King Solomon of Kentucky
From Flute and Violin and Other Kentucky Tales, James Lane Allen, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, 1891, pages 65-93
It had been a year of strange disturbances--a desolating drought, a hurly-burly of destructive tempests, killing frosts in the tender valleys, mortal fevers in the tender homes. Nor came tidings that all day the wail of myriads of locusts was heard in the green woods of Virginia and Tennessee; now that Lake Erie was blocked with ice on the very verge of summer, so that in the Niagara new rocks and islands showed their startling faces. In the Blue-grass Region of Kentucky, countless caterpillars were crawling over the ripening apple orchards and leaving the trees as stark as when tossed in the thin air of bitter February days.
Then, flying low and heavily through drought and tempest and frost and plague, like the royal presence of disaster, that had been but heralded by its mournful train, came nearer and nearer the dark angel of the pestilence.
M. Xaupi had given a great ball only the night before in the dancing-rooms over the confectionery of M. Giron--that M. Giron who made the tall pyramids of meringues and macaroons for wedding-suppers, and spun around them a cloud of candied webbing as white and misty as the veil of the bride. It was the opening cotillion party of the summer. The men came in blue cloth coats with brass buttons, buff waistcoats, and lace and ruffled shirts; the ladies came in white satins with ethereal silk overdresses, embroidered in the figure of a gold beetle or an oak leaf of green. The walls of the ball-room were painted to represent landscapes of blooming orange-trees, set here and there in clustering tubs; and the chandeliers and sconces were lighted with innumerable wax-candles, yellow and green and rose.
Only the day before, also, Clatterbuck had opened for the summer a new villa-house, six miles out in the country, with a dancing pavilion in a grove of maples and oaks, a pleasure-boat on a sheet of crystal water, and a cellar stocked with old sherry, Sauterne, and Chateau Margaux wines, with anisette, "Perfect Love," and Giogholet cordials.
Down on Water Street, near where stands a railway station, Hugh Lonney, urging that the fear of cholera was not the only incentive to cleanliness, had just fitted up a sumptuous bath-house, where cold and shower baths might be had at twelve and a half cents each, or hot ones at three for half a dollar.
Yes, the summer of 1833 was at hand, and there must be new pleasures, new luxuries; for Lexington was the Athens of the West and the Kentucky Birmingham.
Old Peter Leuba felt the truth of this, as he stepped smiling out of his little music-store on Main Street, and, rubbing his hands briskly together, surveyed once more his newly-arranged windows, in which were displayed gold and silver epaulets, bottles of Jamaica rum, garden seeds from Philadelphia, drums and guitars and harps. Dewees & Grant felt it in their drug-store on Cheapside, as they sent off a large order for calomel and superior Maccoboy, rappee, and Lancaster snuff. Bluff little Daukins Tegway felt it, as he hurried on the morning of that day to the office of the Observer and Reporter, and advertised that he would willingly exchange his beautiful assortment of painted muslins and Dunstable bonnets for flax and feathers. On the threshold he met a florid farmer, who had just offered ten dollars' reward for a likely runaway boy with a long fresh scar across his face; and to-morrow the paper would contain one more of those tragical little cuts, representing an African slave scampering away at the top of his speed, with a stick swung across his shoulder and a bundle dangling down his back. In front of Postlethwaite's Tavern, where now stands the Phoenix hotel, a company of idlers, leaning back in Windsor chairs and planting their feet against the opposite wall on a level with their heads, smoked and chewed and yawned, as they discussed the administration of Jackson and arranged for the coming of Daniel Webster in June, when they would give him a great barbecue, and roast in his honor a buffalo taken from the herd emparked near Ashland. They hailed a passing merchant, who, however, would hear nothing of the bull, but fell to praising his Rocky Mountain beaver and Goose Creek salt; and another, who turned a deaf ear to Daniel Webster, and invited them to drop in and examine his choice essences of peppermint, bergamot, and lavender.
