Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Old King Solomon’s Coronation
By James Lane Allen (1849–1925)
From ‘Flute and Violin’

HE stood on the topmost of the court-house steps, and for a moment looked down on the crowd with the usual air of official severity.  1
  “Gentlemen,” he then cried out sharply, “by an ordah of the cou’t I now offah this man at public sale to the highes’ biddah. He is able-bodied but lazy, without visible property or means of suppoht, an’ of dissolute habits. He is therefoh adjudged guilty of high misdemeanahs, an’ is to be sole into labah foh a twelvemonth. How much, then, am I offahed foh the vagrant? How much am I offahed foh ole King Sol’mon?”  2
  Nothing was offered for old King Solomon. The spectators formed themselves into a ring around the big vagrant, and settled down to enjoy the performance.  3
  “Staht ’im, somebody.”  4
  Somebody started a laugh, which rippled around the circle.  5
  The sheriff looked on with an expression of unrelaxed severity, but catching the eye of an acquaintance on the outskirts, he exchanged a lightning wink of secret appreciation. Then he lifted off his tight beaver hat, wiped out of his eyes a little shower of perspiration which rolled suddenly down from above, and warmed a degree to his theme.  6
  “Come, gentlemen,” he said more suasively, “it’s too hot to stan’ heah all day. Make me an offah! You all know ole King Sol’mon; don’t wait to be interduced. How much, then, to staht ’im? Say fifty dollahs! Twenty-five! Fifteen! Ten! Why, gentlemen! Not ten dollahs? Remembah, this is the Blue-Grass Region of Kentucky—the land of Boone an’ Kenton, the home of Henry Clay!” he added, in an oratorical crescendo.  7
  “He ain’t wuth his victuals,” said an oily little tavern-keeper, folding his arms restfully over his own stomach and cocking up one piggish eye into his neighbor’s face. “He ain’t wuth his ’taters.”  8
  “Buy ’im foh ’is rags!” cried a young law student, with a Blackstone under his arm, to the town rag picker opposite, who was unconsciously ogling the vagrant’s apparel.  9
  “I might buy ’im foh ’is scalp,” drawled a farmer, who had taken part in all kinds of scalp contests, and was now known to be busily engaged in collecting crow scalps for a match soon to come off between two rival counties.  10
  “I think I’ll buy ’im foh a hat sign,” said a manufacturer of ten-dollar Castor and Rhorum hats. This sally drew merry attention to the vagrant’s hat, and the merchant felt rewarded.  11
  “You’d bettah say the town ought to buy ’im an’ put ’im up on top of the cou’t-house as a scarecrow foh the cholera,” said some one else.  12
  “What news of the cholera did the stage coach bring this mohning?” quickly inquired his neighbor in his ear; and the two immediately fell into low, grave talk, forgot the auction, and turned away.  13
  “Stop, gentlemen, stop!” cried the sheriff, who had watched the rising tide of good humor, and now saw his chance to float in on it with spreading sails. “You’re runnin’ the price in the wrong direction—down, not up. The law requires that he be sole to the highes’ biddah, not the lowes’. As loyal citizens, uphole the constitution of the commonwealth of Kentucky an’ make me an offah; the man is really a great bargain. In the first place, he would cos’ his ownah little or nothin’, because, as you see, he keeps himself in cigahs an’ clo’es; then, his main article of diet is whisky—a supply of which he always has on han’. He don’t even need a bed, foh you know he sleeps jus’ as well on any doohstep; noh a chair, foh he prefers to sit roun’ on the curbstones. Remembah, too, gentlemen, that ole King Sol’mon is a Virginian—from the same neighbohhood as Mr. Clay. Remembah that he is well educated, that he is an awful Whig, an’ that he has smoked mo’ of the stumps of Mr. Clay’s cigahs than any other man in existence. If you don’t b’lieve me, gentlemen, yondah goes Mr. Clay now; call him ovah an’ ask ’im foh yo’se’ves.”  14
  He paused, and pointed with his right forefinger towards Main Street, along which the spectators, with a sudden craning of necks, beheld the familiar figure of the passing statesman.  15
  “But you don’t need anybody to tell these fac’s, gentlemen,” he continued. “You merely need to be reminded that ole King Sol’mon is no ohdinary man. Mo’ovah he has a kine heaht; he nevah spoke a rough wohd to anybody in this worl’, an’ he is as proud as Tecumseh of his good name an’ charactah. An’, gentlemen,” he added, bridling with an air of mock gallantry and laying a hand on his heart, “if anythin’ fu’thah is required in the way of a puffect encomium, we all know that there isn’t anothah man among us who cuts as wide a swath among the ladies. The’foh, if you have any appreciation of virtue, any magnanimity of heaht; if you set a propah valuation upon the descendants of Virginia, that mothah of Presidents; if you believe in the pure laws of Kentucky as the pioneer bride of the Union; if you love America an’ love the worl’—make me a gen’rous, high-toned offah foh ole King Sol’mon!”  16
