Story type: Literature
Sist’ Esmeralda Humphreys was not present at the meeting of Zion Hard-shell Baptist Church. It is questionable whether there had been any such meeting had she been likely to attend, since how to dispense with the ministry of Sister Humphreys was its object, and the sister was a woman of power. But she had gone to the store for her semi-annual settlement of account. Therefore the disaffected in Zion raised their heads, perceiving that their hour was come.
The “church-house” (of a week-day the school-house) crowned a gentle rise of ground on the outskirts of an Arkansas plantation. It was backed by the great gum forests, where the sun rose, while on one side, winding toward the reddening evening skies, the cypress slash had eaten its way through the brown clay to the Black River. Full of mystery and uncanny beauty was the slash, its sluggish gleam of water creeping darkly under solemn cypresses and monstrous hackberry-trees, tinseled with cow-lilies in summer, spattered with blood-red berries in winter, green with delicate beauty when the cypress is in leaf, or gray and softly brown when its short-lived foliage falls. Did one care to deal in mystical analogy, one might find in the slash suggestions of the African’s undeveloped soul, where brute and child still battle for mastery.
It was a school-house for children of the darker race only, and only negroes were in the little band whose hymns penetrated the wide sweep of cotton-fields, the weird African cadences wilder and more mournful than the hoot-owl’s oboe keening in the forest. To-night the house was but sparsely filled by the regular worshipers, Zion congregation proper. Brother Zubaeel Morrow presided, because he had once attended a district Republican convention, where he had imbibed parliamentary lore.
“Dis meetin’ will please come to ordah,” he announced; “is you-all ready fo’ de question?”
“W’ are question, Bruddah Morrow?” called out a brother in the rear seats.
“Bruddah Carroll, you is out of ordah. Whenst I git in dis cheer an take dis gabble,”–he extended the hatchet used, before its promotion, to chop kindling,–“take notice, I is de Cheer; you-all is to ‘dress me as ‘Mist’ Cheerman.’ You is axin’ ’bout de question: de question is, Shall Sist’ Esmereldy Humphreys continner to usu’p de rights of we-alls pastor? Ain’t dat the onderstandin’ of dis here awjence?”
Signs of approval and assent came from the audience. The chairman, rising, took the attitude of the white speaker whom he had admired most at the convention, plunging one hand into the bosom of his coat–buttoned for that purpose–and gazing solemnly about him. All the colored population of the country-side were proud of the school-house, which was painted a neat lead color as to wood-work and brown as to walls; with red lettering done by a member who had followed the painter’s trade (although not very far), declaring piously on the west wall, “The Lord will provide,” and politely requesting on the east wall, “Please do not spit on the floor.” A stately blackboard behind the teacher’s desk showed her excellent moral sentiments and penmanship. There was no carpet on the floor, but it was clean and the windows glistened.
“Dis yere school-house, dis yere chu’ch-house, are a credit to de cullud ladies an’ gen’l’men of Zion Baptis’ Chu’ch,” declaimed Brother Morrow, sonorously, “an’ we-all had orter have a pastor who w’u’d–we’d correspond. I ain’t sayin’ one word of disparaguement of our late deseased pastor. He be’n a good, pious man” (“Amen!” from two half-grown lads in the rear), “but he had a terrible sight of losses an’ troubles, losin’ all of his chillen like he done; an’ him sick such a spell befo’ de Lawd called him f’om grace to glory. Mabbe he didn’t be’n eloquent like the supply we had, but Elder W’ite had nare right to git Sist’ Lucy Tompkins to run ‘way wid ‘im, f’om ‘er good, kin’, respectable husban’” (a little crumpled, elderly negro raised his head with an air of modest pride), “an’ he done borry two dollars an’ fifty cents of de cheer dat I don’t expec’ nothin’ of ontwel de jedgment day! So w’en our pastor passed away we’all was like sheep outen a shepherd; an’ we’en Sist’ Humphreys done offah to keep de’ chu’ch-house clean an’ cyah on de services of Zion, an’ make no cha’ges, we-all acceptid.”
