The Mission of Mr. Scatters by Paul Laurence Dunbar
It took something just short of a revolution to wake up the sleepy
little town of Miltonville. Through the slow, hot days it drowsed along
like a lazy dog, only half rousing now and then to snap at some flying
rumour, and relapsing at once into its pristine somnolence.
It was not a dreamless sleep, however, that held the town in chains.
It had its dreamsdreams of greatness, of wealth, of consequence and
of growth. Granted that there was no effort to realise these visions,
they were yet there, and, combined with the memory of a past that was
not without credit, went far to give tone to its dormant spirit.
It was a real spirit, too; the gallant Bourbon spirit of the old
South; of Kentucky when she is most the daughter of Virginia, as was
evidenced in the awed respect which all Miltonvillians, white and black
alike, showed to Major Richardson in his house on the hill. He was part
of the traditions of the place. It was shown in the conservatism of the
old white families, and a certain stalwart if reflected self-respect in
the older coloured inhabitants.
In all the days since the school had been founded and Mr. Dunkin's
marriage to the teacher had raised a brief ripple of excitement, these
coloured people had slumbered. They were still slumbering that hot
August day, unmindful of the sensation that lay at their very doors,
heedless of the portents that said as plain as preaching, Miltonville,
the time is at hand, awake!
So it was that that afternoon there were only a few loungers, and
these not very alert, about the station when the little train wheezed
and puffed its way into it. It had been so long since anyone save those
whom they knew had alighted at Miltonville that the loungers had lost
faith, and with it curiosity, and now they scarcely changed their
positions as the little engine stopped with a snort of disgust. But in
an instant indifference had fled as the mist before the sun, and every
eye on the platform was staring and white. It is the unexpected that
always happens, and yet humanity never gets accustomed to it. The
loafers, white and black, had assumed a sitting posture, and then they
had stood up. For from the cars there had alighted the wonder of a
strangera Negro stranger, gorgeous of person and attire. He was
dressed in a suit of black cloth. A long coat was buttoned close around
his tall and robust form. He was dead black, from his shiny top hat to
his not less shiny boots, and about him there was the indefinable air
of distinction. He stood looking about the platform for a moment, and
then stepped briskly and decisively toward the group that was staring
at him with wide eyes. There was no hesitation in that step. He walked
as a man walks who is not in the habit of being stopped, who has not
known what it is to be told, Thus far shalt thou go and no further.
Can you tell me where I can find the residence of Mr. Isaac
Jackson? he asked sonorously as he reached the stupefied loungers. His
voice was deep and clear.
Someone woke from his astonishment and offered to lead him thither,
and together the two started for their destination, the stranger
keeping up a running fire of comment on the way. Had his companion been
a close observer and known anything about the matter, he would have
found the newcomer's English painfully, unforgivably correct. A
language should be like an easy shoe on a flexible foot, but to one
unused to it, it proves rather a splint on a broken limb. The stranger
stalked about in conversational splints until they arrived at Isaac
Jackson's door. Then giving his guide a dime, he dismissed him with a
courtly bow, and knocked.
It was a good thing that Martha Ann Jackson had the innate
politeness of her race well to the fore when she opened the door upon
the radiant creature, or she would have given voice to the words that
were in her heart: Good Lawd, what is dis?
Is this the residence of Mr. Isaac Jackson? in the stranger's
Yes, suh, he live hyeah.
May I see him? I desire to see him upon some business. He handed
her his card, which she carefully turned upside down, glanced at
without understanding, and put in her apron pocket as she replied:
He ain't in jes' now, but ef you'll step in an' wait, I'll sen' one
o' de chillen aftah him.
I thank you, madam, I thank you. I will come in and rest from the
fatigue of my journey. I have travelled a long way, and rest in such a
pleasant and commodious abode as your own appears to be will prove very
grateful to me.
She had been half afraid to invite this resplendent figure into her
humble house, but she felt distinctly flattered at his allusion to the
home which she had helped Isaac to buy, and by the alacrity with which
the stranger accepted her invitation.
