So it was with much trepidation that the old man went into the town the next morning, secured the services of a lawyer, and prepared for his trial before the "Bureau." Nimbus was intercepted as he came into town with his wife, and an attempt made to induce him to withdraw the prosecution, but that high-minded litigant would hear nothing of the proposed compromise. He had put his hand to the plow and would not look back. He had appealed to the law—"the Bureau" and only "the Bureau" should decide it. So Colonel Desmit and his lawyer asked a few hours' delay and prepared themselves to resist and disprove the charge of assault upon Nimbus. The lawyer once proposed to examine the papers in the case, but Desmit said that was useless—the boy was no liar, though they must make him out one if they could. So, at the time appointed, with his lawyer and train of witnesses, he went before "the Bureau," and there met Nimbus and his wife, Lugena.
"The Bureau" wore the uniform of a captain of United States infantry, and was a man about forty-five years of age, grave and serious of look, with an empty sleeve folded decorously over his breast. His calm blue eyes, pale, refined face, and serious air gave him the appearance of a minister rather than a ruthless oppressor, but his reputation for cruelty among certain people was as well established as that of Jeffreys. He greeted Mr. Desmit and his attorney with somewhat constrained politeness, and when they were seated proceeded to read the complaint, which simply recited that Colonel Desmit, having employed Lugena, the wife of complainant, at a given rate per month, had failed to make payment, and had finally, without cause, ordered her off his premises.
"Is that all?" asked the lawyer.
"That is all," answered the officer.
"Has no other complaint been lodged against Colonel Desmit?"
"We cannot—that is—we did not expect this," said the attorney, and then after a whispered consultation with his client, he added, "We are quite willing to make this matter right. We had entirely misunderstood the nature of the complaint."
"Have you any further complaint to make against Colonel Desmit?" asked the officer, of Nimbus.
"No," said that worthy, doubtfully. "He was pretty brash wid me, an' 'llowed ter hit me wid a stick; but he didn't—at least not ter speak on—so I don't make no 'count ob dat. 'Twas jes dis matter ob Lugeny's wuk dat made me bring him h'yer—nuffin' else."
"When did this matter of the stick occur?" asked the officer.
"On'y jes yeste'day, sah."
"Where was it?"
"Up ter Marse Potem's, sah. In his house."
"How did it happen?"
"Wal, you see, sah, I went up dar ter see ef I could buy a track ob lan" from him, an'—"
"What!" exclaimed Desmit, in astonishment. "You didn't say a word to me about land."
"No more I didn't," answered Nimbus, "kase yer didn't gib me no chance ter say a word 'bout it. 'Peared like de fus sight on me made yer mad, an' den yer jes feathered away on me, spite ob all I could do er say. Yer see, sah," to the officer, "I'd made a bit ob money in de wah, an' wanted ter see ef I could buy a bit ob pore lan' ob Marse Desmit—a track jes good fer nothin on'y fer a nigga ter starve on—but afore I could git to dat Marse Desmit got so uproarous-like dat I clean fergot what'twas I cum fer."
"There was evidently a misunderstanding," said the attorney.
"I should think so," said the officer, dryly. "You say you have no complaint to make about that affair?" he added to Nimbus. "No," said he; "'twan't a tingob any 'count, nohow. I can't make out what'twas made Marse Potem so fractious anyhow. I reckon, as he says, dar must hev ben some mistake about it. Ef he'll fix up dis matter wid Lugena, I hain't no mo' complaint, an' I'se mighty sorry 'bout dat, kase Marse Desmit hab allus been mighty kin' ter me—all 'cept dis time an' once afo'."
"There's the money for the woman," said the attorney, laying some bills on the officer's table; "and I may say that my client greatly regrets the unfortunate misunderstanding with one of the best of his old slaves. He desires me to say that the woman's services have been entirely satisfactory, and that she can keep right on under the contract, if she desires."
So that was settled. The officer discharged Colonel Desmit, commended Nimbus for the sensible view he had taken of the quarrel, and the parties gave way for other matters which awaited the officer's attention.
This would not seem to have been so very oppressive, but anything growing out of the war which had resulted so disastrously for him was hateful to Colonel Desmit, and we should not wonder if his grandchildren told over, with burning cheeks, the story of the affront which was offered to their ancestor in haling him before that infamous tribunal, "the Bureau," to answer a charge preferred by a "nigger."
TO HIM AND HIS HEIRS FOREVER.
After leaving the office of "the Bureau," the parties repaired to that of the lawyer, and the trade for the land which had been so inopportunely forestalled by Colonel Desmit's hasty temper was entered upon in earnest. That gentleman's financial condition was such as to render the three or four hundred dollars of ready money which Nimbus could pay by no means undesirable, while the property itself seemed of so little value as to be regarded almost as an incumbrance to the plantation of which it was a part. Such was its well-established reputation for poverty of soil that Desmit had no idea that the purchaser would ever be able to meet one of his notes for the balance of the purchase money, and he looked forward to resuming the control of the property at no distant day, somewhat improved by the betterments which occupancy and attempted use would compel the purchaser to make. He regarded the cash to be paid in hand as just so much money accidentally found in his pathway, for which, in no event, was he to render any quid pro quo. But of this he said nothing. It was not his business to look after the interests of a "sassy nigger." In fact, he felt that the money was in a sense due to him on account of the scurvy trick that Nimbus had played him, in deserting to the Yankees after agreeing to look after his "niggers" on the breast-works, although, as the event proved, his master would have gained nothing by his remaining. So the former master and slave met on the level of barter and sale, and gave and took in the conflict of trade.
Except the small tract just about the old hostel, which has already been mentioned, the plantation, which included Red Wing, was descended from an ancestor of the Richards family, who had come from the North about the close of the Revolution and "entered" an immense tract in this section. It had, however, passed out of the family by purchase, and about the beginning of the war of Rebellion a life estate therein was held by its occupant, while the reversion belonged to certain parties in Indiana by virtue of the will of a common ancestor. This life-tenant's necessities compelled him to relinquish his estate, which was bought by Colonel Desmit, during the second year of the war, together with the fee which he had acquired in the tract belonging to the old Ordinary, not because he wanted the land about Red Wing, but because the plantation to which it was attached was a good one, and he could buy it on reasonable terms for Confederate currency. He expected to treat with the Indiana heirs and obtain their respective interests in the fee, which no doubt he would have been able to acquire very cheaply but for the intevening accident of war, as the life-tenant was yet of middle age and the succession consequently of little probable value to living reversioners. This, however, he had not done; but as his deed from the life-tenant was in form an exclusive and unlimited conveyance, it had been quite forgotten that the will of his grandfather limited it to a life estate. So when Nimbus and his friend and counsellor, Eliab Hill, sought to negotiate the purchase of Red Wing, no mention was made of that fact; neither was it alluded to when they came again to conclude the purchase, nor when instructions were given to Colonel Desmit's lawyer to prepare the necessary papers.
The trade was soon brought to an apparently happy conclusion. Nimbus bought two hundred acres at a price of eight hundred dollars, paying one half the price agreed upon in cash, and for the balance gave three notes of equal amounts, one maturing each year thereafter, and received from Colonel Uesmit a bond for title to the whole tract, with full covenants of warranty and seizin. Colonel Desmit accounted the notes of little value; Nimbus prized the bond for title above any patent of nobility. Before the first note fell due all had been discharged, and the bond for title was exchanged for a deed in fee, duly executed. So the recent slave, who had but lately been the subject of barter and sale, was clothed with the rights of a proprietor.
According to the former law, the slave was a sort of chattel-real. Without being attached to the land, he was transferable from one owner to another only by deed or will. In some States he descended as realty, in others as personalty, while in others still, he constituted a separate kind of heritable estate, which was especially provided for in the canons of descent and statutes regulating administration. There was even then of record in the county of Horsford a deed of sale, bearing the hand and seal of P, Desmit, and executed little more than a year previously, conveying to one Peyton Winburn "all the right, title, and interest of said Desmit, in and to a certain runaway negro boy named Nimbus." The said Winburn was a speculator in slaves who had long been the agent of Desmit in marketing his human crop, and who, in the very last hours of the Confederacy, was willing to risk a few dollars on the result. As he well stated it to himself, it was only staking one form of loss against another. He paid Confederate money for a runaway negro. If the Confederacy failed, the negro would be free; but then, too, the money would be worthless. So with grim humor he said to himself that he was only changing the form of his risk and could not possibly lose by the result. Thus, by implication of law, the recent subject of transfer by deed was elevated to the dignity of being a party thereto. The very instrument of his bondage became thereby the sceptre of his power. It was only an incident of freedom, but the difference it measured was infinite. No wonder the former slave tiembled with elation as he received this emblem of autonomy, or that there was a look of gloom on the face of the former master as he delivered the carefully-enrolled deed, made complete by his hand and seal, and attested by his attorney. It was the first time the one had felt the dignity of proprietorship, or the other had known the shame of fraud. The one thought of the bright future which lay before his children, to whom he dedicated Red Wing at that moment in his heart, in terms more solemn than the legal phrases in which Potestatem Desmit had guaranteed to them the estate in fee therein. The other thought of the far-away Indiana reversioners, of whose rights none knew aught save himself—himself and Walter Greer, who had gone away to the wilds of Texas, and might never be heard of any more. It was the first time he had ever committed a deliberate fraud, and when he handed the freedman the deed and said sadly, "I never expected to come down to this," those who heard him thought he meant his low estate, and pitied his misfortunes. He smiled meaningly and turned hastily away, when Nimbus, forgetting his own elation, said, in tones of earnest feeling:
"I declar, Marse Desmit, I'se sorry fer you—I is dat; an' I hopes yer'll come outen dis yer trouble a heap better nor yer's lookin' for."
