The Chronicles of Aunt Minervy Ann/Chapter 5
HOW SHE WENT INTO BUSINESS
Aunt Minervy Ann's picturesque reminiscences were sufficiently amusing to whet my appetite for more. The county fair, which was the occasion of my visit to Halcyondale, was still dragging its slow length along, but it had lost its interest for me. The displays in the various departments were as attractive as ever to those who saw them for the first time, but it seemed to me that all my old acquaintances, or their wives and daughters, had something on exhibition, and nothing must do but I must go around and admire it. A little of this goes far, and, as I had been through the various departments a dozen times over, I concluded that it would be more comfortable to remain away from the grounds altogether, making more room for those who desired to see the judges deliver the prizes, or who were anxious to witness the trotting matches and running races.
Therefore, when Major Tumlin Perdue (whose guest I was) and his daughter, Mrs. Conant, made an early start for the fair grounds, on the fourth day, I excused myself, on the plea of having some letters to write. The excuse was readily accepted, especially by Major Perdue, who expressed a very strong hope that I would do the fair justice in the Atlanta newspapers.
"If you can put in a word about Paul Conant, I'd be glad if you'd do it," the Major added. "He's come mighty near working himself down to get the blamed thing a-going. If it wasn't on account of Paul, me and Valentine wouldn't go any closer to the fair grounds than we are right now. But we think maybe we can help Paul, and if we can't do that, we hope to keep him from running his legs off. He ain't well a bit. Vallie says he didn't sleep more than two hours last night for the pains in his shoulder."
"It seems to be an old trouble," I suggested.
"Yes, it's an old trouble," replied the Major. Then he looked over the treetops and sighed.
Here was the same air of mystery that I had observed when I first came, and I remembered that Aunt Minervy Ann had begun to tell me about it when she became entangled in her reminiscences. Therefore, when they were all gone, and Aunt Minervy Ann had cleaned up the house and coaxed the Conant baby to sleep (which was no hard thing to do, he was such a fat and good-humored little rascal), I ventured to remind the old negress that she had neglected to tell me why the Major and his daughter were so mysteriously solicitous about Paul Conant's shoulder.
"Well, de goodness knows!" Aunt Minervy Ann exclaimed, with well-affected surprise; "ain't I done tell you 'bout dat? I sho' wuz dreamin', den, bekaze I had it right on de tip-eend er my tongue. I dunno what got de matter wid me deze days, less'n I'm gettin' ol' an' light-headed. Well, suh! an' I ain't tol' you 'bout dat!"
She paused, as if reflecting, but continued to rock the baby's cradle gently, moving it slower and slower, until, finally, she ceased to move it altogether. The baby merely gave a self-satisfied sigh, and settled into the profound and healthy sleep of infancy. Then Aunt Minervy Ann went out on the back porch, and seated herself on the top step. I followed, and found the rocking-chair I had occupied on a former occasion.
"I'll set here, suh, twel Hamp gits back wid de carriage, an' den I'll see 'bout gittin' dinner, an' he better make 'as'e, too, bekaze I ain't got no time ter set here an' lis'n at dat baby, whiles he projickin' out dar at dem groun's. I kin wait, suh, but I can't wait all day."
"Major Perdue said that Mr. Conant's shoulder was very painful last night," I suggested.
"Dat what Miss Vallie say, suh. She say dey wuz up an' down wid 'im mighty nigh all night long. I don't blame um, suh, but, dey ain't no use talkin', grown folks kin be waited on twey dey er sp'iled same ez chilluns. I'd cut my tongue out, suh, 'fo' I'd say it ter anybody else, but I done got ter b'lievin' dat Marse Paul Conant grunts an' groans many a time des bekaze he wants somebody fer ter worry wid 'im an' honey 'im up. I may be doin' 'im wrong, suh, but I done get a sneakin' notion dat he's one er deze yer kinder menfolks what likes to be much'd an' petted. An' dey'll do it, suh—dey'll much 'im night er day, hot er col'. Des let 'im say, 'Oh, my shoulder!' an' bofe un um'll try ter outdo de udder in takin' keer un 'im."Marse Tumlin is got mo' ways like a 'oman dan any man I ever is laid eyes on. It's de Lord's trufe. He ain't fussy like de common run er wimmen, but his han' is des ez light an' his heart des ez saft ez any 'oman dat ever breave de breff er life, let er breave whence an' whar she mought. I look at 'im sometimes, an' I des nat'ally tease myse'f ter know how dat man kin stan' up an' shoot anybody like I done see 'im do. Hit's de same way wid Marse Bolivar Blasengame—you know him, I spec. Dey married sisters, suh, an' dey allers been monstus thick. Dem two wuz big dogs 'roun' here, suh, 'fo' de war. Ef you ain't never seed um in dem days, you never is ter know how folks looked up to um an' give way to um.
