A short story set back in the last decade of the 18th century, of some children on their family plantation and their “pets”
Spring had settled in full over the valley, casting a heavenly glow on the hills, coloring the trees shades of green and emerald, giving the grass a verdant hue while the sky itself shone in brilliance, an empyreal beauty that showed itself in an array of gold, blue and white. Oak Orchard lay on a hill, in front of another slope where an orchard stood; this eventually rose into a mountainside of rocky, thickly wooded hills, with caves hidden here and there, with shrubbery, and even large boulders looming. Somewhere in that vast thicket hove a lone wolf wandered, high above the slope where the Wayland plantation sat cozily nestled between the oaks that gave the estate its name. It paused, sniffing the air, then turned towards the edge of the hummock, the sharp, pervasive eyes canvassing the panorama with ears pricked forward, the black, rough nose quivering a moment, before lowering. The yellow, glowing eyes settled on the two chimneys from which curls of smoke rose, a scarf that twined up in the air then vanished as the duskly wisp was caught up by a zephyr playing nearby. Fresh ham roasting on a fire? A cozy hearth where the people of the house sat; in a study, perhaps? The wolf didn’t move though. It didn’t go down to the valley of hills and trees. It stayed there on the mountainside, savoring the proffered solitude, relishing the prospects of a meal to come. But it knew better than to skulk round the house, for those hounds, the dogs of the people could emerge, their strong bodies able to tear the wolf’s thin flesh. This wolf turned away and crept back to an empty creek, where the hulking roots of a sycamore stuck out to form a little nook in the river bank. Overgrown weeds and grass clustered there, but the whimpers of wolf-pups revealed life lingering in those lonely shrubs. The mother wolf gazed over her children, her eyes revealing a soft tenderness, a concern and maternity she let out in little short barks as she roughly licked the shaggy dark fur. Their yelps grew louder. Hunger. Hunger; even a mother wolf knew that. They needed food. Food in their stomachs, so unfilled now that the ribs gave sharp jabs as they tumbled with one another. So the mother-wolf decided to advance upon the house. Instinct of the wild prevailed, and the wolf left her babies again, prowled down the woodland tor, weaved through the trees and rocks, till it reached the orchard with all the rose-cream buds opening and fluttering in the wind. The frail beauty of the apple blossoms bloomed as the Spring commenced. With its head down, body tense, the wolf hurried on, till she stood no more than fifteen yards from the house. The smokehouse. The chimney. The open kitchen window. Which?
A ham! The wolf started forward, not hesitating; not holding back. It needed that meat. That reviving fodder. Food! Suddenly, out of nowhere, something lunged against it. A loud growl resounded in the tranquil air. A low, hostile growl, and then barks. A searing pain in the neck sent the mother wolf back, howling, but the dogs came back again. Those teeth sank into the ears, neck, back, legs. Oh! The little ones. But no; the world grew dark. The ground moved. The ground opened up. The young mother gave in to blackness.
Johnny thought she was dead, but after a second glance Diana saw the raggedy chest rise and fall, the nose twitch as they stared down at the limp body. “Come away, Becky. Mother won’t like you so near a critter like that. ‘Sides, it’s dead.”
“But, John—no look, see, it’s breathing!”
“Pshaw. Come on,” and Johnny gave her arm a hard tug that almost sent the little girl sprawling, but she jerked away and returned to the wolf.
“It might die,” she wailed, and began to kneel down beside it but her big brother rebuked her with another rough pull.
“Stop it Johnny. Look!”
Johnny sighed and rolled his eyes. He was fourteen, six years older than Diana, and he thought she was just telling little-girl fibs. Mother had said he had to play with her this afternoon while she prepared the house for company; in a little while their cousins would come to visit, but now he had to watch and see that “Becky found no mischief”.
“The hounds musta got it,” he sighed, letting out a deep breath, and then began in a chagrinned tone, “Soon the buzzards’ll come. But you don’t wanna see that.”
“Let’s take it to the barn then.”
Diana began to reach out her hand, but it was slapped back. Tears of livid fury filled her eyes, and she pulled her chin up with a defiant thrust. “How can you be so mean, Johnny? It might be a she, and she might have babies. And it might be a he, and he needs to git his family something to eat.”
“It might die!”
Johnny grinned, but his eyes were hard. “Leave it. It’s already dead.”
Diana felt chilled. She stared at the still body, and then caught her breath when the creature’s eye opened. It was yellow, topaz and golden, filled with a weak fear and aggressiveness.
“It might have hydrophobia,” Johnny went on, taking her hand, and drew her back from the wolf.
“It opened its eyes!”
“Yeah. It did. But we can’t do anything for it.”
A low, deep growl came from the slightly parted mouth of the wolf, and Diana broke away from Johnny, to his vexation and with excitement vivid in her countenance, leaned over the form on the ground, staring with an opened mouth, feeling a wave of relief and dread. Johnny wondered if it would lunge at her, and for the third or fourth time called her to come away. But then to his disconcertion the animal pushed itself up weakly, neck lowered ready for a strike, its muscles rippling under the thin, frayed fur.
