I had been requested by my cousin, whose home was in Ohio, to find for him, somewhere in my own neighborhood in the pine belt of North Carolina, a suitable place for a winter residence. His wife was none too strong; his father, who lived with him, was in failing health; and he wished to save them from the raw lake winds which during the winter season take toll of those least fitted to resist their rigor. My relative belonged to the fortunate class of those who need take no thought today for tomorrow's needs. The dignity of labor is a beautiful modern theory, in which no doubt many of the sterner virtues find their root, but the dignity of ease was celebrated at least as long ago as the days of Horace, a gentleman and philosopher, with some reputation as a poet.
Since my cousin was no lover of towns, and the term neighborhood is very elastic when applied to rural life, I immediately thought of an old, uncultivated--I was about to say plantation, but its boundaries had long since shrunk from those which in antebellum times would have justified so pretentious a designation. It still embraced, however, some fifteen or twenty acres of diversified surface--part sand-hill, part meadow; part overgrown with scrubby shortleaf pines and part with a scraggy underbrush. Though the soil had been more or less exhausted by the wasteful methods of slavery, neglected grapevines here and there, and gnarled and knotted fruit-trees, smothered by ruder growths about them, proved it to have been at one time in a high state of cultivation.
I had often driven by the old Spencer place, as it was called, from the name of the family whose seat it had been. It lay about five miles from my vineyard and was reached by a drive down the Wilmington Road and across the Mineral Spring swamp. Having brought with me to North Carolina a certain quickness of decision and promptness of action which the climate and laissez-faire customs of my adopted state had not yet overcome, upon receipt of my cousin's letter I ordered old Julius to get out the gray mare and the rockaway and drive me over to the old Spencer place.
When we reached it, Julius left his seat long enough to take down the bars which guarded the entrance and we then drove up a short lane to the cleared space, surrounded by ragged oaks and elms, where the old plantation house had once stood. It had been destroyed by fire many years before and there were few traces of it remaining--a crumbling brick pillar here and there, on which the sills of the house had rested, and the dilapidated, ivy-draped lower half of a chimney, of which the yawning, blackened fireplace bore mute witness of the vanished generations which had lived and loved--and perchance suffered and died, within the radius of its genial glow.
Not far from where the house had stood, there was a broad oak stump, in a good state of preservation, except for a hole in the center, due, doubtless, to a rotten heart, in what had been in other respects a sound and perfect tree. I had seated myself upon the top of the stump--the cut had been made with the axe, almost as smoothly as though with a saw--when old Julius, who was standing near me, exclaimed, with some signs of concern.
"Excuse me, sub, I know you come from de No'th, but did any of yo' folks, way back yonder, come from 'roun' hyuh?"
"No," I returned, "they were New England Yankees, with no Southern strain whatever. But why do you ask?" I added, observing that he had something on his mind, and having often found his fancies quaint and amusing, from the viewpoint of one not Southern born.
"Oh, nothin', sub, leas'ways nothin' much--only I seed you settin' on dat ol' stump, an' I wuz kind er scared fer a minute."
"I don't see anything dangerous about the stump," I replied. "It seems to be a very well preserved oak stump."
"Oh, no, suh," said Julius, "dat ain' no oak stump."
It bore every appearance of an oak stump. The grain of the wood was that of oak. The bark was oak bark, and the spreading base held the earth in the noble grip of the king of trees.
"It is an oak, Julius--it is the stump of what was once a fine oak tree."
"Yas, sub, I know it 'pears like oak wood, and it 'pears like oak bahk, an' it looked like a oak tree Wen it wuz standin' dere, fifty feet high, fohty years ago. But it wa'n't--no, suh, it wa'n't."
"What kind of a tree was it, if not an oak?"
"It was a U-pass tree, suh; yes, sah, dat wuz de name of it a U-pass tree."
"I have never heard of that variety," I replied.
"No, sub, it wuz a new kind er tree roun' hyuh. I nevah heard er any but dat one."
"Where did you get the name?" I asked.
