The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 18/Number 105/Aunt Judy
A soft white bosom, kissed by lips and fondled by fingers pure as itself!
Back through the tender twilight of my one dim dream of a sinless childhood I catch that accusing glimpse of my mother—and myself. And as I stand here on this shapeless cairn of remorses, which, after forty years, I have piled upon my butchered and buried promise, that child turns from "the cup of his life and couch of his rest," to look upon me wondering, pitying.
My mother died when I was scarce five years old; and save the blurred beauty of that reproachful phantom,—caught and lost, caught and lost, by the unfaithful eyes of a graceless spirit,—she is as though she never had been. But in her place she left me a vicarious mother,—old, foolish, doting, black,—the youngest, loveliest, wisest, fairest lady I have ever known,—young with the youth of the immortal heart, lovely with the loveliness of the gleaning Ruth, wise with the wisdom of the most blessed among mothers when she "pondered all those things in her heart," and fair with the fairness of her who goeth her way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feedeth her kids beside the shepherds' tents,—black, but comely.
"Aunt Judy,"—Judith was her company name,—as the oldest of my uncles and aunts, and other boys' grandfathers and grandmothers, and all the rest of us children, delighted to call her,—was pure negro; not grafted, scandalous mulatto, nor muddled, niggerish "gingerbread," but downright, unmixed, old-fashioned blackamoor. Her father and mother were genuine importations from the coast of Africa, snatched from some cannibal's calaboose,—where else they might have been butchered to make a Dahomeyan holiday,—and set up in a country gentleman's kitchen in Maryland, where they and their Christian progeny helped to make many a happy Christmas.
Of this antique Ethiopian couple I remember nothing,—they died long before I was born,—nor have I gathered any notable ana concerning them. Only of the father, I learned from my darling old nurse that he was one hundred and four years old when the Almighty Emancipator set him free; and from my father, and the brothers and sisters of my mother, that he possessed in a remarkable degree those simple, childlike virtues, characteristic of the original domesticated African, which his daughters Judith and Rachel so richly inherited.
Aunt Judy was one of many slaves set free by my grandfather's will, partly in reward of faithful service, partly from an impulse of conscientiousness; for our fine old Maryland gentleman was that social and political phenomenon, a slaveholder with a practical scruple. Not that he doubted the moral wholesomeness of the "institution," which, in his theory, was patriarchal and protective, and in his practice eminently beneficent;—if he were living this day, I doubt not he would be found among its most earnest and confident champions;—but he did not believe in holding human beings in bondage "on principle," as it were, and for the mere sake of bondage. The patriarchal element was, he thought, an essential in the moral right of the system, and that no longer necessary, the system became wrong. Therefore, so soon as it became clear to him that he (so peculiarly had God blessed him) could protect, advise, relieve his servants as effectually, they being free, as if their persons and their poor little goods, their labor and almost their lives, were at his disposal, he set them at liberty without asking the advice, or caring for the opinion, of any man; and by the same instrument which gave them the right to work, think, live, and die for themselves, he imposed upon his children a solemn responsibility for their well-being, in the future as in the past,—the honorable care of seeing to it that their wants were judiciously provided for, their training virtuous, their instruction useful, their employers just, their families united, and their homes happy. Those who were already of age went forth free at once; the minors received their "papers" on their twenty-first birthday. And thus it was that, when I was born, Aunt Judy was as much freer than her "boy" is now, as simple, natural wants are freer than impatient, artificial appetites.