“Get back,” shouted Johnny and wrenched her to him, and behind him, and his heart began to beat like a drum. His eye darted from the dog and in his mind he saw himself but a few feet away, subject to peril at any second, and any wrong move would cause the wild dog to lunge, sending its saliva-covered teeth into his flesh. But just as suddenly as it rose and faced Johnny and Diana, head lowered, legs poised for a brutal spring, it whirled and sprang off into the underbrush, tail flying out behind. They saw it long enough to see a visible limp and at a faint pace the wolf kept up, and it seemed it would fall any moment but it kept on. Diana unexpectedly took off after it, before Johnny could think a single clear thought or snatch her right back to him. An instant later she streaked up the steep hill behind Oak Orchard, past the orchard, several times pausing when uncertain as to where the feeble, pathetic creature had ventured. A rustle here, a footstep ahead, a sharp bark, whine or wail of pain kept her going on in the correct direction, and Johnny crashed on behind her, quietly as he could, but gave loud whispers with cupped hands, whistling artificial birdcalls that were sharp and seemed to be commanding—“Diana, come back, you danged girl! Reckon you’ll get a good spank…”
Diana had stopped. Johnny almost tripped over her, cause she had lain down in the leaves and shrubs, her legs curled up beneath her while her smudged and sullied skirts eddied around her. “Heck, Becky! What is the matter with you? Don’t you….”
Diana cast him a fierce glare and shushed him, holding her finger to her pouting lips. Then a sharp nod caused him to look towards a little riverbed with the roots of a tree jutting out to form a little canopied cove. Small yelps resounded in the air, and he froze.
“Do you think…”
“A ma wolf!”
Both of them attempted to rise up and peer over the dense thicket of bushes but they quickly ducked again when the wolf looked over its shoulder, those cat-like, elfish yellow eyes flitted round again, canvassing any sign of danger, before sloping into its little den.
“Let’s get closer, so we can see the pups,” whispered Diana under her breath, clasping her hands.
“Oh no indeed! That mother wolf, she doesn’t want you near her babies…”
But alas, Diana paid no heed to her brother, and on hands and knees, with the ground briars and running creeper snagging on her skirts, her bonnet thrust back and her hair full of leaves and grass, the little girl crawled forward eagerly, and Johnny, distraught, followed at a close distance, fearing something any second. But he knew better than to call after her; this would only alert the creatures in the den, and that mother wolf would be after them in seconds. It was hurt, all right, but this would make it all the more belligerent. Every instant, every inch he moved, he expected a snarl, a pair of yellow eyes making at him, that dark body streaking at him or Diana. But nothing happened. As he went on through the undergrowth, quietness reigned with the exception of a few soft whimpers coming from the pups. Johnny cursed, though he knew Mother wouldn’t like it, cause his head jerked back when a branch caught his hair. By now Diana had climbed up the bank and to the place where the roots hung out over the dry river-bottom and side of the bank, where the little family dwelt. Johnny scrambled up after her and lunged to her side, just as she began to lean over to peer into the recess.
But curiosity snagged the older boy’s heart and he also peered as far as he could into the wolf den. There the two beheld a most tragic sight, combined with a certain endearing aspect that permitted them both to look in breathless awe. The mother had died, from the immense pain of her wounds, but her pups tumbled about her in a clumsy sort of desperation, a sense of confusion vivid in the burrow. As though they didn’t have a trace as to what to do now; their ma was gone, lying there so still, helpless, as were they, and those babies, whining softly, knew something had left, leaving them all alone.
“Oh Johnny, she’s dead,” gasped Diana, tears filling her eyes, for her girlish heart held a compassion for creatures great and small, and her young mentality loathed the thought of death, helplessness and pain.
Johnny gave her a quick look of reproof, ‘cause she ought to be quiet, but he felt a pang of something, regret and a deep sense of empathy that heightened when he saw Diana’s large dark eyes become mist covered.
“Them pups—they’ll die, I guess,” he muttered, putting his hand on her shoulder, as she stared down at the family, just bereft of the mother.
“No, not if we take them home,” she answered with a gleam of hope in her eyes.
“Indeed! What kind of fool…”
“Pa wouldn’t like it at all, and we had better be getting home anyways, else Ma’ll be angry. And so will Job—he doesn’t like it as it is, us bringing in little critters like snakes, squirrels, and coons…”
“Job hates snakes, but these pups are adorable,” persisted Diana, her expression abjectly beseeching.
Johnny let out a long breath, followed by a groan. “Heavens, you won’t give up, I guess.”
“They’ll die, Johnny. They ought not die if we can help it.” And she put her hand on his arm, looking up into his mien in a fluster of hope and despair.
Johnny could not hold out in his refusal, so at long last the two of them scrambled down again and approached the pups, their step quiet, breath held, and when they reached the orphaned creatures, Diana rushed forward and fell on her knees, putting out her arms to embrace them close, not holding back, and didn’t concern herself with the thought that perhaps she could be brought to injury if one of the little wolves happened to find her sudden appearance distasteful. Johnny didn’t think to rebuke her on this recklessness, and followed directly after, imitating her excited gesture as he eagerly went on to snatch up the frisking wild dogs, with their tangled gray hair, soft and ferally arranged, and yellow eyes that glowed up at the boy and girl. Only four dwelt in this den, born to that shielding female beast, and four went with Diana and Johnny down the knoll. As they happened to be small enough to be easily abided on the steep walk, there was little trouble in conveying them most of the way, until they reached the proximity of the plantation “village” and house, and Johnny at last concluded they’d have to step lively or be caught culpable with these wolf-pups in their arms.
