Delta Wedding

SUMMARY. — Laura McRaven, nine, arrives at Shellmound, plantation home of her dead mother’s brother, Battle Fairchild, in the Mississippi Delta, during the late summer of 1923. The family consists of Battle and Ellen, their eight children ranging from Shelley, eighteen, to Bluet, two; the old aunts, Mac and Shannon; and dead brother Denis’s child, Maureen, not quite right in her head from injury in infancy. Two more sisters of Battle’s, the old maids Primrose and Jim Allen, live at a near-by plantation; Tempe Summers, his oldest sister, has come from Inverness with her grandchild, Lady Clare Buchanan,
The family are preparing for the wedding of Dabney, seventeen, to Troy Flavin, the Shellmound overseer. George, Battle’s younger brother from Memphis, the adored one of the family, has just brought the news that his wife Robbie Reid (whom the family considers as “common” as Troy) has left him. Robbie, unknown to all but Shelley and Troy, who has advised her to go back to her husband, reaches the town of Fairchilds and comes out on foot through the fields to the door of Shellmound.

35

AT FIRST Robbie thought wildly that they were making a to-do over her return. From the porch she smelled the floors just waxed, and at the windows saw the curtains standing out stiff-starched, and flowers even in the umbrella stand. Then she remembered once more — Dabney was getting married.

There was no sign of George or of any other Fairchild. There was not even a sound, except the tinkle of chandelier prisms in the hall breeze. They were probably back there eating — they always were. She reached inside and tapped with the knocker on the open door — an absurdly tiny sound to get into that big house. Nobody answered the door at all. They were all back there in oblivion, eating.

Immediately, from within the house, a burst of unmistakable dinner-table laughter rose and went round its circle. The Fairchilds! She would make them hear. She beat on the screen door and on the thick side lights with her small fist, in which were wrinkled up together a wet handkerchief and a pinch of verbena she had taken from the front gate.

Little Uncle came toward the door, and then backed up and called Roxie through the back porch. Miss Robbie, the one Mr. George threw himself away on, stood knocking. Roxie came and let her in, and for a moment Robbie nearly wavered. Everybody would be hard to confront at noon dinner. Suppose she just fainted? That would scare George. Roxie, her hands out like baby wings, turned and tiptoed, absurdly, down into the dining room. Robbie could hear what was said.

“Miss Ellen, surprise. Miss Robbie cryin’ at de do’.”

“Well! Good evening.” That was Miss Tempe, all right, in the austere voice she admitted surprise with.

“Well, tell her quickly to come on back in the dining room and have dessert with us, Roxie, said Ellen. Of course as if nothing had happened! No shout from George, no sign,

Robbie came through the dining room archway a little blindly — she had collided with Vi’let carrying an armload of fresh-pressed evening dresses up the hall. But George was not in here. “Where’s George?” she asked.

“Say! Where’s George?” asked Troy suddenly, looking up and down the table.

“At the Grove eating Aunt Primrose’s guinea fowl,” said India or somebody.

“He’s left out for the Grove,” Troy said, squinting up at Robbie, as if his eyes flinched.

“That booger! Did he know you were coming?” asked Battle, glancing up at her with bright eyes above the napkin he put to his lips.

She tried to shake her head, while Mr. Battle and Mr. Pinck and the boys were getting to their feet, and while Little Battle was dragging a chair up to the table for her.

“Won’t you have some dinner? You must have some dinner,” Ellen said anxiously; but “No thanks, Robbie said. They all insisted on getting her kiss, passing and turning her from one to the other around the table. “Oh, Aunt Robbie, I love you, you’re so pretty,” said Ranny. Then Roxie was clearing off. They had been eating chicken and ham and dressing and gravy, and good black snap beans, greens, butter beans and okra, corn on the cob, all kinds of relish, and watermelon rind preserves, and that good bread. Their plates were loaded with corncobs and little piles of bones, and their glasses drained down to blackened leaves of mint, and the silver bread baskets lined with crumbs.

“Won’t you change your mind?” Ellen begged earnestly. “I don’t know where you’ve been keeping yourself, but you ought to have a little food!” But Robbie said, “No, thank you, ma’am.”

Then Roxie was putting a large plate of whole peaches in syrup and a slice of coconut cake in front of her — she was seated between Shelley and Dabney— and bringing more tea in, and Mr. Battle was going on in a loud, sibilant voice which he used for reciting “Denis’s poetry”: —

“You shun me, Chloe, wild and shy.
As some stray fawn that seeks its mother
Through trackless woods. If spring winds sigh
It vainly strives its fears to smother.
The trembling knees assail each other
Wien lizards stir the brambles dry;
You shun me, Chloe, wild and shy . . .”

“Where have you been, Aunt Robbie?” asked Laura.

“As some stray fawn that seeks its mother. And yet no Libyan lion I . .

“Battle,” said Ellen.

“No ravening tiling to rend another! Lay by your tears, your tremors dry ...”

“Try your nice peach — you look so hot,” Ellen whispered, pointing.

Then a silence fell, like the one after a flock of fall birds has gone over. Uncle Pinck Summers, who had passed her at forty miles an hour on the road and covered her with a cloud of his dust, stared at her as if in clever recognition. Robbie had worn a stylish dust-colored pongee dress, bought in Memphis, with a red silk fringed sash, and on the side of her hair a white wool tam-o’-shanter— but what could get as many wrinkles just from sitting down in some little hot place as pongee? She felt wrinkled in her soul. And she trembled at the mention of lizards; they ran up your skirt.

“Well, my dear, I suppose, wherever you were, your invitation to the wedding reached you,” Aunt Tempe said. “And you made up your mind to accept!”

“I’m afraid you just missed George,” Ellen said, all afresh, and added in haste, “He happened to go to eat dinner with his sisters at the Grove — but he’ll be back. He always takes a nap here — where it’s quiet.”

“He must have gone another way, then. I saw every inch of the road,” Robbie said aloud, without meaning to.

“We didn’t quite expect you,” Battle said heavily, again over the folds of his napkin.

The family were having just a pieced dessert, without George to fix something special for — some of Primrose’s put-up peaches and the crumbs of the coconut cake; Ellen was sorry Robbie had picked just this time. “Wouldn’t you try a little dinner? Let me still send for a plate for 3rou. You don’t like the peaches!”

“No, thank you, Mrs. Fairchild.”

“There’s plenty more food! Enough for a regiment if they walked in!” Dabney was saying with a new, overbright smile she had — was it her married smile, that she would practice like that?

“I’m not to say hungry,” Robbie said. She bent over her plate and tried 1o take a spoonful of her whole peach while they all looked at her, or looked at Ellen.

36

THIS child was so unguarded — in an almost determined way. She would come, not timidly at all, into Shellmound at a time like this! Shelley sat actually cringing, while Dabney was giving her mother a conspirator’s look, as if they should have expected this. Aunt Tempe’s elevated brows signaled to Ellen. As if she would ever truly run away and leave him! She would say she would, to have them thinking of explanations, racking their brains, at a time like this, and then run back and show herself to make fools of them all.

Aunt Shannon gazed out the window, at a hummingbird in the abelias, but Aunt Mac sat up stiffly; it would show the upstart a thing or two if they ceased being polite and got anything like a scene over with at once.

Only Mary Lamar Mackey had excused herself, some moment or other, and beyond call again in her music was playing a nocturne — like the dropping of rain or the calling of a bird the notes came from the other room, effort less and endless, isolated from them, yet near, and sweet like the guessed existence of mystery. It made the house like a nameless forest, wherein many little lives lived privately, each to its lyric pursuit and its shy protection.

Ellen saw Shelley look at the girl failing at her peach and say nothing to her. And Robbie was scarcely listening to anything that was being said (Orrin was politely telling her about the longest snake he had ever seen). She would only look down and try to eat her peach. She was suffering. Her eyelids fell and opened tiredly over her just-dried eyes. The intensity of her face affected Ellen like a grimace.

When Ellen was nine years old, in Mitchem Corners, Virginia, her mother had run away to England with a man and stayed three years before she came back. She took up her old life, and everything in the household went on as before. Like an act of God, passion went unexplained and undenied — just a phenomenon. “Mitchem allows one mistake.” That was the saying old ladies had at Mitchem Corners — a literal business, too.

