Part 1 out of 5
The Wife of His Youth
Her Virginia Mammy
The Sheriff's Children
A Matter of Principle
The Passing of Grandison
Uncle Wellington's Wives
The Web of Circumstance
Three Essays on the Color Line:
What is a White Man? (1889)
The Future American (1900)
The Disfranchisement of the Negro (1903)
The Wife of His Youth
Mr. Ryder was going to give a ball. There were several reasons why this
was an opportune time for such an event.
Mr. Ryder might aptly be called the dean of the Blue Veins. The original
Blue Veins were a little society of colored persons organized in a
certain Northern city shortly after the war. Its purpose was to
establish and maintain correct social standards among a people whose
social condition presented almost unlimited room for improvement. By
accident, combined perhaps with some natural affinity, the society
consisted of individuals who were, generally speaking, more white than
black. Some envious outsider made the suggestion that no one was
eligible for membership who was not white enough to show blue veins. The
suggestion was readily adopted by those who were not of the favored few,
and since that time the society, though possessing a longer and more
pretentious name, had been known far and wide as the "Blue Vein
Society," and its members as the "Blue Veins."
The Blue Veins did not allow that any such requirement existed for
admission to their circle, but, on the contrary, declared that character
and culture were the only things considered; and that if most of their
members were light-colored, it was because such persons, as a rule, had
had better opportunities to qualify themselves for membership. Opinions
differed, too, as to the usefulness of the society. There were those who
had been known to assail it violently as a glaring example of the very
prejudice from which the colored race had suffered most; and later, when
such critics had succeeded in getting on the inside, they had been heard
to maintain with zeal and earnestness that the society was a lifeboat,
an anchor, a bulwark and a shield,--a pillar of cloud by day and of fire
by night, to guide their people through the social wilderness. Another
alleged prerequisite for Blue Vein membership was that of free birth;
and while there was really no such requirement, it is doubtless true
that very few of the members would have been unable to meet it if there
had been. If there were one or two of the older members who had come up
from the South and from slavery, their history presented enough romantic
circumstances to rob their servile origin of its grosser aspects.
While there were no such tests of eligibility, it is true that the Blue
Veins had their notions on these subjects, and that not all of them were
equally liberal in regard to the things they collectively disclaimed.
Mr. Ryder was one of the most conservative. Though he had not been among
the founders of the society, but had come in some years later, his
genius for social leadership was such that he had speedily become its
recognized adviser and head, the custodian of its standards, and the
preserver of its traditions. He shaped its social policy, was active in
providing for its entertainment, and when the interest fell off, as it
sometimes did, he fanned the embers until they burst again into a
There were still other reasons for his popularity. While he was not as
white as some of the Blue Veins, his appearance was such as to confer
distinction upon them. His features were of a refined type, his hair was
almost straight; he was always neatly dressed; his manners were
irreproachable, and his morals above suspicion. He had come to Groveland
a young man, and obtaining employment in the office of a railroad
company as messenger had in time worked himself up to the position of
stationery clerk, having charge of the distribution of the office
supplies for the whole company. Although the lack of early training had
hindered the orderly development of a naturally fine mind, it had not
prevented him from doing a great deal of reading or from forming
decidedly literary tastes. Poetry was his passion. He could repeat whole
pages of the great English poets; and if his pronunciation was sometimes
faulty, his eye, his voice, his gestures, would respond to the changing
sentiment with a precision that revealed a poetic soul and disarmed
criticism. He was economical, and had saved money; he owned and occupied
a very comfortable house on a respectable street. His residence was
handsomely furnished, containing among other things a good library,
especially rich in poetry, a piano, and some choice engravings. He
generally shared his house with some young couple, who looked after his
wants and were company for him; for Mr. Ryder was a single man. In the
early days of his connection with the Blue Veins he had been regarded as
quite a catch, and young ladies and their mothers had manoeuvred with
much ingenuity to capture him. Not, however, until Mrs. Molly Dixon
visited Groveland had any woman ever made him wish to change his
condition to that of a married man.
Mrs. Dixon had come to Groveland from Washington in the spring, and
before the summer was over she had won Mr. Ryder's heart. She possessed
many attractive qualities. She was much younger than he; in fact, he was
old enough to have been her father, though no one knew exactly how old
he was. She was whiter than he, and better educated. She had moved in
the best colored society of the country, at Washington, and had taught
in the schools of that city. Such a superior person had been eagerly
welcomed to the Blue Vein Society, and had taken a leading part in its
activities. Mr. Ryder had at first been attracted by her charms of
person, for she was very good looking and not over twenty-five; then by
her refined manners and the vivacity of her wit. Her husband had been a
government clerk, and at his death had left a considerable life
insurance. She was visiting friends in Groveland, and, finding the town
and the people to her liking, had prolonged her stay indefinitely. She
had not seemed displeased at Mr. Ryder's attentions, but on the contrary
had given him every proper encouragement; indeed, a younger and less
cautious man would long since have spoken. But he had made up his mind,
and had only to determine the time when he would ask her to be his wife.
He decided to give a ball in her honor, and at some time during the
evening of the ball to offer her his heart and hand. He had no special
fears about the outcome, but, with a little touch of romance, he wanted
the surroundings to be in harmony with his own feelings when he should
have received the answer he expected.
Mr. Ryder resolved that this ball should mark an epoch in the social
history of Groveland. He knew, of course,--no one could know
better,--the entertainments that had taken place in past years, and what
must be done to surpass them. His ball must be worthy of the lady in
whose honor it was to be given, and must, by the quality of its guests,
set an example for the future. He had observed of late a growing
liberality, almost a laxity, in social matters, even among members of
his own set, and had several times been forced to meet in a social way
persons whose complexions and callings in life were hardly up to the
standard which he considered proper for the society to maintain. He had
a theory of his own.
"I have no race prejudice," he would say, "but we people of mixed blood
are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies
between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black. The
one does n't want us yet, but may take us in time. The other would
welcome us, but it would be for us a backward step. 'With malice towards
none, with charity for all,' we must do the best we can for ourselves
and those who are to follow us. Self-preservation is the first law of
His ball would serve by its exclusiveness to counteract leveling
tendencies, and his marriage with Mrs. Dixon would help to further the
upward process of absorption he had been wishing and waiting for.
The ball was to take place on Friday night. The house had been put in
order, the carpets covered with canvas, the halls and stairs decorated
with palms and potted plants; and in the afternoon Mr. Ryder sat on his
front porch, which the shade of a vine running up over a wire netting
made a cool and pleasant lounging place. He expected to respond to the
toast "The Ladies" at the supper, and from a volume of Tennyson--his
favorite poet--was fortifying himself with apt quotations. The volume
was open at "A Dream of Fair Women." His eyes fell on these lines, and
he read them aloud to judge better of their effect:----
"At length I saw a lady within call,
Stiller than chisell'd marble, standing there;
A daughter of the gods, divinely tall,
And most divinely fair."
He marked the verse, and turning the page read the stanza beginning,----
"O sweet pale Margaret,
O rare pale Margaret."
He weighed the passage a moment, and decided that it would not do. Mrs.
Dixon was the palest lady he expected at the ball, and she was of a
rather ruddy complexion, and of lively disposition and buxom build. So
he ran over the leaves until his eye rested on the description of Queen
"She seem'd a part of joyous Spring;
A gown of grass-green silk she wore,
Buckled with golden clasps before;
A light-green tuft of plumes she bore
Closed in a golden ring.
* * * * *
"She look'd so lovely, as she sway'd
The rein with dainty finger-tips,
A man had given all other bliss,
And all his worldly worth for this,
To waste his whole heart in one kiss
Upon her perfect lips."
As Mr. Ryder murmured these words audibly, with an appreciative thrill,
he heard the latch of his gate click, and a light footfall sounding on
the steps. He turned his head, and saw a woman standing before his door.
She was a little woman, not five feet tall, and proportioned to her
height. Although she stood erect, and looked around her with very bright
and restless eyes, she seemed quite old; for her face was crossed and
recrossed with a hundred wrinkles, and around the edges of her bonnet
could be seen protruding here and there a tuft of short gray wool. She
wore a blue calico gown of ancient cut, a little red shawl fastened
around her shoulders with an old-fashioned brass brooch, and a large
bonnet profusely ornamented with faded red and yellow artificial
flowers. And she was very black,--so black that her toothless gums,
revealed when she opened her mouth to speak, were not red, but blue. She
looked like a bit of the old plantation life, summoned up from the past
by the wave of a magician's wand, as the poet's fancy had called into
being the gracious shapes of which Mr. Ryder had just been reading.
He rose from his chair and came over to where she stood.
"Good-afternoon, madam," he said.
"Good-evenin', suh," she answered, ducking suddenly with a quaint
curtsy. Her voice was shrill and piping, but softened somewhat by age.
"Is dis yere whar Mistuh Ryduh lib, suh?" she asked, looking around her
doubtfully, and glancing into the open windows, through which some of
the preparations for the evening were visible.
"Yes," he replied, with an air of kindly patronage, unconsciously
flattered by her manner, "I am Mr. Ryder. Did you want to see me?"
"Yas, suh, ef I ain't 'sturbin' of you too much."
"Not at all. Have a seat over here behind the vine, where it is cool.
What can I do for you?"
"'Scuse me, suh," she continued, when she had sat down on the edge of a
chair, "'scuse me, suh, I 's lookin' for my husban'. I heerd you wuz a
big man an' had libbed heah a long time, an' I 'lowed you would n't min'
ef I 'd come roun' an' ax you ef you 'd ever heerd of a merlatter man by
de name er Sam Taylor 'quirin' roun' in de chu'ches ermongs' de people
fer his wife 'Liza Jane?"
Mr. Ryder seemed to think for a moment.
"There used to be many such cases right after the war," he said, "but it
has been so long that I have forgotten them. There are very few now. But
tell me your story, and it may refresh my memory."
She sat back farther in her chair so as to be more comfortable, and
folded her withered hands in her lap.
"My name 's 'Liza," she began, "'Liza Jane. W'en I wuz young I us'ter
b'long ter Marse Bob Smif, down in ole Missoura. I wuz bawn down dere.
