A Romance of Billy-Goat Hill by Alice Hegan Rice
When in the course of the morning Uncle Jimpson started to the station to meet Mrs. Sequin, he did not have to direct the course of his steed. Had old John not known the way from experience, the inherited memory of his ancestors would have prompted him to turn twice to the right, once to the left, and pull up at a certain corner of the station platform. For the honor of being the Carseys' "station horse" had descended to him from his father Luke, whose father Mark had in the days of prosperity traveled in harness with Matthew, fulfilling that same important office. Thus John was, in a way, enjoying the distinction of apostolic succession.
Arrived at the station Uncle Jimpson stepped jauntily around the post- office box and ostentatiously took out the Carseys' mail. It was a small act to take pride in, but in lieu of more important duties it had to serve. For the past six weeks the advent of city people at Thornwood had stirred up old ambitions in him. A new sprightliness was observable in his gait, a briskness in his speech, which Aunt Caroline did not hesitate to characterize as "taking on airs."
The blood of a butler coursed through Uncle Jimpson's veins, a stately, ebony butler who had been wont to stand at the Thornwood door during the old days and hold a silver tray covered with boutonnieres, for the arriving guests. Uncle Jimpson had inherited this tray along with an ambition that was not above buttons. Year after year he had descended with the descending Carsey fortunes, passing from the house to the horses, then to the field, and finally becoming the man of all work, but never relinquishing that dream of his youth, to stand in livery in the halls of the rich, and exercise those talents with which Providence had blessed him.
As he passed the compliments of the day with two farm hands, who were loading a wagon near by, his eye fell upon a strange object that stood in the door of the dining-room. It looked to Uncle Jimpson like pictures he had seen of lions, only it was small and white and barked remarkably like a dog.
"Dat sure am a curious lookin' animal," he observed. "Hit must b'long to a show."
One of the farm hands laughed and pointed with his thumb to the waiting-room. Uncle Jimpson tiptoed to the window and peered in. All that he could see was the back of a very imposing lady and the top of a large plumed hat.
"Is--is she a-waitin' fer anybody?" he whispered, motioning anxiously with his soft hat.
"Oh! no," said the nearest man; "she ain't waitin'; she's just enjoyin' the scenery on them railroad posters. She likes to set there, been doin' it for a half hour."
Uncle Jimpson scraped the mud from his shoes, buttoned the one button that was left on his linen coat, and dropping his hat outside the door summoned courage to present himself.
"'Scuse me, mam, but does dis heah happen to be Mrs. Sequm?"
"It is," said the lady, haughtily.
"Yas'm, dat's what I 'lowed. Dat's what I tole Carline--leastwise dat's what I'st gwine tell her. Ise Cunnel Carsey's coachman."
Mrs. Sequin eyed him coldly through a silver lorgnette. "Didn't they understand that I was coming on the eleven train?"
"Yes'm, dat's right. But you allays has to 'low fer dem narrow gauges. Dey has to run slow to keep from fallin' offen de track. Dat must have been de ten o'clock train you come on."
"Not at all, I left the city at ten minutes of eleven."
"Yas'm, dat was de ten train den. De leben train don't start 'til long about noon."
"Preposterous!" said Mrs. Sequin, sweeping to her feet. "Take me to the carriage. Fanchonette! Where are you?"
Uncle Jimpson apologetically dragged forward his left foot, upon the trouser hem of which the small dog had fastened her sharp little teeth.
"Frightfully obstinate little beast," said Mrs. Sequin, "she won't let go until she gets ready. You needn't be afraid of her biting you. She couldn't be induced to bite a colored person."
Uncle Jimpson, carrying the dog along on his foot, led the way, while Mrs. Sequin, with the cautious tread of a stout person used to the treacheries of oriental rugs on hardwood floors, followed. She was a woman of full figure and imposing presence, whose elaborate coiffure and attention to detail in dress, gave evidence that the world had its claims.
At sight of the shabby, old, mud-covered buggy, and the decrepit apostolic John she paused.
Jimpson all obsequious politeness, put a linen duster over the wheel, and with a gesture worthy of Chesterfield, handed her in.
"I wish the top up," she commanded. "The glare is unspeakable."
Uncle Jimpson, standing by the wheel, shuffled his feet in embarrassment: "Yas'm," he agreed, "I'll put it up effen you want me to. But it won't stay up. No, mam, it won't stay. Looks lak in de las' two or three years it got a way o' fallin' back. Cunnel 'lowed he was gwine to git it fixed onct or twict, but he ain't done it."
Fanchonette just here became enraged at a bit of paper that was caught in the wheel, and gave vent to such a violent burst of temper that it required the undivided attention of her mistress to calm her.
