O. Henry Memorial Award Prize Stories of 1924/'Lijah
FORTUNE had long since ceased to smile on the last master of Holmacres. Then, suddenly, with the advent of the strangers and the coincident creation of ’Lijah, came, too, the visit of the angels.
The two strangers—being strangers—of course, knew nothing of the evil days that had befallen Judge Holmsted, nor were they particularly interested, since their mission concerned not the fortunes, either good or ill, of others but the betterment of their own. What they knew concerning the Judge and Holmacres—other than the fact that the two were intimately connected with the business which was bringing them to the place—was furnished by the aged Negro, who, with his ramshackle surrey and ancient nag, eked out a precarious existence driving occasional transients about the countryside. They had found him at the railway station in Wynnesborough, the county seat, and he had driven them along the five miles of deep-rutted road that stretched from the town to Holmacres. Being old, he was naturally garrulous.
For a long time he had sat fidgeting on the front seat of the vehicle, one ancient ear cocked rearward, listening to the unfamiliar accent of the strangers’ speech. Finally, during a lull in their conversation, curiosity overpowered him and he half-faced about.
“’Scuse me, gen’lemens,” he observed, ingratiatingly, “I don’t mean no hahm by astin’ it, but—you all is Yankees, ain’t you?”“Northerners—yes,” one of them answered, smiling. “Why do you ask?”
“Yessuh. I thought so. You jus’ don’t talk like white folks—I means like us’s white folks, Boss.”
The stranger who had answered the query—the younger and less grave-appearing of the two—smiled again. "We'd heard so much of your Southern hospitality that we thought we’d come down and see what it is like.”
“Hawspitality? Well, suhs, you is comin’ to de place wheah it was invented at—when you comes to see de Judge.”
Then the old man—product of a bygone day and still living in the memory of its glories—described the hospitality of Holmacres as it had been and as he still sawit. It was the most fertile plantation in the country, and its owner, Judge Holmsted, by odds the richest man, the most learned lawyer, the noblest gentleman, and the most open-handed host who ever breathed. His house was the finest that had ever been built; he set the most sumptuous table in the land; niggers fought for the privilege of working for him, even accepting the humblest tasks merely for the honour of being counted among the Judge’s retinue. Judge Holmsted, to sum it up, was real “quality”; not like some of the trash which had sprung up with the last generation.
Thus the strangers were prepared in a measure for the picture which greeted them a few moments later: a grove of broad-topped live oaks, with the house in the near distance, a mansion of cement-walled, slate-roofed dignity, with the huge-columned, two-storied veranda reaching in stately welcome across its entire front. And as they stepped from the conveyance and came up the cape-jasmine-bordered walk, another picture was limned before them: a man well past threescore who had risen from his chair. He had removed his broad-brimmed hat, baring a mane of iron-gray hair, and now stood, despite the dingy frock coat that he wore, a figure as imposing as one of his own Ionic columns, courteously expectant at the visitors’ approach.
The young stranger introduced his companion and himself. They were from the North, as he had explained to the ancient driver, and their business was that of timberland investors. One of their agents had sent reports of hardwood acreage adjacent to the Tombigbee, and they were making a personal trip of inspection. They wished to find a place—a boarding or lodging house, perhaps—closer to the river than the county seat. Did Judge Holmsted know of such a place? They would be in the vicinity for several days.
Masters of Holmacres, since that first one who had erected a mansion in what was at that time a wilderness, had been famed for their hospitality. Nor had they been content with the thought that the neighbouring gentry only should be the recipients of their bounty, for that first one, a little strangely perhaps for one of cavalier forbears, had caused to be carved beneath the broad fire mantel in the central hall this inscription:
“Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”
Judge Holmsted was of that breed. “I couldn’t think of letting you gentlemen stay anywhere but here.” He spoke with a soft slurring of r’s and a dropping of final g’s which any attempt to put into print serves only to distort and make grotesque. "You must do me the honour of becoming my guests during your stay.”
