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   Chapter 16 No.16

Westways By S. Weir Mitchell Characters: 21666

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The widespread disapproval at the North of the Dred Scott Decision was somewhat less manifest in the middle months of the year because of the general financial distress, which diverted attention from what was so agreeable to the slave States, where in fact the stringency in the money market had been felt but little.

At Grey Pine, as elsewhere in Pennsylvania, the evil influence of the depression in trade was felt as never before. More men were discharged, and Penhallow and his wife practised economy which to him was difficult and distasteful. To limit expenditure on herself was of little moment to Ann Penhallow, but to have to limit her ability to give where more and more were needing help was to her at least a hard trial. With the spring of 1858, business had begun to revive, while more bitterness arose when in the senatorial contest Stephen Douglas encountered the soil-born vigorous intellect of the little known lawyer Lincoln. The debate put fresh life into the increasing power of the Republican party in the West.

"Listen to this," said Rivers to the Squire in July of 1858. "Here is a new choice. Long ago I got touch of this man, when he said, 'A house divided against itself cannot stand.'" He went on to read aloud parts of the famous speech.

Leila sitting with them on the porch looked round to hear her uncle's comment. He said, "It is too radical, Rivers. It leaves no chance for compromise-it is a declaration of war."

"It is God's truth," said Rivers.

"The Democrats will rejoice," said Penhallow. "The Administration will be as I am against Douglas and against this man's views."

"I wish he were even more of an abolitionist, Squire. The right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, ought to apply to all men, black and white."

"Yes, but are there to be further applications. Shall your free black vote? Does he say that?"

"No, but I do."

"Good gracious!" exclaimed the Squire. "I move we adjourn. Here comes

Ann."

Keen to have the last word, Rivers urged, "He is not against some fugitive-slave law-not for abolition of slavery in the District of Columbia-or the slave trade between the States."

"But," said Leila, "I read it all last night in my room. He said it was the right and duty of Congress to prohibit slavery in all the territories."

"The right," said Penhallow, "Miss Politician?"

"And the duty," returned Rivers. They rose as Ann came up the steps.

Billy was carrying the baskets she had emptied in the village, and as usual with Ann when there had been much to do, she came home, Rivers said, refreshed by the exercise of her gentle despotisms as a man may be by use of competent muscles. "You are all struck dumb," she cried. "I smell the sulphur of bad politics."

"I'm for Buch and Breck," said Billy. "Misses she give me a dollar to vote for Buchanan, I know-"

Leila delightedly encouraged him. "Did you?"

"No, it was for poll-tax. Take in those baskets at once," said Ann.

"Yes, ma'am. Bought a fishing-pole."

The confusion of mind which had made this practical use of Ann's mild political contribution was new to the Squire, and deliciously funny to Leila. Penhallow laughed outright. Rivers was silent watching Mrs. Ann.

To his surprise, she said, "You are bad-all of you. If the women could vote we would cease to have trouble. It may please you all to know that since that idiot Pole has mortgaged his farm to Swallow and bought out the butcher at the mills, he has repented of his Democratic wickedness and says, 'After all the Squire was right.'"

"And where, my dear, did you get all this gossip?" asked Penhallow.

"It is complicated; ask Pole."

"I could guess," laughed Leila.

"And I," cried the Squire.

"You will all suffer," cried Ann, "and don't complain, James Penhallow, if tough beef is the final result of political complications." Whereupon she gathered her skirts and fled laughing.

"Pole will pay dearly," said the Squire, who was secretly securing meat for the discharged mill-hands and understood what had influenced Pole.

Grey Pine and Westways during the summer and fall of 1858 felt, like many in the Northern States, the need to live with economy. Want of employment added to the unrest, and the idle men found time to discuss the angry politics which rang through the debates in the Senate. The changed tariff on iron, to which Pennsylvania was always selfishly sensitive, affected the voting, and Penhallow was pleased when the Administration suffered disaster in the October elections. All parties-Republican, American and Douglas Democrats-united to cast discredit on the President's policy, but Penhallow knew that the change of duties on iron had little to do with the far-spread ruin of trade and manufactures the result of long credits and the careless finance of an over-prosperous people. The electoral results were looked upon as a Republican victory. He so explained it on a November afternoon, as he rode through the still forest with Leila Grey, when the faint haze and warmer days told of that mysterious arrest of decay we call the Indian summer.

As they rode, the long lapses into silence told of the pleasant relations of two people entirely at ease with one another. Now it was a question asked-and now quick discussion. She had slowly won with maidenhood what few children have, more or less of the varied forms of imagination, which once had rather amused or puzzled her in John Penhallow. Her uncle, who thought slowly unless in danger, rode on with his mind upon a small order for rails and was far from feeling the mystery of the autumn days. The girl beside him was reading into the slow rocking to and fro of the falling leaves some reluctance to become forever a part of the decaying mould.

