‘BUZZARD ’ginst a bloody sun . . .’ softly breathed Aunt Runa, stopping short at the back gate.
Resting a wrinkled black hand against the cool brick wall of the smokehouse, she stood motionless, gazing through half-closed eyes, with a mystical, rapt expression, at the hazy red afternoon sun. A buzzard, circling slowly, rose again in the very face of the cloudscreened disk — and hovered there. ‘Trouble sign!’ she mumbled. ’I knowed it!’
Sighing deeply, she bowed her head as if under the load of inevitable fate, and passed slowly through the gate into the hot, dusty lane.
Her finely shaped old head, bound tight in a snow-white cloth that showed but a fringe of gray frizzled hair below, had the high forehead of the thinker. Her straight nose was thin and high-bridged, in striking contrast with the blue-black skin and thick lips — firm, in spite of their negroid fullness.
Deliberately, but with a lurking suggestion of vigor, her bowed figure, in its stiffly starched full-skirted gray calico and wide white apron, followed the dusty path beside the garden fence. Her drooping reddish-yellow eyes, keen in spite of the untold years behind them, were fixed dreamily on the path ahead.
As if subconsciously voicing her mood, she softly crooned in tremulous minors: —
I feel it creepin’ higher over me;
Satan jes’ like snake in de gra-ss,
Waitin’ to git you as you pa-ss.
Lord, I feel dat chilly wat-er over me.’
At the sound of the low droning, a little white boy, half hidden in the foliage of a June-apple tree, abruptly broke off his forbidden feast. Listening a moment, he hissed warningly, ‘Joseph!’ From a far limb a small black face, crowned by a close-clipped bullet head, looked up questioningly. Suddenly its owner swung from the limb and dropped flat into the high growth of crimson clover below. The white boy was but a second behind him. As the words of the hymn came quavering to their ears, they looked hard at each other. The small negro shivered, and tunneled deeper into the clover.
With the passage of Aunt Runa, two heads rose cautiously out of the green tangle. Mumbling a word, the white boy slunk into the lane, and, trotting up softly in his bare feet behind the old woman, casually fell into step beside her. Not so much as a glance did she give him. Without a break in her humming, she kept her deliberate pace. He cut an appraising eye at her, but did not speak.
Around the corner of the garden, in a thick cloud of dust behind his dragging plough, drowsily shuffled the gardener. Abruptly he jerked the mule to one side of the lane, and waited. Hat in hand, he made a low bow. ‘Evenin’, Sis’ Runa! Sorry I stirred de dus’,’ he apologized in a low voice, not raising his eyes.
With but a flashing glance and an aloof ‘Evenin’, Br’er Tom,’ she passed him. Dignity and the very essence of tolerant condescension emanated from her.
Without warning, without a look at the little boy who trudged beside her, she asked belligerently, ‘Who dat narrer-eyed yaller nigger I see talkin’ to yo’ ma dis mornin’?’
‘He’s the new butler, Mammy,’ he answered glibly, consciously proud to furnish information to one who was supposed to know of every happening on Kennon Hills plantation — sometimes, strangely, even before the occurrence itself. ‘And he’s a tony butler, Mammy,’ he continued impressively. ‘He learned butlerin’ at a college!’ And he watched expectantly for the results of this bombshell.
‘Un-hun-h?’ she drawled with rising inflection. ‘Eddicated nigger! I knowed it! Three time I dream ’bout yaller snake las’ night’ — and she relapsed into silence.
Her reception of his news was disappointing. He looked at her closely, appraising her abstracted silence and far-away expression. Sensing the possible approach of one of her ‘spells,’ he mutely gave deference to her mood.
Presently he sidled closer and, gently clasping her thin, high-veined hand, held it, in silent sympathy of understanding. The black hand closed tightly over the small chubby one.
‘You got a feelin’ cornin’, ain’t you, Mammy?’ he asked softly, pressing her hand. ‘ Black sheep crossin’ your path . . . ’ he mused regretfully, as if visualizing the omen.
