Sapphira and the Slave Girl, by Willa Cather

Book IV

Sapphira’s Daughter

I

One breezy afternoon Mrs. Blake was footing it round the last loop of the “Double S,” on her way to Timber Ridge. At the end of the steep grade she sat down on a mossy stump, took off her sunbonnet, and gave herself up to enjoyment of the spring day.

In the deep ravine below the road a mountain stream rushed coffee brown, throwing up crystal rainbows where it gurgled over rock ledges. On the steep hillside across the creek the tall forest trees were still bare, — the oak leaves no bigger than a squirrel’s ear. From out the naked grey wood the dogwood thrust its crooked forks starred with white blossoms — the flowers set in their own wild way along the rampant zigzag branches. Their unexpectedness, their singular whiteness, never loses its wonder, even to the dullest dweller in those hills. In all the rich flowering and blushing and blooming of a Virginia spring, the scentless dogwood is the wildest thing and yet the most austere, the most unearthly.

Mrs. Blake was thinking this out to herself as she sat on the stump. She gave scarcely a glance at the wild honeysuckle all about her, growing low out of the gravelly soil, pink and rose colour, with long, trembling stamens which made each blossom look like a brilliant insect caught in flight. When at last she took her basket and travelled upward, she left the turnpike and followed a by-road along the crest of the Ridge. Up here the soil was better; planted fields and little green meadows lay along her path. May apples grew in the damp spots; their blossoms, like tiny pond lilies, gave out a heavy, almost sickening sweetness. Here and there stood a well-built farmhouse, with carefully tended yard and garden. Along the rail fences the locust trees were in bloom. The breeze caught their perfume and wafted it down the road. Every Virginian remembers those locusts which grow along the highways: their cloud-shaped masses of blue-green foliage and heavy drooping clusters of cream-white flowers like pea blossoms. Excepting the very old trees, the giants, the locusts look yielding and languid, like the mountain boy lounging against the counter when he goes to the country store. Yet, from the time they are big enough to cut, they make the toughest fence posts a farmer can find, and in the timber trade the yellow locust is valued for its resistance to moisture.

From the Ridge road Mrs. Blake could look down over hills and valleys, as if she were at the top of the world. She liked to go up there at any time of the year, and she liked to go on foot and alone. Even in her best days, before her husband died, when she lived in Washington and never came home to Back Creek for a visit, she used sometimes to be homesick for these mountains and the high places. This afternoon she was on the Ridge in answer to a sick call, but it was not a serious one, and she meant to enjoy herself.

Last evening a pale little girl, barefoot, in a carefully mended dress, had slipped silently into Mrs. Blake’s kitchen without knocking. For all that her hair was braided and her face was washed, she was a distressful little creature, with dark circles about her eyes. There was something at once furtive and innocent in her face. She told Mrs. Blake how Granny let the flatiron fall on her foot t’other day, an’ now her toe was festerin’. Would Miz Blake maybe come up an’ see if they ought to send for Doctor Brush? And now Mrs. Blake was on her way to see. She had bandages and turpentine ointment and arnica in her basket; but she had also a fruit jar full of fresh-ground coffee, half a baking of sugar cakes, and a loaf of “light” bread. The poor folks on the Ridge esteemed coffee and wheat bread great delicacies. This visit was not to be entirely wasted on a sore foot. Indeed, Mrs. Blake suspected that the foot was maybe not very bad, and that old Mrs. Ringer had sent for her because she had not seen her for a long time and wanted a visit with her.

Mrs. Blake herself looked forward to this visit. Mrs. Ringer was better company than many people who were more fortunate; who came of better blood, and had farms and raised sheep and pigs for market. There were some families on the Ridge who were comfortably off, owned a few negroes to do the work, and held themselves very high. If you called at the Pembertons’, for instance, you were kept waiting half an hour in the parlour while the ladies dressed and powdered their faces. When at last they appeared, with their mourning-bordered handkerchiefs and jet earrings, they minded their manners so carefully that the talk was very dull.

