[I have thought that a plain, unvarnished account of a servant’s trials in his efforts to secure his freedom might not be uninteresting. It is given as nearly as possible in his own words. Oby is now with me, my dining-room servant. He has learned to read himself what I have written.]
Charlottesville, Virginia, 1866 M. S. De V.]
My name is Oby; they say it is because my father was an Obeah man, when he lived down South in Florida and drove a stage. I have heard him say, to the contrary, that he belonged, at the time I was born, to a man by the name of Overton, and that that is my true name. So when I went down to town the other day, and the Provost-Marshal asked me if I could sign my own name, I boldly wrote down “Mr. Overton Paragon.”
I was raised at this place, by people who were ever so kind to me as long as I can remember them; but that was not very long, for they were poor white folks and could not keep me, or my mother, or my father either. So we were hired out to a very good master, who took good care of father especially, because he had hired him for more than twenty years, and I was living with them in his house, though I could not do much work, being rather weakly and, I am afraid, lazy too. One fine day master comes down stairs and says to father: “Uncle James, you have served me faithfully these ten years, and you know I only bought you because I did not want your master to set you in your old days to hard work. But I do not like to own you, and you are free. You can go whenever and wherever you choose. I can not give you your freedom in any other way, because the laws of the State do not permit me to do so, and we all have to obey the law; but you must understand that you can stay or go as you choose.”
Father could not say much, for he was not handy with his tongue, but he told master that he did not want to leave him as long as he cared to keep him. But when master had gone up again, he comes in and tells mother, and Uncle Henry, who was there, tells him he had better go across the line and live at the North. Father had been there when master sent him all the way to Boston with a fine horse—his name was Topaz—and they tried very hard then to make father stay. But he did not like their ways; he said they were not genteel at all like our old family servants, and he came back and was mighty glad to be again in Old Virginia. So father staid, and mother staid, and I was taken up to the dining-room, and mistress taught me to wait, and to wash the china and the glass.
I was nearly grown—I may have been about nineteen or twenty years old—when the Yankees came right down upon us. We had been expecting them often before, and many is the time Uncle Henry came running in where mother was and cried out, “God be thanked, they are coming, they are coming!” And mother asked him, “Who are you talking about ?“ and he would say, “Our deliverers, the Yankees, whom God sends to make us all free!” But mother did not like his ways at all, and when he was gone she would take me and brother Henry by her little stool close to the fire and say: “Now, boys, don’t you think you’ll be so much better off when you are free. Folks have to work everywhere, free or slave, black or white; and it’s much better for you to be with genteel folks, and go to church, and have nothing to do with poor niggers, than to be way off where you have not any body who cares for you.”
Mother was mighty good to us, and I know she meant it all for the best, but, to save my life, I could not help thinking of what Uncle Henry said, and what a fine thing it would be to be free, and to have twelve dollars a month and nothing to do. So I went over to Colonel Wood’s Aleck and we talked it over behind the wood-pile, where nobody could hear us, and he told me how he knew a plenty more who would go away as soon as ever the Yankees came. He said they were fighting for us, and if we wanted to go we need not run away by night, like a poor three-hundred-dollar nigger, but we might ride off on a fine horse, in the middle of the day, and our masters could not say a word against it for fear of the Yankees. So I promised I would join him, and when we heard that General Sheridan was coming this way, with a hundred thousand men, we knew that the Confederates could not stand before him, and we agreed we would go off all together.
I remember it well; it was a dark night, but the stars were all out and the mud awfully deep, when all of a sudden Uncle Henry comes rushing in by the side gate, quite out of breath, and tells us that General Early has been beaten all to pieces, and that the Yankees are coming across the mountains. They did not know anything of it in town, and I had heard master say at supper-table that we need not be afraid; the Yankees would again go up the Valley to Lexington and pass us by. But we knew better, and mother would have told mistress, whom she was mighty fond of, but Uncle Henry would not let her, and mother was terribly worried about it. He told us that we must all put on our Sunday clothes, and be very polite to the soldiers, because they were coming to make us all free, and we were just as good now as they. Father was very uneasy about us, for he did not believe half of what the others said, and shook his head and groaned as he sat before the fire and smoked his pipe; but he said nothing, only now and then he would look up, and when mother looked at him at the same time, he would shake his head and sigh, until it made me feel quite badly, and I did not know what to do.
At night, when the white folks had all gone to bed, we, Aleck and I, took an ash cake and a piece of middling, and we ran up the turnpike, miles and miles, until we came to the top of the long hill, where Doctor White’s house stood before it was burned, and there we sat the livelong night, and watched the camp-fires against the dark mountain side, thinking what the Yankees were doing up there, and why they did not come to help us all. It was very hard to trot back again in the morning early, and to go to work splitting wood for the cook before breakfast, but Aleck and I thought if we could but once see the bluecoats coming down the hill, and their horses standing by the side of the lake, we would. be perfectly happy.
