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- The Battle Ground - 5/71 -
slow step on the gravelled drive and knew that she was starting on a ministering errand to the quarters. Of all the souls on the great plantation, the mistress alone had never rested from her labours.
The child tossed restlessly, beat her pillow, and fell back to wait more patiently. At last the yellow strip under the door grew dark, and from the other trundle bed there came a muffled breathing. With a sigh, Betty sat up and listened; then she drew the frog's skin from beneath her pillow and crept on bare feet to the door. It was black there, and black all down the wide, old staircase. The great hall below was like a cavern underground. Trembling when a board creaked under her, she cautiously felt her way with her hands on the balustrade. The front door was fastened with an iron chain that rattled as she touched it, so she stole into the dining room, unbarred one of the long windows, and slipped noiselessly out. It was almost like sliding into sunshine, the moon was so large and bright.
From the wide stone portico, the great white columns, looking grim and ghostly, went upward to the roof, and beyond the steps the gravelled drive shone hard as silver. As the child went between the lilac bushes, the moving shadows crawled under her bare feet like living things.
At the foot of the drive ran the big road, and when she came out upon it her trailing gown caught in a fallen branch, and she fell on her face. Picking herself up again, she sat on a loosened rock and looked about her.
The strong night wind blew on her flesh, and she shivered in the moonlight, which felt cold and brazen. Before her stretched the turnpike, darkened by shadows that bore no likeness to the objects from which they borrowed shape. Far as eye could see, they stirred ceaselessly back and forth like an encamped army of grotesques.
She got up from the rock and slipped the frog's skin into the earth beneath it. As she settled it in place, her pulses gave a startled leap, and she stood terror-stricken beside the stone. A thud of footsteps was coming along the road.
For an instant she trembled in silence; then her sturdy little heart took courage, and she held up her hand.
"If you'll wait a minute, Mr. Devil, I'm goin' in," she cried.
From the shadows a voice laughed at her, and a boy came forward into the light--a half-starved boy, with a white, pinched face and a dusty bundle swinging from the stick upon his shoulder.
"What are you doing here?" he snapped out.
Betty gave back a defiant stare. She might have been a tiny ghost in the moonlight, with her trailing gown and her flaming curls.
"I live here," she answered simply. "Where do you live?"
"Nowhere." He looked her over with a laugh.
"I did live somewhere, but I ran away a week ago."
"Did they beat you? Old Rainy-day Jones beat one of his servants and he ran away."
"There wasn't anybody," said the boy. "My mother died, and my father went off--I hope he'll stay off. I hate him!"
He sent the words out so sharply that Betty's lids flinched.
"Why did you come by here?" she questioned. "Are you looking for the devil, too?"
The boy laughed again. "I am looking for my grandfather. He lives somewhere on this road, at a place named Chericoke. It has a lot of elms in the yard; I'll know it by that."
Betty caught his arm and drew him nearer. "Why, that's where Champe lives!" she cried. "I don't like Champe much, do you?"
"I never saw him," replied the boy; "but I don't like him--"
"He's mighty good," said Betty, honestly; then, as she looked at the boy again, she caught her breath quickly. "You do look terribly hungry," she added.
"I haven't had anything since--since yesterday."
The little girl thoughtfully tapped her toes on the road. "There's a currant pie in the safe," she said. "I saw Uncle Shadrach put it there. Are you fond of currant pie?--then you just wait!"
She ran up the carriage way to the dining-room window, and the boy sat down on the rock and buried his face in his hands. His feet were set stubbornly in the road, and the bundle lay beside them. He was dumb, yet disdainful, like a high-bred dog that has been beaten and turned adrift.
As the returning patter of Betty's feet sounded in the drive, he looked up and held out his hands. When she gave him the pie, he ate almost wolfishly, licking the crumbs from his fingers, and even picking up a bit of crust that had fallen to the ground.
"I'm sorry there isn't any more," said the little girl. It had seemed a very large pie when she took it from the safe.
The boy rose, shook himself, and swung his bundle across his arm.
"Will you tell me the way?" he asked, and she gave him a few childish directions. "You go past the wheat field an' past the maple spring, an' at the dead tree by Aunt Ailsey's cabin you turn into the road with the chestnuts. Then you just keep on till you get there--an' if you don't ever get there, come back to breakfast."