She ushered him into the front room, mentally thanking her stars
that she had forced the reluctant Isaac to buy a bright new carpet a
couple of months before.
A child was despatched to find and bring home the father, while
Martha Ann, hastily slipping out of her work-dress and into a starched
calico, came in to keep her visitor company.
His name proved to be Scatters, and he was a most entertaining and
ingratiating man. It was evident that he had some important business
with Isaac Jackson, but that it was mysterious was shown by the guarded
way in which he occasionally hinted at it as he tapped the valise he
carried and nodded knowingly.
Time had never been when Martha Ann Jackson was so flustered. She
was charmed and frightened and flattered. She could only leave Mr.
Scatters long enough to give orders to her daughter, Lucy, to prepare
such a supper as that household had never seen before; then she
returned to sit again at his feet and listen to his words of wisdom.
The supper progressed apace, and the savour of it was already in the
stranger's nostrils. Upon this he grew eloquent and was about to
divulge his secret to the hungry-eyed woman when the trampling of
Isaac's boots upon the walk told him that he had only a little while
longer to contain himself, and at the same time to wait for the
Now, it is seldom that a man is so well impressed with a
smooth-tongued stranger as is his wife. Usually his hard-headedness
puts him on the defensive against the blandishments of the man who has
won his better half's favour, and, however honest the semi-fortunate
individual may be, he despises him for his attainments. But it was not
so in this case. Isaac had hardly entered the house and received his
visitor's warm handclasp before he had become captive to his charm.
Business, businessno, his guest had been travelling and he must be
both tired and hungry. Isaac would hear of no business until they had
eaten. Then, over a pipe, if the gentleman smoked, they might talk at
Mr. Scatters demurred, but in fact nothing could have pleased him
better, and the open smile with which he dropped into his place at the
table was very genuine and heartfelt. Genuine, too, were his praises of
Lucy's cooking; of her flaky buscuits and mealy potatoes. He was
pleased all through and he did not hesitate to say so.
It was a beaming group that finally rose heavily laden from the
Over a social pipe a little later, Isaac Jackson heard the story
that made his eyes bulge with interest and his heart throb with
Mr. Scatters began, tapping his host's breast and looking at him
fixedly, You had a brother some years ago named John. It was more
like an accusation than a question.
Yes, suh, I had a brothah John.
Uh, huh, and that brother migrated to the West Indies.
Yes, suh, he went out to some o' dem outlandish places.
Hold on, sir, hold on, I am a West Indian myself.
I do' mean no erfence, 'ceptin' dat John allus was of a rovin'
Very well, you know no more about your brother after his departure
for the West Indies?
Well, it is my mission to tell you the rest of the story. Your
brother John landed at Cuba, and after working about some years and
living frugally, he went into the coffee business, in which he became
Why, bless my soul, who'd 'a evah thought that of John? Why, suh,
I'm sho'ly proud to hyeah it. Why don't he come home an' visit a body?
Ah, why? said Mr. Scatters dramatically. Now comes the most
painful part of my mission. 'In the midst of life we are in death.'
Mr. Scatters sighed, Isaac sighed and wiped his eyes. Two years ago
your brother departed this life.
Was he saved? Isaac asked in a choked voice. Scatters gave him one
startled glance, and then answered hastily, I am happy to say that he
Poor John! He gone an' me lef'.
Even in the midst of our sorrows, however, there is always a ray of
light. Your brother remembered you in his will.
Remembered you, and as one of the executors of his estate,Mr.
Scatters rose and went softly over to his valise, from which he took a
large square package. He came back with it, holding it as if it were
something sacred,as one of the executors of his estate, which is now
settled, I was commissioned to bring you this. He tapped the package.
This package, sealed as you see with the seal of Cuba, contains five
thousand dollars in notes and bonds.
Isaac gasped and reached for the bundle, but it was withdrawn. I
am, however, not to deliver it to you yet. There are certain
formalities which my country demands to be gone through with, after
which I deliver my message and return to the fairest of lands, to the
Gem of the Antilles. Let me congratulate you, Mr. Jackson, upon your
Isaac yielded up his hand mechanically. He was dazed by the vision
of this sudden wealth.
