- PART II
- CHAPTER VIII MRS. BIGGS'S REMINISCENCES
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MRS. BIGGS'S REMINISCENCES
"Maybe I was too hard on Ruby Ann," she said, measuring the heel of Tim's sock to see if it were time to begin to narrow. "She's a pretty clever woman, take her by and large, but I do hate to see a dog frisk like a puppy, and she's thirty-five if she's a day. You see, I know, 'cause, as I was tellin' you, there was her and me and Amy Crompton girls together. I am forty, Amy is thirty-eight or thirty-nine, and Ruby Ann is thirty-five."
Having settled Ruby's age and asked Eloise hers, and told her she looked young for nineteen, the good woman branched off upon the grandeur of the Crompton House, with its pictures and statuary and bric-à-brac, its flowers and fountains, and rustic arbors and seats scattered over the lawn. Eloise had heard something of the place from a school friend, but never had it been so graphically described as by Mrs. Biggs, and she listened with a feeling that in the chamber of her childhood's memory a picture of this place had been hung by somebody.
"Was it my father?" she asked herself, and answered decidedly, "No," as she recalled the little intercourse she had ever had with him. "Was it my mother?" she next asked herself, and involuntarily her tears started as she thought of her mother, and | | 190 how unlikely it was that she had ever been in Crompton.
Turning her head aside to hide her tears from Mrs. Biggs, she said, "Tell me more of the place. It almost seems as if I had been there."
Thus encouraged, Mrs. Biggs began a description of the lawn party which she was too young to remember, although she was there with her mother, and had a faint recollection of music and candy and lights in the trees, and an attack of colic the night after as a result of overeating.
"But, my land!" she said, "that was nothin' to the blow-out on Amy's sixteenth birthday. The Colonel had kep' her pretty close after he took her from school. She had a governess and she had a maid, but I must say she didn't seem an atom set up, and was just as nice when she met us girls. 'Hello, Betsey,' she'd say to me. That's my name, Betsey, but I call myself 'Lisbeth. 'Hello, Betsey,' I can hear her now, as she cantered past on her pony, in her long blue ridin' habit. Sometimes she'd come to the school-house and set on the grass under the apple trees and chew gum with us girls. That was before her party, which beat anything that was ever seen in Crompton, or will be again. The avenue and yard and stables were full of carriages, and there were eighteen waiters besides the canterer from Boston."
"The what?" Eloise asked, and Mrs. Biggs replied, "The canterer, don't you know, the man who sees to things and brings the vittles and his waiters. They say he alone cost the Colonel five hundred dollars; but, my land! that's no more for him than five dollars is for me. He fairly swims in money. Such dresses you never seen as there was there that night, | | 191 and such bare necks and arms, with a man at the door, a man at the head of the stairs to tell 'em where to go, and one in the gentlemen's room, and two girls in the ladies' rooms to button their gloves and put on their dancing pumps. The carousin' lasted till daylight, and a tireder, more worn-out lot of folks than we was you never seen. I was nearly dead."
"Were you there?" Eloise asked, with a feeling that there was some incongruity between the Crompton party and Mrs. Biggs, who did not care to say that she was one of the waitresses who buttoned gloves and put on the dancing pumps in the dressing-room.
"Why, yes, I was there," she said at last, "though I wasn't exactly in the doin's. I've never danced since I was dipped and jined the church. Do you dance, or be you a perfessor?"
Eloise had to admit that she did dance and was not a professor, although she hoped to be soon.
"What persuasion?" was Mrs. Biggs's next question, and Eloise replied, "I was baptized in the Episcopal Church in Rome."
"The one in York State, I s'pose, and not t'other one across the seas?" Mrs. Biggs suggested, and Eloise answered, "Yes, the one across the seas in Italy."
"For goodness' sake! How you talk! You don't mean you was born there?" Mrs. Biggs exclaimed, with a feeling of added respect for one who was actually born across the seas. "Do you remember it, and did you know the Pope and the King?"
Eloise said she did not remember being born, nor did she know the Pope or the King.
"I was a little girl when I left Italy, and do not re- | | 192 member much, except that I was happier there than I have ever been since."
"I want to know! I s'pose you've had trouble in your family?" was Mrs. Biggs's quick rejoinder, as she scented some private history which she meant to find out.
But beyond the fact that her father was dead and her mother in California, she could learn nothing from Eloise, and returned to the point from which they had drifted to the Episcopal Church in Rome.