The older stranger demurred. “Why .. . that’s awfully kind of you, Judge. But we really couldn’t take advantage of your hosp—— ”
“You’ll be taking no advantage at all, sir.” There was no hint of subservience in the way the Judge said “sir.” It was the courteous form of address toward strangers which had been the custom during his youth. ‘On the contrary, you'll really be doing me a favour. I’m an old man, gentlemen ”—his smile would have won them had they really been hesitant at accepting his hospitality—“a little lonely at times, and I like company. And visitors, nowadays, are rare.”
The strangers accepted the invitation with suspicious readiness. They hailed the ancient driver of the surrey, who had remained waiting in the driveway and who now brought in their luggage. For just a moment Judge Holmsted seemed ever so slightly embarrassed, a slight flush mantled his cheeks. And then, without stopping to think what it might mean, he created—’Lijah.
“Be seated, gentlemen,” he invited, “while I call someone to bring in your baggage.” He took a step toward the broad doorway. ‘‘’Lijah!” he called. There was no answer. He called again, more loudly, “’Lijah!” and still no one answered. Frowning, he walked to the end of the veranda, and peering about, shouted the name for the third time, with the same result as before.
He turned apologetically to his guests. “That trifling rascal,” he explained, “is never about, particularly at this season of the year, when I need him.” He glanced about for the driver of the surrey, but the old man had gone. "Come with me, gentlemen.” Taking up their luggage, he led them within the house.
Though his welcome to the strangers had been extended in all sincerity (he had not been a Holmsted had it been otherwise) their coming brought a problem—another one—to the Judge. And, somehow, in his declining years life seemed to hold little else save problems, and all of them as yet unsolved.
Time had been when Holmacres threw its doors wide open to the countryside, for its masters had lived in the traditions handed down by its founder. Even now Judge Holmsted, daydreaming at times, permitted his thoughts to stray back to the days when servants swarmed about the place, when there were stableboys who seemed actually to get underfoot, and house boys who fairly haunted the guests, eager to be of the slightest service. The big stable had contained riding and driving horses, which were not merely to be had for the asking but were almost forced on one. There had been dogs for the fall quail shooting, and master and guests had ridden to hounds. But now . . . it seemed that there remained little of misfortune that could happen. For of the hospitality for which Holmacres had been famous there existed but a shell, a, shell so fragile that it might be crushed at any moment. Pity, too, that he, the last of his race, should not maintain the heritage which was his!
Had he belonged to that modern school which placed the mere god of commercialism above neighbourliness, he might still have kept himself from actual want. But a friend in financial straits had come to him, and it was a neighbourly act to indorse a note for a large sum of money. It was a hideous fate, though, that caused the friend to die, leaving an estate heavily encumbered, and forced the Judge to pay the indebtedness by mortgaging the home of his ancestors.
Even before this, though, the soil of Holmacres, planted for generations exclusively to cotton, had been growing less and less fruitful. Judge Holmsted had seen the yield dwindle year by year. He had divided the plantations into small farms for tenants. Then the northern exodus had begun, one by one the tenants had left, until now, with the few hired “hands” that he could secure, he was cultivating perhaps one-tenth of his tillable lands.
Still, for a time he had not experienced want. His salary as judge of the circuit—which position he had graced for thirty years—while not munificent had enabled him to make a pretence of the hospitality that had brought fame to Holmacres.
Then a new order of things came to pass. Politics was played with the precision—and the heart—of a machine. Those in control of the political destinies of the counties composing the circuit banded themselves together—that is, all of them save Judge Holmsted. Old-fashioned jurist that he was, he refused to lend himself to what he considered certain questionable pre-election machinations. Then the ultimatum went forth: he could submit or take the consequences—political oblivion. He accepted the gage, for he came not only of a hospitable but of a combative breed.
Hitherto his mere announcement that he would be a candidate for nomination at the Democratic primaries had assured his re-election. Now, for the first time in his life, he entered upon a vigorous campaign. He travelled incessantly about the various counties of his circuit, spending, legitimately, of his slender means. He made countless speeches, he met hundreds of friends and received—promises.
He returned to the practice of law in Wynnesborough, but it seemed that his methods, like himself, had become old-fashioned. Friends insisted that he retained too much conscience to compete with more modern and, in certain instances, as he maintained, less ethical procedures than met his ideals.
