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The Centre Figger by Mollie Evelyn Moore Davis

 

“DEY tells me you gwine ter be de centre figger at de 'Mancipation Day ter-morrer, Aun' Calline,” said Uncle Jake Prince, halting in the dusty road outside the gate, and shifting his white-oak split basket from one arm to the other.

“I sholy is, Unk Jake,” responded Aunt Calline, with dignity.

The other cabins in the long, double row of low two-roomed houses which had once made up the quarters of the old Winston plantation had fallen into disuse and decay; grass grew in their aforetime trim door-yards; “jimson” weed and mullein choked their garden-patches; their window-shutters swung loose on broken hinges; their floors were mildewed and rotting; their very chimneys were crumbling; the broad walk which led past them and on to the “great-house,” just showing its white-pillared galleries and peaked dormer-windowed roof through the trees, was a tangled thicket of undergrowth. The “great-house” itself, seen more closely, wore an air of dilapidation, mournful enough to those who remembered it in the time of the old colonel, when its hospitable doors stood wide open winter and summer, and even the pickaninnies swinging on the big gate grinned a welcome to the incoming guest.

But Aunt Calline's cabin preserved its old-time look of thrift and comfort. In the little garden there were beds of cabbages and beans and okra, bordered with sage and rosemary; hollyhocks and larkspur and pretty-by-nights blossomed in the door-yard; a multiflora rose, entangled with honeysuckle, clambered up the squat chimney, and sent its long, glossy green branches over the comb of the sloping roof and down to the overhanging eaves; a box of sweet-basil stood on the window-sill, and a patch of clove-pinks by the gravel-walk filled all the June morning with spicy fragrance. Within, the floor was yellow and shining from immemorial scrubbings; the rough walls were adorned with newspaper pictures; and the counterpane and old-fashioned valance of the bed were snowy white and sweet with the smell of lavender. A perpetual fire blazed or smouldered in the wide fireplace, while on the cracked hearth were ranged spiders and skillets and ponderous three-footed ovens with huge lids, suggestive of the rich, brown, salt-rising loaf, the crusty pone, hand-imprinted, the steaming potpie, the dainty “snowball,” of days when self-respecting cooks looked with scorn and contempt on a cooking-stove.

Aunt Calline herself, as she sat on the doorstep beating cake batter in a deep pan resting on her knees, was a reminder of the old régime. A fantastically knotted turban encircled her head; a spotless “handk'cher” was folded across her ample bosom; her scant skirts were hitched up under a long blue-check apron, and her rusty feet and ankles were bare. Her kindly old face was creased with wrinkles, but in her great soft brown eyes dwelt that curious look of eternal youth which belongs to her people.

“Big Hannah, whar useter b'long ter we-alls fambly, wus de centre figger las' year,” continued Uncle Jake, sociably, drawing nearer to the gate.

“Humph!” grunted Aunt Calline; “mighty fine centre figger dat corn-fiel' gal mus' er made, dough she is er sister in Zion! But I ain' seen Big Hannah ez de centre figger. I ain' nuver been to no 'Mancipation Day.”

“De Lawd, Aun' Calline!” ejaculated the old man, with a well-feigned air of astonishment, “ain' you nuver been ter de 'Mancipation Day? Huccum you ain' nuver been dar?”

“We-el,” replied Aunt Calline, reflectively, dipping up a spoonful of batter and letting it drip slowly back into the pan, “hits edzackly dish yer way. De fus year dey celerbate 'Mancipation Day hit wuz jes' er leetle a'ter li'l Marse Rod lef' home. Co'se you 'members, Unk Jake, when ole Marse Rod an' young Marse Ed wuz kilt in de wah an' fotch home.”

Uncle Jake nodded. He had set down his basket and placed his elbows on the low gatepost that he might listen more at his ease to the familiar story.

