Not the least important member of our household on the sand-hills was our colored cook, Mrs. Jemima Belfontaine. I happen to know that this was her name, for I wrote it down in our household account-book when we first set up our establishment; and I saw it once again in the address of a letter I read for her. When she first came to work for us, my wife, who was not familiar with Southern customs, was doubtful how to address her, and to be on the safe side, called her Mrs. Belfontaine.
"Law, ma’am," she said, after the first day or two, "I ain’ use’ to bein’ call’ Mis’ Belfount’n, an’ it kind o’ ’fuses me! Ef I gets to thinkin’ o’ myse’f as Mis’ Belfount’n, I’ll be so proud I won’t be able to cook. Dey doan’ nobody call me Mis’ Belfount’n. Dat’s w’at dey use’ to call my ole missis. Ev’ybody calls me 'Mimy,’ or ‘Aun’ Mimy,’ or ’Sis’ Mimy,’ an’ I feels mo’ comf’table w’en I’m call’ by a name I’m use’ to."
So we called her "Aunt Mimy."
Nature was in a generous mood when she planned Aunt Mimy, for she could not have weighed less than three hundred pounds. She was of chocolate-brown complexion, and possessed the cheerful disposition of her race and the genial good nature that usually characterizes fat people. Aunt Mimy generally wore a gay bandana head-handkerchief when about her work in the kitchen, but on Sundays she blossomed out in a bonnet of antique style and decoration, a gift from the former mistress, of whom she always spoke with respectful affection.
Aunt Mimy had been recommended to us by an acquaintance in the neighboring town. We were boarding for a few weeks at the principal hotel while the process of installation into our new domain was going on. There were repairs to be made on the fine old house we had bought, furniture to be purchased, and servants to be hired. For us, as strangers to the country and the people, the task of obtaining competent domestic help was a difficult one, and we accepted with gratitude the kindly advice of the warm-hearted people among whom we had come to settle. We mentioned to one of them, a gentleman of position and standing, and who, by the way, had been brought up in the neighborhood where my farm was, that we wondered where we could get a good cook.
"I think I know just the woman you want," he said, after a moment’s reflection. "I know of no better cook than old Aunt Mimy, who used to belong to old Colonel Belfontaine, my wife’s father. Her mother once belonged to Major McAdoo, whose place you have bought, and Colonel Belfontaine got her with his wife. She has been cooking in town here, but the people have moved away, and I think you can get her. She was at our house the other day, and told my wife she was tired of town, and wanted to move back into the country, in the neighborhood of the old place. Negroes are like cats, you know. I don’t mean the young negroes, who like to wander, but the old generation, who cling to the old customs and the old places. I’m sure Aunt Mimy would be delighted to go, for it would take her right back into the neighborhood where she was born and raised. I’ll send her around, if you’d like to talk to her."
I thanked my kind informant, and the next day Aunt Mimy appeared at the hotel. She was introduced into our sitting-room by way of the back stairs, which must have been of unusual width to accommodate her. I was indeed somewhat frightened at her bulk, and she seemed to surmise the direction of my thoughts.
"Yas, suh," she said, "I know I’m big, but I’m a mighty light eater. You see I’ve done got my growth, an’ it doan’ take much ter keep me up."
Our interview was satisfactory. We were pleased with Aunt Mimy. She seemed neat, respectful, and intelligent. Her skill had been vouched for, and we engaged her to cook for us at the wages she named, which seemed to us ridiculously small, although apparently quite up to the local standard.
Aunt Mimy entirely justified our good opinion of her, and more than met our expectations in the matter of her art. She could not only cook most of the dishes we were accustomed to, but made us acquainted with numerous Southern delicacies, some of which would tempt the palate of an epicure. We had suggested that she live in the house with us, but she said that was not the Southern custom, and she was not used to it; she would prefer a house of her own, where she could receive her friends and provide a home for a young niece who lived with her. There were several small houses on the estate, most of them log cabins, and we assigned her one of these, situated near the main road, about a quarter of a mile from our own house. She was in our kitchen by daylight in the morning, and except when she was off duty, remained until after the supper-table had been cleared away and the kitchen work completed. She had a young colored girl to assist her; but she had small confidence in the powers of most young people, and insisted on seeing for herself that everything was properly done.
"Dese young folks," she was wont to say at times, "is not good fer much. Dey aint had de trainin’. Dem ole times wuzn’t ev’ything dey wuz cracked up fer, but dey did do one thing--dey l’arnt cullud folks how to wuk, an’ some of ’em has mos’ forgot how, sence dey ben free."
She made one exception to this general rule as to the worthlessness of young people, and that was in the case of her son Tom. We first learned of this son shortly after she came into our service.
" ’Scuse me, suh," she said to me one day in the dining-room, "but is you evuh run ’cross my son Tom at de No’th?"
"Why, no, Aunt Mimy; at least I don’t know that I have."
"Well, suh, dat ’peahs to me kinder quare. He’s ben at de No’th three or fo’ yeahs, an’ I wuz mos’ sho’ you’d ’a’ met ’im somewhar."
