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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Battle Ground - BOOK SECOND - YOUNG BLOOD - Chapter X - The Road at Midnight
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The Battle Ground - BOOK SECOND - YOUNG BLOOD - Chapter X - The Road at Midnight Post by :ladyfaith Category :Long Stories Author :Ellen Glasgow Date :April 2011 Read :2045

Click below to download : The Battle Ground - BOOK SECOND - YOUNG BLOOD - Chapter X - The Road at Midnight (Format : PDF)

The Battle Ground - BOOK SECOND - YOUNG BLOOD - Chapter X - The Road at Midnight

When Dan went down into the shadows of the road, he stopped short before he
reached the end of the stone wall, and turned for his last look at
Chericoke. He saw the long old house, with its peaked roof over which the
elm boughs arched, the white stretch of drive before the door, and the
leaves drifting ceaselessly against the yellow squares of the library
windows. As he looked Betty came slowly from the shadow by the gate, where
she had lingered, and crossed the lighted spaces amid the falling leaves.
On the threshold, as she turned to throw a glance into the night, it seemed
to him, for a single instant, that her eyes plunged through the darkness
into his own. Then, while his heart still bounded with the hope, the door
opened, and shut after her, and she was gone.

For a moment he saw only blackness--so sharp was the quick shutting off of
the indoor light. The vague shapes upon the lawn showed like mere drawings
in outline, the road became a pallid blur in the formless distance, and the
shine of the lamplight on the drive shifted and grew dim as if a curtain
had dropped across the windows. Like a white thread on the blackness he saw
the glimmer beneath his grandmother's shutters, and it was as if he had
looked in from the high top of an elm and seen her lying with her candle on
her breast.

As he stood there the silence of the old house knocked upon his heart like
sound--and quick fears sprang up within him of a sudden death, or of Betty
weeping for him somewhere alone in the stillness. The long roof under the
waving elm boughs lost, for a heartbeat, the likeness of his home, and
became, as the clouds thickened in the sky, but a great mound of earth over
which the wind blew and the dead leaves fell.

But at last when he turned away and followed the branch road, his racial
temperament had triumphed over the forebodings of the moment; and with the
flicker of a smile upon his lips, he started briskly toward the turnpike.
As the mind in the first ecstasy of a high passion is purified from the
stain of mere emotion, so the Major, and the Major's anger, were forgotten,
and his own bitter resentment swept as suddenly from his thoughts. He was
overpowered and uplifted by the one supreme feeling from which he still
trembled. All else seemed childish and of small significance beside the
memory of Betty's lips upon his own. What room had he for anger when he was
filled to overflowing with the presence of love?

The branch road ran out abruptly into the turnpike, and once off the
familiar way by his grandfather's stone wall, he felt the blackness of the
night close round him like a vault. Without a lantern there was small hope
of striking the tavern or the tavern road till morning. To go on meant a
night upon the roadside or in the fields.

As he stretched out his arm, groping in the blackness, he struck suddenly
upon the body of the blasted tree, and coming round it, his eyes caught the
red light of free Levi's fire, and he heard the sound of a hammer falling
upon heated iron. The little path was somewhere in the darkness, and as he
vainly sought for it, he stumbled over a row of stripped and headless
cornstalks which ran up to the cabin door. Once upon the smooth stone
before the threshold, he gave a boyish whistle and lifted his hand to
knock. "It is I, Uncle Levi--there are no 'hants' about," he cried.

The hammer was thrown aside, and fell upon the stones, and a moment
afterward, the door flew back quickly, showing the blanched face of free
Levi and the bright glow of the hearth. "Dis yer ain' no time fur pranks,"
said the old man, angrily. "Ain't yer ever gwine ter grow up, yit?" and he
added, slowly, "Praise de Lawd hit's you instid er de devil."

"Oh, it's I, sure enough," returned Dan, lightly, as he came into the
cabin. "I'm on my way to Merry Oaks Tavern, Uncle Levi,--it's ten miles
off, you know, and this blessed night is no better than an ink-pot. I'd
positively be ashamed to send such a night down on a respectable planet.
It's that old lantern of yours I want, by the way, and in case it doesn't
turn up again, take this to buy a new one. No, I can't rest to-night. This
is my working time, and I must be up and doing." He reached for the rusty
old lantern behind the door, and lighted it, laughing as he did so. His
face was pale, and there was a nervous tremor in his hands, but his voice
had lost none of its old heartiness. "Ah, that's it, old man," he said,
when the light was ready. "We'll shake hands in case it's a long parting.
This is a jolly world. Uncle Levi,--good-by, and God bless you," and,
leaving the old man speechless on the hearth, he closed the door and went
out into the night.

