In May 1880, just before his 22nd birthday, Charles Waddell Chesnutt penned in his journal his aspirations and motivation for becoming an author. Chesnutt wrote, “I shall write for a purpose, a high, holy purpose, and this will inspire me to greater effort.” Continuing, Chesnutt identified his intended audience, white readers, stating, “The object of my writing would be not so much the elevation of the colored people as the elevation of the whites” out of their views of superiority over Blacks and others based solely on “legal fictions.” Chesnutt, in 1887, passed the Ohio bar exam and started a business as a legal stenographer. Throughout his work, Chesnutt addresses the “legal fictions” of the color line and, like Mark Twain, Paul Laurence Dunbar, George Washington Cable, Kate Chopin, and others, challenges the legal distinctions that, as he wrote in his journal, creates “an unjust spirit of caste which is so insidious as to invade the whole nation.”
Chesnutt’s parents were free African American emigres from South Carolina who moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where Chesnutt was born in 1858. After the Civil War and during the tempestuous Reconstruction era, the family returned to the South and lived in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Here, Chesnutt went to school and came of age. In 1878, he became the assistant principal of the African American normal school in Fayetteville. That same year, he married Susan Perry. Racial oppression in the South after Reconstruction increased the couple’s desire to move North to escape subjugation, first to New York in 1883 then eventually to Cleveland in 1884 where they settled. As well, Chesnutt’s experiences further fueled his desire to become a writer and to, as he wrote in his journal, “strike for an entering wedge in the literary world.”
Chesnutt’s literary career began in August 1887 when his story, “The Goophered Grapevine” appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. Subverting the plantation tradition established by Thomas Nelson Page and Joel Chandler Harris, Chesnutt’s story take place in North Carolina where the exslave Uncle Julius McAdoo weaves a tale for the new white landowners, Ohioans John and Annie. Chesnutt’s story, while on the surface appearing within the plantation tradition, undermines it through the representation of “conjuration” and through Julius’ adaptation of the past for his white audience that leads to an economic advantage for the former slave.
Two years later, in 1889, the Atlantic printed “Dave’s Neckliss.” Chesnutt calls upon white readers to think about the psychological effects of slavery and racism on African Americans through Julius’ retelling of the Dave’s story, a fellow slave who gets wrongly accused of stealing bacon and must wear a ham around his neck as punishment. From the outset, Chesnutt frames the story as a psychological examination of the oppressive nature of slavery and Jim Crow racism. After seeing Julius tear up when eating ham, John frames the story by stating that Julius, through his recollections, displays “the curious psychological spectacle of a mind enslaved long after the shackles had been struck off from the limbs of its possessor.” Dave’s tragic death allows John, as a stand in for the white reading audience, to see into the innerworkings of a mind affected by slave and continual degradation.
Ten years after “Dave’s Neckliss” appeared, Houghton Mifflin published it, along with “The Goophered Grapevine” and other “conjure stories,” in The Conjure Woman. Between 1899 and 1905, Chesnutt published another collection of stories, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899), and three novels, The House Behind the Cedars (1900), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and The Colonel’s Dream (1905). Each of these works, in one way or another, deals with the “legal fictions” surrounding conceptions of race and identity. “The Wife of His Youth” and “The Sheriff’s Children,” both of which appear in The Wife of His Youth, deal with the “color line” and the legal formulations around what constitutes one’s race. Along with this focus, the stories explore the ways that the past, specifically slavery, affects the present through the disruption of intimacy and familial bonds both for whites and blacks. Chesnutt saw interracial relationships as the ways to ameliorate the scars caused by the nation’s sin of prejudice, and in a series of three articles entitled “The Future American” in the Boston Evening Transcript in 1900, Chesnutt presents hi argument. “The Wife of His Youth” and “The Sheriff’s Children” should be read in relation to Chesnutt’s ideas in these articles alongside the psychological and physical damage caused by the peculiar institution and its aftermath.
Chesnutt’s literary career came to a halt after the publication of The Colonel’s Dream; he felt that his style of fiction had seen its day, and instead of subjecting his family to diminished support, he chose to reopen his court-reporting offices. That does not mean that Chesnutt ceased to write fiction though. He published some short stories, and he even wrote two novels, Paul Marchand, F.M.C. and The Quarry. Neither novel found a publisher; however, both have appeared posthumously. In these works, Chesnutt continues to tackle the “legal fictions” or race and identity construction by turning the passing novel on its head and having white orphans grown up as African Americans, and when the discover they are not black, they both choose to identify as African American instead of as white. These reversals call upon readers to question how race gets constructed in an analogous manner that Paul Laurence Dunbar does with dialect in “The Tragedy of Three Forks.”
While admiration for Chesnutt’s work may have diminished overall after The Colonel’s Dream, his reputation among African American readers remained. In 1928, Chesnutt received the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal for his “pioneer work as a literary artist depicting the life and struggles of Americans of Negro descent, and for his long and useful career as a scholar, worker, and freeman of one of America’s greatest cities.” The NAACP recognized Chesnutt’s work as a forerunner to the New Negro movement that arose during the Harlem Renaissance, and he needs to be read, along with Paul Laurence Dunbar, as a writer who proceeded the Harlem Renaissance and paved a way for it. Chesnutt himself even took pride in this role in his 1931 essay “Post-Bellum—Pre-Harlem” where he writes about how far African American literature has progressed with publishing and white readers since The Conjure Tales in 1899.
For more on Charles Waddell Chesnutt, see Joanna Braxton’s The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1993); Herbert Woodward Martin and Ronald Primeau’s In His Own Voice: The Dramatic and Other Uncollected Works of Paul Laurence Dunbar (2002); Herbert Woodward Martin, Gene Andrew Jarrett, and Ronald Primeau’s The Collected Novels of Paul Laurence Dunbar (2009); Willie J. Harrell, Jr.’s edited collection We Wear the Mask: Paul Laurence Dunbar and the Politics of Representative Reality (2010), Helen Chesnutt’s Charles Waddell Chesnutt: Pioneer of the Color Line (1952); Eric J. Sundquist’s To Wake the Nations: Race and the Making of American Literature (1993); Henry B. Wonham’s Charles W. Chesnutt: A Study of the Short Fiction (1998); William L. Andrews The Life and Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt (1999); Dean McWilliams’ Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race (2002); Matthew Wilson’s Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt (2004); Susan Prothro Wright and Ernestine Pickens Glass’ edited collection Passing in the Works of Charles W. Chesnutt (2010).
“Have some dinner, Uncle Julius?” said my wife.
It was a Sunday afternoon in early autumn. Our two women-servants had gone to a camp-meeting some miles away, and would not return until evening. My wife had served the dinner, and we were just rising from the table, when Julius came up the lane, and, taking off his hat, seated himself on the piazza.
The old man glanced through the open door at the dinner-table, and his eyes rested lovingly upon a large sugar-cured ham, from which several slices had been cut, exposing a rich pink expanse that would have appealed strongly to the appetite of any hungry Christian.
“Thanky, Miss Annie,” he said, after a momentary hesitation, “I dunno ez I keers ef I does tas’e a piece er dat ham, ef yer’ll cut me off a slice un it.”
“No,” said Annie, “I won’t. Just sit down to the table and help yourself; eat all you want, and don’t be bashful.”
Julius drew a chair up to the table, while my wife and I went out on the piazza. Julius was in my employment; he took his meals with his own family, but when he happened to be about our house at meal-times, my wife never let him go away hungry.
I threw myself into a hammock, from which I could see Julius through an open window. He ate with evident relish, devoting his attention chiefly to the ham, slice after slice of which disappeared in the spacious cavity of his mouth. At first the old man ate rapidly, but after the edge of his appetite had been taken off he proceeded in a more leisurely manner. When he had cut the sixth slice of ham (I kept count of them from a lazy curiosity to see how much he could eat) I saw him lay it on his plate; as he adjusted the knife and fork to cut it into smaller pieces, he paused, as if struck by a sudden thought, and a tear rolled down his rugged cheek and fell upon the slice of ham before him. But the emotion, whatever the thought that caused it, was transitory, and in a moment he continued his dinner. When he was through eating, he came out on the porch, and resumed his seat with the satisfied expression of countenance that usually follows a good dinner.
“Julius,” I said, “you seemed to be affected by something, a moment ago. Was the mustard so strong that it moved you to tears?”
“No, suh, it wa’n’t de mustard; I wuz studyin’ ’bout Dave.”
“Who was Dave, and what about him?” I asked.
The conditions were all favorable to story-telling. There was an autumnal languor in the air, and a dreamy haze softened the dark green of the distant pines and the deep blue of the Southern sky. The generous meal he had made had put the old man in a very good humor. He was not always so, for his curiously undeveloped nature was subject to moods which were almost childish in their variableness. It was only now and then that we were able to study, through the medium of his recollection, the simple but intensely human inner life of slavery. His way of looking at the past seemed very strange to us; his view of certain sides of life was essentially different from ours. He never indulged in any regrets for the Arcadian joyousness and irresponsibility which was a somewhat popular conception of slavery; his had not been the lot of the petted house-servant, but that of the toiling field-hand. While he mentioned with a warm appreciation the acts of kindness which those in authority had shown to him and his people, he would speak of a cruel deed, not with the indignation of one accustomed to quick feeling and spontaneous expression, but with a furtive disapproval which suggested to us a doubt in his own mind as to whether he had a right to think or to feel, and presented to us the curious psychological spectacle of a mind enslaved long after the shackles had been struck off from the limbs of its possessor. Whether the sacred name of liberty ever set his soul aglow with a generous fire; whether he had more than the most elementary ideas of love, friendship, patriotism, religion, — things which are half, and the better half, of life to us; whether he even realized, except in a vague, uncertain way, his own degradation, I do not know. I fear not; and if not, then centuries of repression had borne their legitimate fruit. But in the simple human feeling, and still more in the undertone of sadness, which pervaded his stories, I thought I could see a spark which, fanned by favoring breezes and fed by the memories of the past, might become in his children’s children a glowing flame of sensibility, alive to every thrill of human happiness or human woe.
“Dave use’ ter b’long ter my ole marster,” said Julius; “he wuz raise’ on dis yer plantation, en I kin ‘member all erbout ‘im, fer I wuz ole ’nuff ter chop cotton w’en it all happen’. Dave wuz a tall man, en monst’us strong: he could do mo’ wuk in a day dan any yuther two niggers on de plantation. He wuz one er dese yer solemn kine er men, en nebber run on wid much foolishness, like de yuther darkies. He use’ ter go out in de woods en pray; en w’en he hear de han’s on de plantation cussin’ en gwine on wid dere dancin’ en foolishness, he use’ ter tell ’em ’bout religion en jedgmen’-day, w’en dey would haf ter gin account fer eve’y idle word en all dey yuther sinful kyarin’s-on.
“Dave had l’arn’ how ter read de Bible. Dey wuz a free nigger boy in de settlement w’at wuz monst’us smart, en could write en cipher, en wuz alluz readin’ books er papers. En Dave had hi’ed dis free boy fer ter l’arn ‘im how ter read. Hit wuz ‘g’in de law, but co’se none er de niggers didn’ say nuffin ter de w’ite folks ’bout it. Howsomedever, one day Mars Walker — he wuz de oberseah — foun’ out Dave could read. Mars Walker wa’n’t nuffin but a po’ bockrah, en folks said he couldn’ read ner write hisse’f, en co’se he didn’ lack ter see a nigger w’at knowed mo’ d’n he did; so he went en tole Mars Dugal’. Mars Dugal’ sont fer Dave, en ax’ ‘im ’bout it.
