The room took on the whispered silence of a court awaiting an overdue jury. Fitz was still incredulous and still anxious, saying to me in an undertone that he felt sure she would either refuse it altogether or couple it with some conditions that the agent could not accept; either would be fatal. Yancey and the judge, who had been partly paralyzed at the rapidity of the transaction, conferred in a corner, while the agent proceeded to make a copy of the proposition with as much composure as if he bought a coal-mine every day. The colonel sat by himself, his chair tilted back, his eyes half closed.
In the midst of this uncertainty Chad entered with a message. "Miss Nancy wants de colonel." In five minutes more he entered with another.
Miss Nancy wanted Fitz and me.
We followed the old servant up the winding staircase and down the long hall, past the old-fashioned wardrobe and the great chintz-covered lounge, waited until Chad knocked gently, and entered the dear lady's bedroom.
She sat near the window by the side of the high post bedstead, rocking gently to and fro. The colonel was standing with his back to the light, coat open, thumbs in his armholes, face beaming.
"I sent for you," she began, "because I want you both to hear my answer before I inform the agent. The land only was mine, and but for your love and devotion to the colonel would still be a wild hill. The coal, therefore, belongs to him. Go and tell the Englishman I accept his offer. The land and all the coal I give to George."
When, an hour later, the transaction was complete, the receipts and preliminary contracts signed, and the small, modest-looking check--the first instalment--had been transferred from the plethoric bank-book of the agent to the narrow, poverty-stricken pocket of the colonel, and the fact began to dawn simultaneously upon everybody that at last the dear old colonel was independent, an enthusiasm took possession of the room that soon became uncontrollable.
Fitz caught him in his arms, and began hugging him in a way that endangered every rib in his body, calling out all the time that he had never felt so good in all the days of his life. Yancey and Kerfoot, who had stood one side appalled by the magnitude of the sum paid, and who during the signing of the papers had looked at the colonel with the same sort of silent awe with which they would have regarded any other potentate rolling in estates, mines, and millions, broke through the enforced reserve, and exclaimed, with an outburst, that the South was looking up, and that a true Southern gentleman had come into his own, the judge adding with emphasis that the colonel had never looked so much like his n.o.ble father as when he stooped over and signed that receipt. Even the Englishman, hard, practical fellow that he was, congratulated him on his good fortune in a few short words that jumped out hot from his heart.
With this atmosphere about him it is not to be wondered that the colonel lost the true inwardness of the situation. The fact that his aunt's boundary line included every acre of valuable land on the plantation, while his own poor portion only bordered the Tench, was to him simply one of those trifling errors which sometimes occur in the part.i.tion of vast landed estates. And although when the gift was made he felt more than ever her loving-kindness, he could not now, on more mature reflection and after hearing the encomiums of his friends, really see how she could have pursued any other course.
And yet, with the sale accomplished and he rich beyond his wildest dreams, he was precisely the same man in bearing, manner, and speech that he had been in his impecunious days in Bedford Place. He was rich then--in hopes, in plans, in the reality of his dreamland. He was no richer now. The check in his pocket made no difference.
The only perceptible change was when he recounted to me his plans for the restoration of the homestead and the comfort of its inmates. "I shall rebuild the barns and cabins, and lay out a new lawn. The po'ch"--looking up--"needs some repairs, and the ca'iage-house must be enlarged. The coaching days are not over yet, Major; Nancy must have"--
Chad, entering with a luncheon for the exhausted circle, diverted the colonel's train of thought, cutting short his summary. For a moment he watched his old servant musingly, then following him into the next room he called him to one side, and with marked tenderness in his manner unfolded the Englishman's check.
The old servant put down the empty tray, adjusted his spectacles, and examined it carefully.
"What's dis, Marsa George?"
"A thousand dollars, Chad."
"Golly! Monst'ous quare kind o' money. Jes a sc.r.a.p. Ain't big enough to wad a gun, is she? An' Misser Englishman gib ye dis for dat ole brier patch?"
Chad was trembling all over, full to the very eyelids.
The colonel held out his hand. The old servant bent his head, his master's hand fast in his. Then their eyes met.
"Yes, Chad, for you and me. There's no hard work for you any mo', old man. Go and tell Henny."
That night at dinner, Fitz on the colonel's right, the Englishman next to aunt Nancy, Kerfoot, Yancey, and I disposed in regular order, Chad noiseless and attentive, the colonel arose in his chair, radiant to the very tip ends of his cravat, and, in a voice which trembled as it rose, said:--
"Gentlemen, the events of the day have unexpectedly brought me an influx of wealth far beyond my brightest antic.i.p.ations. This is due in great measure to the untirin' brain and vast commercial resources of my dear friend Mr. Fitzpatrick, who has labored with me durin' my sojourn Nawth in the development of these properties, and who now, with that unselfishness which characterizes his life, refuses to accept any share in the result.
"They have also strengthened the tie existin' between my old friend the major on my left, who oftentimes when the day was darkest has cheered me by his counsel and companionship.
"But, gentlemen, they have done mo'." The colonel's feet now barely touched the floor. "They have enabled me to provide for one of the loveliest of her s.e.x,--she who graces our boa'd,--and to enrich her declinin' days not only with all the comforts, but with many of the luxuries she was bawn to enjoy."
"Fill yo' gla.s.ses, gentlemen, and drink to the health of that greatest of all blessings,--a true Southern lady!"
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