"The practice of law,’’ he had said once, when the matter came up, “is an honourable profession. It was never intended that it should degenerate into a display of legal acrobatics.”
Clients were few and those who came were not always of the soundest financial standing. But there was always more or less bickering and litigation between the poorer class of hill-farmers, and some of these brought their troubles to Judge Holmsted. They paid their accounts in various ways: some brought small lots of cotton, others poultry and pigs, while one, an aged bachelor recluse of uncertain temper, just before his death had willed to the judge forty acres of land. This, people inclined to be humorous asserted, was in the way of a subtle revenge, for the Judge, suing for the old man, had lost his case, and the hill forty, as it was known, was not considered worth the tax payments.
There had been excessively poor crops. Years, too, when the cotton raised had not paid operating expenses. Twice the Judge had borrowed money—which he still owed—in advance on his crops. And the present outlook, with the late spring rains and cultivation sadly hampered, was now worse than ever.
Even his plainly dwindling income did not cause him to forsake his ideals. These, he insisted, one must cling to, even though he go down with them. Certain other changes, though, had forced themselves on him. Horses and other stock had been sold, since the plantation would not longer support them in numbers. Now all that remained were a few work mules and the Judge’s own mount, Grover Cleveland. Servants were dispensed with until all of them, save one, had gone. She stayed.
Christened Alabama, she was variously called Miz’ Bama, Sis ’Bama, and ’Bama, the form of address depending on the degree of intimacy she permitted the speaker, the Judge and those of her race whom she considered her equals using the last named. She had remained at Holmacres after all the others had left, though her wage was more often a mirage than a reality. Latterly, continued urging by certain of her friends that she leave Judge Holmsted’s service and go to the city, where her skill as a cook would return her a fabulous income, always met with scornful rebuff.
“But he ain’t payin’ you nothin’,” the tempter would insist.
“’Sposin’ he ain’t?” ’Bama, hands on her ample hips, would face the speaker. “You is fergittin’ somep’m, ain’t you? What ’bout my social p’sition?”
Usually this ended the discussion, for ’Bama, born and reared in the atmosphere of Holmacres, was the recognized leader of her people in the vicinity. No wedding was complete without her in the rôle of general adviser and master of ceremonies, nor was any funeral fittingly held without her presence to lend due solemnity to the occasion. But sometimes argument failed to convince those who tried to tempt her. Then ’Bama would fall back on flat refusal.
“Go ’way, nigguhs!” she would command. “I wouldn’t leave ’is heah plantation foh—foh a hund’ed dolluhs a yeah!”
So she remained steadfast at Holmacres as general house factotum for the Judge. It was ’Bama who tactfully reminded him, at those times when the larder became more depleted than usual, that supplies were needed. And it was she who, out of the merest nothing, could serve food fit for a king’s banquet. It was ’Bama who attended to the laundry—carefully washing the Judge’s shirts to save the frayed cuffs as much as possible—and looked after the scanty supply of household linen. She darned Judge Holmsted’s socks, saw that his shiny coat was occasionally brushed, and kept him generally from being out at elbows in the matter of clothing.
Her manifold duties had brought her to the front of the house that afternoon when the Judge summoned the mythical ’Lijah. For a moment she listened in open-mouthed amazement. Then understanding of a sort came to her, as she peeped between the curtains and saw the strangers. For some reason Judge Holmsted wanted it understood that a personage who answered—or should answer—to the name of ’Lijah belonged about the place. And any undertaking that the Judge set on foot was worth seeing to its conclusion. While she lacked the Judge’s creative ability, she could, at least, embellish that which he had made. Her first attempt was in evidence that evening when she served a supper that would have tickled the palate of a gourmand.
“Judge,” she remarked, taking the privilege of an old servant “does you know, suh, ’at triflin’ ’Lijah ain’t got back till yit?”
Judge Holmsted choked momentarily; he seemed to experience sudden difficulty with his food, but he recovered his self-control instantly.
