In Old Plantation Days
Whether one believes in predestination or not, the intenseness with which Gideon Stone went toward his destiny would have been a veritable and material proof of foreordination. Even before the old mistress had followed her husband to the silent land and the marriage of Miss Ellen had entirely broken up the home, he had begun to exhort among the people who were forming a free community about the old slave plantation. The embargo against negro education having been removed, he learned to read by hook and by crook, and night after night in his lonely room he sat poring over the few books that he could lay his hands upon.
Aside from the semi-pastoral duties which he had laid upon himself, his life was a lonely one. For Gideon was no less true to his love than he had been to his honor. Since Martha had left him, five years before, no other woman had been enshrined in his heart, and the longing was ever in him to go forth and search for her. But his duties and his poverty still held him bound, and so the years glided away. Gideon’s powers, however, were not rusting from disuse. He was gaining experience and increasing his knowledge.
It was now that the wave of enthusiasm for the education of the blacks swept most vigorously over the South, and, catching him, carried him into the harbor of one of the new Southern schools. The chief business of these institutions then was the turning out of teachers and preachers. During the months of his vacations Gideon followed the former calling as a means of preparation for the latter. So he was imparting to others the Rule of Three very soon after he had learned it himself. He brought to both these new labors of his the same earnestness and seriousness that had characterized his life on the plantation. And in due course the little school sent him forth proudly as one of her brightest and best.
The course being finished, Gideon’s first impulse was to go farther southward, where his duty toward his fellows was plain. But his plan warred with the longing that had been in his heart ever since he had seen the blue lines swing over the hills and away, and he knew that with them Martha was making her way northward. He had never heard of her since; but he did not blame her. She could not write herself, few of her associates could, and in the turmoil of the times it would not be easy to get a letter written, or, being written, get it to him. Not for one moment did he lose faith in her. He believed that somewhere she was waiting for him,—impatiently, perhaps, but still with trust. He would go to her. From that moment his search should begin. Washington was the Mecca for his people then. Perhaps among those who had flocked from the South to the nation’s capital he might find the object of his search. It was worth the trying, so thither he turned his steps.
At that time, when the first desire for a minister with at least a little more knowledge than they themselves possessed was coming to the Negroes, it was not a difficult matter for Gideon to find a church. He was called to a small chapel very shortly after he arrived in Washington, and after pastoring that for a few months found himself over the larger congregation of Shiloh Church, which was the mother of his former charge.
He had an enthusiasm for his work that gave him influence over the people and made him popular both as a preacher and a pastor, while the voice that in the days gone by had sung “Gideon’s Band” was mighty in its aid to the volunteer choir. His fame grew week by week, and he drew around him a larger and better crowd of his own people. But in it all, his occupations and his successes, he did not forget why he had come to the city. His eye was ever out for a glimpse of a familiar face. With no thought of self-aggrandizement, he yet did all in his power to spread his name abroad, for, thought he, “If Martha hears of me, she will come to me.” He did not trust to this method alone, however, but went forth at all times upon his search.
“Hit do ‘pear to me moughty funny,” said one of his congregation to another one day, “dat a preachah o’ Brothah Stone’s ability do hang erroun’ de deepo so.”
“Hang erroun’ de deepo! What you talkin’ ’bout, Sis Mandy?”
“Dat des whut I say. Dat man kin sholy allus be foun’ at one deepo er anothah, Sis Lizy.”
“I don’t know how dat come, case he sholy do mek his pasto’ial wisits.”
“I ain’t ‘sputin’ de wisits, ner I ain’t a-blamin’ de man, case I got all kin’ o’ faif in Brothah Gidjon Stone, but I do say, an’ dey’s othahs dat kin tell you de same, dat w’en he ain’t a-wisitin’ de sick er a-preachin’ he Stan’ erroun’ watchin’ de steam-cyahs, an’ dey say his eyes des glisten w’enevah a train comes in.”
“Huh, uh, honey, dey’s somep’n’ behime dat.”
“‘Tain’t fu’ me to say. Cose I knows all edjicated people has dey cuhiousnesses, but dis is moughty cuhious.”
It was indeed true, as Sister Mandy Belknap had said, that Gideon was often to be found at one or the other of the railway stations, where he watched feverishly the incoming and outgoing trains. Maybe Martha would be on one of them. She might be coming in or going out any day, and so he was miserable whenever he missed a day at his post. The station officials looked in wonder at the slim Negro in clerical dress who came day by day to watch with intense face the monotonous bustle of arrival and departure. Whoever he is, they thought, he has been expecting someone for a long time.
