Hopkins, Pauline E.
|CHAPTER XXI. -- AFTER MANY DAYS.|
"We got along all right untell we was a-comin' down a hill. Mr. Jeemes was a-coastin', an' the tail o' that linen duster o'hisn was a-sailin' out behin' like a flag floppin' in an east wind. The fust thing I knowed he was a-stickin' fast head fust into a pile o' sand where they was makin' mortar to build a cellar, an' me on top o' him! Wasn't it a mercy thet we wasn't stuck in the mortar? Jeemes is purty black, but he was a white man when he got out o'thet san' heap. As fer me, I tore my gloves, los' my hat, an' busted a new pair o' corsets right off me. Besides thet, I nearly swallered my upper teeth, an' I lost my bangs. They picked me up an' carried me into a house they was a-buildin', an' give me a chance to fix myself up a bit.
"We was thet done up that Jeemes sent fer a kerridge to bring us home; an' fifty dollars won't excuse the damages to them bikes. Comin' home an' settin' so close together, beside the trouble we'd had makin' us feel kin' o' tender o' each other, Jeemes put his arm 'roun' me--an' I don' see how ever in time he did it, bein' the corsets warn't no good, an' me 'bout as small as a bag o' taters--he put his arm 'roun' me, he did, an' he says, says he: 'Le's git merried, 'Phelia!' I was thet stonished an' set back you could heve knocked me down with a feather, an' was thet weak from bein' overcamed by my feelin' thet all I remember was thet I fell on his neck like the patrihawks did in the Bible where they tell 'bout Abraham, Isaac an' Jacob, Shem, Ham, Meshack an' 'Bednego--you 'member how the minister tol' us all 'bout that in the Skripter lesson las' Sunday night, don't you? I ain't got no 'bility fer readin', but I's got a mem'ry, thank Gawd. As I was a-sayin', I jes' fell onto his neck, an' I says to him: 'Mr. Jeemes, ef you want yer rib, I'm her.' Thet's the way it camed 'bout, an' we's goin' ter be merried purty soon, 'though Sarah
Mrs. Smith sympathized with her, and after more talk about the rent of the building and other matters dear to the heart of the house-wife, they separated.
For a long time Ma Smith sat there in the quiet, shaded room, buried in deep thought. She made a charming picture. White was her favorite color for summer wear, with a tiny crimson cashmere shawl thrown about her shoulders, to keep off the chill which comes so naturally to old age. She had been a handsome woman, and still retained traces of former beauty. Thick bands of snowy hair, falling in natural waves, were coiled closely at the back of a well-shaped head. Her clear olive complexion contrasted pleasantly with eyes large, soft, and black, heavy black eyebrows and long curling lashes. An aquiline nose, thin lips and delicately shaped ears gave her a very pleasing countenance.
As she sat there her whole life passed in review. She thought of her children, and how much she had to be thankful for in them. But more than all, the story told her so often by her father of his early life and that of his father and mother, was fresh within her mind as she
"The supreme hours unnoted come."
She heard the door-bell ring, but it did not disturb her reverie. There was a knock at the door of the room where she was sitting. Then the door opened, and Mrs. Davis ushered in a tall, elegant white man of distinguished address, and about her own age. Mrs. Davis closed the door behind him and vanished.
"Mrs. Smith, I presume?" he said in a pleasant voice as he advanced toward her. It was a voice of rare carrying power--deep, rich, musical, and had moved the House of Commons to enthusiasm on more than one memorable occasion in the politics of Great Britain.
"Yes," she replied, rising from her seat.
"I called to see Mr. William Smith, and I dislike to be disappointed. Will he be at home soon?" He handed her his card as he finished speaking, and she read the inscription:
"Pray be seated, Mr. Withington," she said, as she placed a chair for her visitor. "I am William's mother; he will be in very soon."
Mr. Withington thanked her, and having seated himself, glided easily into conversation; at the same time his keen eye noted his surroundings. Nothing in the quiet, unpretentious, shaded room escaped him. The large glass bowl of flowers--sweet peas and nasturtiums predominating--filled the room with fragrance; there were three or four water-color paintings set in simple frames--pictures of rural scenes. The few choice pieces of china and bric-a-brac which adorned the mantel, the open piano, the general good taste, even elegance of the apartment, appealed strongly to the artistic sense of the cultured gentleman who had been reared in the luxury of ample wealth. Mrs. Smith herself was a revelation to him. By what art of necromancy had such a distinguished woman been evolved from among the brutalized aftermath of slavery?
"I had the pleasure of meeting your son and conversing with him at the annual dinner of the Canterbury Club in February last. I was much impressed with his views on the condition of the Negroes in this country. Being interested in every phase of racial development which bears upon the science of political economy, I felt that after my Canadian business was settled I would try and meet him again. I intended to write and ask him to meet me at
"He will feel greatly flattered at your kind remembrance," Mrs. Smith replied.