Now, Mandy Ringer had lived a hard life, goodness knew, but misfortune and drudgery had never broken her spirit. She was as thin as a grasshopper, and as lively as one. She had probably never spent a dull day. When she woke in the morning, she got into her calico dress in a flash and ran out to see what her garden had done overnight. Then she took a bucket and went to milk Sukey in the shed. Her son, though he was a cripple, would have done it for her, but in that country it was the custom for the women to do the milking. Mrs. Ringer wouldn’t have trusted either of her two daughters to take care of Sukey. That little white-faced cow kept the log house going when everything else failed, and her calves brought in the only actual money the old woman ever saw.

Mrs. Ringer was born interested. She got a great deal of entertainment out of the weather and the behaviour of the moon. Any chance bit of gossip that came her way was a godsend. The rare sight of a strange face was a treat: a pedlar with a pack on his back, or a medicine-vendor come from across the Alleghenies with his little cart. Mrs. Ringer couldn’t read or write, as she was frank to tell you, but the truth was she could read everything most important: the signs of the seasons, the meaning of the way the wood creatures behaved, and human faces. She once said to Mrs. Blake when they were talking things over: “If the Lord’ll jist let me stay alive, mam, an’ not put me down into a dirty hole, I kin bear anything.”

She had borne a good deal, certainly. Her son was a poor cripple, and both her daughters had been “fooled.” That seldom occurred twice, even in the most shiftless households. Disgrace to the womenfolk brought any family very low in that country. But Mandy Ringer couldn’t stay crushed for long. She came up like a cork, — probably with no better excuse than that the sun came up. Her spirits bubbled into the light like a spring and spread among the cresses.

Rachel Blake had always been drawn toward expansive, warm-hearted people. And she had known many such folks in her time, when she lived in Washington City before her husband died.

As she turned in at a low log house with a big outside rock chimney, Mrs. Ringer, her foot done up in rags, hopped lightly to the door to greet her. “Now ain’t you most a angel to come all the way up the hills to see us! I declare I had a’most give you up, but Lawndis he tole me not to despair. An’ he would go so fur as to shave fur you.”

At this a brown-skinned man with a crooked back and a clubfoot came forward. “Yes, Miz, Blake, when the wind turned an’ blowed the clouds away, I reckoned you’d be along to see Mother.” His voice was mellow and grave, and there was true courtesy in the way he looked at the visitor, placed a chair for her, and relieved her of her basket.

Mrs. Blake examined the sore foot and declared there was nothing worse than a bad bruise. She applied her ointment and a clean bandage, and took from her basket a pair of old carpet slippers. “You’ll be easy in these, Mrs. Ringer. Put them on and keep them on. Don’t on any account go about barefoot. Now I’m a little weary after my walk, and if Lawndis will kindle a fire I’m going to make some coffee for us.”

After the son had a fire going, he took up his hat. “If you’ll excuse me, Miz Blake, I’ll go out in the garden an’ do some weedin’. You and Mother’ll feel freer to talk by yourselves. She ain’t seen much comp’ny lately.” He limped out of the house, careful not to put on his hat until he was well outside the door.

Mrs. Ringer spread a white cloth on the kitchen table and got out her blue chiney cups and plates. Before the water was boiling Lawndis came back with a stone crock in his hands. “Here, Mother. I seem to remember Miz Blake don’t like her coffee without cream. If you’ll skim some off, I’ll take the crock back to the spring-house. We got a real cold springhouse, mam, better’n most folks up here. It’s quite a piece away, but that’s where the spring is.”

“Your son surely has nice manners, Mrs. Ringer,” remarked Mrs. Blake, as she watched him limping across the garden with the milk.

“Yes’m, Lawndis is a good boy, if I do say it. An’ he gits a power a’ work done, fur a lame man. Ain’t it a pity I didn’t have no luck with my gals?”

This was a delicate subject. Mrs. Blake did not wish to discuss it. “Where are the girls today?” she asked politely, as if there were nothing queer about them.

