Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Women's Genre Fiction Project

The Cromptons, an electronic edition

by Mrs. Mary J. Holmes [Holmes, Mary Jane, 1825-1907]

date: 1902
source publisher: P. F. Collier & Son
collection: Genre Fiction

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CHAPTER I
THE STRANGER AT THE BROCK HOUSE

The steamer "Hatty" which plied between Jacksonville and Enterprise was late, and the people who had come down from the Brock House to the landing had waited half an hour before a puff of smoke in the distance told that she was coming. There had been many conjectures as to the cause of the delay, for she was usually on time, and those who had friends on the boat were growing nervous, fearing an accident, and all were getting tired, when she appeared in the distance, the puffs of smoke increasing in volume as she drew nearer, and the sound of her whistle echoing across the water, which at Enterprise spreads out into a lake. She had not met with an accident, but had been detained at Palatka waiting for a passenger of whom the captain had been apprised.

"He may be a trifle late, but if he is, wait. He must take your boat," Tom Hardy had said to the captain when engaging passage for his friend, and Tom Hardy was not one whose wishes were often | | 10 disregarded. "Them Hardys does more business with me in one year than ten other families and I can't go agin Tom, and if he says wait for his friend, why, there's nothing to do but wait," the captain said, as he walked up and down in front of his boat, growing more and more impatient, until at last as he was beginning to swear he'd wait no longer for all the Hardys in Christendom, two men came slowly to wards the landing, talking earnestly and not seeming to be in the least hurry, although the "Hatty" began to scream herself hoarse as if frantic to be gone.

"How d'ye, Cap," Tom said, in his easy, off-hand way. "Hope we haven't kept you long. This is my friend I told you about. I suppose his berth is ready?"

He did not tell the name of his friend, who, as if loath to cross the plank, held back for a few more words. Tom gave him a little push at last, and said, "Good-bye, you really must go. Success to you, but don't for a moment think of carrying out that quixotic plan you first mentioned. Better jump into the river. Good-bye!"

The plank was crossed and pulled in, and a mulatto boy came forward to take the stranger's bag and pilot him to his stateroom, which opened from what was called the ladies' parlor. Coiled up in a corner on the deck was a bundle of something which stirred as they came near to it, and began to turn over, making the stranger start with a slight exclamation.

"Doan you be skeert, sar," the boy said, "dat's nottin' but Mandy Ann, an onery nigger what b'longs to ole Miss Harris in de clarin' up ter Ent'prise. She's been hired out a spell in Jacksonville,--nuss to a little gal, and now she's gwine home. Miss Dory done sent | | 11 for her, 'case Jake is gone and ole Miss is wus,--never was very peart," and turning to the girl the boy Ted continued: "You Mandy Ann, doan you know more manners not to skeer a gemman, rollin' round like a punkin? Get back wid yer."

He spurned the bundle with his foot, while the stranger stopped suddenly, as if a blow had been struck him.

"Who did you say she was? To whom does she belong, I mean?" he asked, and the boy replied, "Mandy Ann, a no count nigger, b'longs to Miss Harris. Poor white trash! Crackers! Dis your stateroom, sar. Kin I do somethin' for you?"

The boy's head was held high, indicative of his opinion of poor white trash and Crackers in general, and Mandy Ann in particular.

"No, thanks," the stranger said, taking his bag and shutting himself into his stuffy little stateroom.

"'Specs he's from de Norf; looks like it, an' dey allus askin' who we 'longs to. In course we 'longs to somebody. We has ter," Ted thought, as he made his way back to Mandy Ann, who was wide-awake and ready for any war of words which might come up between herself and Ted, "who felt mighty smart 'case he was cabin boy on de 'Hatty.'"

As Ted suspected, the stranger was of Northern birth, which showed itself in his accent and cold, proud bearing. He might have been thirty, and he might have been more. His face did not show his age. His features were regular, and his complexion pale as a woman's. His eyes were a cross between blue and gray, with a look in them which made you feel that they were reading your inmost secrets, and you involuntarily turned away when they were fixed | | 12 upon you. On this occasion he seemed colder and prouder than usual, as he seated himself upon the stool in his stateroom and looked, about him,--not at any thing that was there, for he did not see it, or think how small and uncomfortable his quarters were, although recommended as one of the staterooms de luxe on the boat. His thoughts were outside, first on Mandy Ann,--not because of anything about her personally. He had seen nothing except a woolly head, a dark blue dress, and two black, bare feet and ankles, but because she was Mandy Ann, bound slave of "ole Miss Harris, who lived in de clarin'," and for that reason she connected him with something from which he shrank with an indescribable loathing. At last he concluded to try the narrow berth, but finding it too hard and too short went out upon the rear deck, and taking a chair where he would be most out of the way and screened from observation, he sat until the moon went down behind a clump of palms, and the stars paled in the light of the sun which shone down upon the beautiful river and the tangled mass of shrubbery and undergrowth on either side of it.

