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Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

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“I tol’ um all ef dey sol’ me to you, I wouldn’t eat a bite. I’m gwine
ter starve ter death.”

“Oh, that’s yore intention!” Mrs. Gill caught her breath. A sort of
superstitious terror seized upon her as she slowly hitched back to the
cabin.

“He won’t tech a bite,” she informed Gill’s expectant visage; “an’
what’s a sight more, he says he’s vowed he won’t eat our victuals, an’
that he’s laid out to starve. Peter Gill, I’m afeerd this has been sent
on us!”

“Sent on us!” echoed Gill, who also had his quota of superstition.

“Yes, it’s a visitation of the Almighty fer our hoardin’ up that money
when so many of our neighbors is in need. I wish now we never had
seed it. Ef Big Joe dies on our hands, I ‘ll always feel like we have
committed the unpardonable sin. We’ve talked ag’in’ slave-holdin’ all
our lives tell we had the bag to hold, an’ now we’ve set up reg’lar in
the business.”

Gill ate his dinner on the new cloth in morose silence. A heavy air of
general discontent had settled on him.

“Well,” he commented, as he went to the water-shelf in the passage to
take his afterdinner drink from the old cedar pail, “ef he refused ‘tater
custards like them thar he certainly is in a bad plight. If he persists,
I ‘ll have to send fer a doctor.”

The afternoon passed slowly. The later conduct of the slave was
uneventful, beyond the fact that he rose to his full height once,
stretched and yawned, without looking toward the cabin, and then
reclined at full length on the grass. Another batch of curious neighbors
came as near the cabin as the spring. Those who had been ordered away in
the forenoon had set afloat a report that Gill had said that, now he
was a slave-holder, he would not submit to familiar visits from the
poor white trash of the community. And Sid Ruford, the ringleader of the
group at the spring, had the boldness to shout out some hints about the
one-nigger, log-cabin aristocracy which drove the hot blood to Gill’s
tanned face. He sprang up and took down his long-barreled “squirrel gun”
from its hooks on the wall.

“I ‘ll jest step down thar,” he said, “an’ see ef that gab is meant fer
me.”

“I wouldn’t pay no ‘tention to him,” replied Mrs. Gill, who was held back
from the brink of an explosion only by the sight of the weapon and a
knowledge of Gill’s marksmanship. However, Gill had scarcely taken half
a dozen steps down the path when he wheeled and came back laughing.

“They run like a passle o’ skeerd sheep,” he chuckled, as he restored
his gun to its place.

This incident seemed to break the barrier of reserve between him and his
human property, for he stood over the prostrate form of the negro and
eyed him with a dissatisfied look.

“See heer,” he began, sullenly, “enough of a thing is a plenty. I’m
gettin’ sick an’ tired o’ this, an’ I ‘ll be dadblasted ef I’m a-goin’
to let a black, poutin’ scamp make me lose my nat’ral sleep an’ peace o’
mind. Now, you git right up off ‘n that damp ground an’ go in yore room
an’ lie down, if you feel that-a-way. Folks is a-passin’ along an’
lookin’ at you like you was a stuffed monkey.”

It may have been the sight of the gun, or it may have been a masterful
quality in the Anglo-Saxon voice, that inspired the negro with a respect
he had not hitherto entertained for his new owner, for he rose at once
and went into his room.

At dusk Mrs. Gill waddled to the closed door of his apartment and rapped
respectfully. She heard the bed creaking as if Big Joe were rising, and
then he cautiously opened the door and with downcast eyes waited for her
to make her wishes known.

“Supper is ready,” she announced, in a voice which, despite her strength
of character, quivered a little, “an’ before settin’ down to it, I
thought thar would be no harm in askin’ if thar’s anything that would
strike yore fancy. When it gits a little darker I could blind a chicken
on the roost an’ fry it, or I could make you some thick flour soup with
sliced dumplin’s.”

