THE WORDLESS LETTERS

Close around the little village of Deer Cove, three mountain steeps
looked down in everlasting peace; two upland valleys descended to the
village, and held on their fertile slopes many small farms and hamlets.
The houses of men employed in the saw-mill, which had created the
village, lay within a nearer circle.

Of all this district the post-office at Deer Cove was the centre. The
mill belonged to the Durgan Blounts, whose summer residence lay at some
distance on the one road which threaded the descending ravine to the
county town of Hilyard. All substance and knowledge which came to Deer
Cove was hauled up this long, winding road from the unseen town, and
halted at the post-office, which was also the general store and tavern.
Thither the mill-hands, and an ever-changing group of poor whites,
repaired for all refreshment of body and mind.

The rush of the stream, the whirr of the mill, the sigh of the
wind-swept woods, the never-silent tinkling from the herds that roam
the forests–these sounds mingled always with the constant talk that
went on in the post-office. Here news of the outer world met with scant
attention; but things concerning the region were discussed, weighed, and
measured by the standard of the place. The wealth of a housekeeper was
gauged by the goods he received direct from Hilyard and further markets,
and his social importance by the number of his letters. A steady
correspondence proved stability of connection and character; a telegram
conferred distinction.

In the post-office young Blount, or even the magnificent old General
himself, would not scruple to lounge for an hour at mail time,
exchanging greetings with all who came thither. Durgan came of stiffer
stuff; he could not unbend. He was also conscious that, as he never
received letters, and as his lost lands were here little known, it was
only the reflected importance of his cousins that kept him from being
reckoned a “no account” person, and suffering the natural rudeness meted
out to such unfortunates. He preferred to rely upon Adam to bring him
his paper and such news as the village afforded. Adam went to the post
every evening for Miss Smith.

There came a week of rain. The road to Hilyard was washed away by the
first storm. The mail accumulated there, and when at last it could be
brought to Deer, it was still raining. Durgan’s cutting was flooded.
Unable to work, he had paid a visit to his cousins, and returned one
evening, through a thick cloud which clothed Deer like a cerement, to
find Adam in the hut by the mine, seated before a hot fire.

In the light of the dancing flame, the big black man, all his clothes
and hair dripping and glistening, was indeed a strange picture. He was
wholly intent upon a row of papers and letters, which from time to time
he moved carefully and turned before the blaze.

“It’s all right, suh. I only clean done forgot to put the ladies’
lettahs in de rubber bag they give me. It’s a debble of a rain to-night,
suh; it soak through all I hab, and there’s a powerful lot of lettahs
to-night, suh; a whole week o’ lettahs, Marse Neil, so there is.”

Durgan looked down at a goodly assortment of mail matter–newspapers,
missionary records, magazines, business letters from well-known stores.
In the warmest place was a row of private letters. Adam’s big hands
hovered over these with awesome care.

“They’s the lettahs the ladies is most perjink about, allus.” Adam
spoke proud of his own powers of distinction. “I’se not worked for ’em
so long, suh, widout bein’ able to know their ‘ticlarities.”

“I’m proud of you, Adam.” Durgan went out into the mist again and sat on
a ledge of rock.

It was still daylight, but the thick mantle of cloud was gray in its
depths, toning the light to dusk. Within the circle which the mist left
visible, the jeweled verdure showed all its detail as through a conclave
lens.

It was the hour at which Adam’s wife usually came to set Durgan’s hut in
order. Through the ghostly folds of cloud she now appeared like a
beautiful animal, cowering yet nimble, swift and silent, frightened at
the loss of all things beyond the short limit of sight, the very
pressing nearness of the unknown around the known. Framed in the
magnified detail of branch and bole and dewy leaves, Durgan saw her
arrive and pause with involuntary stealth in the fire-glow from the door
of the hut.

Eve did not see Durgan. As a dog, and especially a female dog, can
worship a master, so Eve worshipped Durgan. When she fawned upon him all
her attitudes were winsome, her bright eyes soft, and a gentle play of
humor was in her features. Despite his studied indifference and
contempt, he had never before seen an evil look upon her face, but now
with malicious shrewdness she was observing her unconscious husband.

