IT was ten o’clock Christmas morning,— a wet, green Christmas in the late fifties, — when a strapping fieldhand came up on a side porch of Redfields. A maid, passing the open door, caught sight of him.
‘W’y hi, Abram!’ she called, ‘what make you so late comin’ to git yo’ Santa Claus?'
‘I tell you huccome.’
A nurse-girl, bearing a pitcher of water on her head, paused on the stairlanding. ‘He been projeckin’ roun de quarters arter Cindy.’
‘Shuh, Charity! you behinst de times,’rejoined Tempy. ’ ’Lizbet done cut Cindy out a mont’ ago.
Abram guffawed, but attempted no disclaimer. ‘Whar mistis?' he asked.
‘In de chahmber, o’ cou’se,’replied Tempy. ‘Knock at de do’. Marse Gawge he’s in de dinin’-room.’
Abram came from his mistress’s room grinning over her gifts — a red silk bandana and a tarleton bag full of candy, topped with an orange and crossed the hall to the dining-room.
‘Christmas gif’, master, Christmas gif’, he said, bowing and scraping to the slim, foppish-looking gentleman lounging before the fire.
‘Christmas gift yourself,’ returned his master good-humoredly, filling a big glass with egg-nog. ‘Here, you trifling rascal.’
‘Thanky, master, thanky; thanky, suh.’ Abram’s grin spread from ear to ear.
Mr. Wilson smiled in sympathy; then, glancing at a book on the table beside him, he asked almost fiercely, ‘Abram, d’ you ever think how much better off you are than those free Negroes on the Ridge?’
‘Law, yas, suh, master!’ exclaimed Abram as readily as if he had really given thought to the subject. ‘Dunno what make de Lawd spile dis worl’ wid po’ white trash an’ free niggers.’
Mr. Wilson laughed. ‘Your head’s level, Abram. I’m a better master for you than Abram would be.’
‘Yas, suh, master; dat you is. I drinks to yo’ healt’ — de bes’ master in de county, scusin’ o’ nobody. — Um, um, um! Now ain’t dat triflin’ ? Hyah I done drunk up all my aig-nog an’ ain’t drunk mistis’s healt’—an’ she de bes’ mistis on top side de yea’th.’
Mr. Wilson filled the glass again. ‘Egg-nog bowl’s got a deep bottom Christmas day,’ he said. ‘Umph! Wish Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe could see you now— if she had eves to see,’ he added dryly, as Abram drained the glass and put it down, beaming and smacking his lips. ‘Well, run along, Abram, and have a good Christmas.
Abram loafed round the stables awhile, then a sudden desire possessed him to see how Christmas was going with the free Negroes whom his master had mentioned. Rocky Ridge, where lived a dozen families of them, was less than three miles away.
‘ I gwi’ traipse up dyah,’ he said to himself. ‘I ain’t gwi’ ax no permit. Master ain’t keer. I jes’ gwi’ show my red silk bandanna an’ smack my lips over dat aig-nog twel dem free niggers c’n eenamos’ tas’e it. I lay dat’s de only way dee git a aig-nog.’
He thrust his hands deep in his pockets and started off whistling. Crossing his master’s well-tilled fields, he strode through the big woods and came at last to the edge of a clearing.
‘ Umph! ’ he grunted, grinding his heel in the thin gravelly soil. ‘Glad I ain’t got to plough no sich starvation lan’ as dis hyah.’
He glanced contemptuously at the cabins dotting the red-gullied hills, then took the road to the nearest house. He had made up his mind to go through the settlement, cabin by cabin, asking for a man who, he knew, did not live there. At the first door, Abram’s knock was unanswered. Loud repeated rappings brought two small children from the rear of the cabin.
‘Whar yo’ folks?’ asked Abram.
‘Daddy gone and mammy she at Aunt Nicey’s,’ was the answer.
‘What you doin’ out-do’s?’ he inquired.
‘Playin’. Mammy shot us out. She ’feared we’d cotch a-fire.’
’Umph! Fine Christmas doin’s,’ grunted Abram.
At mention of Christmas, the children’s faces brightened.
‘Ol’ Santa brung me a pop-corn ball an’ a red apple,’ volunteered the larger boy.
‘Me, too,’ chimed in the other. ‘An’ he did n’t put no switches in my stockin’ neither.’
‘Dat all yo’ Santa Claus?’ asked Abram, commiseratingly. ‘No cakes an’ candy an’ oranges?’
The children shook their heads.
‘ Well, hyah,’ said Abram, taking some red-and-white peppermint candy out of his pocket, ‘Ol’ Santa tol’ me to gi’ you dis. He was in sich a resh he fo’got to put it in yo’ stockin’s.’
