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When the colonel and Phil had removed the dust and disorder of travel from their appearance, they went down to dinner. After they had eaten, the colonel, still accompanied by the child, left the hotel, and following the main street for a short distance, turned into another thoroughfare bordered with ancient elms, and stopped for a moment before an old gray house with high steps and broad piazza--a large, square-built, two-storied house, with a roof sloping down toward the front, broken by dormer windows and buttressed by a massive brick chimney at either end. In spite of the gray monotone to which the paintless years had reduced the once white weatherboarding and green Venetian blinds, the house possessed a certain stateliness of style which was independent of circumstance, and a solidity of construction that resisted sturdily the disintegrating hand of time. Heart-pine and live-oak, mused the colonel, like other things Southern, live long and die hard. The old house had been built of the best materials, and its woodwork dowelled and mortised and tongued and grooved by men who knew their trade and had not learned to scamp their work. For the colonel's grandfather had built the house as a town residence, the family having owned in addition thereto a handsome country place upon a large plantation remote from the town.
The colonel had stopped on the opposite side of the street and was looking intently at the home of his ancestors and of his own youth, when a neatly dressed coloured girl came out on the piazza, seated herself in a rocking-chair with an air of proprietorship, and opened what the colonel perceived to be, even across the street, a copy of a woman's magazine whose circulation, as he knew from the advertising rates that French and Co. had paid for the use of its columns, touched the million mark. Not wishing to seem rude, the colonel moved slowly on down the street. When he turned his head, after going a rod or two, and looked back over his shoulder, the girl had risen and was re-entering the house. Her disappearance was promptly followed by the notes of a piano, slightly out of tune, to which some one--presumably the young woman--was singing in a high voice, which might have been better had it been better trained,
"I dreamt that I dwe-elt in ma-arble halls With vassals and serfs at my si-i-ide."The colonel had slackened his pace at the sound of the music, but, after the first few bars, started forward with quickened footsteps which he did not relax until little Phil's weight, increasing momentarily, brought home to him the consciousness that his stride was too long for the boy's short legs. Phil, who was a thoroughbred, and would have dropped in his tracks without complaining, was nevertheless relieved when his father's pace returned to the normal.
Their walk led down a hill, and, very soon, to a wooden bridge which spanned a creek some twenty feet below. The colonel paused for a moment beside the railing, and looked up and down the stream. It seemed narrower and more sluggish than his memory had pictured it. Above him the water ran between high banks grown thick with underbrush and over-arching trees; below the bridge, to the right of the creek, lay an open meadow, and to the left, a few rods away, the ruins of the old Eureka cotton mill, which in his boyhood had harboured a flourishing industry, but which had remained, since Sherman's army laid waste the country, the melancholy ruin the colonel had seen it last, when twenty-five years or more before, he left Clarendon to seek a wider career in the outer world. The clear water of the creek rippled harmoniously down a gentle slope and over the site where the great dam at the foot had stood, while birds were nesting in the vines with which kindly nature had sought to cloak the dismantled and crumbling walls.
Mounting the slope beyond the bridge, the colonel's stride now carefully accommodated to the child's puny step, they skirted a low brick wall, beyond which white headstones gleamed in a mass of verdure. Reaching an iron gate, the colonel lifted the latch, and entered the cemetery which had been the object of their visit.
"Is this the place, papa?" asked the little boy.
"Yes, Phil, but it is farther on, in the older part."
They passed slowly along, under the drooping elms and willows, past the monuments on either hand--here, resting on a low brick wall, a slab of marble, once white, now gray and moss-grown, from which the hand of time had well nigh erased the carved inscription; here a family vault, built into the side of a mound of earth, from which only the barred iron door distinguished it; here a pedestal, with a time-worn angel holding a broken fragment of the resurrection trumpet; here a prostrate headstone, and there another bending to its fall; and among them a profusion of rose bushes, on some of which the early roses were already blooming--scarcely a well-kept cemetery, for in many lots the shrubbery grew in wild unpruned luxuriance; nor yet entirely neglected, since others showed the signs of loving care, and an effort had been made to keep the walks clean and clear.
Father and son had traversed half the width of the cemetery, when they came to a spacious lot, surrounded by large trees and containing several monuments. It seemed less neglected than the lots about it, and as they drew nigh they saw among the tombs a very black and seemingly aged Negro engaged in pruning a tangled rose tree. Near him stood a dilapidated basket, partially filled with weeds and leaves, into which he was throwing the dead and superfluous limbs. He seemed very intent upon his occupation, and had not noticed the colonel's and Phil's approach until they had paused at the side of the lot and stood looking at him.
When the old man became aware of their presence, he straightened himself up with the slow movement of one stiff with age or rheumatism and threw them a tentatively friendly look out of a pair of faded eyes.
"Howdy do, uncle," said the colonel. "Will you tell me whose graves these are that you are caring for?"
"Yas, suh," said the old man, removing his battered hat respectfully--the rest of his clothing was in keeping, a picturesque assortment of rags and patches such as only an old Negro can get together, or keep together--"dis hyuh lot, suh, b'longs ter de fambly dat I useter b'long ter--de ol' French fambly, suh, de fines' fambly in Beaver County."
