Chesnutt's Works

Reviews

Bibliography

Manuscripts

Related Links

Home

Chesnutt in the Classroom

Site Info

info on the text

Tobe's Tribulations

ABOUT half a mile from our house on the North Carolina sand-hills there lay, at the foot of a vine-clad slope, and separated from my scuppernong vineyard by a rail fence, a marsh of some extent. It was drained at a somewhat later date, but at the time to which I now refer spread for half a mile in length and a quarter of a mile in breadth. Having been planted in rice many years before, it therefore contained no large trees, but was grown up chiefly in reeds and coarse grasses, with here and there a young sycamore or cypress. Though this marsh was not visible from our house, nor from any road that we used, it was nevertheless one of the most prominent features of our environment. We might sometimes forget its existence in the day-time, but it never failed to thrust itself upon our attention after night had fallen.

It may be that other localities in our neighborhood were infested with frogs; but if so, their vocal efforts were quite overborne by the volume of sound that issued nightly from this particular marsh. As soon as the red disk of the sun had set behind the pines the performance would begin, first perhaps with occasional shrill pipings, followed by a confused chattering; then, as the number of participants increased, growing into a steady drumming, punctuated every moment by the hoarse bellowing note of some monstrous bull-frog. If the day had perchance been rainy, the volume of noise would be greater. For a while after we went to live in the neighborhood, this ceaseless, strident din made night hideous, and we would gladly have dispensed with it. But as time wore on we grew accustomed to our nocturnal concert; we began to differentiate its notes and to distinguish a sort of rude harmony in these voices of the night; and after we had become thoroughly accustomed to it, I doubt whether we could have slept comfortably without their lullaby.

But I had not been living long in the vicinity of this frog-pond before its possibilities as a source of food-supply suggested themselves to my somewhat practical mind. I was unable to learn that any of my white neighbors indulged in the delicate article of diet which frogs' legs might be made to supply; and strangely enough, among the Negroes, who would have found in the tender flesh of the batrachian a toothsome and bountiful addition to the coarse food that formed the staple of their diet, its use for that purpose was entirely unknown.

One day I went frog-fishing and brought home a catch of half a dozen. Our colored cook did not know how to prepare them, and looked on the whole proceeding with ill-concealed disgust. So my wife, with the aid of a cook-book, dressed the hind legs quite successfully in the old-fashioned way, and they were served at supper. We enjoyed the meal very much, and I determined that thereafter we would have the same dish often.

Our supper had been somewhat later than usual, and it was dusk before we left the table and took our seats on the piazza. We had been there but a little while when old Julius, our colored coachman, came around the house and approaching the steps asked for some instructions with reference to the stable-work. As the matter required talking over, I asked him to sit down. When we had finished our talk the old man did not go away immediately, and we all sat for a few moments without speaking. The night was warm but not sultry; there was a sort of gentle melancholy in the air, and the chorus from the distant frog-pond seemed pitched this night in something of a minor key.

"Dem frogs is makin' dey yuzh'al racket ternight," observed the old man, breaking the silence.

"Yes," I replied, "they are very much in evidence. By the way, Annie, perhaps Julius would like some of those frogs' legs. I see Nancy hasn't cleared the table yet."

"No ma'm," responded Julius quickly, "I's much obleedzd, but I doan eat no frog-laigs; no, suh, no ma'm, I doan eat no frog-laigs, not ef I knows w'at I's eatin'!"

"Why not, Julius?" I asked. "They are excellent eating."

"You listen right close, suh," he answered, "en you'll heah a pertic'ler bull-frog down yander in dat ma'sh. Listen! Dere he goes now-callin', callin', callin'! sad en mo'nful, des lak somebody w'at's los' somewhar, en can't fin' de way back."

"I hear it distinctly," said my wife after a moment. "It sounds like the lament of a lost soul."

I had never heard the vocal expression of a lost soul, but I tried, without success, to imagine that I could distinguish one individual croak from another.

"Well, what is there about that frog, Julius," I inquired, "that makes it any different from the others?"

"Dat's po' Tobe,'' he responded solemnly, "call in' Aun' Peggy--po' ole Aun' Peggy w'at's dead en gone ter de good Marster, yeahs en yeahs ago."

