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Dave’s Neckliss (1889)
by Charles Chessnut
“HAVE some dinner, Uncle Julius?” said my wife.
It was a Sunday afternoon in early autumn. Our two women-servants had gone to a camp-meeting some miles away, and would not return until evening. My wife had served the dinner, and we were just rising from the table, when Julius came up the lane, and, taking off his hat, seated himself on the piazza.
The old man glanced through the open door at the dinner-table, and his eyes rested lovingly upon a large sugar-cured ham, from which several slices had been cut, exposing a rich pink expanse that would have appealed strongly to the appetite of any hungry Christian.
“Thanky, Miss Annie,” he said, after a momentary hesitation, “I dunno ez I keers ef I does tas’e a piece er dat ham, ef yer’ll cut me off a slice un it.”
“No,” said Annie, “I won’t. Just sit down to the table and help yourself; eat all you want, and don’t be bashful.”
Julius drew a chair up to the table, while my wife and I went out on the piazza. Julius was in my employment; he took his meals with his own family, but when he happened to be about our house at meal-times, my wife never let him go away hungry.
I threw myself into a hammock, from which I could see Julius through an open window. He ate with evident relish, devoting his attention chiefly to the ham, slice after slice of which disappeared in the spacious cavity of his mouth. At first the old man ate rapidly, but after the edge of his appetite had been taken off he proceeded in a more leisurely manner. When he had cut the sixth slice of ham (I kept count of them from a lazy curiosity to see how much he could eat) I saw him lay it on his plate; as he adjusted the knife and fork to cut it into smaller pieces, he paused, as if struck by a sudden thought, and a tear rolled down his rugged cheek and fell upon the slice of ham before him. But the emotion, whatever the thought that caused it, was transitory, and in a moment he continued his dinner. When he was through eating, he came out on the porch, and resumed his seat with the satisfied expression of countenance that usually follows a good dinner.
“Julius,” I said, “you seemed to be affected by something, a moment ago. Was the mustard so strong that it moved you to tears?”
“No, suh, it wa’n’t de mustard; I wuz studyin’ ’bout Dave.”
“Who was Dave, and what about him?” I asked.
The conditions were all favorable to story-telling. There was an autumnal languor in the air, and a dreamy haze softened the dark green of the distant pines and the deep blue of the Southern sky. The generous meal he had made had put the old man in a very good humor. He was not always so, for his curiously undeveloped nature was subject to moods which were almost childish in their variableness. It was only now and then that we were able to study, through the medium of his recollection, the simple but intensely human inner life of slavery. His way of looking at the past seemed very strange to us; his view of certain sides of life was essentially different from ours. He never indulged in any regrets for the Arcadian joyousness and irresponsibility which was a somewhat popular conception of slavery; his had not been the lot of the petted house-servant, but that of the toiling field-hand. While he mentioned with a warm appreciation the acts of kindness which those in authority had shown to him and his people, he would speak of a cruel deed, not with the indignation of one accustomed to quick feeling and spontaneous expression, but with a furtive disapproval which suggested to us a doubt in his own mind as to whether he had a right to think or to feel, and presented to us the curious psychological spectacle of a mind enslaved long after the shackles had been struck off from the limbs of its possessor. Whether the sacred name of liberty ever set his soul aglow with a generous fire; whether he had more than the most elementary ideas of love, friendship, patriotism, religion, — things which are half, and the better half, of life to us; whether he even realized, except in a vague, uncertain way, his own degradation, I do not know. I fear not; and if not, then centuries of repression had borne their legitimate fruit. But in the simple human feeling, and still more in the undertone of sadness, which pervaded his stories, I thought I could see a spark which, fanned by favoring breezes and fed by the memories of the past, might become in his children’s children a glowing flame of sensibility, alive to every thrill of human happiness or human woe.