Then they separated—the one to treasure his apples of Sodom, the other to nourish the memory of his shame.
A CHILD OF THE HILLS.
"Come at once; Oscar very low."
This was the dispatch which an awkward telegraph messenger handed to the principal teacher of "No. 5," one soft September day of 1866. He waited upon the rough stone step, while she, standing in the doorway, read it again and again, or seemed to do so, as if she could not make out the import of the few simple words it contained.
'No 5' was a school-house in one of the townships of Bankshire County, in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In it were taught the children, within school age, of one of those little hamlets which have crept up the valleys of the White Mountains, toled on and on, year after year, farther and farther up the little rivulets that dash down the mountain slopes, by the rumble and clatter of newly-erected machinery.
These mountain streams are the magic handiwork of the nymphs and fays who for ages have lain hidden in the springs that burst out into little lakes upon the birch-crowned summits, and come rushing and tumbling down the rocky defiles to join the waters of the Housatuck. School-house No. 5 was thriftily placed on a bit of refractory land just opposite the junction of two streams which had their rise in two lakelets miles away from each other—one lying under the shadow of Pixey Mountain, and the other hidden among the wooded hills of Birket. They were called "ponds," but are, in truth, great springs, in whose icy coldness the mountain trout delight. Back of the school-house, which, indeed, was half built into it, was a sharp, rocky hillside; across the road which ran before it was a placid pond, bordered on the farther side by a dark fringe of evergreens that lay between it and the-wide expanse of white-armed birches and flaming maples, now beginning to feel the autumn's breath, on the rugged mountain-side above. A little to the left was the narrow gorge through which one of the streams discharged, its bottom studded with ponds and mills, and its sharp sides flecked with the little white-painted homes of well-to-do operatives; to the right and left along the other branch and the course of the united streams, the rumble of water-wheels, the puff of laboring engines, and the groan of tortured machinery never ceased. Machine-shops and cotton-factories, bagging-mills and box-mills, and wrapping-mills, and print-mills, and fine-paper-mills, and even mills for the making of those filmy creations of marvellous texture and wonderful durability which become the representatives of value in the form of bank-notes, were crowded into the narrow gorges. The water was fouled with chemic combinations from source to mouth. For miles up and down one hardly got a breath of air untainted with the fumes of chemicals. Bales of rags, loads of straw, packages of woody pulp, boxes of ultramarine dye, pipes leading from the distant mountain springs, and, above all, the rumble and the groaning of the beating-engines told to every sense that this was one of the great hillside centres of paper-manufacture in New England. The elegant residences of the owners were romantically situated on some half-isolated promonotory around which the stream sweeps, embowered with maples and begirt with willows at its base; or nestled away in some nook, moss-lined and hemlock-shaded, which marks where some spring brook bubbles down its brief career to the larger stream; or in some plateau upon the other side, backed by a scraggly old orchard, and hidden among great groves of rock-maples which the careful husbandman spared a hundred years ago for a "sugar-bush," little dreaming that the nabobs of the rushing streams would build homesteads beneath their shade. And all along, here and there, wherever a house could find a foothold or the native ruggedness be forced to yield one lodgment, houses and shops and crowded tenements stood thick. It was a busy and a populous village, full of wealth and not barren of poverty, stretched along the rushing tributary for more than a mile, and then branching with its constituent forks up into the mountain gorges.
In the very centre of this busy whirl of life stood the little white two-story school-house, flanked on one side by the dwelling of a mill-owner, and on the other by a boarding-house; and just below it, across the street, a machine-shop, and a little cottage of cased logs, with minute-paned windows, and a stone chimney which was built before the Revolution by the first inhabitant of the little valley. A little to the left of the school-house was a great granite boulder, rising almost to its eaves, which had been loosened from the mountain-side two miles up the gorge when the dam at the mouth of the pond gave way years before in a freshet, and brought down and left, by the respectful torrent almost at the threshold of the temple of knowledge.
Such was the scene the Indian summer sun looked down upon, while the teacher stood gazing fixedly at the message which she held. Curious faces peered out of the windows and through the door, which she left ajar when she came into the hall. She took no note of this infraction of discipline. "Any answer, ma'arn?" The messenger-boy shifts his weight awkwardly upon the other foot, as he asks, but receives no reply.
For two years Mollie Ainslie, with her assistants, had dispensed the sweets of knowledge at "No. 5," to the children of the little hamlet. The hazy morning light revealed a small, lithe figure, scarcely taller than the messenger-boy that stood before her; a fair, white face; calm, gray eyes; hair with a glint of golden brown, which waved and rippled about a low, broad brow, and was gathered in a great shining coil behind; and a mouth clear-cut and firm, but now drawn and quivering with deep emotion. The comely head was finely poised upon the slender neck, and in the whole figure there was an air of self-reliance and power that accorded well with the position which she held. A simple gray dress, with a bright ribbon at the throat and a bunch of autumn flowers carelessly tucked into the belt which circled the trim waist, completed the picture framed in the doorway of the white school-house. She stood, with eyes fastened on the paper which she held in one hand, while the other pressed a pencil-head against her cheek, unmindful of the curious glances that were fixed upon her from within, until the messenger-boy had twice repeated his customary question:
"Any answer, ma'am?"
She reached forth her hand, slowly and without reply. The boy looked up and saw that she was gazing far beyond him and had a strained, fixed look in her eyes.
"Want a blank?" he asked, in a tone of unconscious sympathy.
She did not answer, but as he put his pad of blanks into her outstretched hand she drew it back and wrote, in a slow and absent manner, a message in these words:
"To CAPTAIN OSCAR AINSLIE, Boyleston, Va.
"Collect?" asked the boy.
She inquired, and paid the charges in the same unheeding way. The messenger departed with a wistful glance at the dry, pained eyes which heeded him not. With a look of dumb entreaty at the overhanging mountain and misty, Indian summer sky, and a half perceptible shiver of dread, Mollie Ainslie turned and entered again the school-room.
GOOD-MORROW AND FAREWELL.
A week afterward, Mollie Ainslie stood beside the bed of her only brother and watched the sharp, short struggle which he made with their hereditary enemy, consumption. Weakened by wounds and exposure, he was but ill-prepared to resist the advances of the insidious foe, and when she reached his side she saw that the hope, even of delay, was gone. So she took her place, and with ready hand, brave heart, and steady purpose, brightened his pathway to the tomb.
Oscar and Mollie Ainslie were the oniy children of a New England clergyman whose life had lasted long enough, and whose means had been sufficient, with the closest economy, to educate them both according to the rigorous standards of the region in which they were born. Until the son entered college they had studied together, and the sister was almost as well prepared for the university course as the brother when they were separated. Then she stepped out of the race, and determined, though scarcely more than a child, to become herself a bread-winner, in order that her father's meager salary might be able to meet the drain of her brother's college expenses. She did this not only without murmuring, but with actual pleasure. Her ambition, which was boundless, centered upon her brother. She identified herself with him, and cheerfully gave up every advantage, in order that his opportunities might be more complete. To Oscar these sacrifices on his sister's part were very galling. He felt the wisdom of the course pursued toward him by his family, and was compelled to accede in silence to prevent the disappointment which his refusal would bring. Yet it was the keenest trial for him to think of accepting his sister's earnings, and only the conviction that to do so was the quickest and surest way to relieve her of the burden of self-support, induced him to submit to such an arrangement.
Hardly had he entered upon his college course when the war of Rebellion came on, and Oscar Ainslie saw in the patriotic excitement and the promise of stirring events a way out of a situation whose fetters were too heavy for him to bear by reason of their very tenderness. He was among the first, therefore, to enlist, happy thereby to forestall his sister's determination to engage in teaching, for his sake. His father was grieved at the son's abandonment of his projected career, but his heart was too patriotic to object. So he gave the bright-eyed young soldier his blessing as he bade him good-by, standing there before him, strong and trim, in his close-fitting cavalry uniform. He knew that Oscar's heart beat high with hope, and he would not check it, though he felt sure that they looked into each other's eyes for the last time. When his own were glazing over with the ghastly grave-light, more than two years afterward, they were gladdened by the announcement which came throbbing along the wires and made bright the whole printed page from which he read: "Private Oscar Ainslie, promoted to a Captaincy for gallant conduct on the field of Gettysburg." Upon this he rallied his fading energies, and waited for a week upon the very brink of the chill river, that he might hear, before he crossed over, from the young soldier himself, how this honor was won. When he had learned this he fell asleep, and not long after, the faithful wife who had shared his toils and sacrifices heard the ceaseless cry of his lonely spirit, and was gathered again to his arms upon the shore where beauty fadeth not forever.
The little homestead upon the rocky hillside overlooking the village was all that was left to the brother and sister; but it was more than the latter could enjoy alone, so she fled away and entered upon the vocation in which we found her engaged. Meantime her brother had risen in. rank, and at the close of the war had been transferred to the regular army as a reward of distinguished merit. Then his hereditary foe had laid siege to his weakened frame, and a brother officer had telegraphed to the sister in the Bankshire hills the first warning of the coming end.