  He ended his peroration amid a shout of laughter and applause, and feeling satisfied that it was a good time for returning to a more practical treatment of his subject, proceeded in a sincere tone:—  17
  “He can easily earn from one to two dollahs a day, an’ from three to six hundred a yeah. There’s not anothah white man in town capable of doin’ as much work. There’s not a niggah han’ in the hemp factories with such muscles an’ such a chest. Look at ’em! An’, if you don’t b’lieve me, step fo’ward and feel ’em. How much, then, is bid foh ’im?”  18
  “One dollah!” said the owner of a hemp factory, who had walked forward and felt the vagrant’s arm, laughing, but coloring up also as the eyes of all were quickly turned upon him. In those days it was not an unheard-of thing for the muscles of a human being to be thus examined when being sold into servitude to a new master.  19
  “Thank you!” cried the sheriff, cheerily. “One precinc’ heard from! One dollah! I am offahed one dollah foh ole King Sol’mon. One dollah foh the king! Make it a half. One dollah an’ a half. Make it a half. One dol-dol-dol-dollah!”  20
  Two medical students, returning from lectures at the old Medical Hall, now joined the group, and the sheriff explained:—  21
  “One dollah is bid foh the vagrant ole King Sol’mon, who is to be sole into labah foh a twelvemonth. Is there any othah bid? Are you all done? One dollah, once—”  22
  “Dollah and a half,” said one of the students, and remarked half jestingly under his breath to his companion, “I’ll buy him on the chance of his dying. We’ll dissect him.”  23
  “Would you own his body if he should die?”  24
  “If he dies while bound to me, I’ll arrange that.”  25
  “One dollah an’ a half,” resumed the sheriff, and falling into the tone of a facile auctioneer he rattled on:—  26
  “One dollah an’ a half foh ole Sol’mon—sol, sol, sol,—do, re, mi, fa, sol,—do, re, mi, fa, sol! Why, gentlemen, you can set the king to music!”  27
  All this time the vagrant had stood in the centre of that close ring of jeering and humorous bystanders—a baffling text from which to have preached a sermon on the infirmities of our imperfect humanity. Some years before, perhaps as a master-stroke of derision, there had been given to him that title which could but heighten the contrast of his personality and estate with every suggestion of the ancient sacred magnificence; and never had the mockery seemed so fine as at this moment, when he was led forth into the streets to receive the lowest sentence of the law upon his poverty and dissolute idleness. He was apparently in the very prime of life—a striking figure, for nature at least had truly done some royal work on him. Over six feet in height, erect, with limbs well shaped and sinewy, with chest and neck full of the lines of great power, a large head thickly covered with long, reddish hair, eyes blue, face beardless, complexion fair but discolored by low passions and excesses—such was old King Solomon. He wore a stiff, high, black Castor hat of the period, with the crown smashed in and the torn rim hanging down over one ear; a black cloth coat in the old style, ragged and buttonless; a white cotton shirt, with the broad collar crumpled wide open at the neck and down his sunburnt bosom; blue jean pantaloons, patched at the seat and the knees; and ragged cotton socks that fell down over the tops of his dusty shoes, which were open at the heels.  28
  In one corner of his sensual mouth rested the stump of a cigar. Once during the proceedings he had produced another, lighted it, and continued quietly smoking. If he took to himself any shame as the central figure of this ignoble performance, no one knew it. There was something almost royal in his unconcern. The humor, the badinage, the open contempt, of which he was the public target, fell thick and fast upon him, but as harmlessly as would balls of pith upon a coat of mail. In truth, there was that in his great, lazy, gentle, good-humored bulk and bearing which made the gibes seem all but despicable. He shuffled from one foot to the other as though he found it a trial to stand up so long, but all the while looking the spectators full in the eyes without the least impatience. He suffered the man of the factory to walk round him and push and pinch his muscles as calmly as though he had been the show bull at a country fair. Once only, when the sheriff had pointed across the street at the figure of Mr. Clay, he had looked quickly in that direction with a kindling light in his eye and a passing flush on his face. For the rest, he seemed like a man who has drained his cup of human life and has nothing left him but to fill again and drink without the least surprise or eagerness.  29