“Dave use’ ter b’long ter my ole marster,” said Julius; “he wuz raise’ on dis yer plantation, en I kin ‘member all erbout ‘im, fer I wuz ole ’nuff ter chop cotton w’en it all happen’. Dave wuz a tall man, en monst’us strong: he could do mo’ wuk in a day dan any yuther two niggers on de plantation. He wuz one er dese yer solemn kine er men, en nebber run on wid much foolishness, like de yuther darkies. He use’ ter go out in de woods en pray; en w’en he hear de han’s on de plantation cussin’ en gwine on wid dere dancin’ en foolishness, he use’ ter tell ’em ’bout religion en jedgmen’-day, w’en dey would haf ter gin account fer eve’y idle word en all dey yuther sinful kyarin’s-on.
“Dave had l’arn’ how ter read de Bible. Dey wuz a free nigger boy in de settlement w’at wuz monst’us smart, en could write en cipher, en wuz alluz readin’ books er papers. En Dave had hi’ed dis free boy fer ter l’arn ‘im how ter read. Hit wuz ‘g’in de law, but co’se none er de niggers didn’ say nuffin ter de w’ite folks ’bout it. Howsomedever, one day Mars Walker — he wuz de oberseah — foun’ out Dave could read. Mars Walker wa’n’t nuffin but a po’ bockrah, en folks said he couldn’ read ner write hisse’f, en co’se he didn’ lack ter see a nigger w’at knowed mo’ d’n he did; so he went en tole Mars Dugal’. Mars Dugal’ sont fer Dave, en ax’ ‘im ’bout it.
“Dave didn’t hardly knowed w’at ter do; but he couldn’ tell no lie, so he ‘fessed he could read de Bible a little by spellin’ out de words. Mars Dugal’ look’ mighty solemn.
“‘Dis yer is a se’ious matter,’ sezee; ‘it’s ‘g’in de law ter l’arn niggers how ter read, er ‘low ’em ter hab books. But w’at yer l’arn out’n dat Bible, Dave?’
“Dave wa’n’t no fool, ef he wuz a nigger, en sezee: —
“‘Marster, I l’arns dat it’s a sin fer ter steal, er ter lie, er fer ter want w’at doan b’long ter yer; en I l’arns fer ter love de Lawd en ter ‘bey my marster.’
“Mars Dugal’ sorter smile’ en laf’ ter hisse’f, like he ‘uz might’ly tickle’ ’bout sump’n, en sezee: —
“‘Doan ‘pear ter me lack readin’ de Bible done yer much harm, Dave. Dat’s w’at I wants all my niggers fer ter know. Yer keep right on readin’, en tell de yuther han’s w’at yer be’n tellin’ me. How would yer lack fer ter preach ter de niggers on Sunday?’
“Dave say he’d be glad fer ter do w’at he could. So Mars Dugal’ tole de oberseah fer ter let Dave preach ter de niggers, en tell ’em w’at wuz in de Bible, en it would he’p ter keep ’em fum stealin’ er runnin’ erway.
“So Dave ‘mence’ ter preach, en done de han’s on de plantation a heap er good, en most un ’em lef’ off dey wicked ways, en ‘mence’ ter love ter hear ’bout God, en religion, en de Bible; en dey done dey wuk better, en didn’ gib de oberseah but mighty little trouble fer ter manage ’em.
“Dave wuz one er dese yer men w’at didn’ keer much fer de gals, — leastways he didn’ tel Dilsey come ter de plantation. Dilsey wuz a monst’us peart, good-lookin’, gingybread-colored gal, — one er dese yer high-steppin’ gals w’at hol’s dey heads up, en won’ stan’ no foolishness fum no man. She had b’long’ ter a gemman over on Rockfish, w’at died, en whose ‘state ha’ ter be sol’ fer ter pay his debts. En Mars Dugal’ had b’en ter de oction, en w’en he seed dis gal a-cryin’ en gwine on ’bout bein’ sol’ erway fum her ole mammy, Aun’ Mahaly, Mars Dugal’ bid ’em bofe in, en fotch ’em ober ter our plantation.
