The Chronicles of Aunt Minervy Ann/Chapter 8
THE CASE OF MARY ELLEN
It came to pass in due time that Atlanta, following the example of Halcyondale, organized a fair. It was called the Piedmont Exposition, and, as might be supposed. Aunt Minervy Ann was among those attracted to the city by the event. She came to see whether the fair was a bigger one than that held at Halcyondale. Naturally enough she made my house her headquarters, and her coming was fortunately timed, for the cook, taking advantage of the heavily increased demand for kitchen servants, caused by the pressure of strangers in the city, had informed us that if we wanted her services we could either double her wages or dispense with her entirely. It was a very cunningly prepared plan, for there was company in the house, friends from middle Georgia, who had come to spend a week while the exposition was going on, and there would have been no alternative if Aunt Minervy Ann, her Sunday hat sitting high on her head, had not walked in the door.
"I hope all er you-all is well," she remarked. "Ef you ain't been frettin' an' naggin' one an'er den my nose done been knocked out er j'int, kaze I know sump'n 'bleeze ter be de matter,"
The truth is, the lady of the house was blazing mad with the cook, and I was somewhat put out myself, for the ultimatum of the servant meant robbery. Aunt Minervy Ann was soon in possession of the facts. At first she was properly indignant, but in a moment she began to laugh.
"Des come out on de back porch w'ld me, please'm. All I ax you is ter keep yo' face straight, and don't say a word less'n I ax you sump'n'." She flung her hat and satchel in a corner and sallied out. "I don't blame cooks fer wantin' ter quit when dey's so much gwine on up town," she remarked, in a loud voice, as she went out at the back door. "Dey stan' by a stove hot wedder er col', an' dey ain't got time ter go ter buryin's. But me! I don't min' de work; I'm ol' an' tough. Why, de well ain't so mighty fur fum de steps, an' dar's de wood-cellar right dar. How much you pay yo' cooks, ma'am?"
"What wages have you been getting?" asked the lady of the house.
"Wellum, down dar whar I come fum dey been payin' me four dollars a mont'—dat de reason I come up here. Ef you gi' me six I'll stay an' you won't begrudge me de money. Tu'n me loose in de kitchen an' I'm at home, ma'am—plum' at home."
The lady seemed to be hesitating, and the silence in the kitchen was oppressive.
"I'll decide to-day," she remarked. "Our cook is a good one, but she has been thinking of resting awhile. If she goes, you shall have the place."
"Den she ain't gone?" cried Aunt Minervy Ann. "Well, I don't want de place less'n she goes. I ain't gwine ter run my color out'n no job ef I kin he'p it. We got 'nuff ter contend wid des dry so." Then she turned and looked in the kitchen. "Ain't dat Julie Myrick?" she asked.
"How you know me?" cried the cook. "I b'lieve in my soul dat's Miss 'Nervy Ann Perdue!"
With that Aunt Minervy Ann went into the kitchen, and the two old acquaintances exchanged reminiscences for a quarter of an hour. After awhile she came back in the sitting-room, stared at us with a half-indignant, half-quizzical expression on her face, and then suddenly collapsed, falling on the floor near a couch, and laughing as only an old-time negro can laugh. Then she sat bolt upright, and indignation, feigned or real, swept the smiles from her countenance, as if they had been suddenly wiped out with a sponge.
"You know what you got in dat kitchen dar? You ain't got nothin' in de worl' in dar but a Injun merlatter; dat zackly what you got. I know'd her daddy and I know'd her mammy. Ol' one-legged Billy Myrick wuz her daddy, an' he wuz one part white an' one part nigger, an' one part Injun. Don't tell me 'bout dem kind er tribes. Dey ain't no good in um. Hamp'll tell you dat hisse'f, an' he b'longed ter de Myrick 'state. Merlatter is bad 'nuff by itse'f, but when you put Injun wid it—well, you may hunt high an' you may hunt low, but you can't git no wuss mixtry dan dat. I tell you right now," Aunt Minervy Ann went on, "I never did see but one merlatter dat wuz wuff a pinch er snuff, an' she wuz so nigh white dat de ol' boy hisse'f couldn't 'a' tol' de diffunce. Seem like you must 'a' knowed Mary Ellen Tatum, suh?" she suggested, appealing to my memory.
