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Lucrece snugged close to her soldier, and he gave her a playful kiss.
"Spoony," sang Evaleen, whereupon her prim younger daughter, whose plump fist tightly held a bunch of spring-beauties, looked up in wonder and lisped:
"Mamma, what is spoony?"
The elder sister, some seven years old, came running to her mother's side.
"There's a man by the well!"
"I saw him first," chimed in the smaller child. "Didn't I see him first, Eva?"
The rambling party had returned from the woodland to the cleared tract, in the midst of which the White House of Blennerha.s.sett formerly stood. The mansion, never occupied after the ill-starred family left it, was destroyed by fire a few years before the time of the picnic excursion. Near the low foundation walls of blackened stone stood the wooden curb surrounding the mouth of a deep well. The old windla.s.s, below which a leaky bucket still swung, was kept in repair by unknown hands. Upon looking for the man whom Eva had discovered, Mrs. Arlington saw leaning upon the curb, in a posture of meditation, a figure which both she and her husband recognized. There was no possibility of avoiding or of evading a meeting with the meddlesome babbler who had volunteered to prescribe "cowc.u.mber bitters" as a sure cure for Chester's love. Within the ten years since the revelation on the summit of the mound, and the piroque tour to the island, Arlington had seen and heard a good deal of Plutarch Byle. Though it was always more or less of a social annoyance, and at times an intolerable bore, to encounter the gossipy humorist, his numberless acquaintances, far from wis.h.i.+ng him ill, admired his honesty and lauded his goodness of heart.
Byle heard the children's voices, and straightening up his awkward form, turned to observe the advancing group. His wide mouth opened with a grin of pleasure; he came forward with gangling strides.
"By crackey, if it isn't the Arlingtons! Home from Virginia, Evaleen, to old Marietta, on a visit to the folks? You're looking peart. How do you all do?"
Arlington, out of regard for his wife and kinsfolk, made some dignified efforts to stem the tide of Byle's familiarity, but his polite formality was not noticed by the a.s.sociable democrat, who shook hands with every one, beginning with the baby.
"So these is your offspring, as the preacher says, are they, Chester?
I knowed you'd have a lot of 'em when I recommended the match. Here's the suckin' kid; let Uncle Byle heft him once. Gosh, baby, you want to grab uncle's nose, do you? Well, then, pull away till the cows come home. What's 'is name?"
"Richard," answered the mother.
"Why didn't you name him after me? P. B. Arlington would sound sort of uppercrusty, eh? 'Richard,' you say? Oh, I see. Named for your daddy's Orleens brother, the cripple! Yes! yes! Did Richard leave you as big a pile of money as folks say? It must have been a heavy slam on you, Evaleen, when he dropped off. Lucky, too, in another pint of view; he's better off, and so are you--lots better off."
Danvers and Lucrece, wis.h.i.+ng to prevent posthumous comments on Uncle Richard, came to Evaleen's rescue.
"You are a frequent comer to this island. You know its products and topography?"
"Topography, yarbography, bugology and the d.i.c.kens knows wot ology.
The ground is jest kivered, in places with Injun arrers, and pipes and stone hatchets, and I've dug up some of the durndest queer-shaped arthen pots you ever sot eyes on. Yes, I reckon I know Bacchus Island, major."
"Not major," interrupted Arlington. "He was promoted after the battle of New Orleans. He is now Colonel Danvers."
"Jehoshaphat! Let's shake hands on that, Danvers. No resk this time, Arlington, _is_ there? You recollect, don't you? the day I first seed you and Hoopsnake on the roof of his flatboat? I read t'other day in the noospaper that Harry Clay met the aforesaid in the court-house in New York. The sarpent put out his hand, but Harry wouldn't tech it. By gum, Clay was smarter than me."
Danvers and Lucrece looked mystified. Byle winked at Arlington.
"Don't tell 'em my disgrace. So cap's a colonel? This _is_ a surprise.