“De young nigger men on de plantation wuz des wil’ atter Dilsey, but it didn’ do no good, en none un ’em couldn’ git Dilsey fer dey junesey, Note: Sweetheart. ‘tel Dave ‘mence’ fer ter go roun’ Aun’ Mahaly’s cabin. Dey wuz a fine-lookin’ couple, Dave en Dilsey wuz, bofe tall, en well-shape’, en soopl’. En dey sot a heap by one ernudder. Mars Dugal’ seed ’em tergedder one Sunday, en de nex’ time he seed Dave atter dat, sezee: —
“Dave, w’en yer en Dilsey gits ready fer ter git married, I ain’ got no rejections. Dey’s a poun’ er so er chawin’- terbacker up at de house, en I reckon yo’ mist’iss kin fine a frock en a ribbin er two fer Dilsey. Youer bofe good niggers, en yer neenter be feared er bein’ sol’ ‘way fum one ernudder long ez I owns dis plantation; en I ‘spec’s ter own it fer a long time yit.’
“But dere wuz one man on de plantation w’at didn’ lack ter see Dave en Dilsey tergedder ez much ez ole marster did. W’en Mars Dugal’ went ter de sale whar he got Dilsey en Mahaly, he bought ernudder han’, by de name er Wiley. Wiley wuz one er dese yer shiny-eyed, double-headed little niggers, sha’p ez a steel trap, en sly ez de fox w’at keep out’n it. Dis yer Wiley had be’n pesterin’ Dilsey ‘fo’ she come ter our plantation, en had nigh ’bout worried de life out’n her. She didn’ keer nuffin fer ‘im, but he pestered her so she ha’ ter th’eaten ter tell her marster fer ter make Wiley let her ‘lone. W’en he come ober to our place it wuz des ez bad, ‘tel bimeby Wiley seed dat Dilsey had got ter thinkin’ a heap ’bout Dave, en den he sorter hilt off aw’ile, en purten’ lack he gin Dilsey up. But he wuz one er dese yer ‘ceitful niggers, en w’ile he wuz laffin’ en jokin’ wid de yuther han’s ’bout Dave en Dilsey, he wuz settin’ a trap fer ter ketch Dave en git Dilsey back fer hisse’f.
“Dave en Dilsey made up dere min’s fer ter git married long ’bout Christmas time, w’en dey’d hab mo’ time fer a weddin’. But ‘long ’bout two weeks befo’ dat time ole mars ‘mence’ ter lose a heap er bacon. Eve’y night er so somebody ‘ud steal a side er bacon, er a ham, er a shoulder, er sump’n, fum one er de smoke-‘ouses. De smoke-‘ouses wuz lock’, but somebody had a key, en manage’ ter git in some way er ‘nudder. Dey’s mo’ ways ‘n one ter skin a cat, en dey’s mo’ d’n one way ter git in a smoke-‘ouse, — leastways dat’s w’at I hearn say. Folks w’at had bacon fer ter sell didn’ hab no trouble ’bout gittin’ rid un it. Hit wuz ‘g’in’ de law fer ter buy things fum slabes; but Lawd! dat law didn’ ‘mount ter a hill er peas. Eve’y week er so one er dese yer big covered waggins would come ‘long de road, peddlin’ terbacker en w’iskey. Dey wuz a sight er room in one er dem big waggins, en it wuz monst’us easy fer ter swop off bacon fer sump’n ter chaw er ter wa’m yer up in de winter-time. I s’pose de peddlers didn’ knowed dey wuz breakin’ de law, caze de niggers alluz went at night, en stayed on de dark side er de waggin; en it wuz mighty hard fer ter tell w’at kine er folks dey wuz.
“Atter two er th’ee hund’ed er meat had be’n stole’, Mars Walker call all de niggers up one ebenin’, en tol’ ’em dat de fus’ nigger he cot stealin’ bacon on dat plantation would git sump’n fer ter ‘member it by long ez he lib’. En he say he’d gin fi’ dollars ter de nigger w’at ‘skiver’ de rogue. Mars Walker say he s’picion’ one er two er de niggers, but he couldn’ tell fer sho, en co’se dey all ‘nied it w’en he ‘cuse em un it.