Wen I wuz a gal I wuz married ter a man named Jim. But Jim died, an'
after dat I married a merlatter man named Sam Taylor. Sam wuz free-bawn,
but his mammy and daddy died, an' de w'ite folks 'prenticed him ter my
marster fer ter work fer 'im 'tel he wuz growed up. Sam worked in de
fiel', an' I wuz de cook. One day Ma'y Ann, ole miss's maid, came
rushin' out ter de kitchen, an' says she, ''Liza Jane, ole marse gwine
sell yo' Sam down de ribber.'
"'Go way f'm yere,' says I; 'my husban' 's free!'
"'Don' make no diff'ence. I heerd ole marse tell ole miss he wuz gwine
take yo' Sam 'way wid 'im ter-morrow, fer he needed money, an' he knowed
whar he could git a t'ousan' dollars fer Sam an' no questions axed.'
"W'en Sam come home f'm de fiel' dat night, I tole him 'bout ole marse
gwine steal 'im, an' Sam run erway. His time wuz mos' up, an' he swo'
dat w'en he wuz twenty-one he would come back an' he'p me run erway, er
else save up de money ter buy my freedom. An' I know he 'd 'a' done it,
fer he thought a heap er me, Sam did. But w'en he come back he didn'
fin' me, fer I wuzn' dere. Ole marse had heerd dat I warned Sam, so he
had me whip' an' sol' down de ribber.
"Den de wah broke out, an' w'en it wuz ober de cullud folks wuz
scattered. I went back ter de ole home; but Sam wuzn' dere, an' I
could n' l'arn nuffin' 'bout 'im. But I knowed he 'd be'n dere to look
fer me an' had n' foun' me, an' had gone erway ter hunt fer me.
"I 's be'n lookin' fer 'im eber sence," she added simply, as though
twenty-five years were but a couple of weeks, "an' I knows he 's be'n
lookin' fer me. Fer he sot a heap er sto' by me, Sam did, an' I know
he 's be'n huntin' fer me all dese years,--'less'n he 's be'n sick er
sump'n, so he could n' work, er out'n his head, so he could n' 'member
his promise. I went back down de ribber, fer I 'lowed he 'd gone down
dere lookin' fer me. I 's be'n ter Noo Orleens, an' Atlanty, an'
Charleston, an' Richmon'; an' w'en I 'd be'n all ober de Souf I come ter
de Norf. Fer I knows I 'll fin' 'im some er dese days," she added
softly, "er he 'll fin' me, an' den we 'll bofe be as happy in freedom
as we wuz in de ole days befo' de wah." A smile stole over her withered
countenance as she paused a moment, and her bright eyes softened into a
This was the substance of the old woman's story. She had wandered a
little here and there. Mr. Ryder was looking at her curiously when she
"How have you lived all these years?" he asked.
"Cookin', suh. I 's a good cook. Does you know anybody w'at needs a good
cook, suh? I 's stoppin' wid a cullud fam'ly roun' de corner yonder 'tel
I kin git a place."
"Do you really expect to find your husband? He may be dead long ago."
She shook her head emphatically. "Oh no, he ain' dead. De signs an' de
tokens tells me. I dremp three nights runnin' on'y dis las' week dat I
"He may have married another woman. Your slave marriage would not have
prevented him, for you never lived with him after the war, and without
that your marriage does n't count."
"Would n' make no diff'ence wid Sam. He would n' marry no yuther 'ooman
'tel he foun' out 'bout me. I knows it," she added. "Sump'n 's be'n
tellin' me all dese years dat I 's gwine fin' Sam 'fo' I dies."
"Perhaps he 's outgrown you, and climbed up in the world where he would n't
care to have you find him."
"No, indeed, suh," she replied, "Sam ain' dat kin' er man. He wuz good
ter me, Sam wuz, but he wuz n' much good ter nobody e'se, fer he wuz one
er de triflin'es' han's on de plantation. I 'spec's ter haf ter suppo't
'im w'en I fin' 'im, fer he nebber would work 'less'n he had ter. But
den he wuz free, an' he did n' git no pay fer his work, an' I don' blame
'im much. Mebbe he 's done better sence he run erway, but I ain'
"You may have passed him on the street a hundred times during the
twenty-five years, and not have known him; time works great changes."
She smiled incredulously. "I 'd know 'im 'mongs' a hund'ed men. Fer dey
wuz n' no yuther merlatter man like my man Sam, an' I could n' be
mistook. I 's toted his picture roun' wid me twenty-five years."
"May I see it?" asked Mr. Ryder. "It might help me to remember whether I
have seen the original."
As she drew a small parcel from her bosom he saw that it was fastened to
a string that went around her neck. Removing several wrappers, she
brought to light an old-fashioned daguerreotype in a black case. He
looked long and intently at the portrait. It was faded with time, but
the features were still distinct, and it was easy to see what manner of
man it had represented.
He closed the case, and with a slow movement handed it back to her.
"I don't know of any man in town who goes by that name," he said, "nor
have I heard of any one making such inquiries. But if you will leave me
your address, I will give the matter some attention, and if I find out
anything I will let you know."
She gave him the number of a house in the neighborhood, and went away,
after thanking him warmly.
He wrote the address on the fly-leaf of the volume of Tennyson, and,
when she had gone, rose to his feet and stood looking after her
curiously. As she walked down the street with mincing step, he saw
several persons whom she passed turn and look back at her with a smile
of kindly amusement. When she had turned the corner, he went upstairs to
his bedroom, and stood for a long time before the mirror of his
dressing-case, gazing thoughtfully at the reflection of his own face.
At eight o'clock the ballroom was a blaze of light and the guests had
begun to assemble; for there was a literary programme and some routine
business of the society to be gone through with before the dancing. A
black servant in evening dress waited at the door and directed the
guests to the dressing-rooms.
The occasion was long memorable among the colored people of the city;
not alone for the dress and display, but for the high average of
intelligence and culture that distinguished the gathering as a whole.
There were a number of school-teachers, several young doctors, three or
four lawyers, some professional singers, an editor, a lieutenant in the
United States army spending his furlough in the city, and others in
various polite callings; these were colored, though most of them would
not have attracted even a casual glance because of any marked difference
from white people. Most of the ladies were in evening costume, and dress
coats and dancing pumps were the rule among the men. A band of string
music, stationed in an alcove behind a row of palms, played popular airs
while the guests were gathering.
The dancing began at half past nine. At eleven o'clock supper was
served. Mr. Ryder had left the ballroom some little time before the
intermission, but reappeared at the supper-table. The spread was worthy
of the occasion, and the guests did full justice to it. When the coffee
had been served, the toast-master, Mr. Solomon Sadler, rapped for order.
He made a brief introductory speech, complimenting host and guests, and
then presented in their order the toasts of the evening. They were
responded to with a very fair display of after-dinner wit.
"The last toast," said the toast-master, when he reached the end of the
list, "is one which must appeal to us all. There is no one of us of the
sterner sex who is not at some time dependent upon woman,--in infancy
for protection, in manhood for companionship, in old age for care and
comforting. Our good host has been trying to live alone, but the fair
faces I see around me to-night prove that he too is largely dependent
upon the gentler sex for most that makes life worth living,--the society
and love of friends,--and rumor is at fault if he does not soon yield
entire subjection to one of them. Mr. Ryder will now respond to the
There was a pensive look in Mr. Ryder's eyes as he took the floor and
adjusted his eyeglasses. He began by speaking of woman as the gift of
Heaven to man, and after some general observations on the relations of
the sexes he said: "But perhaps the quality which most distinguishes
woman is her fidelity and devotion to those she loves. History is full
of examples, but has recorded none more striking than one which only
to-day came under my notice."
He then related, simply but effectively, the story told by his visitor
of the afternoon. He gave it in the same soft dialect, which came
readily to his lips, while the company listened attentively and
sympathetically. For the story had awakened a responsive thrill in many
hearts. There were some present who had seen, and others who had heard
their fathers and grandfathers tell, the wrongs and sufferings of this
past generation, and all of them still felt, in their darker moments,
the shadow hanging over them. Mr. Ryder went on:----
"Such devotion and confidence are rare even among women. There are many
who would have searched a year, some who would have waited five years, a
few who might have hoped ten years; but for twenty-five years this woman
has retained her affection for and her faith in a man she has not seen
or heard of in all that time.
"She came to me to-day in the hope that I might be able to help her
find this long-lost husband. And when she was gone I gave my fancy rein,
and imagined a case I will put to you.
"Suppose that this husband, soon after his escape, had learned that his
wife had been sold away, and that such inquiries as he could make
brought no information of her whereabouts. Suppose that he was young,
and she much older than he; that he was light, and she was black; that
their marriage was a slave marriage, and legally binding only if they
chose to make it so after the war. Suppose, too, that he made his way to
the North, as some of us have done, and there, where he had larger
opportunities, had improved them, and had in the course of all these
years grown to be as different from the ignorant boy who ran away from
fear of slavery as the day is from the night. Suppose, even, that he had
qualified himself, by industry, by thrift, and by study, to win the
friendship and be considered worthy the society of such people as these
I see around me to-night, gracing my board and filling my heart with
gladness; for I am old enough to remember the day when such a gathering
would not have been possible in this land. Suppose, too, that, as the
years went by, this man's memory of the past grew more and more
indistinct, until at last it was rarely, except in his dreams, that any
image of this bygone period rose before his mind. And then suppose that
accident should bring to his knowledge the fact that the wife of his
youth, the wife he had left behind him,--not one who had walked by his
side and kept pace with him in his upward struggle, but one upon whom
advancing years and a laborious life had set their mark,--was alive and
seeking him, but that he was absolutely safe from recognition or
discovery, unless he chose to reveal himself. My friends, what would the
man do? I will presume that he was one who loved honor, and tried to
deal justly with all men. I will even carry the case further, and
suppose that perhaps he had set his heart upon another, whom he had
hoped to call his own. What would he do, or rather what ought he to do,
in such a crisis of a lifetime?
"It seemed to me that he might hesitate, and I imagined that I was an
old friend, a near friend, and that he had come to me for advice; and I
argued the case with him. I tried to discuss it impartially. After we
had looked upon the matter from every point of view, I said to him, in
words that we all know:----
"'This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.'
"Then, finally, I put the question to him, 'Shall you acknowledge her?'
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, friends and companions, I ask you, what
should he have done?"
