“You’s jealous, Roxy, dat’s what’s de matter wid you, you hussy – yah – yah – yah! Dat’s de time I got you!”
“Oh, yes, you got me, hain’t you. ’Clah to goodness if dat conceit o’ yo’n strikes in, Jasper, it gwine to kill you sho’. If you b’longed to me I’d sell you down de river ’fo’ you git too fur gone. Fust time I runs acrost yo’ marster, I’s gwine to tell him so.”
This idle and aimless jabber went on and on, both parties enjoying the friendly duel and each well satisfied with his own share of the wit exchanged – for wit they considered it.
Wilson stepped to the window to observe the combatants; he could not work while their chatter continued. Over in the vacant lots was Jasper, young, coal-black and of magnificent build, sitting on a wheelbarrow in the pelting sun – at work, supposably, whereas he was in fact only preparing for it by taking an hour’s rest before beginning. In front of Wilson’s porch stood Roxy, with a local hand-made baby-wagon, in which sat her two charges – one at each end and facing each other. From Roxy’s manner of speech, a stranger would have expected her to be black, but she was not. Only one sixteenth of her was black, and that sixteenth did not show. She was of majestic form and stature, her attitudes were imposing and statuesque, and her gestures and movements distinguished by a noble and stately grace. Her complexion was very fair, with the rosy glow of vigorous health in the cheeks, her face was full of character and expression, her eyes were brown and liquid, and she had a heavy suit of fine soft hair which was also brown, but the fact was not apparent because her head was bound about with a checkered handkerchief and the hair was concealed under it. Her face was shapely, intelligent and comely – even beautiful. She had an easy, independent carriage – when she was among her own caste – and a high and “sassy” way, withal; but of course she was meek and humble enough where white people were.
To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and made her a negro. She was a slave, and salable as such. Her child was thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of law and custom a negro. He had blue eyes and flaxen curls like his white comrade, but even the father of the white child was able to tell the children apart – little as he had commerce with them – by their clothes: for the white babe wore ruffled soft muslin and a coral necklace, while the other wore merely a coarse tow-linen shirt which barely reached to its knees, and no jewelry.
The white child’s name was Thomas à Becket Driscoll, the other’s name was Valet de Chambre: no surname – slaves hadn’t the privilege. Roxana had heard that phrase somewhere, the fine sound of it had pleased her ear, and as she had supposed it was a name, she loaded it on to her darling. It soon got shorted to “Chambers,” of course.
Wilson knew Roxy by sight, and when the duel of wit began to play out, he stepped outside to gather in a record or two. Jasper went to work energetically, at once, perceiving that his leisure was observed. Wilson inspected the children and asked —
“How old are they, Roxy?”
“Bofe de same age, sir – five months. Bawn de fust o’ Feb’uary.”
“They’re handsome little chaps. One’s just as handsome as the other, too.”
A delighted smile exposed the girl’s white teeth, and she said:
“Bless yo’ soul, Misto Wilson, it’s pow’ful nice o’ you to say dat, ’ca’se one of ’em ain’t on’y a nigger. Mighty prime little nigger, I al’ays says, but dat’s ’ca’se it’s mine, o’ course.”
“How do you tell them apart, Roxy, when they haven’t any clothes on?”
Roxy laughed a laugh proportioned to her size, and said:
“Oh, I kin tell ’em ’part, Misto Wilson, but I bet Marse Percy couldn’t, not to save his life.”
Wilson chatted along for awhile, and presently got Roxy’s finger-prints for his collection – right hand and left – on a couple of his glass strips; then labeled and dated them, and took the “records” of both children, and labeled and dated them also.
Two months later, on the 3d of September, he took this trio of finger-marks again. He liked to have a “series,” two or three “takings” at intervals during the period of childhood, these to be followed by others at intervals of several years.
The next day – that is to say, on the 4th of September – something occurred which profoundly impressed Roxana. Mr. Driscoll missed another small sum of money – which is a way of saying that this was not a new thing, but had happened before. In truth it had happened three times before. Driscoll’s patience was exhausted. He was a fairly humane man toward slaves and other animals; he was an exceedingly humane man toward the erring of his own race. Theft he could not abide, and plainly there was a thief in his house. Necessarily the thief must be one of his negroes. Sharp measures must be taken. He called his servants before him. There were three of these, besides Roxy: a man, a woman, and a boy twelve years old. They were not related. Mr. Driscoll said:
“You have all been warned before. It has done no good. This time I will teach you a lesson. I will sell the thief. Which of you is the guilty one?”
They all shuddered at the threat, for here they had a good home, and a new one was likely to be a change for the worse. The denial was general. None had stolen anything – not money, anyway – a little sugar, or cake, or honey, or something like that, that “Marse Percy wouldn’t mind or miss,” but not money – never a cent of money. They were eloquent in their protestations, but Mr. Driscoll was not moved by them. He answered each in turn with a stern “Name the thief!”
The truth was, all were guilty but Roxana; she suspected that the others were guilty, but she did not know them to be so. She was horrified to think how near she had come to being guilty herself; she had been saved in the nick of time by a revival in the colored Methodist Church, a fortnight before, at which time and place she “got religion.” The very next day after that gracious experience, while her change of style was fresh upon her and she was vain of her purified condition, her master left a couple dollars lying unprotected on his desk, and she happened upon that temptation when she was polishing around with a dust-rag. She looked at the money awhile with a steady rising resentment, then she burst out with —
“Dad blame dat revival, I wisht it had ’a’ be’n put off till to-morrow!”
Then she covered the tempter with a book, and another member of the kitchen cabinet got it. She made this sacrifice as a matter of religious etiquette; as a thing necessary just now, but by no means to be wrested into a precedent; no, a week or two would limber up her piety, then she would be rational again, and the next two dollars that got left out in the cold would find a comforter – and she could name the comforter.
Was she bad? Was she worse than the general run of her race? No. They had an unfair show in the battle of life, and they held it no sin to take military advantage of the enemy – in a small way; in a small way, but not in a large one. They would smouch provisions from the pantry whenever they got a chance; or a brass thimble, or a cake of wax, or an emery-bag, or a paper of needles, or a silver spoon, or a dollar bill, or small articles of clothing, or any other property of light value; and so far were they from considering such reprisals sinful, that they would go to church and shout and pray the loudest and sincerest with their plunder in their pockets. A farm smoke-house had to be kept heavily padlocked, for even the colored deacon himself could СКАЧАТЬ