It was a month after her arrival at Boyleston, when her brother, overcoming the infatuation which usually attends that disease, saw that the end was near and made provision respecting it.
"Sis," he said, calling her by the pet name of their childhood, "what day of the month is it?"
"The thirteenth, Oscar—your birthday," she replied briskly. "Don't you see that I have been out and gathered leaves and flowers to decorate your room, in honor of the event?"
Her lap was full of autumn leaves-maple and gum, flaming and variegated, brown oak of various shapes and shades, golden hickory, the open burrs of the chintuapin, pine cones, and the dun scraggly balls of the black-gum, some glowing bunches of the flame-bush, with their wealth of bursting red beries, and a full-laden branch of the black-haw.
The bright October sun shone through the open window upon her as she arranged them with deft fingers, contrasting the various hues with loving skill, and weaving ornaments for different points in the bare room of the little country hotel where her brother lay. He watched her awhile in silence, and then said sadly,
"Yes, my last birthday."
Her lips trembled, and her head drooped lower over her lap, but she would not let him see her agitation. So she simply said,
"Do not say that, Oscar."
"No," he replied, "I ought not to say so. I should have said, my last earthly birthday. Sit closer, Sis, where I can see you better. I want to talk to you."
"Do you know," he continued, as she came and sat upon his bedside, spreading her many-hued treasures over the white coverlet, "that I meant to have been at home to-day?"
"And are you not?" she asked cheerfully. "Am I not with you?"
"True, Sis, and you are my home now; but, after all, I did want to see the old New England hills once more. One yearns for familiar scenes after years of war. I meant to have gone back and brought you here, away from the cold winters that sting, and bite, and kill. I hoped that, after rest, I might recover strength, and that you might, here escape the shadow which has fastened upon me."
"Have you seen my horse, Midnight?" he asked, after a fit of coughing, followed by a dreamy silence.
"How do you like him?"
"He is a magnificent creature."
"Would he let you approach him?"
"I had no trouble in doing so."
None?" He's very vicious, too. Everybody has had trouble with him. Do you think you could ride him?"
"I have ridden him every day for two weeks."
"Ah! that is how you have kept so fresh." Then, after a pause, "Do you know how I got him?"
"I heard that he was captured."
"Yes, in the very last fight before the surrender at Appomattox. I was with Sheridan, you know. We were pursuing the retreating columns—had been pressing them hotly ever since the break at Petersburg—on the rear and on both flanks, fighting, worrying, and watching all the time. On the last day, when the retreat had become a rout, as it seemed, a stand was made by a body of cavalry just on the crest of a smoothly-sloping hill. Not anticipating serious resistance, we did not wait for the artillery to come up and dislodge them, but deploying a brigade we rode on, jesting and gay, expecting to see them disperse when we came within range and join the rabble beyond. We were mistaken. Just when we got within easy charging distance, down they came, pell-mell, as dashing a body of dirty veterans as I ever saw. The attack was so unexpected that for a time we were swept off our feet and fairly carried backward with surprise. Then we rallied, and there was a sharp, short struggle. The enemy retreated, and we pressed after them. The man that rode this horse seemed to have selected me as his mark. He rode straight at me from the first. He was a fine, manly-looking fellow, and our swords were about the last that were crossed in the struggle. We had a sharp tussle for a while. I think he must have been struck by a chance shot. At least he was unseated just about the time my own horse was shot under me. Looking around amid the confusion I saw this horse without a rider. I was in mortal terror of being trampled by the shifting squadrons and did not delay, but sprang into the saddle and gave him the spur. When the Confederate bugles sounded the retreat I had a terrible struggle to keep him from obeying orders and carrying me away into their lines. After that, however, I had no trouble with him. But he is not kind to strangers, as a rule. I meant to have taken him home to you," he added, sadly. "You will have him now, and will prize him for my sake, will you not, Sis?"
"You know, Oscar, that everything you have ever loved or used will be held sacred," she answered tearfully.
"Yes, I know," he rejoined. "Sis, I wish you would make me a promise."
"You know I will."
"Well, then, do not go back to our old home this winter, nor the next, nor—but I will not impose terms upon you. Stay as long as you can content yourself in this region. I am afraid for you. I know you are stronger and have less of the consumptive taint about you than I, but I am afraid. You would have worked for me when I was in college, and I have worked only for you, since that time. All that I have saved—and I have saved all I could, for I knew that my time was not long—is yours. I have some money on deposit, some bonds, and a few articles of personal property—among the latter, Midnight. All these are yours. It will leave you comfortable for a time at least. Now, dear, promise that I shall be buried and remain in the cemetery the Government is making for the soldiers who fell in those last battles. Somehow, I think it will keep you here, in order that you may be near me, and save you from the disease which is devouring my life."
A week afterward his companions followed, with rever ed arms, the funereally-caparisoned Midnight to the grounds of the National Cemetery, and fired a salute over a new-made grave.
Nimbus, taking with him his helpless friend, had appealed, soon after his purchase, to the officer of the Bureau for aid in erecting a school-house at Red Wing. By him he had been referred to one of those charitable associations, through whose benign agency the great-hearted North poured its free bounty into the South immediately upon the cessation of strife.
Perhaps there has been no grander thing in our history than the eager generosity with which the Christian men and women of the North gave and wrought, to bring the boon of knowledge to the recently-enslaved. As the North gave, willingly and freely, men and millions to save the nation from disruption, so, when peace came, it gave other brave men and braver women, and other unstinted millions to strengthen the hands which generations of slavery had left feeble and inept. Not only the colored, but the white also, were the recipients of this bounty. The Queen City of the Confederacy, the proud capital of the commonwealth of Virginia, saw the strange spectacle of her own white children gathered, for the first time, into free public schools which were supported by Northern charity, and taught by noble women with whom her high-bred Christian dames and dainty maidens would not deign to associate. The civilization of the North in the very hour of victory threw aside the cartridge-box, and appealed at once to the contribution-box to heal the ravages of war. At the door of every church throughout the North, the appeal was posted for aid to open the eyes of the blind whose limbs had just been unshackled; and the worshipper, as he gave thanks for his rescued land, brought also an offering to aid in curing the ignorance which slavery had produced.
It was the noblest spectacle that Christian civilization has ever witnessed—thousands of schools organized in the country of a vanquished foe, almost before the smoke of battle had cleared away, free to the poorest of her citizens, supported by the charity, and taught by kindly-hearted daughters of a quick-forgiving enemy. The instinct of our liberty-loving people taught them that light must go with liberty, knowledge with power, to give either permanence or value. Thousands of white-souled angels of peace, the tenderly-reared and highly-cultured daughters of many a Northern home, came into the smitten land to do good to its poorest and weakest. Even to this day, two score of schools and colleges remain, the glorious mementoes of this enlightened bounty and Christian magnanimity.
And how did the white brothers and sisters of these messengers of a matchless benevolence receive them? Ah, God! how sad that history should be compelled to make up so dark a record—abuse, contumely, violence! Christian tongues befouled with calumny! Christian lips blistered with falsehood! Christian hearts overflowing with hate! Christian, pens reeking with ridicule because other Christians sought to do their needy fellows good! No wonder that faith grew weak and unbelief ran riot through all the land when men looked upon the spectacle! The present may excuse, for charity is kind; but the future is inexorable and writes its judgments with a pen hard-nibbed! But let us not anticipate. In thousands of Northern homes still live to testify these devoted sisters and daughters, now grown matronly. They are scattered through every state, almost in every hamlet of the North, while other thousands have gone, with the sad truth carved deep upon their souls, to testify in that court where "the action lies in its true nature."
Nimbus found men even more ready to assist than he and his fellows were to be aided. He himself gave the land and the timbers; the benevolent association to whom he had appealed furnished the other materials required; the colored men gave the major part of the labor, and, in less than a year from the time the purchase was made, the house was ready for the school, and the old hostelry prepared for the teachers that had been promised.
So it was that, when Nimbus came to the officer in charge at Boyleston and begged that a teacher might be sent to Red Wing, and met the reply that because of the great demand they had none to send, Mollie Ainslie, hearing of the request, with her load of sorrow yet heavy on her lonely heart, said, "Here am I; take me." She thought it a holy work. It was, to her simple heart, a love-offering to the memory of him who had given his life to secure the freedom of the race she was asked to aid in lifting up. The gentle child felt called of God to do missionary work for a weak and struggling people. She thought she felt the divine commandment which rested on the Nazarene. She did not stop to consider of the "impropriety" of her course. She did not even know that there was any impropriety in it. She thought her heart had heard the trumpet-call of duty, and, like Joan of Arc, though it took her among camps and dangers, she would not flinch. So Nimbus returned happy; an officer was sent to examine the location and report. Mollie, mounted upon Midnight, accompanied him. Of course, this fact and her unbounded delight at the quaint beauty of Red Wing was no part of the reason why Lieutenant Hamilton made a most glowing report on the location; but it was owing to that report that the officer at the head of the "Bureau" in that district, the department-commander, and finally the head of the Bureau, General Howard himself, indorsed the scheme most warmly and aided it most liberally. So that soon afterward the building was furnished as a school-house, Mollie Ainslie, with Lucy Ellison, an old schoolmate, as her assistant, was installed at the old hostlery, and bore sway in the school of three hundred dusky pupils which assembled daily at Red Wing. Midnight was given royal quarters in the old log-stable, which had been re-covered and almost rebuilt for his especial delectation, the great square stall, with its bed of dry oak leaves, in which he stood knee-deep, being sufficient to satisfy even Miss Mollie's fastidious demands for the comfort of her petted steed After a time Eliab Hill, to whose suggestion the whole plan was due, became also an assistant instructor.