But that was the beginning and the end of Aunt Judy's freedom. For all the change it wrought in her feelings and her ways toward us, or in ours toward her, she might as well have remained the slave and the baby she was born; the old relations, so natural and gentle, of affection and faithful service on her side, of affection and grateful care on ours, no mere legal forms could alter: no papers could disturb their peacefulness, no privileges impair their confidence. Indeed, that same freedom—or at least her personal interest in it—was matter of magnificent contempt to both nurse and child; she understood it too well to pet it, I understood it too little to be jealous of it. It was only by asking her that you could discover that Aunt Judy was free; it was only by being asked that she could recollect it. For her, freedom meant the right to "go where she pleased"; but her love knew no where but my father's roof and her darling's crib, nor anything so wrong as that right. For us, her freedom meant our freedom, the right to send her away when we chose; but our love knew no such when in all the shameful possibilities of time, nor anything in all the cruel conspiracies of ingratitude so wrong as that right. Could we entreat her to leave us, or to return from following after us, when each of our hearts had spoken and said, "The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me"? So she and I have gone on together ever since, and shall go on, until we come to the Bethlehem of love at rest. What though she had been there before we started, and were there now? To the saints and their eternal spaceless spirits there are nor days, nor miles, nor starting-points, nor resting-places, nor journey's ends.
From my earliest remembered observation, when I first began to "take notice," as nurses say of vague babies, with pinafore comparison and judgment, Aunt Judy was an old woman; I knew that, because she had explained to me why I had not wrinkles like hers, and why she could not read her precious Bible without spectacles, as I could, and why my back was not bent too, and how if I lived I would grow so. From such instructions I derived a blurred, bewildering notion that from me to her, suffering an Aunt-Judy change, was a long, slow, wearisome process of puckering and dimming and stiffening. But when she told me how she had carried my mother in her arms, as she had carried me, and had made the proud discovery of her first tooth, as, piously exploring among my tender gums with her little finger, she had found mine, I stared at the Pacific of her possible nursings, in a wild surmise, silent upon a peak of wonder. "Well, then, Auntie," I asked, "do you think you're much more than a thousand?"
She was not noticeably little as a woman, but wonderfully little as a bundle, to contain so many great virtues,—rather below the medium stature, slender, and bent with age, rather than with burdens; for she had had no heartless master to lay heavy packs upon her. Her face, far from unpleasing in its lines, was lovely in its blended expression of intelligence, modesty, the sweetest guilelessness, an almost heroic truthfulness, devoted fidelity, a dove-like tranquillity of mind, and that abiding, reposeful trust in God which is equal to all trials, and can never be taken by surprise. Her voice was soft and soothing, her motions singularly free from clumsiness or fretfulness, her manners so beautifully blended of unaffected humility, patience, and self-respect as to command, in cheerful reciprocity, the deference they tendered; in which respect she was a severe ordeal to the sham gentlemen and ladies who had the honor to be presented to her,—the slightest trace of snobbery betraying itself at once to the sensitive test-paper of Aunt Judy's true politeness. Her ways were ways of pleasantness, and all her paths were peace. Faith, hope, and charity were met in her dusky, shrunken bosom,—more at home there, perhaps, than in a finer dwelling.
A sneering philosophy was never yet challenged to contemplate a piety more complete than that which made this venerable "nigger" a lady on earth, and a saint in heaven; but on her knees she found it, and on her knees she held it fast,—watching, praying, trembling.
"When she sat, her head was, prayer-like, bending;
When she rose, it rose not any more.
Faster seemed her true heart grave-ward tending
Than her tired feet, weak and travel-sore."
She was, indeed, a living prayer, a lying-down and rising-up, a going-out and coming-in prayer,—a loving, longing, working, waiting prayer,—a black and wrinkled, bent and tottering incense and aspiration. With her to labor was literally to worship; she washed dishes with confession, ironed shirts with supplication, and dusted furniture with thanksgiving,—morning, evening, noon, and night, praising God. From resting-place to resting-place, over tedious stretches of task, she prayed her way,
"And ever, at each period,
She stopped and sang, 'Praise God!'"
like Browning's Theocrite. And, as if answering Blaise, the listening monk, when he said,
I doubt not thou art heard, my son:
As well as if thy voice to-day
Were praising God the Pope's great way,"
her longing was,
"Would God that I
Might praise him some great way and die."
