The Soul of Marse Ralph
Mary A. P. Stansbury, 1890
First published in The New England Magazine, November 1890.
Revisiting Black Point after an interval of several years, I found that little seaside hamlet no longer an “undiscovered country.” The familiar path to the cliffs wound past a hotel of considerable architectural pretensions, a row of smart cottages overlooked the blue waters of the bay, and our own dear, old-fashioned boarding-house had thrust out sundry awkward additions, protruding like the arms of a growing boy from the sleeves of his last year’s jacket.
But the sea, — the sea was the same! The tide ran up the gray sands in the old shining ripples, the little white-breasted sandpipers alternately advancing and retreating before it, and beyond, along the surf-beach, the splendid breakers came racing in shore, tossing their white crests in defiance of human curbing.
A crowd of bathers, in brilliant costumes, were disporting themselves in the waves, or sitting upon the sand, like mermen and maids, to drench their hair in the sunshine, while a little way from land a single small boat moved slowly up and down in apparently aimless fashion.
“What is the boat doing out there?” I asked the old-time friend who had welcomed me; but before she could reply, a frightened cry rang out upon the air, and one of the children who were splashing about in the water like young seals stretched a pair of entreating arms toward the little craft. In a moment the boatman had reached her, and skilfully balancing himself; a splendid figure against the background of sea and sky, lifted her lightly in, and with a few swift turns of the oar brought the skiff to land. Then I saw that his face was coal black.
“That is ‘Life-saving Joe,'” said my friend, “one of the characters of the place. Two years ago, an adventuresome swimmer was caught by the undertow, just beyond that point of rocks, and drowned before help could reach him. Next day, Joe appeared with his boat, and, season by season since, he has never been missed for a single day at the regular hour for bathing. He rows up and down, as you saw him just now, alert, observant, ready at the slightest signal to lend a hand. There is absolutely no danger now, and even the younger children wade out fearlessly without nurse or guardian. The strange part of the story, however, is that this unremitting service is a free gift, for he utterly refuses to receive any compensation for labor or loss of time.”
“Truly a sable philanthropist!”
“You may well say so. There is not a more industrious young fellow on the Point, white or black, yet he is ready at any moment to drop his own work at the first call of danger to any human being. He has saved a half-dozen lives along the coast within the last four years.
“Joe lives with his old grandmother, who is a cook at one of the houses, in a snug cottage on Half Moon Cove. Old Dinah goes to her work in the early morning, but sleeps under her own roof; after the custom so dear to the southern-born negroes. Joe is her pride and delight. To her most confidential friends she tells an odd story, which I won’t spoil by repeating. But it might be worth your while to cultivate her acquaintance, if you could induce her to tell it to you herself.”
In the delicious idleness of a summer vacation the most trivial suggestion may become a spur to curiosity; and it was the result of many artful overtures to friendship with old Dinah, that I became, after a few weeks, a privileged guest in her little cottage.
We sat together, one evening, looking through the open door-way upon the steel-gray sands left uncovered by the ebbing tide. Dinah had enthroned me in her one gay-cushioned easy-chair, while she occupied a low settle close by.
Her gray head was wreathed about with a scarlet turban, and an expression of serene content was dimly visible upon her face through the fragrant clouds of smoke issuing from the short pipe in her mouth.
At a little distance along shore, her grandson was busily engaged in cleaning fish upon a rude bench constructed for the purpose. As the level sunset light touched him, I was impressed by the fine outlines of his form and the free grace of all his movements. His arms, bare to the shoulders, might have served as the models for those of some bronze Hercules, and he whistled, as he worked, some familiar and pathetic plantation airs, with the silvery intonation of a skilful flute-player. Dinah’s eyes turned in the direction of the sound, and a humorous smile illuminated her dusky features.
“‘Pears like Joe must ‘a’ had a mighty fine cotch, this ebenin’,” she said, ” ‘cordin’ to dat chune he’s wistlin’.”
