In Old Plantation Days

The Memory of Martha

You may talk about banjo-playing if you will, but unless you heard old Ben in his palmy days you have no idea what genius can do with five strings stretched over the sheepskin.

You have been told, perhaps, that the banjo is not an expressive instrument. Well, in the hands of the ordinary player it is not. But you should have heard old Ben, as bending low over the neck, with closed eyes, he made the shell respond like a living soul to his every mood. It sang, it laughed, it sighed; and, just as the tears began welling up into the listener’s eyes, it would break out into a merry reel that would set one’s feet a-twinkling before one knew it.

Ben and his music were the delight of the whole plantation, white and black, master and man, and in the evening when he sat before his cabin door, picking out tune after tune, hymn, ballad or breakdown, he was always sure of an audience. Sometimes it was a group of white children from the big house, with a row of pickaninnies pressing close to them. Sometimes it was old Mas’ and Mis’ themselves who strolled up to the old man, drawn By his strains. Often there was company, and then Ben would be asked to leave his door and play on the veranda of the big house. Later on he would come back to Martha laden with his rewards, and swelled with the praise of his powers.

And Martha would say to him, “You, Ben, don’ you git conceity now; you des’ keep yo’ haid level. I des’ mo’n ‘low you been up dah playin’ some o’ dem ongodly chunes, lak Hoe Co’n an’ Dig ‘Taters.”

Ben would laugh and say, “WelI, den, I tek de wickedness offen de banjo. Swing in, ol’ ‘ooman!” And he would drop into the accompaniment of one of the hymns that were the joy of Martha’s religious soul, and she would sing with him until, with a flourish and a thump, he brought the music to an end.

Next to his banjo, Ben loved Martha, and next to Ben, Martha loved the banjo. In a time and a region where frequent changes of partners were common, these two servants were noted for their single-hearted devotion to each other. He had never had any other wife, and she had called no other man husband. Their children had grown up and gone to other plantations, or to cabins of their own. So, alone, drawn closer by the habit of comradeship, they had grown old together—Ben, Martha and the banjo.

One day Martha was taken sick, and Ben came home to find her moaning with pain, but dragging about trying to get his supper. With loud pretended upbraidings he bundled her into bed, got his own supper, and then ran to his master with the news.

“Marfy she down sick, Mas’ Tawm,” he said, “an’ I’s mighty oneasy in my min’ ’bout huh. Seem lak she don’ look right to me outen huh eyes.”

“I’ll send the doctor right down, Ben,” said his master. “I don’t reckon it’s anything very serious. I wish you would come up to the house to-night with your banjo. Mr. Lewis is going to be here with his daughter, and I want them to hear you play.”

It was thoughtlessness on the master’s part; that was all. He did not believe that Martha could be very ill; but he would have reconsidered his demand if he could have seen on Ben’s face the look of pain which the darkness hid.

“You’ll send de doctah right away, Mas’?”

“Oh, yes; I’ll send him down. Don’t forget to come up.”

“I won’t fu’git,” said Ben as he turned away. But he did not pick up his banjo to go to the big house until the plantation doctor had come and given Martha something to ease her. Then he said: “I’s got to go up to de big house, Marfy; I be back putty soon.”

“Don’ you hu’y thoo on my ‘count. You go ‘long, an’ gin Mas’ Tawm good measure, you hyeah?”

“Quit yo’ bossin,” said Ben, a little more cheerfully; “I got you whah you catn’t move, an’ ef you give me any o’ yo’ back talk I ‘low I frail you monst’ous.”

Martha chuckled a “go ‘long,” and Ben went lingeringly out of the door, the banjo in its ragged cover under his arm.

The plantation’s boasted musician played badly that night. Colonel Tom Curtis wondered what was the matter with him, and Mr. Lewis told his daughter as he drove away that it seemed as if the Colonel’s famous banjoist had been overrated. But who could play reels and jigs with the proper swing when before his eyes was the picture of a smoky cabin room, and on the bed in it a sick wife, the wife of forty years?

The black man hurried back to his cabin where Martha was dozing. She awoke at his step.