Ellen had grown up not especially trusting appearances, not soon enough suspecting, either, that other people’s presence and absence were still the least complicated elements of what went on underneath. Not her young life with her serene mother, with Battle, but her middle life — knowing all Fairchilds better and seeing George single himself from them — had shown her how deep were the complexities of the everyday, of the family, what caves were in the mountains, what blocked chambers, and what crystal rivers that had not yet seen light.

“Roxie, bring us just a little more iced tea,” she called, as if she asked a boon.

Then a little jumpily they all drank tea while Robbie turned her peach over and over in the plate.

“Do you start to school next year, Little Battled Lady Clare broke the silence in a peremptory conversational voice nearly like Aunt Tempe’s.

“Yes, but I hate to start!” cried Little Battle.

“Well — why don’t you cut your stomach out?”

“I’m going to take you out of here, said Aunt Tempe, motionless.

But suddenly Lady Clare, her fiery Buchanan hair spangling her Fairchild forehead, put out her tongue straight at Robbie and pulled down red eyelids. “This is the way you look!”

“You almost ruined my wedding!” cried Dabney; and then, as if in haste she had said the wrong thing, she put her hand comically to her lips. “I couldn’t get married right if George wasn’t as happy as I am!” she said, leaning intensely toward Robbie, as if to appeal to her underlying chivalry. “That’s what I meant! That’s the real truth!”

Why have you treated George Fairchild the way you have?" said Tempe across from her. “Except for Denis Fairchild, the sweetest man ever born in the Delta!”

“ How could you?” Shelley suddenly gushed forth tears, and Orrin had to get his dry handkerchief out for her and run around the table with it.

37

ROBBIE drew in her shoulders, to give Shelley room, and looked with burning eyes at the slick yellow peach she had been toying with. What vanity was here! How vain and how tenacious to vanity Shelley and Dabney and all were! What they felt came second. They had something else in them first, themselves, that core she knew well enough, which was like a burning string in a candle, and then they felt. But it was a second thing — not all one thingl The Fairchilds! The way that Dabney rode her horse, when she thought herself unseen!

Robbie was not afraid of them. She felt first — or perhaps she was all one thing, not divided that way — and let them kill her, with her wrinkled dress, and with never an acre of land among the Reids, and with a bad grief because of them, but she felt. She had never stopped for words to feelings — she felt only, with no words. But their smiles had said more plainly than words, “Bow down. You love our George. Enter on your knees and we will pull you up and pet and laugh at you fondly for it — we can! We will bestow your marriage on you, little Robbie that we sent to high school!”

“Do you like butter?” asked a soft voice.

“Yes,” said Robbie, looking around the table, not quite sure from which direction that had come.

“Then go sit in the gutter,” said Ranny.

“Excuse yourself and leave the table, Ranny,” said Battle.

“Oh, let him stay, Papa, he was trying to be nice” said Orrin and Roy together.

“Now you think up one,” said Ranny to Robbie.

“I can think up one,” growled Battle. “Why isn’t George here where he belongs? What are we all going to do — sit here crying and asking riddles? Excuse me! That boy’s never here, come any conceivable hell or high water!”

“How unfair!” thought Robbie. “Why, it’s the exact, opposite of the truth!” She looked up at Battle furiously. “That’s always when George is here — holding it off for you,” she thought. “If he were here and I came in, he would make everything fine — so fine I couldn’t even say a word — and never tell them what I think of them.”

All at once Vi’let came calling out in a lilting voice down the stairs and appeared in the doorway with both arms raised. “Bird in de house! Miss Rob’ come in lettin’ bird in de house!”

“Bird in de house mean death!” called Roxie instantly from the kitchen. She ran in from the other door, and the Negroes simultaneously threw their white aprons over their heads.

“It does mean that,” said Troy thoughtfully. He pushed back his chair and slowly removed his coat and pushed a sleeve up. “A bird in the house is a sign of death — my mammy said so, proved it. We better catch her and get her out.”

The Fairchilds jumped up buoyantly from their chairs. Orrin was the first out of the room, with the men next and the children next, then Dabney and Shelley. Ellen looked after them. It was not anything but pure distaste that made them run; there was real trouble in Robbie’s face, and the Fairchilds simply shied away from trouble as children would do. The beating of wings could be heard. Frantically the girls ran somewhere, their hands pressed to their hair. The chase moved down the hall — seemingly up the back stairs. “Get it out! Get it out!” Shelley called, and Little Battle called after her, “Get it! Get it!”

I shall go to the kitchen and make a practice cornucopia for tomorrow,” said Aunt Tempe rather grandly. “I am too short of breath to chase birds. Neither am I as superstitious as my brother or my nephews and nieces. Will you excuse me, Ellen?”

And only Aunt Mac and Ellen were left to attend to Robbie now. No, Aunt Shannon did rock on in her corner; George had brought her, when he came (stopping to remember her always!), something fresh to embroider on.

Robbie did not seem to know whether she had let the bird in or not; she did not know what she had done. Running out, the children wore smiles in their excitement and even took a moment to look expectantly at Robbie, who stood up. They left their mother in the dining room with the little figure of wretchedness, who stood up staunch as the Bad Fairy, and cried, “I won’t fool a minute longer with that round peach!”

Aunt Mac moved into a comfortable rocker and even eyed the peony-flowered bag that held her Armenian knitting. Stone-deaf as she was, she probably neither divined nor cared that there was a bird in the house, but she knew enough not to knit. She gave a positive nod, a little cock, of her topknotted head and gave her curls a bounce.

“Don’t clear off now — little while yet,” Aunt Mac called toward the Negro-deserted kitchen. “Of course you only married George for his money,” she continued without a break, in that comfortable sort of voice in which this statement is always made.

Robbie answered, lifting her voice politely to the deaf, “No ma’am! I married him because he begged me!” Then she sat down in the dining-room chair with its carved basket of blunt roses that always prodded the shoulder blades at emphatic moments.

38

To BE begged to give love was something that she could not have conceived of by herself, and she assumed no one else could conceive of it. Now for a moment it struck Robbie and also Ellen humbly to earth, for it implied a magnitude, a bounty, that could leave people helpless. Robbie knew that now, still, George in getting her back would start all over with her love, as if she were shy, as he often seemed to do — as if he took long trips away from her which she did not know about, and then came back to her as to a little spring where he had somehow cherished only the hope for the refreshment that all the time flowed boundlessly enough. As if in his abounding, laughing life, he had not really expected much. Well, she was always the same, the way a little picnic spot would remain the same from one summer to the next, and he was different and new.

Luckily Aunt Mac did not hear Robbie’s answer, or suppose there could be one; she was an old lady. But the Fairchilds half-worshiped alarm, and Ellen knew just how they would act if they could hear Robbie say, “ He begged me” — as well as if they had never left the room. It was a burden of responsibility, the awareness that had come to supply her with the Fairchild accompaniment and answer to everything happening, just as if they all were present, that unpredictable crowd; the same as, thinking in the night, she referred to Battle’s violent and intricate opinions when his sleeping body lay snoring beside her.

Now when Robbie said, “He begged me,” and sat down, Ellen could see in a mental tableau the family, one and all, fasten an unflinching look upon George.

So he begged love — George? Love that he had more of than the rest of them put together? He begged love from Robbie! They would disbelieve.

“Then he risked his life for— for— and you all let him! Dabney knew the train was coming!”

“Now, listen here, Robbie, we all love Georgie, no matter how we act or he acts,” said Ellen. “And isn’t that all there is to it?” All of a sudden she felt tired. She was never surer that all loving Georgie was not the end of it; but to hold back hurt and trouble, shouldn’t it just now be enough? She had said so, anyway — as if she were sure.

But she sighed. There was a tramping upstairs and around corners, a sudden whistle of flight in the stair well, the tripping cries of her daughters in laughter or flight, and then vaguely to Ellen’s ears it all mingled with the further and echoing sounds of a worse alarm. Dimly there seemed to be again in her life a bell clanging trouble, starting at the Grove, then at their place, the dogs beginning to clamor, the Negroes storming the back door crying, and the great rush out of this room, like the time there was a fire at the gin.

“Get it out! Get it out!” It was one cry, longlasting, half delight, half distress, all challenge.