“Mist’ Cheerman,”–a grizzled negro in decent black held up a finger,–“Mist’ Cheerman, was hit Sist’ Humphreys keep dis ‘ouse dis away?”
“Yes, Bruddah Moore; she are a right good scrubber,” admitted the chairman, while the congregation stared at the speaker, the richest colored man in the county, who had moved into the neighborhood recently, this being his first appearance in Zion.
“Fo’ a spell,” continued the chairman, “t’ings went on suspiciously enough. Sist’ Humphreys be’n an edicated lady; an’ she is a plumb good cook. Her preachin’ didn’t be’n whut we-all air longin’ to heah; nare shakin’ of de soul ovah de mouf of hell, nare mo’nin’, nare revivals; but we hilt our peace, an’ Zion attendid regular, an’ las’ socherable gatherin’ there be’n nigh a hunderd, big an’ little, presint–“
“And she gave us all cake and candy and lemonade with ice in it!” a woman’s mellow voice called out.
The heads of the congregation went round in the direction of the voice, and a large number of rolling black eyes stared at the school-teacher, whose comely brown face showed that deepening of tint which is the same as an Anglo-Saxon’s blush. “Teacher” had been educated at Tuskegee and was suspected of being “biggity.”
The chairman gave her a gloomy nod. “No doubt, my sistah, no doubt hankerin’ ayfter de flesh-pots of Egypt done fotch some po’ sinnahs t’ de altar. I ain’t complainin’ of de carnil an’ carniferous food she done give us, but of de spitichul nu’ishment. I nev’ did see a mo’ner rollin’ on dis flo’ w’ilst Sist Humphreys be’n yere. We-all be’n thirstin’ an’ famishin’ fo’ a good ol’-time revival. But we enjured ontwel one day de glory come on Br’er Pope, an’ he hollered,–tryin’ to lif’ us all up,–Amen! Amen! Let de sinner quit sinnin’ an’ he shill be saved!’ An’ dat ar woman she call out: ‘Yes; let‘im quit sinnin’! Let ‘im quit sellin’ of aigs to de sto’ w’en he don’t be keepin’ only one hen!’ Dat ar remark incinerated false an’ wicked notions ’bout Unc’ Alick Pope, who lives nigh de cunnel’s chicken-yard.” (A solitary giggle from the shoolmistress.) “She done fa’ly r’ar an’ charge ’bout chicken-stealin’. Dat ain’t promote edderfication nor good feelin’.” (Groans of assent from a deeply interested audience.) “But nex’ Sabbath come wuss. She done announce she be’n ‘lowin’ to preach us a serious discourse on de Ten Commandmints. Well, we-all done look dem commandmints up an’ study on dem a heap. We felt tol’able secure on de Fust an’ Second, she lumpin’ dem togedder fo’ one out at preachin’; an’ we sat back easy, hopin’ fo’ grace an’ true religion; but she jes slued roun’ on to conjure-cha’ms an’ such, invagin’ ag’in’ dem twell we got all de devotional feelin’ plumb squoze outen us. Third Commandmint we natchelly didn’t expec’ no harm of; but ayfter de fust godly words ’bout profane sw’arin’, ef she didn’t git on to false sw’arin’ befo’ the gran’ jury, ’bout crap-shootin’, en git us all terrible oncomfortable. Nex’ command she didn’t be’n sound on, sayin’ a heap ’bout washin’ up in tubs Sattiddy nights, an’ tew little ’bout de spitichul ovservation of the holy day; an’ come down hard on a respectid brother who sayd once, ‘I isn’t to wash in winter’; an’ sayd bad wuds ’bout sisters dat went visitin’ Sattiddy evenin’s, stidder washin’ up ready fo’ de holy day; sayd some sisters nev’ did wash de po’ little tricks’ shirts, jes’ taken a new flour-sack an’ cut holes in it. She talked like dat ontwel it be’n right ondecent and onchristian; an’ one sister dat’s subjec’ to fits providenchelly done t’rowed one an’ bruk up de meetin’. But we-all sorter done spunk up on de Fif’ Commandmint; looked lak hit be’n sho’ harmliss; an’ we done fotch de chillen to learn deir juty to deir parents. Well, dey sho’ got it! But den she done scorched de parents