“He hasn’t?” he demanded, sternly. “Won’t he ever learn to come in on time? Tell him that I wish to speak with him the moment he gets in.”“Yessuh. I knows wheah he’s at. He’s down to ’at river, settin’ out catfish lines.”
’Bama had cast the die. Judge Holmsted’s creation of ’Lijah had been the result of a sudden—and now inexplicable —impulse; probably, upon reflection, he would have made no further reference to him. But ’Bama had given entity to the myth; with a word or two she had made of it an outstanding personality: a house servant who, by implication at least, took whatsoever liberties he chose.
And suddenly the realization came to the Judge that his creation had been nothing short of inspiration. With the present state of affairs at Holmacres, numberless things were. sure to happen which might cause embarrassment to one who sought to fill the réle of dutiful host; and the lack of a perfect hospitality, in many instances, could be blamed on the erring —though mythical—’Lijah.
“He’s one of the older servants about the place,” the Judge explained casually to his guests. ‘‘Does pretty much as he pleases.”
He followed this with a laughing remark about ’Lijah’s fondness for fishing. It was almost impossible to keep a Negro and a river apart when the catfish were biting.
“I'd like very much to see ’Lijah.”’ It was the younger stranger speaking. “I’ve read so many stories dealing with Southern plantation life—and especially the old family servants—that I’ve often wanted to see one of them. And your man, "Lijah, seems to be typical.”
“Oh, he’ll be about the place—off and on,” the Judge assured, carelessly. "And if you’re interested in types, sir, you'll probably like ’Lijah.”
Thus for the moment he dismissed ’Lijah. But ’Bama, apparently, was determined not to let the errant one off so easily, for, later, as the Judge and his guests entered the high-ceilinged living room, where portraits of earlier Holmsteds gave greeting from their oval walnut frames, she came to the doorway.
“Judge,” she observed, meaningly, “I don’t s’pect you'll hahdly find no seegars. I seed ’Lijah sof’-footin’ it round ’at sec’ta’y whilse I was dustin’ ’is mawnin’.”
Mechanically, Judge Holmsted’s eyes sought the old rosewood secretary in one corner of the room, but before he could speak the younger stranger broke in with:
“Oh, that’s all right, Judge.” He was laughing heartily as he extended a cigar case. “Take one of these. So, he borrows’ your cigars, does he? I’ve simply got to see him."
The strangers spoke of their business in the vicinity. The timber which they wished to inspect lay some miles away and, although their actual cruising of it would be done on foot, they would need some kind of conveyance to take them to their starting point. They supposed an automobile could be obtained in Wynnesborough?
Guests beneath Holmacres’ roof had never been compelled to hire conveyances. It would have been unthinkable. The Judge explained that the swamp roads were in such condition that an automobile would be impracticable. He had never bought a car himself for this reason. His guests must use one of the numerous horses about the place. He would have ’Lijah hitch one of them to the buggy. It would be the very thing for their trips.
When one of them, giving as an excuse their long railroad journey, suggested retiring, Judge Holmsted, first ascertaining that ’Lijah was nowhere to be found, led them up the broad, winding stairway to their room. He lighted the kerosene lamp. Then, carelessly turning back the bed covering, he stopped in sudden horror. There was only one sheet on the bed!
He turned, his face crimsoning, to his guests They had seen. ‘That trifling, worthless——-” he began, and stopped. “It’s "Lijah—of course, gentlemen—as usual,”’ he said, helplessly. ‘‘Come with me.”
He led them to another room—his own—which for more than forty years no one save himself had occupied. This, he knew, would be in readiness. It always was, for he was fastidious about certain things, among them fresh bed linen. ’Bama attended to that.
“Just leave your shoes outside the door, gentlemen,” he said in parting. ‘“’Lijah will polish them.”
He found ’Bama in the kitchen. Her answer to his question about the sheets brought home to him dishearteningly the scarcity of household linen.
