Rab and Dab. Iii: A Woman Rice-Planter's Story

I

ABOUT the middle of January I was aware that a bad time was coming. Jonadab began to look sulky and stolid, and Jim, when I told him to watch the boys and see what was going wrong, reported that after they had had their supper, said their prayers, and gone to bed, they waited until everything was quiet in the big house, then jumped out of their back window and went out to the ‘street,’ where they stayed until nearly morning, playing with the other little darkies around big light-wood fires out of doors, or sitting with the grown people around the cabin fires inside.

Plantation Negroes differ from other working people in that they sit up half the night, nodding by the fire, talking, talking, talking, endlessly; they have the ‘gift of gab’; but I did not know until now that they let the children sit up just as long as they want to, and just drop asleep anywhere.

I told the boys this must cease; that when they went to bed they must stay there; and I ordered Jim to go to their room the last thing before he went to bed every night. This he did, and as he always found the children fast asleep,

I was satisfied.

One day, however, in February, Elihu came and asked to see me privately. I went out and walked into the park some distance from the house, where he could speak without fear of being overheard. He stood hat in hand for some time, and scratched his head before he began.

There are great gradations in the speech of the darkies. Jim speaks quite correctly. Jonadab comes next, and occasionally gets a pronoun right. Chloe’s is the rice-field dialect, but somewhat tempered by her association with white people as a house servant. When you hear Elihu you hear the genuine gullah of the rice field, which is harder to understand than the dialect of any other section; and those unaccustomed to it cannot understand a word.

At last he began: ‘Miss Pashuns, ma’am, yu’se a lady en I don’ like fu’ worrit yu, bein’ yu’se got no one fu’ look out fu’ yu’; but, Miss Pashuns, dem chillun yu’ got yah is oncommon weekit. Dem is de pu’e Satan, Miss Pashuns. Ebery night de Lawd sen’ bout twelve o’clock, dem cum to my house en set dere till mawnin’, en dem cuss eberybody.’

‘Why, Elihu, I can scarcely believe this. I have forbidden them to go out at night, and Jim always goes the last thing at night to see that they are in their beds, and he always finds them asleep.’

‘Yes, Miss Pashuns, dem shet dey eye en’ preten’ say dem de sleep, but jes’ as soon es Jim shet de do’, dem chillun is up en out dat winder. Las’ night I say, “Dab,” I say, “ ent yo’ shame, fu’ ak so weekit? I gwine tell Miss Pashuns en ’e’ll mek Jim lick yo’.” En ma’am, dat boy fu’ answer say, “Tell if yu’ chuse, en let Jim lick me, en I’ll bu’n down de big house, en I’ll bu’n down Jim house to-morrer night wen dem de sleep, ef dem lick me.” Den Josh bin a set by de fiah, en him jump up, en ’e ketch holt o’ Dab en ’e say,

“ Boy, I’ll brek ebery bone in yo’ body ef yu say dat wud agen.” En de chillun run out de house en cum home. But I tek it on me, Miss Pashuns, to le’ yo’ kno’ ’bout dey wud, en dey gwinin’ on. ’Tain’t de fus’ time dat I yere dem tretten to stick fiah to dis house en bu’n ye’ en An’ Chloe up, en dey is dat weekit I ’f’aid sum night dey’ll do um.’

‘ I thank you truly, Elihu. I am glad to know the facts. I have seen that evil thoughts were working in them lately. Poor little creatures, they have to fight a heavier battle with the devil than either you or I, Elihu, and we must try to help them. It was a great thing that Josh spoke so severely to Jonadab for his evil words, and if you will all do that you will help me greatly; but I hear some of the people only laugh at what they say, and encourage them to say worse. I really do not know what to do as long as you receive them into your houses at night and let them stay there and talk and laugh, when you know that it is against my express orders and that they ought to be in their beds. Now, if you will tell all the people in the street that I beg them not to allow the boys to enter their houses after ten o’clock, you will be doing me a favor, and perhaps I shall be able to keep them in their beds. Go round as soon as you get home and tell the head of each house in the street that I require this of them.’

