Copyright
Edward Payson Roe.

Taken Alive online

. (page 21 of 26)
Online LibraryEdward Payson RoeTaken Alive → online text (page 21 of 26)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


chances that in any way belong to them. They have got few enough
anyhow."

"And you think it'll end in my being bowled over?"

"How should I know, or you either, unless you make a square trial?
You're such a strapping, fighting feller that nothing but a cannon-ball
or a woman ever will knock you off your pins."

"See here, Ezra Stokes, the girl of my heart may refuse me just as
plump as I offer myself; and if that's her mind she has a right to do
it. But I don't want either you or her to think I won't stand on my
feet. I won't even fight any more recklessly than my duty requires. I
have a mother to take care of, even if I never have a wife."

"I'll put in a few pegs right along to keep in mind what you say; and
I'll give you a fair show by seeing to it that the girl gets your
letter before Zeke can steal a march on you."

"That's all I ask," said Zeb, with compressed lips. "She shall choose
between us. It's hard enough to write, but it will be a sight easier
than facing her. Not a word of this to another soul, Ezra; but I'm not
going to use you like a mail-carrier, but a friend. After all, there
are few in Opinquake, I suppose, but know I'd give my eyes for her, so
there isn't much use of my putting on secret airs."

"I'm not a talker, and you might have sent your letter by a worse
messenger'n me," was the laconic reply.

Zeb had never written a love-letter, and was at a loss how to begin or
end it. But time pressed, and he had to say what was uppermost in his
mind. It ran as follows:

"I don't know how to write so as to give my words weight. I cannot come
home; I will not come as long as mother and the children can get on
without me. And men are needed here; men are needed. The general fairly
pleads with the soldiers to stay. Stokes would stay if he could. We're
almost driving him home. I know you will be kind to him, and remember
he has few to care for him. I cannot speak for myself in person very
soon, if ever. Perhaps I could not if I stood before you. You laugh at
me; but if you knew how I love you and remember you, how I honor and
almost worship you in my heart, you might understand me better. Why is
it strange I should be afraid of you? Only God has more power over me
than you. Will you be my wife? I will do anything to win you that YOU
can ask. Others will plead with you in person. Will you let this letter
plead for the absent?"

Zeb went to the captain's quarters and got some wax with which to seal
this appeal, then saw Stokes depart with the feeling that his destiny
was now at stake.

Meanwhile Zeke Watkins, with a squad of homeward-bound soldiers, was
trudging toward Opinquake. They soon began to look into one another's
faces in something like dismay. But little provision was in their
wallets when they had started, for there was little to draw upon, and
that furnished grudgingly, as may well be supposed. Zeke had not cared.
He remembered the continuous feasting that had attended his journey to
camp, and supposed that he would only have to present himself to the
roadside farmhouses in order to enjoy the fat of the land. This
hospitality he proposed to repay abundantly by camp reminiscences in
which it would not be difficult to insinuate that the hero of the scene
was present.

In contrast to these rose-hued expectations, doors were slammed in
their faces, and they were treated little better than tramps. "I
suppose the people near Boston have been called on too often and
imposed on, too," Zeke reasoned rather ruefully. "When we once get over
the Connecticut border we'll begin to find ourselves at home;" and
spurred by hunger and cold, as well as hope, they pushed on
desperately, subsisting on such coarse provisions as they could obtain,
sleeping in barns when it stormed, and not infrequently by a fire in
the woods. At last they passed the Connecticut border, and led by Zeke
they urged their way to a large farmhouse, at which, but a few months
before, the table had groaned under rustic dainties, and feather-beds
had luxuriously received the weary recruits bound to the front. They
approached the opulent farm in the dreary dark of the evening, and
pursued by a biting east wind laden with snow. Not only the weather,
but the very dogs seemed to have a spite against them; and the family
had to rush out to call them off.

"Weary soldiers ask for shelter," began Zeke.

"Of course you're bound for the lines," said the matronly housewife.
"Come in."

Zeke thought they would better enter at once before explaining; and
truly the large kitchen, with a great fire blazing on the hearth,
seemed like heaven. The door leading into the family sitting-room was
open, and there was another fire, with the red-cheeked girls and the
white-haired grandsire before it, their eyes turned expectantly toward
the new-comers. Instead of hearty welcome, there was a questioning look
on every face, even on that of the kitchen-maid. Zeke's four companions
had a sort of hang-dog look - for they had been cowed by the treatment
received along the road; but he tried to bear himself confidently, and
began with an insinuating smile, "Perhaps I should hardly expect you to
remember me. I passed this way last summer - -"

"Passed this way last summer?" repeated the matron, her face growing
stern. "We who cannot fight are ready and glad to share all we have
with those who fight for us. Since you carry arms we might very justly
think you are hastening forward to use them."