"Please, Uncle Jim, don't trot. Let them walk. It is so full of tender deaths."

"What do you mean, Leila?-as if death were ever beautiful or tender. You and your aunt bother me with your absurd manufacture of some relation to nature-"

"Oh, Uncle Jim! Once I saw you pat a big pine and say 'how are you, old fellow?' I told John it was nonsense, but he said it was fine."

"Oh, but that was a tree."

Leila laughed. "Of that there can be no doubt."

"Well, and what of it? It was half fun. You and John and your aunt sit up and explode into enthusiasm over verse, when it could all be said far better in simple prose."

"I should like to put that to the test some night."

"Not I, Miss Grey. I have no poetry in me. I am cold prose through and through."

"You-you!" she cried. "Some people like poetry-some people are poetry."

"What-what?"

"Wasn't your hero Cromwell just magnificent, stately blank verse?"

"What confounded nonsense!" She glanced at the manly figure with the cavalry seat, erect, handsome, to her heroic-an ideal gentleman in all his ways. "Stuff and nonsense!" he added.

"Well, Uncle Jim-to talk prose-the elections please you?"

"Yes. The North is stiffening up. It is as well. Did you see what Seward said, 'An irrepressible conflict,' and that man Lincoln, 'The house divided against itself cannot stand'? Now I should like to think them both wrong."

"And do you not?" she asked.

"No. Some devilish fate seems to be at the helm, as Rivers says. We avoid one rock to fall into wild breakers of exasperation; with fugitive-slave cases on one side, and on the other importations of slaves. Where will it end?"

"But what would you do, uncle?"

"Oh, amend the Fugitive-Slave Law. Try the cases by jury. Let slavery alone to cure itself, as it would in time. It would if we let it alone."

"And Kansas?" asked Leila.

"Oh, Douglas is right, but his view of the matter will never satisfy the South nor the extreme men at the North. My dear Leila, the days are dark and will be darker, and worst of all they really think we are afraid." His face grew stern. "I hate to talk about it. Have you heard from John lately?"

"Yes, only last week."

"And you write to him, of course?"

"Yes, I answer his letters. Aunt Ann writes every Sunday. Are things better at the mills?"

"Rather. Now for a gallop-it puts me always in a more hopeful humour.

Don't let your aunt overwork you, Leila; she will."

"She can't, Uncle Jim." It was true. Leila gently rebelled against incessant good works-sewing-classes for the village girls, Sunday school, and the endless errands which left no time for books. Her occasional walks with Marks Rivers enabled her to form some clear idea of the difference of opinion which so sharply divided parties north of Maryland. His own belief was that slavery was a sinful thing with which there should be no truce and no patient waiting upon the influence of time. He combated the Squire's equally simple creed-the unbroken union of the States. She fought the rector hard, to his delight. Far more pleasant on three afternoons in the week were the lessons in Italian with her aunt, and Rivers's brilliant commentary on Dante. The months ran on into and through the winter, with an economical Christmas to Ann's regret.

* * * * *

As a rule the political contests of our country go on without deeply affecting the peace of families. In the cotton States opinion was or had to appear to be at one. In the North the bitterness and unreason of limited groups of anti-slavery people excited the anger of men who saw in their ways and speeches continual sources of irritation, which made all compromise difficult. The strife of parties where now men were earnest as they never were before since revolutionary days was felt most seriously in the border States.

"James," said Ann after breakfast, when Leila had gone to dress for a ride, "I think I ought to tell you that I have had this morning letters from both my brothers. I wrote, you know, asking them to bring the girls to us. Leila is too much alone. They both decline. Charles has come out for the Republicans, and now-it is too dreadful-they do not speak. Charles tells me there is a strong minority with him and that the State is not all for the South. I cannot believe it."

"Indeed!" He was not altogether displeased. "I am sorry for you, Ann, as their sister."

"And as a man, you are not! Where will it all end? There is neither charity nor reason at the North. I am disturbed for our country."

"You ask where it will all end. Where will it end? God alone knows. Let us at least wait quietly the course of events we cannot control. I at least try to be reasonable." He left her standing in tears, for which he had no comfort in thought or word. Over all the land, North and South, there were such differences of opinion between wife and husband, brothers, friends and kinsmen. As he stood at the door about to ride to the mills he looked back and heard her delayed comment.

"One mom

ent, James-"

"Oh, what is the matter?" cried Leila at the foot of the stairs. To see

Ann Penhallow in tears was strange indeed.

