« AnteriorContinuar »
The men turned their partners with one hand held overhead, and "the lady " spun until her dress swelled out like a balloon. Then she bowed and the men patted quick time, all singing, while their partners sprang to the center and danced:
"Knock candy, Candy gal;
Littl' in de wais' an' pretty in de face;
Two ways to knock Candy gal;
Again came the quaint song, "Turn 'er high, turn lady"; again the slow march, and again the whirl. This time the men sprang to the center, and old Morris, sweeping his head to his knee, struck up a breakdown, to which the women sang:
"You sif' de meal, you gimme de husk;
Several verses followed, first the women dancing, then the men, ever returning to the promenade song.
Dance followed dance, jig, shuffle, song, and refrain, and the hours glided by. A tiny silver crescent was the moon, but it had long since sunk behind the hill. Old Morris nodded, but his bow kept moving. "Wake up, old man," shouted a voice as the rout went round. 66 'Hush yo' mouf, nigger," he answered back. "Dis fiddle knows me, an' hit 'u'd keep er-singin' ef I uz to go plum ter sleep"; and the livelier wave in "Sallie Gooden," which the interruption had stimulated, faded away into monotony again.
So went the night. But a gaunt specter stood unseen on the black bank piled up beyond the gum-tree. Into these old plantation dances, harmless once and picturesque, had come, with the new freedom, a new element. On the porch in the shadow, where he had rolled over unnoticed, stupid with drink, lay Ben Thomas, the host. A heavy, brawny negro, he seemed some forty years old when the stirred logs flashed a light upon him. At the far end of the little porch his young mulatto wife was tossing small coins amidst groups of men, who applauded when she won
and were silent when she lost. Suddenly the game ended, the woman empty-handed."
What stirred the sleeper? Who can tell? But stir he did, then waked, and gazed about him. The last throw of the coin attracted his attention. He felt in his pocket; then letting his feet to the ground, he staggered forward and supported his wavering form against a post.
"Mandy," he said gently, and he seemed. to sober as he spoke, "did you tek my money?"
"Yes," she laughed, "I did." Her tones were careless and defiant. "Whar hit, Mandy?"
"Whar you reck'n?"
"Whar hit, Mandy?" The man's voice was still calm. Silence had fallen on the group. "Los'."
Oh, w'at yer mekin' er fuss erbout er littl' money fur? Ain' er man's wife got er right ter hit ef hit 's his 'n?" The speaker was a low-browed, vicious-looking negro, Mandy's late opponent. Ben did not notice him, but returned to his query:
"Who got dat money, Mandy?"
The gambler contemptuously threw three silver quarters into her lap, for she was still sitting.
"Heah, Mandy, I len' you nuff ter pay 'im. Dern er man w'at 'll 'buse es wife 'fo' folks, an' en 'er own house." The gambler looked around for indorsement, but got none. All eyes were upon the husband. He stooped forward and took the coins, placing them in his pocket.
"No man kin len' money ter my wife," he said gently, for the first time addressing the gambler; "an' hit ain' len'in' w'en money w'at 's stole comes back."
"Who stole hit? Who stole hit?" A savage look gleamed in the gambler's eye.
"Fuss she stole hit," said the husband, "an' den you stole hit; fur ter cheat er ooman es des same es stealin'."
Quick as the spring of a panther was the movement of the gambler as he threw himself upon the now sober man who had accused him. There was a brief struggle; the gambler clasped one hand over his breast and staggered. A knife dropped from his hand as he suddenly extended his arm, and with a deep sigh he sank lifeless in his tracks.
The crowd opened, letting the red firelight flood the scene. Ben stood with folded arms, gazing upon the corpse, but like a shadow falling, the woman glided from the low porch by the prostrate figure and snatched the bloody knife from the ground. For an instant she crouched, her yellow face upturned to her husband, a strange light in her eyes, and her
long black hair tumbling down upon her shoulders. She seemed about to spring at his throat. But only for an instant. The knife vanished in the folds of her dress, and she pointed straight into the black depths of the swamp. "Run, run!" she whispered. Ben gazed about him defiantly, then turned and strode away into the shadow. None pursued. His arms dropped as he disappeared, but no eye was strong enough to follow and see the faint flash of light that trembled for an instant upon the steel in his hands, like the glimmer of a glow-worm through the texture of a dead leaf that sheltered him.
The woman still crouched by the corpse, but she saw it not. Her eyes were fixed upon the shadow that had closed over her husband. Horror and fear seemed to have frozen her. The wondering group discussed the tragedy, and constructed a rude litter for the dead. But as they bore the body off, a man approached her and asked to see the knife. She turned her yellow face to his for an instant, then bounded by him and was swallowed up in the swamp. Forward she went through brake and bramble. A great gnarled oak reached out to stop her, but in vain; and from the grasp of the bushes that clutched her she rushed madly. Suddenly the silent stretch of a great lagoon was before her. She lifted her arm and frantically hurled the knife far out into the night. No sound came back, though she held her breath until her eyes started from their sockets. But yes, at last a far, faint splash, as when a cooter glides from his log and seeks his couch in the slime below.
