Sally Dows and Other Stories

Sally Dows

Chapter I

Bret Harte

THE two o’clock express from Redlands to Forestville, Georgia, had been proceeding with the languid placidity of the river whose banks it skirted for more than two hours. But, unlike the river, it had stopped frequently; sometimes at recognized stations and villages, sometimes at the apparition of straw-hatted and linen-coated natives in the solitude of pine woods, where, after a decent interval of cheery conversation with the conductor and engineer, it either took the stranger on board, or relieved him of his parcel, letter, basket, or even the verbal message with which he was charged. Much of the way lay through pine-barren and swampy woods which had never been cleared or cultivated; much through decayed settlements and ruined villages that had remained unchanged since the War of the Rebellion, now three years past. There were vestiges of the severity of a former military occupation; the blackened timbers of railway bridges still unrepaired; and along the line of a certain memorable march, sections of iron rails taken from the torn-up track, roasted in bonfires and bent while red-hot around the trunks of trees, were still to be seen. These mementos of defeat seemed to excite neither revenge nor the energy to remove them; the dull apathy which had succeeded the days of hysterical passion and convulsion still lingered; even the slow improvement that could be detected was marked by the languor of convalescence. The helplessness of a race, hitherto dependent upon certain barbaric conditions or political place and power, unskilled in invention, and suddenly confronted with the necessity of personal labor, was visible everywhere. Eyes that but three short years before had turned vindictively to the North, now gazed wistfully to that quarter for help and direction. They scanned eagerly the faces of their energetic and prosperous neighbors—and quondam foes—upon the verandas of Southern hotels and the decks of Southern steamboats, and were even now watching from a group in the woods the windows of the halted train, where the faces appeared of two men of manifestly different types, but still alien to the country in dress, features, and accent.

Two negroes were slowly loading the engine tender from a woodpile. The rich brown smoke of the turpentine knots was filling the train with its stinging fragrance. The elder of the two Northern passengers, with sharp New England angles in his face, impatiently glanced at his watch.

“Of all created shiftlessness, this beats everything! Why couldn’t we have taken in enough wood to last the ten miles farther to the terminus when we last stopped? And why in thunder, with all this firing up, can’t we go faster?”

The younger passenger, whose quiet, well-bred face seemed to indicate more discipline of character, smiled.

“If you really wish to know and as we’ve only ten miles farther to go—I’ll show you WHY. Come with me.”

He led the way through the car to the platform and leaped down. Then he pointed significantly to the rails below them. His companion started. The metal was scaling off in thin strips from the rails, and in some places its thickness had been reduced a quarter of an inch, while in others the projecting edges were torn off, or hanging in iron shreds, so that the wheels actually ran on the narrow central strip. It seemed marvelous that the train could keep the track.

“NOW you know why we don’t go more than five miles an hour, and—are thankful that we don’t,” said the young traveler quietly.

“But this is disgraceful!—criminal!” ejaculated the other nervously.

“Not at their rate of speed,” returned the younger man. “The crime would be in going faster. And now you can understand why a good deal of the other progress in this State is obliged to go as slowly over their equally decaying and rotten foundations. You can’t rush things here as we do in the North.”

The other passenger shrugged his shoulders as they remounted the platform, and the train moved on. It was not the first time that the two fellow-travelers had differed, although their mission was a common one. The elder, Mr. Cyrus Drummond, was the vice-president of a large Northern land and mill company, which had bought extensive tracts of land in Georgia, and the younger, Colonel Courtland, was the consulting surveyor and engineer for the company. Drummond’s opinions were a good deal affected by sectional prejudice, and a self-satisfied and righteous ignorance of the actual conditions and limitations of the people with whom he was to deal; while the younger man, who had served through the war with distinction, retained a soldier’s respect and esteem for his late antagonists, with a conscientious and thoughtful observation of their character. Although he had resigned from the army, the fact that he had previously graduated at West Point with high honors had given him preferment in this technical appointment, and his knowledge of the country and its people made him a valuable counselor. And it was a fact that the country people had preferred this soldier with whom they had once personally grappled to the capitalist they had never known during the struggle.

The train rolled slowly through the woods, so slowly that the fragrant pine smoke from the engine still hung round the windows of the cars. Gradually the “clearings” became larger; they saw the distant white wooden colonnades of some planter’s house, looking still opulent and pretentious, although the fence of its inclosure had broken gaps, and the gate sagged on its single hinge.

Mr. Drummond sniffed at this damning record of neglect and indifference. “Even if they were ruined, they might still have spent a few cents for nails and slats to enable them to look decent before folks, and not parade their poverty before their neighbors,” he said.

