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- The Law of the Land - 10/49 -
now, there at the Big House, instead of being the only man ever known to turn back upon its door. But for his sudden choler, he reflected, he might perhaps at this very moment be within seeing and speaking distance of this tall girl of the scarlet ribbons, the very same whose presence he had vaguely felt about the place all that morning, in the occasional sound of a distant song, or the rush of feet upon the gallery, or the whisk of skirts frequently heard. The memory of that picture clung fast and would not vanish. She was so very beautiful, he reflected. It had been pleasanter to sit at table in such company than thus here alone, hungry, like an outcast.
He felt his gaze, like that of a love-sick boy, turning again and again toward the spot where he had seen her last. The realization of this angered him. He rebuked himself sternly, as having been unworthy of himself, as having been light, as having been unmanly, in thus allowing himself to be influenced by a mere irrational fancy. He summoned his strength to banish this chimera, and then with sudden horror which sent his brow half-moist, he realized that his faculties did not obey, that he was thinking of the same picture, that his eyes were still coveting it, his heart--ah, could there be truth in these stories of sudden and uncontrollable impulses of the heart? The very whisper of it gave him terror. His brow grew moister. For him, John Eddring--what could the world hold for him but this one thing of duty?
Duty! He laughed at the thought. These two iron bands before his eyes irked his soul, binding him, as they did, hard and fast to another world full of unwelcome things. There came again and again to his mind this picture of the maid with the bright ribbons. He gazed at the distant spot beneath the evergreens where he had seen her. He could picture so distinctly her high-headed carriage, the straight gaze of her eyes, the glow on her cheeks; could restore so clearly the very sweep of the dark hair tumbled about her brow. Smitten of this sight, he would fain have had view again. Alas! it was as when, upon a crowded street, one gazes at the passing figure of him whose presence smites with the swift call of friendship--and turns, only to see this unknown friend swallowed up in the crowd for ever. Thus had passed the view of this young girl of the Big House; and there remained no sort of footing upon which he could base a hope of a better fortune. Henceforth he must count himself apart from all Big House affairs. He was an outcast, a pariah. Disgusted, he rose from his rude seat at the window ledge and walked up the platform. He found it too sunny, and returned to take a seat again upon a broken truck near by.
There was a little country store close to the platform, so built that it almost adjoined the ware-room of the railway station; this being the place where the colored folk of the neighborhood purchased their supplies. At the present moment, this building seemed to lack much of its usual occupancy, yet there arose, now and again, sounds of low conversation partly audible through the open window. The voices were those of negroes, and they spoke guardedly, but eagerly, with some peculiar quality in their speech which caught the sixth sense of the Southerner, accustomed always to living upon the verge of a certain danger. The fact that they were speaking thus in so public a place, and at the mid-hour of the working day, was of itself enough to attract the attention of any white dweller of that region.
"I tell yuh," said one, "it's gone fah 'nough. Who runs de fahms, who makes de cotton, who does de wu'k for all dis heah lan'? Who used to run de gov'ment, and who orter now, if it ain't us black folks? Dey throw us out, an' dey won't let us vote, an' we-all know we gotter right to vote. Dey say a nigger ain't fitten ter do nothin' but wu'k, wu'k, wu'k. Nigger got good a right to live de way he want ter as de white man is. Now it's time fer change. De Queen, you-all knows, she done say de time come fer a change."
A low growl, as from the throats of feeding beasts, greeted this comment. Footfalls, shuffling, approached the speaker.
"Tom Sands is daid, dat's whut he is," resumed the first speaker, "leastways as good as daid, 'cause he's just a-layin' thah an' kain't move er speak. An' look at me, look at my haid. De ol' man hit him pow'ful hahd, an' ef he didn't hit me jest de same, it wasn't no fault o' his'n, I tell you. He jes' soon killed bof of us niggers thah as not. Whaffor? He want we-all to come inter town an' git fined, git into jail ag'in." More growls than one greeted this, and then there came silence for a while.
"My ol' daddy done tol' me twenty-five yeah ago," said the first speaker, "dat de time was a-goin' ter come. Dey wus onct a white man f'om up Norf come all over dis country, fifty yeah ago, an' he preached it ter de niggers befo' de wah dat some day de time gwine come. We wus ter raise up all over the Souf an' kill all de white folks, an' den all de white women--
"We wus ter kill all de white men," at length resumed the same voice. "De white men f'om de Norf wus ter ride intoe de towns den an' rob all de banks an' divide de money wid we-all, an' dey wus to open de sto's and give ebery nigger all de goods he want wifout paying nuthin' fer 'em; and den nigger ain't gwine to wu'k no mo'.
"Dat white man and his folks, my ol' daddy said, fifty yeah ago, dey wu'k secret all over the Souf, from Tenn'ssee ter Louisian'. Dat was fifty yeah ago, but my ol' daddy say when he was a piccaninny, dis heah thing got out somehow an' de white folks down Souf dey cotch dis white man f'om de Norf, an' done hang him, an' dey done hang and burn a heap o' niggers all over de Souf.