She saw him wince as he tore himself from the temptation she had laid
before him, but he spoke quite firmly.

“I ain’t a-goin’ t’eat any more in this worl’,” he said.

“Well, I reckon you won’t gorge yorese’f in the next,” said Mrs. Gill,
“but I want to say that what you are contemplatin’ is a sin.” She turned
back into the cabin and sat at the table and poured her husband’s coffee
in disturbed silence.

“I believe on my soul he’s goin’ to make a die of it,” she said, after
a while, as she sat munching a piece of dry bread, having no appetite at
all. And Gill, deeply troubled, could make no reply.

It was their habit to go to bed as soon as supper was over, so when they
rose from the table Mrs. Gill turned down the covers of the high-posted
bed and beat the pillows. Before barring the cabin door, she scrutinized
the closed shutter directly opposite, but all was still as death in the
room of the slave.

For the first night in many years the old pair found they could not
sleep, their brains being still active with the first great problem of
their lives. The little clock struck ten. The silence of the night was
disturbed by the shrilling of tree-frogs and the occasional cry of the
whip-poor-will.

Suddenly Gill sprang up with a little grunt of alarm. “What’s that?” he
asked.

“It sounded powerful like somebody a-groanin’,” whispered Mrs. Gill.
“Oh, Lordy, Peter, I have a awful feelin’!”

“I ‘ll git up an’ see what’s ailin’ ‘im,” said Gill, a little more
calmly. “Mebby the idiot has done without food till he’s took cramps.”

Dressing himself hastily, he went outside. A pencil of yellow light was
streaming through a crack beneath Big Joe’s door. Gill had not put on
his shoes, and his feet fell softly on the grass. Putting his ear to
the door of the negro’s room, he overheard low groans and words which
sounded like a prayer, repeated over and over in a sing-song fashion.
Later he heard something like the sobbing of a bigchested man.

“Open up!” cried Gill, shaking the door; “open up, I say!”

The vocal demonstration within ceased, and there was a clatter in the
vicinity of the bed, as if Big Joe were rising to his feet, The farmer
repeated his firm command, and the shutter slowly opened. The negro
looked like a giant in the dim light of the tallow-dip on a table behind
him.

“Was that you a-makin’ all that noise?” asked Gill.

“I wus prayin’, suh,” answered Big Joe, his face in the shadow.

“Oh, that was it; I didn’t know!” Gill was trying to master a most
irritating awkwardness on his part; in questions of religious ceremony
he always allowed for individual taste. Passing the negro, he went into
the cabin and lifted the tallow-dip above his head and looked about the
room suspiciously. “You was jest a-prayin’, eh?”

“Yes, suh; I was a-prayin’ to de Gre’t Marster ter tek me off on a bed
o’ ease, sence I hatter go anyway. Er death er starvation ain’t no easy
job.”

Gill sat down on the negro’s bed. He crossed his legs and swung a bare
foot to and fro in a nervous, jerky manner.

“Looky’ heer,” he said finally to the black profile in the doorway, “you
are a plagued mystery to me. What in the name o’ all possessed do you
hanker after a box in the cold ground fer?”

The slave seemed slightly taken aback by the blunt directness of
this query; he left the door and sat down heavily in a chair at the
fireplace. “Huh!” he grunted, “is you been all dis time en not fin’ out
what my trouble is?”

“Ef I _did_ know I wouldn’t be settin’ heer at this time o’ night,
losin’ my nat’ral sleep to ask about it,” was the tart reply.

The negro grunted again. “Do you know Marse Whit’s Liza?” he asked,
almost eagerly.

“I believe I’ve seed ‘er once or twice,” Gill told him. “A fine-lookin’
wench - about the color of a sorghum ginger-cake. Is she the one you
mean?”

The big man nodded. “Me ‘n her was gwine ter git married, but Marse Whit’
hatter go ‘n trade ‘er off ter Marse Stafford, en Marse Stafford is done
give ‘er ‘er freedom yistiddy.”

