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A Heart Leaf from Stony Creek Bottom by Mollie Evelyn Moore Davis

 

“JED HOPSON!” said the school-mistress, rapping sharply with a pencil on the edge of the slate which she held in her hand.

“Yethum,” whimpered Jed, detected in his stealthy, stooping flight behind the last row of benches.

“What are you doing away from your seat?”

“Pleathe, Mith Pothy, I wath juth goin' to give thith heart-leaf to Mary Ann Hineth.”

“Bring it to me instantly, sir.”

Mary Ann Hines pushed a red underlip out scornfully at her tow-headed adorer as he passed her on his way to the teacher's desk, with the long-stemmed, green, shining heart-leaf in his grimy hand; and the other scholars giggled behind their calico-covered geographies.

Miss Posy Weaver's stern look restored order. She made Jed stand in a corner with his face to the wall, and she put the confiscated love-offering in her desk. But for the life of her she could not help bruising it between her fingers and sniffing it surreptitiously, with her head behind the desk-lid. Its aromatic, woodsy perfume floated out, permeating the warm, still air of the little school-room.

“Jeddy,” said the young teacher, affectionately, “you may go back to your seat.”

She looked furtively at the big silver watch hanging at her belt, and then glanced with longing eyes at the strip of blue sky which shone, all checkered with the swaying leaves of a young sassafras, between the unchinked logs. A ripple of excitement passed over the score of freckled faces turned expectantly towards hers. By some mysterious divination the scholars in the Stony Creek school-house were already aware that an extra half-hour was about to be prefixed to their two-hours noon play-time.

The school-mistress leaned forward and laid her hand on the small silver bell which used to stand on the work-table of Mrs. David Overall at Sweet Brier Plantation.

The children started up like a herd of young deer at the clear, tinkling sound; but they went out decorously, two and two. For Miss Posy had studied pedagogy in the Normal School at Greenhurst, and herself presided with great dignity once a month at the County Teachers' Association. But she smiled with girlish indulgence at the whoop which Pud Hines raised on the very threshold as he bounded out.

The isolated old log school-house was nestled in a wooded hollow between two long sloping pine-clad hills. A rutty, disused wagon-road rambled down one of these hills, and skirted the base of the other. It passed the school-house door, crossing, just below, a shallow, rippling branch which fell, a hundred yards or so down the hollow, into one of the deep pools of Stony Creek. Little paths, brown with pine-needles, led away in every direction, worn by the bare feet of Posy Weaver's scholars. A large water-oak shaded the low roof of the house; a grape-vine trailed down from one of the outstretched limbs and hoisted itself up again, forming a natural swing. The ground beneath was skirt-swept and bare, for that was the girls' side. Some pretty-by-night bushes and a straggling line of yellow nigger-heads marked the limit of their playground. On the other side the boys of several generations had trampled out a ball-field.

Tom Simmons, who was at one of the outer bases, came running in. “Boys! boys!” he cried, breathlessly. “Wish I may die if a wagin ain't comin' down the old road!”

It was an unheard-of thing, since the laying of the new turnpike, for anybody to drive along the old Stony Creek road.

Sure enough; an open wagon was bumping down the hill, between the tall, brown pine trunks, yawing first to one side and then to the other, in order to escape the red, rain-washed gullies of the road. The shambling, whity-brown horse which drew it stopped a moment at the foot of the descent to breathe; then jogged lazily on, of his own accord, to the branch, where he dipped his nose, with a snuffle of satisfaction, in the sun-warmed water. The boys, and one or two of the larger girls, hurried down to the reed-fringed bank, and stood gazing, open-mouthed, at the vehicle and its occupants.

The driver was a lean, sallow-faced lad about fifteen years old. He sat on a plank laid across the mud-splashed bed of the wagon. Behind him, in a couple of rickety, hide-bottomed chairs, were two old men—a white man and a negro. Both were neatly dressed in threadbare black broadcloth, with old-fashioned plaited shirt fronts of the finest white linen. The negro was bent so nearly double that his brown, alert-looking face almost rested upon his knees. His knotted hands trembled, as if shaken by palsy. His companion sat stiffly erect, with his arms crossed upon his breast. There was an air of unconscious dignity about him, though his sunken eyes were humble and appealing. His face was pale and emaciated, and his gaunt form was shaken from time to time by a racking cough.

