In Old Plantation Days

Mr. Groby’s Slippery Gift

Two men could hardly have been more unlike than Jim and Joe Mordaunt, and when it is considered that they were brothers brought up under the same conditions and trained by the same hand, this dissimilarity seems nothing less than remarkable. Jim was the older, and a better, steadier-going hand Stuart Mordaunt did not own upon the place, while a lazier, more unreliable scamp than Joe could not have been found within a radius of fifty miles.

The former was the leader in all good works, while the latter was at the head of every bit of deviltry that harassed the plantation. Every one recognized the difference between these two, and they themselves did not ignore it.

“Jim, he’s de ‘ligious pa’t o’ de fambly,” Joe used to say, “an’ I’s most o’ de res’ o’ it.” He looked upon his brother with a sort of patronizing condescension, as if his own wickedness in some manner dignified him; but nevertheless, the two were bound together by a rough but strong affection. The wicked one had once almost whipped a fellow-servant to death for saying that his brother couldn’t out-pray die preacher. They were both field hands, and while Jim went his way and did his work rejoicing, Joe was the bane of the overseer’s life. He would seize every possible chance of shirking, and it was his standing boast that he worked less and ate more than any other man on the place.

It was especially irritating to his master, because he was a fine-appearing fellow, with arms like steel bars, and the strength of a giant. It was this strength and a certain reckless spirit about him that kept the overseer from laying the lash to his back. It was better to let Joe j shirk than to make him desperate, thought Mr. Groby. In his employer’s dilemma, however, he suggested starvation as a very salutary measure, but was met with such an angry response that he immediately apologized. Stuart Mordaunt, while rejecting his employee’s methods, yet looked to him to work an amendment in Joe’s career. “For,” said he, “that rascal will corrupt the whole plantation. Joe literally carries out the idea that he doesn’t have to work, and is there a servant on the place who will work if he thinks he doesn’t have to?”

“Yes, one—Joe’s brother Jim,” said the overseer, grinning. “He’s what a nigger ought to be—as steady and as tireless as an ox.”

“It’s a wonder that brother of his hasn’t corrupted him.”

“Jim ain’t got sense enough to be corrupted as long as he gets his feed.”

“Maybe he’s got too much sense,” returned the master coldly. “But do you think that Joe really has notions?”

“Notions of freedom? No. He’s like a balky horse. He’ll stand in his tracks until you beat the life out of him, but he isn’t the kind to run away. It would take too much exertion.”

“I wish to Heaven he would run off!” said Mordaunt impatiently. “It would save me a deal of trouble. I don’t want to deal harshly with him, but neither do I want the whole plantation stirred up.”

“Why don’t you sell him?”

Stuart Mordaunt’s eyes flashed up at the overseer as he replied: “I haven’t got down to selling my niggers down the river yet.”

“Needn’t sell him down the river. Sell him—”

“I’m no nigger-trader,” the gentleman broke in.

“Listen to me,” said Mr. Groby, insinuatingly. “My wife wants a good servant up at our house, and I’d be willing to take Joe off your hands. I think I could manage him.” He looked for the moment as if he might manage the slave to the poor fellow’s sorrow.

“But would you keep him right about here so that I could look after him if he got into trouble?”

“Certainly,” said Mr. Groby, jingling the coins in his pocket.

“Then I’ll give him to you,” said Mordaunt coldly.

“I don’t ask that; I—”

“I do not sell, I believe I told you. I’ll give him to you.”

The overseer laughed quietly when his employer was gone. “Oh, yes,” he said to himself, “I think I can manage Joe when he’s mine.”

“I don’t believe I ought to have done that,” mused the master as he went his way.

Joe did not know what had happened until the papers transferring him were made out and Groby came and read them to him.

“You see, Joe,”he said, “you’re mine. I’ve wanted you for a long time. I’ve always thought that if you belonged to me I could make a good hand out of you. You see, Joe, I’ve got no sentiments. Of course you don’t know what sentiments are, but you’ll understand later. I feel as if I can increase your worth to the world,” and Mr. Groby rubbed his hands and smiled.

