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Meanwhile the colonel, forgetting his own hurt, hovered, with several physicians, among them Doctor Price, around the bedside of his child. The slight cut upon the head, the physicians declared, was not, of itself, sufficient to account for the rapid sinking which set in shortly after the boy's removal to the house. There had evidently been some internal injury, the nature of which could not be ascertained. Phil remained unconscious for several hours, but toward the end of the day opened his blue eyes and fixed them upon his father, who was sitting by the bedside.
"Papa," he said, "am I going to die?"
"No, no, Phil," said his father hopefully. "You are going to get well in a few days, I hope."
Phil was silent for a moment, and looked around him curiously. He gave no sign of being in pain.
"Is Miss Laura here?"
"Yes, Phil, she's in the next room, and will be here in a moment."
At that instant Miss Laura came in and kissed him. The caress gave him pleasure, and he smiled sweetly in return.
"Papa, was Uncle Peter hurt?"
"Where is he, papa? Was he hurt badly?"
"He is lying in another room, Phil, but he is not in any pain."
"Papa," said Phil, after a pause, "if I should die, and if Uncle Peter should die, you'll remember your promise and bury him near me, won't you, dear?"
"Yes, Phil," he said, "but you are not going to die!"
But Phil died, dozing off into a peaceful sleep in which he passed quietly away with a smile upon his face.
It required all the father's fortitude to sustain the blow, with the added agony of self-reproach that he himself had been unwittingly the cause of it. Had he not sent old Peter into the house, the child would not have been left alone. Had he kept his eye upon Phil until Peter's return the child would not have strayed away. He had neglected his child, while the bruised and broken old black man in the room below had given his life to save him. He could do nothing now to show the child his love or Peter his gratitude, and the old man had neither wife nor child in whom the colonel's bounty might find an object. But he would do what he could. He would lay his child's body in the old family lot in the cemetery, among the bones of his ancestors, and there too, close at hand, old Peter should have honourable sepulture. It was his due, and would be the fulfilment of little Phil's last request.
The child was laid out in the parlour, amid a mass of flowers. Miss Laura, for love of him and of the colonel, with her own hands prepared his little body for the last sleep. The undertaker, who hovered around, wished, with a conventional sense of fitness, to remove old Peter's body to a back room. But the colonel said no.
"They died together; together they shall lie here, and they shall be buried together."
He gave instructions as to the location of the graves in the cemetery lot. The undertaker looked thoughtful.
"I hope, sir," said the undertaker, "there will be no objection. It's not customary--there's a coloured graveyard--you might put up a nice tombstone there--and you've been away from here a long time, sir."
"If any one objects," said the colonel, "send him to me. The lot is mine, and I shall do with it as I like. My great-great-grandfather gave the cemetery to the town. Old Peter's skin was black, but his heart was white as any man's! And when a man reaches the grave, he is not far from God, who is no respecter of persons, and in whose presence, on the judgment day, many a white man shall be black, and many a black man white."
The funeral was set for the following afternoon. The graves were to be dug in the morning. The undertaker, whose business was dependent upon public favour, and who therefore shrank from any step which might affect his own popularity, let it be quietly known that Colonel French had given directions to bury Peter in Oak Cemetery.
It was inevitable that there should be some question raised about so novel a proceeding. The colour line in Clarendon, as in all Southern towns, was, on the surface at least, rigidly drawn, and extended from the cradle to the grave. No Negro's body had ever profaned the sacred soil of Oak Cemetery. The protestants laid the matter before the Cemetery trustees, and a private meeting was called in the evening to consider the proposed interment.
White and black worshipped the same God, in different churches. There had been a time when coloured people filled the galleries of the white churches, and white ladies had instilled into black children the principles of religion and good morals. But as white and black had grown nearer to each other in condition, they had grown farther apart in feeling. It was difficult for the poor lady, for instance, to patronise the children of the well-to-do Negro or mulatto; nor was the latter inclined to look up to white people who had started, in his memory, from a position but little higher than his own. In an era of change, the benefits gained thereby seemed scarcely to offset the difficulties of readjustment.
The situation was complicated by a sense of injury on both sides. Cherishing their theoretical equality of citizenship, which they could neither enforce nor forget, the Negroes resented, noisly or silently, as prudence dictated, its contemptuous denial by the whites; and these, viewing this shadowy equality as an insult to themselves, had sought by all the machinery of local law to emphasise and perpetuate their own superiority. The very word "equality" was an offence. Society went back to Egypt and India for its models; to break caste was a greater sin than to break any or all of the ten commandments. White and coloured children studied the same books in different schools. White and black people rode on the same trains in separate cars. Living side by side, and meeting day by day, the law, made and administered by white men, had built a wall between them.
