Abolitionist by Will Nathaniel Harben
Andrew Duncan and his wife trudged along the unshaded road in the
beating sunshine, and paused to rest under the gnarled white- trunked
sycamore trees. She wore a drooping gown of checked homespun, a
sun-bonnet of the same material, the hood of which was stiffened with
invisible strips of cardboard, and a pair of coarse shoes just from the
shop. Her husband was barefooted, his shirt was soiled, and he wore no
coat to hide the fact. His trousers were worn to shreds about the
ankles, but their knees were patched with new cloth.
“I never was as thirsty in all my born days,” he panted, as he
looked down into the bluish depths of a road-side spring. “Gee-whilikins! ain't it hot?”
“An' some fool or other's run off with the drinkin'-gourd,” chimed
in his wife. “Now ain't that jest our luck?”
“We'll have to lap it up dog-fashion, I reckon,” Andrew replied,
ruefully, “an' this is the hardest spring to git down to I ever seed.
Hold on, Ann; I'll fix you.”
As he spoke he knelt on the moss by the spring, turned his
broad-brimmed felt hat outside in, and tightly folded it in the shape
of a big dipper. He filled it with water, and still kneeling, held it
up to his wife. When their thirst was satisfied, they turned off from
the road into a path leading up a gradual slope, on the top of which
stood a three- roomed log cabin.
“They are waitin' fer us,” remarked Duncan. “I see 'em out in the
passage. My Lord, I wonder what under the sun they'll do with Big Joe.
Ever' time I think of the whole business I mighty nigh bu'st with
Mrs. Duncan smiled under her bonnet.
“I think it's powerful funny myself,” she said, as she followed
after him, her new shoes creaking and crunching on the gravel. To this
observation Duncan made no response, for they were now in front of the
An old man and an old woman sat in the passage, fanning their faces
with turkey-wing fans. They were Peter Gill and his wife, Lucretia. The
latter rose from her chair, which had been tilted back against the
wall, and with clattering heels, shambled into the room on the right.
“I reckon you'd ruther set out heer whar you kin ketch a breath o'
air from what little's afloat,” she said, cordially, as she emerged, a
chair in either hand. Placing the chairs against the wall opposite her
husband, she took a pair of turkey-wings from a nail on the wall and
handed them to her guests, and with a grunt of relief resumed her seat.
For a moment no one spoke, but Duncan presently broke the silence.
“Well, I went an' seed Colonel Whitney fer you,” he began, his blue
eyes twinkling with inward amusement. “An', Pete Gill, I'm powerfully
afeerd you are in fer it. As much as you've spoke agin slave-holdin' as
a practice, you've got to make a start at it. The Colonel said that you
held a mortgage on Big Joe, an' ef you don't take 'im right off you
won't get a red cent fer yore debt.”
“I'm prepared fer it,” burst from Mrs. Gill. “I tried my level best
to keep Mr. Gill from lendin' the money, but nothin' I could say would
have the least influence on 'im. The Lord only knows what we'll do. We
are purty-lookin' folks to own a high-priced, stuck-up quality nigger.”
The two visitors exchanged covert glances of amusement.
“How did you manage to git caught?” Andrew asked, crushing a subtle
smile out of his face with his broad red hand.
Peter Gill had grown quite red in the face and down his wrinkled,
muscular neck. As he took off his brogans to cool his feet, and began
to scratch his toes through his woolen socks, it was evident to his
questioner that he was not only embarrassed but angry.
“The thousand dollars was all the money we was ever able to save
up,” he said. “I was laying off to buy the fust piece o' good land that
was on the market, so me 'n the ol' 'omen would have a support in old
age. But I didn't see no suitable farm just then, an' as my money was
lyin' idle in the bank, Lawyer Martin advised me to put it out at
intrust, an' I kinder tuck to the notion. Then Colonel Whitney got wind
o' the matter an' rid over an' said, to accommodate me, he'd take the
loan. He fust give me a mortgage on some swampy land over in Murray,
that Martin said was wuth ten thousand, an' it run on that way fur two
year. The fust hint I had of the plight I was in was when the Colonel
couldn't pay the intrust. Then I went to another lawyer, fer it looked
like Martin an' the Colonel was kinder in cahoot, an' my man diskivered
that the lan' had been sold long before it was mortgaged to me for
taxes. My lawyer wasn't no fool, so he got Whitney in fer a game o'
open-an'-shut swindle. He up an' notified 'im that ef my claim wasn't
put in good shape in double-quick time, he was goin' to put the clamps
on somebody. Well, the final upshot was that I tuck Big Joe as
security, an' now that the Colonel's entire estate has gone to
flinders, I've got the nigger an' my money's gone.”