“De fambly trebbles wuz mo'beknownst ter me an' my ole man, 'caze we wuz 'mongs' de house-servants lak, dan dey woz ter you-all fiel' han's. An' 'pear lak ole mis' an' missy wuz gwine clean crazy when dey fotch home, fus ole marse, an' den Marse Ed. Den hit wa'n't no time 'fo' de bre'k-up an' freedom. An' all de fool riggers dey up an' swarm erway fum de place same ez ef dey wuz er swarm er bees. All two er dem boys o' mine wuz 'mongs' de fus ter go; an' you wuz 'mongs' de fus yo'se'f, Jake Prince. An' whar is you fool niggers now?” she demanded, abruptly, her voice rising, and a look of scorn flashing into her eyes. “Whar is you fool niggers now, I axes you? You is traipsin' roun' de lan', callin' yo'se'f a'ter de lowlife nigger-trader whar sol' you ter ole marse, 'stidder takin' de name o' de mos' 'spectable fambly in de county. An' mighty nigh all o' you-all is lazy en' good-fer-nothin', whilse heah I is in de cabin dat de cunnel gimme de same night Ab'm an' me stood up in the gre't house dinin'-room an' got married.”

“Dass so,” admitted her listener, with a deprecatory grin.

“'Reckly dey wa'n't nobody lef' on de plantation 'cep'n' jes me an' Ab'm an' Dick, dat younges' chile o' mine dat grow up 'longside o' li'l Marse Rod. Lawd! li'l Marse Rod, he wuz de beatenes' white chile fum de cradle, mun! I nussed him at de same breas' wi' Dick, an' dem two chillen wuz jes lak br'er and br'er. Dey run terg'er fum de cradle.”

To be sho!” assented Uncle Jake. “I 'members dem two chillen myse'f, mighty well. Dey useter pester me 'bout fishin'-lines an' wums, twel I—”

“Li'l Marse Rod's ha'r wuz dat yaller an' curly,” she went on, heedless of the interruption, “twel I useter tell ole mis' hit wus jes lak er twist er sugar-candy; an' when dat chile laugh an' ax fer sumpn, Lawd! you is jes boun' fer ter gin hit ter him. An' dem chillen all de time terge'r. Ef Dick wa'n't at de gre't-house, li'l Marse Rod wuz in dis cabin. 'Pear lak I kin heah him yit, comin' runnin' down de walk yander, bar'headed, an' hollerin' ter me, settin' edzackly whar I is now, 'Mammy, tell Dick ter wait fer me; I'm comin'!' “

“To be sho!” interjected Uncle Jake. “I 'members dat mighty well, myse'f.”

“He wuz er high-spirited chile; an' when he look erbout him an' see de ole plantation lef' ter rack an' ruin, an' nobody ter tek keer o' his ma' an' missy, 'cep'n' Ab'm an' me, he seem lak he couldn't 'bide dat. He wuz jes tu'n o' fo'teen den; jes de age o' my Dick. An' one mawnin' li'l Marse Rod wuz gone, mun! An' ole mis' foun' er letter onder de do' whar say dat he gwine some'ers fer ter wuk twel he git er pile o' money, an' den he comin' back an' tek keer o' ole mis', an' missy, an' Ab'm, an' me, an' Dick. An' he lef' er good word fer Dick in de letter. An' dass de las' we uver heerd tell o' li'l Marse Rod. But I tells you, Jake Prince, I jes ez sho dat chile gwine ter come back ez I is dat I settin' on dish yer do'-step. He gwine ter come back in er cayidge an' er pa'r er high-steppin' hosses, like dem Ab'm useter drive fer ole mis' 'fo' de wah.”

She rested the spoon on the edge of the pan for a moment, while her eyes sought the dingy “great-house” among its embowering trees.

“We ain' nuver heerd fum him sence,” she resumed, with a deep sigh. “Ole mis' and missy dey bofe werry twel dey sick 'bout Marse Rod, an' dat huccum I didn' go ter de fus 'Mancipation Day.”

