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 VII
COL. CROMPTON

He was young to be a colonel, but the title was merely nominal and complimentary, and not given for any service to his country. When only twenty-one he had joined a company of militia--young bloods like himself--who drilled for exercise and pleasure rather than from any idea that they would ever be called into service. He was at first captain, then he rose to the rank of colonel, and when the company disbanded he kept the title, and was rather proud of it, as he was of everything pertaining to himself and the Cromptons generally. It was an old English family, tracing its ancestry back to the days of William the Conqueror, and boasting of two or three titles and a coat-of-arms. The American branch was not very prolific, and so far as he knew, the Colonel was the only remaining Crompton of that line in this country, except the son of a half-brother. This brother, who was now dead, had married against his father's wishes, and been cut off from the Crompton property, which, at the old man's death, all came to the Colonel. It was a fine estate, with a very grand house for the New England town by the sea in which it was situated. It was built by the elder Crompton, who was born in England, and had carried out his foreign ideas of architecture, and with its turrets | | 67 and square towers it bore some resemblance to the handsome places he had seen at home. It was of stone, and stood upon a rise of ground, commanding a view of the sea two miles away, and the pretty village on the shore with a background of wooded hills stretching to the west. It was full of pictures and bric-a-brac, and statuary from all parts of the world, for the Colonel's father had travelled extensively, and brought home souvenirs from every country visited. Florida had furnished her quota, and stuffed parokeets and red birds, and a huge alligator skin adorned the walls of the wide hall, together with antlers and pieces of old armor, and other curios. A small fortune was yearly expended upon the grounds which were very large, and people wondered that the Colonel lavished so much upon what he seemed to care so little for, except to see that it was in perfect order, without a dried leaf, or twig, or weed to mar its beauty.

It had not always been thus with him. When he first came into possession of the place he was just through college, and had seemed very proud and fond of his fine estate, and had extended his hospitality freely to his acquaintances, keeping them, however, at a certain distance, for the Crompton pride was always in the ascendant, and he tolerated no familiarities, except such as he chose to allow. This genial social life lasted a few years, and then there came a change, following a part of a winter spent in South Carolina and Georgia with his intimate friend and college chum, Tom Hardy. Communication between the North and South was not as frequent and direct then as it is now, and but little was known of his doings. At first he wrote occasionally to Peter, his head servant, | | 68 to whom he entrusted the care of the house; then his letters ceased and nothing was heard from him until suddenly, without warning, he came home, looking much older than when he went away, and with a look upon his face which did not leave it as the days went on.

"'Spect he had a high old time with that Tom Hardy, and is all tuckered out," Peter said, while the Colonel, thinking he must give some reason for his changed demeanor, said he had malaria, taken in some Southern swamp.

If there was any disease for which Peter had a special aversion it was malaria, which he fancied he knew how to treat, having had it once himself. Quinine, cholagogue, and whiskey were prescribed in large quantities, and Peter wondered why they failed to cure. He did not suspect that the quinine went into the fire, and the cholagogue down the drain-pipe from the washstand. The Colonel's malaria was not the kind to be cured by drugs, and there came a day when, after the receipt of a letter from Tom Hardy, he collapsed entirely, and Peter found him shivering in his room, his teeth chattering, and his fingers purple with cold.

"You have got it bad this time," Peter said, suggesting the doctor, and more quinine and cholagogue, and a dose of Warburg's Tincture.

The Colonel declined them all. What he needed was another blanket, and to be let alone. Peter brought the blanket and left him alone, while he faced this new trouble which bore no resemblance to malaria. He was just beginning to be more hopeful of the future, and had his plans all laid, and knew what he should do and say, and now this new complication had | | 69 arisen and brushed his scheme aside. He had sown the wind and was reaping a cyclone, and he swore to himself, and hardened his heart against the innocent cause of his trouble, and thought once of suicide as he had on the St. John's the year before. He spent money, just the same, upon his handsome grounds; but it was only for the pride he had in keeping them up, and not for any pleasure he had in them. He never picked a flower, or sat on any of the seats under the trees, and, unless the day was very hot, was seldom seen upon his broad piazza, where every day Peter spread rugs and placed chairs because his master liked to see them there, if they were not used. His library was his favorite place, where he sat for hours reading, smoking, and thinking, no one knew of what, or tried to know, for he was not a man to be easily approached, or questioned as to his business. If he had malaria it clung to him year after year, while he grew more reserved and silent, and saw less and less of the people. Proud as Lucifer they called him, and yet, because he was a Crompton, and because of the money he gave so freely when it was asked for, he was not unpopular; and when the town began to grow in importance on account of its fine beach and safe bathing, and a movement was made to change its name from Troutburg to something less plebeian, Crompton was suggested, and met with general approval. No one was better pleased with the arrangement than the Colonel himself, although he did not smile when the news was brought to him. He seldom smiled at anything, but there was a kindling light in his eyes, and his voice shook a little as he thanked the committee who waited upon him. To be known as "Col. Crompton of Crompton" was | | 70 exceedingly gratifying to his vanity, and seemed in a way to lift the malarious cloud from him for a time at least.