Many a time have I, bursting boisterously into my little bedroom in quest of top or ball, checked myself, with a feeling more akin to superstition than to reverence, on finding Aunt Judy on her knees beside the pretty cot she had just made up so snugly and tenderly for me, pouring her ever-brimming heart out in clear, refreshing springs of prayer. Led by these still waters, she rested there from the heat and burden of life, as the camel by wells in the desert. On such occasions I always knew that my dear old nurse had just finished making a bed or sweeping a room, and had sunk down to rest in a prayer, as a fagged drudge on a stool. If you ever gloried—and what gentleman has not?—in Gregg's brave old hymn, beginning
"Jesus, and shall it ever be,
A mortal man ashamed of thee?"
you would ask for no more intrepid illustration of its loyal spirit than the figure of Aunt Judy on her knees at the foot of my father's bed, where he often found her in the act,—turning her face for an instant, but without offering to rise, from her Divine Master to the mild fellow-servant in whom she affectionately recognized an earthly master, and asking, with a manner far less embarrassed than his own, "Was you lookin' for your gloves, sir? They's on de bureau,—and your umbrell's behind de door";—and then placidly turning back again to that Master whom most of us white slaves of the Devil think we have honored enough when we have printed His title with a capital M.
"My Master, shall I speak? O that to Thee
My Servant were a little so
As flesh may be!
That these two words might creep and grow
To some degree of spiciness to Thee!"
But the hour of my Aunt-Judyness most sacred and inspiring to me, weirdly filling my imagination with solemn reaches beyond my childish ken, was at the close of the day, when—I having been undressed, with many a cradle lecture and many a blessing, many an admonition and endearment, line upon line and precept upon precept, here a text and there a pious rhyme, between the buttons and the strings, and having said my awful "Now I lay me," lest "I should die before I wake," and been tucked in with careful fondling fingers, the party of the first part honorably contracting to "shut his eyes and go straight to sleep," provided the party of the second part would remain at the bedside till the last heavy-lingering wink was winked,—that image of her Maker carved in ebony took up her part in creation's pausing chorus, and poured her little human praise into the echoing ear of God in such a burst of triumphant humility, of exulting hope and trust, and all-embracing charity and love,—wherein master and mistress and fellow-servant, friend and stranger, the kind and the cruel, the just and the unjust, the believer and the scoffer, had each his welcome place and was called by his name,—as only Ruth could have said or Isaiah sung. As for me, I only lay there with closed eyes, very still, lest I should offend the angels, for I knew the room was full of them,—as for me, I only write here with a faltering heart, lest I should offend those prayers, for I know heaven is full of them, and I know that for every time my name arose to the throne of God on that beatified handmaid's hopes and cries, I have been forgiven seventy times seven.
And so Aunt Judy prayed and praised, sitting upon the landing to rest herself, as she descended from the garret side-wise, the same foot always advanced, as is the way of weak old folks in coming down stairs; and so she prayed and praised between the splitting spells of her forty years' asthmatic cough, rocking backward and forward, with her hands upon her knees. And sometimes she preached to me, the ironing-table being her pulpit; for oh! she was an excellent divine, that had the Bible at her fingers' ends, and many a moving sermon did she deliver, "how God doth make his enemies his friends." And sometimes she baptized me, the bath-tub being her Jordan, in the name of duty, love, and patience. In truth, Aunt Judy took as much prophylactic pains with my soul as if it had been tainted with a congenital sulphuric diathesis; and if I had sunk under a complication of profane disorders, no postmortem statement of my spiritual pathology would have been complete and exact which failed to take note of her stringent preventive measures.
