Sapphira and the Slave Girl

By Willa Cather






One morning in April Mrs. Blake arrived at the Mill House very early; she had been sent for soon after daybreak. She found her mother in the dining-room, awaiting her.

"Well, Rachel, it`s come at last. They tell me she went very quietly. I want you to go through the linen-press and take what is needed. Open the green chest in the garret and find one of the embroidered nightgowns I used to wear when I was a girl. They`ll be big enough for poor Jezebel now. If they`re yellow with lying so long, Nancy can bleach one with alum and hang it in the sun. Will Saturday be soon enough for the funeral? The weather`s not too warm?"

Her daughter agreed it was not. Mrs. Colbert motioned to the old man standing behind her chair. "Washington, tell Lizzie to come here."

In a few moments Lizzie appeared, having slipped on a clean apron and rubbed her face vigorously with the Master`s rumpled breakfast napkin. She was barefoot, as usual, and was struggling to swallow a last mouthful of batter-cake. No matter at what hour she was sent for, she was sure to be swallowing a last mouthful of something.

"Yes, Miss Sapphy?" Her hands were meekly crossed over her clean apron.

"Lizzie, I expect you to do me credit this time. I won`t have any skimping for the watchers, as there was when Manuel died."

Lizzie stared with astonishment and broke out fervently.

"Lawd-a`mighty, Miss Sapphy! Jest as if I`d think of bein` savin` fo` ole Aunt Jezebel! It never would cross my thought! Why, dat Manuel was jist a no-`count young boy, Missy."

"Boy or no boy, you put disgrace on me, and it was talked about all up and down the Creek. Cold batter-cakes and ponhos (1) for the watchers; who ever heard of such stinginess! Now remember, there will be two nights to cook for. You are to boil a ham and fry up plenty of middling meat. Mrs. Blake will tell you how many loaves of light bread (2) to bake, and there must be plenty of corn bread, and sugar-cakes and ginger-cakes. Master is going to invite all Mr. Lockheart`s niggers to come over and sit up, and likely some of Jezebel`s grandchildren will come out from Winchester."

 (1) Scrapple.

(2) "Light" bread meant bread of wheat flour, in distinction from corn bread.

 "Yes MAM!" Lizzie rolled her eyes that shone like black-and-white china marbles. "Yes mam! I sho`ly will put my bes` foot for`ard fo` ole Aunt Jezebel an` all de yeahs she carry. But dat triflin` li`l Manuel wa`nt no `count nohow, an` his pappy not much bettah--"

Mrs. Colbert held up her plump hand. "That will do, Lizzie. Remember this; if you don`t do me credit at Jezebel`s wake, I will send Bluebell back to Loudoun County for good, as sure as I sit here."

Lizzie put her two hands over her great bosom as if she were taking an oath. Sending Bluebell over to Loudoun County meant selling her there, and Lizzie knew it.

A few moments later Mrs. Blake, passing the kitchen on her way to Jezebel`s cabin, heard Lizzie`s malicious giggle. She stopped and looked in at the door. Lizzie was whispering to Bluebell, who sat drooping over the kitchen table, her elbows spread wide apart, as she sat day in and day out, supposedly helping her mother.

The Colberts, like all well-to-do families, had their own private burying-ground. It lay in a green field, and was enclosed by a wall,--flat slabs of brown stone laid one upon another, with a gate of wrought iron. A wide gravelled path divided the square plot in two halves. On one side were the family graves, with marble headstones. On the other side was the slaves` graveyard, with slate headstones bearing single names: "Dolly," "Thomas," "Manuel," and so on.

The mounds of masters and servants alike were covered with thick mats of myrtle. At this season innumerable sprays of new green shoots and star-like pale-blue blossoms shot out from the dark creeping vines which clung so close to the earth.

On Saturday afternoon the procession formed to carry Jezebel to the end of all her journeyings. Everyone was in black; the family, the neighbours from up and down the Creek, the Colbert negroes, and the slaves from down in the Hayfield country. Mrs. Blake`s little girls had few dresses of any kind, so they were draped in black shawls lent by their grandmother. Mrs. Colbert herself wore the black crepe she reserved for funerals. She was carried in her chair, and the miller, in his Sunday coat, walked beside her. They followed immediately behind the coffin, which was borne by four of Jezebel`s great-grandsons, come out from Winchester.

While they stood about the grave, Mr. Fairhead made a short address. He recalled Jezebel`s long wanderings; how she had come from a heathen land where people worshipped idols and lived in bloody warfare, to become a devout Christian and an heir to all the Promises. Perhaps her long old age had been granted her that she might fill out in years the full measure of a Christian life. After his last prayer, Lizzie and Bluebell sang "In the Sweet By and By," and the company dispersed. Jefferson and Washington, as the oldest servants, stayed behind with the great-grandsons to fill up the grave.

That night there was a big supper in the kitchen for the Colbert negroes and all the visitors; a first and second sitting at table. The darkies were always gay after a funeral, and this funeral had pleased everyone. "Miss Sapphy sho`ly give Jezebel a beautiful laying away," they all agreed.

