I Within a low clapboarded hut, with an open front, a forge was glowing. In front a blacksmith was shoeing a horse, a sleek, well-kept animal with the signs of good blood and breeding. A young mulatto stood by and handed the blacksmith such tools as he needed from time to time. A group of negroes were sitting around, some in the shadow of the shop, one in the full glare of the sunlight. A gentleman was seated in a buggy a few yards away, in the shade of a spreading elm. The horse had loosened a shoe, and Colonel Thornton, who was a lover of fine horseflesh, and careful of it, had stopped at Ben Davis’s blacksmith shop, as soon as he discovered the loose shoe, to have it fastened on.
“All right, Kunnel,” the blacksmith called out. “Tom,” he said, addressing the young man, “he’p me hitch up.”
Colonel Thornton alighted from the buggy, looked at the shoe, signified his approval of the job, and stood looking on while the blacksmith and his assistant harnessed the horse to the buggy.
“Dat ‘s a mighty fine whip yer got dere, Kunnel,” said Ben, while the young man was tightening the straps of the harness on the opposite side of the horse. “I wush I had one like it. Where kin yer git dem whips?”
“My brother brought me this from New York,” said the Colonel. “You can’t buy them down here.”
The whip in question was a handsome one. The handle was wrapped with interlacing threads of variegated colors, forming an elaborate pattern, the lash being dark green. An octagonal ornament of glass was set in the end of the handle.
“It cert’n’y is fine,” said Ben; “I wish I had one like it.” He looked at the whip longingly as Colonel Thornton drove away.
“‘Pears ter me Ben gittin’ mighty blooded,” said one of the bystanders, “drivin’ a hoss an’ buggy, an’ wantin’ a whip like Colonel Thornton’s.”
“What ‘s de reason I can’t hab a hoss an’ buggy an’ a whip like Kunnel Tho’nton’s, ef I pay fer ’em?” asked Ben. “We colored folks never had no chance ter git nothin’ befo’ de wah, but ef eve’y nigger in dis town had a tuck keer er his money sence de wah, like I has, an’ bought as much lan’ as I has, de niggers might ‘a’ got half de lan’ by dis time,” he went on, giving a finishing blow to a horseshoe, and throwing it on the ground to cool.
Carried away by his own eloquence, he did not notice the approach of two white men who came up the street from behind him.
“An’ ef you niggers,” he continued, raking the coals together over a fresh bar of iron, “would stop wastin’ yo’ money on ‘scursions to put money in w’ite folks’ pockets, an’ stop buildin’ fine chu’ches, an’ buil’ houses fer yo’se’ves, you ‘d git along much faster.”
“You ‘re talkin’ sense, Ben,” said one of the white men. “Yo’r people will never be respected till they ‘ve got property.”
The conversation took another turn. The white men transacted their business and went away. The whistle of a neighboring steam sawmill blew a raucous blast for the hour of noon, and the loafers shuffled away in different directions.
“You kin go ter dinner, Tom,” said the blacksmith. “An’ stop at de gate w’en yer go by my house, and tell Nancy I ‘ll be dere in ’bout twenty minutes. I got ter finish dis yer plough p’int fus’.”
The young man walked away. One would have supposed, from the rapidity with which he walked, that he was very hungry. A quarter of an hour later the blacksmith dropped his hammer, pulled off his leather apron, shut the front door of the shop, and went home to dinner. He came into the house out of the fervent heat, and, throwing off his straw hat, wiped his brow vigorously with a red cotton handkerchief.
“Dem collards smells good,” he said, sniffing the odor that came in through the kitchen door, as his good-looking yellow wife opened it to enter the room where he was. “I ‘ve got a monst’us good appetite ter-day. I feels good, too. I paid Majah Ransom de intrus’ on de mortgage dis mawnin’ an’ a hund’ed dollahs besides, an’ I spec’s ter hab de balance ready by de fust of nex’ Jiniwary; an’ den we won’t owe nobody a cent. I tell yer dere ain’ nothin’ like propputy ter make a pusson feel like a man. But w’at ‘s de matter wid yer, Nancy? Is sump’n’ skeered yer?”
The woman did seem excited and ill at ease. There was a heaving of the full bust, a quickened breathing, that betokened suppressed excitement.
“I-I-jes’ seen a rattlesnake out in de gyahden,” she stammered.
The blacksmith ran to the door. “Which way? Whar wuz he?” he cried.