“But that’s just where you misunderstand them, Drummond,” said Courtland, smiling. “They have no reason to keep up an attitude towards their neighbors, who still know them as ‘Squire’ so-and-so, ‘Colonel’ this and that, and the ‘Judge,’—owners of their vast but crippled estates. They are not ashamed of being poor, which is an accident.”

“But they are of working, which is deliberation,” interrupted Drummond. “They are ashamed to mend their fences themselves, now that they have no slaves to do it for them.”

“I doubt very much if some of them know how to drive a nail, for the matter of that,” said Courtland, still good-humoredly, “but that’s the fault of a system older than themselves, which the founders of the Republic retained. We cannot give them experience in their new condition in one day, and in fact, Drummond, I am very much afraid that for our purposes—and I honestly believe for their good—we must help to keep them for the present as they are.”

“Perhaps,” said Drummond sarcastically, “you would like to reinstate slavery?”

“No. But I should like to reinstate the master. And not for his sake alone, but for freedom’s sake and ours. To be plain: since I have taken up this matter for the company, I have satisfied myself from personal observation that the negro—even more than his master—cannot handle his new condition. He is accustomed to his old traditional task-master, and I doubt if he will work fairly for any other—particularly for those who don’t understand him. Don’t mistake me: I don’t propose to go back to the whip; to that brutal institution, the irresponsible overseer; to the buying and selling, and separation of the family, nor any of the old wrongs; but I propose to make the old master our overseer, and responsible to us. He is not a fool, and has already learned that it is more profitable to pay wages to his old slaves and have the power of dismissal, like any other employer, than be obliged, under the old system of enforced labor and life servitude, to undergo the cost of maintaining incompetence and idleness. The old sentiment of slave-owning has disappeared before natural common-sense and selfishness. I am satisfied that by some such process as this utilizing of the old master and the new freedom we will be better able to cultivate our lands than by buying up their estates, and setting the old owners adrift, with a little money in their pockets, as an idle, discontented class to revive old political dogmas, and foment new issues, or perhaps set up a dangerous opposition to us.”

“You don’t mean to say that those infernal niggers would give the preference to their old oppressors?”

“Dollar for dollar in wages—yes! And why shouldn’t they? Their old masters understand them better—and treat them generally better. They know our interest in them is only an abstract sentiment, not a real liking. We show it at every turn. But we are nearing Redlands, and Major Reed will, I have no doubt, corroborate my impressions. He insists upon our staying at his house, although the poor old fellow, I imagine, can ill afford to entertain company. But he will be offended if we refuse.”

“He is a friend of yours, then?” asked Drummond.

“I fought against his division at Stony Creek,” said Courtland grimly. “He never tires of talking of it to me—so I suppose I am.”

A few moments later the train glided beside the Redlands platform. As the two travelers descended a hand was laid on Courtland’s shoulder, and a stout figure in the blackest and shiniest of alpaca jackets, and the whitest and broadest of Panama hats, welcomed him. “Glad to see yo’, cun’nel. I reckoned I’d waltz over and bring along the boy,” pointing to a grizzled negro servant of sixty who was bowing before them, “to tote yo’r things over instead of using a hack. I haven’t run much on horseflesh since the wah—ha! ha! What I didn’t use up for remounts I reckon yo’r commissary gobbled up with the other live stock, eh?” He laughed heartily, as if the recollections were purely humorous, and again clapped Courtland on the back.

“Let me introduce my friend, Mr. Drummond, Major Reed,” said Courtland, smiling.

“Yo’ were in the wah, sir?”

“No—I”—returned Drummond, hesitating, he knew not why, and angry at his own embarrassment.

“Mr. Drummond, the vice-president of the company,” interposed Courtland cheerfully, “was engaged in furnishing to us the sinews of war.”

Major Reed bowed a little more formally. “Most of us heah, sir, were in the wah some time or other, and if you gentlemen will honah me by joining in a social glass at the hotel across the way, I’ll introduce you to Captain Prendergast, who left a leg at Fair Oaks.” Drummond would have declined, but a significant pressure on his arm from Courtland changed his determination. He followed them to the hotel and into the presence of the one-legged warrior (who turned out to be the landlord and barkeeper), to whom Courtland was hilariously introduced by Major Reed as “the man, sir, who had pounded my division for three hours at Stony Creek!”

Major Reed’s house was but a few minutes’ walk down the dusty lane, and was presently heralded by the baying of three or four foxhounds and foreshadowed by a dilapidated condition of picket-fence and stuccoed gate front. Beyond it stretched the wooden Doric columns of the usual Southern mansion, dimly seen through the broad leaves of the horse-chestnut-trees that shaded it. There were the usual listless black shadows haunting the veranda and outer offices—former slaves and still attached house-servants, arrested like lizards in breathless attitudes at the approach of strange footsteps, and still holding the brush, broom, duster, or home implement they had been lazily using, in their fixed hands. From the doorway of the detached kitchen, connected by a gallery to the wing of the mansion, “Aunt Martha,” the cook, gazed also, with a saucepan clasped to her bosom, and her revolving hand with the scrubbing cloth in it apparently stopped on a dead centre.

