THE LETTER THAT WAS NOT DELIVERED
The next morning, Rondeau waited for a long time for his master's usual orders that he should go to the post office, but no such commands came, and as Dr. Lacey had not been heard moving in his room yet, Rondeau concluded to go at all events.
"I know,", said he, "that'll be the first thing he'll tell me to do, and I may as well go on my own hook, as to wait and be sent."
Accordingly he again started for the post office, thinking to himself, "I hope that marster'll get a letter this time, for he don't seem no more like the wide-awake chap he did when he first come from Kentuck, than nothin'. I don't want him to have Miss Mabel nohow; for their niggers say she's awful spunky."
By the time this soliloquy was ended, he had reached the office. The clerk handed him two letters, both of which Rondeau eyed sharply. On looking at the second, the cavity between the ears widened to an enormous extent, and he gave vent to his joy by uttering aloud, "Crackee, this is just the thing!"
"What's the matter, Rondeau? Can you read writing?" asked the clerk in some surprise.
"No, sir, not but a little," said Rondeau; "but I know this hand write, I reckon."
In a twinkling, he was in the street. "This is a fine morning," thought he. "I've got the right letter this time, so I won't hurry home, for marster ain't goin' to find any fault if I don't git thar till noon."
So the next hour was spent in gossiping with all the blacks which could be found lounging round the streets. Suddenly one of the negroes called out, "Ho, Rondeau! Thar's yer old marster Lace comin'. You'd better cut stick for home, or he'll be in yer har."
Rondeau instantly started for home, where he was greeted by Aunt Dilsey with a torrent of abuse, that good lady rating him soundly for being gone too long. "Warn't he 'shamed to be foolin' away his time? 'Twan't his time nuther, 'twas marster's time. Was that ar fulfillin' of Scripter, which says, 'we must be all eye sarvants,' which means ye must all keep clus where yer marsters can see you?"
How long Aunt Dilsey might have gone expounding Scripture is not known, for Rondeau interrupted her by saying, "Don't scold so, old lady. Marster ain't a-goin' to care for I've got him something this time better than victuals or drink."
"What is it?" said Leffie, coming forward. "Have you got him a letter from Kentuck?"
"I hain't got nothin' else, Miss Leffie Lacey, if you please," said Rondeau, snapping his fingers in her face, and giving Aunt Dilsey's elbow a slight jostle, just enough to spill the oil, with which she was filling a lamp.
"Rondeau, I 'clar' for't," said Aunt Dilsey, setting down her oil can. "If marster don't crack your head, my old man Claib shall, if he ever gits up agin. Thar he is in his bunk, snorin' like he was a steamboat; and marster's asleep upstairs, I reckon. Well, 'tain't no way to live. Things would go to rack and ruin if I didn't sweat and work to keep 'em right end up, sartin."
Aunt Dilsey was really a very valuable servant, and had some reason for thinking herself the main spoke in the wheel which kept her master's household together. She had lived in the family ever since Dr. Lacey's early recollection, and as she had nursed him when an infant, he naturally felt a great affection for her, and intrusted her with the exclusive management of the culinary department, little negroes and all. His confidence in her was not misplaced, for from morning till night she was faithful to her trust, and woe to any luckless woolly head who was found wasting "marster's" sweetmeats and pickles.
On the first hand Aunt Dilsey was very sensitive, for being naturally active and stirring herself, "She," to use her own words, "couldn't bar to see folks lazin' round like thar was nothin' to do, but to git up and stuff themselves till they's fit to bust." She also felt annoyed whenever her young master indulged himself in a morning nap. "Ought to be up," she said, "and airin' hisself."
On the morning following the party, her patience was severely taxed in two ways. First, Claib, her husband, had adhered to his resolution of sleeping over, and long after the clock struck eleven he was sleeping profoundly. He had resisted all Aunt Dilsey's efforts to rouse him. Her scoldings, sprinklings with hot and cold water, punching with the carving fork, had all proved ineffectual, and as a last resort, she put the baby on his bed, thinking "that would surely fetch him up standin', for 'twasn't in natur to sleep with the baby wollopin' and mowin' over him." Her master, too, troubled her. Why he couldn't get up she couldn't see. "His breakfast was as cold as a grave stun, and she didn't keer if 'twas. She had enough to do 'tendin' to other affairs, without keepin' the niggers and dogs from porkin' thar noses in it."
