The Ingrate by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Story type: Literature


Mr. Leckler was a man of high principle. Indeed, he himself had admitted it at times to Mrs. Leckler. She was often called into counsel with him. He was one of those large souled creatures with a hunger for unlimited advice, upon which he never acted. Mrs. Leckler knew this, but like the good, patient little wife that she was, she went on paying her poor tribute of advice and admiration. To-day her husband’s mind was particularly troubled,–as usual, too, over a matter of principle. Mrs. Leckler came at his call.

“Mrs. Leckler,” he said, “I am troubled in my mind. I–in fact, I am puzzled over a matter that involves either the maintaining or relinquishing of a principle.”

“Well, Mr. Leckler?” said his wife, interrogatively.

“If I had been a scheming, calculating Yankee, I should have been rich now; but all my life I have been too generous and confiding. I have always let principle stand between me and my interests.” Mr. Leckler took himself all too seriously to be conscious of his pun, and went on: “Now this is a matter in which my duty and my principles seem to conflict. It stands thus: Josh has been doing a piece of plastering for Mr. Eckley over in Lexington, and from what he says, I think that city rascal has misrepresented the amount of work to me and so cut down the pay for it. Now, of course, I should not care, the matter of a dollar or two being nothing to me; but it is a very different matter when we consider poor Josh.” There was deep pathos in Mr. Leckler’s tone. “You know Josh is anxious to buy his freedom, and I allow him a part of whatever he makes; so you see it’s he that’s affected. Every dollar that he is cheated out of cuts off just so much from his earnings, and puts further away his hope of emancipation.”

If the thought occurred to Mrs. Leckler that, since Josh received only about one-tenth of what he earned, the advantage of just wages would be quite as much her husband’s as the slave’s, she did not betray it, but met the naive reasoning with the question, “But where does the conflict come in, Mr. Leckler?”

“Just here. If Josh knew how to read and write and cipher–“

“Mr. Leckler, are you crazy!”

“Listen to me, my dear, and give me the benefit of your judgment. This is a very momentous question. As I was about to say, if Josh knew these things, he could protect himself from cheating when his work is at too great a distance for me to look after it for him.”

“But teaching a slave–“

“Yes, that’s just what is against my principles. I know how public opinion and the law look at it. But my conscience rises up in rebellion every time I think of that poor black man being cheated out of his earnings. Really, Mrs. Leckler, I think I may trust to Josh’s discretion, and secretly give him such instructions as will permit him to protect himself.”

“Well, of course, it’s just as you think best,” said his wife.

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“I knew you would agree with me,” he returned. “It’s such a comfort to take counsel with you, my dear!” And the generous man walked out on to the veranda, very well satisfied with himself and his wife, and prospectively pleased with Josh. Once he murmured to himself, “I’ll lay for Eckley next time.”

Josh, the subject of Mr. Leckler’s charitable solicitations, was the plantation plasterer. His master had given him his trade, in order that he might do whatever such work was needed about the place; but he became so proficient in his duties, having also no competition among the poor whites, that he had grown to be in great demand in the country thereabout. So Mr. Leckler found it profitable, instead of letting him do chores and field work in his idle time, to hire him out to neighboring farms and planters. Josh was a man of more than ordinary intelligence; and when he asked to be allowed to pay for himself by working overtime, his master readily agreed,–for it promised more work to be done, for which he could allow the slave just what he pleased. Of course, he knew now that when the black man began to cipher this state of affairs would be changed; but it would mean such an increase of profit from the outside, that he could afford to give up his own little peculations. Anyway, it would be many years before the slave could pay the two thousand dollars, which price he had set upon him. Should he approach that figure, Mr. Leckler felt it just possible that the market in slaves would take a sudden rise.

When Josh was told of his master’s intention, his eyes gleamed with pleasure, and he went to his work with the zest of long hunger. He proved a remarkably apt pupil. He was indefatigable in doing the tasks assigned him. Even Mr. Leckler, who had great faith in his plasterer’s ability, marveled at the speed which he had acquired the three R’s. He did not know that on one of his many trips a free negro had given Josh the rudimentary tools of learning, and that since the slave had been adding to his store of learning by poring over signs and every bit of print that he could spell out. Neither was Josh so indiscreet as to intimate to his benefactor that he had been anticipated in his good intentions.

It was in this way, working and learning, that a year passed away, and Mr. Leckler thought that his object had been accomplished. He could safely trust Josh to protect his own interests, and so he thought that it was quite time that his servant’s education should cease.

“You know, Josh,” he said, “I have already gone against my principles and against the law for your sake, and of course a man can’t stretch his conscience too far, even to help another who’s being cheated; but I reckon you can take care of yourself now.”

