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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter II - At the Full of the Moon
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The Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter II - At the Full of the Moon Post by :sblackburn Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :April 2011 Read :1833

Click below to download : The Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter II - At the Full of the Moon (Format : PDF)

The Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter II - At the Full of the Moon

By the light of the big moon hanging like a lantern in the topmost pine
upon a distant mountain, the child sped swiftly along the turnpike.

It was a still, clear evening, and on the summits of the eastern hills a
fringe of ragged firs stood out illuminated against the sky. In the warm
June weather the whole land was fragrant from the flower of the wild grape.

When she had gone but a little way, the noise of wheels reached her
suddenly, and she shrank into the shadow beside the wall. A cloud of dust
chased toward her as the wheels came steadily on. They were evidently
ancient, for they turned with a protesting creak which was heard long
before the high, old-fashioned coach they carried swung into view--long
indeed before the driver's whip cracked in the air.

As the coach neared the child, she stepped boldly out into the road--it was
only Major Lightfoot, the owner of the next plantation, returning, belated,
from the town.

"W'at you doin' dar, chile?" demanded a stern voice from the box, and, at
the words, the Major's head was thrust through the open window, and his
long white hair waved in the breeze.

"Is that you, Betty?" he asked, in surprise. "Why, I thought it was the
duty of that nephew of mine to see you home."

"I wouldn't let him," replied the child. "I don't like boys, sir."

"You don't, eh?" chuckled the Major. "Well, there's time enough for that, I
suppose. You can make up to them ten years hence,--and you'll be glad
enough to do it then, I warrant you,--but are you all alone, young lady?"
As Betty nodded, he opened the door and stepped gingerly down. "I can't
turn the horses' heads, poor things," he explained; "but if you will allow
me, I shall have the pleasure of escorting you on foot."

With his hat in his hand, he smiled down upon the little girl, his face
shining warm and red above his pointed collar and broad black stock. He was
very tall and spare, and his eyebrows, which hung thick and dark above his
Roman nose, gave him an odd resemblance to a bird of prey. The smile
flashed like an artificial light across his austere features.

"Since my arm is too high for you," he said, "will you have my hand?--Yes,
you may drive on, Big Abel," to the driver, "and remember to take out those
bulbs of Spanish lilies for your mistress. You will find them under the
seat."

The whip cracked again above the fat old roans, and with a great creak the
coach rolled on its way.

"I--I--if you please, I'd rather you wouldn't," stammered the child.

The Major chuckled again, still holding out his hand. Had she been eighty
instead of eight, the gesture could not have expressed more deference. "So
you don't like old men any better than boys!" he exclaimed.

"Oh, yes, sir, I do--heaps," said Betty. She transferred the frog's foot to
her left hand, and gave him her right one. "When I marry, I'm going to
marry a very old gentleman--as old as you," she added flatteringly.

"You honour me," returned the Major, with a bow; "but there's nothing like
youth, my dear, nothing like youth." He ended sadly, for he had been a gay
young blood in his time, and the enchantment of his wild oats had increased
as he passed further from the sowing of them. He had lived to regret both
the loss of his gayety and the languor of his blood, and, as he drifted
further from the middle years, he had at last yielded to tranquillity with
a sigh. In his day he had matched any man in Virginia at cards or wine or
women--to say nothing of horseflesh; now his white hairs had brought him
but a fond, pale memory of his misdeeds and the boast that he knew his
world--that he knew all his world, indeed, except his wife.

"Ah, there's nothing like youth!" he sighed over to himself, and the child
looked up and laughed.

"Why do you say that?" she asked.

"You will know some day," replied the Major. He drew himself erect in his
tight black broadcloth, and thrust out his chin between the high points of
his collar. His long white hair, falling beneath his hat, framed his ruddy
face in silver. "There are the lights of Uplands," he said suddenly, with a
wave of his hand.