On the turnpike again, with the lantern swinging in his hand, he walked
rapidly in the direction of the tavern road, throwing quick flashes of
light before his footsteps. Behind him he heard the falling of free Levi's
hammer, and knew that the old negro was toiling at his rude forge for the
bread which he would to-morrow eat in freedom.

With the word he tossed back his hair and quickened his steps, as if he
were leaving servitude behind him in the house at Chericoke; and, as the
anger blazed up within his heart he found pleasure in the knowledge that at
last he was starting out to level his own road. Under the clouds on the
long turnpike it all seemed so easy--as easy as the falling of free Levi's
hammer, which had faded in the distance.

What was it, after all? A year or two of struggle and of attainment, and he
would come back flushed with success, to clasp Betty in his arms. In a
dozen different ways he pictured to himself the possible manner of that
home-coming, obliterating the year or two that lay between. He saw himself
a great lawyer from a little reading and a single speech, or a judge upon
his bench, famed for his classic learning and his grave decisions. He had
only to choose, he felt, and he might be anything--had they not told him so
at college? did not even his grandfather admit it? He had only to
choose--and, oh, he would choose well--he would choose to be a man, and to
come riding back with his honours thick upon him.

Looking ahead, he saw himself a few years hence, as he rode leisurely
homeward up the turnpike, while the stray countrymen he met took off their
harvest hats, and stared wonderingly long after he was gone. He saw the
Governor hastening to the road to shake his hand, he saw his grandfather
bowed with the sense of his injustice, tremulous with the flutter of his
pride; and, best of all, he saw Betty--Betty, with the rays of light
beneath her lashes, coming straight across the drive into his arms.

And then all else faded slowly from him to give place to Betty, and he saw
her growing, changing, brightening, as he had seen her from her childhood
up. The small white figure in the moonlight, the merry little playmate,
hanging on his footsteps, eager to run his errands, the slender girl, with
the red braids and the proud shy eyes, and the woman who knelt upon the
hearth in Aunt Ailsey's cabin, smiling up at him as she dried her
hair--all gathered round him now illuminated against the darkness of the
night. Betty, Betty,--he whispered her name softly beneath his breath, he
spoke it aloud in the silence of the turnpike, he even cried it out against
the mountains, and waited for the echo--Betty, Betty. There was not only
sweetness in the thought of her, there was strength also. The hand that had
held him back when he would have gone out blindly in his passion was the
hand of a woman, not of a girl--of a woman who could face life smiling
because she felt deep in herself the power to conquer it. Two days ago she
had been but the girl he loved, to-night, with her kisses on his lips, she
had become for him at once a shield and a religion. He looked outward and
saw her influence a light upon his pathway; he turned his gaze within and
found her a part of the sacred forces of his life--of his wistful
childhood, his boyish purity, and the memory of his mother.

He had passed Uplands, and now, as he followed the tavern way, he held the
flash of his lantern near the ground, and went slowly by the crumbling
hollows in the strip of "corduroy" road. There was a thick carpet of moist
leaves underfoot, and above the wind played lightly among the overhanging
branches. His lantern made a shining circle in the midst of a surrounding
blackness, and where the light fell the scattered autumn leaves sent out
gold and scarlet flashes that came and went as quickly as a flame. Once an
owl flew across his path, and startled by the lantern, blindly fluttered
off again. Somewhere in the distance he heard the short bark of a fox; then
it died away, and there was no sound except the ceaseless rustle of the
trees.

By the time he came out of the wood upon the open road, his high spirits
had gone suddenly down, and the visions of an hour ago showed stale and
lifeless to his clouded eyes. After a day's ride and a poor dinner, the
ten-mile walk had left him with aching limbs, and a growing conviction that
despite his former aspirations, he was fast going to the devil along the
tavern road. When at last he swung open the whitewashed gate before the
inn, and threw the light of his lantern on the great oaks in the yard, the
relief he felt was hardly brighter than despair, and it made very little
difference, he grimly told himself, whether he put up for the night or kept
the road forever. With a clatter he went into the little wooden porch and
knocked upon the door.

He was still knocking when a window was raised suddenly above him, and a
man's voice called out, "if he wanted a place for night-hawks to go on to
hell." Then, being evidently a garrulous body, the speaker leaned
comfortably upon the sill, and sent down a string of remarks, which Dan
promptly shortened with an oath.

"Hold your tongue, Jack Hicks," he cried, angrily, "and come down and open
this door before I break it in. I've walked ten miles to-night and I can't
stand here till morning. How long has it been since you had a guest?"