There was something in Mr. Ryder's voice that stirred the hearts of
those who sat around him. It suggested more than mere sympathy with an
imaginary situation; it seemed rather in the nature of a personal
appeal. It was observed, too, that his look rested more especially upon
Mrs. Dixon, with a mingled expression of renunciation and inquiry.
She had listened, with parted lips and streaming eyes. She was the first
to speak: "He should have acknowledged her."
"Yes," they all echoed, "he should have acknowledged her."
"My friends and companions," responded Mr. Ryder, "I thank you, one and
all. It is the answer I expected, for I knew your hearts."
He turned and walked toward the closed door of an adjoining room, while
every eye followed him in wondering curiosity. He came back in a moment,
leading by the hand his visitor of the afternoon, who stood startled and
trembling at the sudden plunge into this scene of brilliant gayety. She
was neatly dressed in gray, and wore the white cap of an elderly woman.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "this is the woman, and I am the man,
whose story I have told you. Permit me to introduce to you the wife of
Her Virginia Mammy
The pianist had struck up a lively two-step, and soon the floor was
covered with couples, each turning on its own axis, and all revolving
around a common centre, in obedience perhaps to the same law of motion
that governs the planetary systems. The dancing-hall was a long room,
with a waxed floor that glistened with the reflection of the lights from
the chandeliers. The walls were hung in paper of blue and white, above a
varnished hard wood wainscoting; the monotony of surface being broken by
numerous windows draped with curtains of dotted muslin, and by
occasional engravings and colored pictures representing the dances of
various nations, judiciously selected. The rows of chairs along the two
sides of the room were left unoccupied by the time the music was well
under way, for the pianist, a tall colored woman with long fingers and a
muscular wrist, played with a verve and a swing that set the feet of the
listeners involuntarily in motion.
The dance was sure to occupy the class for a quarter of an hour at
least, and the little dancing-mistress took the opportunity to slip away
to her own sitting-room, which was on the same floor of the block, for a
few minutes of rest. Her day had been a hard one. There had been a
matinee at two o'clock, a children's class at four, and at eight o'clock
the class now on the floor had assembled.
When she reached the sitting-room she gave a start of pleasure. A young
man rose at her entrance, and advanced with both hands extended--a tall,
broad-shouldered, fair-haired young man, with a frank and kindly
countenance, now lit up with the animation of pleasure. He seemed about
twenty-six or twenty-seven years old. His face was of the type one
instinctively associates with intellect and character, and it gave the
impression, besides, of that intangible something which we call race. He
was neatly and carefully dressed, though his clothing was not without
indications that he found it necessary or expedient to practice economy.
"Good-evening, Clara," he said, taking her hands in his; "I 've been
waiting for you five minutes. I supposed you would be in, but if you had
been a moment later I was going to the hall to look you up. You seem
tired to-night," he added, drawing her nearer to him and scanning her
features at short range. "This work is too hard; you are not fitted for
it. When are you going to give it up?"
"The season is almost over," she answered, "and then I shall stop for
He drew her closer still and kissed her lovingly. "Tell me, Clara," he
said, looking down into her face,--he was at least a foot taller than
she,--"when I am to have my answer."
"Will you take the answer you can get to-night?" she asked with a wan
"I will take but one answer, Clara. But do not make me wait too long for
that. Why, just think of it! I have known you for six months."
"That is an extremely long time," said Clara, as they sat down side by
"It has been an age," he rejoined. "For a fortnight of it, too, which
seems longer than all the rest, I have been waiting for my answer. I am
turning gray under the suspense. Seriously, Clara dear, what shall it
be? or rather, when shall it be? for to the other question there is but
one answer possible."
He looked into her eyes, which slowly filled with tears. She repulsed
him gently as he bent over to kiss them away.
"You know I love you, John, and why I do not say what you wish. You must
give me a little more time to make up my mind before I can consent to
burden you with a nameless wife, one who does not know who her mother
"She was a good woman, and beautiful, if you are at all like her."
"Or her father"----
"He was a gentleman and a scholar, if you inherited from him your mind
or your manners."
"It is good of you to say that, and I try to believe it. But it is a
serious matter; it is a dreadful thing to have no name."
"You are known by a worthy one, which was freely given you, and is
"I know--and I am grateful for it. After all, though, it is not my real
name; and since I have learned that it was not, it seems like a
garment--something external, accessory, and not a part of myself. It
does not mean what one's own name would signify."
"Take mine, Clara, and make it yours; I lay it at your feet. Some
honored men have borne it."
"Ah yes, and that is what makes my position the harder. Your
great-grandfather was governor of Connecticut."
"I have heard my mother say so."
"And one of your ancestors came over in the Mayflower."
"In some capacity--I have never been quite clear whether as ship's cook
or before the mast."
"Now you are insincere, John; but you cannot deceive me. You never spoke
in that way about your ancestors until you learned that I had none. I
know you are proud of them, and that the memory of the governor and the
judge and the Harvard professor and the Mayflower pilgrim makes you
strive to excel, in order to prove yourself worthy of them."
"It did until I met you, Clara. Now the one inspiration of my life is
the hope to make you mine."
"And your profession?"
"It will furnish me the means to take you out of this; you are not fit
"And your book--your treatise that is to make you famous?"
"I have worked twice as hard on it and accomplished twice as much since
I have hoped that you might share my success."
"Oh! if I but knew the truth!" she sighed, "or could find it out! I
realize that I am absurd, that I ought to be happy. I love my
parents--my foster-parents--dearly. I owe them everything. Mother--poor,
dear mother!--could not have loved me better or cared for me more
faithfully had I been her own child. Yet--I am ashamed to say it--I
always felt that I was not like them, that there was a subtle difference
between us. They were contented in prosperity, resigned in misfortune; I
was ever restless, and filled with vague ambitions. They were good, but
dull. They loved me, but they never said so. I feel that there is
warmer, richer blood coursing in my veins than the placid stream that
crept through theirs."
"There will never be any such people to me as they were," said her
lover, "for they took you and brought you up for me."
"Sometimes," she went on dreamily, "I feel sure that I am of good
family, and the blood of my ancestors seems to call to me in clear and
certain tones. Then again when my mood changes, I am all at sea--I feel
that even if I had but simply to turn my hand to learn who I am and
whence I came, I should shrink from taking the step, for fear that what
I might learn would leave me forever unhappy."
"Dearest," he said, taking her in his arms, while from the hall and down
the corridor came the softened strains of music, "put aside these
unwholesome fancies. Your past is shrouded in mystery. Take my name, as
you have taken my love, and I 'll make your future so happy that you
won't have time to think of the past. What are a lot of musty, mouldy
old grandfathers, compared with life and love and happiness? It 's hardly
good form to mention one's ancestors nowadays, and what 's the use of
them at all if one can't boast of them?"
"It 's all very well of you to talk that way," she rejoined. "But suppose
you should marry me, and when you become famous and rich, and patients
flock to your office, and fashionable people to your home, and every one
wants to know who you are and whence you came, you 'll be obliged to
bring out the governor, and the judge, and the rest of them. If you
should refrain, in order to forestall embarrassing inquiries about _my_
ancestry, I should have deprived you of something you are entitled to,
something which has a real social value. And when people found out all
about you, as they eventually would from some source, they would want to
know--we Americans are a curious people--who your wife was, and you
could only say"----
"The best and sweetest woman on earth, whom I love unspeakably."
"You know that is not what I mean. You could only say--a Miss Nobody,
"A Miss Hohlfelder, from Cincinnati, the only child of worthy German
parents, who fled from their own country in '49 to escape political
persecution--an ancestry that one surely need not be ashamed of."
"No; but the consciousness that it was not true would be always with
me, poisoning my mind, and darkening my life and yours."
"Your views of life are entirely too tragic, Clara," the young man
argued soothingly. "We are all worms of the dust, and if we go back far
enough, each of us has had millions of ancestors; peasants and serfs,
most of them; thieves, murderers, and vagabonds, many of them, no doubt;
and therefore the best of us have but little to boast of. Yet we are all
made after God's own image, and formed by his hand, for his ends; and
therefore not to be lightly despised, even the humblest of us, least of
all by ourselves. For the past we can claim no credit, for those who
made it died with it. Our destiny lies in the future."
"Yes," she sighed, "I know all that. But I am not like you. A woman is
not like a man; she cannot lose herself in theories and generalizations.
And there are tests that even all your philosophy could not endure.
Suppose you should marry me, and then some time, by the merest accident,
you should learn that my origin was the worst it could be--that I not
only had no name, but was not entitled to one."
"I cannot believe it," he said, "and from what we do know of your
history it is hardly possible. If I learned it, I should forget it,
unless, perchance, it should enhance your value in my eyes, by stamping
you as a rare work of nature, an exception to the law of heredity, a
triumph of pure beauty and goodness over the grosser limitations of
matter. I cannot imagine, now that I know you, anything that could make
me love you less. I would marry you just the same--even if you were one
of your dancing-class to-night."
"I must go back to them," said Clara, as the music ceased.
"My answer," he urged, "give me my answer!"
"Not to-night, John," she pleaded. "Grant me a little longer time to
make up my mind--for your sake."
"Not for my sake, Clara, no."
"Well--for mine." She let him take her in his arms and kiss her again.
"I have a patient yet to see to-night," he said as he went out. "If I am
not detained too long, I may come back this way--if I see the lights in
the hall still burning. Do not wonder if I ask you again for my answer,
for I shall be unhappy until I get it."
A stranger entering the hall with Miss Hohlfelder would have seen, at
first glance, only a company of well-dressed people, with nothing to
specially distinguish them from ordinary humanity in temperate climates.
After the eye had rested for a moment and begun to separate the mass
into its component parts, one or two dark faces would have arrested its
attention; and with the suggestion thus offered, a closer inspection
would have revealed that they were nearly all a little less than white.