“He won’t be pulled to pieces over something he did, and so he ran away,” said Robbie, her voice suddenly full. “Sure I came here to fight the Fairchilds — but he wasn’t even here when I came. Shelley warned him. All the Fairchilds run away.”

“Where have you been, Robbie Reid?” asked Aunt Mac. “ You’ve got a piece of cotton or a feather, one, in your hair.” Aunt Shannon with rising voice hummed a girlhood ballad.

“There is a fight and it’s come between us, Robbie,” said Ellen, her voice calm and a little automatic. “But it’s not over George — we won’t have it. And how that would hurt him, and shame him, to think it was, he’s so gentle. It’s not right to make him be pulled to pieces, and over something he did, and very honorably did. There’s a fight in us, already, I believe — in people on this earth, not between us, and there is a fight in Georgie too. It’s part of being alive, though you may think he cannot be pulled to pieces.”

Another near flutter of wings, a beating on walls, was in the air; but the throbbing softly insinuated in a strange yet familiar manner the sound of the plantation bells being struck and the school bell and the Methodist Church bell ringing, and cries from the scene of the fire they all ran to — cries somehow more joyous than commiserating, though they threatened ruin.

Robbie stood up again. Her poor wrinkled dress clung to her, and her face was pale as she said, “If there’s a fight in George, I think when he loves me he really hates you— hates the Fairchilds that he’s one of!”

“But the fight in you’s over things, not over people,” said Ellen gently. “Things like the truth, and what you owe people. Yes, maybe he hates something in us. I think you’re right— right.”

But Aunt Mac was answering Robbie too, knocking her folded fan on the arm of her chair. “You’ll just have to go on back if you’re going to use ugly words in here,” she was saying. “You’re in Shellmound now, Miss Robbie, but I know where you were brought up and who your pa and Your ma were, and anything you say don’t amount to a row of pins.

“Aunt Mac Fairchild!” said Robbie, lifting her voice again, and turning to the old lady her intense face. “Mrs. Lawes! You’re all a spoiled, stuck-up family that thinks nobody else is really in the world! But they are! You’re just one plantation. With a little crazy girl in the family, and listen at Miss Shannon. You’re not even rich! You’re just medium. Only four gates to get here, and your house needs a coat of paint! You don’t even have one of those little painted wooden niggers to hitch horses to!”

“Get yourself a drink of water, child,” said Aunt Mac, through her words. “You’ll strangle yourself. And talk louder. Nobody’s going to make me wear that hot earphone, not in September!

“Of course not, dear heart!” Aunt Shannon remarked.

Robbie sank into her chair and leaned, with her little square nails white on her small brown fingers, against the side of the table. “My sister Rebel is right. You’re either born spoiled in the world or you’re born not spoiled. And people keep you that way until you die. The people you love keep you the way you are.”

“Why, Robbie,” said Ellen. “If you weren’t born spoiled, George has certainly spoiled you — I can see he has. Surely you’ve been happy — so I’ve been thinking.”

“But he went to the Grove for dinner, when Miss Primrose had guinea for him. He couldn’t stay for me!”

“If George knew you were coming, it was his deepest secret,” said Ellen. ‘He just went to his dinner. He had a royal meal waiting for him at the Grove, and he went and ate it like any man, a sensible human being.”

“ He always goes to you. He always goes when you call him,” said Robbie. “If Bluet would call him!” Her small hands curled into fists in the cake crumbs over the cloth, and then opened out and waited as Ellen spoke.

“But George loves us! Of course he comes. George loves a great many people — just about everybody in the Delta, if you would count them. Don’t you know that’s the mark of a fine man, Robbie? Battle’s like that. Denis was even more well-loved. Why, George loves countless people.”

“No, he doesn’t!” Robbie looked at Ellen frantically, as if she had told her just what she feared. “I’m going to 1-leave out of here,” she said, with a sob like a little stutter in her words. “Mr. Doolittle.

He loves him,” she said seemingly to herself, to mystify herself.

“Well, you love George,” Ellen told her, as if there were no mystery there. There was a faint little scream from a bedroom, ending in laughter — Dabney’s.

Robbie looked around the room fatalistically — was she too imagining all the Fairchilds’ rapt faces? “Maybe he didn’t run away from me,” she said. “But he let me run away from him. That’s just as bad! Oh, I wish I was dead.” Her brown eyes went wide.

A boy’s gleeful cry rose from upstairs, from Ellen’s and Battle’s room. “Don’t,” Ellen whispered, not to Robbie. Then she could hear — from where, now, it did not matter— the most natural and yet the most terrible thing possible to hear just now — laughter, laughter filled with the undeniable music of relief.

Robbie flinched — at her own words, perhaps.

“Don’t you die. You love George,” Ellen told her. “He’s such a splendid boy, and we have all of us always honored him so.” She leaned back.

“It’s funny,” Robbie said then, her voice gentle, almost confiding. “Once I tried to be like the Fairchilds. I thought I knew how.” When there was no answer from Ellen, she went on eagerly and yet sadly. “Don’t any other people in the world feel like me? I wish I knew. Don’t any people somewhere love other people so much that they want to be — not like—but the same? I wanted to turn into a Fairchild. It wasn’t that I thought you were so wonderful. And I had a living room for him just like Miss Tempe’s. But that isn’t what I mean.

“But you all — you don’t ever turn into anybody.

I think you are already the same as what you love. So you couldn’t understand. You’re just loving yourselves in each other — yourselves over and over again!” She flung the small brown hand at the paintings of melons and grapes that had been trembling on the wall from the commotion in the house, forgetting that they were not portraits of Fairchilds in this room, and with a circle of her arm including the two live old ladies too. “You still love them, and they still love you! No matter what you’ve all done to each other! You don’t need to know how to love anybody else. Why, you couldn’t love me!”

She gave a daring little laugh, and let out a sigh that was a kind of appeal after it. Ellen sat up straight with an effort. In the room’s stillness, in Aunt Mac’s stare and Aunt Shannon’s sweet song, the absence of the Fairchilds and the quiet seemed almost demure, almost perverse. There was a festive little clatter from Tempe in the pantry, laughter coming downstairs.

Then there was George in the door, staring in.

39

ELLEN got up and took hold of the back of her chair, for she felt weak. She held on and held herself up straight, for she felt ready to deliver some important message to George, since he had come back. She was moved from her lethargy, from hearing things, a fluttering in the house like a bodily failing, by a quality of violation she felt quivering alive in Robbie; and looking at George she grew courageous in his implied strength.

Her hand held tightly to little Laura McRaven’s blue hair ribbon that lay caught over the chair back, flung behind her. Then, “Georgie,” she said, “don’t let them forgive you, for anything, good or bad. Georgie, you’ve made this child suffer—”

The Yellow Dog had not run down George and Maureen; Robbie had not stayed away too long; Battle had not driven Troy out of the Delta; no one realized Aunt Shannon was out of her mind; even Laura had not cried yet for her mother. For a little while it was a charmed life. And after giving George an imploring look in which she seemed to commit herself even further to him and even more deeply by wishing worse predicaments, darker passion, upon all their lives, Ellen fell to the floor.

Primrose and Jim Allen came in through the archway behind George, wearing their Sunday hats, and both gave little screams — first the little screams of mild surprise or greeting with which they always entered Shellmound, and then second screams of dismay. “Oh, Primrose!” said Jim Allen, and stopping still they shook their flowered heads at each other us if there were no more to be done.

Tempo, coming that instant into the room with a pastry cornucopia on a napkin, shrieked to hear her sisters and then to see Ellen being lifted in George’s arms. Then she said calmly, “Fainted. I have these spells myself, semi-occasionally. They are nothing to what I used to have as a girl. I bet the bird came in here!” She shuddered.

The new screams in the dining room brought in a roomful of Fairchilds with amazing quickness. Robbie backed against the china closet. Orrin was carrying a stunned or dead bird in his cupped hands. The girls, fingers still darting reminiscently to their hair, all fell kneeling, like steps of stairs, around the settee. George was taking off their mother’s shoes. Ellen lay with her eyes closed and with her childlike feet propped shallowly on the inclining end, under the fern,

George pushed the children a little. He rushed from Ellen’s side to fill a glass from a decanter on the sideboard, and as he went back to her with it, he leaned out and brushed Robbie’s wrist with his free hand. Next time he went by, for water, he bent and kissed her rapidly, and asked in pure curiosity that gave her a fierce feeling of joy, “ Why did you throw the pans and dishes out the window?” Then he was touching Ellen’s lips with various little glasses of stuff, frowning with concentration.

