Willst Du Deine Macht verkunden,
Wahle sie die frei von Sunden,
Steh'n in Deinem ew'gen Haus!
Deine Geister sende aus!
Die Unsterblichen, die Reinen,
Die nicht fuhlen, die nicht weinen!
Nicht die zarte Jungfrau wahle,
Nicht der Hirtin weiche Seele!
[On the meaning of the bar of music]
Once upon a time I taught school in the hills ofTennessee, where the broad dark vale of the Mississippi begins to roll andcrumple to greet the Alleghanies. I was a Fisk student then, and all Fisk menthought that Tennessee -- beyond the Veil -- was theirs alone, and in vacationtime they sallied forth in lusty bands to meet the county school-commissioners.Young and happy, I too went, and I shall not soon forget that summer, seventeenyears ago.
First, there was a Teachers' Institute at thecounty-seat; and there distinguished guests of the superintendent taught theteachers fractions and spelling and other mysteries, -- white
teachers in the morning, Negroes at night. A picnic now and then, and a supper,and the rough world was softened by laughter and song. I remember how -- But Iwander.
There came a day when all the teachers left the Instituteand began the hunt for schools. I learn from hearsay (for my mother wasmortally afraid of firearms) that the hunting of ducks and bears and men iswonderfully interesting, but I am sure that the man who has never hunted acountry school has something to learn of the pleasures of the chase. I see nowthe white, hot roads lazily rise and fall and wind before me under the burningJuly sun; I feel the deep weariness of heart and limb as ten, eight, six milesstretch relentlessly ahead; I feel my heart sink heavily as I hear again andagain, "Got a teacher? Yes." So I walked on and on -- horses were tooexpensive -- until I had wandered beyond railways, beyond stage lines, to aland of "varmints" and rattlesnakes, where the coming of a strangerwas an event, and men lived and died in the shadow of one blue hill.
Sprinkled over hill and dale lay cabins and farmhouses,shut out from the world by the forests and the rolling hills toward the east.There I found at last a little school. Josie told me of it; she was a thin,homely girl of twenty, with a dark-brown face and thick, hard hair. I hadcrossed the stream at Watertown, and rested under the great willows; then I hadgone to the little cabin in the lot where Josie was resting on her way to town.The gaunt farmer made me welcome, and Josie, hearing my errand, told meanxiously that they wanted a school over the hill; that but once since the warhad a teacher been there; that she herself longed to learn, -- and thus she ranon, talking fast and loud, with much earnestness and energy.
Next morning I crossed the tall round hill, lingered tolook at the blue and yellow mountains stretching toward the Carolinas, thenplunged into the wood, and came out at Josie's home. It was a dull framecottage with four rooms, perched just below the brow of the hill, amidpeach-trees. The father was a quiet, simple soul, calmly ignorant, with notouch of vulgarity. The mother was different, -- strong, bustling, andenergetic, with a quick, restless tongue, and an ambition to live "likefolks." There was a crowd of children. Two boys
had gone away. There remained two growing girls; a shy midget of eight; John,tall, awkward, and eighteen; Jim, younger, quicker, and better looking; and twobabies of indefinite age. Then there was Josie herself. She seemed to be thecentre of the family: always busy at service, or at home, or berry-picking; alittle nervous and inclined to scold, like her mother, yet faithful, too, likeher father. She had about her a certain fineness, the shadow of an unconsciousmoral heroism that would willingly give all of life to make life broader,deeper, and fuller for her and hers. I saw much of this family afterwards, andgrew to love them for their honest efforts to be decent and comfortable, andfor their knowledge of their own ignorance. There was with them no affectation.The mother would scold the father for being so "easy"; Josie wouldroundly berate the boys for carelessness; and all knew that it was a hard thingto dig a living out of a rocky side-hill.
I secured the school. I remember the day I rode horsebackout to the commissioner's house with a pleasant young white fellow who wantedthe white school. The road ran down the bed of a stream; the sun laughed andthe water jingled, and we rode on. "Come in," said the commissioner,-- "come in. Have a seat. Yes, that certificate will do. Stay to dinner.What do you want a month?" "Oh," thought I, "this islucky"; but even then fell the awful shadow of the Veil, for they atefirst, then I -- alone.
The schoolhouse was a log hut, where Colonel Wheeler usedto shelter his corn. It sat in a lot behind a rail fence and thorn bushes, nearthe sweetest of springs. There was an entrance where a door once was, andwithin, a massive rickety fireplace; great chinks between the logs served aswindows. Furniture was scarce. A pale blackboard crouched in the corner. Mydesk was made of three boards, reinforced at critical points, and my chair,borrowed from the landlady, had to be returned every night. Seats for thechildren -- these puzzled me much. I was haunted by a New England vision ofneat little desks and chairs, but, alas! the reality was rough plank bencheswithout backs, and at times without legs. They had the one virtue of makingnaps dangerous, -- possibly fatal, for the floor was not to be trusted.
