In Old Plantation Days

The Stanton Coachman

The morning sun touched the little old-fashioned Virginia church with glory, while in the shadow of its vine-covered porch an old negro alternately mumbled to himself and dozed.

It was not yet time for the service to begin, and as I stood watching the bees go in and out of the honeysuckle vines there came up the road and halted at the door a strange equipage. Side by side upon the one seat of an ox-cart sat a negro, possibly fifty years of age, and an old white lady. No one could have mistaken her for one of the country women coming in from any of the adjoining farms, for she was unmistakably a lady, from the white hair which crowned her high-bred face to the patched and shabby shoe that peeped from under her dress as she alighted. The black man had leaped down and, holding in one hand the ropes that did duty as reins, helped her tenderly to the ground.”

“The grace and deference of his manner were perfect, and she accepted his service with a certain genial dignity that bespoke custom. She went her feeble way into the church, and I was surprised to see the dozing old negro wake into sudden life, spring up and doff his cap as she passed. Meanwhile, at the heads of the lazy oxen stood the shabby servitor, erect and fine-looking, even in the tattered garments that covered his form.

The scene would have been ludicrous if there had not been about it an air of dignified earnestness that disarmed ridicule. You could almost have imagined that black tatterdemalion there a coachman in splendid livery, standing by the side of his restless chargers, and that ox-cart with its one seat and wheels awry might have been the most dashing of victorias. What had I stumbled upon—one of those romances of the old South that still shed their light among the shadows of slavery?

The old negro in the porch had settled himself again for a nap, but I disregarded his inclination and, the service forgotten, approached him: “Howdy, Uncle.”

“Howdy, son, howdy; how you come on?”

“Oh, I’m tol’able peart,” I answered, falling easily into his manner of speech. “I was just wondering who the old lady was that went in church just now.”

He looked up questioningly for a minute, and then being satisfied of my respect, replied, “Dat uz de Stanton lady—Ol’ Mis’ Stanton.”

“And the black man there?”

“Dat’s Ha’ison; dat’s de Stanton coachman. I reckon you ain’t f’om hyeah?”

“No, but I should like to know about them.”

“Oomph, hit’s a wonder you ain’t nevah hyeahed tell o’ de Stantons. I don’ know whah yo’ been at, man. Why, evahbody knowed de Stantons ‘roun’ ’bout hyeah. Dey wuz de riches’ folks any whah roun’.”

“Well to do, were they?”

“Well to do! Man, whut you talkin’ ’bout? I tell you, dem people wuz rich, dey wuz scand’lous rich. Dey owned neahly all de dahkies in de county, an’ dey wasn’t no hi’in’ out people, neithah. I didn’t long to dem, but I allus wished I did, ‘case—”

“But about Harrison?”

“Ez I were goin’ to say, my ol’ mastah hi’ed out, an’ I wuz on de go mos’ all de time, ‘case I sholy wuz spry an’ handy dem days. Ha’ison, he wuz de coachman, an’ a proudah, finah- dressed dahky you nevah seed in all yore bo’n days. Oomph-um, but he wuz sta’chy! Dey had his lib’ry made at de same place whah dey made de ol’ Cunnel’s an’ de young mastah’s clothes, an’ dey wuz sights. Such gol’ buttons, an’ long coats, an’ shiny hats, an’ boots—” The old man paused and shook his head, as if the final glory had been reached. “Dey ain’t no mo’ times lak dat,” he went on. “Hit used to be des lak a pu’cession when Ha’ison come ridin’ down de road on top o’ de Stanton ca’ige. He sot up thar des ez straight, de hosses a prancin’ an’ de wheels a glistenin’, an’ he nevah move his naik to de right er de lef, no mo’n ef he wuz froze. Sometimes you could git a glimpse o’ de mistus’ face inside, an’ she wuz alius beautiful an’ smilin’, lak a real lady ought to be, an’ sometimes dey’d have de ca’ige open, an’ de Cunnel would come a ridin’ down ‘long-side o’ hit on one o’ his fine hosses, an’ Ha’ison ud sit straightah dan evah, an’ you couldn’ a tol’ wheddah he knowed de footman wuz a sittin’ side o’ him er not.

“Dey wuz mighty good to all de people, de Stantons wuz, an’ dey faihly id’lized dem. Why, ef Miss Dolly had a stahted to put huh foot on de groun’ any time she’d a had a string o’ niggers ez long ez fom hyeah to yandah a layin’ daihse’ves in de paf fu’ huh to walk on, fu’ dey sholy did love huh. An’ de Cunnel, he wuz de beatenes’ man. He could nevah walk out on de plantation ‘dout a whole string o’ piccaninnies a followin’ aftah him. Dey knowed whut dey wuz doin’, fu’ aftah while de Cunnel tu’n roun’ an’ th’ow ’em a whole lot o’ coppers an’ fips, an’ bless yore hea’t, sich anothah scram’lin’ an’ rollin’ an’ a tumblin’ in de dus’ you nevah seed. Well, de Cunnel, he’d stan’ thar an’ des natchelly crack his sides a-laffin’ ontwell dey wuz thoo fightin’, den he call up dem dat hadn’t got nuffin’ an’ give ’em daih sheer, so’s to see ’em all go off happy, a-hollerin’ ‘Thanky, Mas’ Stant’, thanky, mastahl’ I reckon any fips dey gits now dey has to scratch fu’ wuss’n dey did den. Dem wuz wunnerful times!