He heard a rustling in the bushes at one side of the garden, and the sound of a breaking twig, and, seizing a hoe which stood by the door, he sprang toward the point from which the sound came.
“No, no,” said the woman hurriedly, “it wuz over here,” and she directed her husband’s attention to the other side of the garden.
The blacksmith, with the uplifted hoe, its sharp blade gleaming in the sunlight, peered cautiously among the collards and tomato plants, listening all the while for the ominous rattle, but found nothing.
“I reckon he ‘s got away,” he said, as he set the hoe up again by the door. “Whar ‘s de chillen?” he asked with some anxiety. “Is dey playin’ in de woods?”
“No,” answered his wife, “dey ‘ve gone ter de spring.”
The spring was on the opposite side of the garden from that on which the snake was said to have been seen, so the blacksmith sat down and fanned himself with a palm-leaf fan until the dinner was served.
“Yer ain’t quite on time ter-day, Nancy,” he said, glancing up at the clock on the mantel, after the edge of his appetite had been taken off. “Got ter make time ef yer wanter make money. Did n’t Tom tell yer I ‘d be heah in twenty minutes?”
“No,” she said; “I seen him goin’ pas’; he did n’ say nothin’.”
“I dunno w’at ‘s de matter wid dat boy,” mused the blacksmith over his apple dumpling. “He ‘s gittin’ mighty keerless heah lately; mus’ hab sump’n’ on ‘is min’,–some gal, I reckon.”
The children had come in while he was speaking,–a slender, shapely boy, yellow like his mother, a girl several years younger, dark like her father: both bright-looking children and neatly dressed.
“I seen cousin Tom down by de spring,” said the little girl, as she lifted off the pail of water that had been balanced on her head. “He come out er de woods jest ez we wuz fillin’ our buckets.”
“Yas,” insisted the blacksmith, “he ‘s got some gal on his min’.”
The case of the State of North Carolina _vs_. Ben Davis was called. The accused was led into court, and took his seat in the prisoner’s dock.
“Prisoner at the bar, stand up.”
The prisoner, pale and anxious, stood up. The clerk read the indictment, in which it was charged that the defendant by force and arms had entered the barn of one G.W. Thornton, and feloniously taken therefrom one whip, of the value of fifteen dollars.
“Are you guilty or not guilty?” asked the judge.
“Not guilty, yo’ Honah; not guilty, Jedge. I never tuck de whip.”
The State’s attorney opened the case. He was young and zealous. Recently elected to the office, this was his first batch of cases, and he was anxious to make as good a record as possible. He had no doubt of the prisoner’s guilt. There had been a great deal of petty thieving in the county, and several gentlemen had suggested to him the necessity for greater severity in punishing it. The jury were all white men. The prosecuting attorney stated the case.
“We expect to show, gentlemen of the jury, the facts set out in the indictment,–not altogether by direct proof, but by a chain of circumstantial evidence which is stronger even than the testimony of eyewitnesses. Men might lie, but circumstances cannot. We expect to show that the defendant is a man of dangerous character, a surly, impudent fellow; a man whose views of property are prejudicial to the welfare of society, and who has been heard to assert that half the property which is owned in this county has been stolen, and that, if justice were done, the white people ought to divide up the land with the negroes; in other words, a negro nihilist, a communist, a secret devotee of Tom Paine and Voltaire, a pupil of the anarchist propaganda, which, if not checked by the stern hand of the law, will fasten its insidious fangs on our social system, and drag it down to ruin.”
“We object, may it please your Honor,” said the defendant’s attorney. “The prosecutor should defer his argument until the testimony is in.”
“Confine yourself to the facts, Major,” said the court mildly.
The prisoner sat with half-open mouth, overwhelmed by this flood of eloquence. He had never heard of Tom Paine or Voltaire. He had no conception of what a nihilist or an anarchist might be, and could not have told the difference between a propaganda and a potato.
“We expect to show, may it please the court, that the prisoner had been employed by Colonel Thornton to shoe a horse; that the horse was taken to the prisoner’s blacksmith shop by a servant of Colonel Thornton’s; that, this servant expressing a desire to go somewhere on an errand before the horse had been shod, the prisoner volunteered to return the horse to Colonel Thornton’s stable; that he did so, and the following morning the whip in question was missing; that, from circumstances, suspicion naturally fell upon the prisoner, and a search was made of his shop, where the whip was found secreted; that the prisoner denied that the whip was there, but when confronted with the evidence of his crime, showed by his confusion that he was guilty beyond a peradventure.”
