The Chronicles of Aunt Minervy Ann/Chapter 3
HOW AUNT MINERVY ANN RAN AWAY AND RAN BACK AGAIN
In the matter of attending the fair at Halcyondale, Aunt Minervy Ann's hospitable wishes jumped with my own desires, and it was not difficult to give her a hard and fast promise in the matter; nor did it take the edge off my desires to entertain a suspicion, verified long afterward, that Aunt Minervy Ann's anxiety was based on a hope, expressed by Major Perdue, that the fair would be properly handled in the Atlanta papers.
The directors of the fair were represented at the little railway station, at Halcyondale, by a committee, and into the hands of this committee fell every man, woman, and child that stepped from the passing trains. It mattered little what the business of these incoming travellers was; whether they came to visit the fair or to attend to their own private affairs. They were seized, bag and baggage, by the committee and borne triumphantly to the hotel, or to a boarding-place, or to some private house. The members of the committee had a duty to perform, and they performed it with an energy and a thoroughness that was amazing if not altogether satisfactory. As I remember, this vigorous body was called the Committee on Public Comfort, and most heroically did it live up to its name and its duties.
These things I learned by observation and not by experience, for before the train on which I was a passenger had cleared the suburbs of Atlanta, I caught a glimpse of Major Tumlin Perdue, who had long been a prominent citizen of Halcyondale. He had changed but little during the ten years. His hair was whiter, and he was a trifle thinner, but his complexion was still rosy and his manners as buoyant as ever. I doubted whether he would know me again, though he had been very friendly with me in the old days, seeming to know by instinct just when and how to drop a word of encouragement and appreciation, and so I forbore to renew the acquaintance. The Major could be boisterous enough in those times when in the humor, but when at his best he had more ways like those of a woman (and a noble and tender-hearted woman at that) than any man I had ever known. He had a woman's tact, intuition, and sympathy; and these qualities were so exquisitely developed in him that they lifted him high in the estimation of a young man who was living away from his mother, and who was somewhat lonely on that account.
Presently, the Major came along the aisle for a drink of water. As he was in the act of drinking, his eyes met mine, and he recognized me instantly. He swallowed the water with a gulp.
"Why, bless my soul!" he exclaimed, greeting me with the simple cordiality that springs from an affectionate nature. "Why, I wouldn't take ten dollars for this! I was thinking about you this very day. Don't you remember the night we went out to ku-klux the Ku-klux, and the chap that mighty nigh broke his neck running into a wire clothes-line? I saw him to-day. He would hardly speak to me," the Major went on, laughing heartily. "He's never got over that night's business. I thought about you, and I started to hunt you up; but you know how it is in Atlanta. Folks ain't got time to eat, much less to tell you where anybody lives. A man that's too busy is bound to worry, and worry will kill him every bit and grain as quick as John Barleycorn. Business is bound to be the ruin of this country, and if you don't live to see it, your children will."
Thus the Major talked, blending wisdom with impracticable ideas in the most delightful way. He seemed to be highly pleased when he found that I was to spend a week at Halcyondale, attending the fair and renewing old friendships.
"Then you belong to me!" he exclaimed. "It's no use," he went on, shaking his head when I would have protested against imposing on his good-nature; "you needn't say a word. The tavern is stuffed full of people, and even if it wasn't, you'd go to my house. If you ain't been ruined by living in Atlanta, it'll seem like home to you. Dang it all! I'll make it seem like home to you anyhow."
Now, the affectation of hospitality is one of the commonest hypocrisies in life, and, to a thoughtful man, one of the most sinister; but the Major's hospitality was genuine. It was brought over from the times before the war, and had stood the test of age and long usage, and, most trying of all, the test of poverty. "If you were welcome when I was well off, how much more welcome you'll be now that I am poor!" This was not said by the Major, but by one of his contemporaries. The phrase fitted a whole generation of noble men and women, and I thank Heaven that it was true at one time even if it is not true now.