Duncan waited for the speaker to resume, but the aspect of the case
was so disheartening that Gill declined to say more about it. He simply
hitched one of his heels up on the last rung of his chair and began to
fan himself vigorously.
“I did as you wanted me to,” said Duncan, wiping his brow and
combing his long, damp hair with his fingers. “I went round an' axed
the opinion o' several good citizens, an' it is the general belief ef
you don't take the nigger you won't never git back a cent o' yore loan.
But the funniest part o' the business is the way Big Joe acts about
it.” Duncan met his wife's glance and laughed out impulsively. “You
see, Gill, in the Whitney break-up, all the other niggers has been sold
to rich families, an' the truth is, Big Joe feels his dignity tuck down
a good many pegs by bein' put off on you-uns, that never owned a slave
to yore name. The other darkies has been a-teasin' of 'im all day, an'
he's sick an' tired of it. The Whitneys has spiled 'im bad. They l'arnt
'im to read an' always let 'im stan' dressed up in his long coat in the
big front hall to invite quality folks in the house. They say he had
his eye on a yaller gal, an' that he's been obliged to give her up, fer
she's gone with one of the Staffords in Fannin' County.”
Gill's knee, which was thrust out in front of him by the sharp bend
of his leg, was quivering.
“Big Joe might do a sight wuss 'n to belong to me,” he said, warmly.
“I don't know as we-uns'll have any big hall for 'im to cavort about
in, nur anybody any wuss'n yore sort to come to see us, but we pay our
debts an' have a plenty t' eat.”
Mrs. Gill was listening to this ebullition, her red nose slightly
elevated, and she made no effort to suppress a chuckle of satisfaction
over her husband's subtle allusion to the status of their guests.
“I want you two jest to come heer one minute,” she burst out
suddenly, and with a dignity that seemed to cool the air about her, she
rose and moved toward the little shed room at the end of the cabin.
Duncan and his wife followed, an expression of half-fearful curiosity
in their tawny visages. Reaching the door of the room, Mrs. Gill pushed
it open and coolly signaled them to enter, and when they had done so,
and stood mutely looking about them, she followed.
“When I made up my mind we'd be obliged to take Big Joe,” she
explained, “I fixed up fer 'im a little. Look at that bedstead!” (Her
hand was extended toward it as steadily as the limb of an oak.) “Ann
Duncan, you are at liberty to try to find a better one in this
neighborhood. You'n Andrew sleep on one made out'n poles with the bark
on 'em. Then jest feel o' them thar feathers in this new tick an'
pillows, an' them's bran- new store-bought sheets.”
This second open allusion to her own poverty had a subduing effect
on Mrs. Duncan's risibilities. The ever-present twinkle of amusement
went out of her eyes, and she had an attitude of vast consideration for
the words of her hostess as she put her perspiring hand on the mattress
and pressed it tentatively.
“It's saft a plenty fer a king,” she observed, conciliation enough
for any one in her tone; “he'll never complain, I bound you!”
“Big Joe won't have to tech his bare feet to the floor while he's
puttin' on his clothes, nuther,” reminded Mrs. Gill. She raised her
eyebrows as an admiral might after seeing a well-directed shot from one
of his guns blow up a ship, and pointed at a piece of rag carpet laid
at the side of the bed. “An' you see I've fixed 'im a washstand with a
new pan thar in the corner, an' a roller towel, an' bein' as they say
he's so fixy, I'm a-goin' to fetch in the lookin'-glass, an' I've cut
some pictur's out'n newspapers that I intend to paste up on the walls,
Mrs. Gill paused. Experienced as she was in the tricks of Ann
Duncan's facial expression, she at once divined that her words were
meeting with amused opposition.