And so it did come about one fine, clear morning. On Monday a man in gray had come racing up the turnpike, looking right and left under his broad-brimmed, slouched hat, and gone into town. Uncle Henry had met him as he came up, and shook his head and said: “Now, I should not wonder if that was a real Yankee.” They all laughed at him, and asked him if he did not see the Confederate gray and the ragged hat the man wore. But he shook his head and said: “Now, I’ll tell you, boys, it may be so, and it may not be so; but that man there did not ride like one of our folks, and he had his eyes too busy and his hand too near his revolver to be one of our soldiers.” That morning early there came two, and three, and at last a whole number of these graycoats, and somebody said in a whisper, as we were standing at the stile close to the turnpike, “Those are the Jessie Scouts, you believe me I” But we looked at the old man who said so, and as nobody knew him we did not believe him. It was all the same true; it turned out afterward that they were Jessie Scouts, as they called them from General Fremont’s wife; and there had been a dozen of them in town all day long, and nobody had known them. We knew how little our soldier cared about spies and that sort of men, and so it was not very difficult to come in and find out every thing.
But on Tuesday, early in the morning, as soon as master had had his breakfast, we all slipped out and went down to the road, where we found a great many people standing about and talking of what the Yankees were going to do with the house, and the servants, and the town itself. Down by the lake, where the road from the house comes into the turnpike, and not far from the little lodge, stood a heap of gentlemen, who had come up from town to beg pardon of the General, and to ask him not to burn them all out. They were mightily scared, and Mr. Fowler, the tailor, who is a great goose, as I have heard it said often and often, looked white and shook in all his limbs. It could not be from the cold, for although the rain had stopped overnight, it was quite mild in the morning. Alongside of them, but a little apart, stood master and some of his friends; I don’t know if they had come too to ask the Yankees to spare the house. Soon one man came flying down the hill, and then another, and then three or four together, galloping right by us without ever stopping, and just crying one after another, “They are coming! they are coming!” I slipped up close to where master stood, and I could hear them say that it was a mighty hard thing to stand there and not to know whether they would have a house over their head next night or not; and what would become of the ladies and of the little ones. One I heard say distinctly, “Oh, gentlemen, we’ll all go up before night, sure enough!” William Gibbons, who preaches down in the big bath-house every Sunday, said the gentleman was very wicked, for if God would take us up we must all be ready at any time; and he, for one, was quite willing to go to heaven.
Every now and then somebody would cry out, “There they are !“ and we all looked up to the top of the hill, behind which the road was hid, and when a man slowly rose over the brow and it turned out that he was on horseback, we thought sure enough there were the Yankees. So we stood hours and hours, and just when we thought they would not be coming that day, two men rode up the hill and down again slowly, then three more, then a dozen or more all in a body, with flags in their hands; and at last the whole turnpike was blue, and we knew for a certainty they were come. We just looked at one another, and I felt mighty queer; but Uncle Henry and all the others, who stood way down by the stile, looked exactly as if they were going to shout to the sky and to jump out of their skin. Aleck looked at me too, and winked, and shut his eyes, and shook all over, till I could not help myself, and I laughed, and they all laughed, and it set the others down at the stile a-laughing, and we held our sides and did not mind master and his friends looking at us as if they did not like it at all.
When the first officer came up to where Mr. Fowler stood, he rushed forward and came near falling between the horses’ feet, and they all cried out together, I don’t know what; but the tailor had the biggest mouth, and he talked loudest. So I suppose they heard him, and one of the officers said something about private property being spared, but public property must be given up.
Just then master walked up himself, like a real gentleman that he is, and although he was on foot and had not even a spur on his boot, he looked as good a man as the big officers on their fine horses. One of them told him he was not the General, but he would send up a guard as soon as they got into town. Then they moved on, and such a sight! They looked very different from our poor Confederate soldiers, with their sleek horses and bright swords, and there was not a ragged jacket or a bare foot among them all. They had, every one of them, a pile of good things strapped up behind and before their saddles, and a good many had a fine horse by their side with all sorts of packages and parcels strapped upon their hack, ever so high, but nobody in the saddle. But I thought, what wouldn’t I give if I could but ride one of those fine horses and be a soldier and as good as any white man! I looked at Aleck, and I saw he thought so too; and what is best about it, it did not last long, and it all came true, sure enough. We stood there and looked and looked until we were tired, for there was no end to the horses, and the big guns, and the wagons, and oh, they had every thing so nice and so whole, though they were bespattered from head to foot; I did not think soldiers could look so well. At last they were nearly all gone, and I and Aleck went back.
When we came to the other side of the lake we saw Miss Mary and some of the other young ladies standing by the window up stairs, and some of them were crying; but Miss Mary waved a little flag, such as our soldiers have, right in the face of the Yankees. But master looked up and gave her such a look! Miss Mary went away from the window, and when they sent for her to come down to dinner, she told Flora to tell master she had a bad headache and did not want any dinner. Soon after the bell rang, and when I went to the front-door there stood a big Yankee officer, with his sword by his side and the mud all over him, and he asked in a very soft voice if master was at home. I did not like much his talking of my master and he a Yankee, but I knew I must be polite to strangers, and I asked him to please walk in. He said he wanted to see master, would I re-quest him to come to the front-door for a moment. I can't tell exactly what it was, but there was something in the officer's voice, and in the way he spoke to me, that made me feel a big man, and as if nobody ought to call me Oby any more. Master is mighty good to me, but be always talks to me as if I was a little baby and had not any sense at all. Now the officer spoke right sternly, though his voice was so soft, but somehow it did not hurt me in the least, and I felt all the better for it. I ran in and told master, who came out at once, not at all flurried but like a grand old gentleman, and he begged the officer very politely to walk in. But he would not come in, and merely told master that he was on General Sheridan's staff, and that he wished to know where he should place the guard. I wanted badly to bear what they were going to say to each other, but master sent me down stairs to tell Aunt Hannah to cook a big dinner for the soldiers. We had done that often enough when our poor Confederates came by, and there was not much left in the smoke-house; but when the folks in the kitchen heard it was for the Yankees they were going to cook they set to work with a will. Aunt Hannah said she would sit up all night to work for them blessed Yankees, and Flora laughed and cried out that she hoped there was a handsome captain coming to take her to Boston.
