Bricks Without Straw by Albion W. Tourgee

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Charles Aldarondo, Charles Franks and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team


_A Novel_





My Wife;



[_From an ancient Egyptian Papyrus-Roll, recently discovered._]

It came to pass that when Pharaoh had made an end of giving commandment that the children of Israel should deliver the daily tale of bricks, but should not be furnished with any straw wherewith to make them, but should instead go into the fields and gather such stubble as might be left therein, that Neoncapos, the king’s jester, laughed.

And when he was asked whereat he laughed, he answered, At the king’s order.

And thereupon he laughed the more.

Then was Pharaoh, the king, exceeding wroth, and he gave commandment that an owl be given to Neoncapos, the king’s jester, and that he be set forth without the gate of the king’s palace, and that he be forbidden to return, or to speak to any in all the land, save only unto the owl which had been given him, until such time as the bird should answer and tell him what he should say.

Then they that stood about the king, and all who saw Neoncapos, cried out, What a fool’s errand is this! So that the saying remains even unto this day.

Nevertheless, upon the next day came Neoncapos again into the presence of Pharaoh, the king.

Then was Pharaoh greatly astonished, and he said, How is this? Hath the bird spoken?

And Neoncapos, the king’s jester, bowed himself unto the earth, and said, He hath, my lord.

Then was Pharaoh, the king, filled with amazement, and said, Tell me what he hath said unto thee.

And Neoncapos raised himself before the king, and answered him, and said:

As I went out upon the errand whereunto thou hadst sent me forth, I remembered thy commandment to obey it. And I spake only unto the bird which thou gavest me, and said unto him:

There was a certain great king which held a people in bondage, and set over them task-masters, and required of them all the bricks that they could make, man for man, and day by day;

For the king was in great haste seeking to build a palace which should be greater and nobler than any in the world, and should remain to himself and his children a testimony of his glory forever.

And it came to pass, at length, that the king gave commandment that no more straw should be given unto them that made the bricks, but that they should still deliver the tale which had been aforetime required of them.

And thereupon the king’s jester laughed.

Because he said to himself, If the laborers have not straw wherewith to attemper the clay, but only stubble and chaff gathered from the fields, will not the bricks be ill-made and lack strength and symmetry of form, so that the wall made thereof will not be true and strong, or fitly joined together? For the lack of a little straw it may be that the palace of the great king will fall upon him and all his people that dwell therein. Thereupon the king was wroth with his fool, and his countenance was changed, and he spake harshly unto him, and–

It matters not what thou saidst unto the bird, said the king. What did the bird say unto thee?

The bird, said Neoncapos, bowing himself low before the king, the bird, my lord, looked at me in great amaze, and cried again and again, in an exceeding loud voice: _Who! Who-o! Who-o-o!_

Then was Pharaoh exceeding wroth, and his anger burned within him, and he commanded that the fool should be taken and bound with cords, and cast into prison, while he should consider of a fit punishment for his impudent words.

NOTE.-A script attached to this manuscript, evidently of later date, informs us that the fool escaped the penalty of his folly by the disaster at the Red Sea.


XLI. Q. E. D.
LXII. How?




“Wal, I ‘clar, now, jes de quarest ting ob ’bout all dis matter o’ freedom is de way dat it sloshes roun’ de names ‘mong us cullud folks. H’yer I lib ober on de Hyco twenty year er mo’–nobody but ole Marse Potem an’ de Lor’, an’ p’raps de Debble beside, know ‘zackly how long it mout hev been–an’ didn’t hev but one name in all dat yer time. An’ I didn’t hev no use for no mo’ neither, kase dat wuz de one ole Mahs’r gib me hisself, an’ nobody on de libbin’ yairth nebber hed no sech name afo’ an’ nebber like to agin. Dat wuz allers de way ub ole Mahs’r’s names. Dey used ter say dat he an’ de Debble made ’em up togedder while he wuz dribin’ roun’ in dat ole gig ‘twixt de diff’ent plantations–on de Dan an’ de Ro’noke, an’ all ’bout whar de ole cuss could fine a piece o’ cheap lan”, dat would do ter raise niggers on an’ pay for bringin’ up, at de same time. He was a powerful smart man in his day, wuz ole Kunnel Potem Desmit; but he speshully did beat anythin’ a findin’ names fer niggers. I reckon now, ef he’d ‘a hed forty thousan’ cullud folks, men an’ wimmen, dar wouldn’t ha’ been no two on ’em hevin’ de same name. Dat’s what folks used ter say ’bout him, ennyhow. Dey sed he used ter say ez how he wasn’t gwine ter hey his niggers mixed up wid nobody else’s namin’, an’ he wouldn’t no mo’ ‘low ob one black feller callin’ ob anudder by enny nickname ner nothin’ ub dat kine, on one o’ his plantations, dan he would ob his takin’ a mule, nary bit. Dey du say dat when he used ter buy a boy er gal de berry fust ting he wuz gwine ter du wuz jes ter hev ’em up an’ gib ’em a new name, out ‘n out, an’ a clean suit ob close ter ‘member it by; an’ den, jes by way ob a little ‘freshment, he used ter make de oberseer gib ’em ten er twenty good licks, jes ter make sure ob der fergittin’ de ole un dat dey’d hed afo’. Dat’s what my mammy sed, an’ she allers ‘clar’d dat tow’rd de las’ she nebber could ‘member what she was at de fus’ no more’n ef she hed’nt been de same gal.

“All he wanted ter know ’bout a nigger wuz jes his name, an’ dey say he could tell straight away when an’ whar he wuz born, whar he’d done lived, an’ all ’bout him. He war a powerful man in der way ob names, shore. Some on ’em wuz right quare, but den agin mos’ all on ’em wuz right good, an’ it war powerful handy hevin’ no two on ’em alike. I’ve heard tell dat a heap o’ folks wuz a takin’ up wid his notion, an’ I reckon dat ef de s’rrender hed only stood off long ’nuff dar wouldn’t ‘a been nary two niggers in de whole State hevin’ de same names. Dat _would_ hev been handy, all roun’!

“When dat come, though, old Mahs’r’s plan warn’t nowhar. Lor’ bress my soul, how de names did come a-brilin’ roun’! I’d done got kinder used ter mine, hevin’ bed it so long an’ nebber knowin’ myself by any udder, so’t I didn’t like ter change. ‘Sides dat, I couldn’t see no use. I’d allers got ‘long well ’nuff wid it–all on’y jes once, an’ dat ar wuz so long ago I’d nigh about forgot it. Dat showed what a debblish cute plan dat uv ole Mahs’r’s was, though.

“Lemme see, dat er wuz de fus er secon’ year atter I wuz a plow-boy. Hit wuz right in de height ob de season, an’ Marse War’–dat was de oberseer–he sent me to der Cou’t House ob an ebenin’ to do some sort ob arrant for him. When I was a comin’ home, jes about an hour ob sun, I rides up wid a sort o’ hard-favored man in a gig, an’ he looks at me an’ at de hoss, when I goes ter ride by, mighty sharp like; an’ fust I knows he axes me my name; an’ I tole him. An’ den he axes whar I lib; an’ I tole him, “On de Knapp-o’-Reeds plantation.” Den he say,

“‘Who you b’long to, ennyhow, boy?’

“An’ I tole him ‘Ole Marse Potem Desmit, sah’–jes so like.

“Den he sez ‘Who’s a oberseein’ dar now?’

“An’ I sez, ‘Marse Si War’, sah?’

“Den he sez, ‘An’ how do all de ban’s on Knapp-o Reeds git ‘long wid ole Marse Potem an’ Marse Si War’?’

“An’ I sez, ‘Oh, we gits ‘long tol’able well wid Marse War’, sah.’

“An’ he sez, ‘How yer likes old Marse Potem?’

“An’ I sez, jes fool like, ‘We don’t like him at all, sah.’

“An’ he sez, ‘Why?’

“An’ I sez, ‘Dunno sah.’

“An’ he sez, ‘Don’t he feed?’

“An’ I sez, ‘Tol’able, I spose.’

“An’ he sez, ‘Whip much?’

“An’ I sez, ‘Mighty little, sah.’

“An’ he sez, ‘Work hard?’

“An’ I sez, ‘Yes, moderate, sah.’ “An’ he sez, ‘Eber seed him?’

“An’ I sez, ‘Not ez I knows on, sah.’

“An’ he sez, ‘What for don’t yer like him, den?’

“An’ I sez, ‘Dunno, on’y jes’ kase he’s sech a gran’ rascal.’

“Den he larf fit ter kill, an’ say, ‘Dat’s so, dat’s so, boy.’ Den he take out his pencil an’ write a word er two on a slip o’ paper an’ say,

“‘H’yer, boy, yer gibs dat ter Marse Si War’, soon ez yer gits home. D’yer heah?’

“I tole him, ‘Yes, sah,’ an’ comes on home an’ gibs dat ter Marse Si. Quick ez he look at it he say, ‘Whar you git dat, boy? ‘An’ when I tole him he sez, ‘You know who dat is? Dat’s old Potem Desmit! What you say to him, you little fool?’

“Den I tell Marse War’ all ’bout it, an’ he lay down in de yard an’ larf fit ter kill. All de same he gib me twenty licks ‘cordin’ ter de orders on dat little dam bit o’ paper. An’ I nebber tink o’ dat widout cussin’, sence.