“Den come ‘long de time o’ de wah, an’ den o’ co’se I oughtn’ say hit, but de Cunnel, he make a great big mistake; he freed all de niggahs. Hit wuz des dis away: de Stantons, dey freed all daih servants right in de middle o’ de wah, an’ o’ cose nobody couldn’ stan’ ag’inst daih wo’d, so freedom des spread. Mistah Lincoln mought ‘a’ been all right, but he didn’ have nothin’ to do wid hit. Hit wuz Mas’ Stanton, dat who it wuz. Ef hit wasn’, huccome Mas’ Stanton keep all de sarvants he want, eben ef he do pay ’em wages? Huccome he keep Ha’ison, ‘ceptin’ he writ home to his lady? He wuz at de wah, an’ thar wasn’ no mo folks on de place, ‘ceptin’ a sarvant, w’en hit all come up. Ha’ison he layin’ flat on his back sick in his cabin, an’ not able to do nuf-fin a-tall. Seemed lak dey’d a freed a no-count dahky lak dat; but, no, suh, ol’ Mis’ sont Marfy to nuss him, an’ sont him all kin’ o’ contraptions to git him well, an’ ol’ Doctah Ma’maduke Wilson he come to see him.

“Den w’en Ha’ison got up ol’ Mis’ went down to see him, an’ tuk him his wages, an’ ‘sisted on payin’ him fu’ de th’ee months he’d been a-layin thar, ‘case she said he wuz free an’ he’d need all de money he could git. Den Ha’ison, he des broke down, an’ cried lak a baby, an’ said he nevah ‘spected dat ol’ Mis’ ‘ud evah put any sich disgrace erpon him, an’ th’owed de money down in de dus’ an’ fell down on his knees right thar in all his unifo’m.

“Mis’ Stanton, she cry, too, an’ say she didn’ mean no ha’m to him. Den she tell him to git up, an’ he ‘fuse to git up, ‘ceptin she promise dat he alius gwine to drive huh des lak he been doin’. Den she say she spec’ dey gwine to be po’, an’ he ‘ply to huh dat he don’ keer; so she promise, an’ tek de money, an’ he git up happy. Dat look kk de end o’ hit all, but la, chile! dat wuz des de beginning an’ de end o’ hit ain’t come yet.

“De middle paht come w’en de wah ended, an’ de ol’ Cunnel come back home all broke up Tom de battles, an’ de young mans, dey nevah come back a-tall. Daih pappy, he wuz mighty proud o’ dem, dough. He’d alius say dat he lef his two boys wid daih feet to de foe. I reckon dat’s de way dey bu’y dem. He wuz a invally hisse’f—dat’s what dey call de sojers dat’s gone down in de Valley an’ de Shadder o’ Def, an’ he sholy wuz in de Valley a long w’ile. But Ha’ison he des keep on drivin’ dem, dough de plantation wuz all to’ up, an’ dey’d got mighty po’, an’ daih fine ca’iges wuz sold, an’ dey didn’ have but one hoss, him a-lookin’ lak a ol’ crow-bait. Marfy patched an’ patched huh man’s lib’ry ‘twell hit wuz one livin’ sight to behol’.

“W’en dat ol’ crow-bait o’ a hoss died, him an’ Marfy wouldn’ let daih ol’ Mis’ go out a-tall, but Marfy, she’d wheel de Cunnel roun’ in his cheer, w’ile huh man wuz a-hi’in’ out so’s to buy anothah hoss an’ a spring wagin. Soon’s dey got dat de ol’ Missis ‘menced comin’ back to ch’uch ag’in, ‘case she mighty ‘ligious ooman, an’ alius wuz. An’ Ha’ison he sat on dat wagin seat de same ez ef he wuz on de ol’ ca’ige.

“‘Ha’ison,’ somebody say to him one time, w’yn’t you go on away f’om hyeah an’ mek somep’n’ out yorese’f? You got ‘telegence.’ Ha’ison, he go ‘long an’ shet his mouf, an’ don’ say nuffin’. So dey say ag’in, ‘Ha’ison, w’y don’ you go ‘long up Norf an’ git to be a Cong’ess-man, er somep’n’ ‘nothah?’ Den he say, ‘I don’ want to be no Cong’essman, ner nuffin else. I been a-drivin’ ol’ Mis’ fu’ lo, dese many yeahs, an’ I don’ want nuffin bettah den des to keep on drivin’ huh.’ W’y dat man, seemed lak he got proudah dan evah, ‘case hit wuzn’ de money he wuz lookin’ aftah; hit wuz de fambly. Anybody kin git money, but Gawd got to gin yo’ quality.

“I don’ lak to talk ’bout de res’ o’ it. But, de spring wagin an’ de hoss had to go w’en de Cun-nel laid down in de Valley, an’ hit wuz nigh onter a yeah fo’ ol’ Mis’ Stanton come out to chu’ch ag’in. But Ha’ison done eahned dat team o’ oxen an’ de cyart, an’ dey been comin’ in dat evah sence. She des ez sweet an’ ladyfied ez she evah wuz, an’ dat niggah des ez proud. I tell you, man, you kin kiver hit up wid rags a foot deep, but dey ain’ no way to keep real quality font showin’!”

The old man paused and got up, for the forgotten service was over and the people were filing out of church. When the old lady came out there were lifted hats and courtly bows all along her pathway, which she acknowledged with gentle gracefulness. Her coachman suddenly became alive again as he helped her Into the rude cart and climbed in beside her. She gave her hand to a slim, fine-faced man as he stopped to bid her good-by, then the oxen turned and moved off up the road whence they had come.


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