I had heard the name somehow and somewhere, but it was as vague in my recollection as a dream.
"Maybe you didn't know 'er, suh, but she was born an' bred down whar I cum fum. Dat's so! She wuz done gone fum dar when you come. Wuz ol' Fed Tatum dead? Yasser! ol' Fed died de year dey quit der battlin', an' 'twuz de year atter dat when you come; an' you sho did look puny, suh, ter what you does now. Well, ol' Fed Tatum, he wuz one er deze yer quare creeturs. He made money han' over fist, an' he had a sight er niggers. He had a place sorter close ter town, but he didn't stay on it; an' he had a house not fur fum Marse Bolivar Blasengame, but he'd des go out ter his place endurin' er de day, an' den he'd come back, git his vittles, an' walk ter de tavern an' dar he'd take a cheer an' go off by hisse'f, an' set wid his chin in his coat collar, an' look at his foots an' make his thum's turn somersets over one an'er. Ef you wanted ter talk wid ol' Fed Tatum, you'd haf ter go whar he wuz settin' at an' do all de talkin' yo'se'f. He'd des set back dar an' grunt an' maybe not know who you wuz. But when he come huntin' you up, you better watch out. Dey say dey ain't nobody ever is make a trade wid ol' Fed but what dey come out at de little een' er de horn.
"Well, ol' Fed had a nigger 'oman keepin' house fer 'im, an' doin' de cookin' and washin'. I say 'nigger,' suh, but she wuz mighty nigh white. She wuz Mary Ellen's mammy, an' Mary Ellen wuz des white ez anybody, I don't keer whar dey cum fum, an' she wuz purty fum de word go. Dey wa'n't never no time, suh, atter Mary Ellen wuz born dat she wa'n't de purtiest gal in dat town. I des natchully 'spises merlatters, but dey wuz sump'n 'bout Mary Ellen dat allers made a lump come in my goozle. I tuck ter dat chile, suh, de minnit I laid my eyes on 'er. She made me think 'bout folks I done forgot ef I ever know'd um, an' des de sight un 'er made me think 'bout dem ol' time chunes what mighty nigh break yo' heart when you hear um played right. Dat wuz Mary Ellen up an' down.
"Well, suh, when Mary Ellen got so she could trot 'roun', old Fed Tatum sorter woke up. He stayed at home mo', and when de sun wuz shinin' you might see 'im any time setting in his peazzer wid Mary Ellen playin' roun', er walkin' out in de back yard wid Mary Ellen trottin' at his heels. I'm telling you de start-naked trufe—by de time dat chile wuz six-year ol' she could read; yasser! read ont'n a book, an' read good. I seed her do it wid my own eyes, an' heer'd 'er wid my own years. 'Tain't none er dish yer readin' an' stoppin' like you hear de school chillun gwine on: no, suh! 'Twuz de natchual readin' right 'long. An' by de time she wuz eight, dey wa'n't no words in no book in dat town but what she could take an' chaw um same as lawyers in de cote-house. Mo' dan dat, suh, she could take a pencil, an' draw yo' likeness right 'fo' yo' face.
"'Long 'bout dat time she struck up wid little Sally Blasengame, an' when dem two got tergedder dar wuz de pick er de town ez fer ez de chillun went. I don't say it, suh, bekaze Marse Bolivar was Marse Tumlin's br'er-in-law—dey married sisters—but his little gal Sally wuz ez fine ez split silk. Mary Ellen had black hair an' big black eyes, an' Sally had yaller hair an' big blue eyes. Atter dey come ter know one an'er dey wa'n't a day but what dem two chillun wuz playin' tergedder. How many an' many is de times I seed um gwine 'long wid der arms 'roun' one an'er!
"Well, one day atter dey been playin' tergedder a right smart whet Marse Bolivar 'gun ter make inquirements 'bout Mary Ellen, an' when he foun' out who an' what she wuz, he went out whar dey at an' tol' her she better go home. I wuz right dar in de back yard when he said de word. Mary Ellen stood an' looked at 'im, an' den she picked up her bonnet an' marched out'n de yard holdin' her head up; she wuz twelve year ol' by den.
"Sally seed Mary Ellen go out, an' she turn 'rou' on her daddy, her face ez white ez a sheet. Den her whole frame 'gun ter shake. She 'low, 'I been lovin' you all dis time, an' I didn't know you could be so mean an' low-life.' She flung at 'im de fust words dat pop in her min'.