"What part of the North is he in?" I asked. "You know the North is a pretty big place, Aunt Mimy."
"He’s ben in Noo Yo’k an’ Boston an’ Providence an’ Rhode Islan’. He wuz in Cleveland w’en I got my las’ lettuh f'om ’im."
"How does he like the North?" I asked, with mild curiosity.
"He likes it fus’-rate, suh. He says cullud folks gits ’long jes’ like w’ite folks, long as dey got de money an’ behaves deyse’ves."
"What is your son doing?" I said, somewhat interested in this philosopher who had succeeded in discovering the true secret of prosperity and progress--thrift and good conduct.
"He said in his las’ lettuh dat he wuz in de hotel business--runnin’ a hotel, I s’pose, like de Jeff’son House, whar you put up in town yonduh."
"He must be a pretty bright man," I said, "to have succeeded so well."
"Oh, yas, suh," she said, mistaking my meaning, "he’s sev’al shades brighter’n I is. My husban’ wuz a yaller man. An’ he’s smaht, too, or he nevuh would ’a’ clumb up so fas’. I’m proud o’ my Tom. Ef dese yuther good-for-nothin’ young boys would do like my Tom, dey’d he’p deir race to git out’n de land o’ Egyp’ an’ de house er bondage, an’ be somebody, like w’ite folks."
It was some time after this conversation before Aunt Mimy’s son’s name was mentioned again in my hearing. One day I asked her, casually, if she had heard from her son lately.
"Yas, suh," she answered, "I got a lettuh f’om ’im las’ week."
"How’s the hotel getting on?" I asked.
"He’s done quit de hotel business, suh. He says dey wa’n’t money enough in it. He’s gone into de railroad business now. I ’spec’ he’s runnin’ one o’ dem big railroads up dere in de No’th. He couldn’ ’spec’ to get nothin’ like dat to do down heah, ’cause dey aint enough for all de w’ite folks to do; an’ co’se it’s nach’ul for de w’ite folks not to want our folks crowdin’ ’em, for dey wuzn’ raise’ dat-a-way. W’at dese young cullud folks wants to do, is to git out’n heah an’ go to de No’th, whar Tom says dey’s plenty o’ room an’ plenty o’ money, an’ dey kin have a chance like other folks."
Some months later the subject came up again, I have forgotten in just what connection.
"How’s your son Tom getting along?" I asked. "Has he run his railroad into the hands of a receiver yet?"
She did not understand my last allusion, so she answered only the first question.
"He’s gittin’ along fine, suh, climbin’ up de ladder ev’y yeah he stays at de No’th. He’s made so much money in de railroad business dat he’s quit dat an’ stahted a bank. Banks is whar dey makes money, aint it, suh?"
"Yes," I said, "sometimes." I had painful memories of a bank where I had lost a considerable sum.
"Uh, huh!" she said in triumph. "Dat’s w’at I ’lowed." She put her hand in her pocket and fished out an old-fashioned knitted purse, from which she extracted a new bank-note.
"I reckon he made dat five-dollar bill, don’t you, suh?"
I glanced at the money. It was a note of an Ohio national bank.
"Yes," I said. "I suppose he did make it, in a way."
She put it carefully away.
"Your son doesn’t forget his mother in his prosperity," I remarked.
"Oh, no, suh, he always sot a heap o’ sto’ by his mammy. An’ I’m proud o’ him, for dey ain’ no yuther young cullud man w’at evuh went f'om dis place dat evuh sent back as much money to de ole folks as my Tom has, an’ he’s de only one sent back any money he made hisse’f."
Several months later, Aunt Mimy brought me a letter to read.
"It’s f’om my Tom, suh," she said. "I knows de han’write. My niece reads my lettuhs, but she’s gone to town to stay wid her mammy a day or so, so I ’lowed you or Mis’ Annie wouldn’ mind readin’ it to me."
I took the letter. It was written in a large hand, with some faults of grammar and spelling, but on the whole, a creditable production. I did not think it quite a commercial hand, however, nor was the style that of a man accustomed to weighty affairs.
Among other things it said, in substance, that the writer had found banking a somewhat uncertain business, that it had its ups and downs; that it had opened the way for him, however, to a place in a state institution, where he would be sure of steady employment for a year or two, and would know what his earnings would be; and that he expected to be so busy that he might not be able to write to her with his usual regularity.
Aunt Mimy listened with a pleased expression to the reading of the letter, and when I handed it back, took it as tenderly and held it as carefully as if it had been a live thing.
"I reckon he’s done ben ’lected to de legislatur', or sump’n," she said with conviction. "I always knowed f’om his cradle dat my Tom would git along in de worl’."
"You ought to feel proud of him," I said. "It’s true he changes his business pretty often, but then he seems to get into something better every time."
"Oh, yas, suh," she replied, "dat wuz allus de way wid Tom--nevuh satisfied, allus tryin’ to git sump’n bettah. But nevuh did I ’spec’ to see a boy o’ mine a’ officuh o’ de state. Do you reckon he might git to be gov’nor?" she asked, a little doubtfully.
