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MOM BI: HER FRIENDS AND HER ENEMIES.
The little town of Fairleigh, in South Carolina, was a noted place before the war, whatever it may be now. It had its atmosphere, as Judge Waynecroft used to say, and that atmosphere was one of distinction. It was a very quiet town, but there was something aristocratic, something exclusive, even in its repose. It was a rough wind that could disturb the stateliness of the live oaks with which the streets were lined, and it was indeed an inhospitable winter that could suppress the tendency of the roses to bloom.

Fairleigh made no public boast that it was not a commercial town, but there can be no doubt that it prided itself on the fact. Even the piney-woods crackers found a slow market there for the little “truck” they had to sell, for it was the custom of the people to get their supplies of all kinds from “the[171] city.” It was to “the city,” indeed, that Fairleigh owed its prominence, and its inhabitants were duly mindful of that fact.

As late as 1854 there was no more insignificant village in South Carolina than Fairleigh; but in the summer of that year the fever plague flapped its yellow wings above Charleston, and the wealthier families sought safety in flight. Some went North and some went West; some went one way and some another; but the choice few, following the example of Judge Waynecroft, went no further than Fairleigh, which was far enough in the interior to be out of reach of the contagion.

They found the situation of the little village so convenient, and its climate so perfect, that they proceeded—still following the example of Judge Waynecroft—to build summer homes there; and in time Fairleigh became noted as a resort for the wealthiest and most refined people of Charleston.

Of this movement, as has been intimated, Judge Waynecroft was the pioneer; and for this and other reasons he was highly esteemed by the natives of Fairleigh. To their minds the Judge was an able and a public-spirited citizen, whom it was their[172] pleasure to admire. In addition to this, he had a most charming household, in which simplicity lent grace to dignity.

There was one feature of Judge Waynecroft’s household, however, which the natives of Fairleigh did not admire, and that was “Mom Bi.” Perhaps they were justified in this. Mom Bi was a negro woman, who appeared to be somewhat past middle age, just how far past no one could guess. She was tall and gaunt, and her skin was black as jet. She walked rapidly, but with a sidewise motion, as if she had been overtaken with rheumatism or partial paralysis. Her left arm was bent and withered, and she carried it in front of her and across her body, as one would hold an infant. Her head-handkerchief was queerly tied. The folds of it stood straight up in the air, giving her the appearance of a black Amazon. This impression was heightened by the peculiar brightness of her eyes. They were not large eyes, but they shone like those of a wild animal that is not afraid of the hunter. Her nose was not flat, nor were her lips thick like those of the typical negro. Her whole appearance was aggressive. Moreover, her manner was abrupt, and her[173] tongue sharp, especially when it was leveled at any of the natives of Fairleigh.

To do Mom Bi justice, her manner was abrupt and her tongue sharp even in her master’s family, but there these matters were understood. Practically, she ruled the household, and though she quarreled from morning till night, and sometimes far into the night, everything she said was taken in a Pickwickian sense. She was an old family servant who not only had large privileges, but was defiantly anxious to take advantage of all of them.

Whatever effect slavery may have had on other negroes, or on negroes in general, it is certain that Mom Bi’s spirit remained unbroken. Whoever crossed her in the least, white or black, old or young, got “a piece of her mind,” and it was usually a very large piece. Naturally enough, under the circumstances, Mom Bi soon became as well known in Fairleigh and in all the region round about as any of the “quality people.” To some, her characteristics were intensely irritating; while to others they were simply amusing; but to all she was a unique figure, superior in her methods and ideas to the common run of negroes.

[174]

Once, after having a quarrel with her mistress—a quarrel which was a one-sided affair, however—Mom Bi heard one of the house girls making an effort to follow her example. The girl was making some impertinent remarks to her mistress, when Mom Bi seized a dog-whip that was hanging in the hall, and used it with such effect that the pert young wench remembered it for many a long day.

This was Mom Bi’s way. She was ready enough to quarrel with each and every member of her master’s family, but she was ready to defend the entire household against any and all comers. Altogether she was a queer combination of tyrant and servant, of virago and “mammy.” Yet her master and mistress appreciated and respected her, and the children loved her. Her strong individuality was not misunderstood by those who knew her best.

