Sally Dows and Other Stories

Sally Dows

Chapter V

Bret Harte

THE HOUSE occupied by the manager of the Drummond Syndicate in Redlands—the former residence of a local lawyer and justice of the peace—was not large, but had an imposing portico of wooden Doric columns, which extended to the roof and fronted the main street. The all-pervading creeper closely covered it; the sidewalk before it was shaded by a row of broad-leaved ailantus. The front room, with French windows opening on the portico, was used by Colonel Courtland as a general office; beyond this a sitting-room and dining-room overlooked the old-fashioned garden with its detached kitchen and inevitable negro cabin. It was a close evening; there were dark clouds coming up in the direction of the turnpike road, but the leaves of the ailantus hung heavy and motionless in the hush of an impending storm. The sparks of lazily floating fireflies softly expanded and went out in the gloom of the black foliage, or in the dark recesses of the office, whose windows were widely open, and whose lights Courtland had extinguished when he brought his armchair to the portico for coolness. One of these sparks beyond the fence, although alternately glowing and paling, was still so persistent and stationary that Courtland leaned forward to watch it more closely, at which it disappeared, and a voice from the street said:—

“Is that you, Courtland?”

“Yes. Come in, won’t you?”

The voice was Champney’s, and the light was from his cigar. As he opened the gate and came slowly up the steps of the portico the usual hesitation of his manner seemed to have increased. A long sigh trilled the limp leaves of the ailantus and as quickly subsided. A few heavy perpendicular raindrops crashed and spattered through the foliage like molten lead.

“You’ve just escaped the shower,” said Courtland pleasantly. He had not seen Champney since they parted in the cemetery six weeks before.

“Yes!—I—I thought I’d like to have a little talk with you, Courtland,” said Champney. He hesitated a moment before the proffered chair, and then added, with a cautious glance towards the street, “Hadn’t we better go inside?”

“As you like. But you’ll find it wofully hot. We’re quite alone here; there’s nobody in the house, and this shower will drive any loungers from the street.” He was quite frank, although their relations to each other in regard to Miss Sally were still so undefined as to scarcely invite his confidence.

Howbeit Champney took the proffered chair and the glass of julep which Courtland brought him.

“You remember my speaking to you of Dumont?” he said hesitatingly, “Miss Dows’ French cousin, you know? Well—he’s coming here: he’s got property here—those three houses opposite the Court House. From what I hear, he’s come over with a lot of new-fangled French ideas on the nigger question—rot about equality and fraternity, don’t you know—and the highest education and highest offices for them. You know what the feeling is here already? You know what happened at the last election at Coolidgeville—how the whites wouldn’t let the niggers go to the polls and the jolly row that was kicked up over it? Well, it looks as if that sort of thing might happen here, don’t you know, if Miss Dows takes up these ideas.”

“But I’ve reason to suppose—I mean,” said Courtland correcting himself with some deliberation, “that any one who knows Miss Dows’ opinions knows that these are not her views. Why should she take them up?”

“Because she takes him up,” returned Champney hurriedly; “and even if she didn’t believe in them herself, she’d have to share the responsibility with him in the eyes of every unreconstructed rowdy like Tom Higbee and the rest of them. They’d make short work of her niggers all the same.”

“But I don’t see why she should be made responsible for the opinions of her cousin, nor do I exactly knew what ‘taking him up’ means,” returned Courtland quietly.

Champney moistened his dry lips with the julep and uttered a nervous laugh. “Suppose we say her husband—for that’s what his coming back here means. Everybody knows that; you would, too, if you ever talked with her about anything but business.”

A bright flash of lightning that lit up the faces of the two men would have revealed Champney’s flushed features and Courtland’s lack of color had they been looking at each other. But they were not, and the long reverberating crash of thunder which followed prevented any audible reply from Courtland, and covered his agitation.

For without fully accepting Champney’s conclusions he was cruelly shocked at the young man’s utterance of them. He had scrupulously respected the wishes of Miss Sally and had faithfully—although never hopelessly—held back any expression of his own love since their conversation in the cemetery. But while his native truthfulness and sense of honor had overlooked the seeming insincerity of her attitude towards Champney, he had never justified his own tacit participation in it, and the concealment of his own pretensions before his possible rival. It was true that she had forbidden him to openly enter the lists with her admirers, but Champney’s innocent assumption of his indifference to her and his consequent half confidences added poignancy to his story. There seemed to be only one way to extricate himself, and that was by a quarrel. Whether he did or did not believe Champney’s story, whether it was only the jealous exaggeration of a rival, or Miss Sally was actually deceiving them both, his position had become intolerable.

“I must remind you, Champney,” he said, with freezing deliberation, “that Miss Miranda Dows and her niece now represent the Drummond Company equally with myself, and that you cannot expect me to listen to any reflections upon the way they choose to administer their part in its affairs, either now, or to come. Still less do I care to discuss the idle gossip which can affect only the private interests of these ladies, with which neither you nor I have any right to interfere.”

