Sapphira and the Slave Girl, by Willa Cather

Book V

Martin Colbert

I

On the first day of June the Romney stage, more than an hour late, crossed Back Creek and stopped before the tollgate. A girl with a broad, flat, good-natured face came out to lift the rickety gate and collect the toll. The driver leaned down from his high seat to pass the time of day with her. This courtesy he never omitted, no matter how much he was behind in his schedule. While the driver was chatting, one of his five passengers jumped out at the rear end of the stage: a young man, well dressed and good-looking. He walked forward and interrupted.

“I say, driver, isn’t that turn-off the road to the mill?”

“Shorely is, sir.”

“Then I’ll walk over from here. Take my trunk on to the post office, please, and leave it. My uncle will send for it.”

“Your uncle?”

“Yes; Mr. Colbert, at the mill.”

“So that’s how it is; you’re a Colbert.” The driver shifted his tobacco to the other cheek. “Which on ’em is your paw?”

“Jacob. I’m Martin Colbert.”

“Is that so!” He looked the young man over with interest. “Ever been out here before?”

“Yes, when I was a youngster. Good day, driver. Don’t forget to put my trunk off.” The young man saw no reason for tarrying; there was no one in sight but the toll-girl, noticeable only for her flat red face. Martin lifted his hat to her, however, and set off down the stony by-road before the stage started. The driver leaned over to say to the girl: “The miller won’t be none too tickled to see him, I reckon! Feller must ‘a’ got into some scrape agin, or he wouldn’t be comin’ out here, with a trunk, too! He’s a turrible wild one.”

The stage rattled on toward the post office, where it was to change horses. The flat-faced girl turned and went slowly down the mill road after the stranger, peering to right and left; but he was already hidden from sight by the tall sassafras bushes which grew thick all along the rail fence.

Young Colbert walked along carelessly, finding exercise agreeable after the jolting of the stage. Sometimes he hummed a tune, sometimes he chuckled and ducked his shoulders. He was amused to find himself actually on his way to the Mill House, one of the dreariest spots in all Virginia, he reckoned. “The joke’s on me,” his giggle seemed to say.

Just now he was lucky to have any place to go where he would be comfortable and well fed, and rid of his creditors. He was a tall, well-enough built fellow, but there was something soft about the lines of his body. He carried himself loosely at the shoulders and thighs. His clothes were town clothes, but strolling along unobserved he behaved like a country boy. When he laughed at his present predicament, he hitched up his trousers by his gallowses where his waistcoat hung open. He was easily diverted; no fixed purpose lurked behind his chuckle, though there was sometimes a flash of slyness in his whisky-coloured eyes. He stopped to watch a mud-turtle waddle across the road, and rolled the old fellow over on his back to see him kick — then relented and turned him right side up. When he got near the mill, Martin buttoned his waistcoat, wiped the dust from his face, and straightened his shoulders. He did not stop at the mill, but went directly on to the house. Till met him at the front door with genuine cordiality, restrained by correctness.

“The Mistress is waiting for you in the parlour, Mr. Martin. We expected you before this.”

“Sorry, Till. The stage was late starting; had to wait for passengers from Martinsburg. All the folks well here?”

“They’re all as usual, sir.” She opened the door into the parlour, where Mrs. Colbert was sitting near the fireplace, now closed by a painted fire-board. She smiled graciously and held out her hand. Martin hurried across the room, and gallantly kissed her on the cheek.

She shook her finger at him. “You’ve kept me waiting for you a long while, Martin. You were certainly in no hurry to make me a visit. I first wrote you before Easter, and here we are coming into June.”

“It’s been a right busy time on the place, Aunt Sapphy.” He was still standing beside her chair. She reached out and felt his palm. “I don’t find any calluses’.”

He laughed gaily. “Oh, we have plenty of field-hands — too many!”

Washington came in with the tea-tray and put it on the table beside the Mistress. The visitor drew up a chair and sat down opposite his aunt, crossing his legs and falling into an attitude of easy indolence which diverted her. She liked a dash of impudence in young men whom she considered attractive; and Martin, she was thinking, was the best favoured of the younger Colberts. Just then she happened to notice that his boots were very dusty.

“Why, Martin, didn’t you ride your mare out?”

“No, ma’am. I came on the stage and walked over from the tollgate.”

“The stage? You must have been very uncomfortable. Why didn’t you ride Merrylegs, and send your box by the stage? It’s a pleasant ride.”

“I sold Merrylegs this spring. Had a good offer and needed the money.”

While he helped himself to sandwiches she studied his face.

“Are you sure you sold her, Mart?” she asked shrewdly.

He had not expected this question. He gave her a quick glance, and ducked his head with a grin which seemed to say: “You’ve caught me now!”

