and Other Half-Hour Sketches
By RUTH MCENERY STUART
Author of "In Simpkinsville" "A Golden Wedding" etc.
LONDON AND NEW YORK HARPER & BROTHERS PUBLISHERS 1898
Copyright, 1898, by Harper & Brothers. All rights reserved.
Printed in New York, U.S.A.
MORIAH'S MOURNING 3
AN OPTICAL DILEMMA 19
THE SECOND MRS. SLIMM 37
APOLLO BELVEDERE. A CHRISTMAS EPISODE OF THE PLANTATION 53
NEAREST OF KIN (ON THE PLANTATION) 71
THE DEACON'S MEDICINE 93
TWO GENTLEMEN OF LEISURE 113
THE REV. JORDAN WHITE'S THREE GLANCES 131
LADY. A MONOLOGUE OF THE COW-PEN 157
A PULPIT ORATOR 165
AN EASTER SYMBOL. A MONOLOGUE OF THE PLANTATION 175
CHRISTMAS AT THE TRIMBLES' 181
A MINOR CHORD 211
"'THANK THE LORD! NOW I CAN SEE TO LOOK FOR 'EM!'" Frontispiece
"A SURPRISED AND SMILING MAN WAS SITTING AT HER POLISHED KITCHEN TABLE" Facing p. 8
"'I'M AC-CHILLY MOST AFEERD TO SEE YOU CONVERTED'" " 40
"'I PROMISED HIM I'D PUT ON MO'NIN' FOR HER SOON AS I MARRIED INTO DE FAMILY'" " 74
"SAYS SHE, 'OPEN YORE MOUTH!' AN' OF CO'SE I OPENED IT" " 98
"I DES LETS 'EM LOOSE P'OMISKYUS, TELL EV'YBODY SEE BLUE LIGHTNIN'" " 134
"SALVATION'S KYAR IS MOVIN'!" " 148
"'WON'T YER, PLEASE, SIR, SPELL DAT WORD OUT FUR ME SLOW?'" " 168
Moriah was a widow of a month, and when she announced her intention of marrying again, the plantation held its breath. Then it roared with laughter.
Not because of the short period of her mourning was the news so incredible. But by a most exceptional mourning Moriah had put herself upon record as the most inconsolable of widows.
So prompt a readjustment of life under similar conditions was by no means unprecedented in colored circles.
The rules governing the wearing of the mourning garb are by no means stringent in plantation communities, and the widow who for reasons of economy or convenience sees fit to wear out her colored garments during her working hours is not held to account for so doing if she appear at all public functions clad in such weeds as she may find available. It is not even needful, indeed, that her supreme effort should attain any definite standard. Anybody can collect a few black things, and there is often an added pathos in the very incongruity of some of the mourning toilettes that pass up the aisles of the colored churches.
Was not the soul of artlessness expressed in the first mourning of a certain young widow, for instance, who sewed upon her blue gown all the black trimming she could collect, declaring that she "would 'a' dyed de frock th'oo an' th'oo 'cep'n' it would 'a' swunked it up too much"? And perhaps her sympathetic companions were quite as naive as she, for, as they aided her in these first hasty stitches, they poured upon her wounded spirit the healing oil of full and sympathetic approval, as the following remarks will testify.
"Dat frock mo'ns all right, now de black bows is on it."
"You kin put any colored frock in mo'nin' 'cep'n' a red one. Sew black on red, an' it laughs in yo' face."
"I'm a-sewin' de black fringe on de josey, Sis Jones, 'case fringe hit mo'ns a heap mo'nfuler 'n ribbon do."
Needless to say, a license so full and free as this found fine expression in a field of flowering weeds quite rare and beautiful to see.
Moriah had proven herself in many ways an exceptional person even before the occasion of her bereavement, and in this, contrary to all precedent, she had rashly cast her every garment into the dye-pot, sparing not even so much as her underwear.
Moriah was herself as black as a total eclipse, tall, angular, and imposing, and as she strode down the road, clad in the sombre vestments of sorrow, she was so noble an expression of her own idea that as a simple embodiment of dignified surrender to grief she commanded respect.
The plantation folk were profoundly impressed, for it had soon become known that her black garb was not merely a thing of the surface.
"Moriah sho' does mo'n for Numa. She mo'ns f'om de skin out." Such was popular comment, although it is said that one practical sister, to whom this "inward mo'nin'" had little meaning, ventured so far as to protest against it.
"Sis Moriah," she said, timidly, as she sat waiting while Moriah dressed for church—"Sis Moriah, look ter me like you'd be 'feerd dem black shimmies 'd draw out some sort o' tetter on yo' skin," to which bit of friendly warning Moriah had responded, with a groan, and in a voice that was almost sepulchral in its awful solemnity, "When I mo'n I mo'n!"
Perhaps an idea of the unusual presence of this great black woman may be conveyed by the fact that when she said, as she was wont to do in speaking of her own name, "I'm named Moriah—after a Bible mountain," there seemed a sort of fitness in the name and in the juxtaposition neither the sacred eminence or the woman suffered a loss of dignity.
And this woman it was who, after eight years of respectable wifehood and but four weeks of mourning her lost mate, calmly announced that she was to be married again.
The man of her choice—I use the expression advisedly—was a neighbor whom she had always known, a widower whose bereavement was of three months' longer standing than her own.
The courtship must have been brief and to the point, for it was positively known that he and his fiancee had met but three times in the interval when the banns were published.
He had been engaged to whitewash the kitchen in which she had pursued her vocation as cook for the writer's family.
The whitewashing was done in a single morning, but a second coating was found necessary, and it is said by one of her fellow-servants, who professes to have overheard the remark, that while Pete was putting the finishing-touches to the bit of chimney back of her stove, Moriah, who stooped at the oven door beside him, basting a roast turkey, lifted up her stately head and said, archly, breaking her mourning record for the first time by a gleaming display of ivory and coral as she spoke,
"Who'd 'a' thought you'd come into my kitchen to do yo' secon' co'tin', Pete?"
At which, so says our informant, the whitewash brush fell from the delighted artisan's hands, and in a shorter time than is consumed in the telling, a surprised and smiling man was sitting at her polished kitchen table chatting cosily with his mourning hostess, while she served him with giblets and gravy and rice and potatoes "an' coffee b'iled expressly."
It was discovered that the kitchen walls needed a third coating. This took an entire day, "because," so said Pete, "de third coat, hit takes mo' time to soak in."
And then came the announcement. Moriah herself, apparently in nowise embarrassed by its burden, bore the news to us on the following morning. There was no visible change of front in her bearing as she presented herself—no abatement of her mourning.
"Mis' Gladys," she said, simply, "I come ter give you notice dat I gwine take fo' days off, startin' nex' Sunday."
"I hope you are not in any new trouble, Moriah?" I said, sympathetically.
"Well, I don' know ef I is or not. Me an' Pete Pointdexter, we done talked it over, an' we come ter de conclusion ter marry."
I turned and looked at the woman—at her black garments, her still serious expression. Surely my hearing was playing me false. But catching my unspoken protest, she had already begun to explain.
"Dey ain't no onrespec' ter de dead, Mis' Gladys, in marryin'," she began. "De onrespec' is in de carryin's on folks does when dey marry. Pete an' me, we 'low ter have eve'ything quiet an' solemncholy—an' pay all due respects—right an' left. Of co'se Pete's chillen stands up fur dey mammy, an' dey don't take no stock in him ma'yin' ag'in. But Ca'line she been dead long enough—mos' six mont's—countin' fo' weeks ter de mont'. An' as fur me, I done 'ranged ter have eve'ything did ter show respec's ter Numa." (Numa was her deceased husband.) "De organ-player he gwine march us in chu'ch by de same march he played fur Numa's fun'al, an' look like dat in itse'f is enough ter show de world dat I ain't forgot Numa. An', tell de trufe, Mis' Gladys, ef Numa was ter rise up f'om his grave, I'd sen' Pete a-flyin' so fast you could sen' eggs to market on his coat tail.
"You see, de trouble is I done had my eye on Pete's chillen ever sence dey mammy died, an' ef dey ever was a set o' onery, low-down, sassy, no-'count little niggers dat need takin' in hand by a able-bodied step-mammy, dey a-waitin' fur me right yonder in Pete's cabin. My hand has des nachelly itched to take aholt o' dat crowd many a day—an' ever sence I buried Numa of co'se I see de way was open. An' des as soon as I felt like I could bring myse'f to it, I—well—Dey warn't no use losin' time, an' so I tol' you, missy, dat de kitchen need' white-washin'."
"And so you sent for him—and proposed to him, did you?"
"P'opose to who, Mis' Gladys? I'd see Pete in de sinkin' swamp 'fo' I'd p'opose to him!"
"Then how did you manage it, pray?"
"G'way, Mis' Gladys! Any wide-awake widder 'oman dat kin get a widder man whar he can't he'p but see her move round at her work for two days hand-runnin', an' can't mesmerize him so's he'll ax her to marry him—Um—hm! I'd ondertake ter do dat, even ef I warn't no cook; but wid seasonin's an' flavors to he'p me—Law, chile! dey warn't no yearthly 'scape fur dem chillen!
"I would 'a' waited," she added, presently—"I would 'a' waited a reas'nable time, 'cep'n dat Pete started gwine ter chu'ch, an' you know yo'se'f, missy, when a well-favored widder man go ter seek consolation f'om de pulpit, he's might' ap' ter find it in de congergation."
As I sat listening to her quiet exposition of her scheme, it seemed monstrous.
