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- Tales of Trail and Town - 10/36 -
Again, the revelation of her familiar name Friddy seemed to make her more accessible and human to him than her formal title, and suited the girlish simplicity that lay at the foundation of her character, of which he had seen so little before. At least so he fancied, and so excused himself; it was delightful to find her referring to him as an older friend; pleasant, indeed, to see that her family tacitly recognized it, and frequently appealed to him with the introduction, "Friddy says you can tell us," or "You and Friddy had better arrange it between you." Even the dreaded introduction of his sister was an agreeable surprise, owing to Lady Elfrida's frank and sympathetic prepossession, which Jenny could not resist. In a few moments they were walking together in serious and apparently confidential conversation. For to Peter's wonder it was the "Lady Elfrida" side of the English girl's nature that seemed to have attracted Jenny, and not the playfulness of "Friddy," and he was delighted to see that the young girl had assumed a grave chaperonship of the tall Mrs. Lascelles that would have done credit to Mrs. Carter or Lady Runnybroke. Had he been less serious he might have been amused, too, at the importance of his own position in the military outpost, through the arrival of the strangers. That this grave political enthusiast and civilian should be on familiar terms with a young Englishwoman of rank was at first inconceivable to the officers. And that he had never alluded to it before seemed to them still more remarkable.
Nevertheless, there was much liveliness and good fellowship at the fort. Captains and lieutenants down to the youngest "cub," Forsyth, vied with each other to please the Englishmen, supplied them with that characteristic American humor and anecdote which it is an Englishman's privilege to bring away with him, and were picturesquely and chivalrously devoted in their attentions to the ladies, who were pleased and amused by it, though it is to be doubted if it increased their respect for the giver, although they were more grateful for it than the average American woman. Lady Elfrida found the officers very entertaining and gallant. Accustomed to the English officer, and his somewhat bored way of treating his profession and his duties, she may have been amused at the zeal, earnestness, and enthusiasm of these youthful warriors, who aspired to appear as nothing but soldiers, when she contrasted them with her Guardsmen relatives who aspired to be everything else but that; but she kept it to herself. It was a recognized, respectable, and even superior occupation for gentlemen in England; what it might be in America,--who knows? She certainly found Peter, the civilian, more attractive, for there really was nothing English to compare him with, and she had something of the same feeling in her friendship for Jenny, except the patronage which Jenny seemed to solicit, and perhaps require, as a foreigner.
One afternoon the English guests, accompanied by a few of their hosts and a small escort, were making a shooting expedition to the vicinity of Green Spring, when Peter, plunged in his report, looked up to find his sister entering his office. Her face was pale, and there was something in her expression which reawakened his old anxiety. Nevertheless he smiled, and said gently:--
"Why are you not enjoying yourself with the others?"
"I have a headache," she said, languidly, "but," lifting her eyes suddenly to his, "why are YOU not? You are their good friend, you know,--even their relation."
"No more than you are," he returned, with affected gayety. "But look at the report--it is only half finished! I have already been shirking it for them."
"You mustn't let your devotion to the Indians keep you from your older friends," said Mrs. Lascelles, with an odd laugh. "But you never told me about these people before, Peter; tell me now. They were very kind to you, weren't they, on account of your relationship?"
"Entirely on account of that," said Peter, with a sudden bitterness he could not repress. "But they are very pleasant," he added quickly, "and very simple and unaffected, in spite of their rank; perhaps I ought to say, BECAUSE of it."
"You mean they are kind to us because they feel themselves superior,--just as you are kind to the Indians, Peter."
"I am afraid they have no such sense of political equality towards us, Jenny, as impels me to be just to the Indian," he said with affected lightness. "But Lady Elfrida sympathizes with the Indians--very much."
"She!" The emphasis which his sister put upon the personal pronoun was unmistakable, but Peter ignored it, and so apparently did she, as she said the next moment in a different voice, "She's very pretty, don't you think?"
"Very," said Peter coldly.
There was a long pause. Peter slightly fingered one of the sheets of his delayed report on his desk. His sister looked up. "I'm afraid I'm as bad as Lady Elfrida in keeping you from your Indians; but I had something to say to you. No matter, another time will do when you're not so busy."
"Please go on now," said Peter, with affected unconcern, yet with a feeling of uneasiness creeping over him.
