on the text
By Charles W. Chesnutt--Copyrighted, 1885,
by S. S. McClure.
Ever since the broad column of Sherman's army swept through Central North Carolina, leaving the whites subjugated and impoverished and the blacks free and destitute, it had been Peter's dearest wish to own a house-a two-story white house, with green blinds. From his earliest childhood such a house had been to him the symbol of power, prosperity and happiness. From the little group of cabins which made up the slave quarters of the large plantation on which he was born could be seen, at a short distance, the large white house, surrounded by broad piazzas, upon which opened the long windows guarded by green Venetian blinds. Standing on the highest part of the plantation, in a grove of patriarchal elms, it was the most conspicuous object of the landscape. From it the eye of the little autocrat who ruled this domain could overlook the acres of cotton stretching out to the edge of the distant forest, and the dark green masses of waving corn which covered the meadows; and toward it the ear of the tired slave was turned at evening, to listen for the sound of the horn which announced a few hours' respite from the hard toil which made up his daily life. When Peter was a little pickaninny he occasionally went up to the great house with the old mammy who had nursed the children of the quarters, to get a dose of castor oil or Epsom salts, the sovereign remedies of the plantation for sick children. The glimpses of life in the great house which he got on these occasions were like revelations of the supernatural, and filled his little soul with wonder and awe. And it was not strange when old Aunt Lyddy told him stories of heaven and the angels that he should ask if heaven was like the great house and the angels like the white folks. And he could not understand, at that tender age, why the old woman's dim eyes flashed and her voice trembled as she pushed him out of the cabin with "G'long out in de ya'd 'n' play, chile!"
As Peter grew older he envied the lot of his young master's little yellow valet, and his young mistress' maid in her calico gown. They wore clothes, and, in cold weather, shoes; while Peter's wardrobe consisted of a change of the only garment which plantation etiquette required for the children of the quarters. But Peter met with no such good fortune as theirs, for he was black, and not comely, and the house servants were selected for ornament as well as use. When he was old enough the stern exigencies of plantation life sent him out into the fields with the other hands to pick up cotton and drop corn, and, as his arms grew stronger, to wield the hoe and guide the plow; and, while the fierce heat beat down upon his back as he bent over the hoe, the great white house, glittering in the sunlight, looked like New Jerusalem in the pictures. He ceased, however, after a little experience, to think of its inmates as angels. He loved; his master's son took a fancy to the same girl. The girl, very absurdly, preferred Peter. But the facilitities with which it settled such little domestic difficulties was one of the glories of the peculiar institution, and the matter was speedily arranged by selling Peter to a distant part of the state. He soon forgot the girl; but the picture of the great white house, around which clustered the most vivid impressions of childhood, remained fresh in his memory.
At the close of the war Peter found himself free, along with several millions of his brethren. There was no Moses to lead them into a land flowing with milk and honey, and there was very little meat left in the flesh pots of Egypt. But as affairs adjusted themselves, and the freed people learned to assume the burdens as well as enjoy the sweets of liberty, Peter found work and tasted the first substantial fruits of freedom when his horny hand closed upon a greenback. It was a dirty, foul-smelling bit of paper, but it represented power and made Peter a capitalist. He found, after a while, that he could earn more than he was obliged to spend, and the reflection that his masters had got these surplus earnings when he was a slave, and with them had bought their houses and lands, led by an easy transition to the thought, "Why should I not buy land and build a house?" He became accustomed to think of the subject; the thought grew into a purpose, and the purpose brought forth a plan. The plan was simplicity itself; he would save money enough to buy the land; then he would get the lumber; then with his own work--for he was handy with tools--and the occasional assistance of a good carpenter, he would build his house.
There was nothing wrong about the plan. As a plan it was perfect, but in working it out several difficulties presented themselves. First, it was not easy to save the money. Peter had not long been accustomed to the use of money, and the temptation was very strong to spend it for some of the good things which were now, for the first time, within his reach. But his purpose gave him strength, and slowly the roll of bills in the stocking in the "chist" increased in size, until Peter had money enough to buy a piece of land.
