A story by William Faulkner
Precisely when Faulkner wrote “Evangeline” is not known. Certainly he completed it by mid-1931, if not months or years earlier. Desperate to earn the sort of substantial income he was not receiving from the sale of his novels, on July 17, 1931, Faulkner submitted it to the Saturday Evening Post, which paid the highest prices for fiction of any magazine of the period. The Post immediately rejected it, and Faulkner sent it out again on July 26 to the Woman’s Home Companion, which also turned it down. Either discouraged or aware that “Evangeline” contained material more appropriate for a full-length novel, Faulkner put it aside for two and a half years. When he picked it up again in early 1934, he evidently saw the rich possibilities in this neo-Gothic detective story, for he made it the narrative core of the novel he then called A Dark House, after the rotting Sutpen mansion, adding material from stories called “Wash” and “’The Rig Shot” and changing the names and personalities of some of the characters. This work evolved into Absalom, Absalom!, published in 1936. Thus Faulkner, by a complex process of revision and expansion, gradually transformed “Evangeline” into a central portion of his greatest novel. This brief tale of murder and miscegenation, though less adroit than some of his other stories, shows Faulkner developing an intricate device he would employ effectively in subsequent novels—the use of multiple narrators who reconstruct and become deeply involved in a violent, mystifying story from the past which unfolds in a series of shocking revelations.
-Introduction by Judith Wittenberg, author of a forthcoming book on Faulkner
I had not seen Don in seven years and had not heard from him in six and a half when I got the wire collect: HAVE GHOST FOR YOU CAN YOU COME AND GET IT NOW LEAVING MYSELF THIS WEEK. And I thought at once, “What in the world do I want with a ghost?” and I reread the wire and the name of the place where it was sent—a Mississippi village so small that the name of the town was address sufficient for a person transient enough to leave at the end of the week—and I thought, “What in the world is he doing there?”
I found that out the next day. Don is an architect by vocation and an amateur painter by avocation. He was spending his two weeks’ vacation squatting behind an easel about the countryside, sketching colonial porticoes and houses and negro cabins and heads—hill niggers, different from those of the lowlands, the cities.
While we were at supper at the hotel that evening he told me about the ghost. The house was about six miles from the village, vacant these forty years. “It seems that this bird—his name was Sutpen—”
“—Colonel Sutpen,” I said.
“That’s not fair,” Don said.
“I know it,” I said. “Pray continue.”
“—seems that he found the land or swapped the Indians a stereopticon for it or won it at blackjack or something. Anyway—this must have been about ‘40 or ‘50—he imported him a foreign architect and built him a house and laid out a park and gardens (you can still see the old paths and beds, bordered with brick) which would be a fitten setting for his lone jewel—”
“—a daughter named—”
“Wait,” Don said. “Here, now; I—'”
“—named Azalea,” I said.
“Now we’re even,” Don said.
“I meant Syringa,” I said.
“Now I’m one up,” Don said. “Her name was Judith.”
“That’s what I meant, Judith.”
“All right. You tell, then.”
“Carry on,” I said. “I’ll behave.”
It seems that he had a son and a daughter both, as well as a wife—a florid, portly man, a little swaggering, who liked to ride fast to church of a Sunday. He rode fast there the last time he went, lying in a homemade coffin in his Confederate uniform, with his sabre and his embroidered gauntlets. That was in ‘70. He had lived for five years since the war in the decaying house, alone with his daughter who was a widow without having been a wife, as they say. All the livestock was gone then except a team of spavined workhorses and a pair of two year old mules that had never been in double harness until they put them into the light wagon to carry the colonel to town to the Episcopal chapel that day. Anyway, the mules ran away and turned the wagon over and tumbled the colonel, sabre and plumes and all, into the ditch; from which Judith had him fetched back to the house, and read the service for the dead herself and buried him in the cedar grove where her mother and her husband already lay.
Judith’s nature had solidified a right smart by that time, the niggers told Don. “You know how women, girls, must have lived in those days. Sheltered. Not idle, maybe, with all the niggers to look after and such. But not breeding any highpressure real estate agents or lady captains of commerce. But she and her mother took care of the place while the men were away at the war, and after her mother died in ‘63 Judith stayed on alone. Maybe waiting for her husband to come back kept her bucked up. She knew he was coming back, you see. The niggers told me that never worried her at all. That she kept his room ready for him, same as she kept her father’s and brother’s rooms ready, changing the sheets every week until all the sheets save one set for each bed were gone to make lint and she couldn’t change them anymore.
“And then the war was over and she had a letter from him—his name was Charles Bon, from New Orleans—written after the surrender. She wasn’t surprised, elated, anything. ‘I knew it would be all right,’ she told the old nigger, the old one, the greatgrandmother, the one whose name was Sutpen too. ‘They will be home soon now.’ ‘They?’ the nigger said. ‘You mean, him and Marse Henry too? That they’ll both come back to the same roof after what has happened?’ And Judith said, ‘Oh. That. They were just children then. And Charles Bon is my husband now. Have you forgotten that?’ And the nigger said, ‘I aint forgot it. And Henry Sutpen aint forgot it neither.’ And (they were cleaning up the room then) Judith says, ‘They have got over that now. Dont you think the war could do that much?’ And the nigger said, ‘It all depends on what it is the war got to get over with.’
“What what was for the war to get over with?”
“That’s it,” Don said. “They didn’t seem to know. Or to care, maybe it was. Maybe it was just so long ago. Or maybe it’s because niggers are wiser than white folks and dont bother about why you do, but only about what you do, and not so much about that. This was what they told me. Not her, the old one, the one whose name was Sutpen too; I never did talk to her. I would just see her, sitting in a chair beside the cabin door, looking like she might have been nine years old when God was born. She’s pretty near whiter than she is black; a regular empress, maybe because she is white. The others, the rest of them, of her descendants, get darker each generation, like stairsteps kind of. They live in a cabin about a half mile from the house— two rooms and an open hall full of children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren, all women. Not a man over eleven years old in the house. She sits there all day long where she can see the big house, smoking a pipe, her bare feet wrapped around a chair rung like an ape does, while the others work. And just let one stop, let up for a minute. You can hear her a mile, and her looking no bigger than one of these half lifesize dollsof-all-nations in the church bazaar. Not moving except to take the pipe out of her mouth: ‘You, Sibey!’ or ‘You, Abum!’ or ‘You, Rose!' That’s all she has to say.