I'm just back from a jant to Cinc'natti. Stayed there a c.o.o.n's age with brother Virgil, who moved down from the Yok, last fall, and went into the pork trade. Virgil's married, same as you four, but I'll be dadbanged if he wasn't fooled in his woman. I tell _you_, Mrs.
Danvers, matrimony ain't always sich honey in the comb as Warren is swallerin'. Virgil's wife looks nice, but Spanish flies! how he enjoys her going away from home. Well, that's _that_. I went down on the Enterprise. You've rid in a steamboat, I dare say, going to see your pa, in Orleens? How's he? I forgot to ask. They say the old man's got to be stylisher than ever. Jest run slap bang into rich relations. How much is the doctor wuth? He never met me, but they say Deville is a choice mackerel, for a Frenchman. I was about to say, I went down to Cinc'natti on the Enterprise last December. Best boat on the river, Captain Shreve says, and the fourth one built. I have saw the Orleens, the Comet and the Vesuvius, but the Enterprise knocks 'em all.
Keelboats and barges is clean cut out."
To check the deluge of Byle's conversation, the picnickers soon took occasion to s.h.i.+ft their ground from the well to the beautiful green plot which had been the carefully kept lawn of the Blennerha.s.sett premises.
Raised flowerbeds, of various forms, circular, crescent, and diamond, could still be traced, though overgrown with gra.s.s and weeds. These abandoned garden beds furnished convenient seating s.p.a.ce for the excursionists, while they ate lunch and drank water fetched from the old well by Plutarch. The conversation reverted to Burr and his alleged a.s.sociates, involving the name of Wilkinson. Danvers defended the general from severe animadversions. Arlington had no patience with his brother-in-law's lenient judgment.
"Why, Warren, you, a colonel in the regulars, must know Wilkinson to have been a failure every way. Wasn't he court-martialed last spring, after holding the command of the Northern army less than a year? He blundered in all he undertook. He was, in effect, discharged for want of generals.h.i.+p and for excess in wine."
"I admit he lost laurels in the late war. So did many others. Jackson and Harrison are our heroes now. General Wilkinson was acquitted by the court-martial, as he was acquitted in 1811 of charges accusing him of complicity with Burr."
"Acquitted! I know he was acquitted; so was Burr; but public opinion condemns the decision of the courts. Before the bar of history both stand accused and sentenced. They are guilty alike. Wilkinson seems to me no better than Burr. Perhaps he is worse, for he betrayed his comrade."
"Did he betray Burr, or did he only find him out? I was in Wilkinson's tent when Burr's cipher letter was exposed. Wilkinson was outspoken in denouncing Burr."
"Hold yer hosses. Let me put in a word edgeways, Captain Danvers--'scuse me, I mean colonel. You spoke of Andy Jackson. He's not my stripe--I'm a Federalist yist'day, to-day and forever--but Old Hickory is a truth teller. What did Jackson say? I give you his upside dixit, word for word, _ex litteratum_, as they say. Andrew Jackson says, says he, 'Whatever may have been the project of Burr, James Wilkinson has went hand in hand with him.'"
Mrs. Arlington introduced a new topic of conversation by saying, "I'll not believe that Mr. Blennerha.s.sett was consciously guilty."
"No, my dear, he was deluded. Mr. Wirt is right in contending that Blennerha.s.sett was comparatively innocent, 'a mere accessory.'"
Here Mr. Byle stood up and began rummaging in his pockets. The mention of the name of Blennerha.s.sett had altered his mood and changed his manner. A shade of seriousness bordering on melancholy came over his features. He slowly drew from the poke of his warmus a white cambric handkerchief, which he blinked at for a minute, and then replaced, venting an audible sigh. Long he listened in silence to remarks about the islanders and their untoward fate. At length he broke in with:
"I told Harman before he sot out for Eternal Smash what he was comin'
to. _He_ wouldn't take my advice. But, gentlemen and ladies, in my opinion, the near-sighted was about as much to blame for what happened, as a pewee is for being swallered by a black snake. Harman lost everything, as I told him he would. Fust in debt heels over head--then the house burns--then he sells the plantation. Now he's tryin' to run a cotton-gin down about Natchez. The boys are growin' up no account. And she--Jerusalem artichokes! What a shame it war for Margaret to throw herself away!"