No one knew just how old she was, and no one knew her real name. Probably no one cared: but there was a tradition in the Waynecroft family that her name was Viola, and that it had been corrupted by the children into Bi—Mom Bi. As to her age, it is sufficient to say that she was the[175] self-constituted repository of the oral history of three generations of the family. She was a young woman when her master’s grandfather died in 1799. Good, bad or indifferent, Mom Bi knew all about the family; and there were passages in the careers of some of its members that she was fond of retailing to her master and mistress, especially when in a bad humor.

Insignificant as she was, Mom Bi made her influence felt in Fairleigh. She was respected in her master’s family for her honesty and faithfulness, but outsiders shrank from her frank and fearless criticism. The “sandhillers”—the tackies—that marketed their poor little crops in and around the village, were the special objects of her aversion, and she lost no opportunity of harassing them. Whether these queer people regarded Mom Bi as a humorist of the grimmer sort, or whether they were indifferent to her opinions, it would be difficult to say, but it is certain that her remarks, no matter how personal or bitter, made little impression on them. The men would rub their thin beards, nudge each other and laugh silently, while the women would push their sunbonnets back and stare at her as if[176] she were some rare curiosity on exhibition. At such times Mom Bi would laugh loudly and maliciously, and cry out in a shrill and an irritating tone:—

“De Lord know, I glad I nigger. Ef I ain’t bin born black, dee ain’t no tellin, what I mought bin born. I mought bin born lak some deze white folks what eat dirt un set in de chimerly-corner tell dee look lak dee bin smoke-dried. De Lord know what make Jesse Waynecroft fetch he famerly ’mongst folk lak deze.”

This was mildness itself compared with some of Mom Bi’s harangues later on, when the “sandhillers,” urged by some of the energetic citizens of the village, were forming a military company to be offered to the Governor of Virginia for the defense of that State. This was in the summer of 1861. There was a great stir in the South. The martial spirit of the people had been aroused by the fiery eloquence of the political leaders, and the volunteers were mustering in every town and village. The “sandhillers” were not particularly enthusiastic—they had but vague ideas of the issues at stake—but the military business was something new to them, and therefore alluring. They[177] volunteered readily if not cheerfully, and it was not long before there was a company of them mustering under the name of the Rifle Rangers—an attractive title to the ear if not to the understanding.

Mom Bi was very much interested in the maneuvers of the Rifle Rangers. She watched them with a scornful and a critical eye. Even in their uniforms, which were of the holiday pattern, their appearance was the reverse of soldierly. They were hollow-chested and round-shouldered, and exceedingly awkward in all their movements. Their maneuvers on the outskirts of the village, accompanied by the music of fife and drum, always drew a crowd of idlers, and among these interested spectators Mom Bi was usually to be found.

“Dee gwine fight,” she would say to the Waynecroft children, in her loud and rasping voice. “Dee gwine kill folks right un left. Look at um! I done git skeer’d myse’f, dee look so ’vigrous. Ki! dee gwine eat dem Yankee up fer true. I sorry fer dem Yankee, un I skeer’d fer myse’f! When dee smell dem vittle what dem Yankee got, ’tis good-by, Yankee! Look at um, honey! dee gwine fight fer rich folks’ nigger.”

[178]

The drilling and mustering went on, however, and Mom Bi was permitted to say what she pleased. Some laughed at her, others regarded her with something like superstitious awe, while a great many thought she was merely a harmless simpleton. Above all, she was Judge Waynecroft’s family servant, and this fact was an ample apology in Fairleigh and its environs for anything that she might say.

The mustering of the “sandhillers” irritated Mom Bi; but when the family returned to Charleston in the winter, the preparations for war that she saw going on made a definite and profound impression on her. At night she would go into her mistress’s room, sit on the hearth in a corner of the fire-place, and watch the fire in the grate. Nursing her withered arm, she would sit silent for an hour at a time, and when she did speak it seemed as if her tongue had lost something of its characteristic asperity.

“I think,” said Mrs. Waynecroft, on one occasion, “that Mom Bi is getting religion.”

“Well, she’ll never get it any younger,” the Judge replied.

Mom Bi, sitting in her corner, pretended[179] not to hear, but after a while she said: “Ef de Lord call me in de chu’ch, I gwine; ef he no call I no gwine—enty? I no yerry him call dis long time.”

“Well,” remarked the Judge, “something has cooled you off and toned you down, and I was in hopes you were in the mourners’ seat.”

