PAUL LAURENCE DUNBAR
Author of "Lyrics of Lowly Life"
International Association of Newspapers and Authors
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
by Dodd, Mead and Company
North River Bindery Co.
Printers and Binders
TO MY WIFE
It was about six o'clock of a winter's morning. In the eastern sky faint
streaks of grey had come and were succeeded by flashes of red,
crimson-cloaked heralds of the coming day. It had snowed the day before,
but a warm wind had sprung
up during the night, and the snow had
partially melted, leaving the earth showing through in ugly patches of
yellow clay and sooty mud. Half despoiled of their white mantle, though
with enough of it left to stand out in bold contrast
to the bare places,
the houses loomed up, black, dripping, and hideous. Every once in a
while the wind caught the water as it trickled from the eaves, and sent
it flying abroad
in a chill unsparkling spray. The morning came in,
cold, damp, and dismal.
At the end of a short, dirty street in the meanest part of the small
Ohio town of Dexter stood a house more sagging and dilapidated in
appearance than its disreputable fellows. From the foundation
converged to the roof, which seemed to hold its place less by virtue
nails and rafters than by faith. The whole aspect
of the dwelling, if
dwelling it could be called, was as if, conscious
of its own meanness,
it was shrinking away from its neighbours and into itself. A sickly
light gleamed from one of the windows. As the dawn came into the sky, a
woman came to the door and looked out. She was a slim woman, and her
straggling, dusty-coloured hair hung about an unpleasant
She shaded her eyes with her hand, as if the faint light could hurt
those cold, steel-grey orbs. "It 's mornin'," she said to those within.
"I 'll have to be goin' along to git my man's breakfast: he goes to work
at six o'clock, and I 'ain't got a thing cooked in the house fur him.
Some o' the rest o' you 'll have to stay an' lay her out." She went back
in and closed the door behind her.
"La, Mis' Warren, you ain't a-goin' a'ready? Why, there 's everything to
be done here yit: Margar't 's to be laid out, an' this house has to be
put into some kind of order before the undertaker comes."
"I should like to know what else I 'm a-goin' to do, Mis' Austin.
Charity begins at home. My man 's got to go to work, an' he 's got to
have his breakfast: there 's cares fur the livin' as well as fur the
dead, I say, an' I don't believe in tryin' to be so good to them that 's
gone that you furgit them that 's with you."
Mrs. Austin pinched up her shrivelled face a bit more as she replied,
"Well, somebody ought to stay. I know I can't, fur I 've got a ter'ble
big washin' waitin' fur me at home, an' it 's been two nights sence I
've had any sleep to speak of, watchin' here. I 'm purty near broke
"That 's jest what I 've been a-sayin'," repeated
Mrs. Warren. "There 's
cares fur the livin' as well as fur the dead; you 'd ought to take care
o' yoreself: first thing you know you 'll be flat o' yore own back."
A few other women joined their voices in the general protest against
staying. It was for all the world as if they had been anxious
to see the
poor woman out of the world, and, now that they knew her to be gone, had
no further concern for her. All had something to do, either husbands to
get off to work or labours of their own to perform.
A little woman with a weak voice finally changed the current of talk by
saying, "Well, I guess I kin stay: there 's some cold things at home
that my man kin git, an' the childern 'll git off to school by
themselves. They 'll all understand."
"That 's right, Melissy Davis," said a hard-faced woman who had gone on
about some work she was doing, without taking
any notice of the
clamorous deserters, "an' I 'll stay with you. I guess I 've got about
as much work to do as any of you," she added, casting a cold glance at
the women who were now wrapped up and ready to depart, "an' I was n't so
much of a friend of Margar't's as some of you, neither, but on an
occasion like this I know what dooty is." And Miss Hester Prime closed
her lips in a very decided
"Oh, well, some folks is so well off in money an' time that they kin
afford to be liberal
with a pore creature like Margar't, even ef they
did n't have nothin' to do with her before she died."
Miss Prime's face grew sterner as she replied, "Margar't Brent was n't
my kind durin' life, an' that I make no bones o' sayin' here an' now;
but when she got down on the bed of affliction
I done what I could fur
her along with the best of you; an' you, Mandy Warren, that 's seen me
here day in an' day out, ought to be the last one to deny that.
