A Pinchtown Pauper
THE place is not inaptly named. It lies beyond the city’s suburbs ; and there are no handsome dwellings or fine stores in Pinchtown. The clutch of squalid poverty is upon it. In the winter, its one street is often hub-deep with mud; and in summer, clouds of dust from passing wheels are wafted in through the open doors and windows of its sordid hovels. Its poor pretense of a pavement is ashes and desolation. The windows of the rude huts are garnished with old hats, articles of worn clothing, and scraps of newspapers.
To be a resident of the poverty-smitten village is a grave offense in the eyes of the more prosperous of the race to which its denizens belong.
“ Dem’s ign’unt, an’ lazy, an’ no’count niggers over dar in Pinehtown,” says the unctuous keeper of the little green-grocery at the corner of Water Street, a good mile nearer to the heart of the city.
Across the road from Pinchtown, in the summer season, the Union Cemetery, surrounded by its inclosure of massive stone masonry, shows a thousand wellkept graves, clad in smoothly shaven green. Over the walls of the keeper’s cottage, near the iron gate, bloom clambering roses ; and the darker hue of the ivy marks the spot with verdure through the year. The trees that were saplings two decades ago have come to throw an ample shade over the long lines of graves, and are the haunts of many birds. The walks which wind about the place, among the marble stones, are graveled and white. Two cannon stand near the flagpole, in mute reminder of the reason for the cemetery’s being ; and high above floats, in sunshine and in storm, the great flag.
It is the latter part of June, 188 — In the sunny weather, on a broken bench at the door of the forlornest shanty in the hamlet sits its forlornest denizen. Abject poverty has pursued him for many years ; and though he denies it stoutly, he has come at last half-heartedly to believe in the reiterated assertion of his wife, that “ Newton done los’ his luck.” Into the uncouth fashion of the coarse splint basket on which he is at work he is weaving disjointed fancies of the dead men hid in the cemetery’s sheltering bosom, and of the hardships in the life of one of the humblest living dwellers in Pinchtown.
He had been an “exhorter” in the days of slavery. Since the war ended he has kept up, in a futile fashion, his former calling; but his age and infirmity, and the disadvantages of ignorance imposed by the old slave system, are powerfully against him. His faith is as broad and catholic as it is simple; and to those of his neighbors who, being almost as poor and no less ignorant than himself, will pay him the respect of a seeming attention, he often speaks as with the gift of tongues. But they do not recognize the force of the homely phrases, and hearken to him grudgingly, deeming his teachings to be of little worth, because he does not expound them from the printed page, after the fashion of the Reverend Givins, of the Ebenezer Church in the city. Like themselves he is " unlarnt,” and can neither read nor write.
“ I shudden wonder ef dem soljers is all in heab’n,” he says, reflectively, as he trims a splint with his worn basketknife ; “ an’ ef dey ain’t, dar ’s whar dey orter be. Dey was de soljers o’ de Lord, what sot us free. But dey did n’ shake off all de shackles. Dar’s some on ’em a-hangin’ ter me yit, like cockleburrers on ter a sheep. ’Pears like ter me ef when I ’ceasded I ’d be put away onder sech green grass as dat, wid flowers a-blossomin’ roun’, an’ periwinklevines a-wroppin’ my grave all up, an’ de birds a-singin’ an’ a-carryin’ on up dar in dem trees, I’d be sorter saterfied wid jes’ dat. It ’ud be mos’ good enough for ole Newton ter lay down dar an’ take his res’, ’douten nobody ter come along a-pesterin’ on him, an’ a-cussin’ ’case de baskits is cranksided. It don’t make no diffunce down dar ef de po’ nigger is ign’unt. De hoppergrasses an’ de crickets an’ de litenin’-bugs ain’t gwine ter lay dat up agin him. De wimmen folks don’t ’buse you down dar, I reckon ; an’ I knows dey ain’t a-always flingin’ up at ye dat you’s a mighty onery preacher what can’t read. Dem dar soljers ain’t got no rheumatiz an’ misery in de back, I ’spec’ ; an’ dey don’t git tired no mo’, nuther.”
His little granddaughter comes and sits on the bench beside him. Her dress is ragged, and she is barefoot; but her mien is marked with a dignity which is almost ludicrous in its self-possession. The old man regards her approach with an interest in which respect dominates affection. She is a wonderful creature in his eyes, for she carries in her hand the key to the treasure-house of knowledge, at whose outer gate he has stood a beggar for fifty odd years. She has come with her primer to teach him his daily lesson.
He lays his oak splints and his halffinished basket aside, and patiently waits while the child opens the book.
“ Does you think it’s any use, Aggy ? ” he asks.
“ You have got to a, b, ab, gran’daddy,” she replies, and points with dusky finger to the first column of the grimy little page. He wants to tell her that he is in despair of ever learning to read ; but he has not the heart to wound her.
“ Is a, b, ab, right smart an’ fur on, honey ? ” he inquires, with seeming interest ; and she laughs, and tells him that it is only the beginning of all that she knows.