But of all the scenes that might have been observed in Lexington on that day, the most remarkable occurred in front of the old court-house at the hour of high noon. On the mellow stroke of the clock in the steeple above, the sheriff stepped briskly forth, closely followed by a man of powerful frame, whom he commanded to station himself on the pavement several feet off. A crowd of men and boys had already collected in anticipation, and others came quickly up as the clear voice of the sheriff was heard across the open public square and old market-place.
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.
"Gentlemen," he then cried out sharply, "by an order 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 twelve-month. How much, then, and I offahed foh the vagrant" How much am I offahed foh ole King Sol'mon?'
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.
"Staht 'im, somebody."
Somebody started a laugh which rippled around the circle.
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.
"Come, gentlemen," he said more suasively, "it's too hot to stand 'heah all day. Make me an offah! You all know ole King Solomon; 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.
"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."
"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.
"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.
"I think I'll buy 'im foh a hat-sign," said a manufacturer of ten-dollar Castor and Rhorim hats. This sally drew merry attention to the vagrant's hat and the merchant felt rewarded.
"You'd bettah say the town ought to buy 'im an' put 'im upon top of the cou't-house as a scarecrow foh the cholera," said some one else.
"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.
"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 nuthin', because, as you see, he keeps himself in cigahs an' clo'es; then, his main article of diet is whiskey--a supply of which he always has on han'. He dont even need a bed, foh you know he sleeps jus' as well on any doorstep; noh a chair, foh he prefers to sit 'roun on the curb-stones. Remembah, too, gentlemen, that ole King Sol'mon is a Virginian--from the same neighborhood as Mr. Clay. Remembah that he is well educated, that he is an awful Whig, an' that he has snoked 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,"
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.
"But you dont need anybody to tell you 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 and 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 perfect 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, and 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-tones offah foh ole King Sol'mon!"
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 tine:
"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'wahd and feel 'em. How much, then, is bid foh 'im?"
"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.
"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."
Two medical students, returning from the lectures at the old Medical Hall, now joined the group, and the sheriff explained:
"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--"
"Dollar 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."
"Would you own his body if he should die?"
"If he dies while bound to me, I'll arrange that."
"One dollah an' a half," resumed the sheriff; and falling into the tone of a facile auctioneer, he rattled on:
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!"
All this time the vagrant had stood in the centre of that close ring of jeering and humorous by-standers--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 short, with the broad collar crumpled, wide open at the neck and down his sunburnt bosom; blue jeans pantaloons, patched at the seat and the knees; and raggedy cotton socks that fell down over the tops of his dusty shoes, which were open at the heels.
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. Only once, 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 had drained his cup of human life and has nothing left him but to fill again and drink without the least surprise or eagerness.
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 towards the steps of the court-house there suddenly came trundling along in breathless haste a huge 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.
"Hole on marseter! Hole on!" she cried, in a tone of humorous entreaty. "Don' knock 'im off till I come! Gim me a bid at 'im!"
The sheriff paused and smiled. The crowd made way tumultuously, with broad laughter and comment.
"Stan' aside theah an' let Aun' Charlotte in!"
"Now you'll see biddin'!"
"Get out of the way foh Aun' Charlotte!"
"Up, my free niggah! Hurrah foh Kentucky!"
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.
She was dressed with perfect neatness. A red and yellow Madras kerchief was bound about her head in a high coil, and another was crossed 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 ear-rings.
The sheriff looked at her a moment, smiling, but a little disconcerted. The spectacle was unprecedented.
"What do you want heah, Aun' Charlotte?" he asked, kindly. "You can't sell yo' pies an' gingerbread heah."
"I don' want 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 but a white man to wul fuh me. En he gwine t' git a mighty hard mistiss, you heah me!"
The eyes of the sheriff twinkled with delight.
"Ten dollahs is iffahed foh ole King Sol'mon. Is theah any othah bid? Are you all done?"
"Leben," she said.
Two young ragamuffins crawled among the logs of the crowd up to her basket and filched pies and cake beneath her very nose.
"Twelve!" cried the student, laughing.
"Thirteen!" she laughed too, but her eyes flashed.
"You are bidding against a niggah," whispered the student's companion in his ear.
"So I am; let's be off," answered the other, with a hot flush on his proud face.
