The Perfidy of Mr. Ebless Frazee
The Perfidy of Mr. Ebless Frazee
BY ALICE MACGOWAN
THE hearth was wide—overwide for the two chairs, a little one and a big one; and the man and the boy who sat in them, no doubt feeling this, drew very close together. The child in the tiny green chair sometimes reached his little hand up, and it lay clasped upon the father's knee by both of the old man's; or the father's hand was stretched down and rested in the little fellow's lap, held in the two childish hands.
The hearth was both wide and deep. In its cavernous recess great logs burned through varying seasons upon this, which is a perpetual altar in mountain homes. In the winter season flames leaped and danced, roaring splendidly; throughout the spring and autumn—and even in midsummer—they smouldered, to be brightened into a cheery warmth for the cool mornings and evenings. But never they went out. They saw the tiny green chair exchanged for a middle-sized splint; and that again for a stout hickory with curious skeleton arms, the mate to the father's. But Mr. Ebless Frazee, merchant, and in some senses magnate, of Hepzibah, the little village nestling at the foot of the Turkey Tracks, never asked any of the expectant marriageable females of his neighborhood to come and occupy another chair upon his hearth stone and provide owners for the tiny green "cheer" and the middle-sized splint which the little boy had successively discarded. The child sufficed for him—so eminently companionable were father and son, so identical were their feelings, thoughts, and interests.
Ebless Frazee had wedded late—a mountain girl, who left him, after six years of peaceful married life, with the five-year-old Virgil. So far as the relations between father and son were concerned, the mother's death affected them little, for Ebless had always been more like a mother than a father to the child. As they sat thus, evenings, when the store was closed and the day's work over, they were endlessly garrulous together. To the little Virgil's mind pappy's wisdom was always adequate; and the father watched the dawning intelligence and treated the opinions of the child with a grave respect which women are apt to find infinitely amusing in the relations of men to children, but which they would do well oftener to imitate. In all except years and a little narrow experience of men and life in a mountain village the two were equal. They had alike been no where and seen nothing—the world was all before them, virgin and alluring, for them to speculate upon. They hunted in all its forests, fished all its waters, made acquaintance with its nations of people, explored with equal passion its vast deserts and its populous and ancient cities; more often than anything else they inventoried its treasures. Upon the extent and splendor of these hoarded treasures, especially those of the Orient, they dwelt with untiring childish delight.
"That there Shash of Persia" (Virgil pronounced it to rhyme with hash), "do you reckon he counts all them di'mon's an' pearls hisse'f, pappy, an' locks 'em up of a night?"
"Well, no, honey, I reckon he sho'ly has a harlin'," (the hireling is ever a figure in mountain conversation). "I reckon he do sho'ly have a harlin' to do all o' that. I 'low he jest keeps the keys hisse'f."
"And them yatches, pappy—do you reckon they is jes boats—same as ships?"
"Yes, son, same as ships; only I reckon they're smaller, fer one feller gin'ally owns 'em."
There was an uneasiness in Virgil's mind upon the subject of seed-pearls. Would they sprout and grow and bear crops of pearls? If not, why were they called seed-pearls? Finally he approached the matter obliquely in one of the long evening talks. "Pappy, they's seed-co'n, ain't they?"
"Yes, son, seed-co'n."
"Yes, honey, seed-'taters."
"Well, pappy, they's seed-pearls, too. What is they? Is they to plant? Is that the way ye gits pearls? Why, I should think they'd be mighty cheap, then, ef ye can raise 'em from seed!"
The old man moved a little and shifted his gaze in the fire. "I tell ye, son, I've thought about that matter right smart myse'f. They don't raise pearls. They gits 'em outer the bottom of the sea—outer oyshter shells. Divers goes down an' fotches 'em up. But these yere seed-pearls, I don't rightly know, less'n hit's 'at they're jes leetle weenty bits o' ones, no bigger 'n seeds. Yass, that's what hit must be—jes leetle weenty pearls, size o' seeds; an' so they call 'em seed-pearls."
Many an evening was enriched with the discussion of rubies and diamonds and their relative value. The diamond was the most precious thing in the world until these two discovered that the ruby of large size was still more precious. "Your Aint Mirandy, she had a red breastpin—rubies is red, you know, son,—but I don't sca'cely reckon Mirandy's breastpin could 'a' ben rubies. Now I think of hit. I cain't be certain was hit red or green. I declar' I cain't be shore which 'twas."