A lank and hungry-Iooking cur, that lies with closed eyes in the sunshine, at the old man’s feet, pricks up his flea-bitten ears, and lifts his head at the sound of the child’s voice.
“ Po’ ole Sank,” she says, as she stoops to caress him, “ do you want to learn a, b, c with gran’daddy ? ”
The dog blinks his watery eyes, and thumps his ragged tail slowly against the ground.
“ Aggy,” says the old man, “ I’se afeard it ain’t no use. You seems ter be sorter sot on it, chile, but I done ’bout gin it up. I was smartly sot on it, too, when you fus’ started out; but w’at’s de sense o’ yer tryin’ ter larn dem words ter a po’ fool ole nigger like me ? You’s young an’ kin git ’em straight; but you can’t teach ole dogs new tricks. Marster use ter tell me dat long time ago, — an’ ole marster, he knowed mo’ ’n evvybody else in de worl’. Sank, dar, he cudden l’arn ter tree a coon like my little bench-legged Towse use ter tree ’em over in Tuckahoe. ’Case why ? ’Case Towse jes’ growed up ter it f’om a puppy; an’ Sank, he done got too ole, a-chasin’ rabbits ’roun’ dat ’ar graveyard wall.”
Sank wags his forlorn tail again in recognition of his name, and the child slips down from the bench, and cuddles up to the dog for a moment. Then returning to her seat at the old man’s side, she says, with sturdy insistence, —
“ Le’s start here, gran’daddy,” and points again to the head of the little column of two-lettered words.
“ A, b, ab; e, b;, eb,” spells the old man, painfully and anxiously. Then he stops, and says, “ Aggy, you hear dat ’ar leetle red-bird over dar in dat bush by de stone wall ? ”
She nods her head, and looks up at him.
“ Dat bird ain’t nuver been sing but jes’ one song all his born days. Ef ye was ter ketch him, an’ shet him up inter a cage, an’ pipe chimes ter him as sweet as dem I’se heerd young Mars’ Jeems play on de willer-whissles, way back yander in Tuckahoe, you cudden larn dat bird ter sing ’em. Dat bird war n’t hatched for ter sing but jes’ dat one.”
The parable has struck home, but he cannot bear the expression of disappointment in the child’s face; and so, to please her, he takes the book and begins again slowly to spell out the lesson. But his heart is no longer in the work. He has lost the high hope that he once had, and is unhappy in the loss.
Not many words have been spelled over when a cracked voice calls shrilly from the hovel, “ Aggee ! you, Aggy ! ” And with nimble feet the girl hastens away to fetch water from the spring beyond the road for her grandmother.
The owner of the voice comes to the door, and speaks sharply to the old man, who sits on the bench where Aggy has left him, still gazing hopelessly at u, b, ub.
“ De Lord sakes, Newton ! Dat gal ain’t sho’ly still a-foolin’ wid tryin’ ter l’arn ye dem books, is she ? Ain’t ye got no mo’ sense ’n ter be a-addlin’ yer skull wid spellin’ ? Ye mought know dar ain’t no l’arnin’ a-gwine ter hatch out’n dat ole thick head o’ your’n. Ye better be a-workin’ on dem baskets. I ’ll lay ye ’ll git mo’ ter eat out’n dem dan ye gwine ter git ’long o’ dem letters.”
“ Dat’s how it ’pears like ter me, too, Dicey,” says the old man, submissively; and laying the book reverently upon the bench near him, he takes up his basketframe, and again begins to weave the oak-splints in and out. He works on earnestly, but he is oppressed with a sense of failure.
“ Here I’se been a-wrastlin’ an’ a-scufflin’ wid dat book nine weeks come nex’ Monday, an’ ain’t no furder dan close ter de start, yit. Somehow, I can’t hole on ter it. De weeds gits away wid de corn quicker ’n de hoe can cut ’em out. ’T ain’t no use.”
Aggy comes back from the spring, and passes by him with a tin bucket in each hand. The cool water shimmers and sparkles in the summer sun ; and Sank, with lolling tongue, gets up and follows the little water-carrier into the cabin. Dicey sends her out to the garden to “ grabble some ’taters,” and soon she is busily engaged in the task, with the dog close at her heels.
“ Gran’daddy don’t want to learn to read,” she says, passionately, to the dumb brute, as she drops a potato into the piggin, and lifts the dog’s wistful face to hers. " He’s got plenty o’ sense, ain’t he, Sank ? He just don’t want to learn.”
And Sank says “ Yes ” as plainly as any dog’s tail ever spoke the word.
