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- The Battle Ground - 4/71 -
"A little overripe for the toe, I fear, Major."
"Well, well, we're sober enough now, sir, sober enough and to spare. Even the races are dull things. I've just been in to have a look at that new mare Tom Bickels is putting on the track, and bless my soul, she can't hold a candle to the Brown Bess I ran twenty years ago--you don't remember Brown Bess, eh, Governor?"
"Why, to be sure," said the Governor. "I can see her as if it were yesterday,--and a beauty she was, too,--but come in to supper with us, my dear Major; we were just sitting down. No, I shan't take an excuse--come in, sir, come in."
"No, no, thank you," returned the Major. "Molly's waiting, and Molly doesn't like to wait, you know. I got dinner at Merry Oaks tavern by the way, and a mighty bad one, too, but the worst thing about it was that they actually had the impudence to put me at the table with an abolitionist. Why, I'd as soon eat with a darkey, sir, and so I told him, so I told him!"
The Governor laughed, his fine, brown eyes twinkling in the gloom. "You were always a man of your word," he said; "so I must tell Julia to mend her views before she asks you to dine. She has just had me draw up my will and free the servants. There's no withstanding Julia, you know, Major."
"You have an angel," declared the other, "and she gets lovelier every day; my regards to her,--and to her aunts, sir. Ah, good night, good night," and with a last cordial gesture he started rapidly upon his homeward way.
Betty caught the Governor's hand and went with him into the house. As they entered the hall, Uncle Shadrach, the head butler, looked out to reprimand her. "Ef'n anybody 'cep'n Marse Peyton had cotch you, you'd er des been lammed," he grumbled. "An' papa was real mad!" called Virginia from the table.
"That's jest a story!" cried Betty. Still clinging to her father's hand, she entered the dining room; "that's jest a story, papa," she repeated.
"No, I'm not angry," laughed the Governor. "There, my dear, for heaven's sake don't strangle me. Your mother's the one for you to hang on. Can't you see what a rage she's in?"
"My dear Mr. Ambler," remonstrated his wife, looking over the high old silver service. She was very frail and gentle, and her voice was hardly more than a clear whisper. "No, no, Betty, you must go up and wash your face first," she added decisively.
The Governor sat down and unfolded his napkin, beaming hospitality upon his food and his family. He surveyed his wife, her two maiden aunts and his own elder brother with the ineffable good humour he bestowed upon the majestic home-cured ham fresh from a bath of Madeira.
"I am glad to see you looking so well, my dear," he remarked to his wife, with a courtliness in which there was less polish than personality. "Ah, Miss Lydia, I know whom to thank for this," he added, taking up a pale tea rosebud from his plate, and bowing to one of the two old ladies seated beside his wife. "Have you noticed, Julia, that even the roses have become more plentiful since your aunts did us the honour to come to us?"
"I am sure the garden ought to be grateful to Aunt Lydia," said his wife, with a pleased smile, "and the quinces to Aunt Pussy," she added quickly, "for they were never preserved so well before."
The two old ladies blushed and cast down their eyes, as they did every evening at the same kindly by-play. "You know I am very glad to be of use, my dear Julia," returned Miss Pussy, with conscious virtue. Miss Lydia, who was tall and delicate and bent with the weight of potential sanctity, shook her silvery head and folded her exquisite old hands beneath the ruffles of her muslin under-sleeves. She wore her hair in shining folds beneath her thread-lace cap, and her soft brown eyes still threw a youthful lustre over the faded pallor of her face.
"Pussy has always had a wonderful talent for preserving," she murmured plaintively. "It makes me regret my own uselessness."
"Uselessness!" warmly protested the Governor. "My dear Miss Lydia, your mere existence is a blessing to mankind. A lovely woman is never useless, eh, Brother Bill?"
Mr. Bill, a stout and bashful gentleman, who never wasted words, merely bowed over his plate, and went on with his supper. There was a theory in the family--a theory romantic old Miss Lydia still hung hard by--that Mr. Bill's peculiar apathy was of a sentimental origin. Nearly thirty years before he had made a series of mild advances to his second cousin, Virginia Ambler--and her early death before their polite vows were plighted had, in the eyes of his friends, doomed the morose Mr. Bill to the position of a perpetual mourner.
Now, as he shook his head and helped himself to chicken, Miss Lydia sighed in sympathy.
"I am afraid Mr. Bill must find us very flippant," she offered as a gentle reproof to the Governor.
Mr. Bill started and cast a frightened glance across the table. Thirty years are not as a day, and, after all, his emotion had been hardly more than he would have felt for a prize perch that had wriggled from his line into the stream. The perch, indeed, would have represented more appropriately the passion of his life--though a lukewarm lover, he was an ardent angler.
