of Circumstance by Charles Waddell Chesnutt
Within a low clapboarded hut, with an open front, a forge was glowing.
In front a blacksmith was shoeing a horse, a sleek, well-kept animal
with the signs of good blood and breeding. A young mulatto stood by and
handed the blacksmith such tools as he needed from time to time. A group
of negroes were sitting around, some in the shadow of the shop, one in
the full glare of the sunlight. A gentleman was seated in a buggy a few
yards away, in the shade of a spreading elm. The horse had loosened a
shoe, and Colonel Thornton, who was a lover of fine horseflesh, and
careful of it, had stopped at Ben Davis's blacksmith shop, as soon as he
discovered the loose shoe, to have it fastened on.
"All right, Kunnel," the blacksmith called out. "Tom," he said,
addressing the young man, "he'p me hitch up."
Colonel Thornton alighted from the buggy, looked at the shoe, signified
his approval of the job, and stood looking on while the blacksmith and
his assistant harnessed the horse to the buggy.
"Dat 's a mighty fine whip yer got dere, Kunnel," said Ben, while the
young man was tightening the straps of the harness on the opposite side
of the horse. "I wush I had one like it. Where kin yer git dem whips?"
"My brother brought me this from New York," said the Colonel. "You can't
buy them down here."
The whip in question was a handsome one. The handle was wrapped with
interlacing threads of variegated colors, forming an elaborate pattern,
the lash being dark green. An octagonal ornament of glass was set in the
end of the handle.
"It cert'n'y is fine," said Ben; "I wish I had one like it." He looked
at the whip longingly as Colonel Thornton drove away.
"'Pears ter me Ben gittin' mighty blooded," said one of the bystanders,
"drivin' a hoss an' buggy, an' wantin' a whip like Colonel Thornton's."
"What 's de reason I can't hab a hoss an' buggy an' a whip like Kunnel
Tho'nton's, ef I pay fer 'em?" asked Ben. "We colored folks never had no
chance ter git nothin' befo' de wah, but ef eve'y nigger in dis town had
a tuck keer er his money sence de wah, like I has, an' bought as much
lan' as I has, de niggers might 'a' got half de lan' by dis time," he
went on, giving a finishing blow to a horseshoe, and throwing it on the
ground to cool.
Carried away by his own eloquence, he did not notice the approach of two
white men who came up the street from behind him.
"An' ef you niggers," he continued, raking the coals together over a
fresh bar of iron, "would stop wastin' yo' money on 'scursions to put
money in w'ite folks' pockets, an' stop buildin' fine chu'ches, an'
buil' houses fer yo'se'ves, you 'd git along much faster."
"You 're talkin' sense, Ben," said one of the white men. "Yo'r people
will never be respected till they 've got property."
The conversation took another turn. The white men transacted their
business and went away. The whistle of a neighboring steam sawmill blew
a raucous blast for the hour of noon, and the loafers shuffled away in
"You kin go ter dinner, Tom," said the blacksmith. "An' stop at de gate
w'en yer go by my house, and tell Nancy I 'll be dere in 'bout twenty
minutes. I got ter finish dis yer plough p'int fus'."
The young man walked away. One would have supposed, from the rapidity
with which he walked, that he was very hungry. A quarter of an hour
later the blacksmith dropped his hammer, pulled off his leather apron,
shut the front door of the shop, and went home to dinner. He came into
the house out of the fervent heat, and, throwing off his straw hat,
wiped his brow vigorously with a red cotton handkerchief.
"Dem collards smells good," he said, sniffing the odor that came in
through the kitchen door, as his good-looking yellow wife opened it to
enter the room where he was. "I 've got a monst'us good appetite
ter-day. I feels good, too. I paid Majah Ransom de intrus' on de
mortgage dis mawnin' an' a hund'ed dollahs besides, an' I spec's ter hab
de balance ready by de fust of nex' Jiniwary; an' den we won't owe
nobody a cent. I tell yer dere ain' nothin' like propputy ter make a
pusson feel like a man. But w'at 's de matter wid yer, Nancy? Is sump'n'
The woman did seem excited and ill at ease. There was a heaving of the
full bust, a quickened breathing, that betokened suppressed excitement.
"I-I-jes' seen a rattlesnake out in de gyahden," she stammered.
The blacksmith ran to the door. "Which way? Whar wuz he?" he cried.