I consulted both Chloe and Jim as to what could be done, but no plan could be devised, except that which I had proposed — of getting the help of the hands on the place; and for a time it seemed to succeed.

One Sunday morning after breakfast, Chloe called me out to the yard, where, under a large oak, on the topmost limb of which he always roosted, lay the peacock, dead, a tumbled mass of gorgeous colors. I was very much distressed, and still more so when I had heard Chloe’s account. The boys had ‘chunked’ it to death.

She said that when she first got up that morning she heard them laughing very loud and ‘chunking’ with brickbats. She went out to see what they were doing, and found that they were throwing things at the peacock, which was on a very high limb. She scolded them and made them stop, and then went into the house to carry fresh water; and when she came down, they had gone to the barnyard. She looked up into the tree and saw the peacock still sitting high up on a limb, and she knew he was afraid to come down. She went on with her duties, and thought no more of it until a few moments ago, when she heard the loud laughing again, and ran out just in time to see the beautiful bird fall to the ground dead; a brick had struck him on the head.

I questioned Jonadab, who was standing by. He said that he never ‘chunked’ the peacock, that it had eaten too much and dropped dead in the night; and so on and on, telling one lie after another with extraordinary glibness and ingenuity. I turned to Rechab with the same result. I was very angry. I sent for Jim and told him to give them both a good whipping.

Jonadab fought Jim desperately, so that his hands had to be tied, to prevent his scratching Jim’s face and tearing his clothes. While Jonadab was receiving his punishment at the old school-house some distance from the house, I talked to Rechab with all the eloquence that I could command, shaming him for his wickedness and telling him what the end of it all must be, and urging him to tell the truth, which at last he did, and confessed the whole thing.

When Jim brought Jonadab back and took Rechab, I told him to make his punishment lighter as he had made confession. Fortunately, Jonadab’s hands were still tied, for as soon as Jim had gone off with Rab he broke out into the most fearful oaths and threats of killing and burning and then running off into the swamp.

I was sorely puzzled to know what to do with him. It was time to start for church, a long drive, and as I could not leave him in this frame of mind, I told Chloe to bring the key to the basement, which used to be the pastry kitchen in former years; it was all of brick, with an immense brick oven and fireplace, and the windows had thick bars instead of shutters; so I had Jonadab put in there until I returned from church.

There was nothing in the basement but some old pieces of furniture and the barrel of kerosene oil, which was always kept there with a locked spigot; so there was nothing for him to destroy. As he continued to threaten to burn and kill, I left his hands bound, examining carefully to see that there was nothing to hurt him.

I found it very difficult to fix my mind on holy things when I got to church, and I did not benefit from the blessed services as much as usual, for the events of the morning had agitated and shaken me, and I felt that I must decide upon some steps at once, to secure better management for Jonadab. I had done my very best for the boys, giving them of my time and thought, but they had come to a point where they did not improve and I must make some change. They were growing in health and strength and capacity, but morally not at all. For two years we had suffered from disastrous freshets which had destroyed my rice crop, and I had not had a dollar to spend and had bought not a single thing of any kind for myself, but I must manage to do something for Jonadab.

I hurried home as soon as the service was over, without the usual little chat with my kindly friends and neighbors, who live so far apart and lead such busy lives that we rarely meet elsewhere. I told Jim to drive rapidly home, and I hurried to the basement to release Jonadab. I spoke to him most earnestly and solemnly, and making him kneel down, I knelt beside him and made him repeat after me a fervent prayer that God would deliver him from the evil spirit which tempted him, and help him to be a good boy. At last Jonadab seemed to be softened, and to feel some regret for his conduct, and promised to do better; and I went into the house exhausted, but much more cheerful than I had been.

II

That night I wrote three letters; one to Booker Washington, as the wisest of his race, asking him if he could tell me of a place where I could send these orphans, where they would be kindly cared for, and at the same time have the regular, disciplined life which alone could save them from their inherited evil proclivities. Then I wrote to the reverend archdeacon for colored work in our diocese, asking him the same question. Then to the rector of my parish, a man who had devoted himself a great deal to work among the Negroes in former years. I wrote very freely to him, stating the circumstances and asking if he knew of any institution or any individual to whom I could intrust these children. I told each one that I was prepared to bear their expenses entirely myself, but I hoped they would be moderate, as my means were small.