"There was six of 'em changin' stages this mornin'," drawled Jack, in
reply, still hanging from the sill. "I gave 'em a dinner of fried chicken
and battercakes, and two of 'em being Yankees hadn't never tasted it
befo'--and a month ago one dropped in to spend the night--"

He broke off hastily, for his wife had joined him at the window, and as Dan
looked up with the flash of the lantern in his face, she gave a cry and
called his name.

"Put on your clothes and go down, you fool," she said, "it's Mr. Dan--don't
you see it's Mr. Dan, and he's as white as yo' nightshirt. Go down, I tell
you,--go down and let him in." There was a skurrying in the room and on the
staircase, and a moment later the door was flung open and a lamp flashed in
the darkness.

"Walk in, suh, walk right in," said Jack Hicks, hospitably, "day or night
you're welcome--as welcome as the Major himself." He drew back and stood
with the lamplight full upon him--a loose, ill-proportioned figure, with a
flabby face and pale blue eyes set under swollen lids.

"I want something to eat, Jack," returned Dan, as he entered and put down
his lantern, "and a place to sleep--in fact I want anything you have to
offer."

Then, as Mrs. Hicks appeared upon the stair, he greeted her, despite his
weariness, with something of his old jesting manner. "I am begging a
supper," he remarked affably, as he shook her hand, "and I may as well
confess, by the way, that I am positively starving."

The woman beamed upon him, as women always did, and while she led the way
into the little dining room, and set out the cold meat and bread upon the
oil-cloth covering of the table, she asked him eager questions about the
Major and Mrs. Lightfoot, which he aroused himself to parry with a tired
laugh. She was tall and thin, with a wrinkled brown face, and a row of curl
papers about her forehead. Her faded calico wrapper hung loosely over her
nightgown, and he saw her bare feet through the cracks in her worn-out
leather slippers.

"The poor young gentleman is all but dead," she said at last. "You give him
his supper, Jack, and I'll go right up to fix his room. To think of his
walkin' ten miles in the pitch blackness--the poor young gentleman."

She went out, her run down slippers flapping on the stair, and Dan, as he
ate his ham and bread, listened impatiently to the drawling voice of Jack
Hicks, who discussed the condition of the country while he drew apple cider
from a keg into a white china pitcher. As he talked, his fat face shone
with a drowsy good-humour, and his puffed lids winked sleepily over his
expressionless blue eyes. He moved heavily as if his limbs were forever
coming in the way of his intentions.

"Yes, suh, I never was one of them folks as ain't satisfied unless they're
always a-fussin'," he remarked, as he placed the pitcher upon the table.
"Thar's a sight of them kind in these here parts, but I ain't one of 'em.
Lord, Lord, I tell 'em, befo' you git ready to jump out of the fryin' pan,
you'd better make mighty sure you ain't fixin' to land yo'self in the fire.
That's what I always had agin these here abolitionists as used to come
pokin' round here--they ain't never learned to set down an' cross thar
hands, an' leave the Lord to mind his own business. Bless my soul, I reckon
they'd have wanted to have a hand in that little fuss of Lucifer's if
they'd been alive--that's what I tell 'em, suh. An' now thar's all this
talk about the freein' of the niggers--free? What are they goin' to do with
'em after they're done set 'em free? Ain't they the sons of Ham? I ask 'em;
an' warn't they made to be servants of servants like the Bible says? It's a
bold man that goes plum agin the Bible, and flies smack into the face of
God Almighty--it's a bold man, an' he ain't me, suh. What I say is, if the
Lord can stand it, I reckon the rest of the country--"

He paused to draw breath, and Dan laid down his knife and fork and pushed
back his chair. "Before you begin again, Jack," he said coolly, "will you
spare enough wind to carry me upstairs?"

"That's what I tell 'em," pursued Jack amiably, as he lighted a candle and
led the way into the hall. "They used to come down here every once in a
while an' try to draw me out; and one of 'em 'most got a coat of tar an'
feathers for meddlin' with my man Lacy; but if the Lord--here we are, here
we are."

He stopped upon the landing and opened the door of a long room, in which
Mrs. Hicks was putting the last touches to the bed. She stopped as Dan came
in, and by the pale flicker of a tallow candle stood looking at him from
the threshold. "If you'll jest knock on the floor when you wake up, I'll
know when to send yo' hot water," she said, "and if thar's anything else
you want, you can jest knock agin."

With a smile he thanked her and promised to remember; and then as she went
out into the hall, he bolted the door, and threw himself into a chair
beside the window. Sleep had quite deserted him, and the dawn was on the
mountains when at last he lay down and closed his eyes.

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