But Newton’s mind, after a long and bitter struggle, has come irrevocably to another conclusion than that reached by the little girl and the dog. He has weighed his capacity in the balances of his experience, and found it wofully wanting. Many a night he has lain awake for hours on his hard bed, while Dicey slept by his side, and pictured to himself the grace and peace which should penetrate his soul through the doorway of Aggy’s primer. Those waking dreams of the night are ended now; yet thoughts of the child at school and the sight of the little book have started in his mind a train of long-unheeded memories. He recalls the old field school in Tuckahoe, beyond the Blue Ridge mountains that lie in the far distance. There rises up before him the stern face of the teacher, who, with unsparing hickory rod, threshed the seed corn of the commonwealth in the persons of Newton’s young masters, with whom he always went, as henchman to “ tote ” the lunch basket, and as companion to share its contents when recess came. He remembers the ring-taw, and knucks, and chermany of those boon days with a deep sense of pleasure in the retrospect. He sees again with his mind’s eye the truants fishing for “ yaller-bellies ” in the Jackfish Pond, whose water was deep and green, and along whose banks the dewberry vines ran rank and the wild dog-roses bloomed. He chuckles to think of his arguments with them to prove that the fish always bit best on Sunday, and how once or twice he had persuaded them of its truth. Then he grows solemn in the reflection that fishing on Sunday was a sin in itself, and that it was far more heinous to entice others to its commission; and imagines that perhaps those covert excursions were the cause of the troubles that have come on him in his old age. He recalls the trapping of partridges in the straw-field next the wood, and the catching of “ ole hyars,” on frosty winter mornings, in the “ gums ” at the nibbled bottom rail of the worm fence. Faces, white and black, of his long-dead people come back to him in the wake of fancies conjured up by Aggy’s primer, until at last he recalls the bloody charge at Gettysburg, with his “ young Mars’ Jeems ” lying under the trampling horses’ hoofs ; and the bent figure of his gray-haired “ ole marster,” left alone at the war’s end, in the great old mansion in Tuckahoe with none but " Mars’ Jeems’s ” little daughter.
The snow lies deep upon the cemetery, and almost blots out of sight the hillocks beneath which the dead soldiers have slumbered for so many years. The flag is limp and motionless, and icicles hang from the black cannon and the eaves of the stone cottage. But the ivy is still green upon the wall, and there are red berries amid the waxen and pointed leaves of the holly-tree at the gate.
Down the hard-frozen road that leads to the city the Pinchtown Pauper, ragged and forlorn, is trudging painfully, with a number of his misshapen splint baskets strung over his shoulders. He is weak and crippled with rheumatism, and his progress is very slow. But there is a glow about his heart, whose warmth shames the poverty of his torn jacket and his battered hat.
“ It’s been a rough spell,” he says, meditatively, as he pauses for breath and looks up at the gray winter sky, “ an’ thar’s gwine ter be some mo’ failin’ weather afo’ ter-morrer. Dat ring war n’t roun’ de moon las’ night for nothin’. I done been seed dis weather in de elements for mo’ ’n a week. But me an’ Aggy an’ Sank an’ Dicey is pulled through so fur; an’ ef I jes’ sells dese yer baskits, de weather may drap, for what I keers, ’twel I sells some mo’.”
He places his burden on a snowbank near him, as he speaks, and addresses it:
“ You’s wuf a quarter apiece. Leas’ways, dat’s what I axes for ye. You’s wuf mo’ ’n dat for de work an’ de trubble I’se had wid ye ; but me an’ de white folks ain’t a-gwine ter agree on dat one p’int. You looks mighty small an’ ugly ter dem, but ye ’pears pow’ful full o’ white-oak splits ter me. Ef I gits twenty-five cents apiece for ye, dat ’ll come ter a dollar an’ a half ; an’ dat ’ll make de pot bile high for awhile, anyhow.”
The baskets are mute and miserable looking on their perch. He picks them up, and starts forward again.
“I ain’t nuvver been so po’ yit but what I cudden git sump’n’ or ’nuther for Aggy an’ Sank an’ de ole ’oman ter eat. But Somehow it do appear ter me like de times was a-waxin’ wusser. Bar’ backs an’ hongry bellies seems for ter be in de merjority in dese yer parts. Prayin’ an’ workin’ don’t look like dey fetches de blessin’, same as dey useter over yander beyant dem mount’ins ; ” and he turns for a moment, and gazes wistfully in the direction of the Blue Ridge range that lies behind him.
A wagon comes along, driven by an acquaintance.
“ Git in, ole man, an’ I 'll give ye a lif’ as fur as town,” calls the driver. “ Ye ain’t gittin’ up de hill no pearter dan de frog in de well, what jumped up one jump an’ drapped back two.”
The Pinchtown Pauper, carefully depositing his precious freight in the rear part of the vehicle, clambers to a seat at the front.
“ How’s you makin’ it, dese days ? ” queries his friend heartily, and gives him a slap on the shoulder that causes him to flinch. “Wot’s de news down in Pinchtown ? ”
“ Pain in de head an’ miz’ry in de back, Jim,” the old man answers. “ But I orten ter grudge dat. De Lord don’t let me go hongry or cole many days in de week. Den I’m a-gittin’ on in years. De sap in de ole tree don’t run fas’, like it useter run in de twig. News in Pinchtown ? Dar ain’t nothin’ in Pinchtown ’scusin’ little niggers an’ cur dogs; an’ dar ain’t nothin’ new ’bout dem. Wot’s de news wid you, Jim ? ”
“ Nothin’. Hard times an’ plenty on ’em.”
