The Knife


    SI BRYANT'S place was on the shore of the lake, and his garden-patch,

shielded from the north by a bold little promontory and a higher ridge

inland, was accounted the most successful and surprising in all Whilomville

township. One afternoon Si was working in the garden-patch, when Doctor

Trescott's man, Peter Washington, came trudging slowly along the road,

observing nature. He scanned the white man's fine agricultural results.

"Take your eye off them there mellons, you rascal," said Si, placidly.

   The negro's face widened in a grin of delight. "Well, Mist' Bryant, I

raikon I ain't on'y make m'se'f covertous er-lookin' at dem yere mellums,

sure 'nough. Dey suhtainly is grand."

   "That's all right," responded Si, with affected bitterness of spirit.

"That's all right. Just don't you admire 'em too much, that's all."

   Peter chuckled and chuckled. "Ma Lode! Mist' Bryant, y-y-you don' think

I'm gwine come prowlin' in dish yer gawden?"

   "No, I know you hain't," said Si, with solemnity. "B'cause, if you did,

I'd shoot you so full of holes you couldn't tell yourself from a sponge."

   "Um -- no, seh! No, seh! I don' raikon you'll get chance at Pete, Mist'

Bryant. No, seh. I'll take an' run 'long an' rob er bank 'fore I'll come

foolishin' 'round your gawden, Mist' Bryant."

   Bryant, gnarled and strong as an old tree, leaned on his hoe, and laughed

a Yankee laugh. His mouth remained tightly closed, but the sinister lines

which ran from the sides of his nose to the meetings of his lips developed

to form a comic oval, and he emitted a series of grunts, while his eyes

gleamed merrily and his shoulders shook. Peter, on the contrary, threw back

his head and guffawed thunderously. The effete joke in regard to an American

negro's fondness for watermelons was still an admirable pleasantry to them,

and this was not the first time they had engaged in badinage over it. In

fact, this venerable survival had formed between them a friendship of casual

road-side quality.

   Afterward Peter went on up the road. He continued to chuckle until he was

far away. He was going to pay a visit to old Alek Williams, a negro who

lived with a large family in a hut clinging to the side of a mountain. The

scattered colony of negroes which hovered near Whilomville was of

interesting origin, being the result of some contrabands who had drifted as

far north as Whilomville during the great civil war. The descendants of

these adventurers were mainly conspicuous for their bewildering number, and

the facility which they possessed for adding even to this number. Speaking,

for example, of the Jacksons -- one couldn't hurl a stone into the hills

about Whilomville without having it land on the roof of a hut full of

Jacksons. The town reaped little in labor from these curious suburbs. There

were a few men who came in regularly to work in gardens, to drive teams, to

care for horses, and there were a few women who came in to cook or to wash.

These latter had usually drunken husbands. In the main the colony loafed in

high spirits, and the industrious minority gained no direct honor from their fellows, unless they spent their earnings on raiment, in which case they were naturally treated with distinction. On the whole, the hardships of these people were the wind, the

rain, the snow, and any other physical difficulties which they could

cultivate. About twice a year the lady philanthropists of Whilomville went

up against them, and came away poorer in goods but rich in complacence.

After one of these attacks the colony would preserve a comic air of

rectitude for two days, and then relapse again to the genial

irresponsibility of a crew of monkeys.

   Peter Washington was one of the industrious class who occupied a position

of distinction, for he surely spent his money on personal decoration. On

occasion he could dress better than the Mayor of Whilomville himself, or at

least in more colors, which was the main thing to the minds of his admirers.

His ideal had been the late gallant Henry Johnson, whose conquests in

Watermelon Alley, as well as in the hill shanties, had proved him the equal

if not the superior of any Pullman-car porter in the country. Perhaps Peter

had too much Virginia laziness and humor in him to be a wholly adequate

successor to the fastidious Henry Johnson, but, at any rate, he admired his

memory so attentively as to be openly termed a dude by envious people.

