Will N. (Will Nathaniel) Harben.

Northern Georgia Sketches online

. (page 3 of 13)
Online LibraryWill N. (Will Nathaniel) HarbenNorthern Georgia Sketches → online text (page 3 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

“You ‘re afeard of ‘im, Brother Cobb, an’ he’s sharp enough to see it;
that’s all.”

The overseer winced. “I don’t reckon I’m any more so than any other
white man would be under the same circumstances. Henry mought not strike
back lick fer lick on the spot - I say he mought not; an’ then ag’in
he mought - but he’d git even by some hook or crook, or I’m no judge o’

Mr. Pelham rose. “Whar is he?”

“Over in the wheat-field.”

“Well, you go over thar n’ tell ‘im I’m here, an’ to come right away
down in the woods by the gum spring. I ‘ll go down an’ cut some hickory
withes an’ wait fer ‘im. The quicker it’s done an’ over, the deeper the
impression will be made on ‘im. You see, I want ‘im to realize that all
this trip is jest solely on his account. I ‘ll start back early in the
mornin’. That will have its weight on his future conduct. An’, Brother
Cobb, I can’t - I jest _can’t_ afford to be bothered ag’in. My business
out thar at the lumber-camp won’t admit of it. This whippin’ has got to
do fer the rest of the year. I think he ‘ll mind you when I git through
with ‘im. I like ‘im better ‘n any slave I ever owned, an’ I’d a thousand
times ruther take the whippin’ myself; but it’s got to be done.”

Cobb took himself to Henry in the wheat-field, and the planter went down
into the edge of the woods near the spring. With his pocket-knife he cut
two slender hickory switches about five feet in length. He trimmed off
the out-shooting twigs and knots, and rounded the butts smoothly.

From where he sat on a fallen log, he could see, across the boggy swamp
of bulrushes, the slight rise on which Henry was at work. He could
hear Henry’s mellow, resonant “Haw” and “Gee,” as he drove his mule and
harrow from end to end of the field, and saw Cobb slowly making his way
toward him.

Mr. Pelham laid the switches down beside him, put his knife in his
pocket, and stroked his chin thoughtfully. Suddenly he felt a tight
sensation in his throat. The solitary figure of the negro as he trudged
along by the harrow seemed vaguely pathetic. Henry had always been such
a noble fellow, so reliable and trustworthy. They had really been, in
one way, more like brothers than master and slave. He had told Henry
secrets that he had confided to no other human being, and they had
laughed and cried together over certain adventures and sorrows. About
ten years before, Mr. Pelham’s horse had run away and thrown him against
a tree and broken his leg. Henry had heard his cries and run to him.
They were two miles from the farmhouse, and it was a bitterly cold day,
but the stalwart negro had taken him in his arms and carried him home
and laid him down on his bed. There had been a great deal of excitement
about the house, and it was not until after the doctor had come and
dressed the broken limb that it was learned that Henry had fallen in a
swoon in his cabin and lain there unconscious for an hour, his wife and
children being away. Indeed, he had been almost as long recovering as
had been his master.

Henry had stopped his mule. Cobb had called to him, and was approaching.
Then Mr. Pelham knew that the overseer was delivering his message, for
the negro had turned his head and was looking toward the woods which hid
his master from view. Mr. Pelham felt himself flush all over. Could
he be going to whip Henry - really to lash his bare back with those
switches? How strange it seemed all at once! And that this should be
their first meeting after a two months’ separation!

In his home-comings before, Uncle Henry had always been the first to
meet him with outstretched hand. But the negro had to be whipped. Mr.
Pelham had said it in North Carolina; he had said it to Cobb, and he
had written it to his wife. Yes, it must be done; and if done at all, of
course it must be done right.

He saw Henry hitch his mule to a chestnut-tree in the field and Cobb
turn to make his way back to the farm-house. Then he watched Henry
approaching till the bushes which skirted the field hid him from view.
There was no sound for several minutes except the rustling of the
fallen leaves in the woods behind him, and then Uncle Henry’s head and
shoulders appeared above the broom-sedge near by.

“Howdy do, Marse Jasper?” he cried; and the next instant he broke
through the yellow sedge and stood before his master.

“Purty well, Henry.” Mr. Pelham could not refuse the black hand which
was extended, and which caught his with a hearty grasp. “I hope you are
as well as common, Henry?”

“Never better in my life, Marse Jasper.”

The planter had risen, but he now sat down beside his switches. For a
moment nothing was said. Uncle Henry awkwardly bent his body and his
neck to see if his mule were standing where he had left him, and his
master looked steadfastly at the ground.