The next step was to buy the land. And here Peter was confronted by what seemed at first an insuperable obstacle--no one would sell him the land. There was plenty of land that did not produce enough to pay taxes, but the land owners did not care to sell to negroes. They would rent to them on shares or for a fixed rent, but they would not sell--it was against their principles. Several, however, expressed a desire to borrow Peter's money and were surprised, not to say indignant, at his declining to dispose of it in that way; it seemed like a reflection on the honor of Southern gentlemen. At length Peter succeeded in buying a piece of land just beyond the limits of the little town in which he lived. A Northern man, who had bought a large tract of land to work the turpentine woods, and had used it up for that purpose, was glad to dispose of it at a low figure, and was not particular about the purchasers, if they paid the price. So, for the sum of $75 in the current paper of the country, Peter found himself a lord of the soil--the proud possessor of fifteen acres of land fronting on the Lumberton plank-road. It was a poor soil--"Jis' 'bout strong 'nuff to sprout cow peas," the natives would have said. The tall pines had been stripped of their bark as far up as the turpentine "hacks" would reach, and were now good for hardly anything but firewood. There was a little ridge toward the front which would make an excellent building site, and behind it bubbled up a spring of clear, cool water; and the sighing of the wind through the tops of the tall pines and the rustling of the rabbit in the scanty underbrush were sweet music to Peter's ears. In the intervals of his toil for daily bread the sound of his axe could be heard in the woods, and the hill where he expected to build was gradually denuded of its garrison of battle-scarred, veteran pines. But people in the south have their peculiar notions about hurrying, and it was a year or two before Peter had two acres cleared. He built a log cabin for temporary occupation, a little to one side of the place where he meant to build the big house, and into it moved his household goods. An old-fashioned, four-posted bedstead, a few splint-bottomed chairs and wooden stools and an iron-bound, wooden "chist" made up most of his furniture, while, perhaps the most valued articles of his personal property were the two sharp-snouted, slabsided, spindle-shanked hogs and three yellow dogs of assorted sizes. Some parts of North Carolina are admirably adapted to sheep raising, but no legislature has yet been elected in that state which would consider favorably a bill to abate the dog nuisance. The denizen of the sand hills is joined to his dogs-like the dog to his fleas. He is conservative, too; his fathers kept dogs, and he prefers to go slowly about removing the ancient landmarks. Uncle Peter did not move the pigs into the house, but they were quite near enough to make their presence felt, while the dogs had a bed of pine straw under the house. The clearing was surrounded by a rail fence and planted in corn, pending the accumulation of a building fund.
Work at fifty cents a day and find yourself is not a rapid way to wealth. When Peter had nothing these wages seemed ample. But now he had aspirations, and his earnings had not kept pace with them. So he fell an easy prew [sic] to the plausible eloquence of a big land owner, who persuaded him to buy a mule on time and rent a farm on shares. Peter gave his note for the value, or rather the price, of the mule at 15 per cent interest, secured by a mortgage on the mule and the prospective crop. By an arrangement with his landlord, he had a credit at a store while the crop was making. The land was cleared swamp land, and better than the ordinary sandhill land, and in the early part of the season the crop flourished. Uncle Peter used his credit at the store pretty freely, and the goods he bought were charged at certainly no less than their full value. But toward the end of the season the rust got into the cotton and damaged the staple, eventually diminishing the yield at least one-third, and the mule-an old army mule, who bore the legend "C.S.A." (Confederate States of America) conspicuously branded on his side, and had been through half a dozen campaigns, succumbed to a prevailing epidemic, and kicked his last kick just after the last plowing, in spite of all the rubbings and drenchings which his master's skill could administer. When Peter divided the crop with his landlord and settled up accounts for the year, he found that of his two-thirds of the crop, the note and interest due for the purchase money of the mule took one half, and the bill at the store absorbed the balance and left him $20 in debt. The store bill would probably have eaten up the mule, too, if that patient animal had not already been eaten by buzzards.
