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IV A HOUSE WITH AN OPEN DOOR THt<: master of Uplands was standing upon his portico behind the Doric columns, looking complacently over the fat lands upon which his fathers had sown and harvested for generations. Beyond the lane of lilacs and the two silver poplars at the gate, his eyes wandered leisurely across the blue green strip of grass-land to the tawny wheat field, where the slaves were singing as they swung their cradles. The day was fine, and the outlying meadows seemed to reflect his gaze with a smile as beneficent as his own. He had cast his bread upon the soil, and it had returned to him threefold. As he stood there, a small, yet imposing figure, in his white duck suit, holding his broad slouch hat in his hand, he presented something of the genial aspect of the country - as if the light that touched the pleasant hills and valleys was aglow in his clear brown eyes and comely features. Even the stnooth white hand in which he held his hat and ridirtg-whip had about it a certain plump kindliness which would best become a careless gesture of concession . And, after all, he looked but what he was - a bland and generoUs gentleman, whose heart was as open as his wine cellar. 4S The Battle-Ground A catbird was singing in one of the silver poplars , and he waited, with upraised head, for the song to end. Then he stooped beside a column and carefully examined a newly planted coral honeysuckle before he went into the wide hall, where his wife was seated at her work-table. From the rear door, which stood open until frost, a glow of sunshine entered, brightening the white walls with their rows of antlers and gunracks, and rippling over the well-waxed floor upon which no drop of water had ever fallen. A faint sweetness was in the air from the honeysuckle arbour outside , which led into the box-bordered walks of the garden. As the Governor hung up his hat, he began at once with his daily news of the farm. ." I hope they'll get that wheat field done to-day," he said; "but it doesn't look much like it - they've been dawdling over it for the last three days. I am afraid Wilson isn't much of a manager, after all; if I take my eyes off him, he seems to lose his head." "I think everything is that way," returned his· wife, looking up from one of the elaborately tucked and hemstitched shirt fronts which served to gratify the Governor's single vanity. "I'm sure Aunt Pussy says she can't trust Judy for three days in the dairy without finding that the cream has stood too long for butter - and Judy has been churning for twenty years." She cut off her thread and helel the linen out for the Governor's inspection. "I really believe that is the prettiest one I've made. How do you like this new stitch? " A House with an Open Door 47 " Exquisite! " exclaimed her husband, as he took the shirt front in his hand. "Simply exquisite, my love. There isn't a woman in Virginia who can do such needlework; but it should go upon a younger and handsomer man, Julia." His wife blushed and looked up at him, the colour nsmg to her beautiful brow and giving a youthful radiance to her nunlike face. "It could certainly go upon a younger man, Mr. Ambler," she rejoined, with a touch of the coquetry for which she had once been noted; "but I should like to know where I'd find a handsomer one." A pleased smile broadened the Governor's face, and he settled his waistcoat with an approving pat. " Ah, you're a partial witness, my dear," he said; "but I've an error to confess, so I mustn't forego your favour - I - I bought several of Mr. Willis's servants, my love." "Why, Mr. Ambler! " remonstrated his wife, reproach softening her voice until it fell like a caress. "·Why, Mr. Ambler, you bought six of Colonel Blake's last year, you know and one of the house servants has been nursing them ever since. The quarters are filled with infirm darkies." " But I couldn't help it, Julia, I really couldn't," pleaded the Governor. "You'd have done it yourself , my dear. They were sold to a dealer going south, and one of them wants to marry that Mandy of yours." "Oh, if it's Mandy's lover," broke in Mrs. Ambler , with rising interest, "of course you had to buy him, and you did right about the others - you always do right." She put out her delicate blue- The Battle-Ground veined hand and touched his arm. "I shall see them to-day," she added, " and Mandy may as well be making her wedding dress." " What an eye to things you have," said the Governor , proudly. "You might have been President, had you been a man, my dear." His wife rose and took up her work-box with a laugh of protest. "I am quite content with the mission of my sex, sir," she returned, half in jest, half in wifely humility. "I'm sure I'd much rather make shirt fronts for you than wear them myself." Then she nodded to him and went, with her stately step, up the broad staircase, her white hand flitting over the mahogany balustrade. As he looked after her, the Governor's face clouded, and he sighed beneath his breath. The cares she met with such serenity had been too heavy for her strength; they had driven the bloom from her