“Dave didn’t hardly knowed w’at ter do; but he couldn’ tell no lie, so he ‘fessed he could read de Bible a little by spellin’ out de words. Mars Dugal’ look’ mighty solemn.
“‘Dis yer is a se’ious matter,’ sezee; ‘it’s ‘g’in de law ter l’arn niggers how ter read, er ‘low ’em ter hab books. But w’at yer l’arn out’n dat Bible, Dave?’
“Dave wa’n’t no fool, ef he wuz a nigger, en sezee: —
“‘Marster, I l’arns dat it’s a sin fer ter steal, er ter lie, er fer ter want w’at doan b’long ter yer; en I l’arns fer ter love de Lawd en ter ‘bey my marster.’
“Mars Dugal’ sorter smile’ en laf’ ter hisse’f, like he ‘uz might’ly tickle’ ’bout sump’n, en sezee: —
“‘Doan ‘pear ter me lack readin’ de Bible done yer much harm, Dave. Dat’s w’at I wants all my niggers fer ter know. Yer keep right on readin’, en tell de yuther han’s w’at yer be’n tellin’ me. How would yer lack fer ter preach ter de niggers on Sunday?’
“Dave say he’d be glad fer ter do w’at he could. So Mars Dugal’ tole de oberseah fer ter let Dave preach ter de niggers, en tell ’em w’at wuz in de Bible, en it would he’p ter keep ’em fum stealin’ er runnin’ erway.
“So Dave ‘mence’ ter preach, en done de han’s on de plantation a heap er good, en most un ’em lef’ off dey wicked ways, en ‘mence’ ter love ter hear ’bout God, en religion, en de Bible; en dey done dey wuk better, en didn’ gib de oberseah but mighty little trouble fer ter manage ’em.
“Dave wuz one er dese yer men w’at didn’ keer much fer de gals, — leastways he didn’ tel Dilsey come ter de plantation. Dilsey wuz a monst’us peart, good-lookin’, gingybread-colored gal, — one er dese yer high-steppin’ gals w’at hol’s dey heads up, en won’ stan’ no foolishness fum no man. She had b’long’ ter a gemman over on Rockfish, w’at died, en whose ‘state ha’ ter be sol’ fer ter pay his debts. En Mars Dugal’ had b’en ter de oction, en w’en he seed dis gal a-cryin’ en gwine on ’bout bein’ sol’ erway fum her ole mammy, Aun’ Mahaly, Mars Dugal’ bid ’em bofe in, en fotch ’em ober ter our plantation.
“De young nigger men on de plantation wuz des wil’ atter Dilsey, but it didn’ do no good, en none un ’em couldn’ git Dilsey fer dey junesey, Note: Sweetheart. ‘tel Dave ‘mence’ fer ter go roun’ Aun’ Mahaly’s cabin. Dey wuz a fine-lookin’ couple, Dave en Dilsey wuz, bofe tall, en well-shape’, en soopl’. En dey sot a heap by one ernudder. Mars Dugal’ seed ’em tergedder one Sunday, en de nex’ time he seed Dave atter dat, sezee: —
“Dave, w’en yer en Dilsey gits ready fer ter git married, I ain’ got no rejections. Dey’s a poun’ er so er chawin’- terbacker up at de house, en I reckon yo’ mist’iss kin fine a frock en a ribbin er two fer Dilsey. Youer bofe good niggers, en yer neenter be feared er bein’ sol’ ‘way fum one ernudder long ez I owns dis plantation; en I ‘spec’s ter own it fer a long time yit.’
“But dere wuz one man on de plantation w’at didn’ lack ter see Dave en Dilsey tergedder ez much ez ole marster did. W’en Mars Dugal’ went ter de sale whar he got Dilsey en Mahaly, he bought ernudder han’, by de name er Wiley. Wiley wuz one er dese yer shiny-eyed, double-headed little niggers, sha’p ez a steel trap, en sly ez de fox w’at keep out’n it. Dis yer Wiley had be’n pesterin’ Dilsey ‘fo’ she come ter our plantation, en had nigh ’bout worried de life out’n her. She didn’ keer nuffin fer ‘im, but he pestered her so she ha’ ter th’eaten ter tell her marster fer ter make Wiley let her ‘lone. W’en he come ober to our place it wuz des ez bad, ‘tel bimeby Wiley seed dat Dilsey had got ter thinkin’ a heap ’bout Dave, en den he sorter hilt off aw’ile, en purten’ lack he gin Dilsey up. But he wuz one er dese yer ‘ceitful niggers, en w’ile he wuz laffin’ en jokin’ wid de yuther han’s ’bout Dave en Dilsey, he wuz settin’ a trap fer ter ketch Dave en git Dilsey back fer hisse’f.
“Dave en Dilsey made up dere min’s fer ter git married long ’bout Christmas time, w’en dey’d hab mo’ time fer a weddin’. But ‘long ’bout two weeks befo’ dat time ole mars ‘mence’ ter lose a heap er bacon. Eve’y night er so somebody ‘ud steal a side er bacon, er a ham, er a shoulder, er sump’n, fum one er de smoke-‘ouses. De smoke-‘ouses wuz lock’, but somebody had a key, en manage’ ter git in some way er ‘nudder. Dey’s mo’ ways ‘n one ter skin a cat, en dey’s mo’ d’n one way ter git in a smoke-‘ouse, — leastways dat’s w’at I hearn say. Folks w’at had bacon fer ter sell didn’ hab no trouble ’bout gittin’ rid un it. Hit wuz ‘g’in’ de law fer ter buy things fum slabes; but Lawd! dat law didn’ ‘mount ter a hill er peas. Eve’y week er so one er dese yer big covered waggins would come ‘long de road, peddlin’ terbacker en w’iskey. Dey wuz a sight er room in one er dem big waggins, en it wuz monst’us easy fer ter swop off bacon fer sump’n ter chaw er ter wa’m yer up in de winter-time. I s’pose de peddlers didn’ knowed dey wuz breakin’ de law, caze de niggers alluz went at night, en stayed on de dark side er de waggin; en it wuz mighty hard fer ter tell w’at kine er folks dey wuz.
“Atter two er th’ee hund’ed er meat had be’n stole’, Mars Walker call all de niggers up one ebenin’, en tol’ ’em dat de fus’ nigger he cot stealin’ bacon on dat plantation would git sump’n fer ter ‘member it by long ez he lib’. En he say he’d gin fi’ dollars ter de nigger w’at ‘skiver’ de rogue. Mars Walker say he s’picion’ one er two er de niggers, but he couldn’ tell fer sho, en co’se dey all ‘nied it w’en he ‘cuse em un it.
“Dey wa’n’t no bacon stole’ fer a week er so, ‘tel one dark night w’en somebody tuk a ham fum one er de smoke-‘ouses. Mars Walker des cusst awful w’en he foun’ out de ham wuz gone, en say he gwine ter sarch all de niggers’ cabins; w’en dis yer Wiley I wuz tellin’ yer ’bout up’n say he s’picion’ who tuk de ham, fer he seed Dave comin’ ‘cross de plantation fum to’ds de smoke-‘ouse de night befo’. W’en Mars Walker hearn dis fum Wiley, he went en sarch’ Dave’s cabin, en foun’ de ham hid under de flo’.
“Eve’ybody wuz ‘stonish’; but dere wuz de ham. Co’se Dave ‘nied it ter de las’, but dere wuz de ham. Mars Walker say it wuz des ez he ‘spected: he didn’ b’lieve in dese yer readin’ en prayin’ niggers; it wuz all ‘pocrisy, en sarve’ Mars Dugal’ right fer ‘lowin’ Dave ter be readin’ books w’en it wuz ‘g’in de law.
“W’en Mars Dugal’ hearn ’bout de ham, he say he wuz might’ly ‘ceived en disapp’inted in Dave. He say he wouldn’ nebber hab no mo’ conferdence in no nigger, en Mars Walker could do des ez he wuz a mineter wid Dave er any er de res’ er de niggers. So Mars Walker tuk’n tied Dave up en gin ‘im forty; en den he got some er dis yer wire clof w’at dey uses fer ter make sifters out’n, en tuk’n wrap’ it roun’ de ham en fasten it tergedder at de little een’. Den he tuk Dave down ter de blacksmif-shop, en had Unker Silas, de plantation black-smif, fasten a chain ter de ham, en den fasten de yuther een’ er de chain roun’ Dave’s neck. En den he says ter Dave, sezee: —
“‘Now, suh, yer’ll wear dat neckliss fer de nex’ six mont’s; en I ‘spec’s yer ner none er de yuther niggers on dis plantation won’ steal no mo’ bacon dyoin’ er dat time.’
“Well, it des ‘peared ez if fum dat time Dave didn’ hab nuffin but trouble. De niggers all turnt ag’in’ ‘im, caze he be’n de ‘casion er Mars Dugal’ turnin’ ’em all ober ter Mars Walker. Mars Dugal’ wa’n’t a bad marster hisse’f, but Mars Walker wuz hard ez a rock. Dave kep’ on sayin’ he didn’ take de ham, but none un ’em didn’ b’lieve ‘im.
“Dilsey wa’n’t on de plantation w’en Dave wuz ‘cused er stealin’ de bacon. Ole mist’iss had sont her ter town fer a week er so fer ter wait on one er her darters w’at had a young baby, en she didn’ fine out nuffin ’bout Dave’s trouble ‘tel she got back ter de plantation. Dave had patien’ly endyoed de finger er scawn, en all de hard words w’at de niggers pile’ on ‘im, caze he wuz sho’ Dilsey would stan’ by ‘im, en wouldn’ b’lieve he wuz a rogue, ner none er de yuther tales de darkies wuz tellin’ ’bout ‘im.
“W’en Dilsey come back fum town, en got down fum behine de buggy whar she be’n ridin’ wid ole mars, de fus’ nigger ‘ooman she met says ter her, —
“‘Is yer seed Dave, Dilsey?’
“No, I ain’ seed Dave,’ says Dilsey.
“‘Yer des oughter look at dat nigger; reckon yer wouldn’ want ‘im fer yo’ junesey no mo’. Mars Walker cotch ‘im stealin’ bacon, en gone en fasten’ a ham roun’ his neck, so he can’t git it off’n hisse’f. He sut’nly do look quare.’ En den de ‘ooman bus’ out laffin’ fit ter kill herse’f. W’en she got thoo laffin’ she up’n tole Dilsey all ’bout de ham, en all de yuther lies w’at de niggers be’n tellin’ on Dave.
“W’en Dilsey started down ter de quarters, who should she meet but Dave, comin’ in fum de cotton-fiel’. She turnt her head ter one side, en purten’ lack she didn’ seed Dave.
“Dilsey walk’ right on, en didn’ notice ‘im.
