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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter IV - A House with an Open Door
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The Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter IV - A House with an Open Door Post by :netlover Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :April 2011 Read :1767

Click below to download : The Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter IV - A House with an Open Door (Format : PDF)

The Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter IV - A House with an Open Door

The master of Uplands was standing upon his portico behind the Doric
columns, looking complacently over the fat lands upon which his fathers had
sown and harvested for generations. Beyond the lane of lilacs and the two
silver poplars at the gate, his eyes wandered leisurely across the blue
green strip of grass-land to the tawny wheat field, where the slaves were
singing as they swung their cradles. The day was fine, and the outlying
meadows seemed to reflect his gaze with a smile as beneficent as his own.
He had cast his bread upon the soil, and it had returned to him threefold.

As he stood there, a small, yet imposing figure, in his white duck suit,
holding his broad slouch hat in his hand, he presented something of the
genial aspect of the country--as if the light that touched the pleasant
hills and valleys was aglow in his clear brown eyes and comely features.
Even the smooth white hand in which he held his hat and riding-whip had
about it a certain plump kindliness which would best become a careless
gesture of concession. And, after all, he looked but what he was--a bland
and generous gentleman, whose heart was as open as his wine cellar.

A catbird was singing in one of the silver poplars, and he waited, with
upraised head, for the song to end. Then he stooped beside a column and
carefully examined a newly planted coral honeysuckle before he went into
the wide hall, where his wife was seated at her work-table.

From the rear door, which stood open until frost, a glow of sunshine
entered, brightening the white walls with their rows of antlers and
gunracks, and rippling over the well-waxed floor upon which no drop of
water had ever fallen. A faint sweetness was in the air from the
honeysuckle arbour outside, which led into the box-bordered walks of the
garden.

As the Governor hung up his hat, he begun at once with his daily news of
the farm. "I hope they'll get that wheat field done to-day," he said: "but
it doesn't look much like it--they've been dawdling over it for the last
three days. I am afraid Wilson isn't much of a manager, after all; if I
take my eyes off him, he seems to lose his head."

"I think everything is that way," returned his wife, looking up from one of
the elaborately tucked and hemstitched shirt fronts which served to gratify
the Governor's single vanity. "I'm sure Aunt Pussy says she can't trust
Judy for three days in the dairy without finding that the cream has stood
too long for butter--and Judy has been churning for twenty years." She cut
off her thread and held the linen out for the Governor's inspection. "I
really believe that is the prettiest one I've made. How do you like this
new stitch?"

"Exquisite!" exclaimed her husband, as he took the shirt front in his hand.
"Simply exquisite, my love. There isn't a woman in Virginia who can do such
needlework; but it should go upon a younger and handsomer man, Julia."

His wife blushed and looked up at him, the colour rising to her beautiful
brow and giving a youthful radiance to her nunlike face. "It could
certainly go upon a younger man, Mr. Ambler," she rejoined, with a touch of
the coquetry for which she had once been noted; "but I should like to know
where I'd find a handsomer one."

A pleased smile broadened the Governor's face, and he settled his waistcoat
with an approving pat. "Ah, you're a partial witness, my dear," he said;
"but I've an error to confess, so I mustn't forego your favour--I--I bought
several of Mr. Willis's servants, my love."

"Why, Mr. Ambler!" remonstrated his wife, reproach softening her voice
until it fell like a caress. "Why, Mr. Ambler, you bought six of Colonel
Blake's last year, you know and one of the house servants has been nursing
them ever since. The quarters are filled with infirm darkies."

"But I couldn't help it, Julia, I really couldn't," pleaded the Governor.
"You'd have done it yourself, my dear. They were sold to a dealer going
south, and one of them wants to marry that Mandy of yours."

"Oh, if it's Mandy's lover," broke in Mrs. Ambler, with rising interest,
"of course you had to buy him, and you did right about the others--you
always do right." She put out her delicate blue-veined hand and touched his
arm. "I shall see them to-day," she added, "and Mandy may as well be making
her wedding dress."

"What an eye to things you have," said the Governor, proudly. "You might
have been President, had you been a man, my dear."

His wife rose and took up her work-box with a laugh of protest. "I am quite
content with the mission of my sex, sir," she returned, half in jest, half
in wifely humility. "I'm sure I'd much rather make shirt fronts for you
than wear them myself." Then she nodded to him and went, with her stately
step, up the broad staircase, her white hand flitting over the mahogany
balustrade.

