Charles W. Chesnutt.

The Wife of his Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, and Selected Essays online

. (page 13 of 19)
Online LibraryCharles W. ChesnuttThe Wife of his Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, and Selected Essays → online text (page 13 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

oration pronounced, the name of Colonel Myrover was always used to
illustrate the highest type of patriotic devotion and self-sacrifice.
Miss Myrover's brother, too, had fallen in the conflict; but his bones
lay in some unknown trench, with those of a thousand others who had
fallen on the same field. Ay, more, her lover, who had hoped to come
home in the full tide of victory and claim his bride as a reward for
gallantry, had shared the fate of her father and brother. When the war
was over, the remnant of the family found itself involved in the common
ruin, - more deeply involved, indeed, than some others; for Colonel
Myrover had believed in the ultimate triumph of his cause, and had
invested most of his wealth in Confederate bonds, which were now only so
much waste paper.

There had been a little left. Mrs. Myrover was thrifty, and had laid by
a few hundred dollars, which she kept in the house to meet unforeseen
contingencies. There remained, too, their home, with an ample garden and
a well-stocked orchard, besides a considerable tract of country land,
partly cleared, but productive of very little revenue.

With their shrunken resources, Miss Myrover and her mother were able to
hold up their heads without embarrassment for some years after the close
of the war. But when things were adjusted to the changed conditions, and
the stream of life began to flow more vigorously in the new channels,
they saw themselves in danger of dropping behind, unless in some way
they could add to their meagre income. Miss Myrover looked over the
field of employment, never very wide for women in the South, and found
it occupied. The only available position she could be supposed prepared
to fill, and which she could take without distinct loss of caste, was
that of a teacher, and there was no vacancy except in one of the colored
schools. Even teaching was a doubtful experiment; it was not what she
would have preferred, but it was the best that could be done. "I don't
like it, Mary," said her mother. "It 's a long step from owning such
people to teaching them. What do they need with education? It will only
make them unfit for work."

"They 're free now, mother, and perhaps they 'll work better if they 're
taught something. Besides, it 's only a business arrangement, and does n't
involve any closer contact than we have with our servants."

"Well, I should say not!" sniffed the old lady. "Not one of them will
ever dare to presume on your position to take any liberties with us.
_I_ 'll see to that."

Miss Myrover began her work as a teacher in the autumn, at the opening
of the school year. It was a novel experience at first. Though there had
always been negro servants in the house, and though on the streets
colored people were more numerous than those of her own race, and though
she was so familiar with their dialect that she might almost be said to
speak it, barring certain characteristic grammatical inaccuracies, she
had never been brought in personal contact with so many of them at once
as when she confronted the fifty or sixty faces - of colors ranging from
a white almost as clear as her own to the darkest livery of the
sun - which were gathered in the schoolroom on the morning when she began
her duties. Some of the inherited prejudice of her caste, too, made
itself felt, though she tried to repress any outward sign of it; and she
could perceive that the children were not altogether responsive; they,
likewise, were not entirely free from antagonism. The work was
unfamiliar to her. She was not physically very strong, and at the close
of the first day went home with a splitting headache. If she could have
resigned then and there without causing comment or annoyance to others,
she would have felt it a privilege to do so. But a night's rest banished
her headache and improved her spirits, and the next morning she went to
her work with renewed vigor, fortified by the experience of the first

Miss Myrover's second day was more satisfactory. She had some natural
talent for organization, though hitherto unaware of it, and in the
course of the day she got her classes formed and lessons under way. In a
week or two she began to classify her pupils in her own mind, as bright
or stupid, mischievous or well behaved, lazy or industrious, as the case
might be, and to regulate her discipline accordingly. That she had come
of a long line of ancestors who had exercised authority and mastership
was perhaps not without its effect upon her character, and enabled her
more readily to maintain good order in the school. When she was fairly
broken in, she found the work rather to her liking, and derived much
pleasure from such success as she achieved as a teacher.

