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- The Law of the Land - 2/49 -
"Yes, I know."
"Well, is it any crime, mamma, I should like to ask?" This with spirit, and with eyes showing themselves able to flash upon occasion.
"Not in the least, my dear. Indeed, I am not at all surprised. I knew it was coming."
"What was coming, mammal? What do you mean?"
"Why, that this was going to happen--that you were going to dance. It was nearly time."
"I do not know what you mean."
"It was always thus with the Ellisons," said the other woman. "All the Ellisons danced this way once in their lives. All the girls do so. They're very strange, these Ellison girls. They dance because they must, I suppose. It's as natural as breathing, for them. You can't help it. It's fate. But listen, child. It is time I took you more in hand. You will be marrying before long--"
"Mamma!" Miss Lady blushed indignantly. "How can you talk so? I don't know--I didn't--I shan't--"
"Tut, tut. Please don't. It is going to be a very warm day. I really can't go into any argument. Take my word, you will marry soon; or if you don't, you will reverse all the known horoscopes of the family. That, too, is the fate of the Ellison girls--certain marriage! Our only hope is in some miracle. It is time for me to take you in hand. Listen, Lady. Let me ask you to sit a trifle farther back upon that chair. So, that is better. Now, draw the skirt a little closer. That is well. Now, sit easily, keep your back from the chair; try to keep your feet concealed. Remember, Lady, you are a woman now, and there are certain rules, certain little things, which will help you so much, so much."
Mrs. Ellison sighed, then yawned, touching her white teeth with the tip of her fan. "Dear me, it certainly is going to be warm," she said at last. "Lady, dear, please run and get my book, won't you? You know your darling mamma is getting so--well, I won't say fat, God forbid! but so--really--well, thank you."
Miss Lady fled gladly and swiftly enough. For an instant she halted, uncertain, on the wide gallery, her face troubled, her attitude undecided. Then, in swift mutiny, she sprang down the steps and was off in open desertion. She fled down the garden walk, and presently was welcomed riotously by a score of dogs and puppies, long since her friends.
Left alone, the elder lady sat for a moment in thought. Her face now seemed harder in outline, more enigmatical. She gazed after the girl who left her, and into her eyes came a look which one must have called strangely unmaternal--a look not tender, but hard, calculating, cold.
"She is pretty," she murmured to herself half-aloud. "She is going to be very pretty--the prettiest of the family in generations, perhaps. Well-handled, that girl could marry anybody. I'll have to be careful she doesn't marry the wrong one. They're headstrong, these Ellisons. Still, I think I can handle this one of them. In fact, I _must_." She smiled gently and settled down into a half-reverie, purring to herself. "Dear me!" she resumed at length, starting up, "how warm it grows! Where has that girl gone? I do believe she has run away. Delphine! Ah-h-h-h, Delphine!"
There came no audible sound of steps, but presently there stood, just within the parted draperies, the figure of the servant thus called upon. Yet that title sat ill upon this tall young woman who now stood awaiting the orders of her mistress. Garbed as a servant she was, yet held herself rather as a queen. Her hair, black and luxuriant, was straight and strong, and, brushed back smoothly from her temples as it was, contrasted sharply with a skin just creamy enough to establish it as otherwise than pure white. Egyptian, or Greek, or of unknown race, this servant, Delphine, might have been; but had it not been for her station and surroundings, one could never have suspected in her the trace of negro blood. She stood now, a mellow-tinted statue of not quite yellow ivory, silent, turning upon her mistress eyes large, dark and inscrutable as those of a sphinx. One looking upon the two, as they thus confronted each other, must have called them a strange couple. Why they should be mistress and servant was not a matter to be determined upon a first light guess. Indeed, they seemed scarcely such. From dark eye to dark eye there seemed to pass a signal of covert understanding, a signal of doubt, or suspicion, or armed neutrality, yet of mutual comprehension.
"Delphine," said Mrs. Ellison, presently, "bring me a glass of wine. And from now on, Delphine, see to it that you watch that girl. Tell me what she does. There's very little restraint of any kind here on the plantation, and she is just the age--well, you must keep me informed. You may bring the decanter, Delphine. I really don't feel fit for breakfast."