"But dey ain't put on no airs, suh. Dey des do like de quality all do. 'Taint money dat makes de quality; hit's dat ar kinder breedin' what'll make de finest folks stop an' shake han's wid a nigger des ez quick ez dey would wid de king er Rooshy—ef dey got any king dar. Long 'fo' de turmoil, suh, endurin' er de farmin' days, 'twuz des dat-a-way. When he 'uz at his richest, Marse Tumlin never did pass a nigger on de road, no matter how lonesome an' ragged he look, widout stoppin' an' axin' who he b'long ter, an' what he name, an' how he gittin' on. An' he allers gi' um sump'n, maybe a piece er terbacker, er maybe a thrip. I know, suh; I done hear my color talk, an' dey talks it down ter dis ve'y day. Dey ain't never been a time in dat man's life when he ain't think mo' er somebody else dan what he think er hisse'f. Dat's what I call de quality, suh. 'Tain't money; 'tain't land; 'tain't fine duds; 'tain't nothin' 'tall like dat. I tell you, suh, dem what want ter be de quality is got ter have a long line er big graveyards behime um, an' dem graveyards is got ter be full er folks what use ter know how ter treat yuther folks. Well, suh, Marse Tumlin is got um behime him, an' dey retch fum here ter Ferginny an' furder. An' on dat account, he ain't 'shame' to show nobody dat he love um, an' he ain't afear'd ter tell nobody dat he hate um.
"I bet you right now, suh, ef you wuz ter ax Miss Vallie ef she ever see 'er pa mad, she'd look at you like she ain't know what you talkin' 'bout. Fum de time she has been born, suh, down ter dis ve'y day, she ain't never hear a cross word come from his mouf . She's seed 'im frownin' an' she's seed 'im frettin', but she ain't never hear no cross word. An' dat what make I say what I does. 'Taint nobody but de quality dat kin show der breedin' right in der own fambly."
"Why, I've heard that the Major has something of a temper," I remarked."Temper!" exclaimed Aunt Minervy Ann, holding up both hands; "temper, I hear you say! Well, suh, dat ain't no name fer it. I done seed bad men, but Marse Tumlin is de wuss man when he git his dander up dat I yever come 'cross in all my born days. De fust time I seed 'im mad, suh, wuz right atter de folks come home fum der fightin' and battlin'. It make me open my eyes. I been livin' wid 'im all dem years, an' I never is know how servigrous dat man is.
"An' de funny part wuz, suh, dat he got mad 'bout a ole nigger 'oman." Aunt Minervy Ann paused to indulge in a very hearty laugh. "Yasser, all 'bout a ole nigger 'oman. In dem times we all had ter scuffle 'roun' right smart fer ter git vittles ter eat, let 'lone cloze ter w'ar. Miss Vallie wuz w'arin' a frock what her mammy had when she wuz a gal. An' de clof wuz right good an' look' mighty well on 'er. Ez fer me, I dunner whedder I had on any frock—ef I did 'twuz 'bout ter drap off'n me. 'Long 'bout dat time, court-week wuz comin' on, de fust court-week we had sence de folks come home fum battlin'. Dey wuz a great miration 'bout it, bekaze dey say ev'ybody gwine ter come an' see de lawyers rastle.