In the library he picked up the latest issue of the Wynnesborough Clarion, a weekly newspaper published in the county seat, but he could not fasten his thoughts on the printed page. There were weightier things to be considered. Plainly, the visit of the strangers—should it prove of some duration— meant a still further drain on the slender resources of Holm- acres. Since he had promised his guests the use of a horse, they would have to take Grover Cleveland. The Judge sighed. All of the work-mules were sadly needed, but he must use one of them for his daily trips to his office. By waiting until the strangers had left every morning, though, and remaining at his office till he was sure they had returned, they need never know of the subterfuge he had resorted to for: their convenience.
Another matter claimed his attention: the disquieting letter —rather the letter that spelled doom—which had come that morning. The interest payment on the mortgage would be due shortly, and the letter stated brusquely that the mortgage had passed into other hands. Hereafter all payments must be met at maturity. Covetous eyes, Judge Holmsted knew, had long looked toward Holmacres. Once or twice he had succeeded in having his payments extended, but now . alien owners—people with no reverence for its traditions— would come into possession of the place. The thought was bitter—unbearable.
Once—more than twoscore years ago—the Judge had hoped that an heir might succeed to his name and estate. But with the passing of the one who could have made this a reality, this hope, too, had died. Better so, he comforted himself now; far better that the odium for failure to live up to Holm- acres’ heritage be his than that it should have been shifted to a son who would have borne his name.
He mounted the stairs. Just outside the door of his guests’ room he found their shoes.
And that night—and for succeeding nights—he slept in the bed that had but one sheet.
But his guests at the breakfast table next morning probably thought that his only solicitude lay in planning for their well-being. He was sorry that, owing to ’Lijah’s shiftlessness—the black rascal!—he had been compelled to make such short shift for them on the previous night. He hoped they had rested well.
After breakfast they found Grover Cleveland, freshly curried and rubbed til his coat shone like satin, hitched to the buggy ready for their trip. The vehicle itself bore signs of recent washing; the harness, too, one would have said, had been freshly oiled.
“T wonder how we’re going to begin talking business to a man who treats us like members of his family,” the older stranger said as he climbed into the vehicle. “We'll have to use a lot of diplomacy.”
“We'll just remember,” the younger man reminded, “that we’ve come several hundred miles to secure a property at as favourable terms to ourselves as possible. And that business is business—always.”
Judge Holmsted waited only long enough to see his guests off. hing. he walked to one of the fields where a Negro was ploughing.
"Eph,” he said, ‘‘T’ll have to be using the mule for a few days."
"But, Judge, suh!”’ Eph stared, gaping. “Dis grass! It’s plum’ ram-pant since ’em las’ rains, suh. Can’t you see it’s jus’ nachelly chokin’ de cotton to death?”
The Judge could see, plainly enough. The spindling stalks of cotton were struggling weakly through mazes of Johnson and Bermuda grasses. But he saw something else, too; something that Eph, being a recent comer, could not have seen or, seeing, could not have understood: there were guests beneath Judge Holmsted’s roof.
It was the first time that he had ridden a mule since he was a boy. Often then, in a spirit of mischief, he had done so. Things had changed now. Horses . . . dogs . . . servants … gone. Everything! Everything save the will to be a hospitable host.
At the little bank in town he was courteously but firmly refused an additional loan. The bank officials liked the Judge—and sympathized with him—but his previous loans were still outstanding. And it was doubtful—exceedingly doubtful—that his crop that year would pay the cost of raising it.
But that evening, as he sat with his guests on the broad veranda, he was solicitous only as to the result of their investigations. Were they finding the hardwood timber of good quality? And was ‘t in sufficient quantity to justify them in purchasing and logging it? He hoped this might be the case; he was looking forward with a great deal of pleasure to welcoming them as permanent neighbours.
He proved himself to be a raconteur of rare ability and charm. The grave-faced stranger seemed fascinated by his stories as he spoke of the days when steamboats from Mobile lied the Tombigbee daily. Now there were only one or two ts weekly. But then many were the gay parties that made the round trip. There was always a Negro orchestra on board and stately men and beautiful women, after the dining saloon had been cleared, danced the schottische and the polka until the early hours of morning. More than once, too, a steamer had been forced to pull in to the bank while two young blades went ashore and settled their hot-blooded quarrels according to the code. Judge Holmsted sighed reminiscently. Those had been wonderful days.