Furthermore, I did n't advise
her to leave her husband, as some people
did, but I did put in a word an' help her to work so 's to try to keep
her straight afterwards, though it ain't fur me to be a-braggin' about
what I done, even to offset
them that did n't do nothin'."
shot told, and Mrs. Warren flared up like a wax light. "It
's a wonder yore old tracts an' the help you give her did n't keep her
"Ef I could n't keep her sober, I was n't one o' them that set an' took
part with her when she was gittin' drunk."
"'Sh! 'sh!" broke in Mrs. Davis: "ef I was you two I would n't go on
that way. Margar't 's dead an' gone now, an' what 's past is past. Pore
soul, she had a hard enough time almost to drive her to destruction; but
it 's all over now, an' we ought to put her away as peaceful
The women who had all been in such a hurry had waited at the prospect
of an altercation, but, seeing
it about to blow over, they bethought
themselves of their neglected homes and husbands, and passed out behind
the still irate Mrs. Warren, who paused long enough in earshot to say,
"I hope that spiteful old maid 'll have her hands full."
The scene within the room which the women had just left was anything but
one. The place was miserably
dirty. Margaret had never been
a particularly neat housewife, even in her well days. The old rag carpet
which disfigured the floor was worn into shreds and blotched with
grease, for the chamber
was cooking- and dining- as well as
sleeping-room. A stove, red with rust, struggled to send forth some
heat. The oily black kerosene
lamp showed a sickly
yellow flame through
the grimy chimney.
On a pallet in one corner lay a child sleeping. On the bed, covered with
a dingy sheet, lay the stark form out of which the miserable
life had so
The women opened the blinds, blew out the light, and began performing
the necessary duties for the dead.
"Anyhow, let her body go clean before her Maker," said Miss Hester
"Don't be too hard on the pore soul, Miss Hester," returned Mrs. Davis.
"She had a hard time of it. I knowed Margar't when she was n't so low
down as in her last days."
"She ought n't never to 'a' left her husband."
"Oh, ef you 'd 'a' knowed him as I did, Miss Hester, you would n't never
say that. He was a brute: sich beatin's as he used to give her when he
was in liquor
you never heerd tell of."
"That was hard, but as long as he was a husband he was a protection
"True enough. Protection is a good dish, but a beatin's a purty bitter
sauce to take with it."
"I wonder what 's ever become of Brent."
"Lord knows. No one 'ain't heerd hide ner hair o' him sence he went away
from town. People thought that he was a-hangin' around tryin' to git a
chance to kill Mag after she got her divorce
from him, but all at once
he packed off without sayin' a word to anybody. I guess he's drunk
himself to death by this time."
When they had finished with Margaret, the women set to work to clean up
the house. The city physician
who had attended the dead woman in her
last hours had reported the case for county burial, and the undertaker
was momentarily expected.
"We 'll have to git the child up an' git his pallet out of the way, so
the floor kin be swept."
"A body hates to wake the pore little motherless dear."
"Perhaps, after all, the child is better off without her example."
"Yes, Miss Hester, perhaps; but a mother, after all, is a mother."
"Even sich a one as this?"
"Even sich a one as this."
Mrs. Davis bent over the child, and was about to lift him, when he
stirred, opened his eyes, and sat up of his own accord. He appeared
about five years of age. He might have been a handsome child, but
hardship and poor feeding had taken away his infantile plumpness, and he
looked old and haggard, even beneath the grime on his face. The kindly
woman lifted him up and began to dress him.
"I want my mamma," said the child.
Neither of the women answered: there was something tugging at their
heart-strings that killed speech.
Finally the little woman said, "I don't know ef we did right to let him
sleep through it all, but then it was sich a horrible
When she had finished dressing the child, she led him to the bed and
showed him his mother's face. He touched it with his little grimy
finger, and then, as if, young as he was, the realization
bereavement had fully come to him, he burst into tears.
Miss Hester turned her face away, but Mrs. Davis did not try to conceal
her tears. She took the boy up in her arms and comforted him the best
"Don't cry, Freddie," she said; "don't cry; mamma's--restin'. Ef you
don't care, Miss Prime, I 'll take him over home an' give him some
breakfast, an' leave him with my oldest girl, Sophy. She kin stay out o'
school to-day. I 'll bring you back a cup o' tea, too; that is, ef you
"Afeared o' what?" exclaimed Miss Prime, turning on her.
