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Furnished with money for his keep, Peter was ordered if again molested to say that he was in the colonel's service. The latter, since his own plans were for the present uncertain, had no very clear idea of what disposition he would ultimately make of the old man, but he meant to provide in some way for his declining years. He also bought Peter a neat suit of clothes at a clothing store, and directed him to present himself at the hotel on the following morning. The interval would give the colonel time to find something for Peter to do, so that he would be able to pay him a wage. To his contract with the county he attached little importance; he had already intended, since their meeting in the cemetery, to provide for Peter in some way, and the legal responsibility was no additional burden. To Peter himself, to whose homeless old age food was more than philosophy, the arrangement seemed entirely satisfactory.
Colonel French's presence in Clarendon had speedily become known to the public. Upon his return to the hotel, after leaving Peter to his own devices for the day, he found several cards in his letter box, left by gentlemen who had called, during his absence, to see him.
The daily mail had also come in, and the colonel sat down in the office to read it. There was a club notice, and several letters that had been readdressed and forwarded, and a long one from Kirby in reference to some detail of the recent transfer. Before he had finished reading these, a gentleman came up and introduced himself. He proved to be one John McLean, an old schoolmate of the colonel, and later a comrade-in-arms, though the colonel would never have recognised a rather natty major in his own regiment in this shabby middle-aged man, whose shoes were run down at the heel, whose linen was doubtful, and spotted with tobacco juice. The major talked about the weather, which was cool for the season; about the Civil War, about politics, and about the Negroes, who were very trifling, the major said. While they were talking upon this latter theme, there was some commotion in the street, in front of the hotel, and looking up they saw that a horse, attached to a loaded wagon, had fallen in the roadway, and having become entangled in the harness, was kicking furiously. Five or six Negroes were trying to quiet the animal, and release him from the shafts, while a dozen white men looked on and made suggestions.
"An illustration," said the major, pointing through the window toward the scene without, "of what we've got to contend with. Six niggers can't get one horse up without twice as many white men to tell them how. That's why the South is behind the No'th. The niggers, in one way or another, take up most of our time and energy. You folks up there have half your work done before we get our'n started."
The horse, pulled this way and that, in obedience to the conflicting advice of the bystanders, only became more and more intricately entangled. He had caught one foot in a manner that threatened, with each frantic jerk, to result in a broken leg, when the colonel, leaving his visitor without ceremony, ran out into the street, leaned down, and with a few well-directed movements, released the threatened limb.
"Now, boys," he said, laying hold of the prostrate animal, "give a hand here."
The Negroes, and, after some slight hesitation, one or two white men, came to the colonel's aid, and in a moment, the horse, trembling and blowing, was raised to its feet. The driver thanked the colonel and the others who had befriended him, and proceeded with his load.
When the flurry of excitement was over, the colonel went back to the hotel and resumed the conversation with his friend. If the new franchise amendment went through, said the major, the Negro would be eliminated from politics, and the people of the South, relieved of the fear of "nigger domination," could give their attention to better things, and their section would move forward along the path of progress by leaps and bounds. Of himself the major said little except that he had been an alternate delegate to the last Democratic National Nominating Convention, and that he expected to run for coroner at the next county election.
"If I can secure the suppo't of Mr. Fetters in the primaries," he said, "my nomination is assured, and a nomination is of co'se equivalent to an election. But I see there are some other gentlemen that would like to talk to you, and I won't take any mo' of yo' time at present."
"Mr. Blake," he said, addressing a gentleman with short side-whiskers who was approaching them, "have you had the pleasure of meeting Colonel French?"
"No, suh," said the stranger, "I shall be glad to have the honour of an introduction at your hands."
"Colonel French, Mr. Blake--Mr. Blake, Colonel French. You gentlemen will probably like to talk to one another, because you both belong to the same party, I reckon. Mr. Blake is a new man roun' heah--come down from the mountains not mo' than ten yeahs ago, an' fetched his politics with him; but since he was born that way we don't entertain any malice against him. Mo'over, he's not a 'Black and Tan Republican,' but a 'Lily White.'"
