Sally Dows and Other Stories

Sally Dows

Chapter VII

Bret Harte

WHEN Courtland’s eyes opened again, he was in bed in his own room at Redlands, with the vivid morning sun occasionally lighting up the wall whenever the closely drawn curtains were lightly blown aside by the freshening breeze. The whole events of the night might have been a dream but for the insupportable languor which numbed his senses, and the torpor of his arm, that, swollen and discolored, lay outside the coverlet on a pillow before him. Cloths that had been wrung out in iced water were replaced upon it from time to time by Sophy, Miss Dows’ housekeeper, who, seated near his bedhead, was lazily fanning him. Their eyes met.

“Broken?” he said interrogatively, with a faint return of his old deliberate manner, glancing at his helpless arm.

“Deedy no, cunnle! Snake bite,” responded the negress.

“Snake bite!” repeated Courtland with languid interest, “what snake?”

“Moccasin o’ copperhead—if you doun know yo’se’f which,” she replied. “But it’s all right now, honey! De pizen’s draw’d out and clean gone. Wot yer feels now is de whiskey. De whiskey stays, sah. It gets into de lubrications of de skin, sah, and has to be abso’bed.”

Some faint chord of memory was touched by the girl’s peculiar vocabulary.

“Ah,” said Courtland quickly, “you’re Miss Dows’ Sophy. Then you can tell me”—

“Nuffin, sah absomlutely nuffin!” interrupted the girl, shaking her head with impressive official dignity. “It’s done gone fo’bid by de doctor! Yo’ ’re to lie dar and shut yo’r eye, honey,” she added, for the moment reverting unconsciously to the native maternal tenderness of her race, “and yo’ ’re not to bodder yo’se’f ef school keeps o’ not. De medical man say distinctly, sah,” she concluded, sternly recalling her duty again, “no conversation wid de patient.”

But Courtland had winning ways with all dependents. “But you will answer me one question, Sophy, and I’ll not ask another. Has”—he hesitated in his still uncertainty as to the actuality of his experience and its probable extent—“has—Cato—escaped?”

“If yo’ mean dat sassy, bull-nigger oberseer of yo’se, cunnle, he’s safe, yo’ bet!” returned Sophy sharply. “Safe in his own quo’tahs night afo’ las’, after braggin’ about the bloodhaowns he killed; and safe ober the county line yes’day moan’in, after kicking up all dis rumpus. If dar is a sassy, highfalutin’ nigger I jiss ’spises—its dat black nigger Cato o’ yo’se! Now,”—relenting—“yo’ jiss wink yo’ eye, honey, and don’t excite yo’se’f about sach black trash; drap off to sleep comfor’ble. Fo’ you do’an get annuder word out o’ Sophy, shuah!”

As if in obedience, Courtland closed his eyes. But even in his weak state he was conscious of the blood coming into his cheek at Sophy’s relentless criticism of the man for whom he had just periled his life and position. Much of it he felt was true; but how far had he been a dupe in his quixotic defense of a quarrelsome blusterer and cowardly bully? Yet there was the unmistakable shot and cold-blooded attempt at Cato’s assassination! And there were the bloodhounds sent to track the unfortunate man! That was no dream—but a brutal inexcusable fact!

The medical practitioner of Redlands he remembered was conservative, old-fashioned, and diplomatic. But his sympathies had been broadened by some army experiences, and Courtland trusted to some soldierly and frank exposition of the matter from him. Nevertheless, Dr. Maynard was first healer, and, like Sophy, professionally cautious. The colonel had better not talk about it now. It was already two days old; the colonel had been nearly forty-eight hours in bed. It was a regrettable affair, but the natural climax of long-continued political and racial irritation—and not without great provocation! Assassination was a strong word; could Colonel Courtland swear that Cato was actually aimed at, or was it not merely a demonstration to frighten a bullying negro? It might have been necessary to teach him a lesson—which the colonel by this time ought to know could only be taught to these inferior races by fear. The bloodhounds! Ah, yes!—well, the bloodhounds were, in fact, only a part of that wholesome discipline. Surely Colonel Courtland was not so foolish as to believe that, even in the old slave-holding days, planters sent dogs after runaways to mangle and destroy their own property? They might as well, at once, let them escape! No, sir! They were used only to frighten and drive the niggers out of swamps, brakes, and hiding-places—as no nigger had ever dared to face ’em. Cato might lie as much as he liked, but everybody knew who it was that killed Major Reed’s hounds. Nobody blamed the colonel for it,—not even Major Reed,—but if the colonel had lived a little longer in the South, he’d have known it wasn’t necessary to do that in self-preservation, as the hounds would never have gone for a white man. But that was not a matter for the colonel to bother about now. He was doing well; he had slept nearly thirty hours; there was no fever, he must continue to doze off the exhaustion of his powerful stimulant, and he, the doctor, would return later in the afternoon.

