Story type: Literature
In the failing light of the midsummer evening, two women sat upon the broad veranda that ran round three sides of the old Virginia mansion. One was young and slender with the slightness of delicate girlhood. The other was old, black and ample,–a typical mammy of the old south. The girl was talking in low, subdued tones touched with a note of sadness that was strange in one of her apparent youth, but which seemed as if somehow in consonance with her sombre garments.
“No, no, Peggy,” she was saying, “we have done the best we could, as well as even papa could have expected of us if he had been here. It was of no use to keep struggling and straining along, trying to keep the old place from going, out of a sentiment, which, however honest it might have been, was neither common sense nor practical. Poor people, and we are poor, in spite of the little we got for the place, cannot afford to have feelings. Of course I hate to see strangers take possession of the homestead, and–and–papa’s and mamma’s and brother Phil’s graves are out there on the hillside. It is hard,–hard, but what was I to do? I couldn’t plant and hoe and plow, and you couldn’t, so I am beaten, beaten.” The girl threw out her hands with a despairing gesture and burst into tears.
Mammy Peggy took the brown head in her lap and let her big hands wander softly over the girl’s pale face. “Sh,–sh,” she said as if she were soothing a baby, “don’t go on lak dat. W’y whut’s de mattah wid you, Miss Mime? ‘Pears lak you done los’ all yo’ spe’it. Whut you reckon yo’ pappy ‘u’d t’ink ef he could see you ca’in’ on dis away? Didn’ he put his han’ on yo’ haid an’ call you his own brave little gal, jes’ befo’, jes’ befo’–he went?”
The girl raised her head for a moment and looked at the old woman.
“Oh, mammy, mammy,” she cried, “I have tried so hard to be brave–to be really my father’s daughter, but I can’t, I can’t. Everything I turn my hand to fails. I’ve tried sewing, but here every one sews for herself now. I’ve even tried writing,” and here a crimson glow burned in her cheeks, “but oh, the awful regularity with which everything came back to me. Why, I even put you in a story, Mammy Peggy, you dear old, good, unselfish thing, and the hard-hearted editor had the temerity to decline you with thanks.”
“I wouldn’t’a’ nevah lef’ you nohow, honey.”
Mima laughed through her tears. The strength of her first grief had passed, and she was viewing her situation with a whimsical enjoyment of its humorous points.
“I don’t know,” she went on, “it seems to me that it’s only in stories themselves that destitute young Southern girls get on and make fame and fortune with their pens. I’m sure I couldn’t.”
“Of course you couldn’t. Whut else do you ‘spect? Whut you know ’bout mekin’ a fortune? Ain’t you a Ha’ison? De Ha’isons nevah was no buyin’ an’ sellin’, mekin’ an’ tradin’ fambly. Dey was gent’men an’ ladies f’om de ve’y fus’ beginnin’.”
“Oh what a pity one cannot sell one’s quality for daily bread, or trade off one’s blue blood for black coffee.”
“Miss Mime, is you out o’ yo’ haid?” asked Mammy Peggy in disgust and horror.
“No, I’m not, Mammy Peggy, but I do wish that I could traffic in some of my too numerous and too genteel ancestors instead of being compelled to dispose of my ancestral home and be turned out into the street like a pauper.”
“Heish, honey, heish, I can’ stan’ to hyeah you talk dat-away. I’s so’y to see dee ol’ place go, but you got to go out of it wid yo’ haid up, jes’ ez ef you was gwine away fo’ a visit an’ could come back w’en evah you wanted to.”
“I shall slink out of it like a cur. I can’t meet the eyes of the new owner; I shall hate him.”
“W’y, Miss Mime, whaih’s yo’ pride? Whaih’s yo’ Ha’ison pride?”
“Gone, gone with the deed of this house and its furniture. Gone with the money I paid for the new cottage and its cheap chairs.”
“Gone, hit ain’ gone, fu’ ef you won’t let on to have it, I will. I’ll show dat new man how yo’ pa would ‘a’ did ef he’d ‘a’ been hyeah.”
“What, you, Mammy Peggy?”
“Yes, me, I ain’ a-gwine to let him t’ink dat de Ha’isons didn’ have no quality.”
“Good, mammy, you make me remember who I am, and what my duty is. I shall see Mr. Northcope when he comes, and I’ll try to make my Harrison pride sustain me when I give up to him everything I have held dear. Oh, mammy, mammy!”