Uncle Jimpson, occupying the smallest possible portion of the seat, and with one leg hanging outside the buggy, rejoiced in the proximity of so much elegance. It gave him a feeling of prosperity and importance, and made him straighten his back, crook his elbow, and even adopt a more formal manner with old John. He deeply regretted that he had not put on a clean coat and as for the buggy, he was already planning a thorough cleaning of it before driving the stylish guest back in the afternoon.
"Stop a moment!" commanded Mrs. Sequin peremptorily. "What a view! I had no idea there was such scenery anywhere around here!"
"Yas'm, hits about de fines' sceneries in de world! You kin see from dem heights clean down to de bridge. All dis hill used to be our-alls. I 'member hearin' how Mr. Rogers Clark done gib it to de Cunnel's gran'paw fer a lan' grant when de Injuns libed here!"
"Who owns it now? Who owns the hilltop?"
"I don't know, mam. We been sellin' off considerable."
"Well, I must find out about that at once. I'll send an agent out to- morrow to look into the matter. Colonel Carsey left only one daughter, I believe, and she never married?"
Uncle Jimpson jerked the reins and looked a bit nettled.
"Not yit," he said, "but she ain't no old maid, Miss Lady ain't. Dere neber wuz a Carsey lady yit dat withered on de stalk; de trouble wif dem is dey git picked too soon. Ez fer Miss Lady's ma, she wasn't but jes turned sebenteen when me an' de Cunnel went down to Alabama to marry her."
"Who are Miss Carsey's relatives, her advisers?"
"She ain't got none. She didn't hab a livin', breathin' soul but her paw, 'ceptin' me an' Carline, an' Carline's liable to drop off mos' anytime."
"But who is going to live with her?"
"I spec she gwine git married some day," Jimpson said hopefully, "all de boys been plumb 'stracted 'bout dat chile since she wuz a little girl. But she wuz so crazy 'bout her paw, she jes laff at 'em. Now de Cunnel's gone, she'll hab to git somebody else to make ober."
"Well, I must find out about that hill," said Mrs. Sequin, turning for a last glimpse. "Whose old place is this we are coming to?"
"Dis is our place, dis is Thornwood," said Uncle Jimpson, half in pride, half in apology, as he skirted the holes in the road. "It don't look lak itself. It's a terrible pretty place when it's fixed up."
"Dreadfully run down," said Mrs. Sequin to herself, making a sweeping survey of the premises, "all this front lawn ought to be terraced and have granitoid walks and formal approaches. The house could be made quite imposing."
They had turned in the long winding avenue, and were following the old gray wall that swept in a wide circle past the negro cabins, then toward the house.
Suddenly Mrs. Sequin pointed dramatically to the little porch of one of the cabins.
"A Sheraton! Great heavens! Where did it come from? What is it doing there?"
Uncle Jimpson, following the direction of her finger, looked surprised: "Dat ain't no sheraton, dat's a sideboard. Leastwise it wuz one 'fore I fixed it into a chicken coop. I took out de drawers and put on dem cross-pieces. Got forty de purtiest little chickens you eber seen!"
"And the legs are curved and have knobs, haven't they?"
"No, mam, dey ain't no more bow-legged dan most chickens. Do you raise chickens on your place?"
"No, but we may when we get to the country. By the way, you don't happen to know of a good colored man around here, do you? One who understands horses, and would look well in livery?"
Uncle Jimpson's eyes set in their sockets. Old John and the rattling buggy faded from his consciousness. In their place he saw himself on the box seat of a grand Victoria, in a double-breasted coat and high hat, lightly shaking the reins across the backs of two sleek thoroughbreds. It was even more alluring than his cherished dream of butlerhood! Already he felt his swelling chest strain against the gold buttons!
But what about Miss Lady? Who was going to stay at Thornwood and take care of her? Domestic infelicities had rendered him callous to Aunt Caroline's claims, but Miss Lady, his "little Missis"?
"No, mam," he said dejectedly as he assisted Mrs. Sequin to alight. "I can't say ez I do, not jes' at present. Sometime I might heah ob a good man, say 'bout my size an' build. You, Mike!"
Mike had rushed at the small poodle with the apparent intention of swallowing her at a mouthful, but at Uncle Jimpson's stern reproof he snapped at a fly instead, and tried to give the impression that that was what he was after all along.
"Ain't you 'shamed ob yourself?" Uncle Jimpson muttered. "Fussin' 'round here an' stickin' out yer lip at white folks? Come on 'round back where you b'longs. You an' me is corn-field niggers, dat's all we is!"
And with that irritable dejection that often follows self-sacrifice, Uncle Jimpson limped away with the subdued Mike skulking at his heels.