Now be it known, that Aunt Judy's piety was in no respect of the niggerish kind; when I say "colored," I mean one thing, respectfully; and when I say "niggerish," I mean another, disgustedly. I am not responsible for the distinction: it is a true "cullud" nomenclature, and very significant; our fellow-citizens of African descent themselves employ it, nicely and wisely; and when they call each other "nigger" the familiar term of opprobrium is applied with all the malice of a sting, and resented with all the sensitiveness of a raw. So when I say that my Auntie's piety was not of the niggerish kind, even Zoe, "The Octoroon," or any other woman or man in whose veins courses the blood of Ham four times diluted, knows that I mean it was not that glory-hallelujah variety of cunning or delusion, compounded of laziness and catalepsy, which is popular among the shouting, shirt-tearing sects of plantation darkies, who "git relijin" and fits twelve times a year. To all such she used to say, "'T ain't de real grace, honey,—'t ain't de sure glory,—you hollers too loud. When you gits de Dove in your heart, and de Lamb on your bosom, you'll feel as ef you was in dat stable at Bethlehem and de Blessed Virgin had lent you de sleepin' Baby to hold." She would not have shrunk from lifting up her voice and crying aloud in the market-place, if thereby she might turn one smart butcher from the error of his weighs; but for steady talking to the Lord, she preferred my bedside or the back-stairs.
But in those days the kitchen was my paradise, by her transmuted. As a child, and not less now than then, I had a consuming longing for snuggery; my one fair, clear idea of the consummate golden fruit of the spirit's sweet content was a cosey place to get away to. In my longing I purred with the cat rolled up in her furry ball on the rug by the fire, making a high-post bedstead of a chair; in my longing I stole with furtive rats to their mysterious cave-nests in the wall. So do I now,—the more for that I lost, so long ago, my dear kitchen, my Aunt-Judyness,—my home.
"I behold it everywhere,
On the earth, and in the air,
But it never comes again."
At this moment I feel the dresser in the corner, gleaming with the cook's refulgent pride of polished tins; I am sensible of that pulpit ironing-table—alas! the flat-iron on its ring is as cold as the hand that erst so deftly guided it. I bask before the old-fashioned hospitable fireplace, capacious and embracing, and jolly with its old-fashioned hickory blaze, and the fat old-fashioned kettle hung upon the old-fashioned crane, swinging and singing of old-fashioned abundance and good cheer. I behold the Madras turban, the white neckerchief crossed over the bosom, the clumsy steel-bowed spectacles, the check apron, and the old-fashioned love that is forever new. But they never come again.
That kitchen was my hospital and my school,—as much better than the whole round of select academies and classical institutes that my father tried, and that tried me, as check aprons and love are more inculcating than canes and quarterly bills; and however it may be with my head, my heart never has forgotten the lessons I learned there. Thither, on the nipping nights of winter, brought I my small fingers and toes, numbed and aching with snow-balling and skating, to be tenderly rubbed before the fire, or fondly folded in the motherly apron. Thither brought I an extensive and various assortment of splinters and fresh cuts; thither my impervious nose, to be lubricated with goose-grease, or my swollen angry tonsils ("waxen kernels," Aunt Judy called them), to be mollified with volatile liniment.
It was here that my own free mind, uncompelled by pedagogues and unallured by prizes, first achieved a whole chapter in the Bible. Cook and laundress and chambermaid were out for the evening; the table had been cleared and covered with the fresh white cloth; and I, perched on Aunt Judy's lap at the end next the fireplace, glided featly over the short words, plunged pluckily through the long, (braced, as it were, against the superior education and the spectacles behind me,) of the first chapter of the Gospel according to St. John, from the Word that was in the beginning, to the Hereafter of the glorified Son of man. After which so large performance for so small a boy, we re-refreshed ourselves with that cheerful hymn, in which Dr. Watts lyrically disposes of the questions,
"And must this body die,
This mortal frame decay?
And must these active limbs of mine
Lie mouldering in the clay?"
