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He paused a few minutes and then continued: "Mr. Jamison, the man who could 'er resisted Miss Rita's pleadin' when she begged me to help her, would 'er been hard hearteder than me. I done it, an' I thank G.o.d I done it good.
"Mars John when he was a school boy tole me an Dineh about a good man before Christ come to save us sinners. That man took some sort 'er tea"--"Was it hemlock?" I interjected. "Yes, that wus it; he took hemlock tea, kaze the city ordered it. Mars John said that n.o.body ever 'cused that good man of suicide. He told us of a great many good men a long while ago who killed thar selves an' n.o.body called it suicide. He tole us of one great man running on a sword held out by his servant an' n.o.body ain't 'cused that servant of murder. Miss Rita done what the good man done a long while ago. She didn't drown herself; she went to her husband kaze she heard him callin' her. I didn't commit murder.
I held the sword as 'er faithful servant oughter do."
"Now Mr. Jamison, is it better she'd be alive, the widow of a unmarried-bed; married in Heaven, but her marriage not by the law; the widow of no lawful husban'; to be pinted at by the finger of scorn?
Would it be better fur her to be here, with madness peraps in her mine--maybe in a lunatic sylum, or by her husban's side, down thar in the bottom of the lake?"
"Men will be judged, Jim, I believe according to their lights," I answered.
With a sigh he returned, "I'm willin' to be judged! Now, sir, we must finish our task."
We labored four days. Jim dived down and anch.o.r.ed long poles to guide our work. By means of these and by diving he spread the canvas sheets over the bodies. He anch.o.r.ed them safely with the chains and boulders.
We let the heavy stones down by cords gently to prevent them from falling upon the bodies. The Big Rock arises in a small land-locked cove, thoroughly protected from outer-waves, and almost hidden from view lake-ward. But for this we could not have performed our task. We strewed the boughs over the canvas, securing them in turn so as to catch the sands and gravels over the last resting place of our loved ones. Chilled though he was to the very bones, the determined negro would not desist from his labours, until thoroughly satisfied.
When all was finished, with uncovered head the negro threw a handful of dirt into the water, saying, his voice broken with sobs: "Dust to dust! Dust to dust!"
We sang a hymn while tears streamed down our faces, and left the dear dead to Him who created them, and to Him who died that man might be redeemed.
It was dusk on Sat.u.r.day, the fourth day, when our work was ended. When we reached the camp old Akbar who had been sick since the night of the rain, lay dead before the tent. We buried him that night near the rock.
Never was Sabbath rest more needed, than by us the next day. For days we had labored under intense excitement. The strain removed, we were limp and nerveless. Jim advised hot drinks, very warm clothing and wraps and absolute rest.
He covered himself head and all, sleeping heavily for nearly twenty-four hours. Monday morning found him rested but "stiff in der jints."
When we were about to abandon the camp, I intimated that it was necessary for me to go to Chicago, to see to winding up my friend's estate. The negro said with great dignity, "No! Mr. Jamison it is not necessary, but I want you to go. Mr. Felden lef' a paper that makes everything mine. Thar wur three copies of it. One is in the safe in Chicago. Miss Rita had one in a belt on her waist and the other is in a rubber bag here."
He pointed to his waist.
"Ef Miss Rita had er lived every thing would er been hers, excep a good livin for Dineh and me. But now I must take every thing to make good poor colored people happy. The paper tells me how to do it. We don't have to go to the court. Mr. Felden didn't want n.o.body to know that his wife did not have his lawful name, and fixed it so I can take every thing."
For a few moments he was silent and then continued, "Mr. Felden the day before he died told me a honester man never lived than Mr. Paul Jamison, and ef any thing happened to him he wanted you to be a friend to his wife. Now Mr. Jamison I am rich, but I am a steward an' must use every dollar jis like my marster said I must. Ef you will help me, I will give you a good salary and you kin carry out a n.o.ble purpose."
I reflected a few moments and said, "Jim, I accept your proposition, and will devote all of my energies to the cause Mr. Felden had at heart. It is a n.o.ble one; one which at this juncture is as worthy as any other on earth. I will, however, take of the salary you offer only what I need for a comfortable life."
He seemed greatly pleased, saying: "I need you Mr. Jamison. In Cincinnati an' in Chicago my master began to educate me. I studied hard, and it was hard work, but I've liked best when I was a servant, to be a humble negro. But now I must be a man, with grave sponserbilities, and must forgit what I was, in what I am. When I ac' the part of a negro servant, I talk like a servant. It comes natral to me an' I likes it. But now I am a servant no more, an' I spose I can change my speech onbeknownst jess like Mars Jack. When he wus rosy and light haired he was John ----, when he wus dark an' black headed, he was Jack Felden.
My granfather was brung from Africy a boy. He allers claimed he wus a great chief--a king. My young master John used to call me "King Jim."