"These are our own arms; we furnished them ourselves," Zeke hastened to
say.

"Oh, indeed," replied the matron, coldly; "I supposed that not only the
weapons, but the ones who carry them, belonged to the country. I hope
you are not deserting from the army."

"I assure you we are not. Our terms of enlistment have expired."

"And your country's need was over at the same moment? Are you hastening
home at this season to plow and sow and reap?"

"Well, madam, after being away so long we felt like having a little
comfort and seeing the folks. We stayed a long as we agreed. When
spring opens, or before, if need be - -"

"Pardon me, sir; the need is now. The country is not to be saved by men
who make bargains like day-laborers, and who quit when the hour is up,
but by soldiers who give themselves to their country as they would to
their wives and sweethearts. My husband and sons are in the army you
have deserted. General Washington has written to our governor asking
whether an example should not be made of the men who have deserted the
cause of their country at this critical time when the enemy are
receiving re-enforcements. We are told that Connecticut men have
brought disgrace on our colony and have imperilled the whole army. You
feel like taking comfort and seeing the folks. The folks do not feel
like seeing you. My husband and the brave men in the lines are in all
the more danger because of your desertion, for a soldier's time never
expires when the enemy is growing stronger and threatening every home
in the land. If all followed your example, the British would soon be
upon your heels, taking from us our honor and our all. We are not
ignorant of the critical condition of our army; and I can tell you,
sir, that if many more of our men come home, the women will take their
places."

Zeke's companions succumbed to the stern arraignment, and after a brief
whispered consultation one spoke for the rest. "Madam," he said, "you
put it in a way that we hadn't realized before. We'll right-about-face
and march back in the morning, for we feel that we'd rather face all
the British in Boston than any more Connecticut women."

"Then, sirs, you shall have supper and shelter and welcome," was the
prompt reply.

Zeke assumed an air of importance as he said: "There are reasons why I
must be at home for a time, but I not only expect to return, but also
to take many back with me."

"I trust your deeds may prove as large as your words," was the chilly
reply; and then he was made to feel that he was barely tolerated. Some
hints from his old associates added to the disfavor which the family
took but little pains to conceal. There was a large vein of selfish
calculation in Zeke's nature, and he was not to be swept away by any
impulses. He believed he could have a prolonged visit home, yet manage
so admirably that when he returned he would be followed by a squad of
recruits, and chief of all he would be the triumphant suitor of Susie
Rolliffe. Her manner in parting had satisfied him that he had made go
deep an impression that it would be folly not to follow it up. He
trudged the remainder of the journey alone, and secured tolerable
treatment by assuring the people that he was returning for recruits for
the army. He reached home in the afternoon of Christmas; and although
the day was almost completely ignored in the Puritan household, yet
Mrs. Watkins forgot country, Popery, and all, in her mother love, and
Zeke supped on the finest turkey of the flock. Old Mr. Watkins, it is
true, looked rather grim, but the reception had been reassuring in the
main; and Zeke had resolved on a line of tactics which would make him,
as he believed, the military hero of the town. After he had satisfied
an appetite which had been growing ever since he left camp, he started
to call on Susie in all the bravery of his best attire, filled with
sanguine expectations inspired by memories of the past and recent
potations of cider.

Meanwhile Susie had received a guest earlier in the day. The stage had
stopped at the gate where she had stood in the September sunshine and
waved her bewildered farewell to Zeb. There was no bewilderment or
surprise now at her strange and unwonted sensations. She had learned
why she had stood looking after him dazed and spellbound. Under the
magic of her own light irony she had seen her drooping rustic lover
transformed into the ideal man who could face anything except her
unkindness. She had guessed the deep secret of his timidity. It was a
kind of fear of which she had not dreamed, and which touched her
innermost soul.

When the stage stopped at the gate, and she saw the driver helping out
Ezra Stokes, a swift presentiment made her sure that she would hear
from one soldier who was more to her than all the generals. She was
soon down the walk, the wind sporting in her light-gold hair,
supporting the cobbler on the other side.

