Skip to main content

The Sway-Backed House


The Sway-Backed House

WHETHER or not Uncle Solomon Grundy, like his famous name-sake of the nursery rhyme, was born on Monday, I have no means of knowing; nor am I informed as to the days of the week on which the other principal events of his life took place. I do know, however, that he was a tall, shapely, and very dark man, with a straight nose, thin lips, and blue eyes. From his color and the quality of his hair one would have been inclined to regard him as a full-blooded negro; but his features, his blue eyes—a remarkable anomaly—and the fact that he was free-born, made it seem probable that he might have a distant strain of white blood, which, by reversion, had come to the surface through the over-lying dark strata. He had been known to say that he was the descendant of an African king—these sable royalties may yet become as numerous, for purposes of pedigree, among dark Americans of the future as the ancient kings of Ireland. Whether for this or some other reason, he manifested a very distinct scorn for ordinary blacks. Perhaps this sentiment had something to do with his marriage, when about thirty years old, to a light-brown woman with a daughter much fairer of complexion than herself.

This little yellow girl became the apple of the old man's eyes. His wife bore him no children, and Solomon, who was of a very affectionate disposition, lavished upon Julia all the love which he might have distributed among a large family. He lived, with his wife and the child, in a small North Carolina town, where, being a free man and a skilled bricklayer and plasterer, he enjoyed a good income, for a man of simple tastes and humble station, and was able to provide comfortably for his wife and adopted daughter. The girl grew to womanhood and married a free colored man of the town, whereupon she left her mother's house and went to live with her husband.

Julia's marriage was as prolific as most unions of the poor, whose families are likely to increase in inverse ratio to their ability to support them. Some years later she died, leaving, among half a dozen children, a little daughter who resembled Julia very much. Solomon's wife, the grandmother, took the child to bring up. The father soon married again, and the girl was not missed from the crowded household, where her absence was a relief rather than a loss.

The little Isabella took the place, in the mind of Solomon and his wife, of the lost daughter Julia. She was dressed better than most colored children of the town, was sent to school regularly—she grew up just after the war—and showed herself appreciative and grateful for her opportunities. When she neared womanhood her grandmother died, and Isabella, who continued to live with the old man, became known as sole heiress of the sway backed house, which, with the land about it, constituted the bulk of Uncle Solomon's estate. This was no mere surmise, but had for its foundation the old man's personal statement.

"Yas, suh," he would say, "Isabella is de only one I keer fer, an' she's gwine ter be my heir. Ef she'll stay here an' keep house fer me while she's single, er live here wid her husban' when she marries, she shall have all I got."

"You haven't any relatives of your own, Uncle Solomon, have you?" asked a neighbor, one day.

"No," he answered, somewhat shortly. "I had a sister once, but she married a low-down, good-fer-nothin' black nigger, an' I ain't seen her ner heared from her fer twenty years. She may be dead fer all I know er keer."

The old man's house stood on a corner, on the bank of a creek. It was a frame house, large for the neighborhood, and two stories in height. Owing to some miscalculation of strains or misplaced economy of material, the middle of the roof had sagged considerably below the ends, thus giving the house a decidedly sway-backed appearance. When Uncle Solomon bought the house and lot, he plastered all the rooms and had the roof   reshingled, but the principal defect could not, in his opinion, be remedied without an entire reconstruction of the house, which he did not feel able to afford. Viewed from the end, the bend in the roof was not noticeable; and one gets accustomed to anything, so that the irregularity of outline did not detract a great deal, in the public eye, from the value or desirability of Isabella's inheritance. The house was much larger than the shabby one-story tenements in the neighborhood, and there was nothing at all the matter with the acre of land to which it appertained.

