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Fiction: The Dead Oak

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The November day was drawing to a close. The shadows were deepening in the pine forest that lay on one side of the sandy road. On the other side, the corn-stalks stood in level rows against the yellow of the sunset. My horse limped painfully, for he had cast a shoe several hours since, and my hurried ride through a thinly inhabited part of lower Maryland, with which I was unfamiliar, had so far brought me near no blacksmith’s shop. Great, then, was my relief, on passing the wood, to find a three-cross-roads, and a small house with a shed from which rang the measured stroke of the anvil, while the square of the door was ruddy with the forge fire.

After calling loudly and waiting in vain for a reply, I dismounted. Just then the blacksmith came to the door,—a big, low-browed, long-haired fellow, of few words. After examining my horse’s feet, he announced that it would be necessary to replace not only the missing shoe, but also three others.

As he proceeded slowly to work, I saw that there was before me the prospect of a long wait which did not promise to be agreeable, for the man was either surly or stupid, and gave out monosyllabic replies in answer to my questions about the country. A dreary country it was, that through which I was passing,—flat, sandy, impoverished, the virtue having been tilled out of the soil for two hundred years. Now that the old landed proprietors had departed to the cities, the majority of the inhabitants were miserable poor whites and negroes, principally fishermen and oystermen. Here and there one came across a relic of the past,—an old manor-house, ruined or deserted, the property generally of one man, a former overseer, who seemed to own most of the country.

And yet there was a charm of the past over this low-lying land,—a blaze of glory in the west, reflected in the broad river that almost lapped the roots of the huge pine forests that grew along its banks.

As I stood at the door of the smithy, looking eastward, I could see only one exception to this sombre monotony of pines. On the roadside, in the middle of a dense sweep of meadows, entirely isolated, stood a huge oak-tree, the only one of its kind to be seen for miles around.

As he proceeded slowly to work, I saw that there was before me the prospect of a long wait which did not promise to be agreeable, for the man was either surly or stupid, and gave out monosyllabic replies in answer to my questions about the country.

“That must be a pretty old tree,” I remarked.

“The Dead Oak? Many a hundred years old, I reckon.”

“It doesn’t look dead to me,” I answered; “it has a dense foliage.”

“That’s what they call it,—the Dead Oak. A man hung himself to it three years ago,” said the smith, with some show of animation.

“One of the neighborhood?”

“No; a stranger round here. Nobody ever could find out where he come from,—Washington likely. The niggers say it’s ha’nted.”

“How is that?” I asked, much interested.

“Don’t know; just ha’nted,” said the man gruffly, relapsing into silence amid a fire of sparks.

Leaving my taciturn companion, I sauntered down to the road, my steps turning intuitively in the direction of the old tree.

A chill wind came from the river, and a flight of crows with harsh cries arose from its branches, as it stood, the central landmark in the stretch of meadows. On one side of the road was a zigzag rail fence, and on the topmost rail of this, under the tree, I seated myself. The lowest branches almost touched my head, and the dry and dense foliage rustled with every breeze.

Just beyond were two wooden posts, the entrance of a carriage-way leading through a corn-field to what I had not noticed before, a large house far back from the road. As I sat there, facing the afterglow of the sunset, I became aware of the figure of an old negro coming slowly through the corn-rows, through the gate,—a bent negro with bushy white hair. Taking off his rabbit-skin cap, with a courtly bow he seated himself on the roots of the tree.

For some moments we sat there in silence, the old man, with his hands folded, gazing into the west.

“Good evening, uncle,” I ventured to remark. “Do you live near here?”

“Not far away,—up dat a-way,” waving his hand indefinitely in the direction of the shadowy mansion.

“Have you lived here long?” I asked.

“Many an’ many a year,” he responded wearily. “Ebber sence I cum inter de world. I belonged to Mars’ Brooke up yonder.”

“Then you must know about the man who hung himself here three years ago?”

“He war n’t no man,” said the old darky sternly. “He wuz first quality, my young gen’leman. I ought ter know, kase I buried him bofe times.”

At these words, suddenly a thrill ran over me, a sense of mystery, something accursed brooding over this desolate spot.

“What do you mean?” I demanded. “Who was he?”

“Befo’ de Lord, boss, I don’ know, an’ nobody else does. It came about dis ‘er’ way: De first time wuz years an’ years ago. Dar wuz good times in de country den. De quality had n’t all gone away an’ sol’ de ole places to oberseers an’ po’ white trash. Mars’ Harry Brooke wuz keepin’ bachelor’s hall up dar, an’ many’s de high ol’ times and junketings dey had. Well, one night dey had a gran’ time, a-drinkin’ an’ a-carryin’ on, he an’ de udder young gemlemens.‘Bout day de party bruk up, kase de wuz sober enuff den ter ride home. I wuz a young chap den, an’ I wuz runnin’ on in front ter open de gate, bar’footed, from de door, kase it war hot weather den, like Injum summer. When I open’ de gate I scrich out ‘O Gord!’ an’ I like ter fall ter de groun’, kase dar, wid his face all white an’ orful ‘gainst de red leabes, a-lookin’ me right in de eyes, wuz a man tied to der branch, wid a white han’chif aroun’ his neck. It didn’t take me long ter jump fo’ward an’ take him down, an’ when de gemlemen rid up dar he wuz a-lyin’ on de groun’ an’ me a-settin’ right hyar on dis same stump wid his curly head on my knees. He war n’t quite dead an’ his han’ kotch mine, an’ his beautiful brown eyes closed a minute, an’ he gasped like an’ died. All de gemlemen dat came up an’ stan’ ‘roun’, dey say dey nebber see any one so handsom’ ez my young man wuz, jes like one er de marble statues in de parlor, wid a eagle nose, an’ a mouth many a young lady must ‘a’ kissed. But dose days wuz ober fur him far ebber,—yes, mon.