“Ah, he set ‘er free, did he?” Gill stared, and by habit awkwardly
stroked that part of his face where a beard used to grow.

“Yes, suh; Marse Gill, he done set ‘er free, en now a free nigger is
flyin’ roun’ her. She won’t marry no slave now, suh!”

Gill drew a full breath and stood up. “Then it wasn’t becase you thought
yorese’f so much better ‘n me ‘n my wife that you wanted to dump yorese’f
into eternity?”

“No, suh; dat wasn’t in my min’, suh.”

“Well, I’m powerful glad o’ that, Joe,” responded Gill, “becase neither
me nor my wife ever harmed a kink in yore head. Now, the gospel truth
is, I was drawed into this whole business ag’in’ my wishes, an’ me an’
Lucretia would give a lots to be well out of it. Now, I don’t want to be
the cause o’ that free nigger walkin’ off with yore intrusts, so heer’s
what I ‘ll do. Ef you ‘ll ride in town with me in the mornin’ I ‘ll git a
lawyer to draw up as clean a set o’ freedom papers as you ever laid your
peepers on. What do you say?”

Big Joe’s eyes expanded until they seemed all white, with dark holes
in the center. For a minute he sat like a statue, as silent as the wall
behind him; then he said, with a deep breath: “Marse Gill, is you in
earnest - my Gawd! _is_ you?”

“As the Almighty is my judge, in whose presence I set at this minute.”

The negro covered his face with a pair of big, quivering hands.

“Den I don’t know what ter say, Marse Gill. I never expected to be a
free man, en I had give up hope er ever seein’ Liza ag’in. Oh, Marse
Gill, you sho’ is one er His chosen flock!”

Gill was so deeply moved that when he ventured on a reply he found
difficulty in steadying his speech. His voice had a quality that was
new to it. He spoke as gently as if he were promising recovery to a
suffering child.

“Now, Joe, you crawl back in bed an’ sleep,” he said, “an’ in the
mornin’ you ‘ll be free, as shore as the sun rises on us both.”

Then he went back to bed and told his wife what he had done.

“I’m powerful glad we can git out of it so easy,” she commented. “It’s
funny I never thought o’ settin’ ‘im free. It looked to me like he was
a-goin’ to be a burden that we never could git rid of, an’ now it’s
a-goin’ to end all right in the Lord’s sight.”

They were just dozing off in peaceable slumber when they heard a gentle
rap on the door.

“It’s me, Marse Gill,” came from the outside. “I’m mighty sorry to wake
you ag’in, but I’m so hungry I don’t think I kin wait till mornin’.”

“Well, I reckon you do feel kinder empty,” laughed the farmer as he
sprang out of bed. He lighted a candle, and following the specter-like
signals of his wife, who sat up in bed, he soon found the meal she had
arranged for the slave at noon. “Thar,” he said, as he handed it through
the doorway; “I had clean forgot yore fast was over.”

The next morning the farmer and Big Joe drove to town, two miles
distant. Gill was gone all day and did not return till dusk. His wife
went out to meet him at the wagon-shed.

“How did you make out?” she asked.

“Tip-top,” he said, with a laugh. “As we went to town, nothin’ would
do the black scamp but we must go by after the gal. She happened to be
dressed up, an’ went to town with us. I set in front an’ driv’, while
they done their courtin’ on the back seat. I soon got the papers in
shape, an’ Squire Ridley spliced ‘em right on the sidewalk in front
o’ his office. A big crowd was thar, an’ you never heerd the like o’
yellin’. Some o’ the boys, jest fer pure devilment, picked me up an’
carried me on their shoulders to the tavern an’ made me set down to
a hearty dinner. Joe borrowed a apron from the cook an’ insisted on
waitin’ on me, La me, I wisht you’d ‘a’ been thar. I felt like a blamed
fool.”

