Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. IXXI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 18611889
By Harry Stillwell Edwards (18551938)
[Born in Macon, Ga., 1855. Died there, 1938. Two Runaways, and Other Stories. 1880.]
THE TRIM little steamboat that plies Lake Harris, the loveliest of all Florida waters, emerged from the picturesque avenue of cypress and trailing moss called Dead River, which leads out of Eustis, and glided as a shadow betwixt sea and sky toward its harbor, fourteen miles away. It had been the perfection of a May day, and the excursionists, wearied at last of sight-seeing, were gathered upon the forward deck. The water-slopes of the highlands on the right, with their dark lines of orange-trees and their nestling cottages, lay restful in the evening shadow fast stretching out toward the boat, for the sun was dipping below the horizon, with the stately pines in silhouette upon his broad red face. Home, Sweet Home, Old Kentucky Home, and Old Folks at Home had been rendered by the singers of the party with that queer mixture of pathos and bathos so inseparably connected with excursion songs, and a species of nothing-else-to-be-done silence settled over the group, broken only by the soft throb of the engine and the swish of dividing waters. Presently some one began a dissertation upon negro songs, and by easy stages the conversation drifted to negro stories. Among the excursionists sat a gray-haired, tall, soldierly looking gentleman whom everyone called Colonel, and whose kindly eyes beamed out from under his soft felt hat in paternal friendliness upon all.
It is somewhat singular, he said at length, when there had come a lull in the conversation, that none of the story-writers have ever dealt with the negro as a resident of two continents. Why could not a good story be written, the scene laid partly in Africa and partly in the South? I am not familiar enough with the literature of this kind and the romances that have been written about our darkies to say positively that it has not been already done, but it seems to me that the opportunity to develop a character from the savage to the civilized state is very fine and would take well. Victor Hugo has a negro in one of his West India romances whose name I forget nowthe story used to be familiar
But, Colonel, is it not true that these people were the veriest savages, and would it not be too great a strain upon the realistic ideas of the day to venture into Africa for a hero, especially since Rider Haggard has idealized it?
I dont think so. We have no way of ascertaining just how much the imported slaves really knew, but it is a fact that a few were remarkable for some kind of skill and intelligence. They were not communicative, and soon drifted into the dialect of their new neighbors, forgetting their own. I had a negro on my plantation who undoubtedly came from Africa. I was present when my father bought him upon the streets of Savannah, becoming interested in his story soon after he was landed. His mother was described as a sort of priestessor, as we say, a Voodooin her native land, which was near the western coast of Africa, some twelve hundred miles north of Cape of Good Hope. Her influence for evil, it seems, was so remarkable that as soon as possible she was separated from the cargo and sent on to one of the Gulf ports. This fellow was then probably about thirty years olda little jet-black man with small, bright eyes of remarkable brilliancy. He seemed very glad to go with us, and, I may add, never at any time afterward did he ever give trouble, but did readily what was required of him. He seemed to take a fancy to me from the first, and his loveI say love, for I believe it was genuine affectiongradually extended to all white children. For children of his own colorI wont say race, for in many respects he differed from the ordinary negrohe entertained the liveliest disgust. Now, a story-writer could take that slave and with the help I might give himhis life with us, his peculiarities, powers, certain singular coincidences, and the manner of his deathweave a very interesting romance.
O Colonel, do tell us the story! The appeal came in the shape of a chorus from the ladies present, and was at once reënforced by the others. A pair of sweethearts who had been leaning over the bow came slowly back on hearing it, and added their solicitations. The genial old gentleman laughed and looked out upon the waters.
I did not know I was spreading a net for my own feet, he said. The story of this fellow would require half a night, even were I able to put it in shape, but I can give a rough outline of some features of it. Minc, as he was called, though his name as near as I can imitate his pronunciation was Meengr,Minc was for a long time a sort of elephant on the familys hands. My mother was a little afraid of him, I think, and the negroes themselves never did entirely overcome their respect for him enough to treat him exactly as one of them, although, as I have intimated, he was perfectly harmless.
