71 Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)

Matthew Teutsch

Nelse Hatton’s Vengeance

Full Text: https://archive.org/details/folksfromdixie00unkngoog

It was at the close of a summer day, and the sun was sinking dimly red over the hills of the little Ohio town which, for convenience, let us call Dexter.

The people had eaten their suppers, and the male portion of the families had come out in front of their houses to smoke and rest or read the evening paper. Those who had porches drew their rockers out on them, and sat with their feet on the railing. Others took their more humble positions on the front steps, while still others, whose houses were flush with the street, went even so far as to bring their chairs out upon the sidewalk, and over all there was an air of calmness and repose save when a glance through the open doors revealed the housewives busy at their evening dishes, or the blithe voices of the children playing in the street told that little Sally Waters was a-sitting in a saucer or asserted with doubtful veracity that London Bridge was falling down. Here and there a belated fisherman came straggling up the street that led from the river, every now and then holding up his string of slimy, wig gling catfish in answer to the query ” Wha’ ‘d you ketch? ”

To one who knew the generous and unprejudiced spirit of the Dexterites, it was no matter of wonder that one of their soundest and most highly respected citizens was a coloured man, and that his home should nestle unrebuked among the homes of his white neighbours.

Nelse Hatton had won the love and respect of his fellow-citizens by the straightforward honesty of his conduct and the warmth of his heart. Everybody knew him. He had been doing chores about Dexter, — cutting grass in summer, cleaning and laying carpets in the spring and fall, and tending furnaces in the winter, — since the time when, a newly emancipated man, he had passed over from Kentucky into Ohio. Since then through thrift he had attained quite a competence, and, as he himself expressed it, “owned some little propity.” He was one among the number who had arisen to the dignity of a porch; and on this evening he was sitting thereon, laboriously spelling out the sentences in the Evening News — his reading was a post-bellum accomplishment — when the oldest of his three children, Theodore, a boy of twelve, interrupted him with the intelligence that there was an ” old straggler at the back door.”

After admonishing the hope of his years as to the impropriety of applying such a term to an unfortunate, the father rose and sought the place where the “straggler” awaited him.

Nelse’s sympathetic heart throbbed with pity at the sight that met his eye. The ” straggler,” a ” thing of shreds and patches,” was a man about his own age, nearing fifty; but what a contrast he was to the well-preserved, well-clothed black man! His gray hair straggled carelessly about his sunken temples, and the face beneath it was thin and emaciated. The hands that pulled at the fringe of the ragged coat were small and bony. But both the face and the hands were clean, and there was an open look in the bold, dark eye.

In strong contrast, too, with his appearance was the firm, well-modulated voice, somewhat roughened by exposure, in which he said, “I am very hungry; will you give me something to eat ? ” It was a voice that might have spoken with authority. There was none of the beggar’s whine in it. It was clear and straight forward; and the man spoke the simple sentence almost as if it had been a protest against his sad condition.

“Jes’ set down on the step an’ git cool,” answered Nelse, ” an’ I ‘ll have something put on the table.” The stranger silently did as he was bidden, and his host turned into the house. Eliza Hatton had been quietly watching proceedings, and as her husband entered the kitchen she said, ” Look a-here, Nelse, you shorely ain’t a-goin’ to have that tramp in the kitchen a-settin’ up to the table \? ”

“Why, course,” said Nelse; “he’s human, ain’t he?”

“That don’t make no difference. I bet none of these white folks round here would do it.”

“That ain’t none of my business,” answered her husband. ” I believe in every person doin’ their own duty. Put somethin’ down on the table; the man ‘s hungry. An’ don’t never git stuck up, ‘Lizy; you don’t know what our children have got to come to.”

Nelse Hatton was a man of few words; but there was a positive manner about him at times that admitted of neither argument nor resistance.

His wife did as she was bidden, and then swept out in the majesty of wounded dignity, as the tramp was ushered in and seated before the table whose immaculate white cloth she had been prudent enough to change for a red one.

The man ate as if he were hungry, but always as if he were a hungry gentleman. There was something in his manner that impressed Nelse that he was not feeding a common tramp as he sat and looked at his visitor in polite curiosity. After a somewhat continued silence he addressed the man: ” Why don’t you go to your own people when you ‘re hungry instead of coming to us coloured folks?”

There was no reproof in his tone, only inquiry.