“We’ll get skinned for sure,” thought Johnny with a nervous rapidity in his stride, as they bent with the deliberation of reaching the barn unseen. Mammy Lou happened to be in the garden, which stood not so far away from the hangar, and to Johnny’s dismay, he kept ahead of his sister as they scurried through the yard, and slipped in through a back door into the barn, to the loft, where one could lie unseen by everyone but see everything that went on below. The best hiding place, it was determined between the two, was the loft, so up they went without a noise, faces bright, eyes dancing with a mysterious merriment that later caused the servants to muse, and the cousins to pester. Johnny said they ought to hurry, because their cousins would be arriving—or, they might already be there, whereupon they hastened in their business, setting the four pups in a little walled off square surrounded by packed hay that would serve as a sufficient barrier for the time being. Diana declared them truly cute, while Johnny caught her by the hand and pulled her down the ladder with him, and together they appeared from the barn, hearts on the run, and Job met them as they came out with the elder brother leading his young sister by the hand. Suspicion seized the old black, for the girl’s face revealed something of pensive excitement, while the boy’s showed a secret delight, and the lead hand, folding his arms and putting himself directly in their path, demanded what they had been about.
“Playin’ games?” Job drawled with narrowed eyes, nodding at Diana’s muddled skirts, Johnny’s torn sleeve.
“Maybe. Are the cousins here yet?” the question Johnny put was quick, terse, nonchalant.
Job started and nodded with a slow grin, “They got here ten minutes past, and Ah was sent out to git you.”
Johnny reddened, because he knew the hand was looking at his clothes—his tell-tale clothes. And Diana! My, you would have thought she had run through a briar patch, the way she looked. Ma would have a fit…
Mammy Lou, the buxom negro housekeeper, met them at the door. “Well, it be about time you two chillen’s showed up. De company be heah, and Lawsy Mercy! Oh Lawd! What in de Heaven’s Name you two been!” A single thump on the shoulder sent Johnny to the wash basin, but when he had thus departed, Diana knew she had been left to a fearful fate. The black woman turned to her with a reproving aura that sent the young lassie into a sensation of apprehension, which in turn, revealed that she had something of guilt on her mind. Hands on hips, eyebrows raised, lips pursed and brow a compound of amusement and exasperation, Mammy Lou appeared to be quite formidable just then. Her voice seemed to boom as a cannon does, on a grisly tundra. Diana stepped back, prepared to flee, because something was to be done—something she knew that wouldn’t be at all pleasant.
“Now, my chile,” began Mammy Lou with a grim smile, as she surveyed the hoyden in patent agitation, “You will come along wid me. No, don’t speak now. De company be in de parlor, and yo’ ma wid dem. If you be late another minute…”
And Mammy Lou took Diana’s arm, hastening her towards the room where the guests parleyed, never minding her appearance, whispering in short monosyllables that they had “no time to waste”.
The old black woman at last stopped before the parlor door, giving Diana a soft poke in her lower back, nodding towards the room, and gave the faint peremptory instruction to go on—and “Lawdy! Be quick ‘bout it.”
The girl did “go on” with a quick, uncertain glance towards Mammy Lou, and slipped into the room where Mother and Aunt Julia sat, along with her children who numbered four. Mother looked up quickly when Diana entered, opening her mouth in wonder at the sight of her child so utterly, and unbecomingly bedraggled in full form. And this same pervasive, amazed regard could be somewhat seen in decorous Aunt Julia’s visage, as she fully took in Diana as well.
“Oh heavens!” gasped mother, standing to bring the shy-struck Diana farther into the room, but her astonishment quickly passed, and in that emotion’s place came a certain, hidden mirth. “Where ever have you been, Diana? Your aunt and cousins arrived half-an-hour ago, and—what have you done with yourself?”
Julia gave a laugh, shaking her head slightly, and beamed mercifully, “Aye, aye, she has been in some little transpiring, I expect, Barbara. But never mind. How are you, sweet girl?”
Diana managed to answer that she felt quite well, but then forgot her reservation when she laid eyes upon her cousins, who stood with Katharine, Grace, and Jessie, her sisters, and Mother bade them go out to play for now.
Elizabeth Young, who was nine, and Diana’s prime playmate among all the kin and other children in the neighborhood, inquired “My! Haven’t you had a scrape today? Whatever happened to you, Becky?” Elizabeth began smoothing her own skirts, much fresh and tidy, quite surpassing the torn frock of Diana, and in addition to this obvious fact, she, being a year the hoyden’s senior, felt herself to be better acquainted with proper civility and edifying manifestation that makes every Virginia lass the model figure of august majesty. She also felt herself to be the superior seamstress, as she had a collection of idyllic samplers, small knitted artifacts giving light to her seemly abilities, and perhaps, beyond this simple, but refined art, Elizabeth thought her hand a better specimen of penmanship, far exceeding Diana’s own. Yet, as far as these little talents seemed to reach, they did not particularly give her the light of any forte, though sewing indeed seemed to be—the penmanship did not acquit for her rather poor variety of word usage and colorful mentality. But, she did know how to mouth words, in ways that could either vex or please, and now Diana felt more than vexed by her cousin’s patronizing air.
