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 II
THE PALMETTO CLEARING

The stranger had asked Ted on the boat, when he came with some lemonade he had ordered, how far it was from the Brock House to the palmetto clearing, and if there was any conveyance to take him there. Ted had stared at him with wonder--first, as to what such as he could want at the clearing, and second, if he was crazy enough to think there was a conveyance. From being a petted cabin boy, Ted had grown to be something of a spoiled one, and was what the passengers thought rather too "peart" in his ways, while some of the crew insisted that he needed "takin' down a button hole lower," whatever that might mean.

"Bless yer soul, Mas'r," he said, in reply to the question. "Thar ain't no conveyance to the clarin'. It's off in de woods a piece, right smart. You sticks to de road a spell, till you comes to a grave--what used to be--but it's done sunk in now till nuffin's thar but de stun an' some blackb'ry bushes clamberin' over it. Then you turns inter de wust piece of road in Floridy, and turns agin whar some yaller jasmine is growin', an fore long you're dar."

The direction was not very lucid, and the stranger thought of asking the clerk for something more minute, but the surprise in Ted's eyes when he in- | | 21 quired the way to the clearing had put him on his guard against a greater surprise in the clerk. He would find his way somehow, and he went out into the yard and looked in the direction of the sandy road which led into the woods and which Mandy Ann was taking, presumably on her way home. A second time the thought came to him that she might direct him, and he started rather rapidly after her, calling as he went: "I say girl, I want you. Do you hear?"

Mandy Ann heard, gave one glance over her shoulder, saw who was following her, and began at once to run, her bare feet and ankles throwing up the sand, and her sunbonnet falling from her head down her back, where it flapped from side to side as she ran. She remembered what Ted had said of the stranger, who might be thinking of buying her; this was possible after all, as he had said he wanted her, and though her home in the clearing was not one of luxury, it was one of ease and indolence, and she had no desire for a new one--certainly not with this man whose face did not attract her. Just why she ran, she did not know. It was of no use to appeal to ole missus, who would not know whether she belonged to her or some one else. Miss Dory was her only hope. With promises of future good behavior and abstinence from pilfering and lying, and badness generally, she might enlist her sympathy and protection till Jake came home, when all would be right. So she sped on like a deer, glancing back occasionally to see the stranger following her with rapid strides which, however, did not avail to overtake her. The afternoon was very warm--the road sandy and uneven--and he soon gave up the chase, wondering why the girl ran so fast, as if afraid of him. The last sight he | | 22 had of her was of her woolly head, turning off from the road to the right, where it disappeared behind some thick undergrowth. Ted had said, "Turn at the grave," and he walked on till he reached the spot, and stood by the low railing enclosing a sunken grave, whether of man or woman he could not tell, the lettering on the discolored stone was so obscure. Studying it very carefully, he thought he made out "Mrs." before the moss-blurred name.

"A woman," he said, with a feeling how terrible it must be to be buried and left alone in that dreary, sandy waste, with no human habitation nearer than the Brock House, and no sound of life passing by, except from the same place, unless--and he started, as he noticed for the first time what Ted had said was the worst road in Florida, and what was scarcely more than a footpath leading off to the right, and to the clearing, of course--and he must follow it past tangled weeds and shrubs, and briers, and dwarf palmettoes, stumps of which impeded his progress.

Mandy Ann had entirely disappeared, but here and there in the sand he saw her footprints, the toes spread wide apart, and knew he was right. Suddenly there came a diversion, and he leaned against a tree and breathed hard and fast, as one does when a shock comes unexpectedly. His ear had caught the sound of voices at no great distance from him. A negro's voice--Mandy Ann's, he was sure--eager, excited, and pleading; and another, soft and low, and reassuring, but wringing the sweat from him in great drops, and making his heart beat rapidly. He knew who was with Mandy Ann, and that she, too, was hurrying on to the clearing, still in the distance. Had there been any doubt of her identity, it would have been | | 23 swept away when, through an opening in the trees, he caught sight of a slender girlish figure, clad in the homely garments of what Ted called poor white trash, and of which he had some knowledge. There was, however, a certain grace in the movements of the girl which, moved him a little, for he was not blind to any point of beauty in a woman, and the beauty of this girl, hurrying on so fast, had been his ruin, as he in one sense had been hers.

