« AnteriorContinuar »
provement, lay more than a mile beyond. All this land, from the rock down to an abrupt corner, marked by the meeting of three roads, and crossed by a bridge, underneath which ran a small creek, was the possession of Esquire Brown, one of the old settlers, and a great man in Crofton. He had decided the railroad should just skirt the town, and it did. His vote always confirmed school-teacher and clergyman. He made himself useful in various ways, influential in many more. There had once been some talk of sending him to the legislature of his native State, but to his honor, be it said, he nipped the project in the bud.
Claudia passed the bridge, turned into a short lane, and first of all came to a large sycamore tree. It had such a sturdy, protecting look, standing there in front of that old gray-stone house! Yet I think she valued it most because it was one of the first things she had learned to know and love. She remembered her father sitting under this tree in his silken dressinggown, smoking his Turkish pipe.
The house itself was low, the upper only a half-story, and finished by a peaked roof. It was old, as I have said, mossgrown, crumbling, going down in a fragmentary manner. The walls were thick, the windows small, deeply set, but low, like those of more modern days. The door was wide, with a half circle or fan-light above, and this surmounted by a block of marble whereon had been carved a Latin inscription, for the first Standish was a scholar.
At the entrance was a large, flat stone, with one step below it. A few late flowers were in blossom on either side, and at the edge of the fence a row of tall sunflowers, mostly in seed, their faded yellow leaves drooping disconsolately. Claudia paused with her hand on the door, and fell into musing. The autumn sights and sounds were dreary in spite of their richness. Or do we only think so because we know them to be the precursors of winter?
I do not know how long she might have lingered, but a
woman with a milking pail turned the corner of the house, and ascended the step.
Claudia pushed the door open for her, asking,
“Has Rose come in yet, Barbara ?”
“ No;" and Barbara went through the hall, entering a room at its extreme end by a short flight of steps — the milk-room, or in common parlance,“ buttery.”
“Leave the door wide open,” she called to Claudia.
The girl obeyed her behest. The hall was of considerable width, and had two doors on the right, opening into different apartments. She turned to the first, slightly ajar it was, and crossed the threshold. The large room already lay in dun, twilight gloom. There was no carpet on the floor, though by day you might still discover traces of paint. The angle made by the front corner toward the hall was filled with a high cupboard, mahogany, turned almost black with age. There was an odd, old-fashioned secretary, whose drawers now held the kitchen linen and Barbara's aprons, while on the shelves, at the top, were ranged the “ best dishes,” — wonderful china, clear as crystal, and hardly thicker than a wafer. A table and some high-backed chairs completed the furniture. The walls were wainscoted, but smoked to a dark color, whatever they might have been originally. The fireplace was very wide, and rejoiced in shining brass andirons; the mantelpiece was very high, and crowned with tall brass candlesticks, while snuffers and tray, of the same material, occupied the centre.
Claudia laid aside her hat and shawl, and drawing a low rocking-chair up to the hearth, she gave the fire a vigorous stirring, that sent showers of sparks up the chimney. Then she laid on a pine log, and in a few moments the room was illuminated with a glow almost as brilliant as that she had watched from her perch on the rock. Here is where I wish you to have the first view of my heroine.
She was somewhat above the average height, but her figure had developed accordingly: not stout, but round, compact, with
no angularities, the shoulders and bust rather full, the waist sufficiently slender. The foot that stretched out to sun itself in the fire-light was finely shaped, with a high arch at the instep. The hands crossed idly in her lap were akin to them, not small or dainty, but with tapering fingers, and clear, rosy nails. They gave you an idea of great nervous strength, and were eminently characteristic of her. She seldom shook hands with any one. It was a curious idiosyncrasy of hers : indeed, she was as wonderfully sensitive to touch as a blind person.
The face was strong, rather than beautiful. Truth to tell, it was not beautiful at all, so far as type and coloring go. With health the most perfect, and endurance that shrank from nothing, she was habitually pale, or rather she had one of those complexions in which a kind of clear white predominates. But her lips were a brilliant scarlet, moderately full, with dimples at the corners. The mouth itself looked tender, yielding ; the manner in which she shut it, and the lines about it bespoke almost invincible determination. This was heightened by the broad chin, and a straight, haughty nose.