“Dat ar, now am de only time I ebber fault my name. Now what I want ter change it fer, er what I want ob enny mo’? I don’t want ’em. An’ I tell ’em so, ebbery time too, but dey ‘jes fo’ce em on me like, an’ what’ll I do’bout it, I dunno. H’yer I’se got–lemme see–one–two–tree! Fo’ God, I don’ know how many names I hez got! I’m dod-dinged now ef I know who I be ennyhow. Ef ennybody ax me I’d jes hev ter go back ter ole Mahs’r’s name an’ stop, kase I swar I wouldn’t know which ob de udders ter pick an’ chuse from.

“I specs its all ‘long o’ freedom, though I can’t see why a free nigger needs enny mo’ name dan the same one hed in ole slave times. Mus’ be, though. I mind now dat all de pore white folks hez got some two tree names, but I allus thought dat wuz ‘coz dey hedn’t nuffin’ else ter call dere can. Must be a free feller needs mo’ name, somehow. Ef I keep on I reckon I’ll git enuff atter a while. H’yer it’s gwine on two year only sence de s’rrender, an’ I’se got tree ob ’em sartain!”

The speaker was a colored man, standing before his log-house in the evening of a day in June. His wife was the only listener to the monologue. He had been examining a paper which was sealed and stamped with official formality, and which had started him upon the train of thought he had pursued. The question he was trying in vain to answer was only the simplest and easiest of the thousand strange queries which freedom had so recently propounded to him and his race.



Knapp-of-reeds was the name of a plantation which was one of the numerous possessions of P. Desmit, Colonel and Esquire, of the county of Horsford, in the northernmost of those States which good Queen Caroline was fortunate enough to have designated as memorials of her existence. The plantation was just upon that wavy line which separates the cotton region of the east from the tobacco belt that sweeps down the pleasant ranges of the Piedmont region, east of the Blue Appalachians. Or, to speak more correctly, the plantation was in that indeterminate belt which neither of the great staples could claim exclusively as its own–that delectable land where every conceivable product of the temperate zone grows, if not in its rankest luxuriance, at least in perfection and abundance. Tobacco on the hillsides, corn upon the wide bottoms, cotton on the gray uplands, and wheat, oats, fruits, and grasses everywhere. Five hundred acres of hill and bottom, forest and field, with what was termed the Island, consisting of a hundred more, which had never been overflowed in the century of cultivation it had known, constituted a snug and valuable plantation. It had been the seat of an old family once, but extravagant living and neglect of its resources had compelled its sale, and it had passed into the hands of its present owner, of whose vast possessions it formed an insignificant part.

Colonel Desmit was one of the men who applied purely business principles to the opportunities which the South afforded in the olden time, following everything to its logical conclusion, and measuring every opportunity by its money value. He was not of an ancient family. Indeed, the paternal line stopped short with his own father, and the maternal one could only show one more link, and then became lost in malodorous tradition which hung about an old mud-daubed log-cabin on the most poverty-stricken portion of Nubbin Ridge.

There was a rumor that the father had a left-handed kinship with the Brutons, a family of great note in the public annals of the State. He certainly showed qualities which tended to confirm this tradition, and abilities which entitled him to be considered the peer of the best of that family, whose later generations were by no means the equals of former ones. Untiring and unscrupulous, Mr. Peter Smith rose from the position of a nameless son of an unknown father, to be as overseer for one of the wealthiest proprietors of that region, and finally, by a not unusual turn of fortune’s wheel, became the owner of a large part of his employer’s estates. Thrifty in all things, he married in middle life, so well as nearly to double the fortune then acquired, and before his death had become one of the wealthiest men in his county. He was always hampered by a lack of education. He could read little and write less. In his later days he was appointed a Justice of the Peace, and was chosen one of the County Court, or “Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions,” as it was technically called. These honors were so pleasant to him that he determined to give his only son a name which should commemorate this event. The boy was, therefore, christened after the opening words of his commission of the peace, and grew to manhood bearing the name Potestatem Dedimus [Footnote: Potestatem dedimus: “We give thee power, etc.” The initial words of the clause conferring jurisdiction upon officers, in the old forms of judicial commissions. This name is fact, not fancy.] Smith. This son was educated with care–the shrewd father feeling his own need–but was early instilled with his father’s greed for gain, and the necessity for unusual exertion if he would achieve equal position with the old families who were to be his rivals.

The young man proved a worthy disciple of his father. He married, it is true, without enhancing his fortune; but he secured what was worth almost as much for the promotion of his purposes as if he had doubled his belongings. Aware of the ill-effects of so recent a bar sinister in his armorial bearings, he sought in marriage Miss Bertha Bellamy, of Belleville, in the State of Virginia, who united in her azure veins at least a few drops of the blood of all the first families of that fine-bred aristocracy, from Pocahontas’s days until her own. The _role_ of the gentleman had been too much for the male line of the Bellamys to sustain. Horses and hounds and cards and high living had gradually eaten down their once magnificent patrimony, until pride and good blood and poverty were the only dowry that the females could command. Miss Bertha, having already arrived at the age of discretion, found that to match this against the wealth of young Potestatem Dedimus Smith was as well as she could hope to do, and accepted him upon condition that the vulgar _Smith_ should be changed to some less democratic name.

The one paternal and two maternal ancestors had not made the very common surname peculiarly sacred to the young man, so the point was yielded; and by considerable persistency on the part of the young wife, “P. D. SMITH” was transformed without much trouble into “P. DESMIT,” before the administrator had concluded the settlement of his father’s estate.

The vigor with which the young man devoted himself to affairs and the remarkable success which soon began to attend his exertions diverted attention from the name, and before he had reached middle life he was known over almost half the State as “Colonel Desmit,” “Old Desmit,” or “Potem Desmit,” according to the degree of familiarity or respect desired to be displayed. Hardly anybody remembered and none alluded to the fact that the millionaire of Horsford was only two removes from old Sal Smith of Nubbin Ridge. On the other hand the rumor that he was in some mysterious manner remotely akin to the Brutons was industriously circulated by the younger members of that high-bred house, and even “the Judge,” who was of about the same age as Colonel Desmit, had been heard more than once to call him “Cousin.” These things affected Colonel Desmit but little. He had set himself to improve his father’s teachings and grow rich. He seemed to have the true Midas touch. He added acre to acre, slave to slave, business to business, until his possessions were scattered from the mountains to the sea, and especially extended on both sides the border line in the Piedmont region where he had been bred. It embraced every form of business known to the community of which he was a part, from the cattle ranges of the extreme west to the fisheries of the farthest east. He made his possessions a sort of self-supporting commonwealth in themselves. The cotton which he grew on his eastern farms was manufactured at his own factory, and distributed to his various plantations to be made into clothing for his slaves. Wheat and corn and meat, raised upon some of his plantations, supplied others devoted to non-edible staples. The tobacco grown on the Hyco and other plantations in that belt was manufactured at his own establishment, supplied his eastern laborers and those which wrought in the pine woods to the southward at the production of naval supplies. He had realized the dream of his own life and the aspiration of his father, the overseer, and had become one of the wealthiest men in the State. But he attended to all this himself. Every overseer knew that he was liable any day or night to receive a visit from the untiring owner of all this wealth, who would require an instant accounting for every bit of the property under his charge. Not only the presence and condition of every slave, mule, horse or other piece of stock must be accounted for, but the manner of its employment stated. He was an inflexible disciplinarian, who gave few orders, hated instructions, and only asked results. It was his custom to place an agent in charge of a business without directions, except to make it pay. His only care was to see that his property did not depreciate, and that the course adopted by the agent was one likely to produce good results. So long as this was the case he was satisfied. He never interfered, made no suggestions, found no fault. As soon as he became dissatisfied the agent was removed and another substituted. This was done without words or controversy, and it was a well-known rule that a man once discharged from such a trust could never enter his employ again. For an overseer to be dismissed by Colonel Desmit was to forfeit all chance for employment in that region, since it was looked upon as a certificate either of incapacity or untrustworthiness.

Colonel Desmit was especially careful in regard to his slaves. His father had early shown him that no branch of business was, or could be, half so profitable as the rearing of slaves for market.

“A healthy slave woman,” the thrifty father had been accustomed to say, “will yield a thousand per cent upon her value, while she needs less care and involves less risk than any other species of property.” The son, with a broader knowledge, had carried his father’s instructions to more accurate and scientific results. He found that the segregation of large numbers of slaves upon a single plantation was not favorable either to the most rapid multiplication or economy of sustenance. He had carefully determined the fact that plantations of moderate extent, upon the high, well-watered uplands of the Piedmont belt, were the most advantageous locations that could be found for the rearing of slaves. Such plantations, largely worked by female slaves, could be made to return a small profit on the entire investment, without at all taking into account the increase of the human stock. This was, therefore, so much added profit. From careful study and observation he had deduced a specific formulary by which he measured the rate of gain. With a well-selected force, two thirds of which should be females, he calculated that with proper care such plantations could be made to pay, year by year, an interest of five per cent on the first cost, and, in addition, double the value of the working force every eight years. This conclusion he had arrived at from scientific study of the rates of mortality and increase, and in settling upon it he had cautiously left a large margin for contingencies. He was not accustomed to talk about his business, but when questioned as to his uniform success and remarkable prosperity, always attributed it to a system which he had inexorably followed, and which had never failed to return to him at least twenty per cent. per annum upon every dollar he had invested.