“Ginnie, she’s got work up at Capon Springs, helpin’ clean the hotel fur summer visitors. Up there they ain’t heered about her trouble, maybe. I don’t know where Marge is this minute, but she’s likely off in the woods some’ers, ‘shamed to have you see her. It would all a-been different, Miz Blake, if my Lawndis was a strong man. Then he could a-tracked down the fellers an’ fit with ’em, an’ made ’em marry his sisters. But them raskels knowed my pore gals hadn’t nobody to stand up fur ’em. Fellers is skeered to make free with a gal that’s got able men folks to see she gits her rights.”

Mrs. Blake still sought to avoid discussing these misfortunes, since there was nothing she could do to remedy them. She said blandly: “Well, whatever happened, I know Lawndis would never be hard on his sisters. Now do tell me, Mrs. Ringer, who did you name your boy after? I’ve often wondered, and never thought to ask you.”

“Lawndis? Why, after the preacher. Can’t you remember, when you was a little girl there come a preacher a-holdin’ revivals through these parts? He held meetin’s every night fur a week an’ more at Bethel Church, an’ I never missed a sermon. I ain’t never heered sich sermons before nor since. When the next baby come, I called him after that preacher.”

Yes, Mrs. Blake remembered the preacher; he wore a long-tailed coat, even on horseback, and his name was Leonidas Bright. The hill people could do queer things with unfamiliar names.

At this moment the pale little girl who had come to Mrs. Blake’s yesterday stole down the ladder from the loft over the kitchen and shyly approached the table. In her hand was a little wooden box full of quartz crystals she had picked up on the stony hillsides.

“Is these di’monds, Miz Blake, mam? Kin I sell ’em fur money?”

“No, child, I’m afraid they’re not diamonds. They’re just as pretty, though.”

“Now, Becky, what need you come troublin’ Miz Blake fur? I tole you they ain’t di’monds. You run back upstairs an’ mind the baby, an’ here’s a cake fur you Miz Blake fetched me. Is he asleep?”

“Yes’m.”

Mrs. Blake slipped the child a second cake, and she went noiselessly up the ladder.

The grandmother gave a cackling little laugh. “That’s the fashion up here now. Since the Bethel robbery everybody thinks they kin make a fortin sellin’ somethin’. It’s come down even to pore Becky.”

“What robbery are you talkin’ about, Mrs. Ringer?”

Mrs. Ringer put down the cup halfway to her lips. “You ain’t meanin’ you never heered of the Bethel communion service bein’ stole?”

“I surely never heard a word about it.”

Mrs. Ringer’s face glowed. “Well, I’m su’prised, mam! It’s a disgrace to us all up here, an’ we can’t hardly talk of nothin’ else. Last Sunday night, after preachin’, the whole communion service, the silver plate an’ the silver goblet an’ the little pitchers, was taken. An’ now his triflin’ relations is tryin’ to put it off on Casper Flight, as good a boy as ever lived, because he has the door key so he kin sweep out the church an’ keep it clean. Now we all know a winder was broke out the night the deed was done, so what has Casper’s key got to do with it, I’d like to know? Would he break a winder, when he had a key?”

Mrs. Blake was thoroughly interested. “You mean the Flight boy that comes to Mr. Fairhead’s school? Why, his teacher can’t say enough good of him.”

“That’s him I mean. He’s bein’ persecuted by them louts of cousins of his’n, them ugly Keyser boys that runs a still. Who’s they to act up for the church, when they was never inside one? Unless” — here Mrs. Ringer paused and shook her finger at Mrs. Blake as she added impressively — “unless they was inside Bethel Church last Sunday night, after meetin’.”

“But why are the Keysers trying to put it on Casper? You say they’re cousins.”

“Now, Miz Blake, who kin hate worse’n cousins? We all know that. They hates him jist on account of his bein’ a good boy, and tryin’ to make somethin’ of hisself, walkin’ all the way down to Back Creek to learn to read an’ write. Nobody in their fam’ly could ever read ‘n’ write, an’ damned if anybody ever will. It’s pure spite, an’ I tell Lawndis I know Buck Keyser broke that winder an’ clomb in an’ robbed the Lord, as well as if I’d seen him do it. He’s got them things hid away some’ers, an’ one day he’ll tromp over the Alleghenies where he ain’t knowed, an’ sell ’em.”

