EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index

 
 
 

The Whipping of Uncle Henry by Will Nathaniel Harben

 

“I do believe,” said Mrs. Pelham, stooping to look through the oblong window of the milk- and-butter cellar toward the great barn across the farmyard, “I do believe Cobb an' Uncle Henry are fussin' ag'in.”

“Shorely not,” answered her old-maid sister, Miss Molly Meyers. She left her butter bowl and paddles, and bent her angular figure beside Mrs. Pelham, to see the white man and the black man who were gesticulating in each other's faces under the low wagon-shed that leaned against the barn.

The old women strained their ears to overhear what was said, but the stiff breeze from across the white-and-brown fields of cotton stretching toward the west bore the angry words away. Mrs. Pelham turned and drew the white cloths over her milkpans.

“Cobb will never manage them niggers in the world” she sighed. “Henry has had Old Nick in 'im as big as a house ever since Mr. Pelham went off an' left Cobb in charge. Uncle Henry hadn't minded one word Cobb has said, nur he won't. The whole crop is goin' to rack an' ruin. Thar's jest one thing to be done. Mr. Pelham has jest got to come home an' whip Henry. Nobody else could do it, an' he never will behave till it's done. Cobb tried to whip 'im t'other day when you was over the mountain, but Henry laid hold of a axhelve an' jest dared Cobb to tech 'im. That ended it. Cobb was afeard of 'im. Moreover, he's afeard Uncle Henry will put p'ison in his victuals, or do 'im or his family some bodily damage on the sly.”

“It would be a powerful pity,” returned Miss Molly, “fer Mr. Pelham to have to lay down his business in North Carolina, whar he's got so awful much to do, an' ride all that three hundred miles jest fer to whip one nigger. It looks like some other way mought be thought of. Couldn't you use your influence—”

“I've talked till I'm tired out,” Mrs. Pelham interrupted.”Uncle Henry promises an' forms good resolutions, it seems like, but the very minute Cobb wants 'im to do some'n a little different from Mr. Pelham's way, Henry won't stir a peg. He jest hates the ground Cobb walks on. Well, I reckon Cobb ain't much of a man. He never would work a lick, an' if he couldn't git a job overseein' somebody's niggers he'd let his family starve to death. Nobody kin hate a lazy, good-for-nothin' white man like a nigger kin. Thar Cobb comes now, to complain to me, I reckon,” added Mrs. Pelham, going back to the window. “An' bless your soul, Henry has took his seat out in the sun on the wagon-tongue, as big as life. I reckon the whole crop will go to rack an' ruin.

The next moment a tall, thin-visaged man with gray hair and beard stood in the cellar door.

“I'm jest about to the end o' my tether, Sister Pelham.” (He always called her “Sister,” because they were members of the same church.) “I can't get that black rascal to stir a step. I ordered Alf an' Jake to hold 'im, so I could give 'im a sound lashin', but they was afeard to tech 'im.”

Mrs. Pelham looked at him over her glasses as she wiped her damp hands on her apron.

“You don't know how to manage niggers, Brother Cobb; I didn't much 'low you did the day Mr. Pelham left you in charge. The fust mornin', you went to the field with that hosswhip in your hand, an' you've toted it about ever since. You mought know that would give offense. Mr. Pelham never toted one an' yore doin' of it looks like you 'lowed you'd have a use fer it.”

“I acknowledge I don't know what to do,” said Cobb, frowning down her reference to his whip. “I've been paid fer three months' work in advance, in the white mare an' colt Mr. Pelham give me, an' I've done sold 'em an' used the money. I'm free to confess that Brother Pelham's intrusts are bein' badly protected as things are goin'; but I've done my best.”

“I reckon you have,” answered Mrs. Pelham, with some scorn in her tone. “I reckon you have, accordin' to your ability an' judgment, an' we can't afford to lose your services after you've been paid. Thar is jest one thing left to do, an' that is fer Mr. Pelham to come home an' whip Henry. He's sowin' discord an' rebellion, an' needs a good, sound lashin'. The sooner it's done the better. Nobody can do it but Mr. Pelham, an' I'm goin' in now an' write the letter an' send it off. In the mean time, you'd better go on to work with the others, an' leave Henry alone till his master comes.”

“Brother Pelham is the only man alive that could whip 'im,” replied Cobb; “but it looks like a great pity an' expense for Brother Pel—“ But the planter's wife had passed him and gone up the steps into the sitting-room. Cobb walked across the barnyard without looking at the stalwart negro sitting on the wagon- tongue. He threw his whip down at the barn, and he and half a dozen negroes went to the hayfields over the knoll toward the creek.

In half an hour Mrs. Pelham, wearing her gingham bonnet, came out to where Uncle Henry still sat sulking in the sun. As she approached him, she pushed back her bonnet till her gray hair and glasses showed beneath it.

“Henry,” she said, sternly, “I've jest done a thing that I hated mightily to do.”

“What's that, Mis' Liza?” He looked up as he asked the question, and then hung his head shamefacedly. He was about forty-five years of age. For one of his race he had a strong, intelligent face. Indeed, he possessed far more intelligence than the average negro. He was considered the most influential slave on any of the half-dozen plantations lying along that side of the river. He had learned to read, and by listening to the conversation of white people had (if he had acquired the colloquial speech of the middle-class whites) dropped almost every trace of the dialect current among his people. And on this he prided himself no little. He often led in prayer at the colored meeting-house on an adjoining plantation, and some of his prayers were more widely quoted and discussed than many of the sermons preached in the same church.