  The bidding between the man of the factory and the student had gone slowly on. The price had reached ten dollars. The heat was intense, the sheriff tired. Then something occurred to revivify the scene. Across the market place and toward the steps of the court-house there suddenly came trundling along in breathless haste a huge old negress, carrying on one arm a large shallow basket containing apple-crab lanterns and fresh gingerbread. With a series of half-articulate grunts and snorts she approached the edge of the crowd and tried to force her way through. She coaxed, she begged, she elbowed and pushed and scolded, now laughing, and now with the passion of tears in her thick, excited voice. All at once, catching sight of the sheriff, she lifted one ponderous brown arm, naked to the elbow, and waved her hand to him above the heads of those in front.  30
  “Hole on marster! hole on!” she cried in a tone of humorous entreaty. “Don’ knock ’im off till I come! Gim me a bid at ’im!”  31
  The sheriff paused and smiled. The crowd made way tumultuously, with broad laughter and comment.  32
  “Stan’ aside theah an’ let Aun’ Charlotte in!”  33
  “Now you’ll see biddin’!”  34
  “Get out of the way foh Aun’ Charlotte!”  35
  “Up, my free niggah! Hurrah foh Kentucky.”  36
  A moment more and she stood inside the ring of spectators, her basket on the pavement at her feet, her hands plumped akimbo into her fathomless sides, her head up, and her soft, motherly eyes turned eagerly upon the sheriff. Of the crowd she seemed unconscious, and on the vagrant before her she had not cast a single glance.  37
  She was dressed with perfect neatness. A red and yellow Madras ’kerchief was bound about her head in a high coil, and another over the bosom of her stiffly starched and smoothly ironed blue cottonade dress. Rivulets of perspiration ran down over her nose, her temples, and around her ears, and disappeared mysteriously in the creases of her brown neck. A single drop accidentally hung glistening like a diamond on the circlet of one of her large brass earrings.  38
  The sheriff looked at her a moment, smiling but a little disconcerted. The spectacle was unprecedented.  39
  “What do you want heah, Aun’ Charlotte?” he asked kindly. “You can’t sell yo’ pies an’ gingerbread heah.”  40
  “I don’ wan’ sell no pies en gingerbread,” she replied, contemptuously. “I wan’ bid on him,” and she nodded sidewise at the vagrant. “White folks allers sellin’ niggahs to wuk fuh dem; I gwine to buy a white man to wuk fuh me. En he gwine t’ git a mighty hard mistiss, you heah me!”  41
  The eyes of the sheriff twinkled with delight.  42
  “Ten dollahs is offahed foh ole King Sol’mon. Is theah any othah bid. Are you all done?”  43
  “Leben,” she said.  44
  Two young ragamuffins crawled among the legs of the crowd up to her basket and filched pies and cake beneath her very nose.  45
  “Twelve!” cried the student, laughing.  46
  “Thirteen!” she laughed, too, but her eyes flashed.  47
  “You are bidding against a niggah,” whispered the student’s companion in his ear.  48
  “So I am; let’s be off,” answered the other, with a hot flush on his proud face.  49
  Thus the sale was ended, and the crowd variously dispersed. In a distant corner of the courtyard the ragged urchins were devouring their unexpected booty. The old negress drew a red handkerchief out of her bosom, untied a knot in a corner of it, and counted out the money to the sheriff. Only she and the vagrant were now left on the spot.  50
  “You have bought me. What do you want me to do?” he asked quietly.  51
  “Lohd, honey!” she answered, in a low tone of affectionate chiding, “I don’ wan’ you to do nothin’! I wuzn’ gwine t’ ’low dem white folks to buy you. Dey’d wuk you till you dropped dead. You go ’long en do ez you please.”  52
  She gave a cunning chuckle of triumph in thus setting at naught the ends of justice, and in a voice rich and musical with affection, she said, as she gave him a little push:  53
  “You bettah be gittin’ out o’ dis blazin’ sun. G’ on home! I be ’long by-en-by.”  54
  He turned and moved slowly away in the direction of Water Street, where she lived; and she, taking up her basket, shuffled across the market place toward Cheapside, muttering to herself the while:  55
  “I come mighty nigh gittin’ dar too late, foolin’ ’long wid dese pies. Sellin’ him ’ca’se he don’ wuk! Umph! if all de men in dis town dat don’ wuk wuz to be tuk up en sole, d’ wouldn’ be ’nough money in de town to buy ’em! Don’ I see ’em settin’ ’roun’ dese taverns f’om mohnin’ till night?”
