Uncle Wellington's Wives by Charles Waddell Chesnutt
Uncle Wellington Braboy was so deeply absorbed in thought as he walked
slowly homeward from the weekly meeting of the Union League, that he let
his pipe go out, a fact of which he remained oblivious until he had
reached the little frame house in the suburbs of Patesville, where he
lived with aunt Milly, his wife. On this particular occasion the club
had been addressed by a visiting brother from the North, Professor
Patterson, a tall, well-formed mulatto, who wore a perfectly fitting
suit of broadcloth, a shiny silk hat, and linen of dazzling
whiteness,?in short, a gentleman of such distinguished appearance that
the doors and windows of the offices and stores on Front Street were
filled with curious observers as he passed through that thoroughfare in
the early part of the day. This polished stranger was a traveling
organizer of Masonic lodges, but he also claimed to be a high officer in
the Union League, and had been invited to lecture before the local
chapter of that organization at Patesville.
The lecture had been largely attended, and uncle* Wellington Braboy had
occupied a seat just in front of the platform. The subject of the
lecture was "The Mental, Moral, Physical, Political, Social, and
Financial Improvement of the Negro Race in America," a theme much dwelt
upon, with slight variations, by colored orators. For to this struggling
people, then as now, the problem of their uncertain present and their
doubtful future was the chief concern of life. The period was the
hopeful one. The Federal Government retained some vestige of authority
in the South, and the newly emancipated race cherished the delusion that
under the Constitution, that enduring rock on which our liberties are
founded, and under the equal laws it purported to guarantee, they would
enter upon the era of freedom and opportunity which their Northern
friends had inaugurated with such solemn sanctions. The speaker pictured
in eloquent language the state of ideal equality and happiness enjoyed
by colored people at the North: how they sent their children to school
with the white children; how they sat by white people in the churches
and theatres, ate with them in the public restaurants, and buried their
dead in the same cemeteries. The professor waxed eloquent with the
development of his theme, and, as a finishing touch to an alluring
picture, assured the excited audience that the intermarriage of the
races was common, and that he himself had espoused a white woman.
Uncle Wellington Braboy was a deeply interested listener. He had heard
something of these facts before, but his information had always come in
such vague and questionable shape that he had paid little attention to
it. He knew that the Yankees had freed the slaves, and that runaway
negroes had always gone to the North to seek liberty; any such equality,
however, as the visiting brother had depicted, was more than uncle
Wellington had ever conceived as actually existing anywhere in the
world. At first he felt inclined to doubt the truth of the speaker's
statements; but the cut of his clothes, the eloquence of his language,
and the flowing length of his whiskers, were so far superior to anything
uncle Wellington had ever met among the colored people of his native
State, that he felt irresistibly impelled to the conviction that nothing
less than the advantages claimed for the North by the visiting brother
could have produced such an exquisite flower of civilization. Any
lingering doubts uncle Wellington may have felt were entirely dispelled
by the courtly bow and cordial grasp of the hand with which the visiting
brother acknowledged the congratulations showered upon him by the
audience at the close of his address.
The more uncle Wellington's mind dwelt upon the professor's speech, the
more attractive seemed the picture of Northern life presented. Uncle
Wellington possessed in large measure the imaginative faculty so freely
bestowed by nature upon the race from which the darker half of his blood
was drawn. He had indulged in occasional day-dreams of an ideal state of
social equality, but his wildest flights of fancy had never located it
nearer than heaven, and he had felt some misgivings about its practical
working even there. Its desirability he had never doubted, and the
speech of the evening before had given a local habitation and a name to
the forms his imagination had bodied forth. Giving full rein to his
fancy, he saw in the North a land flowing with milk and honey,?a land
peopled by noble men and beautiful women, among whom colored men and
women moved with the ease and grace of acknowledged right. Then he
placed himself in the foreground of the picture. What a fine figure he
would have made in the world if he had been born at the free North! He
imagined himself dressed like the professor, and passing the
contribution-box in a white church; and most pleasant of his dreams, and
the hardest to realize as possible, was that of the gracious white lady
he might have called wife. Uncle Wellington was a mulatto, and his
features were those of his white father, though tinged with the hue of
his mother's race; and as he lifted the kerosene lamp at evening, and
took a long look at his image in the little mirror over the mantelpiece,
he said to himself that he was a very good-looking man, and could have
adorned a much higher sphere in life than that in which the accident of
birth had placed him. He fell asleep and dreamed that he lived in a
two-story brick house, with a spacious flower garden in front, the whole
inclosed by a high iron fence; that he kept a carriage and servants, and
never did a stroke of work. This was the highest style of living in
Patesville, and he could conceive of nothing finer.
Uncle Wellington slept later than usual the next morning, and the
sunlight was pouring in at the open window of the bedroom, when his
dreams were interrupted by the voice of his wife, in tones meant to be
harsh, but which no ordinary degree of passion could rob of their native
"Git up f'm dere, you lazy, good-fuh-nuffin' nigger! Is you gwine ter
sleep all de mawnin'? I 's ti'ed er dis yer runnin' 'roun' all night an'
den sleepin' all day. You won't git dat tater patch hoed ovuh ter-day
'less'n you git up f'm dere an' git at it."
Uncle Wellington rolled over, yawned cavernously, stretched himself, and
with a muttered protest got out of bed and put on his clothes. Aunt
Milly had prepared a smoking breakfast of hominy and fried bacon, the
odor of which was very grateful to his nostrils.
"Is breakfus' done ready?" he inquired, tentatively, as he came into the
kitchen and glanced at the table.
"No, it ain't ready, an' 't ain't gwine ter be ready 'tel you tote dat
wood an' water in," replied aunt Milly severely, as she poured two
teacups of boiling water on two tablespoonfuls of ground coffee.
Uncle Wellington went down to the spring and got a pail of water, after
which he brought in some oak logs for the fire place and some lightwood
for kindling. Then he drew a chair towards the table and started to sit
"Wonduh what 's de matter wid you dis mawnin' anyhow," remarked aunt
Milly. "You must 'a' be'n up ter some devilment las' night, fer yo'
recommemb'ance is so po' dat you fus' fergit ter git up, an' den fergit
ter wash yo' face an' hands fo' you set down ter de table. I don' 'low
nobody ter eat at my table dat a-way."
"I don' see no use 'n washin' 'em so much," replied Wellington wearily.
"Dey gits dirty ag'in right off, an' den you got ter wash 'em ovuh
ag'in; it 's jes' pilin' up wuk what don' fetch in nuffin'. De dirt don'
show nohow, 'n' I don' see no advantage in bein' black, ef you got to
keep on washin' yo' face 'n' han's jes' lack w'ite folks." He
nevertheless performed his ablutions in a perfunctory way, and resumed
his seat at the breakfast-table.
"Ole 'oman," he asked, after the edge of his appetite had been taken
off, "how would you lack ter live at de Norf?"
"I dunno nuffin' 'bout de Norf," replied aunt Milly. "It 's hard 'nuff
ter git erlong heah, whar we knows all erbout it."
"De brother what 'dressed de meetin' las' night say dat de wages at de
Norf is twicet ez big ez dey is heah."
"You could make a sight mo' wages heah ef you 'd 'ten' ter yo' wuk
better," replied aunt Milly.
Uncle Wellington ignored this personality, and continued, "An' he say de
cullud folks got all de privileges er de w'ite folks,?dat dey chillen
goes ter school tergedder, dat dey sets on same seats in chu'ch, an'
sarves on jury, 'n' rides on de kyars an' steamboats wid de w'ite folks,
an' eats at de fus' table."
"Dat 'u'd suit you," chuckled aunt Milly, "an' you 'd stay dere fer de
secon' table, too. How dis man know 'bout all dis yer foolis'ness?" she
"He come f'm de Norf," said uncle Wellington, "an' he 'speunced it all
"Well, he can't make me b'lieve it," she rejoined, with a shake of her
"An' you would n' lack ter go up dere an' 'joy all dese privileges?"
asked uncle Wellington, with some degree of earnestness.