I looked up in some surprise, for the ineffably mournful strains of the refrain of “Massa’s in the cold, cold ground,” blending at that moment with the low plash of the receding tide, were suggestive of anything but the happy-go-lucky spirit of the successful fisherman.
“Yes’m,” continued the old woman, “Joe ‘pears to fink he mus’ put a curb on his pride o’ heart, when he’s totin’ a plump boat-load o’ shad ‘n cunners; but jes’ let him be out half a day an’ get nawthin’, and – laws~ ye’d orter hear him! — a-perkin’ an’ a-shakin’, an’ a-scalin’ up an’ down, ‘mindin’ me o’ nawthin’ but a mockin’ bird down in Virginny, whar I was raised.”
“You have reason to be proud of your grandson, Dinah, if all they say of him is true.”
“I dunno what they’s been sayin’ to you, missis, but dey kyant say too much ’bout my Joe,” she answered, drawing herself up with a kind of rude majesty. Then, dropping her voice mysteriously, she added: “Missis, did ye eber hearn tell of a brack man wid a white man’s soul in him?”
“I thought all good souls were white in God’s sight, Dinah,” I answered, smiling.
“Dat ar’s de truf, inissis, sho’ nuff, but dat ain’t what I mean.”
Then, with increased impressiveness of manner—“It’s a mighty quare thing, missis, ’bout my Joe!”
“Won’t you tell me, Dinah?”
“I don’ talk to eberybody, missis. Laws! dey wouldn’t understand! Dey’d jes’ laff. ‘Pears like some folks thinks a laff’s de mos’ pow’fulest thing in the ‘varsal creation. Spec’ dey ‘low, if de jedgment day was come, an’ dey could jes’ roll out a right smart laff when de fust star fell out’n de sky, and come bumpin’ onto dis yer earth, the Lawd’d be so scart like, ‘t He’d send an angel to pick it up, an’ go back Himself into heben to wait anoder thousand year!”
Dinah knocked the ashes from her pipe with contemptuous bitterness; then settling herself comfortably, she went on.
“I was raised, as I was tellin’ ye, down in Virginny, on the old Balfour place. A mighty fine place it was, too! Dere wan’t a mo’ up-an’-down gen’leman, in de hull country, ‘n Marse Cunnel, nor a finer woman to look at ‘n ole Miss; an’ dey was as good as dey was fine, — took car’ o’ der people like chillen. One o’ dem sneakin’ traders would as soon ‘a’ stuck his haid in a lion’s mouf; as inside o’ Cunnel Balfour’s door, sho ’nuff.
“Dey was mighty fawnd o’ comp’ny, an’ dere was allays hosses and kerridges rattlin’ up an’ down de dribe-way, an’ no end o’ vis’tors in de parlor, an’ good dinners smokin’ in de dinin’-room.
“Dere was three chillen. Miss Marie, she was de oldes’, an’ she got married to Major Carlton, and went to Richmon’ to lib. Den dere was Marse Godfrey, and young Marse Ralph. Marse Godfrey, he growed up de libin’ image o’ the Cunnel—straight as an arrer, an’ proud-spoken. But Marse Ralph—he was my baby! I’ll neber fo’git de mawnin’ dey called me into de missis’s room.
I’d los’ my fust little one on’y jes’ de week befo’. She was a-layin’ all white an’ still on de piller, but her lips smilin’ an’ her big eyes shinin’.
“‘Come here, Dinah, my poor chile,’ says she.
“An’ when I come an’ stood by de bed, she turned down the coberlid with her own little, white hand, and dar was a mite of a little face, like a rose, an’ sof’ curls o’ yellow ha’r all round it.
“‘De good Lawd’s took your baby to Hisself’ says she, ‘an’ I’m gwine to lend you mine to take car’ of.’