So confident was he in regard to the success of this plan that he became a large but systematic borrower of money at the legal rate of six per cent, taking care that his maturing liabilities should, at no time, exceed a certain proportion of his available estate. By this means his wealth increased with marvelous rapidity.

The success of his system depended, however, entirely upon the care bestowed upon his slaves. They were never neglected. Though he had so many that of hundreds of them he did not know even the faces, he gave the closest attention to their hygienic condition, especially that of the women, who were encouraged by every means to bear children. It was a sure passport to favor with the master and the overseer: tasks were lightened; more abundant food provided; greater liberty enjoyed; and on the birth of a child a present of some sort was certain to be given the mother.

The one book which Colonel Desmit never permitted anybody else to keep or see was the register of his slaves. He had invented for himself an elaborate system by which in a moment he could ascertain every element of the value of each of his more than a thousand slaves at the date of his last visitation or report. When an overseer was put in charge of a plantation he was given a list of the slaves assigned to it, by name and number, and was required to report every month the condition of each slave during the month previous, as to health and temper, and also the labor in which the same had been employed each day. It was only as to the condition of the slaves that the owner gave explicit directions to his head-men. “Mighty few people know how to take care of a nigger,” he was wont to say; and as he made the race a study and looked to them for his profits, he was attentive to their condition.

Among the requirements of his system was one that each slave born upon his plantations should be named only by himself; and this was done only on personal inspection. Upon a visit to a plantation, therefore, one of his special duties always was to inspect, name, and register all slave children who had been born to his estate since his previous visitation.

It was in the summer of 1840 that a traveler drove into the grove in front of the house at Knapp-of-Reeds, in the middle of a June afternoon, and uttered the usual halloo. He was answered after a moment’s delay by a colored woman, who came out from the kitchen and exclaimed,

“Who’s dah?”

It was evident at once that visitors were not frequent at Knapp-of-Reeds.

“Where’s Mr. Ware?” asked the stranger.

“He’s done gone out in de new-ground terbacker, long wid de han’s,” answered the woman.

“Where is the new-ground this year?” repeated the questioner. “Jes’ down on the p’int ‘twixt de branch an’ de Hyco,” she replied.

“Anybody you can send for him?”

“Wal, thar mout be some shaver dat’s big enough to go, but Marse War’s dat keerful ter please Marse Desmit dat he takes ’em all outen de field afore dey can well toddle,” said the woman doubtfully.

“Well, come and take my horse,” said he, as he began to descend from his gig, “and send for Mr. Ware to come up at once.”

The woman came forward doubtfully and took the horse by the bit, while the traveler alighted. No sooner did he turn fully toward her than her face lighted up with a smile, and she said,

“Wal, dar, ef dat a’n’t Marse Desmit hisself, I do believe! How d’ye do, Mahs’r?” and the woman dropped a courtesy.

“I’m very well, thank ye, Lorency, an’ glad to see you looking so peart,” he responded pleasantly. “How’s Mr. Ware and the people? All well, I hope.”

“All tol’able, Mahs’r, thank ye.”

“Well, tie the horse, and get me some dinner, gal. I haven’t eaten since I left home.”

“La sakes!” said the woman in a tone of commiseration, though she had no idea whether it was twenty or forty miles he had driven since his breakfast.

The man who sat upon the porch and waited for the coming of Mr. Silas Ware, his overseer, was in the prime of life, of florid complexion, rugged habit, short stubbly hair–thick and bristling, that stood close and even on his round, heavy head from a little way above the beetling brows well down upon the bull-like neck which joined but hardly separated the massive head and herculean trunk. This hair, now almost white, had been a yellowish red, a hue which still showed in the eyebrows and in the stiff beard which was allowed to grow beneath the angle of his massive jaw, the rest of his face being clean shaven. The eyes were deep-sunk and of a clear, cold blue. His mouth broad, with firm, solid lips. Dogged resolution, unconquerable will, cold-blooded selfishness, and a keen hog-cunning showed in his face, while his short, stout form–massive but not fleshy–betrayed a capacity to endure fatigue which few men could rival.

“How d’ye, Mr. Ware?” he said as that worthy came striding in from the new-ground nervously chewing a mouthful of home-made twist, which he had replenished several times since leaving the field, without taking the precaution to provide stowage for the quantity he was taking aboard.

“How d’ye, Colonel?” said Ware uneasily.

“Reckon you hardly expected me to day?” continued Desmit, watching him closely. “No, I dare say not. They hardly ever do. Fact is, I rarely ever know myself long enough before to send word.”

He laughed heartily, for his propensity for dropping in unawares upon his agents was so well known that he enjoyed their confusion almost as much as he valued the surprise as a means of ascertaining their attention to his interests. Ware was one of his most trusted lieutenants, however, and everything that he had ever seen or heard satisfied him of the man’s faithfulness. So he made haste to relieve him from embarrassment, for the tall, awkward, shambling fellow was perfectly overwhelmed.

“It’s a long time since I’ve been to see you, Mr. Ware–almost a year. There’s mighty few men I’d let run a plantation that long without looking after them. Your reports have been very correct, and the returns of your work very satisfactory. I hope the stock and hands are in good condition?”

“I must say, Colonel Desmit,” responded Ware, gathering confidence, “though perhaps I oughtn’t ter say it myself, that I’ve never seen ’em lookin’ better. ‘Pears like everything hez been jest about ez favorable fer hands an’ stock ez one could wish. The spring’s work didn’t seem ter worry the stock a mite, an’ when the new feed come on there was plenty on’t, an’ the very best quality. So they shed off ez fine ez ever you see ennything in yer life, an’ hev jest been a doin’ the work in the crop without turnin’ a hair.”

“Glad to hear it, Mr. Ware,” said Desmit encouragingly.

“And the hands,” continued Ware, “have jest been in prime condition. We lost Horion, as I reported to you in–lemme see, February, I reckon–along o’ rheumatism which he done cotch a runnin’ away from that Navigation Company that you told me to send him to work for.”

“Yes, I know. You told him to come home if they took him into Virginia, as I directed, I suppose.”

“Certainly, sir,” said Ware; “an’ ez near ez I can learn they took him off way down below Weldon somewheres, an’ he lit out to come home jest at the time of the February ‘fresh.’ He had to steal his way afoot, and was might’ly used up when he got here, and died some little time afterward.”

“Yes. The company will have to pay a good price for him. Wasn’t a better nor sounder nigger on the river,” said Desmit.

“That ther warn’t,” replied Ware. “The rest has all been well. Lorency had a bad time over her baby, but she’s ’round again as peart as ever.” “So I see. And the crops?”

“The best I’ve ever seed sence I’ve been here, Colonel. Never had such a stand of terbacker, and the corn looks prime. Knapp-of-Reeds has been doin’ better ‘n’ better ever sence I’ve knowed it; but she’s jest outdoin’ herself this year.”

“Haven’t you got anything to drink, Ware?”

“I beg your _parding_, Colonel; I was that flustered I done forgot my manners altogether,” said Ware apologetically. “I hev got a drap of apple that they say is right good for this region, and a trifle of corn that ain’t nothing to brag on, though it does for the country right well.”

Ware set out the liquor with a bowl of sugar from his sideboard as he spoke, and called to the kitchen for a glass and water.

“That makes me think,” said Desmit. “Here, you Lorency, bring me that portmanty from the gig.”

When it was brought he unlocked it and took out a bottle, which he first held up to the light and gazed tenderly through, then drew the cork and smelled of its contents, shook his head knowingly, and then handed it to Ware, who went through the same performance very solemnly.

“Here, gal,” said Desmit sharply, “bring us another tumbler. Now, Mr. Ware,” said he unctuously when it had been brought, “allow me, sir, to offer you some brandy which is thirty-five years old–pure French brandy, sir. Put it in my portmanty specially for you, and like to have forgot it at the last. Just try it, man.”

Ware poured himself a dram, and swallowed it with a gravity which would have done honor to a more solemn occasion, after bowing low to his principal and saying earnestly, “Colonel, your very good health.”

“And now,” said Desmit, “have the hands and stock brought up while I eat my dinner, if you please. I have a smart bit of travel before me yet to-day.”

The overseer’s horn was at Ware’s lips in a moment, and before the master had finished his dinner every man, woman, and child on the plantation was in the yard, and every mule and horse was in the barn-lot ready to be brought out for his inspection.

The great man sat on the back porch, and, calling up the slaves one by one, addressed some remark to each, gave every elder a quarter and every youngster a dime, until he came to the women. The first of these was Lorency, the strapping cook, who had improved the time since her master’s coming to make herself gay with her newest gown and a flaming new turban. She came forward pertly, with a young babe upon her arm.

“Well, Lorency, Mr. Ware says you have made me a present since I was here?”

“Yah! yah! Marse Desmit, dat I hab! Jes’ de finest little nigger boy yer ebber sot eyes on. Jes’ you look at him now,” she continued, holding up her brighteyed pickaninny. “Ebber you see de beat ub dat? Reg’lar ten pound, an’ wuff two hundred dollars dis bressed minnit.”

“Is that it, Lorency?” said Desmit, pointing to the child. “Who ever saw such a thunder-cloud?”