But the naivete of the young Englishman was as invincible as Miss Sally’s own, and as fatal to Courtland’s attitude. “Of course I haven’t any right, you know,” he said, calmly ignoring the severe preamble of his companion’s speech, “but I say! hang it all! even if a fellow has no chance himself, he don’t like to see a girl throw herself and her property away on a man like that.”

“One moment, Champney,” said Courtland, under the infection of his guest’s simplicity, abandoning his former superior attitude. “You say you have no chance. Do you want me to understand that you are regularly a suitor of Miss Dows?”

“Y-e-e-s,” said the young fellow, but with the hesitation of conscientiousness rather than evasion. “That is—you know I was. But don’t you see, it couldn’t be. It wouldn’t do, you know. If those clannish neighbors of hers—that Southern set—suspected that Miss Sally was courted by an Englishman, don’t you know—a poacher on their preserves—it would be all up with her position on the property and her influence over them. I don’t mind telling you that’s one reason why I left the company and took that other plantation. But even that didn’t work; they had their suspicions excited already.”

“Did Miss Dows give that as a reason for declining your suit?” asked Courtland slowly.

“Yes. You know what a straightforward girl she is. She didn’t come no rot about ‘not expecting anything of the kind,’ or about ‘being a sister to me,’ and all that, for, by Jove! she’s always more like a fellow’s sister, don’t you know, than his girl. Of course, it was hard lines for me, but I suppose she was about right.” He stopped, and then added with a kind of gentle persistency: “you think she was about right, don’t you?”

With what was passing in Courtland’s mind the question seemed so bitterly ironical that at first he leaned half angrily forward, in an unconscious attempt to catch the speaker’s expression in the darkness. “I should hardly venture to give an opinion,” he said, after a pause. “Miss Dows’ relations with her neighbors are so very peculiar. And from what you tell me of her cousin it would seem that her desire to placate them is not always to be depended upon.”

“I’m not finding fault with her, you know,” said Champney hastily. “I’m not such a beastly cad as that; I wouldn’t have spoken of my affairs at all, but you asked, you know. I only thought, if she was going to get herself into trouble on account of that Frenchman, you might talk to her—she’d listen to you, because she’d know you only did it out of business reasons. And they’re really business reasons, you know. I suppose you don’t think much of my business capacity, colonel, and you wouldn’t go much on my judgment—especially now; but I’ve been here longer than you and”—he lowered his voice slightly and dragged his chair nearer Courtland—“I don’t like the looks of things here. There’s some devilment plotting among those rascals. They’re only awaiting an opportunity; a single flash would be enough to set them in a blaze, even if the fire wasn’t lit and smouldering already like a spark in a bale of cotton. I’d cut the whole thing and clear out if I didn’t think it would make it harder for Miss Dows, who would be left alone.”

“You’re a good fellow, Champney,” said Courtland, laying his hand on the young man’s shoulder with a sudden impulse, “and I forgive you for overlooking any concern that I might have. Indeed,” he added, with an odd seriousness and a half sigh, “it’s not strange that you should. But I must remind you that the Dowses are strictly the agents and tenants of the company I represent, and that their rights and property under that tenancy shall not be interfered with by others as long as I am here. I have no right, however,” he added gravely, “to keep Miss Dows from imperiling them by her social relations.”

Champney rose and shook hands with him awkwardly. “The shower seems to be holding up,” he said, “and I’ll toddle along before it starts afresh. Good-night! I say—you didn’t mind my coming to you this way, did you? By Jove! I thought you were a little stand-offish at first. But you know what I meant?”

“Perfectly, and I thank you.” They shook hands again. Champney stepped from the portico, and, reaching the gate, seemed to vanish as he had come, out of the darkness.

The storm was not yet over; the air had again become close and suffocating. Courtland remained brooding in his chair. Whether he could accept Champney’s news as true or not, he felt that he must end this suspense at once. A half-guilty consciousness that he was thinking more of it in reference to his own passion than his duty to the company did not render his meditations less unpleasant. Yet while he could not reconcile Miss Sally’s confidences in the cemetery concerning the indifference of her people to Champney’s attentions with what Champney had just told him of the reasons she had given him for declining them, I am afraid he was not shocked by her peculiar ethics. A lover seldom finds fault with his mistress for deceiving his rival, and is as little apt to consider the logical deduction that she could deceive him also, as Othello was to accept Brabantio’s warning, The masculine sense of honor which might have resented the friendship of a man capable of such treachery did not hesitate to accept the love of a woman under the same conditions. Perhaps there was an implied compliment in thus allowing her to take the sole ethical responsibility, which few women would resist.

In the midst of this gloomy abstraction Courtland suddenly raised his head and listened.


“Yes, sah.”

There was a sound of heavy footsteps in the hall coming from the rear of the house, and presently a darker bulk appeared in the shadowed doorway. It was his principal overseer—a strong and superior negro, selected by his fellow-freedmen from among their number in accordance with Courtland’s new regime.

“Did you come here from the plantation or the town?”

“The town, sah.”

“I think you had better keep out of the town in the evenings for the present,” said Courtland in a tone of quiet but positive authority.

“Are dey goin’ to bring back de ole ‘patter rollers,’1 sah?” asked the man with a slight sneer.