“I reckon you did have a lots o’ fun,” said Mrs. Gill. “Well, I’m glad
he ain’t on our hands. I wouldn’t pass another day like yis-tiddy fer
all the slaves in Georgia.”




THE WHIPPING OF UNCLE HENRY

“I do believe,” said Mrs. Pelham, stooping to look through the oblong
window of the milk-and-butter cellar toward the great barn across the
farmyard, “I do believe Cobb an’ Uncle Henry are fussin’ ag’in.”

“Shorely not,” answered her old-maid sister, Miss Molly Meyers. She left
her butter bowl and paddles, and bent her angular figure beside Mrs.
Pelham, to see the white man and the black man who were gesticulating
in each other’s faces under the low wagon-shed that leaned against the
barn.

The old women strained their ears to overhear what was said, but the
stiff breeze from across the white-and-brown fields of cotton stretching
toward the west bore the angry words away. Mrs. Pelham turned and drew
the white cloths over her milkpans.

“Cobb will never manage them niggers in the world,” she sighed. “Henry
has had Old Nick in ‘im as big as a house ever since Mr. Pelham went
off an’ left Cobb in charge. Uncle Henry hain’t minded one word Cobb
has said, nur he won’t. The whole crop is goin’ to rack an’ ruin. Thar’s
jest one thing to be done. Mr. Pelham has jest got to come home an’ whip
Henry. Nobody else could do it, an’ he never will behave till it’s done.
Cobb tried to whip ‘im t’other day when you was over the mountain, but
Henry laid hold of a ax helve an’ jest dared Cobb to tech ‘im. That ended
it. Cobb was afeard of ‘im. Moreover, he’s afeard Uncle Henry will put
p’ison in his victuals, or do ‘im or his family some bodily damage on
the sly.”

“It would be a powerful pity,” returned Miss Molly, “fer Mr. Pelham to
have to lay down his business in North Carolina, whar he’s got so awful
much to do, an’ ride all that three hundred miles jest fer to whip one
nigger. It looks like some other way mought be thought of. Couldn’t you
use your influence - ”

“I’ve talked till I’m tired out,” Mrs. Pelham interrupted. “Uncle Henry
promises an’ forms good resolutions, it seems like, but the very minute
Cobb wants ‘im to do some ‘n a little different from Mr. Pelham’s way,
Henry won’t stir a peg. He jest hates the ground Cobb walks on. Well, I
reckon Cobb ain’t much of a man. He never would work a lick, an’ if he
couldn’t git a job overseein’ somebody’s niggers he’d let his family
starve to death. Nobody kin hate a lazy, good-for-nothin’ white man like
a nigger kin. Thar Cobb comes now, to complain to me, I reckon,” added
Mrs. Pelham, going back to the window. “An’ bless your soul, Henry has
took his seat out in the sun on the wagon-tongue, as big as life. I
reckon the whole crop will go to rack an’ ruin.”

The next moment a tall, thin-visaged man with gray hair and beard stood
in the cellar door.

“I’m jest about to the end o’ my tether, Sister Pelham.” (He always
called her “Sister,” because they were members of the same church.) “I
can’t get that black rascal to stir a step. I ordered Alf an’ Jake to
hold ‘im, so I could give ‘im a sound lashin’, but they was afeard to
tech ‘im.”

Mrs. Pelham looked at him over her glasses as she wiped her damp hands
on her apron.

“You don’t know how to manage niggers, Brother Cobb; I didn’t much ‘low
you did the day Mr. Pelham left you in charge. The fust mornin’, you
went to the field with that hosswhip in your hand, an’ you’ve toted it
about ever since. You mought know that would give offense. Mr. Pelham
never toted one, an’ yore doin’ of it looks like you ‘lowed you’d have a
use fer it.”

“I acknowledge I don’t know what to do,” said Cobb, frowning down
her reference to his whip. “I’ve been paid fer three months’ work in
advance, in the white mare an’ colt Mr. Pelham give me, an’ I’ve done
sold ‘em an’ used the money. I’m free to confess that Brother Pelham’s
intrusts are bein’ badly protected as things are goin’; but I’ve done my
best.”