Mrs. Blake sniffed audibly. “Well, he won’t get much for ’em. That Bethel communion set ain’t silver at all. It’s plated stuff, and poor plate at that, I can tell you.”

Mrs. Ringer started in her chair. “Is that so, Miz Blake! Now, nobody but you would a-knowed. Lordy me, I wisht I could a-had your chance, mam. It’s city life that learns you, an’ I’d a-loved it! So with all their deviltry they ain’t got no fortin hid away, an’ fur all the talk they’ve raised, it don’t amount to much more’n pore Becky’s di’monds! There is a kind-a justice in this world after all, now ain’t there?”

Their talk turned naturally to the classic example of belated justice: the murder of the pedlar at the red brick house on the Ridge Road, and its exposure after twenty years. While Mrs. Ringer was telling all she remembered of the two wretched women who had killed the pedlar for his pack, Lawndis appeared at the door, sweaty and panting.

“Maw, I’m afeered them Keysers is got Casper. I heered trouble over in the woods, an’ Buck’s big haw-haw. He’s got the meanest laff ever was, when he’s out fur devilment. I’m a-goin’ over.”

Mrs. Ringer sprang up. “Then I’m a-goin’ with ye.”

“No you ain’t, Maw. You’re lamed with your foot.”

“I reckon I’m no lamer’n you air. Come along, Miz Blake, we’ll all go. They ain’t no business in our woods.”

Mrs. Blake picked up her basket. “Take one of Lawndis’ canes, Mandy, and spare your foot all you can.” She set out with the two cripples, down the garden, past the springhouse, and over toward the wood where they heard ugly, taunting voices.

They had not gone far when they came upon the three Keysers and their captive. A young boy, perhaps fifteen or sixteen, was stripped naked to the waist and bound tight to a chestnut sapling. Three men were lounging about the tree making fun of him. The brother called Buck had his sleeves rolled up and his shirt open, showing a thick fleece of red hair on his chest and forearms. He was laughing and cracking a lash of plaited cowhide thongs. The boy tied to the tree said not a word in answer to Buck’s taunting questions. He made no sound at all, did not even look up when Mrs. Blake came swishing through the bushes. For all he had set his teeth tight together, she could see his lower jaw trembling.

Mrs. Ringer spoke first. “Now what air you Keysers up to?”

Big Buck had a very smooth way with him when he took the trouble. He had certainly not expected to see Mrs. Blake from Back Creek, and her appearance put a different light on things. He pulled off his hat and spoke easy.

“Nothin’ but a fam’ly matter, folks. This young feller’s been charged with takin’ the communion set. His maw’s a Keyser, an’ it’s fur us to settle with him. You know yourselves his paw’s no account, an’ that Baptist preacher he goes to school to don’t seem to a-learned him to keep his hands off things. Time fur the fam’ly to learn him a little. He’s got to tell where them things is hid.”

Mrs. Blake had kept a steady eye on Buck, and now she spoke.

“Then you’d better go and get ’em, Buck Keyser, and put ’em back where they belong, for they’re poor plated stuff, and you’ll get nothing for them but trouble.”

Buck’s face didn’t change, but his two brothers looked at each other.

“That’s what I’m after doin’, Miz Blake, onct I git ’em out-a him.” With that he swung his lash and gave Casper a cut on the bare shoulder. The boy made no sound, but poor Lawndis was so worked upon that he burst out crying and threw his arms round the prisoner to shield him with his own back. “Don’t you dast hit him agin! I can’t fight ye, I’m jist a pore mock of a man, but you’ll have to finish me afore you tech him.”

Mrs. Blake knew Lawndis would be sick for a week after such an outbreak. “Shame on you, Buck Keyser!” she said, going up to him and putting her hand on his hairy arm. “It’s Lawndis will get the most punishment out of this, and you know it. What did you come on their place for, to act your foolishness? What have you got against Lawndis?”

