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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Battle Ground - BOOK SECOND - YOUNG BLOOD - Chapter V - The Major loses his Temper
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The Battle Ground - BOOK SECOND - YOUNG BLOOD - Chapter V - The Major loses his Temper Post by :theerran Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :April 2011 Read :2116

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The Battle Ground - BOOK SECOND - YOUNG BLOOD - Chapter V - The Major loses his Temper

When Betty reached home the dark had fallen, and as she entered the house
she heard the crackling of fresh logs from the library, and saw her mother
sitting alone in the firelight, which flickered softly on her pearl-gray
silk and ruffles of delicate lace.

She was humming in a low voice one of the old Scotch ballads the Governor
loved, and as she rocked gently in her rosewood chair, her shadow flitted
to and fro upon the floor. One loose bell sleeve hung over the carved arm
of the rocker, and the fingers of her long white hand, so fragile that it
was like a flower, played silently upon the polished wood.

As the girl entered she looked up quickly. "You haven't been wandering off
by yourself again?" she asked reproachfully.

"Oh, it is quite safe, mamma," replied Betty, impatiently. "I didn't meet a
soul except free Levi."

"Your father wouldn't like it, my dear," returned Mrs. Ambler, in the tone
in which she might have said, "it is forbidden in the Scriptures," and she
added after a moment, "but where is Petunia? You might, at least, take
Petunia with you."

"Petunia is such a chatterbox," said Betty, tossing her wraps upon a chair,
"and if she sees a cricket in the road she shrieks, 'Gawd er live, Miss
Betty,' and jumps on the other side of me. No, I can't stand Petunia."

She sat down upon an ottoman at her mother's feet, and rested her chin in
her clasped hands.

"But did you never go walking in your life, mamma?" she questioned.

Mrs. Ambler looked a little startled. "Never alone, my dear," she replied
with dignity. "Why, I shouldn't have thought of such a thing. There was a
path to a little arbour in the glen at my old home, I remember,--I think it
was at least a quarter of a mile away,--and I sometimes strolled there with
your father; but there were a good many briers about, so I usually
preferred to stay on the lawn."

Her voice was clear and sweet, but it had none of the humour which gave
piquancy to Betty's. It might soothe, caress, even reprimand, but it could
never jest; for life to Mrs. Ambler was soft, yet serious, like a continued
prayer to a pleasant and tender Deity.

"I'm sure I don't see how you stood it," said Betty, sympathetically.

"Oh, I rode, my dear," returned her mother. "I used to ride very often with
your father or--or one of the others. I had a brown mare named Zephyr."

"And you never wanted to be alone, never for a single instant?"

"Alone?" repeated Mrs. Ambler, wonderingly, "why, of course I read my Bible
and meditated an hour every morning. In my youth it would have been
considered very unladylike not to do it, and I'm sure there's no better way
of beginning the day than with a chapter in the Bible and a little
meditation. I wish you would try it, Betty." Her eyes were upon her
daughter, and she added in an unchanged voice, "Don't you think you might
manage to make your hair lie smoother, dear? It's very pretty, I know; but
the way it curls about your face is just a bit untidy, isn't it?"

Then, as the Governor came in from his day in town, she turned eagerly to
hear the news of his latest speech.

"Oh, I've had a great day, Julia," began the Governor; but as he stooped to
kiss her, she gave a little cry of alarm. "Why, you're frozen through!" she
exclaimed. "Betty, stir the fire, and make your father sit down by the
fender. Shall I mix you a toddy, Mr. Ambler?"

"Tut, tut!" protested the Governor, laughing, "a touch of the wind is good
for the blood, my dear."

There was a light track of snow where he had crossed the room, and as he
rested his foot upon the brass knob of the fender, the ice clinging to his
riding-boot melted and ran down upon the hearth.