cheeks and the lustre from her eyes; and, though she had not faltered at her task, she had drooped daily and grown older than her years. The master might live with a lavish disregard of the morrow, not the master's wife. For him were the open house, the shining table, the well-stocked wine cellar and the morning rides over the dewy fields; for her the cares of her home and children, and of the souls and bodies of the black people that had been given into her hands. In her gentle heart it seemed to her that she had a charge to keep before her God; and she went her way humbly, her thoughts filled with things so vital as the uses of her medicine chest and the unexpounded mysteries of salvation. A House with an Open Door 49 Now, as she reached the upper landing, she met Betty running to look for her. "0, mamma, may I go to fish and the new boy and Big Abel? wants to go, too, she says." with Champe And Virginia "Wait a moment, child," said Mrs. Ambler. "You have tom the trimming on your frock. Stand still and I'll mend it for you," and she got out her needle and sewed up the rent, while Betty hopped impatiently from foot to foot. " I think the new boy's a heap nicer than Champe, mamma," she remarked as she waited. "Do you, dear?" " An' he says I'm nicer than Champe, too. He fought Champe 'cause he said I didn't have as much sense as he had - an' I have, haven't I, mamma? " " Women do not need as much sense as men, my dear," replied Mrs. Ambler, taking a dainty stitch. "Well, anyway, Dan fought Champe about it," said Betty, with pride. "He'll fight about 'most anything, he says, if he jest gets roused - an' that cert'n'y did rouse him. His nose bled a long time, too, and Champe whipped him, you know. But, when it was over, I asked him if I had as much sense as he had, and he said, ' Psha! you're just a girl.' Wasn't that funny, mamma?" "There, there, Betty," was lVIrs. Ambler's rejoinder . "I'm afraid he's a wicked boy, and you mustn't get such foolish thoughts into your head. If the Lord had wanted you to be clever, He would have made you a man. Now, run away, and don't get your feet wet; and if you see Aunt Lydia in E 50 The Battle-Ground the garden, you may tell her that the bonnet has come for her to look at." Betty bounded away and gave the message to Aunt Lydia over the whitewashed fence of the garden. "They've sent a bonnet from New York for you to look at, Aunt Lydia," she cried. "It came all wrapped up in tissue paper, with mamma's gray silk, and it's got flowers on it - a lot of them!" with which parting shot, she turned her back upon the startled old lady and dashed off to join the boys and Big Abel, who, with their fishing -poles, had gathered in the cattle pasture. Miss Lydia, who was lovingly bending over a bed of thyme, raised her eyes and looked after the child, all in a gentle wonder. Then she went slowly up and down the box-bordered walks, the full skirt of her" old lady's gown" trailing stiffly over the white gravel, her delicate face rising against the blossomless shrubs of snowball and bridal-wreath, like a faintly tinted flower that had been blighted before it fully bloomed. Around her the garden was fragrant as a rose-jar with the lid left off, and the very paths beneath were red and white with fallen petals. Hardy cabbage roses, single pink and white dailies, yellow-centred damask, and the last splendours of the giant of battle, all dipped their colours to her as she passed, while the little rustic summer-house where the walks branched off was but a flowering bank of maiden's blush and microphylla . Amid them all, Miss Lydia wandered in her full black gown, putting aside her filmy ruffles as she tied back a hanging spray or pruned a broken stalk, A House with an Open Door 51 sometimes even lowering her thread lace cap as she weeded the tangle of sweet Williams and touchme -not. Since her gentle girlhood she had tended bountiful gardens, and dreamed her virgin dreams in the purity of their box-trimmed walks. In a kind of worldly piety she had bound her prayer book in satin and offered to her Maker the incense of flowers. She regarded heaven with something of the respectful fervour with which she regarded the world - that great world she had never seen; for "the proper place for a spinster is her father's house," she would say with her conventional primness , and send, despite herself, a mild imagination in pursuit of the follies from which she so earnestly prayed to be delivered - she, to whom New York was as the terror of a modern Babylon, and a Jezebe1 but a woman with paint upon her cheeks. "They tell me that other women have painted since," she had once said, with a wistful curiosity. "Your grandmamma, my dear Julia, had even seen one with an artificial colour. She would not have mentioned it to me, of course, - an unmarried lady, - but I was in the next room when she spoke of it to old Mrs. Fitzhugh. She was a woman of the world, was your grandmamma, my dear, and the most finished dancer of her day." The last was said with a timid pride, though to Miss Lydia herself the dance was the devil's own device, and the teaching of the catechism to small black