The next day Chloe came to me in dismay. ‘ Miss Pashuns, yu’ know dis karisene only cum last week, en I git out two gallon, en now de barrel is empty!’

‘That is impossible, Chloe; the barrel holds over fifty gallons.’

‘I know dat, Miss Pashuns, but I’m tellin’ yu’ now, de barrel is empty, en de flo’ is deep in karisene; look a’ my shoe.’

I looked and truly Chloe’s shoes were wet with kerosene. I went at once to the basement to examine, and found it was all true: Jonadab had broken the locked spigot with a piece of old iron he found, and when I was talking to him so earnestly the day before, the oil was quietly flowing out of the barrel. The room was dark and I had stood near the door; and I was so engrossed with the effort to impress the child that, though I had been aware of the strong smell of kerosene, I made no investigation, having no suspicion. I had noticed that his hands were free, and when I asked him how he loosed them, he said he went close to the window and Rab had loosed them by putting his hands through the bars. I was pleased that he told me the truth, and did not think it remarkable. I never had been forced to have such a thing done to any child before, and the thought of it had worried me all during service, and when I found that Rab had loosed him I was rather glad than otherwise.

The basement floor being tiled, the oil was still there, and I told Chloe to try to dip some up; but of course it did not amount to anything, and I had to sit down at once and write to C. for another barrel of vestal oil. It would cost $9.80 by the time freight was paid, and I should have to wait a week to get it by the next steamer.

I never mentioned the subject to Jonadab, feeling it would do no good, unless I had him punished again, which I was not willing to do. I had done all I could, and I simply ignored this new wickedness.

Meanwhile I watched the mail eagerly for answers to my letters. In due time they came. Booker Washington ‘was sorry he knew of no institution where boys so young could be placed. His own were all for larger boys.’ The reverend archdeacon answered that he regretted beyond measure the fact that there was no place for just such cases; it was a great need all over the country. My rector gave the same answer, while expressing great interest and sympathy.

Every day some fresh ingenuity of naughtiness on the part of the boys came to light, and I tried to meet it with some fresh idea to divert them from evil.

Their parents had both been Baptists, and as I had a feeling that their poor mother would prefer their being brought up in her own faith, I had never had them baptized into the church; but now I felt that I had been wrong, and I had them both christened in our little chapel for colored people, the bishop, the archdeacon, and the rector all being present. It was a very solemn service and I felt very hopeful of the result, having a blessed faith in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I had often read in the News and Courier of the work of a Negro man named Jenkins in the town of Charleston, who had begun by picking up little waifs of his race on the streets, taking them to his own home, and caring for them as if they were his own children, making them respectable and lawabiding by his excellent management and discipline, so that all the citizens of Charleston had become interested in his work and had given him their help and encouragement; until at last the city had given him the use of a big building, where he now had a large number of children under his training and care.

I wrote to my sister, whose home is in that town, and begged her to visit the Jenkins establishment, and let me know what she thought of it.

While I was waiting for her report, Jim came to me one day with a very serious face, and said, ‘Miss Pennington, Jonadab bin in my room, in my top drawer, an’ took out all my cartridge, about twenty I had, an’ done shot um off in the fire at night to their house! Now w’en he bin into the sto’room un’ took pervision, an’ into An’ Chloe’s trunk an’ broke it open an’ took her money, I never t’ought nothin’ of that, fo’ all chillun will do such tings, but w’en it come to that, that Jonadab got sense to go into my drawer an’ take cartridge an’ shoot dem off in the fire, I t’ink it’s time fo’ somet’ing to be done.’

I could not help smiling at the fact that in Jim’s opinion his own loss was the only serious one, but I said, ‘I heartily agree with you, Jim. It is quite time for something to be done, and I am trying my best to find out what it must be. In the meantime keep your eye on Jonadab all the time, for there is no telling what he may do.’