“Nothing that much matters,” answered she, as she picked up her wooden doll and examined it with feigned interest, though she knew good and well that her cousin’s eyes were upon her in a doubtful circumspection.
But Elizabeth, having politeness this moment and seeing she assuredly wouldn’t wheedle much from the younger girl, thought to take a softer turn of conversation, and remarked to her that their mothers met this afternoon for the express reason of arranging a means of education for all the young children in their kin-circle.
“A school, for all us cousins you mean?” Diana wondered, tenderly brushing her hand over her wooden babe’s smooth forehead.
“Oh yes! Doesn’t that sound fun? There will be some second cousins and perhaps a few third ones as well—but first cousins particularly, as there happen to be more of them hereabouts.”
“Shall we have a teacher—a reverend, perhaps?” Diana queried, with a small frown. She did not especially take to the idea of parsons and the like, as the one at the church her entire family attended, happened to be one most intimidating when in the pulpit. He preached of God’s wrath, of Satan’s trickery and constant, vicious attacks on any and every soul. “Great men have fallen, for even they haven’t the strength to withstand Satan’s evil,” Parson Granby had declared one Sunday not too long ago. Now, Diana thought, if he was to be the teacher, she would have to learn about those great men who had fallen, hear that booming voice and see the dark eyes under the severely shaped, bushy brows, flame and fester, as the large, wrinkled hand slammed down on the wooden stand with vehement emphasis.
“No—our mothers didn’t say anything of that—I think your mother is going to give your brother Robert the position as teacher.”
“Robert?” Diana looked up sharply, surprised. “Robert will be teaching us?”
“Yes, your brother,” came Elizabeth’s careless reply, her eyes suddenly alighting at the mention of this favored cousin. After all, she had some good reason to be pleased by this knowledge, as Robert played often with them, and frequently allowed her to sit on his high, sturdy shoulders.
“Oh Robert,” sighed Diana with a pensive look, feeling unsure of how to consider the prospects of a school. Indeed, she felt much excitement, but rather mused with a melancholy aspect that perhaps—yes, perhaps that meant, a good deal less of leisure for her to romp and play. Yet, the idea of books to be read, things to be learned rather thrilled her, gave her eyes a brilliant shine and her lips a trembling form of overwhelming rapture. Aye, now she was in the closest proximity to those delightful tomes, those books which she loved so well, found so captivating. Since her fourth year, she had always felt the greatest of joys in sitting in her father’s library, a book in lap, looking at the words, trying to read, but failing. And then Mother taught her when she saw her little girl wished to learn, so by now, as a child of eight, Diana understood those words on the pages of books, and felt a confidence she would learn even more by what they could mean—a deeper comprehension of their contents, explanations and narratives.
But, one thing Johnny had told her once about learning, was that you had to be taught numbers in school. Oh no! Numbers? What a complex system, all those queer shapes in father’s account books on his desk—what could they mean? And would she be compelled to learn each of them, what to do with the alien figures? No, no! It sounded dull, dull, senseless and bereft of lively interest. They did not possess the gamut of adventure and people, places so different they were myth, and neither did those numbers display prodigious charm.
Now, Diana also felt some misgivings concerning the prospect of Robert tutoring them, as he happened to be her older brother, sometimes impatient if one tried his endurance long enough. Though he could be good humored, there were times that wit faded and there intruded the passion of indignance.
Elizabeth went on with alacrity, tossing her golden-brown curls from her face and cheeks, where the wind had flung them, “Wouldn’t that be fun? Though I must say, I think books can be dreadfully dull, and I find much displeasure in them, but twill be better if we may play.”
“Books are fun,” retorted Diana with a sniff, “I think them most agreeable .”
“Oh indeed!” cried Elizabeth, excitedly, “Never mind, let us play while my mother remains. We won’t be here long.”
But Diana, rather festered by her cousin’s mocking rejoinder, suggested with determination that they should go to the orchard and have a climb.
“No we shan’t! Mother wouldn’t like it, and neither would yours,” answered Elizabeth, feeling rather chagrinned by her cousin’s constant, raging spirit, and felt the derisiveness of an adult when encountering a foolish child.
“Since you have turned nine, Elizabeth Young,” Diana straightened from tightening her shoe laces, face flushed, eyes bright, “You think you are most grown-up. But you are only a year older than I.”
“I brought my doll,” broke in the elder girl, with a twang of vexation ringing in her voice, “Shall we play?”
“I should rather put them in the dust. Why, I can’t believe you still play with them, since you are such a woman,” retorted Diana pettishly, and tossed down Adalia with a flourish of her arm, and marched off to the nearest tree, flung herself at the nearest branch and scrambled up into the boughs of the oak.
