Now, this morning, Creline had whispered mysteriously to June, as she went up the street to sell some eggs for Madame Joilet, that Massa Linkum was coming that very day. June knew nothing about Massa Linkum, and nothing about those grand, immortal words of his which had made every slave in Richmond free; it had never entered Madame Joilet's plan that she should know. No one can tell, reasoned Madame, what notions the little nigger will get if she finds it out.
She might even ask for wages, or take a notion to learn to read, or run away, or something. June saw no one; she kept her prudently in the house. Tell her? _No, no, impossible_!
But June had heard the beautiful news this morning, like all the rest; and June was glad, though she had not the slightest idea why.
So, while her mistress was safely asleep upstairs, she had stolen out to watch for the wonderful sight,--the mysterious sight that every one was waiting to see. She was standing there on tiptoe on the fence, in her little ragged dress, with the black kitten in her arms, when a great crowd turned a corner, and tossed up a cloud of dust, and swept up the street. There were armed soldiers with glittering uniforms, and there were flags flying, and merry voices shouting, and huzzas and blessings distinct upon the air. There were long lines of dusky faces upturned, and wet with happy tears.
There were angry faces, too, scowling from windows, and lurking in dark corners.
It swept on, and it swept up, and June stood still, and held her breath to look, and saw, in the midst of it all, a tall man dressed in black. He had a thin, white face, sad-eyed and kindly and quiet, and he was bowing and smiling to the people on either side.
"God bress yer, Massa Linkum, God bress yer!" shouted the happy voices; and then there was a chorus of wild hurrahs, and June laughed outright for glee, and lifted up her little thin voice and cried, "Bress yer, Massa Linkum!" with the rest, and knew no more than the kitty what she did it for.
The great man turned, and saw June standing alone in the sunlight, the fresh wind blowing her ragged dress, her little black shoulders just reaching to the top of the fence, her wide-open, mournful eyes, and the kitten squeezed in her arms. And he looked right at her, oh, so kindly! and gave her a smile all to herself--one of his rare smiles, with a bit of a quiver in it,--and bowed, and was gone.
"Take me 'long wid yer, Massa Linkum, Massa Linkum!" called poor June faintly. But no one heard her; and the crowd swept on, and June's voice broke into a cry, and the hot tears came, and she laid her face down on Hungry to hide them. You see, in all her life, no one had ever looked so at June before.
"June, June, come here!" called a sharp voice from the house. But June was sobbing so hard she did not hear.
"Venez ici,--vite, vite! June! Voila! The little nigger will be the death of me. She tears my heart. June, vite, I say!"
June started, and jumped down from the fence, and ran into the house with great frightened eyes.
"I just didn't mean to, noways, missus. I want to see Massa Linkum, an' he look at me, an' I done forget eberyting. O missus, don't beat me dis yere time, an' I'll neber--"
But Madame Joilet interrupted her with a box on the ear, and dragged her upstairs. There was a terrible look on Madame's face.
Just what happened upstairs, I have not the heart to tell you.
That night, June was crouched, sobbing and bruised, behind the kitchen stove, when Creline came in on an errand for her mistress.
Madame Joilet was obliged to leave the room for a few minutes, and the two were alone together. June crawled out from behind the stove. "I see him,--I see Massa Linkum, Creline."
"De Lord bress him foreber'n eber. Amen!" exclaimed Creline fervently, throwing up her old thin hands.
June crept a little nearer, and looked all around the room to see if the doors were shut.
"Creline, what's he done gone come down here fur? Am he de Messiah?"
"Bress yer soul, chile! don' ye know better'n dat ar?"
"Don' know nuffin," said June sullenly. "Neber knows nuffin; 'spects I neber's gwine to. Can' go out in de road to fine out,--she beat me. Can' ask nuffin,--she jest gib me a push down cellar. O Creline, der's sech rats down dar now,--dar is!"
"Yer poor critter!" said Creline, with great contempt for her ignorance. "Why, Massa Linkum, eberybody knows 'bout he. He's done gone made we free,--whole heap on we."
"Free!" echoed June, with puzzled eyes.
"Laws, yes, chile; 'pears like yer's drefful stupid. Yer don'
b'long--" Creline lowered her voice to a mysterious whisper, and looked carefully at the closed door,--"yer don' b'long to Missus Jolly no more dan she b'long to you, an' dat's de trufe now, 'case Massa Linkum say so,--God bress him!"
Just then Madame Joilet came back.
"What's that you're talking about?" she said sharply.
"June was jes' sayin' what a heap she tink ob you, missus," said Creline with a grave face.
June lay awake a long time that night, thinking about Massa Linkum, and the wonderful news Creline had brought, and wondering when Madame Joilet would tell her that she was free.
But many days passed, and Madame said nothing about it. Creline's son had left his master and gone North. Creline herself had asked and obtained scanty wages for her work. A little black boy across the street had been sentenced to receive twenty-five lashes for some trifling fault, and they had just begun to whip him in the yard, when a Union officer stepped up and stopped them. A little girl, not a quarter of a mile away, whose name June had often heard, had just found her father, who had been sold away from her years ago, and had come into Richmond with the Yankee soldiers.
