In Old Plantation Days
Laramie Belle—why she was Laramie Belle no one could ever make out—Laramie Belle had astonished the whole plantation. She came of stock that was prone to perpetrating surprises, and she did credit to her blood and breeding. When she was only two weeks old the wiseacres had said that no good could ever come to so outrageously a named child. Aunt Mandy had quite expressed the opinion of every one, when she said: “Why, ef de chile had been named a puoh Bible name er a puoh devil name, she mought a’ mounted to somep’n’, but dat aih contraption, Laramie Belle, ain’t one ner ‘tothah. She done doomed a’ready.” And here was Laramie Belle after eighteen years of a rather quiet life, getting ready to fulfill all the adverse prophecies.
There were, perhaps, two elements in the matter that made the Mordaunt plantation look upon it with less leniency even than usual. Of course, it was the unwritten law of the little community that alliances should not be contracted with people off the estate. But even they knew that love must go where it will, and a certain latitude might have been allowed the culprit had she not been guilty of another heresy that made her crime blacker. Incredible as it may seem, at the very time that Tom Norton began bestowing his impudent attentions upon her, Julius, the coachman, had also deigned to look at her with favor. For her to give the preference to the former was an offence not to be overlooked nor condoned. By so doing, she not only lost a golden matrimonial opportunity, but belittled the value of her own people.
There was another feeling that entered into the trouble, too, a vague, almost shadowy dislike to the man upon whom Laramie Belle had placed her affections. Although only a tradition to the younger servants, the memory was still vivid in the minds of the older heads of Aunt Tempe’s desertion by her husband, when he took up with “the Norton woman.” They remembered how Tempe, then a spirited, lively woman, had mourned and refused to be comforted, and they could not forget the bravery with which she had consented that Stuart Mordaunt should transfer her husband to Master Norton, in order that he might be with his new wife. She had mourned for weeks, yes, for months, and no one else had ever come into her heart. Was it not enough that this suffering had come to a Mor-daunt through this Norton wench, without this man, this son of her and her stolen mate, taking away one of the plantation’s buds of promise?
They talked much to Laramie Belle, but she was not a girl of many words, and only held her head down and made imaginary lines with her foot as she listened. She would not talk to them about it, but neither would she give up Tom and encourage Julius.
There were those who believed that she was encouraged in her stubborness by her mother, that mother who had closed her ears to all advice, remonstrance, and prophecy when warned as to the naming of her baby. They were right, too, for Lucy did uphold her daughter’s quiet independence. Indeed, there was a streak of strangeness in both of them that, in spite of the younger woman’s popularity, placed them, as it were, in a position apart.
“You right, honey,” said her mother to her, “ef you loves Tom No’ton you tek up wid him; don’ keer whut de res’ says. Yo’ got to live wid him, yo’ got to do his cookin’ an’ washin’ an’ i’nin’, an’ all you got to do is to git Mas’ Stua’t to say yes to you.”
No one argued with Lucy, whatever they might say to her daughter. About the older woman there was a spirit fierce and free that would not be gainsaid. There was something of the wild nerve of African forests about her that had not yet been driven out by the hard hand of slavery, nor yet smoothed down by the velvet glove of irresponsibility. The essence of this, albeit subdued, refined, diluted, perhaps, was in her daughter, and that was why she kept her way in spite of all opposition.
As for Tom Norton, opposition only made him more determined, and nothing did him more good than to laugh in the face of Julius as he was leaving the Mordaunt place after a pleasant visit with Laramie.
As promiscuous visiting between the plantations was forbidden, Tom had had the good sense to secure both his master’s and Stuart Mor-daunc’s consent, the latter’s reluctantly given to these excursions. On the principle, however, that he who is given much may with safety take more, he often overstepped the bound and went to see his sweetheart when the permission was wanting. Julius found this out and determined to administer a severe lesson to his rival on the first occasion that he found him within his domain without his master’s permission. So thinking, he laid his plans carefully, the first of them being to gain a friend and informant on the Norton place. This he succeeded in doing, and then, after confiding in a couple of trusted friends, he lay in wait for his unfortunate rival. He had a stout hickory stick in his hand, and he and his friends were stationed at short intervals of space along the road which Tom must cross to visit Laramie Belle.