"It was only this," said Jenny, seating herself with her elbow on the desk and her chin in a cup-like hollow of her hand, "did you ever think that in the interests of these poor Indians, you know, purely for the sake of your belief in them, and just to show that you were above vulgar prejudices,--did you ever think you could marry one of them?"
Two thoughts flashed quickly on Peter's mind,--first, that Lady Elfrida had repeated something of their conversation to his sister; secondly, that some one had told her of Little Daybreak. Each was equally disturbing. But he recovered himself quickly and said, "I might if I thought it was required. But even a sacrifice is not always an example."
"Then you think it would be a sacrifice?" she said, slowly raising her dark eyes to his.
"If I did something against received opinion, against precedent, and for aught I know against even the prejudices of those I wish to serve, however lofty my intention was and however great the benefit to them in the end, it would still be a sacrifice in the present." He saw his own miserable logic and affected didactics, but he went on lightly, "But why do you ask such a question? You haven't any one in your mind for me, have you?"
She had risen thoughtfully and was moving towards the door. Suddenly she turned with a quick, odd vivacity: "Perhaps I had. Oh, Peter, there was such a lovely little squaw I saw the last time I was at Oak Bottom! She was no darker than I am, but so beautiful. Even in her little cotton gown and blanket, with only a string of beads around her throat, she was as pretty as any one here. And I dare say she could be educated and appear as well as any white woman. I should so like to have you see her. I would have tried to bring her to the fort, but the braves are very jealous of their wives or daughters seeing white men, you know, and I was afraid of the colonel."
She had spoken volubly and with a strange excitement, but even at the moment her face changed again, and as she left the office, with a quick laugh and parting gesture, there were tears in her eyes.
Accustomed to her moods and caprices, Peter thought little of the intrusion, relieved as he was of his first fears. She had come to him from loneliness and curiosity, and, perhaps, he thought with a sad smile, from a little sisterly jealousy of the young girl who had evinced such an interest in him, and had known him before. He took up his pen and continued the interrupted paragraph of his report.
"I am satisfied that much of the mischievous and extravagant prejudice against the half breed and all alliances of the white and red races springs from the ignorance of the frontiersman and his hasty generalization of facts. There is no doubt that an intermixture of blood brings out purely superficial contrasts the more strongly, and that against the civilizing habits and even costumes of the half breed, certain Indian defects appear the more strongly as in the case of the color line of the quadroon and octoroon, but it must not be forgotten that these are only the contrasts of specific improvement, and the inference that the borrowed defects of a half breed exceed the original defects of the full-blooded aborigine is utterly illogical." He stopped suddenly and laid down his pen with a heightened color; the bugle had blown, the guard was turning out to receive the commandant and his returning party, among whom was Friddy.
. . . . . .
Through the illusions of depression and distance the "sink" of Butternut Creek seemed only an incrustation of blackish moss on the dull gray plain. It was not until one approached within half a mile of it that it resolved itself into a copse of butternut-trees sunken below the distant levels. Here once, in geological story, the waters of Butternut Creek, despairing of ever crossing the leagues of arid waste before them, had suddenly disappeared in the providential interposition of an area of looser soil, and so given up the effort and the ghost forever, their grave being marked by the butternut copse, chance-sown by bird or beast in the saturated ground. In Indian legend the "sink" commemorated the equally providential escape of a great tribe who, surrounded by enemies, appealed to the Great Spirit for protection, and was promptly conveyed by subterraneous passages to the banks of the Great River a hundred miles away. Its outer edges were already invaded by the dust of the plain, but within them ran cool recesses, a few openings, and the ashes of some long-forgotten camp-fires. To-day its sombre shadows were relieved by bright colored dresses, the jackets of the drivers of a large sutler's wagon, whose white canvas head marked the entrance of the copse, and all the paraphernalia of a picnic. It was a party gotten up by the foreign guests to the ladies of the fort, prepared and arranged by the active Lady Elfrida, assisted by the only gentleman of the party, Peter Atherly, who, from his acquaintance with the locality, was allowed to accompany them. The other gentlemen, who with a large party of officers and soldiers were shooting in the vicinity, were sufficiently near for protection. They would rejoin the ladies later.
"It does not seem in the least as if we were miles away from any town or habitation," said Lady Runnybroke, complacently seating herself on a stump, "and I shouldn't be surprised to see a church tower through those trees. It's very like the hazel copse at
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