"Ah, Miss Susie!" he said, "I am about worn out, sole and upper. It
breaks my heart, when men are so sorely needed, to be thrown aside like
an old shoe."

The girl soothed and comforted him, ensconced him by the fireside,
banishing the chill from his heart, while Mrs. Rolliffe warmed his
blood by a strong, hot drink. Then the mother hastened away to get
dinner, while Susie sat down near, nervously twisting and untwisting
her fingers, with questions on her lips which she dared not utter, but
which brought blushes to her cheeks. Stokes looked at her and sighed
over his lost youth, yet smiled as he thought: "Guess I'll get even
with that Zeb Jarvis to-day." Then he asked, "Isn't there any one you
would like to hear about in camp?"

She blushed deeper still, and named every one who had gone from
Opinquake except Zeb. At last she said a little ironically: "I suppose
Ezekiel Watkins is almost thinking about being a general about this
time?"

"Hasn't he been here telling you what he is thinking about?"

"Been here! Do you mean to say he has come home?"

"He surely started for home. All the generals and a yoke of oxen
couldn't 'a' kept him in camp, he was so homesick - lovesick too, I
guess. Powerful compliment to you, Miss Susie," added the politic
cobbler, feeling his way, "that you could draw a man straight from his
duty like one of these 'ere stump-extractors."

"No compliment to me at all!" cried the girl, indignantly. "He little
understands me who seeks my favor by coming home at a time like this.
The Connecticut women are up in arms at the way our men are coming
home. No offence to you, Mr. Stokes. You're sick, and should come; but
I'd like to go myself to show some of the strong young fellows what we
think of them."

"Coming home was worse than rheumatism to me, and I'm going back soon's
I kin walk without a cane. Wouldn't 'a' come as 'tis, if that Zeb
Jarvis hadn't jes' packed me off. By Jocks! I thought you and he was
acquainted, but you don't seem to ask arter him."

"I felt sure he would try - I heard he was doing his duty," she replied
with averted face.

"Zeke Watkins says he's no soldier at all - nothing but a dirt-digger."

For a moment, as the cobbler had hoped, Susie forgot her blushes and
secret in her indignation. "Zeke Watkins indeed!" she exclaimed. "He'd
better not tell ME any such story. I don't believe there's a braver,
truer man in the - Well," she added in sudden confusion, "he hasn't run
away and left others to dig their way into Boston, if that's the best
way of getting there."

"Ah, I'm going to get even with him yet," chuckled Stokes to himself.
"Digging is only the first step, Miss Susie. When Old Put gets good and
ready, you'll hear the thunder of the guns a'most in Opinquake."

"Well, Mr. Stokes," stammered Susie, resolving desperately on a short
cut to the knowledge she craved, "you've seen Mr. Jarvis a-soldiering.
What do you think about it?"

"Well, now, that Zeb Jarvis is the sneakin'ist fellow - -"

"What?" cried the girl, her face aflame.

"Wait till I get in a few more pegs," continued Stokes, coolly. "The
other night he sneaked right into the enemy's lines and carried off a
British officer as a hawk takes a chicken. The Britisher fired his
pistol right under Zeb's nose; but, law! he didn't mind that any more'n
a 'sketer-bite. I call that soldiering, don't you? Anyhow, Old Put
thought it was, and sent for him 'fore daylight, and made a sergeant of
him. If I had as good a chance of gettin' rid of the rheumatiz as he
has of bein' captain in six months, I'd thank the Lord."

Susie sat up very straight, and tried to look severely judicial; but
her lip was quivering and her whole plump little form trembling with
excitement and emotion. Suddenly she dropped her face in her hands and
cried in a gust of tears and laughter: "He's just like grandfather;
he'd face anything!"

"Anything in the 'tarnal universe, I guess, 'cept you, Miss Susie. I
seed a cannon-ball smash a shovel in his hands, and he got another, and
went on with his work cool as a cucumber. Then I seed him writin' a
letter to you, and his hand trembled - -"

"A letter to me!" cried the girl, springing up.

"Yes; 'ere it is. I was kind of pegging around till I got to that; and
you know - -"

But Susie was reading, her hands trembling so she could scarcely hold
the paper. "It's about you," she faltered, making one more desperate
effort at self-preservation. "He says you'd stay if you could; that
they almost drove you home. And he asks that I be kind to you, because
there are not many to care for you - and - and - -"

"Oh, Lord! never can get even with that Zeb Jarvis," groaned Ezra. "But
you needn't tell me that's all the letter's about."

