I CREPT to their doors and listened; they was snoring. So I tiptoed along, and got down stairs all right. There warn’t a sound anywheres. I peeped through a crack of the dining-room door, and see the men that was watching the corpse all sound asleep on their chairs. The door was open into the parlor, where the corpse was laying, and there was a candle in both rooms. I passed along, and the parlor door was open; but I see there warn’t nobody in there but the remainders of Peter; so I shoved on by; but the front door was locked, and the key wasn’t there. Just then I heard somebody coming down the stairs, back behind me. I run in the parlor and took a swift look around, and the only place I see to hide the bag was in the coffin. The lid was shoved along about a foot, showing the dead man’s face down in there, with a wet cloth over it, and his shroud on. I tucked the money-bag in under the lid, just down beyond where his hands was crossed, which made me creep, they was so cold, and then I run back across the room and in behind the door.
The person coming was Mary Jane. She went to the coffin, very soft, and kneeled down and looked in; then she put up her handkerchief, and I see she begun to cry, though I couldn’t hear her, and her back was to me. I slid out, and as I passed the dining-room I thought I’d make sure them watchers hadn’t seen me; so I looked through the crack, and everything was all right. They hadn’t stirred.
I slipped up to bed, feeling ruther blue, on accounts of the thing playing out that way after I had took so much trouble and run so much resk about it. Says I, if it could stay where it is, all right; because when we get down the river a hundred mile or two I could write back to Mary Jane, and she could dig him up again and get it; but that ain’t the thing that’s going to happen; the thing that’s going to happen is, the money ’ll be found when they come to screw on the lid. Then the king ’ll get it again, and it ’ll be a long day before he gives anybody another chance to smouch it from him. Of course I WANTED to slide down and get it out of there, but I dasn’t try it. Every minute it was getting earlier now, and pretty soon some of them watchers would begin to stir, and I might get catched — catched with six thousand dollars in my hands that nobody hadn’t hired me to take care of. I don’t wish to be mixed up in no such business as that, I says to myself.
When I got down stairs in the morning the parlor was shut up, and the watchers was gone. There warn’t nobody around but the family and the widow Bartley and our tribe. I watched their faces to see if anything had been happening, but I couldn’t tell.
Towards the middle of the day the undertaker come with his man, and they set the coffin in the middle of the room on a couple of chairs, and then set all our chairs in rows, and borrowed more from the neighbors till the hall and the parlor and the dining-room was full. I see the coffin lid was the way it was before, but I dasn’t go to look in under it, with folks around.
Then the people begun to flock in, and the beats and the girls took seats in the front row at the head of the coffin, and for a half an hour the people filed around slow, in single rank, and looked down at the dead man’s face a minute, and some dropped in a tear, and it was all very still and solemn, only the girls and the beats holding handkerchiefs to their eyes and keeping their heads bent, and sobbing a little. There warn’t no other sound but the scraping of the feet on the floor and blowing noses — because people always blows them more at a funeral than they do at other places except church.
When the place was packed full the undertaker he slid around in his black gloves with his softy soothering ways, putting on the last touches, and getting people and things all ship-shape and comfortable, and making no more sound than a cat. He never spoke; he moved people around, he squeezed in late ones, he opened up passageways, and done it with nods, and signs with his hands. Then he took his place over against the wall. He was the softest, glidingest, stealthiest man I ever see; and there warn’t no more smile to him than there is to a ham.
They had borrowed a melodeum — a sick one; and when everything was ready a young woman set down and worked it, and it was pretty skreeky and colicky, and everybody joined in and sung, and Peter was the only one that had a good thing, according to my notion. Then the Reverend Hobson opened up, slow and solemn, and begun to talk; and straight off the most outrageous row busted out in the cellar a body ever heard; it was only one dog, but he made a most powerful racket, and he kept it up right along; the parson he had to stand there, over the coffin, and wait — you couldn’t hear yourself think. It was right down awkward, and nobody didn’t seem to know what to do. But pretty soon they see that long-legged undertaker make a sign to the preacher as much as to say, “Don’t you worry — just depend on me.” Then he stooped down and begun to glide along the wall, just his shoulders showing over the people’s heads. So he glided along, and the powwow and racket getting more and more outrageous all the time; and at last, when he had gone around two sides of the room, he disappears down cellar. Then in about two seconds we heard a whack, and the dog he finished up with a most amazing howl or two, and then everything was dead still, and the parson begun his solemn talk where he left off. In a minute or two here comes this undertaker’s back and shoulders gliding along the wall again; and so he glided and glided around three sides of the room, and then rose up, and shaded his mouth with his hands, and stretched his neck out towards the preacher, over the people’s heads, and says, in a kind of a coarse whisper, “HE HAD A RAT!” Then he drooped down and glided along the wall again to his place. You could see it was a great satisfaction to the people, because naturally they wanted to know. A little thing like that don’t cost nothing, and it’s just the little things that makes a man to be looked up to and liked. There warn’t no more popular man in town than what that undertaker was.
Well, the funeral sermon was very good, but pison long and tiresome; and then the king he shoved in and got off some of his usual rubbage, and at last the job was through, and the undertaker begun to sneak up on the coffin with his screw-driver. I was in a sweat then, and watched him pretty keen. But he never meddled at all; just slid the lid along as soft as mush, and screwed it down tight and fast. So there I was! I didn’t know whether the money was in there or not. So, says I, s’pose somebody has hogged that bag on the sly? — now how do I know whether to write to Mary Jane or not? S’pose she dug him up and didn’t find nothing, what would she think of me? Blame it, I says, I might get hunted up and jailed; I’d better lay low and keep dark, and not write at all; the thing’s awful mixed now; trying to better it, I’ve worsened it a hundred times, and I wish to goodness I’d just let it alone, dad fetch the whole business!