“Didn’t I tell you not to hu’y back hyeah?” she asked.

“I ain’t nevah hu’ied. I reckon I gin ’em all de music dey wanted,” Ben answered a little sheepishly. He knew that he had not exactly covered himself with glory. “How’s you feel-in’?” he added.

“‘Bout de same. I got kin’ of a mis’ry in my side.”

“I reckon you couldn’t jine in de hymn to tek de wickedness outen dis ol’ banjo?” He looked anxiously at her.

“I don’ know ’bout j’inin’ in, but you go ‘long an’ play anyhow. Ef I feel lak journey in’ wid you I fin’ you somewhar on de road.”

The banjo began to sing, and when the hymn was half through Martha’s voice, not so strong and full as usual, but trembling with a new pathos, joined in and went on to the end. Then Ben put up the banjo and went to his rest.

The next day Martha was no better, and the same the next. Her mistress came down to see her, and delegated one of the other servants to be with her through the day and to get Ben s meals. The old man himself was her close attendant in the evenings, and he waited on her with the tenderness of a woman. He varied his duties as nurse by playing to her, sometimes some lively, cheerful bit, but more often the hymns she loved but was now too weak to follow.

It gave him an aching pleasure at his heart to see how she hung on his music. It seemed to have become her very life. He would play for no one else now, and the little space before his door held his audience of white and black children no more. They still came, but the cabin door was inhospitably shut, and they went away whispering among themselves, “Aunt Martha’s, sick.”

Little Liz, who was a very wise pickaninny, once added, “Yes, Aunt Marfy’s sick, an’ my mammy says she ain’ never gwine to git up no mo’.” Another child had echoed “Never!” in the hushed, awe-struck tones which children use in the presence of the great mystery.

Liz’s mother was right. Ben’s Martha was never to get up again. One night during a pause in his playing she whispered, “Play ‘Ha’k! Pom de Tomb.’ ” He turned into the hymn, and her voice, quavering and weak, joined in. Ben started, for she had not tried to sing for so long. He wondered if it wasn’t a token. In the midst of the hymn she stopped, but he played on to the end of the verse. Then he got up and looked at her.

Her eyes were closed, and there was a smile on her face—a smile that Ben knew was not of earth. He called her, but she did not answer. He put his hand upon her head, but she lay very still, and then he knelt and buried his head in the bedclothes, giving himself up to all the tragic violence of an old man’s grief.

“Marfy! Marfy! Marfy!” he called. “What you want to leave me fu’? Marfy, wait; I ain’t gwine be long.”

His cries aroused the quarters, and the neighbors came flocking in. Ben was hustled out of the way, the news carried to the big house, and preparations made for the burying.

Ben took his banjo. He looked at it fondly, patted it, and, placing it in its covering, put it on the highest shelf in the cabin.

“Brothah Ben alius was a trios’ p’opah an’ ‘sponsible so’t o’ man,” said Liz’s mother as she saw him do it. “Now, dat’s what I call showin’ ‘spec’ to Sis Marfy, puttln’ his banjo up in de ve’y place whah it’ll get all dus’. Brothah Ben sho is diff’ent fom any husban’ I evah had.” She had just provided Liz with a third stepfather.

On many evenings after Martha had been laid away, the children, seeing Ben come and sit outside his cabin door, would gather around, waiting, and hoping that the banjo would be brought out, but they were always doomed to disappointment. On the high shelf the old banjo still reposed, gathering dust.

Finally one of the youngsters, bolder than the rest, spoke: “Ain’t you gwine play no mo’, Uncle Ben?” and received a sad shake of the head in reply, and a laconic “Nope.”

This remark Liz dutifully reported to her mother. “No, o’ co’se not,” said that wise woman with emphasis; “o’ co’se Brothah Ben ain’ gwine play no mo’; not right now, Ieas’ways; an’ don’ you go dah pesterin’ him, nuther, Liz. You be perlite an’ ‘spectable to him, an’ make yo’ ‘bejunce when you pass.”

The child’s wise mother had just dispensed with her latest stepfather.

