IT is probable that no horse in Virginia ever had a happier youth than Ben. To be sure, during his earliest colthood the times were more or less troubled. There were certain soldier folk abroad, bluecoated and gray-coated too, riding round the country, every week or so, with an eye to able-bodied horseflesh ; and often with means of paying for the same, even when so inclined, quite disproportioned to their urgent demand. Ben’s mother was a mare that any one might have prized. Though her owner had given much, and given it freely, to help prop up a certain falling cause which he believed in, he felt that he could not quite part with her, to friends any more than foes. There were some queer hidings and dodges resorted to in those days, both by man and beast. Little Ben, long-legged and bright-eyed, coltishly tricksy and kickish, did not guess how near he sometimes came to being left virtually an orphan before he was six months old. To him various odd experiences thus brought about were only a part of life’s general novelty and amusingness. Afterwards, in more peaceful yet perhaps still sadder days, whatever his masters and mistresses may have had to vex their souls, they contrived somehow, for a good long while, to make things smooth for Ben. He was a handsome fellow, as handsome as good, — showing in graceful legs and small spirited head the gentle blood which had come to him from both sides. They could be proud of him no less than fond, and with these people pride went a long way towards love. The fact that he and Stonewall, his companion carriage horse, represented the sole luxury left to them from past comparative splendor certainly did not lessen the dearness of this pair in any respect. I have not space to tell how the long-deferred fall came about; but come it did, at last. Stonewall had been dead for years ; the once elegant carriage was a sad old rattletrap, past mending any more; the stable was almost a ruin; and Ben himself turned eighteen years, besides pretty well worn by various kinds of hard work, when he was put up at the great Evesby sale and sold for forty dollars.
It was late in the evening after this sale, and almost all the neighborhood people who had attended it had gone away, when old Gilbert Jeffries, Ben’s new owner, came leading him around to the back porch of Evesby house, in response to a message that day received, and stood bareheaded, with the bridle over one arm, to say good-by to the last remaining one of that family who for more than a hundred years had dwelt under the roof-tree which was now to shelter a stranger. She was a tall young woman, as slender and straight as a dart. She shivered a little, as she stood there on the high, gaunt, uninclosed platform, — not merely because the evening wind was chill and her black wrap pitifully thin. She had on bonnet and gloves, and held a little satchel in one hand ; and the old friend who was going to take her home with him in his dog-cart, for that one night at least, stood in the doorway just behind, ready and waiting. He was not the only friend whom she could claim. His house was not the only one where warmth and kindness (“charity” she called it in her rebellious heart) were offered at this time of need. But it seemed to her, nevertheless, that the end of the world had now come. A wave of bitterness seemed to rise within her heart against the fate which she chose to think dictated this parting, against the new master whom to-morrow would bring ; no whit less bitter for the knowledge that she might have remained, had she so chosen, to share life with this same interloper; no whit less bitter for the secret hateful consciousness that once, if no more, her heart had prompted — Stay! What! was she to be sold and bought with house and land ? Pride to the rescue ! No! Let alone another reason which had thrust itself perversely between these two, was she one to be thus humiliated ? Let him come and find her gone; come and be happy, if he could, in the home from which ill fortune had driven her to make room for his ease and prosperity ! Her face was white. Her eyes looked big and hollow ; there were dark circles under them. Her lips were bluish and queerly pinched. There had really been no need for her presence here to-day ; but she would not go, she said (for all the world, remarked some one who thought it rather absurd, as if she were speaking of a funeral), “ until all was over.” It was very absurd, no doubt, but it had gone hard with her, sitting up there listening in one of the dismantled bedrooms ; considering how hard, no wonder she shivered.
Old Gibby, as they called him, stood gazing up at her with adoring eyes that tried not to betray also his compassion. He knew better than that, did old Gibby. Ben looked no higher than the frozen ground beneath him, for which she was thankful. Otherwise the interview might have been too much. He too was shivering. She had done her best for him always. He had never gone hungry, whether the young mistress within doors had food such as she could relish or not. But hauling wood and going to mill, fetching and carrying, — such tasks do not agree with a horse of Ben’s age, of Ben’s descent and breeding. The neck, poked out, hanging down so dejectedly, looked shrunken and long. His ribs and hip bones more than suggested themselves. His once fine black coat, his mane and tail, were both worn and rusty. He was slightly lame in one foot. Whatever spirit of his own he might still have, surely no spark was visible then. And it seemed to her that the sight of him thus, together with the memory of all that had been, was more than she could bear.
“ Did they give you my message, Mr. Jeffries ? " she asked presently.
There was something in her low, strained voice, as it quivered against the silence at last, after two or three vain essays, which somehow seemed to take away old Gibby’s own. He nodded ; he could not speak for the choke in his throat.