A large-patterned old carpet-bag and a bundle tied top in a red cotton handkerchief were lying in the back of the wagon, and a battered-looking fiddle was tucked under the negro's chair.

“Mith Pothy,” whispered Jed Hopson, laying a timid hand on the teacher's arm.

She was sitting by the low, shutterless window; an open book was on her lap, and she twirled the heart-leaf absently in her fingers. A ray of sunlight falling across her head brightened her bronze-brown hair and drooping lashes. She was very young—hardly as old, in fact, as Pud Hines or Tom Simmons, her oldest scholars.

She started at the light touch, and smiled at the small intruder. “Well, Jed, is it a thorn in the finger or a splinter in the foot, this time?”

“Mith Pothy”—his eyes widened as he spoke—“the po'-houthe wagin, with Tad Luker drivin' it, ith yonder at the branch, en' ole Cunnel Dave Overall an' Unc' Bine ith in it, goin' to the po-'houthe to live. Tad thayth he'th takin' 'em to the po'-houthe 'cauthe they ain't able to work no more for theythelvth, an' if they don't go to the po'-houthe they'll thtarve. Oh, Mith Pothy, what 'th the matter?”

The girl had started to her feet; the color had left her cheeks, and she was staring at the child with frightened eyes.

There was a creaky sound of wheels outside. She ran out distractedly. Tad Luker grinned with bashful delight at sight of her, and drew his horse up so suddenly that the two old men were jerked forward in their chairs. Colonel David Overall recovered himself, and removed his rusty tall hat with a courtly bow. The schoolmistress leaned against the wheel, panting and speechless.

“Mornin', Miss Posy.” The old negro lifted a hand with difficulty to his ancient beaver.

“Posy?” echoed the Colonel, turning inquiringly from one to the other, a faint flush rising to his hollow cheek.

“Yessah,” returned Uncle Bine. “She de gran'chile o' we-all's las' 'fo'-de-wah overseer, sah, Mist' Josh Mullen—you 'member Mist' Josh Mullen, Marse Dave—an' she name' Posy a'ter ole Mis', sah.”

“Yes, sir,” the teacher said, answering the sudden look of affectionate interest in the old man's eyes, “my name is Repose Cartwright Weaver. My mother was born at Sweet Brier Plantation, and she named me for your wife. She is buried near Mrs. Overall in the Sweet Brier burying-ground.”

Colonel Overall opened his lips and then closed them, swallowing a lump in his throat.

“Won't—won't you put on your hat, Colonel?” she stammered, after a moment's silence, for the noon sun was beating hot upon his gray old head.

“Oh no, I could not think of it,” he said, hastily, “in the presence of a lady.” He reached down, as he spoke, and took her hand in his.

The scholars had all pressed up, and were standing in a ring about the poor-house wagon, staring in respectful silence at the dispossessed owner of the old Sweet Brier Plantation. Tad Luker, seeing Miss Posy's distress, and feeling himself in some sort implicated in the cause of it, had slid down, and was sheltering himself behind the placid old horse from the misery in her brown eyes.

“Ha!” It was the heart-leaf dropped from Posy Weaver's palm into his own which had brought an almost youthful light into the dimmed eyes. “A heart-leaf! I would wager, Byron”—he turned to the negro beside him— “that it came from the Long Bend in Stony Creek bottom.”

“Yeth, thir, it did!” cried Jed Hopson, thrusting his tousled head up under the teacher's arm.

“Are you a Hopson?” demanded the Colonel, looking down at him quizzically.

“Yeth, thir; Jed Hopthon, thir.”

The Colonel laughed softly. “I thought so. Your grandfather had the same lisp and the same tow head when he was your age.” His eyes went back to the leaf. “They grow,” he said, “just beyond the Flat Rock in the Long Bend. You wade through a boggy thicket until you come to a fern-bed; a little further to the right there is a clump of beech-trees —four of them—set close together; the heart-leaves grow in a sort of square made by the beech roots.”

“Yeth, thir!” shouted little Jed, quivering with excitement. “I've knowed the plathe nigh a year, but I ain't never told nobody.”