Now I did not like that at all, for Flora was a mighty sweet girl; she was not one of your mean black niggers, but quite light, and had the most beautiful hair I ever saw in my life, and a waist—why she could wear Miss Mary's dresses, who is not bigger than a grasshopper, and they were still too large for her. So I sat down angrily, and turned my back upon them, and whistled to myself. All of a sudden there comes a hand and shuts up my mouth, and a voice says tome: "Why, Oby, you are not at all gallant to-day!" Up I jump and make her a fine bow, and say, "Oh, Madam, I did not know you was here, I hope you are well." She did not say a word, but looked at Aunt Hannah and looked at me, and then she burst out a-laughing and cries: "Oh, Mr. Paragon, yon must look sharper, or one of these days Miss Flora will bloom in another garden." They had spoilt her mightily, and told her that her name meant “Pretty Flower." The young ladies on whom she waited gave her quantities of nice things, and when she went down on Sunday to church she looked every bit as pretty as a lady, and prettier too. Colonel Wood's Aleck was very sweet on her, and he and I had had many a fight about it—who was to escort her to preaching, and who was to hand her into supper, when Aunt Betsy's daughter was married. She went more with Aleck than with me, and many is the cry I have had about it; but then she would look so sweetly at me, and say with such a soft voice: "Get along, you handsome nigger!" that I could not help myself, and all the money I ever got went to buy her ribbons and candy.
I went up to her and said: " Now, sweet angel, don't you be angry with me, and you shall have that big red shawl that hangs out at Mr. Abraham's store window;" and I put my arm around her and was just going to— when there came such a pull at the door-bell that I jumped up and thought the Yankees were breaking into the house.
I ran up the stairs as fast as I could, and as I was trying to unlock the door—we did not use to do it, and so the key would not turn very quickly—somebody rang and rang until I got frightened out of my wits. When I opened the door there stood Miss Polly, as red as a peony, her dress all in tatters, and her hair banging about her as I had never seen a lady do in all my life, and rushes by me to master’s study. Master had just come out to sec what was the matter, and she ran nearly over him. Then she began telling him to come, for God's sake, to her house; how the Yankees had come there and broken every thing to pieces, and were misbehaving shamefully. I did not believe a word of it, for they had been very polite to us all and to master too; but he did not say a word, put on his hat, gave Miss Polly his arm, and walked right off with her. I followed him, for I thought he might want me, and I heard Miss Polly rattling away like a water-mill, telling him how the soldiers had come to the house, and first broken into the kitchen and eaten all the dinner that there was, and then came into the sitting-room and asked for whisky. Her brother, who had been shot in the Valley and was lying with a broken leg on a couch, had gotten very angry and called them names. The Yankees did not like that, and went to work smashing every thing in the house. So she ran over to our house to get help.
When we crossed the road—it was knee-deep in mud—we saw Miss Emma, with her three little children, sitting on the big oak stump right by the house, crying bitterly, and in the house all the windows and doors smashed, and such a row as I have not heard in my life. Master puts Miss Polly down by her sister's side, and tells her to sit quiet, and then he walks as boldly up to where the Yankees were as if he were General Sheridan himself. I was afraid to go after him, so I staid by the ladies, who, I thought, wanted somebody to protect them, and they were so full of the misfortune they told me Here is another fine lot; what’s the bid?” I felt as if I was turning to stone, when I found out that he held Bob, my second cousin, by his right ear, and pushed him forward in the bright light. I thought sure enough it was all the old story over again, and we were not free yet, but to be sold just as we were before. Somebody cried out, "I'll give a ham!" and another, "I bid a loaf of sugar!" Now I wondered more than ever, for Bob was a powerful fellow, and could plow better than any man on the plantation, and that was no price at all, even in Confederate money. But I soon found out that they were only offering something for the right to choose their servants, and that we were really free, only we could not choose our masters, but they chose us.
When I understood that right, I turned round and said, very politely, "Master, I wish you would not offer me to any body but keep me yourself. I would rather be your servant than any body's else." He seemed to be quite pleased at being called Master, and slapped me on the shoulder, and said, "Well, Cuffee, if you wish it, you may do so." I did not like to be called Cuffee, which is not respectable for a nigger who moves in good society; so I said, "Master, my name is Oby; and if it is the same to you, I would rather you should call me by my name." I don't think he heard me, for he said nothing for a while, and then he showed me his horse, a fine big bay, and told me to rub him down: "But mind you do it well," he said, "or you will be bucked." I did not know what he meant by that, for the boys had often called me a "Buck," and I had always taken it for a compliment. I soon found out however what it was, for Jack, the doctor's boy, who was up here too, and who had refused to cook supper for his new master, because he was so tired from doing all they had made him do ever since dinner-time, lay not far off, bound up in the most curious way I have ever seen, and was hollowing most awfully.