"And so, Moriah," I spoke now with a ring of real severity in my voice—"and so you are going to marry a man that you confess you don't care for, just for the sake of getting control of his children? I wouldn't have believed it of you."
"Well—partly, missy." She smiled a little now for the first time. "Partly on dat account, an' partly on his'n. Pete's wife Ca'line, she was a good 'oman, but she was mighty puny an' peevish; an' besides dat, she was one o' deze heah naggers, an' Pete is allus had a purty hard pull, an' I lay out ter give him a better chance. Eve'y bit o' whitewashin' he'd git ter do 'roun' town, Ca'line she'd swaller it in medicine. But she was a good 'oman, Ca'line was. Heap o' deze heah naggers is good 'omans! Co'se I don't say I loves Pete, but I looks ter come roun' ter 'im in time. Ef I didn't, I wouldn't have him."
"And how about his loving you?"
"Oh, Mis' Gladys, you is so searching!" She chuckled. "Co'se he say he loves me already better'n he love Ca'line, but of co'se a widder man he feels obleeged ter talk dat-a-way. An' ef he didn't have the manners ter say it, I wouldn't have him, to save his life; but ef he meant it, I'd despise him. After Ca'line lovin' de groun' he tread fur nine long yeahs, he ain't got no right ter love no 'oman better'n he love her des 'caze he's a-projec'in' ter git married to 'er. But of co'se, Mis' Gladys, I ca'culates ter outstrip Ca'line in co'se o' time. Ef I couldn't do dat—an' she in 'er grave—an' me a cook—I wouldn't count myse'f much. An' den, time I outstrips her an' git him over, heart an' soul, I'll know it by de signs."
"Why will you know it more than you know it now? He can but swear it to you."
"Oh no, missy. When de rock bottom of a man's heart warms to a 'oman, he eases off f'om swearin' 'bout it. Deze heah men wha' swear so much, dey swear des as much ter convince deyselves as dey does ter ketch a 'oman's ear. No, missy. Time I got him heart an' soul, I looks for him to commence to th'ow up Ca'line's ways ter me. Heap of 'em does dat des ter ease dey own consciences an' pacify a dead 'oman's ghost. Dat's de way a man nachelly do. But he won't faze me, so long as I holds de fort! An' fur de chillen, co'se quick as I gits 'em broke in I'll see dat dey won't miss Ca'line none. Dat little teether, I done tol' Pete ter fetch her over ter me right away. Time I doctors her wid proper teas, an' washes her in good warm pot-liquor, I'll make a fus'-class baby out'n her."
Moriah had always been a good woman, and as she stood before me, laying bare the scheme that, no matter what the conditions, had in it the smallest selfish consideration, I felt my heart warm to her again, and I could not but feel that the little whitewasher—a kindly, hard-pressed family man of slight account—would do well to lay his brood upon her ample bosom.
Of course she was marrying him, and her acquisition of family would inevitably become pensioners upon our bounty; but this is not a great matter in a land where the so-called "cultivation" of the soil is mainly a question of pruning and selection, and clothes grow upon the commonest bush.
As she turned to go, I even offered her my best wishes, and when I laughingly asked her if I might help her with her wedding-dress, she turned and looked at me.
"Bless yo' heart, Mis' Gladys," she exclaimed, "I ain't gwine out o' mo'nin'! I gwine marry Pete in des what I got on my back. I'll marry him, an' I'll take dem little no-'counts o' his'n, an' I'll make folks out'n 'em 'fo' I gits th'ough wid 'em, ef Gord spares me; but he nee'n't ter lay out ter come in 'twix' me an' my full year o' mo'nin' fur Numa. When I walks inter dat chu'ch, 'cep'n' fur de owange wreaf, which of co'se in a Christian ma'iage I'm boun' ter wear, folks 'll be a heap mo' 'minded o' Numa 'n dey will o' de bridegroom. An' dem chillen o' his'n, which ain't nuver is had no proper mo'nin' fur dey mammy—no mo' 'n what color Gord give 'em in dey skins—I gwine put 'em in special secon' mo'nin', 'cordin' to de time dey ought ter been wearin' it; an' when we walks up de island o' de chu'ch, dey got ter foller, two by two, keepin' time ter de fun'al march. You come ter de weddin', Mis' Gladys, an' I lay you'll 'low dat I done fixed it so dat, while I'm a-lookin' out fur de livin', de dead ain't gwine feel slighted, right nur left."
She was starting away again, and once more, while I wished her joy, I bade her be careful to make no mistake. A note of sympathy in my voice must have touched the woman, for she turned, and coming quite up to me, laid her hand upon my lap.
"Missy," she said, "I don't believe I gwine make no mistake. You know I allus did love chillen, an' I ain't nuver is had none o' my own, an' dis heah seemed like my chance. An' I been surveyin' de lan'scape o'er tryin' ter think about eve'ything I can do ter start right. I'm a-startin' wid dem chillen, puttin' 'em in mo'nin' fur Ca'line. Den, fur Pete, I gwine ring de changes on Ca'line's goodness tell he ax me, for Gord sake, ter stop, so, in years ter come, he won't have nothin' ter th'ow up ter me. An' you know de reason I done tooken fo' days off, missy? I gwine on a weddin'-trip down ter Pine Bluff, an' I wants time ter pick out a few little weddin'-presents to fetch home ter Pete."
"Pete!" I cried. "Pete is going with you, of course?"
"Pete gwine wid me? Who sesso? No, ma'am! Why, missy, how would it look fur me ter go a-skylarkin' roun' de country wid Pete—an' me in mo'nin'?
"No, indeedy! I gwine leave Pete home ter take keer dem chillen, an' I done set him a good job o' whitewashin' to do while I'm gone, too. De principles' weddin'-present I gwine fetch Pete is a fiddle. Po' Pete been wantin' a good fiddle all his life, an' he 'ain't nuver is had one. But, of co'se, I don't 'low ter let him play on it tell de full year of mo'nin' is out."
AN OPTICAL DILEMMA
Elder Bradley had lost his spectacles, and he was in despair. He was nearly blind without them, and there was no one at home to hunt them for him. His wife had gone out visiting for the afternoon; and he had just seen Dinah, the cook, stride gleefully out the front gate at the end of the lane, arrayed in all her "s'ciety uniform," on her way to a church funeral. She would not be home until dark.
It was growing late in the afternoon, and the elder had to make out his report to be read at the meeting of the session this evening. It had to be done.
He could not, from where he sat, distinguish the pink lion's head from the purple rose-buds on the handsome new American Brussels rug that his wife had bought him as a Christmas gift—to lay under her sewing-machine—although he could put out his boot and touch it. How could he expect to find anything so small as a pair of spectacles?
The elder was a very old man, and for years his focal point had been moving off gradually, until now his chief pleasures of sight were to be found out-of-doors, where the distant views came gratefully to meet him.
He could more easily distinguish the dark glass insulators from the little sparrows that sometimes came to visit them upon the telegraph pole a quarter of a mile away than he could discriminate between the beans and the pie that sometimes lay together on his dinner plate.
Indeed, when his glasses stayed lost over mealtimes, as they had occasionally done, he had, after vainly struggling to locate the various viands upon his plate and suffering repeated palatal disappointments, generally ended by stirring them all together, with the declaration that he would at least get one certain taste, and abide by it.
This would seem to show him to have been an essentially amiable man, even though he was occasionally mastered by such outbursts of impatience as this; for, be it said to his credit, he always left a clean plate.
The truth is, Elder Bradley was an earnest, good man, and he had tried all his life, in a modest, undeclared way, to be a Christian philosopher. And he would try it now. He had been, for an hour after his mishap, walking more rapidly than was his habit up and down the entire length of the hall that divided the house into two distinct sides, and his head had hung low upon his bosom. He had been pondering. Or perhaps he had been praying. His dilemma was by no means a thing to be taken lightly.
Suddenly realizing, however, that he had squandered the greater part of a valuable afternoon in useless repining, he now lifted his head and glanced about him.
"I'm a-goin' to find them blame spec's—eyes or no eyes!" He spoke with a steady voice that had in it the ring of the invincible spirit that dares failure. And now, having resolved and spoken, he turned and entered the dining-room—and sat down. It was here that he remembered having last used the glasses. He would sit here and think.
It was a rather small room, which would have been an advantage in ordinary circumstances. But to the elder its dimensions were an insurmountable difficulty. How can one compass a forty-rod focus within the limits of a twelve by sixteen foot room?
But if his eyes could not help him, his hands must. He had taken as few steps as possible in going about the room, lest he should tread upon the glasses unawares; and now, stepping gingerly, and sometimes merely pushing his feet along, he approached his writing-table and sat down before it. Then he began to feel. It was a tedious experiment and a hazardous one, and after a few moments of nervous and fruitless groping, he sought relief in expression.
"That's right! turn over!" he exclaimed. "I s'pose you're the red ink! Now if I could jest capsize the mucilage-bottle an' my bag o' snuff, an' stir in that Seidlitz-powder I laid out here to take, it would be purty cheerful for them fiddle-de-dees an' furbelows thet's layin' everywhere. I hope they'll ketch it ef anything does! They's nothin' I feel so much like doin' ez takin' a spoon to the whole business!"
The elder was a popular father, grandfather, uncle, husband, and Bible-class teacher to a band of devoted women of needle-work and hand-painting proclivities, and his writing-table was a favorite target for their patiently wrought love-missiles.