The air was soft with the softness of Southern nights. There came to them, as they sat there, the odour of cape jasmine and the fainter but more caressing scent of honeysuckle. A light breeze rustled the leaves of the water oaks, shimmering now by the light of the full moon in a mantle of pure silver dust.
The younger stranger lighted a cigar and leaned back in his chair, sighing restfully. “Two weeks of this,” he said, “and I shouldn't want to go home. You Southern planters lead an enviable life, Judge ”
“It’s enchanting,” his companion assented.
“We like it, sir—some of us,”’ the Judge admitted. He spoke with a tinge of regret of former neighbours who, one by one, had been lured away by the cities. Many fine old places had been left to the care of tenants and had speedily gone to ruin. But the Holmsteds, being lovers of the land, had always lived close to it. ‘“‘Maybe we are more firmly rooted in the soil than some of the others were,” the Judge said.
“It seems to me, Judge,” the grave-faced stranger offered, “that you have a wonderful place here for a stock farm. Aren’t these native grasses—I believe you call them Johnson and Bermuda—good for grazing?”
“That’s just what I’d do with this place if I owned it," the younger stranger broke in. He was more outspoken than his elderly companion. "I’d divide it into pastures with good fences, build up-to-date barns and pig houses, and stock it with blooded cattle and hogs. You’ve your grasses for spring and summer. And I understand that those river cane-brakes make fine winter grazing.”
“I may try something of the kind next year,” the Judge admitted. "I’ve been thinking for some time of venturing along that line.”
Venturing! Blooded cattle and hogs! Fences and barns, when the burning question was one of bare existence! Not that he had never had dreams. Many times he had pictured his broad lands dotted with droves of sleek cattle and herds of swine, with an income assured that would again crown Holmacres with its fair name for hospitality. But the realization of this dream would require money. . . .
It was the next morning that a mocking bird, nesting in a near-by tree, awakened the serious-faced stranger with its early song. Arising, he crept softly to the window and stood listening. And suddenly, as he looked out, he started and stared fixedly. Then a ‘dull red flush mounted slowly to his cheeks. He withdrew from the window even more softly than he had approached it and lay down again without wakening his companion.
But that morning brought consternation to Judge Holmsted. Modern plumbing had not been installed at Holmacres, and he remembered suddenly that his guests must shave. And there was one item that he had overlooked.
“I suppose, gentlemen,” he remarked at the breakfast table, “that ’Lijah—you see I have to keep close check on him—brought you hot water?”
They admitted that he had not.
“He’ll be the death of me yet,”’ the Judge said, hopelessly, “if I don’t wring his neck soon. He’s getting more worthless every day.”
The young stranger laughed. "You’re more lenient with your servants, Judge, than we’d be in the North. They must attend to their duties there or they’re discharged.”
“But it’s different with us, sir." The Judge smiled. “Take ’Lijah, for example. Been on the place all of his life—going on fifty years. I couldn’t get rid of him. If I were to discharge him he’d refuse to stay discharged. He’d simply come sneaking back and I'd have to feed him.”
The younger man’s interest in ’Lijah was more intrigued than ever. Returning with his companion earlier than usual one evening, he sought out "Bama. He was eager, he said, to see ’Lijah. But that worthy, as usual, failed to answer even when ’Bama, standing on the kitchen porch, called his name lustily several times.
"When does he sleep?” the stranger asked. "He doesn’t seem to be around the place of nights.”
“Sleep? Him sleep? You neentuh worry “bout ’at, Cap’n. All ’Lijah needs is a sof’ place on de shady side of a tree when dey’s somep’m needs doin’ round de house. He'll ’tend to desleepin’. Dey’s jus’ two things ’Lijah’s good foh: he de sleep-lovin’es’ an’ de catfish-ketchin’es’ nigguh you eveh seed.”
“‘He’s typical all right,” the stranger laughed. “And I must see him—I’ve simply got to see him before I leave.”
