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The scene of this chronicle is the town of Dawson’s Landing, on the Missouri side of the Mississippi, half a day’s journey, per steamboat, below St. Louis.In 1830 it was a snug little collection of modest one- and two-story frame dwellings whose whitewashed exteriors were almost concealed from sight by climbing tangles of rose-vines, honeysuckles, and morning-glories. Each of these pretty homes had a garden in front fenced with white palings and opulently stocked with hollyhocks, marigolds, touch-me-nots, prince’s-feathers and other old-fashioned flowers; while on the window-sills of the houses stood wooden boxes containing moss-rose plants and terra-cotta pots in which grew a breed of geranium whose spread of intensely red blossoms accented the prevailing pink tint of the rose-clad house-front like an explosion of flame.
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A Whisper to the Reader.
Driscoll Spares His Slaves.
Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar.
Pudd’nhead Wilson had a trifle of money when he arrived, and he bought a small house on the extreme western verge of the town. Between it and Judge Driscoll’s house there was only a grassy yard, with a paling fence dividing the properties in the middle. He hired a small office down in the town and hung out a tin sign with these words on it:
DAVID WILSON.ATTORNEY AND COUNSELOR-AT-LAW.SURVEYING, CONVEYANCING, ETC.
But his deadly remark had ruined his chance—at least in the law. No clients came. He took down his sign, after a while, and put it up on his own house with the law features knocked out of it. It offered his services now in the humble capacities of land-surveyor and expert accountant. Now and then he got a job of surveying to do, and now and then a merchant got him to straighten out his books. With Scotch patience and pluck he resolved to live down his reputation and work his way into the legal field yet. Poor fellow, he could not foresee that it was going to take him such a weary long time to do it.
He had a rich abundance of idle time, but it never hung heavy on his hands, for he interested himself in every new thing that was born into the universe of ideas, and studied it and experimented upon it at his house. One of his pet fads was palmistry. To another one he gave no name, neither would he explain to anybody what its purpose was, but merely said it was an amusement. In fact he had found that his fads added to his reputation as a pudd’nhead; therefore he was growing chary of being too communicative about them. The fad without a name was one which dealt with people’s finger-marks. He carried in his coat pocket a shallow box with grooves in it, and in the grooves strips of glass five inches long and three inches wide. Along the lower edge of each strip was pasted a slip of white paper. He asked people to pass their hands through their hair (thus collecting upon them a thin coating of the natural oil) and then make a thumb-mark on a glass strip, following it with the mark of the ball of each finger in succession. Under this row of faint grease-prints he would write a record on the strip of white paper—thus:
John Smith, right hand—
and add the day of the month and the year, then take Smith’s left hand on another glass strip, and add name and date and the words “left hand.” The strips were now returned to the grooved box, and took their place among what Wilson called his “records.”
He often studied his records, examining and poring over them with absorbing interest until far into the night; but what he found there—if he found anything—he revealed to no one. Sometimes he copied on paper the involved and delicate pattern left by the ball of a finger, and then vastly enlarged it with a pantograph so that he could examine its web of curving lines with ease and convenience.
One sweltering afternoon—it was the first day of July, 1830—he was at work over a set of tangled account-books in his work-room, which looked westward over a stretch of vacant lots, when a conversation outside disturbed him. It was carried on in yells, which showed that the people engaged in it were not close together:
“Say, Roxy, how does yo’ baby come on?” This from the distant voice.
“Fust-rate; how does you come on, Jasper?” This yell was from close by.
“Oh, I’s middlin’; hain’t got noth’n’ to complain of. I’s gwine to come a-court’n’ you bimeby, Roxy.”
“You is, you black mud-cat! Yah—yah—yah! I got somep’n’ better to do den ’sociat’n’ wid niggers as black as you is. Is ole Miss Cooper’s Nancy done give you de mitten?” Roxy followed this sally with another discharge of care-free laughter.
“You’s jealous, Roxy, dat’s what’s de matter wid you, you hussy—yah—yah—yah! Dat’s de time I got you!”
“Oh, yes, you got me, hain’t you. ’Clah to goodness if dat conceit o’ yo’n strikes in, Jasper, it gwine to kill you sho’. If you b’longed to me I’d sell you down de river ’fo’ you git too fur gone. Fust time I runs acrost yo’ marster, I’s gwine to tell him so.”
This idle and aimless jabber went on and on, both parties enjoying the friendly duel and each well satisfied with his own share of the wit exchanged—for wit they considered it.
