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Elsie's Womanhood (Chapter5)

2006-09-07 20:23

  Chapter Fifth.

  “Joy never feasts so high As when the first course is of misery.”——SUCKLING.

  Adelaide's marriage was fixed for Christmas eve, and Mr. Dinsmore and Elsie decided to take their trip to Louisiana at once, that they might be able to return in season for the wedding, at which Elsie was to be first bridesmaid.

  It was Elsie herself who broke the news of her intended journey to her faithful old nurse, explaining why she felt it her duty to go, and kindly leaving to Chloe's own decision whether she would accompany her or not.

  The dusky face grew very sad for a moment, tears springing to the dark eyes; but the voice was almost cheerful as she answered, “Yes, you's right, honey darlin' you's all right to go and see 'bout dem poor souls and let 'em see dere beau'ful young missus; and your ole mammy 'll go 'long too, for she neber could stay and let her chile run all dem risks on de boats an' cars an' she no dar to take care ob her.”

  “That's right, my own dear old mammy. I shall be glad to have you along, and hope you will find it pleasanter than you expect; but we must trust the Lord to take care of us all; for He only can prevent the accidents you fear.”

  “Yes, yes, honey, dat's de truff; an' we'll trust Him an' not be 'fraid, 'cause don't He say, 'Not a hair ob your head shall perish.'”

  “'What time I am afraid I will trust in Thee,'” murmured Elsie, softly. “Ah, the joy, the peace, of knowing that His presence and His love will ever go with us everywhere; and that He has all power in heaven and in earth.”

  A week later, Mr. Dinsmore was showing his daughter the beauties of New Orleans, where they had arrived without accident or loss. They remained in the city long enough to attend thoroughly to the business which had called them there, and to see everything worth looking at.

  Elsie's plantation was in the Teche country, the very loveliest part of grand old Louisiana. In order that suitable preparations might be made for their reception, word had been sent that they might be expected on a certain day.

  “We have allowed more time than necessary for this place,” said Mr. Dinsmore to his daughter one evening on returning to their hotel, after seeing the last of the lions of the Crescent City; “we have two days to spare; what shall be done in them?”

  “Let us go on to Viamede at once then, papa,” replied Elsie, promptly. “I have been regretting that we sent notice of our coming. I doubt if it would not have been wiser to take them by surprise.”

  “There would not be the same preparations for your comfort,” replied her father, taking a seat by her on the sofa, for they were in their own private parlor; “you may find unaired bed-linen and an empty larder, which, beside inconveniencing yourself, would sorely mortify and trouble Aunt Phillis and her right-hand woman, Sarah, the cook.”

  “I should be sorry you should have an inhospitable reception, papa, but fires are soon kindled and linen aired, and is not the pantry kept supplied with canned and preserved fruits? and are there not fresh fruits, vegetables, chickens, and eggs at hand for immediate use?”

  “Yes, certainly; and we are not likely to suffer. We Will, then, leave here to-morrow, if you wish, taking the steamer for Berwick Bay. But why prefer to come upon them unexpectedly?”

  Elsie smiled, and blushed slightly. “You know I never have any concealments from you, papa, and I will be frank about this,” she said. “I don't think I apt to be suspicious, and yet the thought has come to me several times within the last few days, that the overseer has had every opportunity to abuse my poor people if he happens to be of a cruel disposition. And if he is ill-treating them I should like to catch him at it,” she added, her eyes kindling, and the color deepening on her cheek.

  “And what would you do in that case?” her lather asked, with a slight smile, drawing her close to him and touching his lips to the blooming cheek.

  “Dismiss him, I suppose, papa; I don't know what else I could do to punish him or prevent further cruelties. I should not like to shoot him down,” she added, laughingly; “and I doubt if I should have strength to flog him.”

  “Doubt?” laughed her father, “certainly you could not, single-handed; unless his politeness should lead him to refrain from any effort to defend himself; and I, it would seem, am not expected to have anything to do with the matter.”