Mollie Ainslie did not at all realize the nature of the task she had undertaken, or the burden of infamy and shame which a Christian people would heap upon her because of this kindly-meant work done in their midst!
It was more than a year afterward. Quite a little village had grown up around the church and school-house at Red Wing, inhabited by colored men who had been attracted thither by the novelty of one of their own members being a proprietor. Encouraged by his example, one and another had bought parcels of his domain, until its size was materially reduced though its value was proportionately enhanced. Those who settled here were mostly mechanics—carpenters and masons—who worked here and there as they could find employment, a blacksmith who wrought for himself, and some farm laborers who dreaded the yearly system of hire as too nearly allied to the slave regime, and so worked by the day upon the neighboring plantations. One or two bought somewhat larger tracts, intending to imitate the course of Nimbus and raise the fine tobacco for which the locality was already celebrated. All had built cheap log-houses, but their lots were well fenced and their "truck-patches" clean and thrifty, and the little hamlet was far from being unattractive, set as it was in the midst of the green forests which belted it about. From the plantations on either side, the children flocked to the school. So that when the registering officer and the sheriff rode into the settlement, a few days after the registration at Melton, it presented a thriving and busy spectacle.
Upon the hillside, back of his house, Nimbus, his wife, and two men whom he had employed were engaged in cutting the tobacco which waved—crinkled and rank, with light ygjlowish spots showing here and there upon the great leaves—a billow of green in the autumn wind. The new-comers halted and watched the process for a moment as they rode up to the barn, while the sheriff explained to the unfamiliar Northman:
"This is the first cutting, as it is called. They only take out the ripest this time, and leave the rest for another cutting, a week or two later. You see, he goes through there," pointing to Nimbus, "and picks out the ripe, yellow-looking plants. Then he sets his knife in at the top of the stalk where it has been broken off to prevent its running up to seed, and splits it down almost to the ground; then he cuts the stalk off below the split, and it is ready to be hung on the thin narrow strips of oak, which you see stuck up here and there, where the cutting has been done. They generally put from seven to ten plants on a stick, according to the size of the plants; so that the number of sticks makes a very accurate measure of the size of the crop, and an experienced hand can tell within a few pounds the weight of any bulk of tobacco by simply counting the sticks."
They rode up to the barn and found it already half full of tobacco. Nimbus came and showed the officer how the sticks were laid upon beams placed at proper intervals, the split plants hanging tops downward, close together, but not touching each other. The upper portions of the barn were first filled and then the lower tiers, until the tobacco hung within two or three feet of the bottom. The barn itself was made of logs, the interstices closely chinked and daubed with clay, so as to make it almost air-tight. Around the building on the inside ran a large stone flue, like a chimney laid on the ground. Outside was a huge pile of wood and a liberal supply of charcoal. Nimbus thus described the process of curing: "Yer see, Capting, we fills de barn chock full, an' then shets it up fer a day or two, 'cording ter de weather, sometimes wid a slow fire an' sometimes wid none, till it begins ter sweat—git moist, yer know. Den we knows it's in order ter begin de curin', an' we puts on mo' fire, an' mo,' an' mo', till de whole house gits hot an' de leaves begins ter hev a ha'sh, rough feel about de edges, an' now an' den one begins ter yaller up. Den we raises de heat jes ze fast ez we kin an' not fire de barn. Some folks uses de flues alone an' some de coal alone, but I mostly 'pends on de flues wid a few heaps of coal jes here an' dar 'bout de flo', at sech a time, kase eberyting 'pends on a even reg'lar heat dat you kin manage good. Den you keeps watch on it mighty close an' don't let it git too hot nor yet fail ter be hot 'nough, but jes so ez ter keep it yallerin' up nicely. When de leaves is crisp an' light so dat dey rustles roun' in de drafts like dead leaves in the fall, yer know, it's cured; an' all yer's got ter du den is ter dry out de stems an' stalks. Dat's got ter be done, tho,' kase ef yer leaves enny bit ob it green an' sappy-like, fust ting yer knows when it comes in order—dat is, gits damp an' soft—de green runs outen de stems down inter de leaves an' jes streaks 'em all ober, or p'raps it turns de fine yaller leaf a dull greenish brown. So yer's got ter keep up yer fire till every stalk an' stem'll crack like a pipe-stem ez soon ez yer bends 'em up. Den yer lets de fire go down an' opens der do' fer it ter come in order, so't yer kin bulk it down."
"What do you mean by 'bulking it down'?"
"Put it in bulk, like dis yer," said he, pointing to a pile of sticks laid crosswise of each other with the plants still on them, and carefully covered to keep out the weather. "Yer see," he continued, "dis answers two pu'poses; fust yergits yer barn empty an' uses it again. Den de weather don't git in ter signify, yer know, an' so it don't come inter order any more an' color up wid de wet; dat is, 'less yer leaves it too long or de wedder is mighty damp."
"Oh, he knows," said the sheriff, with a ring of pride in his voice. "Nimbus was raised in a tobacco-field, and knows as much as anybody about it. How did your first barn cure up, Nimbus?"
"Right bright and even, sah," answered the colored man, as he thrust his hand under the boards spread over the bulk near which he stood, and drew out a few leaves, which he smoothed out carefully and handed to his visitors. "I got it down in tol'able fa'r order, too, alter de rain t'odder evenin'. Dunno ez I ebber handled a barn thet, take it all round, 'haved better er come out fa'rer in my life—mighty good color an' desp'ut few lugs. Yer see, I got it cut jes de right time, an' de weather couldn't hev ben better ef I'd hed it made ter order."
The sheriff stretched a leaf to its utmost width, held it up to the sunshine, crumpled it between his great palms, held it to his face and drew a long breath through it, rubbed the edges between thumb and finger, pinched the stem with his thumb-nail till it broke in half a dozen places, and remarked with enthusiasm, to the Northern man, who stood rubbing and smelling of the sample he held, in awkward imitation of one whom he recognized as a connoisseur:
"That's prime terbacker, Captain. If it runs like that through the bulk and nothing happens to it before it gets to the warehouse, it'll bring a dollar a pound, easy. You don't often see such terbacker any year, much less such a one as this has been. Didn't it ripen mighty uneven, Nimbus?" "Jest about ez it oughter—a little 'arlier on the hilltop an' dry places 'long de sides, an' den gradwally down ter de moister places. Dar wa'n't much ob dat pesky spotted ripenin' up—jes a plant h'yer an' anodder dar, all in 'mong de green, but jest about a good barnfull in tollable fa'r patches, an' den anodder comin' right on atter it. I'll hev it full agin an' fire up by to-morrer evenin'."
"Do you hang it right up after cutting?" asked the officer.
"Wal, we mout do so. Tain't no hurt ter do it dat er way, only it handles better ter let it hang on de sticks a while an' git sorter wilted—don't break de leaves off ner mash 'em up so much loadin' an" unloadin', yer know," answered Nimbus.
"How much have you got here?" asked the sheriff, casting his eye over the field; "forty thousand?"
"Wal," said Nimbus, "I made up sixty thousand hills, but I hed ter re-set some on 'em. I s'pose it'll run somewhere between fifty an' sixty thousand."
"A right good crop," said the sheriff. "I doubt if any man in the county has got a better, take it all 'round."
"I don't reckon ther's one wukked enny harder fer what he's got," said the colored man quietly.
"No, I'll guarantee ther hain't," said the other, laughing. "Nobody ever accused you of being lazy, Nimbus. They only fault you fer being too peart."
"All 'cause I wants my own, an' wuks fer it, an' axes nobody enny odds, but only a fa'r show—a white man's chance ter git along," responded Nimbus, with a touch of defiance in his tone.
"Well, well," said the sheriff good-naturedly, "I won't never fault ye for that, but they do say you're the only man, white er black, that ever got ahead of Potem Desmit in a trade yet. How's that, Nimbus?"
"I paid him all he axed," said the colored man, evidently flattered by this tribute to his judgment as to the value of Red Wing. "Kase white folks won't see good fine-terbacker lan' when dey walks ober it, tain't my fault, is it?"
"No more tain't, Nimbus; but don't yer s'pose yer Marse Potem's smartly worried over it?"
"La, no, I reckon not. He don't 'pear ter be, ennyhow. He war by here when I was curin' up dis barn, an' stopped in an' looked at it, an' axed a power ob questions, an' got Lugena ter bring him out some buttermilk an' a corn pone. Den he went up an' sot an hour in de school an' sed ez how he war mighty proud ter see one of his ole nigga's gittin' on dat er way."
"Wal, now, that was kind of him, wasn't it?"