"Well, suh, it come 'cross my min' dat ef I kin bake some ginger-cakes an' make some chicken-pies, maybe I kin pick up a little money. De dime an' thrip species had all done gone, but dey wuz oodles er shin-plasters floatin' 'roun' ef you had sump'n fer ter git um wid. I dunner whar in de worl' we got 'nuff flour an' 'lasses fer ter make de cakes. I know I got one chicken, an' Hamp he went off one night and borried two mo'. I ain't ax 'im whar he borry um, suh, bekaze 'twan't none er my business. We made de cakes, an' den we made de pies. Ef you ain't know how ter make um, suh, you'd be 'stonished ter know how fur dem ar chickens went. We made twelve pies ef we made one. Yasser! ez sho' ez I'm settin' here. We strung um out—a wing here, a piece er de back dar, an' a neck yonner. Twelve pies, suh, an' nuff chicken lef ' over fer ter gi' Miss Vallie a right smart bait; an' de Lord knows she need it, an' need it bad.
"Well, suh, I make de ginger-cakes de week 'fo' court, bekaze it he'ps a ginger-cake ef you bake 'im an' den shet 'im up in a tight box whar he kin sweat, an' Monday we sot in ter bake de pies. I make de dough wid my own ban's, an' I lef Miss Vallie fer ter bake um, wid Hamp ter keep de fire gwine. De word wuz dat 'bout half-pas' ten Hamp wuz ter fetch me all de pies dey had ready, an' den go back fer de yuthers."I ain't say nothin' 'bout de balance er de cakes; bekaze I 'low'd ter myse'f dat I had 'nuff. I had many ez I kin tote widout gittin' tired, an' I ain't no baby when it comes ter totin' cakes. Well, suh, I been livin' a mighty long time, but I ain't never see folks wid such a cravin' fer ginger-cakes. Fum de word go dey wuz greedy fer 'm. Hit mought er been 'kaze dey wuz des natchally hongry, en den ag'in hit mought er been bekaze de cakes call up ol' times; but no matter 'bout dat, suh, dey des showered de shinplasters down on me. 'Twa'n't de country folks doin' de most er de buyin' at fust. It 'uz de town boys an' de clerks in de stores; an' mos' 'fo' I know'd it de cakes wuz all gone, an' Hamp ain't come wid de pies.
"I would 'a' waited, suh, but dey kep' callin' fer cakes so ravenous dat bimeby I crumpled my shin-plasters up in a wad an' tuck my basket an' went polin' home fer ter hurry Hamp up. He wuz des gittin' ready ter start when I got dar. I gi' Miss Vallie de money—you kin count it up yourse'f , suh; 'twuz fer fo' dozen ginger-cakes at a thrip a-piece—an' tol' her ter sen' Hamp atter some mo' flour an' 'lasses 'fo' night, 'kaze de ginger-cakes half-gone an' court-week ain't skacely open up. Hamp, he tuck de pies an' de cakes, an' I got me one er de low cheers out'n de kitchen, 'kaze I done tired er settin' on de een' uv a box.
"I 'speck you know right whar I sot at, suh; 'twuz dar by dat big chany-tree front er Sanford's sto'. Hit sho' wuz a mighty tree. De win' done blow'd up an' blew'd it down, but de stump stan'in' dar sproutin' right now. Well, suh, right under de shadder er dat tree, on de outer aidge er de sidewalk, I tuck my stan', an' I ain't been dar long 'fo' de folks 'gun ter swarm atter my cakes, an' den when dey seed my pies—well! hit look like dey fair dribble at de mouf.
"I sol' um all 'cep' one, an' ef I'd 'a' sol' dat un, I don't 'speck dey'd 'a' been any trouble; but you know what a fool a nigger kin be, suh, speshually a nigger 'oman. I tuck a notion in my min' dat I done so pow'ful well, I'd save dat pie fer Marse Tumlin an' Miss Vallie. So ev'y time somebody's come 'long an' want ter buy de pie, I'd up an' say it done sold.
"Bimeby, who should come 'long but dat ar Salem Birch! He dead now, but I 'speck you done hear talk un 'im, bekaze he made matters mighty hot in deze parts twel—twel—well, suh, twel he 'gun ter hone atter dat pie, ez you may say." Aunt Minervy Ann paused and rubbed her hands together, as if reflecting. Then she shook her head and laughed somewhat doubtfully."What dey want ter name 'im Salem fer, I'll never tell you. Hit's a Bible name, an' mo' dan dat, hit's a church name. You know it yo'se'f, suh, bekaze dey's a Salem church not mo'n sev'm mile fum whar we settin' at right now. Salem Birch! Hit bangs my time how some folks kin go on—an' I ain't nothin' but a nigger. Dey's mo' chillun ruint by der names, suh, dan any udder way. I done notice it. Name one un um a Bible name, an' look like he bleedze ter go wrong. Name one un um atter some high an' mighty man, an' dey grows up wid des 'bout much sense ez a gate-post. I done watch um, suh.
