The telling of the everyday life of a slave on a plantation in Tennessee by one of the family she had served lends a charm to Aunt Dice: The Story of a Faithful Slave, by Nina Hill Robinson. The characters are drawn with a firmness that gives them photographic quality; a charming picture of life on a Southern plantation and the relations between master and slaves in some Southern homes is given in " Aunt Dice."
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Aunt Dice:The Story of a Faithful Slave
Nina Hill Robinson
Aunt Dice: The Story of a Faithful Slave
Aunt Dice: The Story of a Faithful Slave, N. H. Robinson
Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck
86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9
In this little work the author has preferred to follow the simple truth, feeling all interweaving of fiction to be out of keeping with the character of whom she has written. Beyond the use of a story-teller's license, sparingly indulged in, this story is strictly true.
As the details of everyday life would prove monotonous to the reader, the writer has given but little more than the outlines of the life of this beloved servant; and though a short work—only a recreative hour for the busy American—a simple story simply told, it is written as a tribute to the memory of one who was faithful in all her ways, with the hope that her name may be honored and remembered.
It is known that the speech of the Tennessee negro differs slightly from his extreme southern kinsman. Aunt Dice was free from many of the stumblings or more uncouth forms of the negro dialect. The word "master" she used with an "o" sound, as in "moster." Her way was her own; she borrowed no form.
In conclusion, need it be said that it is yet the hope and desire of the Family to remove the sacred dust of this honored servant to her chosen place of burial, where Cæsar sleeps and the Candlesticks bloom?
THERE are large possibilities to men of advantages. Material help is a needful stepping-stone to greater things. A cultured faith in a higher life aids much toward the upbuilding of true worth and character.
But to the unlearned, whose rude surroundings hold no uplifting element, to whom all books are forever sealed—their lettering unmeaning hieroglyphics—what is the inspiration to be faithful, to live uprightly? What is the stimulus to noble living and well-doing in the kitchens of the ignorant?
Of such a one I write; nay, more than this: born a slave, she called nothing on earth her own. Untutored, save in the monotonous drudgery of work, she found only one help in her way—the simple story of the cross, sung in many a southern kitchen; the cross that uplifts wherever its blessed shadow falls.
Of her simple, rugged life no poem need be woven, though other lives of lesser merit have found a way into prose or rhyme; but from oft-repeated tales, the picked-up relics of her deeds and sayings, the story of her life may at least prove her memory wholesome.
Neither can be told of her any great achievement or heroic action, for she had read no Psalm of Life, no Book of Golden Deeds; but only one of humble plodding in the way of duty—the only duty she saw plainly before her, that of faithfulness.
The neighboring slave owners of South Afton were curious when it was learned that William Macy had purchased the negress Dice. Men of standing these were, in a well-to-do neighborhood; of plethoric purses, of broad acres, and crowded negro quarters; men who understood as well the requisites of negro barter, the buying and selling prices, as they were familiar with the good points of their best horses. So the surprise was great when a generous sum was paid for the negress by the owner of Riverside, known to be a wise and cautious dealer, who for once overlooked the fact of her thirty-four years, her delicate frame, her deficiency in bone, muscle, and flesh.
It was talked of at the river mills, the cotton gin, and the stillhouse among the hills, where men grouped on Saturday afternoons to discuss the latest Whig news, the prices of negroes and cotton, or the relative value of their own prime whiskies or peach brandies.
But the question was settled at last by a quiet answer: "I bought her to raise my children." Perhaps the wise owner looked farther than bone or muscle in the purchase of one to whom he could trust his children. Hired to him for two years previous, he had found her trustworthiness alone sufficient to uphold him in the sum paid for her.
It was in the winter of eighteen hundred and thirty-four (for she came in with the century) that Aunt Dice, with her two children, was removed from a thinly-settled district twenty miles distant, and installed as chief cook and general superintendent at Riverside plantation. Beyond her kinship to Uncle Amos, the most trusty and best beloved of the slaves at Riverside, little was known of her or hers, save that her mother was an excellent servant—a pioneer negress of Middle Tennessee, brought from Virginia to the old Nashville Fort, in the perilous days of Indian warfare. Her one other recommendation was that she was reared "in the house," an important element in the purchase or sale of a negress: a raw "field hand" occupied no enviable position beside the superior house girl; though in her case this did not greatly add to her value, as, orphaned in early infancy, she was brought up amid surroundings so rude and uncouth that the wonder was that her thirty-four years had found her true and worthy.
Concerning her own private griefs or wrongs Aunt Dice, as she was called, was strangely reticent. If a burden were hers to shoulder, she preferred to bear it proudly alone. It was only after years of intimacy that her new mistress, who delicately forbore to question her, learned that her former master kept an inn or hostelry noted for its drunken revelry and riotous living, where travelers passed the night on their way to the "far west"; where negroes were bought and sold, or gambled away; a home upon which civilization had hardly turned its light, or religion its morals.