“Ole Aun' Dilsey Cushin' wuz de centre figger dat time,” remarked Uncle Jake.

“Den de nex' year missy wuz on de p'int er gettin' married ter Cap'n Tom Ramsay, fum Richmon', an' me an' ole mis' we wuz makin' de weddin'-cake, an' I ain' had no time fer ter fool 'long o' 'Mancipation Day. An' de nex' year wuz de time dat my Dick wuz fotch home drownded from the bayou. Den Ab'm wuz tuk down. Mussy, Unk Jake, you 'ain' fergot dem seven year whar Ab'm wuz down?

“Cert'n'y, Aun' Calline, I 'ain' fergot Unk Ab'm's rheumatiz. Dough dat ain' hender Unk Ab'm fum settin' in er cheer yander by de fiah an' pickin' de banjer. Mun! how Unk Ab'm could pick de banjer!”

“Dat he could! Dey wa'n't nobody in de quarter could tech Ab'm when it come ter pickin' de banjer. De quality useter come down fum de gre't-house 'fo' de wah ter heah him pick 'Billy in de low groun's,' an' 'Sugar in de gode,' an' de lak o' dat. Well, I 'ain' had no call ter go whilse de ole man wuz down, an' me er tukin' keer at de same time o' ole mis' an' missy, an' missy's chillen.”

“An' missy er widder at dat.”

“An' missy er widder at dat. Den de sweet chariot done swung low fer Ab'm, an' he tuk'n ter glory. An' den sometimes one an' sometimes an'er o' missy's chillen had de measles, o' de whoopin'-cough, o' de chicken-pox, o' de scyarlet-fever, an' 'pear lak I couldn't spar' er minit fer er frolic. Co'se, a'ter missy tuk'n de consomption an' die, an' de chillen gone ter Cap'n Tom Ramsay's folks, I couldn' leave ole mis'. Who gwine ter stay 'long o' ole mis' whilse Calline fla'ntin' herse'f ter 'Mancipation Day? Year befo' las' ole mis' she tuk down, an' I 'ain' lef' her night ner day twel she pass on ter glory las' Sat'day week. An' now, sence de fambly is all brek up, an' de gre't-house shet, an' I has de time, I gwine ter de 'Mancipation Day.”

“Ez de centre figger,” respectfully suggested Uncle Jake.

“Ez de centre figger. I has been invited by all de conjugations o' all de chu'ches ter set in de head cheer. But, kingdom come, Unk Jake!” she broke off, rising energetically to her feet, “I 'ain' got time ter be foolin' 'long o' you, an' all my cake ter bake. Dish yer batter ready for de oven now.”

“Dass so, Aunt Calline! I is in er mons'us hurry myse'f. I done promise Miss Botts ter fotch her er settin' er domineker aigs 'fo' sun-up dis mawnin'. I gotter be gwine.” And he picked up his basket and shuffled away.

It was late that night when Aunt Calline went to bed. Her hamper carefully packed and covered with a clean cloth was placed on the little table; beside it on a chair was laid out the black bombazine gown reserved for state occasions, the sheer kerchief, and the freshly ironed turban. She surveyed these last preparations with great satisfaction before turning down the wick of the smoky kerosene lamp. “Bless de Lawd,” she muttered, “I is gwine ter feel my freedom at las'! I is gwine ter de 'Mancipation Day dis time, sho! An' I boun' Big Hannah, wi' de res' o' de corn-fiel' niggers, gwine ter laugh de wrong side o' dey mouf when dey sees me settin' in de head cheer ez de centre figger, an' all de conjugations o' all de chu'ches comin' up an' makin' dey bow ter Sister Calline Wins'n.”

She was up betimes the next morning. The first long slanting rays of sunlight came in through the half-open shutter as she gave a last twist to the wonderful knot in her turban. “Now,” she said aloud, “I gwine ter feed de chickens, an' tie up ole Rove, an' kiver up de fiah, an' den I kin say I ready.”

