by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Old Mam’ Henry, and her word may be taken, said that it was “De powerfulles’ sehmont she ever had hyeahd in all huh bo’n days.” That was saying a good deal, for the old woman had lived many years on the Stone place and had heard many sermons from preachers, white and black. She was a judge, too.
It really must have been a powerful sermon that Brother Lucius preached, for Aunt Doshy Scott had fallen in a trance in the middle of the aisle, while “Merlatter Mag,” who was famed all over the place for having white folk’s religion and never “waking up,” had broken through her reserve and shouted all over the camp ground.
Several times Cassie had shown signs of giving way, but because she was frail some of the solicitous sisters held her with self-congratulatory care, relieving each other now and then, that each might have a turn in the rejoicings. But as the preacher waded out deeper and deeper into the spiritual stream, Cassie’s efforts to make her feelings known became more and more decided. He told them how the spears of the Midianites had “clashed upon de shiels of de Gideonites, an’ aftah while, wid de powah of de Lawd behin’ him, de man Gideon triumphed mightily,” and swaying then and wailing in the dark woods, with grim branches waving in the breath of their own excitement, they could hear above the tumult the clamor of the fight, the clashing of the spears, and the ringing of the shields. They could see the conqueror coming home in triumph. Then when he cried, “A-who, I say, a-who is in Gideon’s ahmy to-day?” and the wailing chorus took up the note, “A-who!” it was too much even for frail Cassie, and, deserted by the solicitous sisters, in the words of Mam’ Henry, “she broke a-loose, and faihly tuk de place.”
Gideon had certainly triumphed, and when a little boy baby came to Cassie two or three days later, she named him Gideon in honor of the great Hebrew warrior whose story had so wrought upon her. All the plantation knew the spiritual significance of the name, and from the day of his birth the child was as one set apart to a holy mission on earth.
Say what you will of the influences which the circumstances surrounding birth have upon a child, upon this one at least the effect was unmistakable. Even as a baby he seemed to realize the weight of responsibility which had been laid upon his little black shoulders, and there was a complacent dignity in the very way in which he drew upon the sweets of his dirty sugar-teat when the maternal breast was far off bending over the sheaves of the field.
He was a child early destined to sacrifice and self-effacement, and as he grew older and other youngsters came to fill Cassie’s cabin, he took up his lot with the meekness of an infantile Moses. Like a Moses he was, too, leading his little flock to the promised land, when he grew to the age at which, barefooted and one-shifted, he led or carried his little brothers and sisters about the quarters. But the “promised land” never took him into the direction of the stables, where the other pickaninnies worried the horses, or into the region of the hen-coops, where egg-sucking was a common crime.
No boy ever rolled or tumbled in the dirt with a heartier glee than did Gideon, but no warrior, not even his illustrious prototype himself, ever kept sterner discipline in his ranks when his followers seemed prone to overstep the bounds of right. At a very early age his shrill voice could be heard calling in admonitory tones, caught from his mother’s very lips, “You ‘Nelius, don’ you let me ketch you th’owin’ at ol’ mis’ guinea-hens no mo’; you hyeah me?” or “Hi’am, you come offen de top er dat shed ‘fo’ you fall an’ brek yo’ naik all to pieces.”
It was a common sight in the evening to see him sitting upon the low rail fence which ran before the quarters, his shift blowing in the wind, and his black legs lean and bony against the whitewashed rails, as he swayed to and fro, rocking and singing one of his numerous brothers to sleep, and always his song was of war and victory, albeit crooned in a low, soothing voice. Sometimes it was “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army,” at others “Jinin’ Gideon’s Band.” The latter was a favorite, for he seemed to have a proprietary interest in it, although, despite the martial inspiration of his name, “Gideon’s band” to him meant an aggregation of people with horns and fiddles.
Steve, who was Cassie’s man, declared that he had never seen such a child, and, being quite as religious as Cassie herself, early began to talk Scripture and religion to the boy. He was aided in this when his master, Dudley Stone, a man of the faith, began a little Sunday class for the religiously inclined of the quarters, where the old familiar stories were told in simple language to the slaves and explained. At these meetings Gideon became a shining light. No one listened more eagerly to the teacher’s words, or more readily answered his questions at review. No one was wider-mouthed or whiter-eyed. His admonitions to his family now took on a different complexion, and he could be heard calling across a lot to a mischievous sister, “Bettah tek keer daih, Lucy Jane, Gawd’s a-watchin’ you; bettah tek keer.”
