Sapphira and the Slave Girl, by Willa Cather

Book IX

Nancy’s Return

(Epilogue — Twenty-five years later)

Twenty-five years had passed since Mrs. Blake took her mother’s slave girl across the Potomac. The Civil War, which came on so soon after Nancy ran away, was long gone by when Back Creek folks saw the yellow girl again.

In all that time the country between Romney and Winchester had changed very little. The same families were living on their old places. There were new people at the Colbert mill, of course, and several new brick houses with ambitious porticos now stood on the turnpike between Winchester and Timber Ridge. But the wooden foot-bridge over Back Creek hung just as it did in the Colberts’ time, a curious “suspension” bridge, without piles, swung from the far-reaching white limb of a great sycamore that grew on the bank and leaned over the stream. Mrs. Bywaters, though now an old woman, was still the postmistress. She had not been removed in the “carpetbag” period, when so many questionable Government appointments were made. During the war years, when Federal troops were marching up and down the valley, her well-known Northern sympathies stood the Confederate soldiers in good stead. When they were home on leave, they could always hide from search parties in her rambling garrets. Her house was exempt from search.

The war made few enmities in the country neighbourhoods. When Willie Gordon, a Rebel boy from Hayfield, was wounded in the Battle of Bull Run, it was Mr. Cartmell, Mrs. Bywaters’s father, who went after him in his hay-wagon, got through the Federal lines, and brought him home. While the boy lay dying from gangrene in a shattered leg (Doctor Brush never attempted an amputation, and Doctor Clavenger was far away on Lee’s staff), the Hayfield people, regardless of political differences, came in relays, night and day, and did the only thing that relieved his pain a little: they carried cold water from the springhouse and with a tin cup poured it steadily over his leg for hours at a time.

Mr. Whitford’s son enlisted in the Northern army, as his father’s son might be expected to do. His nearest neighbour, Mr. Jeffers, had a son in Ashby’s cavalry. The fathers remained friends, worked their bordering fields, and talked to each other across the rail fence as they had always done. Both men admired young Turner Ashby of Fauquier County, who held the Confederate line from Berkeley Springs to Harpers Ferry, — so near home that word of his brilliant cavalry exploits came out to Back Creek with the stage-driver. The war news from distant places came slowly, sometimes long after the event, but Stonewall Jackson and Ashby, both operating in Frederick County, gave people plenty to talk about.

Ashby fell in the second year of the war, shot through the heart after his horse had been killed under him, leading a victorious charge near Harrisonburg, on the sixth day of June. Even today, if you should be motoring through Winchester on the sixth of June, and should stop to see the Confederate cemetery, you would probably find fresh flowers on Ashby’s grave. He was all that the old-time Virginians admired: Like Paris handsome and like Hector brave. And he died young. “Shortlived and glorious,” the old Virginians used to say.

After Lee’s surrender, the country boys from Back Creek and Timber Ridge came home to their farms and set to work to reclaim their neglected fields. The land was still there, but few horses were left to work it with. In the movement of troops to and fro between Romney and Winchester, all the livestock had been carried away. Even the cocks and hens had been snapped up by the foragers.

The Rebel soldiers who came back were tired, discouraged, but not humiliated or embittered by failure. The country people accepted the defeat of the Confederacy with dignity, as they accepted death when it came to their families. Defeat was not new to those men. Almost every season brought defeat of some kind to the farming people. Their cornfields, planted by hand and cultivated with the hoe, were beaten down by hail, or the wheat was burned up by drouth, or cholera broke out among the pigs. The soil was none too fertile, and the methods of farming were not very good.

The Back Creek boys were glad to be at home again; to see the sun come up over one familiar hill and go down over another. Now they could mend the barn roof where it leaked, help the old woman with her garden, and keep the wood-pile high. They had gone out to fight for their home State, had done their best, and now it was over. They still wore their army overcoats in winter, because they had no others, and they worked the fields in whatever rags were left of their uniforms. The day of Confederate reunions and veterans’ dinners was then far distant.

When Nancy came back after so many years, though the outward scene was little changed, she came back to a different world. The young men of 1856 were beginning to grow grey, and the children who went to David Fairhead’s basement school were now married and had children of their own.