"I got it from ol' Marse Aleck Spencer hisse'f, fohty years ago--fohty years ago, suh. I was lookin' at dat tree one day, aftuh I'd heared folks talkin' 'bout it, an' befo' it wuz cut down, an' ole Marse Aleck come erlong, an' sez I, 'Marse Aleck, dat is a monst'us fine oak tree.' An' ole Marse Aleck up an sez, sezee, 'No, Julius, dat ain' no oak-tree--dat is a U-pass tree.' An' I've ,membered the name evuh since, suh-de U-pass tree. Folks useter call it a' oak tree, but Marse Aleck oughter a knowd;--it 'us his tree, an' he had libbed close to it all his life."
It was evident that the gentleman referred to had used in a figurative sense the name which Julius had remembered so literally--the Upas tree, the fabled tree of death. I was curious to know to what it owed this sinister appellation. It would be easy, I knew, as it afterwards proved, to start the old man on a train of reminiscence concerning the family and the tree. How much of it was true I cannot say; I suspected Julius at times of a large degree of poetic license--he took the crude legends and vague superstitions of the neighborhood and embodied them in stories as complete, in their way, as the Sagas of Iceland or the primitive tales of ancient Greece. I have saved a few of them. Had Julius lived in a happier age for men of his complexion, the world might have had a black Aesop or Grimm or Hoffman--as it still may have, for who knows whether our civilization has yet more than cut its milk teeth, or humanity has even really begun to walk erect?
Later in the day, in the cool of the evening, on the front piazza, left dark because of the mosquitoes, except for the light of the stars, which shone with a clear, soft radiance, Julius told my wife and me his story of the old Spencer oak. His low, mellow voice rambled on, to an accompaniment of night-time sounds--the deep diapason from a distant frog-pond, the shrill chirp of the cicada, the occasional bark of a dog or cry of an owl, all softened by distance and merging into a melancholy minor which suited perfectly the teller and the tale.
"Marse Aleck Spencer uster be de riches' man in all dis neighborhood. He own' two thousan' acres er lan'--de ole place ovuh yonduh is all dat is lef'. Dere wus ovuh a hund'ed an' fifty slaves on de plantation. Marse Aleck was a magist'ate an a politician, an' eve'ybody liked him. He kep' open house all de time, an' had company eve'y day in de yeah. His hosses wuz de fastes' an' his fox-hounds de swiftes', his game-cocks de fierces', an' his servants de impidentes' in de county. His wife wuz de pretties' an' de proudes' lady, an' wo' de bes' clo's an' de mos' finguhrings, an' rid in de fines' carriage. Fac', 'day alluz had de best er eve'ything, an' nobody didn' 'spute it wid 'em.
"Marse Aleck's child'en wuz de apples er his eye--dere wuz a big fambly--Miss Alice an' Miss Flora, an' young Marse Johnny, an' den some yeahs latuh, little Marse Henry an' little Marse Tom, an' den dere wuz ol' Mis' Kathu'n, Marse Aleck's wife, an' de chilen's mammy.
"When young Marse Johnny was bawn, and Aunt Dasdy, who had nussed all de child'en, put de little young marster in his pappy's arms, Marse Aleck wuz de happies' man in de worl'; for it wuz his fus' boy, an' he had alluz wanted a boy to keep up de fambly name an' de fambly rep'tation. An' eve'ybody on de plantation sheered his joy, fer when de marster smile, it's sunshine, an' when de marster frown, it's cloudy weather.
"When de missis was well enough, an' de baby was ol' enough, de christenin' come off; an' nothing would do fer Marse Aleck but to have it under de fambly tree--dat wuz de stump of it ovuh yonduh, sub, dat you was setting on dis mawnin'.
"'Dat tree,' said Marse Aleck, 'wuz planted when my great gran'daddy wuz bawn. Under dat tree eve'y fus'-bawn son er dis fambly since den has be'n christen'. Dis fambly has growed an' flourish' wid dat tree, an' now dat my son is bawn, I wants ter hab him christen' under it, so dat he kin grow an' flourish 'long wid it. An' dis ole oak'--Marse Aleck useter 'low it wuz a oak, befo' he give it de new name--'dis ole oak is tall an' stout an' strong. It has weathe'd many a sto'm. De win' cant blow it down, an' de lightnin' ain't nevuh struck it, an' nothin' but a prunin' saw has ever teched it, ner ever shill, so long as dere is a Spencer lef' ter pertec' it.