slaves the chief end of existence. But the blood of the " most finished dancer of her day" still circulated beneath the old lady's gown and the religious fife, and in her attenuated romances she forever held the sinner The Battle-Ground above the saint, unless, indeed, the sinner chanced to be of her own sex, when, probably, the book would never have reached her hands. For the purely masculine improprieties, her charity was as boundless as her innocence. She had even dipped into Shakespeare and brought away the memory of Mercutio; she had read Scott, and enshrined in her pious heart the bold Rob Roy. "Men are very wicked, I fear," she would gently offer, "but they are very a - a - engaging, too." To-day, when Betty came with the message, she lingered a moment to convince herself that the bonnet was not in her thoughts, and then swept her trailing bOI lhazine intI' the house. "I have come to tell you that you may as well send the bonnet back, Julia," she began at once. "Flowers are much too fine for me, my dear. I need only a plain black poke." "Come up and try it on," was Mrs. Ambler's cheerful response. " You have no idea how lovely it will look on you." Miss Lydia went up and took the bonnet out of its wrapping of tissue paper. "No, you must send it back, my love," she said in a resigned voice. "It does not become me to dress as a married woman. It may as well go back, Julia." "But do look in the glass, Aunt Lydia - there, let me put it straight for you. Why, it suits you perfectly. It makes you look at least ten years younger." "A plain black poke, my dear," insisted Aunt Lydia, as she carefully swathed the flowers in the tissue paper. "And, besides, I have myoid one, A House with an Open Door 53 which is quite good enough for me, my love. It was very sweet of you to think of it, but it may as well go back." She pensively gazed at the mirror for a moment, and then went to her chamber and took out her Bible to read Saint Paul on Woman. When she came down a few hours later, her face wore an angelic meekness. "I have been thinking of that poor Mrs. Brown who was here last week," she said softly, "and I remember her telling me that she had no bonnet to wear to church. What a loss it must be to her not to attend divine service." Mrs. Ambler quickly looked up from her needlework . "Why, Aunt Lydia, it would be really a charity to give her your old one!" she exclaimed. "It does seem a shame that she should be kept away from church because of a bonnet. And, then, you might as well keep the new one, you know, since it is in the house; I hate the trouble of sending it back." "It would be a charity," murmured Miss Lydia, and the bonnet was brought down and tried on again. They were still looking at it when Betty rushed in and threw herself upon her mother. "0, mamma, I can't help it!" she cried in tears, "an' I wish I hadn't done it! Oh, I wish I hadn't; but I set fire to the Major's woodpile, and he's whippin' Dan! " " Betty! " exclaimed Mrs. Ambler. She took the child by her shoulders and drew her toward her. " Betty, did you set fire to the Major's woodpile?" she questioned sternly. S4 The Battle-Ground Betty was sobbing aloud, but she stopped long enough to gasp out an answer. "We were playin' Injuns, mamma, an' we couldn't make believe 'twas real," she said, "an' it isn't any fun unless you can make believe, so I lit the woodpile and pretended it was a 10rt, an' Big Abel, he was an Injun with the axe for a tomahawk ; but the woodpile blazed right up, an' the Major came runnin' out. He asked Dan wlio did it, an' Dan wouldn't say 'twas me, - an' I wouldn't say, either, - so he took Dan in to whip him. Oh, I wish 1'd told! I wish 1'd told! " " Hush, Betty," said Mrs. Ambler, and she called to the Governor in the hall, "Mr. Ambler, Betty has set fire to the Major's woodpile!" Her voice was hopeless, and she looked up blankly at her husband as he entered. " Set fire to the woodpile!" whistled the Governor . "Why, bless my soul, we aren't safe in our beds!" "He whipped Dan," wailed Betty. " We aren't safe in our beds," repeated the Governor , indignantly. "Julia, this is really too much." "Well, you will have to ride right over there," said his wife, decisively. "Petunia, run down and tell Hosea to saddle his master's horse. Betty, I hope this will be a lesson to you. You shan't have any preserves for supper for a week." "I don't want any preserves," sobbed Betty, her apron to her eyes. "Then you mustn't go fishing for two weeks. Mr. Ambler, you'd better be starting at once, and A House with an Open Door 55 don't forget to tell the Major that Betty is in great distress - you are, aren't you, Betty?" "Yes, ma'am," wept Betty. The Governor went out into the hall and took down his hat and riding-whip. "The sins of the children are visited upon the fathers," he remarked gloomily as he mounted his horse and rode away from his supper. ...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780817388294
Related ISBN
9780817310417
MARC Record
OCLC
47010965
Pages
559
Launched on MUSE
2016-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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