NEVERTHELESS, as Colonel Courtland rode deliberately towards Dows’ Folly, as the new experiment was locally called, although he had not abated his romantic enthusiasm in the least, he was not sorry that he was able to visit it under a practical pretext. It was rather late now to seek out Miss Sally Dows with the avowed intent of bringing her a letter from an admirer who had been dead three years, and whose memory she had probably buried. Neither was it tactful to recall a sentiment which might have been a weakness of which she was ashamed. Yet, clear-headed and logical as Courtland was in his ordinary affairs, he was nevertheless not entirely free from that peculiar superstition which surrounds every man’s romance. He believed there was something more than a mere coincidence in his unexpectedly finding himself in such favorable conditions for making her acquaintance. For the rest—if there was any rest—he would simply trust to fate. And so, believing himself a cool, sagacious reasoner, but being actually, as far as Miss Dows was concerned, as blind, fatuous, and unreasoning as any of her previous admirers, he rode complacently forward until he reached the lane that led to the Dows plantation.
Here a better kept roadway and fence, whose careful repair would have delighted Drummond, seemed to augur well for the new enterprise. Presently, even the old-fashioned local form of the fence, a slanting zigzag, gave way to the more direct line of post and rail in the Northern fashion. Beyond it presently appeared a long low frontage of modern buildings which, to Courtland’s surprise, were entirely new in structure and design. There was no reminiscence of the usual Southern porticoed gable or columned veranda. Yet it was not Northern either. The factory-like outline of facade was partly hidden in Cherokee rose and jessamine.
A long roofed gallery connected the buildings and became a veranda to one. A broad, well-rolled gravel drive led from the open gate to the newest building, which seemed to be the office; a smaller path diverged from it to the corner house, which, despite its severe simplicity, had a more residential appearance. Unlike Reed’s house, there were no lounging servants or field hands to be seen; they were evidently attending to their respective duties. Dismounting, Courtland tied his horse to a post at the office door and took the smaller path to the corner house.
The door was open to the fragrant afternoon breeze wafted through the rose and jessamine. So also was a side door opening from the hall into a long parlor or sitting-room that ran the whole width of the house. Courtland entered it. It was prettily furnished, but everything had the air of freshness and of being uncharacteristically new. It was empty, but a faint hammering was audible on the rear wall of the house, through the two open French windows at the back, curtained with trailing vines, which gave upon a sunlit courtyard. Courtland walked to the window. Just before it, on the ground, stood a small light ladder, which he gently put aside to gain a better view of the courtyard as he put on his hat, and stepped out of the open window.
In this attitude he suddenly felt his hat tipped from his head, followed almost instantaneously by a falling slipper, and the distinct impression of a very small foot on the crown of his head. An indescribable sensation passed over him. He hurriedly stepped back into the room, just as a small striped-stockinged foot was as hastily drawn up above the top of the window with the feminine exclamation, “Good gracious me!”
Lingering for an instant, only to assure himself that the fair speaker had secured her foothold and was in no danger of falling, Courtland snatched up his hat, which had providentially fallen inside the room, and retreated ingloriously to the other end of the parlor. The voice came again from the window, and struck him as being very sweet and clear:—
“Sophy, is that you?”
Courtland discreetly retired to the hall. To his great relief a voice from the outside answered, “Whar, Miss Sally?”
“What did yo’ move the ladder for? Yo’ might have killed me.”
“Fo’ God, Miss Sally, I didn’t move no ladder!”
“Don’t tell me, but go down and get my slipper. And bring up some more nails.”
Courtland waited silently in the hall. In a few moments he heard a heavy footstep outside the rear window. This was his opportunity. Re-entering the parlor somewhat ostentatiously, he confronted a tall negro girl who was passing through the room carrying a tiny slipper in her hand. “Excuse me,” he said politely, “but I could not find any one to announce me. Is Miss Dows at home?”
The girl instantly whipped the slipper behind her. “Is yo’ wanting Miss Mirandy Dows,” she asked with great dignity, “oah Miss Sally Dows—her niece? Miss Mirandy’s bin gone to Atlanta for a week.”