It was natural that she should be more attracted to some of her pupils
than to others. Perhaps her favorite - or, rather, the one she liked
best, for she was too fair and just for conscious favoritism - was Sophy
Tucker. Just the ground for the teacher's liking for Sophy might not at
first be apparent. The girl was far from the whitest of Miss Myrover's
pupils; in fact, she was one of the darker ones. She was not the
brightest in intellect, though she always tried to learn her lessons.
She was not the best dressed, for her mother was a poor widow, who went
out washing and scrubbing for a living. Perhaps the real tie between
them was Sophy's intense devotion to the teacher. It had manifested
itself almost from the first day of the school, in the rapt look of
admiration Miss Myrover always saw on the little black face turned
toward her. In it there was nothing of envy, nothing of regret; nothing
but worship for the beautiful white lady - she was not especially
handsome, but to Sophy her beauty was almost divine - who had come to
teach her. If Miss Myrover dropped a book, Sophy was the first to spring
and pick it up; if she wished a chair moved, Sophy seemed to anticipate
her wish; and so of all the numberless little services that can be
rendered in a schoolroom.

Miss Myrover was fond of flowers, and liked to have them about her. The
children soon learned of this taste of hers, and kept the vases on her
desk filled with blossoms during their season. Sophy was perhaps the
most active in providing them. If she could not get garden flowers, she
would make excursions to the woods in the early morning, and bring in
great dew-laden bunches of bay, or jasmine, or some other fragrant
forest flower which she knew the teacher loved.

"When I die, Sophy," Miss Myrover said to the child one day, "I want to
be covered with roses. And when they bury me, I 'm sure I shall rest
better if my grave is banked with flowers, and roses are planted at my
head and at my feet."

Miss Myrover was at first amused at Sophy's devotion; but when she grew
more accustomed to it, she found it rather to her liking. It had a sort
of flavor of the old régime, and she felt, when she bestowed her kindly
notice upon her little black attendant, some of the feudal condescension
of the mistress toward the slave. She was kind to Sophy, and permitted
her to play the rôle she had assumed, which caused sometimes a little
jealousy among the other girls. Once she gave Sophy a yellow ribbon
which she took from her own hair. The child carried it home, and
cherished it as a priceless treasure, to be worn only on the greatest

Sophy had a rival in her attachment to the teacher, but the rivalry was
altogether friendly. Miss Myrover had a little dog, a white spaniel,
answering to the name of Prince. Prince was a dog of high degree, and
would have very little to do with the children of the school; he made an
exception, however, in the case of Sophy, whose devotion for his
mistress he seemed to comprehend. He was a clever dog, and could fetch
and carry, sit up on his haunches, extend his paw to shake hands, and
possessed several other canine accomplishments. He was very fond of his
mistress, and always, unless shut up at home, accompanied her to school,
where he spent most of his time lying under the teacher's desk, or, in
cold weather, by the stove, except when he would go out now and then and
chase an imaginary rabbit round the yard, presumably for exercise.

At school Sophy and Prince vied with each other in their attentions to
Miss Myrover. But when school was over, Prince went away with her, and
Sophy stayed behind; for Miss Myrover was white and Sophy was black,
which they both understood perfectly well. Miss Myrover taught the
colored children, but she could not be seen with them in public. If they
occasionally met her on the street, they did not expect her to speak to
them, unless she happened to be alone and no other white person was in
sight. If any of the children felt slighted, she was not aware of it,
for she intended no slight; she had not been brought up to speak to
negroes on the street, and she could not act differently from other
people. And though she was a woman of sentiment and capable of deep
feeling, her training had been such that she hardly expected to find in
those of darker hue than herself the same susceptibility - varying in
degree, perhaps, but yet the same in kind - that gave to her own life the
alternations of feeling that made it most worth living.

Once Miss Myrover wished to carry home a parcel of books. She had the
bundle in her hand when Sophy came up.

"Lemme tote yo' bundle fer yer, Miss Ma'y?" she asked eagerly. "I 'm
gwine yo' way."

"Thank you, Sophy," was the reply. "I 'll be glad if you will."

Sophy followed the teacher at a respectful distance. When they reached
Miss Myrover's home, Sophy carried the bundle to the doorstep, where
Miss Myrover took it and thanked her.

Mrs. Myrover came out on the piazza as Sophy was moving away. She said,
in the child's hearing, and perhaps with the intention that she should
hear: "Mary, I wish you would n't let those little darkeys follow you to
the house. I don't want them in the yard. I should think you 'd have
enough of them all day."

"Very well, mother," replied her daughter. "I won't bring any more of
them. The child was only doing me a favor."