When the train, with much clinking and clanking and hissing, came to a standstill at Halcyondale, the Major hustled me off on the side opposite the station, and so I escaped the ordeal of resisting the efforts of the Committee on Public Comfort to convey me to a lodging not of my own selection. The Major's buggy was in waiting, with a negro driver, who got out to make room for me. He bowed very politely, calling me by name.
"You remember Hamp, I reckon," said the Major. "He was a member of the Legislature when you lived here."
Certainly I remembered Hamp, who was Aunt Minervy Ann's husband. I inquired about her, and Hamp, who had swung up to the trunk-rack as the buggy moved off, replied that she was at home and as well as she could be.
"Yes," said the Major, "she's at my house. You may see somebody else besides Minervy Ann, but you won't hear anybody else. She owns the whole place and the people on it. I had a Boston man to dinner some time ago, one of Conant's friends—you remember Paul Conant, don't you?—and I stirred Minervy Ann up just to see what the man would say. We had a terrible quarrel, and the man never did know it was all in fun. He said they never would have such a lack of discipline among the servants in Boston. I told him I would give him any reasonable amount if he would go out and discipline Minervy Ann, just to show me how it was done. It would have been better than a circus. You heard her, didn't you, Hamp?"
Hamp chuckled good-naturedly. "Yasser, I did, an' it make col' chills run over me ter hear how Minervy Ann went on. She cert'n'y did try herse'f dat day."
The Major smiled a little proudly as I thought, slapped the horse—a bob-tailed black—with the left rein, and we went skimming along the level, sandy street at a three-minute gait. In a short while we were at the Major's house, where I received a warm welcome from his daughter, whom I had known when she was a school-girl. She was now Mrs. Paul Conant, and even more beautiful as a matron than she had been as a girl. I had also known her husband, who had begun his business career in the town a year or two before I left, and even at that time he was one of the most prominent and promising young business men in the town.
He had served in the army the last year of the war, and the service did him a world of good, physically and mentally. His faculties were broadened and enlarged. Contact with all sorts and conditions of men gave him ample knowledge of his kind, and yet he kept in touch with the finer issues of life. He was ripened and not hardened.
The surrender had no such crushing effects on him as it had on older men. It left him youth, and where youth is there must be hope and energy. He returned home, remained a few weeks, sold a couple of horses he had picked up in the track of Sherman's army, and then went into the office of a cotton factor in Savannah, giving his services for the knowledge and experience he desired to gain. In a very short time he learned all the secrets of sampling and grading the great staple. He might have remained in the office at a salary, for his aptness had made him useful, but he preferred to return to Halcyondale, where he engaged in buying cotton on his own account. There was just enough risk in this to stimulate his energies, and not enough to lead to serious speculation.
To this business he added others as his capital grew, and he was soon the most prosperous man in the town. He had formed the stock company under whose auspices the county fair was held, and was president of the board of directors.Aunt Minervy Ann was very much in evidence, for she acted as cook, nurse, and house-girl. The first glimpse I had of her, she had a bucket of water in her right hand and Conant's baby—a bouncing boy—on her left arm. Just then Major Perdue hustled me off to my room, thus postponing, as I thought, the greeting I had for Aunt Minervy Ann. But presently I heard her coming upstairs talking to herself.
"Ef dey gwine ter have folks puttin' up wid um, dey better tell me in de due time, so I can fix up fer um. Dey ain't been no fresh water in deze rooms sence dat baby wuz born'd."
She went on to the end of the hall and looked in each of the rooms. Then, with an exclamation I failed to catch, she knocked at my door, which was promptly opened. As she saw me a broad smile flashed over her good-natured face.
"I 'low'd 'twuz you," she said, "an' I'm mighty glad you come." She started to pour the water from can to pitcher, when suddenly she stayed her hand. With the exclamation, "Well, ef dis don't bang my time!" she went to the head of the stairs and cried out: "Miss Vallie! Miss Vallie! you don't want no town folks stuck in dish yer back room, does you?"
