To my Good Friend and Teacher
Captain Charles B. Stivers
Old Mam’ Henry, and her word may be taken, said that it was “De powerfulles’ sehmont she ever had hyeahd in all huh bo’n days.” That was saying a good deal, for the old woman had lived many years on the Stone place and had heard many sermons from preachers, white and black. She was a judge, too.
It really must have been a powerful sermon that Brother Lucius preached, for Aunt Doshy Scott had fallen in a trance in the middle of the aisle, while “Merlatter Mag,” who was famed all over the place for having white folk’s religion and never “waking up,” had broken through her reserve and shouted all over the camp ground.
Several times Cassie had shown signs of giving way, but because she was frail some of the solicitous sisters held her with self-congratulatory care, relieving each other now and then, that each might have a turn in the rejoicings. But as the preacher waded out deeper and deeper into the spiritual stream, Cassie’s efforts to make her feelings known became more and more decided. He told them how the spears of the Midianites had “clashed upon de shiels of de Gideonites, an’ aftah while, wid de powah of de Lawd behin’ him, de man Gideon triumphed mightily,” and swaying then and wailing in the dark woods, with grim branches waving in the breath of their own excitement, they could hear above the tumult the clamor of the fight, the clashing of the spears, and the ringing of the shields. They could see the conqueror coming home in triumph. Then when he cried, “A-who, I say, a-who is in Gideon’s ahmy to-day?” and the wailing chorus took up the note, “A-who!” it was too much even for frail Cassie, and, deserted by the solicitous sisters, in the words of Mam’ Henry, “she broke a-loose, and faihly tuk de place.”
Gideon had certainly triumphed, and when a little boy baby came to Cassie two or three days later, she named him Gideon in honor of the great Hebrew warrior whose story had so wrought upon her. All the plantation knew the spiritual significance of the name, and from the day of his birth the child was as one set apart to a holy mission on earth.
Say what you will of the influences which the circumstances surrounding birth have upon a child, upon this one at least the effect was unmistakable. Even as a baby he seemed to realize the weight of responsibility which had been laid upon his little black shoulders, and there was a complacent dignity in the very way in which he drew upon the sweets of his dirty sugar-teat when the maternal breast was far off bending over the sheaves of the field.
He was a child early destined to sacrifice and self-effacement, and as he grew older and other youngsters came to fill Cassie’s cabin, he took up his lot with the meekness of an infantile Moses. Like a Moses he was, too, leading his little flock to the promised land, when he grew to the age at which, barefooted and one-shifted, he led or carried his little brothers and sisters about the quarters. But the “promised land” never took him into the direction of the stables, where the other pickaninnies worried the horses, or into the region of the hen-coops, where egg-sucking was a common crime.
No boy ever rolled or tumbled in the dirt with a heartier glee than did Gideon, but no warrior, not even his illustrious prototype himself, ever kept sterner discipline in his ranks when his followers seemed prone to overstep the bounds of right. At a very early age his shrill voice could be heard calling in admonitory tones, caught from his mother’s very lips, “You ‘Nelius, don’ you let me ketch you th’owin’ at ol’ mis’ guinea-hens no mo’; you hyeah me?” or “Hi’am, you come offen de top er dat shed ‘fo’ you fall an’ brek yo’ naik all to pieces.”
It was a common sight in the evening to see him sitting upon the low rail fence which ran before the quarters, his shift blowing in the wind, and his black legs lean and bony against the whitewashed rails, as he swayed to and fro, rocking and singing one of his numerous brothers to sleep, and always his song was of war and victory, albeit crooned in a low, soothing voice. Sometimes it was “Turn Back Pharaoh’s Army,” at others “Jinin’ Gideon’s Band.” The latter was a favorite, for he seemed to have a proprietary interest in it, although, despite the martial inspiration of his name, “Gideon’s band” to him meant an aggregation of people with horns and fiddles.
Steve, who was Cassie’s man, declared that he had never seen such a child, and, being quite as religious as Cassie herself, early began to talk Scripture and religion to the boy. He was aided in this when his master, Dudley Stone, a man of the faith, began a little Sunday class for the religiously inclined of the quarters, where the old familiar stories were told in simple language to the slaves and explained. At these meetings Gideon became a shining light. No one listened more eagerly to the teacher’s words, or more readily answered his questions at review. No one was wider-mouthed or whiter-eyed. His admonitions to his family now took on a different complexion, and he could be heard calling across a lot to a mischievous sister, “Bettah tek keer daih, Lucy Jane, Gawd’s a-watchin’ you; bettah tek keer.”
The appointed man is always marked, and so Gideon was by always receiving his full name. No one ever shortened his scriptural appellation into Gid. He was always Gideon from the time he bore the name out of the heat of camp-meeting fervor until his master discovered his worthiness and filled Cassie’s breast with pride by taking him into the house to learn “mannahs and ‘po’tment.”
As a house servant he was beyond reproach, and next to his religion his Mas’ Dudley and Miss Ellen claimed his devotion and fidelity. The young mistress and young master learned to depend fearlessly upon his faithfulness.
It was good to hear old Dudley Stone going through the house in a mock fury, crying, “Well, I never saw such a house; it seems as if there isn’t a soul in it that can do without Gideon. Here I’ve got him up here to wait on me, and it’s Gideon here and Gideon there, and every time I turn around some of you have sneaked him off. Gideon, come here!” And the black boy smiled and came.
But all his days were not days devoted to men’s service, for there came a time when love claimed him for her own, when the clouds took on a new color, when the sough of the wind was music in his ears, and he saw heaven in Martha’s eyes. It all came about in this way.