"I 'speck dis yer Salem Birch would 'a' been a right good man but fer dat ar Bible name. Dat ruint 'im. I don't b'lieve dey's a man in de worl' what kin walk straight under dat name less'n he done been called fer ter be a preacher, an' Salem Birch ain't had no sech call up ter dat time. Dat much I know.
"Well, suh, dar sot de pie, an' dar wuz de ginger-cakes, ol' timers, big ter look at, but light ter handle. Eve'ybody want de pie, but my min' done made up. Some bought cakes stidder de pie, an' some des wipe der mouf an' go on. But, bimeby, here come Salem Birch, six feet high, an' his hat sot on de side er his haid like he done bought de whole town. I know'd de minnit I laid eyes on 'im dat he had dram in 'im, an' dat he wuz up ter some devilment. Him an' his bre'r, Bill-Tom, suh, had tarryfied de whole county. Dey wuz constant a-fightin', an' ef dey couldn't git nobody else ter fight, dey'd fight 'mongst deyse'f. Yassir! dem ar Birches had done whip der own daddy.
"An' yit, suh, dis yer Salem wa'n't no bad-lookin' man. He had long curly ha'r, an' he wuz constant a-laughin'. Ef de fac' troof wuz ter come out, I 'speck he had more devilment in 'im dan downright meanness; an' he wuz mean nuff, de Lord knows. But, be sech as it mought, bimeby here he come, sorter half tip-toein', like some folks do when dey feel der dram an' dunner how ter show it. He stop right front er me, suh, an' time his eye fell on me he sung out:
"'Whoopee! Ef here ain't ol' Minervy Ann! Wid pies! An' cakes! Come on, boys! Have some pies! An' cakes!'"Well, suh, you mought er heer'd 'im a mile. He holler des like de She'ff do when he stick his haid out'n de court-house winder an' call somebody in ter court—des dat ve'y way. He say, 'How much you take fer yo' chicken-pie?' I 'low, 'Hit done sol', suh.' He say, 'I'll gi' you a quarter fer dat pie.' I 'low, 'De pie done sol', suh.' By dat time dey wuz a right smart clump er folks come up fer see what Salem Birch wuz holl'in' 'bout, an' you know yo'se'f, suh, how a half-drunk man'll do when dey's a crowd lis'nin' at him.
"He say, 'Who done bought dat pie?' I 'low, 'Marse Tumlin Perdue.' He sorter draw'd hisse'f up, he did, an' say, 'Ain't I des ez good ez Tumlin Perdue?' I 'low, 'I ain't know nothin' ter de contrary, suh, but ef you is, you got ter be a monstus good man.' He say, 'I is! I'm de bes' man in de county.' I 'low, 'Dat may be, suh; I ain't 'sputin' it.' By dat time I 'gun ter feel de Ol' Boy kinder ranklin' in my gizzard. He say, 'Why can't I git dat pie?' I 'low, 'Bekaze it done sol', suh.' He say, 'Fer cash?' I 'low, 'No, suh; but Marse Tumlin's word is lots better'n some folks' money.'
"Well, suh, I know'd 'fo' I open my mouf dat I ought'n ter say dat, but I couldn't he'p it fer ter save my neck. He say, 'Well, blast yo' black hide, my money's better'n anybody's money!' Wid dat he flung down a shinplaster quarter an' retch fer de pie. By de time he grabbed it, I grabbed it, an' he pulled an' I pulled. I dunner whedder 'twuz de strenk in me er de dram in 'im, but in de pullin', de box what de pie wuz on turnt over, an' my cheer turnt over, an' down come Salem Birch right spang on top er me.
"I tell you now, suh, dis skeer'd me. 'Twuz mo' dan I bargain fer. Right at de minnit, I had de idee dat de man had jumped on me an' wuz gwine ter kill me—you know how some folks is 'bout niggers. So I des give one squall——
"'Marse Tumlin! Run here, Marse Tumlin! He killin' me! Oh, Marse Tumlin!'