For so infantile a heart, my darling old mammy had a wonderful lack of active imagination, even in her religion; for there all was real and actual to her. Her pleasures of memory and her pleasures of hope were alike founded upon fact. Christ was as personal to her as her own rheumatic frame, and heaven as positive as her kitchen. "Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed";—but for her, to believe and to see were one. So whatever imagination she may by nature have possessed seemed to have dwindled for lack of exercise: it was long since she had had any use for it. She had no folk-lore, no faculty of story-telling,—only a veracious legend or two of our family, which she invariably related with an affidavit-like scrupulousness of circumstance. I cannot recollect that she ever once beguiled me with a mere nurse's tale. So when at that kitchen-table we read "The Pilgrim's Progress" together, we presented a curious entertainment for the student of intellectual processes,—nurse and child arriving by diverse arguments of imagination at the same result of reality;—she knowing that Sin was a burden, because she had borne it; I, because I had seen it in the picture strapped to Christian's back;—she, that Despair was a giant, because he had often appalled her soul within her; I, because in a dream he had made me scream last night;—she, that Death was a river, because so many of her dear ones had gone over, and because on her clear days she could see the other shore; I, because, as I lay with my young cheek against her old heart, I could hear the beating of its waves.
Blessed indeed is the mother who is admitted to the sanctuary of her darling's secrets with the freedom with which Aunt Judy penetrated (was invited rather, with parted lips and sparkling eyes) to mine,—into whose sympathetic ear are poured, in all the dream-borne melody of the first songs of the heart, in all "the tender thought, the speechless pain" of its first violets, his earliest confessions, aspirations, loves, wrongs, troubles, triumphs. Well do I remember that day when, trembling, ghastly, faint, I fell in tears upon her neck, and poured into her bosom and basin the spasmodic story of My First Cigar! Well do I remember that night, when, bursting from the evening party in the parlor, and the thick red married lady in the thin blue tarletan, and all my raptures and my anguish, I flung myself into Aunt Judy's arms and acknowledged the soft corn of My First Love, raving at the fatal sandy-whiskered gulf that yawned between me and Mine thick blue Own One in the thin red tarletan!
Well do I remember—though I was only seven times one—the panting exultation with which I flung into her lap the cheap colored print of the Tower of Babel (showing the hurly-burly of French bricklayers and Irish hod-carriers, and the grand row generally) that I had just won at school by correctly committing to memory, and publicly reciting, the whole of
"Almighty God, thy piercing eye
Strikes through the shades of night," etc.
My first prize! The Tower of Babel fell untimely into the wash-tub, but she dried it on her warm bosom; and I have never forgotten that All our secret actions lie All open to His sight; though I have never seen the verses (they were in Comly's Spelling-Book) from that day to this.
In those days we had a youth of talent in the family,—a sort of sophomorical boil, that the soap and sugar of indiscriminate adulation had drawn to a head of conceit. This youth bestowed a great deal of attention on a certain young woman of a classical turn of mind, who once had a longing to attend a fancy-ball as a sibyl. About the same time Sophomore missed the first volume of his Potter's "Antiquities of Greece"; and, having searched for it in vain, made up his mind that I had presented it as a keepsake, together with a lock of my hair and a cent's worth of pea-nut taffy, to the head girl of the infant class at my Sunday school. So Sophomore, being in morals a pedant and in intellect a bully, accused me of appropriating the book, and offered me a dollar if I would restore it to him. With swelling heart and quivering lip I carried the wanton insult—my first great wrong—straight to Aunt Judy, who, in her mild way, resented it as a personal outrage to her own feelings, and tried to soothe and console me by assuring me that "it would all rub out when it got dry." Three years later, as I was passing the sibyl's house one morning, her mother met me at the door and handed me an odd volume of Potter's "Antiquities of Greece," which she had just discovered in some out-of-the-way corner, where it had been mislaid, and which she desired me to hand to Sophomore with the sibyl's compliments, thanks, regrets, and several other delicacies of the season. But I handed it first to Aunt Judy, who gloried boisterously in my first triumph. Sophomore patronized me magnificently with apologies; but if the wrong never gets any drier than Aunt Judy's joyful eyes were then, it never will rub out.