The old woman laughed until her sides shook. "Who gwine ter take me up
dere?" she inquired.
"You got de money yo'se'f."
"I ain' got no money fer ter was'e," she replied shortly, becoming
serious at once; and with that the subject was dropped.
Uncle Wellington pulled a hoe from under the house, and took his way
wearily to the potato patch. He did not feel like working, but aunt
Milly was the undisputed head of the establishment, and he did not dare
to openly neglect his work.
In fact, he regarded work at any time as a disagreeable necessity to be
avoided as much as possible.
His wife was cast in a different mould. Externally she would have
impressed the casual observer as a neat, well-preserved, and
good-looking black woman, of middle age, every curve of whose ample
figure?and her figure was all curves?was suggestive of repose. So far
from being indolent, or even deliberate in her movements, she was the
most active and energetic woman in the town. She went through the
physical exercises of a prayer-meeting with astonishing vigor. It was
exhilarating to see her wash a shirt, and a study to watch her do it up.
A quick jerk shook out the dampened garment; one pass of her ample palm
spread it over the ironing-board, and a few well-directed strokes with
the iron accomplished what would have occupied the ordinary laundress
for half an hour.
To this uncommon, and in uncle Wellington's opinion unnecessary and
unnatural activity, his own habits were a steady protest. If aunt Milly
had been willing to support him in idleness, he would have acquiesced
without a murmur in her habits of industry. This she would not do, and,
moreover, insisted on his working at least half the time. If she had
invested the proceeds of her labor in rich food and fine clothing, he
might have endured it better; but to her passion for work was added a
most detestable thrift. She absolutely refused to pay for Wellington's
clothes, and required him to furnish a certain proportion of the family
supplies. Her savings were carefully put by, and with them she had
bought and paid for the modest cottage which she and her husband
occupied. Under her careful hand it was always neat and clean; in summer
the little yard was gay with bright-colored flowers, and woe to the
heedless pickaninny who should stray into her yard and pluck a rose or a
verbena! In a stout oaken chest under her bed she kept a capacious
stocking, into which flowed a steady stream of fractional currency. She
carried the key to this chest in her pocket, a proceeding regarded by
uncle Wellington with no little disfavor. He was of the opinion?an
opinion he would not have dared to assert in her presence?that his
wife's earnings were his own property; and he looked upon this stocking
as a drunkard's wife might regard the saloon which absorbed her
Uncle Wellington hurried over the potato patch on the morning of the
conversation above recorded, and as soon as he saw aunt Milly go away
with a basket of clothes on her head, returned to the house, put on his
coat, and went uptown.
He directed his steps to a small frame building fronting on the main
street of the village, at a point where the street was intersected by
one of the several creeks meandering through the town, cooling the air,
providing numerous swimming-holes for the amphibious small boy, and
furnishing water-power for grist-mills and saw-mills. The rear of the
building rested on long brick pillars, built up from the bottom of the
steep bank of the creek, while the front was level with the street. This
was the office of Mr. Matthew Wright, the sole representative of the
colored race at the bar of Chinquapin County. Mr. Wright came of an "old
issue" free colored family, in which, though the negro blood was present
in an attenuated strain, a line of free ancestry could be traced beyond
the Revolutionary War. He had enjoyed exceptional opportunities, and
enjoyed the distinction of being the first, and for a long time the only
colored lawyer in North Carolina. His services were frequently called
into requisition by impecunious people of his own race; when they had
money they went to white lawyers, who, they shrewdly conjectured, would
have more influence with judge or jury than a colored lawyer, however
Uncle Wellington found Mr. Wright in his office. Having inquired after
the health of the lawyer's family and all his relations in detail, uncle
Wellington asked for a professional opinion.
"Mistah Wright, ef a man's wife got money, whose money is dat befo' de
law?his'n er her'n?"
The lawyer put on his professional air, and replied:??
"Under the common law, which in default of special legislative enactment
is the law of North Carolina, the personal property of the wife belongs
to her husband."
"But dat don' jes' tech de p'int, suh. I wuz axin' 'bout money."
"You see, uncle Wellington, your education has not rendered you familiar
with legal phraseology. The term 'personal property' or 'estate'
embraces, according to Blackstone, all property other than land, and
therefore includes money. Any money a man's wife has is his,
constructively, and will be recognized as his actually, as soon as he
can secure possession of it."
"Dat is ter say, suh?my eddication don' quite 'low me ter understan'
dat?dat is ter say"??
"That is to say, it 's yours when you get it. It is n't yours so that
the law will help you get it; but on the other hand, when you once lay
your hands on it, it is yours so that the law won't take it away from
Uncle Wellington nodded to express his full comprehension of the law as
expounded by Mr. Wright, but scratched his head in a way that expressed
some disappointment. The law seemed to wobble. Instead of enabling him
to stand up fearlessly and demand his own, it threw him back upon his
own efforts; and the prospect of his being able to overpower or outwit
aunt Milly by any ordinary means was very poor.
He did not leave the office, but hung around awhile as though there were
something further he wished to speak about. Finally, after some
discursive remarks about the crops and politics, he asked, in an
offhand, disinterested manner, as though the thought had just occurred
"Mistah Wright, w'ile's we 're talkin' 'bout law matters, what do it
cos' ter git a defoce?"
"That depends upon circumstances. It is n't altogether a matter of
expense. Have you and aunt Milly been having trouble?"
"Oh no, suh; I was jes' a-wond'rin'."
"You see," continued the lawyer, who was fond of talking, and had
nothing else to do for the moment, "a divorce is not an easy thing to
get in this State under any circumstances. It used to be the law that
divorce could be granted only by special act of the legislature; and it
is but recently that the subject has been relegated to the jurisdiction
of the courts."
Uncle Wellington understood a part of this, but the answer had not been
exactly to the point in his mind.
"S'pos'n', den, jes' fer de argyment, me an' my ole 'oman sh'd fall out
en wanter separate, how could I git a defoce?"
"That would depend on what you quarreled about. It 's pretty hard work
to answer general questions in a particular way. If you merely wished to
separate, it would n't be necessary to get a divorce; but if you should
want to marry again, you would have to be divorced, or else you would be
guilty of bigamy, and could be sent to the penitentiary. But, by the
way, uncle Wellington, when were you married?"
"I got married 'fo' de wah, when I was livin' down on Rockfish Creek."
"When you were in slavery?"
"Did you have your marriage registered after the surrender?"
"No, suh; never knowed nuffin' 'bout dat."
After the war, in North Carolina and other States, the freed people who
had sustained to each other the relation of husband and wife as it
existed among slaves, were required by law to register their consent to
continue in the marriage relation. By this simple expedient their former
marriages of convenience received the sanction of law, and their
children the seal of legitimacy. In many cases, however, where the
parties lived in districts remote from the larger towns, the ceremony
was neglected, or never heard of by the freedmen.
"Well," said the lawyer, "if that is the case, and you and aunt Milly
should disagree, it would n't be necessary for you to get a divorce,
even if you should want to marry again. You were never legally married."
"So Milly ain't my lawful wife, den?"
"She may be your wife in one sense of the word, but not in such a sense
as to render you liable to punishment for bigamy if you should marry
another woman. But I hope you will never want to do anything of the
kind, for you have a very good wife now."
Uncle Wellington went away thoughtfully, but with a feeling of
unaccustomed lightness and freedom. He had not felt so free since the
memorable day when he had first heard of the Emancipation Proclamation.
On leaving the lawyer's office, he called at the workshop of one of his
friends, Peter Williams, a shoemaker by trade, who had a brother living
"Is you hearn f'm Sam lately?" uncle Wellington inquired, after the
conversation had drifted through the usual generalities.
