George’s Birthday by Eugene Field

Story type: Literature

Lawrence seemed to be lost in meditation. He sat in a rude arm-chair under his favorite fig tree, and his eyes were fixed intently upon the road that wound away from the manor house, through the broad gate, and across the brown sward until it lost itself in the oak forest yonder. Had it been summer the sight of Lawrence in the arm-chair under the fig tree would not have been surprising, but the spectacle of Lawrence occupying that seat in mid-winter, with his gaze riveted on the sear roadway, was simply preposterous, as you will all admit.

It was a February morning–clear, bright, and beautiful, with a hint of summer in the warmth of its breath and the cheeriness of its smile. Pope’s Creek, as it rippled along, made pleasant music, the partridges drummed in the under brush, and the redbirds whistled weirdly in the leafless chestnut grove near the swash. Now and then a Bohemian crow, moping lazily from the Maryland border, looked down at Lawrence in the old arm-chair and uttered a hoarse exclamation of astonishment.

But Lawrence heard none of these things; with stony stare he continued to regard the roadway to the grove. Could it be that he was unhappy? He was the proprietor of “Wakefield,” the thirteen hundred acres that stretched around him; five hundred slaves called him master; bounteous crops had filled his barns to overflowing, and, to complete what should have been the sum of human happiness, he had but two years before taken to wife the beautiful Mary, daughter of Joseph Ball, Esq., of Epping Forest, and the acknowledged belle of the Northern Neck. How, then, could Lawrence be unhappy?

The truth is, Lawrence was in a delirium of expectancy. He stood, as it were, upon the threshold of an event. The experience which threatened him was altogether a new one; he was in a condition of suspense that was simply torturesome.

This event had been anticipated for some time. By those subtile methods peculiar to her sex, Mary, the wife, had prepared herself for it, and Lawrence, too, had declared ever and anon his readiness to face the ordeal; but, now that the event was close at hand, Lawrence was weak and nervous and pale, and it was evident that Mary would have to confront the event without the hope of any practical assistance from her husband.

“It is all the fault of the moon,” muttered Lawrence. “It changed last night, and if I had paid any attention to what Aunt Lizzie and Miss Bettie said I might have expected this trouble to-day. A plague take the moon, I say, and all the ills it brings with its monkeyshines!”

* * * * * *

Along the pathway across the meadow meandered three feminine figures attired in the quaint raiment of those remote Colonial times–Mistress Carter, her daughter Mistress Fairfax, and another neighbor, the antique and angular Miss Dorcas Culpeper, spinster. At sight of Lawrence they groaned, and Miss Culpeper found it necessary to hold her big velvet bag before her face to conceal the blushes of indignation which she felt suffusing her venerable features when she beheld the horrid author of a kind of trouble to which, on account of her years and estate, she could never hope to contribute save as a party of the third part. And oh! how guilty Lawrence looked and how guilty he felt, too, as he sat under his fig tree just then. He dropped his face into his hands and ground his elbows into his knees and indulged in bitter thoughts against the feminine sex in general and against the moon and Miss Dorcas Culpeper, spinster, in particular.

So absorbing were these bitter reflections that, although Lawrence had posted himself under the fig tree for the sole purpose of discovering and of heralding the approach of a certain expected visitor, he was not aware of Dr. Parley’s arrival until that important personage had issued from the oak grove, had traversed the brown road, and was dignifiedly stalking his flea-bitten mare through the gateway. Then Lawrence looked up, gave a sickly smile, and bade the doctor an incoherent good-morning. Dr. Parley was sombre and impressive. He seldom smiled. An imperturbable gravity possessed him from the prim black-satin cockade on his three-cornered hat to the silver buckles on his square-toed shoes. In his right hand he carried a gold-headed cane which he wielded as solemnly as a pontiff might wield a sceptre, and as he dismounted from his flea-bitten mare and unswung his ponderous saddlebags he never once suffered the gold head of his impressive cane to lapse from its accustomed position at his nostrils.

“Go right into the house, doctor,” said Lawrence, feebly, “I ‘ll look after the mare. You have n’t come any too soon–Mary ‘s taking on terrible.”

It was mean of Dr. Parley, but at this juncture he did really smile–yes, and it was a smile which combined so much malevolent pity and scorn and derision that poor Lawrence felt himself shrivelling up to the infinitesimal dimension of a pea in a bushel-basket. He led the flea-bitten mare to the cherry tree and tied her there. “If you bark that tree I ‘ll tan you alive,” said Lawrence hoarsely, to the champing, frisky creature, for now he hated all animal life from Dr. Parley down, down, down even to the flea-bitten mare. Then, miserable and nervous, Lawrence returned to the arm-chair under the fig tree–and, how wretched he was!

