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- The Battle Ground - 10/71 -
advice about the education of her son. 'Shall I send him to the school of learning at Cambridge, papa?' she asked; and I answered, 'Send him there, if you will, but, when he has finished with his books, by all means let him come to Virginia--the school for gentlemen.'"
"The school for gentlemen!" cried the doctor, delightedly. "It is a prouder title than the 'Mother of Presidents.'"
"And as honourably earned," added the rector. "If you want polish, come to Virginia; if you want chivalry, come to Virginia. When I see these two things combined, I say to myself, 'The blood of the Mother of Presidents is here.'"
"You are right, sir, you are right!" cried the Major, shaking back his hair, as he did when he was about to begin the lines from _The Campaign_. "Nothing gives so fine a finish to a man as a few years spent with the influences that moulded Washington. Why, some foreigners are perfected by them, sir. When I met General Lafayette in Richmond upon his second visit, I remember being agreeably impressed with his dignity and ease, which, I have no doubt, sir, he acquired by his association, in early years, with the Virginia gentlemen."
The Governor looked at them with a twinkle in his eye. He was aware of the humorous traits of his friends, but, in the peculiar sweetness of his temper, he loved them not the less because he laughed at them--perhaps the more. In the rector's fat body and the Major's lean one, he knew that there beat hearts as chivalrous as their words. He had seen the Major doff his hat to a beggar in the road, and the rector ride forty miles in a snowstorm to read a prayer at the burial of a slave. So he said with a pleasant laugh, "We are surely the best judges, my dear sirs," and then, as Mrs. Lightfoot rustled in, they rose and fell back until she had taken her seat, and found her knitting.
"I am so sorry not to see Mrs. Blake," she said to the rector. "I have a new recipe for yellow pickle which I must write out and send to her." And, as the Governor rose to go, she stood up and begged him to stay to supper. "Mr. Lightfoot, can't you persuade him to sit down with us?" she asked.
"Where you have failed, Molly, it is useless for me to try," gallantly responded the Major, picking up her ball of yarn.
"But I must bear your pardon to my little girl, I really must," insisted the Governor. "By the way, Major," he added, turning at the door, "what do you think of the scheme to let the Government buy the slaves and ship them back to Africa? I was talking to a Congressman about it last week."
"Sell the servants to the Government!" cried the Major, hotly. "Nonsense! nonsense! Why, you are striking at the very foundation of our society! Without slavery, where is our aristocracy, sir?"
"Oh, I beg your pardon," said the Governor lightly. "Well, we shall keep them a while longer, I expect. Good night, madam, good night, gentlemen," and he went out to where his horse was standing.
The Major looked after him with a sigh. "When I hear a man talking about the abolition of slavery," he remarked gloomily, "I always expect him to want to do away with marriage next--" he checked himself and coloured, as if an improper speech had slipped out in the presence of Mrs. Lightfoot. The old lady rose primly and, taking the rector's arm, led the way to supper.
Dan was not noticed at the table,--it was a part of his grandmother's social training to ignore children before visitors,--but when he went upstairs that night, the Major came to the boy's room and took him in his arms.
"I am proud of you, my child," he said. "You are my grandson, every inch of you, and you shall have the finest riding horse in the stables on your birthday."
"I'd rather have Big Abel, if you please, sir," returned Dan. "I think Big Abel would like to belong to me, grandpa."
"Bless my soul!" cried the Major. "Why, you shall have Big Abel and his whole family, if you like. I'll give you every darky on the place, if you want them--and the horses to boot," for the old gentleman was as unwise in his generosity as in his wrath.
"Big Abel will do, thank you," responded the boy; "and I'd like to shake hands now, grandpa," he added gravely; but before the Major left that night he had won not only the child's hand, but his heart. It was the beginning of the great love between them.
For from that day Dan was as the light of his grandfather's eyes. As the boy strode manfully across the farm, his head thrown back, his hands clasped behind him, the old man followed, in wondering pride, on his footsteps. To see him stand amid the swinging cradles in the wheat field, ordering the slaves and arguing with the overseer, was sufficient delight unto the Major's day. "Nonsense, Molly," he would reply half angrily to his wife's remonstrances. "The child can't be spoiled. I tell you he's too fine a boy. I couldn't spoil him if I tried," and once out of his grandmother's sight, Dan's arrogance was laughed at, and his recklessness was worshipped. "Ah, you will make a man, you will make a man!" the Major had exclaimed when he found him swearing at the overseer, "but you mustn't curse, you really mustn't, you know. Why, your grandmother won't let me do it."
"But I told him to leave that haystack for me to slide on," complained the boy, "and he said he wouldn't, and began to pull it down. I wish you'd send him away, grandpa."