"Eudora!" he said, with a groan, and with a half resolve to turn back. rather than go on.

Tom Hardy in their talk while the boat waited for them at Palatka, had told him what not to do, and he was there to follow Tom's advice--though, to do him justice, there was a thought in his heart that possibly he might do what he knew he ought to do, in spite of Tom.

"I'll wait and see, and if--" he said at last, as he began to pick his way over the palmetto stumps and ridges of sand till he came upon the clearing.

It was an open space of two or three acres, cleared from tanglewood and dwarf palmettoes. In the centre was a log-house, larger and more pretentious than many log-houses which he had seen in the South. A Marshal Niel had climbed up one corner to the roof, and twined itself around the chimney, giving a rather picturesque effect to the house, and reminding the stranger of some of the cabins he had seen in Ireland, with ivy growing over them. There was an attempt at a flower garden where many roses were blooming. Some one was fond of flowers, and the thought gave the stranger a grain of comfort, for a love of flowers was associated in his mind with an innate refinement in the lover, and there was for a moment a tinge of | | 24 brightness in the darkness settling upon his future. Around the house there was no sign of life or stir, except a brood of well-grown chickens, which, with their mother, were huddled on the door step, evidently contemplating an entrance into the house, the door of which was open, as were the shutters to the windows, which were minus glass, as was the fashion of many old Florida houses in the days before the Civil War. With a shoo to the chickens, which sent some into the house and others flying into the yard, the stranger stepped to the door and knocked, once very gently, then more decidedly--then, as there came no response, he ventured in, and driving out the chickens, one of which had mounted upon a table and was pecking at a few crumbs of bread left there, he sat down and looked about him. In the loft which could hardly be dignified with the name chamber, he heard a low murmur of voices, and the sound of footsteps moving rapidly, as if some one were in a hurry. The room in which he sat was evidently living and dining-room both, and was destitute of everything which he deemed necessary to comfort. He had been in a Cracker's house before, and it seemed to him now that his heart turned over when he recalled his visits there, and his utter disregard of his surroundings.

"I was a fool, and blind, then; but I can see now," he said to himself, as he looked around at the marks of poverty, or shiftlessness, or both, and contrasted them with his home in the North.

The floor was bare, with the exception of a mat laid before the door leading into another and larger room, before one of the windows of which a white curtain was gently blowing in the wind. A rough, uncovered table pushed against the wall, three or four chairs, | | 25 and a haircloth settee completed the furniture, with the exception of a low rocking-chair, in which sat huddled and wrapped in a shawl a little old woman whose yellow, wrinkled face told of the snuff habit, and bore a strong resemblance to a mummy, except that the woman wore a cap with a fluted frill, and moved her head up and down like Christmas toys of old men and women. She was evidently asleep, as she gave no sign of consciousness that any one was there.

"Old Miss," the stranger said, and his breath again came gaspingly, and Tom Hardy's advice looked more and more reasonable, while he cursed himself for the fool he had been, and would have given all he was worth, and even half his life, to be rid of this thing weighing him down like a nightmare from which he could not awaken.

He was roused at last by the sound of bare feet on the stairs in a corner of the room. Some one was coming, and in a moment Mandy Ann stood before him, her eyes shining, and her teeth showing white against the ebony of her skin. In her rush through the woods Mandy Ann had come upon her young mistress looking for the few berries which grew upon the tangled bushes.

"Miss Dory, Miss Dory!" she exclaimed, clutching the girl's arm with such force that the pail fell to the ground and the berries were spilled, "you ain't gwine for ter sell me to nobody? Say you ain't, an' fo' de Lawd I'll never touch nothin', nor lie, nor sass ole Miss, nor make faces and mumble like she does. I'll be a fust cut nigger, an' say my prars ebery night. I'se done got a new one down ter Jacksonville. Say you ain't."