The children’s squeals of delight attracted the attention of a girl who had just come out of an adjoining cabin. She was a slender mulatto with the high cheek-bones and lustrous black hair of Indian forefathers. In honor of the day, she had on a new blue-andwhite linsey-woolsey dress and there was a string of red glass beads round her neck. Abram found her so good to look at, as she stood there smiling at the children, that he tilted back his head and stared at her between narrowed lids as he sauntered up the path. She tossed her head, threw her handful of turnip-parings into the pig-pen, and started back to the house. Abram quickened his pace and reached the doorstep before her.
‘Good mornin’, purty gal,’ he said.
She gave a curt nod and her eyes demanded his business.
‘Do a free nigger name Zander Boyd live here?’ he asked superciliously.
Her eyes sparkled. ‘Naw, slave nigger,’ she flashed at him.
Abram was disconcerted. ‘How you know — huccome you call me slave nigger?’
‘Uh, you got yo’ master’s marks on you,’ she said contemptuously, looking him up and down.
It angered Abram to feel uncomfortable before this girl of the despised Ridge. His master’s words came to his mind.
‘Uh, Marse Gawge is better master for me dan Abram would be,’ he answered.
‘I aint ’sputin’ dat,’ she said, drawing down the corners of her mouth and laughing at him with her eyes.
‘I got a gre’t min’ to kiss you,’ said Abram, coming a step nearer. ‘To pay you for bein’ so peart an’ purty.’
She stepped on the door-sill. ‘ I don’ kiss slave-niggers. I’m a free nigger.’
She dwelt on the word ‘free’ till it seemed wide as the woods and high as the sky.
Before Abram could speak, even if he had had a word ready, an old voice screeched from indoors,‘Uh, Em’line! you Em’line! Huccome you keep comp’ny stan’in’ at de do’, a-lettin’ col’ air in? Ax ’em in.'
‘’T ain’t comp’ny, granny,’ Emmeline called at the top of her voice; ‘hit’s jes’ a slave nigger axin’ for Zander Boyd.’ She made as if she would shut, the door in Abram’s face.
‘Whar I live,’ he spoke up quickly, ‘Hit’s manners to show de inside o’ de do’ to ever’body dat comes to de outside. But manners trabble slow. Mebbe dee ain’t got th’ough de big woods to de Ridge an’ free niggers.’
Before Emmeline could answer —and the glint of her eyes promised sharp words — the old woman called out, ‘Who is it? Ax ’em in.’
‘Manners, manners!’ Abram said under his breath.
Emmeline laughed and flung open the door. ‘Sho. He can come in ef he got a min’ to. Thought his master mought ’a’ sont him in a hurry to Zander Boyd’s, an’ I did n’t want to hender.’
Abram on the threshold scanned the big, homely room with slow, inquisitive eyes. The floor of smooth stones was as clean as hands could make it. There was a roaring Christmas fire in the great fire-place, and pots and pans and skillets, ranged in order, sent forth appetizing odors. The furniture was of the simplest, — a bed covered with a gay patch-work quilt, a pine table, a cupboard in the corner, some barkbottomed chairs, a spinning-wheel, a big wooden chest. There were strings of red pepper, popcorn, and sausage hanging from pegs on the log walls freshly washed with white clay. In a corner by the fire sat an old, bent, deaf black woman, carding cotton.
‘What you got to say now?' demanded Emmeline, as Abram’s eyes took possession of the place.
‘Hit’s de kin’ o’ room you dream ’bout when you tired an’ col’ an’ hongry,’ he answered.
The appreciative words mollified Emmeline and she motioned him to a seat beside the fire. During the next half-hour she busied herself about dinner, while the old woman, with the pathetic curiosity of the shut-in aged, plied Abram with questions about his family and his master’s people, whom she had known in her youth. He screamed his answers in her ear, watching Emmeline, meanwhile, with growing interest. Seemingly unconscious of his presence, she went to and fro, with uptilted chin, humming now a hymn, now a reel-tune. The sun was lingering on the noon-mark when she put a clean cotton cloth on the table and set on it, smoking hot, a platter of sausage, a dish of turnips, some baked sweet, potatoes, and a plateful of crackling ash-cakes. There was a spiced molasses pudding keeping hot in a skillet on the hearth.
‘Draw up yo’ cheers,’ Emmeline said, putting a pitcher of fresh buttermilk on the table.
Abram yawned. ‘You r’ally mus’ excuse me, mum,’ he said in his most off-hand manner. ‘I done et so much tu’key an’ side-meat an’ fruit-cake an’ drunk so much aig-nog for breakfas’ dat dee stickin’ in my th’oat right now.’
