The Whipping of
Uncle Henry by Will Nathaniel Harben
“I do believe,” said Mrs. Pelham, stooping to look through the
oblong window of the milk- and-butter cellar toward the great barn
across the farmyard, “I do believe Cobb an' Uncle Henry are fussin'
“Shorely not,” answered her old-maid sister, Miss Molly Meyers. She
left her butter bowl and paddles, and bent her angular figure beside
Mrs. Pelham, to see the white man and the black man who were
gesticulating in each other's faces under the low wagon-shed that
leaned against the barn.
The old women strained their ears to overhear what was said, but the
stiff breeze from across the white-and-brown fields of cotton
stretching toward the west bore the angry words away. Mrs. Pelham
turned and drew the white cloths over her milkpans.
“Cobb will never manage them niggers in the world” she sighed.
“Henry has had Old Nick in 'im as big as a house ever since Mr. Pelham
went off an' left Cobb in charge. Uncle Henry hadn't minded one word
Cobb has said, nur he won't. The whole crop is goin' to rack an' ruin.
Thar's jest one thing to be done. Mr. Pelham has jest got to come home
an' whip Henry. Nobody else could do it, an' he never will behave till
it's done. Cobb tried to whip 'im t'other day when you was over the
mountain, but Henry laid hold of a axhelve an' jest dared Cobb to tech
'im. That ended it. Cobb was afeard of 'im. Moreover, he's afeard Uncle
Henry will put p'ison in his victuals, or do 'im or his family some
bodily damage on the sly.”
“It would be a powerful pity,” returned Miss Molly, “fer Mr. Pelham
to have to lay down his business in North Carolina, whar he's got so
awful much to do, an' ride all that three hundred miles jest fer to
whip one nigger. It looks like some other way mought be thought of.
Couldn't you use your influence—”
“I've talked till I'm tired out,” Mrs. Pelham interrupted.”Uncle
Henry promises an' forms good resolutions, it seems like, but the very
minute Cobb wants 'im to do some'n a little different from Mr. Pelham's
way, Henry won't stir a peg. He jest hates the ground Cobb walks on.
Well, I reckon Cobb ain't much of a man. He never would work a
lick, an' if he couldn't git a job overseein' somebody's niggers he'd
let his family starve to death. Nobody kin hate a lazy, good-for-nothin' white man like a nigger kin. Thar Cobb comes now, to complain
to me, I reckon,” added Mrs. Pelham, going back to the window. “An'
bless your soul, Henry has took his seat out in the sun on the
wagon-tongue, as big as life. I reckon the whole crop will go to rack
The next moment a tall, thin-visaged man with gray hair and beard
stood in the cellar door.
“I'm jest about to the end o' my tether, Sister Pelham.” (He always
called her “Sister,” because they were members of the same church.) “I
can't get that black rascal to stir a step. I ordered Alf an' Jake to
hold 'im, so I could give 'im a sound lashin', but they was afeard to
Mrs. Pelham looked at him over her glasses as she wiped her damp
hands on her apron.
“You don't know how to manage niggers, Brother Cobb; I didn't much
'low you did the day Mr. Pelham left you in charge. The fust mornin',
you went to the field with that hosswhip in your hand, an' you've toted
it about ever since. You mought know that would give offense. Mr.
Pelham never toted one an' yore doin' of it looks like you 'lowed you'd
have a use fer it.”
“I acknowledge I don't know what to do,” said Cobb, frowning down
her reference to his whip. “I've been paid fer three months' work in
advance, in the white mare an' colt Mr. Pelham give me, an' I've done
sold 'em an' used the money. I'm free to confess that Brother Pelham's
intrusts are bein' badly protected as things are goin'; but I've done
“I reckon you have,” answered Mrs. Pelham, with some scorn in her
tone. “I reckon you have, accordin' to your ability an' judgment, an'
we can't afford to lose your services after you've been paid. Thar is
jest one thing left to do, an' that is fer Mr. Pelham to come home an'
whip Henry. He's sowin' discord an' rebellion, an' needs a good, sound
lashin'. The sooner it's done the better. Nobody can do it but Mr.