“ I told them I wanted you to have him, if you would, and at your own price,” she went on anxiously. “ You know why I wished it, and how glad I am ; but are you sure you have n’t given too much for him ? ”
The old man looked Ben over slowly from head to tail, laying a toil-worn hand on his shoulder. “ I reckin he’s wuth all I give fur him, miss, to me, anyway.”
“He was n’t the one you first thought of buying, though, was he ? ” queried she, still half suspicious and unsatisfied.
“ He wuz the one I wanted, miss, all along,” was the reply, “ an’ no mistake ’bout that. Don’t you be oneasy. ’T wuz the ole woman that took a notion to that air sorrel colt. If she’d ha’ been here ter-day ’stead o’ bein’ laid up with the jaw-ache, she’d ha’ had her way, I reckin, like she most in gin’ral does, Hows’ever, don’t you be oneasy fur’s Ben ’s consarned, nor me nuther. He ’ll be well took keer of whilst I ’m a-livin’. Of all the hawses that ever I knowed, the one I look up to most an’ ha’ got the most respec’ fur is Ben.”
“ I think there’s good service in him yet, Mr. Jeffries. You won’t repent your bargain after he ’s a little rested. He has had a right hard time lately. I could n’t, could n’t help it, though it almost broke my heart. The men say that lameness is from a stone bruise, and only temporary. As for sweet temper and willingness, you know without telling ” —
Her voice faltered and broke. Old Gibby put in hastily : —
“ Oh, ez fur sarvice, miss, the right kind o’ sarvice, I ’m nowise afeared. A quality hawse like Ben, miss, he ’s got to be treated like a quality hawse. None o’ yo’ Cawnestoga breed, he ain’t, to stand treatin’ Cawnestoga fashion. I know his raisin’, miss, an’ he ’ll git took keer of accordin’.”
She drew a step nearer. She tried to speak lower, but her tone, though faint, began to wax hysterically shrill. Her hand unconsciously stole to her side.
“ I need not ask you to be kind to him,” she said. “ I need not ask you, for their sake, when you think of them lying out yonder in the graves you helped to fill, all of them, — all who were fond of him and me. Papa was so fond of him ! Those two, Ben and Stonewall, as far back as I can remember, seemed to make him almost forget sometimes the trouble and poverty. You ’ll remember it, won’t you, and what friends we have always been, you and all of us ? Oh, I’m sure — I ’m sure ” —
“ Sylvia! ” said a voice behind her, warningly. An uneasy step, a fidgety touch on her shoulder, hinted impatience and apprehension. “ Sylvia, I am ready, my dear. Make haste.”
Old Gibby did not look up this time, but Ben — alas! Ben did. Dumbly, wonderingly, with dim and pathetic eyes, he lifted his head and looked. And then a queer thing happened.
Few people then living had ever seen Sylvia Evesby give way to strong emotion ; certainly not old Gibby. It seemed to him, too, that the universe was breaking up when she came rushing so tempestuously down the steps. Her face had “ gone all to pieces,” he said to himself afterwards, thinking it over. The breath seemed to go clean out of her in that dreadful, long, hard sob. He saw her fling one arm around Ben’s bony old neck and lean her face against it; and then no more, for he turned his back, walking a few steps away. He might better have made the distance greater. He heard. He was very, very sorry. And he will never forget it as long as he lives.
“ You think I ’m a-goin’ to let you keep that ole critter, Gib Jeffries ? ”
Old Gilbert was sitting on Ben’s back, in front of his own little house by the roadside, about a mile from the Evesby mansion, and near the back gate of that estate. It was twilight, and just at the edge of a pine wood besides ; but he saw, nevertheless, too plainly the threatening, angry face and gestures of that formidable female, his wife.
Mrs. Jeffries was several years younger than her husband, and was also considered by most folk of her acquaintance correspondingly “ smarter ” and “ pearter.” Stout in person, vixenish in countenance, shrill-voiced, and strong-willed to boot, — as old Gibby knew by long experience, — no wonder she generally struck terror to his soul when speaking in her present tone, looking as she did now over the little whitewashed gate, which seemed to take on a like expression of jagged, spiky danger. And yet this evening, somehow, with the recollection of a certain late scene fresh in his mind, though rather apprehensive and uncomfortable, he did not feel afraid.
“ I think I’m a-goin’ to keep him, Ma’y Jane,” said he, “ whether you ’low to let me or not.”
“ You — you ” — cried Mary Jane. “ Say that to me ag’in ! ”
She flourished a stubby fat hand so suddenly above the gate towards him that old Gibby involuntarily dodged, and even Ben was roused out of his drooping apathy. He turned his head and glanced at the woman out of the corners of his eyes.
“ Lord he’p us ! ” she exclaimed, drawing back. “ He ’s got the very look of ’em.”