"Oh, I've had a great day," he repeated heartily, holding his plump white
hands to the flames. "It was worth the trip to test the spirit of Virginia;
and it's sound, Julia, as sound as steel. Why, when I said in my
speech--you'll remember the place, my dear--that if it came to a choice
between slavery and the Union, we'd ship the negroes back to Africa, and
hold on to the flag, I was applauded to the echo, and it would have done
you good to hear the cheers."

"I knew it would be so, Mr. Ambler," returned his wife, with conviction.
"Even if they thought otherwise I was sure your speech would convince them.
Dr. Crump was talking to me only yesterday, and he said that he had heard
both Mr. Yancey and Mr. Douglas, and that neither of them--"

"I know, my love, I know," interposed the Governor, waving his hand. "I
have myself heard the good doctor commit the same error of judgment. But,
remember, it is easy to convince a man who already thinks as you do; and
since the Major has gone over to the Democrats, the doctor has grown
Whiggish, you know."

Mrs. Ambler flushed. "I'm sure I don't see why you should deny that you
have a talent for oratory," she said gravely. "I have sometimes thought it
was why I fell in love with you, you made such a beautiful speech the first
day I met you at the tournament in Leicesterburg. Fred Dulany crowned me,
you remember; and in your speech you brought in so many lovely things about
flowers and women."

"Ah, Julia, Julia," sighed the Governor, "so the sins of my youth are
rising to confound me," and he added quickly to Betty, "Isn't that some one
coming up the drive, daughter?"

Betty ran to the window and drew back the damask curtains. "It's the Major,
papa," she said, nodding to the old gentleman through the glass, "and he
does look so cold. Go out and bring him in, and don't--please don't talk
horrid politics to-night."

"I'll not, daughter, on my word, I'll not," declared the Governor, and he
wore the warning as a breastplate when he went out to meet his guest.

The Major, in his tight black broadcloth, entered, with his blandest smile,
and bowed over Mrs. Ambler's hand.

"I saw your firelight as I was passing, dear madam," he began, "and I
couldn't go on without a glimpse of you, though I knew that Molly was
waiting for me at the end of three cold miles."

He put his arm about Betty and drew her to him.

"You must borrow some of your sister's blushes, my child," he said; "it
isn't right to grow pale at your age. I don't like to see it," and then, as
Virginia came shyly in, he held out his other hand, and accused her of
stealing his boy's heart away from him. "But we old folks must give place
to the young," he continued cheerfully; "it's nature, and it's human
nature, too."

"It will be a dull day when you give place to any one else, Major,"
returned the Governor, politely.

"And a far off one I trust," added Mrs. Ambler, with her plaintive smile.

"Well, maybe so," responded the Major, settling himself in an easy chair
beside the fire. "Any way, you can't blame an old man for fighting for his
own, as my friend Harry Smith put it when he lost his leg in the War of
1812. 'By God, it belongs to me,' he roared to the surgeon, 'and if it
comes off, I'll take it off myself, sir.' It took six men to hold him, and
when it was over all he said was, 'Well, gentlemen, you mustn't blame a man
for fighting for his own.' Ah, he was a sad scamp, was Harry, a sad scamp.
He used to say that he didn't know whether he preferred a battle or a
dinner, but he reckoned a battle was better for the blood. And to think
that he died in his bed at last like any Christian."

"That reminds me of Dick Wythe, who never needed any tonic but a fight,"
returned the Governor, thoughtfully. "You remember Dick, don't you,
Major?--a hard drinker, poor fellow, but handsome enough to have stepped
out of Homer. I've been sitting by him at the post-office on a spring day,
and seen him get up and slap a passer-by on the face as coolly as he'd take
his toddy. Of course the man would slap back again, and when it was over
Dick would make his politest bow, and say pleasantly, 'Thank you, sir, I
felt a touch of the gout.' He told me once that if it was only a twinge, he
chose a man of his own size; but if it was a positive wrench, he struck out
at the biggest he could find."