"My mistis was a good 'oman," Aunt Dice had said. Perhaps the influence of this one "good 'oman" had much to do toward the shaping of her character; if so, then indeed the hard, bare existence of this "mistis" was not passed in vain.
There were few places on the river so pleasantly situated as Riverside plantation. Commanding a high and wide outlook, the farmhouse, with its painted whiteness, its airy rooms, and cool, wide galleries, looked inviting enough through the surrounding maple grove and silver poplars. A green lawn, ornamented with old-fashioned hedges of lilacs and pink crepe myrtles, sloped from the steep bluff overlooking the river to the great double gate leading to the graveled drive by the water's edge. Beyond the house, and farther up the river's side, were the negro quarters—a long row of log cabins with double chimneys, and gardens attached. There was the "loom house," where the spinning and weaving were done. The cotton house stood near the great, wide barns, and the "shop," with its charcoal forge. Across the "big branch," and still farther up the heights, was the family cemetery, solemn with its waving cedars and white marble stones.
There were broad bottom fields skirting the river's edge; rolling uplands sweeping out to the distant hills, where the swine were fattened yearly; thence onward to the Barrens, where the cattle grazed. Lucky the farmer who owned an outlet to the Barrens—a wild, almost unsettled country, rich only in native grass and cool springs.
A fair domain it was, set like a jewel within Tennessean hills, fairer for its romantic scenery, its native wilds; dearer for its crowning grace of southern life and cheer, which, alas! is but a memory. The palmy days of Riverside have departed with the changing times; but the river that swept around the old homestead, whose blue waters silvered in the sunshine and deepened in the shade, laughing over rocky shoals and silent by the high, still cliffs—the river of "ye olden" days—is still the same beautiful, lovely South Afton.
IT must be said that the whole plantation prospered under the steady rule of Aunt Dice. No sooner was she domiciled by her broad cabin hearth than she began to enlarge her borders. Her two years' experience as a hired underling held her in good stead: she understood her master's needs, the merits and demerits of his slaves. Her second coming was an era of greater importance. The negroes, from venerable Uncle Amos to the smallest pickaninny, realized that she held a certain amount of power— how much, she herself did not stop to question; she only knew that she was grateful to a kind master, and she proved her gratitude with the remainder of her long life. For her, too, the change was wholesome; whether from her comfortable surroundings, or the kindly treatment of a new and much-loved master, it is hard to say, but certain it was that the frail, sickly negress gained new strength as the years passed on, until the neighboring slave owners reluctantly acknowledged her "the likeliest nigger on the whole creek." Certainly she was the hardest worker: she often said there was not a lazy bone in all her body. Not only did she help to tend and rear the children, but she was the ruling spirit of all the "hum and hustle" of each busy day. Her first duty was to sound the long, wild call of the hunting horn from the back gallery, and dole out to the slaves their morning "drams" from the rum barrels in the cellar before the day's work began.
It was here that she commenced her discipline. The long row of rollicking laborers filing up the path from the quarters hastened to a quickstep under her searching glance. Not that she disapproved of merriment. "Light hearts make light work" was a proverb at Riverside. But she received no laggards at her early drink offerings. Uncle Jack knew to a nicety how long to hold his inverted position, his usual obeisance to his morning dram. Aunt Dice heard complacently the rhythmic "pitapat" of merry feet, the back-steps knocked out on the graveled walk, or the jokes which were "swapped" in bantering tones and high good humor—a form of greeting that varied little from morning to morning.
"Hi, dar, nigger; stir yo' stumpers!"
"I takes no slack jaw dis mo'nin'. I walks right ober you 'reckly."
"Huh! ef yo' sasses me, I slams yo' down, chile, and puts my -foot on yo' haid. What's de kon'squence ob dat?"
"A daid nigger! Dar'll be de kon'squence," is the cheerful response, while a succession of calls, "hoorahs," and cries of "Hear dat nigger now!" "Ain't he a steppin'?" sounded clear and vibrant on the still air.
On they came, Uncle Amos quietly in the lead, baring his head to Aunt Dice's courteous " Good-mo'nin'," Uncle Silas following with his usual plea for a "leetle drap mo' for de mis'ry in de back," and the sharp response, "Step on, Silas; I want yo' room."
"Come, boys, be lively; daylight's burnin'." And the dusky column moved on with boisterous shouts and musical calls, startling the sleepy cocks from the barnyard roosts, and echoing across the river, which lay aflush under the eastern skies.
Aunt Dice, though supervisor, scorned an idle hour. It was she who prepared the well-cooked meals for the master's table; who ordered provisions for the quarters; overlooked the butter-making, the spinning and weaving, the cutting of garments, and the plain sewing for the numerous slaves; never resting her weary feet until the last laborer went back to the fields after the midday meal. Her master sometimes gently interfered: "Two hours' rest at noon, Dice. Man and beast should rest in the heat of the day."
So when the songs of the laborers rang out from the fields, and the music of wheel and loom went merrily on within, Aunt Dice went out to her cabin to take her well- earned rest and enjoy a quiet smoke, her only indulgence. Her clean, fragrant pipe, used in unobtrusive hours, was never offensive.