She opened the front door as she spoke, but she started back with an exclamation of anger and surprise. A man, evidently a tramp, was huddled upon the step, his head resting upon his arms, which were crossed upon the door-sill.

“Look a-heah, white man,” she began, in a shrill, high voice, “what you doin'? Whar you come fum? I gwine ter set de dog on you dis minit ef you doan git up fum dar an' go 'long 'bout yo' business.”

The bundle of rags at her feet stirred. He lifted his head and threw back the long, matted hair from his forehead. A pair of dim blue eyes looked up at her appealingly; a wan smile played over the emaciated and sunken features; the pale lips parted as if for speech. But there was no need. She had gathered him up in her arms, rags and all, and was carrying the light burden across the threshold, laughing hysterically.

“Lawd, li'l Marse Rod!” she cried, as she placed him in the big split-bottomed chair in a corner of the fireplace, “I know'd you wuz gwine ter come back! I is know'd it all de time. An' yo' po' ole mammy so blin' dat she didn' jes edzackly place you at de fus' look. 'Sides, you didn't had no mustache when you lef' home.” The tears were streaming down her old cheeks as she hovered over him in an ecstasy of joy. He essayed to speak, but a hollow cough wrenched his frail body, and his head dropped helplessly against the faithful breast which had pillowed it in infancy.

“Doan you try ter talk, honey,” she said, stroking his cheek with her hand. Then, leaning over him and interpreting a look in his haggard eyes, she cried, “My Lawd a' mighty, de chile is hongry!

She dragged the table to his side with feverish haste, and spread upon it the contents of the basket. She affected not to notice while he ate—almost ravenously. “You sees, Marse Rod,” she said, now down on her knees before him, removing the tattered shoes from his blistered end travel-worn feet—“you sees dat de quality doan nuver put on dey fine close fer ter travel in, an' I might o' know'd dat you wa'n't gwine ter come home all dress up in broadcloth, same ez ef you wa'n't no mo'n po' white trash.”

Rodney Winston smiled pitifully. He had pushed away his plate, and was leaning back in his chair, exhausted and panting.

“Mammy,” he interrupted, speaking for the first time, and laying a thin hand caressingly on her shoulder, “where is my mother?”

“I 'clar' ter goodness,” she went on, with tender volubility, pretending not to hear, “you look edzackly lak you did, edzackly! I gwine ter cut yo' ha'r 'reckly—dat same yaller ha'r whar me en' ole mis' useter say look lak er twis' er sugar-candy—an' den you kin put on some o' Ab'm's close yander in de chis; dey was all yo' pa's, honey, an' you ain' gwine ter be 'shame' ter w'ar 'em twel yo' trunk gits heah; an' den—”

“Mammy,” he began again. But at this moment a confused and tumultuous sound began to float in on the fresh morning air.

“Jes you wait er minit, li'l marse,” she said, starting up; and throwing a light covering across his knees, she went out into the yard, closing the door behind her.

The procession was coming—the great, good-humored crowd which had been gathering since long before daylight about the doors of Antioch Church. Every negro in the county, big and little, young and old, was there—the congregations of the churches marching on foot and carrying banners; the Sunday-schools under the leadership of the elders; societies with badges; Sisters of Rebecca and Daughters of Deborah in blue cambric shoulder-capes and wide belts; Sons of Zion in the wrinkled and creased broadcloth coats and the well-preserved silk hats of a dead and gone generation; wagon loads of old people and babies; back-sliders with banjos and fiddles; hardened sinners who had never even been seekers at the mourners' bench—they were all there, and the long line had just turned the corner of the field beyond the “great-house.” It was headed by an open wagon which carried the choir of Antioch Church. Jerry Martin, big, black, and sleek, one of the chief holders in Zion, stood on the front seat, swaying from side to side, and shouting:

                        “Ole Satan he thought dat he had me fas'.”

