The six white pillars of the Hall beckoned Stafford from three miles away, The rows of tall, shutter-hung windows, dimly seen in the shadows of the columned portico, were shy eyes peering out as if in disbelief at the sight of the master riding home at last. Sunlight glinted on the gambrel roof with its three great red-brick chimneys. Fresh paint gave the building an elegance that touched something deep inside him.
He let the stallion run along the graveled drive that curved by the outbuildings and the long white stables with their sweep of cypress shingles neat and spotless. Reining in with a scrape of gravel scratching sparks under iron horseshoes, he came out of the saddle with a call for the stables.
A black face framed in white hair was thrust above the half door of a stall. The eyes opened very wide and the mouth fell open. For a long instant Old Gem stared. Then his shaking hand was pushing aside the lower part of the door, and he was running forward, weeping in his delight:
“Master Billy! Master Billy!”
Stafford opened his arms wide and pulled the old slave into his hug. Then with his hands on the bowed shoulders he pushed the old man back and ran his eyes over him. “You look well fed, Gem! Something tells me that we aren’t exactly starving at Stafford Hall these days.”
A curious look touched the old slave’s features. His eyes dropped as he said, “We eat good, Master Billy. We work hard, too. The mistress stands for no nonsense, ‘cepting from—”
He broke off and fear showed in his old eyes. For a moment he hesitated, then straightened his shoulders. Old Gem knew what an angry master could do to a slave, but he was an old man, soon to die anyhow. For sixty years he had lived within sight of the Dan. He had seen the Hall grow from a little cabin to its present elegance. His hands had taught two generations of Staffords how to ride a horse. Besides, this young giant before him loved him like a son his father.
“They’s British officers always at the house, Master Billy. They bring gold for the wheat and vegetables we grow. The mistress has made you rich.”
“On British gold,” said Stafford, and he frowned. Old Gem licked his lips. He said with a strange inflection in his voice, “One gennelman in particular. He’s most always here Right now, even.”
He winced as powerful fingers dug deep into his arm. A hellish light began to glow in his master’s eyes, a light that flared once and then died out to a still more frightening blankness.
Then Stafford was whirling and moving away, tall and powerful and somehow magnificent to the old slave even in the old blue velvet frock coat and breeches that were too tight for him. Old Gem reached for the reins of the big stallion. His hard hands patted the sleek nose gently, but his eyes watched his master mount the stone steps of the portico and disappear between two tall white pillars. “Never see the Stafford hell light in the young master’s eyes before,” he whispered to the horse. “Only in his daddy’s eyes and in his granddaddy’s eyes, when they were bent on killing a man.”
Old Gem sighed and moved away, with the horse patiently trailing in answer to his tug on the rein.
The hall of the house was cool and white, with a high sheen on its mahogany butterfly table aid matching chairs, as Stafford came through the doors. A gilt scroll-top mirror reflected the peacock design in the wallpaper and the glass base of the chandelier hanging on its chains from the high white ceiling.
Directly ahead was the wide, white door that led out to the herb garden. A spiral stairway twisted upward to the second story. Where the wide treads began, an open door spilled the sound of a teacup clinking against a saucer.
The thick hall carpeting caught the sound of his boots as Stafford moved toward the long parlor. He stood framed in the open doorway, seeing a tall Englishman in the red uniform jacket of a colonel of the Thirty-third Foot bowing before his wife, who sat with shoulders bared in the fashionable French cut of her gown, smiling up at him.
Laura Lee did not see him. The dark magnificence of a Chippendale highboy set between the garden windows framed her, flushed face and its spirals of coiling brown hair. Moisture lay on her full red lips.
Remembrance of the hours they had spent in this room, and in the herb garden beyond the far windows, swept in a flood of weakness through Stafford. Laura Lee had come to Stafford Hall as a bride, young and ardent and curious, seven years ago. Time had matured her, put a gloss and a confidence in her manner, as it had added curving flesh to the body that the British officer was surveying as he sipped his tea.
“I vow and protest, Laury,” he giggled, “you put a fever in my blood with your eternal teasings and cajolings. Promise me every dance this night. Promise me that.”
With her ivory fan she touched his chin as he bent low above her. “La, sir. Such a fire in the man! I’ll promise only the first and the last, to cool your fever.”
“But later, when the ball is over? Ah, what then? Shall we—“
He broke, off and straightened. Laura Lee was staring beyond him at the door, and there was something in her wide eyes that brought him around on a boot heel. The big man in the ill-fitting riding suit standing like a frozen giant in the doorway was staring at him with eyes that were strangely disturbing.
“Billy Joe! Oh, it can’t be!” Laura Lee whispered, and put a trembling hand to the upholstered arm of the settee to rise to her slippered feet.
She swayed a little, and the Colonel took advantage of the fact to steady her by an arm about her waist. He growled, “Impertinent trespasser! Shall I throw him out on his ear, Laury”
Her eyes touched his face a moment. “This is my husband, Colonel. Billy Joe Stafford, of Stafford Hall. Colonel Edmund Emerson.”