Gordon Fairfax's library held but three men, but the air was dense with
clouds of smoke. The talk had drifted from one topic to another much as
the smoke wreaths had puffed, floated, and thinned away. Then Handon
Gay, who was an ambitious young reporter, spoke of a lynching story in a
recent magazine, and the matter of punishment without trial put new life
into the conversation.
"I should like to see a real lynching," said Gay rather callously.
"Well, I should hardly express it that way," said Fairfax, "but if a
real, live lynching were to come my way, I should not avoid it."
"I should," spoke the other from the depths of his chair, where he had
been puffing in moody silence. Judged by his hair, which was freely
sprinkled with gray, the speaker might have been a man of forty-five or
fifty, but his face, though lined and serious, was youthful, the face of
a man hardly past thirty.
"What, you, Dr. Melville? Why, I thought that you physicians wouldn't
weaken at anything."
"I have seen one such affair," said the doctor gravely, "in fact, I took
a prominent part in it."
"Tell us about it," said the reporter, feeling for his pencil and
notebook, which he was, nevertheless, careful to hide from the speaker.
The men drew their chairs eagerly up to the doctor's, but for a minute
he did not seem to see them, but sat gazing abstractedly into the fire,
then he took a long draw upon his cigar and began:
"I can see it all very vividly now. It was in the summer time and about
seven years ago. I was practising at the time down in the little town of
Bradford. It was a small and primitive place, just the location for an
impecunious medical man, recently out of college.
"In lieu of a regular office, I attended to business in the first of two
rooms which I rented from Hiram Daly, one of the more prosperous of the
townsmen. Here I boarded and here also came my patients--white and
black--whites from every section, and blacks from 'nigger town,' as the
west portion of the place was called.
"The people about me were most of them coarse and rough, but they were
simple and generous, and as time passed on I had about abandoned my
intention of seeking distinction in wider fields and determined to
settle into the place of a modest country doctor. This was rather a strange conclusion for a young man to arrive at, and I will not deny that the presence in the house of my host's beautiful young daughter,
Annie, had something to do with my decision. She was a beautiful young
girl of seventeen or eighteen, and very far superior to her
surroundings. She had a native grace and a pleasing way about her that
made everybody that came under her spell her abject slave. White and
black who knew her loved her, and none, I thought, more deeply and
respectfully than Jube Benson, the black man of all work about the
"He was a fellow whom everybody trusted; an apparently steady-going,
grinning sort, as we used to call him. Well, he was completely under
Miss Annie's thumb, and would fetch and carry for her like a faithful
dog. As soon as he saw that I began to care for Annie, and anybody could
see that, he transferred some of his allegiance to me and became my
faithful servitor also. Never did a man have a more devoted adherent in
his wooing than did I, and many a one of Annie's tasks which he
volunteered to do gave her an extra hour with me. You can imagine that I
liked the boy and you need not wonder any more that as both wooing and
my practice waxed apace, I was content to give up my great ambitions and
stay just where I was.
"It wasn't a very pleasant thing, then, to have an epidemic of typhoid
break out in the town that kept me going so that I hardly had time for
the courting that a fellow wants to carry on with his sweetheart while
he is still young enough to call her his girl. I fumed, but duty was
duty, and I kept to my work night and day. It was now that Jube proved
how invaluable he was as a coadjutor. He not only took messages to
Annie, but brought sometimes little ones from her to me, and he would
tell me little secret things that he had overheard her say that made me
throb with joy and swear at him for repeating his mistress'
conversation. But best of all, Jube was a perfect Cerberus, and no one
on earth could have been more effective in keeping away or deluding the
other young fellows who visited the Dalys. He would tell me of it
afterwards, chuckling softly to himself. 'An,' Doctah, I say to Mistah
Hemp Stevens, "'Scuse us, Mistah Stevens, but Miss Annie, she des gone
out," an' den he go outer de gate lookin' moughty lonesome. When Sam
Elkins come, I say, "Sh, Mistah Elkins, Miss Annie, she done tuk down,"
an' he say, "What, Jube, you don' reckon hit de----" Den he stop an'
look skeert, an' I say, "I feared hit is, Mistah Elkins," an' sheks my
haid ez solemn. He goes outer de gate lookin' lak his bes' frien' done
daid, an' all de time Miss Annie behine de cu'tain ovah de po'ch des' a
laffin' fit to kill.'
"Jube was a most admirable liar, but what could I do? He knew that I
was a young fool of a hypocrite, and when I would rebuke him for these
deceptions, he would give way and roll on the floor in an excess of
delighted laughter until from very contagion I had to join him--and,
well, there was no need of my preaching when there had been no beginning
to his repentance and when there must ensue a continuance of his wrong-doing.
