Sally Dows and Other Stories

Sally Dows

Chapter III

Bret Harte

IN SPITE of the awkward termination of his visit,—or perhaps because of it,—Courtland called again at the plantation within the week. But this time he was accompanied by Drummond, and was received by Miss Miranda Dows, a tall, aquiline-nosed spinster of fifty, whose old-time politeness had become slightly affected, and whose old beliefs had given way to a half-cynical acceptance of new facts. Mr. Drummond, delighted with the farm and its management, was no less fascinated by Miss Sally, while Courtland was now discreet enough to divide his attentions between her and her aunt, with the result that he was far from participating in Champney’s conviction of Miss Miranda’s unimportance. To the freedmen she still represented the old implacable task-mistress, and it was evident that they superstitiously believed that she still retained a vague power of overriding the Fourteenth Amendment at her pleasure, and was only to be restrained by the mediation of the good-humored and sensible Miss Sally. Courtland was quick to see the value of this influence in the transition state of the freedmen, and pointed it out to his principal. Drummond’s previous doubts and skepticism, already weakened by Miss Sally’s fascinations, vanished entirely at this prospect of beneficially utilizing these lingering evils of slavery. He was convinced, he was even enthusiastic. The foreign investors were men to be bought out; the estate improved and enlarged by the company, and the fair owners retained in the management and control. Like most prejudiced men, Drummond’s conversion was sudden and extreme, and, being a practical man, was at once acted upon. At a second and third interview the preliminaries were arranged, and in three weeks from Courtland’s first visit, the Dows’ plantation and part of Major Reed’s were merged in the “Drummond Syndicate,” and placed beyond financial uncertainty. Courtland remained to represent the company as superintendent at Redlands, and with the transfer of the English investments Champney retired, as he had suggested, to a smaller venture of his own, on a plantation a few miles distant which the company had been unable to secure.

During this interval Courtland had frequent interviews with Miss Sally, and easy and unrestrained access to her presence. He had never again erred on the side of romance or emotion; he had never again referred to the infelix letter and photograph; and, without being obliged to confine himself strictly to business affairs, he had maintained an even, quiet, neighborly intercourse with her. Much of this was the result of his own self-control and soldierly training, and gave little indication of the deeper feeling that he was conscious lay beneath it. At times he caught the young girl’s eyes fixed upon him with a mischievous curiosity. A strange thrill went through him; there are few situations so subtle and dangerous as the accidental confidences and understandings of two young people of opposite sex, even though the question of any sentimental inclination be still in abeyance. Courtland knew that Miss Sally remembered the too serious attitude he had taken towards her past. She might laugh at it, and even resent it, but she knew it, remembered it, knew that he did, and this precious knowledge was confined to themselves. It was in their minds when there was a pause in their more practical and conventional conversation, and was even revealed in the excessive care which Miss Sally later took to avert at the right moment her mischievously smiling eyes. Once she went farther. Courtland had just finished explaining to her a plan for substituting small farm buildings for the usual half-cultivated garden-patches dear to the negro field-hand, and had laid down the drawings on the table in the office, when the young lady, leaning against it with her hands behind her, fixed her bright gray eyes on his serious face.

“I vow and protest, co’nnle,” she said, dropping into one of the quaint survivals of an old-time phraseology peculiar to her people, “I never allowed yo’ could just give yo’self up to business, soul and body, as yo’ do, when I first met yo’ that day.”

“Why, what did you think me?” he asked quickly.

Miss Sally, who had a Southern aptitude for gesture, took one little hand from behind her, twirled it above her head with a pretty air of disposing of some airy nothing in a presumably masculine fashion, and said, “Oh, that.”

“I am afraid I did not impress you then as a very practical man,” he said, with a faint color.

“I thought you roosted rather high, co’nnle, to pick up many worms in the mo’ning. But,” she added with a dazzling smile, “I reckon from what yo’ said about the photograph, yo’ thought I wasn’t exactly what yo’ believed I ought to be, either.”

He would have liked to tell her then and there that he would have been content if those bright, beautiful eyes had never kindled with anything but love or womanly aspiration; that that soft, lazy, caressing voice had never been lifted beyond the fireside or domestic circle; that the sunny, tendriled hair and pink ears had never inclined to anything but whispered admiration; and that the graceful, lithe, erect figure, so independent and self-contained, had been satisfied to lean only upon his arm for support. He was conscious that this had been in his mind when he first saw her; he was equally conscious that she was more bewilderingly fascinating to him in her present inaccessible intelligence and practicality.

“I confess,” he said, looking into her eyes with a vague smile, “I did not expect you would be so forgetful of some one who had evidently cared for you.”