"His mammy got er letter f'm 'im las' week; he 's livin' in de town er
"How 's he gittin' on?"
"He says he gittin' on monst'us well. He 'low ez how he make five
dollars a day w'ite-washin', an' have all he kin do."
The shoemaker related various details of his brother's prosperity, and
uncle Wellington returned home in a very thoughtful mood, revolving in
his mind a plan of future action. This plan had been vaguely assuming
form ever since the professor's lecture, and the events of the morning
had brought out the detail in bold relief.
Two days after the conversation with the shoemaker, aunt Milly went, in
the afternoon, to visit a sister of hers who lived several miles out in
the country. During her absence, which lasted until nightfall, uncle
Wellington went uptown and purchased a cheap oilcloth valise from a
shrewd son of Israel, who had penetrated to this locality with a stock
of notions and cheap clothing. Uncle Wellington had his purchase done up
in brown paper, and took the parcel under his arm. Arrived at home he
unwrapped the valise, and thrust into its capacious jaws his best suit
of clothes, some underwear, and a few other small articles for personal
use and adornment. Then he carried the valise out into the yard, and,
first looking cautiously around to see if there was any one in sight,
concealed it in a clump of bushes in a corner of the yard.
It may be inferred from this proceeding that uncle Wellington was
preparing for a step of some consequence. In fact, he had fully made up
his mind to go to the North; but he still lacked the most important
requisite for traveling with comfort, namely, the money to pay his
expenses. The idea of tramping the distance which separated him from the
promised land of liberty and equality had never occurred to him. When a
slave, he had several times been importuned by fellow servants to join
them in the attempt to escape from bondage, but he had never wanted his
freedom badly enough to walk a thousand miles for it; if he could have
gone to Canada by stage-coach, or by rail, or on horseback, with stops
for regular meals, he would probably have undertaken the trip. The funds
he now needed for his journey were in aunt Milly's chest. He had thought
a great deal about his right to this money. It was his wife's savings,
and he had never dared to dispute, openly, her right to exercise
exclusive control over what she earned; but the lawyer had assured him
of his right to the money, of which he was already constructively in
possession, and he had therefore determined to possess himself actually
of the coveted stocking. It was impracticable for him to get the key of
the chest. Aunt Milly kept it in her pocket by day and under her pillow
at night. She was a light sleeper, and, if not awakened by the
abstraction of the key, would certainly have been disturbed by the
unlocking of the chest. But one alternative remained, and that was to
break open the chest in her absence.
There was a revival in progress at the colored Methodist church. Aunt
Milly was as energetic in her religion as in other respects, and had not
missed a single one of the meetings. She returned at nightfall from her
visit to the country and prepared a frugal supper. Uncle Wellington did
not eat as heartily as usual. Aunt Milly perceived his want of appetite,
and spoke of it. He explained it by saying that he did not feel very
"Is you gwine ter chu'ch ter-night?" inquired his wife.
"I reckon I 'll stay home an' go ter bed," he replied. "I ain't be'n
feelin' well dis evenin', an' I 'spec' I better git a good night's
"Well, you kin stay ef you mineter. Good preachin' 'u'd make you feel
better, but ef you ain't gwine, don' fergit ter tote in some wood an'
lighterd 'fo' you go ter bed. De moon is shinin' bright, an' you can't
have no 'scuse 'bout not bein' able ter see."
Uncle Wellington followed her out to the gate, and watched her receding
form until it disappeared in the distance. Then he re-entered the house
with a quick step, and taking a hatchet from a corner of the room, drew
the chest from under the bed. As he applied the hatchet to the
fastenings, a thought struck him, and by the flickering light of the
pine-knot blazing on the hearth, a look of hesitation might have been
seen to take the place of the determined expression his face had worn up
to that time. He had argued himself into the belief that his present
action was lawful and justifiable. Though this conviction had not
prevented him from trembling in every limb, as though he were committing
a mere vulgar theft, it had still nerved him to the deed. Now even his
moral courage began to weaken. The lawyer had told him that his wife's
property was his own; in taking it he was therefore only exercising his
lawful right. But at the point of breaking open the chest, it occurred
to him that he was taking this money in order to get away from aunt
Milly, and that he justified his desertion of her by the lawyer's
opinion that she was not his lawful wife. If she was not his wife, then
he had no right to take the money; if she was his wife, he had no right
to desert her, and would certainly have no right to marry another woman.
His scheme was about to go to shipwreck on this rock, when another idea
occurred to him.
"De lawyer say dat in one sense er de word de ole 'oman is my wife, an'
in anudder sense er de word she ain't my wife. Ef I goes ter de Norf an'
marry a w'ite 'oman, I ain't commit no brigamy, 'caze in dat sense er de
word she ain't my wife; but ef I takes dis money, I ain't stealin' it,
'caze in dat sense er de word she is my wife. Dat 'splains all de
Having reached this ingenious conclusion, uncle Wellington applied the
hatchet vigorously, soon loosened the fastenings of the chest, and with
trembling hands extracted from its depths a capacious blue cotton
stocking. He emptied the stocking on the table. His first impulse was to
take the whole, but again there arose in his mind a doubt?a very
obtrusive, unreasonable doubt, but a doubt, nevertheless?of the
absolute rectitude of his conduct; and after a moment's hesitation he
hurriedly counted the money?it was in bills of small denominations?and
found it to be about two hundred and fifty dollars. He then divided it
into two piles of one hundred and twenty-five dollars each. He put one
pile into his pocket, returned the remainder to the stocking, and
replaced it where he had found it. He then closed the chest and shoved
it under the bed. After having arranged the fire so that it could safely
be left burning, he took a last look around the room, and went out into
the moonlight, locking the door behind him, and hanging the key on a
nail in the wall, where his wife would be likely to look for it. He then
secured his valise from behind the bushes, and left the yard. As he
passed by the wood-pile, he said to himself:??
"Well, I declar' ef I ain't done fergot ter tote in dat lighterd; I
reckon de ole 'oman 'll ha' ter fetch it in herse'f dis time."
He hastened through the quiet streets, avoiding the few people who were
abroad at that hour, and soon reached the railroad station, from which a
North-bound train left at nine o'clock. He went around to the dark side
of the train, and climbed into a second-class car, where he shrank into
the darkest corner and turned his face away from the dim light of the
single dirty lamp. There were no passengers in the car except one or two
sleepy negroes, who had got on at some other station, and a white man
who had gone into the car to smoke, accompanied by a gigantic
Finally the train crept out of the station. From the window uncle
Wellington looked out upon the familiar cabins and turpentine stills,
the new barrel factory, the brickyard where he had once worked for some
time; and as the train rattled through the outskirts of the town, he saw
gleaming in the moonlight the white headstones of the colored cemetery
where his only daughter had been buried several years before.
Presently the conductor came around. Uncle Wellington had not bought a
ticket, and the conductor collected a cash fare. He was not acquainted
with uncle Wellington, but had just had a drink at the saloon near the
depot, and felt at peace with all mankind.
"Where are you going, uncle?" he inquired carelessly.
Uncle Wellington's face assumed the ashen hue which does duty for
pallor in dusky countenances, and his knees began to tremble.
Controlling his voice as well as he could, he replied that he was going
up to Jonesboro, the terminus of the railroad, to work for a gentleman
at that place. He felt immensely relieved when the conductor pocketed
the fare, picked up his lantern, and moved away. It was very
unphilosophical and very absurd that a man who was only doing right
should feel like a thief, shrink from the sight of other people, and lie
instinctively. Fine distinctions were not in uncle Wellington's line,
but he was struck by the unreasonableness of his feelings, and still
more by the discomfort they caused him. By and by, however, the motion
of the train made him drowsy; his thoughts all ran together in
confusion; and he fell asleep with his head on his valise, and one hand
in his pocket, clasped tightly around the roll of money.