"Marse Bolivar say, 'Why, honey! Why, precious!' an' start ter put his arm 'roun' 'er. She flung fum 'im, she did, an' cry out, 'Don't you never say dem words ter me no mo' ez long ez you live, an' don't you never tetch me no mo'.' Den she seed me, an' she come runnin' des like she wuz skeer'd. She holler, 'Take me 'way! take me 'way! Don't let 'im tetch me!' Talk 'bout temper—talk 'bout venom! All dem Blasengames had it, an' when you hurt de feelin's er dat kind er folks dey are hurted sho 'nuff. Marse Bolivar couldn't 'a' looked no wuss ef somebody had 'a' spit in his face while his han's tied. You talk 'bout people lovin' der chillun, but you dunner nothin' 'tall 'bout it twel you see Marse Bolivar lovin' Sally. Why, de very groun' she walkt on wuz diffunt ter him fum any udder groun'. He wuz ready ter die fer 'er forty times a day, an' yit here she wuz wid her feelin's hurt so bad dat she won't let 'im put his han's on 'er. An' he ain't try; he had sense 'nuff fer dat. He des walk 'roun' and kick up de gravel wid de heel er his boots. But Sally, she had 'er face hid in my frock, an' she ain't so much ez look at 'im. Bimeby he went in de house, but he ain't stay dar long. He come out an' look at Sally, an' try ter make 'er talk, but she erfuse ter say a word, an' atter while he went on up-town.
"Ef dey ever wuz hard-headed folks, suh, dat wuz de tribe. He went uptown, but he ain't stay long, an' when he come back he foun' Sally in de house cryin' an' gwine on. She won't tell what de matter, an' she won't let nobody do nothin' for 'er. Now, ef she'd 'a' been mine, suh, I'd 'a' frailed 'er out den an' dar, an' I'd 'a' kep' on frailin' 'er out twel she'd 'a' vowed dat she never know'd no gal name Mary Ellen. Dat's me! But Marse Bolivar ain't look at it dat away, an' de man what never knuckle ter no human bein', rich er po', high er low, had ter knuckle ter dat chile, an' she wa'n't much bigger dan yo' two fists.
"So bimeby he say, 'Honey, I'm gwine atter Mary Ellen, ef dat's her name, an' she can stay here all day an' all night, too, fer what I keer.'
"Sally 'low, 'She sha'n't come here! she sha'n't! I don't want nobody ter come here dat's got ter git der feelin's hurted eve'y time dey come.'
"Right dar, suh, is whar my han' would 'a' come down hard; but Marse Bolivar, he knuckle. He say, 'Well, honey, you'll hafter fergive me dis time. I'll go fetch 'er ef she'll come, an' ef she won't 'tain't my fault.'
"So out he went. I dunner how he coaxed Mary Ellen, but she say he tol' 'er dat Sally wuz feelin' mighty bad, an' wuz 'bleeze ter see 'er; an' Mary Ellen, havin' mo' heart dan min', come right along. An' Marse Bolivar wuz happy fer ter see Sally happy.
"Dis wuz long 'fo' de battlin', suh, but even dat fur back dey wuz talkin' 'bout war. Ol' Fed Tatum wuz a mighty long-headed man, an' he know'd mighty well dat ef Mary Ellen stayed dar whar she wuz at, she won't have no mo' show dan a chicken wid its head wrung off. So he fixed 'er up an' packed 'er off up dar whar de Northrons is at. He'd 'a' sont her mammy wid 'er, but she say no; she'd be in de way; folks would 'spicion what de matter wuz; an' so she shet her mouf an' stayed. Ef Mary Ellen had 'a' been my chile, suh, I'd 'a' gone wid 'er ef I had ter claw my way wid my naked han's thoo forty miles er brick wall. But her mammy was diffunt; she stayed an' pined.