“But the others talked; the grandmother, the old one’s daughter, of what she had seen as a child or heard her mother tell. She told me how the old woman used to talk a lot, telling the stories over and over, until about forty years ago. Then she quit talking, telling the stories, and the daughter said that sometimes the old woman would get mad and say such and such a thing never happened at all and tell them to hush their mouths and get out of the house. But she said that before that she had heard the stories so much that now she never could remember whether she had seen something or just heard it told. I went there several times, and they told me about the old days before the war, about the fiddles and the lighted hall and the fine horses and carriages in the drive, the young men coming thirty and forty and fifty miles, courting Judith. And one coming further than that; Charles Bon. He and Judith’s brother were the same age. They had met one another at school—”
“University of Virginia,” I said. “Bayard attenuated 1000 miles. Out of the wilderness proud honor periodical regurgitant.”
“Wrong,” Don said. “It was the University of Mississippi. They were of the tenth graduating class since its founding—almost charter members, you might say.”
“I didn’t know there were ten in Mississippi that went to school then.”
“—you might say. It was not far from Henry’s home, and (he kept a pair of saddle horses and a groom and a dog, descendant of a pair of shepherds which Colonel Sutpen had brought back from Germany: the first police dogs Mississippi, America, maybe, had ever seen) once a month perhaps he would make the overnight ride and spend Sunday at home. One weekend he brought Charles Bon home with him. Charles had probably heard of Judith. Maybe Henry had a picture of her, or maybe Henry had bragged a little. And maybe Charles got himself invited to go home with Henry without Henry being aware that this had happened. As Charles’ character divulged (or became less obscure as circumstances circumstanced, you might say) it began to appear as if Charles might be that sort of a guy. And Henry that sort of a guy too, you might say.
“Now, get it. The two young men riding up to the colonial portico, and Judith leaning against the column in a white dress—”
“—with a red rose in her dark hair—”
“All right. Have a rose. But she was blonde. And them looking at one another, her and Charles. She had been around some, of course. But to other houses like the one she lived in, lives no different from the one she knew: patriarchal and generous enough, but provincial after all. And here was Charles, young—” We said, “and handsome” in the same breath. (“Dead heat,” Don said) “and from New Orleans, prototype of what today would be a Balkan archduke at the outside. Especially after that visit. The niggers told how after that, every Tuesday A.M. Charles’ nigger would arrive after his allnight ride, with a bouquet of flowers and a letter, and sleep for a while in the barn and then ride back again.”
“Did Judith use the same column all the time, or would she change, say, twice a week?”
“To lean against. Looking up the road.”
“Oh,” Don said. “Not while they were away at the war, her father and brother and Charles. I asked the nigger what they—those two women—did while they were living there alone. ‘Never done nothin. Jes hid de silver in de back gyarden, and et whut dey could git.’ Isn’t that fine? So simple. War is so much simpler than people think. Just bury the silver, and eat what you can git.”
“Oh, the war,” I said. “I think this should count as just one: Did Charles save Henry’s life or did Henry save Charles’ life?”
“Now I am two up,” Don said. “They never saw each other during the war, until at the end of it. Here’s the dope. Here are Henry and Charles, close as a married couple almost, rooming together at the university, spending their holidays and vacations under Henry’s roof, where Charles was treated like a son by the old folks, and was the acknowledged railhorse of Judith’s swains; even acknowledged so by Judith after a while. Overcame her maiden modesty, maybe. Or put down her maiden dissimulation, more like—”
“Ay. More like.”
“Ay. Anyway, the attendance of saddle horses and fast buggies fell off, and in the second summer (Charles was an orphan, with a guardian in New Orleans—I never did find out just how Charles came to be in school way up in North Mississippi) when Charles decided that perhaps he had better let his guardian see him in the flesh maybe, and went home, he took with him Judith’s picture in a metal case that closed like a book and locked with a key, and left behind him a ring.
“And Henry went with him, to spend the summer as Charles’ guest in turn. They were to be gone all summer, but Henry was back in three weeks. They— the niggers—didn’t know what had happened. They just knew that Henry was back in three weeks instead of three months, and that he tried to make Judith send Charles back his ring.”
“And so Judith pined and died, and there’s your unrequited ghost.”
“She did no such thing. She refused to send back the ring and she dared Henry to tell what was wrong with Charles, and Henry wouldn’t tell. Then the old folks tried to get Henry to tell what it was, but he wouldn’t do it. So it must have been pretty bad, to Henry at least. But the engagement wasn’t announced yet; maybe the old folks decided to see Charles and see if some explanation was coming forth between him and Henry, since whatever it was, Henry wasn’t going to tell it. It appears that Henry was that sort of a guy, too.
“Then fall came, and Henry went back to the university. Charles was there, too. Judith wrote to him and had letters back, but maybe they were waiting for Henry to fetch him at another weekend, like they used to do. They waited a good while; Henry’s boy told how they didn’t room together now and didn’t speak when they met on the campus. And at home Judith wouldn’t speak to him, either. Henry must have been having a fine time. Getting the full worth out of whatever it was he wouldn’t tell.”
“Judith might have cried some then at times, being as that was before her nature changed, as the niggers put it. And so maybe the old folks worked on Henry some, and Henry still not telling. And so at Thanksgiving they told Henry that Charles was coming to spend Christmas. They had it, then, Henry and his father, behind closed doors. But they said you could hear them through the door: ‘Then I wont be here myself,’ Henry says. ‘You will be here, sir,’ the colonel says. ‘And you will give both Charles and your sister a satisfactory explanation of your conduct’: something like that, I imagine.
