In Old Plantation Days

The Trouble About Sophiny

Always on the plantation there had been rivalry between Julius, the coachman, and Anderson, the butler, for social leadership. Mostly it had been good-natured, with now and then a somewhat sharper contest when occasion demanded it. Mostly, too, Anderson had come off victorious on account of certain emoluments, honestly or dishonestly come by, that followed his position. Now, however, they were at loggerheads and there seemed no possible way to settle the matter in the usual amicable manner. Anderson swore dire things against Julius, and the latter would be satisfied with nothing less than his enemy’s destruction. There was no use in the peacemakers on the plantation trying to bring them together. They were sworn enemies and would have none of it. In fact, there was no way to adjudicate the affair, for it concerned no less a matter than who should have the right to take Miss Sophiny to the great ball that was to be given in her honor.

Perhaps you do not know that Miss Sophiny was maid to Mistress Fairfax, who was now on a visit to the Mordaunt plantation, and in the whole State the prettiest girl, black, brown, or yellow that had ever tossed her head, imitated her mistress and set her admirers wild. She was that entrancing color between brown and yellow which is light brown if you are pleasant and gingerbread if you want to hurt a body’s feelings. Also, Sophiny had lustrous, big black eyes that had learned from her mistress the trick of being tender or languishing at their owner’s will.

Mistress Fairfax and her maid had not been on the grounds a day before they had disrupted the whole plantation.

From the very first, Julius had paid the brown damsel devoted court. In fact, as the coachman, he had driven up from the station with her mistress and had the first chance to show her his gallantry. It is true that Anderson came into the lists immediately after, and found a dainty for her even before he had served her mistress, but it could not be denied that he was after Julius, and it was upon his priority of attention that the coachman based his claim to present precedence.

For days the contest between the two men was pretty balanced. Julius walked down the quarters’ road with her, but Anderson stood talking with her on the back veranda for nearly an hour. She went to the stables with the coachman to look over the horses, in which he took a special pride; but she dropped into the butler’s pantry to try his latest confection. She laughed at a joke by Julius, but said “You’re right” to a wise remark that Anderson made. Altogether, their honors seemed dangerously even.

Then the big house gave the grand ball for Mistress Fairfax, and the servants’ quarters could hardly wait to follow their example in giving something for the maid. It was here that the trouble arose. Their ball was to be a great affair. It was to be given in the largest of the cabins, and field and house were to unite to do honor to the fair one. But the question was: Who was to have the honor of escorting her to the ball?

Now it might be supposed that under ordinary circumstances such a matter would be left to the personal preference of the lady most concerned; but that is just where the observer makes his first mistake. His premise is wrong. This was no ordinary matter. Had the lady shown any decided preference for either one or the other of her suitors; had either even the shade of a hair an advantage over the other, it would all have been different. It would have resolved itself merely into a trial of personal influence and the vanquished would have laughed with his victor. But it was not so. Miss Sophiny had treated them both painfully alike. The one who took the lady would gain a distinct advantage over his fellow, and this must not be left to chance. They must settle outside their charmer’s knowledge once and for all as to which should ask and, as a consequence, be her escort.

Now it was at this time that the mirth-loving master, Stuart Mordaunt, took note of the affair. He saw that there was bad feeling between his butler and his coachman, and he was not long in finding out the cause thereof. There were many with the story waiting on their lips and anxious to tell him. The little tale filled Mordaunt with mischievous joy. He hurried to the house with the news that there was trouble on the plantation.

“Look a-here, Miss Caroline,” he said to his visitor, “I had no idea your coming was going to cause such a commotion on my place. Why, I really believe that I’m threatened with an uprising, and all about that maid of yours. It s really doubtful whether we shall be able to drive anywhere, and I am beginning to tremble for the serving of my meals, for all the trouble seems to center in my coachman and my butler.”

“Now, tell me, Mr. Stuart, what has that girl been doing now? Honestly, she s the plague of my life.”

“Oh, no more than her mistress did last winter down at the capitol. It s really remarkable what a lot of human nature horses and niggers have.”

“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself, Mr. Mordaunt? Pray, what did I do last winter at the capitol?”

“The whole case is as bad as it was between Captain Carter and Willis Breckinridge, and I m expecting the affair of honor between Julius and Anderson at any time. If you hear the sudden report of pistols you may all just know what it is and thank your maid Sophiny for bringing it about.”

Miss Caroline laughed heartily at her host’s bantering, but he went on in a tone of mock seriousness, “You may laugh, now, my lady, but I’ll warrant you’ll sing another tune if you have to go walking about this place or perchance have to set to work some of you and get your own dinners; and that’s what it will come to if this matter goes on much longer.”

The rivalry between the two servants had now run its course for some time, and as neither man seemed disposed to yield, it threatened to ruin the whole entertainment, which had been postponed from time to time to allow of an adjustment of the matter. Finally, when that night of pleasure was too visibly menaced, Jim, the un-regenerate, came forward with a solution of the problem. “Why,” he argued, “should Julius and Anderson be allowed to spoil the good time of the whole plantation by their personal disagreements and bickerings? What was it to the rest of them, who took Miss Sophiny, so she came and they had their dance? If the two must differ, why not differ like men and fight it out? Then, the one that whipped had the right to take the young lady.” Jim was primitive. He was very close to nature. He did not argue it out in just these words, but his fellows took his meaning, and they said, “That’s so.”