“Huh!” exclaimed Mom Bi. “How come I gwine go in mourner seat? What I gwine do in dey?” Then pointing to a portrait of Gabriel Waynecroft hanging over the mantel, she cried out: “Wey he bin gone at?”

Gabriel was the eldest son, the hope and pride of the family. The Judge and his wife looked at each other.

“I think you know where he has gone,” said Mrs. Waynecroft, gently. “He has gone to fight for his country.”

“Huh!” the old woman grunted. Then, after a pause, “Wey dem san’hillers bin gone at? Wey de country what dee fight fer?”

“Why, what are you talking about?” said Judge Waynecroft, who had been listening behind his newspaper. “This is their country too, and they have gone to fight for it.”

[180]

“’Longside dat boy?” Mom Bi asked. Her voice rose as she pointed at Gabriel’s picture.

“Why, certainly,” said the Judge.

“Pishou!” exclaimed Mom Bi, with a hiss that was the very essence of scorn, contempt and unbelief. “Oona nee’n’ tell me dat ting. I nuttin’ but nigger fer true, but I know better dun dat. I bin nuss dat boy, un I know um troo un troo. Dat boy, ’e cut ’e t’roat fus’ fo’ ’e fight ’longside dem trash. When ’e be en tell-a you ’e gwine fight ’longside dem whut de Lord done fersooken dis long time?”

The Judge smiled, but Mrs. Waynecroft looked serious; Mom Bi rocked backward and forward, as if nursing her withered arm.

“Whut dem po’ white trash gwine fight fer? Nuttin’ ’tall ain’t bin tell me dat. Dee ain’t bin had no nigger; dee ain’t bin had no money; dee ain’t bin had no lan’; dee ain’t bin had nuttin’ ’tall. Un den ’pun top er dat, yer come folks fer tell me dat dat boy gwine fight ’longside dem creeturs.”

Mom Bi laughed loudly, and shook her long finger at the portrait of young Gabriel Waynecroft. As a work of art the portrait[181] was a failure, having been painted by an ambitious amateur; but, crude as it was, it showed a face of wonderful refinement. The features were as delicate as those of a woman, with the exception of the chin, which was full and firm. The eyes, large and lustrous, gazed from the canvas with a suggestion of both tenderness and fearlessness.

During the long and dreary days that followed—days of waiting, days of suffering and of sorrow—there were many changes in the Waynecroft household, but Mom Bi held her place. She remained as virile and as active as ever. If any change was noticeable it was that her temper was more uncertain and her voice shriller. All her talk was about the war; and as the contest wore on, with no perceptible advantage to the Confederates, she assumed the character and functions of a prophetess. Among the negroes, especially those who had never come in familiar contact with the whites, she was looked upon as a person to be feared and respected. Naturally, they argued that any black who talked to the white people as Mom Bi did must possess at least sufficient occult power to escape punishment.

[182]

Sometimes, in the pleasant weather, while walking with her mistress and the children on the battery at Charleston she would reach forth her hand and exclaim:

“Oona see dem wharfs? Dee gwine be fill wid Yankee ships! Dee gwine sail right stret up, un nuttin’ ’t all gwine stop um.”

Then, turning to the town, she would say:

“Oona see dem street? Dee gwine fair swarm wid Yankee! Dee gwine march troo ’um, un nuttin’ ’t all gwine stop um. Oona see dem gang er nigger down dey? Dee gwine be free, un nuttin’ ’t all gwine stop um. Dee’l be free, un ole Bi gwine be free. Ah, Lord! when de drum start fer beat, un de trumpet start fer blow, de white folks gwine los de nigger. Ki! I mos’ yeddy dem now.”

This was repeated, not once, but hundreds of times—in the house and on the streets, wherever Mom Bi went. At the market, while the venders were weighing out supplies for the Waynecroft household, Mom Bi would take advantage of the occasion to preach a sermon about the war and to utter prophecies about the freedom of the negroes. Her fearlessness was her best protection. Those who heard her had no doubt that she was a lunatic, and so she was allowed to[183] come and go in peace, at a time when the great mass of the negroes were under the strictest surveillance. It made no difference to Mom Bi, however, whether one or a thousand eyes were watching her, or whether the whole world thought she was crazy. She was in earnest, and thus presented a spectacle that is rarer than a great many people are willing to admit.

