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"Of that I am not much afraid," said I; "it is too well secured."
I withdrew from the window, and for half an hour they tried various means of effecting an entrance, but it was impossible. I approached the window again, and they called out: "If you do not have the door opened, we shall certainly fire!"
"Do so," I replied; "there is no one to injure by it except helpless women and children."
I did not suppose they would do it--I thought it was intended only for a threat; and was therefore as much surprised as any of the others, when a bullet came whizzing through the front door, and passing through a pane of glass in an opposite window, fell into the yard. A dreadful scream arose from the servants, and perhaps frightened for the effects, or perceiving my husband and the men, they made a hasty retreat; and I was just ready to sink from fright when Mr. Henshaw came in. He told me never to stop up the bullet-hole, but to leave it to show what women were made of in the Revolution.
Cousin Statia had completed her winter's knitting, Aunt Henshaw began to make pumpkin pies, and the period of my visit was rapidly drawing to a close. The letters from home grew more and more solicitous for my return, and at last the day was fixed. I felt anxious to see them all again, and yet rather sorry to lay aside my present state of freedom. I had quite escaped from leading-strings, and found it very pleasant to follow the bent of my inclination as I had done at Aunt Henshaw's; but absence had banished all memory of the thorns I had sometimes encountered in my career at home, and I thought only of the roses--the idea of change being also a great inducement.
Holly and I had passed whole afternoons in gathering hazel-nuts which grew near a fence not far from the house; and having filled a very respectable-sized bag with them, I felt quite impatient at the idea of returning home well-laden with supplies, like any prudent housekeeper.
Aunt Henshaw was to accompany me, and selecting some of her choicest produce, and an immense bunch of herbs, as antidotes for all the aches and ills which human flesh is heir to, on a bright, glowing September morning, we set forward on my homeward journey. "Blessings brighten as they leave us;" and although I had been considered the torment of the whole household, all regretted my departure, and begged me to come soon again.
"Now, Miss Amy," said Sylvia, as I was taking a long private farewell in the kitchen, "jest take a piece of advice from an old colored woman what has lived longer in the world than you have, and roasted chickens and fried sassages ever sense she can remember. Buckwheat cakes is very good, but to keep your own counsel is a heap better--so when you go home don't you go to telling about that ere pig-pen business, or the time when the old hen flewed at you, or tumbling off the old horse. People that don't say nothin' often gits credit for bein' quite sensible, and p'raps you can deceive 'em too; for you'll be kind o' made a fuss with when you fust get home, and if you don't let on about all these here scrapes they'll think more of you."
Sylvia's advice struck me as being very sensible, and I therefore resolved to act upon it, and endeavor to make them consider me quite a different character from the hoyden Amy. I kissed Cousin Statia, who took up her sewing as calmly as though nothing of any importance was about to occur; and having delighted Holly's eyes with a bright ribbon in which all the colors of the rainbow seemed combined, I presented Sylvia with a collar worked by myself, and passed out to the stage, which was waiting for us. Our journey home was quite an uneventful one; and the wind being more favorable, we were not so long on the passage.
My parents were watching for us with anxious solicitude; but when the door opened in bounded a wild, blooming hoyden, in whose sparkling eyes and glowing cheeks they could detect no trace of the delicate invalid.
Henry and Fred, with a troop of younger brothers, stood ready to devour me with kisses; but Mammy, rushing impulsively forward, pushed them all aside, and cried and laughed over me alternately, while she almost crushed me with the violence of her affection. Before I was well seated, Fred spied out the bag of hazel-nuts; and a vigorous sound of cracking informed me that the work of devastation had already commenced.
How they all stared at my ear-rings! But mamma turned pale and burst into tears; while I stood still, feeling very uncomfortable, and yet not being exactly aware of the manner in which I had displeased her. Aunt Henshaw, however, with a minute accuracy that struck me as being painfully correct, related every circumstance connected with that unfortunate business, from her finding me extended on the bed to the time when the rings were placed in my ears.