Now, neither Julius nor Anderson much favored the idea of fighting. Each wanted to save himself and look his best on the momentous night. But the fact that unless the matter were soon settled there would be no such night, and because the force of opinion all around pressed them, they accepted Jim’s solution of the problem and decided to fight out their differences.

Meanwhile there was an unholy twinkle in the eye of Miss Sophiny. She was not unmindful of all that was going on, but she kept her counsel.

Neither Julius nor his fellow servant was in particularly good fighting trim. One had been stiffened by long hours, both in winter and summer upon the carriage. The other had been softened by being much in the house and by over feeding. But as their disadvantages were equal these could not justly be taken into account and so are passed over.

As the plantation was manifesting a growing impatience for its festivities and the visitor’s stay was drawing to a close, they set the time for the encounter on the night after the matter was proposed. It was soon, but not too soon for some solicitous one to inform the master of what was going on.

The place chosen was one remote from the big house and behind an old dismantled smoke-house in which the card games were usually played of a Sunday. At the appointed time, the few who were in the secret gathered and formed a ring about the rivals, who faced each other stripped to the waist. There was not a great show of confidence or eagerness in their bearing, and there would have been less could they have known that their master with Miss Caroline and several members of the family were hiding just around the corner of the smoke-house, convulsed with laughter.

The two men were a funny sight as they stood there in the ring fearfully facing each other. Julius was tall and raw-boned, while Anderson was short and fat from much feeding. When the preliminaries were all arranged the fight began without further ceremony. Julius led with a heavy awkward blow that caught his opponent just above where the belt should have been, and Anderson grunted with a sound like a half-filled barrel. This was enough. The blow was immediately returned by the butler’s bending his head and butting his rival quickly and resoundingly. Before he could recover his upright position, however, the tall coachman had caught him under his arm and was trying to work havoc on his woolly pate. For a few minutes they danced around in this position, for all the world like two roosters when one shields his head under the other’s wing.

“Brek aloose,” cried Jim, excitedly, “brek aloose, dat ain’t no fist fightin’.”

The men separated and began to pummel each other at a distance and in good earnest. Anderson’s nose was bleeding, and Julius’ eye was closed to earthly scenes. They were both panting like engines.

At this juncture, thinking it had gone far enough, Mordaunt, with much ado to keep his face straight, emerged from behind the smoke-house. At first the combatants did not see him, so busily were they engaged, but the sound of scurrying feet as their spectators fled the scene, called them to themselves and they turned to meet the eyes of their master fixed upon them with a sternness that it was all he could do to maintain.

“Well, you are a pretty pair. Here, what is the meaning of this?”

The two men hung their heads. A giggle, pretty well-defined, came from behind the smoke-house, and they became aware that their master was not alone. They were covered with confusion.

“Get into your coats.” They hustled into their garments. “Now tell me what is the meaning of this?”

“We was des’ a fightin’ a little,” said Julius, sheepishly.

“Just for fun, I suppose?”

No answer.

“I say, just for fun?”

“Well, I seen huh fust,” Julius broke out like a big boy.

“Don’ keer ef yo’ did, I did mo’ talkin’ to huh, an’ I got de right to tek huh to th’ pa’ty, dat’s what I have.”

“Well, you’re a pretty pair,” repeated the master. “Has it ever occurred to you that Sophiny herself might have something to say as to who went with her?”

“Well, dat’s des’ what I say, but Julius he want to ax huh fus’ an’ so does I.”

“Anderson, I’m ashamed of you. Why ain’t you got sense enough to go together and ask her, and so settle the matter peacefully? If it wasn’t for the rest of the hands you should not have any dance at all. Now take yourselves to the house and don’t let me hear any more of this business.”

Mordaunt turned quickly on his heel as the combatants slipped away. His gravity had stood all that it could. As soon as he had joined the others he broke into a peal of laughter in which Miss Caroline and the rest joined him.

“Oh, you women,” he exclaimed, “didn’t I warn you that we should have an affair of honor on our hands? It’s worse, positively worse than Carter and Breckinridge.”

“Yes, it is worse,” assented Miss Caroline, mischievously, “for in this encounter some blood was drawn,” and they took their way merrily to the house.

Julius and Anderson were both glad of the relief that their master had brought to them and of the expedient he had urged for getting around their difficulty. They talked amicably of the plan as they pursued their way.

“I’ll go fix my eye an’ yo’ ten’ to yo’ nose, an’ den we’ll go an’ see Miss Sophiny togethah des’ lak Mas’ says.”

“All right, I’ll be ready in a minute.”

When they had somewhat repaired the damage to their countenances the coachman and the butler together set out to find the object of their hearts’ desire. Together, each one fearing to let the other talk too much, they laid their case before her.

Sophiny sat on the step of the back porch and swung one slender foot temptingly down and outward. She listened to them with a smile on her face. When they were through she laughed lightly and said, “Why, la, gentlemen, I done p’omised Mistah Sam long ‘go. He axed me soon’s he hyeahed ’bout it!” Then she laughed again.

Sam was a big field hand and not at all in the coachman’s and the butler’s social set. They turned away from the siren in silence and when they were some distance off they solemnly shook hands.


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