Silas Jackson by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Story type: Literature


Silas Jackson was a young man to whom many opportunities had come. Had he been a less fortunate boy, as his little world looked at it, he might have spent all his days on the little farm where he was born, much as many of his fellows did. But no, Fortune had marked him for her own, and it was destined that he should be known to fame. He was to know a broader field than the few acres which he and his father worked together, and where he and several brothers and sisters had spent their youth.

Mr. Harold Marston was the instrument of Fate in giving Silas his first introduction to the world. Marston, who prided himself on being, besides a man of leisure, something of a sportsman, was shooting over the fields in the vicinity of the Jackson farm. During the week he spent in the region, needing the services of a likely boy, he came to know and like Silas. Upon leaving, he said, “It’s a pity for a boy as bright as you are to be tied down in this God-forsaken place. How’d you like to go up to the Springs, Si, and work in a hotel?”

The very thought of going to such a place, and to such work, fired the boy’s imagination, although the idea of it daunted him.

“I’d like it powahful well, Mistah Ma’ston,” he replied.

“Well, I’m going up there, and the proprietor of one of the best hotels, the Fountain House, is a very good friend of mine, and I’ll get him to speak to his head waiter in your behalf. You want to get out of here, and see something of the world, and not stay cooped up with nothing livelier than rabbits, squirrels, and quail.”

And so the work was done. The black boy’s ambitions that had only needed an encouraging word had awakened into buoyant life. He looked his destiny squarely in the face, and saw that the great world outside beckoned to him. From that time his dreams were eagle-winged. The farm looked narrower to him, the cabin meaner, and the clods were harder to his feet. He learned to hate the plough that he had followed before in dumb content, and there was no longer joy in the woods he knew and loved. Once, out of pure joy of living, he had gone singing about his work; but now, when he sang, it was because his heart was longing for the city of his dreams, and hope inspired the song.

However, after Mr. Marston had been gone for over two weeks, and nothing had been heard from the Springs, the hope died in Silas’s heart, and he came to believe that his benefactor had forgotten him. And yet he could not return to the old contentment with his mode of life. Mr. Marston was right, and he was “cooped up there with nothing better than rabbits, squirrels, and quail.” The idea had never occurred to him before, but now it struck him with disconcerting force that there was something in him above his surroundings and the labor at which he toiled day by day. He began to see that the cabin was not over clean, and for the first time recognized that his brothers and sisters were positively dirty. He had always looked on it with unconscious eyes before, but now he suddenly developed the capacity for disgust.

When young ‘Lishy, noticing his brother’s moroseness, attributed it to his strong feeling for a certain damsel, Silas turned on him in a fury. Ambition had even driven out all other feelings, and Dely Manly seemed poor and commonplace to the dark swain, who a month before would have gone any length to gain a smile from her. He compared everything and everybody to the glory of what he dreamed the Springs and its inhabitants to be, and all seemed cheap beside.

Then on a day when his spirits were at their lowest ebb, a passing neighbor handed him a letter which he had found at the little village post office. It was addressed to Mr. Si Jackson, and bore the Springs postmark. Silas was immediately converted from a raw backwoods boy to a man of the world. Save the little notes that had been passed back and forth from boy to girl at the little log schoolhouse where he had gone four fitful sessions, this was his first letter, and it was the first time he had ever been addressed as “Mr.” He swelled with a pride that he could not conceal, as with trembling hands he tore the missive open.

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He read it through with glowing eyes and a growing sense of his own importance. It was from the head waiter whom Mr. Marston had mentioned, and was couched in the most elegant and high-sounding language. It said that Mr. Marston had spoken for Silas, and that if he came to the Springs, and was quick to learn, “to acquire knowledge,” was the head waiter’s phrase, a situation would be provided for him. The family gathered around the fortunate son, and gazed on him with awe when he imparted the good news. He became, on the instant, a new being to them. It was as if he had only been loaned to them, and was now being lifted bodily out of their world.

