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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Uncle Lige

By Jeannette Ritchie Hadermann Walworth (1837–1918)

[Born in Philadelphia, Penn., 1837. Died in New Orleans, La., 1918. Southern Silhouettes. 1887.]

THE DATE of Uncle Lige’s birth is lost in the fogs of remote ages. Even the exigent questioning of the census-taker has never extracted anything more definite from him than that he “was here w’en de stars fell.” This system of chronology is simple and original. The earlier events of his life all occurred either before or after the year the stars fell; later ones, before or after General Jackson died. Whosoever insists upon greater accuracy on Uncle Lige’s part is set down by him as being “onreasonable an’ exactin’.” His stock of superstitions is large and indestructible, and as long as he remains the autocrat he is on the Caruthers place, no cattle will ever be branded on the wane of the moon, or any potatoes be planted on its increase, and Friday will never witness the beginning of an undertaking.

Uncle Lige’s immediate connection with the white family dates from the day of his accidental promotion from the position of head teamster on the plantation to that of family coachman, the most dignified position attainable by anybody in his sphere of life. He never wearies of detailing the circumstances of his promotion, and his sense of morality is nowise shocked that his own rise was in consequence of a fellow-mortal’s fall. If any casuist draws his attention to this point, Uncle Lige dismisses it with an airy declaration that “ev’y tub mus’ stan’ on its own bott’m.” The story of his transplanting from the quarters to be “yard folks” he tells with a chuckling prelude that never failed to arouse “French John” (his supplanted rival) to the highest pitch of frenzy….

“H’it all hap’n befo’ Genul Jacksin die. It was ’bout de time dat Mars’ John ’clude it wor’n’ good fur man t’ be ’lone, en ’clude to ’bey de Scripture ’juncshun, en’ go down de coas’ to fetch him up a wife. But befo’ he wen’ he sot he’s house in order, so to speak. He’d ben livin’ to heseff in de log cabin his pa put up w’en he fus’ cl’ared de place, but no wife er his’n wor’n gwine to be put down in dat little low-roof log-house ’hind de cotton-wood trees; so Mars’ John, he sends all de way to Cincinnater fur de framework uv dis big house, en sech a sawin’ en hammerin’, en gardenin’, en puttin’ up uv hen-houses, en layin’ down of brick walks, en pickin’ out of yard folks from de fiel’ han’s! But Lige wor’n ’mongst ’em, no, sirs. Lige hed to stan’ off en’ look at h’it all wid his finger in he’s mouf. Den de crownin’ glory come, in a new kerridge en’ p’ar from Orleens. I ain’ gwine tell no lie ’bout it, dis nigger’s fingers did fa’rly itch t’ git hol’ uv dem spankin’ bob-tail mar’s. But Mars’ John didn’ have no use for a flat-nose, pock-mark, squatty nigger lak me, den. I wuz good ’nough to drive he’s mule team t’ de landin’, arter a load er freight or t’ haul his cott’n crop t’ town, but not t’ set up on dat kerridge-box en drive he’s wife. No, sirs. He done bought a driver same time he bought de kerridge en’ de mar’s. A gemmun ob color he wuz, he wor’n’ no nigger. A black monkey I called him, wi’ his ha’r smellin’ of grease, en his dandy ways, en all dat. En’ I larfe to myself to think er dat boy tryin’ to manage dem skittish bob-tails, as day prance over de bridges and crost de bayers en froo dese woods er ourn. Well, sirs, de day done come w’en Mars’ John was t’ git home wid he’s new wife. French John had he’s orders to be at de landin’ wid de horses en kerridge, en’ I hed mine to be dar wid de mule-team to fotch out de baggidge. Well, sirs, we wuz dar, French John wid de new kerridge en me wid de fo’-mule wagin. I tuk Sam Baker ’long t’ help wid de trunks. De boat was late. Boats mos’ generally is late w’en you’s waitin’ fur ’em. Mr. Creole Nigger he strut ’bout dar showin’ off in Mars’ John’s las’ winter overcoat en a new hat, a crackin’ uv his bran’ new kerridge whip lak Fofe uv July firecrackers at fus’, but come presen’ly, I sees Mr. Creo’ slippin’ crost de levee to Mack Williams’s sto’. I sez to myseff, go it, nigger; ef you knowed es much ’bout Mack Williams’s whiskey as dis nigger does, you’d be mighty shy of techin’ it w’en you got t’ drive w’ite folks home in de dark wid de mud ’bout axle deep. But it wor’n none er my lookout. I wor’n’ put dar t’ keep French John straight, and I allers were principled ’gainst meddlin’ wid w’at wor’n none er my biziness. ‘My brudder!’ En I should a ben he’s keeper! No, sirs; French John wor’n’ none er my brudder. I didn’ come from no sech stock, I tell you. Well, de long en de short of it wuz, de boat done come finally, en I see Mars’ John a steppin’ crost de gang-plank wid he’s head high up in de a’r, en a hangin’ to he’s arm de purties’ sort uv a lady (I tell you ol’ Miss were a stunner in her young days), en’ French John, yere he come, jus’ a cavortin’ crost de levee mekin’ dem skittish mar’s jump ev’y foot uv de way t’ de chune of dat crackin’ whip. Mars’ John he gin ’im one black look, den he call out, sorter loud like, ‘Is Lige Rankin here?’ Lige were thar sho’es you is bo’n; en’ he say, ‘Git up on dat box en tak dem reins.’ Lige didn’ need no secon’ axin’. I was dar, en’ I hed dem reins in my hands fo’ Mr. Creo’ knew wa’t hu’t him. French John he went home layin’ in a heap on top a bale er baggin’ in de fo’ mule wagin. En Lige Rankin, well, he done hol’ dem reins frum dat day to dis. But w’at de use er goin’ so fur back? All dat happin’ fo’ Genul Jacksin die.”