"This thing went on for over three months, and then, pouf! I was down
like a shot. My patients were nearly all up, but the reaction from
overwork made me an easy victim of the lurking germs. Then Jube loomed
up as a nurse. He put everyone else aside, and with the doctor, a friend
of mine from a neighbouring town, took entire charge of me. Even Annie
herself was put aside, and I was cared for as tenderly as a baby. Tom,
that was my physician and friend, told me all about it afterward with
tears in his eyes. Only he was a big, blunt man and his expressions did
not convey all that he meant. He told me how my nigger had nursed me as
if I were a sick kitten and he my mother. Of how fiercely he guarded his
right to be the sole one to 'do' for me, as he called it, and how, when
the crisis came, he hovered, weeping, but hopeful, at my bedside, until
it was safely passed, when they drove him, weak and exhausted, from the
room. As for me, I knew little about it at the time, and cared less. I
was too busy in my fight with death. To my chimerical vision there was
only a black but gentle demon that came and went, alternating with a
white fairy, who would insist on coming in on her head, growing larger
and larger and then dissolving. But the pathos and devotion in the story
lost nothing in my blunt friend's telling.
"It was during the period of a long convalescence, however, that I came
to know my humble ally as he really was, devoted to the point of
abjectness. There were times when for very shame at his goodness to me,
I would beg him to go away, to do something else. He would go, but
before I had time to realise that I was not being ministered to, he
would be back at my side, grinning and pottering just the same. He
manufactured duties for the joy of performing them. He pretended to see
desires in me that I never had, because he liked to pander to them, and
when I became entirely exasperated, and ripped out a good round oath, he
chuckled with the remark, 'Dah, now, you sholy is gittin' well. Nevah
did hyeah a man anywhaih nigh Jo'dan's sho' cuss lak dat.'
"Why, I grew to love him, love him, oh, yes, I loved him as well--oh,
what am I saying? All human love and gratitude are damned poor things;
excuse me, gentlemen, this isn't a pleasant story. The truth is usually
a nasty thing to stand.
"It was not six months after that that my friendship to Jube, which he
had been at such great pains to win, was put to too severe a test.
"It was in the summer time again, and as business was slack, I had
ridden over to see my friend, Dr. Tom. I had spent a good part of the
day there, and it was past four o'clock when I rode leisurely into
Bradford. I was in a particularly joyous mood and no premonition of the
impending catastrophe oppressed me. No sense of sorrow, present or to
come, forced itself upon me, even when I saw men hurrying through the
almost deserted streets. When I got within sight of my home and saw a
crowd surrounding it, I was only interested sufficiently to spur my horse into a jog trot, which brought me up to the throng, when something
in the sullen, settled horror in the men's faces gave me a sudden, sick
thrill. They whispered a word to me, and without a thought, save for
Annie, the girl who had been so surely growing into my heart, I leaped
from the saddle and tore my way through the people to the house.
"It was Annie, poor girl, bruised and bleeding, her face and dress torn
from struggling. They were gathered round her with white faces, and, oh,
with what terrible patience they were trying to gain from her fluttering
lips the name of her murderer. They made way for me and I knelt at her
side. She was beyond my skill, and my will merged with theirs. One
thought was in our minds.
"'Who?' I asked.
"Her eyes half opened, 'That black----' She fell back into my arms dead.
"We turned and looked at each other. The mother had broken down and was
weeping, but the face of the father was like iron.
"'It is enough,' he said; 'Jube has disappeared.' He went to the door
and said to the expectant crowd, 'She is dead.'
"I heard the angry roar without swelling up like the noise of a flood,
and then I heard the sudden movement of many feet as the men separated
into searching parties, and laying the dead girl back upon her couch, I
took my rifle and went out to join them.
"As if by intuition the knowledge had passed among the men that Jube
Benson had disappeared, and he, by common consent, was to be the object
of our search. Fully a dozen of the citizens had seen him hastening
toward the woods and noted his skulking air, but as he had grinned in
his old good-natured way they had, at the time, thought nothing of it.
Now, however, the diabolical reason of his slyness was apparent. He had
been shrewd enough to disarm suspicion, and by now was far away. Even
Mrs. Daly, who was visiting with a neighbour, had seen him stepping out
by a back way, and had said with a laugh, 'I reckon that black rascal's
a-running off somewhere.' Oh, if she had only known.
"'To the woods! To the woods!' that was the cry, and away we went, each
with the determination not to shoot, but to bring the culprit alive into
town, and then to deal with him as his crime deserved.
"I cannot describe the feelings I experienced as I went out that night
to beat the woods for this human tiger. My heart smouldered within me
like a coal, and I went forward under the impulse of a will that was
half my own, half some more malignant power's. My throat throbbed drily,
but water nor whiskey would not have quenched my thirst. The thought has
come to me since that now I could interpret the panther's desire for
blood and sympathise with it, but then I thought nothing. I simply went forward, and watched, watched with burning eyes for a familiar form that
I had looked for as often before with such different emotions.
