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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter V - The School for Gentlemen
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The Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter V - The School for Gentlemen Post by :Motsa_Ball Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :April 2011 Read :2537

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The Battle Ground - BOOK FIRST - GOLDEN YEARS - Chapter V - The School for Gentlemen

The Governor rode up too late to avert the punishment. Dan had taken his
whipping and was sitting on a footstool in the library, facing the Major
and a couple of the Major's cronies. His face wore an expression in which
there was more resentment than resignation; for, though he took blows
doggedly, he bore the memory of them long after the smart had ceased--long,
indeed, after light-handed justice, in the Major's person, had forgotten
alike the sin and the expiation. For the Major's hand was not steady at the
rod, and he had often regretted a weakness of heart which interfered with
a physical interpretation of the wisdom of Solomon. "If you get your
deserts, you'd get fifty lashes," was his habitual reproof to his servants,
though, as a matter of fact, he had never been known to order one. His
anger was sometimes of the kind that appalls, but it usually vented itself
in a heightened redness of face or a single thundering oath; and a woman's
sob would melt his stoniest mood. It was only because his daughter had kept
out of his sight that he had never forgiven her, people said; but there
was, perhaps, something characteristic in the proof that he was most
relentless where he had most loved.

As for Dan's chastisement, he had struck him twice across the shoulders,
and when the boy had turned to him with the bitter smile which was Jane
Lightfoot's own, the Major had choked in his wrath, and, a moment later,
flung the whip aside. "I'll be damned,--I beg your pardon, sir,--I'll be
ashamed of myself if I give you another lick," he said. "You are a
gentleman, and I shall trust you."

He held out his hand, but he had not counted on the Montjoy blood. The boy
looked at him and stubbornly shook his head. "I can't shake hands yet
because I am hating you just now," he answered. "Will you wait awhile,
sir?" and the Major choked again, half in awe, half in amusement.

"You don't bear malice, I reckon?" he ventured cautiously.

"I am not sure," replied the boy, "I rather think I do."

Then he put on his coat, and they went out to meet Mr. Blake and Dr. Crump,
two hale and jolly gentlemen who rode over every Thursday to spend the
night.

As the visitors came panting up the steps, the Major stood in the doorway
with outstretched hands.

"You are late, gentlemen, you are late," was his weekly greeting, to which
they as regularly responded, "We could never come too early for our
pleasure, my dear Major; but there are professional duties, you know,
professional duties."

After this interchange of courtesies, they would enter the house and settle
themselves, winter or summer, in their favourite chairs upon the
hearth-rug, when it was the custom of Mrs. Lightfoot to send in a
fluttering maid to ask if Mrs. Blake had done her the honour to accompany
her husband. As Mrs. Blake was never known to leave her children and her
pet poultry, this was merely a conventionalism by which the elder lady
meant to imply a standing welcome for the younger.

On this evening, Mr. Blake--the rector of the largest church in
Leicesterburg--straightened his fat legs and folded his hands as he did at
the ending of his sermons, and the others sat before him with the strained
and reverential faces which they put on like a veil in church and took off
when the service was over. That it was not a prayer, but a pleasantry of
which he was about to deliver himself, they quite understood; but he had a
habit of speaking on week days in his Sunday tones, which gave, as it were,
an official weight to his remarks. He was a fleshy wide-girthed gentleman,
with a bald head, and a face as radiant as the full moon.

"I was just asking the doctor when I was to have the honour of making the
little widow Mrs. Crump?" he threw out at last, with a laugh that shook him
from head to foot. "It is not good for man to live alone, eh, Major?"

"That sentence is sufficient to prove the divine inspiration of the
Scriptures," returned the Major, warmly, while the doctor blushed and
stammered, as he always did, at the rector's mild matrimonial jokes. It
was twenty years since Mr. Blake began teasing Dr. Crump about his
bachelorship, and to them both the subject was as fresh as in its
beginning.

"I--I declare I haven't seen the lady for a week," protested the doctor,
"and then she sent for me."

"Sent for you?" roared Mr. Blake. "Ah, doctor, doctor!"