mightily ’bout de ‘zample dey be’n bleeged to set de chillen. Dat ar be’n a fearful, sufferin’ hour, an’ I nev’ did see dis yere congregation so dry an’ havin’ to git out de pump so often. Dey went by whole famblies; an’ befo’ she be’n frow mighty nigh ever’ las’ chil’ b’en taken outside. We didn’t dast let ’em see frow it.” (Groans all over the house.) “She nigh bust de chu’ch on de Sixth Commandmint wid outrageous rema’ks on razors. An’ nex’ Sunday comes de Seventh Commandmint, an’ we ain’t nowise willin to enjure her handlin’ of dat, nohow.” (Deep groans of assent from brothers and sisters alike.) “Nor de Eight’, neider.” (“No, no !” from the seat of Uncle Alexander Pope.) “Wust is, de ongodly outside, de Methodists an’ de cullud folks from de Ridge, is fixin’ to come over an’ see we-all ripped up. De chu’ch house be’n plumb full ever’ Sabbath, an’ we-all don’ dast stay ‘way, not knowin’ what scandillous stories will be circulated.” (“Dat’s so!” “Holp, Lord!” from earnest souls in the audience.) “An’ de chu’ch is losin’ of members. Bruddah Dan Williams done moved away.” (“No, sah, no, he ain’t; he b’en sent to de pen!”) “I didn’t say how come he moved, Brudder Carroll; he are gone. Unc’ Jim Hollis done ‘bandon his crop. Aunt Caledonia Ray lef’ las’ week ‘count of injur’us reflections ’bout a mince pie she done mix up by mistake wid de week’s wash she taken fum de big house. We done pled wid Sist’ Humphreys to quit; but she won’t quit. Now de question am: How shill we git saved f’om Sist’ Humphreys an’ git a preacher will preach religion– an’ nuffin else ?”
Amid a deep hum of applause Brother Morrow sat down. Half a dozen voices begged for attention; but the chair recognized Sister Susannah Belle Coffin. Sister Susannah was of exceeding comeliness and a light-brown complexion. If report spake truly, there was no one in Zion who had more reason to dread a fearless and minute exposition of the demands of the Seventh Commandment. She had started her career as a destroyer of domestic peace with a capital of good looks, a gift for cookery, a voice of silver, and two small unpremeditated children. “A single pussen like me wid two chillen,” would be her plaintive excuse for demanding the good offices of the brothers in cutting wood or “palin’ in her gyardin”; and too often, under the spell of Susannah’s eyes and Susannah’s voice and Susannah’s cooking, the end of an innocent neighborly kindness was a jealous wife and a “parting.” Sometimes Susannah wedded the departing husband, sometimes she flouted him; but steadily, single or wedded, Susannah’s little garden-plot grew more beautiful, Susannah’s kitchen range accumulated a more dazzling array of tin and copper, and Susannah’s best room was more splendidly bedecked with curtains, pillow-shams, and a gilt mirror.
At present speaking, the dark enchantress was the lawful wedded wife of the young blacksmith, and the whole plantation had admired to see her enter the holy estate in white Swiss muslin and a voluminous veil which she utilized, later, as a window-curtain. She now inquired with much pleasing modesty of mien: “I jes want to ask, Mist’ Cheerman, how’re we-all to git Sist’ Humphreys to go if she don’ wanter?”
Sighs, allied to groans, bore testimony that she had voiced the forebodings of the audience. But a visiting brother who had the courage of his non-residence, came to the front; he suggested that a letter be sent to the sister, announcing the sense of the meeting, saying that the congregation was not edified by her ministrations and that the church-house would be closed until a new pastor had been selected.
“De motion, as de cheer un’erstands it, are to dismiss Sist’ Esmeraldy Humphreys an’ shet de do’s on her,” said the chairman. “Is–what is it, Sist’ Macklin?”