My bay did not give me much trouble, only he had an ugly way of kicking, when you touched him at a particular spot; and he was so quick at it that I got one or two kicks against my shins before I was aware of it. I disliked it mightily, for I did not know then that his kicking was to save my life when nothing else could help me. They did not offer me any supper that night, so I ran home and told Flora all about it, how the soldiers said I was free now, and how I was to have a fine horse and become a sure enough soldier, and have my fifteen dollars a month, all to myself.
She was not half as glad as I thought she would be, and asked me if I thought it was better to be the servant of a Yankee than to serve a gentleman like master. I did not like her saying so at all, for I could not tell her why I liked it better; and still, I knew it was better. I had thought I would ask her to come along with me and become my wife, when we got to the North. But somehow I had not the courage, she looked so wicked out of her eyes; and then Aunt Hannah stood by, and although she made believe she was busy with her pots and plates I knew she had heard every word I said. But I could not help looking at Flora, and just to say, "Oh, Miss Flora!" and I thought she looked as sweet as a rose-bud, when she cast her eyes down and picked at the pretty belt I had given her the Sunday before, and seemed to think very hard.
Just then Aleck came up, and asked me when I was going away. That put me in mind, that last week master had called us all up into the hall and told us, if we wanted to go when the Yankees came, we must be sure not to sneak off like a parcel of runaway niggers, but to come up like men and tell him, and he would see to it that we had some clothes and something to help us on the way when we went. I thought it was my duty to go up stairs and tell him that I had made up my mind to leave. I pulled off my shoes and went up softly into the veranda, where I knew he would be sitting. And so he was, in his old arm-chair, with Maida right across his feet and Miss Lucy sitting by his side, reading to him out of the big old Bible he uses at prayers, when we come up in the morning and the evening. She read so low I could not hear where she was, but I made out that it was something about God being our rock and a very present help in trouble; and when I looked at master I saw the big tears were coming down his white cheeks slowly, one by one. I knew then he was thinking of young master, who lay dead and killed way off in Spotsylvania, and nobody knew where. When I saw that I could not go up to him to save my life, so I slipped down again, and did not know what to do.
Master had always been mighty good to me, and I had never wanted any thing on this earth but he had given it to me; and I knew as long as I staid with him, and he had any thing to live on, he would provide for me. But I wanted badly to be a free man, and I knew I could never earn fifteen dollars a month, as I could at the North; and perhaps they were going to give us each a farm, and we would not have to work any more. It was a bad night for me, and my head turned all around in a whirl; now I wanted to stay, and now I wanted to go. But when the red streaks came out over the mountain, and then the big sun rose right behind the old cherry-tree at the tobacco patch, I remembered what William had said, when he preached to us at Uncle James's funeral, about the rising of the Sun of Liberty, and our going to glory here upon earth, by the word of Mr. Lincoln, and I ran as fast as I could to Burr's Hill, and told them all that I had come to be free.
My new master showed me a beautiful horse that I was to ride, and when the light came through the trees and I could see every thing clear, I saw it was Master William's great big stallion. I did not like to get on him, because every body about here knew him, he had stood so often down in town, but I was told to take him down to water, and I did not like to be bucked like Bob. I went down to the spring, and I could not help thinking he was the handsomest horse I had ever laid eyes on, and it would be a great thing for me to ride alongside of all the gentlemen on such a fine horse. When I came back to the fire they showed me a quantity of bags and bales, all nicely fixed in white cotton sheets, which I had to strap on the horse; there was just enough room left between the pile in front and the pile behind to get into the saddle. They did not give me any breakfast either, but I did not mind that much, for soon the bugles sounded—it made me feel like a gentleman to be called by a bugle like all the others; and my new master, who was a corporal or a major, had some other gentlemen under him, and when the guns were all ranged in beautiful order, the Colonel came out and looked at us, and off we marched with the music at our head.
First came the Colonel and some officers, then came the music, with all sorts of instruments such as I had never seen before; after them came men who bore a number of flags, which I knew nothing of, and after them, before all the regiment, came we colored people, about fifty of us, all on fine horses, and the happiest boys ever you saw in your life. It was glorious. But when we got to the corner by the tobacco-house, where the gate has been out of order for many years and the lane is quite low and narrow, they all stopped and we could not go any farther. The mud was awful, and the horses could not pull the heavy guns and the wagons.
Just then who must come up but master. I felt mighty badly, but I could not run away, and I looked for my new master to stand by me and let them all know that I was free. When master’s eye came slowly down the line and at last fell right upon me, I thought I was going to sink into the ground. It made me feel sick. When I looked up again he was making his way through the horses and the cannons right up to me, and did not mind the mud, and the way the soldiers all looked at him, and the horses that wanted to kick him. When he came up to where I sat on my horse, he just said, “Oh, Oby!” and before I knew what I was doing, I was out of the saddle and standing right before him, with my new cap in my hand. He said, in his quiet way, “Oby, you know you are not strong enough to sleep out in the open air; you have not even a blanket, and it is not three weeks since you were sick with pneumonia. Come home, my boy, and don’t distress your father and your mother. You know it will them!”