Perhaps it was his very inability to grasp in that exhausted state the full comprehension of the doctor’s meaning, perhaps because the physical benumbing of his brain was stronger than any mental excitement, but he slept again until the doctor reappeared. “You’re doing well enough now, colonel,” said the physician, after a brief examination of his patient, “and I think we can afford to wake you up a bit, and even let you move your arm. You’re luckier than poor Tom Higbee, who won’t be able to set his leg to the floor for three weeks to come. I haven’t got all the buckshot out of it yet that Jack Dumont put there the other night.”

Courtland started slightly. Jack Dumont! That was the name of Sally Dows cousin of whom Champney had spoken! He had resolutely put aside from his returning memory the hazy recollection of the young girl’s voice—the last thing he had heard that night—and the mystery that seemed to surround it. But there was no delusion in this cousin—his rival, and that of the equally deceived Champney. He controlled himself and repeated coldly:—

“Jack Dumont!”

“Yes. But of course you knew nothing of all that, while you were off in the swamp there. Yet, by Jingo! it was Dumont’s shooting Higbee that helped you to get off your nigger a darned sight more than your killing the dogs.”

“I don’t understand,” returned Courtland coldly.

“Well, you see, Dumont, who had taken up No’th’n principles, I reckon, more to goad the Higbees and please Sally Dows than from any conviction, came over here that night. Whether he suspected anything was up, or wanted to dare Higbee for bedevilment, or was only dancing attendance on Miss Sally, no one knows. But he rode slap into Highee’s party, called out, ‘If you’re out hunting, Tom, here’s a chance for your score!’ meaning their old vendetta feud, and brings his shot-gun up to his shoulder. Higbee wasn’t quick enough, Dumont lets fly, drops Higbee, and then gallops off chased by the Reeds to avenge Higbee, and followed by the whole crowd to see the fun, which was a little better than nigger-driving. And that let you and Cato out, colonel.”

“And Dumont?”

“Got clean away to Foxboro’ Station, leaving another score on his side for the Reeds and Higbees to wipe out as best they can. You No’th’n men don’t believe in these sort of things, colonel, but taken as a straight dash and hit o’ raiding, that stroke of Sally Dows’ cousin was mighty fine!”

Courtland controlled himself with difficulty. The doctor had spoken truly. The hero of this miserable affair was her cousin—his rival! And to him—perhaps influenced by some pitying appeal of Miss Sally for the man she had deceived—Courtland owed his life! He instinctively drew a quick, sharp breath.

“Are you in pain?”

“Not at all. When can I get up?”

“Perhaps to-morrow.”

“And this arm?”

“Better not use it for a week or two.” He stopped, and, glancing paternally at the younger man, added gravely but kindly: “If you’ll take my unprofessional advice, Colonel Courtland, you’ll let this matter simmer down. It won’t hurt you and your affairs here that folks have had a taste of your quality, and the nigger a lesson that his fellows won’t forget.”

“I thank you,” returned Courtland coldly; “but I think I already understand my duty to the company I represent and the Government I have served.”

“Possibly, colonel,” said the doctor quietly; “but you’ll let an older man remind you and the Government that you can’t change the habits or relations of two distinct races in a few years. Your friend, Miss Sally Dows—although not quite in my way of thinking—has never attempted that.”

“I am fully aware that Miss Dows possesses diplomatic accomplishments and graces that I cannot lay claim to,” returned Courtland bitterly.

The doctor lifted his eyebrows slightly and changed the subject.

