Sapphira and the Slave Girl, by Willa Cather

Book II

Nancy and Till


On Thursday morning two leather coach trunks were brought down from the garret, and Nancy was allowed, for the first time, to pack them, under Till’s direction. Besides the trunks, there was a handy Whitford-made wooden box for shoes, as the poor Mistress had to carry so many pairs. The bandboxes were to go inside the carriage.

By eleven o’clock on Friday morning Mrs. Colbert was dressed and bonneted. All the household gathered round the carriage to see her off. Fat Lizzie brought the lunch-box, for light refreshment on the road to Winchester. The miller came up from the mill to lift his wife into the carriage. Nancy, in her Sunday bonnet and shawl, stood by, expecting to sit on the box with Uncle Jeff, but Mrs. Colbert told her she was to ride inside. The servants called good wishes as Jeff drove off, and Henry walked beside the coach as far as the mill. Nancy had cast an appealing glance at her mother when she learned she was to sit beside the Mistress. But Till knew the Dodderidge manners; if the girl was taken as a companion, she would be treated as such.

After Till had closed the Mistress’s room, she went down to the mill to “straighten up” for Mr. Henry. She had her own sense of the appropriate, and she thought the miller’s room right for him, in the same way that Captain Dodderidge’s saddle room had always been right. She approved of the polished chestnut bedstead, and the counterpane in large blue and white squares, woven by the same Mrs. Cowper who made carpets. The four brass candlesticks, by which the miller read after dark, were clean and shining; only a little tallow from last night had dripped down the stems. The deep chair beside the reading-table was made of bent hickory withes, very strong and well fitted to the back. Till had wanted to make cushions for this chair, but the Master told her cushions were for women. She was glad to see that Nancy had kept Mr. Henry’s copper pieces bright: she knew he set great store by these.

Between the whitewashed uprights that held the board walls together, the miller had fitted wooden shelves. On these he kept sharp and delicate tools, which the mill-hands were on no account allowed to touch, and a row of copper bowls and tankards which had been his grandfather’s.

Nancy had been keeping the mill room in order ever since she was twelve years old. There was nothing down there that could be damaged or broken, the Mistress had remarked to Till; yet the work would be training of a sort.

This morning Till examined everything critically; the bed-cords, the sheets and blankets, the hand wash-basin, the drawer with soap and towels for the miller’s private use. She couldn’t have kept the room better herself, she thought. On her way back to the house Till fell to wondering for the hundredth time why Nancy had fallen out of favour with the Mistress. To be sure, until lately Miss Sapphy had pampered the girl too much; but it wasn’t a Dodderidge trait to turn on anybody they had once taken a fancy to. Nancy herself, Till knew, suspected fat Lizzie as the troublemaker, but she had never said why.

Old Washington could have given Till some hint as to how this change in the Mistress had come about; but Washington was close-mouthed. Long service had taught him that tattling was sure to get a house-man into trouble.

Nearly a year ago, in the month of May, an unfortunate incident had occurred. The Mistress, sitting at the table after her husband had finished his breakfast and gone to the mill, heard loud voices from the kitchen. The windows and doors were open to let the fresh spring air blow through the house. She recognized fat Lizzie’s rolling tones and suspected she was bullying one of the other servants. Washington was standing behind the Mistress’s chair. She beckoned him to help her rise, took his arm, and limped painfully to the back door.

This was what she heard (not Lizzie’s voice, now, but Nancy’s): “You dasn’t talk to me that way, Lizzie. I won’t bear it! I’ll go to the Master.”

Then Lizzie, with a big laugh: “Co’se you’ll go to Master! Ain’t dat jest what I been tellin’ you? You think you mighty nigh owns dat mill. Runnin’ down all times a-day and night, carryin’ bokays to him. Oh, I seen you many a time! pickin’ vi’lets an’ bleedin’- hearts an’ hidin’ ’em under your apron. Yiste’day you took him down de chicken livers fur his lunch I fried for Missus! You’re sure runnin’ de mill room wid a high han’, Miss Yaller Gal, an’ you’se always down yonder when you’se wanted.”

“‘Tain’t so! I always hurries. I jest stays long enough to dust de flour away dat gits over everything, an’ to make his bed cumfa’ble fur him.”