“Why, Mis' Gill,” was Ann's rebuff, “shorely you ain't a-goin' to
let 'im sleep in the same house with you-uns!”
“Of course I am, Ann Duncan; what in the name o' common sense do you
“Oh, nuthin'.” Mrs. Duncan glanced at her husband and wiped a
cowardly smile from her broad mouth with her hand. “You see, Mis' Gill,
I'm afeerd you are goin' to overdo it. You've heerd me say I have good
stock in me, ef I am poor. I've got own second cousins that don't know
the'r own slaves when they meet 'em in the big road. I've heerd how
they treat their niggers, an' I'm afeerd all this extra fixin' up will
make folks poke fun at you. To-day in town the niggers started the
laugh on Big Joe theirselves, an' the white folks all j'ined in. It
looked like they thought it was a good joke for the Gill lay-out to own
a quality slave. Me'n Andrew don't mean no harm, but now it is funny;
you know it is!”
“I don't see a thing that's the least bit funny in it.” Mrs. Gill
bristled and turned almost white in helpless fury. “We never set
ourselves up as wantin' to own slaves, but when this one is saddled on
us through no fault o' our'n, I see no harm in our holdin' onto 'im
till we kin see our way out without loss. As to 'im not sleepin' in the
same cabin we do, whar in the Lord's creation would we put 'im? The
corn-crib is the only thing with a roof on it, an' it's full to the
“Oh, I reckon you are doin' the best you kin,” granted Mrs. Duncan,
as she passed out of the door and went back to where Peter Gill sat
fanning himself. He had overheard part of the conversation.
“I told Lucretia she oughtn't to fix up so almighty much,” he
observed. “A nigger ain't like no other livin' cre'ture. A pore man
jest cayn't please 'em.”
Ann Duncan was driven to the very verge of laughter again.
“What you goin' to call 'im?” she snickered, her strong effort at
keeping a serious face bringing tears into her eyes. “Are you goin' to
make 'im say Marse Gill, an' Mis' Lucretia?”
“I don't care a picayune what he calls us,” answered Gill, testily.
“I reckon we won't start a new language on his account.”
Through this colloquy Mrs. Duncan had been holding her sun-bonnet in
a tight roll in her hands. She now unfurled it like the flag of a
switchman and whisked it on her head.
“Well, I wish you luck with yore slave,” she was heard to say,
crisply, “but I hope you'll not think me meddlin' ef I say that you'll
have trouble. Folks like you-uns, an' we-uns fer that matter, don't kno
no more about managin' slaves raised by high-falutin' white folks than
doodle-bugs does.” And having risen to that climax, Ann Duncan,
followed by her splay-footed, admiring husband, departed.
The next morning, accompanied by Big Joe and the man who had been
overseer on his plantation, Colonel Whitney drove over in a spring
“I decided to bring Joe over myself, so as to have no
misunderstanding,” he announced. “The other negroes have been picking
at him a good deal; and he is a little out of sorts, but he'll get all
The Gills were standing in the passage, a look of stupid
embarrassment on their honest faces. Despite their rugged strength of
character, they were not a little awed by the presence of such a
prominent member of the aristocracy, notwithstanding the fact that
their dealings with the Colonel had not, in a financial way, been just
to their fancy.
“I'm much obliged to you, sir,” Peter found himself able to
The Colonel lighted a cigar and began to smoke. A sad, careworn
expression lay in his big blue eyes. He had the appearance of a man who
had not slept for a week. His tired glance swept from the Gills to the
negro in the wagon, and he said, huskily:
“Bounce out, Joe, and do the very best you can. I hate to part with
you, but you know my condition—we've talked that over enough.”
Slowly the tall black man crawled out at the end of the wagon and
stood alone on the ground. The expression of his face was at once so
full of despair and fiendishness that Mrs. Gill shuddered and looked
away from him.