"Oh Amy! how could you!" exclaimed my mother; "I have always despised the barbarous practice of making holes in the flesh for the sake of ornament," she continued, "but to have them pierced by an ignorant colored woman! Come here, child, and let me look at your ears. They are completely spoiled!" she exclaimed, "the holes are one-sided, and close to the very bone! What is to be done?"
Aunt Henshaw suggested that it would be better to let those grow up, and have others made in the right place; but I still retained a vivid recollection of that scene of torture, and did not therefore feel willing to have it repeated. But the ear-rings must come out--they were no ornament all one-sided; so they were laid away in cotton, while I had the pleasure of reflecting on the suffering I had endured for nothing.
Being thus brought down at the very commencement of my attempt to be sensible, and finding it less trouble to resume my natural character, I concluded to disregard Sylvia's well-meant advice. I was very poor at keeping a secret; so one by one all the scrapes in which I had figured came to light, to the great horror of the others, and the delight of Fred, who was quite pleased to discover a congenial soul.
Mammy at length seized upon me again, and carrying me almost by force to the nursery, she locked the door and sat down beside me; determined, as she said, to have me to herself for a while. Having requested an account of all the adventures I had met with, she listened with the most absorbed attention while I unfolded the various circumstances of my visit. Mammy was sometimes amused, sometimes frightened, and often shocked, but generally for the dignity of the family; for as I had been its representative, she feared that it would suffer in the eyes of the country people.
Time passed on; Aunt Henshaw returned home, and things proceeded in their usual way. My vanity was flattered by the increased attention which I met with on all sides; my parents appeared to consider me much less of a child since my return, and I was in consequence almost emancipated from the nursery; while Mammy and Jane no longer chided me for my misdemeanors--which, to say the truth, were much less frequent than formerly.
But I soon after experienced a great source of regret in the departure of Ellen Tracy for boarding-school. Not being an only daughter like myself, her parents could better spare her; but we were almost inconsolable at parting, and having shed abundance of tears, presented each other with keepsakes as mementos of our unchanging friendship. Hers was a little china cup, which I have kept to this day, while I gave her a ring made of my own hair; so that, for want of Ellen's company, I was obliged to take up with her brother's; and the boys complained that I kept Charles so much to myself it was impossible to make him join any of their excursions.
It was my twelfth birthday; and on the evening of that day I feared that Mammy's oft-repeated threat of leaving us, at which we had so often trembled in our younger days, was about to be verified. A married sister was taken very ill, and Mammy was immediately sent for to take care of her; and indeed we were afraid that she would be obliged to stay there altogether, on account of her nephews and nieces. How dreary the nursery seemed after her departure! In vain did the good-natured Jane exert herself to tell her most amusing stories; they had lost their interest; and yielding to her feelings, she became at length as dull as any of us.
In about a week Mammy returned; but we could see that she was changed; her sister had died and left five children but illy provided for.
Through the influence of my father, different situations were obtained for the three eldest; while the old nurse, with the assistance of occasional charity, supported the two younger ones. But Mammy had suffered from sleepless nights, and rooms but illy warmed; and her own health failed during her ceaseless watch by the bedside of her sister.
We did not know exactly what it was, but felt very sure that Mammy seemed no longer like the same person.
Children who are kept at a distance by their parents and elders, often have very queer thoughts, whose existence no one imagines. I do not think I was an ordinary child; and notwithstanding my hoyden nature had a very thoughtful turn of mind. I well recollect, on being once sent early to bed for some misdemeanor I bribed my brother Fred to accompany me; and waking up during the night, the saying that "he who goes to bed in anger has the devil for his bed-fellow" came across my mind, and impressed me so strongly that I caught hold of Fred's foot to ascertain whether it was so disagreeable a guest, or my own madcap brother who was lying beside me. Even the kick I received in return was rather welcome than otherwise, as it proved beyond a doubt that it was really the veritable Fred.
But what has this to do with Mammy? you ask. A great deal, I can assure you; for I began to fear that it was not the old nurse who had returned to us, but some strange being, who, having assumed her appearance, had not been able altogether to imitate her manner. So I kept myself aloof, and felt afraid to venture too close; but she grew thinner and paler, and my mother relieved her from all care of the children.