Betty quickened her pace to his, and they went on in silence. Through the
thick grove that ended at the roadside she saw the windows of her home
flaming amid the darkness. Farther away there were the small lights of the
negro cabins in the "quarters," and a great one from the barn door where
the field hands were strumming upon their banjos.

"I reckon supper's ready," she remarked, walking faster. "Yonder comes
Peter, from the kitchen with the waffles."

They entered an iron gate that opened from the road, and went up a lane of
lilac bushes to the long stuccoed house, set with detached wings in a grove
of maples. "Why, there's papa looking for me," cried the child, as a man's
figure darkened the square of light from the hall and came between the
Doric columns of the portico down into the drive.

"You won't have to search far, Governor," called the Major, in his ringing
voice, and, as the other came up to him, he stopped to shake hands. "Miss
Betty has given me the pleasure of a stroll with her."

"Ah, it was like you, Major," returned the other, heartily. "I'm afraid it
isn't good for your gout, though."

He was a small, soldierly-looking man, with a clean-shaven, classic face,
and thick, brown hair, slightly streaked with gray. Beside the Major's
gaunt figure he appeared singularly boyish, though he held himself severely
to the number of his inches, and even added, by means of a simplicity
almost august, a full cubit to his stature. Ten years before he had been
governor of his state, and to his friends and neighbours the empty honour,
at least, was still his own.

"Pooh! pooh!" the older man protested airily, "the gout's like a woman, my
dear sir--if you begin to humour it, you'll get no rest. If you deny
yourself a half bottle of port, the other half will soon follow. No, no, I
say--put a bold foot on the matter. Don't give up a good thing for the sake
of a bad one, sir. I remember my grandfather in England telling me that at
his first twinge of gout he took a glass of sherry, and at the second he
took two. 'What! would you have my toe become my master?' he roared to the
doctor. 'I wouldn't give in if it were my whole confounded foot, sir!' Oh,
those were ripe days, Governor!"

"A little overripe for the toe, I fear, Major."

"Well, well, we're sober enough now, sir, sober enough and to spare. Even
the races are dull things. I've just been in to have a look at that new
mare Tom Bickels is putting on the track, and bless my soul, she can't hold
a candle to the Brown Bess I ran twenty years ago--you don't remember Brown
Bess, eh, Governor?"

"Why, to be sure," said the Governor. "I can see her as if it were
yesterday,--and a beauty she was, too,--but come in to supper with us, my
dear Major; we were just sitting down. No, I shan't take an excuse--come
in, sir, come in."

"No, no, thank you," returned the Major. "Molly's waiting, and Molly
doesn't like to wait, you know. I got dinner at Merry Oaks tavern by the
way, and a mighty bad one, too, but the worst thing about it was that they
actually had the impudence to put me at the table with an abolitionist.
Why, I'd as soon eat with a darkey, sir, and so I told him, so I told him!"

The Governor laughed, his fine, brown eyes twinkling in the gloom. "You
were always a man of your word," he said; "so I must tell Julia to mend her
views before she asks you to dine. She has just had me draw up my will and
free the servants. There's no withstanding Julia, you know, Major."

"You have an angel," declared the other, "and she gets lovelier every day;
my regards to her,--and to her aunts, sir. Ah, good night, good night," and
with a last cordial gesture he started rapidly upon his homeward way.

Betty caught the Governor's hand and went with him into the house. As they
entered the hall, Uncle Shadrach, the head butler, looked out to reprimand
her. "Ef'n anybody 'cep'n Marse Peyton had cotch you, you'd er des been
lammed," he grumbled. "An' papa was real mad!" called Virginia from the
table.

"That's jest a story!" cried Betty. Still clinging to her father's hand,
she entered the dining room; "that's jest a story, papa," she repeated.

"No, I'm not angry," laughed the Governor. "There, my dear, for heaven's
sake don't strangle me. Your mother's the one for you to hang on. Can't you
see what a rage she's in?"

"My dear Mr. Ambler," remonstrated his wife, looking over the high old
silver service. She was very frail and gentle, and her voice was hardly
more than a clear whisper. "No, no, Betty, you must go up and wash your
face first," she added decisively.