With most of them this fact would not have been noticed, while they were
alone or in company with one another, though if a fair white person had
gone among them it would perhaps have been more apparent. From the few
who were undistinguishable from pure white, the colors ran down the
scale by minute gradations to the two or three brown faces at the other
It was Miss Hohlfelder's first colored class. She had been somewhat
startled when first asked to take it. No person of color had ever
applied to her for lessons; and while a woman of that race had played
the piano for her for several months, she had never thought of colored
people as possible pupils. So when she was asked if she would take a
class of twenty or thirty, she had hesitated, and begged for time to
consider the application. She knew that several of the more fashionable
dancing-schools tabooed all pupils, singly or in classes, who labored
under social disabilities--and this included the people of at least one
other race who were vastly farther along in the world than the colored
people of the community where Miss Hohlfelder lived. Personally she had
no such prejudice, except perhaps a little shrinking at the thought of
personal contact with the dark faces of whom Americans always think when
"colored people" are spoken of. Again, a class of forty pupils was not
to be despised, for she taught for money, which was equally current and
desirable, regardless of its color. She had consulted her
foster-parents, and after them her lover. Her foster-parents, who were
German-born, and had never become thoroughly Americanized, saw no
objection. As for her lover, he was indifferent.
"Do as you please," he said. "It may drive away some other pupils. If
it should break up the business entirely, perhaps you might be willing
to give me a chance so much the sooner."
She mentioned the matter to one or two other friends, who expressed
conflicting opinions. She decided at length to take the class, and take
"I don't think it would be either right or kind to refuse them for any
such reason, and I don't believe I shall lose anything by it."
She was somewhat surprised, and pleasantly so, when her class came
together for their first lesson, at not finding them darker and more
uncouth. Her pupils were mostly people whom she would have passed on the
street without a second glance, and among them were several whom she had
known by sight for years, but had never dreamed of as being colored
people. Their manners were good, they dressed quietly and as a rule with
good taste, avoiding rather than choosing bright colors and striking
combinations--whether from natural preference, or because of a slightly
morbid shrinking from criticism, of course she could not say. Among
them, the dancing-mistress soon learned, there were lawyers and doctors,
teachers, telegraph operators, clerks, milliners and dressmakers,
students of the local college and scientific school, and, somewhat to
her awe at the first meeting, even a member of the legislature. They
were mostly young, although a few light-hearted older people joined the
class, as much for company as for the dancing.
"Of course, Miss Hohlfelder," explained Mr. Solomon Sadler, to whom the
teacher had paid a compliment on the quality of the class, "the more
advanced of us are not numerous enough to make the fine distinctions
that are possible among white people; and of course as we rise in life
we can't get entirely away from our brothers and our sisters and our
cousins, who don't always keep abreast of us. We do, however, draw
certain lines of character and manners and occupation. You see the sort
of people we are. Of course we have no prejudice against color, and we
regard all labor as honorable, provided a man does the best he can. But
we must have standards that will give our people something to aspire
The class was not a difficult one, as many of the members were already
fairly good dancers. Indeed the class had been formed as much for
pleasure as for instruction. Music and hall rent and a knowledge of the
latest dances could be obtained cheaper in this way than in any other.
The pupils had made rapid progress, displaying in fact a natural
aptitude for rhythmic motion, and a keen susceptibility to musical
sounds. As their race had never been criticised for these
characteristics, they gave them full play, and soon developed, most of
them, into graceful and indefatigable dancers. They were now almost at
the end of their course, and this was the evening of the last lesson but
Miss Hohlfelder had remarked to her lover more than once that it was a
pleasure to teach them. "They enter into the spirit of it so thoroughly,
and they seem to enjoy themselves so much."
"One would think," he suggested, "that the whitest of them would find
their position painful and more or less pathetic; to be so white and yet
to be classed as black--so near and yet so far."
"They don't accept our classification blindly. They do not acknowledge
any inferiority; they think they are a great deal better than any but
the best white people," replied Miss Hohlfelder. "And since they have
been coming here, do you know," she went on, "I hardly think of them as
any different from other people. I feel perfectly at home among them."
"It is a great thing to have faith in one's self," he replied. "It is a
fine thing, too, to be able to enjoy the passing moment. One of your
greatest charms in my eyes, Clara, is that in your lighter moods you
have this faculty. You sing because you love to sing. You find pleasure
in dancing, even by way of work. You feel the _joie de vivre_--the joy
of living. You are not always so, but when you are so I think you most
Miss Hohlfelder, upon entering the hall, spoke to the pianist and then
exchanged a few words with various members of the class. The pianist
began to play a dreamy Strauss waltz. When the dance was well under way
Miss Hohlfelder left the hall again and stepped into the ladies'
dressing-room. There was a woman seated quietly on a couch in a corner,
her hands folded on her lap.
"Good-evening, Miss Hohlfelder. You do not seem as bright as usual
Miss Hohlfelder felt a sudden yearning for sympathy. Perhaps it was the
gentle tones of the greeting; perhaps the kindly expression of the soft
though faded eyes that were scanning Miss Hohlfelder's features. The
woman was of the indefinite age between forty and fifty. There were
lines on her face which, if due to years, might have carried her even
past the half-century mark, but if caused by trouble or ill health might
leave her somewhat below it. She was quietly dressed in black, and wore
her slightly wavy hair low over her ears, where it lay naturally in the
ripples which some others of her sex so sedulously seek by art. A little
woman, of clear olive complexion and regular features, her face was
almost a perfect oval, except as time had marred its outline. She had
been in the habit of coming to the class with some young women of the
family she lived with, part boarder, part seamstress and friend of the
family. Sometimes, while waiting for her young charges, the music would
jar her nerves, and she would seek the comparative quiet of the
"Oh, I 'm all right, Mrs. Harper," replied the dancing-mistress, with a
brave attempt at cheerfulness,--"just a little tired, after a hard day's
She sat down on the couch by the elder woman's side. Mrs. Harper took
her hand and stroked it gently, and Clara felt soothed and quieted by
"There are tears in your eyes and trouble in your face. I know it, for I
have shed the one and known the other. Tell me, child, what ails you? I
am older than you, and perhaps I have learned some things in the hard
school of life that may be of comfort or service to you."
Such a request, coming from a comparative stranger, might very properly
have been resented or lightly parried. But Clara was not what would be
called self-contained. Her griefs seemed lighter when they were shared
with others, even in spirit. There was in her nature a childish strain
that craved sympathy and comforting. She had never known--or if so it
was only in a dim and dreamlike past--the tender, brooding care that was
her conception of a mother's love. Mrs. Hohlfelder had been fond of her
in a placid way, and had given her every comfort and luxury her means
permitted. Clara's ideal of maternal love had been of another and more
romantic type; she had thought of a fond, impulsive mother, to whose
bosom she could fly when in trouble or distress, and to whom she could
communicate her sorrows and trials; who would dry her tears and soothe
her with caresses. Now, when even her kind foster-mother was gone, she
felt still more the need of sympathy and companionship with her own sex;
and when this little Mrs. Harper spoke to her so gently, she felt her
heart respond instinctively.
"Yes, Mrs. Harper," replied Clara with a sigh, "I am in trouble, but it
is trouble that you nor any one else can heal."
"You do not know, child. A simple remedy can sometimes cure a very grave
complaint. Tell me your trouble, if it is something you are at liberty
"I have a story," said Clara, "and it is a strange one,--a story I have
told to but one other person, one very dear to me."
"He must be dear to you indeed, from the tone in which you speak of him.
Your very accents breathe love."
"Yes, I love him, and if you saw him--perhaps you have seen him, for he
has looked in here once or twice during the dancing-lessons--you would
know why I love him. He is handsome, he is learned, he is ambitious, he
is brave, he is good; he is poor, but he will not always be so; and he
loves me, oh, so much!"
The other woman smiled. "It is not so strange to love, nor yet to be
loved. And all lovers are handsome and brave and fond."
"That is not all of my story. He wants to marry me." Clara paused, as if
to let this statement impress itself upon the other.
"True lovers always do," said the elder woman.
"But sometimes, you know, there are circumstances which prevent them."
"Ah yes," murmured the other reflectively, and looking at the girl with
deeper interest, "circumstances which prevent them. I have known of such
"The circumstance which prevents us from marrying is my story."
"Tell me your story, child, and perhaps, if I cannot help you otherwise,
I can tell you one that will make yours seem less sad."
"You know me," said the young woman, "as Miss Hohlfelder; but that is
not actually my name. In fact I do not know my real name, for I am not
the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Hohlfelder, but only an adopted child.
While Mrs. Hohlfelder lived, I never knew that I was not her child. I
knew I was very different from her and father,--I mean Mr. Hohlfelder. I
knew they were fair and I was dark; they were stout and I was slender;
they were slow and I was quick. But of course I never dreamed of the
true reason of this difference. When mother--Mrs. Hohlfelder--died, I
found among her things one day a little packet, carefully wrapped up,
containing a child's slip and some trinkets. The paper wrapper of the
packet bore an inscription that awakened my curiosity. I asked father
Hohlfelder whose the things had been, and then for the first time I
learned my real story.
"I was not their own daughter, he stated, but an adopted child.
Twenty-three years ago, when he had lived in St. Louis, a steamboat
explosion had occurred up the river, and on a piece of wreckage floating
down stream, a girl baby had been found. There was nothing on the child
to give a hint of its home or parentage; and no one came to claim it,
though the fact that a child had been found was advertised all along the
river. It was believed that the infant's parents must have perished in
the wreck, and certainly no one of those who were saved could identify
the child. There had been a passenger list on board the steamer, but the
list, with the officer who kept it, had been lost in the accident. The
child was turned over to an orphan asylum, from which within a year it
was adopted by the two kind-hearted and childless German people who
brought it up as their own. I was that child."
The woman seated by Clara's side had listened with strained attention.
"Did you learn the name of the steamboat?" she asked quietly, but
quickly, when Clara paused.
"The Pride of St. Louis," answered Clara. She did not look at Mrs.
Harper, but was gazing dreamily toward the front, and therefore did not
see the expression that sprang into the other's face,--a look in which
hope struggled with fear, and yearning love with both,--nor the strong
effort with which Mrs. Harper controlled herself and moved not one
muscle while the other went on.
