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   Chapter 14 No.14

Through stained glass By George Agnew Chamberlain Characters: 7833

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The next morning, as they were sitting, after their coffee and rolls, at a little iron table on the esplanade of the Sul Americano, Leighton said: "It takes a man five years to learn how to travel in a hurry and fifteen more to learn how not to hurry. You may consider that you've been a traveler for twenty years." He stretched and yawned. "Let's take a walk, slowly."

They started down the broad incline which, in long, descending zigzags, cut the cliff that divided lower town from upper. The closely laid cobblestones were slippery with age.

"It took a thousand slaves a century to pave these streets," said

Leighton. "Do you know anything about this town, Bahia?"

"It was once the capital of the empire," said Lewis.

"Yes," said Leighton. "Capital of the empire, seat of learning, citadel of the church, last and greatest of the great slave-marts. That's a history. Never bother your mind about a man, a woman, or a town that hasn't got a history. They may be happy, but they're stupid."

The principal street of the lower town was swarming with a strange mixture of humanity. Here and there hurried a foreigner in whites, his flushed cheeks and nose flying the banner of John Barleycorn.

Along the sidewalks passed leisurely the doctorated product of the universities-doctors of law, doctors of medicine, embryo doctors still in the making-each swinging a light cane. Their black hats and cutaway coats, in the fashion of a temperate clime, would have looked exotic were it not for the serene dignity with which they were worn. With them, merchants lazed along, making a deal as they walked. Clerks, under their masters' eyes, hurried hither and thither.

These were all white or near-white. The middle of the street, which held the great throng, was black. Slaves with nothing on but a loin-cloth staggered under two bags of coffee or under a single monster sack of cocoa. Their sweating torsos gleamed where the slanting sun struck them. Other slaves bore other burdens: a basket of chickens or a bundle of sugar-cane on the way to market; a case of goods headed for the stores of some importer; now and then a sedan-chair, with curtains drawn; and finally a piano, unboxed, on a pilgrimage.

The piano came up the middle of the street borne on the heads of six singing negroes. For a hundred yards they would carry it at a shuffling trot, their bare feet keeping time to their music, then they would set it down and, clapping their hands and still singing, do a shuffle dance about it. This was the shanty of piano-movers. No other slave dared sing it. It was the badge of a guild.

"D'you hear that?" asked Leighton, nodding his head. "That's a shanty.

They're singing to keep step."

In shady nooks and corners and in the cool, wide doorways sat still other slaves: porters waiting for a stray job; grayheads, too old for burdens, plaiting baskets; or a fat mammy behind her pot of couscous.

Three porters sat on little benches on the top step of a church porch.

Leighton approached one of them.

"Brother," he said, "give me your stool."

The slave rose, and straightened to a great height. He held up his hands for a blessing. He grinned when Leighton sat down on his bench. Then he looked keenly at Lewis's face, and promptly dragged the black at his side to his feet.

"Give thy bench to the young master, thou toad."

Leighton nodded his head.

"No fool, the old boy, eh? The son's the spit of the father." His eyes swept the swarming street. "What men! What men!" He was looking at the blacks. "Boy, did you ever hear of a general uprising among the slaves at home, in the States?"

"No," said Lewis; "there never was one."

"Exactly," said Leighton. "There never was one because in the early days our planters found out what not to buy in the way of black meat. They weren't looking for the indomitable spirit. They weren't looking for men, but fo

r slaves, and the black-birders soon learned that if they didn't want to carry their cargo farther than New Orleans they had to load up with members of the gentlest tribes. Now, there have been terrible uprisings of blacks in the West Indies, in Demerara and here. Ask this old chap of what race he is."

Lewis turned and asked the question. The tall black straightened, his face grew stern, his eyes moist.

"Tito, my name. I am of the tribe of Minas. In the time of thy grandfather I was traded as ransom for a king."

"Hm-m, I can believe it," said Leighton. "Now ask the next one, the copper-colored giant."

"And thou?" said Lewis.

"I? I am a Fulah of the Fulahs. Before blacks were, or whites, we were thus, the color of both."

"You see?" said Leighton. "Pride. He was afraid you'd take him for a mulatto. Now the other fellow, there."

"And thou?" said Lewis.

The third black had remained seated. He turned his eyes slowly to Lewis.

"I am no slave," he began. "I am of the tribe of Houssa. To my master's wealth. I added fifteen of my sons. In the great rebellion they fell, one and all."

"The great rebellion," said Leighton. "He means the last Houssa uprising. Thirty thousand of 'em, and they fought and fell to a man. The Government was glad of the chance to wipe 'em out. Ask him how he escaped."

"Escaped?" The black's eyes gleamed. "Child, I did not escape. My master's son was a babe in arms. My master bade me bear him to safety. When I came back, alone I bore my master to the grave. Then it was too late. They would not kill me. Now the babe is grown. He tells me I am a free man. It is written on paper."

While Leighton and Lewis watched the crowd, they themselves did not remain unnoticed. A small group of the leisurely class began to block the pavement before them. Father and son were a strange pair. Lewis was still in his leather cow-boy clothes. Alone, he would not have attracted more notice than a man with a beard and a carpet-bag on Broadway; but the juxtaposition of pith helmet, a thing unknown in those parts, and countryman's flat leather hat, and the fact of their wearers usurping the seats of two black carriers was too much for one native son, dressed in the latest Paris fashion.

"Thou, porter," he called to Leighton, "an errand for thee. Go fetch my father. He would not miss this sight."

"What does he say?" asked Leighton.

Lewis blushed as people stopped and added their sparkling eyes to those of the crowd already gathered.

"He calls you a porter, and bids you fetch his father to see the sight."

"Ask him," said Leighton, calmly, "shall I know him who he thinks is his father by his horns?"

Lewis translated innocently enough. The crowd gasped, and then roared with laughter. The youth in Paris clothes turned purple with rage, shook his little cane at Leighton, and burst into abusive language.

"Why," cried Lewis-"why, what's the matter with him?"

"I'm sure I don't know," said Leighton, pensively. "And just now he was so dignified!"

A private sedan-chair, borne by four splendid blacks, swung by at a run. As it passed, one of its silk curtains was drawn aside and the face of a woman, curious to see the reason of the crowd, looked out. The face was clear white, blue-veined, red-lipped; under the black eyes were shadows. A slight smile curved the red lips as the shadowy eyes fell upon Leighton and Lewis.

Leighton went tense, like a hound in leash.

"Look, boy!" he cried. "A patrician passes!"

The lady heard, understood. The smile, that was half-disdain, deepened.

She bowed slightly, but graciously. The curtain fell.

"Come, boy," said Leighton, "we can't stand that. Let's go find a tailor."

"Dad," said Lewis, "do you know her? She bowed."

"She did, God bless her!" said Leighton. "No, I don't know her; but let's think kindly of her, for she has added a charming memory to life."

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