So heartily disgusted was I with this classical episode that I conceived the original and desperate project of running away and going to sea. At that time I enjoyed the proud privilege of a personal acquaintance with the Siamese Twins, and was the envied holder of a season ticket to the Museum, where they exhibited their attractive duplicity. It was an essential part of my preparations to procure from the amiable Chang-Eng a letter of introduction to their ingenious mother, who, I was told, was in the duck-fishing line at Bangkok. Of course, I confided my plan to Aunt Judy; and, although she opposed it with extra prayers of peculiar length and strength, and finally succeeded in dissuading me from it, I am by no means certain that she would not have connived at my flight, rather than betray my confidence or consent to my punishment.
Those were the days of the Morus multicaulis mania, and I embarked with spirit in the silk-worm business. The original capital upon which I erected the enterprise was furnished from the surplus of Aunt Judy's wages. It was in the first silk dress that should come of all those moths and eggs and wriggling spinners and cocoons that she invested with such sanguine cheerfulness; and although she never got her money back in that form,—owing to the unfortunate exhaustion of my mulberry-leaves and the refusal of my worms to spin silk from tea, which, they being of pure Chinese stock, I thought very unreasonable,—she conceived that she reaped abundant returns in her share of my happy enthusiasm, while it lasted; and when I wept over the famine-stricken forms of my operatives, she said, "Never mind, honey; dey was an awful litter anyhow, and I spec' dey was only de or'nary caterpillar poor trash, after all, else dey 'd a-kep' goin' on dat tea; fur 't was de rale high-price Chany kind, sure 's ye 'r born."
It was a striking oddness in the dear old soul, that, whilst in her hours of familiar ease she indulged in the homely lingo of her tribe, in her "company talk" she displayed a graver propriety of language, and in her prayers was always fluent, forcible, and correct.
The watchful tenderness with which I loved my gentle, childlike father was the most interesting of the many secrets that my heart shared only with Aunt Judy's. When I was twelve years old, he fell into a touching despondency, caused by certain reverses in his business and the unremitting anxieties consequent upon them. So intense and sensitive was my magnetic sympathy with him, that I contracted the same sadness, in a form so aggravated and morbid that the despondency, in me, became despair, and the anxiety horror. The cruel fancy took possession of my mind, installed there by my treacherously imaginative temperament, that some awful calamity was about to befall my dear father; that he, patient, submissive Christian that he was, even meditated suicide; and that shape of fear so shook my soul with terror in the daytime, so filled my dreams with horror in the night, that, as if it were not myself, I turn back to pity the poor child now, and wonder that he did not go mad.
Does he know the truth now up in Heaven, the beloved old man? Surely; for the beloved old woman, who alone knew it on earth, is she not there? He knows now how his selfish, wilful, school-hating scamp, of whom only he and Aunt Judy ever boded any good, stole away from his playmates and his games, every afternoon when school was dismissed, and with that baleful phantom before him, and that doleful cry in his ears, flew through the bustle and clatter of the wharves to where his father's warehouse was, two miles away; and, dodging like a thief among crates and boxes, bales and casks, and choking down the appeal of his lonely, shame-faced terror, watched that door with all the eager, tenacious, panting fidelity of a dog, until the merchant came forth on his way homeward for the night. And how the scamp followed, dodging, watching, trembling, unconsciously moaning, unconsciously sobbing, seeing no form but his, hearing no sound but his footfall, keeping cunningly between that form and the dock, lest it should suddenly dart, through the drays and the moored vessels and plunge into the river, as the scamp had seen it do in his dreams. And how, at the end of that walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, when we reached our own door, and the simple-hearted, good old man passed in, as ignorant of my following as he was innocent of the monstrous purpose I imputed to him, I lingered some minutes at the gate to ease with a sluice of tears my pent-up fears and pains; and then burst into the yard, whistling, whooping, prancing, swinging my satchel, without feeling or manners,—a shameless, heartless brat and nuisance. And how, when the day, with all its secret sighs and sobs, was over, and he and I retired to the same bed, I prayed to our Father in heaven (muffling my very thoughts in the bed-clothes lest he should hear them) to keep my earthly father safe for me from all the formless dangers of the darkness; and how, when at the first gray streak of dawn the spectre shook me, and I awoke, I held my heart and my breathing still, to listen for his breathing, and thanked God when he groaned in his sleep; and how, when his shaving-water was brought and he stood before the glass, baring his throat, I crept close behind him, still watching, gasping,—now pretending to hum a tune, now pressing my hand upon my mouth lest I should shriek in my helpless suspense; and how, when he drew the razor from its sheath—Well! I am forty years old now, and I have been pursued since then by so many and such torturing shapes of desperation and dismay as should refresh the heart of my stupidest enemy with an emotion of relenting; but I would consent to weep, groan, rave them all over again, beginning where that haunted child left off, rather than begin where he began, though my spectres should forever vanish with his.