"I was never sought," Clara continued, "and the good people who brought
me up gave me every care. Father and mother--I can never train my tongue
to call them anything else--were very good to me. When they adopted me
they were poor; he was a pharmacist with a small shop. Later on he moved
to Cincinnati, where he made and sold a popular 'patent' medicine and
amassed a fortune. Then I went to a fashionable school, was taught
French, and deportment, and dancing. Father Hohlfelder made some bad
investments, and lost most of his money. The patent medicine fell off in
popularity. A year or two ago we came to this city to live. Father
bought this block and opened the little drug store below. We moved into
the rooms upstairs. The business was poor, and I felt that I ought to do
something to earn money and help support the family. I could dance; we
had this hall, and it was not rented all the time, so I opened a
"Tell me, child," said the other woman, with restrained eagerness, "what
were the things found upon you when you were taken from the river?"
"Yes," answered the girl, "I will. But I have not told you all my story,
for this is but the prelude. About a year ago a young doctor rented an
office in our block. We met each other, at first only now and then, and
afterwards oftener; and six months ago he told me that he loved me."
She paused, and sat with half opened lips and dreamy eyes, looking back
into the past six months.
"And the things found upon you"----
"Yes, I will show them to you when you have heard all my story. He
wanted to marry me, and has asked me every week since. I have told him
that I love him, but I have not said I would marry him. I don't think it
would be right for me to do so, unless I could clear up this mystery. I
believe he is going to be great and rich and famous, and there might
come a time when he would be ashamed of me. I don't say that I shall
never marry him; for I have hoped--I have a presentiment that in some
strange way I shall find out who I am, and who my parents were. It may
be mere imagination on my part, but somehow I believe it is more than
"Are you sure there was no mark on the things that were found upon you?"
said the elder woman.
"Ah yes," sighed Clara, "I am sure, for I have looked at them a hundred
times. They tell me nothing, and yet they suggest to me many things.
Come," she said, taking the other by the hand, "and I will show them to
She led the way along the hall to her sitting-room, and to her
bedchamber beyond. It was a small room hung with paper showing a pattern
of morning-glories on a light ground, with dotted muslin curtains, a
white iron bedstead, a few prints on the wall, a rocking-chair--a very
dainty room. She went to the maple dressing-case, and opened one of the
As they stood for a moment, the mirror reflecting and framing their
image, more than one point of resemblance between them was emphasized.
There was something of the same oval face, and in Clara's hair a faint
suggestion of the wave in the older woman's; and though Clara was fairer
of complexion, and her eyes were gray and the other's black, there was
visible, under the influence of the momentary excitement, one of those
indefinable likenesses which are at times encountered,--sometimes
marking blood relationship, sometimes the impress of a common training;
in one case perhaps a mere earmark of temperament, and in another the
index of a type. Except for the difference in color, one might imagine
that if the younger woman were twenty years older the resemblance would
be still more apparent.
Clara reached her hand into the drawer and drew out a folded packet,
which she unwrapped, Mrs. Harper following her movements meanwhile with
a suppressed intensity of interest which Clara, had she not been
absorbed in her own thoughts, could not have failed to observe.
When the last fold of paper was removed there lay revealed a child's
muslin slip. Clara lifted it and shook it gently until it was unfolded
before their eyes. The lower half was delicately worked in a lacelike
pattern, revealing an immense amount of patient labor.
The elder woman seized the slip with hands which could not disguise
their trembling. Scanning the garment carefully, she seemed to be noting
the pattern of the needlework, and then, pointing to a certain spot,
"I thought so! I was sure of it! Do you not see the letters--M.S.?"
"Oh, how wonderful!" Clara seized the slip in turn and scanned the
monogram. "How strange that you should see that at once and that I
should not have discovered it, who have looked at it a hundred times!
And here," she added, opening a small package which had been inclosed in
the other, "is my coral necklace. Perhaps your keen eyes can find
something in that."
It was a simple trinket, at which the older woman gave but a glance--a
glance that added to her emotion.
"Listen, child," she said, laying her trembling hand on the other's arm.
"It is all very strange and wonderful, for that slip and necklace, and,
now that I have seen them, your face and your voice and your ways, all
tell me who you are. Your eyes are your father's eyes, your voice is
your father's voice. The slip was worked by your mother's hand."
"Oh!" cried Clara, and for a moment the whole world swam before her
"I was on the Pride of St. Louis, and I knew your father--and your
Clara, pale with excitement, burst into tears, and would have fallen had
not the other woman caught her in her arms. Mrs. Harper placed her on
the couch, and, seated by her side, supported her head on her shoulder.
Her hands seemed to caress the young woman with every touch.
"Tell me, oh, tell me all!" Clara demanded, when the first wave of
emotion had subsided. "Who were my father and my mother, and who am I?"
The elder woman restrained her emotion with an effort, and answered as
composedly as she could,----
"There were several hundred passengers on the Pride of St. Louis when
she left Cincinnati on that fateful day, on her regular trip to New
Orleans. Your father and mother were on the boat--and I was on the boat.
We were going down the river, to take ship at New Orleans for France, a
country which your father loved."
"Who was my father?" asked Clara. The woman's words fell upon her ear
like water on a thirsty soil.
"Your father was a Virginia gentleman, and belonged to one of the first
families, the Staffords, of Melton County."
Clara drew herself up unconsciously, and into her face there came a
frank expression of pride which became it wonderfully, setting off a
beauty that needed only this to make it all but perfect of its type.
"I knew it must be so," she murmured. "I have often felt it. Blood will
always tell. And my mother?"
"Your mother--also belonged to one of the first families of Virginia,
and in her veins flowed some of the best blood of the Old Dominion."
"What was her maiden name?"
"Mary Fairfax. As I was saying, your father was a Virginia gentleman. He
was as handsome a man as ever lived, and proud, oh, so proud!--and good,
and kind. He was a graduate of the University and had studied abroad."
"My mother--was she beautiful?"
"She was much admired, and your father loved her from the moment he
first saw her. Your father came back from Europe, upon his father's
sudden death, and entered upon his inheritance. But he had been away
from Virginia so long, and had read so many books, that he had outgrown
his home. He did not believe that slavery was right, and one of the
first things he did was to free his slaves. His views were not popular,
and he sold out his lands a year before the war, with the intention of
moving to Europe."
"In the mean time he had met and loved and married my mother?"
"In the mean time he had met and loved your mother."
"My mother was a Virginia belle, was she not?"
"The Fairfaxes," answered Mrs. Harper, "were the first of the first
families, the bluest of the blue-bloods. The Miss Fairfaxes were all
beautiful and all social favorites."
"What did my father do then, when he had sold out in Virginia?"
"He went with your mother and you--you were then just a year old--to
Cincinnati, to settle up some business connected with his estate. When
he had completed his business, he embarked on the Pride of St. Louis
with you and your mother and a colored nurse."
"And how did you know about them?" asked Clara.
"I was one of the party. I was"----
"You were the colored nurse?--my 'mammy,' they would have called you in
my old Virginia home?"
"Yes, child, I was--your mammy. Upon my bosom you have rested; my
breasts once gave you nourishment; my hands once ministered to you; my
arms sheltered you, and my heart loved you and mourned you like a mother
loves and mourns her firstborn."
"Oh, how strange, how delightful!" exclaimed Clara. "Now I understand
why you clasped me so tightly, and were so agitated when I told you my
story. It is too good for me to believe. I am of good blood, of an old
and aristocratic family. My presentiment has come true. I can marry my
lover, and I shall owe all my happiness to you. How can I ever repay
"You can kiss me, child, kiss your mammy."
Their lips met, and they were clasped in each other's arms. One put into
the embrace all of her new-found joy, the other all the suppressed
feeling of the last half hour, which in turn embodied the unsatisfied
yearning of many years.
The music had ceased and the pupils had left the hall. Mrs. Harper's
charges had supposed her gone, and had left for home without her. But
the two women, sitting in Clara's chamber, hand in hand, were oblivious
to external things and noticed neither the hour nor the cessation of the
"Why, dear mammy," said the young woman musingly, "did you not find me,
and restore me to my people?"
"Alas, child! I was not white, and when I was picked up from the water,
after floating miles down the river, the man who found me kept me
prisoner for a time, and, there being no inquiry for me, pretended not
to believe that I was free, and took me down to New Orleans and sold me
as a slave. A few years later the war set me free. I went to St. Louis
but could find no trace of you. I had hardly dared to hope that a child
had been saved, when so many grown men and women had lost their lives. I
made such inquiries as I could, but all in vain."
"Did you go to the orphan asylum?"
"The orphan asylum had been burned and with it all the records. The war
had scattered the people so that I could find no one who knew about a
lost child saved from a river wreck. There were many orphans in those
days, and one more or less was not likely to dwell in the public mind."
"Did you tell my people in Virginia?"
"They, too, were scattered by the war. Your uncles lost their lives on
the battlefield. The family mansion was burned to the ground. Your
father's remaining relatives were reduced to poverty, and moved away
"What of my mother's people?"
"They are all dead. God punished them. They did not love your father,
and did not wish him to marry your mother. They helped to drive him to
"I am alone in the world, then, without kith or kin," murmured Clara,
"and yet, strange to say, I am happy. If I had known my people and lost
them, I should be sad. They are gone, but they have left me their name
and their blood. I would weep for my poor father and mother if I were
not so glad."
Just then some one struck a chord upon the piano in the hall, and the
sudden breaking of the stillness recalled Clara's attention to the
lateness of the hour.
"I had forgotten about the class," she exclaimed. "I must go and attend
They walked along the corridor and entered the hall. Dr. Winthrop was
seated at the piano, drumming idly on the keys.
"I did not know where you had gone," he said. "I knew you would be
around, of course, since the lights were not out, and so I came in here
to wait for you."
"Listen, John, I have a wonderful story to tell you."
Then she told him Mrs. Harper's story. He listened attentively and
sympathetically, at certain points taking his eyes from Clara's face and
glancing keenly at Mrs. Harper, who was listening intently. As he looked
from one to the other he noticed the resemblance between them, and
something in his expression caused Mrs. Harper's eyes to fall, and then
glance up appealingly.
"And now," said Clara, "I am happy. I know my name. I am a Virginia
Stafford. I belong to one, yes, to two of what were the first families
of Virginia. John, my family is as good as yours. If I remember my
history correctly, the Cavaliers looked down upon the Roundheads."
"I admit my inferiority," he replied. "If you are happy I am glad."
"Clara Stafford," mused the girl. "It is a pretty name."
"You will never have to use it," her lover declared, "for now you will
"Then I shall have nothing left of all that I have found"----
"Except your husband," asserted Dr. Winthrop, putting his arm around
her, with an air of assured possession.