“Dilsey didn’ paid no ‘tention ter ‘im, en den Dave knowed some er de niggers be’n tellin’ her ’bout de ham. He felt monst’us bad, but he ‘lowed ef he could des git Dilsey fer ter listen ter ‘im fer a minute er so, he could make her b’lieve he didn’ stole de bacon. It wuz a week er two befo’ he could git a chance ter speak ter her ag’in; but fine’ly he cotch her down by de spring one day, en sezee: —
“‘Dilsey, w’at fer yer won’ speak ter me, en purten’ lack yer doan see me? Dilsey, yer knows me too well fer ter b’lieve I’d steal, er do dis yuther wick’ness de niggers is all layin’ ter me, — yer knows I wouldn’ do dat, Dilsey. Yer ain’ gwine back on yo’ Dave, is yer?’
“But w’at Dave say didn’ hab no ‘fec’ on Dilsey. Dem lies folks b’en tellin’ her had p’isen’ her min’ ‘g’in’ Dave.
“‘I doan wanter talk ter no nigger,’ says she, ‘w’at be’n whip’ fer stealin’, en w’at gwine roun’ wid sich a lookin’ thing ez dat hung roun’ his neck. I’s a ‘spectable gal, I is. W’at yer call dat, Dave? Is dat a cha’m fer ter keep off witches, er is it a noo kine er neckliss yer got?’
“Po’ Dave didn’ knowed w’at ter do. De las’ one he had ‘pended on fer ter stan’ by ‘im had gone back on ‘im, en dey didn’ ‘pear ter be nuffin mo’ wuf libbin’ fer. He couldn’ hol’ no mo’ pra’r-meetin’s, fer Mars Walker wouldn’ ‘low ‘im ter preach, en de darkies wouldn’ ‘a’ listen’ ter ‘im ef he had preach’. He didn’ eben hab his Bible fer ter comfort hisse’f wid, fer Mars Walker had tuk it erway fum ‘im en burnt it up, en say ef he ketch any mo’ niggers wid Bibles on de plantation he’d do ’em wuss’n he done Dave.
“En ter make it still harder fer Dave, Dilsey tuk up wid Wiley. Dave could see him gwine up ter Aun’ Mahaly’s cabin, en settin’ out on de bench in de moonlight wid Dilsey, en singin’ sinful songs en playin’ de banjer. Dave use’ ter scrouch down behine de bushes, en wonder w’at de Lawd sen’ ‘im all dem tribberlations fer.
“But all er Dave’s yuther troubles wa’n’t nuffin side er dat ham. He had wrap’ de chain roun’ wid a rag, so it didn’ hurt his neck; but w’eneber he went ter wuk, dat ham would be in his way; he had ter do his task, howsomedever, des de same ez ef he didn’ hab de ham. W’eneber he went ter lay down, dat ham would be in de way. Ef he turn ober in his sleep, dat ham would be tuggin’ at his neck. It wuz de las’ thing he seed at night, en de fus’ thing he seed in de mawnin’. W’eneber he met a stranger, de ham would be de fus’ thing de stranger would see. Most un ’em would ‘mence’ ter laf, en whareber Dave went he could see folks p’intin’ at him, en year ’em sayin: —
“‘W’at kine er collar dat nigger got roun’ his neck?’ er, ef dey knowed ‘im, ‘Is yer stole any mo’ hams lately?’ er ‘W’at yer take fer yo’ neckliss, Dave?’ er some joke er ‘nuther ’bout dat ham.
“Fus’ Dave didn’ mine it so much, caze he knowed he hadn’ done nuffin. But bimeby he got so he couldn’ stan’ it no longer, en he’d hide hisse’f in de bushes w’eneber he seed anybody comin’, en alluz kep’ hisse’f shet up in his cabin atter he come in fum wuk.
“It wuz monst’us hard on Dave, en bimeby, w’at wid dat ham eberlastin’ en etarnally draggin’ roun’ his neck, he ‘mence’ fer ter do en say quare things, en make de niggers wonder ef he wa’n’t gittin’ out’n his mine. He got ter gwine roun’ talkin’ ter hisse’f, en singin’ corn-shuckin’ songs, en laffin’ fit ter kill ’bout nuffin. En one day he tole one er de niggers he had ‘skivered a noo way fer ter raise hams, — gwine ter pick ’em off’n trees, en save de expense er smoke-‘ouses by kyoin’ ’em in de sun. En one day he up’n tole Mars Walker he got sump’n pertickler fer ter say ter ‘im; en he tuk Mars Walker off ter one side, en tole ‘im he wuz gwine ter show ‘im a place in de swamp whar dey wuz a whole trac’ er lan’ covered wid ham-trees.
“W’en Mars Walker hearn Dave talkin’ dis kine er fool-talk, en w’en he seed how Dave wuz ‘mencin’ ter git behine in his wuk, en w’en he ax’ de niggers en dey tole ‘im how Dave be’n gwine on, he ‘lowed he reckon’ he’d punish’ Dave ernuff, en it mou’t do mo’ harm dan good fer ter keep de ham on his neck any longer. So he sont Dave down ter de blacksmif-shop en had de ham tak off. Dey wa’n’t much er de ham lef’ by dat time, fer de sun had melt all de fat, en de lean had all swivel’ up, so dey wa’n’t but th’ee er fo’ poun’s lef’.
“W’en de ham had be’n tuk off’n Dave, folks kinder stopped talkin’ ’bout ‘im so much. But de ham had be’n on his neck so long dat Dave had sorter got use’ ter it. He look des lack he’d los’ sump’n fer a day er so atter de ham wuz tuk off, en didn’ ‘pear ter know w’at ter do wid hisse’f; en fine’ly he up’n tuk’n tied a lightered-knot ter a string, en hid it under de flo’ er his cabin, en w’en nobody wuzn’ lookin’ he’d take it out en hang it roun’ his neck, en go off in de woods en holler en sing; en he allus tied it roun’ his neck w’en he went ter sleep. Fac’, it ‘peared lack Dave done gone clean out’n his mine. En atter a w’ile he got one er de quarest notions you eber hearn tell un. It wuz ’bout dat time dat I come back ter de plantation fer ter wuk, — I had be’n out ter Mars Dugal’s yuther place on Beaver Crick for a mont’ er so. I had hearn ’bout Dave en de bacon, en ’bout w’at wuz gwine on on de plantation; but I didn’ b’lieve w’at dey all say ’bout Dave, fer I knowed Dave wa’n’t dat kine er man. One day atter I come back, me’n Dave wuz choppin’ cotton tergedder, w’en Dave lean’ on his hoe, en motion’ fer me ter come ober close ter ‘im; en den he retch’ ober en w’ispered ter me.
“‘Julius’, [sic] sezee, ‘did yer knowed yer wuz wukkin’ long yer wid a ham?’
“I couldn ‘magine w’at he meant. ‘G’way fum yer, Dave,’ says I. ‘Yer ain’ wearin’ no ham no mo’; try en fergit ’bout dat; ‘t ain’ gwine ter do yer no good fer ter ‘member it.’
“Look a-yer, Julius,’ sezee, ‘kin yer keep a secret?’
“‘Co’se I kin, Dave,’ says I. ‘I doan go roun’ tellin’ people w’at yuther folks says ter me.’
“‘Kin I trus’ yer, Julius? Will yer cross yo’ heart?’
“I cross’ my heart. ‘Wush I may die ef I tells a soul,’ says I.
“Dave look’ at me des lack he wuz lookin’ thoo me en ‘way on de yuther side er me, en sezee: —
“‘Did yer knowed I wuz turnin’ ter a ham, Julius?’
“I tried ter ‘suade Dave dat dat wuz all foolishness, en dat he oughtn’t ter be talkin’ dat-a-way, — hit wa’n’t right. En I tole ‘im ef he’d des be patien’, de time would sho’ly come w’en eve’ything would be straighten’ out, en folks would fine out who de rale rogue wuz w’at stole de bacon. Dave ‘peared ter listen ter w’at I say, en promise’ ter do better, en stop gwine on dat-a-way; en it seem lack he pick’ up a bit w’en he seed dey wuz one pusson didn’ b’lieve dem tales ’bout ‘im.
“Hit wa’n’t long atter dat befo’ Mars Archie McIntyre, ober on de Wimbleton road, ‘mence’ ter complain ’bout somebody stealin’ chickens fum his hen-‘ouse. De chickens kip’ on gwine, en at las’ Mars Archie tole de han’s on his plantation dat he gwine ter shoot de fus’ man he ketch in his hen-‘ouse. In less’n a week atter he gin dis warnin’, he cotch a nigger in de hen-‘ouse, en fill’ ‘im full er squir’l-shot. W’en he got a light, he ‘skivered it wuz a strange nigger; en w’en he call’ one er his own sarven’s, de nigger tole ‘im it wuz our Wiley. W’en Mars Archie foun’ dat out, he sont ober ter our plantation fer ter tell Mars Dugal’ he had shot one er his niggers, en dat he could sen’ ober dere en git w’at wuz lef’ un ‘im.
“Mars Dugal’ wuz mad at fus’; but w’en he got ober dere en hearn how it all happen’, he didn’ hab much ter say. Wiley wuz shot so bad he wuz sho’ he wuz gwine ter die, so he up’n says ter ole marster: —
“‘Mars Dugal’,’ sezee, ‘I knows I’s be’n a monst’us bad nigger, but befo’ I go I wanter git sump’n off’n my mine. Dave didn’ steal dat bacon w’at wuz tuk out’n de smoke-‘ouse. I stole it all, en I hid de ham under Dave’s cabin fer ter th’ow de blame on him — en may de good Lawd fergib me fer it.’
“Mars Dugal’ had Wiley tuk back ter de plantation, en sont fer a doctor fer ter pick de shot out’n ‘im. En de ve’y nex’ mawnin’ Mars Dugal’ sont fer Dave ter come up ter de big house; he felt kinder sorry fer de way Dave had be’n treated. Co’se it wa’n’t no fault er Mars Dugal’s, but he wuz gwine ter do w’at he could fer ter make up fer it. So he sont word down ter de quarters fer Dave en all de yuther han’s ter ‘semble up in de yard befo’ de big house at sun-up nex’ mawnin’.
“yearly in de mawnin’ de niggers all swarm’ up in de yard. Mars Dugal’ wuz feelin’ so kine dat he had brung up a bairl er cider, en tole de niggers all fer ter he’p deyselves.
“All dey han’s on de plantation come but Dave; en bimeby, w’en it seem lack he wa’n’t comin’, Mars Dugal’ sont a nigger down ter de quarters ter look fer ‘im. De sun wuz gittin’ up, en dey wuz a heap er wuk ter be done, en Mars Dugal’ sorter got ti’ed waitin’; so he up’n says: —
“‘Well, boys en gals, I sont fer yer all up yer fer ter tell yer dat all dat ’bout Dave’s stealin’ er de bacon wuz a mistake, ez I s’pose yer all done hearn befo’ now, en I’s mighty sorry it happen’. I wants ter treat all my niggers right, en I wants yer all ter know dat I sets a heap by all er my han’s w’at is hones’ en smart. En I want yer all ter treat Dave des lack yer did befo’ dis thing happen’, en mine w’at he preach ter yer; fer Dave is a good nigger, en has had a hard row ter hoe. En de fus’ one I ketch sayin’ anythin’ ‘g’in Dave, I’ll tell Mister Walker ter gin ‘im forty. Now take ernudder drink er cider all roun’, en den git at dat cotton, fer I wanter git dat Persimmon Hill trac’ all pick’ ober ter-day.’