The trains went and the trains came, and yet Martha did not appear, and the eager look in Gideon’s face grew stronger. The intent gaze with which he regarded the world without grew keener and more expectant. It was as if all the yearning that his soul had experienced in all the years had come out into his face and begged pity of the world. And yet there was none of this plea for pity in Gideon’s attitude. On the contrary, he went his own way, and a brave, manly way it was, that asked less of the world than it gave. The very disappointment which he restrained made him more helpful to the generally disappointed and despised people to whom he ministered. When his heart ached within him, he took no time for repining, but measuring their pain by his own, set out to find some remedy for their suffering. Their griefs were mirrored in his own sorrow, and every wail of theirs was but the echo of his own heart’s cry. He drew people to him by the force of his sympathetic understanding of their woes, and even those who came for his help and counsel went away asking how so young a man could feel and know so much.
Meanwhile in Gideon’s congregation a feeling of unrest seemed taking possession of the sisters. In the privacy of their families they spoke of the matter which troubled them to indifferent husbands, who guffawed and went their several ways as if a momentous question were not taxing their wives’ minds. But the women would not be put off. When they found that the men, with the indifference of the sex, refused to be interested, they talked among themselves, and they concluded without a dissenting voice that there was something peculiar, something strange and uncanny, about the celibacy of the Reverend Gideon Stone. He was abnormal. He was the shining exception in a much-marrying calling.
A number of them were gathered at Sister Mandy Belknap’s home one Friday evening, when the conversation turned to the preacher’s unaccountable course.
“Hit seem mo’ unnatchul lak, case preachahs is mos’ly de marryinest kin’ o’ men,” said Sister Lizy Doke.
“To be sho’; dat what mek his diffuntness look so cuhious.”
“Well, now, look-a-hyeah, sistahs,” spoke up a widow lady who was now enjoying a brief interval of single-blessedness after a stormy parting with her fourth spouse; “don’t you reckon dat man got a wife som’ers? You know men will do dat thing. I ‘membah my third husban’. Wen I ma’ied him he had a wife in Tennessee, and anothah one in Fuginny. I know men.”
“Brothah Gidjon ain’t nevah been ma’ied,” said Sister Mandy shortly.
“Huccome you so sho’?”
“He ain’t got de look; dat’s huccome me so sho’?”
“Huh, uh, honey, dey ain’t no tellin’ whut kin’ o’ look a man kin put on. I know men, I tell you.”
“Brothah Gidjon ain’t ma’ied,” reiterated the hostess; “fust an’ fo’mos’, dey ain’t no foolin’ de pusson on de ma’ied look, an’ he ain’t got it. Den he ain’t puttin’ on no looks, case Brothah Gidjon is diffunt Pom othah men mo’ ways den one. I knows dat ef I is only got my fust hus-ban’ an’ is still Hvin’ wid him.”
The widow lady instantly subsided.
“You don’ reckon Brothah Gidjon’s been tekin’ up any dese hyeah Cath’lic notions, does you?” ventured another speaker. “You know dem Cath’lic pries’es don’ nevah ma’y.”
“How’s he gwine to have any Cath’lic notions, w’en he bred an’ born an’ raised in de Baptis’ faif?”
“Dey ain’t no tellin’. Dey ain’t no tellin’. Wen colo’ed folks git to gwine to colleges, you nevah know what dey gwine lu’n. My mammy’s sistah was sol’ inter Ma’ylan’, an’, bless yo’ soul, she’s a Cath’lic to dis day.”
“Well, I don’ know nuffin’ ’bout dat, but hit ain’t no Cath’lic notions, I tell you. Brothah Gidjon Stone’s too solid fu’ dat. Dey’s some’p’n else behime it.”
The interest and curiosity of the women, now that they were fired, did not stop at these private discussions among themselves. They went even farther and broached the matter to the minister.
They suggested jocosely, but with a deep vein of earnestness underlying the statement, that they were looking for a wife for him. But they could elicit from him no response save “There’s time enough; oh, there’s time enough.”
