Chapter XVII
 

During the course of that Christmas night, there was one member of the Sequin household who failed to thrill with the holiday spirit, and whose depression steadily increased as the evening wore on. The great occasion of which Uncle Jimpson had dreamed all his life, had at last arisen, and instead of being allowed to rise with it, and prove his indisputable right to butlerhood, he had been detailed to drive back and forth to the station over that same humdrum Cane Run Road that he and Old John had helped to wear away for the past quarter of a century!

To be sure, a neat depot wagon and a spirited young sorrel had replaced the ancient buggy and the apostolic nag, but these fell far short of Uncle Jimpson's dreams. A coach and four at that moment would not have compensated him for the fact that a complaisant, red-headed furnaceman, a "po' white trash" arrived but yesterday, was being allowed to pass the tray that by all rights of precedence belonged to him.

Waiting impatiently at the station for the train that was to bring the elusive ices which he had been pursuing all evening, he at last had the satisfaction of seeing the small engine crawl out of the darkness, and come to a wheezing halt.

So engrossed were the conductor and brakeman and Uncle Jimpson in safely depositing the freezers on the platform, that no one noticed a passenger who had alighted. In fact, it was not until Uncle Jimpson heard Mrs. Sequin's name that he paused from his labor and looked up.

The stranger was a young, well-built man, wearing a long, shaggy overcoat, and a cap of a foreign cut that excited the immediate envy of the brake-man. The bag and the suit case which he carried were covered with foreign labels, and he had the air of a person who is suddenly dropped down in a strange place and doesn't quite know what to do with himself.

"You say you want to git up to Mrs. Sequin's to-night?" Uncle Jimpson eyed the bags suspiciously. "'Scuse me, sir, but you ain't sellin' nothin', is you?"

The laugh that greeted this was so spontaneous, that Uncle Jimpson hastened to apologize: "I nebber thought you wuz, only we wasn't lookin' fer no railroad company, an' I 'lowed you didn't look lak you wuz comin' to de party."

"What party?" asked the man, his look of amusement giving place to one of dismay.

"Our-alls party. We's havin' a ball an' a house-warmin'. You must be comin' fum a long ways off not to be hearin' 'bout hit!"

"You mean the Sequins are having a party, tonight?"

"Yas, sir."

"But aren't they expecting me? Didn't they get my telegram?"

"I dunno, sir. Dey nebber said nothin' to me."

The stranger stood with feet apart, watch in hand, and a grim expression on the only part of his face visible between his cap and his upturned collar.

"What time is the next train back to town?"

"Dey ain't none, 'ceptin' de special, what's hired to take de party back to town. Dat goes 'bout two o'clock."

"I'll wait for it," said the stranger, flinging his bag against the waiting-room door and beginning to pace restlessly up and down the snow-covered platform.

But this did not meet with Uncle Jimpson's ideas of hospitality.

"Dey nebber knowed you wuz comin'," he argued. "I jes know dey didn't. But dat won't hinder 'em fum bein' powerful glad to see you. Better git in, Boss, an' lemme dribe you up dere."

"No, there is evidently more room for me in town!"

"Room! Why, Mister, we could take keer of all de Presidents of de Nunited States at one time! 'Sides, hit don't look right to leave you a stompin' round here in de cold fer three or four hours by yourself. You'd git powerful lonesome."

"I'm used to being lonesome. Haven't been anything else for a year."

"But dis heah is different," urged the old darkey, scratching his head; "dis heah is Christmas night. Tain't natchul fer folks not to git together an' laugh an' be happy an' fergit dere quarrels an' dere troubles an' jollify deyselves. You know you ain't gwine be happy stompin' round here in de dark by your loneself; you know dat ain't no way to spend Christmas, Boss!"

The stranger continued to stare into the darkness for a moment, then he laughed, that same sudden, infectious, boyish laugh that had greeted Uncle Jimpson's suggestion that he was an agent.

"You're right!" he exclaimed; "this is no time to nurse a grouch. Perhaps they didn't get the telegram. I'll risk it. Is there a side door you could slip me in?"

"Yas, sir! We got four side doors, 'sides de back one. Ain't nuffin we ain't got. You git right in de wagon, an' I'll hist de bags in. 'Tain't de way I'd like to kerry you up to de mansion, straddlin' a ice-cream freezer wid de snow in yer face, but I'll git you dere!"

Uncle Jimpson, sure of an audience for at least twenty minutes, forgot his wrongs and laid himself out to make the most of his opportunity.

It was very cold and the horse's hoofs beat hard on the frozen ground. Beyond the wavering circle of light from the swaying lantern all was dark and mysterious.

"I certainly is glad dem freezers come," said Uncle Jimpson, tucking in the lap robe; "I shore would hate to go back widout 'em. De Cunnel used to say dat was what niggers was born fer, to git what you sent 'em after."

"Who is the Colonel?" asked the stranger with a quick glance of recognition at the old negro.

"Cunnel Bob Carsey. My old marster. He's dead now, an' Mrs. Sequin she's done borrowed me fer a while."

"When did he die?"

"A year ago las' May."

The man in the foreign cap pulled it further over his eyes and resumed his scrutiny of the road.

