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首页 » 儿童英文小说 » Balaam and His Master and Other Sketches and Stories » WHERE’S DUNCAN?
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WHERE’S DUNCAN?
Now, do you know you young people are mighty queer? Somebody has told you that he heard old man Isaiah Winchell a-gabbling about old times, and here you come fishing for what you call a story. Why, bless your soul, man, it is no story at all, just a happening, as my wife used to say. If you want me to tell what there is of it, there must be some understanding about it. You know what ought to be put in print and what ought to be left out. I would know myself, I reckon, if I stopped to think it all over; but there’s the trouble. When I get started, I just rattle along like a runaway horse. I’m all motion and no sense, and there’s no stopping me until I run over a stump or up against a fence. And if I tried to write it out, it would be pretty much the same. When I take a pen in my hand my mind takes all sorts of uncertain flights, like a pigeon with a hawk after it.

[150]

As to the affair you were speaking of, there’s not much to tell, but it has pestered me at times when I ought to have been in my bed and sound asleep. I have told it a thousand times, and the rest of the Winchells have told it, thinking it was a very good thing to have in the family. It has been exaggerated, too; but if I can carry the facts to your ear just as they are in my mind, I shall be glad, for I want to get everything straight from the beginning.

Well, it was in 1826. That seems a long time ago to you, but it is no longer than yesterday to me. I was eighteen years old, and a right smart chunk of a boy for my age. While we were ginning and packing cotton our overseer left us, and my father turned the whole business over to me. Now, you may think that was a small thing, because this railroad business has turned your head, but, as a matter of fact, it was a very big thing. It fell to me to superintend the ginning and the packing of the cotton, and then I was to go to Augusta in charge of two wagons. I never worked harder before nor since. You see we had no packing-screws nor cotton-presses in those days. The planter that was able to afford it had[151] his gin, and the cotton was packed in round bales by a nigger who used something like a crowbar to do the packing. He trampled the lint cotton with his feet, and beat it down with his iron bar until the bagging was full, and then the bale weighed about three hundred pounds. Naturally you laugh at this sort of thing, but it was no laughing matter; it was hard work.

Well, when we got the cotton all prepared, we loaded the wagons and started for Augusta. We hadn’t got more than two miles from home, before I found that Crooked-leg Jake, my best driver, was drunk. He was beastly drunk. Where he got his dram, I couldn’t tell you to save my life, for it was against the law in those days to sell whiskey to a nigger. But Crooked-leg Jake had it and he was full of it, and he had to be pulled off of the mule and sent to roost on top of the cotton-bags. It was not a very warm roost either, but it was warm enough for a nigger full of whiskey.

This was not a good thing for me at all, but I had to make the best of it. Moreover, I had to do what I had never done before—I had to drive six mules, and there was only one rein to drive them with. This[152] was the fashion, but it was a very difficult matter for a youngster to get the hang of it. You jerk, jerk, jerked, if you wanted the lead mule to turn to the right, and you pull, pull, pulled if you wanted her to go the left. While we were going on in this way, with a stubborn mule at the wheel and a drunken nigger on the wagon, suddenly there came out of the woods a thick-set, dark-featured, black-bearded man with a bag slung across his shoulder.

“Hello!” says he; “you must be a new hand.”

“It would take a very old hand,” said I, “to train a team of mules to meet you in the road.”

“Now, there you have me,” said he; and he laughed as if he were enjoying a very good joke.

“Who hitched up your team?” he asked.

“That drunken nigger,” said I.

“To be sure,” said he; “I might have known it. The lead-mule is on the off side.”

“Why, how do you know that?” I asked.

“My two eyes tell me,” he replied; “they are pulling crossways.” And with that, without asking anybody’s permission,[153] he unhitched the traces, unbuckled the reins and changed the places of the two front mules. It was all done in a jiffy, and in such a light-hearted manner that no protest could be made; and, indeed, no protest was necessary, for the moment the team started I could see that the stranger was right. There was no more jerking and whipping to be done. We went on in this way for a mile or more, when suddenly I thought to ask the stranger, who was trudging along good-humoredly by the side of the wagon, if he would like to ride. He laughed and said he wouldn’t mind it if I would let him straddle the saddle-mule; and for my part I had no objections.