“I fell down on my knees by de bed a-shakin’ an’ cryin’. The nuss, she commenced t’ speak up right sharp to me, but de missis said:
“‘No, no! Gib ‘er de baby!
When I heared dat, I jes’ opened my arms, an’ wid de feelin’ of de littles of’ haid, an’ de little seekin’ mouf, de Lawd healed my trouble. An’ f’om dat day, missis, Marse Ralph b’longed to me—poor, brack Dinah—as much as to his own moder.
“What a chile he growed up! Marse Godfrey was hansum, but Marse Ralph was be-yutiful! He had big, brown eyes like his moder’s, but his ha’r kep’ its goldy color, and his face pink an’ white like a peach-bloom. But his looks was the leastest part—’twas his tender heart that made eberybody lub him. He was allays helpin’ somebody or somethin’ out o’ trouble, an’ he wouldn’t ‘a’ hurted the leastest thing the Lawd made. I neber seed him angry, ‘cept some wrong was bein’ done. Den his eyes use t’ blaze like fire, an’ he wan’t afeared o’ nawthin’ in de hull worl’.
“I rickolec’ like yest’day, the summer he was turned o’ five, how he tuk my Randy’s kitten out ‘n de mouf of a strange dog. I cotched sight on him, jes’ as he was liftin’ up a big gyarden-shovel to strike de dog ober de haid. I screamed an’ run, but befo’ I cud git to him, de dog was gallopin’ off tail down, an’ Marse Ralph had de kitten in his arms, a-wipin’ de blood off’n its paw wid his own little handercher.
“It mos’ broke my heart whin dey sent him way up norf to school. ‘Peared like I couldn’t wait fom one vacation to anoder. Ebery time he come home, he was taller an’ hansomer, an’ jes’ as fawned o’ his ole mammy. I’ve got de silk shawl in my chist now ‘t he brung me dat las’ summer. He’d got to be one-and-twenty, then, an’ he’d got on’y one year mo’ to stay in college. Ole Miss, she read me de letter dat de haid-teacher wrote about him, a-praisin’ him.
“My Randy, Joe’s mudder, was married to Aleck, Marse Godfrey’s body-servant. Joe was Randy’s fust baby, and he was nigh onter a year old—the peartest, knowin’est little feller ye eber see.
“It was the bery nex’ day arter Marse Ralph’s birf-day dinner, ‘t Marse Cunnel an’ Marse Godfrey tuk de hosses early in de mawnin’, an’ rode off fifteen mile to ‘tend court; an’ Aleck, he went along. Dey ‘lowed to stay till nex’ day.
“It was jes’ in de aidge o’ de ebenin’, as I was stan’in’ in de do’ o’ Chloe Johnson’s cabin, ‘t I heard de awfulest scream ‘t eber I did, an’ Sue, a yellow girl ‘t helped about de kitchen, come a-tearin’ down, screechin’, ‘Dehouse is a fire!’ I gib anoder scream an’ started to run, an’ sho’ nuff, derewas a great brack cloud o’ smoke risin’ up out o’ de ruf.”
Dinah paused, and covered her face with her hands.
“It’s a long time ago, missis,” she continued, at length, “but I kyant b’ar to’member de runnin’, an’ de cryin’, de wimmen totin’ water, de men climbin’ an’ wukin’, de blaze streamin’ out ‘n de winders, an’ ole Miss’s lubly furniture an’ chiny an’ silber tumbled in heaps on de groun’.
“De main buildin’ was all a sheet o’ fire, an’ we’d gib up all hopes, when I cotched sight o’ my Randy comin’ across de field, screechin’ at ebery jump. Ole Miss’d done sent her on an errand ober to the Spencer place dat arternoon, an’ I ‘lowed she tuk de baby along, but now I seed she hadn’t got nawthin’ in her arms. I run to meet her. ‘Randy,’ says I, ‘whar’s de baby?’
“‘Lawd o’ mercy!’ says she, ‘ain’t you got him? I lef’ him asleep on de fio’ in de norf attic.’
