THE WIFE OF HIS YOUTH





I.



Mr. Ryder was going to give a ball. There were several reasons

why this was an opportune time for such an event.



Mr. Ryder might aptly be called the dean of the Blue Veins. The

original Blue Veins were a little society of colored persons

organized in a certain Northern city shortly after the war. Its

purpose was to establish and maintain correct social standards

among a people whose social condition presented almost unlimited

room for improvement. By accident, combined perhaps with some

natural affinity, the society consisted of individuals who were,

generally speaking, more white than black. Some envious outsider

made the suggestion that no one was eligible for membership who

was not white enough to show blue veins. The suggestion was

readily adopted by those who were not of the favored few, and

since that time the society, though possessing a longer and more

pretentious name, had been known far and wide as the "Blue Vein

Society," and its members as the "Blue Veins."



The Blue Veins did not allow that any such requirement existed for

admission to their circle, but, on the contrary, declared that

character and culture were the only things considered; and that if

most of their members were light-colored, it was because such

persons, as a rule, had had better opportunities to qualify

themselves for membership. Opinions differed, too, as to the

usefulness of the society. There were those who had been known

to assail it violently as a glaring example of the very prejudice

from which the colored race had suffered most; and later, when

such critics had succeeded in getting on the inside, they had been

heard to maintain with zeal and earnestness that the society was a

life-boat, an anchor, a bulwark and a shield, a pillar of cloud by

day and of fire by night, to guide their people through the social

wilderness. Another alleged prerequisite for Blue Vein membership

was that of free birth; and while there was really no such

requirement, it is doubtless true that very few of the members

would have been unable to meet it if there had been. If there

were one or two of the older members who had come up from the

South and from slavery, their history presented enough romantic

circumstances to rob their servile origin of its grosser aspects.

While there were no such tests of eligibility, it is true that the

Blue Veins had their notions on these subjects, and that not all

of them were equally liberal in regard to the things they

collectively disclaimed. Mr. Ryder was one of the most

conservative. Though he had not been among the founders of the

society, but had come in some years later, his genius for social

leadership was such that he had speedily become its recognized

adviser and head, the custodian of its standards, and the

preserver of its traditions. He shaped its social policy, was

active in providing for its entertainment, and when the interest

fell off, as it sometimes did, he fanned the embers until they

burst again into a cheerful flame. There were still other

reasons for his popularity. While he was not as white as some of

the Blue Veins, his appearance was such as to confer distinction

upon them. His features were of a refined type, his hair was

almost straight; he was always neatly dressed; his manners were

irreproachable, and his morals above suspicion. He had come to

Groveland a young man, and obtaining employment in the office of a

railroad company as messenger had in time worked himself up to the

position of stationery clerk, having charge of the distribution of

the office supplies for the whole company. Although the lack of

early training had hindered the orderly development of a naturally

fine mind, it had not prevented him from doing a great deal of

reading or from forming decidedly literary tastes. Poetry was his

passion. He could repeat whole pages of the great English poets ;

and if his pronunciation was sometimes faulty, his eye, his voice,

his gestures, would respond to the changing sentiment with a

precision that revealed a poetic soul, and disarm criticism. He

was economical, and had saved money; he owned and occupied a very

comfortable house on a respectable street. His residence was

handsomely furnished, containing among other things a good

library, especially rich in poetry, a piano, and some choice

engravings. He generally shared his house with some young couple,

who looked after his wants and were company for him; for Mr. Ryder

was a single man. In the early days of his connection with the

Blue Veins he had been regarded as quite a catch, and ladies and

their mothers had manoeuvred with much ingenuity to capture him.

Not, however, until Mrs. Molly Dixon visited Groveland had any

woman ever made him wish to change his condition to that of a

married man.



Mrs. Dixon had come to Groveland from Washington in the spring,

and before the summer was over she had won Mr. Ryder's heart. She

possessed many attractive qualities. She was much younger than

he; in fact, he was old enough to have been her father, though no

one knew exactly how old he was. She was whiter than he, and

better educated. She had moved in the best colored society of the

country, at Washington, and had taught in the schools of that

city. Such a superior person had been eagerly welcomed to the

Blue Vein Society, and had taken a leading part in its activities.