"She sent for me because she had heart trouble," returned the doctor,
indignantly. The lady's name was never mentioned between them.

The rector laughed until the tears started.

"Ah, you're a success with the ladies," he exclaimed, as he drew out a
neatly ironed handkerchief and shook it free from its folds, "and no
wonder--no wonder! We'll be having an epidemic of heart trouble next."
Then, as he saw the doctor wince beneath his jest, his kindly heart
reproached him, and he gravely turned to politics and the dignity of
nations.

The two friends were faithful Democrats, though the rector always began his
very forcible remarks with: "A minister knows nothing of politics, and I am
but a minister of the Gospel. If you care, however, for the opinion of an
outsider--"

As for the Major, he had other leanings which were a source of unending
interest to them all. "I am a Whig, not from principle, but from prejudice,
sir," he declared. "The Whig is the gentleman's party. I never saw a Whig
that didn't wear broadcloth."

"And some Democrats," politely protested the doctor, with a glance at his
coat.

The Major bowed.

"And many Democrats, sir; but the Whig party, if I may say so, is the
broadcloth party--the cloth stamps it; and besides this, sir, I think its
'parts are solid and will wear well.'"

Now when the Major began to quote Mr. Addison, even the rector was silent,
save for an occasional prompting, as, "I was reading the _Spectator until
eleven last night, sir," or "I have been trying to recall the lines in _The
Campaign before. 'Twas then great Marlborough's mighty soul was proved."

This was the best of the day to Dan, and, as he turned on his footstool, he
did not even glare at Champe, who, from the window seat, was regarding him
with the triumphant eye with which the young behold the downfall of a
brother. For a moment he had forgotten the whipping, but Champe had not; he
was thinking of it in the window seat.

But the Major was standing on the hearth-rug, and the boy's gaze went to
him. Tossing back his long white hair, and fixing his eagle glance on his
friends, the old gentleman, with a free sweep of his arm, thundered his
favourite lines:--

"So, when an angel by divine command
With rising tempests shakes a guilty land
(Such as of late o'er pale Britannia passed),
Calm and serene he drives the furious blast;
And, pleased the Almighty's orders to perform,
Rides in the whirlwind and directs the storm."

He had got so far when the door opened and the Governor entered--a little
hurriedly, for he was thinking of his supper.

"I am the bearer of an apology, my dear Major," he said, when he had
heartily shaken hands all round. "It seems that Betty--I assure you she is
in great distress--set fire to your woodpile this afternoon, and that your
grandson was punished for her mischief. My dear boy," he laid his hand on
Dan's shoulder and looked into his face with the winning smile which had
made him the most popular man in his State, "my dear boy, you are young to
be such a gentleman."

A hot flush overspread Dan's face; he forgot the smart and the wounded
pride--he forgot even Champe staring from the window seat. The Governor's
voice was like salve to his hurt; the upright little man with the warm
brown eyes seemed to lift him at once to the plane of his own chivalry.

"Oh, I couldn't tell on a girl, sir," he answered, and then his smothered
injury burst forth; "but she ought to be ashamed of herself," he added
bluntly.

"She is," said the Governor with a smile; then he turned to the others.
"Major, the boy is a Lightfoot!" he exclaimed.

"Ah, so I said, so I said!" cried the Major, clapping his hand on Dan's
head in a racial benediction. "'I'd know you were a Lightfoot if I met you
in the road' was what I said the first evening."

"And a Virginian," added Mr. Blake, folding his hands on his stomach and
smiling upon the group. "My daughter in New York wrote to me last week for
advice about the education of her son. 'Shall I send him to the school of
learning at Cambridge, papa?' she asked; and I answered, 'Send him there,
if you will, but, when he has finished with his books, by all means let him
come to Virginia--the school for gentlemen.'"

"The school for gentlemen!" cried the doctor, delightedly. "It is a prouder
title than the 'Mother of Presidents.'"

"And as honourably earned," added the rector. "If you want polish, come to
Virginia; if you want chivalry, come to Virginia. When I see these two
things combined, I say to myself, 'The blood of the Mother of Presidents is
here.'"