  A deeper blush than before now suffused Elsie's fair cheek. “Forgive me, dear papa,” she said, laying her head on his shoulder, and fondly stroking his face with her pretty white hand. “Please consider yourself master there as truly as at the Oaks, and as you have been for years; and understand that your daughter means to take no important step without your entire approval.”

  “No, I do not go there as master, but as your guest,” he answered, half playfully, half tenderly.

  “My guest? That seems pleasant indeed, papa; and yet I want you to be master too. But you will at least advise me?”

  “To the best of my ability, my little girl.”

  “Thank you, my dear kind father. I have another reason for wishing to start to-morrow. I'm growing anxious and impatient to see my birthplace again: and,” she added low and tenderly, “mamma's grave.”

  “Yes, we will visit it together for the first time; though I have stood there alone again and again, and her baby daughter used to be taken there frequently to scatter flowers over it and play beside it. Do you remember that?”

  “Yes, sir, as an almost forgotten dream, as I do the house and grounds and some of the old servants who petted and humored me.”

  While father and daughter conversed thus together in the parlor, a dusky figure sat at a window in the adjoining bedroom, gazing out upon the moonlighted streets and watching the passers-by. But her thoughts, too, were straying to Viamede; fast-coming memories of earlier days, some all bright and joyous, others filled with the gloom and thick darkness of a terrible anguish, made her by turns long for and dread the arrival at her journey's end.

  A light touch on her shoulder, and she turned to find her young mistress at her side.

  “My poor old mammy, I bring you news you will be sorry to hear,” said Elsie, seating herself upon the ample lap, and laying her arm across the broad shoulders.

  “What dat, honey?”

  “We start to-morrow for Viamede; papa has sent John to engage our passage on the steamer.”

  “Dat all, darlin'?” queried Chloe, with a sigh of relief, “if we's got to go, might's well go quick an' hab it ober.”

  “Well, I'm glad you take so sensible a view of it,” remarked Elsie, relieved in her turn; “and I hope you will find much less pain and more pleasure than you expect in going back to the old home.”

  The next morning, as Mr. Dinsmore and his daughter sat upon the deck of the steamer, enjoying the sunlight, the breeze, and the dancing of the water, having cleared their port and gotten fairly out into the gulf, a startling incident occurred.

  Chloe stood at a respectful distance, leaning over the side of the vessel, watching the play of the wheel and the rainbow in the spray that fell in showers at its every revolution. An old negro busied about the deck; drew near and addressed her:

  “Well, auntie, you watchin' dat ole wheel dar? Fust time you trable on dis boat, eh?”

  Chloe started at the sound of the voice, turned suddenly round and faced the speaker, her features working with emotion: one moment of earnest scrutiny on the part of both, and with a wild cry, “Aunt Chloe! my ole woman,” “Uncle Joe! it can't be you,” they rushed into each other's arms, and hung about each other's neck, weeping and sobbing like two children.

  “Papa! what is it?” exclaimed Elsie, greatly surprised at the little scene.

  “Her husband, no doubt: he's too old to be a son.”

  “Oh, how glad, how glad I am!” and Elsie started to her feet, her eyes full of tears, and her sweet face sparkling all over with sympathetic joy. “Papa, I shall buy him! they must never be parted again till death comes between.”

  A little crowd had already gathered about the excited couple, every one on deck hurrying to the spot, eager to learn the cause of the tumult of joy and grief into which the two seemed to have been so suddenly thrown.

  Mr. Dinsmore rose, and giving his arm to Elsie, led her towards the throng, saying in answer to her last remark, “Better act through me, then, daughter, or you will probably be asked two or three prices.”

  “O papa, yes; please attend to it for me——only——only I must have him, for dear old mammy's sake, at whatever cost.”

  The crowd opened to the lady and gentleman as they drew near.

