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Through The Terrors Of The Law (a story of Arkansas)
by [?]

Sist’ Esmeralda Humphreys was not present at the meeting of Zion Hard-shell Baptist Church. It is questionable whether there had been any such meeting had she been likely to attend, since how to dispense with the ministry of Sister Humphreys was its object, and the sister was a woman of power. But she had gone to the store for her semi-annual settlement of account. Therefore the disaffected in Zion raised their heads, perceiving that their hour was come.

The “church-house” (of a week-day the school-house) crowned a gentle rise of ground on the outskirts of an Arkansas plantation. It was backed by the great gum forests, where the sun rose, while on one side, winding toward the reddening evening skies, the cypress slash had eaten its way through the brown clay to the Black River. Full of mystery and uncanny beauty was the slash, its sluggish gleam of water creeping darkly under solemn cypresses and monstrous hackberry-trees, tinseled with cow-lilies in summer, spattered with blood-red berries in winter, green with delicate beauty when the cypress is in leaf, or gray and softly brown when its short-lived foliage falls. Did one care to deal in mystical analogy, one might find in the slash suggestions of the African’s undeveloped soul, where brute and child still battle for mastery.

It was a school-house for children of the darker race only, and only negroes were in the little band whose hymns penetrated the wide sweep of cotton-fields, the weird African cadences wilder and more mournful than the hoot-owl’s oboe keening in the forest. To-night the house was but sparsely filled by the regular worshipers, Zion congregation proper. Brother Zubaeel Morrow presided, because he had once attended a district Republican convention, where he had imbibed parliamentary lore.

“Dis meetin’ will please come to ordah,” he announced; “is you-all ready fo’ de question?”

“W’ are question, Bruddah Morrow?” called out a brother in the rear seats.

“Bruddah Carroll, you is out of ordah. Whenst I git in dis cheer an take dis gabble,”–he extended the hatchet used, before its promotion, to chop kindling,–“take notice, I is de Cheer; you-all is to ‘dress me as ‘Mist’ Cheerman.’ You is axin’ ’bout de question: de question is, Shall Sist’ Esmereldy Humphreys continner to usu’p de rights of we-alls pastor? Ain’t dat the onderstandin’ of dis here awjence?”

Signs of approval and assent came from the audience. The chairman, rising, took the attitude of the white speaker whom he had admired most at the convention, plunging one hand into the bosom of his coat–buttoned for that purpose–and gazing solemnly about him. All the colored population of the country-side were proud of the school-house, which was painted a neat lead color as to wood-work and brown as to walls; with red lettering done by a member who had followed the painter’s trade (although not very far), declaring piously on the west wall, “The Lord will provide,” and politely requesting on the east wall, “Please do not spit on the floor.” A stately blackboard behind the teacher’s desk showed her excellent moral sentiments and penmanship. There was no carpet on the floor, but it was clean and the windows glistened.

“Dis yere school-house, dis yere chu’ch-house, are a credit to de cullud ladies an’ gen’l’men of Zion Baptis’ Chu’ch,” declaimed Brother Morrow, sonorously, “an’ we-all had orter have a pastor who w’u’d–we’d correspond. I ain’t sayin’ one word of disparaguement of our late deseased pastor. He be’n a good, pious man” (“Amen!” from two half-grown lads in the rear), “but he had a terrible sight of losses an’ troubles, losin’ all of his chillen like he done; an’ him sick such a spell befo’ de Lawd called him f’om grace to glory. Mabbe he didn’t be’n eloquent like the supply we had, but Elder W’ite had nare right to git Sist’ Lucy Tompkins to run ‘way wid ‘im, f’om ‘er good, kin’, respectable husban'” (a little crumpled, elderly negro raised his head with an air of modest pride), “an’ he done borry two dollars an’ fifty cents of de cheer dat I don’t expec’ nothin’ of ontwel de jedgment day! So w’en our pastor passed away we’all was like sheep outen a shepherd; an’ we’en Sist’ Humphreys done offah to keep de’ chu’ch-house clean an’ cyah on de services of Zion, an’ make no cha’ges, we-all acceptid.”