"You are right, sir, you are right!" cried the Major, shaking back his
hair, as he did when he was about to begin the lines from _The Campaign_.
"Nothing gives so fine a finish to a man as a few years spent with the
influences that moulded Washington. Why, some foreigners are perfected by
them, sir. When I met General Lafayette in Richmond upon his second visit,
I remember being agreeably impressed with his dignity and ease, which, I
have no doubt, sir, he acquired by his association, in early years, with
the Virginia gentlemen."

The Governor looked at them with a twinkle in his eye. He was aware of the
humorous traits of his friends, but, in the peculiar sweetness of his
temper, he loved them not the less because he laughed at them--perhaps the
more. In the rector's fat body and the Major's lean one, he knew that there
beat hearts as chivalrous as their words. He had seen the Major doff his
hat to a beggar in the road, and the rector ride forty miles in a snowstorm
to read a prayer at the burial of a slave. So he said with a pleasant
laugh, "We are surely the best judges, my dear sirs," and then, as Mrs.
Lightfoot rustled in, they rose and fell back until she had taken her seat,
and found her knitting.

"I am so sorry not to see Mrs. Blake," she said to the rector. "I have a
new recipe for yellow pickle which I must write out and send to her." And,
as the Governor rose to go, she stood up and begged him to stay to supper.
"Mr. Lightfoot, can't you persuade him to sit down with us?" she asked.

"Where you have failed, Molly, it is useless for me to try," gallantly
responded the Major, picking up her ball of yarn.

"But I must bear your pardon to my little girl, I really must," insisted
the Governor. "By the way, Major," he added, turning at the door, "what do
you think of the scheme to let the Government buy the slaves and ship them
back to Africa? I was talking to a Congressman about it last week."

"Sell the servants to the Government!" cried the Major, hotly. "Nonsense!
nonsense! Why, you are striking at the very foundation of our society!
Without slavery, where is our aristocracy, sir?"

"Oh, I beg your pardon," said the Governor lightly. "Well, we shall keep
them a while longer, I expect. Good night, madam, good night, gentlemen,"
and he went out to where his horse was standing.

The Major looked after him with a sigh. "When I hear a man talking about
the abolition of slavery," he remarked gloomily, "I always expect him to
want to do away with marriage next--" he checked himself and coloured, as
if an improper speech had slipped out in the presence of Mrs. Lightfoot.
The old lady rose primly and, taking the rector's arm, led the way to
supper.

Dan was not noticed at the table,--it was a part of his grandmother's
social training to ignore children before visitors,--but when he went
upstairs that night, the Major came to the boy's room and took him in his
arms.

"I am proud of you, my child," he said. "You are my grandson, every inch of
you, and you shall have the finest riding horse in the stables on your
birthday."

"I'd rather have Big Abel, if you please, sir," returned Dan. "I think Big
Abel would like to belong to me, grandpa."

"Bless my soul!" cried the Major. "Why, you shall have Big Abel and his
whole family, if you like. I'll give you every darky on the place, if you
want them--and the horses to boot," for the old gentleman was as unwise in
his generosity as in his wrath.

"Big Abel will do, thank you," responded the boy; "and I'd like to shake
hands now, grandpa," he added gravely; but before the Major left that night
he had won not only the child's hand, but his heart. It was the beginning
of the great love between them.

For from that day Dan was as the light of his grandfather's eyes. As the
boy strode manfully across the farm, his head thrown back, his hands
clasped behind him, the old man followed, in wondering pride, on his
footsteps. To see him stand amid the swinging cradles in the wheat field,
ordering the slaves and arguing with the overseer, was sufficient delight
unto the Major's day. "Nonsense, Molly," he would reply half angrily to his
wife's remonstrances. "The child can't be spoiled. I tell you he's too fine
a boy. I couldn't spoil him if I tried," and once out of his grandmother's
sight, Dan's arrogance was laughed at, and his recklessness was worshipped.
"Ah, you will make a man, you will make a man!" the Major had exclaimed
when he found him swearing at the overseer, "but you mustn't curse, you
really mustn't, you know. Why, your grandmother won't let me do it."

