MoboReader> Literature > Jupiter Lights

   Chapter 4 No.4

Jupiter Lights By Constance Fenimore Woolson Characters: 20950

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


ON Christmas Day, Eve was out with little Jack and Dilsey. Dilsey was a negro woman of sixty, small and thin, with a wise, experienced face; she increased her dignity as much as she could by a high stiff white turban, but the rest of her attire was poor and old, though she was not bare-legged like Powlyne; she wore stockings and shoes. Little Jack's wagon was a rude cart with solid wooden wheels; but the hoops of its hood had been twined with holly by the negroes, so that the child's face was enshrined in a bower of green.

"We will go to the sea," said Eve. "Unless it is too far for you and the wagon?"

"No, 'm; push 'em easy 'nuff."

The narrow road, passing between unbroken thickets of glittering evergreen bushes, breast-high, went straight towards the east, like an unroofed tunnel; in twenty minutes it brought them to the shore. The beach, broad, firm, and silver white, stretched towards the north and the south, dotted here and there with drift-wood; a breeze from the water touched their cheeks coolly; the ocean was calm, little foam-crested wavelets coming gurgling up to curl over and flatten themselves out on the wet sand. "Do you see it, Jack?" said Eve, kneeling down by the wagon. "It's the sea, the great big sea."

But Jack preferred to blow his whistle, and that done, he proceeded to examine it carefully, putting his little fat forefinger into all the holes. Eve sat down on the sand beside him; if he scorned the sea, for the moment she did too.

"I's des sauntered ober, Dilsey; dey 'ain't no hurry 'bout comin' back," said a voice. "En I 'low'd miss might be tired, so I fotched a cheer." It was old Temp'rance, the cook.

"Did you bring that chair all the way for me?" asked Eve, surprised.

"Yass, 'm. It's sut'ny pleasant here; it sut'ny is."

"I am much obliged; but I shall be going back soon."

The two old women looked at each other. "Dat dere ole wrack down der beach is moughty cu'us-ef yer like ter walk dat way en see 'em?" suggested Dilsey, after a pause.

"Too far," said Eve.

Both of the old women declared that it was very near. The wind freshened; Eve, who had little Jack in her arms, feared lest he might take cold, thinly clad as he was-far too thinly for her Northern ideas-with only one fold of linen and his little white frock over his breast. She drew the skirt of her dress over his bare knees. Then after a while she rose and put him in his wagon. "We will go back," she said.

Again the two old women looked at each other. But they were afraid of the Northern lady; the munificent presents which she had given them that morning did not bring them any nearer to her. Old Temp'rance, therefore, shouldered her chair again, Dilsey turned the wagon, and they entered the bush-bordered tunnel on their way home, walking as slowly as they could. In only one place was there an opening through the serried green; here a track turned off to the right. When Eve had passed its entrance the first time, there was nothing to be seen but another perspective of white sand and glittering foliage; but on their return her eyes, happening to glance that way, perceived a group of figures at the end. "Who are those people?-what are they doing?" she said, pausing.

"Oh, nutt'n," answered Temp'rance. "Des loungjun roun'."

As Eve still stood looking, Uncle Abram emerged from the bushes. "Shall I kyar your palasol fer yer, miss?" he asked, officiously. "'Pears like yer mus' be tired; been so fur."

Eve now comprehended that the three were trying to keep something from her. "What has happened?" she said. "Tell me immediately."

"Dey' ain' nutt'n happen," answered Uncle Abram, desperately; "dey's too brash, dem two! Miss S'breeny she 'low'd dat yer moutn't like ter see her go a moanin', miss; en so she tole us not ter let yer come dishyer way ef we could he'p it. But dem two-dey's boun' ter do some fool ting. It's a cohesion of malice 'mong women-'tis dat!"

"Does that road lead to the cemetery, too?" said Eve. "I went by another way. Take baby home, Dilsey"-she stooped and kissed him; "I will join Miss Abercrombie." She walked rapidly down the side track; the three blacks stood watching her, old Temp'rance with the chair poised on her turban.

