Captain Meg's Son
Captain Meg's son
BY AMÉLIE RIVES
THE most gallant little chap that I ever knew was a Virginian. He has haunted me like an ardent little ghost all day—one of those wistfulest of phantoms, the shade of a child who has become a man.
However, it is eminently natural that I should be thinking of him, since my first return to Virginia after fifteen years was to this big lumber-camp in the Alleghanies, where since yesterday it has rained incessantly, and to a practical forester steady sluicing rain gives much opportunity for thought of various kinds.
Any proper estimating of timber is out of the question in so shrewish a down pour. One might as well try to judge the beauty of a woman with tears of rage on her cheeks. I may state in passing that I am an unbeliever in beautiful furies. Helen in a rage would have seemed to me but an ugly jade. But to return to my little lad. I think that I will put in these soaking hours by writing down that adventure in what my wife calls my Book of Business Romances. It is a good title, I think, and very pat. Business, whatever the heretic layman may hold to the contrary. involves romance quite as much as does soldiering or law or religion. Also—another paradox in the eyes of the laity—a man may be very practical and very romantic at the same time. I use romantic in its wider sense of imaginative. A romantic man to me does not mean a sentimentalist, but one who likes and believes in the picturesque, original side of things, even, on occasions, the wild and fantastic.
The memory of Beaumarchais abets me—Beaumarchais, without whose practical aid this great American Republic would hardly exist to-day, and yet who was romantic enough to spend on a strange country struggling for liberty his whole fortune, without security or demand for security, and who, incorrigible romanticist to the end, contented himself, in lieu of the five million francs owed him by the United States, with a request to the American people that they should dower his penniless daughter. Also, he indulged himself in writing light literature, and that encourages me in continuing my present diversion.
It was on a wonderful blue and green morning of May that I rushed through the Piedmont country from Richmond to Charlottesville. Sky and earth gleamed like lacquer. There were no clouds at first, only a cloud-like drift of foot-hills to westward as we approached the Blue Ridge. The land rolled gently on all sides, soft with young oats and wheat or the dark green of pastures and still darker forests—and through this intense verdure ran endless loops and windings of a soil that was like red enamel. Now and then came a broad sweep of crimson clover repeating the vivid note, and sometimes when it crested against the sky the scene was like a page from an illuminated missal; clots of ruby against gold and azure—slim trees standing solitary, graceful, and naked in the transparent foliage of spring; a shine of narrow water purling down among wild flowers; far beyond and high in air the celestial battlements of the Blue Ridge.
It seemed a land given for the making of homes; so warm and full was the breast of the dark-red earth—a sort of Indian goddess mother tendering her bosom with promise of food and rest to the unresting children of men.
My practical side, however, kept me from unbiassed enjoyment, for I was wincing all along the way at the forests devastated by sawmills and full of lumber man's “slash,” with its eager invitation to fire and its appalling unsightliness.
Then it struck me as rather hopeful that the Mrs. Gordon of Redhouse near Charlottesville, whom I was hastening to see, should have summoned me for the purpose of estimating the value of her woodlands before making any business arrangements in regard to them.
The day had turned from May to June when I reached Charlottesville. As I stood on the incandescent pavement before the station, looking about me for some sign of the Redhouse carriage which was to meet me, it came down the hilly street at a slamming trot, its big black horses speckled with foam. A very smart equipage it was indeed—correct, glittering, prosperous, the old coachman almost as black as his horses and rigid in a dark livery.
“The madam says tea will be ready for you, suh,” he observed as he bestowed me and my bags safely. “The madam is kep' msfortunately—kep' by business.”
He then remounted the box and set off at a great rate for Redhouse.
I was frankly disappointed by the Redhouse carriage. I had (romantically) hoped to see some of the charming tarnished splendor of the old Virginia of which I had so often read. Both carriage and coachman smacked too much of the rich suburban.
I began to wonder as to the reception I would be given. I was used, in my character of forester, to being regarded in divers and sundry ways—sometimes as something a little better than the plumber, a little dearer than the butler; sometimes as a “soul” would have been by a Russian of the old régime. Sometimes as an equal, sometimes almost as a soothsayer. The professional forester, usually a college man and a gentleman, has not yet been “placed” exactly by what he would call “the masses.”
That rattling drive through the tangled lanes about Charlottesville soothed me entirely, however. A freakish wind blew from the mountains. The air was a web of thrilling scents. A little covey of white lustrous clouds was now loosed upon the sky. I saw noble copses and wood lands unfolding on either hand.
We drove thus for about six miles, then turned sharply around the shoulder of a wooded hill, into pleasant park-like meadows, and finally through slanting lawns to a long iron gate set between stucco pillars.
Through the fanciful scrollwork of the gate I looked up at Redhouse, with its pleasant brick façade tempered by time and weather, and the fine effrontery of its huge white columns.
As I went up the old brick walk to the front door a slight figure appeared and came quietly down the steps to meet me. This was my first sight of Jack Gordon—or John Page Gordon, as he liked to call himself—“the gallant little chap” of the beginning of this story.
He was just twelve years old the day before I came. He had thick, soft, black hair parted on the side and scrupulously brushed until it looked quite Japanese. His eyes were of the most extraordinary blue blue (I coin the expression for the subject). His nose and month were just those of a nice, undeveloped boy, but his chin was the squarest I ever saw—like the end of a little box. As is usual with boys of his age, his two front teeth were excessively large, but white as china, and did not ill become his shy, rather embarrassed smile.