As he looked after her, the Governor's face clouded, and he sighed beneath
his breath. The cares she met with such serenity had been too heavy for her
strength; they had driven the bloom from her cheeks and the lustre from her
eyes; and, though she had not faltered at her task, she had drooped daily
and grown older than her years. The master might live with a lavish
disregard of the morrow, not the master's wife. For him were the open
house, the shining table, the well-stocked wine cellar and the morning
rides over the dewy fields; for her the cares of her home and children, and
of the souls and bodies of the black people that had been given into her
hands. In her gentle heart it seemed to her that she had a charge to keep
before her God; and she went her way humbly, her thoughts filled with
things so vital as the uses of her medicine chest and the unexpounded
mysteries of salvation.

Now, as she reached the upper landing, she met Betty running to look for
her.

"O, mamma, may I go to fish with Champe and the new boy and Big Abel? And
Virginia wants to go, too, she says."

"Wait a moment, child," said Mrs. Ambler. "You have torn the trimming on
your frock. Stand still and I'll mend it for you," and she got out her
needle and sewed up the rent, while Betty hopped impatiently from foot to
foot.

"I think the new boy's a heap nicer than Champe, mamma," she remarked as
she waited.

"Do you, dear?"

"An' he says I'm nicer than Champe, too. He fought Champe 'cause he said I
didn't have as much sense as he had--an' I have, haven't I, mamma?"

"Women do not need as much sense as men, my dear," replied Mrs. Ambler,
taking a dainty stitch.

"Well, anyway, Dan fought Champe about it," said Betty, with pride. "He'll
fight about 'most anything, he says, if he jest gets roused--an' that
cert'n'y did rouse him. His nose bled a long time, too, and Champe whipped
him, you know. But, when it was over, I asked him if I had as much sense as
he had, and he said, 'Psha! you're just a girl.' Wasn't that funny, mamma?"

"There, there, Betty," was Mrs. Ambler's rejoinder. "I'm afraid he's a
wicked boy, and you mustn't get such foolish thoughts into your head. If
the Lord had wanted you to be clever, He would have made you a man. Now,
run away, and don't get your feet wet; and if you see Aunt Lydia in the
garden, you may tell her that the bonnet has come for her to look at."

Betty bounded away and gave the message to Aunt Lydia over the whitewashed
fence of the garden. "They've sent a bonnet from New York for you to look
at, Aunt Lydia," she cried. "It came all wrapped up in tissue paper, with
mamma's gray silk, and it's got flowers on it--a lot of them!" with which
parting shot, she turned her back upon the startled old lady and dashed off
to join the boys and Big Abel, who, with their fishing-poles, had gathered
in the cattle pasture.

Miss Lydia, who was lovingly bending over a bed of thyme, raised her eyes
and looked after the child, all in a gentle wonder. Then she went slowly up
and down the box-bordered walks, the full skirt of her "old lady's gown"
trailing stiffly over the white gravel, her delicate face rising against
the blossomless shrubs of snowball and bridal-wreath, like a faintly tinted
flower that had been blighted before it fully bloomed. Around her the
garden was fragrant as a rose-jar with the lid left off, and the very paths
beneath were red and white with fallen petals. Hardy cabbage roses, single
pink and white dailies, yellow-centred damask, and the last splendours of
the giant of battle, all dipped their colours to her as she passed, while
the little rustic summer-house where the walks branched off was but a
flowering bank of maiden's blush and microphylla.

Amid them all, Miss Lydia wandered in her full black gown, putting aside
her filmy ruffles as she tied back a hanging spray or pruned a broken
stalk, sometimes even lowering her thread lace cap as she weeded the tangle
of sweet Williams and touch-me-not. Since her gentle girlhood she had
tended bountiful gardens, and dreamed her virgin dreams in the purity of
their box-trimmed walks. In a kind of worldly piety she had bound her
prayer book in satin and offered to her Maker the incense of flowers. She
regarded heaven with something of the respectful fervour with which she
regarded the world--that great world she had never seen; for "the proper
place for a spinster is her father's house," she would say with her
conventional primness, and send, despite herself, a mild imagination in
pursuit of the follies from which she so earnestly prayed to be
delivered--she, to whom New York was as the terror of a modern Babylon, and
a Jezebel but a woman with paint upon her cheeks. "They tell me that other
women have painted since," she had once said, with a wistful curiosity.
"Your grandmamma, my dear Julia, had even seen one with an artificial
colour. She would not have mentioned it to me, of course,--an unmarried
lady,--but I was in the next room when she spoke of it to old Mrs.
Fitzhugh. She was a woman of the world, was your grandmamma, my dear, and
the most finished dancer of her day." The last was said with a timid pride,
though to Miss Lydia herself the dance was the devil's own device, and the
teaching of the catechism to small black slaves the chief end of existence.
But the blood of the "most finished dancer of her day" still circulated
beneath the old lady's gown and the religious life, and in her attenuated
romances she forever held the sinner above the saint, unless, indeed, the
sinner chanced to be of her own sex, when, probably, the book would never
have reached her hands. For the purely masculine improprieties, her charity
was as boundless as her innocence. She had even dipped into Shakespeare and
brought away the memory of Mercutio; she had read Scott, and enshrined in
her pious heart the bold Rob Roy. "Men are very wicked, I fear," she would
gently offer, "but they are very a--a--engaging, too."