When he had gone, Courtland called for writing materials. He had already made up his mind, and one course alone seemed proper to him. He wrote to the president of the company, detailing the circumstances that had just occurred, admitting the alleged provocation given by his overseer, but pointing out the terrorism of a mob-law which rendered his own discipline impossible. He asked that the matter be reported to Washington, and some measures taken for the protection of the freedmen, in the mean time he begged to tender his own resignation, but he would stay until his successor was appointed, or the safety of his employees secured. Until then, he should act upon his own responsibility and according to his judgment. He made no personal charges, mentioned no names, asked for no exemplary prosecution or trial of the offenders, but only demanded a safeguard against a repetition of the offense. His next letter, although less formal and official, was more difficult. It was addressed to the commandant of the nearest Federal barracks, who was an old friend and former companion-in-arms. He alluded to some conversation they had previously exchanged in regard to the presence of a small detachment of troops at Redlands during the elections, which Courtland at the time, however, had diplomatically opposed. He suggested it now as a matter of public expediency and prevention. When he had sealed the letters, not caring to expose them to the espionage of the local postmaster or his ordinary servants, he intrusted them to one of Miss Sally’s own henchmen, to be posted at the next office, at Bitter Creek Station, ten miles distant.

Unfortunately, this duty accomplished, the reaction consequent on his still weak physical condition threw him back upon himself and his memory. He had resolutely refused to think of Miss Sally; he had been able to withstand the suggestions of her in the presence of her handmaid—supposed to be potent in nursing and herb-lore—whom she had detached to wait upon him, and he had returned politely formal acknowledgments to her inquiries. He had determined to continue this personal avoidance as far as possible until he was relieved, on the ground of that business expediency which these events had made necessary. She would see that he was only accepting the arguments with which she had met his previous advances. Briefly, he had recourse to that hopeless logic by which a man proves to himself that he has no reason for loving a certain woman, and is as incontestably convinced by the same process that he has. And in the midst of it he weakly fell asleep, and dreamed that he and Miss Sally were walking in the cemetery; that a hideous snake concealed among some lilies, over which the young girl was bending, had uplifted its triangular head to strike. That he seized it by the neck, struggled with it until he was nearly exhausted, when it suddenly collapsed and shrunk, leaving in his palm the limp, crushed, and delicately perfumed little thread glove which he remembered to have once slipped from her hand.

When he awoke, that perfume seemed to be still in the air, distinct from the fresh but homelier scents of the garden which stole through the window. A sense of delicious coolness came with the afternoon breeze, that faintly trilled the slanting slats of the blind with a slumberous humming as of bees. The golden glory of a sinking southern sun was penciling the cheap paper on the wall with leafy tracery and glowing arabesques. But more than that, the calm of some potent influence—or some unseen presence—was upon him, which he feared a movement might dispel. The chair at the foot of his bed was empty. Sophy had gone out. He did not turn his head to look further; his languid eyes falling aimlessly upon the carpet at his bedside suddenly dilated. For they fell also on the “smallest foot in the State.”

He started to his elbow, but a soft hand was laid gently yet firmly upon his shoulder, and with a faint rustle of muslin skirts Miss Sally rose from an unseen chair at the head of his bed, and stood beside him.

“Don’t stir, co’nnle, I didn’t sit where I could look in yo’r face for fear of waking yo’. But I’ll change seats now.” She moved to the chair which Sophy had vacated, drew it slightly nearer the bed, and sat down.

“It was very kind of you—to come,” said Courtland hesitatingly, as with a strong effort he drew his eyes away from the fascinating vision, and regained a certain cold composure, “but I am afraid my illness has been greatly magnified. I really am quite well enough to be up and about my business, if the doctor would permit it. But I shall certainly manage to attend to my duty to-morrow, and I hope to be at your service.

“Meaning that yo’ don’t care to see me now, co’nnle,” she said lightly, with a faint twinkle in her wise, sweet eyes. “I thought of that, but as my business wouldn’t wait, I brought it to yo’.” She took from the folds of her gown a letter. To his utter amazement it was the one he had given his overseer to post to the commandant that morning. To his greater indignation the seal was broken.

“Who has dared?” he demanded, half rising.

Her little hand was thrust out half deprecatingly. “No one yo’ can fight, co’nnle; only me. I don’t generally open other folks’ letters, and I wouldn’t have done it for myself; I did for yo’.”

“For me?”

