Chester Pike at Cleveland Ave. in Norwood c.1920
Luke Nethermark's Ride
PART II – Nearly two months had elapsed. During all that time Luke Nethermark and Polly had not met. She learned from mutual friends that he had been discharged from active military duty; had returned to his father’s plantation on Muckinipattus Creek in Lower Darby Township, and was engaged in grazing cattle for the Philadelphia market and shipping staves to the West Indies, occupations which then yielded large profit on the capital invested. Polly at length so far cast aside maidenly reserve that by the hand of a neighbor she forwarded a note to Luke in which she demanded an interview, declaring he owed it as much to himself as did to her.
Two miles east of Chester on the Queen’s Highway was the plantation of Abram Van Culin. Crum Creek, then a deeper and broader stream than now, was easternmost boundary of the farm. The dwelling, in the then accepted architecture, was a long two-story and attic stone building along whose entire front extended a roomy porch. Two doors gave access to the house, the westernmost opening into a hallway, to the right of which was the parlor – the Holy of Holies, used only upon ceremonial occasions and when exceptionally honored guests were present. On the first landing of the stairway was a tall eight-day clock of English make, which had been owned by George Van Culin, the first emigrant of the name, and was now held as an heirloom. Luke and Polly were grandchildren of the original owner, hence it was thought that no heart burnings would attend its final disposition, the marriage of the two cousins setting at rest all dispute as to which line of descent the old timepiece should follow.
The oaken floor of the hallway and parlor, bare of carpet, was strewn with white sand, in which as regularly as the weekly tidying up came about, by a dexterous swirl of the broom wavy figures were produced. The wide fireplace, enclosed with a semi-circular brass mounted screen, contained the bright burnished andirons, upon which, although now well along in May rested hickory logs laid ready for immediate ignition. Save the paneled wainscoting extending to the ceiling there was little suggestion of ornamentation in the apartment, unless the ball and claw feet of the high back heavy walnut chairs would come within that classification. But between the deep recessed front windows and over a highly polished mahogany table whose massive leaves well-nigh swept the floor, hung a mirror in a broad flat walnut frame with scalloped edges, displaying at the top in low relief a rudely carved and gilded eagle with half extended wings.
This evening the heavy shutters of the parlor were open and through the westernmost windows the setting sun threw a broad belt of light into the room. It was evident that the coming guest was one to whom more than usual distinction was to be accorded.
Pretty Polly Van Culin was already awaiting Luke’s coming. Occasionally she would make a hasty inspection of her attire in the mirror and often would deftly adjust a rebellious ringlet that had become displaced. Once she mounted into the broad set of the great armchair and standing at that elevation slowly revolved that she might critically examine her reflection in the glass. That evening to accentuate her charms, she had made a studied and elaborate toilet. During her recent visit to Philadelphia she had carefully observed the dress of the wealthy ladies of that city – the mode of London a year gone. An accomplished needlewoman on her return, she had fashioned a petticoat of calamanco, stiffly paddled with wool, an article of dress that in England had recently supplanted the enormous and clumsy hoops. That she had donned for the first time this evening. Over this she wore a Marscillis quilted petticoat and over all a gown of printed fabric in huge floral design. It was without a front, open to the waist and looped in festoons at the sides, so the elaborate embroidered petticoat should not be wholly hidden from sight. The bodice, high in the neck, was open in front to the waist, while lace and quilting were worn in the bosom of the dress, the blue silk stays affording a delicate tinted background to the fleecy tucker. The sleeves skin-tight and reaching halfway down the arms ended in a tuck and a half of several inches, leaving the arms bare below the elbows. Her hair was arranged in ringlets unpowdered, but overall was a jaunty headdress ornamented with gay ribbons, then termed the “Queen’s nightcap,” but in later days in the United States known as Martha Washington’s coiffure. Her feet, shod in well-fitting London made shoes with red heels, were clamped at the instep with broad silver buckles. These as well as her black hose ornamented with red clocks, the short petticoat, which came hardly to her ankles, failed to conceal. Jewelry there was none save that the narrow band of velvet clasping her throat was held in place by a small agate brooch. It was a dainty, charming picture Polly saw reflected in the mirror.