Her eyes were full of tears, yet not so full but that she saw the
plain, closing words in all their significance. Swiftly the letter went
to her lips, then was thrust into her bosom, and she seized the
cobbler's hand, exclaiming: "Yes, I will! I will! You shall stay with
us, and be one of us!" and in her excitement she put her left hand
caressingly on his shoulder.

"SUSAN!" exclaimed Mr. Rolliffe, who entered at that moment, and looked
aghast at the scene.

"Yes, I WILL!" exclaimed Susie, too wrought up now for restraint.

"Will what?" gasped the mother.

"Be Zebulon Jarvis's wife. He's asked me plump and square like a
soldier; and I'll answer as grandma did, and like grandma I'll face
anything for his sake."

"WELL, this IS suddent!" exclaimed Mrs. Rolliffe, dropping into a
chair. "Susan, do you think it is becoming and seemly for a young
woman - -"

"Oh, mother dear, there's no use of your trying to make a prim Puritan
maiden of me. Zeb doesn't fight like a deacon, and I can't love like
one. Ha! ha! ha! to think that great soldier is afraid of little me,
and nothing else! It's too funny and heavenly - -"

"Susan, I am dumfounded at your behavior!"

At this moment Mr. Rolliffe came in from the wood-lot, and he was dazed
by the wonderful news also. In his eagerness to get even with Zeb, the
cobbler enlarged and expatiated till he was hoarse. When he saw that
the parents were almost as proud as the daughter over their prospective
son-in-law, he relapsed into his old taciturnity, declaring he had
talked enough for a month.

Susie, the only child, who apparently had inherited all the fire and
spirit of her fighting ancestors, darted out, and soon returned with
her rosebud of a face enveloped in a great calyx of a woollen hood.

"Where are you going?" exclaimed her parents.

"You've had the news. I guess Mother Jarvis has the next right." And
she was off over the hills with almost the lightness and swiftness of a
snowbird.

In due time Zeke appeared, and smiled encouragingly on Mrs. Rolliffe,
who sat knitting by the kitchen fire. The matron did not rise, and gave
him but a cool salutation. He discussed the coldness of the weather
awkwardly for a few moments, and then ventured: "Is Miss Susan at home?"

"No, sir," replied Mrs. Rolliffe; "she's gone to make a visit to her
mother-in-law that is to be, the Widow Jarvis. Ezra Stokes is sittin'
in the next room, sent home sick. Perhaps you'd like to talk over
camp-life with him."

Not even the cider now sustained Zeke. He looked as if a cannon-ball
had wrecked all his hopes and plans instead of a shovel. "Good-evening,
Mrs. Rolliffe," he stammered; "I guess I'll - I'll - go home."

Poor Mrs. Jarvis had a spiritual conflict that day which she never
forgot. Susie's face had flashed at the window near which she had sat
spinning, and sighing perhaps that Nature had not provided feathers or
fur for a brood like hers; then the girl's arms were about her neck,
the news was stammered out - for the letter could never be shown to any
one - in a way that tore primness to tatters. The widow tried to act as
if it were a dispensation of Providence which should be received in
solemn gratitude; but before she knew it she was laughing and crying,
kissing her sweet-faced daughter, or telling how good and brave Zeb had
been when his heart was almost breaking.

Compunction had already seized upon the widow. "Susan," she began, "I
fear we are not mortifyin' the flesh as we ought - -"

"No mortifying just yet, if you please," cried Susie. "The most
important thing of all is yet to be done. Zeb hasn't heard the news;
just think of it! You must write and tell him that I'll help you spin
the children's clothes and work the farm; that we'll face everything in
Opinquake as long as Old Put needs men. Where is the ink-horn? I'll
sharpen a pen for you and one for me, and SUCH news as he'll get! Wish
I could tell him, though, and see the great fellow tremble once more.
Afraid of me! Ha! ha! ha! that's the funniest thing - Why, Mother
Jarvis, this is Christmas Day!"

"So it is," said the widow, in an awed tone. "Susie, my heart misgives
me that all this should have happened on a day of which Popery has made
so much."

"No, no," cried the girl. "Thank God it IS Christmas! and hereafter I
shall keep Christmas as long as love is love and God is good."






