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Mark Twain > The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson > Chapter 2

The Tragedy of Pudd'nhead Wilson

Chapter 2

Driscoll Spares His Slaves

Adam was but human--this explains it all. He did not want the apple
for the apple's sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden.
The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have
eaten the serpent.

--Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar

Pudd'nhead Wilson had a trifle of money when he arrived,
and he bought a small house on the extreme western verge of the town.
Between it and Judge Driscoll's house there was only a grassy yard,
with a paling fence dividing the properties in the middle.
He hired a small office down in the town and hung out a tin sign
with these words on it:

                     D A V I D W I L S O N



But his deadly remark had ruined his chance--at least in the law.
No clients came. He took down his sign, after a while, and put it
up on his own house with the law features knocked out of it.
It offered his services now in the humble capacities of land surveyor
and expert accountant. Now and then he got a job of surveying to do,
and now and then a merchant got him to straighten out his books.
With Scotch patience and pluck he resolved to live down his reputation
and work his way into the legal field yet. Poor fellow, he could
foresee that it was going to take him such a weary long time to do it.

He had a rich abundance of idle time, but it never hung heavy on his hands,
for he interested himself in every new thing that was born into the
universe of ideas, and studied it, and experimented upon it at his house.
One of his pet fads was palmistry. To another one he gave no name,
neither would he explain to anybody what its purpose was, but merely
said it was an amusement. In fact, he had found that his fads added to his
reputation as a pudd'nhead; there, he was growing chary of being too
communicative about them. The fad without a name was one which dealt
with people's finger marks. He carried in his coat pocket a shallow box
with grooves in it, and in the grooves strips of glass five inches long
and three inches wide. Along the lower edge of each strip was pasted a
slip of white paper. He asked people to pass their hands through their
hair (thus collecting upon them a thin coating of the natural oil) and then
making a thumb-mark on a glass strip, following it with the mark of the ball
of each finger in succession. Under this row of faint grease prints he
would write a record on the strip of white paper--thus:

                    JOHN SMITH, right hand--

and add the day of the month and the year, then take Smith's left hand
on another glass strip, and add name and date and the words "left hand."
The strips were now returned to the grooved box, and took their place
among what Wilson called his "records."

He often studied his records, examining and poring over them with
absorbing interest until far into the night; but what he found there--
if he found anything--he revealed to no one. Sometimes he copied on
paper the involved and delicate pattern left by the ball of the finger,
and then vastly enlarged it with a pantograph so that he could examine
its web of curving lines with ease and convenience.

One sweltering afternoon--it was the first day of July, 1830--
he was at work over a set of tangled account books in his workroom,
which looked westward over a stretch of vacant lots, when a conversation
outside disturbed him. It was carried on it yells, which showed that
the people engaged in it were not close together.

"Say, Roxy, how does yo' baby come on?" This from the distant voice.

"Fust-rate. How does _you_ come on, Jasper?" This yell was from close by.

"Oh, I's middlin'; hain't got noth'n' to complain of, I's gwine to come
a-court'n you bimeby, Roxy."

"_You_ is, you black mud cat! Yah--yah--yah! I got somep'n' better to do
den 'sociat'n' wid niggers as black as you is. Is ole Miss Cooper's Nancy
done give you de mitten?" Roxy followed this sally with another discharge
of carefree laughter.

"You's jealous, Roxy, dat's what's de matter wid you, you
hussy--yah--yah--yah! Dat's de time I got you!"

"Oh, yes, _you_ got me, hain't you. 'Clah to goodness if dat conceit
o' yo'n strikes in, Jasper, it gwine to kill you sho'. If you b'longed
to me, I'd sell you down de river 'fo' you git too fur gone.
Fust time I runs acrost yo' marster, I's gwine to tell him so."

This idle and aimless jabber went on and on, both parties enjoying the
friendly duel and each well satisfied with his own share of
the wit exchanged--for wit they considered it.

