In Which the Reader Is Introduced to a Man of Humanity
Late in the afternoon of a chilly day in February, two gentlemen were sitting alone over their wine, in a well-furnished dining parlor, in the town of P —— , in Kentucky. There were no servants present, and the gentlemen, with chairs closely approaching, seemed to be discussing some subject with great earnestness.
For convenience sake, we have said, hitherto, two gentlemen. One of the parties, however, when critically examined, did not seem, strictly speaking, to come under the species. He was a short, thick-set man, with coarse, commonplace features, and that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world. He was much over-dressed, in a gaudy vest of many colors, a blue neckerchief, bedropped gayly with yellow spots, and arranged with a flaunting tie, quite in keeping with the general air of the man. His hands, large and coarse, were plentifully bedecked with rings; and he wore a heavy gold watch-chain, with a bundle of seals of portentous size, and a great variety of colors, attached to it, — which, in the ardor of conversation, he was in the habit of flourishing and jingling with evident satisfaction. His conversation was in free and easy defiance of Murray's Grammar,* and was garnished at convenient intervals with various profane expressions, which not even the desire to be graphic in our account shall induce us to transcribe.
* English Grammar (1795), by Lindley Murray (1745-1826), the most authoritative American grammarian of his day.
His companion, Mr. Shelby, had the appearance of a gentleman; and the arrrangements of the house, and the general air of the housekeeping, indicated easy, and even opulent circumstances. As we before stated, the two were in the midst of an earnest conversation.
"That is the way I should arrange the matter," said Mr. Shelby.
"I can't make trade that way — I positively can't, Mr. Shelby," said the other, holding up a glass of wine between his eye and the light.
"Why, the fact is, Haley, Tom is an uncommon fellow; he is certainly worth that sum anywhere, — steady, honest, capable, manages my whole farm like a clock."
"You mean honest, as niggers go," said Haley, helping himself to a glass of brandy.
"No; I mean, really, Tom is a good, steady, sensible, pious fellow. He got religion at a camp-meeting, four years ago; and I believe he really did get it. I've trusted him, since then, with everything I have, — money, house, horses, — and let him come and go round the country; and I always found him true and square in everything."
"Some folks don't believe there is pious niggers Shelby," said Haley, with a candid flourish of his hand, "but I do. I had a fellow, now, in this yer last lot I took to Orleans — 't was as good as a meetin, now, really, to hear that critter pray; and he was quite gentle and quiet like. He fetched me a good sum, too, for I bought him cheap of a man that was 'bliged to sell out; so I realized six hundred on him. Yes, I consider religion a valeyable thing in a nigger, when it's the genuine article, and no mistake."
"Well, Tom's got the real article, if ever a fellow had," rejoined the other. "Why, last fall, I let him go to Cincinnati alone, to do business for me, and bring home five hundred dollars. 'Tom,' says I to him, 'I trust you, because I think you're a Christian — I know you wouldn't cheat.' Tom comes back, sure enough; I knew he would. Some low fellows, they say, said to him — Tom, why don't you make tracks for Canada?' 'Ah, master trusted me, and I couldn't,' — they told me about it. I am sorry to part with Tom, I must say. You ought to let him cover the whole balance of the debt; and you would, Haley, if you had any conscience."
"Well, I've got just as much conscience as any man in business can afford to keep, — just a little, you know, to swear by, as 't were," said the trader, jocularly; "and, then, I'm ready to do anything in reason to 'blige friends; but this yer, you see, is a leetle too hard on a fellow — a leetle too hard." The trader sighed contemplatively, and poured out some more brandy.
"Well, then, Haley, how will you trade?" said Mr. Shelby, after an uneasy interval of silence.
"Well, haven't you a boy or gal that you could throw in with Tom?"
"Hum! — none that I could well spare; to tell the truth, it's only hard necessity makes me willing to sell at all. I don't like parting with any of my hands, that's a fact."
Here the door opened, and a small quadroon boy, between four and five years of age, entered the room. There was something in his appearance remarkably beautiful and engaging. His black hair, fine as floss silk, hung in glossy curls about his round, dimpled face, while a pair of large dark eyes, full of fire and softness, looked out from beneath the rich, long lashes, as he peered curiously into the apartment. A gay robe of scarlet and yellow plaid, carefully made and neatly fitted, set off to advantage the dark and rich style of his beauty; and a certain comic air of assurance, blended with bashfulness, showed that he had been not unused to being petted and noticed by his master.
"Hulloa, Jim Crow!" said Mr. Shelby, whistling, and snapping a bunch of raisins towards him, "pick that up, now!"
The child scampered, with all his little strength, after the prize, while his master laughed.
"Come here, Jim Crow," said he. The child came up, and the master patted the curly head, and chucked him under the chin.
"Now, Jim, show this gentleman how you can dance and sing." The boy commenced one of those wild, grotesque songs common among the negroes, in a rich, clear voice, accompanying his singing with many comic evolutions of the hands, feet, and whole body, all in perfect time to the music.
"Bravo!" said Haley, throwing him a quarter of an orange.
"Now, Jim, walk like old Uncle Cudjoe, when he has the rheumatism," said his master.
Instantly the flexible limbs of the child assumed the appearance of deformity and distortion, as, with his back humped up, and his master's stick in his hand, he hobbled about the room, his childish face drawn into a doleful pucker, and spitting from right to left, in imitation of an old man.
Both gentlemen laughed uproariously.
"Now, Jim," said his master, "show us how old Elder Robbins leads the psalm." The boy drew his chubby face down to a formidable length, and commenced toning a psalm tune through his nose, with imperturbable gravity.
"Hurrah! bravo! what a young 'un!" said Haley; "that chap's a case, I'll promise. Tell you what," said he, suddenly clapping his hand on Mr. Shelby's shoulder, "fling in that chap, and I'll settle the business — I will. Come, now, if that ain't doing the thing up about the rightest!"
At this moment, the door was pushed gently open, and a young quadroon woman, apparently about twenty-five, entered the room.