“Peared like de bref went out ‘n my body. I jes’ looked once towards de burnin’ house, an’ turned away my haid. Dere was de blaze crawlin’ round de norf wing, an’ de smoke burstin’ out ‘n half a dozen winders.
“‘Randy, chile, it’s too late!’ says I, an’ I tried to put my arms around her; but she shook me off like a tiger, — an’ dat minute Marse Ralph come by.
“‘Why, mammy, Randy!’ says he. ‘Don’t take on so! Eberybody’s safe.’
“Randy throwed herself on de ground, and cotched him by de knees.
“‘Marse Ralph,’ says she, ‘my baby’s in de norf attic!’
“Marse Ralph turned white. He neber answered, but he was off like de wind, an’ I an’ Randy arter. We heared him above de roar o’ de fire, ‘Fetch a ladder, boys!—de norf attic winder—dere’s a baby dere!’ Dey fotched a long ladder, an’ ’twas as much as eber dey cud do to set it up in de smoke an’. de heat. ‘Up wid ye!’ shouted Marse Ralph; but nobody stirred. ‘Deed, missis, you cudn’t blame ’em, for it ‘peared like sho’ death. But Marse Ralph, he jes’ looked ’round, wid dem big eyes blazin’. ‘You brack cowards!’ says he; an’ befo’ anybody cud stop him, he’d cotched up ole Miss’s cloak as laid on de grass, an’ he was up de ladder hisself. De winder was open, an’ we seed him t’row de cloak ober his head, and crawl in. I fell down cryin’, ‘O Lawd! O Lawd, sabe!’ It couldn’t ‘a’ been more ‘n two minutes, dough it ‘peared like hours, befo’ he come out, climbin’ slow an’ car’ful ober the winder-sill, holdin’ on wid one han’, an’ car’yin’ somethin’ in de toder, under de cloak.
Randy, she clutched my hand, but nobody spoke a word, an’ all de time Marse Ralph was a-comm’ down t’roo de smoke, slow an’ steady. He was a little more ‘n half way to de bottom, when he called out clar and loud, ‘He’s all right, Randy!’ An’ den-den–O, missis! a great piece o’ the blazin’ cornice fell down off ‘n the ruf, an’ struck him on de haid, an’ he come down wid it in a burnin’ bed o’ fire an’ cinders!
“I kyant talk much ’bout dat. De baby was rolled in de cloak, and it wa’n’t hurted de leastest mite, but—O my chile!—my lubly Marse Ralph!—wid de great bleedin’ cut on his haid, his bu’ful eyes blinded, an’ his hansum face nawthin’ but raw, burnt flesh! Ole Miss, she done went into spasms w’en she see’d him, an’ it ‘peared as if dey’d bof die befo’ we could git Marse Cunnel an’ Marse Godfrey wid de doctors.
“Marse Ralph, he lib jes’ two days. He didn’t ‘pear to sense nawthin’ ’till jes’ befo’ he died. De doctors was settin’ on one side an’ I on de toder, w’en all to once he ‘peared to come to hisself.
“‘Joe—de baby,’ says he—‘bring him here!’
“Randy was stan’in’ outside cryin’, an’ I took the chile out ‘n her arms, an’ fotched it in. Marse Ralph couldn’t see, but he tried to feel about wid de han’ dat wan’t burned, so I tuk it an’ laid it on de baby’s face. De little t’ing was scart at fust, but I says quiet-like, ‘Pore Marse Ralph! dear Marse Ralph!’ an’ it quieted down.
“Marse Ralph’s lips was movin’, an’ w’ en I put my year down, I heard him say—‘It’s my life ‘t I’ve gib to you, baby. You mus’ fill out my years!’
“It’s de Lawd’s truf, missis, but de baby straightened hisself as if he was listenin’ too. A mighty qu’ar, ole look come into his little face, an’ befo’ I knowed anything, he reached ober an’ kissed Marse Ralph on de mouf. W’en I lif’ him up, Marse Ralph was daid!
“Missis! “– the old woman’s tones grew low and intense, and her sunken eyes burned as she leaned forward to lay a bony hand upon my knee—” Missis, de soul o’ Marse Ralph went into my Joe’s body along o’ dat kiss!
“Joe wan’t neber like none o’ de oder brack chillun arter dat. He grew diff’ent — he talk diff’ent, an’ soon’s eber he’s big ’nuff to go round by hissehf; he begin helpin’, an’ comfortin’, an’ takin’ car’ o’ de littler ones, jes’ like Marse Ralph! An’ he jes’ so mad, when somebody hurted any little, weak t’ing.
“Well, den come de wa’. Dem was awful times. Marse Cunnel an’ Marse Godfrey, dey went to de f’ont, an’ my Randy’s Aleck, he go ‘long, an’ not one o’ dem t’ree eber come home alibe!
“W’en de wa’ was ober, Miss Marie, she beg her mudder to go to Richmon’ an’ lib wid her, but ole Miss, she stick to de ole place. Den my Randy, she died o’ grief. De brack fo’ks, dey was all free, to be sho’, but I wouldn’t ‘a’ lef ole Miss—not for money. But arter she was daid, too, Joe an’ I, we come norf to Potland, whar we had ‘lations, an’ dey got me my place here t’ de hotel. Joe gets right smart o’ work, an’ we’s done splendid—we has so! We’s got dis yer home, an Joe don’ want me to work no mo’, but, laws – I’d die ‘f I cudn’t work.
“But, missis”—her voice falling once more, and the shadow deepening on her dusky face—“dere’s a t’ing a-comin’!—I do’ know how nor w’en–mebbe de Lawd ‘ll spar’ me, an’ it won’t be in my time—but it’s a-comin’! Missis, it’s Marse Ralph’s life dat my boy’s libin’!—it’s Marse Ralph’s y’ars dat he’s a-fillin’ out! Missis, he’s sabed six lives aready, along o’ dis coast! Dat’s w’at his work is! Dat’s w’at dey call him—‘Life-sabin’ Joe!’ But, sometime, de end’s gwine t’ come! He’ll sabe a life, an’
gib his own for it! De good Lawd help me, if I lib to see!”
The old woman threw her checked apron over her face, and buried her head in her clasped arms. The tide was turning, and up from the shore floated a lingering, longing melody—
“Swing low, sweet chariot!
Comm’ for to carry me home!”
“What of old Dinah and her grandson?” was one of my first questions, when, five years later, I found myself once more at the Point.
“Dinah? The poor old creature died of pneumonia during the bitter winter which followed your last visit. But Joe? Surely, you should have heard. The papers were full of the story. It was he who performed such prodigies of bravery, when the schooner Lady Bell struck off Eagle Rocks, two years ago. He swam out with a rope in the teeth of the breakers, infused his own courage into the hearts of the poor people who had given up all hope, and made them obey him as if he had been some superior being. Ten had been brought off safely, and, with the eleventh in his arms—a little child belonging to the boat’s cook—Joe had just reached the shore, when he sank exhausted, the blood pouring from his mouth. He never spoke, and lived but a few moments. They buried him over there on the hill.”
Turning away, my feet took the path to the little cemetery, whose quiet western slope faced the eternal contrast of the never-resting sea. I found the grave easily, marked by a tail granite shaft, whose inscription recounted the gratitude of those who owed their lives to the self-sacrifice of the lowly hero. But between my eyes and the carven words came the vision of a dark face, wrinkled and old, its every feature quivering in the struggle of love and pride with mysterious foreboding.
Had chance, alone, fulfilled old Dinah’s prophecy, or was it, indeed, the ‘soul o’ Marse Ralph’ which, after brave transmigration, had entered into rest?
About the Author
Mary A. P. Standbury…