"Why, certainly not!" cried the lady. "What could father have been thinking of?"
"Shoo! he like all de men folks," responded Aunt Minervy Ann.
With that she seized my valise with one hand, and, carrying the can of water in the other, escorted me to one of the front rooms. It was an improvement on the back room only because it had more windows to admit the air and light. I put in a word for the Major, which I hoped would be carried to the ears of the daughter.
"The Major gave me that room because he wanted to treat me as if I were one of the home folks. Now you've brought me here, and I'll feel as uncomfortable as if I were company, sure enough."
"Dey's sump'n in dat, I 'speck," replied Aunt Minervy Ann, laughing; "but, lawsy, massy! you done been in dis house too much ter talk dat-a-way. When kin folks come home, we allus gin um de bes' dey is fer de fus' week er so. Atter dat dey kin rustle 'roun' fer deyse'f."
It is hardly necessary to say that Aunt Minervy Ann took very good care that I should want for none of those little attentions that sharpen the appreciation of a guest; and, in her case, obtrusiveness was not a fault, for her intentions shone clearly and unmistakably through it all.Major Perdue had the art of entertainment at his fingers' ends, which, though it is very simple, not one man in a hundred learns. It is the knack of leaving the guest to his own devices without seeming to do so. Most fortunate in his gifts is the host who knows how to temper his attentions!
In his efforts to get the fair under way, Paul Conant found it impossible to come to dinner, but sent his apologies.
"You'll think it is a mighty small concern when you see it," said the Major, "but it takes all that Paul can do to keep it from getting into a tangle. He has to be here, there, and everywhere, and there hasn't been a minute for a week or more but what forty people were hollering at him at once, and forty more pulling and hauling him about. If he wasn't a steam-engine, he couldn't hold out half an hour."
"Well, he'll soon straighten matters out," said I, "and then they'll stay so."
"That's so," remarked the Major; "but when that's done, he'll have to rush around from post to pillar to keep 'em straight."
"Did he seem to be greatly worried?" Valentine asked.
"No-o-o-o," replied the Major, slowly and hesitatingly, "but I'm afear'd his shoulder has begun to trouble him again." He leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling, apparently lost in thought.
"Why should you think that, father?"
"Once or twice, whilst he was rustling about I saw him fling his hand to his shoulder and hold it there, and I'm mightily afear'd it's hurting him." The Major drew a deep sigh as he spoke, and silence fell on all. It was brief, but it was long enough for one to know that an unpleasant subject had been touched on—that there was something more behind it all than a pain in Conant's shoulder. Aunt Minervy Ann, who was equal to every emergency, created a diversion with the baby, and the Major soon pulled himself together.
Paul Conant came home to supper, and in the sitting-room, before the meal was announced, I observed that the Major was as solicitous about him as a mother is of her baby. His eyes were constantly on his son-in-law, and if the latter showed any sign of worry, or frowned as if in pain, a shadow would pass over the Major's genial face.This intense solicitude was something out of the usual order, and I wondered what was behind it. But the next day it was forgotten, nor was it remembered until Aunt Minervy Ann reminded me of it. I had been faithful in my attendance on the fair, had listened patiently to the speeches, and had then tried to refresh my benumbed faculties with such fare as could be found on the grounds—barbecue, pickles, and ginger-cakes. But the occasion had been too much for me, and so, about two o'clock in the afternoon, I decided to return to my quarters at Major Perdue's home and rest my weary limbs. The very thought of the quiet and cool house was refreshing, and so, without waiting for a conveyance, I set out on foot, going through the woods in preference to the public highway, thereby cutting the distance short by nearly a mile.
A great many others had taken advantage of the short-cut through the woods, so that I had no lack of company. Among them I noticed Aunt Minervy and her husband, Hamp, the latter carrying the Conant baby, which, having had enough of the pomps and vanities of this life for the time being, was now fast asleep. I soon came up with the trio, and we went along home together.
"You toughed it out mighty well, suh," remarked Aunt Minervy Ann, after some talk about the various attractions of the fair. "Up dar in Atlanty deze kinder doin's would be laughed at, I 'speck, but hit's de bes' we-all kin do. Me an' Miss Vallie had some truck dar, speshually dat ar grape jelly on de right han' side. Ef dat jelly don't git de blue ribbon er sump'n better, hit'll be bakaze dem ar jedgment men ain't got no sense—I don't keer who dey is. Ain't you see dat ar quilt hangin' up dar wid a pattern in it like a well-whorl, only de middle er de whorl was shape like de mornin' star? Dat ar quilt is older dan what you is, suh—lots older. Me an' Mistiss made dat quilt long 'fo' Miss Vallie wuz born, an' dish yer baby'll tell you she ain't no chicken. Ef dey's any purtier quilt on dat hill dey had it hid ter-day; dey ain't brung it out whar folks kin look at it. I dunno much, but I knows dat much."
We reached the house after awhile, and I lost no time in stretching myself out on a lounge that sat invitingly in the hall behind the stairway. It was not the coolest place in the world; but, really, when one is fagged out, it is unnecessary to try to find all the comforts of life in one spot. Sleep fell on me unawares, and when I awoke, Aunt Minervy Ann was sitting near the head of the lounge fanning me. Such courtesy was surprising, as well as pleasing, but I chid her for taking so much trouble, for I had slept nearly two hours. But she made light of it, saying she had nothing else to do, the baby being in his cradle and sleeping like a log.Then, to enjoy a smoke, I drew a rocking-chair into the back porch, and proceeded to fill my pipe with what I regarded as a very good brand of tobacco, offering some to Aunt Minervy Ann. She soon found her pipe—clay bowl and reed stem—cleaned it out carefully and filled it from my pouch.
"It look mighty pale, suh," she remarked. "I 'speck dey steam it 'fo' dey mash it up." She seated herself on the top step, lit her pipe, took a few whiffs, and then shook her head. "'Tain't nigh rank 'nuff for me, suh. Hit tas'e like you er dreamin' 'bout smokin' an' know all de time 'tain't nothin' but a dream." She knocked the tobacco out, and then refilled the pipe with the crumbs and cutting from the end of a plug. This she smoked with an air of supreme satisfaction.
"I 'speck you got de idee dat I better be seein' 'bout supper, stidder settin' up here lookin' biggity. But 'tain't no use, suh. Marse Tumlin and Miss Vallie never is ter come home dis day less'n dey bring Marse Paul wid um. I done hear um sesso. An' I know mighty well, deyer gwine ter come back late, bekaze Paul Conant's one er dem kinder folks what go twel dey can't go, an' when dey git down dey make motions like dey gwine. Dey puts me in mind uv a lizard's tail, suh. Knock it off, an' it'll hop 'bout an' work an' wiggle plum twel de sun go down."
I suggested that the illustration was somewhat inapt (though not in those words), for the reason that Paul Conant's energy was not expended blindly. But I found that Aunt Minervy knew what she was saying.
"I ain't talkin' 'bout his own business, suh, bekaze dey ain't nobody beat 'im at dat. No, suh; I'm talkin' 'bout dem ar doin's out dar at de fair groun's. He's a-workin' at dat lots harder dan he has ter work fer hisse'f. Maybe you tuck notice uv de way dem yuther folks done out dar, suh. Dey stood 'round wid dey mouf open, an' de ribbon pinned on der coats, an' when sump'n had ter be done, dey'd call out fer Conant. It 'uz 'Conant!' here an' 'Conant!' dar, an' ef Conant wuz out er hearin' de whole shebang had ter stop right still an' wait twel Conant kin be dragged up. I watched um p'intedly, suh, an' it's des like I tell you."
Aunt Minervy Ann's characterization of the directors was so acute and so unexpected that I laughed—not at what she said, but at the vivid picture of a lot of helpless men standing about, full of dignity, and yet waiting for young Conant to tell them what to do."You may laugh, suh," Aunt Minervy Ann went on with a little frown, "but I'm tellin' you do Lord's trufe. I kep' my eyes on um, an' 'twuz dat-a-way fum soon dis mornin' 'twel I got mad an' come home. You kin ax Hamp, suh, an' he'll tell you de same. I reckon you heer'd Marse Tumlin las' night at de table ax Marse Paul ef bis shoulder hurted 'im. I know you did, sub, bekaze I tuck notice how you looked, an' I tried ter shake de baby up so he'd cry, but dat wuz one er de times, suh, when he wouldn't be shuck up. Any udder time dat chil' would er laid back an' blated twel you'd hafter put yo' fingers in yo' years. I wuz mad wid 'im, suh, but I wuz bleedz ter laugh. Chillun mighty funny. When you don't want um ter cry, dey'll holler der heads off, an' when you want um ter cry, dey'll laugh in yo' face. I bet you dey's a blue place on dat baby's arm whar I pinched 'im, but he didn't no mo' min' it dan nothin'."
"Well," said I, "there was something peculiar in the way all of you looked and acted when the Major asked about Mr. Conant's shoulder. It was a very simple question."
"Ah, Lord!" exclaimed Aunt Minervy Ann, raising her right hand on high, "dey better ax 'bout dat shoulder. Yesser! ev'y day an' ev'y night, an' in betwixt times."
"Is Mr. Conant troubled with rheumatism?" I inquired.
"Rheumatiz! bless yo' soul, honey! Ef 'twuz rheumatiz dey wouldn't be no Paul Conant 'round dis house, ner no Conant baby."
Here is something decidedly interesting, I thought, but held my peace, knowing that whatever it was would be more quickly disclosed if there were any disclosure to make.
"Ain't you never hear 'bout it, suh? Well dat bangs me! An' you right up dar in Atlanty, too! No, suh; you must er been in Savanny, bekaze 'twuz de town talk in Atlanty. Anyhow, wharsomever you wuz er might er been, dey ain't no rheumatiz de matter wid Marse Paul Conant's shoulder-blade. I know dat much, an' I know it mighty well, bekaze I wuz right here in dis house, an' nowhars else 'cep'n 'roun' de lot an' up town an' back.
"Well, den, suh, ef you ain't never hear 'bout dat, I most know you ain't never hear tell er how I run'd off, and how I run'd back, bekaze nobody ain't never talk 'bout dat—leas'ways, not as I knows un."
I declared to Aunt Minervy Ann that I never heard a whisper of it. She leaned back against the railing of the steps and drew a long whiff from her pipe.
"'Tain't no use ter tell you, suh, how times wuz right atter de war. You wuz right in um, an' ef you don't know, it's bekaze you didn't look 'roun' an' see um. I hear um say, suh, dat niggers wuz po' when dey come free. Dey wuz, suh; dey wuz rank pizen po'; but dey never wuz in dis worl' a nigger ez po' ez some er our white folks wuz. You may shake yo' haid, suh, but I'm givin' you de straight gov'nment trufe. Niggers is use ter bein' po', an' dey never wuz dat po' dat dey can't scuffle 'roun' an' make out somehow. Dey er been po' so long dey er usen ter it. But white folks what been rich! I hope de Lord'll call me home 'fo' I see again what I done saw in dem days. I know in reason, suh, dat I seed mo' er de trouble dan what you did, kaze you couldn't go in at de back gates like me; an' what trouble folks does have dey allers keep it somers betwix' de bedroom an' de back gate.
"De Perdues wa'n't no wuss off dan nobody else. Marse Tumlin had dish yer house an' lot, an' de plantation, an' some lan' way off yander. But all de hosses an' mules an' cattle been tuck off, an' de niggers all gone. Ef he'd er stayed on de plantation, de niggers would 'a' been dar yit, but stay he wouldn't, an' stay he didn't, an' so dar he wuz.
"Do sump'n? What he gwine do? Fo' de big turmoil he done some lawin' an' a heap er farmin'. Leas'ways my ol' Mistiss done de farmin', an' Marse Tumlin, he done de lawin'. He had 'im a office here in town, an' on set days he'd come in an' look arter de cases what he had. But how anybody gwine ter do any lawin' dat-a-way? Marse Tumlin ain't keerin' whedder he git one case er none. He ain't bleedze ter do no lawin'. An' den 'pon top er dat he went off whar dey battlin', an' dar he stayed, an' when he come back, look like de kinder lawin' what he use ter do done gone outer fashion. Ef he hadn't er been holp out, suh, I dunner what'd 'a' come un 'im. An' 'twa'n't only Marse Tumlin. Dey wuz a whole passel un um, too young ter die an' too ol' ter win money in dem kinder times. Ef you ain't ol' 'nuff ter 'member dem times, suh, you kin thank de Lord, kaze dey sho did look like tetotal ruination.
"Now, you know yo'se'f, suh, dat you can't eat a house an' lot an' live dar too; an' you can't eat lan' des dry so less'n you got a mighty appetite fer dirt. Whyn't he sell de lan'? You oughter be de las' one ter ax me dat, suh. Who gwine buy it? Dem what ain't got lan' ain't had no money, an' dem what had money sholy lived a mighty long ways fum here. Day in an' day out, suh, I wuz de wuss pester'd nigger you ever laid eyes on. I ain't know what ter do.
"An' den 'pon top er dat, dar wuz Hamp, my ol' man. When freedom come out, he tuck de notion dat we better go off some'rs an' change de name what we got so dey can't put us back in slave'y. Night an' day it fair rankle in his min', an' he kep' groanin' an' growlin' 'bout it twel I got stirred up. I oughtn't ter tell it, suh, but hit's de Lord's trufe. I got mad, I did, an' I tol' Hamp I'd go. An' den I wa'n't doin' no good stayin' here. 'Twuz des one mo' mouf ter feed, an' mo' dan one, countin' Hamp. So, bimeby, one day, when I wuz sorter fretted, I tol' Hamp ter go on out dar in de country, whar his daddy live at, an' I'd meet 'im dar 'fo' night.
"When de time come, I went in de house an' hunt fer Miss Vallie. She 'uz settin' in de parlor by de winder, but behime de curtain like, so nobody can't see 'er. She 'uz settin' dar wid 'er han's crossed on 'er lap, an' she look so little, an' pale, an' weak, dat I come mighty nigh gwine right back in de kitchen. But she seed me too quick. Den I up'n tell 'er dat I'm gwine out in de country, ter whar Hamp daddy live at. She look at me right hard an' say, 'When you comin' back. Aunt Minervy Ann?' I 'low, 'I'm comin' back des ez soon ez I kin make my 'rangements, honey.' She say, 'Well, I hope you'll have a good time while you er gone.' I 'low, 'Thanky, ma'm.' Wid dat I went an' got my bundle an' put opt fum dar—an' I ain't look back nudder, bekaze I had a mighty weakness in de knees, an' a mighty risin' in my th'oat."I went on down de road, an' ef anybody had so much ez said boo ter me, I'd 'a' turned right 'roun' an' gone back home. I went on, I did, twel I come ter de mile branch. I see somebody crossin' on de log, an' when I come up wid um, who should it 'a' been but Marse Tumlin. An' he had one chicken! He had been out ter de plantation—sev'm mile ef its fifty yards—an' here he wuz comin' back wid one chicken—an' him a walkin', him dat use ter ride 'roun' in his carriage! Walkin' an' totin' one little chicken! Man, suh! I don't never want ter feel again like I felt den. Whedder 'twuz de chicken, er what, I never did see Marse Tumlin Perdue look ez 'ol' an' ez weasly ez he did den. He look at me an' sorter laugh like I done cotch 'im doin' sump'n he ain't got no business ter do. But dey wa'n't no laugh in me; no, suh, not by a jugful.
"He say, 'Hello, Minervy Ann! whar you gwine? I 'low, I did, 'I'm des gwine out yander whar Hamp kinnery live at.'
"He sorter pull his goatee, an' look down at de dus' on his shoes—an' dey wuz fair kiver'd wid it—an' den he say, 'Well, Minervy Ann, I wish you mighty well. You sho is done a mighty good part by me an' mine. Ef yo' Miss Mary wuz 'live she'd know what ter say—I don't, 'cep' dis'—he straighten up an' stretch out his han'—'’cep' dis: whenever you want ter come back home, you'll fin' de do' open. Ef you come at night, des knock. We'll know yo' knock.'
"You ain't never seed no fool nigger 'oman cut up, is you? Well, ef you does see one, suh, I hope ter goodness 'twon't be me! Marse Tumlin ain't no mo'n got de words out'n his mouf, suh, 'fo' I tuck de bundle what I had in my han', an' flung it fur ez I could send it.
"Marse Tumlin look at me hard, an' den he say, 'Dam ef I don't b'lieve youer crazy!' Time he say it, I 'low, 'I don't keer er dam ef I is!'
"Yasser! I say it sho, an' den I drapt down on de groun' dar an' holler an' cry like somebody wuz beatin' de life out'n me. Marse Tumlin stood dar pullin' at his goatee all dat time, an' bimeby I got up. I wa'n't feelin' much better, but I done had my cry an' dat's sump'n. I got up, I did, an' start back de way I come.
"Marse Tumlin say, 'Whar you gwine, Minervy Ann? I 'low, 'I'm gwine back home—dat's whar I'm gwine!' He say, 'Pick up yo' bundle.' Wid dat I turn 'roun' on him an' 'low, 'I ain't gwine ter do it! Ef it hadn't er been fer dat ar muslin dress in dar, what Miss Vallie make over an' gi' me, I'd been at home right dis minute.'
"He 'low, 'What dat got ter do wid it, Minervy Ann?' I make answer, 'Bekaze ol' Satan make me want ter put it on an' sho' off 'fo' dem country niggers out dar whar Hamp's folks live at.' Wid dat I start back home, but Marse Tumlin holler at me—'Minervy Ann, take dis chicken.' I tuck it, I did, an' made off up de road. Bimeby I sorter flung my eye 'roun', an', bless gracious! dar wuz Marse Tumlin comin' 'long totin' my bundle. Well, suh, it flewed all over me like fier. I got so mad wid myse'f dat I could 'a' bit a piece out'n my own flesh.
"I waited in de road twel he come up, an' den I snatched de bundle out er his han'. I 'low, 'I ain't gwine ter have you totin' none er my bundles in de public road—no, ner no chickens, needer.' He say, 'Well, don't fling it 'way, Minervy Ann. De time may come when yo' Miss Vallie'll need dat ar muslin dress.'
"When we got back home I went in de kitchen, an' fix ter clean an' kill de chicken. I 'speck Marse Tumlin must 'a' tol' Miss Vallie 'bout it, bekaze 'twan't long 'fo' I hear her runnin' 'long de plank walk ter de kitchen. She whipt in de do' she did, an' grab me an' cry like I done riz fum de dead. Well, suh, niggers ain't got no sense, you kin take um de world over. No sooner is Miss Vallie start ter cry dan I chuned up, an' dar we had it.
"'Bout dat time, Marse Tumlin, he come out—men folks is allers gwine some'rs dey got no business. He 'low, 'What you'all blubberin' 'bout?' I make answer, 'We er cryin' over dese two chickens.' He ax, 'What two chickens?' I 'low, 'I'm cryin' over dis un, kaze it's so little, an' Miss Vallie cryin' over de one what you ain't brung. He say, 'Well, I be dang!' an' wid dat he went back in de house.
"An' den, atter supper, such ez 'twuz, here come Hamp, an' he say he come ter lay de law down. I 'speck I like my ol' man 'bout ez good ez any udder 'oman what's lawfully married, but ef I didn't put a flea in Hamp year dat night you may shoot me dead. Ef he'd 'a' waited a day er two, hit might er been diffunt; but, manlike, he had ter come at de wrong time, an' he ain't open his mouf 'fo' I wuz fightin' mad. Ol' Miss allers use ter tell me I wuz a bad nigger when I got my dander up, but I never did look at myse'f dat-a-way twel dat night.
"Well, Hamp he come an' stood in de do', but I ain't say nothin'. Den he come in de kitchen, an' stan' 'roun', but still I ain't say nothin'. Den he sot down next de chimbley, but all dat time I ain't say nothin'. He look right pitiful, suh, an' ef I hadn't been mad, I'd 'a' been sorry fer 'im. But I ain't say nothin'.
"Bimeby, he 'low, '’N'ervy'—he allers call me 'Nervy—'Nervy, whyn't you go whar you say you gwine?' I flung myse'f 'roun' at 'im an', say, 'Bekaze I ain't choosen ter go—dar you got it!' He 'low, 'Well, you start ter go, kaze I seed you!' I say, 'Yes, an' I start ter come back, an' you'd 'a' seed dat ef you'd 'a' looked right close.' He 'low, '’Nervy, don't you know dem folks in yander'll think you b'long to um?' I say, 'I does. Ain't I free? Can't I b'long to um ef I wanter? I'd like ter see de one ter hender me. What dey done ter you? An' what's I done ter you dat you want ter drag me 'way fum my white folks? You go drag you'se'f—you can't drag me.' He 'low, 'Dey done begin ter call you a white-folks nigger, an' dey say you gwine back on yo' own color.'"
Aunt Minervy Ann paused here to laugh. "Mad ez I wuz, suh, de minnit Hamp said dat I know'd I had ter change my chune. I 'low, 'I know right pine-blank who tol' you dat. 'Twan't nobody in de roun' worl' but ol' Cely Ensign, an' she ain't tell you dat in comp'ny, needer. She tol' you whar nobody can't hear 'er but you. Don't you fret! des ez soon ez I git thoo wid supper, I'm gwine 'roun' dar an' drag 'er out an' gi' 'er de wuss frailin' any nigger ever got sence de overseers quit bizness. I ain't fergot dat ar' possum you toted off ter her house.'
"Well, suh, I had 'im! He caved in. He 'low, '’Twan't no 'possum; 'twan't nothin' in de roun' worl' but a late watermillion.' I holler, 'Ah-yi! watermillion! Well, den, ef you want ter drag anybody off fum der white folks, go an' drag ol' Cely Ensign—bekaze you can't drag me.'
"We jowered right smart, but I had Hamp in a cornder. He went off an' stayed maybe a mont', an' den he come back, an' atter 'while he got 'lected ter de legislature. He done mighty well, suh. He got nine dollars a day, an' ev'y Sat'dy night he'd fetch de bigges' part uv it home. 'Twuz mighty handy, too, suh, kaze ef hadn't been fer dat legislatur' money I dunner what me and Miss Vallie an' Marse Tumlin would 'a' done.
"Dat wuz 'bout de time, suh, dat de town boys wanter ku-kluck Hamp, an' you an' Marse Tumlin went out an' ku-klucked dem. Hamp ain't never forgot it, suh. He'd walk fum here to Atlanty fer you ef 'twould do you any good. He don't say much, but I know how he feel. I hear 'im calling me now, suh."
"You haven't told me about Paul Conant," I suggested.
"I'll tell you, suh, 'fo' you go."
In half a minute I heard Aunt Minervy Ann quarrelling and laughing at Hamp in the same breath.