"Well, suh, dey tell me dat squall wuz so inhuman it made de country hosses break loose fum de racks. One white lady at de tavern hear it, an' she had ter be put ter bed. Bless yo' soul, honey! don't never say you done hear anybody blate twel you hear ol' Minervy Ann—an' de Lord knows I hope you won't never hear me.
"Dey ain't no use talkin', suh, hit 'larmed de town. Eve'ybody broke an' run to'rds de place whar de fuss come fum. Salem Birch got up des ez quick ez he kin, an' I wuz up des ez quick ez he wuz, an' by dat time my temper done run my skeer off, an' I des blazed out at him. What I say I'll never tell you, bekaze I wuz so mad I ain't never hear myse'f talk. Some say I called 'im dis an' some say I called 'im dat, but whatsomever 'twuz, hit wa'n't no nice name—I kin promise you dat. "'Twus 'nuff ter rise his dand er, an' he draw'd back his arm fer ter hit me, but des 'bout dat time Marse Tumlin shoved 'im back. Marse Tumlin 'low, 'You dirty dog! You sneakin', nasty houn'! is dis de way you does yo' fightin'?'
"Well, suh, dis kinder skeer me ag'in, kaze I hear talk dat Salem Birch went 'bout wid dirks an' pistols on 'im, ready fer ter use um. He look at Marse Tumlin, an' his face got whiter an' whiter, an' he draw'd his breff, deep an' long.
"Marse Tumlin 'low, 'You see dat nigger 'oman? Well, ef she wuz blacker dan de hinges er hell'—he say dem ve'y words, suh—'ef she wuz blacker dan de hinges er hell, she'd be whiter dan you er any er yo' thievin' gang.' An' den, suh—I 'clar' I'm mos' shame ter tell you—Marse Tumlin rise up on his tip-toes an' spit in de man's face. Yasser! Right spang in his face. You may well look 'stonish'd, suh. But ef you'd 'a' seed de way Marse Tumlin looked you'd know why Salem Birch ain't raise his han' 'cep' ter wipe his face. Ef dey ever wuz blood an' killin' in anybody's eyes, hit wuz in Marse Tumlin's right dat minnit. He stan' dar while you kin count ten, an' den he snap his thumb an' turn on his heel, an' dat ar Salem Birch tuck'n walk 'cross de public squar' an' sot down on de court-house steps, an' he sot dar, suh, wid his haid 'twix' his han's fer I dunner how long."Well, suh, I know in reason dat de een' er dat business ain't come. You know how our white folks is; you kin spit in one man's face an' he not take it up, but some er his kinnery er his frien's is sho ter take it up. So I say ter myse'f, 'Look here, nigger 'oman, you better keep yo' mouf shot an' bofe eyes open, kaze dey gwine ter be hot times in deze diggin's.' When I come ter look at um, suh, my ginger-cakes wa'n't hurt, an' de chicken-pie wuz safe an' soun' 'cep' dat er little er de gravy had sorter run out. When I git thoo brushin' an' cleanin' um, I look up, I did, an' dar wuz Marse Bolivar Blasengame walkin' up an' down right close at me. You oughter know 'im, suh, him an' Marse Tumlin married sisters, an' dey wuz ez thick ez two peas in a pod. So I 'low, 'Won't you have a ginger-cake, Marse Bolivar? I'd offer you de pie, but I'm savin' dat fer Miss Vallie.' He say he don't b'lieve his appetite run ter cakes an' pies right dat minnit. Dat make me eye 'im, suh, an' he look like he mighty glum 'bout sump'n. He des walk up an' down, up an' down, wid his han's in his pockets. It come back ter me atterwards, but I ain't pay no 'tention den, dat de folks all 'roun' town wuz kinder 'spectin' anudder fuss. Dey wuz all standin' in clumps here an' dar, some in de middle er de street, an' some on de sidewalks, but dey wa'n't nobody close ter me 'cep' Marse Bolivar. Look like dey wuz givin' us elbow room.
"De bigges' clump er folks, suh, wuz down at de public well, at de fur side er de squar', an' I notice dey kep' movin', now dis way, an' now dat, sorter swayin' like some un wuz shovin' um 'bout an' pushin' um 'roun'. An' dat des de way it wuz, 'kaze 'twa'n't long 'fo' somebody broke loose fum um an' come runnin' to'rds whar I wuz settin' at.