The prisoner looked more anxious; so much eloquence could not but be effective with the jury.
The attorney for the defendant answered briefly, denying the defendant’s guilt, dwelling upon his previous good character for honesty, and begging the jury not to pre-judge the case, but to remember that the law is merciful, and that the benefit of the doubt should be given to the prisoner.
The prisoner glanced nervously at the jury. There was nothing in their faces to indicate the effect upon them of the opening statements. It seemed to the disinterested listeners as if the defendant’s attorney had little confidence in his client’s cause.
Colonel Thornton took the stand and testified to his ownership of the whip, the place where it was kept, its value, and the fact that it had disappeared. The whip was produced in court and identified by the witness. He also testified to the conversation at the blacksmith shop in the course of which the prisoner had expressed a desire to possess a similar whip. The cross-examination was brief, and no attempt was made to shake the Colonel’s testimony.
The next witness was the constable who had gone with a warrant to search Ben’s shop. He testified to the circumstances under which the whip was found.
“He wuz brazen as a mule at fust, an’ wanted ter git mad about it. But when we begun ter turn over that pile er truck in the cawner, he kinder begun ter trimble; when the whip-handle stuck out, his eyes commenced ter grow big, an’ when we hauled the whip out he turned pale ez ashes, an’ begun to swear he did n’ take the whip an’ did n’ know how it got thar.”
“You may cross-examine,” said the prosecuting attorney triumphantly.
The prisoner felt the weight of the testimony, and glanced furtively at the jury, and then appealingly at his lawyer.
“You say that Ben denied that he had stolen the whip,” said the prisoner’s attorney, on cross-examination. “Did it not occur to you that what you took for brazen impudence might have been but the evidence of conscious innocence?”
The witness grinned incredulously, revealing thereby a few blackened fragments of teeth.
“I ‘ve tuck up more ‘n a hundred niggers fer stealin’, Kurnel, an’ I never seed one yit that did n’ ‘ny it ter the las’.”
“Answer my question. Might not the witness’s indignation have been a manifestation of conscious innocence? Yes or no?”
“Yes, it mought, an’ the moon mought fall–but it don’t.”
Further cross-examination did not weaken the witness’s testimony, which was very damaging, and every one in the court room felt instinctively that a strong defense would be required to break down the State’s case.
“The State rests,” said the prosecuting attorney, with a ring in his voice which spoke of certain victory.
There was a temporary lull in the proceedings, during which a bailiff passed a pitcher of water and a glass along the line of jury-men. The defense was then begun.
The law in its wisdom did not permit the defendant to testify in his own behalf. There were no witnesses to the facts, but several were called to testify to Ben’s good character. The colored witnesses made him out possessed of all the virtues. One or two white men testified that they had never known anything against his reputation for honesty.
The defendant rested his case, and the State called its witnesses in rebuttal. They were entirely on the point of character. One testified that he had heard the prisoner say that, if the negroes had their rights, they would own at least half the property. Another testified that he had heard the defendant say that the negroes spent too much money on churches, and that they cared a good deal more for God than God had ever seemed to care for them.
Ben Davis listened to this testimony with half-open mouth and staring eyes. Now and then he would lean forward and speak perhaps a word, when his attorney would shake a warning finger at him, and he would fall back helplessly, as if abandoning himself to fate; but for a moment only, when he would resume his puzzled look.
The arguments followed. The prosecuting attorney briefly summed up the evidence, and characterized it as almost a mathematical proof of the prisoner’s guilt. He reserved his eloquence for the closing argument.
The defendant’s attorney had a headache, and secretly believed his client guilty. His address sounded more like an appeal for mercy than a demand for justice. Then the State’s attorney delivered the maiden argument of his office, the speech that made his reputation as an orator, and opened up to him a successful political career.
The judge’s charge to the jury was a plain, simple statement of the law as applied to circumstantial evidence, and the mere statement of the law foreshadowed the verdict.
The eyes of the prisoner were glued to the jury-box, and he looked more and more like a hunted animal. In the rear of the crowd of blacks who filled the back part of the room, partly concealed by the projecting angle of the fireplace, stood Tom, the blacksmith’s assistant. If the face is the mirror of the soul, then this man’s soul, taken off its guard in this moment of excitement, was full of lust and envy and all evil passions.
