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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 54. "Can't!"
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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 54. 'Can't!' Post by :mkproductions Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :1812

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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 54. "Can't!"


On handing the will to her mother, Ramsey found her no longer leading the conversation. The senator had the floor, the deck, and, as Ned or Watson might have said, was "drawing all the water in the river." His discourse was to madame and the general alternately, though now and then he included the parson's wife and Mrs. Gilmore.

Ramsey's talent for taking in everything at once was taxed to its limit when at the same time that she attended to him she watched an elegant steamer, one of the Saturday-evening boats out of Cincinnati, pass remotely on the Arkansas side behind Island Thirty-six; marked the return of the Californian as he followed her from his conference with the twins; noted the slow, preoccupied passing of Hugh and his grandfather to the captain's room; measured every winged stride of the _Votaress's approach toward the Third Chickasaw Bluff; observed--as earlier bidden by the actor--the strange pink and yellow stripes of the bluff's clay face, and recognized in the great bell's landing signal the sad business which had become so half-conscious a habit in the boat's routine. Yet she caught the senator's every word.

Whether a person born in slavery, although seven eighths white, he was saying, was free by law was hardly a practical question, the matter being so nearly independent of any mere statute. For if such a slave sought liberty of an owner inclined to grant it there certainly was no law to prevent its bestowal, whereas if the owner was unwilling the burden of proof would naturally fall upon the slave, who, of course----

"No," said Ramsey, drawing his and every eye and interesting everybody by a sweet maturity of tone to which her mourning dress lent emphasis. "No, it would not. The judge told me about that on Sunday."

Madame started and smiled. "You h-asked? An' fo' w'at?"

The transient air of maturity failed, and Ramsey's shoulders went up in her more usual manner.

The senator had his question: "What did the judge say?"

"The judge says, where the slave seems to be white the owner must prove she ain't--prove she isn't; but the burden, he says, of getting the case into court----"

"Ah!" The senator was relieved. "Practically the same thing. For no slave can get a case into court without white help, and no decent white man will step between an owner and a slave who confesses to any African blood."

"No-c'ommunity would ssstand it," said the general.

"Now," pursued the senator, "a claim based on pure white blood and charging some palpable mistake or fraud would be different. That would invite a community's sympathy and support. I've heard of such cases." He faced Ramsey again, whose smile implied a query in waiting.

Madame had handed the document to the senator. It was short. He read it in a glance or two and, refolding it, addressed Ramsey again: "This slave girl can neither be set free nor sold, for she's yours, and you're a minor. She seems to have been left to you just for that."

Until her mother spoke, Ramsey was mystified by her gracious bows of satisfaction to the senator and the general, but then she understood and was glad. "Verrie well," said madame, "iv Phylliz be satizfi' to billong to Ramzee----"

"She is," said Mrs. Gilmore. "She's told me so."

"Verrie well, she'll juz' billong. An'"--to the senator--"you'll tell h-all those passenger' you h-are the fran' of my 'usban' an' fran' of the pewblic an' you 'ave seen thad will, an' Phylliz she's h-all those year' billong to Ramzee, an' tha'z h-all arrange' and h-every-boddie satizfi', ondly those twin' they 'ave not hear' abboud that yet, but you'll see them an' make them satizfi'----"

"They know," called Ramsey and "California," and the latter added to the senator: "They've sold all claim to her, sight unseen, and have got the money; took it from me, before witnesses." Then to the astonished matron he added: "We can fix that in a jiffy, as slick as glass."

But there the immediate scene diverted every one; the whole group moved to the roof's edge to see the boat land. Then, while her bells still jingled and her wheels yeasted, the company, heart-sick of burials, fell apart. The senator and the general, promising zealous action and the best results, returned to the boiler deck, the parson's wife sought her children, Mrs. Gilmore went down to "Harriet." To shield madame from the full force of the breeze "California" moved her chair, Joy following with Ramsey's, to the shelter of the great chimney nearest the captain's door, where sympathy itself tended to draw them, and by the time this was done the commodore, again on Hugh's arm, reissued from the captain's room and, at sight of this quartet, paused, turned, and accepted a seat among them.

The first word was Ramsey's: How was the captain?

The best that could be said was that he was "holding out"--or "up"--or "on"--the commodore's voice was weak. He had come away from the captain's bed-side because a convalescent was "only in the way," he said, and because Hugh felt that he belonged on deck if anywhere, though that, the old man fondly added, was less important than Hugh chose to regard it. This unimportance Ramsey recognized by diverting the conversation so far as to announce that "mom-a" had just settled the whole Phyllis business.

"Mighty nigh," the Californian admitted, answering Hugh's quiet glance, while his heart praised the daughter's failure to credit him with his share in the achievement, that being a thing still in progress, whose design he had not fully revealed. The omission seemed to him most maidenly and daughterly. He spoke on, to the two ladies:

"There's a thing or two more----"

"Oh, I'll pay that two hundred dollars!" cried Ramsey.

