Page images



[I am quite aware of the apparent willfulness which hovers about my action in writing the following bit of social history. I have assailed, so often and so unsparingly, the spirit of dialect, which for a decade has dominated our "school" of fiction makers, that for me, at this late day, to offer a dialect sketch to the public is to bare my breast and defy all comers. Still I have no apology to make, unless it be apologizing when I explain that it is not fiction, but history, which I have written in this simple and clumsy fashion. The days of slavery are gone forever, and so rapidly has the world spun forward since the chains were cut, we can scarcely realize that we have come so far in so short a time. It is due to future generations that every characteristic of the old time shall be recorded ere it be forgotten, that every correlation between master and slave shall be preserved in the cast, that all the curious and touching instances of slave life shall have their places in history, and that no element injected by slavery into the tissues of American civilization shall have its origin obscured a century hence. While their bondage lasted the negroes absorbed a great deal of Anglo-Saxon life and influence, and at the same time the whites as masters took into themselves an indescribable, but very noticeable, something from the negroes. How could it have been otherwise? The very foundations of human nature make it sure that it must often have happened, as in the case I have tried to record, that master and slave shaped each other's lives. I do not know, nor do I pretend to say, that the following instance is a typical one. Like all detached fragments of history, however, it has a trace of allegory in it. When I came upon it I felt the lurking significance which I may have failed to preserve in my imperfect sketch. Those who care for dialect literature, as such, may read lightly; but let the serious reader ponder over what may shimmer between my lines. The editor has suggested to me that the prayer by Judas recorded herein resembles the one in Mr. H. S. Edwards's fine sketch, "Two Runaways." If it does, I hasten to disclaim everything. My story is mere history, for which I am responsible only as the chronicler. If my facts and Mr. Edwards's fiction have even one point in common, the praise is due to Mr. Edwards, not to me.—MAURICE THOMPSON.]


N a dark and stormy night, early in the present century, two male children were born on the Wilson plantation in middle Georgia. One of the babes came into the world covered with a skin as black as the night, the other was of that complexion known as sandy; one was born a slave, the other a free American citizen. Two such screeching and squalling infants never before or since assaulted simultaneously the peace of the world. Such lungs had they and such vocal chords that cabin and mansion fairly shook with their boisterous and unrhythmical wailing. The white mother died, leaving her chubby, kicking, brawling offspring to share the breast of the more fortunate colored matron with the fat, black, howling, hereditary dependent thereto; and so Ben and Judas, master and slave, began their companionship at the very fountain of life. They grew, as it were, arm in arm and quite apace with each other, as healthy boys will, crawling, then toddling, anon running on the sandy lawn between the cabin and the mansion, often quarreling and sometimes fight

ing vigorously. Soon enough, however, Judas discovered that, by some invisible and inscrutable decree, he was slave to Ben, and Ben became aware that he was rightful master to Judas. The conditions adjusted themselves to the lives of the boys in a most peculiar way. The twain became almost inseparable, and grew up so intimately that Judas looked like the black shadow of Ben. If one rode a horse, the other rode a mule; if the white boy habitually set his hat far back on his head, the negro did the same; if Ben went swimming or fishing, there went Judas also. And yet Ben was forever scolding Judas and threatening to whip him, a proceeding treated quite respectfully and as a matter of course by the slave. Wherever they went Ben walked a pace or two in advance of Judas, who followed, however, with exactly the consequential air of his master and with a step timed to every peculiarity observable in the pace set by his leader. Ben's father, who became dissipated and careless after his wife's death, left the boy to come up rather loosely, and there was no one to make note of the constantly growing familiarity between the two youths, nor did any person chance to

observe how much alike they were becoming as time slipped away. Ben's education was neglected, albeit now and again a tutor was brought to the Wilson place and some effort was made to soften the crust of ignorance which was forming around the lad's mind. Stormy and self-willed, with a peculiar facility in the rapid selection and instantaneous use of the most picturesque and outlandish expletives, Ben drove these adventurous disciples of learning one by one from the place, and at length grew to manhood and to be master of the Wilson plantation (when his father died) without having changed in the least the manner of his life. He did not marry, nor did he think of marriage, but grew stout and roundshouldered, stormed and raved when he felt like it, threatened all the negroes, whipped not one of them, and so went along into middle life, and beyond, with Judas treading as exactly as possible in his footprints.