“I thought I saw Battle go by with a wild look — did you?” said Tempe. “Battle! You can come in, she’s not dying! ” Battle came in and roamed up and down the room and now and then gave a touch or a shake to Ellen’s shoulder. Bluet climbed up beside her mother and sang to her softly and leisurely,

“Polly-Wolly-Doodle All the Day,” crowding her a little where she was stretched out. It was taking some time to revive her; she was too clumsy now for other people to make easy. There was a tight ring of Fairchilds around her. Maureen every now and then went around the table, arms pumping, long yellow hair flying.

Roxie pressed her forefinger under her nose. Poor Miss Ellen just wasn’t strong enough any longer for such a trial. She wasn’t strong enough for Miss Dabney and Miss Robbie and everything right now. One time before, Miss Ellen fainted away when everybody went off and left her — it was when the gin caught fire — and she had lost that little baby, the one that came between Mr. Little Battle and Runny. Wasn’t it pitiful to see her so white? Poor Miss Ellen at this time.

Robbie caught glimpses of the white face from her distance outside the ring.

“Rub her wrists, George,” pleaded Battle.

It was Mrs. Fairchild’s tenth pregnancy. But oh, why had she waited to faint just at this moment? Why couldn’t Battle bring his own wife to? For the same reason the bird had got in the house when she came in, Robbie thought; for the reason Aunt Primrose killed her guinea fowl today for George: the wav of the Fairchilds, the way of the world.

Ellen opened her eyes, then closed them again.

“I saw her peep,”said Roxie. “Now, then. Git back to work, Vi’let, Little Uncle!”

“Half an hour,” Tempe announced to Ellen, as if that would gratify a lady who had fainted.

“Oh, Mama!” cried Dabney. “Shelley, bring a pillow to prop her up.”

“ We caught the bird, Mama,” said Ilauny clearly. “It was a brown thrush. It was the female.”

“It could have flown around our house all day and night with a thousand windows and never found the way out,” said Little Battle. “I didn’t think we was going to catch it, but Orrin caught it with Papa’s hat and batted it to the wall.”

Ellen opened her eyes. Orrin held out the still bird. “ Veni, vidi, vicil” he said.

Dabney was leaning over her mother accusingly. “Mama! What happened? I know! You were upset about me.”

“I’m all right,” said Ellen, lifting one arm and pulling Dabney’s hair low over her forehead the way she thought it looked nicer.

“Mama! Oh, Mama!”

Shelley, wordless beside Dabney, knelt on as if m a dream.

“I have the same thing, every now and then,” said Aunt Tempe. “I nearly died when Mary Denis married — could scarcely be revived.”

“Mama! Do you want me to get married?”

“Certainly she doesn’t,” said Tempe with surprise.

“Oh, she does too,” said Primrose.

“I think about your happiness,” said Ellen, in the thoughtful, slow voice of people coming out of faints.

“Oh, then!” Dabney jumped up, whirled, and with a scatter of tissue paper and ribbons she flung wide her newest present, which somebody hud put on the table (“A Point Valenciennes banquet cloth!” exclaimed Tempo. “Who from?”), and pulled it to her with it spreading behind her like a peacock tail, and pranced around. Then she spread it out before her with her arms wide and smiled tenderly over it at her mother, as if from a balcony. “Don’t you see you don’t need to worry?” she asked, showing how wide, how fine, how much in her possession she had everything, all for her mother to see.

40

WANT to get out?” asked Roy, just outside the dining-room arch. He and Laura both stood there, chins ducked. “Come on, Laura.”He had seen a lady’s hand reach out and pull his father in.

“All right.” She loved Roy—his scars, bites, scabs and bandages, and intricate vaccination, his light eyes and his sunburn, his little berry-colored nipples. He was giving her an intent, sizing-up look. “You’ll have to tote my turtle,” he said. “The whole time, and keep him right side up and not set him down anywhere, if you come with me.”

“Oh, I will,” Laura promised, shuddering.

“You’ll have to wait till I find him, so you can carry him.”

They ran down to the bayou, the turtle in Laura’s hands bouncing against her diaphragm. Roy went between two close Spanish Daggers and she went after him. The bayou had a warm breath, like a person.

“Is that your boat?” cried Laura.

“It’s as much mine as anybody’s. I’ll take you for a row if you get in,”said Roy, stepping in himself.

The boat was in a willow shadow, floating parallel to the bank—dark, unpainted, the color of the water. She would have to step deep. A fishing bucket was in it, and also one oar where a dark line of water went like a snake along the bottom.

“Here’s the other oar,” she said; it was resting on a dogwood tree. She stepped down in, and he instructed her to sit at the other end of the boat and be quiet. “I know how,” said Laura. On her lap the turtle looked out. Roy pushed off, his old tennis shoes splashed water which ran under her sandals, and he sat down and looked nowhere, frowning in the sun. The boat was cut loose but almost still, for as a current urges a boat on, the lack of current seems to pull it back, not let go. Laura could not see beyond a willow branch that hung in her face. Then with a gruff noise the oars went into the water, with the unwilling-looking, casual movement of Roy’s arm.

“Let me row,” said Laura.

“Be quiet,” said Roy. He took his tennis shoes slowly off and put them on the little seat between them. He hooked his toes. At the stroke of his oars a shudder would interrupt the smoothness of their motion. The bayou was narrow and low and soon the water’s edge was full of cypress trees. They went in heavy shade. There were now and then muscadines hanging in the air like little juicy balls strung over the trees beside the water, and they rode staring up, Roy with his mouth open, hoping that grapes might fall. Then leaves cut out like stars and the early red color of pomegranates lay all over the water, and imperceptibly they came out into the river. The water looked like the floor of the woods that could be walked on.

“Are we going down the river?” asked Laura.

“Sure. And the Yazoo River runs into the Mississippi River.”

“And it runs into the sea,” said Laura, but he would say no more.

As they went down the Yazoo, a long bight of ducks went over, going the way they were going, the V very high in the sky, very long and thin like a ribbon drawn by a linger through the air, but neither child said anything, and after a long time the ducks were a little wrinkle deep down in the sky and then out of sight.

On the other side of the river from where they had come, facing them, Laura saw what they were getting to, a wonderful house in the woods. It was twice as big as Shellmound. It was all quiet, and unlived in, surely; the dark water was going in front of it, not a road.

“Look!” she said.

Roy glanced over his shoulder and nodded.

“Let’s go in!”

There was a dark waterlogged landing, and Roy got the boat to it neatly and ran the chain around a post. He jumped out of the boat and Laura climbed out after him. “Bring my turtle, remember,” he said. She brought it, like a hot covered dish. They were in a woods level with the water, dark cedar trees planted in some pattern, some of them white with clematis. It looked like moonlight.

“Why, here’s Aunt Studney, way over here!” cried Roy. “Hi, Aunt Studney!”

Laura remembered Aunt Studney, coal-black, old as the hills, with her foot always in the road; on her back she carried a big sack that nearly weighted her down. There at a little distance, near the house, she was walking along, laboring and saying something.

“Ain’t studyin’ you.”

“That’s what she says to everybody — even Papa,” said Roy, “Nobody knows what she’s got in the sack.”

“Nobody in the world?”

“I said nobody.”

“Where does she live?” asked Laura a little fearfully.

“Oh, back on our place somewhere. Back of the Deadening. You’ll see her walking the railroad track anywhere between Greenwood and Clarksdale, Aunt Studney and her sack.”

“Are you scared of Aunt Studney?” asked Laura.

“No. Yes I am.”

“I despise Aunt Studney, don’t you?”

“Papa’s scared of her too. Me, I think that’s where Mama gets all her babies.”

“Aunt Studney’s sack?”

“Sure.”

“Do you think Ranny came out of that sack?”

“Sure. I don’t know if I came out of it, though.” Roy gave her a hard glance, and looked as if he might put his fist to her nose.

Aunt Studney stamped on, like an old wasp over the rough, waggling her burden.

“Look! She’s going in Dabney’s house!” cried Roy.

“Is this Dabney’s house?” cried Laura.

“Cousin Laura, you don’t know anything.”