Fi' thousan' dollahs, he repeated.
Yes, sir, five thousand dollars. It is a goodly sum, and in the
meantime, until court convenes, I wish you to recommend some safe place
in which to put this money, as I do not feel secure with it about my
person, nor would it be secure if it were known to be in your house.
I reckon Albert Matthews' grocery would be the safes' place fu' it.
He's got one o' dem i'on saftes.
The very place. Let us go there at once, and after that I will not
encroach upon your hospitality longer, but attempt to find a hotel.
Hotel nothin', said Isaac emphatically. Ef my house ain't too
common, you'll stay right thaih ontwell co't sets.
This is very kind of you, Mr. Jackson, but really I couldn't think
of being such a charge upon you and your good wife.
'Tain't no charge on us; we'll be glad to have you. Folks hyeah in
Miltonville has little enough comp'ny, de Lawd knows.
Isaac spoke the truth, and it was as much the knowledge that he
would be the envy of all the town as his gratitude to Scatters that
prompted him to prevail upon his visitor to stay.
Scatters was finally persuaded, and the men only paused long enough
in the house to tell the curiosity-eaten Martha Ann the news, and then
started for Albert Matthews' store. Scatters carried the precious
package, and Isaac was armed with an old shotgun lest anyone should
suspect their treasure and attack them. Five thousand dollars was not
to be carelessly handled!
As soon as the men were gone, Martha Ann started out upon her
rounds, and her proud tongue did for the women portion of Miltonville
what the visit to Matthews' store did for the men. Did Mrs. So-and-So
remember brother John? Indeed she did. And when the story was told, it
was a Well, well, well! he used to be an ol' beau o' mine. Martha Ann
found no less than twenty women of her acquaintance for whom her
brother John seemed to have entertained tender feelings.
The corner grocery store kept by Albert Matthews was the general
gathering-place for the coloured male population of the town. It was a
small, one-roomed building, almost filled with barrels, boxes, and
Pride as well as necessity had prompted Isaac to go to the grocery
just at this time, when it would be quite the fullest of men. He had
not calculated wrongly when he reckoned upon the sensation that would
be made by his entrance with the distinguished-looking stranger. The
excitement was all the most hungry could have wished for. The men
stared at Jackson and his companion with wide-open eyes. They left off
chewing tobacco and telling tales. A half-dozen of them forgot to avail
themselves of the joy of spitting, and Albert Matthews, the proprietor,
a weazened little brown-skinned man, forgot to lay his hand upon the
scale in weighing out a pound of sugar.
With a humility that was false on the very face of it, Isaac
introduced his guest to the grocer and the three went off together
mysteriously into a corner. The matter was duly explained and the
object of the visit told. Matthews burned with envy of his neighbour's
I do' reckon, Mistah Scatters, dat we bettah not let de othah folks
in de sto' know anything 'bout dis hyeah bus'ness of ouahs. I got to be
'sponsible fu dat money, an' I doesn't want to tek no chances.
You are perfectly right, sir, perfectly right. You are responsible,
not only for the money itself, but for the integrity of this seal which
means the dignity of government.
Matthews looked sufficiently impressed, and together they all went
their way among the barrels and boxes to the corner where the little
safe stood. With many turnings and twistings the door was opened, the
package inclosed and the safe shut again. Then they all rose solemnly
and went behind the counter to sample something that Matthews had. This
was necessary as a climax, for they had performed, not a mere deed, but
Of course, you'll say nothing about this matter at all, Mr.
Matthews, said Scatters, thereby insuring publicity to his affair.