‘Umph! Ef dat was de onlies’ thing stickin’ in yo’ th’oat, you’d be better off,’ muttered Emmeline. ‘Naw, granny,’ she screamed to her grandmother who was beginning the hospitable urging which Abram expected. ‘Naw! Don’t you baig him. Don’t ax him to spile, dat good tas’e in his mouf wid us’n po’ truck! Hit ain’t good ’nough for him. Don’t you ax him to tech it.’
Granny would gladly have insisted, and Abram would gladly have yielded, — for, as he often declared, he could eat three times a day, and relish every day in the year a meal of sausage, crackling bread, and sweet potatoes, — but Emmeline was obdurate. Hungry-eyed and watery-mouthed, Abram sat beside the fire while granny and Emmeline ate and granny tantalized him by smacking her lips and commenting with gusto on the sweetness of the potatoes, the brownness of the ashcakes, the flavor of the sausage. When Emmeline took the spiced molasses pudding from the skillet, Abram gave involuntarily such a sniff, that she seemed about to relent .
’Ef you had n’t had such a bait o’ fruit-cake an’ aig-nog on top o’ yo’ other good eatin’s, I’d offer you a dish o’ puddin’,’ she said. ‘But,’ she went on slowly, with twinkling eyes, ‘naw. I ain’t gwi’ ax you to spile de tas’e o’ dem quality victuals.’
While the old woman was still mumbling over her food, Emmeline rose from the table. ‘ Granny,’ she shouted, “long as you got comp’ny, I’ll step over to Cousin Lizy’s an’ ketch her Christmas gif’. You let de dishes be. I be home ’fo’ dark. Good-day an’ good-luck to you, slave nigger.’ She looked him full in the eyes and laughed, then flung a scarlet shawl over her head and flashed out of the door.
Abram went off, quarreling with himself. ‘I’ll nuver go nigh you ag’in, you uppish, impidint free nigger.’
So he said and he meant what he said. And yet — and yet the next Sunday and the next and the next found him haunting the ridge-cabin, gossiping patiently with granny, girded at by Emmeline, with only enough peaceable words and friendly glances to keep him from losing heart entirely.
There was a saying on the Wilson place that ‘everything on the plantation made a straight path to master’s ears’; therefore Abram was not surprised one March afternoon when his master, as he rode with his small son through the fields, stopped and said, ‘Abram, what’s this I hear about you going to Rocky Ridge as often as the Lord sends Sunday?’
Abram looked intently at the sassafras he had just uprooted from the ditch-bank. ‘ You — uh — you c’n hyah heap o’ things ’sides truff, master,’ he stammered.
‘You better stay at home,’ Mr. Wilson said, tapping Abram lightly on the shoulder with his riding-whip. ‘Better stay at home, my boy, on our own plantation. Servant and free Negro is a poor cross, — mighty poor cross, — like field-corn and popcorn.’
‘Yas, suh, master; yas, suh.’
‘Come on, pa! Let’s race.’ Carter called his father with a six-year-old’s pride in his first pony.
‘In a minute, son.’ Mr. Wilson wished to make plain his views to Abram and have done with the matter. ‘You know how I am about my servants,’— masters of his class did not use the word ‘slave.’ ‘You know I let them please themselves about marrying. But I tell you now, Abram, I don’t want you to ask me to let you marry a free Negro.’
‘W’y, naw, suh, master; naw, suh. I ain’t nuver thought o’ no sich thing,’ Abram assured him.
It was true. As Mr. Wilson galloped off in the wake of the small, gallant figure on pony-back, Abram stood motionless with the dazed expression of one who, after groping in twilight, confronts a great light. ‘I ain’t nuver thought o’ dat; I ain’t nuver thought o’ dat,’he repeated. ‘Hayh I been hangin’ roun’ dat gal better’n two mont’s, like I was bewitched, an’ I ain’t know huccome an’ whuhfo’. Dyah ’t is. I want to marry dat gal. I want to marry her.’
He stood silent on Ihe ditch-bank a minute, then bent mechanically to his task.
As soon as sunset released him from labor, he tramped away supperless to the ridge-cabin. Emmeline had come out in the twilight for an armful of pine-knots, and she met him with a bantering speech about slave Negroes that went roaming about on weeknights.
He turned a set, absorbed face to her and followed her indoors. She had tricked him, he told her. He was clean bewitched. He never would be right again until she married him.
‘Marry you!’ she exclaimed in a strange voice. There was a brief silence. The flickering firelight cast its lights and shadows on the two tense young figures and on the heavy old woman dozing in the corner. ’You think you want to marry me, do you?’ Emmeline asked at last, harshly.
