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Ole Stracted by Thomas Nelson Page

 

“Awe, little Ephum! awe, little E-phum! ef you don' come 'long heah, boy, an' rock dis chile, I'll buss you haid open!” screamed the high-pitched voice of a woman, breaking the stillness of the summer evening. She had just come to the door of the little cabin, where she was now standing, anxiously scanning the space before her, while a baby's plaintive wail rose and fell within with wearying monotony. The log cabin, set in a gall in the middle of an old field all grown up in sassafras, was not a very inviting-looking place; a few hens loitering about the new hen-house, a brood of half-grown chickens picking in the grass and watching the door, and a runty pig tied to a “stob,” were the only signs of thrift; yet the face of the woman cleared up as she gazed about her and afar off, where the gleam of green made a pleasant spot, where the corn grew in the river-bottom; for it was her home, and the best of all was she thought it belonged to them.

A rumble of distant thunder caught her ear, and she stepped down and took a well-worn garment from the clothes-line, stretched between two dogwood forks, and having, after a keen glance down the path through the bushes, satisfied herself that no one was in sight, she returned to the house, and the baby's voice rose louder than before. The mother, as she set out her ironing table, raised a dirge-like hymn, which she chanted, partly from habit and partly in self-defence. She ironed carefully the ragged shirt she had just taken from the line, and then, after some search, finding a needle and cotton, she drew a chair to the door and proceeded to mend the garment.

“Dis de on'ies' shut Ole 'Stracted got,” she said, as if in apology to herself for being so careful.

The cloud slowly gathered over the pines in the direction of the path; the fowls carefully tripped up the path, and after a prudent pause at the hole, disappeared one by one within; the chickens picked in a gradually contracting circuit, and finally one or two stole furtively to the cabin door, and after a brief reconnaissance came in, and fluttered up the ladder to the loft, where they had been born, and yet roosted. Once more the baby's voice prevailed, and once more the woman went to the door, and, looking down the path, screamed, “Awe, little Ephum! awe, little Ephum!”

“Ma'm,” came the not very distant answer from the bushes.

“Why 'n't you come 'long heah, boy, an' rock dis chile?”

“Yes'm, I comin',” came the answer. She waited, watching, until there emerged from the bushes a queer little caravan, headed by a small brat, who staggered under the weight of another apparently nearly as large and quite as black as himself, while several more of various degrees of diminutiveness struggled along behind.

“Ain't you heah me callin' you, boy? You better come when I call you. I'll tyah you all to pieces!” pursued the woman, in the angriest of keys, her countenance, however, appearing unruffled. The head of the caravan stooped and deposited his burden carefully on the ground; then, with a comical look of mingled alarm and penitence, he slowly approached the door, keeping his eye watchfully on his mother, and, picking his opportunity, slipped in past her, dodging skilfully just enough to escape a blow which she aimed at him, and which would have “slapped him flat” had it struck him, but which, in truth, was intended merely to warn and keep him in wholesome fear, and was purposely aimed high enough to miss him, allowing for the certain dodge.

The culprit, having stifled the whimper with which he was prepared, flung himself on to the foot of the rough plank cradle, and began to rock it violently and noisily, using one leg as a lever, and singing an accompaniment, of which the only words that rose above the noise of the rockers were “By-a-by, don't you cry; go to sleep, little baby;” and sure enough the baby stopped crying and went to sleep.

Eph watched his mammy furtively as she scraped away the ashes and laid the thick pone of dough on the hearth, and shovelled the hot ashes upon it. Supper would be ready directly, and it was time to propitiate her. He bethought himself of a message.

“Mammy, Ole 'Stracted say you must bring he shut; he say he marster comin' to-night.”

“How he say he is?” inquired the woman, with some interest.

“He ain' say—jes say he want he shut. He sutny is comical—he layin' down in de baid.” Then, having relieved his mind, Eph went to sleep in the cradle.