‘Yes, son,’ she answered, looking at him with a sad half-smile, her old eyes lighting with patient, indulgent love. ‘Yes, Neal, son, but hit’s better to be sot to tromp a snake den to come smack on him unbeknowns’.’ Pausing, she continued resignedly, but not without pride, ‘I was born fo’ it. Born to see ol’ trouble comin ’! Born at fo’ . . .’ she chanted pensively, ‘Wid a coffin on de flo’ . . .’
‘On de moon’s first quarter . . . Yo’ ma’s sebenth daughter. . . .’ Neal took up the chant in unconscious imitative rhythm. ‘Born foot-first, you free to reign . . . Nothin’ hold you, rope or chain. . . .’
‘Yes, baby,’ she nodded, her eyes resting on him pridefully. ‘You got it all, straight as a bee to de gum.’
Slowly they walked, hand in hand, in closer harmony of spirit than is often given to mother and son. Reaching the picket fence surrounding Runa’s little yard and garden, Neal opened the gate, with a clanking of old cowbells, attached to warn her of infrequent visitors. ’Lisha, Mammy’s beloved cat, had come to meet her. Neal stooped to stroke his wide yellow back. ‘I won’t go up, Mammy. You’ll be wantin’ to wrestle and pray,’ he said deferentially. ‘I’ll see you in the mornin’.’
‘All right, son,’ she acknowledged, resting her hand for a moment on his curly head. ‘Tell Lila to come home early,’ she added.
‘I reckon she’ll be late,’ he suggested, ‘havin’ to show Charlie everything.’
‘Is dat his name — Cha’lie?’ she asked intently.
‘Yes, Mammy,’ softly answered the boy, his big eyes fixed on her uplifted head and far-flung gaze. Gathering courage, he whispered in suppressed excitement, ‘Is your feelin’ about him, Mammy?’
She glanced at him slantwise. ‘Owl all time axin’ “Who?” but I ain’ hear nobody answer him,’ she replied significantly.
Abashed, he looked down at his wiggling toes for a second, then hopefully persisted, ‘Is it a strong feelin’, Mammy, or just a little weak one?’
Dropping her head, she pressed her hand over her eyes, as if to shut out the sight of some impending tragedy. With the quavering, sighing moan that always sent chills up his back, she breathed, ‘Strong! Strong as pizen!’ And without raising her head she walked wearily up the rise to the drab little cabin, perched atop the remnant of an old Confederate battery station.
The boy stood gazing toward the cabin, snugly tucked away under the low-drooping cedars and sycamores. From its porch, closely screened with evening-glory vines, his eyes drifted down the colorful path bordered with larkspur and sweet William, to the row of tall sunflowers along the garden fence. Slowly he turned, and dejectedly shuffled his bare feet back down the soft, dusty lane.
At supper Neal ate spasmodically. From sudden plunges with knife and fork he would subside into periods of intense fascinated gazing at the tradeschool butler. Like the eyes of an animal, his squint followed every deft movement of the slender quadroon, meticulously groomed in the summer garb of spotless white jacket and apron. Occasionally the boy’s eyes would flicker to Runa’s niece, the trim, brownskinned Lila, assisting Charlie; but they would quickly flash back to the yellow man, with his almost straight hair brushed low over the small black eyes, close-set like big shoe buttons in the waxen, dirty-chalk skin. The man’s color reminded him of the coffee-in-cream his mother allowed him on Sunday mornings. Funny-lookin’, indeed, was this pale nigger — besides, Mammy had a feelin’. . . .
Soon after supper, Neal vanished. Lying close where the hens dusted themselves under the big boxwood by the low windows of the servants’ cellar dining room, he could safely watch every move, hear every word, of the new butler. So enthralled was the boy by Charlie’s bumptious manners that he nearly exclaimed aloud. Then he smiled at his thoughts.
When Neal entered the garden next morning, the negro children were already dotted about the raspberry patch, silently picking under Runa’s chilly eye. For an instant her clouded face lightened, but her ‘Mornin’, son!’ was a lifeless monotone. Eying her for a moment, he took a small basket, and joined the pickers. Since his friend Joseph had been drafted into service, the sooner the big baskets were filled and carried to the area-way under the long back porch, the sooner would his henchman be released for the more important work of goat training and cave building.