I knew that what he said was but too true; but then again, when I looked at the fine horse I was on, and all the gentlemen around me, I felt quite undecided. Master said again, very quietly, “Come home, Oby!” and I followed him, I did not know why. But just as we were getting out of the crowd, on the side of the road, my new master came dashing up to where we were, and with a terrible oath told me to mount my horse and be ready to start. I was so frightened I did not know what to do. Master never said a word, but just looked at me as if he pitied me from the bottom of his heart, and I could not stand that; I did not think of father and mother at home, nor of Flora, nor of the nice times we had had together in the fields at night, but I just looked at master and went away with him. But the soldier was not satisfied yet; he came straight up to us, and swearing worse than ever, he said to master, “How dare you, Sir, force that man away? Do you not know that he is free, and has a right to go where he will?” Master changed color; I knew he was not accustomed to be spoken to in that way, and I wished I had never thought of enlisting as a soldier. But he said nothing at all, and although the soldiers all turned around, and my new master pulled out his carbine and cocked it, he made his way between the horses and the guns, I following him close by, until we came out on the other side of the column, and then he said very quietly, “Now, Oby, go home and tell your father not to distress himself about you any farther.” I was just running up the road, when I heard somebody galloping up, and as I turned round I saw it was a great officer, with a sword in his hand, who rode up to master and asked him what was the matter. I could not hear his answer, but the officer said, “We do not force servants to go with us, and if your boy wants to stay, let him stay.”
When I came home I found father and mother, Uncle Henry, and all of them in mother’s room, and when they saw me they all cried out, “Oh, Oby, what have you been doing?” Well, it made me right angry to be treated thus like a baby, and I went out into the yard. There stood Flora, and what must she do but come up to me in the prettiest way of the world and drop me a little courtesy, and say in a little lisping way, “Oho, Mr. Paragon, you had not the courage to go with your friends? Don’t you look like a little whipped boy? Shall I ask Miss Lucy for some candy for you?” It made me mad to hear her talk so, when she had all the time been telling me that I ought to stay, and not run away like the poor stupid field hands.
I turned round without looking at her, and ran over to Uncle Bob, to ask him what I ought to do. He was not in, but Aunt Betsy was there, with the children about her, packing up all her things. I wondered what she was doing, but she would not give me any answer, and I was too mad to go home again; so I staid and waited for Uncle Bob to come home again. They had some nice middlings that day, and goody-bread with the sweetest cracklings I ever ate, and we all laughed, and talked, and I danced a jig for Aunt Betsy, and others came in until the house was full.
Late in the evening Uncle Bob came home, and such a sight he was! He had a double harness hanging over his shoulders, and a saddle on his head, and his hands full of bags and satchels, and a big gun under his arm. He looked very tired, and threw it all down; then he opened the door again and laughed, and when we went out there to see what it was, we found a nice carryall and two good, strong horses fastened to the fence. I knew the carriage well; it belonged to old Miss Mary Fitch, and the horses were Uncle Bob's master's. I did not like his goings on much, but he was an old man and I had no right to say any thing to him. When he had had his supper he lit his pipe and looked around him, and when he noticed me be opened his eyes wide, and said, "Why, Oby, I thought you bad gone with the Yankees!" I felt mightily ashamed. I had to tell him all about it, and when I had done he called me out and whispered to me, "Now, look here, Oby, don't you make a fool of yourself, but come along with me to-night and be a man." He talked and talked, and before I knew exactly how it was, I had promised to go with him. He had a way about him that few could resist, and when he wanted you to do any thing he was sure to get you to do it.
It was a dark night, the moon was behind the clouds, and at times you could not see the hand before your eyes. Uncle Bob had hitched up and put Aunt Betsy and the four children inside the carryall; he sat on the box, and every corner behind and before was staffed full with bags and parcels. I do not know why they took so much; but Aunt Betsy would take every thing; and there was her spinning-wheel, and her split-bottomed rocking-chair, and the cradle for the baby. Then there was Colonel Wood's Aleck, and Dr. White's Jimmy, and I. We walked pretty fast, and listened with all our might, for we thought we might meet some gentleman and he might stop us. But there was nobody about that night; every body was afraid of the Yankees, and kept very close. Besides, the roads were awful, and Uncle Bob's horses could hardly pull the carryall at a snail's pace. Every now and then they would stick fast in the mud, and then we had to take rails from the fence and put them under the wheels and help Uncle Bob. It was not half as pleasant as riding on a fine horse among a crowd of gentlemen, or even sitting at home in mother's room and having a nice supper. After a while Uncle Bob became angry, and the next time the horses stalled he pitched Aunt Betsy's wheel into the road; then went the chair, and the cradle, and a great many other things. Aunt Betsy did not dare say a word, but she groaned and groaned. It sounded awful in the dark night and in the black woods where we were. At last we could not get any further, and just then we saw a light through the trees, and when we whipped the horses on both sides to get nearer to it we found an army wagon in the middle of the road, with the mud over the hubs of the wheels, and one of the mules half-dead and half-buried in the mud. The drivers and some of the escort had made a roaring fire in the woods, and we joined them. I was so sleepy I fell down where we stopped, and did not know what happened any more.