“Henry and Charles explained it this way. There is a ball on Christmas eve, and Colonel Sutpen announces the engagement, which everybody knew about, anyway. And the next morning about daylight a nigger wakes the colonel and he comes charging down with his nightshirt stuffed into his britches and his galluses dangling and jumps on the mule bareback (the mule being the first animal the nigger came to in the lot) and gets down to the back pasture just as Henry and Charles are aiming at one another with pistols. And the colonel hasn’t any more than got there when here comes Judith, in her nightdress too and a shawl, and bareback on a pony too. And what she didn’t tell Henry. Not crying, even though it wasn’t until after the war that she gave up crying for good, her nature changing and all. ‘Say what he has done,’ she tells Henry. ‘Accuse him to his face.’ But still Henry wont tell. Then Charles says that maybe he had better clear off, but the colonel wont have it. And so thirty minutes later Henry rides off, without any breakfast and without even telling his mother goodbye, and they never saw him again for three years. The police dog howled a right smart at first; it wouldn’t let anybody touch it or feed it. It got into the house and got into Henry’s room and for two days it wouldn’t let anybody enter the room.
“He was gone for three years. In the second year after that Christmas Charles graduated and went home. After Henry cleared out Charles’ visits were put in abeyance, you might say, by mutual consent. A kind of probation. He and Judith saw one another now and then, and she still wore the ring, and when he graduated and went home, the wedding was set for that day one year. But when that day one year came, they were getting ready to fight Bull Run. Henry came home that spring, in uniform. He and Judith greeted one another: ‘Good morning, Henry.’ ‘Good morning, Judith.’ But that was about all. Charles Bon’s name was not mentioned between them; maybe the ring on Judith’s hand was mention enough. And then about three days after his arrival, a nigger rode out from the village, with a letter from Charles Bon, who had stopped tactfully you might say, at the hotel here, this hotel here.
“I dont know what it was. Maybe Henry’s old man convinced him, or maybe it was Judith. Or maybe it was just the two young knights going off to battle; I think I told you Henry was that sort of a guy. Anyway, Henry rides into the village. They didn’t shake hands, but after a while Henry and Charles come back together. And that afternoon Judith and Charles were married. And that evening Charles and Henry rode away together, to Tennessee and the army facing Sherman. They were gone four years.
“They had expected to be in Washington by July fourth of that first year and home again in time to lay-by the corn and cotton. But they were not in Washington by July fourth, and so in the late summer the colonel threw down his newspaper and went out on his horse and herded up the first three hundred men he met, trash, gentles and all, and told them they were a regiment and wrote himself a colonel’s commission and took them to Tennessee too. Then the two women were left in the house alone, to ‘bury the silver and eat what they could git.’ Not leaning on any columns, looking up the road, and not crying, either. That was when Judith’s nature began to change. But it didn’t change good until one night three years later.
“But it seemed that the old lady couldn’t git enough. Maybe she wasn’t a good forager. Anyway, she died, and the colonel couldn’t get home in time and so Judith buried her and then the colonel got home at last and tried to persuade Judith to go into the village to live but Judith said she would stay at home and the colonel went back to where the war was. not having to go far, either. And Judith stayed in the house, looking after the niggers and what crops they had, keeping the rooms fresh and ready for the three men, changing the bedlinen each week as long as there was linen to change with. Not standing on the porch, looking up the road. Gittin something to eat had got so simple by then that it took all your time. And besides, she wasn’t worried. She had Charles’ monthly letters to sleep on, and besides she knew he would come through all right, anyway. All she had to do was to be ready and wait. And she was used to waiting by then.
“She wasn’t worried. You have to expect, to worry. She didn’t even expect when, almost as soon as she heard of the surrender and got Charles’ letter saying that the war was over and he was safe, one of the niggers come running into the house one morning saying, ‘Missy. Missy.’ And she standing in the hall when Henry came onto the porch and in the door. She stood there, in the white dress (and you can still have the rose, if you like); she stood there; maybe her hand was lifted a little, like when someone threatens you with a stick, even in fun. ‘Yes?’ she says. ‘Yes?'
“ ‘I have brought Charles home,’ Henry says. She looks at him; the light is on her face but not on his. Maybe it is her eyes talking, because Henry says, not even gesturing with his head: ‘Out there. In the wagon.’
“ ‘Oh,’ she says, quite quiet, looking at him, not moving too. ‘Was—was the journey hard on him?’
“ Tt was not hard on him.'
“ ‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Yes. Yes. Of course. There must have been a last . . . last shot, so it could end. Yes. I had forgot.’ Then she moves, quiet, deliberate. ‘I am grateful to you. I thank you.’ She calls then, to the niggers murmuring about the front door, peering into the hall. She calls them by name, composed, quiet: ‘Bring Mr Charles into the house.’
“They carried him up to the room which she had kept ready for four years, and laid him on the fresh bed, in his boots and all, who had been killed by the last shot of the war. Judith walked up the stairs after them, her face quiet, composed, cold. She went into the room and sent the niggers out and she locked the door. The next morning, when she came out again, her face looked exactly as it had when she went into the room. And the next morning Henry was gone. He had ridden away in the night, and no man that knew his face ever saw him again.”
“And which one is the ghost?” I said.
Don looked at me. “You are not keeping count anymore. Are you?”
“No,” I said. “I’m not keeping count anymore.”
“I dont know which one is the ghost. The colonel came home and died in ‘70 and Judith buried him beside her mother and her husband, and the nigger woman, the grandmother (not the old one, the one named Sutpen), who was a biggish girl then, she told how, fifteen years after that day, something else happened in that big decaying house. She told of Judith living there alone, busy around the house in an old dress like trash would wear, raising chickens, working with them before day and after dark. She told it as she remembered it, of waking on her pallet in the cabin one dawn to find her mother, dressed, crouched over the fire, blowing it alive. The mother told her to get up and dress, and she told me how they went up to the house in the dawn. She said she already knew it, before they got to the house and found another negro woman and two negro men of another family living three miles away already in the hall, their eyeballs rolling in the dusk, and how all that day the house seemed to be whispering: ‘Shhhhhh. Miss Judith. Miss Judith. Shhhhhh.’
“She told me how she crouched between errands in the hall, listening to the negroes moving about upstairs, and about the grave. It was already dug, the moist, fresh earth upturned in slowly drying shards as the sun mounted. And she told me about the slow, scuffing feet coming down the stairs (she was hidden then, in a closet beneath the staircase); hearing the slow feet move across overhead, and pass out the door and cease. But she didn’t come out, even then. It was late afternoon when she came out and found herself locked in the empty house. And while she was trying to get out she heard the sound from upstairs and she began to scream and to run. She said she didn’t know what she was trying to do. She said she just ran, back and forth in the dim hall, until she tripped over something near the staircase and fell, screaming, and while she lay on her back beneath the stairwell, screaming, she saw in the air above her a face, a head upside down. Then she said the next thing she remembered was when she waked in the cabin and it was night, and her mother standing over her. ‘You dreamed it,’ the mother said. ‘What is in that house belongs to that house. You dreamed it, you hear, nigger?”