"Yes, sir," said Mr. Blake, taking the colonel's hand, "I believe in white supremacy, and the elimination of the nigger vote. If the National Republican Party would only ignore the coloured politicians, and give all the offices to white men, we'll soon build up a strong white Republican party. If I had the post-office here at Clarendon, with the encouragement it would give, and the aid of my clerks and subo'dinates, I could double the white Republican vote in this county in six months."
The major had left them together, and the Lily White, ere he in turn made way for another caller, suggested delicately, that he would appreciate any good word that the colonel might be able to say for him in influential quarters--either personally or through friends who might have the ear of the executive or those close to him--in reference to the postmastership. Realising that the present administration was a business one, in which sentiment played small part, he had secured the endorsement of the leading business men of the county, even that of Mr. Fetters himself. Mr. Fetters was of course a Democrat, but preferred, since the office must go to a Republican, that it should go to a Lily White.
"I hope to see mo' of you, sir," he said, "and I take pleasure in introducing the Honourable Henry Clay Appleton, editor of our local newspaper, the _Anglo-Saxon_. He and I may not agree on free silver and the tariff, but we are entirely in harmony on the subject indicated by the title of his newspaper. Mr. Appleton not only furnishes all the news that's fit to read, but he represents this county in the Legislature, along with Mr. Fetters, and he will no doubt be the next candidate for Congress from this district. He can tell you all that's worth knowin' about Clarendon."
The colonel shook hands with the editor, who had come with a twofold intent--to make the visitor's acquaintance and to interview him upon his impressions of the South. Incidentally he gave the colonel a great deal of information about local conditions. These were not, he admitted, ideal. The town was backward. It needed capital to develop its resources, and it needed to be rid of the fear of Negro domination. The suffrage in the hands of the Negroes had proved a ghastly and expensive joke for all concerned, and the public welfare absolutely demanded that it be taken away. Even the white Republicans were coming around to the same point of view. The new franchise amendment to the State constitution was receiving their unqualified support.
"That was a fine, chivalrous deed of yours this morning, sir," he said, "at Squire Reddick's office. It was just what might have been expected from a Southern gentleman; for we claim you, colonel, in spite of your long absence."
"Yes," returned the colonel, "I don't know what I rescued old Peter from. It looked pretty dark for him there for a little while. I shouldn't have envied his fate had he been bought in by the tall fellow who represented your colleague in the Legislature. The law seems harsh."
"Well," admitted the editor, "I suppose it might seem harsh, in comparison with your milder penal systems up North. But you must consider the circumstances, and make allowances for us. We have so many idle, ignorant Negroes that something must be done to make them work, or else they'll steal, and to keep them in their place, or they would run over us. The law has been in operation only a year or two, and is already having its effect. I'll be glad to introduce a bill for its repeal, as soon as it is no longer needed.
"You must bear in mind, too, colonel, that niggers don't look at imprisonment and enforced labour in the same way white people do--they are not conscious of any disgrace attending stripes or the ball and chain. The State is poor; our white children are suffering for lack of education, and yet we have to spend a large amount of money on the Negro schools. These convict labour contracts are a source of considerable revenue to the State; they make up, in fact, for most of the outlay for Negro education--which I approve of, though I'm frank to say that so far I don't see much good that's come from it. This convict labour is humanely treated; Mr. Fetters has the contract for several counties, and anybody who knows Mr. Fetters knows that there's no kinder-hearted man in the South."
The colonel disclaimed any intention of criticising. He had come back to his old home for a brief visit, to rest and to observe. He was willing to learn and anxious to please. The editor took copious notes of the interview, and upon his departure shook hands with the colonel cordially.