Her uncle standing with his hand on his wife's shoulder had just spoken. Turning to Leila, he said: "Your aunt and I have had some unpleasant news from your uncles in Baltimore-a political quarrel."

"I knew it in the spring, Uncle Jim."

The girl's thoughtful reticence surprised him. Neither to him nor to Ann had she said a word of this family feud.

"Thank you, Leila," murmured her aunt. The Squire wondered why, as her aunt added, "I am greatly troubled. We have always been a most united family; but, dear, this-this has brought home to me, as nothing else has, the breaking up of the ties which bound the South and North together. It is only the sign of worse things to come."

"But, Ann," said Penhallow, "I must say"-A sharp grip on his arm by Leila's hand stopped him. He checked himself in time-"it is all very sad, but neither you nor I can help it."

"That is too true, James. I should not have said what I did. I want to see one of the men at the mills. His children are ill, his wife is in great distress."

"I will drive you myself this morning. I will send Dixy away and order the gig."

"Thank you; I shall like that, James."

Meanwhile Leila rode away, having in a moment of tactful interference made her influence felt. She was well aware of it and smiled as she walked her horse down the avenue, murmuring,

"I suppose I shall catch it from Uncle Jim." And then, "No, he will be glad I pinched him, but he did look cross for a moment." No word of the family dissension reached John in their ever cheerful letters.

On a wild windy afternoon in February, the snow falling heavily, Leila on her way to the village rang at the Rector's door. Getting no answer, she went in and passing through the front room knocked at the library door.

"Come in." Rivers was at his table in a room littered with books and newspapers. The gentle smile of his usual greeting was missing. She saw at once that he was in one of his moods of melancholy-rare of late. Her eyes quick to see when she was interested noted that where he sat there was neither book nor paper in front of him. He rose as she entered, tall, stooping, lean, and so thin-featured that his large eyes were the more notable.

"Aunt Ann has a cold, and Joe Grace was at the house to say that his father is ill, and aunt wishes you to go with me and see what is wanted. He has no way to send for the doctor; and so you see, as he is in bed, you must go with me."

"Oh, I saw him this morning. It is of no moment. I did what was needed."

"But I have to see Mrs. Lamb too. Come for the walk. It is blowing a gale and the snow is splendid-do come."

Of late he had rarely walked with her. He hesitated.

"Do come."

"If I die of cold, Leila."

"Die! You do not take exercise enough to keep your blood in motion. Come, please!"

He said no more except "Wait a moment," and returned fitly clad. A fury of charging battalions of snow met them in the avenue. She faced it gallantly, joyous and rosy. He bent to avoid the sting of the driven snow, shivering, and more at ease when in the town the houses broke the force of the gale.

"You won't need to go to Grace's," he urged.

"I am under orders. Don't you know Aunt Ann?"

Presently plunging through the snow-drifts they came into the dreary disordered back room which had so troubled Penhallow. It was cold with that indoor cold which is so unpleasant. Joe Grace came in-a big strapping young fellow. "I came from the farm and found father in bed and no wood in the stack. Some one has just fetched a load." He began to make a fire.

"Go up to your father," said Rivers. "Make a fire in his room. You ought to have come sooner. Oh, that poor helpless Baptist saint-there isn't much wrong, but the man is half frozen-and it is so needless."

"Come," said Leila. "Does he require anything?"

"No, I saw to that." As he spoke, he piled log on log and warmed his long thin hands. "Wait a little, Leila." She sat down, while the loose casements rattled.

"Leila," he said, "there is no chance to talk to you at Grey Pine. I am troubled about these, my friends. What I now have of health and mental wholesomeness in my life, I owe to them. I came hither a broken, hopeless man. Now they are in trouble." She looked up at him in some surprise at his confession. "I want to help them. Your uncle told me of your aunt's new distress and the cause. Then I made him talk business, and asked him to let me lend him thirty thousand dollars. He said no, but I did see how it pleased him. He said that it would be lost. At all events his refusal was decisive."

"But," said Leila, increasingly surprised, "that was noble of you."

"Nonsense, my dear Leila; I have more than I need-enough to help others-and would still have enough."

She had a feeling of astonishment at the idea of his being so well-off, and now from his words some explanation of the mysterious aid which had so helped at the mills and so puzzled Mrs. Ann. Why had he talked to her? He himself could not have told why. As he stood at the fire he went on talking, while she made her quick mental comments.

"You call it noble. It is a rather strange thing; but to go to a friend in financial despair with a cheque-book is a test of friendship before which many friendships fail. Before my uncle left me rich beyond my needs, I had an unpleasant experience on a small scale, but it was a useful example in the conduct of life." He paused for a moment, and then said, "I shall try the Squire again."