"Are you aware, madam, that your son possesses rare intellectual gifts?" he continued, after a slight pause. "I must confess to a feeling of curiosity to learn how such characters are nourished among a people like yours."
Mrs. Smith looked at him thoughtfully a moment, and then said:
"Sir, it would afford me great pleasure to give you a sketch of his life so far, if you would care to listen."
"It is what I desire most to hear."
The great man listened to her humble story with marked attention, as she related the history of early struggles which her husband and she had braved for the maintenance and education of their children. It was a story common enough among Negroes ambitious to avail themselves of the privileges which were now open to them--a story of faithful fathers bearing insult and injury to keep the meanly paid employment; of mothers "spending weary days and nights over the washtub and ironing-board in order to get money to educate their children." It seemed marvelous to the listener. As she closed, he said impressively:
"Your story is a revelation to me, madam. Are there many histories like yours among your people? In what a different light you would appear as a race, if the statements made by your detractors could be stripped of calumny and deception. Believe me, you have my heartfelt sympathy, and I shall do all that I can to promote kindly feelings in England for our unfortunate black brother in America. And it is against such spirits of nobility and self-sacrifice that many would close the entrance door to the higher education of the century! Blind and foolish prejudice! Monstrous injustice!" He paused a moment to collect himself and overcome his indignation.
"Madam, how is it that you maintain so excellent an address and manner? and from whom, may I ask, without being considered impertinent, did you inherit your superior intelligence?"
"Ah, sir; that is a sad story connected with the lives of those long since passed away."
"But you seem perfectly happy."
"Yes; but it is the happiness chastened by wrongs endured and grief subdued." She paused as though forgetful of her visitor, and then resumed in a low tone:
"Yes; there are strangely tangled threads in the lives of many colored families--I use the
Mr. Withington uttered an exclamation which was unheeded by the woman before him, who was lost in the clouds of the past. His face wore an expression of intense interest. Presently she continued:
"It is a homely subject to introduce to one familiar with the sorrows of the wealthy and prosperous alone; but it teaches that misfortune is the common lot of all mankind."
"I await your story with anxiety." And truly it seemed so, for Mr. Withington had left his seat and was pacing slowly up and down the room. Mrs. Smith began her tale like one who describes a vision passing before her eyes. She told it in almost the exact words of the story which we have given as the first part of this narrative. In the midst of the recital Will entered the room from another door, and paused in astonishment at the scene before him. Mr. Withington shook hands with him noiselessly, and signed him to keep silence and not disturb the speaker. His own emotion was intense;
"And have you no proofs of this story--no letters?"
"Alas, nothing! Poor father destroyed all in a fit of despondency when his brother's letters ceased to come. Then he lost his little property, and after that he removed to Boston. I believe my father died of a broken heart. God did not intend that his wrongs should be righted." As she finished, the tears were streaming from her eyes.
Mr. Withington ceased his nervous promenade, and taking both her hands in his, replied solemnly:
"Not so, dear cousin, for such I believe you to be; never doubt God's goodness or justice. I believe that I hold the key to solve this riddle! I believe that I am your relative, descended directly from your father's brother; your grandfather's brother," he said, turning to Will, who stood an amazed spectator of this extraordinary scene.
"Impossible!" exclaimed mother and son with one breath.
"Nothing is impossible with God. How often have I heard my father tell very much the same tale I have just listened to. Let me
He paused, overcome by emotion. Mrs. Smith wept quietly. Broken words of praise to God--of joy--of sorrow for the dead--of hope for the future-passed her lips from time to time. Ah! who can paint such a scene? Finally Mr. Withington embraced them both--his kinswoman and Will, his kinsman.
"Be assured that I shall bend every effort to
Then, unable longer to control his feelings, telling Will to join him in an hour at his hotel, he hastily left them.
Alone together the mother and son fell upon their knees to give thanks to God for his unspeakable goodness.
When Mr. Withington had thought over the story which had come to him so strangely, he was profoundly impressed with the inscrutable ways of God. How wonderful was the knowledge that he had been led by devious paths to find these humble relatives. By accident alone had it been accomplished. "No, not by accident," he told himself, "but by the direct intervention of All-wise Justice." So noble was the nature of this man that he never once thought of the possible ridicule that might come to him through his new kinspeople. He thought only of the tie of blood. When it was placed before him in this light by Will, his reply was characteristic of the man:
"At home it will not be noticed; the opinion of narrow-minded, prejudiced people here does not matter."