“Dey wa’n’t no bacon stole’ fer a week er so, ‘tel one dark night w’en somebody tuk a ham fum one er de smoke-‘ouses. Mars Walker des cusst awful w’en he foun’ out de ham wuz gone, en say he gwine ter sarch all de niggers’ cabins; w’en dis yer Wiley I wuz tellin’ yer ’bout up’n say he s’picion’ who tuk de ham, fer he seed Dave comin’ ‘cross de plantation fum to’ds de smoke-‘ouse de night befo’. W’en Mars Walker hearn dis fum Wiley, he went en sarch’ Dave’s cabin, en foun’ de ham hid under de flo’.
“Eve’ybody wuz ‘stonish’; but dere wuz de ham. Co’se Dave ‘nied it ter de las’, but dere wuz de ham. Mars Walker say it wuz des ez he ‘spected: he didn’ b’lieve in dese yer readin’ en prayin’ niggers; it wuz all ‘pocrisy, en sarve’ Mars Dugal’ right fer ‘lowin’ Dave ter be readin’ books w’en it wuz ‘g’in de law.
“W’en Mars Dugal’ hearn ’bout de ham, he say he wuz might’ly ‘ceived en disapp’inted in Dave. He say he wouldn’ nebber hab no mo’ conferdence in no nigger, en Mars Walker could do des ez he wuz a mineter wid Dave er any er de res’ er de niggers. So Mars Walker tuk’n tied Dave up en gin ‘im forty; en den he got some er dis yer wire clof w’at dey uses fer ter make sifters out’n, en tuk’n wrap’ it roun’ de ham en fasten it tergedder at de little een’. Den he tuk Dave down ter de blacksmif-shop, en had Unker Silas, de plantation black-smif, fasten a chain ter de ham, en den fasten de yuther een’ er de chain roun’ Dave’s neck. En den he says ter Dave, sezee: —
“‘Now, suh, yer’ll wear dat neckliss fer de nex’ six mont’s; en I ‘spec’s yer ner none er de yuther niggers on dis plantation won’ steal no mo’ bacon dyoin’ er dat time.’
“Well, it des ‘peared ez if fum dat time Dave didn’ hab nuffin but trouble. De niggers all turnt ag’in’ ‘im, caze he be’n de ‘casion er Mars Dugal’ turnin’ ’em all ober ter Mars Walker. Mars Dugal’ wa’n’t a bad marster hisse’f, but Mars Walker wuz hard ez a rock. Dave kep’ on sayin’ he didn’ take de ham, but none un ’em didn’ b’lieve ‘im.
“Dilsey wa’n’t on de plantation w’en Dave wuz ‘cused er stealin’ de bacon. Ole mist’iss had sont her ter town fer a week er so fer ter wait on one er her darters w’at had a young baby, en she didn’ fine out nuffin ’bout Dave’s trouble ‘tel she got back ter de plantation. Dave had patien’ly endyoed de finger er scawn, en all de hard words w’at de niggers pile’ on ‘im, caze he wuz sho’ Dilsey would stan’ by ‘im, en wouldn’ b’lieve he wuz a rogue, ner none er de yuther tales de darkies wuz tellin’ ’bout ‘im.
“W’en Dilsey come back fum town, en got down fum behine de buggy whar she be’n ridin’ wid ole mars, de fus’ nigger ‘ooman she met says ter her, —
“‘Is yer seed Dave, Dilsey?’
“No, I ain’ seed Dave,’ says Dilsey.
“‘Yer des oughter look at dat nigger; reckon yer wouldn’ want ‘im fer yo’ junesey no mo’. Mars Walker cotch ‘im stealin’ bacon, en gone en fasten’ a ham roun’ his neck, so he can’t git it off’n hisse’f. He sut’nly do look quare.’ En den de ‘ooman bus’ out laffin’ fit ter kill herse’f. W’en she got thoo laffin’ she up’n tole Dilsey all ’bout de ham, en all de yuther lies w’at de niggers be’n tellin’ on Dave.
