In Old Plantation Days

A Supper by Proxy

There was an air of suppressed excitement about the whole plantation. The big old house stared gravely out as if it could tell great things if it would, and the cabins in the quarters looked prophetic. The very dogs were on the alert, and there was expectancy even in the eyes of the piccaninnies who rolled in the dust. Something was going to happen. There was no denying that. The wind whispered it to the trees and the trees nodded.

Then there was a clatter of horses’ hoofs, the crack of a whip. The bays with the family carriage swept round the drive and halted at the front porch. Julius was on the box, resplendent in his holiday livery. This was the signal for a general awakening. The old house leered an irritating “I told you so.” The quarters looked complacent. The dogs ran and barked, the pic-canninnies laughed and shouted, the servants gathered on the lawn and, in the midst of it all, the master and mistress came down the steps and got into the carriage. Another crack of the whip, a shout from the servants, more antics from the piccaninnies, the scurrying of the dogs —and the vehicle rumbled out of sight behind a clump of maples. Immediately the big house resumed its natural appearance and the quarters settled back into whitewashed respectability.

Mr. and Mrs. Mordaunt were off for a week’s visit. The boys were away at school, and here was the plantation left in charge of the negroes themselves, except for the presence of an overseer who did not live on the place. The conditions seemed pregnant of many things, but a calm fell on the place as if every one had decided to be particularly upon his good behavior. The piccaninnies were subdued. The butlers in the big house bowed with wonderful deference to the maids as they passed them in the halls, and the maids called the butlers “mister” when they spoke to them. Only now and again from the fields could a song be heard. All this was ominous.

By the time that night came many things were changed. The hilarity of the little darkies had grown, and although the house servants still remained gravely quiet, on the return of the field hands the quarters became frankly joyous. From one cabin to another could be heard the sound of “Juba, Juba!” and the loud patting of hands and the shuffling of feet. Now and again some voice could be heard rising above the rest, improvising a verse of the song, as:

“Mas’ done gone to Philamundelphy, Juba, Juba.
Lef us bacon, lef us co’n braid, Juba, Juba.
Oh, Juba dis an’ Juba dat, an’ Juba skinned de yaller cat
To mek his wife a Sunday hat, Oh, Juba!”

Not long did the sounds continue to issue from isolated points. The people began drifting together, and when a goodly number had gathered at a large cabin, the inevitable thing happened. Some one brought out a banjo and a dance followed.

Meanwhile, from the vantage ground of the big house, the more favored servants looked disdainfully on, and at the same time consulted together. That they should do something to entertain themselves was only right and proper. No one of ordinary intelligence could think for a moment of letting this opportunity slip without taking advantage of it. But a dance such as the quarters had! Bah! They could never think of it. That rude, informal affair! And these black aristocrats turned up their noses. No, theirs must be a grave and dignified affair, such as their master himself would have given, and they would send out invitations to some on the neighboring plantations.

It was Julius, the coachman, who, after winning around the head butler, Anderson, insisted that they ought to give a grand supper. Julius would have gone on without the butler’s consent had it not been that Anderson carried the keys. So the matter was canvassed and settled.

The next business was the invitations, but no one could write. Still, this was a slight matter; for neatly folded envelopes were carried about to the different favored ones, containing—nothing, while at the same time the invitations were proffered by word of mouth.

“Hi, dah I” cried Jim to Julius on the evening that the cards had been distributed; “I ain’t seed my imbitation yit.”

“You needn’t keep yo’ eyes bucked looking fu’ none, neithah,” replied Julius.

“Uh, puttin’ on airs, is you?”

“I don’t caih to convuss wid you jest now, said Julius pompously.

Jim guffawed. “Well, of all de sights I evah seed, a dahky coachman offen de box tryin’ to look lak he on it I Go ‘long, Julius, er you’ll sholy kill me, man.”

The coachman strode on with angry dignity.