Gideon said this with an appearance of cheerfulness, but in his heart he did not believe it. He did not think that there was time. His body, his mind, his soul all yearned hotly for the companionship of the woman he loved. There are some men born to be husbands, just as there are some men born to be poets, painters, or musicians —men who, living alone, cannot know life. Gideon was one of these. Every instinct of his being drove him towards domestic life with unflagging insistency. But it was Martha whom he wanted. Martha whom he loved and with whom he had plighted his troth. What to him were the glances of other women? What the seduction in their eyes, and the unveiled invitation in their smiles? There was one woman in the world to him, and she loomed so large to his sight that he could see no other. How he waited; how he longed; how he prayed I And the days passed, the trains came and went, and still no word, no sight of Martha.
Strangers came to his church, and visitors from other cities came to him, and still nothing of her for whom he waited to make his life complete. Then one day in the silence of his own sorrow he fell upon his knees, crying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” And from then hope fled from him. She was dead. She must be, or she would have come to him. He had waited long, oh, so long, and now it was all over. For the rest of his days he must walk the way of his life alone or—could he, could he turn his eyes upon another woman? No, no, his heart cried out to him, and he felt in that moment as a man standing beside his wife’s bier would feel should the thought of another obtrude itself.
He went to the trains no more. He searched no more; hope was dead; but the one object that had blinded him, that had given him single sight, being removed, he began to look around him and to see—at first it seemed almost a revelation— other women. Now he saw too their glances and their smiles. He heard the tender notes in their voices as they spoke to him, for all other sounds were no longer drowned by Martha’s calling to him from the Unknown. When first he found himself giving fuller range to his narrow vision, he was startled, then apologetic, then defiant. The man in him triumphed. Martha was dead. He was alone. Must he always be? Was life, after all, to be but this bitter husk to him when he had but to reach forth his hand to find the kernel of it?
He had never even been troubled with such speculations before, but now he awoke to the fact that he was not yet old and that the long stretch of life before him looked dreary enough if he must tread it by himself.
In this crisis the tempter, who is always an opportunist, came to Gideon. Sister Mandy Belknap had always manifested a great deal of interest in the preacher’s welfare, a surprising amount for a woman who had no daughter. However, she had a niece. Now she came to the pastor with a grave face.
“Brothah Stone,” she said, “I got some talk fu’ you.”
“Yes, Sister Belknap?” said Gideon, settling himself complacently, with the expectation of hearing some tale of domestic woe or some history of spiritual doubt, for among his congregation he was often the arbiter in such affairs.
“Now, I’s ol’ enough fu’ yo’ mothah,” Sister Mandy went on, and at the words the minister became suddenly alert, for from her introduction her visit seemed to be admonitory, rather than appealing. Evidently he was not to give advice, but to be advised. He was not to be the advocate, but the defendant; not the judge, but the culprit.
“I’s seed mo’ of life den you has, Brothah Gidjon, ef I do say hit myse’f.”
“Not a doubt of it, my sister.”
“An’ I knows mo’ ’bout men an’ women den you does. Co’se you know mo’ ’bout Scripter den I does, dough I ricollect dat de Lawd said dat it ain’t good fu’ man to be alone.”
Gideon started. It was as if the old woman had by some occult power divined the trend of his thoughts and come to take part in the direction of them.
“The Bible surely says that, Sister Belknap,” he said when the first surprise was over.
“It do, an’ I want to know ef you ain’t a-flyin’ in de face o’ Providence by doin’ what hit say ain’t good fu’ a man?”
Gideon was a little bit puzzled, but in answer he began, “There are circumstances—”
“Dat’s des’ hit,” said Sister Mandy impressively; “sarcumstances, sarcumstances, an’ evah man dat wants to disobey de wo’d t’inks he’s got
de sarcumstances. Uh! I tell you de ol’ boy is a moughty clevah han’ at mekin’ excuses fu’ us.”
“I don’t reckon, sister, that we’ve got the same point of view,” said Gideon nervously.
“‘Tain’t my p’int of view, ’tain’t mine; hit’s de Lawd A’mighty’s. You young, Brothah Gidjon, you young, an’ you don’ see lak I does, but lemme tell you, hit ain’t right fu’ no man whut ain’t ma’ied to be a-pasto’n no sich a flock. I don’ want to meddle into yo’ business, but all I got to say is, you bettah look erroun’ you an’ choose a wife fu’ to be yo’ he’pmeet. ‘Scuse me fu’ speakin’ to you, Brothah. Go ‘roun’ an’ see my niece. She kin p’int out some moughty nice women.”
“It was mighty good of you to speak, and I am glad that you came to me. I will think over what you have said.”