“So the niggers in the neighborhood have got them a live ghost,” I said. “They claim that Judith is not dead, eh?”
“You forget about the grave,” Don said. “It’s there to be seen with the other three.”
“That’s right,” I said. “Besides those niggers that saw Judith dead.”
“Ah,” Don said. “Nobody but the old woman saw Judith dead. She laid out the body herself, wouldn’t let anybody in until the body was in the coffin and it fastened shut. But there’s more than that. More than niggers.” He looked at me. “White folks too. That is a good house, even yet. Sound inside. It could have been had for the taxes anytime these forty years. But there is something else.” He looked at me. “There’s a dog there.”
“What about that?”
“It’s a police dog. The same kind of dog that Colonel Sutpen brought back from Europe and that Henry had at the university with him—”
“—and has been waiting at the house forty years for Henry to come home. That puts us even. So if you’ll just buy me a ticket home, I’ll let you off about the wire.”
“I dont mean the same dog. Henry’s dog howled around the house for a while after he rode off that night, and died, and its son was an old dog when they had Judith’s funeral. It nearly broke up the funeral. They had to drive it away from the grave with sticks, where it wanted to dig. It was the last of the breed, and it stayed around the house, howling. It would let no one approach the house. Folks would see it hunting in the woods, gaunt as a wolf, and now and then at night it would take a howling spell. But it was old then; after a while it could not get very far from the house, and I expect there were lots of folks waiting for it to die so they could get up there and give that house a prowl. Then one day a white man found the dog dead in a ditch it had got into hunting food and was too weak to get out again, and he thought, ‘Now is my chance.’ He had almost got to the porch when a police dog came around the house. Perhaps he watched it for a moment in a kind of horrid and outraged astonishment before he decided it wasn’t a ghost and climbed a tree. He stayed there three hours, yelling, until the old nigger woman came and drove it away and told the man to get off the place and stay off.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “I like the touch about the dog’s ghost. I’ll bet that Sutpen ghost has got a horse, too. And did they mention the ghost of a demijohn, maybe?”
“That dog wasn’t a ghost. Ask that man if it was. Because it died too. And then there was another police dog there. They would watch each dog in turn get old and die, and then on the day they would find it dead, another police dog would come charging full-fleshed and in midstride around the corner of the house like somebody with a wand or something had struck the foundation stone. I saw the present one. It isn’t a ghost.”
“A dog,” I said. “A haunted house that bears police dogs like plums on a bush.” We looked at one another. “And the old nigger woman could drive it away. And her name is Sutpen too. Who do you suppose is living in that house?”
“Who do you suppose?”
“Not Judith. They buried her.”
“They buried something.”
“But why should she want to make folks think she is dead if she isn’t dead?”
“That’s what I sent for you for. That’s for you to find out.”
“How find out?”
“Just go and see. Just walk up to the house and go in and holler: ‘Hello. Who’s at home?’ That’s the way they do in the country.”
“Oh, is it?”
“Sure. That’s the way. It’s easy.”
“Oh, is it.”
“Sure,” Don said. “Dogs like you, and you dont believe in haunts. You said so yourself.”
And so I did what Don said. I went there and I entered that house. And I was right and Don was right. That dog was a flesh-and-blood dog and that ghost was a flesh-and-blood ghost. It had lived in that house for forty years, with the old negro woman supplying it with food, and no man the wiser.
While I stood in the darkness in a thick jungle of overgrown crepe myrtle beneath a shuttered window of the house, I thought, “I have only to get into the house. Then she will hear me and will call out. She will say ‘Is that you?’ and call the old negress by her name. And so I will find out what the old negress’ name is too.” That’s what I was thinking, standing there beside the dark house in the darkness, listening to the diminishing rush of the dog fading toward the branch in the pasture.
So I stood there in the junglish overgrowth of the old garden, beside the looming and scaling wall of the house, thinking of the trivial matter of the old woman’s name. Beyond the garden, beyond the pasture, I could see a light in the cabin, where in the afternoon I had found the old woman smoking in a wirebound chair beside the door. “So your name is Sutpen too,” I said.
She removed the pipe. “And what might your name be?”
I told her. She watched me, smoking. She was incredibly old: a small woman with a myriadwrinkled face in color like pale coffee and as still and cold as granite. The features were not negroid, the face in its cast was too cold, loo implacable, and I thought suddenly, “It’s Indian blood. Part Indian and part Sutpen, spirit and flesh. No wonder Judith found her sufficient since forty years.” Still as granite, and as cold. She wore a clean calico dress and an apron. Her hand was bound in a clean white cloth. Her feet were bare. I told her my business, profession, she nursing the pipe and watching me with eyes that had no whites at all; from a short distance away she appeared to have no eyes at all. Her whole face was perfectly blank, like a mask in which the eyesockets had been savagely thumbed and the eyes themselves forgotten. “A which?” she said.
“A writer. A man that writes pieces for the newspapers and such.”
She grunted. “I know um.” She grunted again around the pipe stem, not ceasing to puff at it, speaking in smoke, shaping her words in smoke for the eye to hear. “I know um. You aint the first newspaper writer we done had dealings with.”
“I’m not? When—”
She puffed, not looking at me. “Not much dealings, though. Not after Marse Henry went to town and horsewhupped him outen he own office, out into the street, wropping the whup around him like a dog.” She smoked, the pipe held in a hand that was not much larger than the hand of a doll. “And so because you writes for the newspapers, you think you got lief to come meddling round Cunnel Sutpen’s house?”
“It’s not Colonel Sutpen’s house now. It belongs to the state. To anybody.”
“How come it does?”
“Because the taxes haven’t been paid on it in forty years. Do you know what taxes are?”
She smoked. She was not looking at me. But it was hard to tell what she was looking at. Then I found what she was looking at. She extended her arm, the pipe stem pointing toward the house, the pasture. “Look yonder,” she said. “Going up across the pahster.” It was the dog. It looked as big as a calf: big, savage, lonely without itself being aware that it was lonely, like the house itself. “That dont belong to no state. You try it and see.”