A pretty yellow girl could not grow up in Patesville without several suitors, and Isabella was no exception to the rule. The aspirants to her favor, however, had to pass the inspection, not only of Isabella's somewhat critical taste, but of the old man's more robust prejudices. Some were too old for Isabella, and some too young. Some were too dark to make a good match, and some too trifling to suit the old man. For a while the balance hung trembling between Professor Revels, of the grammar school, and Tom Turner, the blacksmith, who lived just a short distance from Uncle Solomon's. Isabella had, at first, a sneaking fondness for the blacksmith, a sturdy, brown young man, whose bare arms, shining in the light of his forge, revealed the knotted muscles of a Hercules. He was a good-natured fellow, too, and very fond of Isabella, though somewhat slow of speech and diffident in manner. Professor Revels, however, proved a powerful rival to Turner. He was not only by nature a shade lighter than the blacksmith, but, by the free use of soap and water, and certain cosmetics recommended for the purpose, looked at least a shade lighter than he really was; while the blacksmith, by reason of his trade, seemed darker than he ought. These integumentary details seemed really of more importance to the old man than to Isabella, who was more strongly impressed by the difference in the clothes of her two admirers. The Professor—he did not use the title himself, but his friends thrust it upon him—wore, every day in the week, clean, well-fitting garments, high collars and bright neckties, which contrasted strikingly with the sooty garb and open shirt-front of the young blacksmith, who, donning his good clothes more seldom, did not, for want of practice, wear them with the ease and grace of the Professor. To the advantages already stated, Revels added what seemed to the old man the most powerful argument in his favor—a very remarkable thrift. He owned already two small houses, and, having commended himself to the town authorities by abstention from politics and deference to the white people, seemed likely to hold his position indefinitely. Uncle Solomon admired the teacher's exceptional prosperity. The Professor shared the general knowledge of Isabella's expectations, and was willing to add the sway-backed house to his growing possessions. It was worth, with the land attached, at least eight hundred dollars, and possibly nine. Revels, it must be said in all fairness, was by no means indifferent to Isabella's personal attractions, though it is likely that he would have looked further before committing himself had it not been for the expected inheritance. The result of this balancing of personal and social advantages was the engagement of Isabella and Professor Revels, early in the spring of 187-. The marriage was set for a date late in June, at the end of the school year, and the couple were to take a trip to Washington on a half-rate summer excursion ticket for their wedding journey. The Professor's brother, who held a clerkship in one of the Government departments, would entertain them gratis, thus reducing materially the expenses of the visit.

Toward the latter part of May Uncle Solomon was taken ill with a severe attack of acute rheumatism, a disease to which he had long been subject in a milder form. Isabella attended him faithfully, and was very much shocked and pained when the doctor told her one day that he feared the rheumatism might reach the old man's heart, in which event the illness would in all probability have a fatal termination; for Isabella was really fond of her grandpap, as she affectionately called him, and would have been quite content to wait indefinitely for her inheritance.

She was somewhat surprised one day when a very dark young man, of good manners and neatly though poorly dressed, called at the house and announced himself as the old man's nephew. The visitor   stayed to dinner, and conversed more or less with his uncle while Isabella prepared the meal. Uncle Solomon did not seem at all elated by the appearance of this hitherto unknown and unsuspected relative, though he listened patiently enough to the young man's account of his widowed mother's family, which was large, and her circumstances, which were poor, and asked the visitor to call again in case he should be passing through the town. The young man, according to his own story, was on his way to an institution of higher learning in another town, where he hoped to work his way through. He very gratefully accepted a present of five dollars which his uncle extracted, with painful effort, from a wooden chest under the head of his bed. The old man subsequently made but slight reference to his relations, merely remarking to Isabella that if the boy was a fair specimen of the family, they must be very black; that, for his part, he believed in lightening up the breed, and that his sister had made a serious mistake.

Isabella was not especially interested in the visitor, and under the pressure of household cares soon forgot his very existence; for her grandpap grew steadily worse from day to day. In the early part of June the enemy attacked the citadel of his life; his heart succumbed to the disease, and he went the way of all the earth, including even landed proprietors. The doctor must have warned him, however, or he had felt some presentiment of his impending fate; for, a week or two before his demise, he sent for Mr. Henry Willliams, the colored lawyer of the town, and made a will in due form, it being necessary to devise his property if he wished Isabella to have it—for, it will be remembered, she was not a blood relation, and her adoption had never taken a legal form. The will was left in the lawyer's hands for safe-keeping, under a strict injunction of secrecy as to its contents.