"But I told him to leave that haystack for me to slide on," complained the
boy, "and he said he wouldn't, and began to pull it down. I wish you'd send
him away, grandpa."

"Send Harris away!" whistled the Major. "Why, where could I get another,
Dan? He has been with me for twenty years."

"Hi, young Marster, who gwine min' de han's?" cried Big Abel, from behind.

"Do you like him, Big Abel?" asked the child, for the opinion of Big Abel
was the only one for which he ever showed respect. "It's because he's not
free, grandpa," he had once explained at the Major's jealous questioning.
"I wouldn't hurt his feelings because he's not free, you know, and he
couldn't answer back," and the Major had said nothing more.

Now "Do you like him, Big Abel?" he inquired; and to the negro's "He's done
use me moughty well, suh," he said gravely, "Then he shall stay,
grandpa--and I'm sorry I cursed you, Harris," he added before he left the
field. He would always own that he was wrong, if he could once be made to
see it, which rarely happened.

"The boy's kind heart will save him, or he is lost," said the Governor,
sadly, as Dan tore by on his little pony, his black hair blown from his
face, his gray eyes shining.

"He has a kind heart, I know," returned Mrs. Ambler, gently; "the servants
and the animals adore him--but--but do you think it well for Betty to be
thrown so much with him? He is very wild, and they deny him nothing. I wish
she went with Champe instead--but what do you think?"

"I don't know, I don't know," answered the Governor, uneasily. "He told the
doctor to mind his own business, yesterday--and that is not unlike Betty,
herself, I am sorry to say--but this morning I saw him give his month's
pocket money to that poor free negro, Levi. I can't say, I really do not
know," his eyes followed Betty as she flew out to climb behind Dan on the
pony's back. "I wish it were Champe, myself," he added doubtfully.

For Betty--independent Betty--had become Dan's slave. Ever since the
afternoon of the burning woodpile, she had bent her stubborn little knees
to him in hero-worship. She followed closer than a shadow on his footsteps;
no tortures could wring his secrets from her lips. Once, when he hid
himself in the mountains for a day and night and played Indian, she kept
silence, though she knew his hiding-place, and a search party was out with
lanterns until dawn.

"I didn't tell," she said triumphantly, when he came down again.

"No, you didn't tell," he frankly acknowledged.

"So I can keep a secret," she declared at last.

"Oh, yes, you can keep a secret--for a girl," he returned, and added, "I
tell you what, I like you better than anybody about here, except grandpa
and Big Abel."

She shone upon him, her eyes narrowing; then her face darkened. "Not better
than Big Abel?" she questioned plaintively.

"Why, I have to like Big Abel best," he replied, "because he belongs to me,
you know--you ought to love the thing that belongs to you."

"But I might belong to you," suggested Betty. She smiled again, and,
smiling or grave, she always looked as if she were standing in a patch of
sunshine, her hair made such a brightness about her.

"Oh, you couldn't, you're white," said Dan; "and, besides, I reckon Big
Abel and the pony are as much as I can manage. It's a dreadful weight,
having people belong to you."

Then he loaded his gun, and Betty ran away with her fingers in her ears,
because she couldn't bear to have things killed.

A month later Dan and Champe settled down to study. The new tutor came--a
serious young man from the North, who wore spectacles, and read the Bible
to the slaves on the half-holidays. He was kindly and conscientious, and,
though the boys found him unduly weighed down by responsibility for the
souls of his fellows, they soon loved him in a light-hearted fashion. In a
society where even the rector harvested alike the true grain and the tares,
and left the Almighty to do His own winnowing, Mr. Bennett's free-handed
fight with the flesh and the devil was looked upon with smiling tolerance,
as if he were charging a windmill with a wooden sword.

On Saturdays he would ride over to Uplands, and discuss his schemes for the
uplifting of the negroes with the Governor and Mrs. Ambler; and once he
even went so far as to knock at Rainy-day Jones's door and hand him a
pamphlet entitled "The Duties of the Slaveholder." Old Rainy-day, who was
the biggest bully in the county, set the dogs on him, and lit his pipe with
the pamphlet; but the Major, when he heard the story, laughed, and called
the young man "a second David."