Judge Holmsted found himself gradually forming a sneaking fondness for his creation. Maybe it was because he was unconsciously bringing into being an ideal. For ’Lijah was just the shiftless, work-dodging, cigar-pilfering type that the Judge would have loved—the kind that would run rabbits with his bird dogs—provided the Judge could afford the dogs—or slip his pack of fox hounds out on cold autumn nights—if the Judge should ever own a pack—for surreptitious ’coon and ’possum hunting. Yes . . . that would be just like ’Lijah. Indolent, grumbling always, complaining of a mis’ry in his side; absolutely dependent, thoroughly undependable—and utterly likable. In short, he would be perfect. The Judge even caught himself at times murmuring aloud, “That trifling black rascal!”
But such ‘things—oh, well!—they were dreams, visions that an old man was seeing.As the strangers showed no signs of terminating their visit, ’Bama, with visions of a rapidly depleted larder, began to experience a real concern. With only the Judge and herself to care for, she could have made shift of some sort. Maybe a hint to Judge Holmsted of the real state of affairs might not prove unavailing. So she tried, very diplomatically, one evening at the supper table, to sound a warning.
mop eee suh,”’ she remarked, meaningly, “’Lijah is been ’mongst de chickens agi’n.”
“What of it?” Judge Holmsted smiled on his guests. ’Lijah, he explained, was probably giving a party for some of his friends. “A few chickens, more or less, don’t matter, do they, ’Bama?”
"But left dese is fattenin’ chickens, suh; de onlies’ ones I had left."
“You don’t mind ’Lijah entertaining his friends, do you?” the talkative stranger asked.
“Not gen’ally; no, suh. But he’s been gittin’ entirely too entertainin’ lately.”
“Doesn’t he catch enough fish for his feasts?”
“Yessuh; he ketches plenty fish. But catfish, you knows, is just a nigguh’ s reg’lar eatin’ victuals. Dey uses de chickens kind o’ foh dessert.”
“You must find his parties something of a drain on your resources.”
“’Tain’t no pahty, suh, he’s givin’ ’is time. It’s just a shindig—a plain shindig.”
The Judge explained’ that a shindig was a dance.
“Dance?” The younger stranger seemed amazed. "An old man like ’Lijah?”
“Him dance?” ’Bama gave answer. “Just de thoughts of a fiddle’ll send him shufflin’ his feets ’cross de flo’—right now! Age ain’t purified him none.”
’Bama, strictly orthodox in her religious beliefs, was patently outraged by this latest of the hapless "Lijah’s escapades, for as she left the room they heard her muttering:
"An’ him wid gran’chillun! I’s gwine to have him churched—I sho’ is!”
Between themselves the strangers discussed the business which had brought them to Holmacres.
“It’s showing up even better than the estimate we received,” the older man said one evening.
“One of the richest deposits I ever saw,” the other admitted.
When they went to their room he complained of not being in the mood for sleeping. The rays of that Southern moon, he said, must have affected him. He felt restless; he’d walk round a bit.
Five minutes later he returned quietly to the house, mounted the stairs softly, undressed silently, and went to bed.
The next morning as they seated themselves at the breakfast table, 'Bama's voice, raised in loud and indignant self-communion, was heard in the kitchen.
"Co’se, he don’t keer! Out dere diggin’ yearthworms to go fishin' wid an' lettin' all 'em cows an' ca'fs git together! Don’t make no diffe'nce to him if us don't have no milk foh de cawfee."
It was much better, 'Bama reasoned, to blame this lack on 'Lijah than be compelled to admit that their only cow, bitten by a snake two days previously, had died.
But the younger stranger, usually so talkative when reference was made to 'Lijah, was strangely silent now. Another day, as the visitors were dressing in their room, the more taciturn one spoke of their business. "I wonder," he asked, "if the Judge knows anything about the value of the property?"
"Oh, yes!" The younger man's loquaciousness had returned. "He knows all about it. I was talking to 'Lijah only yesterday"—he made sudden pretence of searching for something in his travelling bag—"and he said the Judge had received several offers for the property, but that he wasn't eager to sell. Saving it as a sort of nest egg, I was given to understand. In fact, 'Lijah said——”
"So, you’ve seen him?" At the first mention of the name, the serious-faced stranger had seemed surprised—almost startled. Then a look of comprehension—of complete and sympathetic understanding—lighted his grave features. And, as he smiled softly, tiny wrinkles creased the corners of his eyes. "What’s 'Lijah like?”