Wilson stepped to the window to observe the combatants; he could not work while their chatter continued. Over in the vacant lots was Jasper, young, coal-black and of magnificent build, sitting on a wheelbarrow in the pelting sun—at work, supposably, whereas he was in fact only preparing for it by taking an hour’s rest before beginning. In front of Wilson’s porch stood Roxy, with a local hand-made baby-wagon, in which sat her two charges—one at each end and facing each other. From Roxy’s manner of speech, a stranger would have expected her to be black, but she was not. Only one sixteenth of her was black, and that sixteenth did not show. She was of majestic form and stature, her attitudes were imposing and statuesque, and her gestures and movements distinguished by a noble and stately grace. Her complexion was very fair, with the rosy glow of vigorous health in the cheeks, her face was full of character and expression, her eyes were brown and liquid, and she had a heavy suit of fine soft hair which was also brown, but the fact was not apparent because her head was bound about with a checkered handkerchief and the hair was concealed under it. Her face was shapely, intelligent and comely—even beautiful. She had an easy, independent carriage—when she was among her own caste—and a high and “sassy” way, withal; but of course she was meek and humble enough where white people were.
To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a negro. She was a slave, and salable as such. Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a negro. He had blue eyes and flaxen curls like his white comrade, but even the father of the white child was able to tell the children apart—little as he had commerce with them—by their clothes: for the white babe wore ruffled soft muslin and a coral necklace, while the other wore merely a coarse tow-linen shirt which barely reached to its knees, and no jewelry.
The white child’s name was Thomas à Becket Driscoll, the other’s name was Valet de Chambre: no surname—slaves hadn’t the privilege. Roxana had heard that phrase somewhere, the fine sound of it had pleased her ear, and as she had supposed it was a name, she loaded it on to her darling. It soon got shorted to “Chambers,” of course.
Wilson knew Roxy by sight, and when the duel of wit began to play out, he stepped outside to gather in a record or two. Jasper went to work energetically, at once, perceiving that his leisure was observed. Wilson inspected the children and asked—
“How old are they, Roxy?”
“Bofe de same age, sir—five months. Bawn de fust o’ Feb’uary.”
“They’re handsome little chaps. One’s just as handsome as the other, too.”
A delighted smile exposed the girl’s white teeth, and she said:
“Bless yo’ soul, Misto Wilson, it’s pow’ful nice o’ you to say dat, ’ca’se one of ’em ain’t on’y a nigger. Mighty prime little nigger, I al’ays says, but dat’s ’ca’se it’s mine, o’ course.”
“How do you tell them apart, Roxy, when they haven’t any clothes on?”
Roxy laughed a laugh proportioned to her size, and said:
“Oh, I kin tell ’em ’part, Misto Wilson, but I bet Marse Percy couldn’t, not to save his life.”
Wilson chatted along for awhile, and presently got Roxy’s finger-prints for his collection—right hand and left—on a couple of his glass strips; then labeled and dated them, and took the “records” of both children, and labeled and dated them also.
Two months later, on the 3d of September, he took this trio of finger-marks again. He liked to have a “series,” two or three “takings” at intervals during the period of childhood, these to be followed by others at intervals of several years.
The next day—that is to say, on the 4th of September—something occurred which profoundly impressed Roxana. Mr. Driscoll missed another small sum of money—which is a way of saying that this was not a new thing, but had happened before. In truth it had happened three times before. Driscoll’s patience was exhausted. He was a fairly humane man toward slaves and other animals; he was an exceedingly humane man toward the erring of his own race. Theft he could not abide, and plainly there was a thief in his house. Necessarily the thief must be one of his negroes. Sharp measures must be taken. He called his servants before him. There were three of these, besides Roxy: a man, a woman, and a boy twelve years old. They were not related. Mr. Driscoll said:
“You have all been warned before. It has done no good. This time I will teach you a lesson. I will sell the thief. Which of you is the guilty one?”
They all shuddered at the threat, for here they had a good home, and a new one was likely to be a change for the worse. The denial was general. None had stolen anything—not money, anyway—a little sugar, or cake, or honey, or something like that, that “Marse Percy wouldn’t mind or miss,” but not money—never a cent of money. They were eloquent in their protestations, but Mr. Driscoll was not moved by them. He answered each in turn with a stern “Name the thief!”
The truth was, all were guilty but Roxana; she suspected that the others were guilty, but she did not know them to be so. She was horrified to think how near she had come to being guilty herself; she had been saved in the nick of time by a revival in the colored Methodist Church, a fortnight before, at which time and place she “got religion.” The very next day after that gracious experience, while her change of style was fresh upon her and she was vain of her purified condition, her master left a couple dollars lying unprotected on his desk, and she happened upon that temptation when she was polishing around with a dust-rag. She looked at the money awhile with a steady rising resentment, then she burst out with—
“Dad blame dat revival, I wisht it had ’a’ be’n put off till to-morrow!”