The stranger’s eyes flashed suddenly.

“Go to them up here? ” he said; “never. They would give me my supper with their hypocritical patronage and put it down to charity. You give me something to eat as a favour. Your gift proceeds from disinterested kindness; they would throw me a bone because they thought it would weigh something in the balance against their sins. To you I am an unfortunate man; to them I am a tramp.”

The stranger had spoken with much heat and no hesitation; but his ardour did not take the form of offence at Nelse’s question. He seemed perfectly to comprehend the motive which actuated it.

Nelse had listened to him with close attention, and at the end of his harangue he said, ” You had n’t ought to be so hard on your own people; they mean well enough.” ” My own people!” the stranger flashed back. “My people are the people of the South, — the people who have in their veins the warm, generous blood of Dixie!”

“I don’t see what you stay in the North fur ef you don’t like the people.”

” I am not staying; I ‘m getting away from it as fast as I can. I only came because I thought, like a lot of other poor fools, that the North had destroyed my fortunes and it might restore them; but five years of fruitless struggle in different places out of Dixie have shown me that it is n’t the place for a man with blood in his veins. I thought that I was reconstructed; but I ‘m not. My State did n’t need it, but I did.”

did.” ” Where ‘re you from? ”

“Kentucky ; and there’s where I ‘m bound for now. I want to get back where people have hearts and sympathies.”

The coloured man was silent. After a while he said, and his voice was tremulous as he thought of the past, “I ‘m from Kintucky, myself.”

“I knew that you were from some place in the South. There’s no mistaking our people, black or white, wherever you meet them. Kentucky ‘s a great State, sir. She did n’t secede; but there were lots of her sons on the other side. I was; and I did my duty as clear as I could see it.”

“That’s all any man kin do,” said Nelse ; ” an’ I ain’t a-blamin’ you. I lived with as good people as ever was. I know they would n’t ‘a’ done nothin’ wrong ef they ‘d ‘a’ knowed it; an’ they was on the other side.”

“You ‘ve been a slave, then? ”

“Oh, yes, I was born a slave; but the War freed me.”

” I reckon you would n’t think that my folks ever owned slaves; but they did. Everybody was good to them except me, and I was young and liked to show my authority. I had a little black boy that I used to cuff around a good deal, altho’ he was near to me as a brother. But sometimes he would turn on me and give me the trouncing that I deserved. He would have been skinned for it if my father had found it out; but I was always too much ashamed of being thrashed to tell.”

The speaker laughed, and Nelse joined him. ” Bless my soul! ” he said, ” ef that ain’t jes’ the way it was with me an’ my Mas’ Tom — ”

” Mas’ Tom! ” cried the stranger; ” man, what’s your name? ”

” Nelse Hatton,” replied the Negro.

“Heavens, Nelse! I ‘m your young Mas’ Tom. I ‘m Tom Hatton; don’t you know me, boy?”

“You can’t be — you can’t be!” exclaimed the Negro.

“I am, I tell you. Don’t you remember the scar I got on my head from falling off old Baldy’s back? Here it is. Can’t you see?” cried the stranger, lifting the long hair away from one side of his brow. ” Does n’t this convince you?”

“It’s you — it’s you; ‘t ain’t nobody else but Mas’ Tom! ” and the ex-slave and his former master rushed joyously into each other’s arms.

There was no distinction of colour or condi tion there. There was no thought of superior ity on the one hand, or feeling of inferiority on the other. They were simply two loving friends who had been long parted and had met again.

After a while the Negro said, ” I ‘m sure the Lord must ‘a’ sent you right here to this house, so ‘s you would n’t be eatin’ off o’ none o’ these poor white people ’round here.”

“I reckon you ‘re religious now, Nelse; but I see it ain’t changed your feeling toward poor white people.”

“I don’t know about that. I used to be purty bad about ’em.”

“Indeed you did. Do you remember the time we stoned the house of old Nat, the white wood-sawyer?”

“Well, I reckon I do! Was n’t we awful, them days? ” said Nelse, with forced contrition, but with something almost like a chuckle in his voice.

And yet there was a great struggle going on in the mind of this black man. Thirty years of freedom and the advantages of a Northern State made his whole soul revolt at the word ” master.” But that fine feeling, that tender sympathy, which is natural to the real Negro, made him hesitate to make the poor wreck of former glory conscious of his changed estate by using a different appellation. His warm sympathies conquered.