The Governor sat down and unfolded his napkin, beaming hospitality upon his
food and his family. He surveyed his wife, her two maiden aunts and his own
elder brother with the ineffable good humour he bestowed upon the majestic
home-cured ham fresh from a bath of Madeira.

"I am glad to see you looking so well, my dear," he remarked to his wife,
with a courtliness in which there was less polish than personality. "Ah,
Miss Lydia, I know whom to thank for this," he added, taking up a pale tea
rosebud from his plate, and bowing to one of the two old ladies seated
beside his wife. "Have you noticed, Julia, that even the roses have become
more plentiful since your aunts did us the honour to come to us?"

"I am sure the garden ought to be grateful to Aunt Lydia," said his wife,
with a pleased smile, "and the quinces to Aunt Pussy," she added quickly,
"for they were never preserved so well before."

The two old ladies blushed and cast down their eyes, as they did every
evening at the same kindly by-play. "You know I am very glad to be of use,
my dear Julia," returned Miss Pussy, with conscious virtue. Miss Lydia, who
was tall and delicate and bent with the weight of potential sanctity, shook
her silvery head and folded her exquisite old hands beneath the ruffles of
her muslin under-sleeves. She wore her hair in shining folds beneath her
thread-lace cap, and her soft brown eyes still threw a youthful lustre over
the faded pallor of her face.

"Pussy has always had a wonderful talent for preserving," she murmured
plaintively. "It makes me regret my own uselessness."

"Uselessness!" warmly protested the Governor. "My dear Miss Lydia, your
mere existence is a blessing to mankind. A lovely woman is never useless,
eh, Brother Bill?"

Mr. Bill, a stout and bashful gentleman, who never wasted words, merely
bowed over his plate, and went on with his supper. There was a theory in
the family--a theory romantic old Miss Lydia still hung hard by--that Mr.
Bill's peculiar apathy was of a sentimental origin. Nearly thirty years
before he had made a series of mild advances to his second cousin, Virginia
Ambler--and her early death before their polite vows were plighted had, in
the eyes of his friends, doomed the morose Mr. Bill to the position of a
perpetual mourner.

Now, as he shook his head and helped himself to chicken, Miss Lydia sighed
in sympathy.

"I am afraid Mr. Bill must find us very flippant," she offered as a gentle
reproof to the Governor.

Mr. Bill started and cast a frightened glance across the table. Thirty
years are not as a day, and, after all, his emotion had been hardly more
than he would have felt for a prize perch that had wriggled from his line
into the stream. The perch, indeed, would have represented more
appropriately the passion of his life--though a lukewarm lover, he was an
ardent angler.

"Ah, Brother Bill understands us," cheerfully interposed the Governor. His
keen eyes had noted Mr. Bill's alarm as they noted the emptiness of Miss
Pussy's cup. "By the way, Julia," he went on with a change of the subject,
"Major Lightfoot found Betty in the road and brought her home. The little
rogue had run away."

Mrs. Ambler filled Miss Pussy's cup and pressed Mr. Bill to take a slice of
Sally Lunn. "The Major is so broken that it saddens me," she said, when
these offices of hostess were accomplished. "He has never been himself
since his daughter ran away, and that was--dear me, why that was twelve
years ago next Christmas. It was on Christmas Eve, you remember, he came to
tell us. The house was dressed in evergreens, and Uncle Patrick was making
punch."

"Poor Patrick was a hard drinker," sighed Miss Lydia; "but he was a citizen
of the world, my dear."

"Yes, yes, I perfectly recall the evening," said the Governor,
thoughtfully. "The young people were just forming for a reel and you and I
were of them, my dear,--it was the year, I remember, that the mistletoe was
brought home in a cart,--when the door opened and in came the Major. 'Jane
has run away with that dirty scamp Montjoy,' he said, and was out again and
on his horse before we caught the words. He rode like a madman that night.
I can see him now, splashing through the mud with Big Abel after him."

