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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter I - "De Hine Foot er a He Frawg"
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The Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter I - 'De Hine Foot er a He Frawg' Post by :plinks Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :April 2011 Read :814

Click below to download : The Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter I - "De Hine Foot er a He Frawg" (Format : PDF)

The Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter I - "De Hine Foot er a He Frawg"

Toward the close of an early summer afternoon, a little girl came running
along the turnpike to where a boy stood wriggling his feet in the dust.

"Old Aunt Ailsey's done come back," she panted, "an' she's conjured the
tails off Sambo's sheep. I saw 'em hanging on her door!"

The boy received the news with an indifference from which it blankly
rebounded. He buried one bare foot in the soft white sand and withdrew it
with a jerk that powdered the blackberry vines beside the way.

"Where's Virginia?" he asked shortly.

The little girl sat down in the tall grass by the roadside and shook her
red curls from her eyes. She gave a breathless gasp and began fanning
herself with the flap of her white sunbonnet. A fine moisture shone on her
bare neck and arms above her frock of sprigged chintz calico.

"She can't run a bit," she declared warmly, peering into the distance of
the long white turnpike. "I'm a long ways ahead of her, and I gave her the
start. Zeke's with her."

With a grunt the boy promptly descended from his heavy dignity.

"You can't run," he retorted. "I'd like to see a girl run, anyway." He
straightened his legs and thrust his hands into his breeches pockets. "You
can't run," he repeated.

The little girl flashed a clear defiance; from a pair of beaming hazel eyes
she threw him a scornful challenge. "I bet I can beat you," she stoutly
rejoined. Then as the boy's glance fell upon her hair, her defiance waned.
She put on her sunbonnet and drew it down over her brow. "I reckon I can
run some," she finished uneasily.

The boy followed her movements with a candid stare. "You can't hide it," he
taunted; "it shines right through everything. O Lord, ain't I glad my
head's not red!"

At this pharisaical thanksgiving the little girl flushed to the ruffled
brim of her bonnet. Her sensitive lips twitched, and she sat meekly gazing
past the boy at the wall of rough gray stones which skirted a field of
ripening wheat. Over the wheat a light wind blew, fanning the even heads of
the bearded grain and dropping suddenly against the sunny mountains in the
distance. In the nearer pasture, where the long grass was strewn with wild
flowers, red and white cattle were grazing beside a little stream, and the
tinkle of the cow bells drifted faintly across the slanting sunrays. It was
open country, with a peculiar quiet cleanliness about its long white roads
and the genial blues and greens of its meadows.

"Ain't I glad, O Lord!" chanted the boy again.

The little girl stirred impatiently, her gaze fluttering from the
landscape.

"Old Aunt Ailsey's conjured all the tails off Sambo's sheep," she remarked,
with feminine wile. "I saw 'em hanging on her door."

"Oh, shucks! she can't conjure!" scoffed the boy. "She's nothing but a free
nigger, anyway--and besides, she's plum crazy--"

"I saw 'em hanging on her door," steadfastly repeated the little girl. "The
wind blew 'em right out, an' there they were."

"Well, they wan't Sambo's sheep tails," retorted the boy, conclusively,
"'cause Sambo's sheep ain't got any tails."

Brought to bay, the little girl looked doubtfully up and down the turnpike.
"Maybe she conjured 'em _on first," she suggested at last.

"Oh, you're a regular baby, Betty," exclaimed the boy, in disgust. "You'll
be saying next that she can make rattlesnake's teeth sprout out of the
ground."

"She's got a mighty funny garden patch," admitted Betty, still credulous.
Then she jumped up and ran along the road. "Here's Virginia!" she called
sharply, "an' I beat her! I beat her fair!"

A second little girl came panting through the dust, followed by a small
negro boy with a shining black face. "There's a wagon comin' roun' the
curve," she cried excitedly, "an' it's filled with old Mr. Willis's
servants. He's dead, and they're sold--Dolly's sold, too."

She was a fragile little creature, coloured like a flower, and her smooth
brown hair hung in silken braids to her sash. The strings of her white
pique bonnet lined with pink were daintily tied under her oval chin; there
was no dust on her bare legs or short white socks.

As she spoke there came the sound of voices singing, and a moment later the
wagon jogged heavily round a tuft of stunted cedars which jutted into the
long curve of the highway. The wheels crunched a loose stone in the road,
and the driver drawled a, patient "gee-up" to the horses, as he flicked at
a horse-fly with the end of his long rawhide whip. There was about him an
almost cosmic good nature; he regarded the landscape, the horses and the
rocks in the road with imperturbable ease.

