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- The Battle Ground - 70/71 -
forward, Big Abel caught his arm.
"I'se hyer, Marse Dan, I'se hyer," groaned the negro in his ear.
"But the others? Where are the others?" asked Dan, coming to himself. "Hold me, Big Abel, I'm an utter fool. O Congo! Is that Congo?"
A negro, coming with his hoe from the corn field, ran over the desolated lawn, and began shouting hoarsely to the hands behind him:--
"Hi! Hit's Marse Dan, hit's Marse Dan come back agin!" he yelled, and at the cry there flocked round him a little troop of faithful servants, weeping, shouting, holding out eager arms.
"Hi! hit's Marse Dan!" they shrieked in chorus. "Hit's Marse Dan en Brer Abel! Brer Abel en Marse Dan is done come agin!"
Dan wept with them--tears of weakness, of anguish, of faint hope amid the dark. As their hands closed over his, he grasped them as if his eyes had gone suddenly blind.
"Where are the others? Congo, for God's sake, tell me where are the others?"
"We all's hyer, Marse Dan. We all's hyer," they protested, sobbing. "En Ole Marster en Ole Miss dey's in de house er de overseer--dey's right over dar behine de orchard whar you use ter projick wid de ploughs, en Brer Cupid and Sis Rhody dey's a-gittin' dem dey supper."
"Then let me go," cried Dan. "Let me go!" and he started at a run past the gray ruins and the standing kitchen, past the flower garden and the big woodpile, to the orchard and the small frame house of Harris the overseer.
Big Abel kept at his heels, panting, grunting, calling upon his master to halt and upon Congo to hurry after.
"You'll skeer dem ter deaf--you'll skeer Ole Miss ter deaf," cried Congo from the rear, and drawing a trembling breath, Dan slackened his pace and went on at a walk. At last, when he reached the small frame house and put his foot upon the step, he hesitated so long that Congo slipped ahead of him and softly opened the door. Then his young master followed and stood looking with blurred eyes into the room.
Before a light blaze which burned on the hearth, the Major was sitting in an arm chair of oak splits, his eyes on the blossoming apple trees outside, and above his head, the radiant image of Aunt Emmeline, painted as Venus in a gown of amber brocade. All else was plain and clean--the well-swept floor, the burnished andirons, the cupboard filled with rows of blue and white china--but that one glowing figure lent a festive air to the poorly furnished room, and enriched with a certain pomp the tired old man, dozing, with bowed white head, in the rude arm chair. It was the one thing saved from the ashes--the one vestige of a former greatness that still remained.
As Dan stood there, a clock on the mantel struck the hour, and the Major turned slowly toward him.
"Bring the lamps, Cupid," he said, though the daylight was still shining. "I don't like the long shadows--bring the lamps."
Choking back a sob, Dan crossed the floor and knelt down by the chair.
"We have come back, grandpa," he said. "We beg your pardon, and we have come back--Big Abel and I."
For a moment the Major stared at him in silence; then he reached out and felt him with shaking hands as if he mistrusted the vision of his eyes.
"So you're back, Champe, my boy," he muttered. "My eyes are bad--I thought at first that it was Dan--that it was Dan."
"It is I, grandpa," said Dan, slowly. "It is I--and Big Abel, too. We are sorry for it all--for everything, and we have come back poorer than we went away."
A light broke over the old man's face, and he stretched out his arms with a great cry that filled the room as his head fell forward on his grandson's breast. Then, when Mrs. Lightfoot appeared in the doorway, he controlled himself with a gasp and struggled to his feet.
"Welcome home, my son," he said ceremoniously, as he put out his quivering hands, "and welcome home, Big Abel."
The old lady went into Dan's arms as he turned, and looking over her head, he saw Betty coming toward him with a lamp shining in her hand.
"My child, here is one of our soldiers," cried the Major, in joyful tones, and as the girl placed the lamp upon the table, she turned and met Dan's eyes.
"It is the second time I've come home like this, Betty," he said, "only I'm a worse beggar now than I was at first."
Betty shook his hand warmly and smiled into his serious face.
"I dare say you're hungrier," she responded cheerfully, "but we'll soon mend that, Mrs. Lightfoot and I. We are of one mind with Uncle Bill, who, when Mr. Blake asked him the other day what we ought to do for our returned soldiers, replied as quick as that, 'Feed 'em, sir.'"