The elder Jackson was a bit doubtful about the matter.

“Of co’se ef you wants to go, Silas, I ain’t a-gwine to gainsay you, an’ I hope it’s all right, but sence freedom dis hyeah piece o’ groun’s been good enough fu’ me, an’ I reckon you mought a’ got erlong on it.”

“But pap, you see it’s diff’ent now. It’s diff’ent, all I wanted was a chanst.”

“Well, I reckon you got it, Si, I reckon you got it.”

The younger children whispered long after they had gone to bed that night, wondering and guessing what the great place to which brother Si was going could be like, and they could only picture it as like the great white-domed city whose picture they had seen in the gaudy Bible foisted upon them by a passing agent.

As for Silas, he read and reread the letter by the light of a tallow dip until he was too sleepy to see, and every word was graven on his memory; then he went to bed with the precious paper under his pillow. In spite of his drowsiness, he lay awake for some time, gazing with heavy eyes into the darkness, where he saw the great city and his future; then he went to sleep to dream of it.

From then on, great were the preparations for the boy’s departure. So little happened in that vicinity that the matter became a neighborhood event, and the black folk for three miles up and down the road manifested their interest in Silas’s good fortune.

“I hyeah you gwine up to de Springs,” said old Hiram Jones, when he met the boy on the road a day or two before his departure.

“Yes, suh, I’s gwine up thaih to wo’k in a hotel. Mistah Ma’ston, he got me the job.”

The old man reined in his horse slowly, and deposited the liquid increase of a quid of tobacco before he said; “I hyeah tell it’s powahful wicked up in dem big cities.”

“Oh, I reckon I ain’t a-goin’ to do nuffin wrong. I’s goin’ thaih to wo’k.”

“Well, you has been riz right,” commented the old man doubtfully, “but den, boys will be boys.”

He drove on, and the prospect of a near view of wickedness did not make the Springs less desirable in the boy’s eyes. Raised as he had been, almost away from civilization, he hardly knew the meaning of what the world called wickedness. Not that he was strong or good. There had been no occasion for either quality to develop; but that he was simple and primitive, and had been close to what was natural and elemental. His faults and sins were those of the gentle barbarian. He had not yet learned the subtler vices of a higher civilization.

Silas, however, was not without the pride of his kind, and although his father protested that it was a useless extravagance, he insisted upon going to the nearest village and investing part of his small savings in a new suit of clothes. It was quaint and peculiar apparel, but it was the boy’s first “store suit,” and it filled him with unspeakable joy. His brothers and sisters regarded his new magnificence with envying admiration. It would be a long while before they got away from bagging, homespun, and copperas-colored cotton, whacked out into some semblance of garments by their “mammy.” And so, armed with a light bundle, in which were his few other belongings, and fearfully and wonderfully arrayed, Silas Jackson set out for the Springs. His father’s parting injunctions were ringing in his ears, and the memory of his mammy’s wet eyes and sad face lingered in his memory. She had wanted him to take the gaudy Bible away, but it was too heavy to carry, especially as he was to walk the whole thirty miles to the land of promise. At the last, his feeling of exaltation gave way to one of sorrow, and as he went down the road, he turned often to look at the cabin, until it faded from sight around the bend. Then a lump rose in his throat, and he felt like turning and running back to it. He had never thought the old place could seem so dear. But he kept his face steadily forward and trudged on toward his destiny.

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The Springs was the fashionable resort of Virginia, where the aristocrats who thought they were ill went to recover their health and to dance. Compared with large cities of the North, it was but a small town, even including the transient population, but in the eyes of the rural blacks and the poor whites of the region, it was a place of large importance.

Hither, on the morning after his departure from the home gate, came Silas Jackson, a little foot-sore and weary, but hopeful withal. In spite of the pains that he had put upon his dressing, he was a quaint figure on the city streets. Many an amused smile greeted him as he went his way, but he saw them not. Inquiring the direction, he kept on, until the many windows and broad veranda of the great hotel broke on his view, and he gasped in amazement and awe at the sight of it, and a sudden faintness seized him. He was reluctant to go on, but the broad grins with which some colored men who were working about the place regarded him, drove him forward, in spite of his embarrassment.

