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Ben's fight with young Fetters became a matter of public comment the next day after the ball. His conduct was cited as sad proof of the degeneracy of a once fine old family. He had been considered shiftless and not well educated, but no one had suspected that he was a drunkard and a rowdy. Other young men in the town, high-spirited young fellows with plenty of money, sometimes drank a little too much, and occasionally, for a point of honour, gentlemen were obliged to attack or defend themselves, but when they did, they used pistols, a gentleman's weapon. Here, however, was an unprovoked and brutal attack with fists, upon two gentlemen in evening dress and without weapons to defend themselves, "one of them," said the _Anglo-Saxon_, "the son of our distinguished fellow citizen and colleague in the legislature, the Honourable William Fetters."
When Colonel French called to see Miss Laura, the afternoon of next day after the ball, the ladies were much concerned about the affair.
"Oh, Henry," exclaimed Miss Laura, "what is this dreadful story about Ben Dudley? They say he was drinking at the hotel, and became intoxicated, and that when Barclay Fetters and Tom McRae went into the hotel, he said something insulting about Graciella, and when they rebuked him for his freedom he attacked them violently, and that when finally subdued he was put to bed unconscious and disgracefully intoxicated. Graciella is very angry, and we all feel ashamed enough to sink into the ground. What can be the matter with Ben? He hasn't been around lately, and he has quarrelled with Graciella. I never would have expected anything like this from Ben."
"It came from his great-uncle Ralph," said Mrs. Treadwell. "Ralph was very wild when he was young, but settled down into a very polished gentleman. I danced with him once when he was drunk, and I never knew it--it was my first ball, and I was intoxicated myself, with excitement. Mother was scandalised, but father laughed and said boys would be boys. But poor Ben hasn't had his uncle's chances, and while he has always behaved well here, he could hardly be expected to carry his liquor like a gentleman of the old school."
"My dear ladies," said the colonel, "we have heard only one side of the story. I guess there's no doubt Ben was intoxicated, but we know he isn't a drinking man, and one drink--or even one drunk--doesn't make a drunkard, nor one fight a rowdy. Barclay Fetters and Tom McRae are not immaculate, and perhaps Ben can exonerate himself."
"I certainly hope so," said Miss Laura earnestly. "I am sorry for Ben, but I could not permit a drunken rowdy to come to the house, or let my niece be seen upon the street with him."
"It would only be fair," said the colonel, "to give him a chance to explain, when he comes in again. I rather like Ben. He has some fine mechanical ideas, and the making of a man in him, unless I am mistaken. I have been hoping to find a place for him in the new cotton mill, when it is ready to run."
They were still speaking of Ben, when there was an irresolute knock at the rear door of the parlour, in which they were seated.
"Miss Laura, O Miss Laura," came a muffled voice. "Kin I speak to you a minute. It's mighty pertickler, Miss Laura, fo' God it is!"
"Laura," said the colonel, "bring Catharine in. I saw that you were troubled once before when you were compelled to refuse her something. Henceforth your burdens shall be mine. Come in, Catharine," he called, "and tell us what's the matter. What's your trouble? What's it all about?"
The woman, red-eyed from weeping, came in, wringing her apron.
"Miss Laura," she sobbed, "an' Colonel French, my husban' Bud is done gone and got inter mo' trouble. He's run away f'm Mistah Fettuhs, w'at he wuz sol' back to in de spring, an' he's done be'n fine' fifty dollahs mo', an' he's gwine ter be sol' back ter Mistah Fettuhs in de mawnin', fer ter finish out de ole fine and wo'k out de new one. I's be'n ter see 'im in de gyard house, an' he say Mistah Haines, w'at use' ter be de constable and is a gyard fer Mistah Fettuhs now, beat an' 'bused him so he couldn' stan' it; an' 'ceptin' I could pay all dem fines, he'll be tuck back dere; an'he say ef dey evah beats him ag'in, dey'll eithuh haf ter kill him, er he'll kill some er dem. An' Bud is a rash man, Miss Laura, an' I'm feared dat he'll do w'at he say, an' ef dey kills him er he kills any er dem, it'll be all de same ter me--I'll never see 'm no mo' in dis worl'. Ef I could borry de money, Miss Laura--Mars' Colonel--I'd wuk my fingers ter de bone 'tel I paid back de las' cent. Er ef you'd buy Bud, suh, lack you did Unc' Peter, he would n' mind wukkin' fer you, suh, fer Bud is a good wukker we'n folks treats him right; an' he had n' never had no trouble nowhar befo' he come hyuh, suh."
"How did he come to be arrested the first time?" asked the colonel.
"He didn't live hyuh, suh; I used ter live hyuh, an' I ma'ied him down ter Madison, where I wuz wukkin'. We fell out one day, an' I got mad and lef' 'im--it wuz all my fault an' I be'n payin' fer it evuh since--an' I come back home an' went ter wuk hyuh, an' he come aftuh me, an de fus' day he come, befo' I knowed he wuz hyuh, dis yer Mistah Haines tuck 'im up, an' lock 'im up in de gyard house, like a hog in de poun', an' he didn' know nobody, an' dey didn' give 'im no chanst ter see nobody, an' dey tuck 'im roun' ter Squi' Reddick nex' mawnin', an' fined 'im an' sol' 'im ter dis yer Mistuh Fettuhs fer ter wo'k out de fine; an' I be'n wantin' all dis time ter hyuh fum 'im, an' I'd done be'n an' gone back ter Madison to look fer 'im, an' foun' he wuz gone. An' God knows I didn' know what had become er 'im, 'tel he run away de yuther time an' dey tuck 'im an' sent 'im back again. An' he hadn' done nothin' de fus' time, suh, but de Lawd know w'at he won' do ef dey sen's 'im back any mo'."