’I want to marry you,’ he said doggedly. ‘You know I does.’
She gave a mirthless laugh. ‘What yo’ master say ef you tell him you want to marry a free nigger?'
‘Marse Gawge ’ll cuss an’ say I shan’t, — an’ den he’ll lemme do like I want to.’
‘Naw. Naw. Not dis time. ’Cause I got do say-so. I ain’t gwi’ marry you.’
Abram started back as if she had struck him in the face with her fist.
‘ Em’line!’ he protested.
Her voice cackled out again in scornful laughter.
‘ Em’line! Don’t you keer nothin’ ’bout me?’
‘Keer? I don’t keer — dat!’ She snapped her fingers in his face.
His eyes, glowing between half-shut lids, caught hers and held them till they fell before him. ‘Uh, my honey!’ he triumphed, and laid a possessing hand on her shoulder.
She jerked away and sprang to her feet. ‘ Go — go — go ’way,’ she panted in a fierce half-whisper. ‘You shan’t keep comp’ny wid me. You shan’t. You shan’t. I ain’t gwi’ marry no slave nigger. Wid a master. Like a dog. W’y, he could put a collar roun’ yo’ neck.’ Her voice rang out at the last.
Abram was dumbfounded. ‘He ain’t gwi’ to,’ he stammered.
‘He could do it.’
‘But he ain’t. He ain’t gwi’ do it. An’ I know he ain’t ’an’ you know he ain’t. Huccome you talk so foolish?’ he flung at her.
‘Call it foolish, ef you ’a’ min’ to. Call it foolish. I done wid you. I done wid you.’ She crouched in the corner beside granny and would not look up nor speak again.
‘I’ll nuver waste another minute on you — nuver —nuver — nuver,’ he stormed at last, and stalked homeward through the soft, foggy night.
The social order to which Abram belonged had never been questioned by him; left to himself, it would have remained unquestioned. He was proud of his master’s station and consequence, proud to be one of many servants on the big plantation of a ‘gentleman.’ All his life, he had heard and used the phrase ‘free nigger’ as a term of contempt. What, then, was this vague feeling, not definite enough yet to be a wish or even a longing? Generations of servitude in America, generations of slavery in Africa, lay behind him. Yet, as the germ of life survived in the mummy-treasured grain, so the germ of freedom survived in his heart, and it was beginning to awake.
There was no more talk with Emmeline about free or slave. Abram went again and again to the ridge-cabin, but she crouched in the corner beside granny, and would not speak to him, would not even look at him. One Sunday afternoon, he found her chattering with a young mulatto preacher, and he saw — or thought he saw — that she was laughing at him. After that, he stayed at home. He began again to visit Cindy, whose friends jeered that he would have ‘said the word’ to her long ago if he had n’t seen so plain that she was waiting for it.
One day — months had passed and seed-time and summer were giving place to harvest — Abram was at work in a tobacco-field when his master rode by,
‘Well, Abram,’ Mr. Wilson called cheerily, ‘I hear there’s going to be another wedding in my family soon. That’s good. I’ll look out for presents next time I go to Richmond.’
Abram went down the row and stood beside his master. In that moment, thoughts which he had not realized were in his mind took shape in words.
‘Master,’ he asked, ‘master, would you sell me?’
Mr. Wilson stared in surprise. ‘Of course not, you darned fool. Did you ever know me to sell one of my servants?’
‘Naw, suh; uh, naw, suh. Cou’se I knowed you would n’t. Cou’se not, suh. — Master, ef I wa’n’t too highpriced, I’d like to buy myse’f.’
‘The devil!’ exclaimed Mr. Wilson. He sat perfectly still a minute. ‘The devil!’ he repeated vehemently, and then he galloped away.
A half-hour later, he rode back and beckoned Abram to him. ‘What put that fool notion in your head?’ he asked sternly. ‘Abolitionists round my quarters?’
‘ ’Bolitionis’? ’ Abram was plainly puzzled. ‘I — I — I — jes’ thought — thought I — I’d like to own a nigger, jes’ one triflin’ no-count fiel’ han’ like me.’
