In Old Plantation Days
The brief, sharp winter had passed and Easter was approaching. As Easter Monday was a great day for marrying, Aunt Sukey’s patience was entirely worn out with her master’s hesi, tancy, for which she could see no reason. She had long ago given her consent, and young Liza had said “yes” to Ben too many days past to talk about, and the old woman could not see why the white man, the one least concerned, should either object or hesitate. She had lorded it in the family for so long that it now seemed very hard suddenly to be denied anything.
“I tell you, Mas’ Lancaster,” she said, “dem two chillum been gallantin’ wid each othah too long to pa’t dem now. How’d you ‘a’ felt w’en you spa’kin’ Mis’ Dolly ef somebody ‘d ‘a’ helt you apa’t an’ kep you fwom ma’yin’, huh? Cose I knows you gwine say Ben and ‘Lize des niggahs, but la’ Mas’ you’d be s’prised w’en hit come to lovin’, dem two des de same ez white folks in dere feelin’s.”
It was perhaps this point in the old woman’s argument that overcame Robert Lancaster’s objections. He surrendered and gave his consent to the marriage of Sukey’s Lize and his boy Ben on the Monday following Easter. Great were the rejoicings that attended the announcement of the affair, and because Sukey herself was a great person on the plantation and Ben his master’s valet, the wedding was to be no small one.
As the days passed the preparations were hastened. The mistress herself went into town and purchased such a dress as only Sukey’s daughter could have thought of wearing, even though both Easter and her wedding day came at the same time. The young mistress, she who had married early but was widowed and sad now, had brought out a once used orange wreath and a veil as filmy as a fairy spider’s web, and both the white mother and daughter took as deep an interest in the affair as did the two black women. While Sukey and Liza spun and wove they laughed, chatted and sewed, and they could not understand why Robert Lancaster kept so close to his library and looked on at all the preparations with no gladness in his eyes and no mirth on his tongue. He was closeted often with strange men from town, but they thought very little of that. He was a popular man, and it was not to be wondered at that he should be visited by people who did not know him.
It may have been that Robert Lancaster was an arch dissembler or only that he was less transparent than his brother, the good and child-like rector, who cared for the souk of the whole country, and for the bodies of one-half its population and took no thought for the morrow. It was on his face that they first saw the cloud that hung over them alL Robert himself was slow to confess it, and when his wife went to him and taxed him withholding something from her, some trouble on his mind that he was bearing alone, he confessed all, and she took up the burden of it with him. For some time past things had gone badly with him. He had been careless of his crops and over-indulgent with his servants. A man drawn apart from the mere commercial pursuits of life to the quieter world of literature and art, he had paid little attention to the affairs of his plantation, and suddenly he awoke to find his overseer rich and himself poor. Little or nothing was left of all that had been his, except his wife, his daughter and his memories. But what grieved him most was that his slaves, beings whom he had treated almost as his own children, whom he had indulged and spoiled until they were not fit to work for any other master, would have to be put upon the block. He knew what that meant, and felt all the horror of it. He had fostered fidelity among them and he knew that now it would fall back upon them, bringing only suffering and pain, for wives and husbands who had been together for years must be separated and whole families broken up.
“It was for this reason, Dolly,” he said, “that I objected to the marriage of Ben and Eliza. They are two, good, whole-souled darkies, and they love each other, I suppose, as well as we ever could have loved, and it seems hard to let them go into the farce of marrying with the chance of being separated again in three or four weeks.”
“Won’t you be able to keep them anyway, Robert?” asked his wife.
“No, I am sorry I cannot. I shall keep a few of the older servants who would be absolutely useless to a new master, but the greed of my creditors will swallow everything that is of any commercial value.”
His wife put her arms about his neck and laid her cheek against his.
“Never mind, Robert,” she said, “never mind. We have our Dolly still, and each other. Then there is James, so we shall get on very well, after all.”
“But what of Ben and Eliza?”
“Well, let them dream their dream while they may. If the dream be short, it will at least be sweet.”
“It is not right,” her husband said, “it is not right. It is giving them a false hope which is bound to be dashed when the sale comes.”
“Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” said his brother James, crossing the threshold. He joined his word to his sister-in-law’s, and together they persuaded the broken man to let the marriage go on, to let the two servants sup whatever of joy there might be for them. “Perhaps,” added the always sanguine rector, “some man will be good enough to buy the two together. Anyway, we can try.”
By an effort his voice was cheerful and his manner buoyant, but on his face there was a deeper shadow than that which clouded the brows of his brother, for now when his all was gone from which so many had received bounty, what would the poor of the county do?
