- part: THE CROMPTONS
- CHAPTER VIII THE CHILD OF THE CLEARING
|<< chapter 7||< chapter 1||chapter 9 >||chapter 10 >>|
THE CHILD OF THE CLEARING
The school-house was finished, and was a model of comfort and convenience. It was well lighted and ventilated, and every child of whatever age could touch its feet to the floor. If it were in any sense expiatory, it had proven a success, for the palmetto clearing did not haunt the Colonel as it had done on the day of the lawn-party. It was a long time since he had heard from there, and he was beginning to wonder if anything had happened, when Peter brought him an odd-looking letter, directed wrong side up, written with a pencil, and having about it a faint perfume of very bad tobacco. It was addressed to "Mr. Kurnal Krompton, Troutberg, Mass." The writer evidently did not know of the recent change of name, and the letter had been long on the way, but had reached its destination at last, and was soiled and worn, and very second-class in its appearance, Peter decided, as he took it from the office and studied it carefully. No such missive had, to his knowledge, ever before found its way into the aristocratic precincts of Crompton Place. If it had he had not seen it, and he wondered who could have sent this one. He found his master taking his breakfast, and, holding the letter between his thumb and fingers, as if | | 81 there were contamination in its touch, he handed it to him.
"Fairly turned speckled when he looked at it," Peter thought, as he left the room. "Wish I had seen where it was mailed."
An hour later, Jane, the housemaid, came to him and said, "The Colonel wants you."
Peter found him in his bedroom, packing a satchel with a shaking hand and a face more speckled than it had been when he read the letter.
"Peter," he said, "fold up these shirts for me, and put in some collars and socks. I am going on a little trip, and may be gone two weeks, maybe more. Hold your tongue."
When he wished Peter to be particularly reticent, he told him to hold his tongue. Peter understood, and held it, and finished packing the satchel, ordered the carriage for the eleven o'clock train, and saw his master off, without knowing where he was going, except that his ticket was for New York.
"That smelly letter has something to do with it, of course," he said. "I wish I knew where it was from."
He was arranging the papers on the library table, when he stopped suddenly with an exclamation of surprise, for there, under his hand, lay the smelly letter, which the Colonel had forgotten to put away.
"Phew! I thought I got a whiff of something bad," he said, and read again the superscription, with a growing contempt for the writer." Nobody will know if I read it, and I shall hold my tongue, as usual," he thought, his curiosity at last overcoming his sense of honor.| | 82
Opening the envelope, he took out the piece of foolscap, on which was neither date nor name of place.
"Kurnal Krompton," it began. "Yer fren' in Palatky done gone to Europe. He tole me yer name 'fore he went, an' so I rite meself to tell you Miss Dory's ded, an' ole Miss, too. She done dide a week ago, an' Miss Dory las' July. What shal I do wid de chile? I shood of rit when Miss Dory dide, but Mandy Ann an' me--you 'members Mandy Ann--sed how you'd be comin' to fotch her rite away, an' we cuddent bar to part wid her whilst ole Miss lived. But now she's done ded de chile doan or'to be brung up wid Crackers an' niggers, an' den dar's de place belonged to ole Miss, an' dar's Mandy Ann. She doan' or'ter be sole to nobody. I'd buy her an' set her free ef I had de money, but I hain't. She's a rale purty chile--de little girl. You mite buy Mandy Ann an' take her for lil chile's nuss. Jake Harris."
"Jerusalem!" Peter exclaimed. "Here's a go. Who is Miss Dory? Some trollop, of course--and she is dead, and old Miss, too. Who is old Miss? and who is Mandy Ann the Colonel is to buy? I'd laugh, rank Abolitionist as he is! And what will he do with a child? Crackers and niggers? What is a Cracker?"
Peter had no opinion on that head. He knew what a nigger was, and at once detected another odor besides bad tobacco, and opened the window to air the room. Then he began to study the postmark to see where the letter came from. It was not very clear, and it took him some time to make out "Palatka, Fla." The latter baffled him, it was so illegible, but he was sure of "Palatka," and wondered where it was. Hunting up an atlas, he went patiently through | | 83 State after State, till he found Palatka, on the St. John's River, Florida.
"Florida! That's where he's gone. There are niggers enough there, but who the Crackers are is beyond me," Peter said. "I believe I'll copy this letter."
He did copy it, and then waited for developments.
Meanwhile the Colonel was hurrying South as fast as steam could take him. Arrived in New York, he found himself in time to take a boat bound for Savannah, and shutting himself up in his stateroom sat down to analyze his feelings, and solve the problem which had for so long been confronting him. A part of it was solved for him. Eudora was dead; but there was the child. Something must be done with her, and Jake's words kept repeating themselves in his mind: "She doan or'ter be brung up wid Crackers an' niggers."
"No, she don't or'ter," the Colonel thought, involuntarily adopting Jake's dialect; but what to do with her was the question.
If Tom Hardy had been home he would have consulted him, but Tom was away, and he must face the difficulty alone, knowing perfectly well what his duty was, and finally making up his mind to do it. If he chose to adopt a child it was no one's business. As a Crompton he was above caring for gossip or public opinion. To be sure the child would be a nuisance, and a constant reminder of what he would like to forget; but it was right, and he owed it to the mother to care for her little girl. He began to think a good deal of himself for this kind of reasoning, and by the time he reached Jacksonville he had made up his mind that he was a pretty nice man after all, and felt | | 84 happier than he had in years. Death had closed one page of his life, and the distance between Florida and Massachusetts would close the other, and he was much like himself when he at last stepped on board the "Hatty," and started up the river.
