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June laid down her knives upon the scrubbing-board, and stole softly out into the yard. Madame Joilet was taking a nap upstairs, and, for a few minutes at least, the coast seemed to be quite clear.
Who was June? and who was Madame Joilet?
June was a little girl who had lived in Richmond ever since she could remember, who had never been outside of the city's boundaries, and who had a vague idea that the North lay just above the Chickahominy River and the Gulf of Mexico about a mile below the James. She could not tell A from Z, nor the figure 1 from 40; and whenever Madame Joilet made those funny little curves and dots and blots with pen and ink, in drawing up her bills to send to the lodgers upstairs, June considered that she was moved thereto by witches. Her authority for this theory lay in a charming old woman across the way, who had one tooth, and wore a yellow cap, and used to tell her ghost stories sometimes in the evening.
Somebody asked June once how old she was.
"'Spect I's a hundred,--dunno," she said gravely. Exactly how old she was nobody knew. She was not tall enough to be more than seven, but her face was like the face of a little old woman. It was a queer little face, with thick lips and low forehead, and great mournful eyes. There was something strange about those eyes. Whenever they looked at one, they seemed to cry right out, as if they had a voice. But no one in Richmond cared about that. Nobody cared about June at all. When she was unhappy, no one asked what was the matter; when she was hungry, or cold, or frightened, Madame Joilet laughed at her, and when she was sick she beat her. If she broke a teacup or spilled a mug of coffee, she had her ears boxed, or was shut up in a terrible dark cellar, where the rats were as large as kittens. If she tried to sing a little, in her sorrowful, smothered way, over her work, Madame Joilet shook her for making so much noise. When she stopped, she scolded her for being sulky. Nothing that she could do ever happened to be right; everything was sure to be wrong. She had not half enough to eat, nor half enough to wear. What was worse than that, she had nobody to kiss, and nobody to kiss her; nobody to love her and pet her; nobody in all the wide world to care whether she lived or died, except a half-starved kitten that lived in the wood-shed. For June was black, and a slave; and this Frenchwoman, Madame Joilet, was her mistress.
Exactly what was the use of living under such circumstances June never could clearly see. She cherished a secret notion that, if she could find a little grave all dug out somewhere in a clover-field, she would creep in and hide there. Madame Joilet could not find her then. People who lived in graves were not supposed to be hungry; and, if it were ever so cold, they never shivered. That they could not be beaten was a natural consequence, because there was so much earth between, that you wouldn't feel the stick. The only objection would be leaving Hungry. Hungry was the kitten. June had named it so because it was black. She had an idea that everything black was hungry.
That there had been a war, June gathered from old Creline, who told her the ghost stories. What it was all about, she did not know. Madame Joilet said some terrible giants, called Yankees, were coming down to eat up all the little black girls in Richmond. Creline said that the Yankees were the Messiah's people, and were coming to set the negroes free. Who the Messiah was, June did not know; but she had heard vague stories from Creline, of old-time African princes, who lived in great free forests, and sailed on sparkling rivers in boats of painted bark, and she thought that he must be one of them.
Now, this morning, Creline had whispered mysteriously to June, as she went up the street to sell some eggs for Madame Joilet, that Massa Linkum was coming that very day. June knew nothing about Massa Linkum, and nothing about those grand, immortal words of his which had made every slave in Richmond free; it had never entered Madame Joilet's plan that she should know. No one can tell, reasoned Madame, what notions the little black girl will get if she finds it out. She might even ask for wages, or take a notion to learn to read, or run away, or something. June saw no one; she kept her prudently in the house. Tell her? No, no, impossible!
But June had heard the beautiful news this morning, like all the rest; and June was glad, though she had not the slightest idea why. So, while her mistress was safely asleep upstairs, she had stolen out to watch for the wonderful sight,--the mysterious sight that every one was waiting to see. She was standing there on tiptoe on the fence, in her little ragged dress, with the black kitten in her arms, when a great crowd turned a corner, and tossed up a cloud of dust, and swept up the street. There were armed soldiers with glittering uniforms, and there were flags flying, and merry voices shouting, and huzzas and blessings distinct upon the air. There were long lines of dusky faces upturned, and wet with happy tears. There were angry faces, too, scowling from windows, and lurking in dark corners.
It swept on, and it swept up, and June stood still, and held her breath to look, and saw, in the midst of it all, a tall man dressed in black. He had a thin, white face, sad-eyed and kindly and quiet, and he was bowing and smiling to the people on either side.