“I don’t know,” returned Courtland calmly, ignoring his overseer’s manner. “But if they did you must comply with the local regulations unless they conflict with the Federal laws, when you must appeal to the Federal authorities. I prefer you should avoid any trouble until you are sure.”

“I reckon they won’t try any games on me,” said the negro with a short laugh.

Courtland looked at him intently.

“I thought as much! You’re carrying arms, Cato! Hand them over.”

The overseer hesitated for a moment, and then unstrapped a revolver from his belt, and handed it to Courtland.

“Now how many of you are in the habit of going round the town armed like this?”

“Only de men who’ve been insulted, sah.”

“And how have you been insulted?”

“Marse Tom Highee down in de market reckoned it was high time fancy niggers was drov into de swamp, and I allowed that loafers and beggars had better roost high when workin’ folks was around, and Marse Tom said he’d cut my haht out.”

“And do you think your carrying a revolver will prevent him and his friends performing that operation if you provoked them?”

“You said we was to pertect ourse’fs, sah,” returned the negro gloomily. “What foh den did you drill us to use dem rifles in de armory?”

“To defend yourselves together under orders if attacked, not to singly threaten with them in a street row. Together, you would stand some chance against those men; separately they could eat you up, Cato.”

“I wouldn’t trust too much to some of dem niggers standing together, sah,” said Gate darkly. “Dey’d run before de old masters—if they didn’t run to ’em. Shuah!”

A fear of this kind had crossed Courtland’s mind before, but he made no present comment. “I found two of the armory rifles in the men’s cabins yesterday,” he resumed quietly. “See that it does not occur again! They must not be taken from the armory except to defend it.”

“Yes, sah.”

There was a moment of silence. Then it was broken by a sudden gust that swept through the columns of the portico, stirring the vines. The broad leaves of the ailantus began to rustle; an ominous pattering followed; the rain had recommenced. And as Courtland rose and walked towards the open window its blank panes and the interior of the office were suddenly illuminated by a gleam of returning lightning.

He entered the office, bidding Cato follow, and lit the lamp above his desk. The negro remained standing gloomily but respectfully by the window.

“Cato, do you know anything of Mr. Dumont—Miss Dows’ cousin?”

The negro’s white teeth suddenly flashed in the lamplight. “Ya! ha! I reckon, sah.”

“Then he’s a great friend of your people?”

“I don’t know about dat, sah. But he’s a pow’ful enemy of de Reeds and de Higbees!”

“On account of his views, of course?”

“’Deed no!” said Cato with an astounded air. “Jess on account of de vendetta!”

“The vendetta?”

“Yes, sah. De old blood quo’ll of de families. It’s been goin’ on over fifty years, sah. De granfader, fader, and brudder of de Higbees was killed by de granfader, fader, and brudder of de Doomonts. De Reeds chipped in when all de Higbees was played out, fo’ dey was relations, but dey was chawed up by some of de Dowses, first cousins to de Doomonts.”

“What? Are the Dows in this vendetta?”

“No, sah. No mo’. Dey’s bin no man in de family since Miss Sally’s fader died—dat’s let de Dows out fo’ ever. De las’ shootin’ was done by Marse Jack Doomont, who crippled Marse Tom Higbee’s brudder Jo, and den skipped to Europe. Dey say he’s come back, and is lying low over at Atlanty. Dar’ll be lively times of he comes here to see Miss Sally.”

“But he may have changed his ideas while living abroad, where this sort of thing is simple murder.”

The negro shook his head grimly. “Den he wouldn’t come, sah. No, sah. He knows dat Tom Higbee’s bound to go fo’ him or leave de place, and Marse Jack wouldn’t mind settlin’ him too as well as his brudder, for de scores is agin’ de Doomonts yet. And Marse Jack ain’t no slouch wid a scatter gun.”

At any other time the imminence of this survival of a lawless barbarism of which he had heard so much would have impressed Courtland; now he was only interested in it on account of the inconceivable position in which it left Miss Sally. Had she anything to do with this baleful cousin’s return, or was she only to be a helpless victim of it?

A white, dazzling, and bewildering flash of lightning suddenly lit up the room, the porch, the dripping ailantus, and the flooded street beyond. It was followed presently by a crash of thunder, with what seemed to be a second fainter flash of lightning, or rather as if the first flash had suddenly ignited some inflammable substance. With the long reverberation of the thunder still shaking the house, Courtland slipped quickly out of the window and passed down to the gate.

“Did it strike anything, sah?” said the startled negro, as Courtland returned.

“Not that I can see,” said his employer shortly. “Go inside, and call Zoe and her daughter from the cabin and bring them in the hall. Stay till I come. Go!—I’ll shut the windows myself.”

“It must have struck somewhere, sah, shuah! Deh’s a pow’ful smell of sulphur right here,” said the negro as he left the room.

Courtland thought so too, but it was a kind of sulphur that he had smelled before—on the battlefield! For when the door was closed behind his overseer he took the lamp to the opposite wall and examined it carefully. There was the distinct hole made by a bullet which had missed Cato’s head at the open window by an inch.

1.    The “patrol” or local police who formerly had the surveillance of slaves.    [back]

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