The train from Pittsburg drew into the Union Depot at Groveland, Ohio,
one morning in the spring of 187-, with bell ringing and engine puffing;
and from a smoking-car emerged the form of uncle Wellington Braboy, a
little dusty and travel-stained, and with a sleepy look about his eyes.
He mingled in the crowd, and, valise in hand, moved toward the main exit
from the depot. There were several tracks to be crossed, and more than
once a watchman snatched him out of the way of a baggage-truck, or a
train backing into the depot. He at length reached the door, beyond
which, and as near as the regulations would permit, stood a number of
hackmen, vociferously soliciting patronage. One of them, a colored man,
soon secured several passengers. As he closed the door after the last
one he turned to uncle Wellington, who stood near him on the sidewalk,
looking about irresolutely.
"Is you goin' uptown?" asked the hackman, as he prepared to mount the
"I 'll take you up fo' a quahtah, ef you want ter git up here an' ride
on de box wid me."
Uncle Wellington accepted the offer and mounted the box. The hackman
whipped up his horses, the carriage climbed the steep hill leading up to
the town, and the passengers inside were soon deposited at their hotels.
"Whereabouts do you want to go?" asked the hackman of uncle Wellington,
when the carriage was emptied of its last passengers.
"I want ter go ter Brer Sam Williams's," said Wellington.
"What 's his street an' number?"
Uncle Wellington did not know the street and number, and the hackman had
to explain to him the mystery of numbered houses, to which he was a
"Where is he from?" asked the hackman, "and what is his business?"
"He is f'm Norf Ca'lina," replied uncle Wellington, "an' makes his
"I reckon I knows de man," said the hackman. "I 'spec' he 's changed his
name. De man I knows is name' Johnson. He b'longs ter my chu'ch. I 'm
gwine out dat way ter git a passenger fer de ten o'clock train, an I 'll
take you by dere."
They followed one of the least handsome streets of the city for more
than a mile, turned into a cross street, and drew up before a small
frame house, from the front of which a sign, painted in white upon a
black background, announced to the reading public, in letters inclined
to each other at various angles, that whitewashing and kalsomining were
"dun" there. A knock at the door brought out a slatternly looking
colored woman. She had evidently been disturbed at her toilet, for she
held a comb in one hand, and the hair on one side of her head stood out
loosely, while on the other side it was braided close to her head. She
called her husband, who proved to be the Patesville shoemaker's brother.
The hackman introduced the traveler, whose name he had learned on the
way out, collected his quarter, and drove away.
Mr. Johnson, the shoemaker's brother, welcomed uncle Wellington to
Groveland, and listened with eager delight to the news of the old town,
from which he himself had run away many years before, and followed the
North Star to Groveland. He had changed his name from "Williams" to
"Johnson," on account of the Fugitive Slave Law, which, at the time of
his escape from bondage, had rendered it advisable for runaway slaves to
court obscurity. After the war he had retained the adopted name. Mrs.
Johnson prepared breakfast for her guest, who ate it with an appetite
sharpened by his journey. After breakfast he went to bed, and slept
until late in the afternoon.
After supper Mr. Johnson took uncle Wellington to visit some of the
neighbors who had come from North Carolina before the war. They all
expressed much pleasure at meeting "Mr. Braboy," a title which at first
sounded a little odd to uncle Wellington. At home he had been
"Wellin'ton," "Brer Wellin'ton," or "uncle Wellin'ton;" it was a novel
experience to be called "Mister," and he set it down, with secret
satisfaction, as one of the first fruits of Northern liberty.
"Would you lack ter look 'roun' de town a little?" asked Mr. Johnson at
breakfast next morning. "I ain' got no job dis mawnin', an' I kin show
you some er de sights."
Uncle Wellington acquiesced in this arrangement, and they walked up to
the corner to the street-car line. In a few moments a car passed. Mr.
Johnson jumped on the moving car, and uncle Wellington followed his
example, at the risk of life or limb, as it was his first experience of
There was only one vacant seat in the car and that was between two white
women in the forward end. Mr. Johnson motioned to the seat, but
Wellington shrank from walking between those two rows of white people,
to say nothing of sitting between the two women, so he remained standing
in the rear part of the car. A moment later, as the car rounded a short
curve, he was pitched sidewise into the lap of a stout woman
magnificently attired in a ruffled blue calico gown. The lady colored
up, and uncle Wellington, as he struggled to his feet amid the laughter
of the passengers, was absolutely helpless with embarrassment, until the
conductor came up behind him and pushed him toward the vacant place.
"Sit down, will you," he said; and before uncle Wellington could collect
himself, he was seated between the two white women. Everybody in the car
seemed to be looking at him. But he came to the conclusion, after he had
pulled himself together and reflected a few moments, that he would find
this method of locomotion pleasanter when he got used to it, and then
he could score one more glorious privilege gained by his change of
They got off at the public square, in the heart of the city, where there
were flowers and statues, and fountains playing. Mr. Johnson pointed out
the court-house, the post-office, the jail, and other public buildings
fronting on the square. They visited the market near by, and from an
elevated point, looked down upon the extensive lumber yards and
factories that were the chief sources of the city's prosperity. Beyond
these they could see the fleet of ships that lined the coal and iron ore
docks of the harbor. Mr. Johnson, who was quite a fluent talker,
enlarged upon the wealth and prosperity of the city; and Wellington, who
had never before been in a town of more than three thousand inhabitants,
manifested sufficient interest and wonder to satisfy the most exacting
cicerone. They called at the office of a colored lawyer and member of
the legislature, formerly from North Carolina, who, scenting a new
constituent and a possible client, greeted the stranger warmly, and in
flowing speech pointed out the superior advantages of life at the North,
citing himself as an illustration of the possibilities of life in a
country really free. As they wended their way homeward to dinner uncle
Wellington, with quickened pulse and rising hopes, felt that this was
indeed the promised land, and that it must be flowing with milk and
Uncle Wellington remained at the residence of Mr. Johnson for several
weeks before making any effort to find employment. He spent this period
in looking about the city. The most commonplace things possessed for him
the charm of novelty, and he had come prepared to admire. Shortly after
his arrival, he had offered to pay for his board, intimating at the same
time that he had plenty of money. Mr. Johnson declined to accept
anything from him for board, and expressed himself as being only too
proud to have Mr. Braboy remain in the house on the footing of an
honored guest, until he had settled himself. He lightened in some
degree, however, the burden of obligation under which a prolonged stay
on these terms would have placed his guest, by soliciting from the
latter occasional small loans, until uncle Wellington's roll of money
began to lose its plumpness, and with an empty pocket staring him in
the face, he felt the necessity of finding something to do.
During his residence in the city he had met several times his first
acquaintance, Mr. Peterson, the hackman, who from time to time inquired
how he was getting along. On one of these occasions Wellington mentioned
his willingness to accept employment. As good luck would have it, Mr.
Peterson knew of a vacant situation. He had formerly been coachman for a
wealthy gentleman residing on Oakwood Avenue, but had resigned the
situation to go into business for himself. His place had been filled by
an Irishman, who had just been discharged for drunkenness, and the
gentleman that very day had sent word to Mr. Peterson, asking him if he
could recommend a competent and trustworthy coachman.
"Does you know anything erbout hosses?" asked Mr. Peterson.
"Yas, indeed, I does," said Wellington. "I wuz raise' 'mongs' hosses."
"I tol' my ole boss I 'd look out fer a man, an' ef you reckon you kin
fill de 'quirements er de situation, I 'll take yo' roun' dere
ter-morrer mornin'. You wants ter put on yo' bes' clothes an' slick up,
fer dey 're partic'lar people. Ef you git de place I 'll expec' you ter
pay me fer de time I lose in 'tendin' ter yo' business, fer time is
money in dis country, an' folks don't do much fer nuthin'."