He spoke kindly, and the woman whom he addressed seemed in need of kindness, since she was trembling visibly. She was a little creature in the pathetic compromise for mourning which poverty makes with grief–her accustomed winter jacket of brown, but with a somber garnishment of crape, black ribbons on her old gray hat, and a black border to her handkerchief.
The congregation looked at her, pityingly, as she began in the high-pitched voice of the unaccustomed speaker:
“Bruddah Morrow–I mean Bruddah Cheerman, I are right mortified Sist’ Humphreys done chastice you all; but I jest got to b’ar my testimony you-all are mistaken ’bout her bein’ crool. Oh, dear bruddahs an’ sistahs, she ain’t! You-all knows my–my boy”–she choked over the word, and the hearers waited in mute and awkward compassion, because her boy, the last of her children, had been hanged at the little county-seat only a month before for the murder of his wife–“my boy w’u’dn’t repent; he w’u’dn’t do nuffin but cuss de woman dat fotch him dar an’ den nebber so much look at him. I spen’ ever’ las’ cent I had on earth to try git him off, an’ I taken de jail wash, I did, to be nigh ‘im an’ mabbe git him a bite like he’s uster to eat; but he w’u’dn’t paht lips wid me; sayd I be’n a good mudder to him, but he didn’t want to h’ar me beggin’ an’ pleadin’ wid ‘im to repent an’ make peace wid God. Oh, I did be’n in de brack water, wadin’ deep ! Look laak I c’u’dn’t enjure hit nohow. I reckon I does nebber be able to see so well ’cause I cry so stiddy dem days. An’ all de cry of my po’ ol’ hairt be’n, ‘O Lawd, I don’ no mo’ ax you to save his life, but, O Lawd, don’ let ‘im die cussin’! Fotch ‘im ‘ome! I kin b’ar hit to have ‘im go, if he sho’ goes whar he kin be good an’ be happy an’ be safe; fo’ I does know dat boy nev’ did aim to be mean.’ An’ w’en my hairt be’n broke wid longin’ an’ mis’ry, Sist’ Humphreys she come. She done holp me all fru; an’ now she went to my boy; he hatter see her. I don’ know w’at she say; but she come back to me an’ say, ‘Praise God, dat po’ sinnah hab foun’ peace an’ joy–an’ he want his mudder!’ An’ I did come. An’ he putt his po’ haid on my knees jes lak w’en he be’n a li’le boy an’ uster laff ’bout de big kin’lin’-pile he allers keep fo’ his mammy. An’ Sist’ Humphreys, some way she git dem jailer-men be so kin’ an’ tender to ‘im, lak I cayn’t noways tell. An’ he did die happy. De Lawd sustain him, an’ he sustain me. Blessed be de name of de Lawd, an’ blessed be dat ‘oman dat is his ministah!”
She sank down in her seat and wept quietly, while the impressionable African temperament sent forth pious ejaculations: “Holp, Lawd!” “Fotch comfort!” “Bless de mo’nahs!” The schoolmistress was in tears, and the stalwart young man near her openly wiped his eyes. Brother Moore bent his brows; even Brother Morrow winked hard: but Sister Susannah’s emotion was most in evidence; she was sobbing violently into a pink-embroidered handkerchief. Presently she rose to her feet. Now Susannah was the woman who had lured the wretched murderer through a brutal passion to a brutal crime, and the eyes of the congregation were focused upon her.