The carriage that brought the bride home on that memorable occasion is a wreck and a relic now. It has stood motionless in one corner of the carriage-house while the dust of years accumulated on its cracked and wrinkled curtains. It is the favorite retreat of an ancient Dominick hen, who lays her eggs under the back seat and broods over them periodically in peaceful immunity from fresh-egg fiends; but it is a sacred relic in Uncle Lige’s estimation, and no vehicle will ever be just the same to him. The bride he brought home in triumph then sits in the easiest chair in the warmest nook by the fireside in winter, or the shadiest spot on the gallery in the summer, and the young men and maidens of the household do reverence to her years and her virtues. To Uncle Lige she is something only a little lower than the angels, for to her gentle sway he owes the many additional accomplishments that became his after he was enrolled among the yard-folks.

Ol’ Miss was the making of him, he candidly admits. As the Caruthers place, with its isolation from its neighbors and its environment of mud, did not offer temptations for the idle luxury of a daily drive, the carriage and horses were kept as conveyances, and in the long intervals of their appearance at the front door, up to which Uncle Lige delighted in driving with as broad a sweep as the front yard would permit of, his duties apart from driving were well defined and numerous. The large garden, where vegetables and flowers flourished amicably side by side, was his to work by day and to guard by night. Set into one side of the tall picket-fence was a tiny cabin of one room and a lean-to that goes by the name of the gardener’s house. Within, its walls are hung thick with bags of seeds of the watermelons, cantaloupes, lima beans, and innumerable other esculents of his own preservation, for Uncle Lige has slight faith in “sto’ seed.” The whitewashed joists are gay with strings of red pepper, garlands of okra pods, and the bright yellow balsam apple, whose curative qualities when steeped in whiskey are sure and far-famed. Many a quart of whiskey finds its way into Uncle Lige’s locker, brought hither by the recipient of cut or burn or bruise, who craves the balsam of which Uncle Lige always has good store in exchange for the fiery liquid the old man craves. The shed in front of the gardener’s house is wreathed about with a rich climbing rose that would grace a palace, but it is a thing of small account in the old man’s eyes. Ol’ Miss, in his estimation, wastes much good ground and time, too, in the cultivation of her roses, and jasmines, and violets, and lady slippers, and dahlias, and tuberoses. It had much better be put in pindars or rutabagas; but, though neither the beauty nor the sweetness of the flowers appeals to any of his senses, it is her wish to have them, and it would go hard with Lige before they should suffer neglect at his hands. Seen by the moonlight, or yet more vaguely by the glimmer of the distant stars, the long spacious garden over which Uncle Lige reigns supreme is a peaceful and pretty object, with its neat squares of erect cabbages, bordered with bright-hued zinnias, its feathery-topped carrot bed, tipped at the edges with glowing gladioli, its green tangled masses of watermelon vines, hiding not only the dark glossy fruit so dear to the universal palate, but deadly spring-guns which Uncle Lige has placed judiciously and so arranged by a system of telegraphic strings running into his cabin floor that the soundest sleep he is capable of falling into will be shattered at the first marauding footfall. None of the white family lay any claim to the garden or its fruitage. It is emphatically Uncle Lige’s garden, and visitors to the big house must always pay it their meed of admiration under his personal supervision. He is conscious that it stands unrivalled in all the country-side, and is not averse to being told so over and over again….