The Eskimos in their ice and snow huts; the people in equatorial lands—"an' monkeys 'at sneaks in an' steals their cocoanuts"; storied wonders of Old World cities, such simple and childish accounts of these as might come down in little geographies, in primary histories, mellowed, colored, kept alive and interesting by many repetitions from lip to lip—these were the things which occupied the evenings, winter and summer.
Mr. Ebless Frazee was that most shrewd of Yankees a Southern Yankee. A bit of a wiseacre, he loved to say enigmatic things that made people come back for explanation. Keen he was, a reader of human nature and its motives; shrewd at a bargain—as shrewd as a good man could well be,—and with a touch of the antic in his disposition; rather below medium size, light and active, with close-curled dark hair and beard, which from the time little Virgil could remember had been grizzled with white, and when the boy was sixteen had come to be almost an even silver. He was never given to hilarity; but his face had for so many years been puckered into the quizzical, humorous half-smile he so often wore, his eyes had grown so accustomed to twinkle, that, altogether, it was a merry countenance from which Ebless Frazee's soul looked out upon the world, with just a gleam of innocent slyness to give it pungency. Some few "likely widders" had thought it would be the proper thing for the boy's father to give him a stepmother—there had been one or two who had even essayed the undertaking. But commonly he was a man who impressed his neighbors and all who came in contact with him as knowing, even more certainly than most, exactly what he wanted; and so he was left by them in a large and chartered liberty.
All his life the merchant had intended to go to Baltimore to buy goods. When the young Virgil was eighteen he went. The lad had just returned from a year at Mount Pisgah, the little country college sixty miles from Hepzibah, during which he had shot up from boy to young man, his head now considerably topping that of his father. After the year's separation, the two had much to say to each other. All day long the boy was with his father busy in the store; in the evenings they sat as aforetime on the broad hearth, hand in hand, talking, talking, talking far into every night. And at the end of two weeks, when Virgil had learned the ways of the store, his father left him in charge and set forth upon the long-contemplated journey. It was a very great time to the two. The wonderful world which they had for so many years explored here upon their own hearthstone was about to open its doors to one of them, and the farewell was both solemn and joyful.
In spite of their fondness for communicating orally, father and son wrote few letters to each other; they were not of the class which has the writing habit. The father had been in Baltimore some time buying goods, seeing the city's wonders, kindly treated by the courteous old-fashioned wholesalers as a well-to-do country merchant and a shrewd, companionable old fellow, and was nearly ready to return, when there arrived to him a bomb from Virgil in the shape of a letter. This letter was unlike any which had preceded it. It was conceived in a lofty vein, and expressed itself in splendid and roundabout phrases, wrapping its meaning darkly in a cloud of words, anon bringing it forth in a glory of shining yet obscure utterance. When the father had labored through this production and had thought upon it for a time, it was made fairly clear to his mind that his eighteen-year-old boy, sole heir to his very respectable wealth, had engaged himself to marry a Miss Pendrilla Staggart, a tailoress from over Garyville way, who, as well as the old man could remember, would be now about thirty years old—a chronic and unsuccessful husband-hunter.
In constructing his letter the lad had evidently been bolstered by a "Ladies and Gents' Complete Letter-writer" (there was such a volume, the old man recollected, on a high, dusty shelf in the store); but at the end Virgil himself burst through, declaring, warmly, if crudely: "She will love you as well as I do. She has promised that, or I wouldn't have her. Though she is an angel."
That night Mr. Ebless Frazee sat and stared into his candle flame until it flared high, guttered and guttered, and died down and went out. During that time the wrinkled face wore many varying expressions—the eyes twinkled and darkened and twinkled again. When, a week later, the old man stepped down from the train at the distant railroad station his son knew him not. Only when his father spoke to him could Virgil be made to believe in his identity. The junior's jaw fell, his eves widened. "W'y—w'y— pappy!"
"Don't you like 'em?" cheerfully inquired the senior, lifting his hat. The boy well-nigh dropped the carpetbag from his hand. His father's scanty locks, almost white, and his close-curling beard of the same silver, were now a deep, glossy purple-black, which gave him a startlingly spruce air, yet imparted a sinister twist to his aspect.
"I reckon I'll—I reckon I will, pappy. I jes ain't usened to 'em yit, an'—"
Mr. Frazee smiled suddenly; this time the carpetbag went to the ground. "Oh!" observed his son.
"W'y, sonny, you knowed I was agwine to git me new teeth in Baltimo'."