“W’en Dilsey started down ter de quarters, who should she meet but Dave, comin’ in fum de cotton-fiel’. She turnt her head ter one side, en purten’ lack she didn’ seed Dave.
“Dilsey walk’ right on, en didn’ notice ‘im.
“Dilsey didn’ paid no ‘tention ter ‘im, en den Dave knowed some er de niggers be’n tellin’ her ’bout de ham. He felt monst’us bad, but he ‘lowed ef he could des git Dilsey fer ter listen ter ‘im fer a minute er so, he could make her b’lieve he didn’ stole de bacon. It wuz a week er two befo’ he could git a chance ter speak ter her ag’in; but fine’ly he cotch her down by de spring one day, en sezee: —
“‘Dilsey, w’at fer yer won’ speak ter me, en purten’ lack yer doan see me? Dilsey, yer knows me too well fer ter b’lieve I’d steal, er do dis yuther wick’ness de niggers is all layin’ ter me, — yer knows I wouldn’ do dat, Dilsey. Yer ain’ gwine back on yo’ Dave, is yer?’
“But w’at Dave say didn’ hab no ‘fec’ on Dilsey. Dem lies folks b’en tellin’ her had p’isen’ her min’ ‘g’in’ Dave.
“‘I doan wanter talk ter no nigger,’ says she, ‘w’at be’n whip’ fer stealin’, en w’at gwine roun’ wid sich a lookin’ thing ez dat hung roun’ his neck. I’s a ‘spectable gal, I is. W’at yer call dat, Dave? Is dat a cha’m fer ter keep off witches, er is it a noo kine er neckliss yer got?’
“Po’ Dave didn’ knowed w’at ter do. De las’ one he had ‘pended on fer ter stan’ by ‘im had gone back on ‘im, en dey didn’ ‘pear ter be nuffin mo’ wuf libbin’ fer. He couldn’ hol’ no mo’ pra’r-meetin’s, fer Mars Walker wouldn’ ‘low ‘im ter preach, en de darkies wouldn’ ‘a’ listen’ ter ‘im ef he had preach’. He didn’ eben hab his Bible fer ter comfort hisse’f wid, fer Mars Walker had tuk it erway fum ‘im en burnt it up, en say ef he ketch any mo’ niggers wid Bibles on de plantation he’d do ’em wuss’n he done Dave.
“En ter make it still harder fer Dave, Dilsey tuk up wid Wiley. Dave could see him gwine up ter Aun’ Mahaly’s cabin, en settin’ out on de bench in de moonlight wid Dilsey, en singin’ sinful songs en playin’ de banjer. Dave use’ ter scrouch down behine de bushes, en wonder w’at de Lawd sen’ ‘im all dem tribberlations fer.
“But all er Dave’s yuther troubles wa’n’t nuffin side er dat ham. He had wrap’ de chain roun’ wid a rag, so it didn’ hurt his neck; but w’eneber he went ter wuk, dat ham would be in his way; he had ter do his task, howsomedever, des de same ez ef he didn’ hab de ham. W’eneber he went ter lay down, dat ham would be in de way. Ef he turn ober in his sleep, dat ham would be tuggin’ at his neck. It wuz de las’ thing he seed at night, en de fus’ thing he seed in de mawnin’. W’eneber he met a stranger, de ham would be de fus’ thing de stranger would see. Most un ’em would ‘mence’ ter laf, en whareber Dave went he could see folks p’intin’ at him, en year ’em sayin: —
“‘W’at kine er collar dat nigger got roun’ his neck?’ er, ef dey knowed ‘im, ‘Is yer stole any mo’ hams lately?’ er ‘W’at yer take fer yo’ neckliss, Dave?’ er some joke er ‘nuther ’bout dat ham.
“Fus’ Dave didn’ mine it so much, caze he knowed he hadn’ done nuffin. But bimeby he got so he couldn’ stan’ it no longer, en he’d hide hisse’f in de bushes w’eneber he seed anybody comin’, en alluz kep’ hisse’f shet up in his cabin atter he come in fum wuk.
