The Home Coming of 'Rastus Smith by Paul Laurence Dunbar
There was a great commotion in that part of town which was known as
Little Africa, and the cause of it was not far to seek. Contrary to
the usual thing, this cause was not an excursion down the river, nor a
revival, baptising, nor an Emancipation Day celebration. None of these
was it that had aroused the denizens of Little Africa, and kept them
talking across the street from window to window, from door to door,
through alley gates, over backyard fences, where they stood
loud-mouthed and arms akimboed among laden clothes lines. No, the cause
of it all was that Erastus Smith, Aunt Mandy Smith's boy, who had gone
away from home several years before, and who, rumour said, had become a
great man, was coming back, and Little Africa, from Douglass Street
to Cat Alley, was prepared to be dazzled. So few of those who had been
born within the mile radius which was Little Africa went out into the
great world and came into contact with the larger humanity that when
one did he became a man set apart. And when, besides, he went into a
great city and worked for a lawyer whose name was known the country
over, the place of his birth had all the more reason to feel proud of
So there was much talk across the dirty little streets, and Aunt
Mandy's small house found itself all of a sudden a very popular resort.
The old women held Erastus up as an example to their sons. The old men
told what they might have done had they had his chance. The young men
cursed him, and the young girls giggled and waited.
It was about an hour before the time of the arrival of Erastus, and
the neighbours had thinned out one by one with a delicacy rather
surprising in them, in order that the old lady might be alone with her
boy for the first few minutes. Only one remained to help put the
finishing touches to the two little rooms which Mrs. Smith called home,
and to the preparations for the great dinner. The old woman wiped her
eyes as she said to her companion, Hit do seem a speshul blessin',
Lizy, dat I been spaihed to see dat chile once mo' in de flesh. He
sholy was mighty nigh to my hea't, an' w'en he went erway, I thought it
'ud kill me. But I kin see now dat hit uz all fu' de bes'. Think o'
'Rastus comin' home, er big man! Who'd evah 'specked dat?
Law, Mis' Smif, you sholy is got reason to be mighty thankful. Des'
look how many young men dere is in dis town what ain't nevah been no
'count to dey pa'ents, ner anybody else.
Well, it's onexpected, Lizy, an' hit's 'spected. 'Rastus allus wuz
a wonnerful chil', an' de way he tuk to work an' study kin' o' promised
something f'om de commencement, an' I 'lowed mebbe he tu'n out a
Tush! yo' kin thank yo' stahs he didn't tu'n out no preachah.
Preachahs ain't no bettah den anybody else dese days. Dey des go roun'
tellin' dey lies an' eatin' de whiders an' orphins out o' house an'
Well, mebbe hit's bes' he didn' tu'n out dat way. But f'om de way
he used to stan' on de chaih an' 'zort w'en he was a little boy, I
thought hit was des what he 'ud tu'n out. O' co'se, being' in a law
office is des as pervidin', but somehow hit do seem mo' worl'y.
Didn't I tell you de preachahs is ez worldly ez anybody else?
Yes, yes, dat's right, but den 'Rastus, he had de eddication, fo'
he had gone thoo de Third Readah.
Just then the gate creaked, and a little brown-faced girl, with
large, mild eyes, pushed open the door and came shyly in.
Hyeah's some flowahs, Mis' Smif, she said. I thought mebbe you
might like to decorate 'Rastus's room, and she wiped the confusion
from her face with her apron.
La, chil', thankee. Dese is mighty pu'tty posies. These were the
laurels which Sally Martin had brought to lay at the feet of her
home-coming hero. No one in Cat Alley but that queer, quiet little girl
would have thought of decorating anybody's room with flowers, but she
had peculiar notions.
In the old days, when they were children, and before Erastus had
gone away to become great, they had gone up and down together along the
byways of their locality, and had loved as children love. Later, when
Erastus began keeping company, it was upon Sally that he bestowed his
affections. No one, not even her mother, knew how she had waited for
him all these years that he had been gone, few in reality, but so long
and so many to her.
And now he was coming home. She scorched something in the ironing
that day because tears of joy were blinding her eyes. Her thoughts were
busy with the meeting that was to be. She had a brand new dress for the
occasiona lawn, with dark blue dots, and a blue sashand there was a
new hat, wonderful with the flowers of summer, and for both of them she
had spent her hard-earned savings, because she wished to be radiant in
the eyes of the man who loved her.
Of course, Erastus had not written her; but he must have been busy,
and writing was hard work. She knew that herself, and realised it all
the more as she penned the loving little scrawls which at first she
used to send him. Now they would not have to do any writing any more;
they could say what they wanted to each other. He was coming home at
last, and she had waited long.
They paint angels with shining faces and halos, but for real
radiance one should have looked into the dark eyes of Sally as she sped
home after her contribution to her lover's reception.
When the last one of the neighbours had gone Aunt Mandy sat down to
rest herself and to await the great event. She had not sat there long
before the gate creaked. She arose and hastened to the window. A young
man was coming down the path. Was that 'Rastus? Could that be her
'Rastus, that gorgeous creature with the shiny shoes and the nobby suit
and the carelessly-swung cane? But he was knocking at her door, and she
opened it and took him into her arms.