“Oh, that dog. I can pass that dog.”
“How pass it?”
“I can pass it.”
She smoked again. “You go on about your business, young white gentleman. You let what dont concern you alone.”
“I can pass that dog. But if you’d tell me, I wouldn’t have to.”
“You get by that dog. Then we’ll see about telling.”
“Is that a dare?”
“You pass that dog.”
“All right,” I said. “I’ll do that.” I turned and went back to the road. I could feel her watching me. I didn’t look back. I went on up the road. Then she called me, strongvoiced; as Don said, her voice would carry a good mile, and not full raised either. I turned. She still sat in the chair, small as a big doll, jerking her arm, the smoking pipe, at me. “You git out of here and stay out!” she shouted. “You go on away.”
That’s what I was thinking of while I stood there beside the house, hearing the dog. Passing it was easy: just a matter of finding where the branch ran, and a hunk of raw beef folded about a half can full of pepper. So I stood there, about to commit breaking and entering, thinking of the trivial matter of an old negress’ name. I was a little wrought up; I was not too old for that. Not so old but what the threshold of adventure could pretty well deprive me of natural judgment, since it had not once occurred to me that one who had lived hidden in a house for forty years, going out only at night for fresh air, her presence known only to one other human being and a dog, would not need to call out, on hearing a noise in the house: “Is that you?”
So when I was in the dark hall at last, standing at the foot of the stairs where forty years ago the negro girl, lying screaming on her back, had seen the face upside down in the air above her, still hearing no sound, no voice yet saying, “Is that you?” I was about ready to be tied myself. I was that young. I stood there for some time, until I found that my eyeballs were aching, thinking, “What shall I do now? The ghost must be asleep. So I wont disturb her.”
Then I heard the sound, it was at the back of the house somewhere, and on the ground floor. I had a seething feeling, of vindication. I thought of myself talking to Don, telling him, “I told you so! I told you all the time.” Perhaps I had mesmerized myself and still had a hangover, because I imagine that judgment had already recognized the sound for that of a stiff key in a stiff’ lock; that someone was entering the house from the rear, in a logical flesh-and-blood way with a logical key. And I suppose that judgment knew who it was, remembering how the uproar of the creekward dog must have reached the cabin too. Anyway, I stood there in the pitch dark and heard her enter the hall from the back, moving without haste yet surely, as a blind fish might move surely about and among the blind rocks in a blind pool in a cave. Then she spoke, quietly, not loud, yet without lowering her voice: “So you passed the dog.”
“Yes,” I whispered. She came on, invisible.
“I told you,” she said. “I told you not to meddle with what aint none of your concern. What have they done to you and yo’n?”
“Shhhhhh,” I whispered. “If she hasn’t heard me yet maybe I can get out. Maybe she wont know—”
“He aint going to hear you. Wouldn’t mind, if he did.”
“He?” I said.
“Git out?” she said. She came on. “You done got this far. I told you not to, but you was bound. Gittin out is too late now.”
“He?” I said. “He?” She passed me, without touching me. I heard her begin to mount the stairs. I turned toward the sound, as though I could see her. “What do you want me to do?”
She didn’t pause. “Do? You done done too much now. I told you. But young head mulehard. You come with me.”
“You come with me. You done had your chance and you wouldn’t take it. You come on.”
We mounted the stairs. She moved on ahead, surely, invisible. I held to the railing, feeling ahead, my eyeballs aching: suddenly I brushed into her where she stood motionless. “Here’s the top,” she said. “Ain’t nothing up here to run into.” I followed her again, the soft sound of her bare feet. I touched a wall and heard a door click and felt the door yawn inward upon a rush of stale, fetid air warm as an oven: a smell of old flesh, a closed room. And I smelled something else. But I didn’t know what it was at the time, not until she closed the door again and struck a match to a candle fixed upright in a china plate. And I watched the candle come to life and I wondered quietly in that suspension of judgment how it could burn, live, at all in this dead room, this tomblike air. Then I looked at the room, the bed, and I went and stood above the bed, surrounded by that odor of stale and unwashed flesh and of death which at first I had not recognized. The woman brought the candle to the bed and set it on the table. On the table lay another object—a flat metal case. “Why, that’s the picture,” I thought. “The picture of Judith which Charles Bon carried to the war with him and brought back.” Then I looked at the man in the bed—the gaunt, pallid, skulllike head surrounded by long, unkept hair of the same ivory color, and a beard reaching almost to his waist, lying in a foul, yellowish nightshirt on foul, yellowish sheets. His mouth was open, and he breathed through it, peaceful, slow, faint, scarce stirring his beard. He lay with closed eyelids so thin that they looked like patches of dampened tissue paper pasted over the balls. I looked at the woman. She had approached. Behind us our shadows loomed crouching high up the scaling, fishcolored wall. “My God,” I said. “Who is it?”
She spoke without stirring, without any visible movement of her mouth, in that voice not loud and not lowered either. “It’s Henry Sutpen,” she said.
We were downstairs again, in the dark kitchen. We stood, facing one another. “And he’s going to die,” I said. “How long has he been like this?”
“About a week. He used to walk at night with the dog. But about a week ago one night I waked up and heard the dog howling and I dressed and come up here and found him laying in the garden with the dog standing over him, howling. And I brought him in and put him in that bed and he aint moved since.”
“You put him to bed? You mean, you brought him into the house and up the stairs by yourself?”
“I put Judith into her coffin by myself. And he dont weigh nothing now. I going to put him in his coffin by myself too.”
“God knows that will be soon,” I said. “Why dont you get a doctor?”
She grunted; her voice sounded no higher than my waist. “He’s the fourth one to die in this house without no doctor. I done for the other three. I reckon I can do for him too.”
Then she told me, there in the dark kitchen, with Henry Sutpen upstairs in that foul room, dying quietly unknown to any man, including himself. “I got to get it off my mind. I done toted it a long time now, and now I going to lay it down.” She told again of Henry and Charles Bon like two brothers until that second summer when Henry went home with Charles in turn. And how Henry, who was to be gone three months, was back home in three weeks, because he had found It out,
“Found what out?” I said.