He heard a rustling in the bushes at one side of the garden, and the
sound of a breaking twig, and, seizing a hoe which stood by the door, he
sprang toward the point from which the sound came.
"No, no," said the woman hurriedly, "it wuz over here," and she directed
her husband's attention to the other side of the garden.
The blacksmith, with the uplifted hoe, its sharp blade gleaming in the
sunlight, peered cautiously among the collards and tomato plants,
listening all the while for the ominous rattle, but found nothing.
"I reckon he 's got away," he said, as he set the hoe up again by the
door. "Whar 's de chillen?" he asked with some anxiety. "Is dey playin'
in de woods?"
"No," answered his wife, "dey 've gone ter de spring."
The spring was on the opposite side of the garden from that on which the
snake was said to have been seen, so the blacksmith sat down and fanned
himself with a palm-leaf fan until the dinner was served.
"Yer ain't quite on time ter-day, Nancy," he said, glancing up at the
clock on the mantel, after the edge of his appetite had been taken off.
"Got ter make time ef yer wanter make money. Did n't Tom tell yer I 'd
be heah in twenty minutes?"
"No," she said; "I seen him goin' pas'; he did n' say nothin'."
"I dunno w'at 's de matter wid dat boy," mused the blacksmith over his
apple dumpling. "He 's gittin' mighty keerless heah lately; mus' hab
sump'n' on 'is min',—some gal, I reckon."
The children had come in while he was speaking,—a slender, shapely
boy, yellow like his mother, a girl several years younger, dark like her
father: both bright-looking children and neatly dressed.
"I seen cousin Tom down by de spring," said the little girl, as she
lifted off the pail of water that had been balanced on her head. "He
come out er de woods jest ez we wuz fillin' our buckets."
"Yas," insisted the blacksmith, "he 's got some gal on his min'."
The case of the State of North Carolina vs. Ben Davis was called. The
accused was led into court, and took his seat in the prisoner's dock.
"Prisoner at the bar, stand up."
The prisoner, pale and anxious, stood up. The clerk read the indictment,
in which it was charged that the defendant by force and arms had entered
the barn of one G.W. Thornton, and feloniously taken therefrom one whip,
of the value of fifteen dollars.
"Are you guilty or not guilty?" asked the judge.
"Not guilty, yo' Honah; not guilty, Jedge. I never tuck de whip."
The State's attorney opened the case. He was young and zealous. Recently
elected to the office, this was his first batch of cases, and he was
anxious to make as good a record as possible. He had no doubt of the
prisoner's guilt. There had been a great deal of petty thieving in the
county, and several gentlemen had suggested to him the necessity for
greater severity in punishing it. The jury were all white men. The
prosecuting attorney stated the case.
"We expect to show, gentlemen of the jury, the facts set out in the
indictment,—not altogether by direct proof, but by a chain of
circumstantial evidence which is stronger even than the testimony of
eyewitnesses. Men might lie, but circumstances cannot. We expect to show
that the defendant is a man of dangerous character, a surly, impudent
fellow; a man whose views of property are prejudicial to the welfare of
society, and who has been heard to assert that half the property which
is owned in this county has been stolen, and that, if justice were done,
the white people ought to divide up the land with the negroes; in other
words, a negro nihilist, a communist, a secret devotee of Tom Paine and
Voltaire, a pupil of the anarchist propaganda, which, if not checked by
the stern hand of the law, will fasten its insidious fangs on our social
system, and drag it down to ruin."
"We object, may it please your Honor," said the defendant's attorney.
"The prosecutor should defer his argument until the testimony is in."
"Confine yourself to the facts, Major," said the court mildly.
The prisoner sat with half-open mouth, overwhelmed by this flood of
eloquence. He had never heard of Tom Paine or Voltaire. He had no
conception of what a nihilist or an anarchist might be, and could not
have told the difference between a propaganda and a potato.
"We expect to show, may it please the court, that the prisoner had been
employed by Colonel Thornton to shoe a horse; that the horse was taken
to the prisoner's blacksmith shop by a servant of Colonel Thornton's;
that, this servant expressing a desire to go somewhere on an errand
before the horse had been shod, the prisoner volunteered to return the
horse to Colonel Thornton's stable; that he did so, and the following
morning the whip in question was missing; that, from circumstances,
suspicion naturally fell upon the prisoner, and a search was made of his
shop, where the whip was found secreted; that the prisoner denied that
the whip was there, but when confronted with the evidence of his crime,
showed by his confusion that he was guilty beyond a peradventure."