To-day, when Betty came with the message, she lingered a moment to convince
herself that the bonnet was not in her thoughts, and then swept her
trailing bombazine into the house. "I have come to tell you that you may as
well send the bonnet back, Julia," she began at once. "Flowers are much too
fine for me, my dear. I need only a plain black poke."

"Come up and try it on," was Mrs. Ambler's cheerful response. "You have no
idea how lovely it will look on you."

Miss Lydia went up and took the bonnet out of its wrapping of tissue paper.
"No, you must send it back, my love," she said in a resigned voice. "It
does not become me to dress as a married woman. It may as well go back,
Julia."

"But do look in the glass, Aunt Lydia--there, let me put it straight for
you. Why, it suits you perfectly. It makes you look at least ten years
younger."

"A plain black poke, my dear," insisted Aunt Lydia, as she carefully
swathed the flowers in the tissue paper. "And, besides, I have my old one,
which is quite good enough for me, my love. It was very sweet of you to
think of it, but it may as well go back." She pensively gazed at the mirror
for a moment, and then went to her chamber and took out her Bible to read
Saint Paul on Woman.

When she came down a few hours later, her face wore an angelic meekness. "I
have been thinking of that poor Mrs. Brown who was here last week," she
said softly, "and I remember her telling me that she had no bonnet to wear
to church. What a loss it must be to her not to attend divine service."

Mrs. Ambler quickly looked up from her needlework. "Why, Aunt Lydia, it
would be really a charity to give her your old one!" she exclaimed. "It
does seem a shame that she should be kept away from church because of a
bonnet. And, then, you might as well keep the new one, you know, since it
is in the house; I hate the trouble of sending it back."

"It would be a charity," murmured Miss Lydia, and the bonnet was brought
down and tried on again. They were still looking at it when Betty rushed in
and threw herself upon her mother. "O, mamma, I can't help it!" she cried
in tears, "an' I wish I hadn't done it! Oh, I wish I hadn't; but I set fire
to the Major's woodpile, and he's whippin' Dan!"

"Betty!" exclaimed Mrs. Ambler. She took the child by her shoulders and
drew her toward her. "Betty, did you set fire to the Major's woodpile?" she
questioned sternly.

Betty was sobbing aloud, but she stopped long enough to gasp out an answer.

"We were playin' Injuns, mamma, an' we couldn't make believe 'twas real,"
she said, "an' it isn't any fun unless you can make believe, so I lit the
woodpile and pretended it was a fort, an' Big Abel, he was an Injun with
the axe for a tomahawk; but the woodpile blazed right up, an' the Major
came runnin' out. He asked Dan who did it, an' Dan wouldn't say 'twas
me,--an' I wouldn't say, either,--so he took Dan in to whip him. Oh, I wish
I'd told! I wish I'd told!"

"Hush, Betty," said Mrs. Ambler, and she called to the Governor in the
hall, "Mr. Ambler, Betty has set fire to the Major's woodpile!" Her voice
was hopeless, and she looked up blankly at her husband as he entered.

"Set fire to the woodpile!" whistled the Governor. "Why, bless my soul, we
aren't safe in our beds!"

"He whipped Dan," wailed Betty.

"We aren't safe in our beds," repeated the Governor, indignantly. "Julia,
this is really too much."

"Well, you will have to ride right over there," said his wife, decisively.
"Petunia, run down and tell Hosea to saddle his master's horse. Betty, I
hope this will be a lesson to you. You shan't have any preserves for supper
for a week."

"I don't want any preserves," sobbed Betty, her apron to her eyes.

"Then you mustn't go fishing for two weeks. Mr. Ambler, you'd better be
starting at once, and don't forget to tell the Major that Betty is in great
distress--you are, aren't you, Betty?"

"Yes, ma'am," wept Betty.

The Governor went out into the hall and took down his hat and riding-whip.

"The sins of the children are visited upon the fathers," he remarked
gloomily as he mounted his horse and rode away from his supper.

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