“Well, anyhow, I parted with her, Aunt Sapphy.”

“Cards, I’ll be bound!”

“No, honour bright. It was a racing bet. I’m not much of a card man. But I lose my head at the races.” He looked at her frankly, holding out his teacup with an “If you please.” Easy, confidential, a trifle free in manner, as if she were not an old woman and an invalid. That was how she liked it. She told herself that Martin’s visit would be very refreshing. She almost believed she had urged him to come solely because she liked to have young people about.

“No matter. We can let you have a mount. Henry keeps a good riding horse to go in to Winchester on business. He doesn’t like to be bothered with the carriage. I always preferred to go on horseback when I went to town for Sunday service.”

“You pretty nearly lived on horseback, didn’t you? Oh, down with us they still tell about how you used to take the fences.”

“Yes, I liked riding, but I never gave myself over body and soul to horses, as the Bushwells appear to do.”

“That’s right. They just live for the stables. The house and grounds would shock you now. People say they used to keep the place up as long as you went to visit there. But Chestnut Hill has never been the same since old Matchem died.”

Till appeared at the door and said that Martin’s box had come.

Mrs. Colbert beckoned her. “Call Nancy to take Mr. Martin up to his room and unpack his things for him. She keeps your uncle’s room at the mill, Martin, and she will do yours, and look after your laundry. Young men are none too orderly, I seem to remember. Now I will rest for an hour before supper.”

Martin went up the wide staircase leading from the long hall. Upstairs he saw an open door, and a young mulatto girl standing at attention outside.

“And are you Nancy? Good evening, Nancy. I hear you are going to take care of me.” He stood still and looked hard at her.

A wave of pink went over her gold-coloured cheeks, and her eyes fell. “If I can please you, sir,” she said quietly, waiting for him to enter the chamber.

“Oh, you do please me!” he laughed.

Going into the room, Martin glanced about: large, airy, not too much furniture, canopy bed with fresh muslin curtains. He opened one of the front windows and looked out over the yard, the mill, the woods across the creek. Beyond the woods the blue, wavy slopes of the North Mountain lay against the sky. The upper porch ran along outside the room; he put one leg out through the open window. “Am I allowed to go on the veranda, girl? Very strict rules in this house, I’ve heard tell.”

“Certainly, sir. There’s a door in the hall goes out to the upper porch,” she said quickly, correcting an implied reproach on the house.

Martin drew in his foot. “That will be more convenient. And now you can unpack my trunk.”

“It’s locked, sir.”

“Lordy, I forgot!” His sole-leather trunk had been placed on a chair. He unlocked it and threw back the lid. “There. Now you put my clothes where you think they ought to go, and I’ll watch you, so I’ll know where to find them.” He pulled off his coat and waistcoat, threw them on the bed, and sat down in the usual guest-chamber rocking-chair. Nancy took the discarded upper garments and hung them in the clothes-press. She opened the bureau drawers and stood timidly hesitating before the trunk.

“Would you like your collars an’ neckcloths kept in the upper drawer, sir?”

He was just lighting a cigar. “Follow your own notion. We have a slut of a housekeeper at home. I never know where to find anything.”

She went noiselessly to work, moving back and forth between the bureau and the press. Young Colbert sat with his feet on the low window sill, enjoying his cigar.

“Does my aunt object to smoking?” he asked presently.

“Oh, no, sir! She likes to have the gen’lemen smoke.”

After putting away the shirts and nightshirts, Nancy lifted the top tray and stood perplexed by the confusion she found below.

“If you don’t mind, sir, I’ll take the coats an’ pants downstairs direc’ly, an’ press ’em.”

“That’s a good idea.”

The shoes and boots she found stuffed full of dirty socks and soiled underwear. She made a bundle of the rumpled linen and put it outside the door. She was embarrassed because the guest watched her so closely.

“Anybody ever tell you you’re a damned pretty girl, Nancy?” she heard as she stooped over the trunk.

“No, sir.”

Martin would have done better to change his tone. But he did not see her face, and went on teasingly:

“You tryin’ to make me believe none of these country jakes around here been makin’ up to you? You can’t fool me!”

“There’s good, kind folks on Back Creek, Mr. Martin.”

“You don’t say, honey!” Martin laughed, stretching his loose shoulders.

Nancy didn’t like his laugh, not at all! She took up an armful of coats and trousers, snatched the pile of soiled linen outside the door, and vanished so quickly that when the young man turned from throwing his cigar end out of the window, he was amazed to find her gone.

II

Mrs. Colbert had Zack sent down to the mill to ask her husband to come up early before supper-time. When his wife told him that his nephew had come to visit them, he showed neither pleasure nor annoyance. Hospitality, in those days, was one of the decencies of life. Whoever came, friend or stranger, was made welcome and cared for according to his place in the world. Henry saw that his wife was wearing her velvet gown, so he unquestioningly changed his shirt and put on his black suit. When Martin came downstairs, his uncle met him in the spacious hall, gave him a hearty handshake, and told him he was glad to see him.

