From The Wit and Humor of America, edited by Marshall P. Wilder, Volume III, New York and London: Funk and Wagnalls and Company, 1911; pp. 556-564.
BY OPIE READ
Slowly and heavily the Major walked out upon the veranda. He stood upon the steps leading down into the yard, and he saw Louise afar off standing upon the river’s yellow edge. She had thrown her hat upon the sand, and she stood with her hands clasped upon her brown head. A wind blew down the stream, and the water lapped at her feet. The Major looked back into the library, at the door wherein Pennington had stood, and sighed with relief upon finding that he was gone. He looked back toward the river. The girl was walking along the shore, meditatively swinging her hat. He stepped to the corner of the house, and, gazing down the road, saw Pennington on a horse, now sitting straight, now bending low over the horn of the saddle. The old gentleman had a habit of making a sideward motion with his hand as if he would put all unpleasant thoughts behind him, and now he made the motion not only once, but many times. And it seemed that his thoughts would not obey him, for he became more imperative in his pantomimic demand.
At one corner of the large yard, where the smooth ground broke off into a steep slope to the river, here stood a small office built of brick. It was the Major’s executive chamber, and thither he directed his steps. Inside this place his laugh was never heard; at the door his smile always faded. In this commercial sanctuary were enforced the exactions that made the plantation thrive. Outside, 557 in the yard, in the “big house,” elsewhere under the sky, a plea of distress might moisten his eyes and soften his heart to his own financial disadvantage, but under the moss-grown shingles of the office all was business, hard, uncompromising. It was told in the neighborhood that once, in this inquisition of affairs, he demanded the last cent possessed by a widowed woman, but that, while she was on her way home, he overtook her, graciously returned the money, and magnanimously tore to pieces a mortgage that he held against her small estate.
Just as he entered the office there came across the yard a loud and impatient voice. “Here, Bill, confound you, come and take this horse. Don’t you hear me, you idiot? You infernal niggers are getting to be so no-account that the last one of you ought to be driven off the place. Trot, confound you. Here, take this horse to the stable and feed him. Where is the Major? In the office? The devil he is.”
Toward the office slowly strode old Gideon Batts, fanning himself with his white slouch hat. He was short, fat, and bald; he was bow-legged with a comical squat; his eyes stuck out like the eyes of a swamp frog; his nose was enormous, shapeless, and red. To the Major’s family he traced the dimmest line of kinship. During twenty years he had operated a small plantation that belonged to the Major, and he was always at least six years behind with his rent. He had married the widow Martin, and afterward swore that he had been disgracefully deceived by her, that he had expected much but had found her moneyless; and after this he had but small faith in woman. His wife died and he went into contented mourning, and out of gratitude to his satisfied melancholy, swore that he would pay his rent, but failed. Upon the Major he held a strong hold, and this was a puzzle to his neighbors. Their 558 characters stood at fantastic and whimsical variance; one never in debt, the other never out of debt; one clamped by honor, the other feeling not its restraining pinch. But together they would ride abroad, laughing along the road. To Mrs. Cranceford old Gid was a pest. With the shrewd digs of a woman, the blood-letting side stabs of her sex, she had often shown her disapproval of the strong favor in which the Major held him; she vowed that her husband had gathered many an oath from Gid’s swollen sore of execration (when, in truth, Gid had been an apt pupil under the Major), and she had hoped that the Major’s attachment to the church would of necessity free him from the humiliating association with the old sinner, but it did not, for they continued to ride abroad, laughing along the road.
Like a skittish horse old Gid shied at the office door. Once he had crossed that threshold and it had cost him a crop of cotton.
“How are you, John?” was Gid’s salutation, as he edged off, still fanning himself.
“How are you, sir?” was the Major’s stiff recognition of the fact that Gid was on earth.
“Getting hotter, I believe, John.”
“I presume it is, sir.” The Major sat with his elbow resting on a desk, and about him were stacked threatening bundles of papers; and old Gid knew that in those commercial romances he himself was a familiar character.
“Are you busy, John?”
“Yes, but you may come in.”
“No, I thank you. Don’t believe I’ve got time.”
“Then take time. I want to talk to you. Come in.”