Mrs. Harper was looking at them with moistened eyes in which joy and
sorrow, love and gratitude, were strangely blended. Clara put out her
hand to her impulsively.
"And my mammy," she cried, "my dear Virginia mammy."
The Sheriffs Children
Branson County, North Carolina, is in a sequestered district of one of
the staidest and most conservative States of the Union. Society in
Branson County is almost primitive in its simplicity. Most of the white
people own the farms they till, and even before the war there were no
very wealthy families to force their neighbors, by comparison, into the
category of "poor whites."
To Branson County, as to most rural communities in the South, the war is
the one historical event that overshadows all others. It is the era from
which all local chronicles are dated,--births, deaths, marriages,
storms, freshets. No description of the life of any Southern community
would be perfect that failed to emphasize the all pervading influence of
the great conflict.
Yet the fierce tide of war that had rushed through the cities and along
the great highways of the country had comparatively speaking but
slightly disturbed the sluggish current of life in this region, remote
from railroads and navigable streams. To the north in Virginia, to the
west in Tennessee, and all along the seaboard the war had raged; but the
thunder of its cannon had not disturbed the echoes of Branson County,
where the loudest sounds heard were the crack of some hunter's rifle,
the baying of some deep-mouthed hound, or the yodel of some tuneful
negro on his way through the pine forest. To the east, Sherman's army
had passed on its march to the sea; but no straggling band of "bummers"
had penetrated the confines of Branson County. The war, it is true, had
robbed the county of the flower of its young manhood; but the burden of
taxation, the doubt and uncertainty of the conflict, and the sting of
ultimate defeat, had been borne by the people with an apathy that robbed
misfortune of half its sharpness.
The nearest approach to town life afforded by Branson County is found in
the little village of Troy, the county seat, a hamlet with a population
of four or five hundred.
Ten years make little difference in the appearance of these remote
Southern towns. If a railroad is built through one of them, it infuses
some enterprise; the social corpse is galvanized by the fresh blood of
civilization that pulses along the farthest ramifications of our great
system of commercial highways. At the period of which I write, no
railroad had come to Troy. If a traveler, accustomed to the bustling
life of cities, could have ridden through Troy on a summer day, he might
easily have fancied himself in a deserted village. Around him he would
have seen weather-beaten houses, innocent of paint, the shingled roofs
in many instances covered with a rich growth of moss. Here and there he
would have met a razor-backed hog lazily rooting his way along the
principal thoroughfare; and more than once he would probably have had to
disturb the slumbers of some yellow dog, dozing away the hours in the
ardent sunshine, and reluctantly yielding up his place in the middle of
the dusty road.
On Saturdays the village presented a somewhat livelier appearance, and
the shade trees around the court house square and along Front Street
served as hitching-posts for a goodly number of horses and mules and
stunted oxen, belonging to the farmer-folk who had come in to trade at
the two or three local stores.
A murder was a rare event in Branson County. Every well-informed citizen
could tell the number of homicides committed in the county for fifty
years back, and whether the slayer, in any given instance, had escaped,
either by flight or acquittal, or had suffered the penalty of the law.
So, when it became known in Troy early one Friday morning in summer,
about ten years after the war, that old Captain Walker, who had served
in Mexico under Scott, and had left an arm on the field of Gettysburg,
had been foully murdered during the night, there was intense excitement
in the village. Business was practically suspended, and the citizens
gathered in little groups to discuss the murder, and speculate upon the
identity of the murderer. It transpired from testimony at the coroner's
inquest, held during the morning, that a strange mulatto had been seen
going in the direction of Captain Walker's house the night before, and
had been met going away from Troy early Friday morning, by a farmer on
his way to town. Other circumstances seemed to connect the stranger with
the crime. The sheriff organized a posse to search for him, and early in
the evening, when most of the citizens of Troy were at supper, the
suspected man was brought in and lodged in the county jail.
By the following morning the news of the capture had spread to the
farthest limits of the county. A much larger number of people than usual
came to town that Saturday,--bearded men in straw hats and blue homespun
shirts, and butternut trousers of great amplitude of material and
vagueness of outline; women in homespun frocks and slat-bonnets, with
faces as expressionless as the dreary sandhills which gave them a meagre
The murder was almost the sole topic of conversation. A steady stream of
curious observers visited the house of mourning, and gazed upon the
rugged face of the old veteran, now stiff and cold in death; and more
than one eye dropped a tear at the remembrance of the cheery smile, and
the joke--sometimes superannuated, generally feeble, but always
good-natured--with which the captain had been wont to greet his
acquaintances. There was a growing sentiment of anger among these stern
men, toward the murderer who had thus cut down their friend, and a
strong feeling that ordinary justice was too slight a punishment for
such a crime.
Toward noon there was an informal gathering of citizens in Dan Tyson's
"I hear it 'lowed that Square Kyahtah's too sick ter hol' co'te this
evenin'," said one, "an' that the purlim'nary hearin' 'll haf ter go
over 'tel nex' week."
A look of disappointment went round the crowd.
"Hit 's the durndes', meanes' murder ever committed in this caounty,"
said another, with moody emphasis.
"I s'pose the nigger 'lowed the Cap'n had some green-backs," observed a
"The Cap'n," said another, with an air of superior information, "has
left two bairls of Confedrit money, which he 'spected 'ud be good some
day er nuther."
This statement gave rise to a discussion of the speculative value of
Confederate money; but in a little while the conversation returned to
"Hangin' air too good fer the murderer," said one; "he oughter be burnt,
stidier bein' hung."
There was an impressive pause at this point, during which a jug of
moonlight whiskey went the round of the crowd.
"Well," said a round-shouldered farmer, who, in spite of his peaceable
expression and faded gray eye, was known to have been one of the most
daring followers of a rebel guerrilla chieftain, "what air yer gwine ter
do about it? Ef you fellers air gwine ter set down an' let a wuthless
nigger kill the bes' white man in Branson, an' not say nuthin' ner do
nuthin', _I 'll_ move outen the caounty."
This speech gave tone and direction to the rest of the conversation.
Whether the fear of losing the round-shouldered farmer operated to bring
about the result or not is immaterial to this narrative; but, at all
events, the crowd decided to lynch the negro. They agreed that this was
the least that could be done to avenge the death of their murdered
friend, and that it was a becoming way in which to honor his memory.
They had some vague notions of the majesty of the law and the rights of
the citizen, but in the passion of the moment these sunk into oblivion;
a white man had been killed by a negro.
"The Cap'n was an ole sodger," said one of his friends solemnly. "He 'll
sleep better when he knows that a co'te-martial has be'n hilt an'
By agreement the lynchers were to meet at Tyson's store at five o'clock
in the afternoon, and proceed thence to the jail, which was situated
down the Lumberton Dirt Road (as the old turnpike antedating the
plank-road was called), about half a mile south of the court-house. When
the preliminaries of the lynching had been arranged, and a committee
appointed to manage the affair, the crowd dispersed, some to go to their
dinners, and some to secure recruits for the lynching party.
It was twenty minutes to five o'clock, when an excited negro, panting
and perspiring, rushed up to the back door of Sheriff Campbell's
dwelling, which stood at a little distance from the jail and somewhat
farther than the latter building from the court-house. A turbaned
colored woman came to the door in response to the negro's knock.
"Hoddy, Sis' Nance."
"Hoddy, Brer Sam."
"Is de shurff in," inquired the negro.
"Yas, Brer Sam, he 's eatin' his dinner," was the answer.
"Will yer ax 'im ter step ter de do' a minute, Sis' Nance?"
The woman went into the dining-room, and a moment later the sheriff came
to the door. He was a tall, muscular man, of a ruddier complexion than
is usual among Southerners. A pair of keen, deep-set gray eyes looked
out from under bushy eyebrows, and about his mouth was a masterful
expression, which a full beard, once sandy in color, but now profusely
sprinkled with gray, could not entirely conceal. The day was hot; the
sheriff had discarded his coat and vest, and had his white shirt open at
"What do you want, Sam?" he inquired of the negro, who stood hat in
hand, wiping the moisture from his face with a ragged shirt-sleeve.
"Shurff, dey gwine ter hang de pris'ner w'at 's lock' up in de jail.
Dey 're comin' dis a-way now. I wuz layin' down on a sack er corn down at
de sto', behine a pile er flour-bairls, w'en I hearn Doc' Cain en Kunnel
Wright talkin' erbout it. I slip' outen de back do', en run here as fas'
as I could. I hearn you say down ter de sto' once't dat you would n't
let nobody take a pris'ner 'way fum you widout walkin' over yo' dead
body, en I thought I 'd let you know 'fo' dey come, so yer could pertec'
The sheriff listened calmly, but his face grew firmer, and a determined
gleam lit up his gray eyes. His frame grew more erect, and he
unconsciously assumed the attitude of a soldier who momentarily expects
to meet the enemy face to face.
"Much obliged, Sam," he answered. "I 'll protect the prisoner. Who 's
"I dunno who-all _is_ comin'," replied the negro. "Dere 's Mistah
McSwayne, en Doc' Cain, en Maje' McDonal', en Kunnel Wright, en a heap
er yuthers. I wuz so skeered I done furgot mo' d'n half un em. I spec'
dey mus' be mos' here by dis time, so I 'll git outen de way, fer I don'
want nobody fer ter think I wuz mix' up in dis business." The negro
glanced nervously down the road toward the town, and made a movement as
if to go away.
"Won't you have some dinner first?" asked the sheriff.
The negro looked longingly in at the open door, and sniffed the
appetizing odor of boiled pork and collards.
"I ain't got no time fer ter tarry, Shurff," he said, "but Sis' Nance
mought gin me sump'n I could kyar in my han' en eat on de way."
A moment later Nancy brought him a huge sandwich of split corn-pone,
with a thick slice of fat bacon inserted between the halves, and a
couple of baked yams. The negro hastily replaced his ragged hat on his
head, dropped the yams in the pocket of his capacious trousers, and,
taking the sandwich in his hand, hurried across the road and disappeared
in the woods beyond.
The sheriff reentered the house, and put on his coat and hat. He then
took down a double-barreled shotgun and loaded it with buckshot. Filling
the chambers of a revolver with fresh cartridges, he slipped it into the
pocket of the sack-coat which he wore.