“Well, Gill,” said the planter, “I reckon me and you are even at
last. I'm going down to Savannah, where I hope to get a fresh start and
amount to more in the world. Good- bye to you—good-bye, Joe.”
He had only nodded to the pair in the passage, but he reached over
the wagon-wheel for the hand of the negro, and as he took it a tender
expression of regret stamped itself on his strong features.
“Be a good boy, Joe,” he half-whispered. “As God is my heavenly
judge, I hate this more than anything else in the world. If I could
possibly raise the money I'd take you with me—or free you.”
The thick, stubborn lip of the slave relaxed and fell to quivering
“Good-bye, Marse Whit',” he said, simply. The Colonel took a firmer
grasp of the black hand.
“No ill-will, Joe?” he questioned, anxiously.
“No, suh, Marse Whit', I hadn't got no hard feelin's 'gin you.”
“Well, then good-bye, Joe. If I ever get my head above water, I'll
keep my promise about you and Liza. She looked on you as her favorite,
but don't raise your hopes too high. I'm an old man now, and it may be
uphill work down there.”
The negro lowered his head and the overseer drove on. As the wagon
rumbled down the rocky slope a wisp of blue smoke from the Colonel's
cigar followed it like a banner unfurled to the breeze. For several
minutes after the wagon had disappeared Big Joe stood where he had
alighted, his eyes upon the ground.
“What's the matter?” asked Gill, stepping down to him.
“Nothin', Marse—” Big Joe seemed to bite into the word as it rose
to his tongue, then he shrugged his shoulders contemptuously and looked
The Gills exchanged ominous glaces, and there was a pause.
“Have you had anything to eat this morning?” Gill bethought himself
The black man shook his head.
“I ain't teched a bite sence dey sol' me; dey offered it to me, but
I didn't want it.”
Once more the glances of the husband and wife traveled slowly back
and forth, centering finally on the face of the negro.
“I reckon it's 'cause yore sick at heart,” observed Gill, at first
sympathetically, and then with growing firmness as he continued. “I
know how you feel; most o' yore sort has a way o' thinkin' yorese'ves a
sight better'n pore white folks, an' right now the truth is you can't
bear the idee o' belongin' to me'n my wife. Now, me'n you an' her ought
to come to some sort of agreement that we kin all live under. You won't
find nuther one of us the overbearin' sort. We was forced to take you
to secure ourse'ves agin the loss of our little all, an' we want to do
what's fair in every respect. I'm told you are a fuss-rate shoemaker.
Now, ef you want to, you kin set up a shop in yore room thar, an' have
the last cent you kin make. You'll git plenty o' work, too, fer this
neighborhood is badly in need of a shoemaker. Now, my wife will fry you
some fresh eggs an' bacon an' make you a good cup o' coffee.”
But all that Peter Gill had managed to say with satisfaction to
himself seemed to have gone into one of the negro's ears and to have
met with not the slightest obstruction on its way out at the other. To
the hospitable invitation which closed Peter's speech, the negro simply
“I don't feel like eatin' a bite.”
“Oh, you don't,” said Gill, at the end of his resources; “maybe
you'd feel different about it ef you was to smell the bacon a-fryin'.”
“I don't wan't to eat,” reiterated the slave.
“Well, you needn't unless you want to,” went on Gill, still
pacifically. “That thar room on the right is fer you; jest go in it
whenever you feel like it an' try to make yorese'f at home; you won't
find us hard to git along with.”
The Gills left their human property seated on a big rock in front of
the cabin and withdrew to the rear. There they sat till near noon. Now
and then Gill would peer around the corner to satisfy himself that his
slave was still seated on the rock. Gill chewed nearly a week's
allowance of tobacco that morning; it seemed to have a sedative effect
on his nerves. Finally, Ann Duncan loomed up in the distance and strode
toward the cabin. She wore a gown of less brilliant tints than the one
she had worn the day before. It had the dun color of clay washed into
rather than out of its texture, and it hung from her narrow hips as if
it were damp.
“Well, he did come,” she remarked, introductively.
Mrs. Gill nodded. “Yes; the Colonel fetched 'im over this mornin'.”