“Lawdy, Lawdy! An’ you makes his bed cumfa’ble fur him? Ain’t dat nice! I speck! Look out you don’t do it once too many. Den it ain’t so fine, when somethin’ begin to show on you, Miss Yaller Face.”

Through Lizzie’s lewd laughter broke the frantic voice of a young thing bursting into tears.

“I won’t stay here to listen to your nasty tongue! An’ him de good kind man to every nigger on de place. Shame on you, you bad woman!” Nancy rushed out of the kitchen sobbing, her face buried in her hands. She did not see her mistress standing in the doorway.

That very night Nancy was ordered to bring her straw tick up from Till’s cabin and sleep on the floor outside Mrs. Colbert’s bedroom door. She had been sleeping there ever since.

Through the summer, lying outside the Mistress’s door was not a hardship, — the girl had always slept on the floor. But when the winter came on, drafts blew through the long hall up at the big house, and even when she went to bed with her yarn stockings on and had heavy quilts over her, the cold kept her awake in the long hours before daybreak.

On nights when the miller did not go down to the mill, but slept in the Mistress’s room, and she was not supposed to need a servant ready at call, Nancy was sent running across the back yard to Till’s cabin, with her tick in her arms and a glad smile on her face. She loved that cabin, and all her mother’s ways. Till and old Jeff slept in the “good room” where there was a bedstead. Nancy spread her mattress on the kitchen floor, where she could watch the firelight flicker on the whitewashed walls as the logs burnt down. There she felt snug, like when she was a little girl. And toward morning she could hear all the homelike noises close at hand: Uncle Jeff snoring, the roosters crowing, the barn dogs barking. Her mammy would maybe come and put an extra quilt over her, and then she would drift off to sleep again.

A few days after Nancy had begun to make her bed outside her mistress’s door, the miller came to his breakfast one morning with a grim face. He greeted his wife soberly, sat down, and began to eat his ham and eggs in silence. When his second cup of coffee had been put at his place, he said quietly:

“You may go, Washington, until your mistress rings for you.”

As soon as they were alone he lifted his eyes and looked across the table at his wife.

“Sapphira, do you know who has been coming down to clean the mill room lately?”

She looked up artlessly from her plate. “I think it was Bluebell. Don’t tell me she meddled with your things!”

“Bluebell; the laziest, trashiest wench on the place!”

“She’ll learn, Henry. If she doesn’t take hold, I’ll send Till down to make her step lively.”

“She’ll do no stepping at all in the mill. If I see her there again, I’ll put her out. Nancy is to look after the mill room, as she always has done.”

“But Nancy is old enough now to be trained for a parlour maid. If you won’t have Bluebell, try one of Martha’s girls. Till has all the housekeeping to do now, since I can’t get about. She needs Nancy here.”

The miller was silent for a moment. His first flush of anger had passed. When he looked up again, he spoke quietly.

“Of course the blacks on this place belong to you, and I have never interfered with your management of them. But I warn you, Sapphira, that I will not have any of the wenches coming down to the mill. I don’t mean to break in another girl. Nancy is quiet and quick. She knows how I want things, and she puts them that way. I must ask you to spare her to me for a little while every morning.”

Mrs. Colbert laughed lightly. “Oh, certainly, if you feel that way about it. Why take a small matter so seriously? It’s of no importance to me who makes my bed,” she added with just a shade of scorn.

“Yes, it is. You wouldn’t have anybody but Till fix your room. It’s not my bed I care about. It’s the girl’s quiet ways and respectful manner, and that she never stops to gossip with my mill-hands.”

He said no more, but went out into the hall and took up his wide-brimmed hat — this morning white with two days’ flour-dust.

When Nancy first began to take care of the mill room, she usually went down while the Master was at breakfast. Sometimes she had to go earlier, to take his freshly ironed shirts and underwear and put them in his chest of drawers before he locked it for the day. After a while she fell into the habit of going early, because she got a smile, along with his “Good morning, child.” After her mother and Mrs. Blake, there was no one in the world she loved so much as the Master. She had never had a harsh word from him — not many words at any time, to be sure. But his kindly greeting made her happy; that, and the feeling she was of some use to him.