Upon Isabella, as the person standing nearest to the deceased, devolved the responsibility for the funeral arrangements. Owing, however, to her youth and inexperience, to say nothing of her very sincere grief, she relied more or less for assistance upon her affianced husband. The Professor counseled a modest funeral; he was opposed, he said, to ostentation in funerals, which was a race weakness that ought to be combated. He felt quite sure that Mr. Grundy himself, a man of simple tastes, would have preferred a neat pine coffin to the more elaborate and expensive velvet-lined casket with silver-plated handles and a glass top, of which Isabella had at first thought. She would have liked to have the sermon preached at the colored Methodist church, of which Uncle Solomon had been an occasional attendant, though not a regular member; but the Professor suggested that, as the colored cemetery was only a short distance from the house, it would be much more convenient to have the sermon preached at the residence, from which the pall-bearers, if carefully selected for their strength, could carry the body directly to the grave, thus saving the expense of a hearse and carriages, and setting an example of simplicity and good taste in a quarter where it was very much needed. Isabella could not dispute the wisdom of a teacher whom she had obeyed as pupil a year before, and whom she was soon to obey as a wife; she yielded her own wishes, and carried out the Professor's ideas, even at the cost of some adverse criticism from others.

The funeral was, nevertheless, largely attended. The lawyer, who was among those present, had caused it to be known among the near neighbors and intimate friends of the deceased that he would produce and read the will at the house immediately after the interment. At the conclusion of the obsequies, Isabella and her relatives, the Professor, and several near neighbors, including the young blacksmith, gathered in the sitting-room and waited, with becoming gravity, until Mr. Williams produced and read, with professional unction, the last will and testament of Solomon Grundy. The estate, as itemized in the will, consisted of the sway-backed house and the land surrounding it, one hundred and ten dollars in money, and a claim of three hundred and seventy-five dollars against the defunct Freedman's Savings Bank. This last item, as the lawyer explained, was practically valueless. The receivers of the bank had paid one dividend, and there was small prospect of another. By the terms of the will the property, after the payment of debts, funeral expenses, and cost of administration, was to be sold at private sale, upon   the best terms obtainable, and the prodeeds to go, share and share alike, to Isabella Reynolds and the ten children of the decedent's sister, Elizabeth Goins, of Tarboro', North Carolina.

"This afternoon," said the lawyer, as he folded the paper, "I shall have the will admitted to probate, and the estate will be settled as soon as the court shall direct."

Professor Revels, who had listened closely to the reading of the will, could hardly conceal his chagrin at the disposition of the property. Nevertheless, with an effort at self-control strengthened by his school-room experience, he mastered his feelings sufficiently to take a formal farewell of Isabella, being among the first to leave. The others did not remain long; the will gave them something to talk about, and it seemed hardly becoming to discuss the dead man in the room where his coffined remains had stood an hour before.

Tom Turner was the last to leave.

"I'm sorry, Isabella," he said, holding her hand meanwhile, "that you should lose your grandpap. He was a good man, and we shall all miss him. I know a fellow who would have been glad to do all he did for you, and more, if you had given him the chance. But he doesn't bear malice. It isn't always best for us to have what we want. If I can be of any use to you, call on me—you haven't far to come."

Isabella involuntarily contrasted this magnanimous sympathy with the abrupt departure of her affianced lover, to the disadvantage of the absent one. She was, nevertheless, a sensible girl, and able to appreciate the disappointment which so thrifty a young man as the Professor must have felt upon hearing the will. He would doubtless be around next day, however, for, while the expected inheritance was not to be despised, he had loved her, she felt, for herself as well, and would return to console her in her loneliness and take counsel with her about the future.

Several of the neighbors called next day to see how Isabella took the will, and to condole with her over the loss of the inheritance.

"It's a shame," said one ardent sympathizer, "a burnin' shame. Dat ole man's promisin' all dese years ter leabe you dat house an' lot. I sh'd think he'd be 'feared ter go befo' de jedgment th'one wid sech a lie on his lips."