“So I heerd, an' I jest 'lowed I'd step over an' see how you made
out.” Mrs. Duncan's rippling laugh recalled the whole of her allusions
of the day previous. “Thar's more talk goin' round than you could shake
a stick at, an' considerable spite an' envy. Some 'lows that the havin'
o' this slave is agoin' to make you stuck up, an' that you'll move yore
membership to Big Bethel meetin'-house; but law me! I can see that you
are bothered. How did he take to his room?”
“He ain't so much as looked in yit,” replied Mrs. Gill, with a
Thereupon Ann Duncan ventured up into the passage and peered
cautiously round the corner at Big Joe.
“He's a-wipin' of his eyes,” she announced, as she came back. “It
looks like he's a-cryin' about some'n'.”
At this juncture, a motley cluster of men, women, and children, led
by Andrew Duncan, came out of the woods which fringed the red, freshly
plowed field below, and began to steer itself, like a school of fish,
toward the cabin. About fifty yards away they halted, as animals do
when they scent danger. Heads up and open-mouthed, they stood gazing,
first at the Gills, and then at their slave. Peter Gill grew angry. He
stood up and strode as far in their direction as the ash-hopper under
the apple-tree, and raised both his hands, as if he were frightening
away a flock of crows.
“Be off, the last one of you!” he shouted; “and don't you dare show
yorese'ves round heer unless you've got business. This ain't no
side-show—I want you to understand that!”
They might have defied their old neighbor Gill, but the owner of a
slave so big and well dressed as the human monument on the rock was too
important a personage to displease with impunity; so, followed by the
apologetic Mrs. Duncan, who blamed herself for having set a bad example
to her curious neighbors, they slowly dispersed.
At noon Mrs. Gill went into the cabin and began to prepare dinner.
She came back to her husband in a moment, and in a low voice, and one
that held much significance, she said:
“I need some firewood.” As she spoke she allowed her glance to rest
on Big Joe. Gill looked at the sullen negro for half a minute, and then
he shrugged his shoulders as if indecision were a burden to be shaken
off, and mumbling something inaudible he went out to the woodpile and
brought in an armful of fuel.
“A pore beginning,” his wife said, as he put it down on the hearth.
“I know it,” retorted Gill, angrily. “You needn't begin that sort o'
talk, fer I won't stand it. I'm a-doin' all I can.” And Gill went back
to his chair.
The good housewife fried some slices of dark red ham. She boiled a
pot of sweet potatoes, peeled off their jackets, and made a pulp of
them in a pan; into the mass she stirred sweet milk, butter, eggs,
sugar, and grated nutmeg. Then she rolled out a sheet of dough and cut
out some open-top pies.
“I never knowed a nigger that could keep his teeth out of 'em,” she
Half an hour later she called out to Gill to come in. He paused in
the doorway, staring in astonishment
“Well, I never!” he ejaculated.
She had laid the best white cloth, got out her new knives and forks
with the bone handles, and some dishes that were never used except on
rare occasions. She had placed Gill's plate at the head of the table,
hers at the foot, and was wiping a third—the company plate with the
“Whar's he goin' to set an' eat?” she asked
“Blast me ef I know any more'n a rat,” Gill told her, with alarmed
frankness. “I hadn't thought about it a bit, but it never will do fer'
im to set down with me an' you. Folks might see it, an' it would give
'em more room for fun.”
Mrs. Gill laid the plate down and sighed.
“I declare, I'm afeered this nigger is a-goin' to stick us up,
whether or no. I won't feel much Christian humility with him at one
table an' us at another, but of course I know it ain't common fer folks
to eat with their slaves.”
Gill's glance was sweeping the table and its tempting dishes with an
indescribable air of disapproval.
“You are a-fixin' up powerful,” was his slow comment; “a body would
think, to look at all this, that it was the fourth Sunday an' you was
expectin' the preacher. You'd better begin right; we cayn't keep this
up an' make a crop.”
Her eyes flashed angrily.
