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- The Battle Ground - 20/71 -
when the three came abreast with him. The moonlight was in his eyes, and the vision of Virginia floated before him at his saddle bow. He let the reins fall loosely on Prince Rupert's neck, and as the hoofs rang on the frozen road, thrust his hands for warmth into his coat. In another dress, with his dark hair blown backward in the wind, he might have been a cavalier fresh from the service of his lady or his king, or riding carelessly to his death for the sake of the drunken young Pretender.
But he was only following his dreams, and they hovered round Virginia, catching their rosy glamour from her dress. In the cold night air he saw her walking demurely through the lancers, her skirt held up above her satin shoes, her coral necklace glowing deeper pink against her slim white throat. Mistletoe and holly hung over her, and the light of the candles shone brighter where her radiant figure passed. He caught the soft flash of her shy brown eyes, he heard her gentle voice speaking trivial things with profound tenderness. His hand still burned from the light pressure of her finger tips. Oh, his day had come, he told himself, and he was furiously in love at last.
As for going back to college, the very idea was absurd. At twenty years it was quite time for him to settle down and keep open house like other men. Virginia, in rose pink, flitted up the crooked stair and across the white panels of the parlor, and with a leap, his heart went after her. He saw Great-aunt Emmeline lean down from her faded canvas as if to toss her apple at the young girl's feet. Ah, poor old beauty, hanging in a gilded frame, what was her century of dust to a bit of living flesh that had bright eyes and was coloured like a flower?
When he was safely married he would have his wife's portrait hung upon the opposite wall, only he rather thought he should have the dogs in and let her be Diana, with a spear instead of an apple in her hand. Two beauties in one family--that was something to be proud of even in Virginia.
It was at this romantic point that Champe shattered his visions by shooting a jest at him about the "love sick swain."
"Oh, be off, and let a fellow think, won't you?" he retorted angrily.
"Do you hear him call it thinking?" jeered Diggs, from the other side.
"He doesn't call it mooning, oh, no," scoffed Champe.
"Oh, there's nothing half so sweet in life," sang Morson, striking an attitude that almost threw him off his horse.
"Shut up, Morson," commanded Diggs, "you ought to be thankful if you had enough sense left to moon with."
"Sense, who wants sense?" inquired Morson, on the point of tears. "I have heart, sir."
"Then keep it bottled up," rejoined Champe, coolly, as they turned into the drive at Chericoke.
In Dan's room they found Big Abel stretched before the fire asleep; and as the young men came in, he sat up and rubbed his eyes.
"Hi! young Marsters, hit's ter-morrow!" he exclaimed.
"To-morrow! I wish it were to-morrow," responded Dan, cheerfully. "The fire makes my head spin like a top. Here, come and pull off my coat, Big Abel, or I'll have to go to bed with my clothes on."
Big Abel pulled off the coat and brushed it carefully; then he held out his hand for Champe's.
"I hope dis yer coat ain' gwine lose hit's set 'fo' hit gits ter me," he muttered as he hung them up. "Seems like you don' teck no cyar yo' clothes, nohow, Marse Dan. I'se de wuss dress somebody dis yer side er de po' w'ite trash. Wat's de use er bein' de quality ef'n you ain' got de close?"
"Stop grumbling, you fool you," returned Dan, with his lordly air. "If it's my second best evening suit you're after, you may take it; but I tell you now, it's the last thing you're going to get out of me till summer."
Big Abel took down the second best suit of clothes and examined them with an interest they had never inspired before. "I d'clar you sutney does set hard," he remarked after a moment, and added, tentatively, "I dunno whar de shuts gwine come f'om."
"Not from me," replied Dan, airily; "and now get out of here, for I'm going to sleep."
But when he threw himself upon his bed it was to toss with feverish rose-coloured dreams until the daybreak.
His blood was still warm when he came down to breakfast; but he met his grandfather's genial jests with a boyish attempt at counter-buff.
"Oh, you needn't twit me, sir," he said with an embarrassed laugh; "to wear the heart upon the sleeve is hereditary with us, you know."
"Keep clear of the daws, my son, and it does no harm," responded the Major. "There's nothing so becoming to a gentleman as a fine heart well worn, eh, Molly?"
He carefully spread the butter upon his cakes, for his day of love-making was over, and his eye could hold its twinkle while he watched Dan fidget in his seat.