The children were not the only ones who attempted to draw old Ben back to his music. Even his master had a word of protest. “I tell you, Ben, we miss your banjo,” he said. “I wish you would come up and play for us sojnetime.”

“I’d lak to, Mastah, I’d lak to; but evah time I think erbout playin’ I kin des see huh up dah an’ hyeah de kin’ o’ music she’s a-listenin’ to, an’ I ain’t got no haht fu’ dat oP banjo no mo’.”

The old man looked up at his master so pitifully that he desisted.

“Oh, never mind,” he said, “if you feel that way about it.”

As soon as it became known that the master wanted to hear the old banjo again, every negro on the plantation was urging the old man to play in order to say that his persuasion had given the master pleasure. None, though, went to the old man’s cabin with such confidence of success as did Mary, the mother of Liz.

“O’ co’se, he wa’n’t gwine play den,” she said as she adjusted a ribbon; “he was a mo’nin’; but now—hit’s diffe’nt,” and she smiled back at herself in the piece of broken mirror.

She sighed very tactfully as she settled herself on old Ben’s doorstep.

“I nevah come ‘long ‘hyeah,” she said “widout thinkin’ ’bout Sis Marfy. Me an’ huh was gret frien’s, an’ a moughty good frien’ she was.”

Ben shook his head affirmatively. Mary smoothed her ribbons and continued:

“I ust to often come an’ set in my do w’en you’d be a-playin’ to huh. I was des’ sayin’ to myse’f de othah day how I would lak to hyeah dat ol’ banjo ag’in.” She paused. “‘Pears lak Sis Marfy’d be right nigh.”

Ben said nothing. She leaned over until her warm brown cheek touched his knee. “Won’t you play fu’ me, Brothah Ben?” she asked pleadingly. “Des’ to bring back de membry o’ Sis Marfy?”

The old man turned two angry eyes upon her. “I don’ need to play,” he said, “an’ I ain’ gwineter. Sis Marfy’s membry’s hyeah,” and tapping his breast he walked into his cabin, leaving Mary to take her leave as best she could.

It was several months after this that a number of young people came from the North to visit the young master, Robert Curtis. It was on the second evening of their stay that young Eldridge said, “Look here, Colonel Curtis, my father visited your plantation years ago, and he told me of a wonderful banjoist you had, and said if I ever came here to be sure to hear him if he was alive. Is he?”

“You mean old Ben? Yes, he’s still living, but the death of his wife rather sent him daft, and he hasn’t played for several years.”

“Pshaw, I’m sorry. We laughed at father’s enthusiasm over him, because we thought he overrated his powers.”

“I reckon not. He was truly wonderful.”

“Don’t you think you can stir him up?”

“Oh, do, Col. Curtis,” chorused a number of voices.

“Well, I don’t know,” said the Colonel, “but come with me and I’ll try.”

The young people took their way to the cabin, where old Ben occupied his accustomed place before the door.

“Uncle Ben,” said the master, “here are some friends of mine from the North who are anxious to hear you play, and I knew you’d break your rule for me.”

“Chile, honey ” began the old man.

But Robert, his young master, interrupted him. “I’m not going to let you say no,” and he hurried past Uncle Ben into the cabin. He came out, brushing the banjo and saying, “Whew, the dust!”

The old man sat dazed as the instrument was thrust into his hand. He looked pitifully into the faces about him, but they were all expectancy. Then his fingers wandered to the neck, and he tuned the old banjo. Then he began to play. He seemed inspired. His listeners stood trans-fixed.

From piece to piece he glided, pouring out the music in a silver stream. His old fingers seemed to have forgotten their stiffness as they flew over the familiar strings. For nearly an hour he played and then abruptly stopped. The applause was generous and real, but the old man only smiled sadly, and with a far-away look in his eyes.

As they turned away, somewhat awed by his manner, they heard him begin to play softly an old hymn. It was “Hark! From the Tomb.”

He stopped when but half through, and Robert returned to ask him to finish, but his head had fallen forward close against the banjo’s neck, and there was a smile on his face, as if he had suddenly had a sweet memory of Martha.


Icon for the Public Domain license

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