“'Layin' down in de baid?'“ quoted the woman to herself as she moved about the room. “I 'ain' nuver 'hearn 'bout dat befo'. Dat sutny is a comical ole man anyways. He say he used to live on dis plantation, en' yit he al'ays talkin' 'bout de gret house an' de fine kerridges dee used to have, an' 'bout he marster comin' to buy him back. De 'ain' nuver been no gret house on dis place, not sence I know nuttin 'bout it, 'sep de overseer house whar dat man live. I heah Ephum say Aunt Dinah tell him de ole house whar used to be on de hill whar dat gret oak-tree is in de pines bu'nt down de year he wuz born, an' he ole marster had to live in de overseer house, an' hit break he heart, an' dee teck all he niggers, an' dat's de way he come to blongst to we all; but dat ole man ain' know nuttin 'bout dat house, 'cause hit bu'nt down. I wonder whar he did come from?” she pursued, “an' what he sho' 'nough name? He sholy couldn' been named Ole 'Stracted, jes so; dat ain' no name 'tall. Yit ef he ain' 'stracted, 'tain' nobody is. He ain' even know he own name,” she continued, presently. “Say he marster 'll know him when he come—ain' know de folks is free; say he marster gwi buy him back in de summer an' kyar him home, an' 'bout de money he gwine gi' him. Ef he got any money, I wonder he live down dyah in dat evil-sperit hole.” And the woman glanced around with great complacency on the picture-pasted walls of her own by no means sumptuously furnished house. “Money!” she repeated aloud, as she began to rake in the ashes, “He ain' got nuttin. I got to kyar him piece o' dis bread now,” and she went off into a dream of what they would do when the big crop on their land should be all in, and the last payment made on the house; of what she would wear, and how she would dress the children, and the appearance she would make at meeting, not reflecting that the sum they had paid on the property had never, even with all their stinting, amounted in any one year to more than a few dollars over the rent charged for the place, and that the eight hundred dollars yet due on it was more than they could make at the present rate in a lifetime.

“Ef Ephum jes had a mule, or even somebody to help him,” she thought, “but he ain' got nuttin. De chil'n ain' big 'nough to do nuttin but eat; he 'ain' got no brurrs, an' he deddy took 'way an' sold down Souf de same time my ole marster whar dead buy him; dat's what I al'ays heah 'em say, an' I know he's dead long befo' dis, 'cause I heah 'em say dese Virginia niggers carn stan' hit long deah, hit so hot, hit frizzle 'em up, an' I reckon he die befo' he ole marster, whar I heah say die of a broked heart torectly after dee teck he niggers en' sell 'em befo' he face. I heah Aunt Dinah say dat, en' dat he might'ly sot on he ole servants, spressaly on Ephum deddy, whar named Little Ephum, an' whar used to wait on him. Dis mus' 'a' been a gret place dem days, 'cordin' to what dee say.” She went on: “Dee say he sutny live strong, wuz jes rich as cream, en' weahed he blue coat an' brass buttons, an' lived in dat ole house whar wuz up whar de pines is now, an' whar bu'nt down, like he owned de wull. An' now look at it; dat man own it all, an' cuttin' all de woods off it. He don' know nuttin 'bout black folks, ain' nuver been fotch up wid 'em. Who ever heah he name 'fo' he come heah an' buy de place, an' move in de overseer house, an' charge we all eight hundred dollars for dis land, jes 'cause it got little piece o' bottom on it, an' forty-eight dollars rent besides, wid he ole stingy wife whar oon' even gi' 'way buttermilk!” An expression of mingled disgust and contempt concluded the reflection.

She took the ash-cake out of the ashes, slapped it first on one side, then on the other, with her hand, dusted it with her apron, and walked to the door and poured a gourd of water from the piggin over it. Then she divided it in half; one half she set up against the side of the chimney, the other she broke up into smaller pieces and distributed among the children, dragging the sleeping Eph, limp and soaked with sleep, from the cradle to receive his share. Her manner was not rough— was perhaps even tender—but she used no caresses, as a white woman would have done under the circumstances. It was only toward the baby at the breast that she exhibited any endearments. Her nearest approach to it with the others was when she told them, as she portioned out the ash-cake, “Mammy 'ain't got nuttin else; but nuver min', she gwine have plenty o' good meat next year, when deddy done pay for he land.”

