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   Chapter 6 AN ACT OF WHICH NOBODY IS PROUD.

Unfettered By Sutton E. Griggs Characters: 10167

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The decision reached by the assemblage of Negroes in the first burst of excitement over the posting of the notice demanding that Harry and Beulah leave the settlement, was adhered to, and on Christmas Eve several wagon loads of young Negro men and women started on their journey to the city. The crops had been marketed and each one had come into possession of the profits on his year's labor. In no case was the amount very large, but it caused all to be in good cheer.

The occupants of the wagons were as numerous as the wagons could well hold, and they rode standing up, holding to each other to keep from falling whenever the uneven character of the road caused the wagons to jolt. A jug of whiskey had been placed in each wagon and from it bottles were filled and passed around, men, women and children alike taking each a "dram." Loud laughing, playful bantering, sallies of coarse wit, ribald singing, characterized this journey to the city. The more sober and religious element of the Negroes, who were disgusted with this sort of conduct, stayed behind to avoid contact with those inclined toward rowdyism. They wished also to improve the occasion by holding one more service of worship in their country church house.

On Christmas morning the church was filled with those who had come to worship God there, perhaps for the last time. The minister was expected to preach a sermon appropriate to the occasion. Recognizing this expectation, he sought to fulfill it, and chose for his text, Hebrews xi:16:

"But now they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city."

The preacher began his discourse in that deeply pathetic tone accompanied with prolonged mournful cadences, once so largely in vogue among a certain class of Negro preachers. This tone, so full of the note of sorrow, found responsive chords in the bosoms of his hearers and a bond of fellowship for the occasion was at once established between him and them. His every utterance was saluted with an answering groan or sympathetic manifestation of some kind, evoked as much by the tone of voice as by the sentiment expressed. The responses of the people heightened the emotions of the preacher. Thus the preacher and the people acting and reacting upon each other, produced a highly emotional state of affairs.

The burden of the preacher's discourse was an account of the wanderings of Abraham and the subsequent sorrowful career of his descendants in the land of Egypt. With a constantly swelling tide of emotions the hearers followed the dolorous account, which was made the more touching by instituting comparisons, the purport of which was to show that the Negroes were having similar experiences. In drawing to a close, he emphasized the thought that the God that prepared a goodly land for the Jews would take care of the Negroes. He urged them to leave the question of their earthly welfare in the hands of God and center their thoughts on Heaven. He entered into a dramatic description of the Christian's getting ready to wade across the Jordan of death.

Then came a vivid word painting of the scenes beyond-the green fields of Eden; the pearly gates standing ajar; the gold paved streets; the jasper walls; the tree of life; the long white robes; the silver slippers; the starry crown; the palms of victory; the harps of gold. The Christian was to go into the city, he set forth, and sit upon a throne singing God's praise, looking out of the window of heaven while the sun was covered with sackcloth and ashes and the moon was dripping away in blood.

His very last remarks were made sitting down, in representation of the final rest of the Christian in the midst of the stirring scenes depicted.

The tumultuous scene which accompanied and followed this highly dramatic peroration beggars description. Women screamed and shouted and fainted, while men wept like babes and clambered from seat to seat wild with emotion. Such was the character of the religious preparation that the Negroes had for the grave responsibilities of life in the city. While these things were transpiring at the church, a frightful tragedy was being enacted elsewhere. A short outline of the circumstances leading up thereto is now necessary.

When the white farmers became aware of the fact that there was to be a wholesale exodus of Negroes from the settlement, they were much enraged. They recognized the fact that the Negro made a very good laborer, in spite of his foibles, and they were loth to let him go. Their course toward him was not, as they understood it, dictated by prejudice nor tainted with injustice. They were thoroughly imbued with the doctrine that they were inherently superior to the Negro and instituted repressive measures to keep alive recognition of this claim. This was the Alpha and Omega of their purposes, and they were angered, that their course, to them righteous, should be accepted in any other spirit, and should operate to disturb the social fabric. They argued with the Negro

es, endeavoring to show them that they were not opposed to Negroes per se, but to "sassy" Negroes that tried to put on airs and represent themselves to be as good as white people. All efforts to stem the tide of emigration failed, however.