Now, when old Gibby and his wife were living, many years previous to this, as tenants on the Evesby estate, Mrs. Jeffries had been sorely conscious that her husband was much more of a favorite with the owners thereof than her own aspiring self. The fact will need no explanation to the readers of this tale, but Mrs. Jeffries had, notwithstanding, neither forgotten nor forgiven it. Of all the fallen family against whom she nursed this grudge, she hated most the former head, Sylvia Evesby’s father. He was a shy, silent man, given to strong likes and dislikes. Old Gibby’s genuine, humble simplicity, his honesty and kindliness, had won a friendly, lifelong favor here which his helpmate’s bustling, eager advances failed utterly to gain. Not even Mr. Evesby’s most studied, old-time courteousness towards inferiors could hide from those sharp, beady eyes the truth, that he detested their owner. And now that look of Ben’s, slow, sidelong, half critical, half afraid, wholly antagonistic, was just such another as Mrs. Jeffries had more than once surprised, turned in her direction by Ben’s dead-and-gone master.
Old Gibby stared from one to the other in amaze.
“ The ole bag o’ bones is a-lookin’ at me like I wuz dirt under his feet, — the very ixpression of them Evesbys ! ” gasped Mrs. Jeffries. “ The owdaciousness of the critter ! He ’s jest like the rest o’ things that used to be there. The very roosters in that back yard, they ’d a stuck-up, sassy look, like they thought theyselves cocks o’ the walk all over creation. The very puppy dogs had it, an’ the calves kickin’ up the’r heels scornful-like if a po’ person went along the road. Oh, I ’d my fill of ’em all, with all the’r politeness an’ soft talk, — them Evesbys, — a-handin’ you out cake an’ things whenever you ’d go there, an’ offerin’ to lend you good books. Drat the’r ole books ! I never wasted time over one of ’em, if I did eat the’r cake. Well, with all the’r soft sawder, they ’d make you feel ev’ry time like they wuz better ’n you. Ev’rybody else, after the war,—folks good as them, too, — wuz glad enough to have a spring wagin to ride in ; but jest ’cause they had that fine fix, better ’n the’r neighbors, they had to keep two hawses to haul ’em around, an’ go ridin’ week-days just fur pleasure, with that very ole rascal an’ that other one, Stonewall, a-steppin’ like the ground wuz n’t good enough fur the’r feet.”
“ Well, the hawses an’ the kerridge wuz the’rn, I reckin,” said old Gibby, still unconquered, though quaking not a little. “ They ’d neither stole nor borried ’em, fur’s I know ; an’ Lord knows thar wuz precious few things else mo’ ’an barely needful that they did n’t make shift without.”
“ Oh, so’s they made much o’ you, soft-sawderin’ you a little, ’t would n’t ha’ made much diff’rence, I s’pose, in yo’ lovin’ favor, if they ’d trampled me under the’r feet,” replied his amiable spouse, with a few injured sniffs. “ An’ I s’pose with you it’s anythin’ on fo’ legs or three that’s ever had the honor an’ glory of haulin’ them Evesbys ’round. You think yo’self some, now, don’t you, a-settin’ on that ole broken-winded screw, twenty-five years ole if he’s a day ! ' Got him partly to ease her mind,’ indeedy ! an’ goin’ to take keer of him the rest o’ his days ! Lord he’p my patience ! The sorrel colt wuz a barg’in, an’ not sp’ilt by any o’ the’r high-day raisin’. I’d nothin’ ag’inst that, if nobody’d run the price up ; but to think o’ yo’ payin’ out good cash fur ” —
“ ’T wuz my own money, Ma’y Jane,” said the old man deprecatingly. “ ’T wuz none o’ yo’ earnin’ nor savin’, fur all you don’t pear to rimmember. I reekin you better not say any mo’.”
But Mrs. Jeffries was not one to be easily silenced. And as her husband rode Ben slowly (as old Gibby did everything) around to the back of the house, she followed within speaking distance, still plying her tongue.