He found his way to the kitchen, and asked in trembling tones for the head waiter. Breakfast being over, that individual had leisure to come to the kitchen. There, with the grinning waiters about him, he stopped and calmly surveyed Silas. He was a very pompous head waiter.

Silas had never been self-conscious before, but now he became distressfully aware of himself–of his awkwardness, of his clumsy feet and dangling hands, of the difference between his clothes and the clothes of the men about him.

After a survey, which seemed to the boy of endless duration, the head waiter spoke, and his tone was the undisputed child of his looks.

“I pussoom,” said Mr. Buckner, “that you are the pusson Mistah Ma’ston spoke to the p’op’ietor about?”

“Yes, suh, I reckon I is. He p’omised to git me a job up hyeah, an’ I got yo’ lettah–” here Silas, who had set his bundle on the floor in coming into the Presence, began to fumble in his pockets for the letter. He searched long in vain, because his hands trembled, and he was nervous under the eyes of this great personage who stood unmoved and looked calmly at him.

Finally the missive was found and produced, though not before the perspiration was standing thick on Silas’s brow. The head waiter took the sheet.

“Ve’y well, suh, ve’y well. You are evidently the p’oper pusson, as I reco’nize this as my own chirography.”

The up-country boy stood in awed silence. He thought he had never heard such fine language before.

“I ca’culate that you have nevah had no experience in hotel work,” pursued Mr. Buckner somewhat more graciously.

“I’s nevah done nuffin’ but wo’k on a farm; but evahbody ‘lows I’s right handy.” The fear that he would be sent back home without employment gave him boldness.

“I see, I see,” said the head waiter. “Well, we’ll endeavor to try an’ see how soon you can learn. Mistah Smith, will you take this young man in charge, an’ show him how to get about things until we are ready to try him in the dinin’-room?”

A rather pleasant-faced yellow boy came over to Silas and showed him where to put his things and what to do.

“I guess it’ll be a little strange at first, if you’ve never been a hotel man, but you’ll ketch on. Just you keep your eye on me.”

All that day as Silas blundered about slowly and awkwardly, he looked with wonder and admiration at the ease and facility with which his teacher and the other men did their work. They were so calm, so precise, and so self-sufficient. He wondered if he would ever be like them, and felt very hopeless as the question presented itself to him.

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They were a little prone to laugh at him, but he was so humble and so sensible that he thought he must be laughable; so he laughed a little shamefacedly at himself, and only tried the harder to imitate his companions. Once when he dropped a dish upon the floor, he held his breath in consternation, but when he found that no one paid any attention to it, he picked it up and went his way.

He was tired that night, more tired than ploughing had ever made him, and was thankful when Smith proposed to show him at once to the rooms apportioned to the servants. Here he sank down and fell into a doze as soon as his companion left him with the remark that he had some studying to do. He found afterward that Smith was only a temporary employee at the Springs, coming there during the vacations of the school which he attended, in order to eke out the amount which it cost him for his education. Silas thought this a very wonderful thing at first, but when he grew wiser, as he did finally, he took the point of view of most of his fellows and thought that Smith was wasting both time and opportunities.

It took a very short time for Silas’s unfamiliarity with his surroundings to wear off, and for him to become acquainted with the duties of his position. He grew at ease with his work, and became a favorite both in dining-room and kitchen. Then began his acquaintance with other things, and there were many other things at the Springs which an unsophisticated young man might learn.

Silas’s social attainments were lamentably sparse, but being an apt youngster, he began to acquire them, quite as he acquired his new duties, and different forms of speech. He learned to dance–almost a natural gift of the negro–and he was introduced into the subtleties of flirtation. At first he was a bit timid with the nurse-girls and maids whom the wealthy travelers brought with them, but after a few lessons from very able teachers, he learned the manly art of ogling to his own satisfaction, and soon became as proficient as any of the other black coxcombs.

