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Aunt Lucy's Search




"Yas, honey, I keeps a-goin', goin', goin'."

"And when do you expect to stop, Aunt Lucy?"

"Doan nebber 'spect ter stop 'tel I fines de las' one. Dere's only one lef' now. Dey tell me he's 'way up Norf somewhar, an' I's gwine ter keep a-goin' 'tel I fines 'im. Good-by, honey."

The lady's hand sought her pocket before she extended it to the old colored woman; when she drew it back there was something hard and white left in Aunt Lucy's palm.

"T'ank'ee, honey, de Lawd bless yer," said the old woman, with a curtsey. Then she took up her stick and bundle, drew her scanty shawl closer about her bent shoulders, and hobbled out into the chill November air, muttering to herself, "Goin'; agoin', goin'."

Aunt Lucy was known far and wide as a "character." She had been a slave, and in early womanhood had become the property of a North Carolina farmer—it would be absurd to call him a "planter," for he was but one degree removed from the condition of a poor white man. She married, after the broom-stick ritual, a slave upon a near plantation. When he was sold away from the neighborhood she found another husband without the formality of divorce proceedings. In the course of time and of these alliances, she presented her master with six children, each of whom raised him one degree higher in the social scale. These six young slaves, with their mother, constituted the bulk of his property.

In an evil hour Lucy's master mortgaged his slaves to raise money for a speculation. He invested the proceeds of the mortgage in the stock of a projected canal, from which great things were looked for. Work on the canal began with a flourish of trumpets, and progressed finely for a little while; then the treasurer ran away with the company's money, the work was abandoned, and Lucy's master was ruined. His creditors foreclosed their mortgage, and Lucy and her children were sent to the auction-block. Her master and her mistress, and her young masters and mistresses, shed bitter tears, as well they might, for the loss of their slaves cut the tie which bound them to "society." Henceforth, alas! they could hope to be nothing more than "poor whites."

In the ordinary course of events the whole slave family might have been bought by one person, or, if separated, by people in the neighborhood, and they would thus have been able to see one another,   at least now and then. But, unfortunately, a "speculator"—a negro trader—happened to be in the town on the day of the sale. He attended the auction and bought four of Lucy's children—boys ranging in years from twelve to twenty. The other two children, a boy and a girl, both under twelve, were sold to people in the county, and Lucy herself to the gentleman who had hired her from her master for several years, and who was willing to pay a round sum to retain a cook without an equal.

The monotonous going, going, going of the auctioneer fell upon the mother's heart like the lash upon quivering flesh, and the stroke of the hammer as each child was knocked down to the trader fell upon her heart like the knell of doom. She did not cry out; she let them take her children unresistingly; the slave could suffer and be silent. The expression of her grief was restrained by a pride which revealed itself in a stoical semblance of indifference; only an occasional gleam of love or hate flashed from her eyes as they rested, now upon their children, now upon the idle crowd who stood around listening to the jocular remarks of the auctioneer as he expatiated on the good points of his merchandise. There is no pride like that of hopelessness. But in her cabin at night, Lucy gave vent to her pent-up tears, and besought of her Heavenly Master grace to bear the burdens which earthly masters had imposed upon her. Shallow sciolists may confound the essence of Christianity with its excrescences; this poor woman grasped its inner meaning; she could endure all this at her Christian master's hands, and then seek consolation at the altar of her master's God.

The speculator carried the four young slaves to the far South, and sold them, some in one State, some in another. Of the children left near their mother, the daughter died, and the son was shot and killed far away from home, while attempting to escape from slavery. When the war left Aunt Lucy free, she did not know the whereabouts of any of her children—except the one buried down by the swamp—a sunken grave filled with stagnant water, where frogs croaked a melancholy requiem, and noisome serpents trailed their slimy length along.

Aunt Lucy's last "husband" celebrated his new-found freedom, by going as far away from home as the first impulse of his altered situation would carry him; he got as far as Baltimore and never came back to North Carolina. Aunt Lucy stayed at home and worked for her late master. He had always treated her kindly, and now paid her liberal wages. Advancing age had silvered her hair, and the objectless toil of slavery had made her seem older than she really was. A severe attack of rheumatism had left her permanently lame, and rendered walking difficult even with the aid of a stick.

Aunt Lucy's first thought after her "freedom" was of her children; her mother heart had always yearned for them—slavery could not crush this instinct. What seemed a visionary idea took possession of her mind, and could not be dislodged by argument or opposition; she determined to find her children. But how? She had no money to employ detectives, to advertise; she could command none of that machinery of civilization by which at the present day a man can be traced to the very ends of the earth, even when life or liberty depends upon concealment. Aunt Lucy knew of but one way to find her children, and that was to go and look for them.

"She knowed de worl' was big," she said, "but she knowed de Lawd was good."

Aunt Lucy had no ideas whatever about geography; she had never been out of her native county; but she knew that where her children had gone she could go, and that if she lived long enough and kept going she could find them. She no more stopped to balance probabilities than she would have done to argue the existence of a God. And at fifty this crippled old woman took her staff in hand and with little money in her purse, went forth into the wide world upon a quest more hopeless than that of the Holy Grail by Arthur's knights.