Thus the sale was ended, and the crowd variously dispersed. In a distant corner of the court-yard the ragged urchins were devouring their unexpected booty. The old negress drew a red handkerchief out of her bosom, untied a knot in the corner of it, and counted out the money to the sheriff. Only she and the vagrant were now left on the spot.
"You have bought me. What do you want me to do?" he asked quietly.
"Lohd, honey!" she answered, in a low tone of affectionate chiding, "I don' want 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."
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:
"You bettah be gittin' out o' dis blazin' sun. G' on home! I be 'long by-n-by."
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 towards Cheapside, muttering to herself the while:
"I come mighty nigh gittin' dah 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?"
She snorted out her indignation and disgust, and sitting down on the sidewalk, under a Lombardy poplar, uncovered her wares and kept the flies away with a locust bough, not discovering, in her alternating good and ill humor, that half of them had been filched by her old tormenters.
This was the memorable scene enacted in Lexington on that memorable day of the year 1833--a day that passed so briskly. For whoever met and spoke together asked the one question: Will the cholera come to Lexington? And the answer always gave a nervous haste to business--a keener thrill to pleasure. It was of the cholera that the negro woman heard two sweet passing ladies speak as she spread her wares on the sidewalk. They were on their way to a little picture-gallery just opened opposite M. Giron's ball-room, and in one breath she heard them discussing their toilets for the evening and in the next several portraits by Jouett.
So the day passed, the night came on, and M. Xaupi gave his brilliant ball. Poor old Xaupi--poor little Frenchman! whirled as a gamin of Paris through the mazes of the Revolution, and lately come all the way to Lexington to teach the people how to dance. Hop about blithely on thy dry legs, basking this night in the waxen radiance of manners and melodies and graces! Where will be thy tunes and airs tomorrow? Ay, smile and prompt away! On and on! Swing corners, ladies and gentlemen! Form the basket! Hands all around!
While the bows were still darting across the strings, out of the low, red east there shot a long, tremulous bow of light up towards the zenith. And then, could human sight have beheld the invisible, it might have seen hovering over the town, over the ball-room, over M. Xaupi, the awful presence of the plague.
But knowing nothing of this, the heated revelers went merrily home in the chill air of the red and saffron dawn. And knowing nothing of it also, a man awakened on the door-step of a house opposite the ball-room, where he had long since fallen asleep. His limbs were cramped and a shiver ran through his frame. Staggering to his feet, he made his way down to the house of Free Charlotte, mounted to his room by means of a stair-way opening on the street, threw off his outer garments, kicked off his shoes, and taking a bottle from a closet pressed it several times to his lips with long outward breaths of satisfaction. Then, casting his great white bulk upon the bed, in a minute more he had sunk into a heavy sleep--the usual drunken sleep of old King Solomon.
He, too, had attended M. Xaupi's ball, in his own way and in his proper character, being drawn to the place for the pleasure of seeing the fine ladies arrive and float in, like large white moths of the summer night; of looking in through the open windows at the many-colored waxen lights and the snowy arms and shoulders; of having blown out to him the perfume and the music; not worthy to go in, being the lowest of the low, but attending from a door-step of the street opposite--with a certain rich passion in his nature for splendor and revelry and sensuous beauty.
About 10 o'clock the sunlight entered through the shutters and awoke him. He threw one arm up over his eyes to intercept the burning rays. As he lay outstretched and stripped of grotesque rags, it could be better seen in what a mould nature had cast his figure. His breast, bare and tanned, was barred by full, arching ribs and knotted by crossing muscles; and his shirt-sleeve, falling away to the shoulder from his bent arm, revealed its crowded muscles in the high relief of heroic bronze. For, although he had been sold as a vagrant, old King Solomon had in earlier years followed the trade of digger of cellars, and in the strenuous use of mattock and spade had developed every sinew to the utmost. His whole person, now half naked and in repose, was full of the suggestions of unspent power. Only his face, swollen and red, only his eyes, bloodshot and dull, bore the impress of wasted vitality. There, all too plainly stamped, were the passions long since raging and still on fire.