The prisoner looked more anxious; so much eloquence could not but be
effective with the jury.
The attorney for the defendant answered briefly, denying the defendant's
guilt, dwelling upon his previous good character for honesty, and
begging the jury not to pre-judge the case, but to remember that the law
is merciful, and that the benefit of the doubt should be given to the
The prisoner glanced nervously at the jury. There was nothing in their
faces to indicate the effect upon them of the opening statements. It
seemed to the disinterested listeners as if the defendant's attorney
had little confidence in his client's cause.
Colonel Thornton took the stand and testified to his ownership of the
whip, the place where it was kept, its value, and the fact that it had
disappeared. The whip was produced in court and identified by the
witness. He also testified to the conversation at the blacksmith shop in
the course of which the prisoner had expressed a desire to possess a
similar whip. The cross-examination was brief, and no attempt was made
to shake the Colonel's testimony.
The next witness was the constable who had gone with a warrant to search
Ben's shop. He testified to the circumstances under which the whip was
"He wuz brazen as a mule at fust, an' wanted ter git mad about it. But
when we begun ter turn over that pile er truck in the cawner, he kinder
begun ter trimble; when the whip-handle stuck out, his eyes commenced
ter grow big, an' when we hauled the whip out he turned pale ez ashes,
an' begun to swear he did n' take the whip an' did n' know how it got
"You may cross-examine," said the prosecuting attorney triumphantly.
The prisoner felt the weight of the testimony, and glanced furtively at
the jury, and then appealingly at his lawyer.
"You say that Ben denied that he had stolen the whip," said the
prisoner's attorney, on cross-examination. "Did it not occur to you that
what you took for brazen impudence might have been but the evidence of
The witness grinned incredulously, revealing thereby a few blackened
fragments of teeth.
"I 've tuck up more 'n a hundred niggers fer stealin', Kurnel, an' I
never seed one yit that did n' 'ny it ter the las'."
"Answer my question. Might not the witness's indignation have been a
manifestation of conscious innocence? Yes or no?"
"Yes, it mought, an' the moon mought fall—but it don't."
Further cross-examination did not weaken the witness's testimony, which
was very damaging, and every one in the court room felt instinctively
that a strong defense would be required to break down the State's case.
"The State rests," said the prosecuting attorney, with a ring in his
voice which spoke of certain victory.
There was a temporary lull in the proceedings, during which a bailiff
passed a pitcher of water and a glass along the line of jury-men. The
defense was then begun.
The law in its wisdom did not permit the defendant to testify in his own
behalf. There were no witnesses to the facts, but several were called to
testify to Ben's good character. The colored witnesses made him out
possessed of all the virtues. One or two white men testified that they
had never known anything against his reputation for honesty.
The defendant rested his case, and the State called its witnesses in
rebuttal. They were entirely on the point of character. One testified
that he had heard the prisoner say that, if the negroes had their
rights, they would own at least half the property. Another testified
that he had heard the defendant say that the negroes spent too much
money on churches, and that they cared a good deal more for God than God
had ever seemed to care for them.
Ben Davis listened to this testimony with half-open mouth and staring
eyes. Now and then he would lean forward and speak perhaps a word, when
his attorney would shake a warning finger at him, and he would fall back
helplessly, as if abandoning himself to fate; but for a moment only,
when he would resume his puzzled look.
The arguments followed. The prosecuting attorney briefly summed up the
evidence, and characterized it as almost a mathematical proof of the
prisoner's guilt. He reserved his eloquence for the closing argument.
The defendant's attorney had a headache, and secretly believed his
client guilty. His address sounded more like an appeal for mercy than a
demand for justice. Then the State's attorney delivered the maiden
argument of his office, the speech that made his reputation as an
orator, and opened up to him a successful political career.
The judge's charge to the jury was a plain, simple statement of the law
as applied to circumstantial evidence, and the mere statement of the law
foreshadowed the verdict.