Minc, however, one day exhibited a strange power over animals which is even now a mystery to me. He could take a drove of hogs and by a series of queer little sounds, half grunts, half groans, reduce them to submission and drive them where he would. Gradually, as the rules for feeding and taking care of them became known to him, he was given charge of the plantation hogs, of which there were five or six hundred, and no small responsibility it was. I remember he at once fashioned him a little instrument from the horn of a yearling; with this he could go into the swamp and by a few notes thereon call them up on the run. That one horn lasted him all his life, and he was with us thirty-odd years. He used to wear it hung round his neck by a string, and it was the one possession that the children could not get away from him for even a moment. I think that probably some superstition restrained him.
Another queer power possessed by Minc was in connection with grasshoppers. I have seen him hundreds of times go into the orchard where the crab-grass was tall, and standing perfectly still give forth from his chest a musical humming sound. If there were any big brown grasshoppers within hearing they would fly up, dart about, and light upon him. Sometimes he would let me stand by him, and then the grasshoppers would come to me also; but Minc could catch them without any trouble, while any movement from my hand drove them off. Minx, continued the speaker, laughing softly, used to eat the things,exclamations from the ladies,and I am told that certain tribes in Africa are very fond of them.
Boiled in a bag and eaten with salt they are not bad, said a young gentleman with the reputation of having been everywhere. I have eaten what was probably the same insect, though under the name of locusts. (More exclamations.) Why not? he added in defense. Can anything be worse to look upon than shrimps?
Well, continued the Colonel, I soon broke Minc of eating them. The grasshoppers were my favorite bait for fish, and Minc developed into a most successful angler, quite abandoning his cane spearthough, by the way, he was as certain of a victim when he struck as was a fish-hawk. I think the plantation rations also had something to do with his change of diet.
Well, as Mincs queer powers came to be known he was not greatly sought after by the other negroes. They are slow to speak of their superstitions, but it soon developed that they regarded him as being in league with spirits. He lived in a little cabin down on the creek apart from the others, and there was my favorite haunt, for I was more than delighted with Mincs accomplishments, and Minc was rapidly learning from me the use of many words, which gave me a sort of proprietary interest in him. In time he came to speak as well as the average negro, but he had a way of running his words together when excited that made him all but unintelligible. I never did get much information from him concerning his former life. He didnt seem to be able to convert terms well enough to express himself. He had lived near great swamps, ate fish, was familiar with the hogthis much I gleaned; and from time to time he would recognize birds and animals and excitedly give me what were evidently their names in his own country. Of course this all came to me at odd times from year to year, and did not make a great impression. I remember, though, that reference to his capture had always a depressing effect upon him, and at such times he would go off about his work. I suppose the memory of his mother was the cause of this; and I soon found that to speak to him of the matter would cost me Mincs company, and so I quit bringing up the subject.
The things in connection with Minc that puzzled me more were his superstitions. Doubtless they were taught him by his mother, and the first intimation of them I had was when he caught a gopher, and with a bit of wire ground to an exceedingly fine point cut on its shell a number of curious signs, or hieroglyphics, different from anything I had ever seen, except that there was a pretty fair representation of the sun. He then took this gopher back to where he found it and turned him loose at the entrance of his burrow, making gestures indicating that the gopher was going far down into the earth. He did something of this kind for every gopher he caught. One day he succeeded in snaring a green-head duck, and upon its broad bill he carved more hieroglyphics. This done, to my astonishment, and probably to the ducks also, he tossed the bird high in the air and laughed as it sped away. As the years went by I saw him treat many birds after the same fashion. If there was room for only one or two figures, he would put them on, and let the bird go. But as he grew older Minc ate the large majority of his captures, just as any other negro would.
Well, many years passed away; I grew up and married. By this time Minc was long since a feature of the plantation. My children in time took my place with him, and manys the ride he gave them in his little two-wheel cart behind the oxen. I should have said before that he used to haul corn to the hogs when in distant fields, and wood for the house-fires on the way back. The negroes no longer feared him, but the negro children would run past his wagon as he plodded along and sing:
Oh, well, I forget how the rhyme ran; but Minc would stop every time and hurl a string of words at them which no one could ever exactly translate; and the little brats, delighted at having provoked the outburst, would kick up their heels and scamper off. But along in the war, continued the Colonel, after yielding a moment to a quiet shake of his sides over the recollections trooping up, Minc filled another office. It was found that by means of a notched stick, scarcely two feet in length, he could keep books, so to say, as well as anybody. I cant, and never will, I reckon, fathom the fellows system. He often tried to explain it; but when he had finished, you would know just about what you knew at first and be a little confused as to that. But he never was known to make a mistake. Sent into the fields, he would weigh cotton for forty pickers all day and report at night just what each picked in the morning and evening and the sum of alland all by means of his notches. I am absolutely sure he brought the system from Africa, for no one ever was able to understand it on the plantation, and Minc never lived a day off it. You will see the relation these incidents bear to my first proposition as to imported negroes being simply savages.