  “My poor old mammy, what is it? whom have you found?” asked Elsie.

  But Chloe was speechless with a joy so deep that it wore the aspect of an almost heart-breaking sorrow. She could only cling with choking sobs to her husband's arm. “What's all this fuss, Uncle Joe?” queried the captain. “Let go the old darkie; what's she to you?”

  “My wife, sah, dat I ain't seed for twenty years, sah,” replied the old man, trying to steady his trembling tones, obeying the order, but making no effort to shake off Chloe's clinging hold.

  “Leave him for a little now, mammy dear; you shall never be parted again,” whispered Elsie in her nurse's ear. “Come with me, and let papa talk to the captain.”

  Chloe obeyed, silently following her young mistress to the other side of the deck, but ever and anon turning her head to look back with wet eyes at the old wrinkled black face and white beard that to her were so dear, so charming. His eyes were following her with a look of longing, yearning affection, and involuntarily he stretched out his arms towards her.

  “Off to your work, sir,” ordered the captain, “and let's have no more of this nonsense.”

  Old Joe moved away with a patient sigh.

  “The woman is your property, I presume, sir?” the captain remarked in a respectful tone, addressing Mr. Dinsmore.

  “Yes, my daughter's, which amounts to the same thing,” that gentleman replied in a tone of indifference; then changing the subject, made some inquiries about the speed and safety of the boat, the length of her trips, etc.

  The captain answered pleasantly, showing pride in his vessel. Then they spoke of other things: the country, the crops, the weather.

  “Sit down, mammy,” said Elsie pityingly, as they reached the settee where she and her father had been sitting; “you are trembling so you can scarcely stand.”

  “O darlin', dat's true 'nuff, I'se mos' ready to drop,” she said tremulously, coming down heavily upon a trunk that stood close at hand. “Oh, de good Lord hab bring me face to face wid my ole Uncle Joe; oh, I neber 'spected to see him no more in dis wicked world. But dey'll take 'im off again an' dis ole heart'll break,” she added, with a bursting sob.

  “No, no, mammy, you shall have him, if money can accomplish it.”

  “You buy 'im, darlin'? Oh, your ole mammy can neber t'ank you 'nuff!” and a low, happy laugh mingled with the choking sobs. “But dey'll ask heaps ob money.”

  “You shall have him, let the price be what it will,” was Elsie's assurance. “See papa is bargaining with the captain now, for they look at Uncle Joe as they talk.”

  Chloe regarded them with eager interest; yes, they were looking at Uncle Joe, and evidently speaking of him.

  “By the way,” Mr. Dinsmore remarked carelessly, “does Uncle Joe belong to you? or is he merely a hired hand?”

  “He's my property, sir.”

  “Would you like to sell?”

  “I am not anxious; he's a good hand, faithful and honest: quite a religious character in fact,” he concluded with a sneer; “overshoots the mark in prayin and psalm-singing. But do you want to buy?”

  “Well yes; my daughter is fond of her old mammy, and for her sake would be willing to give a reasonable sum. What do you ask?”

  “Make me an offer.”

  “Five hundred dollars.”

  “Five hundred? ridiculous! he's worth twice that.”

  “I think not, he is old——not far from seventy and will soon be past work and only a burden and expense. My offer is a good one.”

  “Make it seven hundred and I'll take it.”

  Mr. Dinsmore considered a moment. “That is too high,” he said at length, “but for the sake of making two poor creatures happy, I will give it.”

  “Cash down?”

  “Yes, a check on a New Orleans bank.”

  “Please walk down into the cabin then, sir, and we'll conclude the business at once.”

  In a few moments Mr. Dinsmore returned to his daughter's side, and placing the receipted bill of sale in her hands, asked, “Have I given too much?”

