In Old Plantation Days

A Blessed Deceit

As Martha said, “it wam’t long o’ any sma’t-ness dat de rapscallion evab showed, but des ‘long o’ his bein’ borned ’bout de same time ez ‘ young mastah dat Lucius got tuk into de big house.” But Martha’s word is hardly to be taken, for she had a mighty likely little pickaninny of her own who was overlooked when the Daniels were looking about for a companion for the little toddler, their one child. Martha might have been envious. However, it is true that Lucius was born about the same time that his young Master Robert was, and it is just possible that that might have had something to do with his appointment, although he was as smart and likely a little darkey as ever cracked his heels on a Virginia plantation. Years after, people wondered wby that black boy with the scarred face and hands so often rode in the Daniels’ carriage, did so little work, and was better dressed than most white men. But the story was not told them; it touched too tender a spot in the hearts of all who knew. But memory deals gently with old wounds, and the balm of time softens the keenest sorrow.

Lucius first came to the notice of Mr. Daniels when as a two-year-old pickaninny he was rolling and tumbling in the sand about the quarters. Even then, he could sing so well, and was such a cheerful and good-natured, bright little scamp that his master stood and watched him in delight. Then he asked Susan how old he was, and she answered, “La, Mas’ Stone, Lucius he ’bout two years old now, don’t you ricollec’? He born ’bout de same time dat little Mas’ Robert came to you-alls.” The master’s eyes sparkled, and he tapped the black baby on the head. His caress was immediately responded to by a caper of enjoyment on the youngster’s part. Stone Daniels laughed aloud, and said, “Wash him, Susan, and I’ll send something down from the house by Lou, then dress him, and send him on up.” He turned away, and Susan, her heart bounding with joy, seized the baby in her arms and covered his round black body with kisses. This was a very easy matter for her to do, for he only wore one pitiful shift, and that was in a sadly dilapidated condition. She hurried to fulfil her master’s orders. There was no telling what great glory might come of such a command. It was a most wonderful blue dress with a pink sash that Lou brought down from the house, and when young Lucius was arrayed therein, he was a sight to make any fond mother’s heart proud. Of course, Lucius was rather a deep brunette to wear such dainty colors, but plantation tastes are not very scrupulous, and then the baby Robert, whose garments these had been, was fair, with the brown hair of the Daniels, and was dressed accordingly.

Half an hour after the child had gone to the big house, Susan received word that he had been appointed to the high position of companion in chief, and amuser in general to his young master, and the cup of her earthly joy was full. One hour later, the pickaninny and his master were rolling together on the grass, throwing stones with the vigorous gusto of two years, and the sad marksmanship of the same age, and the blue dress and pink sash were of the earth, earthy.

“I tell you, Eliza,” said Stone, “I think I’ve struck just about the right thing in that little rascal. He’ll take the best care of Robert, and I think that playing like that out in the sunshine will make our little one stronger and healthier. Why, he loves him already. Look at that out there.” Mrs Daniels did look. The young scion of the Daniels house was sitting down in the sand and gravel of the drive, and his companion and care taker was piling leaves, gravel, dirt, sticks, and whatever he could find about the lawn on his shoulders and head. The mother shuddered.

“But don’t you think, Stone, that that’s a little rough for Robert, and his clothes—oh my, I do believe he is jamming that stick down his throat!”

“Bosh,” said Stone, “that’s the way to make a man out of him.”

When the two children were brought in from their play, young Robert showed that he had been taken care of. He was scratched, he was bruised, but he was flushed and happy, and Stone Daniels was in triumph.

One, two, three years the companionship between the two went on, and the love between them grew. The little black was never allowed to forget that he was his Master Robert’s servant, but there is a democracy about childhood that oversteps all conventions, and lays low all  barriers of caste. Down in die quarters, with many secret giggles, die two were dabbed, “The Daniels twins.”