My sister’s report of the Jenkins institution was most satisfactory. She had been all through it, had seen the children at work and at play, and Jenkins himself impressed her with confidence.

I wrote at once to him, asking if he would take Jonadab. Very soon came his reply, — that he did not ordinarily take children outside of the city, as he found so many in it that needed his care; but that I had interested him in the boy, and he would receive him and do the best he could for him.

I had been busy all along making up new clothes for Jonadab, and got a best suit for his Sunday wear from Gregory, so that there was no cause for delay.

I called Jonadab the next morning and told him I was going to take him to school. He was delighted, and when his little valise was packed and he got into the wagon with it, he was bursting with importance and pride. He seemed to feel no shadow of regret in leaving Rechab, but called out in a joyful tone as the wagon drove off, ‘ Goodbye, Baby.’ But poor Rab looked very sad.

I felt considerable anxiety as to how Jonadab would behave on the journey: he had so often threatened to ‘run away’ that I half feared he might try something of the sort; but I soon saw he was in one of his very best moods. During the fourteen-mile drive to the station, he looked at everything with intense pleasure and asked Jim, by whose side he sat, endless questions.

When we reached the station I got at once into the train and placed Jonadab on the little side seat near the door, with his own little valise and my suitcase by him, and told him to take care of them and not to move till I came for him; and I took my seat at a little distance. There he sat like an ebony statue, not moving a muscle; but his eyes rolled around in the most wonderful way, and saw everything. He had never seen a town, or a car, or a locomotive; he had never seen anything in his life but the sights of the country, the little pine-land settlement called a village, with one store, a post-office, and a church, set down irregularly among the tall pines; yet there was no expression of surprise or wonder, — just an all-devouring interest.

A stranger who sat behind me leaned over and said, ‘Pardon me, but I saw you speak to that little boy; do you know him?’

Of course I answered in the affirmative, and the stranger went on: ’He is a very extraordinary-looking child. He would make his fortune as a minstrel; he is a typical minstrel darkie.'

We did not reach the city until ten o’clock, and I had to take a carriage in order to reach the Jenkins Industrial Institution, for I had no idea how to get there on the trolley. The nephew who met me at the train urged me to take Jonadab to his mother’s for the night, saying that in the morning I could take him to the worthy Jenkins without the expense of a carriage; but I was not to be dissuaded from carrying out my original intention of placing Jonadab in Jenkins’s care that night; so, giving the hackman the address, we drove off.

A fair for the benefit of the orphans was in full blast when we arrived and the place looked very gay. There was some delay in finding the principal, but finally he came to the carriage and I had the satisfaction of placing my charge in safe hands. I was pleased, too, with Jenkins’s appearance and his manner toward his new responsibility. Knowing that Jonadab had never seen anything like the gorgeousness of the flag-trimmed fair room, I was glad that he should have such a gay impression of his new home, and gave him three nickels to spend as he pleased. I arranged with the principal to go the next day and make the necessary business arrangements, and then I was free to enjoy the meeting with my loved ones.

The next day Jenkins told me that if I gave up all hold on Jonadab, that is, all control for the future, I need pay nothing, but if I desired still to be responsible for him I must pay a small sum twice a year for his board and clothing, which sum I paid down at once. Then I was taken all over the large establishment, which seemed wonderfully well organized and managed, the children well fed and clothed and happy, and yet all busy.

I felt it necessary to tell Jenkins of Jonadab’s propensities, at the same time asking him to appear not to know them, so as to give the child a chance to forget them and make a fresh start, and above all not to let any of his companions know them. The old adage, ‘Give a dog a bad name and hang him,’ is founded on a knowdedge of human nature.

On the train, once, I had asked Dab if he had ever thought what he would like to be when he grew up, — what work he would like to do. He had answered without hesitation, ‘Engineer on a steamboat,’ and I told Jenkins that.