"Tell us about Tobe, Julius," I asked. I could think of no more appropriate time for one of the old man's stories. His views of life were so entirely foreign to our own, that for a time after we got acquainted with him his conversations were a never-failing source of novelty and interest. He had seen life from what was to us a new point of view--from the bottom, as it were; and there clung to his mind, like barnacles to the submerged portion of a ship, all sorts of extravagant beliefs. The simplest phenomena of life were to him fraught with hidden meaning,--some prophesy of good, some presage of evil. The source of these notions I never traced, though they doubtless could be easily accounted for. Some perhaps were dim reflections of ancestral fetishism; more were the superstitions, filtered through the negro intellect, of the Scotch settlers who had founded their homes on Cape Fear at a time when a kelpie haunted every Highland glen, and witches, like bats, darkened the air as they flew by in their nocturnal wanderings. But from his own imagination, I take it--for I never heard quite the same stories from anyone else--he gave to the raw material of folk-lore and superstition a fancifulness of touch that truly made of it, to borrow a homely phrase, a silk purse out of a sow's ear. And if perhaps, at times, his stories might turn out to have a purpose apart from any esthetic or didatic end, he probably reasoned, with a philosophy for which there is high warrant, that the laborer was worthy of his hire.

"'Bout fo'ty years ago," began Julius, "ole Mars Dugal McAdoo--my ole marster--useter own a man name' Tobe. Dis yer Tobe wuz a slow kind er nigger, en w'iles he'd alluz git his tas' done, he'd hafter wuk harder 'n any yuther nigger on de place ter do it. One time he had a monst'us nice 'oman fer a wife, but she got bit by a rattlesnake one summer en died, en dat lef' Tobe kind er lonesome. En mo' d'n dat, Tobe's wife had be'n cook at de big house, en eve'y night she'd fetch sump'n down ter her cabin fer Tobe; en he foun' it mighty ha'd ter go back ter bacon and co'n-bread atter libbin' off'n de fat er de lan' all dese yeahs.

"Des 'bout a mont' er so atter Tobe's wife died, dey wuz a nigger run 'way fum ole Mars Marrabo McSwayne's--de nex' plantation--en in spite er all de w'ite folks could do, dis yer nigger got clean off ter a free state in de Norf, en bimeby he writ a sassy letter back ter Mars Marrabo, en sont 'im a bill fer de wuk he done fer 'im fer twenty yeahs er mo', at a dollah en a half a day--w'at he say he wuz gittin' at de Norf. One er de gals w'at wukked roun' de big house heared de w'ite folks gwine on 'bout it, en she say Mars Marrabo cusst en swo' des tarrable, en ole missis 'mos' wep' fer ter think how ongrateful dat nigger wuz, not on'y ter run 'way, but to write back sich wick'niss ter w'ite folks w'at had alluz treated 'im good, fed 'im en clothed I im, en nussed 'im wen he wuz sick, en nebber let 'im suffer fer nuffin all his life.

"But Tobe heared 'bout dis yer nigger, en he tuk a notion he'd lak ter run 'way en go ter de Norf en be free en git a dollah en a half a day too. But de mo' he studied 'bout it, de ha'der it 'peared ter be. In de fus' place, de Norf wuz a monst'us long ways off, en de dawgs mought track 'im, er de patteroles mought ketch 'im, er he mought sta've ter def ca'se he couldn' git nuffin ter eat on de way; en ef he wuz cotch' he wuz lakly ter be sol' so fur souf dat he'd nebber hab no chance ter git free er eber see his ole frien's nuther.

"But Tobe kep' on studyin' 'bout runnin 'way 'tel fin'lly he 'lowed he'd go en see ole Aun' Peggy, de cunjuh 'oman down by de Wim'l'ton Road, en ax her w'at wuz de bes' way fer him ter sta't. So he tuk a pa'r er pullets down ter Aun' Peggy one night en tol' her all 'bout his hank'in's en his longin's, en ax' her w'at he'd hafter do fer ter run 'way en git free.

"'W'at you wanter be free fer?' sez Aun' Peggy. 'Doan you git ernuff ter eat?'

"'Yas, I gits ernuff ter eat, but I'll hab better vittles wen I's free.'