“Hi! who dat out dyah?” she said, suddenly. “Run to de do', son, an' see who dat comin',” and the whole tribe rushed to inspect the new-comer.

It was, as she suspected, her husband, and as soon as he entered she saw that something was wrong. He dropped into a chair, and sat in moody silence the picture of fatigue, physical and mental. After waiting for some time, she asked, indifferently, “What de matter?”

“Dat man.”

“What he done do now?” The query was sharp with suspicion.

“He say he ain' gwine let me have my land.”

“He's a half-strainer,” said the woman, with sudden anger. “How he gwine help it? Ain' you got crap on it?” She felt that there must be a defence against such an outrage.

“He say he ain' gwine wait no longer; dat I wuz to have tell Christmas to finish payin' for it, an' I ain' do it, an' now he done change he min'.”

“Tell dis Christmas comin',” said his wife, with the positiveness of one accustomed to expound contracts.

“Yes; but I tell you he say he done change he min'.” The man had evidently given up all hope; he was dead beat.

“De crap's yourn,” said she, affected by his surrender, but prepared only to compromise.

“He say he gwine teck all dat for de rent, and dat he gwine drive Ole 'Stracted 'way too.

“He ain' nuttin but po' white trash!” It expressed her supreme contempt.

“He say he'll gi' me jes one week mo' to pay him all he ax for it,” continued he, forced to a correction by her intense feeling, and the instinct of a man to defend the absent from a woman's attack, and perhaps in the hope that she might suggest some escape.

“He ain' nuttin sep po' white trash!” she repeated. “How you gwine raise eight hundred dollars at once? Dee kyarn nobody do dat. Gord mout! He ain' got good sense.”

“You ain' see dat corn lately, is you?” he asked. “Hit jes as rank! You can almos' see it growin' ef you look at it good. Dat's strong land. I know dat when I buy it.”

He knew it was gone now, but he had been in the habit of calling it his in the past three years, and it did him good to claim the ownership a little longer.

“I wonder whar Marse Johnny is?” said the woman. He was the son of her former owner; and now, finding her proper support failing her, she instinctively turned to him. “He wouldn' let him turn we all out.”

“He ain' got nuttin, an' ef he is, he kyarn get it in a week,” said Ephraim.

“Kyarn you teck it in de co't?”

“Dat's whar he say he gwine have it ef I don' git out,” said her husband, despairingly.

Her last defence was gone.

“Ain' you hongry?” she inquired.

“What you got?”

“I jes gwine kill a chicken for you.”

It was her nearest approach to tenderness, and he knew it was a mark of special attention, for all the chickens and eggs had for the past three years gone to swell the fund which was to buy the home, and it was only on special occasions that one was spared for food.

The news that he was to be turned out of his home had fallen on him like a blow, and had stunned him; he could make no resistance, he could form no plans. He went into a rough estimate as he waited.

“Le' me see: I done wuck for it three years dis Christmas done gone; how much does dat meck?”

“An' fo' dollars, an' five dollars, an' 'fo' dollars an' a half last Christmas from de chickens, an' all dem ducks I done sell he wife, en' de washin' I been doin' for 'em; how much is dat?” supplemented his wife.

“Dat's what I say!”

His wife endeavored vainly to remember the amount she had been told it was; but the unaccounted-for washing changed the sum and destroyed her reliance on the result. And as the chicken was now approaching perfection, and required her undivided attention, she gave up the arithmetic and applied herself to her culinary duties.

Ephraim also abandoned the attempt, and waited in a reverie, in which he saw corn stand so high and rank over his land that he could scarcely distinguish the balk, and a stable and barn and a mule, or maybe be two—it was a possibility—and two cows which his wife would milk, and a green wagon driven by his boys, while he took it easy and gave orders like a master, and a clover patch, and wheat, and he saw the yellow grain waving, and heard his sons sing the old harvest song of “Cool Water” while they swung their cradles, and—

“You say he gwine turn Ole 'Stracted out, too?” inquired his wife, breaking the spell. The chicken was done now, and her mind reverted to the all engrossing subject.

“Yes; say he tired o' ole' stracted nigger livin' on he place an' payin' no rent.”