"Dat it war, sah, an' hit done us all a power ob good, too. Hev you ebber ben ter de school, Mr. Sheriff? No? wal, yer oughter; an' you, too, Capting. Dar's a little Yankee woman, Miss Mollie Ainslie, a runnin' ob it, dat do beat all curration fer managin' tings. I'd nebber'd got long so h'yer, not by no means, ez I hez, but fer her advice—her'n an' 'Liab's, gentlemen. Dar she am now," he added, as a slight figure, mounted on a powerful black horse, and dressed in a dark riding-habit, with a black plume hanging from a low-crowned felt hat, came out of the woods below and cantered easily along the road a hundred yards away, toward the school-house. The visitors watched her curiously, and expressed a desire to visit the school. Nimbus said that if they would walk on slowly he would go by the house and get his coat and overtake them before they reached the school-house. As they walked along the sheriff said,
"Did you notice the horse that Yankee schoolmarm rode?"
"I noticed that it was a very fine one," was the reply.
"I should think it was. I haven't seen a horse in an age that reminded me so much of the one I was telling you about that Hesden Le Moyne used to have. He is fuller and heavier, but if I was not afraid of making Hesden mad I would rig him about a nigger-teacher's riding his horse around the country. Of course it's not the same, but it would be a good joke, only Hesden Le Moyne is not exactly the man one wants to start a joke on."
When they arrived at the school-house they found that Mollie Ainslie had changed her habit and was now standing by the desk on the platform in the main room, clad in a neat half-mourning dress, well adapted to the work of the school-room, quiet and composed, tapping her bell to reduce to order the many-hued crowd of scholars of all ages and sizes who were settling into their places preparatory to the morning roll-call. Nimbus took his visitors up the broad aisle, through an avenue of staring eyes, and introduced them awkwardly, but proudly, to the self-collected little figure on the platform. She in turn presented to them her assistant, Miss Lucy Ellison, a blushing, peach-cheeked little Northern beauty, and Eliab Hill, now advanced to the dignity of an assistant also, who sat near her on the platform. The sheriff nodded awkwardly to the ladies, as if doubtful how much deference it would do to display, said, "How d'ye, 'Liab?" to the crippled colored man, laid his saddle-bags on the floor, and took the chair assigned to him. The Northern man greeted the young ladies with apparent pleasure and profound respect, shook hands with the colored man, calling him "Mister" Hill, and before sitting down looked out on the crowded school with evident surprise.
Before proceeding with the roll-call Miss Ainslie took the large Bible which lay upon her desk, and approaching the gentlemen said:
"It is our custom every morning to read a portion of the Scripture and offer prayer. We should be glad if either of you would conduct these exercises for us."
Both declined, the sheriff with some confusion, and the other remarking that he desired to see the school going on as if he were not present, in order that he might the better observe its exercises.
Miss Ainslie returned to her desk, called the roll of a portion of the scholars, and then each of her assistants called the names of those assigned to their charge. A selection from the Scripture was next read by the preceptress, a hymn sung under her lead with great spirit and correctness, and then Eliab Hill, clasping his hands, said, "Let us pray." The whole school knelt, the ladies bowed their heads upon the desk, and Eliab offered an appropriate prayer, in which the strangers were not forgotten, but were each kindly and fitly commended to the Divine care. Then there was an impromptu examination of the school. Each of the teachers heard a class recite, there was more singing, with other agreeable exercises, and it was noon before the visitors thought of departing. Then they were invited to dine with the lady teachers at the old Ordinary, and would have declined, on the ground that they must go on to the next precinct, but Nimbus, who had been absent for an hour, now appeared and brought word that the table was spread on the porch under the great oak, and their horses already cared for; so that excuse would evidently be useless. The sheriff was very uneasy, but the other seemed by no means displeased at the delay. However, the former recovered when he saw the abundant repast, and told many amusing stories of the old hostel. At length he said:
"That is a fine horse you rode this morning, Miss Ainslie. May I ask to whom it belongs?"
"To me, of course," replied the lady, in some surprise.
"I did not know," replied the sheriff, slightly confused. "Have you owned him long?"
"Nearly two years, she answered."
"Indeed? Somehow I can't get it out of my head that I have seen him before, while I am quite sure I never had the pleasure of meeting you until to-day."
"Quite likely," she answered; "Nimbus sometimes rides him into Melton for the mail."
"No," said he, shaking his head, "that is not it. But, no matter, he's a fine horse, and if you leave here or wish to sell him at any time, I hope you will rememher and give me a first chance."
He was astonished at the result of his harmless proposal.
"Sir," said the little lady, her gray eyes filling and her voice choking with emotion, "that was my only brother's favorite horse. He rode him in the army, and gave him to me when he died. No money could buy him under any circumstances."
"Beg pardon," said the sheriff; "I had no idea—I—ah—"
To relieve his embarrassment the officer brought forward the special object of his visit by stating that it was thought desirable to establish a voting precinct at Red Wing for the coming election, if a suitable place to hold the election could be found, and asked if the school-house could be obtained for that purpose. A lively conversation ensued, in which both gentlemen set forth the advantages of the location to the voters of that section. Miss Ellison seemed to favor it, but the little lady who was in charge only asked questions and looked thoughtful. When at length her opinion was directly asked, she said:
"I had heard of this proposal through both Mr. Hill and Nimbus, and I must say I quite agree with the view taken by the former. If it were necessary in order to secure the exercise of their rights by the colored men I would not object; but I cannot see that it is. It would, of course, direct even more attention to our school, and I do not think the feeling toward us among our white neighbors is any too kindly now. We have received no serious ill-treatment, it is true, but this is the first time any white person has ventured into our house. I don't think that anything should be done to excite unnecessary antipathy which might interfere with what I must consider the most important element of the colored man's development, the opportunity for education."
"Why, they hold the League meetings there, don't they?" asked the sheriff, with a twinkle which questioned her sincerity.
"Certainly," she answered calmly. "At least I gave them leave to do so, and have no doubt they do. I consider that necessary. The colored men should be encouraged to consider and discuss political affairs and decide in regard to them from their own standpoint. The League gives them this opportunity. It seems to be a quiet and orderly gathering. They are all colored men of the same way of thought, in the main, and it is carried on entirely by them; at least, such is the case here, and I consider the practice which it gives in the discussion of public affairs and the conduct of public assemblies as a most valuable training for the adults who will never have a chance to learn otherwise."
"I think Nimbus is in favor of having the election here," said Captain Pardee.
"No doubt," she replied. "So are they all, and they have been very pressing in their importunity—all except Mr. Hill. They are proud of their school and the building, which is the joint product of their own labor and the helpfulness of Northern friends, and are anxious for every opportunity to display their unexpected prosperity. It is very natural, but I think unwise."
"Nimbus owns the land, don't he?" asked the sheriff.
"No, He gave that for school and church purposes, and, except that they have a right to use it on the Sabbath, it is in my charge as the principal teacher here," she replied, wilh dignity.
"And you do not desire the election held here?" asked Captain Pardee.
"I am sorry to discommode the voters around here, white or black, but I would not balance a day's time or a day's walk against the more important interests of this school to the colored people. They can walk ten miles to vote, if need be, but no exertion of theirs could replace even the building and its furniture, let alone the school which it shelters."
"That is very true," said the officer, thoughtfully.
So the project was abandoned, and Melton remained the nearest polling-place to Red Wing.
As they rode away the two representatives of antipodal thought discussed the scenes they had witnessed that day, which were equally new to them both, and naturally enough drew from them entirely different conclusions. The Northern man enthusiastically prophesied the rapid rise and miraculous development of the colored race under the impetus of free schools and free thought. The Southern man only saw in it a prospect of more "sassy niggers," like Nimbus, who was "a good enough nigger, but mighty aggravating to the white folks."
With regard to the teachers, he ventured only this comment:
"Captain, it's a mighty pity them gals are teaching a nigger school. They're too likely for such work—too likely by half."
The man whom he addressed only gave a low, quiet laugh at this remark, which the other found it difficult to interpret.
THE SHADOW OF THE FLAG.
As soon as it became known that the plan of having a polling-place at Red Wing had been abandoned, there was an almost universal expression of discontent among the colored people. Never before had the authority or wisdom of the teachers been questioned. The purity of their motives and the devotion they had displayed in advancing every interest of those to whom they had come as the missionaries of light and freedom, had hitherto protected them from all jealousy or suspicion on the part of the beneficiaries of their devotion. Mollie Ainslie had readily and naturally fallen into the habit of controlling and directing almost everything about her, simply because she had been accustomed to self-control and self-direction, and was by nature quick to decide and resolute to act. Conscious of her own rectitude, and fully realizing the dangers which might result from the experiment proposed, she had had no hesitation about withholding her consent, without which the school-house could not be used, and had not deemed it necessary to consult the general wish of the villagers in regard to it. Eliab Hill had approved her action, and she had briefly spoken of it to Nimbus—that was all.
Now, the people of Red Wing, with Nimbus at their head, had set their hearts upon having the election held there. The idea was flattering to their importance, a recognition of their manhood and political co-ordination which was naturally and peculiarly gratifying. So they murmured and growled, and the discontent grew louder and deeper until, on the second day thereafter, Nimbus, with two or three other denizens of Red Wing, came, with gloomy, sullen faces, to the school-house at the hour for dismissal, to hold an interview with Miss Ainslie on the subject. She knew their errand, and received them with that cool reserve which so well became her determined face and slight, erect figure. When they had stated their desire, and more than half indicated their determination to have the election held there at all hazards, she said briefly,
"I have not the slightest objection."
"Dar now," said Nimbus exultingly; "I 'llowed dar mus' be somethin' wrong 'bout it. They kep' tellin' me that you 'posed it, an' tole de Capting dat it couldn't never be held here wid your consent while you wuz in de school."