“All right. Maybe she’s gone in to open her sack.”

“If she does, we’ll run oil with what’s in it!”

“Oh, Roy. That would be perfect.”

“Be quiet,” said Roy. “How do you know?”

“All right. You go in front.”

41

THEY went up an old drive, made of cinders, shaded by cedar and crape-myrtle trees, which the clematis and the honeysuckle had taken. When they came to the house, there was a dead mockingbird on the steps. They jumped over it, Laura not looking back — dead birds lay on their sides, like people. Roy reached down and touched the bird to see how dead it was; he said it was hot. The porch was covered with leaves, like the river, and there were loose, joggling boards in it. The door was open.

Roy and Laura, Laura with the turtle held in the crook of her arm now like a book, went into a vast room, the inside of a tower. Their heads fell back. Up there the roof, if there was one, seemed to fade into the light. Before them rose two stairs, wooden spirals that went up barely touching at wavery rims, little galleries on two levels, and winding into the depths of light — for Laura had a moment of dizziness and felt as if she looked into a well.

There was an accusing, panting breathing, and the thud of a big weight planted on the floor. “Look!” said Laura. Aunt Studney, whom she had forgotten, was in the middle of the room, which was empty of the furnishings of a house, standing over her sack and muttering and muttering.

“I know,” said Roy impatiently. He was regarding the chandelier, his hands on his hips — probably wishing it would fall. Laura all at once saw what a thing it was too; it was as prominent as the stairs and came down between them. Out of the tower’s round light at the top, down by a chain that looked the size of a spider’s thread, hung the chandelier with its flower-shaped head covered with clusters of soft and burned-down candles, as though a great thing had sometime happened here. The whole seemed to sway, almost to start in the sight, like anything head downward, like a pendulum that would swing in a clock but no one starts it.

“Run up the stairs!” cried Roy, starting forward.

“Aunt Studney,” whispered Laura.

“Well, I know!” cried Roy, as if Aunt Studney were always here on his many trips to this house.

“Did you say this was Dabney’s house?” asked Laura. There were closed doors in the walls all around, and leading off the galleries— but not even an acorn tea-set anywhere.

“Sure,” said Roy. “Make yourself at home. Run up the stairs.— What’s in your bag, Aunt Studney?”

Aunt Studney stood holding her sack on the floor between her feet, with her hands knotted together over its mouth, and peeping at them under an old hat of Mr. Battle’s. Then she threw her hands up balefully. Laura flung out and ran around the room, around and around the round room. Roy did just what she did — surprising! — and so it was a chase. Aunt Studney did not move at all except to turn herself in place around and around, arms bent and hovering, like an old bird over her one egg.

“Is it still the Delta in here?” Laura cried, panting.

“Croesus, Laura!” said Roy. “Sure it is!” And with a jump he mounted the stairs and began to run up.

Laura probably would have followed him, but could not leave, after all, for a little piano had been placed at the foot of her stair — actually a piece of furniture after all, looking small as a fairy instrument. She set the turtle down. She touched a white key, and it would hardly sink in at the pressure of her finger — as in dreams the easiest thing turns out to be hard — but the note sounded after a pause, coming back like an answer, a little far-off sound.

The key was warm. There was a shaft of sun here. The sun was on her now, warm, for — she looked up — the top of the tower was a skylight, and around it ran a third little balcony on which — she drew back her finger from the key she had touched — Roy was walking. And all at once Aunt Studney sounded too — a cry high and threatening.

“Roy, come down!” Laura called, with her hands cupped to her mouth.

But he called back, pleasure in his voice, “I see Troy riding Isabelle in Mound Field!”

“You do not!”

All at once a bee flew out at her. Out of the piano? Out of Aunt Studney’s sack? Everywhere! Why, there were bees inside everything, inside the piano, inside the walls. The place was alive. She wanted to cry out herself. She heard a hum everywhere, in everything. She stood electrified — and indignant.

“Troy! Troy! Look where I am!” Roy was crying from the top of the house. “I see Troy! I see the Grove — I see Aunt Primrose, back in her flowers! I see Papa! I see the whole creation. Look, look at me, Papa!”

“If he saw you he’d skin you alive!” Laura called to him. The bees, Aunt Studney’s sack, the turtle (where was he?), and Roy running around going to fall—all at once she could not stand Dabney’s house any longer.

But Roy looked down (she knew he was smiling) from the top, peering over a shaky little rail. “Aunt Studney! Why have you let bees in my house?” he called. The echoes went flying around the walls and down the stairs like something thrown down. It so delighted Roy that he cried again, “Why have you let bees in my house? W by have you let bees in my house?” and his laughter came breaking down over them again.

But Aunt Studney only said, as if it were for the first time, “Ain’t studyin’ you,” and held the mouth of her sack. It occurred to Laura that Aunt Studney was not on the lookout for things to put in, but was watching to keep things from getting out.

“Come back, Roy!” she called.

“Not ready! You come up! Bring my turtle!”

But at last he came down, his face rosy. “What’ll you give me for coming back?” he smiled. “Aunt Studney! What’s in your sack?”

Aunt Studney watched him swagger out, both hands squeezing on her sack; she saw them out of the house.

42

OUTDOORS it was silent, a green rank world instead of a playhouse.

“I’m stung,” said Roy calmly. With an almost girlish bending of his neck he showed the bee-sting at the nape, the still tender line of his hair. A submissive yet arrogant pleasure seemed to radiate from him, as if it had for its source the angry little bump. Now Laura wished she had one. When they went through the deep cindery grass of the drive, she saw the name “Marmion” cut into the stone of the carriage block.

Suddenly they cried out in one breath, “Look!” “A treasure,” said Roy, calmly still. Catching the high sun in the deep grass, like a penny in the well, was a jewel. It might have been there a hundred years or a day. They looked at each other and with one accord dropped down together into the grass. Laura picked it up,for Roy, unaccountably, held back, and she washed it with spit. Then suddenly, “Give it here,” and Roy held out his hand for it. “ You can’t have that — it’s Mama’s. I’ll take it back to her.”

Laura gazed at it. It was a pin that looked like a rose. She knew it would be worn here — putting her forefinger to her small, bony chest. “We’re where we’re not supposed to be looking for anything,” she said, as if something inspired her and made her clever, turning around and around with it as Roy tried to take it, holding it away and hiding it from Aunt Studney’s fastening look, for Aunt Studney with her sack was suddenly hovering again. “You can’t have it, you can’t have it, you can’t have it!”

Roy chased her at first, and then seemed to consider. He looked at Laura and the pin, at Marmion, Aunt Studney, even the position of the sun. He looked back at the river and the boat he had rowed here.

“All right,” he said, serenely.

They walked down and got back in the boat. They moved slowly over the water, Roy working silently against the current. Yet he seemed almost to be falling asleep rowing — he could sleep anywhere. His gaze rested a thousand miles away, and now and then, pausing, he delicately touched his bee-sting. Presently he rocked the boat. He never asked a word even about his turtle.

“The only place I’ve ever been in the water is in the Pythian Castle in Jackson with water wings,” said Laura. “Tar drops on You, from the roof.”

“What?”

Roy dragged in the oars, got on his feet, and threw Laura in the river as if it were all one motion.

As though Aunt Studney’s sack had opened after all, like a whale’s mouth, Laura, opening her eyes head down, saw its insides all around her — dark water and fearful fishes. A face flanked by receding arms looked at her under water — Roy’s, a face strangely indignant and withdrawing. Then Roy’s legs drove about her — she saw Roy’s tied-up toe, knew his foot, and seized hold. He kicked her; then his unfamiliar face again met hers, wide-eyed and smallmouthed and its hair streaming upwards, and his hands took her by her hair and pulled her up like a turnip. On top of the water he looked at her intently, his eyelashes thorny and dripping at her. Then he pulled her out, arm by arm and leg by leg, and set her up in the boat.

“Well, you’ve been in the Yazoo River now,” he said. He helped her wring out her skirt, and then rowed on, while she sat biting her lip. “I think that’s where Aunt Studney lives,” he said politely once, pointing out for her through the screen of trees a dot of cabin; it was exactly like the rest, away out in a field, where there was a solitary sunflower against the sky, many-branched and taller than a chimney, all going to seed, like an old Christmas tree in the yard. Then, “I couldn’t believe you wouldn’t come right up,” said Roy suddenly. “I thought girls floated.”