This new generation was gayer and more carefree than their forbears, perhaps because they had fewer traditions to live up to. The war had done away with many of the old distinctions. The young couples were poor and extravagant and jolly. They were much given to picnics and camp-meetings in summer, sleighing parties and dancing parties in the winter. Every ambitious young farmer kept a smart buggy and a double carriage, but these were used for Sunday church-going and trips to Winchester and Capon Springs. The saddle-horse was still the usual means of getting about the neighbourhood. The women made social calls, went to the post office and the dressmaker, on horseback. A handsome woman (or a pretty girl) on a fine horse was a charming figure to meet on the road; the close-fitting riding-habit with long skirt, the little hat with the long plume. Cavalry veterans rose in the stirrup to salute her as she flashed by.


It was a brilliant, windy March day; all the bare hills were still pale fawn colour, and high above them puffy white clouds went racing like lambs let out to pasture in the spring. I was something over five years old, and was kept in bed on that memorable day because I had a cold. I was in my mother’s bedroom, in the third storey of a big old brick house entered by a white portico with fluted columns. Propped on high pillows, I could see the clouds drive across the bright, cold blue sky, throwing rapid shadows on the steep hillsides. The slats of the green window shutters rattled, the limp cordage of the great willow trees in the yard was whipped and tossed furiously by the wind. It was the last day I would have chosen to stay indoors.

I had been put into my mother’s bed so that I could watch the turnpike, then a macadam road with a blue limestone facing. It ran very near us, between the little creek at the foot of our long front yard and the base of the high hills which shut the winter sun from us early.

It was a weary wait for the stage that morning. Usually we could hear the rattle of the iron-tired wheels and the click of the four shod horses before they came round the curve where the flint milestone with deep-cut letters said: ROMNEY— 35 MILES. But today there was a high wind from the west. Maybe we could not hear the stage coming, Mrs. Blake remarked to Aunt Till.

For I was not alone in the room. Two others were there to keep me company. Mrs. Blake sat with her hands lying at rest in her lap. She looked almost as if she were in church. Aunt Till was sitting beside her; a spare, neat little old darky, bent at the shoulders but still holding herself straight from the hips. The two conversed very little; they were waiting and watching, just as I was. Occasionally my mother came in, going with her quick, energetic step to the window and peering out. She was young, and she had not the patience of the two old women.

“Don’t get excited,” she would say to me. “It may be a long while before the stage comes.”

Even my father was awaiting the stage. He had not gone out to cut timber with the men today, but had sent them into the woods with Moses, son of the Colberts’ old Taylor, as the boss. Father was down in his basement tool-room under the portico steps, tinkering at something. Probably he was making yellow leather shoes for the front paws of his favourite shepherd dog — she wore out so many, racing up and down the stony hillsides in performing her duties.

There was as much restlessness inside the house as there was outside in the wind and clouds and trees, for today Nancy was coming home from Montreal, and she would ride out from Winchester on the stage. She had been gone now for twenty-five years.

Ever since I could remember anything, I had heard about Nancy. My mother used to sing me to sleep with:

Down by de cane-brake, close by de mill,
Dar lived a yaller gal, her name was Nancy Till.

I never doubted the song was made about our Nancy. I knew she had long been housekeeper for a rich family away up in Canada, where it was so cold, Till said, if you threw a tin-cupful of water into the air, it came down ice. Nancy sometimes wrote to her mother, and always sent her fifty dollars at Christmas.

Suddenly my mother hurried into the room. Without a word she wrapped me in a blanket, carried me to the curved lounge by the window, and put me down on the high head-rest, where I could look out. There it came, the stage, with a trunk on top, and the sixteen hoofs trotting briskly round the curve where the milestone was.

Mrs. Blake and Aunt Till had followed my mother and now stood behind us. We saw my father running down the front yard. The stage stopped at the rustic bridge which crossed our little creek. The steps at the back were let down, my father reached up to hand someone out. A woman in a long black coat and black turban alighted. She carried a hand-satchel; her trunk was to go to Till’s cabin on the old mill place. They crossed the bridge and came up the brick walk between the boxwood hedges. Then I was put back into bed, and Mrs. Blake and Till returned to their chairs. The actual scene of the meeting had been arranged for my benefit. When I cried because I was not allowed to go downstairs and see Nancy enter the house, Aunt Till had said: “Never mind, honey. You stay right here, and I’ll stay right here. Nancy’ll come up, and you’ll see her as soon as I do.” Mrs. Blake stayed with us. My mother went down to give Nancy the hand of welcome.

I heard them talking on the stairs and in the hall; my parents’ voices excited and cordial, and another voice, low and pleasant, but not exactly “hearty,” it seemed to me, — not enough so for the occasion.