Nimbly, almost magically, Mammy Runa’s slender fingers flew, filling nearly two baskets to one of the little negroes’. There were no signs of jollity, no half-hidden pranks, among the children, as was the wont of all harvests under the white overseer. Only a mumbled word was heard now and then. Occasionally a pair of eyes rolled furtively toward Aunt Runa, but instantly flickered away upon meeting her cold, incisive yellow ones, which seemed, strangely, always looking at that particular child. The bare calling of a picker’s name would galvanize the little body into redoubled efforts. Picking under ‘An’ Runa’ was a thing to be finished with the utmost dispatch.
When the baskets, crowned high with their dull garnet caps, were lined up on the bench beside the glowing charcoal furnaces, she dismissed the waiting children by a mere flick of the hand.
Impassively, austerely, Aunt Runa watched the big simmering kettles, moving silently from one to another, stirring and tasting. In the dim, shadowy coolness of the brick area, she herself might have been but a shadow, here and there clouding the dull glow of the fires. Presently she began softly crooning. The kettles simmered with a low hum, as if in melancholy accompaniment. No servant dropped by for a light word. Alone she worked, secure of her privacy.
Neal did sidle in for a saucer of ‘drippings’ when the aroma of cooking preserves found its way into the far reaches of the back yard. Joseph’s bullet head peered cautiously around the arched opening after Neal, but disappeared like a flash when Runa glanced up. Jenny, the chambermaid, stumbled to a halt as she came through the basement door suddenly upon the old woman. With an apology, she circled wide of the line of kettles and almost tiptoed down the area.
Without warning, a low, silken voice spoke suddenly almost in Runa’s ear: ‘Mornin’, lady!’
She did not start. Not so much as a muscle quivered. Deliberately she turned, and with aloof coolness looked into the confident pale-yellow face of the new butler.
‘Miss Runa, I take you to be, lady,’ he smirked ingratiatingly. ‘I have n’t been comp’imented with a int’oduction, but p’esume to name myself Mr. Charles C. Carter, the new help, to Miss Runa Randal,’ and he extended his hand.
Ignoring the hand, but with the quick-witted savoir-faire of a grand dame, she dipped him a low curtsy and mockingly matched his elegance with ‘Sir, your lestimation to my lystimaticus! ’
He was taken aback by such highflown phrasing; but, presuming the impressive words to carry a complimentary intent, he bowed low.
Entirely with cool self-possession, she gazed into his eyes with a faint sarcastic twinkle in her own, and a grim half-smile on her lips. Unblinkingly she stared, until his small black eyes wavered and fell. Her mocking smile widened slightly.
Shrugging, he assumed a businesslike air: ‘The Madam wants the sugar bowls filled. Let me have the storeroom keys, please.’
She drew a bunch of keys from her deep dress pocket, and walked serenely past him through the door. ‘Dat ol’ lock mighty cranky fo’ a new hand,’ she spoke over her shoulder—sarcastically, he thought. Opening the door, she pointed to the sugar barrel.
Casually he spoke from out of the barrel: ‘You always car’ the keys?’
‘Naw,’ she replied, smiling broadly at his back. ‘Miss Betty tote ’em when I ain’ roun’.’
‘Miss Betty?’ he almost sneered. ‘Ah, you mean the Madam?’
‘Hit’s all de same,’ said Runa indifferently. ‘She de mistiss, anyway.’
‘Mistress!’ he exclaimed, his thin lips setting. ‘I never had a mistress. This ain’t slavery time . . . ’ But, catching himself, he assumed a suave, wheedling tone: ‘You sure must stand in, for her to give you the run of things. Pretty soft — for you, ain’t it?’ he insinuated, looking up with a twisted grin.
Resentfully the bent figure straightened, proudly the old head went back; the drooping eyes flashed open, in a stony glare that wiped the smirk from his face. ‘Git out wid yo’ sugar,’ she coldly ordered.
Turning her back on him, she locked the door, and marched, head up, down the hall.
With a disparaging sniff, he glided away.