When Peter came out of bondage he brought with him a wife. She had been the servant of a planter, whose land adjoined that of Peter's master. The two children which she had found time in the intervals of plantation work to bring into the world would probably have been sold to the far South, if the war had not interfered somewhat with the slave-breeding industry. As it was, they remained on the plantation until the close of the war. When freedom came, Peter, his wife and his children, in addition to the natural ties which bound them, formed those social ties which are incompatible with slavery, and became a family. But the plantation was not a good school in which to learn how to raise a family. Peter brought up his boys as well, perhaps, as he knew how; but, unfortunately, the elder of the two did not develop in his character those qualities which are essential to good citizenship. Peter had hardly paid the debt entailed by the failure of his agricultural experiment, and got together a few dollars to start his building fund, when Peter, junior, in a drunken brawl, fatally stabbed one of his associates, was arrested and thrown into jail. His father retained the best lawyer in the county for the defense, and like a great many other unfortunate people, found the law an expensive luxury. Uncle Peter cut down the pines on his land and sold the wood; Aunt Dinah took in washing; but the earnings of the ax and washboard were not large enough, and Peter was at length compelled to mortgage his land to pay the lawyer's fees. His sacrifices were partly rewarded; the boy's neck was saved, but he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to imprisonment in the penitentiary for ten years. Perhaps the skill and eloquence of his lawyer helped to bring about this result; possibly, too, the jury were influenced by the consideration that to hang him would be an expense to the county, while the ten years' penal term could be utilized for the public good in building the railroads which were at that time beginning to stretch across the state and bring it into closer communication with the rest of the world.
It took another year to pay off the mortgage. Then Uncle Peter took a fresh start. He bought an ox, and every day the figure of this ungainly steed, followed by a load of split pine or black-jack saplings, and guided by Peter's second son, who was very inconsistently named Primus, found its way into the little town, and the sale of the wood added forty or fifty cents to the building fund. A few big trees were cut down and hewn into sills for the foundation of the proposed house, and a few others were hauled to the nearest saw mill and sawed into beams, but most of the lumber was bought outright. The pile of lumber grew slowly; the sun and rain to which it was exposed would have spoiled the soft white pine of the North before the pile grew large enough, but they only seasoned the resinous Carolina pine.
When he had lumber enough to finish the frame Uncle Peter began his house. The sills were mortised and placed in position. There was no preliminary excavation for a cellar, and no extensive brick or stone foundation. Cellars are rarely met with on the Carolina sand hills, and the houses frequently stand on wooden blocks a long time before the brick or stone pillars are built. Week after week went by, and piece by piece the framework was prepared. In the fall of the year, when the crops had been gathered, Uncle Peter made a feast and invited his neighbors to the house-raising. A good carpenter was engaged to superintend the work; the strong arms of Uncle Peter's friends reared the beams and fastened them in their places and the skeleton of the house was set up. Then the assembled guests adjourned to the cabin and ate the 'possum and sweet potatoes, the corn pone and biscuits, and the fried chicken and big hominy, and drank the persimmon beer which Aunt Dinah's skillful hands had brewed, with the characteristic appreciation of their race for good victuals.
The house grew slowly during the winter, the work being done as Peter had the money to buy lumber or time to use it. He did the rough parts himself and employed a carpenter from time to time for the particular jobs. The house was perhaps two-thirds done when, one dark night, a party of jolly young fellows comprising a detachment of the recently organized local camp of the Ku Klux Klan, at that time a new thing, started out to have a little fun. Mounted on fleet horses and clad in long black robes, ornamented with grotesque devices in white, they struck terror to the hearts of the ignorant and superstitious. The masks, which hid their identity, and the oath of secrecy which bound them, made these midnight riders practically irresponsible, and irresponsible power is dangerous in any hands. This particular company, however, had no desperate or bloody purpose, but merely meant to amuse themselves. They fired a couple of volleys from their shotguns over the cabin of a superannuated negro couple on the outskirts of the town "just to stimulate their old blood a bit," as a young physician in the crowd remarked. Then they attached to the gate of a prominent citizen of opposite political opinions a placard ornamented with what was intended as the picture of a coffin, and containing a notice to leave the country in thirty days, on pain of the consequences, which, it was intimated, might be tar and feathers, a whipping, or worse. Then they surprised on his way home from church a young colored man, who had recently made some indiscreet political remarks at a camp-meeting, and gave him a sound whipping with hickory switches, wound up with a little wholesome advice from a young limb of the law, who was ambitious to represent the county in the legislature, to the effect that the "Southe'n people don't approve of mixin' politics with religion."