“W’en de niggers wuz gwine ‘way, Mars Dugal’ tole me fer ter go en hunt up Dave, en bring ‘im up ter de house. I went down ter Dave’s cabin, but couldn’ fine ‘im dere. Den I look’ roun’ de plantation, en in de aidge er de woods, en ‘long de road; but I couldn’ fine no sign er Dave. I wuz ’bout ter gin up de sarch, w’en I happen’ fer ter run ‘cross a foot-track w’at look’ lack Dave’s. I had wukked ‘long wid Dave so much dat I knowed his tracks: he had a monst’us long foot, wid a holler instep, w’ich wuz sump’n skase ‘mongs’ black folks. So I follered dat track ‘cross de fiel’ fum de quarters ‘tel I got ter de smoke-‘ouse. De fus’ thing I notice’ wuz smoke comin’ out’n de cracks: it wuz cu’ous, caze dey hadn’ be’n no hogs kill’ on de plantation fer six mont’ er so, en all de bacon in de smoke-‘ouse wuz done kyoed. I couldn’ ‘magine fer ter sabe my life w’at Dave wuz doin’ in dat smoke-‘ouse. I went up ter de do’ en hollered: —
“Dey didn’ nobody answer. I didn’ wanter open de do’, fer w’ite folks is monst’us pertickler ’bout dey smoke-‘ouses; en ef de oberseah had a-come up en cotch me in dere, he mou’t not wanter b’lieve I wuz des lookin’ fer Dave. So I sorter knock at de do’ en call’ out ag’in: —
“‘O Dave, hit’s me — Julius! Doan be skeered. Mars Dugal’ wants yer ter come up ter de big house, — he done ‘skivered who stole de ham.’
“But Dave didn’ answer. En w’en I look’ roun’ ag’in en didn’ seed none er his tracks gwine way fum de smoke-‘ouse, I knowed he wuz in dere yit, en I wuz ‘termine’ fer ter fetch ‘im out; so I push de do’ open en look in.
“Dey wuz a pile er bark burnin’ in de middle er de flo’, en right ober de fier, hangin’ fum one er de rafters, wuz Dave; dey wuz a rope roun’ his neck, en I didn’ haf ter look at his face mo’ d’n once fer ter see he wuz dead.
“Den I knowed how it all happen’. Dave had kep’ on gittin’ wusser en wusser in his mine, ‘tel he des got ter b’lievin’ he wuz all done turnt ter a ham; en den he had gone en built a fier, en tied a rope roun’ his neck, des lack de hams wuz tied, en had hung hisse’f up in de smoke-‘ouse fer ter kyo.
“Dave wuz buried down by de swamp, in de plantation buryin’-groun’. Wiley didn’ died fum de woun’ he got in Mars McIntyre’s hen-‘ouse; he got well atter a w’ile, but Dilsey wouldn’ hab nuffin mo’ ter do wid ‘im, en ‘t wa’n’t long ‘fo’ Mars Dugal’ sol’ ‘im ter a spekilater on his way souf, — he say he didn’ want no sich a nigger on de plantation, ner in de county, ef he could he’p it. En w’en de een’ er de year come, Mars Dugal’ turnt Mars Walker off, en run de plantation hisse’f atter dat.
“Eber sence den,” said Julius in conclusion, “w’eneber I eats ham, it min’s me er Dave. I lacks ham, but I nebber kin eat mo’ d’n two er th’ee poun’s befo’ I gits ter studyin’ ’bout Dave, en den I has ter stop en leab de res’ fer ernudder time.”
There was a short silence after the old man had finished his story, and then my wife began to talk to him about the weather, on which subject he was an authority. I went into the house. When I came out, half an hour later, I saw Julius disappearing down the lane, with a basket on his arm.
At breakfast, next morning, it occurred to me that I should like a slice of ham. I said as much to my wife.
“Oh, no, John,” she responded, “you shouldn’t eat anything so heavy for breakfast.”
“The fact is,” she said, pensively, “I couldn’t have eaten any more of that ham, and so I gave it to Julius.”
The Sheriff’s Children
To Branson County, as to most rural communities in the South, the War is the one historical event that overshadows all others. It is the era from which all local chronicles are dated–births, deaths, marriages, storms, freshets. No description of the life of any Southern community would be perfect that failed to emphasize the all-pervading influence of the great conflict.
And yet the fierce tide of war that had rushed through the cities and along the great highways of the country, had, comparatively speaking, but slightly disturbed the sluggish current of life in this region remote from railroads and navigable streams. To the north in Virginia, to the west in Tennessee, and all along the seaboard the war had raged; but the thunder of its cannon had not disturbed the echoes of Branson County, where the loudest sounds heard were the crack of some hunter’s rifle, the baying of some deep-mouthed hound, or the yodel of some tuneful Negro on his way through the pine forest. To the east, Sherman’s army had passed on its march to the sea; but no straggling band of “bummers” had penetrated the confines of Branson County. The war, it is true, had robbed the county of the flower of its young manhood; but the burden of taxation, the doubt and uncertainty of the conflict, and the sting of ultimate defeat, had been borne by the people with an apathy that robbed misfortune of half its sharpness.
The nearest approach to town life afforded by Branson County is found in the little village of Troy, the county-seat, a hamlet with a population of four or five hundred.
Ten years make little difference in the appearance of these remote Southern towns. If a railroad is built through one of them, it infuses some enterprise; the social corpse is galvanized by the fresh blood of civilization that pulses along the farthest ramifications of our great system of commercial highways. At the period of which I write, no railroad had come to Troy. If a traveler, accustomed to the bustling life of cities, could have ridden through Troy on a summer day, he might easily have fancied himself in a deserted village. Around him he would have seen weather-beaten houses, innocent of paint, the shingled roofs in many instances covered with a rich growth of moss. Here and there he would have met a razor-backed hog lazily rooting his way along the principal thoroughfare; and more than once be would probably have had to disturb the slumbers of some yellow dog, dozing away the hours in the ardent sunshine, and reluctantly yielding up his place in the middle of the dusty road.
On Saturdays the village presented a somewhat livelier appearance, and the shade-trees around the court-house square and along Front Street served as hitching-posts for a goodly number of horses and mules and stunted oxen, belonging to the farmer-folk who had come in to trade at the two or three local stores.
A murder was a rare event in Branson County. Every well-informed citizen could tell the number of homicides committed in the county for fifty years back, and whether the slayer, in any given instance, had escaped, either by flight or acquittal, or had suffered the penalty of the law. So, when it became known in Troy early one Friday morning in summer, about ten years after the war, that old Captain Walker, who had served in Mexico under Scott, and had left an arm on the field of Gettysburg, had been foully murdered during the night, there was intense excitement in the village. Business was practically suspended, and the citizens gathered in little groups to discuss the murder, and speculate upon the identity of the murderer. It transpired from testimony at the coroner’s inquest, held during the morning, that a strange mulatto had been seen going in the direction of Captain Walker’s house the night before, and had been met going away from Troy early Friday morning, by a farmer on his way to town. Other circumstances seemed to connect the stranger with the crime. The sheriff organized a posse to search for him, and early in the evening, when most of the citizens of Troy were at supper, the suspected man was brought in and lodged in the county jail.
By the following morning the news of the capture had spread to the farthest limits of the county. A much larger number of people than usual came to town that Saturday–bearded men in straw hats and blue homespun shirts, and butternut trousers of great amplitude of material and vagueness of outline; women in homespun frocks and slat-bonnets, with faces as expressionless as the dreary sandhills which gave them a meagre sustenance.
The murder was almost the sole topic of conversation. A steady stream of curious observers visited the house of mourning, and gazed upon the rugged face of the old veteran, now stiff and cold in death; and more than one eye dropped a tear at the remembrance of the cheery smile, and the joke–sometimes superannuated, generally feeble, but always good-natured–with which the captain had been wont to greet his acquaintances. There was a growing sentiment of anger among these stern men, toward the murderer who had thus cut down their friend, and a strong feeling that ordinary justice was too slight a punishment for such a crime
Toward noon there was an informal gathering of citizens in Dan Tyson’s store.
“I hear it ‘lowed that Square Kyahtah’s too sick ter hole co’te this evenin’,” said one, “an’ that the purlim’nary hearin’ ‘ll haf ter go over tel nex’ week.”
A look of disappointment went round the crowd.
“Hit ‘s the durndes’, meanes’ murder ever committed in this caounty,” said another, with moody emphasis.
“I s’pose the Nigger ‘lowed the Cap’n had some greenbacks,” observed a third speaker.
“The Cap’n,” said another, with an air of superior information, “has left two bairls of Confedrit money, which he ‘spected ‘ud be good some day er nuther.”
This statement gave rise to a discussion of the speculative value of Confederate money; but in a little while the conversation returned to the murder.
“Hangin’ air too good fer the murderer,” said one; “he oughter be burnt, stidier bein’ hung.”
There was an impressive pause at this point, during which a jug of moonlight whiskey went the round of the crowd.
“Well,” said a round-shouldered farmer, who, in spite of his peaceable expression and faded gray eye, was known to have been one of the most daring followers of a rebel guerrilla chieftain, “what air yer gwine ter do about it? Ef you fellers air gwine ter set down an’ let a wuthless Nigger kill the bes’ white man in Branson, an’ not say nuthin’ ner do nuthin’, I ‘ll move outen the caounty.”
This speech gave tone and direction to the rest of the conversation. Whether the fear of losing the round-shouldered farmer operated to bring about the result or not is immaterial to this narrative; but, at all events, the crowd decided to lynch the Negro. They agreed that this was the least that could be done to avenge the death of their murdered friend, and that it was a becoming way in which to honor his memory. They had some vague notions of the majesty of the law and the rights of the citizen, but in the passion of the moment these sunk into oblivion; a white man had been killed by a Negro.
“The Cap’n was an ole sodger,” said one of his friends, solemnly. “He ‘ll sleep better when he knows that a co’te-martial has be’n hilt an’ jestice done.”
By agreement the lynchers were to meet at Tyson’s store at five o’clock in the afternoon, and proceed thence to the jail, which was situated down the Lumberton Dirt Road (as the old turnpike antedating the plank-road was called), about half a mile south of the court-house. When the preliminaries of the lynching had been arranged, and a committee appointed to manage the affair, the crowd dispersed, some to go to their dinners, and some to quietlysecure recruits for the lynching party.
It was twenty minutes to five o’clock, when an excited Negro, panting and perspiring, rushed up to the back door of Sheriff Campbell’s dwelling, which stood at a little distance from the jail and somewhat farther than the latter building from the court house. A turbaned colored woman came to the door in response to the egro’s knock.
“Hoddy, Sis’ Nance.”
“Hoddy, Brer Sam.”
“Is de shurff in,” inquired the Negro.
“Yas, Brer Sam, he’s eatin’ his dinner,” was the answer.
“Will yer ax ‘im ter step ter de do’ a minute, Sis’ Nance?”