The little burying-ground was surrounded by an old brick wall; its high gate-posts were square, each surmounted by a clumsy funeral urn. The rusty iron gate was open, and a procession was passing in. First came Miss Sabrina in her bonnet, an ancient structure of large size, trimmed with a black ribbon; the gentle lady, when out-of-doors, was generally seen in what she called her "flat;" the presence of the bonnet, therefore, marked a solemn occasion. She likewise wore a long scarf, which was pinned, with two pins, low down on her sloping shoulders, its broché ends falling over her gown in front; her hands were encased in black kid gloves much too large for her, the kid wrists open and flapping. Behind her came Powlyne, Pomp, and Plato, carrying wreaths of holly. Eve drew near noiselessly, and paused outside. Miss Sabrina first knelt down, bowing her head upon her hands for a moment; then, rising, she took the wreaths one by one, and arranged them upon the graves, the three blacks following her. When she had taken the last, she signed to them to withdraw; they went out quietly, each turning at the gate to make a reverential bow, partly to her, partly to the circle of the dead. Eve now entered the enclosure, and Miss Sabrina saw her.

"Oh, my dear! I didn't intend that you should come," she said, distressed.

"And why not? I have been here before; and my brother is here."

"Yes; but to-day-to-day is different."

Eve looked at the graves; she perceived that three of them were decked with small Confederate flags.

"Our dear cousins," said Miss Sabrina; "they died for their country, and on Memorial Day, Christmas Day, and Easter I like to pay them such small honor as I can. I am in the habit of singing a hymn before I go; don't stay, my dear, if it jars upon you."

"It doesn't," said Eve. She had seated herself on the grass beside her brother's grave, with her arm laid over it.

Miss Sabrina turned her back and put on her glasses. Then, resuming her original position, she took a small prayer-book from her pocket, opened it, and, after an apologetic cough, began:

"Rise, my soul, and stretch thy wings,

Thy better portion trace."

Eve, sitting there, looked at her. Miss Sabrina was tall and slender; she had once been pretty, but now her cheeks were wan, her eyes faded, her soft brown hair was very thin. She had but a thread of a voice.

"There is everlasting peace,

Rest, enduring rest, in heaven,"

she sang in her faint, sweet tones; and when she came to the words, "There will sorrows ever cease," she raised her poor dim eyes towards the sky with such a beautiful expression of hope in them that the younger woman began to realize that there might be acute griefs even when people were so mild and acquiescent, so dimly hued and submissive, as was this meek Southern gentlewoman.

The hymn finished, Miss Sabrina put her prayer-book in her pocket, and came forward. "My mother," she said, touching one of the tombs. "My grandfather and grandmother. My brother Marmaduke, Cicely's father. Cicely's mother; she was a Northerner, and we have sometimes thought Cicely rather Northern."

"Oh, no!"

"Well, her grandmother was from Guadeloupe. So perhaps that balances it."

The older tombs were built of brick, each one covered with a heavy marble slab, upon which were inscribed, in stately old-fashioned language, and with old-fashioned arrangement of lines and capitals, the names, the virtues, and the talents of the one who lay beneath. The later graves were simple grassy mounds.

"My brother Augustus; my great-uncle William Drayton; my aunt Pamela," Miss Sabrina continued, indicating each tomb as she named its occupant, much as though she were introducing them. "My own place is already selected; it is here," she went on, tapping a spot with her slender foot. "It seems to me a good place; don't you think so? And I keep an envelope, with directions for everything, on top of my collars, where any one can find it; for I do so dislike an ill-arranged funeral. For instance, I particularly desire that there should be fresh water and glasses on the hall-table, where every one can get them without asking; so much better than hidden in some back room, with every one whispering and hunting about after them. I trust you don't mind my saying," she concluded, looking at Eve kindly, "that I hope you may be here."

They left the cemetery together.

"I suppose it was a shock to you that your niece should marry a Union officer?" Eve said, as they took the shorter path towards the house.

"Ye-es, I cannot deny it; and to my father also. But we liked John for himself very much; and Cicely felt-"

But John's sister did not care to hear what Cicely felt! "And was it on this island that he expected to make his fortune-in cotton?"

"No; these are rice lands, and they are worthless now that the dikes are down."

"And the slaves gone."

"Yes. But we never had many slaves; we were never rich. Now we are very poor, my dear; I don't know that any one has mentioned it to you."

"And yet you keep on all these infirm old negroes-those who would be unable to get employment anywhere else."

"Oh, we should never turn away our old servants," replied Miss Sabrina, with confidence.

That evening, at the judge's suggestion, Cicely took her guitar. "What do you want me to sing, grandpa?"

"'Sweet Afton.'"

So Cicely sang it. Then the judge himself sang, to Cicely's accompaniment, "They may rail at this life." He had made a modest bowl of punch: it was Christmas night, and every one should be merry. So he sang, in his gallant old voice:

"'They may rail at this life; from the hour I began it

I've found it a life full of kindness and bliss;

And until they can show me some happier planet,

More social, more gay, I'll content me with this.'"