It was dark in the kitchen. The single window was a pale square of summer darkness above the shagmassed garden. Something moved beneath the window outside the kitchen, something big-soft-footed; then the dog barked once. It barked again, full-tongued now; I thought quietly, “Now I haven’t got any more meat and pepper. Now I am in the house and I cant get out.” The old woman moved; her torso came into silhouette in the window. “Hush,” she said. The dog hushed for a moment, then as the woman turned away from the window it bayed again, a wild, deep, savage, reverberant sound. I went to the window.
“Hush,” I said, not loud. “Hush, boy. Still, now.” It ceased; the faint, soft-big sound of its feet faded and died. I turned. Again the woman was invisible. “What happened in New Orleans?” I said.
She didn’t answer at once. She was utterly still; I could not even hear her breathe. Then her voice came out of the unbreathing stillness. “Charles Bon already had a wife.”
“Oh,” I said. “Already had a wife. I see. And so—”
She talked, not more rapidly, exactly. I dont know how to express it. It was like a train running along a track, not fast, but you got off the track, telling me how Henry had given Charles Bon his chance. Chance for what, to do what, never did quite emerge. It couldn’t have been to get a divorce; she told me and Henry’s subsequent actions showed that he could not have known there was an actual marriage between them until much later, perhaps during or maybe at the very end of the war. It seemed that there was something about the New Orleans business that, to Henry anyway, was more disgraceful than the question of divorce could have been. But what it was, she wouldn’t tell me. “You dont need to know that,” she said. “It dont make no difference now. Judith is dead and Charles Bon is dead and I reckon she’s done dead down yonder in New Orleans too, for all them lace dresses and them curly fans and niggers to wait on her, but I reckon things is different down there. I reckon Henry done told Charles Bon that at the time. And now Henry wont be living fore long, and so it dont matter.”
“Do you think Henry will die tonight?”
Her voice came out of the darkness, hardly waisthigh. “If the Lord wills it. So he gave Charles Bon his chance. And Charles Bon never took it.”
“Why didn’t Henry tell Judith and his father what it was?” I said. “If it was reason enough for Henry, it would be reason enough for them.”
“Would Henry tell his blooden kin something, withouten there wouldn’t anything else do but telling them, that I wont tell you, a stranger? Aint I just telling you how Henry tried other ways first? and how Charles Bon lied to him?”
“Lied to him?”
“Charles Bon lied to Henry Sutpen. Henry told Charles Bon that them wasn’t Sutpen ways, and Charles Bon lied to Henry. You reckon if Charles Bon hadn’t lied to Henry, that Henry would have let Charles Bon marry his sister? Charles Bon lied to Henry before that Christmas morning. And then he lied to Henry again after that Christmas morning; else Henry wouldn’t have never let Charles Bon marry Judith.”
“Aint I just told you how Henry found out in New Orleans? Likely Charles Bon took Henry to see her, showing Henry how they did in New Orleans, and Henry told Charles Bon, Them ways aint Sutpen ways.’ ”
But still I couldn’t understand it. If Henry didn’t know they were married, it seemed to make him out pretty much of a prude. But maybe nowadays we can no longer understand people of that time. Perhaps that’s why to us their written and told doings have a quality fustian though courageous, gallant, yet a little absurd. But that wasn’t it either. There was something more than just the relationship between Charles and the woman; something she hadn’t told me and had told me she was not going to tell and which I knew she would not tell out of some sense of honor or of pride; and I thought quietly, “And now I’ll never know that. And without it, the whole tale will be pointless, and so I am wasting my time.”
But anyway, one thing was coming a little clearer, and so when she told how Henry and Charles had gone away to the war in seeming amity and Judith with her hour old wedding ring had taken care of the place and buried her mother and kept the house ready for her husband’s return, and how they heard that the war was over and that Charles Bon was safe and how two days later Henry brought Charles’ body home in the wagon, dead, killed by the last shot of the war, I said, “The last shot fired by who?”
She didn’t answer at once. She was quite still. It seemed to me that I could see her, motionless, her face lowered a little—that immobile, myriad face, cold, implacable, contained. “I wonder how Henry found out that they were married,” I said.
She didn’t answer that either. Then she talked again, her voice level, cold, about when Henry brought Charles home and they carried him up to the room which Judith had kept ready for him, and how she sent them all away and locked the door upon herself and her dead husband and the picture. And how she—the negress; she spent the night on a chair in the front hall—heard once in the night a pounding noise from the room above and how when Judith came out the next morning her face looked just like it had when she locked the door upon herself. “Then she called me and I went in and we put him in the coffin and I took the picture from the table and I said, ‘Do you want to put this in. Missy?’ and she said, ‘I wont put that in’ and I saw how she had took the poker and beat that lock shut to where it wouldn’t never open again.
“We buried him that day. And the next day I took the letter to town to put it on the train—”
“Who was the letter to?”
“I didn’t know. I cant read. All I knew, it was to New Orleans because I knowed what New Orleans looked like wrote out because I used to mail the letters she wrote to Charles Bon before the war, before they was married.”
“To New Orleans,” I said. “How did Judith find where the woman lived?” Then I said: “Was there— There was money in that letter.”
“Not then. We never had no money then. We never had no money to send until later, after Cunnel had done come home and died and we buried him too, and Judith bought them chickens and we raised them and sold them and the eggs. Then she could put money in the letters.”
“And the woman took the money? She took it?”
She grunted. “Took it.” She talked again; her voice was cold and steady as oil flowing. “And then one day Judith said, ‘We will fix up Mr Charles’ room.’ ‘Fix it up with what?’ I said. ‘We’ll do the best we can,’ she said. So we fixed up the room, and that day week the wagon went to town to meet the train and it come back with her in it from New Orleans. It was full of trunks, and she had that fan and that mosquito-bar umbrella over her head and a nigger woman, and she never liked it about the wagon. ‘I aint used to riding in wagons,’ she said. And Judith waiting on the porch in a old dress, and her getting down with all them trunks and that nigger woman and that boy—”
“Hers and Charles Bon’s boy. He was about nine years old. And soon as I saw her I knew, and soon as Judith saw her she knew too.”
“Knew what?” I said. “What was the matter with this woman, anyway?”