“I have a letter for Miss Miranda, but I shall be very glad if Miss Sally Dows will receive me,” returned Courtland, handing the letter and his card to the girl.
She received it with a still greater access of dignity and marked deliberation. “It’s clean gone outer my mind, sah, ef Miss Sally is in de resumption of visitahs at dis houah. In fac’, sah,” she continued, with intensified gravity and an exaggeration of thoughtfulness as the sounds of Miss Sally’s hammering came shamelessly from the wall, “I doahn know exac’ly ef she’s engaged playin’ de harp, practicin’ de languages, or paintin’ in oil and watah colors, o’ givin’ audiences to offishals from de Court House. It might be de houah for de one or de odder. But I’ll communicate wid her, sah, in de budwoh on de uppah flo’.” She backed dexterously, so as to keep the slipper behind her, but with no diminution of dignity, out of a side door. In another moment the hammering ceased, followed by the sound of rapid whispering without; a few tiny twigs and leaves slowly rustled to the ground, and then there was complete silence. He ventured to walk to the fateful window again.
Presently he heard a faint rustle at the other end of the room, and he turned. A sudden tremulousness swept along his pulses, and then they seemed to pause; he drew a deep breath that was almost a sigh, and remained motionless.
He had no preconceived idea of falling in love with Miss Sally at first sight, nor had he dreamed such a thing possible. Even the girlish face that he had seen in the locket, although it had stirred him with a singular emotion, had not suggested that. And the ideal he had evolved from it was never a potent presence. But the exquisitely pretty face and figure before him, although it might have been painted from his own fancy of her, was still something more and something unexpected. All that had gone before had never prepared him for the beautiful girl who now stood there. It was a poor explanation to say that Miss Sally was four or five years older than her picture, and that later experiences, enlarged capacity, a different life, and new ambition had impressed her youthful face with a refined mobility; it was a weird fancy to imagine that the blood of those who had died for her had in some vague, mysterious way imparted an actual fascination to her, and he dismissed it. But even the most familiar spectator, like Sophy, could see that Miss Sally had the softest pink complexion, the silkiest hair, that looked as the floss of the Indian corn might look if curled, or golden spider threads if materialized, and eyes that were in bright gray harmony with both; that the frock of India muslin, albeit home-made, fitted her figure perfectly, from the azure bows on her shoulders to the ribbon around her waist; and that the hem of its billowy skirt showed a foot which had the reputation of being the smallest foot south of Mason and Dixon’s Line! But it was something more intangible than this which kept Courtland breathless and silent.
“I’m not Miss Miranda Dows,” said the vision with a frankness that was half childlike and half practical, as she extended a little hand, “but I can talk ‘fahm’ with yo’ about as well as aunty, and I reckon from what Major Reed says heah,” holding up the letter between her fingers, “as long as yo’ get the persimmons yo’ don’t mind what kind o’ pole yo’ knock ’em down with.”
The voice that carried this speech was so fresh, clear, and sweet that I am afraid Courtland thought little of its bluntness or its conventional transgressions. But it brought him his own tongue quite unemotionally and quietly. “I don’t know what was in that note, Miss Dows, but I can hardly believe that Major Reed ever put my present felicity quite in that way.”
Miss Sally laughed. Then with a charming exaggeration she waved her little hand towards the sofa.
“There! Yo’ naturally wanted a little room for that, co’nnle, but now that yo’ ’ve got it off,—and mighty pooty it was, too,—yo’ can sit down.” And with that she sank down at one end of the sofa, prettily drew aside a white billow of skirt so as to leave ample room for Courtland at the other, and clasping her fingers over her knees, looked demurely expectant.
“But let me hope that I am not disturbing you unseasonably,” said Courtland, catching sight of the fateful little slipper beneath her skirt, and remembering the window. “I was so preoccupied in thinking of your aunt as the business manager of these estates that I quite forget that she might have a lady’s hours for receiving.”