“‘It is not good for man to be ‘alone,’ ” mused Gideon when his visitor was gone. Was not this just the word of help and encouragement that he had wanted—indeed, the one that he had been waiting for? He had been faithful, he told himself. He had looked and he had waited. Martha had not come, and was it not true that “it is not good for man to be alone?” He went to bed that night with the sentence ringing in his head.
Mandy Belknap had done her work well, for on the following Sunday the preacher smiled on her niece, Caroline Martin, and on the Sunday after that he walked home to dinner with her.
What the gossips said about it at the time, how they gazed and chattered, and with what a feeling of self-satisfaction Sister Mandy went her way, are details that do not belong to this story. However, one cannot pass over Gideon’s attitude in this new matter. It is true that he found himself liking Caroline better and better the more frequently he saw her. The girFs pretty ways pleased him. She was a member of his choir, and he thought often how like Martha’s her voice was. Indeed, he was wont to compare her with this early love of his, and it did not occur to him that he cared for her not so much for what she was herself, but for the few points in which she resembled his lost sweetheart. He was not wooing (if wooing his attentions could be called) Caroline Martin as Caroline Martin, but only as a proxy for his own unforgotten Martha, for even now, in the face of hopelessness, his love and faith were stronger than he.
Caroline Martin was the most envied girl in Shiloh Church, for, indeed, hers was no slight distinction, to be singled out by the minister for his special attention after so long a period of indifference. But envy and gossip passed her by as the idle wind, for the very which had been accorded her placed her above the reach of petty jealousies. Her triumph, however, was to be brief.
It was on a rainy Sunday night in October, a late Washington October, which has in it all the possibilities of nastiness given to weather. Shiloh Chapel was well filled despite the storm without. Gideon was holding forth in his accustomed way, vigorously, eloquently, and convincingly. His congregation was warming up to a keen appreciation of his sermon, when suddenly the door opened, and a drabbled, forlorn-looking woman entered and sank into a back seat. One glance at her, and the words died on Gideon’s lips. He paused for a moment and swayed upon his feet while his heart beat a wild tattoo.
It was Martha, his Martha, but, oh, how sadly changed I His heart fell a-bleeding for her as he saw the once proud woman sitting there crouched in her seat among the well-dressed people like the humblest of creatures. He wanted to stop right there in the midst of his sermon and go rushing to her, to take her in his arms and tell her that if the world had dealt hard with her, he at least was true.
It was a long pause he made, and die congregation was looking at him in surprise. Then he recovered himself, and went on with his exhortation, hastily, feverishly. He could scarcely wait to be done.
The last words of the benediction fell from his lips and he hastened down the aisle, elbowing his way through the detaining crowd, his face set toward one point. Someone spoke to him as he passed, but he did not hear; a hand was stretched out to him, but he did not see it. There was but one thought in his mind.
He reached the seat in the corner of which Martha had crouched. She was gone. He stood for a moment dazed, and then dashed out into the rain and darkness. Nothing was to be seen of her, and hatless he ran on down the street, hoping to strike the direction in which she had started and so overtake her. But she had evidently gone directly across the street or turned another way. Sad and dejected and wondering somewhat, he retraced his steps to the church.
It was Martha; there could be no doubt of that. But why such an act from her? It seemed as if she had purposely avoided him. What had he done to her that she should treat him thus? She must have some reason. It was not like Martha. Yes, there was some good reason, he knew. Faith came back to him then. He had seen her. She was living and he would see her again. His heart lightened and bounded. Martha was found.
Sister Belknap was waiting for him when he got back to the church door, and beside her the comely Caroline.
“Wy, Brothah Gidjon,” said the elder woman, “what’s de mattah wid you to-night? You des shot outen de do’ lak a streak o’ lightnin’, an’ baih-headed, ez I live! I lay you’ll tek yo’ death o’ col’ dis hyeah night.”
“I saw an old friend of mine from the South in church and I wanted to catch her before she got away, but she was gone.”
There was something in the minister’s voice, a tone or an inflection, that disturbed Sister Belknap’s complacency, and with a sharp, “Come on, Ca’line,” she bade him good-night and went her way. He saw them go off together without a pang. As he got his hat and started home, his only thought was of Martha and how she would come again, and he was happy.
The next Sunday he watched every new-comer to the church with eager attention, and so at night; but Martha was not among them. Sunday after Sunday told the same story, and again Gideon’s heart failed him. Maybe Martha did not want to see him. Maybe she was married, and his heart grew cold at that.