Mr. Ryder had at first been attracted by her charms of person, for

she was very good looking and not over twenty-five; then by her

refined manners and by the vivacity of her wit. Her husband had

been a government clerk, and at his death had left a considerable

life insurance. She was visiting friends in Groveland, and,

finding the town and the people to her liking, had prolonged her

stay indefinitely. She had not seemed displeased at Mr. Ryder's

attentions, but on the contrary had given him every proper

encouragement; indeed, a younger and less cautious man would long

since have spoken. But he had made up his mind, and had only to

determine the time when he would ask her to be his wife. He

decided to give a ball in her honor, and at some time during the

evening of the ball to offer her his heart and hand. He had no

special fears about the outcotme, but, with a little touch of

romance, he wanted the surroundings to be in harmony with his own

feelings when he should have received the answer he expected.



Mr. Ryder resolved that this ball should mark an epoch in the

social history of Groveland. He knew, of course,--no one could

know better,--the entertainments that had taken place in past

years, and what must be done to surpass them. His ball must be

worthy of the lady in whose honor it was to be given, and must, by

the quality of its guests, set an example for the future. He had

observed of late a growing liberality, almost a laxity, in social

matters, even among members of his own set, and had several times

been forced to meet in a social way persons whose complexions and

callings in life were hardly up to the standard which he

considered proper for the society to maintain. He had a theory of

his own.



"I have no race prejudice," he would say, "but we people of mixed

blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our

fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in

the black. The one doesn't want us yet, but may take us in time.

The other would welcome us, but it would be for us a backward

step. 'With malice towards none, with charity for all,' we must

do the best we can for ourselves and those who are to follow us.

Self-preservation is the first law of nature."



His ball would serve by its exclusiveness to counteract leveling

tendencies, and his marriage with Mrs. Dixon would help to further

the upward process of absorption he had been wishing and waiting

for.







II.





The ball was to take place on Friday night. The house had been

put in order, the carpets covered with canvas, the halls and

stairs decorated with palms and potted plants; and in the

afternoon Mr. Ryder sat on his front porch, which the shade of a

vine running up over a wire netting made a cool and pleasant

lounging-place. He expected to respond to the toast "The Ladies,"

at the supper, and from a volume of Tennyson--his favorite poet

--was fortifying himself with apt quotations. The volume was

open at A Dream of Fair Women. His eyes fell on these lines, and

he read them aloud to judge better of their effect:--



"At length I saw a lady within call. Stiller than chisell'd

marble, standing there; A daughter of the gods, divinely tall,

And most divinely fair."



He marked the verse, and turning the page read the stanza

beginning,--





"O sweet pale Margaret,

O rare pale Margaret."





He weighed the passage a moment, and decided that it would not do.

Mrs. Dixon was the palest lady he expected at the ball, and she

was of a rather ruddy complexion, and of lively disposition and

buxom build. So he ran over the leaves until his eye rested on

the description of Queen Guinevere:--





"She seem'd a part of joyous Spring:

A gown of grass-green silk she wore,

Buckled with golden clasps before;

A light-green tuft of plumes she bore

Closed in a golden ring.



. . . . . . . . . .



"She look'd so lovely, as she sway'd

The rein with dainty finger-tips,

A man had given all other bliss,

And all his worldly worth for this,

To waste his whole heart in one kiss

Upon her perfect lips."





As Mr. Ryder murmured these words audibly, with an appreciative

thrill, he heard the latch of his gate click, and a light footfall

sounding on the steps. He turned his head, and saw a woman

standing before the door.



She was a little woman, not five feet tall, and proportioned to

her height. Although she stood erect, and looked around her with

very bright and restless eyes, she seemed quite old; for her face

was crossed and recrossed with a hundred wrinkles, and around the

edges of her bonnet could be seen protruding here and there a tuft

of short gray wool. She wore a blue calico gown of ancient cut, a

little red shawl fastened around her shoulders with an old-

fashioned brass brooch, and a large bonnet profusely ornamented

with faded red and yellow artificial flowers. And she was very

black--so black that her toothless gums, revealed when she

opened her mouth to speak, were not red, but blue. She looked

like a bit of the old plantation life, summoned up from the past

by the wave of a magician's wand, as the poet's fancy had called

into being the gracious shapes of which Mr. Ryder had just been

reading.



He rose from his chair and came over to where she stood.



"Good-afternoon, madam," he said.



"Good-evenin', suh," she answered, ducking suddenly with a quaint

curtsy. Her voice was shrill and piping, but softened somewhat by

age. "Is dis yere whar Mistuh Ryduh lib, suh?" she asked, looking

around her doubtfully, and glancing into the open windows, through

which some of the preparations for the evening were visible.