At last the passengers began to appear one by one, with their cheery how dye's and good mornings, and curious glances at this stranger in their midst, who, although with them, did not seem to be one of them. They were all Southerners and inclined to be friendly, but nothing in the stranger's attitude invited sociability. He was looking off upon the water in the direction from which they had come, and never turned his head in response to the loud shouts, when an alligator was seen lying upon the shore, or a big turtle was sunning itself on a log. He was a Northerner, they knew from his general make-up, and a friend of | | 13 Tom Hardy, the captain said, when questioned with regard to him. This last was sufficient to atone for any proclivities he might have antagonistic to the South. Tom Hardy, although living in Georgia, was well known in Florida. To be his friend was to be somebody; and two or three attempts at conversation were made in the course of the morning. One man, bolder than the rest, told him it was a fine day and a fine trip, but that the "Hatty" was getting a little too passée for real comfort. At the word passée the stranger looked up with something like interest, and admitted that the boat was passée, and the day fine, and the trip, too. A cigar was next offered, but politely declined, and then the attempt at an acquaintance ceased on the part of the first to make it. Later on an old Georgian planter, garrulous and good-humored, swore he'd find out what stuff the Yankee was made of, and why he was down there where few of his kind ever came. His first move was the offer of tobacco, with the words: "How d'ye, sir? Have a chew?"

The stranger's head went up a little higher than its wont, and the proud look on the pale face deepened as he declined the tobacco civilly, as he had the cigar.

"Wall, now, don't chew tobacky? You lose a good deal. I couldn't live without it. Sorter soothin', an' keeps my jaws goin', and when I'm so full of vim,--mad, you know,--that I'm fit to bust, why, I spit and spit,--backy juice in course,--till I spit it all out," the Georgian said, taking an immense chew, and sitting down by the stranger, who gave no sign that he knew of his proximity, but still kept his eyes on the river as if absorbed in the scenery.

The Georgian was not to be easily rebuffed. Cross- | | 14 ing his legs and planting his big hat on his knees, he went on:

"You are from the North, I calculate?"

"Yes."

"I thought so. We can mostly tell 'em. From Boston, I reckon?"

"No."

"New York, mabby? No? Chicago? No? Wall, where in--" the Georgian stopped, checked by a look in the bluish-gray eyes which seldom failed in its effect.

Evidently the stranger didn't choose to tell where he lived, but the Georgian, though somewhat subdued, was not wholly silenced, and he continued: "Ever in Florida before?"

"No."

"Wall, I s'pose you're takin' a little pleasure trip like the rest of us?"

To this there was no response, the stranger thinking with bitterness that his trip was anything but one of pleasure. There was still one chord left to pull and that was Tom Hardy, who in a way was voucher for this interloper, and the Georgian's next question was: "Do you know Tom well?"

"Do you mean, Mr. Hardy? " the stranger asked, and the Georgian replied. "In course, but I allus calls him Tom. Have known him since he wore gowns. My plantation jines old man Hardy's."

There was no doubt, now, that the stranger was interested, and had his companion been a close observer he would have seen the kindling light in his eyes, and the spots of red beginning to show on his face. Whether to talk or not was a question in his mind. Cowardice prompted him to remain silent, | | 15 and something which defied silence prompted him at last to talk.

"I was with Mr. Thomas Hardy in college," he said, "and I have visited him in his home. He is my best friend."

"To-be-sure!" the Georgian said, hitching nearer to the stranger, as if there was a bond of relationship between them.

The man had given no inkling of the date of his visit, and as it was some years since Tom was graduated the Georgian did not dream of associating the visit with a few weeks before, when he had heard that a high buck was at old man Hardy's and with Tom was painting the neighborhood red and scandalizing some of the more sober citizens with his excesses. This quiet stranger with the proud face and hard eyes never helped paint anything. It was somebody else, whose name he had forgotten, but of whom he went on to speak in not very complimentary terms.

"A high buck, I never happened to see squar in the face," he said. "Had glimpses of him in the distance ridin' ole man Hardy's sorrel, like he was crazy, and oncet reelin' in the saddle. Yes, sar, reelin', as if he'd took too much. I b'lieve in a drink when you are dry, but Lord land, whar's the sense of reelin'? I don't see it, do you?"

The stranger said he didn't and the Georgian went on, now in a lower, confidential voice.

"I actually hearn that this chap,--what the deuce was his name? Have you an idee? He was from the North?"

If the stranger had an idee he didn't give it, and the Georgian continued: "These two young chaps-- | | 16 Tom ain't right young though, same age as you, I reckon--called on some Cracker girls back in the woods and the Northern feller staid thar two or three days. Think of it--Cracker girls! Now, if 'ted been niggers, instead of Crackers!"