The Major leaned back, laughing. "That was Dick, sir, that was Dick!" he
exclaimed, "and it was his father before him. Why, I've had my own blows
with Taylor Wythe in his day, and never a hard word afterward, never a
word." Then his face clouded. "I saw Dick's brother Tom in town this
morning," he added. "A sneaking fellow, who hasn't the spirit in his whole
body that was in his father's little finger. Why, what do you suppose he
had the impudence to tell me, sir? Some one had asked him, he said, what he
should do if Virginia went to war, and he had answered that he'd stay at
home and build an asylum for the fools that brought it on." He turned his
indignant face upon Mrs. Ambler, and she put in a modest word of sympathy.

"You mustn't judge Tom by his jests, sir," rejoined the Governor,
persuasively. "His wit takes with the town folks, you know, and I hear that
he's becoming famous as a post-office orator."

"There it is, sir, there it is," retorted the Major. "I've always said that
the post-offices were the ruin of this country--and that proves my words.
Why, if there were no post-offices, there'd be fewer newspapers; and if
there were fewer newspapers, there wouldn't be the _Richmond Whig_."

The Governor's glance wandered to his writing table.

"Then I should never see my views in print, Major," he added, smiling; and
a moment afterward, disregarding Mrs. Ambler's warning gestures, he plunged
headlong into a discussion of political conditions.

As he talked the Major sat trembling in his chair, his stern face flushing
from red to purple, and the heavy veins upon his forehead standing out like
cords. "Vote for Douglas, sir!" he cried at last. "Vote for the biggest
traitor that has gone scot free since Arnold! Why, I'd sooner go over to
the arch-fiend himself and vote for Seward."

"I'm not sure that you won't go farther and fare worse," replied the
Governor, gravely. "You know me for a loyal Whig, sir, but I tell you
frankly, that I believe Douglas to be the man to save the South. Cast him
off, and you cast off your remaining hope."

"Tush, tush!" retorted the Major, hotly. "I tell you I wouldn't vote to
have Douglas President of Perdition, sir. Don't talk to me about your
loyalty, Peyton Ambler, you're mad--you're all mad! I honestly believe that
I am the only sane man in the state."

The Governor had risen from his chair and was walking nervously about the
room. His eyes were dim, and his face was pallid with emotion.

"My God, sir, don't you see where you are drifting?" he cried, stretching
out an appealing hand to the angry old gentleman in the easy chair.

"Drifting! Pooh, pooh!" protested the Major, "at least I am not drifting
into a nest of traitors, sir."

And with his wrath hot within he rose to take his leave, very red and
stormy, but retaining the presence of mind to assure Mrs. Ambler that the
glimpse of her fireside would send him rejoicing upon his way.

Such burning topics went like strong wine to his head, and like strong wine
left a craving which always carried him back to them in the end. He would
quarrel with the Governor, and make his peace, and at the next meeting
quarrel, without peace-making, again.

"Don't, oh, please don't talk horrid politics, papa," Betty would implore,
when she saw the nose of his dapple mare turn into the drive between the
silver poplars.

"I'll not, daughter, I give you my word I'll not," the Governor would
answer, and for a time the conversation would jog easily along the well
worn roads of county changes and by the green graves of many a long dead
jovial neighbour. While the red logs spluttered on the hearth, they would
sip their glasses of Madeira and amicably weigh the dust of "my friend Dick
Wythe--a fine fellow, in spite of his little weakness."

But in the end the live question would rear its head and come hissing from
among the quiet graves; and Dick Wythe, who loved his fight, or Plaintain
Dudley, in his ruffled shirt, would fall back suddenly to make way for the
wrangling figures of the slaveholder and the abolitionist.