"Ben!" she whispered, "Ben!" There was no answer. "Ben!" This time it was a scream. A thousand echoes darted here and there in the sounding swamp, and as they died away a strange, sad sigh was wafted out of the depths. Turning, she fled back to life, pursued by a host of terrors. How she reached it she knew not, but presently she fell prostrate upon the floor of the cabin. Crouching there in the shadow was the aged form of her husband's mother, crooning to his babe. Neither spake, and ly. ing on her face the young woman spent the remaining hours of the night. But ever and anon she heard the splash of the knife in the waters, the echoes calling "Ben," and that strange, sad sigh of the spirit as it left the dead man's body.
WEEKS passed. The little brown baby fell to the care of its grandmammy. A spell was upon Mandy. With her long hair down upon her shoulders, elbows upon her knees, and face in her hands, she sat by the hour under the great black-gum, gazing down into the shad
owy depths of the swamp. With an intuition and refinement of kindness not uncommon to the race, the elder woman kept silent upon the events of that dreadful night. Not once did she refer to the tragedy, not once to the wild life of the young wife of which it was the culmination, wild, for it had been the same old story of mismated ages and foolish playing with fire. Quietly she had gone on doing the cooking and the washing, and the little brown baby, as she toiled, played with its rag doll and preached to the sleepy cat. When the baby cried for food she placed it in its mother's arms, where, as it lay, Mandy studied the round face vaguely. But no tear fell upon the child, and the old mammy wondered as she watched the two.
"Mandy ain' come 'roun' yit," she said to a neighbor once. "De Lord es 'flictin' her mighty hebby; but she 'll come bimeby, she'll come bimeby." Yet the time seemed long.
One day, as thus they sat, the Rev. Kesiah Toomer, or "Unc' 'Siah," as he was called, leaned over the split-oak picket. His aged face, full of wrinkles, and its white eyebrows, beamed down kindly upon them.
"Mornin', Aunt Charlotte," he said, touching the battered old straw hat that kept the sun from his bald head and its kinky fringe of snowy hair; "how you do des mornin'?" His was a soft, flexible voice, full of conciliatory curves.
"I'm tolerable," replied the woman simply. "How Mandy?"
"She's tolerable." The young woman was dreaming into the depths, and heard nothing. "How littl' Ben?" "He's tolerable." "How Sis Harriet?" "She's tolerable."
"Yes 'm." Unc' 'Siah's face mellowed a little more, and he shifted his weight to the other foot.
"How you, Unc' 'Siah?"
"The chillun all got well?"
Unc' 'Siah replied by limping slowly into the yard. He had a leg that was stiff with rheumatism and gave him a painful-looking gait. He seated himself in the splint-bottom chair proffered him. For some time he was silent. Every now and then his eye rested upon the sleeping child and the brooding mother. Charlotte knew that he had something to say.
"You seen Ben?" she asked quietly. The old man stirred in his seat.
"Yes 'm," he said; "seen him yestiddy."
Well," replied the old man, thrusting out his stiffened limb, " he ain' say much. Hit's mighty nigh unto fo' weeks sence he uz put en jail, an' dey es gointer have es trial next Chuesday." Then presently: "You bin deir, Mandy?" Mandy turned her hunted eyes upon him.
