The Mistress of Sydenham Plantation

The story of an elderly Southern aristocrat, oblivious to what the war has cost her

A high wind was blowing from the water into the Beaufort streets, -- a wind with as much reckless hilarity as March could give to her breezes, but soft and spring-like, almost early-summer-like, in its warmth.

In the gardens of the old Southern houses that stood along the bay, roses and petisporum-trees were blooming, with their delicious fragrance. It was the time of wistarias and wild white lilies, of the last yellow jasmines and the first Cherokee roses. It was the Saturday before Easter Sunday.

In the quaint churchyard of old St. Helena's Church, a little way from the bay, young figures were busy among the graves with industrious gardening. At first sight, one might have thought that this pretty service was rendered only from loving sentiments of loyalty to one's ancestors, for under the great live-oaks, the sturdy brick walls about the family burying-places and the gravestones themselves were moss-grown and ancient-looking; yet here and there the wounded look of the earth appealed to the eye, and betrayed a new-made grave. The old sarcophagi and heavy tablets of the historic Beaufort families stood side by side with plain wooden crosses. The armorial bearings and long epitaphs of the one and the brief lettering of the other suggested the changes that had come with the war to these families, yet somehow the wooden cross touched one's heart with closer sympathy. The padlocked gates to the small inclosures stood open, while gentle girls passed in and out with their Easter flowers of remembrance. On the high churchyard wall and great gate-posts perched many a mocking-bird, and the golden light changed the twilight under the live-oaks to a misty warmth of color. The birds began to sing louder; the gray moss that hung from the heavy boughs swayed less and less, and gave the place a look of pensive silence.

In the church itself, most of the palms and rose branches were already in place for the next day's feast, and the old organ followed a fresh young voice that was being trained for the Easter anthem. The five doors of the church were standing open. On the steps of that eastern door which opened midway up the side aisle, where the morning sun had shone in upon the white faces of a hospital in war-time, -- in this eastern doorway sat two young women.

"I was just thinking," one was saying to the other, "that for the first time Mistress Sydenham has forgotten to keep this day. You know that when she has forgotten everything and everybody else, she has known when Easter came, and has brought flowers to her graves."

"Has she been more feeble lately, do you think?" asked the younger of the two. "Mamma saw her the other day, and thought that she seemed more like herself; but she looked very old, too. She told mamma to bring her dolls, and she would give her some bits of silk to make them gowns. Poor mamma! and she had just been wondering how she could manage to get us ready for summer, this year, -- Célestine and me," and the speaker smiled wistfully.

"It is a mercy that the dear old lady did forget all that happened;" and the friends brushed some last bits of leaves from their skirts, and rose and walked away together through the churchyard.

The ancient church waited through another Easter Even, with its flowers and long memory of prayer and praise. The great earthquake had touched it lightly, time had colored it softly, and the earthly bodies of its children were gathered near its walls in peaceful sleep.

From one of the high houses which stood fronting the sea, with their airy balconies and colonnades, had come a small, slender figure, like some shy, dark thing of twilight out into the bright sunshine. The street was empty, for the most part; before one or two of the cheap German shops a group of men watched the little old lady step proudly by. She was a very stately gentlewoman, for one so small and thin; she was feeble, too, and bending somewhat with the weight of years, but there was true elegance and dignity in the way she moved, and those who saw her -- persons who shuffled when they walked, and boasted loudly of the fallen pride of the South -- were struck with sudden deference and admiration. Behind the lady walked a gray-headed negro, a man who was troubled in spirit, who sometimes gained a step or two, and offered an anxious but quite unheeded remonstrance. He was a poor, tottering old fellow; he wore a threadbare evening coat that might have belonged to his late master thirty years before.

The pair went slowly along the bay street to the end of a row of new shops, and the lady turned decidedly toward the water, and approached the ferry-steps. Her servitor groaned aloud, but waited in respectful helplessness. There was a group of negro children on the steps, employed in the dangerous business of crab-fishing; at the foot, in his flat-bottomed boat, sat a wondering negro lad, who looked up in apprehension at his passengers. The lady seemed like a ghost. Old Peter, -- with whose scorn of modern beings and their ways he was partially familiar, -- old Peter was making frantic signs to him to put out from shore. But the lady's calm desire for obedience prevailed, and presently, out of the knot of idlers that gathered quickly, one, more chivalrous than the rest, helped the strange adventurers down into the boat. It was the fashion to laugh and joke, in Beaufort, when anything unusual was happening before the eyes of the younger part of the colored population; but as the ferryman pushed off from shore, even the crab-fishers kept awe-struck silence, and there were speechless, open mouths and much questioning of eyes that showed their whites in vain. Somehow or other, before the boat was out of hail, long before it had passed the first bank of raccoon oysters, the tide being at the ebb, it was known by fifty people that for the first time in more than twenty years the mistress of the old Sydenham plantation on St. Helena's Island had taken it into her poor daft head to go look after her estates, her crops, and her people. Everybody knew that her estates had been confiscated during the war; that her people owned it themselves now, in three and five and even twenty acre lots; that her crops of rice and Sea Island cotton were theirs, planted and hoed and harvested on their own account. All these years she had forgotten Sydenham, and the live-oak avenue, and the outlook across the water to the Hunting Islands, where the deer ran wild; she had forgotten the war; she had forgotten her children and her husband, except that they had gone away, -- the graves to which she carried Easter flowers were her mother's and her father's graves, -- and her life was spent in a strange dream.

Old Peter sat facing her in the boat; the ferryman pulled lustily at his oars, and they moved quickly along in the ebbing tide. The ferryman longed to get his freight safely across; he was in a fret of discomfort whenever he looked at the clear-cut, eager face before him in the stern. How still and straight the old mistress sat! Where was she going? He was awed by her presence, and took refuge, as he rowed, in needless talk about the coming of the sandflies and the great drum-fish to Beaufort waters. But Peter had clasped his hands together and bowed his old back, as if he did not dare to look anywhere but at the bottom of the boat. Peter was still groaning softly; the old lady was looking back over the water to the row of fine houses, the once luxurious summer homes of Rhetts and Barnwells, of many a famous household now scattered and impoverished. The ferryman had heard of more than one bereft lady or gentleman who lived in seclusion in the old houses. He knew that Peter still served a mysterious mistress with exact devotion, while most of the elderly colored men and women who had formed the retinues of the old families were following their own affairs, far and wide.

"Oh, Lord, ole mis'! what kin I go to do?" mumbled Peter, with his head in his hands. "Thar'll be nothin' to see. Po' ole mis', I do' kno' what you say. Trouble, trouble!"

But the mistress of Sydenham plantation had a way of speaking but seldom, and of rarely listening to what any one was pleased to say in return. Out of the mistiness of her clouded brain a thought had come with unwonted clearness. She must go to the island: her husband and sons were detained at a distance; it was the time of year to look after corn and cotton; she must attend to her house and her slaves. The remembrance of that news of battle and of the three deaths that had left her widowed and childless had faded away in the illness it had brought. She never comprehended her loss; she was like one bewitched into indifference; she remembered something of her youth, and kept a simple routine of daily life, and that was all.

"I t'ought she done fo'git ebryt'ing," groaned Peter again. "O Lord, hab mercy on ole mis'!"

The landing-place on Ladies' Island was steep and sandy, and the oarsmen watched Peter help the strange passenger up the ascent with a sense of blessed relief. He pushed off a little way into the stream, for better self-defense. At the top of the bluff was a rough shed, built for shelter, and Peter looked about him eagerly, while his mistress stood, expectant and imperious, in the shade of a pride of India tree, that grew among the live-oaks and pines of a wild thicket. He was wretched with a sense of her discomfort, though she gave no sign of it. He had learned to know by instinct all that was unspoken. In the old times she would have found four oarsmen waiting with a cushioned boat at the ferry; she would have found a saddle-horse or a carriage ready for her on Ladies' Island for the five miles' journey, but the carriage had not come. The poor gray-headed old man recognized her displeasure. He was her only slave left, if she did but know it.

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