Betty came running in with smiling eyes, and fluttered into her seat. "I
got here before the waffles," she cried. "Mammy said I wouldn't. Uncle
Shadrach, I got here before you!"

"Dat's so, honey," responded Uncle Shadrach from behind the Governor's
chair. He was so like his master--commanding port, elaborate shirt-front,
and high white stock--that the Major, in a moment of merry-making, had once
dubbed him "the Governor's silhouette."

"Say your grace, dear," remonstrated Miss Lydia, as the child shook out her
napkin. "It's always proper to offer thanks standing, you know. I remember
your great-grandmother telling me that once when she dined at the White
House, when her father was in Congress, the President forgot to say grace,
and made them all get up again after they were seated. Now, for what are we
about--"

"Oh, papa thanked for me," cried Betty. "Didn't you, papa?"

The Governor smiled; but catching his wife's eyes, he quickly forced his
benign features into a frowning mask.

"Do as your aunt tells you, Betty," said Mrs. Ambler, and Betty got up and
said grace, while Virginia took the brownest waffle. When the thanksgiving
was ended, she turned indignantly upon her sister. "That was just a sly,
mean trick!" she cried in a flash of temper. "You saw my eye on that
waffle!"

"My dear, my dear," murmured Miss Lydia.

"She's des an out'n out fire bran', dat's w'at she is," said Uncle
Shadrach.

"Well, the Lord oughtn't to have let her take it just as I was thanking Him
for it!" sobbed Betty, and she burst into tears and left the table,
upsetting Mr. Bill's coffee cup as she went by.

The Governor looked gravely after her. "I'm afraid the child is really
getting spoiled, Julia," he mildly suggested.

"She's getting a--a vixenish," declared Mr. Bill, mopping his expansive
white waistcoat.

"You des better lemme go atter a twig er willow, Marse Peyton," muttered
Uncle Shadrach in the Governor's ear.

"Hold your tongue, Shadrach," retorted the Governor, which was the harshest
command he was ever known to give his servants.

Virginia ate her waffle and said nothing. When she went upstairs a little
later, she carried a pitcher of buttermilk for Betty's face.

"It isn't usual for a young lady to have freckles, Aunt Lydia says," she
remarked, "and you must rub this right on and not wash it off till
morning--and, after you've rubbed it well in, you must get down on your
knees and ask God to mend your temper."

Betty was lying in her little trundle bed, while Petunia, her small black
maid, pulled off her stockings, but she got up obediently and laved her
face in buttermilk. "I don't reckon there's any use about the other," she
said. "I believe the Lord's jest leavin' me in sin as a warnin' to you and
Petunia," and she got into her trundle bed and waited for the lights to go
out, and for the watchful Virginia to fall asleep.

She was still waiting when the door softly opened and her mother came in, a
lighted candle in her hand, the pale flame shining through her profile as
through delicate porcelain, and illumining her worn and fragile figure. She
moved with a slow step, as if her white limbs were a burden, and her head,
with its smoothly parted bright brown hair, bent like a lily that has begun
to fade.

She sat down upon the bedside and laid her hand on the child's forehead.
"Poor little firebrand," she said gently. "How the world will hurt you!"
Then she knelt down and prayed beside her, and went out again with the
white light streaming upon her bosom. An hour later Betty heard her soft,
slow step on the gravelled drive and knew that she was starting on a
ministering errand to the quarters. Of all the souls on the great
plantation, the mistress alone had never rested from her labours.

The child tossed restlessly, beat her pillow, and fell back to wait more
patiently. At last the yellow strip under the door grew dark, and from the
other trundle bed there came a muffled breathing. With a sigh, Betty sat up
and listened; then she drew the frog's skin from beneath her pillow and
crept on bare feet to the door. It was black there, and black all down the
wide, old staircase. The great hall below was like a cavern underground.
Trembling when a board creaked under her, she cautiously felt her way with
her hands on the balustrade. The front door was fastened with an iron chain
that rattled as she touched it, so she stole into the dining room, unbarred
one of the long windows, and slipped noiselessly out. It was almost like
sliding into sunshine, the moon was so large and bright.