There were a few introductions as the men passed out, but hardly had
their backs turned when a perfect storm of comment and inquiry broke
about the grocer's head. So it came to pass, that with many mysterious
nods and headshakings, Matthews first hinted at and then told the
For the first few minutes the men could scarcely believe what they
had heard. It was so utterly unprecedented. Then it dawned upon them
that it might be so, and discussion and argument ran rife for the next
The story flew like wildfire, there being three things in this world
which interest all sorts and conditions of men alike: great wealth,
great beauty, and great love. Whenever Mr. Scatters appeared he was
greeted with deference and admiration. Any man who had come clear from
Cuba on such an errand to their fellow-townsman deserved all honour and
respect. His charming manners confirmed, too, all that preconceived
notions had said of him. He became a social favourite. It began with
Mr. and Mrs. Dunkin's calling upon him. Then followed Alonzo Taft, and
when the former two gave a reception for the visitor, his position was
assured. Miltonville had not yet arisen to the dignity of having a
literary society. He now founded one and opened it himself with an
address so beautiful, so eloquent and moving that Mr. Dunkin bobbed his
head dizzy in acquiescence, and Aunt Hannah Payne thought she was in
church and shouted for joy.
The little town had awakened from its long post-bellum slumber and
accepted with eagerness the upward impulse given it. It stood aside and
looked on with something like adoration when Mr. Scatters and Mrs.
Dunkin met and talked of ineffable thingsthings far above the ken of
the average mortal.
When Mr. Scatters found that his mission was known, he gave up
further attempts at concealing it and talked freely about the matter.
He expatiated at length upon the responsibility that devolved upon him
and his desire to discharge it, and he spoke glowingly of the great
government whose power was represented by the seal which held the
package of bonds. Not for one day would he stay away from his beloved
Cuba, if it were not that that seal had to be broken in the presence of
the proper authorities. So, however reluctant he might be to stay, it
was not for him to shirk his task: he must wait for the sitting of
Meanwhile the Jacksons lived in an atmosphere of glory. The
womenfolk purchased new dresses, and Isaac got a new wagon on the
strength of their good fortune. It was nothing to what they dreamed of
doing when they had the money positively in hand. Mr. Scatters still
remained their guest, and they were proud of it.
What pleased them most was that their distinguished visitor seemed
not to look down upon, but rather to be pleased with, their homely
fare. Isaac had further cause for pleasure when his guest came to him
later with a great show of frank confidence to request the loan of
I should not think of asking even this small favour of you but that
I have only Cuban money with me and I knew you would feel distressed if
you knew that I went to the trouble of sending this money away for
exchange on account of so small a sum.
This was undoubtedly a mark of special confidence. It suddenly made
Isaac feel as if the grand creature had accepted and labelled him as a
brother and an equal. He hastened to Matthews' safe, where he kept his
own earnings; for the grocer was banker as well.
With reverent hands they put aside the package of bonds and together
counted out the required half a hundred dollars. In a little while Mr.
Scatters' long, graceful fingers had closed over it.
Mr. Jackson's cup of joy was now full. It had but one bitter drop to
mar its sweetness. That was the friendship that had sprung up between
the Cuban and Mr. Dunkin. They frequently exchanged visits, and sat
long together engaged in conversation from which Isaac was excluded.
This galled him. He felt that he had a sort of proprietary interest in
his guest. And any infringement of this property right he looked upon
with distinct disfavour. So that it was with no pleasant countenance
that he greeted Mr. Dunkin when he called on a certain night.
Mr. Scatters is gone out, he said, as the old man entered and
deposited his hat on the floor.
Dat's all right, Isaac, said Mr. Dunkin slowly, I didn't come to
see de gent'man. I come to see you.
The cloud somewhat lifted from Isaac's brow. Mr. Dunkin was a man of
importance and it made a deal of difference whom he was visiting.
He seemed a little bit embarrassed, however, as to how to open
conversation. He hummed and hawed and was visibly uneasy. He tried to
descant upon the weather, but the subject failed him. Finally, with an
effort, he hitched his chair nearer to his host's and said in a low
voice, Ike, I reckon you has de confidence of Mistah Scatters?
I has, was the proud reply, I has.
Hum! uh! huh! Wellwellhas you evah loant him any money?
Isaac was aghast. Such impertinence!