“Oh, yes, suh, I reckon I kin,” said Josh.

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“And it wouldn’t do for you to be seen with any books about you now.”

“Oh, no, suh, su’t’n’y not.” He didn’t intend to be seen with any books about him.

It was just now that Mr. Leckler saw the good results of all he had done, and his heart was full of a great joy, for Eckley had been building some additions to his house, and sent for Josh to do the plastering for him. The owner admonished his slave, took him over a few examples to freshen his memory, and sent him forth with glee. When the job was done, there was a discrepancy of two dollars in what Mr. Eckley offered for it and the price which accrued from Josh’s measurements. To the employer’s surprise, the black man went over the figures with him and convinced him of the incorrectness of the payment,–and the additional two dollars were turned over.

“Some o’ Leckler’s work,” said Eckley, “teaching a nigger to cipher! Close-fisted old reprobate,–I’ve a mind to have the law on him.” Mr. Leckler heard the story with great glee. “I laid for him that time–the old fox.” But to Mrs. Leckler he said: “You see, my dear wife, my rashness in teaching Josh to figure for himself is vindicated. See what he has saved for himself.”

“What did he save?” asked the little woman indiscreetly.

Her husband blushed and stammered for a moment, and then replied, “Well, of course, it was only twenty cents saved to him, but to a man buying his freedom every cent counts; and after all, it is not the amount, Mrs. Leckler, it’s the principle of the thing.”

“Yes,” said the lady meekly.


Unto the body it is easy for the master to say, “Thus far shalt thou go, and no farther.” Gyves, chains and fetters will enforce that command. But what master shall say unto the mind, “Here do I set the limit of your acquisition. Pass it not”? Who shall put gyves upon the intellect, or fetter the movement of thought? Joshua Leckler, as custom denominated him, had tasted of the forbidden fruit, and his appetite had grown by what it fed on. Night after night he crouched in his lonely cabin, by the blaze of a fat pine brand, poring over the few books that he had been able to secure and smuggle in. His fellow-servants alternately laughed at him and wondered why he did not take a wife. But Joshua went on his way. He had no time for marrying or for love; other thoughts had taken possession of him. He was being swayed by ambitions other than the mere fathering of slaves for his master. To him his slavery was deep night. What wonder, then, that he should dream, and that through the ivory gate should come to him the forbidden vision of freedom? To own himself, to be master of his hands, feet, of his whole body–something would clutch at his heart as he thought of it; and the breath would come hard between his lips. But he met his master with an impassive face, always silent, always docile; and Mr. Leckler congratulated himself that so valuable and intelligent a slave should be at the same time so tractable. Usually intelligence in a slave meant discontent; but not so with Josh. Who more content than he? He remarked to his wife: “You see, my dear, this is what comes of treating even a nigger right.”

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Meanwhile the white hills of the North were beckoning to the chattel, and the north winds were whispering to him to be a chattel no longer. Often the eyes that looked away to where freedom lay were filled with a wistful longing that was tragic in its intensity, for they saw the hardships and the difficulties between the slave and his goal and, worst of all, an iniquitous law,–liberty’s compromise with bondage, that rose like a stone wall between him and hope,–a law that degraded every free-thinking man to the level of a slave-catcher. There it loomed up before him, formidable, impregnable, insurmountable. He measured it in all its terribleness, and paused. But on the other side there was liberty; and one day when he was away at work, a voice came out of the woods and whispered to him “Courage!”–and on that night the shadows beckoned him as the white hills had done, and the forest called to him, “Follow.”

“It seems to me that Josh might have been able to get home to-night,” said Mr. Leckler, walking up and down his veranda; “but I reckon it’s just possible that he got through too late to catch a train.” In the morning he said: “Well, he’s not here yet; he must have had to do some extra work. If he doesn’t get here by evening, I’ll run up there.”

In the evening, he did take the train for Joshua’s place of employment, where he learned that his slave had left the night before. But where could he have gone? That no one knew, and for the first time it dawned upon his master that Josh had run away. He raged; he fumed; but nothing could be done until morning, and all the time Leckler knew that the most valuable slave on his plantation was working his way toward the North and freedom. He did not go back home, but paced the floor all night long. In the early dawn he hurried out, and the hounds were put on the fugitive’s track. After some nosing around they set off toward a stretch of woods. In a few minutes they came yelping back, pawing their noses and rubbing their heads against the ground. They had found the trail, but Josh had played the old slave trick of filling his tracks with cayenne pepper. The dogs were soothed, and taken deeper into the wood to find the trail. They soon took it up again, and dashed away with low bays. The scent led them directly to a little wayside station about six miles distant. Here it stopped. Burning with the chase, Mr. Leckler hastened to the station agent. Had he seen such a negro? Yes, he had taken the northbound train two nights before.