It was a hot morning late in July when the school opened.I trembled when I heard the patter of little feet down the dusty road, and sawthe growing row of dark solemn faces and bright eager eyes facing me. Firstcame Josie and her brothers and sisters. The longing to know, to be a studentin the great school at Nashville, hovered like a star above this child-womanamid her work and worry, and she studied doggedly. There were the Dowells fromtheir farm over toward Alexandria, -- Fanny, with her smooth black face andwondering eyes; Martha, brown and dull; the pretty girl-wife of a brother, andthe younger brood.
There were the Burkes, -- two brown and yellow lads, anda tiny haughty-eyed girl. Fat Reuben's little chubby girl came, with goldenface and old-gold hair, faithful and solemn. 'Thenie was on hand early, -- ajolly, ugly, good-hearted girl, who slyly dipped snuff and looked after herlittle bow- legged brother. When her mother could spare her, 'Tildy came, -- amidnight beauty, with starry eyes and tapering limbs; and her brother,correspondingly homely. And then the big boys, -- the hulking Lawrences; thelazy Neills, unfathered sons of mother and daughter; Hickman, with a stoop inhis shoulders; and the rest.
There they sat, nearly thirty of them, on the roughbenches, their faces shading from a pale cream to a deep brown, the little feetbare and swinging, the eyes full of expectation, with here and there a twinkleof mischief, and the hands grasping Webster's blue-black spelling-book. I lovedmy school, and the fine faith the children had in the wisdom of their teacherwas truly marvellous. We read and spelled together, wrote a little, pickedflowers, sang, and listened to stories of the world beyond the hill. At timesthe school would dwindle away, and I would start out. I would visit MunEddings, who lived in two very dirty rooms, and ask why little Lugene, whoseflaming face seemed ever ablaze with the dark-red hair uncombed, was absent alllast week, or why I missed so often the inimitable rags of Mack and Ed. Thenthe father, who worked Colonel Wheeler's farm on shares, would tell me how thecrops needed the boys; and the thin, slovenly mother, whose face was prettywhen washed, assured me that Lugene must mind the baby. "But we'll startthem again next week."
When the Lawrences stopped, I knew that the doubts of the old folks aboutbook-learning had conquered again, and so, toiling up the hill, and getting asfar into the cabin as possi- ble, I put Cicero "pro Archia Poeta"into the simplest En- glish with local applications, and usually convinced them-- for a week or so.
On Friday nights I often went home with some of thechildren, -- sometimes to Doc Burke's farm. He was a great, loud, thin Black,ever working, and trying to buy the seventy- five acres of hill and dale wherehe lived; but people said that he would surely fail, and the "white folkswould get it all." His wife was a magnificent Amazon, with saffron faceand shining hair, uncorseted and barefooted, and the children were strong andbeautiful. They lived in a one-and-a-half- room cabin in the hollow of thefarm, near the spring. The front room was full of great fat white beds,scrupulously neat; and there were bad chromos on the walls, and a tired centre-table. In the tiny back kitchen I was often invited to "take out andhelp" myself to fried chicken and wheat biscuit, "meat" and cornpone, string-beans and berries. At first I used to be a little alarmed at theapproach of bedtime in the one lone bedroom, but embarrassment was very deftlyavoided. First, all the children nodded and slept, and were stowed away in onegreat pile of goose feathers; next, the mother and the father discreetlyslipped away to the kitchen while I went to bed; then, blowing out the dimlight, they retired in the dark. In the morning all were up and away before Ithought of awaking. Across the road, where fat Reuben lived, they all wentoutdoors while the teacher retired, because they did not boast the luxury of akitchen.
I liked to stay with the Dowells, for they had four roomsand plenty of good country fare. Uncle Bird had a small, rough farm, all woodsand hills, miles from the big road; but he was full of tales, -- he preachednow and then, -- and with his children, berries, horses, and wheat he was happyand prosperous. Often, to keep the peace, I must go where life was less lovely;for instance, 'Tildy's mother was incorrigibly dirty, Reuben's larder waslimited seriously, and herds of untamed insects wandered over the Eddingses'beds. Best of all I loved to go to Josie's, and sit on the porch, eating
peaches, while the mother bustled and talked: how Josie had bought thesewing-machine; how Josie worked at service in winter, but that four dollars amonth was "mighty little" wages; how Josie longed to go away toschool, but that it "looked like" they never could get far enoughahead to let her; how the crops failed and the well was yet unfinished; and,finally, how "mean" some of the white folks were.