“For yo’. I reckoned what yo’ might do, and I told Sam to bring me the letters first. I didn’t mind what yo’ wrote to the company—for they’ll take care of yo’, and their own eggs are all in the same basket. I didn’t open that one, but I did this when I saw the address. It was as I expected, and yo’ ’d given yo’self away! For if yo’ had those soldiers down here, yo’ ’d have a row, sure! Don’t move, co’nnle, yo’ may not care for that, it’s in yo’r line. But folks will say that the soldiers weren’t sent to prevent rioting, but that Co’nnle Courtland was using his old comrades to keep order on his property at Gov’ment expense. Hol’ on! Hol’ on! co’nnle,” said the little figure, rising and waving its pretty arms with a mischievous simulation of terrified deprecation. “Don’t shoot! Of course yo’ didn’t mean that, but that’s about the way that So’th’n men will put it to yo’r Gov’ment. For,” she continued, more gently, yet with the shrewdest twinkle in her gray eyes, “if yo’ really thought the niggers might need Federal protection, yo’ ’d have let me write to the commandant to send an escort—not to yo, but to Cato—that he might be able to come back in safety. Yo’ ’d have had yo’r soldiers; I’d have had back my nigger, which”—demurely—“yo’ don’t seem to worry yo’self much about, co’nnle; and there isn’t a So’th’n man would have objected. But,” still more demurely, and affectedly smoothing out her crisp skirt with her little hands, “yo’ haven’t been troubling me much with yo’r counsel lately.”

A swift and utterly new comprehension swept over Courtland. For the first time in his knowledge of her he suddenly grasped what was, perhaps, the true conception of her character. Looking at her clearly now, he understood the meaning of those pliant graces, so unaffected and yet always controlled by the reasoning of an unbiased intellect; her frank speech and plausible intonations! Before him stood the true-born daughter of a long race of politicians! All that he had heard of their dexterity, tact, and expediency rose here incarnate, with the added grace of womanhood. A strange sense of relief—perhaps a dawning of hope—stole over him.

“But how will this insure Cato’s safety hereafter, or give protection to the others?” he said, fixing his eyes upon her.

“The future won’t concern yo’ much, co’nnle, if as yo’ say here yo’r resignation is sent in, and yo’r successor appointed,” she replied, with more gravity than she had previously shown.

“But you do not think I will leave you in this uncertainty,” he said passionately. He stopped suddenly, his brow darkened. “I forgot,” he added coldly, “you will be well protected. Your—cousin—will give you the counsel of race—and—closer ties.”

To his infinite astonishment, Miss Sally leaned forward in her chair and buried her laughing face in both of her hands. When her dimples had become again visible, she said with an effort, “Don’t yo’ think, co’nnle, that as a peacemaker my cousin was even a bigger failure than yo’self?”

“I don’t understand,” stammered Courtland.

“Don’t yo’ think,” she continued, wiping her eyes demurely, “that if a young woman about my size, who had got perfectly tired and sick of all this fuss made about yo’, because yo’ were a No’th’n man, managing niggers—if that young woman wanted to show her people what sort of a radical and abolitionist a so’th’n man of their own sort might become, she’d have sent for Jack Dumont as a sample? Eh? Only, I declare to goodness, I never reckoned that he and Higbee would revive the tomfooling of the vendetta, and take to shootin’ each other at once.”

“And your sending for your cousin was only a feint to protect me?” said Courtland faintly.

“Perhaps he didn’t have to be sent for, co’nnle,” she said, with a slight touch of coquetry. “Suppose we say, I let him come. He’d be hanging round, for he has property here, and wanted to get me to take it up with mine in the company. I knew what his new views and ideas were, and I thought I’d better consult Champney—who, being a foreigner, and an older resident than yo’, was quite neutral. He didn’t happen to tell yo’ anything about it—did he, co’nnle?” she added with a grave mouth, but an indescribable twinkle in her eyes.

Courtland’s face darkened. “He did—and he further told me, Miss Dows, that he himself was your suitor, and that you had refused him because of the objections of your people.”

She raised her eyes to his swiftly and dropped them.

“And yo’ think I ought to have accepted him?” she said slowly.

“No! but—you know—you told me”—he began hurriedly. But she had already risen, and was shaking out the folds of her dress.

“We’re not talking business co’nnle—and business was my only excuse for coming here, and taking Sophy’s place. I’ll send her in to yo’, now.”