“It wuz monst’us hard on Dave, en bimeby, w’at wid dat ham eberlastin’ en etarnally draggin’ roun’ his neck, he ‘mence’ fer ter do en say quare things, en make de niggers wonder ef he wa’n’t gittin’ out’n his mine. He got ter gwine roun’ talkin’ ter hisse’f, en singin’ corn-shuckin’ songs, en laffin’ fit ter kill ’bout nuffin. En one day he tole one er de niggers he had ‘skivered a noo way fer ter raise hams, — gwine ter pick ’em off’n trees, en save de expense er smoke-‘ouses by kyoin’ ’em in de sun. En one day he up’n tole Mars Walker he got sump’n pertickler fer ter say ter ‘im; en he tuk Mars Walker off ter one side, en tole ‘im he wuz gwine ter show ‘im a place in de swamp whar dey wuz a whole trac’ er lan’ covered wid ham-trees.
“W’en Mars Walker hearn Dave talkin’ dis kine er fool-talk, en w’en he seed how Dave wuz ‘mencin’ ter git behine in his wuk, en w’en he ax’ de niggers en dey tole ‘im how Dave be’n gwine on, he ‘lowed he reckon’ he’d punish’ Dave ernuff, en it mou’t do mo’ harm dan good fer ter keep de ham on his neck any longer. So he sont Dave down ter de blacksmif-shop en had de ham tak off. Dey wa’n’t much er de ham lef’ by dat time, fer de sun had melt all de fat, en de lean had all swivel’ up, so dey wa’n’t but th’ee er fo’ poun’s lef’.
“W’en de ham had be’n tuk off’n Dave, folks kinder stopped talkin’ ’bout ‘im so much. But de ham had be’n on his neck so long dat Dave had sorter got use’ ter it. He look des lack he’d los’ sump’n fer a day er so atter de ham wuz tuk off, en didn’ ‘pear ter know w’at ter do wid hisse’f; en fine’ly he up’n tuk’n tied a lightered-knot ter a string, en hid it under de flo’ er his cabin, en w’en nobody wuzn’ lookin’ he’d take it out en hang it roun’ his neck, en go off in de woods en holler en sing; en he allus tied it roun’ his neck w’en he went ter sleep. Fac’, it ‘peared lack Dave done gone clean out’n his mine. En atter a w’ile he got one er de quarest notions you eber hearn tell un. It wuz ’bout dat time dat I come back ter de plantation fer ter wuk, — I had be’n out ter Mars Dugal’s yuther place on Beaver Crick for a mont’ er so. I had hearn ’bout Dave en de bacon, en ’bout w’at wuz gwine on on de plantation; but I didn’ b’lieve w’at dey all say ’bout Dave, fer I knowed Dave wa’n’t dat kine er man. One day atter I come back, me’n Dave wuz choppin’ cotton tergedder, w’en Dave lean’ on his hoe, en motion’ fer me ter come ober close ter ‘im; en den he retch’ ober en w’ispered ter me.
“‘Julius’, [sic] sezee, ‘did yer knowed yer wuz wukkin’ long yer wid a ham?’
“I couldn ‘magine w’at he meant. ‘G’way fum yer, Dave,’ says I. ‘Yer ain’ wearin’ no ham no mo’; try en fergit ’bout dat; ‘t ain’ gwine ter do yer no good fer ter ‘member it.’
“Look a-yer, Julius,’ sezee, ‘kin yer keep a secret?’
“‘Co’se I kin, Dave,’ says I. ‘I doan go roun’ tellin’ people w’at yuther folks says ter me.’
“‘Kin I trus’ yer, Julius? Will yer cross yo’ heart?’
“I cross’ my heart. ‘Wush I may die ef I tells a soul,’ says I.
“Dave look’ at me des lack he wuz lookin’ thoo me en ‘way on de yuther side er me, en sezee: —
“‘Did yer knowed I wuz turnin’ ter a ham, Julius?’
