Chapter III. Uncle Sheba's Experience
 

Many years have elapsed since the events narrated in the last chapter occurred, and the thread of story is taken up again in the winter of 1886. In a small dwelling, scarcely more than a cabin, and facing on an obscure alley in Charleston, a rotund colored woman of uncertain age is sitting by the fire with her husband. She is a well-known character in the city, for she earns her bread by selling cakes, fruits, and other light articles which may be vended in the street with chances of profit. Although "Aun' Sheba," as she was familiarly called, had received no training for mercantile pursuits, yet her native shrewdness had enabled her to hit upon the principles of success, as may be discovered by the reader as the story progresses. She had always been so emphatically the master of the house and the head of the family, that her husband went by the name of "Uncle Sheba." It must be admitted that the wife shared in the popular opinion of her husband.

When in an amiable mood, which, happily, was her usual condition of mind, she addressed him as "Unc.;" when some of his many short-comings exhausted her good-nature--for Aun' Sheba had more good-nature than patience--he was severely characterized as "Mr. Buggone." Since they had been brought up in Major Burgoyne's family, they felt entitled to his surname, and by evolution it had become "Buggone." Uncle Sheba's heart failed him when his wife addressed him by this title, for he knew he was beyond the dead line of safety. They dwelt alone in the cabin, their several children, with one exception, having been scattered they knew not where. Adjacent was another cabin, owned by a son-in-law, named Kern Watson, who had married their youngest daughter years before, and he was the pride of Aun' Sheba's heart. Uncle Sheba felt that he was not appreciated, or perhaps appreciated too well, by his son-in-law, and their intercourse was rather formal.

On the evening in question, supper was over, but the table had not yet been cleared. Uncle Sheba was a good deal of an epicure, and, having left not a scrap of what his wife had vouchsafed to him, was now enjoying his corn-cob pipe. Aun' Sheba also liked a good square meal as much as any one, and she had the additional satisfaction that she had earned it. At this hour of the day she was usually very tired, and was accustomed to take an hour's rest before putting her living-room in order for the night. Although the twilight often fell before she returned from her mercantile pursuits, she never intrusted Uncle Sheba with the task of getting supper, and no housekeeper in the city kept her provisions under lock and key more rigorously than did Aun' Sheba. After repeated trials, she had come to a decision. "Mr. Buggone," she had said in her sternest tones, "you's wuss dan poah white trash when you gets a chance at de cubbard. Sence I can't trus' you nohow, I'se gwine to gib you a 'lowance. You a high ole Crischun, askin' for you'se daily bread, an' den eatin' up 'nuff fer a week."

Uncle Sheba often complained that he was "skimped," but his appearance did not indicate any meagreness in his "'lowance," and he had accepted his lot in this instance, as in others, rather than lose the complacent consciousness that he was provided for without much effort on his part.

Supper was Aun' Sheba's principal meal, and she practically dined at the fashionable hour of six. What she termed her dinner was a very uncertain affair. Sometimes she swallowed it hastily at "Ole Tobe's rasteran," as she termed the eating-room kept by a white-woolled negro; again she would "happen in" on a church sister, when, in passing, the odor of some cookery was appetizing. She always left, however, some compensation from her basket, and so was not unwelcome. Not seldom, also, a lady or a citizen who knew her well and the family to which she had once belonged, would tell her to go to the kitchen. On such days Aun' Sheba's appetite flagged at supper, a fact over which her husband secretly rejoiced, since his allowance was almost double.

She was now resting after the fatigues of the day, and the effort to get and dispose of a very substantial supper, and was puffing at her pipe in a meditative aspect. Evidently something unusual was on her mind, and she at last ejaculated, "I know dey'se poah."

"Who's?" languidly queried Uncle Sheba.

"Oh, you'd neber fin' out. Dey'd starve long o' you."

"I dunno who dey is. What 'casion I got to pervide for dey?"

"Ha, ha, ha, Unc.! You'se a great pervider. Somehow or oder I'se got de notion dat you'se a 'sumer."

"I bress de Lawd my appetite am' failin' in spite ob de rheumatiz."

"If you rheumatiz was only in you jints, dere'd be a comfort in keerin' fer you, Unc., but it's in you min'."

"You'll cotch it some day, an' den you know what 'tis. But who's dey dat you got on you min'?"

"Why, de young Missy and de ole Missus to be sho'."

"I don't see how dey can be poah. Dey mus' hab kep' someting out all dey had."

"So dey did, but it wan't much, an' I jus' b'lebe it's clar dun gone!"

"What! de plantation in Virginny all gone?"