There was room for him at the Brock House this time, and he registered his name. "Col. James Crompton, Crompton, Mass.," and said he had come to look after a family in the palmetto clearing, Harris was the name, and through a friend he was interested in them. The landlord was not the same who had been there on the occasion of the Colonel's first visit, but he knew something about the clearing, and volunteered whatever information he had concerning the family, speaking of the recent death of the demented old woman, and of the little child left to the care of two negroes, and saying, he hoped the gentleman had come to take it to its friends, if it had any.
The Colonel bowed and said that was his business, and early the next morning started on foot along the road he had trodden twice before, and which brought Eudora before him so vividly that it seemed as if she were walking at his side, and once, as some animal ran through the bushes near the grave at the turn of the road, he started at the sound as if it had been the rustle of Eudora's white dress as he heard it that day. He was beginning to get nervous, and by the time the clearing was reached he was as cold as he had been at home, when Peter brought him the hot-water bag and blanket. He noticed the improvements which had been made in the place since he was there last, and knew it was Jake's handiwork. He had never seen the man, and shrank a little from meeting him, knowing how infinitely superior to himself in a | | 85 moral way the poor African was. He remembered Mandy Ann perfectly, and recognized her as she came to the door, shading her eyes with her hand to look at him; then she disappeared suddenly, and Jake, who was at the rear of the house, fixing a barrel to catch rain-water, was clutched by the arm, and nearly thrown backwards, as the girl exclaimed: "For the Lawd's sake, Jake, it's comin'--it's comin'--it's hyar!"
"What's comin'? The las' day, that you look so skeered?" Jake said, while Mandy Ann continued: "De man from de Norf, Cunnel Crompton, you call him--done come for lill chile!"
She put her apron over her face and began to cry, while Jake wiped his hands, and hurrying round the house, met the Colonel just as he reached the door. There was not the least servility in Jake's manner, although it was respectful, as he said, "How d'ye, Mas'r Crompton. I'm shoo it's you, an' I'se right glad to see you, though I 'spects you done come for the lill chile, an' I feel fit to bust when I think of partin' wid her. Walk in, walk in; take a cheer, an' I'll sen' Mandy Ann for de lill chile. She's in de play-house I made her, jess dis side de graves, whar she sits an' plays. Thar's a tree thar an' she calls it de shady."
"Thanks!" the Colonel said, taking a chair, while Jake went for Mandy Ann, and found her struggling with the child, not far from the door.
The chile had seen the stranger as soon as Mandy Ann; and as visitors were rare at the cabin, and she was fond of society, she left her sand pies, and her slice of bread and molasses, and started for the house, meeting Mandy Ann, who seized her, saying, "Come an' have on a clean frock and be wassed. Your face | | 86 is all sticky, an' han's, too--an' de gemman from de Norf, de Cunnel, is hyar."
As it happened, the chile didn't approve of changing her dress and having her face washed. She was in a hurry to see the gentleman, and she pulled back, and fought, and called Mandy Ann an "ole nigger," and told her to "leg-go," and finally wrenched herself free, and ran like a little spider to the house, and into the room where the Colonel was sitting. Starting to his feet he stood looking down at the mite staring at him with her great dark eyes, in which was a look which had puzzled the Rev. Mr. Mason when he saw her at her mother's funeral. She was a very pretty child, with a round, chubby face just now smeared with molasses, as were her fat little hands, while her dress, open at the back, showed signs of the sand and water with which it had come in contact. And she stood, holding the Colonel with her eyes, until he began to feel cold again, and to think of his hot-water bag. He did not care for children; and this one--
"Heavens! " he thought to himself. "Can I do it ? Yes, I must!"
Then, putting out his hand, he said, "Little girl, will you shake hands with me."
Nothing abashed she was going forward, when Mandy Ann rushed in and pulled her back. exclaiming: "Oh, sar, not wid dem han's; dey mus' be wassed."
"You ole Mandy Ann nigger, you lemme be. I won't be wassed," was the sharp reply, and the dark eyes flashed with a fire which made the Colonel think of himself when roused, and he began to feel a good deal of respect for the spoiled tyrant.| | 87
Little girl," he said, very gently, but firmly, "Go with Mandy and be washed, and then come and see--" he came very near saying "see what I have brought you," without at all knowing why it should have come into his mind.
It had never occurred to him to bring her anything, but he wished now that he had, and began to wonder what he had that would please a child. He was fond of jewelry, and wore on his watch-chain several ornaments, and among them a very small, delicately carved book in ivory. He could detach it easily, and he began to do so, while the child eyed him curiously. She had seen very few gentlemen, and this one attracted her, he was so tall and imposing; and when he said again, "Go and be washed," she obeyed him, and the Colonel was a second time alone, for Jake was making his ablutions, and changing his working clothes for his best, in which he looked very respectable, when he at last rejoined his guest, and began at once in a trembling voice to speak of the business which had brought the Colonel there.
|<< chapter 7||< chapter 1||chapter 9 >||chapter 10 >>|