There was a boisterous laugh at the master’s joke from the assembled crowd. Nothing abashed, the good-natured mother replied, with ready wit,

“Dat so, Marse Kunnel. He’s _brack_, he is. None ob yer bleached out yaller sort of coffee-cullud nigger ’bout _him_. De rale ole giniwine kind, dat a coal make a white mark on. Yah I yah! what yer gwine ter name him, Mahs’r? Gib him a good name, now, none o’ yer common mean ones, but jes’ der bes’ one yer got in yer book;” for Colonel Desmit was writing in a heavy clasped book which rested on a light stand beside him.

“What is it, Mahs’r?”

“Nimbus,” replied the master.

“Wh–what?” asked the mother. “Say dat agin’, won’t yer, Mahs’r?”

“Nimbus–_Nimbus_,” repeated Desmit.

“Wal, I swan ter gracious!” exclaimed the mother. “Ef dat don’t beat! H’yer! little–what’s yer name? Jes’ ax yer Mahs’r fer a silver dollar ter pay yer fer hevin’ ter tote dat er name ‘roun’ ez long ez yer lives.”

She held the child toward its godfather and owner as she spoke, amid a roar of laughter from her fellow-servants. Desmit good-naturedly threw a dollar into the child’s lap, for which Lorency courtesied, and then held out her hand.

“What do you want now, gal?” asked Desmit.

“Yer a’n’t a gwine ter take sech a present ez dis from a pore cullud gal an’ not so much ez giv’ her someting ter remember hit by, is yer?” she asked with arch persistency.

“There, there,” said he laughing, as he gave her another dollar. “Go on, or I shan’t have a cent left.”

“All right, Marse Kunnel. Thank ye, Mahs’r,” she said, as she walked off in triumph.

“Oh, hold on,” said Desmit; “how old is it, Lorency?”

“Jes’ sebben weeks ole dis bressed day, Mahs’r,” said the proud mother as she vanished into the kitchen to boast of her good-fortune in getting two silver dollars out of Marse Desmit instead of the one customarily given by him on such occasions. And so the record was made up in the brass-clasped book of Colonel Potestatem Desmit, the only baptismal register of the colored man who twenty-six years afterward was wondering at the names which were seeking him against his will.

_697–Nimbus–of Lorency–Male–April 24th, 1840–Sound–Knapp-of-Reeds._

It was a queer baptismal entry, but a slave needed no more–indeed did not need that. It was not given for his sake, but only for the convenience of his godfather should the chattel ever seek to run away, or should it become desirable to exchange him for some other form of value. There was nothing harsh or brutal or degraded about it. Mr. Desmit was doing, in a business way, what the law not only allowed but encouraged him to do, and doing it because it paid.



“Marse Desmit?”


“Ef yer please, Mahs’r, I wants ter marry?”

“The devil you do!”

“Yes, sah, if you please, sah.”

“What’s your name?”


“So: you’re the curer at Knapp-of-Reeds, I believe?”

“Yes, sah.” “That last crop was well done. Mr. Ware says you’re one of the best hands he has ever known.”

“Thank ye, Mahs’r,” with a bow and scrape.

“What’s the gal’s name?”

“Lugena, sah.”

“Yes, Vicey’s gal–smart gal, too. Well, as I’ve about concluded to keep you both–if you behave yourselves, that is, as well as you’ve been doing–I don’t know as there’s any reason why you shouldn’t take up with her.”

“Thank ye, Mahs’r,” very humbly, but very joyfully.

The speakers were the black baby whom Desmit had christened Nimbus, grown straight and strong, and just turning his first score on the scale of life, and Colonel Desmit, grown a little older, a little grayer, a little fuller, and a great deal richer–if only the small cloud of war just rising on the horizon would blow over and leave his possessions intact. He believed it would, but he was a wise man and a cautious one, and he did not mean to be caught napping if it did not.

Nimbus had come from Knapp-of-Reeds to a plantation twenty miles away, upon a pass from Mr. Ware, on the errand his conversation disclosed. He was a fine figure of a man despite his ebon hue, and the master, looking at him, very naturally noted his straight, strong back, square shoulders, full, round neck, and shapely, well-balanced head. His face was rather heavy–grave, it would have been called if he had been white–and his whole figure and appearance showed an earnest and thoughtful temperament. He was as far from that volatile type which, through the mimicry of burnt-cork minstrels and the exaggerations of caricaturists, as well as the works of less disinterested portrayers of the race, have come to represent the negro to the unfamiliar mind, as the typical Englishman is from the Punch-and-Judy figures which amuse him. The slave Nimbus in a white skin would have been considered a man of great physical power and endurance, earnest purpose, and quiet, self-reliant character. Such, in truth, he was. Except the whipping he had received when but a lad, by his master’s orders, no blow had ever been struck him. Indeed, blows were rarely stricken on the plantations of Colonel Desmit; for while he required work, obedience, and discipline, he also fed well and clothed warmly, and allowed no overseer to use the lash for his own gratification, or except for good cause. It was well known that nothing would more surely secure dismissal from his service than the free use of the whip. Not that he thought there was anything wrong or inhuman about the whipping-post, but it was entirely contrary to his policy. To keep a slave comfortable, healthy, and good-natured, according to Colonel Desmit’s notion, was to increase his value, and thereby add to his owner’s wealth. He knew that Nimbus was a very valuable slave. He had always been attentive to his tasks, was a prime favorite with his overseer, and had already acquired the reputation of being one of the most expert and trusty men that the whole region could furnish, for a tobacco crop. Every step in the process of growing and curing–from the preparation of the seed-bed to the burning of the coal-pit, and gauging the heat required in the mud-daubed barn for different kinds of leaf and in every stage of cure–was perfectly familiar to him, and he could always be trusted to see that it was properly and opportunely done. This fact, together with his quiet and contented disposition, added very greatly to his value. The master regarded him, therefore, with great satisfaction. He was willing to gratify him in any reasonable way, and so, after some rough jokes at his expense, wrote out his marriage-license in these words, in pencil, on the blank leaf of a notebook:

MR. WARE: Nimbus and Lugena want to take up with each other. You have a pretty full force now, but I have decided to keep them and sell some of the old ones–say Vicey and Lorency. Neither have had any children for several years, and are yet strong, healthy women, who will bring nearly as much as the girl Lugena. I shall make up a gang to go South in charge of Winburn next week. You may send them over to Louisburg on Monday. You had better give Nimbus the empty house near the tobacco-barn. We need a trusty man there. Respectfully, P. DESMIT.

So Nimbus went home happy, and on the Saturday night following, in accordance with this authority, with much mirth and clamor, and with the half-barbarous and half-Christian ceremony–which the law did not recognize; which bound neither parties, nor master nor stranger; which gave Nimbus no rights and Lugena no privileges; which neither sanctified the union nor protected its offspring–the slave “boy” and “gal” “took up with each other,” and began that farce which the victims of slavery were allowed to call “marriage.” The sole purpose of permitting it was to raise children. The offspring were sometimes called “families,” even in grave legal works; but there was no more of the family right of protection, duty of sustenance and care, or any other of the sacred elements which make the family a type of heaven, than attends the propagation of any other species of animate property. When its purpose had been served, the voice of the master effected instant divorce. So, on the Monday morning thereafter the mothers of the so-called bride and groom, widowed by the inexorable demands of the master’s interests, left husband and children, and those fair fields which represented all that they knew of the paradise which we call home, and with tears and groans started for that living tomb, the ever-devouring and insatiable “far South.”



LOUISBURG, January 10, 1864.


DEAR SIR: In ten days I have to furnish twenty hands to work on fortifications for the Confederate Government. I have tried every plan I could devise to avoid doing so, but can put it off no longer. I anticipated this long ago, and exchanged all the men I could possibly spare for women, thinking that would relieve me, but it makes no difference. They apportion the levy upon the number of slaves. I shall have to furnish more pretty soon. The trouble is to know who to send. I am afraid every devil of them will run away, but have concluded that if I send Nimbus as a sort of headman of the gang, he may be able to bring them through. He is a very faithful fellow, with none of the fool-notions niggers sometimes get, I think. In fact, he is too dull to have such notions. At the same time he has a good deal of influence over the others. If you agree with this idea, send him to me at once. Respectfully, P. DESMIT.

In accordance with this order Nimbus was sent on to have another interview with his master. The latter’s wishes were explained, and he was asked if he could fulfil them. “Dunno,” he answered stolidly.

“Are you willing to try?”

“S’pect I hev ter, ennyhow, ef yer say so.”

“Now, Nimbus, haven’t I always been a good master to you?” reproachfully.

No answer.

“Haven’t I been kind to you always?”

“Yer made Marse War’ gib me twenty licks once.”

“Well, weren’t you saucy, Nimbus? Wouldn’t you have done that to a nigger that called you a ‘grand rascal’ to your face?”

“S’pecs I would, Mahs’r.”

“Of course you would. You know that very well. You’ve too much sense to remember that against me now. Besides, if you are not willing to do this I shall have to sell you South to keep you out of the hands of the Yanks.”

Mr, Desmit knew how to manage “niggers,” and full well understood the terrors of being “sold South.” He saw his advantage in the flush of apprehension which, before he had ceased speaking, made the jetty face before him absolutely ashen with terror.

“Don’t do dat, Marse Desmit, ef _you_ please! Don’t do dat er wid Nimbus! Mind now, Mahs’r, I’se got a wife an’ babies.”