Pelham, an' I'm goin' in now an' write the letter an' send it off. In
the mean time, you'd better go on to work with the others, an' leave
Henry alone till his master comes.”
“Brother Pelham is the only man alive that could whip 'im,” replied
Cobb; “but it looks like a great pity an' expense for Brother Pel—“
But the planter's wife had passed him and gone up the steps into the
sitting-room. Cobb walked across the barnyard without looking at the
stalwart negro sitting on the wagon- tongue. He threw his whip down at
the barn, and he and half a dozen negroes went to the hayfields over
the knoll toward the creek.
In half an hour Mrs. Pelham, wearing her gingham bonnet, came out to
where Uncle Henry still sat sulking in the sun. As she approached him,
she pushed back her bonnet till her gray hair and glasses showed
“Henry,” she said, sternly, “I've jest done a thing that I hated
mightily to do.”
“What's that, Mis' Liza?” He looked up as he asked the question, and
then hung his head shamefacedly. He was about forty-five years of age.
For one of his race he had a strong, intelligent face. Indeed, he
possessed far more intelligence than the average negro. He was
considered the most influential slave on any of the half-dozen
plantations lying along that side of the river. He had learned to read,
and by listening to the conversation of white people had (if he had
acquired the colloquial speech of the middle-class whites) dropped
almost every trace of the dialect current among his people. And on this
he prided himself no little. He often led in prayer at the colored
meeting-house on an adjoining plantation, and some of his prayers were
more widely quoted and discussed than many of the sermons preached in
the same church.
“I have wrote to yore master, Henry,” answered Mrs. Pelham, “an'
I've tol' 'im all yore doin's, an' tol' him to come home an' whip you
fer disobeyin' Brother Cobb. I hated to do it, as I've jest said; but I
couldn't see no other way out of the difficulty. Don't you think you
deserve a whippin', Uncle Henry?”
“I don't know, Mis' Liza.” He did not look up from the grass over
which he swung his rag-covered leg and gaping brogan. “I don't know
myself, Mis' Liza. I want to help Marse Jasper out all I can while he
is off, but it seems like I jest can't work fer that man. Huh,
overseer! I say overseer! Why, Mis' Liza, he ain't as good as a nigger!
Thar ain't no pore white trash in all this valley country as low down
as all his lay-out. He ain't fittin' fer a overseer of nothin'. He
don't do anything like master did, nohow. He's too lazy to git in out
of a rain. He—”
“That will do, Henry. Mr. Pelham put him over you, an' you've
disobeyed. He'll be home in a few days, an' you an' him can settle it
between you. He will surely give you a good whippin' when he gits here.
Are you goin' to sit thar without layin' yore hand to a thing till he
“Now, you know me better'n that, Mis' Liza. I've done said I won't
mind that man, an' I reckon I won't; but the meadow-piece has obliged
to be broke an' sowed in wheat. I'm goin' to do that jest as soon as
the blacksmith fetches my bull-tongue plow.”
Mrs. Pelham turned away silently. She had heard some talk of the
government buying the negroes from their owners and setting them free.
She ardently hoped this would be done, for she was sure they could then
be hired cheaper than they could be owned and provided for. She
disliked to see a negro whipped; but occasionally she could see no
other way to make them do their duty.
From the dairy window, a few minutes later, she saw Uncle Henry put
the gear on a mule, and, with a heavy plow-stock on his shoulder, start
for the wheat-field beyond the meadow.
“He'll do two men's work over thar, jest to show what he kin do when
he's let alone,” she said to Miss Molly. “I hate to see 'im whipped.
He's too old an' sensible in most things, an' it would jest break
Lucinda's heart Mr. Pelham had ruther cut off his right arm, too; but
he'll do it, an' do it good, after havin' to come so far.”
Mr. Pelham was a week in reaching the plantation. He wrote that it
would take several days to arrange his affairs so that he could leave.
He admitted that there was nothing left to do except to whip Uncle
Henry soundly, and that they were right in thinking that Henry would
not let any one do it but himself. After the whipping he was sure that
the negro would obey Cobb, and that matters would then move along
When Mr. Pelham arrived, he left the stage at the cross-roads, half
a mile from his house, and carpet-bag in hand, walked home through his
own fields. He was a short, thick-set man of about sixty, round- faced,
blue-eyed, and gray-haired. He wore a sack-coat, top- boots, and baggy
trousers. He had a good- natured, kindly face, and walked with the
quick step and general air of a busy man.