“We haven’t got any company hours,” said Miss Sally, “and we haven’t just now any servants for company manners, for we’re short-handed in the fields and barns. When yo’ came I was nailing up the laths for the vines outside, because we couldn’t spare carpenters from the factory. But,” she added, with a faint accession of mischief in her voice, “yo’ came to talk about the fahm?”
“Yes,” said Courtland, rising, “but not to interrupt the work on it. Will you let me help you nail up the laths on the wall? I have some experience that way, and we can talk as we work. Do oblige me!”
The young girl looked at him brightly.
“Well, now, there’s nothing mean about that. Yo’ mean it for sure?”
“Perfectly. I shall feel so much less as if I was enjoying your company under false pretenses.”
“Yo’ just wait here, then.”
She jumped from the sofa, ran out of the room, and returned presently, tying the string of a long striped cotton blouse—evidently an extra one of Sophy’s—behind her back as she returned. It was gathered under her oval chin by a tape also tied behind her, while her fair hair was tucked under the usual red bandana handkerchief of the negro housemaid. It is scarcely necessary to add that the effect was bewitching.
“But,” said Miss Sally, eying her guest’s smartly fitting frock-coat, “yo’ ‘ll spoil yo’r pooty clothes, sure! Take off yo’r coat—don’t mind me—and work in yo’r shirtsleeves.”
Courtland obediently flung aside his coat and followed his active hostess through the French window to the platform outside. Above them a wooden ledge or cornice, projecting several inches, ran the whole length of the building. It was on this that Miss Sally had evidently found a foothold while she was nailing up a trellis-work of laths between it and the windows of the second floor. Courtland found the ladder, mounted to the ledge, followed by the young girl, who smilingly waived his proffered hand to help her up, and the two gravely set to work. But in the intervals of hammering and tying up the vines Miss Sally’s tongue was not idle. Her talk was as fresh, as quaint, as original as herself, and yet so practical and to the purpose of Courtland’s visit as to excuse his delight in it and her own fascinating propinquity. Whether she stopped to take a nail from between her pretty lips when she spoke to him, or whether holding on perilously with one hand to the trellis while she gesticulated with the hammer, pointing out the divisions of the plantation from her coign of vantage, he thought she was as clear and convincing to his intellect as she was distracting to his senses.
She told him how the war had broken up their old home in Pineville, sending her father to serve in the Confederate councils of Richmond, and leaving her aunt and herself to manage the property alone; how the estate had been devastated, the house destroyed, and how they had barely time to remove a few valuables; how, although SHE had always been opposed to secession and the war, she had not gone North, preferring to stay with her people, and take with them the punishment of the folly she had foreseen. How after the war and her father’s death she and her aunt had determined to “reconstruct themselves” after their own fashion on this bit of property, which had survived their fortunes because it had always been considered valueless and unprofitable for negro labor. How at first they had undergone serious difficulty, through the incompetence and ignorance of the freed laborer, and the equal apathy and prejudice of their neighbors. How they had gradually succeeded with the adoption of new methods and ideas that she herself had conceived, which she now briefly and clearly stated. Courtland listened with a new, breathless, and almost superstitious interest: they were his own theories—perfected and demonstrated!
“But you must have had capital for this?”
Ah, yes! that was where they were fortunate. There were some French cousins with whom she had once stayed in Paris, who advanced enough to stock the estate. There were some English friends of her father’s, old blockade runners, who had taken shares, provided them with more capital, and imported some skilled laborers and a kind of steward or agent to represent them. But they were getting on, and perhaps it was better for their reputation with their neighbors that they had not been beholden to the “No’th.” Seeing a cloud pass over Courtland’s face, the young lady added with an affected sigh, and the first touch of feminine coquetry which had invaded their wholesome camaraderie:—
“Yo’ ought to have found us out before, co’nnle.”
For an impulsive moment Courtland felt like telling her then and there the story of his romantic quest; but the reflection that they were standing on a narrow ledge with no room for the emotions, and that Miss Sally had just put a nail in her mouth and a start might be dangerous, checked him. To this may be added a new jealousy of her previous experiences, which he had not felt before. Nevertheless, he managed to say with some effusion:—
“But I hope we are not too late now. I think my principals are quite ready and able to buy up any English or French investor now or to come.”