Washington announced supper and wheeled the Mistress to her place at table. The miller noticed that a bottle of his best Madeira was on the sideboard. As soon as the two men were seated, Washington filled the wineglasses. Martin lifted his, saying:

“To the lady of the house, Uncle Henry,” bowing to his aunt, who smiled graciously. His uncle also smiled.

Supper was served at seven o’clock in summer, and throughout the hour Sampson’s twelve-year-old Katie, barefoot, in a stiffly starched red calico dress, walked round and round the table waving a long flybrush made of a peacock’s tail. Even in town houses the flybrush was part of the table service.

Katie had seldom heard such animated conversation at supper. Mrs. Colbert had reserved all her inquiries about Loudoun County families until her husband should be present. She wished Martin to make a good impression. He was full of gossip and told a story well. He complimented his uncle on his wine, and drank it liberally. The abstemious miller drank two glasses and left the third standing full. His wife, who always had a little wine with her supper, signalled Washington to bring on another bottle.

Martin’s stories were never quite indecent, and always characteristic of old Loudoun County neighbours. When he was talking about Captain Bushwell’s fine horses, he happened to say: “Fact is, his trainers say nowadays Bushwell sleeps in the stables.” Suddenly remembering that the miller was said to sleep at the mill, he caught himself up with a giggle, blushed, and ducked his shoulders.

Sapphira promptly covered his blush by asking him about Hal Gogarty, a dare-devil young Irishman whose stables rivalled Bushwell’s.

“Gogarty? ‘Course you know about his runaway last summer?”

“Runaway? I didn’t know he ever had one. It’s funny Sister Bushwell didn’t tell me about it when I saw her in town at Easter.”

Gogarty, she knew, delighted in driving a coach-and-four over the roughest roads in the Blue Ridge Mountains. People down there took more interest in horses than in anything else.

Martin said Gogarty had a party of visitors up from the Tidewater country. (Loudoun County people were thought to be a little jealous of the older and richer families in Tidewater Virginia.) Gogarty had wanted to give his guests a little excitement, since they made it plain that in staying with him they were tasting frontier life. He arranged to take them on a coaching party, and asked Martin to go along and sit on the box with him, whispering that he meant to make it a pretty rough trip. They set out with six passengers.

“That drive,” Martin went on, “took in some of the worst roads in the mountains, Uncle Henry, and you know the best are none too good. Nobody can handle four horses better than Gogarty. We went like the wind. Up hill and down dale. The women laughed and screamed, but Hal never let on he heard them. He’d have come out all right, too, except for a funny thing. Just as we were coming down a long hill at a pretty good pace, a young deer jumped out of the bushes right in front of the horses. Of course they reared and shied. Hal kept his head, nothing got tangled. But the right front wheel smashed on a big rock beside the road. He couldn’t stop the horses on the minute, so we bumped along on a dished wheel till the spokes flew out and we turned over. Then the horses went plumb crazy. Hal held on to the lines and sawed the bits, while I got forward and cut the traces. I thought I’d be kicked to death, and I did get a bad shin plaster. Our passengers were pretty well bumped up, but nobody was much hurt. One girl got her nose broken; she was a pretty girl, too. I was mighty sorry; so was Hal. It was that damn-fool deer made all the mischief. Who ever heard of a deer acting so?” Martin looked from his uncle to his aunt.

“Certainly, no one,” his aunt replied with a twinkle. “It must have been got up on Hal’s account. Those folks from the Tidewater do hold their heads high, though I’ve never seen just why they feel called upon.”

The miller had laughed at the story, but he looked at his wife, not his nephew. Martin’s laugh showed an upper front tooth of a bluish cast; it was set on a wooden pivot and did not fit his gum snugly. There was a story about this tooth, and the miller did not like to be reminded of it.

Martin, on his way to and from the hunts over in Clarke County, had found a pretty, homespun girl in the Blue Ridge. She used to meet him in the woods, and, as the mountain folk put it, “he fooled her.” Her two brothers lay for him in the thickets along the road to give him a horsewhipping. When they jumped out from cover and caught his mare by the bit, he saw he was in for it.

“You’re in the right, boys,” he said amiably, “but no whip. Come at me with your fists, an’ I’ll do the best I can, one against two. That’s fair enough.”

They took him at his word, and did him in completely. They put their mark on him by knocking out one of his white teeth. (White teeth were not common in that tobacco-chewing country.) The brothers left him unconscious beside the road, but they let his horse go home to give the alarm.