“You sure don’t know much. But I never have been in the water anywhere except in the Pythian Castle in Jackson with water wings,” she said all over again. They went from the river back into the bayou. Roy, asking her pardon, wrung out his pockets. At the right place, willow branches came to meet them overhead and touched their foreheads where they sat transfixed in their two ends of the boat. The boat knocked against the shore. They jumped out and ran separately forward. Laura paused and lifted up her hair, and turned on her heels in the leaves, sighing. But Roy ran up the bank, shaking the yucca bells, and disappeared in a cloud of dust.

India walked down to meet Laura and they walked up through the pecan grove toward the shady back road, with arms entwined. Laura dripped water and did not mind at all now. India was more startling than she because she was covered with transfer pictures; on her arms and legs were flags, sunsets, and baskets of red roses.

Dabney was at the gate.

“Where have you been?” asked Dabney, frowning into the sunset, in a beautiful floating dress.

“Where have you been?” said India. They passed in.

“It’s nearly time for rehearsal. She’s waiting for Troy,” India said, as if her sister could not hear.

“I’m dripping wet,” Laura murmured. They walked on twined together into the house. “Do you want to know why?” Mary Lamar was playing the wedding song as usual. Laura’s hand stole down to her pocket, where the garnet pin had lain. For a moment she ached to her bones — it was indeed gone. It was in the Yazoo River now. How fleetingly she had held to her treasure. It seemed to her that the flight of the ducks going over had lasted longer than the time she kept the pin.

Roxie with a cry of sorrow had fallen on her knees behind Laura to take up the water that ran from her heels.

“Shelley did this,” India remarked contentedly to the bent black head, and pulled up her skirt and stuck out her stomach, where the word “Constantinople” was stamped in curlicue letters.

“Lord God!” said Roxie. “ Whatever you reads, it’s a scandal to the jay birds.”

India, softly smiling, swayed to Laura and embraced and kissed her.

“Hold still, both of you,” said Rattle over their heads. “No explanations, either one of you.” He switched them equally, his white sleeve giving out a starch-smell as strong as daisies, and went up and down their four dancing legs. “ A man’s daughters! ” He told them to go wash their separate disgraces off and be back dressed for decent company before he had to wring both their necks at one time.

“Laura!” India cried ecstatically in the middle of it. “Lady Clare’s got chicken pox!”

“Then she won’t be the flower girl! And I can!” Laura thought, and never felt the pain now, though it was renewed.

43

YOUR flower girl,” Aunt Tempe announced a little later at the door of the parlor, where the family were gathering for the rehearsal supper party (the clock was striking one, which meant seven), “has the chicken pox — unmistakably. She is confined to my room.” She turned on her heel and marched off, but came right back again.

“Lady Clare’s brought it from Memphis!” Ellen gasped. She reclined, partly, there on the horsehair love-seat. Battle had told her to deck herself out and lie there, move at her peril.

“I have to take her to Memphis to get those Buchanan teeth straightened,”Tempe said shortly. “All life is a risk, as far as that goes.”

“Look out for the bridesmaids!” warned Roxie. “ Miss Dabney, look out for your bridesmaids and fellas!”

She giggled and ran out, ducking her head with her arm comically raised before Mr. Battle. It was the children that stalked in at the door, fancily bearing down on all the canes and umbrellas in the house, Ranny at the front, Bluet at the back, with India and Laura in starchy “insertion” skirts and satin sashes falling in at the last minute.

“We’re the wedding!” said Ranny. “I’m Troy! Oof, oof!” He bent over like an old man. “Shepherd crooks have come!” cried Little Battle, hooking Maureen with Aunt Mac’s Sunday cane.

“Stop, Ranny, you’re going to get the chicken pox,” said his mother.

“Papa!” cried Dabney.

There were further cries in the yard and in the back of the house.

‘Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Pinchy’s come through!”

Roxie rushed in a second time, but seriously now, bringing Vi’let and embracing her, with some little black children following and appearing and disappearing in the folds of their skirls, and Little Uncle marched in with his snowiest coat, standing out, and stood there remote and ordained-looking.

“Hallelujah,” he said.

“Well, hallelujah,” said Aunt Tempe, rather pointedly. George smiled.

Some open muffler roared in the yard.

“Dabney!” cried a chorus of voices, and the real bridesmaids ran in in a company, all in evening dresses, ready to go to the Winona dance afterwards. The boys ran in, some in blazers, and started playing with the children, lifting Ranny to the ceiling, kissing Aunt Tempe, spanking Bluet, and pulling Laura’s hair.

“Oh, you all, the crooks haven’t come! I’m a wreck,” said Dabney in their midst.

“They’ll be here tomorrow, precious,” said Aunt Tempe. “They won’t disappoint you, ever in this world.”

“Shoo, shoo! All children git out!” shouted Battle. “We’ve got to rehearse this wedding in a minute, shoo!” But the children all laughed.

“Who’s that?” Dickie Boy Featherstone was asking.

“Oh, Robbie,” said Dabney, “this is Nan-Earl Delaney, Gypsy Randall, Deltah and Dagmar Wiggins, Charlsie McLeoud, Bitsy Carmichael,” and she pulled all the bridesmaids forward with a fitful movement like flicking things out of a bureau drawer, “and then, there’s Pokey Calloway, Dickie Boy Featherstone, and Hugh V. McLeoud and Shine Young and Pee Wee Kuykendall and Red Boyne. They’re in the wedding. She’s my aunt-in-law isn’t that it, Mama?”

“Aunt?” said Red Boyne. “Aren’t you going to the dance?”

“And you already know the best man, Robbie,” said Dabney, nervously smiling. “It’s George.”

“Aunt Ellen,”said Laura, kneeling at the loveseat. “I’ve already had chicken pox.”

“All right, dear,” said her aunt. But it did not seem to occur to her that now Laura might be slipped into the wedding in the place of Lady Clare. And Laura, staring at her, suddenly wondered where, truly where, the rosy pin was. She got to her feet and backed away from her aunt slowly she wanted to know in what wave. Now it would be in the Yazoo River, then it would be carried down to the Mississippi, then —

“When’s that dish-faced preacher of yours coming, Ellen? Did you remind him?" said Battle, sprawling gently on a mere edge of the love-seat, as if to show them all he would not take up too much room.

“This is his business, dear,”said Ellen.

“Where’s Troy?” cried some bridesmaid.

“We could have a little wine now,” Ellen said to Shelley. “With that excitement in the kitchen. there’s no telling how or when or in what state our supper will get to us, when the rehearsing’s done. Take my keys.”

“Mama, they’re the heaviest and most keys in the world.”

“I know it! Some of them are to things I’ll never be able to think of or never will see again,” said Ellen.

One of those inexplicable pauses fell over the room, a moment during which Aunt Shannon’s voice could be heard in another part of the house, singing “Oft; in the Stilly Night.” Then Ellen pulled out a key. “This one’s to your father’s wine, though —to the best of my knowledge. Do you know that little door?”

Robbie sat in the middle of the whirl. Where was George now? She thought she had heard his voice. Something in her had taken note of every dress on Vi’let’s arm even when she came storming through the door of Shellmound, and now she saw that Mary Lamar Mackey wore the Nile green tulle that had the silver sash, and Aunt Tempe had on the Chinese coat of yellow velvet with roses and violets printed on it, the most dazzling bright spot in the room. Shelley wore the tea rose silk dress with the gathered side panels, and Dabney the white net with the gold kid gardenia on the front. Robbie herself had on a dress of Dabney’s — a black chiffon one that felt no different from a nightgown. Mary Lamar Mackey was playing “Constantinople.” The bridesmaids and groomsmen were dancing in the music room around the piano and across the hall and around the table in the dining room to cup up nuts in their hands.

“Dabney, don’t you ever drag Troy over the country to the dances with you?" asked Uncle Pinck, with Aunt Tempo pinning a Maréchal Niel bud in his lapel.

“Troy wouldn’t get up on the floor with me. Uncle Pinck, if it was the last thing he did on earth!” cried Dabney. She was dancing with Red Boyne. “I tell him I think he’s just too big and clumsy to learn.” It was a reason for loving him, but Uncle Pinck did not seem to understand this at once, from the bemused look that came on his face. Very daintily he took a little glass of wine—Shelley and Roy were passing it.