This was Saturday, ration day. At the noon-hour clang of the big bell at the overseer’s house, Aunt Runa slipped on a high-bibbed checkered apron and started slowly toward the smokehouse. Pausing before inserting the nine-inch key into the massive lock, she turned and allowed her eyes to roam dreamily over the old back yard, perennially shaded in summer by giant elms and poplars. From the whitewashed, low-gabled servants’ house, almost smothered in an ancient scuppernong vine, her gaze wandered deliberately over the narrow brick walks, so worn, so colored by years of shadow, that their dull-green brownness all but merged into the mouldy loam enfolding them.
The old latticed well house with its mossy-stoned base and its shallow brick gutter winding irregularly across the yard, dipping under a great lowspreading boxwood, and finally disappearing through a hedge, to the duck pond beyond; the wide, gabled back porch, with its round white pillars and rail, holding in its arms for so many years the green slat benches, the shelf, and the cedar bucket, that they seemed to have grown a part of it — at these she pensively gazed, as if dreaming over beloved memories, one by one.
Sighing, she inserted the big key and swung open the thick iron-bound door. With the rush of the familiar tang of smoked meat, she inhaled deeply. Then she opened the door of the adjoining storeroom. From its meal-splashed interior came the sweetly pungent smell of blackstrap molasses and salt herring. She drew a long breath. ‘I likes de smell — er hit all,’ she murmured.
Soon, busy with her scales and measures, she became absorbed in the problems of rations for the farm hands. Deftly she sliced and weighed and measured. Surely she packed the bags and baskets and filled the jugs that had been set early in the morning in a double row beside the smokehouse wall. This important duty, usually an overseer’s responsibility on Virginia plantations, had been temporarily delegated to Runa at the death of the former overseer several years before; but, like most of her temporary investitures of authority at Kennon Hills, it too had smoothly flowed into permanency.
She showed no conceit over this unusual confidence and responsibility. She seemed to take it in a matter-offact way, as she did the many other trusts falling upon her with the passing years. Quite naturally, as if by obvious right, and with dignity itself, she wore the toga of her position. One instinctively knew, however, that she had intense pride of caste — that nebulous caste, uniquely her own. And one sensed that a blow aimed to dislodge her from her niche would strike at her very life’s blood. The master and mistress — whether mostly through indulgence or through sober earnest they themselves could not have told you — scrupulously respected the privileges of her station.
The negroes, by the years of established custom, — than which, to them, there is no more immutable law, — accepted Runa’s superior status as they did the Bible: as a fact demanding no analysis, a thing to be swallowed whole.
Soon after the toll of the one-o’clock bell, the hands began straggling down the lane in laughing, bantering groups; but the nearer they drew to the smokehouse, the quieter they became. Collected outside the gate, they bore an air of sombre dignity, as in church. The few low words spoken were sober ones. There was no shoving or pressing about the narrow gate while they waited for their names to be called.
‘Mammy,’ cried a young voice from inside, ‘le’ me call ’em?’
‘In a minute, son.’ Then she said, ‘Call Big John.’ . . .
‘What’s going on out there? ’ queried Charlie, looking out of the kitchen window.
‘Jes’ givin’ out rations,’ replied the cook, sticking the comb in one side of her bushy head while proceeding to pull and plait three strands into a pigtail.
‘Who bossin’ the job?’ he asked, still peering out. ‘I hear ’at white boy callin’ ’em.’
She looked up at him inquisitively. ‘An’ Runa givin’ ’em out. Huccome you got so much cur’os’ty ’bout rations?’
‘Oh, I jus’ want to know ’bout things.’ Then he continued casually, ‘’At old woman must be big dog round here. How ’at old ape get such a swing?’
The plaiting stopped suddenly. Round-eyed, she looked at him. Then a look of fear, as at a blasphemy, came over her. With a furtive glance toward the door, she half whispered, ‘You better hesh,’ and, mumbling some excuse, hurried from the room. Charlie looked after her with a puzzled frown. Shrugging, he began softly to whistle a popular air.