"Yes," he replied, with an air of kindly patronage, unconsciously

flattered by her manner, "I am Mr. Ryder. Did you want to see

me?"



"Yas, suh, ef I ain't 'sturbin' of you too much."



"Not at all. Have a seat over here behind the vine, where it is

cool. What can I do for you?"



"'Scuse me, suh," she continued, when she had sat down on the edge

of a chair, "'scuse me, suh, I's lookin' for my husban'. I heerd

you wuz a big man an' had libbed heah a long time, an' I 'lowed

you wouldn't min' ef I'd come roun' an' ax you ef you'd eber heerd

of a merlatter man by de name er Sam Taylor 'quirin' roun' in de

chu'ches ermongs' de people fer his wife 'Liza Jane?"



Mr. Ryder seemed to think for a moment.



"There used to be many such cases right after the war," he said,

"but it has been so long that I have forgotten them. There are

very few now. But tell me your story, and it may refresh my

memory."



She sat back farther in her chair so as to be more comfortable,

and folded her withered hands in her lap.



"My name's 'Liza," she began, "'Liza Jane. Wen I wuz young I

us'ter b'long ter Marse Bob Smif, down in old Missourn. I wuz

bawn down dere. W'en I wuz a gal I wuz married ter a man named

Jim. But Jim died, an' after dat I married a merlatter man named

Sam Taylor. Sam wuz free-bawn, but his mammy and daddy died, an'

de w'ite folks 'prenticed him ter my marster fer ter work fer 'im

'tel he wuz growed up. Sam worked in de fiel', an' I wuz de cook.

One day Ma'y Ann, ole miss's maid, come rushin' out ter de

kitchen, an' says she, ''Liza Jane, ole marse gwine sell yo' Sam

down de ribber.'



"'Go way f'm yere,' says I; 'my husban's free!'



"'Don' make no diff'ence. I heerd ole marse tell ole miss he wuz

gwine take yo' Sam 'way wid 'im ter-morrow, fer he needed money,

an' he knowed whar he could git a t'ousan' dollars fer Sam an' no

questions axed.'



"W'en Sam come home f'm de fiel', dat night, I tole him 'bout ole

marse gwine steal 'im, an' Sam run erway. His time wuz mos' up,

an' he swo' dat w'en he wuz twenty-one he would come back an' he'p

me run erway, er else save up de money ter buy my freedom. An' I

know he'd 'a' done it, fer he thought a heap er me, Sam did. But

w'en he come back he didn' fin' me, fer I wuzn' dere. Ole marse

had heerd dat I warned Sam, so he had me whip' an' sol' down de

ribber.



"Den de wah broke out, an' w'en it wuz ober de cullud folks wuz

scattered. I went back ter de ole home; but Sam wuzn' dere, an' I

couldn' l'arn nuffin' 'bout 'im. But I knowed he'd be'n dere to

look fer me an' hadn' foun' me, an' had gone erway ter hunt fer

me.



"I's be'n lookin' fer 'im eber sence," she added simply, as though

twenty-five years were but a couple of weeks, "an' I knows he's

be'n lookin' fer me. Fer he sot a heap er sto' by me, Sam did,

an' I know he's be'n huntin' fer me all dese years,--'less'n he's

be'n sick er sump'n, so he couldn' work, er out'n his head, so he

couldn' 'member his promise. I went back down de ribber, fer I

'lowed he'd gone down dere lookin' fer me. I's be'n ter Noo

Orleens, an' Atlanty, an' Charleston, an' Richmon'; an' w'en I'd

be'n all ober de Souf I come ter de Norf. Fer I knows I'll fin'

'im some er dese days," she added softly, "er he'll fin' me, an'

den we'll bofe be as happy in freedom as we wuz in de ole days

befo' de wah." A smile stole over her withered countenance as she

paused a moment, and her bright eyes softened into a far-away

look.



This was the substance of the old woman's story. She had wandered

a little here and there. Mr. Ryder was looking at her curiously

when she finished.



"How have you lived all these years?" he asked.



"Cookin', suh. I's a good cook. Does you know anybody w'at needs

a good cook, suh? I's stoppin' wid a cullud fam'ly roun' de

corner yonder 'tel I kin fin' a place."



"Do you really expect to find your husband? He may be dead long

ago."