“Sit down, Henry,” he said, presently; and the negro took a seat on the
extreme end of the log and folded his black, seamed hands over his knee.
“I want to talk to you first of all. Something of a very unpleasant,
unavoidable nature has got to take place betwixt us, an’ I want to give
you a sound talkin’ to beforehan’.”

“All right, Marse Jasper; I’m a-listenin’.” Henry looked again toward
his mule. “I did want to harrow that wheat down ‘fore them birds eat it
up; but I got time, I reckon.”

The planter coughed and cleared his throat. He tried to cross his short,
fat legs by sliding the right one up to the knee of the left, but owing
to the lowness of the log, he was unable to do this, so he left his legs
to themselves, and with a hand on either side of him, leaned back.

“Do you remember, Uncle Henry, twenty years ago, when you belonged to
old Heaton Pelzer an’ got to hankerin’ after that yellow girl of mine
jest after I bought her in South Carolina?”

“Mighty plain, Master Jasper, mighty plain.” Henry’s face showed a
tendency to smile at the absurdity of the question.

“Lucinda was jest as much set after you, it seemed,” went on the
planter. “Old Pelzer was workin’ you purty nigh to death on his pore,
wore-out land, an’ pointedly refused to buy Lucinda so you could marry
her, nur he wouldn’t consent to you marryin’ a slave of mine. Ain’t that

“Yes, Marse Jasper, that’s so, sir.”

“I had jest as many niggers as I could afford to keep, an’ a sight more.
I was already up to my neck in debt, an’ to buy you I knowed I’d have to
borrow money an’ mortgage the last thing I had. But you come to me
night after night, when you could sneak off, an’ begged an’ begged to
be bought, so that I jest didn’t have the heart to refuse. So, jest to
accommodate you, I got up the money an’ bought you, payin’ fully a third
more fer you than men of yore age was goin’ at. You are married now,
an’ got three as likely children as ever come into the world, an’ a big
buxom wife that loves you, an’ if I haven’t treated you an’ them right I
never heerd of it.”

“Never was a better master on earth, Marse Jasper. If thar is, I hain’t
never seed ‘im.” Henry’s face was full of emotion. He picked up his
slouch hat from the grass and folded it awkwardly on the log beside him.

“From that day till this,” the planter went on, “I’ve been over my head
in debt, an’ I can really trace it to that transaction. It was the straw
that broke the camel’s back, as the feller said. Well, now, Henry, six
months ago, when I saw that openin’ to deal in lumber in North Carolina,
it seemed to me to be my chance to work out of debt, if I could jest
find somebody to look after my farm. I found a man, Henry - a good,
clever, honest man, as everybody Said, an’ a member of Big Bethel
Church. For a certain consideration he agreed to take charge. That
consideration I’ve paid in advance, an’ it’s gone; I couldn’t git it

“Now, how has it turned out? I had hardly got started out thar before
one of my niggers - the very one I relied on the most - has played smash
with all my plans. You begun by turnin’ up yore nose at Brother Cobb,
an’ then by openly disobeyin’ ‘im. Then he tried to punish you - the
right that the law gives a overseer - an’ you up an’ dared him to tech
you, an’ - ”

“Marse Jasper - ”

“Hold yore tongue till I’m through.”

“All right, Marse Jasper, but - ”

“You openly defied ‘im, that’s enough; you broke up the order of the
whole thing, an’ yore mistress was so upset that she had to send fer
me. Now, Henry, I hain’t never laid the lash on you in my life, an’ I’d
ruther take it myself than to have to do it, but I hain’t come three
hundred miles jest to talk to you. I’m goin’ to whip you, Henry, an’ I’m
goin’ to do it right, if thar’s enough strength in my arm. You needn’t
shake yore head an’ sulk. No matter what you refused to let Cobb an’
the rest of ‘em do, you are a-goin’ to take what I’m goin’ to give you
without a word, because you know it’s just an’ right.”

Henry’s face was downcast, and his master could not see his eyes, but
a strange, rebellious fire had suddenly kindled in them, and he was
stubbornly silent. Mr. Pelham could not have dreamed of what was passing
in his mind.

“Henry, you an’ me are both religious men,” said the planter, after he
had waited for a moment. “Let’s kneel right down here by this log an’
commune with the Lord on this matter.”