She was eighteen. Vivacious and sprightly, refined in manner and winsome in address. The only child of a well-to-do planter, she had been educated beyond that which was usually accorded to the women of her day. She was already of an age when it was expected young women should be married and settled in life, or be held as approaching perilously close to the danger line of confirmed spinster-hood. It was not for lack of suitors, however, that Polly was still single. Many young men of the neighborhood and several even from a locality so remote as Philadelphia had sought to address her, but to each and all save Luke Nethermark she gave no encouragement.
Luke Nethermark had always been attentive to Polly. When but a boy he had caught her fancy and as a child she had learned to regard him as her destined husband when the time should come for her to wed. As the years ripened her into womanhood her love for the handsome lad became part of her own life, but maiden coyness prompted her to greater reserve than she had observed in her more youthful days. That reserve, however, had been the cause of not a few tiffs between the young people, for Luke could not or would not comprehend the delicacy of the feminine mind which shrunk from an open display of affection on every occasion as had been the case when they were children. And with all Luke was exceedingly jealous of his pretty sweetheart.
The estrangement dating from the day of Forbes’ funeral had caused Luke much uneasiness. He regretted his course and hoped for a speedy and complete reconciliation with Polly. In fact, he knew that was essential to his future happiness. But he had so long brooded upon the incident and had sought to justify to himself his harshness to the girl, that he resolved that Polly must, as he never doubted she would, assume all the fault of the misunderstanding. Then a reconciliation could be effected and be followed by their speedy marriage. It was in this spirit that mid-May night Luke Nethermark rode to meet the woman he loved.
Without dismounting he unlooped the gate at the roadway leading to the Van Culin dwelling and when it had swung outward sufficient for his mare “Sweetheart” Polly had so called the animal when it was an unbroken colt – he drew the gate to and dropped the loop over the post. Polly was standing upon the wide flag which served as a step to the porch, to welcome her lover as though no cloud had ever come between them to mar their happiness. That was not the meeting which Luke had sketched in his imagination and he was disappointed that she could cast aside so easily as no longer to be considered the unpleasantness which their long separation had occasioned to him at least. Dismounting, he threw the reins over the hitching post and trifled with the buckles of the throat latch, wholly ignoring the outstretched hand which Polly had tendered to his grasp. For a moment her face flushed, then her hand fell caressingly upon the muzzle of the mare.
“You are glad to see me, Sweetheart.” As if in assent the animal tossed its head and champed the bit while Polly petted the mare’s glossy neck. The girl gazed reproachfully at her lover. “I am disappointed,” she said; “I looked for you fully two hours ago, Luke, and waited for a long while. I shall call Caesar to place the mare in the barn.”
“She will be well enough where she is,” replied Luke. He was angry with himself and Polly as well. “We are likely to have a heavy storm shortly. I may need the mare in a hurry.”
“To ride to shelter? Why, Luke, ever since we were boy and girl I cannot remember when you could not find shelter here. I know no reason why this house should not shelter you now.”
“Circumstances bring changes into all lives,” he replied sullenly.
“I know of no circumstance which should bring change into our lives, yours and mine, Luke,” she answered.
“Possibly our view point is not the same.” Then with assumed indifference he said, “Your father is at home?”
“No,” Polly replied. “He went to the Black Horse to receive the cattle he purchased during his last trip to the back woods. He will return tomorrow.”
“And you are alone?”
“With you? I do not fear to be alone with you, Luke. Father knew you were coming this evening. He has several times spoken with surprise of your failure to come here since you were relieved from military duty.
“While I am surprised that I am here.”
Polly showed that his remark wounded her. She ascended to the porch, “Luke,” she said, “come into the parlor.” Leading the way, she turned when they entered the apartment. I, at least, do not mean that our conversation shall be overheard by the Negroes. Be seated. You certainly understand that I have humbled my pride in insisting upon this interview. But I knew that there is no little stubbornness in your character and for more than two months every advance looking to a reconciliation has been made by me.” With her right hand she toyed with a straggling tress of hair that had escaped from beneath her cap. “I have not told father of this misunderstanding. I am a motherless girl and must act on my own judgment. There is no one from whom I can ask advice.