"Oh yes," assented Virgil, eagerly. "Yes, that's so, pappy. I jes didn't know they was a-gwine to be so wh—wh—white, an' so—well, so many of 'em," he finished, weakly.
"There hain't none too many, son—jes the usual count," his father assured him cheerfully, as he picked up the carpetbag and they climbed into the wagon. And now once more the elder Frazee was behind his own counter, where all might behold the charms of his renovated person.
Between father and son a somewhat singular state of things obtained. The long evening talks began again, the two sitting once more hand in hand upon the hearth. While the elder related the wonders he had beheld in the distant city, the boy questioned, surmised, suggested, or listened in rapt delight to replies and explanations; no mention was ever made of Virgil's matrimonial intentions. The elder resumed their intercourse exactly at the point where it had been broken off; the boy was too timid to introduce the subject which was always present in his mind. And so once more they talked far into the night, the boy uneasily studying his father's face when the old eyes were safely fixed upon the fire; and still that matter lay untouched between them.
Before a week was gone, it was whispered all over Hepzibah, and carried up into the mountains, that old Mr. Ebless Frazee was "a-settin' up to Miss Pendrilly Staggart." At the end of two weeks it had gone from end to end of the whole Turkey Tracks region that Pendrilla had "fotched it this time; she'd started in on the boy, but wound up by gittin' the old man." It was known beyond dispute that Mr. Ebless Frazee, with his wonderful purple hair and whiskers, his thirty-two chiny teeth, his store clothes an' shiny boots, had been seen a-settin' on the po'ch with the tailoress of an evenin'; and the question was forever settled by his beauing her openly to meetin' to hear Mr. Polk Dillard preach of a Sunday morning.
And what of Virgil? The first time the lad had gone to see his inamorata after his father's return he was met by Mrs. Elder Dance (as he had been met before when he came upon courting expeditions); but this time the good woman, with a strangely flurried manner, hustled the boy clean out of the house before he realized what was being done to him, clucking: "Miss Pendrilly's got company, Mr. Virgil. She's got company in the parlor." As he passed the parlor window he could scarcely help seeing his own father sitting over across from the lady in what would have appeared to any unprejudiced eye full courting trim. With a petted only son's assurance, Virgil believed that here was the answer to his letter, and told himself that his father had come privately to see the divinity and to make all smooth to his son's feet. Yet there was a qualm about it, somehow; and when that evening, the two sitting as usual before their fire, the father said no word upon this subject, when, moreover, he headed off the boy's several timid attempts to introduce it, Virgil's heart sank.
He was that sensitive thing a boy on the verge of manhood. Ashamed to confess that if his father's apparent position of suitor were genuine it would be a relief to him, he was wholly concerned with his own appearance in the matter, and flushed and trembled all to himself at the thought that he should be supplanted—belittled,—and by his own father. A second time he sought his promised bride; again he found his father had forestalled him, beauing the charmer to church, where the significance of his attitude could no longer be blinked nor concealed. On top of all this, a boy called after him a gibe about stepmothers and their superiority over mere sweethearts! Virgil's cup of life overflowed with gall.
Through many sleepless nights, when the lad had lain interrogating the dark, demanding of the cosmos why it had apparently laid aside all other matters to give itself fully to the rendering of this one boy wretched, he had been bringing his courage slowly and with great difficulty to the sticking-point. To be jilted, to be passed over—put aside,—and by her who had wooed him in such honeyed terms! Did he want her now—did he still desire her? He shied wildly at the thought. No—no! She had come to seem to him just a smirking, disagreeable old woman who had wormed herself in and made this dreadful breach between him and his father.
Ah, his father! there was the wound. The boy burned with shame to think how those two must regard him—like a dog or cat,—as though a promise to him did not even count. And so upon that day when Mr. Ebless Frazee had beaued Miss Pendrilla Staggart to church, the boy, wrought to the necessary degree of desperation, followed them from afar to Miss Pendrilla's temporary home at Elder Dance's. It was quarterly conference. Elder Justice, Brother Polk Dillard, and three other preachers, with seven or eight laymen, were guests of Elder Dance; and besides these, there were some half-dozen young people invited in for dinner. Yet Mrs. Dance, with all the elderly matron's fury for match-making, had kept the parlor sacred to Pendrilla and her suitor. The young people stood sniggering about in groups, making errands past the door where Mr. Ebless Frazee, in the full splendor of his purple hair and whiskers and his glittering store teeth and boots, sat rigidly erect, and Miss Pendrilla, fairly dripping with sentimental satisfaction, showered him with languishing glances till he was like a man at a mark.