‘Abram!’Mr. Wilson’s mouth opened and shut like a steel trap. ‘I’m going to the bottom of this. Whoever has been tampering with my servants is going to get — his — just — deserts.’ Lash and gallows were in his voice, stern and merciless. ‘Now, I know somebody is at the bottom of this. It is n’t you. I know you, Abram. Why, boy, you were born and brought up here. You played round the house and went fishing with me from the time you were knee-high to a grasshopper. I’ve cared for you and nursed you myself when you were sick. And now, — oh, you need n’t tell me, — you can’t make me believe that now—’
Tears were streaming down Abram’s cheeks. He pressed his face against his master’s knee. ‘Naw, naw, naw, my master,’ he sobbed. ‘I don’t want myself. I don’t want to be free. Dat free nigger, dat Em’line — can go. I don’t keer nothin’ ’bout her no-way.’
‘Oh, ho! ’ Mr. Wilson whistled. ‘The wind’s in that quarter, is it? What about Emmeline? Let’s hear it all.’
‘Dat free nigger — dat Em’line Hawkins. She won’t marry me ’cause I ain’t a free nigger.’
Mr. Wilson questioned and listened and frowned and laughed and cursed. ‘Well, Abram,’ he said at last, ‘I’m sorry, but I’m glad it is n’t — like I thought it was. And you can’t console yourself with Cindy — or Charity — or Lizbeth? Well, well, well! When a fellow has n’t seen a girl for three months and still she comes projecking before him day and night, night and day, natural as if she were there in flesh and blood — I reckon it’s a serious case. I’ll think it over and we’ll see what we can do.’
The upshot of the matter was that Mr. Wilson agreed to let Abram purchase himself, eleven hundred dollars being agreed on as a reasonable price for a stalwart field-hand. Abram was allowed to hire himself for a hundred and forty dollars a year, all his earnings above that sum going as payments on the debt. By his master’s advice and aid, he became a hostler in a liverystable, where there were good wages to be earned, and tips to be picked up. His tasks were an unwelcome exchange for field-work.
‘It’s pintly an aggervation,’ he told Emmeline, ‘to corn an’ fodder an’ curry an’ rub dem slab-sided jades dat ain’t got no bottom to buil’ on, an’ ain’t nothin’ but slab-sided jades w’en you git th’ough wid ’em. But I’clar, hit’s worse w’en you git holt of a hawse dat is a hawse an’ lead it out slick an’ prancin’ an’ have it brung back lame an’ winded an’ gormed wid mud an’ sweat — for me to git a cussin’.’
Emmeline agreed that it was just as well for him to wait awhile before he ‘got religion,’ for if he got it he would be sure to lose it, under these trying circumstances, and would have to take time off and ‘go seeking’ every big meeting.
Before his second year of service was out, Abram and Emmeline were married. Her grandmother being dead, she was all alone. And she explained that she was obliged to marry him to keep him from losing so much time from work, traipsing to see her. The couple bent their energies to earning and saving every possible penny. Abram complained sometimes that never had an overseer been as hard on him as was Emmeline. She took in washing, and he accepted it as a necessary evil that he must rise long before day, to fetch and carry clothes and bring water before beginning his work at the stable. Many a night, when the door-latch was drawn and a bed-quilt was hung over the window so that no one could see him ‘demeanin’ hi’se’f’ with woman’s work, he helped Emmeline wring clothes, or rubbed them on the washboard until his hands were raw and bleeding.
While this struggle went on, with its humorous and pathetic details known only to the two humble participants, there was going on a great struggle which the world was watching with interest. Marches, counter-marches, battles, sieges, campaigns, victory, and defeat, — with the fate of states and nation in the balance, — these meant nothing more to Abram and Emmeline than greater or less difficulty in paying for Abram’s freedom papers.
The second year of the great war found Abram no longer at the liverystable. It was closed. The steeds which had carried the young men a-hunting and a-courting had borne their gay gallant riders to battlefields. Abram went back to the country and turned his hand to one job and another. He rented land and obtained — how, we will not too curiously inquire —a gaunt old ox, and raised patches of corn and vegetables. Sometimes troops trampled down his fields, sometimes raiders confiscated his ripening crops, sometimes he himself reaped the harvest and bore it away, by basketful or bagful, to sell in the camps.
When time and labor had reduced the debt almost unbelievably, Emmeline made a suggestion which Abram met first with stunned silence, then with indignant refusal. It was that he should slaughter and sell as beef his old ox Ephraim which he kept concealed from stray marauders in a pen in the ‘ big woods,’ bringing it out, with Emmeline as sentinel, to plough a field or haul a load.
‘Huccome you talk so foolish, Em’line?' Abram asked reproachfully. ‘You know I’bleeged to have Ephraim. How I gwi’ haul an’ plough an’ ten’ a crap? Huccome you talk so foolish?’
‘Ef we kill Ephraim,’ Emmeline went on as if he had not spoken, ‘we pay out an’ we done — done — done. But ef we don’t beef him, mebbe any day raiders ’ll git him or he ’ll lay down an’ die. Den ox’ll be gone an’ debt ’ll be dyah.’