“Bruddahs, sistahs,” said Susannah, in her wonderful voice, with its chords of plaintive music, which made her hearers grin out of sheer emotion, “I nev’ did aim to do dat po’ young man hurt; but he sayd t’ings to me, t’ings”–she sighed and hung her head–“he hadn’t orter have sayd, him bein’ a married man; an’ I be’n right mad at him, an’ I own up I done him right onchristian an’ onmussiful, for I didn’t show no sympathy or even go see ‘m hanged. Now, I do repent. But it ain’t nare preachin’ of Sist’ Humphreys done give me a brokin an’ a contrary hairt. Her scorchin’ don’ make me mo’n. Hit cakes up my hairt. She nev’ did have one single revival. Rev. Bulkely of de Ridge he does have a mighty big one ever’ spring; you kin hear de screeches ‘mos’ a mile! He tol’ me hisse’f he w’u’d be willin’ to minister a spell to dis sorely tried flock, an’, mo’-ovah, he tol’ me dat we-all c’u’dn’t have Sist’ Humphreys nor no woman preach to us; for it be’n ag’in’ de rule of de Baptis’ Chu’ch. Hit be’n forbid. We cayn’t be Baptis’ an’ keep Sist’ Humphreys.”
With meek grace Susannah resumed her seat and the sheltering support of the blacksmith’s arm. She had won. Now that a way of escape was opened,–a way, moreover, ending in a dazzling vista of a “big revival,”–no sympathy for the Widow Macklin could induce Zion to face the fiery chariots of the Seventh Commandment driven by Sister Humphreys.
In spite of the schoolmistress’ eloquence and the stumbling speech of two boys who tried to tell that Sister Humphreys had done a heap for them, when the vote was put, only six of the forty-eight persons present voted to retain the preacher. Brother Moore declined to vote.
Susannah watched the downcast faces of Sister Humphreys’ supporters through her half-shut eyes and smiled her languid, mysterious smile.
But of a sudden one of the two striplings who had spoken for Sister Humphreys left his place by the window and ran to the door.
With instant premonition of peril, the flock of Zion turned on the benches. A deep intake of breath signified their dismay as there entered a tall brown woman in widow’s weeds. She cast a calm, full eye over the faces under the lamplights–faces already stricken awry with fear; for, notwithstanding their numbers and apparent strength of position, dread of the pastor insisted, as light insists through closed eyelids.
Sister Humphreys walked with no pause to the platform. Brother Morrow was so short a man and she was so tall a woman that her handsome head towered above his. She was a brown negro, but her lighter color and her regular features and thinner, more sensitive lips were due to no admixture of white blood; they came from a dash of the yellow races mixed long before her time in the Old World, where her ancestors were barbaric princes. She stood with the incomparable grace that is given sometimes to the bearer of burdens, tall, erect, shapely. She spoke in a mellow rich voice not raised a note above its speaking tone.
“Is this heah a meetin’?” gently interrogated Sister Humphreys of Brother Morrow, “or have you-all done aju’ned?”
“We done aju’ned, sistah,” Brother Morrow replied quickly, flinching from a possible trap.
“In that case,” Sister Humphreys argued at once, “will you kindly take you’ seat an’ let me speak fo’ de las’ time to Zion Baptis’ Chu’ch?”
It was impossible to refuse a hearing. Brother Morrow shuffled into a lower seat.
“My people,”–a vague, incomprehensible thrill of apprehension and magnetic fascination stirred the attentive faces, all save the widow Macklin’s; hers was bent on her own withered, toil-crooked hands while she prayed,–“I want to say, first, that I nev’ did aim to keep on hu’tin’ you’ feelin’s. But I am ‘bleeged to save you’ souls. You-all know how my po’ husban’ toiled an’ prayed. Thar’s ol’ people who loved him an’ followed his teachin’s, but they went to their reward, an’ he was lef’ with a generation of young niggers who feared neither God nor man nor the grand jury–lying, stealing, with no more morals than pigs an’ no great cleaner. It broken my po’ ol’ man’s heart, so he hadn’t no strength to stand the breast complaint, so he died. The last night I heard him praying for you, an’ I come to him. When he looked up at me I knowed I couldn’t hold him; I knowed he ain’t never again goin’ look up at me with the light in his eyes an’ the love in his smile like he looked then. An’ I sayd to him, ‘Silas, honey, don’ you worry ’bout that there wuthless flock of yours. I’ll save ’em. I know the way. I sho’ do!’ An’ he believed me; because of his believing me his end was peace. So you see, my people, I am ‘bleeged to save you. I tol’ him I know the way; I do know it. You’ pastor, who is a saint in heaven, done used always the ways of gentleness. He preached the love of God, an’ you swallered it down, smiling and happy; an’ it ain’t done you-all no mo’ good than stick candy does do a person that done taken poison an’ needs wahm water an’ mustard. What you-all needed didn’t be’n loving kindness, but the terrors of the law, an’ not strained, neider. An’ if it takes the las’ day of my pilgrimage, you’ll git ’em till you begin to repent an’ show works meet for repentence. But when you begin to repent, the word of mercy will come. ‘Cause when the prodigal son be’n a long way off, his father come a-runnin’ to him. Now, hark to me: I went this evening to the cunnel. He explained to me about the Baptis’ dis- cip -line.” (A ripple of excitement in the audience.) “In consequence, this chu’ch will hereayfter be the Methodis’ Zion Chu’ch. That is why I am speaking fo’ the las’ time to Zion Baptis’ Chu’ch. Ayfter to-night there won’t be no Zion Baptis’ Chu’ch. There ain’t no great differ ence in doctrine, an’ the dis- cip -line is more convenient. Any brother or sister desiring it, an’ not in danger of catching col’, can be immersed. The cunnel an’ I done talked this over; an’ he done rented this chu’ch-house to me. If the congregation ain’t satisfied, they got to take to the woods. I also got one word mo’ to say: it is that the work of grace in this community is a right smart hampered by the evil doings of Sister Susannah Coffin.”
Susannah and her husband were both on their feet, both ready to speak; but something in the attitude of the figure on the platform to which the long lines of the mourning-veil gave a strange suggestion of sibylline dignity, held speech away from them. Solemnly and not with any anger, Sister Humphreys’ eyes searched the eyes of the man and woman before her, while the spectators held their breath. “Wherefo’ it is bettah ever’ way,” she said slowly, “that both her an’ her husband go out from us fo’evermo’. Bruddah Coffin, the cunnel has got another blacksmith, an’ you ain’t got no mo’ reason fo’ stayin’ on longer. And as fo’ you, Sister –“
“I won’t go!” shrilled Susannah, hysterically weeping; it was with no pretense now. “You cayn’t fo’ce me!”
“You will go, Sister, fo’ you don’ wanter lose the young man you got now. You will go; an’ you will take him along of you; an’ you will go so far he cayn’t heah no word of my sermons. Go in peace.”
Susannah faced about, writhing between fear and rage. “You cowards! you ornery, pusillanimous cowards!” she flung back at the gaping black faces. “You putt on dog when she ain’t heah, but minute she lif’s her han’, you cayn’t make a riffle! Ba-h-h! S-sh!” she hissed at them like a cat or a snake. “Come on, you fool nigger!” she jeered, pulling at her bewildered husband’s collar; and in this sorry fashion, but still with her head high, she left Zion for ever.
“An’ now,” concluded Sister Esmeralda Humphreys sedately, “let us all try fo’ to lead a bettah life. I shall preach nex’ Sunday on the Seventh Commandment, an’ all them that feels they have broke that commandment is at free liberty to stay away. I shall expec’ to see all the res’ of you, even if ’tis fallin’ weader. Let us all sing befo’ we go:
“‘Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.’”
Brother Moore arose. “Sist’ Humphreys,” he announced, “you got de right kin’ o’ gospil light in you. I cayn’t jine in the singin’ ’cause since I got my store teef I ain’t be’n able to cyar’ a chune; but I want to do sumfin de wuk er grace; an’ I got up to say dat de nex’ socherble gatherin’ I’ll donate de lemons.”
“Dis meetin’ accep’s with t’anks,” shouted Brother Morrow. “Now, le’s show our beloved pastor the clouds is swep’ away! All sing!”
And never had so noble a burst of melody wakened the echoes along the moonlit road as that which made the colonel outside turn, smiling, in his saddle.
“She didn’t need me,” he mused. “Well, so much the better. I reckon they need a good despot, and they’ve got one, all right.”