"Now, ef anybody want pinin' done dey'll hafter go ter somebody else 'sides ol' 'Nervy Ann Perdue. When you see me pinin', suh, you may know my tongue done cut out an' my han's pairlized. Ef Mary Ellen had 'a' been my chile dey'd 'a' been murder done, suh, I'd 'a' cotch ol' Fed Tatum by what little hair he had an' I'd 'a' ruint 'im; an' ez 'twuz, I come mighty nigh havin' a fight wid 'im. An' ef I had—ef I had——"
Aunt Minervy Ann was on her feet. Her right arm was raised high in the air, and her eyes blazed with passion. It was not a glimpse of temper she gave us, but a fleeting portrayal of mother-love at white heat. She had been carried away by her memory, and had carried us away with her; but she caught herself, as it were, in the act, laughed, and sat down again by the sofa, caressing it with both arms. Presently she resumed her narrative, addressing herself this time to the lady of the house. It was a stroke of rare tact that had its effect.
"Wellum, Mary Ellen wa'n't my chile, an' ol' Fed Tatum sont 'er off up dar 'mongst de Northrons; an' 'bout de time de two sides 'gun der battlin' he sol' some lan' an' sont her 'nuff money ter las' 'er twel she got all de larnin' she want. Den de war come, an' nobody ain't hear no mo' 'bout Mary Ellen. Dey fit an' dey fout, an' dey font an' dey fit, an' den, bimeby, dey quit, an' fer long days nobody didn't know whedder ter walk backerds er go forruds.
"Ol' Fed Tatnm wuz one er dem kinder folks, ma'am, what you been seein' an' knowin' so long dat you kinder git de idee dey er gwine ter stay des like dey is; but one day ol' Fed Tatum fetch'd a grunt an' went ter bed, an' de nex' day he fetch'd a groan an' died. He sho did. An' den when dey come ter look into what he had, dey foun' dat he ain't got nothin' he kin call his own but a little cabin in one een' er town, an' dis went ter Mary Ellen's mammy.
"I tell you now, ma'am, dat 'oman tried me. She wuz long an' lank an' slabsided, an' she went 'bout wid 'er mouf shet, an' 'er cloze lookin' like somebody had flung um at 'er. I like ter hear folks talk, myself, an' ef dey can't do nothin' else I like ter see um show dey temper. But dat 'oman, she des walk 'roun' an' not open her mouf fum mornin' twel night, less'n you ax 'er sump'n. I tried ter git her ter talk 'bout Mary Ellen, but she ain't know no mo' 'bout Mary Ellen dan a rabbit.
"I dunner but what we'd 'a' got in a fuss, ma'am, kaze dat 'oman sho did try me, but 'long 'bout dat time Marse Bolivar's gal tuck sick, an' 'twa'n't long 'fo' she died. 'Twuz a mighty pity, too, kaze dat chile would 'a' made a fine 'oman—none better. 'Long todes de las' she got ter gwine on 'bout Mary Ellen. Look like she could see Mary Ellen in de fever-dreams, an' she'd laugh an' go on des like she useter when she wuz a little bit er gal.
"Wellum, when dat chile died Marse Bolivar come mighty nigh losin' 'is min'. He ain't make no fuss 'bout it, but he des fell back on hisse'f an' walk de flo' night atter night, an' moan an' groan when he think nobody ain't lis'nin'. An' den, atter so long a time, here come a letter fum Mary Ellen, an' dat broke 'im all up. I tell you right now, ma'am, Marse Bolivar had a hard fight wid trouble. I don't keer what folks may say; dey may tell you he's a hard man, ready ter fight an' quick ter kill. He's all dat, an' maybe mo'; but I know what I know.
"Wellum, de days went an' de days come. Bimeby I hear some er de niggers say dat Mary Ellen done come back. I laid off ter go an' see de chile; but one day I wuz gwine 'long de street an' I met a white lady. She say, 'Ain't dat Aunt Minervy Ann?' I 'low, 'Yessum, dis is de remnants.' Wid dat, ma'am, she grab me 'roun' de neck an' hug me, an' bu'st out a-cryin', an' 'twa'n't nobody in de worl' but Mary Ellen.