Mrs. Myrover was an invalid, and opposition or irritation of any kind
brought on nervous paroxysms that made her miserable, and made life a
burden to the rest of the household, so that Mary seldom crossed her
whims. She did not bring Sophy to the house again, nor did Sophy again
offer her services as porter.

One day in spring Sophy brought her teacher a bouquet of yellow roses.

"Dey come off'n my own bush, Miss Ma'y," she said proudly, "an' I didn'
let nobody e'se pull 'em, but saved 'em all fer you, 'cause I know you
likes roses so much. I 'm gwine bring 'em all ter you as long as dey

"Thank you, Sophy," said the teacher; "you are a very good girl."

For another year Mary Myrover taught the colored school, and did
excellent service. The children made rapid progress under her tuition,
and learned to love her well; for they saw and appreciated, as well as
children could, her fidelity to a trust that she might have slighted, as
some others did, without much fear of criticism. Toward the end of her
second year she sickened, and after a brief illness died.

Old Mrs. Myrover was inconsolable. She ascribed her daughter's death to
her labors as teacher of negro children. Just how the color of the
pupils had produced the fatal effects she did not stop to explain. But
she was too old, and had suffered too deeply from the war, in body and
mind and estate, ever to reconcile herself to the changed order of
things following the return of peace; and, with an unsound yet perfectly
explainable logic, she visited some of her displeasure upon those who
had profited most, though passively, by her losses.

"I always feared something would happen to Mary," she said. "It seemed
unnatural for her to be wearing herself out teaching little negroes who
ought to have been working for her. But the world has hardly been a fit
place to live in since the war, and when I follow her, as I must before
long, I shall not be sorry to go."

She gave strict orders that no colored people should be admitted to the
house. Some of her friends heard of this, and remonstrated. They knew
the teacher was loved by the pupils, and felt that sincere respect from
the humble would be a worthy tribute to the proudest. But Mrs. Myrover
was obdurate.

"They had my daughter when she was alive," she said, "and they 've
killed her. But she 's mine now, and I won't have them come near her. I
don't want one of them at the funeral or anywhere around."

For a month before Miss Myrover's death Sophy had been watching her
rosebush - the one that bore the yellow roses - for the first buds of
spring, and, when these appeared, had awaited impatiently their gradual
unfolding. But not until her teacher's death had they become full-blown
roses. When Miss Myrover died, Sophy determined to pluck the roses and
lay them on her coffin. Perhaps, she thought, they might even put them
in her hand or on her breast. For Sophy remembered Miss Myrover's thanks
and praise when she had brought her the yellow roses the spring before.

On the morning of the day set for the funeral, Sophy washed her face
until it shone, combed and brushed her hair with painful
conscientiousness, put on her best frock, plucked her yellow roses, and,
tying them with the treasured ribbon her teacher had given her, set out
for Miss Myrover's home.

She went round to the side gate - the house stood on a corner - and stole
up the path to the kitchen. A colored woman, whom she did not know, came
to the door.

"Wat yer want, chile?" she inquired.

"Kin I see Miss Ma'y?" asked Sophy timidly.

"I don't know, honey. Ole Miss Myrover say she don't want no cullud
folks roun' de house endyoin' dis fun'al. I 'll look an' see if she 's
roun' de front room, whar de co'pse is. You sed down heah an' keep
still, an' ef she 's upstairs maybe I kin git yer in dere a minute. Ef I
can't, I kin put yo' bokay 'mongs' de res', whar she won't know nuthin'
erbout it."

A moment after she had gone, there was a step in the hall, and old Mrs.
Myrover came into the kitchen.

"Dinah!" she said in a peevish tone; "Dinah!"

Receiving no answer, Mrs. Myrover peered around the kitchen, and caught
sight of Sophy.

"What are you doing here?" she demanded.

"I-I 'm-m waitin' ter see de cook, ma'am," stammered Sophy.

"The cook is n't here now. I don't know where she is. Besides, my
daughter is to be buried to-day, and I won't have any one visiting the
servants until the funeral is over. Come back some other day, or see the
cook at her own home in the evening."

She stood waiting for the child to go, and under the keen glance of her
eyes Sophy, feeling as though she had been caught in some disgraceful
act, hurried down the walk and out of the gate, with her bouquet in her

"Dinah," said Mrs. Myrover, when the cook came back, "I don't want any
strange people admitted here to-day. The house will be full of our
friends, and we have no room for others."