Mr. Withington now spent long days with the Smiths. There was much to learn of the
He in his turn told them the story of Charles Montfort: How his benefactor had returned to America in the hope of finding and rescuing Jesse, after establishing the boys' claim to the estate of their murdered father. He found that the child had disappeared, leaving no trace behind him. How Charles had rejoiced over the later discovery of his brother, and how he had grieved over the final estrangement. Then on the eve of his departure for America to personally search Jesse out, he was stricken with paralysis, and remained a helpless invalid until his death. Meantime the business of establishing
Mr. Withington communicated with his family lawyer, who came from England, bringing with him certain valuable papers bearing upon the case, engaged a leading firm of American lawyers to act in conjunction with the English lawyer, interviewed the authorities at Washington, and secured the services of one of the best detectives in the country to ferret out evidence to prove Jesse's identity. Money flowed from his lavish hand, and all the legal machinery that was essential to prompt action was soon set in motion. One day Mr. Withington received a letter from the detective asking him to go to Bermuda and see an important witness. He started immediately upon receiving it, accompanied by Will Smith and his lawyer. A letter from Will to his mother after they had reached the island was filled with fresh surprises. What follows is an extract:
We have come across a wonderful coincidence. In hunting for evidence in Bermuda, the detective heard of an old woman--a centenarian--who was formerly a slave in North Carolina. We found her living with her daughter and granddaughter (both old women; the granddaughter is sixty); all of them were once slaves. The old woman's mind is clouded on all subjects but one--the Montfort murder! She was an eye-witness of the
The granddaughter is married, and her husband and children are here. When the Civil War ended they determined to settle in Bermuda, and here they have lived ever since in a cottage which is almost a hut, supporting themselves by selling sugar-cane in small sticks--the same as our candy-shops sell sticks of candy to the children--and other products of their garden, in the market-place. Prepare yourself for another surprise.
The youngest woman had a child while in slavery, by Anson Pollock, Jr., a grandnephew of old Anson Pollock, whom we all have so much reason to remember. The poor woman seems much distressed over this boy, who, it appears, was taken from her when he was but six months old, and sold with many others to a man who farmed Negro babies for the market. She asked me if I had ever in my distant home met a young man called John Pollock Langley. He is her son! I gave her an evasive answer, and told her I would inquire about such a person, and let her know the result. I shall write John these facts. He can use his own pleasure then about claiming his relatives. How fortunate the estrangement which resulted in breaking the engagement between John and
In the last beautiful days of October Dora became the wife of Doctor Lewis, and went with him to his far-off Southern home to assist him in the upbuilding of their race.
And what a wedding it was! The skies were fair and bright. The romantic story of the Smith family had become noised about, and as it was a church wedding the sacred edifice was crowded to suffocation. Doctor Lewis was well and favorably known, and that was of additional interest to the spectators. The small girls who formed Dora's class in Sunday-school, dressed
They were a striking couple: she serious, he so grave and steadfast. So it should be, taking up a new life, with its endless need of forbearance, trust, and mutual affection. Each knew that with one all was not yet given with the abandonment of perfect love. Each felt, too, the deep waters that surrounded Will--the shadow of a tragedy that lay about his life. What wonder that an unusual solemnity enfolded this couple as they took their vows upon them. But it was a solemnity that quiets, soothes and strengthens.
As the bride came down the aisle on her husband's arm at the conclusion of the ceremony, she caught for one instant the full gaze of John Langley. She never forgot that look; so full of despair and unhappiness. She said nothing about it to husband or brother, but it haunted her for many an hour.
Well, well, it was over, and they passed out to the carriage, and thence to the house.
There was a great reception after the ceremony; but just before Dora left her room to take her place with the receiving party, a package was placed in her hand. She opened it, and found it a jewel-box containing a heavy gold bracelet set with pearls, which outlined a delicate vine of pansies traced about the golden band. No note or card was attached--nothing but her name and the date of the marriage. Dora locked it away with her many gifts, amid painful thoughts; she knew instinctively that John was the giver. A week later the happy couple left Boston, accompanied by Mrs. Smith, followed by the heartfelt good wishes of all who knew them, for their future prosperity. So with fair skies and favorable winds they entered upon the untried sea of matrimony.
The case of Smith vs . the United States did not come to a public trial; it was heard privately before a court composed of the judges of the Supreme Court of the United States. The English heirs had received their portion years before; the Government only awaited the production of the necessary proofs to establish the identity of Mrs. Smith beyond a peradventure. Detectives went over the ground carefully. The records of real estate transfers, chattels, etc., were all found intact among the files of the
By this woman he raised a family of twelve children, five of whom, including Mrs. Smith, were born in Exeter. Up to the time of her birth he had prospered, and had accumulated a good property, but in an evil hour he went upon the bond of his employer, who, failing to meet his liabilities, involved Montfort in his ruin. Unmanned by recurring misfortunes, Jesse Montfort removed to Boston, and never again seemed to have the ambition to try to retrieve his losses. Born in an evil hour, under an unlucky planet, this man's life was but a path of sorrow to the grave, which he welcomed as a refuge from all vicissitudes.
As Mr. Withington had said, the letters in his possession from Jesse to Charles Montfort, yellow and time-stained, completed a perfect chain of evidence. The sum of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars was awarded to Mrs. Smith as the last representative of the heirs of Jesse Montfort. Justice was appeased.
The case was a nine-days' wonder; startled society and all the world--a life drama whose power touched the deep wells of human feeling.