Wilson stepped to the window to observe the combatants; he could not
work while their chatter continued. Over in the vacant lots was Jasper,
young, coal black, and of magnificent build, sitting on a wheelbarrow
in the pelting sun--at work, supposably, whereas he was in fact only
preparing for it by taking an hour's rest before beginning. In front of
Wilson's porch stood Roxy, with a local handmade baby wagon,
in which sat her two charges--one at each end and facing each other.
From Roxy's manner of speech, a stranger would have expected her to
be black, but she was not. Only one sixteenth of her was black,
and that sixteenth did not show. She was of majestic form and stature,
her attitudes were imposing and statuesque, and her gestures and movements
distinguished by a noble and stately grace. Her complexion was very fair,
with the rosy glow of vigorous health in her cheeks, her face was full
of character and expression, her eyes were brown and liquid, and she
had a heavy suit of fine soft hair which was also brown, but the fact
was not apparent because her head was bound about with a checkered
handkerchief and the hair was concealed under it. Her face was shapely,
intelligent, and comely--even beautiful. She had an easy, independent
carriage--when she was among her own caste--and a high and "sassy" way,
withal; but of course she was meek and humble enough where white people were.

To all intents and purposes Roxy was as white as anybody, but the one
sixteenth of her which was black outvoted the other fifteen parts and
made her a Negro. She was a slave, and salable as such. Her child was
thirty-one parts white, and he, too, was a slave, and by a fiction of
law and custom a Negro. He had blue eyes and flaxen curls like his
white comrade, but even the father of the white child was able to tell
the children apart--little as he had commerce with them--by their clothes;
for the white babe wore ruffled soft muslin and a coral necklace,
while the other wore merely a coarse tow-linen shirt which barely reached
to its knees, and no jewelry.

The white child's name was Thomas a Becket Driscoll, the other's name
was Valet de Chambre: no surname--slaves hadn't the privilege.
Roxana had heard that phrase somewhere, the fine sound of it had pleased her
ear, and as she had supposed it was a name, she loaded it on to her darling.
It soon got shorted to "Chambers," of course.

Wilson knew Roxy by sight, and when the duel of wits begun to play out,
he stepped outside to gather in a record or two. Jasper went to work
energetically, at once, perceiving that his leisure was observed.
Wilson inspected the children and asked:

"How old are they, Roxy?"

"Bofe de same age, sir--five months. Bawn de fust o' Feb'uary."

"They're handsome little chaps. One's just as handsome as the other, too."

A delighted smile exposed the girl's white teeth, and she said:

"Bless yo' soul, Misto Wilson, it's pow'ful nice o' you to say dat,
'ca'se one of 'em ain't on'y a nigger. Mighty prime little nigger,
_I_ al'ays says, but dat's 'ca'se it's mine, o' course."

"How do you tell them apart, Roxy, when they haven't any clothes on?"

Roxy laughed a laugh proportioned to her size, and said:

"Oh, _I_ kin tell 'em 'part, Misto Wilson, but I bet Marse Percy
couldn't, not to save his life."

Wilson chatted along for awhile, and presently got Roxy's fingerprints
for his collection--right hand and left--on a couple of his glass strips;
then labeled and dated them, and took the "records" of both children,
and labeled and dated them also.

Two months later, on the third of September, he took this trio of finger
marks again. He liked to have a "series," two or three "takings"
at intervals during the period of childhood, these to be followed at
intervals of several years.

The next day--that is to say, on the fourth of September--something
occurred which profoundly impressed Roxana. Mr. Driscoll missed another
small sum of money--which is a way of saying that this was not a new thing,
but had happened before. In truth, it had happened three times before.
Driscoll's patience was exhausted. He was a fairly humane man toward
slaves and other animals; he was an exceedingly humane man toward the
erring of his own race. Theft he could not abide, and plainly there was
a thief in his house. Necessarily the thief must be one of his Negros.
Sharp measures must be taken. He called his servants before him.
There were three of these, besides Roxy: a man, a woman, and a boy
twelve years old. They were not related. Mr. Driscoll said:

"You have all been warned before. It has done no good. This time I
will teach you a lesson. I will sell the thief. Which of you is
the guilty one?"
They all shuddered at the threat, for here they had a good home,
and a new one was likely to be a change for the worse. The denial
was general. None had stolen anything--not money, anyway--a little sugar,
or cake, or honey, or something like that, that "Marse Percy wouldn't
mind or miss" but not money--never a cent of money. They were eloquent
in their protestations, but Mr. Driscoll was not moved by them.
He answered each in turn with a stern "Name the thief!"

