The village of Rossville was distant about five miles from the long line of railway which binds together with iron bands the cities of New York and Boston. Only when the wind was strongly that way could the monotonous noise of the railway-train be heard, as the iron monster, with its heavy burden, sped swiftly on its way.
Lately a covered wagon had commenced running twice a day between Rossville and the railway-station at Wellington. It was started at seven in the morning, in time to meet the early trains, and again at four, in order to receive any passengers who might have left the city in the afternoon.
Occupying a central position in the village stood the tavern--a two-story building, with a long piazza running along the front. Here an extended seat was provided, on which, when the weather was not too inclement, the floating population of the village, who had plenty of leisure, and others when their work was over for the day, liked to congregate, and in neighborly chat discuss the affairs of the village, or the nation, speculating perchance upon the varying phases of the great civil contest, which, though raging hundreds of miles away, came home to the hearts and hearths of quiet Rossville and every other village and hamlet in the land.
The driver of the carriage which made its daily journeys to and fro from the station had received from his parents the rather uncommon name of Ajax, not probably from any supposed resemblance to the ancient Grecian hero, of whom it is doubtful whether his worthy progenitor had ever heard. He had been at one time a driver on a horse-car in New York, but had managed to find his way from the busy hum of the city to quiet Rossville, where he was just in time for an employment similar to the one he had given up.
One day, early in November, a young man of slight figure, apparently not far from twenty-five years of age, descended from the cars at the Wellington station and, crossing the track, passed through the small station-house to the rear platform.
"Can you tell me," he inquired of a bystander, "whether there is any conveyance between this place and Rossville?"
"Yes, sir," was the reply. "That's the regular carriage, and here's the driver. Ajax, here's a passenger for you."
"I have a trunk on the other side," said the young man, addressing the driver. "If you wild go round with me, we will bring it here."
"All right, sir," said Ajax, in a businesslike way.
The trunk was brought round and placed on the rack behind the wagon. It was a large black trunk, securely bound with brass bands, and showed marks of service, as if it had been considerably used. Two small strips of paper pasted on the side bore the custom-house marks of Havre and Liverpool. On one end was a large card, on which, written in large, bold letters, was the name of the proprietor, Henry Morton.
In five minutes the "express" got under way. The road wound partly through the woods. In some places the boughs, bending over from opposite sides, nearly met. At present the branches were nearly destitute of leaves, and the landscape looked bleak. But in the summer nothing could be more charming.
From his seat, beside Ajax, Henry Morton regarded attentively the prominent features of the landscape. His survey was interrupted by a question from the driver.
"Are you calc'latin' to make a long stay in our village?" inquired Ajax, with Yankee freedom.
"I am not quite certain. It is possible that I may."
"There isn't much goin' on in winter."
"No, I suppose not."
After a few minutes' pause, he inquired, "Can you tell me if there is a gentleman living in the village named Haynes?"
"I expect you mean Squire Haynes," said Ajax.
"Very probably he goes by that name. He was formerly a lawyer."
"Yes, that's the man. Do you know him?"
"I have heard of him," said the young man, non-committally.
"Then you ain't going to stop there?"
An expression of repugnance swept over the young man's face, as he hastily answered in the negative.
By this time they had come to a turn in the road. This brought them in view of Chloe's cottage. Little Pomp was on all fours, hunting for nuts among the fallen leaves under the shagbark-tree.
Under the influence of some freakish impulse, Pomp suddenly jumped to his feet and, whirling his arms aloft, uttered a wild whoop. Startled by the unexpected apparition, the horses gave a sudden start, and nearly succeeded in overturning the wagon.
"Massy on us!" exclaimed an old lady on the back seat, suddenly flinging her arms round young Morton's neck, in the height of her consternation.
"All right, marm," said Ajax reassuringly, after a brief but successful conflict with the horses. "We sha'n't go over this time. I should like to give that little black imp a good shaking."
"Oh, I've lost my ban'box, with my best bunnit," hastily exclaimed the old lady. "Le' me get out and find it. It was a present from my darter, Cynthy Ann, and I wouldn't lose it for a kingdom."
In truth, when prompted by her apprehension to cling to the young man in front for protection, Mrs. Payson had inadvertently dropped the bandbox out of the window, where it met with an unhappy disaster. The horse, quite unconscious of the damage he was doing, had backed the wagon in such a manner that one of the wheels passed directly over it.
When Ajax picked up the mutilated casket, which, with the jewel it contained, had suffered such irreparable injury, and restored it to its owner, great was the lamentation. Rachel weeping for her children could hardly have exhibited more poignant sorrow.
"Oh, it's sp'ilt!" groaned the old lady. "I can never wear it arter this. And it cost four dollars and sixty-two cents and a half without the ribbon. Oh, deary me!"
Then, suddenly waxing indignant with the author of the mischief, she put her head out of the window, and, espying Pomp on the other side of the stone wall, looking half-repentant and half-struck with the fun of the thing, she shook her fist at him, exclaiming, "Oh, you little sarpint, ef I only had you here, I'd w'ip you till you couldn't stan'."
Pomp was so far from being terrified by this menace that he burst into a loud guffaw. This, of course, added fuel to the flame of the old lady's wrath, and filled her with thoughts of immediate vengeance. Her sympathy with the oppressed black race was at that moment very small.
"Jest lend me your w'ip, driver," said she, "an' I'll l'arn that sassy imp to make fun of his elders."
Ajax, whose sense of humor was tickled by the old lady's peculiarities, quietly took her at her word, and coming round to the side opened the door of the carriage.
"There, ma'am," said he, extending the whip. "Don't spare him. He deserves a flogging."
Mrs. Payson, her eyes flashing from beneath her glasses with a vengeful light, seized the proffered whip with alacrity, and jumped out of the wagon with a lightness which could hardly have been anticipated of one of her age.
"Now, look out," she said, brandishing the whip in a menacing way. "I'll git pay for that bunnit in one way, ef I don't in another."
Pomp maintained his position on the other side of the wall. He waited till the old lady was fairly over, and then commenced running. The old lady pursued with vindictive animosity, cracking the whip in a suggestive manner. Pomp doubled and turned in a most provoking way. Finally he had recourse to a piece of strategy. He had flung himself, doubled up in a ball, at the old lady's feet, and she, unable to check her speed, fell over him, clutching at the ground with her outstretched hands, from which the whip had fallen.
"Hi, hi!" shrieked Pomp, with a yell of inconceivable delight, as he watched the signal downfall of his adversary. Springing quickly to his feet, he ran swiftly away.
"Good for you, you old debble!" he cried from a safe distance.
Henry Morton, though he found it difficult to restrain his laughter, turned to Ajax and said, "I think it's time we interfered. If you'll overtake the little black boy and give him a shaking up, just to keep him out of mischief hereafter, I'll go and help the old lady."
Ajax started on his errand. Pomp, now really alarmed, strove to escape from this more formidable adversary, but in vain. He was destined to receive a summary castigation.
Meanwhile, the young man approached Mrs. Payson.
"I hope you're not much hurt, madam," said he respectfully.
"I expect about every bone in my body's broke," she groaned.
Raising her to her feet, it became manifest that the damage was limited to a pair of hands begrimed by contact with the earth. Nevertheless, the old lady persisted that "something or 'nother was broke. She didn't feel quite right inside."
"I shouldn't keer so much," she added, "ef I'd caught that aggravatin' boy. I'd go fifty miles to see him hung. He'll die on the gallows, jest as sure's I stan' here."
At this moment a shrill cry was heard, which could proceed from no one but Pomp.
"Golly, Mass' Jack, don't hit so hard. Couldn't help it, sure."
"You'll have to help it the next time, you little rascal!" responded Ajax.
"Le' me go. I hope to be killed if I ever do it ag'in," pleaded Pomp, dancing about in pain.
"I hope you gin it to him," said the old lady, as the driver reappeared.
Ajax smiled grimly. "I touched him up a little," he said.
"Oh, my poor bunnit!" groaned Mrs. Payson, once more, as her eyes fell upon the crushed article. "What will Cynthy Ann say?"
"Perhaps a milliner can restore it for you," suggested Henry Morton, with an attempt at consolation.
The old lady shook her head disconsolately. "It's all jammed out of shape," she said dismally, "an' the flowers is all mashed up. Looks as ef an elephant had trodden on to it."
"As you are the only one of us that has suffered," said the young man politely, "I think it only fair that your loss should be lightened. Will you accept this toward making it good?"
He drew from his portemonnaie a five-dollar greenback, as he spoke, and offered it to Mrs. Payson.
"Are you in airnest?" inquired the old lady dubiously.
"You ain't robbin' yourself, be you?" asked Mrs. Payson, with a look of subdued eagerness lighting up her wrinkled face.
"Oh, no; I can spare it perfectly well."
"Then I'll take it," she responded, in evident gratification, "an' I'm sure I'm much obleeged to you. I'm free to confess that you're a gentleman sech as I don't often meet with. I wouldn't take it on no account, only the loss is considerable for me, and Cynthy Ann, she would have been disapp'inted if so be as I hadn't worn the bunnit. I'd like to know who it is that I'm so much obligated to."
Henry Morton drew a card from his card-case and handed it with a bow to Mrs. Payson.
"What's that?" asked the old lady.
"Le's see, where's my specs?" said Mrs. Payson, fumbling in her pocket. "Oh, I've got 'em on. So your name's Herod. What made 'em call you that?"
"Henry, madam--Henry Morton."
"Well, so 'tis, I declare. You ain't related to Nahum Morton, of Gilead, be you; he that was put into the State's prison for breakin' open the Gilead Bank?"
An amused smile overspread the young man's face.
"I never had any relatives sent to the State's prison," he answered; "though I think it quite possible that some of them may have deserved it."
"Jest so," assented the old lady. "There's a good deal of iniquity that never comes to light. I once know'd a woman that killed her husband with the tongs, and nobody ever surmised it; though everybody thought it strange that he should disappear so suddint. Well, this woman on her death-bed owned up to the tongs in a crazy fit that she had. But the most cur'us part of it," the old lady added rather illogically, "was, that the man was livin' all the while, and it was all his wife's fancy that she'd struck him with the tongs."
By this time the "express" had rumbled into the main street of Rossville, and the old lady had hardly completed her striking illustration of the truth, that murder will out, before they had drawn up in front of the tavern.
"Ain't you a-goin' to carry me to my darter's house?" she inquired with solicitude. "I can't walk noway."
"Yes, ma'am, ' answered Ajax, "directly, just as soon as this gentleman's got out, and they've taken the mail."
He tossed the mail-bag to a small boy who stood on the piazza in waiting to receive it, and then, whipping up his horses, speedily conveyed Mrs. Payson to her destination.
"He's a very nice, obleeging young man," said the old lady, referring to Henry Morton. "I wonder ef his mother was a Bent. There's old Micajah Bent's third daughter, Roxana Jane, married a Morton, or it might have been a Moulton. Ever see him afore?"
"No, ma'am. Here you are."
"So I be! and there's Reuben at the gate. How are ye all? Jest take this carpetbag, will ye, and I'll give you a cent some time or 'nother."
Reuben did not appear much elated by this promise. It had been made too many times without fulfilment.
The old lady having reached her destination, we take leave of her for the present, promising to resume her acquaintance in subsequent chapters.