"So I did."
"You don't say? an' now yer's changed yer mind."
"I have not changed my mind at all." "No? Den what made you say yer hadn't no 'jections, just now."
"Because I have not. It is a free country. You say you are determined to have the election here, I am fully convinced that it would do harm. Yet you have a right to provide a place, and hold it here, if you desire. That I do not question, and shall not attempt to prevent; only, the day that you determine to do so I shall pack up my trunk, ride over to Boyleston, deliver the keys to the superintendent, and let him do as he chooses about the matter."
"Yer don't mean ter say yer'd go an' leave us fer good, does yer, Miss Mollie?" asked Nimbus in surprise.
"Certainly," was the reply; "when the people have once lost confidence in me, and I am required to give up my own deliberate judgment to a whimsical desire for parade, I can do no more good here, and will leave at once."
"Sho, now, dat won't do at all—no more it won't," responded Nimbus. "Ef yer feel's dat er way 'bout it, der ain't no mo' use a-talkin'. Dere's gwine ter be nary 'lection h'yer ef it really troubles you ladies dat 'er way."
So it was decided, and once again there was peace.
To compensate themselves for this forbearance, however, it was suggested that the colored voters of Red Wing and vicinity should meet at the church on the morning of election and march in a body to the polls with music and banners, in order most appropriately and significantly to commemorate their first exercise of the electoral privilege. To this Miss Ainslie saw no serious objection, and in order fully to conciliate Nimbus, who might yet feel himself aggrieved by her previous decision, she tendered him the loan of her horse on the occasion, he having been elected marshal.
From that time until the day of the election there was considerable excitement. There were a number of political harangues made in the neighborhood; the League met several times; the colored men appeared anxious and important about the new charge committed to their care; the white people were angry, sullen, and depressed. The school at Red Wing went peaceably on, interrupted only by the excitement attendant upon the preparations making for the expected parade.
Almost every night, after work was over, the colored people would gather in the little hamlet and march to the music of a drum and fife, and under the command of Nimbus, whose service in the army had made him a tolerable proficient in such tactical movements as pertained to the "school of the company." Very often, until well past midnight the fife and drum, the words of command, and the rumble of marching feet could be heard in the little village. The white people in the country around about began to talk about "the niggers arming and drilling," saying that they intended to "seize the polls on election day;" "rise up and murder the whites;" "burn all the houses along the river;" and a thousand other absurd and incredible things which seemed to fill the air, to grow and multiply like baleful spores, without apparent cause. As a consequence of this there grew up a feeling of apprehension among the colored men also. They feared that these things were said simply to make a ready and convenient excuse for violence which was to be perpetrated upon them in order to prevent the exercise of their legal rights.
So there were whisperings and apprehension and high resolve upon both sides. The colored men, conscious of their own rectitude, were either unaware of the real light in which their innocent parade was regarded by their white neighbors, or else laughed at the feeling as insincere and groundless. The whites, having been for generations firm believers in the imminency of servile insurrections; devoutly crediting the tradition that the last words of George Washington, words of wisdom and warning, were, "Never trust a nigger with a gun;" and accustomed to chafe each other into a fever heat of excitement over any matter of public interest, were ready to give credence to any report—all the more easily because of its absurdity. On the other hand, the colored people, hearing these rumors, said to themselves that it was simply a device to prevent them from voting, or to give color and excuse for a conflict at the polls.
There is no doubt that both were partly right and partly wrong. While the parade was at first intended simply as a display, it came to be the occasion of preparation for an expected attack, and as the rumors grew more wild and absurd, so did each side grow more earnest and sincere. The colored men determined to exercise their rights openly and boldly, and the white men were as fully determined that at any exhibition of "impudence" on the part of the "niggers" they would teach them a lesson they would not soon forget.
None of this came to the ears of Mollie Ainslie. Nevertheless she had a sort of indefinite foreboding of evil to come out of it, and wished that she had exerted her influence to prevent the parade.
On the morning of the election day a motley crowd collected at an early hour at Red Wing. It was noticeable that every one carried a heavy stick, though there was no other show of arms among them. Some of them, no doubt, had pistols, but there were no guns in the crowd. They seemed excited and alarmed. A few notes from the fife, however, banished all irresolution, and before eight o'clock two hundred men gathered from the country round marched away toward Melton, with a national flag heading the column, in front of which rode Eliab Hill in the carryall belonging to Nimbus. With them went a crowd of women and children, numbering as many more, all anxious to witness the first exercise of elective power by their race, only just delivered from the bonds of slavery. The fife screeched, the drum rattled; laughter and jests and high cheer prevailed among them all. As they marched on, now and then a white man rode past them, silent and sullen, evidently enraged at the display which was being made by the new voters. As they drew nearer to the town it became evident that the air was surcharged with trouble. Nimbus sent back Miss Ainslie's horse, saying that he was afraid it might get hurt. The boy that took it innocently repeated this remark to his teacher.
Within the town there was great excitement. A young man who had passed Red Wing while the men were assembling had spurred into Melton and reported with great excitement that the "niggers" were collecting at the church and Nimbus was giving out arms and ammunition; that they were boasting of what they would do if any of their votes were refused; that they had all their plans laid to meet negroes from other localities at Melton, get up a row, kill all the white men, burn the town, and then ravish the white women. This formula of horrors is one so familiar to the Southern tongue that it runs off quite unconsciously whenever there is any excitement in the air about the "sassy niggers." It is the "form of sound words," which is never forgotten. Its effect upon the Southern white man is magical. It moves him as the red rag does a mad bull. It takes away all sense and leaves only an abiding desire to kill.
So this rumor awakened great excitement as it flew from lip to lip. Few questioned its verity, and most of those who heard felt bound in conscience to add somewhat to it as they passed it on to the next listener. Each one that came in afterward was questioned eagerly upon the hypothesis of a negro insurrection having already taken shape. "How many are there?" "Who is at the head of it?" "How are they armed?" "What did they say?" were some of the queries which overwhelmed every new comer. It never seemed to strike any one as strange that if the colored men had any hostile intent they should let these solitary horsemen pass them unmolested. The fever spread. Revolvers were flourished and shot-guns loaded; excited crowds gathered here and there, and nearly everybody in the town sauntered carelessly toward the bridge across which Nimbus' gayly-decked column must enter the town. A few young men rode out to reconnoitre, and every few minutes one would come dashing back upon a reeking steed, revolver in hand, his mouth full of strange oaths and his eyes flaming with excitement.
It was one of these that precipitated the result. The flag which waved over the head of the advancing column had been visible from the town for some time as now and then it passed over the successive ridges to the eastward. The sound of fife and drum had become more and more distinct, and a great portion of the white male population, together with those who had come in to the election from the surrounding country, had gathered about the bridge spanning the swift river which flowed between Melton and the hosts of the barbarous and bloodthirsty "niggers" of the Red Wing country. Several of the young scouts had ridden close up to the column with tantalizing shouts and insulting gestures and then dashed back to recount their own audacity; until, just as the Stars and Stripes began to show over the last gullied hill, one of them, desirous of outdoing his comrades in bravado, drew his revolver, flourished it over his head, and cast a shower of insulting epithets upon the colored pilgrims to the shrine of ballatorial power. He was answered from the dusky crowd with words as foul as his own. Such insult was not to be endured. Instantly his pistol was raised, there was a flash, a puff of fleecy smoke, a shriek from amid the crowd.
At once all was confusion. Oaths, cries, pistol-shots, and a shower of rocks filled the air as the young man turned and spurred back to the town. In a moment the long covered-bridge was manned by a well-armed crowd, while others were seen running toward it. The town was in an uproar.
The officers of election had left the polls, and in front of the bridge could be seen Hesden Le Moyne and the burly sheriff striving to keep back the angry crowd of white men. On the hill the colored men, for a moment struck with amazement, were now arming with stones, in dead earnest, uttering loud cries of vengeance for one of their number who, wounded and affrighted, lay groaning and writhing by the roadside. They outnumbered the whites very greatly, but the latter excelled them in arms, in training, and in position. Still, such was their exasperation at what seemed to them a wanton and unprovoked attack, that they were preparing to charge upon the bridge without delay. Nimbus especially was frantic with rage.
"It's the flag!" he shouted; "the damned rebels are firing on the flag!" He strode back and forth, waving an old cavalry sabre which he had brought to mark his importance as marshal of the day, and calling on his followers to stand by him and they would "clean out the murderous crowd." A few pistol shots which were fired from about the bridge but fell far short, added to their excitement and desperation.
Just as they were about to rush down the hillside, Mollie Ainslie, with a white set face, mounted on her black horse, dashed in front of them, and cried,
Eliab Hill had long been imploring them with upraised hands to be calm and listen to reason, but his voice was unheeded or unheard in the wild uproar. The sight of the woman, however, whom all of them regarded so highly, reining in her restive horse and commanding silence, arrested the action of all. But Nimbus, now raging like a mad lion, strode up to her, waving his sword and cursing fearfully in his wild wrath, and said hoarsely:
"You git out o' de way, Miss Mollie! We all tinks a heap ob you, but yer hain't got no place h'yer! De time's come for men now, an' dis is men's wuk, an' we's gwine ter du it, too! D'yer see dat man dar, a-bleedin' an' a-groanin'? Blood's been shed! We's been fired into kase we wuz gwine ter exercise our rights like men under de flag ob our kentry, peaceable, an' quiet, an' disturbin' nobody! 'Fore God, Miss Mollie, ef we's men an' fit ter hev enny rights, we won't stan' dat! We'll hev blood fer blood! Dat's what we means! You jes git outen de way!" he added imperiously. "We'll settle dis yer matter ourselves!" He reached out his hand as he spoke to take her horse by the bit.