"God bress yer, Massa Linkum, God bress yer!" shouted the happy voices; and then there was a chorus of wild hurrahs, and June laughed outright for glee, and lifted up her little thin voice and cried, "Bress yer, Massa Linkum!" with the rest, and knew no more than the kitty what she did it for.
The great man turned, and saw June standing alone in the sunlight, the fresh wind blowing her ragged dress, her little black shoulders just reaching to the top of the fence, her wide-open, mournful eyes, and the kitten squeezed in her arms. And he looked right at her, oh, so kindly! and gave her a smile all to herself--one of his rare smiles, with a bit of a quiver in it,--and bowed, and was gone.
"Take me along with you, Massa Linkum, Massa Linkum!" called poor June faintly. But no one heard her; and the crowd swept on, and June's voice broke into a cry, and the hot tears came, and she laid her face down on Hungry to hide them. You see, in all her life, no one had ever looked so at June before.
"June, June, come here!" called a sharp voice from the house. But June was sobbing so hard she did not hear.
"June! The little black girl will be the death of me. She tears my heart. June, come here, I say!"
June started, and jumped down from the fence, and ran into the house with great frightened eyes.
"I just didn't mean to, noways, missus. I want to see Massa Linkum, an' he look at me, an' I done forget everything. O missus, don't beat me dis yere time, an' I'll neber--"
But Madame Joilet interrupted her with a box on the ear, and dragged her upstairs. There was a terrible look on Madame's face. Just what happened upstairs, I have not the heart to tell you.
That night, June was crouched, sobbing and bruised, behind the kitchen stove, when Creline came in on an errand for her mistress. Madame Joilet was obliged to leave the room for a few minutes, and the two were alone together. June crawled out from behind the stove. "I see him,--I see Massa Linkum, Creline."
"De Lord bress him forever 'n ever. Amen!" exclaimed Creline fervently, throwing up her old thin hands.
June crept a little nearer, and looked all around the room to see if the doors were shut.
"Creline, what's he done gone come down here fur? Am he de Messiah?"
"Bress yer soul, chile! don' ye know better'n dat ar?"
"Don' know nuffin," said June sullenly. "Never knows nuffin; 'spects I never's going to. Can' go out in de road to fine out,--she beat me. Can' ask nuffin,--she jest give me a push down cellar. O Creline, der's such rats down dar now,--dar is!"
"Yer poor critter!" said Creline, with great contempt for her ignorance. "Why, Massa Linkum, everybody knows 'bout he. He's done gone made we free."
"Free!" echoed June, with puzzled eyes.
"Laws, yes, child; 'pears like yer's drefful stupid. Yer don' b'long--" Creline lowered her voice to a mysterious whisper, and looked carefully at the closed door,--"yer don' b'long to Missus Jolly no more dan she b'long to you, an' dat's de trufe now, 'case Massa Linkum say so,--God bress him!"
Just then Madame Joilet came back.
"What's that you're talking about?" she said sharply.
"June was jes' sayin' what a heap she tink of you, missus," said Creline with a grave face.
June lay awake a long time that night, thinking about Massa Linkum, and the wonderful news Creline had brought, and wondering when Madame Joilet would tell her that she was free.
But many days passed, and Madame said nothing about it. Creline's son had left his master and gone North. Creline herself had asked and obtained scanty wages for her work. A little black boy across the street had been sentenced to receive twenty-five lashes for some trifling fault, and they had just begun to whip him in the yard, when a Union officer stepped up and stopped them. A little girl, not a quarter of a mile away, whose name June had often heard, had just found her father, who had been sold away from her years ago, and had come into Richmond with the Yankee soldiers. But nothing had happened to June. Everything went on as in the old days before Master Linkum came. She washed dishes, and scrubbed knives, and carried baskets of wood, so heavy that she tottered under their weight, and was scolded if she dropped so much as a shaving on the floor. She swept the rooms with a broom three times as tall as she was, and had her ears boxed because she could not get the dust up with such tiny hands. She worked and scrubbed and ran on errands from morning to night, till her feet ached so she cried out with the pain. She was whipped and scolded and threatened and frightened and shaken, just as she had been ever since she could remember. She was kept shut up like a prisoner in the house, with Madame Joilet's cold gray eyes forever on her, and her sharp voice forever in her ear. And still not a word was said about Massa Linkum and the beautiful freedom he had given to all such as little June, and not a word did June dare to say.
