Sapphira and the Slave Girl, by Willa Cather

Book VI

Sampson Speaks to the Master


Though Martin’s visit proved to be a long one, his uncle saw very little of him. He never asked the young man to come down to the mill; indeed, he put his nephew out of his mind as much as possible. He realized that it meant a great deal to Sapphira to have this foolish, lively young fellow about the place. Certainly, Martin was very attentive to her; chatted with her on the porch in the morning, had tea with her in the afternoon, played cribbage with her after supper.

One night when the miller was sitting at his reading-table, he heard a knock at his door. In answer to his “Come in,” Sampson appeared.

“Yes, Sampson. What is it?”

The tall mulatto stood uneasily before him. “Master Henry, I’d like to speak to you about something I got on my mind, but I don’t rightly know if it’s my place to.”

“Speak out, Sampson.”

“Mr. Henry, I’m ‘fraid Mr. Martin worries Nancy a right smart.”

The miller looked up and frowned. “Worries her? What do you mean? How worries her?”

“Well, sir, you know how them young fellers is. They likes to fool round a pretty girl, even if she’s coloured. I don’t say he means no harm, but she ain’t used to them ways, an’ she seems kind-a scared-like all the time. I know you wouldn’t want to see harm befall her.”

“Shut the door there behind you, Sampson. Now tell me: have you seen anything amiss?”

“Not rightly speaking, sir. But awhile back Nancy was pickin’ cherries in one of them big trees behind the smokehouse. Me an’ Jeff was in the smokehouse, an’ we heard her holler like she was hurt or somethin’. We both run out an’ seen Mr. Martin standin’ at the foot of the tree. Before we come, he’d been standin’ on the cheer Nancy took to climb up with. I seen the mud off his boots on the cheer-bottom. The gal was scared fo’ sho’, Mr. Henry. She was tremblin’ like a leaf an’ taken sick like. I took her down, an’ Jeff hepped her to the cabin. I may be wrong, but I didn’t like it.”

The miller’s face had taken on a dark flush. “I’ll keep an eye on my nephew, Sampson. Sometimes a girl will make a fuss over nothing, you know.”

“Yes, sir. I never seen Nancy do nothin’ free nor unbecomin’ when she comes an’ goes.”

“Nor have I. She’s a good girl, and I’ll look after her.”

“Thank you, sir. Good night, Mr. Henry.” Sampson withdrew, but his face told that he was not reassured.

The miller closed his book and began to move slowly about the room. In a flash he realized that from the first he had distrusted his nephew, though he had never thought of him in connection with Nancy. To him Nancy was scarcely more than a child. It was his habit to refer to her in that way. In reality, of course, she was a young woman. His three daughters had married when they were younger than Nancy was now. Wrath flamed up in him as he paced the floor; against his nephew and the father who begot him, against all his brothers and the Colbert blood. His own father he could hold in reverence; he was an honest man, and the woman who shared his laborious and thrifty life was a good woman. But there must have been bad blood in the Colberts back on the other side of the water, and it had come to light in his three brothers and their sons. He knew the family inheritance well enough. He had his share of it. But since his marriage he had never let it get the better of him. He had kept his marriage vows as he would keep any other contract.

The miller got very little sleep that night. When the first blush of the early summer dawn showed above the mountain, he rose, put on his long white cotton milling coat, and went to bathe in the shallow pool that always lay under the big mill-wheel. This was his custom, after the hot, close nights which often made sleep unrefreshing in summer. The chill of the water, and the rays of gold which soon touched the distant hills before the sun appeared, restored his feeling of physical vigour. He came back to his room, leaving wet footprints on the floury floor behind him. Having dressed and shaved, he put on his hat and walked down along the mill-race toward the dam. He did not know why, but he felt strongly disinclined to see Nancy this morning. He did not wish to be there when she came to the mill; it would not be the same as yesterday. Something disturbing had come between them since then.

For years, ever since she was a child, Nancy had seemed to him more like an influence than a person. She came in and out of the mill like a soft spring breeze; a shy, devoted creature who touched everything so lightly. Never before had anyone divined all his little whims and preferences, and been eager to gratify them. And it was for love, from dutiful affection. She had nothing to gain beyond the pleasure of seeing him pleased.

Now that he must see her as a woman, enticing to men, he shrank from seeing her at all. Something was lost out of that sweet companionship; for companionship it had been, though it was but a smile and a glance, a greeting in the fresh morning hours.


It was a little past midnight, and Sapphira had been asleep for an hour or more, when she was rudely awakened. Nancy had burst in at her door and was calling out, like someone startled.