Catharine had put her apron to her eyes and was sobbing bitterly. The story was probably true. The colonel had heard underground rumours about the Fetters plantation and the manner in which it was supplied with labourers, and his own experience in old Peter's case had made them seem not unlikely. He had seen Catharine's husband, in the justice's court, and the next day, in the convict gang behind Turner's buggy. The man had not looked like a criminal; that he was surly and desperate may as well have been due to a sense of rank injustice as to an evil nature. That a wrong had been done, under cover of law, was at least more than likely; but a deed of mercy could be made to right it. The love of money might be the root of all evil, but its control was certainly a means of great good. The colonel glowed with the consciousness of this beneficent power to scatter happiness.
"Laura," he said, "I will attend to this; it is a matter about which you should not be troubled. Don't be alarmed, Catharine. Just be a good girl and help Miss Laura all you can, and I'll look after your husband, and pay his fine and let him work it out as a free man."
"Thank'y, suh, thank'y, Mars' Colonel, an' Miss Laura! An' de Lawd is
gwine bless you, suh, you an' my sweet young lady, fuh bein' good to
po' folks w'at can't do nuthin' to he'p deyse'ves out er trouble,"
said Catharine backing out with her apron to her eyes.
* * * * * * *
The next morning was bright and clear, and cool enough to be bracing. The colonel, alive with pleasant thoughts, rose early and after a cold bath, and a leisurely breakfast, walked over to the mill site, where the men were already at work. Having looked the work over and given certain directions, he glanced at his watch, and finding it near nine, set out for the justice's office in time to reach it by the appointed hour. Squire Reddick was at his desk, upon which his feet rested, while he read a newspaper. He looked up with an air of surprise as the colonel entered.
"Why, good mornin', Colonel French," he said genially. "I kind of expected you a while ago; the clerk said you might be around. But you didn' come, so I supposed you'd changed yo' mind."
"The clerk said that you would be here at nine," replied the colonel; "it is only just nine."
"Did he? Well, now, that's too bad! I do generally git around about nine, but I was earlier this mornin' and as everybody was here, we started in a little sooner than usual. You wanted to see me about Bud Johnson?"
"Yes, I wish to pay his fine and give him work."
"Well, that's too bad; but you weren't here, and Mr. Turner was, and he bought his time again for Mr. Fetters. I'm sorry, you know, but first come, first served."
The colonel was seriously annoyed. He did not like to believe there was a conspiracy to frustrate his good intention; but that result had been accomplished, whether by accident or design. He had failed in the first thing he had undertaken for the woman he loved and was to marry. He would see Fetters's man, however, and come to some arrangement with him. With Fetters the hiring of the Negro was purely a commercial transaction, conditioned upon a probable profit, for the immediate payment of which, and a liberal bonus, he would doubtless relinquish his claim upon Johnson's services.
Learning that Turner, who had acted as Fetters's agent in the matter, had gone over to Clay Johnson's saloon, he went to seek him there. He found him, and asked for a proposition. Turner heard him out.
"Well, Colonel French," he replied with slightly veiled insolence, "I bought this nigger's time for Mr. Fetters, an' unless I'm might'ly mistaken in Mr. Fetters, no amount of money can get the nigger until he's served his time out. He's defied our rules and defied the law, and defied me, and assaulted one of the guards; and he ought to be made an example of. We want to keep 'im; he's a bad nigger, an' we've got to handle a lot of 'em, an' we need 'im for an example--he keeps us in trainin'."
"Have you any power in the matter?" demanded the colonel, restraining his contempt.
"Me? No, not _me_! I couldn't let the nigger go for his weight in gol'--an' wouldn' if I could. I bought 'im in for Mr. Fetters, an' he's the only man that's got any say about 'im."
"Very well," said the colonel as he turned away, "I'll see Fetters."
"I don't know whether you will or not," said Turner to himself, as he shot a vindictive glance at the colonel's retreating figure. "Fetters has got this county where he wants it, an' I'll bet dollars to bird shot he ain't goin' to let no coon-flavoured No'the'n interloper come down here an' mix up with his arrangements, even if he did hail from this town way back yonder. This here nigger problem is a South'en problem, and outsiders might's well keep their han's off. Me and Haines an' Fetters is the kind o' men to settle it."
The colonel was obliged to confess to Miss Laura his temporary setback, which he went around to the house and did immediately.
"It's the first thing I've undertaken yet for your sake, Laura, and I've got to report failure, so far."
"It's only the first step," she said, consolingly.
"That's all. I'll drive out to Fetters's place to-morrow, and arrange the matter. By starting before day, I can make it and transact my business, and get back by night, without hurting the horses."
Catharine was called in and the situation explained to her. Though clearly disappointed at the delay, and not yet free of apprehension that Bud might do something rash, she seemed serenely confident of the colonel's ultimate success. In her simple creed, God might sometimes seem to neglect his black children, but no harm could come to a Negro who had a rich white gentleman for friend and protector.
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