"Send Harris away!" whistled the Major. "Why, where could I get another, Dan? He has been with me for twenty years."
"Hi, young Marster, who gwine min' de han's?" cried Big Abel, from behind.
"Do you like him, Big Abel?" asked the child, for the opinion of Big Abel was the only one for which he ever showed respect. "It's because he's not free, grandpa," he had once explained at the Major's jealous questioning. "I wouldn't hurt his feelings because he's not free, you know, and he couldn't answer back," and the Major had said nothing more.
Now "Do you like him, Big Abel?" he inquired; and to the negro's "He's done use me moughty well, suh," he said gravely, "Then he shall stay, grandpa--and I'm sorry I cursed you, Harris," he added before he left the field. He would always own that he was wrong, if he could once be made to see it, which rarely happened.
"The boy's kind heart will save him, or he is lost," said the Governor, sadly, as Dan tore by on his little pony, his black hair blown from his face, his gray eyes shining.
"He has a kind heart, I know," returned Mrs. Ambler, gently; "the servants and the animals adore him--but--but do you think it well for Betty to be thrown so much with him? He is very wild, and they deny him nothing. I wish she went with Champe instead--but what do you think?"
"I don't know, I don't know," answered the Governor, uneasily. "He told the doctor to mind his own business, yesterday--and that is not unlike Betty, herself, I am sorry to say--but this morning I saw him give his month's pocket money to that poor free negro, Levi. I can't say, I really do not know," his eyes followed Betty as she flew out to climb behind Dan on the pony's back. "I wish it were Champe, myself," he added doubtfully.
For Betty--independent Betty--had become Dan's slave. Ever since the afternoon of the burning woodpile, she had bent her stubborn little knees to him in hero-worship. She followed closer than a shadow on his footsteps; no tortures could wring his secrets from her lips. Once, when he hid himself in the mountains for a day and night and played Indian, she kept silence, though she knew his hiding-place, and a search party was out with lanterns until dawn.
"I didn't tell," she said triumphantly, when he came down again.
"No, you didn't tell," he frankly acknowledged.
"So I can keep a secret," she declared at last.
"Oh, yes, you can keep a secret--for a girl," he returned, and added, "I tell you what, I like you better than anybody about here, except grandpa and Big Abel."
She shone upon him, her eyes narrowing; then her face darkened. "Not better than Big Abel?" she questioned plaintively.
"Why, I have to like Big Abel best," he replied, "because he belongs to me, you know--you ought to love the thing that belongs to you."
"But I might belong to you," suggested Betty. She smiled again, and, smiling or grave, she always looked as if she were standing in a patch of sunshine, her hair made such a brightness about her.
"Oh, you couldn't, you're white," said Dan; "and, besides, I reckon Big Abel and the pony are as much as I can manage. It's a dreadful weight, having people belong to you."
Then he loaded his gun, and Betty ran away with her fingers in her ears, because she couldn't bear to have things killed.
A month later Dan and Champe settled down to study. The new tutor came--a serious young man from the North, who wore spectacles, and read the Bible to the slaves on the half-holidays. He was kindly and conscientious, and, though the boys found him unduly weighed down by responsibility for the souls of his fellows, they soon loved him in a light-hearted fashion. In a society where even the rector harvested alike the true grain and the tares, and left the Almighty to do His own winnowing, Mr. Bennett's free-handed fight with the flesh and the devil was looked upon with smiling tolerance, as if he were charging a windmill with a wooden sword.
On Saturdays he would ride over to Uplands, and discuss his schemes for the uplifting of the negroes with the Governor and Mrs. Ambler; and once he even went so far as to knock at Rainy-day Jones's door and hand him a pamphlet entitled "The Duties of the Slaveholder." Old Rainy-day, who was the biggest bully in the county, set the dogs on him, and lit his pipe with the pamphlet; but the Major, when he heard the story, laughed, and called the young man "a second David."
Mr. Bennett looked at him seriously through his glasses, and then his eyes wandered to the small slave, Mitty, whose chief end in life was the finding of Mrs. Lightfoot's spectacles. He was an earnest young man, but he could not keep his eyes away from Mitty when she was in the room; and at the old lady's, "Mitty, my girl, find me my glasses," he felt like jumping from his seat and calling upon her to halt. It seemed a survival of the dark ages that one immortal soul should spend her life hunting for the spectacles of another. To Mr. Bennett, a soul was a soul in any colour; to the Major the sons of Ham were under a curse which the Lord would lighten in His own good time.
But before many months, the young man had won the affection of the boys and the respect of their grandfather, whose candid lack of logic was overpowered by the reasons which Mr. Bennett carried at every finger tip.
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