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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter III - The Coming of the Boy
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The Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter III - The Coming of the Boy Post by :John_Cabral Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :April 2011 Read :1011

Click below to download : The Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter III - The Coming of the Boy (Format : PDF)

The Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter III - The Coming of the Boy

The boy trudged on bravely, his stick sounding the road. Sharp pains ran
through his feet where his shoes had worn away, and his head was swimming
like a top. The only pleasant fact of which he had consciousness was that
the taste of the currants still lingered in his mouth.

When he reached the maple spring, he swung himself over the stone wall and
knelt down for a drink, dipping the water in his hand. The spring was low
and damp and fragrant with the breath of mint which grew in patches in the
little stream. Overhead a wild grapevine was festooned, and he plucked a
leaf and bent it into a cup from which he drank. Then he climbed the wall
again and went on his way.

He was wondering if his mother had ever walked along this road on so
brilliant a night. There was not a tree beside it of which she had not told
him--not a shrub of sassafras or sumach that she had not carried in her
thoughts. The clump of cedars, the wild cherry, flowering in the spring
like snow, the blasted oak that stood where the branch roads met, the
perfume of the grape blossoms on the wall--these were as familiar to him as
the streets of the little crowded town in which he had lived. It was as if
nature had stood still here for twelve long summers, or as if he were
walking, ghostlike, amid the ever present memories of his mother's heart.

His mother! He drew his sleeve across his eyes and went on more slowly. She
was beside him on the road, and he saw her clearly, as he had seen her
every day until last year--a bright, dark woman, with slender, blue-veined
hands and merry eyes that all her tears had not saddened. He saw her in a
long, black dress, with upraised arm, putting back a crepe veil from her
merry eyes, and smiling as his father struck her. She had always smiled
when she was hurt--even when the blow was heavier than usual, and the blood
gushed from her temple, she had fallen with a smile. And when, at last, he
had seen her lying in her coffin with her baby under her clasped hands,
that same smile had been fixed upon her face, which had the brightness and
the chill repose of marble.

Of all that she had thrown away in her foolish marriage, she had retained
one thing only--her pride. To the end she had faced her fate with all the
insolence with which she faced her husband. And yet--"the Lightfoots were
never proud, my son," she used to say; "they have no false pride, but they
know their place, and in England, between you and me, they were more
important than the Washingtons. Not that the General wasn't a great man,
dear, he was a very great soldier, of course--and in his youth, you know,
he was an admirer of your Great-great-aunt Emmeline. But she--why, she was
the beauty and belle of two continents--there's an ottoman at home covered
with a piece of her wedding dress."

And the house? Was the house still as she had left it on that Christmas
Eve? "A simple gentleman's home, my child--not so imposing as Uplands, with
its pillars reaching to the roof, but older, oh, much older, and built of
brick that was brought all the way from England, and over the fireplace in
the panelled parlour you will find the Lightfoot arms.

"It was in that parlour, dear, that grandmamma danced a minuet with General
Lafayette; it looks out, you know, upon a white thorn planted by the
General himself, and one of the windows has not been opened for fifty
years, because the spray of English ivy your Great-aunt Emmeline set out
with her own hands has grown across the sash. Now the window is quite dark
with leaves, though you can still read the words Aunt Emmeline cut with her
diamond ring in one of the tiny panes, when young Harry Fitzhugh came in
upon her just as she had written a refusal to an English earl. She was
sitting in the window seat with the letter in her hand, and, when your
Great-uncle Harry--she afterwards married him, you know--fell on his knees
and cried out that others might offer her fame and wealth, but that he had
nothing except love, she turned, with a smile, and wrote upon the pane
'Love is best.' You can still see the words, very faint against the ivy
that she planted on her wedding day--"

Oh, yes, he knew it all--Great-aunt Emmeline was but the abiding presence
of the place. He knew the lawn with its grove of elms that overtopped the
peaked roof, the hall, with its shining floor and detached staircase that
crooked itself in the centre where the tall clock stood, and, best of all,
the white panels of the parlour where hung the portrait of that same
fascinating great-aunt, painted, in amber brocade, as Venus with the apple
in her hand.

And his grandmother, herself, in her stiff black silk, with a square of
lace turned back from her thin throat and a fluted cap above her corkscrew
curls--her daguerreotype, taken in all her pride and her precision, was
tied up in the bundle swinging on his arm.