Next morning Wellington blacked his shoes carefully, put on a clean
collar, and with the aid of Mrs. Johnson tied his cravat in a jaunty bow
which gave him quite a sprightly air and a much younger look than his
years warranted. Mr. Peterson called for him at eight o'clock. After
traversing several cross streets they turned into Oakwood Avenue and
walked along the finest part of it for about half a mile. The handsome
houses of this famous avenue, the stately trees, the wide-spreading
lawns, dotted with flower beds, fountains and statuary, made up a
picture so far surpassing anything in Wellington's experience as to fill
him with an almost oppressive sense of its beauty.
"Hit looks lack hebben," he said softly.
"It 's a pootty fine street," rejoined his companion, with a judicial
air, "but I don't like dem big lawns. It 's too much trouble ter keep
de grass down. One er dem lawns is big enough to pasture a couple er
They went down a street running at right angles to the avenue, and
turned into the rear of the corner lot. A large building of pressed
brick, trimmed with stone, loomed up before them.
"Do de gemman lib in dis house?" asked Wellington, gazing with awe at
the front of the building.
"No, dat 's de barn," said Mr. Peterson with good-natured contempt; and
leading the way past a clump of shrubbery to the dwelling-house, he went
up the back steps and rang the door-bell.
The ring was answered by a buxom Irishwoman, of a natural freshness of
complexion deepened to a fiery red by the heat of a kitchen range.
Wellington thought he had seen her before, but his mind had received so
many new impressions lately that it was a minute or two before he
recognized in her the lady whose lap he had involuntarily occupied for a
moment on his first day in Groveland.
"Faith," she exclaimed as she admitted them, "an' it 's mighty glad I am
to see ye ag'in, Misther Payterson! An' how hev ye be'n, Misther
Payterson, sence I see ye lahst?"
"Middlin' well, Mis' Flannigan, middlin' well, 'ceptin' a tech er de
rheumatiz. S'pose you be'n doin' well as usual?"
"Oh yis, as well as a dacent woman could do wid a drunken baste about
the place like the lahst coachman. O Misther Payterson, it would make
yer heart bleed to see the way the spalpeen cut up a-Saturday! But
Misther Todd discharged 'im the same avenin', widout a characther, bad
'cess to 'im, an' we 've had no coachman sence at all, at all. An' it 's
sorry I am"??
The lady's flow of eloquence was interrupted at this point by the
appearance of Mr. Todd himself, who had been informed of the men's
arrival. He asked some questions in regard to Wellington's
qualifications and former experience, and in view of his recent arrival
in the city was willing to accept Mr. Peterson's recommendation instead
of a reference. He said a few words about the nature of the work, and
stated his willingness to pay Wellington the wages formerly allowed Mr.
Peterson, thirty dollars a month and board and lodging.
This handsome offer was eagerly accepted, and it was agreed that
Wellington's term of service should begin immediately. Mr. Peterson,
being familiar with the work, and financially interested, conducted the
new coachman through the stables and showed him what he would have to
do. The silver-mounted harness, the variety of carriages, the names of
which he learned for the first time, the arrangements for feeding and
watering the horses,?these appointments of a rich man's stable
impressed Wellington very much, and he wondered that so much luxury
should be wasted on mere horses. The room assigned to him, in the second
story of the barn, was a finer apartment than he had ever slept in; and
the salary attached to the situation was greater than the combined
monthly earnings of himself and aunt Milly in their Southern home.
Surely, he thought, his lines had fallen in pleasant places.
Under the stimulus of new surroundings Wellington applied himself
diligently to work, and, with the occasional advice of Mr. Peterson,
soon mastered the details of his employment. He found the female
servants, with whom he took his meals, very amiable ladies. The cook,
Mrs. Katie Flannigan, was a widow. Her husband, a sailor, had been lost
at sea. She was a woman of many words, and when she was not lamenting
the late Flannigan's loss,?according to her story he had been a model
of all the virtues,?she would turn the batteries of her tongue against
the former coachman. This gentleman, as Wellington gathered from
frequent remarks dropped by Mrs. Flannigan, had paid her attentions
clearly susceptible of a serious construction. These attentions had not
borne their legitimate fruit, and she was still a widow
unconsoled,?hence Mrs. Flannigan's tears. The housemaid was a plump,
good-natured German girl, with a pronounced German accent. The presence
on washdays of a Bohemian laundress, of recent importation, added
another to the variety of ways in which the English tongue was mutilated
in Mr. Todd's kitchen. Association with the white women drew out all the
native gallantry of the mulatto, and Wellington developed quite a
helpful turn. His politeness, his willingness to lend a hand in kitchen
or laundry, and the fact that he was the only male servant on the place,
combined to make him a prime favorite in the servants' quarters.
It was the general opinion among Wellington's acquaintances that he was
a single man. He had come to the city alone, had never been heard to
speak of a wife, and to personal questions bearing upon the subject of
matrimony had always returned evasive answers. Though he had never
questioned the correctness of the lawyer's opinion in regard to his
slave marriage, his conscience had never been entirely at ease since his
departure from the South, and any positive denial of his married
condition would have stuck in his throat. The inference naturally drawn
from his reticence in regard to the past, coupled with his expressed
intention of settling permanently in Groveland, was that he belonged in
the ranks of the unmarried, and was therefore legitimate game for any
widow or old maid who could bring him down. As such game is bagged
easiest at short range, he received numerous invitations to tea-parties,
where he feasted on unlimited chicken and pound cake. He used to compare
these viands with the plain fare often served by aunt Milly, and the
result of the comparison was another item to the credit of the North
upon his mental ledger. Several of the colored ladies who smiled upon
him were blessed with good looks, and uncle Wellington, naturally of a
susceptible temperament, as people of lively imagination are apt to be,
would probably have fallen a victim to the charms of some woman of his
own race, had it not been for a strong counter-attraction in the person
of Mrs. Flannigan. The attentions of the lately discharged coachman had
lighted anew the smouldering fires of her widowed heart, and awakened
longings which still remained unsatisfied. She was thirty-five years
old, and felt the need of some one else to love. She was not a woman of
lofty ideals; with her a man was a man??
"For a' that an' a' that;"
and, aside from the accident of color, uncle Wellington was as
personable a man as any of her acquaintance. Some people might have
objected to his complexion; but then, Mrs. Flannigan argued, he was at
least half white; and, this being the case, there was no good reason why
he should be regarded as black.
Uncle Wellington was not slow to perceive Mrs. Flannigan's charms of
person, and appreciated to the full the skill that prepared the choice
tidbits reserved for his plate at dinner. The prospect of securing a
white wife had been one of the principal inducements offered by a life
at the North; but the awe of white people in which he had been reared
was still too strong to permit his taking any active steps toward the
object of his secret desire, had not the lady herself come to his
assistance with a little of the native coquetry of her race.
"Ah, Misther Braboy," she said one evening when they sat at the supper
table alone,?it was the second girl's afternoon off, and she had not
come home to supper,?"it must be an awful lonesome life ye 've been
afther l'adin', as a single man, wid no one to cook fer ye, or look
"It are a kind er lonesome life, Mis' Flannigan, an' dat 's a fac'. But
sence I had de privilege er eatin' yo' cookin' an' 'joyin' yo' society,
I ain' felt a bit lonesome."
"Yer flatthrin' me, Misther Braboy. An' even if ye mane it"??
"I means eve'y word of it, Mis' Flannigan."
"An' even if ye mane it, Misther Braboy, the time is liable to come when
things 'll be different; for service is uncertain, Misther Braboy. An'
then you 'll wish you had some nice, clean woman, 'at knowed how to cook
an' wash an' iron, ter look afther ye, an' make yer life comfortable."