Pretty soon he heard a merry treble voice piping out: “Is ze gockter tum to oo house?” and Lawrence saw little Martha toddling toward him. Little Martha was Mistress Dandridge’s baby girl. The Dandridges lived a short way beyond the oak grove, and little Martha loved to visit Uncle Lawrence and Aunt Mary, as she called Lawrence and his wife.

“Yes, Martha,” said Lawrence, sadly, “the doctor’s come.”

“Ain’t oo glad ze gockter’s tum?” asked the child, anxiously, for she recognized the weary tone of Lawrence’s voice.

“Oh, yes,” he answered, quickly and with an effort at cheerfulness, “I ‘m glad he ‘s come. Ha, ha!”

“Is oo doing to have oo toof pulled?” she inquired, artlessly.

Lawrence shook his head.

“No, little one,” said he, in a melancholy voice, “I wish I was.”

Then Martha wanted to know whether the doctor had brought his saddlebags, and when Lawrence answered in the affirmative a summer of sunshine seemed to come into the child’s heart and burst out over her pretty face.

“Oh, I know!” she cried, as she clapped her fat little hands. “Ze gockter has bwought oo a itty baby!”

Now Martha’s innocence, naivete, and exuberance rather pleased Lawrence. In fact, Martha was the only human being in all the world who had treated Lawrence with any kind of consideration that February morning, and all at once Lawrence felt his heart warm and go out toward the prattling child.

“Come here, little Martha,” said he, kindly, “and let me hold you on my knee. Who told you about the–about the–the baby, eh?”

“Mamma says ze gockter allers brings itty babies in his sagglebags. Do oo want a itty baby, Uncle Lawrence?”

“Yes, Martha, I do,” said he, kissing her, “and I want a little girl just like you.”

Now Martha had guessed at the event, and her guess was eminently correct. Lawrence had told the truth, too; it was a little girl he wanted–not one that looked like Martha, perhaps–one that looked like his Mary would please him most. So the two talked together, and Lawrence found himself concocting the most preposterous perjuries touching the famous saddlebags and the babies, but it seemed to delight little Martha all the more as these perjuries became more and more preposterous.

For reasons, however, which we at this subsequent period can appreciate, this confabulation could not last for aye, and when, finally, little Martha trotted back homeward Lawrence bethought himself it was high time to reconnoiter the immediate scene of action within his house. He found a group of servants huddled about the door. Chloe, Becky, Ann, Snowdrop, Pearl, Susan, Tilly–all, usually cheerful and smiling, wore distressful countenances now. Nor did they speak to him as had been their wont. They seemed to be afraid of him, yet what had he done–what had he ever done that these well-fed, well-treated slaves should shrink from him in his hour of trouble?

It was still gloomier inside the house. Aunt Lizzie and Miss Bettie, the nurses, had taken supreme charge of affairs. At this moment Aunt Lizzie, having brewed a pot of tea, was regaling Mistress Carter and Mistress Fairfax and the venerable Miss Dorcas Culpeper, spinster, with a desultory but none the less interesting narrative of her performances on countless occasions similar to the event about to take place. The appearance of Lawrence well-nigh threw Miss Culpeper into hysterics, and, to escape the dismal groans, prodigious sighs, and reproachful glances of the others, Lawrence made haste to get out of the apartment. The next room was desolate enough, but it was under Mary’s room and there was some comfort in knowing that. Yet the nearer Lawrence came to Mary’s room the more helpless he grew. He could not explain it, but he was lamentably weak and miserable. A strange fear undid him and he fairly trembled.

“I will go up and ask if there is anything I can do,” he said to himself, for he was ashamed to admit his cowardice.

But his knees failed him and he sat down on the stairs and listened and wished he had never been born.

Oh, how quiet the house was. Lawrence strained his ears to catch a sound from Mary’s room. He could hear a faint echo of the four chattering women in the front chamber below, but not a sound from Mary’s room. Now and then a shrill cry of a jay or the lowing of the oxen in the pasture by the creek came to him from the outside world–but not a sound from Mary’s room. His heart sank; he would have given the finest plantation in Westmoreland County for the echo of Mary’s voice or the music of Mary’s footfall now.

Presently the door of Mary’s room opened. The cold, unrelenting, forbidding countenance of Miss Bettie, the nurse, confronted Lawrence’s upturned, pleading face.

“Oh, it ‘s you, is it?” said Miss Bettie, unfeelingly, and with this cheerless remark she closed the door again, and Lawrence was more miserable than ever. He stole down-stairs into a back room, escaped through a window, and slunk away toward the stables. The whole world seemed turned against him–in the flower of early manhood he found himself unwillingly and undeservedly an Ishmaelite.