The jury filed out of their box, and into the jury room behind the judge’s stand. There was a moment of relaxation in the court room. The lawyers fell into conversation across the table. The judge beckoned to Colonel Thornton, who stepped forward, and they conversed together a few moments. The prisoner was all eyes and ears in this moment of waiting, and from an involuntary gesture on the part of the judge he divined that they were speaking of him. It is a pity he could not hear what was said.
“How do you feel about the case, Colonel?” asked the judge.
“Let him off easy,” replied Colonel Thornton. “He ‘s the best blacksmith in the county.”
The business of the court seemed to have halted by tacit consent, in anticipation of a quick verdict. The suspense did not last long. Scarcely ten minutes had elapsed when there was a rap on the door, the officer opened it, and the jury came out.
The prisoner, his soul in his eyes, sought their faces, but met no reassuring glance; they were all looking away from him.
“Gentlemen of the jury, have you agreed upon a verdict?”
“We have,” responded the foreman. The clerk of the court stepped forward and took the fateful slip from the foreman’s hand.
The clerk read the verdict: “We, the jury impaneled and sworn to try the issues in this cause, do find the prisoner guilty as charged in the indictment.”
There was a moment of breathless silence. Then a wild burst of grief from the prisoner’s wife, to which his two children, not understanding it all, but vaguely conscious of some calamity, added their voices in two long, discordant wails, which would have been ludicrous had they not been heartrending.
The face of the young man in the back of the room expressed relief and badly concealed satisfaction. The prisoner fell back upon the seat from which he had half risen in his anxiety, and his dark face assumed an ashen hue. What he thought could only be surmised. Perhaps, knowing his innocence, he had not believed conviction possible; perhaps, conscious of guilt, he dreaded the punishment, the extent of which was optional with the judge, within very wide limits. Only one other person present knew whether or not he was guilty, and that other had slunk furtively from the court room.
Some of the spectators wondered why there should be so much ado about convicting a negro of stealing a buggy-whip. They had forgotten their own interest of the moment before. They did not realize out of what trifles grow the tragedies of life.
It was four o’clock in the afternoon, the hour for adjournment, when the verdict was returned. The judge nodded to the bailiff.
“Oyez, oyez! this court is now adjourned until ten o’clock to-morrow morning,” cried the bailiff in a singsong voice. The judge left the bench, the jury filed out of the box, and a buzz of conversation filled the court room.
“Brace up, Ben, brace up, my boy,” said the defendant’s lawyer, half apologetically. “I did what I could for you, but you can never tell what a jury will do. You won’t be sentenced till to-morrow morning. In the meantime I ‘ll speak to the judge and try to get him to be easy with you. He may let you off with a light fine.”
The negro pulled himself together, and by an effort listened.
“Thanky, Majah,” was all he said. He seemed to be thinking of something far away.
He barely spoke to his wife when she frantically threw herself on him, and clung to his neck, as he passed through the side room on his way to jail. He kissed his children mechanically, and did not reply to the soothing remarks made by the jailer.
There was a good deal of excitement in town the next morning. Two white men stood by the post office talking.
“Did yer hear the news?”
“No, what wuz it?”
“Ben Davis tried ter break jail las’ night.”
“You don’t say so! What a fool! He ain’t be’n sentenced yit.”
“Well, now,” said the other, “I ‘ve knowed Ben a long time, an’ he wuz a right good nigger. I kinder found it hard ter b’lieve he did steal that whip. But what ‘s a man’s feelin’s ag’in’ the proof?”
They spoke on awhile, using the past tense as if they were speaking of a dead man.
“Ef I know Jedge Hart, Ben ‘ll wish he had slep’ las’ night, ‘stidder tryin’ ter break out’n jail.”
At ten o’clock the prisoner was brought into court. He walked with shambling gait, bent at the shoulders, hopelessly, with downcast eyes, and took his seat with several other prisoners who had been brought in for sentence. His wife, accompanied by the children, waited behind him, and a number of his friends were gathered in the court room.
The first prisoner sentenced was a young white man, convicted several days before of manslaughter. The deed was done in the heat of passion, under circumstances of great provocation, during a quarrel about a woman. The prisoner was admonished of the sanctity of human life, and sentenced to one year in the penitentiary.