“I reckon you have,” answered Mrs. Pelham, with some scorn in her tone.
“I reckon you have, accordin’ to your ability an’ judgment, an’ we can’t
afford to lose your services after you’ve been paid. Thar is jest one
thing left to do, an’ that is fer Mr. Pelham to come home an’ whip
Henry. He’s sowin’ discord an’ rebellion, an’ needs a good, sound
lashin’. The sooner it’s done the better. Nobody can do it but Mr.
Pelham, an’ I’m goin’ in now an’ write the letter an’ send it off. In
the mean time, you’d better go on to work with the others, an’ leave
Henry alone till his master comes.”

“Brother Pelham is the only man alive that could whip ‘im,” replied
Cobb; “but it looks like a great pity an’ expense for Brother Pel - ”
But the planter’s wife had passed him and gone up the steps into the
sitting-room. Cobb walked across the barnyard without looking at the
stalwart negro sitting on the wagon-tongue. He threw his whip down at
the barn, and he and half a dozen negroes went to the hayfields over the
knoll toward the creek.

In half an hour Mrs. Pelham, wearing her gingham bonnet, came out to
where Uncle Henry still sat sulking in the sun. As she approached him,
she pushed back her bonnet till her gray hair and glasses showed beneath
it.

“Henry,” she said, sternly, “I’ve jest done a thing that I hated
mightily to do.”

“What’s that, Mis’ Liza?” He looked up as he asked the question, and
then hung his head shamefacedly. He was about forty-five years of
age. For one of his race he had a strong, intelligent face. Indeed,
he possessed far more intelligence than the average negro. He was
considered the most influential slave on any of the half-dozen
plantations lying along that side of the river. He had learned to read,
and by listening to the conversation of white people had (if he had
acquired the colloquial speech of the middle-class whites) dropped
almost every trace of the dialect current among his people. And on
this he prided himself no little. He often led in prayer at the colored
meeting-house on an adjoining plantation, and some of his prayers were
more widely quoted and discussed than many of the sermons preached in
the same church.

“I have wrote to yore master, Henry,” answered Mrs. Pelham, “an’ I’ve
tol’ ‘im all yore doin’s, an’ tol’ him to come home an’ whip you fer
disobeyin’ Brother Cobb. I hated to do it, as I’ve jest said; but I
couldn’t see no other way out of the difficulty. Don’t you think you
deserve a whippin’, Uncle Henry?”

“I don’t know, Mis’ Liza.” He did not look up from the grass over which
he swung his rag-covered leg and gaping brogan. “I don’t know myself,
Mis’ Liza. I want to help Marse Jasper out all I can while he is off,
but it seems like I jest can’t work fer that man. Huh, overseer! I say
overseer! Why, Mis’ Liza, he ain’t as good as a nigger! Thar ain’t
no pore white trash in all this valley country as low down as all
his lay-out. He ain’t fittin’ fer a overseer of nothin’. He don’t do
anything like master did, nohow. He’s too lazy to git in out of a rain.
He - ”

“That will do, Henry. Mr. Pelham put him over you, an’ you’ve disobeyed.
He ‘ll be home in a few days, an’ you an’ him can settle it between you.
He will surely give you a good whippin’ when he gits here. Are you goin’
to sit thar without layin’ yore hand to a thing till he comes?”

“Now, you know me better ‘n that, Mis’ Liza. I’ve done said I won’t mind
that man, an’ I reckon I won’t; but the meadow-piece has obliged to
be broke an’ sowed in wheat. I’m goin’ to do that jest as soon as the
blacksmith fetches my bull-tongue plow.”