"'An' so my son John, my fus'-bawn, is gwineter grow up tall an' strong, an' be a big man' an' a good man; an' his child'en and his child'en's child'en an' dem dat follers shall be as many as de leaves er dis tree, an' dey shill keep de name er Spencer at de head er de roll as long as time shall las'."
"De same day Marse Johnny wuz bawn, which wuz de fu'st er May--anudder little boy, a little black boy, wuz bawn down in de quahtahs. De mammy had worked 'roun' de big house de yeah befo', but she had give er mist'iss some impidence one day, an' er mist'iss had made Marse Aleck sen' her back ter de cotton-fiel'. An' when little Marse Johnny wuz christen', Phillis, dis yuther baby's mammy, wuz standin' out on de edge, 'long wid de yuther fiel'-hands, fuh dey wuz all 'vited up ter take part, an' ter eat some er de christenin' feas'. Whils' de white folks wuz eatin' in de house, de cullud folks all had plenty er good things pass 'roun' out in de yahd--all dey could eat an' all they could drink, fuh dem wuz de fat yeahs er de Spencers--an' all famblies, like all folks, has deir fat yeahs an' deir lean yeahs. De lean yeahs er de Spencers wuz boun' ter come sooner er later.
"Little Marse Johnny growed an' flourish' just like the fambly tree had done, an' in due time growed up to be a tall an' straight an' smart young man. But as you sca'cely evuh sees a tree widout a knot, so you nevuh sees a man widout his faults. Marse Johnny wuz so pop'lar and went aroun' so much wid his frien's that he tuck ter drinkin' mo' dan wuz good for him. Southe'n gent'emen all drunk them days, suh--nobody had never dremp' er dis yer foolishness 'bout pro'bition dat be'n gwine roun' er late yeahs. But as a gin'ral rule, dey drunk like gent'emen--else dey could stan mo' liquor dan folks kin dese days. An' young Marse Johnny had a mighty quick temper, which mo' d'n once got 'im inter quarrels which it give 'im mo' or less trouble to make up.
"Marse Johnny wuz mighty fond er de ladies, too, an' wuz de pet of'em all. But he wuz jus' passin' de time wid 'em, 'tel he met Miss Mamie Imboden--de daughter er de Widder Imboden, what own' a plantation down on ole Rockfish. Ole Mis' Imboden didn' spen' much time on huh place, but left it tuh a overseah, whils' she an' Miss Mamie wuz livin' in de big towns, er de wat'rin-places, er way up yonduh in de No'th, whar you an' yo' lady come fum.
"When de Widder Imboden come home one winter wid huh daughter, Marse Johnny fell dead in lub wid Miss Mamie. He couldn' ha'dly eat ner sleep fuh a week or so, an' he jus' natch'ly couldn' keep way fum Rockfish, an' jus' wo' out Marse Aleck's ridin' hosses comin' an' going', day, night an' Sunday. An' wharevuh she wuz visitin' he'd go visitin'; an'when she went tuh town he'd go tuh town. An' Marse Johnny got mo' religious dan he had evuh be'n befo' an' went tuh de Prisbyte'ian Chuch down tuh Rockfish reg'lar. His own chuch wuz 'Piscopal, but Miss Iboden wuz a Prisbyte'ian.
"But Marse Johnny wa'n't de only one. Anudder young gentleman, Marse Ben Dudley, who come fum a fine old fambly, but wuz monst'us wild an' reckless, was payin' co't tuh Miss Mamie at de same time, an' it was nip an' tuck who should win out. Some said she favored one, and some said de yuther, an' some 'lowed she didn' knowed w'ich tuh choose.