The next case was that of a young clerk, eighteen or nineteen years of age, who had committed a forgery in order to procure the means to buy lottery tickets. He was well connected, and the case would not have been prosecuted if the judge had not refused to allow it to be nolled, and, once brought to trial, a conviction could not have been avoided.
“You are a young man,” said the judge gravely, yet not unkindly, “and your life is yet before you. I regret that you should have been led into evil courses by the lust for speculation, so dangerous in its tendencies, so fruitful of crime and misery. I am led to believe that you are sincerely penitent, and that, after such punishment as the law cannot remit without bringing itself into contempt, you will see the error of your ways and follow the strict path of rectitude. Your fault has entailed distress not only upon yourself, but upon your relatives, people of good name and good family, who suffer as keenly from your disgrace as you yourself. Partly out of consideration for their feelings, and partly because I feel that, under the circumstances, the law will be satisfied by the penalty I shall inflict, I sentence you to imprisonment in the county jail for six months, and a fine of one hundred dollars and the costs of this action.”
“The jedge talks well, don’t he?” whispered one spectator to another.
“Yes, and kinder likes ter hear hisse’f talk,” answered the other.
“Ben Davis, stand up,” ordered the judge.
He might have said “Ben Davis, wake up,” for the jailer had to touch the prisoner on the shoulder to rouse him from his stupor. He stood up, and something of the hunted look came again into his eyes, which shifted under the stern glance of the judge.
“Ben Davis, you have been convicted of larceny, after a fair trial before twelve good men of this county. Under the testimony, there can be no doubt of your guilt. The case is an aggravated one. You are not an ignorant, shiftless fellow, but a man of more than ordinary intelligence among your people, and one who ought to know better. You have not even the poor excuse of having stolen to satisfy hunger or a physical appetite. Your conduct is wholly without excuse, and I can only regard your crime as the result of a tendency to offenses of this nature, a tendency which is only too common among your people; a tendency which is a menace to civilization, a menace to society itself, for society rests upon the sacred right of property. Your opinions, too, have been given a wrong turn; you have been heard to utter sentiments which, if disseminated among an ignorant people, would breed discontent, and give rise to strained relations between them and their best friends, their old masters, who understand their real nature and their real needs, and to whose justice and enlightened guidance they can safely trust. Have you anything to say why sentence should not be passed upon you?”
“Nothin’, suh, cep’n dat I did n’ take de whip.”
“The law, largely, I think, in view of the peculiar circumstances of your unfortunate race, has vested a large discretion in courts as to the extent of the punishment for offenses of this kind. Taking your case as a whole, I am convinced that it is one which, for the sake of the example, deserves a severe punishment. Nevertheless, I do not feel disposed to give you the full extent of the law, which would be twenty years in the penitentiary, but, considering the fact that you have a family, and have heretofore borne a good reputation in the community, I will impose upon you the light sentence of imprisonment for five years in the penitentiary at hard labor. And I hope that this will be a warning to you and others who may be similarly disposed, and that after your sentence has expired you may lead the life of a law-abiding citizen.”
[Footnote 1: There are no degrees of larceny in North Carolina, and the penalty for any offense lies in the discretion of the judge, to the limit of twenty years.]
“O Ben! O my husband! O God!” moaned the poor wife, and tried to press forward to her husband’s side.
“Keep back, Nancy, keep back,” said the jailer. “You can see him in jail.”
Several people were looking at Ben’s face. There was one flash of despair, and then nothing but a stony blank, behind which he masked his real feelings, whatever they were.
Human character is a compound of tendencies inherited and habits acquired. In the anxiety, the fear of disgrace, spoke the nineteenth century civilization with which Ben Davis had been more or less closely in touch during twenty years of slavery and fifteen years of freedom. In the stolidity with which he received this sentence for a crime which he had not committed, spoke who knows what trait of inherited savagery? For stoicism is a savage virtue.
One morning in June, five years later, a black man limped slowly along the old Lumberton plank road; a tall man, whose bowed shoulders made him seem shorter than he was, and a face from which it was difficult to guess his years, for in it the wrinkles and flabbiness of age were found side by side with firm white teeth, and eyes not sunken,–eyes bloodshot, and burning with something, either fever or passion. Though he limped painfully with one foot, the other hit the ground impatiently, like the good horse in a poorly matched team. As he walked along, he was talking to himself:—-
“I wonder what dey ‘ll do w’en I git back? I wonder how Nancy ‘s s’ported the fambly all dese years? Tuck in washin’, I s’ppose,–she was a monst’us good washer an’ ironer. I wonder ef de chillun ‘ll be too proud ter reco’nize deir daddy come back f’um de penetenchy? I ‘spec’ Billy must be a big boy by dis time. He won’ b’lieve his daddy ever stole anything. I ‘m gwine ter slip roun’ an’ s’prise ’em.”
