Figger by Mollie Evelyn Moore Davis
“DEY tells me you gwine ter be de centre figger at de 'Mancipation
Day ter-morrer, Aun' Calline,” said Uncle Jake Prince, halting in the
dusty road outside the gate, and shifting his white-oak split basket
from one arm to the other.
“I sholy is, Unk Jake,” responded Aunt Calline, with dignity.
The other cabins in the long, double row of low two-roomed houses
which had once made up the quarters of the old Winston plantation had
fallen into disuse and decay; grass grew in their aforetime trim
door-yards; “jimson” weed and mullein choked their garden-patches;
their window-shutters swung loose on broken hinges; their floors were
mildewed and rotting; their very chimneys were crumbling; the broad
walk which led past them and on to the “great-house,” just showing its
white-pillared galleries and peaked dormer-windowed roof through the
trees, was a tangled thicket of undergrowth. The “great-house” itself,
seen more closely, wore an air of dilapidation, mournful enough to
those who remembered it in the time of the old colonel, when its
hospitable doors stood wide open winter and summer, and even the
pickaninnies swinging on the big gate grinned a welcome to the incoming
But Aunt Calline's cabin preserved its old-time look of thrift and
comfort. In the little garden there were beds of cabbages and beans and
okra, bordered with sage and rosemary; hollyhocks and larkspur and
pretty-by-nights blossomed in the door-yard; a multiflora rose,
entangled with honeysuckle, clambered up the squat chimney, and sent
its long, glossy green branches over the comb of the sloping roof and
down to the overhanging eaves; a box of sweet-basil stood on the
window-sill, and a patch of clove-pinks by the gravel-walk filled all
the June morning with spicy fragrance. Within, the floor was yellow and
shining from immemorial scrubbings; the rough walls were adorned with
newspaper pictures; and the counterpane and old-fashioned valance of
the bed were snowy white and sweet with the smell of lavender. A
perpetual fire blazed or smouldered in the wide fireplace, while on the
cracked hearth were ranged spiders and skillets and ponderous
three-footed ovens with huge lids, suggestive of the rich, brown,
salt-rising loaf, the crusty pone, hand-imprinted, the steaming potpie,
the dainty “snowball,” of days when self-respecting cooks looked with
scorn and contempt on a cooking-stove.
Aunt Calline herself, as she sat on the doorstep beating cake batter
in a deep pan resting on her knees, was a reminder of the old
régime. A fantastically knotted turban encircled her head; a
spotless “handk'cher” was folded across her ample bosom; her scant
skirts were hitched up under a long blue-check apron, and her rusty
feet and ankles were bare. Her kindly old face was creased with
wrinkles, but in her great soft brown eyes dwelt that curious look of
eternal youth which belongs to her people.
“Big Hannah, whar useter b'long ter we-alls fambly, wus de centre
figger las' year,” continued Uncle Jake, sociably, drawing nearer to
“Humph!” grunted Aunt Calline; “mighty fine centre figger dat
corn-fiel' gal mus' er made, dough she is er sister in Zion! But
I ain' seen Big Hannah ez de centre figger. I ain' nuver been to
no 'Mancipation Day.”
“De Lawd, Aun' Calline!” ejaculated the old man, with a well-feigned
air of astonishment, “ain' you nuver been ter de 'Mancipation Day?
Huccum you ain' nuver been dar?”
“We-el,” replied Aunt Calline, reflectively, dipping up a spoonful
of batter and letting it drip slowly back into the pan, “hits edzackly
dish yer way. De fus year dey celerbate 'Mancipation Day hit wuz
jes' er leetle a'ter li'l Marse Rod lef' home. Co'se you
'members, Unk Jake, when ole Marse Rod an' young Marse Ed wuz kilt in
de wah an' fotch home.”
Uncle Jake nodded. He had set down his basket and placed his elbows
on the low gatepost that he might listen more at his ease to the
“De fambly trebbles wuz mo'beknownst ter me an' my ole man, 'caze we
wuz 'mongs' de house-servants lak, dan dey woz ter you-all fiel' han's.
An' 'pear lak ole mis' an' missy wuz gwine clean crazy when dey fotch
home, fus ole marse, an' den Marse Ed. Den hit wa'n't no time 'fo' de
bre'k-up an' freedom. An' all de fool riggers dey up an' swarm erway
fum de place same ez ef dey wuz er swarm er bees. All two er dem boys
o' mine wuz 'mongs' de fus ter go; an' you wuz 'mongs' de fus yo'se'f,
Jake Prince. An' whar is you fool niggers now?” she demanded, abruptly,
her voice rising, and a look of scorn flashing into her eyes. “Whar is
you fool niggers now, I axes you? You is traipsin' roun' de lan',
callin' yo'se'f a'ter de lowlife nigger-trader whar sol' you ter ole
marse, 'stidder takin' de name o' de mos' 'spectable fambly in de
county. An' mighty nigh all o' you-all is lazy en' good-fer-nothin',
whilse heah I is in de cabin dat de cunnel gimme de same night Ab'm an'
me stood up in the gre't house dinin'-room an' got married.”
“Dass so,” admitted her listener, with a deprecatory grin.
“'Reckly dey wa'n't nobody lef' on de plantation 'cep'n' jes me an'
Ab'm an' Dick, dat younges' chile o' mine dat grow up 'longside o' li'l
Marse Rod. Lawd! li'l Marse Rod, he wuz de beatenes' white chile fum de
cradle, mun! I nussed him at de same breas' wi' Dick, an' dem two
chillen wuz jes lak br'er and br'er. Dey run terg'er fum de cradle.”
“To be sho!” assented Uncle Jake. “I 'members dem two chillen
myse'f, mighty well. Dey useter pester me 'bout fishin'-lines an' wums,
“Li'l Marse Rod's ha'r wuz dat yaller an' curly,” she went on,
heedless of the interruption, “twel I useter tell ole mis' hit wus jes
lak er twist er sugar-candy; an' when dat chile laugh an' ax fer sumpn,
Lawd! you is jes boun' fer ter gin hit ter him. An' dem chillen all de
time terge'r. Ef Dick wa'n't at de gre't-house, li'l Marse Rod wuz in
dis cabin. 'Pear lak I kin heah him yit, comin' runnin' down de walk
yander, bar'headed, an' hollerin' ter me, settin' edzackly whar I is
now, 'Mammy, tell Dick ter wait fer me; I'm comin'!' “
“To be sho!” interjected Uncle Jake. “I 'members dat mighty well,
“He wuz er high-spirited chile; an' when he look erbout him an' see
de ole plantation lef' ter rack an' ruin, an' nobody ter tek keer o'
his ma' an' missy, 'cep'n' Ab'm an' me, he seem lak he couldn't 'bide
dat. He wuz jes tu'n o' fo'teen den; jes de age o' my Dick. An' one
mawnin' li'l Marse Rod wuz gone, mun! An' ole mis' foun' er
letter onder de do' whar say dat he gwine some'ers fer ter wuk twel he
git er pile o' money, an' den he comin' back an' tek keer o' ole mis',
an' missy, an' Ab'm, an' me, an' Dick. An' he lef' er good word fer
Dick in de letter. An' dass de las' we uver heerd tell o' li'l Marse
Rod. But I tells you, Jake Prince, I jes ez sho dat chile gwine ter
come back ez I is dat I settin' on dish yer do'-step. He gwine ter come
back in er cayidge an' er pa'r er high-steppin' hosses, like dem Ab'm
useter drive fer ole mis' 'fo' de wah.”
She rested the spoon on the edge of the pan for a moment, while her
eyes sought the dingy “great-house” among its embowering trees.
“We ain' nuver heerd fum him sence,” she resumed, with a deep sigh.
“Ole mis' and missy dey bofe werry twel dey sick 'bout Marse Rod, an'
dat huccum I didn' go ter de fus 'Mancipation Day.”
“Ole Aun' Dilsey Cushin' wuz de centre figger dat time,” remarked
“Den de nex' year missy wuz on de p'int er gettin' married
ter Cap'n Tom Ramsay, fum Richmon', an' me an' ole mis' we wuz makin'
de weddin'-cake, an' I ain' had no time fer ter fool 'long o'
'Mancipation Day. An' de nex' year wuz de time dat my Dick wuz
fotch home drownded from the bayou. Den Ab'm wuz tuk down. Mussy, Unk
Jake, you 'ain' fergot dem seven year whar Ab'm wuz down?“
“Cert'n'y, Aun' Calline, I 'ain' fergot Unk Ab'm's rheumatiz. Dough
dat ain' hender Unk Ab'm fum settin' in er cheer yander by de fiah an'
pickin' de banjer. Mun! how Unk Ab'm could pick de banjer!”
“Dat he could! Dey wa'n't nobody in de quarter could tech Ab'm when
it come ter pickin' de banjer. De quality useter come down fum de
gre't-house 'fo' de wah ter heah him pick 'Billy in de low groun's,'
an' 'Sugar in de gode,' an' de lak o' dat. Well, I 'ain' had no call
ter go whilse de ole man wuz down, an' me er tukin' keer at de same
time o' ole mis' an' missy, an' missy's chillen.”
“An' missy er widder at dat.”
“An' missy er widder at dat. Den de sweet chariot done swung low fer
Ab'm, an' he tuk'n ter glory. An' den sometimes one an'
sometimes an'er o' missy's chillen had de measles, o' de
whoopin'-cough, o' de chicken-pox, o' de scyarlet-fever, an' 'pear lak
I couldn't spar' er minit fer er frolic. Co'se, a'ter missy
tuk'n de consomption an' die, an' de chillen gone ter Cap'n Tom
Ramsay's folks, I couldn' leave ole mis'. Who gwine ter stay 'long o'
ole mis' whilse Calline fla'ntin' herse'f ter 'Mancipation Day? Year
befo' las' ole mis' she tuk down, an' I 'ain' lef' her night ner
day twel she pass on ter glory las' Sat'day week. An' now, sence de
fambly is all brek up, an' de gre't-house shet, an' I has de time,
I gwine ter de 'Mancipation Day.”
“Ez de centre figger,” respectfully suggested Uncle Jake.
“Ez de centre figger. I has been invited by all de conjugations o'
all de chu'ches ter set in de head cheer. But, kingdom come, Unk Jake!”
she broke off, rising energetically to her feet, “I 'ain' got time ter
be foolin' 'long o' you, an' all my cake ter bake. Dish yer batter
ready for de oven now.”
“Dass so, Aunt Calline! I is in er mons'us hurry myse'f. I done
promise Miss Botts ter fotch her er settin' er domineker aigs 'fo'
sun-up dis mawnin'. I gotter be gwine.” And he picked up his basket and
It was late that night when Aunt Calline went to bed. Her hamper
carefully packed and covered with a clean cloth was placed on the
little table; beside it on a chair was laid out the black bombazine
gown reserved for state occasions, the sheer kerchief, and the freshly
ironed turban. She surveyed these last preparations with great
satisfaction before turning down the wick of the smoky kerosene lamp.
“Bless de Lawd,” she muttered, “I is gwine ter feel my freedom at las'!
I is gwine ter de 'Mancipation Day dis time, sho! An' I boun'
Big Hannah, wi' de res' o' de corn-fiel' niggers, gwine ter laugh de
wrong side o' dey mouf when dey sees me settin' in de head cheer ez de
centre figger, an' all de conjugations o' all de chu'ches comin' up an'
makin' dey bow ter Sister Calline Wins'n.”
She was up betimes the next morning. The first long slanting rays of
sunlight came in through the half-open shutter as she gave a last twist
to the wonderful knot in her turban. “Now,” she said aloud, “I gwine
ter feed de chickens, an' tie up ole Rove, an' kiver up de fiah, an'
den I kin say I ready.”