"Young Marse Johnny kinder feared fuh a while dat she like de yuther young gentleman bes'. But one day Marse Ben's daddy, ole Marse Amos Dudley, went bankrup', an' his plantation and all his slaves wuz sol', an' he shot hisse'f in de head, and young Marse Ben wuz lef' po'. An' bein' too proud tuh work, an' havin' no relations ter live on, he tuck ter bettin' an' dicin' an' kyard-playin', an' went on jes' scan'lous. An' it wuz soon whispered 'roun' dat young Mistah Dudley wuz livin' on his winin's at kyards, an' dat he wa'n't partic'lar who he played wid, er whar er how he played. But I is ahead er my tale, fuh all dis hyuh 'bout Marse Ben happen' after Marse Johnny had cut Marse Ben out an' ma'ied Miss Mamie.
"Ol' Marse Aleck wuz monst'us glad when he heared Marse Johnny wuz gwineter git ma'ied, for he wanted de fambly kep' up, an' he 'lowed Marse Johnny needed a wife fuh tuh he'p stiddy him. An' Miss Mamie wuz one of dese hyuh sweetnachu'd, kin'-hearted ladies dat noboddy could he'p lovin'. An, mo'over, Miss Mamie's Mammy wuz rich, an' would leave huh well off sume day.
"Fuh de lean yeahs er de Spencers wuz comin', an' Marse Aleck 'spicioned it. De cotton crop had be'n po' de yeah befo', de cawn had ben wuss, glanders had got in the hosses an most of 'em had had ter be killed; an' old Marse Aleck wuz mo' sho't of money dan he'd be'n fur a long, long time. An' when he tried tuh make it up by spekilatin', he jus' kep' on losin' mo' an' mo' an' mo'.
"But young Marse Johnny had ter hab money for his weddin', an' the house had to be fix' up fuh 'im an' his wife, an' dere had ter be a rich weddin' present an' a fine infair, an' all dem things cos' money. An' sence he didn' wanter borry de money, Marse Aleck 'lowed he s'posed he'd hafter sell one er his han's. An' ole Mis' Spencer say he should sell Phillis's Isham. Marse Aleck didn' wanter sell Isham, fur he 'membered Isham wuz de boy dat wuz bawn on de same day Marse Johnny wuz. But ole Mis' Spencer say she didn' like dat boy's looks nohow, an' dat his mammy had be'n impident tuh huh one time, an ef Marse Aleck gwine sell anybody he sh'd sell Isham.
"Prob'bly ef old Marse Aleck had knowed jus' what wuz gwineter happen he mought not 'a' sol' Isham--he'd 'a' ruther gone inter debt, er borried de money. But den nobody nevuh knows whats gwineter happen; an' what good would it do 'em ef dey did? It'd only make 'em mizzable befo' han', an' ef it wuz gwineter happen, how could dey stop it? So Marse Aleck wuz bettuh off dan ef he had knowed.
"Now, dis hyuh Isham had fell in love, too, wid a nice gal on de plantation, an' wuz jus' 'bout making up his min' tuh ax Marse Aleck tuh let 'im marry her an' tuh give 'em a cabin tuh live in by deyse'ves, when one day Marse Aleck tuck Isham ter town, an' sol' 'im to another gent'eman, fuh tuh git de money fuh de expenses er his own son's weddin'.
"Isham's mammy wuz workin' in de cotton-fiel' way ovuh at de fah end er de plantation dat day, an' when she went home at night an' foun' dat Marse Aleck had sol' huh Isham, she run up to de big house an' wep' an' hollered an' went on terrible. But Marse Aleck tol huh it wuz all right, dat Isham had a good marster, an' wa'n't many miles erway, an' could come an' see his mammy whenevuh he wanter.