He passed Aunt Ailsey's cabin, and turned into the road with the chestnuts.
A mile farther he came suddenly upon the house, standing amid the grove of
elms, dwarfed by the giant trees that arched above it. A dog's bark sounded
snappily from a kennel, but he paid no heed. He went up the broad white
walk, climbed the steps to the square front porch, and lifted the great
brass knocker. When he let it fall, the sound echoed through the shuttered
house.

The Major, who was sitting in his library with a volume of Mr. Addison open
before him and a decanter of Burgundy at his right hand, heard the knock,
and started to his feet. "Something's gone wrong at Uplands," he said
aloud; "there's an illness--or the brandy is out." He closed the book,
pushed aside the bedroom candle which he had been about to light, and went
out into the hall. As he unbarred the door and flung it open, he began at
once:--

"I hope there's no ill news," he exclaimed.

The boy came into the hall, where he stood blinking from the glare of the
lamplight. His head whirled, and he reached out to steady himself against
the door. Then he carefully laid down his bundle and looked up with his
mother's smile.

"You're my grandfather, and I'm very hungry," he said.

The Major caught the child's shoulders and drew him, almost roughly, under
the light. As he towered there above him, he gulped down something in his
throat, and his wide nostrils twitched.

"So you're poor Jane's boy?" he said at last.

The boy nodded. He felt suddenly afraid of the spare old man with his long
Roman nose and his fierce black eyebrows. A mist gathered before his eyes
and the lamp shone like a great moon in a cloudy circle.

The Major looked at the bundle on the floor, and again he swallowed. Then
he stooped and picked up the thing and turned away.

"Come in, sir, come in," he said in a knotty voice. "You are at home."

The boy followed him, and they passed the panelled parlour, from which he
caught a glimpse of the painting of Great-aunt Emmeline, and went into the
dining room, where his grandfather pulled out a chair and bade him to be
seated. As the old man opened the huge mahogany sideboard and brought out a
shoulder of cold lamb and a plate of bread and butter, he questioned him
with a quaint courtesy about his life in town and the details of his
journey. "Why, bless my soul, you've walked two hundred miles," he cried,
stopping on his way from the pantry, with the ham held out. "And no money!
Why, bless my soul!"

"I had fifty cents," said the boy, "that was left from my steamboat fare,
you know."

The Major put the ham on the table and attacked it grimly with the
carving-knife.

"Fifty cents," he whistled, and then, "you begged, I reckon?"

The boy flushed. "I asked for bread," he replied, stung to the defensive.
"They always gave me bread and sometimes meat, and they let me sleep in the
barns where the straw was, and once a woman took me into her house and
offered me money, but I would not take it. I--I think I'd like to send her
a present, if you please, sir."

"She shall have a dozen bottles of my best Madeira," cried the Major. The
word recalled him to himself, and he got up and raised the lid of the
cellaret, lovingly running his hand over the rows of bottles.

"A pig would be better, I think," said the boy, doubtfully, "or a cow, if
you could afford it. She is a poor woman, you know."

"Afford it!" chuckled the Major. "Why, I'll sell your grandmother's silver,
but I'll afford it, sir."

He took out a bottle, held it against the light, and filled a wine glass.
"This is the finest port in Virginia," he declared; "there is life in every
drop of it. Drink it down," and, when the boy had taken it, he filled his
own glass and tossed it off, not lingering, as usual, for the priceless
flavour. "Two hundred miles!" he gasped, as he looked at the child with
moist eyes over which his red lids half closed. "Ah, you're a Lightfoot,"
he said slowly. "I should know you were a Lightfoot if I passed you in the
road." He carved a slice of ham and held it out on the end of the knife.
"It's long since you've tasted a ham like this--browned in bread crumbs,"
he added temptingly, but the boy gravely shook his head.

"I've had quite enough, thank you, sir," he answered with a quaint dignity,
not unlike his grandfather's and as the Major rose, he stood up also,
lifting his black head to look in the old man's face with his keen gray
eyes.

The Major took up the bundle and moved toward the door. "You must see your
grandmother," he said as they went out, and he led the way up the crooked
stair past the old clock in the bend. On the first landing he opened a door
and stopped upon the threshold. "Molly, here is poor Jane's boy," he said.

