz flow-er-ladened? Shucks! them that spell it that-a-way air jest as bad an' no wuss than them that stick _b onto Plum in Plum P'int an' pull the _y out o' Hayle fo' Hayle's P'int! They jest a-airin' they ignorance. Some fellers love to air they ignorance. I do, myself."

He gave these facts of topography in reward of the grave interest that Hugh--elated interest that Ramsey--still seemed to take in all such items, as well as to allow them to infer that he had not noticed them betraying interest in anything more personal.

"Hayle's P'int--" he resumed, and when Madame Hayle and old Joy roused and glanced around on him, while the senator and the general reappeared close by, looking back down the steamer's wake with military comments on the First Chickasaw Bluff, just left behind, he addressed them all as one. Hayle's Point, he persisted, was miles away yet and comparatively unimportant "considerin' its name," but the small cluster of houses on the Arkansas side up in the next bend was Osceola, where Plum Point Bars made the "wickedest" bit of river between Saint Louis and the Gulf; a bit that "killed" at least one steamboat every year. He said they were then passing a sand-bar, under water at this stage, which had been Island Thirty-two until "swallered whole" by the "big earthquake" of 1811.

"Better'n forty year' ago, that was. Only quake ever felt in these parts, but so big that, right in the middle of all the b'ilin' an' staggerin' an' sinkin' down to Chiny, the Mis'sippi River give birth to her fust steamboat--an' saved it!" So he continued, egged on by the conviction that, over and above the intrinsic value of the facts, these conversational eddies outside the current of incident "a-happ'min' to 'em yit" helped forward his two most deeply interested hearers on that course erroneously supposed never to run smooth.

Be that as it may, the two pilots' joint theory of maxims working as well backward as forward worked here; deep waters ran still. Love, that is, having broken intolerable bounds in one short fierce "chute" of declaration, was content to run deep and still and to give broad precedence to duties, sorrows, and courtesies. The pair noticeably drifted apart and conversed with others when others were quite willing they should drift together. Madame Hayle needed but a glance or so to perceive that something beautiful had happened in the spiritual experience of her daughter. By and by when the commodore and the Californian rejoined the group, Hugh and his grandfather spent a still moment looking into each other's eyes and when both gazes relaxed at once the story had been told and understood.

They turned to hear what was passing between the general, senator, and Californian. Said the soldier:

"Sssirs, I only insssist that _if this region ever sees war Port Hudson, Grand Gulf, Vvvicksburg, these fffour Chickasaw Bluffs, and Island Ten up here above us will be imp-regnably fffortified."

Ramsey turned to the actor's wife as she came from the texas.

"How's the captain?" asked both she and her mother. But Mrs. Gilmore was too overcome to reply.

Ramsey saw the actor at the stateroom door. He had beckoned. Hugh and the grandfather were on their way. At a quieter pace the four women followed and more slowly still the other four men. Reaching Gilmore, the Courteneys paused and spoke, then looked back to Ramsey and madame, and beckoned--Hugh to the mother, the commodore to Ramsey. Gilmore repeated the gesture and they glided forward. At the same time the player advanced to meet his wife, and, as if some intuition had rung the call, the scene-loving twins appeared in the senator's halted group and stood with them gazing, while Madame Hayle, the commodore, Ramsey, and Hugh entered the captain's room.

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