“ You got the impidence, you ole simple, you, to say that to me,” cried she, " when you know whose slavin’ an’ savin’ you kin thank fur havin’ a single dollar ahead, an’ not bein’ mebbe in the po’house this blessid day ! Who’s been the one to keep this fam’ly from goin’ to nowheres an’ nothin’ ? Ain’t this a piece with all yo’ doin’s, first an’ last ? I might ha’ knowed, when I let you set off by yo’self this mornin’, I might ha’ knowed you 'd be playin’ the dratted fool somehow. If I had n’t been laid up groanin’ with my face ag’inst a flatiron,” — and here Mrs. Jeffries, who seemed to have recovered wonderfully from her indisposition, or else, in excitement, half forgotten it, gave a vicious tug to a handkerchief tied under her chin, and gritted the offending teeth vengefully together, — “ if I had n’t been in sich a dratted fix, you ’d never ha’ got the chance fur this. Easin’ her mind, indeedy ! I ’d ease the’r minds right fashion. ’T would ha’ pleasured mine this day to see the fall o’ the’r pride. Pride goes befo’ a fall, thank goodness, an’ it’s bound to come somehow. I’d ha’ liked to see the very people they thought theyselves above tramplin’ over that house this day upstairs an’ down, an’ pullin’-haulin’ things around. They’d a fine chance to see darns an’ makeshifts, anyhow. There wuz n’t a cha’ cover in the house, or a yard o’ kyarpetin’ nuther, that wuz n’t turned an’ darned all over. Grand quality livin’ it wuz ! If anybody wuz fool enough to bid much fur that oletimy trash, why, it’s mo’ ’an I’d do. ’T ain’t much fur show, that ’s cert’in, mahog’ny or no mahog’ny. I wonder you did n’t come haulin’ home one o’ them ole brass-handle chist o’ drawers, or that there ole dinin’-room table, to ease her mind ! ’T would ha’ been another smart trick fur you. Folks sez that man that’s bought the place would ha’ took the ole furnicher, too, if she had n’t fell out with him, an’ had the sale fur spite. They sez she did n’t even want him to have sich pieces ez he p’intedly picked out befo’hand. Serve him right ! I lay he’s a fool, if he keeps on, after this, settin’ up to her any mo’. That ’s the ongrateful, stuck-up hussy you go ag’inst me to serve! But fair warnin’ I give you now, Gilbert Jeffries : if you think I’m goin’ to have that there hawse a-puttin’ on airs to me, an’ have you settin’ him up here fur a pompered, do-nothin’ pet, you ’re mighty much mistaken, an’ that’s all.”
From the foregoing conversation, and especially its conclusive outburst, we may gather that Ben’s new path in life, even softened by his new master’s best intentions and efforts, was not likely to prove an easy one. Mrs. Jeffries, who in some respects was not a bad-hearted woman, and who at any rate rarely let ill temper get the better of self-interest, would probably have seen that the good sound stuff still in Ben was well worth a little building up, and would have made no objection to the rest, the gentle treatment, the high feeding needful to this end, had not that old unlucky grudge with which she identified him come as it did between her and prudent judgment. The Jeffries owned another horse, much younger and heavier built, and a good yoke of oxen, so there was no urgent need for Ben’s services just then; but Mrs. Jeffries had resolved that he should be neither “ pompered ” nor idle. Though old Gibby, indeed, tried hard to follow his instinct and keep to his promise, the forty-year-long habit of cowed, yielding obedience into which he had sunk was not to be broken in a day, even by his strongest opposing impulses. His wife’s shrill daily arguments, her reasons why Ben should be made use of thus and so, and for this or that urgent business, nearly always carried her point against any protest he might venture to offer. One thing he made sure, — Ben had enough to eat. And yet, other circumstances considered, it was not strange that, instead of improving, the poor horse grew leaner and less alive every day.
It is likely that Mrs. Jeffries, for all her jeers at old Gibby on that score, found a pleasure not to be despised in owning a horse which had belonged to “ them Evesbys ” in their comparatively prosperous days, even though she could not refrain from wreaking on him all the while a sort of nagging vengeance. Soon after this purchase, she set out on a round of visits among her kinsfolk and acquaintance, mounted on Ben, and carrying a long, stout hickory switch, with which the poor old fellow’s hide soon became too familiar. That Sylvia Evesby had left the neighborhood by this time was well for her faith in old Gibby, if not for Ben ; for if she had chanced to meet this pair in the road, on some raw spring day of that year, had seen Ben’s struggles through the half-frozen mire, ankle-deep under the weight of Mrs. Jeffries’ good two hundred pounds, and heard the whack which accompanied almost every other step, I believe there would have been, before another daydawn, an end put to Ben’s humiliations. Her whole fortune in ready money then did not amount to what had been lately paid for him, yet some way or somehow she would have managed it. However, she did not know, and neither did she guess.
Now, it cannot be denied that Mrs. Jeffries found a stick very necessary in all her dealings with Ben, for a more stubborn beast than he became at the very sight of her, the first sound of her voice, would be hard to find. His dislike to the woman was instinctive; as deeply rooted, as human, as if the spirit of old Mr. Evesby himself were still upon earth and sharing this his favorite equine semblance. Alas for the sweet, docile temper which responded always so kindly to some other touches and tones ! To what sullen perversity, what dumb, obstinate “ tantrums,” was it changed under the influence of this obnoxious presence ! No wonder that even old Gibby half repented his bargain sometimes, though in his secret heart he sided loyally with Ben.
One of Ben’s peculiarities, and one highly inconvenient to Mrs. Jeffries, was his positive refusal to pass Evesby house or the front gate of the premises without being forcibly led. As the shortest way to the nearest village, post office, and store lay either through this farm, or along a lane skirting its boundary fence, out into the highroad on which opened the aforesaid gate, we can understand the ire with which, after many an unavailing blow, she scrambled down in the mud from her saddle or buggy seat and dragged him along by main strength. “ You want to git back to them Evesbys, do you? — you ole buzzard ! ” she would say between her set teeth. “ I ’ll teach you who you b’long to now. There ! an’ there ! an’ there ! Now come up here ’fore I cut the blood out o’ you, an’ lemme see you try it ag’in.”