“Good Gord A'mighty! Pay rent for dat ole pile o logs! Ain't he been mendin' he shoes an' her ness for rent all dese years?”

“'Twill kill dat ole man to tu'n him out dat house,” said Ephraim; “he ain' nuver stay away from dyah a hour sence he come heah.”

“Sutny 'twill,” assented his wife; then she added in reply to the rest of the remark, “Nuver min'; den we'll see what he got in dyah.” To a woman, that was at least some compensation. Ephraim's thoughts had taken a new direction.

“He al'ays feared he marster 'd come for him while he 'way,” he said, in mere continuance of his last remark.

“He sen' me wud he marster comin' to-night, an' he want he shut,” said his wife, as she handed him his supper. Ephraim's face expressed more than interest; it was tenderness which softened the rugged lines as he sat looking into the fire. Perhaps he thought of the old man's loneliness, and of his own father torn away and sold so long ago, before he could even remember, and perhaps very dimly of the beauty of the sublime devotion of this poor old creature to his love and his trust, holding steadfast beyond memory, beyond reason, after the knowledge even of his own identity and of his very name was lost.

The woman caught the contagion of his sympathy.

“De chil'n say he mighty comical, an' he layin' down in de baid,” she said.

Ephraim rose from his seat.

“Whar you gwine?”

“I mus' go to see 'bout him,” he said, simply.

“Ain' you gwine finish eatin'?”

“I gwine kyar dis to him.”

“Well, I kin cook you anurr when we come back,” said his wife, with ready acquiescence.

In a few minutes they were on the way, going single file down the path through the sassafras, along which little Eph and his followers had come an hour before, the man in the lead and his wife following, and, according to the custom of their race, carrying the bundles, one the surrendered supper and the other the neatly folded and well-patched shirt in which Ole 'Stracted, hoped to meet his long-expected loved ones.

As they came in sight of the ruinous little hut which had been the old man's abode since his sudden appearance in the neighborhood a few years after the war, they observed that the bench beside the door was deserted, and that the door stood ajar—two circumstances which neither of them remembered ever to have seen before; for in all the years in which he had been their neighbor Ole 'Stracted had never admitted any one within his door, and had never been known to leave it open. In mild weather he occupied a bench outside, where he either cobbled shoes for his neighbors, accepting without question anything they paid him, or else sat perfectly quiet with the air of a person waiting for some one. He held only the briefest communication with anybody and was believed by some to have intimate relations with the Evil One, and his tumble-down hut, which he was particular to keep closely daubed, was thought by such as took this view of the matter to be the temple where he practiced his unholy rites. For this reason, and because the little cabin, surrounded by dense pines and covered with vines which the popular belief held “pizonous,” was the most desolate abode a human being could have selected, most of the dwellers in that section gave the place a wide berth, especially toward nightfall, and Ole 'Stracted would probably have suffered but for the charity of Ephraim and his wife, who, although often wanting the necessaries of life themselves, had long divided it with their strange neighbor. Yet even they had never been admitted inside his door, and knew no more of him than the other people about the settlement knew.

His advent in the neighborhood had been mysterious. The first that was known of him was one summer morning, when he was found sitting on the bench beside the door of this cabin, which had long been unoccupied and left to decay. He was unable to give any account of himself, except that he always declared that he had been sold by some one other than his master from that plantation, that his wife and boy had been sold to some other person at the same time for twelve hundred dollars (he was particular as to the amount), and that his master was coming in the summer to buy him back and take him home, and would bring him his wife and child when he came. Everything since that day was a blank to him, and as he could not tell the name of his master or wife, or even his own name, and as no one was left old enough to remember him, the neighborhood having been entirely deserted after the war, he simply passed as a harmless old lunatic laboring under a delusion. He was devoted to children, and Ephraim's small brood were his chief delight. They were not at all afraid of him, and whenever they got a chance they would slip off and steal down to his house, where they might be found any time squatting about his feet, listening to his accounts of his expected visit from his master, and what he was going to do afterward. It was all of a great plantation, and fine carriages and horses, and a house with his wife and the boy.