Till had already risen; when the stranger followed my mother into the room, she took a few uncertain steps forward. She fell meekly into the arms of a tall, gold-skinned woman, who drew the little old darky to her breast and held her there, bending her face down over the head scantily covered with grey wool. Neither spoke a word. There was something Scriptural in that meeting, like the pictures in our old Bible.

After those few moments of tender silence, the visitor released Aunt Till with a gentle stroke over her bent shoulders, and turned to Mrs. Blake. Tears were shining in the deep creases on either side of Mrs. Blake’s nose. “Well, Nancy, child, you’ve made us right proud of you,” she said. Then, for the first time, I saw Nancy’s lovely smile. “I never forget who it was took me across the river that night, Mrs. Blake.”

When Nancy laid aside her long black coat, I saw with astonishment that it was lined with grey fur, from top to toe! We had no coats like that on Back Creek. She took off her turban and brushed back a strand of her shiny, blue-black hair. She wore a black silk dress. A gold watch-chain was looped about her neck and came down to her belt, where the watch was tucked away in a little pocket.

“Now we must sit down and talk,” said my mother. That was what one always said to visitors. While they talked, I looked and listened. Nancy had always been described to me as young, gold-coloured, and “lissome” — that was my father’s word.

“Down by de cane-brake, close by de mill, Dar lived a yaller gal — ” That was the picture I had carried in my mind. The stranger who came to realize that image was forty-four years old. But though she was no longer lissome, she was other things. She had, I vaguely felt, presence. And there was a charm about her voice, though her speech was different from ours on Back Creek. Her words seemed to me too precise, rather cutting in their unfailing distinctness. Whereas Mrs. Blake used to ask me if she should read to me from my “hist’ry book” (Peter Parley’s Universal), Nancy spoke of the his-to-ry of Canada. I didn’t like that pronunciation. Even my father said “hist’ry.” Wasn’t that the right and easy way to say it? Nancy put into many words syllables I had never heard sounded in them before. That repelled me. It didn’t seem a friendly way to talk.

Her speech I counted against her. But I liked the way she sat in her chair, the shade of deference in her voice when she addressed my mother, and I liked to see her move about, — there was something so smooth and measured in her movements. I noticed it when she went to get her handbag, and opened it on the foot of my bed, to show us the pictures of her husband and three children. She spoke of her mistress as Madam, and her master as Colonel Kenwood. The family were in England for the spring, and that was why Nancy was able to come home and visit her mother. She could stay exactly six weeks; then she must go back to Montreal to get the house ready for the return of the family. Her husband was the Kenwoods’ gardener. He was half Scotch and half Indian.

Nancy was to be at our house for the midday dinner. Then she would walk home with her mother, to stay with her in the old cabin of her childhood. The “new miller,” as he was still called, though he had now been running the mill for some seventeen years, was a kind man from over the Blue Ridge. He let Till stay on in her cabin behind the Mill House, work her own garden patch, and even keep a pig or two.

When my mother and father and Mrs. Blake went down to dinner, Nancy and Till sat where they were, hand in hand, and went on talking as if I were not there at all. Nancy was telling her mother about her husband and children, how they had a cottage to themselves at the end of the park, and how the work was divided between the men and the maids.

Suddenly Till interrupted her, looking up into her face with idolatrous pride.

“Nancy, darlin’, you talks just like Mrs. Matchem, down at Chestnut Hill! I loves to hear you.”

Presently they were called downstairs to the second table, to eat the same dinner as the family, served by the same maid (black Moses’ Sally). My mother gave me an egg-nog to quiet me and pulled down the blinds. I was tired out with excitement and went to sleep.

During her stay on Back Creek Nancy came often with her mother to our house. She used to bring a small carpetbag, with her sewing and a fresh apron, and insisted upon helping Mrs. Blake and Moses’ Sally in whatever housework was under way. She begged to be allowed to roast the coffee. “The smell of it is sweeter than roses to me, Mrs. Blake,” she said laughing. “Up there the coffee is always poor, so I’ve learned to drink tea. As soon as it’s browned, I’ll grind a little and make us all a cup, by your leave.”

Our kitchen was almost as large as a modern music-room, and to me it was the pleasantest room in the house, — the most interesting. The parlour was a bit stiff when it was not full of company, but here everything was easy. Besides the eight-hole range, there was a great fireplace with a crane. In winter a roaring fire was kept up in it at night, after the range fire went out. All the indoor and outdoor servants sat round the kitchen fireplace and cracked nuts and told stories until they went to bed.