It was to Uncle Lige the boys came for instruction in rowing, and riding, and gunning. It was he who taught them the rhythm of the oars and the dexterous art of “feathering” that sent the clear water of the lake rippling away in fairy rings from the shining blades; it was he who “broke” their ponies for them and plodded patiently at their heads until they grew ashamed of his protection; it was the prowess of his gun that kept the family table supplied with ducks, and snipe, and partridges, and made the boys his eager pupils and his envious admirers. But the day came when the boys rode away from the big house, leaving behind them their ponies, with other childish things; when the yellow curls and the blue eyes of the child who tried in vain to inoculate him with buds from the tree of knowledge, were seen less seldom in the cabin in the garden; for days of anxious watching and tumultuous effort had come to the women of the land, who had sent away from them all who were strong enough of heart and hand to do a patriot’s part. It was then that Uncle Lige’s executive ability and loyal affection for his “w’ite folks” had full and vigorous play.

“Take care of your mistress and my daughter, old man,” the master had said, wringing old Lige’s hand, as he too, when the fight waxed hotter and thicker, went off to the front. How proudly the old man’s heart swelled within him when the mistress, whom he regarded only as a trifle lower than the angels, turned to him for advice at almost every juncture! How eagerly he spent himself that the comforts his “w’ite folks” were accustomed to should not fail them through any mismanagement or neglect on his part! And when grim gunboats began to sentinel the river, putting a period to all communication with the master and the boys, and gradually drawing the cordon still closer, until the necessities of life grew few and hard to procure, it was Uncle Lige, who, loading a skiff with sweet-potatoes and pecans, and paddling softly out into the river, under cover of thick darkness, came back with a wondrous supply of tea and coffee that his “w’ite folks” consumed with a guilty sensation of disloyalty, but with a relish born of a nauseous experience of burned okra coffee and sassafras tea.

Uncle Lige was never absent from the yard about the big house during the entire period of his administration but once besides this; then it was for four days and nights. It was a notable journey, and has been embodied among his reminiscent narratives. It was no desertion of the post of duty; it was, on the contrary, the taking on of a graver responsibility for the sake of the “young Miss” who ranked next in his affections to the master’s wife, “ol’ Miss.”

The blue eyes he had watched from the cradle were growing faded from excessive weeping, the springing step he had found it hard to keep pace with in brighter days was growing heavy and listless. “Missy was pinin’.” He knew well what for. There had gone away from her one even dearer than father or brother. Lige knew of the rumors that had floated to the big house concerning him. He was sick. He was in hospital at Vicksburg. The old man conceived an heroic resolve. Perhaps he could get him home. Then the light would come back to his “dear chile’s” eyes and the elasticity to her step. It was hard to go away without telling “ol’ Miss,” but if he should fail it would be worse than ever. For a little while they must think what they would of him. They did think unspeakable things of him. “Lige had gone over to the enemy!” Who then could be relied on? There was no special discomfort entailed by his disappearance. He had seen to all that, and a son of his own’ loins assumed his duties pro tem. But no one could supply Lige’s place. The mistress marvelled and moaned; the girl for whose sake he was consenting to be cruelly misunderstood for a little while, waxed wordy in her indignation, and said in her haste he was a traitor. How harshly all her hot words came back to her when one evening, as she paced the long gallery of the big house, watching with listless gaze the sun set in a blaze of purple and gold, wondering bitterly in her sore heart why men must fight and women must weep, the wooden latch of the front gate was lifted by a quick hand, and there, coming up the walk, leaning heavily on old Lige’s arm, was the one of all others in the wide world she most yearned to see! She was down the steps and by his side in a second, wondering, laughing, crying, the light already back in her eyes and the buoyancy of her heart communicating itself to her step.

“I fotch him, Missy,” was all old Lige said at that moment, but later on he told them how he had travelled by night in his staunch and well-provisioned little skiff, lying by in wooded coves by day, eluding pursuit, laboring untiringly, encouraging the sick and heartsore boy, who lay in the boat on his heap of blankets; reaping his reward beforehand in the reflection that he was carrying peace and joy back to his “dear chile,” and that “ol’ Miss” herself would approve of his course of conduct.

But all that was since “Genul Jacksin” died, and although Lige’s days of active service are wellnigh over, the cabin with the climbing roses is still his own, and if he does not wield the shovel and the hoe as vigorously in the garden beds it overlooks, nor drive the family carriage with as lofty an assumption of dignity, his sway is just as autocratic and his worth as highly rated as on the day when he supplanted French John.