"I kinder mistrusted you was a 'Piscopal. I do' know why, but I can most always tell 'em," she said. "The Cromptons is all that way of thinkin'. Old Colonel is a vestedman, I b'lieve they call 'em, but he swears offul. I don't call that religion; do you? But folks ain't alike. I don't s'pose the Church is to blame. There's now and then as good a 'Piscopal as you'll find anywhere. Ruby Ann has jined 'em, and goes it strong. B'lieves in candles and vestures; got Tim into the choir one Sunday, and now you can't keep him out of it. Wears a--a--I don't know what you call it,--something that looks like a short night-gown, and I have to wash it every other week. I don't mind that, and I do b'lieve Tim is more of a man than he was, and he sings beautiful. And hain't learnt nothin' bad there yet, but the minister does some things I don't approve; no, don't approve. What do you think he does right before folks, in plain sight, sittin' on the piazza?"
Eloise could not hazard a guess as to the terrible sin of which Mr. Mason, the rector of St. John's, was guilty, and said so.
"Well," and Mrs. Biggs's voice sank to a whisper as she leaned forward, "he smokes a cigar in broad | | 193 daylight! What do you think of that for a minister of the gospel?"
She was so much in earnest, and her manner so dramatic, that Eloise laughed the first real, hearty laugh she had indulged in since she came to Crompton. Smoking might be objectionable, but it did not seem to her the most heinous crime in the world, and she had a very vivid remembrance of a coat in which there lurked the odor of many Havanas, and to which she had clung desperately in the darkness and rain on the night which seemed to her years ago. She did not, however, express any opinion with regard to the Rev. Arthur Mason's habits, or feel especially interested in him. But Mrs. Biggs was, and once launched on the subject, she told Eloise that he was from the South, and had not been long in the place; that he was unmarried, and all the girls were after him, Ruby Ann with the rest, and she at least half a dozen years older.
"But, land's sake! What does that count with an old maid when a young minister is in the market," she said, adding that, with the exception of smoking, she believed the new minister was a good man, though for some reason Col. Crompton did not like him, and had only been to church once since he came, and wouldn't let Miss Amy go either.
This brought her back to the Cromptons generally, and during the next half hour Eloise had a pretty graphic description of the Colonel and his eccentricities, of Amy, when she was a young girl, of the way she came to the Crompton House, and the mystery which still surrounded her birth.
"My Uncle Peter lived there when she came, and lives there now,--a kind of vally to the old Colonel," | | 194 she said, "and he's told me of the mornin' the Colonel brung her home, a queer-looking little thing,-- in her clothes, I mean,--and offul peppery, I judge, fightin' everybody who came near her, and rollin' on the floor, bumpin' and cryin' for a nigger who had took care of her somewhere, nobody knows where, for the Colonel never told, and if Uncle Peter knows, he holds his tongue. She was a terrible fighter at school, if things didn't suit her, but she's quiet enough now; seems 's if she'd been through the fire, poor thing, and they say she don't remember nothin', and begins to shake if she tries to remember. The Colonel is very kind to her; lets her have all the money she wants, and she gives away a sight. Sent you a hat and slips, almost new, and had never seen you. That's like Amy, and, my soul, there she is now, comin' down the road with the Colonel in the b'rouch. Hurry, and you can see her; I'll move you."
Utterly regardless of the lame foot, which dragged on the floor and hurt cruelly, Mrs. Biggs drew Eloise to the window in time to see a handsome open carriage drawn by two splendid bays passing the house. The Colonel was muffled up as closely as if it were midwinter, and only a part of his face and his long, white hair were visible, but he was sitting upright, with his head held high, and looked the embodiment of aristocratic pride and arrogance. The lady beside him was very slight, and sat in a drooping kind of posture, as if she were tired, or restless, or both. To see her face was impossible, for she was closely veiled, and neither she nor the Colonel glanced toward the house as they passed.
"I am so disappointed. I wanted to see her face," Eloise said, watching the carriage until it was hidden | | 195 from view by a turn in the road. "You say she is lovely?" and she turned to Mrs. Biggs.