The death of Minc was tragic and surrounded by some remarkable circumstances, and here again comes the story-writers field. Two years before his death Minc had caught and tamed a little cooter about twice the size of a silver dollar. He would hum a queer little tune for his pet, and the thing would walk around the floor for all the world as if he was trying to dance. Then he would come when called, and was particularly fond of sleeping in Mincs dark jacket-pocket, where I suspect he found crumbs. Minc would sometimes throw him into the creek just in front of his cabin, but the little thing would scramble out and get back to the hut again if Minc was in sight; if not he staid in an eddy close by. You will understand directly why I speak so particularly of this. As the cooter grew larger, Minc amused himself by cutting hieroglyphics all over its back. Into these lines he rubbed dyes of his own manufacture, and the result was a very variegated cooter. The old man carried him almost continually in his pocket; partly, I think, because the animals antics always amused the children, and partly because he was the cause of Mincs getting many a biscuit. He would frequently come to the house, and sitting on the back porch make Teeta, as he called the cooter, go through with his tricks. These generally resulted in Mincs getting biscuit or cake for Teeta, and in his lying down and letting the animal crawl into his pocket after it, a feat that closed the performance.
Well, one day Minc was missing. Everything about his cabin was in order, but he did not return. He never did return. Search was made, of course, and he was finally given up. The negroes dragged the creek, but not with much expectation of finding him, for I am afraid that some of them believed that Old Nick had taken him bodily. But a month afterward my oldest boy was hunting in the big swamp for the hogs, which had become badly scattered since Mincs death, when in crossing a tree that had fallen over one of the many lagoons thereabout, whom should he see sitting there but Teeta, watching him with his keen little black eyes, the patch of sunlight he had chosen bringing out the tattoo marks upon his shell. The next instant Teeta dived off the log and disappeared. Tom came home and told of his adventure. Taking a party of negroes, I returned with him and dragged the lagoon. Just where the cooter had dived we found the body of poor old Minc. He had fallen off the log, and becoming entangled in the sunken branches had drowned. And in the rotting pocket of his old jacket we found the cooter hid away.
No; you must let me finish. The finding of the cooter was not the most singular thing connected with the death of Minc. Upon our return home one of the superstitious negroes, greatly to my distress, cut off Teetas head. He wanted it to place it under his doorstep. This was to protect the place from old Minc, of course; but I had the shell cleaned, and the children kept it as a memento of the faithful old slave whom they had dearly loved.
Relating this story once to an eminent traveller, continued the Colonel, he suggested that I should send it to the British Museum with its history written out; and going to New York soon after, I carried it with me. It lay forgotten, however, in my trunk, and I did not notice it again until one day I happened to be in New Orleans. There was then in that city an aged negress, claiming to be a Voodoo, and creating considerable stir among the Northern attendants upon Mardi-Gras. I dont know what suggested it, but it occurred to me one day that I would let her look at the shell. It was a mere fancy, or impulse, if you will. I carried it to her. She was, indeed, an old woman, small in stature, and bent nearly double. Without speaking a word, I placed the shell in her hand. She gave one long, fixed look at it, and straightened up as if casting off the weight of half a century. Her lips parted, but she could not speak. Then her form resumed its crook again, and placing her hand against the small of her back, she gasped for breath. With her bright black eyes fixed upon me she said at last, after a violent struggle, Meengr! It was a mere whisper. I spent an hour with the poor old creature, and told her the story of her sons life, for it was undoubtedly he. I gleaned from her that the hieroglyphics upon the shell were taught him by her,what they signified she would not say,and that he had written them upon the birds of the air, the beasts of the field, and the inhabitants of the water, that they might be borne to her wherever hid. I never got my shell back: it would have been like tearing the miniature of a dead child from its mothers bosom. And the old woman, when I went to see her next day, had disappeared.