"Why, papa!" cried little Phil, "he means----"
"Hush, Phil! Go on, uncle."
"Yas, suh, de fines' fambly in Cla'endon, suh. Dis hyuh headstone hyuh, suh, an' de little stone at de foot, rep'esents de grave er ol' Gin'al French, w'at fit in de Revolution' Wah, suh; and dis hyuh one nex' to it is de grave er my ol' marster, Majah French, w'at fit in de Mexican Wah, and died endyoin' de wah wid de Yankees, suh."
"Papa," urged Phil, "that's my----"
"Shut up, Phil! Well, uncle, did this interesting old family die out, or is it represented in the present generation?"
"Lawd, no, suh, de fambly did n' die out--'deed dey did n' die out! dey ain't de kind er fambly ter die out! But it's mos' as bad, suh--dey's moved away. Young Mars Henry went ter de Norf, and dey say he's got rich; but he ain't be'n back no mo', suh, an' I don' know whether he's ever comin' er no."
"You must have been very fond of them to take such good care of their graves," said the colonel, much moved, but giving no sign.
"Well, suh, I b'longed ter de fambly, an' I ain' got no chick ner chile er my own, livin', an' dese hyuh dead folks 'pears mo' closer ter me dan anybody e'se. De cullud folks don' was'e much time wid a ole man w'at ain' got nothin', an' dese hyuh new w'ite folks wa't is come up sence de wah, ain' got no use fer niggers, now dat dey don' b'long ter nobody no mo'; so w'en I ain' got nothin' e'se ter do, I comes roun' hyuh, whar I knows ev'ybody and ev'ybody knows me, an' trims de rose bushes an' pulls up de weeds and keeps de grass down jes' lak I s'pose Mars Henry'd 'a' had it done ef he'd 'a' lived hyuh in de ole home, stidder 'way off yandah in de Norf, whar he so busy makin' money dat he done fergot all 'bout his own folks."
"What is your name?" asked the colonel, who had been looking closely at the old man.
"Peter, suh--Peter French. Most er de niggers change' dey names after de wah, but I kept de ole fambly name I wuz raise' by. It wuz good 'nuff fer me, suh; dey ain' none better."
"Oh, papa," said little Phil, unable to restrain himself longer, "he must be some kin to us; he has the same name, and belongs to the same family, and you know you called him 'Uncle.'"
The old Negro had dropped his hat, and was staring at the colonel and the little boy, alternately, with dawning amazement, while a look of recognition crept slowly into his rugged old face.
"Look a hyuh, suh," he said tremulously, "is it?--it can't be!--but dere's de eyes, an' de nose, an' de shape er de head--why, it _must_ be my young Mars Henry!"
"Yes," said the colonel, extending his hand to the old man, who grasped it with both his own and shook it up and down with unconventional but very affectionate vigour, "and you are my boy Peter; who took care of me when I was no bigger than Phil here!"
This meeting touched a tender chord in the colonel's nature, already tuned to sympathy with the dead past of which Peter seemed the only survival. The old man's unfeigned delight at their meeting; his retention of the family name, a living witness of its former standing; his respect for the dead; his "family pride," which to the unsympathetic outsider might have seemed grotesque; were proofs of loyalty that moved the colonel deeply. When he himself had been a child of five or six, his father had given him Peter as his own boy. Peter was really not many years older than the colonel, but prosperity had preserved the one, while hard luck had aged the other prematurely. Peter had taken care of him, and taught him to paddle in the shallow water of the creek and to avoid the suck-holes; had taught him simple woodcraft, how to fish, and how to hunt, first with bow and arrow, and later with a shotgun. Through the golden haze of memory the colonel's happy childhood came back to him with a sudden rush of emotion.
"Those were good times, Peter, when we were young," he sighed regretfully, "good times! I have seen none happier."
"Yas, suh! yas, suh! 'Deed dem wuz good ole times! Sho' dey wuz, suh, sho' dey wuz! 'Member dem co'n-stalk fiddles we use' ter make, an' dem elderberry-wood whistles?"
"Yes, Peter, and the robins we used to shoot and the rabbits we used to trap?"
"An' dem watermillions, suh--um-m-m, um-m-m-m!"
"_Y-e-s_," returned the colonel, with a shade of pensiveness. There had been two sides to the watermelon question. Peter and he had not always been able to find ripe watermelons, early in the season, and at times there had been painful consequences, the memory of which came back to the colonel with surprising ease. Nor had they always been careful about boundaries in those early days. There had been one occasion when an irate neighbour had complained, and Major French had thrashed Henry and Peter both--Peter because he was older, and knew better, and Henry because it was important that he should have impressed upon him, early in life, that of him to whom much is given, much will be required, and that what might be lightly regarded in Peter's case would be a serious offence in his future master's. The lesson had been well learned, for throughout the course of his life the colonel had never shirked responsibility, but had made the performance of duty his criterion of conduct. To him the line of least resistance had always seemed the refuge of the coward and the weakling. With the twenty years preceding his return to Clarendon, this story has nothing to do; but upon the quiet background of his business career he had lived an active intellectual and emotional life, and had developed into one of those rare natures of whom it may be truly said that they are men, and that they count nothing of what is human foreign to themselves.