  “Oh, no, papa, no indeed! I should have given a thousand without a moment's hesitation, if asked it——five, ten thousand, if need be, rather than have them parted again,” she exclaimed, the bright tears shining in her eyes. “Mammy, my poor old mammy, Uncle Joe belongs to me now, and you can have him always with you as long as the Lord spares your lives.”

  “Now bress de Lord!” cried the old woman devoutly, raising her streaming eyes and clasped hands to heaven; “de good Lord dat hears de prayers ob His chilen's cryin' to Him when dere hearts is oberwhelmed!”

  “Go break the news to Uncle Joe, mammy,” said Elsie; “see, yonder he stands looking so eager and wistful.”

  Chloe hurried to his side, spoke a few rapid words; there was another long, clinging, tearful embrace, and they hastened to their master and mistress to pour out their thanks and blessings upon them, mingled with praises and fervent thanksgivings to the Giver of all good.

  The joy and gratitude of the poor old couple were very sweet, very delightful to Elsie, and scarcely less so to her father.

  “Mammy dear, I never saw you wear so happy a face,” Elsie said, as Chloe returned to her after an hour or two spent in close conversation with her newly recovered spouse.

  “Ah, honey, your ole mammy tinks she neber so glad in all her life!” cried the poor old creature, clasping her hands together in an ecstasy of joy and gratitude while the big tears shone in her eyes. “I'se got ole Uncle Joe back agin, an' he not de same, he bettah man, Christian man. He say, 'Aunt Chloe we uns trabble de same road now, honey: young Joe proud, angry, swearing drinkin' boy, your Ole Joe he lub de Lord an' try to sarve Him wid all he might. And de Lord good Massa. De debbil berry bad one.'”

  “Dear mammy, I am very glad for you; I think nothing else could have made you so happy.”

  Chloe, weeping again for joy, went on to tell her young mistress that Uncle Joe had discovered a grandchild in New Orleans, Dinah by name, waiting-maid in a wealthy family.

  “But how is that, mammy? Papa and I thought all your children died young.”

  “No, darlin', when Massa Grayson buy me in New Orleans, an' de odder gentleman buy Uncle Joe, we hab little girl four years ole, an' de ole missus keep her,” sobbed Chloe, living over again the agony of the parting, “an' Dinah her chile.”

  “Mammy, if money will buy her, you shall have her, too,” said Elsie earnestly.

  The remainder of the short voyage was a happy time to the whole of our little party, Chloe, with her restored husband by her side, now looking forward to the visit to Viamede with almost unmingled pleasure.

  As they passed up the bay, entered Teche Bayou and pressed on, threading their way through lake and lakelet, past plain and forest, plantation and swamp, Elsie exclaimed again and again at the beauty of the scenery. Cool shady dells carpeted with the rich growth of flowers, miles upon miles of lawns as smoothly shaven, as velvety green and as nobly shaded by magnificent oaks and magnolias, as any king's demesne; lordly villas peering through groves of orange trees, tall white, sugar-houses and the long rows of cabins of the laborers; united to form a panorama of surpassing loveliness.

  “Is Viamede as lovely as that, papa?” Elsie would ask, as they steamed past one fine residence after another.

  “Quite,” he would reply with a smile, at length adding, “There is not a more beautiful or valuable estate in the country; as you may judge for yourself, for this is it.”

  “This, papa? Oh it is lovely, lovely! and everything in such perfect order,” she cried delightedly as they swept on past a large sugar-house and an immense orange orchard, whose golden fruit and glossy leaves shone brightly in the slanting rays of the nearly setting sun, to a lawn as large, as thickly carpeted with smoothly shaven grass and many-hued flowers, and as finely shaded with giant oaks, graceful magnolias, and groves of orange trees, as any they had passed. The house——a grand old mansion with spacious rooms, wide cool halls and corridors——was now in full view, now half concealed by the trees and shrubbery.

  The boat rounded to at a little pier opposite the dwelling, and in another moment our friends had landed, and leaving the servants to attend to the baggage were walking on towards the house.

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