Behind him, in the body of the wagon, the negro women stood chanting the
slave's farewell; and as they neared the children, he looked back and spoke
persuasively. "I'd set down if I was you all," he said. "You'd feel better.
Thar, now, set down and jolt softly."

But without turning the women kept up their tremulous chant, bending their
turbaned heads to the imaginary faces upon the roadside. They had left
their audience behind them on the great plantation, but they still sang to
the empty road and courtesied to the cedars upon the way. Excitement
gripped them like a frenzy--and a childish joy in a coming change blended
with a mother's yearning over broken ties.

A bright mulatto led, standing at full height, and her rich notes rolled
like an organ beneath the shrill plaint of her companions. She was large,
deep-bosomed, and comely after her kind, and in her careless gestures there
was something of the fine fervour of the artist. She sang boldly, her full
body rocking from side to side, her bared arms outstretched, her long
throat swelling like a bird's above the gaudy handkerchief upon her breast.

The others followed her, half artlessly, half in imitation, mingling with
their words grunts of self-approval. A grin ran from face to face as if
thrown by the grotesque flash of a lantern. Only a little black woman
crouching in one corner bowed herself and wept.

The children had fallen back against the stone wall, where they hung
staring.

"Good-by, Dolly!" they called cheerfully, and the woman answered with a
long-drawn, hopeless whine:--

"Gawd A'moughty bless you twel we
Meet agin."

Zeke broke from the group and ran a few steps beside the wagon, shaking the
outstretched hands.

The driver nodded peaceably to him, and cut with a single stroke of his
whip an intricate figure in the sand of the road. "Git up an' come along
with us, sonny," he said cordially; but Zeke only grinned in reply, and the
children laughed and waved their handkerchiefs from the wall. "Good-by,
Dolly, and Mirandy, and Sukey Sue!" they shouted, while the women, bowing
over the rolling wheels, tossed back a fragment of the song:--

"We hope ter meet you in heaven, whar we'll
Part no mo',
Whar we'll part no mo';
Gawd A'moughty bless you twel we
Me--et a--gin."

"Twel we meet agin," chirped the little girls, tripping into the chorus.

Then, with a last rumble, the wagon went by, and Zeke came trotting back
and straddled the stone wall, where he sat looking down upon the loose
poppies that fringed the yellowed edge of the wheat.

"Dey's gwine way-way f'om hyer, Marse Champe," he said dreamily. "Dey's
gwine right spang over dar whar de sun done come f'om."

"Colonel Minor bought 'em," Champe explained, sliding from the wall, "and
he bought Dolly dirt cheap--I heard Uncle say so--" With a grin he looked
up at the small black figure perched upon the crumbling stones. "You'd
better look out how you steal any more of my fishing lines, or I'll sell
you," he threatened.

"Gawd er live! I ain' stole one on 'em sence las' mont'," protested Zeke,
as he turned a somersault into the road, "en dat warn' stealin' 'case hit
warn' wu'th it," he added, rising to his feet and staring wistfully after
the wagon as it vanished in a sunny cloud of dust.

Over the broad meadows, filled with scattered wild flowers, the sound of
the chant still floated, with a shrill and troubled sweetness, upon the
wind. As he listened the little negro broke into a jubilant refrain,
beating his naked feet in the dust:--

"Gawd A'moughty bless you twel we
Me--et a--gin."

Then he looked slyly up at his young master.

"I 'low dar's one thing you cyarn do, Marse Champe."

"I bet there isn't," retorted Champe.

"You kin sell me ter Marse Minor--but Lawd, Lawd, you cyarn mek mammy leave
off whuppin' me. You cyarn do dat widout you 'uz a real ole marster
hese'f."

"I reckon I can," said Champe, indignantly. "I'd just like to see her lay
hands on you again. I can make mammy leave off whipping him, can't I,
Betty?"

But Betty, with a toss of her head, took her revenge.

"'Tain't so long since yo' mammy whipped you," she rejoined. "An' I reckon
'tain't so long since you needed it."

As she stood there, a spirited little figure, in a patch of faint sunshine,
her hair threw a halo of red gold about her head. When she smiled--and she
smiled now, saucily enough--her eyes had a trick of narrowing until they
became mere beams of light between her lashes. Her eyes would smile, though
her lips were as prim as a preacher's.