“Heish, chile, sh, sh, er go on, dat’s right, yo’ eyes is open now an’ you kin cry a little weenty bit. It’ll do you good. But when dat new man comes I want mammy’s lamb to look at him an’ hol’ huh haid lak’ huh ma used to hol’ hern, an’ I reckon Mistah No’thcope gwine to withah away.”
And so it happened that when Bartley Northcope came the next day to take possession of the old Virginia mansion he was welcomed at the door, and ushered into the broad parlor by Mammy Peggy, stiff and unbending in the faded finery of her family’s better days.
“Miss Mime’ll be down in a minute,” she told him, and as he sat in the great old room, and looked about him at the evidences of ancient affluence, his spirit was subdued by the silent tragedy which his possession of it evinced. But he could not but feel a thrill at the bit of comedy which is on the edge of every tragedy, as he thought of Mammy Peggy and her formal reception. “She let me into my own house,” he thought to himself, “with the air of granting me a favor.” And then there was a step on the stair; the door opened, and Miss Mima stood before him, proud, cold, white, and beautiful.
He found his feet, and went forward to meet her. “Mr. Northcope,” she said, and offered her hand daintily, hesitatingly. He took it, and thought, even in that flash of a second, what a soft, tiny hand it was.
“Yes,” he said, “and I have been sitting here, overcome by the vastness of your fine old house.”
The “your” was delicate, she thought, but she only said, “Let me help you to recovery with some tea. Mammy will bring some,” and then she blushed very red. “My old nurse is the only servant I have with me, and she is always mammy to me.” She remembered, and throwing up her proud little head rang for the old woman.
Directly, Mammy Peggy came marching in like a grenadier. She bore a tray with the tea things on it, and after she had set it down hovered in the room as if to chaperon her mistress. Bartley felt decidedly uncomfortable. Mima’s manners were all that politeness could require, but he felt as if she resented his coming even to his own, and he knew that mammy looked upon him as an interloper.
Mima kept up well, only the paleness of her face showed what she felt at leaving her home. Her voice was calm and impassive, only once it trembled, when she wished that he would be as happy in the house as she had been.
“I feel very much like an interloper,” he said, “but I hope you won’t feel yourself entirely shut out from your beautiful home. My father, who comes on in a few days is an invalid, and gets about very little, and I am frequently from home, so pray make use of the grounds when you please, and as much of the house as you find convenient.”
A cold “thank you” fell from Mima’s lips, but then she went on, hesitatingly, “I should like to come sometimes to the hill, out there behind the orchard.” Her voice choked, but she went bravely on, “Some of my dear ones are buried there.”
“Go there, and elsewhere, as much as you please. That spot shall be sacred from invasion.”
“You are very kind,” she said and rose to go. Mammy carried away the tea things, and then came and waited silently by the door.
“I hope you will believe me, Miss Harrison,” said Bartley, as Mima was starting, “when I say that I do not come to your home as a vandal to destroy all that makes its recollection dear to you; for there are some associations about it that are almost as much to me as to you, since my eyes have been opened.”
“I do not understand you,” she replied.
“I can explain. For some years past my father’s condition has kept me very closely bound to him, and both before and after the beginning of the war, we lived abroad. A few years ago, I came to know and love a man, who I am convinced now was your brother. Am I mistaken in thinking that you are a sister of Philip Harrison?”
“No, no, he was my brother, my only brother.”
“I met him in Venice just before the war and we came to be dear friends. But in the events that followed so tumultuously, and from participation in which, I was cut off by my father’s illness, I lost sight of him.”
“But I don’t believe I remember hearing my brother speak of you, and he was not usually reticent.”
“You would not remember me as Bartley Northcope, unless you were familiar with the very undignified sobriquet with which your brother nicknamed me,” said the young man smiling.
“Nickname–what, you are not, you can’t be ‘Budge’?”
“I am ‘Budge’ or ‘old Budge’ as Phil called me.”
Mima had her hand on the door-knob, but she turned with an impulsive motion and went back to him. “I am so glad to see you,” she said, giving him her hand again, and “Mammy,” she called, “Mr. Northcope is an old friend of brother Phil’s!”
The effect of this news on mammy was like that of the April sun on an icicle. She suddenly melted, and came overflowing back into the room, her smiles and grins and nods trickling everywhere under the genial warmth of this new friendliness. Before one who had been a friend of “Mas’ Phil’s,” Mammy Peggy needed no pride.