When I say in hackneyed phrase that John Page Gordon had the manners of a little prince, I mean the manners that we imagine as being part of the appanage of little princes in fairy-tales. He was the very pink of natural, self-forgetful courtesy. When he insisted on gently “worming” from my hand the one bag that Nelson the coachman had consented to leave with me, I submitted. It had some valuable and rather heavy instruments in it, so that Jack's walk was decidedly influenced during our progression to the house, but he carried it with the pleased air of one who is handling a new baseball bat for the first time.
When we entered the front hall together, I was in the midst of that “tarnished splendor” for which I had longed.
The fine old panelling, painted white, was cracked in places and much streaked. Oval stains showed where portraits had gone from the walls. One of the crystal candle-shades in the old bronze lustre was broken, some were missing altogether. The parquet was sprung in places, the mouldings of the ceiling veiled with cob webs here and there, the fanlight over the big door of solid mahogany dim with them, and the door itself scored outside by the scratchings of impatient dogs.
A new glance at the boy (I had a little six-year-old at home myself) showed that his neat garments, though nicely darned and brushed, matched the rest. “Tarnished splendor” was the word for Jack as well as for the home of his ancestors. Why then the unmitigated gorgeousness of “Uncle” Nelson, the big blacks, and the carriage? I was to judge this for myself before I left.
The room into which Jack led the way for tea was delightful. The shabbiness of the vague gray-green Louis XV. furniture only added to its soothing pleasantness. Three sides were panelled in white like the hall; on the third was stretched a moth-eaten tapestry as rare in tone as a mist-blurred dawn in April, and in which the old pink of a shepherdess's lute ribbon and a courtier's coat made the accents of the room. Jack, with slim, sunburnt hands that fumbled a little through over eagerness, set about making tea. The silver was spotless.
“I did it,” said he, carelessly, when I admired it, but there was a rare pride beneath the carelessness.
He handed me the clear brown drink with its wheel of lemon atop, as I liked it, and then swung forward the prettiest little Chippendale affair of round shelves and bent-wood, which he called “a curate's assistant.” On old Wedgwood platters this quaint table held the best ham-and-lettuce sandwiches possible to imagine.
“I made 'em,” said Jack when I commended them.
“You must be a mighty convenient chap to have about,” said I, in tones of equality.
“Oh, that ain't anything,” he replied, negligently, with his vaguely sweet smile. “I like to use my hands.”
Then like a modest host he turned the subject.
“Mother's very sorry she couldn't be here to meet you. Mr. Lockhart. A man came about the new swimming-pool. Mother couldn't let any one else see to that.”
His voice had the rising Southern inflection which asks a question while stating a fact. So I said:
“Certainly not. I quite understand.”
And Jack looked relieved.
“If you'll 'scuse me a minute—” he then suggested.
I “'scused” him ceremoniously, and he returned bearing an old cut-glass tray and liqueur-glasses. There were green and yellow chartreuse in portly little decanters upon it and cognac in its own bottle, “Vintage 1875.”
“Mother thought you might like your tea 'laced.' I forgot that,” he explained.
We agreed that we liked our tea untrimmed, and sat soberly sipping in good-fellowship, Jack having further explained that he had promised to make his beverage “half water so he'd grow tall as they think.”
His tone was sceptical.
“Do you take wine and water, too?” I asked, idly.
He wrinkled his unformed nose in an unconscious spasm of revulsion.
“No. … Hate 'em all,” he said, briefly.
When we had thoroughly refreshed ourselves Jack went to some outer door and hallooed:
“Marcell-oo! Oh, Marcell-oo!”
And presently came a pleasant-faced but blousy mulatto girl, who took away the remnants of our repast. I found afterward that her name was really the ordinary “Marcella,” but that Jack changed the last syllable to “oo” for convenience in making himself heard. The contrast between “Uncle” Nelson's immaculate livery and Marcella's far from immaculate gingham set me to wondering afresh.
Jack then suggested that we should take a stroll about the grounds, and during our ramble incidentally introduced me to all the pets which are the natural possessions of a country lad of twelve. “Blick,” his white bull-terrier, was evidently chief in his affections.
“Blick” was a well-bred little beast who had eaten unwarily of a neighbor's poisoned meat laid out for weasels, and had a quaint curvature of the spine in consequence which made him walk with a high and haughty gait, somewhat spasmodic, and caused him to wag his whole person when attempting to wag only his tail. He had a sensitive, ever-alert muzzle, as speaking as the eyes of a sentimental girl, and when he sat with his own slightly décolleté orbs fixed on Jack's face, and the glistening inward of his cropped ears showing exactly like the kernels of English walnuts, he was a symbol of adoration scarce to be forgotten.
I can see “Blick” as plainly as I can see Jack now. It was just Damon and Pythias between them, or something even more spiritual. For, indeed, “who knoweth if the spirit of the beast goeth downward?” I have always taken great comfort in the thought of “Blick.”
Jack was engaged in showing me how “Blick” at the word of command would wash his face—“scrub well behind his ears”… when a call came that struck him as alert as ever “Blick” was to his own orders.
“Ja-ack! … Jack!” called this voice, with the sharp sweet tang of a snapped banjo-string. There was not the soft, long-drawn Southern “Oh!” before or after it, but it carried clear and peremptory without such aid.
Jack stood at attention—“Blick” rigid beside him.
“That's mother,” he said, and his voice was hushed with pride.
“Yes, mothe-oo! Coming, mothe-oo!” he called back, and set off running, only to remember the next instant and wait sedately for me.