"Ugh!" the stranger exclaimed, wakened into something like life. "Don't talk any more about that man! He must have been a sneak and villain and a low-lived dog, and if there is any meaner name you can give him, do so. It will fit him well, and please me."

"Call him a Cracker, but a Florida one. Georgy is mostly better--not up to so much snuff, you know," the Georgian suggested, while the Northerner drew a quick breath and thought of Mandy Ann, and wondered where she was and if he should see her again.

He felt as if there was not a dry thread in one of his garments when his companion left him, and returning to his friends reported that he hadn't made much out of the chap. He wasn't from New York, nor Boston, nor Chicago, and "I don't know where in thunder he is from, nor his name nuther. I forgot to ask it, he was so stiff and offish. He was in college with Tom Hardy and visited him years ago; that's all I know," the planter said, and after that the stranger was left mostly to himself, while the passengers busied themselves with gossip, and the scenery, and trying to keep cool.

The day was hot and grew hotter as the sun rose higher in the heavens, and the stranger felt very un comfortable, but it was not the heat which affected him as much as the terrible network of circumstances which he had woven for himself. It was the harvest he was reaping as the result of one false step, when | | 17 his brain was blurred and he was somebody besides the elegant gentleman whom people felt it an honor to know. He was himself now, crushed inwardly, but carrying himself just as proudly as if no mental fire were consuming him, making him think seriously more than once of jumping into the river and ending it all. He was very luxurious and fastidious in his tastes, and would have nothing unseemly in his home at the North, where he had only to say to his servants come and they came; and where, if he died on his rosewood bedstead with silken hangings, they would make him a grand funeral--smother him with flowers, and perhaps photograph him as he lay in state. Here, if he ended his life, in the river, with alligators and turtles, he would be fished up a sorry spectacle, and laid upon the deck with weeds and ferns clinging to him, and no one knowing who he was till they sent for Tom Hardy at that moment hurrying back to his home in Georgia, from which he had come at the earnest request of his friend. He did not like the looks of himself bedraggled and wet, and dead, on the deck of the "Hatty," with that curious crowd looking at him, Mandy Ann with the rest. Strange that thoughts of Mandy Ann should flit through his mind as he decided against the cold bath in the St. John's and to face, it whatever it was. Occasionally some one spoke to him, and he always answered politely, and once offered his chair to a lady who seemed to be looking for one. But she declined it, and he was again left alone. Once he went to the other end of the boat for a little exercise and change, he said to himself, but really for a chance of seeing Mandy Ann, who of all the passengers interested him the most. But Mandy Ann was not in sight, nor did he see her | | 18 again till the boat was moving slowly up to the wharf at Enterprise, and with her braided tags of hair standing up like little horns, and her worldly goods tied up in a cotton handkerchief, she stood respectfully behind the waiting crowd, each eager to be the first to land.

The Brock House was full--"not so much as a cot or a shelf for one more," the clerk said to the stranger, who was last at the desk. He had lingered behind the others to watch Mandy Ann, with a half-formed resolution to ask her to direct him to "ole Miss Harrises" if, as Ted had said, she was going there. Mandy Ann did not seem to be in any hurry and sauntered leisurely up the lane a little beyond the Brock House, where she sat down and stretching out her bare feet began to suck an orange Ted had given her at parting, telling her that though she was "an onery nigger who belonged to a Cracker, she had rather far eyes and a mouth that couldn't be beat for sass, adding that he reckoned that thar tall man who didn't speak to nobody might be wantin' to buy her, as he had done ast him oncet how far it was to the clarin', an' he couldn't want nobody thar but her." Mandy Ann had taken the orange, but had spurned what Ted had said of the tall man's intentions. She had been told too many times, during her brief stay in Jacksonville as a nurse girl, that she was of no manner of account to believe any one wished to buy her, and she paid no attention to the tall man, except to see that he was the last to enter the hotel, where he was told there was no room for him.

"But I must have a place to sleep," he said. "It is only for the night. I return on the 'Hatty.'"

| | 19

"Why not stay on her then? Some do who only come up for the trip," was the clerk's reply.

This was not a bad idea, although the stranger shuddered as he thought of his ill-smelling stateroom and short berth. Still it was better than camping out doors, or--the clearing--where he might be accommodated. He shuddered again when he thought of that possibility--thanked the clerk for his suggestion--and declined the book which had been pushed towards him for his name. No use to register if he was not to be a guest; no use to tell his name anyway, if he could avoid it, as he had successfully on the boat, and with a polite good-evening he stepped outside just as Mandy Ann, having finished her orange, peel and all, gathered herself up with a view to starting for home.

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