But June thought. Madame Joilet could not help that. If Madame had known just what June was thinking, she would have tried hard to help it.
Well, so the days passed, and the weeks, and still Madame said not a word; and still she whipped and scolded and shook, and June worked and cried, and nothing happened. But June had not done all her thinking for nothing.
One night Creline was going by the house, when June called to her softly through the fence.
"What's de matter?" said Creline, who was in a great hurry. "I's going to fine Massa Linkum,--don' yer tell nobody. Law's a massy, what a young un that there child is!" said Creline, thinking that June had just waked up from a dream, and forthwith forgetting all about her.
Madame Joilet always locked June in her room, which was nothing but a closet with a window in it, and a heap of rags for a bed. On this particular night she turned the key as usual, and then went to her own room at the other end of the house, where she was soon soundly asleep.
About eleven o'clock, when all the house was still, the window of June's closet softly opened. There was a roofed door-way just underneath it, with an old grapevine trellis running up one side of it. A little dark figure stepped out timidly on the narrow, steep roof, clinging with its hands to keep its balance, and then down upon the trellis, which it began to crawl slowly down. The old wood creaked and groaned and trembled, and the little figure trembled and stood still. If it should give way, and fall crashing to the ground, that would be the end!
She stood a minute looking down; then she took a slow, careful step; then another and another, hand under hand upon the bars. The trellis creaked and shook and cracked, but it held on, and June held on, and dropped softly down, gasping and terrified at what she had done, all in a little heap on the grass below.
She lay there a moment perfectly still. She could not catch her breath at first, and she trembled so that she could not move.
Then she crept along on tiptoe to the wood-shed. She ran a great risk in opening the wood-shed door, for the hinges were rusty, and it creaked with a terrible noise. But Hungry was in there. She could not go without Hungry. She went in, and called in a faint whisper. The kitten knew her, dark as it was, and ran out from the wood-pile with a joyful mew, to rub itself against her dress.
"We's going to fine Massa Linkum, you an' me, bof two togeder," said June.
"Pur! pur-r-r!" said Hungry, as if she were quite content; and June took her up in her arms, and laughed softly. How happy they would be, she and Hungry! and how Massa Linkum would smile and wonder when he saw them coming in! and how Madame Joilet would hunt and scold!
She went out of the wood-shed and out of the yard, hushing the soft laugh on her lips, and holding her breath as she passed under her mistress's window. She had heard Creline say that Massa Linkum had gone back to the North; so she walked up the street a little way, and then she turned aside into the vacant squares and unpaved roads, and so out into the fields where no one could see her.
It was very still and very dark. The great trees stood up like giants against the sky, and the wind howled hoarsely through them. It made June think of the bloodhounds that she had seen rushing with horrible yells to the swamps, where hunted slaves were hiding.
"I reckon 'tain't on'y little ways, Hungry," she said with a shiver; "we'll git dar 'fore long. Don' be 'fraid."
"Pur! pur-r-r!" said Hungry, nestling her head in warmly under June's arm.
"'Spect you lub me, Hungry,--'spect you does!"
And then June laughed softly once more. What would Massa Linkum say to the kitty? Had he ever seen such a kitty in all his life?
So she folded her arms tightly over Hungry's soft fur, and trudged away into the woods. She began to sing a little as she walked, in that sorrowful, smothered way, that made Madame Joilet angry. Ah, that was all over now! There would be no more scolding and beating, no more tired days, no more terrible nights spent in the dark and lonely cellar, no more going to bed without her supper, and crying herself to sleep. Massa Linkum would never treat her so. She never once doubted, in that foolish little trusting heart of hers, that he would be glad to see her, and Hungry too. Why should she? Was there anyone in all the world who had looked so at poor June?
So on and away, deep into the woods and swamps, she trudged cheerily; and she sang low to Hungry, and Hungry purred to her. The night passed on and the stars grew pale, the woods deepened and thickened, the swamps were cold and wet, the brambles scratched her hands and feet.
"It's jes' ober here little ways, Hungry," trying to laugh. "We'll fine him purty soon. I's terrible tired an'--sleepy, Hungry."
She sat down there on a heap of leaves to rest, and laid her head down upon her arm, and Hungry mewed a little, and curled up in her neck. The next she knew, the sun was shining. She jumped up frightened and puzzled, and then she remembered where she was, and began to think of breakfast. But there were no berries but the poisonous dog-wood, and nothing else to be seen but leaves and grass and bushes. Hungry snapped up a few grasshoppers, and looked longingly at an unattainable squirrel, who was flying from tree-top to tree-top; then they went slowly on.