For a moment she hesitated as if weighing well her words. “Tonight,” she continued, “we must decide what the future is to be for you and me. Luke, I have reviewed my conduct while in Philadelphia and since my return. I have striven to be impartial. I find nothing said or done by me that can justify your strange action unless it is prompted by a desire on your part to---.”
“Oh! It is nothing,” exclaimed, rising and approaching the chair in which she sat. “It is nothing to embrace a strange man in a crowded street. It is nothing to be deliberately kissed in public by a strange man while a great multitude looked on, spectators of that incident.”
“Surely, Luke, you do not hold me responsible for his act? Do me simple justice.” She spoke in a voice that was well-nigh a wail. Then the color rushed to her face and a gleam of anger shown in her eyes. Luke Nethermark, I am guiltless of all fault in this matter. You must have seen how AI stumbled at the curb when forced by the crowd, how I lost my footing and in self-preservation instinctively caught at the first object presented to arrest my fall, how I---.”
“Chose as that object the handsomest man in the Grenadiers,” interrupted Luke, who was incensed that Polly had not made the unconditional surrender that he had anticipated and that his plan of extending forgiveness to her as an act of clemency, not as of simple justice, had gone away. “Chose as the object of your embrace dashing Charley Rutherford, the spoiled child of fortune, a proclaimed lady killer. You should have heard him boasting of the pretty provincial maid who had thrown herself into his arms and whom he had publicly kissed in the crowded street of the city. Of course, all that was nothing. By Heaven! Mistress Van Culin, to me it was something of such moment that I was willing to risk my life before the best swordsman in His Majesty’s finest regiment of foot in all these colonies, to avenge what I held was a gross insult to a kinswoman – to a girl – pardon me, a young lady who it seems regards the incident as one of trifling concern.”
Polly, while Luke was still speaking, rose to her feet, her left hand rested on the back of the chair she had just quitted and her right, as she unclasped the brooch which held the band about her cheek, trembled with the excitement under which she labored. All color had lifted from her cheeks and her eyes dilated with indignation.
“Luke Nethermark are you mad?” She exclaimed. “I have never until now doubted your courage. No one was so proud as I while your battalion was on the march to Fort Duquesne, when reports from the front made creditable mention of you. I was proud, yes, proud, when I learned you had called that English coxcomb to account for his gross insult to me, your kinswoman. That was wholly your act. Remember, it was none of my prompting.”
She hesitated for a moment. “Now you force me to doubt your courage. No brave man, certainly no gentleman, I hold, would deliberately insult a defenseless girl. I am glad, doubly glad, that I did not ask your protection in this wholly miserable affair. It would have hurt me all my life had I done that; had I sought a champion in a man who in his inmost heart harbors a doubt of my womanly purity.” Her breast heaved with the excitement of the moment as she ceased speaking.
Luke was amazed at Polly’s denunciation. The sting of her words were more acute because he felt that she had given voice only to the truth. He was conscious now that he had gone too far. Never before had she failed to take all responsibility for every misunderstanding, and to assume to herself all blame for every quarrel. But never before had he brought in question her maidenly integrity. The “make-ups” in the past had been so pleasant that he had pictured a happy ending to this, their most serious rupture. He understood that he had wounded the girl he loved almost beyond pardon. Yet his stubbornness of will, together with his offended pride held him silent.
“This brooch you gave me,” Polly continued. “It was your mother’s once. If I am what you think I am I am not fitting to wear this trinket.” She dropped the brooch into his hand which he mechanically extended. Then Polly thrust her hand into her bosom and drew forth a small leather box. “This ring came to me from you the very morning General Forbes was buried. I placed it on my finger gladly then, but, fearing it might be stolen or lost in the crowd that day, I removed it before I went to---to---.” The girl left the sentence unfinished. “Since then I have not worn it. I had hoped this evening--. Here is your ring, sir.” He mechanically accepted the box also. For a moment he weighed the articles in his hand, then striding to the rear door, he opened it and cast them beyond the back porch in the glooming, muttering an oath as he did so. Polly had followed him and as he turned she confronted him in the hallway.