The shrill voices of the women took up the refrain:

                        “March erlong, childern, march erlong!”

                        “But I is broke his chains at las'.”

And the whole line joined in the chorus:

                        “March erlong, childern, for de Promis' Lan' is nigh.” The sound rolled away triumphant, mighty unctuous, and came echoing back from the distant woodland.

The carriage destined for that sister in Zion whose virtues entitled her to the foremost place of honor followed Jerry and his choir. Aunt Calline's heart thrilled with pride as it rattled up to the gate and stopped. It was the old Winston family carriage, dilapidated, and somewhat the worse for wear, but strong and serviceable still. Two sleek mules trotted under the ragged harness, and Uncle Jake Prince sat on the driver's seat. Brother 'Lijah Vance, the pastor of Antioch, got out. The vast procession halted, and a sudden hush fell upon the people.

Brother Vance lifted the latch of the gate. “Good-mawnin', Sister Wins'n,” he said, pompously, removing his tall hat and extending a gloved hand. “De centre figger will please ha' de goodness ter tek er seat in de cayidge, an' be druv ter de 'Mancipation Groun's.”

“Much erbleege ter you, Br'er Vance,” replied Sister Winston, with her grandest courtesy, “an' I meks my compliments ter de chu'ches an' de chu'ch-members. But I has comp'ny dis mawnin', an' I axes you ter scuse me fum bein' de centre figger.”

“Lawd, Aun' Calline!” exclaimed Brother Vance, dropping in his dismay into every-day manners, “who gwine ter be de centre figger ef you ain'?”

“Mr. Rodney Wins'n done come home, 'Lijah,” she replied. A murmur of surprise swept down the line; many of the old Winston negroes were near, and these left their places and came crowding about the gate. “Li'l Marse Rod done come back,” she continued, her head raised majestically, and her hands folded across her bosom; “he ain' ter say rested yet, but ter-morrer he gwine ter open up de gre't-house yander. He axes you all howdy, an' he say you mus' come up an' shek han's at de gre't-house.”

To be sho!” ejaculated Uncle Jake from his perch.

“Dass de li'l Marse Rod whar Mis' Calline Wins'n been jawin' 'bout ever sence I bawn,” giggled one of the girls in the choir-wagon, a pretty mulattress with a saucy face. “Whar's de cayidge, an' de pa'r er high-steppin' hosses, an' de baag er gol' he gwine ter fotch home fum yander, Aun' Calline?”

Aunt Calline turned upon her wrathfully. “Yer lazy, good-fer-nothin', low-down nigger,” she blazed, “ef you doan shet yo' mouf, I gwine ter hise myse'f in dat wagin an' w'ar you ter a plum frazzle.”

The girl cowered down behind her companions, subdued and frightened. Brother Vance re-entered the carriage, much perplexed by the unexpected turn of events. Jerry Martin lifted up his powerful voice again, and the procession passed on.

She went back into the cabin. Her guest unclosed his eyes as she entered, and looked about him vaguely for a moment, as if he hardly knew where he was. Then a quick flush mounted to his cheek. “Mammy,” he insisted, “where is my mother?”

“Well, honey,” she admitted, reluctantly, “yer ma ain' ter say livin' edzackly; she done—”

“And my sister?”

“Marse Rod, you knows dat missy wuz po'ly fum de cradle; en' de consomption bein' 'mongs' de fambly — 'mongs' de women -folks, min' you; 'tain't 'mongs' de men-folks—an' hit seem lak missy jes hatter go.”

“Dick?”

“Lawd, chile, I ain't nuver spected ter raise Dick! Dick wuz dat venturesome dat when dey fotch him home fum de bayou drownded I ain' ter say 'stonish'. Dick he layin' out yander in de fambly buryin'-groun', jes 'cross de foot o' yo' pa an' yo' ma; an' Ab'm he in de cornder, whar dey is lef' a place fer me.”