Seated for dinner in the servants’ cellar room, Charlie made smooth conversation, speaking sophisticatedly of the City and ‘college.’ Most of his smiling remarks were addressed to Lila. Presently he asked with a touch of impatience, ‘Why n’t we eat, Mrs. Cook? What we waitin’ for?’
‘Jinny gone to call An’ Runa now,’ the cook replied, matter-of-fact.
He stared at her unbelievingly. ‘You don’t mean you all waitin’ for ’at old woman?’
‘Well, we jes’ sorta waits fo’ An’ Runa,’ acknowledged the cook, somewhat abashed. The others cut stealthy looks at him.
‘What!’ he exclaimed, and went off into a derisive cackle. Ladies and gentlemen waiting on that old hag! They certainly made him laugh! With commanding sang-froid he ordered the dishes passed to him. Yes, it was bad enough to have to knuckle to white folks, but to an old blue-gummed crow — bah!
Incredulous eyes were focused on him. Hesitantly, all but Lila began toying with the dishes.
After the first shock of amazement at his temerity, Lila’s brown face hardened, her eyes snapped resentfully. ‘Free-runnin’ mouf cover too much groun’,’ she offered laconically.
‘Now, Miss Lila, Miss Lila!’ Charlie said placatingly, breaking into his twisted smile. ‘Pretty girl like you don’t want to get mad. Poutin’ spoils your looks,’ and he stared at her so pointedly that her eyes grew softer and fell.
‘An’ Runa my kinfolks,’ she defended, half-heartedly. Pausing, as if weighing a problem, she continued, ‘Anyhow — you’ll walk safer wid a tighter tongue — roun’ dese parts,’ and her eyes gave a flicker of warning.
‘What you mean?’ he bridled. ‘You ain’t talkin’ ’bout ’at old woman — ’at old black crow?’ He began to chuckle.
‘“Ol’ — black — crow,” ’ echoed a cold, flat voice from the doorway.
With a start, Charlie turned. Runa’s bleak stare met him. His lips hardened, but he kept silent. Stealthy, questioning looks were exchanged about the table, but no word was spoken. The cook set a platter beside Runa. Charlie looked up sharply: ‘Ah, cake and jelly? Seems I ’member the Madam saying it was not to come downstairs.’
‘De baby sont hit to ’er,’ the cook explained, under his accusing stare. ‘He al’ays sen’ ’er jelly when dey have it.’
‘Baby!’ he exclaimed contemptuously. ‘Callin’ ’at white brat “baby”!’
‘Stop!’ commanded Runa, throwing up her hand, her old eyes flashing, her lips drawn back till the edge of her blue gums showed against her white teeth. ‘You des’ dare call ’im names! Ef Doctor Prescott hear dat — ’
‘You jus’ tell him!’ he threatened viciously, half starting from his chair, his finger pointing rigidly at her. ‘I ain’t lookin’ for trouble, but jus’ one little tale — and I’ll — I’ll wring your old — ’
‘Don’ wor’y,’ she interrupted in a voice like flint, her face settling starkly. ‘I ain’t a teller,’ and her reddishyellow eyes opened round in the fixed vitreous glare of a coiled snake. ‘ I don’ have to tell — nobody — nothin’,’ and, as at the thought of some grim, hidden jest, her set lips broke into a faint hard smile.
‘ ’T is a good thing for you — ’ he began, but reluctantly subsided at a beseeching shake of Lila’s head.
The other negroes sat as if petrified. Diffidently the girl laid her hand on the old woman’s shoulder and whispered, ‘Please, An’ Runa!’ But Runa seemed unaware of the pacifying hand. Rigid, expressionless, she sat, staring glassily into the wavering black eyes of the yellow man. As implacably as if pronouncing sentence, she began, ‘He layin’ his cross—layin’ his cross — ’
‘Aw, shut up!’ he exploded, fidgeting in his chair.
But she gave no heed to his interruption. She seemed unaware of it, even insensible to his presence. Slowly her eyes set in a trancelike stare, gently her body began to rock; the very flesh of her face seemed to wilt before Charlie’s eyes, the black skin to tighten like a death’s-head. Swaying, she commenced to chant in a low monotone: ‘Black shadder ... a soul on de edge . . . buzzard fannin’ grave dus’ . . . in a yaller man’s face . . .’ The door slammed! She barely paused: ‘An’ lizards ... in red blood . . .’