The amused expression of Arlington indicated his appreciation of Byle's sentiments, but Evaleen could not smile when the distress of her much-beloved friend was the theme of conversation. The rich, beautiful, commanding lady, who had presided like an Eastern princess, in her luxurious island palace, was now struggling with adverse fate, on a cotton plantation, near Port Gibson, Mississippi. Recollecting the downfall and humiliation of Madam Blennerha.s.sett, Evaleen sighed and cast her gaze mournfully toward the spot upon which had stood the stately mansion, which had been to her a second home. But on that May day in 1815, could she have lifted the veil of the future, events far more depressing would have been disclosed. She would have beheld the former lord of the isle, landless, hara.s.sed by debts, now in Natchez, now in New York, and now in Canada, unsuccessfully attempting the practice of the law. He made a voyage to Ireland, returned to Montreal, and then again crossed the ocean to reside with his maiden sister, Avis, on the Isle of Jersey. His wife shared his disappointments and sorrows, and it was on her faithful bosom that he breathed his last at Port Prerie, Guernsey, in 1831. Ten years later, the widow, having returned to the United States dest.i.tute, forlorn, her health gone, her beauty faded, took up lodgings in a poor tenement-house in the city of New York--and it was here that she died, forsaken by fortune and by friends. Such were the crown of thorns and the crucifixion of Margaret Blennerha.s.sett, who aspired to wear the coronet of a d.u.c.h.ess in the court of Aaron the Emperor.
The sons, Dominick and Harman, were reserved to fates not less abortive and wretched. The first entered the navy as surgeon-mate, but was discharged for drunkenness. He died in penury, an outcast. Harman became a portrait painter in New York, but he lost his strength of body and mind, and finally perished in an almshouse on Blackwell's Island. His body lies buried beside that of his mother, in the family vault of Emmet, the Irish patriot, in the "Marble Cemetery," New York.
Well was it that the Book of Fate, in which was written the story of the House of Blennerha.s.sett, was not opened to Evaleen, for had she read therein, the revelation would have turned the day's pensive melancholy into poignant grief.
Moved by a common impulse of commiseration, and by reverential regard akin to such as one feels when standing beside the tomb of a dear friend, the married couples and the lank bachelor bent their steps from the lawn to the rubble-strown site of the burnt mansion-house.
The foundation stones indicated the size and location of the several rooms formerly occupying the ground floor. Danvers and his wife sat down upon the sandstone steps leading, in bygone days, to the wide hall door. The three little girls were at play in the paths of the ruined shrubbery; Evaleen's baby boy lay asleep on the lap of Lucrece.
Arlington and Evaleen stepped across the crumbling foundation wall, and a few short paces brought them to the middle of the square area once covered by the floor of the reception room. A bunch of wild violets, in bloom, grew in the charred leaf mould at their feet. The wife plucked one of the flowers, and gave it into the hand of her constant lover.
"Here is just where you stood when we met for the first time, love; do you remember? And look, Chester," she pointed upward to the empty s.p.a.ce once enclosed in the walls of Lady Blennerha.s.sett's bower, "right up there is the window through which we watched you go away in the moonlight."
"Yes, darling; there you stood, caring very little whether or not we should ever meet again. It is exactly ten years since the day you--didn't kiss me. Do it now."
"Hold on for about three shakes of a sheep's tail. Then fire away when I'm gone. I want to tell you, Chester, here is just the spot where I stood when I fit for her--"
"Fought for my wife?"
"No, for Harman's wife." Byle took out the handkerchief again, and Evaleen thought he intended to tell its history.
"That is a fine piece of cambric. It looks like a lady's token."
Plutarch gulped down a big emotion.
"It's a thumb-stall."