"Stand back!" cried the brave girl. "Don't you touch him, sir!" She urged her horse forward, and Nimbus, awed by her intensity, slowly retreated before her, until she was but a pace or two in front of the line which stretched across the road. Then leaning forward, she said,
"Nimbus, give me your sword!"
"What you wants ob dat, Miss Mollie?" he asked in surprise.
"No matter; hand it to me!"
He took it by the blade, and held the heavy basket-hilt toward her. She clasped her small white fingers around the rough, shark-skin handle and raised it over her head as naturally as a veteran leader desiring to command attention, and said:
"Now, Nimbus, and the rest of you, you all know that I am your friend. My brother was a soldier, and fought for your liberty on this very horse. I have never advised you except for your good, and you know I never will. If it is right and best for you to right now, I will not hinder you. Nay, I will say God-speed, and for aught I know fight with you. I am no coward, if I am a woman. You know what I have risked already for your good. Now tell me what has happened, and what this means."
There was a cheer at this, and fifty excited voices began the story.
"Stop! stop!'" she cried. "Keep silent, all of you, and let Mr. Hill tell it alone. He was here in front and saw it all."
Thereupon she rode up beside the carry-all, which was now in the middle of the throng, and listened gravely while Eliab told the whole story of the march from Red Wing, There was a buzz when he had ended, which she stilled by a word and a wave of the hand, and then turning to Nimbus she said:
"Nimbus, I appoint you to keep order in this crowd until my return. Do not let any man, woman, or child move forward or back, whatever may occur. Do you understand?"
"Yes, ma'am, I hears; but whar you gwine, Miss Mollie?"
"Into the town."
"No yer don't, Miss Mollie," said he, stepping before her. "Dey'll kill you, shore."
"No matter. I am going. You provoked this affray by your foolish love of display, and it must be settled now, or it will be a matter of constant trouble hereafter."
"But, Miss Mollie—"
"Not a word! You have been a soldier and should obey orders. Here is your sword. Take it, and keep order here. Examine that poor fellow's wound, and I will go and get a doctor for him."
She handed Nimbus his sword and turned her horse toward the bridge. Then a wail of distress arose from the crowd. The women begged her not to go, with tears. She turned in her saddle, shook her head, and raised her hand to show her displeasure at this. Then she took a handkerchief from her pocket and half waving it as she proceeded, went toward the bridge.
"Well, I swear," said the sheriff; "if that are gal ain't coming in with a flag of truce. She's pluck, anyhow. You ought to give her three cheers, boys."
The scene which had been enacted on the hill had been closely watched from the bridge and the town, and Mollie's conduct had been pretty well interpreted though her words could not be heard. The nerve which she had exhibited had excited universal comment, and it needed no second invitation to bring off every hat and send up, in her honor, the shrill yell with which our soldiers became familiar during the war.
Recognizing this, her pale face became suffused with blushes, and she put her handkerchief to her lips to hide their tremulousness as she came nearer. She ran her eyes quickly along the line of strange faces, until they fell upon the sheriff, by whom stood Hesden Le Moyne. She rode straight to them and said,
"Oh, Mr. Sheriff—"
Then she broke down, and dropping the rein on her horse's neck, she pressed her handkerchief to her face and wept. Her slight frame shook with sobs. The men looked at her with surprise and pity. There was even a huskiness in the sheriff's voice as he said,
"Miss Ainslie—I—I beg your pardon, ma'am-but—"
She removed the handkerchief, but the tears were still running down her face as she said, glancing round the circle of sympathizing faces:
"Do stop this, gentlemen. It's all a mistake. I know it must be a mistake!"
"We couldn't help it, ma'am," said one impulsive youth, putting in before the elders had time to speak; "the niggers was marching on the town here. Did you suppose we was going to sit still and let them burn and ravage without opposition? Oh, we haven't got so low as that, if the Yankees did outnumber us. Not yet!"
There was a sneering tone in his voice which did more than sympathy could, to restore her equanimity. So she said, with a hint of a smile on her yet tearful face,
"The worst thing those poor fellows meant to do, gentlemen, was to make a parade over their new-found privileges—march up to the polls, vote, and march home again. They are just like a crowd of boys over a drum and fife, as you know. They carefully excluded from the line all who were not voters, and I had them arranged so that their names would come alphabetically, thinking it might be handier for the officers; though I don't know anything about how an election is conducted," she added, with an ingenuous blush. "It's all my fault, gentlemen! I did not think any trouble could come of it, or I would not have allowed it for a moment. I thought it would be better for them to come in order, vote, and go home than to have them scattered about the town and perhaps getting into trouble."
"So 'twould," said the sheriff. "Been a first-rate thing if we'd all understood it—first-rate."
"Oh, I'm so sorry, gentlemen—so sorry, and I'm afraid one man is killed. Would one of you be kind enough to go for a doctor?"
"Here is one," said several voices, as a young man stepped forward and raised his hat respectfully.
"I will go and see him," he said.
He walked on up the hill alone.
"Well, ma'am," said the sheriff, "what do you think should be done now?"
"If you would only let these people come in and vote, gentlemen. They will return at once, and I would answer with my life for their good behavior. I think it was all a misunderstanding."
"Certainly—certainly, ma'am," said the sheriff. "No doubt about it."
She turned her horse and was about to ride back up the hill, but Hesden Le Moyne, taking off his hat, said:
"Gentlemen, I think we owe a great deal to the bravery of this young lady. I have no doubt but all she says is literally true. Yet we like to have got into trouble which might have been very serious in its consequences, nay, perhaps has already resulted seriously. But for her timely arrival, good sense, and courage there would have been more bloodshed; our town would have been disgraced, troops posted among us, and perhaps lives taken in retaliation. Now, considering all this, I move a vote of thanks to the lady, and that we all pledge ourselves to take no notice of these people, but let them come in and vote and go out, without interruption. All that are in favor of that say Aye!"
Every man waved his hat, there was a storm of "ayes," and then the old rebel yell again, as, bowing and blushing with pleasure, Mollie turned and rode up the hill.
There also matters had assumed a more cheerful aspect by reason of her cordial reception at the bridge, and the report of the surgeon that the man's wound, though quite troublesome, was by no means serious. She told in a few words what had occurred, explained the mistake, reminded them that such a display would naturally prove very exasperating to persons situated as the others were, counselled moderation and quietness of demeanor, and told them to re-form their ranks and go forward, quietly vote, and return. A rousing cheer greeted her words. Eliab Hill uttered a devout prayer of thankfulness. Nimbus blunderingly said it was all his fault, "though he didn't mean no harm," and then suggested that the flag and music should be left there in charge of some of the boys, which was approved. The wounded man was put into the carry-all by the side of Eliab, and they started down the hill. The sheriff, who was waiting at the bridge, called out for them to bring the flag along and have the music strike up.
So, with flying colors and rattling drum-beat, the voters of Red Wing marched to the polls; the people of Melton looked good-naturedly on; the young hot-bloods joked the dusky citizen, and bestowed extravagant encomiums on the plucky girl who had saved them from so much threatened trouble; and Mollie Ainslie rode home with a hot, flushed face, and was put to bed by her co-laborer, the victim of a raging headache.
"I declare, Mollie Ainslie," said Lucy, "you are the queerest girl I ever saw. I believe you would ride that horse into a den of lions, and then faint because you were not eaten up. I could never do what you have done—never in the world—but if did I wouldn't get sick because it was all over."
The day after the election a colored lad rode up to the school-house, delivered a letter for Miss Ainslie to one of the scholars, and rode away. The letter was written in an even, delicate hand, which was yet full of feminine strength, and read as follows:
"My son Hesden has told me of your courage in preventing what must otherwise have resulted in a most terrible conflict yesterday, and I feel it to be my duty, in behalf of many ladies whose husbands and sons were present on that occasion, to express to you our gratitude. It is seldom that such opportunity presents itself to our sex, and still more seldom that we are able to improve it when presented. Your courage in exerting the power you have over the peculiar people toward whom you hold such important relations, commands my utmost admiration. It is a matter of the utmost congratulation to the good people of Horsford that one of such courage and prudence occupies the position which you hold. I am afraid that the people whom you are teaching can never be made to understand and appreciate the position into which they have been thrust by the terrible events of the past few years. I am sure, however, that you will do all in your power to secure that result, and most earnestly pray for your success. Could I leave my house I should do myself the pleasure to visit your school and express my gratitude in person. As it is, I can only send the good wishes of a weak old woman, who, though once a slave-mistress, was most sincerely rejoiced at the down-fall of a system she had always regarded with regret, despite the humiliation it brought to her countrymen.
"HESTER LE MOYNE."
This was the first word of commendation which had been received from any Southern white woman, and the two lonely teachers were greatly cheered by it. When we come to analyze its sentences there seems to be a sort of patronizing coolness in it, hardly calculated to awaken enthusiasm. The young girls who had given themselves to what they deemed a missionary work of peculiar urgency and sacredness, did not stop to read between the lines, however, but perused with tears of joy this first epistle from one of their own sex in that strange country where they had been treated as leprous outcasts by all the families who belonged to the race of which they were unconscious ornaments. They jumped to the conclusion that a new day was dawning, and that henceforth they would have that companionship and sympathy which they felt that they deserved from the Christian women by whom they were surrounded.