And white and black buried their dead in separate graveyards. Not until they reached God's presence could they stand side by side in any relation of equality. There was a Negro graveyard in Clarendon, where, as a matter of course the coloured dead were buried. It was not an ideal locality. The land was low and swampy, and graves must be used quickly, ere the water collected in them. The graveyard was unfenced, and vagrant cattle browsed upon its rank herbage. The embankment of the railroad encroached upon one side of it, and the passing engines sifted cinders and ashes over the graves. But no Negro had ever thought of burying his dead elsewhere, and if their cemetery was not well kept up, whose fault was it but their own?
The proposition, therefore, of a white man, even of Colonel French's standing, to bury a Negro in Oak Cemetery, was bound to occasion comment, if nothing more. There was indeed more. Several citizens objected to the profanation, and laid their protest before the mayor, who quietly called a meeting of the board of cemetery trustees, of which he was the chairman.
The trustees were five in number. The board, with the single exception of the mayor, was self-perpetuating, and the members had been chosen, as vacancies occurred by death, at long intervals, from among the aristocracy, who had always controlled it. The mayor, a member and chairman of the board by virtue of his office, had sprung from the same class as Fetters, that of the aspiring poor whites, who, freed from the moral incubus of slavery, had by force of numbers and ambition secured political control of the State and relegated not only the Negroes, but the old master class, to political obscurity. A shrewd, capable man was the mayor, who despised Negroes and distrusted aristocrats, and had the courage of his convictions. He represented in the meeting the protesting element of the community.
"Gentlemen," he said, "Colonel French has ordered this Negro to be buried in Oak Cemetery. We all appreciate the colonel's worth, and what he is doing for the town. But he has lived at the North for many years, and has got somewhat out of our way of thinking. We do not want to buy the prosperity of this town at the price of our principles. The attitude of the white people on the Negro question is fixed and determined for all time, and nothing can ever alter it. To bury this Negro in Oak Cemetery is against our principles."
"The mayor's statement of the rule is quite correct," replied old General Thornton, a member of the board, "and not open to question. But all rules have their exceptions. It was against the law, for some years before the war, to manumit a slave; but an exception to that salutary rule was made in case a Negro should render some great service to the State or the community. You will recall that when, in a sister State, a Negro climbed the steep roof of St. Michael's church and at the risk of his own life saved that historic structure, the pride of Charleston, from destruction by fire, the muncipality granted him his freedom."
"And we all remember," said Mr. Darden, another of the trustees, "we all remember, at least I'm sure General Thornton does, old Sally, who used to belong to the McRae family, and was a member of the Presbyterian Church, and who, because of her age and infirmities--she was hard of hearing and too old to climb the stairs to the gallery--was given a seat in front of the pulpit, on the main floor."
"That was all very well," replied the mayor, stoutly, "when the Negroes belonged to you, and never questioned your authority. But times are different now. They think themselves as good as we are. We had them pretty well in hand until Colonel French came around, with his schools, and his high wages, and now they are getting so fat and sassy that there'll soon be no living with them. The last election did something, but we'll have to do something more, and that soon, to keep them in their places. There's one in jail now, alive, who has shot and disfigured and nearly killed two good white men, and such an example of social equality as burying one in a white graveyard will demoralise them still further. We must preserve the purity and prestige of our race, and we can only do it by keeping the Negroes down."
"After all," said another member, "the purity of our race is not apt to suffer very seriously from the social equality of a graveyard."
"And old Peter will be pretty effectually kept down, wherever he is buried," added another.
These sallies provoked a smile which lightened the tension. A member suggested that Colonel French be sent for.
"It seems a pity to disturb him in his grief," said another.
"It's only a couple of squares," suggested another. "Let's call in a body and pay our respects. We can bring up the matter incidentally, while there."
The muscles of the mayor's chin hardened.
"Colonel French has never been at my house," he said, "and I shouldn't care to seem to intrude."
"Come on, mayor," said Mr. Darden, taking the official by the arm, "these fine distinctions are not becoming in the presence of death. The colonel will be glad to see you."
The mayor could not resist this mark of intimacy on the part of one of the old aristocracy, and walked somewhat proudly through the street arm in arm with Mr. Darden. They paid their respects to the colonel, who was bearing up, with the composure to be expected of a man of strong will and forceful character, under a grief of which he was exquisitely sensible. Touched by a strong man's emotion, which nothing could conceal, no one had the heart to mention, in the presence of the dead, the object of their visit, and they went away without giving the colonel any inkling that his course had been seriously criticised. Nor was the meeting resumed after they left the house, even the mayor seeming content to let the matter go by default.
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