*        *        *        *        *
  Nature soon smiles upon her own ravages and strews our graves with flowers, not as memories, but for other flowers when the spring returns.  57
  It was one cool, brilliant morning late in that autumn. The air blew fresh and invigorating, as though on the earth there were no corruption, no death. Far southward had flown the plague. A spectator in the open court square might have seen many signs of life returning to the town. Students hurried along, talking eagerly. Merchants met for the first time and spoke of the winter trade. An old negress, gayly and neatly dressed, came into the market place, and sitting down on a sidewalk displayed her yellow and red apples and fragrant gingerbread. She hummed to herself an old cradle-song, and in her soft, motherly black eyes shone a mild, happy radiance. A group of young ragamuffins eyed her longingly from a distance. Court was to open for the first time since the spring. The hour was early, and one by one the lawyers passed slowly in. On the steps of the court-house three men were standing: Thomas Brown, the sheriff; old Peter Leuba, who had just walked over from his music store on Main Street; and little M. Giron, the French confectioner. Each wore mourning on his hat, and their voices were low and grave.  58
  “Gentlemen,” the sheriff was saying, “it was on this very spot the day befoah the cholera broke out that I sole ’im as a vagrant. An’ I did the meanes’ thing a man can evah do. I hel’ ’im up to public ridicule foh his weakness an’ made spoht of ’is infirmities. I laughed at ’is povahty an’ ’is ole clo’es. I delivahed on ’im as complete an oration of sarcastic detraction as I could prepare on the spot, out of my own meanness an’ with the vulgah sympathies of the crowd. Gentlemen, if I only had that crowd heah now, an’ ole King Sol’mon standin’ in the midst of it, that I might ask ’im to accept a humble public apology, offahed from the heaht of one who feels himself unworthy to shake ’is han’! But gentlemen, that crowd will nevah reassemble. Neahly ev’ry man of them is dead, an’ ole King Sol’mon buried them.”  59
  “He buried my friend Adolphe Xaupi,” said François Giron, touching his eyes with his handkerchief.  60
  “There is a case of my best Jamaica rum for him whenever he comes for it,” said old Leuba, clearing his throat.  61
  “But, gentlemen, while we are speakin’ of ole King Sol’mon we ought not to forget who it is that has suppohted ’im. Yondah she sits on the sidewalk, sellin’ ’er apples an’ gingerbread.”  62
  The three men looked in the direction indicated.  63
  “Heah comes ole King Sol’mon now,” exclaimed the sheriff.  64
  Across the open square the vagrant was seen walking slowly along with his habitual air of quiet, unobtrusive preoccupation. A minute more and he had come over and passed into the court-house by a side door.  65
  “Is Mr. Clay to be in court to-day?”  66
  “He is expected, I think.”  67
  “Then let’s go in: there will be a crowd.”  68
  “I don’t know: so many are dead.”  69
  They turned and entered and found seats as quietly as possible; for a strange and sorrowful hush brooded over the court-room. Until the bar assembled, it had not been realized how many were gone. The silence was that of a common overwhelming disaster. No one spoke with his neighbor; no one observed the vagrant as he entered and made his way to a seat on one of the meanest benches, a little apart from the others. He had not sat there since the day of his indictment for vagrancy. The judge took his seat, and making a great effort to control himself, passed his eyes slowly over the court-room. All at once he caught sight of old King Solomon sitting against the wall in an obscure corner; and before any one could know what he was doing, he had hurried down and walked up to the vagrant and grasped his hand. He tried to speak, but could not. Old King Solomon had buried his wife and daughter,—buried them one clouded midnight, with no one present but himself.  70
  Then the oldest member of the bar started up and followed the example; and then the other members, rising by a common impulse, filed slowly back and one by one wrung that hard and powerful hand. After them came the other persons in the court-room. The vagrant, the gravedigger, had risen and stood against the wall, at first with a white face and a dazed expression, not knowing what it meant; afterwards, when he understood it, his head dropped suddenly forward and his tears fell thick and hot upon the hands that he could not see. And his were not the only tears. Not a man in the long file but paid his tribute of emotion as he stepped forward to honor that image of sadly eclipsed but still effulgent humanity. It was not grief, it was not gratitude, nor any sense of making reparation for the past. It was the softening influence of an act of heroism, which makes every man feel himself a brother hand in hand with every other;—such power has a single act of moral greatness to reverse the relations of men, lifting up one, and bringing all others to do him homage.  71
  It was the coronation scene in the life of ‘Ole’ King Solomon of Kentucky.  72

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