   On this afternoon he was going to call on old Alek Williams because

Alek's eldest girl was just turned seventeen, and, to Peter's mind, was a

triumph of beauty. He was not wearing his best clothes, because on his last

visit Alek's half-breed hound Susie had taken occasion to forcefully extract

a quite large and valuable part of the visitor's trousers. When Peter

arrived at the end of the rocky field which contained old Alek's shanty he

stooped and provided himself with several large stones, weighing them

carefully in his hand, and finally continuing his journey with three stones

of about eight ounces each. When he was near the house, three gaunt hounds,

Rover and Carlo and Susie, came sweeping down upon him. His impression was

that they were going to climb him as if he were a tree, but at the critical

moment they swerved and went growling and snapping around him, their heads

low, their eyes malignant. The afternoon caller waited until Susie presented

her side to him, then he heaved one of his eight-ounce rocks. When it

landed, her hollow ribs gave forth a drumlike sound, and she was knocked

sprawling, her legs in the air. The other hounds at once fled in horror, and

she followed as soon as she was able, yelping at the top of her lungs. The

afternoon caller resumed his march.

   At the wild expressions of Susie's anguish old Alek had flung open the

door and come hastily into the sunshine. "Yah, you Suse, come erlong outa

dat now. What fer you -- Oh, how do, how do, Mist' Wash'ton -- how do?"

   "How do, Mist' Willums? I done foun' it necessa'y fer ter damnearkill

dish yer dawg a yourn, Mist' Willums."

   "Come in, come in, Mist' Wash'ton. Dawg no 'count, Mist' Wash'ton." Then

he turned to address the unfortunate animal. "Hu't, did it? Hu't? 'Pears

like you gwine lun some saince by time somebody brek yer back. 'Pears like I

gwine club yer inter er frazzle 'fore you fin' out some saince. Gw'on 'way

f'm yah!"

   As the old man and his guest entered the shanty a body of black children

spread out in crescent-shape formation and observed Peter with awe. Fat old

Mrs. Williams greeted him turbulently, while the eldest girl, Mollie, lurked

in a corner and giggled with finished imbecility, gazing at the visitor with

eyes that were shy and bold by turns. She seemed at times absurdly

over-confident, at times foolishly afraid; but her giggle consistently

endured. It was a giggle on which an irascible but right-minded judge would

have ordered her forthwith to be buried alive.

   Amid a great deal of hospitable gabbling, Peter was conducted to the best

chair out of the three that the house contained. Enthroned therein, he made

himself charming in talk to the old people, who beamed upon him joyously. As

for Mollie, he affected to be unaware of her existence. This may have been a

method for entrapping the sentimental interest of that young gazelle, or it

may be that the giggle had worked upon him.

   He was absolutely fascinating to the old people. They could talk like

rotary snowploughs, and he gave them every chance, while his face was

illumined with appreciation. They pressed him to stay to supper, and he

consented, after a glance at the pot on the stove which was too furtive to

be noted.

   During the meal old Alek recounted the high state of Judge Oglethorpe's kitchen-garden, which Alek said was due to his unremitting industry and fine intelligence. Alek was a gardener, whenever impending starvation forced him to cease temporarily from being a lily of the field.

   "Mist' Bryant he suhtainly got er grand gawden," observed Peter.

   "Dat so, dat so, Mist' Wash'ton," assented Alek. "He got fine gawden."

   "Seems like I nev' did see sech mellums, big as er bar'l, layin' dere. I

don't raikon an'body in dish yer county kin hol' it with Mist' Bryant when

comes ter mellums."

   "Dat so, Mist' Wash'ton."

   They did not talk of watermelons until their heads held nothing else, as

the phrase goes. But they talked of watermelons until, when Peter started

for home that night over a lonely road, they held a certain dominant

position in his mind. Alek had come with him as far as the fence, in order

to protect him from a possible attack by the mongrels. There they had

cheerfully parted, two honest men.

   The night was dark, and heavy with moisture. Peter found it uncomfortable

to walk rapidly. He merely loitered on the road. When opposite Si Bryant's

place he paused and looked over the fence into the garden. He imagined he

could see the form of a huge melon lying in dim stateliness not ten yards

away. He looked at the Bryant house. Two windows, downstairs, were lighted.

The Bryants kept no dog, old Si's favorite child having once been bitten by

a dog, and having since died, within that year, of pneumonia.