Mrs. Gordon was standing at the head of the portico steps. I had never seen so tall and so singularly graceful a woman, and yet she had no lending from draperies. Her dress was a perfectly cut shooting-costume, with leather-bound skirt just meeting the tops of russet boots. Her collar was of the stiffest correctness even on that warm day. She had discarded her hat and gloves, but still held the rifle with which she had just won first prize, she told me later, at a local match.
I saw in a glance that her cropped, half—curling hair became her. It gave her the head of a Greek boy and was as softly black and thick as her son's.
She let me go up to her, but reached me her hand very frankly when I was beside her.
“'Twas too bad about that man. Had to see to him myself. Darkies are such idiots. Jack treated you well? Hullo! Jacky, don't let that little imp of yours jump on me. His paws are filthy. Get out—you!” she ended, and assisted “Blick” in a swift scurry down the steps with the toe of her boot.
“Don't let's talk business yet,” she then said to me. “Let's sit on the east terrace and have a julep before dinner. Jacky, run and make two of your best juleps. What are you waiting for, eh?”
“Only … 'cause … Mr. Lockhart said he didn't care for anything, mother.”
Mrs. Gordon turned to me.
“Have you ever tasted a real genuine Virginia mint julep?” said she.
I confessed that I had not.
“Then you can't know whether you want one or not. Wait till you've tasted one of Jack's. Run along, Jack. Don't stand there like that. You give me the fidgets. And do keep your mouth shut. You've plenty of sense and you look the image of an idiot when you hang it open like that. Aren't boys a trial?” she appealed to me as Jack disappeared into the house. leaving a lonesome “Blick” sniffing at the traces of his worshipped footsteps.
“I can't imagine this boy being one," I couldn't help saying.
Frankly she antagonized me, though I couldn't help admiring the superabundant vitality that played about her in an almost visible discharge of force. And she was extraordinarily handsome in a curious metallic way. Also, strangely enough, I could see that the boy resembled her in certain points, though not in essentials. Her eyes were black where his were blue, and her chin, though square too, retreated slightly. But the nose, though beautiful, was dominant enough to take the place of two firm chins. I cannot imagine pride, self-will, and ruthlessness better portrayed than in that high, clear-cut nose. She was much tanned, but that too became her. She would have made a stunning young officer on the. stage—in fact, she reminded me of a soldier in “mufti” from first to last.
“Oh, Jacky's all right,” she said, carelessly, in reply to my last remark. “Nice boy … but boy all the same.”
Then on my making polite inquiries about the new swimming-pool we fell into “shop” talk, or rather she talked and I listened, much interested, for she was as vivid in her speech as in her appearance—until Jack returned.
This was a half-hour later, and he bore carefully upon a small silver tray two old crystal goblets filled with, I must say, the most engaging-looking drink. Ice powdered as fine as snow rose to the brim, below was an inch of burnt topaz; a pearly frost crusted the outside of the glass, a sprig of mint crowned all.
“Ah-h!” said Mrs. Gordon. “Good Jacky.”
She leaned back in soft pleasure, took a slow sip, then suddenly sat dart-like.
“Jack!” she cried, “did you slop the whole ice-pitcher into this glass? Wait a minute, Mr. Locker.” (She did not get my name right for two days.) “If Jack has made the mess of your julep that he's made of mine it's not fit to drink. If you don't mind, I'll taste it for you…"
She took a spoonful from my glass. “No, yours is all right. Now, Jack, quick! Take this thing back and bring me a proper julep.”
I watched the boy's face while apparently looking into my glass. He was certainly pale, but quite composed.
“Yes, mother,” he said, and went off with the condemned julep.
In a moment, however, he was back again with the tray, the goblet, and the bottle of cognac. It seemed to my unaccustomed eye that a goodly amount of that 1875 vintage had gone to the making of these two innocent-looking beverages.
“I just brought you out the bottle, mother. I thought that would be the best way,” he explained, gently.
Mrs. Gordon gave him a quick glance. Her curved month set itself.
“Very well," was all she said, but the boy moved away as soon as he could, and I saw him disappear with an ecstatically twisting “Blick” in the direction of the gardens.
It was very clear to me that Jack did not want to give his mother more cognac, and that he had outwitted her quietly and respectfully by bringing the bottle, so that she should have to pour it for herself. It was also plain that she saw this and was angry about it. But she only added a little to her glass, pronounced it excellent after doing so, and the scene passed over. Not its memory, though. I thought it an odiously painful scene altogether, and I am afraid that I disliked Jack's mother so heartily from that moment that I am unable to write of her impartially.
We dined, half an hour later, in a long, three-windowed room looking toward the Blue Ridge. The linked azure of these mountains, afloat in a slight haze beyond the stolid beauty of the columns outside, was admirable in its aerial decorativeness.
The table, a great slab of old mahogany, was like a dark, glossy pool, on which rounds of much-darned lace lay like Odd water-flowers. The china was rare but unmatched, scarce two pieces being alike. Some one had set a bowl of old diamond patterned crystal in the centre and filled it with a thorny tangle of damask roses in charming disarray. I found afterward that this was the work of Miss Miriam Beech, Jack's governess, who lived in the house and played sedately at being chaperon to his mother, she, I learned, later, being a widow. I say “played ” advisedly. for it is my opinion that “Miriam Beebee” herself could not in earthly form have adequately chaperoned Mrs. Gordon. She was so convincingly one of those who brook no control save such as personal desire suggests.