"Yes," she whispered, after awhile; "an' he druv me 'way." Silence fell upon the little group. The old woman was studying the face of the man, turned towards the ground. The other had sunk again into hopelessness above the baby. Presently Unc' 'Siah spoke :
"He do say dat dem lyyers 'low dat deir's mighty littl' chance fur 'im 'less 'n dat knife er Bill's 'd been picked up by somebody w'at uz leanin' ter our side er de case, 'cause Bill's name uz on hit ef hit uz Bill's, an' 'u'd show fur hitse'f. Plenny uv 'em seed Mandy snatch hit fum de groun', an' sum ses es how et uz Ben's an' she uz erfraid ter show hit, an' sum ses es how hit uz Bill's an' she uz er-hidin' hit 'cause she liked Bill more 'n Ben; an' so hit goes. Now, ses I, deir ain' nuth'n' en dat, an' Mandy 'll sw'ar in de court-house she flung hit en de swamp fur Ben's 'thout lookin' at hit,- des like you say, honey, but dey 'low, does dem lyyers, es how Mandy, bein' de prisoner's wife, can't sw'ar en de case. But ef de knife uz deir, ses dey, hit 'u'd tork fur hitse'f 'cause deir ain' no 'sputin' de name, an' Sam Toliver an' Bob Johnsin knowed hit by sight. You couldn't fin' hit, you reck'n, Sis Mandy ?" The woman shuddered. "No," she said, "I bin deir en de day, but de place es changed fum en de night; an' et night, I can't go deir, Unc' 'Siah! I can't go deir! An' hit ain' no use ter go en de dark, an' hit en de water." Unc' 'Siah was silent a moment. Presently he added:
"Ben ses, ses he, 'Ef Marse Bob uz heah hit 'u'd be all right.' But deir ain' no chance now, fur 'e live 'way off yander sebenty odd mile an' no railroad half-way. An' heah 't is er Thu'sday 'bout sundown." Mandy turned her face to his, but his eyes looked away, and he had given himself up to reflection. Presently he said, as if addressing no one in particular:
My ole Mis' tell me oncet, "'Siah,' ses she, des so, 'w'en de heart es sick an' lonesome, deir ain' no med'cin' like work. Ef you got ter set down an' study 'bout hit, hit 's gointer eat, es dis heah sickness; but ef you es erworkin', hit gits out into suthin' else.' Lord, but she live up ter hit too; an' w'en Marse Sam uz shot et Chinck'nhominy, es dey say,
she tu'n en an' cut up cyarpets fur de sogers, an' knit socks, an' scrape lint twell bimeby hit uz all done; an' one day I seen 'er pickin' cotton in de orchud patch like er common nigger, an' I ses den, 'Öle Mis', hit 's er sin an' er shame fur you ter do like dat.' An' right deir she lif' up 'er han's, dat de sun almos' shine troo, an' say, 'Gimme work ter do, 'Siah; gimme work ter do!' An' lemme tell yer right deir too I broke down. But hit kep' 'er up, an' she ain' dead yit, but as peart as anybody. Yes, sir, work es er big t'ing for hebby eyes."
On the face of the yellow woman over her babe a thought was dawning. A new spirit shone in her eyes, and a quickening breath shook her form. As she gazed upon the old man he took a pair of silver-rimmed spectacles from his pocket and adjusted them. Then he drew out a worn Bible. The woman sank back again, but the thought in her eyes remained.
"Sis Mandy," said he, "let de Lord speak, fur deir 's trouble in sto' fur you an' yourn.' Charlotte rested her chin upon her hand, and her knitting, which she had drawn out, dropped to the ground. The old man began, but his progress was slow. He had to spell out many words, and explain as he read :
"De Lord es my sheppud, I shall not want.' Bless de Lord fur dat! Shall not want'; you heah dat, Sis Mandy; not want fur nuth'n'. Don' care w'at hit es, you shall not want hit long, sha'n't keep on er-want'n' hit ef de Lord es yo' sheppud,-an' you es one er de flock. No, chile!
"He makes me to lay down in green pastures, 'e leads me beside de still waters,' — yes, Lord, we know w'at dat means fur er sheep,- whar de grass es long an' green an' de water es cole, an' deir es shade all day long; dat's de place fur yo' sheep an' yo' lam's.
"He resto'ith my soul, he leads up de paf er de righteous fur es name' sake. Des heah dat! Hit makes no diffunce whar dat paf es er-goin'; by de big road, or ercross de corn-rows, or troo de swamp hitse'f,- he's gointer lead de way; an' hit's all de same ef hit 's day or night; hit's all one wid de Lord.
"Yea, though I walk troo de valley er de shadder er death, I'll fear no devil,'—no sir-r-r! No devil gointer hu't you deir, fur deir's er han' en de shadder an' hit's more 'n er match fur him an' his kind; dat hit es!
"Fur thou art wid me, thy rod an' thy staff dey comforts me. Oh, yes, chillun, Jesus es deir by de side er de troo berlievers, ef dey only knowed hit. An' w'en dey es come out er de valley an' de shadder, w'at den ?
"Thou prepares er table fur me en de presunce uv my enemies: thou a-n-o-i-n-t-e-t-h_my
head with oil, an' my cup hit runs over' Dat'll be er happy day den! Oh, yes, oh, yes, w'en de cup es full de heart es full, an' de eyes dey runs ober, 'cause uv de fullness erway down below; yes, ma'am. W'en dat tayble es spread hit'll make anybody's eyes run over; barbecued shote, br'iled chicken, fat ham, biscuits, white bread, 'simmun beer, all spread right deir en de presunce er de enemy, de ole devil hisse'f fairly bustin' wid hunger an' spite, but pow'less, pow'less 'cause de sheppud es deir ter guard de lam's.
"An' w'en hit's all done w'at ses de prophet? W'en de hard heart done lay down hits load an' de feet been en de valley an' de shadder, an' by de waters an' 'cross de pastures erfearin' nuth'n', w'at den?
"Sholy!' ses he, 'sholy!'—oh, hit's er great word is dat sholy,-sholy goodness an' mussy shall foller me all de days er my life, an I'll dwell den en de house er de Lord.' Bless him fur de promise!"