If he ever thought of Dely Manly any more, it was with a smile that he had been able at one time to consider her seriously. The people at home, be it said to his credit, he did not forget. A part of his wages went back every month to help better the condition of the cabin. But Silas himself had no desire to return, and at the end of a year he shuddered at the thought of it. He was quite willing to help his father, whom he had now learned to call the “old man,” but he was not willing to go back to him.


Early in his second year at the Springs Marston came for a stay at the hotel. When he saw his protege, he exclaimed: “Why, that isn’t Si, is it?”

“Yes, suh,” smiled Silas.

“Well, well, well, what a change. Why, boy, you’ve developed into a regular fashion-plate. I hope you’re not advertising for any of the Richmond tailors. They’re terrible Jews, you know.”

“You see, a man has to be neat aroun’ the hotel, Mistah Ma’ston.”

“Whew, and you’ve developed dignity, too. By the Lord Harry, if I’d have made that remark to you about a year and a half ago, there at the cabin, you’d have just grinned. Ah, Silas, I’m afraid for you. You’ve grown too fast. You’ve gained a certain poise and ease at the expense of–of–I don’t know what, but something that I liked better. Down there at home you were just a plain darky. Up here you are trying to be like me, and you are colored.”

“Of co’se, Mistah Ma’ston,” said Silas politely, but deprecatingly, “the worl’ don’t stan’ still.”

“Platitudes–the last straw!” exclaimed Mr. Marston tragically. “There’s an old darky preacher up at Richmond who says it does, and I’m sure I think more of his old fog-horn blasts than I do of your parrot tones. Ah! Si, this is the last time that I shall ever fool with good raw material. However, don’t let this bother you. As I remember, you used to sing well. I’m going to have some of my friends up at my rooms to-night; get some of the boys together, and come and sing for us. And remember, nothing hifalutin; just the same old darky songs you used to sing.”

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“All right, suh, we’ll be up.”

Silas was very glad to be rid of his old friend, and he thought when Marston had gone that he was, after all, not such a great man as he had believed. But the decline in his estimation of Mr. Marston’s importance did not deter him from going that night with three of his fellow-waiters to sing for that gentleman. Two of the quartet insisted upon singing fine music, in order to show their capabilities, but Silas had received his cue, and held out for the old songs. Silas Jackson’s tenor voice rang out in the old plantation melodies with the force and feeling that old memories give. The concert was a great success, and when Marston pressed a generous-sized bank-note into his hand that night, he whispered, “Well, I’m glad there’s one thing you haven’t lost, and that’s your voice.”

That was the beginning of Silas’s supremacy as manager and first tenor of the Fountain Hotel Quartet, and he flourished in that capacity for two years longer; then came Mr. J. Robinson Frye, looking for talent, and Silas, by reason of his prominence, fell in this way.

Mr. J. Robinson Frye was an educated and enthusiastic young mulatto gentleman, who, having studied music abroad, had made art his mistress. As well as he was able, he wore the shock of hair which was the sign manual of his profession. He was a plausible young man of large ideas, and had composed some things of which the critics had spoken well. But the chief trouble with his work was that his one aim was money. He did not love the people among whom American custom had placed him, but he had respect for their musical ability.

“Why,” he used to exclaim in the sudden bursts of enthusiasm to which he was subject, “why, these people are the greatest singers on earth. They’ve got more emotion and more passion than any other people, and they learn easier. I could take a chorus of forty of them, and with two months’ training make them sing the roof off the Metropolitan Opera house.”

When Mr. Frye was in New York, he might be seen almost any day at the piano of one or the other of the negro clubs, either working at some new inspiration, or playing one of his own compositions, and all black clubdom looked on him as a genius.

His latest scheme was the training of a colored company which should do a year’s general singing throughout the country, and then having acquired poise and a reputation, produce his own opera.

