A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill by Alice Hegan Rice
It was springtime in Kentucky, gay, irresponsible, Southern springtime, that comes bursting impetuously through highways and byways, heedless of possible frosts and impossible fruitions. A glamour of tender new green enveloped the world, and the air was sweet with the odor of young and growing things. The brown river, streaked with green where the fresher currents of the creeks poured in, circled the base of a long hill that dominated the landscape from every direction.
In spite of the fact that impertinent railroads were beginning to crawl about its feet, and the flotsam and jetsam of the adjacent city were gradually being deposited at its base, it nevertheless reared its granite shoulders proudly and defiantly against the sky.
From the early days when the hill and rich surrounding farm lands had been granted to the old pioneer William Carsey, one generation of Carseys after another had lived in the stately old mansion that now stood like the last remaining fortress against the city's invasion. Sagging cornices and discolored walls had not dispelled the atmosphere of contentment that enveloped the place, an effect heightened by the wide front porch which ran straight across the face of it, like a broad, complacent smile. Some old houses, like old gallants, bear an unmistakable air of past prosperity, of past affairs. Romance has trailed her garments near them and the fragrance lingers.
Thornwood, shabby and neglected, could still afford to drowse in the sunshine and smile over the past. It remembered the time when its hospitality was the boast of the countryside, when its stables held the best string of horses in the State; when its smokehouse, now groaning under a pile of lumber, sheltered shoulders of pork, and sides of bacon, and long lines of juicy, sugar-cured hams; when the cellar quartered battalions of cobwebby bottles that stood at attention on the low hanging shelves. It was a house ripe with experience and mellow with memories, a wise, old, sophisticated house, that had had its day, and enjoyed it, and now, through with ambitions, and through with striving, had settled down to a peaceful old age.
On this particular Sunday afternoon Colonel Bob Carsey, the third of his name, sat on the porch in a weather-beaten mahogany rocker, making himself a mint julep. He was a stout, elderly gentleman, and, like the rocking chair, was weather-beaten, and of a slightly mahogany hue. His features, having long ago given up the struggle against encroaching flesh, were now merely slight indentures, and mild protuberances, with the exception of the eyes which still blazed away defiantly, like twinkling lights at the end of a passage. Across his feet with nose on paws lay a dog, and about him was scattered a profusion of fishing paraphernalia.
The Colonel, carefully crushing the mint between his stubby fingers, stirred it with the sugar at the bottom of his tall glass; then, resting the concoction on the broad arm of the rocker, and without turning his head, lifted his voice in stentorian command:
No answer. He turned his head slightly to the left, in the general direction of the negro cabins whose roofs could be seen through the trees, and sent another summons hurtling through the bushes:
Again he waited, and again there was no response. The Colonel sighed resignedly, and spreading a large bordered handkerchief over his obliterated features, clasped his fat hands with some difficulty about his ample girth, and slept. When he awoke he began exactly where he had left off, only this time turning his head slightly to the right, and sending his command toward the kitchen wing.
A door slammed somewhere in the distance, and presently a shuffling of feet was heard in the hall, and a small, alert old negro presented himself to his master with an air of cheerful conciliation.
The Colonel did not turn his head; he gazed with an air of great injury at the tops of the locust trees, clasping his tumbler as it rested on the arm of the rocker.
"Jimpson," he began, after the culprit had suffered his silence some minutes.
"Now, Cunnel," began Jimpson nervously. He had evidently rehearsed this scene in the past.
"Just answer my questions," insisted the Colonel. "Is this my house?"
"Yas, sir, but Carline, she--"
"And are you my nigger?" persisted the Colonel plaintively.
"Yas, sir; but you see, Carline--"
"And haven't I, for twenty years," persisted the Colonel, "been taking a mint julep at half past two on Sunday afternoons?"
"Yas, sir, I was a comin'--"
"Then you don't regard it as an unreasonable request, that a gentleman should ask his own nigger, in his own house, to bring him a small piece of ice?" The Colonel's sense of injury was becoming so overpowering that the offender might have been crushed by contrition had not a laugh made them both look up.
Standing in the doorway was a young girl in a short riding habit, and a small hat of red felt that was carelessly pinned to her bright, tumbled hair. Her eyes were dark, and round like those of a child, and they danced from object to object as if eager to miss none of the good things that the world had to offer. Joy of life and radiant youth seemed to flash from her face and figure.