He had traveled three hundred miles, slept on the hard seat of a
jolting train, eaten railroad pies and peanuts, and was covered with
the grime of a dusty journey, all to whip one disobedient negro. Still,
he was not out of humor, and after the whipping and lecture to his old
servant he would travel back over the tiresome route and resume his
business where he had left it.
His wife and sister-in-law were in the kitchen when they heard his
step in the long hall. They went into the sitting-room, where he had
put down his carpet-bag, and in the center of the floor stood swinging
his hat and mopping his brow with his red handkerchief. He shook hands
with the two women, and then sat down in his old seat in the chimney-corner.
“You want a bite to eat, an' a cup of coffee, I reckon,” said Mrs.
“No, I kin wait till dinner. Whar's Cobb?”
“I seed 'im at the wagon-shed a minute ago,” spoke up Miss Molly;
“he was expectin' you, an' didn't go to the field with the balance.”
“Tell 'im I want to see 'im.”
Both of the women went out, and the overseer came in.
“Bad state of affairs, Brother Cobb,” said the planter, as he shook
hands. They both sat down with their knees to the embers.
“That it is, Brother Pelham, an' I take it you didn't count on it
any more'n I did.”
“Never dreamt of it. Has he been doin' any better since he heerd I
was comin' to—whip 'im?”
“Not fer me, Brother Pelham. He hadn't done a lick fer me; but all
of his own accord, in the last week, he has broke and sowed all that
meadow-piece in wheat, an' is now harrowin' it down to hide it from the
birds. To do 'im jestice, I hadn't seed so much work done in six days
by any human bein' alive. He'll work for hisse'f, but he won't budge
Mr. Pelham broke into a soft, impulsive laugh, as if at the memory
“They all had a big joke on me out in North Carolina,” he said. “I
tol' 'em I was comin' home to whip a nigger, an' they wouldn't believe
a word of it. I reckon it is the fust time a body ever went so fur on
sech business. They 'lowed I was jest homesick an' wanted a' excuse to
“They don't know what a difficult subject we got to handle,” Cobb
replied. “You are, without doubt, the only man in seven states that
could whip 'im, Brother Pelham. I believe on my soul he'd kill anybody
else that'd tech 'im. He's got the strangest notions about the rights
of niggers I ever heerd from one of his kind. He's jest simply
“You're afeard of 'im, Brother Cobb, an' he's sharp enough to see
it; that's all.”
The overseer winced. “I don't reckon I'm any more so than any other
white man would be under the same circumstances. Henry mought not
strike back lick fer lick on the spot—I say he mought not; an' then
ag'in he mought—but he'd git even by some hook or crook, or I'm no
judge o' niggers.”
Mr. Pelham rose. “Whar is he?”
“Over in the wheat-field.”
“Well, you go over thar n' tell 'im I'm here, an' to come right away
down in the woods by the gum spring. I'll go down an' cut some hickory
withes an' wait fer 'im. The quicker it's done an' over, the deeper the
impression will be made on 'im. You see, I want 'im to realize that all
this trip is jest solely on his account. I'll start back early in the
mornin'. That will have its weight on his future conduct. An', Brother
Cobb, I can't—I jest can't afford to be bothered ag'in. My
business out thar at the lumber-camp won't admit of it. This whippin'
has got to do fer the rest of the year. I think he'll mind you when I
git through with 'im. I like 'im better'n any slave I ever owned, an'
I'd a thousand times ruther take the whippin' myself; but it's got to
Cobb took himself to Henry in the wheatfield, and the planter went
down into the edge of the woods near the spring. With his pocket- knife
he cut two slender hickory switches about five feet in length. He
trimmed off the out- shooting twigs and knots, and rounded the butts
From where he sat on a fallen log, he could see, across the boggy
swamp of bulrushes, the slight rise on which Henry was at work. He
could hear Henry's mellow, resonant “Haw” and “Gee,” as he drove his
mule and harrow from end to end of the field, and saw Cobb slowly
making his way toward him.