“De quarest thing wuz, he didn’t hab nuthin’ on but a shirt, an’ dat wuz de fines’ quality, real linin, embroidered, but no mark or sign on it ter tell whar he cum from. Nobody ain’t nebber seed him befo’ in dis part ob de kentry. Mars’ Harry sont all ober the kentry, clar up ter Washin’ton an’ Baltimor’, but nobody cum fo’ward ter claim him, so he wuz buried. De parson say he can’t be buried in de cons’crated groun’, kus he mus’ ‘a’ kill hisself, so me an’ anudder man buried him in de medder, under dis tree, right nigh whar you is a-settin’.”

The old man’s narrative ran on monotonously. It seemed as natural, as much a part of the scene, as the croaking of the frogs in the deepening twilight, in which it seemed that I could almost see that white face with its aquiline nose and large brown eyes.

“Dat wuz long ago, long ago,” the old man resumed, “long ago. De War come an’ went, an’ Mars’ Harry wuz killed, an’ de firs’ people lef’ de kentry and de kentry wuz like new-made sod, dirt up’ards; but I nebber fo’got my young gemleman, real quality, hangin’ hyar in dis tree, away from all his people. Well, boss, many years parse, an’ Mars’ Harry’s oberseer done bought de ole place up dar. One night ‘bout three years ago dey gib one er dese hyar big abricultural suppers, an’ dey set dare all night eatin’ an’ drinkin’ like dere betters used ter do. It wuz de same time er year, but misty an’ damp an’ in de early mornin’ I wuz comin’ long de road an’ I see a crowd gaddered aroun’ de tree, jus’ like it wuz dat udder mornin’ long time ago. When I come up, boss, for Gord! dar wuz my young, beautiful gemleman a-lyin’ on de groun’, stiff an’ stark, in his shirt, wid dat hankerchief ‘roun’ his neck. I wuz glad ter see him ag’in, but he war n’t nearly alive, like he wuz befo’. De doctor wuz dere, an’ he felt him an’ he say, ‘Dis man bin dead fo’ days. Who has hang dis corpse to dis tree? Who is de man?’ Jes’ like dey say befo’, ‘Who is de man?’ Nobody remember’ him ‘cept’n’ me. De ole crowd dat wuz dere befor’, de quality, dey all parsed ‘way, what wid de War an’ one thing ur nudder, all gone but me. But I nebber said nuthin’ ter be called ole crazy nigger,—no, mon. Dare he wuz, shore ‘nuff, de same eagle nose an’ brown eyes an’ curls, de same leetle scratch, like de razor done scratch him on de chin. I knowed him, an’ I cyarried him; none er dem common folks ain’t fetched him. Dey abertised eberywhar, but nobody ain’t answer.‘’Case dey can’t. Dey war n’t nobody lef’ ter answer ‘cept me,” and the old man gave an eerie chuckle. “De doctors an’ de lawyers talk it all ober, but dey cay n’t agree, an’ de parson, one er dese hyar new kind, he say he kin be buried in de churchyard, but de people make a fuss, kase he mought er bin a su’cide. So I helped bury him ag’in. Seems like I wuz specially ‘pinted ter be his body-sarvant; dis time it’s right outside de churchyard, an’ nobody don’t know it’s him but me, kase dey all passed away.”

A pale, watery moon had emerged, the wind soughed among the pine-trees, and away off an owl hooted.

“De nex’ time I’s gwine to bury him right in de churchyard. He gwine ter come once mo’, an’ I ain’t gwine ter die till den, an’ dat time he’s gwine ter be buried in de churchyard, and he won’t come no mo’, an’ den I’ll pass away.”

A shout came through the dusk from the smithy:

“Say, mister, come; here’s your horse.” The other words were indistinguishable. I arose and started up the road reluctantly, longing to know more of the mystery. The old man again removed his cap, and so I left him, motionless, seated in the shadows, facing the faint glow in the west. My horse was ready when I reached the forge, the blacksmith standing dark and massive in the doorway. “An old negro has just been telling me a remarkable story,” I said after mounting; “that there have been two suicides found hanging to the old oak, one long ago.”

“Can’t say,” answered the blacksmith, impassively and stolidly. “Ain’t lived here very long myself. Always been called the ‘Dead Oak’ ever since I knowed it.”

“Well, do you know an old negro with a bushy white head and beard, who lives near the Brooke House? Who is he?”

“Might be old Sam, or Lige, or Cash. Lots of ‘em round here,” answered the man, and that was all he would say.

I mounted and rode off rapidly, for there were still six hours of travel before reaching my destination.

The moonlight was faint and chill, silvering the dry foliage of the old tree. I drew rein under it, and peered vainly into the shadows for the darker outlines of the old negro; he had disappeared, but it seemed to me he was still present, sitting on the gnarled root, with the pallid face of that young old corpse against his knee, waiting.

The owl hooted. A faint light shone from the dim mansion in the fields, and I pressed on through a belt of low pines. When some distance on my way I turned and looked back. The glow of the smithy was hidden. All the low stretch of land was folded in twilight, and against the pale sky the Dead Oak stood spectral and alone.

First published in ‘Chap-Book Stories’ 1896.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

19th century American author best known for her novel ‘Betty’.

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