"Luck or ill-luck, which you will, was with our party, and just as dawn
was graying the sky, we came upon our quarry crouched in the corner of a
fence. It was only half light, and we might have passed, but my eyes had
caught sight of him, and I raised the cry. We levelled our guns and he
rose and came toward us.
"'I t'ought you wa'n't gwine see me,' he said sullenly, 'I didn't mean
"Some of the men took the word up with oaths, others were ominously
"We gathered around him like hungry beasts, and I began to see terror
dawning in his eyes. He turned to me, 'I's moughty glad you's hyeah,
doc,' he said, 'you ain't gwine let 'em whup me.'
"'Whip you, you hound,' I said, 'I'm going to see you hanged,' and in
the excess of my passion I struck him full on the mouth. He made a
motion as if to resent the blow against even such great odds, but
"'W'y, doctah,' he exclaimed in the saddest voice I have ever heard,
'w'y, doctah! I ain't stole nuffin' o' yo'n, an' I was comin' back. I
only run off to see my gal, Lucy, ovah to de Centah.'
"'You lie!' I said, and my hands were busy helping the others bind him
upon a horse. Why did I do it? I don't know. A false education, I
reckon, one false from the beginning. I saw his black face glooming
there in the half light, and I could only think of him as a monster.
It's tradition. At first I was told that the black man would catch me,
and when I got over that, they taught me that the devil was black, and
when I had recovered from the sickness of that belief, here were Jube
and his fellows with faces of menacing blackness. There was only one
conclusion: This black man stood for all the powers of evil, the result
of whose machinations had been gathering in my mind from childhood up.
But this has nothing to do with what happened.
"After firing a few shots to announce our capture, we rode back into
town with Jube. The ingathering parties from all directions met us as we
made our way up to the house. All was very quiet and orderly. There was
no doubt that it was as the papers would have said, a gathering of the
best citizens. It was a gathering of stern, determined men, bent on a
"We took Jube into the house, into the room where the corpse lay. At
sight of it, he gave a scream like an animal's and his face went the
colour of storm-blown water. This was enough to condemn him. We divined,
rather than heard, his cry of 'Miss Ann, Miss Ann, oh, my God, doc, you
don't t'ink I done it?'
"Hungry hands were ready. We hurried him out into the yard. A rope was
ready. A tree was at hand. Well, that part was the least of it, save
that Hiram Daly stepped aside to let me be the first to pull upon the
rope. It was lax at first. Then it tightened, and I felt the quivering
soft weight resist my muscles. Other hands joined, and Jube swung off
"No one was masked. We knew each other. Not even the Culprit's face was
covered, and the last I remember of him as he went into the air was a
look of sad reproach that will remain with me until I meet him face to
"We were tying the end of the rope to a tree, where the dead man might
hang as a warning to his fellows, when a terrible cry chilled us to the
"'Cut 'im down, cut 'im down, he ain't guilty. We got de one. Cut him
down, fu' Gawd's sake. Here's de man, we foun' him hidin' in de barn!'
"Jube's brother, Ben, and another Negro, came rushing toward us, half
dragging, half carrying a miserable-looking wretch between them. Someone
cut the rope and Jube dropped lifeless to the ground.
"'Oh, my Gawd, he's daid, he's daid!' wailed the brother, but with
blazing eyes he brought his captive into the centre of the group, and we
saw in the full light the scratched face of Tom Skinner--the worst white
ruffian in the town--but the face we saw was not as we were accustomed
to see it, merely smeared with dirt. It was blackened to imitate a
"God forgive me; I could not wait to try to resuscitate Jube. I knew he
was already past help, so I rushed into the house and to the dead girl's
side. In the excitement they had not yet washed or laid her out.
Carefully, carefully, I searched underneath her broken finger nails.
There was skin there. I took it out, the little curled pieces, and went
with it to my office.
"There, determinedly, I examined it under a powerful glass, and read my
own doom. It was the skin of a white man, and in it were embedded
strands of short, brown hair or beard.
"How I went out to tell the waiting crowd I do not know, for something
kept crying in my ears, 'Blood guilty! Blood guilty!'
"The men went away stricken into silence and awe. The new prisoner
attempted neither denial nor plea. When they were gone I would have
helped Ben carry his brother in, but he waved me away fiercely, 'You
he'ped murder my brothah, you dat was his frien', go 'way, go 'way!
I'll tek him home myse'f' I could only respect his wish, and he and his
comrade took up the dead man and between them bore him up the street on
which the sun was now shining full.
"I saw the few men who had not skulked indoors uncover as they passed,
and I--I--stood there between the two murdered ones, while all the while
something in my ears kept crying, 'Blood guilty! Blood guilty!'"
The doctor's head dropped into his hands and he sat for some time in
silence, which was broken by neither of the men, then he rose, saying,
"Gentlemen, that was my last lynching."