“Yes, Miss Sapphy, here I is. Whassa matter, mam?”

“Nothing at all is the matter. Have you gone crazy, Nancy, waking me up out of my sleep like this?”

“Oh, you called out, Missy. You sho’ly did. An’ I was havin’ bad dreams about you.”

“Be more careful what you eat, and don’t come to me with your bad dreams. You know if I’m once wakened it’s hard for me to get to sleep again.”

“I’m dreadful sorry, Missy. I was sure I heard you callin’, an’ I feared you was taken bad, maybe. No, mam, I won’t come in thoughtless agin. Maybe I better run down to Ma’s cabin tonight, if I’m a-goin’ to be res’less an’ disturb you?”

“You go right back to your own bed, and control yourself properly. I won’t have such crazy behaviour.”

“Yes, mam.” Nancy went out and closed the door softly behind her. She sat down on her pallet and wrapped a quilt about her shoulders. She did not lie down; she would wait until it was time to roll up her bed and put it in the back closet. Her rushing in upon her mistress had been a ruse. She had heard no call, but she had heard something — a cautious, barefoot step on the wide stairway which led from the upper chambers down into the open hall where she lay on her pallet before the Mistress’s door. The stair treads always creaked a little; the dampness of the air kept the wood from drying thoroughly.

When the Mistress sent her back to bed, Nancy told herself that if she heard that stealthy step again, she would run down the hall and out the back door, over to her mammy’s cabin. She believed someone upstairs was listening as intently as she. It was a horrible feeling. If she had the start of him, she knew she could outrun him. But then there was the curved oak banister of the stairway, smooth as glass; anybody could slide down it without making a sound. Once he was in the hall, she wouldn’t have the start of him. He would be there.

At last the first grey daylight came through the wide windows at the foot of the stairs. It gave her a feeling of safety so sweet that she cuddled her head in her pillow and dozed a little. For hours the object of her terror had been fast asleep in his upstairs chamber. When he heard the sound of voices in his aunt’s room, he had shrugged his shoulders and gone back to bed.

As the grey light grew stronger, Nancy rose very softly and dressed, — a simple process, since in summer she went barefoot and slept in her sleeveless “shimmy” (chemise). She had only to tie her petticoat round her waist and slip her calico dress over her head. She tiptoed down the long hall and ran out into the flower garden. The sun was just coming up over the mountain. Fleecy pink clouds were scattered about the sky, and the distant hills had turned gold. A curling mist hung over the low meadows down by the mill dam. The dew from the shrubbery was dripping in splashes upon the brick walks, and on the boxwood hedges the silvery spiderwebs trembled with glistening waterdrops. The tea roses and bleeding-hearts hung heavy, as if they would never rise again. Nobody was stirring in the negro cabins; their overgrowth of trumpet vines and gourd vines was so wet that by running into them you could take a shower bath. It made your skin pretty, washing your face and arms in the dew.

Oh, this was a beautiful place! Nancy didn’t believe there was a lovelier spot in the world than this right here. She felt so joyful that her heart beat as hard as it did last night when she was scared. She loved everybody in those vine-covered cabins, everybody. This morning she would be glad to see even fat Lizzie and Bluebell. After all, they were home folks. And down yonder was the mill, “and the Master so kind and so true.” That was in a song Miss Sapphy used to sing before she got sick, and to Nancy those words had always meant Mister Henry. Was it possible that she might have lost all this happiness last night, the night just gone? But it was still hers: the home folks and the home place and the precious feeling of belonging here. Maybe that fright back there in the dark hall had been just a bad dream. Out here it didn’t seem true.

Look-a-there! the smoke was coming out of Sampson’s chimley a’ready. He was up, getting breakfast for his children, and his wife, who managed to be sick most of the time. All the niggers knew that Sampson not only got the breakfast: in the small hours of the night he baked all the bread for his family. What patience the man had! And he never raised his low, kind voice against anybody.

One morning, soon after the above incident, the miller found his wife sitting alone at breakfast, and learned that his nephew had ridden off to Winchester for the day.

“I hope he won’t use my horse too hard,” he remarked. “When is he coming back?”

“Tomorrow, I think.”

The miller was silent for a moment, then said with a shade of impatience, “How long is Mart going to hang around here, anyway?”

“We can’t very well ask our kin how long they intend to stay with us, can we?”

“Maybe not, but he’s been here about six weeks, and that’s a long visit.”

Sapphira smiled. “I remember my father used to tell how Benjamin Franklin said: ‘Hospitality, like fish, stinks after three days.’ That may be true in the North, but we don’t feel that way in Virginia, I hope.”