One of the strongest evidences of the old man's kindliness of nature was that it was only when he was wrought up to the point of desperation, as now, that he spoke his mind about the gewgaws which his soul despised.
There are very few good old elders in the Presbyterian Church who care to have pink bows tied on their penholders, or to be reminded at every turn that they are hand-painted and daisy-decked "Dear Grandfathers." It is rather inconvenient to have to dodge a daisy or a motto every time one wants to dry a letter on his blotting-pad, and the hand-painted paper-cutter was never meant to cut anything.
"Yes," the good old man repeated, "ef I knowed I could stir in every blame thing thet's got a ribbon bow or a bo'quet on it, I'd take a spoon to this table now—an' stir the whole business up—an' start fresh!"
Still, as his hand tipped a bottle presently, he caught it and set it cautiously back in its place.
He had begun now to systematically feel over the table, proceeding regularly with both hands from left to right and back again, until on a last return trip he discerned the edge of the mahogany next his body. And then he said—and he said it with spirit:
"Dod blast it! They ain't here—nowheres!"
He sat still now for a moment in thought. And then he began to remember that he had sat talking to his wife at the sewing-machine just before she left the house. He rose and examined the table of the machine and the floor beneath it. Then he tried the sideboard and the window-sill, where he had read his morning chapter from St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans, chapter viii.
He even shook out the leaves of his Testament upon the floor between his knees and felt for them there. There had been a Biblical surrender of this sort more than once in the past, and he never failed to go to the Good Book for relief, even when, as now, he distinctly remembered having worn the glasses after his daily reading.
Failing to find them here, he suddenly ran his hand over his forehead with an eager movement. Many a time these very spectacles had come back to him there, and, strange to say, it was always one of the last places he remembered to examine. But they were not there now.
He chuckled, even in his despair, as he dropped his hand.
"I'll look there ag'in after a while. Maybe when he's afeerd I'll clair lose my soul, he'll fetch 'em back to me!"
The old man had often playfully asserted that his "guardeen angel" found his lost glasses, and laid them back on his head for him when he saw him tried beyond his strength. And maybe he was right. Who can tell? That there is some sort of so-called "supernatural" intervention in such matters there seems to be little doubt.
There is a race—of brownies, probably, or maybe they are imps—whose business in life seems to be to catch up any needed trifle—a suddenly dropped needle, the very leaf in the morning paper that the reader held a moment ago and that holds "continuations," the scissors just now at his elbow, his collar button—and to hide it until the loser swears his ultimate, most desperate swear!
When the profanity is satisfactory, the little fellows usually fetch back the missing article, lay it noiselessly under the swearer's nose, and vanish.
At other times, when the victim persistently declines profanity, they have been known to amiably restore the articles after a reasonable time, and to lay them so absurdly in evidence that the hitherto forbearing man breaks his record in a volley of imprecations.
When this happens, if one has presence of mind to listen, he can distinctly hear a fine metallic titter along the tops of the furniture and a hasty scamper, as of tiny scurrying feet.
This may sound jocund, but the writer testifies that it is true.
Of course when the victim is a lady the pixies do not require of them men's oaths. But they will have only her best.
When the elder had tried in vain all the probable places where the glasses might be hidden, he began to realize that there was only one thing left for him to do. He must feel all over the floor.
He was a fat old man and short of neck.
For five years he had realized a feeling of thankfulness that the Presbyterian form of worship permitted standing in prayer. It hurt him to kneel. But nothing could hurt him so much as to fail to hand in his report to-night. Indeed, the missionary collection would be affected by it. It must be written.
He found a corner in the room and got down on his marrow-bones, throwing his hands forward and bringing them back in far-reaching curves, as one swimming. This was hard work, and before many minutes great drops of perspiration were falling upon the carpet and the old man's breath came in quick gasps.
"Ef I jest had the blame things for a minute to slip on my eyes, why, I could find 'em—easy enough!" he ejaculated—desperation in his voice.
And then he proceeded to say a number of things that were lacking in moderation, and consequently very sinful—in an elder of the church.
The "bad words" spoken in the vacant house fell accusingly upon the speaker's ears, and they must have startled him, for he hastened to add: "I don't see where no sense o' jestice comes in, nohow, in allowin' a man on the very eve of doin' his Christian duty to lose his most important wherewithal!"
This plea was no doubt in mild extenuation of the explosive that had preceded it, and as he turned and drew himself forward by his elbows to compass a new section of the room, which, by-the-way, seemed suddenly expanded in size, he began to realize that the plea was in itself most sinful—even more so than the outburst, perhaps, being an implication of divine injustice.
A lump came into his throat, and as he proceeded laboriously along on his dry swim, he felt for a moment in danger of crying.
Of course this would never do, but there was just so much emotion within him, and it had begun to ferment.
Before he realized his excitement his arms were flying about wildly and he was shrieking in a frenzy.
"But I must have 'em! I must have 'em! I must, I say; O Lord, I must—I MUST HAVE THEM SPECTACLES! Lor-r-d, I have work to do—FOR THEE—an' I am eager to perform it. All I ask is FIVE MINUTES' USE O' MY EYES, so thet I may pursue this search in patience—"
His voice broke in a sob.
And just now it was that his left hand, fumbling over the foot of the sewing-machine treadle, ran against a familiar bit of steel wire.
If it had connected with an ordinary electric battery, the resulting shock could scarcely have been more pronounced.
There was something really pathetic in the spasmodic grasp with which he seized the glasses, and as he rose to a sitting posture and lifted them to his eyes, his hand shook pitifully.
"Thank the Lord! Now I can see to look for 'em!" And as he tremblingly brought the curved ends of the wire around his ears he exclaimed with fervor, "Yas, Lord, with Thy help I will keep my vow—an' pursue this search in patience." His wet, red face beamed with pleasure over the recovery of his near vision. So happy was he, indeed, in the new possession, that, instead of rising, he sat still in the middle of the floor, running his eyes with rapid scrutiny over the carpet near him. He sat here a long time—even forgetting his discomfort, while he turned as on a pivot as the search required. Though the missing articles did not promptly appear at his side, Bradley felt that he was having a good time, and so he was, comparatively. Of course he would find the glasses presently. He looked at his watch. What a joy to see its face! He would still have time to do the report, if he hurried a little. He began to rise by painful stages.
"Lemme see! The last thing I done was to open the sideboa'd an' cut a piece o' pie an' eat it. I must o' had my glasses on then. I ricollec' it was sweet-potato pie, an' it was scorched on one side. Lordy! but what a pleasure it is to look for a thing when a person can look!" He crossed over to the sideboard.
"Yas"—he had opened the door and was cutting another piece of pie. "Yas. Sweet-potato pie, an' burnt on one side—the side thet's left. Yas, an' I'll leave it ag'in!" He chuckled as he took a deep bite.
"Of co'se I must 'a' had 'em on when I cut the pie, or I couldn't 've saw it so distinc'—'an I finished that slice a-settin' down talkin' to her at the sewin'-machine. Ricollec' I told her how mother used to put cinnamon in hers. I'll go set there ag'in, an' maybe by lookin' 'round—They might 'a' dropped in her darnin'-basket."
It was while he sat here, running one hand through the basket and holding the slice of pie in the other, that he heard a step, and, looking up, he saw his wife standing in the door.
"Why, Ephraim! What on earth!" she exclaimed. "I lef you there eatin' that pie fo' hours ago, an' I come back an' find you settin' there yet! You cert'n'y 'ain't forgot to make out yo' report?"
"Forgot nothin', Maria." He swallowed laboriously as he spoke. "I 'ain't done a thing sence you been gone but look for my glasses—not a blame thing. An' I'm a-lookin' for 'em yet."
Mrs. Bradley was frightened. She walked straight up to her husband and took his hand. "Ephraim," she said, gently, and as she spoke she drew the remainder of the pie from his yielding fingers—"Ephraim, I wouldn't eat any mo' o' that heavy pie ef I was you. You ain't well. Ef you can't make no mo' headway'n that on yo' favorite pie in fo' hours, you're shorely goin' to be took sick." She took her handkerchief and wiped his forehead. And then she added, with a sweet, wifely tenderness: "To prove to you thet you ain't well, honey, yo' glasses are on yo' nose right now. You better go lay down."
Bradley looked straight into her face for some moments, but he did not even blink. Then he said, in an awe-stricken voice: "Ef what you say is true, Maria—an' from the clairness with which I see the serious expression of yo' countenance I reckon it must be so—ef it is so—" He paused here, and a new light came into his eyes, and then they filled with tears. "Why, Maria honey, of co'se it's so! I know when I found 'em! But I was so full o' the thought thet ef I jest had my sight I could look for 'em thet I slipped 'em on my nose an' continued the search. Feel my pulse, honey; I've no doubt you're right. I'm a-goin' to have a spell o' sickness."
"Yes, dearie, I'm 'feered you are."
The good woman drew him over to the lounge and carefully adjusted a pillow to his head. "Now take a little nap, an' I'll send word over to Elder Jones's thet you ain't feelin' well an' can't come to prayer-meetin' to-night. What you need is rest, an' a change o' subject. I jest been over to May Bennett's, an' she's give out thet she an' Pete Sanders has broke off their engagement—an' Joe Legget, why his leg's amputated clean off—an' Susan Tucker's baby had seven spasms an'—"
"That so? I'm glad to hear it, wife. But ef you send word over to him thet I ain't well, don't send tell the last minute, please. Ef you was to, he'd come by here, shore—an' they'd be questions ast, an' I couldn't stand it. Jest send word when the second bell starts a-ringin' thet I ain't well. An' I ain't, Maria."