“I’m holding back my cornucopias,” said Tempe flatly. “You needn’t think you’ll gobble those up till the proper moment.”

44

MR. RONDO arrived, and not being able to make himself heard at the door, rapped on the windowpane, causing the bridesmaids to scream at that black sight through the wavery glass. Aunt Tempe insisted on his taking her chair and a little wine and even changed her mind about the cornucopias. She said she would go back and fill them with cherries. “I’m especially pleased to see you, Mrs. Fairchild,”Mr. Rondo told Robbie. “I was inquiring about you earlier in the week,” and she fluffed her hair a little and faint color came in her checks.

“Now where’s Troy?” asked Uncle Pinck. “Still, Primrose and Jim Allen haven’t got here. Has anybody ever got here from the Grove less than an hour or two late?”

“Here’s Troy,” said Little Battle, prancing up. “I’m Troy!”

“Be Troy, Little Battle,”said Battle. “Listen, Pinck. Ask him where he’s from.”

“Where are you from, Troy?” asked Uncle Pinck. drawling his words and bobbing his distinguished white head.

“Up near the Tennessee line,” said Little Battle, in the voice of Troy. “Mighty good people up there. Have good sweet water up there, everlasting wells. Cool nights, can tolerate a sheet in summer. The land ain’t what you’d call good.”

“ Little Battle, Little Battle,” said Ellen anxiously.

“Isn’t it lonesome, Troy?” prompted Battle.

“Lonesome? Not now. One of my sisters married a supervisor. Now we enjoy a mail and ice route going by two miles from the porch. Just reach down the mountain.”

“Papa!” cried Shelley. “George!”

“And the road’s got a bridge in, and a little sprinkle of gravel on it now. And my mammy’s health is good — got a letter from her in my pocket. I’ll read it to you. ‘Dear Troy, be a good boy. I would write more but must plead company. Have called in passing to mail this for me. Your ma.’

“The letter’s too much!” cried Ellen, extremely upset, and addressing herself to Mr. Rondo.

But Dabney leaned on the mantelpiece, her cheek in her hand, and smiled at them all a moment; all their eyes were on her. Aunt Tempe, who had laughed till she cried, brought her the first cornucopia on the tray. “Here, dear heart.” Dabney could imagine Troy’s eyes opening wide at the sight of Aunt Tempe tonight . Troy did venerate women — he thought Aunt Tempe should be home like his mammy, making a quilt or meditating words of wisdom, as he said his mother sat doing instead of getting lonesome.

Dabney smiled at Aunt Tempe, who had been going to Delta dances for thirty years. She had never put on her grown-up mind, Dabney thought fondly — as if her grown-up mind were a common old housedress Aunt Tempe would never want to be caught in. She did not want to be venerated. Dabney ran after her and kissed her soft, warm cheek. You never had to grow up if you were spoiled enough. It was comforting, if things turned out not to be what you thought. Dabney looked around the room, the big parlor where they all sat, eating and waiting, with the western sun level with the windows now and a hummingbird just outside drinking and suspending herself among the tall unpruned topknots of the abelias.

Her mother in a dress with a bertha was dutifully holding a tiny glass of cordial, sitting on the love-seat beside her father, who was leaning behind her, his brows contorted but unwavering, as though he had forgotten his expression. Maureen sat on the floor meekly bending her head to have her shining hair patted, and Ellen’s hand patted there. George came and stood in front of the mantelpiece, and looked out. beside her. And the bridesmaids were only there to fill up the room.

“You’re a genius, Tempe,” said Battle, after he let her put a cornucopia in his mouth. “I haven’t tasted better since the Fergusons’ funeral meats, and I believe you contributed to those.”

“Life is not all roses,” said Tempe, and took a cornucopia herself.

Dabney gazed at them thinking, “I always wondered what they would do if I married somebody they didn’t want me to. Poor Papa is the only one really suffering.” All her brothers would try to hold her and not let her go, though, when the time came actually to leave the house. Her mother had fainted, but Dabney had not believed too well that the fainting counted as a genuine protest — her mother did not have “ways.” “Your mother lacks ways,” Aunt Tempe always said to the girls, darkly.

“Another new dress, Tempe?” asked her father, who admired Tempe very much while he ran from her voice.

Aunt Tempe hit him with her fan. “This old thing? I had it before Annie Laurie died.”

It seemed to Ellen at moments that George regarded them and regarded things — just things, in the outside world — with a passion which held him so still that it resembled indifference. Perhaps it was indifference — as though they, having given him this astonishing feeling, might for a time float away and he not care. It was not love or passion itself that stirred him, necessarily, she felt; for instance, Dabney’s marriage seemed not to have affected him greatly, or Robbie’s anguish.

But little Runny, a flower, a horse running, a color, a terrible story listened to in the store in Fairchilds, or a common song, and yes, shock, physical danger, as Robbie had discovered, roused something in him that was immense contemplation, motionless pity, indifference. Then, he would come forward all smiles as if in greeting — come out of his intensity and give some child a spank or a present. Ellen had always felt this in George, and now there was something of surprising kinship in the feeling; perhaps she had fainted in the way he was driven to detachment. In the midst of the room’s commotion he stood by the mantel, as if at rest.

Robbie, looking at him from across the room, smiled faintly. “You were so sure of yourself, so conceited! You were so sure the engine would stop,” she murmured, like a refrain, like one last refrain — they had had no time alone; here nobody had. So she spoke as though no one else but George were in the room. It was something not one of them had ever thought of. Battle groaned, then raised up on his elbow to hear more.

George stood drinking his homemade wine by the summer-closed fireplace. A tinge of joyousness pervaded him still; for Ellen, he had a rampant, presiding sort of attitude. The others had all thrown themselves down in the soft flowered chairs, or else they danced at the room’s edges, in and out the door.

“The Dog didn’t hit us,” George said, speaking with no mistake about it straight across them all to Robbie. “I don’t think it matters what happens to a person, or what comes.”

“You didn’t think it mattered what happened to Maureen?” Robbie lowered her eyelids. Under Ellen’s hand Maureen began to chug. “ Choo — choo —”

George was still a moment, then crossed the room and pressed Robbie’s arms, pinned them to her side so that he seemed to hurt her.

“To me! I speak for myself,” he said matter-offactly. Battle made a rude sound. “Something is always coming, you know that.” For a moment George moved his gaze over the bobbing and shuttling bridesmaids to Ellen. “I don’t think it matters so much in the world what. Only” — he bent over Robbie with his look gone relentless — he was about to kiss her — “I’m damned if I wasn’t going to stand on that track if I wanted to! Or will again.”

“Ah! Doesn’t that sound like his brother Denis’s very words and voice?” cried Tempe, passing by with her little silver dish. “He would murder me if I contradicted him, and he loved me better than anybody in the world.”

George did kiss Robbie.

“But you’re everything on earth to me,” Robbie said plainly. Mr. Rondo put his finger tips to his brow. With an extremely conscious, an almost brazen, power of explicitness that seemed to match George’s, Robbie was leaving out every other thing in the world with the thing she said. The vulgar thing she said! Aunt Tempe cast her eyes simply up, not even at anybody.

For Tempo, her young brother George, who pulled Ranny out of the path of mad dogs, was simply less equal to pulling Dabney out of the way of Troy Flavin, Mary Denis out of the way of Mr. Buchanan, or himself out of the way of Robbie Reid, much less of trains turned loose on the railroad tracks. Deliver her from any of them — she didn’t care what mercifully got her out of their path. Of course if anything ever did bear down on her, Pinckney would be in Memphis, she knew that much. Nobody could really do anything about her ever except Denis. How idle other men were! It ‘was laziness on men’s part, the difficulties that came up in this world. A paradise in which men, sweating under their hats like field hands, chopped out difficulties like the green grass and made room for the ladies to flower out and flourish like cotton floated vaguely in Tempo’s mind and she gave her head a toss.

45

ELLEN leaned back against Battle’s long bulk, sipping her cordial, and under her gaze her family, as they had a trick of doing, seemed to separate one from another like islands being created out of a land in the sea that had sprawled conglomerate too long. Under her caressing hand was Maureen. The Dog had stopped in time not to kill her. Here in the long run so like them all, the mindless child could not, as they would not, understand a miracle. How could Maureen, poor child, see the purity and dullness of fact, of the outside-world fact? Of something happening? Which was miracle.