"Dat wus long time befo' de wah. Dey tol' us-all dat de time wuz sho' comin' den; but den de preachers and de doctors dey tol' us-all it mightn't be come den, but it would come some day. Den 'long come de wah, an' de preachers an' de doctors an' de white folks up Norf dey done tol' us, nigger gwine ter be free, not to have ter wu'k no mo'. Huh! Now look at us! We wu'k jest as hard as we ever did, an' we git no mo' fer it dan whut we eat an' weah. We kain't vote. Dey done robbed us outen dat. We kain't be nobody. We kain't git 'long. We hatter wu'k jest same, wu'k, wu'k, wu'k, all de time. Nigger jest as well be daid as hatter wu'k all de time--got no vote, ner nuthin'. Dat's whut de Queen she done tol' me right plain las' meetin' we had. She say white folks up Norf gwine to help nigger now, right erlong. Things gwine be different now, right soon."
Murmurs, singularly stirring, peculiarly ominous, answered this extended speech. Encouraged, the orator went on. "We ain't good as slaves, we-all ain't. We wu'k jest ez hahd. Dey gin us a taste o' de white bread, an' den dey done snatch it 'way f'om us. We want ter be like white folks. Up Norf dey tell us we gwine ter be, but down heah dey won't let us."
Now suddenly the voice broke into a wail and rose again in a half- chant. Evidently the storekeeper was absent, perhaps across the way for his dinner. The building was left to the blacks. Without premeditation, those present had dropped into one of those "meetings" which white men of that region never encourage.
"Dey brung us heah in chains, O Lord!" shouted the orator. "Yea, in chains dey done weigh us down! O Lord, make us delivery. O Lord, smite down ouah oppressohs."
"Lord! Lord! yea, O Lord, smite down!" responded the ready chorus. And there were sobs and strange savage gutterals which no white ear may ever fully understand. The white listener on the station platform understood enough, and his eager face grew tense and grave. A meeting of the blacks, thus bold at such a time, meant nothing but danger, perhaps danger immediate and most serious.
The wild chant rose and fell in a sudden gust, and then the voice went on. "De time is heah; I seen it in a dream, I seen it in a vision f'om de Lord. De Lord done tell it to de Queen, and done say ter me, 'Rise, rise and slay mightily. Take de land o' de oppressoh, take his women away f'om him an' lay de oppressoh in de dus'! Cease dy labors, Gideon, cease an' take dy rest! Enter into de lan', O Gideon, an' take it foh dyself! O, Lord, give us de arm of de Avengeh. I seen it, I seen it on de sky! I done seen it foh yeahs, an' now I seen it plain! De moon have it writ on her face las' night, de birds sing it in de trees, de chicken act it in his talk dis vehy mawnin'. De dog he howl it out las' night. De sun he show it plain dis vehy day. De trees say it, now weeks an' weeks. All de worl' say to nigger now, jes' like he heah it fifty yeah ago, jes' like he heah it in de wah we made--'De Time, de Time!' I heah it in my ears. I kain't heah nuthin' else but dat--'De Time, de Time am heah!' Nuthin' but jes' dis heah, 'De Time, de Time am heah!'"
And now there ensued a yet stranger thing. There was no further voice of the orator; but thee arose a wild, plaintive sound of chanting, a song which none but those who sang it might have understood. Its savage unison rose and fell for just one bar or so, and then sank to sudden silence. There came a quick shuffling of feet in separation. The group fell apart. The store was empty! Out in the open air, under the warm summons of the sun, there passed a merry, laughing group of negroes, happy, care-free, each humming the burden of some simple song, each slouching across the road, as though ease and the warm sun filled all his soul! Dissimulation and secretiveness, seeded in savagery, nourished in oppression, ingrained in the soul for generations, are part of a nature as opaque to the average Caucasian eye as is the sable skin of Africa itself.
They scattered, but a keen eye followed them. Eddring saw that they began to come together again at different points, group joining group, and all bending their steps toward the edge of the surrounding forest. Had the owner of the Big House, or any planter thereabout, seen this gathering at the midday hour, when the people should have been at their work, he would assuredly have stopped them and made sharp questioning. But at the moment the storekeeper was at home asleep in his noonday nap; the owner of the Big House had problems of his own, and, as it chanced, none of the neighboring planters was at the railroad station. John Eddring, now fully alert, looked sharply about him, then slipped down from the railway platform. He crossed a little field by a faint path, and hurried off to the shadow of the woods, his course paralleling the forest road as nearly as might be.
At half-past three that afternoon, at a point five miles from the railway station, there was enacted a scene which might more properly have claimed as its home a country far distant from this. Yet there was something fitting in this environment. All around swept the heavy, solemn forest, its giant oaks draped here and there with the funereal Spanish moss. A ghostly sycamore, a mammoth gum-tree now and then thrust up a giant head above the lesser growth. Smaller trees, the ash, the rough hickory, the hack-berry, the mulberry, and in the open glades the slender persimmon and the stringy southern birches crowded close together. Over all swept the masses of thick cane growth, interlaced with tough vines of grape and creeping, thorned briers. It was the jungle. This might have been Africa itself!
And it might have been Africa itself which produced the sound that now broke upon the ear--a deep, single, booming note which caused the brooding air of the ancient wood to shiver as though in apprehension. There had been faint forest sounds before that note broke out: the small birds running up and down the tree-trunks had chirped and
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