"Purty! I never has foun' out, ma'am, how any human can be ez purty ez Mary Ellen. Her skin wuz white ez milk an' her eyes shine like stars. I'd 'a' never know'd her in de worl'. But dar she wuz, cryin' one minnit an' laughin' de nex'. An' she wuz in trouble too. She had a telegraph in her han' tellin' 'er dat one er her ol' schoolmates gwine on ter Flurridy wuz gwine ter stop over one train des ter see Mary Ellen. Hit seem like dat up dar whar she been stayin' at she ain't never tell nobody but what she wuz white, an' de human wa'n't born dat could tell de diffunce. So dar 'twuz. Here wuz de Northron lady comin' fer ter see Mary Ellen, an' what wuz Mary Ellen gwine ter do?—whar wuz she gwine ter take de Northron lady? Dar wuz de ramshackle cabin, an' dar wuz my kitchen. You may think 'twuz funny, ma'am——"
"But I don't," said the lady of the house, abruptly and unexpectedly; "I don't think it was funny at all."
Aunt Minervy Ann looked at me and lifted her chin triumphantly, as she resumed: "No'm, 'twa'n't funny. Mary Ellen wuz proud an' high-strung; you could read dat in de way she walk an' eve'y motion she make, an' dat ar telegraph dat de Northron lady sont 'er fum Atlanty kinder run 'er in a corner. She dunner what ter do, ner which way ter turn. Look at it yo'se'f, ma'am, an' see whar she wuz.
"She laughed, ma'am, but she wuz in trouble, an' I'm sech a big fool dat I'm allers in trouble 'long wid dem what I like. Take de tape-line ter der trouble an' den ter mine, an' you'll fin' dat dey medjer 'bout de same. Mary Ellen laugh an' say, 'Dey's two things I kin do; I kin leave town, er I kin go down dar ter de cabin an' kill myse'f.' Oh, she wuz in a corner, ma'am—don't you doubt it.
"Right den an' dar sump'n pop in my head. I 'low, 'Is you been ter call on Marse Bolivar Blasengame?' She say 'No, I ain't, Aunt Minervy Ann. I started ter go, but I'm afear'd ter.' I 'low, 'Well, I'm gwine dar right now; come go wid me.'
"So we went dar, and I left Mary Ellen on de back porch, an' I went in de house. Marse Bolivar wuz settin' down, gwine over some papers, an' Mis' Em'ly wuz darnin' an' patchin'.
"I say, 'Marse Bolivar, dey's a gal out here dat I thought maybe you an' Mis' Em'ly would be glad ter see?"
"He 'low, 'Dang you' hide, Minervy Ann! You like ter make me jump out'n my skin. Who is de gal?'
"I say, 'I wanter see ef you know 'er.' Wid dat I went back an' fotch Mary Ellen in. Well, dey didn't know 'er, ma'am, na'er one un um; an' I dunner how it all happened, but de fust thing I know Mary Ellen fell on 'er knees, by a lounge what sot under de place whar Miss Sally's pictur' wuz hangin' at. She fell on her knees, Mary Ellen did, and 'low, 'She'd know who I is,' an' wid dat she bust aloose an' went ter cryin' des like 'er heart wuz done broke in two.
"Marse Bolivar stood dar an' wait twel Mary Ellen cool off, an' quiet down. Mis' Em'ly, ma'am, is one er dem ar primity, dried-up wimmen, which, ef dey ain't fightin' you wid bofe ban's, er huggin' you wid bofe arms, ain't sayin' nothin' 'tall. An' ef Mis' Em'ly ain't sayin' nothin' you can't put de key in de Bible an' fin' no tex' dat'll tell you what she got in 'er min'. But she wuz darnin', an' I see 'er wipe one eye on de leg er de sock, an' den present'y she wipe t'er eye.
"Wellum, Marse Bolivar stood dar an' look at Mary Ellen, an' when she riz fum her knees an' stood dar, her head hangin' down, still a-cryin', but mo' quieter, he went close up an' 'low, 'I know you, Mary Ellen, an' I'm mighty glad ter see you. Dat ar letter what you writ me, I got it yit, an' I'm gwine ter keep it whiles I live.'
"He talk right husky, ma'am, an' I 'gun ter feel husky myse'f; an' den I know'd dat ef I didn't change de tune, I'd be boo-hooin' right dar 'fo' all un um wid needer 'casion nor 'skuce. I went up ter Mary Ellen an' cotch 'er by de shoulder and say, 'Shucks, gal! Dat train'll be here terreckly, an' den what you gwine ter do?'
"'Twuz a hint ez broad ez a horse-blanket, ma'am, but Mary Ellen never tuck it. She des stood dar an' look at me. An' 'bout dat time Marse Bolivar he ketch'd holt er my shoulder an' whirlt me 'roun', an' 'low, 'What de matter, Minervy Ann? Talk it right out!'
