In Old Plantation Days

A Judgment of Paris

It is a very difficult thing at any time and in any place to be the acknowledged arbiter of social affairs. But to hold this position in “Little Africa” demanded the maximum of independence, discretion and bravery. I say bravery, because the civilization of “Little Africa” had not arrived at that edifying point where it took disapproval gracefully and veiled its feelings. It was crude and primitive, and apt to resent adverse comment by an appeal to force, not of the persuasive but of the vindictive kind.

It had fallen to the lot of Mr. Samuel Hatfield to occupy this delicate position of social judge, and though certain advantages and privileges accrued to him his place was in no wise a sinecure. There were times when his opinions on matters of great moment had been openly scoffed at, and once it had even happened when a decision of his had been displeasing that fleetness of foot alone had saved him from the violence of partisans. Little did it matter to the denizens of “Little Africa” that others might be put upon committees to serve with Mr. Hatfield in judging the merits of waltzers or of the qualities of rival quartets. He was the one who invariably brought in the report and awarded the prize, and on him fell the burden of approval or disapproval.

For some months he had gone on gloriously unannoyed, with no one to judge, and nothing to pass upon. In the absence of these duties, Cupid had stepped in and with one shaft laid him prone at the feet of Miss Matilda Jenkins. Of course, Mr. Hatfield did cast occasional glances at the charms of Miss Amarilla Jones, but Cupid grown wise with the wisdom of the world, has somehow learned to tip his arrows with gold, and the wound of these is always fatal.

Now, the charms of these two maidens were equal, their brown beauty about the same, but Matilda Jenkins’ father was a magnate in “Little Africa,” and so—.

On a night in autumn the devil appeared to certain members of the trustees’ board of Mt. Moriah Church, and said unto them: “You need money wherewith to run this church,” and they answered and said: “Yes, good devil, we do.”

The devil spoke again and said: “Give a calico festival and a prize to the woman wearing the prettiest calico dress.” And much elated, they replied: “Yea, verily.”

Thereupon the devil, his work being done, vanished with a crafty smile, leaving them to their deliberations.

Brother Jenkins and Brother Jones were both members of the “Boa’d,” and when the contest was decided upon they looked across at each other with defiance shining in their eyes, because there was a strong rivalry between the two families. But there animosity apparently ended. Brother Jenkins dropped his eyes, for he was a little old man, and Brother Jones was “husky,” which is the word that in their community indicated rude strength. The fight, however, for fight it was going to be, was on.

Within the next few days the shopkeepers of the town sold bolt upon bolt of calico. The buying of this particular line of goods was so persistent that one shopkeeper, who was a strong-tongued, rude man, laid it at the door of certain advocates of industrial education and began to denounce any doctrines which repressed in the negro his love of clothes far above his pocket, and thereby lowered profits.

As soon as Mr. Hatfield learned what was going on he became alarmed, for he saw more clearly than most people and he knew that it was all the invention of the devil. His good angel prompted him to flee from the town at once, but he lingered to think about it, and while he lingered the committee came upon him. They wanted him to be chairman of the awarding committee. He stammered and made excuses.

“You see, gent’mens, hit’s des disaway. I ‘low I got to go out o’ town fu’ my boss des ’bout de time dat dis hyeah’s comin’ off, an’ I wouldn’ lak to p’omise an’ den disap’pint you.”

“Dat’s all right, dat’s all right,” said brother Jones, the spokesman; “I knows yo’ boss, an’ he teks a mighty intrus’ in Mt. Moriah. I’ll see him an’ see ef he can’t let you go befo’ er after de en’tainment.”

The sweat broke out on Mr. Hatfield’s brow in painful beads.

“Oh, nevah min’, nevah min’,” he exclaimed hastily; “dis hyeah’s private business, an’ I wouldn’ lak him to know dat I done spoke ’bout it.”

“But we got to have you, Mr. Hatfield. You sholy mus’ speak to yo’ boss. Ef you don’t, I’ll have to.”

“I speak to him, den, I speak to him. I see what he say.”

“Den I reckon we kin count on yo’ suhvices?”

“I reckon you kin,” said the victim.

As the committee went its way, Hatfield was sure that he heard a diabolical chuckle and smelt sulphur.

The days that had dragged flew by and the poor social arbiter looked upon the nearing festivity as upon the approach of doom. With the clear perception of a man who knows his world, Mr. Hatfield already saw that all women in the contest besides Matilda Jenkins and Amarilla Jones were but figureheads, accessories only to the real fight between the rival belles. So, as an earnest of his intention to be impartial, he ceased for the time his attentions to Matilda Jenkins. This lady, though, was also wise in her day and generation. She offered no protest at the apparent defection of her lover. Indeed, when her father squeaked his disapproval of Hatfield’s action, she was quick to come to his defense.