I was much impressed by the quiet common sense of Jenkins, and by his ability. I asked to see Dab before I left and found him radiantly happy, and I returned home with a quiet mind, feeling that I had found the place where the best part of Jonadab would be developed.

III

When I got back to Cherokee, a very clean, very good little Rechab met me. Chloe had taken him into her hands more than when Jonadab had been at home, and Jim had had him to sleep in his room. Jim, however, was often away, and so I told Chloe I wanted Rab to sleep in one of the small rooms off her room, as I wanted him looked after especially at night, so that there should be no chance of his relapsing into the habit of nocturnal wandering. To my great surprise Chloe did not seem willing, and at last she said, ‘ Miss Pashuns, Rab is a bery peepin’ chile, en I kyant hab him een dat closet wid de curtin, rite next to me.’

So I sent for Bonaparte and told him to make a door at once and put it up between Chloe’s room and the little room, and to put a bolt on the outside so that Chloe could control and defeat Rab’s peeping proclivities. Without Jonadab’s leading spirit, Rab seemed likely to become a model boy. I took him with me, whenever it was possible, behind the buckboard to open gates and hold the horse when I made visits. I questioned him about things and encouraged him to talk, hoping thus to aid his unconscious development. As a great treat Saturday evening, I let him go to the ‘street’ to play with the children, but required him to be back at ten o’clock. One day when I was driving I asked him what they talked about in the street the night before, when he went there. He answered promptly, —

‘Dem tell me how fu’ get money out a bank.’

‘What kind of bank, Rab?’

‘I don’mean no rice-field bank, Miss Pashuns, I mean a bank w’ere dem keep money.’

‘But how is it possible to get money out of that kind of bank, Rab?’

‘Fust t’ing, Miss Pashuns, yu’ must kill a eagle, en’ de eagle got a little stone in ’e hed, en yu’ mus’ tek out dat stone, en yu’ mus’ carry um to de bank winder wey de glass dey, en yu’ mus’ hold um up to de winder, en ’e ’ll draw de money right out o’ dat bank, into yo’ pocket.’

I feared that poor little Rab’s character was not likely to be elevated by his Saturday evening outings.

After six months I heard that Jonadab was a member of the ‘Celebrated Jenkins Band,’ which had played before the crowned heads of Europe, — before Dab entered it, be it added, — and Jim and Chloe were filled with pride at the news, and Rab devoted more time than ever to practice on the mouth-organ.

At the end of the year, when I sent the second payment to Jenkins, asking to know particularly how Jonadab was getting on, I received a most cheering answer. Dab was well and happy, and perfectly satisfactory in every way to the principal. Rechab seemed also to have entered the straight and narrow way, and I felt that my decision to separate the boys had been a wise one, and, I trusted, had come in time to save them both.

I found, however, that Rab had not half the character that Jonadab had evinced in certain things. He was now as old as Jonadab had been when he began to carry the mail, but it was impossible to trust the mail to Rab; he would meet children on the road, and throw the mail-bag down and enter into either a fight or a game, more often the first.

I sent him to school and he fought each child in the school in turn; sometimes he got badly beaten, but he easily forgot that in the many more victories he had. At last Miss Somerville told me that she could do nothing with him; that he kept the schoolroom in such turmoil that order was impossible; that when the children were marching round in their little drill, Rab would skillfully extend one foot and trip up one after another, and a lively fight would ensue.

After listening to this report, I said, ‘Then perhaps I had better take Rab away from school’; and Miss Somerville answered, ’I will be very much obliged if you will.’

Then I told Rab that he must bring his books to me every day and I would teach him; but he has so many ways of skillfully evading, that it is hopeless in the busy life I lead to keep him to it. The worst feature is his insolence to Chloe and Gerty, my housemaid. In speaking to people outside he says, ‘I got cook en I got washer. Chloe ’blige to cook fu’ me and Gerty ’blige to wash for me.’ This he says when I am away. It rouses all the powers of evil in my excellent Chloe, and I see hanging over me the moment when she will say that she ‘can’t hold out no longer,’ and I shall be left alone with Rab. So now I am diligently seeking a place to put him where he will have the proper discipline from one of his own race.