She opened the front door as she spoke, but she started back with an
exclamation of anger and surprise. A man, evidently a tramp, was
huddled upon the step, his head resting upon his arms, which were
crossed upon the door-sill.
“Look a-heah, white man,” she began, in a shrill, high voice, “what
you doin'? Whar you come fum? I gwine ter set de dog on you dis minit
ef you doan git up fum dar an' go 'long 'bout yo' business.”
The bundle of rags at her feet stirred. He lifted his head and threw
back the long, matted hair from his forehead. A pair of dim blue eyes
looked up at her appealingly; a wan smile played over the emaciated and
sunken features; the pale lips parted as if for speech. But there was
no need. She had gathered him up in her arms, rags and all, and was
carrying the light burden across the threshold, laughing hysterically.
“Lawd, li'l Marse Rod!” she cried, as she placed him in the big
split-bottomed chair in a corner of the fireplace, “I know'd you wuz
gwine ter come back! I is know'd it all de time. An' yo' po' ole mammy
so blin' dat she didn' jes edzackly place you at de fus' look.
'Sides, you didn't had no mustache when you lef' home.” The
tears were streaming down her old cheeks as she hovered over him in an
ecstasy of joy. He essayed to speak, but a hollow cough wrenched his
frail body, and his head dropped helplessly against the faithful breast
which had pillowed it in infancy.
“Doan you try ter talk, honey,” she said, stroking his cheek with
her hand. Then, leaning over him and interpreting a look in his haggard
eyes, she cried, “My Lawd a' mighty, de chile is hongry!“
She dragged the table to his side with feverish haste, and spread
upon it the contents of the basket. She affected not to notice while he
ate—almost ravenously. “You sees, Marse Rod,” she said, now down on
her knees before him, removing the tattered shoes from his blistered
end travel-worn feet—“you sees dat de quality doan nuver put on dey
fine close fer ter travel in, an' I might o' know'd dat you
wa'n't gwine ter come home all dress up in broadcloth, same ez ef you
wa'n't no mo'n po' white trash.”
Rodney Winston smiled pitifully. He had pushed away his plate, and
was leaning back in his chair, exhausted and panting.
“Mammy,” he interrupted, speaking for the first time, and laying a
thin hand caressingly on her shoulder, “where is my mother?”
“I 'clar' ter goodness,” she went on, with tender volubility,
pretending not to hear, “you look edzackly lak you did, edzackly! I
gwine ter cut yo' ha'r 'reckly—dat same yaller ha'r whar me en' ole
mis' useter say look lak er twis' er sugar-candy—an' den you kin put
on some o' Ab'm's close yander in de chis; dey was all yo' pa's, honey,
an' you ain' gwine ter be 'shame' ter w'ar 'em twel yo' trunk gits
heah; an' den—”
“Mammy,” he began again. But at this moment a confused and
tumultuous sound began to float in on the fresh morning air.
“Jes you wait er minit, li'l marse,” she said, starting up; and
throwing a light covering across his knees, she went out into the yard,
closing the door behind her.
The procession was coming—the great, good-humored crowd which had
been gathering since long before daylight about the doors of Antioch
Church. Every negro in the county, big and little, young and old, was
there—the congregations of the churches marching on foot and carrying
banners; the Sunday-schools under the leadership of the elders;
societies with badges; Sisters of Rebecca and Daughters of Deborah in
blue cambric shoulder-capes and wide belts; Sons of Zion in the
wrinkled and creased broadcloth coats and the well-preserved silk hats
of a dead and gone generation; wagon loads of old people and babies;
back-sliders with banjos and fiddles; hardened sinners who had never
even been seekers at the mourners' bench—they were all there, and the
long line had just turned the corner of the field beyond the
“great-house.” It was headed by an open wagon which carried the choir
of Antioch Church. Jerry Martin, big, black, and sleek, one of the
chief holders in Zion, stood on the front seat, swaying from side to
side, and shouting:
“Ole Satan he thought dat he had me
The shrill voices of the women took up the refrain:
“March erlong, childern, march erlong!”