In the centre of a big four-post bed, curtained in white dimity, a little
old lady was lying between lavender-scented sheets. On her breast stood a
tall silver candlestick which supported a well-worn volume of "The
Mysteries of Udolpho," held open by a pair of silver snuffers. The old
lady's face was sharp and wizened, and beneath her starched white nightcap
rose the knots of her red flannel curlers. Her eyes, which were very small
and black, held a flickering brightness like that in live embers.

"Whose boy, Mr. Lightfoot?" she asked sharply.

Holding the child by the hand, the Major went into the room.

"It's poor Jane's boy, Molly," he repeated huskily.

The old lady raised her head upon her high pillows, and looked at him by
the light of the candle on her breast. "Are you Jane's boy?" she questioned
in suspicion, and at the child's "Yes, ma'am," she said, "Come nearer.
There, stand between the curtains. Yes, you are Jane's boy, I see." She
gave the decision flatly, as if his parentage were a matter of her
pleasure. "And what is your name?" she added, as she snuffed the candle.

The boy looked from her stiff white nightcap to the "log-cabin" quilt on
the bed, and then at her steel hoops which were hanging from a chair back.
He had always thought of her as in her rich black silk, with the tight gray
curls about her ears, and at this revelation of her inner mysteries, his
fancy received a checkmate.

But he met her eyes again and answered simply, "Dandridge--they call me
Dan--Dan Montjoy."

"And he has walked two hundred miles, Molly," gasped the Major.

"Then he must be tired," was the old lady's rejoinder, and she added with
spirit: "Mr. Lightfoot, will you show Dan to Jane's old room, and see that
he has a blanket on his bed. He should have been asleep hours ago--good
night, child, be sure and say your prayers," and as they crossed the
threshold, she laid aside her book and blew out her light.

The Major led the way to "Jane's old room" at the end of the hall, and
fetched a candle from somewhere outside. "I think you'll find everything
you need," he said, stooping to feel the covering on the bed. "Your
grandmother always keeps the rooms ready. God bless you, my son," and he
went out, softly closing the door after him.

The boy sat down on the steps of the tester bed, and looked anxiously round
the three-cornered room, with its sloping windows filled with small, square
panes of glass. By the candlelight, flickering on the plain, white walls
and simple furniture, he tried to conjure back the figure of his
mother,--handsome Jane Lightfoot. Over the mantel hung two crude drawings
from her hand, and on the table at the bedside there were several books
with her name written in pale ink on the fly leaves. The mirror to the high
old bureau seemed still to hold the outlines of her figure, very shadowy
against the greenish glass. He saw her in her full white skirts--she had
worn nine petticoats, he knew, on grand occasions--fastening her coral
necklace about her stately throat, the bands of her black hair drawn like a
veil above her merry eyes. Had she lingered on that last Christmas Eve, he
wondered, when her candlestick held its sprig of mistletoe and her room was
dressed in holly? Did she look back at the cheerful walls and the stately
furniture before she blew out her light and went downstairs to ride madly
off, wrapped in his father's coat? And the old people drank their eggnog
and watched the Virginia reel, and, when they found her gone, shut her out
forever.

Now, as he sat on the bed-steps, it seemed to him that he had come home for
the first time in his life. All this was his own by right,--the queer old
house, his mother's room, and beyond the sloping windows, the meadows with
their annual yield of grain. He felt the pride of it swelling within him;
he waited breathlessly for the daybreak when he might go out and lord it
over the fields and the cattle and the servants that were his also. And at
last--his head big with his first day's vanity--he climbed between the
dimity curtains and fell asleep.

When he awaked next morning, the sun was shining through the small square
panes, and outside were the waving elm boughs and a clear sky. He was
aroused by a knock on his door, and, as he jumped out of bed, Big Abel, the
Major's driver and confidential servant, came in with the warm water. He
was a strong, finely-formed negro, black as the ace of spades (so the Major
put it), and of a singularly open countenance.

"Hi! ain't you up yit, young Marster?" he exclaimed. "Sis Rhody, she sez
she done save you de bes' puffovers you ever tase, en ef'n you don' come
'long down, dey'll fall right flat."

"Who is Sis Rhody?" inquired the boy, as he splashed the water on his face.

"Who she? Why, she de cook."

"All right, tell her I'm coming," and he dressed hurriedly and ran down
into the hall where he found Champe Lightfoot, the Major's great-nephew,
who lived at Chericoke.

"Hello!" called Champe at once, plunging his hands into his pockets and
presenting an expression of eager interest. "When did you get here?"

"Last night," Dan replied, and they stood staring at each other with two
pairs of the Lightfoot gray eyes.