"I don’t know, Aunt Mimy. Time works wondrous changes. But whether he ever does or not, as long as he is an honest man, and earns a living, and doesn’t forget his mother, you have reason to be proud of him."
Aunt Mimy did not hear from her son for some time after the receipt of this letter; at least, she made no mention of him in our hearing. Eight or nine months later she asked my wife one day if she could be spared from the house a half-hour in the morning and another in the afternoon, if she would make it up by coming earlier and staying later. When asked the reason for the request, she said:
"I got a sick man at my house. I use’ to know his mammy w’en he wuz a baby. Fac’, we b’longed to de same w’ite folks an’ wuz raised on de same plantation. He’s ben away a long time, an’ he’s come back to de ole neighbo’hood, an’ all his folks wuz gone, so I done tol’ ’im I’d take keer o’ ’im till he got well. He gits out’n his head oncet in a w’ile, an’ my niece Sally is too young ter be lef’ ’lone wid ’im all de time. It ain’ nothin’ ketchin’, for the doctuh says so."
"What doctor has he had?" I asked.
"Doctor Hay, suh. He’s ben to see ’im twice, an’ he’s comin’ agin dis evenin’."
My wife gave her the required permission. We asked her, from time to time, how the sick man was getting along. For a while she seemed to think he was mending, but later her answers were not reassuring. She took a warm interest in the patient, and we thought she must have loved his mother very much, for she seemed quite sad at times, and we knew of nothing else to mar her usual serenity.
Doctor Hay was called to our house one day to see my wife. Before leaving the house after his visit, he spoke of Aunt Mimy’s guest.
"By the way," he said, "I have a very interesting case down here on the road, at your cook’s house. It is a young mulatto, of unusually fine physique and more than average intelligence--just the kind of man who, with fair opportunities and some strength of character, might have been of some use in the world. But he took a wrong turn somewhere, and dissipation and disease have simply used him up. He is practically dying of debility; he hasn’t vitality enough left to recruit his losses.
"It’s a queer case, too, in other respects. Occasionally the man is delirious, and from his ravings, one can imagine what a variety of experiences he has undergone. He would seem [BEGIN p. 105] to have been a hotel bell-boy, a sleeping-car porter, and an attendant in a gambling den. But the most curious phase of his delirium is a constant fear of pursuit, as if he had escaped from prison and were afraid of recapture. Poor creature! In just about ten days he will be confined in a narrow cell from which there will be no escape."
One day, a week or two later, Aunt Mimy did not appear in the morning at the usual hour, but sent word by her niece that her guest had died the night before, and asked that we excuse her for a day or two, to attend to the preparations for the funeral.
Of course we acquiesced, and Aunt Mimy’s young assistant did the kitchen work until her return.
Early next morning Aunt Mimy came up to the house. Her eyes were swollen with weeping, and we sympathized with her distress, which we imagined grew out of the natural tenderness of her heart, either at the mere presence of death, or at the loss of the son of her old friend.
"I come up to ast you an’ Mis’ Annie if you had any objections to my buryin’ de young man w’at died at my house in de ole plantation buryin’-groun' over yondeh on de hill?"
There was an old burying-ground on the place, where the slaves of former days had laid their tired limbs to rest when their long day of toil was over. It was surrounded by a dilapidated picket fence, and overgrown with weeds and long grass, amid which, here and there, a sunken place or a rotting headboard showed the purpose for which the enclosure had been used. I did not much like the idea of making further interments there, and I suppose Aunt Mimy read the objection in my eyes.
"His gran’mammy use’ to b’long on dis plantation, suh, an’ all his folks is buried dere, an’ I know he wouldn’ res’ easy in his grave ’less’n he wuz laid ’longside of ’em."
I reluctantly gave the required consent, and she thanked me effusively and went away somewhat comforted. The funeral took place the next day and was largely attended by the colored people, with the usual melancholy delight of their race in mortuary exercises. We could see the cortége wind across the field in the distance, until it reached the low hill where the ashes were laid to ashes and dust to dust.
Aunt Mimy came back to work the morning after the funeral. She was very quiet during the rest of the week, and sad of face. Once or twice my wife found her weeping softly in a corner of the kitchen, but respecting her grief, appeared not to notice it.
On Sunday afternoon of the next week, my wife and I took a walk over to the old burying-ground. We did not speak as we approached it, and our progress over the soft earth made no perceptible noise. Before we reached the ruined fence, and while yet outside of the fringe of trees and bushes that surrounded it, we heard the sound of low sobs which seemed to come from someone inside of the enclosure.
We drew softly near, and peered through the bushes. Our old cook, dressed in the deepest black, had thrown herself across the low mound of a newly made grave, in an attitude of utter abandonment.
"Oh, my po’ boy!" she said between her sobs, unconsciously borrowing almost the words of an ancient Hebrew king, who had a wayward son. "Oh, my po’ boy, my po’ Tom, why couldn’ you stay wid yo’ po’ ole mammy? She’d ’a’ wukked for you, she’d ’a’ hid you, she’d ’a’ died for you--0 Tom, my po’ boy, my po’ boy!"
We stepped softly away so as not to intrude upon her grief, and after that, we asked her no more about her son.