But nothing had happened to June. Everything went on as in the old days before Master Linkum came. She washed dishes, and scrubbed knives, and carried baskets of wood, so heavy that she tottered under their weight, and was scolded if she dropped so much as a shaving on the floor. She swept the rooms with a broom three times as tall as she was, and had her ears boxed because she sould not get the dust up with such tiny hands. She worked and scrubbed and ran on errands from morning to night, till her feet ached so she cried out with the pain. She was whipped and scolded and threatened and frightened and shaken, just as she had been ever since she could remember. She was kept shut up like a prisoner in the house, with Madame Joilet's cold gray eyes forever on her, and her sharp voice forever in her ear. And still not a word was said about Massa Linkum and the beautiful freedom he had given to all such as little June, and not a word did June dare to say.
But June _thought_. Madame Joilet could not help that. If Madame had known just what June was thinking, she would have tried hard to help it.
Well, so the days passed, and the weeks, and still Madame said not a word; and still she whipped and scolded and shook, and June worked and cried, and nothing happened. But June had not done all her thinking for nothing.
One night Creline was going by the house, when June called to her softly through the fence.
"What's de matter?" said Creline, who was in a great hurry. "I's gwine to fine Massa Linkum,--don' yer tell nobody. Law's a massy, what a young un dat ar chile is!" said Creline, thinking that June had just waked up from a dream, and forthwith forgetting all about her.
Madame Joilet always locked June in her room, which was nothing but a closet with a window in it, and a heap of rags for a bed. On this particular night she turned the key as usual, and then went to her own room at the other end of the house, where she was soon soundly asleep.
About eleven o'clock, when all the house was still, the window of June's closet softly opened. There was a roofed door-way just underneath it, with an old grapevine trellis running up one side of it. A little dark figure stepped out timidly on the narrow, steep roof, clinging with its hands to keep its balance, and then down upon the trellis, which it began to crawl slowly down. The old wood creaked and groaned and trembled, and the little figure trembled and stood still. If it should give way, and fall crashing to the ground!
She stood a minute looking down; then she took a slow, careful step; then another and another, hand under hand upon the bars. The trellis creaked and shook and cracked, but it held on, and June held on, and dropped softly down, gasping and terrified at what she had done, all in a little heap on the grass below.
She lay there a moment perfectly still. She could not catch her breath at first, and she trembled so that she could not move.
Then she crept along on tiptoe to the wood-shed. She ran a great risk in opening the wood-shed door, for the hinges were rusty, and it creaked with a terrible noise. But Hungry was in there. She could not go without Hungry. She went in, and called in a faint whisper. The kitten knew her, dark as it was, and ran out from the wood-pile with a joyful mew, to rub itself against her dress.
"We's gwine to fine Massa Linkum, you an' me, bof two togeder,"
"Pur! pur-r-r!" said Hungry, as if she were quite content; and June took her up in her arms, and laughed softly. How happy they would be, she and Hungry! and how Massa Linkum would smile and wonder when he saw them coming in! and how Madame Joilet would hunt and scold!
She went out of the wood-shed and out of the yard, hushing the soft laugh on her lips, and holding her breath as she passed under her mistress's window. She had heard Creline say that Massa Linkum had gone back to the North; so she walked up the street a little way, and then she turned aside into the vacant squares and unpaved roads, and so out into the fields where no one could see her.
It was very still and very dark. The great trees stood up like giants against the sky, and the wind howled hoarsely through them.
It made June think of the bloodhounds that she had seen rushing with horrible yells to the swamps, where hunted slaves were hiding.
"I reckon 'tain't on'y little ways, Hungry," she said with a shiver; "we'll git dar 'fore long. Don' be 'fraid."
"Pur! pur-r-r!" said Hungry, nestling her head in warmly under June's arm.
"'Spect you lub me, Hungry,--'spect you does!"
And then June laughed softly once more. What would Massa Linkum say to the kitty? Had he ever seen such a kitty in all his life?
So she folded her arms tightly over Hungry's soft fur, and trudged away into the woods. She began to sing a little as she walked, in that sorrowful, smothered way, that made Madame Joilet angry. Ah, that was all over now! There would be no more scolding and beating, no more tired days, no more terrible nights spent in the dark and lonely cellar, no more going to bed without her supper, and crying herself to sleep. Massa Linkum would never treat her so. She never once doubted, in that foolish little trusting heart of hers, that he would be glad to see her, and Hungry too. Why should she? Was there anyone in all the world who had looked so at poor June?
So on and away, deep into the woods and swamps, she trudged cheerily; and she sang low to Hungry, and Hungry purred to her. The night passed on and the stars grew pale, the woods deepened and thickened, the swamps were cold and wet, the brambles scratched her hands and feet.