Her forehead was much too high for classical perfection; but there was something so proudly pure and lofty in its marble whiteness that you forgave its approach to masculinity. For the eyebrows were delicately arched, the eyes deep and wistful, at least they were in this softened fire glow. But when the pupil contracted, a sudden strength flashed into them. One would not care to be questioned or judged by those eyes, unless the truth could be told. Insincerity or evasion must cower and shrink beneath such a glance.
What would impress a physiognomist first, was the vigor and self-reliance expressed by the countenance.
There was not a weak or clinging line in it. Love, the great want of life, had not softened it to that pathetic entreaty making some faces so tender. You felt instinctively that she would be sufficient for herself in any emergency. No event would ever surprise her barren of resources.
She seemed unco
consciously to challenge
every soul, to weigh it, to make evident its trivialities and weaknesses, while her own remained intact.
Yet do not fancy she was hypercritical. Her nature, fortunately, was not morbid. Had it been, she would have stung herself in the evil hours of life. Her soul was genial, hearty, rich in truth. All wavering and insincere shadows fell off from her, not able to endure the atmosphere of light in which she continually dwelt.
I do not think she spontaneously loved anything weaker than herself. She was rather impatient with mental and moral inferiority while forming her own ideals, yet generous to all brought under her notice, whether suffering from sin or sorrow. There was nothing narrow or grudging about her. As the face was harmonized by expression rather than construction, so the vigorous soul, that in another sphere would have flashed conventionality out of its orbit with one sweep, brought varied and discordant elements of character into unison, although still far from making a symmetrical whole. The old gods sprang at once into perfect existence; we of a later day are but toilers, too often worn and weary.
She thawed out a little in this luminous firelight. A faint sunset glow warmed her cheek; her mouth relaxed. She never wore gray, nondescript dresses. The one she had on now was a sort of glowing wine color, and she had a cluster of white “life everlasting” fastened in the luxuriant braids of her purple black hair. The hues of the brilliant blaze, the long, forked tonguess that constantly devoured each other, and as constantly leaped into new, exultant life, held her attention, until a shuffling step in the hall, and a knock at the door with the butt of a riding whip, started her.
“Come in,” she said, while her face lost its bright glow and fell into the old reticent calmness.
"Evenin', Miss Claudy!”
“O, Squire Brown !” She sprang up in a little amaze, but placing a chair, asked him to be seated.
“ 'Hain't got but a minnit, though I s'pose it's as cheap settin' as standin'."
Squire Brown economized in both words and letters, to the great detriment of the queen's English.
“You farmers are doubtless making the most of this lovely weather,” Claudia said, for want of a better remark.
“Yes, b-e-w-tiful weather! Late corn is amazin' fine. And such crops of Russhy turnips! Cattle ought'er fat up this winter, I tell you !”
A silence ensued. Claudia was wondering what had sent Squire Brown in, and where she should make her next venture.
"S'pose you never thought of sellin' this old house, Miss Claudy?” was his sudden inquiry.
“ Selling this house!” The words were repeated in an uncertain, amazed tone.
The Squire gave a chuckle, and thumped the handle of his whip upon the floor.
“Knew 'twould take you by surprise, Miss Claudy." “ It has, certainly. Who wishes to buy it ? ”
“Well,” said the Squire, with drawling emphasis, “Billy and me have been talkin' it over.”
“ But what can you want with this old house?”
"“ 'Zactly. We don't want the house. But the matter's jest here. You know I own all down to the crick, and afore Billy was married he bought the Dawson place.”
Claudia assented with a gesture.
“ And that takes in all between the two roads.'cept this little square. Now d'ye see?”
· Yes," was the slow reply. 6. This old house and plot of ground has become a Naboth's vineyard."
" A what?”
As a deacon of the church, and defender of the faith according to Calvin, his range of biblical lore might have been wider. Yet a moment after, Claudia's generous nature asserted itself.