I slept in a small closet that opened into the nursery; and calling me very softly one night, she said, "Miss Amy, will you bring me a pitcher of water? I know they would not let me have it," she continued as I attempted to remonstrate with her, "but I am determined not to die choking."
I was very much frightened, but I could not see her suffer with thirst; and bringing her a large pitcher of water, she drank almost half of it at once. "Now place it on a chair where I can reach it," said she, "and go back to bed--I shall be better soon."
I did as she requested, and, childlike, soon fell asleep again. The old nurse too slept--but hers was the sleep that knows no waking. They came in the next morning and found her dead. Her features were peaceful as though she had died calmly, and beside her stood the pitcher empty. She always said that if she should ever be ill, she _would_ have water--she would drink till she died, and she had literally done so. We all felt very sad, and Fred broke forth into loud screams, on being told of her death.
It was my first realization of death--the first corpse I had ever seen; and as I knelt beside the coffin, where the pale hands that lay cross-folded on the breast, the motionless features, and the dreadful stillness of the whole figure, spoke eloquently of the change that had taken place, I thought of my many acts of wilfulness, ingratitude, and unkindness, which had often pained the loving heart that had now forever ceased to beat. Could I but see those still features again animated with life, I felt that never again would my tongue utter aught but words of kindness; but it was now too late for amendment--there was nothing left me but repentance.
My parents too grieved at her death; she had been in the family so long that they were loathe to miss the old familiar face from its post in the nursery. She was buried from our own house; and there were more true mourners at her funeral than often fall to the lot of the great and gifted.
"Papa, have you any relations?" I asked one evening rather suddenly, after pondering over the subject and wondering why it was that our family consisted of no one but papa, and mamma, and us children; while other people always had aunts, or uncles, or cousins living with them.
We had plenty, to be sure, who came and made visits at different times; but I meant some one to live with us altogether.
"What a curious question!" said my father, smiling, "And how suddenly you bolted out with it, Amy, after at least half an hour's silence. You must have thought deeply on the subject, but what put it into your head just now?"
Not knowing exactly what to say, I wisely remained silent; and turning to my mother, he continued in a low tone: "Do you know that this random question of Amy's has awakened some not very welcome reminiscences, and pointed out a line of duty which does not promise much pleasure beyond the consciousness of doing right? I ought to invite an addition to the family without delay."
"Are you joking, or in earnest?" inquired my mother, "And if in earnest, pray whom do you refer to?"
"You will soon find it to be most solid, substantial earnest," rejoined my father, "for I must this very evening write a letter to Mrs.
Chesbury, senior, the step-mother of whom you have heard me speak, inviting her to spend the summer with us. She has, you know, resided at the South since my father's death, occasionally visiting her relatives at the North; and as we have never yet been honored with her company, that pleasure is still in store for us. My recollections of her, to be sure, are not so very delightful. She was very severe in her discipline, and continually checked my pleasures and enjoyments, which she usually exchanged for some long, heavy, incomprehensible task; and at the first blunder in recitation, off came her shoe, which she immediately laid across my shoulders with the most unremitting zeal. I recollect her whipping me one day when it really appeared to me that I had not been in the least to blame. I was quite a little fellow then, and drawing my hand across my eyes, I sobbed forth: 'I wish one of us in this room was dead, I do--I don't wish it was me--and I don't wish it was the cat--' Whatever I had intended to add was suddenly cut short; and I began to think that it was rather foolish of me to subject myself to two whippings instead of one. I have quite escaped from leading-strings now," added my father with an expressive look; but the old lady may be of considerable assistance in keeping you young ones in order.
The children looked frightened; and Fred, being now too old to dread any whippings on his own account, kindly undertook the instruction of his younger brothers in the art of being saucy and playing practical jokes.
We were told to call her "grandmother," and treat her with the greatest respect; but as I dwelt upon my father's account of her, like the magician in olden story, I almost trembled at the visitor I had invoked.
The letter was written and despatched; and after a while, an answering one received, in which the step-mother accepted her son-in-law's invitation, "for the sake," as she said, "of the many happy hours they had formerly enjoyed together." I sat reading in a distant corner of the room when this letter was received, almost concealed by the folds of the curtains; and the other children being out of the room, I overheard my father say:
"I do not remember much else but being whipped, and sent supperless to bed; if they _were_ happy hours, it must have been on the principle of the frogs--'What is play to you is death to us.'"