They grew prematurely old, these two men: the master's white hair was matched by the slave's snowy wool; they both walked with a shuffling gait, and their faces gradually took on a network of wrinkles; neither wore any beard. To this day it remains doubtful which was indebted most to the other in the matter of borrowed characteristics. The negro hoarded up the white man's words, especially the polysyllabic ones, and in turn the white man adopted in an elusive, modified way the negro's pronunciation and gestures. If the African apostatized and fell away from the grace of a savage taste to like soda biscuits and very sweet coffee, the American of Scotch descent dropped so low in barbarity that he became a confirmed 'possum-eater. Ben Wilson could read, after a fashion, and had a taste for romance of the swash-buckler, kidnap-a-heroine sort. Judas was a good listener, as his master mouthed these wonderful stories aloud, and his hereditary Congo imagination, crude but powerful, was fed and strengthened by the pabulum thus absorbed.

It was a picture worth seeing, worth sketching in pure colors and setting in an imperishable frame, that group, the master, the slave, and the dog Chawm. Chawm is a name boiled down from "chew them"; as a Latin commentator would put it: chew them, vel chaw them, vel chaw 'em, vel chawm. He was a copperasyellow cur of middle size and indefinite age, who loved to lie at the feet of his two masters and snap at the flies. This trio, when they came together for a literary purpose, usually occupied that part of the old vine-covered veranda which caught the black afternoon shade of the Wilson mansion. In parenthesis let me say that I use this word mansion out of courtesy, for the house was small and dilapidated; the custom of the

country made it a mansion, just as Ben Wilson was made Colonel Ben. There they were, the white, the black, and the dog, enjoying a certain story of medieval days, about a nameless, terrible knight-errant who had stolen and borne away the beautiful Rosamond, and about the slender, graceful youth who buckled his heavy armor on to ride off in melodramatic pursuit. Judas listened with eyes half closed and mouth agape; Chawm was panting, possibly with excitement, his red tongue lolling and weltering, and his kindly brown eyes upturned to watch the motions of Ben's leisurely lips. There was a wayward breeze, a desultory satin rustle, in the vine-leaves. The sky was cloudless, the red, country road hot and dusty, the mansion all silent within. Some negro plowmen were singing plaintively far off in a cornfield. The eyes of Judas grew blissfully heavy, closed themselves, his under jaw fell lower, he snored in a deep, mellow, well-satisfied key. Ben ceased reading and looked at the sleepers -for Chawm, too, had fallen into a light doze.

"Dad blast yer lazy hides! Wake erp yer, er I 'll thrash ye till ye don't know yerselves! Wake up, I say!" Ben's voice started echoes in every direction. Chawm sprung to his feet, Judas caught his breath with an indrawn snort and stared up inquiringly at his raging master.

"Yer jest go to that watermillion patch and git to yer hoein' of them vines mighty fast, er I'll whale enough hide off 'm' yer to halfsole my boots, yer lazy, good fer nothin', lowdown, sleepy-headed, snorin', flop-yeared" He hesitated, rummaging in his memory for yet another adjective. Meantime Judas had scrambled up unsteadily and was saying “Yah sah, yah sah," as fast as ever he could, and bowing apologetically while his hands performed rapid deprecatory gestures.

"Move off, I say!" thundered Ben.

Chawm moved off with his tail between his legs; Judas went in search of his hoe, and soon after he was heard singing a camp-meeting song over in the melon patch:

Ya-a-as, my mother 's over yander,
Ya-a-as, my mother 's over yander,
Ya-a-as, my mother's over yander,
On de oder sho'.