“No, not to-day, John. Fact is I’m not feeling very well. Head’s all stopped up with a cold, and these summer 559 colds are awful. I tell you. It was a summer cold that took my father off.”
“How’s your cotton in that low strip along the bayou?”
“Tolerable, John; tolerable.”
“Come in. I want to talk to you about it.”
“Don’t believe I can stand the air in there, John. Head all stopped up. Don’t believe I’m going to live very long.”
“Nonsense. You are as strong as a buck.”
“You may think so, John, but I’m not. I thought father was strong, too, but a summer cold got him. I am getting along in years, John, and I find that I have to take care of myself. But if you really want to talk to me about that piece of cotton, come out where it’s cool.”
The Major shoved back his papers and arose, but hesitated; and Gid stood looking on, fanning himself. The Major stepped out and Gid’s face was split asunder with a broad smile.
“I gad. I’ve been up town and had a set-to with old Baucum and the rest of them. Pulled up fifty winner at poker and jumped. Devilish glad to see you; miss you every minute of the time I’m away. Let’s go over here and sit down on that bench.”
They walked toward a bench under a live-oak tree, and upon Gid’s shoulder the Major’s hand affectionately rested. They halted to laugh, and old Gid shoved the Major away from him, then seized him and drew him back. They sat down, still laughing, but suddenly the Major became serious.
“Gid, I’m in trouble,” he said.
“Nonsense, my boy, there is no such thing as trouble. Throw It off. Look at me. I’ve had enough of what the world calls trouble to kill a dozen ordinary men, but just look at me — getting stronger every day. Throw it off. What is it, anyway?560
“Louise declares that she is going to marry Pennington.”
“What!” old Gid exclaimed, turning with a bouncing flounce and looking straight at the Major. “Marry Pennington! Why, she shan’t, John. That’s all there is of it. We object and that settles it. Why, what the deuce can she be thinking about?
“Thinking about him,” the Major answered.
“Yes, but she must quit it. Why, it’s outrageous for as sensible a girl as she is to think of marrying that fellow. You leave it to me; hear what I said? Leave it to me.”
This suggested shift of responsibility did not remove the shadow of sadness that had fallen across the Major’s countenance.
“You leave it to me and I’ll give her a talk she’ll not forget. I’ll make her understand that she’s a queen, and a woman is pretty devilish skittish about marrying anybody when you convince her that she’s a queen. What does your wife say about it?”
“She hasn’t said anything. She’s out visiting and I haven’t seen her since Louise told me of her determination to marry him.”
“Don’t say determination, John. Say foolish notion. But it’s all right.”
“No, it’s not all right.”
“What, have you failed to trust me? Is it possible that you have lost faith in me? Don’t do that, John, for if you do it will be a never failing source of regret. You don’t seem to remember what my powers of persuasion have accomplished in the past. When I was in the legislature, chairman of the Committee on County and County Lines, what did my protest do? It kept them from cutting off a ten-foot strip of this county and adding it to Jefferson. 561 You must remember those things, John, for in the factors of persuasion lie the shaping of human life. I’ve been riding in the hot sun and I think that a mint julep would hit me now just about where I live. Say, there, Bill, bring us some mint, sugar and whisky. And cold water, mind you.”
“Ah,” said old Gideon, sipping his scented drink, “virtue may become wearisome, and we may gape during the most fervent prayer, but I gad, John, there is always the freshness of youth in a mint julep. Pour just a few more drops of liquor into mine, if you please — want it to rassle me a trifle, you know. Recollect those come-all ye songs we used to sing, going down the river? Remember the time I snatched the sword out of my cane and lunged at a horse trader from Tennessee? Scoundrel grabbed it and broke it off and it was all I could do to keep him from establishing a close and intimate relationship with me. Great old days, John; and I gad, they’ll never come again.”
“I remember it all, Gid, and it was along there that you fell in love with a woman that lived at Mortimer’s Bend.”
“Easy, now, John. A trifle more liquor, if you please. Thank you. Yes, I used to call her the wild plum. Sweet thing, and I had no idea that she was married until her lout of a husband came down to the landing with a double-barrel gun. Ah, Lord, if she had been single and worth money I could have made her very happy. Fate hasn’t always been my friend, John.”