“So you have, and I know you don’t want to leave them.”

“No more I don’t, Mahs’r,” earnestly.

“And you need not if you’ll do as I want you to. See here, Nimbus, if you’ll do this I will promise that you and your family never shall be separated, and I’ll give you fifty dollars now and a hundred dollars when you come back, if you’ll just keep those other fool-niggers from trying–mind’ I say _trying_–to run away and so getting shot. There’s no such thing as getting to the Yankees, and it would be a heap worse for them if they did, but you know they _are_ such fools they might try it and get killed–which would serve them right, only I should have to bear the loss.”

“All right, Mahs’r, I do the best I can,” said Nimbus.

“That’s right,” said the master.

“Here are fifty dollars,” and he handed him a Confederate bill of that denomination (gold value at that time, $3.21).

Mr. Desmit did not feel entirely satisfied when Nimbus and his twenty fellow-servants went off upon the train to work for the Confederacy. However, he had done all he could except to warn the guards to be very careful, which he did not neglect to do.

Just forty days afterward a ragged, splashed and torn young ebony Samson lifted the flap of a Federal officer’s tent upon one of the coast islands, stole silently in, and when he saw the officer’s eyes fixed upon him. asked,

“Want ary boy, Mahs’r?”

The tone, as well as the form of speech, showed a new-comer. The officer knew that none of the colored men who had been upon the island any length of time would have ventured into his presence unannounced, or have made such an inquiry.

“Where did you come from?” he asked.

“Ober to der mainlan’,” was the composed answer.

“How did you get here?”

“Come in a boat.”

“Run away?”

“S’pose so.”

“Where did you live?”

“Up de kentry–Horsford County.”

“How did you come down here?” “Ben wukkin’ on de bres’wuks.”

“The dickens you have!”

“Yes, sah.”

“How did you get a boat, then?”

“Jes’ tuk it–dry so.”

“Anybody with you?”

“No, Mahs’r.”

“And you came across the Sound alone in an open boat?”

“Yes, Mahs’r; an’ fru’ de swamp widout any boat.”

“I should say so,” laughed the officer, glancing at his clothes. “What did you come here for?”


“Didn’t they tell you you’d be worse off with the Yankees than you were with them?”

“Yes, sah.”

“Didn’t you believe them?”

“Dunno, sah.”

“What do you want to do?”


“Fight the rebs?”

“Wal, I kin du it.”

“What’s your name?”


“Nimbus? Good name–ha! ha: what else?”

“Nuffin’ else.”

“Nothing else? What was your old master’s name?”

“Desmit–Potem Desmit.”

“Well, then, that’s yours, ain’t it–your surname–Nimbus Desmit?”

“Reckon not, Mahs’r.”

“No? Why not?”

“Same reason his name ain’t Nimbus, I s’pose.”

“Well,” said the officer, laughing, “there may be something in that; but a soldier must have two names. Suppose I call you George Nimbus?”

“Yer kin call me jes’ what yer choose, sah; but my name’s Nimbus all the same. No Gawge Nimbus, nor ennything Nimbus, nor Nimbus ennything–jes’ Nimbus; so. Nigger got no use fer two names, nohow.”

The officer, perceiving that it was useless to argue the matter further, added his name to the muster-roll of a regiment, and he was duly sworn into the service of the United States as George Nimbus, of Company C, of the—Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and was counted one of the quota which the town of Great Barringham, in the valley of the Housatuck, was required to furnish to complete the pending call for troops to put down rebellion. By virtue of this fact, the said George Nimbus became entitled to the sum of four hundred dollars bounty money offered by said town to such as should give themselves to complete its quota of “the boys in blue,” in addition to his pay and bounty from the Government. So, if it forced on him a new name, the service of freedom was not altogether without compensatory advantages.

Thus the slave Nimbus was transformed into the “contraband” George Nimbus, and became not only a soldier of fortune, but also the representative of a patriotic citizen of Great Barringham, who served his country by proxy, in the person of said contraband, faithfully and well until the end of the war, when the South fell–stricken at last most fatally by the dark hands which she had manacled, and overcome by their aid whose manhood she had refused to acknowledge.



The first step in the progress from the prison-house of bondage to the citadel of liberty was a strange one. The war was over. The struggle for autonomy and the inviolability of slavery, on the part of the South, was ended, and fate had decided against them. With this arbitrament of war fell also the institution which had been its cause. Slavery was abolished–by proclamation, by national enactment, by constitutional amendment–ay, by the sterner logic which forbade a nation to place shackles again upon hands which had been raised in her defence, which had fought for her life and at her request. So the slave was a slave no more. No other man could claim his service or restrain his volition. He might go or come, work or play, so far as his late master was concerned.

But that was all. He could not contract, testify, marry or give in marriage. He had neither property, knowledge, right, or power. The whole four millions did not possess that number of dollars or of dollars’ worth. Whatever they had acquired in slavery was the master’s, unless he had expressly made himself a trustee for their benefit. Regarded from the legal standpoint it was, indeed, a strange position in which they were. A race despised, degraded, penniless, ignorant, houseless, homeless, fatherless, childless, nameless. Husband or wife there was not one in four millions. Not a child might call upon a father for aid, and no man of them all might lift his hand in a daughter’s defence. Uncle and aunt and cousin, home, family–none of these words had any place in the freedman’s vocabulary. Right he had, in the abstract; in the concrete, none. Justice would not hear his voice. The law was still color-blinded by the past.

The fruit of slavery–its first ripe harvest, gathered with swords and bloody bayonets, was before the nation which looked ignorantly on the fruits of the deliverance it had wrought. The North did not comprehend its work; the South could not comprehend its fate. The unbound slave looked to the future in dull, wondering hope.

The first step in advance was taken neither by the nation nor by the freedmen. It was prompted by the voice of conscience, long hushed and hidden in the master’s breast. It was the protest of Christianity and morality against that which it had witnessed with complacency for many a generation. All at once it was perceived to be a great enormity that four millions of Christian people, in a Christian land, should dwell together without marriage rite or family tie. While they were slaves, the fact that they might be bought and sold had hidden this evil from the eye of morality, which had looked unabashed upon the unlicensed freedom of the quarters and the enormities of the barracoon. Now all at once it was shocked beyond expression at the domestic relations of the freedmen.

So they made haste in the first legislative assemblies that met in the various States, after the turmoil of war had ceased, to provide and enact:

I. That all those who had sustained to each other the relation of husband and wife in the days of slavery, might, upon application to an officer named in each county, be registered as such husband and wife.

2. That all who did not so register within a certain time should be liable to indictment, if the relation continued thereafter.

3. That the effect of such registration should be to constitute such parties husband and wife, as of the date of their first assumption of marital relations.

4. That for every such couple registered the officer should be entitled to receive the sum of one half-dollar from the parties registered.

There was a grim humor about this marriage of a race by wholesale, millions at a time, and _nunc pro tunc;_ but especially quaint was the idea of requiring each freed-man, who had just been torn, as it were naked, from the master’s arms, to pay a snug fee for the simple privilege of entering upon that relation which the law had rigorously withheld from him until that moment. It was a strange remedy for a long-hidden and stubbornly denied disease, and many strange scenes were enacted in accordance with the provisions of this statute. Many an aged couple, whose children had been lost in the obscure abysses of slavery, or had gone before them into the spirit land, old and feeble and gray-haired, wrought with patience day after day to earn at once their living and the money for this fee, and when they had procured it walked a score of miles in order that they might be “registered,” and, for the brief period that remained to them of life, know that the law had sanctioned the relation which years of love and suffering had sanctified. It was the first act of freedom, the first step of legal recognition or manly responsibility! It was a proud hour and a proud fact for the race which had so long been bowed in thralldom and forbidden even the most common though the holiest of God’s ordinances. What the law had taken little by little, as the science of Christian slavery grew up under the brutality of our legal progress, the law returned in bulk. It was the first seal which was put on the slave’s manhood–the first step upward from the brutishness of another’s possession to the glory of independence. The race felt its importance as did no one else at that time. By hundreds and thousands they crowded the places appointed, to accept the honor offered to their posterity, and thereby unwittingly conferred undying honor upon themselves. Few indeed were the unworthy ones who evaded the sacred responsibility thus laid upon them, and left their offspring to remain under the badge of shame. When carefully looked at it was but a scant cure, and threw the responsibility of illegitimacy where it did not belong, but it was a mighty step nevertheless. The distance from zero to unity is always infinity.

The county clerk in and for the county of Horsford sat behind the low wooden railing which he had been compelled to put across his office to protect him from the too near approach of those who crowded to this fountain of rehabilitating honor that had recently been opened therein. Unused to anything beyond the plantation on which they had been reared, the temple of justice was as strange to their feet, and the ways and forms of ordinary business as marvelous to their minds as the etiquette of the king’s palace to a peasant who has only looked from afar upon its pinnacled roof. The recent statute had imposed upon the clerk a labor of no little difficulty because of this very ignorance on the part of those whom he was required to serve; but he was well rewarded. The clerk was a man of portly presence, given to his ease, who smoked a long-stemmed pipe as he sat beside a table which, in addition to his papers and writing materials, held a bucket of water on which floated a clean gourd, in easy reach of his hand.

“Be you the clerk, sail?” said a straight young colored man, whose clothing had a hint of the soldier in it, as well as his respectful but unusually collected bearing.