At a late hour Dr. Lacey awoke from his uneasy slumber. The return of morning brought comparative calmness to his troubled spirit. Hope whispered that what he had heard might be a mistake. At least he would wait for further confirmation. He did not know how near that confirmation was. Rondeau had been waiting for his masters summons until his patience was exhausted. So, relying on the letter to counteract any apparent disrespect, he stalked upstairs and knocked at Dr. Lacey's door, just as that gentleman was about ringing for him.
As soon as he entered the room, he called out, "Here, master, I've got 'em this time!" at the same time extending a letter, the superscription of which made Dr. Lacey turn pale, for he recognized, as he supposed, Fanny's delicate handwriting.
"You may leave me alone, Rondeau," said he, "and I will ring for you when I want you." So Rondeau departed with the remaining letter in his pocket. He had forgotten to deliver it, but it was not missed.
Oh, Rondeau, Rondeau! It was very unfortunate that you forgot that letter, and suffered it to remain in your pocket unheeded for so many days. Its contents would have scattered the dark, desolating tempest which was fast gathering over your young master's pathway.
As soon as Dr. Lacey was alone, he sat down, anxious, yet fearing to know the contents of his letter. At last he resolutely broke the seal, thinking to himself, "It cannot contain anything worse than I already know." One glance at the beginning and end of the letter confirmed his fears, and for a few moments he was unable to read a line; then summoning all his remaining courage, he calmly read the letter through, not omitting a single word, but comprehending the meaning of each sentence. It was as follows:
"Frankfort, March 25th, 18--.
"SIR--Have you, during some weeks past, ever wondered why I did not write to you? And in enumerating to yourself the many reasons which could prevent my writing, has it ever occurred to you that possibly I might be false? Can you forgive me, Dr. Lacey, when I tell you that the love I once fancied I bore for you has wholly subsided, and I now feel for you a friendship, which I trust will be more lasting than my transient girlish love?
"Do you ask how I came to change so suddenly? I can only answer by another confession still more painful and humiliating to me. When I bade you adieu, I thought I loved you as well as I ever could again. I say again, for--but how shall I tell you? How confess that my first affection was not given to you? Yes, ere I had ever seen you, I loved another, and one, too, whom some would say it were sinful to love.
"But why harrow my feelings by awakening the past? Suffice it to say that he whom I loved is dead. We both saw him die, and I received upon my lips his last breath. Truly if he were Julia's in life, he was mine in death. Did you never suspect how truly I loved Mr. Wilmot? You were blinded by your misplaced affection for me, if you did not. Julia, my noble-hearted sister Julia, knew it all. I confessed my love to her, and on my knees begged her not to go to him, but to let me take her place at his bedside. She complied with my request, and then bravely bore in silence the reproaches of the world for her seeming coldness.
"Dear Julia! She seems strangely changed recently, and you would hardly know her, she is so gentle, so obliging, so amiable. You ought to have heard her plead your cause with me. She besought me almost with tears not to prove unfaithful to you, and when I convinced her that 'twas impossible for me to love another as I had Mr. Wilmot, she insisted on my writing, and not keeping you in suspense any longer.
"Dr. Lacey, if you could transfer your affection from me--, but no, why should I speak of such a thing! You will probably despise all my family. Yet do not, I beseech you, cast them off for your poor Fanny's sin. They respect you highly, and Julia would be angry if she knew that I am about to tell you how she admires a certain Southern friend, who probably, by this time, thinks with contempt of little
There was no perceptible change in Dr. Lacey's manner after reading the heartless forgery, but the iron had entered his soul, and for a time he seemed benumbed with its force. Then came a moment of reflection. His love had been trampled upon, and thrown back as a thing of naught by her who had fallen from the high pedestal on which he had enthroned the idol of his heart's deepest affection.
"I could have pitied, and admired her, too," thought he, "had she candidly confessed her love for Mr. Wilmot; but to be so basely deceived by one whom I thought incapable of deception is too much."
Seizing the letter, he again read it through, and this time he felt his wounded pride somewhat soothed by thinking that the beautiful Julia admired and sympathized with him. "But pshaw!" he exclaimed, "most likely Julia is as hollow-hearted as her sister, and yet many dark spots on her character seem wiped away by Fanny's confession." Throwing the letter aside he rang the bell, and ordered his breakfast to be sent up to him.