‘What I gwi’ do ’bout de crap?' persisted Abram.
Emmeline yawned. ‘ I gwine to baid. Uh’ Abram, you make me tired. Ain’t me an’ you strong as oxes; stronger ’n ol’ Ephraim, ’cause he’s wobbly in de laigs from havin’ so little to eat? I c’n pull a plough an’ you c’n pull a plough. Ain’t yo’ lan’ all broke up? An’ can’t free folks wuk an’ buy a ox?’
Abram yielded, of course. Ephraim was slaughtered and loaded on a wheelbarrow to be trundled two miles to the court-house where cross-eyed Simon’s Billy Sam said some Confederate troops had come the day before.
Abram and Emmeline started off gayly that April morning, he pushing the wheel-barrow, she balancing deftly on her head a bag containing some peanuts, baked sweet potatoes, and fried chicken. They had gone only a little way when upon their idle chatter broke the sound of galloping hoofs.
‘Turn out de road, Abram. Dump Eph in de bresh,’ counseled Emmeline cautiously, tossing her bag in the underbrush. Before Abram could follow her example, a foraging party of halfa-dozen reckless fellows galloped up.
‘Something stirring in this Godforsaken country,’ cried one. ‘Hey, Sambo!’
Then, ‘Beef! beef! beef! beef!’ they yelled in chorus.
‘I guess you got too hefty a load, Sambo,’ said one soldier leaning down and taking a piece of beef. ‘I’ll help you.’
‘I was just coming for that old lady’s leg,’ laughed another, helping himself to a hind quarter. ‘But I ca’c’lated I’d find her standing on it.’
‘Smart of you, Sambo, to butcher for us.’
‘And meet us in the road.’
As they talked, they seized the beef and tied it to their saddles.
‘Masters, masters,’ pleaded Abram, ‘don’t take my beef. Masters, buy it. Please, suh, don’t take all a po’ ol’ nigger is got. My ol’ Ephraim! — Masters! please, masters! please you don’t.’
One whose foot he clasped imploringly, thrust him off with an oath. Even as he pleaded and implored, they galloped down the road. Abram shrieked a curse after them, then kicked over the empty wheel-barrow in futile rage. ‘An’ you tol’ me to kill ol’ Ephraim,’ he cried reproachfully to Emmeline, who stood speechless beside him. ‘Ol Ephraim’s daid an’ gone,— he daid an’ gone,’ he repeated passionately.
‘Don’t take it so hard,’ Emmeline urged. ‘Don’t, Abram. You don’t. We — we gwi’ make out somehow. We gwi’ git right smart money for dese hyah snacks.' She picked up her bag.
’Ain’t nobody gwi’ steal deni las’ mou’fuls o’ victuals,’ stormed Abram. ’I gwi’ set down, right now an’ hyah, an’ eat an’ eat an’ eat. I gwi’ git one mo’ good gorge ’fo’ I die.’
Close on these words, there came again the sound of hurrying hoofs. Emmeline tossed her bag back in the brush-heap as another squad of soldiers cantered up a cross-road and turned into the highway.
‘ Howdy, folks! Know where can we get something to eat?’ asked the foremost man.
‘Want to buy it, — buy it, an’ pay for it?’ questioned Emmeline, cautiously.
The man produced a roll of paper money. ‘Far as this money goes good.’
‘I got some little snacks hyah, suh,’ she hastened to say and produced her bag.
The hungry men swarmed round her and crammed paper notes in her hand.
‘I’ll give five dollars for that big potato.’
‘Pay you ten dollars for a chicken.’
‘I’ll pay twenty.’
‘ I ’ll give a dollar for a smell of that bag,’ humorously whined one emptyhanded fellow.
Abram and Emmeline counted and recounted their bank-notes. Two hundred and forty dollars. Two hundred and forty!
’Dat’s right, — but it’s boun’ to be wrong,’ declared Abram. ‘Ain’t nobody nuver hyah tell o’ gittin’ two hund’ed and forty dollars for a few little small snacks. I gwine straight on to master. He still home sick in baid.’
Abram found the master of Redfields lying on an old mahogany davenport in the hall. Mrs. Wilson was cutting old linen, her grandmother’s bridal underwear, into strips which little Carter was rolling for bandages.
‘Good money? Yes, it’s good money.’ Mr. Wilson spoke vehemently in answer to Abram’s question. ‘I will take it, — dollar for dollar, against any currency in the world. Dollar for dollar — and fight to make it good. — I got the papers ready for you, Abram, as I promised. Was going to leave them with your mistress when I go back to Fitzhugh to-morrow. I’m going to stay with him till we drive the last Yankee ’cross the Potomac.’
