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- Bricks Without Straw - 20/87 -
and affirmed this cry and condoled with the victims of the oppression with much show of penitence, and an unappeasable wrath toward the instruments of the iniquity. Thus the voice of the people--that voice which is but another form of the voice of God--proclaimed these facts to the world, so that they must thenceforth be held indisputable and true beyond the utmost temerity of scepticism. The _facts_ remain. The puzzling _why_, let whosoever will endeavor to elucidate.
Perhaps the most outrageous and debasing of all the acts of the Bureau, in the eyes of those who love to term themselves "the South," was the fact that its officers and agents, first of all, allowed the colored man to be sworn in opposition to and in contradiction of the word of a white man.
That this should be exasperating and degrading to the Southern white man was most natural and reasonable. The very corner-stone of Southern legislation and jurisprudence for more than a hundred years was based upon this idea: the negro can have no rights, and can testify as to no rights or wrongs, as against a white man. So that the master might take his slave with him when he committed murder or did any other act in contravention of law or right, and that slave was like the mute eunuch of the seraglio, silent and voiceless before the law. Indeed, the law had done for the slave-owner, with infinitely more of mercy and kindness, what the mutilators of the upper Nile were wont to do for the keepers of the harems of Cairo and Constantinople--provided them with slaves who should see and hear and serve, but should never testify of what they saw and knew. To reverse this rule, grown ancient and venerable by the practice of generations, to open the mouths which had so long been sealed, was only less infamous and dangerous than to accord credence to the words they might utter. To do both was to "turn back the tide of time," indeed, and it passed the power of language to portray the anger, disgust, and degradation which it produced in the Southern mind. To be summoned before the officer of the Bureau, confronted with a negro who denied his most solemn averments, and was protected in doing so by the officer who, perhaps, showed the bias of the oppressor by believing the negro instead of the gentleman, was unquestionably, to the Southerner, the most degrading ordeal he could by any possibility be called upon to pass through.
From this it will be understood that Colonel Desmit passed a most uneasy night after Nimbus had left his house. He had been summoned before the Bureau! He had expected it. Hardly had he given way to his petulant anger when he recognized the folly of his course. The demeanor of the colored man had been so "sassy" and aggravating, however, that no one could have resisted his wrath, he was sure. Indeed, now that he came to look back at it, he wondered that he had been so considerate. He was amazed that he had not shot the impudent rascal on the spot instead of striking him with his walking-stick, which he was very confident was the worst that could be urged against him. However, that was enough, for he remembered with horror that, not long before, this same Bureau officer had actually imprisoned a most respectable and correct man for having whipped a "nigger" at work in his crop, who had been "too sassy" to be tolerated by any gentleman.
So it was with much trepidation that the old man went into the town the next morning, secured the services of a lawyer, and prepared for his trial before the "Bureau." Nimbus was intercepted as he came into town with his wife, and an attempt made to induce him to withdraw the prosecution, but that high-minded litigant would hear nothing of the proposed compromise. He had put his hand to the plow and would not look back. He had appealed to the law--"the Bureau" and only "the Bureau" should decide it. So Colonel Desmit and his lawyer asked a few hours' delay and prepared themselves to resist and disprove the charge of assault upon Nimbus. The lawyer once proposed to examine the papers in the case, but Desmit said that was useless--the boy was no liar, though they must make him out one if they could. So, at the time appointed, with his lawyer and train of witnesses, he went before "the Bureau," and there met Nimbus and his wife, Lugena.
"The Bureau" wore the uniform of a captain of United States infantry, and was a man about forty-five years of age, grave and serious of look, with an empty sleeve folded decorously over his breast. His calm blue eyes, pale, refined face, and serious air gave him the appearance of a minister rather than a ruthless oppressor, but his reputation for cruelty among certain people was as well established as that of Jeffreys. He greeted Mr. Desmit and his attorney with somewhat constrained politeness, and when they were seated proceeded to read the complaint, which simply recited that Colonel Desmit, having employed Lugena, the wife of complainant, at a given rate per month, had failed to make payment, and had finally, without cause, ordered her off his premises.
"Is that all?" asked the lawyer.
"That is all," answered the officer.
"Has no other complaint been lodged against Colonel Desmit?"