He rebelled against this cruel injustice.

Then he grew weak and childish again.

Anon he anathematized humanity, and then again he ruefully regretted his own existence.

In a raging fever one moment, he shivered and chattered like a sick magpie the next.

But when he thought of Mary his heart softened and sweeter emotions thrilled him. She, at least, he assured himself, would defend him from these persecutions were she aware of them. So, after roaming aimlessly between the barn and the creek, the creek and the overseer’s house, the overseer’s house and the swash, the swash and the grove, the grove and the servants’ quarters, Lawrence made up his mind that he ‘d go back to the house (like the brave man he wanted to make himself believe he was) and help Mary endure “the ordeal,” as Miss Dorcas Culpeper, spinster, was pleased to term the event. But Lawrence could not bring himself to face the feminine quartet in the front chamber–now that he came to think of it he recollected that he always had detested those four impertinent gossips! So he crept around to the side window, raised it softly, crawled in through, and slipped noiselessly toward the stairway.

Then all at once he heard a cry; a shrill little voice that did not linger in his ears, but went straight to his heart and kept echoing there and twining itself in and out, in and out, over and over again.

This little voice stirred Lawrence strangely; it seemed to tell him things he had never known before, to speak a wisdom he had never dreamed of, to breathe a sweeter music than he had ever heard, to inspire ambitions purer and better than any he had ever felt–the voice of his firstborn–you know, fathers, what that meant to Lawrence.

Well, Lawrence was brave again, but there was a lump in his throat and his eyes were misty.

“She’s here at last,” he murmured thankfully; “heaven be praised for that!”

Of course you understand that Lawrence had been hoping for a girl; so had his wife. They had planned to call her Mary, after her mother, the quondam belle of the Northern Neck. Grandfather Joseph Ball, late of Epping Forest, was to be her godfather, and Colonel Bradford Custis of Jamestown had promised to grace the christening with his imposing presence.

“Well, you can come in,” said Miss Bettie, with much condescension, and in all humility Lawrence did go in.

Dr. Parley was quite as solemn and impressive as ever. He occupied the great chair near the chimney-place, and he still held the gold head of his everlasting cane close to his nose.

“Well, Mary,” said Lawrence, with an inquiring, yearning glance. Mary was very pale, but she smiled sweetly.

“Lawrence, it’s a boy,” said Mary.

Oh, what a grievous disappointment that was! After all the hopes, the talk, the preparations, the plans–a boy! What would Grandfather Ball, late of Epping Forest, say? What would come of the grand christening that was to be graced by the imposing presence of Colonel Bradford Custis of Jamestown? How the Jeffersons and Randolphs and Masons and Pages and Slaughters and Carters and Ayletts and Henrys would gossip and chuckle, and how he–Lawrence–would be held up to the scorn and the derision of the facetious yeomen of Westmoreland! It was simply terrible.

And just then, too, Lawrence’s vexation was increased by a gloomy report from the four worthy dames down-stairs–viz., Mistress Carter, Mistress Fairfax, Miss Dorcas Culpeper, spinster, and Aunt Lizzie, the nurse. These inquiring creatures had been casting the new-born babe’s horoscope through the medium of tea grounds in their blue-china cups, and each agreed that the child’s future was full of shame, crime, disgrace, and other equally unpleasant features.

“Now that it’s a boy,” said Lawrence, ruefully, “I ‘m willing to believe almost anything. It would n’t surprise me at all if he wound up on the gallows!”

But Mary, cherishing the puffy, fuzzy, red-faced little waif in her bosom, said to him, softly: “No matter what the others say, my darling; I bid you welcome, and, by God’s grace, my love and prayers shall make you good and great.”

And it was even so. Mary’s love and prayers did make a good and great man of that unwelcome child, as we who celebrate his birthday in these later years believe. They had a grand christening, too; Grandfather Ball was there, and Colonel Bradford Custis, and the Lees, the Jeffersons, the Randolphs, the Slaughters–yes, all the old families of Virginia were represented, and there was feasting and merry-making for three days! Such cheer prevailed, in fact, that even Miss Dorcas Culpeper, spinster, and Lawrence, the happy father, became completely reconciled. Soothed by the grateful influences of barbecued meats and draughts of rum and sugar, Lawrence led Miss Culpeper through the minuet.

“A very proper name for the babe?” suggested Miss Culpeper.

“Yes, we will call him George, in honor of his majesty our king,” said Lawrence Washington, with the pride that comes of loyalty and patriotism.

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