“Yo’ might try yo’ hand on that one,” said Miss Sally, pointing to a young fellow who had just emerged from the office and was crossing the courtyard. “He’s the English agent.”
He was square-shouldered and round-headed, fresh and clean looking in his white flannels, but with an air of being utterly distinct and alien to everything around him, and mentally and morally irreconcilable to it. As he passed the house he glanced shyly at it; his eye brightened and his manner became self-conscious as he caught sight of the young girl, but changed again when he saw her companion. Courtland likewise was conscious of a certain uneasiness; it was one thing to be helping Miss Sally alone, but certainly another thing to be doing so under the eye of a stranger; and I am afraid that he met the stony observation of the Englishman with an equally cold stare. Miss Sally alone retained her languid ease and self-possession. She called out, “Wait a moment, Mr. Champney,” slipped lightly down the ladder, and leaning against it with one foot on its lowest rung awaited his approach.
“I reckoned yo’ might be passing by,” she said, as he came forward. “Co’nnle Courtland,” with an explanatory wave of the hammer towards her companion, who remained erect and slightly stiffened on the cornice, “is no relation to those figures along the frieze of the Redlands Court House, but a No’th’n officer, a friend of Major Reed’s, who’s come down here to look after So’th’n property for some No’th’n capitalists. Mr. Champney,” she continued, turning and lifting her eyes to Courtland as she indicated Champney with her hammer, “when he isn’t talking English, seeing English, thinking English, dressing English, and wondering why God didn’t make everything English, is trying to do the same for his folks. Mr. Champney, Co’nnle Courtland. Co’nnle Courtland, Mr. Champney!” The two men bowed formally. “And now, Co’nnle, if yo’ll come down, Mr. Champney will show yo’ round the fahm. When yo’ ’ve got through yo’ll find me here at work.”
Courtland would have preferred, and half looked for her company and commentary on this round of inspection, but he concealed his disappointment and descended. It did not exactly please him that Champney seemed relieved, and appeared to accept him as a bona fide stranger who could not possibly interfere with any confidential relations that he might have with Miss Sally. Nevertheless, he met the Englishman’s offer to accompany him with polite gratitude, and they left the house together.
In less than an hour they returned. It had not even taken that time for Courtland to discover that the real improvements and the new methods had originated with Miss Sally; that she was virtually the controlling influence there, and that she was probably retarded rather than assisted by the old-fashioned and traditional conservatism of the company of which Champney was steward. It was equally plain, however, that the young fellow was dimly conscious of this, and was frankly communicative about it.
“You see, over there they work things in a different way, and, by Jove! they can’t understand that there is any other, don’t you know? They’re always wigging me as if I could help it, although I’ve tried to explain the nigger business, and all that, don’t you know? They want Miss Dows to refer her plans to me, and expect me to report on them, and then they’ll submit them to the Board and wait for its decision. Fancy Miss Dows doing that! But, by Jove! they can’t conceive of her at all over there, don’t you know?”
“Which Miss Dows do you mean?” asked Courtland dryly.
“Miss Sally, of course,” said the young fellow briskly. “She manages everything—her aunt included. She can make those niggers work when no one else can, a word or smile from her is enough. She can make terms with dealers and contractors—her own terms, too—when they won’t look at my figures. By Jove! she even gets points out of those traveling agents and inventors, don’t you know, who come along the road with patents and samples. She got one of those lightning-rod and wire-fence men to show her how to put up an arbor for her trailing roses. Why, when I first saw you up on the cornice, I thought you were some other chap that she’d asked—don’t you know—that is, at first, of course!—you know what I mean—ha, by Jove!—before we were introduced, don’t you know.”
“I think I offered to help Miss Dows,” said Courtland with a quickness that he at once regretted.