The truth was, all were guilty but Roxana; she suspected that the others
were guilty, but she did not know them to be so. She was horrified
to think how near she had come to being guilty herself; she had been
saved in the nick of time by a revival in the colored Methodist Church,
a fortnight before, at which time and place she "got religion."
The very next day after that gracious experience, while her change of
style was fresh upon her and she was vain of her purified condition,
her master left a couple dollars unprotected on his desk, and she happened
upon that temptation when she was polishing around with a dustrag.
She looked at the money awhile with a steady rising resentment,
then she burst out with:

"Dad blame dat revival, I wisht it had 'a' be'n put off till tomorrow!"

Then she covered the tempter with a book, and another member of the
kitchen cabinet got it. She made this sacrifice as a matter of
religious etiquette; as a thing necessary just now, but by no means to
be wrested into a precedent; no, a week or two would limber up her piety,
then she would be rational again, and the next two dollars that got left
out in the cold would find a comforter--and she could name the comforter.

Was she bad? Was she worse than the general run of her race? No.
They had an unfair show in the battle of life, and they held it no sin
to take military advantage of the enemy--in a small way; in a small way,
but not in a large one. They would smouch provisions from the pantry
whenever they got a chance; or a brass thimble, or a cake of wax,
or an emery bag, or a paper of needles, or a silver spoon, or a dollar bill,
or small articles of clothing, or any other property of light value;
and so far were they from considering such reprisals sinful, that they
would go to church and shout and pray the loudest and sincerest with their
plunder in their pockets. A farm smokehouse had to be kept heavily
padlocked, or even the colored deacon himself could not resist a ham
when Providence showed him in a dream, or otherwise, where such a thing
hung lonesome, and longed for someone to love. But with a hundred hanging
before him, the deacon would not take two--that is, on the same night.
On frosty nights the humane Negro prowler would warm the end of the plank
and put it up under the cold claws of chickens roosting in a tree;
a drowsy hen would step on to the comfortable board, softly clucking
her gratitude, and the prowler would dump her into his bag, and later
into his stomach, perfectly sure that in taking this trifle from the man
who daily robbed him of an inestimable treasure--his liberty--he was
not committing any sin that God would remember against him in the
Last Great Day.

"Name the thief!"

For the fourth time Mr. Driscoll had said it, and always in the same
hard tone. And now he added these words of awful import:

"I give you one minute." He took out his watch. "If at the end of
that time, you have not confessed, I will not only sell all four
of you, BUT--I will sell you DOWN THE RIVER!"

It was equivalent to condemning them to hell! No Missouri Negro
doubted this. Roxy reeled in her tracks, and the color vanished out
of her face; the others dropped to their knees as if they had been shot;
tears gushed from their eyes, their supplicating hands went up,
and three answers came in the one instant.

"I done it!"

"I done it!"

"I done it!--have mercy, marster--Lord have mercy on us po' niggers!"

"Very good," said the master, putting up his watch, "I will
sell you _here_ though you don't deserve it. You ought to be sold
down the river."

The culprits flung themselves prone, in an ecstasy of gratitude,
and kissed his feet, declaring that they would never forget his
goodness and never cease to pray for him as long as they lived.
They were sincere, for like a god he had stretched forth his mighty
hand and closed the gates of hell against them. He knew, himself,
that he had done a noble and gracious thing, and was privately well
pleased with his magnanimity; and that night he set the incident down
in his diary, so that his son might read it in after years, and be
thereby moved to deeds of gentleness and humanity himself.

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