“ Dat’s a fac’, Jim, — dat’s a fac’. Things ain’t like dey useter be wid me when I lived over dar in Tuckahoe wid marster an’ de boys.”
“ I dunno nothin’ ’bout Tuckahoe.
I ain’t nuvver been dar. I’m a-gwine over on one o’ dese yer railroad exscrussions, when de summer time gits back agin, an’ take a look at dat gre’t land o’ Goshen whar all you Louisa County niggers come f’om, an’ don’t never seems like ye wants ter git back ter.”
“ Yer ign’unce is agin ye, Jim,” the old man replies, with a touch of asperity. “ Dem was high ole times we useter have over dar. An’ you can’t ketch up wid ’em on no railroad exscrussions any mo’, nuther. Dem dar times is done lef de Nunited States for furrin’ parts, dey is. Many’s de day at ole marster’s when I’se knowed twenty-five ter thirty strange white folks at de house at once, wid de kerridges a-takin’ on ’em away an’ a-fetchin’ fresh ’uns up ter de front steps, day in an’ day out. Sich a-dancin’, an’ a-frolickin’, an’ a-huntin’, an’ a-fishin’, an’ a-ridin’ hosses, an’ a-chasin’ foxes ! ” He pauses a moment in his reminiscences to look back at his baskets. “ I got ter keep my eye on dem things. ’T wudden do for ’em ter drap out, an’ some good-fo’-nothin’ nigger come along an’ pick ’em up, an’ git my patt’n.”
Jim nods his head and grins. “ Nigger what gits de patt’n o’ dem baskits ’ud git a fat thing, sho’.”
He is interested in the life beyond the mountains, and wants to hear more of it. “ Cut a purty big ole dash over dar in dem tunes, did you, Unc’ Newton ? ”
“ Dat’s a fac’, Jim, — dat’s a fac’. I’se seed Randall a-fiddlin’ for de white folks all night long, wid ole marster footin’ de reel same as de younges’ an’ de brashes’ ; an’ out in de kitchen an’ down ter de quarters de niggers was kickin’ dey heels jes’ as high, wid de banjer a-pickin’, de ’possum a-cookin’, an’ de ashcake a-bakin’ in de collard leaves on de harf. Dem was days when ashpone an’ buttermilk had some tas’e ter ’em, an’ possum fat an’ hominy ’ud make any nigger’s mouf water. My mouf done los’ his relish, Jim ; an’ I don’t nuvver see no ’possums no mo’, nuther hear no banjers.”
Jim laughs, and the wagon rattles along over the frozen road. The atmosphere is keenly suggestive of more snow. It is a narrow, precipitous way over which they are passing; and huge limestone boulders, half clad in snow, jut out above and below them. On the acclivity at their left are evidences of work recently done by quarriers; but the place is almost inaccessible, and the workmen have deserted it, leaving the snow trampled, and some of the great rocks more exposed to view.
“ ’Pears like dem folks been diggin’ a grave up dar,” says Newton.
“ Korryin’ o’ limestone,” replies Jim.
The rising wind sighs through the scraggy cedars in the valley below, and the breath of the horses’ nostrils is like steam.
Houses are coming into sight; and they see little children going out of the gates, with satchels and baskets, on their way to school in the city’s heart. Newton watches them go, and a great bitterness surges up within him.
“ Jim,” he says, “ you see dem little black gals an’ boys a-gwine ter school ? Dey’s a-gettin’ dey heads chuck full o’ knowledge, an’ here’s you an’ me w’ot don’t know B f’om bullfoot. It ’mines me o’ de little pigs a-creepin’ th’ough de crack o’ de wurrum-fence, an’ de ole big hogs outside in de lane a-gruntin’ at de corn w’ot dey can’t git ter.”
Jim draws rein at a street corner, and the old man slowly and with difficulty descends from his perch. Jim hands him his baskets.
“ Thankee, Jim, thankee,” he says as he takes them. “ I ain’t a-gwine ter furgit ye for dat turn. It holp me pow’ful.
I shudden ’a got up de long hill ’fo’ ten o’clock, ’scusin’ o’ you.”
Jim bids him good-morning, and turns the corner at a brisk pace.
The old basket-maker wanders about among the shops, offering his wares for sale; but the fates are unpropitious. Here a surly “ Don’t want any baskets,” greets him, and there a gibe at the uncouth workmanship of his stock. There are no buyers, and he grows downhearted.
“It’s throng-time wid ’em,” he says to himself, in apology for the many refusals he has met with ; “ dey ain’t got no ledger minutes for ter stop for an ole nigger, wid nothin’ but split baskets.”
So he leaves the business streets, and strikes out at a snail’s pace for F― Avenue. He enters at the area gates and goes to the kitchen doors ; but his commodities meet with no readier sale here than among the shops.