Uncle Wellington sighed, and looked at her languishingly.
"It 'u'd all be well ernuff, Mis' Flannigan, ef I had n' met you; but I
don' know whar I 's ter fin' a colored lady w'at 'll begin ter suit me
after habbin' libbed in de same house wid you."
"Colored lady, indade! Why, Misther Braboy, ye don't nade ter demane
yerself by marryin' a colored lady?not but they 're as good as anybody
else, so long as they behave themselves. There 's many a white woman
'u'd be glad ter git as fine a lookin' man as ye are."
"Now you 're flattrin' me, Mis' Flannigan," said Wellington. But he
felt a sudden and substantial increase in courage when she had spoken,
and it was with astonishing ease that he found himself saying:??
"Dey ain' but one lady, Mis' Flannigan, dat could injuce me ter want ter
change de lonesomeness er my singleness fer de 'sponsibilities er
matermony, an' I 'm feared she 'd say no ef I 'd ax her."
"Ye 'd better ax her, Misther Braboy, an' not be wastin' time
a-wond'rin'. Do I know the lady?"
"You knows 'er better 'n anybody else, Mis' Flannigan. You is de only
lady I 'd be satisfied ter marry after knowin' you. Ef you casts me off
I 'll spen' de rest er my days in lonesomeness an' mis'ry."
Mrs. Flannigan affected much surprise and embarrassment at this bold
"Oh, Misther Braboy," she said, covering him with a coy glance, "an'
it 's rale 'shamed I am to hev b'en talkin' ter ye ez I hev. It looks as
though I 'd b'en doin' the coortin'. I did n't drame that I 'd b'en able
ter draw yer affections to mesilf."
"I 's loved you ever sence I fell in yo' lap on de street car de fus'
day I wuz in Groveland," he said, as he moved his chair up closer to
One evening in the following week they went out after supper to the
residence of Rev. C?ar Williams, pastor of the colored Baptist church,
and, after the usual preliminaries, were pronounced man and wife.
According to all his preconceived notions, this marriage ought to have
been the acme of uncle Wellington's felicity. But he soon found that it
was not without its drawbacks. On the following morning Mr. Todd was
informed of the marriage. He had no special objection to it, or interest
in it, except that he was opposed on principle to having husband and
wife in his employment at the same time. As a consequence, Mrs. Braboy,
whose place could be more easily filled than that of her husband,
received notice that her services would not be required after the end of
the month. Her husband was retained in his place as coachman.
Upon the loss of her situation Mrs. Braboy decided to exercise the
married woman's prerogative of letting her husband support her. She
rented the upper floor of a small house in an Irish neighborhood. The
newly wedded pair furnished their rooms on the installment plan and
There was one little circumstance, however, that interfered slightly
with their enjoyment of that perfect freedom from care which ought to
characterize a honeymoon. The people who owned the house and occupied
the lower floor had rented the upper part to Mrs. Braboy in person, it
never occurring to them that her husband could be other than a white
man. When it became known that he was colored, the landlord, Mr. Dennis
O'Flaherty, felt that he had been imposed upon, and, at the end of the
first month, served notice upon his tenants to leave the premises. When
Mrs. Braboy, with characteristic impetuosity, inquired the meaning of
this proceeding, she was informed by Mr. O'Flaherty that he did not care
to live in the same house "wid naygurs." Mrs. Braboy resented the
epithet with more warmth than dignity, and for a brief space of time the
air was green with choice specimens of brogue, the altercation barely
ceasing before it had reached the point of blows.
It was quite clear that the Braboys could not longer live comfortably in
Mr. O'Flaherty's house, and they soon vacated the premises, first
letting the rent get a couple of weeks in arrears as a punishment to the
too fastidious landlord. They moved to a small house on Hackman Street,
a favorite locality with colored people.
For a while, affairs ran smoothly in the new home. The colored people
seemed, at first, well enough disposed toward Mrs. Braboy, and she made
quite a large acquaintance among them. It was difficult, however, for
Mrs. Braboy to divest herself of the consciousness that she was white,
and therefore superior to her neighbors. Occasional words and acts by
which she manifested this feeling were noticed and resented by her
keen-eyed and sensitive colored neighbors. The result was a slight
coolness between them. That her few white neighbors did not visit her,
she naturally and no doubt correctly imputed to disapproval of her
Under these circumstances, Mrs. Braboy was left a good deal to her own
company. Owing to lack of opportunity in early life, she was not a woman
of many resources, either mental or moral. It is therefore not strange
that, in order to relieve her loneliness, she should occasionally have
recourse to a glass of beer, and, as the habit grew upon her, to still
stronger stimulants. Uncle Wellington himself was no tee-totaler, and
did not interpose any objection so long as she kept her potations within
reasonable limits, and was apparently none the worse for them; indeed,
he sometimes joined her in a glass. On one of these occasions he drank a
little too much, and, while driving the ladies of Mr. Todd's family to
the opera, ran against a lamp-post and overturned the carriage, to the
serious discomposure of the ladies' nerves, and at the cost of his
A coachman discharged under such circumstances is not in the best
position for procuring employment at his calling, and uncle Wellington,
under the pressure of need, was obliged to seek some other means of
livelihood. At the suggestion of his friend Mr. Johnson, he bought a
whitewash brush, a peck of lime, a couple of pails, and a hand-cart, and
began work as a whitewasher. His first efforts were very crude, and for
a while he lost a customer in every person he worked for. He
nevertheless managed to pick up a living during the spring and summer
months, and to support his wife and himself in comparative comfort.
The approach of winter put an end to the whitewashing season, and left
uncle Wellington dependent for support upon occasional jobs of unskilled
labor. The income derived from these was very uncertain, and Mrs. Braboy
was at length driven, by stress of circumstances, to the washtub, that
last refuge of honest, able-bodied poverty, in all countries where the
use of clothing is conventional.
The last state of uncle Wellington was now worse than the first. Under
the soft firmness of aunt Milly's rule, he had not been required to do a
great deal of work, prompt and cheerful obedience being chiefly what was
expected of him. But matters were very different here. He had not only
to bring in the coal and water, but to rub the clothes and turn the
wringer, and to humiliate himself before the public by emptying the tubs
and hanging out the wash in full view of the neighbors; and he had to
deliver the clothes when laundered.
At times Wellington found himself wondering if his second marriage had
been a wise one. Other circumstances combined to change in some degree
his once rose-colored conception of life at the North. He had believed
that all men were equal in this favored locality, but he discovered
more degrees of inequality than he had ever perceived at the South. A
colored man might be as good as a white man in theory, but neither of
them was of any special consequence without money, or talent, or
position. Uncle Wellington found a great many privileges open to him at
the North, but he had not been educated to the point where he could
appreciate them or take advantage of them; and the enjoyment of many of
them was expensive, and, for that reason alone, as far beyond his reach
as they had ever been. When he once began to admit even the possibility
of a mistake on his part, these considerations presented themselves to
his mind with increasing force. On occasions when Mrs. Braboy would
require of him some unusual physical exertion, or when too frequent
applications to the bottle had loosened her tongue, uncle Wellington's
mind would revert, with a remorseful twinge of conscience, to the dolce
far niente of his Southern home; a film would come over his eyes and
brain, and, instead of the red-faced Irishwoman opposite him, he could
see the black but comely disk of aunt Milly's countenance bending over
the washtub; the elegant brogue of Mrs. Braboy would deliquesce into the
soft dialect of North Carolina; and he would only be aroused from this
blissful reverie by a wet shirt or a handful of suds thrown into his
face, with which gentle reminder his wife would recall his attention to
the duties of the moment.
There came a time, one day in spring, when there was no longer any
question about it: uncle Wellington was desperately homesick.