It was for this he wanted Silas, and in spite of the warning and protests of friends, Silas went with him to New York, for he saw his future loom large before him.

The great city frightened him at first, but he found there some, like himself, drawn from the smaller towns of the South. Others in the company were the relics of the old days of negro minstrelsy, and still others recruited from the church choirs in the large cities. Silas was an adaptable fellow, but it seemed a little hard to fall in with the ways of his new associates. Most of them seemed as far away from him in their knowledge of worldly things as had the waiters at the Springs a few years before. He was half afraid of the chorus girls, because they seemed such different beings from the nurse girls down home. However, there was little time for moping or regrets. Mr. Frye was, it must be said, an indefatigable worker. They were rehearsing every day. Silas felt himself learning to sing. Meanwhile, he knew that he was learning other things–a few more elegancies and vices. He looked upon the “rounders” with admiration and determined to be one. So, after rehearsals were over other occupations held him. He came to be known at the clubs and was quite proud of it, and he grew bolder with the chorus girls, because he was to be a star.

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After three weeks of training, the company opened, and Silas, who had never sung anything heavier than “Bright Sparkles in the Churchyard,” was dressed in a Fauntleroy suit, and put on to sing in a scene from “Rigoletto.”

Every night he was applauded to the echo by “the unskilful,” until he came to believe himself a great singer. This belief was strengthened when the girl who performed the Spanish dance bestowed her affections upon him. He was very happy and very vain, and for the first time he forgot the people down in a little old Virginia cabin. In fact, he had other uses for his money.

For the rest of the season, either on the road or in and about New York, he sang steadily. Most of the things for which he had longed and had striven had come to him. He was known as a rounder, his highest ambition. His waistcoats were the loudest to be had. He was possessed of a factitious ease and self-possession that was almost aggression. The hot breath of the city had touched and scorched him, and had dried up within him whatever was good and fresh. The pity of it was that he was proud of himself, and utterly unconscious of his own degradation. He looked upon himself as a man of the world, a fine product of the large opportunities of a great city.

Once in those days he heard of Smith, his old-time companion at the Springs. He was teaching at some small place in the South. Silas laughed contemptuously when he heard how his old friend was employed. “Poor fellow,” he said, “what a pity he didn’t come up here, and make something out of himself, instead of starving down there on little or nothing,” and he mused on how much better his fate had been.

The season ended. After a brief period of rest, the rehearsals for Frye’s opera were begun. Silas confessed to himself that he was tired; he had a cough, too, but Mr. Frye was still enthusiastic, and this was to be the great triumph, both for the composer and the tenor.

“Why, I tell you, man,” said Frye, “it’s going to be the greatest success of the year. I am the only man who has ever put grand-opera effects into comic opera with success. Just listen to the chords of this opening chorus.” And so he inspired the singer with some of his own spirit. They went to work with a will. Silas might have been reluctant as he felt the strain upon him grow, but that he had spent all his money, and Frye, as he expressed it, was “putting up for him,” until the opening of the season.

Then one day he was taken sick, and although Frye fumed, the rehearsals had to go on without him. For awhile his companions came to see him, and then they gradually ceased to come. So he lay for two months. Even Sadie, his dancing sweetheart, seemed to have forgotten him. One day he sent for her, but the messenger returned to say she could not come, she was busy. She had married the man with whom she did a turn at the roof-garden. The news came, too, that the opera had been abanboned, and that Mr. Frye had taken out a company with a new tenor, whom he pronounced far superior to the former one.

Silas gazed blankly at the wall. The hollowness of his life all came suddenly before him. All his false ideals crumbled, and he lay there with nothing to hope for. Then came back the yearnings for home, for the cabin and the fields, and there was no disgust in his memory of them.

When his strength partly returned, he sold some of the few things that remained to him from his prosperous days, and with the money purchased a ticket for home; then spent, broken, hopeless, all contentment and simplicity gone, he turned his face toward his native fields.

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