"What's the matter, Squire Daddy?" she asked, pausing on the threshold. "Mad again?" The Colonel's head twitched in her direction, but he held it stiff.
"Well, please don't kill Uncle Jimpson 'til he finds my gloves. I don't know where I took them off."
"Yas 'm, Miss Lady," Jimpson welcomed the diversion. "I'll find 'em jes as soon as I git yer Paw his ice."
"Oh, Daddy'll wait, won't you, Dad? I'm in a hurry."
For a moment Jimpson and the Colonel eyed each other, then the Colonel's gaze shifted.
"I'll git de ice fer you on my way back," Jimpson whispered reassuringly. "I spec' dat chile is in a hurry."
The young lady in question gave no appearance of haste as she perched herself on the arm of her father's chair, and presented a boot-lace for him to tie.
"Going fishing, Dad?" she asked.
"Yes," said the Colonel, struggling to make a two-loop bow-knot. "Noah Wicker and I are going down below the mill dam. Want to come along?"
"I can't. I'm going riding."
"That's good. Who with?"
"With Don Morley."
The smile that had returned to the Colonel's face during this conversation contracted suddenly, leaving his mouth a round little button of disapprobation.
"What in thunder is he doing up here anyhow; why don't he go on back to town where he belongs?"
"Don?" Miss Lady pretended to effect a part in the few straggling hairs that adorned his forehead. "Why, he's staying over to the Wickers' while he looks around for a farm. Here's a gray hair, Daddy! I'd pull it out only there are two more on that other side now than there are on this."
"Buying a farm, is he?" The Colonel waxed a deeper mahogany. "Well, this place is not for sale. I should think he could find something better to do with his time than hanging around here. For two weeks I haven't been able to sit on this porch for five minutes without having him under my feet! What's the sense of his coming so often?"
Miss Lady caught him by the ears, and turned his irate face up to her own.
"He comes to see me!" she announced, emphasizing each word with a nod. "He likes horses and dogs and me, and I like horses and dogs and him. But I like you, too, Daddy."
The Colonel refused to be beguiled by such blandishments.
"I'll speak to him when he comes. He needn't think just because he is a city fellow, he can take a daughter of mine racing all over the country on Sunday afternoon!"
"Why, Dad, that's absurd! Don't you take me yourself almost every Sunday? And don't I go with Noah, and the Brooks boys whenever I like?"
"Well, you can't go to-day."
"But this is Donald's last day. He goes back to town to-night, and he may go abroad next week to stay ever and ever so long."
The Colonel brought his fist down on his knees: "I don't care a hang where he goes. It's you we are talking about. You've got to promise me not to go with him this afternoon."
"Because," the Colonel argued feebly, "because it's Sunday."
Miss Lady sat for a moment looking straight before her and there was a contraction of her lips that might have passed for a comic imitation of her father's had it not softened into a smile.
"Suppose I won't promise?" she said.
The Colonel's free hand gripped the arm of the chair, and he looked as if he had every intention in the world of being firm.
"You see, if it is wrong for me to go riding on Sunday," went on Miss Lady, "it's wrong for you to go fishing. Suppose we both reform and stay at home?"
The Colonel's eyes involuntarily flew to his cherished tackle, lying ready for action on the top step, then they came back with a snap to the top of a locust tree.
Miss Lady squeezed his arm and laughed: "Of course you don't want to stay at home this glorious afternoon, neither do I! Now, that's settled. Here comes Noah; I'll go and fix your lunch."
It was not by any means the first time the daughter of the house of Carsey had scored in a contest with her father. His subjection had begun on that morning now nearly twenty years ago, when she had been placed in his arms, a motherless bundle of helplessness without even a personal name to begin life with.
That question of a name had baffled him. He had consulted all the neighbors, considered all the possibilities in the back of the dictionary, and even had recourse to the tombstones in the old cemetery, but the haunting fear that in days to come she might not like his choice, held him back from a final decision. In the meanwhile she was "The Little Lady," then "Lady," and finally through the negroes it got to be "Miss Lady." So the Colonel weakly compromised in the matter by deciding to wait until she was old enough to name herself. When that time arrived she stubbornly refused to exchange her nickname for a real one. A halfhearted effort was made to harness her up to "Elizabeth," but she flatly declined to answer to the appellation.