Liberty, equality, privileges,?all were but as dust in the balance when
weighed against his longing for old scenes and faces. It was the natural
reaction in the mind of a middle-aged man who had tried to force the
current of a sluggish existence into a new and radically different
channel. An active, industrious man, making the change in early life,
while there was time to spare for the waste of adaptation, might have
found in the new place more favorable conditions than in the old. In
Wellington age and temperament combined to prevent the success of the
experiment; the spirit of enterprise and ambition into which he had been
temporarily galvanized could no longer prevail against the inertia of
old habits of life and thought.
One day when he had been sent to deliver clothes he performed his
errand quickly, and boarding a passing street car, paid one of his very
few five-cent pieces to ride down to the office of the Hon. Mr. Brown,
the colored lawyer whom he had visited when he first came to the city,
and who was well known to him by sight and reputation.
"Mr. Brown," he said, "I ain' gitt'n' 'long very well wid my ole 'oman."
"What 's the trouble?" asked the lawyer, with business-like curtness,
for he did not scent much of a fee.
"Well, de main trouble is she doan treat me right. An' den she gits
drunk, an' wuss'n dat, she lays vi'lent han's on me. I kyars de marks er
dat 'oman on my face now."
He showed the lawyer a long scratch on the neck.
"Why don't you defend yourself?"
"You don' know Mis' Braboy, suh; you don' know dat 'oman," he replied,
with a shake of the head. "Some er dese yer w'ite women is monst'us
strong in de wris'."
"Well, Mr. Braboy, it 's what you might have expected when you turned
your back on your own people and married a white woman. You were n't
content with being a slave to the white folks once, but you must try it
again. Some people never know when they 've got enough. I don't see that
there 's any help for you; unless," he added suggestively, "you had a
good deal of money."
'"Pears ter me I heared somebody say sence I be'n up heah, dat it wuz
'gin de law fer w'ite folks an' colored folks ter marry."
"That was once the law, though it has always been a dead letter in
Groveland. In fact, it was the law when you got married, and until I
introduced a bill in the legislature last fall to repeal it. But even
that law did n't hit cases like yours. It was unlawful to make such a
marriage, but it was a good marriage when once made."
"I don' jes' git dat th'oo my head," said Wellington, scratching that
member as though to make a hole for the idea to enter.
"It 's quite plain, Mr. Braboy. It 's unlawful to kill a man, but when
he 's killed he 's just as dead as though the law permitted it. I 'm
afraid you have n't much of a case, but if you 'll go to work and get
twenty-five dollars together, I 'll see what I can do for you. We may be
able to pull a case through on the ground of extreme cruelty. I might
even start the case if you brought in ten dollars."
Wellington went away sorrowfully. The laws of Ohio were very little more
satisfactory than those of North Carolina. And as for the ten
dollars,?the lawyer might as well have told him to bring in the moon,
or a deed for the Public Square. He felt very, very low as he hurried
back home to supper, which he would have to go without if he were not on
hand at the usual supper-time.
But just when his spirits were lowest, and his outlook for the future
most hopeless, a measure of relief was at hand. He noticed, when he
reached home, that Mrs. Braboy was a little preoccupied, and did not
abuse him as vigorously as he expected after so long an absence. He also
perceived the smell of strange tobacco in the house, of a better grade
than he could afford to use. He thought perhaps some one had come in to
see about the washing; but he was too glad of a respite from Mrs.
Braboy's rhetoric to imperil it by indiscreet questions.
Next morning she gave him fifty cents.
"Braboy," she said, "ye 've be'n helpin' me nicely wid the washin', an'
I 'm going ter give ye a holiday. Ye can take yer hook an' line an' go
fishin' on the breakwater. I 'll fix ye a lunch, an' ye need n't come
back till night. An' there 's half a dollar; ye can buy yerself a pipe
er terbacky. But be careful an' don't waste it," she added, for fear she
was overdoing the thing.
Uncle Wellington was overjoyed at this change of front on the part of
Mrs. Braboy; if she would make it permanent he did not see why they
might not live together very comfortably.
The day passed pleasantly down on the breakwater. The weather was
agreeable, and the fish bit freely. Towards evening Wellington started
home with a bunch of fish that no angler need have been ashamed of. He
looked forward to a good warm supper; for even if something should have
happened during the day to alter his wife's mood for the worse, any
ordinary variation would be more than balanced by the substantial
addition of food to their larder. His mouth watered at the thought of
the finny beauties sputtering in the frying-pan.
He noted, as he approached the house, that there was no smoke coming
from the chimney. This only disturbed him in connection with the matter
of supper. When he entered the gate he observed further that the
window-shades had been taken down.
"'Spec' de ole 'oman's been house-cleanin'," he said to himself. "I
wonder she did n' make me stay an' he'p 'er."
He went round to the rear of the house and tried the kitchen door. It
was locked. This was somewhat of a surprise, and disturbed still further
his expectations in regard to supper. When he had found the key and
opened the door, the gravity of his next discovery drove away for the
time being all thoughts of eating.
The kitchen was empty. Stove, table, chairs, wash-tubs, pots and pans,
had vanished as if into thin air.
"Fo' de Lawd's sake!" he murmured in open-mouthed astonishment.
He passed into the other room,?they had only two,?which had served as
bedroom and sitting-room. It was as bare as the first, except that in
the middle of the floor were piled uncle Wellington's clothes. It was
not a large pile, and on the top of it lay a folded piece of yellow
Wellington stood for a moment as if petrified. Then he rubbed his eyes
and looked around him.
"W'at do dis mean?" he said. "Is I er-dreamin', er does I see w'at I
'pears ter see?" He glanced down at the bunch of fish which he still
held. "Heah 's de fish; heah 's de house; heah I is; but whar 's de ole
'oman, an' whar 's de fu'niture? I can't figure out w'at dis yer all
He picked up the piece of paper and unfolded it. It was written on one
side. Here was the obvious solution of the mystery,?that is, it would
have been obvious if he could have read it; but he could not, and so his
fancy continued to play upon the subject. Perhaps the house had been
robbed, or the furniture taken back by the seller, for it had not been
entirely paid for.
Finally he went across the street and called to a boy in a neighbor's
"Does you read writin', Johnnie?"
"Yes, sir, I 'm in the seventh grade."
"Read dis yer paper fuh me."
The youngster took the note, and with much labor read the following:??
"In lavin' ye so suddint I have ter say that my first husban' has turned
up unixpected, having been saved onbeknownst ter me from a wathry grave
an' all the money wasted I spint fer masses fer ter rist his sole an' I
wish I had it back I feel it my dooty ter go an' live wid 'im again. I
take the furnacher because I bought it yer close is yors I leave them
and wishin' yer the best of luck I remane oncet yer wife but now agin
"Mrs. Katie Flannigan.
"N.B. I 'm lavin town terday so it won't be no use lookin' fer me."
On inquiry uncle Wellington learned from the boy that shortly after his
departure in the morning a white man had appeared on the scene, followed
a little later by a moving-van, into which the furniture had been loaded
and carried away. Mrs. Braboy, clad in her best clothes, had locked the
door, and gone away with the strange white man.
The news was soon noised about the street. Wellington swapped his fish
for supper and a bed at a neighbor's, and during the evening learned
from several sources that the strange white man had been at his house
the afternoon of the day before. His neighbors intimated that they
thought Mrs. Braboy's departure a good riddance of bad rubbish, and
Wellington did not dispute the proposition.
Thus ended the second chapter of Wellington's matrimonial experiences.