It was on the occasion of Robert’s sixth birthday that the pair might have been seen “codgin’ ” under the lilac bush, their heads very close together, the same intent look on both the black and the white face. Something momentous was under discussion. The fact of it was, young Master Robert was to be given his first party that evening, and though a great many children of the surrounding gentry had been invited, provision had not been made for the entertainment of Lucius in the parlor. Now this did not meet with Robert’s views of what was cither right or proper, so he had determined to take matters in his own hands, and together with his black confederate was planning an amendment of the affair.

“You see, Lucius,” he was saying, “you are mine, because papa said so, and you was born the same time I was, so don’t you see that when I have a birthday party, it is your birthday party too, and you ought to be there?”

“Co’se,” said Lucius, with a wise shake of the head, and a very old look, “Co’se, dat des de way it look to me, Mas’ Robert.”

“Well, now, as it’s your party, it ‘pears like to me that you ought to be there, and not be foolin’ ’round with the servants that the other company bring.”

“Pears lak to me dat I oughter be ‘roun’ dab somewhah,” answered the black boy.

Robert thought for awhile, then he clapped his little knee and cried, “I’ve got it, Lucius, I’ve got it!” His face beamed with joy, the two head? went closer together, and with many giggles and capers of amusement, their secret was disclosed and the young master trotted off to the house while Lucius rolled over and over with delight

A little while afterwards Robert had a very sage and professional conversation with his father in the latter’s library. It was only on stat occasions that he went to Doshy and asked her t obtain an interview for him in that august place and Stone Daniels knew that something great was to be said when the request came to him. I was immediately granted, for he denied his only heir nothing, and the young man came in wit the air and mien of an ambassador bearing messages to a potentate.

What was said in that conversation, and what was answered by the father, it boots not here to tell. It is sufficient to say that Robert Daniels came away from the interview with shining eyes and a look of triumph on his face, and the news he told to his fellow conspirator sent him off into wild peals of pleasure. Quite as eagerly as his son had gone out to Lucius, Stone Daniels went to talk with his wife.

“I tell you, Eliza,” he said, “there’s no use talking, that boy of ours is a Daniels through and through. He is an aristocrat to his finger tips. What do you suppose he has been in to ask me?”

“I have no idea, Stone,” said his wife, “what new and original thing this wonderful boy of ours has been saying now.”

“You needn’t laugh now, Eliza, because it is something new and original he has been saying.”

“I never doubted it for an instant.”

“He came to me with that wise look of his; you know it?”

“Don’t I?” said the mother tenderly.

“And he said, ‘Papa, don’t you think as I am giving a party, an’ my servant was born ’bout the same time as I was, don’t you think he ought to kinder—kinder—be roun’ where people could see him, as, what do you call it in the picture, papa?’ ‘What do you mean?’ I said. ‘Oh, you know, to set me off.’ ‘Oh, a background, you mean?’ ‘Yes, a background; now I think it would be nice if Lucius could be right there, so whenever I want to show my picture books or anything, I could just say, “Lucius, won’t you bring me this, or won’t you bring me that?” like you do with Scott.’ ‘Oh, but my son,’ I said, ‘a gentleman never wants to show off his possessions.’ ‘No, papa,’ he replied, with the most quizzical expression I ever saw on a child’s face, ‘no, I don’t want to show off. I just want to kinder indicate, don’t you know, cause it’s a birthday party, and that’ll kinder make it stronger.”

“Of course you consented?” said Mrs. Daniels.

“With such wise reasoning, how could a man do otherwise?” He replied, “Don’t you see the child has glimmers of that fine feeling of social contrast, my dear?”

“I see,” said Mrs. Daniels, “that my son Robert wants to have Lucius in the room at the party, and was shrewd enough to gain his father’s consent.”

“By the Lord!” said her husband, “but I believe you’re right! Well, it’s done now, and I can’t go back on my word.”