“I reckon Mr. Hatfield knows what he’s about,” she said loyally. “You know how de people talks erroun’ hyeah. Den, ef he go an’ gi’ me de prize, dey des boun’ to say dat it ain’t ’cause I winned it, but ’cause he keepin’ comp’ny wid me, an’ ain’t gwine to shame his own lady.”

“Uh, huh,” said the old man; “dat hadn’t crost my min’ befo’.”

In the meantime a similar council was taking place between Miss Amarilla Jones and her father.

“I been noticin’,” said the paternal Jones one day, “dat Sam Hatfield don’ seem to be a-gwine wid Matildy Jenkins so much.”

Amarilla modestly ducked—yes, that’s the word—she ducked her head, but she smiled as she replied: “Mistah Hatfiel’ been cas’in’ sheep’s-eyes at me fu’ a long while now.”

“Well, what good do dat do, less’n he up an’ say some’p’n?”

“Nevah you min’, pap; I ‘lows I un’erstan’ young men bettah dan you do. Ef he don’ mean nuffin, how come he done give up Matildy Jenkins des at dis junction?”

“Hit’s all mighty quare to me.”

“Don’ you see he got to jedge de contes’, an’ he cain’t go ag’in his own lady, so he gin huh up? Now, ef he gi’ me de prize, he feel puffectly free to ax me to ma’y him.”

“Whew-ee!” whistled the elder, entirely overcome with admiration at his daughter’s sagacity; “you sholy has got a quick head on dem shoulders o’ yo’n!”

At the time appointed the members and friends of Mt. Moriah assembled for the calico social. The church was crowded with a curiously-gowned throng of all conditions and colors, who tittered and chatted with repressed excitement. There was every conceivable kind of dress there among the contestants, from belted Mother Hub-bards to their aristocratic foster-sisters, Empire gowns. There was calico in every design, from polka-dot to Dolly Vardens—and there was— anxiety.

Promptly at ten o’clock the judges, three pompous individuals with white ribbons in their buttonholes, strode in and took their seats just beneath the pulpit. Then there was a short address by the pastor, who, being a wily man and unwilling to put his salry in jeopardy, assured his hearers that if he were one of the judges he would “jest throw up his job an’ give a prize to every lady in the room.” This brought forth a great laugh and somewhat relieved the nervous tension, but it did not make the real judges feel any better over their difficult task. Indeed, it quite prostrated their chairman, who, in spite of his pompous entrance, sat huddled up in his chair, the sweat breaking out of every pore and the look of final despair in his eyes.

When the pastor was through with his driveling the organist took her place at the wheezy little cabinet organ and struck up a decorous-sounding tune to which the contestants marched round and round the room before the eyes of the bewildered arbiters. They stepped jauntily off, marking the time perfectly to show off their airs and graces as well as their clothing. It was like nothing so much as a sort of religious cake-walk. And the three victims of their own popularity presided over the scene with a solemnity that was not all dignity nor yet pride of place. Five times the contestants marched around and then, at a signal, they halted and ranged themselves in a more or less straight line before the judges.

After careful inspection, somewhat like that of prize cattle at a fair, they were dismissed, and three very nervous and perturbed gentlemen retired to consult.

Now, these people were lovers of music, and at the very promise that they were to hear their favorite singer, Miss Otilla Bell, they usually became enthusiastic. But to-nignt Miss Bell came out without a greeting, and sang her best without attention. There were other things occupying the minds of the audience. The vocalist was barely done warbling disappointedly when a burst of applause brought a smile to her face. But a glance in the direction toward which every one was looking showed her that the acclamation was not for her, but for the returning judges.

The men took their seats until the handclap-ping ceased, and then Mr. Hatfield, in sorrowful case, arose to read the committee’s report.

“We, de committee–” He paused and looked at the breathless auditors, then went on: “We de committee; I wish to impress dat on you. Dis ain’t de decision of one man, but of a committee, an’ one of us ain’t no mo’ ‘sponsible den de otah. We, de committee, aftah carefully ezaminin’ de costooms of de ladies hyeah assembled ez contestants in dis annual calico social” (It was not annual, but then it sounded well), “do fin'” (Here he cleared his throat again, and repeated himself)— “do fin’ dat de mos’ strikin’ costoom was wo’ by Miss Matilda Jenkins, who is daihfo’ entitled to de prize.”

A little patter of applause came from the Jenkins partisans.

“Will Miss Jenkins please come forward?”

Matilda sidled to the front with well-simulated modesty.