The eyes of the prisoner were glued to the jury-box, and he looked more
and more like a hunted animal. In the rear of the crowd of blacks who
filled the back part of the room, partly concealed by the projecting
angle of the fireplace, stood Tom, the blacksmith's assistant. If the
face is the mirror of the soul, then this man's soul, taken off its
guard in this moment of excitement, was full of lust and envy and all
The jury filed out of their box, and into the jury room behind the
judge's stand. There was a moment of relaxation in the court room. The
lawyers fell into conversation across the table. The judge beckoned to
Colonel Thornton, who stepped forward, and they conversed together a few
moments. The prisoner was all eyes and ears in this moment of waiting,
and from an involuntary gesture on the part of the judge he divined that
they were speaking of him. It is a pity he could not hear what was said.
"How do you feel about the case, Colonel?" asked the judge.
"Let him off easy," replied Colonel Thornton. "He 's the best blacksmith
in the county."
The business of the court seemed to have halted by tacit consent, in
anticipation of a quick verdict. The suspense did not last long.
Scarcely ten minutes had elapsed when there was a rap on the door, the
officer opened it, and the jury came out.
The prisoner, his soul in his eyes, sought their faces, but met no
reassuring glance; they were all looking away from him.
"Gentlemen of the jury, have you agreed upon a verdict?"
"We have," responded the foreman. The clerk of the court stepped forward
and took the fateful slip from the foreman's hand.
The clerk read the verdict: "We, the jury impaneled and sworn to try the
issues in this cause, do find the prisoner guilty as charged in the
There was a moment of breathless silence. Then a wild burst of grief
from the prisoner's wife, to which his two children, not understanding
it all, but vaguely conscious of some calamity, added their voices in
two long, discordant wails, which would have been ludicrous had they not
The face of the young man in the back of the room expressed relief and
badly concealed satisfaction. The prisoner fell back upon the seat from
which he had half risen in his anxiety, and his dark face assumed an
ashen hue. What he thought could only be surmised. Perhaps, knowing his
innocence, he had not believed conviction possible; perhaps, conscious
of guilt, he dreaded the punishment, the extent of which was optional
with the judge, within very wide limits. Only one other person present
knew whether or not he was guilty, and that other had slunk furtively
from the court room.
Some of the spectators wondered why there should be so much ado about
convicting a negro of stealing a buggy-whip. They had forgotten their
own interest of the moment before. They did not realize out of what
trifles grow the tragedies of life.
It was four o'clock in the afternoon, the hour for adjournment, when the
verdict was returned. The judge nodded to the bailiff.
"Oyez, oyez! this court is now adjourned until ten o'clock to-morrow
morning," cried the bailiff in a singsong voice. The judge left the
bench, the jury filed out of the box, and a buzz of conversation filled
the court room.
"Brace up, Ben, brace up, my boy," said the defendant's lawyer, half
apologetically. "I did what I could for you, but you can never tell what
a jury will do. You won't be sentenced till to-morrow morning. In the
meantime I 'll speak to the judge and try to get him to be easy with
you. He may let you off with a light fine."
The negro pulled himself together, and by an effort listened.
"Thanky, Majah," was all he said. He seemed to be thinking of something
He barely spoke to his wife when she frantically threw herself on him,
and clung to his neck, as he passed through the side room on his way to
jail. He kissed his children mechanically, and did not reply to the
soothing remarks made by the jailer.
There was a good deal of excitement in town the next morning. Two white
men stood by the post office talking.
"Did yer hear the news?"
"No, what wuz it?"
"Ben Davis tried ter break jail las' night."
"You don't say so! What a fool! He ain't be'n sentenced yit."
"Well, now," said the other, "I 've knowed Ben a long time, an' he wuz a
right good nigger. I kinder found it hard ter b'lieve he did steal that
whip. But what 's a man's feelin's ag'in' the proof?"
They spoke on awhile, using the past tense as if they were speaking of a
"Ef I know Jedge Hart, Ben 'll wish he had slep' las' night, 'stidder
tryin' ter break out'n jail."
At ten o'clock the prisoner was brought into court. He walked with
shambling gait, bent at the shoulders, hopelessly, with downcast eyes,
and took his seat with several other prisoners who had been brought in
for sentence. His wife, accompanied by the children, waited behind him,
and a number of his friends were gathered in the court room.
The first prisoner sentenced was a young white man, convicted several
days before of manslaughter. The deed was done in the heat of passion,
under circumstances of great provocation, during a quarrel about a
woman. The prisoner was admonished of the sanctity of human life, and
sentenced to one year in the penitentiary.
The next case was that of a young clerk, eighteen or nineteen years of
age, who had committed a forgery in order to procure the means to buy
lottery tickets. He was well connected, and the case would not have been
prosecuted if the judge had not refused to allow it to be nolled, and,
once brought to trial, a conviction could not have been avoided.