The sad conversation was hardly finished when Aunt Sukey came in. It was something more that she had to say about “de weddin’ fixin’s.” She was delighted and garrulous.
“Tell you what, Mas’ Lancaster,” she said, “hit do seem to me lak ol’ times agin, all dis fixin’ an’ ca’in on. ‘Pears to me lak de day o’ my man Jeems done come back agin. Yo’ spe’t, yo’ mannah an’ yo’ dispersition an’ evahthing des de spittin’ image of yo’ pa. ‘Tain’t no wunner day named you Robbut aftah him. I ‘membah how he say to me w’en Jeems come a-courtin’, ‘Sukey,’ he say, ‘Sukey, you gwine ma’y Jeems right, you gwine ma’y him wid a preachah, an’ you gwine to live wid him ‘twell you die. Dain’t gwine to be no jumpin’ ovah de broom an’ pa’tin’ in a year on my plantation. You gwine to all de famblies. La, bless yo’ soul! wen Jeems an’ me ma’ied, we had de real preachah dah, an’ we stood up an’ helt han’s an’ ‘peated ovah, ”twell deaf do us pa’t,’ des lak white folks. It sho did mek me monst’ous happy an’ glad w’en I foun’ out you gwine to do de same wid ‘Lize an’ Ben. ‘Lize she a good gal, an’ Ben be stiddy, an’ Mas’ Jeems,” she said, turning to the rector, “I know you ain’t gwine ‘fuse to ma’y ’em out on de po’ch des lak me an’ Jeems was ma’ied. Hit’ll do my oP eyes good. I kin o’ believe my soul be fit fu’ glory den.”
The clergyman cleared his throat to speak, but the old woman broke in. “You ain’t gwine ‘fuse, Mas’ Jeems? ‘Lize an’ Ben dey loves one ‘nothah in de real ma’in’ way an’ dey hea’ts des sot on you jinin’ ’em.”
The brothers gazed for a moment into each other’s eyes, and then James said huskily: “All right, Aunt Sukey, I’ll do it”
She went away happy, but over the inmates of the big house a gray pall of sorrow fell.
Easter radiant with flowers and birds and the glorious Southern sunshine came but ‘Lize had another use for her holiday dress, and Ben was ashamed to go, so neither of them went to the church service; a gladder, holier service waited for them. There followed a happy Monday, then the night of the wedding came and the long procession of servants marched from Aunt Sukey’s cabin in the quarters up to the big house. The porch was garlanded and festooned. Under the farther end, near where the bridal pair would stand, sat the master’s family; the dark-robed widow, whose mind went back sadly to her own brief married life, the master, the mistress, and the rector. His face was pale and set, but as the strange, weird wedding song of the Negroes came to his ears and they marched up the steps, stiff, awkward, but proud, in the best clothes they could muster, he tried to call back to his features the far smile which had always been so ready to welcome them. Eliza and Ben led the way. She radiant in her new finery smiling and bridling, Ben shame-faced, head hung and shuffling, and behind them Aunt Sukey in all the glory of a new turban and happy as she had been with her Jeems years and years ago.
They halted before the preacher and he pressed his brother’s hand and stood up. The servants gathered around them, eager and expectant. The wedding hymn died away into the night, a low minor sob, as much of sorrow in it as of joy, as if it foreshadowed all that this marriage was and was not. Just as the last faint echo died away into the woods that skirted the lawn and the waiting silence was most intense, the hoot of an owl smote upon their ears and Eliza turned ashen with fear. She gripped Ben’s arm; it was the worst of omens. James Lancaster knew the superstitions of the people and as he heard the cry of the evil bird, his book shook in his hand. Was it prophetic? His voice trembled with more than one emotion as he began: “Dearly beloved—”
The ceremony ran on, a deep-toned solo with an accompaniment of the anxious breathing of the onlookers. Then the preacher hesitated. He turned for an instant and looked at his brother, and in the glance was all the agony of a wounded heart. His next words were uttered in a scarcely audible tone, “till death do us part.” And after him they all unknowing, repeated, ” ‘twell deaf do us pa’t.”
It was over. The couples reformed and followed the bridal pair down the steps, Aunt Sukey hardly containing her joy, but Ben and Eliza somehow subdued. As their feet touched the ground of the lawn, the owl hooted again, and ever and anon, his voice was heard as the procession wound its stately way to the place of the next festivities.
In silence, the family from the big house followed. The two men walked together. As they reached the door of the decorated barn, James paused and took his brother’s hand.
“Till death do them part,” he cried. “My God! will it be death or the block!” Then with hard, forced smiles, they turned into the room to open the dance and the fiddles struck up a merry tune.