“ De luck’s agin me,” he says despondently, as the fifth gate closes behind him with a click, and the baskets still hang upon his back. “ I must ha’ forgot ter make a cross-mark dis mornin’, when Dicey called me back. Looks like I mought as well fling away dis yer rabbit foot, w’ot I been totin’ in my pocket for two mont’s, — it don’t ’pear ter make de luck no better; an’ me an’ Sank ’ll have ter ketch another one, w’ot ain t no graveyard rabbit. I’m a-gwine ter try one mo’ place, an’ den, ef dat don’t come ter nothin’, it ’ll be a hongry day for Aggy an’ Sank and Dicey an’ me termorrer.”
The warmth has died out from about his heart, and the cold is creeping in through the rents in his garments, and pinching his withered flesh, and frosting his rheumatic bones.
He opens the next area gate. It turns on its hinges with a creak, which he echoes with a groan. His knock at the kitchen entrance is feeble and almost despairing.
“ Come in, uncle,” says the girl who opens the door. “ Mis’ Mary, de man 'pears like he mos’ froze. He shakin’ jes’ de same as de leaves on dat aspumtree in de summer time, out dar in de back yard.”
The old basket-maker steps hesitatingly into the warm atmosphere of the snug kitchen, with his burden on his shoulder, and looks timidly about him.
“ I kim ter see ef I cudden part wid one o’ dese yer baskits ter you, young mist’is. You ’ll fine ’em oncommon handy for chips an’ things ’bout de place. Dey ain’t much for purty, dat’s a fac’, but dey’s p’int’ly good an’ strong.”
He bows low to the young housewife, who, with skirts tucked up and dress covered with a long checked apron, is standing by the kitchen table. There are bundles of citron and plums and spices, and measures of flour and sugar, and numbers of eggs scattered here and there near her ; but he sees nothing but a possible customer. He is thinking of the little girl, the lean dog, and the old woman out in Pinchtown.
“ I done been tryin’ all de mornin’, an’ I ain’t got shet o’ nary one yit. Dey don’t cost but a quarter, an’ dey’s wuf dat ef dey’s wuf anything. Ef you ’ll take two, ye kin have ’em for forty cents.”
“Mis’ Mary,” interposes the brisk cook, “ we don’t want no mo’ baskits. Dis yer house is chuck full o’ baskits now.”
“ I’se speakin’ ter de mist’is, gal. I war n’t makin’ no remarks ter you,” says the old man in dignified rebuke ; and the “ mist’is ” laughs. Touched at the pathetic sight of the bent figure and the uncovered gray head, she says, —
“ I ’ll buy one o’ your baskets, uncle. Take a seat by the fire, and get warm.”
His face beams, and he says: “ Thankee, mist’is, thankee ! ”
He makes her another of his courtly bows, and casting a glance of contempt at the cook, who returns it with scornful interest, he draws near the fire. He sits there in silence for some moments, and watches the slim figure bending over the kitchen table. She is seeding raisins with nimble fingers. As the warmth of the genial atmosphere permeates his body and the fragrant aroma of fruits and spices fills his nostrils, his good spirits come back to him. He looks from her to the table before her ; and memories take possession of him which he cannot forbear expressing.
“ Dem dar remines me o’ ole times afo’ de war, over in Tuckahoe,” he says, and rubs his horny hands together, and smiles an apologetic smile; “ remines me o’ de ole days, dat dey does, young mist’is.”
She turns to him, and says pleasantly, “ And so you come from Tuckahoe ? ”
“ Yes, marm,” he answers proudly. “I’m a East Eerginyer quality nigger f’om de county o’ Albemarle, not fur f’om Lindsay’s Turnout, close by ter Ole Bentivoleyer. Many’s de day I’se holp Mis’ Agnes seed de raisins for de Chris’mas puddin’ at de ole place, which de sight on ’em now fetches dem times back ter me.”
His eyes have lost their cunning with the years, or else the crowding memories hinder him from noticing the eager interest with which the young woman regards him.
“ How did you get so far away from your home ? ” she asks.
The white hands are no longer busy with the raisins; and an egg rolls off the table, and is smashed upon the floor. She does not heed it, but stands there and looks at him, with a half-smile on her face. He gazes down at the ragged hat which he has flung upon the floor near his chair, and sighs as he answers, —
“De war tuk ’n’ bruk us all up, young mist’is. ’T was a fine ole place oncet in times, wid plenty o’ niggers, plenty o’ hosses an’ stock an’ pigs, plenty o’ vittles an’ clo’es, plenty o’ evvything. But de niggers was sot free ; de sassafrax an’ de broom-swage run away wid de fiel’s ; de barns an’ de stables an’ de fences jes’ natch’ly drapped ter pieces; Mars’ Jeems, he done got kilt in de war ; ole marster sort o’ los’ his grip onter things 'long o’ missin’ young Mars’ Jeems, which he sot mo’ sto’ by him dan all de boys ; ole mist’is an’ Mis’ Agnes, dey tuk ’n’ went one arter de tother ; all o’ de balance o’ de young marsters, dey married off an’ reffygeed away ; an’ Mars’ Jeems’s little gal an’ me an’ my ole ’oman was all dat was lef’ on de plantation wid marster, ’scusin’ de ole hyars an’ de patt’idges. Den he tuk ’n’ ’eeasded, an’ dey kim an’ sole de ole place out, an’ kerried de little mist’is away. Me an’ Dicey jes’ slipped over dis side o’ de mount’in, whar my son Bill was a-workin’; but Bill, he’s done gone now, two year come nex’ spring.”