The jangle of a wall bell startled Charlie — out of all proportion to the noise. It was his upstairs call. Eagerly he hurried to answer it.
Late afternoon found Charlie alone in the pantry, sitting astride a low bench, holding the big silver coffee urn loosely against his aproned knee. Abstractedly he polished and repolished the same spot, his eyes squinting dreamily at a crack in the floor. Jenny came in with an armful of larkspur and poppies. ‘Come over here,’ she said, reaching for an old blue willow bowl. ‘I show you how to fix table flowers.’
Slowly Charlie’s strokes died to quiescence; his hand rested limply on the urn. His eyes did not lift from the floor. In a meditative tone, partly relapsing into his boyhood dialect, he queried, ‘What all ’at jumbo ’at ol’ devil talkin’ at me?’
Jenny’s body tautened — poised: ‘What — you mean?’
‘’At ol’ Runa,’ he replied, raising his gaze to her side face. ‘What she think she doin’? Sorta crazy, ain’t she ? ’
Flashing him a look of utter amazement, she answered tensely, ‘She crazy? She got all kinda sense — more ’n anybody,’ and, giving a little shiver, went futilely at her flowers again.
‘What all ’at mess she talkin’ then? ’Bout buzzard wing an’ grave dus’ — an’ lizards?’ he asked, his eyes searching.
Jenny appeared not to hear. She fiddled with the flowers, keeping her face averted.
‘Soun’ like ol’ crazy cunjur talk to me,’ he mused. Pausing, he startled her with an incisive question:—
‘Jinny! Do she call herse’f a cunjur ’oman ? ’
This time he saw the flinching shivers run up her back. ‘I hear Miss Betty callin’!’ she exclaimed, starting to the door.
For several minutes Charlie gazed after her. ‘She sho’ do act funny,’ he mumbled, his hand automatically resuming the slow polishing strokes. ‘I believe they skeered — o’ ’at ol’ devil.’
Presently he threw back his shoulders suddenly, and began a brisk rubbing. ‘Hunh!’ he grunted. ‘Old ignorant black nigger!’
The flowers lay wilting on the shelf. Jenny did not return till she saw Charlie crossing the yard to his room.
Runa felt ‘pohly’ Sunday — not up to the two-mile walk to Zion Town Church. She sat staring at Lila while the girl primped with more than ordinary care.
From a long silence Runa admonished her: ‘Stay ’way f’om dat yaller nigger — you hear? He’s pizenous as a copperhead!’
Lila, glancing from under her lids, acquiesced a meek and ready ‘Yes, ma’am.’
But on the way home that night she somehow found herself straggling behind the rest, alone with Charlie.
Charlie soon decided he liked Kennon Hills and his job. He liked the negroes, too, pretty well, for what they were; but consciously he looked down upon them from his height. He liked the slender-figured Lila best — she was really worth giving time to. Yes, this was a pretty soft nest — but in its lining was an insignificant burr that pricked him. Too often he caught himself thinking of old Runa — silly, childish thoughts, he felt, that made him petulant. And she irritated him with her everlasting ‘old crazy smile.’
He could find out little definite about her; and he swore inwardly at the fool niggers who seemed afraid to tell him anything. He had tried the women first, then the coachman and gardener, and finally had gone up to the farm hands’ quarters at night to sing with them; but his most guarded touch upon Runa — her history, her status - was met by vagueness or silence. The fools drew into their shells quicker than old terrapins when touched with a stick.
The few bits of information he was able to extract from one source and another could be patched together in but a dim, meaningless pattern. The few material threads he fancied he could discern in the nebulous warp were in themselves but half-formulated, whispered innuendoes; misty, inferred legends of queer happenings, of Black Sukey, of Big Mose and others, with Runa’s figure seen wavering in the background through a haze of suggestion. Damn their ignorant souls — they were afraid! There was one other possible source. . . .
