All the Venables sat at Sunday dinner. All those handsome inbred Venable faces were turned, enthralled, toward Yancey Cravat, who was talking. The combined effect was almost blinding, as of incandescence; but Yancey Cravat was not bedazzled. A sun surrounded by lesser planets, he gave out a radiance so powerful as to dim the luminous circle about him.
Yancey had a disconcerting habit of abruptly concluding a meal—for himself, at least—by throwing down his napkin at the side of his plate, rising, and striding about the room, or even leaving it. It was not deliberate rudeness. He ate little. His appetite satisfied, he instinctively ceased to eat; ceased to wish to contemplate food. But the Venables sat hours at table, leisurely shelling almonds, sipping sherry; Cousin Dabney Venable peeling an orange for Cousin Bella French Vian with the absorbed concentration of a sculptor molding his clay.
The Venables, dining, strangely resembled one of those fertile and dramatic family groups portrayed lolling unconventionally at meat in the less spiritual of those Biblical canvases that glow richly down at one from the great gallery walls of Europe. Though their garb was sober enough, being characteristic of the time—1889—and the place—Kansas—it yet conveyed an impression as of purple and scarlet robes enveloping these gracile shoulders. You would not have been surprised to see, moving silently about this board, Nubian blacks in loincloths, bearing aloft golden vessels piled with exotic fruits or steaming with strange pasties in which nightingales’ tongues figured prominently. Blacks, as a matter of fact, did move about the Venable table, but these, too, wore the conventional garb of the servitor.
This branch of the Venable family tree had been transplanted from Mississippi to Kansas more than two decades before, but the mid-west had failed to set her bourgeois stamp upon them. Straitened though it was, there still obtained in that household, by some genealogical miracle, many of those charming ways, remotely Oriental, that were of the South whence they had sprung. The midday meal was, more often than not, a sort of tribal feast at which sprawled hosts of impecunious kin, mysteriously sprung up at the sound of the dinner bell and the scent of baking meats. Unwilling émigrés, war ruined, Lewis Venable and his wife Felice had brought their dear customs with them into exile, as well as the superb mahogany oval at which they now sat, and the war-salvaged silver which gave elegance to the Wichita, Kansas, board. Certainly the mahogany had suffered in transit; and many of their Southern ways, transplanted to Kansas, seemed slightly silly—or would have, had they not been tinged with pathos. The hot breads of the South, heaped high at every meal, still wrought alimentary havoc. The frying pan and the deep-fat kettle (both, perhaps, as much as anything responsible for the tragedy of ’64) still spattered their deadly fusillade in this household. Indeed, the creamy pallor of the Venable women, so like that of a magnolia petal in their girlhood, and tending so surely toward the ocherous in middle age, was less a matter of pigment than of liver. Impecunious though the family now was, three or four negro servants went about the house, soft-footed, slack, charming. “Rest yo’ wrap?” they suggested, velvet voiced and hospitable, as you entered the wide hallway that was at once so bare and so cluttered. And, “Beat biscuit, Miss Adeline?” as they proffered a fragrant plate.
Even that Kansas garden was of another latitude. Lean hounds drowsed in the sun-drenched untidiness of the doorway, and that untidiness was hidden and transformed by a miracle of color and scent and bloom. Here were passion flower and wistaria and even Bougainvillea in season. Honeysuckle gave out its swooning sweetness. In the early spring lilies of the valley thrust the phantom green of their spears up through the dead brown banking the lilac bushes. That coarse vulgarian, the Kansas sunflower, was a thing despised of the Venables. If one so much as showed its broad face among the scented élégantes of that garden it suffered instant decapitation. On one occasion Felice Venable had been known to ruin a pair of very fine-tempered embroidery scissors while impetuously acting as headsman. She had even been heard to bewail the absence of Spanish moss in this northerly climate. A neighboring midwest matron, miffed, resented this.
“But that’s a parasite! And real creepy, almost. I was in South Carolina and saw it. Kind of floating, like ghosts. And no earthly good.”
“Do even the flowers have to be useful in Kansas?” drawled Felice Venable. She was not very popular with the bustling wives of Wichita. They resented her ruffled and trailing white wrappers of cross-barred dimity; her pointed slippers, her arched instep, her indifference to all that went on outside the hedge that surrounded the Venable yard; they resented the hedge itself, symbol of exclusiveness in that open-faced Kansas town. Sheathed in the velvet of Felice Venable’s languor was a sharp-edged poniard of wit inherited from her French forbears, the old Marcys of St. Louis; Missouri fur traders of almost a century earlier. You saw the Marcy mark in the black of her still bountiful hair, in the curve of the brows above the dark eyes—in the dark eyes themselves, so alive in the otherwise immobile face.