"You are a young man," said the judge gravely, yet not unkindly, "and
your life is yet before you. I regret that you should have been led into
evil courses by the lust for speculation, so dangerous in its
tendencies, so fruitful of crime and misery. I am led to believe that
you are sincerely penitent, and that, after such punishment as the law
cannot remit without bringing itself into contempt, you will see the
error of your ways and follow the strict path of rectitude. Your fault
has entailed distress not only upon yourself, but upon your relatives,
people of good name and good family, who suffer as keenly from your
disgrace as you yourself. Partly out of consideration for their
feelings, and partly because I feel that, under the circumstances, the
law will be satisfied by the penalty I shall inflict, I sentence you to
imprisonment in the county jail for six months, and a fine of one
hundred dollars and the costs of this action."
"The jedge talks well, don't he?" whispered one spectator to another.
"Yes, and kinder likes ter hear hisse'f talk," answered the other.
"Ben Davis, stand up," ordered the judge.
He might have said "Ben Davis, wake up," for the jailer had to touch the
prisoner on the shoulder to rouse him from his stupor. He stood up, and
something of the hunted look came again into his eyes, which shifted
under the stern glance of the judge.
"Ben Davis, you have been convicted of larceny, after a fair trial
before twelve good men of this county. Under the testimony, there can be
no doubt of your guilt. The case is an aggravated one. You are not an
ignorant, shiftless fellow, but a man of more than ordinary intelligence
among your people, and one who ought to know better. You have not even
the poor excuse of having stolen to satisfy hunger or a physical
appetite. Your conduct is wholly without excuse, and I can only regard
your crime as the result of a tendency to offenses of this nature, a
tendency which is only too common among your people; a tendency which is
a menace to civilization, a menace to society itself, for society rests
upon the sacred right of property. Your opinions, too, have been given a
wrong turn; you have been heard to utter sentiments which, if
disseminated among an ignorant people, would breed discontent, and give
rise to strained relations between them and their best friends, their
old masters, who understand their real nature and their real needs, and
to whose justice and enlightened guidance they can safely trust. Have
you anything to say why sentence should not be passed upon you?"
"Nothin', suh, cep'n dat I did n' take de whip."
"The law, largely, I think, in view of the peculiar circumstances of
your unfortunate race, has vested a large discretion in courts as to
the extent of the punishment for offenses of this kind. Taking your case
as a whole, I am convinced that it is one which, for the sake of the
example, deserves a severe punishment. Nevertheless, I do not feel
disposed to give you the full extent of the law, which would be twenty
years in the penitentiary, but, considering the fact that you have a
family, and have heretofore borne a good reputation in the community, I
will impose upon you the light sentence of imprisonment for five years
in the penitentiary at hard labor. And I hope that this will be a
warning to you and others who may be similarly disposed, and that after
your sentence has expired you may lead the life of a law-abiding
[Footnote 1: There are no degrees of larceny in North Carolina, and the
penalty for any offense lies in the discretion of the judge, to the
limit of twenty years.]
"O Ben! O my husband! O God!" moaned the poor wife, and tried to press
forward to her husband's side.
"Keep back, Nancy, keep back," said the jailer. "You can see him in
Several people were looking at Ben's face. There was one flash of
despair, and then nothing but a stony blank, behind which he masked his
real feelings, whatever they were.
Human character is a compound of tendencies inherited and habits
acquired. In the anxiety, the fear of disgrace, spoke the nineteenth
century civilization with which Ben Davis had been more or less closely
in touch during twenty years of slavery and fifteen years of freedom. In
the stolidity with which he received this sentence for a crime which he
had not committed, spoke who knows what trait of inherited savagery? For
stoicism is a savage virtue.
One morning in June, five years later, a black man limped slowly along
the old Lumberton plank road; a tall man, whose bowed shoulders made him
seem shorter than he was, and a face from which it was difficult to
guess his years, for in it the wrinkles and flabbiness of age were found
side by side with firm white teeth, and eyes not sunken,—eyes
bloodshot, and burning with something, either fever or passion. Though
he limped painfully with one foot, the other hit the ground
impatiently, like the good horse in a poorly matched team. As he walked
along, he was talking to himself:——
"I wonder what dey 'll do w'en I git back? I wonder how Nancy 's
s'ported the fambly all dese years? Tuck in washin', I s'ppose,—she was
a monst'us good washer an' ironer. I wonder ef de chillun 'll be too
proud ter reco'nize deir daddy come back f'um de penetenchy? I 'spec'
Billy must be a big boy by dis time. He won' b'lieve his daddy ever
stole anything. I 'm gwine ter slip roun' an' s'prise 'em."