"When de young ma'ied folks came back f'm dey weddin' tower, day had de infair, an' all de rich white folks wuz invited. An' dat same night, whils' de big house wuz all lit up, an' de fiddles wuz goin', an' dere wuz eatin' an' drinkin' an' dancin' an' sky-larkin' an' eve'body wuz jokin' de young couple an' wushin' 'em good luck, Phillis wuz settin' all alone in huh cabin, way at de fah end er de quarters, studyin' 'bout huh boy, who had be'n sol' to pay fer it all. All de other cullud folks wuz up 'round' de big house, some waitin' on de white folks, some he'pin in de kitchen, some takin' keer er de guest's hosses, an de res' swa'min' round de yahd, gittin' in one anudder's way, an' waitin' 'tel de white folks got thoo, so dey could hab somethin' tuh eat too; fuh Marse Aleck had open' de big blade, an' wanted eve'body to have a good time.
"'Bout time de fun wuz at de highes' in de big house, Phillis heared somebody knockin' at huh cabin do'. She didn' know who it could be, an' bein' as dere Wa'nt' nobody e'se 'roun', she sot still an' didn' say nary word. Den she heared somebody groan, an' den dere wuz anudder knock, a feeble one dis time, an' den all wuz still.
"Phillis wait' a minute, an' den crack' de do', so she could look out, an' dere wuz somebody layin' all crumple' up on de do'-step. An' den somethin' wahned huh what it wuz, an' she fetched a lighterd to'ch fum de ha'th. It wuz huh son Isham. He wuz wownded an' bleedin'; his feet wuz so' wid walkin'; he wuz weak from loss er blood.
"Phillis pick' Isham up an' laid 'im on huh bed an' run an' got some whiskey an' give 'im a drap, an' den she helt camphire tuh his nost'ils, meanwhile callin' his name an' gwine on like a wild 'oman. An' bimeby he open' his eyes an' look' up an' says--'I'se come home, mammy,'--an' den died. Dem wuz de only words he spoke, an' he nevuh drawed anudder bref.
"It come tuh light nex' day, when de slave-ketchers come aftuh Isham wid deir dawgs an' deir guns, dat he had got in a 'spute wid his marster, an' had achully hit his marster! An' realizin' what he had done, he had run erway; natch'ly to'ds his mammy an' de ole plantation. Dey had wounded 'im an' had mos' ketched him, but he had 'scaped ag'in an' had reach' home just in time tuh die in his mammy's ahms.
"Phillis laid Isham out wid her own han's--dere wa'n't nobody dere tuh he'p her, an' she didn' want no he'p nohow. An' when it wuz all done, an' she had straighten' his lim's an' fol' his han's an' close his eyes, an' spread a sheet ovuh him, she shut de do' sof'ly, and stahted up ter de big house.
"When she drawed nigh, de visituhs wuz gittin' ready tuh go. De servants wuz bringin' de hosses an' buggies an' ca'iges roun'; de white folks wuz laffin' an gwine on an' sayin' good-bye. An' whils' Phillis wuz standin' back behin' a bunch er rose-bushes in de yahd, listenin' an' waitin', ole Marse Aleck come out'n de house wid de young couple an' stood unduh de ole fambly tree. He had a glass er wine in his han', an' a lot er de yuthers follered:
"'Frien's,' says he, 'drink a toas' wid me tuh my son an' his lady, hyuh under dis ole tree. May it last anudder hunded yeahs, an' den anudder, an' may it fetch good luck tuh my son an' his wife, an' tuh deir child'en an' deir child'en's child'en.'
"De toas' wuz drunk, de gues's depahted; de slaves went back tuh de quahtuhs, an' Phillis went home tuh huh dead boy.
"But befo' she went, she marked de Spencer tree!
"Young Marse Johnny an' his wife got 'long mighty well fuh de fust six mont's er so, an'den trouble commence' betwix' 'em. Dey wus at a pahty one night, an' young Marse Johnny seen young Marse Ben Dudley talking in a cawnuh wid Miss Mamie. Marse Johnny wuz mighty jealous-natu'ed, an didn' like dis at all. Endoyin' de same evenin' he overheard somebody say that Miss Mamie had th'owed Marse Ben ovuh beca'se he was po'an' married Marse Johnny beca'se he wuz rich. Marse Johnny didn' say nothin', but he kep' studyin' an studyin' 'bout dese things. An' it didn' do him no good to let his min' run on 'em.
