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VIII ANOTHER CURTAINED WAGON

Upon whatever fundamental scheme we perseveringly concentrate our powers, upon whatever main road of occupation we take life's journey,--art, politics, commerce, science,--if only we will take its upper fork as often as the road divides, then will that road itself, and not necessarily any cross-road, lead us to the noblest, truest plane of convictions, affections, aspirations. Such a frame of mind may be quite without religiosity, as unconscious as health; but the proof of its religious reality will be that, as if it were a lighthouse light and we its keeper, everybody else, or at any rate everybody out on the deep, will see it plainer than we. Such is the gist of what this young man was saying to me, when our speculations were brought to an end by our overtaking a man well mounted, and a woman whose rough-gaited was followed by a colt.

The pair took our pace, the man plying me with questions, and his wife, in front, telling Lieutenant Durand all the rumors of the day. Her scant hair was of a scorched red tone, she was freckled down into her collar, her elbows waggled to the mare's jog, and her voice was as flat as a duck's. Her nag had trouble to keep up, and her tiny faded bonnet had even more to keep on. Yet the day was near when the touch of those freckled hands was to seem to me kinder than the breath of flowers, as they bathed my foul-smelling wounds, and she would say, in the words of the old song, "Let me kiss him for his mother," and I should be helpless to prevent her. By and by the man raised his voice:--

"Why, yo' name is Smith, to be sho'! I thought you was jest a-tryin' to chaw me. Why, Major Harper alludened to you not mo'n a half-ow ago. Why, Miz Wall! oh, Miz Wall!"

But the wife was absorbed. "Yayse, seh," she was saying to the lieutenant, "and he told us about they comin' in on the freight-kyahs f'om Hazlehurst black with dust and sut and a-smuttyin' him all oveh with they kisses and goin's-on. He tol' me he ain't neveh so enjoyed havin' his face dirty sence he was a boy. He would a-been plumb happy, ef on'y he could a-got his haynds on that clerk o' his'n. And when he tol' us what a gay two-hoss turn-out he'd sekyo'ed for the ladies to travel in, s' I, Majo', that's all right! You jest go on whicheveh way you got to go! Husband and me, we'll ride into Brookhaven and bring 'em out to ow place and jest take ca'e of 'em untel yo' clerk is found."

"Miz Wall!" cried the husband--"She's busy talkin'.--Miz Wall!--she don't hyuh me. I hate to interrupt heh.--Oh, Miz Wall! hyuh's Majo' Harper's clerk, right now!"

"Law, you hain't!" cried Mrs. Wall, smiling back as she jounced. "If you air, the Majo's sisteh's got written awdehs fo' you."

I shot forward, but had hardly more than sent back my good-bye when around a bend of the road, in a wagon larger than Charlotte Oliver's, with the curtains rolled up, came the four Miss Harpers, unsooted and radiant. The aunt drove. We turned, all four, and rode with them, and while the seven chatted gaily I read to myself the Major's note. It bade me take these four ladies into my most jealous care and conduct them to a point about thirty miles west of where we then were. A dandy's task in a soldier's hour! I ground my teeth, but as I lifted my glance I found Camille's eyes resting on me and read anxiety in them before she could put on a smile of unemotional friendliness that faded rapidly into abstraction. She was as pretty as the bough of wild azaleas in her hand, yet moving forward I told her aunt the order's purport and that it implied the greatest despatch compatible with mortal endurance. The whole four seemed only delighted.

But Mrs. Wall protested. No, no, her hospitality first, and a basket of refreshments to be stowed in the vehicle, besides. "Why, that'll sa-ave ti-ime. You-all goin' to be supprised to find how hungry y'all ah, befo' you come to yo' journey's en', to-night, and them col' victuals goin' taste pow'ful fi-ine!"

Our acceptance was unanimous. I even decided not to inform Lieutenant Durand until after the repast, that ladies under my escort did not pick acquaintanceship with soldiers on the public highway. But before the brief meal was over I was wishing him hanged. Hang the heaven-high theories that had so lately put me in love with him! Hang his melodious voice, his modest composure, his gold-barred collar, his easy command of topics! Hang the women! they feasted on his every word and look! Ah, ladies! if I were mean enough to tell it--that man doesn't believe in hell! He has a down-dragging hunger for every base indulgence; he has told me so!

How fast acquaintance grew! When he addressed himself to Cécile, the cousin of the other two, her black eyes leapt with delight; for as calmly as if that were the only way, he spoke to her in French--asked her a question. She gave answer in happiest affirmation, and explained to her aunt that her Durand schoolmates of a year or two back were cousins to the Lieutenant. When the throng came out to the carry-all I was there and mounted. Squire Wall took me a few rods to point out where a fork of his private road led into the highway. Then the carry-all came merrily after, and with a regret that surprised me I answered our Lieutenant's farewell wave, forgave him all his charms, and saw him face westward and disappear by a bridle-path.



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