Mr. Pelham laid the switches down beside him, put his knife in his
pocket, and stroked his chin thoughtfully. Suddenly he felt a tight
sensation in his throat. The solitary figure of the negro as he trudged
along by the harrow seemed vaguely pathetic. Henry had always been such
a noble fellow, so reliable and trustworthy. They had really been, in
one way, more like brothers than master and slave. He had told Henry
secrets that he had confided to no other human being, and they had
laughed and cried together over certain adventures and sorrows. About
ten years before, Mr. Pelham's horse had run away and thrown him
against a tree and broken his leg. Henry had heard his cries and run to
him. They were two miles from the farmhouse, and it was a bitterly cold
day, but the stalwart negro had taken him in his arms and carried him
home and laid him down on his bed. There had been a great deal of
excitement about the house, and it was not until after the doctor had
come and dressed the broken limb that it was learned that Henry had
fallen in a swoon in his cabin and lain there unconscious for an hour,
his wife and children being away. Indeed, he had been almost as long
recovering as had been his master.
Henry had stopped his mule. Cobb had called to him, and was
approaching. Then Mr. Pelham knew that the overseer was delivering his
message, for the negro had turned his head and was looking toward the
woods which hid his master from view. Mr. Pelham felt himself flush all
over. Could he be going to whip Henry—really to lash his bare back
with those switches? How strange it seemed all at once! And that this
should be their first meeting after a two months' separation!
In his home-comings before, Uncle Henry had always been the first to
meet him with outstretched hand. But the negro had to be whipped. Mr.
Pelham had said it in North Carolina; he had said it to Cobb, and he
had written it to his wife. Yes, it must be done; and if done at all,
of course it must be done right.
He saw Henry hitch his mule to a chestnut- tree in the field and
Cobb turn to make his way back to the farm-house. Then he watched Henry
approaching till the bushes which skirted the field hid him from view.
There was no sound for several minutes except the rustling of the
fallen leaves in the woods behind him, and then Uncle Henry's head and
shoulders appeared above the broom-sedge near by.
“Howdy do, Marse Jasper?” he cried; and the next instant he broke
through the yellow sedge and stood before his master.
“Purty well, Henry.” Mr. Pelham could not refuse the black hand
which was extended, and which caught his with a hearty grasp. “I hope
you are as well as common, Henry?”
“Never better in my life, Marse Jasper.”
The planter had risen, but he now sat down beside his switches. For
a moment nothing was said. Uncle Henry awkwardly bent his body and his
neck to see if his mule were standing where he had left him, and his
master looked steadfastly at the ground.
“Sit down, Henry,” he said, presently; and the negro took a seat on
the extreme end of the log and folded his black, seamed hands over his
knee. “I want to talk to you first of all. Something of a very
unpleasant, unavoidable nature has got to take place betwixt us, an' I
want to give you a sound talkin' to beforehan'.”
“All right, Marse Jasper; I'm a-listenin'.” Henry looked again
toward his mule. “I did want to harrow that wheat down 'fore them birds
eat it up; but I got time, I reckon.”
The planter coughed and cleared his throat. He tried to cross his
short, fat legs by sliding the right one up to the knee of the left,
but owing to the lowness of the log, he was unable to do this, so he
left his legs to themselves, and with a hand on either side of him,
“Do you remember, Uncle Henry, twenty years ago, when you belonged
to old Heaton Pelzer an' got to hankerin' after that yellow girl of
mine jest after I bought her in South Carolina?”
“Mighty plain, Master Jasper, mighty plain.”
Henry's face showed a tendency to smile at the absurdity of the
“Lucinda was jest as much set after you, it seemed,” went on the
planter. “Old Pelzer was workin' you purty nigh to death on his pore,
wore-out land, an' pointedly refused to buy Lucinda so you could marry
her, nur he wouldn't consent to you marryin' a slave of mine. Ain't
“Yes, Marse Jasper, that's so, sir.”