The Major laughed with misty eyes.
"You can't get Betty to look on the dark side, my boy," he declared, though Dan, watching the girl, saw that her face in repose had grown very sad. Only the old beaming smile brought the brightness now.
"Well, I hope she will turn up the cheerful part of this outlook," he said, surrendering himself to the noisy welcome of Cupid and Aunt Rhody.
"We may trust her--we may trust her," replied the old man as he settled himself back into his chair. "If there isn't any sunshine, Betty will make it for us herself."
Dan met the girl's glance for an instant, and then looked at the old negroes hanging upon his hands.
"Yes, the prodigal is back," he admitted, laughing, "and I hope the fatted calf is on the crane."
"Dar's a roas' pig fur ter-morrow, sho's you bo'n," returned Aunt Rhody. "En I'se gwine to stuff 'im full." Then she hurried away to her fire, and Dan threw himself down upon the rug at the Major's feet.
"Yes, we may trust Betty for the sunshine," repeated the Major, as if striving to recall his wandering thoughts. "She's my overseer now, you know, and she actually looks after both places in less time than poor Harris took to worry along with one. Why, there's not a better farmer in the county."
"Oh, Major, don't," begged the girl, laughing and blushing beneath Dan's eyes. "You mustn't believe him, Dan, he wears rose-coloured glasses when he looks at me."
"Well, my sight is dim enough for everything else, my dear," confessed the old man sadly. "That's why I have the lamps lighted before the sun goes down--eh, Molly?"
Mrs. Lightfoot unwrapped her knitting and the ivory kneedles clicked in the firelight.
"I like to keep the shadows away myself," she responded. "The twilight used to be my favourite hour, but I dread it now, and so does Mr. Lightfoot."
"Well, the war's given us that in common," chuckled the Major, stretching out his feet. "If I remember rightly you once complained that our tastes were never alike, Molly." Then he glanced round with hospitable eyes. "Draw up, my boy, draw up to the fire and tell your story," he added invitingly. "By the time Champe comes home we'll have rich treats in store for the summer evenings."
Betty was looking at him as he bent over the thin flames, and Dan saw her warm gaze cloud suddenly with tears. He put out his hand and touched hers as it lay on the Major's chair, and when she turned to him she was smiling brightly.
"Here's Cupid with our supper," she said, going to the table, "and dear Aunt Rhody has actually gotten out her brandied peaches that she kept behind her 'jists.' If you ever doubted your welcome, Dan, this must banish it forever." Then as they gathered about the fruits of Aunt Rhody's labours, she talked on rapidly in her cheerful voice. "The silver has just been drawn up from the bottom of the well," she laughed, "so you mustn't wonder if it looks a little tarnished. There wasn't a piece missing, which is something to be thankful for already, and the port--how many bottles of port did you dig up from the asparagus bed, Uncle Cupid?"
"I'se done hoed up 'mos' a dozen," answered Cupid, as he plied Dan with waffles, "en dey ain' all un um up yit."
"Well, well, we'll have a bottle after supper," remarked the Major, heartily.
"If there's anything that's been improved by this war it should be that port, I reckon," said Mrs. Lightfoot, her muslin cap nodding over the high old urns.
"And Dan's appetite," finished Betty, merrily.
When they rose from the table, the girl tied on her bonnet of plaited straw and kissed Mrs. Lightfoot and the Major.
"It is almost mamma's supper time," she said, "and I must hurry back. Why, I've been away from her at least two hours." Then she looked at Dan and shook her head. "Don't come," she added, "it is too far for you, and Congo will see me safely home."
"Well, I'm sorry for Congo, but his day is over," Dan returned, as he took up his hat and followed her out into the orchard. With a last wave to the Major, who watched them from the window, they passed under the blossoming fruit trees and went slowly down the little path, while Betty talked pleasantly of trivial things, cheerful, friendly, and composed. When she had exhausted the spring ploughing, the crops still to be planted and the bright May weather, Dan stopped beside the ashes of Chericoke, and looked at her with sombre eyes.
"Betty, we must have it out," he said abruptly. "I have thought over it until I'm almost mad, and I see but one sensible thing for you to do--you must give me up--my dearest."
A smile flickered about Betty's mouth. "It has taken you a long time to come to that conclusion," she responded.
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