“But, Miss Dows!—Miss Sally!”

She stopped—hesitated—a singular weakness for so self-contained a nature—and then slowly produced from her pocket a second letter—the one that Courtland had directed to the company. “I didn’t read this letter, as I just told yo’ co’nnle, for I reckon I know what’s in it, but I thought I’d bring it with me too, in case yo’ changed yo’r mind.

He raised himself on his pillow as she turned quickly away; but in that single vanishing glimpse of her bright face he saw what neither he nor any one else had ever seen upon the face of Sally Dows—a burning blush!

“Miss Sally!” He almost leaped from the bed, but she was gone. There was another rustle at the door—the entrance of Sophy.

“Call her back, Sophy, quick!” he said.

The negress shook her turbaned head. “Not much, honey! When Miss Sally say she goes—she done gone, shuah!”

“But, Sophy!” Perhaps something in the significant face of the girl tempted him; perhaps it was only an impulse of his forgotten youth. “Sophy!” appealingly—“tell me!—is Miss Sally engaged to her cousin?”

“Wat dat?” said Sophy in indignant scorn. “Miss Sally engaged to dat Dumont! What fo’? Yo’ ’re crazy! No!”

“Nor Champney? Tell me, Sophy, has she a lover?

For a moment the whites of Sophy’s eyes were uplifted in speechless scorn. “Yo’ ask dat! Yo’ lyin’ dar wid dat snake-bit arm! Yo’ lyin’ dar, and Miss Sally—who has only to whistle to call de fust quality in de State raoun her—coming and going here wid you, and trotting on yo’r arrants—and yo’ ask dat! Yes! she has a lover, and what’s me’, she can’t help it; and yo’ ’re her lover; and what’s me’, yo’ can’t help it either! And yo’ can’t back out of it now—bo’fe of yo’—nebber! Fo’ yo’ ’re hers, and she’s yo’rs—fo’ ebber. For she sucked yo’ blood.”

“What!” gasped Courtland, aghast at what he believed to be the sudden insanity of the negress.

“Yes! Whar’s yo’r eyes? whar’s yo’r years? who’s yo’ dat yo’ didn’t see nor heah nuffin? When dey dragged yo’ outer de swamp dat night—wid de snake-bite freshen yo’r arm—didn’t she, dat poh chile!—dat same Miss Sally—frow herself down on yo’, and put dat baby mouf of hers to de wound and suck out de pizen and sabe de life ob yo’ at de risk ob her own? Say? And if dey’s any troof in Hoodoo, don’t dat make yo’ one blood and one soul! Go way, white man! I’m sick of yo’. Stop dar! Lie down dar! Hol’ on, co’nnle, for massy’s sake. Well, dar—I’ll call her back!”

And she did!


“Look here—don’t you know—it rather took me by surprise,” said Champney, a few days later, with a hearty grip of the colonel’s uninjured hand; “but I don’t bear malice, old fellow, and, by Jove! it was such a sensible, all-round, business-like choice for the girl to make that no wonder we never thought of it before. Hang it all, you see a fellow was always so certain it would be something out of the way and detrimental, don’t you know, that would take the fancy of a girl like that—somebody like that cousin of hers or Higbee, or even me, by Jove that we never thought of looking beyond our noses—never thought of the business! And you all the time so cold and silent and matter-of-fact about it! But I congratulate you! You’ve got the business down on a safe basis now, and what’s more, you’ve got the one woman who can run it.”

They say he was a true prophet. At least the Syndicate affairs prospered, and in course of time even the Reeds and the Higbees participated in the benefits. There were no more racial disturbances; only the districts polled a peaceful and smaller Democratic majority at the next election. There were not wanting those who alleged that Colonel Courtland had simply become Mrs. Courtland’s superintendent; that she had absorbed him as she had every one who had come under her influence, and that she would not rest until she had made him a Senator (to represent Mrs. Courtland) in the councils of the nation. But when I last dined with them in Washington, ten years ago, I found them both very happy and comfortable, and I remember that Mrs. Courtland’s remarks upon Federal and State interests, the proper education of young girls, and the management of the family, were eminently wise and practical.

Sally Dows and Other Stories - Contents

Back    |    Words Home    |    Bret Harte Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback