OUR southern coast, as the reader doubtless knows,
is fringed with a net-work of islands, many of which
have not yet a growth sufficient for introduction to
a school atlas. Some of these miniature lands are
not inhabited and rarely visited; while others are,
at certain seasons, resorts for "marooning"—as picnic
sort of life passed for weeks in extemporaneous
sheds of boards and canvas. A few of the islets
are large enough for one or more plantations; and,
hence, are like immense gardens in which are embowered
lordly mansions with spacious lawns in
front and comfortable "quarters" at convenient
distances—a negro village of neat cabins, usually
white-washed, and always each surrounded with its
own domain of truck-patch, and boasting of its hen-house, pig-pen, and other offices.
The intercourse throughout this terraqueous world is wholly by boats; and as sociality there characterizes men of every color, the population is sometimes all afloat; and then the wild refrain of the negro song is borne on every breeze. Indeed, were not the singers slaves, one must envy the merry hearts from which gush forth the strange melodies: nay, as it is, the negroes seem to sing as caged birds, willing to be free and yet loath to fly away even when the door is left purposely open. And that renders the boat-song so resistlessly powerful to move the soul with melancholy and compassion, and yet with emotions akin to those of fun and frolic. The listener shall often find while tears tremble on his eyelash, smiles are lingering on his lips—and that his face is mingled sunshine and shower.
About the beginning of December, in the year
182-, at the close of the afternoon, a boat was
moving towards a small island some dozen miles in
the distance, while the declining sun revealed its
line of white sand, and was reflected from the upper
windows of a house near the shore. Four athletic
negroes, divested of all upper garments, were lazily
and yet with great precision pulling the oars, while
Joe, an intelligent black, neatly attired, in the bow
of the little vessel, gave, at intervals, orders with his
voice, using a small baton or cane to keep time for the rowers, and occasionally point out courses—the cane being a mere badge of office.
Under the awning, at the stern, were two white persons—a gentleman and his wife. The gentleman was the Rev. Edward Leamington, by birth and education a New-Englander; but having a few years prior to the opening of our story visited the South, partly to see an early college friend of his father's, and partly because his health demanded milder winters, he had, like several other true gentlemen of the North, been detained by southern hospitality, and won by southern beauty, having, as some of his early friends complained, degenerated into a northern man with southern principles. His wife was the orphan niece of his father's friend—a Miss Wardloe, who was mistress of the slaves in the boat, and also of a very old negress at home—Dinah—the great-great grandmother of Joe, now in the boat, and Carrie, his sister, at the parsonage.
Our friends were now on their return from the
North, whither they had gone in the summer to
pay a second visit to Mr. Leamington's mother, a
widow lady living at Hopeful in New England. In
consequence of these visits Mrs. Leamington had so
modified and changed her views, as also by her intimate
knowledge of her husband's true principles
on the Slavery Question, that his mother had said:
"Edward, we have gained in our dear Mary all we lost in you." To which her son had replied, "Yes! my dear mother, and she is actually degenerated into a southern woman with northern attachments."
Looking affectionately in her husband's face, against whom she was gently leaning as he relieved the labor of the oarsmen by keeping the little helm in his hand, Mrs. Leamington broke a long pause in their conversation, by asking—
"Edward! can you rejoice as I do in sight of that home?"
"Certainly, dear wife; but why not?"
"You leave a home behind—and such a mother! I am going to my childhood's home."
"Mary, my heart is indeed divided. At Hopeful I feel an effort is necessary to prepare for my southern home; and when here, I wonder that an effort was felt necessary."
"Dear husband! where you are has become home to me; and, perhaps, if you were in the North the South would begin to feel like a strange land. Lend me the glass?"
After looking a few minutes Mrs. L. handed the glass to her husband and exclaimed—
"Edward! Edward! I really can see our two little darlings!—you look."
Mr. L. looked, and while looking said—
"I see boats—and people on the shore plain
enough; but I cannot distinguish! I suppose, however, Carrie and Dinah are as usual hugging Julia, and George is running back and forward between them and Uncle Wardloe."
"No doubt," answered the wife, "and I am sometimes at a loss to know whether our little darlings love us any more than they do these negroes!"
The reader will not be surprised to learn that our friends had without any fear left their children— Julia about five years of age, and George now nearly seven years old—under charge of her uncle and these negroes. If implicit confidence can be found reposed in any, it is by southern parents in old family slaves that have buried their mothers and nursed the children's children! Meet a bear robbed of her whelps; but attempt not to tear away the white babes from the black woman's heart! She would rend you, as if she were a raving maniac! And true it is, that usually the foster-children love their black mothers almost like their white; although here as elsewhere the affection is stronger and more lasting with the parent than the child.
As this is a tale of principles and affections the
personal appearance of our lady and gentleman
needs no minute description, and we may content
ourselves with what Edward, (as his wife usually
called hin), wrote to his mother shortly after his
marriage, that, "he had married Mary for her heart and not her person; although her face beamed into a wonderous beauty from the excellence and active love of her heart!" And also with what this "Mary" had said during this very afternoon, and with tears in her eyes: "Oh! Edward, a woman might have well married you from ambition; but had your person changed, her ambition would soon have merged into love and esteem!" If, therefore, these persons were mutually satisfied with their own personal appearance, there seems no good reason that we would have been dissatisfied had we seen them. The writer, if he never saw them, has seen people almost exactly like them, and these were very good looking!