“You ought to be spanked, Diana Wayland,” Elizabeth called after her with a stamp of her foot, crossing her arms across her flat bosom, which she wished ever so dearly would become as maidenly as Katharine’s, Diana’s eldest sister. “And you ought not climb, lest your dress tears.”
“Hang my dress,” gasped Diana, reaching a high branch at length, and peered down at Elizabeth.
Seeing her words had no affect that would inflict upon her some mark of temper, some flash of contempt, thus giving her nothing to cry over, Elizabeth went on, “I’ll tell your Ma you’re climbing…”
“Oh don’t you dare!” and Diana descended as fast as she could, till she reached the ground, and as so commonly was seen on such days when the Young brood came to call, a hasty chase ensued, Diana in the tail of it, and finally caught Elizabeth with her hair falling over her face in disarray, and commanded that she would not tell. Thence she relaxed a moment to catch her breath, and Elizabeth escaped, flying round shrieking, and at last collapsed in the grass, Diana snatching the hem of her dress with a wild laugh of triumph, and suddenly!—alas! A loud ripping noise streaked through the air, cutting it like a blade, and Diana fell back stunned, holding the end of a dress’s hem. Hence—a small cry of shock and fury compounded could be heard on the Oak Orchard lawn, and Elizabeth wrenched herself over, turned her head to stare at her damaged frock, and felt mixed remorse and provocation.
Her mouth opened in a mute expression of dismay, her hazel-green eyes widened and lashes blinked with evident disbelief. At last her voice came, emerging from her lips in a choking breath, shrill and quivering. “Diana!”
The single word startled Diana, so she quailed back, also gaping, and was suddenly seized with the revelation that this moment would be opportune to flee. The gown, in other words, happened to be newly presented, of a pretty muslin and cotton fabric, boasting of an elegant design, therefore making this grievous tableau one of significant consequence. To her feet Diana leapt, and with a whoop made a rush, while the thoughtless, reckless, and livid pursuer clamored at her heels, with skirts flying. Her first thought was the barn, a good place to escape wrath, and she entirely forgot what happened to be in the building.
“You tore my dress, you!” wailed Elizabeth, clutching at the smaller lass with a vehemence that drove Diana’s heart to a pound, and she ran as fast as she was able, finally reaching the haven of the barn, entering with tempestuous despair, flinging closed the door, feeling a certain species of fear, so jocular, yet so true that it stirred her heart, and brought her to forget everything. Elizabeth reached the door moments after she closed it, and panting, Diana whirled round and pressed as hard as she could, then let it go, and tore away, diving into a hay mound that didn’t stand too far away.
The second she released her press on the barn door, Elizabeth nearly tumbled in, calling in loud tones, threats, cries of ferocity and consternation, all which seemed especially daunting this second. And in addition to this fierce speech, tears overtook the distraught girl, and she felt just ready to shake Diana senseless. How proud she had felt of her frock, its delicate and well-cut cloth, and such lavish textile at that, the cost of its damage seemed most regrettably ludicrous.
Many such a circumstance arose when the two cousins convened, that it often seemed they could be the best of enemies rather than the best of kin and comrades. They saw each other often, but these visits were most often not lacking the effigies of such drolly brutal frays. Elizabeth discovered Diana in the straw, summoned her out with a hard pull and prepared to give that desired cuff, but Diana wrenched away, enraged by the force with which Elizabeth, taller yes, but not truly stronger, had seized her, feeling the subject of unwarranted indignance. Yet, even as the moments ascended to a zenith of excitement, short, high howls emerged from above, commanding both girls’ attention, and Diana paled, knowing at once her secret would most assuredly be uncovered now, on account of her lack of thought, her reckless attempt at making such a trivial escape. The revelation came upon her in a wave of regret, spinning round in her head so giddiness then overtook her, and she felt an impulse to run, do anything to take Elizabeth out of this haven of easy suspicion. But it had already lighted in the hazel-green eyes, and Elizabeth’s mouth parted with a sharp intake of breath.
Instantly, as most capricious children are capable of doing, she disregarded her spoiled hem, for in her curiosity it seemed unimportant, and she demanded reproachfully, with a new turn of excitement, “You have puppies! Oh, why did you not tell me? Show me them. Show me.”
Diana shook her head, guilt beating down in her, for she and Johnny had pledged to not let a soul know, and here her irrational nature had managed to turn loose, revealing that furtive enigma by mere thoughtlessness. Berating herself severely, Diana felt she ought to do something to take Elizabeth’s mind from those ominous sounds coming from the loft. But alas—Elizabeth paid her no heed, and made a rush for the ladder, went up it and Diana followed, her temples, throat, and wrists pounding in shame and extreme remorse.
All the way up she protested as hard as she was able, but Elizabeth’s interest had been aroused; now nothing would keep her, and Diana felt a falling of spirits. Mortified, flustered and reddened in countenance, she watched her older cousin’s expression go from delight to acute wonder.
“Why, they’re wolf pups!” cried she, putting her hands to her cheeks, and started back as though she’d been bitten.
“Oh me!” thought Diana, overwrought.