“Sapphira, I’ve had about enough of Martin’s company. I never liked his father’s ways, and I don’t like his. What does he want here, anyway?”

“Maybe the boy wants a refuge, — from creditors.”

“Or from the men of families where he’s brought disgrace,” her husband muttered.

She shook her finger at him. “Now, don’t be too hard on him, Henry. Your brothers were all like that, you know. And Martin has a gentlemanly side which they had not. I am certainly not very lively company for a young blade to spend his evenings with, but if he is dull here he never shows it. Certainly I shall miss him when he is gone.”

“Well, if you take pleasure in his company, I shan’t say anything. But he will demoralize the servants. His way with the young darkies is too free. He goes into the woods across the creek to hunt mushrooms with that trifling Bluebell.”

“If the servants go wrong from any visitor in the house, it’s their own fault. I think they know their place better. Bluebell is a lazy, lying nigger as ever was, but I’ve found her smart enough to look out for herself. I doubt whether Martin would so demean himself, but it’s no affair of mine.” Sapphira laughed softly. It was almost as good as a play, she was thinking; the way whenever she and her husband were thinking of Nancy, they invariably talked about Bluebell.


Haying time was coming on, and now the miller turned farmer. He left the mill to Sampson and spent the mornings about the barns and stables; looking after the condition of the horses, mending the racks, seeing that Taylor cleared the haylofts of old straw and aired them for the new crop. Every year, in haying time and harvest, he gave his mill-wheels a rest. He believed the work in the open air was good for his health.

As he left the barn one morning, and was going through the negro quarters, he passed by the laundry cabin where Nancy did fine laundering for the Mistress. Hearing voices within, the girl’s voice and his nephew’s, he stopped short by the rain-barrel and listened.

Martin was speaking in a drawling, bantering way. “How about my fine shirts you were going to wash and iron for me, Miss Nancy Till?”

“Yes, sir. The Mistress told me to. If you’ll please put ’em out in the hall for me, I’ll do ’em up today.”

“Now look-a-here, my girl, you just hunt in the press and find them for yourself. I don’t keep account of my shirts. If you take care of my room, you look out for my washing. I ain’t my own chambermaid.”

The miller stepped forward and glanced in at the open door. Nancy was at the ironing-board, her eyes fixed on her work. Martin, in his riding breeches, was lounging on an old broken chair, his back against the wall and his legs stretched out in front of him. His face was turned away, but his lordly, lazy attitude and the rough familiarity of his voice were not lost upon his uncle. Colbert set his teeth and hurried through the yard down to the mill.

“Sampson,” he called, “this fine weather won’t last much longer, maybe. I told Taylor we would begin on the long meadow tomorrow, and you and me will go out with the men. It’ll likely be a hot day, and we must get to work early, before the grass is dry. The women can turn it afterward. You’ll have to go and hunt up the scythes. It’s Taylor’s business, but he hasn’t done it. I could only find six, and there’ll be eight of us in the field.”

Sampson smiled reassuringly. “I ‘specs I can find ’em, sir. The boys sneaks ’em away fur one thing an’ another. But I’ll find ’em.”

Early the next morning Mrs. Blake’s little girls were awakened by the ringing sound of whetstones on scythe blades. The long meadow between their house and the mill was always the first field to be cut. The mowers had assembled down by the rail fence, where the sassafras bushes screened the field from Back Creek. The miller went round the group and felt the edge of every blade. “Now, boys, I reckon we’re ready to begin. Look out and keep the line straight.”

The darkies scattered to their places, spat into their palms, and gripped the hand-holds. Colbert and Sampson were in the centre, and after the Master had cut the first swath the men threw themselves into the easy position of practised mowers, and the long grass began to fall. They advanced from east to west, steadily, like a good team at the plough. Colbert allowed only the seasoned mowers to work with him; the young fellows he hired out in hay-time to learn under his neighbours. As the darkies swung their scythes, they made a deep sound from the chest, the “Huh-huh” they made when they chopped wood; but they never paused except to spit into their hands.

The sun had been up several hours when the line of mowers got as far as the little iron spring which seeped up in the meadow, with a patch of tiger lilies growing round it. Here the Master beckoned the hands to come and take a drink. The water was cold and strongly flavoured with iron. The darkies passed the gourd around more than once, and stood easy; straightening their backs, and wiping their sweaty faces on shirt-sleeves already wringing wet. Every man of them kept an old hat of some sort on his head. After they had rested a few minutes, they pulled up their breeches at the waist and went back to their places. When the line moved on, the black-spotted orange lilies stood straight and tall above the fallen grass.

