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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

For Bonnibel

By Amélie Rives Troubetzkoy (1863–1945)

[Born in Richmond, Va., 1863. Died in Charlottesville, Va., 1945. Virginia of Virginia. 1888.]

VIRGINIA was sitting silent by her bedroom window when the first copper glare began to tinge the dense upward column of black smoke. She knew in a minute what it was, although Aunt Tishy muttered something about “bresh” fires.

She leaped to her feet, her heart once more renewing its old-time measure. “Mammy!” she called—“Mammy! that’s th’ mill stable! th’ mill stable’s on fire! O God above! Th’ pore horses—an’ Bonnibel! O pore Mr. Jack—pore Mr. Jack! Ef Bonnibel’s hurt, it’ll break his heart.” She had forgotten everything in her thought for him. Her own sin, his harsh words—all that had passed between them since first he gave Bonnibel into her glad keeping.

“Here!” she called, tossing on her clothes with nervous, eager fingers, “han’ me my shoes—quick!—Lord God!—ef only I ken git thar in time!”

She was down-stairs and out of the house almost before the old negress knew what she was about to undertake. Out at a side gate she dashed, and down a grassy hill at the back of the house. Some catalpa-tree roots caught at her flying feet with their knotty fingers as though, fiend-like, they would hinder her on her errand of mercy. On, on; her breath came quick and laboring. She was on the open road now, straining with all her might up a steep, stone-roughed hill. All the northern heavens were ablaze with an angry orange. As she gained the top of the hill a little fan of lilac flames burst from the stable roof against the night. There was yet time—Bonnibel was in a loose-box near the door. O God, the other horses! Must they roast alive—the beautiful, agile creatures that he so loved?

Below, in the placid breast of the large pond, the lurid mass above was reflected with an effect as incongruous as when some world-tossed soul pours out its hot confession into the calm keeping of a saintly heart.

The shallow stream shoaled into fire among the black stems of the water-reeds, and tossed the flames upon its mimic waves. She gained the rough bridge which spanned it; her feet passed with a swift, hollow sound across it. She was there—at the stable, and her breath had not yet given out. Then all at once she remembered. Oh, joy! joy! If she saved Bonnibel, and was herself hurt to death, would not that be atonement? Might he not forgive her then? Poor little savage child—poor, sweet, uncivilized, true heart! I think indeed he would forgive you if he knew.

There were men running frantically about—omnipresent—useless: they had delayed so long to set about extinguishing the fire that it was now beyond all bounds. The wild, dull trampling of the hoofs of the terrified horses made horror in the air. They whinnied and nickered like children pleading for help. One of the English grooms was dashing into the smoke and heat. Virginia seized him by the arm.

“I’m coming with you,” she said; “let me keep hold of your coat.”

Alas! alas! the maddened, silly brutes refused to follow. They reared madly whenever approached, and struck with their fore-feet at the plucky little lad. In no way could he approach them; threats and cajolery were in vain. Virginia snatched a whip from the stable wall and tried to beat them out. Usurper, vicious to the last, rushed furiously at her, and but for the lad’s striking him over the head with a pitchfork, would inevitably have dashed her brains out with his wicked hoofs. There was no further time to be lost. One side of the roof was blazing ominously, and the wall on the eastern side began to tremble.

Virginia, in spite of entreaties and hands held out to stop her, turned her skirts about her head and went into Bonnibel’s box. “Six of us ’ave tried to get ’er out, miss,” said the panting lad, who had followed her. “Don’t you venture in, for God’s sake, miss; she’s that mad she’ll kill you—th’ poor hussy!”

Bonnibel was in truth like a horse distraught. She was leaping back and forth, and trotting from side to side of her capacious box, nickering from time to time, with head aloft and tail held like a plume above her satin quarters. No sooner did she hear Virginia’s voice than she stopped short, quivering in every splendid limb and sinew.