Robbie saw the miracle. Out of fear and possession, perhaps out of vulgarity itself, she saw. Not by George’s side, but tagging behind, in the clarity of wifely ferocity, she had seen the true vision, and suspected it. For her, a miracle in the outer world reflected the worse on her husband — for her it made him that much more of a challenger, a proud defier that she had to protect. For her his danger was the epitome of the false position the Fairchilds put him in.

Ellen saw clearly enough that George was not a challenging man at all; he was not “conceited” — Robbie’s funny little high school word. But he was magnificently disrespectful — that was what Ellen would have called him. For of course he saw death on its way, if they did not. It did not much matter what exactly happened to a man — something happened; and a man never could leave the never comprehending Maureen, always at the miraculous moment beside him. George had experienced this thing; it had visited him, no self-begotten thing, but a thing whirling out of the world at him.

No, the family would forever see the stopping of the Yellow Dog entirely after the fact — as a preposterous diversion of their walk, resulting in lovers’ complications, for with-the fatal chance removed, the serious went with it forever, and only the romantic and absurd abided. They would have nothing of the heroic or the tragic now, thought Ellen, as though now she yielded up a heart’s treasure.

Here they sat — all dreamily now, each with a piece of cake to spoil his supper — their truest selves, like their truest aberrations and truest virtues, not tampered with. Here in the closest intimacy the greatest anonymity lay, and a kind of basking, a kind of special pleasure, was in it. She heard Jim Allen and Primrose coming in that old electric car that they had a colored preacher to drive.

George had not borne it well that she called him heroic, as she did one day for something; but this, she saw now, was not for the reason that the heroism was not true, but that it too was after the fact —a quality of his heart’s intensity and his mind’s, too intimate for her to have looked into. That wild detachment was more intimate than desire. Would Robbie’s unseeing, fighting anger suit, him better than too close a divination? Well, that depended on how he loved Robbie, and on other things that she, being mostly mother, and being now tired, did not know. Just now they kissed, with India coming up close on her toes to see if she could tell yet what there was about a kiss.

And how did George himself think of this thing? They saw him let Robbie go, then kiss her one more time, and Battle laughed out from the pillows. George wished it might yet be intensified. Inextinguishable, the little adventure, like anything else, burned on.

In the music room Mary Lamar began playing “Constantinople,” and the bridesmaids rising a little blankly as if from sleep or rest took the groomsmen and began to dance here in the room, and around George and Robbie there in the center. Aunt Tempe too, with her finger drawing little circles, kept time. While George was kissing Robbie, Bluet had him around his knees and kissed him down there, with such fervor that she sat down, sighing. Then George and Robbie were dancing too — how amazingly together they went. In and out wove little Ranny, waving a pretended shepherd crook, shouting, “I’m the wedding!” and stamping the floral wreath in the rug.

“Oh, Aunt Ellen,” said Laura once more, coming forward. “Could I be in the wedding instead of Lady Clare? Because—”

“Why, yes, dear,” said Ellen, “of course.”

Then Bluet wandered by, dead on her feet, dragging the dulcimer which she had asked for and someone had given her.

“Bluet, aren’t you asleep? Bluet!” she cried, suddenly realizing the hour.

“Nobody put me to sleep,” whispered Bluet. Ellen caught hold of her and kissed her — her seriousness sweeter than Ranny’s delight now.

“Where do you think you’re going now, Ellen?” said Battle.

He held her down a minute, and she thought tenderly there was no reason in the world why he should have been cowed in his life by Denis and George.

“I’m going to put my baby to bed. You can’t hold me down from that.” She left them carrying Bluet, in her arms, giving Robbie a soft, open look as she went out.

“I’m the wedding!” Ranny was still calling, running by and twirling Tempe round. “I’m the wedding!” He carried a little green switch now for a stick, with peach leaves on it. In that moment Tempe, laughing, experienced not a thought exactly but a t ruer thing, a suspicion, that what she loved was not gone with Denis, but was, perhaps, perennial.

“Oh, there’s always so much — so much— happening here!" she cried contentedly, to one of the bridesmaids, the McLeoud girl.

Robbie put her hand up to her head a minute as she danced, against the whirl. Dabney was dancing before her, by herself, eyes shining on them all. Indeed the Fairchilds look you in circles, whirling delightedly about, she thought, stirring up contusions, hopefully working themselves up. But they did not really want anything they got — and nothing really, nothing really so very much, happened! But the next moment. Miss Primrose and Miss Jim Allen arrived with so much authority and ado that she almost had to believe in them.

“This is our third trip between the Grove and Shellmound today,” said Miss Jim Allen, almost falling against Battle in the door. “Nobody let us in!”

“Pinchy’s come through.”

“Of course!”

“It’s a wonder poor Primrose is not dead from carrying those Japanese lanterns in all by herself!”

“Why didn’t you holler?” said George, still dancing.

Primrose and Jim Allen looked in at the room playfully holding up their little unlighted paper lanterns.

“Oh, George, George, I’m still ashamed that guinea hen was tough!” Primrose cried.

“Why, it was deliciously tender,” said George over Robbie’s shoulder.

“George! Was it?”

Robbie know he smiled, with hischin in her hair. Well, the comfort they took in him — all the Fairchilds— and that he held dear was a far cry from knowing him. (They did a trick step.) The Fairchilds were always seeing him by a gusty lamp — exaggerating, then blinding—by the lamp of their own indulgence. While she saw him lighted up by his own fire — no one else but himself was there, a solid man, going through the world, a husband. It was by his being so full of himself that she felt the anger, the love, pride, and rest of marriage.

But oh, when all the golden persuasions of the Fairchilds focused upon him, he would vaunt himself again, to the point, almost, of self-destruction, if she did not watch him. He would drive her to vaunt herself too. After the Yellow Dog went by, he had turned on her a look that she would call the look of having been on a debauch. He did not do that for her; no, not for himself either, and not for them at all, but for—; she could only think it was for some old story. For he evidently felt that many old stories, family stories, Mississippi stories, were the same as very holy or very passionate, if stories could be those things. He looked out at the world, at her, sometimes, with that essence of the remote, proud, overinnocent Fairchild look that she suspected, as if some old story had taken hold of him — entered his flesh. And she did not know the story.

She beat, her hand softly, in time to “Constantinople,” on George’s hard back, for whatever threatened to waste his life, to lead him away, even if he liked, it, she was going to go up against if it, killed her. He laughed, and she bit him through his sleeve. Shelley saw her.

It was a little before then that Laura started up and raced out of the parlor. She met Aunt Ellen carrying Bluet, and she pressed thin as a switch against the stair bannister as she hurried, to let them by. It was out of love and the logic of love, and the thrill of loss she had, that she had seen a vision of Uncle George’s own pipe as a present for him. She slid still flatly and on tiptoe into the dining room. Nobody was there. Only the stack of plates for the supper and the flowers in the vases were there to see. On the chair under the lamp lay Uncle George’s pipe, where by her memory he had left it. She took the pipe up and holding it gently, its stem to her nose, she started away.

All at once Aunt Shannon’s voice spoke. She was sitting in the rocker she sat in all the time, only Laura had not noticed her. She was sewing on a little piece of embroidery.

“Denis,” she was saying pleasantly, in an afterthought lone of voice, “I meant to tell you, little Annie Laurie’s here. Set her heart on being in your wedding.”

Anxious as she was to get away with the pipe, Laura had to wait to hear what Aunt Shannon said about her mother.

“Has a little malaria, I’m sure,” murmured Aunt Shannon. “ But looks a hundred times better already, now that she’s here with us. Gals are growing too fast. That’s all.” Aunt Shannon rocked a little and then bit off her thread, and that was all she ever told Denis about Laura’s mother.

Uncle George’s pipe was perceptibly warm. It smelled stronger than Laura had guessed — it smelled violently. But she bore that, and crept, out with it and edged up the stairs, meet ing nobody. She knew where to hide the pipe — in her hat, which lay up in the wardrobe not to be touched till the day she put it on for the Yellow Dog to go home. The hat was a grand hiding place for her present for Uncle George, and the pipe was the thing he would want.