"Please don't talk that way about grandpap," replied Isabella. "He was good to me for many years. He fed and clothed and reared my mother, and did the same for me, and neither of us had any claim upon him. If on his death-bed his conscience smote him because of his poor sister and her children, whom he had neglected so many years, and he felt that he ought to leave something to his own flesh and blood, I surely have no good right to complain. They need it quite as much as I, and more, for I am going to marry a school-teacher and a man of property, who is able to give me all I need. I owe the old man nothing but respect and affection, and while I appreciate your good intentions, I'd rather not hear anything said against him. If I am satisfied, no one else need be troubled."

Isabella was somewhat disappointed when the day passed without a visit from her lover. She received a note from him next day, in which he explained that the work of preparation for the school examination would occupy him for a few days, so that he would not intrude upon her grief immediately, but would leave her alone with her sorrow for a little while.

The little while lasted for a week, and stretched out into two. Meantime the court appointed Mr. Williams, the lawyer, as administrator of the Grundy estate. There being no reason for delay, the property was promptly sold. When the funeral expenses and costs of administration had been paid, there remained for distribution among the eleven legatees the sum of six hundred and sixty dollars and some odd cents, or about sixty dollars each.

Isabella received this money on Monday morning. She had been notified by the lawyer, several days before, that the purchaser of the property wished to take possession on Wednesday. The two weeks that had passed since the funeral had given Isabella ample time for reflection about her lover. When the third day after the funeral had passed without his reappearance, she had casually walked by the school-house, but had seen nothing of Professor Revels. Once again, a few days later, while coming out from the lawyer's office, where she had called upon business   of the estate, she had seen Revels passing upon the opposite side of the street. She felt piqued that he should go by without seeing her—he had hitherto been able to make out her figure at the distance of half a mile. She did not shed any tears, however, but went thoughtfully on her way.

On the Sunday before the Monday on which she received her shrunken legacy, Isabella went to church. She had not put on regular mourning for the old man, but was soberly clad, and wore a black necktie, and a black ribbon upon her sailor hat. She saw Professor Revels sitting upon the men's side of the church, and perceived that he gave a glance, now and then, in her direction—not exactly an ardent glance, but one in which conflicting emotions presented their respective claims in an orderly manner. At the close of the service Isabella left the church slowly. She confidently expected that Professor Revels would walk home with her. She was, indeed, sorely in need of counsel and comfort. In two days she must leave her home. There was nowhere for her to go, except to the small house occupied by her father and his family, in which there was positively no room for her. Her marriage with the Professor was set for the following week. She might, under more auspicious conditions, have postponed it out of respect to the old man's memory; but under the circumstances, there being no tie of blood between them, the question of her own future became of paramount importance. Until her relations with the Professor should be definitely settled—and it must be admitted that Isabella had felt some misgivings since the funeral—her future movements must, of course, remain undecided. She had been offered, for instance, a country school to teach, and was at a loss what response to make. She had thought a great deal of Professor Revels; respect for his position had been as much an element of her regard as any warmer feeling. She felt that he had treated her rather coldly of late; but if he should come forward after church and walk home with her, she was willing to overlook his neglect and resume their former relations.

The congregation left the church, at the close of the service, by two different doors, most of the men passing out through one and the women through the other, though there was some mingling of the sexes in the vestibule. Isabella went out by the women's door. Her path homeward required her to turn to the right and pass the other door at an angle. She saw the Professor standing by the men's door, and gave him a full and frank look of invitation, which she might very properly do, he being her affianced husband. He started, came a few steps toward her, hesitated, lifted his hat, and turned back, as though he had left something in the church for which he must return. Isabella had observed his movements and felt distinctly disappointed; she nevertheless preserved her outward calm and proceeded on her way with even a little more than her usually dignity, the accession being due to the fact that she had observed several curious persons watching Revels and herself.