The woman went into the dining-room, and a moment later the sheriff came to the door. He was a tall, muscular man, of a ruddier complexion than is usual among Southerners. A pair of keen, deep-set gray eyes looked out from under bushy eye-brows, and about his mouth was a masterful expression, which a full beard, once sandy in color, but now profusely sprinkled with gray, could not entirely conceal. The day was hot; the sheriff had discarded his coat and vest, and had his white shirt open at the throat.
“What do you want, Sam?” he inquired of the Negro, who stood hat in hand, wiping the moisture from his face with a ragged shirt-sleeve.
“Shurff, dey gwine ter hang de pris’ner w’at’s lock’ up in de jail. Dey ‘re comin’ dis a-way now. I wuz layin’ down on a sack er corn down at de sto’, behine a pile er flour-bairls, w’en I hearn Doc’ Cain en Kunnel Wright talkin’ erbout it. I slip’ outen de back do’, en run here as fas’ as I could. I hearn you say down ter de sto’ once’t dat you wouldn’t let nobody take a pris’ner ‘way fum you widout walkin’ over yo’ dead body, en I thought I’d let you know ‘fo dey come, so yer could pertec’ de pris’ner.”
The sheriff listened calmly, but his face grew firmer, and a determined gleam lit up his gray eyes. His frame grew more erect, and he unconsciously assumed the attitude of a soldier who momentarily expects to meet the enemy face to face.
“Much obliged, Sam,” he answered. “I’ll protect the prisoner. Who ‘s coming?”
“I dunno who-all is comin’,” replied the Negro. “Dere’s Mistah McSwayne, en Doc’ Cain, en Maje’ McDonal’, en Kunnel Wright, en a heap er yuthers. I wuz so skeered I done furgot mo’d’n half un em. I spec’ dey mus’ be mos’ here by dis time, so I’ll git outen de way; fer I doan want nobody fer ter think I wuz mix’ up in dis business.” The Negro glanced nervously down the road toward the town, and made a movement as if to go away.
“Won’t you have some dinner first?” asked the sheriff.
The Negro looked longingly in at the open door, and sniffed the appetizing odor of boiled pork and collards.
“I ain’t got no time fer ter tarry, Shurff,” he said, “but Sis’ Nance mought gin me sump’n I could kyar in my han’ en eat on de way.”
A moment later Nancy brought him a huge sandwich, consisting of split corn-pone, with a thick slice of fat bacon inserted between the halves, and a couple of baked yams. The Negro hastily replaced his ragged hat on his head, dropped the yams in the pocket of his capacious trousers, and taking the sandwich in his hand, hurried across the road and disappeared in the woods beyond.
The sheriff re-entered the house, and put on his coat and hat. He then took down a double-barreled shot-gun and loaded it with buckshot. Filling the chambers of a revolver with fresh cartridges, he slipped it into the pocket of the sack-coat which he wore.
A comely young woman in a calico dress watched these proceedings with anxious surprise.
“Where are you goin’, Pa,” she asked. She had not heard the conversation with the Negro.
“I am goin’ over to the jail,” responded the sheriff. “There’s a mob comin’ this way to lynch the Nigger we’ve got locked up. But they won’t do it,” he added, with emphasis.
“Oh, Pa! don’t go!” pleaded the girl, clinging to his arm; “they’ll shoot you if you don’t give him up.”
“You never mind me, Polly,” said her father re-assuringly, as he gently unclasped her hands from his arm. ” I’ll take care of myself and the prisoner, too. There ain’t a man in Branson County that would shoot me. Besides, I have faced fire too often to be scared away from my duty. You keep close in the house,” he continued, “and if any one disturbs you just use the old horse-pistol in the top bureau drawer. It ‘s a little old-fashioned, but it did good work a few years ago.”
The young girl shuddered at this sanguinary allusion, but made no further objection to her father’s departure.
The sheriff of Branson was a man far above the average of the community in wealth, education and social position. His had been one of the few families in the county that before the war had owned large estates and numerous slaves. He had graduated at the State University at Chapel Hill, and had kept up some acquaintance with current literature and advanced thought. He had traveled some in his youth, and was looked up to in the county as an authority on all subjects connected with the outer world. At first an ardent supporter of the Union, he had opposed the secession movement in his native State as long as opposition availed to stem the tide of public opinion. Yielding at last to the force of circumstances, he had entered the Confederate service rather late in the war, and served with distinction through several campaigns, rising in time to the rank of colonel. After the war he had taken the oath of allegiance, and had been chosen by the people as the most available candidate for the office of sheriff, to which he had been elected without opposition. He had filled the office for several terms, and was universally popular with his constituents.
Colonel. or Sheriff Campbell, as he was indifferently called, as the military or civil title happened to be most important in the opinion of the person addressing him, had a high sense of the responsibility attaching to his office. He had sworn to do his duty faithfully, and he knew what his duty was, as sheriff, perhaps more clearly than he had apprehended it in other passages of his life. It was, therefore, with no uncertainty in regard to his course that he prepared his weapons and went over to the jail. He had no fears for Polly’s safety. [End Page 30]
The sheriff had just locked the heavy front door of the jail behind him when a half-dozen horsemen, followed by a crowd of men on foot, came round a bend in the road and drew near the jail. They halted in front of the picket fence that surrounded the building, while several of the committee of arrangements rode on a few rods farther to the sheriff’s house. One of them dismounted and rapped on the door with his riding-whip.
“Is the sheriff at home?” he inquired.
“No, he has just gone out,” replied Polly, who had come to the door.
“We want the jail keys,” he continued.
“They are not here,” said Polly. “The sheriff has them himself.” And then she added, with assumed indifference, “He is at the jail now.”
The man turned away, and Polly went into the front room, from which she peered anxiously between the slats of the green blinds of a window that looked toward the jail. Meanwhile the messenger returned to his companions and announced his discovery. It looked as tho the sheriff had got wind of their design and was preparing to resist it.
One of them stepped forward and rapped on the jail door.
“Well, what is it?” said the sheriff, from within.
“We want to talk to you, Sheriff,” replied the spokesman.
There was a little wicket in the door, this the sheriff opened, and answered through it.
“All right, boys, talk away. You are all strangers to me, and I don’t know what business you can have.” The sheriff did not think it necessary to recognize anybody in particular on such an occasion; the question of identity sometimes comes up in the investigation of these extra-judicial executions.
“We’re a committee of citizens and we want to get into the jail.”
“What for? It ain’t much trouble to get into jail. Most people are anxious to keep out.”
The mob was in no humor to appreciate a joke, and the sheriff’s witticism fell dead upon an unresponsive audience.
“We want to have a talk with the Nigger that killed Cap’n Walker.”
“You can talk to that Nigger in the court-house, when he ‘s brought out for trial. Court will be in session here next week. I know what you fellows want; but you can’t get my prisoner to-day. Do you want to take the bread out of a poor man’s mouth? I get seventy-five cents a day for keeping this prisoner, and he’s the only one in jail. I can’t have my family suffer just to please you fellows.”
One or two young men in the crowd laughed at the idea of Sheriff Campbell’s suffering for want of seventy-five cents a day; but they were frowned into silence by those who stood near them.
“Ef yer don’t let us in,” cried a voice, “we’ll bu’s’ the do’ open.”
“Bu’st away,” answered the sheriff, raising his voice so that all could hear. “But I give you fair warning. The first man that tries it will be filled with buckshot. I’m sheriff of this county, and I know my duty, and I mean to do it.”
“What’s the use of kicking, Sheriff,” argued one of the leaders of the mob. “The Nigger is sure to hang anyhow; he richly deserves it; and we ‘ve got to do something to teach the Niggers their places, or white people won’t be able to live in the county.”
“There ‘s no use talking, boys,” responded the sheriff. “I’m a white man outside, but in this jail I’m sheriff; and if this Nigger’s to be hung in this county, I propose to do the hanging. So you fellows might as well right-about-face, and march back to Troy. You’ve had a pleasant trip, and the exercise will be good for you. You know me. I’ve got powder and ball, and I’ve faced fire before now, with nothing between me and the enemy, and I don’t mean to surrender this jail while I ‘m able to shoot.” Having thus announced his determination the sheriff closed and fastened the wicket, and looked around for the best position from which to defend the building.
The crowd drew off a little, and the leaders conversed together in low tones.
The Branson County jail was a small, two-story brick building, strongly constructed, with no attempt at architectural ornamentation. Each story was divided into two large cells by a passage running from front to rear. A grated iron door gave entrance from the passage to each of the four cells. The jail seldom had many prisoners in it, and the lower windows had been boarded up. When the sheriff had closed the wicket, he ascended the steep wooden stair to the upper floor. There was no window at the front of the upper passage, and the most available position from which to watch the movements of the crowd below was the front window of the cell occupied by the solitary prisoner.
The sheriff unlocked the door and entered the cell. The prisoner was crouched in a corner, his yellow face, blanched with terror, looking ghastly in the semi-darkness of the room. A cold perspiration had gathered on his forehead, and his teeth were chattering with affright.
“For God’s sake, Sheriff,” he murmured hoarsely, “don’t let ’em lynch me; I didn’t kill the old man.”
The sheriff glanced at the cowering wretch with a look of mingled contempt and loathing.
“Get up,” he said sharply. “You will probably be hung sooner or later, but it will not be to-day, if I can help it. I will unlock your fetters, and if I can’t hold the jail, you will have to make the best fight you can. If I am shot, I will consider my responsibility at an end.”
There were iron fetters on the prisoner’s ankles, and handcuffs on his wrist. These the sheriff unlocked, and they fell clanking to the floor.
“Keep back from the window,” said the sheriff. “They might shoot if they saw you.”
The sheriff drew toward the window a pine bench which formed a part of the scanty furniture of the cell, and laid his revolver upon it. Then he took his gun in hand, and took his stand at the side of the window where he could with least exposure of himself watch the movements of the crowd below.
The lynchers had not anticipated any determined resistance. Of course they had looked for a formal protest, and perhaps a sufficient show of opposition to excuse the sheriff in the eye of any stickler for legal formalities. But they had not come prepared to fight a battle, and no one of them seemed willing to lead an attack upon the jail. The leaders of the party conferred together with a good deal of animated gesticulation, which was visible to the sheriff from his outlook, tho the distance was too great for him to hear what was said. At length one of them broke away from the group, and rode back to the main body of the lynchers, who were restlessly awaiting orders.
“Well, boys,” said the messenger, “we’ll have to let it go for the present. The sheriff says he’ll shoot, and he’s got the drop on us this time. There ain’t any of us that want to follow Cap’n Walker jest yet. Besides, the sheriff is a good fellow, and we don’t want to hurt ‘im. But,” he added, as if to re-assure the crowd, which began to show signs of disappointment, “the Nigger might as well say his prayers, for he ain’t got long to live.”
There was a murmur of dissent from the mob, and several voices insisted that an attack be made on the jail. But pacific counsels finally prevailed, and the mob sullenly withdrew.
The sheriff stood at the window until they had disappeared around the bend in the road. He did not relax his watchfulness when the last one was out of sight. Their withdrawal might be a mere feint, to be followed by a further attempt. So closely, indeed, was his attention drawn to the outside, that he neither saw nor heard the prisoner creep stealthily across the floor, reach out his hand and secure the revolver which lay on the bench behind the sheriff, and creep as noiselessly back to his place in the corner of the room.