"Well, you know, Miss Hester, bein' left alone--ah--some people air
"I 'm no fool, Melissy Davis. Take the child an' go on."
Miss Hester was glad of the chance to be sharp. It covered the weakness
to which she had almost given way at sight of the child's grief. She
bustled on about her work when Mrs. Davis was gone, but her brow was
knit into a wrinkle
of deep thought. "A mother is a mother, after all,"
she mused aloud, "even sich a one."
For haste, for unadulterated despatch, commend
me to the county burying.
The body politic
is busy and has no time to waste on an inert human
body. It does its duty to its own interest and to the pauper dead when
the body is dropped with all celerity into the ground. The county is
philosophical: it says, "Poor devil, the world was unkind
to him: he 'll
be glad to get out of it: we 'll be doing him a favour to put him at the
earliest moment out of sight and sound and feeling of the things that
wounded him. Then, too, the quicker the cheaper, and that will make it
easier on the taxpayers." This latter is so comforting! So the order is
written, the funeral
is rushed through, and the county goes home to its
dinner, feeling well satisfied with itself,--so potent
consolations of philosophy
at so many hundreds per year.
To this general order poor Margaret's funeral
proved no exception. The
morning after her decease
she was shrouded and laid in her cheap pine
coffin to await those last services which, in a provincial
town, are the
meed of saint and sinner
alike. The room in which she lay was very
clean,--unnaturally so,--from the attention of Miss Prime. Clean muslin
curtains had been put up at the windows, and the one cracked
which the house possessed had been covered with white cloth. The
had been taken off the floor, and the boards had been
scrubbed white. The little stove in the corner, now cold, was no longer
red with rust. In a tumbler
on a little table at Margaret's head stood
the only floral offering
that gave a touch of tenderness
to the grim
scene,--a bunch of home-grown scarlet
and white geraniums. Some woman
had robbed her wintered room of this bit of brightness
for the memory of
the dead. The perfume
of the flowers mingled heavily with the faint
odour which pervades the chamber
of death,--an odour that is like the
reminiscence of sorrow.
Like a spirit of order, with solemn
face and quiet tread, Miss Hester
moved about the room, placing one thing here, another there, but ever
doing or changing something, all with maidenly neatness. What a
childish fancy this is of humanity's, tiptoeing and whispering in the
presence of death, as if one by an incautious word or a hasty step might
wake the sleeper
from such deep repose!
The service had been set for two o'clock in the afternoon. One or two
women had already come in to "sit," but by half-past one the general
congregation began to arrive and to take their places. They were mostly
women. The hour of the day was partiallyresponsible
for this; but then
men do not go to funerals anyway, if they can help it. They do not
revel, like their sisters, in the exquisite
pleasure of sorrow. Most of
the women had known pain and loss themselves, and came with ready
sympathy, willing, nay, anxious
to be moved to tears. Some of them came
dragging by one hand children, dressed stiffly, uncomfortably, and
ludicrously,--a medley of soiled ribbons, big collars, wide bows, and
very short knickerbockers. The youngsters were mostly
ill-mannered, and ever and anon one had to be slapped by its mother into
snivelling decorum. Mrs. Davis came in with one of her own children and
leading the dead woman's boy by the hand. At this a buzz of whispered
"Pore little dear," said one, as she settled the bow more securely
under her own boy's sailor collar,--"pore little dear, he 's all alone
in the world."
"I never did see in all my life sich a young child look so sad," said
"H'm!" put in a third; "in this world pore motherless childern has
plenty o' reason to look sad, I tell you."
She brushed the tears off the cheek of her little son whom she had
slapped a moment before. She was tender now.
One woman bent down and whispered into her child's ear as she pointed
with one cotton-gloved finger, "See, Johnny, see little Freddie, there;
he 'ain't got no mother no more. Pore little Freddie! ain't you sorry
fur him?" The child nodded, and gazed with open-eyed wonder at "little
Freddie" as if he were of a new species.
The curtains, stirred by the blast through the loose windows, flapped
dismally, and the people drew their wraps about them, for the fireless
room was cold. Steadily, insistently, the hive-like drone of
conversation murmured on.