He was contented with it-this life "full of kindness and bliss," on his lonely sea-island, with its broken dikes and desolated fields, in his half-ruined old house, with its wooden walls vibrating, with more than one pane of glass gone, more than one floor whose planks were loosened so that they must walk carefully. At any rate, he trolled out his song as though he were:

it was Christmas night, and every one should be merry.

There was one person who really was merry, and that was Master Jack, who sat on the lap of his Northern aunt, laughing and crowing, and demanding recognition of his important presence from each in turn, by the despotic power of his eye. In truth, it was this little child who held together the somewhat strangely assorted group, Miss Sabrina in an ancient white lace cape, with flowers in her hair; the old judge in a dress-coat and ruffled shirt, Cicely in a gay little gown of light-blue tint (taken probably, so Eve thought, from her second trousseau), and Eve herself in her heavy black crape; she alone had made no concessions to Christmas; her mourning attire was unlightened by any color, or even by white.

"'Macgregor's Gathering,'" called the judge.

Cicely sang it. After finishing the song, she began the lament a second time, changing the words:

"We're niggerless, niggerless, niggerless, Gregorlach!

Niggerless, niggerless, nig-ig-ig-gerless!"

she sang. "For we're not 'landless' at all; we've got miles and miles of land. It's niggers that are lacking."

The judge laughed, patting her little dark head as she sat on a stool beside him. "Let us go out to the quarters, grandpa; they will be dancing by now. And Jack must go too."

The judge lifted his great-grandson to his shoulder. Eve had already noticed that Cicely never took the child from her with her own hands; she let some one else do it. When the door was opened, distant sounds of the thrumming of banjoes could be heard. Seeing a possible intention on Eve's face, Cicely remarked, in her impersonal way, "Are you coming? They won't enjoy it, they are afraid of you."

"I don't see why they should be," said Eve, when she and Miss Sabrina were left alone.

"You are a stranger, my dear; it is only that. And they are all so fond of Cicely that it wouldn't be Christmas to them if she did not pay them a visit; they worship her."

"And after she has sung that song!"

"That song?"

"'Niggerless,'" quoted Eve, indignantly.

"Well, we are niggerless, or nearly so," said Miss Sabrina, mystified.

"It's the word, the term."

"Oh, you mean nigger? It is very natural to us to say so. I suppose you prefer negroes? If you like, I will try to call them so hereafter. Negroes; yes, negroes." She pronounced it "nig-roes." "I don't know whether I have told you," she went on, "how much Cicely dislikes dreams?"

"Well she may!" was the thought of Jack Bruce's sister. What she said, with a short laugh, was, "You had better tell her to be careful about eating hot breads."

"Would you have her eat cold bread?" said Miss Sabina, in surprise. "I didn't mean that her nights were disturbed; I only meant that she dislikes the telling of dreams-a habit so common at breakfast, you know. I thought I would just mention it."

Eve gave another abrupt laugh. "Do you fear I am going to tell her mine? She would not find them all of sugar."

"I did not mean yours especially. She has such a curious way of shutting her teeth when people begin-such pretty little white teeth as they are, too, dear child! And she doesn't like reading aloud either."

"That must be a deprivation to you," said Eve, her tone more kindly.

"It is. I have always been extremely fond of it. Are you familiar with Milton? His 'Comus'?"

"'Sabrina fair, listen where thou art sitting?" quoted Eve, smiling.

"Yes.

"'Sabrina fair, listen where thou art sitting,

Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave,

In twisted braids of lilies knitting-'"

said the Southern lady in her murmurous voice. "You don't know what a pleasure it has always been to me that I am named Sabrina. The English originated 'Comus;' I like the English, they are so cultivated."

"Do you see many of them here?"

"Not many. I am sorry to say my father does not like them; he thinks them affected."

"That is the last thing I should call them."

"Well, those who come here really do say 'serpents' and 'crocodiles.'"

"Do you mean as an oath?" said Eve, thinking vaguely of "Donner und blitzen."

"As an oath? I have never heard it used in that way," answered Miss Sabrina, astonished. "I mean that they call the snakes serpents, and the alligators crocodiles; my father thinks that so very affected."

Thus the wan-cheeked mistress of Romney endeavored to entertain their guest.

That night Eve was sitting by her fire. The mattress of Meadows was no longer on the floor; the English girl had started on her return journey the day before, escorted to the pier by all the blacks of the island, respectful and wondering. The presence of little Jack asleep in his crib behind a screen, with Dilsey on her pallet beside him, made the large wind-swept chamber less lonely; still its occupant felt overwhelmed with gloom. There was a light tap at the door, and Cicely entered; she had taken off her gay blue frock, and wore a white dressing-gown. "I thought I'd see if you were up." She went across and looked at Jack for a moment; then she came back to the fire. "You haven't touched your hair, nor unbuttoned a button; are you always like that?"