Mrs. Wilson sighed as her husband hobbled to his desk. Then she spoke kindly to the waiting Negro: ‘You’ve been working hard for yourself five years, have n’t you, Abram?'
‘Six, mistis. Six yuh come tobaccocuttin’ time,’ he responded. ‘I done cleaned myse’f up now o’ ever’thing I got, to pay dis hyah money an’ git my freedom papers.’
Mrs. Wilson looked troubled. She spoke aside to her husband: ‘George, do you think — does it seem just right—now — to take everything he has for — for freedom papers? Suppose — now Jackson is gone — suppose the Confederacy should n’t— What if the Yankees did —’
Her husband cut short her halting speech. There were things not to be put in words. ’It won’t. It can’t. We’ll pull through. There’s General Lee. Why, Marse Robert’s bound to win. Take all Abram has? Of course. All everybody has. Things have n’t been going well of late. But just let old Joe Johnston and Marse Robert get together and everything will be all right again.'
Mrs. Wilson sighed.
‘We’ll keep up the fight till doomsday but what we win,’ he went on. ‘When we old soldiers ar all gone, there’ll be a fresh young crop. Here’s Carter. Eleven, are n’t you, son? In two or three years, he’ll go. Why, there’s a drummer-boy in our regiment says he’s thirteen, but I’d almost swear he ’s not a day older than Carter.’
‘I’m plenty old, pa.’ Carter dropped the roll of bandage and put imploring hands on his father’s arm. ‘I’m so big — and ’leven is pretty old, anyway. Let me go back with you, pa, and be a soldier. I can march and shoot. I’ve been drilling the boys like you showed me, and I make ’em call me “Cap’n Carter.” ’
‘Next year— if we have n’t whipped the Yankees before — you shall go,’ said his father.
‘Goody, goody!’ The little fellow clapped his hands.
Abram started home with his papers. He was free now — free — free as Emmeline. Free! He set the word to a sing-song tune and droned it over and over. Tired as he was, he walked briskly, for he was in haste to get home and share his good tidings with Emmeline. In the soft spring air, there was no sound except the cawing of crows in the woodland, and far down the road a confused clamor. Voices came louder and nearer, and at a turn of the road Abram met five or six Negroes from a neighboring plantation.
‘W’y hi! Huccome you outen de fiel’ dis time o’ day?’ asked Abram.
They yelled and guffawed. Then they shouted something and shouted again and again till he caught their meaning. ‘Freedom done been called! Freedom! freedom! We ain’t nuver gwi’ work no mo’. New Jerusalem’s come. Freedom’s called! Jump jubilee, nigger, jump jubilee!’
Abram extricated himself from the group and went on his way. He walked more slowly and shook his head now and then with a puzzled frown. His countenance brightened, however, when he turned down a path through the pine-woods and saw Emmeline coming to meet him.
‘Well, ol’ gal. I free now. Hyah de papers,’ he called cheerily.
‘Uh, I was so feared some’n’ was gwi’ happen. Hit—hit seems too good to be true. Praise de Lawd, honey, praise de Lawd. Now you’s a man.’
As they went back to their cabin, Abram told about the Marshall Negroes’ ‘noration’ that ‘freedom had been called.’
Emmeline stood stock-still in the path and looked at him earnestly. ‘Abram, Abram! Is dat so? Is freedom done been called?’
‘Dat what dee say,’ he answered. ‘But dee ain’t got no freedom papers.’
‘I don’t reckon dee need none ef freedom done been called.’
‘Is dat so?’ Abram was perplexed. ‘Well, Em’line, dyah’s boun’ to be a differ twix’ our freedom an’ dent pigtrack niggers.’
But Emmeline shook her head. ‘Naw, Abram, naw. All dat wuk, all dat money,.an’ we ain’t no free ’n de res’.’
There followed days and weeks of unrest.. Most of Abram’s old plantation comrades were loafing, waiting for a vague ‘they’ to give them ‘forty acres and a mule.’ Habits of independent industry and a certain shrewd common sense kept Abram and Emmeline at work.
’I ain’t seed folks keen to give ’way things,’ said Emmeline. ‘I ain’t seed folks git much ’cep’ what dee wuk for.’
Abram grunted and submitted.
One day, as he was hoeing his cornpatch and bewailing the loss of Ephraim, Cindy came by the field and said she had seen ‘Mr. Marse Gawge’ the day before and he asked her to tell Abram to come to Redfields about some business.