About noon they came to a bit of a brook. June scooped up the water in her hands, and Hungry lapped it with her pink tongue. But there was no dinner to be found, and no sign of Massa Linkum; the sun was like a great ball of fire above the tree-tops, and the child grew faint and weak.
"I didn't' spect it was so fur," groaned poor June. "But don't yer be 'feard now, Hungry. 'Pears like we'll fine him berry soon."
The sun went down, and the twilight came. No supper, and no sign of Massa Linkum yet. Nothing but the great forest and the swamps and the darkening shadows and the long, hungry night. June lay down once more on the damp ground where the poisonous snakes hid in the bushes, and hugged Hungry with her weak little arms, and tried to speak out bravely: "We'll fine him, Hungry, sure, to-morrer. He'll jes' open de door an' let us right in, he will; an' he'll hab breakfas' all ready an' waitin'; 'pears like he'll hab a dish ob milk up in de corner for you now,--tink o' dat ar, Hungry!" and then the poor little voice that tried to be so brave broke down into a great sob. "Ef I on'y jes' had one little mouthful now, Hungry!--on'y one!"
So another night passed, and another morning came. A faint noise woke June from her uneasy sleep, when the sun was hardly up. It was Hungry, purring loudly at her ear. A plump young robin lay quivering between her paws. She was tossing it to and fro with curves and springs of delight. She laid the poor creature down by June's face, looking proudly from June to it, saying as plainly as words could say, "Here's a fine breakfast. I got it on purpose for you. Why don't you eat, for pity's sake? There are plenty more where this came from!"
But June turned away her eyes and moaned; and Hungry, in great perplexity, made away with the robin herself.
Presently June crawled feebly to her feet, and pushed on through the brambles. The kitten, purring in her arms, looked so happy and contented with her breakfast that the child cried out at the sight of it in sudden pain.
"O, I tought we'd git dar 'fore now, an' I tought he'd jes' be so glad to see us!"--and then presently, "He jes' look so kinder smilin' right out ob his eyes, Hungry!"
A bitter wind blew from the east that day, and before noon the rain was falling, dreary and chilly and sharp. It soaked June's feet and ragged dress, and pelted in her face. The wind blew against her, and whirled about her, and tossed her to and fro,--she was such a little thing, and so weak now and faint.
Just as the early twilight fell from the leaden sky, and the shadows began to skulk behind the bushes, and the birds gathered to their nests with sleepy twitter, she tripped over a little stone, fell weakly to the ground, and lay still. She had not the strength to get to her feet again.
But somehow June felt neither troubled nor afraid. She lay there with her face upturned to the pelting rain, watching it patter from leaf to leaf, listening to the chirp of the birds in the nests, listening to the crying of the wind. She liked the sound. She had a dim notion that it was like an old camp-meeting hymn that she had heard Creline sing sometimes. She never understood the words, but the music came back like a dream. She wondered if Massa Linkum ever heard it. She thought he looked like it. She should like to lie there all night and listen to it; and then in the morning they would go on and find him,--in the morning; it would come very soon.
The twilight deepened, and the night came on. The rain fell faster, and the sharp wind cried aloud.
"It's bery cold," said June sleepily, and turned her face over to hide it on the kitten's warm, soft fur. "Goo' night, Hungry. We'll git dar to-mor-rer. We's mos' dar, Hungry."
Hungry curled up close to her cold, wet cheek--Hungry did not care how black it was--with a happy answering mew; but June said nothing more.
The rain fell faster, and the sharp wind cried aloud. The kitten woke from a nap, and purred for her to stir and speak; but June said nothing more.
Still the rain fell, and the wind cried; and the long night and the storm and the darkness passed, and the morning came.
Hungry stirred under June's arm, and licked her face, and mewed piteously at her ear. But June's arm lay still, and June said no word.
Somewhere, in a land where there was never slave and never mistress, where there were no more hungry days and frightened nights, little June was laughing softly, and had found some one to love her at last. And so she did not find Massa Linkum after all? Ah!--who would have guessed it? To that place where June had gone, where there are no masters and no slaves, he had gone before her.
And don't I suppose his was the first face she saw, as she passed through the storm and the night to that waiting, beautiful place? And don't I suppose he smiled as he had smiled before, and led her gently to that other Face, of which poor little June had known nothing in all her life? Of course I do.