Virginia gave a timid pull at Betty's frock. "Champe's goin' home with us,"
she said, "his uncle told him to--You're goin' home with us, ain't you,
Champe?"

"I ain't goin' home," responded Betty, jerking from Virginia's grasp. She
stood warm yet resolute in the middle of the road, her bonnet swinging in
her hands. "I ain't goin' home," she repeated.

Turning his back squarely upon her, Champe broke into a whistle of
unconcern. "You'd just better come along," he called over his shoulder as
he started off. "You'd just better come along, or you'll catch it."

"I ain't comin'," answered Betty, defiantly, and as they passed away
kicking the dust before them, she swung her bonnet hard, and spoke aloud to
herself. "I ain't comin'," she said stubbornly.

The distance lengthened; the three small figures passed the wheat field,
stopped for an instant to gather green apples that had fallen from a stray
apple tree, and at last slowly dwindled into the white streak of the road.
She was alone on the deserted turnpike.

For a moment she hesitated, caught her breath, and even took three steps on
the homeward way; then turning suddenly she ran rapidly in the opposite
direction. Over the deepening shadows she sped as lightly as a hare.

At the end of a half mile, when her breath came in little pants, she
stopped with a nervous start and looked about her. The loneliness seemed
drawing closer like a mist, and the cry of a whip-poor-will from the little
stream in the meadow sent frightened thrills, like needles, through her
limbs.

Straight ahead the sun was setting in a pale red west, against which the
mountains stood out as if sculptured in stone. On one side swept the
pasture where a few sheep browsed; on the other, at the place where two
roads met, there was a blasted tree that threw its naked shadow across the
turnpike. Beyond the tree and its shadow a well-worn foot-path led to a
small log cabin from which a streak of smoke was rising. Through the open
door the single room within showed ruddy with the blaze of resinous pine.

The little girl daintily picked her way along the foot-path and through a
short garden patch planted in onions and black-eyed peas. Beside a bed of
sweet sage she faltered an instant and hung back. "Aunt Ailsey," she called
tremulously, "I want to speak to you, Aunt Ailsey." She stepped upon the
smooth round stone which served for a doorstep and looked into the room.
"It's me, Aunt Ailsey! It's Betty Ambler," she said.

A slow shuffling began inside the cabin, and an old negro woman hobbled
presently to the daylight and stood peering from under her hollowed palm.
She was palsied with age and blear-eyed with trouble, and time had ironed
all the kink out of the thin gray locks that straggled across her brow. She
peered dimly at the child as one who looks from a great distance.

"I lay dat's one er dese yer ole hoot owls," she muttered querulously, "en
ef'n 'tis, he des es well be a-hootin' along home, caze I ain' gwine be
pestered wid his pranks. Dar ain' but one kind er somebody es will sass you
at yo' ve'y do,' en dat's a hoot owl es is done loss count er de time er
day--"

"I ain't an owl, Aunt Ailsey," meekly broke in Betty, "an' I ain't hootin'
at you--"

Aunt Ailsey reached out and touched her hair. "You ain' none er Marse
Peyton's chile," she said. "I'se done knowed de Amblers sence de fu'st one
er dem wuz riz, en dar ain' never been a'er Ambler wid a carrot haid--"

The red ran from Betty's curls into her face, but she smiled politely as
she followed Aunt Ailsey into the cabin and sat down in a split-bottomed
chair upon the hearth. The walls were formed of rough, unpolished logs, and
upon them, as against an unfinished background, the firelight threw reddish
shadows of the old woman and the child. Overhead, from the uncovered
rafters, hung several tattered sheepskins, and around the great fireplace
there was a fringe of dead snakes and lizards, long since as dry as dust.
Under the blazing logs, which filled the hut with an almost unbearable
heat, an ashcake was buried beneath a little gravelike mound of ashes.

Aunt Ailsey took up a corncob pipe from the stones and fell to smoking. She
sank at once into a senile reverie, muttering beneath her breath with
short, meaningless grunts. Warm as the summer evening was, she shivered
before the glowing logs.

For a time the child sat patiently watching the embers; then she leaned
forward and touched the old woman's knee. "Aunt Ailsey, O Aunt Ailsey!"

Aunt Ailsey stirred wearily and crossed her swollen feet upon the hearth.

"Dar ain' nuttin' but a hoot owl dat'll sass you ter yo' face," she
muttered, and, as she drew her pipe from her mouth, the gray smoke circled
about her head.