“You had no business to bring Big Joe heer, then,” she fumed. “You
know well enough he's used to fine doin's, an' I'm not a-goin' to have
'im make light of us, ef we are pore. I was jest a-thinkin'; the
Whitneys always tied napkins 'round the'r necks to ketch the gravy they
drap, an' Big Joe's bound to notice that we ain't used to sech.”
It was finally agreed that for that day at least the slave was to
have his dinner served to him where he sat; so Mrs. Gill arranged it
temptingly on a piece of plank, over which a piece of cloth had been
spread, and took it out to him. She found him almost asleep, but he
opened his eyes as she drew near.
Drowsily he surveyed the contents of the cups and dishes, his eyes
kindling at the sight of the two whole custards. But his pride—it was
evidently that—enabled him to manifest a sneer of irreconcilability.
“I ain't a-goin' t'eat a bite,” was the way he put it, stubbornly.
For a moment Mrs. Gill was nonplussed; but she believed in getting
at the core of things.
“Are you a-complainin'?” she questioned.
The big negro's sneer grew more pronounced, but that was all the
answer he gave.
“Don't you think you could stomach a bit o' this heer custard pie?”
Big Joe's eyes gleamed against his will, but he shook his head.
“I tol' um all ef dey sol' me to you, I wouldn't eat a bite. I'm
gwine ter starve ter death.”
“Oh, that's yore intention!” Mrs. Gill caught her breath. A sort of
superstitious terror seized upon her as she slowly hitched back to the
“He won't tech a bite,” she informed Gill's expectant visage; “an'
what's a sight more, he says he's vowed he won't eat our victuals, an'
that he's laid out to starve. Peter Gill, I'm afeerd this has been sent
“Sent on us!' echoed Gill, who also had his quota of superstition.
“Yes, it's a visitation of the Almighty fer our hoardin' up that
money when so many of our neighbors is in need. I wish now we never had
seed it. Ef Big Joe dies on our hands, I'll always feel like we have
committed the unpardonable sin. We've talked ag'in' slave-holdin' all
our lives tell we had the bag to hold, an' now we've set up reg'lar in
Gill ate his dinner on the new cloth in morose silence. A heavy air
of general discontent had settled on him.
“Well,” he commented, as he went to the water-shelf in the passage
to take his after- dinner drink from the old cedar pail, “ef he refused
'tater custards like them thar he certainly is in a bad plight. If he
persists, I'll have to send fer a doctor.”
The afternoon passed slowly. The later conduct of the slave was
uneventful, beyond the fact that he rose to his full height once,
stretched and yawned, without looking toward the cabin, and then
reclined at full length on the grass. Another batch of curious
neighbors came as near the cabin as the spring. Those who had been
ordered away in the forenoon had set afloat a report that Gill had said
that, now he was a slave-holder, he would not submit to familiar visits
from the poor white trash of the community. And Sid Ruford, the
ringleader of the group at the spring, had the boldness to shout out
some hints about the one-nigger, log-cabin aristocracy which drove the
hot blood to Gill's tanned face. He sprang up and took down his
long-barreled “squirrel gun” from its hooks on the wall.
“I'll jest step down thar,” he said, “an' see ef that gab is meant
“I wouldn't pay no 'tention to him,” replied Mrs. Gill, who was held
back from the brink of an explosion only by the sight of the weapon and
a knowledge of Gill's marksmanship. However, Gill had scarcely taken
half a dozen steps down the path when he wheeled and came back
“They run like a passle o' skeerd sheep,” he chuckled, as he
restored his gun to its place.
This incident seemed to break the barrier of reserve between him and
his human property, for he stood over the prostrate form of the negro
and eyed him with a dissatisfied look.
“See heer,” he began, sullenly, “enough of a thing is a plenty. I'm
gettin' sick an' tired o' this, an' I'll be dadblasted ef I'm a-goin'
to let a black, poutin' scamp make me lose my nat'ral sleep an' peace
o' mind. Now, you git right up off'n that damp ground an' go in yore
room an' lie down, if you feel that-a- way. Folks is a-passin' along
an' lookin' at you like you was a stuffed monkey.”
