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- Bricks Without Straw - 5/87 -
customarily given by him on such occasions. And so the record was made up in the brass-clasped book of Colonel Potestatem Desmit, the only baptismal register of the colored man who twenty-six years afterward was wondering at the names which were seeking him against his will.
_697--Nimbus--of Lorency--Male--April 24th, 1840--Sound--Knapp-of-Reeds._
It was a queer baptismal entry, but a slave needed no more--indeed did not need that. It was not given for his sake, but only for the convenience of his godfather should the chattel ever seek to run away, or should it become desirable to exchange him for some other form of value. There was nothing harsh or brutal or degraded about it. Mr. Desmit was doing, in a business way, what the law not only allowed but encouraged him to do, and doing it because it paid.
THE JUNONIAN RITE.
"Ef yer please, Mahs'r, I wants ter marry?"
"The devil you do!"
"Yes, sah, if you please, sah."
"What's your name?"
"So: you're the curer at Knapp-of-Reeds, I believe?"
"Yes, sah." "That last crop was well done. Mr. Ware says you're one of the best hands he has ever known."
"Thank ye, Mahs'r," with a bow and scrape.
"What's the gal's name?"
"Yes, Vicey's gal--smart gal, too. Well, as I've about concluded to keep you both--if you behave yourselves, that is, as well as you've been doing--I don't know as there's any reason why you shouldn't take up with her."
"Thank ye, Mahs'r," very humbly, but very joyfully.
The speakers were the black baby whom Desmit had christened Nimbus, grown straight and strong, and just turning his first score on the scale of life, and Colonel Desmit, grown a little older, a little grayer, a little fuller, and a great deal richer--if only the small cloud of war just rising on the horizon would blow over and leave his possessions intact. He believed it would, but he was a wise man and a cautious one, and he did not mean to be caught napping if it did not.
Nimbus had come from Knapp-of-Reeds to a plantation twenty miles away, upon a pass from Mr. Ware, on the errand his conversation disclosed. He was a fine figure of a man despite his ebon hue, and the master, looking at him, very naturally noted his straight, strong back, square shoulders, full, round neck, and shapely, well-balanced head. His face was rather heavy--grave, it would have been called if he had been white--and his whole figure and appearance showed an earnest and thoughtful temperament. He was as far from that volatile type which, through the mimicry of burnt-cork minstrels and the exaggerations of caricaturists, as well as the works of less disinterested portrayers of the race, have come to represent the negro to the unfamiliar mind, as the typical Englishman is from the Punch-and-Judy figures which amuse him. The slave Nimbus in a white skin would have been considered a man of great physical power and endurance, earnest purpose, and quiet, self-reliant character. Such, in truth, he was. Except the whipping he had received when but a lad, by his master's orders, no blow had ever been struck him. Indeed, blows were rarely stricken on the plantations of Colonel Desmit; for while he required work, obedience, and discipline, he also fed well and clothed warmly, and allowed no overseer to use the lash for his own gratification, or except for good cause. It was well known that nothing would more surely secure dismissal from his service than the free use of the whip. Not that he thought there was anything wrong or inhuman about the whipping-post, but it was entirely contrary to his policy. To keep a slave comfortable, healthy, and good-natured, according to Colonel Desmit's notion, was to increase his value, and thereby add to his owner's wealth. He knew that Nimbus was a very valuable slave. He had always been attentive to his tasks, was a prime favorite with his overseer, and had already acquired the reputation of being one of the most expert and trusty men that the whole region could furnish, for a tobacco crop. Every step in the process of growing and curing--from the preparation of the seed-bed to the burning of the coal-pit, and gauging the heat required in the mud-daubed barn for different kinds of leaf and in every stage of cure--was perfectly familiar to him, and he could always be trusted to see that it was properly and opportunely done. This fact, together with his quiet and contented disposition, added very greatly to his value. The master regarded him, therefore, with great satisfaction. He was willing to gratify him in any reasonable way, and so, after some rough jokes at his expense, wrote out his marriage-license in these words, in pencil, on the blank leaf of a notebook:
MR. WARE: Nimbus and Lugena want to take up with each other. You have a pretty full force now, but I have decided to keep them and sell some of the old ones--say Vicey and Lorency. Neither have had any children for several years, and are yet strong, healthy women, who will bring nearly as much as the girl Lugena. I shall make up a gang to go South in charge of Winburn next week. You may send them over to Louisburg on Monday. You had better give Nimbus the empty house near the tobacco-barn. We need a trusty man there. Respectfully, P. DESMIT.
So Nimbus went home happy, and on the Saturday night following, in accordance with this authority, with much mirth and clamor, and with the half-barbarous and half-Christian ceremony--which the law did not recognize; which bound neither parties, nor master nor stranger; which gave Nimbus no rights and Lugena no privileges; which neither sanctified the union nor protected its offspring--the slave "boy" and "gal" "took up with each other," and began that farce which the victims of slavery were allowed to call "marriage." The sole purpose of permitting it was to raise children. The offspring were sometimes called "families," even in grave legal works; but there was no more of the family right of protection, duty of sustenance and care, or any other of the sacred elements which make the family a type of heaven, than attends the propagation of any other species of animate property. When its purpose had been served, the voice of the master effected instant divorce. So, on the Monday morning thereafter the mothers of the so-called bride and groom, widowed by the inexorable demands of the master's interests, left husband and children, and those fair fields which represented all that they knew of the paradise which we call home, and with tears and groans started for that living tomb, the ever-devouring and insatiable "far South."
LOUISBURG, January 10, 1864.
MR. SILAS WARE:
DEAR SIR: In ten days I have to furnish twenty hands to work on fortifications for the Confederate Government. I have tried every plan I could devise to avoid doing so, but can put it off no longer. I anticipated this long ago, and exchanged all the men I could possibly spare for women, thinking that would relieve me, but it makes no difference. They apportion the levy upon the number of slaves. I shall have to furnish more pretty soon. The trouble is to know who to send. I am afraid every devil of them will run away, but have concluded that if I send Nimbus as a sort of headman of the gang, he may be able to bring them through. He is a very faithful fellow, with none of the fool-notions niggers sometimes get, I think. In fact, he is too dull to have such notions. At the same time he has a good deal of influence over the others. If you agree with this idea, send him to me at once. Respectfully, P. DESMIT.
In accordance with this order Nimbus was sent on to have another interview with his master. The latter's wishes were explained, and he was asked if he could fulfil them. "Dunno," he answered stolidly.
"Are you willing to try?"
"S'pect I hev ter, ennyhow, ef yer say so."
"Now, Nimbus, haven't I always been a good master to you?" reproachfully.
"Haven't I been kind to you always?"
"Yer made Marse War' gib me twenty licks once."
"Well, weren't you saucy, Nimbus? Wouldn't you have done that to a nigger that called you a 'grand rascal' to your face?"
"S'pecs I would, Mahs'r."
"Of course you would. You know that very well. You've too much sense to remember that against me now. Besides, if you are not willing to do this I shall have to sell you South to keep you out of the hands of the Yanks."
Mr, Desmit knew how to manage "niggers," and full well understood the terrors of being "sold South." He saw his advantage in the flush of apprehension which, before he had ceased speaking, made the jetty face before him absolutely ashen with terror.
"Don't do dat, Marse Desmit, ef _you_ please! Don't do dat er wid Nimbus! Mind now, Mahs'r, I'se got a wife an' babies."
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