For over a month, however, his vigilance did not relax, and finally his faith was rewarded. In the midst of his sermon he saw Martha glide in and slip into a seat. He ended quickly, and leaving the benediction to be pronounced by a “local preacher,” he hurried down the aisle and was at her side just as she reached the door ahead of everyone.
“Martha, Martha, thank the Lord!” he cried, taking her hand.
“Oh Gid—I mean Brothah—er—Reverent —I must go ‘long.” The woman was painfully embarrassed.
“I am going with you,” he said firmly, still holding her hand as he led her protesting from the church.
“Oh, you mustn’t go with me,” she cried, shrinking from him.
“Why, Martha, what have I done to you? I’ve been waiting for you so long.”
She had begun to sob now, and Gideon, without pausing to think whether she were married or not, put his arm tenderly about her. “Tell me what it is, Martha? What has kept you from me so long?”
“I ain’t no fittin’ pusson fu’ you now, Gidjon.”
“What is it? You’re not—are you married?”
“Have you kept the light?”
“Yes, thank de Lawd, even wid all my low-downness, I’s kept de light in my soul.”
“Then that’s all, Martha?”
“No, it ain’t—it ain’t. I wouldn’t stay wid you w’en you axed me, an’ I came up hyeah an’ got po’er an’ po’er, an’ dey’s been times w’en I ain’t had nothin’ ha’dly to go on; but I wouldn’t sen’ you no wo’d, case I was proud an’ I was ashamed case I run off to fin’ so much an’ only foun’ dis. Den I hyeahed dat you was educated an’ comin’ hyeah to preach. Dat made you furder away f’om me, an’ I knowed you wasn’ fu’ me no mo’. It lak to killed me, but I stuck it out. Many an’ many’s de time I seen you an’ could ‘a’ called you, but I thought you’d be ashamed o’ me.”
“I wouldn’ ‘a’ come to yo’ chu’ch, but I wanted to hyeah yo’ voice ag’in des once. Den I wouldn’ ‘a’ come back no mo’, case I thought you recker-nized me. But I had to—I had to. I was hongry to hyeah you speak. But go back now, Gidjon, I’m near home, an’ I can’t tek you to dat po’ place.”
But Gideon marched right on. A light was in his face and a springiness in his step that had been absent for many a day. She halted before a poor little house, two rooms at the most, the front one topped with a stove-pipe which did duty as a chimney.
“Hyeah’s whaih I live,” she said shamefacedly; “you would come.”
They went in. The little room, ill furnished, was clean and neat, and the threadbare carpet was scrupulously swept.
Gideon had been too happy to speak, but now he broke silence. “This is just about the size of the cabin we’d have had if the war hadn’t come on. Can you get ready by to-morrow?”
“No, no, I ain’t fu’ you, Gidjon. I ain’t got nothin’. I don’t know nothin’ but ha’d work. What would I look lak among yo’ fine folks?”
“You’d look like my Martha, and that’s what you’re going to do.”
Her eyes began to shine. “Gidjon, you don’t mean it! I thought when colo’ed folks got edjicated dey fu’got dey mammys an’ dey pappys an’ dey ol’ frien’s what can’t talk straight.”
“Martha,” said Gideon, “did you ever hear ‘Nearer, my God, to Thee’ played on a banjo?”
“Well, you know the instrument isn’t much, but it’s the same sweet old tune. That’s the way it is when old friends tell me their love and friendship brokenly. Can’t you see?”
They talked long that night, and Gideon brought Martha to his way of thinking, though she held out for less haste. She exacted a week.
On the following Sunday the Reverend Gideon Stone preached as his congregation had never heard him preach before, and after the service, being asked to remain, they were treated to a surprise that did their hearts good. A brother pastor, mysteriously present, told their story and performed the ceremony between Gideon and Martha.
So many of them were just out of slavery. So many of them knew what separation and fruitless hope of re-meeting were, that it was an event to strike home to their hearts. Some wept, some rejoiced, and all gathered around the pastor and his wife to grasp their hands.
And then Martha was back on the old plantation again and her love and Gideon’s was young, and she never knew why she did it, but suddenly her voice, the voice that Gideon had loved, broke into one of the old plantation hymns. He joined her. Members from the old South threw back their heads, and, seeing the yellow fields, the white cabins, the great house, in the light of other days, fell into the chorus that shook the church, and people passing paused to listen, saying,—
“There’s a great time at Shiloh to-day.”
And there was.