Miss Beech was delightfully ugly, evidently aware of it and not in the least embittered by that fact. She had a small Roman nose and what I conceived to be a Roman eye and chin as well. This eye was a light, animated gray with red flecks in it, like the eye of William Rufus.
Perhaps that was why Jack called her “Billy.” Or more likely it was because of the downright frank comradeship existing between them. “Billy,” like “Blick,” was a wonderfully comforting thought to me subsequently whenever I mused on the peculiar state in life to which it had pleased Providence to call John Page Gordon.
Mrs. Gordon yawned with extreme frankness straight through dinner. She said that it was the “open air all day” that made her yawn so in the evening and wished that we might put off our business talk until the next morning.
I convinced her that this would bring upon her unnecessary expense, and after coffee and a glass (or so) of yellow chartreeuse we adjourned to the faded Louis XV. room to talk things over.
I found that the wooded area which she wished estimated was not very large and decided to do it by myself, without sending for an assistant. This, I explained to her, would take me about a week. She nodded and said, “Very well.”
I found also that hickory (a first growth) and walnut were the timber from which she expected most. She had all the woman's gambling intuition that her woods would prove full of “curly” walnut. When I explained to her that this can never be ascertained until the timber is cut, she said, “How stupid!” and began yawning again.
At half past six next morning I came down in flannel shirt and woodsman's dress, to find Jack and “Blick” presiding over my breakfast, which was situated like a small but tropical island on one curve of the mahogany pool.
“Mammy did it and I helped,” said Jack. “I cooked the batter cakes. Do you like batter cakes?”
I said that if they tasted half as good as they smelled I could not possibly like anything better. Then Mammy approached to wait on me, and Jack introduced us.
She had a fine old carven amber face with fleecy gray hair that clasped it like a kerchief. Her smile was motherhood itself. Cleanliness lay upon her like a benediction. Her voice was a blending of sweet cajolery and firmness. I placed Mammy at once alongside “Blick” and Billy in my regard. Yet, I noticed in her expression a certain tenseness that was also characteristic of the two others. They all three had an air about them of being braced for sudden events, not pleasurable.
I thought of how Mrs. Gordon's smart boot-tip had helped “Blick” down the steps yesterday and of one or two other things, and I felt that were I in the same relationship to Jack as themselves I should also wear a taut expression.
Miss Beech consenting, Jack bore me company a little while that morning. I have never seen so keenly inquiring a little lad nor a more intelligent one.
He absorbed my explanations with such acumen that during the last half-hour I said:
“How would you like to take up forestry when you're grown, Jack? Somehow, I think you'd be good at it.”
“Oh, I like it ever so much,” he replied, graciously (he was given to italics in speaking, partly from inheritance, partly from so much association with women, I fancied), “but what I really want to be is an architect.”
This was the beginning of many talks on that subject. The boy had really a very unusual creative imagination.
I remember sitting with him on the steps of the rotunda of the University of Virginia, late one afternoon, after my day's work was over, while he swept a nervous brown hand across the distant façade of the building at the other end of the campus as though eliminating it, and drew a vivid picture of how the distant mountains would have looked framed in immense columned arches.
“I'd have put the buildings at each side,” he said, “with big columns and arches leading between them. A sort of thing like the Natural Bridge. I can't explain very well, but you know what I mean, don't you? Things come to me like that when I'm going to sleep. I was a little tiny boy when they blocked it up. It's made me feel smothered ever since. Jefferson would cry if he could see it. I'm sure he would—even if he is a man—a sort of man-angel, I suppose.”
I could not see Jefferson as a man angel, but I could very plainly see Master Jack's arches and columns—and the beauty that the ethereal landscape of cloud and mountain would have lent to that lovely campus, with its colonnaded sides and terraced rotunda.
“When are you going to school, Jack?” I asked, abruptly.
A kind of stern man's look came over his winning face.
“When mother decides,” he answered.
“You don't seem to know many boys,” I said to him on another occasion. “How is that?”
“Boys make mother nervous,” he replied, indulgently. “Besides, I have plenty of fun.”
“But wouldn't you like it?” I persisted.
“Not if mother didn't,” he said, stoutly. I am not particularly demonstrative, but I did long to hug him—just catch him up and squeeze him hard as women do sometimes, to the dismay of engaging lads.
I shall never forget the first occasion on which I saw him with a baseball and bat. His companion was a little darky of eight named Reginald Eugene, and from the spirit with which Jack conducted this game à deux you would have thought that at least he was playing the captain of a team.
I could not suffer this sight with apathy, and went down and batted for him until nearly dinner-time. His radiance of appreciation was almost too much for me. I longed to have a brutal conversation with his mother.
Miss Beech saved me from this madness by talking of the boy with me in the frankest terms. She was evidently a person of intuitions and gauged my state of mind correctly.
“What he needs is school,” said she, “the contact with other boys. You see, his mother is really very devoted to him—very dependent on him, I may say.”
I grumbled something which must have sounded cynical, for she continued:
“Yes, I know exactly how you feel, Mr. Lockhart, but there are many circumstances…”
“I don't doubt it,” I remarked, unkindly.
Miss Beech pursued her theme unmoved.
“Though this is a fine old estate, Mrs. Gordon is not at all rich.”
I smiled disagreeably, even impertinent1y I fear it would have been considered by any other than Miss Beech, but we had grown too intimate in our mutual affection and concern for Jack to allow her such conclusions.