"I'm convinced o' that, Ephraim—or I wouldn't send the message—an' you know it. We ain't so hard pressed for excuses thet we're goin' to lie about it. I knowed you wasn't well ez soon ez I see that piece o' pie."
Bradley coughed a little. "Appearances is sometimes deceitful, Maria. I hadn't wrastled with that pie ez unsuccessful ez I seemed. That was the second slice I'd et sence you left. No, the truth is, I lost my glasses, an' I got erritated an' flew into a temper an' said things. An' the Lord, He punished me. He took my reason away. He gimme the glasses an' denied me the knowledge of 'em. But I'm thankful to Him for lettin' me have 'em—anyhow. Ef I was fo'ordained to search for 'em, it was mighty merciful in Him to loan 'em to me to do it with."
THE SECOND MRS. SLIMM
Ezra Slimm was a widower of nearly a year, and, as a consequence, was in a state of mind not unusual in like circumstances.
True, the said state of mind had not in his case manifested itself in the toilet bloomings, friskiness of demeanor, and protestations of youth renewed which had characterized the first signs of the same in the usual run of Simpkinsville widowers up to date. If he had for several months been mentally casting about for another wife, he had betrayed it by no outward and visible sign. The fact is Ezra's case was somewhat exceptional, as we shall presently see.
Although he was quite diminutive in size, there was in his bearing, as with hands clasped behind him he paced up and down before his lonely fireside, a distinct dignity that was not only essentially manly—it was gentlemanly.
The refinement of feeling underlying this no doubt aggravated the dilemma in which he found himself, and which we cannot sooner comprehend than by attending to his soliloquy as he reviewed his trials in the following somewhat rambling fashion:
"No, 'twouldn't never do in the world—never, never. 'Twouldn't never do to marry any o' these girls round here thet knows all my ups an' downs with—with pore Jinny. 'Twouldn't never do. Any girl thet knew thet her husband had been chastised by his first wife the way I've been would think thet ef she got fretted she was lettin' 'im off easy on a tongue-lashin'. An' I s'pose they is times when any woman gits sort o' wrought up, livin' day in an' day out with a man. No, 'twouldn't never do," he repeated, as, thrusting both hands in his pockets, he stopped before the fire, and steadying the top of his head against the mantel, studied the logs for a moment.
"An' so the day pore Jinny took it upon herself to lay me acrost her lap an' punish me in the presence of sech ill-mannered persons ez has seen fit to make a joke of it—though I don't see where the fun comes in—well, that day she settled the hash for number two so fur ez this town goes.
"No, 'twouldn't never do in the world! Even ef she never throwed it up to me, I'd be suspicious. She couldn't even to say clap her hands together to kill a mosquito less'n I'd think she was insinuatin'. An' jest ez quick ez any man suspicions thet his wife is a-naggin' him intentional, it's good-by happiness.
"Ef 'twasn't for that, of co'se they's more'n one young woman roun' this county thet any man might go further an' do worse than git.
"Not thet I hold it agin Jinny, now she's gone, but—"
He had resumed his promenade, extending it through a second room as he proceeded:
"—but it does seem strange how a woman gifted in prayer ez she was, an' with all her instinc's religious the way hers was, should o' been allowed to take sech satisfaction in naggin' the very one she agonized most over in prayer, which I know she done over me, for I've heerd 'er. An' ef she had o' once-t mentioned me to the Lord confidential ez a person fitten to commingle with the cherubim an' seraphim, 'stid of a pore lost sinner not fitten to bresh up their wing-feathers for 'em, I b'lieve I might o' give in. I don't wonder I 'ain't never had a call to enter the Kingdom on her ricommendation. 'Twouldn't o' been fair to the innocent angels thet would 'a' been called on to associate with me. That's the way I look at it.
"An' yit Jinny 'lowed herself thet my out'ard ac's was good, but bein' ez they didn't spring from a converted heart, they was jest nachel hypocercy, an' thet ef I'd o' lied an' stole, or even answered her back, she'd o' had more hope for me, because, sez she, a 'consistent sinner is ap' to make a consistent Christian.'
"She even tol' me one day—pore Jinny! I can see her face light up now when she said it—sez she, 'I'm ac-chilly most afeerd to see you converted, less'n you'll break out in some devilment you hadn't never thought about before-you're that inconsistent.'
"Sometimes I feel mean to think I don't miss 'er more'n what I do—an' she so lively, too. Tell the truth, I miss them little devils she used to print on the butter pads she set at my plate ez a warnin' to me—seem to me I miss them jest about ez much ez I miss her.
"The nearest I ever did come to answerin' her back—'cept, of co'se, the time she chastised me—was the way I used regular to heat my knife-blade good an' hot 'twix' two batter-cakes an' flatten that devil out delib'rate. But he'd be back nex' day, pitchfork an' all.
"But with it all Jinny loved me—in her own way, of co'se. Doubt if I'll ever git another to love me ez well; 'n' don't know ez I crave it, less'n she was different dispositioned.
"I've done paid her all the respec's I know—put up a fine Bible-texted tombstone for her, an' had her daguerre'type enlarged to a po'tr'it. I don't know's I'm obligated to do any more, 'cep'n, of co'se, to wait till the year's out, which, not havin' no young children in need of a mother, I couldn't hardly do less than do."
It was about a week after this that Ezra sat beside his fire reading his paper, when his eye happened to fall upon the following paragraph among the "personals":
"The Claybank Academy continues to thrive under the able management of Miss Myrtle Musgrove. That accomplished and popular young lady has abolished the use of the rod, and by substituting the law of kindness she has built up the most flourishing academy in the State."
Ezra read the notice three times. Then he laid the paper down, and clapping his hand upon it, exclaimed: "Well, I'll be doggoned ef that ain't the woman for me! Any girl thet could teach a county school an' abolish whuppin'—not only a chance to do it, but a crowd o' young rascals needin' it all around 'er, an' her not doin' it! An' yit some other persons has been known to strain a p'int to whup a person they 'ain't rightly got no business to whup." He read the notice again. "Purty name that, too, Myrtle Musgrove. Sounds like a girl to go out walkin' with under the myrtle-trees in the grove moonlight nights, Myrtle Musgrove does.
"I declare, I ain't to say religious, but I b'lieve that notice was sent to me providential.
"Of co'se, maybe she wouldn't look at me ef I ast her; but one thing shore, she can't if I don't.
"Claybank is a good hund'ed miles from here 'n' I couldn't leave the farm now, noways; besides, the day I start a-makin' trips from home, talk'll start, an' I'll be watched close-ter'n what I'm watched now—ef that's possible. But th' ain't nothin' to hender me writin'—ez I can see."
This idea, once in his mind, lent a new impulse to Ezra's life, a fresh spring to his gait, so evident to solicitous eyes that during the next week even his dog noticed it and had a way of running up and sniffing about him, as if asking what had happened.
An era of hope had dawned for the hitherto downcast man simply because Miss Myrtle Musgrove, a woman he had never seen, had abolished whipping in a distant school.
Two weeks passed before Ezra saw his way clearly to write the proposed letter, but he did, nevertheless, in the interval, walk up and down his butter-bean arbor on moonlight nights, imagining Miss Myrtle beside him—Miss Myrtle, named for his favorite flower. He had preferred the violet, but he had changed his mind. Rose-colored crepe-myrtles were blooming in his garden at the time. Maybe this was why he began to think of her as a pink-faced laughing girl, typified by the blushing flower. Everything was so absolutely real in her setting that the ideal girl walked, a definite embodiment of his fancy, night after night by his side, and whether it was from his life habit or an intuitive fancy, he looked upward into her face. He had always liked tall women.
And all this time he was trying to frame a suitable letter to the real "popular and accomplished Miss Musgrove," of Claybank Academy.
Finally, however, the ambitious and flowery document was finished.
It would be unfair to him whose postscript read, "For Your Eyes alone," to quote in full, for the vulgar gratification of prying eyes, the pathetic missive that told again the old story of a lonely home, the needed woman. But when it was sent, Ezra found the circuit of the butter-bean arbor too circumscribed a promenade, and began taking the imaginary Miss Myrtle with him down through his orchard and potato-patch.
It was during these moonlight communings that he seemed to discover that she listened while he talked—a new experience to Ezra—and that even when he expressed his awful doubts as to the existence of a personal devil she only smiled, and thought he might be right.
Oh, the joy of such companionship! But, oh, the slowness of the mails!
A month passed, and Ezra was beginning to give up all hope of ever having an answer to his letter, when one day it came, a dainty envelope with the Claybank postmark.
Miss Musgrove thanked him for his letter. She would see him. It would not be convenient now, but would he not come down to the academy's closing exercises in June—a month later? Until then she was very respectfully his friend, Myrtle Musgrove.
The next month was the longest in Ezra's life. Still, the Lord's calendar is faithful, and the sun not a waiter upon the moods of men.
In twenty-nine days exactly a timid little man stood with throbbing heart at the door of Claybank Academy, and in a moment more he had slipped into a back seat of the crowded room, where a young orator was ringing Poe's "Bells" through all the varying cadences of his changing voice to a rapt audience of relations and friends. Here unobserved Ezra hoped to recover his self-possession, remove the beads of perspiration one by one from his brow with a corner of his neatly folded handkerchief, and perhaps from this vantage-ground even enjoy the delight of recognizing Miss Myrtle without an introduction.