The courtship had proceeded about as far as mountain courtships go before the preacher or justice is called in—that is to say, Mr. Frazee had said that "no wife o' his'n should ever break her back over an up-an'-down churn," that he would never allow a woman to "chop kindlin'," that it would be "a blessed time fer him—an' fer Virgil—when they had a womern's keer," the which they had sorely lacked these many years, and had accompanied these statements with what Miss Pendrilla considered the glances proper to them. It was enough at least for that young lady; she proposed coyly, yet practically, to return upon the morrow to her brother at Garyville in order to make her "settin' out o' clo'es"; and Mr. Ebless Frazee smiled upon her without a word. It was at this moment that Virgil came into the house.
It would be more than Mrs. Elder Dance that would stop him to-day! He made straight for the parlor door; when he jerked it open sharply, Pendrilla jumped up and endeavored effusively to push him into the hall, with her voluble, "W'y, Virgil honey! W'y, Virgil, I—"
Ebless Frazee, stark and splendid, looked reprehendingly at the familiar hands she laid upon his son. Virgil seized those hands (and in that action showed to his father's eye that the boy had become a man), drew her masterfully in, and closed the door behind her. "Pappy, this is the lady I wrote to you about—when you was in Baltimo'. You never said nothin' about my letter; but—I reckon you got hit?"
Pendrilla was silenced for the moment, and fear was in her eyes. "Yes, son; yes, Virgil, I got hit; but seein' as all that is changed—seein' as how we have been makin' other arrangements, Miss Pendrilly an' me—"
"Yes, honey," Pendrilla broke in, nervously, "we 'lowed—yo' pappy an' me—that seein' ez how them things is all changed—ez yo' pappy says so p'intedly an' so truly" (and she smiled tenderly upon the purple whiskers),—"ez we have made different arrangements, we jes s'posed hit would be best to let bygones be bygones—we 'lowed that was what you was a-thinkin' yo'se'f."
"Bygones!" ejaculated Virgil, bitterly. "They are bygones, are they? Nobody told me anything, or asked my ruthers, any more than as if I'd been—"
He choked. Mr. Ebless Frazee sat back with an expansive smile upon his face. Miss Pendrilla fluttered wildly about Virgil, torn with apprehension as to what he might reveal, anxiety to placate one so influential, and anger at his intrusion. But she told herself that she had not lived hard, faced humiliation and failure for thirty years, to be beaten by a fool boy and an infatuated old gump of a widower. Once let her be Mis' Frazee, and if the sassy boy—sp'ilt till he's rotten—won't come down,—w'y the old man must. Virgil could behave himself, admit her sway, or he could leave.
She smiled upon the boy, a sickly smile. "I fo'give yo', Virgil honey. I do so," she declared, making to lay her hands upon him once more, but the boy shrank from her touch. "I do sho'ly fo'give yo', Virgil—a boy what's ben fotched up without nair mother. Me an' yo' pappy air about to mend that. I'm a-gwine home to-morrow to Garyville to make my settin' out"—the boy shivered, Miss Pendrilla smirked, and over Ebless Frazee's enigmatic face a curious expression went—"an' you shain' be without air mother—"
"No mother!" cried the boy in a voice which broke fiercely. A feeling of utter bereavement and desolation was upon him, as he looked at the caricature of his father's face smiling woodenly. He put his hand behind him and threw the door open, revealing the groups of curious faces outside. "No mother!" he repeated in a sort of heart-broken voice. "No, I've got nair mother—and nair father, neither, ef this is the way of hit!" and he strode back through the guests, who drew apart to let him pass.
After Miss Pendrilla had closed the door upon Virgil, she found her suitor curiously silent and distrait. He gave little answer to her voluble deprecations, and made but the one satisfactory observation (though to even Miss Pendrilla's not oversensitive mind he made it strangely for a lover) that she would hear from him in Garyville. Then he too passed out, and was in his turn made way for. When he got home he found a pathetic little scrawl from Virgil. The lad had taken the carpetsack and gone afoot up through Little Turkey Track and to the Fur Cove to his Aunt Faithful Bushares, Ebless Frazee's sister. He would never come home, he said—not if "they" married. He never wanted to see that woman's face again—no, nor his father's either, if he married her.