To any casual observer who for a series of years had chanced now and again to see these twain, it must have appeared that Ben Wilson's chief aim in life was to storm at Judas, and that Judas, not daring to respond in kind directly to the voluble raging of his master, lived for the sole purpose of singing religious songs and heaping maledictions on Bolus, the mule. If Ben desired his horse saddled and brought to him, he issued the order somewhat as follows:

"Judas! Hey there, yer old humpbacked scamp! How long are yer a-goin' to be afetchin' me that hoss? Hurry up! Step lively, er I'll tie ye up an' jest whale the whole skin off 'm' ye! Trot lively, I say!"

Really, what did Judas care if Ben spoke thus to him? The master never had struck the slave in anger since the days when they enjoyed the luxury of their childish fisticuffs. These threats were the merest mouthing, and Judas knew it very well.

"Yah, dar! Yo' Bolus! yo' ole rib-nosed, so'-eyed, knock-kneed, pigeon-toed t'ief! I jest wa' yo' out wid er fence-rail, ef yo' don' step pow'ful libely now; sho's yo' bo'n I jest will!"

This was the echo sent back from the rickety stables by Judas to the ears of his master, who sat smoking his short pipe on the sunken veranda under his vine and close to his gnarled fig tree. The voice was meant to sound very savage; but in spite of Judas it would be melodious and unimpressive, a mere echo and nothing more-vox, et præterea nihil.

Ben always chuckled reflectively when he heard Judas roaring like that. He could not have said just why he chuckled; perhaps it was mere force of habit.

"Dad blast that fool nigger!" he would mutter below his breath. "Puts me in mind of a hongry mule a-brayin' fer fodder. I'll skin 'im alive fer it yet."

"Consoun' Mars Ben! Better keep he ole mouf shet," Judas would growl; but neither ever heard the side remarks of the other. Indeed, in a certain restricted and abnormal way, they were very tender of each other's feelings. The older they grew the nearer came these two men together. It was as if, starting from widely separated birthrights, they had journeyed towards the same end, and thus, their paths converging, they were at last to lie down in graves dug side by side.

But no matter if their cradle was a common one, and notwithstanding that their footsteps kept such even time, Ben was master, Judas slave. They were differentiated at this one point, and at another, the point of color, irrevocably, hopelessly. As other differences were sloughed; as atom by atom their lines blended together; as strange attachments, like the feel ers of vines, grew between them; and as the license of familiarity took possession of them more and more, the attitude of the master partook of tyranny in a greater and greater degree. I use the word attitude, because it expresses precisely my meaning. Ben Wilson's tyranny was an attitude, nothing more. Judas never had seen the moment when he was afraid of his master; still there was a line over which he had not dared to step- the line of down

right disobedience. In some obscure way the negro had felt the weakness of the white man's character, from which a stream of flashing, rumbling threats had poured for a lifetime; he knew that Ben Wilson was a harmless blusterer who was scarcely aware of his own windy utterances, and yet he hesitated to admit that he knew it-nay, he forced himself to be proud of his master's prodigious temperamental expansions. He felt his own importance in the world barely below that of the man who owned him, and deep in his old heart stirred the delicious dream of freedom. What a dream! Amorphous as a cloud, and rosy as ever morning vapor was, it informed his soul with vague, haunting perfumes and nameless strains of song. Strange that so crude a being could absorb such an element into the innermost tissues of his life! Judas had a conscience, rudimentary indeed, but insistent, which gnawed him frightfully at times: not for stealing,- he was callous to that, but for rebellion, which he could not cast out of him entirely. Occasionally he soliloquized:


Ef I could jest be de mars erwhile an' Mars Ben be de nigger, bress de good Lor' but would n't I jest mor' 'n mek 'im bounce erroun' one time! Sorty fink I 'd wake 'im up afo' day, an' would n't I cuss 'im an' 'buse 'im an' rah an' cha'ge at 'im tell he know 'zac'ly how it was hese'f! Yo' may say so, honey, dat yo' may!"

Following treasonable thoughts like these came bitings by the hot teeth of the poor slave's conscience, all the deeper and crueler by contrast with the love forever upgushing to be lavished on his truly indulgent, but strongly exasperating, master.

