Chapter VIII. Aunt Melvy as a Soothsayer
 

It was a crisp afternoon in late October. The road leading west from Clayton ran the gantlet of fiery maples and sumac until it reached the barren hillside below "Who'd 'a' Thought It." The little cabin clung to the side of the steep slope like a bit of fungus to the trunk of a tree.

In the doorway sat three girls, one tall and dark, one plump and fair, and the third straight and thin. They were anxiously awaiting the revelation of the future as disclosed by Aunt Melvy's far-famed tea-leaves. The prophetess kept them company while waiting for the water to boil.

"He sutenly is a peart boy," she was saying. "De jedge done start him in plumb at de foot up at de 'cademy, an' dey tell me he's ketchin' up right along."

"Wasn't it g-grand in Judge Hollis to send him to school?" said Annette. "Of course he's going to work for him b-between times. They say even Mrs. Hollis is glad he is going to stay."

"'Co'se she is," said Aunt Melvy; "dere nebber was nobody come it over Miss Sue lak he done."

"Father says he is very quick," ventured Martha Meech, a faint color coming to her dull cheek at this unusual opportunity of descanting upon such an absorbing subject. "Father told Judge Hollis he would help him with his lessons, and that he thought it would be only a little while before he was up with the other boys."

"Dad says he's a d-dandy," cried Annette. "And isn't it grand he's going to be put on the ball team and the glee club!"

Ruth rose to break a branch laden with crimson maple-leaves. "Was he ever here before?" she asked in puzzled tones. "I have seen him somewhere, and I can't think where."

"Well, I'd never f-forget him," said Annette. "He's got the jolliest face I ever saw. M-Martha says he can jump that high fence b-back of the Hollises' without touching it. I d-drove dad's buggy clear up over the curbstone yesterday, so he would come to the r-rescue, and he swung on to old B-Baldy's neck like he had been a race-horse."

"But you don't know him," protested Ruth. "And, besides, he was--he was a peddler."

"I don't care if he was," said Annette. "And if I don't know him, it's no sign I am not g-going to."

Aunt Melvy chuckled as she rose to encourage the fire with a pair of squeaking old bellows.

Martha looked about the room curiously. "Can you really tell what's going to happen?" she asked timidly.

"Indeed she can," said Annette. "She told Jane Lewis that she was g-going to have some g-good luck, and the v-very next week her aunt died and left her a turquoise-ring!"

"Yas, chile," said Aunt Melvy, bending over the fire to light her pipe; "I been habin' divisions for gwine on five year. Dat's what made me think I wuz gwine git religion; but hit ain't come yit--not yit. I'm a mourner an' a seeker." Her pipe dropped unheeded, and she gazed with fixed eyes out of the window.

"Tell us about your visions," demanded Annette.

"Well," said Aunt Melvy, "de fust I knowed about it wuz de lizards in my legs. I could feel 'em jus' as plain as day, dese here little green lizards a-runnin' round inside my legs. I tole de doctor 'bout hit, Miss Nettie; but he said 't warn't nothin' but de fidgits. I knowed better 'n he did dat time. Dat night I had a division, an' de dream say, 'Put on yer purple mournin'-dress an' set wid yer feet in a barrel ob b'ilin' water till de smoke comes down de chimbly.' An' so I done, a-settin' up dere on dat chist o' drawers all night, wid my purple mournin'-dress on an' my feet in de b'ilin' water, an' de lizards run away so fur dat dey ain't even stopped yit."

"Aunt Melvy, do you tell fortunes by palmistry?" asked Ruth.

"Yas'm; I reckon dat's what you call hit. I tells by de tea-leaves. Lor', Miss Rufe, you sutenly put me in min' o' yer grandmaw! She kerried her haid up in de air jus' lak you do, an' she wuz jus' as putty as you is, too. We libed in de ole plantation what's done burned down now, an' I lubed my missus--I sutenly did. When my ole man fust come here from de country I nebber seen sech a fool. He didn't know no more 'bout courtin' dan nothin'; but I wuz better qualified. I jus' tole ole miss how 't wuz, an' she fixed up de weddin'. I nebber will fergit de day we walk ober de plantation an' say we wuz married. George he had on a brand-new pair pants dat cost two hundred an' sixty-four dollars in Confederate money."

"Isn't the water b-boiling yet?" asked Annette, impatiently.

"So 't is, so 't is," said Aunt Melvy, lifting the kettle from the crane. She dropped a few tea-leaves in three china cups, and then with great solemnity and occasional guttural ejaculations poured the water over them.

Before the last cup was filled, Annette, with a wry face, had drained the contents of hers and held it out to Aunt Melvy.

"There are my leaves. If they don't tell about a lover with b-blue eyes and an Irish accent, I'll never b-believe them."

Aunt Melvy bent over the cup, and her sides shook. "You gwine be a farmer's wife," she said, chuckling at the girl's grimace. "You gwine raise chickens an' chillun."

"Ugh!" said Annette as the other girls laughed; "are his eyes b-blue?"

Aunt Melvy pondered over the leaves. "Well, now, 'pears to me he's sorter dark-complected an' fat, like Mr. Sid Gray," she said.

"Never!" declared Annette. "I loathe Sid."

"Tell my future!" cried Martha, pushing her cup forward eagerly.

"Dey ain't none!" cried Aunt Melvy, aghast, as she saw the few broken leaves in the bottom of the cup. "You done drinked up yer fortune. Dat's de sign ob early death. I gwine fix you a good-luck bag; dey say ef you carry it all de time, hit's a cross-sign ag'in' death."

"But can't you tell me anything?" persisted Martha.

"Dey ain't nothin' to tell," repeated Aunt Melvy, "'cep'n' to warn you to carry dat good-luck bag all de time."

"Now, mine," said Ruth, with an incredulous but curious smile.

For several moments Aunt Melvy bent over the cup in deep consideration, and then she rose and took it to the window, with fearsome, anxious looks at Ruth meanwhile. Once or twice she made a sign with her fingers, and frowned anxiously.

"What is it, Aunt Melvy?" Ruth demanded. "Am I going to be an old maid?"

"'T ain't no time to joke, chile," whispered Aunt Melvy, all the superstition of her race embodied in her trembling figure. "What I see, I see. Hit's de galluses what I see in de bottom ob yer cup!"

"Do you m-mean suspenders?" laughed Annette.

Aunt Melvy did, not hear her; she was looking over the cup into space, swaying and moaning.

"To t'ink ob my ole missus' gran'chile bein' mixed up wif a gallus lak dey hang de niggers on! But hit's dere, jus' as plain as day, de two poles an' de cross-beam."

Ruth laughed as she looked into the cup.

"Is it for me?"

"Don't know, honey; de signs don't p'int to no one person: but hit's in yer life, an' de shadow rests ag'in' you."

By this time Martha was at the door, urging the others to hurry. Her face was pale and her eyes were troubled. Ruth saw her nervousness and slipped her arm about her. "It's all in fun," she whispered.

"Of course," said Annette. "You m-mustn't mind her foolishness. Besides, I g-got the worst of it. I'd rather die young or be hanged, any day, than to m-marry Sid Gray."

Aunt Melvy followed them to the door, shaking her head. "I'se gwine make you chillun some good-luck bags. De fust time de new moon holds water I'se sholy gwine fix 'em. 'T ain't safe not to mind de signs; 't ain't safe."

And with muttered warnings she watched them until they were lost to view behind the hill.