A comely young woman in a calico dress watched these proceedings with
"Where are you going, father?" she asked. She had not heard the
conversation with the negro.
"I am goin' over to the jail," responded the sheriff. "There 's a mob
comin' this way to lynch the nigger we 've got locked up. But they won't
do it," he added, with emphasis.
"Oh, father! don't go!" pleaded the girl, clinging to his arm; "they 'll
shoot you if you don't give him up."
"You never mind me, Polly," said her father reassuringly, as he gently
unclasped her hands from his arm. "I 'll take care of myself and the
prisoner, too. There ain't a man in Branson County that would shoot me.
Besides, I have faced fire too often to be scared away from my duty. You
keep close in the house," he continued, "and if any one disturbs you
just use the old horse-pistol in the top bureau drawer. It 's a little
old-fashioned, but it did good work a few years ago."
The young girl shuddered at this sanguinary allusion, but made no
further objection to her father's departure.
The sheriff of Branson was a man far above the average of the community
in wealth, education, and social position. His had been one of the few
families in the county that before the war had owned large estates and
numerous slaves. He had graduated at the State University at Chapel
Hill, and had kept up some acquaintance with current literature and
advanced thought. He had traveled some in his youth, and was looked up
to in the county as an authority on all subjects connected with the
outer world. At first an ardent supporter of the Union, he had opposed
the secession movement in his native State as long as opposition availed
to stem the tide of public opinion. Yielding at last to the force of
circumstances, he had entered the Confederate service rather late in the
war, and served with distinction through several campaigns, rising in
time to the rank of colonel. After the war he had taken the oath of
allegiance, and had been chosen by the people as the most available
candidate for the office of sheriff, to which he had been elected
without opposition. He had filled the office for several terms, and was
universally popular with his constituents.
Colonel or Sheriff Campbell, as he was indifferently called, as the
military or civil title happened to be most important in the opinion of
the person addressing him, had a high sense of the responsibility
attaching to his office. He had sworn to do his duty faithfully, and he
knew what his duty was, as sheriff, perhaps more clearly than he had
apprehended it in other passages of his life. It was, therefore, with no
uncertainty in regard to his course that he prepared his weapons and
went over to the jail. He had no fears for Polly's safety.
The sheriff had just locked the heavy front door of the jail behind him
when a half dozen horsemen, followed by a crowd of men on foot, came
round a bend in the road and drew near the jail. They halted in front of
the picket fence that surrounded the building, while several of the
committee of arrangements rode on a few rods farther to the sheriff's
house. One of them dismounted and rapped on the door with his
"Is the sheriff at home?" he inquired.
"No, he has just gone out," replied Polly, who had come to the door.
"We want the jail keys," he continued.
"They are not here," said Polly. "The sheriff has them himself." Then
she added, with assumed indifference, "He is at the jail now."
The man turned away, and Polly went into the front room, from which she
peered anxiously between the slats of the green blinds of a window that
looked toward the jail. Meanwhile the messenger returned to his
companions and announced his discovery. It looked as though the sheriff
had learned of their design and was preparing to resist it.
One of them stepped forward and rapped on the jail door.
"Well, what is it?" said the sheriff, from within.
"We want to talk to you, Sheriff," replied the spokesman.
There was a little wicket in the door; this the sheriff opened, and
answered through it.
"All right, boys, talk away. You are all strangers to me, and I don't
know what business you can have." The sheriff did not think it necessary
to recognize anybody in particular on such an occasion; the question of
identity sometimes comes up in the investigation of these extra-judicial
"We 're a committee of citizens and we want to get into the jail."
"What for? It ain't much trouble to get into jail. Most people want to
The mob was in no humor to appreciate a joke, and the sheriff's
witticism fell dead upon an unresponsive audience.
"We want to have a talk with the nigger that killed Cap'n Walker."
"You can talk to that nigger in the court-house, when he 's brought out
for trial. Court will be in session here next week. I know what you
fellows want, but you can't get my prisoner to-day. Do you want to take
the bread out of a poor man's mouth? I get seventy-five cents a day for
keeping this prisoner, and he 's the only one in jail. I can't have my
family suffer just to please you fellows."
One or two young men in the crowd laughed at the idea of Sheriff
Campbell's suffering for want of seventy-five cents a day; but they were
frowned into silence by those who stood near them.
"Ef yer don't let us in," cried a voice, "we 'll bu's' the do' open."
"Bust away," answered the sheriff, raising his voice so that all could
hear. "But I give you fair warning. The first man that tries it will be
filled with buckshot. I 'm sheriff of this county; I know my duty, and I
mean to do it."
"What 's the use of kicking, Sheriff," argued one of the leaders of the
mob. "The nigger is sure to hang anyhow; he richly deserves it; and we 've
got to do something to teach the niggers their places, or white people
won't be able to live in the county."
"There 's no use talking, boys," responded the sheriff. "I 'm a white
man outside, but in this jail I 'm sheriff; and if this nigger 's to be
hung in this county, I propose to do the hanging. So you fellows might
as well right-about-face, and march back to Troy. You 've had a pleasant
trip, and the exercise will be good for you. You know _me_. I 've got
powder and ball, and I 've faced fire before now, with nothing between
me and the enemy, and I don't mean to surrender this jail while I 'm
able to shoot." Having thus announced his determination, the sheriff
closed and fastened the wicket, and looked around for the best position
from which to defend the building.
The crowd drew off a little, and the leaders conversed together in low
The Branson County jail was a small, two-story brick building, strongly
constructed, with no attempt at architectural ornamentation. Each story
was divided into two large cells by a passage running from front to
rear. A grated iron door gave entrance from the passage to each of the
four cells. The jail seldom had many prisoners in it, and the lower
windows had been boarded up. When the sheriff had closed the wicket, he
ascended the steep wooden stairs to the upper floor. There was no window
at the front of the upper passage, and the most available position from
which to watch the movements of the crowd below was the front window of
the cell occupied by the solitary prisoner.
The sheriff unlocked the door and entered the cell. The prisoner was
crouched in a corner, his yellow face, blanched with terror, looking
ghastly in the semi-darkness of the room. A cold perspiration had
gathered on his forehead, and his teeth were chattering with affright.
"For God's sake, Sheriff," he murmured hoarsely, "don't let 'em lynch
me; I did n't kill the old man."
The sheriff glanced at the cowering wretch with a look of mingled
contempt and loathing.
"Get up," he said sharply. "You will probably be hung sooner or later,
but it shall not be to-day, if I can help it. I 'll unlock your fetters,
and if I can't hold the jail, you 'll have to make the best fight you
can. If I 'm shot, I 'll consider my responsibility at an end."
There were iron fetters on the prisoner's ankles, and handcuffs on his
wrists. These the sheriff unlocked, and they fell clanking to the floor.
"Keep back from the window," said the sheriff. "They might shoot if they
The sheriff drew toward the window a pine bench which formed a part of
the scanty furniture of the cell, and laid his revolver upon it. Then he
took his gun in hand, and took his stand at the side of the window where
he could with least exposure of himself watch the movements of the crowd
The lynchers had not anticipated any determined resistance. Of course
they had looked for a formal protest, and perhaps a sufficient show of
opposition to excuse the sheriff in the eye of any stickler for legal
formalities. They had not however come prepared to fight a battle, and
no one of them seemed willing to lead an attack upon the jail. The
leaders of the party conferred together with a good deal of animated
gesticulation, which was visible to the sheriff from his outlook, though
the distance was too great for him to hear what was said. At length one
of them broke away from the group, and rode back to the main body of the
lynchers, who were restlessly awaiting orders.
"Well, boys," said the messenger, "we 'll have to let it go for the
present. The sheriff says he 'll shoot, and he 's got the drop on us
this time. There ain't any of us that want to follow Cap'n Walker jest
yet. Besides, the sheriff is a good fellow, and we don't want to hurt
'im. But," he added, as if to reassure the crowd, which began to show
signs of disappointment, "the nigger might as well say his prayers, for
he ain't got long to live."
There was a murmur of dissent from the mob, and several voices insisted
that an attack be made on the jail. But pacific counsels finally
prevailed, and the mob sullenly withdrew.
The sheriff stood at the window until they had disappeared around the
bend in the road. He did not relax his watchfulness when the last one
was out of sight. Their withdrawal might be a mere feint, to be
followed by a further attempt. So closely, indeed, was his attention
drawn to the outside, that he neither saw nor heard the prisoner creep
stealthily across the floor, reach out his hand and secure the revolver
which lay on the bench behind the sheriff, and creep as noiselessly back
to his place in the corner of the room.
A moment after the last of the lynching party had disappeared there was
a shot fired from the woods across the road; a bullet whistled by the
window and buried itself in the wooden casing a few inches from where
the sheriff was standing. Quick as thought, with the instinct born of a
semi-guerrilla army experience, he raised his gun and fired twice at the
point from which a faint puff of smoke showed the hostile bullet to have
been sent. He stood a moment watching, and then rested his gun against
the window, and reached behind him mechanically for the other weapon. It
was not on the bench. As the sheriff realized this fact, he turned his
head and looked into the muzzle of the revolver.
"Stay where you are, Sheriff," said the prisoner, his eyes glistening,
his face almost ruddy with excitement.
The sheriff mentally cursed his own carelessness for allowing him to be
caught in such a predicament. He had not expected anything of the kind.
He had relied on the negro's cowardice and subordination in the presence
of an armed white man as a matter of course. The sheriff was a brave
man, but realized that the prisoner had him at an immense disadvantage.
The two men stood thus for a moment, fighting a harmless duel with their
"Well, what do you mean to do?" asked the sheriff with apparent
"To get away, of course," said the prisoner, in a tone which caused the
sheriff to look at him more closely, and with an involuntary feeling of
apprehension; if the man was not mad, he was in a state of mind akin to
madness, and quite as dangerous. The sheriff felt that he must speak the
prisoner fair, and watch for a chance to turn the tables on him. The
keen-eyed, desperate man before him was a different being altogether
from the groveling wretch who had begged so piteously for life a few
At length the sheriff spoke:----
"Is this your gratitude to me for saving your life at the risk of my
own? If I had not done so, you would now be swinging from the limb of
some neighboring tree."