She has drawn nearer to him as he speaks ; and as his voice falters with the closing words of his story, she lays her hand lightly upon the ragged shoulder.
“ Uncle Newton,” she says.
“ Marm ! ” he answers, and looks up at her, startled and wondering. It has been many years since such a hand has touched him. It reminds him of Tuckahoe even more than the raisins had done.
“ I have grown out of your memory, Uncle Newton, as your face had passed out of mine.”
He is puzzled. He does not understand what she means. He passes his hand across his forehead, as if trying to remember.
“ It is sixteen years since I used to sit on your knee, and hear you tell the stories about the fox and the rabbit. Don’t you recollect the big wheels and the little wheels, — ‘Run, little ’Fraid, run, ’fo’ big ’Fraid ketch you ! ’ ” she says, and smiles down at him with tears in her eyes.
“ ’Fo’ Gord, ef it ain’t little Mary ! ” he says, as he rises to his feet. “ Lord, honey, it pintly does do de ole nigger’s eyes good ter look at ye! An’ dat purty, too ! As purty as Mis’ Agnes, an’ de spittin’ image of her ! ”
But the glad eyes cannot look at her long. To hide the mists that gather in them he stoops, and makes a foolish feint of searching for his hat upon the floor. The cook, consumed with jealousy, says: —
“ Dar’s yer hat nex’ ter yer foot, ef dat’s what ye huntin’ for ! ”
He does not hear her. Lifting his head again, he says: “Well! well! Mars’ Jeems’s little Mis’ Mary !" Then, with a sense of humiliation in having failed to recognize her at first sight, he goes on: “ I jes’ sorter ’spicioned you was kin ter some o’ my white folks, mist’is, when I fus’ looked at ye, an’ heerd ye say ‘ barskits.’ Dicey, she gwine ter be jes’ as crazy as a Juney bug, when she fine out I done seed little Mis’ Mary.”
It is late in the afternoon at Pinchtown. The frost in the snow has lost its sparkle, for the sun is down. But the chill of the winter day is everywhere, and the frozen pendants still hang from the eaves of the cemetery cottage. The snowbirds, that all day long have been hopping about in search of food, have given up the quest, and are now huddled together, with their heads in their feathers, in the thick of the thorn bushes.
The Pinchtown Pauper is just getting home. The baskets which his “ young Mis’ Mary ” has bought were only a small portion of his stock; and the sum of money they have yielded will not keep the wolf from the door very long. But “ half a loaf is better ’n no bread,” he says, and feels cheerier than if he were returning to his cabin penniless. He does not know that since his visit to “ Mars’ Jeems’s daughter ” his cupboard has grown fuller than for years; and that a hamper of clothing and a wagonload of cut wood have been put out at his hovel in his absence. The fact that the neighbors have come and stared at the unwonted sight, and canvassed it among themselves and with Aggy and Dicey, is likewise unknown to him. He would doubtless have laughed aloud, could he have stood there unobserved, and heard Dicey tell them all that it was “conjur’ work.” It would have been no hard matter for him to have guessed who the conjurer was.
In the mean time he is drawing near home. He can see a bright light through the narrow back window of his cabin, and is fretted at Dicey’s extravagance in having such a blaze when the stock of fuel is so low.
“ Dat fool ole ’oman is al’ays a-pesterin’ arter me ’bout makin’ baskits an’ makin’ baskits, ’twel I done got sick o’ de very sight o’ baskits, let alone makin’ of ’em, — an’ now jes’ look at her! Done gone kindle up a great big fire out’n de las’ chunk at de woodpile, an’ I ain’t sole but two baskits ter-day. She mus’ ’spec’ me ter steal riders off’n de wurrum-fence for ter keep her warm dis winter. Wimmen folks is cur’us critters, anyhow; an’ Dicey, she ain’t got no mo’ sense ’n a mule’s hine leg, no way you fix it.”
But his heart is so full of his recent meeting with young Mis’ Mary that he soon forgets Dicey’s recklessness. He is racking his brain for fit words in which to convey to her and to Aggy his conception of the great beauty and gentleness and goodness of Mars’ Jeems’s daughter.
“ Don’t look like none o’ dese here valley folks, dat young ’oman don’t, now. I jes’ ’spicioned she come f’om over de mount’ins soon as I put my eyes on her. Step wid her head up, jes’ de same as ole mist’is. Ain’t no po’ white trash over yer kin tetch dat breed o’ Tuckahoes! Skin finer ’n satin an’ whiter ’n dat snow. Eyes shinin’ like de stars in de elements. Dese yer niggers thinks ole Newt’ is ign’unt an’ don’t know nothin’ ; but howsomedever o’ dat, my white folks is high-up white folks, I done tole ye ! ”
On the right of the narrow road, which is cut sharply into the side of the great hill, a high bank towers up, and huge rocks jut out above it. The bank is pretty enough in summer, with its tangle of wild honeysuckle and its green undergrowth of hardy chincapin bushes. But now its rocks are capped with snow, and the stunted cedars here and there only serve to accentuate its bareness. It is where the quarriers were at work yesterday.