"Like what?"

"Trim and taut, like a person going out on horse-back. I should love to see you with your hair down; I should love to see you run and shriek!"

"I fear you are not likely to see either."

Cicely brought her little teeth together with a click. "I've got to get something over in the north wing; will you come? The wind blows so, it's splendid!"

"I will go if you wish," said Eve.

They went down the corridor and turned into another, both of them lighted by the streaks of moonlight which came through the half-closed or broken shutters; the moon was nearly at its full, and very brilliant; a high wind was careering by outside-it cried at the corner of the house like a banshee. At the end of the second hall Cicely led the way through a labyrinth of small dark chambers, now up a step, now down a step, hither and thither; finally opening a door, she ushered Eve into a long, high room, lighted on both sides by a double row of windows, one above the other. Here there were no shutters, and the moonlight poured in, making the empty space, with its white walls and white floor, as light as day. "It's the old ballroom," said Cicely. "Wait here; I will be back in a moment." She was off like a flash, disappearing through a far door.

Eve waited, perforce. If she had felt sure that she could find her way back to her room, she would have gone; but she did not feel sure. As to leaving Cicely alone in that remote and disused part of the house, at that late hour of the night, she cared nothing for that; Eve was hard with people she did not like; she did not realize herself how hard she was. She went to one of the windows and looked out.

These lower windows opened on a long veranda. The veranda was only a foot above the ground; any one, Eve reflected, could cross its uneven surface and look in; she almost expected to see some one cross, and peer in at her, his face opposite hers on the other side of the pane. The moonlight shone on the swaying evergreens; within sight were the waters of the Sound. Presently she became conscious of a current of wind blowing through the room, and turned to see what caused it. There had been no sound of an opening door, or any other sound, but a figure was approaching, coming down the moonlit space rapidly with a waving motion. It was covered with something transparent that glittered and shone; its outlines were vague. It came nearer and nearer, without a sound. Then a mass of silvery gauze was thrown back, revealing Cicely attired in an old-fashioned ball dress made of lace interwoven with silver threads and decked with little silvery stars; there was a silver belt high up under her arms, and a wreath of the silvery stars shone in her hair. She stood a moment; then snatching up the gauze which had fallen at her feet, she held one end of it, and let the other blow out on the strong cold wind which now filled the room. With this cloudy streamer in her hand, she began lightly and noiselessly to dance, moving over the moonlit floor, now with the gauze blowing out in front of her, now waving behind her as she flew along. Suddenly she let it drop, and, coming to Eve, put her arms round her waist and forced her forward. Eve resisted. But Cicely's hands were strong, her hold tenacious; she drew her sister-in-law down the room in a wild gallopade. In the midst of it, giving a little jump, she seized Eve's comb. Eve's hair, already loosened, fell down on her shoulders. Cicely clapped her hands, and began to take little dancing steps to the tune of "Niggerless, niggerless, nig-ig-ig-gerless!" chanted in a silvery voice. When she came to "less," she held out her gleaming skirt, and dipped down in a wild little courtesy.

Eve picked up her comb and turned back towards the door.

Cicely danced on ahead, humming her song; they passed through the labyrinth of dark little rooms, the glimmering dress acting as guide through the dimness. Cicely went as far as the second hall; here she stopped.

"It's the wind, you know," she said, in her usual voice; "when it blows like this, I always have to do something; sometimes I call out and shout. But I don't care for it, really; I don't care for anything!" Her face, as she spoke, looked set and melancholy. She opened a door and disappeared.

The next day there was nothing in her expression to indicate that there had been another dance at Romney the night before, besides the one at the negro quarters.

Eve was puzzled. She had thought her so unimaginative and quiet; "a passionless, practical little creature, cool and unimpulsive, whose miniature beauty led poor Jack astray, and made him believe that she had a soul!" This had been her estimate. She was alone with the baby; she took him to the window and looked at him earnestly. The little man smiled back at her, playing with the crape of her dress. No, there was nothing of Cicely here; the blue eyes, golden hair, and frank smile-all were his father over again.

"We'll make that Mr. Morrison come back, baby; and then you and I will go away together," she whispered, stroking his curls.

"Meh Kiss'm," said Jack. It was as near as he could come to "Merry Christmas."

"Before another Christmas I'll get you away from her forever!" murmured the aunt, passionately.

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