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“But why did you let him go without a pass?” almost screamed the owner.

“I didn’t,” replied the agent. “He had a written pass, signed James Leckler, and I let him go on it.”

“Forged, forged!” yelled the master. “He wrote it himself.”

“Humph!” said the agent, “how was I to know that? Our niggers round here don’t know how to write.”

Mr. Leckler suddenly bethought him to hold his peace. Josh was probably now in the arms of some northern abolitionist, and there was nothing to be done now but advertise; and the disgusted master spread his notices broadcast before starting for home. As soon as he arrived at his house, he sought his wife and poured out his griefs to her.

“You see, Mrs. Leckler, this is what comes of my goodness of heart. I taught that nigger to read and write, so that he could protect himself,–and look how he uses his knowledge. Oh, the ingrate, the ingrate! The very weapon which I give him to defend himself against others he turns upon me. Oh, it’s awful,–awful! I’ve always been too confiding. Here’s the most valuable nigger on my plantation gone,–gone, I tell you,–and through my own kindness. It isn’t his value, though, I’m thinking so much about. I could stand his loss, if it wasn’t for the principle of the thing, the base ingratitude he has shown me. Oh, if I ever lay hands on him again!” Mr. Leckler closed his lips and clenched his fist with an eloquence that laughed at words.

Just at this time, in one of the underground railway stations, six miles north of the Ohio, an old Quaker was saying to Josh: “Lie still,–thee’ll be perfectly safe there. Here comes John Trader, our local slave catcher, but I will parley with him and send him away. Thee need not fear. None of thy brethren who have come to us have ever been taken back to bondage.–Good-evening, Friend Trader!” and Josh heard the old Quaker’s smooth voice roll on, while he lay back half smothering in a bag, among other bags of corn and potatoes.

It was after ten o’clock that night when he was thrown carelessly into a wagon and driven away to the next station, twenty-five miles to the northward. And by such stages, hiding by day and traveling by night, helped by a few of his own people who were blessed with freedom, and always by the good Quakers wherever found, he made his way into Canada. And on one never-to-be-forgotten morning he stood up, straightened himself, breathed God’s blessed air, and knew himself free!


To Joshua Leckler this life in Canada was all new and strange. It was a new thing for him to feel himself a man and to have his manhood recognized by the whites with whom he came into free contact. It was new, too, this receiving the full measure of his worth in work. He went to his labor with a zest that he had never known before, and he took a pleasure in the very weariness it brought him. Ever and anon there came to his ears the cries of his brethren in the South. Frequently he met fugitives who, like himself, had escaped from bondage; and the harrowing tales that they told him made him burn to do something for those whom he had left behind him. But these fugitives and the papers he read told him other things. They said that the spirit of freedom was working in the United States, and already men were speaking out boldly in behalf of the manumission of the slaves; already there was a growing army behind that noble vanguard, Sumner, Phillips, Douglass, Garrison. He heard the names of Lucretia Mott and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and his heart swelled, for on the dim horizon he saw the first faint streaks of dawn.

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So the years passed. Then from the surcharged clouds a flash of lightning broke, and there was the thunder of cannon and the rain of lead over the land. From his home in the North he watched the storm as it raged and wavered, now threatening the North with its awful power, now hanging dire and dreadful over the South. Then suddenly from out the fray came a voice like the trumpet tone of God to him: “Thou and thy brothers are free!” Free, free, with the freedom not cherished by the few alone, but for all that had been bound. Free, with the freedom not torn from the secret night, but open to the light of heaven.

When the first call for colored soldiers came, Joshua Leckler hastened down to Boston, and enrolled himself among those who were willing to fight to maintain their freedom. On account of his ability to read and write and his general intelligence, he was soon made an orderly sergeant. His regiment had already taken part in an engagement before the public roster of this band of Uncle Sam’s niggers, as they were called, fell into Mr. Leckler’s hands. He ran his eye down the column of names. It stopped at that of Joshua Leckler, Sergeant, Company F. He handed the paper to Mrs. Leckler with his finger on the place:

“Mrs. Leckler,” he said, “this is nothing less than a judgment on me for teaching a nigger to read and write. I disobeyed the law of my state and, as a result, not only lost my nigger, but furnished the Yankees with a smart officer to help them fight the South. Mrs. Leckler, I have sinned–and been punished. But I am content, Mrs. Leckler; it all came through my kindness of heart,–and your mistaken advice. But, oh, that ingrate, that ingrate!”

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