Without a word the negro rose and knelt, his face in his hands, his
elbows on the log. There never had been a moment when Uncle Henry was
not ready to pray or listen to a prayer. He prided himself on his
own powers in that line, and had unbounded respect even for the less
skillful efforts of others. Mr. Pelham knelt very deliberately and began
to pray:

“Our heavenly Father, it is with extreme sadness an’ sorrow that we come
to Thee this bright, sunny day. Our sins have been many, an’ we hardly
know when our deeds are acceptable in Thy sight; but bless all our
efforts, we pray Thee, for the sake of Him that died for us, an’ let us
not walk into error in our zeal to do Thy holy will.

“Lord, Thou knowest the hearts of Thy humble supplicant an’ this man
beside him. Thou, through the existin’ laws of this land, hast put him
into my care an’ keepin’ an’ made me responsible to a human law for his
good or bad behavior. Lord, on this occasion it seems my duty to punish
him for disobedience, an’ we pray Thee to sanction what is about to take
place with Thy grace. Let no anger or malice rest in our hearts during
the performance of this disagreeable task, an’ let the whole redound
to Thy glory, for ever an’ ever, through the mercy of Thy Son, our Lord
Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Mr. Pelham rose to his feet stiffly, for he had touches of rheumatism,
and the ground was cold. He brushed his trousers, and laid hold of his
switches. But to his surprise, Henry had not risen. If it had not been
for the stiffness of his elbows, and the upright position of his long
feet, which stood on their toes erect as gate-posts, Mr. Pelham might
have thought that he had dropped asleep.

For a moment the planter stood silent, glancing first at the mass of
ill-clothed humanity at his feet, and then sweeping his eyes over the
quiet, rolling land which lay between him and the farmhouse. How awfully
still everything was! He saw Henry’s cabin near the farmhouse. Lucinda
was out in the yard picking up chips, and one of Uncle Henry’s children
was clinging to her skirts. The planter was very fond of Lucinda, and he
wondered what she would do if she knew he was about to whip her husband.
But why did the fellow not get up? Surely that was an unusual way to
act. In some doubt as to what he ought to do, Mr. Pelham sat down again.
It should not be said of him that he had ever interrupted any man’s
prayers to whip him. As he sat down, the log rolled slightly, the elbows
of the negro slid off the bark, and Henry’s head almost came in contact
with the log. But he took little notice of the accident, and glancing
at his master from the corner of his eye, he deliberately replaced his
elbows, pressed his hands together, and began to pray aloud:

“Our heavenly Father.” These words were spoken in a deep, sonorous tone,
and as Uncle Henry paused for an instant the echoes groaned and murmured
and died against the hill behind him. Mr. Pelham bowed his head to his
hand. He had heard Henry pray before, and now he dreaded hearing him, he
hardly knew why. He felt a strange creeping sensation in his spine.

“Our heavenly Father,” the slave repeated, in his mellow sing-song tone,
“Thou knowest that I am Thy humble servant. Thou knowest that I have
brought to Thee all my troubles since my change of heart - that I have
left nothing hidden from Thee, who art my Maker, my Redeemer, an’ my
Lord. Thou knowest that I have for a long time harbored the belief that
the black man has some rights that he don’t git under existin’ laws, but
which, Thy will be done, will come in due time, like the harvest follows
the plantin’. Thou know-est, an’ I know, that Henry Pelham is nigher to
Thee than a dumb brute, an’ that it ain’t no way to lift a nigger up
to beat ‘im like a horse or a ox. I have said this to Thee in secret
prayer, time an’ ag’in, an’ Thou knowest how I stand on it, if my master
don’t. Thou knowest that before Thee I have vowed that I would die
before any man, white or black, kin beat the blood out ‘n my back. I may
have brought trouble an’ vexation to Marse Jasper, I don’t dispute
that, but he had no business puttin’ me under that low-down, white-trash
overseer an’ goin’ off so far. Heavenly Father, thou knowest I love
Marse Jasper, an’ I would work fer ‘im till I die; but he is ready to
put the lash to me an’ disgrace me before my wife an’ children. Give my
arms strength, Lord, to defend myself even against him - against him who
has, up to now, won my respect an’ love by forbearance an’ kindness.
He has said it, Lord - he has said that he will whip me; but I’ve said,
also, that no man shall do it. Give me strength to battle fer the right,
an’ if he is hurt - bad hurt - may the Lord have mercy on him! This I ask
through the mercy an’ the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Henry rose awkwardly to his feet and looked down at his master, who
sat silent on the log. Mr. Pelham’s face was pale. There was a look of
indecision under the pallor. He held one of the switches by the butt in
his hand, and with its tapering end tapped the brown leaves between his
legs. He looked at the imperturbable countenance of the negro for fully
a minute before he spoke.

“Do you mean to say, Henry,” he asked, “that you are a-goin’ to resist
me by force?”