It had been announced that the supper was to be a “ladies’ an’ gent’men’s pahty,” and so but few from the quarters were asked. The quarters were naturally angry and a bit envious, for they were but human and not yet intelligent enough to recognize the vast social gulf that yawned between the blacks at the “big house” and the blacks who were quartered in the cabins.

The night of the grand affair arrived, and the Mordaunt mansion was as resplendent as it had ever been for one of the master’s festivities. The drawing-rooms were gayly festooned, and the long dining-room was a blaze of light from the wax candles that shone on the glory of the Mordaunt plate. Nothing but the best had satisfied Julius and Anderson. By nine o’clock the outside guests began to arrive. They were the dark aristocrats of the region. It was a well-dressed assembly, too. Plump brown arms lay against the dainty folds of gleaming muslin, and white-stocked, brass-buttoned black counterparts of their masters strode up the walks. There were Dudley Stone’s Gideon and Martha, Robert Curtis’ Ike with Dely, and there were Quinn, and Doshy, and, over them all, Aunt Tempe to keep them straight. Of these was the company that sat down to Stuart Mordaunt’s board.

After some rivalry, Anderson held the head of the table, while Julius was appeased by being placed on the right beside his favorite lady. Aunt Tempe was opposite the host where she could reprove any unseemly levity or tendency to skylarking on the part of the young people. No state dinner ever began with more dignity. The conversation was nothing less than stately, and everybody bowed to everybody else every time they thought about it. This condition of affairs obtained through the soup. Somebody ventured a joke and there was even a light laugh during the fish. By the advent of the entree the tongues of the assembly had loosened up, and their laughter had melted and flowed as freely as Stuart Mordaunt’s wine.

“Well, I mus say, Mistah An’erson, dis is sholy a mos’ salub’ious occasion.”

“Thank you, Mistah Cu’tis, thank you; it ah alius my endeavoh to mek my gues’es feel deyse’es at home. Let me give you some mo’ of dis wine. It’s f’om de bes’ dat’s in my cellah.”

“Seems lak I remembah de vintage,” said Ike, sipping slowly and with the air of a connoisseur.

“Oh, yes, you drinked some o’ dis on de ‘ca-sion of my darter’s ma’ige to Mas’—to Mistah Daniels.”

“I ricollec’ yes, I ricollec’.”

“Des lis’en at dem dahkies,” said the voice of a listening field hand.

Gideon, as was his wont, was saying deeply serious things to Martha, and Quinn whispered something in Doshy’s ear that made her giggle hysterically and cry: “Now, Mr. Quinn, ain’t you scan’lous? You des seem lak you possessed dis evenin’.”

In due time, however, the ladies withdrew, and the gentlemen were left over their cigars and cognac. It was then that one of the boys detailed to wait on the table came in and announced to the host that a tramp was without begging for something to eat. At the same instant the straggler’s face appeared at the door, a poor, unkempt-looking white fellow with a very dirty face. Anderson cast a look over his shoulder at him and commanded pompously:

“Tek him to de kitchen an’ give him all he wants.”

The fellow went away very humbly.

In a few minutes Aunt Tempe opened the dining-room door and came in.

“An’erson,” she cried in a whisper.

“Madam,” said the butler rising in dignity, “excuse me—but ”

“Hyeah, don’t you come no foo’ishness wid me; I ain’t no madam. I’s tiahed playing fine lady. I done been out to de kitchen, an’ I don’ lak dat tramp’s face an’ fo’m.”

“Well, madam,” said Anderson urbanely, “we haven’t asked you to ma’y him.”

At this there was a burst of laughter from the table.

“Nemmine, nemmine, I tell you, I don’ lak dat tramp’s face an’ fo’m, an’ you’d bettah keep yo’ eye skinned, er you’ll be laughin’ on de othah side o’ yo’ mouf.”

The butler gently pushed the old lady out, but as the door closed behind her she was still saying, “I don’ lak dat tramp’s face an’ fo’m.”