"Yas 'm," said the cook. She understood perfectly what her mistress
meant; and what the cook thought about her mistress was a matter of no

The funeral services were held at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, where the
Myrovers had always worshiped. Quite a number of Miss Myrover's pupils
went to the church to attend the services. The building was not a large
one. There was a small gallery at the rear, to which colored people were
admitted, if they chose to come, at ordinary services; and those who
wished to be present at the funeral supposed that the usual custom would
prevail. They were therefore surprised, when they went to the side
entrance, by which colored people gained access to the gallery stairs,
to be met by an usher who barred their passage.

"I 'm sorry," he said, "but I have had orders to admit no one until the
friends of the family have all been seated. If you wish to wait until
the white people have all gone in, and there 's any room left, you may
be able to get into the back part of the gallery. Of course I can't tell
yet whether there 'll be any room or not."

Now the statement of the usher was a very reasonable one; but, strange
to say, none of the colored people chose to remain except Sophy. She
still hoped to use her floral offering for its destined end, in some
way, though she did not know just how. She waited in the yard until the
church was filled with white people, and a number who could not gain
admittance were standing about the doors. Then she went round to the
side of the church, and, depositing her bouquet carefully on an old
mossy gravestone, climbed up on the projecting sill of a window near the
chancel. The window was of stained glass, of somewhat ancient make. The
church was old, had indeed been built in colonial times, and the stained
glass had been brought from England. The design of the window showed
Jesus blessing little children. Time had dealt gently with the window,
but just at the feet of the figure of Jesus a small triangular piece of
glass had been broken out. To this aperture Sophy applied her eyes, and
through it saw and heard what she could of the services within.

Before the chancel, on trestles draped in black, stood the sombre casket
in which lay all that was mortal of her dear teacher. The top of the
casket was covered with flowers; and lying stretched out underneath it
she saw Miss Myrover's little white dog, Prince. He had followed the
body to the church, and, slipping in unnoticed among the mourners, had
taken his place, from which no one had the heart to remove him.

The white-robed rector read the solemn service for the dead, and then
delivered a brief address, in which he dwelt upon the uncertainty of
life, and, to the believer, the certain blessedness of eternity. He
spoke of Miss Myrover's kindly spirit, and, as an illustration of her
love and self-sacrifice for others, referred to her labors as a teacher
of the poor ignorant negroes who had been placed in their midst by an
all-wise Providence, and whom it was their duty to guide and direct in
the station in which God had put them. Then the organ pealed, a prayer
was said, and the long cortege moved from the church to the cemetery,
about half a mile away, where the body was to be interred.

When the services were over, Sophy sprang down from her perch, and,
taking her flowers, followed the procession. She did not walk with the
rest, but at a proper and respectful distance from the last mourner. No
one noticed the little black girl with the bunch of yellow flowers, or
thought of her as interested in the funeral.

The cortege reached the cemetery and filed slowly through the gate; but
Sophy stood outside, looking at a small sign in white letters on a black
background: - -

"_Notice_. This cemetery is for white people only. Others please keep

Sophy, thanks to Miss Myrover's painstaking instruction, could read this
sign very distinctly. In fact, she had often read it before. For Sophy
was a child who loved beauty, in a blind, groping sort of way, and had
sometimes stood by the fence of the cemetery and looked through at the
green mounds and shaded walks and blooming flowers within, and wished
that she might walk among them. She knew, too, that the little sign on
the gate, though so courteously worded, was no mere formality; for she
had heard how a colored man, who had wandered into the cemetery on a hot
night and fallen asleep on the flat top of a tomb, had been arrested as
a vagrant and fined five dollars, which he had worked out on the
streets, with a ball-and-chain attachment, at twenty-five cents a day.
Since that time the cemetery gate had been locked at night.

So Sophy stayed outside, and looked through the fence. Her poor bouquet
had begun to droop by this time, and the yellow ribbon had lost some of
its freshness. Sophy could see the rector standing by the grave, the
mourners gathered round; she could faintly distinguish the solemn words
with which ashes were committed to ashes, and dust to dust. She heard
the hollow thud of the earth falling on the coffin; and she leaned
against the iron fence, sobbing softly, until the grave was filled and
rounded off, and the wreaths and other floral pieces were disposed upon
it. When the mourners began to move toward the gate, Sophy walked slowly
down the street, in a direction opposite to that taken by most of the
people who came out.