"Wellum, I let you know I tol' 'im; I des laid it off! I tol' des how 'twuz; how Mary Ellen been sont up dar by ol' Fed Tatum, an' how, on de 'count er no fault er her'n de Northron folks tuck 'er ter be a white gal; an' how one er de gals what went ter school wid 'er wuz gwine ter come ter see 'er an' stay 'twixt trains. Den I 'low, 'Whar is Mary Ellen gwine ter see 'er? In dat ar mud-shack whar her ma live at? In de big road? In de woods? In de hoss-lot?"
The whole scene from beginning to end had been enacted by Aunt Minervy Ann. In the empty spaces of the room she had placed the colonel, his wife, and Mary Ellen, and they seemed to be before us, and not only before us, but the passionate earnestness with which she laid the case of Mary Ellen before the colonel made them live and move under our very eyes.
"In de big road? In de woods? In de hoss-lot?"
And when she paused for the reply of the colonel, the look of expectation on her face was as keen and as eager as it could have been on the day and the occasion when she was pleading for Mary Ellen. The spell was broken by the lady of the house, who leaned forward eagerly as if expecting the colonel himself to reply. Perhaps Aunt Minervy Ann misunderstood the movement. She paused a moment as if dazed, and then sank by the sofa with a foolish laugh.
"I know you all put me down ter be a fool," she said, "an' I 'speck I is."
"Nonsense!" cried the lady of the house, sharply. "What did the colonel reply?"
Aunt Minervy remained silent a little while, picking at one of the fringes of the sofa. She was evidently trying to reassemble in her mind the incidents and surroundings of her narrative. Presently she began again, in a tone subdued and confidential:
"Marse Bolivar look at me right hard, den he look at Mary Ellen, an' den he pull at de tip-cen'er his year. Wellum, I fair helt my breff; I say ter myse'f, 'Man, whyn't you look at poor Miss Sally's pictur'? I wuz feared a fly might light on 'im an' change his min'. But, look at de pictur' he did, an' dat settled it.
"He 'low, 'Set down, Mary Ellen; you look tired. Minervy Ann, fetch 'er a drink er water.' Wellum, you may well b'lieve dat I flied up an' flew'd 'roun' an' fotch dat water. Den he 'low, 'Minervy Ann, go in dar an' straighten out dat parlor; fling open de blinds an' do 'bout in dar!'"
Again Aunt Minervy Ann arose from her reclining position by the sofa and stood in the floor; again, by a wave of her hand, she brought the scene before our eyes.
"I stood dar, I did, an' look at dat man. I 'low, 'Marse Bolivar, less'n it's Marse Tumlin, youer de bes' man dat God A'mighty ever breathe de breath er life inter!' He rub his han' over his face an' say, 'Dang yo' ol' hide! go on an' hush up! Fum de time I fust know'd you, you been gittin' me an' Tumlin in hot water.'
"I flung back at 'im, '’Tain't never scald you! 'Tain't never been too deep fer you!' He straighten hisse'f up an' helt his head back an' laugh. He 'low, 'Dang it all, Minervy Ann! Dey er times when I want it bofe hot an' deep. You go an' scuffle 'roun' in dat parlor, an' don't you let yo' Mis' Em'ly do a han's-turn in dar.'
"Wellum, dat uz 'bout de upshot un it. De Northron lady wuz name Miss Wilbur, er Willard, I disremember which, but she was a mighty nice white gal. Marse Bolivar an' Hamp wuz bofe at de train ter meet 'er, an' Marse Bolivar fotch 'er right ter de house, an' show'd 'er in de parlor. Atter while, Mary Ellen went in dar, an' 'twuz a mighty meetin' 'twix um. Dey chattered same ez a flock er blackbirds on a windy day; an' atter so long a time Marse Bolivar went in dar. 'Twa'n't long 'fo' he got ter tellin' tales, an' de Northron lady laugh so she kin hardly set on de cheer. Den he open de pianner, an' ax de white lady ter play, but she vow she can't play atter he been hearin' Mary Ellen. Den he say, 'Won't you play me a chune, Mary Ellen? Sump'n ol' timey?'