It was more than three years since Tom Hardy's letter had thrown him into a chill, and everything as yet was quiet. Nothing had come from the South derogatory to him, and he had almost made himself believe that this state of things might go on for years, perhaps forever, though that was scarcely possible. At all events he'd wait till the storm burst, and then meet it somehow. He was a Crompton and had faith in himself, and the faith was increased by the compliment paid by his townspeople; and as he was not one to receive a favor without returning it, he conceived the idea of giving an immense lawn-party, to which nearly everybody should be invited. He had shut himself up too much, he thought--he must mingle more with the people, and build around himself a wall so strong that nothing in the future could quite break it down.

Peter and the rest of his servants were consulted and entered heartily into his plan. Cards of invitation were issued bearing the Crompton monogram, and a notice inserted in the daily paper to the effect that any who failed to receive a card were to know it was a mistake, and come just the same. There was a great deal of excitement among the people, for it had been a long time since any hospitality had been extended to them, and they were eager to go, knowing that something fine was to be expected, as the Colonel never did anything by halves. The day of the lawn-party was perfect--neither too hot nor too cold--and the sun which shone upon that humble funeral in the palmetto clearing shone upon a very different scene in the | | 71 Crompton grounds, where the people began to assemble as early as one o'clock. The grass on the lawn was like velvet, without a stick or stone to be seen, for two gardeners had been at work upon it since sunrise, cutting and raking, and sprinkling, until it was as fresh as after a soft summer shower. The late roses and white lilies were in full bloom, the latter filling the air with a sweet odor and making a lovely background. There were tables and chairs under the maples and elms, and rugs and pieces of carpet wherever there was a suspicion of dampness in the ground. There was a brass band in one part of the grounds, and a string band in another, where the young people danced under the trees. Refreshments were served at five o'clock, and the festivities were kept up till the sun went down, and half the children were sick from overeating--the mothers were tired, and some of the men a little shaky in their legs, and thick in their speech, from a too frequent acquaintance with the claret punch which stood here and there in great bowls, free as water, and more popular. The crowning event of the day came when the hundreds of lanterns were lighted on the piazzas and in the trees, and every window in the house blazed with candles placed in so close proximity to each other, that objects could be plainly seen at some distance.

The Colonel was going to make a speech, and he came out upon an upper balcony, where the light from ten tall lamps fell full upon him, bringing out every feature of his face distinctly. He was rather pale and haggard, but the people were accustomed to that, and charged it to the malaria. He was very distinguished looking, they thought, as they stood waiting for him to commence his speech. All the afternoon | | 72 he had been the most courteous of hosts--a little too patronizing, perhaps, for that was his way, but very polite, with a pleasant word for every one. He knew he was making an impression, and felt proud in a way as Crompton of Crompton, when he stepped out upon the balcony and saw the eager, upturned faces, and heard the shout which greeted him. And still there was with him a feeling of unrest--a presentiment that on his horizon, seemingly so bright, a dark cloud was lowering, which might at any moment burst upon the head he held so high. He was always dreading it, but for the last few days the feeling had been stronger until now it was like a nightmare, and his knees shook as he bowed to the people confronting him and filling the air with cheers.

No contrast could have been greater than that between the scene on which he looked down--the park, the flowers, the fountains, and the people--and the palmetto clearing in far away Florida. He did not know of the funeral and the group assembled around the log-cabin. But he knew of the clearing. He had been there, and always felt his blood tingle when he thought of it, and it was the picture of it which had haunted him all day, and which came and stood beside him, shutting out everything else, as he began to thank the people for the honor conferred upon him by calling the town by his name.