This was all that was known of him, except that once a stranger, passing through the country, and hearing the name Ole 'Stracted, said that he heard a similar one once, long before the war, in one of the Louisiana parishes, where the man roamed at will, having been bought of the trader by the gentleman who owned him, for a small price, on account of his infirmity.

“Is you gwine in dyah?” asked the woman, as they approached the hut.

“Hi! yes; 'tain' nuttin' gwine hu't you; an' you say Ephum say he layin' in de baid?” he replied, his mind having evidently been busy on the subject.

“An' mighty comical,” she corrected him, with exactness born of apprehension.

“Well? I 'feared he sick.”

“I ain' nuver been in dyah,” she persisted.

“Ain' de chil'n been in dyah?”

“Dee say 'stracted folks oon' hu't chil'n.”

“Dat ole man oon' hu't nobody; he jes tame as a ole tomcat.”

“I wonder he ain' feared to live in dat lonesome ole house by hisself. I jes lieve stay in a graveyard at once. I ain' wonder folks say he sees sperrits in dat hanty-lookin' place.” She came up by her husband's side at the suggestion. “I wonder he don' go home?”

“Whar he got any home to go to sep heaven?” said Ephraim.

“What was you mammy name, Ephum?”

“Mymy,” said he, simply.

They were at the cabin now, and a brief pause of doubt ensued. It was perfectly dark inside the door, and there was not a sound. The bench where they had heretofore held their only communication with their strange neighbor was lying on its side in the weeds which grew up to the very walls of the ruinous cabin, and a lizard suddenly ran over it, and with a little rustle disappeared under the rotting ground-sill. To the woman it was an ill omen. She glanced furtively behind her, and moved nearer her husband's side. She noticed that the cloud above the pines was getting a taint yellow tinge on its lower border, while it was very black above them. It filled her with dread, and she was about to call her husband's notice to it, when a voice within arrested their attention. It was very low, and they both listened in awed silence, watching the door meanwhile as if they expected to see something supernatural spring from it.

“Nem min'—jes wait—'tain' so long now—he'll be heah torectly,” said the voice. “Dat's what he say—gwine come an' buy me back—den we gwine home.”

In their endeavor to catch the words they moved nearer, and made a slight noise. Suddenly the low, earnest tone changed to one full of eagerness.

“Who dat?” was called in sharp inquiry.

“ 'Tain' nobody but me an' Polly, Ole 'Stracted,” said Ephraim, pushing the door slightly wider open and stepping in. They had an indistinct idea that the poor deluded creature had fancied them his longed-for loved ones, yet it was a relief to see him bodily.

“Who you say you is?” inquired the old man, feebly.

“Me an' Polly.”

“I done bring you shut home,” said the woman, as if supplementing her husband's reply. “Hit all bran' clean, an' I done patch it.”

“Oh, I thought—” said the voice, sadly.

They knew what he thought. Their eyes were now accustomed to the darkness, and they saw that the only article of furniture which the room contained was the wretched bed or bench on which the old man was stretched. The light sifting through the chinks in the roof enabled them to see his face, and that it had changed much in the last twenty four hours, and an instinct told them that he was pear the end of his long waiting.

“How is you, Ole 'Stracted?” asked the woman. “Dat ain' my name,” answered the old man, promptly. It was the first time he had ever disowned the name.

“Well, how is you, Ole—What I gwine to call you?” asked she, with feeble finesse.

“I don' know—he kin tell you.”

“Who?”

“Who? Marster. He know it. Ole 'Stracted ain' know it; but dat ain' nuttin. He know it—got it set down in de book. I jes waitin' for 'em now.”

A hush fell on the little audience—they were in full sympathy with him, and knowing no way of expressing it, kept silence. Only the breathing of the old man was audible in the room. He was evidently nearing the end. “I mighty tired of waitin',” he said, pathetically. “Look out dyah and see ef you see anybody,” he added, suddenly.

Both of them obeyed, and then returned and stood silent; they could not tell him no.

Presently the woman said, “Don' you warn put you' shut on?”

“What did you say my name was?” he said.

“Ole 'Str—” She paused at the look of pain on his face, shifted uneasily from one foot to the other, and relapsed into embarrassed silence.