‘ W’y hi! What he want wid Abram? asked Emmeline suspiciously.
‘Dunno. Dat all he say. Want to see Abram ’bout some ’ticular business.’
‘You —you reckon he want to buy me back ag’in?’ asked Abram.
‘You a free man an’ free you gwi’ stay,’ asserted Emmeline. ‘ He ain’t got no business wid you an’ you ain’t gwine a step. I reckon I better go ’long wid you, an’ see what he wants,’ she said in the same breath.
On the way she gave her husband repeated charges as to his behavior.
‘ You be polite, Abram, but you be free polite,’ she said. ‘An’ whatsomever you do, don’t you say master. He ain’t yo’ master. He ain’t nobody’s master no mo’. You say “ Mist’ Wilson.” An’ don’t, you ’gree to nothin’ ’dout my say-so. An’ don’t you say master.’
Emmeline led the way to the front door but their rap was unanswered; with no better success, they approached the side and back doors.
Abram looked perplexed. ‘Dis hyah house ain’t nuver been lef’ by itse’f befo’,’ he declared. ‘Whar is ever’body?’
Upon the stillness, came a ringing, ‘Whoa, now, whoa!’ Following the sound, they went toward the garden and opened the gate flanked by rows of fig bushes.
‘Lawd, Lawd, Lawd!’ ejaculated Abram. ‘ I ain’t see what I see! Lawd, Lawd! My Marse Gawge!’
Mr. Wilson was hobbling behind a plough to which was hitched Zebedee, an old carriage-horse. Little Carter, grimy and perspiring, was marching valiantly behind his father, making a grim game of his task of dropping potatoes in the opened rows.
‘I buried that Yankee with his eyes up,’ he said. ‘This one’s got ’em down in the ground.’
Mrs. Wilson, in a thread-bare silk, was sitting in the shade of a crêpe myrtle, cutting seed-potatoes with the painstaking diligence of one at an unaccustomed task.
At the end of a row, Mr. Wilson glanced up and saw Abram and Emmeline standing at the gate.
‘Howdy, Abram,’ he said, in just the tone he would have used if Abram had come to the piazza and found him sipping a mint-julep.
‘Master, you — you ain’t ploughin’. W’y, Marse Gawge,’ stammered Abram.
‘This is going to be the best garden that ever was at Redfields,’ Mr. Wilson said cheerily. ‘Don’t you see your mistress cutting the potatoes for luck? I sent for you, Abram, to talk over a little matter of business. Now, understand me. Understand one thing in the beginning. It was all right that you should pay for your freedom papers — perfectly all right. You belonged to me. You understand that, Abram?’ he asked, with a defiant ring in his voice.
‘Law, yas, suh; yas, suh,’ Abram answered.—‘Master, dem’s blisters on yo’ han’s.’
Mr. Wilson stood a little straighter. ‘I owned you. You were my slave.’ There was a sting in his gentle drawl as, for the first time, he used that word to one of his people. ‘You wanted to buy yourself. I sold you. Perfectly fair and legitimate. If I wanted to give back your money — and you understand, I don’t, Abram — there is no reason I should; none at all — I have n’t it and I could n’t do it. If I’d had a thousand times as much, ’t would all have gone the same way. But — I am going to give you — a free gift you understand, Abram — a free gift — the thirty acres of Mill Woods south of the public road. And, Abram, there’s an old mule that the Yankees left for the buzzards to pick. It’s on the mend and in the lower pasture. You might as well take it. I’ve got Zebedee, and a mule was n’t made for a white man to plough.’
Abram stared and gasped and stammered. ‘Is you say, master — ain’t you say, master—Master, is you gi’ me — gi’ me —’
‘Thirty acres of Mill Woods.’
‘Wood-lot — an’ spring — an’ pasture — an’ cabin — an’ pig-pen —an’ draw-bars?’
Mr. Wilson laughed. ‘All that, Abram. As a free gift.’
‘An’ a — a mule?’
‘A piece of one. But I must get these potatoes planted. Gee, Zebedee.’
Emmeline, who had stood as if rooted to the spot, now started forward with tears streaming down her cheeks.
‘Abram, uh, Abram, you ol’ fool, you! Ain’t you see yo’ master want dem ’taters planted’? Why n’t you git ’twix’n dem plough handles, you lazy no-count nigger? Ain’t you got no sense at all? Mistis, you gimme dat basket o’ ’taters. I gwi’ cut ’em an’ drap ’em, too. You go ’long in de house an’ sot down in yo’ rockin’-cheer, whar you b’long. Me an’ Abram ain’t got nothin’ to do in dis worl’ but to wait on you an’ master.’