"'Doan you git ernuff sleep?'

"'Yas, but I'll sleep mo' w'en I's free.'

"'Does you wuk too had?'

"'No, I doan wuk too had fer a slabe nigger, but ef I wuz free I wouldn' wuk a-tall 'less'n I felt lak it.'

"Aun' Peggy shuck her head. 'I dunno, nigger,' sez she, 'whuther you gwine ter fin' w'at you er huntin' fer er no. But w'at is it you wants me ter do fer you?'

"'I wants you ter tell me de bes' en easies' way fer ter git ter de Norf en be free.'

"'Well,' sez Aun' Peggy, 'I's feared dey ain' no easy way. De bes' way fer you ter do is ter fix yo' eye on de Norf Stah en sta't. You kin put some tar on yo' feet ter th'ow de houn's off'n de scent, en ef you come ter a crick you mought wade 'long fer a mile er so. I sh'd say you bettah sta't on Sadday night, fer den mos' lakly you won' be miss' 'tel Monday mawnin', en you kin git a good sta't on yo''jou'ney. En den maybe in a mont' er so you'll retch de Norf en you'll be free, en whar you kin eat all you want, ef you kin git it, en sleep ez long ez you mineter, ef you kin 'ford it, en whar you won't hafter wuk ef you'd ruther go to jail.'

"'But w'at is I gwine ter eat dyo'in' er dis yer mont' I's trabblin'?' ax' Tobe. 'It makes me sick ef I doan git my reg'lar meals.'

"'Doan ax me,' sez Aun' Peggy. 'I ain' nebber seed de nigger yit w'at can't fin' sump'n ter eat.'

"Tobe scratch' his head. 'En whar is I gwine to sleep dyo'in' er dat mont'? I'll hafter hab my reg'lar res'.'

"'Doan ax me,' sez Aun' Peggy. 'You kin sleep in de woods in de daytime, en do yo' trabblin' at night.'

"'But s'pose'n a snake bites me?'

"'I kin gib you a cha'm fer ter kyo snake-bite.'

"'But s'pose'n' de patteroles ketch me?'

"'Look a heah, nigger,' sez Aun' Peggy, 'I's ti'ed er yo' s'pose'n', en I's was'e all de time on you I's gwine ter fer two chick'ns. I's feared you wants ter git free too easy. I s'pose you des wants ter lay down at night, do yo' trabblin' in yo' sleep, en wake free in de mawn'in. You wants ter git a thousan' dollah nigger fer nuffin' en dat's mo' d'n anybody but de sma'test w'ite folks kin do. Go 'long back ter yo' wuk, man, en doan come back ter me 'less'n you kin fetch me sump'n mo'.'

"Now, Tobe knowed well ernuff dat ole Aun' Peggy'd des be'n talkin' ter heah herse'f talk, en so two er thee nights later he tuk a side er bacon en kyared it down ter her cabin.

"'Uh huh,' sez Aun' Peggy, 'dat is sump'n lak it. I s'pose you still 'lows you'd lak ter be free, so you kin eat w'at you mineter, en sleep all you wanter, en res' w'eneber you feels dat erway?'

"'Yas'm, I wants ter be free, en I wants you ter fix things so I kin be sho' ter git ter de Norf widout much trouble; fer I sho'ly does hate en 'spise trouble.'

"Aun' Peggy studied fer a w'ile, en den she tuk down a go'd off'n de she'f, en sez she:--

"'I's got a goopher mixtry heah w'at 'll tu'n you ter a b'ar. You know dey use'ter be b'ars roun' heah in dem ole days.'

"Den she tuk down ernudder go'd. 'En', she went on, 'ef I puts some er dis yuther mixtry wid it, you'll tu'n back ag'in in des a week er mont' er two mont's, 'cordin' ter how much I puts in. Now, ef I tu'ns you ter a b'ar fer, say a mont', en you is keerful en keeps 'way fum de hunters, you kin feed yo'se'f ez you goes 'long, en by de een' er de mont' you'll be ter de Norf; en wen you tu'ns back you'll tu'n back ter a free nigger, whar you kin do w'at you wanter, en go whar you mineter, en sleep ez long ez you please.'