The old woman went her way, affording amusement to some and to others food for thought; and the rest of the world went its way, especially that part of it that was watching events from rifle-pits and trenches. To those at home the years seemed to drag, though they went fast enough, no doubt, for those at the front. They went fast enough to mark some marvelous changes and developments. Hundreds of thousands of times, it happened that a gun fired in Virginia sorely wounded the hearts of a household far away.

On the Shenandoah, one night, a sharpshooter in blue heard the clatter of a horse’s hoofs on the turnpike, and the jangling of sword, spurs and bit. As the horseman came into view in the moonlight, the sharpshooter leveled his rifle. There was a flash,[184] a puff of smoke, and a report that broke into a hundred crackling echoes on the still night air. The horse that had been held so well in hand galloped wildly away with an empty saddle. The comrades of the cavalryman, who had been following him at a little distance, rushed forward at the report of the gun, and found their handsome young officer lying in the road, dead. They scoured the country for some distance around, but they saw nothing and heard nothing, and finally they lifted the dead soldier to a horse, and carried him back to their camp.

The sharpshooter had aimed only at the dashing young cavalryman, but his shot struck a father and a mother in Charleston, and an old negro woman who was supposed to be crazy; and the wounds that it made were grievous. The cavalryman was young Gabriel Waynecroft, and with the ending of his life the hope and expectations of the family seemed to be blotted out. He had been the darling of the household, the pride of his father, the joy of his mother, and the idol of Mom Bi. When the news of his death came, the grief of the household took the shape of consternation. It was terrible to behold. The mother was prostrated and[185] the father crushed. Their sorrow was voiceless. Mom Bi went about wringing her hands and moaning and talking to herself day after day.

Once, Judge Waynecroft, passing through the hall in slippered feet, thought he heard voices in the sitting-room. In an aimless way, he glanced in the room, and the sight made him pause. Mom Bi was sitting in the middle of the room in a low chair, gazing at the portrait of Gabriel Waynecroft, and talking to it. She spoke in a soft and tender tone, in strange contrast to the usual rasping and irritating quality of her voice.

“Look at me, honey,” she was saying; “look at you’ ole nigger mammy! Whut make dee lef’ you fer go way down, dey wey one folks kill turrer folks? Tell de ole nigger mammy dat, honey. Whaffer dee no lef’ dem no ’count san’hillers fer do all de fightin’? Who gwine fer cry wun dee git kilt? Fightin’ fer nigger! Whaffer you’ daddy no sen’ he niggers fer fight? De Lord know dee plenty un um. Nummine, honey! ’T ain’t gwine fer be long, ’fo’ dee’ll all know whut de Lord know, un whut ole Bi know. Gi’ um time, honey! des gi’ um time!”

[186]

Judge Waynecroft turned away with a groan. To behold the bewildered grief of this old negro woman was to add a new pang to his own sorrow. Mom Bi paused, but did not turn her head. She heard her master pass down the hall with uncertain step, and then she heard the library door shut.

“’Tis de gospel troot ’e bin yeddy me preachin’,” she exclaimed. Then she turned again to the portrait and gazed at it steadily and in silence for a long while, rocking herself and nursing her withered arm.

When the body of Gabriel Waynecroft was brought home, Mom Bi kneeled on the floor at the foot of the coffin and stayed there, giving utterance to the wildest lamentations. Some friend or acquaintance of the family made an attempt to remove her.

“This will never do,” he said kindly, but firmly. “You must get up and go away. The noise you are making distresses and disturbs the family.”

Trembling with mingled grief and rage, Mom Bi turned upon the officious person.

“I ain’t, I ain’t, I ain’t!” she almost shrieked. “I gwine fer stay right wey I is. Take you’ han’ fum off me, man! I bin cry[187] on count dat chile mos’ ’fo’ he own mammy is. I bin nuss um, I bin worry wid um, I bin stay ’wake wid um wun ev’body wuz sleep, un I bin hol’ um in my lap day un night, wun ’e sick un wun ’e well. I ain’t gwine out! I ain’t! I ain’t!”

In fine, Mom Bi made a terrible scene, and the officious person who wanted to drive her out was glad to get out himself, which he was compelled to do in order to escape the clamor that he had unwittingly raised.