Everyone in the Blue Ridge country and in Winchester knew the story of Martin’s blue tooth. Many of them agreed with Sapphira: that Martin deserved what he got, but that spirited young men were wild and always would be.

Sampson’s Katie, walking round and round the supper table with her flybrush, wondered what had come over her folks. “Jist a-laffin’ an’ a-laffin’.” She was so delighted, so distracted, that more than once she let her peacock feathers dip on Miss Sapphy’s high headdress. Even the Master laughed at the stories about his old neighbours; a deep laugh from the belly up, it did a body good to hear it. The Mistress’s laugh was always pleasant (when she was not laughing scornfully, as a form of reprimand): tinkling, ladylike, but with something cordially appreciative, like the occasional flash in her eyes.

Martin’s laugh was just on the edge of being vulgar — rather loose, caught-inthe-act as it were. Old Washington, standing behind his mistress’s chair, reflected that this was a pretty figger of a young man, but he wasn’t a full-growed gen’leman yet.

Katie, excited as she was by the talk, had even keener joys in anticipation. Her eyes gloated over the good things Mr. Washington carried in to the table. She knew she would get a taste of them, though Bluebell always had the best of what went back to the kitchen. Lizzie had promised to make ice cream enough for everybody. Tap had brought squares and chunks of ice in a wheelbarrow up from the icehouse, — a dark, sawdust filled cave under one wing of the mill. Since six o’clock old Jeff had been seated behind the laundry cabin, turning the big freezer. In winter, whenever there was a snowfall, Lizzie made “snow-cream” for the Mistress — beating the fresh, clean snow into a bowl of thick cream well flavoured with sugar and brandy. But she made ice cream only on special occasions.

The family sat so long at table that the after-supper visit in the parlour was brief that night. The Mistress admitted that she was tired.

“I seldom spend such a lively day, Martin. I had a long wait for my guest, and a very pleasant tea and supper after he got here. I like having young people with me,” she added, patting his hand. She rang for Washington and told him to send Nancy upstairs to turn down Mr. Martin’s bed and see that he had everything to make him comfortable.

When Martin went to his room, Nancy had already taken off the starched pillow shams and was folding up the counterpane.

“Do you like the bolster left on, sir, or jest the pillows?”

“Just the pillows. Never leave the bolster on. Take it away with you, can’t you?”

“Yes indeed, sir. Is two candles enough for you? Good night, Mr. Martin.”

As she was going toward the door, with the long bolster upright in her arms, Martin caught her round the shoulders and kissed her on the mouth. She let the heavy roll of feathers slide to the floor and pushed against his chest with both hands.

“Oh, please, sir, please!”

Though the candlelight was dim, he saw she was really frightened.

“Now, my girl, what’s there to make a fuss about? That’s the way we say good-night down where I live. You ask my aunt.” She was already at the door. “Wait a minute.” He pointed to the bolster lying on the carpet. “You take that thing with you, and waken me half an hour before breakfast. Don’t forget.”

III

One morning when Mrs. Blake was just about to put her bread in the oven, Nancy, with a basket on her arm, appeared at the kitchen door. Bidden to come in, she did so, rather hesitatingly.

“I jist stopped for a minute, Miz’ Blake. I’m a-goin’ up to the Double S. Miss Sapphy’s sent me to pick some laurel for her.” She spoke wanderingly and rather mournfully, Mrs. Blake noted.

“Is Mother not feeling well? She always likes to drive up the road and see the laurel herself.”

“Yes, mam. Maybe she don’t feel right well. You’re jist puttin’ your bread in, ain’t you.” There was no question in her voice, but sorrowful comment.

“The oven’s not hot yet, but it soon will be.” Mrs. Blake lifted the stove lid to put in another stick.

Nancy gasped and put out her hand beseechingly. “Oh, Miz’ Blake, wait a minute, please mam do! I don’t hardly know what to say, but I’m afraid to go up the holler road this mornin’.”

“Afraid? What of? Blacksnakes?”

“No’m, I ain’t afraid of no snakes.”

Mrs. Blake dropped the stick back into the wood-box. The girl was afraid of something, sure enough. One could see it in her face, and in the shivering, irresolute way she stood there.

After covering her loaves with a white cloth, Mrs. Blake took her seat by the kitchen table. “Now sit down, Nancy, and tell me what’s ailing you. Don’t stand there cowerin’, but sit down and speak out.”

“Yes’m,” meekly. “It ain’t I minds goin’ up there; it’s jist a nice walk. Only Miss Sapphy told me to go right before Mr. Martin.”

“Well, what’s that got to do with it?”

“She knowed he was goin’ ridin’ this mornin’. He had his leggin’s on.”