"So Tobe say all right, en Aun' Peggy mix' de goopher, en put it on Tobe en turn't 'im ter a big black b'ar.

"Tobe sta'ted out to'ds de Norf, en went fifteen er twenty miles widout stoppin'. Des befo' day in de mawnin' he come ter a 'tater patch, en bein' ez he wuz feelin' sorter hongry, he stop' fer a hour er so 'tel he got all de 'taters he could hol'. Den he sta'ted out ag'in, en bimeby he run 'cross a bee-tree en eat all de honey he could. 'Long to'ds ebenin' he come ter a holler tree, en bein' ez he felt kinder sleepy lak, he 'lowed he'd crawl in en take a nap. So he crawled in en went ter sleep.

"Meanw'ile, Monday mawn'in' w'en de niggers went out in de fiel' ter wuk, Tobe wuz missin'. All de niggers 'nied seein' 'im, en ole Mars Dugal sont up ter town en hi'ed some dawgs, en gun 'em de scent, en dey follered it ter ole Aun' Peggy's cabin. Aun' Peggy 'lowed yas, a nigger had be'n ter her cabin Sad'day night, en she had gun 'im a cha'm fer ter keep off de rheumatiz, en he had sta'ted off down to'ds de ribber, sayin' he wuz ti'ed wukkin' en wuz gwine fishin' fer a mont' er so. De w'ite folks hunted en hunted, but co'se dey did'n fin' Tobe.

"Bout a mont' atter Tobe had run 'way, en wen Aun' Peggy had mos' fergot 'bout im, she wuz sett'n' in her cabin one night, wukkin' her roots, wen somebody knock' at her do'.

"'Who dere?' sez she.

"'It's me, Tobe; open de do', Aun' Peggy.'

"'Sho' 'nuff, w'en Aun' Peggy tuk down de do'-bar, who sh'd be stan'in' dere but Tobe.

"'Whar is you come fum, nigger?' ax' Aun' Peggy, 'I 'lowed you mus' be ter de Norf by dis time, en free, en libbin' off'n de fat er de lan'.'

"'You must 'a s'pected me ter trabbel monst'us fas' den,' sez Tobe, 'fer I des sta'ted fum heah yistiddy mawnin', en heah I is turnt back ter a nigger ag'in befo' I'd ha'dly got useter walkin' on all-fours. Dey's sump'n de matter wid dat goopher er y'n, fer yo' cunj'in' ain' wuk right dis time. I crawled in a holler tree 'bout six o'clock en went ter sleep, en wen I woke up in de mawnin' I wuz tu'nt back ag'in, en bein' ez I hadn' got no fu'ther 'n Rockfish Crick, I des 'lowed I'd come back en git dat goopher w'at I paid fer fix' right.'

'Aun' Peggy scratched her head en studied a minute, en den sez she:--

"'Uh huh! I sees des w'at de trouble is. I is tu'nt you ter a b'ar heah in de fall, en wen you come ter a holler tree you crawls in en goes ter sleep fer de winter, des lak any yuther b'ar 'd do; en ef I hadn' mix' dat yuther goopher in fer ter tu'n you back in a mont', you'd a slep' all th'oo de winter. I had des plum' fergot 'bout dat, so I reckon I'll hafter try sumpin' diff'ent. I 'spec' I better tu'n you ter a fox. En bein' ez a fox is a good runner, you oughter git ter de Norf in less time dan a b'ar, so I'll fix dis yer goopher so you'll tu'n back ter a nigger en des thee weeks, en you'll be able ter enjoy yo' freedom a week sooner.'

"So Aun' Peggy tu'nt Tobe ter a fox, en he sta'ted down de road in great has'e, en made mo' d'n ten miles, w'en he 'mence' ter feel kinder hongry. So w'en he come ter a hen-house he tuk a hen en eat it, en lay down in de woods ter git his night's res'. In de mawnin', wen he woke up, he 'lowed he mought 'swell hab ernudder chick'n fer breakfuss', so he tuk a fat pullet en eat dat.