Suddenly Adam, without turning, uttered a short yell of terror.

Durgan sprang and entered with the woman.

Adam rose from his stooping position–his jaw dropped, his teeth
chattering. “As I’m alive, suh, the lettahs they come open of
themselves, sittin’ right here before the fire; an’ they was so soppin’
I jest took the inside out to get it dry. As I’m alive, Marse Neil, suh;
the debble’s in this thing. ‘Tain’t nowise any person but the debble as
would send ladies–very nice ladies, too–lettahs like this, with no
writin’ on ’em; that’s the debble all right, suh, sure enough.”

Durgan’s gaze had fixed itself involuntarily on the sheets the man had
dropped. The envelopes which had purported to hold letters of private
friendship had, in truth, held blank paper.

Assured that such was the fact, however strange, Durgan sought some
words which might quiet the terrified Adam and efface the circumstance
from Eve’s frivolous mind. He could trust Adam, when quiet enough, to
obey a command of secrecy; the negress must be beguiled.

But she was too quick for him. She was now watching his eyes, reading
there part of his interpretation, and with half-animal instinct,
perceiving that he desired to hush the matter, thought to make common
cause with him.

“You’s a sure enough convic’ now, Adam, chil’; an’ I’d like to know
who’s to be s’portin’ o’ me when you’s workin’ out your time in chains.
Is you so ignorant, chil’, as not to know that it’s a heap an’ a lot wus
to read these letters than the sort as has writin’ all ovah?”

The negro’s terrified attitude showed some relief. “I didn’t know as
there was a sort o’ lettah that had no writin’ on, honey. Is you sure o’
that, honey? I thought these lettahs must be a sure enough work o’ the
debble.”

“Sure as I’m a born nigger, there is lettahs o’ that sort; an’ it’s
hangin’, or somethin’ wus, to open ’em. Oh, Adam, it’s a powerful
hangin’ crime; an’ if you’s cotched in this business, what’ll come to
me?”

The woman paused to wipe an eye, then—-

“I tell you, Adam, your on’y chance o’ takin’ care o’ me any more is
nebber so much as to speak o’ these lettahs down to Deer or any other
place. Because no gen’leman or lady or decen’ nigger would ever so much
as say that there was this sort o’ lettah–’tain’t perlite, ’cause it’s
on’y the great folks, an’ the rich, an’ the eddicated, as gets ’em.
Isn’t that gospel truth, Marse Neil, suh?”

Durgan was listening, intent on laying a trap for the wife. He gave no
sign.

But Adam, honest soul, too unsuspicious to wait for Durgan’s
corroboration, spoke with steadily returning confidence. “Sure as I’m
stan’in’ here, Marse Neil, suh, these lettahs opened themselves–like
that yaller flower that comes open of itself in the evenin’, suh; an’
takin’ of them out, I only had the contention, suh, o’ dryin’ the
insides of ’em; for I can’t read the sort o’ lettah that’s written all
ovah–only the big print in the Testament; an’ the min’ster that learned
me, he’ll tell you the same.”

Eve’s voice rose in the soft climax of triumph. “An’ that’s jest the
reason, Adam, chil’, that readin’ o’ these lettahs is hangin’, an’
workin’ in chains, an’ States prison, an’ whippin’–all that jest ’cause
niggers like you an’ me can’t read the other kind.” Eve was getting
beyond her depth.

“You’ve learned me somethin’ this very hour, honey,” said Adam kindly,
“for I didn’t know before sure enough there was this sort o’ lettah; but
you degogerate now, honey, for if it’s hangin’, it can’t be work in
chains, an’ if they can’t prove I can read other sort o’ lettah, it’s
mighty powerful sure they can’t prove I can read these. The debble
himself can’t prove that.”

Durgan had sealing-wax with which he fastened his samples of mica for
the post. He put the blank pages back in the envelopes and fastened them
with his own seal. Telling Adam to explain only that the flaps had come
open in wet, he dismissed him. He sat watching the negress sternly, and
she grew less confident.

“Us pore slave niggers don’t know nothin’, Marse Neil, suh.”