Unused to playing fine lady so long, Aunt Tempe deserted her charges and went back to the kitchen, but the “straggler man” had gone. It is a good thing she did not go around the veranda, where the windows of the dining-room opened, or she would have been considerably disturbed to see the tramp peeping through the blinds—evidently at the Mordaunt plate that sparkled conspicuously on the table.

Anderson with his hand in his coat, quite after the manner of Stuart Mordaunt, made a brief speech in which he thanked his guests for the honor they had done him in coming to his humble home. “I know,” he said, “I have done my po’ bes’; but at some latah day I hopes to entertain you in a mannah dat de position an’ character of de gent’men hyeah assembled desuves. Let us now jine de ladies.”

His hand was on the door and all the gentlemen were on their feet when suddenly the window was thrown up and in stepped the straggler.

“W’y, w’y, how daih you, suh, invade my premises?” asked Anderson, casting a withering glance at the intruder, who stood gazing around him.

“Leave de room dis minute!” cried Julius, anxious to be in the fray. But the tramp’s eyes were fastened on Anderson. Finally he raised one finger and pointed at him.

“You old scoundrel,” he said in a well-known voice, as he snatched off his beard and wig and threw aside his disguising duster and stood before them.

“Mas’ Stu’at!”

“You old scoundrel, you! I’ve caught you, have I?”

Anderson was speechless and transfixed, but the others were not, and they had cleared that room before the master’s linen duster was well off. In a moment the shuffling of feet ceased and the lights went out in the parlor. The two stood there alone, facing each other.

“Mas’ Stu’at.”

“Silence,” said Mordaunt, raising his hand, and taking a step toward the trembling culprit.

“Don’ hit me now, Mas’ Stu’at, don’ hit me ontwell I’s kin’ o’ shuk off yo’ pussonality. Ef you do, it’ll be des’ de same ez thumpin yo’se’f.” Mordaunt turned quickly and stood for a moment looking through the window, but his shoulders shook.

“Well,” he said, turning; “do you think you’ve at last relieved yourself of my personality?”

“I don’t know, I don’t know. De gyahment sho’ do fit monst’ous tight.”

“Humph. You take my food, you take my wine, you take my cigars, and now even my personality isn’t safe.

“Look here, what on earth do you mean by entertaining half the darkies in the county in my dining-room?”

Anderson scratched his head and thought. Then he said: “Well, look hyeah, Mas Stu at dis hyeah wasn’t rightly my suppah noways.”

“Not your supper! Whose was it!”



“Yes, suh.”

“Why, what s the matter with you, Anderson? Next thing you’ll be telling me that I planned it all, and invited all those servants.”

“Lemme splain it, Mas’, lemme splain it. Now I didn’t give dat suppah as An’erson. I give it ez Mas’ Stu’at Mordaunt; an’ Quinn an’ Ike an Gidjon, dey didn’t come fu’ deyse’ves, dey come fu’ Mas’ Cu’tis, an’ Mas’ Dudley Stone. Don’ you un’erstan’, Mas’ Stu’at? We wasn’ we-all, we was you-all.”

“That’s very plain; and in other words, I gave a supper by proxy, and all my friends responded in the same manner?”

“Well, ef dat means what I said, dat’s it.”

“Your reasoning is extremely profound, Anderson. It does you great credit, but if I followed your plan I should give you the thrashing you deserve by proxy. That would just suit you. So instead of that I am going to feed you, for the next day or so, by that ingenious method. You go down and tell Jim that I want him up here early to-morrow morning to eat your breakfast.”

“Oh, Mas’ Stu’at! Whup me, whup me, but don’t tell dose dahkies in de quahtahs, an’ don’t sta’ve. me!” For Anderson loved the good things of life.


Anderson went, and Mordaunt gave himself up to mirth.

The quarters got their laugh out of Anderson’s discomfiture. Jim lived high for a day, but rumors from the kitchen say that the butler did not really suffer on account of his supper by proxy.


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