“No—really,” she said now, “money is not plentiful at Redhouse. You must try to be impartial, Mr. Lockhart. Jack's schooling will cost a great deal.”
I thought of the swimming-pool which was to cost nearly two thousand dollars at what Mrs. Gordon informed me was “a bargain,” and I smiled a second time.
Miss Beech shook her head at me, but sighed frankly.
“We must hope for next year,” she said, and sighed again.
I frowned this time and burst forth, bluntly, “It's a shame!” I'm afraid I said, “It's a d—d shame,” for Miss Beech put the kind touch of frustrated motherhood on my arm and said, “Now … now.…”
That night something happened which made me more downcast than ever.
I had been sitting up rather late in the library drawing my maps, when the noise of a heavy fall roused me, and I rushed out and half-way up the main stairs, to be met by Jack at the top.
He was in shabby little blue pajamas and his usually sleek hair rumpled sleepily. In one hand he held a guttering candle in an old copper candlestick. He was quite white, but composed as usual.
“Please don't bother, Mr. Lockhart,” he said. “Please don't come up. It's only … it's just that mother caught her foot in a rug and … and tripped. She was … she was coming from my room, where she'd been to tell me good night” (it was nearly one o'clock), “and she … a … she caught her foot in a rug. She hasn't got on a dressing-gown. I'm quite strong enough to help her. … It's very kind of you to come. But please won't you go back?”
His lip trembled suddenly. He caught it with his teeth and held the candle a little back of him.
“Certainly, Jack,” I said, quite sobered. “Mind, you call me if you need me.”
“Yes … indeed I will,” he said, eagerly, and I turned and went thoughtfully down-stairs again. Things which I do not care to put into words were very clear indeed to me just then.
It was the day before my departure that I found that the timber which I had estimated was to go for the payment of the swimming-pool.
This information was given me at luncheon. I am not ashamed to confess that I could scarcely eat. Miss Beech kept her eyes sedulously upon her plate of priceless old Sèvres, which looked as though the Mad Hatter had taken a bite out of its edge. My plate was of Worcester and had had its bite glued back. Jack was eating from a cheap willow-pattern reproduction, Mrs. Gordon from a very beautiful and quite whole bit of Crown Derby. I thought grimly that Crown Derby was perfectly suited to her.
“You'll show him yourself for Mr. Carter, won't you, mother?” Jack's ardent little voice piped up, referring to “Black Arrow,” a famous heavyweight hunter that we had been discussing.
“He's a handful, Jacky, you know. Do you think I can sit him?" said she, with basking conceit.
“Oh, mother! You can sit anything! Old Mr. Carter was saying to one of the judges only the other day, 'Why, Captain Meg, she could set a Zelry full of whiskey!' They call my mother 'Captain Meg' round here, Mr. Lockhart, 'cause she's so brave. She's a champion swimmer, and saved a boy's life once. And she's the best woman-shot in Virginia and the best rider in America,” explained Jack.
He radiated pride.
His unique mother laughed.
“Oh, come, boysie,” said she, with elaborate modesty. “All Kentucky girls can ride. Not the best in America, boysie.”
When she called him “boysie” I felt an inner commotion hard to describe. It was usually after the second or third glass of apricot brandy or chartreuse that this happened. But the appalling gush of stimulated affection babbled on after luncheon to-day, overflowed into the drawing-room, inundated it.
She threw herself on a sofa and drew the boy to her, pressing his head against her breast and leaning her cheek upon it.
Jack was very red. His anxious eye sought mine with a horrid fascination. Then, redder than ever, he put up a loyal hand over hers.
“Captain Meg's own soldier-boy,” crooned she. “Worth an army of selfish men!”
Jack patted and patted the prisoning hand, but I knew that it was torture for him to be so sentimentalized over and cosseted before another man. I always thought of him as a man.
To your thoroughly healthy bodied and minded boy sentimentalism is a deadly dose. It actually reverses the peristaltic action, I believe—produces nausea, Jack's smile was sickly. I thought it hear-trending.
I got up, saying something about a cigar, and left the room.
Miss Beech left, too. Her lip was quivering.
“It's just her uncontrolled love …” she murmured.
“I never heard apricot brandy called 'love' before,” retorted I, brutally.
“Oh, Mr. Lockhart!” she breathed.
But even Miss Beech was not to be endured in my then mood. I left her as abruptly as I had left the room. I was in an exaltedly evil frame of mind. I had spoken as no gentleman should speak, and I was thrillingly glad of it.
I walked fast to the old iron gate, and leaned over it with such vehemence that something in my breast pocket snapped sharply. This did not improve my humor, for I knew at once that it was a tortoise-shell cigarette-case of which 1 was very fond.
I took it out ruefully. Nothing to be done. I concentrated my unexpressed spite into the gesture with which I flung the pieces from me.
And suddenly there was Jack, with his cordial, sweet courtesy. He, too, had made his escape. This eased me a little.
“Oh, Mr. Lockhart!” he cried. “What a pity to throw it away! I'm sure it could be riveted or something.”
“No. … I don't like riveted things,” I replied, as sulkily as a boy. “Let it alone, please …” for he was half—way through the gate to rescue the fragments.
He looked a little dashed, then gleamed at me.
“I know!” he cried. “I'd love to do it … truly I would.… Please let me! … You've … you've been so jolly to me, you know.”
He was blushing now up to the Japanese lacquer of his hair.
“Let me …” he urged.
“Let you do what, old man?” I asked, quite restored to the love for my fellows.
“Give you a new cigarette-case as a … as a … memento?”