“Yes,” said the clerk, just glancing up, but not intermitting his work; “what do you want?”

“If you please, sah, we wants to be married, Lugena and me.”

“_Registered_, you mean, I suppose?”

“No, we don’t, sah; we means _married_.”

“I can’t marry you. You’ll have to get a license and be married by a magistrate or a minister.”

“But I heard der was a law—“

“Have you been living together as man and wife?”

“Oh, yes, sah; dat we hab, dis smart while.”

“Then you want to be registered. This is the place. Got a half-dollar?”

“Yes, sah?”

“Let’s have it.”

The colored man took out some bills, and with much difficulty endeavored to make a selection; finally, handing one doubtfully toward the clerk, he asked,

“Is dat a one-dollah, sah?”

“No, that is a five, but I can change it.”

“No, I’se got it h’yer,” said the other hastily, as he dove again into his pockets, brought out some pieces of fractional currency and handed them one by one to the officer until he said he had enough.

“Well,” said the clerk as he took up his pen and prepared to fill out the blank, “what is your name?”

“My name’s Nimbus, sah.”

“Nimbus what?”

“Nimbus nuffin’, sah; jes’ Nimbus.” “But you must have another name?”

“No I hain’t. Jes’ wore dat fer twenty-odd years, an’ nebber hed no udder.”

“Who do you work for?”

“Wuk for myself, sah.”

“Well, on whose land do you work?”

“Wuks on my own, sah. Oh, I libs at home an’ boa’ds at de same place, I does. An’ my name’s Nimbus, jes’ straight along, widout any tail ner handle.”

“What was your old master’s name?”

“Desmit–Colonel Potem Desmit.”

“I might have known that,” said the clerk laughingly, “from the durned outlandish name. Well, Desmit is your surname, then, ain’t it?”

“No’taint, Mister. What right I got ter his name? He nebber gib it ter me no more’n he did ter you er Lugena h’yer.”

“Pshaw, I can’t stop to argue with you. Here’s your certificate.”

“Will you please read it, sah? I hain’t got no larnin’. Ef you please, sah.”

The clerk, knowing it to be the quickest way to get rid of them, read rapidly over the certificate that Nimbus and Lugena Desmit had been duly registered as husband and wife, under the provisions of an ordinance of the Convention ratified on the—day of—, 1865.

“So you’s done put in dat name–Desmit?”

“Oh, I just had to, Nimbus. The fact is, a man can’t be married according to law without two names.”

“So hit appears; but ain’t it quare dat I should hev ole Mahs’r’s name widout his gibbin’ it ter me, ner my axin’ fer it, Mister?”

“It may be, but that’s the way, you see.”

“So hit seems. ‘Pears like I’m boun’ ter hev mo’ names ‘n I knows what ter do wid, jes’ kase I’s free. But de chillen–yer hain’t sed nary word about dem, Mister.”

“Oh, I’ve nothing to do with them.”

“But, see h’yer, Mister, ain’t de law a doin dis ter make dem lawful chillen?”


“An’ how’s de law ter know which is de lawful chillen ef hit ain’t on dat ar paper?”

“Sure enough,” said the clerk, with amusement. “That would have been a good idea, but, you see, Nimbus, the law didn’t go that far.”

“Wal, hit ought ter hev gone dat fur. Now, Mister Clerk, couldn’t you jes’ put dat on dis yer paper, jes’ ter “commodate me, yer know.”

“Perhaps so,” good-naturedly, taking back the certificate; “what do you want me to write?”

“Wal, yer see, dese yer is our chillen. Dis yer boy Lone–Axylone, Marse Desmit called him, but we calls him Lone for short–he’s gwine on fo’; dis yer gal Wicey, she’s two past; and dis little brack cuss Lugena’s a-holdin’ on, we call Cap’n, kase he bosses all on us–he’s nigh ’bout a year; an’ dat’s all.”

The clerk entered the names and ages of the children on the back of the paper, with a short certificate that they were present, and were acknowledged as the children, and the only ones, of the parties named in the instrument.

And so the slave Nimbus was transformed, first into the “contraband” and mercenary soldier _George Nimbus_, and then by marriage into _Nimbus Desmit_.



But the transformations of the slave were not yet ended. The time came when he was permitted to become a citizen. For two years he had led an inchoate, nondescript sort of existence: free without power or right; neither slave nor freeman; neither property nor citizen. He had been, meanwhile, a bone of contention between the Provisional Governments of the States and the military power which controlled them. The so-called State Governments dragged him toward the whipping-post and the Black Codes and serfdom. They denied him his oath, fastened him to the land, compelled him to hire by the year, required the respectfulness of the old slave “Mahs’r” and “Missus,” made his employer liable for his taxes, and allowed recoupment therefor; limited his avocations and restricted his opportunities. These would substitute serfdom for chattelism.

On the other hand the Freedman’s Bureau acted as his guardian and friend, looked after his interests in contracts, prohibited the law’s barbarity, and insisted stubbornly that the freedman was a man, and must be treated as such. It needed only the robe of citizenship, it was thought, to enable him safely to dispense with the one of these agencies and defy the other. So the negro was transformed into a citizen, a voter, a political factor, by act of Congress, with the aid and assistance of the military power.

A great crowd had gathered at the little town of Melton, which was one of the chief places of the county of Horsford, for the people had been duly notified by official advertisement that on this day the board of registration appointed by the commander of the military district in which Horsford County was situated would convene there, to take and record the names, and pass upon the qualifications, of all who desired to become voters of the new body politic which was to be erected therein, or of the old one which was to be reconstructed and rehabilitated out of the ruins which war had left.

The first provision of the law was that every member of such board of registration should be able to take what was known in those days as the “iron-clad oath,” that is, an oath that he had never engaged in, aided, or abetted any rebellion against the Government of the United States. Men who could do this were exceedingly difficult to find in some sections. Of course there were abundance of colored men who could take this oath, but not one in a thousand of them could read or write. The military commander determined, however, to select in every registration district one of the most intelligent of this class, in order that he might look after the interests of his race, now for the first time to take part in any public or political movement. This would greatly increase the labors of the other members of the board, yet was thought not only just but necessary. As the labor of recording the voters of a county was no light one, especially as the lists had to be made out in triplicate, it was necessary to have some clerical ability on the board. These facts often made the composition of these boards somewhat heterogeneous and peculiar. The one which was to register the voters of Horsford consisted of a little old white man, who had not enough of stamina or character to have done or said anything in aid of rebellion, and who, if he had done the very best he knew, ought yet to have been held guiltless of evil accomplished. In his younger days he had been an overseer, but in his later years had risen to the dignity of a landowner and the possession of one or two slaves. He wrestled with the mysteries of the printed page with a sad seriousness which made one regret his inability to remember what was at the top until he had arrived at the bottom. Writing was a still more solemn business with him, but he was a brave man and would cheerfully undertake to transcribe a list of names, which he well knew that anything less than eternity would be too short to allow him to complete. He was a small, thin-haired, squeaky-voiced bachelor of fifty, and as full of good intentions as the road to perdition. If Tommy Glass ever did any evil it would not only be without intent but from sheer accident.

With Tommy was associated an old colored man, one of those known in that region as “old-issue free-niggers.” Old Pharaoh Ray was a venerable man. He had learned to read before the Constitution of 1835 deprived the free-negro of his vote, and had read a little since. He wore an amazing pair of brass-mounted spectacles. His head was surmounted by a mass of snowy hair, and he was of erect and powerful figure despite the fact that he boasted a life of more than eighty years. He read about as fast and committed to memory more easily than his white associate, Glass. In writing they were about a match; Pharaoh wrote his name much more legibly than Glass could, but Glass accomplished the task in about three fourths of the time required by Pharaoh.

The third member of the board was Captain Theron Pardee, a young man who had served in the Federal army and afterward settled in an adjoining county. He was the chairman. He did the writing, questioning, and deciding, and as each voter had to be sworn he utilized his two associates by requiring them to administer the oaths and–look wise. The colored man in about two weeks learned these oaths so that he could repeat them. The white man did not commit the brief formulas in the four weeks they were on duty.

The good people of Melton were greatly outraged that this composite board should presume to come and pass upon the qualifications of its people as voters under the act of Congress, and indeed it was a most ludicrous affair. The more they contemplated the outrage that was being done to them, by decreeing that none should vote who had once taken an oath to support the Government of the United States and afterward aided the rebellion, the angrier they grew, until finally they declared that the registration should not be held. Then there were some sharp words between the ex-Federal soldier and the objectors. As no house could be procured for the purpose, he proposed to hold the registration on the porch of the hotel where he stopped, but the landlord objected. Then he proposed to hold it on the sidewalk under a big tree, but the town authorities declared against it. However, he was proceeding there, when an influential citizen kindly came forward and offered the use of certain property under his control. There was some clamor, but the gentleman did not flinch. Thither they adjourned, and the work went busily on. Among others who came to be enrolled as citizens was our old friend Nimbus.

“Where do you live?” asked the late Northern soldier sharply, as Nimbus came up in. his turn in the long line of those waiting for the same purpose.

“Down ter Red Wing, sah?”

“Where’s that?”

“Oh, right down h’yer on Hyco, sah.”

“In this county?”

“Oh, bless yer, yes, Mister, should tink hit was. Hit’s not above five or six miles out from h’yer.”