In animated approval her mother nodded to both.

"Not if the court knows itself," said the modest man, with so winsome a smile that every one noticed how blue were his eyes. "I can trump that," he added, musingly.

"What's the other thing? You said a thing or two," asked Ramsey.

"Her wages, ain't it, for eleven years?"

"Ho, ho!" laughed madame in amiable scorn, while----

"Paid!" cried Ramsey. "Mrs. Gilmore's always paid her!"

"Knowin' she was a runaway? and who' from?"

Madame bowed sweetly, yet with an aroused sparkle.

"Humph!" said Ramsey, watching the boat back out and lay her course for Island Thirty-five, "I'd have done as they did, either of them." She stepped into the freshening breeze.

The inquirer's eyes rested on her, bluer than ever.

"Don't you propose to collect?" he asked.

"Most certainly not!" sang Ramsey at full height.

"Not a sou," said madame, looking about in grand amusement. "Not a pic-ah-yune--hoh!"

"But she's going back into yo' hands?"

"My 'an's," said madame.

"And you'll never sell her?"

"Can't!" laughed Ramsey, with eyes ahead.

"You can hire her."

"Yes," said Ramsey, turning. "Oh, yes."

"Well, what'll you take, from the right bidder, for that girl's free papers dated ahead to when you come of age, bidder takin' all the resks?"

"You said down-stairs you wasn't an abolitionist!"

He twinkled. "Well, down-stairs I wa'n't, and in general I ain't. I'm a Kentuckian. But I've got an offer to make." He turned to the Courteneys: "I allowed to make it to this young gentleman first, alone, an' get his advice--an' the commodo's if he'd give it; but the' ain't anybody in this small crowd but what's welcome to hear it, even this young lady, considerin' that she's jest heard so much worse again' me--insinuated--down-stairs."

There was a pause. Old Joy murmured and Madame spoke the daughter's name, adding something in French.

"_Moi_," replied Ramsey, planting herself and gazing up the river, "_je prefere to stay right here."

The mother's smile to the Kentuckian bade him proceed, but he still addressed Hugh and the grandfather:

"You see, that girl down-stairs, 'Harriet,' 'Phyllis,' has been free--Lawdy, free's nothin', she's been white!--fo' ten years. Now, if she goes back home, there may be no place like it, but she's got to be black again. Well, think what that is. I've been weighin' that fact while I looked into her eyes and listened to her voice, an' thinks I to myself: 'If I was this girl, this goin' back to be black would mean one of two things: I'd either die myself, aw I'd kill some one, maybe sev'l.' True, I'm pyo' white an' she ain't, quite, but I don't believe her po' little drop o' low blood makes her any mo' bridlewise 'n what I'd be."

While the speaker's smile drew smiles from madame and the commodore, Ramsey turned to him a severe face and in the same glance managed to see Hugh's, but Hugh's might as well have been, to her mind, the face of a Chickasaw bluff.

"Well, what then?" she asked the gold hunter.

"Same time," said "California," still to the Courteneys, while madame promptly discerned his covert argument and Ramsey suddenly busied herself talking up to the pilot-house, "I noticed, more'n eveh, how much she, Phyllis, favoh'd somebody I was once 'pon a time pow'ful soft on, but whose image"--his smile won smiles again--"I to'e out o' my heart--aw buried in thah--aw both--it bein' too ridiculous fo' me to aspiah that high. An' so here looked to me like a substitute, gentlemen, that ought to satisfy all concerned." His eye turned to madame but lost courage and escaped back to Hugh.

"Now, Mr. Hugh, I've got money a-plenty. It's all I have got excep' maybe a good tempeh, an' I'm goin' back to the diggin's anyhow; one man to the squa' mile is too crowded fo' me. Meantime, madam"--he turned again and this time he was invincible, although madame straightened and sparkled and Ramsey gave a staring attention, having throughout all her pilot-house talk heard everything----"Meantime, madam, with a priest right here on boa'd, if I can buy, at any price, Phyllis's free papehs----"

"You can't!" chanted Ramsey. "She can have 'em for nothing but nobody can buy 'em."

"Pries'?" asked madame, "an' free pape'! W'at you pro-ose do with those pries' an' free pape'?"

"I'll marry her; marry her an' take her to whah a woman's a woman fo' a' that an' can clean house aw cook dinneh whilst I gatheh the honeycomb bright as gold and drive the wolf to his secret hold." He cast around the group a glance of bright inquiry, but except old Joy every one silently looked at every one else. The old woman softly closed her eyes and shook her head.

"Vote!" cried Ramsey, remembering Sunday's victory. "Let's vote on it!"

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