“So did he, don’t you know? Miss Sally does not ask anybody. Don’t you see? a fellow don’t like to stand by and see a young lady like her doing such work.” Vaguely aware of some infelicity in his speech, he awkwardly turned the subject: “I don’t think I shall stay here long, myself.”
“You expect to return to England?” asked Courtland.
“Oh, no! But I shall go out of the company’s service and try my own hand. There’s a good bit of land about three miles from here that’s in the market, and I think I could make something out of it. A fellow ought to settle down and be his own master,” he answered tentatively, “eh?”
“But how will Miss Dows be able to spare you?” asked Courtland, uneasily conscious that he was assuming an indifference.
“Oh, I’m not much use to her, don’t you know—at least not here. But I might, if I had my own land and if we were neighbors. I told you she runs the place, no matter who’s here, or whose money is invested.”
“I presume you are speaking now of young Miss Dows?” said Courtland dryly.
“Miss Sally—of course—always,” said Champney simply. “She runs the shop.”
“Were there not some French investors—relations of Miss Dows? Does anybody represent them?” asked Courtland pointedly.
Yet he was not quite prepared for the naive change in his companion’s face. “No. There was a sort of French cousin who used to be a good deal to the fore, don’t you know? But I rather fancy he didn’t come here to look after the property,” returned Champney with a quick laugh. “I think the aunt must have written to his friends, for they ‘called him off,’ and I don’t think Miss Sally broke her heart about him. She’s not that sort of girl—eh? She could have her pick of the State if she went in for that sort of thing—eh?”
Although this was exactly what Courtland was thinking, it pleased him to answer in a distrait sort of fashion, “Certainly, I should think so,” and to relapse into an apparently business abstraction.
“I think I won’t go in,” continued Champney as they neared the house again. “I suppose you’ll have something more to say to Miss Dows. If there’s anything else you want of me, come to the office. But she’ll know. And—er—er—if you’re—er—staying long in this part of the country, ride over and look me up, don’t you know? and have a smoke and a julep; I have a boy who knows how to mix them, and I’ve some old brandy sent me from the other side. Good-by.”
More awkward in his kindliness than in his simple business confidences, but apparently equally honest in both, he shook Courtland’s hand and walked away. Courtland turned towards the house. He had seen the farm and its improvements; he had found some of his own ideas practically discounted; clearly there was nothing left for him to do but to thank his hostess and take his leave. But he felt far more uneasy than when he had arrived; and there was a singular sense of incompleteness in his visit that he could not entirely account for. His conversation with Champney had complicated—he knew not why—his previous theories of Miss Dows, and although he was half conscious that this had nothing to do with the business that brought him there, he tried to think that it had. If Miss Sally was really—a—a—distracting element to contiguous man, it was certainly something to be considered in a matter of business of which she would take a managerial part. It was true that Champney had said she was “not that sort of girl,” but this was the testimony of one who was clearly under her influence. He entered the house through the open French window. The parlor was deserted. He walked through the front hall and porch; no one was there. He lingered a few moments, a slight chagrin beginning to mingle with his uneasiness. She might have been on the lookout for him. She or Sophy must have seen him returning. He would ring for Sophy, and leave his thanks and regrets for her mistress. He looked for a bell, touched it, but on being confronted with Sophy, changed his mind and asked to see Miss Dows. In the interval between her departure and the appearance of Miss Sally he resolved to do the very thing which he had dismissed from his thoughts but an hour before as ill-timed and doubtful. He had the photograph and letter in his pocket; he would make them his excuse for personally taking leave of her.
She entered with her fair eyebrows lifted in a pretty surprise.
“I declare to goodness, I thought yo’ ’d ridden over to the red barn and gone home from there. I got through my work on the vines earlier than I thought. One of Judge Garret’s nephews dropped in in time to help me with the last row. Yo’ needn’t have troubled yo’self to send up for me for mere company manners, but Sophy says yo’ looked sort of ’anxious and particular’ when yo’ asked for me—so I suppose yo’ want to see me for something.”
Mentally objurgating Sophy, and with an unpleasant impression in his mind of the unknown neighbor who had been helping Miss Sally in his place, he nevertheless tried to collect himself gallantly.