"We cannot--that is--we did not expect this," said the attorney, and then after a whispered consultation with his client, he added, "We are quite willing to make this matter right. We had entirely misunderstood the nature of the complaint."
"Have you any further complaint to make against Colonel Desmit?" asked the officer, of Nimbus.
"No," said that worthy, doubtfully. "He was pretty brash wid me, an' 'llowed ter hit me wid a stick; but he didn't--at least not ter speak on--so I don't make no 'count ob dat. 'Twas jes dis matter ob Lugeny's wuk dat made me bring him h'yer--nuffin' else."
"When did this matter of the stick occur?" asked the officer.
"On'y jes yeste'day, sah."
"Where was it?"
"Up ter Marse Potem's, sah. In his house."
"How did it happen?"
"Wal, you see, sah, I went up dar ter see ef I could buy a track ob lan" from him, an'--"
"What!" exclaimed Desmit, in astonishment. "You didn't say a word to me about land."
"No more I didn't," answered Nimbus, "kase yer didn't gib me no chance ter say a word 'bout it. 'Peared like de fus sight on me made yer mad, an' den yer jes feathered away on me, spite ob all I could do er say. Yer see, sah," to the officer, "I'd made a bit ob money in de wah, an' wanted ter see ef I could buy a bit ob pore lan' ob Marse Desmit--a track jes good fer nothin on'y fer a nigga ter starve on--but afore I could git to dat Marse Desmit got so uproarous-like dat I clean fergot what'twas I cum fer."
"There was evidently a misunderstanding," said the attorney.
"I should think so," said the officer, dryly. "You say you have no complaint to make about that affair?" he added to Nimbus. "No," said he; "'twan't a tingob any 'count, nohow. I can't make out what'twas made Marse Potem so fractious anyhow. I reckon, as he says, dar must hev ben some mistake about it. Ef he'll fix up dis matter wid Lugena, I hain't no mo' complaint, an' I'se mighty sorry 'bout dat, kase Marse Desmit hab allus been mighty kin' ter me--all 'cept dis time an' once afo'."
"There's the money for the woman," said the attorney, laying some bills on the officer's table; "and I may say that my client greatly regrets the unfortunate misunderstanding with one of the best of his old slaves. He desires me to say that the woman's services have been entirely satisfactory, and that she can keep right on under the contract, if she desires."
So that was settled. The officer discharged Colonel Desmit, commended Nimbus for the sensible view he had taken of the quarrel, and the parties gave way for other matters which awaited the officer's attention.
This would not seem to have been so very oppressive, but anything growing out of the war which had resulted so disastrously for him was hateful to Colonel Desmit, and we should not wonder if his grandchildren told over, with burning cheeks, the story of the affront which was offered to their ancestor in haling him before that infamous tribunal, "the Bureau," to answer a charge preferred by a "nigger."
TO HIM AND HIS HEIRS FOREVER.
After leaving the office of "the Bureau," the parties repaired to that of the lawyer, and the trade for the land which had been so inopportunely forestalled by Colonel Desmit's hasty temper was entered upon in earnest. That gentleman's financial condition was such as to render the three or four hundred dollars of ready money which Nimbus could pay by no means undesirable, while the property itself seemed of so little value as to be regarded almost as an incumbrance to the plantation of which it was a part. Such was its well-established reputation for poverty of soil that Desmit had no idea that the purchaser would ever be able to meet one of his notes for the balance of the purchase money, and he looked forward to resuming the control of the property at no distant day, somewhat improved by the betterments which occupancy and attempted use would compel the purchaser to make. He regarded the cash to be paid in hand as just so much money accidentally found in his pathway, for which, in no event, was he to render any _quid pro quo_. But of this he said nothing. It was not his business to look after the interests of a "sassy nigger." In fact, he felt that the money was in a sense due to him on account of the scurvy trick that Nimbus had played him, in deserting to the Yankees after agreeing to look after his "niggers" on the breast-works, although, as the event proved, his master would have gained nothing by his remaining. So the former master and slave met on the level of barter and sale, and gave and took in the conflict of trade.
Except the small tract just about the old hostel, which has already been mentioned, the plantation, which included Red Wing, was descended from an ancestor of the Richards family, who had come from the North about the close of the Revolution and "entered" an
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