“I had jest as many niggers as I could afford to keep, an' a sight
more. I was already up to my neck in debt, an' to buy you I knowed I'd
have to borrow money an' mortgage the last thing I had. But you come to
me night after night, when you could sneak off, an' begged an' begged
to be bought, so that I jest didn't have the heart to refuse. So, jest
to accommodate you, I got up the money an' bought you, payin' fully a
third more fer you than men of yore age was goin' at. You are married
now, an' got three as likely children as ever come into the world, an'
a big buxom wife that loves you, an' if I haven't treated you an' them
right I never heerd of it.”
“Never was a better master on earth, Marse Jasper. If thar is, I
hadn't never seed 'im.” Henry's face was full of emotion. He picked up
his slouch hat from the grass and folded it awkwardly on the log beside
“From that day till this,” the planter went on, “I've been over my
head in debt, an' I can really trace it to that transaction. It was the
straw that broke the camel's back, as the feller said. Well, now,
Henry, six months ago, when I saw that openin' to deal in lumber in
North Carolina, it seemed to me to be my chance to work out of debt, if
I could jest find somebody to look after my farm. I found a man, Henry
—a good, clever, honest man, as everybody said, an' a member of Big
Bethel Church. For a certain consideration he agreed to take charge.
That consideration I've paid in advance, an' it's gone; I couldn't git
“Now, how has it turned out? I had hardly got started out thar
before one of my niggers—the very one I relied on the most—has
played smash with all my plans. You begun by turnin' up yore nose at
Brother Cobb, an' then by openly disobeyin' 'im. Then he tried to
punish you—the right that the law gives a overseer—an' you up an'
dared him to tech you, an'—”
“Hold yore tongue till I'm through.”
“All right, Marse Jasper, but—”
“You openly defied 'im, that's enough; you broke up the order of the
whole thing, an' yore mistress was so upset that she had to send fer
me. Now, Henry, I hadn't never laid the lash on you in my life, an' I'd
rusher take it myself than to have to do it, but I hadn't come three
hundred miles jest to talk to you. I'm goin' to whip you, Henry, an'
I'm goin' to do it right, if thar's enough strength in my arm. You
needn't shake yore head an' sulk. No matter what you refused to let
Cobb an' the rest of 'em do, you are a-goin' to take what I'm goin' to
give you without a word, because you know it's just an' right.”
Henry's face was downcast, and his master could not see his eyes,
but a strange, rebellious fire had suddenly kindled in them, and he was
stubbornly silent. Mr. Pelham could not have dreamed of what was
passing in his mind.
“Henry, you an' me are both religious men,” said the planter, after
he had waited for a moment. “Let's kneel right down here by this log
an' commune with the Lord on this matter.”
Without a word the negro rose and knelt, his face in his hands, his
elbows on the log. There never had been a moment when Uncle Henry was
not ready to pray or listen to a prayer. He prided himself on his own
powers in that line, and had unbounded respect even for the less
skillful efforts of others. Mr. Pelham knelt very deliberately and
began to pray:
“Our heavenly Father, it is with extreme sadness an' sorrow that we
come to Thee this bright, sunny day. Our sins have been many, an' we
hardly know when our deeds are acceptable in Thy sight; but bless all
our efforts, we pray Thee, for the sake of Him that died for us, an'
let us not walk into error in our zeal to do Thy holy will.
“Lord, Thou knowest the hearts of Thy humble supplicant an' this man
beside him. Thou, through the existin' laws of this land, hast put him
into my care an' keepin' an' made me responsible to a human law for his
good or bad behavior. Lord, on this occasion it seems my duty to punish
him for disobedience, an' we pray Thee to sanction what is about to
take place with Thy grace. Let no 66 anger or malice rest in our hearts
during the performance of this disagreeable task, an' let the whole
redound to Thy glory, for ever an' ever, through the mercy of Thy Son,
our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Mr. Pelham rose to his feet stiffly, for he had touches of
rheumatism, and the ground was cold. He brushed his trousers, and laid
hold of his switches. But to his surprise, Henry had not risen. If it
had not been for the stiffness of his elbows; and the upright position
of his long feet, which stood on their toes erect as gate-posts, Mr.
Pelham might have thought that he had dropped asleep.
