Mr. Leckler was a man of high principle. Indeed, he himself had admitted it at times to Mrs. Leckler. She was often called into counsel with him. He was one of those large souled creatures with a hunger for unlimited advice, upon which he never acted. Mrs. Leckler knew this, but like the good, patient little wife that she was, she went on paying her poor tribute of advice and admiration. To-day her husband’s mind was particularly troubled,–as usual, too, over a matter of principle. Mrs. Leckler came at his call.
“Mrs. Leckler,” he said, “I am troubled in my mind. I–in fact, I am puzzled over a matter that involves either the maintaining or relinquishing of a principle.”
“Well, Mr. Leckler?” said his wife, interrogatively.
“If I had been a scheming, calculating Yankee, I should have been rich now; but all my life I have been too generous and confiding. I have always let principle stand between me and my interests.” Mr. Leckler took himself all too seriously to be conscious of his pun, and went on: “Now this is a matter in which my duty and my principles seem to conflict. It stands thus: Josh has been doing a piece of plastering for Mr. Eckley over in Lexington, and from what he says, I think that city rascal has misrepresented the amount of work to me and so cut down the pay for it. Now, of course, I should not care, the matter of a dollar or two being nothing to me; but it is a very different matter when we consider poor Josh.” There was deep pathos in Mr. Leckler’s tone. “You know Josh is anxious to buy his freedom, and I allow him a part of whatever he makes; so you see it’s he that’s affected. Every dollar that he is cheated out of cuts off just so much from his earnings, and puts further away his hope of emancipation.”
If the thought occurred to Mrs. Leckler that, since Josh received only about one-tenth of what he earned, the advantage of just wages would be quite as much her husband’s as the slave’s, she did not betray it, but met the naive reasoning with the question, “But where does the conflict come in, Mr. Leckler?”
“Just here. If Josh knew how to read and write and cipher–“
“Mr. Leckler, are you crazy!”
“Listen to me, my dear, and give me the benefit of your judgment. This is a very momentous question. As I was about to say, if Josh knew these things, he could protect himself from cheating when his work is at too great a distance for me to look after it for him.”
“But teaching a slave–“
“Yes, that’s just what is against my principles. I know how public opinion and the law look at it. But my conscience rises up in rebellion every time I think of that poor black man being cheated out of his earnings. Really, Mrs. Leckler, I think I may trust to Josh’s discretion, and secretly give him such instructions as will permit him to protect himself.”
“Well, of course, it’s just as you think best,” said his wife.
“I knew you would agree with me,” he returned. “It’s such a comfort to take counsel with you, my dear!” And the generous man walked out on to the veranda, very well satisfied with himself and his wife, and prospectively pleased with Josh. Once he murmured to himself, “I’ll lay for Eckley next time.”
Josh, the subject of Mr. Leckler’s charitable solicitations, was the plantation plasterer. His master had given him his trade, in order that he might do whatever such work was needed about the place; but he became so proficient in his duties, having also no competition among the poor whites, that he had grown to be in great demand in the country thereabout. So Mr. Leckler found it profitable, instead of letting him do chores and field work in his idle time, to hire him out to neighboring farms and planters. Josh was a man of more than ordinary intelligence; and when he asked to be allowed to pay for himself by working overtime, his master readily agreed,–for it promised more work to be done, for which he could allow the slave just what he pleased. Of course, he knew now that when the black man began to cipher this state of affairs would be changed; but it would mean such an increase of profit from the outside, that he could afford to give up his own little peculations. Anyway, it would be many years before the slave could pay the two thousand dollars, which price he had set upon him. Should he approach that figure, Mr. Leckler felt it just possible that the market in slaves would take a sudden rise.