For two summers I lived in this little world; it was dulland humdrum. The girls looked at the hill in wistful longing, and the boysfretted and haunted Alexandria. Alexandria was "town," -- astraggling, lazy village of houses, churches, and shops, and an aristocracy ofToms, Dicks, and Captains. Cuddled on the hill to the north was the village ofthe colored folks, who lived in three-or four-room unpainted cottages, someneat and homelike, and some dirty. The dwellings were scattered ratheraimlessly, but they centred about the twin temples of the hamlet, theMethodist, and the Hard-Shell Baptist churches. These, in turn, leaned gingerlyon a sad- colored schoolhouse. Hither my little world wended its crooked way onSunday to meet other worlds, and gossip, and wonder, and make the weeklysacrifice with frenzied priest at the altar of the "old-timereligion." Then the soft melody and mighty cadences of Negro songfluttered and thundered.
I have called my tiny community a world, and so itsisolation made it; and yet there was among us but a half- awakened commonconsciousness, sprung from common joy and grief, at burial, birth, or wedding;from a common hardship in poverty, poor land, and low wages; and, above all,from the sight of the Veil that hung between us and Opportunity. All thiscaused us to think some thoughts to- gether; but these, when ripe for speech,were spoken in various languages. Those whose eyes twenty-five and more yearsbefore had seen "the glory of the coming of the Lord," saw in everypresent hindrance or help a dark fatalism bound to bring all things right inHis own good time. The mass of those to whom slavery was a dim recollection ofchildhood found the world a puzzling thing: it asked little of them, and theyanswered with little, and yet it ridiculed their offering. Such a paradox theycould not understand, and therefore sank into listless indifference, orshiftlessness, or reckless bravado.
There were, however, some -- such as Josie, Jim, and Ben -- to whom War, Hell,and Slavery were but childhood tales, whose young appetites had been whetted toan edge by school and story and half-awakened thought. Ill could they becontent, born without and beyond the World. And their weak wings beat againsttheir barriers, -- barriers of caste, of youth, of life; at last, in dangerousmoments, against everything that opposed even a whim.
The ten years that follow youth, the years when first therealization comes that life is leading somewhere, -- these were the years thatpassed after I left my little school. When they were past, I came by chanceonce more to the walls of Fisk University, to the halls of the chapel ofmelody. As I lingered there in the joy and pain of meeting old school-friends,there swept over me a sudden longing to pass again beyond the blue hill, and tosee the homes and the school of other days, and to learn how life had gone withmy school-children; and I went.
Josie was dead, and the gray-haired mother said simply,"We've had a heap of trouble since you've been away." I had fearedfor Jim. With a cultured parentage and a social caste to uphold him, he mighthave made a venturesome merchant or a West Point cadet. But here he was, angrywith life and reckless; and when Fanner Durham charged him with stealing wheat,the old man had to ride fast to escape the stones which the furious fool hurledafter him. They told Jim to run away; but he would not run, and the constablecame that afternoon. It grieved Josie, and great awkward John walked nine milesevery day to see his little brother through the bars of Lebanon jail. At lastthe two came back together in the dark night. The mother cooked supper, andJosie emptied her purse, and the boys stole away. Josie grew thin and silent,yet worked the more. The hill became steep for the quiet old father, and withthe boys away there was little to do in the valley. Josie helped them to sellthe old farm, and they moved nearer town. Brother Dennis, the carpenter, builta new house with six rooms; Josie toiled a year in Nashville, and brought backninety dollars to furnish the house and change it to a home.
When the spring came, and the birds twittered, and thestream ran proud and full, little sister Lizzie, bold and thoughtless, flushedwith the passion of youth, bestowed herself on the tempter, and brought home anameless child. Josie shivered and worked on, with the vision of schooldays allfled, with a face wan and tired, -- worked until, on a summer's day, some onemarried another; then Josie crept to her mother like a hurt child, and slept --and sleeps.
I paused to scent the breeze as I entered the valley. TheLawrences have gone, -- father and son forever, -- and the other son lazilydigs in the earth to live. A new young widow rents out their cabin to fatReuben. Reuben is a Baptist preacher now, but I fear as lazy as ever, thoughhis cabin has three rooms; and little Ella has grown into a bouncing woman, andis ploughing corn on the hot hillside. There are babies a-plenty, and onehalf-witted girl. Across the valley is a house I did not know before, and thereI found, rocking one baby and expecting another, one of my schoolgirls, adaughter of Uncle Bird Dowell. She looked somewhat worried with her new duties,but soon bristled into pride over her neat cabin and the tale of her thriftyhusband, and the horse and cow, and the farm they were planning to buy.