That afternoon he called on Mabel Mortimer and her cousin. He found the young ladies in the drawing room, and with them a dark, fine-looking, middle-aged gentleman, whom Mabel introduced as Mr. Middleton. Something in the looks as well as name of the stranger made Dr. Lacey involuntarily start with surprise, and he secretly wondered whether; this gentleman was in any way connected with the Middletons of Kentucky. He was not kept long in doubt, for Florence, who was very talkative, soon said, "We were just speaking of you, Dr. Lacey, and Mr. Middleton seems inclined to claim you as an acquaintance, on the ground of your having been intimate with his brother's family in Kentucky."
"Indeed!" said Dr. Lacey; then turning to Mr. Middleton, he said, "Is it possible that you are a brother of Mr. Joshua Middleton?"
"Yes, sir," returned the stranger, eyeing Dr. Lacey closely; "Joshua is my brother, but for more than twenty years I have not seen him, or scarcely heard from him."
"Ah," answered Dr. Lacey, in some astonishment, and then, as he fancied there was something in Mr. Middleton's former life which he wished to conceal, he changed the subject by asking Mr. Middleton if he had been long in the city.
"Only two weeks," he replied, and he proceeded to speak of himself, saying, "For many years past I have been in the Indies. About the time my brother Joshua married, my father died. When his will was opened, I thought it a very unjust one, for it gave, to my brother a much larger share than was given to me. In a fit of anger, I declared I would never touch a penny of my portion, and leaving college, where I was already in my senior year, I went to New York, and getting on board a vessel bound for the East Indies, I tried by amassing wealth in a distant land, to forget that I ever had a home this side of the Atlantic. During the first years of my absence my brother wrote to me frequently, and most of his letters I answered, for I really bore him no malice on account of the will. I had not heard from him for a long time, until I reached this city."
"Are you going to visit Kentucky?" asked Dr. Lacey.
"It is my present intention to do so," answered Mr. Middleton; "but first I wish to purchase a summer residence near the Lake, and after fitting it up tastefully, I shall invite my nieces to visit me. You are acquainted with them, I believe."
Dr. Lacey answered in the affirmative, and Mr. Middleton continued, "I am told by Miss Woodburn that they are very beautiful, especially one of them, and quite accomplished. Is it so?"
Dr. Lacey replied very calmly, "The world, I believe, unites in calling Miss Julia beautiful."
"But what of the other one?" asked Mr. Middleton. "I am prepossessed in her favor, for she bears the name of the only sister I ever had."
Dr. Lacey sighed, for he remembered the time when he was drawn toward Fanny, because he fancied she resembled the only sister he ever had. Mr. Middleton observed it, and immediately said, "Does it make you sigh just to mention Fanny? What is the matter? Has she jilted you? If she has, she does not partake of the nature of the Middletons, for they could never stoop to deceit."
Here Florence came to Dr. Lacey's relief by saying, "Why, Dr. Lacey, Mr. Middleton wants you to repeat what I have already told him, that Julia is exceedingly beautiful and that Fanny is as lovely as a Houri, and has the saddest, sweetest face I ever saw, and the softest, mildest blue eye."
Dr. Lacey laughingly said, "Thank you, Miss Florence; Mr. Middleton will please take what you have said as my opinion concerning his fair nieces."
Mr. Middleton bowed and then said, "How does my brother appear? He used to be very rough and abrupt in his manner."
Dr. Lacey laughed. He could not help it. His risible faculties were always excited when he thought of Joshua Middleton, and he answered, that although he highly esteemed Mr. Middleton, he feared his manners were not much improved.
"I dare say not," said the brother. "When he was at home, he was always saying things which our mother called 'impolite,' our father 'outlandish,' and the blacks 'right down heathenish.' However, with all his roughness, I believe there never was a more truly honorable man, or a more sincere friend."
After a few moments of general conversation, Mr. Middleton said, turning to Dr. Lacey, "I feel some anxiety about this summer residence which I intend purchasing. I am told that you have fine taste both in selecting a good locality and in laying out grounds. If you have leisure, suppose you accompany me on my exploring excursion, and I will reward you by an invitation to spend as much time with me as you like after my nieces arrive."
Dr. Lacey thanked Mr. Middleton for the compliment paid to his taste, and he politely expressed his willingness to assist his friend in the selection of a country seat. "By the way," continued he, "you are stopping at the St. Charles, I believe. Suppose you exchange your rooms at the hotel for a home with me, and become my guest until you leave the city for Kentucky?"