"Now, Tobe had be'n monst's fon' er chick'n befo' he wuz tu'nt ter a fox, but he hadn' nebber had ez much ez he could eat befo.' En bein' ez dere wuz so many chick'ns in dis naberhood, en dey mought be ska'se whar he wuz gwine, he 'lowed he better stay 'roun' dere 'tel he got kinder fat, so he could stan' bein' hongry a day er so ef he sh'd fin' slim pickings fu'ther 'long. So he dug hisse'f a nice hole under a tree in de woods, en des stayed dere en eat chick'n fer a couple er weeks er so. He wuz so comf'table, eatin' w'at he laked, en restin' wen he wa'n't eatin', he des kinder los' track er de time, 'tel befo' he notice' it his th'ee weeks wuz mos' up.

"But bimeby de people w'at own dese yer chick'ns 'mence' ter miss 'em, en dey 'lowed dey wuz a fox som'ers roun'. So dey got out dey houn's en dey hawns en dey hosses, en sta'ted off fer a fox-hunt. En sho' nuff de houn's got de scent, en wuz on po' Tobe's track in a' hour er so.

"W'en Tobe heared 'em comin' he wuz mos' skeered ter def, en he 'mence' ter run ez had ez he could, en bein' ez de houn's wuz on de norf side, he run to'ds de souf, en soon foun' hisse'f back in de woods right whar he wuz bawn en raise'. He jumped a crick en doubled en twisted, en done ev'ything he could fer ter th'ow de houn's off'n de scent but 't wa'n't no use, fer dey des kep' gittin' closeter, en closeter, en closeter.

"Ez soon ez Tobe got back to'ds home en 'skivered whar he wuz, he sta'ted fer ole Aun' Peggy's cabin fer te git her ter he'p 'im, en des ez he got ter her do', lo en behol'! he tu'nt back ter a nigger ag'in, fer de thee weeks wuz up des ter a minute. He knock' at de do', en hollered:--

"'Lemme in, Aun' Peggy, lemme in! De dawgs is atter me.'

"Aun' Peggy open' de do'.

"'Fer de Lawd sake! nigger, whar is you come fum dis time?' sez she. 'I 'lowed you wuz done got ter de Norf, en free long ago. W'at's de matter wid you now?'

"So Tobe up'n' tol' her 'bout how he had been stop' by dem chick'ns, en how had it wuz ter git 'way fum 'em. En w'iles he wuz talkin' ter Aun' Peggy dey heared de dawgs comin' closeter, en closeter, en closeter.

"'Tu'n me ter sump'n e'se, Aun' Peggy,' sez Tobe, 'fer dat fox scent runs right up ter de do', en dey'll be 'bleedzd ter come in, en dey'll fin' me en kyar me back home, en lamb me, en mos' lakly sell me 'way. Tu'n me ter sump'n, quick, I doan keer w'at, fer I doan want dem dawgs ner dem w'ite folks ter ketch me.'

"Aun' Peggy look' 'roun' de cabin, en sez she, takin' down a go'd fum de chimbly:--

"'I ain' got no goopher made up ter-day, Tobe, but dis yer bull-frog mixtry. I'll tu'n you ter a bull-frog, en I'll put in ernuff er dis yuther mixtry fer ter take de goopher off in a day er so, en meanw'iles you kin hop down yander ter dat ma'sh en stay, en w'en de dawgs is all gone en you tu'ns back, you kin come ter me en I'll tu'n you ter a sparrer er sump'n' w'at kin fly swif', en den maybe you'll be able ter git 'way en be free widout all dis yer foolishness you's be'n goin' th'oo.'

"By dis time de dawgs wuz scratchin' at de do' en howlin', en Aun' Peggy en Tobe could heah de hawns er de hunters blowin close behin'. All dis yer racket made Aun' Peggy sorter narvous, en wen she went ter po' dis yuther mixtry in fer ter lif' 'de bullfrog goopher off'n Tobe in a day er so, her han' shuck so she spilt it ober de side er de yuther go'd en didn' notice dat it hadn' gone in. En Tobe wuz so busy lis'nin' en watchin' de do', dat he didn' notice nuther, en so wen Aun' Peggy put de goopher on Tobe en tu'nt 'im inter a bull-frog, dey wa'n't none er dis yuther mixtry in it w'atsomeber.