It was a moonlit night. The watchers by the roadside heard the sound of his footsteps as their victim approached. But, with ghoulish satisfaction, they let him pass on. It was not now that they wanted him, but when he came back. Then they would have the fun of whipping him to his very gate, and he would not dare to tell. They possessed their souls in patience, and waited, chuckling ever and anon at the prospect as the first hour passed. They yawned more and chuckled less through the second hour. During the third, the yawns held exclusive sway. He was staying particularly late that night. It was in the gray dawn that, unsatisfied, sleepy, and angry, they took their way home. Their heads seemed scarcely to have touched the pillows when the horns and bells sounded the rising hour. Oh, misery! They had missed Tom, too.
Julius could not understand it. It was very simple, though. Man proposes, but woman exposes, and he had not learned to beware of a friend who had a wife. So, his secret had leaked out. Laramie Belle had had a chance to warn Tom, and, going by another road, he had been in bed and snoring when his watchers were wearily waiting for him by the roadside.
Even for the coachman’s friends, the story was too good to keep, and before long big house and quarters were laughing to their hearts’ content.
The unwelcome suitor was doubly unfortunate, however, for his action precipitated the result which he was so anxious to prevent. Seeing himself in danger of being the constant victim of intrigue and molestation, Tom Norton determined to press his suit and bring matters to a close. With this end in view he sought his master and laid the case before him, begging for his intercession. Norton, the master, promised to visit Stuart Mordaunt and talk die matter over with him.
He did so. He laid the case before Mor-daunt plainly and clearly. A negro on his plantation was in love with one of his host’s maids. What was to be done about it?
“Well, it’s this way, Norton,” said Mordaunt frankly. “You know I never have countenanced this mating of servants off the plantation. It’s only happened once, and you know how that was.”
“I know, but, Mr. Mordaunt, Tom likes that wench, and if he don’t get her it’ll make a bad darky out of him, that’s all; and he’ll be a trouble to your plantation as well as to mine.”
“Oh, I can answer as to mine.”
“Perhaps, but there’s no telling what influence he might have over your people, and that’s worth looking into.”
“You’re on the wrong road to accomplish your end with me, Norton.”
“But you don’t understand; I’m not talking for myself, but for the happiness of a boy that I like.”
“You know how I handled a similar case.”
“Yes; but I’m a poorer man than you, and I— well, I can’t afford to be generous.”
Mordaunt laughed coldly. “Well,” he said, “I don’t like the stock of that boy Tom. You know how his father treated Tempe, and—oh, well, Norton, see me again, I’m not in the mood to discuss this matter now,” and he rose to dismiss his visitor.
“I’ll sell Tom cheap,” said Norton.
“In spite of your deep feeling for him?”
“My deep feeling for him prompts me to help him to happiness.”
“Very considerate of you, Norton, but I’m not buying or selling darkies. Good-day.”
Norton ground his teeth as he walked away. “That proud fool despises me,” he murmured angrily, “but either he shall buy Tom or that nigger shall make him more than his money’s worth of trouble.”
Stuart Mordaunt went away from the interview with his neighbor with a sneer on his lips. He despised Aldberry Norton, not because he was a poorer man, but because he was a man with no principle. Once an overseer, now a small owner, he brought the manners of the lower position to the higher one.
“I’d buy Tom,” he said to himself, “just to satisfy Laramie Belle, if it wasn’t against my principle.”
When the plantation, through some mysterious intelligence, heard how Tom’s suit fared, it was exultant. After all, the flower of their girls was not to go away to, mate with an inferior. They ceased to laugh at Julius behind his back. But there is no accounting for the ways of women, and at this time Laramie Belle ceased speaking to him—-so, setting one off against the other, the poor coachman had little to pride himself upon.
The girl now had fewer words than ever. Her smiles, too, were fewer, and she was often in tears. Seeing her thus, the fierceness in her mother’s face and manner increased until it grew to be a settled fact that one who cared for his life was not to bother Laramie Belle nor Lucy.
During all the trouble, Aunt Tempe had listened and looked on, unmoved. Every one had expected her to take a very decided part against the welcome suitor, the son of her old rival and her defaulting husband; but she had not done so. She had stood aloof until this crisis came. Even now, she was strangely subdued. Only she cast inquiring glances at Laramie Belle’s long, tear-saddened face whenever she passed her. Day by day she saw how the girl faded, and then came the wrath of the plantation upon her. When they saw that she would not yield, they cast her off. They would not associate with her, nor speak to her. She was none of theirs. Let her find her friends over at Norton’s, they said. They laughed at her and tossed their heads in her face, and she went her way silent but weeping. Lucy’s eyes grew fierce. Something strange, foreign, even wild within her seemed to rear itself and call for release. But she held herself as if saying, “A little while yet.”