“Bonnibel!” said Virginia, in that soft monotone the frightened creature had not now heard for many a day—“Bonnibel!” There was a second’s pause; then stooping her bright head, with a low whinny as of welcome and trust, the gallant mare came to the well-known voice.

Virginia tore off her woollen shawl and blindfolded the bright eyes.

In the mean time the rest of the English lads and the head groom had arrived, with fire-engines and more help. They had already succeeded in getting the horse out. The vicious Usurper they were compelled to leave to his awful fate.

“Boys, Bonnibel’s coming!” yelled the lad who had entered the stable with Virginia, dashing out ahead of her; “Miss Herrick’s got her, and she’s coming kind as a lamb!”

A hearty, roaring cheer went up from without, mingled with exultant warwhoops from the negroes gathered around.

Almost they were safe. Why do things happen with only an inch between safety and destruction? One instant more and horse and woman would have been free. But in that tarrying instant a heavy beam from the front of the stable fell crashing down, bringing with it a great mass of bricks and mortar. Virginia and Bonnibel were half buried under the reeking mass. The flames sent up an exultant roar as of triumph. There was a smothered, horrified groan from the men, and then Bonnibel, freeing herself by one powerful effort of her iron quarters, galloped off into the coolness of the night.

They pulled Virginia out, with such gentleness as they could spare to the encroaching flames, and a bed was instantly made for her on the damp turf by means of the men’s hastily torn-off coats. She lay there, still, white, most beautiful, with peace at last upon her tired face. Did she dream, perchance, that he forgave her?…

The surgeon came at daybreak. He was quiet and serious. Little Hicks was the only one to whom he told anything. To him he said: “She may live two or three days; she may die before night.”

At one o’clock next day old Herrick returned. He was wordless and almost majestic in his deep grief. All day long he sat holding her in such positions as would ease her; talking to her; trying to follow her wandering fancies. She knew him always, though she knew no one else. “Father,” she said, suddenly, in one of the intervals when reason returned to her, “won’t you please sen’ fur Mr. Jack? Somethin’ in my heart tells me he’ll come—now. Write to him ’bout Bonnibel. Tell him I saved her. Tell him I jess want ter say good-by. I don’ wan’ him ever ter furgive me. I only want to—to look at him once more. Father”—wistfully—“you think he’ll come?”

“Yes, yes, my little girl, I think he’ll come.”

“Then write, write, father—quick. Don’ let it be too late. I wan’ so bad to look at him once more!”

He came—oh yes, he came! mad with regret and remorse, repentant, eager to atone. “Where is she? where is she?” he asked as he threw down his hat upon the hall table, and jerked off his spurs, that their jingling might not disturb her. If he had only known the music that they made to her ears!

“She’s in yo’ room, sur. They tells me ez how ’twar her fancy to be took thar,” said Herrick, simply. “I hope ez you don’ min’, sur.”

Mind! Jack’s eyes were hot with the saddest tears of all his life.

He went in softly. There she lay, pathetic, fragile as some long-ill child upon his narrow bed. He went and stooped over her, taking into one of his brown hands her restless, slender fingers. Her gentle look rested unknowingly upon him.

“Ain’t they goin’ ter sen’ fur Mr. Jack?” she said. “I think he’ll come—now; father thought ez how he would. Please write it down that I saved Bonnibel—please write that down. ’Twas mighty hot, but I saved her. Oh, don’ yo’ think he’ll come?—don’ yo’ think he’ll come? I don’ even arst him to speak to me. Ef he’ll only stand in th’ door so ez I kin see him when I go.”

“Virginia—Virginia,” said Roden, brokenly. “My dear little girl, don’t you know me? Here I am!—here—at your side. Don’t you feel my hands, Virginia? Don’t you know me?”

She went rambling on. “I wonder ef he would furgive me ef he knew? I wisht Bonnibel could tell him—I wisht I was Bonnibel!” with a little rippling laugh infinitely pathetic. “Oh, wouldn’ I kyar him pretty an’ straight at his fences, an’ win ev’y race fur him!” Her eyes opened vague and sorrowful again upon Roden’s pale face. “Oh,” she said, with a long sighing breath, “don’t you think he’ll come? Write to him ’bout Bonnibel—please write that ter him.”