Mr. Middleton accepted Dr. Lacey's invitation willingly, and the three weeks which he spent at his residence passed rapidly and pleasantly away. During that time Dr. Lacey met with a gentleman who owned a very handsome villa near the lake shore. This he wished to dispose of, and Mr. Middleton and Dr. Lacey went down to inspect it. They found it every way desirable, and Mr. Middleton finally purchased it at an enormous price, and called it the "Indian Nest." "Here," said he, speaking to Dr. Lacey, "here I shall at last find that happiness which I have sought for in vain during forty years. I shall have both my nieces with me, besides Miss Mortimer and Miss Woodburn. I suppose I shall have to invite some other young gentleman besides yourself, for the girls will hardly fancy the old Indian for a beau."
Dr. Lacey did not reply. He was thinking how much pleasure such an arrangement would have given him a few months ago; but now all was changed, and the thought of again meeting Fanny afforded him more pain than pleasure.
Mr. Middleton noticed his silence, and as he was slightly tinctured with the abruptness which characterized his brother, he said, "Why, young man, what is the matter? Have you been disappointed, or what makes you manifest so much indifference to spending the summer, or a part of it, with four agreeable girls?"
Dr. Lacey saw the necessity of rousing himself from his melancholy mood, and assuming a gayety he did not feel, he said, "I feel very much flattered, Mr. Middleton, with the honor you confer upon me, but I have for some time past been subject to low spirits; so you must not mind it if I am not always gay. Come, let us go into the garden and see what improvements are needed there."
So saying, they turned together into the large terraced garden. While they were engaged in walking over the handsome grounds which surrounded "The Indian Nest," Rondeau, who had accompanied his master, was differently occupied. Strolling down to the lake shore, he amused himself for a time by watching the waves as they dashed against the pebbly beach, and by fancying that each of them reflected the image of Leffie's bright, round face. Then buttoning up his coat he would strut back and forth, admiring his shadow, and thinking how much more the coat became him than it did his young master. It had been given to him by Dr. Lacey, with the order "not to wear it out in two days"; so Rondeau had not worn it before since the morning when he gave his master one letter and forgot the other. He had brought it with him to the lake, and was trying the effect of his elegant appearance.
Chancing to thrust his hand in his pocket, he felt the long-forgotten letter and drew it forth, then looking at it with wide open eyes and mouth, gave vent to his surprise as follows: "Who'd a b'leved it! Here's this letter been in my pocket two weeks. I deserve to be cracked over the head, and anybody but marster would do it. I'll run and give it to him now--but no, I won't," said he, suddenly slackening his pace, "I've heard him say he could always trust me, and if I own up this time, he'll lose his--what's the word? Conference?--Yes, conference in me. I don't believe this letter's of any account, for its a great big letter, just like a man's handwrite. Any way, I'll wait till I get home and consult Leffie."
The letter was accordingly put in his pocket, and in a few moments he rejoined his master and Mr. Middleton. The next day they returned home. Rondeau's first act was to draw Leffie aside, and after winning from her various strong promises of secrecy, he imparted to her the astounding fact that, "He had found one of marster's letters in his trousers--no, his coat pocket. It had been there two weeks, and he didn't know what in cain to do with it. If he gave it to marster now, 'twould make him lose faith in him, and so forth."
Leffie heard him through, and then fully agreed with him that 'twas best not to tell marster at this late hour. "But," said she, "I'd put it out of the way, so 'twouldn't be poppin' out in sight some time."
"Shall I burn it?" asked Rondeau.
"Oh, no," said Leffie; "keep it so marster can have it, if he ever hears of it. There's your cigar box, take it and bury the letter in it."
"Whew-ew," said Rondeau, with a prolonged whistle, "it takes you women to calculate anything cute!"
The cigar box was brought out, and in a few moments the poor letter was lying quietly under a foot and a half of earth.
"There," said Leffie, as Rondeau laid over the spot a piece of fresh green turf, "nobody'll ever have any idee whose grave this is."
Rondeau rolled up his eyes, and assuming a most doleful expression, said, "Couldn't you manage to bust a tear or two, just to make it seem like a real buryin'?"
Leffie answered him by a sound box on his ear, at the same time threatening to expose his wickedness at the next class meeting. Aunt Dilsey's voice was now heard calling out, "Leffie, Leffie, is you stun deaf and blind now that fetched Rondeau's done gone home? Come here this minute!"
Rondeau and Leffie returned to the house, leaving buried a letter, the reading of which would have changed the tenor of their master's feelings.
For a knowledge of its contents as well of its author, we must go back for a time to Frankfort whence it came, promising that Mr. Middleton will follow us in a few days.