And now the lady, anxious to see her little ones without the glass, said, in a sort of half-supplicating voice:
"Boys! you are not tired—are you?"
"Law'r bless you, Missis—ole Virginee never tire," said Jim, with all the mouth he had unoccupied, the rest being full of sausage.
"Won't you sing again?"
"Soon as Jim done his sassig," cried Ebony Bill, pushing into his own mouth the last ounce of a half pound of cheese he had been devouring.
"Come, Jim, come; chaw down the sassig massa
give you—Missis don't want to sleep all night in the boat," cried Lieutenant Joe.
Jim, who, with the rest for an hour past, had been hiding crackers, cheese, ham, and pickles, yet rowing with one hand, chattering and chewing, now contrived with an herculean shove of his hand to crowd into his os sublime—i. e. his particularly big mouth—a last foot of sausage, which choked his gabble, bloating up his cheeks like a tow-eating conjuror's, and starting his eyes out so far from home it seemed impossible they should ever find the way back. But one or two frightful craunches, and a single spasmodic gulp, and the sausage disappeared;—the cheeks rounded into shape and plumptitude; the eyes backed into their sockets; when Jim, who was the special poet of his day, and sang the burden of the refrain, jerked up a water-keg to wash down dilatory remnants and clear his pipes, and suddenly, with a voice round, full, sonorous, and plaintive, burst into his extempore Boat-Song. The others, by way of chorus, did the "ho! he! yo! ho!" keeping time with the dip of the oars, and increasing the speed with the rapidity of the singer.
[EXTRACT FROM THE REFRAIN.]
"Oh! how glad dis niggah are,
One chick-a-biddy never crows without his challenge answered, and one dog never barks a solo; so one boat-song wakes an hundred. And now mingling with ours, several other choruses arose in the distance; and directly a boat or two came from opposite quarters, and all within hail; when, as usual, the songs instantly ceased, and the clatter of a colloquy compounded and confounded of question and answer—brag and taunt—laugh, yelp and cry— outburst, baffling the description of steel-pens and steam-presses, to set forth to the eye or ear! Negroes let alone would keep an eternal saturnalia; and on many occasions the owners indulge them to their hearts' content, the presence of master and mistress being not only no restraint, but often a provocative and inducement to the most extravagant absurdities. Indeed, adroit compliment and wholesome rebuke are administered in these seemingly extemporaneous contests; and wise planters, by keeping their ears open, may often learn what is useful.
Take a specimen:—
1st Boat. — "Kaw! kaw!—dis de boat—"
2d B. — "Pshooh! your massa poor man: he hab two starved nigger—"
3d B. — "Who's your massa?"
1st B. — "Missis' husbun!"
2d B. — "Who's your missis?"
3d B. — "Massa's wife."
All Boats. — "Koo! kee! git long."
Two Boats. — "Tie up de niggah! flog 'um, driver."
1st B. to 2d B. — "Your massa stingee; he feeds his niggers wid crab and cotton seed."
2d B. to 1st B. — "Your missis very good yaller gal."
All Boats. — "Haw! haw! haw! O! shaw!"
Our Boat. — "Pull de oar! Massa Edward be kind massa! Missis lubly—her childer like her."
All Boats. — "Bless de Parsin—we come to Preachin."
This was followed by a simultaneous pull of all oars, and in all boats, and with the bursting forth of songs till all died away in the mellow distance. If any reader, in the midst of colloquy and refrain, never had his soul moved to sadness and laughter, then ubi stomachus erat, concalluit!—in English—his viscera are as hard as a brickbat!
The boat rather flew now above the water, than
moved through it, and in half an hour was plainly in
sight of the numerous company on the shore awaiting its approach. As the distance lessened, those in the boat could clearly see the different groups, and soon could distinguish well-known individuals. The most prominent person was Uncle Wardloe, holding back Master George from running into the water with one hand, and with the other waving in eccentric flourishes his sombrero made of palmetto. In front of him, but to one side, her feet in the water, was Carrie, and done up a la Africaine, in a magnificent white turban, by way of heightening her color, already as black as nature could do it; while in her arms she was holding as high as possible Miss Julia, whose bloomer-decked pendants were moving with intense activity, and her unsleeved arms tossing in indescribable curves. Near Carrie, Dinah, so old that her hair was far whiter than her skin, was trying to sit in the chair Mr. Wardloe had ordered for her; but spite of this laudable purpose, she was constantly rising up to hold down Miss Julia, who seemed in danger of jumping out of Carrie's arms, if not her very frock and skin.