“I don’t know what my expression conveyed to Sophy,” he said with a smile, “but I trust that what I have to tell you may be interesting enough to make you forget my second intrusion.” He paused, and still smiling continued: “For more than three years, Miss Dows, you have more or less occupied my thoughts; and although we have actually met to-day only for the first time, I have during that time carried your image with me constantly. Even this meeting, which was only the result of an accident, I had been seeking for three years. I find you here under your own peaceful vine and fig-tree, and yet three years ago you came to me out of the thunder-cloud of battle.”
“My good gracious!” said Miss Sally.
She had been clasping her knee with her linked fingers, but separated them and leaned backward on the sofa with affected consternation, but an expression of growing amusement in her bright eyes. Courtland saw the mistake of his tone, but it was too late to change it now. He handed her the locket and the letter, and briefly, and perhaps a little more seriously, recounted the incident that had put him in possession of them. But he entirely suppressed the more dramatic and ghastly details, and his own superstition and strange prepossession towards her.
Miss Sally took the articles without a tremor, or the least deepening or paling of the delicate, faint suffusion of her cheek. When she had glanced over the letter, which appeared to be brief, she said, with smiling, half-pitying tranquillity:—
“Yes!—it was that poor Chet Brooks, sure! I heard that he was killed at Snake River. It was just like him to rush in and get killed the first pop! And all for nothing, too,—pure foolishness!”
Shocked, yet relieved, but uneasy under both sensations, Courtland went on blindly:
“But he was not the only one, Miss Dows. There was another man picked up who also had your picture.”
“Yes—Joyce Masterton. They sent it to me. But you didn’t kill him, too?”
“I don’t know that I personally killed either,” he said a little coldly. He paused, and continued with a gravity which he could not help feeling very inconsistent and even ludicrous: “They were brave men, Miss Dows.”
“To have worn my picture?” said Miss Sally brightly.
“To have thought they had so much to live for, and yet to have willingly laid down their lives for what they believed was right.”
“Yo’ didn’t go huntin’ me for three years to tell me, a So’th’n girl, that So’th’n men know how to fight, did yo’, co’nnle?” returned the young lady, with the slightest lifting of her head and drooping of her blue-veined lids in a divine hauteur. “They were always ready enough for that, even among themselves. It was much easier for these pooah boys to fight a thing out than think it out, or work it out. Yo’ folks in the No’th learned to do all three; that’s where you got the grip on us. Yo’ look surprised, co’nnle.”
“I didn’t expect you would look at it—quite in—in—that way,” said Courtland awkwardly.
“I am sorry I disappointed yo’ after yo’ ’d taken such a heap o’ trouble,” returned the young lady with a puzzling assumption of humility as she rose and smoothed out her skirts, “but I couldn’t know exactly what yo’ might be expecting after three years; if I had, I might have put on mo’ning.” She stopped and adjusted a straying tendril of her hair with the sharp corner of the dead man’s letter. “But I thank yo’, all the same, co’nnle. It was real good in yo’ to think of toting these things over here.” And she held out her hand frankly.
Courtland took it with the sickening consciousness that for the last five minutes he had been an unconscionable ass. He could not prolong the interview after she had so significantly risen. If he had only taken his leave and kept the letter and locket for a later visit, perhaps when they were older friends! It was too late now. He bent over her hand for a moment, again thanked her for her courtesy, and withdrew. A moment later she heard the receding beat of his horse’s hoofs on the road.
She opened the drawer of a brass-handled cabinet, and after a moment’s critical survey of her picture in the dead man’s locket, tossed it and the letter into the recesses of the drawer. Then she stopped, removed her little slipper from her foot, looked at that, too, thoughtfully, and called “Sophy!”
“Miss Sally?” said the girl, reappearing at the door.
“Are you sure you did not move that ladder?”
“I ‘clare to goodness, Miss Sally, I never teched it!”
Miss Sally directed a critical glance at her handmaiden’s red-coifed head. “No,” she said to herself softly, “it felt nicer than wool, anyway!”