The black man said nothing, but at night, humble and pleading, he went to see his old master. When Stuart Mordaunt saw him coming he did not feel altogether easy in his mind, but he tried to comfort himself by affecting to believe that Joe would be pleased.

“Well, Joe,” he said, “I suppose you’ll be glad to get away from the field?”

“Glad to git erway—oh, mastah!” He suddenly knelt and threw his arms about his master’s knees. “Oh, Mas’ Stua’t,” he cried, “don’ gi’ me to dat Mistah Groby; don’ do it! I want to wo’k fu’ you all de days o’ my life. Don’ gi’ me to dat man!”

“Why, Joe, you never have been anxious before to work for me.”

“Mas’ Stua’t, I knows I ain’ been doin’ right. I ain’ been wo’kin’, but I will wo’k. I’ll dig my fingahs to de bone; but don’ gi’ me to dat man.”

“But, Joe, you don’t understand. You’ll have a good home, easier work, and more time to yourself—almost the same as if you were up to the big house.”

This was every field-hand’s ambition, and Stuart Mordaunt thought that his argument would silence the refractory servant, but Joe was not to be silenced so. He raised his head and his black face was twitching with emotion. “I’d ravver be yo’ fiel’-han’ dan dat man Groby’s mastah.”

Mordaunt was touched, but his determination was not altered. “But he’ll be good to you, don’t you know that?”

“Good to me, good to me! Mas’ Stua’t, you don’ know dat man!”

The master turned away. He had a certain discipline to keep on his place, and he knew it. “Perhaps I don’t know him,” he said, “but what I don’t see with my own eyes I can’t spy out with the eyes of my servants. Joe, you may go. I have given my word, and I could not go back even if I would. Be a good boy and you’ll get along all right. Come to see me often.”

The black man seized his master’s hand and pressed it. Great fellow as he was, when he left he was sobbing like a child. He was to stay in the quarters that night and the next morning leave the fields and enter the service of Mrs. Groby.

It was a sad time for him. As he sat by the hearth, his face bowed in his hands, Jim reached over and slapped him on the head. It was as near to an expression of affection and sympathy as he could come. But his brother looked up with the tears shining in his eyes, and Jim, taking his pipe from his mouth, passed it over in silence, and they sat brooding until Mely took a piece of “middlin’ ” off the coals for brother Joe.

When she had gone to bed the two men talked long, but it was not until she was snoring contentedly and the dogs were howling in the yard and the moon had gone down behind the trees that Mr. Groby’s acquisition slipped out of the cabin and away to the woods, bearing with him his brother’s blessing and breakfast.

It was near eleven o’clock the next morning when the overseer came to the big house, fuming and waving his papers in his hands. He was looking for his slave. But the big house did not know where he was any more than did the quarters, and he went away disappointed and furious.

Joe had rebelled. He had called the dark night to his aid and it had swallowed him up.

Against Mordaunt’s remonstrances, the new-made master insisted upon putting the hounds on the negro’s track; but they came back baffled.

Joe knew Mr. Groby’s methods and had prepared for them.

“It was a slippery gift you gave me, Mr. Mordaunt,” said the overseer on the third day after Joe’s escape.

“Even a slippery gift shouldn’t get out of rough hands, Groby,” answered Mordaunt, “and from what I hear your hands are rough enough.”

“And they’d be rougher now if I had that black whelp here.”

“I’m glad Joe’s gone,” mused Stuart Mordaunt as he looked at the overseer’s retreating figure. “He was lazy and devilish, but Groby—”

It was just after that that Parker, the plantation exhorter, reported the backsliding of Jim. His first fall from grace consisted in his going to a dance. This was bad enough, but what was worse, although the festivities closed at midnight, Jim—and his wife Mely told it, too—did not reach his cabin until nearly daylight. Of course she was uneasy about it. That was quite natural. There were so many dashing girls on the plantations, within a radius of ten or twelve miles, that no woman’s husband was safe. So she went to the minister about it, as women will about their troubles, and the minister went to his master.

“Let him alone,” said Stuart Mordaunt. “His brother’s absence has upset him, but Jim’Il come round all right.”