“You’ll hear what I going to tell you. What I aint going to tell you aint going to hear.” She talked, invisible, quiet, cold. “She didn’t stay long. She never liked it here. Wasn’t nothing to do and nobody to see. She wouldn’t get up till dinner. Then she would come down and set on the porch in one of them dresses outen the trunks, and fan herself and yawn, and Judith out in the back since daylight, in a old dress no better than mine, working.
“She never stayed long. Just until she had wore all the dresses outen the trunks one time, I reckon. She would tell Judith how she ought to have the house fixed up and have more niggers so she wouldn’t have to fool with the chickens herself, and then she would play on the piano. But it never suited her neither because it wasn’t tuned right. The first day she went out to see where Charles Bon was buried, with that fan and that umbrella that wouldn’t stop no rain, and she come back crying into a lace handkerchief and laid down with that nigger woman rubbing her head with medicine. But at suppertime she come down with another dress on and said she never seed how Judith stood it here and played the piano and cried again, telling Judith about Charles Bon like Judith hadn’t never seed him.”
“You mean, she didn’t know that Judith and Charles had been married too?”
She didn’t answer at all. I could feel her looking at me with a kind of cold contempt. She went on: “She cried about Charles Bon a right smart at first. She would dress up in the afternoon and go promenading across to the burying ground, with that umbrella and the fan, and the boy and that nigger woman following with smelling bottles and a pillow for her to set on by the grave, and now and then she would cry about Charles Bon in the house, kind of flinging herself on Judith and Judith setting there in her old dress, straightbacked as Cunnel, with her face looking like it did when she come outen Charles Bon’s room that morning, until she would stop crying and put some powder on her face and play on the piano and tell Judith how they done in New Orleans to enjoy themselves and how Judith ought to sell this old place and go down there to live.
“Then she went away, setting in the wagon in one of them mosquito-bar dresses too, with that umbrella, crying into the hankcher a while and then waving it at Judith standing there on the porch in that old dress, until the wagon went out of sight. Then Judith looked at me and she said, ‘Raby, I’m tired. I’m awful tired.’
“And I’m tired too. I done toted it a long time now. But we had to look after them chickens so we could put the money in the letter every month—”
“And she still took the money? even after she came and saw, she still took it? And after Judith saw, she still sent it?”
She answered immediately, abrupt, levelvoiced: “Who are you, questioning what a Sutpen does?”
“I’m sorry. When did Henry come home?”
“Right after she left, I carried two letters to the train one day. One of them had Henry Sutpen on it. I knowed how that looked wrote out, too.”
“Oh. Judith knew where Henry was. And she wrote him after she saw the woman. Why did she wait until then?”
“Aint I told you Judith knew soon as she saw that woman, same as I knew soon as I saw?”
“But you never did tell me what. What is there about this woman? Dont you see, if you dont tell me that, the story wont make sense.”
“It done made enough sense to put three folks in their graves. How much more sense you want it to make?”
“Yes,” I said. “And so Henry came home.”
“Not right then. One day, about a year after she was here, Judith gave me another letter with Henry Sutpen on it. It was all fixed up, ready to go on the train. ‘You’ll know when to send it,’ Judith said. And I told her I would know the time when it come. And then the time come and Judith said, ‘I reckon you can send that letter now’ and I said, ‘I done already sent it three days ago.’
“And four nights later Henry rode up and we went to Judith in the bed and she said, ‘Henry. Henry, I’m tired. I’m so tired, Henry.’ And we never needed no doctor then and no preacher, and I aint going to need no doctor now and no preacher neither.”
“And Henry has been here forty years, hidden in the house. My God.”
“That’s forty years longer than any of the rest of them stayed. He was a young man then, and when them dogs would begin to get old he would leave at night and be gone two days and come back the next night with another dog just like um. But he aint young now and last time I went myself to get the new dog. But he aint going to need no more dog. And I aint young neither, and I going soon too. Because I tired as Judith, too.”
It was quiet in the kitchen, still, blackdark. Outside the summer midnight was filled with insects; somewhere a mockingbird sang, “Why did you do all this for Henry Sutpen? Didn’t you have your own life to live, your own family to raise?”
She spoke, her voice not waisthigh, level, quiet. “Henry Sutpen is my brother.”
We stood in the dark kitchen. “And so he wont live until morning. And nobody here but you.”
“I been enough for three of them before him.”
“Maybe I’d better stay too. Just in case. . . .”
Her voice came level, immediate: “In case what?” I didn’t answer. I could not hear her breathe at all. “I been plenty enough for three of them. I dont need no help. You done found out now. You go on away from here and write your paper piece.”
“I may not write it at all.”
“I bound you wouldn’t, if Henry Sutpen was in his right mind and strength. If I was to go up there now and say, ‘Henry Sutpen, here a man going to write in the papers about you and your paw and your sister,’what you reckon he’d do?”
“I dont know. What would he do?”
“Nummine that. You done heard now. You go away from here. You let Henry Sutpen die quiet. That’s all you can do for him.”
“Maybe that’s what he would do: just say, ‘Let me die quiet.’ ”
“That’s what I doing, anyway. You go away from here.”
So that’s what I did. She called the dog to the kitchen window and I could hear her talking to it quietly as I let myself out the front door and went on dowm the drive. I expected the dog to come charging around the house after me and tree me too, but it didn’t. Perhaps that was what decided me. Or perhaps it was just that human way of justifying meddling with the humanities. Anyway, I stopped where the rusted and now hingeless iron gate gave upon the road and I stood there for a while, in the myriad, peaceful, summer country midnight. The lamp in the cabin was black now, and the house too was invisible beyond the cedartunneled drive, the massed cedars which hid it shaggy on the sky. And there was no sound save the bugs, the insects silversounding in the grass, and the senseless mockingbird. And so I turned and went back up the drive to the house.
I still expected the dog to come charging around the corner, barking. “And then she will know I didn’t play fair,” I thought. “She wall know I lied to her like Charles Bon lied to Henry Sutpen.” But the dog didn’t come. It didn’t appear until I had been sitting on the top step for some time, my back against a column. Then it was there: it appeared without a sound, standing on the earth below the steps, looming, shadowy, watching me. I made no sound, no move. After a while it went away, as silent as it came. The shadow of it made one slow dissolving movement and disappeared.