“We ain’t got nothing agin Lawndis. This whimperin’ boy come hidin’ in the Ringer woods, ‘cause he’s a coward an’ can’t take a lickin’. We was after him, an’ come on him here, that’s how. Don’t act the fool, Lawndis. I’ll take care of my kin some’ers out-a your woods. He’ll git his ticklin’ when there’s no ladies around. Come on, boys. Good day to you, Miz Blake.”

Mrs. Blake told Lawndis to go back to the house and drink the coffee that was left. While the two women untied the Flight boy and hunted for his shirt, Mrs. Ringer whispered: “Like as not they brought him into our woods a purpose. They was feelin’ devilish, an’ what’s the good a-actin’ devilish if nobody sees you? They knows Lawndis is soft that-a-way, an’ can’t see a sparrer fall. It’s a mercy you was here, Miz Blake. I reckon they don’t want to git in too bad with your Paw.”

On her way down the “Double S” and the “holler” road, Mrs. Blake told herself she must have a talk with David Fairhead about Casper. Perhaps it wasn’t wise to encourage him. “I don’t know whether that boy’s strong enough to master what’s around him,” she said to herself.” A man’s got to be stronger’n a bull to get out of the place he was born in. I just hope I won’t dream tonight the way Casper stood against that tree, with his lower jaw tremblin’.”

II

To see Mrs. Blake working about her house and garden, a stranger would scarcely guess that she had lived the happiest years of her life in Washington, and had known a wider experience of the world than her more worldly mother.

Rachel was sixteen years old when Michael Blake rode through Frederick County soliciting votes. He was already a member of the Virginia State Legislature, and was a nominee for the United States Congress. He spent some days at the Mill Farm, where he was warmly welcomed. Henry Colbert approved of Blake’s record and his principles, and the Mistress was charmed by his good manners, his handsome face and blue eyes. When he said good-bye and rode up into the Capon River country, she missed him.

In two weeks he came back to the Mill Farm. He had made up his mind. He had made it up, indeed, on his first visit, but he had disclosed his intentions to no one, not even to Rachel. When, on this second visit, he asked the miller and Sapphira for their daughter’s hand, they were speechless from astonishment. After the interview in which they gave their consent, Mrs. Colbert retired to her room and bolted the door for an hour to regain her composure.

She had never hoped for anything so good for Rachel. She had often doubted whether she would succeed in getting her married at all. Two older daughters she had married very well. But she could see nothing in this girl likely to be attractive to young men. Rachel was well-enough looking, in her father’s masterful way, but no one could call her pretty. She was reserved to a degree which her mother called sullenness, and she had decided opinions on matters which did not concern women at all. She was her father’s favourite; that was natural, since she was just like him. But this happy, fair-complexioned young Blake, with his warm laugh and mellow voice — Well, Mrs. Colbert reflected, there is no accounting for tastes. Blake was Irish, and the Irish often leap before they look.

When she had recovered herself, Mrs. Colbert sat down to write the amazing news to her sisters.

While she was at her desk, the young man was with Rachel. He had found her in the flower garden, separating tufts of clove pinks. He wiped her hands on his handkerchief and led her into the lilac arbour. Seated beside her on the rustic bench, he told her his story in the manner of the period.

On the first night of his first visit, he said, when he sat opposite her at the supper table, it all happened. He had watched her face in the candlelight and found it hard to reply to her mother’s friendly questions, or to keep his mind on the conversation. He had stayed on at the house until he was afraid he might wear out his welcome. After he rode away, he could think of nothing but Rachel whenever he was alone. He was thirty years old, and had never before met a girl whom he wished to marry. Indeed, he admitted, he “liked his liberty.” Now everything was different. Her father and mother had given their consent. But he must have her own, spoken from the heart.

“Do you think you could come to love me, really love me, Rachel?” His voice was wistful, almost sad.

She looked up and met his blue eyes fearlessly, something intense flashed into her own. “I do already, Michael.”

“My sweetheart! May I have one kiss?”

She put her hands on his shoulders, holding him back, and with that almost fierce devotion still shining in her eyes said pleadingly: “Please, Michael, please! Not until the words have been said.”

No reply could have made him happier. He caught her two hands and buried his face in them.