"Marse Ben Dudley kep' on gwine from bad ter wuss, an' one day Marse Johnny foun' a letter from Marse Ben in his wife's bureau drawer.
"'You used ter love me' says Marse Ben in dis hyuh letter you know you did, and you love me yit -- I know you does. I am in trouble. A few hun'ed dollahs'll he'p me out. Youer totin' mo' d'n dat 'roun' on yo' pretty little fingers. Git the money fuh me--it'll save my honor an' my life. I swear I'll pay it back right soon.'
"Den' all Marse Johnny's jealousy b'iled up at once, an' he seed eve'ything red. He went straight to Miss Mamie an' shuck de lettuh in her face an' 'cused her er gwine on wid Marse Ben. Co'se she denied it. Den he ax' huh what had become er huh di'mon' 'gagement ring dat he had give huh befo' dey wuz ma'ied.
"Miss Mamie look' at huh han' an' turn' white as chalk, fer de ring wa'n't dere.
"'I tuck it off las' night, when I went tuh bed, an' lef' it on de bureau, an' I fuhgot tuh put it on dis mawnin'.'
"But when she look' fer it on de bureau it wuz gone. Marse Johnny swo' she had give' it tuh Marse Ben, an' she denied it tuh de las'. He showed her de letter. She said she hadn' answered it, an' hadn't meant to answer it, but had meant to bu'n it up. One word led to another. Dere wuz a bitter quarrel, an' Marse Johnny swo' he'd never speak to his wife ag'in 'tel de di'mond ring wuz foun'. And he didn'.
"Ole Marse Aleck wuz 'way from home dat winter, to congress or de legislator, or somewhar, an' Marse Johnny wuz de boss er de plantation whils' he wuz gone. He wuz busy all day, on de plantation, or in his office, er in town. He tuck moster his meals by hisself, an' when he et wid Miss Mamie he manage' so as nevuh to say nothin'. Ef she spoke, he purten' not to hear her, an' so she didn' try mo' d'n once er twice. Othe'wise, he alluz treated her like a lady-'bout a mile erway.
"Miss Mamie tuck it mighty ha'd. Fuh she was tenduh as well as proud. She jus' 'moped an' pined erway. One day in de springtime, when Marse Johnny wuz in town all day, she wuz tuck mighty ill sudden, an' her baby wuz 'bawn, long befo' its time. De same day one er de little black child'en clum up in de ole Spencer tree an' fetch' down a jaybird's nes', an' in de nes' dey foun' Miss Mamie's ring, whar de jaybird had stole it an' hid it. When Marse Johnny come home dat night he found his wife an' his chile bofe dead, an' de ring on Miss Mamie's finger.
"Well, suh, you nevuh seed a man go on like Marse Johnny did; an' folks said dat ef he could 'a' foun' Marse Ben Dudley he sho' would a' shot 'im; but lucky fer Marse Ben he had gone away. Aftuh de fune'al, Marse Johnny shet hisse'f up in his room fer two er three days; an' as soon as Marse Aleck come home, Marse Johnny j'ind de ahmy an' went an' fit in de Mexican Wah an' wuz shot an' kill'.
"Ole Marse Aleck wuz so' distress' by dese yer troubles, an' grieve' migh'ly over de loss er his fus' bawn son. But he got ovuh it after a while. Dere wuz still Marse Henry an Marse Tom, bofe un' 'em good big boys, ter keep up de name, an' Miss Alice an' Miss Flora who wuz bofe ma'ied an' had child'en, ter see dat de blood didn' die out. An' in spite er dis hyuh thievin' jaybird, nobody 'lowed dat de ole tree had anything ter do wid Marse Johnny's troubles, fer 'co'se nobody but Phillis knowed dat it had evuh been mark'.
"But dis wuz only de beginnin'.