“I want you to see my wife and boys, Mas’ Tom,” he said, as he passed out of the room.

Eliza Hatton sat in her neatly appointed little front room, swelling with impotent rage.

If this story were chronicling the doings of some fanciful Negro, or some really rude plantation hand, it might be said that the ” front room was filled with a conglomeration of cheap but pretentious furniture, and the walls covered with gaudy prints ” — this seems to be the usual phrase. But in it the chronicler too often for gets how many Negroes were house-servants, and from close contact with their master’s families imbibed aristocratic notions and quiet but elegant tastes.

This front room was very quiet in its appointments. Everything in it was subdued except — Mrs. Hatton. She was rocking back and forth in a light little rocker that screeched the indignation she could not express. She did not deign to look at Nelse as he came into the room; but an acceleration of speed on the part of the rocker showed that his presence was known.

Her husband’s enthusiasm suddenly died out as he looked at her ; but he put on a brave face as he said, —

“‘Lizy, I bet a cent you can’t guess who that pore man in there is.”

The rocker suddenly stopped its violent motion with an equally violent jerk, as the angry woman turned upon her husband.

“No, I can’t guess,” she cried;” an’ I don’t want to. It’s enough to be settin’ an on’ry ol’ tramp down to my clean table, without havin’ me spend my time guessin’ who he is.”

“But look a-here, ‘Lizy, this is all different; an’ you don’t understand.”

“Don’t care how different it is, I do’ want to understand.” ” You ‘ll be mighty su’prised, I tell you.” “I ‘low I will; I ‘m su’prised already at you puttin’ yourself on a level with tramps.” This with fine scorn.

“Be careful, ‘Lizy, be careful ; you don’t know who a tramp may turn out to be.”

“That ol’ humbug in there has been tellin’ you some big tale, an’ you ain’t got no more sense ‘an to believe it; I ‘spect he’s crammin’ his pockets full of my things now. Ef you don’t care, I do.”

The woman rose and started toward the door, but her husband stopped her. ” You must n’t go out there that way,” he said. ” I want you to go out, you an’ the childern; but I want you to go right — that man is the son of my ol’ master, my young Mas’ Tom, as I used to call him.”

She fell back suddenly and stared at him with wide-open eyes.

“Your master!”

“Yes, it’s young Mas’ Tom Hatton.”

“An’ you want me an’ the childern to see him, do you? ”

“Why, yes, I thought — ”

“Humph! that’s the slave in you yet,” she interrupted. “I thought thirty years had made you free! Ain’t that the man you told me used to knock you ’round so?”

“Yes, ‘Lizy ; but —”

“Ain’t he the one that made you haul him in the wheelbar’, an’ whipped you because you could n’t go fast enough?”

“Yes, yes ; but that —“

“Ain’t he the one that lef ‘ that scar there?” she cried, with a sudden motion of her hand toward his neck.

“Yes,” said Nelse, very quietly; but he put his hand up and felt the long, cruel scar that the lash of a whip had left, and a hard light came into his eyes.

His wife went on: “An’ you want to take me an’ the childern in to see that man? No!” The word came with almost a snarl. “Me an’ my childern are free born, an’, ef I kin help it, they sha’n’t never look at the man that laid the lash to their father’s back! Shame on you, Nelse, shame on you, to want your childern, that you ‘re tryin’ to raise independent,—to want ’em to see the man that you had to call ‘master’!”

The man’s lips quivered, and his hand opened and shut with a convulsive motion; but he said nothing.

“What did you tell me?” she asked. “Did n’t you say that if you ever met him again in this world you ‘d—”

“Kill him!” burst forth the man ; and all the old, gentle look had gone out of his face, and there was nothing but fierceness and bitterness there, as his mind went back to his many wrongs.

“Go on away from the house, ‘Lizy,” he said hoarsely; “if anything happens, I do’ want you an’ the childern around.”

“I do’ want you to kill him, Nelse, so you ‘ll git into trouble; but jes’ give him one good whippin’ for those he used to give you.”

“Go on away from the house;” and the man’s lips were tightly closed. She threw a thin shawl over her head and went out.

As soon as she had gone Nelse’s intense feeling got the better of him, and, falling down with his face in a chair, he cried, in the language which the Sunday sermons had taught him, “Lord, Lord, thou hast delivered mine enemy into my hands!”