“But, mastah,” said old Parker, pushing back his bone-bowed spectacles, “dat uz mighty late fu’ Jim to be gittin’ in—nigh daylight—ez stiddy a man ez he is. Don’t you reckon dey’s a ‘ooman in it?”

“Look here, Parker,” said his master; “aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Have you ever known Jim to go with any other woman than Mely? If you preachers weren’t such rascals yourselves and married less frequently you wouldn’t be so ready to suspect other men.”

“Ahem!” coughed Parker. “Well, Mas’ Stua’t, ef you gwineter question inter de p’ogatives o’ de ministry, I’d bettah be gwine, case you on dang’ous groun’,” and he went his way.

But even an indulgent master’s patience must wear out when a usually good servant lapses into unusually bad habits. Jim was often absent from the plantation now, and things began to disappear: chickens, ducks, geese, and even Jim’s own family bacon, and now and then a shoat of the master’s found its way off! the place.

The thefts could be traced to but one source. Mely didn’t mind the shoats, nor the ducks, nor the geese, nor the chickens—they were her master’s, and he could afford to lose them—but that her husband should steal hers and the children’s food—it was unspeakable. She caught him red-handed once, stealing away with a side of bacon, and she upbraided him loud and long.

“Oh, you low-down scoun’el,” she screamed, “stealin’ de braid outen yo’ chilhm’s moufs fu’ some othah ‘ooman!”

Jim, a man of few words, stood silent and abashed, and his very silence drove her to desperation. She went to her master, and the next day the culprit was called up.

“Jim,” said Mordaunt, “I want to be as easy with you as I can. You’ve always been a good servant, and I believe that it’s your brother’s doings that have got you off the handle. But I’ve borne with you week after week, and I can’t stand it any longer. So mark my words: if I hear another complaint I’ll have you skinned; do you hear me?”

“Yes, suh.”

That night Jim stole a ham from the kitchen before Aunt Doshy’s very eyes. When they told the master in the morning he was furious. He ordered that the thief be brought before him, and two whippers with stout corded lashes in their hands stood over the black man’s back.

“What’s the matter with you, anyhow?” roared Mordaunt. “Are you bound todefyme?”

Jim did not answer.

“Will you answer me?” cried the master.

Still Jim was silent.

“Who is this woman you’re stealing for?”

“Ain’t steahn’ fu’ no ooman.”

“Don’t lie to me. Will you tell?”


“Do you hear me? Lay it on him! I’ll see whether he’ll talk!”

The lashes rose in the air and whizzed down. They rose again, but stopped poised as a gaunt figure coming from nowhere, it seemed, stalked up and pushed the whippers aside.

“Give it to me,” said Joe, taking off his coat. “I told him jes’ how it would be, an’ I was comin’ in to gi’ myse’f up anyhow. He done it all to keep me Fom sta’vin’; but I’s done hidin’ now. I’ll be dat Groby’s slave rawer dan let him tek my blows.” He ceased speaking and slipped out of his ragged shirt. ” ‘Tain’t no use, Jim,” he added, “you’s done all you could.”

“Dah, now, Joe,” said his brother in disgust, “you’s done come hyeah an’ sp’iled evaht’ing; you nevah did know yo’ place.”

“Whup away,” said Joe.

But the master’s hand went up.

“Joe!” he cried. “Jim, you—you’ve been taking that food to him! Why didn’t you tell me?” He kicked each one of the whippers solemnly, then he kicked Joe. “Get out of this,” he said. “You’ll be nobody’s but mine. I’ll buy you from Groby, you low-down, no-account scoundrel.” Then he turned and looked down on Jim. “Oh, you fool nigger—God bless you.”

When Mr. Groby heard of Joe’s return he hastened up to the big house. He was elated.

“Ha,” he said, “my man has returned.”

Stuart Mordaunt looked unpleasant, then he said: “Your man, Mr. Groby, your man, as you call him, has returned. He is here. But, sir, your man has been redeemed by his brother s vicarious suffering, and I intend I intend to buy Joe back. Please name your price.

And Mr. Groby saw the look in the gentle man’s eye and made his price low.


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