"How'd you come?"

"I walked some and I came part the way on a steamboat. Did you ever see a
steamboat?"

"Oh, shucks! A steamboat ain't anything. I've seen George Washington's
sword. Do you like to fish?"

"I never fished. I lived in a city."

Zeke came in with a can of worms, and Champe gave them the greater share of
his attention. "I tell you what, you'd better learn," he said at last,
returning the can to Zeke and taking up his fishing-rod. "There're a lot of
perch down yonder in the river," and he strode out, followed by the small
negro.

Dan looked after him a moment, and then went into the dining room, where
his grandmother was sitting at the head of her table, washing her pink
teaset in a basin of soapsuds. She wore her stiff, black silk this morning
with its dainty undersleeves of muslin, and her gray curls fell beneath her
cap of delicate yellowed lace. "Come and kiss me, child," she said as he
entered. "Did you sleep well?"

"I didn't wake once," answered the boy, kissing her wrinkled cheek.

"Then you must eat a good breakfast and go to your grandfather in the
library. Your grandfather is a very learned man, Dan, he reads Latin every
morning in the library.--Cupid, has Rhody a freshly broiled chicken for
your young master?"

She got up and rustled about the room, arranging the pink teaset behind the
glass doors of the corner press. Then she slipped her key basket over her
arm and fluttered in and out of the storeroom, stopping at intervals to
scold the stream of servants that poured in at the dining-room door. "Ef'n
you don' min', Ole Miss, Paisley, she done got de colick f'om a hull pa'cel
er green apples," and "Abram he's des a-shakin' wid a chill en he say he
cyarn go ter de co'n field."

"Wait a minute and be quiet," the old lady responded briskly, for, as the
boy soon learned, she prided herself upon her healing powers, and suffered
no outsider to doctor her husband or her slaves. "Hush, Silas, don't say a
word until I tell you. Cupid--you are the only one with any sense--measure
Paisley a dose of Jamaica ginger from the bottle on the desk in the office,
and send Abram a drink of the bitters in the brown jug--why, Car'line, what
do you mean by coming into the house with a slit in your apron?"

"Fo' de Lawd, Ole Miss, hit's des done cotch on de fence. All de ducks Aun'
Meeley been fattenin' up fur you done got loose en gone ter water."

"Well, you go, too, every one of you!" and she dismissed them with waves of
her withered, little hands. "Send them out, Cupid. No, Car'line, not a
word. Don't 'Ole Miss' me, I tell you!" and the servants streamed out again
as they had come.

When he had finished his breakfast the boy went back into the hall where
Big Abel was taking down the Major's guns from the rack, and, as he caught
sight of the strapping figure and kindly black face, he smiled for the
first time since his home-coming. With a lordly manner, he went over and
held out his hand.

"I like _you_, Big Abel," he said gravely, and he followed him out into the
yard.

For the next few weeks he did not let Big Abel out of his sight. He rode
with him to the pasture, he sat with him on his doorstep of a fine evening,
and he drove beside him on the box when the old coach went out. "Big Abel
says a gentleman doesn't go barefooted," he said to Champe when he found
him without his shoes in the meadow, "and I'm a gentleman."

"I'd like to know what Big Abel knows about it," promptly retorted Champe,
and Dan grew white with rage and proceeded to roll up his sleeves. "I'll
whip any man who says Big Abel doesn't know a gentleman!" he cried, making
a lunge at his cousin. In point of truth, it was Champe who did the
whipping in such free fights; but bruises and a bleeding nose had never
scared the savage out of Dan. He would spring up from his last tumble as
from his first, and let fly at his opponent until Big Abel rushed, in
tears, between them.

From the garrulous negro, the boy soon learned the history of his
family--learned, indeed, much about his grandfather of which the Major
himself was quite unconscious. He heard of that kindly, rollicking early
life, half wild and wholly good-humoured, in which the eldest male
Lightfoot had squandered his time and his fortune. Why, was not the old
coach itself but an existing proof of Big Abel's stories? "'Twan' mo'n
twenty years back dat Ole Miss had de fines' car'ige in de county," he
began one evening on the doorstep, and the boy drove away a brood of
half-fledged chickens and settled himself to listen. "Hadn't you better
light your pipe, Big Abel?" he inquired courteously.