As the family now sat at its noonday meal it was plain that while two decades of living in the Middle West had done little to quicken the speech or hasten the movements of Lewis Venable and his wife Felice (they still “you-alled”; they declared to goodness; the eighteenth letter of the alphabet would forever be ah to them) it had made a noticeable difference in the younger generation. Up and down the long table they ranged, sons and daughters, sons-in-law and daughters-in-law; grandchildren; remoter kin such as visiting nieces and nephews and cousins, offshoots of this far-flung family. As the more northern-bred members of the company exclaimed at the tale they now were hearing you noted that their vowels were shorter, their diction more clipped, the turn of the head, the lift of the hand less leisurely. In all those faces there was a resemblance, one to the other. Perhaps the listening look which all of them now wore served to accentuate this.
It was late May, and unseasonably hot for the altitude. Then, too, there had been an early pest of moths and June flies this spring. High above the table, and directly over it, on a narrow board suspended by rods from the lofty ceiling sat perched Isaiah, the little black boy. With one hand he clung to the side rods of his precarious roost; with the other he wielded a shoofly of feathery asparagus ferns cut from the early garden. Its soft susurrus as he swished it back and forth was an obbligato to the music of Yancey Cravat’s golden voice. Clinging thus aloft the black boy looked a simian version of one of Raphael’s ceilinged angels. His round head, fuzzed with little tight tufts, as of woolly astrakhan through which the black of his poll gleamed richly, was cocked at an impish angle the better to catch the words that flowed from the lips of the speaker. His eyes, popping with excitement, were fixed in an entrancement on the great lounging figure of Yancey Cravat. So bewitched was the boy that frequently his hand fell limp and he forgot altogether his task of bestirring with his verdant fan the hot moist air above the food-laden table. An impatient upward glance from Felice Venable’s darting black eyes, together with a sharply admonitory “Ah-saiah!” would set him to swishing vigorously until the enchantment again stayed his arm.
The Venables saw nothing untoward in this remnant of Mississippi feudalism. Dozens of Isaiah’s forbears had sat perched thus, bestirring the air so that generations of Mississippi Venables might the more agreeably sup and eat and talk. Wichita had first beheld this phenomenon aghast; and even now, after twenty years, it was a subject for local tongue waggings.
Yancey Cravat was talking. He had been talking for the better part of an hour. This very morning he had returned from the Oklahoma country—the newly opened Indian Territory where he had made the Run that marked the settling of this vast tract of virgin land known colloquially as the Nation. Now, as he talked, the faces of the others had the rapt look of those who listen to a saga. It was the look that Jason’s listeners must have had, and Ulysses’; and the eager crowd that gathered about Francisco Vasquez de Coronado before they learned that his search for the Seven Cities of Cibolo had been in vain.
The men at table leaned forward, their hands clasped rather loosely between their knees or on the cloth before them, their plates pushed away, their chairs shoved back. Now and then the sudden white ridge of a hardset muscle showed along the line of a masculine jaw. Their eyes were those of men who follow a game in which they would fain take part. The women listened, a little frightened, their lips parted. They shushed their children when they moved or whimpered, or, that failing, sent them, with a half-tender, half-admonitory slap behind, to play in the sunny dooryard. Sometimes a woman’s hand reached out possessively, remindingly, and was laid on the arm or the hand of the man seated beside her. “I am here,” the hand’s pressure said. “Your place is with me. Don’t listen to him like that. Don’t believe him. I am your wife. I am safety. I am security. I am comfort. I am habit. I am convention. Don’t listen like that. Don’t look like that.”
But the man would shake off the hand, not roughly, but with absent-minded resentment.
Of all that circlet of faces, linked by the enchantment of the tale now being unfolded before them, there stood out lambent as a flame the face of Sabra Cravat as she sat there at table, her child Cim in her lap. Though she, like her mother Felice Venable, was definitely of the olive-skinned type, her face seemed luminously white as she listened to the amazing, incredible, and slightly ridiculous story now being unfolded by her husband. It was plain, too, that in her, as in her mother, the strain of the pioneering French Marcys was strong. Her abundant hair was as black, and her eyes; and the strong brows arched with a swooping curve like the twin scimitars that hung above the fireplace in the company room. Sabra was secretly ashamed of her heavy brows and given to surveying them disapprovingly in her mirror while running a forefinger (slightly moistened by her tongue) along their sable curves. For the rest, there was something more New England than Southern in the directness of her glance, the quick turn of her head, the briskness of her speech and manner. Twenty-one now, married at sixteen, mother of a four-year-old boy, and still in love with her picturesque giant of a husband, there was about Sabra Cravat a bloom, a glow, sometimes seen at their exquisite and transitory time in a woman’s life when her chemical, emotional, and physical make-up attains its highest point and fuses.