“And your name is Repose, my dear? Well, well! And you teach the Stony Creek school? I used to go to school here myself, you know, when I was a boy, with little Posy Cartwright. Not in this house, to be sure. The old one was pulled down—some time in the forties, I think it was, eh, Byron? I found the heart-leaves in Stony Creek bottom one day at play-time. Byron here, my body-servant, was with me.”

“I wuz bawn de same day Marse Dave wuz bawn, an' ole Marse gin me ter him fer a body-servant,” interjected Uncle Bine.

“I must have been about eleven years old at the time. I slipped in the bog, and had to go home in wet clothes, but I sent the heart-leaf to Posy by Byron.”

“Yas,” said Uncle Bine, taking up the story as his old master relapsed into silence, “an' what you reckin Miss Posy done when I gin her de heart-leaf? She wuz settin' in de grape-vine swing long o' 'n'er lil gal. Dey wa'n't mo'n seven er eight year ole, na'r one o' 'em, an' Miss Posy's yaller hair wuz flyin' in de win'. I gin her de heart-leaf an' tole her dat Marse Dave saunt it, an'—'fo' de Lawd!—she up an' slap me spang on de jaw, an' th'o' de leaf on de groun'. She 'ten lak she gwine ter tromp on it in de bargain; but I done cut my eye on her roun' de cornder o' de school-house, 'caze I knowed she gwine ter pick it up.”

“An' did she?” asked Mary Ann Hines, involuntarily; then hung her head, blushing red through tan and freckles.

“Yas, chile, co'se she did,” chuckled Uncle Bine. He waited a moment; then proceeded, with a sidelong glance at his self-absorbed companion: “Fum dat day ontwel he went off ter collige Marse Dave wuz all de time sp'ilin' his britches wadin' roun' in dat bog a'ter heart-leaves fer Miss Posy; an' when he come back fum collige—de fines' young genterman dat ever kep' a pack o' houn's—he fairly hang roun' de Poplars, wher' Mist' Tom Cartwright live', fum mawnin' twel night. Ole Marse say he 'spec' Miss Posy leadin' Marse Dave a dance. An' at las', one night, he rid home fum de Poplars lookin' lak he plum desput. Nex' mawnin' he ax me ter saddle de hosses 'fo' day, 'caze he gwine huntin' down in Stony Creek bottom. I wuz 'bleedged ter go 'hine de stable ter laugh when he come out'n de house 'bout daylight, 'caze how Marse Dave gwine ter hunt 'dout a gun? We rid at a run down ter de Long Ben' o' de creek, an' fus' t'ing I knowed Marse Dave done flung me his bridle an' jump' onter de Flat Rock; an' dar he wuz wadin' thoo de bog, in his fine clo's, ter de beeches wher' de heart-leaf grow!

“Hit wa'n't mo'n breakfus'-time when we come ter de cross-road 'twix' Sweet Brier an' de Poplars. Den Marse Dave he check up de gray an' han' me de heart-leaf.

“ 'Tek it ter Miss Posy Cartwright,' he say. 'I'm gwine ter wait right here ontwel you come back. Hit's de turn o' my life, Bine.'

“I lef' him settin' straight ez a saplin' on de big gray, an' I rid on ter de Poplars. Dar wuz Miss Posy walkin' up an' down de gal'ry in her white dress, an' de win' blowin' her yaller hair. She look at me curus-lak wi' her blue eyes when she tuk de leaf. 'Fo' de Lawd, I wuz feared she wuz gwine ter th'o' it on de groun' en' tromp on it! But she turn her head, fus' dis way an' den dat, an' den she say, sof' an' sassy-lak, 'Mek my compliments to yo' marster, an' ax him do he want re-pose fer his heart.'

“I ain' sho', but seem lak I heerd Miss Posy call me back ez I onlatch de big gate, but somep'n' inside me aiggd me not ter look roun'. Marse Dave wuz pale ez death when I galloped up ter de cross-road wher' he wuz waitin'. But I ain' no sooner got Miss Posy's words out'n my mouf dan he streck spurs in de gray an' mek fer de Poplars lak a streak o' lightnin'. He done forgot dat his clo's all splesh over mud fum dat Long Ben' bog.”

The Colonel was listening now, and he smiled encouragement as Uncle Bine stopped to cough.