On the left, down a steep declivity, yawns a bleak valley. The tops of its girdled pine-trees, that raise their gaunt white arms like spectral things, do not reach the level of the road above ; and the face of the valley is covered with vines, and sinuous undergrowth, and limestone boulders of desolate gray, and rotting logs, all half hidden beneath the drifted snow, as far as the little branch, with its frozen pools.
The old man, trudging along in the gathering gloom, moves with more caution as the night comes swiftly down, and shudders with a vague superstition as he approaches the lonely spot. He knows the story of the accident that is said to have happened there years ago, and believes that the ghosts of the man and woman who went over the precipice that stormy night still haunt the place.
The noise of a heavy rushing body, tearing through the vines and undergrowth of the hank above, makes cold chills run down his back and his eyeballs distend with terror.
“ Gre’t Goddlemighty ! ” he shrieks, as it crashes down before him, and stops, huge and dark and misshapen, in the road bed at his feet, midway the narrow track.
In the direction of Pinchtown he hears the ringing of sleigh-bells; and gazing with more intentness at the mysterious object in front of him, he sees that it is a huge limestone rock, loosened from its place in the hillside by the workmen of yesterday.
“ Dat sleigh gwine ter run over dis yer rock, ef I lef’ it here, an’ dat ain’t no pebble for a crooked-back ole nigger like me ter heft down inter de bottom.”
He attempts to move it, but it remains unshaken.
“ Ef dem folks runs agin dis yer thing, it’s a-gwine ter fling ’em inter de hollow, an’ lan’ ’em all in kingdom-come, an’ dat’s pint’ly a fac’.”
He pauses, and listens to the bells.
“ Umph! dat sleigh don’t ’pear like ’t was a-gittin’ no closer. Lord! jes’ s’pose dat’s dem dar two harnts out a-takin’ a sleigh-ride dis dark night! I rather git de patterrollers arter me, I tell ye. Dis yer ain’t no place for ole Newton, sho’! ”
The sound of the bells, drawing nearer, reassures him.
“ Dem ain’t no sperrit-bells. I ’spec’s dar’s live folks in dat sleigh ; an’ mebbe I better jes’ set here an’ wait for ’em. Ef I goes to’ds ’em, dey mought pass me in de dark, dem dar sleigh-bells makes sich a everlastin’ racket.”
He takes his seat upon the fallen boulder, in the darkness ; but he is far from comfortable. The blood moves slowly in his veins, and the chill in the air is nipping. But his moral courage waxes strong as the sleigh draws nearer, and he falls into a soliloquy : —
“ Dis yer’s a mighty bad place in de road. I don’t see how come white folks ain’t got no better sense ’n ter go make a road inter de hillside, like dis, nohow. Ef I hadden’ jes’ happened ’long ’bout dis pertickler time, dem dar two ole harnts ’ud ’a had some fresh ’uns ter keep ’em company dis night, sho ! ” He passes his hand over the rough edges of the rock on which he is seated, and continues: “ Dis yer rock ’ud ’a-flung a fo’-hoss wagon an’ team overboard, let alone a Yankee jumper.”
The sleigh is near at hand, and he stands up to halloo. But the jangle of the bells drowns his call, and the sleigh comes on. He steps nearer the bank on his right, to catch the ear of the driver, and calls again. It is very dark, and he cannot distinguish the outlines of the horses as they approach. Then there is the sound of another rushing boulder from above him. It comes hurtling down in the path of the one already fallen; and in a moment old Newton lies sorely wounded and bleeding in the highway.
The horses halt suddenly, rear up snorting, and stand with trembling limbs and dilated nostrils.
Its occupants turn the sleigh as best they can in the darkness, and, taking the old man up gently, lift him in, and drive him, at his own request, to the cabin in Pinchtown, to which he directs them. His voice is faint and unnatural, and he speaks very little. They place him on the rough bed, and the young woman whose life he has saved, bending over him with unspeakable pity, sees his face in the light of the flickering fire, and says, —
“ It is Uncle Newton.”
He lies there very quietly, with a new blanket over him that has come from her house in the city this morning, and looks up at her with dumb, staring eyes that bring the tears to her own. He hears her husband say, " It was an awful accident, Mary,” and it dawns upon him by degrees that it was Mars’ Jeems’s daughter who was in that sleigh. A faint smile flits across the worn features, as he whispers, —
“ I kep’ ye f’om goin’ over de bank, Mis’ Mary.”
The staring eyes close, and he moves restlessly. His mind is over in Tuckahoe.
“ Dera lilac bushes by de cabin gate is gittin’ mons’ous big; ’an’ de chesnuttrees is jes’ climbed up inter de sky.”
Outside the hovel, in the “ big road,” an urchin, unconscious of the tragedy within, has fired a cracker. The wounded man shifts his position quickly, and starts up.