This winter he behaved so outrageously that punishment was necessary. I told Chloe the thing had to be done, even if she had to get help, for alas Jim is no longer with me. So Chloe and Gerty, with the assistance of another ‘free male,’ as Chloe pronounces it, succeeded in holding down Rab and giving him a whipping. It did him a great deal of good for about ten days, but after that he narrated for the benefit of the street how it took ‘t’ree woman’ to lick him, and then he gave a careful and detailed account of the whole thing, to the hilarious amusement of his audience.

Of course when Chloe heard this, she was most indignant, and vowed that she had done with Rechab and would never speak to him again, — which made things very uncomfortable for a time. But fortunately that phase passed after a while.

This summer after we moved to the pine-land, Rab took to sleeping out, just dropping in for his meals whenever it suited him, in a casual way, with all the airs of a dissipated young man. I tried everything possible to bring him to order, for I found he spent the nights with a man who is a regular thief, and always on the ragged edge of conviction, — a punishment which he escapes because his wife works and pays off for him; that is, offers the people whose fields have been robbed so much to drop the case. I knew what a valuable tool to such a person Rab would be.

At one time he was gone three days, and I heard he spent all the time with these people. So I drove to the woman’s house, and leaving Gerty to hold my buggy in the road, went to the house and knocked. When the woman opened the door, I went in a little way and told her I had come to beg her not to let Rab stay in her house all the time, but always to send him home after he had made her a short visit.

She was very polite and humble in her manner, and assured me that Rab had not been near her; that she had no idea where he stayed, for it was not with her.

I was quite disarmed and went back to the buggy, feeling that I had been misinformed. But as I took my seat I said, ‘Gerty, have you been looking around to see if you can see anything of Rab?’

She answered, ‘I never haf’ to look, ma’am; just as you gone in de do’ Rab jump out de winder and run into de woods.’

That afternoon, just as the dark was falling, the dogs began to make a great noise, and I looked up from my book to see a strange man, with about thirty feet of rope wound around his body and arm, walking into the yard holding a small black figure by the shoulder. The scene was most dramatically arranged. It was Rab being led back by the hardened sinner, Bob, whose guest he had been during his three days’ absence.

I continued to read until they reached the step; then I looked up and said, ‘What is this?’

‘De me, Bob, ma’am, I fetch Rab back to you, en I got rope tu’ tie um.’

‘I don’t want Rab,’ I said; ‘I certainly won’t keep any one with me that has to be tied. Take him back with you. I don’t want him.’

There was a profound silence, during which I read on; then I looked up again and said, ‘Take him back with you,’ once more.

Then I heard a subdued sniffle from Rab and a mumbled, ‘I won’t do so no more, Miss Pashuns.’

‘I have heard that too often, Rab. I have struggled with you a long time, and put up with a great deal because I promised your poor mother to take care of you; but when it comes to your running away and having to be brought back by a man with yards of rope wrapped round him, I can’t stand it. You must go and find your home elsewhere.’

By this time Rab was weeping openly and said, ‘ Please, Miss Pashuns, don’ sen’ me ’way; I wan’ fu stay wid you! I don’ want to lib no way else; please, ma’am, le’ me stay. I wunt run ’way no more.’

So finally I consented to try him a little longer, and dismissed Bob and his dramatic coil of rope.

This was all a great big bluff on my part, and I kept wondering all the time what I should do if Rab cheerfully turned and walked away with Bob, for I could not free myself from the feeling of responsibility for him.

Being almost in despair, I am writing in every direction to find a safe place for Rab. When I took him he was four. He is now eleven. My only consolation is that faith of which I have spoken before, that good must in the end triumph.

That faith seems to have been justified in Jonadab’s case, for when I went to the Institute this spring, to see him and inquire as to his conduct, Jenkins was not at home, but the next in control saw me and said, —

‘ Jonadab is our very best boy. When we have anything hard that we want done, we call on him and he never disappoints us.’

So I struggle on with poor little Rab, hoping that the terrible battle within him will end in victory to the good spirit.

(The End.)