When they had all gone away, and the sexton had come out and locked the
gate behind him, Sophy crept back. Her roses were faded now, and from
some of them the petals had fallen. She stood there irresolute, loath to
leave with her heart's desire unsatisfied, when, as her eyes sought
again the teacher's last resting-place, she saw lying beside the
new-made grave what looked like a small bundle of white wool. Sophy's
eyes lighted up with a sudden glow.

"Prince! Here, Prince!" she called.

The little dog rose, and trotted down to the gate. Sophy pushed the poor
bouquet between the iron bars. "Take that ter Miss Ma'y, Prince," she
said, "that 's a good doggie."

The dog wagged his tail intelligently, took the bouquet carefully in his
mouth, carried it to his mistress's grave, and laid it among the other
flowers. The bunch of roses was so small that from where she stood Sophy
could see only a dash of yellow against the white background of the mass
of flowers.

When Prince had performed his mission he turned his eyes toward Sophy
inquiringly, and when she gave him a nod of approval lay down and
resumed his watch by the graveside. Sophy looked at him a moment with a
feeling very much like envy, and then turned and moved slowly away.

The Web of Circumstance


Within a low clapboarded hut, with an open front, a forge was glowing.
In front a blacksmith was shoeing a horse, a sleek, well-kept animal
with the signs of good blood and breeding. A young mulatto stood by and
handed the blacksmith such tools as he needed from time to time. A group
of negroes were sitting around, some in the shadow of the shop, one in
the full glare of the sunlight. A gentleman was seated in a buggy a few
yards away, in the shade of a spreading elm. The horse had loosened a
shoe, and Colonel Thornton, who was a lover of fine horseflesh, and
careful of it, had stopped at Ben Davis's blacksmith shop, as soon as he
discovered the loose shoe, to have it fastened on.

"All right, Kunnel," the blacksmith called out. "Tom," he said,
addressing the young man, "he'p me hitch up."

Colonel Thornton alighted from the buggy, looked at the shoe, signified
his approval of the job, and stood looking on while the blacksmith and
his assistant harnessed the horse to the buggy.

"Dat 's a mighty fine whip yer got dere, Kunnel," said Ben, while the
young man was tightening the straps of the harness on the opposite side
of the horse. "I wush I had one like it. Where kin yer git dem whips?"

"My brother brought me this from New York," said the Colonel. "You can't
buy them down here."

The whip in question was a handsome one. The handle was wrapped with
interlacing threads of variegated colors, forming an elaborate pattern,
the lash being dark green. An octagonal ornament of glass was set in the
end of the handle.

"It cert'n'y is fine," said Ben; "I wish I had one like it." He looked
at the whip longingly as Colonel Thornton drove away.

"'Pears ter me Ben gittin' mighty blooded," said one of the bystanders,
"drivin' a hoss an' buggy, an' wantin' a whip like Colonel Thornton's."

"What 's de reason I can't hab a hoss an' buggy an' a whip like Kunnel
Tho'nton's, ef I pay fer 'em?" asked Ben. "We colored folks never had no
chance ter git nothin' befo' de wah, but ef eve'y nigger in dis town had
a tuck keer er his money sence de wah, like I has, an' bought as much
lan' as I has, de niggers might 'a' got half de lan' by dis time," he
went on, giving a finishing blow to a horseshoe, and throwing it on the
ground to cool.

Carried away by his own eloquence, he did not notice the approach of two
white men who came up the street from behind him.

"An' ef you niggers," he continued, raking the coals together over a
fresh bar of iron, "would stop wastin' yo' money on 'scursions to put
money in w'ite folks' pockets, an' stop buildin' fine chu'ches, an'
buil' houses fer yo'se'ves, you 'd git along much faster."

"You 're talkin' sense, Ben," said one of the white men. "Yo'r people
will never be respected till they 've got property."

The conversation took another turn. The white men transacted their
business and went away. The whistle of a neighboring steam sawmill blew

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 13 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryCharles W. ChesnuttThe Wife of his Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line, and Selected Essays → online text (page 13 of 19)