"Next year, in the spring, Miss Alice, Marse Aleck's oldes' daughter, wuz visitin' the fambly wid her nuss an' chile--she had ma'ied sev'al yeahs befo' Marse Johnny--an' one day de nuss wuz settin' out in de yahd, wid de chile, under de ole tree, when a big pizen spider let hisse'f down from a lim' when de nuss wa'n't lookin', an' stung the chile. The chile swoll up, an' dey sent fer de doctuh, but de doctuh couldn' do nothin', an' the baby died in spasms dat same night, an' de mammy went inter a decline fum grief an' died er consumption insid' er six mont's.
"Of co'se de tree wuz watched close fer spiders aftah dis, but none er de white folks thought er blamin' de tree -- a spider mought 'a' come from de ceiling' er from any other tree; it wuz jes' one er dem things dat couldn' be he'ped. But de servants commence' ter whisper 'mongs' deyse'ves dat de tree wuz conju'ed an' dere'd be still mo' trouble from it.
"It wa'n't long coming. One day young Marse Henry, de nex' boy ter Marse Johnny, went fishin' in de ribber, wid one er de naber boys, an' he clumb out too fah on a log, an' tip' de log up, an' fell in de ribber an' got drownded. Nobody could see how de ole tree wuz mix' up wid little Marse Henry's drowndin', 'tel one er de house servants 'membered he had seed de boys diggin' bait in de shade er de ole tree. An' whils' they didn' say nothin' ter de white folks, leas'ways not jes' den, dey kep' it in min' an' waited tuh see what e'se would happen. Dey didn' know den dat Phillis had mark' de tree, but dey mo' den half s'picioned it.
"Sho' 'nuff, one day de next' fall, Mis' Flora, Marse Aleck's secon' daughter, who wuz ma'ied an' had a husban', come home to visit her folks. An' one day w whils' she wuz out walkin' wid her little boy, a sto'm come up, an' it stahted ter rain, an' dey didn' hab no umbreller, an' wuz runnin' ter de house, when jes' as dey got under de ole tree, de lightnin' struck it, broke a limb off'n de top, skun a little strip off'n de side all de way down, an' jump off an' hit Mis' Flora an' de boy, an' killt 'em bofe on de spot--dey didn't have time ter draw anudder bref.
"Still de white folks didn' see nuthin wrong wid de tree. But by dis time de cullud folks all knowed de tree had be'en conju'd. One un 'em said somethin' 'bout it one day ter old Marse Aleck, but he tol' 'em ter go 'long wid deir foolishness; dat it wuz de will er God; dat de lightnin' mought's well 'a' struck any yuther tree dey'd be'en under as dat one; an' dat dere wouldn' be no danger in de future, fer lightnin' nebber struck twice in de same place nohow.
"It wus 'bout a yeah after dat befo' anything mo' happen', an' de cullud folks 'lowed dat mo' likely dey had be'n mistaken an' dat maybe de tree hadn' be'n mark', er e'se de goopher wuz all wo' off, when one day little Marse Tom, de only boy dat wuz lef', wuz ridin' a new hoss Marse Aleck had give 'm, when a rabbit jump 'cross de road in front er him, an' skeered dis hyuh young hoss, an' de hoss run away an' thowed little Marse Tom up 'gins' de ole Spencer tree, an' bu'st his head in an' killt 'im.
"Marse Aleck wuz 'mos' heartbroken, fer Marse Tom wuz do only son he had lef'; dere wa'n't none er his child'en lef' now but Miss Alice, whose husban' had died, an' who had come wid her little gal ter lib wid her daddy and mammy.
"But dere wuz so much talk 'bout de ole tree 'tel it fin'lly got ter ole Miss Katherine's yeahs, an' she tol' Marse Aleck. He didn' pay no 'tention at fu'st, jes' 'lowed it 'uz all foolishness. But he kep' on hearin' so much of it, dat bimeby he wuz 'bleege' ter listen. An' he fin'lly 'lowed dat whether de tree was conju'd or not, it had never brought nuthin' but bad luck evuh sence Marse Johnny's weddin', an' he made up his min' ter git rid of it, in hopes er changin' de fambly luck.