For a moment the planter stood silent, glancing first at the mass of
ill-clothed humanity at his feet, and then sweeping his eyes over the
quiet, rolling land which lay between him and the farmhouse. How
awfully still everything was! He saw Henry's cabin near the farmhouse.
Lucinda was out in the yard picking up chips, and one of Uncle Henry's
children was clinging to her skirts. The planter was very fond of
Lucinda, and he wondered what she would do if she knew he was about to
whip her husband. But why did the fellow not get up? Surely that was an
unusual way to act. In some doubt as to what he ought to do, Mr. Pelham
sat down again. It should not be said of him that he had ever
interrupted any man's prayers to whip him. As he sat down, the log
rolled slightly, the elbows of the negro slid off the bark, and Henry's
head almost came in contact with the log. But he took little notice of
the accident, and glancing at his master from the corner of his eye, he
deliberately replaced his elbows, pressed his hands together, and began
to pray aloud:
“Our heavenly Father.” These words were spoken in a deep, sonorous
tone, and as Uncle Henry paused for an instant the echoes groaned and
murmured and died against the hill behind him. Mr. Pelham bowed his
head to his hand. He had heard Henry pray before, and now he dreaded
hearing him, he hardly knew why. He felt a strange creeping sensation
in his spine.
“Our heavenly Father,” the slave repeated, in his mellow sing-song
tone, “Thou knowest that I am Thy humble servant. Thou knowest that I
have brought to Thee all my troubles since my change of heart—that I
have left nothing hidden from Thee, who art my Maker, my Redeemer, an'
my Lord. Thou knowest that I have for a long time harbored the belief
that the black man has some rights that he don't git under existin'
laws, but which, Thy will be done, will come in due time, like the
harvest follows the plantin'. Thou knowest, an' I know, that Henry
Pelham is nigher to Thee than a dumb brute, an' that it ain't no way to
lift a nigger up to beat 'im like a horse or a ox. I have said this to
Thee in secret prayer, time an' ag'in, an' Thou knowest how I stand on
it, if my master don't. Thou knowest that before Thee I have vowed that
I would die before any man, white or black, kin beat the blood out'n my
back. I may have brought trouble an' vexation to Marse Jasper, I don't
dispute that, but he had no business puttin' me under that low-down,
white-trash overseer an' goin' off so far. Heavenly Father, thou
knowest I love Marse Jasper, an' I would work fer 'im till I die; but
he is ready to put the lash to me an' disgrace me before my wife an'
children. Give my arms strength, Lord, to defend myself even against
him—against him who has, up to now, won my respect an' love by
forbearance an' kindness. He has said it, Lord—he has said that he
will whip me; but I've said, also, that no man shall do it. Give me
strength to battle fer the right, an' if he is hurt—bad hurt—may
the Lord have mercy on him! This I ask through the mercy an' the blood
of the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”
Henry rose awkwardly to his feet and looked down at his master, who
sat silent on the log. Mr. Pelham's face was pale. There was a look of
indecision under the pallor. He held one of the switches by the butt in
his hand, and with its tapering end tapped the brown leaves between his
legs. He looked at the imperturbable countenance of the negro for fully
a minute before he spoke.
“Do you mean to say, Henry,” he asked, “that you are a-goin' to
resist me by force?”
“I reckon I am, Marse Jasper, if nothin' else won't do you. That's
what I have promised the Lord time an' ag'in since Cobb come to boss
me. I wasn't thinkin' about you then, Marse Jasper, because I didn't
'low you ever would try such a thing; but I said any white man,
an' I can't take it back.”
The planter looked up at the stalwart man towering over him. Henry
could toss him about like a ball. In his imagination he had pictured
the faithful fellow bowed before him, patiently submitting to his
blows, but the present contingency had never entered his mind. He tried
to be angry, but the good natured face of the slave he loved made it
“Sit down thar, Henry,” he said; and when the negro had obeyed, he
continued, almost appealingly: “I have told the folks in North Carolina
that I was comin' home to whip you, you see. I have told yore mistress,
an' I have told Cobb. I'll look like a purty fool if I don't do it.”