By and by the men began to look up anxiously at the sun: only a little spell now. They kept in line, but they certainly advanced more slowly. A cheering “Halloo” rang out across the field. The men stopped and straightened up with a grateful sigh, looking toward the Mill House stile. Yonder came young Martin, carrying in each hand a gallon jug, and behind him came Nancy and Bluebell and Nelly and Trudy and little Zach, all with baskets.

It was the custom for the mowers to have their dinner in the field. The scythes were left beside the swath last cut, and the hands gathered in the shade under a wide-spreading maple tree. In every hayfield one big tree was left for that purpose. It was always called “the mowers’ tree.”

After they had spread a red tablecloth on the grass and laid out the provisions, the women went away. The jugs Martin had brought were full of cold tea. The Master poured himself a full gourd, but the men drank from the jug, — it went round from mouth to mouth.

As they fell to their dinner, a pitiful figure of a negro came toward the group, not approaching directly, but circling to right and left and looking down in the grass as if he were hunting for some lost object. The darkies grinned and nudged one another. “Dar’s Tansy Dave. ‘Bout time he was drappin’ ‘long.”

The Master spoke to Sampson. “Call him up, poor fellow.”

In a voice that was quiet and yet carried far, the yellow man called: “Master says hurry up, Dave, or there won’t be nothin’ left.”

The scarecrow man, bare-legged, his pants torn away to the knee, his shirt a dirty rag, approached slowly, his head hanging down. He muttered something about “been havin’ a sort-a spell lately, an’ didn’t know as he ought-a eat nothin’.”

The Master spoke up: “This is a good dinner, Dave. Set down an’ eat all you want. We’ve got plenty.”

Dave’s mournful face brightened as he looked hungrily at what was spread on the red cloth. He took the chunks of corn bread and fried middling meat Sampson handed him, and drew apart from the others; just on the edge of the shade line he sat down and ate his food.

After dinner the hands lay under the tree and slept for an hour; lay on their backs, with their old hats over their faces. The miller sat leaning against the trunk and watched the ragged visitor steal across the mown field and hide himself in the sassafras bushes along the rail fence. He was thinking it was a dreary business to be responsible for other folks’ lives. Time was when poor Dave, that half-witted ghost of a man, was one of the happiest boys on the place. He and Tap were the ringleaders in all the farm festivals. Dave was very clever with his mouth-organ, and he used to play for the darkies to dance on the hard-packed earth in the back yard. It was six years now since he began to go to pieces.

Six years ago a lady from Baltimore, Mrs. Morrison, had come to board with a relative three miles down the creek. She brought with her her coloured maid, Susanna, who used to come over to dance with the Colbert darkies. She was a taking wench, with big soft eyes and an irresistible giggle — light on her feet, and a pretty dancer. Colbert and Sapphira sometimes went out to watch her dance, while Dave played his mouth-organ, and the other darkies “patted” with their hands. Dave always escorted her home. Lizzie told the Mistress that every night after supper Dave changed his shirt and went down the creek to court Susanna, and before he started he rolled over and over in the tansy bed, “to make hisself smell sweet.” The nickname “Tansy Dave” had stuck to him long after he ceased to go a-courting, and after he no longer tried to make hisself smell sweet.

When Mrs. Morrison was packing to go back to the city, Dave came to Sapphira and begged her to buy Susanna, so that he could marry her. They were “promised,” he said, and Susanna wanted to stay. At first his mistress laughed at him. But he cried like a little boy; threw himself on the floor and declared he “would run away and foller her if she was took off on the cars.” Mrs. Colbert was melted by the boy’s desperation; she told him to get up and behave himself, and she would think it over. She did think it over, and talked about it to Henry that night. Both agreed it would be foolish to buy another girl, when they had too many already. But early next morning Sapphira wakened her husband to tell him she had decided to buy Susanna if the woman would take a reasonable price for her. The girl was a good seamstress, and she could do all the fine sewing about the house.

Sapphira ordered the carriage and drove away soon after breakfast. The miller doubted her success, but he said nothing. Susanna’s mistress had once come to the Baptist church, and he did not like her arrogant manner, or the look of her. She had a small, hard face, white as flour.

When Sapphira returned, she sent down to the mill for her husband. She was greatly put out. The woman had told her at once that she thoroughly disapproved of slave-owning. When her late husband’s shipping interests took him from Bath, Maine, to Baltimore, she had found it necessary to purchase two negroes for house service. In Baltimore there was no other way to get good servants. She would not sell Susanna at any price. The girl was trained for work in a town house. And after she got back to Baltimore she would never think of this crazy nigger again.