It may have been the sight of the gun, or it may have been a
masterful quality in the Anglo-Saxon voice, that inspired the negro
with a respect he had not hitherto entertained for his new owner, for
he rose at once and went into his room.
At dusk Mrs. Gill waddled to the closed door of his apartment and
rapped respectfully. She heard the bed creaking as if Big Joe were
rising, and then he cautiously opened the door and with downcast eyes
waited for her to make her wishes known.
“Supper is ready,” she announced, in a voice which, despite her
strength of character, quivered a little, “an' before settin' down to
it, I thought thar would be no harm in askin' if thar's anything that
would strike yore fancy. When it gits a little darker I could blind a
chicken on the roost an' fry it, or I could make you some thick flour
soup with sliced dumplin's.”
She saw him wince as he tore himself from the temptation she had
laid before him, but he spoke quite firmly.
“I ain't a-goin' t'eat any more in this worl',” he said.
“Well, I reckon you won't gorge yorese'f in the next,” said Mrs.
Gill, “but I want to say that what you are contemplatin' is a sin.” She
turned back into the cabin and sat at the table and poured her
husband's coffee in disturbed silence.
“I believe on my soul he's gain' to make a die of it,” she said,
after a while, as she sat munching a piece of dry bread, having no
appetite at all. And Gill, deeply troubled, could make no reply.
It was their habit to go to bed as soon as supper was over, so when
they rose from the table Mrs. Gill turned down the covers of the
high-posted bed and beat the pillows. Before barring the cabin door,
she scrutinized the closed shutter directly opposite, but all was still
as death in the room of the slave.
For the first night in many years the old pair found they could not
sleep, their brains being still active with the first great problem of
their lives. The little clock struck ten. The silence of the night was
disturbed by the shrilling of tree-frogs and the occasional cry of the
Suddenly Gill sprang up with a little grunt of alarm. “What's that?”
“It sounded powerful like somebody a-groanin',” whispered Mrs. Gill.
“Oh, Lordy, Peter, I have a awful feelin'!”
“I'll git up an' see what's ailin' 'im,” said Gill, a little more
calmly. “Mebby the idiot has done without food till he's took cramps.”
Dressing himself hastily, he went outside. A pencil of yellow light
was streaming through a crack beneath Big Joe's door. Gill had not put
on his shoes, and his feet fell softly on the grass. Putting his ear to
the door of the negro's room, he overheard low groans and words which
sounded like a prayer, repeated over and over in a sing-song fashion.
Later he heard something like the sobbing of a big- chested man.
“Open up!” cried Gill, shaking the door; “open up, I say!”
The vocal demonstration within ceased, and there was a clatter in
the vicinity of the bed, as if Big Joe were rising to his feet. The
farmer repeated his firm command, and the shutter slowly opened. The
negro looked like a giant in the dim light of the tallow-dip on a table
“Was that you a-makin' all that noise?” asked Gill.
“I wus prayin', suh,” answered Big Joe, his face in the shadow.
“Oh, that was it; I didn't know!” Gill was trying to master a most
irritating awkwardness on his part; in questions of religious ceremony
he always allowed for individual taste. Passing the negro, he went into
the cabin and lifted the tallow-dip above his head and looked about the
room suspiciously. “You was jest a-prayin', eh?”
“Yes, suh; I was a-prayin' to de Gre't Marster ter tek me off on a
bed o' ease, sence I hatter go anyway. Er death er starvation ain't no
Gill sat down on the negro's bed. He crossed his legs and swung a
bare foot to and fro in a nervous, jerky manner.
“Looky' heer,” he said finally to the black profile in the doorway,
“you are a plagued mystery to me. What in the name o' all possessed do
you hanker after a box in the cold ground fer?”
The slave seemed slightly taken aback by the blunt directness of
this query; he left the door and sat down heavily in a chair at the
fireplace. “Huh!” he grunted, “is you been all dis time en not fin' out
what my trouble is?”
“Ef I did know I wouldn't be settin' heer at this time o'
night, losin' my nattral sleep to ask about it,” was the tart reply.
The negro grunted again. “Do you know Marse Whit's Liza?” he asked,
“I believe I've seed 'er once or twice,” Gill told him. “A
fine-lookin' wench—about the color of a sorghum ginger-cake. Is she
the one you mean?”