"Lor', do forgib po' ole Judas," he would pray, "kase he been er-jokin' ter hese'f 'bout er pow'ful ticklish ci'cumstance, sho's yo' bo'n, Lor'; an' he no business trompin' roun' er ole well in de night. Git he neck broke, sho'!"

Notwithstanding conscience and prayer, however, the thought grew clearer and waxed more vigorous in the heart of Judas as the years slipped by and Ben gradually increased his scolding. The more he fought it the closer clung to him the vision of that revolution which would turn him on top and Ben below, if but for a few moments of delirious triumph.

"Lor', but would n't Mars Ben hate 'r hab dis ole nigger er-rahin' an' er-cha'gin' an' errantin' an' er-yellin' at 'im, an' jest er-cussin' 'im like de berry debil fo' eberyt'ing 'at 's mean, an' de sweat jest er-rollin' off 'm 'im an' 'im jest er-linkin' down ter wo'k, an' me jest eberlastin'ly an' outlandishly er-gibin' 'im de limmer jaw fo' he laziness an' he dog-gone general no 'countness! Ef dat would n't be satisfactional ter dis yer darkey, den I dunno nuffin' 't

all 'bout it. Dat 's his way er doin' me, an' it seem lak my time orter be comin' erlong pooty soon ter do 'im dat way er leetle, debil take de nigger ef it don't!"

In good truth, however, Judas had no right to complain of hard work; he did not earn his salt. A large part of the time he and his master occupied with angling in the rivulet hard by, wherein catfish were the chief game. Side by side on the sandy bank of the stream the twain looked like two frogs ready to leap into the water, so expectant and eager were their wrinkled faces and protruding eyes, so comically set akimbo their arms and legs. With little art they cast and recast their clumsy bait of bacon-rind, exchanging few words, but enjoying, doubtless, a sense of subtile companionship peculiarly satisfying.

Airy a bite, Judas?"

"No, sah."

"Too lazy to keep yer hook baited ?" "No, sah."

A while of silence, the river swashing dreamily, the sunshine shimmering far along the slowly lapsing current; then Judas begins humming a revival tune.

[ocr errors]

"Shet yer mouth; stop that infernal howling, yer blasted old eejit, er I 'll take this yer fish-pole an' I 'll naturally lam the life out of ye! storms the master. "Yer 'll scare all the fish till they'll go clean to the Gulf of Mexico. Hain't yer got a striffin' of sense left?"

The slave sulks in silence. Ten minutes later Ben takes out a plug of bright, greasy-looking navy tobacco, and after biting off a liberal chew says, in a very soft voice:

[ocr errors]

Here, Jude, try some of my terbacker, an' maybe yer luck 'll change."

Judas fills his cheek with the comforting weed and gazes with expectant contentment into the stream, but the luck continues much the same. The wind may blow a trifle sweeter, fluting an old Pan-pipe tune in a half-whisper through the fringe of shining reeds, and the thrushes may trill suddenly a strange, soft phrase from the dark foliage of the grove hard by; still, in blissful ignorance of the voices of nature and all unaware of their own picturesqueness, without a nibble to encourage them, the two white-haired men watch away the golden afternoon. At the last, just as Judas has given up and is winding his line around his pole, Ben yanks out a slimy, wriggling, prickly catfish, and his round face flings out through its screen of wrinkles a spray of sudden excitement.

"Grab 'im, Judas! Grab 'im, yer lubberly old lout ye! What yer doin' a-grinnin' an' a-gazin' an' that fish a-floppin' right backgrab 'im! If yer do let 'im get away, I'll

break yer old neck an' pull out yer backbone - grab 'im, I say! !"


Judas scrambles after the fish, sprawling and grabbing, while it actively flops about in the sand. It spears him cruelly till the red blood is spattered over his great rusty black hands, but he captures it finally and puts a stick through its gills.

On many and many an afternoon they trudged homeward together in the softening light, Judas carrying both rods on his shoulder, the bait-cups in his hands, and the string of fish, if there were any, dangling somewhere about his squat person. The black man might have been the incarnate shadow of the white one, so much were they alike in everything but color. Even to a slight limp of the left leg,

their movements were the same. Each had a peculiar fashion of setting his right elbow at a certain angle and of elevating slightly the right shoulder. Precisely alike sat their well-worn straw hats far over on the back of their heads.