The sunlight had stirred him to but a low degree of consciousness, and some minutes passed before he realized that a stifling, resinous fume impregnated the air. He sniffed it quickly; through the window seemed to come the smell of burning tar. He sat up on the edge of the bed and vainly tried to clear his thoughts.
The room was clean but poor habitation--uncarpeted, whitewashed, with a piece or two of the cheapest furniture, and a row of pegs on one wall, where usually hung those tattered coats and pantaloons, miscellaneously collected, that were his purple and fine linen. He turned his eyes in this direction now and noticed that his clothes were missing. The old shoes had disappeared from their corner; the cigar stumps, picked up here and there in the streets according to his wont, were gone from the mantel-piece. Near the door was a large bundle tied up in a sheet. In a state of bewilderment, he asked himself what it all meant. Then a sense of the silence in the street below possessed him. At this hour he was used to hear noises enough--from Hugh Lonney's new bath-house on one side, from Harry Sikes's barber-shop on the other.
A mysterious felling of terror crept over and helped to sober him. How long had he lain asleep? By degrees he seemed to remember that two or three times he had awakened far enough to drink from the bottle under his pillow, only to sink again into heavier stupefaction. By degrees, too, he seemed to remember that other things had happened--a driving of vehicles this way and that, a hurrying of people along the street. He had thought it the breaking up of M. Xaupi's ball. More than once had not someone shaken and tried to arouse him? Through the wall of Harry Sikes's barber-shop had he not heard cries of pain--sobs of distress?
He staggered to the window, threw open the shutters, and kneeling at the sill, looked out. The street was deserted. The houses opposite were closed. Cats were sleeping in the silent door-ways. But as he looked up and down he caught sight of people hurrying along cross-streets. From a distant lumber-yard came the muffled sound of rapid hammerings. On the air was the faint roll of vehicles--the hush and the vague noises of a general terrifying commotion.
In the middle of the street below him a keg was burning, and, as he looked, the hoops gave way, the tar spread out like a stream of black lava, and a cloud of inky smoke and deep-red furious flame burst upward through the sagging air. Just beneath the window a common cart had been backed close up to the door of the house. In it had been thrown a few small articles of furniture, and on the bottom bedclothes had been spread out as if for a pallet. While he looked old Charlotte hurried out with a pillow.
He called down to her in a strange, unsteady voice:
"What is the matter? What are you doing Aunt Charlotte?"
She uttered a cry, dropped the pillow, and stared up at him. Her face looked dry and wrinkled.
"My God! De chol'ra's in town! I'm waitin' on you. Dress, en come down en fetch the bun'le by de dooh." And she hurried back into the house.
But he continued leaning on his folded arms, his brain stunned by the shock of the intelligence. Suddenly he leaned far out and looked down at the closed shutters of the barber-shop. Old Charlotte reappeared.
"Where is Harry Sikes?" he asked.
"Dead en buried."
"When did he die?"
"What day is this?"
M. Xaupi's ball had been on Thursday evening. That night the cholera had broken out. He had lain in his drunken stupor ever since. Their talk had lasted but a minute, but she looked up anxiously and urged him.
"D' ain' no time to was'e, homey! D' ain' no time to was'e. I done got this cyart to tek you away in, en I be ready to start in a minute. Put yo clo'es on en bring de bun'le wid all yo' yudder things in it."
With incredible activity she climbed into the cart and began to roll up the bedclothes, In reality she had made up her mind to put him in the cart, and the pallet had been made for him to lie and finish his drunken sleep on, while she drove him to a place of safety.
Still he did not move from the window-sill. He was thinking of Harry Sikes, who had shaved him many a time for nothing. Then he suddenly called down to her:
"How many have died of the cholera? Are there many cases in town?"
She went on with her preparations and took no notice of him. He repeated the question. She got down quickly from the cart and began to mount the staircase. He went back to bed, pulled the sheet up over him, and propped himself up among the pillows. Her soft, heavy footsteps slurred on the stair-way as though her strength were failing, and as soon as she entered the room she sank in to a chair, overcome with terror. He looked at her with a sudden sense of pity.
"Don't be frightened," he said kindly. "It might only make it worse for you." "I can' he'p it, honey," she answered, wringing her hands and rocking to and fro; "de ole niggah can' he'p it. If de Lohd jes spah me to git out'n dis town wid you! Honey, ain' you able to put on yo' clo'es?"
"You've tied them all up in the sheet."
"De Lohd he'p de crazy ole niggah!"
She started up and tugged at the bundle, and laid out a suit of his clothes, if things so incongruous could be called a suit.
"How many people have died of the cholera?"
"Dey been dyin' like sheep ev' since yestidd'y mohnin'--all day, en all las' night, en dis mohnin'" De man he done lock up de huss, en dey been buryin' 'em in cyarts. En de grave-diggah he done run away, en hit look like d' ain' nobody to dig de graves."
She bent over the bundle, trying again the four corners of the sheet. through the window came the sound of the quick hammers driving nails. She threw up her arms into the air, and the seizing the bundle dragged it rapidly to the door.
"You heah dat? Dey nailin' up cawfins in de lumbah-yahd! Put on yo' clo'es, honey, en come on."
A resolution had suddenly taken shape in his mind.
"Go on away and save your life. Don't wait for me; I'm not going. And good-bye, Aunt Charlotte, in case I dont see you any more. You've been very kind to me--kinder than I deserved. Where have you put my mattock and spade?"
He said this very quietly, and sat up on the edge of the bed, his feet hanging down, and his hand stretched out towards her.
"Honey," she explained, coaxingly, from where she stood, "can't you sobah up a little en put on yo' clo'es? I gwine to to tek you 'way to de country. You don' wan' no tools. You can' dig no cellahs now. De chol'ra's in town en de people's dying like sheep."
"I expect they will need me," he answered.
She perceived now that he was sober. For an instant her own fear was forgotten in an outburst of resentment and indignation.
"Dig graves fuh 'em, when dey put you up on de block en sell you same ez you wuz a niggah! Dig graves fuh 'em, when dey allers callin' you names on de street en makin' fun o' you."
"They are not to blame. I have brought it on myself."
"But we can't stay heah en die o' de chol'ra."
"You mustn't stay. You must go away at once."
"But if I go, who gwine tek cyah o' you?"
She came quickly across the room to the bed, fell on her knees, clasped his feet to her breast, and looked up into his face with an expression of imploring and tenderness. Then, with incoherent cries and with sobs and tears, she pleaded with him--pleaded for dear life; his and her own.
It was a strange scene. What historian of the heart will ever be able to do justice to those peculiar ties which bound the heart of the negro in years gone by to a race of not always worthy masters? This old Virginia nurse had known King Solomon when he was a boy playing with her young master, till that young master died on the way to Kentucky.
At the death of her mistress she had become free with a little property. By thrift and industry she had greatly enlarged this. Years passed and she became the only surviving member of the Virginia household, which had emigrated early in the century to the Blue-grass Region. The same wave of emigration had brought old King Solomon from the same neighborhood. As she had risen in life, he had sunk. She sat on the sidewalks, selling her fruits and cakes; he sat on the sidewalks more idle, more ragged and dissolute. On no other basis than these facts she began to assume a sort of maternal pitying care of him, patching his rags, letting him have some money for his vices, and when, a year or two before, he had ceased working almost entirely, giving him a room in her house and taking in payment what he chose to pay.
He brushed his hand quickly across his eyes as she knelt before him now, clasping his feet to her bosom. From coaxing him as an intractable child she had, in the old servile fashion, fallen to imploring him, with touching forgetfulness of their real relations:
"O my marseter! O my marseter Solomon! Go 'way en save yo' life, en tek yo' po' ole niggah wid you!"
But his resolution was formed, and he refused to go. A hurried footstep paused beneath the window and a loud voice called up. The old nurse got up and went to the window. A man was standing by the cart at her door.
"For God's sake let me have this cart to take my wife and little children away to the country! There is not a vehicle to be had in town. I will pay you--" He stopped, seeing the distress on her face.
"Is he dead?" he asked, for he knew of her care of old King Solomon.