He said the Africin heathen cropped out 'er me. I've studied, but I'm ignorant. I know nothing of the world but what he learned me. I learned to read, so I could read his letters. I learned how to talk to fit me to do business for Mr. Felden. My learnin' ain't much, an'
that's what I want you for, to help me do my work."
We reached Chicago in due time. Dinah was almost inconsolable when her husband told of the double tragedy. She began to droop and pine away.
We rapidly arranged our affairs, finding no difficulty in doing so, for nearly everything was in good stocks and bonds. The bank settled with Madison as per written orders from Mr. Felden, found in his safe; making no inquiries except kindly ones as to his health. These Madison evaded adroitly.
When all was finished, we took Dinah to a warmer climate. Madison needed the change almost as much as she. His natural predisposition to rheumatism had been greatly aggravated by his exposure to the chilly water at the foot of the Rock. Indeed he suffered for many years greatly from that cause. Change of climate did him good, but poor Dinah's complaint, no human agency or climatic influence could reach.
One evening about four months after the sad event at the camp, she went out as a burning candle--a flicker, and all was over. Her husband said "She didn't die, she jess went to Jesus an' to her foster-chile."
We earnestly set to work to carry out Mr. Felden's wishes, greatly, I think to the benefits of a down trodden race. We kept only enough to support ourselves economically through the remainder of life. The old negro never permitted anyone to know whence benefits sprang, or who gave out charities. He said, "Mr. John ---- died long ago in India; Mr. Jack Felden an' his wife sleep in their unknown grave; no one but us knows who he wus, nor what he did, in fact, you don't know his real name; no body except me knows that; and no body but us mus know what he is doing now he's dead. If he looks down on us an' sees what we are doin' with what he lef', his spirit rejoices that we don't ask no thanks for him, but are doin' our best to make some sufferin' black folks happy."
A short while before I met you, Madison and I went from Mackinaw to pay what would most probably be our last visit to the scenes hallowed by so many sad, yet endearing memories. We stopped at ---- and rowed to the Big Rock a few miles away. It lifted from the water dark and frowning as it appeared to us a score of years before. Lichens and moss partially covered the s.p.a.ce from which the ma.s.s fell when Felden was carried to his death. The fresher cleavage was to us a tablet memorial of the sad event.
With a long pole to which he had attached an iron hook, Jim probed the secrets of the deep. His gratification was unbounded when he discovered that not only were the boulders holding down the canvas winding sheets entirely under sand and gravel, but the acc.u.mulations nearly covered the boughs and brush placed over the grave.
Madison's aged head whitened by eighty-two winters was lifted erect upon his broad shoulders; and a mild August breeze coming in from the lake and gently circling around the little cove, bore upon its wings his sweetly modulated thanks 'to the Almighty G.o.d for his many mercies.'
For a while we sat silent in deep thought, and then he said, "Let's go now, Mr. Jamison. I feels secure that Mr. Jack Felden and his wife down thar under the sand and water, will sleep undisturbed."
I rowed out of the cove, the old negro keeping his sad eyes riveted upon the fatal rock. We turned the point which hid it from the lake; he seized an oar and working manfully, uttered not a word until we drew up under the village.
The mental and bodily strain, however, had been too much for the old man. I was compelled to call for aid to support his tottering steps to our room. He staggered and fell upon his bed; his ma.s.sive form gave way, like a gla.s.s shattered by a blow.
His mind and speech remained unimpaired. He positively refused to have a physician called, declaring if it was the Lord's will he should go, he would obey the will of the Lord. He lay for several days without a murmur or a complaint. One night I was awakened by a deep groan; hurrying to his bedside, a single glance told me his end was nearly come. For several hours he lay in a dull stupor, his labored breathing alone showing that life was still in his breast. His breathing grew fainter and fainter, until just as the rising sun poured through the window, it seemed to die away. I hastened to his side to close the tired faithful eyes in their last long sleep, when the wan lips opened to whisper, "Good-bye Mr. Jamison, good-bye"! and then as if by mere will power he sat erect on his bed and cried in a loud voice "Bress de Lord! I see Mars John! Diner! Jim's gwine home;" and then he died.
Two Finns, fresh immigrants in the land, rowed me with the body to the cove. There on the sh.o.r.e in a spot shadowed at evening by the Big Rock we buried him. The sun hovering above the whispering maples lighted the last sad rites to the end. The waves from the lake stealing into the cove in mild ripples, sang with mysterious cadence a sweet, loving requiem. The dying day, the whispering breeze, the sighing wavelets and the solitude seemed to my over-wrought senses to promise a fulfillment of the negro's prophecy; that the sleepers below would rest undisturbed until summoned on the last and final call; that until then "The Big Rock would keep its sad secret."
In giving this story to the world, I feel guiltless of violating any pledge of secrecy. There is nothing in the names mentioned to enable any one to probe the mystery of John ----. The terrible events of the war about his old home, scattered its residents, and to-day the places that knew them know them no more.