"How often I tole you, Unc., dat I heard ole Missus say herself dat plantation was all trompl'd in de groun' an' what was lef' was took fer taxes."

"I forgits," remarked Uncle Sheba, his eyes growing heavy in his lack of interest; "but ole Marse Wallingford mus' hab lef' de widder ob his son someting."

"Now look heah, Unc., you'se haf asleep. You'se 'lowance too hebby dis ebenin'. How you forgit when I tell you ober an' ober? You doan keer. Dat's de foot de shoe's on. You know ole Marse Wallingford's plantation was trompl'd in de groun' too--not a stick or stone lef' by Sherman's sogers."

"Well, dey sole dere fine house on Meetin' Street, an' dat mus' a brought a heap," protested Uncle Sheba, rousing himself a little.

"Mighty little arter de mor'giges an' taxes was paid. Didn't I help dem pack up what dey tink dey could sabe, and see poah Missy Mara wrung her han's as she gib up dis ting an' dat ting till at las' she cry right out, 'Mought as well gib up eberyting. Why don't dey kill us too, like dey did all our folks?' You used to be so hot fer dat ole Guv'ner Moses and say he was like de Moses in de Bible--dat he was raised up fer ter lead de culled people to de promise' lan'. You vote fer him, an' hurrah fer him, an' whar's yer promise' lan'? Little you know 'bout Scripter when you say he secon' Moses. Don' want no more sich Moseses in dis town. Dey wouldn't lebe a brick heah ef dey could take dem off. He'n his tribe got away wid 'bout all ole Missus' and young Missus' prop'ty in my 'pinion. Anyhow I feels it in my bones dey's poah, an' I mus' try an' fin' out. Dey's so proud dey'd starbe fore dey'd let on."

"'Spose you does fin' out, what kin you do? You gwine ter buy back de big house fer dem?"

"I'se not de one ter talk big 'bout what I'se gwine ter do," replied Aun' Sheba, nodding her head portentously as she knocked the ashes from her pipe, and prepared for the remaining tasks of the evening.

Her husband's self-interest took alarm at once, and he began to hitch uneasily on his chair. At last he broke out: "Now look heah, Aun' Sheba, you'se got suffin on you' min' 'bout dem white folks--"

"Dem white folks! Who you talkin' 'bout?"

"Well, dey ain't none o' our flesh an' blood, and de Bible say shuah dat dey dat don' pervide fer dere own flesh an' blood am wuss dan a inferdel."

"Den I reckon you'se an inferdel, Mister Buggone," retorted Aun' Sheba, severely.

"I'se not," retorted her husband, assuming much solemnity, "I'se a 'umble an' 'flicted sarbent ob de Lawd, an' it's my duty to 'monstrate wid you. I know what's on you' min'. You'se gwine ter do fer dem white folks when you got all you kin do now."

"Mister Buggone, don' you call Miss Mara white folks no mo'."

"Well, ain't she white folks? Didn't I slabe fer her granpar yeahs an' yeahs, an' wat I got ter show fer 't?"

"You got no stripes on you back, an' you'd had plenty ter show ef you'd wuked fer any oder man. I 'member all about you slabin' an' how de good major use' to let you off. You know, too, dat he war so took up wid his book dat you could do foolishness right under his nose. An' dar was my poah young Missy Mary, who hadn't de heart to hurt a skeeter. You s'pose I watch ober dat broken-hearted lam' an' her little chile an' den heah 'em called white folks, as if dey'se no 'count ter me? How ofen dat poah dyin' lam' turn to me in de middle ob de night an' say ter me, Sheba, you will took keer on my chile ef it libe, an' I say to her 'fore de Lawd dat I would. An' I did too. Dat po' little moderless and faderless chile lay on my bosom till I lubed it fer hersef, and Missy Mara neber gwine to hab trubble when I ain't dar."

Aun' Sheba's voice had been reaching a higher and higher key under the influence of reminiscence and indignation. Although her husband was in dire trepidation he felt that this point was too serious to be yielded without a desperate effort. He had been put on short allowance once before when his wife had gone to help take care of Mara in a severe illness, and now he had a presentiment that Aun' Sheba would try to help support the girl and her great-aunt as well as himself. Such an attempt threatened privations which were harrowing even to contemplate, and in a sort of desperation he resolved once more to assert his marital position. "Aun' Sheba," he began with much dignity, "I'se been bery easy an' bendin' like ter you. I'se gib you you'se own head dead agin de principles ob Scripter which say dat de husban' am de head ob de wife--"

"Mister Buggone," interrupted Aun' Sheba in a passion which was bursting all restraint, "you'se wrestin' Scripter to you'se own 'struction. Ef you am de head ob dis fam'ly, I'se gwine ter sit down an fole my hans, an you can jes' git out an earn my libin' an' yours too. Git up dar now, an' bring in de wood an' de kinlin' fer de mawnin', an' when mawnin' come, you make de fiah. Arter breakfas' you start right off ter work, and I'se sit on de do' step and talk to de neighbos. You shall hab all de headin ob de house you wants, but you can't hab de 'sition widout de 'sponsibilities. I'se gwine now to take a res' an' be 'sported," and the irate wife filled her pipe, sat down and smoked furiously.