It was in the spring of 1860 that Ben took measles and came near to death. Judas nursed his master with a faithfulness that knew not the shadow of abatement until the disease had spent its force and Ben began to convalesce. With the turn of the tide which bore him back from the shore of death the master recovered his tongue and grew refractory and abusive inversely as the negro was silent and obedient. He exhausted upon poor Judas, over and over again, the vocabulary of vituperative epithets at his command. When Ben was quite well Judas lay down with the disease.

"A nigger with the measles! Well, I'll be dern! Yer 're gone, Jude gone fer sure. Measles nearly always kills a nigger."

Ben uttered these consoling words as he entered his old slave's cabin and stood beside the low bed. "Not much use ter do anythin' fer ye 's I know of- bound ter go this time. Don't ye feel a sort of dyin' sensation in yer blamed old bones already?"

But Judas was nursed by his master as a child by its mother. Never was man better cared for night and day. Ben's whole life for the time was centered in the one thought of saving the old slave. In this he was absolutely unselfish and at last successful.

As Judas grew better, after the crisis was passed, he did not fail to follow his master's example and make himself as troublesome as possible. Nothing was good enough for him; none of his food was properly prepared or served, his bed was not right, he wanted water from a certain distant spring, he grumbled at Ben without reason, and grew more abusive and personal daily. At last one afternoon Ben came out of the cabin with a very peculiar look on his face. He stopped just as he left

[graphic][ocr errors][merged small]

the threshold, and with his hands in his trousers' pockets and his head thrown back he whistled a low, gentle note.

"Well, I'll everlastin❜ly jest be dad burned!" he exclaimed. Then he puffed out his wrinkled cheeks till they looked like two freckled bladders. "Who'd 'a' thought it!" He chuckled long and low, looking down at his boots and then up at the sky. "Cussed me! Cussed me! The blamed old rooster a-cussin' me! Don't seem possible, but he did all the same. Gamest nigger I ever seen!"

It must have been a revelation to the master when the old slave actually swore at him and cursed him vigorously. Ben went about chuckling retrospectively and muttering to himself:

"The old coon, he cussed me!"

Next day for dinner Judas had chicken pie and dumplings, his favorite pot, and Ben brought some old peach brandy from the cellar and poured it for him with his own hand.

In due time the negro got well and the two resumed their old life, a little feebler, a trifle more stoop in their shoulders, their voices huskier, but yet quite as happy as before.

The watermelon patch has ever been the jewel on the breast of the Georgia plantation. "What is home without a watermelon?" runs the well-known phrase, and in sooth what cool, delicious suggestions run with it! Ben and


Judas each had a patch, year in and year out. Not that Ben ever hoed in his; but he made Judas keep it free of weeds. Here was a source of trouble; for invariably the negro's patch was better, the melons were the larger and finer. Scold and storm and threaten as he might, Ben could not change this, nor could he convince his slave that there was anything at all strange in the matter.

"How I gwine fin' out 'bout what mek yo' watermillions so runty an' so scrunty?" Judas exclaimed. "Hain't I jest hoed 'em. an' plowed 'em an' took care ob 'em an' try ter mek 'em do somefin'? But dey jest kinder wommux an' squommux erlong an' don't grow wof er dern! I jest sw'a' I can't holp it, Mars Ben, ef yo' got no luck erbout yo' nohow! Watermillions grows ter luck, not ter de hoe."

"Luck! Luck!" bawled Ben, shaking his fist at the negro. "Luck! yer old lump er lamp-black-yer old, lazy, sneaking scamp! I'll show ye about luck! Ef I don't have a good patch of watermillions next year I'll skin ye alive, see ef I don't, yer old villain ye!""

It was one of Ben's greatest luxuries to sit on the top rail of the worm-fence which inclosed the melon-patch, his own particular patch, and superintend the hoeing thereof. To Judas this was a bitter ordeal, whose particular tang grew more offensive year by year as the half-smothered longing to be master, if

« PreviousContinue »