So I crawled up on the cotton and lay there with Crooked-leg Jake. I had been there only a short time when the nigger awoke and saw me. He looked scared.

“Who dat drivin’ dem mules, Marse Isaiah?” he asked.

“I couldn’t tell you even if you were sober,” said I. “The lead-mule was hitched on the off-side, and the man that is driving rushed out of the woods, fixed her right, and since then we have been making good time.”

“Is he a sho’ ’nuff w’ite man, Marse Isaiah?” asked Jake.

[154]

“Well, he looks like he is,” said I; “but I’m not certain about that.”

With that Jake crawled to the front of the wagon, and looked over at the driver. After a while he came crawling back.

“Tell me what you saw,” said I.

“Well, sir,” said he, “I dunner whe’er dat man’s a w’ite man or not, but he’s a-settin’ sideways on dat saddle-mule, en every time he chirps, dat lead-mule know what he talkin’ about. Yasser. She do dat. Did you say he come outen de woods?”

“I don’t know where he came from,” said I. “He’s there, and he’s driving the mules.”

“Yasser. Dat’s so. He’s dar sho’, kaze I seed ’im wid my own eyes. He look like he made outen flesh en blood, en yit he mought be a ha’nt; dey ain’t no tellin’. Dem dar mules is gwine on mos’ too slick fer ter suit me.”

Well, the upshot of it was that the stranger continued to drive. He made himself useful during the day, and when night came, he made himself musical; for in the pack slung across his back was a fiddle, and in the manipulation of this instrument he showed a power and a mastery which are[155] given to few men to possess. I doubt whether he would have made much of a show on the stage, but I have heard some of your modern players, and none of them could approach him, according to my taste. I’ll tell you why. They all seem to play the music for the music itself, but this man played it for the sake of what it reminded him of. I remember that when he took out his fiddle at night, as he invariably did if nobody asked him to, I used to shut my eyes and dream dreams that I have never dreamed since, and see visions that are given to few men to see. If I were younger I could describe it to you, but an old man like me is not apt at such descriptions.

We journeyed on, and, as we journeyed, we were joined by other wagons hauling cotton, until, at last, there was quite a caravan of them—twenty, at least, and possibly more. This made matters very lively, as you may suppose, especially at night, when we went into camp. Then there were scenes such as have never been described in any of the books that profess to tell about life in the South before the war. After the teams had been fed and supper cooked, the niggers would sing, dance and wrestle,[156] and the white men would gather to egg them on, or sit by their fires and tell stories or play cards. Sometimes there would be a fight, and that was exciting; for in those days, the shotgun was mighty handy and the dirk was usually within reach. In fact, there was every amusement that such a crowd of people could manage to squeeze out of such an occasion. In our caravan there were more than a dozen fiddlers, white and black, but not one of them that attracted as much attention as the stranger who drove my team. When he was in the humor he could entrance the whole camp; but it was not often that he would play, and it frequently happened that he and I would go to bed under our wagon while the rest of the teamsters were frolicking. I had discovered that he was a good man to have along. He knew just how to handle the mules, he knew all the roads, he knew just where to camp, and he knew how to keep Crooked-leg Jake sober. One night after we had gone to bed he raised himself on his elbow and said:

“To-morrow night, if I make no mistake, we will camp within a few miles of the Sandhills. There my journey ends, and yet you have never asked me my name.”

[157]

“Well,” said I, “you are a much older man than I am, and I had a notion that if you wanted me to know your name you would tell me. I had no more reason for asking it than you have for hiding it.”

He lay over on his back and laughed.

“You’ll find out better than that when you are older,” he said, and then he continued laughing—though whether it was what I said or his own thoughts that tickled him, I had no means of knowing.