The child edged nearer. "I want to speak to you, Aunt Ailsey," she said.
She seized the withered hand and held it close in her own rosy ones. "I
want you--O Aunt Ailsey, listen! I want you to conjure my hair coal black."

She finished with a gasp, and with parted lips sat waiting. "Coal black,
Aunt Ailsey!" she cried again.

A sudden excitement awoke in the old woman's face; her hands shook and she
leaned nearer. "Hi! who dat done tole you I could conjure, honey?" she
demanded.

"Oh, you can, I know you can. You conjured back Sukey's lover from Eliza
Lou, and you conjured all the pains out of Uncle Shadrach's leg." She fell
on her knees and laid her head in the old woman's lap. "Conjure quick and I
won't holler," she said.

"Gawd in heaven!" exclaimed Aunt Ailsey. Her dim old eyes brightened as she
gently stroked the child's brow with her palsied fingers. "Dis yer ain' no
way ter conjure, honey," she whispered. "You des wait twel de full er de
moon, w'en de devil walks de big road." She was wandering again after the
fancies of dotage, but Betty threw herself upon her. "Oh, change it! change
it!" cried the child. "Beg the devil to come and change it quick."

Brought back to herself, Aunt Ailsey grunted and knocked the ashes from her
pipe. "I ain' gwine ter ax no favors er de devil," she replied sternly.
"You des let de devil alont en he'll let you alont. I'se done been young,
en I'se now ole, en I ain' never seed de devil stick his mouf in anybody's
bizness 'fo' he's axed."

She bent over and raked the ashes from her cake with a lightwood splinter.
"Dis yer's gwine tase moughty flat-footed," she grumbled as she did so.

"O Aunt Ailsey," wailed Betty in despair. The tears shone in her eyes and
rolled slowly down her cheeks.

"Dar now," said Aunt Ailsey, soothingly, "you des set right still en wait
twel ter-night at de full er de moon." She got up and took down one of the
crumbling skins from the chimney-piece. "Ef'n de hine foot er a he frawg
cyarn tu'n yo' hyar decent," she said, "dar ain' nuttin' de Lawd's done
made es'll do hit. You des wrop er hank er yo' hyar roun' de hine foot,
honey, en' w'en de night time done come, you teck'n hide it unner a rock in
de big road. W'en de devil goes a-cotin' at de full er de moon--en he been
cotin' right stiddy roun' dese yer parts--he gwine tase dat ar frawg foot a
mile off."

"A mile off?" repeated the child, stretching out her hands.

"Yes, Lawd, he gwine tase dat ar frawg foot a mile off, en w'en he tase
hit, he gwine begin ter sniff en ter snuff. He gwine sniff en he gwine
snuff, en he gwine sniff en he gwine snuff twel he run right spang agin de
rock in de middle er de road. Den he gwine paw en paw twel he root de rock
clean up."

The little girl looked up eagerly.

"An' my hair, Aunt Ailsey?"

"De devil he gwine teck cyar er yo' hyar, honey. W'en he come a-sniffin' en
a-snuffin' roun' de rock in de big road, he gwine spit out flame en smoke
en yo' hyar hit's gwine ter ketch en hit's gwine ter bu'n right black. Fo'
de sun up yo' haid's gwine ter be es black es a crow's foot."

The child dried her tears and sprang up. She tied the frog's skin tightly
in her handkerchief and started toward the door; then she hesitated and
looked back. "Were you alive at the flood, Aunt Ailsey?" she politely
inquired.

"Des es live es I is now, honey."

"Then you must have seen Noah and the ark and all the animals?"

"Des es plain es I see you. Marse Noah? Why, I'se done wash en i'on Marse
Noah's shuts twel I 'uz right stiff in de j'ints. He ain' never let nobody
flute his frills fur 'im 'cep'n' me. Lawd, Lawd, Marse Peyton's shuts warn'
nuttin ter Marse Noah's!"

Betty's eyes grew big. "I reckon you're mighty old, Aunt Ailsey--'most as
old as God, ain't you?"

Aunt Ailsey pondered the question. "I ain' sayin' dat, honey," she modestly
replied.

"Then you're certainly as old as the devil--you must be," hopefully
suggested the little girl.

The old woman wavered. "Well, de devil, he ain' never let on his age," she
said at last; "but w'en I fust lay eyes on 'im, he warn' no mo'n a brat."

Standing upon the threshold for an instant, the child reverently regarded
her. Then, turning her back upon the fireplace and the bent old figure, she
ran out into the twilight.

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