He covered his face with his hands and groaned.

“Doan be trebbled, honey,” she said, soothing him as one would soothe a hurt child—“doan be trebbled.”

When she had clipped his hair and dressed him in the spotless linen and the old, blue, brass-buttoned suit, which had once been his father's, he lay on the bed, following with grateful eyes her bustling movements about the room.

“Mammy,” he said, suddenly, “I've come back poorer than I went away. I've been everywhere; I've tried everything. In all these years I have somehow not been able to make my bread, much less—I was ashamed even to write to my mother until I could tell her that I was coming home to take care of her; and now—”

“Dat doan matter, honey,” she interrupted, eagerly. “Doan you fret yo'se'f. We gwine ter git erlong. Yo' ole mammy kin wuk. Lawd, dey ain't no young gal in dish yer county whar kin do day's wuk lak I kin! An' when you gits fa'r rested, you is gwine ter tek up de ole plantation, an' men' de fences, an' patch up de cabins, and hiah de mules an' de niggers. Mun! de niggers gwine ter be mighty proud when dey gits er chance ter come back ter de old plantation; an' den—”

Even as she spoke his eyes closed, his head dropped, a mortal pallor crept over his already pale face.

“O Lawd, doan let de chile die!” she sobbed, chafing his pulseless wrists and rubbing his cold feet. He presently rallied, and sank into a peaceful slumber, which lasted well on into the afternoon. She sat watching him while he slept, her old brain teeming with visions of the renewed glories of Winston Place. The doors of the “great-house” once more stood wide open;—the sound of music and laughter rang out from the windows;—horses were hitched in the lane;—carriages rolled around the drive, and ladies in long, rustling silk dresses got out and passed up the steps;—children were at play on the smooth lawn— children with skin like the snow of apple blossoms, and coal-black pickaninnies with laughing eyes and shining teeth;—a pack of hounds leaped and yelped about the stable-yard, where the young master and his friends were mounting for a fox-hunt;—the long table in the dining-room blazed with crystal and silver under the light of the lamps;—the house-girls ran in and out, carrying trays of glasses, wherein the ice tinkled and wherefrom the sprigs of bruised mint perfumed the air;—outside, in the lane, the field-hands were going by with cotton-baskets on their heads and singing;—in the big kitchen fireplace the flames roared—

Suddenly a clear young voice filled the room. Could it be the curly-haired lad coming running bareheaded down the walk from the “greathouse”? “Mammy, tell Dick to wait for me; I'm coming!” he cried, a boyish smile playing about his lips, and a boyish light sparkling in his dying eyes.

“De las' o' we-alls fambly,” moaned the faithful soul, straightening his limbs and smoothing back the still, silken curls from his forehead.

An hour or two later she came out into the yard. The sun had set; the first stars were coming into the soft gray sky, and under the horizon hung the pale crescent of a new moon. “I gwine ter put some pinks an' some honeysuckle in his han's,” she murmured, “ 'caze ole mis' gimme dem pinks an' dat honeysuckle fum onder her winder yander ter de gre't-house. An' I gwine ter bury him 'longside o' Dick, 'caze Dick he been er waitin' er long time fer li'l Marse Rod.”

The evening wind was rising, and on it came borne the sound of singing. She lifted her head, listening. It was the 'Mancipation Day procession. Brother Vance was leading his flock homeward through the gathering dusk.

                        “I is wuked all day in de br'ilin' sun,”

sang Jerry Martin, the mellow tones of his voice ringing clearly out across the open fields.

                        “Lawd Jesus, call me home!”

responded the people.

                        “Now de sun is down an' de wuk is done.”

                        “Lawd Jesus, call me home!”

“Dass so!” said Aunt Calline, softly. “Dass so! De wuk is sho done. Lawd Jesus, call me home!”

 
 
 

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