“I reckin dass huccum Miss Posy wore heart-leaves stidder white flowers at de weddin'. Me an' Marse Dave went down ter de bottom a'ter 'em on de weddin'-day mawnin'. An' dat huccum every year, when de same day come eroun', Marse Dave useter ride down ter Stony Creek an' wade out ter dem beeches a'ter a heart-leaf. But he never did fetch 'em ter Miss Posy hisse'f. He useter stop in de summer-house an' sen' me inter de house, wher' Miss Posy wuz settin' in de mawnin'-room, wi' de silver bell on de wu'k-table 'longside her. She useter tek de heart-leaf an' look at me out'n dem laughin' eyes an' say, 'Mek my compliments to yo' marster, an' ax him do he want re-pose fer his heart.' An' 'reckly Marse Dave 'd come bulgin' inter de house an' tek her in his arms! Every year, 'cep'n' endurin' o' de wah, when Marse Dave an' young Marse Cartwright, his onlies' son dat wuz killed in de wah, wuz away fum Sweet Brier—every year fer up'ards o' forty year, I fotch a heart-leaf ter ole Mis', an' tuk dat same message ter Marse Dave in de summer-house. But I couldn't no wise mek out de meanin' o' Miss Posy's message, ontwel, all at once, one day, fetchin' dem words ter Marse Dave, I got de meanin'. It flesh over me in a minit. Repose, dat mean res', you know, an' de heart-leaf stan' fer Marse Dave's heart. Does you want res' fer yo' heart? I bus' out laughin' now ever' time I 'member how de true meanin' o' dem words flesh over me a'ter up'ards o' forty year!” He wagged his head up and down, laughing wheezily.

“Dass de las' time I ever fotch de heart-leaf,” he added, in a subdued tone, “ 'caze Miss Posy died dat same year, an' Marse Dave hatter sell Sweet Brier.”

Yes, Sweet Brier, tumble-down and dilapidated in the midst of its shrunken fields, had passed into alien hands. The household belongings —the quaint old furniture which had been handed down from one generation of Overalls to another—had been sold at auction. Posy Weaver longed to tell the last of the Overalls how she herself had bought, out of her first scanty earnings, the little silver bell which used to stand on his wife's work-table. But she could not, somehow. She stood silently looking back over the past few years—which seemed long in her brief life—during which Uncle Bine and his old master had lived together in one of the deserted negro cabins at Sweet Brier; keeping up, in the midst of the new and strange generation, their unequal struggle with poverty and sickness, until—

Colonel David Overall's thoughts, it would seem, had been travelling along with hers. “I am told,” he said, abruptly, but with great gentleness, “that the—the place to which they are taking Byron and me is very comfortable. There is a wide gallery and shade-trees, and—” A violent fit of coughing interrupted his speech.

The young teacher leaned her head upon the tire of the wheel and wept silently. The older boys slunk away, ashamed and frightened at the sight of their teacher's tears. The girls turned their heads and pretended not to notice.

A sharp click disturbed the silence. It was the snapping of a string on Uncle Bine's old fiddle.

Tad Luker stooped under the horse's neck and came around to where the school-mistress was standing. “Miss Po-Posy,” he whispered, desperately, “I orter go. I'll git a lickin' if I don't. An', Miss Posy, I—I fetched him over the old road so's to keep offer the 'pike, where folks might ha' seen him on his way to the poor-house.”

Posy gave him a grateful look through her tears, and pressed eagerly between the wheels to murmur something which the children could not hear. But the old Colonel shook his head. “No, no, my dear, I cannot burden an orphaned child like you. It will not be long, for Byron and I are very old. Besides”—he straightened himself with dignity—“I am told that the county poor-house is quite comfortable—quite comfortable.”

Tad clambered to his seat; he shook the reins, and the old horse pricked up his ears.

“Wait a moment, please,” said Colonel David Overall, lifting his hand. “My dear,” he continued, looking wistfully down into the girl's flushed and tear-stained face, “would—would you mind standing for a second upon the step?”

She sprang lightly upon the muddy wagon-step.

He laid his hand on her head. “Repose Cartwright! It was my wife's name,” he muttered, kissing her on either cheek. And then he turned and laid his arm about Uncle Bine's bowed shoulders.

The wagon rattled away, jolting the old men in their chairs, and displacing the grotesque beavers on their heads. A turn of the red road presently hid them from view, and a moment later the silver bell was calling the scholars of the Stony Creek school to order.

 
 
 

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