Susanna and her mistress left the neighbourhood, and Dave ran away as he had threatened. He walked to Winchester and got on the “cars.” When he reached Harpers Ferry and was told he must wait there for the big train that went on to Washington, he lost heart. After a few days he came wandering home, but he was never the same boy again. He went from bad to worse; spent days, often weeks, in the mountains, wherever there was a still and moonshine whisky. Nowadays he lived in the mountains the summer through. In the fall he came down to the mill to borrow Sampson’s gun and go hunting. Dave could perfectly imitate the call of the wild turkey, and he brought those wary birds home for the table; the Mistress was very fond of them. Colbert often wondered at Sapphira’s forbearance with Dave. When he traded his clothes for whisky and slunk home without a shirt to his back, she would make him go wash himself in the creek, burn his rags, and put on a whole pair of pants and a new “hickory” shirt. Soon he would disappear again and not come back till winter. Taylor was pretty sure to find him in the barn some morning after the first hard freeze, buried deep in the hay. Sapphira saw that he was clothed and fed through the winter. Even Lizzie had pity on him, but she would not let him come into the kitchen to eat with the other hands. She filled a little bucket with victuals and handed it out to him.

The men finished cutting the long meadow before sundown. That night the miller excused himself early from the supper table, admitting that he was tired. He would “limber up” in a few days, he told his wife, but tonight his arms and back ached from unaccustomed exercise.

Once in his room at the mill, he threw himself upon his bed and lay still, watching the lingering twilight die. He looked forward to the next two weeks, which would take the soreness out of his back and mind. It was good for him to be out in the fields; to feel his strength drunk up by the earth and sun, and to set the pace for younger men at cutting grass and wheat.

This was a troubled time for Henry Colbert when he was alone with his thoughts. He was too often preoccupied with what Sampson had told him. Now and then the actual realization of Martin’s designs would flash into his mind. The poison in the young scamp’s blood seemed to stir something in his own. The Colbert in him threatened to raise its head after long hibernation. Not that he was afraid of himself. For nothing on earth, even by a glance, would he trouble that sweet confidence and affection which had been a comfort to him for so long. But it was not now the comforting thing it had been. Now he tried to avoid Nancy. Her light step on the old ax-dressed boards of the mill floor, her morning smile, did not bring the lift of spirit they used to bring.

He told himself that in trying to keep a close watch on Martin, he had begun to see through Martin’s eyes. Sometimes in his sleep that preoccupation with Martin, the sense of almost being Martin, came over him like a black spell.

How was he to get rid of the fellow? In those days, and in that country, a man could not put his nephew out of the house unless he had flagrantly outraged hospitality. The miller had thought seriously of trying to buy Martin off. That seemed the likeliest possibility, though the approach would be awkward: offering a near kinsman money to clear out of the neighbourhood. Nevertheless he had gone to Winchester the week before the hay was ripe, and had drawn from the bank a larger sum of money than he customarily kept on hand. It was now locked in his secretary drawer. He liked to feel that it was there, ready.

Before he undressed for the night Colbert took from the shelf a book he often read, John Bunyan’s Holy War, — a copy printed in Glasgow in 1763. He opened the book at a passage relating to the state of the town of Mansoul after Diabolus had entered her gates and taken up his rule there:

“Also things began to grow scarce in Mansoul: now the things that her soul lusted after were departing from her. Upon all her pleasant things there was a blast, and a burning instead of a beauty. Wrinkles now, and some shews of the shadow of death, were upon the inhabitants of Mansoul. And now, O how glad would Mansoul have been to enjoyed quietness and satisfaction of mind, though joined with the meanest condition in the world.”

Next he turned to the pages describing the state of Mansoul after she had been retaken and reclaimed by Prince Emmanuel, the Son of God:

“When the town of Mansoul had thus far rid themselves of their enemies, and of the troublers of their peace, a strict commandment was given out, that yet my Lord Willbewill, should search for, and do his best, to apprehend what Diabolonians were yet alive in Mansoul. . . . He also apprehended Carnal-sense, and put him in hold; but how it came about I cannot tell, but he brake prison and made his escape; yea, and the bold villain will not yet quit the town, but lurks in the Diabolonian Dens at days, and haunts like a Ghost, honest men’s houses at nights.”

In this book he found consolation. An honest man, who had suffered much, was speaking to him of things about which he could not unbosom himself to anyone.

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