"He will die!" she sobbed. "Tilt de t'ings out on de pavement. I gwine t' stay wid 'im en tek cyah o' 'im."
A little later, dressed once more in grotesque rags and carrying on his shoulder a rusty mattock and a rusty spade, old King Solomon appeared in the street below and stood looking up and down it with an air of anxious indecision. Then shuffling along rapidly to the corner of Mill Street, he turned up towards Main.
Here a full sense of the terror came to him. A man, hurrying along with his head down, ran full against him and cursed him for the delay:
"Get out of my way you old beast!" he cried. "If the cholera would carry you off it would be a blessing to the town."
Two or three little children, already orphaned and hungry, wandered past, crying and wringing their hands. A crowd of negro men with the muscles of athletes, some with naked arms, some naked to the waist, their eyes dilated, their mouths hanging open, sped along in tumultuous disorder. The plague had broken out in the hemp factory and scattered them beyond control.
He grew suddenly faint and sick. His senses swam, his heart seemed to cease beating, his tongue burned, his throat was dry, his spine like ice. For a moment the contagion of deadly fear overcame him, and, unable to stand, he reeled to the edge of the sidewalk and sat down.
Before him along the street passed the flying people--men on horseback with their wives behind and children in front, families in carts and wagons, merchants in two-wheeled gigs and sulkies. A huge red and yellow stage-coach rolled ponderously by, filled within, on top, in front, and behind with a company of riotous students of law and of medicine. A rapid chorus of voices shouted to him as they passed:
"The cholera'll have you befoah sunset!"
"Better be diggin' yoah grave, Solomon! That'll be yoah last cellah."
"Dig us a big wine cellah undah the Medical Hall while we are away."
"And leave yo' body there! We want yo' skeleton."
"Good-bye old Solomon."
A wretched carry-all passed with a household of more wretched women; their tawdry and gay attire, their haggard and painted and ghastly faces, looking horrible in the blaze of the pitiless sunlight. They, too, simpered and hailed him and spent upon him their hardened and degraded badinage. Then there rolled by a high-swung carriage, with the most luxurious of cushions, upholstered with morocco, with a coat-of-arms, a driver and a footman in livery, and drawn by sparkling, prancing horses. Lying back on the satin cushion, a fine gentleman; at the window of the carriage two rosy children, who pointed their fingers at the vagrant and turned and looked into their father's face, so that he leaned forward, smiled, leaned back again, and was whirled away to a place of safety.
Thus they passed him, as he sat down on the sidewalk--even physicians from their patients, pastors from their stricken flocks. Why should not he flee? He had no ties, except the faithful affection of an old negress. Should he not at least save her life by going away, seeing that she would not leave him?
The orphaned children wandered past again, sobbing more wearily. He called them to him.
"Why do you not go home? Where is your mother?" he asked.
"She is dead in the house," they answered; "and no one has come to bury her."
Slowly down the street was coming a short funeral train. It passed--a rude cortege; a common cart, in the bottom of which rested a box of plain boards containing the body of the old French dancing-master; walking behind it, with a cambric handkerchief to his eyes, the old French confectioner; at his side, wearing the robes of his office and carrying an umbrella to ward off the burning sun, the beloved Bishop Smith; and behind them, two by two and with linked arms, perhaps a dozen men, most of whom had been at the ball.
No head was lifted or eye turned to notice the vagrant seated on the sidewalk. But when the train had passed he rose, laid his mattock and spade across his shoulder, and, stepping out into the street, fell into line at the end of the procession.
They moved down Short Street to the old burying-ground where the Baptist church-yard is to-day. As they entered it, two grave-diggers passed out and hurried away. Those before them had fled. They had been at work but a few hours. Overcome with horror at the sight of the dead arriving more and more rapidly, they, too, deserted that post of peril. No one was left. Here and there in the church-yard could be seen bodies awaiting interment. Old King Solomon stepped quietly forward and, getting down into one of the half-finished graves, began to dig.
The vagrant had happened upon an avocation.