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In her surprise Miss Dory did not at first speak; then, shaking Mandy Ann's hand from her arm and pushing back her sunbonnet she said: "What do you mean, and where did you come from? The 'Hatty,' I s'pose, but she must be late. I'd given you up. Who's gwine ter buy yer?"

"Ted done tole me mabby de man on de boat from de Norf, what got on ter Palatka, an' done as't the way hyar, might be after me--an'--"

She got no further, for her own arm was now clutched as her mistress's had been, while Miss Dory asked, "What man? How did he look? Whar is he?" and her eyes, shining with expectancy, looked eagerly around.

Very rapidly Mandy Ann told all she knew of the stranger, while the girl's face grew radiant as she listened. "An' he done holler and say how he want me an' follered me, an' when I turn off at the grave he was still follerin' me. He's comin' hyar. You won't sell me, shoo'," Mandy Ann said, and her mistress replied, "Sell you? No. It was one of Ted's lies. He is my friend. He's comin' to see me. Hurry!"

Eudora was racing now through the briers, and weeds, and palmetto stumps, and dragging Mandy Ann with her.

"Never mind granny," she said, when they reached the house and Mandy stopped to say how d'ye to the old woman in the chair. "Come upstairs with me and help me change my gown."

"Faw de Lawd's sake, is he yer beau?" Mandy Ann asked, as she saw the excitement of her mistress, who was tearing around the room, now laughing, now dashing the tears away and giving the most | | 27 contradicting orders as to what she was to wear and Mandy Ann was to get for her.

They heard the two knocks and knew that some one had entered the house, but Mandy Ann was too busy blacking a pair of boots to go at once, as she had her hands to wash, and yet, although it seemed to him an age, it was scarcely two minutes before she came down the stairs, nimble as a cat, and bobbed before him with a courtesy nearly to the floor. Her mistress had said to her. "Mind your manners. You say you have learned a heap in Jacksonville."

"To be shoo'. I've seen de quality thar in Miss Perkins's house," Mandy Ann replied, and hence the courtesy she thought rather fetching, although she shook a little as she confronted the stranger, whose features never relaxed in the least, and who did not answer her. "How d'ye, Mas'r" which she felt it incumbent to say, as there was no one else to receive him.

Mandy Ann was very bright, and as she knew no restraint in her Florida home, when alone with her old Miss and young Miss, she was apt to be rather familiar for a negro slave, and a little inclined to humor. She knew whom the gentleman had come to see, but when he said. "Is your mistress at home?" she turned at once to the piece of parchment in the rocking-chair and replied. "To be shoo. Dar she is in de char over dar. Dat's ole Miss Lucy."

Going up to the chair, she screamed in the woman's ear, "Wake up, Miss Lucy. I'se done comed home an' thar's a gemman to see you? Wake up!"

She shook the bundle of shawls vigorously, until the old lady was thoroughly roused and glared at her with her dark, beady eyes, while she mumbled, "You | | 28 hyar, shakin' me so, you limb. You, Mandy Ann! Whar did you come from ?"

"Jacksonville, in course. Whar'd you think? An' hyar's a gemman come to see you, I tell you. Wake up an' say how d'ye."

"Whar is he?" the old woman asked, beginning to show some interest, while the stranger arose and coming forward said, "Excuse me, madam. It is the young lady I wish to see--your daughter."

"She hain't her mother. She's her granny," Mandy Ann chimed in with a good deal of contempt in her voice, as she nodded to the figure in the chair, who, with some semblance of what she once was, put out a skinny hand and said, "I'm very pleased to see you. Call Dory. She'll know what to do."

This last to Mandy Ann, who flirted away from her and said to the stranger, "She hain't no sense mostly--some days more, some days littler, an' today she's littler. You wants to see Miss Dory? She's upstars changin' her gown, 'case she knows you're hyar. I done tole her, an' her face lit right up like de sun shinin' in de mawnin'. Will you gim me your caird?"

This was Mandy Ann's master-stroke at good manners. She had seen such things at "Miss Perkins's" in Jacksonville, and had once or twice taken a card on a silver tray to that lady, and why not bring the fashion to her own home, if it were only a log-cabin, and she a bare-foot, bare-legged waitress, instead of Mrs. Perkins's maid Rachel, smart in slippers and cap, and white apron. For a moment the stranger's face relaxed into a broad smile at the ludicrousness of the situation. Mandy Ann, who was quick of compre- | | 29 hension, understood the smile and hastened to explain.