"Ah, Brother Bill understands us," cheerfully interposed the Governor. His keen eyes had noted Mr. Bill's alarm as they noted the emptiness of Miss Pussy's cup. "By the way, Julia," he went on with a change of the subject, "Major Lightfoot found Betty in the road and brought her home. The little rogue had run away."
Mrs. Ambler filled Miss Pussy's cup and pressed Mr. Bill to take a slice of Sally Lunn. "The Major is so broken that it saddens me," she said, when these offices of hostess were accomplished. "He has never been himself since his daughter ran away, and that was--dear me, why that was twelve years ago next Christmas. It was on Christmas Eve, you remember, he came to tell us. The house was dressed in evergreens, and Uncle Patrick was making punch."
"Poor Patrick was a hard drinker," sighed Miss Lydia; "but he was a citizen of the world, my dear."
"Yes, yes, I perfectly recall the evening," said the Governor, thoughtfully. "The young people were just forming for a reel and you and I were of them, my dear,--it was the year, I remember, that the mistletoe was brought home in a cart,--when the door opened and in came the Major. 'Jane has run away with that dirty scamp Montjoy,' he said, and was out again and on his horse before we caught the words. He rode like a madman that night. I can see him now, splashing through the mud with Big Abel after him."
Betty came running in with smiling eyes, and fluttered into her seat. "I got here before the waffles," she cried. "Mammy said I wouldn't. Uncle Shadrach, I got here before you!"
"Dat's so, honey," responded Uncle Shadrach from behind the Governor's chair. He was so like his master--commanding port, elaborate shirt-front, and high white stock--that the Major, in a moment of merry-making, had once dubbed him "the Governor's silhouette."
"Say your grace, dear," remonstrated Miss Lydia, as the child shook out her napkin. "It's always proper to offer thanks standing, you know. I remember your great-grandmother telling me that once when she dined at the White House, when her father was in Congress, the President forgot to say grace, and made them all get up again after they were seated. Now, for what are we about--"
"Oh, papa thanked for me," cried Betty. "Didn't you, papa?"
The Governor smiled; but catching his wife's eyes, he quickly forced his benign features into a frowning mask.
"Do as your aunt tells you, Betty," said Mrs. Ambler, and Betty got up and said grace, while Virginia took the brownest waffle. When the thanksgiving was ended, she turned indignantly upon her sister. "That was just a sly, mean trick!" she cried in a flash of temper. "You saw my eye on that waffle!"
"My dear, my dear," murmured Miss Lydia.
"She's des an out'n out fire bran', dat's w'at she is," said Uncle Shadrach.
"Well, the Lord oughtn't to have let her take it just as I was thanking Him for it!" sobbed Betty, and she burst into tears and left the table, upsetting Mr. Bill's coffee cup as she went by.
The Governor looked gravely after her. "I'm afraid the child is really getting spoiled, Julia," he mildly suggested.
"She's getting a--a vixenish," declared Mr. Bill, mopping his expansive white waistcoat.
"You des better lemme go atter a twig er willow, Marse Peyton," muttered Uncle Shadrach in the Governor's ear.
"Hold your tongue, Shadrach," retorted the Governor, which was the harshest command he was ever known to give his servants.
Virginia ate her waffle and said nothing. When she went upstairs a little later, she carried a pitcher of buttermilk for Betty's face.
"It isn't usual for a young lady to have freckles, Aunt Lydia says," she remarked, "and you must rub this right on and not wash it off till morning--and, after you've rubbed it well in, you must get down on your knees and ask God to mend your temper."
Betty was lying in her little trundle bed, while Petunia, her small black maid, pulled off her stockings, but she got up obediently and laved her face in buttermilk. "I don't reckon there's any use about the other," she said. "I believe the Lord's jest leavin' me in sin as a warnin' to you and Petunia," and she got into her trundle bed and waited for the lights to go out, and for the watchful Virginia to fall asleep.
She was still waiting when the door softly opened and her mother came in, a lighted candle in her hand, the pale flame shining through her profile as through delicate porcelain, and illumining her worn and fragile figure. She moved with a slow step, as if her white limbs were a burden, and her head, with its smoothly parted bright brown hair, bent like a lily that has begun to fade.
She sat down upon the bedside and laid her hand on the child's forehead. "Poor little firebrand," she said gently. "How the world will hurt you!" Then she knelt down and prayed beside her, and went out again with the white light streaming upon her bosom. An hour later Betty heard her soft,
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