“La, chile,” she exclaimed, settling and patting the cushions of the chair in which he had been sitting, “w’y didn’ you say so befo’?”
“I wasn’t sure that I was standing in the house of my old friend. I only knew that he lived somewhere in Virginia.”
“He is among those out on the hill behind the orchard,” said Mima, sadly. Mammy Peggy wiped her eyes, and went about trying to add some touches of comfort to the already perfect room.
“You have no reason to sorrow, Miss Harrison,” said Northcope gently, “for a brother who died bravely in battle for his principles. Had fate allowed me to be here I should have been upon the other side, but believe me, I both understand and appreciate your brother’s heroism.”
The young girl’s eyes glistened with tears, through which glowed her sisterly pride.
“Won’t you come out and look at his grave?”
“It is the desire that was in my mind.”
Together they walked out, with mammy following, to the old burying plot. All her talk was of her brother’s virtues, and he proved an appreciative listener. She pointed out favorite spots of her brother’s childhood as they passed along, and indicated others which his boyish pranks had made memorable, though the eyes of the man were oftener on her face than on the landscape. But it was with real sympathy and reverence that he stood with bared head beside the grave of his friend, and the tears that she left fall unchecked in his presence were not all tears of grief.
They did not go away from him that afternoon until Mammy Peggy, seconded by Mima, had won his consent to let the old servant come over and “do for him” until he found suitable servants.
“To think of his having known Philip,” said Mima with shining eyes as they entered the new cottage, and somehow it looked pleasanter, brighter and less mean to her than it had ever before.
“Now s’posin’ you’d ‘a’ run off widout seein’ him, whaih would you been den? You wouldn’ nevah knowed whut you knows.”
“You’re right, Mammy Peggy, and I’m glad I stayed and faced him, for it doesn’t seem now as if a stranger had the house, and it has given me a great pleasure. It seemed like having Phil back again to have him talked about so by one who lived so near to him.”
“I tell you, chile,” mammy supplemented in an oracular tone, “de right kin’ o’ pride allus pays.” Mima laughed heartily. The old woman looked at her bright face. Then she put her big hand on the girl’s small one. It was trembling. She shook her head. Mima blushed.
Bartley went out and sat on the veranda a long time after they were gone. He took in the great expanse of lawn about the house, and the dark background of the pines in the woods beyond. He thought of the conditions through which the place had become his, and the thought saddened him, even in the first glow of the joy of possession. Then his mind went on to the old friend who was sleeping his last sleep back there on the sun-bathed hill. His recollection went fondly over the days of their comradeship in Venice, and colored them anew with glory.
“These Southerners,” he mused aloud, “cannot understand that we sympathize with their misfortunes. But we do. They forget how our sympathies have been trained. We were first taught to sympathize with the slave, and now that he is free, and needs less, perhaps, of our sympathy, this, by a transition, as easy as it is natural, is transferred to his master. Poor, poor Phil!”
There was a strange emotion, half-sad, half-pleasant tugging at his heart. A mist came before his eyes and hid the landscape for a moment.
And he, he referred it all to the memories of the brother. Yes, he thought he was thinking of the brother, and he did not notice or did not pretend to notice that a pair of appealing eyes looking out beneath waves of brown hair, that a soft, fair hand, pressed in his own, floated nebulously at the back of his consciousness.
It was not until he had set out to furnish his house with a complement of servants against the coming of his father that Bartley came to realize the full worth of Mammy Peggy’s offer to “do for him.” The old woman not only got his meals and kept him comfortable, trudging over and back every day from the little cottage, but she proved invaluable in the choice of domestic help. She knew her people thereabouts, just who was spry, and who was trifling, and with the latter she would have nothing whatever to do. She acted rather as if he were a guest in his own house, and what was more would take no pay for it. Of course there had to be some return for so much kindness, and it took the form of various gifts of flowers and fruit from the old place to the new cottage. And sometimes when Bartley had forgotten to speak of it before mammy had left, he would arrange his baskets and carry his offering over himself. Mima thought it was very thoughtful and kind of him, and she wondered on these occasions if they ought not to keep Mr. Northcope to tea, and if mammy would not like to make some of those nice muffins of hers that he had liked so, and mammy always smiled on her charge, and said, “Yes, honey, yes, but hit do ‘pear lak’ dat Mistah No’thcope do fu’git mo’ an’ mo’ to sen’ de t’ings ovah by me w’en I’s daih.”