“I tried ter ‘suade Dave dat dat wuz all foolishness, en dat he oughtn’t ter be talkin’ dat-a-way, — hit wa’n’t right. En I tole ‘im ef he’d des be patien’, de time would sho’ly come w’en eve’ything would be straighten’ out, en folks would fine out who de rale rogue wuz w’at stole de bacon. Dave ‘peared ter listen ter w’at I say, en promise’ ter do better, en stop gwine on dat-a-way; en it seem lack he pick’ up a bit w’en he seed dey wuz one pusson didn’ b’lieve dem tales ’bout ‘im.
“Hit wa’n’t long atter dat befo’ Mars Archie McIntyre, ober on de Wimbleton road, ‘mence’ ter complain ’bout somebody stealin’ chickens fum his hen-‘ouse. De chickens kip’ on gwine, en at las’ Mars Archie tole de han’s on his plantation dat he gwine ter shoot de fus’ man he ketch in his hen-‘ouse. In less’n a week atter he gin dis warnin’, he cotch a nigger in de hen-‘ouse, en fill’ ‘im full er squir’l-shot. W’en he got a light, he ‘skivered it wuz a strange nigger; en w’en he call’ one er his own sarven’s, de nigger tole ‘im it wuz our Wiley. W’en Mars Archie foun’ dat out, he sont ober ter our plantation fer ter tell Mars Dugal’ he had shot one er his niggers, en dat he could sen’ ober dere en git w’at wuz lef’ un ‘im.
“Mars Dugal’ wuz mad at fus’; but w’en he got ober dere en hearn how it all happen’, he didn’ hab much ter say. Wiley wuz shot so bad he wuz sho’ he wuz gwine ter die, so he up’n says ter ole marster: —
“‘Mars Dugal’,’ sezee, ‘I knows I’s be’n a monst’us bad nigger, but befo’ I go I wanter git sump’n off’n my mine. Dave didn’ steal dat bacon w’at wuz tuk out’n de smoke-‘ouse. I stole it all, en I hid de ham under Dave’s cabin fer ter th’ow de blame on him — en may de good Lawd fergib me fer it.’
“Mars Dugal’ had Wiley tuk back ter de plantation, en sont fer a doctor fer ter pick de shot out’n ‘im. En de ve’y nex’ mawnin’ Mars Dugal’ sont fer Dave ter come up ter de big house; he felt kinder sorry fer de way Dave had be’n treated. Co’se it wa’n’t no fault er Mars Dugal’s, but he wuz gwine ter do w’at he could fer ter make up fer it. So he sont word down ter de quarters fer Dave en all de yuther han’s ter ‘semble up in de yard befo’ de big house at sun-up nex’ mawnin’.
“yearly in de mawnin’ de niggers all swarm’ up in de yard. Mars Dugal’ wuz feelin’ so kine dat he had brung up a bairl er cider, en tole de niggers all fer ter he’p deyselves.
“All dey han’s on de plantation come but Dave; en bimeby, w’en it seem lack he wa’n’t comin’, Mars Dugal’ sont a nigger down ter de quarters ter look fer ‘im. De sun wuz gittin’ up, en dey wuz a heap er wuk ter be done, en Mars Dugal’ sorter got ti’ed waitin’; so he up’n says: —
“‘Well, boys en gals, I sont fer yer all up yer fer ter tell yer dat all dat ’bout Dave’s stealin’ er de bacon wuz a mistake, ez I s’pose yer all done hearn befo’ now, en I’s mighty sorry it happen’. I wants ter treat all my niggers right, en I wants yer all ter know dat I sets a heap by all er my han’s w’at is hones’ en smart. En I want yer all ter treat Dave des lack yer did befo’ dis thing happen’, en mine w’at he preach ter yer; fer Dave is a good nigger, en has had a hard row ter hoe. En de fus’ one I ketch sayin’ anythin’ ‘g’in Dave, I’ll tell Mister Walker ter gin ‘im forty. Now take ernudder drink er cider all roun’, en den git at dat cotton, fer I wanter git dat Persimmon Hill trac’ all pick’ ober ter-day.’