"Dat gal went ter de pianner, ma'am, an' sot dar wid her han's over her face like she prayin', an' den she laid her han's on de keys an' started a chune des like yo' hear in yo' dreams. It got a little louder, an' den present'y you could hear 'er singin'. I never did know whar'bouts her voice slipped inter dat chune; but dar 'twuz, an' it fit in wid de pianner des like a flute does.
"Wellum, it tuck me back, way back dar in de ol' days, an' den brung me down ter later times, fer many a moonlight night did I hear Miss Sally an' Mary Ellen sing dat song when dey wuz chillun. Den atter dat de Northron lady plump herse'f down at de pianner, an' she sho did shake dat ol' shebang up. 'Twuz dish yer highfalutin' music what sprung up sence de war, an' it sho sound like war ter me, drums a-rattlin', guns a-shootin', an' forty-levm brass horns all tootin' a diffunt chune.
"When train-time come, ma'am, de Northron lady ax Mary Ellen ef she won't go ter de train wid 'er. But Marse Bolivar spoke up an' say dat Mary Ellen been feelin' bad all de mornin', an' she hatter skuzen 'er. He went wid de lady hisse'f, an' when he come back Mary Ellen tol' 'im she never would fergit what he done fer her dat day, an' say she gwine ter pay 'im back some day.
"What did the neighbors say about it?" the lady of the house asked, in her practical way.
"Dat what pestered me all de time, ma'am," Aunt Minervy Ann replied. "I ax Marse Bolivar, 'What de folks gwine ter say when dey hear 'bout dis come off?' He stuck his thum's in de arm-holes er his wescut, an' 'low, 'Dat what I wanter know, an' I wanter know so bad, Minervy Ann, dat ef you hear anybody talkin' loose talk 'bout it, des come runnin' ter me while it's hot. Now don't you fail.'
"But Marse Bolivar ain't wait fer me ter hear what folks say. He went polin' up town de nex' day, an' tol' 'bout it in eve'y sto' on de street, an' de las' man in town vow'd 'twuz de ve'y thing ter do. An' dat ain't all, ma'am! De folks dar raise a lot er money fer Mary Ellen, an' de way dat chile went on when Marse Bolivar put it in 'er han' an' tol' er whar it come fum wuz pitiful ter see.
"Dat's de way 'tis, ma'am; ketch um in de humor an' eve'y body's good; ketch um out'n de humor an' dey er all mean—I know dat by my own feelin's. Ef a fly had lit on Marse Bolivar's face dat day, Mary Ellen would 'a' had ter face 'er trouble by 'er own 'lone self. Ef some sour-minded man had gone up town an' told how Marse Bolivar wuz en'tainin' nigger gals an' a Yankee 'oman in his parlor, dey'd all been down on 'im. An' den——"
"What, then?" the lady of the house asked, as Aunt Minervy Ann paused.
"Dey'd 'a' been weepin' an' whailin' in de settlement sho. Ain't it so, suh?"
It was natural, after Aunt Minervy Ann had narrated the particulars of this episode, that her statements should dwell in my memory, and sally forth and engage my mind when it should have been concerned with other duties. One of these duties was to examine each day the principal newspapers of New England in search of topics for editorial comment.
An eye trained to this business, as any exchange editor can tell you, will pick out at a glance a familiar name or suggestive phrase, no matter what its surroundings nor how obscurely it may be printed. Therefore, one day, weeks after Aunt Minervy Ann's recital, when I opened the Boston Transcript at its editorial page, it was inevitable that the first thing to catch my eye was the familiar name of "Mary Ellen Tatum." It was printed in type of the kind called nonpareil, but I would have seen it no sooner nor more certainly if it had been printed in letters reaching half across the page.
Mary Ellen Tatum! The name occurred in a three-line preface to the translation of an art note from a Paris newspaper. This note described, with genuine French enthusiasm, the deep impression that had been made on artists and art circles in Paris by a portrait painted by a gifted young American artist, Mlle. Marie Helen Tatum. It is needless to transcribe the eulogy—I have it in my scrap-book. It was a glowing tribute to a piece of work that had created a sensation, and closed with the announcement that another genius had "arrived."
The comments of the Boston editor, following the sketch, declared that the friends of Miss Mary Ellen Tatum in Boston, where she spent her early years and where she was educated, were proud of her remarkable success, and predicted for her a glorious career as an artist.