The colonel had tactfully let his visitors talk, while he listened, or dropped a word here and there to draw them out. One fact was driven home to him by every one to whom he had spoken. Fetters dominated the county and the town, and apparently the State. His name was on every lip. His influence was indispensable to every political aspirant. His acquaintance was something to boast of, and his good will held a promise of success. And the colonel had once kicked the Honourable Mr. Fetters, then plain Bill, in presence of an admiring audience, all the way down Main Street from the academy to the bank! Bill had been, to all intents and purposes, a poor white boy; who could not have named with certainty his own grandfather. The Honourable William was undoubtedly a man of great ability. Had the colonel remained in his native State, would he have been able, he wondered, to impress himself so deeply upon the community? Would blood have been of any advantage, under the changed conditions, or would it have been a drawback to one who sought political advancement?
When the colonel was left alone, he went to look for Phil, who was playing with the children of the landlord, in the hotel parlour. Commending him to the care of the Negro maid in charge of them, he left the hotel and called on several gentlemen whose cards he had found in his box at the clerk's desk. Their stores and offices were within a short radius of the hotel. They were all glad to see him, and if there was any initial stiffness or shyness in the attitude of any one, it soon became the warmest cordiality under the influence of the colonel's simple and unostentatious bearing. If he compared the cut of their clothes or their beards to his own, to their disadvantage, or if he found their views narrow and provincial, he gave no sign--their hearts were warm and their welcome hearty.
The colonel was not able to gather, from the conversation of his friends, that Clarendon, or any one in the town--always excepting Fetters, who did not live in the town, but merely overshadowed it--was especially prosperous. There were no mills or mines in the neighbourhood, except a few grist mills, and a sawmill. The bulk of the business consisted in supplying the needs of an agricultural population, and trading in their products. The cotton was baled and shipped to the North, and re-imported for domestic use, in the shape of sheeting and other stuffs. The corn was shipped to the North, and came back in the shape of corn meal and salt pork, the staple articles of diet. Beefsteak and butter were brought from the North, at twenty-five and fifty cents a pound respectively. There were cotton merchants, and corn and feed merchants; there were dry-goods and grocery stores, drug stores and saloons--and more saloons--and the usual proportion of professional men. Since Clarendon was the county seat, there were of course a court house and a jail. There were churches enough, if all filled at once, to hold the entire population of the town, and preachers in proportion. The merchants, of whom a number were Jewish, periodically went into bankruptcy; the majority of their customers did likewise, and thus a fellow-feeling was promoted, and the loss thrown back as far as possible. The lands of the large farmers were mostly mortgaged, either to Fetters, or to the bank of which he was the chief stockholder, for all that could be borrowed on them; while the small farmers, many of whom were coloured, were practically tied to the soil by ropes of debt and chains of contract.
Every one the colonel met during the afternoon had heard of Squire Reddick's good joke of the morning. That he should have sold Peter to the colonel for life was regarded as extremely clever. Some of them knew old Peter, and none of them had ever known any harm of him, and they were unanimous in their recognition and applause of the colonel's goodheartedness. Moreover, it was an index of the colonel's views. He was one of them, by descent and early associations, but he had been away a long time, and they hadn't really known how much of a Yankee he might have become. By his whimsical and kindly purchase of old Peter's time--or of old Peter, as they smilingly put it, he had shown his appreciation of the helplessness of the Negroes, and of their proper relations to the whites.
"What'll you do with him, Colonel?" asked one gentleman. "An ole nigger like Peter couldn't live in the col' No'th. You'll have to buy a place down here to keep 'im. They wouldn' let you own a nigger at the No'th."
The remark, with the genial laugh accompanying it, was sounding in the colonel's ears, as, on the way back to the hotel, he stepped into the barber shop. The barber, who had also heard the story, was bursting with a desire to unbosom himself upon the subject. Knowing from experience that white gentlemen, in their intercourse with coloured people, were apt to be, in the local phrase; "sometimey," or uncertain in their moods, he first tested, with a few remarks about the weather, the colonel's amiability, and finding him approachable, proved quite talkative and confidential.
"You're Colonel French, ain't you, suh?" he asked as he began applying the lather.