He had barely deposited his hat beneath his chair when there burst upon his delighted vision a radiant, dark-eyed, red-haired creature in pink, sitting head and shoulders above her companions on a bench set at right angles with the audience seats, in front of the house. There were a number of women in the row, and they were without bonnets. Evidently these were the teachers, and of course the pink goddess was Miss Myrtle Musgrove.
Ezra never knew whether the programme was long or short. The bells had tintinabulated and musically welled into "Casabianca" which, in turn, had merged into "The Queen o' the May," and presently before he realized it Freedom was ringing in the closing notes of "America," and everybody was standing up, pupils filing out, guests shaking hands, babel reigning, and he had seen only a single, towering, handsome woman in all the assembly.
Indeed, it had never occurred to him to doubt his own intuition, until suddenly he heard his own name quite near, and turning quickly, he saw a stout matronly woman of forty years or thereabouts standing beside him, extending her hand.
Every unmarried woman is a "young lady" by courtesy south of Mason and Dixon's line.
"I knew you as soon as I saw you, Mr. Slimm," she was saying. "I am Miss Musgrove. But you didn't know me," she added, archly, while Ezra made his bravest effort at cordiality, seizing her hand in an agony which it is better not to attempt to describe.
Miss Musgrove's face was wholesome, and so kindly that not even a cross-eye had power to spoil it. But Ezra saw only the plain middle-aged woman—the contrast to the blooming divinity whose image yet filled his soul. And he was committed to her who held his hand, unequivocally committed in writing. If he sent heavenward an agonized prayer for deliverance from a trying crisis, his petition was soon answered. And the merciful instrument was even she of the cross-eye. Before he had found need of a word of his own, she had drawn him aside, and was saying:
"You see, Mr. Slimm, the only trouble with me is that I am already married."
"Married!" gasped Ezra, trying in vain to keep the joy out of his voice. "Married, you—you don't mean—"
"Yes, married to my profession—the only husband I shall ever take. But your letter attracted me. I am a Normal School psychology student—a hard name for a well-meaning woman—and it seemed to me you were worth investigating. So I investigated. Then I knew you ought to be helped. And so I sent for you, and I am going to introduce you to three of the sweetest girls in Dixie; and if you can't find a wife among them, then you are not so clever as I think you—that's all about it. And here comes one of them now. Kitty, step here a minute, please. Miss Deems, my friend, Mr. Slimm."
And Miss Myrtle Musgrove was off across the room before Ezra's gasp had fully expanded into the smile with which he greeted Miss Kitty Deems, a buxom lass with freckles and dimples enough to hold her own anywhere.
Two other delightful young women were presented at intervals during the afternoon in about the same fashion, and but for a certain pink Juno who flitted about ever in sight, Ezra would have confessed only an embarrassment of riches.
"And how do you get on with my girls?" was Miss Musgrove's greeting when, late in the evening, she sought Ezra for a moment's tete-a-tete.
He rubbed his hands together and hesitated.
"'Bout ez fine a set o' young ladies ez I ever see," he said, with real enthusiasm; "but, tell the truth, I—but you've a'ready been so kind—but—There she is now! That tall, light-complected one in pink—"
"Why, certainly, Mr. Slimm. If you say so, I'll introduce her. A fine, thorough-going girl, that. You know we have abolished whipping in the academy, and that girl thought one of her boys needed it, and she followed him home, and gave it to him there, and his father interfered, and—well, she whipped him too. Fine girl. Not afraid of anything on earth. Certainly I'll introduce you, if you say so."
She stopped and looked at Ezra kindly. And he saw that she knew all.
"Well, I ain't particular. Some other time," he began to say; then blushing scarlet, he seized her hand, and pressing it, said, fervently, "God bless you!"
* * * *
The second Mrs. Slimm is a wholesome little body, with dimples and freckles, whom Ezra declares "God A'mighty couldn't o' made without thinkin' of Ezra Slimm an' his precize necessities."
No one but himself and Miss Musgrove ever knew the whole story of his wooing, nor why, when in due season a tiny dimpled Miss Slimm came into the family circle, it was by Ezra's request that she was called Myrtle.
A CHRISTMAS EPISODE OF THE PLANTATION
He was a little yellow man with a quizzical face and sloping shoulders, and when he gave his full name, with somewhat of a flourish, as if it might hold compensations for physical shortcomings, one could hardly help smiling. And yet there was a pathos in the caricature that dissipated the smile half-way. It never found voice in a laugh. The pathetic quality was no doubt a certain serious ingenuousness—a confiding look that always met your eye from the eager face of the diminutive wearer of second-hand coats and silk hats.
"Yas, I'm named 'Pollo Belvedere, an' my marster gi'e me dat intitlemint on account o' my shape," he would say, with a strut, on occasion, if he were bantered, for he had learned that the name held personal suggestions which it took a little bravado to confront. Evidently Apollo's master was a humorist.
Apollo had always been a house-servant, and had for several years served with satisfaction as coachman to his master's family; but after the breaking up, when the place went into other hands, he failed to find favor with the new-comers, who had an eye for conventional form, and so Apollo was under the necessity of accepting lower rank on the place as a field-hand. But he entered plantation circles with his head up. He had his house rearing, his toilets, and his education—all distinguishing possessions in his small world—and he was, in his way, quite a gentleman. Apollo could read a chapter from the Bible without stopping to spell. He seized his words with snap-shots and pronounced them with genius. Indeed, when not limited by the suggestions of print, as when on occasion he responded to an invitation to lead in public prayer, he was a builder of words of so noble and complex architecture that one hearing him was pleased to remember that the good Lord, being omniscient, must of course know all tongues, and would understand.
That the people of the plantation thought well of Apollo will appear from the fact that he was more than once urged to enter the ministry; but this he very discreetly declined to do, and for several reasons. In the first place he didn't feel "called to preach"; and in the second place he did feel called or impelled to play the fiddle; and more than that, he liked to play dance music, and to have it "danced by."
As Apollo would have told you himself, the fact that he had never married was not because he couldn't get anybody to have him, but simply that he hadn't himself been suited. And, indeed, it is because of the romance of his life that Apollo comes at all into this little sketch that bears his name. Had he not been so pathetic in his serious and grotesque personality, the story would probably have borne the name of its heroine, Miss Lily Washington, of Lone Oak Plantation, and would have concerned a number of other people.
Lily was a beauty in her own right, and she was belle of the plantation. She stood five feet ten in her bare feet, and although she tipped the scales at a hundred and sixty, she was as slim and round as a reed, and it was well known that the grip of her firm fingers applied to the closed fist of any of the young fellows on the place would make him howl. She was an emotional creature, with a caustic tongue on occasion, and when it pleased her mood to look over her shoulder at one of her numerous admirers and to wither him with a look or a word, she did not hesitate to do it. For instance, when Apollo first asked her to marry him—it had been his habit to propose to her every day or so for a year or two past—she glanced at him askance from head to foot, and then she said: "Why, yas. Dat is, I s'pose, of co'se, you's de sample. I'd order a full-size by you in a minute." This was cruel, and seeing the pathetic look come into his face, she instantly repented of it, and walked home from church with him, dismissing a handsome black fellow, and saying only kind things to Apollo all the way. And while he walked beside her, he told her that, although she couldn't realize it, he was as tall as she, for his feet were not on the ground at all; which was in a manner true, for when Lily was gracious to him, he felt himself borne along on wings that the common people could not see.
Of course no one took Apollo seriously as Lily's suitor, much less the chocolate maid herself. But there were other lovers. Indeed, there were all the others, for that matter, but in point of eligibility the number to be seriously regarded was reduced to about two. These were Pete Peters, a handsome griff, with just enough Indian in his blood to give him an air of distinction, and a French-talking mulatto who had come up from New Orleans to repair the machinery in the sugar-house, and who was buying land in the vicinity, and drove his own sulky. Pete was less prosperous than he, but although he worked his land on shares, he owned two mules and a saddle-horse, and would be allowed to enter on a purchase of land whenever he should choose to do so. Although Pete and the New Orleans fellow, whose name was also Peter, but who was called Pierre, met constantly in a friendly enough way, they did not love each other. They both loved Lily too much for that. But they laughed good-naturedly together at Apollo and his "case," which they inquired after politely, as if it were a member of his family.
"Well, 'Pollo, how's yo' case on Miss Lily comin' on?" either one would say, with a wink at the other, and Apollo would artlessly report the state of the heavens with relation to his particular star, as when he once replied to this identical question,
"Well, Miss Lily was mighty obstropulous 'istiddy, but she is mo' cancelized dis mornin'."
It was Pete who had asked the question, and he laughed aloud at the answer. "Mo' cancelized dis mornin', is she?" he replied. "How you know she is?"
"'Caze she lemme tote her hoe all de way up f'om de field," answered the ingenuous Apollo.
"She did, did she? An' who was walkin' by her side all dat time, I like to know?"
Apollo winced a little at this, but he answered, bravely, "I don't kyah ef Pier was walkin' wid her; I was totin' her hoe, all de samee."
At this Pete seemed to forget all about Apollo and his case, and he remarked that he never could see what some folks saw in city niggers, nohow—and neither could Apollo. And they felt a momentary sense of nearness to each other that was not exactly a bond, but they did not talk any more as they walked along.
It is probable that the coming of the "city fellow" into her circle hastened to culmination more than one pending romance, and there were now various and sundry coldnesses existing between Lily and a number of the boys on the place, where there had recently existed only warm and hopeful friendships. The intruder, who had a way of shrugging his shoulders and declaring of almost any question, "Well, me, I dun'no'," seemed altogether too sure when it came to a question of Lily. At least so he appeared to her more timid rural lovers.