The day came, however, when Aunt Tempe could stand Laramie Belle’s sad face no longer. It may have been the influence of Parker’s words as he told of the command to do good to “dem dat spitefully use you,” or it may have been the strong promptings of her own good heart that drove Tempe to seek her master out.
“Well, Tempe,” said Mordaunt, as he saw that she had settled herself for a talk with him, “what now?”
“It’s des’ anothah one o’ my ‘sputes,” said Tempe, with an embarrassment entirely new to her.
“Well, what’s coming now?”
“Mas’ Stua’t, I’s an’ ol’ fool, dat’s what I is.”
“Ah, Tempe, have you found that out? Then you begin to be wise. It’s wonderful how as you and I get old we both arrive at the same conclusions.”
“I aint jokin’, Mas’ Stua’t. I’s mighty anxious. I been thinkin’ ’bout Tawm an’ La’-amie Belle.”
“Hoi’ on, Mas’. Yo’ know de reason I got some right to think ’bout dem two. Mas’ Stua’t, my oP man didn’ do me right to leave me an’ tek up wid anothah ‘ooman.”
“He was a hound.”
“Look-a-hyeah, whut you talkin’ ’bout? You heish. I was a gwine ‘long to say dat my man didn’ treat me right, but sence it’s done, it’s done, an’ de only way to do is to mek de bes’ of it.”
“You’ve been doing that for a good many years.”
“Yes, but it wasn’t wid my willin’ hea’t. Brothah Pahkah say ‘dough dat we mus’ do good to dem what spitefully use us.”
“What are you driving at, Tempe?”
“Mas’ Stua’t, sence Tawm No’ton, he my ol’ man’s boy, don’t you reckon I’s some kin’ of a step-mammy to him?”
Stuart Mordaunt could not repress a chuckle as he answered, “Well, I can’t just figure out any such kinship.”
“I don’ keer whut yo’ figgers out. Hit’s got to be so ’cause I feels it.”
“It must be so, then.”
“Well, de plantation done cas’ La’amic Belle out ’cause she love Tawm, an’ she cryin’ huh eyes out. Tawm, he feel moughty bad ’bout it.”
“Mas’ Stua’t, let ’em ma’y.”
“Tempe, you know I object to the servants marrying oft the plantation.”
“I know, but—”
“And you know that I can’t buy Tom.”
“Won’t you, des’ dis time?”
“No, I won’t; I’m not a nigger trader, and I won’t have any one making me one. You let me alone, Tempe, and don’t concern yourself in this business.”
“Dey des two po’ chillen, Mas’ Stua’t.”
“I don’t care if they are. I won’t have anything to do with it, I tell you. I won’t have my people marrying with Norton’s, and if he can’t make a fair exchange for the man I gave him, why, Tom and Laramie Belle will have to give each other up, that’s all.”
Aunt Tempe said no more, but went tearfully away, but out of the corner of her eye she saw her master pacing up and down long after she had left him, and she had the satisfaction of knowing he was uneasy.
“Confound Tempe,” Mordaunt was saying. “Why can’t she let me alone? Just as I quiet my conscience, here she comes and knocks everything into a cocked hat. I won’t buy Tom. I won’t, that’s all there is about it. Her stepson, indeed!” He tried to laugh, but it ended lamely. “Confound Tempe,” he repeated.
He was troubled for two or three days, and then with a very sheepish expression he went to Tempe’s cabin.
“Tempe,” he said, “you’ve served me long and faithfully, and I’ve been thinking about making you a present for some time.”
“La, Mas’ Stua’t, wha’s de mattah wid you?”
“You hush up. Here’s some money, you can do with it as you please,” and he thrust a roll of bills into her hand.
“W’y, Mas’ Stua’t Mo’da’nt, is you clean loony? What is I gwine to do wid all dis money?”
“Throw it in the fire, confound you, if you haven’t got sense enough to know what use to put it to I” Stuart Mordaunt shouted, as he turned away. Then the light dawned on Aunt Tempe, and she sank to her knees with a prayer of thanks.
It took but a short time for her to have a less scrupulous man buy Tom for her, and then with a solemnity as great as his own, she presented him to her master, who received him, as he said, in the spirit in which he was given.
Lucy and Laramie Belle were present at the ceremony. The fierce light had died out of Lucy’s eyes, and Laramie’s face was aglow. When it was all over, Julius shook hands with Tom as an acknowledgment of defeat, and that gave the cue to the rest of the plantation, who forgot at once all its animosities against the new fellow-servant. But there were some things which the author of all this good could not forget, and on the night of the wedding, when the others rejoiced, Aunt Tempe wept and murmured: “He might ‘a’ been mine, he might ‘a’ been mine.”