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The hack which the colonel had taken at the station after a two-days' journey, broken by several long waits for connecting trains, jogged in somewhat leisurely fashion down the main street toward the hotel. The colonel, with his little boy, had left the main line of railroad leading north and south and had taken at a certain way station the one daily train for Clarendon, with which the express made connection. They had completed the forty-mile journey in two or three hours, arriving at Clarendon at noon.
It was an auspicious moment for visiting the town. It is true that the grass grew in the street here and there, but the sidewalks were separated from the roadway by rows of oaks and elms and china-trees in early leaf. The travellers had left New York in the midst of a snowstorm, but here the scent of lilac and of jonquil, the song of birds, the breath of spring, were all about them. The occasional stretches of brick sidewalk under their green canopy looked cool and inviting; for while the chill of winter had fled and the sultry heat of summer was not yet at hand, the railroad coach had been close and dusty, and the noonday sun gave some slight foretaste of his coming reign.
The colonel looked about him eagerly. It was all so like, and yet so different--shrunken somewhat, and faded, but yet, like a woman one loves, carried into old age something of the charm of youth. The old town, whose ripeness was almost decay, whose quietness was scarcely distinguishable from lethargy, had been the home of his youth, and he saw it, strange to say, less with the eyes of the lad of sixteen who had gone to the war, than with those of the little boy to whom it had been, in his tenderest years, the great wide world, the only world he knew in the years when, with his black boy Peter, whom his father had given to him as a personal attendant, he had gone forth to field and garden, stream and forest, in search of childish adventure. Yonder was the old academy, where he had attended school. The yellow brick of its walls had scaled away in places, leaving the surface mottled with pale splotches; the shingled roof was badly dilapidated, and overgrown here and there with dark green moss. The cedar trees in the yard were in need of pruning, and seemed, from their rusty trunks and scant leafage, to have shared in the general decay. As they drove down the street, cows were grazing in the vacant lot between the bank, which had been built by the colonel's grandfather, and the old red brick building, formerly a store, but now occupied, as could be seen by the row of boxes visible through the open door, by the post-office.
The little boy, an unusually handsome lad of five or six, with blue eyes and fair hair, dressed in knickerbockers and a sailor cap, was also keenly interested in the surroundings. It was Saturday, and the little two-wheeled carts, drawn by a steer or a mule; the pigs sleeping in the shadow of the old wooden market-house; the lean and sallow pinelanders and listless negroes dozing on the curbstone, were all objects of novel interest to the boy, as was manifest by the light in his eager eyes and an occasional exclamation, which in a clear childish treble, came from his perfectly chiselled lips. Only a glance was needed to see that the child, though still somewhat pale and delicate from his recent illness, had inherited the characteristics attributed to good blood. Features, expression, bearing, were marked by the signs of race; but a closer scrutiny was required to discover, in the blue-eyed, golden-haired lad, any close resemblance to the shrewd, dark man of affairs who sat beside him, and to whom this little boy was, for the time being, the sole object in life.
But for the child the colonel was alone in the world. Many years before, when himself only a boy, he had served in the Southern army, in a regiment which had fought with such desperate valour that the honour of the colonelcy had come to him at nineteen, as the sole survivor of the group of young men who had officered the regiment. His father died during the last year of the Civil War, having lived long enough to see the conflict work ruin to his fortunes. The son had been offered employment in New York by a relative who had sympathised with the South in her struggle; and he had gone away from Clarendon. The old family "mansion"--it was not a very imposing structure, except by comparison with even less pretentious houses--had been sold upon foreclosure, and bought by an ambitious mulatto, who only a few years before had himself been an object of barter and sale. Entering his uncle's office as a clerk, and following his advice, reinforced by a sense of the fitness of things, the youthful colonel had dropped his military title and become plain Mr. French. Putting the past behind him, except as a fading memory, he had thrown himself eagerly into the current of affairs. Fortune favoured one both capable and energetic. In time he won a partnership in the firm, and when death removed his relative, took his place at its head.
He had looked forward to the time, not very far in the future, when he might retire from business and devote his leisure to study and travel, tastes which for years he had subordinated to the pursuit of wealth; not entirely, for his life had been many sided; and not so much for the money, as because, being in a game where dollars were the counters, it was his instinct to play it well. He was winning already, and when the bagging trust paid him, for his share of the business, a sum double his investment, he found himself, at some years less than fifty, relieved of business cares and in command of an ample fortune.
This change in the colonel's affairs--and we shall henceforth call him the colonel, because the scene of this story is laid in the South, where titles are seldom ignored, and where the colonel could hardly have escaped his own, even had he desired to do so--this change in the colonel's affairs coincided with that climacteric of the mind, from which, without ceasing to look forward, it turns, at times, in wistful retrospect, toward the distant past, which it sees thenceforward through a mellowing glow of sentiment. Emancipated from the counting room, and ordered South by the doctor, the colonel's thoughts turned easily and naturally to the old town that had given him birth; and he felt a twinge of something like remorse at the reflection that never once since leaving it had he set foot within its borders. For years he had been too busy. His wife had never manifested any desire to visit the South, nor was her temperament one to evoke or sympathise with sentimental reminiscence. He had married, rather late in life, a New York woman, much younger than himself; and while he had admired her beauty and they had lived very pleasantly together, there had not existed between them the entire union of souls essential to perfect felicity, and the current of his life had not been greatly altered by her loss.
Toward little Phil, however, the child she had borne him, his feeling was very different. His young wife had been, after all, but a sweet and pleasant graft upon a sturdy tree. Little Phil was flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. Upon his only child the colonel lavished all of his affection. Already, to his father's eye, the boy gave promise of a noble manhood. His frame was graceful and active. His hair was even more brightly golden than his mother's had been; his eyes more deeply blue than hers; while his features were a duplicate of his father's at the same age, as was evidenced by a faded daguerreotype among the colonel's few souvenirs of his own childhood. Little Phil had a sweet temper, a loving disposition, and endeared himself to all with whom he came in contact.
The hack, after a brief passage down the main street, deposited the passengers at the front of the Clarendon Hotel. The colonel paid the black driver the quarter he demanded--two dollars would have been the New York price--ran the gauntlet of the dozen pairs of eyes in the heads of the men leaning back in the splint-bottomed armchairs under the shade trees on the sidewalk, registered in the book pushed forward by a clerk with curled mustaches and pomatumed hair, and accompanied by Phil, followed the smiling black bellboy along a passage and up one flight of stairs to a spacious, well-lighted and neatly furnished room, looking out upon the main street.
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