I was just dreaming of my young master's calling me to saddle his pony when somebody touched me on the shoulder. I could not wake up at once. It always went hard with me to wake in the morning, and then I heard somebody call my name. It sounded very sweet to me somehow, though I did not know where it came from, and when I got my eyes open at last I thought I was dreaming still. For there was Flora standing by my side, looking up at the top of the tree, as if she did not know I was lying right before her. After a while she turned her eyes all around her, and when they came back to me she cried out, "Why, Oby, if that is not you! Where on earth do you come from?" Now that was a nice question to ask me; so I just jumped up and laughed heartily; and then she began laughing too, and before I knew what I was doing my arm was round her waist and I had kissed her twice. She pretended to be very angry, but I only laughed the more, and at last she told me how she had heard from Uncle Bob's son, who stays at master's mill, that I had gone along with him. Then she had made a little bundle of her nicest clothes and had followed us all the way, never saying a word, until she felt so cold in the morning she could not stay away any longer from the fire. When I asked her what she had come for, she said: "You would not have me let Aunt Betsy go away with all those babies and no one to take care of them? And then, might not somebody have come and frightened Mr. Paragon out of his wits and sent him home again crying?" At first I did not know how to take her, but there was something funny in her voice that I knew well enough from of old. So I jumped up, as quick as a squirrel, and before she knew what was coming I had my arms around her once more, and kissed her as hard as I could. We must have made some noise, for all of a sudden there was a crowd around us, and all cried out upon Flora and wanted to know how she got there and what she came for.
We were still talking and laughing in the jolliest way, as if there was no trouble in the world, and we were down at a corn-shucking, when bang went a shot, and another, and before we knew what was coming the wood was full of smoke that could not get out fast enough through the branches of the pine-trees. We all stood still, and my heart beat fast enough, not that I was much afraid of the shooting, but I thought it might be the gray-jackets, and if they should catch us and carry us back! I would not have minded the going back so much, for I knew they would not have punished us, but I could not have stood before master and seen him look at me again, as he did when he wanted me to come home with him from among the artillerymen. I did not stand long idly there, but I just took Flora's hand and told her to come along, and then I pitched Aunt Betsy and the little ones into the carryall, and all the bundles I could find. I was as in a dream, but it was not long before the horses were put in, and Uncle Bob was cracking his whip, and we were running after them as fast as we could.
When we were a little more quiet again we looked around, and then we found out that we had left our friends the Yankees, and were quite alone by ourselves. There were about five or six colored ladies with us, some of them had babies on one arm and a big pile of clothes and such things under the other; then there were one or two elderly men who looked scared and did not know, I believe, what they were doing, except that they must go on, on until they got to the North; and lastly, there were three or four little children who were just running along with the rest of them for the fun. After a while I began to feel hungry, and when I looked at Flora in the bright daylight I thought she looked hungry too; at all events she was very pale and drooping, and I saw she had no shoes on, and could hardly walk. I went to help her, but she tried to hold up, and said it did not matter. I saw, though, it would matter pretty soon, for we had not a mouthful of bread nor meal among us, and, except Uncle Bob, who was rich enough, there was not one among us who had any money. And here we were alone, left by our natural friends and protectors, and not likely to be received on any plantation.
It seemed that all of our party felt the same way, for no one said a word. Every now and then one of the children would begin to whine and be told to hush up. Then some girl would laugh right out and suddenly stop short, as if she was frightened at the sound of her own voice. Uncle Bob, who knew best, had his hands full to drive his tired horses and to pull the carryall, with its heavy load, through the awfully bad roads. I walked steadily on, Flora right behind me, Indian file, and what with the cold drizzling rain, wetting us to the skin, and the loads of mud that stuck to our feet, and the heavy thoughts that weighed on our minds, we did not make a very merry couple. I thought, every now and then, what a glorious time I would have at the North. I knew I could make as good a shoe as any white man, and I thought of a nice little shop I might have in Cincinnati, where Peter Hite went when he was made free, and of Flora being my good wife, really married, and the beautiful things I was going to buy for her, so that she might look a real lady. But in the midst of my thoughts I stumbled against a big, old root, or Flora sighed behind me, and then coughed a little to put me on a false track, or asked me some question, to show that she was not sad at all, and my dreams were gone in a moment, and I saw all our troubles clear before me again.
We tramped on until late in the evening, when we met an old field-hand, with a bag of potatoes on his back, who told us we were still eight miles from the canal, and that he had seen no Yankees any where. We asked him to let us have his potatoes, but he said he did not want to have any thing to do with runaway niggers, and was going away to leave us, when Uncle Bob came up and asked him what he would take for them in greenbacks. When he heard us speak of greenbacks he became very polite at once, and sold them for ninepence to Uncle Bob, who made him promise to bring some fat middling and some corn-meal up to the old tobacco house, where we meant to spend the night. We all went in there, and it was a nice enough place for us to get dry in; there was some hay in a lean-to on one side, and I made a nice little bed for Flora; but we did not dare make a large fire for fear they might see it at the house and send the overseer down to turn us out. Uncle Bob got his middling, and Aunt Betsy cooked all they had for herself and her children, asking me and Flora to come up and help ourselves. I did not like much going there, when there were so many others who had nothing at all to eat, but Uncle Bob told me to make no hesitation—he always loved big words—and to partake of his victuals. I took Flora by the hand and pulled her along with me to the fire. Aunt Betsy looked at us, and I thought she was going to have a hearty laugh, but somehow there was none of us that night could laugh heartily, and we ate just to satisfy our hunger, but it did not taste good. Then we had a chew of tobacco, and Uncle Bob proposed we should sing a psalm about the mansions in the sky, and hallelujah, but we broke down pretty soon, and then we all lay down, one here, one there, as we were sitting. I was tired enough, but I could not sleep; the thoughts would come into my head. I could not drive father and mother out of my head, and every time I saw them in my mind they looked so sad it made me feel very badly. Then the children cried and moaned and asked for something to eat; and some of the old ones groaned too, and cried out: “O Lord, O Lord a-mercy— it was very hard to hear it all and not be able to help them in any way. So I was right glad when the mist broke in the morning and the sun rose, first red, like blood, and looking as if it were angry at us, and then clear and bright, like the dayspring from on high.