Nevertheless, for all the stripes laid on his poor old ribs, Ben tried it again so invariably that, to save trouble and time, a roundabout way through the woods had to be resorted to, instead of the two usual and better ones, which compromise by no means added to the little good will already borne him by his mistress. If she had known how, about this time, the new master of Evesby — whose rare and brief visits to the neighborhood from a certain great city not a hundred miles away, and whose erratic comings and goings while there, excited so much interest — had made old Gibby an offer for Ben, if she had known the price that old Gibby refused for him, I fear it might have fared harder still with horse and man. One thing is certain, — both of the men would have been set down in her mind as still bigger fools than she had before thought.
Old Gibby had a way of talking to the horse when they were alone together, creeping along the woods road, or in the stable or the little paddock behind ; and Ben had a way of listening as if he understood. If the finer sympathy of dumb beasts exist only in our fancy, such confidence is at least safe. They are dumb ; they will not betray. And it seemed good to the old man to speak out at last, after long years, to somebody. A few extracts from one of these outpourings will suffice for a fair sample of all.
It was on a soft April evening at the close of an uncommonly long and trying day, and Ben stood in his stall forlornly, biting his corn from the cob without apparent appetite, while old Gibby, who had just finished rubbing him down, sat on the end of the manger smoking his favorite clay pipe. The last glimmers of red sunset light through the doorway were fading into twilight. The outer air stole in with it, warm and sweet. It had been a fine day for this pair’s appointed task, namely, ploughing the garden and potato patch ; but in getting through it under Mrs. Jeffries’ supervision, even with old Gibby there to coax and soothe, the various eccentric movements prompted by Ben’s quivering nerves had wrought sad havoc with grass walk and currant bushes, as also the mistress’s broomstick with his sides. Outworn, defeated, and downcast he stood ; only by a glance now and then keeping up his share in the conversation. And still the other did not by any means feel as if further eloquence were needed.
“ You know I tole you befo’, Benny, my boy,” said old Gibby, with a puff and a sigh, " I tole you ’t wuz n’t any use. Don’t you rec’lect now what I said t’other day ? Bless yo’ heart, Ben, ain’t I been through it an’ found out long-amerry-go ? If I 'd ’a’ knowed she’d take sich a kink, I ’d ’a’ thought twice befo’ givin’ that promise, — fur yo’ sake well ez mine. But now it’s give, Benny, an’ long ez I 'm a-doin’ my best fur you, don’t you think ’t would be better to do ez I does, an’ take her calm an’ easy? She sha’n’t never give you a lick that I don’t make up fur somehow; but don’t rile her up, Ben, — jest don’t rile her up. I can’t say I blames you, Ben, fur not bein’ fond o’ her, but — but you see I’ve larnt by long exper’unce, Ben, how ’t ain’t best to show out so plain. She ain’t sich a bad-heart, Benny, fur all she takes notions; an’ if she wuz n’t so set ag’inst the raristockercy ” —
The old man broke off his muttering, and smoked awhile in silence. Ben stirred restlessly, inquiringly.
“ Don’t you be oneasy, my dear,” said old Gibby, “ a-thinkin’ I ’m takin’ her side ag’inst ’em. The raristockercy, they never did nothin’ to me. I ain’t ’feared nor ’shamed, Ben, to put in a good word fur ’em whenever I ’m called on. I ain’t goin’ to deny, Ben, that yo’ mother bein’ a lady, — ez she wuz, an’ no mistake, from top to toes, — an’ yo’ father bein’ the high gentleman stallium that I knowed him to be, does make me look up to you mo’, not to mention yo’ fam’ly raisin’. Lord ! he wuz a hawse, yo’ daddy, Ben. If you could only ha’ seed him, — that mane an’ tail o’ his’n, an’ his head tip-tiltin’ ’way up yonder, an’ his feet fairly treadin’ down pride itse’f ! Now you know what sort yo’ mother wuz ’thout any tellin’. You rec’lect the time when you wuz ’bout seven months ole, how me an’ ole Unc’ Sam hustled you both out, one mornin’, back way, through the gyarden, an’ into that big gully down the hillside, under them plum bushes ? The soldiers come mighty near gittin’ you then, or gittin’ her, anyway, if she had n’t gone so quiet, a-steppin’ it so ladified an’ human-like. To be sho’, I don’t wonder you ’re proud, Ben, an’ find the yother sort hard to stand. If it’s hard on me sometimes, ez I 'low to you it is, — me that ain’t got no blood nor nothin’, — I kin sense yo’ feelin’s, Ben. But jest try takin’ it easy, now, an’ see if she don’t come round. I reckin she do find us a leetle tryin’ sometimes. Thar’s somethin’ to be spoke on her side. You see, she’s powerful smart an’ managin’, Ben, an’ the sort to git along an’ git up. She’s got a notion o’ style now, too, — a powerful notion o’ style. ’Pears to me she’s a-gittin’ stylisher an’ stylisher ’most ev’ry day now; an’ you see, you an’ me, Ben, we ain’t much on style, the way she looks at it. Yo’ day fur that’s overpast, an’ mine ain’t never begun. You ’re quality, Ben, all the same, but thar’s quality that ain’t stylish, jest like thar’s style that ain’t quality. I don’t mind the quality style when folks do put it on ; leastways I did n’t use to mind it much ez the yother kind. ’T wuz n’t so oneasy-like. It seemed to hang mo’ nachal. I did n’t use to mind Miss Sylvy an’ them when they come along fixed up fur comp’ny much ez I do them Sunday clo’es o’ her’n when she gits ’em on. Cracky ! ain’t they stylish ! An’ the new furnicher ! Lord jiminee! to think egg an’ chicken money bought it! I did n’t use to feel so shy o’ that sofy in the dinin’-room at Evesby. ’T wuz mighty soft, I rec’lect, fur all jest a slip caliker kiver; an’ I rec’lect sittin’ on it sometimes, when I 'd go in, easy-like ez you please. But to think o’ me settin’ on that thar sofy o’ her’n ! ’T ain’t soft, but ain’t it stylish ! Lord ! Lord ! Lord! ”
He paused again, softly rubbing and patting the horse’s shoulder, while Ben, looking round, rubbed his nose comprehendingly against his master’s elbow.