The appointed man is always marked, and so Gideon was by always receiving his full name. No one ever shortened his scriptural appellation into Gid. He was always Gideon from the time he bore the name out of the heat of camp-meeting fervor until his master discovered his worthiness and filled Cassie’s breast with pride by taking him into the house to learn “mannahs and ‘po’tment.”
As a house servant he was beyond reproach, and next to his religion his Mas’ Dudley and Miss Ellen claimed his devotion and fidelity. The young mistress and young master learned to depend fearlessly upon his faithfulness.
It was good to hear old Dudley Stone going through the house in a mock fury, crying, “Well, I never saw such a house; it seems as if there isn’t a soul in it that can do without Gideon. Here I’ve got him up here to wait on me, and it’s Gideon here and Gideon there, and every time I turn around some of you have sneaked him off. Gideon, come here!” And the black boy smiled and came.
But all his days were not days devoted to men’s service, for there came a time when love claimed him for her own, when the clouds took on a new color, when the sough of the wind was music in his ears, and he saw heaven in Martha’s eyes. It all came about in this way.
Gideon was young when he got religion and joined the church, and he grew up strong in the faith. Almost by the time he had become a valuable house servant he had grown to be an invaluable servant of the Lord. He had a good, clear voice that could lead a hymn out of all the labyrinthian wanderings of an ignorant congregation, even when he had to improvise both words and music; and he was a mighty man of prayer. It was thus he met Martha. Martha was brown and buxom and comely, and her rich contralto voice was loud and high on the sisters’ side in meeting time. It was the voices that did it at first. There was no hymn or “spiritual” that Gideon could start to which Martha could not sing an easy blending second, and never did she open a tune that Gideon did not swing into it with a wonderfully sweet, flowing, natural bass. Often he did not know the piece, but that did not matter, he sang anyway. Perhaps when they were out he would go to her and ask, “Sis’ Martha, what was that hymn you stahrted to-day?” and she would probably answer, “Oh, dat was jes’ one o’ my mammy’s ol’ songs.”
“Well, it sholy was mighty pretty. Indeed it was.”
“Oh, thanky, Brothah Gidjon, thanky.”
Then a little later they began to walk back to the master’s house together, for Martha, too, was one of the favored ones, and served, not in the field, but in the big house.
The old women looked on and conversed in whispers about the pair, for they were wise, and what their old eyes saw, they saw.
“Oomph,” said Mam’ Henry, for she commented on everything, “dem too is jes’ natchelly singin’ demse’ves togeddah.”
“Dey’s lak de mo’nin’ stahs,” interjected Aunt Sophy.
“How ‘bout dat?” sniffed the older woman, for she objected to any one’s alluding to subjects she did not understand.
“Why, Mam’ Henry, ain’ you nevah hyeahd tell o’ de mo’nin’ stahs whut sung deyse’ves togeddah?”
“No, I ain’t, an’ I been livin’ a mighty sight longah’n you, too. I knows all ‘bout when de stahs fell, but dey ain’ nevah done no singin’ dat I knows ‘bout.”
“Do heish, Mam’ Henry, you sho’ su’prises me. W’y, dat ain’ happenin’s, dat’s Scripter.”
“Look hyeah, gal, don’t you tell me dat’s Scripter, an’ me been a-settin’ undah de Scripter fu’ nigh onto sixty yeah.”
“Well, Mam’ Henry, I may ‘a’ been mistook, but sho’ I took hit fu’ Scripter. Mebbe de preachah I hyeahd was jes’ inlinin’.”
“Well, wheddah hit’s Scripter er not, dey’s one t’ing su’tain, I tell you,—dem two is singin’ deyse’ves togeddah.”
“Hit’s a fac’, an’ I believe it.”
“An’ it’s a mighty good thing, too. Brothah Gidjon is de nicest house dahky dat I ever hyeahd tell on. Dey jes’ de same diffunce ‘twixt him an’ de othah house-boys as dey is ‘tween real quality an’ strainers—he got mannahs, but he ain’t got aihs.”