"I done larn't a heap of things at Miss Perkins's, which we can't do hyar, 'case of ole Miss bein' so quar. Miss Dory'd like 'em right well."

"Certainly," the stranger said, beginning to have a good deal of respect for the poor slave girl trying to keep up the dignity of her family.

Taking a card from his case he handed it to Mandy Ann, who looked at it carefully as if reading the name, although she held it wrong side up. There was no silver tray to take it on--there was no tray at all--but there was a china plate kept as an ornament on a shelf, and on this Mandy Ann placed the card, and then darted up the stairs, finding her mistress nearly dressed, and waiting for her.

"Oh, his card? He gave it to you?" Eudora said, flushing with pleasure that he had paid her this compliment, and pressing her lips to the name when Mandy Ann did not see her.

"In course he done gin it to me. Dat's de way wid de quality both Souf and Norf. We livin' hyar in de clarin' doan know noffin'," Mandy Ann replied.

On the strength of her three months sojourn with Mrs. Perkins, who was undeniably quality, she felt herself capable of teaching many things to her young mistress, who had seldom repressed her, and who now made no answer except to ask, "How do I look?"

She had hesitated a moment as to the dress she would wear in place of the one discarded. She had very few to select from, and finally took down a white gown sacred to her, because of the one occasion on which she had worn it. It was a coarse muslin, but made rather prettily with satin bows on the sleeves, | | 30 and shoulders, and neck. Several times, since she had hung it on a peg under a sheet to keep it from getting soiled, she had looked at it and stroked it, wondering if she would ever wear it again. Now she took it down and smoothed the bows of ribbon, and brushed a speck from the skirt, while there came to her eyes a rush of glad tears as she put it on, with a thought that he would like her in it, and then tried to see its effect in the little eight by twelve cracked glass upon the wall. All she could see was her head and shoulders, and so she asked the opinion of Mandy Ann, who answered quickly, "You done look beautiful-- some like de young ladies in Jacksonville, and some like you was gwine to be married."

"Perhaps I am," Eudora replied, with a joyous ring in her voice. "Would you like to have me get married?"

Mandy Ann hesitated a moment and then said, "I'se promised never to tole you no mo' lies, so dis is de truffe, ef I was to drap dead. I'd like you to marry some de gemmans in Jacksonville, or some dem who comes to de Brock House, but not him downstars!"

"Why not?" Eudora asked, and there was a little sharpness in her voice.

"'Case," Mandy Ann began, "you as't me, an' fo' de Lawd I mus' tell de truffe. He's very tall an' gran', an' w'ars fine close, an' han's is white as a cotton bat, but his eyes doan set right in his head. They look hard, an' not a bit smilin', an' he looks proud as ef he thought we was dirt, an' dem white han's--I do' know, but pears like they'd squeeze body an' soul till you done cry wid pain. Doan you go for to marry him, Miss Dory, will you?"

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At first Mandy Ann had opened and shut her black fingers, as she showed how the stranger's white hands would squeeze one's body and soul; then they closed round her mistress's arm as she said, "Doan you marry him, Miss Dory, will you?"

"No," Eudora answered, "don't be a silly, but go down and bring me a rose, if you can find one two-thirds open. I wore one with this dress before and he liked it, and as't me to give it to him. Mebby he will now," she thought, while waiting for Mandy Ann, who soon came back with a beautiful rose hidden under her apron.

"Strues I'm bawn, I b'lieve he's done gone to sleep like ole Miss--he's settin' thar so still," she said.

But he was far from being asleep. He had gone over again and again with everything within his range of vision, from the old woman nodding in her chair, to the bucket of water standing outside the door, with a gourd swimming on the top, and he was wondering at the delay, and feeling more and more that he should take Tom Hardy's advice, when he heard steps on the stairs, which he knew were not Mandy Ann's, and he rose to meet Eudora.

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