Uncle Sheba was appalled at the result of his Scriptural argument. He would like to be king by divine right without any responsibilities. His one thought now was to escape until the storm blew over and his wife's tolerant good-nature resumed its wonted sway. Shuffling cautiously around to the door he remarked meekly as he held it ajar, "I reckon I'll drap in at de prar-meetin', fer I tole brudder Simpkins I'd gib dem a lif' dis ebenin'."

His heart misgave him as he heard his wife bound up and bolt the door after him, but he was a philosopher who knew the value of time in remedying many of the ills of life. It must be admitted that he could not get into the spirit of the meeting, and Brother Simpkins remarked rather severely at its close, "Mister Buggone, I'se feared you'se zeal am languishin'."

Uncle Sheba's forebodings increased as he saw that his house was dark, and he fell into something like panic when he found that the door was still bolted. He knocked gently at first, then louder and louder, adding to the uproar by calls and expostulations. A light appeared in the adjacent cottage, and Kern Watson, his son-in-law, came out. "Wat de matter now, Uncle Sheba?" he asked. "Does yer wan' ter bring de perlice? You'se been takin' a drap too much again, I reckon."

"No, I'se only been to prar-meetin', and Aun' Sheba jes' dun gone and bolt me out."

"Well, you'se been cuttin' up some shine, an' dat's a fac'. Come in an' stop you noise. You can sleep on de lounge. We don' want to pay ten dollahs in de mawnin to get you out ob de caboose."

Uncle Sheba was glad to avail himself of this rather equivocal hospitality, and eagerly sought to win Kern's sympathy by relating his grievance. His son-in-law leaned against the chimney-side that he might, in his half-dressed condition, enjoy the warmth of the coals covered with ashes on the hearth, and listened. He was a tall, straight negro of powerful build, and although his features were African, they were not gross in character. The candle on the mantel near him brought out his profile in fine silhouette, while his quiet steady eyes indicated a nature not stirred by trifles.

"You'se a 'publican, Kern, an' you knows dat we culled people got ter take keer ob ourselves."

"Yes, I'se a Republican," said Kern, "but wat dat got ter do wid dis matter? Is Aun' Sheba gwine ter take any ob your money? Ef she set her heart on helpin' her ole Missus an' young Missy an' arn de money herself, whose business is it but hers? I'se a Republican because I belebe in people bein' free, wedder dey is white or black, but I ain't one ob dem kin' ob Republicans dat look on white folks as inemies. Wot we do widout dem, an' wat dey do widout us? All talk ob one side agin de toder is fool talk. Ef dere's any prosperity in dis lan' we got ter pull tergedder. You'se free, Uncle Sheba, an' dere ain't a man in Charleston dat kin hender you from goin' to work termorrow."

"I reckon I'se try ter git a wink ob slepe, Kern," responded Uncle Sheba plaintively. "My narbes been so shook up dat my rheumatiz will be po'ful bad for a spell."

Kern knew the futility of further words, and also betook himself to rest.

With Aun' Sheba, policy had taken the place of passion. Through a knot-hole in her cabin she had seen her husband admitted to her son-in-law's dwelling, and so her mind was at rest. "Unc," she muttered, "forgits his 'sper'ence at de prar-meetin's bery easy, but he mus' have a 'sper'ence to-night dat he won't forgit. I neber so riled in my bawn days. Ef he tinks I can sit heah and see him go'mandizin' when my honey lam' Mara hungry, he'll fin' out."

Before the dawn on the following day, Uncle Sheba had had time for many second thoughts, and when his wife opened the door he brought in plenty of kindlings and wood. Aun' Sheba accepted these marks of submission in grim silence, resolving that peace and serenity should come about gradually. She relented so far, however, as to give him an extra slice of bacon for breakfast, at which token of returning toleration Uncle Sheba took heart again. Having curtly told him to clear the table, Aun' Sheba proceeded to make from the finest of flour the delicate cakes which she always sold fresh and almost warm from her stove, and before starting out on her vending tour of the streets, the store-room was locked against the one burglar she feared.