She shook her head emphatically. "Oh no, he ain' dead. De signs

an' de tokens tells me. I dremp three nights runnin' on'y dis

las' week dat I foun' him."



"He may have married another woman. Your slave marriage would not

have prevented him, for you never lived with him after the war,

and without that your marriage doesn't count."



"Wouldn' make no diff'ence wid Sam. He wouldn' marry no yuther

'ooman 'tel he foun' out 'bout me. I knows it," she added.

"Sump'n's be'n tellin' me all dese years dat I's gwine fin' Sam

'fo I dies."



"Perhaps he's outgrown you, and climbed up in the world where he

wouldn't care to have you find him."



"No, indeed, suh," she replied, "Sam ain' dat kin' er man. He wuz

good ter me, Sam wuz, but he wuzn' much good ter nobody e'se, fer

he wuz one er de triflin'es' han's on de plantation. I 'spec's

ter haf ter suppo't 'im w'en I fin' 'im, fer he nebber would work

'less'n he had ter. But den he wuz free, an' he didn' git no pay

fer his work, an' I don' blame 'im much. Mebbe he's done better

sence he run erway, but I ain' 'spectin' much."



"You may have passed him on the street a hundred times during the

twenty-five years, and not have known him; time works great

changes."



She smiled incredulously. "I'd know 'im 'mongs' a hund'ed men.

Fer dey wuzn' no yuther merlatter man like my man Sam, an' I

couldn' be mistook. I's toted his picture roun' wid me twenty-

five years."



"May I see it?" asked Mr. Ryder. "It might help me to remember

whether I have seen the original."



As she drew a small parcel from her bosom, he saw that it was

fastened to a string that went around her neck. Removing several

wrappers, she brought to light an old-fashioned daguerreotype in a

black case. He looked long and intently at the portrait. It was

faded with time, but the features were still distinct, and it was

easy to see what manner of man it had represented.



He closed the case, and with a slow movement handed it back to

her.



"I don't know of any man in town who goes by that name," he said,

"nor have I heard of any one making such inquiries. But if you

will leave me your address, I will give the matter some attention,

and if I find out anything I will let you know."



She gave him the number of a house in the neighborhood, and went

away, after thanking him warmly.



He wrote down the address on the flyleaf of the volume of

Tennyson, and, when she had gone, rose to his feet and stood

looking after her curiously. As she walked down the street with

mincing step, he saw several persons whom she passed turn and look

back at her with a smile of kindly amusement. When she had turned

the corner, he went upstairs to his bedroom, and stood for a long

time before the mirror of his dressing-case, gazing thoughtfully

at the reflection of his own face.







III.





At eight o'clock the ballroom was a blaze of light and the guests

had begun to assemble; for there was a literary programme and some

routine business of the society to be gone through with before the

dancing. A black servant in evening dress waited at the door and

directed the guests to the dressing-rooms.



The occasion was long memorable among the colored people of the

city; not alone for the dress and display, but for the high

average of intelligence and culture that distinguished the

gathering as a whole. There were a number of school-teachers,

several young doctors, three or four lawyers, some professional

singers, an editor, a lieutenant in the United States army

spending his furlough in the city, and others in various polite

callings; these were colored, though most of them would not have

attracted even a casual glance because of any marked difference

from white people. Most of the ladies were in evening costume,

and dress coats and dancing-pumps were the rule among the men. A

band of string music, stationed in an alcove behind a row of

palms, played popular airs while the guests were gathering.



The dancing began at half past nine. At eleven o'clock supper was

served. Mr. Ryder had left the ballroom some little time before

the intermission, but reappeared at the supper-table. The spread

was worthy of the occasion, and the guests did full justice to it.

When the coffee had been served, the toastmaster, Mr. Solomon

Sadler, rapped for order. He made a brief introductory speech,

complimenting host and guests, and then presented in their order

the toasts of the evening. They were responded to with a very

fair display of after-dinner wit.



"The last toast," said the toast-master, when he reached the end

of the list, "is one which must appeal to us all. There is no one

of us of the sterner sex who is not at some time dependent upon

woman,--in infancy for protection, in manhood for companionship,

in old age for care and comforting. Our good host has been trying

to live alone, but the fair faces I see around me to-night prove

that he too is largely dependent upon the gentler sex for most

that makes life worth living,--the society and love of friends,--

and rumor is at fault if he does not soon yield entire subjection

to one of them. Mr. Ryder will now respond to the toast,--The

Ladies."