"Yes, suh; I had heard you wuz in town, an' I wuz hopin' you would come in to get shaved. An' w'en I heard 'bout yo' noble conduc' this mawnin' at Squire Reddick's I wanted you to come in all de mo', suh. Ole Uncle Peter has had a lot er bad luck in his day, but he has fell on his feet dis time, suh, sho's you bawn. I'm right glad to see you, suh. I feels closer to you, suh, than I does to mos' white folks, because you know, colonel, I'm livin' in the same house you wuz bawn in."
"Oh, you are the Nichols, are you, who bought our old place?"
"Yes, suh, William Nichols, at yo' service, suh. I've own' de ole house fer twenty yeahs or mo' now, suh, an' we've b'en mighty comfo'table in it, suh. They is a spaciousness, an' a air of elegant sufficiency about the environs and the equipments of the ed'fice, suh, that does credit to the tas'e of the old aristocracy an' of you-all's family, an' teches me in a sof' spot. For I loves the aristocracy; an' I've often tol' my ol' lady, 'Liza,' says I, 'ef I'd be'n bawn white I sho' would 'a' be'n a 'ristocrat. I feels it in my bones.'"
While the barber babbled on with his shrewd flattery, which was sincere enough to carry a reasonable amount of conviction, the colonel listened with curiously mingled feelings. He recalled each plank, each pane of glass, every inch of wall, in the old house. No spot was without its associations. How many a brilliant scene of gaiety had taken place in the spacious parlour where bright eyes had sparkled, merry feet had twinkled, and young hearts beat high with love and hope and joy of living! And not only joy had passed that way, but sorrow. In the front upper chamber his mother had died. Vividly he recalled, as with closed eyes he lay back under the barber's skilful hand, their last parting and his own poignant grief; for she had been not only his mother, but a woman of character, who commanded respect and inspired affection; a beautiful woman whom he had loved with a devotion that bordered on reverence.
Romance, too, had waved her magic wand over the old homestead. His memory smiled indulgently as he recalled one scene. In a corner of the broad piazza, he had poured out his youthful heart, one summer evening, in strains of passionate devotion, to his first love, a beautiful woman of thirty who was visiting his mother, and who had told him between smiles and tears, to be a good boy and wait a little longer, until he was sure of his own mind. Even now, he breathed, in memory, the heavy odour of the magnolia blossoms which overhung the long wooden porch bench or "jogging board" on which the lady sat, while he knelt on the hard floor before her. He felt very young indeed after she had spoken, but her caressing touch upon his hair had so stirred his heart that his vanity had suffered no wound. Why, the family had owned the house since they had owned the cemetery lot! It was hallowed by a hundred memories, and now!----
"Will you have oil on yo' hair, suh, or bay rum?"
"Nichols," exclaimed the colonel, "I should like to buy back the old house. What do you want for it?"
"Why, colonel," stammered the barber, somewhat taken aback at the suddenness of the offer, "I hadn' r'ally thought 'bout sellin' it. You see, suh, I've had it now for twenty years, and it suits me, an' my child'en has growed up in it--an' it kind of has associations, suh."
In principle the colonel was an ardent democrat; he believed in the rights of man, and extended the doctrine to include all who bore the human form. But in feeling he was an equally pronounced aristocrat. A servant's rights he would have defended to the last ditch; familiarity he would have resented with equal positiveness. Something of this ancestral feeling stirred within him now. While Nichols's position in reference to the house was, in principle, equally as correct as the colonel's own, and superior in point of time--since impressions, like photographs, are apt to grow dim with age, and Nichols's were of much more recent date--the barber's display of sentiment only jarred the colonel's sensibilities and strengthened his desire.
"I should advise you to speak up, Nichols," said the colonel. "I had no notion of buying the place when I came in, and I may not be of the same mind to-morrow. Name your own price, but now's your time."
The barber caught his breath. Such dispatch was unheard-of in Clarendon. But Nichols, a keen-eyed mulatto, was a man of thrift and good sense. He would have liked to consult his wife and children about the sale, but to lose an opportunity to make a good profit was to fly in the face of Providence. The house was very old. It needed shingling and painting. The floors creaked; the plaster on the walls was loose; the chimneys needed pointing and the insurance was soon renewable. He owned a smaller house in which he could live. He had been told to name his price; it was as much better to make it too high than too low, as it was easier to come down than to go up. The would-be purchaser was a rich man; the diamond on the third finger of his left hand alone would buy a small house.