He stood as quiveringly tense as “Blick” begging for a walk.
“Why, my dear chap,” said I, “I'd like nothing better.”
“Shake!” cried Jack.
And I took the kind little paw and wrung it, man to man.
“Why, we can go now … right away,” he then exclaimed. “Mother's going in to Charlottesville in the run about.… I can stand up in the back. … I'll go tell her.…”
He was off full tilt before I could say anything. I wouldn't have said anything, though. Let him get all the joy that he could out of his queer, balked little life.
Mrs. Gordon expressed herself as enthusiastic over the plan. There had been more apricot brandy in the interval, I saw. Her great Indian-like black eyes were far too lustrous for nature. But her fine gait was still that of a smart young officer in petticoats. I looked at her and wondered that she should have borne a child. Her very breast, wide and superb, was at the same time unyielding and muscular. A breast for orders and gold braid, not to pillow the tender head of a child. And for Miriam Beech, that all mother, to have lived the best part of her life. a virgin—this seemed to me a wan-chancy trick of Fate.
We drove to town behind a startlish brown mare, the acme of form and race. I wondered, surlily, how much of Jack's schooling had gone to pay for her.
All the way to Charlottesville Mrs. Gordon gave me that mare's pedigree, history, public and private, and a list of the cups and ribbons that she had won. Jack was too full of unusual and pleasurable excitement to talk at all.
lie was still dumb when we drew up before the jeweller's.
When we got inside, Mrs. Gordon was extremely affable. Her smile, too piercingly sweet for sincerity, played about us. It reminded me of summer lightning through which the stars look unmoved, for her too brilliant eyes did not share in it.
“You and Jacksie” (this was a variation of “boysie”) “must take all the time you want,” glowed she. “Don't give me a thought. Mr. Fraser will show me heaps and heaps of jewels, ' rope of pearls ' like the man in Lothair—piles of emeralds and sapphires and rubies. They do so fascinate me!”
The smile was playing upon Mr. Fraser now, and he responded by strewing the counter with trays of glittering kickshaws.
Jack and I, a little to the left, fell to a more sober scrutiny of cigarette-cases. The lad had a pretty taste. He became enamoured of a case of aluminum inlaid with gold in a simple pattern. I was all for plain silver. We disputed with friendly zeal—absorbed, argumentative, the shopman egging us on.
I was suddenly aware that his attention was flagging. He fidgeted, his eyes wandering past me. I glanced in the same direction and saw that they were fixed on his mother. When he observed that I noticed his distraction he flushed and took up the aluminum case. But in a moment his glance had wandered again.
Mrs. Gordon was laughing and talking a good deal, her hands flitting from one heap of jewels to another. She put on and pulled off rings—clasped a pearl collar about her throat—held up earrings beside her cheek. Her face, though beautiful in its flushed eagerness, struck me unpleasantly. There was in her eyes the curious lust for gems—there is no other word that exactly describes the look that I mean.
All at once Jack left me.
He went and stood silently at his mother's side for a moment, then laid hold of her sunshade.
“Let me carry it for you, mother,” I heard him say.
She gave him an angry look, out of all proportion to the occasion, and twitched the sunshade back.
“Nonsense!” said she. “Don't bother me, Jack. Don't be a nuisance.”
I knew, of course, that the boy adored his mother and her tone was very biting, but I was surprised to see him grow so white.
The hesitated, then put his hand gently on it again.
“You'd better let me carry it, mother,” he urged. “You … you can look at the things better without it.…”
This time she gave him a singularly ugly look, but his blue eyes met the black ones full and steady.
“You'd better, mother,” he said again.
And to my entire amazement her face wavered suddenly into a rather foolish smile.
“Of all the sawnies!” she exclaimed, affectedly. “Did you ever see a boy so silly about his mother, Mr. Fraser? … Very well. Take it, and if you and Mr. Locker—Mr. Lockhart—have finished you might go and sit in the runabout till I come.”
Jack took the sunshade and walked slowly to the door. His face was like paper. I thought the child was ill and turned to follow him, and at the same moment Mrs. Gordon began putting on her gloves and Mr. Fraser to arrange his much-scattered jewelry.
We had all reached the door when that event occurred which I can say with perfect sobriety was the most painful in which I ever took part.
“I beg your pardon. … Just one moment, Mrs. Gordon,” I heard a breathless voice exclaiming. We both turned. Jack was standing with his back to us, his hand on the knob of the shop door.
Mr. Fraser, the head jeweller, and his assistant were before us. Which looked the more discomposed it would be hard to decide. They were changing color like schoolgirls, only no schoolgirl ever showed such painful, mottled hues even under the most exquisite embarrassment.
“Only a form—a mere form. We are obliged. … Yes, under orders … like an oath … obliged. … A mere form.”
That is what they were both stammering like an unhappy chorus of parrots in some modern version of The Birds.
Mrs. Gordon was now as pale as her son and had lifted herself to the extreme of her impressive height.
“I don't understand you, gentlemen,” said she.
Her voice had an edge to have beheaded error at one stroke.
I can't go on describing this abomination. What those unhappy tradesmen wished to signify was that a very splendid sapphire ring was missing. and that as boys were very unaccountable and “mischievous,” they put it (to their eternal honor), they were under the painful … the most painful necessity of asking that his pockets should be “examined” (their word again) before he left the shop.
I had been watching Jack before and during this speech. He had taken his hand from the door-knob and was playing nervously with his mother's sunshade, half opening it, running his arm down among the folds, smoothing them out again, twirling it round and round with its point on his foot.