The master smiled over his purchase. He had made no mistake. Conscious of his trust, she soon assumed control of the slaves—in a way. Respectful they certainly were; man, woman, and child were under her imperious sway, and well she ruled. Aunt Dice believed in discipline; while one and all liked and admired her, she thought it best to instill into this liking a little of fear, to make it wholesome. A lazy negro was her special detestation. She delighted in scattering a crowd of dusky forms, basking, lizard-like, in the sun. Few of the laziest could stand the curious sidelong glance of her sharp eyes, and many a step quickened under that searching look.
How far her rule extended even the master did not question, nor the mistress, who began to lean upon her and trust to her guidance in the manifold duties of a southern matron. The rule of the house—its domestic duties—it was hers to order. Her judgment was supreme, her counsel never lost. The mistress, who as "Lady Bountiful" dispensed a wide charity, had only to say to her, "Aunt Dice, our neighbor is sick; she needs help." Aunt Dice packed a full basket and started on her errand of mercy, ministering to the poor in a way well fitted to heal a mind diseased. She fed and nursed, she cleaned and swept, until the bare, rude homes of the poor whites shone bright with the sick faces.
The master found himself referring to her wisdom: "Dicy, shall we kill hogs this week?"
"They's eatin' they heads off, Mos William, an' fat as mud."
The hogs were slaughtered.
"Is it time to plant potatoes, Dicy?"
"'Pears to me the groun's waitin' fur 'em," was the busy answer; and the potatoes were planted.
But Aunt Dice was also learning. Within her wholesome surroundings she found much to edify, to help her. The nobility and upright character of her quiet master; the influence of the mistress, a woman of kind speech and gentle manner; the pure atmosphere and well-ordered household; a house whose God was the Lord, the Bible the most honored book in the quaint old bookcase; not a home of pretentious superiority, but one of comfort and solid standing, of quiet, far-reaching charity and Christian excellence—all these elements were unfolding within the stunted soul of the slave an inherent germ of rare worth and beauty. Her observant eyes lost nothing that could serve to strengthen or uplift her. Her hungry soul was feeding.
At night, within her cabin, sounds of mirth and revelry reached her from the quarters, the patter of time-keeping feet, the music of fiddle, banjo, and ringing clevis pins. But the sound which pleased her most, which reached her soul, came from the cabin of Uncle Amos, which was set apart from the quarters in the shadow of the woods; a song whose volume of sweetness and power poured its melody into every chink and crevice of the crowded quarters, hushing the ruder noise of viol and uproarious mirth:
"The mo' I pray the happier I am; I love God, glory, halleluiah!"
On the still night air the melody trembled, soared, and reached from glory to glory:
"This religion I believe, Glory, halleluiah! Soon we'll land our souls up yonder, Glory, halleluiah!"
From Pisgah's top the venerable old patriarch sang:
"Happy people ober yonder; Happy people ober yonder; Soon we'll meet dem ober yonder, On de oder bright sho'."
Aunt Dice listened, and prayed. This seed, sown in good ground, rapidly grew and bore fruit. It was shortly afterwards, as she lay on a sick bed in the early days of her invalidism, that Aunt Dice found the wondrous peace and realized the power of redeeming love. The prayer of Uncle Amos, strong in its faith, the piled-up promises before a throne of grace, the sure answer of peace, proved to the purchased slave the"glorious liberty" of the soul. Aunt Dice was "converted"; to put it plainly, she was born again. The old-time religion of Tennessee, which blazed its way with the pioneer ax, that held its own through civil strife—the conflict of brother with brother—that holds good to-day, was ever afterwards her stay and support. She received her baptism from a white minister, held her membership with a white congregation, and drank the wine in communion—an honored and trusted member.
The years passed on, and Riverside prospered.
The negro quarters broadened and throve under the humane treatment of a kind, much-loved master. To say that Aunt Dice was a valued servant and trusted friend but faintly expressed her worth. The children were objects of her especial care. To tell of her stanch integrity, the faithful performance of a duty imposed upon her, it is well to say that the pure morals she set forth, the homely advice she gave from her great, untutored soul, live yet with the children's children.
Her cabin was a rendezvous for the little ones, which, as best remembered, was a log room neatly papered, with a wide fireplace, and a loft overhead. In front, below the bluff, ran the river, ever the friend and companion of Aunt Dice's solitary hours. From the back door a sunny garden stretched, where it was her habit to sit and smoke her pipe in summer afternoons, where she watched the broad sweep of the cotton fields, and the silver sheen of the river through the tall sycamores that fringed its winding course. The cabin was comfortably furnished. The old-fashioned "four-poster" was nearly hidden beneath a huge feather bed and drapery of the snowy counterpane. A bureau with glass handles stood under a swinging mirror. A cupboard, suggestive of tempting edibles, occupied one corner, while a swinging shelf full of quilts hung from the ceiling.
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