“W’en de niggers wuz gwine ‘way, Mars Dugal’ tole me fer ter go en hunt up Dave, en bring ‘im up ter de house. I went down ter Dave’s cabin, but couldn’ fine ‘im dere. Den I look’ roun’ de plantation, en in de aidge er de woods, en ‘long de road; but I couldn’ fine no sign er Dave. I wuz ’bout ter gin up de sarch, w’en I happen’ fer ter run ‘cross a foot-track w’at look’ lack Dave’s. I had wukked ‘long wid Dave so much dat I knowed his tracks: he had a monst’us long foot, wid a holler instep, w’ich wuz sump’n skase ‘mongs’ black folks. So I follered dat track ‘cross de fiel’ fum de quarters ‘tel I got ter de smoke-‘ouse. De fus’ thing I notice’ wuz smoke comin’ out’n de cracks: it wuz cu’ous, caze dey hadn’ be’n no hogs kill’ on de plantation fer six mont’ er so, en all de bacon in de smoke-‘ouse wuz done kyoed. I couldn’ ‘magine fer ter sabe my life w’at Dave wuz doin’ in dat smoke-‘ouse. I went up ter de do’ en hollered: —
“Dey didn’ nobody answer. I didn’ wanter open de do’, fer w’ite folks is monst’us pertickler ’bout dey smoke-‘ouses; en ef de oberseah had a-come up en cotch me in dere, he mou’t not wanter b’lieve I wuz des lookin’ fer Dave. So I sorter knock at de do’ en call’ out ag’in: —
“‘O Dave, hit’s me — Julius! Doan be skeered. Mars Dugal’ wants yer ter come up ter de big house, — he done ‘skivered who stole de ham.’
“But Dave didn’ answer. En w’en I look’ roun’ ag’in en didn’ seed none er his tracks gwine way fum de smoke-‘ouse, I knowed he wuz in dere yit, en I wuz ‘termine’ fer ter fetch ‘im out; so I push de do’ open en look in.
“Dey wuz a pile er bark burnin’ in de middle er de flo’, en right ober de fier, hangin’ fum one er de rafters, wuz Dave; dey wuz a rope roun’ his neck, en I didn’ haf ter look at his face mo’ d’n once fer ter see he wuz dead.
“Den I knowed how it all happen’. Dave had kep’ on gittin’ wusser en wusser in his mine, ‘tel he des got ter b’lievin’ he wuz all done turnt ter a ham; en den he had gone en built a fier, en tied a rope roun’ his neck, des lack de hams wuz tied, en had hung hisse’f up in de smoke-‘ouse fer ter kyo.
“Dave wuz buried down by de swamp, in de plantation buryin’-groun’. Wiley didn’ died fum de woun’ he got in Mars McIntyre’s hen-‘ouse; he got well atter a w’ile, but Dilsey wouldn’ hab nuffin mo’ ter do wid ‘im, en ‘t wa’n’t long ‘fo’ Mars Dugal’ sol’ ‘im ter a spekilater on his way souf, — he say he didn’ want no sich a nigger on de plantation, ner in de county, ef he could he’p it. En w’en de een’ er de year come, Mars Dugal’ turnt Mars Walker off, en run de plantation hisse’f atter dat.
“Eber sence den,” said Julius in conclusion, “w’eneber I eats ham, it min’s me er Dave. I lacks ham, but I nebber kin eat mo’ d’n two er th’ee poun’s befo’ I gits ter studyin’ ’bout Dave, en den I has ter stop en leab de res’ fer ernudder time.”
There was a short silence after the old man had finished his story, and then my wife began to talk to him about the weather, on which subject he was an authority. I went into the house. When I came out, half an hour later, I saw Julius disappearing down the lane, with a basket on his arm.
At breakfast, next morning, it occurred to me that I should like a slice of ham. I said as much to my wife.
“Oh, no, John,” she responded, “you shouldn’t eat anything so heavy for breakfast.”
“The fact is,” she said, pensively, “I couldn’t have eaten any more of that ham, and so I gave it to Julius.”