One morning, while Neal and Joseph were sweating at the new cave in the bank of the old battery behind Mammy’s house, they were startled by a growl from Budger, their shepherd puppy. On the high bank stood Charlie, smiling ingratiatingly.
‘Hello, boys! Diggin’ a cave?’ And he slid down the bank in front of them.
Joseph rolled his eyes from Charlie to Neal. Neither boy spoke.
This was an irritating and almost unprecedented situation. A grown person deliberately trespassing on their secret ground! Neither knew just what to say. But the new butler was not abashed. With one hand held behind him, he looked quizzically at Neal, and asked, ‘You like windmills?’
Windmills! Both boys straightened and looked at him hungrily. Deliberately he disclosed a small wind wheel, beautifully whittled out of soft pine, and stained red with blackberry juice.
The entente cordiale had been masterfully established. Yes, he could make weather vanes too, and water mills, and kites. Maybe he’d make them some by and by. Anyway, he’d nail the windmill on the ridge of the henhouse for them to-day, sure.
Then he shifted the conversation: ‘That your Mammy’s house up there, ain’t it? You sure got a fine Mammy. How long she been here?’
‘Oh, years and years,’ Neal answered indifferently.
‘Sence ’fo’ de stars fell,’ augmented Joseph, eager to jolt the city man with a real date — the date from which all great events were reckoned.
Charlie smiled. ‘Oh, she’s not that old,’ he protested tolerantly.
‘Ma say she mos’ a hund’ed,’ insisted Joseph.
‘She was real old when she came to nurse Bro’ Ran, and he’s married,’ bridled Neal, as if one of Mammy’s virtues were threatened. ‘Then,’ he continued, ‘she nursed ’Lisbeth, and then me — and I’m goin’ on ten.’
‘Your father and mother think a lot of her, don’t they?’ Charlie insinuated. ‘She kinda runs things, don’t she?’
‘Sure,’ said Neal, matter-of-course.
Pausing thoughtfully, Charlie asked, ‘The colored people act like they’re sorta scared of her — why’s that?’
Joseph’s big eyes opened in round unbelief; he sucked in his breath audibly. Neal gazed intently at the pale-yellow man. Was n’t he a funny man, asking that question? No negro had ever asked any question about Mammy’s life — much less such a one. Why, they would almost as soon have asked an impertinent question about God! He guessed that maybe a college nigger was n’t afraid. He’d see. ‘’Cause she can conjure!' he spat forth in a stage whisper.
Charlie did not flinch as Neal had expected, but stood looking gravely at him, a slight frown wrinkling his forehead. ‘You don’t believe that — ’ he began, but was interrupted by a scrambling noise on the bank. Joseph was just reaching the top. With a desperate bound he gained the level and dashed for home.
‘What’s the matter with him?' Charlie asked curiously.
Neal smiled, but, sobering quickly, looked more closely at this queer nigger. ‘He thinks it’s bad luck to talk about conjure — don’t you?’ he taunted.
‘Pshaw!’ smiled Charlie. ‘There’s no such thing.’
‘Ain’t there!’ bristled Neal. ‘Why, Mammy can conjure anybody, jus’ give her time. She can work love and hate tricks, and pain tricks, and mind tricks. And,’ he dropped his voice to an intense whisper, ‘she can put — lizards — in you.’
Warming to her defense, he continued, ‘Look what happened to Big Mose! Look at Black Sukey! She’s still in the ’sylum. Look at Jake Lewis! Seven lizards out of one sore in his leg.
‘You better walk your road and not cross her path,’ he warned, his eyes squinting. ‘She’ll put you in the shadow,’ and, shaking his head knowingly, he started home, as if washing his hands of all responsibility.
The yellow man’s derisive cackle followed the little boy across the field. But when Neal was beyond hearing, the cackle subsided. For minutes Charlie stood still, as if pondering. With a sly glance at Runa’s house, he slowly climbed the opposite bank.
Charlie quickly mastered the details of his work. Mrs. Prescott grew more and more to feel that she had an almost perfect butler. Even the Doctor’s prejudices against ‘trade-school niggers’ were gradually overcome by the man’s thoughtful initiative and smooth, intelligent execution of orders. Ere harvest time Charlie was considered a fixture at Kennon Hills.