“ Hi! w’at dat ? ”
“ It’s Unc’ Pete’s Jim a-shootin’ popcrackers for Chris’mas,” sobs Aggy, with her face hidden in her apron.
Sank gets up from his place in front of the fire, and fixes his almost human eyes upon the group about the bed.
“ I tho’t dey was a-drawin’ de corks out’n de champagne bottles in de dine’room at ole marster’s,” the sufferer says. “ Yes, sah! comin’, sah ! dar terreckly! ”
The voice is on a high key now, and Dicey shrieks, " Sabe him! He out’n he head wid de feber.”
“ Ole marster,” he goes on in his raving,'I know as how it’s agin de law for de niggers ter l’arn ter read an’ write, an’ dat dar ain’t no mo’ forgibness for dat dan dar is ef de patterrollers ketches ’em out arter night.” The tones of his voice grow softer : “ But I ain’t afeard o’ you, ole marster. I nuvver wanted nothin’ wid dem letters an’ a, b, abs, ’scusin’ ter read de Good Book, marster; an’ little Aggy, she was a-he’pin’ de ole nigger ter ’scape f’om de bondidge o’ sin. I knows ye ain’t a-gwine ter b’ar down too hard on me. I’se ’longed ter you sence de day I c’ud remember, an’ ye ain’t nuvver yit laid yer finger’s weight onter me. I ain’t afeard now. I’se worked for you, an’ slaved for you, an’ loved you an’ all my tother white folks ” —
He breaks off, and lies silent for a moment, breathing stertorously. The fur-clad woman at the bedside mingles her sobs with those of the dusky watchers in the room.
“ Aggy,” says Dicey, " you run over ter yer Unc’ Peter’s, an’ ax Nancy ter come yer. I’se pow’ful oneasy in my mine ’bout yer gran’daddy.”
The terrified girl speeds out into the night, and the dog follows her. Outside he sets up a low howl, and the old woman shudders with superstitious dread.
“ Ef Sank’s a-stretehin’ hisse’f, he’s a-medjerin’ Newton’s grave,” she mutters. “ De good Lord he’p us ! ”
The dog’s howl reaches the ear of the wounded man.
“ I jes’ hit him wid de ramrod, ’case he chawed up de bird, Mars’ Jeems. I ain’t nuvver see dis yer dog do dat ’ar way afo’ in all dese years you an’ me is been a-huntin’ him. He mus’ be hongry. I ’spec’ Dicey ain’t gin him no pot-liquor dis mornin’. De bunch o’ de flock is down dar by dem briars on de ribber bank. Dey flushed purty, dat time, sho’; an’ you hit ’em wid bofe bar’ls. Dey has ter fly soon an’ swif’ ter ’scape f’om you, Mars’ Jeems.”
Peter’s Jim fires another squib in the direction of the cemetery gate.
“ I thunk you was a-huntin’ patt’idges, an’ you was a-shootin’ men, young marster. Dem’s de Yankees a-comin’. Can’t you hear de guns, an’ see de swords a-shinin’ an’ de hosses a-buckjumpin’ ? Lord Gord ! look at ’em ! ” Once more a break and pause ; and then, in accents indescribably piteous: “ Dey’s done kilt young Mars’ Jeems ! An’ w’at ’ll ole marster an’ young Mis’ Agnes say down dar in Tuckahoe ? Shot th’ough de heart, an’ trompled over wid hosses’ huffs, an’ blood all outer his gray clo’es ! ”
The monologue of the dying man grows incoherent as Aggy returns, closely followed by Nancy, with open mouth and starting eyeballs.
“ Dat dog doin’ mighty foolish out dar, Aun’ Dicey,” she whispers : “ he jes’ a-yawnin’ an’ a-pawin’ an’ a-stretchin’ o’ hisse’f. I seen him plain by de light o’ de do’, when I kim in. An’ he lookin’ jes’ as straight as he kin look to’ds de graveyard.”
“ Umph, my Gord ! ” groans the horror-stricken old woman.
“ Graveyard ? ” says the sufferer. “ Who dat talkin’ ’bout dat graveyard ? Dem’s de soljers o’ de Lord over dar, w’at fit ter set us free. But dey cudden shake off all de shackles, — de shackles o’ ign’imce, an’ de shackles o’ sin ” —
The bells of a belated sleigh tinkle merrily, as it passes down the road between Pinchtown and the cemetery. He hears the sound, and says, —
“Aggy, dat rock ’s down dar in de road yit. Run out, honey, an’ stop dat sleigh.”
The firelight has died out. The clouds have left the sky, and the pale winter moon has risen. A single beam, chill and dim, falls through the grimy little window, and slips slowly over the new blanket, till, touching the dying man’s pinched face, it finds a smile there.
He gasps : “ Dicey, tell Aggy I ’m fur on inter it now. I’m a-gwine ter l’arn it all purty soon.”
The early morning traveler to the city, the next day, sees two huge boulders in the middle of the road that is cut in the side of the long hill; and near them, in the snow, lie three or four misshapen splint baskets.
A. C. Gordon.