The big man nodded. “Me'n her was gwine ter git married, but Marse
Whit' hatter go'n trade 'er off ter Marse Stafford, en Marse Stafford
is done give 'er 'er freedom yistiddy.”
“Ah, he set 'er free, did he?” Gill stared, and by habit awkwardly
stroked that part of his face where a beard used to grow.
“Yes, suh; Marse Gill, he done set 'er free, en now a free nigger is
flyin' roun' her. She won't marry no slave now, suh!”
Gill drew a full breath and stood up. “Then it wasn't becase you
thought yorese'f so much better'n me'n my wife that you wanted to dump
yorese'f into eternity?”
“No, suh; dat wasn't in my min', suh.”
“Well, I'm powerful glad o' that, Joe,” responded Gill, “becase
neither me nor my wife ever harmed a kink in yore head. Now, the gospel
truth is, I was drawed into this whole business ag'in' my wishes, an'
me an' Lucretia would give a lots to be well out of it. Now, I don't
want to be the cause o' that free nigger walkin' off with yore
intrusts, so heer's what I'll do. Ef you'll ride in town with me in the
mornin' I'll git a lawyer to draw up as clean a set o' freedom papers
as you ever laid your peepers on. What do you say?”
Big Joe's eyes expanded until they seemed all white, with dark holes
in the center. For a minute he sat like a statue, as silent as the wall
behind him; then he said, with a deep breath: “Marse Gill, is you in
earnest—my Gawd! is you?”
“As the Almighty is my judge, in whose presence I set at this
The negro covered his face with a pair of big, quivering hands.
“Den I don't know what ter say, Marse Gill. I never expected to be a
free man, en I had give up hope er ever seein' Liza again. Oh, Marse
Gill, you sho' is one er His chosen flock!”
Gill was so deeply moved that when he ventured on a reply he found
difficulty in steadying his speech. His voice had a quality that was
new to it. He spoke as gently as if he were promising recovery to a
“Now, Joe, you crawl back in bed an' sleep,” he said, “an' in the
mornin' you'll be free, as shore as the sun rises on us both.”
Then he went back to bed and told his wife what he had done.
“I'm powerful glad we can git out of it so easy,” she commented.
“It's funny I never thought o' settin' 'im free. It looked to me like
he was a-goin' to be a burden that we never could git rid of, an' now
it's a-goin' to end all right in the Lord's sight.”
They were just dozing off in peaceable slumber when they heard a
gentle rap on the door.
“It's me, Marse Gill,” came from the outside. “I'm mighty sorry to
wake you ag'in, but I'm so hungry I don't think I kin wait till
“Well, I reckon you do feel kinder empty,” laughed the farmer as he
sprang out of bed. He lighted a candle, and following the specter—like
signals of his wife, who sat up in bed, he soon found the meal she had
arranged for the slave at noon. “Thar,” he said, as he handed it
through the doorway; “I had clean forgot yore fast was over.”
The next morning the farmer and Big Joe drove to town, two miles
distant. Gill was gone all day and did not return till dusk. His wife
went out to meet him at the wagonshed.
“How did you make out?” she asked.
“Tip-top,” he said, with a laugh. “As we went to town, nothin' would
do the black scamp but we must go by after the gal. She happened to be
dressed up, an' went to town with us. I set in front an' driv', while
they done their courtin' on the back seat. I soon got the papers in
shape, an' Squire Ridley spliced 'em right on the sidewalk in front o'
his office. A big crowd was thar, an' you never heerd the like o'
yellin'. Some o' the boys, jest fer pure devilment, picked me up an'
carried me on their shoulders to the tavern an' made me set down to a
hearty dinner. Joe borrowed a apron from the cook an' insisted on
waitin' on me. La me, I wisht you'd 'a' been than I felt like a blamed
“I reckon you did have a lots o' fun,” said Mrs. Gill. “Well, I'm
glad he ain't on our hands. I wouldn't pass another day like yistiddy
fer all the slaves in Georgia.