Mistah Dunkin, he began, I considah
Hol' on, Ike! broke in Dunkin, laying a soothing hand on the
other's knee, don' git on yo' high hoss. Dis hyeah's a impo'tant
I ain't got nothin' to say.
He ain't never tol' you 'bout havin' nothin' but Cubian money on
I see he have. He tol' me de same thing.
The two men sat staring suspiciously into each other's faces.
He got a hun'ed an' fifty dollahs f'om me, said Dunkin.
I let him have fifty, added Jackson weakly.
He got a hun'ed an' fifty dollahs f'om thews. Dat's how I come to
git 'spicious. He tol' him de same sto'y.
Again that pregnant look flashed between them, and they both rose
and went out of the house.
They hurried down to Matthews' grocery. The owner was waiting for
them there. There was solemnity, but no hesitation, in the manner with
which they now went to the safe. They took out the package hastily and
with ruthless hands. This was no ceremonial now. The seal had no longer
any fears for them. They tore it off. They tore the wrappers. Then
paper. Neatly folded paper. More wrapping paper. Newspapers. Nothing
more. Of bills or bondsnothing. With the debris of the mysterious
parcel scattered about their feet, they stood up and looked at each
I nevah did believe in furriners nohow, said Mr. Dunkin sadly.
But he knowed all about my brothah John.
An' he sho'ly did make mighty fine speeches. Maybe we's missed de
money. This from the grocer.
Together they went over the papers again, with the same result.
Do you know where he went to-night, Ike?
Den I reckon we's seed de las' o' him.
But he lef' his valise.
Yes, an' he lef' dis, said Dunkin sternly, pointing to the paper
on the floor. He sho'ly is mighty keerless of his valybles.
Let's go git de constable, said the practical Matthews.
They did, though they felt that it would be unavailing.
The constable came and waited at Jackson's house. They had been
there about half an hour, talking the matter over, when what was their
surprise to hear Mr. Scatters' step coming jauntily up the walk. A
sudden panic of terror and shame seized them. It was as if they had
wronged him. Suppose, after all, everything should come right and he
should be able to explain? They sat and trembled until he entered. Then
the constable told him his mission.
Mr. Scatters was surprised. He was hurt. Indeed, he was distinctly
grieved that his friends had had so little confidence in him. Had he
been to them anything but a gentleman, a friend, and an honest man? Had
he not come a long distance from his home to do one of them a favour?
They hung their heads. Martha Ann, who was listening at the door, was
sobbing audibly. What had he done thus to be humiliated? He saw the
effect of his words and pursued it. Had he not left in the care of one
of their own number security for his integrity in the shape of the
The effect of his words was magical. Every head went up and three
pairs of flashing eyes were bent upon him. He saw and knew that they
knew. He had not thought that they would dare to violate the seal
around which he had woven such a halo. He saw that all was over, and,
throwing up his hands with a despairing gesture, he bowed graciously
and left the room with the constable.
All Miltonville had the story next day, and waited no less eagerly
than before for the settin' of co't.
To the anger and chagrin of Miltonvillians, Fox Run had the honour
and distinction of being the county seat, and thither they must go to
the sessions; but never did they so forget their animosities as on the
day set for the trial of Scatters. They overlooked the pride of the Fox
Runners, their cupidity and their vaunting arrogance. They ignored the
indignity of showing interest in anything that took place in that
village, and went in force, eager, anxious, and curious. Ahorse, afoot,
by oxcart, by mule-wagon, white, black, high, low, old, and young of
both sexes invaded Fox Run and swelled the crowd of onlookers until,
with pity for the very anxiety of the people, the humane judge decided
to discard the now inadequate court-room and hold the sessions on the
village green. Here an impromptu bar was set up, and over against it
were ranged the benches, chairs, and camp-stools of the spectators.
Every man of prominence in the county was present. Major Richardson,
though now retired, occupied a distinguished position within the bar.
Old Captain Howard shook hands familiarly with the judge and nodded to
the assembly as though he himself had invited them all to be present.
Former Judge Durbin sat with his successor on the bench.