In spite of any small disturbing thoughts locked tight in his own breast, or any little irritating incidents known only to himself, he maintained for the most part a friendly, smiling exterior. Seldom, at first, did he vary from a suavely polite, if condescending, manner toward the negroes. If they sensed his tolerant, patronizing attitude, they did not outwardly resent it. Though perhaps critical of his early assumption of social leadership, yet they tacitly recognized his superiority of education, his fine manners and sophistication; and felt more than a little flattered at his camaraderie — somewhat as they felt toward the preacher when he deigned to step down from his pedestal to become humanly one of them at their social gatherings. Never did he actually boast of his own advantages of learning and modern point of view, or directly belittle their old-fashioned tenets and customs; but a subtle propaganda of indulgent suggestion, colored with veiled derision, emanated from him. With his innuendoes against the whites, his insidious preachments of race equality, and his bold, smiling disregard of old beliefs and superstitions, he made his presence felt.
The servants began to assume little airs, and attempt the use of unfamiliar words. They became not quite so shy of his criticisms of the whites, sometimes actually joining him in such critical discussions. Since he had shown no baneful effects from his casual ignoring of Runa, his complete disregard of her established position, they ventured, in her absence, even to snicker over his quips at her expense. But when he threw out derisive or belittling insinuations in her presence, they held themselves to sly, halfinsolent looks. Charlie’s attitude was becoming the mode, and Charlie was growing popular below stairs — particularly with the women. Even the middle-aged cook had a sly glance for him. Special tidbits, previously saved for Aunt Runa, began to find their way to his plate.
Not a shade of these insidious changes escaped Runa; but, other than for a hurt, puzzled look, and a withdrawing deeper into her own sombre silences, she gave little outward sign. Smouldering flame, however, would creep into her half-veiled eyes at some passing look of understanding between Lila and the yellow man, with his straight hair and slick tongue.
As for the girl, Aunt Runa had always kept her in easy check. And now, when she berated her for wearing her Sunday dress on week nights, and for coming home later and later, — with a look in her eyes, the hussy, — the old expression of fear would come back over Lila. At the girl’s cringing under her sharp invectives and dire threats, Runa’s old eyes would lose some of their scathing fire and become dubiously content. But at the sight of that pale nigger sitting there glibly talking, everyone hanging on his words, herself forgotten, her face would settle into a look of stark, inexorable portent.
Queer little things, petty happenings, quite insignificant at first to a man of his enlightenment, had been irritating Charlie since his first week at Kennon Hills. So futile, so meaningless, were they in the beginning that a careless observer might have attributed them to the mischievous mind of a child.
They began with his finding a red flannel ball no bigger than a hickory nut tied to his broom handle. Curious, thinking it some joke, he detached it and casually rolled it over in his hand. Smiling, he slit the stitches with his knife. Funny stitches they were, too — neatly laid in the form of little crosses. And the thread! He felt of the severed ends. They were stiff, bristly — like horsehair. Peeling back the flannel cover, he disclosed a ball of evilsmelling yellow gum. Across the ball, adhering to the gum, were two downy black feathers — laid in a cross. Gradually his expression changed, the tolerant smile became a fixed, silly one. Suddenly he gave a contemptuous sniff, and viciously threw the thing out of the window.
Following this, at more or less regular intervals, there had come many trivial but strange meddlings with his possessions — some so intangible, others so insignificant, that he wondered if his imagination were not playing him tricks. He could, himself, have subconsciously cleaned his comb of all hair — and forgotten it. A small piece dug out of his soap, the uncertain rearrangement of articles on his shelves into vague patterns — these might have been coincidences. And the puppy might have dragged away his missing shoe. But, again coming upon indubitable evidence, — concrete things, unnatural and disturbing, — he would feel afresh the uncomfortable, irritating sense of a malevolent spectral hand prowling among his effects and leaving its signs.
Then a small triangular piece was cut from his undershirt.
Charlie’s suave, friendly good humor became broken with recurrent days of petulance — barely noticeable.
(To be continued)