My log schoolhouse was gone. In its place stood Progress;and Progress, I understand, is necessarily ugly. The crazy foundation stonesstill marked the former site of my poor little cabin, and not far away, on sixweary boulders, perched a jaunty board house, perhaps twenty by thirty feet,with three windows and a door that locked. Some of the window- glass wasbroken, and part of an old iron stove lay mournfully under the house. I peepedthrough the window half reverently, and found things that were more familiar.The blackboard had grown by about two feet, and the seats were still withoutbacks. The county owns the lot now, I hear, and every year there is a sessionof school. As I sat by the spring and looked on the Old and the New I feltglad, very glad, and yet --
After two long drinks I started on. There was the greatdouble log-house on the corner. I remembered the broken, blighted family thatused to live there. The strong, hard face of the mother, with its wilderness ofhair, rose before me. She had driven her husband away, and while I taughtschool a
strange man lived there, big and jovial, and people talked. I felt sure thatBen and 'Tildy would come to naught from such a home. But this is an odd world;for Ben is a busy farmer in Smith County, "doing well, too," theysay, and he had cared for little 'Tildy until last spring, when a lover marriedher. A hard life the lad had led, toiling for meat, and laughed at because hewas homely and crooked. There was Sam Carlon, an impudent old skinflint, whohad definite notions about "niggers," and hired Ben a summer andwould not pay him. Then the hungry boy gathered his sacks together, and inbroad daylight went into Carlon's corn; and when the hard- fisted farmer setupon him, the angry boy flew at him like a beast. Doc Burke saved a murder anda lynching that day.
The story reminded me again of the Burkes, and animpatience seized me to know who won in the battle, Doc or the seventy-fiveacres. For it is a hard thing to make a farm out of nothing, even in fifteenyears. So I hurried on, thinking of the Burkes. They used to have a certainmagnificent barbarism about them that I liked. They were never vulgar, neverimmoral, but rather rough and primitive, with an unconventionality that spentitself in loud guffaws, slaps on the back, and naps in the corner. I hurried bythe cottage of the misborn Neill boys. It was empty, and they were grown intofat, lazy farm-hands. I saw the home of the Hickmans, but Albert, with hisstooping shoulders, had passed from the world. Then I came to the Burkes' gateand peered through; the enclosure looked rough and untrimmed, and yet therewere the same fences around the old farm save to the left, where lay twenty-five other acres. And lo! the cabin in the hollow had climbed the hill andswollen to a half-finished six-room cottage.
The Burkes held a hundred acres, but they were still indebt. Indeed, the gaunt father who toiled night and day would scarcely be happyout of debt, being so used to it. Some day he must stop, for his massive frameis showing decline. The mother wore shoes, but the lion-like physique of otherdays was broken. The children had grown up. Rob, the image of his father, wasloud and rough with laughter. Birdie, my school baby of six, had grown to apicture of maiden beauty, tall and tawny. "Edgar is gone," said themother, with head half bowed, -- "gone to work in Nashville; he and hisfather couldn't agree."
Little Doc, the boy born since the time of my school, tookme horseback down the creek next morning toward Farmer Dowell's. The road andthe stream were battling for mastery, and the stream had the better of it. Wesplashed and waded, and the merry boy, perched behind me, chattered andlaughed. He showed me where Simon Thompson had bought a bit of ground and ahome; but his daughter Lana, a plump, brown, slow girl, was not there. She hadmarried a man and a farm twenty miles away. We wound on down the stream till wecame to a gate that I did not recognize, but the boy insisted that it was"Uncle Bird's." The farm was fat with the growing crop. In thatlittle valley was a strange stillness as I rode up; for death and marriage hadstolen youth and left age and childhood there. We sat and talked that nightafter the chores were done. Uncle Bird was grayer, and his eyes did not see sowell, but he was still jovial. We talked of the acres bought, -- one hundredand twenty-five, -- of the new guest- chamber added, of Martha's marrying. Thenwe talked of death: Fanny and Fred were gone; a shadow hung over the otherdaughter, and when it lifted she was to go to Nashville to school. At last wespoke of the neighbors, and as night fell, Uncle Bird told me how, on a nightlike that, 'Thenie came wandering back to her home over yonder, to escape theblows of her husband. And next morning she died in the home that her littlebow-legged brother, working and saving, had bought for their widowed mother.
My journey was done, and behind me lay hill and dale, andLife and Death. How shall man measure Progress there where the dark-faced Josielies? How many heartfuls of sorrow shall balance a bushel of wheat? How hard athing is life to the lowly, and yet how human and real! And all this life andlove and strife and failure, -- is it the twilight of nightfall or the flush ofsome faint-dawning day?
Thus sadly musing, I rode to Nashville in the Jim Crowcar.