She stopped, and Mrs. Blake waited. In a moment Nancy burst out: “Oh, Miz’ Blake, he’ll shorely ride up there an’ overtake me in the woods!” She hid her face in her hands and began to cry. “You don’t know how it is, mam. He’s always a-pesterin’ me, ‘deed he is. I has to do his room for him, an’ he’s always after me. I’m ‘shamed to tell you. He’ll be shore to overtake me up in the woods. I lost heart when I seen you was about to bake. I thought maybe you’d walk along up with me.”

“The baking can wait. I’ll just check the damper and go along with you. I’d like to see that laurel myself. Now you quit crying. I’ll go upstairs and slip on another dress.”

Once in her own chamber, Mrs. Blake sat down to think. Her face was flushed, and her eyes blazed with indignation. She could not remember when Mrs. Colbert had not driven daily up the Hollow road to the “Double S” while the laurel was in bloom. Of course she would take her usual drive up there tomorrow, as she had done yesterday. But today she was sending Nancy. Why?

Mrs. Colbert had turned on Nancy; that was well known. Now she had the worst rake in the country staying in her house, and she was sending the girl up into the woods alone, after giving him fair warning. Did her mother really want to ruin Nancy? Could her spite go so far as that?

Rachel Blake closed her eyes and leaned her head and arms forward on her dresser top. She had known her mother to show great kindness to her servants, and, sometimes, cold cruelty. But she had never known her to do anything quite so ugly as this, if Nancy’s tale were true. But there was no time to puzzle it out now. She must meet the present occasion. She quickly changed her dress and came downstairs with a basket on her arm.

“Now step along, Nancy, and brighten up. We’ll go flower-picking to please ourselves.”

It was still early morning; a little too warm in the sun, but wonderfully soft and pleasant in the shade. The winding country road which climbed from the post office to Timber Ridge was then, and for sixty years afterward, the most beautiful stretch in the northwestern turnpike. It was cut against gravelly hillsides bright with mica and thinly overgrown with spikes of pennyroyal, patches of rue, and small shrubs. But on the left side of the road, going west, the hillsides fell abruptly down to a mountain stream flowing clear at the bottom of a winding ravine. The country people called this the Hollow, or “Holler,” road. On the far side of the creek the hills were shaded by forest trees, tall and not too thickly set: hickory and chestnut and white oak, here and there hemlocks of great height. The ground beneath them was covered with bright green moss and flat mats of wintergreen full of red berries. Out of the damp moss between the exposed tree roots, where the shade was deep, the maidenhair fern grew delicately.

The road followed the ravine, climbing all the way, until at the “Double S” it swung out in four great loops round hills of solid rock; rock which the destroying armament of modern road-building has not yet succeeded in blasting away. The four loops are now denuded and ugly, but motorists, however unwillingly, must swing round them if they go on that road at all.

In the old times, when Nancy and Mrs. Blake were alive, and for sixty years afterward, those now-naked hills were rich in verdure, the winding ravine was deep and green, the stream at the bottom flowed bright and soothingly vocal. A tramp pedlar from town, or a poor farmer, coming down on foot from his stony acres to sell a coonskin, stopped to rest here, or walked lingeringly. When the countrymen mentioned the place in speech, if it were but to say: “I’d jist got as fur as the Double e-S-S,” their voices took on something slow and dreamy, as if recalling the place itself; the shade, the unstained loveliness, the pleasant feeling one had there.

Mrs. Blake and Nancy reached the curve of the first “S,” and sat down on a log to rest, looking across the creek at the forest trees, which seemed even taller than they were, rising one above another on the steep hillside. There was no underbrush, except such as was prized in kings’ gardens: the laurel itself. Even in those days of slow and comfortless travel, people came across the Atlantic to see the Kalmia in bloom; the wayward wild laurel which in June covered the wooded slopes of our mountains with drifts of rose and peach and flesh colour. And in winter, when the tall trees above were grey and leafless, the laurel thickets beneath them spread green and brilliant through the frosty woods.

“Well, Nancy,” said Mrs. Blake after they had been sitting silent for a while, “we can’t do better than this. The creek’s narrow here, and we can easy get across on the stones.”

They had not been long among the flowering bushes when Mrs. Blake heard the sharp click of horseshoes on the higher loops of the “Double S.” She held up a warning finger. The hoofbeats came closer, and finally stopped. Presently there was a scraping sound of gravel and pebbles falling; the rider had found a gully where he could tie his horse.

The laurel-gatherers went on steadily about their work, bending down high branches and letting them fly back again. In a few moments young Martin crossed the creek. He must have seen two sunbonnets over there in the dark green bushes, but he doubtless thought Nancy had brought one of the coloured girls along with her.

Mrs. Blake pushed back her bonnet and confronted him with that square brow so like the miller’s. Martin met the surprise admirably. His face brightened; he seemed delighted. Dropping his riding whip, he snatched off his cap.