“Well,” he went on, after a while, “you are as clever a youngster as ever I met, and I’ve nothing to hide from you. My name is Willis Featherstone, and I am simply a vagabond, else you would never have seen me trudging along the public road with only a fiddle at my back; but I have a rich daddy hereabouts, and I’m on my way to see how he is getting along. Now,” he continued, “I’ll give you a riddle. If you can’t unriddle it, it will unriddle itself. A father had a son. He sent him to school in Augusta, until he was fifteen. By that time, the father grew to hate the son, and one day, in a fit of anger, sold him to a nigger speculator.”

“How could that be?” I asked.

[158]

“That is a part of the riddle,” said he.

“Are you the son?”

“That is another part of the same riddle.”

“Where was the son’s mother?” I asked.

“In the riddle—in the riddle,” he replied.

I could not unriddle the riddle, but it seemed to hint at some such villainy as I had read about in the books in my father’s library. Here was a man who had sold his son; that was enough for me. It gave me matter to dream on, and as I was a pretty heavy feeder in those days, my dreams followed hard on each other. But it isn’t worth while to relate them here, for the things that actually happened were infinitely worse than any dream could be.

As Featherstone had foretold, we camped the next night not far from the Sandhills, where the rich people of Augusta went every summer to escape the heat and malaria of the city. We might have gone on and reached Augusta during the night, but both men and mules were tired, and of the entire caravan only one wagon went forward. I shall remember the place as long as I live. In a little hollow, surrounded by live-oaks—we[159] call them water-oaks up here—was a very bold spring, and around and about was plenty of grass for the mules. It was somewhat dry, the time being November, but it made excellent forage. On a little hill beyond the spring was a dwelling-house. I came to have a pretty good view of it afterward, but in the twilight it seemed to be a very substantial building. It was painted white and had green blinds, and it sat in the midst of a beautiful grove of magnolias and cedars. I remember, too,—it is all impressed on my mind so vividly—that the avenue leading to the house was lined on each side with Lombardy poplars, and their spindling trunks stood clearly out against the sky.

While I was helping Featherstone unhitch and unharness the mules, he suddenly remarked:—

“That’s the place.”

“What place?” I asked.

“The place the riddle tells about—where the son was sold by his father.”

“Well,” said I, by way of saying something, “what can’t be cured must be endured.”

“You are a very clever chap,” he said,[160] after a while. “In fact you are the best chap I have seen for many a long day, and I like you. I’ve watched you like a hawk, and I know you have a mother at home.”

“Yes,” said I, “and she’s the dearest old mother you ever saw. I wish you knew her.”

He came up to me, laid his hand on my shoulder, and looked into my face with an air I can never forget.

“That is the trouble,” said he; “I don’t know her. If I did I would be a better man. I never had much of a mother.”

With that he turned away, and soon I heard him singing softly to himself as he mended a piece of the harness. All this time Crooked-leg Jake was cooking our supper beneath the live-oak trees. Other teamsters were doing the same, so that there were two dozen camp-fires burning brightly within an area of not more than a quarter of a mile. The weather was pleasant, too, and the whole scene struck me as particularly lively.

Crooked-leg Jake was always free-handed with his cooking. He went at it with a zest born of his own insatiate appetite, and it was not long before we were through with[161] it; and while the other campers were fuming and stewing over their cooking, Jake was sitting by the fire nodding, and Featherstone was playing his fiddle. He never played it better than he did that night, and he played it a long time, while I sat listening. Meanwhile quite a number of the teamsters gathered around, some reclining in the leaves smoking their pipes, and others standing around in various positions. Suddenly I discovered that Featherstone had a new and an unexpected auditor. Just how I discovered this I do not know; it must have been proned in upon me, as the niggers say. I observed that he gripped the neck of his fiddle a little tighter, and suddenly he swung off from “Money-musk” into one of those queer serenades which you have heard now and again on the plantation. Where the niggers ever picked up such tunes the Lord only knows, but they are heart-breaking ones.