This was in the eighteen-thirties, when loose manners were very loose, and the proprieties correspondingly strict. Young bachelors who were free in their morals were very exacting that the girl they chose for a wife should be virginal in mind as well as in body. The worst that could be said of an unmarried girl was that “she knew too much.”

Immediately after Michael’s election as Representative for the — th District, the young couple were married and went to Washington to live in a small rented house. The devotion Michael read in Rachel’s eyes when she refused him the betrothal kiss soon became her whole life: there was nothing of her left outside it. In every sense he was her first love. More than that, he had taken her from a home where she had never been happy. She felt for him all that was due to a rescuer and a saviour. Until he came, her heart was cold and frozen.

When Rachel was twelve years old, she had chanced to overhear a conversation which coloured her thoughts and feelings ever afterward. In those days she used often to walk to the post office to get the mail, although she knew this annoyed her mother. Rachel was deeply attached to the postmistress, then a young woman who had lately been left a widow with three little boys. One morning she was sitting on Mrs. Bywaters’s shady front porch, behind the blooming honeysuckle vines, when she saw a handsome old gentleman ride up to the hitch-post, dismount, and tie his horse. That was Mr. Cartmell, Mrs. Bywaters’s father. As he walked up the gravel path to the porch steps, his daughter saw him and came out to greet him. They went into the house together, leaving the door open behind them. Rachel liked to listen to Mr. Cartmell; his talk had a flavour of old-fashioned courtesy.

“I came with something on my mind today, daughter,” he began. “Your mother and I think you have it too hard up here, since Jonah went. What with looking after the mail, and attending to your children and the housework, there is too much for one woman to do. Our old neighbour, Mr. Longfield, tells me he is willing to part with one of Abigail’s daughters. But he would never sell her off to strangers. In busy seasons your mother often hires her from the Longfields, and finds her capable and willing. I would like to buy Mandy for you, and bring her up here myself. You would have a smart girl to help you, and she would have a good home.”

There was a pause. Then Mrs. Bywaters said:

“Could we hire Mandy from the Longfields for a couple years, maybe?”

“I made such a proposal to Mr. Longfield, but he needs a considerable sum of money at once. He is forced to sell Mose, his body servant, into Winchester. You will remember our neighbour was somewhat inclined to extravagance. He has got behind.”

Another pause. “You have never owned any slaves yourself, Father,” she said thoughtfully, as if considering.

“You know my feeling on that matter, Caroline. But down with us, in the Round Hill neighbourhood, it is always easy to hire help from farmers who have too many negroes. Up here there are few slave-owners, and a raw white girl from the mountains would be of little help to you.”

This time there was no pause. Mrs. Bywaters spoke quietly but firmly. “It’s kindly thought of you, Father, and kindly spoken. But neither you nor I have ever owned flesh and blood, and I will not begin it. I am young and strong, and I’ll make shift to manage. Peace of mind is what I value most.”

Little Rachel Colbert, sitting breathless on the porch, heard Mr. Cartmell rise from his squeaky splint-bottom chair and say: “You are my own daughter, Caroline. We will manage.” The deep emotion in his voice, and the hush which followed, made Rachel realize that she had been eavesdropping, listening to talk that was private and personal. She fled swiftly through the yard and out to the road. Her feet must have found the way home, for she gave no heed to where she was going. A feeling long smothered had blazed up in her — had become a conviction. She had never heard the thing said before, never put into words. It was the OWNING that was wrong, the relation itself, no matter how convenient or agreeable it might be for master or servant. She had always known it was wrong. It was the thing that made her unhappy at home, and came between her and her mother. How she hated her mother’s voice in sarcastic reprimand to the servants! And she hated it in contemptuous indulgence. Till and Aunt Jezebel were the only blacks to whom her mother never spoke with that scornful leniency.

After that morning on Mrs. Bywaters’s porch, Rachel was more than ever reserved and shut within herself. Her two aunts disapproved of her; she dreaded the yearly visit to them. At home, she knew that all the servants were fond of her mother, in good or ill humour, and that they were not fond of her. She was not at all what the darkies thought a young lady should be. Till’s good manners were barely sufficient to conceal her disappointment in Miss Sapphy’s youngest daughter.