Court opened and the first case was called. It gained but passing
attention. There was bigger game to be stalked. A hog-stealing case
fared a little better on account of the intimateness of the crime
involved. But nothing was received with such awed silence as the case
of the State against Joseph Scatters. The charge was obtaining money
under false pretences, and the plea Not Guilty.
The witnesses were called and their testimony taken. Mr. Scatters
was called to testify in his own defence, but refused to do so. The
prosecution stated its case and proceeded to sum up the depositions of
the witnesses. As there was no attorney for the defence, the State's
attorney delivered a short speech, in which the guilt of the defendant
was plainly set forth. It was as clear as day. Things looked very dark
for Mr. Scatters of Cuba.
As the lawyer sat down, and ere the case could be given to the jury,
he rose and asked permission of the Court to say a few words.
This was granted him.
He stood up among them, a magnificent, strong, black figure. His
eyes swept the assembly, judge, jury, and spectators with a look half
amusement, half defiance.
I have pleaded not guilty, he began in a low, distinct voice that
could be heard in every part of the inclosure, and I am not guilty of
the spirit which is charged against me, however near the letter may
touch me. I did use certain knowledge that I possessed, and the seal
which I happened to have from an old government position, to
defraudthat is the word, if you willto defraud these men out of the
price of their vanity and their cupidity. But it was not a
long-premeditated thing. I was within a few miles of your town before
the idea occurred to me. I was in straits. I stepped from the brink of
great poverty into the midst of what you are pleased to deem a greater
The Court held its breath. No such audacity had ever been witnessed
in the life of Fox Run.
Scatters went on, warming to his subject as he progressed. He was
eloquent and he was pleasing. A smile flickered over the face of Major
Richardson and was reflected in the features of many others as the
speaker burst forth:
Gentlemen, I maintain that instead of imprisoning you should thank
me for what I have done. Have I not taught your community a lesson?
Have I not put a check upon their credulity and made them wary of
He had. There was no disputing that. The judge himself was smiling,
and the jurymen were nodding at each other.
Scatters had not yet played his trump card. He saw that the time was
ripe. Straightening his form and raising his great voice, he cried:
Gentlemen, I am guilty according to the letter of the law, but from
that I appeal to the men who make and have made the law. From the hard
detail of this new day, I appeal to the chivalry of the old South which
has been told in story and sung in song. From men of vindictiveness I
appeal to men of mercy. From plebeians to aristocrats. By the memory of
the sacred names of the Richardsonsthe Major sat bolt upright and
dropped his snuffboxthe Durbinsthe ex-judge couldn't for his life
get his pince-nez onthe Howardsthe captain openly rubbed his
handsto the memory that those names call up I appeal, and to the
living and honourable bearers of them present. And to you, gentlemen of
the jury, the lives of whose fathers went to purchase this dark and
bloody ground, I appeal from the accusation of these men, who are not
my victims, not my dupes, but their own.
There was a hush when he was done. The judge read the charge to the
jury, and it was favourablevery. Andwell, Scatters had taught the
darkies a lesson; he had spoken of their families and their traditions,
he knew their names, andoh, well, he was a good fellow after
allwhat was the use?
The jury did not leave their seats, and the verdict was acquittal.
Scatters thanked the Court and started away; but he met three
ominous-looking pairs of eyes, and a crowd composed of angry Negroes
was flocking toward the edge of the green.
He came back.
I think I had better wait until the excitement subsides, he said
to Major Richardson.
No need of that, suh, no need of that. Here, Jim, he called to his
coachman, take Mr. Scatters wherever he wants to go, and remember, I
shall hold you responsible for his safety.
Yes, suh, said Jim.
A thousand thanks, Major, said the man with the mission.
Not at all, suh. By the way, that was a very fine effort of yours
this afternoon. I was greatly moved by it. If you'll give me your
address I'll send you a history of our family, suh, from the time they
left Vuhginia and before.
Mr. Scatters gave him the address, and smiled at the three enemies,
who still waited on the edge of the green.
To the station, he said to the driver.