Mrs. Pelham turned away silently. She had heard some talk of the
government buying the negroes from their owners and setting them free.
She ardently hoped this would be done, for she was sure they could then
be hired cheaper than they could be owned and provided for. She disliked
to see a negro whipped; but occasionally she could see no other way to
make them do their duty.

From the dairy window, a few minutes later, she saw Uncle Henry put the
gear on a mule, and, with a heavy plow-stock on his shoulder, start for
the wheat-field beyond the meadow.

“He ‘ll do two men’s work over thar, jest to show what he kin do when
he’s let alone,” she said to Miss Molly. “I hate to see ‘im whipped.
He’s too old an’ sensible in most things, an’ it would jest break
Lucinda’s heart. Mr. Pelham had ruther cut off his right arm, too; but
he ‘ll do it, an’ do it good, after havin’ to come so far.”

Mr. Pelham was a week in reaching the plantation. He wrote that it would
take several days to arrange his affairs so that he could leave. He
admitted that there was nothing left to do except to whip Uncle Henry
soundly, and that they were right in thinking that Henry would not let
any one do it but himself. After the whipping he was sure that the negro
would obey Cobb, and that matters would then move along smoothly.

When Mr. Pelham arrived, he left the stage at the cross-roads, half a
mile from his house, and carpet-bag in hand, walked home through his
own fields. He was a short, thick-set man of about sixty, round-faced,
blue-eyed, and gray-haired. He wore a sack-coat, top-boots, and baggy
trousers. He had a good-natured, kindly face, and walked with the quick
step and general air of a busy man.

He had traveled three hundred miles, slept on the hard seat of a jolting
train, eaten railroad pies and peanuts, and was covered with the grime
of a dusty journey, all to whip one disobedient negro. Still, he was not
out of humor, and after the whipping and lecture to his old servant he
would travel back over the tiresome route and resume his business where
he had left it.

His wife and sister-in-law were in the kitchen when they heard his step
in the long hall. They went into the sitting-room, where he had put down
his carpet-bag, and in the center of the floor stood swinging his hat
and mopping his brow with his red handkerchief. He shook hands with the
two women, and then sat down in his old seat in the chimney-corner.

“You want a bite to eat, an’ a cup of coffee, I reckon,” said Mrs.
Pelham, solicitously.

“No, I kin wait till dinner. Whar’s Cobb?”

“I seed ‘im at the wagon-shed a minute ago,” spoke up Miss Molly; “he
was expectin’ you, an’ didn’t go to the field with the balance.”

“Tell ‘im I want to see ‘im.”

Both of the women went out, and the overseer came in.

“Bad state of affairs, Brother Cobb,” said the planter, as he shook
hands. They both sat down with their knees to the embers.

“That it is, Brother Pelham, an’ I take it you didn’t count on it any
more ‘n I did.”

“Never dreamt of it. Has he been doin’ any better since he heerd I was
comin’ to - whip ‘im?”

“Not fer me, Brother Pelham. He hain’t done a lick fer me; but all
of his own accord, in the last week, he has broke and sowed all that
meadow-piece in wheat, an’ is now harrowin’ it down to hide it from the
birds. To do ‘im jestice, I hain’t seed so much work done in six days
by any human bein’ alive. He ‘ll work for hisse’f, but he won’t budge fer
me.”

Mr. Pelham broke into a soft, impulsive laugh, as if at the memory of
something.

“They all had a big joke on me out in North Carolina,” he said. “I tol’
‘em I was comin’ home to whip a nigger, an’ they wouldn’t believe a
word of it. I reckon it is the fust time a body ever went so fur on sech
business. They ‘lowed I was jest homesick an’ wanted a’ excuse to come
back.”

“They don’t know what a difficult subject we got to handle,” Cobb
replied. “You are, without doubt, the only man in seven states that
could whip ‘im, Brother Pelham. I believe on my soul he’d kill anybody
else that’d tech ‘im. He’s got the strangest notions about the rights of
niggers I ever heerd from one of his kind. He’s jest simply dangerous.”


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