A moment after the last of the lynching party had disappeared there was a shot fired from the woods across the road; a bullet whistled by the window and buried itself in the wooden casing a few inches from where the sheriff was standing. Quick as thought, with the instinct born of a semi-guerrilla army experience, he raised his gun and fired twice at the point from which a faint puff of smoke showed the hostile bullet to have been sent. He stood a moment watching, and then rested his gun against the window, and reached behind him mechanically for the other weapon. It was not on the bench. As the sheriff realized this fact, he turned his head and looked into the muzzle of the revolver.
“Stay where you are, Sheriff,” said the prisoner, his eyes glistening, his face almost ruddy with excitement.
The sheriff mentally cursed his own carelessness for allowing him to be caught in such a predicament. He had not expected anything of the kind. He had relied on the Negro’s cowardice and subordination in the presence of an armed white man as a matter of course. The sheriff was a brave man, but realized that the prisoner had him at an immense disadvantage. The two men stood thus for a moment, fighting a harmless duel with their eyes.
“Well, what do you mean to do?” asked the sheriff, with apparent calmness.
“To get away, of course,” said the prisoner, in a tone which caused the sheriff to look at him more closely, and with an involuntary feeling of apprehension; if the man was not mad, he was in a state of mind akin to madness, and quite as dangerous. The sheriff felt that he must speak the prisoner fair, and watch for a chance to turn the tables on him. The keen-eyed, desperate man before him was a different being altogether from the groveling wretch who had begged so piteously for life a few minutes before.
At length the sheriff spoke:
“Is this your gratitude to me for saving your life at the risk of my own? If I had not done so, you would now be swinging from the limb of some neighboring tree.”
“True,” said the prisoner, “you saved my life, but for how long? When you came in, you said Court would sit next week. When the crowd went away they said I had not long to live. It is merely a choice of two ropes.”
“While there’s life there’s hope,” replied the sheriff. He uttered this commonplace mechanically, while his brain was busy in trying to think out some way of escape. “If you are innocent you can prove it.”
The mulatto kept his eye upon the sheriff. “I didn’t kill the old man,” he replied; “but I shall never be able to clear myself. I was at his house at nine o’clock. I stole from it the coat that was on my back when I was taken. I would be convicted, even with a fair trial, unless the real murderer were discovered beforehand.”
The sheriff knew this only too well. While he was thinking what argument next to use, the prisoner continued:
“Throw me the keys–no, unlock the door.”
The sheriff stood a moment irresolute. The mulatto’s eye glittered ominously. The sheriff crossed the room and unlocked the door leading into the passage.
“Now go down and unlock the outside door.”
The heart of the sheriff leaped within him. Perhaps he might make a dash for liberty, and gain the outside. He descended the narrow stair, the prisoner keeping close behind him.
The sheriff inserted the huge iron key into the lock. The rusty bolt yielded slowly. It still remained for him to pull the door open.
“Stop!” thundered the mulatto, who seemed to divine the sheriff’s purpose. “Move a muscle, and I ‘ll blow your brains out.”
The sheriff obeyed; he realized that his chance had not yet come.
“Now keep on that side of the passage, and go back up-stairs.”
Keeping the sheriff in front of him, the mulatto followed the other up the stairs. The sheriff expected the prisoner to lock him into the cell and make his own escape. He had about come to the conclusion that the best thing he could do under the circumstances was to submit quietly, and take his chances of recapturing the prisoner after the alarm had been given. The sheriff had faced death more than once upon the battle-field. A few minutes before, well armed, and with a brick wall between him and them he had dared a hundred men to fight; but he felt instinctively that the desperate man in front of him was not to be trifled with, and he was too prudent a man to risk his life against such heavy odds. He had Polly to look after, and there was a limit beyond which devotion to duty would be quixotic and even foolish.
“I want to get away,” said the prisoner, “and I don’t want to be captured; for if I am, I know I will be hung on the spot. I am afraid,” he added somewhat reflectively, “that in order to save myself I shall have to kill you.”
“Good God!” exclaimed the sheriff, in involuntary terror; “you would not kill the man to whom you owe your own life.”
“You speak more truly than you know,” replied the mulatto. “I indeed owe my life to you.”
The sheriff started. He was capable of surprise, even in that moment of extreme peril. “Who are you?” he asked in amazement.
“Tom, Cicely’s son,” returned the other. He had closed the door and stood talking to the sheriff through the grated opening. “Don’t you remember Cicely–Cicely, whom you sold, with her child, to the speculator on his way to Alabama?”
The sheriff did remember. He had been sorry for it many a time since. It had been the old story of debts, mortgages and bad crops. He had quarreled with the mother. The price offered for her and her child had been unusually large, and he had yielded to the combination of anger and pecuniary stress.
“Good God!” he gasped, “you would not murder your own father?”
“My father?” replied the mulatto. “It were well enough for me to claim the relationship, but it comes with poor grace from you to ask anything by reason of it. What father’s duty have you ever performed for me? Did you give me your name, or even your protection? Other white men gave their colored sons freedom and money, and sent them to the free States. You sold me to the rice swamps.”
“I at least gave you the life you cling to,” murmured the sheriff.
“Life?” said the prisoner, with a sarcastic laugh. “What kind of a life? You gave me your own blood, your own features–no man need look at us together twice to see that–and you gave me a black mother. Poor wretch! She died under the lash, because she had enough womanhood to call her soul her own. You gave me a white man’s spirit, and you made me a slave, and crushed it out.”
“But you are free now,” said the sheriff. He had not doubted, could not doubt, the mulatto’s word. He knew whose passions coursed beneath that swarthy skin and burned in the black eyes opposite his own. He saw in this mulatto what he himself might have become had not the safeguards of parental restraint and public opinion been thrown around him.
“Free to do what?” replied the mulatto. “Free in name, but despised and scorned and set aside by the people to whose race I belong far more than to that of my mother.”
“There are schools,” said the sheriff. “You have been to school.” He had noticed that the mulatto spoke more eloquently and used better language than most Branson County people.
“I have been to school and dreamed when I went that it would work some marvelous change in my condition. But what did I learn? I learned to feel that no degree of learning or wisdom will change the color of my skin and that I shall always wear what in my own country is a badge of degradation. When I think about it seriously I do not care particularly for such a life. It is the animal [End Page 31] in me, not the man, that flees the gallows. I owe you nothing,” he went on, “and expect nothing of you; and it would be no more than justice if I were to avenge upon you my mother’s wrongs and my own. But still I hate to shoot you; I have never yet taken human life–for I did not kill the old captain. Will you promise to give no alarm and make no attempt to capture me until morning, if I do not shoot?”
So absorbed were the two men in their colloquy and their own tumultuous thoughts that neither of them had heard the door below move upon its hinges. Neither of them had heard a light step come stealthily up the stair, nor seen a slender form creep along the darkening passage toward the mulatto.
The sheriff hesitated. The struggle between his love of life and his sense of duty was a terrific one. It may seem strange that a man who could sell his own child into slavery should hesitate at such a moment when his life was trembling in the balance. But the baleful influence of human slavery poisoned the very fountains of life, and created new standards of right. The sheriff was conscientious; his conscience had merely been warped by his environment. Let no one ask what his answer would have been; he was spared the necessity of a decision.
“Stop,” said the mulatto, “you need not promise. I could not trust you if you did. It is your life for mine; there is but one safe way for me; you must die.”
He raised his arm to fire, when there was a flash–a report from the passage behind him. His arm fell heavily at his side, and the pistol dropped at his feet.
The sheriff recovered first from his surprise, and throwing open the door secured the fallen weapon. Then seizing the prisoner he thrust him into the cell and locked the door upon him; after which he turned to Polly, who leaned half-fainting against the wall, her hands clasped over her heart.
“Oh, Pa, I was just in time!” she cried hysterically, and, wildly sobbing, threw herself into her father’s arms.
“I watched until they all went away,” she said. “I heard the shot from the woods and I saw you shoot. Then when you did not come out I feared something had happened, that perhaps you had been wounded. I got out the other pistol and ran over here. When I found the door open, I knew something was wrong, and when I heard voices I crept up-stairs, and reached the top just in time to hear him say he would kill you. Oh, it was a narrow escape!”
When she had grown somewhat calmer, the sheriff left her standing there and went back into the cell. The prisoner’s arm was bleeding from a flesh wound. His bravado had given place to a stony apathy. There was no sign in his face of fear or disappointment or feeling of any kind. The sheriff sent Polly to the house for cloth, and bound up the prisoner’s wound with a rude skill acquired during his army life.
“I will have a doctor come and dress the wound in the morning,” he said to the prisoner. “It will do very well until then, if you will keep quiet. If the doctor asks you how the wound was caused, you can say that you were struck by the bullet fired from the woods. It would do you no good to have it known that you were shot while attempting to escape.”
The prisoner uttered no word of thanks or apology, but sat in sullen silence. When the wounded arm had been bandaged, Polly and her father returned to the house.
The sheriff was in an unusually thoughtful mood that evening. He put salt in his coffee at supper, and poured vinegar over his pancakes. To many of Polly’s questions he returned random answers. When he had gone to bed he lay awake for several hours.
In the silent watches of the night, when he was alone with God, there came into his mind a flood of unaccustomed thoughts. An hour or two before, standing face to face with death, he had experienced a sensation similar to that which drowning men are said to feel–a kind of clarifying of the moral faculty, in which the veil of the flesh, with its obscuring passions and prejudices, is pushed aside for a moment, and all the acts of one’s life stand out, in the clear light of truth, in their correct proportions and relations–a state of mind in which one sees himself as God may be supposed to see him. In the reaction following his rescue, this feeling had given place for a time to far different emotions. But now, in the silence of midnight, something of this clearness of spirit returned to the sheriff. He saw that he had owed some duty to this son of his–that neither law nor custom could destroy a responsibility inherent in the nature of mankind. He could not thus, in the eyes of God at least, shake off the consequences of his sin. Had he never sinned, this wayward spirit would never have come back from the vanished past to haunt him. And as he thought, his anger against the mulatto died away, and in its place there sprang up a great, an ineffable pity. The hand of parental authority might have restrained the passions he had seen burning in the prisoner’s eyes when the desperate man spoke the words which had seemed to doom his father to death. The sheriff felt that he might have saved this fiery spirit from the slough of slavery; that he might have sent him to the free North, and given him there, or in some other land, an opportunity to turn to usefulness and honorable pursuits the talents that had run to crime, perhaps to madness; he might, still less, have given this son of his the poor simulacrum of liberty which men of his caste could possess in a slave-holding community; or least of all, but still something, he might have kept the boy on the plantation, where the burdens of slavery would have fallen lightly upon him.
The sheriff recalled his own youth. He had inherited an honored name to keep untarnished; he had had a future to make; the picture of a fair young bride had beckoned him on to happiness. The poor wretch now stretched upon a pallet of straw between the brick walls of the jail had had none of these things–no name, no father, no mother–in the true meaning of motherhood–and until the past few years no possible future, and then one vague and shadowy in its outline, and dependent for form and substance upon the slow solution of a problem in which there were many unknown quantities.