She and Noah Wicker, the son of a neighboring farmer, had run wild on the big place, and it was Miss Lady who invariably got to the top of the peach tree first, or dared to wade the farthest into the stream. All through the summer days her little bare legs raced beside Noah's sturdier brown ones. She could handle a fishing rod as well as her father, could ride and drive and shoot, and was on terms of easy friendship with every neighbor who passed over the brow of Billy-goat Hill.
The matter of education had been the first serious break in this idyllic existence. After romping through the country school, she had had several young and pretty governesses, all of whom had succumbed to the charms of neighboring country swains, and abandoned their young charge, to start establishments of their own. Then came wise counsel from without and after many tears she was sent to a boarding school in the city.
The older teachers at Miss Gibbs' Select School for Young Ladies still recall their trials during the one year Miss Lady was enrolled. She was pretty, yes, and clever, and lovable, oh, yes! And at this point usually followed a number of stories of her generosity and impulsive kindness; "but," the conclusion always ran, "such a strange, wild little creature, so intolerant of convention, in dress, in education, in religion. Quite impossible in a young ladies' seminary."
After one term of imprisonment Miss Lady escaped to the outdoor world again, and implored her devoted "Dad" to let her grow up in ignorance, protesting passionately that she did not want puffs on her head, and heels on her shoes, and whalebones about her waist. That she didn't care whether X plus Y equaled Z, or not, and that going to church and saying the same thing a dozen times, drove all ideas of religion out of her head. She would study at home, she declared, anything, everything he suggested, if only she could do it, in her own way, out of doors.
So the sorely puzzled Colonel had procured her the necessary text- books, and she had plunged into her original method of self-education. She usually fought out her mathematical battles down by the river, using a stick on the sand for her calculations; history she studied in the fork of an old elm, declaiming the most dramatic episodes aloud, to the edification of the sparrows.
In the long winter months her favorite haunt was a little unused room over the front hall, traditionally known as the library. Its only possible excuse for the name was its one piece of furniture, a battered secretary containing a small collection of musty volumes that did credit to the taste of some long-departed Carsey.
Miss Lady had discovered the library in her paper-doll days, and had ruthlessly clipped small bonneted ladies with flounced skirts from magazines that dated back to the first year of publication. Later she had discovered that some of the ladies had jokes on their backs, or rather pieces of jokes, the rest of which she hunted up in the old magazines. It was an easy step from the magazines to the books, and in time she knew them all, from the little dog-eared copy of Horace in the upper left-hand corner, to the fat Don Quixote in the lower right.
In this neglected little room, with its festoons of cobwebs, its musty smell and its sense of old, forgotten things and people, she would tuck herself away with a pocket full of apples, to study and read by the hour.
The Colonel had done his part, and she was determined to do hers; for three years she kept sturdily at it, devouring the things she could understand, and blithely skipping those she could not, extracting meanwhile a vast amount of pleasure out of each passing day. For the thing that differentiated Miss Lady from the rest of her fellow kind was that she was usually glad. She liked to get up in the morning and to go to bed at night, a peculiarity in itself sufficiently great to individualize her. She greeted each new experience with enthusiasm and managed to extract the largest possible quota of happiness out of the smallest and most insignificant occasion.
As she went singing through the hall, the Colonel tried to frown over his glasses, but he was only partially successful. She was too satisfying a sight with her shining hair and eyes, and lithe, supple figure, every motion of which bespoke that quick, unconscious freedom of body peculiar to children and those favored of the gods, who never grow old.
The tall, awkward young man who had by this time arrived at the porch, followed the Colonel's gaze, and then, without speaking, sat down on the steps and clasped his hands about his knees. Noah Wicker's awkwardness, however manifest to others, was evidently a matter of small moment to him. He had apparently accepted the companionship of unmanageable arms and legs without question, and without embarrassment. His stubby blond hair rose straight from a high, broad forehead, and grew down in square patches in front of his ears. His eyes, small and steady, surveyed the world with profound indifference.
When Miss Lady disappeared the Colonel turned upon him suddenly:
"What about this rich young fellow over at your house? Who is he anyhow?"
"Morley?" Noah crossed his knees deliberately. "Why, he's a brother- in-law of Mr. Sequin."