They buried him, and we come back home, and I went to watching faces again — I couldn’t help it, and I couldn’t rest easy. But nothing come of it; the faces didn’t tell me nothing.
The king he visited around in the evening, and sweetened everybody up, and made himself ever so friendly; and he give out the idea that his congregation over in England would be in a sweat about him, so he must hurry and settle up the estate right away and leave for home. He was very sorry he was so pushed, and so was everybody; they wished he could stay longer, but they said they could see it couldn’t be done. And he said of course him and William would take the girls home with them; and that pleased everybody too, because then the girls would be well fixed and amongst their own relations; and it pleased the girls, too — tickled them so they clean forgot they ever had a trouble in the world; and told him to sell out as quick as he wanted to, they would be ready. Them poor things was that glad and happy it made my heart ache to see them getting fooled and lied to so, but I didn’t see no safe way for me to chip in and change the general tune.
Well, blamed if the king didn’t bill the house and the niggers and all the property for auction straight off — sale two days after the funeral; but anybody could buy private beforehand if they wanted to.
So the next day after the funeral, along about noon-time, the girls’ joy got the first jolt. A couple of nigger traders come along, and the king sold them the niggers reasonable, for three-day drafts as they called it, and away they went, the two sons up the river to Memphis, and their mother down the river to Orleans. I thought them poor girls and them niggers would break their hearts for grief; they cried around each other, and took on so it most made me down sick to see it. The girls said they hadn’t ever dreamed of seeing the family separated or sold away from the town. I can’t ever get it out of my memory, the sight of them poor miserable girls and niggers hanging around each other’s necks and crying; and I reckon I couldn’t a stood it all, but would a had to bust out and tell on our gang if I hadn’t knowed the sale warn’t no account and the niggers would be back home in a week or two.
The thing made a big stir in the town, too, and a good many come out flatfooted and said it was scandalous to separate the mother and the children that way. It injured the frauds some; but the old fool he bulled right along, spite of all the duke could say or do, and I tell you the duke was powerful uneasy.
Next day was auction day. About broad day in the morning the king and the duke come up in the garret and woke me up, and I see by their look that there was trouble. The king says:
“Was you in my room night before last?”
“No, your majesty”— which was the way I always called him when nobody but our gang warn’t around.
“Was you in there yisterday er last night?”
“No, your majesty.”
“Honor bright, now — no lies.”
“Honor bright, your majesty, I’m telling you the truth. I hain’t been a-near your room since Miss Mary Jane took you and the duke and showed it to you.”
The duke says:
“Have you seen anybody else go in there?”
“No, your grace, not as I remember, I believe.”
“Stop and think.”
I studied awhile and see my chance; then I says:
“Well, I see the niggers go in there several times.”
Both of them gave a little jump, and looked like they hadn’t ever expected it, and then like they HAD. Then the duke says:
“What, all of them?”
“No — leastways, not all at once — that is, I don’t think I ever see them all come OUT at once but just one time.”
“Hello! When was that?”
“It was the day we had the funeral. In the morning. It warn’t early, because I overslept. I was just starting down the ladder, and I see them.”
“Well, go on, GO on! What did they do? How’d they act?”
“They didn’t do nothing. And they didn’t act anyway much, as fur as I see. They tiptoed away; so I seen, easy enough, that they’d shoved in there to do up your majesty’s room, or something, s’posing you was up; and found you WARN’T up, and so they was hoping to slide out of the way of trouble without waking you up, if they hadn’t already waked you up.”
“Great guns, THIS is a go!” says the king; and both of them looked pretty sick and tolerable silly. They stood there a-thinking and scratching their heads a minute, and the duke he bust into a kind of a little raspy chuckle, and says:
“It does beat all how neat the niggers played their hand. They let on to be SORRY they was going out of this region! And I believed they WAS sorry, and so did you, and so did everybody. Don’t ever tell ME any more that a nigger ain’t got any histrionic talent. Why, the way they played that thing it would fool ANYBODY. In my opinion, there’s a fortune in ’em. If I had capital and a theater, I wouldn’t want a better lay-out than that — and here we’ve gone and sold ’em for a song. Yes, and ain’t privileged to sing the song yet. Say, where IS that song — that draft?”
“In the bank for to be collected. Where WOULD it be?”
“Well, THAT’S all right then, thank goodness.”
Says I, kind of timid-like:
“Is something gone wrong?”
The king whirls on me and rips out:
“None o’ your business! You keep your head shet, and mind y’r own affairs — if you got any. Long as you’re in this town don’t you forgit THAT— you hear?” Then he says to the duke, “We got to jest swaller it and say noth’n’: mum’s the word for US.”
As they was starting down the ladder the duke he chuckles again, and says:
“Quick sales AND small profits! It’s a good business — yes.”
The king snarls around on him and says:
“I was trying to do for the best in sellin’ ’em out so quick. If the profits has turned out to be none, lackin’ considable, and none to carry, is it my fault any more’n it’s yourn?”
“Well, THEY’D be in this house yet and we WOULDN’T if I could a got my advice listened to.”
The king sassed back as much as was safe for him, and then swapped around and lit into ME again. He give me down the banks for not coming and TELLING him I see the niggers come out of his room acting that way — said any fool would a KNOWED something was up. And then waltzed in and cussed HIMSELF awhile, and said it all come of him not laying late and taking his natural rest that morning, and he’d be blamed if he’d ever do it again. So they went off a-jawing; and I felt dreadful glad I’d worked it all off on to the niggers, and yet hadn’t done the niggers no harm by it.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00