Once, on a spring morning when the yellow Easter flowers (jonquils) were just bursting into bloom, she had gathered a handful on her way to the mill and put them in one of the copper tankards on the shelf. She thought the yellow flowers looked pretty in the copper. The miller had already gone to breakfast. She didn’t know whether she ought to leave them there or not; he might not like her taking such a liberty.

The next morning the flowers were still in the tankard. The miller was stropping his razor. He turned round as she came in.

“Good morning, child. I wonder who brought me some smoke-pipes down here?”

Nancy’s yellow cheeks blushed pink. “I just happened to see ’em as I was runnin’ down, Mr. Henry. I put ’em in water to keep ’em fresh. An’ I reckon I forgot ’em.”

“Just leave them there. I like to see flowers in that stein. My father used to drink his malt out of it.”

After that, when she could do so unobserved, Nancy often stopped to pick a bunch of whatever flowers were coming on, and took them down to the mill under her apron.

The miller was a little disappointed when Nancy did not tap at his door before he started for the house, but he never suggested that she come earlier, or delayed his departure by one minute. His silver watch was always beside him while he shaved, and when the hand reached five minutes to eight he put on his hat. The Colbert men had a bad reputation where women were concerned. That was why, in spite of her resemblance to the portrait painter from Cuba, Nancy was often counted as one of the Colbert bastards. Some people said Guy Colbert was her father, others put it on Jacob. Although Henry was a true Colbert in nature, he had not behaved like one, and he had never been charged with a bastard.

The miller lived a rather lonely life, indeed. After supper he usually sat for an hour in the parlour with his wife, then went back to the mill and read. The pages of his Bible were worn thin, and the margins sprinkled with cross-references. When he had lit the four candles on his table and settled himself in his hickory chair, he read with his mind as well as his eyes. And he questioned. He met with contradictions, and they troubled him. He found a comforter in John Bunyan, who also had been troubled. Sometimes he had a bad night, and was awake and dressed a long while before little Zach ran down from the house with his kettle of shaving water. Then he used to watch to see the yellow girl come winding along the garden path: so happy she was — free from care, like the flowers and the birds. He had never realized, until Bluebell took her place for two days, how much love and delicate feeling Nancy put into making his bare room as he liked it. Even when she was scarcely more than a child, he had felt her eagerness to please him. As she grew older he came to identify her with Mercy, Christiana’s sweet companion. When he read in the second part of his book, he saw Nancy’s face and figure plain in Mercy.


On the evening after Mrs. Colbert’s departure for town, Till felt lonely and downcast. All day she had been busy and resolutely cheerful. Now, as the sun was going down behind the hills, she sat on the doorstep of her cabin watching the long twilight come on.

This was the first year she had ever missed the Easter trip to Winchester with her mistress. She was glad Nancy had been chosen, because it seemed to mean that Miss Sapphy’s unaccountable harshness toward the girl was melting. But deep in her heart Till felt slighted and left behind. It was always a great treat for her to stay in Judge Halstead’s town house, and to help serve at the dinner parties which Mrs. Halstead gave after Easter. The third sister, Mrs. Bushwell, who now owned Chestnut Hill, came to Winchester at that time, bringing her maid and coachman, and from them Till could hear about everything that had happened at home since last Easter; “home” being always Chestnut Hill.

This mill farm on Back Creek had never been home to Till. She liked, as she said to herself, to live among “folks,” not among poor farmers and backwoods people. The finer accomplishments she had learned from Mrs. Matchem, those of which she was most proud, had little chance here. Before the Mistress became an invalid, things were better. Then friends from Winchester often came to stay overnight or to spend a week; there was some satisfaction in keeping the brass and silver bright, the stores of bed linen and table linen bleached. In those days Miss Sapphy used to go back to Chestnut Hill almost every summer for a long visit with her sister, and Till went with her.

Sitting there on her doorstep and remembering happier times, Till found herself shivering. She got up and went into the cabin. When she came back, she had a wool-stuffed bed-quilt about her shoulders. On a still twilight in spring and summer, clouds of fleecy mist curled over the low meadow down where the mill dam was. All Till’s secret discontent with the Mill Farm she expressed by the quiet statement that it was “damp.” Even on a sunny wash-day the sheets were longer drying than they should be. In the fall the hoar frost was heavier here than over at Mrs. Blake’s place on the big road. When Till and the Mistress came back from their Easter fortnight in town, and no fires had been lighted in the parlour, they found damp spots on the English wall-paper.