“How old are you?”

“Wal, now, I don’t know dat, not edzactly.”

“How old do you think–twenty-one?”

“Oh, la, yes; more nor dat, Cap’.”

“Born where?”

“Right h’yer in Horsford, sah.”

“What is your name?”


“Nimbus what?” asked the officer, looking up.

“Nimbus nothin’, sah; jes’ straight along Nimbus.”

“Well, but–” said the officer, looking puzzled, “you must have some sort of surname.”

“No, sah, jes’ one; nigger no use for two names.”

“Yah! yah! yah!” echoed the dusky crowd behind him. “You’s jes’ right dah, you is! Niggah mighty little use fer heap o’ names. Jes’ like a mule–one name does him, an’ mighty well off ef he’s ‘lowed ter keep dat.”

“His name’s Desmit,” said a white man, the sheriff of the county, who stood leaning over the railing; “used to belong to old Potem Desmit, over to Louisburg. Mighty good nigger, too. I s’pec’ ole man Desmit felt about as bad at losing him as ary one he had.”

“Powerful good hand in terbacker,” said Mr. Glass, who was himself an expert in “yaller leaf.” “Ther’ wasn’t no better ennywhar’ round.”

“I knows all about him,” said another. “Seed a man offer old Desmit eighteen hundred dollars for him afore the war–State money–but he wouldn’t tech it. Reckon he wishes he had now.”

“Yes,” said the sheriff, “he’s the best curer in the county. Commands almost any price in the season, but is powerful independent, and gittin’ right sassy. Listen at him now?”

“They say your name is Desmit–Nimbus Desmit,” said the officer; “is that so?”

“No, tain’t.”

“Wasn’t that your old master’s name?” asked the sheriff roughly.

“Co’se it war,” was the reply.

“Well, then, ain’t it yours too?”

“No, it ain’t.”

“Well, you just ask the gentleman if that ain’t so,” said the sheriff, motioning to the chairman of the board.

“Well,” said that officer, with a peculiar smile, “I do not know that there is any law compelling a freedman to adopt his former master’s name. He is without name in the law, a pure _nullius filius_–nobody’s son. As a slave he had but one name. He _could_ have no surname, because he had no family. He was arraigned, tried, and executed as ‘Jim’ or ‘Bill’ or ‘Tom.’ The volumes of the reports are full of such cases, as The State _vs._ ‘Dick’ or ‘Sam.’ The Roman custom was for the freedman to take the name of some friend, benefactor, or patron. I do not see why the American freedman has not a right to choose his own surname.”

“That is not the custom here,” said the sheriff, with some chagrin, he having begun the controversy.

“Very true,” replied the chairman; “the custom–and a very proper and almost necessary one it seems–is to call the freedman by a former master’s name. This distinguishes individuals. But when the freedman refuses to acknowledge the master’s name as his, who can impose it on him? We are directed to register the names of parties, and while we might have the right to refuse one whom we found attempting to register under a false name, yet we have no power to make names for those applying. Indeed, if this man insists that he has but one name, we must, for what I can see, register him by that alone.”

His associates looked wise, and nodded acquiescence in the views thus expressed.

“Den dat’s what I chuse,” said the would-be voter. “My name’s Nimbus–noffin’ mo’.”

“But I should advise you to take another name to save trouble when you come to vote,” said the chairman. His associates nodded solemnly again.

“Wal, now, Marse Cap’n, you jes’ see h’yer. I don’t want ter carry nobody’s name widout his leave. S’pose I take ole Marse War’s name ober dar?”

“You can take any one you choose. I shall write down the one you give me.”

“Is you willin’, Marse War’?”

“I’ve nothing to do with it, Nimbus,” said Ware; “fix your own name.”

“Wal sah,” said Nimbus, “I reckon I’ll take dat ef I must hev enny mo’ name. Yer see he wuz my ole oberseer, Mahs’r, an’ wuz powerful good ter me, tu. I’d a heap ruther hev his name than Marse Desmit’s; but I don’t _want_ no name but Nimbus, nohow.

“All right,” said the chairman, as he made the entry. “Ware it is then.”

As there might be a poll held at Red Wing, where Nimbus lived, he was given a certificate showing that _Nimbus Ware_ had been duly registered as an elector of the county of Horsford and for the precinct of Red Wing.

Then the newly-named Nimbus was solemnly sworn by the patriarchal Pharaoh to bear true faith and allegiance to the government of the United States, and to uphold its constitution and the laws passed in conformity therewith; and thereby the recent slave became a component factor of the national life, a full-fledged citizen of the American Republic.

As he passed out, the sheriff said to those about him, in a low tone,

“There’ll be trouble with that nigger yet. He’s too sassy. You’ll see.”

“How so?” asked the chairman. “I thought you said he was industrious, thrifty, and honest.”

“Oh, yes,” was the reply, “there ain’t a nigger in the county got a better character for honesty and hard work than he, but he’s too important–has got the big head, as we call it.”

“I don’t understand what you mean,” said the chairman.

“Why he ain’t respectful,” said the other. “Talks as independent as if he was a white man.”

“Well, he has as much right to talk independently as a white man. He is just as free,” said the chairman sharply.

“Yes; but he ain’t white,” said the sheriff doggedly, “and our people won’t stand a nigger’s puttin’ on such airs. Why, Captain,” he continued in a tone which showed that he felt that the fact he was about to announce must carry conviction even to the incredulous heart of the Yankee officer. “You just ought to see his place down at Red Wing. Damned if he ain’t better fixed up than lots of white men in the county. He’s got a good house, and a terbacker-barn, and a church, and a nigger school-house, and stock, and one of the finest crops of terbacker in the county. Oh, I tell you, he’s cutting a wide swath, he is.” “You don’t tell me,” said the chairman with interest. “I am glad to hear it. There appears to be good stuff in the fellow. He seems to have his own ideas about things, too.”

“Yes, that’s the trouble,” responded the sheriff. “Our people ain’t used to that and won’t stand it. He’s putting on altogether too much style for a nigger.”

“Pshaw,” said the chairman, “if there were more like him it would be better for everybody. A man like him is worth something for an example. If all the race were of his stamp there would be more hope.”

“The devil!” returned the sheriff, with a sneering laugh, “if they were all like him, a white man couldn’t live in the country. They’d be so damned sassy and important that we’d have to kill the last one of ’em to have any peace.”

“Fie, sheriff,” laughed the chairman good-naturedly; “you seem to be vexed at the poor fellow for his thrift, and because he is doing well.”

“I am a white man, sir; and I don’t like to see niggers gittin’ above us. Them’s my sentiments,” was the reply. “And that’s the way our people feel.”

There was a half-suppressed murmur of applause among the group of white men at this. The chairman responded,

“No doubt, and yet I believe you are wrong. Now, I can’t help liking the fellow for his sturdy manhood. He may be a trifle too positive, but it is a good fault. I think he has the elements of a good citizen, and I can’t understand why you feel so toward him.”

There were some appreciative and good-natured cries of “Dar now,” “Listen at him,” “Now you’re talkin’,” from the colored men at this reply.

“Oh, that’s because you’re a Yankee,” said the sheriff, with commiserating scorn. “You don’t think, now, that it’s any harm to talk that way before niggers and set them against the white people either, I suppose?”

The chairman burst into a hearty laugh, as he replied,

“No, indeed, I don’t. If you call that setting the blacks against the whites, the sooner they are by the ears the better. If you are so thin-skinned that you can’t allow a colored man to think, talk, act, and prosper like a man, the sooner you get over your squeamishness the better. For me, I am interested in this Nimbus. We have to go to Red Wing and report on it as a place for holding a poll and I am bound to see more of him.”

“Oh, you’ll see enough of him if you go there, never fear,” was the reply.

There was a laugh from the white men about the sheriff, a sort of cheer from the colored men in waiting, and the business of the board went on without further reference to the new-made citizen.

The slave who had been transformed into a “contraband” and mustered as a soldier under one name, married under another, and now enfranchised under a third, returned to his home to meditate upon his transformations–as we found him doing in our first chapter.

The reason for these metamorphoses, and their consequences, might well puzzle a wiser head than that of the many-named but unlettered Nimbus.



After his soliloquy in regard to his numerous names, as given in our first chapter, Nimbus turned away from the gate near which he had been standing, crossed the yard in front of his house, and entered a small cabin which stood near it.

“Dar! ‘Liab,” he said, as he entered and handed the paper which he had been examining to the person addressed, “I reckon I’se free now. I feel ez ef I wuz ’bout half free, ennyhow. I wuz a sojer, an’ fought fer freedom. I’ve got my house an’ bit o’ lan’, wife, chillen, crap, an’ stock, an’ it’s all mine. An’ now I’se done been registered, an’ when de ‘lection comes off, kin vote jes’ ez hard an’ ez well an’ ez often ez ole Marse Desmit. I hain’t felt free afore–leastways I hain’t felt right certain on’t; but now I reckon I’se all right, fact an’ truth. What you tinks on’t, ‘Liab?”

The person addressed was sitting on a low seat under the one window which was cut into the west side of the snugly-built log cabin. The heavy wooden shutter swung back over the bench. On the other side of the room was a low cot, and a single splint-bottomed chair stood against the open door. The house contained no other furniture.