"Not Basil Sequin, the president of the People's Bank! You don't say!" The Colonel paused for a moment to digest this fact, then he went on: "Hell-bent on farming I hear; wants your father to look around for a place."
This not being in the form of a question, Noah conserved his energies.
"Don't amount to a hill of beans, I'll warrant," continued the Colonel, with a watchful eye on Noah for denial or confirmation, but Noah was noncommittal. "When a fellow gets to be twenty-three years old and can't find anything better to do than to run around the country spending his money, and playing with the girls, there's a screw loose somewhere. What does he know about stock-farming?"
"Says he's been reading up."
"Fiddlesticks!" roared the Colonel. "You can't learn farming out of a book! What does he know about horses?"
"Oh! He's on to horses all right," Noah grinned ambiguously. "You and I couldn't teach him anything about horses."
"Can he shoot?"
"Can't hit a barn door."
The Colonel heaved a deep sigh, drained the last drops from his tumbler, then leaned forward, confidentially:
"Noah Wicker, do you like that young chap?"
"Like him?" Noah looked up in surprise. "Why, everybody likes Don Morley."
"I don't," said the Colonel fiercely. "Here he comes now. I wish you'd look at that!"
A headlong young man in model riding costume, astride a bob-tailed sorrel, rashly took a fence where gate there was none, and came cantering across the Colonel's favorite stretch of blue grass.
"Awfully sorry to have cut across, Colonel!" he called out in tones that spoke little contrition. "Slipped my trolley as usual and got lost in the bullrushes. Hope I haven't kept Miss Lady waiting?"
The Colonel rose and extended a hand of welcome. A true Kentuckian may commit murder and still be a gentleman, but to fail in hospitality is to forfeit even his own self-respect.
"My daughter, Mr. Morley, will be out presently," he announced with great formality.
"And how are you, Mike?" went on young Morley, stooping to pat the dog; "didn't mean to cut you, old fellow, 'pon my word I didn't."
The dog, a shaggy beast, with small, plaintive eyes looking out from a fringe of wiry hair, expressed his appreciation of this attention with all the emotion a stump of tail would permit.
"It's a bully day!" continued the visitor with enthusiasm, wiping his wrists and forehead, and tossing his hair back. "If I weren't going to town to-night I'd ask you to take me fishing, Colonel. Hello! What kind of a reel is that?"
Now the article which had attracted attention happened to be an invention of the Colonel's, something he had been working on for a long time, so he could not resist explaining its unique qualities.
"Well, I'll be hanged!" said Morley, turning it over and over admiringly. "If that isn't the cleverest thing I ever saw. This little screw regulates the slack, doesn't it? Does your legal mind get on to that, Wick?"
"It was a great job to get that to fit," said the Colonel, nattered in spite of himself. "Took me the best part of a week to puzzle out that one point."
"A week!" exclaimed Morley. "It would have taken me months! Oh! here she is!" and from the very ardent look that leapt into his face, and the alacrity with which he sprang up, it might have been doubted whether his mind had been wholly upon the matter under discussion.
Miss Lady greeted him with almost boyish frankness, but there was an unmistakable flush under the smooth tan of her cheek that did not escape the vigilant eye of the Colonel.
"Here you are, Dad! here you are, Noah!" she said, tossing a small package to each; "sandwiches and hard boiled eggs for two."
"Put the salt in for the eggs?" asked the Colonel, having had experience with her lunches.
"I believe I did. Open yours and see, Noah. Say, Daddy darling!" she swooped down upon him from the rear, slipping an arm about his neck as he knelt on the porch to collect his hooks and lines, "you are going to let me ride Prince, just this once, aren't you?"
The Colonel gasped, partly from strangulation, and partly from amazement.
"Prince!" he cried. "Well, I reckon not! That colt's hardly broken to the saddle. He threw Jimpson last week."
"Well, I'm not Jimpson. Please, Daddy, just this once."
"If that's the little beast Wick was telling me about," said Morley, "we are certainly not going to trust you on him."
The Colonel leaned back upon his knees where he knelt on the porch, and glared at Morley.
"Who do you mean by we?"
"The conservative party of which I, for once, am a member. From all I can hear of that colt, no girl could handle him."
"You are absolutely mistaken, sir! I taught my daughter to straddle a horse before I taught her to walk. Handle him? Of course she can handle him! Jimpson!" he roared in conclusion, "put the side-saddle on Prince!"