“They’ve had moisture up here,” Miss Sapphy would remark cheerfully. “All the better for the early roses.” She would never admit that it was damper here than elsewhere.

But to Till the heavy atmosphere brought a heaviness of heart. She was not, under any circumstances, a gay darky. In early childhood, at Chestnut Hill, she had suffered a frightful shock. One night, lying in her trundle bed, she was watching her mother dress for the servants’ New Year’s party. She saw her mother’s finery catch fire from a candle; saw her, in flames, run screaming out into the winter wind. The poor woman was fatally burned before the men could overtake her and beat out the fire. As for the child, the negroes declared she had been struck dumb and would never speak again. She said not a word when they tried to comfort her, but looked at them with terrified eyes. Mrs. Matchem, the housekeeper, took Till up to the big house and put her into a cot in her own room. There, away from the emotional darkies, she began to sleep naturally again, and was soon a quick-witted, observant little girl, — but a grave and serious one. So was Mrs. Matchem serious. Till was devoted to her; strove to imitate her in speech and manner. Matchem impressed it upon her that there was all the difference in the world between doing things exactly right and doing them somehow-or-other. The little black girl would stand looking up at the tall Devonshire woman, taking these precepts devoutly to heart. To the sly whispers of the under servants that an easier way was just as good, she steeled herself as if the Bad Man himself were whispering in her ear.

After Captain Dodderidge died, and Miss Sapphy married and went out to Back Creek, her sister, Mrs. Bushwell, bought in Chestnut Hill. All Mrs. Bushwell’s interest was in the stables; she left the management of the house entirely to Matchem. Till stayed on, working under Matchem until she was fifteen. Then Sapphira Colbert made a trade for her.

One summer, when she drove down to Chestnut Hill for her yearly visit, Mrs. Colbert took with her a young negro who had a great knack with horses. For two winters she had hired him out to the new blacksmith on Back Creek. This smith had come over from Pennsylvania, and his skill was a wonder to that sleepy community. He could not only shoe and doctor horses; he built good carts and wagons. Mrs. Colbert easily convinced her sister that a boy trained under such a smith would be very useful in her stables. She was willing to part with him in exchange for the girl Till, and a hundred dollars to boot. Mrs. Bushwell, surprised by this liberal offer, closed the deal at once. But Matchem looked down her long nose and compressed her lips.

Till was not unhappy at the prospect of travel and new scenes. She set off in the coach, eager and journey-proud. But from the first night of her arrival at the Mill Farm she had felt buried in the deep woods. For years to come she was homesick for Mrs. Matchem and the open, breezy, well-planted country she had left behind her.

When Sapphira married her off to Jefferson, who was so much older, and whose incapacities were well known among the darkies, Till accepted this arrangement with perfect dignity. How much it hurt her pride no one ever knew; perhaps she did not know herself. Perhaps the strongest desire of her life was to be “respectable and well-placed.” Mrs. Matchem had taught her to value position. It was the right thing for a parlour maid and lady’s maid to be always presentable and trim of figure. None of the heavy work of a big country house was put upon Till. She always wore a black dress and white apron, neat shoes and stockings. Some years after she had moved her belongings from her attic chamber in the big house over to Jeff’s cabin, the Cuban painter came along to do the portraits. He was a long while doing them.

Sitting on the doorstep huddled in her quilt, Till heard a mournful sound come from the deep woods across the creek: the first whippoorwill. She sighed. How she hated the call of that bird! Every spring she had to listen to it, coming out of this resigned, unstirring back-country. Another spring, and here she still was, by the mill-pond and the damp meadows.

Up yonder, at the end of a long road winding through the woods, the level line of Timber Ridge rose like a blue wall. When you had crossed the ridge and gone on a ways, you came to the Capon River. Till had been that far, when the Mistress stayed at Capon Springs to take the baths. On beyond that was Romney, where people of some account lived, she had heard. In front of her, across the creek, she could see the wavering slopes of the North Mountain; no roads up there, just a few wheel-tracks through woods that never ended. Cabins, miles apart; corn patches and potato patches; pumpkins, maybe. Till believed the poor white trash up there lived mostly on the squirrels they shot, and the pig or two they fed on acorns. Down here in the valley, along the big road that led to Winchester, there were some sightly farmhouses, certainly, where well-to-do families lived. When you got as far as Hayfield church, the woods began to open up, and the country looked more human.