He didn't deserve it, he said. He didn't deserve anything from anybody.

"Yes, you do," went up from a hundred throats, for under the influence of the good cheer and the attention paid them the man was for the time being a hero.

"No, I don't," he continued. "I am a morally | | 73 weak man--weaker than water where my pride is concerned--and if you knew me as I know myself you would say I was more deserving of tar and feathers than the honor you have conferred upon me."

This was not at all what he intended to say, but the words seemed forced from him by that picture of the palmetto clearing standing so close to him. His audience did not know what he meant. So far as they knew he had been perfectly upright, with no fault but his pride and coldness by which he came rightfully as a Crompton. He. must have visited the punch bowls too often, they thought, and didn't know what he was talking about. After a pause, during which he was trying to thrust aside the clearing, and the log-house, and the old woman in her chair, and Mandy Ann, and to pull himself together, he went on to say:

"You have been for a long time discussing the site of a new school-house, in place of the old one which stands so near the marshes, that it is a wonder your children have not all died with fever and ague. Some of you want it on the hill--some under the hill--some in one place, and some in another. Nobody wants it near his own premises. A school-house with a lot of howling children is not a desirable neighbor to most people. For my part I don't object to it. I like children."

Here he stopped suddenly as the image of a child he had never seen came before him and choked his utterance, while the people looked at each other, and wondered how long he had been so fond of children. It was generally conceded that he did not care for them--disliked them in fact--and he had never been known to notice one in any way. Surely he had been | | 74 too near the claret bowls. He detected the thought of those nearest to him, and continued:

"I am not one to show all I feel. It is not my nature. I am interested in children, and as proof of it I will tell you my plan. There are two acres of land on the south side of the park. I fenced it off for an artificial pond, but gave it up. There is a spring of good water there, with plenty of shade trees for the children to play under. I will give this land for the new school-house."

Here he was obliged to stop, the cheers were so deafening. When they subsided he went on rapidly:

"I will build the house, too. Such an one as will not shame District No. 5 in Crompton. It shall be a model house, well lighted and ventilated, with broad, comfortable seats, especially for the little ones, whose feet shall touch the floor. It shall be commenced at once, and finished before the winter term."

He bowed and sat down, white and perspiring at every pore, and hardly knowing to what he had committed himself. The cheers were now a roar which went echoing out into the night, and were heard nearly as far as the village on the beach, the people wondering more and more at his generosity, and sudden interest in their little ones. And no one wondered more than himself. He did not care a picayune for children, nor whether their feet touched the floor or not, and he had not intended pledging himself to build the house when he began. But as he talked, the palmetto clearing stared him in the face, shutting out everything from his vision, except a long seat directly in front of him, on which several little girls whose feet could not touch the ground were fast asleep, their heads falling over upon each other, and | | 75 the last one resting upon the arm of the settee. It was a pretty picture, and stirred in him feelings he had never experienced before. He would do something for the children, expiatory, he said to himself as he sat down, thinking he ought to be the proudest and happiest of men to have the town called for him, and to stand so high in the esteem of his fellow citizens. What would they say if they knew what he did, and how cowardly he was because of his pride. Sometime they must know. It could not be otherwise, but he would put off the evil day as long as he could, and when, at last, his guests began to leave, and he went down to bid them good-night, his head was high with that air of patronage and superiority natural to him, and which the people tolerated because he was Col. Crompton.

That night he had a chill--the result of so much excitement to which he was not accustomed, he said to Peter, who brought him a hot-water bag and an extra blanket, and would like to have suggested his favorite remedies, quinine and cholagogue, but experience had taught him wisdom, and putting down the hot-water bag and blanket, he left the room with a casual remark about the fine day, and how well everything had passed off, "only a few men a little boozy," he said, "and three or four children with bruised heads caused by a fall from a swing."

