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- The Battle Ground - 3/71 -


moon, w'en de devil walks de big road." She was wandering again after the fancies of dotage, but Betty threw herself upon her. "Oh, change it! change it!" cried the child. "Beg the devil to come and change it quick."

Brought back to herself, Aunt Ailsey grunted and knocked the ashes from her pipe. "I ain' gwine ter ax no favors er de devil," she replied sternly. "You des let de devil alont en he'll let you alont. I'se done been young, en I'se now ole, en I ain' never seed de devil stick his mouf in anybody's bizness 'fo' he's axed."

She bent over and raked the ashes from her cake with a lightwood splinter. "Dis yer's gwine tase moughty flat-footed," she grumbled as she did so.

"O Aunt Ailsey," wailed Betty in despair. The tears shone in her eyes and rolled slowly down her cheeks.

"Dar now," said Aunt Ailsey, soothingly, "you des set right still en wait twel ter-night at de full er de moon." She got up and took down one of the crumbling skins from the chimney-piece. "Ef'n de hine foot er a he frawg cyarn tu'n yo' hyar decent," she said, "dar ain' nuttin' de Lawd's done made es'll do hit. You des wrop er hank er yo' hyar roun' de hine foot, honey, en' w'en de night time done come, you teck'n hide it unner a rock in de big road. W'en de devil goes a-cotin' at de full er de moon--en he been cotin' right stiddy roun' dese yer parts--he gwine tase dat ar frawg foot a mile off."

"A mile off?" repeated the child, stretching out her hands.

"Yes, Lawd, he gwine tase dat ar frawg foot a mile off, en w'en he tase hit, he gwine begin ter sniff en ter snuff. He gwine sniff en he gwine snuff, en he gwine sniff en he gwine snuff twel he run right spang agin de rock in de middle er de road. Den he gwine paw en paw twel he root de rock clean up."

The little girl looked up eagerly.

"An' my hair, Aunt Ailsey?"

"De devil he gwine teck cyar er yo' hyar, honey. W'en he come a-sniffin' en a-snuffin' roun' de rock in de big road, he gwine spit out flame en smoke en yo' hyar hit's gwine ter ketch en hit's gwine ter bu'n right black. Fo' de sun up yo' haid's gwine ter be es black es a crow's foot."

The child dried her tears and sprang up. She tied the frog's skin tightly in her handkerchief and started toward the door; then she hesitated and looked back. "Were you alive at the flood, Aunt Ailsey?" she politely inquired.

"Des es live es I is now, honey."

"Then you must have seen Noah and the ark and all the animals?"

"Des es plain es I see you. Marse Noah? Why, I'se done wash en i'on Marse Noah's shuts twel I 'uz right stiff in de j'ints. He ain' never let nobody flute his frills fur 'im 'cep'n' me. Lawd, Lawd, Marse Peyton's shuts warn' nuttin ter Marse Noah's!"

Betty's eyes grew big. "I reckon you're mighty old, Aunt Ailsey--'most as old as God, ain't you?"

Aunt Ailsey pondered the question. "I ain' sayin' dat, honey," she modestly replied.

"Then you're certainly as old as the devil--you must be," hopefully suggested the little girl.

The old woman wavered. "Well, de devil, he ain' never let on his age," she said at last; "but w'en I fust lay eyes on 'im, he warn' no mo'n a brat."

Standing upon the threshold for an instant, the child reverently regarded her. Then, turning her back upon the fireplace and the bent old figure, she ran out into the twilight.

II

AT THE FULL OF THE MOON

By the light of the big moon hanging like a lantern in the topmost pine upon a distant mountain, the child sped swiftly along the turnpike.

It was a still, clear evening, and on the summits of the eastern hills a fringe of ragged firs stood out illuminated against the sky. In the warm June weather the whole land was fragrant from the flower of the wild grape.

When she had gone but a little way, the noise of wheels reached her suddenly, and she shrank into the shadow beside the wall. A cloud of dust chased toward her as the wheels came steadily on. They were evidently ancient, for they turned with a protesting creak which was heard long before the high, old-fashioned coach they carried swung into view--long indeed before the driver's whip cracked in the air.

As the coach neared the child, she stepped boldly out into the road--it was only Major Lightfoot, the owner of the next plantation, returning, belated, from the town.

"W'at you doin' dar, chile?" demanded a stern voice from the box, and, at the words, the Major's head was thrust through the open window, and his long white hair waved in the breeze.