But it wasn’t until she caught sight of the red brick springhouse over the Town Spring, a little this way out of Winchester, that Till felt she was back in the world again.

How she loved the first glimpse of cobble-paved streets, with no mud on them! You drove into town by Water Street, lined on either side with neat mansard houses built of pale gray limestone; gray, but almost blue, and not dressed so smooth as to take all the life out of the rugged stone. Such genteel houses they were, opening directly on the street, with green window shutters, and brass knockers; a little walled garden and a hydrant behind each house. Water Street seemed to welcome you to town.

After you drove on and passed Christ Church, then you came to where the quality lived; where Judge Halstead lived; where Miss Sapphy and Nancy were this very night. There the houses had porticos with tall columns, and were set in lawns shaded by flowering trees. How often, when Judge Halstead’s “mansion” was lit up for a party, Till had stood at the foot of the stairway in the big hall, waiting to show the ladies to the upper chambers and help them take off their wraps. Whenever the manservant heard the crunch of wheels on the driveway and threw open the front door . . . .

Just then Till heard a very different sound, close at hand. Old Jeff came shuffling along in the dusk. He stopped and stood uneasily before the seated figure.

“It’s a-gittin’ right late, deery,” he said in his squeaky voice.


As his wife was always in Winchester for Holy Week, the miller customarily took his Easter dinner with his daughter and granddaughters. This year Easter Sunday fell early (the twenty-third of March), but it was a bright, sunshiny morning, and warm for the season. He walked across the meadow to accompany Mrs. Blake and her little girls to church. The children told him joyfully that Mr. Fairhead, the preacher (who was also their schoolmaster), was coming to dinner. It would be like a party; for Mr. Fairhead was not old and dismal like most preachers, and did not say a long grace while the chicken was getting cold.

The church was a forlorn weather-boarded building with neither spire nor bell, standing on a naked hillside where the rains had washed winding gutters in the gravelly slope. It had once been painted red, but the boards were now curling from lack of paint. It looked like an abandoned factory left to the mercy of the weather. In the basement underneath, the country day school was kept.

The miller and his daughter went up four warped plank steps and entered the church. Once within, they separated. All the men and boys sat on one side of the aisle, the girls and women on the other. The pews were long benches, with backs but no cushions. There was no floor covering of any kind, there were no blinds at the dusty windows. The peaked shingle roof was supported by whitewashed rafters. Up under this roof, over the front door, was the gallery where the coloured people sat. It was a rule among the farmers who owned slaves to send them to church on Sunday.

While Mrs. Blake knelt for a few moments in silent prayer, Mary and Betty sat restlessly trying to peep over the hats and sunbonnets in front of them to catch sight of their dear Mr. Fairhead, who was in the splint-bottom chair behind the pulpit, waiting for his congregation to assemble.

When the scuffling tramp of heavy shoes on the bare floor had ceased, Mr. Fairhead rose and said: “Let us pray.” He closed his eyes and began his invocation. In the untempered light which poured through the bare windows he looked a very young man indeed, with rosy cheeks and yellow hair. He had been sent out into the backwoods to teach the country school and to “fill the pulpit,” though he had not yet been ordained. During the long summer vacations he lived in Winchester and read divinity with old Doctor Sellers, coming out to Back Creek on horseback every Saturday to conduct the Sunday service.

After the prayer he gave out the hymn, read it aloud slowly and distinctly, since many of his congregation could not read. When he closed his hymnbook, the congregation rose. Old Andrew Shand, a Scotchman with wiry red hair and chin whiskers, officially led the singing. He struck his tuning-fork on the back of a bench and began: “There is a Land of Pure Delight,” at a weary, drawling pace. But the Colbert negroes, and the miller himself, immediately broke away from Shand and carried the tune along. Mr. Fairhead joined in, looking up at the gallery. For him the singing was the living worship of the Sunday services; the negroes in the loft sang those bright promises and dark warnings with such fervent conviction. Fat Lizzie and her daughter, Bluebell, could be heard above them all. Bluebell had a pretty soprano voice, but Lizzie sang high and low with equal ease. The congregation downstairs knew what a “limb” she was, but no one, except Andy Shand, ever complained because she took a high hand with the hymns. The old people who couldn’t read could “hear the words” when Lizzie sang. Neither could Lizzie read, but she knew the hymns by heart. Mr. Fairhead often wondered how it was that she sounded the letter “r” clearly when she sang, though she didn’t when she talked.