Five minutes later a face peered cautiously into the window of what had once been Ben Davis’s cabin,–at first an eager face, its coarseness lit up with the fire of hope; a moment later a puzzled face; then an anxious, fearful face as the man stepped away from the window and rapped at the door.
“Is Mis’ Davis home?” he asked of the woman who opened the door.
“Mis’ Davis don’ live here. You er mistook in de house.”
“Whose house is dis?”
“It b’longs ter my husban’, Mr. Smith,–Primus Smith.”
“‘Scuse me, but I knowed de house some years ago w’en I wuz here oncet on a visit, an’ it b’longed ter a man name’ Ben Davis.”
“Ben Davis–Ben Davis?–oh yes, I ‘member now. Dat wuz de gen’man w’at wuz sent ter de penitenchy fer sump’n er nuther,–sheep-stealin’, I b’lieve. Primus,” she called, “w’at wuz Ben Davis, w’at useter own dis yer house, sent ter de penitenchy fer?”
“Hoss-stealin’,” came back the reply in sleepy accents, from the man seated by the fireplace.
The traveler went on to the next house. A neat-looking yellow woman came to the door when he rattled the gate, and stood looking suspiciously at him.
“W’at you want?” she asked.
“Please, ma’am, will you tell me whether a man name’ Ben Davis useter live in dis neighborhood?”
“Useter live in de nex’ house; wuz sent ter de penitenchy fer killin’ a man.”
“Kin yer tell me w’at went wid Mis’ Davis?”
“Umph! I ‘s a ‘spectable ‘oman, I is, en don’ mix wid dem kind er people. She wuz ‘n’ no better ‘n her husban’. She tuk up wid a man dat useter wuk fer Ben, an’ dey ‘re livin’ down by de ole wagon-ya’d, where no ‘spectable ‘oman ever puts her foot.”
“An’ de chillen?”
“De gal ‘s dead. Wuz ‘n’ no better ‘n she oughter be’n. She fell in de crick an’ got drown’; some folks say she wuz ‘n’ sober w’en it happen’. De boy tuck atter his pappy. He wuz ‘rested las’ week fer shootin’ a w’ite man, an’ wuz lynch’ de same night. Dey wa’n’t none of ’em no ‘count after deir pappy went ter de penitenchy.”
“What went wid de proputty?”
“Hit wuz sol’ fer de mortgage, er de taxes, er de lawyer, er sump’n,–I don’ know w’at. A w’ite man got it.”
The man with the bundle went on until he came to a creek that crossed the road. He descended the sloping bank, and, sitting on a stone in the shade of a water-oak, took off his coarse brogans, unwound the rags that served him in lieu of stockings, and laved in the cool water the feet that were chafed with many a weary mile of travel.
After five years of unrequited toil, and unspeakable hardship in convict camps,–five years of slaving by the side of human brutes, and of nightly herding with them in vermin-haunted huts,–Ben Davis had become like them. For a while he had received occasional letters from home, but in the shifting life of the convict camp they had long since ceased to reach him, if indeed they had been written. For a year or two, the consciousness of his innocence had helped to make him resist the debasing influences that surrounded him. The hope of shortening his sentence by good behavior, too, had worked a similar end. But the transfer from one contractor to another, each interested in keeping as long as possible a good worker, had speedily dissipated any such hope. When hope took flight, its place was not long vacant. Despair followed, and black hatred of all mankind, hatred especially of the man to whom he attributed all his misfortunes. One who is suffering unjustly is not apt to indulge in fine abstractions, nor to balance probabilities. By long brooding over his wrongs, his mind became, if not unsettled, at least warped, and he imagined that Colonel Thornton had deliberately set a trap into which he had fallen. The Colonel, he convinced himself, had disapproved of his prosperity, and had schemed to destroy it. He reasoned himself into the belief that he represented in his person the accumulated wrongs of a whole race, and Colonel Thornton the race who had oppressed them. A burning desire for revenge sprang up in him, and he nursed it until his sentence expired and he was set at liberty. What he had learned since reaching home had changed his desire into a deadly purpose.