“ I ain’t got no sugar fur you this time,” muttered old Gibby, rambling on, “ so you need n’t be lookin’ fur it. 'T wuz n’t ’cause I furgot you, but I didn’t git ary chance to the safe to-day when she wuz n’t in thar. I’m a-thinkin’ I 'll git a pound or two nex’ time I go to the sto’, an’ keep it in here somewher’s. Rimmember how Miss Sylvy used to fetch you her candy, when she wuz ’bout knee-high to a lame duck ? I ’ll be bound you do! ” (And Ben really looked as if he did.) “ An’ I reckin that ’s the reason you ’re so fond of it now. I wonder what she 'd say to my givin’ it to you! — Ma’y Jane, I mean. Jiminee! what would n’t she say ? When folks takes to savin’ up fur stylishness, Lord! how tight the’r fists does git! It ’ll be a planner next, I reckin, or mebbe somethin’ wuss’n that. Wonder what she 'd say, Benny, if she knowed what I would n’t take t’other day fur you ! Well, mebbe you 'd ha’ liked the chance much ez she 'd ha’ liked the chink. I dunno, Ben, I dunno. But I’m sho’ ’bout one thing: if Miss Sylvy thought enough o’ me to pick me out in the fust place, ’stead o’ him, I think ’nough o’ my promise to stand by you.
I ’m a-goin’ to do it, Ben. If it comes to fussin’, I 'll fuss. But don’t you think you better take things a leetle mo’ easy now ? Jest look at me an’ keep cool till she comes round. Jest stop lookin’ at her so critical-like, an rilin’ her up ag’in’ the raristockercy ” —
It was the voice of Mrs. Jeffries shrilly calling her spouse to supper which interrupted and ended his speech this time. However, Ben had heard it all before, and was destined to hear it again, till I think he must have known every word by heart; so a little more or less now and then did not make much difference.
Spring passed, and summer came and went, without either Ben or Mrs. Jeffries fulfilling old Gilbert’s hope by coming round ; but at last something happened, and something that nobody expected.
There was life again at Evesby when the sun-steeped midsummer days brought the new master and his friends to enjoy its breezy largeness, its dreamy quiet and shade. There were handsomer horses in the stables (now repaired and smartened) than Ben had ever been, even in his best days, and girl guests who rode them more dashingly, if with less easeful grace, than ever Sylvia Evesby,—though whether they quite filled the vacancy which she had left behind in house and in heart (one heart, at least) remains to be guessed. Meeting them sometimes in the sleepy, brier-hedged lanes, or the still sleepier pine-wood roads stretching or twisting hereabouts, a gay cavalcade bent laughingly on some exploration of the Virginia wilderness, — meeting them thus, Ben gave no sign. Little he cared, apparently, for all this outside splendor which filled Mrs. Jeffries’ heart with envy and awe. She hated, but admired. Ben did neither. He did not even notice. But then, Ben, in sooth, seemed to have got beyond taking much notice of anything or anybody. The iron bad entered his soul.
It was well into autumn when the grand yearly event of the Jeffries household came to pass. Old Gibby’s daughter-in-law, Mrs. Bob Jeffries, a bustling young woman from a bustling young Western town, arrived on a visit.