Washington, serving his master and mistress in the big house, noticed that they, too, were more animated than usual, expressing their satisfaction that things had gone so well and that Jezebel`s young kinsmen had been able to come and carry her. The Master sat long at table; had two helpings of pudding and drank four cups of tea. When at last he rose, his wife said persuasively:

"Surely you don`t mean to go back to the mill tonight, Henry, with your good clothes on."

"Yes, I think I must. I have been away all day. I want to speak to those boys from town and give them a little money. They will be starting back late tonight. Good night, Sapphira. I expect you are tired, and I hope you sleep well."

"The same to you," she said with a placid smile, which changed to an expression of annoyance while her eyes followed him to the door. As she sat there alone, her face grew hard and bitter. A few hours ago, when she was being carried out of the graveyard after the burial, she had seen something which greatly disturbed her. Behind the dark cedars just outside the stone wall, her husband and Nancy stood in deep conversation. The girl was in an attitude of dejection, her head hanging down, her hands clasped together, and the Master, whatever he was saying, was speaking very earnestly, with affectionate solicitude. Sapphira had put her handkerchief to her eyes, afraid that her face might show her indignation. Never before had she seen him expose himself like that. Whatever he was pressing upon that girl, he was not speaking as master to servant; there was nothing to suggest that special sort of kindliness permissible under such circumstances. He was not uttering condolences. It was personal. He had forgotten himself. Now, as she sat at the table, opposite his empty chair, she felt her anger rising. She rang her bell for the old butler.

"Washington, you may take me to my room. Send Till to me."

Till got Mrs. Colbert into her ruffled nightgown, and stood brushing out her heavy hair. She felt there was something wrong. She began to talk soothingly about the old days at Chestnut Hill. The Mistress scarcely heard her. As she walked toward her bed on Till`s arm, she paused at the window, drew aside the long chintz curtains, and looked out toward the mill. There was a red patch in the darkness down there; the lights in the miller`s room were burning. She let the curtain fall and continued her way to the wide four-post bed. Till said good-night, blew out the candles, and went away.

Left alone, the Mistress could not go to sleep. Her training and her own good sense had schooled her to know that there are very few situations in life worth getting wrought up about. But tonight she was angry. She was hurt--and remorseful. Because she was hurt, her mind kept going back to Chestnut Hill and her father. She wished she had been kinder to him in the years when he was crippled and often in pain. She wished she had shown him a little tenderness. His eyes used to ask for it sometimes, she remembered. She had been solicitous and resolutely cheerful; kept him up to the mark, saw that his body servant neglected nothing. But she knew there was something he wanted more than he wanted clean linen every morning, or to have his tea just as he liked it. She had never given in to him, never humoured his weakness. In those days she had not known the meaning of illness. To be crippled and incapacitated, not to come and go at will, to be left out of things as if one were in one`s dotage--she had no realization of what that felt like, none at all. Invalids were to be kept clean and comfortable, greeted cheerily; that was their life.

The longer she lay awake thinking of those things in the far past, the more lonely and wretched and injured she felt herself to be tonight. Her usual fortitude seemed to break up altogether. She reached for it, but it was not there. Strange alarms and suspicions began to race through her mind. How far could she be deceived and mocked by her own servants in her own house? What was the meaning of that intimate conversation which had gone on under her very eyes this afternoon?

Unable to lie still any longer, she got cautiously out of bed, reaching for her cane and her armchair. Pushing the chair along beside her, she got to the window and again held back the curtain. The ruddy square of light still burned in the dark mill. She sat down in the chair and reflected. Hours ago she had heard Nancy put her straw tick outside the door. But was she there now? Perhaps she did not always sleep there. A substitute?--There were four young coloured girls, not counting Bluebell, who might easily take Nancy`s place on that pallet. Very likely they did take her place, and everyone knew it. Could Till, even, be trusted? Besides, Till went early to her cabin--she would be the last to know.

The Mistress sat still, scarcely breathing, overcome by dread. The thought of being befooled, hoodwinked in any way, was unendurable to her. There were candles on her dressing-table, but she had no way to light them. Her throat was dry and seemed closed up. She felt afraid to call aloud, afraid to take a full breath. A faintness was coming over her. She put out her hand and resolutely rang her clapper bell.

The chamber door opened, and someone staggered in.

"Yes mam, yes mam! Whassa matter, Missy?"

Nancy`s sleepy, startled voice. Mrs. Colbert dropped back in her chair and drew a long, slow breath. It was over. Her shattered, treacherous house stood safe about her again. She was in her own room, wakened out of a dream of disaster.--But she must see it through, what she had begun.

"Nancy, I`m taken bad. Run out to the kitchen and blow up the coals and put the kettle on. Then go for your mother. I must get my feet into hot water."

Nancy scurried down the long hall and out to the kitchen. She was wide awake now, and alarmed. She wasn`t a girl to hold a grudge.