“Meaning Mr. Chet Brooks, or Mr. Joyce Masterton, or both. That’s like most yo’ men, co’nnle. Yo’ reckon because a girl pleases yo’ she ought to be grateful all her life—and yo’rs, too! Yo’ think different now! But yo’ needn’t act up to it quite so much.” She made a little deprecating gesture with her disengaged hand as if to ward off any retaliating gallantry. “I ain’t speaking for myself, co’nnle. Yo’ and me are good enough friends. But the girls round here think yo’ ’re a trifle too much taken up with rice and niggers. And looking at it even in yo’r light, co’nnle, it ain’t business. Yo’ want to keep straight with Major Reed, so it would be just as well to square the major’s woman folks. Tavy and Gussie Reed ain’t exactly poisonous, co’nnle, and yo’ might see one or the other home from church next Sunday. The Sunday after that, just to show yo’ ain’t particular, and that yo’ go in for being a regular beau, yo’ might walk home with me. Don’t be frightened—I’ve got a better gown than this. It’s a new one, just come home from Louisville, and I’ll wear it for the occasion.”

He did not dare to say that the quaint frock she was then wearing—a plain “checked” household gingham used for children’s pinafores, with its ribbons of the same pattern, gathered in bows at the smart apron pockets—had become a part of her beauty, for he was already hopelessly conscious that she was lovely in anything, and he might be impelled to say so. He thanked her gravely and earnestly, but without gallantry or effusion, and had the satisfaction of seeing the mischief in her eyes increase in proportion to his seriousness, and heard her say with affected concern: “Bear up, co’nnle! Don’t let it worry yo’ till the time comes,” and took his leave.

On the following Sunday he was present at the Redlands Episcopal Church, and after the service stood with outward composure but some inward chafing among the gallant youth who, after the local fashion, had ranged themselves outside the doors of the building. He was somewhat surprised to find Mr. Champney, evidently as much out of place as himself, but less self-contained, waiting in the crowd of expectant cavaliers. Although convinced that the young Englishman had come only to see Miss Sally, he was glad to share his awkward isolation with another stranger, and greeted him pleasantly. The Dows’ pew, being nearer to the entrance than the Reeds’, gave up its occupants first. Colonel Courtland lifted his hat to Miss Miranda and her niece at the same moment that Champney moved forward and ranged himself beside them. Miss Sally, catching Courtland’s eye, showed the whites of her own in a backward glance of mischievous significance to indicate the following Reeds. When they approached, Courtland joined them, and finding himself beside Miss Octavia entered into conversation. Apparently the suppressed passion and sardonic melancholy of that dark-eyed young lady spurred him to a lighter, gayer humor even in proportion as Miss Sally’s good-natured levity and sunny practicality always made him serious. They presently fell to the rear with other couples, and were soon quite alone.

A little haughty, but tall and erect in her well-preserved black grenadine dress, which gave her the appearance of a youthful but implacable widow, Miss Reed declared she had not seen the co’nnle for “a coon’s age,” and certainly had not expected to have the honor of his company as long as there were niggers to be elevated or painted to look like white men. She hoped that he and paw and Sally Dows were happy! They hadn’t yet got so far as to put up a nigger preacher in the place of Mr. Symes, their rector, but she understood that there was some talk of running Hannibal Johnson—Miss Dows’ coachman—for county judge next year! No! she had not heard that the co’nnle himself had thought of running for the office! He might laugh at her as much as he liked—he seemed to be in better spirits than when she first saw him—only she would like to know if it was “No’th’n style” to laugh coming home from church? Of course if it was she would have to adopt it with the Fourteenth Amendment. But, just now, she noticed the folks were staring at them, and Miss Sally Dows had turned round to look. Nevertheless, Miss Octavia’s sallow cheek nearest the colonel—the sunny side—had taken a faint brunette’s flush, and the corners of her proud mouth were slightly lifted.

“But, candidly, Miss Reed, don’t you think that you would prefer to have old Hannibal, whom you know, as county judge, than a stranger and a Northern man like me?”

Miss Reed’s dark eyes glanced sideways at the handsome face and elegant figure beside her. Something like a saucy smile struggled to her thin lips.

“There mightn’t be much to choose, Co’nnle.”

“I admit it. We should both acknowledge our mistress, and be like wax in her hands.”

“Yo’ ought to make that pooty speech to Sally Dows, she’s generally mistress around here. But,” she added, suddenly fixing her eyes on him, “how does it happen that yo’ ain’t walking with her instead of that Englishman? Yo’ know that it’s as plain as day that he took that land over there just to be near her, when he was no longer agent.”

But Courtland was always master of himself and quite at ease regarding Miss Sally when not in that lady’s presence. “You forget,” he said smilingly, “that I’m still a stranger and knew little of the local gossip; and if I did know it, I am afraid we didn’t bargain to buy up with the land Mr. Champney’s personal interest in the landlady.”