“The Daniels twins” were still out on the lawn dancing to the piping of the winds and throwing tufts of grass into the air and over their heads, when they were called in to be admonished and dressed. Peacock never strutted as did Lucius when, arrayed in a blue suit with shining brass buttons, he was stationed in the parlor near his master’s chair. Those were the days when even children’s parties were very formal and elegant affairs. There was no hurrying and scurrying then, and rough and tumble goings-on. That is, at first, there was not; when childhood gets warmed up though, it is pretty much the same in any period of the world’s history. However, the young guests coming were received with great dignity and formality by their six-year-old host. The party was begun in very stately fashion. It was not until supper was announced that the stiffness and awe of the children at a social function began to wear off. Then they gathered about the table, cheerful and buoyant, charmed and dazzled by its beauty. There was a pretty canopy over the chair of the small host, and the dining-room and tables were decorated with beautiful candles in the silver candlesticks that had been heirlooms of the Daniels for centuries. Robert had lost some of his dignity, and laughed and chatted with the rest as the supper went on. The little girls were very demure, the boys were inclined to be a little boisterous. The most stately figure in the room was Lucius where he was stationed stiff and erect behind his master’s chair. From the doorway, the elders looked on with enjoyment at the scene. The supper was nearly over, and the fun was fast and furious. The boys were unable longer to contain the animal spirits which were bubbling over, and there began surreptitious scufflings and nudges under the table. Someone near Robert suddenly sprang up, the cloth caught in his coat, two candles were tipped over straight into the little host’s lap. The melted wax ran over him, and in a twinkle the fine frills and laces about him were a mass of flames. Instantly all was confusion, the children were shrieking and rushing pell-mell from the table. They crowded the room in frightened and confused huddles, and it was this that barred Stone Daniels as he fought his way fiercely to his son’s side. But one was before him. At the first sign of danger to his young master, Lucius had sprung forward and thrown himself upon him, beating, fighting, tearing, smothering, trying to kill the fire. He grabbed the delicate linen, he tore at the collar and jacket; he was burning himself, his clothes were on fire, but he heeded it not. He only saw that his master was burning, burning before him, and his boy’s heart went out in a cry, “Oh, Mas’ Bob, oh, Mas’ Bob!”

Somehow, the father reached his child at last, and threw his coat about him. The flames were smothered, and the unconscious child carried to his room. The children were hurried into their wraps and to their homes, and a messenger galloped away for the doctor.

And what of Lucius? When the heir of the Daniels was in danger of his life no one had time to think of the slave, and it was not until he was heard moaning on the floor where he had crept in to be by his master’s bedside, that it was found out that he also was badly burned, and a cot was fixed for him in the same room.

When the doctor came in he shook his head over both, and looked very grave indeed. First Robert and then his servant was bound and bandaged, and the same nurse attended both. When the white child returned to consciousness his mother was weeping over him, and his father with face pale and drawn stood at the foot of the bed. “Oh, my poor child, my poor child!” moaned the woman; “my only one!”

With a gasp of pain Robert turned his face toward his mother and said, “Don’t you cry, mamma; if I die, I’ll leave you Lucius.”

It was funny afterwards to think of it, but then it only brought a fresh burst of tears from the mother’s heart, and made a strange twitching about the father’s mouth.

But he didn’t die. Lucius’ caretaking had produced in him a robust constitution, and both children fought death and gained the fight. When they were first able to sit up—and Robert was less inclined to be parted from Lucius than ever—the young master called his father into the room. Lucius’ chair was wheeled near him when the little fellow began:

“Papa, I want to ‘fess somethin’ to you. The night of the party I didn’t want Lucius in for indicating I wanted him to see the fun, didn’t I Lucius?”

Lucius nodded painfully, and said, “Uh-huh.”

“I didn’t mean to ‘ceive you, papa, but you know it was both of our birthdays—and—er—” Stone Daniels closed his boy’s mouth with a kiss, and turned and patted the black boy’s head with a tender look on his face, “For once, thank God, it was a blessed deceit.”

That is why in years later, Lucius did so little work and dressed like his master’s son.


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This work (In Old Plantation Days by Paul Laurence Dunbar) is free of known copyright restrictions.