Mr. Bennett looked at him seriously through his glasses, and then his eyes
wandered to the small slave, Mitty, whose chief end in life was the finding
of Mrs. Lightfoot's spectacles. He was an earnest young man, but he could
not keep his eyes away from Mitty when she was in the room; and at the old
lady's, "Mitty, my girl, find me my glasses," he felt like jumping from his
seat and calling upon her to halt. It seemed a survival of the dark ages
that one immortal soul should spend her life hunting for the spectacles of
another. To Mr. Bennett, a soul was a soul in any colour; to the Major the
sons of Ham were under a curse which the Lord would lighten in His own good
time.

But before many months, the young man had won the affection of the boys and
the respect of their grandfather, whose candid lack of logic was
overpowered by the reasons which Mr. Bennett carried at every finger tip.
He not only believed things, he knew why he believed them; and to the
Major, with whom feelings were convictions, this was more remarkable than
the courage with which he had handed his tract to old Rainy-day Jones.

As for Mr. Bennett, he found the Major a riddle that he could not read; but
the Governor's first smile had melted his reserve, and he declared Mrs.
Ambler to be "a Madonna by Perugino."

Mrs. Ambler had never heard of Perugino, and the word "Madonna" suggested
to her vague Romanist snares, but her heart went out to the stranger when
she found that he was in mourning for his mother. She was not a clever
woman in a worldly sense, yet her sympathy, from the hourly appeals to it,
had grown as fine as intellect. She was hopelessly ignorant of ancient
history and the Italian Renaissance; but she had a genius for the
affections, and where a greater mind would have blundered over a wound, her
soft hand went by intuition to the spot. It was very pleasant to sit in a
rosewood chair in her parlour, to hear her gray silk rustle as she crossed
her feet, and to watch her long white fingers interlace.

So she talked to the young man of his mother, and he showed her the
daguerrotype of the girl he loved; and at last she confided to him her
anxieties for Betty's manners and the Governor's health, and her timid
wonder that the Bible "countenanced" slavery. She was rare and elegant like
a piece of fine point lace; her hands had known no harder work than the
delicate hemstitching, and her mind had never wandered over the nearer
hills.

As time went on, Betty was given over to the care of her governess, and she
was allowed to run wild no more in the meadows. Virginia, a pretty prim
little girl, already carried her prayer book in her hands when she drove to
church, and wore Swiss muslin frocks in the evenings; but Betty when she
was made to hem tablecloths on sunny mornings, would weep until her needle
rusted.

On cloudy days she would sometimes have her ambitions to be ladylike, and
once, when she had gone to a party in town and seen Virginia dancing while
she sat against the wall, she had come home to throw herself upon the
floor.

"It's not that I care for boys, mamma," she wailed, "for I despise them;
but they oughtn't to have let me sit against the wall. And none of them
asked me to dance--not even Dan."

"Why, you are nothing but a child, Betty," said Mrs. Ambler, in dismay.
"What on earth does it matter to you whether the boys notice you or not?"

"It doesn't," sobbed Betty; "but you wouldn't like to sit against the wall,
mamma."

"You can make them suffer for it six years hence, daughter," suggested the
Governor, revengefully.

"But suppose they don't have anything to do with me then," cried Betty, and
wept afresh.

In the end, it was Uncle Bill who brought her to her feet, and, in doing
so, he proved himself to be the philosopher that he was.

"I tell you what, Betty," he exclaimed, "if you get up and stop crying,
I'll give you fifty cents. I reckon fifty cents will make up for any boy,
eh?"

Betty lay still and looked up from the floor.

"I--I reckon a dol-lar m-i-g-h-t," she gasped, and caught a sob before it
burst out.

"Well, you get up and I'll give you a dollar. There ain't many boys worth
a dollar, I can tell you."

Betty got up and held out one hand as she wiped her eyes with the other.

"I shall never speak to a boy again," she declared, as she took the money.

That was when she was thirteen, and a year later Dan went away to college.

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