"Just what I expected. Quite a character. Unique. He let me understand how these Southern planters feel about parting with any of their landholdings. From what ’Lijah said, the Judge probably wouldn’t even name a figure if we were to approach him on the matter. And don’t forget that it would be fatal even to think of trying any haggling or ‘jewing down.’ He doesn’t want for money, with this plantation bringing in a steady income and all the servants he needs. That’s not even considering what he gets out of his law practice. Now, I’d suggest——”
"Just a moment!”
At the interruption the voluble young stranger looked up from his travelling bag. Something that he saw—maybe it was the quiet smile in his companion’s eyes—sent an answering flash into his own.
“We’re partners,” the serious-faced man reminded him, “and ought to be frank with each other. Just how long have you known the actual conditions here? That ’Lijah is a myth? That it’s the Judge who has been polishing our shoes——”
‘‘And washing that damned old buggy!” The younger man’s face was crimson. “And letting us have his saddle horse—the only one on the place—while he rode a mule! Think of it! That hospitable old aristocrat! Poverty-stricken! My God, I——” He stammered and stopped.
“We both understand, I guess.” The quiet-spoken man extended his hand, which was grasped in silence.
That evening they announced to Judge Holmsted that, having finished their inspection, they were ready to return home. After thanking the Judge for his hospitality, the younger stranger broached the matter of business. They were not only timberland investors, it appeared, but dealt also in other property. But, as he tried diplomatically to come to the subject uppermost in his mind, he seemed strangely ill at ease for one accustomed to business deals of magnitude. And finally, instead of the tactful approach which he had planned, he came very bluntly to the point.
“There’s a deposit of mica on that hill forty of yours, Judge,” he said simply. ‘‘Would you care to sell it?”
That old hill forty! Hope blossomed faintly in Judge Holmsted’s breast. The strangers might—it was barely possible that they might—pay enough for that rocky, worth- less waste to take care of that threatening interest note. If so, he was assured tenancy of his home for another six months. After that . . .
But the stranger was speaking again. ‘We realize, Judge, that, between gentlemen, there should be no haggling over such a thing as price. We've talked it over, my friend and I, and have decided to offer you just what the property is worth to us.”
That faint gleam of hope flickered and died. Evidently the strangers considered the hill forty almost valueless. Foolish! Just an old man dreaming . . . Holmacres . . . home of his ancestors . . . home of hospitality. . He heard the stranger’s voice again. He was speaking rapidly. "We can offer you, for all rights to the land, fifty thousand dollars.”
Fifty thousand dollars! One watching Judge Holmsted closely might have noticed a sudden throbbing of the blue veins at his temples; might have detected a slight tremor in the hand that went up, trying unconcernedly to stroke his gray goatee; might even have observed his other hand grip tightly for a moment the arm of the chair on which it rested. May be, in that brief instant, the Judge saw a dream fulfilled: broad fields fenced to pasture and dotted with sleek cattle and fat swine; bottom lands, yellow with ripening corn; barns and outhouses, as befitted a vast estate; Holmacres, with its doors once more flung wide. . . .
But whatever might have been his emotions, he gave no evidence of them, as he answered with his usual grave courtesy:
“So far as I know, gentlemen, the matter can be arranged on that basis.”
When the strangers left next morning he expressed regret that he could not accompany them to town, since urgent matters necessitated his presence on the plantation. They could leave Grover Cleveland and the buggy at the livery stable in Wynnesborough. He would send ’Lijah for them.
After they had gone he seated himself before the old rosewood secretary. Maybe he dreamed again . . . of quail hunting during the crisp months of fall . . . of fox hounds in their kennels . . . of servants. Servants?
Suddenly he drew up a sheet of paper and began writing in a firm, precise script. And when he had finished he scanned what he had written:WANTED: Negro house servant, male, aged fifty, or thereabouts, for light work in plantation home. Must be willing to answer to the name of Elijah. Apply B. L. H. care Clarion.