“Possibly not, Gid, but you know that fate to be just should divide her favors, and this time she leaned toward the woman.”
“Slow, John. I gad, there’s your wife.”
A carriage drew up at the yard gate and a woman stepped out. She did not go into the house, but seeing 562 the Major, came toward him. She was tall, with large black eyes and very gray hair. In her step was suggested the pride of an old Kentucky family, belles, judges and generals. She smiled at the Major and bowed stiffly at old Gid. The two men arose.
“Thank you, I don’t care to sit down,” she said. “Where is Louise?”
“I saw her down by the river just now,” the Major answered.
“I wish to see her at once,” said his wife.
“Shall I go and call her, madam?” Gid asked.
She gave him a look of surprise and answered; “No, I thank you.”
“No trouble, I assure you,” Gid persisted. “I am pleased to say that age has not affected my voice, except to mellow it with more of reverence when I address the wife of a noble man and the mother of a charming girl.”
She had dignity, but humor was never lost upon her, and she smiled. This was encouraging, and old Gid proceeded: “I was just telling the Major of my splendid prospects for a bountiful crop this year, and I feel that with this blessing of Providence I shall soon be able to meet all my obligations. I saw our rector, Mr. Mills, this morning, and he spoke of how thankful I ought to be — he had just passed my bayou field — and I told him that I would not only assert my gratitude, but would prove it with a substantial donation to the church at the end of the season.”
In the glance which she gave him there was refined and gentle contempt; and then she looked down upon the decanter of whisky. Old Gideon drew down the corners of his mouth, as was his wont when he strove to excite compassion.
“Yes,” he said with a note of pity forced upon his 563 voice, “I am exceedingly thankful for all the blessings that have come to me, but I haven’t been very well of late; rather feeble to-day, and the kind Major noticing it, insisted upon my taking a little liquor, the medicine of our sturdy and gallant fathers, madam.”
The Major sprawled himself back with a roaring laugh, and hereupon Gid added: “It takes the Major a long time to get over a joke. Told him one just now and it tickled him mighty nigh to death. Well, I must be going now, and, madam, if I should chance to see anything of your charming daughter, I will tell her that you desire a conference with her. William,” he called, “my horse, if you please.”
The Major’s wife went into the house as Batts came up, glancing back at him as she passed through the door; and in her eyes there was nothing as soft as a tear. The old fellow winced, as he nearly always did when she gave him a direct look.
“Are you all well?” Gideon asked, lifting the tails of his long coat and seating himself in a rocking chair.
“First-rate,” the Major answered, drawing forward another rocker; and when he had sat down, he added: “Somewhat of an essence of November in the air.”
“Yes,” Gid assented; “felt it in my joints before I got up this morning.” From his pocket he took a plug of tobacco.
“I thought you’d given up chewing,” said the Major. “Last time I saw you I understood you to say that you had thrown your tobacco away.”
“I did, John; but, I gad, I watched pretty close where I threw it. Fellow over here gave me some stuff that he said would cure me of the appetite, and I took it until I was afraid it would, and then threw it away. I find that 564 when a man quits tobacco he hasn’t anything to look forward to. I quit for three days once, and on the third day, about the time I got up from the dinner table, I asked myself: ‘Well, now, got anything to come next?’ And all I could see before me was hours of hankering; and, I gad, I slapped a negro boy on a horse and told him to gallop over to the store and fetch me a hunk of tobacco. And after I broke my resolution I thought I’d have a fit there in the yard waiting for that boy to come back. I don’t believe that its right for a man to kill any appetite that the Lord has given him. Of course, I don’t believe in the abuse of a good thing, but it’s better to abuse it a little sometimes than not to have it at all. If virtue consists in deadening the nervous system to all pleasurable influences, why, you may just mark my name off the list. There was old man Haskill. I sat up with him the night after he died, and one of the men with me was harping upon the great life the old fellow had lived — never chewed, never smoked, never was drunk, never gambled, never did anything except to stand still and be virtuous — and I couldn’t help but feel that he had lost nothing by dying.”