We had three kitchen tables: one for kneading bread, another for making cakes and pastry, and a third with a zinc top, for dismembering fowls and rabbits and stuffing turkeys. The tall cupboards stored sugar and spices and groceries; our farm wagons brought supplies out from Winchester in large quantities. Behind the doors of a very special corner cupboard stood all the jars of brandied fruit, and glass jars of ginger and orange peel soaking in whisky. Canned vegetables, and the preserved fruits not put down in alcohol, were kept in a very cold cellar: a stream ran through it, actually!

Till and Nancy usually came for dinner, and after the dishes were washed they sat down with Mrs. Blake in the wooden rocking-chairs by the west window where the sunlight poured in. They took out their sewing or knitting from the carpetbag, and while the pound cake or the marble cake was baking in a slow oven, they talked about old times. I was allowed to sit with them and sew patchwork. Sometimes their talk was puzzling, but I soon learned that it was best never to interrupt with questions, — it seemed to break the spell. Nancy wanted to know what had happened during the war, and what had become of everybody, — and so did I.

While she sat drawing her crochet hook in and out, she would say: “And what ever did become of Lizzie and Bluebell after Miss Sapphy died?”

Then Till would speak up: “Why, ain’t I told you how Mr. Henry freed ’em right after Missy died, when he freed all the niggers? But it was hard to git rid of free niggers befo’ the war. He surely had a sight a’ trouble gittin’ shet of them two! Even after he’d got Lizzie a good place at the Taylor House hotel in Winchester, they kep’ makin’ excuse to stay on, hangin’ ‘round the kitchen. In the end he had to drive ’em into town himself an’ put ’em down at the hotel, an’ tole ’em fur the las’ time they wasn’t needed at the mill place no more. You know he never did like them two niggers. He took a wonderful lot a’ trouble gittin’ good places fur his people. You remembers Sampson, honey?”

“Why, of course I do, Mother. He was Master’s steadiest man.” At this moment Till would likely be on her feet in a twinkle with: “Before I begin on Sampson, I’ll just turn the bread fur you, Mrs. Blake. I seem to smell it’s about ready.”

When all the pans had been changed about, Till would sit down and continue:

“Well, Mr. Henry got Sampson a wonderful good place up in Pennsylvany, in some new kind of mill they calls roller mills. He’s done well, has Sampson, an’ his childern has turned out well, they say. Soon as the war was over, Sampson come back here, just to see the old place. The new miller treated him real clever, and let him sleep in old Master’s mill room — he don’t use it only like a kind of office, to see folks. Sampson come to my cabin every day he was here, to eat my light bread. ‘Don’t never trouble yourself to cook me no fancy victuals, Till,’ he’d say. ‘Just give me greens an’ a little fat pork, an’ plenty of your light bread. I ain’t had no real bread since I went away.’ He told me how in the big mill where he works the grindin’ is all done by steam, and the machines runs so fast an’ gits so hot, an’ burns all the taste out-a the flour. ‘They is no real bread but what’s made out-a water-ground flour,’ he says to me.”

“And Tap, whatever became of him, Mrs. Blake?”

Then followed a sad story. I knew it well. Many a time I had heard about Tap, the jolly mill boy with shining eyes and shining teeth, whom everybody liked. “Poor Tap” he was always called now. People said he hadn’t been able to stand his freedom. He went to town (“town” always meaning Winchester), where every day was like circus day to a country-bred boy, and picked up various jobs until the war was over. Early in the Reconstruction time a low German from Pennsylvania opened a saloon and pool hall in Winchester, a dive where negroes were allowed to play, and gambling went on. One night after Tap had been drinking too much, he struck another darky on the head with a billiard cue and killed him. The Back Creek farmers who remembered Tap as a boy went to his trial and testified to his good character. But he was hanged, all the same. Mrs. Blake and Till always said it was a Yankee jury that hanged him; a Southern jury would have known there was no real bad in Tap.

Once Nancy looked at Mrs. Blake with a smile and asked her what had become of Martin Colbert. I had never heard of him. Mrs. Blake glanced at her in a way that meant it was a forbidden subject. “He was killed in the war,” she said briefly. “He’d got to be a captain in the cavalry, and the Colberts made a great to-do about him after he was dead, and put up a monument. But I reckon the neighbourhood was relieved.”