But mammy found her special charge when the elder Northcope came. It seemed that she could never do enough for the pale, stooped old man, and he declared that he had never felt better in his life than he grew to feel under her touch. An injury to his spine had resulted in partially disabling him, but his mind was a rich store of knowledge, and his disposition was tender and cheerful. So it pleased his son sometimes to bring Mima over to see him.
The warm, impulsive heart of the Southern girl went out to him, and they became friends at once. He found in her that soft, caressing, humoring quality that even his son’s devotion could not supply, and his superior age, knowledge and wisdom made up to her the lost father’s care for which Peggy’s love illy substituted. The tenderness grew between them. Through the long afternoons she would read to him from his favorite books, or would listen to him as he talked of the lands where he had been, and the things he had seen. Sometimes Mammy Peggy grumbled at the reading, and said it “wuz jes’ lak’ doin’ hiahed wo’k,” but Mima only laughed and went on.
Bartley saw the sympathy between them and did not obtrude his presence, but often in the twilight when she started away, he would slip out of some corner and walk home with her.
These little walks together were very pleasant, and on one occasion he had asked her the question that made her pale and red by turns, and sent her heart beating with convulsive throbs that made her gasp.
“Maybe I’m over soon in asking you, Mima dear,” he faltered, “but–but, I couldn’t wait any longer. You’ve become a part of my life. I have no hope, no joy, no thought that you are not of. Won’t you be my wife?”
They were pausing at her gate, and she was trembling from what emotion he only dared guess. But she did not answer. She only returned the pressure of his hand, and drawing it away, rushed into the house. She durst not trust her voice. Bartley went home walking on air.
Mima did not go directly to Mammy Peggy with her news. She must compose herself first. This was hard to do, so she went to her room and sat down to think it over.
“He loves me, he loves me,” she kept saying to herself and with each repetition of the words, the red came anew into her cheeks. They were still a suspicious hue when she went into the kitchen to find mammy who was slumbering over the waiting dinner. “What meks you so long, honey,” asked the old woman, coming wide awake out of her cat-nap.
“Oh,–I–I–I don’t know,” answered the young girl, blushing furiously, “I–I stopped to talk.”
“Why dey ain no one in de house to talk to. I hyeahed you w’en you come home. You have been a powahful time sence you come in. Whut meks you so red?” Then a look of intelligence came into mammy’s fat face, “Oomph,” she said.
“Oh mammy, don’t look that way, I couldn’t help it. Bartley–Mr. Northcope has asked me to be his wife.”
“Asked you to be his wife! Oomph! Whut did you tell him?”
“I didn’t tell him anything. I was so ashamed I couldn’t talk. I just ran away like a silly.”
“Oomph,” said mammy again, “an’ whut you gwine to tell him?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Don’t you think he’s a very nice young man, Mr. Northcope, mammy? And then his father’s so nice.”
Mammy’s face clouded. “I doan’ see whaih yo’ Ha’ison pride is,” she said; “co’se, he may be nice enough, but does you want to tell him yes de fust t’ing, so’s he’ll t’ink dat you jumped at de chanst to git him an’ git back in de homestid?”
“Oh, mammy,” cried Mima; she had gone all white and cold.
“You do’ know nothin’ ’bout his quality. You a Ha’ison yo’se’f. Who is he to be jumped at an’ tuk at de fust axin’? Ef he wants you ve’y bad he’ll ax mo’ dan once.”
“You needn’t have reminded me, mammy, of who I am,” said Mima. “I had no intention of telling Mr. Northcope yes. You needn’t have been afraid for me.” She fibbed a little, it is to be feared.
“Now don’t talk dat ‘way, chile. I know you laks him, an’ I do’ want to stop you f’om tekin’ him. Don’t you say no, ez ef you wasn’ nevah gwine to say nothin’ else. You jes’ say a hol’in’ off no.”
“I like Mr. Northcope as a friend, and my no to him will be final.”
The dinner did not go down very well with Mima that evening. It stopped in her throat, and when she swallowed, it brought the tears to her eyes. When it was done, she hurried away to her room.
She was so disappointed, but she would not confess it to herself, and she would not weep. “He proposed to me because he pitied me, oh, the shame of it! He turned me out of doors, and then thought I would be glad to come back at any price.”
When he read her cold formal note, Bartley knew that he had offended her, and the thought burned him like fire. He cursed himself for a blundering fool. “She was only trying to be kind to father and me,” he said, “and I have taken advantage of her goodness.” He would never have confessed to himself before that he was a coward. But that morning when he got her note, he felt that he could not face her just yet, and commending his father to the tender mercies of Mammy Peggy and the servants, he took the first train to the north.