The death and burial of Gabriel Waynecroft was a gloomy episode in Mom Bi’s experience, and it left its marks upon her. She lost none of her old-time vigor, but her temper became almost unbearable. She was surly, irritable and sometimes violent, especially toward the negroes on the place, who regarded her with a superstitious fear that would be difficult to explain or describe. Left to herself she did well enough. She loved to sit in the sun and talk to herself. The other negroes had a theory that she saw spirits and conversed with them; but they were welcome to their theories, so far as Mom Bi was concerned, provided they didn’t pester her.

Meanwhile, Sherman’s army was marching[188] through Georgia to Savannah, and in Virginia Grant was arranging the plans of his last campaign. Savannah fell, and then came the information that Sherman’s army was moving on Charleston. The city could be defended in only one direction: all its bristles pointed seaward; and the Confederate troops prepared to evacuate. All these movements were well known to the negroes, especially to Mom Bi, and she made use of her information to renew her prophecies. She stood in the porch of her master’s house and watched the Confederates file by, greeting them occasionally with irritating comment.

“Hi! Wey you gwine? Whaffer you no stop fer tell folks good-by? Nummine! Dem Yankee buckra, dee gwine shaky you by de han’. Dee mek you hot fer true. Wey you no stop fer see de nigger come free?”

Most of Mom Bi’s prophecies came true. Sherman marched northward, and then came Appomattox. One day, shortly after the surrender, Mom Bi appeared before Judge Waynecroft and his wife rigged out in her best clothes. She was rather more subdued than usual. She entered the room, and then[189] stood still, looking first at one and then at the other.

“Well, Bi,” said the Judge, kindly, “what can we do for you?”

“Nuttin’ ’t all. I gwine down dey at Sawanny, wey my daughter is bin live.”

“Do you mean Maria?”

“My daughter ’Ria, w’at you bin sell to John Waynecroft. I gwine down dey wey she live at.”

“Why, you are too old to be gadding about,” said the Judge. “Why not stay here where you have a comfortable home?”

“I think you are very foolish to even dream of such a thing, Mom Bi. Maria is not able to take care of you.”

“I gwine down dey wey my daughter bin live at,” persisted Mom Bi. Then she looked at the portrait of Gabriel Waynecroft. The beautiful boyish face seemed to arouse her. Turning suddenly, she exclaimed:

“De Lord know I done bin fergive you-all fer sellin’ ’Ria ’way fum me. De Lord know I is! Wun I bin see you set down un let dat chile go off fer git kill’”—Mom Bi pointed her long and quivering finger at Gabriel’s portrait—“wun I see dis, I say[190] ‘hush up, nigger! don’t bodder ’bout ’Ria.’ De Lord know I done bin fergive you!”

With this Mom Bi turned to the door and passed out.

“Won’t you tell us good-by?” the Judge asked.

“I done bin fergive you,” said Mom Bi.

“I think you might tell us good-by,” said Mrs. Waynecroft, with tears in her eyes and voice.

“I done bin fergive you,” was the answer.

This was in June. One morning months afterward Judge Waynecroft was informed by a policeman that a crazy old negro woman had been arrested in the cemetery.

“She is continually talking about Gabriel Waynecroft,” said the officer, “and the Captain thought you might know something about her. She’s got the temper of Old Harry,” he continued, “and old and crippled as she is, she’s as strong as a bull yearling.”

It was Mom Bi, and she was carried to her old master’s home. Little by little she told the story of her visit to Savannah. She found her daughter and her family in a most deplorable condition. The children had the small-pox, and finally Maria was seized with the disease. For lack of food[191] and proper attention they all died, and Mom Bi found herself alone and friendless in a strange city. How she managed to make her way back home it is impossible to say, but she returned.

The Mom Bi who returned, however, was not the same Mom Bi that went away. Old age had overtaken her in Savannah. Her eyes were hollow, her face was pinched and shrunken, the flesh on her bones had shriveled, and her limbs shook as with the palsy. When she was helped into the house that had so long been her home she looked around at the furniture and the walls. Finally her eyes rested on the portrait of Gabriel Waynecroft. She smiled a little and then said feebly:

“I done bin come back. I bin come back fer stay; but I free, dough!”

In a little while she was freer still. She had passed beyond the reach of mortal care or pain; and, as in the old days, she went without bidding her friends good-by.



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