Following the glance of Featherstone’s eyes, I looked around, and I saw, standing within the circle of teamsters, a tall mulatto woman. She was a striking figure as she stood there gazing with all her eyes, and listening with all her ears. Her hair was[162] black and straight as that of an Indian, her cheeks were sunken, and there was that in her countenance that gave her a wolfish aspect. As she stood there rubbing her skinny hands together and moistening her thin lips with her tongue, she looked like one distraught. When Featherstone stopped playing, pretending to be tuning his fiddle, the mulatto woman drew a long breath, and made an effort to smile. Her thin lips fell apart and her white teeth gleamed in the firelight like so many fangs. Finally she spoke, and it was an ungracious speech:—

“Ole Giles Featherstone, up yonder—he’s my marster—he sont me down here an’ tole me to tell you-all dat, bein’s he got some vittles lef’ over fum dinner, he’ll be glad ef some un you would come take supper ’long wid ’im. But, gentermens”—here she lowered her voice, giving it a most tragic tone—“you better not go, kaze he ain’t got nothin’ up dar dat’s fittin’ ter eat—some cole scraps an’ de frame uv a turkey. He scrimps hisse’f, an’ he scrimps me, an’ he scrimps eve’ybody on de place, an’ he’ll scrimp you-all ef you go dar. No, gentermens, ef you des got corn-bread an’ bacon you better stay ’way.”

[163]

Whatever response the teamsters might have made was drowned by Featherstone’s fiddle, which plunged suddenly into the wild and plaintive strains of a plantation melody. The mulatto woman stood like one entranced; she caught her breath, drew back a few steps, stretched forth her ebony arms, and cried out:—

“Who de name er God is dat man?”

With that Featherstone stopped his playing, fixed his eyes on the woman, and exclaimed:—

“Where’s Duncan?”

For a moment the woman stood like one paralyzed. She gasped for breath, her arms jerked convulsively, and there was a twitching of the muscles of her face pitiful to behold; then she rushed forward and fell on her knees at the fiddler’s feet, hugging his legs with her arms.

“Honey, who is you?” she cried in a loud voice. “In de name er de Lord, who is you! Does you know me? Say, honey, does you?”

Featherstone looked at the writhing woman serenely.

“Come, now,” he said, “I ask you once more, Where’s Duncan?”

[164]

His tone was most peculiar: it was thrilling, indeed, and it had a tremendous effect on the woman. She rose to her feet, flung her bony arms above her head, and ran off into the darkness, screaming:—

“He sold ’im!—he sold Duncan! He sold my onliest boy!”

This she kept on repeating as she ran, and her voice died away like an echo in the direction of the house on the hill. There was not much joking among the teamsters over this episode, and somehow there was very little talk of any kind. None of us accepted the invitation. Featherstone put his fiddle in his bag, and walked off toward the wagons, and it was not long before everybody had turned in for the night.

I suppose I had been asleep an hour when I felt some one shaking me by the shoulder. It was Crooked-leg Jake.

“Marse Isaiah,” said he, “dey er cuttin’ up a mighty rippit up dar at dat house on de hill. I ’spec’ somebody better go up dar.”

“What are they doing?” I asked him drowsily.

“Dey er cussin’ an’ gwine on scan’lous. Dat ar nigger ’oman, she’s a-cussin’ out de white man, an’ de white man, he’s a-cussin’ back at her.”

[165]

“Where’s Featherstone?” I inquired, still not more than half awake.

“Dat what make me come atter you, suh. Dat white man what bin ’long wid us, he’s up dar, an’ it look like ter me dat he’s a-aggin’ de fuss on. Dey gwine ter be trouble up dar, sho ez you er born.”

“Bosh!” said I, “the woman’s master will call her up, give her a strapping, and that will be the end of it.”

“No, suh! no, suh!” exclaimed Jake; “dat ar nigger ’oman done got dat white man hacked. Hit’s des like I tell you, mon!”