A regretful softness came into the face of the negro, and he hung
his head, and for a moment picked at the bark of the log with his long
“I'm mighty sorry, Marse Jasper,” he answered, after remaining
silent for a while. “But you see I've done promised the Lord; you
wouldn't have me—what do all them folks amount to beside the Lord?
No; a body ought to be careful about what he's promised the Almighty.”
Mr. Pelham had no reply forthcoming. He realized that he was simply
not going to whip Uncle Henry, and he did not want to appear ridiculous
in the eyes of his friends. The negro saw by his master's silence that
he was going to escape punishment, and that made him more humble and
sympathetic than ever. He was genuinely sorry for his master.
“You have done told 'em all you was goin' to whip me, I know, Marse
Jasper; but why don't you jest let 'em think you done it? I don't keer,
jest so I kin keep my word. Lucinda ain't a-goin' to believe I'd take
At this loophole of escape the face of the planter brightened. For a
moment he felt like grasping Henry's hand: then a cloud came over his
“But,” he demurred, “what about yore future conduct? Will you mind
what Cobb tells you?”
“I jest can't do that, Marse Jasper. Me 'n him jest can't git along
together. He ain't no man at all.”
“Well, what on earth am I to do? I've got to have an overseer, an'
I've got to go back to North Carolina.”
“You don't have to have no overseer fer me, Marse Jasper. Have I
ever failed to keep a promise to you, Marse Jasper?”
“No; but I can't be here.”
“I'll tell you what I'll do, Marse Jasper. Would you be satisfied
with my part of the work if I tend all the twenty-acre piece beyond my
cabin, an' make a good crop on it, an' look after all the cattle an'
stock, an' clear the woodland on the hill an' cord up the firewood?
“You couldn't do it, Henry.”
“I'll come mighty nigh it, Marse Jasper, if you'll let me be my own
boss en' tee responsible to you when you git back. Mr. Cobb kin boss
the rest of 'em. They don't keer how much he swings his whip an' struts
“Henry, I'll do it. I can trust you a sight better than I can Cobb.
I know you will keep yore word. But you will not say anything about—
“Not a word, Marse Jasper. They all may 'low I'm half dead, if they
want to.” Then the two men laughed together heartily and parted.
The overseer and the two white women were waiting for Mr. Pelham in
the backyard as he emerged from the woods and came toward the house.
Mrs. Pelham opened the gate for him, scanning his face anxiously.
“I was afeard you an' Henry had had some difficulty,” she said, in a
tone of relief; “he has been that hard to manage lately.'
Mr. Pelham grunted and laughed in disdain.
“I'll bet he was the hardest you ever tackled,” ventured Cobb.
“Anybody can manage him,” the planter replied—“anybody that has
got enough determination. You see Henry knows me.”
“But do you think he'll obey my orders after you go back?” Cobb had
followed Mr. Pelham into the sitting-room, and he anxiously waited for
the reply to his question.
The planter stooped to spit into a corner of the chimney, and then
slowly and thoughtfully stroked his chin with his hand. “That's the
only trouble, Brother Cobb,” he said, thrusting his fat hands into the
pockets of his trousers and turning his back to the fire-place; “that's
the only drawback. To be plain with you, Brother Cobb, I'm afeard you
don't inspire respect; men that don't own niggers seldom do. I believe
on my soul that nigger would die fightin' before he'd obey yore orders.
To tell the truth, I had to arrange a plan, an' that is one reason—
one reason—why I was down thar so long. After what happened today"
(Mr. Pelham spoke significantly and stroked his chin again) “he'll mind
me jest as well at a distance as if I was here on the spot. He'd have a
mortal dread of havin' me come so fur again.”
“I hope you wasn't cruel, Mr. Pelham,” said Mrs. Pelham, who had
just come in. “Henry's so good-hearted—”
“Oh, he'll git over it,” replied the planter, ambiguously. “But, as
I was goin' on to say, I had to fix another plan. I have set him a sort
o' task to do while I'm away, an' I believe he'll do it, Brother Cobb.
So all you'll have to do will be to look after the other niggers.”
The plan suited Cobb exactly; but when Mr. Pelham came home the
following summer it was hard to hear him say that Uncle Henry had
accomplished more than any three of the other negroes.