I ran down to the spring, where there was a plenty of water, to wash, and when I came back I saw Flora talking very anxiously to Aunt Betsy. They hushed up when I came near, but I could see well enough that Flora had been crying, and that somebody had given her an old pair of shoes that were twice as big as her feet. She did not have big splash-feet, like a field-hand nigger woman, but hers were nice enough for any white lady. I felt mighty sorry for her; she was not accustomed at all to rough work, and down at home she had hardly ever been sent out of the house. I knew she could not stand it long, and I was determined to make her go back. I did not mean to speak to her directly. I knew she would not listen to me if she once had made up her mind; but I thought she would mind what Aunt Betsy would say to her. I took the old lady aside, and told her all about my fears and troubles, and she promised at once to talk to Flora and to persuade her to go home again.
I went behind the big oak-tree, lest she should see me, and I noticed Aunt Betsy going up to her and talking to her very friendly and very soberly. But I must have been too curious, for no sooner had she ended than Flora comes straight up to where I stood and said: "And of all men, Oby, that you should want me to go back!" and with that she broke out into such sobs and sighs that I did not know what to do, and just had to beg her to stay and to go along with us. I told her I would stand by her as long as I was alive, and she could trust me now and forever. In the mean time they had all gotten ready to start, and as there was not much over from last night for breakfast, we were soon on the tramp again.
It was an awful time, though, we had; the road was worse than ever, for Sheridan's men had been right ahead of us, and they had trampled the mud knee-deep, and if the carryall once got into the ruts the army wagons had made, there was hardly any way to get it out again. We were soon left behind, for we had to pull the horses out when they stuck fast, and to mend the harness, that was all the time breaking, and take the rails from the fence and pry the carriage up to let the poor starved horses pull it out again.
At last we came to a sandy stretch in the pine woods, where it was a little better, and as we turned round a corner, there, right in the fence, lay Aunt Phæbe, and by her side two of her little babies, the one three years old and the other about nine months, and never a word did any one of them say. I went up to Aunt Phæbe and shook her, and asked her what was the matter. At first she would not answer at all; at last, when Flora came up and whispered into her ear, and begged her to speak to her, she said, very faintly, that she could not possibly go a step further, and that she had not a drop of milk left for her baby. Aunt Betsy came down too, and when she saw what was the matter, and turned the children round and found them look ashy pale, she called for Uncle Bob and fell to crying bitterly. He came up slowly, and looked at them all without saying a word. Then he pulled the mother and the children together into the fence-comer and put a quarter, a silver quarter, into the hands of Aunt Phæbe and left her there. We all followed him back to the carryall with our hearts ever so heavy, but what could we do? I asked Undo Bob if he thought she would die? He did not look at me at all, but just said in his beard, "I don't know; maybe she will, maybe she won't; perhaps it's better for her to die than to live on as she has done."
After that we were sadder than ever before. Poor Flora lost her big shoes every other step, and most of the ladies had to throw away their bundles, and even then they could hardly get along. Whenever we met a colored man we asked him how far it still was to the canal, for we knew we would meet the Yankees there sure enough, and they would not let us starve, but give us all rations. It seemed as if we were never getting nearer to it, for every time we asked it was still some four or five miles, maybe six. We met some white gentlemen, too, on the road, but they just looked at us with stern faces and rode by. Once we came to a little bit of a house by the way-side, and saw an old lady sitting by the door, with a cat lapping up the milk in a gourd she held on her lap. I could not stand seeing that, so I walk up to her and make her a polite bow, and say, "Oh, Missis, I see you are a mighty good lady, won't you be so kind as to give me a little of that milk for a poor girl who is half dead over yonder?" The old lady looked at me and then at Flora, who was standing at the gate, staring with her big eyes at the gourd as if she had never seen milk in her life. After a while she said, "Well, I don't care; take it if you want it." I was just taking the gourd by the handle, being careful not to spill a drop, when a great big man in a gray uniform and a large revolver in his hand comes out of the passage, and swearing at me, as they did in the army, says, "Now, you rascal, you clear out here or I’ll shoot you down like a dog!" I felt so mad I would have liked to run up to him and snatch the pistol out of his hand and shoot him myself; but I did not have the courage, that is the truth of it, and I knew also I must not get my friends into trouble before we got to the soldiers again. When I came back to where Flora stood I saw she had dropped down upon a big rock they used to get on horseback by, and when I spoke to her she said she could not get any further. That finished me, and I swore to God Almighty I would have something for her or take a man's life. But just then something came between me and her, and when I looked up there was the old lady with the gourd in her hand and a piece of corn-bread I had not seen before, and she said; ''Never mind my son, boy; he is in bad humor because all our servants have left us in a body yesterday and taken our horses with them. Poor child, what is the matter with her?" And then she took Flora's hand in hers and rubbed it, and told her to sit up and eat and not to cry any more. I talked to her too, and after a while she did set up, and the way the milk and the bread went! It would have been a pleasure to me to see how she enjoyed it; but I was terribly hungry myself, and I counted every mouthful she took and every gulp that went down. When she had done, she stood up and looked much better, and then she thanked the old lady, as she had learned to do from Miss Lucy. The old lady had big tears in her eyes and looked mighty sad; she said something about God's Providence, which I did not understand, and about somebody's being ground between the upper and the nether millstone, which, I think, is somewhere in the Bible.