"So one day he ordered a couple er han's ter come up ter de house wid axes an' cut, down de ole tree. He tol' 'em jes' how ter chop it, one on one side an' one on de yuther, so's ter make it fall a partic'lar way. He stood off ter one side, wid his head bowed down, 'tel de two cuts had 'mos' met, an' den he tu'ned his eyes away, fer he did n' wanter see de ole tree fall--it had meant so much ter him fer so long. He heared de tree commence crackin', an' he heared de axemen holler, but he didn' know dey wuz hollerin' at him, an' he didn' look round'--he didn't wanter see de ole Spencer tree fall. But stidder fallin' as he had meant it ter, an' as by rights it couldn' he'p fallin', it jes' twisted squar' roun' sideways to'ds ole Marse Aleck an' ketched 'im befo' he could look up, an' crushed 'im ter de groun'.
"Well, dey buried Marse Aleck down in de fambly buryin'groun'--you kin see it over at de ole place, not fur from de house; it's all growed up now wid weeds an' briars, an' most er de tombstones is fell down and covered wid green moul'. It wuz already pretty full, an' dere wa'n't much room lef'. After de fune'al, de ole tree wuz cut up inter firewood an' piled up out in de yard.
"Ole Miss' Kathun an' her daughter, Mis' Alice, an' Mis' Alice's little gal, went inter mo'nin' an' stayed home all winter.
"One col' night de house-boy toted in a big log fum de old Spencer tree, an' put it on de fire, an' when ole Miss' Kathun an' her daughter an' her gran' daughter went to bed, dey lef' de log smoulderin' on de ha'th. An' 'long 'bout midnight, when eve'ybody wuz soun' asleep, dis hyuh log fell out'n de fireplace an' rolled over on de flo' an' sot de house afire an' bu'nt it down ter de groun', wid eve'ybody in it.
"Dat, suh, wuz de end er de Spencer fambly. De house wuz nebber rebuil'. De war come erlong soon after, an' nobody had no money no mo'ter buil' houses. De lan', or what little wuz lef' after de mogages an' de debts wuz paid off, went ter dis hyuh young gentleman, Mistuh Brownlow, down to Lumberton, who wuz some kinder fo'ty-secon' cousin er nuther, an' I reckon he'd be only too glad ter sell it."
I wrote to young Mr. Brownlow, suggesting an appointment for an interview. He replied that he would call on me the following week, at an hour stated, if he did not hear from me beforehand that some other time would be more convenient.
I awaited him at the appointed hour. He came in the morning and stayed to luncheon. He was willing to sell the old place and we agreed upon a price at which it was to be offered to my cousin.
He was a shallow, amiable young fellow, unmarried, and employed as a clerk in a general store. I told him the story of the Spencer oak, as related by old Julius. He laughed lightly.
"I believe the niggers did have some sort of yarn about the family and the old tree," he said, "but of course it was all their silly superstition. They always would believe any kind of foolishness their crazy imaginations could cook up. Well, sir, let me know when you hear from your friend. I reckon I'll drive past the old place on my way home, and take a last took at it, for the sake of the family, for it was a fine old family, and it was a pity the name died out."
An hour later there was an agitated knock at my library door. When I opened it old Julius was standing there in a state of great excitement.
"What is the matter, Julius?"
"It's done gone an' happen', suh, it's done gone an' happen'!"
"What has done gone and happened?"
"De tree, suh, de U-pass tree--de ole Spencer tree.
"Well, what about it?"
"Young Mistuh Brownlow lef' here an' went ovuh tuh de old place, an' sot down en de ole stump, an' a rattlesnake come out'n de holler an' stung 'im, an' killt 'im, suh. He's layin' ovuh dere now, all black in de face and swellin' up fas'."
I closed my deal for the property through Mr. Brownlow's administrator. My cousin authorized me to have the land cleared off, preparatory to improving it later on. Among other things, I had the stump of the Spencer oak extracted. It was a difficult task even with the aid of explosives, but was finally accomplished without casualty, due perhaps to the care with which I inquired into the pedigree of the workmen, lest perchance among them there might be some stray offshoot of this illustrious but unfortunate family.