His wife's departure had been the one thing needful to convince him,
beyond a doubt, that he had been a great fool. Remorse and homesickness
forced him to the further conclusion that he had been knave as well as
fool, and had treated aunt Milly shamefully. He was not altogether a bad
old man, though very weak and erring, and his better nature now gained
the ascendency. Of course his disappointment had a great deal to do with
his remorse; most people do not perceive the hideousness of sin until
they begin to reap its consequences. Instead of the beautiful Northern
life he had dreamed of, he found himself stranded, penniless, in a
strange land, among people whose sympathy he had forfeited, with no one
to lean upon, and no refuge from the storms of life. His outlook was
very dark, and there sprang up within him a wild longing to get back to
North Carolina,?back to the little whitewashed cabin, shaded with china
and mulberry trees; back to the wood-pile and the garden; back to the
old cronies with whom he had swapped lies and tobacco for so many years.
He longed to kiss the rod of aunt Milly's domination. He had purchased
his liberty at too great a price.
The next day he disappeared from Groveland. He had announced his
departure only to Mr. Johnson, who sent his love to his relations in
It would be painful to record in detail the return journey of uncle
Wellington?Mr. Braboy no longer?to his native town; how many weary
miles he walked; how many times he risked his life on railroad tracks
and between freight cars; how he depended for sustenance on the grudging
hand of back-door charity. Nor would it be profitable or delicate to
mention any slight deviations from the path of rectitude, as judged by
conventional standards, to which he may occasionally have been driven by
a too insistent hunger; or to refer in the remotest degree to a
compulsory sojourn of thirty days in a city where he had no references,
and could show no visible means of support. True charity will let these
purely personal matters remain locked in the bosom of him who suffered
Just fifteen months after the date when uncle Wellington had left North
Carolina, a weather-beaten figure entered the town of Patesville after
nightfall, following the railroad track from the north. Few would have
recognized in the hungry-looking old brown tramp, clad in dusty rags and
limping along with bare feet, the trim-looking middle-aged mulatto who
so few months before had taken the train from Patesville for the distant
North; so, if he had but known it, there was no necessity for him to
avoid the main streets and sneak around by unfrequented paths to reach
the old place on the other side of the town. He encountered nobody that
he knew, and soon the familiar shape of the little cabin rose before
him. It stood distinctly outlined against the sky, and the light
streaming from the half-opened shutters showed it to be occupied. As he
drew nearer, every familiar detail of the place appealed to his memory
and to his affections, and his heart went out to the old home and the
old wife. As he came nearer still, the odor of fried chicken floated out
upon the air and set his mouth to watering, and awakened unspeakable
longings in his half-starved stomach.
At this moment, however, a fearful thought struck him; suppose the old
woman had taken legal advice and married again during his absence? Turn
about would have been only fair play. He opened the gate softly, and
with his heart in his mouth approached the window on tiptoe and looked
A cheerful fire was blazing on the hearth, in front of which sat the
familiar form of aunt Milly?and another, at the sight of whom uncle
Wellington's heart sank within him. He knew the other person very well;
he had sat there more than once before uncle Wellington went away. It
was the minister of the church to which his wife belonged. The
preacher's former visits, however, had signified nothing more than
pastoral courtesy, or appreciation of good eating. His presence now was
of serious portent; for Wellington recalled, with acute alarm, that the
elder's wife had died only a few weeks before his own departure for the
North. What was the occasion of his presence this evening? Was it merely
a pastoral call? or was he courting? or had aunt Milly taken legal
advice and married the elder?
Wellington remembered a crack in the wall, at the back of the house,
through which he could see and hear, and quietly stationed himself
"Dat chicken smells mighty good, Sis' Milly," the elder was saying; "I
can't fer de life er me see why dat low-down husban' er yo'n could ever
run away f'm a cook like you. It 's one er de beatenis' things I ever
heared. How he could lib wid you an' not 'preciate you I can't
understan', no indeed I can't."
Aunt Milly sighed. "De trouble wid Wellin'ton wuz," she replied, "dat
he did n' know when he wuz well off. He wuz alluz wishin' fer change, er
studyin' 'bout somethin' new."
"Ez fer me," responded the elder earnestly, "I likes things what has
be'n prove' an' tried an' has stood de tes', an' I can't 'magine how
anybody could spec' ter fin' a better housekeeper er cook dan you is,
Sis' Milly. I 'm a gittin' mighty lonesome sence my wife died. De Good
Book say it is not good fer man ter lib alone, en it 'pears ter me dat
you an' me mought git erlong tergether monst'us well."
Wellington's heart stood still, while he listened with strained
attention. Aunt Milly sighed.
"I ain't denyin', elder, but what I 've be'n kinder lonesome myse'f fer
quite a w'ile, an' I doan doubt dat w'at de Good Book say 'plies ter
women as well as ter men."
"You kin be sho' it do," averred the elder, with professional
authoritativeness; "yas 'm, you kin be cert'n sho'."
"But, of co'se," aunt Milly went on, "havin' los' my ole man de way I
did, it has tuk me some time fer ter git my feelin's straighten' out
like dey oughter be."
"I kin 'magine yo' feelin's, Sis' Milly," chimed in the elder
sympathetically, "w'en you come home dat night an' foun' yo' chist broke
open, an' yo' money gone dat you had wukked an' slaved full f'm mawnin'
'tel night, year in an' year out, an' w'en you foun' dat no-'count
nigger gone wid his clo's an' you lef' all alone in de worl' ter scuffle
'long by yo'self."
"Yas, elder," responded aunt Milly, "I wa'n't used right. An' den w'en I
heared 'bout his goin' ter de lawyer ter fin' out 'bout a defoce, an'
w'en I heared w'at de lawyer said 'bout my not bein' his wife 'less he
wanted me, it made me so mad, I made up my min' dat ef he ever put his
foot on my do'sill ag'in, I 'd shet de do' in his face an' tell 'im ter
go back whar he come f'm."
To Wellington, on the outside, the cabin had never seemed so
comfortable, aunt Milly never so desirable, chicken never so appetizing,
as at this moment when they seemed slipping away from his grasp forever.
"Yo' feelin's does you credit, Sis' Milly," said the elder, taking her
hand, which for a moment she did not withdraw. "An' de way fer you ter
close yo' do' tightes' ag'inst 'im is ter take me in his place. He ain'
got no claim on you no mo'. He tuk his ch'ice 'cordin' ter w'at de
lawyer tol' 'im, an' 'termine' dat he wa'n't yo' husban'. Ef he wa'n't
yo' husban', he had no right ter take yo' money, an' ef he comes back
here ag'in you kin hab 'im tuck up an' sent ter de penitenchy fer
Uncle Wellington's knees, already weak from fasting, trembled violently
beneath him. The worst that he had feared was now likely to happen. His
only hope of safety lay in flight, and yet the scene within so
fascinated him that he could not move a step.
"It 'u'd serve him right," exclaimed aunt Milly indignantly, "ef he wuz
sent ter de penitenchy fer life! Dey ain't nuthin' too mean ter be done
ter 'im. What did I ever do dat he should use me like he did?"
The recital of her wrongs had wrought upon aunt Milly's feelings so that
her voice broke, and she wiped her eyes with her apron.
The elder looked serenely confident, and moved his chair nearer hers in
order the better to play the role of comforter. Wellington, on the
outside, felt so mean that the darkness of the night was scarcely
sufficient to hide him; it would be no more than right if the earth were
to open and swallow him up.
"An' yet aftuh all, elder," said Milly with a sob, "though I knows you
is a better man, an' would treat me right, I wuz so use' ter dat ole
nigger, an' libbed wid 'im so long, dat ef he 'd open dat do' dis minute
an' walk in, I 'm feared I 'd be foolish ernuff an' weak ernuff to
forgive 'im an' take 'im back ag'in."
With a bound, uncle Wellington was away from the crack in the wall. As
he ran round the house he passed the wood-pile and snatched up an armful
of pieces. A moment later he threw open the door.
"Ole 'oman," he exclaimed, "here 's dat wood you tol' me ter fetch in!
Why, elder," he said to the preacher, who had started from his seat with
surprise, "w'at's yo' hurry? Won't you stay an' hab some supper wid us?"