"I think you will fail-I know Uncle Jim. But what you tell me-is it very bad? I mean, is he-are the mills-likely to fail?"

"That depends as I see it on the summer nominations and the fall elections, and their result no one can predict. The future looks to me full of peril."

"But why?" she asked, and had some surprise when he said, "I have lived in the South. I taught school in Macon. I know the South, its increasing belief in the despotic power of cotton and tobacco, its splendid courage, and the sense of mastery given by the ownership of man. Why do I talk my despair out to a young life like yours? I suppose confession to be a relief-the tears of the soul. I suppose it is easier to talk to a woman." "Then why not to Aunt Ann?" thought Leila, as he went on to say, "I have often asked myself why confession is such a relief." He smiled as he added, "I wonder if St. Francis ever confessed to Monica." Then he was silent, turning round before the fire, unwilling to leave it.

Leila had been but recently introduced to the knowledge of St. Francis, and was struck with the oddity of representing Monica; and the tall, gaunt figure with the sad eyes, as the joyful St. Francis.

"Now, I must go home," he said.

"Indeed, no! You are to go with me to the post-office and then to see

Mrs. Lamb."

He had some pleasant sense of liking to be ordered about by this young woman. As they faced the snow, he asked, "How tall are you, Leila?"

"Five feet ten inches and-to be accurate-a quarter. Why do you ask?"

"Idle curiosity."

"Curiosity is never idle, Mr. Rivers. It is industrious. I proved that in a composition I wrote at school. It did bother Miss Mayo."

"I should think it might," said Rivers. "Any letters, Mrs. Crocker?"

"No, sir; none for Squire's folk. Two newspapers. Awful cold, Miss Leila.

Molasses so hard to-day, had to be chopped-"

"Oh, now, Mrs. Crocker!"

The fat post-mistress was still handling the pile of finger-soiled letters. "Oh, there's one for Mrs. Lamb."

"We are going there. I'll take it."

"Thanks, miss. She's right constant in coming for letters, but the letters they don't come, and now here's one at last." Leila tucked it into her belt. "I tell you, Miss Leila, a post-office is a place to make you laugh one day and cry the next. When you see a girl from the country come here twice a week for maybe two months and then go away trying that hard to make believe it wasn't of any account. There ought to be some one to write 'em letters-just to say, 'Don't cry, he'll come.' It might be a queer letter."

Rivers wondered at the very abrupt and very American introduction of unexpected sentiment and humour.

"Let me know and I'll write them, Mrs. Crocker," cried Leila. She had the very youthful reflection that it was odd for such a fat woman to be sentimental.

"I should like to open all the letters for a week, Mrs. Crocker," said

Rivers.

"Wouldn't Uncle Sam make a row?"

"He would, indeed!"

"Idle curiosity," laughed Leila, as they went out into the storm.

He made no reply and reflected on this young woman's developmental change and the gaiety which he so lacked.

Leila, wondering what Peter wrote to the lonely old widow, went to look for her in the kitchen, while Rivers sat down in the neatly kept front room. He waited long. At last Leila came out alone, and as they walked away she said, "The letter was from Peter."

"Indeed!"

"Yes, I got it all out of her."

"Got what?"

"She gets three dollars a week from Aunt Ann and all her vegetables from Aunt Ann, and she is all the time complaining to Uncle Jim. Then, of course, Uncle Jim gives her more money-and Peter gets it-"

"Where is he?"

"Oh, in Philadelphia, and here and there."

"You should tell the Squire."

"No, I think not."

"Perhaps-yes-perhaps you are right." And facing the wild norther she left him at his door and went homewards with a new burden of thought on her mind.

The winter broke up and late in May Penhallow left home on business. He wrote from Philadelphia:

"My dear Ann: Trade is dead, money still locked up, and the railways hesitating to give orders for much-needed rails. I have one small order, which will keep us going, but will hardly pay.

"I never talk of the political disorder, but now you will feel as I do a certain dismay at the action of the Vicksburg Convention in the interest of the slave States. Not all were represented-Tennessee and Florida voted against the resolution that all State and Federal laws prohibiting the African slave trade ought to be repealed. South Carolina to my surprise divided its vote; there were forty for, nineteen against this resolution. It seems made to exasperate the North and build up the Republican party. I who am simply for the Union most deeply regret this action.

"I want Leila to meet me here to-day week. We will take the steamer and go to West Point, let her see the place, and bring John home for his month of furlough.

"I have talked here to the Mayor and other moderate Union men, and find them more hopeful than I of a peaceful ending.

"Yours always,

"JAMES PENHALLOW."

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