But it was not a prayer; it was rather a cry of anger and anguish from an overburdened heart. He rose, with the same hard gleam in his eyes, and went back toward the kitchen. One hand was tightly clinched till the muscles and veins stood out like cords, and with the other he unconsciously fingered the lash’s scar.

“Couldn’t find your folks, eh, Nelse?” said the white Hatton.

“No,” growled Nelse; and continued hurriedly, “Do you remember that scar?”

“Well enough — well enough,” answered the other, sadly; “and it must have hurt you, Nelse.”

“Hurt me! yes,” cried the Negro.

“Ay,” said Tom Hatton, as he rose and put his hand softly on the black scar; ” and it has hurt me many a day since, though time and time again I have suffered pains that were as cruel as this must have been to you. Think of it, Nelse; there have been times when I, a Hatton, have asked bread of the very people whom a few years ago I scorned. Since the War everything has gone against me. You do not know how I have suffered. For thirty years life has been a curse to me; but I am going back to Kentucky now, and when I get there I ‘ll lay it down without a regret.”

All the anger had melted from the Negro’s face, and there were tears in his eyes as he cried, “You sha’n’t do it, Mas’ Tom,—you sha’n’t do it.”

His destructive instinct had turned to one of preservation.

“But, Nelse, I have no further hopes,” said the dejected man.

“You have, and you shall have. You ‘re goin’ back to Kintucky, an’ you ‘re goin’ back a gentleman. I kin he’p you, an’ I will; you ‘re welcome to the last I have.”

“God bless you, Nelse —”

“Mas’ Tom, you used to be jes’ about my size, but you ‘re slimmer now ; but — but I hope you won’t be mad ef I ask you to put on a suit o’ mine. It’s put’ nigh brand-new, an’ —”

“Nelse, I can’t do it ! Is this the way you pay me for the blows —”

“Heish your mouth; ef you don’t I ‘ll slap you down!” Nelse said it with mock solemnity, but there was an ominous quiver about his lips.

“Come in this room, suh; ” and the master obeyed. He came out arrayed in Nelse’s best and newest suit. The coloured man went to a drawer, over which he bent laboriously. Then he turned and said: “This ‘ll pay your passage to Kintucky, an’ leave somethin’ in your pocket besides. Go home, Mas’ Tom, — go home!”

“Nelse, I can’t do it ; this is too much!”

“Doggone my cats, ef you don’t go on —”

The white man stood bowed for a moment; then, straightening up, he threw his head back. ” I ‘ll take it, Nelse ; but you shall have every cent back, even if I have to sell my body to a medical college and use a gun to deliver the goods ! Good-bye, Nelse, God bless you! good bye.”

“Good-bye, Mas’ Tom, but don’t talk that way; go home. The South is changed, an’ you ‘ll find somethin’ to suit you. Go home — go home; an’ ef there’s any of the folks a-livin’, give ’em my love, Mas’ Tom — give ’em my love — good-bye — good-bye!”

The Negro leaned over the proffered hand, and his tears dropped upon it. His master passed out, and he sat with his head bowed in his hands.

After a long while Eliza came creeping in.

“Wha’ ‘d you do to him, Nelse — wha’ ‘d you do to him?” There was no answer. “Lawd, I hope you ain’t killed him,” she said, looking fearfully around. “I don’t see no blood.”

” I ain’t killed him,” said Nelse. ” I sent him home—back to the ol’ place.”

“You sent him home! how ‘d you send him, huh?”

“I give him my Sunday suit and that money—don’t git mad, ‘Lizy, don’t git mad—that money I was savin’ for your cloak. I could n’t help it, to save my life. He’s goin’ back home among my people, an’ I sent ’em my love. Don’t git mad an’ I ‘ll git you a cloak anyhow.”

“Pleggone the cloak !” said Mrs. Hatton, suddenly, all the woman in her rising in her eyes. ” I was so ‘fraid you ‘d take my advice an’ do somethin’ wrong. Ef you ‘re happy, Nelse, I am too. I don’t grudge your master nothin’—the ol’ devil! But you ‘re jes’ a good-natured, big-hearted, weak-headed ol’ fool!” And she took his head in her arms.

Great tears rolled down the man’s cheeks, and he said: “Bless God, ‘Lizy, I feel as good as a young convert.”

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Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature by Matthew Teutsch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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