From the wide stone portico, the great white columns, looking grim and
ghostly, went upward to the roof, and beyond the steps the gravelled drive
shone hard as silver. As the child went between the lilac bushes, the
moving shadows crawled under her bare feet like living things.

At the foot of the drive ran the big road, and when she came out upon it
her trailing gown caught in a fallen branch, and she fell on her face.
Picking herself up again, she sat on a loosened rock and looked about her.

The strong night wind blew on her flesh, and she shivered in the moonlight,
which felt cold and brazen. Before her stretched the turnpike, darkened by
shadows that bore no likeness to the objects from which they borrowed
shape. Far as eye could see, they stirred ceaselessly back and forth like
an encamped army of grotesques.

She got up from the rock and slipped the frog's skin into the earth beneath
it. As she settled it in place, her pulses gave a startled leap, and she
stood terror-stricken beside the stone. A thud of footsteps was coming
along the road.

For an instant she trembled in silence; then her sturdy little heart took
courage, and she held up her hand.

"If you'll wait a minute, Mr. Devil, I'm goin' in," she cried.

From the shadows a voice laughed at her, and a boy came forward into the
light--a half-starved boy, with a white, pinched face and a dusty bundle
swinging from the stick upon his shoulder.

"What are you doing here?" he snapped out.

Betty gave back a defiant stare. She might have been a tiny ghost in the
moonlight, with her trailing gown and her flaming curls.

"I live here," she answered simply. "Where do you live?"

"Nowhere." He looked her over with a laugh.

"Nowhere?"

"I did live somewhere, but I ran away a week ago."

"Did they beat you? Old Rainy-day Jones beat one of his servants and he ran
away."

"There wasn't anybody," said the boy. "My mother died, and my father went
off--I hope he'll stay off. I hate him!"

He sent the words out so sharply that Betty's lids flinched.

"Why did you come by here?" she questioned. "Are you looking for the devil,
too?"

The boy laughed again. "I am looking for my grandfather. He lives somewhere
on this road, at a place named Chericoke. It has a lot of elms in the yard;
I'll know it by that."

Betty caught his arm and drew him nearer. "Why, that's where Champe lives!"
she cried. "I don't like Champe much, do you?"

"I never saw him," replied the boy; "but I don't like him--"

"He's mighty good," said Betty, honestly; then, as she looked at the boy
again, she caught her breath quickly. "You do look terribly hungry," she
added.

"I haven't had anything since--since yesterday."

The little girl thoughtfully tapped her toes on the road. "There's a
currant pie in the safe," she said. "I saw Uncle Shadrach put it there. Are
you fond of currant pie?--then you just wait!"

She ran up the carriage way to the dining-room window, and the boy sat down
on the rock and buried his face in his hands. His feet were set stubbornly
in the road, and the bundle lay beside them. He was dumb, yet disdainful,
like a high-bred dog that has been beaten and turned adrift.

As the returning patter of Betty's feet sounded in the drive, he looked up
and held out his hands. When she gave him the pie, he ate almost wolfishly,
licking the crumbs from his fingers, and even picking up a bit of crust
that had fallen to the ground.

"I'm sorry there isn't any more," said the little girl. It had seemed a
very large pie when she took it from the safe.

The boy rose, shook himself, and swung his bundle across his arm.

"Will you tell me the way?" he asked, and she gave him a few childish
directions. "You go past the wheat field an' past the maple spring, an' at
the dead tree by Aunt Ailsey's cabin you turn into the road with the
chestnuts. Then you just keep on till you get there--an' if you don't ever
get there, come back to breakfast."

The boy had started off, but as she ended, he turned and lifted his hat.

"I am very much obliged to you," he said, with a quaint little bow; and
Betty bobbed a courtesy in her nightgown before she fled back into the
house.

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