Mrs. Lightfoot promptly took up the challenge. "For my part I prefer one under a buttoned coat," she replied briskly; "but be careful, Mr. Lightfoot, or you will put notions into the boys' heads. They are at the age when a man has a fancy a day and gets over it before he knows it."
"They are at the age when I had my fancy for you, Molly," gallantly retorted the Major, "and I seem to be carrying it with me to my grave."
"It would be a dull wit that would go roving from Aunt Molly," said Champe, affectionately; "but there aren't many of her kind in the world."
"I never found but one like her," admitted the Major, "and I've seen a good deal in my day, sir."
The old lady listened with a smile, though she spoke in a severe voice. "You mustn't let them teach you how to flatter, Mr. Morson," she said warningly, as she filled the Major's second cup of coffee--"Cupid, Mr. Morson will have a partridge."
"The man who sits at your table will never question your supremacy, dear madam," returned Jack Morson, as he helped himself to a bird. "There is little merit in devotion to such bounty."
"Shall I kick him, grandma?" demanded Dan. "He means that we love you because you feed us, the sly scamp."
Mrs. Lightfoot shook her head reprovingly. "Oh, I understand you, Mr. Morson," she said amiably, "and a compliment to my housekeeping never goes amiss. If a woman has any talent, it will come out upon her table."
"You're right, Molly, you're right," agreed the Major, heartily. "I've always held that there was nothing in a man who couldn't make a speech or in a woman who couldn't set a table."
Dan stirred restlessly in his chair, and at the first movement of Mrs. Lightfoot he rose and went out into the hall. An hour later he ordered Prince Rupert and started joyously to Uplands.
As he rode through the frosted air he pictured to himself a dozen different ways in which it was possible that he might meet Virginia. Would she be upon the portico or in the parlour? Was she still in pink or would she wear the red gown of yesterday? When she gave him her hand would she smile as she had smiled last night? or would she stand demurely grave with down dropped lashes?
The truth was that she did none of the things he had half expected of her. She was sitting before a log fire, surrounded by a group of Harrisons and Powells, who had been prevailed upon to spend the night, and when he entered she gave him a sleepy little nod from the corner of a rosewood sofa. As she lay back in the firelight she was like a drowsy kitten that had just awakened from a nap. Though less radiant, her beauty was more appealing, and as she stared at him with her large eyes blinking, he wanted to stoop down and rock her off to sleep. He regarded her calmly this morning, for, with all his tenderness, she did not fire his brain, and the glory of the vision had passed away. Half angrily he asked himself if he were in love with a pink dress and nothing more?
An hour afterward he came noisily into the library at Chericoke and aroused the Major from his Horace by stamping distractedly about the room.
"Oh, it's all up with me, sir," he began despondently. "I might as well go out and hang myself. I don't know what I want and yet I'm going mad because I can't get it."
"Come, come," said the Major, soothingly. "I've been through it myself, sir, and since your grandmother's out of earshot, I'd as well confess that I've been through it more than once. Cheer up, cheer up, you aren't the first to dare the venture--_Vixere fortes ante Agamemnona_, you know."
His assurance was hardly as comforting as he had intended it to be. "Oh, I dare say, there've been fools enough before me," returned Dan, impatiently, as he flung himself out of the room.
He grew still more impatient when the day came for him to return to college; and as they started out on horseback, with Zeke and Big Abel riding behind their masters, he declared irritably that the whole system of education was a nuisance, and that he "wished the ark had gone down with all the ancient languages on board."
"There would still be law," suggested Morson, pleasantly. "So cheer up, Beau, there's something left for you to learn."
Then, as they passed Uplands, they turned, with a single impulse, and cantered up the broad drive to the portico. Betty and Virginia were in the library; and as they heard the horses, they came running to the window and threw it open.
"So you will come back in the summer--all of you," said Virginia, hopefully, and as she leaned out a white camellia fell from her bosom to the snow beneath. In an instant Jack Morson was off his horse and the flower was in his hand. "We'll bring back all that we take away," he answered gallantly, his fair boyish face as red as Virginia's.
Dan could have kicked him for the words, but he merely said savagely, "Have you left your pocket handkerchief?" and turned Prince Rupert toward the road. When he looked back from beneath the silver poplars, the girls were still standing at the open window, the cold wind flushing their cheeks and blowing the brown hair and the red together.
Virginia was the first to turn away. "Come in, you'll take cold," she said,
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