“I reckon I am, Marse Jasper, if nothin’ else won’t do you. That’s what
I have promised the Lord time an’ ag’in since Cobb come to boss me. I
wasn’t thinkin’ about you then, Marse Jasper, because I didn’t ‘low you
ever would try such a thing; but I said _any_ white man, an’ I can’t
take it back.”

The planter looked up at the stalwart man towering over him. Henry
could toss him about like a ball. In his imagination he had pictured the
faithful fellow bowed before him, patiently submitting to his blows,
but the present contingency had never entered his mind. He tried to
be angry, but the goodnatured face of the slave he loved made it

“Sit down thar, Henry,” he said; and when the negro had obeyed, he
continued, almost appealingly: “I have told the folks in North Carolina
that I was comin’ home to whip you, you see. I have told yore mistress,
an’ I have told Cobb. I ‘ll look like a purty fool if I don’t do it.”

A regretful softness came into the face of the negro, and he hung his
head, and for a moment picked at the bark of the log with his long

“I’m mighty sorry, Marse Jasper,” he answered, after remaining silent
for a while. “But you see I’ve done promised the Lord; you wouldn’t have
me - what do all them folks amount to beside the Lord? No; a body ought
to be careful about what he’s promised the Almighty.”

Mr. Pelham had no reply forthcoming. He realized that he was simply not
going to whip Uncle Henry, and he did not want to appear ridiculous in
the eyes of his friends. The negro saw by his master’s silence that
he was going to escape punishment, and that made him more humble and
sympathetic than ever. He was genuinely sorry for his master.

“You have done told ‘em all you was goin’ to whip me, I know, Marse
Jasper; but why don’t you jest let ‘em think you done it? I don’t keer,
jest so I kin keep my word. Lucinda ain’t a-goin’ to believe I’d take
it, nohow.”

At this loophole of escape the face of the planter brightened. For a
moment he felt like grasping Henry’s hand: then a cloud came over his

“But,” he demurred, “what about yore future conduct? Will you mind what
Cobb tells you?”

“I jest can’t do that, Marse Jasper. Me ‘n him jest can’t git along
together. He ain’t no man at all.”

“Well, what on earth am I to do? I’ve got to have an overseer, an’ I’ve
got to go back to North Carolina.”

“You don’t have to have no overseer fer me, Marse Jasper. Have I ever
failed to keep a promise to you, Marse Jasper?”

“No; but I can’t be here.”

“I ‘ll tell you what I ‘ll do, Marse Jasper. Would you be satisfied with
my part of the work if I tend all the twenty-acre piece beyond my cabin,
an’ make a good crop on it, an’ look after all the cattle an’ stock, an’
clear the woodland on the hill an’ cord up the firewood?”

“You couldn’t do it, Henry.”

“I ‘ll come mighty nigh it, Marse Jasper, if you ‘ll let me be my own boss
an’ be responsible to you when you git back. Mr. Cobb kin boss the rest
of ‘em. They don’t keer how much he swings his whip an’ struts around.”

“Henry, I ‘ll do it. I can trust you a sight better than I can Cobb. I
know you will keep yore word. But you will not say anything about - ”

“Not a word, Marse Jasper. They all may ‘low I’m half dead, if they want
to.” Then the two men laughed together heartily and parted.

The overseer and the two white women were waiting for Mr. Pelham in the
backyard as he emerged from the woods and came toward the house. Mrs.
Pelham opened the gate for him, scanning his face anxiously.

“I was afeard you an’ Henry had had some difficulty,” she said, in a tone
of relief; “he has been that hard to manage lately.”

Mr. Pelham grunted and laughed in disdain.

“I ‘ll bet he was the hardest you ever tackled,” ventured Cobb.

“Anybody can manage him,” the planter replied - “anybody that has got
enough determination. You see Henry knows me.”

“But do you think he ‘ll obey my orders after you go back?” Cobb had
followed Mr. Pelham into the sitting-room, and he anxiously waited for
the reply to his question.

The planter stooped to spit into a corner of the chimney, and then
slowly and thoughtfully stroked his chin with his hand. “That’s the
only trouble, Brother Cobb,” he said, thrusting his fat hands into the
pockets of his trousers and turning his back to the fire-place; “that’s
the only drawback. To be plain with you, Brother Cobb, I’m afeard you
don’t inspire respect; men that don’t own niggers seldom do. I believe
on my soul that nigger would die fightin’ before he’d obey yore orders.
To tell the truth, I had to arrange a plan, an’ that is one reason - one
reason - why I was down thar so long. After what happened today” (Mr.
Pelham spoke significantly and stroked his chin again) “he ‘ll mind me
jest as well at a distance as if I was here on the spot. He’d have a
mortal dread of havin’ me come so fur ag’in.”