Five minutes later a face peered cautiously into the window of what had
once been Ben Davis's cabin,—at first an eager face, its coarseness lit
up with the fire of hope; a moment later a puzzled face; then an
anxious, fearful face as the man stepped away from the window and rapped
at the door.
"Is Mis' Davis home?" he asked of the woman who opened the door.
"Mis' Davis don' live here. You er mistook in de house."
"Whose house is dis?"
"It b'longs ter my husban', Mr. Smith,—Primus Smith."
"'Scuse me, but I knowed de house some years ago w'en I wuz here oncet
on a visit, an' it b'longed ter a man name' Ben Davis."
"Ben Davis—Ben Davis?—oh yes, I 'member now. Dat wuz de gen'man w'at
wuz sent ter de penitenchy fer sump'n er nuther,—sheep-stealin', I
b'lieve. Primus," she called, "w'at wuz Ben Davis, w'at useter own dis
yer house, sent ter de penitenchy fer?"
"Hoss-stealin'," came back the reply in sleepy accents, from the man
seated by the fireplace.
The traveler went on to the next house. A neat-looking yellow woman came
to the door when he rattled the gate, and stood looking suspiciously at
"W'at you want?" she asked.
"Please, ma'am, will you tell me whether a man name' Ben Davis useter
live in dis neighborhood?"
"Useter live in de nex' house; wuz sent ter de penitenchy fer killin' a
"Kin yer tell me w'at went wid Mis' Davis?"
"Umph! I 's a 'spectable 'oman, I is, en don' mix wid dem kind er
people. She wuz 'n' no better 'n her husban'. She tuk up wid a man dat
useter wuk fer Ben, an' dey 're livin' down by de ole wagon-ya'd, where
no 'spectable 'oman ever puts her foot."
"An' de chillen?"
"De gal 's dead. Wuz 'n' no better 'n she oughter be'n. She fell in de
crick an' got drown'; some folks say she wuz 'n' sober w'en it happen'.
De boy tuck atter his pappy. He wuz 'rested las' week fer shootin' a
w'ite man, an' wuz lynch' de same night. Dey wa'n't none of 'em no
'count after deir pappy went ter de penitenchy."
"What went wid de proputty?"
"Hit wuz sol' fer de mortgage, er de taxes, er de lawyer, er sump'n,—I
don' know w'at. A w'ite man got it."
The man with the bundle went on until he came to a creek that crossed
the road. He descended the sloping bank, and, sitting on a stone in the
shade of a water-oak, took off his coarse brogans, unwound the rags that
served him in lieu of stockings, and laved in the cool water the feet
that were chafed with many a weary mile of travel.
After five years of unrequited toil, and unspeakable hardship in convict
camps,—five years of slaving by the side of human brutes, and of
nightly herding with them in vermin-haunted huts,—Ben Davis had become
like them. For a while he had received occasional letters from home, but
in the shifting life of the convict camp they had long since ceased to
reach him, if indeed they had been written. For a year or two, the
consciousness of his innocence had helped to make him resist the
debasing influences that surrounded him. The hope of shortening his
sentence by good behavior, too, had worked a similar end. But the
transfer from one contractor to another, each interested in keeping as
long as possible a good worker, had speedily dissipated any such hope.
When hope took flight, its place was not long vacant. Despair followed,
and black hatred of all mankind, hatred especially of the man to whom he
attributed all his misfortunes. One who is suffering unjustly is not apt
to indulge in fine abstractions, nor to balance probabilities. By long
brooding over his wrongs, his mind became, if not unsettled, at least
warped, and he imagined that Colonel Thornton had deliberately set a
trap into which he had fallen. The Colonel, he convinced himself, had
disapproved of his prosperity, and had schemed to destroy it. He
reasoned himself into the belief that he represented in his person the
accumulated wrongs of a whole race, and Colonel Thornton the race who
had oppressed them. A burning desire for revenge sprang up in him, and
he nursed it until his sentence expired and he was set at liberty. What
he had learned since reaching home had changed his desire into a deadly
When he had again bandaged his feet and slipped them into his shoes, he
looked around him, and selected a stout sapling from among the
undergrowth that covered the bank of the stream. Taking from his pocket
a huge clasp-knife, he cut off the length of an ordinary walking stick
and trimmed it. The result was an ugly-looking bludgeon, a dangerous
weapon when in the grasp of a strong man.