Now, the being whom old Gibby feared most in all this world, next to Mrs. Jeffries herself, was this same daughter-inlaw. The son, Bob, of whose moneymaking turn and general “ all-around smartness ” his mother had long been proud, was a good-natured fellow, and not hard on the old man. His father had never been afraid of Bob ; but this other, ah! she was different. If is doubtful if men who are getting up in the world ever grow quite so ruthlessly hardened toward those who may keep them down as their women folk are apt to be in like case. Old Gibby, in talking it over with Ben, summed up the impression which Violet Magnolia made on his mind in one ominous word, — “stylish.”It was not the quality style, he said, but that dreaded other kind; whereat he thought Ben nodded as if he also knew. The only word at old Gibby’s command that came anywhere near describing her keen little countenance, her still keener manner, was “ peart.”The fit of her clothes, their tightness, their smoothness, was to him something fearful and wonderful. The glib tang of her tongue struck stammering terror to his own. And yet this dazzling reproach to his clodhopperish inferiority was Bob’s wife, actually, in a way, one of the family! Alas for all such old folk whose juniors have got to a certain point beyond them, and alas for the soul-relieving confidences that at this time were poured into Ben’s ear! For who knows how much they had to do with what soon followed !
A certain chill and cloudy evening in October, not long after Mrs. Bob’s coming, found that lady and her proud mother-in-law seated in Mrs. Jeffries’ buggy, drawn by Ben, on their way to the afore-mentioned post office.
Mrs. Jeffries had told Ben’s history to Violet Magnolia with such embellishments as her prejudices suggested, and Violet Magnolia had listened with a sympathy gratifying to her hearer’s inmost spirit. No wonder old Gibby gazed after them uneasily as they drove away. Ben’s appearance was not improved by his life for some months past, in spite of the old man’s petting and feeding. But for an accident which had happened to the other horse Mrs. Jeffries really would have been unwilling to drive him. Many apologies did she make, and scathing were the allusions both to “ them Evesbys ” and old Gibby’s mean-spirited perverseness. As to Mrs. Bob, she was outwardly scornful, inwardly furious ; not so much at the turnout, for she knew vaguely the difference between horses and horses, and that, despite Ben’s age and condition, he at least showed what he had been; but to have to go creeping through the woods back of Evesby for the sake of avoiding that gate was really too great an indignity. The new velveteen dress, which old Gibby told Ben, as he harnessed him, looked “ jest like she 'd been melted an’ po’ed in,” strained tighter than usual over a swelling bosom. The new bonnet, gorgeous with bugles and the stiffest of “ wired ” red ribbon bows, fairly quivered in wrath at being thus half thrown away.
The two women called at the post office for Mrs. Bob’s mail, and then drove to the store, where Mrs. Jeffries alighted and went in to make divers purchases. She was a sharp hand at a bargain, and always took her time. More than an hour did Violet Magnolia sit in the buggy waiting, her temper not improved by the situation. The east wind was blowing. A drizzling rain began to fall. It dripped from the umbrella which she had raised, and trickled in little streams from Ben’s sharp back and hip bones, between his ribs, and down the hollows of his poor sunken flanks. The mud was deep underfoot from a rain some days previous. It was also cold. Ben shivered now and then. When Mrs. Bob jerked his head up viciously every few minutes, there would come a curious quick flash into his dull eyes. This was the only sign of life about him, — that life which now meant mostly suffering and weariness and dumb humiliation. Yet who can doubt that thought and memory were busy within his brain ? These long-known ways, these stoppingplaces, were they not haunted for him, as well as for his human brothers, by echoes from the past ? The contrast in Ben’s case could not have made his present any less bitter. It would have cut old Gibby to the heart, I think, to see him just then; and not old Gibby alone. Of various townsfolk who came and went, some pitied and some smiled. And Mrs. Bob, beholding, could have torn them — even as she could Ben himself — limb from limb with her own pudgy hands, and enjoyed the operation.
One thing she had resolved on by the time they started hack, — to go right by the Evesby front gate.
The rain was still falling, the mud growing deeper, when, some time later, they drew near that spot of contention. It took a good deal of beating with Mrs. Jeffries’ hickory stick to get Ben along fast enough. Her arm was as sore the next morning as Ben’s back then, and that for more reasons than one. A veil of mist was thickening along the roadside on either hand, and blurring the landscape beyond ; but the big iron gate, with its stone pillars, seemed to stand out blacker, sharper, than usual against this whitish, hazy background. However, had it been pitch dark instead, what difference would that have made to Ben in knowing his way at last — home !
“ Give me the switch, mother,” said Mrs. Bob, in response to the other woman’s “ There ! ” — her indicative nod and glance. “ Give the rein a good hard jerk, and leave the beatin’ to me. If you have to get out in the mud this time, it sha’n’t be my fault, anyhow. Before I ’d be ruled by any contrary old horse under the sun, I lay I’d ” —
Mrs. Bob never finished that threat.
The jerk and the blow were duly administered, but Ben heeded neither ; and his offense this time was something vastly different from stopping, as heretofore, in the middle of the road. He must have felt young then, and very, very strong. He lifted his head high and shook it, and with a fierce, mighty plunge wheeled half around and started for the gate.