The shore was all turned now into waving hats
and handkerchiefs, while some folks kissed their
hands, and all, in every sort of bass and treble, cried
out different salutatory congratulations; while the
negroes roared out, "Welcome, Massa! Welcome,
Missis!" as if trombones and clarionets were show-
ing in how many octaves good people could be assured their coming home gave delight; and then, the half-grown chaps, intending to welcome with all their powers, did ground if not lofty tumbling—some running on all fours, monkeys without tails—some rolling down the sloping sand, and some walking on their hands and standing on their heads, and not a few doing corn-stalk jigs and banjo dances with frightful energy of legs and arms.
Most of this on the part of the slaves was simple and unselfish joy; for the parson and his wife were truly loved as friends; yet it may not be concealed, that the blacks present were sure of receiving some memento of kindness, such as knife, kerchief, shoes, or shirt, or its cognate article! Mr. L. was far from rich; but Mr. Wardloe, and many a wealthy lady and gentleman, when he went away, put into his hands money for his benevolent purposes. As might be expected, the planters in this parish had a return in the good order, industry, and good-will this little outlay procured. Indeed, it had become a rule to do for the negroes all the good deemed possible—many persons waiting favorable opportunities of freeing the slaves; while some, believing that revolution only could change institutions and habits, still felt themselves happy and more secure by having around domestic friends instead of foes.
However, we must allow the parson and his lady
to come ashore; yet, down South, landing comfortably depends in many places on the state of the tide—sometimes on the state, too, of the mud. In high tides, you may easily step ashore; but in low tides, as at Evergreen, the name of the island we have reached, the whites are carried in the arms of the slaves, as are also favorite mulatto girls, and the black wenches that wear shoes and stockings. Where mud is deep—that is, from ten to thirty feet—landing is a more elaborate and artistic matter. From four to six negroes are necessary. Two interlace their arms, the hands grasping the wrists; and on this hand-cart sedan you sit, affectionately throwing your arms around Pomp's and Cæsar's necks. Next a negro apiece props the chair-men, while two more push the rear, and frequently an additional propper pushes the rider. And the whole is done with amazing celerity, since to avoid sinking into the mud requires speed and strength. A mammoth would be a very unsafe carrier. In sandy places, a single negro that is used to the business, will pick you up as a nurse does a baby, and carry you with dangling feet safe and dry to land.
But this evening, the instant the oars were lifted,
not only did our four boatmen spring up to land the
parson and his wife, but into the water, with trousers
tucked and rolled to the impassable line, rushed men
and boys by the dozen, pushing, pulling, and some
tumbling, most laughing, and all crying out, "Missis!—Massa! I tote you! Get long, Bill! Don't hab him—he let you drop—he lilly child! I'm jiunt—I tote cotton-bale!" On which, as there was at least danger of being well splashed, Mr. Leamington, waving his hands, and thus causing cessation and silence, spoke:
"Thank you, my good boys! Thank you! You shall all carry us."
In a moment two arm-chairs were woven, and our friends were comfortably seated; and then, each chair having a long line of backers and flankers, the whole rushed to shore like a many-headed black seahorse, bearing away two white swans! But before these could alight, a tempest of agglomerated robes, and hugging arms, and kissing lips, poured around, from which they with reluctant hearts struggled forth with disordered dresses, smiling faces, and loving eyes.
We shall not stay to introduce any of the company; and our prime hero is not here. The "lilly children," who had been exchanged between father and mother repeatedly, were now half-quiescent, George hanging to his father's coat, and Julia still hugged in her mother's arms, the group being completed by Mama Dinah in her chair, and holding Miss Julia by the ancle.
"Ma!" said the little girl to her mother, looking
inquiringly into her eyes, "what makes Mammy Dinah cry?"
"Oh! Missy July! I no real cry—I'se so glad to see dear ole—ole missis' child come home I gwine laff now!"
To this Mrs. L., with a tremulous voice replied— "Dear old Mammy Dinah, my own mother, your old—old mistress, couldn't love me more—"
"Ma!" asked the innocent one, "won't you laugh soon?"
Here Carrie came to the rescue by calling out— "Miss July! Miss July! see your brudder! Massa gib um lilly watch—he laff enuf."
And up ran George, exclaiming, "See my watch! See me, Mammy Dinah, see me! I'm big man now!"
"Bless him! he be big man bimeby," said the old negress, kissing the boy's hand as he held the watch near her face; on which the little fellow, as her mouth was destitute of teeth, replied as he often did, to this assurance—
"Then Mammy Dinah, I'm going to make you ever so many new teeth!"
Let us hasten, however, to end this chapter, by saying
that most of the company remained till after tea
to witness the distribution of the gifts—a time when
the patriarchal character in our southern institutions
ever makes the generous-hearted spectator from other
parts forget the evils. To such as prefer goading sores to healing—who sprinkle in pepper rather than apply emollients—who vote out evils and the good with them, and even though evils worse and more should arise, and without any good—to these, pictures where overseers brandish whips, and slaves crouch in chains and breech-clothes, will be more agreeable. These, however, are not in our line; but they can be obtained in latitudes where "women excel in strength of conscience," and wear bloomer dresses; and where men sneer at religion and mock at governments.
But, notwithstanding the uncharitableness of some, it may yet be pleasing to others to know, that this day, as all others at Evergreen, the entire family—black and white being present—ended with
PRAYER AND PRAISE.