Then she covered the tempter with a book, and another member of the kitchen cabinet got it. She made this sacrifice as a matter of religious etiquette; as a thing necessary just now, but by no means to be wrested into a precedent; no, a week or two would limber up her piety, then she would be rational again, and the next two dollars that got left out in the cold would find a comforter—and she could name the comforter.
Was she bad? Was she worse than the general run of her race? No. They had an unfair show in the battle of life, and they held it no sin to take military advantage of the enemy—in a small way; in a small way, but not in a large one. They would smouch provisions from the pantry whenever they got a chance; or a brass thimble, or a cake of wax, or an emery-bag, or a paper of needles, or a silver spoon, or a dollar bill, or small articles of clothing, or any other property of light value; and so far were they from considering such reprisals sinful, that they would go to church and shout and pray the loudest and sincerest with their plunder in their pockets. A farm smoke-house had to be kept heavily padlocked, for even the colored deacon himself could not resist a ham when Providence showed him in a dream, or otherwise, where such a thing hung lonesome and longed for some one to love. But with a hundred hanging before him the deacon would not take two—that is, on the same night. On frosty nights the humane negro prowler would warm the end of a plank and put it up under the cold claws of chickens roosting in a tree; a drowsy hen would step on to the comfortable board, softly clucking her gratitude, and the prowler would dump her into his bag, and later into his stomach, perfectly sure that in taking this trifle from the man who daily robbed him of an inestimable treasure—his liberty—he was not committing any sin that God would remember against him in the Last Great Day.
“Name the thief!”
For the fourth time Mr. Driscoll had said it, and always in the same hard tone. And now he added these words of awful import:
“I give you one minute”—he took out his watch. “If at the end of that time you have not confessed, I will not only sell all four of you, but—I will sell you down the river!”
It was equivalent to condemning them to hell! No Missouri negro doubted this. Roxy reeled in her tracks and the color vanished out of her face; the others dropped to their knees as if they had been shot; tears gushed from their eyes, their supplicating hands went up, and three answers came in the one instant:
“I done it!”
“I done it!”
“I done it!—have mercy, marster—Lord have mercy on us po’ niggers!”
“Very good,” said the master, putting up his watch, “I will sell you here though you don’t deserve it. You ought to be sold down the river.”
The culprits flung themselves prone, in an ecstasy of gratitude, and kissed his feet, declaring that they would never forget his goodness and never cease to pray for him as long as they lived. They were sincere, for like a god he had stretched forth his mighty hand and closed the gates of hell against them. He knew, himself, that he had done a noble and gracious thing, and was privately well pleased with his magnanimity; and that night he set the incident down in his diary, so that his son might read it in after years, and be thereby moved to deeds of gentleness and humanity himself.
Roxy Plays a Shrewd Trick.
Whoever has lived long enough to find out what life is, knows how deep a debt of gratitude we owe to Adam, the first great benefactor of our race. He brought death into the world.—Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar.
Percy Driscoll slept well the night he saved his house-minions from going down the river, but no wink of sleep visited Roxy’s eyes. A profound terror had taken possession of her. Her child could grow up and be sold down the river! The thought crazed her with horror. If she dozed and lost herself for a moment, the next moment she was on her feet flying to her child’s cradle to see if it was still there. Then she would gather it to her heart and pour out her love upon it in a frenzy of kisses, moaning, crying, and saying, “Dey sha’n’t, oh, dey sha’n’t!—yo’ po’ mammy will kill you fust!”
Once, when she was tucking it back in its cradle again, the other child nestled in its sleep and attracted her attention. She went and stood over it a long time communing with herself:
“What has my po’ baby done, dat he couldn’t have yo’ luck? He hain’t done noth’n’. God was good to you; why warn’t he good to him? Dey can’t sell you down de river. I hates yo’ pappy; he hain’t got no heart—for niggers he hain’t, anyways. I hates him, en I could kill him!” She paused awhile, thinking; then she burst into wild sobbings again, and turned away, saying, “Oh, I got to kill my chile, dey ain’t no yuther way,—killin’ him wouldn’t save de chile fum goin’ down de river. Oh, I got to do it, yo’ po’ mammy’s got to kill you to save you, honey”—she gathered her baby to her bosom, now, and began to smother it with caresses—“Mammy’s got to kill you—how kin I do it! But yo’ mammy ain’t gwine to desert you—no, no; dah, don’t cry—she gwine wid
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