The buggy was old and dry-rotten. Mrs. Bob gave a scream, her mother-inlaw a shout of rage, as one of the wheels crashed under them. The gate had been left unlatched that day by somebody. It swung gratingly back as Ben rushed against it, and he struggled through, with the skin scraped from one bleeding shoulder, a splinter from the shaft in his side, and the buggy, now on two wheels, lurching behind him, while the women, panic-stricken, screeched and tugged at one rein. The way (ah, how well he knew it!) sloped downward for some distance to a bad washout, lately deepened by autumn freshets, then rose straight and smooth for nearly a mile between two lines of trees to an open space where dimly suggested itself the shape of a house. It was in the gully that Ben shook off the burden which stayed his steps. No bones were broken, and bruises and scratches were none too deep. Velveteen and artificial flowers, beads and bows, made but a sorry show crawling out of the mire ; but on such a fall of finery, brought about by spite, we will waste none of the pity which belongs to Ben.
His breath was fetching hard, in great sobbing gasps, by this time. The fire in his eyes flashed redly still through a whitish, filmy glaze. The sweat was beginning to break out all over his trembling body. Swift reaction was already on the way, though not yet quite upon him. That jagged splinter had struck deep, and must have made each step a torture at any other time. If he felt the pain now, it but added haste to his speed. Love’s longing, hate’s revengeful triumph, life’s well-nigh despairing struggle, urged him on to his goal. Little he recked of those cast-off tormentors, or even of old Gibby, for whose sake he had borne with them so long. Above him, as he ran, met the grand old branches which had sheltered his merry, capering youth; beneath which he and Stonewall had so often paced pleasantly together, home-stepping after some ride or drive in the soft sunset light, needing no other incitement than one gentle word or touch. Under his feet was the soil which the feet he loved had trodden ; the eyes he loved, looked lovingly on, as well as upon him ; the hands which had caressed him, so sadly failed to keep. Before him stretched, near and nearer now, the wide, grassy lawn, its trees standing well apart, in stately fashion, the pillars of the high front porch glimmering between them against the gray massive house-front,—hazy all and dim now through mist and coming twilight. Not one friendly light gleamed out from window or doorway. Shutters and doors were closed. It looked like a house deserted. Not such a welcome, this, as the old days had seen; yet still his feet, though now slowly, staggeringly, pressed on their way to the threshold.
But if the house was indeed empty just then, there happened to be more than one person within sight.
As Ben, after that last struggle round the circle (he showed even then his gentle training by not going across the grass), stopped, faltered, and fell, with his head on the lowest step, a slender woman in a black frock came out of a small, stone-walled inclosure opening upon the lawn, well back and away from the house, and paused one moment, turning as if for a farewell look. An old man just behind her was fastening the rusty gate. It was the Evesby place of graves, and these two were Sylvia Evesby and old Gibby Jeffries. No need to explain their errand, or tell how her sudden coming had taken his breath away an hour or two earlier. They were there. In a few more seconds they would have been gone, walking swiftly back along the field path by which they had come hither, but for what she saw when she turned. The cry that broke from her lips was echoed by old Gibby. They both started forward at once, but the other had fallen many steps behind when she flung herself on her knees in the wet and drew that poor head up against her. The neck was limp, relaxed, the eyes were half shut and glassy, the breath seemed wellnigh out of him ; but she felt somehow that he knew her. She did not hear old Gibby’s groan of anger and dismay. She did not see a carriage which a little later was driven rapidly up in Ben’s very footsteps, or the tall figure which sprang from it and stooped anxiously at her side. The shame of his finding her there was nothing to her now. She was thinking only of Ben.
Well, they made it up between them in the hour next following, and between them they tried their very best afterwards to make it up to Ben. The last two or three years of his life were different from that one of which I have told, and to him as well as his mistress it was pleasant to be once more at home. If more fortunate elsewhere than he, neither had she been happy. Ah, yes, it was good to be at home !
“ If I had not heard you were away, and not expected soon, do you think I 'd have come that time ? ” she said more than once to her husband, when that reunion was mentioned, speaking with a frowning anxiety which brought a smile to his eyes. " For all it seemed to me sometimes that I could not keep away, do you think I ’d have come ? Even as it was, would you have found me here except for Ben ? I won’t pretend I’m not glad it happened so — but ” —
She always stopped at this point, where he was wont to break in, sometimes after one fashion, sometimes another. The dash of stubborn pride still in her was no worse for what that last little word hinted at. Yet he took no cruel advantage. He could both tease and jest upon occasion, but knew better than to try it here; where, indeed, though they often thought a good deal, they were not apt to say much. They were both glad that it had happened so; as also was their stanch friend, old Gibby Jeffries, even if somewhat ashamed ; and last, but not least, Ben himself. His bones rest peacefully this day by those of Stonewall, under a tree in a certain meadow that they loved, and the young mistress who loved them will never forget the spot.
A. M. Ewell.