“Luke,” she said, “we are kinsfolks. We must not part in anger. Father must never know of this or the bitter things we have said one to the other this night. He loves you. Trust me this far. I shall so account for the change in both our lives that he will never think unkindly of you.”
“Mistress Van Culin, you have shaped our future, not I,” replied Luke. “It matters little to me what you may choose to tell anyone respecting this interview. Make no mistake. Tonight we part never to meet in life again. Permit me to pass.”
“You must not go yet, Luke. I would not have the merest stranger leave the shelter of this house now in the face of such a storm as is at hand, much less my nearest kinsman and my life-long play fellow.” Polly, however, moved aside as she spoke.
“Damn kinship,” exclaimed Luke, striding to the porch. “That furnishes no tie which can bind you and me. You must hold a closer relationship to me than mere kinship or we must be absolute strangers to each other while we live.”
“I will not quarrel with you, Luke. You have grossly insulted me. Think what you did. You called into question my purity, for that is as much a thing of thought as words. I cannot forget that. At least, not now.”
The girl was even then pleading for reconciliation with him, but Luke had descended the steps and raised one foot and then the other to the porch while he replaced the spurs he had cast off before entering the house. That done he went to where the mare was hitched; returning he caught Polly’s hand in his and for a moment gazed intently into her face.
In the excitement of the interview both had given little heed to the peculiar atmospheric conditions. The humidity had become so dense that its weight was stifling. The foliage on trees and shrubbery hung motionless. To the southwest huge banks of clouds, darkest where piled and rolled they mounted in the heavens, shutting out the sky and the setting crescent moon. At brief intervals lightning in blinding brilliancy played through the mass and distant dashes seemed to lift the whole bank of vapor, illuminating the horizon with a faint lurid glare, while far away peals of thunder rumbled – the prelude to the rapidly approaching storm.
Polly, alarmed at the vivid play of lightning, moved as if to get further within the shelter of the porch, but Luke still held her hand. In a voice hoarse with the passion that had mastered him he spoke, “Mistress Van Culin, there is no time but now. If we part tonight in anger, we part never to meet again in life.” He released her hand as he ceased speaking.
“You have been rough with me,” Polly replied, “and rude in speech, Luke. You are not yourself tonight. You will not go now. Only a mad man would ride away from a kinsman’s dwelling in the face of such a storm as that now at hand. You are welcome here, Luke. I ask you to remain for my sake.”
“In what character,” he eagerly demanded.
“As your kinswoman, of course.” A smile dimpled Polly’s cheeks as she made answer.
Luke loosened the rein from the post and vaulted into the saddle as the mare backed into the roadway. Halting the animal for a moment, he spoke, “Then tonight Luke Nethermark will ride away from his kinswoman’s home even if that ride should be directly to his death.” Then gathering his reins and striking his spurs into Sweetheart’s side, with a bound the horse and its rider disappeared in the gloom.
“Come back! Come back, Luke. I will promise everything you wish if you will only come back,” wailed Polly.
Her voice failed to reach Luke. It was overwhelmed in the loud clattering thunder which seemed to wrench the clouds apart immediately over the house. Startled and trembling with fear for her own and her lover’s safety, Polly remained where Luke had left her, anxiously peering into the darkness. The next flash showed the gate open swinging into the Queen’s highway. He had not stayed in his wild ride to close it. That was all. Luke and the mare were nowhere to be seen.
The now freshening breeze whitened the leafy branches of the poplars and tossed the crests of the oaks in the onrush of the tempest. The lightning, increasing in brilliancy, was reflected in the windows of the Van Culin dwelling and glinted in the ruffled waters of
Crum Creek. Thunder shook the air in sharp clattering explosions followed by rolling vibrations which died away in distance. A quick pattering of heavy rain drops – then the deluge.