"Lovely don't express it. Seraphic comes nearer. Looks as if she had some great sorrow she was constantly thinking of, and trying to smile as she thought of it," Mrs. Biggs replied. Then, as Eloise looked quickly up, she exclaimed, "Well, if I ain't beat! It's come to me what I've been tryin' to think of ever sense I seen you. They ain't the same color; hers is darker, but there is a look in your eyes for all the world as hers used to be when she was a girl, and wan't wearin' her high-heeled shoes and ridin' over our heads. Them times she was as like the Colonel as one pea is like another, and her eyes fairly snapped. Other times they was soft and tender-like, and bright as stars, with a look in 'em which I know now was kinder,--well, kinder crazy-like, you know."
Eloise had heard many things said of her own eyes, but never before that they were crazy-like, and did not feel greatly complimented. She laughed, however, and said she would like to see the lady whose eyes hers were like.
Before Mrs. Biggs could reply there was a step outside, and, tiptoeing to the window, she exclaimed, in a whisper, "If I won't give it up, there's the 'Piscopal minister, Mr. Mason, come to call on you! Ruby Ann must of told him you belonged to 'em."
She dropped her knitting, and, hurrying to the door, admitted the Rev. Arthur Mason, and ushered him at once into the room where Eloise was sitting, saying as she introduced him, "I s'pose you have come to see her."
It was an awkward situation for the young man, whose call was not prompted by any thought of | | 196 Eloise. His business was with Mrs. Biggs, who had the reputation of being the parish register and town encyclopedia, from which information regarding everybody could be gleaned, and he had come to her for information which he had been told she could probably give him. He had been in Crompton but three months, and had come there from a small parish in Virginia. On the first Sunday when he officiated in St. John's he had noticed in the audience a tall, aristocratic-looking man, with long white hair and beard, who made the responses loud and in a tone which told the valuation he put upon himself. In the same pew was a lady whose face attracted his attention, it was so sweet and yet so sad, while the beautiful eyes, he was sure, were sometimes full of tears as she listened with rapt attention to what he was saying of our heavenly home, where those we have loved and lost will be restored to us. It scarcely seemed possible, and yet he thought there was a nod of assent, and was sure that a smile broke over her face when he spoke of the first meeting of friends in the next world, the mother looking for her child, and the child coming to the gates of Paradise to meet its mother. Who was she, he wondered, and who was the old man beside her, who held himself so proudly ? He soon learned who they were, and hearing that the Colonel was very lame, and the lady an invalid, he took the initiative and called at the Crompton House. The Colonel received him very cordially, and made excuses for Amy's non-appearance, saying she was not quite herself and shy with strangers. He was very affable, and evidently charmed with his visitor, until, as the conversation flowed on, it came out that the rector was a South- | | 197 erner by birth, although educated for the ministry at the North, and that his father, the Rev. Charles Mason, was at present filling a vacancy in a little country church in Enterprise, Florida, where he had been before the war. The Rev. Arthur Mason could not tell what it was that warned him of an instantaneous change in the Colonel's manner, it was so subtle and still so perceptible. There was a settling himself back in his chair, a tighter clasping of his gold-headed cane with which he walked, and which he always kept in his hand. He was less talkative, and finally was silent altogether, and when at last the rector arose to go, he was not asked to stay or call again. Peter was summoned to show him the door, the Colonel bowing very stiffly as he went out. How he had offended, if he had done so, the rector could not guess, and, hearing within a week or two that the Colonel was indisposed, he called again, but was not admitted. Col. Crompton was too nervous to see any one, he was told, and there the acquaintance had ended. The Crompton pew was not occupied until Howard came and was occasionally seen in it. Evidently the new rector was a persona non grata, and he puzzled his brain for a reason in vain, until a letter from his father threw some light upon the subject and induced him to call upon Mrs. Biggs.
As usual she was very loquacious, scarcely allowing him a word, and ringing changes on her own and Eloise's sprained ankle, until he began to fear he should have no chance to broach the object of his visit without seeming to drag it in. The chance came on the return of the Crompton carriage, with the Colonel sitting stiff and straight and Amy drooping under her veil beside him. Here was his opportu- | | 198 nity, and the rector seized it, and soon learned nearly all Mrs. Biggs knew of Amy's arrival at Crompton House and the surmises concerning her antecedents.
"She's a Crompton if there ever was one, and why the Colonel should keep so close a mouth all these years beats me," was Mrs. Biggs's closing remark, as she bowed the rector out and went back to Eloise, who felt that she was getting very familiar with the Crompton history, so far as Mrs. Biggs knew it.
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