I had no more than cut this piece from the news-paper when the door-bell rang, and as there happened to be no one in the house to answer it at the moment, I went to the door myself, the clipping still in my hand, and there before my eyes was Colonel Bolivar Blasengame, his fine face beaming with good-nature. He had come at a moment when I most desired to see him, and I greeted him cordially.
"I see now," said the colonel, "why it is I can never catch you in your office in town; you do your work at home. Well, that's lots better than workin' where any and everybody can come in on you. I thought I'd find you out here enjoying your otium cum digitalis, as old Tuck Bonner used to say; but instead of that you're waist-deep in news-papers."
I assured the colonel that there were some people in the world whom I would be glad to see, no matter how busy I might be.
"I know the feeling," replied Colonel Blasengame; "but you'll be cussing me as sure as the world, for I haven't a grain of business to see you about. But I hear Tumlin and old Aunt Minervy Ann talking about you so constantly that I thought I'd come out and say howdye, if no more."
"Well, you'll have to say more than that this time," I remarked; "I was just thinking, when you rang the door-bell, that I would give something pretty to see you."
"Now, is that reely so?" cried the colonel. "Then I'm twice glad—once because I took a notion to come, and once again because you're glad. You used to fight so shy of me when you lived among us that I was afraid I wouldn't get on wi' you; but I'm sorter offish myself."
"Colonel," said I, "did you ever know Mary Ellen Tatum?"
He rubbed his face and forehead with his hand, and regarded me with a slight frown, and a smile that seemed to mean anything except pleasure.
"Will you allow me to ask you why you put such a question to me?"
"Why, certainly. Colonel; read that." I placed the clipping from the Transcript in his hand. He held it off at arm's length and tried to decipher it, but the print was too fine. Placing it on his knee, he searched in his pockets until he found his spectacles, and then he read the article through carefully—not once, but twice.
Then smoothing the clipping out on his knee, he looked at me inquiringly.
"Do you know Mary Ellen?" he asked. I did not, and said so. "Did you ever hear of her before?"
"Why, yes," I replied. "Aunt Minervy Ann told me some very interesting things about her, and I wanted to ask you if they were true."
The colonel jumped to his feet with a laugh. "Plague on old Minervy Ann!" he exclaimed. "Why, I came out here purposely to tell you about Mary Ellen. This thing," indicating the clipping, "is away behind the time with its news. The picture it tells about is at my house this very minute, and another one in the bargain. The first chance you get, come down home and look at 'em. If you don't open your eyes I'll never sign my name S. B. Blasengame again." He walked up and down the room in a restless way. "What do you reckon that gyurl did?" he asked, stopping before me and stretching out his right arm. "Why, she sent a man with the pictures—a right nice fellow he was, too. He said it cost a pile of money to git 'em through the custom-house at New York; he had to hang around there a week. When I asked him for his bill he raised his hands and laughed. Everything was paid."
The colonel continued to walk up and down the room. He was always restless when anything interested him, unless it happened to be a matter of life and death, and then he was calmness itself.
"Did Aunt Minervy Ann—blame her old hide!—I wanted to tell you the whole story myself—did she tell you about a letter Mary Ellen wrote me when"—the colonel paused and cleared his throat—"about a letter Mary Ellen wrote me in the seventies?"
"She did," I replied.
"Well, here's the letter," he said, after fumbling in his big pocketbook. "It's not a matter to be showing around, but you seem almost like one of the family, and you'll know better how to appreciate the pictures when you read that."
He turned and went out of the room into the hallway and then to the veranda, where I heard his firm and measured step pacing back and forth. The letter was not a very long one, but there was something in it—a vague undertone of loneliness, a muffled cry for sympathy, which, as I knew all the facts of the case, almost took my breath away.
The letter was dated "Boston, September 8th, 1878," and was as follows:
"You do not know me, and you will not recognize the name signed to this. It is better, far better that this should be so. It is enough for you to know that a stranger in a strange land will lie awake many and many a long night, weeping for the dear young lady who is dead.
"Mary Ellen Tatum."
What has become of Mary Ellen? the reader may ask. I have asked the same question hundreds of times and received no reply to it. So far as we provincials are concerned, she has disappeared utterly from the face of the earth.