But somehow fortune seemed to favor the old woman. She traveled by rail or steamboat when she had money, and walked when she had none. She was a good cook, and at times paused in her search and worked for the means to pay her fare to the next city. Kindly white mothers, who had lost their beardless sons, past finding, on Southern battle-fields, sympathized with the old woman, and helped her out of their scanty store. Her own people fed and lodged her when she came among them; and took up collections for her in their churches. She advertised in such papers as colored people were most likely to read.

At the end of two years she had found one son—in Alabama. He had a family, and was very poor. Aunt Lucy did not stay with him long, but resumed her search, strengthened in her faith by this partial success. She found another son in Georgia. But, alas! she found him in a prison camp, a ball and chain on his leg, sentenced for some petty offence to a long term of punishment. She saw him several times, tried to comfort him, and to plant in his heart some seeds of faith and repentance, and then sadly continued her endless journey. This seemed the end of her good luck. She would meet here and there some one who had known a colored man by the name of Sam or Dan, or Cæsar Johnson; but when she followed up the clue it proved delusive, and five years elapsed before she found another of her children. At one time she went to her old home to rest awhile.

"Better stay home, Aunt Lucy," said her friends, "and not be ramblin' 'roun' de worl' dis way. You'll meet yo' chillen in hebben."

"I doan know 'bout dat," Aunt Lucy would reply with a shake of her head; "dey mought not all git dere. I's got ter fine 'em on dis side'n de ribber, an I mus' keep a goin', goin', goin' 'tel I comes across 'em somewhar."

And the queer old figure in faded calico dress, thin woolen shawl, and gingham sun-bonnet, would take up her stick and go off again upon her errand.

She found one other child in Richmond, Va. He was better off than any she had hitherto found; he was a preacher, and owned a home to which he made his mother welcome. She remained with him a year—two years—and then the old longing came upon her and she left her comfortable home to look for the last son. She went back to North Carolina, then farther South, toward where her children had first been carried. Diligent searching and inquiry finally resulted in her tracing the other son to Chicago. Thither she turned her trottering footsteps. An emigrant train hurried her through the mountains, across the prairies, and into the great city of the West.

It was late in the afternoon of a cold damp day in the early part of December when Aunt Lucy arrived in Chicago. The chill air struck through her thin clothing, and she drew her shawl closer about her as she stepped down on the platform. She looked around among the throng in the crowded depot for a black face. Presently she found one, and in its owner a sympathetic listener. The porter heard her story attentively. Yes, he knew just such a man as she described, whose name was Cæsar something, he didn't know his last name, who had been born in North Carolina, had been sold and carried to New Orleans when a boy, had served in the Union army, and had come North at the close of the war. He had heard him speak about it often; he kept a barber-shop not far from the depot.

"Just step over there to the waiting-room, Auntie, and stay there a few minutes until I get off duty, and I will go up there with you."

Some one called the porter and he hurried away. Aunt Lucy started toward the waiting-room, to reach which she had to cross several tracks. The tracks were not fenced nor guarded. Nobody noticed the poor old colored woman. A train shot into the depot. Nobody saw just how it happened; but the old woman, bewildered by the confusion, deafened by the noisy bells, and blinded by the unaccustomed glare of the electric lights, stepped in front of the approaching train. The engine struck her and threw her to the ground.

A crowd quickly surrounded her. The friendly porter came to seek her and found them carrying her into the baggage-room. A surgeon was hastily summoned; he pronounced her injuries fatal; she might live an hour or two if kept quiet; any attempt to remove her would only hasten the end.

"Fetch my son," faintly murmured Aunt Lucy. "Let me fine de las' one befo' I go. Is'[sic] be'n a-goin', goin', goin', dese many years, an' now I's almost gone, an' when I sees him I'll be willin' ter go."

The porter hastened away, and soon returned with the barber, a stalwart black who towered half a head above the men about him. Eager questions were asked and answered, and Aunt Lucy's withered face lit up with solemn joy when she realized beyond a doubt that she had found her last child.

"Lif' me up, honey," she said, "an' put yo' arms aroun' me, and lemme look into yo' face. Is you my little Cæsar? Yo' po' ole mammy done trabble all ober de worl' ter fine yer, honey. Be'n goin', goin', goin', for lo! dese many years, an' bless de Lawd, I done foun' de las' one."

The son kissed his mother's cheek as he lifted her to a sitting posture on the rude couch which had been improvised for her reception. Even the surgeon, who had stood by a hundred death-beds, was touched by this meeting; and the eyes of the rough trainmen who stood about were dim with unaccustomed moisture.

"T'ank de Lawd, I's done foun' de las' one," murmured the dying woman. The tide of life flowed swiftly out. She breathed heavily. They laid her down, and in a moment the spirit which kept this frail body going, going, going, had gone. Aunt Lucy's mission was accomplished; the hammer of death had fallen.