“But I is broke his chains at las'.”
And the whole line joined in the chorus:
“March erlong, childern, for de Promis'
Lan' is nigh.” The sound rolled away triumphant, mighty unctuous,
and came echoing back from the distant woodland.
The carriage destined for that sister in Zion whose virtues entitled
her to the foremost place of honor followed Jerry and his choir. Aunt
Calline's heart thrilled with pride as it rattled up to the gate and
stopped. It was the old Winston family carriage, dilapidated, and
somewhat the worse for wear, but strong and serviceable still. Two
sleek mules trotted under the ragged harness, and Uncle Jake Prince sat
on the driver's seat. Brother 'Lijah Vance, the pastor of Antioch, got
out. The vast procession halted, and a sudden hush fell upon the
Brother Vance lifted the latch of the gate. “Good-mawnin', Sister
Wins'n,” he said, pompously, removing his tall hat and extending a
gloved hand. “De centre figger will please ha' de goodness ter tek er
seat in de cayidge, an' be druv ter de 'Mancipation Groun's.”
“Much erbleege ter you, Br'er Vance,” replied Sister Winston, with
her grandest courtesy, “an' I meks my compliments ter de chu'ches an'
de chu'ch-members. But I has comp'ny dis mawnin', an' I axes you ter
scuse me fum bein' de centre figger.”
“Lawd, Aun' Calline!” exclaimed Brother Vance, dropping in his
dismay into every-day manners, “who gwine ter be de centre figger ef
“Mr. Rodney Wins'n done come home, 'Lijah,” she replied. A murmur of
surprise swept down the line; many of the old Winston negroes were
near, and these left their places and came crowding about the gate.
“Li'l Marse Rod done come back,” she continued, her head raised
majestically, and her hands folded across her bosom; “he ain' ter say
rested yet, but ter-morrer he gwine ter open up de gre't-house
yander. He axes you all howdy, an' he say you mus' come up an' shek
han's at de gre't-house.”
“To be sho!” ejaculated Uncle Jake from his perch.
“Dass de li'l Marse Rod whar Mis' Calline Wins'n been jawin' 'bout
ever sence I bawn,” giggled one of the girls in the choir-wagon, a
pretty mulattress with a saucy face. “Whar's de cayidge, an' de pa'r er
high-steppin' hosses, an' de baag er gol' he gwine ter fotch home fum
yander, Aun' Calline?”
Aunt Calline turned upon her wrathfully. “Yer lazy,
good-fer-nothin', low-down nigger,” she blazed, “ef you doan shet yo'
mouf, I gwine ter hise myse'f in dat wagin an' w'ar you ter a plum
The girl cowered down behind her companions, subdued and frightened.
Brother Vance re-entered the carriage, much perplexed by the unexpected
turn of events. Jerry Martin lifted up his powerful voice again, and
the procession passed on.
She went back into the cabin. Her guest unclosed his eyes as she
entered, and looked about him vaguely for a moment, as if he hardly
knew where he was. Then a quick flush mounted to his cheek. “Mammy,” he
insisted, “where is my mother?”
“Well, honey,” she admitted, reluctantly, “yer ma ain' ter say
livin' edzackly; she done—”
“And my sister?”
“Marse Rod, you knows dat missy wuz po'ly fum de cradle; en'
de consomption bein' 'mongs' de fambly — 'mongs' de women
-folks, min' you; 'tain't 'mongs' de men-folks—an' hit seem lak
missy jes hatter go.”
“Lawd, chile, I ain't nuver spected ter raise Dick!
Dick wuz dat venturesome dat when dey fotch him home fum de bayou
drownded I ain' ter say 'stonish'. Dick he layin' out yander in
de fambly buryin'-groun', jes 'cross de foot o' yo' pa an' yo' ma; an'
Ab'm he in de cornder, whar dey is lef' a place fer me.”