All summer long, Clatterbuck's dancing-pavilion was as silent in its grove of oaks as a temple of the Druids, and his pleasure-boat nestled in its moorings, with no hand to feather an oar in the little lake. All summer long, no athletic young Kentuckians came to bathe their white bodies in Hugh Lonney's new bath-house for twelve and a half cents, and no one read Daukins Tegway's advertisement that he was willing to exchange his Dunstable bonnets for flax and feathers. The likely runaway boy, with a long, fresh scar across his face, was never found, nor the buffalo bull roasted for Daniel Webster, and Peter Leuba's guitars were never thrummed on any moonlit verandas. Only Dewees and Grant were busy, dispensing, not snuff, but calomel.
Grass grew in the deserted streets. Gardens became little wildernesses of rank weeds and riotous creepers. Around shut window lattices roses clambered and shed their perfume into the poisoned air, or dropped their faded petals to strew the echoless thresholds. In darkened rooms family portraits gazed on sad vacancy or looked helplessly down on rigid sheeted forms.
In the trees of poplar and locust along the streets the unmolested birds built and brooded. The oriole swung its hempen nest from a bough over the door of the spider-tenanted factory, and in front of the old Medical Hall the blue-jay shot up his angry crest and screamed harshly at the passing bier. In a cage hung against the wall of a house in a retired street a mocking-bird sung, beat its breast against the bars, sung more passionately, grew silent and dropped dead from its perch, never knowing that its mistress had long since become a clod to its full-throated requiem.
Famine lurked in the wake of the pestilence. Markets were closed. A few shops were kept open to furnish necessary supplies. Now and then some old negro might have been seen, driving a meat-wagon in from the country, his nostrils stuffed with white cotton saturated with camphor. Oftener the only visible figure in the streets was that of a faithful priest going about among his perishing fold, or that of the bishop moving hither and thither on his ceaseless ministrations.
But over all the ravages of that terrible time there towered highest the solitary figure of that powerful grave-digger, who, nerved by the spectacle of the common misfortune, by one heroic effort rose for the time above the wrecks of his own nature. In the thick of the plague, in the very garden spot of the pestilence, he ruled like an unterrified king. Through days unnaturally chill with gray cloud and drizzling rain, or unnaturally hot with the fierce sun and suffocating damps that appeared to steam forth from subterranean caldrons, he worked unfaltering, sometimes with a helper, sometimes with none. There were times when, exhausted, he would lie down in the half-dug graves and there sleep until able to go on; and many a midnight found him under the spectral moon, all but hidden by the rank nightshade as he bent over to mark out the line of one of those narrow mortal cellars.
What weaknesses he fought and conquered through those days and nights! Out of what unforeseen depths of nature did he draw the tough fibre of such a resolution! To be alone with the pestilential dead at night--is that not a test of imperial courage? To live for weeks braving swift death itself--is that not the fierce and ungovernable flaring up of the soul in heroism? For all the mockery and derision of his name, had it not some fitness? For had he not a royal heart?
Nature soon smiles upon her own ravages and strews our graves with flowers, not as memories, but for other flowers for when the spring returns.
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.
"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 weaknesses 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, and 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 reassamble, Nearly ev'ry man of them is dead, an' ole King Sol'mon buried them."
"He buried my friend Adolphe Xaupi," said Francois Giron, touching his eyes with his handkerchief.
"There is a case of my best Jamaica rum for him whenever he comes for it," said old Leuba, clearing his throat.
"But, gentlemen, while we are speakin' of ole King Sol'mon we ought not to fohget who it is that has suppohted 'im. Yondah she sits on the sidewalk, sellin' 'er apples 'an gingerbread."
The three men looked in the direction indicated.
"Heah comes ole King Sol'mon now," exclaimed the sheriff.
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.
"Is Mr. Clay to be in court to-day?"
"He is expected, I think."
"Then let's go in; there will be a crowd."
"I don't know; so many are dead."
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 anyone could know what he was doing, he hurried down and walked up to the vagrant and grasped hid 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.
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 grave-digger, 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 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 bring him homage.
It was the coronation scene in the life of old King Solomon of Kentucky.
Transcribed by pb, May 2000