"Al dis heah hill used to b'long to us," Uncle Jimpson continued; "long before de Sequinses ever wuz born. I spec' you've heard tell of Thornwood?"

"Yes. Who lives there now?"

"Nobody. When de Cunnel died, my young Miss didn't hab nobody to take keer ob her, nor no money to run de place, no nothin' 'ceptin' jus' me an' Carline. Dey wasn't nothin' left fer her to do but git married."

A long pause followed during which the traveler watched the distorted shadow of the trotting horse as it shambled along the road.

"'Course," the old darkey broke out presently, "Doctor Queerington is a powerful smart gemman, an' he teks keer ob her jes' lak she wuz one ob his own chillun. An' she's gittin' broke into de shafts, but hit's gwine hard wid her. 'Tain't natchul to hitch a young filly up to a old kerriage horse an' spec' her to keep step. She sorter holdin' back all de time, kinder 'fraid to let loose an' carry on same as she use to."

They were going through the covered bridge now and the rattle of the wheels on the loose boards made conversation difficult.

"Wuz you eber homesick, Boss?" asked Uncle Jimpson inconsequently.

"Rather," said the stranger emphatically. "I was born homesick."

"Well, dat's what ails my young Miss an' dat's whut's de matter wid me an' Carline an' Mike. Ain't none ob us used to libin' in other folks' houses an' mixin' up wid other folkses families. 'Course hit's mighty fine to be rich an' put on airs, but hit's lonesome. 'Fore hit got so cold, me an' Carline'd go down home most ebery night an' set round de quarters, listenin' to de frogs an' de crickets, an' I'd say,' Carline, don't you mind de time dat Miss Lady fell head fust into de barrel ob sorghum? An' de time she made de chickens drunk often egg- nog?' Nebber wus nobody in de world lak dat chile, up to ever mischievousness dat ever wuz concocted, but jus' so sweet an' coaxin' dat de Cunnel nebber knowed how to punish her."

The stranger took out a meerschaum pipe, started to light a match, evidently forgot his intention, and looked absently ahead into the darkness.

"Dis is Thornwood!" said Uncle Jimpson eagerly, pointing with his whip up a long avenue of trees; "you can't see de house 'cause dey ain't no lights in de winders. De Cunnel's paw set dem trees out de same year he bought Carline. Lord, I certainly wuz gone on dat yaller gal! But I didn't know nothin' 'bout courtin'. Carline she wuz better qualified though, an' she made me ast Old Miss ef I couldn't hab her fer my wife. We didn't need no Bible nor preacher, nor sech foolishness in dem days. But when Old Miss wuz willin' we jus' dress up an' walk ober de place an' tell all de niggers we wuz married. Umph, umph! But I wuz proud dat day! I had on a bran' new pair ob pants dat cost two-hundred an' sixty-fo' dollars in Confederate money! When Mr. Abe Lincum set us niggers free, dey made us git married all ober agin wid a preacher an' a Bible, but I never seed no diffunce."

"Does Mrs.--Mrs. Queerington ever come back to Thornwood?" asked the stranger, stumbling over the name as if it were very hard for him to say.

"Yas, sir, she comes jes' lak me an' Carline, an' wanders roun' de house an' de garden, an' sets in de ole barrel hammock, studyin' to herself."

"And Mike,--what became of him?"

Uncle Jimpson looked at him in surprise, "How'd you know about Mike, Mister?"

"Didn't you speak of him a while ago; wasn't he the dog?"

"Yas, sir. He's our dog. He's stayin' wif Miss Ferney Foster what libes down beyond de blacksmith's on de other side de pike. He don't lak it no better'n we do; he's homesick, too."

They had reached a pretentious white gateway, and Uncle Jimpson, recalled to a sense of his duties, drew himself up from his slouching posture, crooked his elbow and rounded the curve as if he had been driving a tally-ho. Through the bare trees above them blazed the magnificent proportions of Angora Heights, with its pretentious assembly of stables, garage and servants' quarters in the rear.

"Ye gods!" exclaimed the stranger under his breath; "is this all of it?"

"Naw, sir!" Uncle Jimpson denied emphatically; "if hit wuz daytime you could see de Ramparts an' de Estanade. Over dere is de Lygoon. 'Tain't nothin' shore 'nuff but our ole pond where we uster ketch bullfrogs, but Mrs. Sequin she tole me to call hit de Lygoon. You see dem carvins ober de door? Dat figger goin' up dat Egyptions stairway is John Dark. Didn't you nebber heah 'bout John Dark? He wuz a woman what fit a battle onct."

"Cut around to the side there, out of the way of the motors," directed the stranger, who seemed much more concerned in making a quiet entrance into the mansion than in studying its architectural features. "Here's something to put in the toe of your Christmas stocking, and another for Caroline. Hurry up!"

He vaulted lightly over the wheel and turned to take his bag. As he did so the light from the conservatory window above fell full upon his upturned face.

"Fore de Lawd!" cried Uncle Jimpson, a broad grin splitting his face almost in two. "I might 'a' knowed dat de only gemman in de world what tipped lak dat wuz Mr. Don Morley!"