“Yo’ ’d have had your hands full, for I reckon she’s pooty heavily mortgaged in that fashion, already,” returned Miss Reed with mere badinage than spitefulness in the suggestion. “And Mr. Champney was run pooty close by a French cousin of hers when he was here. Yo’ haven’t got any French books to lend me, co’nnle—have yo’? Paw says you read a heap of French, and I find it mighty hard to keep up my practice since I left the Convent at St. Louis, for paw don’t knew what sort of books to order, and I reckon he makes awful mistakes sometimes.”

The conversation here turning upon polite literature, it appeared that Miss Octavia’s French reading, through a shy, proud innocence and an imperfect knowledge of the wicked subtleties of the language, was somewhat broad and unconventional for a young lady. Courtland promised to send her some books, and even ventured to suggest some American and English novels not intensely “No’th’n” nor “metaphysical”—according to the accepted Southern beliefs. A new respect and pitying interest in this sullen, solitary girl, cramped by tradition, and bruised rather than enlightened by sad experiences, came over him. He found himself talking quite confidentially to the lifted head, arched eyebrows, and aquiline nose beside him, and even thinking what a handsome high-bred brother she might have been to some one. When they had reached the house, in compliance with the familiar custom, he sat down on one of the lower steps of the veranda, while she, shaking out her skirt, took a seat a step or two above him. This enabled him, after the languid local fashion, to lean on his elbow and gaze up into the eyes of the young lady, while she with equal languor looked down upon him. But in the present instance Miss Reed leaned forward suddenly, and darting a sharp quick glance into his very consciousness said:—

“And yo’ mean to say, co’nnle, there’s nothing between yo’ and Sally Dows?”

Courtland neither flushed, trembled, grew confused, nor prevaricated.

“We are good friends, I think,” he replied quietly, without evasion or hesitation.

Miss Reed looked at him thoughtfully, “I reckon that is so—and no more. And that’s why yo’ ’ve been so lucky in everything,” she said slowly.

“I don’t think I quite understand,” returned Courtland, smiling. “Is this a paradox—or a consolation?”

“It’s the truth,” said Miss Reed gravely. “Those who try to be anything more to Sally Dows lose their luck.”

“That is—are rejected by her. Is she really so relentless?” continued Courtland gayly.

“I mean that they lose their luck in everything. Something is sure to happen. And she can’t help it either.”

“Is this a Sibylline warning, Miss Reed?”

“No. It’s nigger superstition. It came from Mammy Judy, Sally’s old nurse. It’s part of their regular Hoo-doo. She bewitched Miss Sally when she was a baby, so that everybody is bound to her as long as they care for her, and she isn’t bound to them in any way. All their luck goes to her as soon as the spell is on them,” she added darkly.

“I think I know the rest,” returned Courtland with still greater solemnity. “You gather the buds of the witch-hazel in April when the moon is full. You then pluck three hairs from the young lady’s right eyebrow when she isn’t looking”—

“Yo’ can laugh, co’nnle, for yo’ ’re lucky—because yo’ ’re free.”

“I’m not so sure of that,” he said gallantly, “for I ought to be riding at this moment over to the Infirmary to visit my Sunday sick. If being made to pleasantly forget one’s time and duty is a sign of witchcraft I am afraid Mammy Judy’s enchantments were not confined to only one Southern young lady.”

The sound of quick footsteps on the gravel path caused them both to look up. A surly looking young fellow, ostentatiously booted and spurred, and carrying a heavy rawhide riding-whip in his swinging hand, was approaching them. Deliberately, yet with uneasy self-consciousness, ignoring the presence of Courtland, he nodded abruptly to Miss Reed, ascended the steps, brushed past them both without pausing, and entered the house.

“Is that yo’r manners, Mr. Tom?” called the young lady after him, a slight flush rising to her sallow cheek. The young man muttered something from the hall which Courtland did not catch. “It’s Cousin Tom Higbee,” she explained half disdainfully. “He’s had some ugliness with his horse, I reckon; but paw ought to teach him how to behave. And—I don’t think he likes No’th’n men,” she added gravely.

Courtland, who had kept his temper with his full understanding of the intruder’s meaning, smiled as he took Miss Reed’s hand in parting. “That’s quite enough explanation, and I don’t know why it shouldn’t be even an apology.”

Yet the incident left little impression on him as he strolled back to Redlands. It was not the first time he had tasted the dregs of former sectional hatred in incivility and discourtesy, but as it seldom came from his old personal antagonists—the soldiers—and was confined to the callow youth, previous non-combatants and politicians, he could afford to overlook it. He did not see Miss Sally during the following week.

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