"What a dear, good old lady she must be!" exclaimed the pretty and gushing Lucy Ellison. "I should like to kiss her for that sweet letter."
So they took heart of grace, talked with the old "Mammy" who had charge of their household arrangements about the gentle invalid woman, whom she had served as a slave, and pronounced "jes de bestest woman in de worl', nex' to my young ladies," and then they went on with their work with renewed zeal.
Two other results followed this affair, which tended greatly to relieve the monotony of their lives. A good many gentlemen called in to see the school, most of them young men who were anxious for a sight of the brave lady who had it in charge, and others merely desirous to see the pretty Yankee "nigger teachers." Many would, no doubt, have become more intimate with them, but there was something in the terms of respectful equality on which they associated with their pupils, and especially with their co-worker, Eliab Hill, which they could not abide or understand. The fame of the adventure had extended even beyond the county, however, and raised them very greatly in the esteem of all the people.
Miss Ainslie soon noticed that the gentlemen she met in her rides, instead of passing her with a rude or impudent stare began to greet her with polite respect. Besides this, some of the officers of the post at Boyleston, hearing of the gallant conduct of their country-woman, rode over to pay their respects, and brought back such glowing reports of the beauty and refinement of the teachers at Red Wing that the distance could not prevent others of the garrison from following their example; and the old Ordinary thereafter witnessed many a pleasant gathering under the grand old oak which shaded it. Both of the teachers found admirers in the gallant company, and it soon became known that Lucy Ellison would leave her present situation erelong to brighten the life of a young lieutenant. It was rumored, too, that another uniform covered the sad heart of a cavalier who asked an exchange into a regiment on frontier duty, because Mollie Ainslie had failed to respond favorably to his passionate addresses.
So they taught, read, sang, wandered along the wood-paths in search of new beauties to charm their Northern eyes; rode together whenever Lucy could be persuaded to mount Nimbus' mule, which, despite its hybrid nature, was an excellent saddle-beast; entertained with unaffected pleasure the officers who came to cheer their loneliness; and under the care of their faithful old "Mammy" and the oversight of a kind-hearted, serious-faced Superintendent, who never missed Red Wing in his monthly rounds, they kept their oddly transformed home bright and cheerful, their hearts light and pure, and their faith clear, daily thanking God that they were permitted to do what they thought to be His will.
All of their experiences were not so pleasant. By their own sex they were still regarded with that calm, unobserving indifference with which the modern lady treats the sister who stands without the pale of reputable society. So far as the "ladies" of Horsford were concerned, the "nigger teachers" at Red Wing stood on the plane of the courtesan—they were seen but not known. The recognition which they received from the gentlemen of Southern birth had in it not a little of the shame-faced curiosity which characterizes the intercourse of men with women whose reputations have been questioned but not entirely destroyed. They were treated with apparent respect, in the school-room, upon the highway, or at the market, by men who would not think of recognizing them when in the company of their mothers, sisters, or wives. Such treatment would have been too galling to be borne had it not been that the spotless-minded girls were all too pure to realize its significance.
Eliab Hill had from the first greatly interested the teachers at Red Wing. The necessities of the school and the desire of the charitable Board having it in charge, to accustom the colored people to see those of their own race trusted and advanced, had induced them to employ him as an assistant teacher, even before he was really competent for such service. It is true he was given charge of only the most rudimentary work, but that fact, while it inspired his ambition, showed him also the need of improvement and made him a most diligent student.
Lucy Ellison, as being the most expert in housewifely accomplishments, had naturally taken charge of the domestic arrangements at the Ordinary, and as a consequence had cast a larger share of the school duties upon her "superior officer," as she delighted to call Mollie Ainslie. This division of labor suited well the characteristics of both. To plan, direct, and manage the school came as naturally and easily to the stirring Yankee "school-marm" as did the ordering of their little household to the New York farmer's daughter. Among the extra duties thus devolved upon the former was the supervision and direction of the studies of Eliab Hill. As he could not consistently with the requisite discipline be included in any of the regular classes that had been formed, and his affliction prevented him from coming to them in the evening for private instruction, she arranged to teach him at the school-house after school hours. So that every day she remained after the school was dismissed to give him an hour's instruction. His careful attention and rapid progress amply repaid her for this sacrifice, and she looked forward with much pleasure to the time when, after her departure, he should be able to conduct the school with credit to himself and profit to his fellows.
Then, for the first time, she realized how great is the momentum which centuries of intelligence and freedom give to the mind of the learner—how unconscious is the acquisition of the great bulk of that knowledge which goes to make up the Caucasian manhood of the nineteenth century.
Eliab's desire to acquire was insatiable, his application was tireless, but what he achieved seemed always to lack a certain flavor of completeness. It was without that substratum of general intelligence which the free white student has partly inherited and partly acquired by observation and experience, without the labor or the consciousness of study. The whole world of life, business, society, was a sealed book to him, which no other hand might open for him; while the field of literature was but a bright tangled thicket before him.
That unconscious familiarity with the past which is as the small-change of daily thought to us was a strange currency to his mind. He had, indeed, the key to the value of each piece, and could, with difficulty, determine its power when used by another, but he did not give or receive the currency with instinctive readiness. Two things had made him clearly the intellectual superior of his fellows—the advantages of his early years by which he learned to read, and the habit of meditation which the solitude of his stricken life induced. This had made him a thinker, a philosopher far more profound than his general attainments would naturally produce. With the super-sensitiveness which always characterizes the afflicted, also, he had become a most acute and subtle observer of the human countenance, and read its infinite variety of expression with ease and certainty. In two things he might be said to be profoundly versed—the spirit of the Scriptures, and the workings of the human heart. With regard to these his powers of expression were commensurate with his knowledge. The Psalms of David were more comprehensible to him than the simplest formulas of arithmetic.
Mollie Ainslie was not unfrequently amazed at this inequality of nature in her favorite pupil. On one side he seemed a full-grown man of grand proportions; on the other, a pigmy-child. She had heard him pour forth torrents of eloquence on the Sabbath, and felt the force of a nature exceptionally rich and strong in its conception of religious truths and human needs, only to find him on the morrow floundering hopelessly in the mire of rudimentary science, or getting, by repeated perusals, but an imperfect idea of some author's words, which it seemed to her he ought to have grasped at a glance.
He had always been a man of thought, and now for two years he had been studying after the manner of the schools, and his tasks were yet but rudimentary. It is true, he had read much and had learned not a little in a thousand directions which he did not appreciate, but yet he was discouraged and despondent, and it is no wonder that he was so. The mountain which stood in his pathway could not be climbed over nor passed by, but pebble by pebble and grain by grain must be removed, until a broad, smooth highway showed instead. And all this he must do before he could comprehend the works of those writers whose pages glow with light to our eyes from the very first. He read and re-read these, and groped his way to their meaning with doubt and difficulty.
Being a woman, Mollie Ainslie was not speculative. She could not solve this problem of strength and weakness. In power of thought, breadth of reasoning, and keenness of analysis she felt that he was her master; in knowledge—the power of acquiring and using scientific facts—she could but laugh at his weakness. It puzzled her. She wondered at it; but she had never sought to assign a reason for it. It remained for the learner himself to do this. One day, after weeks of despondency, he changed places with his teacher during the hour devoted to his lessons, and taught her why it was that he, Eliab Hill, with all his desire to learn and his ceaseless application to his tasks, yet made so little progress in the acquisition of knowledge.
"It ain't so much the words, Miss Mollie," he said, as he threw down a book in which he had asked her to explain some passage she had never read before, but the meaning of which came to her at a glance—"it ain't so much the words as it is the ideas that trouble me. These men who write seem to think and feel differently from those I have known. I can learn the words, but when I have them all right I am by no means sure that I know just what they mean," "Why, you must," said the positive little Yankee woman; "when one has the words and knows the meaning of all of them, he cannot help knowing what the writer means."
"Perhaps I do not put it as I should," said he sadly. "What I want to say is, that there are thoughts and bearings that I can never gather from books alone. They come to you, Miss Ainslie, and to those like you, from those who were before you in the world, and from things about you. It is the part of knowledge that can't be put into books. Now I have none of that. My people cannot give it to me. I catch a sight of it here and there. Now and then, a conversation I heard years ago between some white men will come up and make plain something that I am puzzling over, but it is not easy for me to learn."
"I do not think I understand you," she replied; "but if I do, I am sure you are mistaken. How can you know the meanings of words, and yet not apprehend the thought conveyed?"
"I do not know how," he replied. "I only know that while thought seems to come from the printed page to your mind like a flash of light, to mine it only comes with difficulty and after many readings, though I may know every word. For instance," he continued, taking up a voiume of Tennyson which lay upon her table, "take any passage. Here is one: 'Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean!' I have no doubt that brings a distinct idea to your mind."
"Yes," she replied, hesitatingly; "I never thought of it before, but I think it does."
"Well, it does not to mine. I cannot make out what is meant by 'idle' tears, nor whether the author means to say that he does not know what 'tears' mean, or only 'idle' tears, or whether he does not understand such a display of grief because it is idle."