“I have wrote to yore master, Henry,” answered Mrs. Pelham, “an' I've tol' 'im all yore doin's, an' tol' him to come home an' whip you fer disobeyin' Brother Cobb. I hated to do it, as I've jest said; but I couldn't see no other way out of the difficulty. Don't you think you deserve a whippin', Uncle Henry?”

“I don't know, Mis' Liza.” He did not look up from the grass over which he swung his rag-covered leg and gaping brogan. “I don't know myself, Mis' Liza. I want to help Marse Jasper out all I can while he is off, but it seems like I jest can't work fer that man. Huh, overseer! I say overseer! Why, Mis' Liza, he ain't as good as a nigger! Thar ain't no pore white trash in all this valley country as low down as all his lay-out. He ain't fittin' fer a overseer of nothin'. He don't do anything like master did, nohow. He's too lazy to git in out of a rain. He—”

“That will do, Henry. Mr. Pelham put him over you, an' you've disobeyed. He'll be home in a few days, an' you an' him can settle it between you. He will surely give you a good whippin' when he gits here. Are you goin' to sit thar without layin' yore hand to a thing till he comes?”

“Now, you know me better'n that, Mis' Liza. I've done said I won't mind that man, an' I reckon I won't; but the meadow-piece has obliged to be broke an' sowed in wheat. I'm goin' to do that jest as soon as the blacksmith fetches my bull-tongue plow.”

Mrs. Pelham turned away silently. She had heard some talk of the government buying the negroes from their owners and setting them free. She ardently hoped this would be done, for she was sure they could then be hired cheaper than they could be owned and provided for. She disliked to see a negro whipped; but occasionally she could see no other way to make them do their duty.

From the dairy window, a few minutes later, she saw Uncle Henry put the gear on a mule, and, with a heavy plow-stock on his shoulder, start for the wheat-field beyond the meadow.

“He'll do two men's work over thar, jest to show what he kin do when he's let alone,” she said to Miss Molly. “I hate to see 'im whipped. He's too old an' sensible in most things, an' it would jest break Lucinda's heart Mr. Pelham had ruther cut off his right arm, too; but he'll do it, an' do it good, after havin' to come so far.”

Mr. Pelham was a week in reaching the plantation. He wrote that it would take several days to arrange his affairs so that he could leave. He admitted that there was nothing left to do except to whip Uncle Henry soundly, and that they were right in thinking that Henry would not let any one do it but himself. After the whipping he was sure that the negro would obey Cobb, and that matters would then move along smoothly.

When Mr. Pelham arrived, he left the stage at the cross-roads, half a mile from his house, and carpet-bag in hand, walked home through his own fields. He was a short, thick-set man of about sixty, round- faced, blue-eyed, and gray-haired. He wore a sack-coat, top- boots, and baggy trousers. He had a good- natured, kindly face, and walked with the quick step and general air of a busy man.

He had traveled three hundred miles, slept on the hard seat of a jolting train, eaten railroad pies and peanuts, and was covered with the grime of a dusty journey, all to whip one disobedient negro. Still, he was not out of humor, and after the whipping and lecture to his old servant he would travel back over the tiresome route and resume his business where he had left it.

His wife and sister-in-law were in the kitchen when they heard his step in the long hall. They went into the sitting-room, where he had put down his carpet-bag, and in the center of the floor stood swinging his hat and mopping his brow with his red handkerchief. He shook hands with the two women, and then sat down in his old seat in the chimney-corner.

“You want a bite to eat, an' a cup of coffee, I reckon,” said Mrs. Pelham, solicitously.

“No, I kin wait till dinner. Whar's Cobb?”

“I seed 'im at the wagon-shed a minute ago,” spoke up Miss Molly; “he was expectin' you, an' didn't go to the field with the balance.”

“Tell 'im I want to see 'im.”

Both of the women went out, and the overseer came in.

“Bad state of affairs, Brother Cobb,” said the planter, as he shook hands. They both sat down with their knees to the embers.

“That it is, Brother Pelham, an' I take it you didn't count on it any more'n I did.”

“Never dreamt of it. Has he been doin' any better since he heerd I was comin' to—whip 'im?”

“Not fer me, Brother Pelham. He hadn't done a lick fer me; but all of his own accord, in the last week, he has broke and sowed all that meadow-piece in wheat, an' is now harrowin' it down to hide it from the birds. To do 'im jestice, I hadn't seed so much work done in six days by any human bein' alive. He'll work for hisse'f, but he won't budge fer me.”

Mr. Pelham broke into a soft, impulsive laugh, as if at the memory of something.

“They all had a big joke on me out in North Carolina,” he said. “I tol' 'em I was comin' home to whip a nigger, an' they wouldn't believe a word of it. I reckon it is the fust time a body ever went so fur on sech business. They 'lowed I was jest homesick an' wanted a' excuse to come back.”

“They don't know what a difficult subject we got to handle,” Cobb replied. “You are, without doubt, the only man in seven states that could whip 'im, Brother Pelham. I believe on my soul he'd kill anybody else that'd tech 'im. He's got the strangest notions about the rights of niggers I ever heerd from one of his kind. He's jest simply dangerous.”

“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' niggers.”

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 wheatfield, 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 so?”

“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 hadn'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 back.

“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 hadn't never laid the lash on you in my life, an' I'd rusher take it myself than to have to do it, but I hadn'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 66 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 knowest, 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 good natured face of the slave he loved made it impossible.

“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 thumbnail.

“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 face.

“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 en' tee 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 again.”

“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.

 
 
 

EBooks - Fiction, Nonfiction 1000s of them ~ Index