That evening the old man sat by his fire alone, the little scrawled note upon his knee, patting it occasionally as though it had been Virgil's hand. The picture was before his eyes of Rhody Bushares, Sylvanus's young niece, a girl of about Virgil's own age. "As purty a little trick," he murmured, "as you could want to look at; an' likely every way. And the boy's jes hurt an' sore enough—yes, hit 'll be all right—the two chillen 'll make it up betwixt 'em—we-all will be all right yit."
Three weeks later the two chairs again sat side by side upon the broad hearth, father and son gazing as of old into the flickering flames, the boy's hand clasped close in both those of the old man. They had talked and talked of the sweetness, the good looks, and the "likeliness" of the little Rhody, until one might have supposed the subject fairly well exploited. Peace and comfort and satisfaction spoke in every line of the two figures. Yet nothing had been explained. The boy had only begun to understand in a roundabout way that there was to be no marriage between his father and Miss Pendrilla Staggart, and, filled and running over with his own joy, had come home to share it with his one lifelong friend. At last a little silence fell; and then, turning to his father, Virgil asked, "Pappy, what air you gwine to do about Miss Pendrilly?"
"Why, I hain't a-gwine to do nothin', son. I've done did!" answered Ebless Frazee, slapping the boy's hand softly between his own and smiling his quizzical smile.
The boy glanced doubtfully at his father. "She's a mighty overcomin' lady—Miss Pendrilly is," he said, with a reflective look on his face. "How—how could ye git away from her, pappy?"
"Aw, law, yes, she may be all o' that, honey, but no ol' two-fisted gal ain't a-comin' betwixt you an' me. I'll tell ye, son. Miss Pendrilly, she jes p'intedly tuck me fer granted. She was a-gwine to marry me—fer what I had. She didn't no mo' love me than I loved her—and the Lord He do know that that was little enough! Ez fer you, honey," the twinkling eyes dwelt fondly upon the lad, "I reckon that in her mind you had to walk a chalk line, or to git out."
"What," whispered Virgil, with eyes of wonder—"what did ye do?"
"Well, I wrote a letter to her brother. Staggart's a fa'r man. I can deal better with a man person than with a lady."
"W'y, that's so," echoed the boy, gazing with the admiration of his childish days upon his father, contemplating the depth of his wisdom.
"Yes, I can deal better with a man person. I jes wrote Miles Staggart the hull story o' Miss Pendrilly's doin's here. I tried to tell it fa'r—an' I said to him 'at he better jes keep her to home."
There was another silence, then the boy asked again, "But, pappy, ain't a man 'bleeged to keep a promise?"
"Yes, son; but, ye see, I never made no promises of no kind to Miss Pendrilly, 'ceptin' that she'd hear from me in Garyville." He smiled a little. "I jes talked to the lady about what I'd do fer a woman—ef I had one. I spoke about them air up-an'-down churns, an' said I wouldn't 'low no woman to break her back over one of 'em. I meant hit—Rhody sha'n't never have no up-an'-down churn." Both faces were smiling now. "But Miss Pendrilly, that was enough fer her. She 'lowed (like every one else done) the minute she seed me with my store teeth and shiny boots and my dyed whiskers, comin' an' settin' on her po'ch, 'at I as one o' these yere ol' fool widderers, jes a-gallopin' after her to marry her. I didn't have to make nair promise, son."
Pap Overholt, the only living creature to whom the matter was ever broached, demanded,
"What did ye go sech a long way round to break the boy's fool match fer? Hit was like ye, Eb Frazee, with yer jimcracks an' yer monkey doin's. Ye know the boy would put his hand in the fire fer ye—why didn't ye ast him out straight to give up sech a onsuitable—"
"Yes, an' have him a-thinkin' all his days 'at he'd missed the one womern the Lord had made p'intedly and pertic'larly fer him! No, sir! I knowed a better way. Hit was wuth a little trouble—"
"Trouble nothin'!" interjected Pap John, and the two old friends laughed genially together.
"Hit was wuth a little thinkin' out and a little actin' out, and—well, we'll say, a little trouble to Miss Pendrilly Staggart—to let the boy find, beyant all doubt, that he didn't want the lady—nor she hadn't wanted him."
On the hearth before father and son the flames slackened, died down, the logs smouldered and glowed. Hour after hour went past; still the two sat as they had been sitting ever since the boy was big enough to occupy the little green "cheer," hand in hand, exchanging innocent confidences and hopes, voicing their inmost beliefs and convictions. So, indeed, it was to be as long as they both should live.