SCENES ON THE ALABAMA RIVER
Written for the New York “Spirit of the Times” by Mrs. Nancy S. Bryant.
On a recent trip down the Alabama I was a witness to many interesting phases of Southern life. In the first place, the season was early—April, just as the leaves of the magnolia seemed freshly waxed and polished, and the buds were forming for that “admire me, but breathe not on my blossom” state, which is so pure, so fragrant, when in full bloom. At Montgomery bluff I took passage in the steamer “Dove” for Mobile, and on my introduction I was met at the door of the ladies’ cabin by “Aunt Lotty,” a bright mulatto, with an imposing pink turban upon her head, and ponderous hooped rings in her ears, the remainder of her dress being scrupulously nice. The dignity of her manner would impress a stranger with the idea of her being the Madam hostess of the steamer, rather than femme de chambre. The next person I encountered was a delicate lady of forty, whom Lotty, in the cordial manner peculiar to the South, introduced to me as Mrs. Pollet, my only lady fellow-traveller to Mobile, saying she “hoped we ladies would have a pleasant trip, as it was her gratis pleasurement to make every ting agreeable in her jurisdiction.” At the conclusion of these remarks on the part of Lotty I went to my state-room to make some little change in my dress, when I overheard Lotty paying me the high compliment of being a “fus bes” lady, just like our people; “peared like I allus lived wid black folks.” I was “mighty friendly” on my trip up “der riber; she ‘members me all her life.” I had received great kindness from Aunt Lotty, and being quite by myself, I had indulged in some conversation with the old negress, who informed me she had been waiting maid to her three young “Misses,” and had been something of a traveler, besides being once at Washington, “where her old massa went to der Congress from der old Virginia State.” To make a short story, Aunt Lotty was quite a romance of the world, and for that reason she liked the life of a chambermaid, for plantation life, according to her notion, “was mighty dull for der people of der fashion life.”
Col. Pollet and his wife, the lady to whom I had been introduced, and two sons, with thirty house servants, old and young, were on their way to the Valley of the Mississippi. Three sons of the Colonel had preceded them some six weeks, accompanied by the field hands. The black family of Col. Pollet then on the steamer occupied nearly all the under deck which surrounded the ladies’ cabin, and I became intensely interested in this company from the sympathy I felt for the anxious mistress, who was too feeble to go upon the guard. Lotty kept her advised of their welfare, in her rounds of duty, and made herself quite interesting to me. We were wending our way down the river, making occasional calls for freight, wood, and passengers. Everything passed off pleasantly, until one evening I suddenly felt the boughs of a tree snapping rudely against the boat’s side. The next moment came a “Lordy! gracious me, we dun got in der woods!” Then “he! he! he!” from a half-dozen voices; next a scream, “My baby! my baby! Oh! my poor misses and der chillen! I’s dead! I’s dead!” This, as might have been expected, gave the poor mistress a shock, when next was heard the voice of Lotty, addressed to the alarmed mother: “Young ‘oman, is you distracted? You’ll squeeze your chile ter def! You’s got your chile in your arms, gal! You better not set yourself on der boat dat fashion; dis boat aint goin’ to stop for pick you up”—when another burst of laughter from her fellow-servants, who were pointing to Abby’s turban, which was swinging on a tree far in the distance. Her husband George, who was not a little jealous of his wife’s attractions, was next on the spot, and said, gruffly: “I’s glad you lost dat head-gear. I don’t want you splurgin’ round dat fashion; ‘taint decent, nohow.” At last the party got quieted, and Lotty went to the other side of the guard, and seeing Caesar, commenced:
“Daddy, you is a mighty old gempleman to be trabblin on a boat.”
“Yes, Madam,” replied the old patriarch; “but Pompey, my brother, is five years older dan me, and I was ninety las’ Christmas. Old people for true dat we is.”
“I hope you git along in comfort, you dun got so many chillen and young people to wait on you.”
“Yes, berry much,” said an old woman near by, who was suffering from asthma; “you better believe he aint gying ter let anybody nus him when he’s got an eye open—der Lord knows I gin out long time ago.”
“Well,” said Lotty, in her most cheering tones, “you have got chillen, and you must make dem wait on you.”
An old fat Negro, with white hair, who had sat quietly on a box, smoking his pipe and listening to the conversation, turned up the white of his eye, and gave a significant nod of the head, saying: “Yes, mum, it is jus’ as my ole Sarah says. Der facts is dis; der ole gemman dar is chileish, and you aint a-gonter maker him believe his darter is a minute over fifteen.”
“Oh!” says Lotty, sympathetically; “we must bear and forebear in dis life of restitution, for der old gemman is chileish.”
“He is bound to be,” said Uncle Jake; “he has dun lived to the age of ‘Thusalar.”
So passed the days on the good steamer, when Cecelia, the sempstress of Mrs. Pollet, who, like her mistress, was quite worn with the care and fatigue of her journey, took a seat by the side of her mistress, and a friendly conversation ensued:
" Miss Mary, you looks poorly—you dus give yourself too much trouble. Your bes’ way is to let everything pass, and take care of yourself. You must nurse yourself up,” said faithful Cecelia, arranging her mistress’s pillow, and placing her shawl over her shoulders. “Master is taking it easy; he just keeps in his berth. Master Peter is just telling his stories, and making der people laugh fit to kill demselves. Master James got his face in his book, home fashion. Pompey just sleeps all der time. Caesar is mighty zasperated, and Sarah has a time of it.”
“Poor Sarah!” sighed Mrs. Pollet; “I feel for her; and Nancy’s baby cries half the time.”
“Never you mind, Missis, it won’t hurt the child; it is pure crossness—takes after George, he is just as gruff as a bear.”
Cecelia had gone to attend to some matters for her Mistress in the stateroom occupied by her sons, when old Lotty came into the cabin, throwing up her hands, saying: “If ever I did! I never did! Live and learn—die and forget all.”
“What in the world has happened?” inquired I, seeing Lotty pale with fright.
“Why, mistress, I jus’ look over der guard, and what did I see but dem people of Col. Pollet’s round old Pompey. God bless you, missis, if der old man didn’t look up to me, as like as if ter say, you see my trubble is all over.”
The announcement, though rudely made, brought home the possibility of an event that was not altogether unexpected, for Pompey was nearly a century old, and his lamp of life quietly going out. Col. Pollet’s sons immediately went below, and for them the services of two physicians on board were in immediate requisition. Hot whiskey and mustard plasters were tried in vain, and in two hours, as the Negroes expressed it, old Pompey was “dun dead, for true,” no one knowing when he ceased to live.
Old Pompey was attired in his best Sunday clothes, and on the arrival of the boat at Mobile, a coffin was procured, a grave was purchased, and his master and sons, together with his fellow-servants, followed old Pompey to his last resting-place, and the detention cost a round sum of money to Col. P. There was as much feeling shown for old Pompey’s departure, by the whole family of Col. Pollet, as if he had been their grandfather. Col. Pollet said he had great fears that Pompey would not reach his new home, but he could never have left Virginia to have seen tears in the old man’s eyes. While slavery lasts, may there be hearts as warm and true as this good master and mistress Pollet.
Source: New York Spirit of the Times29.8 (2 April 1859): 91. Alderman Library.
Erin Bartels prepared this typescript.
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