Then came an instant when Mrs. Gordon dropped sharply upon the nearest chair. She collapsed as though stabbed. Her face had all the aghastness and horror that I could have desired.
“My son accused of being a thief? … Jack … a thief? …” she stammered. And I heard her say, “Oh, God!" under her breath.
Well, they searched him and they found the sapphire ring in his pocket.
I never liked a man better in my life than stout, sandy-haired Mr. Fraser when he took that beastly jewel in his hand. He just gaped at it a second, then put his other hand on the lad's shoulder.
“Jack … sonny…” said he, “I know you wouldn't have kept it … but why did you take it at all?”
Jack tried to speak, tried to swallow. He could do neither. Mrs. Gordon was leaning against the counter with her head buried on her arms. No sound came from her.
“Here! Give him a glass of water, Mason,” said the old jeweller. He had not removed his hand from Jack's shoulder. It was a dry pink hand covered with a sandy fuzz, but it appeared most attractive to me just then, and I have never been able to think of it as ugly since. There was all fatherhood and humanity just in one kindly member.
Jack's mother seemed no more connected with it all, somehow, than if she had been a one-breasted Amazon born of a Centaur and a Lorelei.
Jack drank from the glass which Mason held for him with a shaking hand and looked up. He looked up into old Fraser's pained and puzzled eyes, and I saw a muscle near his mouth twitch slightly.
“Why did you do it, sonny?” repeated Mr. Fraser. He spoke in a very low voice.
Jack said, clearly, “I … liked the color.”
Old Fraser looked at Mrs. Gordon's bent figure. then at me. I suppose my face was blank enough, for he turned his eyes again to the boy.
“Was that all? Was that why you …”
“Yes,” said Jack.
“I can't make it out,” protested the old jeweller. He seemed to appeal to Jack himself. “I can't make it out at all. It wa'n't like you, sonny.”
“I just took it,” said Jack. “That's all. … I'm sorry.”
“You ain't as sorry as I am,” said the other.
A silence fell. It was broken by Jack.
“Shall you”—he cleared his throat—“shall you send me to prison?” he finished in a low but distinct tone. His face was so perfectly bloodless now that his eyes seemed bruised into it.
“Good Lord! No, sonny. No … no …” faltered the old man, quite overcome. “There. … You go straight along home. … I reckon you're sick. I reckon that's why you did it, Jack. I … I know it is. Now you remember that. … Don't you fret over this too much. … You hear? … You're sick. Look at him,” he appealed to me. “He's sick, ain't he? Look at his face.” He broke off and turned to Mrs. Gordon. The angry abruptness of his voice in addressing her gave me acute pleasure.
“Your boy's sick, ma'am … sick. You hear? You take him home and attend to him right away."
Mrs. Gordon rose at once. Her face was quite expressionless. She left the shop without a word and got into the runabout. Jack and I followed. He did not stand up this time, but sat with his back to us, dangling his legs over the tail-board.
That was an unspeakably disgusting drive. For I had not thought over the whole thing a moment before the truth was clear to me. I knew it for the truth as though I had seen it in detail. Mrs. Gordon, scarcely herself and yielding to a moment's mean and idiotic temptation, had dropped the ring into the folds of her sunshade. Jack had seen this and acted at once. He was his mother's only protector—to protect her from prison even if he could not protect her from herself was a plain and simple duty. I knew, as well as if I had seen it in his hand, that when he had fumbled in the folds of the sunshade he was transferring the ring from thence to his own pocket. I remembered the old saying, “The measure of a man.” I thought that Jack filled that measure.
We made but a poor repast that night, Miss Beech and I dining together, with Mammy to wait upon us, like two ship—wrecked waifs on an island of black mahogany. Mammy's amber face seemed smeared with ashes—the tint of grief in a mulatto. She had very plainly been crying. I thought the wisp of bleached wool that she kept tucking behind her ear pathetic, not untidy.
Mrs. Gordon, I was informed, had one of her “blind headaches.” I considered the ailment strikingly appropriate.
“And Jack?” I asked, bluntly.
Jack also had a headache. He often had them. They were hereditary.
We pretended to cut in a thick silence.
When Mammy left the room to serve dessert Miss Beech turned to me—the motherhood in her all naked and unashamed.
“Tell me … tell me,” she whispered, avidly. “What happened to-day? … What happened to Jack, Mr. Lockhart?”
I heard my voice, hard and unresponsive, saying, “You must ask Jack's mother.”
Miss Beech's face contorted as though she were going to sneeze. It is true that our tragic gestures borrow from the comic in real life. But I saw nothing comic in what was actually so. I put out my hand. Poor “Billy” laid her little stiff fingers in it. Then she frankly lifted her napkin to her face.
“He is so sp-splendid,” she sobbed. “He ne-ne-never tells.”
“No,” I said, gently, “he would never tell.”
Mammy came in with the dessert.
About two o'clock that night I could stand supine wakefulness no longer. I threw on a dressing-gown, took a towel, and left Redhouse by the west-wing door.
The brook that flowed at the foot of the hilly lawns rushed near the garden into a big, clear pool, for the soil on this part of the estate was sandy. Through most of Albemarle County the streams flow as from overturned giant tureens of tomato soup. The trees cast shadows across the Rivanna, as across a field—there are no reflections. But at Redhouse the living green of the water flowed as from a glacier.
I went slowly down the turfed slant through the scents and noises of the night.