In the warm sun of the southern morning the great plantation lay as though half-asleep, dozing and blinking at the advancing day. The plantation house, known in all the country-side as the Big House, rested calm and self-confident in the middle of a wide sweep of cleared lands, surrounded immediately by dark evergreens and the occasional primeval oaks spared in the original felling of the forest. Wide and rambling galleries of one height or another crawled here and there about the expanses of the building, and again paused, as though weary of the attempt to circumvent it. The strong white pillars, rising from the ground floor straight to the third story, shone white and stately, after that old southern fashion, that Grecian style, simplified and made suitable to provincial purses by those Adams brothers of old England who first set the fashion in early American architecture. White-coated, with wide, cool, green blinds, with ample and wide-doored halls and deep, low windows, the Big House, here in the heart of the warm South-land, was above all things suited to its environment. It was a home taking firm hold upon the soil, its wide roots reaching into traditions of more than one generation. Well toward the head of the vast Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, the richest region on the face of the whole earth, the Big House ruled over these wide acres as of immemorial right. Its owner, Colonel Calvin Blount, was a king, an American king, his right to rule based upon full proof of fitness.
In the heart of the only American part of America, the Big House, careless and confident, could afford to lie blinking at the sun, or at the broad acres which blinked back at it. It was all so safe and sure that there was no need for anxiety. Life here was as it had been for generations, even for the generation following the upheaval of the Civil War. Open-handed, generous, rich, lazily arrogant, kindly always, though upon occasions fiercely savage, this life took hold upon that of a hundred years ago. These strings of blacks, who now, answering the plantation bell, slowly crawled down the lane to the outlying fields, might still have been slaves. This lazy plow, tickling the opulent earth, might have been handled by a slave rather than by this hired servitor, whose quavering, plaintive song, broken mid-bar betimes, now came back across the warm distances which lay trembling in the rays of the advancing sun. These other dark-skinned servants, dawdling along the galleries, or passing here and yonder from the detached quarters of kitchen, and cook-room, and laundry and sleeping-rooms--they also humming musically at their work, too full of the sun and the certainty of comfort to need to hurry even with a song--all these might also have been tenants of an old-time estate, giving slow service in return for a life of carelessness and irresponsibility. This was in the South, in the Delta, the garden of the South, the garden of America; a country crude, primitive, undeveloped in modern ways, as one might say, yet by right entitled to its own assuredness. It asked nothing of all the world.
All this deep rich soil was given to the people of that land by Father Messasebe. Yards deep it lay, anciently rich, kissed by a sun which caused every growing thing to leap into swift fruition. The entire lesson of the scene was one of an absolute fecundity. The grass was deep and green and lush. The sweet peas and the roses and the morning-glories, and the honeysuckles on the lattice, hung ranks deep in blossoms. A hundred flocks of fowl ran clucking and chirping about the yard. Across the lawn a mother swine led her brood of squeaking and squealing young. A half-hundred puppies, toddlers or half-grown, romped about, unused fragments of the great hunting pack of the owner of this kingdom. Life, perhaps short, perhaps rude, perhaps swiftly done, yet after all life--this was the message of it all. The trees grew vast and tall. The corn, where the stalks could still be seen, grew stiff and strong as little trees. The cotton, through which the negroes rode, their black kinky heads level with the old shreds of ungathered bolls, showed plants rank and coarse enough to uphold a man's weight free of the ground. This sun and this soil--what might they not do in brooding fecundity? Growth, reproduction, the multifold--all this was written under that sky which now swept, deep and blue, flecked here and there with soft and fleecy clouds, over these fruitful acres hewn from the primeval forest.
The forest, the deep, vast forest of oak and ash and gum and ghostly sycamore; the forest, tangled with a thousand binding vines and briers, wattled and laced with rank blue cane--sure proof of a soil exhaustlessly rich--this ancient forest still stood, mysterious and forbidding, all about the edges of the great plantation. Here and there a tall white stump, fire-blackened at its foot, stood, even in fields long cultivated, showing how laborious and slow had been the whittling away of this jungle, which even now continually encroached and claimed its own. The rim of the woods, marked white by the deadened trees where the axes of the laborers were reclaiming yet other acres as the years rolled by, now showed in the morning sun distinctly, making a frame for the rich and restful picture of the Big House and its lands. Now and again overhead there swung slowly an occasional great black bird, its shadow not yet falling straight on the sunlit ground, as it would at midday, when the puppies of the pack would begin their daily pastime of chasing it across the fields.
This silent surrounding forest even yet held its ancient creatures-- the swift and graceful deer, the soft-footed panther, the shambling black bear, the wild hog, the wolf, all manner of furred creatures, great store of noble wild fowl--all these thriving after the fecund fashion of this brooding land. It was a kingdom, this wild world, a realm in the wilderness; a kingdom fit for a bold man to govern, a man such as might have ruled in days long gone by. And indeed the Big House and its scarcely measured acres kept well their master as they had for many years. The table of this Delta baron was almost
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