Swallow Barn

by John Pendleton Kennedy

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1041

After receiving many invitations from his cousin Ned Hazard, Mark Littleton at last feels that he can no longer put off a visit to Virginia. He leaves his mother and his sisters in New York and begins his journey south. At Swallow Barn, his cousin’s home, Mark meets or renews acquaintance with a great many relatives and friends. Ned’s sister married Frank Meriwether, who is now the head of the family. The estate was left to Ned. It was heavily encumbered, and Frank paid off the heaviest debts and put the plantation on a paying basis. The house is filled with Meriwether and Hazard relatives, all permanent guests. Some perform small functions as a pretense of paying their own way, but their tasks are no more than token duties kindly thought up for them so that they will feel useful.

Mark finds life in Virginia restful and pleasant, for there is an unhurried rhythm about Swallow Barn that appeals to him. The plantation is filled with slaves and freed blacks who are fiercely loyal to Frank, a good master. Indeed, everyone loves Frank for his thoughtfulness and generosity. Mark’s special favorite, however, is his cousin Ned. The two young men are inseparable companions. Ned is a man of excellent spirits, always indulging in pranks and jokes. Swallow Barn will one day revert to him, but he is content to let Frank use it as his own, wanting only to have a good time without the need of responsibilities. Ned takes Mark on several excursions around the countryside and introduces him to local beauties of nature.

While Ned and Mark walk through the woods one day, they indulge in one of their favorite pastimes by singing their loudest, each trying to outdo the other. In one verse, Ned calls out the name of Bel Tracy. He is deeply chagrined when that lady, riding up unnoticed, answers him. Bel is the daughter of old Isaac Tracy, master of the neighboring estate, The Brakes. Ned’s confusion at being discovered by Bel makes Mark think that his cousin feels more than friendship for her. She teases him gently about his boisterous use of her name, leaving Ned stammering in confusion. Bel is accompanied by her sister and by Harvey Riggs, a Tracy kinsman. Harvey joins in the teasing, but Mark sees at once that it is good-natured teasing and that Harvey feels great friendship for Ned.

The two parties go back to Swallow Barn, where Harvey delivers a letter from Mr. Tracy to Frank. The subject matter is of long standing, and it affords Frank some amusement. For many years, Mr. Tracy imagined himself in possession of one hundred acres of marshlands separating The Brakes from Swallow Barn. Every court in Virginia denied his claim, but the old gentleman is adamant. Frank would long since have given him the land, for it is worthless, but he knows the old gentleman would be lost without the affair, which provides him with mental activity as he plots ways to get possession of the land. In his letter, Mr. Tracy suggests that he and Frank let their lawyers go over the matter again, the two disputants to abide by the legal decision. Frank plans to ask his lawyer to arrange matters so that Mr. Tracy will win the suit after what looks like a difficult legal maneuver.

Old Mr. Tracy is a detriment to Ned, even though Ned loves the old gentleman. He is a gentleman of the old school, dignified and sober; Ned, on the other hand, cannot repress his merry spirits. Bel, however, absorbed some...

(This entire section contains 1041 words.)

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of her father’s dignity and is not usually very receptive to Ned’s foolishness. The poor young man tries hard to change, but his disposition is almost as firm as Mr. Tracy’s.

After Ned admits to Mark that he loves Bel, the two friends map out a campaign to win her heart to Ned’s cause. Their plans are temporarily postponed, however, by the arrival of the lawyers who will decide the disputed land claim. The legal gentlemen afford the young men much entertainment, one being a dandy known throughout Virginia. He is pursued by two of the maiden relatives, each of whom pretends to be pursued by him. When the dandy learns of their intentions, he finishes his business and departs as quickly as possible. The settling of the suit gives everyone but old Mr. Tracy a lot of amusement. Ned is serious about the whole matter, so he loses more ground in his suit when he unwittingly makes light of the affair. It takes a great deal of clever legal terminology to fool the old man, but at last he is awarded the land and he is convinced that justice is done.

Sometimes Ned, Mark, and the others find entertainment in listening to the tales of goblins and ghosts told by old slaves on the plantation. The two families frequently give large dinner parties, when the whole community is invited to come and spend the day. Mark, thinking he will find it hard ever to return to New York and his own family, hopes to stay long enough to help Ned in his courtship of Bel. At one of the parties, Ned has a little wine and becomes more boisterous than ever, causing Bel to lose the esteem she gradually developed for him. He gains her goodwill once more by finding her pet falcon, which flew away, but later he loses her affection by engaging in a fistfight with a town bully. Harvey Riggs, joining Mark in attempts to help Ned with his suit, tells Bel that Ned fought the bully because the ruffian cast slurs on her father. Pity at last enters Bel’s heart, and she treats her suitor with more favor.

Mark at last leaves Virginia and goes home to New York. Some months later, he learns that Ned was successful; Bel married him on New Year’s Day. Ned writes, too, that it is as Frank feared. Old Mr. Tracy was sorry the land suit was settled and wishes to open it again. Without the pending suit, he feels like a man who lost an old and faithful friend.