He covered his face with his hands and groaned.
“Doan be trebbled, honey,” she said, soothing him as one would
soothe a hurt child—“doan be trebbled.”
When she had clipped his hair and dressed him in the spotless linen
and the old, blue, brass-buttoned suit, which had once been his
father's, he lay on the bed, following with grateful eyes her bustling
movements about the room.
“Mammy,” he said, suddenly, “I've come back poorer than I went away.
I've been everywhere; I've tried everything. In all these years I have
somehow not been able to make my bread, much less—I was ashamed even
to write to my mother until I could tell her that I was coming home to
take care of her; and now—”
“Dat doan matter, honey,” she interrupted, eagerly. “Doan you fret
yo'se'f. We gwine ter git erlong. Yo' ole mammy kin wuk. Lawd, dey
ain't no young gal in dish yer county whar kin do day's wuk lak I kin!
An' when you gits fa'r rested, you is gwine ter tek up de ole
plantation, an' men' de fences, an' patch up de cabins, and hiah de
mules an' de niggers. Mun! de niggers gwine ter be mighty proud when
dey gits er chance ter come back ter de old plantation; an' den—”
Even as she spoke his eyes closed, his head dropped, a mortal pallor
crept over his already pale face.
“O Lawd, doan let de chile die!” she sobbed, chafing his pulseless
wrists and rubbing his cold feet. He presently rallied, and sank into a
peaceful slumber, which lasted well on into the afternoon. She sat
watching him while he slept, her old brain teeming with visions of the
renewed glories of Winston Place. The doors of the “great-house” once
more stood wide open;—the sound of music and laughter rang out from
the windows;—horses were hitched in the lane;—carriages rolled
around the drive, and ladies in long, rustling silk dresses got out and
passed up the steps;—children were at play on the smooth lawn—
children with skin like the snow of apple blossoms, and coal-black
pickaninnies with laughing eyes and shining teeth;—a pack of hounds
leaped and yelped about the stable-yard, where the young master and his
friends were mounting for a fox-hunt;—the long table in the
dining-room blazed with crystal and silver under the light of the
lamps;—the house-girls ran in and out, carrying trays of glasses,
wherein the ice tinkled and wherefrom the sprigs of bruised mint
perfumed the air;—outside, in the lane, the field-hands were going by
with cotton-baskets on their heads and singing;—in the big kitchen
fireplace the flames roared—
Suddenly a clear young voice filled the room. Could it be the
curly-haired lad coming running bareheaded down the walk from the
“greathouse”? “Mammy, tell Dick to wait for me; I'm coming!” he cried,
a boyish smile playing about his lips, and a boyish light sparkling in
his dying eyes.
“De las' o' we-alls fambly,” moaned the faithful soul, straightening
his limbs and smoothing back the still, silken curls from his forehead.
An hour or two later she came out into the yard. The sun had set;
the first stars were coming into the soft gray sky, and under the
horizon hung the pale crescent of a new moon. “I gwine ter put some
pinks an' some honeysuckle in his han's,” she murmured, “ 'caze ole
mis' gimme dem pinks an' dat honeysuckle fum onder her winder yander
ter de gre't-house. An' I gwine ter bury him 'longside o' Dick, 'caze
Dick he been er waitin' er long time fer li'l Marse Rod.”
The evening wind was rising, and on it came borne the sound of
singing. She lifted her head, listening. It was the 'Mancipation Day
procession. Brother Vance was leading his flock homeward through the
“I is wuked all day in de br'ilin' sun,”
sang Jerry Martin, the mellow tones of his voice ringing clearly out
across the open fields.
“Lawd Jesus, call me home!”
responded the people.
“Now de sun is down an' de wuk is done.”
“Lawd Jesus, call me home!”
“Dass so!” said Aunt Calline, softly. “Dass so! De wuk is sho done.
Lawd Jesus, call me home!”