“Heish, ain’t you right!”
“An’ while de res’ of dem ain’ thinkin’ ‘bout nothin’ but dancin’ an’ ca’in’ on, he makin’ his peace, callin’, an’ ‘lection sho’.”
“I tell you, Mam’ Henry, dey ain’ nothin’ like a spichul named chile.”
“Humph! g’long, gal; ‘tain’t in de name; de biggest devil I evah knowed was named Moses Aaron. ‘Tain’t in de name, hit’s all in de man hisse’f.”
But notwithstanding what the gossips said of him, Gideon went on his way, and knew not that the one great power of earth had taken hold of him until they gave the great party down in the quarters, and he saw Martha in all her glory. Then love spoke to him with no uncertain sound.
It was a dancing-party, and because neither he nor Martha dared countenance dancing, they had strolled away together under the pines that lined the white road, whiter now in the soft moonlight. He had never known the pine-cones smell so sweet before in all his life. She had never known just how the moonlight flecked the road before. This was lovers’ lane to them. He didn’t understand why his heart kept throbbing so furiously, for they were walking slowly, and when a shadow thrown across the road from a by-standing bush frightened her into pressing close up to him, he could not have told why his arm stole round her waist and drew her slim form up to him, or why his lips found hers, as eye looked into eye. For their simple hearts love’s mystery was too deep, as it is for wiser ones.
Some few stammering words came to his lips, and she answered the best she could. Then why did the moonlight flood them so, and why were the heavens so full of stars? Out yonder in the black hedge a mocking-bird was singing, and he was translating—oh, so poorly—the song of their hearts. They forgot the dance, they forgot all but their love.
“An’ you won’t ma’y nobody else but me, Martha?”
“You know I won’t, Gidjon.”
“But I mus’ wait de yeah out?”
“Yes, an’ den don’t you think Mas’ Stone’ll let us have a little cabin of ouah own jest outside de quahtahs?”
“Won’t it be blessid? Won’t it be blessid?” he cried, and then the kindly moon went under a cloud for a moment and came out smiling, for he had peeped through and had seen what passed. Then they walked back hand in hand to the dance along the transfigured road, and they found that the first part of the festivities were over, and all the people had sat down to supper. Every one laughed when they went in. Martha held back and perspired with embarrassment. But even though he saw some of the older heads whispering in a corner, Gideon was not ashamed. A new light was in his eyes, and a new boldness had come to him. He led Martha up to the grinning group, and said in his best singing voice, “Whut you laughin’ at? Yes, I’s popped de question, an’ she says ‘Yes,’ an’ long ‘bout a yeah f’om now you kin all ‘spec’ a’ invitation.” This was a formal announcement. A shout arose from the happy-go-lucky people, who sorrowed alike in each other’s sorrows, and joyed in each other’s joys. They sat down at a table, and their health was drunk in cups of cider and persimmon beer.
Over in the corner Mam’ Henry mumbled over her pipe, “Wha’d I tell you? wha’d I tell you?” and Aunt Sophy replied, “Hit’s de pa’able of de mo’nin’ stahs.”
“Don’t talk to me ‘bout no mo’nin’ stahs,” the mammy snorted; “Gawd jes’ fitted dey voices togeddah, an’ den j’ined dey hea’ts. De mo’nin’ stahs ain’t got nothin’ to do wid it.”
“Mam’ Henry,” said Aunt Sophy, impressively, “you’s a’ oldah ooman den I is, an’ I ain’ sputin’ hit; but I say dey done ‘filled Scripter ‘bout de mo’nin’ stahs; dey’s done sung deyse’ves togeddah.”
The old woman sniffed.
The next Sunday at meeting some one got the start of Gideon, and began a new hymn. It ran:
“At de ma’ige of de Lamb, oh Lawd,
God done gin His ‘sent.
Dey dressed de Lamb all up in white,
God done gin His ‘sent.
Oh, wasn’t dat a happy day,
Oh, wasn’t dat a happy day, Good Lawd,
Oh, wasn’t dat a happy day,
De ma’ige of de Lamb!”
The wailing minor of the beginning broke into a joyous chorus at the end, and Gideon wept and laughed in turn, for it was his wedding-song.
The young man had a confidential chat with his master the next morning, and the happy secret was revealed.