Lemuel Dalton alone was undisturbed by the outcome. Years before, as the prospective landlord of the Dalton place, he had made a careful study as to how he could operate the plantation without the aid of Negroes. He had come to the conclusion that the presence of the Negro on the farm lands of the South, was the chief cause of its backwardness. He looked upon the Negro as being of too conservative a mold, averse, like all primitive people, to innovations. He had given earnest study to improved methods of farming and had determined upon many changes that would dispense with much labor. He had in mind to substitute barbed wire for rail fences and thus be rid of Negro rail-splitters. Improved plows, planting, threshing and harvesting machines-in fact, the whole category of labor-saving devices for farming were to be brought into use. By thus elevating farm life from a condition of extreme drudgery he felt hopeful of securing white farm hands to take the place of Negroes. So the contemplated exodus did not in the least affect Lemuel Dalton's peace of mind.

Not so with other young white men of the settlement, yet living on their fathers' places. In view of a prospective scarcity of "hands" they had been notified that they would have to abandon their lives of ease and help to man the farms. The thought of performing the drudgery incident to farm life was very distasteful to them, and they became very bitter in their feelings toward the Negroes.

On this Christmas morning, a number of these young white men went to the one whisky shop in the vicinity to drink off their troubles. As they became intoxicated, their fury rose until it was evident that trouble of some sort was certain to ensue. One of the drunken lot said, "Boys, what say you? Down with the cause of all our troubles! What shall we do with Beulah Dalton?"

"Kill her! Kill her! Kill her!" rang out from the throats of the half-drunken crowd.

With much yelling and hooting, they started toward Stephen Dalton's home. Beulah had always been disliked by the young white men, as she persistently refused to speak to any of them that did not call her "Miss Beulah." This long nourished feeling of animosity was no doubt a factor, though unconsciously so, in the present movement against her.

Beulah had remained at home, while the others went to the church. She was completing her preparations for the journey to the city, to take place on the morrow. She heard the wild shouts drawing nearer and nearer, and looked out of her window to discover the meaning thereof. The crowd caught sight of her, and with a yell of savage delight, came toward the house at full speed.

Beulah had the presence of mind to barricade the doors. The windows were furnished with thick oak doors that closed from the inside and effected a protection for the apertures supplementary to that of the window panes. These doors Beulah closed.

When the crowd arrived at the house they found Beulah securely ensconced. As their doings were not premeditated, they had come from their homes without implements with which to batter down the doors. Finding their purpose of capturing Beulah thwarted, they were under the necessity of providing another mode of procedure.

"Burn her up!" said one.

"You are a coward. The gal ain't no rat. Give her a chance, fool," replied another.

"Who calls me a fool?" shouted the first speaker. "I will kill the scoundrel," he added.

A wrangle here broke out and a free for all fight was threatened, some favoring one of the disputants and some the other. While they were engaged in this drunken squabble, one of their number had gotten into the kitchen and had saturated the floor with kerosene oil. He then set fire to the building.

Beulah heard the roaring flames and decided to make a bold dash for life. She was a country girl, vigorous of frame and fleet of foot and hoped to outrun the crowd in their drunken condition. Quietly unpinning the barred door, she leaped out and began to run. She chose the side of the house opposite to the one where she heard the noise, and supposed that at least a short interval would intervene before the crowd discovered that she had escaped.

But the young man who had set the house on fire had gone to that side of the house in anticipation of an attempt to escape. When he saw Beulah run forth from the building, he uttered a yell and with great effort of will steadied himself sufficiently to hurl at the fleeing girl a stick of stove wood which he had gotten in the kitchen. The stick struck her on the back of her head. Beulah fell forward and in a few minutes breathed her last. When the Negroes returned from church, they found the ashes of the house and, a short distance away, Beulah lying on her face in a puddle of blood. The perpetrators of the crime had fled.

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