From what he might have done to what he might yet do was an easy transition for the awakened conscience of the sheriff. It occurred to him, purely as a hypothesis, that he might permit his prisoner to escape; but his oath of office, his duty as sheriff, stood in the way of such a course, and the sheriff dismissed the idea from his mind. But he could investigate the circumstances of the murder, and move Heaven and earth to discover the real criminal, for he no longer doubted the prisoner’s innocence; he could employ counsel for the accused, and perhaps influence public opinion in his favor. An acquittal once secured, some plan could be devised by which the sheriff might in some degree atone for his neglect of what he now clearly perceived to have been a duty.
When the sheriff had reached this conclusion he fell into an unquiet slumber, from which he awoke late the next morning.
He went over to the jail before breakfast and found the prisoner lying on his pallet; his face turned to the wall: he did not move when the sheriff rattled the door.
“Good-morning,” said the latter, in a tone intended to waken the prisoner.
There was no response. The sheriff looked more keenly at the recumbent figure; there was an unnatural rigidity about its attitude.
He hastily unlocked the door and, entering the cell, bent over the prostrate form. There was no sound of breathing; he turned the body over, it was cold and stiff. The prisoner had torn the bandage from his wound and bled to death during the night. He had evidently been dead several hours.
Branson County, North Carolina, is in a sequestered district of one of the staidest and most conservative States of the Union. Society in Branson County is almost primitive in its simplicity. Most of the white people own their own farms, and even before the War there were no very wealthy families to force their neighbors, by comparison, into the category of “poor whites.”
The Wife of His Youth
Mr. Ryder was going to give a ball. There were several reasons why this was an opportune time for such an event.
Mr. Ryder might aptly be called the dean of the Blue Veins. The original Blue Veins were a little society of colored persons organized in a certain Northern city shortly after the war. Its purpose was to establish and maintain correct social standards among a people whose social condition presented almost unlimited room for improvement. By accident, combined perhaps with some natural affinity, the society consisted of individuals who were, generally speaking, more white than black. Some envious outsider made the suggestion that no one was eligible for membership who was not white enough to show blue veins. The suggestion was readily adopted by those who were not of the favored few, and since that time the society, though possessing a longer and more pretentious name, had been known far and wide as the “Blue Vein Society” and its members as the “Blue Veins.”
The Blue Veins did not allow that any such requirement existed for admission to their circle, but, on the contrary, declared that character and culture were the only things considered; and that if most of their members were light-colored, it was because such persons, as a rule, had had better opportunities to qualify themselves for membership. Opinions differed, too, as to the usefulness of the society. There were those who had been known to assail it violently as a glaring example of the very prejudice from which the colored race had suffered most; and later, when such critics had succeeded in getting on the inside, they had been heard to maintain with zeal and earnestness that the society was a lifeboat, an anchor, a bulwark and a shield, – a pillar of cloud by day and of fire by night, to guide their people through the social wilderness. Another alleged prerequisite for Blue Vein membership was that of free birth; and while there was really no such requirement, it is doubtless true that very few of the members would have been unable to meet it if there had been. If there were one or two of the older members who had come up from the South and from slavery, their history presented enough romantic circumstances to rob their servile origin of its grosser aspects.
While there were no such tests of eligibility, it is true that the Blue Veins had their notions on these subjects, and that not all of them were equally liberal in regard to the things they collectively disclaimed. Mr. Ryder was one of the most conservative. Though he had not been among the founders of the society, but had come in some years later, his genius for social leadership was such that he had speedily become its recognized adviser and head, the custodian of its standards, and the preserver of its traditions. He shaped its social policy, was active in providing for its entertainment, and when the interest fell off, as it sometimes did, he fanned the embers until they burst again into a cheerful flame.
There were still other reasons for his popularity. While he was not as white as some of the Blue Veins, his appearance was such as to confer distinction upon them. His features were of a refined type, his hair was almost straight; he was always neatly dressed; his manners were irreproachable, and his morals above suspicion. He had come to Groveland a young man, and obtaining employment in the office of a railroad company as messenger had in time worked himself up to the position of stationery clerk, having charge of the distribution of the office supplies for the whole company. Although the lack of early training had hindered the orderly development of a naturally fine mind, it had not prevented him from doing a great deal of reading or from forming decidedly literary tastes. Poetry was his passion. He could repeat whole pages of the great English poets; and if his pronunciation was sometimes faulty, his eye, his voice, his gestures, would respond to the changing sentiment with a precision that revealed a poetic soul and disarmed criticism. He was economical, and had saved money; he owned and occupied a very comfortable house on a respectable street. His residence was handsomely furnished, containing among other things a good library, especially rich in poetry, a piano, and some choice engravings. He generally shared his house with some young couple, who looked after his wants and were company for him; for Mr. Ryder was a single man. In the early days of his connection with the Blue Veins he had been regarded as quite a catch, and young ladies and their mothers had manoeuvred with much ingenuity to capture him. Not, however, until Mrs. Molly Dixon visited Groveland had any woman ever made him wish to change his condition to that of a married man.
Mrs. Dixon had come to Groveland from Washington in the spring, and before the summer was over she had won Mr. Ryder’s heart. She possessed many attractive qualities. She was much younger than he; in fact, he was old enough to have been her father, though no one knew exactly how old he was. She was whiter than he, and better educated. She had moved in the best colored society of the country, at Washington, and had taught in the schools of that city. Such a superior person had been eagerly welcomed to the Blue Vein Society, and had taken a leading part in its activities. Mr. Ryder had at first been attracted by her charms of person,for she was very good looking and not over twenty-five; then by her refined manners and the vivacity of her wit. Her husband had been a government clerk, and at his death had left a considerable life insurance. She was visiting friends in Groveland, and, finding the town and the people to her liking, had prolonged her stay indefinitely. She had not seemed displeased at Mr. Ryder’s attentions, but on the contrary had given him every proper encouragement; indeed, a younger and less cautious man would long since have spoken. But he had made up his mind, and had only to determine the time when he would ask her to be his wife. He decided to give a ball in her honor, and at some time during the evening of the ball to offer her his heart and hand. He had no special fears about the outcome, but, with a little touch of romance, he wanted the surroundings to be in harmony with his own feelings when he should have received the answer he expected.
Mr. Ryder resolved that this ball should mark an epoch in the social history of Groveland. He knew, of course, – no one could know better, – the entertainments that had taken place in past years, and what must be done to surpass them. His ball must be worthy of the lady in whose honor it was to be given, and must, by the quality of its guests, set an example for the future. He had observed of late a growing liberality, almost a laxity, in social matters, even among members of his own set, and had several times been forced to meet in a social way persons whose complexions and callings in life were hardly up to the standard which he considered proper for the society to maintain. He had a theory of his own.
“I have no race prejudice,” he would say, “but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black. The one does n’t want us yet, but may take us in time. The other would welcome us, but it would be for us a backward step. ‘With malice towards none, with charity for all,’ we must do the best we can for ourselves and those who are to follow us. Self-preservation is the first law of nature.”
His ball would serve by its exclusiveness to counteract leveling tendencies, and his marriage with Mrs. Dixon would help to further the upward process of absorption he had been wishing and waiting for.
The ball was to take place on Friday night. The house had been put in order, the carpets covered with canvas, the halls and stairs decorated with palms and potted plants; and in the afternoon Mr. Ryder sat on his front porch, which the shade of a vine running up over a wire netting made a cool and pleasant lounging place. He expected to respond to the toast “The Ladies” at the supper, and from a volume of Tennyson – his favorite poet – was fortifying himself with apt quotations. The volume was open at “A Dream of Fair Women.” His eyes fell on these lines, and he read them aloud to judge better of their effect: –
“At length I saw a lady within call,
Stiller than chisell’d marble, standing there;
A daughter of the gods, divinely tall,
And most divinely fair.”
He marked the verse, and turning the page read the stanza beginning, –
“O sweet pale Margaret,
O rare pale Margaret.”
He weighed the passage a moment, and decided that it would not do. Mrs. Dixon was the palest lady he expected at the ball, and she was of a rather ruddy complexion, and of lively disposition and buxom build. So he ran over the leaves until his eye rested on the description of Queen Guinevere: –
“She seem’d a part of joyous Spring:
A gown of grass-green silk she wore,
Buckled with golden clasps before;
A light-green tuft of plumes she bore
Closed in a golden ring.
. . . . . .
“She look’d so lovely, as she sway’d
The rein with dainty finger-tips,
A man had given all other bliss,
And all his worldly worth for this,
To waste his whole heart in one kiss
Upon her perfect lips.”
As Mr. Ryder murmured these words audibly, with an appreciative thrill, he heard the latch of his gate click, and a light footfall sounding on the steps. He turned his head, and saw a woman standing before his door.
She was a little woman, not five feet tall, and proportioned to her height. Although she stood erect, and looked around her with very bright and restless eyes, she seemed quite old; for her face was crossed and recrossed with a hundred wrinkles, and around the edges of her bonnet could be seen protruding here and there a tuft of short gray wool. She wore a blue calico gown of ancient cut, a little red shawl fastened around her shoulders with an old-fashioned brass brooch, and a large bonnet profusely ornamented with faded red and yellow artificial flowers. And she was very black, – so black that her toothless gums, revealed when she opened her mouth to speak, were not red, but blue. She looked like a bit of the old plantation life, summoned up from the past by the wave of a magician’s wand, as the poet’s fancy had called into being the gracious shapes of which Mr. Ryder had just been reading.
He rose from his chair and came over to where she stood.
“Good-afternoon, madam,” he said.
“Good-evenin’, suh” she answered, ducking suddenly with a quaint curtsy. Her voice was shrill and piping, but softened somewhat by age. “Is dis yere whar Mistuh Ryduh lib, suh?” she asked, looking around her doubtfully, and glancing into the open windows, through which some of the preparations for the evening were visible.
“Yes,” he replied, with an air of kindly patronage, unconsciously flattered by her manner, “I am Mr. Ryder. Did you want to see me?”
“Yas, suh, ef I ain’t ‘sturbin’ of you too much.”
“Not at all. Have a seat over here behind the vine, where it is cool. What can I do for you?”
” ‘Scuse me, suh,” she continued, when she had sat down on the edge of a chair, ” ‘scuse me, suh, I ‘s lookin’ for my husban’. I heerd you wuz a big man an’ had libbed heah a long time, an’ I ‘lowed you would n’t min’ ef I’d come roun’ an’ ax you ef you’d ever heerd of a merlatter man by de name er Sam Taylor ‘quirin’ roun’ in de chu’ches ermongs’ de people fer his wife ‘Liza Jane?”
Mr. Ryder seemed to think for a moment.
“There used to be many such cases right after the war,” he said, “but it has been so long that I have forgotten them. There are very few now. But tell me your story, and it may refresh my memory.”
She sat back farther in her chair so as to be more comfortable, and folded her withered hands in her lap.
“My name’s ‘Liza,” she began, ” ‘Liza Jane. W’en I wuz young I us’ter b’long ter Marse Bob Smif, down in ole Missoura. I wuz bawn down dere. W’en I wuz a gal I wuz married ter a man named Jim. But Jim died, an’ after dat I married a merlatter man named Sam Taylor. Sam wuz freebawn, but his mammy and daddy died, an’ de w’ite folks ‘prenticed him ter my marster fer ter work fer ‘im ‘tel he wuz growed up. Sam worked in de fiel’, an’ I wuz de cook. One day Ma’y Ann, ole miss’s maid, came rushin’ out ter de kitchen, an’ says she, ‘ ‘Liza Jane, ole marse gwine sell yo’ Sam down de ribber.’