“What, you scamp!” said Dudley Stone. “Why, you’ve got even more sense than I gave you credit for; you’ve picked out the finest girl on the plantation, and the one best suited to you. You couldn’t have done better if the match had been made for you. I reckon this must be one of the marriages that are made in heaven. Marry her, yes, and with a preacher. I don’t see why you want to wait a year.”
Gideon told him his hopes of a near cabin.
“Better still,” his master went on; “with you two joined and up near the big house, I’ll feel as safe for the folks as if an army was camped around, and, Gideon, my boy,”—he put his arms on the black man’s shoulders,—”if I should slip away some day—”
The slave looked up, startled.
“I mean if I should die—I’m not going to run off, don’t be alarmed—I want you to help your young Mas’ Dud look after his mother and Miss Ellen; you hear? Now that’s the one promise I ask of you,—come what may, look after the women folks.” And the man promised and went away smiling.
His year of engagement, the happiest time of a young man’s life, began on golden wings. There came rumors of war, and the wings of the glad-hued year drooped sadly. Sadly they drooped, and seemed to fold, when one day, between the rumors and predictions of strife, Dudley Stone, the old master, slipped quietly away out into the unknown.
There were wife, daughter, son, and faithful slaves about his bed, and they wept for him sincere tears, for he had been a good husband and father and a kind master. But he smiled, and, conscious to the last, whispered to them a cheery good-bye. Then, turning to Gideon, who stood there bowed with grief, he raised one weak finger, and his lips made the word, “Remember!”
They laid him where they had laid one generation after another of the Stones and it seemed as if a pall of sorrow had fallen upon the whole place. Then, still grieving, they turned their long-distracted attention to the things that had been going on around, and lo! the ominous mutterings were loud, and the cloud of war was black above them.
It was on an April morning when the storm broke, and the plantation, master and man, stood dumb with consternation, for they had hoped, they had believed, it would pass. And now there was the buzz of men who talked in secret corners. There were hurried saddlings and feverish rides to town. Somewhere in the quarters was whispered the forbidden word “freedom,” and it was taken up and dropped breathlessly from the ends of a hundred tongues. Some of the older ones scouted it, but from some who held young children to their breasts there were deep-souled prayers in the dead of night. Over the meetings in the woods or in the log church a strange reserve brooded, and even the prayers took on a guarded tone. Even from the fulness of their hearts, which longed for liberty, no open word that could offend the mistress or the young master went up to the Almighty. He might know their hearts, but no tongue in meeting gave vent to what was in them, and even Gideon sang no more of the gospel army. He was sad because of this new trouble coming hard upon the heels of the old, and Martha was grieved because he was.
Finally the trips into town budded into something, and on a memorable evening when the sun looked peacefully through the pines, young Dudley Stone rode into the yard dressed in a suit of gray, and on his shoulders were the straps of office. The servants gathered around him with a sort of awe and followed him until he alighted at the porch. Only Mam’ Henry, who had been nurse to both him and his sister, dared follow him in. It was a sad scene within, but such a one as any Southern home where there were sons might have shown that awful year. The mother tried to be brave, but her old hands shook, and her tears fell upon her son’s brown head, tears of grief at parting, but through which shone the fire of a noble pride. The young Ellen hung about his neck with sobs and caresses.
“Would you have me stay?” he asked her.
“No! no! I know where your place is, but oh, my brother!”
“Ellen,” said the mother in a trembling voice, “you are the sister of a soldier now.”
The girl dried her tears and drew herself up. “We won’t burden your heart, Dudley, with our tears, but we will weight you down with our love and prayers.”
It was not so easy with Mam’ Henry. Without protest, she took him to her bosom and rocked to and fro, wailing “My baby! my baby!” and the tears that fell from the young man’s eyes upon her grey old head cost his manhood nothing.
Gideon was behind the door when his master called him. His sleeve was traveling down from his eyes as he emerged.
“Gideon,” said his master, pointing to his uniform, “you know what this means?”
“I wish I could take you along with me. But—”
“Mas’ Dud,” Gideon threw out his arms in supplication.
“You remember father’s charge to you, take care of the women-folks.” He took the servant’s hand, and, black man and white, they looked into each other’s eyes, and the compact was made. Then Gideon gulped and said “Yes, suh” again.