"I think, suh," he said, at a bold venture, "that fo' thousand dollars would be 'bout right."
"I'll take it," returned the colonel, taking out his pocket-book. "Here's fifty dollars to bind the bargain. I'll write a receipt for you to sign."
The barber brought pen, ink and paper, and restrained his excitement sufficiently to keep silent, while the colonel wrote a receipt embodying the terms of the contract, and signed it with a steady hand.
"Have the deed drawn up as soon as you like," said the colonel, as he left the shop, "and when it is done I'll give you a draft for the money."
"Yes, suh; thank you, suh, thank you, colonel."
The barber had bought the house at a tax sale at a time of great financial distress, twenty years before, for five hundred dollars. He had made a very good sale, and he lost no time in having the deed drawn up.
When the colonel reached the hotel, he found Phil seated on the doorstep with a little bow-legged black boy and a little white dog. Phil, who had a large heart, had fraternised with the boy and fallen in love with the dog.
"Papa," he said, "I want to buy this dog. His name is Rover; he can shake hands, and I like him very much. This little boy wants ten cents for him, and I did not have the money. I asked him to wait until you came. May I buy him?"
"Certainly, Phil. Here, boy!"
The colonel threw the black boy a silver dollar. Phil took the dog under his arm and followed his father into the house, while the other boy, his glistening eyes glued to the coin in his hand, scampered off as fast as his limbs would carry him. He was back next morning with a pretty white kitten, but the colonel discouraged any further purchases for the time being.
* * * * * * *
"My dear Laura," said the colonel when he saw his friend the same evening, "I have been in Clarendon two days; and I have already bought a dog, a house and a man."
Miss Laura was startled. "I don't understand," she said.
The colonel proceeded to explain the transaction by which he had acquired, for life, the services of old Peter.
"I suppose it is the law," Miss Laura said, "but it seems hardly right. I had thought we were well rid of slavery. White men do not work any too much. Old Peter was not idle. He did odd jobs, when he could get them; he was polite and respectful; and it was an outrage to treat him so. I am glad you--hired him."
"Yes--hired him. Moreover, Laura. I have bought a house."
"A house! Then you are going to stay! I am so glad! we shall all be so glad. What house?"
"The old place. I went into the barber shop. The barber complimented me on the family taste in architecture, and grew sentimental about _his_ associations with the house. This awoke _my_ associations, and the collocation jarred--I was selfish enough to want a monopoly of the associations. I bought the house from him before I left the shop."
"But what will you do with it?" asked Miss Laura, puzzled. "You could never _live_ in it again--after a coloured family?"
"Why not? It is no less the old house because the barber has reared his brood beneath its roof. There were always Negroes in it when we were there--the place swarmed with them. Hammer and plane, soap and water, paper and paint, can make it new again. The barber, I understand, is a worthy man, and has reared a decent family. His daughter plays the piano, and sings:
'I dreamt that I dwelt in marble halls, With vassals and serfs by my side.'
I heard her as I passed there yesterday."
Miss Laura gave an apprehensive start.
"There were Negroes in the house in the old days," he went on unnoticing, "and surely a good old house, gone farther astray than ours, might still be redeemed to noble ends. I shall renovate it and live in it while I am here, and at such times as I may return; or if I should tire of it, I can give it to the town for a school, or for a hospital--there is none here. I should like to preserve, so far as I may, the old associations--_my_ associations. The house might not fall again into hands as good as those of Nichols, and I should like to know that it was devoted to some use that would keep the old name alive in the community."
"I think, Henry," said Miss Laura, "that if your visit is long enough, you will do more for the town than if you had remained here all your life. For you have lived in a wider world, and acquired a broader view; and you have learned new things without losing your love for the old."
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