It was easy to trace the resemblance, both in face and spirit, between this glowing girl and the sallow woman at the foot of the table. But to turn from her to old Lewis Venable was to find one’s self baffled by the mysteries of paternity. Old Lewis Venable was not old, but aged; a futile, fumbling, gentle man, somewhat hag-ridden and rendered the more unvital by malaria. Face and hands had a yellow ivory quality born of generations subjected to hot breads, lowlands, bad liver, port wine. To say nothing of a resident unexplored bullet somewhere between the third and fifth ribs, got at Murfreesboro as a member of Stanford’s Battery, Heavy Artillery, long long before Roentgen had conceived an eye like God’s.
Lewis Venable, in his armchair at the head of the table, was as spellbound as black Isaiah in his high perch above it. Curiously enough, even the boy Cim had listened, or seemed to listen, as he sat in his mother’s lap. Sabra had eaten her dinner over the child’s head in absent-minded bites, her eyes always on her husband’s face. She rarely had had to say, “Hush, Cim, hush!” or to wrest a knife or fork or forbidden tidbit from his clutching fingers. Perhaps it was the curiously musical quality of the story-teller’s voice that lulled him. Sabra Venable’s disgruntled suitors had said when she married Yancey Cravat, a stranger, mysterious, out of Texas and the Cimarron, that it was his voice that had bewitched her. They were in a measure right, for though Yancey Cravat was verbose, frequently even windy, and though much that he said was dry enough in actual content, he had those priceless gifts of the born orator, a vibrant and flexible voice, great sweetness and charm of manner, an hypnotic eye, and the power of making each listener feel that what was being said was intended for his ear alone. Something of the charlatan was in him, much of the actor, a dash of the fanatic.
Any tale told by Yancey Cravat was likely to contain enchantment, incredibility (though this last was not present while he was telling it), and a tinge of the absurd. Yancey himself, even at this early time, was a bizarre, glamorous, and slightly mythical figure. No room seemed big enough for his gigantic frame; no chair but dwindled beneath the breadth of his shoulders. He seemed actually to loom more than his six feet two. His black locks he wore overlong, so that they curled a little about his neck in the manner of Booth. His cheeks and forehead were, in places, deeply pitted, as with the pox. Women, perversely enough, found this attractive.
But first of all you noted his head, his huge head, like a buffalo’s, so heavy that it seemed to loll of its own weight. It was with a shock of astonishment that you remarked about him certain things totally at variance with his bulk, his virility, his appearance of enormous power. His mouth, full and sensual, had still an expression of great sweetness. His eyelashes were long and curling, like a beautiful girl’s, and when he raised his heavy head to look at you, beneath the long black locks and the dark lashes you saw with something of bewilderment that his eyes were a deep and unfathomable ocean gray.
Now, in the course of his story, and under the excitement of it, he left the table and sprang to his feet, striding about and talking as he strode. His step was amazingly light and graceful for a man of his powerful frame. Fascinated, you saw that his feet were small and arched like a woman’s, and he wore, even in this year of 1889, Texas star boots of fine soft flexible calf, very high heeled, thin soled, and ornamented with cunningly wrought gold stars around the tops. His hands, too, were disproportionate to a man of his stature; slim, pliant, white. He used them as he talked, and the eye followed their movements bewitched. For the rest, his costume was a Prince Albert of fine black broadcloth whose skirts swooped and spread with the vigor of his movements; a pleated white shirt, soft and exquisite material; a black string tie; trousers tucked into the gay boot-tops; and, always, a white felt hat, broad-brimmed and rolling. On occasion he simply blubbered Shakespeare, the Old Testament, the Odyssey, the Iliad. His speech was spattered with bits of Latin, and with occasional Spanish phrases, relic of his Texas days. He flattered you with his fine eyes; he bewitched you with his voice; he mesmerized you with his hands. He drank a quart of whisky a day; was almost never drunk, but on rare occasions when the liquor fumes bested him he would invariably select a hapless victim and, whipping out the pair of mother-o’-pearl-handled six-shooters he always wore at his belt, would force him to dance by shooting at his feet—a pleasing fancy brought with him from Texas and the Cimarron. Afterward, sobered, he was always filled with shame. Wine, he quoted sadly, is a mocker, strong drink is raging. Yancey Cravat could have been (in fact was, though most of America never knew it) the greatest criminal lawyer of his day. It was said that he hypnotized a jury with his eyes and his hands and his voice. His law practice yielded him nothing, or less than that, for being sentimental and melodramatic he usually found himself out of pocket following his brilliant and successful defense of some Dodge City dance-hall girl or roistering cowboy whose six-shooter had been pointed the wrong way.