* * * *
The Christmas-eve dance in the sugar-house had been for years an annual function on the plantation. At this, since her debut, at fourteen, three Christmases before, Lily had held undisputed sway, and all former belles amiably accepted their places as lesser lights. But there had been some quarrelling and even a fight or two on Lily's account, indirectly, and the church people had declared against the ball, on the score of domestic peace on the place. They had fought dancing per se as long as they could, but Terpsichore finally waltzed up the church aisle, figuratively speaking, and flaunted her ruffled skirts in the very faces of elders and minister, and they had had to smile and give her a pew to keep her still. And she was in the church yet, a troublemaker sometimes, and a disturber of spiritual peace—but still there.
If they had forcibly ejected her, some of their most promising and important members would have followed. But they could preach to her, and so they did. Mayhap in time they would convert her and have her and her numerous votaries for their own. As the reverend brother thundered out his denunciations of the ungodly goddess he cast his eyes often in the direction of the leading dancer, and from her they would wander to the small fiddler who sat beside the tall hat in a back pew. But somehow neither Lily nor Apollo seemed in the least conscious of any personal appeal in his glance, and when finally the question of the Christmas ball was put to vote, they both rose and unequivocally voted for it. So, for that matter, did so large a majority that one of the elders got up and proposed that the church hold revival meetings, in the hope of rousing her people to a realization of her dangers. And then Lily whispered something to her neighbor, a good old man of the church, and he stood up and announced that Miss Lily Washington proposed to have the revival after Christmas. There was some laughter at this, and the pastor very seriously objected to it as thwarting the very object for which the meetings would be held; and then, seeing herself in danger of being vanquished in argument, Lily, blushing a fine copper-color in real maidenly embarrassment, rose in the presence of the congregation, to say that when she proposed to have the revival after Christmas, she "didn't mean no harm." She was only thinking that "it was a heap better to repent 'n to backslide."
This brought down the house, an expression not usually employed in this connection, but which seems to force its way here as particularly fitting. As soon as he could get a hearing the reverend brother gave out a hymn, followed it with a short prayer, and dismissed the congregation. And on the Sunday following he gave notice that for several reasons it had been decided as expedient to postpone the revival meetings in the church until after Christmas. No doubt he had come over to Lily's way of thinking.
Lily was perfectly ravishing in her splendor at the dance. The white Swiss frock she wore was high in the neck, but her brown shoulders and arms shone through the thin fabric with fine effect. About her slim waist she tied a narrow ribbon of blue, and she carried a pink feather fan, and the wreath about her forehead was of lilies-of-the-valley. She had done a day's scouring for them, and they had come out of the summer hat of one of the white ladies on the coast. This insured their quality, and no doubt contributed somewhat to the quiet serenity with which she bore herself as, with her little head held like that of the Venus of Milo, she danced down the centre of the room, holding her flounces in either hand, and kicking the floor until she kicked both her slippers to pieces, when she finished the figure in her stocking feet.
She had a relay of slippers ready, and there was a scramble as to who should put them on; but she settled that question by making 'Pollo rise, with his fiddle in his arms, and lend her his chair for a minute while she pulled them on herself. Then she let Pete and Pierre each have one of the discarded slippers as a trophy. Lily had always danced out several pairs of slippers at the Christmas dance, but she had never achieved her stocking feet in the first round until now, and she was in high glee over it. If she had been admired before, she was looked upon as a raving, tearing beauty to-night—and so she was. Fortunately 'Pollo had his fiddling to do, and this saved him from any conspicuous folly. But he kept his eyes on her, and when she grew too ravishingly lovely to his fond vision, and he couldn't stand it a minute longer in silence, he turned to the man next him, who played the bones, and remarked, "Ef—ef anybody but Gord A'mighty had a-made anything as purty as Miss Lily, dey'd 'a' stinted it somewhar," and, watching every turn, he lent his bow to her varying moods while she tired out one dancer after another. It was the New Orleans fellow who first lost his head utterly. He had danced with her but three times, but while she took another's hand and whizzed through the figures he scarcely took his eyes from her, and when, at about midnight, he succeeded in getting her apart for a promenade, he poured forth his soul to her in the picturesque English of the quadroon quarter of New Orleans. "An' now, to proof to you my lorv, Ma'm'selle Lee-lee"—he gesticulated vigorously as he spoke—"I am geeving you wan beau-u-tiful Christmas present—I am goin' to geeve you—w'at you t'ink? My borgee!" With this he turned dramatically and faced her. They were standing now under the shed outside the door in the moonlight, and, although they did not see him, Apollo stood within hearing, behind a pile of molasses-barrels, where he had come "to cool off."
Lily had several times been "buggy-ridin'" with Pierre in this same "borgee," and it was a very magnificent affair in her eyes. When he told her that it was to be hers she gasped. Such presents were unknown on the plantation. But Lily was a "mannerly" member of good society, if her circle was small, and she was not to be taken aback by any compliment a man should pay her. She simply fanned herself, a little flurriedly, perhaps, with her feather fan, as she said: "You sho' must be jokin', Mr. Pier. You cert'n'y must." But Mr. Pierre was not joking. He was never more in earnest in his life, and he told her so, and there is no telling what else he would have told her but for the fact that Mr. Pete Peters happened to come out to the shed to cool off about this time, and as he almost brushed her shoulder, it was as little as Lily could do to address a remark to him, and then, of course, he stopped and chatted a while; and after what appeared a reasonable interval, long enough for it not to seem that she was too much elated over it, she remarked, "An' by-de-way, Mr. Peters, I must tell you what a lovely Christmas gif' I have just received by de hand of Mr. Pier. He has jest presented me wid his yaller-wheeled buggy, an' I sho' is proud of it." Then, turning to Pierre, she added, "You sho' is a mighty generous gen'leman, Mr. Pier—you cert'n'y is."
Peters gave Lily one startled look, but he instantly realized, from her ingenuous manner, that there was nothing back of the gift of the buggy—that is, it had been, so far as she was concerned, simply a Christmas present. Pierre had not offered himself with the gift. And if this were so, well, he reckoned he could match him.
He reached forward and took Lily's fan from her hand. He hastened to do this to keep Pierre from taking it. Then, while he fanned her, he said, "Is dat so, Miss Lily, dat Mr. Pier is give you a buggy? Dat sholy is a fine Christmas gif'—it sho' is. An' sence you fin' yo'se'f possessed of a buggy, I trust you will allow me de pleasure of presentin' you wid a horse to drive in de buggy." He made a graceful bow as he spoke, a bow that would have done credit to the man from New Orleans. It was so well done, indeed, that Lily unconsciously bowed in return, as she said, with a look that savored a little of roguishness: "Oh, hursh, Mr. Peters! You des a-guyin' me—dat what you doin'."
"Guyin' nothin'," said Peters, grinning broadly as he noted the expression of Pierre's face. "Ef you'll jes do me de honor to accep' of my horse, Miss Lily, I'll be de proudest gen'leman on dis plantation."
At this she chuckled, and took her fan in her own hand. And then she turned to Pierre. "You sho' has set de style o' mighty expensive Christmas gif's on dis plantation, Mr. Pier—you cert'n'y has. An' I wants to thank you bofe mos' kindly—I cert'n'y does."
Having heard this much, 'Pollo thought it time to come from his hiding, and he strolled leisurely out in the other direction first, but soon returned this way. And then he stopped, and reaching over, took the feather fan—and for a few moments he had his innings. Then some one else came along and the conversation became impersonal, and one by one they all dropped off—all except 'Pollo. When the rest had gone he and Lily found seats on the cane-carrier, and they talked a while, and when a little later supper was announced, it was the proud fiddler who took her in, while Pierre and Peters stood off and politely glared at each other; and after a while Pierre must have said something, for Peters suddenly sprang at him and tumbled him out the door and rolled him over in the dirt, and they had to be separated. But presently they laughed and shook hands, and Pierre offered Pete a cigarette, and Pete took it, and gave Pierre a light—and it was all over.
* * * *
It was next day—Christmas morning—and the young people were standing about in groups under the China-trees in the campus, when Apollo joined them, looking unusually chipper and beaming. He was dressed in his best—Prince Albert, beaver, and all—and he sported a bright silk handkerchief tied loosely about his neck.
He was altogether a delightful figure, absolutely content with himself, and apparently at peace with the world. No sooner had he joined the crowd than the fellows began chaffing him, as usual, and presently some one mentioned Lily's name and spoke of her presents. The two men who had broken the record for generosity in the history of plantation lovers were looked upon as nabobs by those of lesser means. Of course everybody knew the city fellow had started it, and they were glad Peters had come to time and saved the dignity of the place; indeed he was about the only one on the plantation who could have done it.
As they stood talking it over the two heroes had nothing to say, of course, and 'Pollo began rolling a cigarette—an art he had learned from the man from New Orleans.
Finally he remarked, "Yas, Miss Lily got sev'al mighty nice presents last night."
At this Pierre turned, laughing, and said, "I s'pose you geeve 'er somet'ing too, eh?"
"Pity you hadn't a-give her dat silk hankcher. Hit'd become her a heap better'n it becomes you," Peters said, laughing.
"Yas, I reckon it would," said 'Pollo; "but de fact is she gi' me dis hankcher—an' of co'se I accepted it."
"But why ain't you tellin' us what you give her?" insisted Peters.
'Pollo put the cigarette to his lips, deliberately lit it, puffed several times, and then, removing it in a leisurely way, he drawled:
"Well, de fact is I heerd Mr. Pier here give her a buggy, an'—an' Mr. Peters, he up an' handed over a horse,—an' so, quick as I got a chance, I des balanced my ekalub'ium an' went an' set down beside her an' ast her ef she wouldn't do me de honor to accep' of a driver, an'—an' she say yas.
"You know I'm a coachman by trade.
"An' dat's huccome I come to say she got sev'al presents las' night."
And he took another puff of his cigarette.
NEAREST OF KIN
(ON THE PLANTATION)
When Tamar the laundress was married to the coachman Pompey, there was a big time on the plantation. Tamar wore white tarlatan and an orange wreath—although it was her severalth marriage—and she had six bridemaids and a train-bearer. The last, a slim little black girl of about ten years, was dressed somewhat after the fashion of the ballet, in green tarlatan with spangles, and her slender legs were carefully wrapped with gilt paper that glistened through the clocked stockings with fine effect. Otherwise the "clockings" in the black stockinet would have lost their value.
Pompey, as groom, was resplendent in the full glare of a white duck suit, and he wore a rosette of satin ribbon—"so's to 'stinguish him out f'om de groomsmen," each of whom was likewise "ducked" out in immaculate linen; and if there were some suggestive misfits among them, there were ample laundry compensations in the way of starch and polish—a proud achievement of the bride.
There was a good deal of marching up and down the aisles of the church by the entire party before the ceremony, which was, altogether, really very effective. Pompey was as black as his bride, and his face was as carefully oiled and polished for the occasion as hers, which is saying a good deal, both as to color and shine.
After the ceremony everybody repaired, for a supper and dance, to the sugar-house, where there was a bride's cake, with all the usual accessories, such as the ring and thimble, to be cut for. And of course, before the end of the evening, there was the usual distribution of bits of cake to be "dreamed on." This last, indeed, was so important that nearly every girl on the plantation slept in a neighbor's cabin that night, so as to command the full potency of the charm by dreaming her great dream in a strange bed. The whole wedding was, in fact, so disturbing a social function that everything on the place was more or less disarranged by it—even the breakfast hour at the great house, which was fully three-quarters of an hour late next morning. But that was no great matter, as all the family had been witnesses to the wedding and were somewhat sleepy in consequence—and the "rising-bell" was a movable form anyway.
Perhaps if the nuptials had been less festive the demeanor of the bride immediately afterwards would not have been so conspicuous. As it was, however, when she appeared at the wash-house, ready for duty, on the second morning following, dressed in heavy mourning, and wearing, moreover, a pseudo-sorrowful expression on her every-otherwise shining face, they wondered, and there was some nudging and whispering among the negroes. Some hastily concluded that the marriage had been rashly repudiated as a failure; but when presently the groom strolled into the yard, smiling broadly, and when he proceeded with many a flourish to devotedly fill her wash-tubs from the well for his bride, they saw that there must be some other explanation. The importance of the central figure in so recent a pageant still surrounded her with somewhat of a glamour in the eyes of her companions, setting her apart, so that they were slow to ask her any questions.
Later in the day, though, when her mistress, happening to pass through the yard, saw the black-gowned figure bending low over the tubs, she hastened to the wash-shed.
"Why, Tamar," she exclaimed, "what on earth—"
At this Tamar raised her face and smiled faintly. Then, glancing down at her dress to indicate that she understood, she drawled, demurely:
"Ain't nothin' de matter, missy. I jes mo'nin' for Sister Sophy-Sophia."
"Sophy-Sophia! You don't mean—"
"Yas, 'm, I does. I means Pompey's las' wife, Sis' Sophy-Sophia. She didn't have no kinfolks to go in mo'nin' for her, an' time Pompey an' me got ingaged he made known his wushes to me, an' I promised him I'd put on mo'nin' for her soon as I married into de family. Co'se I couldn't do it 'fo' I was kin to her."
"Kin to her!" the mistress laughed. "Why, Tamar, what relation on earth are you to Pompey's former wife, I'd like to know?"
The black woman dropped the garment she was wringing and thought a moment.
"Well, missy," she said, presently, "looks to me like I'm a speritu'l foster-sister to her, ef I ain't no mo'—an' I done inherited all her rights an' privileges, so Pompey say—an' ef I 'ain't got a right to mo'n for her, who is? Dey tell me a 'oman is got a right to go in mo'nin' for her husband's kin anyway; but of co'se, come down to it, she warn't no blood-kin to Pompey, nohow. Howsomever, eve'ybody knows a widder or a widderer is intitled to wear all de mo'nin' dey is; an' his wife, why, she's intitled to a equal sheer in it, if she choose to seize her rights. I'd 'a' put it on befo' de weddin', 'cep'n I didn't have no title to it, an' it wouldn't 'a' been no comfort to her noways. Set down, missy." She began wiping off one of her wash-benches with her apron as she spoke. "Set down, mistus, an' lemme talk to you."
The situation was interesting, and the mistress sat down.
"You see, missy"—she had come nearer now, and assumed a confidential tone—"you see, Sister Sophy-Sophia she 'ain't nuver found rest yit, an' dat frets Pompey. Hit troubles 'im in de sperit—an' I promised him to try to pacify her."
"Pacify her! Why, Tamar! How can you pacify a person who is dead? And how do you know that her spirit isn't at rest?"
The black woman turned and looked behind her to make sure that no one should overhear. Then, lowering her voice, she whispered:
"Her grave 'ain't nuver settled yit, mistus. She been buried ever sence befo' Christmus, an' hit ain't evened down yit. An' dat's a shore sign of a onrestless sperit—yas, 'm."
Her face had grown suddenly anxious as she spoke. And presently she added:
"Of co'se, when a grave settles too quick, dat's a sign dey'll soon be another death, an' nobody don't crave to see a grave sink too sudden. But it'll ease down gradual—ef de dead sleeps easy—yas, 'm. No, Sister Sophy-Sophia she 'ain't took no comfort in her grave yit. An' Pompey, righteously speakin', ought to pacified her befo' he set out to marry ag'in. Heap o' 'omans would 'a' been afeerd to marry a man wid a unsunk grave on his hands—'feerd she'd ha'nt her. But I done had 'spe'unce, an' I'm mo' 'feerd o' live ha'nts 'n I is o' dead ones. I know Sis' Sophy-Sophia she's layin' dar—an' she can't git out. You know, she died o' de exclammatory rheumatism, an' some say hit was a jedgmint f'om heaven. You know, Sis' Sophy-Sophia she was a devil for fun. She would have her joke. An' some say Gord A'mighty punished her an' turned eve'y bone in 'er body into funny-bones, jes to show her dat eve'y funny thing ain't to be laughed at. An' ef you ever got a sudden whack on de funny-bone in yo' elbow, missy, you know how she suffered when she was teched. An' she ain't at rest yit. She done proved dat. Of co'se, ef she died wid some'h'n' on 'er mind, we can't do nothin' for her; but ef she jes need soothin', I'll git her quieted down."
She leaned forward and resumed her washing—that is to say, she raised a garment from the suds and looked at it, turned it over idly in her hands several times, and dipped it languidly.
Her visitor watched her in amused silence for a while.
"And how are you going to soothe her, Tamar?" she asked, presently. "Tell me all about it."
At this the woman began wiping her hands upon her apron, and dropping into a seat between two of the tubs and resting her arms upon their rims, she faced her mistress.
"Of co'se, honey," she began, "de fust thing is to wear mo'nin'—an' dat ain't no special trouble to me—I got consider'ble black frocks lef' over from my widderhoods. An' in addition to dat, I gwine carry it around in my countenance—an' ef she sees it—an' I b'lieve de dead does see—maybe it'll ease her mind. Of co'se, when a pusson ain't able to sorrer in her heart, dey 'bleeged to wear it in dey face—"
There was something in her voice as she said these last words—an indescribable note that seemed to express detachment from all feeling in the matter—that made her listener turn and look narrowly into her face. Still, she was not in the least prepared for the hearty laughter that greeted her question.
"And don't you mourn for her in your heart, Tamar?" She eyed her narrowly as she put the question.
The black woman did not even attempt an answer. Nor did she apparently even try to control her mirth. But, after a while, when she had laughed until she was tired, she suddenly rose to her feet, and as she gathered up a handful of wet garments, and began rubbing them on the wash-board, she exclaimed, still chuckling:
"Lemme git to my washin', honey, befo' I disgrace my mo'nin'."
In a little while, however, she grew serious again, and although she still seemed to have trouble with her shoulders, that insisted upon expressing merriment, she said:
"I 'clare, I talks like a plumb hycoprite, missy—I sho' does. But I ain't. No, 'm, I ain't. Of co'se I grieves for Sis' Sophy-Sophia. I'd grieve for any po' human dat can't find rest in 'er grave—an' I'm gwine to consolate her, good as I kin. Soon as de dark o' de moon comes, I gwine out an' set on her grave an' moan, an' ef dat don't ease her, maybe when her funer'l is preached she'll be comforted."
"And hasn't she had her funeral sermon yet, Tamar?"