“Yes, they are wolves,” she admitted in a very low voice, panting from the effort of the run, the romp on the barn floor and lofty climb. Then, sternly; “And you mustn’t tell a soul,” drawing out a sigh she continued, “Johnny and I found them this morning, for their mother was nearly dead after our hounds nearly killed her. She managed to reach her babies, then she died.”
“Wolf pups!” breathed Elizabeth, rather pale.
Diana went on without waiting to catch her breath now, “We decided we’d take them here and hide ‘em, lest they die. But you can’t tell anyone, Elizabeth. No one.”
“What would your mother say? Or the hands? I’m sure Job wouldn’t like it,” whispered Elizabeth almost fearfully, greatly reduced in her vehemence to a timidity quite unconvincing.
“We won’t let them know, I suppose,” Diana replied with a brooding countenance, suddenly aware of rising compunction. Mother and Father always told her she ought not keep anything she knew they would not approve of to herself—but, the other side of her mind answered hopefully that it wasn’t truly deceit. A deed of protection for the poor babes of that perished mother wolf, who hadn’t the strength to live longer, so great her wounds were. Yet, should Job discover? What then? Surely they’d receive some dreadful punishment, deserved, maybe yes, but she didn’t want to see the disappointment in her parents’ eyes. Would they call her a naughty little girl, deceitful and wicked? But no! It shouldn’t be so. Her motives were right, upheld by the ethics of her compassion, her pity for the waifs and their large dismal eyes. No, she would keep it to her bosom, a secret, the only means for their assured safety and survival. Elizabeth would be recruited, since the circumstance called for it.
Diana’s last statement pursued the older cousin’s scruples as well, so she wavered on uncertainty, feeling a desire to “turn in” her impish young relation, shake her head with a malicious heart, but somehow, a sense of kindness overtook her, and she thought what a shame it would be to have the pups die, for her own spite towards Diana. Tempted sorely, but refraining, Elizabeth decided against relating to the others of this adverse discovery, and very slowly nodded.
“Oh, you promise!” cried Diana, at once overcome with new rapture.
“Yes,” murmured Elizabeth, as she knelt in the hay to take up one of the infant animals.
Then, again trounced by doubt, she added, “I suppose—we will get in trouble at some point. I shan’t want to be in the blame. And it isn’t good, I guess.”
“We can’t tell them,” persisted Diana anxiously, “They will make us turn them loose, and that can’t happen either. No, don’t speak a word, I beg you.”
“We might be spanked, or something in the like.”
“I don’t care,” flashed Diana, exasperated, and tossed her hair in a show of firmness. She didn’t wish to be afraid of that, though, foreboding filled her nevertheless.
“Perhaps something far worse,” adjoined Elizabeth, paling all the more.
“We’d better get, or someone might come and find us out with these wolves,” answered Diana shortly, wishing to put an end to the conversation.
“Let’s,” and sighing, Elizabeth came as bidden, the two descending the ladder with little carefulness, though the climb was steep, the ground distant, but they felt too laden with this new shared secret to think of it and soon reached the ground in short time, hurried out and bolted the door nearest the loft.
“Diana? Elizabeth?” there advanced Katharine, calling them in a soft, but probing tone, and hence appeared round the corner of the barn, her tall, white form at once commanding their twinkling eyes, and both girls turned to the lass of fifteen, whose features resembled infallible beauty, mingled with a certain innocence that made the loveliness into something exceedingly profound. When she perceived the two young cousins standing together before the barn, breathless, unkempt and flushed, a row of milk-white teeth appeared, for Katharine often found their affairs to be of a humorous nature, with all the wakes and turns of childhood’s mishaps, scrapes and delights. Having just stepped from that epoch of carefree jubilance, sunshine and simplicity, the blooming girl felt still close enough to find the sweetness and jocosity of that time, perhaps even miss it at times.
“My! What have you two been about,” inquired she, her snowy brow wrinkling with inquisitiveness.
Judging by the following silence and uncomfortable visages, Katharine thought they must have been having some little quarrel, as was so common between those two hot-headed girls who never could play without some such dispute. “You had better come,” she added, putting out both hands for them to take, and hence they came with a girlish pleasure, for Katharine was a favorite among the children for her sweet disposition, kind voice and gentle eyes.
Elizabeth, being one for aestheticism, felt greatly pleased and flattered to hold that white, slender hand as they hurried from the barn to the front lawn, where the other cousins played. Always possessing the desire to better her countenance in loveliness and beauty, she looked upon Katharine as a model figure of what majestic splendor, decorum and civility ought to be. Indeed, it was difficult for any girl of any nature to not feel such admiration for the eldest Wayland’ daughter, as she had a pure complexion, hair of silk, the color of light brown, and finely shaped eyes of glowing hazel. A heart of tenderness lay beneath her maidenly breast, emitting a radiance undeniable in her countenance, and gave her the ability of patient understanding, a tongue that was harnessed by conscience and integrity, making her the pride of both parents, the beloved among all the kinfolk, old and young.
They rounded the last corner of the house and came upon the front porch, where Mrs. Wayland sat talking in all gravity with Mrs. Young, expressions of considerable sedateness, and Katharine directed them up the steps to the two women.
“I sent Katharine to fetch you,” began Mrs. Wayland with a twitch of her lips, “For we heard the most fearsome cries coming from aback. I see you two have been up to something or other.”