“How old are you?” He spoke as beginning a judicial inquiry.

“Us pore slave niggers don’t know how old we is. I’s gettin’ an old
woman–I’s powerful old. I wus crawlin’ out an’ aroun’ ‘fore the
‘mancipation. Ole Marse Durgan, he jest naturally licked me hisself one
day when I crawled ‘fore his hoss in the quarters. That’s what my mammy
told me. We’s all Durgans–Adam’s folks an’ mine.”

“You are no Durgan nigger. I know you. We bought you and your mother out
of bad hands.” Durgan spoke roughly, but in himself he said: “Alas, who
was responsible for this creature, sly and soulless? Not herself or
those of her race!”

“Have you seen letters with no writing on them before?”

“Why should a pore nigger know anythin’ ’bout such lettahs? If you’ll
tell me how God A’mighty made the first nigger, I’ll tell you as well
why these ladies gets lettahs stuffed like that, an’ no sooner–an’
that’s gospel truth, Marse Neil, suh. I’s got nothin’ to do with white
folks’ lettahs.”

He was sure now that she knew no more than what she had just seen, and
had drawn no inference.

She gave way to tears, realizing that he did not approve of the address
with which she had managed Adam.

“Marse Neil, Adam’s a powerful low down nigger, Adam is. He’s a no
account darkie, is Adam. You know yourself, suh, how he laid on to me
t’other night.”

“If he had let you go off with a thieving yellow coon like that other
nigger, you might say Adam was unkind–kindest thing he could do to beat
you!”

She was so pretty she could not believe any man would really side with
her husband against her. “Oh, yes, Marse Neil, suh; I don’t go for to
say as a darkie shouldn’t beat his wife–any decen’ Durgan nigger would,
suh; but the thing that’s low down, an’ dreffle mean, an’ no account
’bout Adam is that he don’t know when to stop. Lickin’–that’s all
right, suh; but when a nigger goes on so long, an’ me yellin’ on him all
the time–oh, Adam, he’s a low down feller an’ dreffle mean.”

“You did more yelling than he did beating. He was crying all the time. I
don’t believe he hurt you–but go on.”

Her tears were unfeigned: she cared only to regain Durgan’s good-will.

“Go on with what, suh?”

“With what you were telling me.”

There had certainly been no sequence discernible.

“Well, marsa, a poor girl’s like me don’t go for to tell lies for
nothin’. Nex’ time Adam holds a stick over me, I’s got the States prison
to hold over him. An’ you’s mistaken, marsa, honey, in sayin’ as he
didn’t maul me black an’ blue, for he did, suh–not that it wasn’t right
an’ just this time, as you say so, marsa; but for nex’ time I mus’ have
a way for to ‘scuse myself to him. So you won’t go for to tell him it
isn’t hangin’, will you, marsa, honey, suh?”

The softness and assumed penitence of the low wail with which she ended
made Durgan laugh aloud. “Look here. Look me straight in the face!”

She could do that very well, raising her soft, doe-like eyes to his,
then fringing them with her lashes as an accomplished beauty might.
Durgan was so angry with her on Adam’s account, that he forgot that his
first object was to secure her silence.

“You’ve got a good husband and a good home. If you ar’n’t good to Adam
after this, I’ll despise you. Do you understand?”

“Don’t speak to me so sharp, marsa.” There was already a little edge of
malice in the velvet of her voice.

“Now, about these letters–if I catch you ever speaking of them again,
I’ll tell Adam you’ve lied to him, and why. I’ll tell him all about you,
and he’ll never trust you again. Do you understand?”

“An’ if I don’t tell nothin’ you ain’t disposed on, Marse Neil, honey?”

“Then I’ll be kind to you, and let Adam think you’re better than you
are.”

But the negress, turning to her work in the hut, no longer moved about
him with liquid eyes and joyful steps, as a happy spaniel does. Beneath
her calmer demeanor he saw the shade of sullenness, and still heard the
edge of malice in her voice.

“I have been a fool,” thought he. “She would have managed better in my
place.” Then he dismissed her from his thoughts.