Aunt Judy trembled and watched with me, and, accepting my phantom as if it were a reasonable fear, hid away her share of the sacred secret in her heart, and helped me to cover up mine with a disguise of carelessness, lest any foolish or brutal mockery should find it out.
My darling had but few superstitions: her spiritually informed intelligence rose superior to vulgar signs and dreams, and saw through the little warnings and wonders of darker and less pure minds with a science of its own, which she called Gospel light. Still, there was here a sign and there a legend that she clung to for old acquaintance' sake, rather than by reason of any credulity in her strong enough to take the place of faith. But these constituted the peculiar poetry of her personality, the fireside balladry and folk-lore of her Aunt-Judyness; and I could no more mock them than I could mock the good fairy in her, that changed all my floggings to feathers,—no sooner tear away their comfortable homeliness to jeer at their honored absurdity, than I could snatch off her dear familiar turban to mock the silver reverence of her "wool." Ah! I wish you could have heard her tell me that I must pass through fourteen years of trouble,—seven on account of the big old mirror in the parlor that I, lying on the sofa beneath it, kicked clear off its hook and into the middle of the floor,—and seven for that very looking-glass which my father used to shave by, and which I, sparring at my image in it, to amuse my little brother, knocked into smithareens with my fractious fist. Why, man, it was not only awful, it all came true.
Aunt Judy, like most of those antiques, the old-fashioned house-servants of the South,—coachmen and waiters, nurses and lady's maids,—was a towering aristocrat: she believed in blood, and was a connoisseur in pedigrees. Her family pride was lofty, vast, and imposing, and embraced in the scope of its sympathy whoever could boast of a family Bible containing a well-filled record of births, marriages, and deaths,—a dear dead-and-gone inheritance of family portraits, lace, trinkets, and silver spoons,—a family vault in an Orthodox burial-ground,—and above all, one or two venerable family servants, just to show "dese mushroom folks, wid der high-minded notions, how diff'ent things was in ole missus's time!" Measured by this standard, if you had the misfortune to be a nobody, Aunt Judy, as a lady, might patronize you, as a Christian, would cheerfully advise and assist you; but to the exclusive privilege of what she superbly styled family-arities, you must in vain aspire. Our family, in the broadest sense of that word, was a large one,—by blood and marriage a numerous connection; and when Aunt Judy said, "So-and-so b'longs to our family," she included every man, woman, and child who could produce the genuine patent of our nobility, and especially all who had ever worn our livery, from my great-grandfather's tremendous coachman to the slipshod young gal that "nussed" our last new cousin's last new baby. Sometimes one of these cousins—quite telescopic, so distant was the relationship—would come to dine with us. Then Aunt Judy, in gorgeous turban, immaculate neckerchief, and lively satisfaction, would be served up in state, our pièce de résistance. The guest would compliment her with sympathetic inquiries about the state of her health, which was always "only tol'able," or "ra-a-ther poorly," or it "did 'pear as ef she could shuffle round a leetle yit, praise de Master! But she was a-gettin' older and shacklier every day; her cough was awful tryin' sometimes, and it 'peared as ef she warn't of much account, nohow. But de Lord's will be done; when He wanted her, she reckined He'd call. And how does you find yourself, Miss? And how does your ma git along wid de servants now? You know she always was a great hand to be pertickler, Miss; we hadn't sich another young lady in our family, to be pertickler, as your ma, Miss,—'specially 'bout de pleetin' and clare-starchin'."