When he had again bandaged his feet and slipped them into his shoes, he looked around him, and selected a stout sapling from among the undergrowth that covered the bank of the stream. Taking from his pocket a huge clasp-knife, he cut off the length of an ordinary walking stick and trimmed it. The result was an ugly-looking bludgeon, a dangerous weapon when in the grasp of a strong man.
With the stick in his hand, he went on down the road until he approached a large white house standing some distance back from the street. The grounds were filled with a profusion of shrubbery. The negro entered the gate and secreted himself in the bushes, at a point where he could hear any one that might approach.
It was near midday, and he had not eaten. He had walked all night, and had not slept. The hope of meeting his loved ones had been meat and drink and rest for him. But as he sat waiting, outraged nature asserted itself, and he fell asleep, with his head on the rising root of a tree, and his face upturned.
And as he slept, he dreamed of his childhood; of an old black mammy taking care of him in the daytime, and of a younger face, with soft eyes, which bent over him sometimes at night, and a pair of arms which clasped him closely. He dreamed of his past,–of his young wife, of his bright children. Somehow his dreams all ran to pleasant themes for a while.
Then they changed again. He dreamed that he was in the convict camp, and, by an easy transition, that he was in hell, consumed with hunger, burning with thirst. Suddenly the grinning devil who stood over him with a barbed whip faded away, and a little white angel came and handed him a drink of water. As he raised it to his lips the glass slipped, and he struggled back to consciousness.
“Poo’ man! Poo’ man sick, an’ sleepy. Dolly b’ing Powers to cover poo’ man up. Poo’ man mus’ be hungry. Wen Dolly get him covered up, she go b’ing poo’ man some cake.”
A sweet little child, as beautiful as a cherub escaped from Paradise, was standing over him. At first he scarcely comprehended the words the baby babbled out. But as they became clear to him, a novel feeling crept slowly over his heart. It had been so long since he had heard anything but curses and stern words of command, or the ribald songs of obscene merriment, that the clear tones of this voice from heaven cooled his calloused heart as the water of the brook had soothed his blistered feet. It was so strange, so unwonted a thing, that he lay there with half-closed eyes while the child brought leaves and flowers and laid them on his face and on his breast, and arranged them with little caressing taps.
She moved away, and plucked a flower. And then she spied another farther on, and then another, and, as she gathered them, kept increasing the distance between herself and the man lying there, until she was several rods away.
Ben Davis watched her through eyes over which had come an unfamiliar softness. Under the lingering spell of his dream, her golden hair, which fell in rippling curls, seemed like a halo of purity and innocence and peace, irradiating the atmosphere around her. It is true the thought occurred to Ben, vaguely, that through harm to her he might inflict the greatest punishment upon her father; but the idea came like a dark shape that faded away and vanished into nothingness as soon as it came within the nimbus that surrounded the child’s person.
The child was moving on to pluck still another flower, when there came a sound of hoof-beats, and Ben was aware that a horseman, visible through the shrubbery, was coming along the curved path that led from the gate to the house. It must be the man he was waiting for, and now was the time to wreak his vengeance. He sprang to his feet, grasped his club, and stood for a moment irresolute. But either the instinct of the convict, beaten, driven, and debased, or the influence of the child, which was still strong upon him, impelled him, after the first momentary pause, to flee as though seeking safety.
His flight led him toward the little girl, whom he must pass in order to make his escape, and as Colonel Thornton turned the corner of the path he saw a desperate-looking negro, clad in filthy rags, and carrying in his hand a murderous bludgeon, running toward the child, who, startled by the sound of footsteps, had turned and was looking toward the approaching man with wondering eyes. A sickening fear came over the father’s heart, and drawing the ever-ready revolver, which according to the Southern custom he carried always upon his person, he fired with unerring aim. Ben Davis ran a few yards farther, faltered, threw out his hands, and fell dead at the child’s feet.
* * * * * * *
Some time, we are told, when the cycle of years has rolled around, there is to be another golden age, when all men will dwell together in love and harmony, and when peace and righteousness shall prevail for a thousand years. God speed the day, and let not the shining thread of hope become so enmeshed in the web of circumstance that we lose sight of it; but give us here and there, and now and then, some little foretaste of this golden age, that we may the more patiently and hopefully await its coming!
The Web of Circumstance by Charles W. Chesnutt