More than anything else, Nancy wanted to know about the last days of her old master and mistress. That story I could almost have told her myself, I had heard about them so often. Henry Colbert survived his wife for five years. He saw the beginning of the Civil War, and confidently expected to see the end of it. But he met his death in the haying season of 1863, when he was working in the fields with the few negroes who begged to stay on at the Mill Farm after the miller had freed all his wife’s slaves. The Master was on top of the hayrack, catching the hay as Taylor forked it up to him. He stepped backward too near the edge of the load and fell to the ground, striking his head on a limestone ledge. He was unconscious when the field-hands carried him into the house, and he died a few hours later.

When my parents went for a long horseback ride, they sometimes took me as far as Till’s cabin, and picked me up again on their way home. It was there I heard the old stories and saw Till’s keepsakes and treasures. They were stowed away in a pinewood chest with a sloping top. She had some of the miller’s books, the woolly green shawl he had worn as an overcoat, some of Miss Sapphy’s lace caps and fichus, and odd bits of finery such as velvet slippers with buckles. Her chief treasure was a brooch, set in pale gold, and under the crystal was a lock of Mr. Henry’s black hair and Miss Sapphy’s brown hair, at the time of their marriage. The miller himself had given it to her, she said.

In summer Till used to take me across the meadow to the Colbert graveyard, to put flowers on the graves. Each time she talked to me about the people buried there, she was sure to remember something she had not happened to tell me before. Her stories about the Master and Mistress were never mere repetitions, but grew more and more into a complete picture of those two persons. She loved to talk of Mrs. Colbert’s last days; of the reconciliation between the Mistress and Mrs. Blake that winter after Betty died, when Mrs. Blake and Mary stayed at the Mill House. The Mistress knew she had not long to live. The tappings had become more frequent; Doctor Clavenger came out from Winchester twice a week now. He told Till he had never known anyone with that kind of dropsy to live so long as Mrs. Colbert; he said it was because her heart was so strong. But the day would come when the pressure of the fluid would be too heavy, and then her heart would stop.

“She kept her bed most all day that last winter,” Till would go over it, “an’ she liked to stay by herself, but she didn’t complain none. When I’d come into her room in the mornin’ early, she’d always say: ‘Good mornin’, Till,’ jest as bright as could be. Right after she’d had her breakfast, she liked Miss Mary to run in an’ talk to her for a while. After that, she liked to be by herself. Around three o’clock in the evenin’ I went in to dress her. It was hard on her, and took her breath dreadful, but she wouldn’t give in, an’ she never got out of temper. When I’d got her dressed, Mr. Henry an’ Sampson used to come up from the mill to lift her into her chair an’ wheel her into the parlour. Mrs. Blake an’ Mary would come in to have tea with her, an’ right often Mr. Henry stayed for a cup. Missy was always in good spirits for tea, an’ it seemed like her an’ Mrs. Blake got more comfort out-a one another than ever before, talkin’ about old times and the home folks in Loudoun County. An’ Miss Mary was real fond of her grandma. If she’d knowed there’d been hard words ever, she’d forgot it. She had the right way with Miss Sapphy, an’ it meant a heap, havin’ her in the house that last winter; she was so full of life.”

From the way Till spoke of Mrs. Blake’s long visit, hints that she dropped unconsciously, one understood that there was always a certain formality between Mrs. Colbert and her daughter — a reserve on both sides. After tea, for the hour before supper, the Mistress preferred to be alone in the parlour. There were many snow-falls that winter, on into March. Mrs. Colbert liked to sit and watch the evening light fade over the white fields and the spruce trees across the creek. When Till came in with the lights, she would let her leave only four candles, and they must be set on the tea-table so placed that the candle-flames inside were repeated by flames out in the snow-covered lilac arbour. It looked like candles shining in a little playhouse, Till said, and there was the tea-table out there too, all set like for company. When Till peeped in at the door, she would find the Mistress looking out at this little scene; often she was smiling. Till really believed Miss Sapphy saw spirits out there, spirits of the young folks who used to come to Chestnut Hill.

And the Mistress died there, upright in her chair. When the miller came at supper-time and went into the parlour, he found her. The strong heart had been overcome at last. Though her bell was beside her, she had not rung it. There must have been some moments of pain or struggle, but she had preferred to be alone. Till thought it likely the “fine folks” were waiting outside for her in the arbour, and she went away with them.

“She oughtn’t never to a’ come out here,” Till often said to me. “She wasn’t raised that way. Mrs. Matchem, down at the old place, never got over it that Miss Sapphy didn’t buy in Chestnut Hill an’ live like a lady, ‘stead a’ leavin’ it to run down under the Bushwells, an’ herself comin’ out here where nobody was anybody much.”

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