I drove Jake off to bed, turned over on my pallet, and was about to go to sleep again, when I heard quite a stir in the camp. The mules and horses were snorting and tugging at their halters, the chickens on the hill were cackling, and somewhere near, a flock of geese was screaming. Just then Crooked-leg Jake came and shook me by the shoulder again. I spoke to him somewhat sharply, but he didn’t seem to mind it.

“What I tell you, Marse Isaiah?” he cried. “Look up yonder! Ef dat house ain’t afire on top, den Jake’s a liar!”

[166]

I turned on my elbow, and, sure enough, the house on the hill was outlined in flame. The hungry, yellow tongues of fire reached up the corners and ran along the roof, lapping the shingles, here and there, as if blindly searching for food. They found it, too, for by the time I reached the spot, and you may be sure I was not long getting there, the whole roof was in a blaze. I had never seen a house on fire before, and the sight of it made me quake; but in a moment I had forgotten all about the fire, for there, right before my eyes, was a spectacle that will haunt me to my dying day. In the dining-room—I suppose it must have been the dining-room, for there was a sideboard with a row of candles on it—I saw the mulatto woman (the same that had acted so queerly when Featherstone had asked her about Duncan) engaged in an encounter with a gray-haired white man. The candles on the sideboard and the flaring flames without lit up the affair until it looked like some of the spectacles I have since seen in theatres, only it was more terrible.

It was plain that the old man was no match for the woman, but he fought manfully for his life. Whatever noise they made must have been drowned by the crackling[167] and roaring of the flames outside; but they seemed to be making none except a snarling sound when they caught their breath, like two bull-dogs fighting. The woman had a carving-knife in her right hand, and she was endeavoring to push the white man against the wall. He, on his side, was trying to catch and hold the hand in which the woman held the knife, and was also making a frantic effort to keep away from the wall. But the woman had the advantage; she was younger and stronger, and desperate as he was, she was more desperate still.

Of course, it is a very easy matter to ask why some of my companions or myself didn’t rush to the rescue. I think such an attempt was made; but the roof of the house was ablaze and crackling from one end to the other, and the heat and smoke were stifling. The smoke and flames, instead of springing upward, ranged downward, so that before anything could be done, the building appeared to be a solid sheet of fire; but through it all could be seen the writhing and wrestling of the nigger woman and the white man. Once, and only once, did I catch the sound of a voice; it was the voice of the nigger woman; she had her carving-knife raised[168] in the air in one hand, and with the other she had the white man by the throat.

“Where’s Duncan?” she shrieked.

If the man had been disposed to reply, he had no opportunity, for the woman had no sooner asked the question than she plunged the carving-knife into his body, not only once, but twice. It was a sickening sight, indeed, and I closed my eyes to avoid seeing any more of it; but there was no need of that, for the writhing and struggling bodies of the two fell to the floor and so disappeared from sight.

Immediately afterward there was a tremendous crash. The roof had fallen in, and this was followed by an eruption of sparks and smoke and flame, accompanied by a violent roaring noise that sounded like the culmination of a storm. It was so loud that it aroused the pigeons on the place, and a great flock of them began circling around the burning building. Occasionally one more frightened than the rest would dart headlong into the flames, and it was curious to see the way it disappeared. There would be a fizz and a sputter, and the poor bird would be burnt harder than a crackling. I observed this and other commonplace things[169] with unusual interest—an interest sharpened, perhaps, by the fact that there could be no hope for the two human beings on whom the roof had fallen.

Naturally, you will want to ask me a great many questions. I have asked them myself a thousand times, and I’ve tried to dream the answers to them while I sat dozing here in the sun, but when I dream about the affair at all, the fumes of burning flesh seem to fill my nostrils. Crooked-leg Jake insisted to the day of his death that the man who had driven our team sat in a chair in the corner of the dining-room, while the woman and the man were fighting, and seemed to be enjoying the spectacle. It may be so. At any rate none of us ever saw him again. As for the rest, you know just as much about it as I do.


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