By Charles W. Chesnutt--Copyrighted, 1885,
by S. S. McClure.
"Who dar?" asked Peter, and as he opened the door, thinking no harm; a half-dozen seized him and drew him out into the yard.
"What are you building here, old man?" asked one.
"Jes' a little house to lib in, marse," answered the trembling Peter, now thoroughly frightened.
"Now yer lyin', ain't yer?" said another; "it's a nigger school house, ain't it?"
"No, Marse, I 'clare to de Lo'd it's jes' my own house."
"The idee of a nigger livin' in a two-story house is jes' ridic'lous," remarked a tall "Klucker" with some warmth.
"Ownin' land, too," said another. "What with niggers runnin' the guv'ment, and niggers buyin' the lan', I'm durned if I see what's to become of the white people."
"It's chilly to-night," suggested a little fellow, with a skull and cross-bones elaborately embroidered on the front of his gown; "let's have a fire."
He raked up a little pile of shavings under the side of the new house and asked for a match. One or two voices demurred to such summary proceedings, but the flask which had gone the round of the crowd several times during the evening had left them a little reckless. With a halter from one of the horses Peter was tied to a tree a little distance from the house, with his face turned toward it. The little "Klucker" lit the match and stuck it to the shavings, and soon the house was in a fine blaze. And poor Peter, in mortal terror from the shotgun at his ear, suffered in silence, save for the low moan which from time to time forced itself from his lips, while he saw the dream of his youth, the toil of his maturer years, and what he had hoped to be the solace of his old age, go up in smoke. There was no attempt to put the fire out. The few people who saw it from a distance saw at the same time the ghostly figures flitting about, and took care to increase the distance. At length the little group rode off, and when the last beat of their horses' hoofs had died away, and their gay laughter was lost in the distance, the trembling Dinah emerged from the cabin, and released the victim of this little practical joke. "It was a little rough on the old nigger to burn his house," said one of the party in relating the circumstance to a friend who had not participated, "but, by granny, it was as good as a circus to see the ole nigger's eyes roll while the house was a burnin'."
Such an experience would have discouraged most men. Few, however, came out of the school of slavery without having learned the lesson of patience. The Ku-Klux Klan, like Peter's house, became a thing of the past; it was the unquiet spirit of slavery hovering about the body from which it had been driven out. When the ghost was laid, Peter took fresh courage. He was a faithful Christian, and while his standard of religion as applied to every-day life was perhaps not the highest, the element of faith was not lacking. Too ignorant of letters to do more than spell out the simpler chapters of the Bible, he had faith in God which would have put many a better nurtured soul to the blush, a simple, unquestioning belief that God knows what is best for his children--a faith as superior to the blind fatalism of the Mohammedan as the ethics of Christianity are to the sanguinary creed of the Arabian prophet. He thought, with a literal application of the metaphor, that perhaps it was better for him to have gone through the fiery furnace of affliction, and he found comfort in the history of ancient Job, the man of Uz, who had such a hard time, and yet came out all right in the end. Peter "accepted the situation." The ashes of the burnt house manured the crop of corn which he had planted in the clearing, and the work of accumulating lumber was begun anew, though carried along with somewhat less energy, for time and toil had not been without their effect even upon Peter's robust frame. Again the sills were laid, again the neighbors were called in to the feast, and again the skeleton of Uncle Peter's house was outlined against the dark background of pines. A year elapsed; the house was weather-boarded and the sheathing nailed to the rafters; the roof was shingled; and the only thing now necessary to make the house habitable, after Southern fashion, was to build the chimney and put in the windows. Uncle Peter husbanded his resources for a grand coup. It was his intention to have the chimney built and the windows put in during the same week.