“Why, Cousin Rachel! Have I caught you at last! Here I’ve been at the mill nearly two weeks, and you’ve never once sent word you’d like to see me. Is that the way to treat kin-folks?”

She gave him her hand, which he held longer than she liked.

“You do come to the Mill House, don’t you?” he asked.

“Yes, I do. But I’ve been occupied. At this time of year I’m canning cherries.”

“You’ll let me come over and see you some night after supper? I have messages for you. I had to go to Alexandria some time back” (she knew why), “and I went on to Washington. The House was in session, and I met some of Cousin Michael’s old friends. They hadn’t enough good to say of him, really.”

“You’d hear naught else of him,” said Mrs. Blake dryly.

“Certainly not. But a man may be a fine fellow, and still not leave friends who will ask nothing better than to sit and talk about him six years after his death. Not many of us will leave friends who’ll be missing us after six or seven years.”

“Not many,” assented Mrs. Blake. “And how did the gentlemen come to know you were related to Mr. Blake by marriage?”

“I looked up his friends, naturally. You see, they were all so glad to have any news of you and how you were doing. They asked after you every time I saw them, and sent you a great many messages.”

“Thank you. Nancy and me have got our baskets full now, and your horse is pawing on the rocks over there. We’d better be going.”

“Can’t I carry you home behind me? You can ride without a pillion.”

“No, thank you. I partly came for the walk.”

“Miss Nancy, maybe, would like to get home before her flowers wilt?” He had the brass to make this suggestion as he stooped to pick up his riding whip. “No? Then let me carry the basket to Aunt Sapphy while the flowers are fresh.”

Nancy reluctantly handed him the basket. Mrs. Blake frowned, wondering why she gave in to him.

“That’s a good girl!” Martin smiled at her, ran down the ravine, and crossed the creek with the basket in his hand. In a few moments they heard his horse trotting down the road.

During the homeward walk Mrs. Blake said little, but her face was flushed and grim. You could put nothing past a Colbert, she told herself bitterly. The effrontery of this scapegrace, to go to Washington and use Michael’s name to introduce himself! Been to Alexandria lately! Of course he had, and everyone knew why! It was to get that blue tooth put in, to replace the one the girl’s brothers had knocked out of his head on the Blue Ridge road. A doctor in Alexandria was known the country round for successful pivot work. With this ignominious brand showing every time he opened his mouth, Mart Colbert had gone to Washington and nosed about the Capitol until he found some of Michael’s friends and claimed kinship. She had half a mind to tell Nancy the whole story, as a warning. But the girl was already frightened; and when she was distracted and fidgety she was likely to break things, forget orders, and exasperate her mistress.

As they parted at her gate, Mrs. Blake did say this much:

“Nancy girl, if I was you I wouldn’t go into the woods or any lonesome place while Mr. Martin is here. If you have to go off somewhere, come by, and I’ll go along. If I happen to be away, take Mary and Betty with you. I’ll give them leave.”

“Yes mam, Miz’ Blake. I won’t. Thank you, mam.” Nancy drew her slender shoulders together as if she were cold. Some dark apprehension in her voice told more than she could say in words.

IV

While he was dressing next morning Martin wondered whether his ride had been spoiled by accident or by conspiracy. Had his Cousin Rachel, whom he always found a bore, gone into the woods on her own account, or had the girl entreated her company? Well, no matter. He was a match for the two of them. The only person he didn’t want to offend was his Aunt Sapphy, who had urged him to visit her, and who seemed almost to be playing into his hand. As he shaved his ruddy cheeks he forgot everything except that he wanted his ham and eggs.

Mrs. Colbert was awaiting him in the dining-room. Now that Martin was here, she rose early in order to be dressed and coiffed before she joined him at breakfast. After breakfast Martin wheeled his aunt out on the porch to take the air, excused himself, and went upstairs to his room, where he expected to find Nancy making his bed. But she was not there, and the bed was still as he had left it.

Nancy was playing truant: that morning, when she came up from the miller’s room, she had caught up a basket and run away to the old cherry trees behind the smokehouse. Finding no ladder handy, she went into the smokehouse to get Pappy Jeff’s wooden chair. Jeff was there himself, tending the fire in a big iron kettle set deep in the earth floor. All day long, through spring and summer, the smoke from hickory chunks went up to cure and season the rows of hams and bacon hanging from the rafters of the roof.

“Pappy, kin I have your cheer to climb up a cherry tree?”

Jeff rose from his squatting position. “Sho’ly, sho’ly, honey. I don’t espect no comp’ny.”

But at that very moment Sampson’s tall figure darkened the doorway. “See, now,” Jeff chuckled, “I ain’t done said no comp’ny, an’ here come Sampson! Run along, chile, him an’ me’s got a little bizness to fix. He don’t need no cheer. He kin squat on the flo’, like me.”