It would be hard to say which of the two was the most disappointed when the truth was known. It might better be said which of the three, for Mima went no more to the house, and the elder Northcope fretted and was restless without her. He availed himself of an invalid’s privilege to be disagreeable, and nothing Mammy Peggy could do now would satisfy him. Indeed, between the two, the old woman had a hard time of it, for Mima was tearful and morose, and would not speak to her except to blame her. As the days went on she wished to all the powers that she had left the Harrison pride in the keeping of the direct members of the family. It had proven a dangerous thing in her hands.
Mammy soliloquized when she was about her work in the kitchen. “Men ain’ whut dey used to be,” she said, “who’d ‘a’ t’ought o’ de young man a runnin’ off dat away jes’ ’cause a ooman tol’ him no. He orter had sense enough to know dat a ooman has sev’al kin’s o’ noes. Now ef dat ‘ud ‘a’ been in my day he’d a jes’ stayed away to let huh t’ink hit ovah an’ den come back an’ axed huh ag’in. Den she could ‘a’ said yes all right an’ proper widout a belittlin’ huhse’f. But ‘stead o’ dat he mus’ go a ta’in’ off jes’ ez soon ez de fus’ wo’ds come outen huh mouf. Put’ nigh brekin’ huh hea’t. I clah to goodness, I nevah did see sich ca’in’s on.”
Several weeks passed before Bartley returned to his home. Autumn was painting the trees about the place before the necessity of being at his father’s side called him from his voluntary exile. And then he did not go to see Mima. He was still bowed with shame at what he thought his unmanly presumption, and he did not blame her that she avoided him.
His attention was arrested one day about a week after his return by the peculiar actions of Mammy Peggy. She hung around him, and watched him, following him from place to place like a spaniel.
Finally he broke into a laugh and said, “Why, what’s the matter, Aunt Peggy, are you afraid I’m going to run away?”
“No, I ain’ afeared o’ dat,” said mammy, meekly, “but I been had somepn’ to say to you dis long w’ile.”
“Well, go ahead, I’m listening.”
Mammy gulped and went on. “Ask huh ag’in,” she said, “it were my fault she tol’ you no. I ‘minded huh o’ huh fambly pride an’ tol’ huh to hol’ you off less’n you’d t’ink she wan’ed to jump at you.”
Bartley was on his feet in a minute.
“What does this mean,” he cried. “Is it true, didn’t I offend her?”
“No, you didn’ ‘fend huh. She’s been pinin’ fu’ you, ‘twell she’s growed right peekid.”
“Sh, auntie, do you mean to tell me that Mim–Miss Harrison cares for me?”
“You go an’ ax huh ag’in.”
Bartley needed no second invitation. He flew to the cottage. Mima’s heart gave a great throb when she saw him coming up the walk, and she tried to harden herself against him. But her lips would twitch, and her voice would tremble as she said, “How do you do, Mr. Northcope?”
He looked keenly into her eyes.
“Have I been mistaken, Mima,” he said, “in believing that I greatly offended you by asking you to be my wife? Do you–can you care for me, darling?”
The words stuck in her throat, and he went on, “I thought you were angry with me because I had taken advantage of your kindness to my father, or presumed upon any kindness that you may have felt for me out of respect to your brother’s memory. Believe me, I was innocent of any such intention.”
“Oh, it wasn’t–it wasn’t that!” she gasped.
“Then won’t you give me a different answer,” he said, taking her hand.
“I can’t, I can’t,” she cried.
“Why, Mima?” he asked.
“Because of the Harrison pride?”
“Your Mammy Peggy has confessed all to me.”
She tried hard to stiffen herself. “Then it is all out of the question,” she began.
“Don’t let any little folly or pride stand between us,” he broke in, drawing her to him.
She gave up the struggle, and her head dropped upon his shoulder for a moment. Then she lifted her eyes, shining with tears to his face, and said, “Bartley, it wasn’t my pride, it was Mammy Peggy’s.”
He cut off further remarks.
When he was gone, and mammy came in after a while, Mima ran to her crying,
“Oh, mammy, mammy, you bad, stupid, dear old goose!” and she buried her head in the old woman’s lap.
“Oomph,” grunted mammy, “I said de right kin’ o’ pride allus pays. But de wrong kin’–oomph, well, you’d bettah look out!”