“Indeed, just a little trifle I suppose,” Mrs. Young added, also beaming, as she surveyed the two muddled ones before her. “You both managed to get yourself into some mess, seemingly. Why, Elizabeth! What happened to your dress?”
“Why,” began the addressed with a color in her face, and her eye went involuntarily to the reddened Diana abreast of her.
“Nothing that Mammy Lou cannot mend while you visit,” broke in Katharine, seeing the look, and understanding it. She smiled, gave a polite little curtsey to Aunt Julia, and hurried Elizabeth into the house, to seek Mammy Lou, who fortunately possessed admirable faculties in needlework, and who consented to repairing Elizabeth’s hem. Once this had been finished, Annie, Elizabeth’s little sister, came to bade them come out, as the visit was to be adjourned, and this they did, first Mammy Lou giving each girl a ginger cookie, and then they skipped out in lighter spirits, though two in the party had a secret weighing on their minds.
As Elizabeth climbed into the carriage, glancing over her shoulder evanescently, Diana winked one of her twinkling eyes, a roguish smile crossing her comical mouth, and Elizabeth intuitively returned it in a flash, before following her mother into the darker part of the trap. Goodbyes exchanged, waves given and handkerchiefs extracted from pockets, the vehicle bearing Mrs. Young and her brood started, with the Negro driver cracking his long, leather strap in the air, and off trotted the black-harnessed horses with their heads thrown back.
Now Barbara Wayland and her children turned back to the house and meandered to it, speaking of the visit, its pleasantries and the best laid plans to be put into effect.
“I hope you had a nice visit with Elizabeth,” said Katharine to Diana as she held the little girl’s hand in kindly, fraternal affection.
“Indeed, I did,” she answered musingly, a pensive look appearing in her eye. Then Katharine suggested she, Grace, Diana and Jessie could go into the garden and gather some of the narcissus, daisies or azaleas in full bloom this clear Spring. This they did, laughing over this and that as they plucked the blossoms, the air filled with the fragrance of nature’s splendor. Diana, hoping to put the provoking truths and secrets to the back of her mind, engaged in the conversation between the four sisters with a rather uncommon geniality and agreeableness, letting some remarks pass from Grace’s saucy mouth as though something else shadowed her thoughts.
It had been decided that Katharine should be allowed to go visit Father’s sister in Richmond for a fortnight in the coming summer, and attend a few balls, as she was almost sixteen, old enough to be “getting out”. Grace, particularly jealous of Katharine’s privilege, as she herself, though only ten, long desired to see the happenings at one such assembly, to dance the minuet and reel, now spoke of this wish with a sulky countenance. “Oh, I should be so happy and wouldn’t like anything else but to go with you in June when you go to Richmond. T’would be so fun! Aye! The dresses and dancing! Oh!”
“Now,” answered Katharine, coloring prettily, for she anticipated that month with all her heart, and could not help but feel blissfully complacent over this long-awaited time; “Now, your time shall come, Grace. Don’t fret. One day you will be going off to visit one aunt or other, and you will get a taste of it. Until then, take a joy in your girlish days.” Her words were of a gentle sagacity that quieted Grace’s passion and pout at once, so the mood passed and she let out a melancholy sigh.
“Very well, but I can’t help but feel you to be most fortunate,” she frowned, pursing her lips.
“Indeed! I can’t see what should be so wonderful as to go among all those people! T’would be dreadful. I should rather be hung by a rope than go into all of that,” Diana spoke up decisively.
Katharine laughed, looking with tenderness upon the little face so grave as Diana stated this. “Dear, when you are old enough, you might perhaps change in this.”
“Oh, but I think dancing is not bad; I fancy it, really,” replied Diana, sniffing in deep breaths of the nosegay she clutched. She glanced up at Katharine through the soft petals, “But I think there are ever so many better things to do in the woods.” Then with some anxiety, she pressed her older sister’s hand, eyes pleading, “Must you go to Richmond? Must you leave us in the summer? We have such good times then, but you shall be gone…”
“Only a fortnight, do not forget,” comforted Katharine quietly, an ache growing in her breast, for she was aware that the small girl did not wish her to ever depart, nor for anything to alter from all things familiar. Yet, she felt a lure to that world of elegance and finery, august society and charm, that many girls sense, come their teens.
Fondly, she patted the black head, and to liven their spirits once more; her wonder and apprehension of those two weeks approaching, her little sister’s sadness over her leaving, Katharine flourished her hand before the nose that quivered sensitively, and, gave the silky tresses a tender caress.
“You’ll be changed,” came Diana’s muffled voice, plaintive and mournful.
“No, I won’t,” declared Katharine with resolve lighting in her eyes, “I’ll go as myself, and come back as myself. Just see!”
Father, by tradition and custom, took his place at the head of the dinner table, where he could look directly at his wife, residing at the other end, while their brood of seven took places on either side of the long table. Robert, being the eldest of the seven, sat nearest the sire of the household, while Katharine dined nearest her mother, and the rest were evenly distributed on right and left. This evening, when Mammy Lou, her big son Amos, and one of the other house-servants, Jenny, had laid out the dinner and gone to sup on their own with all the other hands, a conversation at the “big table” arose concerning the new school to be arranged expressly to educate all the young cousins hereabout. Mother, buttering a biscuit, cast a look at her husband from across the table and remarked soberly, “Brother Thomas’s wife came to call this afternoon with her children, and we discussed the business of founding a school for all the young ones to attend.”