“Nem min'! dee'll know it—dee'll know me 'dout any name, oon' dee?” He appealed wistfully to them both. The woman for answer unfolded the shirt. He moved feebly, as if in assent.

“I so tired waitin',” he whispered; “done 'mos gin out, an' he oon come; but I thought I heah little Eph to-day?” There was a faint inquiry in his voice.

“Yes, he wuz heah.”

“Wuz he?” The languid form became instantly alert, the tired face took on a look of eager expectancy. “Heah, gi' m'y shut quick. I knowed it. Wait; go over dyah, son, and git me dat money. He'll be heah torectly.” They thought his mind wandered, and merely followed the direction of his eyes with theirs. “Go over dyah quick—don't you heah me?”

And to humor him Ephraim went over to the corner indicated.

“Retch up dyah, an' run you' hand in onder de second jice. It's all in dyah,” he said to the woman—“twelve hunderd dollars—dat's what dee went for. I wucked night an' day forty year to save dat money for marster; you know dee teck all he land an' all he niggers an' tu'n him out in de old fiel'? I put 'tin dyah 'ginst he come. You ain' know he comin' dis evenin', is you? Heah, help me on wid dat shut, gal—I stan'in' heah talkin' an' maybe ole marster waitin'. Push de do' open so you kin see. Forty year ago,” he murmured, as Polly jambed the door back and returned to his side—“forty year ago dee come en' levelled on me: marster sutny did cry. 'Nem min',' he said, 'I comin' right down in de summer to buy you back en' bring you home.' He's comin', too— nuver tol' me a lie in he life—comin' dis evenin'. Make 'aste.” This in tremulous eagerness to the woman, who had involuntarily caught the feeling, and was now with eager and ineffectual haste trying to button his shirt.

An exclamation from her husband caused her to turn around, as he stepped into the light and held up an old sock filled with something.

“Heah, hol' you' apron,” said the old man to Polly, who gathered up the lower corners of her apron and stood nearer the bed.

“Po' it in dyah.” This to Ephraim, who mechanically obeyed. He pulled off the string, and poured into his wife's lap the heap of glittering coin—gold and silver more than their eyes had ever seen before.

“Hit's all dyah,” said the old man, confidentially, as if he were rendering an account. “I been savin' it ever sence dee took me 'way. I so busy savin' it I ain' had time to eat, but I ain' hongry now; have plenty when I git home.” He sank back exhausted. “Oon marster be glad to see me?” he asked, presently, in pathetic simplicity. “You know we growed up togerr? I been waitin' so long I 'feared dee 'mos' done forgit me. You reckon dee is?” he asked the woman, appealingly.

“No, suh, dee ain' forgit you,” she said, comfortingly.

“I know dee ain',” he said, reassured. “Dat's what he tell me—he ain' nuver gwine forgit me.” The reaction had set in, and his voice was so feeble now it was scarcely audible. He was talking rather to himself than to them, and finally he sank into a doze. A painful silence reigned in the little hut, in which the only sign was the breathing of the dying man. A single shaft of light stole down under the edge of the slowly passing cloud and slipped up to the door. Suddenly the sleeper waked with a start, and gazed around.

“Hit gittin' mighty dark,” he whispered, faintly. “You reckon dee'll git heah 'fo' dark?”

The light was dying from his eyes.

“Ephum,” said the woman, softly, to her husband.

The effect was electrical.

“Heish! you heah dat!' exclaimed the dying man, eagerly.

“Ephum”—she repeated. The rest was drowned by Ole 'Stracted's joyous exclamation.

“Gord! I knowed it!” he cried, suddenly rising upright, and, with beaming face, stretching both arms toward the door. “Dyah dee come! Now watch 'em smile. All y'all jes stand back. Heah de one you lookin' for. Marster—Mymy—heah's Little Ephum!” And with a smile on his face he sank back into his son's arms.

The evening sun, dropping on the instant to his setting, flooded the room with light; but as Ephraim gently eased him down and drew his arm from around him, it was the light of the unending morning that was on his face. His Master had at last come for him, and after his long waiting, Ole 'Stracted had indeed gone home.

 
 
 

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