” ‘Go way f’m yere,’ says I; ‘ my husban’ ‘s free! ‘
” ‘Don’ make no diff’ence. I heerd ole marse tell ole miss he wuz gwine take yo’ Sam ‘way wid ‘im ter-morrow, fer he needed money, an’ he knowed whar he could git a t’ousan’ dollars fer Sam an’ no questions axed.’
“W’en Sam come home f’m de fiel’ dat night, I tole him ’bout ole marse gwine steal ‘im, an’ Sam run erway. His time wuz mos up, an’ he swo’ dat w’en he wuz twenty-one he would come back an’ he’p me run erway, er else save up de money ter buy my freedom. An’ I know he’d ‘a’ done it, fer he thought a heap er me, Sam did. But w’en he come back he did n’ fin’ me, fer I wuz n’ dere. Ole marse had heerd dat I warned Sam, so he had me whip’ an’ sol’ down de ribber.
“Den de wah broke out, an’ w’en it wuz ober de cullud folks wuz scattered. I went back ter de ole home; but Sam wuz n’ dere, an’ I could n’ l’arn nuffin’ ’bout ‘im. But I knowed he ‘d be’n dere to look fer me an’ had n’ foun’ me, an’ had gone erway ter hunt fer me.
“I’s be’n lookin’ fer ‘im eber sence,” she added simply, as though twenty-five years were but a couple of weeks, “an’ I knows he ‘s be’n lookin’ fer me. Fer he sot a heap er sto’ by me, Sam did, an’ I know he ‘s be’n huntin’ fer me all dese years, – ‘less’n he ‘s be’n sick er sump’n, so he could n’ work, er out’n his head, so he could n’ ‘member his promise. I went back down de ribber, fer I ‘lowed he ‘d gone down dere lookin’ fer me. I’s be’n ter Noo Orleens, an’ Atlanty, an’ Charleston, an’ Richmon’; an’ w’en I ‘d be’n all ober de Souf I come ter de Norf. Fer I knows I’ll fin’ ‘im some er dese days,” she added softly, “er he’ll fin’ me, an’ den we’ll bofe be as happy in freedom as we wuz in de ole days befo’ de wah.” A smile stole over her withered countenance as she paused a moment, and her bright eyes softened into a faraway look.
This was the substance of the old woman’s story. She had wandered a little here and there. Mr. Ryder was looking at her curiously when she finished.
“How have you lived all these years?” he asked.
“Cookin’, suh. I’s a good cook. Does you know anybody w’at needs a good cook, suh? I ‘s stoppin’ wid a culled fam’ly roun’ de corner yonder ‘tel I kin git a place.”
“Do you really expect to find your husband? He may be dead long ago.”
She shook her head emphatically. “Oh no, he ain’ dead. De signs an’ de tokens tells me. I dremp three nights runnin’ on’y dis las’ week dat I foun’ him.”
“He may have married another woman. Your slave marriage would not have prevented him, for you never lived with him after the war, and without that your marriage does n’t count.”
“Would n’ make no diff’ence wid Sam. He would n’ marry no yuther ‘ooman ‘tel he foun’ out ’bout me. I knows it,” she added. ” Sump’n’s be’n tellin’ me all dese years dat I’s gwine fin’ Sam ‘fo’ I dies.”
“Perhaps he ‘s outgrown you, and climbed up in the world where he wouldn’t care to have you find him.”
“No, indeed, suh,” she replied, “Sam ain’ dat kin’ er man. He wuz good ter me, Sam wuz, but he wuz n’ much good ter nobody e’se, fer he wuz one er de triflin’es’ han’s on de plantation. I ‘spec’s ter haf ter suppo’t ‘im w’en I fin’ ‘im, fer he nebber would work ‘less’n he had ter. But den he wuz free, an’ he did n’ git no pay fer his work, an’ I don’ blame ‘im much. Mebbe he’s done better sence he run erway, but I ain’ ‘spectin’ much.”
“You may have passed him on the street a hundred times during the twenty-five years, and not have known him; time works great changes.”
She smiled incredulously. “I ‘d know ‘im ‘mongs’ a hund’ed men. Fer dey wuz n’ no yuther merlatter man like my man Sam, an’ I could n’ be mistook. I ‘s toted his picture roun’ wid me twenty-five years.”
“May I see it?” asked Mr. Ryder. “It might help me to remember whether I have seen the original.”
As she drew a small parcel from her bosom he saw that it was fastened to a string that went around her neck. Removing several wrappers, she brought to light an old fashioned daguerreotype in a black case. He looked long and intently at the portrait. It was faded with time, but the features were still distinct, and it was easy to see what manner of man it had represented.
He closed the case, and with a slow movement handed it back to her.
“I don’t know of any man in town who goes by that name,” he said, “nor have I heard of any one making such inquiries. But if you will leave me your address, I will give the matter some attention, and if I find out anything I will let you know.”
She gave him the number of a house in the neighborhood, and went away, after thanking him warmly.
He wrote the address on the fly-leaf of the volume of Tennyson, and, when she had gone, rose to his feet and stood looking after her curiously. As she walked down the street with mincing step, he saw several persons whom she passed turn and look back at her with a smile of kindly amusement. When she had turned the corner, he went upstairs to his bedroom, and stood for a long time before the mirror of his dressing-case, gazing thoughtfully at the reflection of his own face.
At eight o’clock the ballroom was a blaze of light and the guests had begun to assemble; for there was a literary programme and some routine business of the society to be gone through with before the dancing. A black servant in evening dress waited at the door and directed the guests to the dressing-rooms.
The occasion was long memorable among the colored people of the city; not alone for the dress and display, but for the high average of intelligence and culture that distinguished the gathering as a whole. There were a number of school-teachers, several young doctors, three or four lawyers, some professional singers, an editor, a lieutenant in the United States army spending his furlough in the city, and others in various polite callings; these were colored, though most of them would not have attracted even a casual glance because of any marked difference from white people. Most of the ladies were in evening costume, and dress coats and dancing pumps were the rule among the men. A band of string music, stationed in an alcove behind a row of palms, played popular airs while the guests were gathering.
The dancing began at half past nine. At eleven o’clock supper was served. Mr. Ryder had left the ballroom some little time before the intermission, but reappeared at the supper-table. The spread was worthy of the occasion, and the guests did full justice to it. When the coffee had been served, the toastmaster, Mr. Solomon Sadler, rapped for order. He made a brief introductory speech, complimenting host and guests, and then presented in their order the toasts of the evening. They were responded to with a very fair display of after-dinner wit.
“The last toast,” said the toast-master, when he reached the end of the list, “is one which must appeal to us all. There is no one of us of the sterner sex who is not at some time dependent upon woman, – in infancy for protection, in manhood for companionship, in old age for care and comforting. Our good host has been trying to live alone, but the fair faces I see around me to-night prove that he too is largely dependent upon the gentler sex for most that makes life worth living, – the society and love of friends, – and rumor is at fault if he does not soon yield entire subjection to one of them. Mr. Ryder will now respond to the toast, – The Ladies.”
There was a pensive look in Mr. Ryder’s eyes as he took the floor and adjusted his eyeglasses. He began by speaking of woman as the gift of Heaven to man, and after some general observations on the relations of the sexes he said: “But perhaps the quality which most distinguishes woman is her fidelity and devotion to those she loves. History is full of examples, but has recorded none more striking than one which only to-day came under my notice.”
He then related, simply but effectively, the story told by his visitor of the afternoon. He gave it in the same soft dialect, which came readily to his lips, while the company listened attentively and sympathetically. For the story had awakened a responsive thrill in many hearts. There were some present who had seen, and others who had heard their fathers and grandfathers tell, the wrongs and sufferings of this past generation, and all of them still felt, in their darker moments, the shadow hanging over them. Mr. Ryder went on: –
“Such devotion and confidence are rare even among women. There are many who would have searched a year, some who would have waited five years, a few who might have hoped ten years; but for twenty-five years this woman has retained her affection for and her faith in a man she has not seen or heard of in all that time.
“She came to me to-day in the hope that I might be able to help her find this long-lost husband. And when she was gone I gave my fancy rein, and imagined a case I will put to you.
“Suppose that this husband, soon after his escape, had learned that his wife had been sold away, and that such inquiries as he could make brought no information of her whereabouts. Suppose that he was young, and she much older than he; that he was light, and she was black; that their marriage was a slave marriage, and legally binding only if they chose to make it so after the war. Suppose, too, that he made his way to the North as some of us have done, and there, where he had larger opportunities, had improved them, and had in the course of all these years grown to be as different from the ignorant boy who ran away from fear of slavery as the day is from the night. Suppose, even, that he had qualified himself, by industry, by thrift, and by study, to win the friendship and be considered worthy the society of such people as these I see around me to-night, gracing my board and filling my heart with gladness; for I am old enough to remember the day when such a gathering would not have been possible in this land. Suppose, too, that, as the years went by, this man’s memory of the past grew more and more indistinct, until at last it was rarely, except in his dreams, that any image of this bygone period rose before his mind. And then suppose that accident should bring to his knowledge the fact that the wife of his youth, the wife he had left behind him, – not one who had walked by his side and kept pace with him in his upward struggle, but one upon whom advancing years and a laborious life had set their mark, – was alive and seeking him, but that he was absolutely safe from recognition or discovery, unless he chose to reveal himself. My friends, what would the man do? I will presume that he was one who loved honor, and tried to deal justly with all men. I will even carry the case further, and suppose that perhaps he had set his heart upon another, whom he had hoped to call his own. What would he do, or rather what ought he to do, in such a crisis of a lifetime?
“It seemed to me that he might hesitate, and I imagined that I was an old friend, a near friend, and that he had come to me for advice; and I argued the case with him. I tried to discuss it impartially. After we had looked upon the matter from every point of view, I said to him, in words that we all know: –
‘This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.’
Then, finally, I put the question to him, ‘Shall you acknowledge her?’
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, friends and companions, I ask you, what should he have done?”
There was something in Mr. Ryder’s voice that stirred the hearts of those who sat around him. It suggested more than mere sympathy with an imaginary situation; it seemed rather in the nature of a personal appeal. It was observed, too, that his look rested more especially upon Mrs. Dixon, with a mingled expression of renunciation and inquiry.
She had listened, with parted lips and streaming eyes. She was the first to speak: “He should have acknowledged her.”
“Yes,” they all echoed, “he should have acknowledged her.”
“My friends and companions,” responded Mr. Ryder, “I thank you, one and all. It is the answer I expected, for I knew your hearts.”
He turned and walked toward the closed door of an adjoining room, while every eye followed him in wondering curiosity. He came back in a moment, leading by the hand his visitor of the afternoon, who stood startled and trembling at the sudden plunge into this scene of brilliant gayety. She was neatly dressed in gray, and wore the white cap of an elderly woman.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “this is the woman, and I am the man, whose story I have told you. Permit me to introduce to you the wife of my youth.”