“Miss Jenkins, we, de committee—I repeat, we, de committee, teks great pleasure in pus-sentin’ you wid de prize fu’ yo’ handsome costoom. It is dis beautiful photygraph a’bum. May you have nuffin’ but de faces of frien’s in it fu’ de reason dat you has no inimies.”

He bowed. She bowed. There was again the patter of perfunctory applause, and for that night, at least, the incident was closed.

Fear has second sight, and, albeit he trembled in his shoes, Mr. Hatfield was in nowise astonished when old man Jones called on him next morning at the hotel where he was employed.

“W’y, w’y, how do, Mistah Jones? How do?”

“Howdy?” growled the old man, and went on without pause: “Me an’ ‘Rilla wants to see you to-night.”

“W’y, w’y, Mistah Jones,” began Hatfield,

“I— I—” But the other cut him short, his brow gathering.

“Me an’ ‘Rilla wants to see you,” he said.

The scared waiter paused. What should he do? He must decide quickly, for the man before him looked dangerous. There must be no trouble there, because it would mean the loss of his place, and the fact that he was a head waiter was dear to him. Better promise to go and have it out where the presence of Amarilla might mitigate his punishment. So he stammered forth: “‘Oh, well, co’se, ef you an’ Miss Amarilla wants me, w’y, I’ll come.”

“All right;” and the irate Jones turned away.

With trembling knees he knocked at the Jones door that night. The old man himself opened to him and received him alone in the front room. This was threatening.

“I reckon you reelizes, Mistah Hatfiel’,” said Jones when they had seated themselves and disposed of the weather, “you reelizes dat I had some’p’n putic’lah to say er I wouldn’ ‘a’ had you come hyeah?”

“I knows you’s a man o’ bus’ness, Mistah Jones.”

“I is, suh; so let’s come to bus’ness. You t’ought las night dat Tildy Jenkins was bettah dressed den my daughter?”

Hatfield glanced at the glowering face and stammered: “Well, of co’se, you know, Mistah Jones, I wasn’ de whole committee.”

“Don’t you try to beat erbout de bush wid me—answeh my question?” cried the father angrily.

“I don’t des see how I kin answeh. You hyeahed de decision.”

“Yes, I hyeahed it, an’ I want to know des what you t’ought.”

“Dey was two othah men ‘long wid me.”

Jones walked over and stood towering before his trembling victim. “I’s gwine to ax you des once mo’, did you t’ink Matildy’s dress any puttier den my ‘Rilla’s?”

“No, no—suh,” chattered the chairman of the committee.

“Den,” thundered Amarilla’s father—”den you own up dat you showed favoh to one side?”

“No, no—I didn’ sho’ no favoh—but—but de majo’ity, hit rules.”

“Majority, majo’ity! Wy, w’en I’s in de Odd Fellows’ meeting, ef I’s one ag’in fifty, I brings in a minority repo’t”

“But I don’t reckon dat ‘ud ‘a’ been fittin’.”

“Fittin’, fittin’! Don’t you daih to set thaih an’ talk to me erbout fittin’, you nasty little rapscallion, you. No, suh! You’s shamed my house, you’s insulted my gal, an’ ”

“Oh, no, Mistah Jones, no. W’y, d’ain’t nobody I thinks mo’ of den I does of Miss Ama-rilla.”

“Dey hain’t, eh? Well, dey’s only one way to prove it,” said Mr. Jones, sententiously; and then he called: ‘”Rilla, come hyeah. I’ll be right outside de do’,” he said, “an’ we’ll know putty soon how to treat you.”

He went out and the vivacious ‘Rilla entered.

“Good-evenin’,” she said.

“Good-evenin,” said Hatfield in agony. “Oh, Miss ‘Rilla, Miss ‘Rilla,” he cried, “I hope you don’t think I meant any kin’ o’ disrespect to you?” She hung her head.

“You know dey ain’t nobody dat I think any mo’ of den I do of you.” In his fervor he took her hand.

“This is so sudden,” she said, “but I thought I unnerstood you all along. Ef you really does think so much o’ me, I reckon I has to tek you even ef you was sich a naughty boy las’ night,” and she looked at him lovingly.

He stood with staring eyes, dumbfounded. She had taken his apology for a proposal of marriage, and he—he dared not correct her. He looked toward the door meditating flight, but remembered what was just behind it.

“Dear Miss Amarilla,” he said, “dis is mo’ den I expected.”

The ponderous Mr. Jones did not bother them again that evening. He must have heard all.

Matilda Jenkins first heard the news upon the street. She came home directly and before taking off her hat picked up the red plush album and hurled it fiercely out into the yard, where it barely missed her father’s head.

“What’s dat?” he cried.

“Dat?” she shrieked. “Dat is de price o’ Mistah Hatfiel’.”


Icon for the Public Domain license

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