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- Colonel Carter of Cartersville - 6/23 -
into Fairfax city."
Fitz thought so too, and made a second memorandum to that effect, recording the suggestion very much as a private secretary would an order from his railroad magnate.
The colonel gave this last order with coat thrown open,--thumbs in his vest,--back to the fire,--an attitude never indulged in except on rare occasions, and then only when the very weight of the problem necessitated a corresponding bracing up, and more breathing room.
These attitudes, by the way, were very suggestive of the colonel's varying moods. Sometimes, when he came home, tired out with the hard pavements of the city, so different from the soft earth of his native roads, I would find him bunched up in his chair in the twilight; face in hands, elbows on knees, crooning over the fire, the silver streaks in his hair glistening in the flickering firelight, building castles in the glowing coals,--the old manor house restored and the barns rebuilt, the gates rehung, the old quarters repaired, the little negroes again around the doors; and he once more catching the sound of the yellow-painted coach on the gravel, with Chad helping the dear old aunt down the porch steps. This, deep down in the bottom of his soul, was really the dream and purpose of his life.
It never seemed nearer of realization than now. The very thought suffused his whole being with a suppressed joy, visible in his face even when he began loosening the two lower buttons of his old threadbare coat, throwing back the lapels and slowly extending his fingers fan-like over his dilating chest.
I always knew what suddenly sweetened his smile from one of triumphant pride to one of tenderness.
"And the old home, Fitz, something must be done there; we must receive our friends properly."
Fitz agreed to everything, offering an amendment here, and a suggestion there, until our host's enthusiasm reached fever heat.
It was nearly midnight before the colonel had confided to Fitz all the pressing necessities of the coming day. Even then he followed us both to the door, with parting instructions to Fitz, saying over and over again that it had been the happiest night of his life. And he would have gone bare-headed to the outer gate had not Chad caught him half way down the steps, thrown a coat over his head and shoulders, and gently led him back with:--
"'Clar to goodness, Marsa George, what kind foolishness dis yer? Is you tryin' to ketch yo' death?"
Once on the outside and the gate shut, Fitz's whole manner changed. He became suddenly thoughtful, and did not speak until we reached the tall clock tower with its full moon of a face shining high up against the black winter night.
Then he stood still, looked out over the white street, dotted here and there with belated wayfarers trudging home through the snow, and said with a tremor in his voice which startled me:--
"I couldn't raise a dollar in a lunatic asylum full of millionaires on a scheme like the colonel's, and yet I keep on lying to the dear old fellow day after day, hoping that something will turn up by which I can help him out."
"Then tell him so."
Fitz laid his hand on my shoulder, looked me straight in the face, and said:--
"I cannot. It would break his heart."
_An Old Family Servant_
The colonel's front yard, while as quaint and old-fashioned as his house, was not--if I may be allowed--quite so well bred.
This came partly from the outdoor life it had always led and from its close association with other yards that had lost all semblance of respectability, and partly from the fact that it had never felt the refining influences of the friends of the house; for nobody ever lingered in the front yard who by any possibility could get into the front door--nobody, except perhaps now and then a stray tramp, who felt at home at once and went to sleep on the steps.
That all this told upon its character and appearance was shown in the remnants of whitewash on the high wall, scaling off in discolored patches; in the stagger of the tall fence opposite, drooping like a drunkard between two policemen of posts; and in the unkempt, bulging rear of the third wall,--the front house,--stuffed with rags and tied up with clothes-lines.
If in the purity of its youth it had ever seen better days as a garden--but then no possible stretch of imagination, however brilliant, could ever convert this miserable quadrangle into a garden.
It contained, of course, as all such yards do, one lone plant,--this time a honeysuckle,--which had clambered over the front door and there rested as if content to stay; but which later on, frightened at the surroundings, had with one great spring cleared the slippery wall between, reached the rain-spout above, and by its helping arm had thus escaped to the roof and the sunlight.
It is also true that high up on this same wall there still clung the remains of a criss-cross wooden trellis supporting the shivering branches of an old vine, which had spent its whole life trying to grow high enough to look over the tall fence into the yard beyond; but this was so long ago that not even the landlord remembered the color of its blossoms.
Then there was an old-fashioned hydrant, with a half-spiral crank of a handle on its top and the curved end of a lead pipe always aleak thrust through its rotten side, with its little statues of ice all winter and its spattering slop all summer. Besides all this there were some broken flower-pots in a heap in one corner,--suicides from the window-sills above,--and some sagging clothes-lines, and a battered watering-pot, and a box or two that might once have held flowers; and yet with all this circumstantial evidence against me I cannot conscientiously believe that this forlorn courtyard ever could have risen to the dignity of a garden.
But of course nothing of all this can be seen at night. At night one sees only the tall clock tower of Jefferson Market with its one blazing eye glaring high up over the fence, the little lantern hung in the tunnel, and the glow through the curtains shading the old-fashioned windows of the house itself, telling of warmth and comfort within.
To-night when I pushed open the swinging door--the door of the tunnel entering from the street--the lantern was gone, and in its stead there was only the glimmer of a mysterious light moving about the yard,--a light that fell now on the bare wall, now on the front steps, making threads of gold of the twisted iron railings, then on the posts of the leaning fence, against which hung three feathery objects,--grotesque and curious in the changing shadows,--and again on some barrels and boxes surrounded by loose straw.
Following this light, in fact, guiding it, was a noiseless, crouching figure peering under the open steps, groping around the front door, creeping beneath the windows; moving uneasily with a burglar-like tread.
I grasped my umbrella, advanced to the edge of the tunnel, and called out:--
The figure stopped, straightened up, held a lantern high over its head, and peered into the darkness.
There was no mistaking that face.
"Oh, that's you, Chad, is it? What the devil are you doing?" "Lookin' for one ob dese yer tar'pins Miss Nancy sent de colonel. Dey was seben ob 'em in dis box, an' now dey ain't but six. Hole dis light, Major, an' lemme fumble round dis rain-spout."
Chad handed me the lantern, fell on his knees, and began crawling around the small yard like an old dog hunting for a possum, feeling in among the roots of the honeysuckle, between the barrels that had brought the colonel's china from Carter Hall, under the steps, way back where Chad kept his wood ashes--but no "brer tar'pin."
"Well, if dat don't beat de lan'! Dey was two ba'els--one had dat wild turkey an' de pair o' geese you see hangin' on de fence dar, an' de udder ba'el I jest ca'aed down de cellar full er oishters. De tar'pins was in dis box--seben ob 'em. Spec' dat rapscallion crawled ober de fence?" And Chad picked up the basket with the remaining half dozen, and descended the basement steps on his way through the kitchen to the front door above. Before he reached the bottom step I heard him break out with:--
"Oh, yer you is, you black debbil! Tryin' to git in de door, is ye? De pot is whar you'll git!"
At the foot of the short steps, flat on his back, head and legs wriggling like an overturned roach, lay the missing terrapin. It had crawled to the edge of the opening and had fallen down in the darkness.
Chad picked him up and kept on grumbling, shaking his finger at the motionless terrapin, whose head and legs were now tight drawn between its shells.
"Gre't mine to squash ye! Wearin' out my old knees lookin' for ye. Nebber mine, I'm gwine to bile ye fust an' de longest--hear dat?--de longest!" Then looking up at me, "I got him, Major--try dat do'. Spec' it's open. Colonel ain't yer yit. Reckon some ob dem moonshiners is keepin' him down town. 'Fo' I forgit it, dar's a letter for ye hangin' to de mantelpiece."
The door and the letter were both open, the latter being half a sheet of paper impaled by a pin, which alone saved it from the roaring fire
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