Another boy held the master’s horse and rode away behind him when he vaulted into the saddle, and the man of battle-song and warrior name went back to mind the women-folks.
Then began the disintegration of the plantation’s population. First Yellow Bob slipped away, and no one pursued him. A few blamed him, but they soon followed as the year rolled away. More were missing every time a Union camp lay near, and great tales were told of the chances for young negroes who would go as body-servants to the Yankee officers. Gideon heard all and was silent.
Then as the time of his marriage drew near he felt a greater strength, for there was one who would be with him to help him keep his promise and his faith.
The spirit of freedom had grown strong in Martha as the days passed, and when her lover went to see her she had strange things to say. Was he going to stay? Was he going to be a slave when freedom and a livelihood lay right within his grasp? Would he keep her a slave? Yes, he would do it all—all.
She asked him to wait.
Another year began, and one day they brought Dudley Stone home to lay beside his father. Then most of the remaining negroes went. There was no master now. The two bereaved women wept, and Gideon forgot that he wore the garb of manhood and wept with them.
Martha came to him.
“Gidjon,” she said, “I’s waited a long while now. Mos’ eve’ybody else is gone. Ain’t you goin’?”
“But, Gidjon, I wants to be free. I know how good dey’ve been to us; but, oh, I wants to own myse’f. They’re talkin’ ‘bout settin’ us free every hour.”
“I can wait.”
“They’s a camp right near here.”
“The of’cers wants body-servants, Gidjon—”
“Go, Martha, if you want to, but I stay.”
She went away from him, but she or some one else got word to young Captain Jack Griswold of the near camp that there was an excellent servant on the plantation who only needed a little persuading, and he came up to see him.
“Look here,” he said, “I want a body-servant. I’ll give you ten dollars a month.”
“I’ve got to stay here.”
“But, you fool, what have you to gain by staying here?”
“I’m goin’ to stay.”
“Why, you’ll be free in a little while, anyway.”
“Of all fools,” said the Captain. “I’ll give you fifteen dollars.”
“I do’ want it.”
“Well, your girl’s going, anyway. I don’t blame her for leaving such a fool as you are.”
Gideon turned and looked at him.
“The camp is going to be moved up on this plantation, and there will be a requisition for this house for officers’ quarters, so I’ll see you again,” and Captain Griswold went his way.
Martha going! Martha going! Gideon could not believe it. He would not. He saw her, and she confirmed it. She was going as an aid to the nurses. He gasped, and went back to mind the women-folks.
They did move the camp up nearer, and Captain Griswold came to see Gideon again, but he could get no word from him, save “I’m goin’ to stay,” and he went away in disgust, entirely unable to understand such obstinacy, as he called it.
“’IT’S FREEDOM, GIDEON.’”
“’IT’S FREEDOM, GIDEON.’”
But the slave had his moments alone, when the agony tore at his breast and rended him. Should he stay? The others were going. He would soon be free. Every one had said so, even his mistress one day. Then Martha was going. “Martha! Martha!” his heart called.
The day came when the soldiers were to leave, and he went out sadly to watch them go. All the plantation, that had been white with tents, was dark again, and everywhere were moving, blue-coated figures.
Once more his tempter came to him. “I’ll make it twenty dollars,” he said, but Gideon shook his head. Then they started. The drums tapped. Away they went, the flag kissing the breeze. Martha stole up to say good-bye to him. Her eyes were overflowing, and she clung to him.
“Come, Gidjon,” she plead, “fu’ my sake. Oh, my God, won’t you come with us—it’s freedom.” He kissed her, but shook his head.
“Hunt me up when you do come,” she said, crying bitterly, “fu’ I do love you, Gidjon, but I must go. Out yonder is freedom,” and she was gone with them.
He drew out a pace after the troops, and then, turning, looked back at the house. He went a step farther, and then a woman’s gentle voice called him, “Gideon!” He stopped. He crushed his cap in his hands, and the tears came into his eyes. Then he answered, “Yes, Mis’ Ellen, I’s a-comin’.”
He stood and watched the dusty column until the last blue leg swung out of sight and over the grey hills the last drum-tap died away, and then turned and retraced his steps toward the house.
Gideon had triumphed mightily.