"True," said the prisoner, "you saved my life, but for how long? When
you came in, you said Court would sit next week. When the crowd went
away they said I had not long to live. It is merely a choice of two
"While there 's life there 's hope," replied the sheriff. He uttered
this commonplace mechanically, while his brain was busy in trying to
think out some way of escape. "If you are innocent you can prove it."
The mulatto kept his eye upon the sheriff. "I did n't kill the old man,"
he replied; "but I shall never be able to clear myself. I was at his
house at nine o'clock. I stole from it the coat that was on my back when
I was taken. I would be convicted, even with a fair trial, unless the
real murderer were discovered beforehand."
The sheriff knew this only too well. While he was thinking what argument
next to use, the prisoner continued:----
"Throw me the keys--no, unlock the door."
The sheriff stood a moment irresolute. The mulatto's eye glittered
ominously. The sheriff crossed the room and unlocked the door leading
into the passage.
"Now go down and unlock the outside door."
The heart of the sheriff leaped within him. Perhaps he might make a dash
for liberty, and gain the outside. He descended the narrow stairs, the
prisoner keeping close behind him.
The sheriff inserted the huge iron key into the lock. The rusty bolt
yielded slowly. It still remained for him to pull the door open.
"Stop!" thundered the mulatto, who seemed to divine the sheriff's
purpose. "Move a muscle, and I 'll blow your brains out."
The sheriff obeyed; he realized that his chance had not yet come.
"Now keep on that side of the passage, and go back upstairs."
Keeping the sheriff under cover of the revolver, the mulatto followed
him up the stairs. The sheriff expected the prisoner to lock him into
the cell and make his own escape. He had about come to the conclusion
that the best thing he could do under the circumstances was to submit
quietly, and take his chances of recapturing the prisoner after the
alarm had been given. The sheriff had faced death more than once upon
the battlefield. A few minutes before, well armed, and with a brick wall
between him and them he had dared a hundred men to fight; but he felt
instinctively that the desperate man confronting him was not to be
trifled with, and he was too prudent a man to risk his life against such
heavy odds. He had Polly to look after, and there was a limit beyond
which devotion to duty would be quixotic and even foolish.
"I want to get away," said the prisoner, "and I don't want to be
captured; for if I am I know I will be hung on the spot. I am afraid,"
he added somewhat reflectively, "that in order to save myself I shall
have to kill you."
"Good God!" exclaimed the sheriff in involuntary terror; "you would not
kill the man to whom you owe your own life."
"You speak more truly than you know," replied the mulatto. "I indeed owe
my life to you."
The sheriff started, he was capable of surprise, even in that moment of
extreme peril. "Who are you?" he asked in amazement.
"Tom, Cicely's son," returned the other. He had closed the door and
stood talking to the sheriff through the grated opening. "Don't you
remember Cicely--Cicely whom you sold, with her child, to the speculator
on his way to Alabama?"
The sheriff did remember. He had been sorry for it many a time since. It
had been the old story of debts, mortgages, and bad crops. He had
quarreled with the mother. The price offered for her and her child had
been unusually large, and he had yielded to the combination of anger and
"Good God!" he gasped, "you would not murder your own father?"
"My father?" replied the mulatto. "It were well enough for me to claim
the relationship, but it comes with poor grace from you to ask anything
by reason of it. What father's duty have you ever performed for me? Did
you give me your name, or even your protection? Other white men gave
their colored sons freedom and money, and sent them to the free States.
_You_ sold _me_ to the rice swamps."
"I at least gave you the life you cling to," murmured the sheriff.
"Life?" said the prisoner, with a sarcastic laugh. "What kind of a life?
You gave me your own blood, your own features,--no man need look at us
together twice to see that,--and you gave me a black mother. Poor
wretch! She died under the lash, because she had enough womanhood to
call her soul her own. You gave me a white man's spirit, and you made me
a slave, and crushed it out."
"But you are free now," said the sheriff. He had not doubted, could not
doubt, the mulatto's word. He knew whose passions coursed beneath that
swarthy skin and burned in the black eyes opposite his own. He saw in
this mulatto what he himself might have become had not the safeguards of
parental restraint and public opinion been thrown around him.
"Free to do what?" replied the mulatto. "Free in name, but despised and
scorned and set aside by the people to whose race I belong far more than
to my mother's."
"There are schools," said the sheriff. "You have been to school." He had
noticed that the mulatto spoke more eloquently and used better language
than most Branson County people.
"I have been to school, and dreamed when I went that it would work some
marvelous change in my condition. But what did I learn? I learned to
feel that no degree of learning or wisdom will change the color of my
skin and that I shall always wear what in my own country is a badge of
degradation. When I think about it seriously I do not care particularly
for such a life. It is the animal in me, not the man, that flees the
gallows. I owe you nothing," he went on, "and expect nothing of you; and
it would be no more than justice if I should avenge upon you my mother's
wrongs and my own. But still I hate to shoot you; I have never yet taken
human life--for I did _not_ kill the old captain. Will you promise to
give no alarm and make no attempt to capture me until morning, if I do
So absorbed were the two men in their colloquy and their own tumultuous
thoughts that neither of them had heard the door below move upon its
hinges. Neither of them had heard a light step come stealthily up the
stairs, nor seen a slender form creep along the darkening passage toward
The sheriff hesitated. The struggle between his love of life and his
sense of duty was a terrific one. It may seem strange that a man who
could sell his own child into slavery should hesitate at such a moment,
when his life was trembling in the balance. But the baleful influence of
human slavery poisoned the very fountains of life, and created new
standards of right. The sheriff was conscientious; his conscience had
merely been warped by his environment. Let no one ask what his answer
would have been; he was spared the necessity of a decision.
"Stop," said the mulatto, "you need not promise. I could not trust you
if you did. It is your life for mine; there is but one safe way for me;
you must die."
He raised his arm to fire, when there was a flash--a report from the
passage behind him. His arm fell heavily at his side, and the pistol
dropped at his feet.
The sheriff recovered first from his surprise, and throwing open the
door secured the fallen weapon. Then seizing the prisoner he thrust him
into the cell and locked the door upon him; after which he turned to
Polly, who leaned half-fainting against the wall, her hands clasped over
"Oh, father, I was just in time!" she cried hysterically, and, wildly
sobbing, threw herself into her father's arms.
"I watched until they all went away," she said. "I heard the shot from
the woods and I saw you shoot. Then when you did not come out I feared
something had happened, that perhaps you had been wounded. I got out the
other pistol and ran over here. When I found the door open, I knew
something was wrong, and when I heard voices I crept upstairs, and
reached the top just in time to hear him say he would kill you. Oh, it
was a narrow escape!"
When she had grown somewhat calmer, the sheriff left her standing there
and went back into the cell. The prisoner's arm was bleeding from a
flesh wound. His bravado had given place to a stony apathy. There was no
sign in his face of fear or disappointment or feeling of any kind. The
sheriff sent Polly to the house for cloth, and bound up the prisoner's
wound with a rude skill acquired during his army life.
"I 'll have a doctor come and dress the wound in the morning," he said
to the prisoner. "It will do very well until then, if you will keep
quiet. If the doctor asks you how the wound was caused, you can say that
you were struck by the bullet fired from the woods. It would do you no
good to have it known that you were shot while attempting to escape."
The prisoner uttered no word of thanks or apology, but sat in sullen
silence. When the wounded arm had been bandaged, Polly and her father
returned to the house.
The sheriff was in an unusually thoughtful mood that evening. He put
salt in his coffee at supper, and poured vinegar over his pancakes. To
many of Polly's questions he returned random answers. When he had gone
to bed he lay awake for several hours.
In the silent watches of the night, when he was alone with God, there
came into his mind a flood of unaccustomed thoughts. An hour or two
before, standing face to face with death, he had experienced a sensation
similar to that which drowning men are said to feel--a kind of
clarifying of the moral faculty, in which the veil of the flesh, with
its obscuring passions and prejudices, is pushed aside for a moment, and
all the acts of one's life stand out, in the clear light of truth, in
their correct proportions and relations,--a state of mind in which one
sees himself as God may be supposed to see him. In the reaction
following his rescue, this feeling had given place for a time to far
different emotions. But now, in the silence of midnight, something of
this clearness of spirit returned to the sheriff. He saw that he had
owed some duty to this son of his,--that neither law nor custom could
destroy a responsibility inherent in the nature of mankind. He could not
thus, in the eyes of God at least, shake off the consequences of his
sin. Had he never sinned, this wayward spirit would never have come back
from the vanished past to haunt him. As these thoughts came, his anger
against the mulatto died away, and in its place there sprang up a great
pity. The hand of parental authority might have restrained the passions
he had seen burning in the prisoner's eyes when the desperate man spoke
the words which had seemed to doom his father to death. The sheriff
felt that he might have saved this fiery spirit from the slough of
slavery; that he might have sent him to the free North, and given him
there, or in some other land, an opportunity to turn to usefulness and
honorable pursuits the talents that had run to crime, perhaps to
madness; he might, still less, have given this son of his the poor
simulacrum of liberty which men of his caste could possess in a
slave-holding community; or least of all, but still something, he might
have kept the boy on the plantation, where the burdens of slavery would
have fallen lightly upon him.
The sheriff recalled his own youth. He had inherited an honored name to
keep untarnished; he had had a future to make; the picture of a fair
young bride had beckoned him on to happiness. The poor wretch now
stretched upon a pallet of straw between the brick walls of the jail had
had none of these things,--no name, no father, no mother--in the true
meaning of motherhood,--and until the past few years no possible future,
and then one vague and shadowy in its outline, and dependent for form
and substance upon the slow solution of a problem in which there were
many unknown quantities.
From what he might have done to what he might yet do was an easy
transition for the awakened conscience of the sheriff. It occurred to
him, purely as a hypothesis, that he might permit his prisoner to
escape; but his oath of office, his duty as sheriff, stood in the way of
such a course, and the sheriff dismissed the idea from his mind. He
could, however, investigate the circumstances of the murder, and move
Heaven and earth to discover the real criminal, for he no longer doubted
the prisoner's innocence; he could employ counsel for the accused, and
perhaps influence public opinion in his favor. An acquittal once
secured, some plan could be devised by which the sheriff might in some
degree atone for his crime against this son of his--against