In Old Plantation Days

Ash-Cake Hannah and Her Ben

Christmas Eve had come, and the cold, keen air with just a hint of dampness in it gave promise of the blessing of a white Christmas. A few flakes began sifting slowly down, and at sight of them a dozen pairs of white eyes flashed, and a dozen negro hearts beat more quickly. It was not long before the sound of grinding axes was heard and the dogs barked a chorus to the grindstones’ song, for they, wise fellows that they were, knew what the bright glint of the steel meant. They knew, too, why Jake and Ike and Joe whistled so merrily, and looked over at the distant woods with half-shut eyes and smiled.

Already the overseers were relaxing their vigilance, the quarters were falling into indolence, and the master was guarding the key of a well-filled closet.

Negro Tom was tuning up his fiddle in the barn, and Blophus, with his banjo, was getting the chords from him, while Alec was away out in the woods with his face turned up to the gray sky, letting the kinks out of his tenor voice. All this because the night was coming on. Christmas Eve night was the beginning of a week of joy. The wind freshened and the snow fell faster. The walks were covered. Old gnarled logs that had lain about, black and forbidding, became things of beauty. The world was a white glory. Slowly, so slowly for a winter s night, the lights faded out and the lamps and candles and torches like lowly stars laughed from the windows of big house and cabin. In fireplaces great and small the hickory crackled, and the savory smell of cooking arose, tempting, persistent. The lights at the big house winked at the cabin, and the cabin windows winked back again. Laughter trickled down the night and good cheer was everywhere. Everywhere, save in one room, where Hannah Ash-Cake Hannah, they called her sat alone by her smouldering hearth, brush ing the cinders from her fresh-baked cake, mumbling to herself.

For her there was no Christmas cheer. There were only her dim, lonely cabin and the ash-covered hearth. While the others rejoiced she moaned, for she had taken as a husband a slave on a distant plantation, whose master was a hard man, and on many a Christmas he had refused permission to Ben to go and see his wife. So each year, as soon as Christmas Eve came, Hannah began to mope and fast, eating nothing but ash-cake until she knew whether or not Ben was coming. If he came, she turned to and laughed and made merry with the rest. If he did not, her sorrow and meagre fare lasted the week out, and she went back to her work with a heavy heart and no store of brightness for the coming year. To-day she sat, as usual, mumbling and moaning, for the night was drawing down, and no sign of Ben.

Outside the negroes from the quarters, dressed in their best, were gathering into line, two by two, to march to the big house, where every Christmas they received their presents. There was much pushing and giggling, with ever and anon an admonitory word from one of the older heads, as they caught some fellow’s arm making free with a girl’s waist. Finally, when darkness had completely come, they started briskly away to the tune of a marching song. As they neared and passed Hannah’s cabin they lowered their voices out of respect to the sorrow they knew she was undergoing. But once beyond it they broke out with fresh gusto, stamping or tripping along through the damp snow like so many happy children. Then, as they neared the steps of the great house, the doors were thrown wide and a flood of yellow light flowed out upon the throng of eager faces. With their halting the marching song was stopped, and instantly a mellow voice swung into a Christmas hymn, one of their own rude spirituals:

Oh, moughty day at Bethlehem,

Who dat layin’ in de manger?

De town, hit full, dey ain’t no room;

Who dat layin in de manger?

The old master had come forward to the front of the piazza and around him clustered his family and guests, listening with admiration to the full, rich chorus. When it was done the negroes filed through the hall, one by one, each with a “Me’y Chris’mus” and each receiving some token from the master and mistress. Laughing, joking, bantering, they went out to their holidays, some to their cabins to dance or eat, others to the woods with the dogs and the newly sharpened axes to look for game. One of the women stopped at Hannah’s cabin with the gift for which she so seldom came. At her knock the lone watcher sprang up and flung the door wide, but sank down again with a groan at the sight of the visitor. She did not even open the things which the messenger laid upon the bed, but bent again over her cheerless hearth.

The sound of merriment and song were dying away within the neighboring huts when her door was thrown suddenly open again and a huge negro stood before Ash-Cake Hannah. The slightly nibbled cake was hurled into a dark corner, and the woman sprang up with a heart-cry: “Ben!” She threw her arms about his neck and burst into happy tears, while Ben held her, grinned sheepishly, and kept glancing furtively toward the door.

“‘Sh, ‘sh,” he said.

“What I want o’ ‘sh fu’, w’en you’s hyeah, Ben? I got a min’ to hollah,” she answered, laughing and crying.

“‘Sh, ‘sh,” he repeated; “I’s run off.”

She stopped, and stood staring at him with wide, scared eyes.

“You’s run off?” she echoed.

“Yes, Mas’ Mason wouldn’t let me come, so I tuk my chanst an’ come anyhow.”

“Oh, Ben, he’ll mos’ nigh kill you.”

“I knows it, but I don’ keer. It ‘uz Chris’mus an’ I was boun’ to see you.”

The woman fell to crying again, but he patted her shoulder, saying: “‘Tain’t no use to cry, Hannah. Hit’s des’ wastin’ time. I got to pay fu’ dis runnin’ off anyhow, so I’d des’ ez well have ez good a time ez I kin while hit las’. Fix me some suppah, an’ den we’ll go roun’ a little an’ see de folks.”

As they went out the deadened sound of merriment came to them from the cabins.

“I don’ know ez I ought to show myse’f des’ now,” said Ben stealthily, as they neared one of the places where the fun was at its height. “Ef I should tek a notion to go back, I mought git in widout Mas’ Mason knowin’ I been gone, ‘dough he moughty sha’p-eyed.”