When she had descended the hill near the church and reached the bridge across the creek, she saw Tom Turner leaning against the railing, and was conscious of a decided feeling of pleasure at sight of her sturdy young neighbor, who looked quite well in a new suit of clothes. She appreciated, too, the delicacy which had made him wait at the bridge rather than, by joining her at the church, interfere with other plans which she might have had. He walked home with her, and invited her to dinner at his mother's. She accepted the invitation, after some little demur; she had always liked Tom's mother, who was an even-tempered woman, and a peaceable neighbor.

On the following Monday afternoon about five o'clock, shortly after school hours, Isabella, who was getting ready to leave the sway-backed house, heard a familiar step on the piazza. She opened the door, and admitted Professor Revels. He put out his hand and took her own, which she gave him mechanically. If he contemplated any warmer greeting, she did not encourage it by her manner.

"Good-evening, Isabella," he said, laying his hat upon the table and taking a seat without further invitation. "I hope you are feeling well."

"Yes, sir," answered Isabella—he had been her teacher a year before, and Isabella always addressed him in terms of respect—"as well as could be expected."

"As well, no doubt," he rejoined with a sigh, "as could be expected after so painful an experience. I had always regarded Mr. Grundy as a gentleman—a man of no education, it is true, through no fault of his own—but a man of correct habits and sound principles. I could never have imagined him guilty of such gross injustice and such unfeeling cruelty as to bring you up as his heir and then leave his property to distant relatives who had no claim upon him whatever."

"Please do not speak harshly of him," said Isabella. "His property was his own—he worked hard for it—he could do with it as he liked. He had already done much for me."

"It is very kind of you to talk that way, Isabella; it speaks well for your heart, but not well for your sense of justice. There were others besides you to be considered."

"Yes, it is true, there were others," rejoined Isabella, thinking of the ten fatherless nephews and nieces.

"It was because I could not control my feelings toward Mr. Grundy," continued Revels, conscious that some explanation would be gracefully appropriate, even if not really called for, "that I have not been around since the funeral. We have both been disappointed, Isabella."

"I will admit that I have," murmured Isabella.

"Yes, and so have I. Many a man in my place would feel entirely justified in breaking off our engagement. When I offered you my hand, you were the prospective heiress of this handsome house, and of this spacious lot, upon which four or five other houses might easily be built. Thoughtless people have smiled at the sway-backed roof, but my brother, the carpenter, assured me that it could easily be straightened. But you have been well raised, Isabella, and I think, after all, in spite of your loss, that you please me better and would make a more suitable school-teacher's wife than any other young woman in town."

"You are paying me a high compliment," said Isabella.

"It may seem so," he went on, "but I am sincere. I have figured that, by careful economy, you will be able to save for me, during the next ten years, as much as the inheritance of which you have been robbed would have amounted to."

"Thank you, sir," rejoined Isabella, humbly. "I have never been considered extravagant. Grandpap was saving, and taught me the value of money."

Revels looked moodily satisfied. Do you know yet what your share of the estate will amount to?" he asked.

"Sixty dollars, eight and one-eleventh cents. I had to throw off the fraction to make change."

"Sixty dollars and eight cents," he repeated, meditatively. "I had supposed it would be a little more—but no matter. With so recent a death in the family you would not want a wedding—we can be married quietly, and save the expense. Laid out prudently, the sixty dollars will furnish our house. I presume that under the circumstances you would be willing to forego the trip to Washington—we can go down to Wilmington for a day or two on the boat."

"Yes," she replied; "I have given up the Washington trip for the present."

"Very well, then, Isabella; I am convinced that, on the whole, it will be for the best. We will be married next Monday night at eight, according to our original plan. Will you be here, or at your father's?"

"I shall be at my husband's, Professor Revels," replied Isabella, rising, with a cold glitter in her eyes and a triumphant ring in her voice which made Revels shiver with vague alarm.

"Your—your husband's?" he stammered, rising involuntarily the while.

"At my husband's," repeated Isabella distinctly, lingering upon the words—"at my husband's, Mr. Thomas Turner's, around the corner. You are too slow about making up your mind, Professor Revels. I was married to Mr. Turner after church last night. There he is coming up the walk now. He will need all my attention, and I wish you a very good evening."