In getting everything in readiness for this supreme effort, he climbed to the roof of the house one morning to saw the opening in the top for the chimney. The scaffolding, not having been securely put up, broke under his weight, and he fell to the ground, unfortunately striking on the pile of bricks which had been placed near the house for the use of the masons. His groans brought Aunt Dinah to the door, and with the help of her son Primus she carried the wounded man into the cabin and laid him on the bed.
A physician was summoned, who came immediately. Peter lay half unconscious, groaning in pain. Upon examination the doctor found an arm and a rib broken. He set the broken arm, wrote a prescription and went away, promising to return later in the day. He came and found no apparent improvement in the patient's condition. He felt Peter's pulse, and gravely said, that he feared there was some internal injury which might prove more serious than the broken arm and rib. A subsequent visit only confirmed this opinion; the case did not develop favorably. In a few days, despite what medical skill and good nursing could do, the old man felt the end approaching, and sent for the colored preacher of his church to come and pray with him for what he believed would be the last time.
It was late in the afternoon. The bed of the sick man was so placed that he could look out of the open window at the unfinished house beyond. Up the white strip of sandy road that led to the town toiled a slow ox cart, with its load of turpentine barrels, and beyond this the dusky pines waved in the gentle wind, and seemed to sigh in sympathy with the sufferer, while from the deep recesses of the forest came the faint sound of chopping, and the melancholy croak of frogs, which the approach of evening had already aroused from their silence. About the bedside of the dying man were grouped his wife and son, the preacher and a few other friends who had been hastily summoned.
The preacher knelt and prayed a fervent prayer, and Peter murmured "Amen" as he concluded.
The eyes of the dying man were directed through the open window to the unfinished house a few yards away. The unpainted pine rafters were gild'd by the glory of the setting sun.
"Elder," said Peter faintly to the preacher, "I did n' finish dat house."
"My brudder," said the preacher, "you shall have a better house on de udder sho'."
"Yas, bless de Lo'd," murmured the old man, "a house not made with hands, but etarnal in de hebbens." Then, after a pause, to his younger son, "Primus, it's de las' thing I kin ax yer to do; take care o' yer po' ole mammy, and finish dat house, dat de good Lo'd didn' 'low me to finish."
"Yes, my brudder," said the preacher, after Primus had given the required promise, "de Lo'd didn' 'low David to buil' de temple, but his son Solermun built it after his father died." The dying man faintly smiled assent, then whispered: "Good bye, ole 'ooman; I can't finish dis house fer you, but dere'll be one ready fer you when you jine me on de othe' sho'." Then he tried to sing--
"A mansion in hebben I see."
The watchers joined softly in the simple refrain, the old man's voice failing after the first line. He lay quietly with closed eyes for a few minutes, his breathing so faint that it seemed to have ceased altogether; then his eyes opened and a sudden glory came into them. "See!" he exclaimed in a strong, clear voice, with a rapt look which seemed to penetrate beyond the vail, "I see de angels comin' to carry me home; and on de othe' side of de ribber I see dat hebbenly mansion--a big white mansion, wid green blin's on de winders, and broad piazzas all 'roun' it; and de tree of life grows over it, and the ribber of life flows by it." Then, turning his eyes earthward--" Good-bye, ole 'ooman; good-bye, Primus; good-bye, Elder," and then he fell asleep, and not the passionate weeping of the bereaved wife, nor the prayers of the preacher, nor anything earthly could wake him.
They made his grave under the pines on his own land, a stone's throw from the unfinished house. Several years have elapsed. Primus, true to his promise, has had the windows put in and chimneys built and is now lathing the interior. Aunt Dinah is growing old, but is still hale and hearty, and may yet live to see the house finished. The grove of young elms which Peter planted is thriving and will probably shade the yard nicely by the time the house is painted and the green blinds hung.