"I can't help it, Betty, I can't help it," the Governor would declare, when
he came back from following the old gentleman to the drive; "did you see
Mr. Yancey step out of Dick Wythe's dry bones to-day? Poor Dick, an honest
fellow who loved no man's quarrel but his own; it's too bad, I declare it's
too bad." And the next day he would send Betty over to Chericoke to stroke
down the Major's temper. "Slippery are the paths of the peacemaker," the
girl laughed one morning, when she had ridden home after an hour of
persuasion. "I go on tip-toe because of your indiscretions, papa. You
really must learn to control yourself, the Major says."

"Control myself!" repeated the Governor, laughing, though he looked a
little vexed. "If I hadn't the control of a stoic, daughter, to say nothing
of the patience of Job, do you think I'd be able to listen calmly to his
tirades? Why, he wants to pull the Government to pieces for his pleasure,"
then he pinched her cheek and added, smiling, "Oh, you sly puss, why don't
you play your pranks upon one of your own age?"

Through the long winter many visits were exchanged between Uplands and
Chericoke, and once, on a mild February morning, Mrs. Lightfoot drove over
in her old coach, with her knitting and her handmaid Mitty, to spend the
day. She took Betty back with her, and the girl stayed a week in the queer
old house, where the elm boughs tapped upon her window as she slept, and
the shadows on the crooked staircase frightened her when she went up and
down at night. It seemed to her that the presence of Jane Lightfoot still
haunted the home that she had left. When the snow fell on the roof and the
wind beat against the panes, she would open her door and look out into the
long dim halls, as if she half expected to see a girlish figure in a muslin
gown steal softly to the stair.

Dan was less with her in that stormy week than was the memory of his
mother; even Great-aunt Emmeline, whose motto was written on the ivied
glass, grew faint beside the outcast daughter of whom but one pale
miniature remained. Before Betty went back to Uplands she had grown to know
Jane Lightfoot as she knew herself.

When the spring came she took up her trowel and followed Aunt Lydia into
the garden. On bright mornings the two would work side by side among the
flowers, kneeling in a row with the small darkies who came to their
assistance. Peter, the gardener, would watch them lazily, as he leaned upon
his hoe, and mutter beneath his breath, "Dat dut wuz dut, en de dut er de
flow'r baids warn' no better'n de dut er de co'n fiel'."

Betty would laugh and shake her head as she planted her square of pansies.
She was working feverishly to overcome her longing for the sight of Dan,
and her growing dread of his return.

But at last on a sunny morning, when the lilacs made a lane of purple to
the road, the Major drove over with the news that "the boys would not be
back again till autumn. They'll go abroad for the summer," he added
proudly. "It's time they were seeing something of the world, you know. I've
always said that a man should see the world before thirty, if he wants to
stay at home after forty," then he smiled down on Virginia, and pinched her
cheek. "It won't hurt Dan, my dear," he said cheerfully. "Let him get a
glimpse of artificial flowers, that he may learn the value of our own

"Of Great-aunt Emmeline, you mean, sir," replied Virginia, laughing.

"Oh, yes, my child," chuckled the Major. "Let him learn the value of
Great-aunt Emmeline, by all means."

When the old gentleman had gone, Betty went into the garden, where the
grass was powdered with small spring flowers, and gathered a bunch of white
violets for her mother. Aunt Lydia was walking slowly up and down in the
mild sunshine, and her long black shadow passed over the girl as she knelt
in the narrow grass-grown path. A slender spray of syringa drooped down
upon her head, and the warm wind was sweet with the heavy perfume of the
lilacs. On the whitewashed fence a catbird was calling over the meadow, and
another answered from the little bricked-up graveyard, where the gate was
opened only when a fresh grave was to be hollowed out amid the periwinkle.

As Betty knelt there, something in the warm wind, the heavy perfume, or the
old lady's flitting shadow touched her with a sudden melancholy, and while
the tears lay upon her lashes, she started quickly to her feet and looked
about her. But a great peace was in the air, and around her she saw only
the garden wrapped in sunshine, the small spring flowers in bloom, and Aunt
Lydia moving up and down in the box-bordered walk.

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