Sampson carried the chair out for her and planted it under a tree. Nancy scrambled nimbly up to the first big limb, where she could sit comfortably; could reach the cherries shining all about her and bend down the branches over her head. The morning air was still so fresh that the sunlight on her bare feet and legs was grateful. She was light-hearted this morning. She loved to pick cherries, and she loved being up in a tree. Someway no troubles followed a body up there; nothing but the foolish, dreamy, nigger side of her nature climbed the tree with her. She knew she had left half her work undone, but here nobody would find her out to scold her. The leaves over her head laughed softly in the wind; maybe they knew she had run away.

She was in no hurry to pick the cherries. She ate the ripest ones and dropped the hard ones into her basket. Presently she heard someone singing. She sat very still and gently released the branch she was holding down. He was coming from the stables, she thought.

Down by de cane-brake, close by de mill,
Dar lived a yaller gal, her name was Nancy Till.

Should she scramble down? Likely as not he would go along the path through the garden, and then he could not see her for the smokehouse. He wouldn’t come prowling around back here among the weeds. But he did. He came through the wet grass straight toward the cherry trees, his straw hat in his hand, singing that old darky song.

Martin had gone to the kitchen to complain that Nancy had not done his room, and Bluebell told him Nancy was out picking cherries. There never was a finer morning for picking cherries or anything else, he was thinking, as he went out to the kitchen garden and round the stables. He didn’t really intend to frighten the girl, though he owed her one for the trick she played him yesterday.

“Good morning, Nancy,” he called up to her as he stood at the foot of the tree. “Cherries are ripe, eh? Do you know that song? Can you sing, like Bluebell?”

“No, sir. I can’t sing. I got no singin’ voice.”

“Neither have I, but I sing anyhow. Can’t help it on a morning like this. Come now, you’re going to give me something, Nancy.”

His tone was coaxing, but careless. She somehow didn’t feel scared of him as he stood down there, with his head thrown back. His eyes were clear this morning, and jolly. He didn’t look wicked. Maybe he only meant to tease her anyhow, and she just didn’t know how young men behaved over in the racing counties.

“Aren’t you going to give me something on such a pretty day? Let’s be friends.” He held up his hand as if to help her down.

She didn’t move, but she laughed a soft darky laugh and dropped a bunch of cherries down to him.

“I don’t want cherries. They’re sour, and I want something sweet.”

“No, Mr. Martin. The sour cherries is all gone. These is blackhearts.”

“Stop talking about cherries. You look awful pretty, sitting up there.”

Nancy giggled nervously. Martin was smiling all the time. Maybe he was just young and foolish like, not bad.

“Who’s your beau, anyhow, Nancy Till?”

“Ain’t got none.”

“You goin’ to be a sour old maid?”

“I reckon I is.”

“Now who in the world is that scarecrow, comin’ on us?”

Nancy followed his eyes and looked back over her shoulder. The instant her head was turned Martin stepped lightly on the chair, caught her bare ankles, and drew her two legs about his cheeks like a frame. Nancy dropped her basket and almost fell out of the tree herself. She caught at the branch above her and clung to it.

“Oh, please get down, Mr. Martin! Do, please! Somebody’ll come along, an’ you’ll git me into trouble.”

Martin laughed. “Get you into trouble? Just this? This is nothin’ but to cure toothache.”

The girl had gone pale. She was frightened now, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t pull herself up with him holding her so hard. Everything had changed in a flash. He had changed, and she couldn’t collect her wits.

“Please, Mr. Martin, please let me git down.”

Martin framed his face closer and shut his eyes. “Pretty soon. — This is just nice. — Something smells sweet — like May apples.” He seemed murmuring to himself, not to her, but all the time his face came closer. Her throat felt tight shut, but she knew she must scream, and she did.

“Pappy! Oh, Pappy! Come quick!”

The moment she screamed, Martin stepped down from the chair. Old Jeff came running round the end of the smokehouse, up to the foot of the tree where Nancy sat, still holding on to the limb above her. “Whassa matter, chile? Whassa matter?”

Sampson followed more deliberately, looking about him, — looking at Martin Colbert, which it was not his place to do.

Nancy said she was “took giddy like” in the tree, and was afraid she would faint and fall. Sampson got on the chair and lifted her down, but before he did so he took it in that there were already wet boot tracks on the seat. Martin, standing by, remarked that if the girl had had any sense, he would have helped her get out of the tree.

“Co’se you would, Mr. Martin,” Jeff jabbered. “Young gals has dese sick spells come on ’em, an’ den dey ain’t got no haid. Come along, honey, you kin walk, Pappy’ll he’p you.”