JEFF'S TREASURE


CHAPTER I

ITS DISCOVERY


Jeff, the hero of my tale, was as truly a part of the Southern
Confederacy as the greater Jeff at Richmond. Indeed, were it not for
the humbler Jeff and the class he represented, the other Jeff would
never have attained his eminence.

Jeff's prospects were as dark as himself. He owned nothing, not even
himself, yet his dream of riches is the motive of my tale. Regarded as
a chattel, for whom a bill of sale would have been made as readily as
for a bullock, he proved himself a man and brother by a prompt
exhibition of traits too common to human nature when chance and some
heroism on his part gave into his hands the semblance of a fortune.

Jeff was a native Virginian and belonged to an F.F.V. in a certain
practical, legal sense which thus far had not greatly disturbed his
equanimity. His solid physique and full shining face showed that
slavery had brought no horrors into his experience. He had indulged, it
is true, in vague yearnings for freedom, but these had been checked by
hearing that liberty meant "working for Yankees" - appalling news to an
indolent soul. He was house-servant and man-of-all-work in a family
whose means had always been limited, and whose men were in the
Confederate army. His "missus" evinced a sort of weary content when he
had been scolded or threatened into the completion of his tasks by
nightfall. He then gave her and her daughters some compensation for
their trials with him by producing his fiddle and making the warm
summer evening resonant with a kind of music which the negro only can
evoke. Jeff was an artist, and had a complacent consciousness of the
fact. He was a living instance of the truth that artists are born, not
made. No knowledge of this gifted class had ever suggested kinship; he
did not even know what the word meant, but when his cheek rested
lovingly against his violin he felt that he was made of different clay
from other "niggahs." During the day he indulged in moods by the divine
right and impulse of genius, imitating his gifted brothers
unconsciously. In waiting on the table, washing dishes, and hoeing the
garden, he was as great a laggard as Pegasus would have been if
compelled to the labors of a cart-horse; but when night came, and
uncongenial toil was over, his soul expanded. His corrugated brow
unwrinkled itself; his great black fingers flew back and forth over the
strings as if driven by electricity; and electric in effect were the
sounds produced by his swiftly-glancing bow.

While the spirit of music so filled his heart that he could play to the
moon and silent stars, an audience inspired him with tenfold power,
especially if the floor was cleared or a smooth sward selected for a
dance. Rarely did he play long before all who could trip a measure were
on their feet, while even the superannuated nodded and kept time,
sighing that they were old. His services naturally came into great
demand, and he was catholic in granting them - his mistress in
good-natured tolerance acceding to requests which promised many
forgetful hours at a time when the land was shadowed by war. So it
happened that Jeff was often at the more pretending residences of the
neighborhood, sometimes fiddling in the detached kitchen of a Southern
mansion to the shuffle of heavy feet, again in the lighted parlor,
especially when Confederate troops were quartered near. It was then
that his strains took on their most inspiring and elevated character.
He gave wings to the dark-eyed Southern girls; their feet scarcely
touched the floor as they whirled with their cavaliers in gray, or
threaded the mazes of the cotillon then and there in vogue.

Nor did he disdain an invitation to a crossroads tavern, frequented by
poor whites and enlisted men, or when the nights were warm, to a
moonlit sward, on which he would invite his audience to a reel which
left all breathless. While there was a rollicking element in the
strains of his fiddle which a deacon could not resist, he, with the
intuition of genius, adapted himself to the class before him. In the
parlor, he called off the figures of a quadrille with a
"by-yer-leave-sah" air, selecting, as a rule, the highest class of
music that had blessed his ears, for he was ear-taught only. He would
hold a half-washed dish suspended minutes at a time while listening to
one "ob de young missys at de pianny. Dat's de way I'se pick up my most
scrumptious pieces. Dey cyant play nuffin in de daytime dat I cyant
'prove on in de ebenin';" and his vanity did not lead him much astray.
But when with those of his own color, or with the humbler classes, he
gave them the musical vernacular of the region - rude traditional
quicksteps and songs, strung together with such variations of his own
as made him the envy and despair of all other fiddlers in the vicinity.
Indeed, he could rarely get away from a great house without a sample of
his powers in this direction, and then blending with the rhythmical
cadence of feet, the rustle of garments, would be evoked ripples of
mirth and bursts of laughter that were echoed back from the dim
pine-groves without. Finally, when with his great foot beating time on
the floor and every muscle of his body in motion, he ended with an


1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 21 23 24 25 26

Online LibraryEdward Payson RoeTaken Alive → online text (page 21 of 26)