Till came, sooner than her mistress would have thought possible. Nancy brought the foot-tub and the big iron teakettle. Till sat on the floor rhythmically stroking her mistress`s swollen ankles and knees, murmuring: "It`s all right, Missy. They is no worse than common. It`s just a chill you caught, waitin` out there by the graveside."

When the Mistress was again put to bed, Till begged to stay with her. But Mrs. Colbert, comforted by the promptness and sympathy of her servants, thanked them both, said the pain was gone now, and she would sleep better alone. As they helped her from her chair she had looked once more from her window: the miller`s lights were still burning in the west room of the mill. Was the man worrying over some lawsuit he had never told her about, she wondered? Or was he, perhaps, reading his religious books? She knew he pondered at times upon how we are saved or lost. That was the disadvantage of having been raised a Lutheran. In her Church all those things had been decided long ago by heads much wiser than Henry`s. She had married the only Colbert who had a conscience, and she sometimes wished he hadn`t quite so much.

Behind the square of candlelight down there, the miller, in his mill clothes, was sitting with his Bible open on the table before him, but he was no longer reading. Jezebel`s life, as Mr. Fairhead had summed it up, seemed a strange instance of predestination. For her, certainly, her capture had been a deliverance. Yet he hated the whole system of slavery. His father had never owned a slave. The Quakers who came down from Pennsylvania believed that slavery would one day be abolished. In the North there were many people who called themselves abolishers.

Henry Colbert knew he had a legal right to manumit any of his wife`s negroes; but that would be an outrage to her feelings, and an injustice to the slaves themselves. Where would they go? How would they live? They had never learned to take care of themselves or to provide for tomorrow. They were a part of the Dodderidge property and the Dodderidge household. Of all the negro men on the place, Sampson, his head mill-hand, was the only one who might be able to get work and make a living out in the world. He was a tall, straight mulatto with a good countenance, thoughtful, intelligent. His head was full behind the ears, shaped more like a melon lying down than a peanut standing on end. Colbert trusted Sampson`s judgment, and believed he could get a place for him among the Quaker mills in Philadelphia. He had considered buying Sampson from Sapphira and sending him to Pennsylvania a free man.

Three years ago he had called Sampson into his room one night, and proposed this plan to him. Sampson did not interrupt; he stood in his manly, responsible way, listening intently to his master. But when it was his turn to speak, he broke down. This was his home. Here he knew everybody. He didn`t want to go out among strangers. Besides, Belle, his wife, was a slack worker, and his children were little. He could never keep them in a city as well off as they were here. What ever had put such a notion in Mister Henry`s head? Wasn`t he real smart about his work? Belle, he knew, wasn`t much account to help down at the house, but she was good to the chillun, an` she didn`t do no harm. Anyhow, he`d a`most sooner leave the chillun than leave the mill, when they`d got everything fixed up so nice and could bolt finer white flour than you could buy in town.

"I guess I`d miss you more than you`d miss the mill, Sampson. We`ll say no more about it, if that`s how you feel," said the miller, rising and putting his hand on Sampson`s shoulder. There it ended. Sampson never afterward referred to this proposal, nor did his master.

On this night after Jezebel`s burial, Henry Colbert had been reading over certain marked passages in the Book he accepted as a complete guide to human life. He had turned to all the verses marked with a large S. Joseph, Daniel, and the prophets had been slaves in foreign lands, and had brought good out of their captivity. Nowhere in his Bible had he ever been able to find a clear condemnation of slavery. There were injunctions of kindness to slaves, mercy and tolerance. _Remember them in bonds as bound with them._ Yes, but nowhere did his Bible say that there should be no one in bonds, no one at all.--And Henry had often asked himself, were we not all in bonds? If Lizzie, the cook, was in bonds to Sapphira, was she not almost equally in bonds to Lizzie?

The miller knew the hour must be getting late. His big silver watch he had left up at the house, on his wife`s dressing-table. But he and the negroes could tell time by the stars. At this season of the year, if the Big Dipper had set under the dark spruce-clad hills behind Rachel`s house, it would be past midnight. He opened his north window and looked out. Yes, the Dipper had gone down. The air of the soft, still, spring night came in at the window. There was no sound but the creek, pouring steadily over its rocky bottom. As he stood there, he repeated to himself some verses of a favourite hymn:

      God moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform. * * * * * * * * Deep in unfathomable mines Of never failing skill, He treasures up His bright designs And works His sovereign will.

 We must rest, he told himself, on our confidence in His design. Design was clear enough in the stars, the seasons, in the woods and fields. But in human affairs--? Perhaps our bewilderment came from a fault in our perceptions; we could never see what was behind the next turn of the road. Whenever he went to Winchester, he called upon a wise old Quaker. This man, though now seventy, firmly believed that in his own lifetime he would see one of those great designs accomplished; that the Lord had already chosen His heralds and His captains, and a morning would break when all the black slaves would be free.






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