Michael Blake had dropped from the clouds, as it were, to deliver Rachel from her loneliness, from life in a home where she had not a single confidant. She often wondered how she had borne that life at all. Once settled in the narrow rented house on R Street, she no longer brooded upon real or imagined injustices. Her mind and energy, and she was endowed with both, were wholly given to making for Michael the kind of home he wanted, and doing it on very little money.

Representative Blake was, he admitted, “fond of the pleasures of the table.” Rachel became expert in cookery. Everything he liked, done as he liked, appeared in season on his dinner table. He lunched at an oyster bar near the Capitol, and dined at eight in the evening. His wife had the whole day to prepare his favourite dishes. She put herself under the instruction of a free mulatto woman from New Orleans, whose master had manumitted her when he was dying in Washington. Sarah now made her living by cooking for dinner parties.

Every morning, on his way to the Capitol, Michael stopped at the big market and sent home the choicest food of the season. In those days the Washington markets were second to none in the world for fish and game: wild ducks, partridges, pheasants, wild turkeys . . . the woods were full of wildfowl. The uncontaminated bays and rivers swarmed with fish: Potomac shad, Baltimore oysters, shrimps, scallops, lobsters, and terrapin. In the spring the Dutch truck gardeners brought in the first salads and asparagus and strawberries.

A group of Louisiana planters who came to Washington every winter kept Michael’s cellar supplied with good wines. These Southerners often dined at the Blakes’, grateful for an escape from the bleakness of Washington hotels. They usually brought with them a young French officer who had some humble post at the French Legation. Too poor to marry, Chenier lived wretchedly in a boarding-house. His devotion to Mrs. Blake and her good dinners became a positive embarrassment, the subject of many a jest at Michael’s breakfast table.

The planters came up to Washington unaccompanied by their families. At the round dinner table in the Blakes’ narrow dining-room would be seated five or six men, never more than seven, in broadcloth and shining linen. The Louisianians wore frilled shirts with diamond studs, the officer his shabby dress uniform. There was no place set for a woman, not even for the hostess. The hostess was below stairs in the brick-floored basement kitchen. Her companions were the glowing coal range, a sink with a hydrant pump, shelves of copper cooking vessels, and an adjacent “cold pantry” full of food and drink. There she achieved a dinner for epicures, with no help but Sarah, the mulatto, who also served in the dining-room.

At the end of the dinner, when the dessert had been carried up by the stately mulatto, then there was a call for the hostess. Slipping off her long white apron and dashing a little powder over her face, Rachel went upstairs to drink a glass of champagne with the guests. If she did not appear soon after the dessert, the young Frenchman ran down to the kitchen and brought her up on his arm. Her husband and his friends rose to toast her. Hot and flushed as she was, their faces by this time were quite as rosy, and, to their slightly contracted pupils, the young woman who had given them such a dinner was beautiful.

Rachel enjoyed the iced wine and the warm praise, — and she enjoyed the gaiety. For after she joined the party, it became distinctly gayer, however lively it had been before. She sat in Michael’s chair, and he stood behind her, filled her glass, and coaxed her to eat his dessert, beaming with his pride in her.

After the first glass she did not feel tired. Her responsibilities over, she relaxed and leaned back in Michael’s big chair, laughing at the funny stories, — her father’s deep laugh. She begged them to sing for her, “Little Brown Jug” and “Auld Lang Syne.” Like many persons of a serious temper, she loved being with people who were easily and carelessly merry.

In due time the children came along; first a son, Robert, the well-beloved. A second boy died in infancy. Then came the two girls, Mary and Betty. During those happy years Rachel had but one anxiety: her husband’s extravagant tastes and his carelessness about keeping the tradesmen paid up. Michael reassured her as to the future. He carried what he termed “a heavy life insurance,” used to show her the premium cheques before he sent them off. In the months before a new baby came, there was no entertaining, and Rachel was able to cut the household expenses, — though Michael largely defeated her thrift by bringing her presents.