"Oh no, 'm. 'Tain't time, hardly, yit. We mos' gin'ly waits two or three years after de bury-in' befo' we has members' funer'ls preached. An' we don't nuver, sca'cely, have 'em under a year. You see, dey's a lot o' smarty folks dat 'ain't got nothin' better to do 'n to bring up things ag'in dead folks's cha'acter, so we waits tell dey been restin' in de groun' a year or so. Den a preacher he can expec' to preach dey funer'ls in peace. De fac' is, some o' our mos' piousest elders an' deacons is had so many widders show up at dey funer'ls dat de chu'ches is most of 'em passed a law dat dey compelled to wait a year or so an' give all dese heah p'omiscu'us widders time to marry off—an' save scandalizement. An' Pompey an' Sophy-Sophia dey didn't have no mo'n a broomstick weddin' nohow—but of co'se dey did have de broomstick. I'm a witness to dat, 'caze dey borried my broom—yas, 'm. Ricollec', I had one o' dese heah green-handle sto'e brooms, an' Pompey he come over to my cabin one mornin' an' he say, 'Sis' Tamar,' he say, 'would you mind loandin' Sis' Sophy-Sophia dat green-handle straw broom dat you sweeps out de chu'ch-house wid?' You 'member, I was married to Wash Williams dat time—Wash Williams wha' live down heah at de cross-roads now. He's married to Yaller Silvy now. You know dat red-head freckled-face yaller gal dat use to sew for Mis' Ann Powers—always wear a sailor hat—wid a waist on her no thicker'n my wris'—an' a hitch in her walk eve'y time she pass a man? Dat's de gal. She stole Wash f'om me—an' she's welcome to 'im. Any 'oman is welcome to any man she kin git f'om me. Dat's my principle. But dese heah yaller freckle niggers 'ain't got no principle to 'em. I done heerd dat all my life—an' Silvy she done proved it. Time Wash an' me was married he was a man in good chu'ch standin'—a reg'lar ordained sexton, at six dollars a month—an' I done de sweepin' for him. Dat's huccome I happened to have dat green-handle sto'e broom. Dat's all I ever did git out o' his wages. Any day you'd pass Rose-o'-Sharon Chu'ch dem days you could see him settin' up on de steps, like a gent'eman, an' I sho' did take pride in him. An' now, dey tell me, Silvy she got him down to shirt-sleeves—splittin' rails, wid his breeches gallused up wid twine, while she sets in de cabin do' wid a pink caliker Mother Hubbard wrapper on fannin' 'erse'f. An' on Saturdays, when he draw his pay, you'll mos' gin'ally see 'em standin' together at de hat an' ribbon show-case in de sto'e—he grinnin' for all he's worth. An' my belief is he grins des to hide his mizry."
"You certainly were very good to do his sweeping for him." Tamar's graphic picture of a rather strained situation was so humorous that it was hard to take calmly. But her mistress tried to disguise her amusement so far as possible. To her surprise, the question seemed to restore the black woman to a fresh sense of her dignity in the situation.
"Cert'ny I done it," she exclaimed, dramatically. "Cert'ny. You reckon I'd live in de house wid a man dat 'd handle a broom? No, ma'am. Nex' thing I'd look for him to sew. No, ma'am. But I started a-tellin' you huccome I come to know dat Pompey an' Sis' Sophy-Sophia was legally married wid a broom. One day he come over to my cabin, jes like I commenced tellin' you, an' he s'lute me wid, 'Good-mornin', Sis' Tamar; I come over to see ef you won't please, ma'am, loand Sister Sophy-Sophia Sanders dat straw broom wha' you sweeps out de chu'ch-house wid, please, ma'am?' An' I ricollec's de answer I made him. I laughed, an' I say, 'Well, Pompey,' I say, 'I don't know about loandin' out a chu'ch broom to a sinner like you.' An' at dat he giggle, 'Well, we wants it to play preacher—an' dat seems like a mighty suitable job for a chu'ch broom.' An' of co'se wid dat I passed over de broom, wid my best wushes to de bride; an' when he fetched it back, I ricollec', he fetched me a piece o' de weddin'-cake—but it warn't no mo'n common one-two-three-fo'-cup-cake wid about seventeen onfriendly reesons stirred into it wid brown sugar. I 'clare, when I looks back, I sho' is ashamed to know dat dey was ever sech a po' weddin'-cake in my family—I sho' is. Now you know, missy, of co'se, dese heah broom—weddin's dey ain't writ down in nuther co't-house nur chu'ch books—an' so ef any o' dese heah smarty meddlers was to try to bring up ole sco'es an' say dat Sister Sophy-Sophia wasn't legally married, dey wouldn't be no witnesses but me an' de broom, an' I'd have to witness for it, an'—an' I wouldn't be no legal witness."
"Why wouldn't you be a legal witness, Tamar?"
"'Caze I got de same man—an' dat's de suspiciouses' thing dey kin bring up ag'ins' a witness—so dey tell me. Ef 'twarn't for dat, I'd 'a' had her fun'al preached las' month."
"But even supposing the matter had been stirred up—and you had been unable to prove that everything was as you wished—wouldn't your minister have preached a funeral sermon anyway?"
"Oh yas, 'm, cert'n'y. On'y de fun'al he'd preach wouldn't help her to rest in her grave—dat's de on'ies' diffe'ence. Like as not dey'd git ole Brother Philemon Peters down f'om de bottom-lands to preach wrath—an' I wants grace preached at Sister Sophy-Sophia's fun'al, even ef I has to wait ten years for it. She died in pain, but I hope for her to rest in peace—an' not to disgrace heaven wid crutches under her wings, nuther. I know half a dozen loud-prayers, now, dat 'd be on'y too glad to 'tract attention away f'om dey own misdoin's by rakin' out scandalizemint on a dead 'oman. Dey'd 'spute de legalness of dat marriage in a minute, jes to keep folks f'om lookin' up dey own weddin' papers—yas, 'm. But me an' de broom—we layin' low, now, an' keepin' still, but we'll speak when de time comes at de jedgmint day, ef she need a witness."
"But tell me, Tamar, why didn't Pompey take his bride to the church if they wanted a regular wedding?"
"Dey couldn't, missy. Dey couldn't on account o' Sis' Sophy-Sophia's secon' husband, Sam Sanders. He hadn't made no secon' ch'ice yit—an', you know, when de fust one of a parted couple marries ag'in, dey 'bleeged to take to de broomstick—less'n dey go whar 'tain't known on 'em. Dat's de rule o' divo'cemint. When Yaller Silvy married my Joe wid a broomstick, dat lef' me free for a chu'ch marriage. An' I tell you, I had it, too. But ef she had a'tempted to walk up a chu'ch aisle wid Joe—an' me still onmarried—well, I wush dey'd 'a' tried it! I'd 'a' been standin' befo' de pulpit a-waitin' for 'em—an' I'd 'a' quoted some Scripture at 'em, too. But dey acted accordin' to law. Dey married quiet, wid a broomstick, an' de nex' Sunday walked in chu'ch together, took de same pew, an' he turned her pages mannerly for her—an' dat's de ladylikest behavior Silvy ever been guilty of in her life, I reckon. She an' him can't nair one of 'em read, but dey sets still an' holds de book an' turns de pages—an' Gord Hisself couldn't ax no mo' for chu'ch behavior. But lemme go on wid my washin', missy—for Gord's sake."
Laughing again now, she drew a match from the ledge of one of the rafters, struck it across the sole of her bare foot, and began to light the fire under her furnace. And as she flattened herself against the ground to blow the kindling pine, she added, between puffs, and without so much as a change of tone:
"Don't go, please, ma'am, tell I git dis charcoal lit to start dese shirts to bile. I been tryin' to fix my mouf to ax you is you got air ole crepe veil you could gimme to wear to chu'ch nex' Sunday—please, ma'am? I 'clare, I wonder what's de sign when you blowin' one way an' a live coal come right back at yer 'gins' de wind?" And sitting upon the ground, she added, as she touched her finger to her tongue and rubbed a burnt spot upon her chin: "Pompey 'd be mighty proud ef I could walk in chu'ch by his side in full sisterly mo'nin' nex' Sunday for po' Sister Sophy-Sophia—yas, 'm. I hope you kin fin' me a ole crepe veil, please, ma'am."
Unfortunately for the full blossoming of this mourning flower of Afro-American civilization, as it is sometimes seen to bloom along the by-ways of plantation life, there was not a second-hand veil of crepe forth-coming on this occasion. There were small compensations, however, in sundry effective accessories, such as a crepe collar and bonnet, not to mention a funereal fan of waving black plumes, which Pompey flourished for his wife's benefit during the entire service. Certainly the "speritu'l foster-sister" of the mourning bride, if she witnessed the tribute paid her that Sunday morning in full view of the entire congregation—for the bridal pair occupied the front pew under the pulpit—would have been obdurate indeed if she had not been somewhat mollified.
Tamar consistently wore her mourning garb for some months, and, so far as is known, it made no further impression upon her companions than to cause a few smiles and exchanges of glances at first among those of lighter mind among them, some of whom were even so uncharitable as to insinuate that Sis' Tamar wasn't "half so grieved as she let on." The more serious, however, united in commending her act as "mos' Christian-like an' sisterly conduc'." And when, after the gentle insistence of the long spring rains, added to the persuasiveness of Tamar's mourning, the grave of her solicitude sank to an easy level, bespeaking peace to its occupant, Tamar suddenly burst into full flower of flaming color, and the mourning period became a forgotten episode of the past. Indeed, in reviewing the ways and doings of the plantation in those days, it seems entitled to no more prominence in the retrospect than many another incident of equal ingenuousness and novelty. There was the second wooing of old Aunt Salina-Sue, for instance, and Uncle 'Riah's diseases; but, as Another would say, these are other stories.