“Virginia, look at me—look at me,” said the young man, half lifting her in his arms. “Dear little Virginia, here I am. I forgive you with all my heart and soul, Virginia. Oh, please look at me, please remember me.”

“Who says ‘furgive’?” she said, with her restless, eager eyes searching the room as if for something long expected—“who says ‘furgive’?”

“I do, I do,” Roden said, weeping at last like any girl. “I forgive you, Virginia—Virginia. You shall know me!”

Her eyes fixed themselves upon his face, first vacantly, then with a wonder-stricken radiance. “Mr. Jack,” she said, under her breath, “did they tell yo’? I saved her; that’s all. Yo’ needn’ say nothin’; I jess wanted to look at yo’. I saved her. ’Twas awful hot. I kin hear it roarin’ now. She come to me; she wouldn’ come to nobody else.”

“Virginia,” said Roden, “listen to me; stop talking. What do I care about Bonnibel? Child, do you want to break my heart? Listen, Virginia; I forgive you—I forgive you.”

“Do—you—really?” she said, with the old timid joy in her soft voice. “I ain’t dreamin’? Well, God’s so good to me! But I did save her. ‘Bonnibel!’ I said—‘Bonnibel!’ an’ she come right straight ter me with her pretty head tucked down. Then came all that fire on us. I thought ’twas over. But I saved her—I saved her. Please tell him that—please tell him that. I reckon he’ll sorter remember me kind fur that; don’ you, father?”

After a while her reason came again. She asked to see Bonnibel; they could bring her to the window, she said, and she would like also to give her a handful of grass.

They rolled the bed to the window, and little Hicks led Bonnibel up beside it. Roden went out himself and gathered a handful of fresh grass. I think the lad only respected his master more for the tears that ran down his cheeks. He couldn’t see very distinctly himself just then, this good little Hicks.

“Bonnibel,” said the girl, in her cooing tones—“Bonnibel.”

What was the matter? Had suffering charged some magic in that soft voice? Bonnibel turned indifferently away from the anxious hand, and rubbed her bright head with an impatient movement against one of her fore-legs.

“Oh!” said the girl, while the glad flush died out of her face, and the green blades fell from her hold upon the window-sill, “Bonnibel don’ know me any more—she don’ care. I gave my life for her, an’—an’ she don’ care.”

“Yes she does—she does,” said Roden, frantic for her disappointment; “she’s just gorged, the little glutton! She’s been out at grass ever since you saved her, Virginia dear; that’s all.”

“No ’tain’t,” said the girl, sadly. “I ain’t the same, I reckon; I reckon I’m right near gone, Mr. Jack. Well, I saved her, anyhow. The most part fell on me; she kicked herself loose. Please, father, ef Mr. Jack don’ come in time—please, father, tell him ez how I saved Bonnibel. Oh, father, I mus’ tell somebody ’fore I go. I kyarn’ bear to think there won’t be anybody in all th’ world ez knows it when I’m gone. I loved him, father dear—I loved him so! An’ I’ve been mighty wicked; an’ God’s been mighty good ter me; an’ I’m goin’ to heaven, mammy says. But I won’t have him even there—I won’t have him—even there.”

The soft voice broke suddenly—stopped. The bright head dropped forward on her breast.

Roden had buried his face in her two pale hands. When he looked up, old Herrick was closing gently with his toil-roughened hand the sweet wide eyes which never more would look on anything this side the stars.

It was at this moment that Bonnibel, repenting, perhaps, of her former coldness, thrust in her little deer-head at the open window, and drew a long sighing breath as of contentment.

The blades of grass, dropped from the thin hand now so still upon the stirless bosom, were blown along the window-sill by the mare’s warm breath.