I have to accuse myself of habitually shocking her aristocratic sensibilities by profanely ignoring, in favor of the society of dirty little plebeians, the relations to whom the sacred charm of a common ancestry should have drawn me. "Make haste, honey," she used to say; "wash yer face and hands, and pull up yer stockin's, and tie yer shoes, and bresh de sand out of yer hair, and blow yer nose, and go into de parlor, and shake hands wid yer Cousin Jorjana." But I would not. "O bother, Auntie! who's my Cousin Georgiana?" "Why, honey, don't you know? Miss Arabella Jane—dat's your dear dead-an'-gone grandma's second cousin—had seven childern by her first husband,—he was a Patterson,—and nine by her second,—he was a McKim,—and five—but 'tain't no use, honey; you don't 'pear to take no int'res' in yer own kith and kin, no more dan or'nary white trash. I 'spec' you don't know de diff'ence, dis minnit, 'twixt yer poor old Aunt Judy and any no-account poor-house nigger." And so my Cousin Georgiana, of whom I had never heard before, remains a myth to me, one of Aunt Judy's Mrs. Harrises, to this day. It was wonderful what an exact descriptive list of them she could call at a moment's notice; and for keeping the run of their names and numbers, she was as good as an enrolling officer or a directory man. "Our family" could boast of many Pharisees, as well as blush for many prodigals; but her sympathies were wholly with the latter; and for these she was eternally killing fatted calves, in spite of angry elder brothers and the whole sect of whited sepulchres, who forgive exactly four hundred and ninety times by the multiplication-table, and compass sea and land to make one hypocrite. If she had had a fold of her own, all her sheep would have been black.
One day in January, 1849, I called to see Aunt Judy for the last time. Superannuated, and rapidly failing, she had been installed by my father in a comfortable room in the house of a sort of cousin of hers, a worthy and "well-to-do" woman of color, where she might be cheered by the visits of the more respectable people of her own class,—darkies of substantial character and of the first families, among whom she was esteemed as a mother in Israel. Thither either my father or one or two of his children came every day, to watch her declining health, to administer to her comfort, and to wait upon her with those offices of respect to which she had earned her right by three quarters of a century of humble, patient love and faithful service. My chest was packed, and on the morrow I must sail for the ends of the earth; but she knew nothing of that. All that afternoon we talked together as we had never talked before; and many an injury that my indignant tears had kept fresh and sticky was "dried" in the warmth of her earnest, anxious peace-making, and "rubbed out" then and there. No page of my inditing could be pure enough to record it all; but is it not written in the Book of Life, among the regrets and the forgivenesses, the confessions and the consolations and the hopes?
The last word I ever uttered to Aunt Judy was a careful, loving, pious lie. She said, "Won't you come ag'in to-morrow, son, and see de poor ole woman?" And I replied, "O yes, Auntie!"—though I well knew that, even as I spoke, I was looking into the wise truth of those patient, tender eyes for the last time in this world. The sun was going down as we parted,—that sun has never risen again for me.
In June, 1850, on board a steamboat in the Sacramento River, I received the very Bible I had first learned to read in, sitting on her lap by the kitchen fire,—in the beginning was the Word. She was dead; and, dying, she had sent it me, with her blessing,—at the end was the Word.
In August, 1852, that Bible was tossed ashore from a wreck in an Indian river, and by angels delivered at a mission school in the jungle, where other heathens beside myself have doubtless learned from it the Word that was, and is, and ever shall be. On the inside of the cover, sitting on her lap by the kitchen fire, I had written, with appropriate "pot-hooks and hangers," Aunt Judy.
Such her quiet consummation and renown!
This work was published before January 1, 1928, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.