Big Abel shuffled into the cabin and came back with his corncob pipe and a
lighted taper. "We all ain' rid in de ole coach den," he said with a sigh,
as he sucked at the long stem, and threw the taper at the chickens. "De ole
coach hit uz th'owed away in de out'ouse, en I 'uz des stiddyin' 'bout
splittin' it up fer kindlin' wood--en de new car'ige hit cos' mos' a mint
er money. Ole Miss she uz dat sot up dat she ain' let de hosses git no
sleep--nor me nurr. Ef'n she spy out a speck er dus' on dem ar wheels,
somebody gwine year f'om it, sho's you bo'n--en dat somebody wuz me. Yes,
Lawd, Ole Miss she 'low dat dey ain' never been nuttin' like dat ar car'ige
in Varginny sence befo' de flood."

"But where is it, Big Abel?"

"You des wait, young Marster, you des wait twel I git dar. I'se gwine git
dar w'en I come ter de day me an Ole Marster rid in ter git his gol' f'om
Mars Tom Braxton. De car'ige hit sutney did look spick en span dat day, en
I done shine up my hosses twel you could 'mos' see yo' face in dey sides.
Well, we rid inter town en we got de gol' f'om Marse Braxton,--all tied up
in a bag wid a string roun' de neck er it,--en we start out agin (en Ole
Miss she settin' up at home en plannin' w'at she gwine buy), w'en we come
ter de tave'n whar we all use ter git our supper, en meet Marse Plaintain
Dudley right face to face. Lawd! Lawd! I'se done knowed Marse Plaintain
Dudley afo' den, so I des tech up my hosses en wuz a-sailin' 'long by, w'en
he shake his han' en holler out, 'Is yer wife done tied you ter 'er ap'on,
Maje?' (He knowed Ole Miss don' w'ar no ap'on des es well es I knowed
hit--dat's Marse Plaintain all over agin); but w'en he holler out dat, Ole
Marster sez, 'Stop, Abel,' en I 'bleeged ter stop, you know, I wuz w'en Ole
Marster tell me ter.

"'I ain' tied, Plaintain, I'm tired,' sez Ole Marster, 'I'm tired losin'
money.' Den Marse Plaintain he laugh like a devil. 'Oh, come in, suh, come
in en win, den,' he sez, en Ole Marster step out en walk right in wid Marse
Plaintain behint 'im--en I set dar all night,--yes, suh, I set dar all
night a-hol'n' de hosses' haids.

"Den w'en de sun up out come Ole Marster, white es a sheet, with his han's
a-trem'lin', en de bag er gol' gone. I look at 'im fur a minute, en den I
let right out, 'Ole Marster, whar de gol'?' en he stan' still en ketch his
breff befo' he say, 'Hit's all gone, Abel, en de car'ige en de hosses dey's
gone, too." En w'en I bust out cryin' en ax 'im, 'My hosses gone, Ole
Marster?' he kinder sob en beckon me fer ter git down f'om my box, en den
we put out ter walk all de way home.

"W'en we git yer 'bout'n dinner time, dar wuz Ole Miss at de do' wid de sun
in her eyes, en soon es she ketch sight er Ole Marster, she put up her han'
en holler out, 'Marse Lightfoot, whar de car'ige?' But Ole Marster, he des
hang down his haid, same es a dawg dat's done been whupped fur rabbit
runnin', en he sob, 'Hit's gone, Molly en de bag er gol' en de hosses,
dey's gone, too, I done loss 'em all cep'n Abel--en I'm a bad man, Molly.'
Dat's w'at Ole Marster say, 'I'm a bad man, Molly,' en I stiddy 'bout my
hosses en Ole Miss' car'ige en shet my mouf right tight,"

"And Grandma? Did she cry?" asked the boy, breathlessly.

"Who cry? Ole Miss? Huh! She des th'ow up her haid en low, 'Well, Marse
Lightfoot, I'm glad you kep' Abel--en we'll use de ole coach agin',' sez
she--en den she tu'n en strut right in ter dinner."

"Was that all she ever said about it, Big Abel?"

"Dat's all I ever hyern, honey, en I b'lieve hit's all Ole Marster ever
hyern eeder, case w'en I tuck his gun out er de rack de nex' day, he was
settin' up des es prim in de parlour a-sippin' a julep wid Marse Peyton
Ambler, en I hyern 'im kinder whisper, 'Molly, she's en angel, Peyton--' en
he ain' never call Ole Miss en angel twel he loss 'er car'ige."

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