Why, howdy, honey, howdy; hit do beat all to see you agin, a great
big, grown-up man. You're lookin' des' lak one o' de big folks up in
Erastus submitted to her endearments with a somewhat condescending
grace, as who should say, Well, poor old fool, let her go on this
time; she doesn't know any better. He smiled superiorly when the old
woman wept glad tears, as mothers have a way of doing over returned
sons, however great fools these sons may be. She set him down to the
dinner which she had prepared for him, and with loving patience drew
from his pompous and reluctant lips some of the story of his doings and
some little word about the places he had seen.
Oh, yes, he said, crossing his legs, as soon as Mr. Carrington
saw that I was pretty bright, he took me right up and gave me a good
job, and I have been working for him right straight along for seven
years now. Of course, it don't do to let white folks know all you're
thinking; but I have kept my ears and my eyes right open, and I guess I
know just about as much about law as he does himself. When I save up a
little more I'm going to put on the finishing touches and hang out my
Don't you nevah think no mo' 'bout bein' a preachah, 'Rastus? his
Haw, haw! Preachah? Well, I guess not; no preaching in mine;
there's nothing in it. In law you always have a chance to get into
politics and be the president of your ward club or something like that,
and from that on it's an easy matter to go on up. You can trust me to
know the wires. And so the tenor of his boastful talk ran on, his
mother a little bit awed and not altogether satisfied with the new
'Rastus that had returned to her.
He did not stay in long that evening, although his mother told him
some of the neighbours were going to drop in. He said he wanted to go
about and see something of the town. He paused just long enough to
glance at the flowers in his room, and to his mother's remark, Sally
Ma'tin brung dem in, he returned answer, Who on earth is Sally
Why, 'Rastus, exclaimed his mother, does yo' 'tend lak yo' don't
'member little Sally Ma'tin yo' used to go wid almos' f'om de time you
was babies? W'y, I'm s'prised at you.
She has slipped my mind, said the young man.
For a long while the neighbours who had come and Aunt Mandy sat up
to wait for Erastus, but he did not come in until the last one was
gone. In fact, he did not get in until nearly four o'clock in the
morning, looking a little weak, but at least in the best of spirits,
and he vouchsafed to his waiting mother the remark that the little old
town wasn't so bad, after all.
Aunt Mandy preferred the request that she had had in mind for some
time, that he would go to church the next day, and he consented,
because his trunk had come.
It was a glorious Sunday morning, and the old lady was very proud in
her stiff gingham dress as she saw her son come into the room arrayed
in his long coat, shiny hat, and shinier shoes. Well, if it was true
that he was changed, he was still her 'Rastus, and a great comfort to
her. There was no vanity about the old woman, but she paused before the
glass a longer time than usual, settling her bonnet strings, for she
must look right, she told herself, to walk to church with that elegant
son of hers. When he was all ready, with cane in hand, and she was
pausing with the key in the door, he said, Just walk on, mother, I'll
catch you in a minute or two. She went on and left him.
He did not catch her that morning on her way to church, and it was a
sore disappointment, but it was somewhat compensated for when she saw
him stalking into the chapel in all his glory, and every head in the
house turned to behold him.
There was one other woman in Little Africa that morning who
stopped for a longer time than usual before her looking-glass and who
had never found her bonnet strings quite so refractory before. In spite
of the vexation of flowers that wouldn't settle and ribbons that
wouldn't tie, a very glad face looked back at Sally Martin from her
little mirror. She was going to see 'Rastus, 'Rastus of the old days in
which they used to walk hand in hand. He had told her when he went away
that some day he would come back and marry her. Her heart fluttered
hotly under her dotted lawn, and it took another application of the
chamois to take the perspiration from her face. People had laughed at
her, but that morning she would be vindicated. He would walk home with
her before the whole church. Already she saw him bowing before her, hat
in hand, and heard the set phrase, May I have the pleasure of your
company home? and she saw herself sailing away upon his arm.
She was very happy as she sat in church that morning, as happy as
Mrs. Smith herself, and as proud when she saw the object of her
affections swinging up the aisle to the collection table, and from the
ring she knew that it could not be less than a half dollar that he put
There was a special note of praise in her voice as she joined in
singing the doxology that morning, and her heart kept quivering and
fluttering like a frightened bird as the people gathered in groups,
chattering and shaking hands, and he drew nearer to her. Now they were
almost together; in a moment their eyes would meet. Her breath came
quickly; he had looked at her, surely he must have seen her. His mother
was just behind him, and he did not speak. Maybe she had changed, maybe
he had forgotten her. An unaccustomed boldness took possession of her,
and she determined that she would not be overlooked. She pressed
forward. She saw his mother take his arm and heard her whisper, Dere's
Sally Ma'tin this time, and she knew that he looked at her. He bowed
as if to a stranger, and was past her the next minute. When she saw him
again he was swinging out of the door between two admiring lines of
church-goers who separated on the pavement. There was a brazen yellow
girl on his arm.
She felt weak and sick as she hid behind the crowd as well as she
could, and for that morning she thanked God that she was small.
Aunt Mandy trudged home alone, and when the street was cleared and
the sexton was about to lock up, the girl slipped out of the church and
down to her own little house. In the friendly shelter of her room she
took off her gay attire and laid it away, and then sat down at the
window and looked dully out. For her, the light of day had gone out.