"I know'd in a minnit, suh, dat wuz Bill-Tom Birch. He wuz holdin' his han' on his wes'cut pocket fer ter keep his watch fum fallin' out. He come runnin' up, suh, an' he wuz so mad he wuz cryin'. His face wuz workin' des like it hurted 'im. He holler at me. 'Is you de ——?' I won't name de name what he call me, suh. But I know ef he'd 'a' been a nigger I'd 'a' got up fum dar an' brained 'im. I ain't say nothin'. I des sot dar an' look at 'im.
"Well, suh, he jerk a cowhide fum under his cloze—he had it run down his britches leg, an' say, 'I'll show you how you erfuse ter sell pies when a gemman want ter buy um.' I dunner what I'd 'a' done, suh, ef he'd 'a' hit me, but he ain't hit me. Marse Bolivar walk right 'twix' us an' 'low, 'You'll settle dis wid me, right here an' now.' Wid dat, Bill-Tom Birch step back an' say, 'Colonel, does you take it up?' Marse Bolivar 'low, 'Dat's what I'm here fer.' Bill-Tom Birch step back a little furder and make as ef ter draw his pistol, but his han' ain't got ter his pocket 'fo' bang! went Marse Bolivar's gun, an' down went Bill-Tom Birch, des like somebody tripped 'im up.
"I know mighty well, suh, dat I ain't no hard-hearted nigger—anybody what know me will tell you dat—but when dat man drapt, I ain't keer no mo' dan ef he'd 'a' been a mad dog. Dat's de Lord's trufe, ef I ever tol' it. I ain't know wharbouts de ball hit 'im, an' I wa'n't keerin'. Marse Bolivar ain't move out'n he tracks. He stood dar, he did, an' bresh de cap off'n de bairl what shot, an' fix it fer ter shoot ag'in. 'Twuz one er deze yer ervolvers, suh, what move up a notch er two when you pull de trigger."Well, suh, time de pistol went off, folks come runnin' fum eve'ywhars. Salem Birch, he come runnin' 'cross de public squar', bekaze he had de idee dat sump'n done happen. Marse Bolivar, he see Salem Birch a-comin', an' he walk out fum de crowd ter meet 'im. Dat make me feel sorter quare, kaze hit look like he wuz gwine ter shoot de man down. But Salem Birch seed 'im, an' he stop an' say, 'Colonel, what de name er God is de matter?' Marse Bolivar make answer, 'Salem, I had ter shoot yo' bre'r.' Salem Birch say, 'Is he dead?' Marse Bolivar 'spon', 'He ain't nigh dead. I put de ball 'twix' de hip an' de knee-j'int. He'll be up in a week.' Salem Birch say, 'Colonel, I thank you fer dat. Will you shake han's?' Marse Bolivar say dey ain't nothin' suit 'im better, bekaze he ain't got a thing ag'in' de Birches.
"An' 'twuz des like Marse Bolivar say. Bill-Tom Birch wuz wuss skeer'd dan hurt, an' 'twa'n't long 'fo' he wuz well. Salem Birch, he went off ter Texas, an' dem what been dar an' come back, say dat he's one er deze yer ervival preachers, gwine 'bout doin' good an' takin' up big collections. Dat what dey say, an' I hope it's des dat way. I don't begrudge nobody de money dey makes preachin' ter sinners, bekaze hit's des natchally w'arin' ter de flesh."
At this juncture Aunt Minervy Ann called to Hamp and informed him, in autocratic tones, that it was time to cut wood with which to cook dinner. "I don't keer ef you is been ter de legislatur'," she added, "you better cut dat wood, an' cut it quick."
I suggested that she had started to tell me about Paul Conant's shoulder, but had neglected to do so.
"Ain't I tell you 'bout dat? Well, ef dat don't bang my time! Hamp, you hear dat? You better go an' make 'rangements fer ter have me put in de as'lum, bekaze I sho' I's gittin' light-headed. Well, suh, dat beats all! But I'll tell you 'bout it 'fo' you go back."
Then Aunt Minervy Ann went to see about dinner.