Drummond, whose gorge had risen at these evidences of hopeless incapacity and utter shiftlessness, was not relieved by the presence of Mrs. Reed—a soured, disappointed woman of forty, who still carried in her small dark eyes and thin handsome lips something of the bitterness and antagonism of the typical “Southern rights” woman; nor of her two daughters, Octavia and Augusta, whose languid atrabiliousness seemed a part of the mourning they still wore. The optimistic gallantry and good fellowship of the major appeared the more remarkable by contrast with his cypress-shadowed family and their venomous possibilities. Perhaps there might have been a light vein of Southern insincerity in his good humor. “Paw,” said Miss Octavia, with gloomy confidence to Courtland, but with a pretty curl of the hereditary lip, “is about the only ‘reconstructed’ one of the entire family. We don’t make ’em much about yer. But I’d advise yo’ friend, Mr. Drummond, if he’s coming here carpet-bagging, not to trust too much to paw’s ‘reconstruction.’ It won’t wash.” But when Courtland hastened to assure her that Drummond was not a “carpet-bagger,” was not only free from any of the political intrigue implied under that baleful title, but was a wealthy Northern capitalist simply seeking investment, the young lady was scarcely more hopeful. “I suppose he reckons to pay paw for those niggers yo’ stole?” she suggested with gloomy sarcasm.

“No,” said Courtland, smiling; “but what if he reckoned to pay those niggers for working for your father and him?”

“If paw is going into trading business with him; if Major Reed—a So’th’n gentleman—is going to keep shop, he ain’t such a fool as to believe niggers will work when they ain’t obliged to. That’s been tried over at Mirandy Dows’s, not five miles from here, and the niggers are half the time hangin’ round here takin’ holiday. She put up new quarters for ’em, and tried to make ’em eat together at a long table like those low-down folks up North, and did away with their cabins and their melon patches, and allowed it would get ’em out of lying round too much, and wanted ’em to work over-time and get mo’ pay. And the result was that she and her niece, and a lot of poor whites, Irish and Scotch, that she had to pick up ‘’long the river,’ do all the work. And her niece Sally was mo’ than half Union woman during the wah, and up to all No’th’n tricks and dodges, and swearin’ by them; and yet, for all that—the thing won’t work.”

“But isn’t that partly the reason? Isn’t her failure a great deal due to this lack of sympathy from her neighbors? Discontent is easily sown, and the negro is still weighted down by superstition; the Fifteenth Amendment did not quite knock off all his chains.”

“Yes, but that is nothing to her. For if there ever was a person in this world who reckoned she was just born to manage everything and everybody, it is Sally Dows!”

“Sally Dows!” repeated Courtland, with a slight start.

“Yes, Sally Dows, of Pineville.”

“You say she was half Union, but did she have any relations or—or—friends—in the war—on your side? Any—who—were killed in battle?”

“They were all killed, I reckon,” returned Miss Reed darkly. “There was her cousin, Jule Jeffcourt, shot in the cemetery with her beau, who, they say, was Sally’s too; there were Chet Brooks and Joyce Masterton, who were both gone on her and both killed too; and there was old Captain Dows himself, who never lifted his head again after Richmond was taken, and drank himself to death. It wasn’t considered healthy to be Miss Sally’s relations in those times, or to be even wantin’ to be one.”

Colonel Courtland did not reply. The face of the dead young officer coming towards him out of the blue smoke rose as vividly as on that memorable day. The picture and letter he had taken from the dead man’s breast, which he had retained ever since; the romantic and fruitless quest he had made for the fair original in after days; and the strange and fateful interest in her which had grown up in his heart since then, he now knew had only been lulled to sleep in the busy preoccupation of the last six months, for it all came back to him with redoubled force. His present mission and its practical object, his honest zeal in its pursuit, and the cautious skill and experience he had brought to it, all seemed to be suddenly displaced by this romantic and unreal fantasy. Oddly enough it appeared now to be the only reality in his life, the rest was an incoherent, purposeless dream.

“Is—is—Miss Sally married?” he asked, collecting himself with an effort.

“Married? Yes, to that farm of her aunt’s! I reckon that’s the only thing she cares for.”

Courtland looked up, recovering his usual cheerful calm. “Well, I think that after luncheon I’ll pay my respects to her family. From what you have just told me the farm is certainly an experiment worth seeing. I suppose your father will have no objection to give me a letter to Miss Dows?”

Sally Dows and Other Stories - Contents    |     Sally Dows - Chapter II

Back    |    Words Home    |    Bret Harte Home    |    Site Info.    |    Feedback