But the serenity of Peter's retrospect was unmarred by any passing cloud. Those who dwell in darkness find it easier to remember the bright places in their lives.
"Yas, suh, yas, suh, dem watermillions," he repeated with unction, "I kin tas'e 'em now! Dey wuz de be's watermillions dat evuh growed, suh--dey doan raise none lack 'em dese days no mo'. An' den dem chinquapin bushes down by de swamp! 'Member dem chinquapin bushes, whar we killt dat water moccasin dat day? He wuz 'bout ten foot long!"
"Yes, Peter, he was a whopper! Then there were the bullace vines, in the woods beyond the tanyard!"
"Sho' 'nuff, suh! an' de minnows we use' ter ketch in de creek, an' dem perch in de mill pon'?"
For years the colonel had belonged to a fishing club, which preserved an ice-cold stream in a Northern forest. For years the choicest fruits of all the earth had been served daily upon his table. Yet as he looked back to-day no shining trout that had ever risen to his fly had stirred his emotions like the diaphanous minnows, caught, with a crooked pin, in the crooked creek; no luscious fruit had ever matched in sweetness the sour grapes and bitter nuts gathered from the native woods--by him and Peter in their far-off youth.
"Yas, suh, yas, suh," Peter went on, "an' 'member dat time you an' young Mars Jim Wilson went huntin' and fishin' up de country tergether, an' got ti'ed er waitin' on yo'se'ves an' writ back fer me ter come up ter wait on yer and cook fer yer, an' ole Marster say he did n' dare ter let me go 'way off yander wid two keerliss boys lak you-all, wid guns an' boats fer fear I mought git shot, er drownded?"
"It looked, Peter, as though he valued you more than me! more than his own son!"
"Yas, suh, yas, suh! sho' he did, sho' he did! old Marse Philip wuz a monstus keerful man, an' _I_ wuz winth somethin', suh, dem times; I wuz wuth five hundred dollahs any day in de yeah. But nobody would n' give five hundred cents fer me now, suh. Dey'd want pay fer takin' me, mos' lakly. Dey ain' none too much room fer a young nigger no mo', let 'lone a' ol' one."
"And what have you been doing all these years, Peter?" asked the colonel.
Peter's story was not a thrilling one; it was no tale of inordinate ambition, no Odyssey of a perilous search for the prizes of life, but the bald recital of a mere struggle for existence. Peter had stayed by his master until his master's death. Then he had worked for a railroad contractor, until exposure and overwork had laid him up with a fever. After his recovery, he had been employed for some years at cutting turpentine boxes in the pine woods, following the trail of the industry southward, until one day his axe had slipped and wounded him severely. When his wound was healed he was told that he was too old and awkward for the turpentine, and that they needed younger and more active men.
"So w'en I got my laig kyo'ed up," said the old man, concluding his story, "I come back hyuh whar I wuz bo'n, suh, and whar my w'ite folks use' ter live, an' whar my frien's use' ter be. But my w'ite folks wuz all in de graveya'd, an' most er my frien's wuz dead er moved away, an' I fin's it kinder lonesome, suh. I goes out an' picks cotton in de fall, an' I does arrants an' little jobs roun' de house fer folks w'at 'll hire me; an' w'en I ain' got nothin' ter eat I kin gor oun' ter de ole house an' wo'k in de gyahden er chop some wood, an' git a meal er vittles f'om ole Mis' Nichols, who's be'n mighty good ter me, suh. She's de barbuh's wife, suh, w'at bought ouah ole house. Dey got mo' dan any yuther colored folks roun' hyuh, but dey he'ps de po', suh, dey he'ps de po'."
"Which speaks well for them, Peter. I'm glad that all the virtue has not yet gone out of the old house."
The old man's talk rambled on, like a sluggish stream, while the colonel's more active mind busied itself with the problem suggested by this unforeseen meeting. Peter and he had both gone out into the world, and they had both returned. He had come back rich and independent. What good had freedom done for Peter? In the colonel's childhood his father's butler, old Madison, had lived a life which, compared to that of Peter at the same age, was one of ease and luxury. How easy the conclusion that the slave's lot had been the more fortunate! But no, Peter had been better free. There were plenty of poor white men, and no one had suggested slavery as an improvement of their condition. Had Peter remained a slave, then the colonel would have remained a master, which was only another form of slavery. The colonel had been emancipated by the same token that had made Peter free. Peter had returned home poor and broken, not because he had been free, but because nature first, and society next, in distributing their gifts, had been niggardly with old Peter. Had he been better equipped, or had a better chance, he might have made a better showing. The colonel had prospered because, having no Peters to work for him, he had been compelled to work for himself. He would set his own success against Peter's failure; and he would take off his hat to the memory of the immortal statesman, who in freeing one race had emancipated another and struck the shackles from a Nation's mind.
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