'Siah closed his book, and drew off his glasses, and wiped them carefully upon the lining of his coat. But the young woman stood up with the new thought fairly speaking in her round brown eyes, and a new vigor trembling in her frame.
"Tek de baby, Mammy," she almost shouted, placing little Ben in the other's lap. "I'm er-goin',- don't you heah?-I'm goin' troo de valley an' de shadder an' by de waters an' 'cross de pastures twell He show me Marse Bob! I bin bline, Mammy, I bin bline, but I ain't bline now! He done op'n my eyes an' I see de way-Good-bye! Good-bye, Mammy! Good-bye, Unc' 'Siah! Keep de baby en yo' bed, Mammy, en de night, an' don't let 'im cry fur me.- En de valley an' de shadder an' by de pastures! En yo' bed, Mammy-"
She turned away. Her voice died out as she passed beyond the live-oaks. Then, and then only, did Unc' 'Siah lift up his face from his hands and fix it skyward.
"De Lord, he has spoke at las'. Hit's all right, Sis Charlotte. De Lord's han' es erreachin' out fur Ben. Dat es Bill's knife."
Charlotte spoke not. Bending until her head rested against the one ragged garment of the sleeping child, she rocked him in silence. The old man gazed upon her doubtfully, but presently he rose, and in silence too limped out across the field.
ON went the young woman, her straight, strong limbs bearing her bravely; on into the great road, on through the village with its lazy groups sitting about in the afternoon shade, on past the jail, never stopping. She moved
as one in a trance, and the strange light shone from her eyes.
"En de valley an' de shadder,' Ben," she shouted, "but er-fearin' nuth'n'. An' I'm comin' back leanin' on His rod an' His staff; I'm er-comin' back." People looked at her curiously, but she stopped for none. The shadows fell; night found her upon the lonely highway. The tall pines crooned above; it seemed as though a spirit sighed from the lips of the dying man. A whippoorwill called from the depths of the forest; to her it was a voice from the past, and strange things caught at her dress as she glided by.
"En de valley an' de shadder,'" she whispered, "an' leanin' on His rod an' staff.'" No moon rose to comfort her, but a mocking-bird sang as he used to sing in the haw-bush by the cabin when the baby was rolling on its back in the sand and she was sewing. On, never faltering; tired of limb, hungry and athirst, but
At dawn of day she dropped down by a friendly door in the city's suburbs, and told her story. The hospitality of the South animates the humblest dwelling, and the humbler the roof the broader the unquestioning hospitality. Her thirst quenched, her hunger appeased, she dragged her stiffening limbs into a new road, and continued her journey. The sun came forth and parched the ground, but the trees lent her shade here and there. Thirst came back, but the sparkling brook danced across her way. Hunger too came again, yet the hospitable cabin followed it,- night; and sleep, when, far in the night, she sank in a fencecorner murmuring, "En de valley an' de shadder.'" And as she slept, nothing evil passed the sentinel that there stood guard beside her.
With the dawn the blistered feet resumed their weary way. The history of one day was the history of the next. She started on Thursday; on Monday morning she passed through the great white columns of a princely home, and told her story for the last time; and at 10 o'clock the next morning the trial of Ben Thomas for murder was to begin at Jeffersonville, in Twiggs county, seventy odd miles away.
The evening of the same day found Mandy back in the city, and with her was a grayhaired man - Marse Bob, she called him; and the people who passed him on the street touched their hats to him, and looked back as his tall form went by. A buggy was to bear him to Jeffersonville in the early morning, but for her there was work yet to be done.
"W'en you pass Black Ankle," she said to him, "I'll be deir." Before he could stop her she had gone.
Not a voice broke the stillness of the ham
let as she entered among the brooding cabins, save the far barking of Bill Fowler's dog. She had heard that animals see spirits: was he barking at his master's ghost come back again? Her flesh crept, and she almost screamed as she trod unawares on the spot where the man died. There was no light in the little house, no sound: should she enter? The wail of a baby came out to her, a feeble wail, as of one sick or starving. She laid her hand upon the latch.
"No," she moaned, "not now. Hit's de las' chance, de las'." She passed down into the black swamp, lying there in the clouded moon like the grave itself.
"En de valley an' de shadder,'" she whispered, "an' er-fearin' nuth'n'." As she entered there, that other night came back, and its horrors rose about her. There was the bush that clasped her knees, there the crooked tree that barred the way, and there the tangled brake.
Then the lagoon, with its wide, still stretch of water, lay at her feet.
"Ben!" she called; but the name died in her throat. She raised her head again and threw the knife with all her might,-aye, for the handle seemed in her grasp as hard and bloody as on that fatal night! Yonder it will fall, she thought, straining her eyes to where the black