Sampson picked up the chair and carried it back to the smokehouse. Martin strolled down the path, muttering to himself. “God, I’d rather it had been any other nigger on the place! That mill-hand don’t know where he belongs. If ever he looks me in the face like that again, I’ll break his head for him. The niggers here don’t know their place, not one of ’em.”

That afternoon Martin went for a ride. He was a trifle uncomfortable in mind. He knew he had made a blunder. He hadn’t meant to do more than tease her. But after he caught her and felt against his cheeks the shiver that went over her warm flesh, he lost his head for an instant. He knew she must be pursued carelessly and taken at the right moment, off her guard. He was vexed that he had let a pleasant contact, an intoxicating fragrance, run away with him. Never mind; he would keep at a distance for a while, as if he had forgotten the cherry tree.

Riding home by the road from the post office, he spied Bluebell over yonder in the big vegetable garden. Immediately he dismounted and led his horse across the field toward her.

“Hello, Bluebell, what are you up to?”

“I’se a-pickin’ lettuce fo’ yo’ supper, Mr. Martin.” The slim black girl straightened up and stood with her bare feet wide apart between rows of lettuce.

“You don’t get outdoors much, do you? I always see you in the kitchen.”

“Yes, sir. I’se mos’ly heppin’ Mammy.” This was spoken plaintively, as if she had a hard life.

Martin laughed. He knew she was useless, except as a companion to Lizzie.

“You find time to sing, though. Aunt Sapphy’s going to have you and Lizzie come into the parlour and sing for me some night. I like to hear you. Maybe I could teach you some new songs. I’m not just crazy about these hymn tunes.”

Bluebell grinned. “Oh, we sings ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ an’ ‘The Gipsy’s Warming.’”

Martin chuckled. “It’s ‘warning,’ not ‘warming,’ my girl.”

“Yes, sir. Seems jist alike when you sings it.”

“Look-a-here, Bluebell, why don’t they send you up to fix my room and make my bed for me? That yaller gal’s no account, and solemn as a funeral. I don’t like solemn girls around me.”

Bluebell giggled. “Dey says how I ain’t so handy wid de bedrooms. Marster, he won’t let me come a-nigh his room at de mill. He PREFER Nancy.” She gave a sly suggestiveness to “prefer,” lifted her eyebrows and twisted her shoulders languidly.

“He does? I can’t understand that. She don’t suit me.” Martin patted his restive horse to quiet him. “You say she always takes care of the mill room for Uncle Henry?”

“‘Deed she do. He won’t have nobody else roun’ him. Oh Lawdy no! I dassen’ set foot in de place. Yes sir, Nancy do all de housekeepin’ at de mill. Why, ev’ybody know dat. She carry down his washin’ an’ shine his brass mugs, an’ take him bowkays. Laws, ah don’ know what all she don’ do at de mil-l-l.”

“Damn this horse! Give me some of that green stuff to keep him still, will you?” Martin was interested.

But Bluebell took a twist of brown paper from a pocket in her very full skirt and produced a lump of crumbly brown sugar.

“Dis’ll quiet him. I mos’ly carries a little to keep on han’.”

Martin winked. “Comes in handy to be round the kitchen, don’t it? But tell me, don’t that make the other girls jealous, her going to the mill so much? Are you and Nancy good friends?”

“We gits along,” languidly. “We’s mos’ly friendly. Mammy don’ have no patience wid her, ‘cause she’s stuck up, havin’ white blood. When de Missus use’ to favour her terribul, dat set all de culled folks agin her. But it ain’t so now no mo’. Miss Sapphy turned on Nancy some while back.”

“Why, what had Nancy done?”

Bluebell shrugged indifferently.

“Ah don’ know. Ah don’ foller nobody’s doin’s. Some folks s’picions de Marster favour her now, an’ de Missus don’ relish her goin’ down to de mill so much. Ah don’ know. Ah never listens to no talk.”

“That’s a good rule. And you’re a smart girl, Belle. Don’t anybody round here call you Belle?”

“No, sah. Dey always calls me Bluebell. Dey’s anoder Belle on de place; Sampson’s wife, what is de haid mill-han’.”

“Then I’ll call you Bluebell. I certainly wouldn’t call you by the name of anything belongin’ to that Sampson. Now I’m going to ask Aunt Sapphy to let you fix my room for me. The yaller gal puts on too many airs.”

Martin turned and led his horse toward the hitch-post. He walked rapidly, and there was more energy in his step than common. When little Zach ran up to take his bridle, he threw him the reins without a glance, but he looked very angry, and he was talking out loud to himself. Zach caught a few words:

“By God, if I thought that old sinner had been there before me — ”

The little nigger boy stared after the young man, wondering what had put him out.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/cather/willa/sapphira/book5.html

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