We had to walk fast enough to overtake the others, who had gotten far ahead of us, and it was late in the evening when we saw them all standing in a crowd together on a high place. The sun was just about setting, and the sky was golden, and as we looked at them we could see every ray of their clothes and every hair on their head. They all talked very loud, even Uncle Bob, who seemed to be very angry. We came up slowly, for we were terribly tired, and Flora could hardly drag one foot after the other. When we came up to where they stood, we saw we were on the side of the canal, and there on the tow-path sat Aunt Hannah, crying and screaming all together, and the others stood around her and looked as angry as could be. We pressed close up to Aunt Betsy, and I asked her in a whisper what was the matter. “Oh, Oby!” she said, “just think of it, Aunt Hannah was the first to see the canal, and she walks right up to where we now are and takes her poor little baby—it was not more than two months old—and before we knew what she was about she had thrown it into the water, and there it lies now. Oh, Oby, these are awful times! God. have mercy upon us!”
I could not say a word. I had never seen or heard of such misery in my life. Flora went quietly down to where Aunt Hannah was rocking herself; weeping like a child, and then screaming out aloud, and sat down by her and tried to take her hands and to soothe her. But Aunt Hannah would not be soothed; she cried out: “Leave me alone, you! leave me alone! You don’t know what it is to have a baby and to see it die on your breast. She is happier down there than she could ever have been in this world. I only wished I was there too. Can’t you leave me alone? or give me something to eat? I have not eaten any thing since day before yesterday, not a mouthful. Oh, my baby, my baby! She was the sweetest child I ever had!” And with that she began screaming again, as if she were distracted. I could not stand it any longer; so I touched Flora and told her to come along, Uncle Bob was going and we must try to get something ourselves, or we would be starved too, or get mad like poor Aunt Hannah. Flora got up and followed me, but she did not say a word. The tears were just running down her cheeks, and she did not mind it in the least. Uncle Bob was driving along on the tow-path, and we all followed in a long string, very slowly. At last we came to another turn, and there, right before us, lay a big mill, and behind it the town. On the mill-race stood a soldier in blue, and I could have shouted aloud, for now I knew our troubles would surely be at an end. I do not know what made me so bold, but I walked right up to the soldier and asked him if he did not know somebody that wanted a really good servant. He looked at me and then at Flora, who was standing behind me, and said: “You mean two good servants, don’t you? I can’t afford keeping a servant, but there is the sutler; I heard him inquire a little while ago for a handy fellow, who understood horses and knew how to make coffee and such things.”
I hardly let him finish, for that was exactly what I was good for, and Flora made beautiful coffee. I just asked him where the sutler was, and when he showed me some way down the street a splendid team of four gray mules, standing before a large, fine house, and said that was the sutler’s wagon, I took hold of Flora’s hand and ran down as fast as I could. But when I came between the mules and the house I saw a whole crowd of servants standing around the door and crying out: “Take me, master, take me!” I thought it was all over, and I had lost my first and last chance, when Flora suddenly let go my hand and fell down like a log of wood, right between the wheels of the wagon. I tried to lift her up, but there was such a crowd, and the mules began to kick, and I thought she was going to die right away. Just then a man who had been inside the wagon popped his head out, and seeing Flora lying there, he asked: “Hallo, what is the matter, my man?” I told him as well as I could, and begged him for mercy’s sake to help me, for Flora was sore enough dying. He laughed and stepped down leisurely over the swingle-trees, with a piece of hard tack in one hand and a bottle in the other. He poured some out of the bottle into his hand and rubbed her head with it, then he poured some down between her teeth, and when I could see next, she was sitting up with her head leaning against the wheel, opening her eyes as if she had been fast asleep, and munching a little bread in her mouth. I thanked the gentleman for having saved her life, but he only laughed the more. Then he asked me if I was not hungry too; and before I could say a word he pushed a whole pile of crackers into my hands. When Flora was all right again, he asked us what we were going to do with ourselves, and we told him as fast as we could, for we were both mighty grateful to him for his kindness. Then he told us that he was the sutler himself; and that if we promised to do well and be faithful servants to him he might find something to do for us both. He called to his clerk who was in the house, and told him to see to it that we got a place to sleep in and some supper. When I looked a little around me I saw they had a beautiful flag flying from the top of the house, and that was the first night I slept under the Stars and Stripes, a free man.
De Vere, M. Schele; "The Freedman's Story, Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Volume 33, Issue 197, October 1866; New York, Harper & Bros.
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