   Peering over the fence, Peter fancied that if any low-minded

night-prowler should happen to note the melon, he would not find it

difficult to possess himself of it. This person would merely wait until the

lights were out in the house, and the people presumably asleep. Then he

would climb the fence, reach the melon in a few strides, sever the stem with

his ready knife, and in a trice be back in the road with his prize. There

need be no noise, and, after all, the house was some distance.

   Selecting a smooth bit of turf, Peter took a seat by the road-side. From

time to time he glanced at the lighted windows.


   When Peter and Alek had said good-by, the old man turned back in the

rocky field and shaped a slow course toward that high dim light which marked

the little window of his shanty. It would be incorrect to say that Alek

could think of nothing but watermelons. But it was true that Si Bryant's watermelon-patch occupied a certain conspicuous position in his thoughts.

   He sighed; he almost wished that he was again a conscienceless

pickaninny, instead of being one of the most ornate, solemn, and

look-at-me-sinner deacons that ever graced the handle of a

collection-basket. At this time it made him quite sad to reflect upon his

granite integrity. A weaker man might perhaps bow his moral head to the

temptation, but for him such a fall was impossible. He was a prince of the

church, and if he had been nine princes of the church he could not have been

more proud. In fact, religion was to the old man a sort of personal dignity.

And he was on Sundays so obtrusively good that you could see his sanctity

through a door. He forced it on you until you would have felt its influence

even in a forecastle.

   It was clear in his mind that he must put watermelon thoughts from him,

and after a moment he told himself, with much ostentation, that he had done

so. But it was cooler under the sky than in the shanty, and as he was not

sleepy, he decided to take a stroll down to Si Bryant's place and look at

the melons from a pinnacle of spotless innocence. Reaching the road, he

paused to listen. It would not do to let Peter hear him, because that

graceless rapscallion would probably misunderstand him. But, assuring

himself that Peter was well on his way, he set out, walking briskly until he

was within four hundred yards of Bryant's place. Here he went to the side of

the road, and walked thereafter on the damp, yielding turf. He made no


   He did not go on to that point in the main road which was directly

opposite the watermelon-patch. He did not wish to have his ascetic

contemplation disturbed by some chance wayfarer. He turned off along a short

lane which led to Si Bryant's barn. Here he reached a place where he could

see, over the fence, the faint shapes of the melons.

   Alek was affected. The house was some distance away, there was no dog,

and doubtless the Bryants would soon extinguish their lights and go to bed.

Then some poor lost lamb of sin might come and scale the fence, reach a

melon in a moment, sever the stem with his ready knife, and in a trice be

back in the road with his prize. And this poor lost lamb of sin might even

be a bishop, but no one would ever know it. Alek singled out with his eye a

very large melon, and thought that the lamb would prove his judgment if he

took that one.

   He found a soft place in the grass, and arranged himself comfortably. He

watched the lights in the windows.


   It seemed to Peter Washington that the Bryants absolutely consulted their

own wishes in regard to the time for retiring; but at last he saw the

lighted windows fade briskly from left to right, and after a moment a window

on the second floor blazed out against the darkness. Si was going to bed. In

five minutes this window abruptly vanished, and all the world was night.

   Peter spent the ensuing quarter-hour in no mental debate. His mind was

fixed. He was here, and the melon was there. He would have it. But an idea

of being caught appalled him. He thought of his position. He was the bean of

his community, honored right and left. He pictured the consternation of his

friends and the cheers of his enemies if the hands of the redoubtable Si

Bryant should grip him in his shame.

   He arose, and going to the fence, listened. No sound broke the stillness,

save the rhythmical incessant clicking of myriad insects, and the guttural

chanting of the frogs in the reeds at the lake-side. Moved by sudden

decision, he climbed the fence and crept silently and swiftly down upon the

melon. His open knife was in his hand. There was the melon, cool, fair to

see, as pompous in its fatness as the cook in a monastery.

   Peter put out a hand to steady it while he cut the stem. But at the

instant he was aware that a black form had dropped over the fence lining the

lane in front of him and was coming stealthily toward him. In a palsy of

terror he dropped flat upon the ground, not having strength enough to run

away. The next moment he was looking into the amazed and agonized face of

old Alek Williams.

   There was a moment of loaded silence, and then Peter was overcome by a

mad inspiration. He suddenly dropped his knife and leaped upon Alek. "I got

che!" he hissed. "I got che! I got che!" The old man sank down as limp as


   "I got che! I got che! Steal Mist' Bryant's mellums, hey?"