"Tobe le'p' out'n a crack 'twix' de logs, en Aun' Peggy open' de do', en de dawgs run 'roun', en de w'ite folks come en inqui'ed, en w'en dey seed Aun' Peggy's roots en go'ds en snake-skins en yuther cunjuh-fixin's, en a big black cat wid yaller eyes, settin' on de h'a'th, dey 'lowed dey wuz wastin' dey time, so dey des cusst a little en run 'long back home widout de fox dey had come atter.

"De nex' day Aun' Peggy stayed roun' home all day, makin' a mixtry fer ter tu'n Tobe ter a sparrer, en 'spectin' 'im eve'y minute fer ter come in. But he nebber come. En bein' ez he didn' 'pear no mo', Aun' Peggy 'lowed he'd got ti'ed er dis yer animal bizness en w'en he had tu'nt back fum de bull-frog had runned 'way on his own 'sponsibility, lak she 'vised 'im at fus'. So Aun' Peggy went on 'bout her own bizness en didn' paid no mo' tention ter Tobe.

"Ez fer po' Tobe, he had hop' off down ter dat ma'sh en had jump' in de water, en had waited fer hisse'f ter tu'n back. But w'en he didn' tu'n back de fus'day, he 'lowed Aun' Peggy had put in too much er de mixtry, en bein'ez de ma'sh wuz full er minners en snails en crawfish en yuther things w'at bull-frogs laks ter eat, he 'lowed he mought's well be comf'table en enjoy hisse'f 'tel his bull-frog time wuz up.

"But bimeby, wen a mont' roll' by, en two mont's, en thee mont's, en a yeah, Tobe kinder 'lowed dey wuz sump'n wrong 'bout dat goopher, en so he 'mence' ter go up on de dry lan' en look fer Aun' Peggy. En one day w'en she came 'long by de ma'sh, he got in front er her, en croak' en croak'; but Aun' Peggy wuz studyin' 'bout sump'n e'se; en 'sides, she 'lowed Tobe wuz done gone 'way en got free long, long befo', so she didn' pay no 'tention ter de big bull-frog she met in de path, 'cep'n ter push him out'n de road wid her stick.

"So Tobe went back ter his ma'sh, en dere he's be'n eber sence. It's be'n fifty yeahs er mo', en Tobe mus' be 'bout ten yeahs older 'n I is. But he ain' nebber got ti'ed er wantin' ter be tu'nt back ter hisse'f, er ter sump'n w'at could run erway ter de Norf. Co'se ef he had waited lak de res' un us he'd a be'n free long ago; but he didn' know dat, en he doan know it yet. En eve'y night, w'en de frogs sta'ts up, dem w'at knows 'bout Tobe kin reco'nize his voice en heah 'im callin', callin', callin' ole Aun' Peggy fer ter come en tu'n 'im back, des ez ef Aun' Peggy hadn' be'n restin' in Aberham's bosom fer fo'ty yeahs er mo'. Oncet in a w'ile I notices dat Tobe doan say nuffin fer a night er so, en so I 'lows he's gittin' ole en po'ly, en trouble' wid hoa'seness er rheumatiz er sump'n er 'nuther, fum bein' in de water so long. I doan 'spec' he's gwine to be dere many mo' yeahs; but w'iles he is dere, it 'pears ter me he oughter be 'lowed ter lib out de res' er his days in peace.

"Dat's de reason w'y," the old man concluded, "I doan lak ter see nobody eat'n frogs' laigs out'n dat ma'sh. Ouch!" he added suddenly, putting his hand to the pit of his stomach, "Ouch!"

"What's the matter, Uncle Julius?" my wife inquired with solicitude.

"Oh, nuffin, ma'm, nuffin wuf noticin'--des a little tech er mis'ry in my innards. I s'pose talkin' 'bout po' old Tobe, in dat col', wet ma'sh, wid nobody ter 'sociate wid but frogs en crawfish en water-moccasins en sich, en wid nuffin fittin' ter eat, is des sorter upsot me mo' er less. If you is anyways int'rusted in a ole nigger's feelin's, I ruther 'spec' a drap er dem bitters out'n dat little flat jimmyjohn er yo'n git me shet er dis mis'ry quicker'n anything e'se I knows."