With the stick in his hand, he went on down the road until he approached
a large white house standing some distance back from the street. The
grounds were filled with a profusion of shrubbery. The negro entered the
gate and secreted himself in the bushes, at a point where he could hear
any one that might approach.
It was near midday, and he had not eaten. He had walked all night, and
had not slept. The hope of meeting his loved ones had been meat and
drink and rest for him. But as he sat waiting, outraged nature asserted
itself, and he fell asleep, with his head on the rising root of a tree,
and his face upturned.
And as he slept, he dreamed of his childhood; of an old black mammy
taking care of him in the daytime, and of a younger face, with soft
eyes, which bent over him sometimes at night, and a pair of arms which
clasped him closely. He dreamed of his past,—of his young wife, of his
bright children. Somehow his dreams all ran to pleasant themes for a
Then they changed again. He dreamed that he was in the convict camp,
and, by an easy transition, that he was in hell, consumed with hunger,
burning with thirst. Suddenly the grinning devil who stood over him with
a barbed whip faded away, and a little white angel came and handed him a
drink of water. As he raised it to his lips the glass slipped, and he
struggled back to consciousness.
"Poo' man! Poo' man sick, an' sleepy. Dolly b'ing Powers to cover poo'
man up. Poo' man mus' be hungry. Wen Dolly get him covered up, she go
b'ing poo' man some cake."
A sweet little child, as beautiful as a cherub escaped from Paradise,
was standing over him. At first he scarcely comprehended the words the
baby babbled out. But as they became clear to him, a novel feeling crept
slowly over his heart. It had been so long since he had heard anything
but curses and stern words of command, or the ribald songs of obscene
merriment, that the clear tones of this voice from heaven cooled his
calloused heart as the water of the brook had soothed his blistered
feet. It was so strange, so unwonted a thing, that he lay there with
half-closed eyes while the child brought leaves and flowers and laid
them on his face and on his breast, and arranged them with little
She moved away, and plucked a flower. And then she spied another farther
on, and then another, and, as she gathered them, kept increasing the
distance between herself and the man lying there, until she was several
Ben Davis watched her through eyes over which had come an unfamiliar
softness. Under the lingering spell of his dream, her golden hair, which
fell in rippling curls, seemed like a halo of purity and innocence and
peace, irradiating the atmosphere around her. It is true the thought
occurred to Ben, vaguely, that through harm to her he might inflict the
greatest punishment upon her father; but the idea came like a dark shape
that faded away and vanished into nothingness as soon as it came within
the nimbus that surrounded the child's person.
The child was moving on to pluck still another flower, when there came a
sound of hoof-beats, and Ben was aware that a horseman, visible through
the shrubbery, was coming along the curved path that led from the gate
to the house. It must be the man he was waiting for, and now was the
time to wreak his vengeance. He sprang to his feet, grasped his club,
and stood for a moment irresolute. But either the instinct of the
convict, beaten, driven, and debased, or the influence of the child,
which was still strong upon him, impelled him, after the first momentary
pause, to flee as though seeking safety.
His flight led him toward the little girl, whom he must pass in order
to make his escape, and as Colonel Thornton turned the corner of the
path he saw a desperate-looking negro, clad in filthy rags, and carrying
in his hand a murderous bludgeon, running toward the child, who,
startled by the sound of footsteps, had turned and was looking toward
the approaching man with wondering eyes. A sickening fear came over the
father's heart, and drawing the ever-ready revolver, which according to
the Southern custom he carried always upon his person, he fired with
unerring aim. Ben Davis ran a few yards farther, faltered, threw out his
hands, and fell dead at the child's feet.
* * * * *
Some time, we are told, when the cycle of years has rolled around, there
is to be another golden age, when all men will dwell together in love
and harmony, and when peace and righteousness shall prevail for a
thousand years. God speed the day, and let not the shining thread of
hope become so enmeshed in the web of circumstance that we lose sight of
it; but give us here and there, and now and then, some little foretaste
of this golden age, that we may the more patiently and hopefully await