Could we but stand where Moses stood
   And view the landscape o’er
Not Jordan’s stream nor death’s cold flood
   Would fright us from that shore.

When Lizzie rolled out the last verse and sat down, the young preacher looked up at the gallery, not with a smile, exactly, but with appreciation. He often felt like thanking her.

As for Andy Shand, he hated Lizzie and all the Colbert negroes. His animosity extended to the Colberts themselves; even about Mrs. Blake he was “none so sure.”

After the congregation was dismissed, Mr. Fairhead and the miller walked down the road together, deep in conversation. Mrs. Blake and her girls followed behind. She knew her father enjoyed the company of an educated man like Fairhead; that was why she had asked the preacher to dinner. Their talk, as she listened to it, was plain farmer talk, to be sure; about the early season, and the prospects for wheat and hay. Presently the miller began to ask about the country school and Mr. Fairhead’s pupils. There were bright boys among them, the young man insisted, some who rode over to school from as far as Peughtown. There were even boys from the mountain who would do fairly well if they had half a chance. There was Casper Flight — Here Colbert held up his hand.

“Never say Flight to me, Mr. Fairhead. I’ve ground that man’s miserable bit of corn and buckwheat ten years for nothing, and on top of that he hangs around the mill and steals honest men’s grist. My Sampson has caught him time and again crawling down from the storeroom at night with a bag in his hand.”

“I know all about him, Mr. Colbert. But if you could see how that corn and buckwheat was raised, you wouldn’t grudge grinding it for nothing. They’ve got no horse, and this boy Casper breaks up the ground in their corn patch and buckwheat field himself. He pulls the plough, and his mother follows at the plough handles and holds the share in the earth. Last spring I got Mr. Giffen up on the ridge to lend Casper a horse, to put in his buckwheat. His father came home unexpectedly, knocked the boy down, took the horse out of the plough, and rode up to Capon River to go fishing.”

“I’m glad you told me, sir. If there’s any good can come out of the Flights, God knows I’d like to help it along. I could give this boy work around the place in busy times, but you know none of those mountain boys will work along with coloured hands.”

“Yes, I know.” Mr. Fairhead sighed. “It’s the one thing they’ve got to feel important about — that they’re white. It’s pitiful.”

Whenever Colbert had a talk with David Fairhead, he wished he could see more of him. He had several times asked the young man to supper at the Mill House, but he observed that Fairhead was not at ease in Sapphira’s company. He was shy and on his guard, and Sapphira had seemed possessed to puzzle him with light ironies. Since he was from Pennsylvania, she considered him an inferior. Yet her manner with inferiors (with the cobbler, the butcher, the weaver, the storekeeper) was irreproachable. When the old broom-pedlar or the wandering tinsmith happened along, they were always given a place at the dinner table, and she knew just how to talk to them. But with Fairhead she took on a mocking condescension, as if she were all the while ridiculing his simplicity. Therefore, Henry figured it out, she did not really regard him as an inferior, but as an equal — of the wrong kind. Fairhead boarded with Mrs. Bywaters, at the post office, and Sapphira knew that he was “Northern” at heart. She laughed and told Henry she could “smell it on him.”

Oh, yes, she admitted, he was not an ignoramus, like the country schoolteachers who had been there before him. She was glad Mary and Betty had a teacher who did not chew tobacco in the schoolroom or speak like the mountain people. He had doubtless been raised a gentleman — of the Pennsylvania kind. But he was a mealy-mouth, say what you would; and if she made him uncomfortable, it was because he hadn’t the wit to come back at her. “How can I talk to a man who blushes every time I poke fun at him, or at anybody else? You’d better give it up, Henry.” So the schoolmaster was not invited to the Mill House again.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52