"Is that you, Betty?" he asked, in surprise. "Why, I thought it was the duty of that nephew of mine to see you home."

"I wouldn't let him," replied the child. "I don't like boys, sir."

"You don't, eh?" chuckled the Major. "Well, there's time enough for that, I suppose. You can make up to them ten years hence,--and you'll be glad enough to do it then, I warrant you,--but are you all alone, young lady?" As Betty nodded, he opened the door and stepped gingerly down. "I can't turn the horses' heads, poor things," he explained; "but if you will allow me, I shall have the pleasure of escorting you on foot."

With his hat in his hand, he smiled down upon the little girl, his face shining warm and red above his pointed collar and broad black stock. He was very tall and spare, and his eyebrows, which hung thick and dark above his Roman nose, gave him an odd resemblance to a bird of prey. The smile flashed like an artificial light across his austere features.

"Since my arm is too high for you," he said, "will you have my hand?--Yes, you may drive on, Big Abel," to the driver, "and remember to take out those bulbs of Spanish lilies for your mistress. You will find them under the seat."

The whip cracked again above the fat old roans, and with a great creak the coach rolled on its way.

"I--I--if you please, I'd rather you wouldn't," stammered the child.

The Major chuckled again, still holding out his hand. Had she been eighty instead of eight, the gesture could not have expressed more deference. "So you don't like old men any better than boys!" he exclaimed.

"Oh, yes, sir, I do--heaps," said Betty. She transferred the frog's foot to her left hand, and gave him her right one. "When I marry, I'm going to marry a very old gentleman--as old as you," she added flatteringly.

"You honour me," returned the Major, with a bow; "but there's nothing like youth, my dear, nothing like youth." He ended sadly, for he had been a gay young blood in his time, and the enchantment of his wild oats had increased as he passed further from the sowing of them. He had lived to regret both the loss of his gayety and the languor of his blood, and, as he drifted further from the middle years, he had at last yielded to tranquillity with a sigh. In his day he had matched any man in Virginia at cards or wine or women--to say nothing of horseflesh; now his white hairs had brought him but a fond, pale memory of his misdeeds and the boast that he knew his world--that he knew all his world, indeed, except his wife.

"Ah, there's nothing like youth!" he sighed over to himself, and the child looked up and laughed.

"Why do you say that?" she asked.

"You will know some day," replied the Major. He drew himself erect in his tight black broadcloth, and thrust out his chin between the high points of his collar. His long white hair, falling beneath his hat, framed his ruddy face in silver. "There are the lights of Uplands," he said suddenly, with a wave of his hand.

Betty quickened her pace to his, and they went on in silence. Through the thick grove that ended at the roadside she saw the windows of her home flaming amid the darkness. Farther away there were the small lights of the negro cabins in the "quarters," and a great one from the barn door where the field hands were strumming upon their banjos.

"I reckon supper's ready," she remarked, walking faster. "Yonder comes Peter, from the kitchen with the waffles."

They entered an iron gate that opened from the road, and went up a lane of lilac bushes to the long stuccoed house, set with detached wings in a grove of maples. "Why, there's papa looking for me," cried the child, as a man's figure darkened the square of light from the hall and came between the Doric columns of the portico down into the drive.

"You won't have to search far, Governor," called the Major, in his ringing voice, and, as the other came up to him, he stopped to shake hands. "Miss Betty has given me the pleasure of a stroll with her."

"Ah, it was like you, Major," returned the other, heartily. "I'm afraid it isn't good for your gout, though."

He was a small, soldierly-looking man, with a clean-shaven, classic face, and thick, brown hair, slightly streaked with gray. Beside the Major's gaunt figure he appeared singularly boyish, though he held himself severely to the number of his inches, and even added, by means of a simplicity almost august, a full cubit to his stature. Ten years before he had been governor of his state, and to his friends and neighbours the empty honour, at least, was still his own.

"Pooh! pooh!" the older man protested airily, "the gout's like a woman, my dear sir--if you begin to humour it, you'll get no rest. If you deny yourself a half bottle of port, the other half will soon follow. No, no, I say--put a bold foot on the matter. Don't give up a good thing for the sake of a bad one, sir. I remember my grandfather in England telling me that at his first twinge of gout he took a glass of sherry, and at the second he took two. 'What! would you have my toe become my master?' he roared to the doctor. 'I wouldn't give in if it were my whole confounded foot, sir!' Oh, those were ripe days, Governor!"


The Battle Ground - 3/71

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