It was quite still. There was a faint constant sighing high in the cedars, and I could hear the insects and the mockingbird. Soon there were two of them, answering one another, brief, quiring, rising inflectioned. Soon the sighing cedars, the insects and the birds became one peaceful sound bowled inside the skull in monotonous miniature, as if all the earth were contracted and reduced to the dimensions of a baseball, into and out of which shapes, fading, emerged fading and faded emerging:
“And you were killed by the last shot fired in the war?”
“I was so killed. Yes.”
“Who fired the last shot fired in the war?”
“Was it the last shot you fired in the war, Henry?”
“I fired a last shot in the war; yes.”
“You depended on the war, and the war betrayed you too; was that it?”
“Was that it, Henry?”
“What was wrong with that woman, Henry? There was something the matter that was worse to you than the marriage. Was it the child? But Raby said the child was nine after Colonel Sutpen died in ‘70. So it must have been born after Charles and Judith married. Was that how Charles Bon lied to you?”
“What was it that Judith knew and Raby knew as soon as they saw her?”
“Oh. And you have lived hidden here for forty years.”
“I have lived here forty years.”
“Were you at peace?”
“I was tired.”
“That’s the same thing, isn’t it? For you and Raby too.”
“Same thing. Same as me. I tired too.”
“Why did you do all this for Henry Sutpen?”
“He was my brother.”
The whole thing went off like a box of matches. I came out of sleep with the deep and savage thunder of the dog roaring over my head and I stumbled past it and down the steps running before I was good awake, awake at all, perhaps. I remember the thin, mellow, farcarrying negro voices from the cabin beyond the pasture, and then I turned still half asleep and saw the facade of the house limned in fire, and the erstblind sockets of the windows, so that the entire front of the house seemed to loom stooping above me in a wild and furious exultation. The dog, howling, was hurling itself against the locked front door, then it sprang from the porch and ran around toward the back.
I followed, running; I was shouting too. The kitchen was already gone, and the whole rear of the house was on fire, and the roof too; the light, longdried shingles taking wing and swirling upward like scraps of burning paper, burning out zenithward like inverted shooting stars. I ran back toward the front of the house, still yelling. The dog passed me, fulltongued, frantic; as I watched the running figures of negro women coming up across the redglared pasture I could hear the dog hurling itself again and again against the front door.
The negroes came up, the three generations of them, their eyeballs white, their open mouths pinkly cavernous. “They’re in there, I tell you!” I was yelling. “She set fire to it and they are both in there. She told me Henry Sutpen would not be alive by morning, but I didn’t—” In the roaring I could scarce hear myself, and I could not hear the negroes at all for a time. I could only see their open mouths, their fixed, whitecircled eyeballs. Then the roaring reached that point where the ear loses it and it rushes soundless up and away, and I could hear the negroes. They were making a long, concerted, wild, measured wailing, in harmonic pitch from the treble of the children to the soprano of the oldest woman, the daughter of the woman in the burning house; they might have rehearsed it for years, waiting for this irrevocable moment out of all time. Then we saw the woman in the house.
We were standing beneath the wall, watching the clapboards peel and melt away, obliterating window after window, and we saw the old negress come to the window upstairs. She came through fire and she leaned for a moment in the window, her hands on the burning ledge, looking no bigger than a doll, as impervious as an effigy of bronze, serene, dynamic, musing in the foreground of Holocaust. Then the whole house seemed to collapse, to fold in upon itself, melting; the dog passed us again, not howling now. It came opposite us and then turned and sprang into the roaring dissolution of the house without a sound, without a cry.
I think I said that the sound had now passed beyond the outraged and surfeited ear. We stood there and watched the house dissolve and liquefy and rush upward in silent and furious scarlet, licking and leaping among the wild and blazing branches of the cedars, so that, blazing, melting too, against the soft, mildstarred sky of summer they too wildly tossed and swirled.
Just before dawn it began to rain. It came up fast, without thunder or lightning, and it rained hard all forenoon, lancing into the ruin so that above the gaunt, unfallen chimneys and the charred wood a thick canopy of steam unwinded floated. But after a while the steam dispersed and we could walk among the beams and plank ends. We moved gingerly, however, the negroes in nondescript outer garments against the rain, quiet too, not chanting now, save the oldest woman, the grandmother, who was singing a hymn monotonously as she moved here and there, pausing now and then to pick up something. It was she who found the picture in the metal case, the picture of Judith which Charles Bon had owned. “I’ll take that,” I said.
She looked at me. She was a shade darker than the mother. But there was still the Indian, faintly; still the Sutpen, in her face. “I dont reckon mammy would like that. She particular about Sutpen property.”
“I talked to her last night. She told me about it, about everything. It’ll be all right.” She watched me, my face. “I’ll buy it from you, then.”
“It aint none of mine to sell.”
“Just let me look at it, then. I’ll give it back. I talked to her last night. It’ll be all right.”
She gave it to me then. The case was melted a little; the lock which Judith had hammered shut for all time melted now into a thin streak along the seam, to be lifted away with a knifeblade, almost. But it took an ax to open it.
The picture was intact. I looked at the face and I thought quietly, stupidly (I was a little idiotic myself, with sleeplessness and wet and no breakfast)—I thought quietly, “Why, I thought she was blonde. They told me Judith was blonde. . . .” Then I came awake, alive. I looked quietly at the face: the smooth, oval, unblemished face, the mouth rich, full, a little loose, the hot, slumbrous, secretive eyes, the inklike hair with its faint but unmistakable wiriness—all the ineradicable and tragic stamp of negro blood. The inscription was in French: A mon mari. Toujours. 12 Aout, I860. And I looked again quietly at the doomed and passionate face with its thick, surfeitive quality of magnolia petals—the face which had unawares destroyed three lives—and I knew now why Charles Bon’s guardian had sent him all the way to North Mississippi to attend school, and what to a Henry Sutpen born, created by long time, with what he was and what he believed and thought, would be worse than the marriage and which compounded the bigamy to where the pistol was not only justified, but inescapable.
“That’s all there is in it,” the negro woman said. Her hand came out from beneath the worn, mudstained khaki army overcoat which she wore across her shoulders. She took the picture. She glanced once at it before closing it: a glance blank or dull, I could not tell which. I could not tell if she had ever seen the photograph or the face before, or if she was not even aware that she had never seen either of them before. “I reckon you better let me have it.” □