His past, before his coming to Wichita, was clouded with myths and surmises. Gossip said this; slander whispered that. Rumor, romantic, unsavory, fantastic, shifting and changing like clouds on a mountain peak, floated about the head of Yancey Cravat. They say he has Indian blood in him. They say he has an Indian wife somewhere, and a lot of papooses. Cherokee. They say he used to be known as “Cimarron” Cravat, hence his son’s name, corrupted to Cim. They say his real name is Cimarron Seven, of the Choctaw Indian family of Sevens; he was raised in a tepee; a wickiup had been his bedroom, a blanket his robe. It was known he had been one of the early Boomers who followed the banner of the picturesque and splendidly mad David Payne in the first wild dash of that adventurer into Indian Territory. He had dwelt, others whispered, in that sinister strip, thirty-four miles wide and almost two hundred miles long, called No-Man’s-Land as early as 1854, and, later, known as the Cimarron, a Spanish word meaning wild or unruly. Here, in this strange unowned empire without laws and without a government, a paradise for horse thieves, murderers, desperadoes it was rumored he had spent at least a year (and for good reason). They said the evidences of his Indian blood were plain; look at his skin, his hair, his manner of walking. And why did he protest in his newspaper against the government’s treatment of those dirty, thieving, lazy, good-for-nothing wards of a beneficent country! As for his newspaper—its very name was a scandal: The Wichita Wigwam. And just below this: All the news. Any Scandal Not Libelous. Published Once a Week if Convenient. For that matter, who ever heard of a practising lawyer who ran a newspaper at the same time? Its columns were echoes of his own thundering oratory in the courtroom or on the platform. He had started his paper in opposition to the old established Wichita Eagle. Wichita, roaring, said he should have called his sheet the Rooster. The combination law and newspaper office itself was a jumble and welter of pied type, unopened exchanges, boiler plate, legal volumes, paste pots, loose tobacco, old coats, and racing posters. Wichita, professing scorn of the Wigwam, read it. Wichita perused his maiden editorial entitled Shall the Blue Blood of the Decayed South Poison the Red Blood of the Great Middle West? and saw him, two months later, carry off in triumph as his bride Sabra Venable, daughter of that same Decay; Sabra Venable, whose cerulean stream might have mingled with the more vulgarly sanguine life fluid of any youth in Wichita. In spite of the garden hedge, the parental pride, the arched insteps, the colored servants, and the general air of what-would-you-varlet that pervaded the Venable household at the entrance of a local male a-wooing, Sabra Venable, at sixteen, might have had her pick of the red-blooded lads of Kansas, all the way from Salina to Winfield. Not to mention more legitimate suitors of blue-blooded stock up from the South, such as Dabney Venable himself, Sabra’s cousin, who resembled at once Lafayette and old Lewis, even to the premature silver of his hair, the length of the fine, dolichocephalic, slightly decadent head, and the black stock at sight of which Wichita gasped. When, from among all these eligibles, Sabra had chosen the romantic but mysterious Cravat, Wichita mothers of marriageable daughters felt themselves revenged of the Venable airs. Strangely enough, the marriageable daughters seemed more resentful than ever, and there was a noticeable falling off in the number of young ladies who had been wont to drop around at the Wigwam office with notices of this or that meeting or social event to be inserted in the columns of the paper.
During the course of the bountiful meal with which the Venable table was spread Yancey Cravat had eaten almost nothing. Here was an audience to his liking. Here was a tale to his taste. His story, wild, unbelievable, yet true, was of the opening of the Oklahoma country; of a wilderness made populous in an hour; of cities numbering thousands literally sprung up overnight, where the day before had been only prairie, coyotes, rattlesnakes, red clay, scrub oak, and an occasional nester hidden in the security of a weedy draw.
He had been a month absent. Like thousands of others he had gone in search of free land and a fortune. Here was an empire to be had for the taking. He talked, as always, in the highfalutin terms of the speaker who is ever conscious of his audience. Yet, fantastic as it was, all that he said was woven of the warp and woof of truth. Whole scenes, as he talked, seemed to be happening before his listeners’ eyes.