Father, half-absorbed in his venison, seemed to not have heard, but then he returned the questioning gaze with a thoughtful expression and small, cogitative nod. “A fine idea indeed, aye, aye. For the children to attend? And their cousins? Who shall teach?” His tone was light and jaunty.
Mother looked at Robert, a flash of expectancy appearing in her eyes now.
“I could, Pa,” said the lad boldly, setting down his napkin with a quick flourish.
“You, my boy?” Mr. Wayland sounded surprised.
“There is no one else to, sir. And I’d like it fine. Aside from helping on the plantation, I could teach the children.”
“Ah…Indeed? I suppose for now your offer would be sufficient, and then when you feel ready to take on other things, we could always give the position to someone else—the parson maybe—Parson Elbridge or Granby…”
“And the children need an education. It would be good if my brothers and sisters’ children were taught with ours. They know how to read as of now, but they need more—more learning,” mother said in a firm voice.
“When will this school begin?” queried Mr. Wayland, between a mouthful of biscuit. Diana caught his eye, and in a mood of jocosity, he winked at her, the corners of his mouth turning up.
“Come the first day of next week,” answered his wife, “There is a good sized barn for the schoolhouse on Brother Thomas’s land just between his plantation and ours. Not too far of a walk for most of the children, and the rest shall ride by horse or the like. Julia intends to spread the word to the rest of the families.”
“Aye, aye. That is well, that is well.”
All this time, Diana had been listening somewhat, but also was busy with her napkin, as she had laid it in her lap, and now, as quickly as she could, when she was fairly sure no one saw, slipped some of the venison and ham from her plate into the handkerchief. The meal, she resolved, would be for the wolf pups, to feed them, as Johnny had deemed them nearly past the wetting stage. A quick glance round, no one saw, so she dropped another piece into her lap. But then! Johnny grinned at her from across the table. Diana grew warm, but gave him a knowing look and stole one last piece into her napkin, then balled it up into a little rucksack that she placed in her pocket.
As all the others seemed to be interested in the conversation, nothing was suspected in the least, and the wolves’ dinner safely kept for the time, till dinner ended, and then, the older boy and young girl asked to be pardoned from the sitting, and bolted from the table like a pair of ruffians, desperate to stir up some mischief, and mother shook her head over it, saying “They ought not shovel in their food so! It is bad for indigestion.” But father only chuckled over it, saying little, and afterwards retired to his study, while the other children dispersed to their own tasks of dusk-time. Katharine went upstairs first, to look at her reflection in her looking glass, and ponder over such girlish duties such as mending a favored frock, or fretted over the question of what to do about a cap she had a fondness for, that her little sisters had nearly destroyed in play. Robert went to visit his friend Joel, a dark boy on their plantation, who he had been with since his earliest years, and Matt, like Diana, hastened to his common seat in the library to read. Grace and Jessie sat in the parlor with their dolls and samplers to entertain themselves.
But, as much as the goings ons seem to have some interesting aspect to them, Johnny and Diana’s whereabouts comport a particular importance not to be neglected. They had gone to the barn, as expected, and sat now in the loft, as the daylight faded from the sky, eagerly bending over the wolf-pups, tossing food bits to them in equal moiety.
“I saw you pocket some food,” remarked Johnny nonchalantly, as he ruffled one of the yelping creature’s gray fur. He glanced towards her, that perceptive twinkle appearing in his eye.
“I am glad that Pa didn’t see,” murmured Diana, casting down her eyes as guilt again clutched at her heart.
“You’re hungry a lot, and I reckon he’d ah figured you’re saving it for later. You know he doesn’t really mind things like that. But you look rather queer. Anything the matter?”
“Oh, no,” Diana turned to hide her face with a remorseful prudence in her girlish outlook, but really she felt the answer was “yes”.
And Johnny knew so too, but he didn’t say anything after that; he only patted the cubs with a silent mood of cogitation, eyebrows knitted in a sulk of intense thought.
Recollections of earlier, returned to Diana meanwhile, and she at last felt obliged to say as much, speak to Johnny of her qualms, yet, she expected him to think her a baby.
But rather, when she acknowledged those doubts to him, he replied that he felt all too much the same, cause if Pa knew, he’d skin him especially for sure—for taking in wolves that had better stay in the wilderness than be taken into human hands. “I know he has his ideas about where to put boundaries on forest critters, how far you should go with ‘em, like, you can hunt them for instance, but it’s a loss to nature if you take them in. Domesticates them, Pa says. I remember we were at cousin Levi’s and he caught a squirrel and kept it in a box, and the squirrel died after two days. Uncle John was angry—real angry, and gave Levi a good thrashing—said it was folly to keep animals that are wild-born.”
“You think Papa will do that to us?”
“Don’t know.” Johnny let out a sigh. He felt fear begin to burgeon in his heart.