“Le’s des stan’ outside hyeah, den, an, hoi’ ban’s an’ listen; dat’ll be enough fu’ me, seein’ you’s hyeah.”

They stationed themselves outside a cabin window whose shutter was thrown wide open to admit the air. Here they could see and listen to all that went on within. To them it was like starving within sight of food. Their hearts yearned to be enjoying themselves with their kind. But they only clutched each other’s hands the tighter, and stood there in the square of yellow light thrown out by the candles and fat pine torches, drinking in all they could of the forbidden pleasures.

Now they were dancing to the tum-tum of a banjo and the scraping of a fiddle, and Ben’s toes tingled to be shuffling. After the dance there would be a supper. Already a well-defined odor was arising from a sort of rude lean-to behind the cabin. The smell was rich and warm and sweet.

“What is dat, Hannah?” asked Ben. “Hit smell monst’ous familiah.”

“Hit’s sweet ‘taters, dat’s what it is.”

Ben turned on her an agonized look. “Hit’s sweet ‘taters, an’ p—” His lips were pouted to say the word, but it was too much for him. He interrupted himself in an attempt to pronounce that juicy, seductive, unctuous word, “possum,” and started for the door, exclaiming: ” Come on, Hannah; I’d des’ ez well die fu’ an ol’ sheep ez fu’ a lamb;” and in a moment he was being welcomed by the surprised dancers.

Ben and Hannah were soon in the very midst of the gayety.

“No ash-cake fu’ Hannah dis Chris’musl!” shouted some one as he passed the happy woman in the dance.

Hannah’s voice rang loud and clear through the room as she courtesied to her husband and answered: “No, indeed, honey; Hannah gwine live off’en de fat o’ de lan’ dis hyeah Chris’mus.”

In a little while Fullerton, the master, came to the cabin with some of his friends who wanted to enjoy looking on at the negroes pleasure. This was the signal for the wildest pranks, the most fantastic dancing and a general period of showing off. The happy-go-lucky people were like so many children released from their tasks. The more loudly their visitors applauded the gayer they became. They clapped their hands, they slapped their knees. They leaped and capered. And among them, no one was lighter-hearted than Ben. He had forgotten what lay in store for him, and his antics kept the room in a roar.

Fullerton had seen him and had expressed the belief that Ben had run away, for Mason Tyler would hardly have let him come without sending with him a pass; but he took it easily, glad to see Hannah enjoying herself, and no longer forced to moan and fast.

For a brief space the dancers had rested. Then the music struck up again. They had made their “‘bejunce” and were swinging corners, when suddenly the clatter of horses’ hoofs broke in on the rhythm of the music, which stopped with a discord. The people stood startled and expectant, each in the attitude in which he had stopped. Ben was grinning sheepishly and scraping his foot on the floor. All at once he remembered.

With a cry, Hannah ran across the room and threw herself at her master’s feet. “Oh, Mas’ Jack,” she begged, “don’ let Mas’ Mason Tyler whup Ben! He runned off to be wid me.”

“‘Sh,” said Fullerton quickly; “I’ll do what I can.”

In another moment the door was flung open and Mason Tyler, a big, gruff-looking fellow with a face red with anger, stood in the doorway. Over his shoulder peeped two negroes. He had a stout whip in his hand.

“Is my—oh, there you are, you black hound. Come here; I’m going to larrup you within an inch of your life.”

“Good evening, Mr. Tyler,” broke in Fullerton’s smooth voice.

“Oh, good-evening, Mr. Fullerton. You must excuse me; I was so taken up with that black hound that I forgot my manners.”

Fullerton proceeded to introduce his friends. Tyler met them gruffly.

“Ben, here,” he proceeded, “has taken it into his head that he is his own master.”

“Oh, well, these things will happen about Christmas time, and you must overlook them.”

“Nobody need tell me how to run my place.”

“Certainly not, but I’ve a sort of interest in Ben on Hannah’s account. However, we won’t talk of it. Come to the house, and let me offer you some refreshment.”

“I haven’t time.”

“My friends will think very badly of you if you don’t join us in one holiday glass at least.”

Tyler’s eyes glistened. He loved his glass. He turned irresolutely.

“Oh, leave Ben here for the little time you’ll be with us. I’ll vouch for him.”

Mellowed already by pleasant anticipations, Mason Tyler allowed himself to he persuaded, and setting the two negroes who accompanied him to watch Ben, he went away to the big house.

It was perhaps two hours later when a negro groom was sent to bed Tyler’s horse for the night, while one of his own servants was dispatched to tell his family that he could not be home that night.

Ben, perfectly confident that he was to “die for an old sheep,” was making the best of his time, even while expecting every moment to be called to go home for punishment. But when the news of his master’s determination to stay reached him, his fears faded, and he prepared to enjoy himself until fatigue stopped him. As for Hannah, she was joyous even though, woman-like, she could not shut her eyes to the doubtful future.

It was near twelve o’clock on the crisp, bright, Christmas morning that followed when Mason Tyler called for his horse to ride home. He was mellow and jovial and the red in his face was less apoplectic. He called for his horse, but he did not call for Ben, for during the night and S morning Fullerton had gained several promises from him; one that he would not whip the runaway, the other, that Ben might spend the week. One will promise anything to one’s host, especially when that host s cellar is the most famous in six counties.

It was with joyous hearts that Ash-Cake—now Happy—Hannah and Ben watched the departure of Tyler. When he was gone, Ben whooped and cut the pigeon-wing, while Hannah, now that the danger was past, uttered a reproving: “You is de beatenes’! I mos’ wish he’d ‘a tuk you erlong now;” and turned to open her Christmas presents.


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