The lawn-party had been a great success; and the Colonel knew he ought to be the happiest man in town, whereas he was the most miserable. He could not hear Mandy Ann's curses as she knelt on her mistress's grave, nor see her dusky arms swaying in the darkness to emphasize her maledictions. He didn't know there was a grave, but something weighed him | | 76 down with unspeakable remorse. Every incident of his first visit South came back to him with startling vividness, making him wonder why God had allowed him to do what he had done. Then he remembered his trip on the "Hatty," when he kept himself aloof from everybody, with a morbid fear lest he should see some one who knew him, or had heard of him, or would meet him again. He remembered the log-house and his supper, when Mandy Ann served from a dinner-plate, and his napkin was a pocket handkerchief. He remembered the mumbling old woman in her chair; but most of all he remembered the girl who sat opposite him. Her face was always with him, and it came before him now, just as it was in the moonlight, when she said: "You can trust me. I will do the best I can."

She had stood with her hands upon the fence and he saw them as they looked then, and holding up his own he said, "They were little brown hands, but they should have been white like mine. Poor Dory!"

There was a throb of pity in his heart as his remorse increased, and the hot night seemed to quiver with the echo of Mandy Ann's "cuss him, cuss him wherever he may be, and if his bed is soff as wool doan' let him sleep a wink." His bed was soft as wool, but it had no attraction for him, and he sat with his hot-water bag and blanket until his chill passed, and was succeeded by a heat which made him put blanket and bag aside, and open both the windows of his room. The late moon had risen and was flooding the grounds with its light, bringing out distinctly the objects nearest to him. Some tables and chairs were left standing, a few lanterns were hanging in the trees, and in front of him was the long bench on | | 77 which the little girls had been sleeping, with their feet from the ground, when he made his speech. The sight of this brought to his mind the day three years before when, just as his plans were perfected, there had come a letter which made him stagger as from a heavy blow, while all around him was chaos, dark and impenetrable. In most men the letter would have awakened a feeling of tenderness, but he was not like most men. He was utterly selfish, and prouder than any Crompton in the long line of that proud race, and, instead of tenderness or pity, he felt an intense anger against the fate which had thus dealt with him when he was trying to do right.

What to do next was the question, which Tom Hardy, as cold and unfeeling as himself, answered for him.

"You are in an awful mess," he wrote, "and the only course I see is to keep them supplied with money, and let things run until they come to a focus, as I suppose they must, though they may not. Florida is a long ways from Massachusetts. Few Northerners ever go to Enterprise, and if they do they may not hear of the clearing and its inmates. The girl is not over-bright. I beg your pardon, but she isn't, and will be apt to be quiet when she makes up her mind that she is deserted. The only one you have to fear is that nigger, Jake; but I reckon we can manage him; so cheer up and never make such an infernal fool of yourself again."

Something in this letter had grated on the Colonel's feelings--the reference to the girl, perhaps--but he had decided to follow Tom's advice, and let things run until they came to a focus. They had run pretty | | 78 smoothly for three years, and only a few letters, forwarded by his friend who now lived in Palatka, and kept a kind of oversight of the clearing, came to trouble him. These he always burned, but he could not forget, and the past was always with him, not exactly as it was on the night after his lawn-party, when it seemed to him that all the powers of the bottomless pit had united against him, and if ever a man expiated his wrong-doing in remorse and mental pain he was doing it. The laudations of the crowd which had cheered him so lustily were of no account, nor the honor conferred by giving the town his name. Nothing helped him as he stood with the sweat rolling down his face, and looked out upon his handsome grounds, which he did not see because of the palmetto clearing, and the little child, and the young mother on whose grave the moon was shining. Mandy Ann's curse was surely taking effect, for no sleep came to him that night, and the next day found him worn and pale, and when Peter, sure of a malarious attack worse than usual, ventured to offer his cholagogue and quinine, he was sworn at, and told to take himself off with his infernal drugs.

"I am tired with yesterday's mob. I shall be better when I am rested, and get the taste out of my mouth of Tom, Dick, and Harry tramping over the premises," he thought.

This was not very complimentary to the Tom's, and Dick's, and Harry's who had tramped through his grounds, but they did not know his thoughts, and were full of the lawn-party, and the new school-house, the work on which was commenced early in August, when a large number of men appeared, and were superintended and urged on by the Colonel himself. | | 79 He did not work, but he was there every day, issuing orders and making suggestions, and in this way managing to dissipate in part the cloud always hanging over him, and which before long was to assume a form which he could not escape.

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