A high moon was shining, and the wind seemed to blow it a little out of shape like a gold bubble. Under an arch of lindens and tulip trees and birches the pool lay dim and mystic, with here and there a wire of golden light. as though some nixie diving had left her harp afloat on the surface.
I lay in the warm minty grass for a while before bathing. The place was so strangely Greek in the moonlight that a boy-faun, wetting his small hoofs, would have seemed dreamily natural. I smiled to my indulgent self at this bit of romanticism, then gasped.
Down the bank, not twenty feet away, a little gleaming figure, quite naked, balanced delicately. The moonlight outlined him in one master curve from head to dripping feet. Beautifully thin he was, a sight to delight an artist and shake a mother to tears.
I had almost called his name, then remembered and drew back into the shadows. The wind was blowing from me, and “Blick,” sturdily on guard beside his master's clothes, had not scented me.
All Arcady was in that first dive of the boy, and all Christendom, too; for, rising again, he scrubbed and scrubbed his slim body and then his hands with sand from the bank, as though he would scrub away some odious stain.
“All the perfumes of Araby,” every passionate yet restrained gesture seemed saying, “will not sweeten this little hand.” Again he dived and again, and then again fell to scouring his tender flesh with the harsh cleanliness of the sand. I could not see his face, but I could imagine it. And I could not stand the sight of that supposed stain being vainly scarified another instant.
“Jack …” I said.
He dived at once. It was the most primordial thing I ever saw, and I held my own breath until he came up. He seemed long minutes under water.
When he rose I called him again, and he swam toward me. His courtesy did not desert him even in this dire stress.
“We've had the same thought at the same time, old man,” I said, horribly conscious and using a frivolous voice that quavered.
“Yes,” he replied, gravely. “It's jolly to swim at night.”
He stood in the shallow water a little away from me.
“Won't you come in now?” he said, politely. “The water's just right … not cold … just right.”
I stripped at once. and together we swam about for a good bit.
When we had come out and were clothed again in very light attire I said:
“Stay with me just a little, will you? I want a cigarette before we go in.”
“Of course,” he said, and sat down beside me in the grass, clasping his knees and looking quietly out before him. “Blick” humped himself close by, and later on Jack folded and unfolded one of his cropped ears as we talked.
I smoked without saying anything at first, then I asked:
“Are you like your father, Jack? I think you must be like him?”
The boy was so quick that he said:
“How do you mean 'like him'? They say I look like … mother.”
There was an imperceptible pause between the last two words.
“Well, I didn't mean your looks exactly, though your eyes are blue. Your mother has black eyes.”
“My father's eyes were blue.”
“Why haven't I seen a portrait of him? He was a very distinguished man, wasn't he?”
“Yes. My father was a great man—a great soldier. They called him 'Win-or-die Gordon.' But he … died when I was a baby. Mammy told me about it. I … am glad he is dead.”
This was said in a voice that bitter seventy could not have surpassed.
I just put my hand on his.
“No, Jack,” I said.
He swallowed hard, then said, “Yes … I mean it.”
“You wrong him,” said I.
“Yes. Do you think he wouldn't have understood? … All that you chose to tell him,” I ended. hastily, for I was implying too much knowledge.
I thought for a minute that he was going to break down and show the normality of his twelve physical years. His soul was certainly a thousand. But he shook off the rigid shudder that had clutched him by the simple device of stretching out his legs and drawing them up again. And he was quite silent, not with a sullen but with a dignified silence.
This was too much for me, and after five minutes I said, chokily:
“Any man would be glad to call you son, Jack. I would, I know.”
“Thank you very much,” he said, with his sweet italics.
During the next minute I prayed like any devout woman. Then I said:
“Man to man … Why did you do it, Jack.”
I saw him shudder again. He took his chin in his hand, then said, steadily,
“I … liked the color, Mr. Lockhart.”
“Jack!” I cried, “Jack!” and I'm afraid I shook the arm that I grasped. “You know that I understand it all. Can't you trust me? I give you my word of honor that it will be forever just between you and me. But … my God! boy, it isn't right … it isn't safe for you to keep such a thing all to yourself. You don't know what you're up against, trying to live day and night with such a thing alone. It was just a wretched mistake. You took it too seriously. … It wasn't what you thought.…”
I had lost my head completely.
The boy shook and shook, but, freeing himself from my hand, got to his feet.
“It's … very late,” he said. “I'm afraid … they might wake and … be worried about me. And … it … wasn't a mistake. I meant to … take it. I … I took it because I wanted to, Mr. Lockhart … because I wanted to."
His voice had grown fierce, and his eyes looked at me as black as his mother's from their dilated pupils.
It was no use. I saw that. He was the stronger of the two.
“All right, Jack,” I said. “You had some good reason, I know, but that's your own secret. I won't say another word. But I leave at six in the morning. Shake hands now, for I mayn't see you again.”
He looked away a moment, then up at me.
“You … I don't think you ought to shake my hand,” he said, under his breath this time.
“That's ridiculous,” I said, roughly, for I was suffering in a way as much as the boy. “Give me your hand, please, or I'll think you mean to insult me.”
He let me take it. It felt like a little drowned hand.
Twice I began to speak, then I managed to say,
“You told me that you were only twelve years old last week … but you're a man all the same.”
He quivered, then said in his cordial, sweet voice, somewhat faintly,
“Thank you very much.”
I turned abruptly and left him.
I have been heartily glad ever since of the tears that I tried to choke back as I went, and could not.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1945, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 77 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.