The bench which he occupied was a queer compound of table, desk, and work-bench. It had the leathern seat of a shoemaker’s bench, except that it was larger and wider. As the occupant sat with his back to the window, on his left were the shallow boxes of a shoemaker’s bench, and along its edge the awls and other tools of that craft were stuck in leather loops secured by tacks, as is the custom of the crispin the world over. On the right was a table whose edge was several inches above the seat, and on which were some books, writing materials, a slate, a bundle of letters tied together with a piece of shoe-thread, and some newspapers and pamphlets scattered about in a manner which showed at a glance that the owner was unaccustomed to their care, but which is yet quite indescribable. On the wall above this table, but within easy reach of the sitter’s hand, hung a couple of narrow hanging shelves, on which a few books were neatly arranged. One lay open on the table, with a shoemaker’s last placed across it to prevent its closing.

Eliab was already busily engaged in reading the certificate which Nimbus had given him. The sun, now near its setting, shone in at the open door and fell upon him as he read. He was a man apparently about the age of Nimbus–younger rather than older–having a fine countenance, almost white, but with just enough of brown in its sallow paleness to suggest the idea of colored blood, in a region where all degrees of admixture were by no means rare. A splendid head of black hair waved above his broad, full forehead, and an intensely black silky beard and mustache framed the lower portion of his face most fittingly. His eyes were soft and womanly, though there was a patient boldness about their great brown pupils and a directness of gaze which suited well the bearded face beneath. The lines of suffering were deeply cut upon the thoughtful brow and around the liquid eyes, and showed in the mobile workings of the broad mouth, half shaded by the dark mustache. The face was not a handsome one, but there was a serious and earnest calmness about it which gave it an unmistakable nobility of expression and prompted one to look more closely at the man and his surroundings.

The shoulders were broad and square, the chest was full, the figure erect, and the head finely poised. He was dressed with unusual neatness for one of his race and surroundings, at the time of which we write. One comprehended at a glance that this worker and learner was also deformed. There was that in his surroundings which showed that he was not as other men. The individuality of weakness and suffering had left its indelible stamp upon the habitation which he occupied. Yet so erect and self-helping in appearance was the figure on the cobbler’s bench that one for a moment failed to note in what the affliction consisted. Upon closer observation he saw that the lower limbs were sharply flexed and drawn to the leftward, so that the right foot rested on its side under the left thigh. This inclined the body somewhat to the right, so that the right arm rested naturally upon the table for support when not employed. These limbs, especially below the knees, were shrunken and distorted. The shoe of the right foot whose upturned sole rested on the left leg just above the ankle, was many sizes too small for a development harmonious with the trunk.

Nimbus sat down in the splint-bottomed chair by the door and fanned himself with his dingy hat while the other read.

“How is dis, Nimbus? What does dis mean? _Nimbus Ware?_ Where did you get dat name?” he asked at length, raising his eyes and looking in pained surprise toward the new voter.

“Now, Bre’er ‘Liab, don’t talk dat ‘ere way ter Nimbus, ef yo please. Don’t do it now. Yer knows I can’t help it. Ebberybody want ter call me by ole Mahs’r’s name, an’ dat I can’t abide nohow; an’ when I kicks ’bout it, dey jes gib me some odder one, Dey all seems ter tink I’se boun’ ter hev two names, though I hain’t got no manner o’ right ter but one.”

“But how did you come to have dis one–Ware?” persisted Eliab.

“Wal, you see, Bre’er ‘Liab, de boss man at der registerin’ he ax me fer my las’ name, an’ I tell him I hadn’t got none, jes so. Den Sheriff Gleason, he put in his oar, jes ez he allus does, an’ he say my name wuz _Desmit,_ atter ole Mahs’r. Dat made me mad, an’ I ‘spute him, an’ sez I, ‘I won’t hev no sech name’. Den de boss man, he shet up Marse Gleason purty smart like, and _he_ sed I’d a right ter enny name I chose ter carry, kase nobody hadn’t enny sort o’ right ter fasten enny name at all on ter me ‘cept myself. But he sed I’d better hev two, kase most other folks hed ’em. So I axed Marse Si War’ ef he’d lend me his name jes fer de ‘casion, yer know, an’ he sed he hadn’t no ‘jection ter it. So I tole der boss man ter put it down, an’ I reckon dar ’tis.”

“Yes, here it is, sure ‘nough, Nimbus; but didn’t you promise me you wouldn’t have so many names?”

“Co’se I did; an’ I did try, but they all ‘llowed I got ter have two names whe’er er no.”

“Then why didn’t you take your old mahs’r’s name, like de rest, and not have all dis trouble?”

“Now, ‘Liab, yer knows thet I won’t nebber do dat.”

“But why not, Nimbus?”

“Kase I ain’t a-gwine ter brand my chillen wid no sech slave-mark! Nebber! You hear dat, ‘Liab? I hain’t got no ill-will gin Marse Desmit, not a mite–only ’bout dat ar lickin, an’ dat ain’t nuffin now; but I ain’t gwine ter war his name ner giv it ter my chillen ter mind ’em dat der daddy wuz jes anudder man’s critter one time. I tell you I can’t do hit, nohow; an’ I _won’t,_ Bre’er ‘Liab. I don’t hate Marse Desmit, but I does hate slavery–dat what made me his–worse’n a pilot hates a rattlesnake; an’ I hate everyting dat ‘minds me on’t, I do!”

The black Samson had risen in his excitement and now sat down upon the bench by the other.

“I don’t blame you for dat, Nimbus, but–“

“I don’t want to heah no ‘buts’ ’bout it, an’ I won’t.”

“But the chillen, Nimbus. You don’t want dem to be different from others and have no surname?”

“Dat’s a fac’, ‘Liab,” said Nimbus, springing to his feet. “I nebber t’ought o’ dat. Dey must hev a name, an’ I mus’ hev one ter gib ’em, but how’s I gwine ter git one? Dar’s nobody’s got enny right ter gib me one, an’ ef I choose one dis week what’s ter hender my takin’ ob anudder nex week?”

“Perhaps nothing,” answered ‘Liab, “but yourself. You must not do it.”

“Pshaw, now,” said Nimbus, “‘ what sort o’ way is dat ter hev things? I tell ye what orter been done, ‘Liab; when de law married us all, jes out of han’ like, it orter hev named us too. Hit mout hev been done, jes ez well’s not. Dar’s old Mahs’r now, he’d hev named all de niggas in de county in a week, easy. An’ dey’d been good names, too.”

“But you’d have bucked at it ef he had,” said ‘Liab, good-naturedly.

“No I wouldn’t, ‘Liab. I hain’t got nuffin ‘gin ole Mahrs’r. He war good enough ter me–good ’nuff. I only hate what _made_ him ‘Old Mahs’r,’ an’ dat I does hate. Oh, my God, how I does hate it, Liab! I hates de berry groun’ dat a slave’s wukked on! I do, I swar! When I wuz a-comin’ home to-day an’ seed de gullies ‘long der way, hit jes made me cuss, kase dey wuz dar a-testifyin’ ob de ole time when a man war a critter–a dog–a nuffin!”

“Now you oughtn’t to say dat, Nimbus. Just think of me. Warn’t you better off as a slave than I am free?”

“No, I warn’t. I’d ruther be a hundred times wuss off ner you, an’ free, than ez strong as I am an’ a slave.”

“But think how much more freedom is worth to you. Here you are a voter, and I–“

“Bre’er ‘Liab,” exclaimed Nimbus, starting suddenly up, “what for you no speak ’bout dat afore. Swar to God I nebber tink on’t–not a word, till dis bressed minit. Why didn’t yer say nuffin’ ’bout bein’ registered yo’self, eh? Yer knowed I’d a tuk yer ef I hed ter tote ye on my back, which I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t gone a step widout yer ef I’d only a t’ought. Yer knows I wouldn’t.”

“Course I does, Nimbus, but I didn’t want ter make ye no trouble, nor take the mule out of the crap,” answered ‘Liab apologetically.

“Damn de crap!” said Nimbus impetuously.

“Don’t; don’t swear, Nimbus, if you please.”

“Can’t help it, ‘Liab, when you turn fool an’ treat me dat ‘ere way. I’d swar at ye ef yer wuz in de pulpit an’ dat come ober me, jes at de fust. Yer knows Nimbus better ner dat. Now see heah, ‘Liab Hill, yer’s gwine ter go an’ be registered termorrer, jes ez sure ez termorrer comes. Here we thick-headed dunces hez been up dar to-day a-takin’ de oath an’ makin’ bleve we’s full grown men, an’ here’s you, dat knows more nor a ten-acre lot full on us, a lyin’ here an’ habin’ no chance at all.”

“But you want to get de barn full, and can’t afford to spend any more time,” protested ‘Liab.

“Nebber you min’ ’bout de barn. Dat’s Nimbus’ business, an” he’ll take keer on’t. Let him alone fer dat. Yis, honey, I’se comin’ d’reckly!” he shouted, as his wife called him from his own cabin.

“Now Bre’er ‘Liab, yer comes ter supper wid us. Lugena’s jes’ a callin’ on’t.”

“Oh, don’t, Nimbus,” said the other, shrinking away. “I can’t! You jes send one of the chillen in with it, as usual.”

“No yer don’t,” said Nimbus; “yer’s been a scoldin’ an’ abusin’ me all dis yer time, an’ now I’se gwine ter hab my way fer a little while.”

He went to the door and called: