The Mistress of Sydenham Plantation

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

"Fo' Gord's sake, git me some kin' of a cart. Ole mis', she done wake up and mean to go out to Syd'n'am dis day," urged Peter. "Who dis hoss an' kyart in de shed? Who make dese track wid huffs jus' now, like dey done ride by? Yo' go git somebody fo' me, or she be right mad, shore."

The elderly guardian of the shed, who was also of the old régime, hobbled away quickly, and backed out a steer that was broken to harness, and a rickety two-wheeled cart. Their owner had left them there for some hours, and had crossed the ferry to Beaufort. Old mistress must be obeyed, and they looked toward her beseechingly where she was waiting, deprecating her disapproval of this poor apology for a conveyance. The lady long since had ceased to concern herself with the outward shapes of things; she accepted this possibility of carrying out her plans, and they lifted her light figure to the chair, in the cart's end, while Peter mounted before her with all a coachman's dignity, -- he once had his ambitions of being her coachman, -- and they moved slowly away through the deep sand.

"My Gord A'mighty, look out fo' us now," said Peter over and over. "Ole mis', she done fo'git, good Lord, she done fo'git how de Good Marsa up dere done took f'om her ebryt'ing; she 'spect now she find Syd'n'am all de same like 's it was 'fo' de war. She ain't know 'bout what's been sence day of de gun-shoot on Port Royal and dar-away. O Lord A'mighty, yo' know how yo' stove her po' head wid dem gun-shoot; be easy to ole mis'."

But as Peter pleaded in the love and sorrow of his heart, the lady who sat behind him was unconscious of any cause for grief. Some sweet vagaries in her own mind were matched to the loveliness of the day. All her childhood, spent among the rustic scenes of these fertile Sea Islands, was yielding for her now an undefined pleasantness of association. The straight-stemmed palmettos stood out with picturesque clearness against the great level fields, with their straight furrows running out of sight. Figures of men and women followed the furrow paths slowly; here were men and horses bending to the ploughshare, and there women and children sowed with steady hand the rich seed of their crops. There were touches of color in the head kerchiefs; there were sounds of songs as the people worked, -- not gay songs of the evening, but some repeated line of a hymn, to steady the patient feet and make the work go faster, -- the unconscious music of the blacks, who sing as the beetle drones or the cricket chirps slowly under the dry grass. It had a look of permanence, this cotton-planting. It was a thing to paint, to relate itself to the permanence of art, an everlasting duty of mankind; terrible if a thing of force and compulsion and for another's gain, but the birthright of the children of Adam, and not unrewarded nor unnatural when one drew by it one's own life from the earth.

Peter glanced through the hedge-rows furtively, this way and that. What would his mistress say to the cabins that were scattered all about the fields now, and that were no longer put together in the long lines of the quarters? He looked down a deserted lane, where he well remembered fifty cabins on each side of the way. It was gay there of a summer evening; the old times had not been without their pleasures, and the poor old man's heart leaped with the vague delight of his memories. He had never been on the block; he was born and bred at old Sydenham; he had been trusted in house and field.

"I done like dem ole times de best," ventures Peter, presently, to his unresponding companion. "Dere was good 'bout dem times. I say I like de ole times good as any. Young folks may be a change f'om me."

He was growing gray in the face with apprehension; he did not dare to disobey. The slow-footed beast of burden was carrying them toward Sydenham step by step, and he dreaded the moment of arrival. He was like a mesmerized creature, who can only obey the force of a directing will; but under pretense of handling the steer's harness, he got stiffly to the ground to look at his mistress. He could not turn to face her, as he sat in the cart; he could not drive any longer and feel her there behind him. The silence was too great. It was a relief to see her placid face, and to see even a more youthful look in its worn lines. She had been a very beautiful woman in her young days. And a solemn awe fell upon Peter's tender heart, lest the veil might be lifting from her hidden past, and there, alone with him on the old plantation, she would die of grief and pain. God only knew what might happen! The old man mounted to his seat, and again they plodded on.

"Peter," said the mistress, -- he was always frightened when she spoke, -- "Peter, we must hurry. I was late in starting. I have a great deal to do. Urge the horses."

"Yas, mis', -- yas, mis'," and Peter laughed aloud nervously, and brandished his sassafras switch, while the steer hastened a little. They had come almost to the gates.

"Who are these?" the stately wayfarer asked once, as they met some persons who gazed at them in astonishment.

"I 'spect dem de good ladies f'om de Norf, what come down to show de cullud folks how to do readin'," answered Peter bravely. "It do look kind o' comfo'ble over here," he added wistfully, half to himself. He could not understand even now how oblivious she was of the great changes on St. Helena's.

There were curious eyes watching from the fields, and here by the roadside an aged black woman came to her cabin door.

"Lord!" exclaimed Peter, "what kin I do now? An' ole Sibyl, she's done crazy too, and dey'll be mischievous together."

The steer could not be hurried past, and Sibyl came and leaned against the wheel. "Mornin', mistis," said Sibyl, "an' yo' too, Peter. How's all? Day ob judgment's comin' in mornin'! Some nice buttermilk? I done git rich; t'at's my cow," and she pointed to the field and chuckled. Peter felt as if his brain were turning. "Bless de Lord, I no more slave," said old Sibyl, looking up with impudent scrutiny at her old mistress's impassive face. "Yo' know Mars' Middleton, what yo' buy me f'om? He my foster-brother; we push away from same breast. He got trouble, po' gen'elman; he sorry to sell Sibyl; he give me silver dollar dat day, an' feel bad. ["] Neber min', I say. I get good mistis, young mistis at Sydenham. I like her well, I did so. I pick my two hunderd poun' all days, an' I ain't whipped. Too bad sold me, po' Mars' Middleton, but he in trouble. He done come see me last plantin'," Sibyl went on proudly. "Oh, Gord, he grown ole and poor-lookin'. He come in, just in dat do', an' he say, 'Sibyl, I long an' long to see you, an' now I see you;' an' he kiss an' kiss me. An' dere's one wide ribber o' Jordan, an' we'll soon be dere, black an' white. I was right glad I see ole Mars' Middleton 'fore I die."

The old creature poured forth the one story of her great joy and pride; she had told it a thousand times. It had happened, not the last planting, but many plantings ago. It remained clear when everything else was confused. There was no knowing what she might say next. She began to take the strange steps of a slow dance, and Peter urged his steer forward, while his mistress said suddenly, "Good-by, Sibyl. I am glad you are doing so well," with a strange irrelevancy of graciousness. It was in the old days before the war that Sibyl had fallen insensible, one day, in the cotton-field. Did her mistress think that it was still that year, and -- Peter's mind could not puzzle out this awful day of anxiety.

They turned at last into the live-oak avenue, -- they had only another half mile to go; and here, in the place where the lady had closest association, her memory was suddenly revived almost to clearness. She began to hurry Peter impatiently; it was a mischance that she had not been met at the ferry. She was going to see to putting the house in order, and the women were all waiting. It was autumn, and they were going to move over from Beaufort; it was spring next moment, and she had to talk with her overseers. The old imperiousness flashed out. Did not Peter know that his master was kept at the front, and the young gentlemen were with him, and their regiment was going into action? It was a blessing to come over and forget it all, but Peter must drive, drive. They had taken no care of the avenue; how the trees were broken in the storm! The house needed -- They were going to move the next day but one, and nothing was ready. A party of gentlemen were coming from Charleston in the morning! --

They passed the turn of the avenue; they came out to the open lawn, and the steer stopped and began to browse. Peter shook from head to foot. He climbed down by the wheel, and turned his face slowly. "Ole mis'!" he said feebly. "Ole mis'!"

She was looking off into space. The cart jerked as it moved after the feeding steer. The mistress of Sydenham plantation had sought her home in vain. The crumbled fallen chimneys of the house were there among the weeds, and that was all.

On Christmas Day and Easter Day, many an old man and woman come into St. Helena's Church who are not seen there the rest of the year. There are not a few recluses in the parish, who come to listen to their teacher and to the familiar prayers, read with touching earnestness and simplicity, as one seldom hears the prayers read anywhere. This Easter morning dawned clear and bright, as Easter morning should. The fresh-bloomed roses and lilies were put in their places. There was no touch of paid hands anywhere, and the fragrance blew softly about the church. As you sat in your pew, you could look out through the wide-opened doors, and see the drooping branches, and the birds as they sat singing on the gravestones. The sad faces of the old people, the cheerful faces of the young, passed by up the aisle. One figure came to sit alone in one of the pews, to bend its head in prayer after the ancient habit. Peter led her, as usual, to the broad-aisle doorway, and helped her, stumbling himself, up the steps, and many eyes filled with tears as his mistress went to her place. Even the tragic moment of yesterday was lost already in the acquiescence of her mind, as the calm sea shines back to the morning sun when another wreck has gone down.

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