The boy had started off, but as she ended, he turned and lifted his hat.
"I am very much obliged to you," he said, with a quaint little bow; and Betty bobbed a courtesy in her nightgown before she fled back into the house.
THE COMING OF THE BOY
The boy trudged on bravely, his stick sounding the road. Sharp pains ran through his feet where his shoes had worn away, and his head was swimming like a top. The only pleasant fact of which he had consciousness was that the taste of the currants still lingered in his mouth.
When he reached the maple spring, he swung himself over the stone wall and knelt down for a drink, dipping the water in his hand. The spring was low and damp and fragrant with the breath of mint which grew in patches in the little stream. Overhead a wild grapevine was festooned, and he plucked a leaf and bent it into a cup from which he drank. Then he climbed the wall again and went on his way.
He was wondering if his mother had ever walked along this road on so brilliant a night. There was not a tree beside it of which she had not told him--not a shrub of sassafras or sumach that she had not carried in her thoughts. The clump of cedars, the wild cherry, flowering in the spring like snow, the blasted oak that stood where the branch roads met, the perfume of the grape blossoms on the wall--these were as familiar to him as the streets of the little crowded town in which he had lived. It was as if nature had stood still here for twelve long summers, or as if he were walking, ghostlike, amid the ever present memories of his mother's heart.
His mother! He drew his sleeve across his eyes and went on more slowly. She was beside him on the road, and he saw her clearly, as he had seen her every day until last year--a bright, dark woman, with slender, blue-veined hands and merry eyes that all her tears had not saddened. He saw her in a long, black dress, with upraised arm, putting back a crepe veil from her merry eyes, and smiling as his father struck her. She had always smiled when she was hurt--even when the blow was heavier than usual, and the blood gushed from her temple, she had fallen with a smile. And when, at last, he had seen her lying in her coffin with her baby under her clasped hands, that same smile had been fixed upon her face, which had the brightness and the chill repose of marble.
Of all that she had thrown away in her foolish marriage, she had retained one thing only--her pride. To the end she had faced her fate with all the insolence with which she faced her husband. And yet--"the Lightfoots were never proud, my son," she used to say; "they have no false pride, but they know their place, and in England, between you and me, they were more important than the Washingtons. Not that the General wasn't a great man, dear, he was a very great soldier, of course--and in his youth, you know, he was an admirer of your Great-great-aunt Emmeline. But she--why, she was the beauty and belle of two continents--there's an ottoman at home covered with a piece of her wedding dress."
And the house? Was the house still as she had left it on that Christmas Eve? "A simple gentleman's home, my child--not so imposing as Uplands, with its pillars reaching to the roof, but older, oh, much older, and built of brick that was brought all the way from England, and over the fireplace in the panelled parlour you will find the Lightfoot arms.
"It was in that parlour, dear, that grandmamma danced a minuet with General Lafayette; it looks out, you know, upon a white thorn planted by the General himself, and one of the windows has not been opened for fifty years, because the spray of English ivy your Great-aunt Emmeline set out with her own hands has grown across the sash. Now the window is quite dark with leaves, though you can still read the words Aunt Emmeline cut with her diamond ring in one of the tiny panes, when young Harry Fitzhugh came in upon her just as she had written a refusal to an English earl. She was sitting in the window seat with the letter in her hand, and, when your Great-uncle Harry--she afterwards married him, you know--fell on his knees and cried out that others might offer her fame and wealth, but that he had nothing except love, she turned, with a smile, and wrote upon the pane 'Love is best.' You can still see the words, very faint against the ivy that she planted on her wedding day--"
Oh, yes, he knew it all--Great-aunt Emmeline was but the abiding presence of the place. He knew the lawn with its grove of elms that overtopped the peaked roof, the hall, with its shining floor and detached staircase that crooked itself in the centre where the tall clock stood, and, best of all, the white panels of the parlour where hung the portrait of that same fascinating great-aunt, painted, in amber brocade, as Venus with the apple in her hand.
And his grandmother, herself, in her stiff black silk, with a square of lace turned back from her thin throat and a fluted cap above her corkscrew curls--her daguerreotype, taken in all her pride and her precision, was
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