Even in those years there was something of the devotee in Rachel. The will to self-abnegation which showed itself later was in her then, though it took the form of untiring service to a man’s pleasure and of almost idolatrous love for her first-born. Perhaps she was conscious of a certain chill in her own nature and was afraid of being insufficient to her pleasure-loving husband. His rich enjoyment of life had an irresistible charm for her.

Rachel had been married thirteen years when Michael thought he could afford to accept the long-pressed invitation of his Southern friends to visit them in New Orleans. He persuaded his wife to let him take the boy along with him. Robert was then eleven, handsome and gay like his father. Rachel knew the trip would be a fine experience for him; she ought not to hold him back. She went to Baltimore to see them sail. When the last whistle blew, and the steamboat began to move out into the bay, she could see Michael standing in the stern, and beside him the boy, waving his new Scotch cap with ribands.

Letters came often; those from Robbie were especially cherished. The date of their return was fixed, but they did not come by the boat on which Rachel expected them. There was something in the newspapers about an epidemic down there, but it was immediately denied. After Mrs. Blake had waited through an anxious fortnight, a visitor knocked at her door, — one of the old New Orleans friends who had come up to Washington to tell her what he could not write. Only the day before Michael was to start for home, the boy fell ill. His father, who never left him for a moment, would not believe it was yellow fever, until the child began to vomit black blood. Forty-eight hours afterward Michael Blake himself died of the contagion. They were both buried in the Protestant cemetery in New Orleans.

Henry Colbert first learned of his son-inlaw’s death from a paragraph in the Baltimore Sun, — the paper was already a week old. He went at once to Winchester and took the train for Washington. He found Rachel in her bed, the daylight shut out, her door locked. She had refused to admit her doctor and Michael’s lawyer. Sarah, the mulatto woman, had come to stay in the house and was taking care of the two children.

The miller put his shoulder under the wheel. Michael’s life-insurance policy had lapsed; the last two premiums had not been paid. There was little left for the widow but her furniture and a few debts. Blake’s friends made up a generous purse for her. Henry Colbert paid off the creditors and brought Rachel and her children home to Back Creek. They stayed at the Mill Farm while Mr. Whitford built the house by the road in which Mrs. Blake had lived ever since.

During the months when the house was a-building the miller and his wife grew very fond of Mary and Betty. Mrs. Colbert’s relations with her daughter were pleasanter than they had ever been before. To be sure, there were things in the past which she could not forget. Gravest of them was that Rachel had not once invited her mother, then not an invalid but a very active woman, to come to Washington to visit her. Among Virginians such a slight could never be forgiven. That Mrs. Blake’s city house was small and cramped was no excuse. Your near kin were expected to entertain you, even though they had to sleep on cots in the hall and give you their sleeping-chamber. To be in Washington, visitors would cheerfully put up with any discomfort. That your own daughter lived there, and you did not visit her, required explanation to your relatives and friends.

When Rachel came back to the Mill Farm, widowed and poor, her mother found it easier to overlook past differences than she would have done a few years before. Mrs. Colbert’s illness had not yet come upon her, but she had had warnings. Already she had given over horseback riding, though women of that time often kept to the saddle when they were well in their seventies.

During the six years that had gone by since Mrs. Blake’s return, the Back Creek people had grown used to seeing her come and go along the roads and mountain paths, on her way to some house where misfortune had preceded her. If a neighbour, unable to restrain curiosity, asked any question about how people lived in Washington, she replied simply:

“I hardly remember. All that is gone. I’d take it kindly of you not to bring it back to me. This is my home now, and I want to live here like I had never gone away.”

The postmistress, whom she had so loved as a child, was the only neighbour with whom she ever talked freely. They were drawn together by deep convictions they had in common.

Mrs. Bywaters, though she was poor, subscribed for the New York Tribune. Since she was in Government employ, this was an indiscreet thing to do. Even her father, Mr. Cartmell, thought it unwise. The papers came to her heavily wrapped and addressed in ink. She kept them locked in her upper bureau drawer and often gave Mrs. Blake interesting numbers to carry home in her basket. They were handy to start a fire with, she said.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/cather/willa/sapphira/book4.html

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30