“I hope you wasn’t cruel, Mr. Pelham,” said Mrs. Pelham, who had just
come in. “Henry’s so good-hearted - ”

“Oh, he ‘ll git over it,” replied the planter, ambiguously. “But, as I
was goin’ on to say, I had to fix another plan. I have set him a sort o’
task to do while I’m away, an’ I believe he ‘ll do it, Brother Cobb. So
all you ‘ll have to do will be to look after the other niggers.” The plan
suited Cobb exactly; but when Mr. Pelham came home the following summer
it was hard to hear him say that Uncle Henry had accomplished more than
any three of the other negroes.


“Yo’ ‘re purty well fixed, Jim; I wish I had yore business.”

Big Jim Bradley glanced slowly around his store. The heaps of
flour-sacks, coffee-bags, sugar-barrels, piles of bacon, crates of hams,
kits of mackerel, and the long rows of well-filled shelves brought a
flush of satisfaction into his rugged face.

“Hain’t no reason to complain, Bob,” he said; “you’ve been in Georgia,
an’ you know how blamed hard it is fer a feller to make his salt back

“Now yo’ ‘re a-talkin’ - yo’ ‘re a-sayin’ some ‘n’ now!” Bob Lash was
sitting on the head of a potato-barrel, eating cheese and crackers, and
his spirited words were interspersed with little snowy puffs from the
corners of his mouth. “Jim,” he continued, in a muffled tone, as he
eased his feet down to the floor, “I’m a-goin’ to wash this dry truck
down with a glass o’ yore cider; I’m about to choke. Thar’s yore nickel.
You needn’t rise; I can wait on myse’f.”

“I’d keep my eye open while he was behind the counter, Jim,” put in
Henry Webb, jestingly. “Bob’s got a swallow like a mill-race. He may
take a notion to drink out of yore half-gallon measure.”

“Had to drink out ‘n a thimble, or some ‘n’ ‘bout the size of it, at
yore place when you kept a bar,” gurgled Bob in the cider-glass. “But I
hain’t nothin’ ag’in you; the small doses of the stuff you sold was all
that saved my life.”

The flashily dressed young man sitting at Webb’s side laughed and
slapped him familiarly on the knee. His name was Thornton. He used to
“mix drinks” for Webb, and had been out of employment ever since his
employer’s establishment had been closed by the sheriff, a few months
before. “One on you, Harry,” he said, laughing again at the comical
expression on his friend’s face; “you have to get up before day to get
the best o’ these Georgia mossbacks.”

Webb said nothing; and Bob, blushing triumphantly under Thornton’s
compliment, and chewing a chip of dried beef that he had found on the
counter, came back to his seat on the barrel.

“Well, I reckon I _have_ done middlin’ well,” said Jim, bringing the
conversation back to his own affairs with as much adroitness as he was
capable of exercising. “I didn’t have a dollar to my name when I struck
this town, ten year back. I started as a waiter in a restaurant nigh
the railroad shops, then run a lemonade-stand at the park, an’ by makin’
every lick count, I gradually worked up to this shebang.”

Henry Webb seemed to grow serious. He glanced stealthily at Thornton
when Jim was not looking, crossed his legs nervously, and said: “Jim, me
an’ you have been dickerin’ long enough; all this roundabout talk don’t
bring us an inch nearer a trade. Now I’m goin’ to make you my last
proposition about this stock o’ goods. My wife got her money out of her
minin’ interest to-day, an’ wants to put it in some regular business o’
this sort. I’m goin’ to make you a round bid on the whole thing, lock,
stock, an’ barrel, an’, on my honor, it’s my last offer. I ‘ll give you
ten thousand dollars in cash fer the key to the door.”

Everybody in the group was fully conscious of the vital importance
of the words which had just been spoken. Webb, who was a famous
poker-player, had never controlled his face and tone better. No one
spoke for a moment, but all eyes were fixed expectantly on Bradley.
“Huh,” he answered, half under his breath, “I reckon you would!” He
tossed his shaggy, iron-gray head and smiled artificially. His face was
pale, and his eyes shone with suppressed excitement. It was a better
offer than he had expected; in fact, he had not realized before that his
stock was convertible into quite so much ready money, and it was hard
for him, simple and honest as he was, to keep from showing surprise.
“Harry Webb,” he went on, evasively, “do you have any idee what I

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13

Online LibraryWill N. (Will Nathaniel) HarbenNorthern Georgia Sketches → online text (page 3 of 13)