My mother smiled; but she replied softly: "Perhaps she is changed now, Arthur; do not say anything against her before the children, for she is a stranger, entitled to our hospitality--and I would not have her welcome a chilling one."
In process of time the old lady arrived, accompanied by a colored servant who answered to the name of Venus. Fred christened her "the black divinity," at which she became highly offended; and ever after, there was a perpetual war of words waging between the two. My grandmother was a small, dark-complexioned woman, with an exceedingly haughty, and very repulsive expression. She received all her daughter-in-law's endeavors to make her feel at home as a natural right; and appeared to consider other people intended only for her sole use and benefit. As I glanced from her to my mother's fair, soft beauty, and strikingly sweet expression, I formed a comparison between the two not much to my grandmother's advantage.
We soon found that the old lady had a great idea of taking the reins into her own hands; the children were scolded, and threatened, and locked up in dark closets, until, to use their own expression, they became, most "dreadfully good," and never dared to show off under the espionage of those eagle eyes. During the summer, our parents were absent for some weeks on a pleasure jaunt; and Grandmother Chesbury having the entire control of us, we were obliged to behave very differently from usual. She kept us all in awe except Fred; but on him it was impossible to make the least impression. If she tyrannized over the rest us, it was abundantly repaid by the teazings of my mischievous brother.
The old lady was extremely violent in temper, and after irritating it to the highest pitch, or, as he termed it, "putting on the steam," he provoked her still more by his polite sarcasms and tantalizing replies.
The object of contest between them was generally the last word in the argument; and when victory appeared to incline neither to one side nor the other, my grandmother would exclaim angrily: "Hold your tongue this moment, you impertinent boy! Not another word."
"Yes'm," Fred would reply, with every appearance of submission.
Having triumphed up stairs, he generally went in search of Venus, whose anger was almost as vehement as that of her mistress. Her time, when not attending to Mrs. Chesbury, was chiefly occupied by the duties of the toilet; and Jane asserted that she had anxiously inquired if there were no respectable colored gentlemen about the place? Venus always bestowed a great deal of pains on the arrangement of her head covering, which was profusely decorated with combs of various shapes and sizes; but "thereby hangs a tale" which must be told.
Good beef is very scarce at the South, and Southerners therefore consider it a great treat when they come North. My grandmother was very fond of it frizzled; and Venus being quite _au fait_ in the manufacture of this dish, the old lady never allowed any one else to make it for her. One afternoon, during my parents' absence, the children being disposed of in various ways--some had gone out for a walk, two were playing together in a closet where they had been locked up, and others were rambling about the grounds--the house was pretty clear; so my grandmother resolved to enjoy a treat in her own apartment. A small table was nicely laid out with all the requisites for a comfortable tea, and Venus then departed to the kitchen to dish up some frizzled beef.
But it so happened that the odor of the savory dish, in its passage up stairs, found its way to the nostrils of Master Fred, who had been quietly engaged in some wonderfully wise researches in the library; and as even philosophers are not exempt from the earth-born love of good things, out rushed our student with a polite request that Venus would "allow him to taste the trash, and see if it was fit to be sent to Mrs.
Chesbury." A scuffle ensued, in which Fred succeeded in satisfying his curiosity; and with considerably ruffled plumage, and not in the sweetest state of mind, Venus proceeded up stairs. Fred slyly followed; and peeping through the key-hole of a door that opened into my grandmother's room, he determined to watch the progress of the feast.
Things looked very tempting, and he had half a mind to petition for a seat at the table; but he began to think that, even should he succeed in his request, a _seat_ would be all he could gain; for the old lady attacked the eatables very much in the style of a school-boy just come home for the holidays. The frizzled beef rapidly disappeared, till the bottom of the dish was scarcely covered; but suddenly ceasing her attacks upon it, my grandmother took the dish in her hand, and pointing to some black substance, interrogated the colored girl in accents of mingled doubt and horror.