There was a pensive look in Mr. Ryder's eyes as he took the floor

and adjusted his eyeglasses. He began by speaking of woman as the

gift of Heaven to man, and after some general observations on the

relations of the sexes he said: "But perhaps the quality which

most distinguishes woman is her fidelity and devotion to those she

loves. History is full of examples, but has recorded none more

striking than one which only to-day came under my notice."



He then related, simply but effectively, the story told by his

visitor of the afternoon. He told it in the same soft dialect,

which came readily to his lips, while the company listened

attentively and sympathetically. For the story had awakened a

responsive thrill in many hearts. There were some present who had

seen, and others who had heard their fathers and grandfathers

tell, the wrongs and sufferings of this past generation, and all

of them still felt, in their darker moments, the shadow hanging

over them. Mr. Ryder went on:--



"Such devotion and such confidence are rare even among women.

There are many who would have searched a year, some who would have

waited five years, a few who might have hoped ten years; but for

twenty-five years this woman has retained her affection for and

her faith in a man she has not seen or heard of in all that time.



"She came to me to-day in the hope that I might be able to help

her find this long-lost husband. And when she was gone I gave my

fancy rein, and imagined a case I will put to you.



"Suppose that this husband, soon after his escape, had learned

that his wife had been sold away, and that such inquiries as he

could make brought no information of her whereabouts. Suppose

that he was young, and she much older than he; that he was light,

and she was black; that their marriage was a slave marriage, and

legally binding only if they chose to make it so after the war.

Suppose, too, that he made his way to the North, as some of us

have done, and there, where he had larger opportunities, had

improved them, and had in the course of all these years grown to

be as different from the ignorant boy who ran away from fear of

slavery as the day is from the night. Suppose, even, that he had

qualified himself, by industry, by thrift, and by study, to win

the friendship and be considered worthy the society of such people

as these I see around me to-night, gracing my board and filling my

heart with gladness; for I am old enough to remember the day when

such a gathering would not have been possible in this land.

Suppose, too, that, as the years went by, this man's memory of the

past grew more and more indistinct, until at last it was rarely,

except in his dreams, that any image of this bygone period rose

before his mind. And then suppose that accident should bring to

his knowledge the fact that the wife of his youth, the wife he had

left behind him,--not one who had walked by his side and kept pace

with him in his upward struggle, but one upon whom advancing years

and a laborious life had set their mark,--was alive and seeking

him, but that he was absolutely safe from recognition or

discovery, unless he chose to reveal himself. My friends, what

would the man do? I will suppose that he was one who loved honor,

and tried to deal justly with all men. I will even carry the case

further, and suppose that perhaps he had set his heart upon

another, whom he had hoped to call his own. What would he do, or

rather what ought he to do, in such a crisis of a lifetime?



"It seemed to me that he might hesitate, and I imagined that I was

an old friend, a near friend, and that he had come to me for

advice; and I argued the case with him. I tried to discuss it

impartially. After we had looked upon the matter from every point

of view, I said to him, in words that we all know:





'This above all: to thine own self be true,

And it must follow, as the night the day,

Thou canst not then be false to any man.'





Then, finally, I put the question to him, 'Shall you acknowledge

her?'



"And now, ladies and gentlemen, friends and companions, I ask you,

what should he have done?"



There was something in Mr. Ryder's voice that stirred the hearts

of those who sat around him. It suggested more than mere sympathy

with an imaginary situation; it seemed rather in the nature of a

personal appeal. It was observed, too, that his look rested more

especially upon Mrs. Dixon, with a mingled expression of

renunciation and inquiry.



She had listened, with parted lips and streaming eyes. She was

the first to speak: "He should have acknowledged her."



"Yes," they all echoed, "he should have acknowledged her."



"My friends and companions," responded Mr. Ryder, "I thank you,

one and all. It is the answer I expected, for I knew your

hearts."



He turned and walked toward the closed door of an adjoining room,

while every eye followed him in wondering curiosity. He came back

in a moment, leading by the hand his visitor of the afternoon, who

stood startled and trembling at the sudden plunge into this scene

of brilliant gayety. She was neatly dressed in gray, and wore the

white cap of an elderly woman.



"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "this is the woman, and I am the

man, whose story I have told you. Permit me to introduce to you

the wife of my youth."





THE STORY OF UNCLE TOM'S CABIN A NEGRO SCHOOLMASTER IN THE NEW SOUTH facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

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