   Alek, in a low voice, began to beg. "Oh, Mist' Peter Wash'ton, don' go

fer ter be too ha'd on er ole man! I nev' come yere fer ter steal 'em. 'Deed

I didn't, Mist' Wash'ton! I come yere jes fer ter feel 'em. Oh, please,

Mist' Wash'ton -- "

   "Come erlong outa yere, you ol' rip," said Peter, "an' don' trumple on

dese yer baids. I gwine put you wah you won' ketch col'."

   Without difficulty he tumbled the whining Alek over the fence to the

road-way, and followed him with sheriff-like expedition. He took him by the

scruff. "Come erlong, deacon. I raikon I gwine put you wah you kin pray,

deacon. Come erlong, deacon."

   The emphasis and reiteration of his layman's title in the church produced

a deadly effect upon Alek. He felt to his marrow the heinous crime into

which this treacherous night had betrayed him. As Peter marched his prisoner

up the road toward the mouth of the lane, he continued his remarks: "Come

erlong, deacon. Nev' see er man so anxious-like erbout er mellum paitch,

deacon. Seem like you jes must see 'em er-growin' an' feel 'em, deacon.

Mist' Bryant he'll be s'prised, deacon, findin' out you come fer ter feel

his mellums. Come erlong, deacon. Mist' Bryant he expectin' some ole rip

like you come soon."

   They had almost reached the lane when Alek's cur Susie, who had followed

her master, approached in the silence which attends dangerous dogs; and

seeing indications of what she took to be war, she appended herself swiftly

but firmly to the calf of Peter's left leg. The melee was short, but

spirited. Alek had no wish to have his dog complicate his already serious

misfortunes, and went manfully to the defence of his captor. He procured a

large stone, and by beating this with both hands down upon the resounding

skull of the animal, he induced her to quit her grip. Breathing heavily,

Peter dropped into the long grass at the road-side. He said nothing.

   "Mist' Wash'ton," said Alek at last, in a quavering voice, "I raikon I

gwine wait yere see what you gwine do ter me."

   Whereupon Peter passed into a spasmodic state, in which he rolled to and

fro and shook.

   "Mist' Wash'ton, I hope dish yer dog ain't gone an' give you fitses?"

   Peter sat up suddenly. "No, she ain't," he answered; "but she gin me er

big skeer; an' fer yer 'sistance with er cobblestone, Mist' Willums, I tell

you what I gwine do -- I tell you what I gwine do." He waited an impressive

moment. "I gwine 'lease you!"

   Old Alek trembled like a little bush in a wind. "Mist' Wash'ton?"

   Quoth Peter, deliberately, "I gwine 'lease you."

   The old man was filled with a desire to negotiate this statement at once,

but he felt the necessity of carrying off the event without an appearance of

haste. "Yes, seh; thank 'e, seh; thank 'e, Mist' Wash'ton. I raikon I ramble

home pressenly." He waited an interval, and then dubiously said,

"Good-evenin', Mist' Wash'ton."

   "Good-evenin', deacon. Don' come foolin' roun' feelin' no mellums, and I

say troof. Good-evenin', deacon."

   Alek took off his hat and made three profound bows. "Thank 'e, seh. Thank

'e, seh. Thank 'e, seh."

   Peter underwent another severe spasm, but the old man walked off toward

his home with a humble and contrite heart.


   The next morning Alek proceeded from his shanty under the complete but

customary illusion that he was going to work. He trudged manfully along

until he reached the vicinity of Si Bryant's place. Then, by stages, he

relapsed into a slink. He was passing the garden-patch under full steam,

when, at some distance ahead of him, he saw Si Bryant leaning casually on

the garden fence.

   "Good-mornin', Alek."

   "Good-mawnin', Mist' Bryant," answered Alek, with a new deference. He was

marching on, when he was halted by a word -- "Alek!"

   He stopped. "Yes, seh."

   "I found a knife this mornin' in th' road," drawled Si, "an' I thought

maybe it was yourn."

   Improved in mind by this divergence from the direct line of attack, Alek

stepped up easily to look at the knife. "No, seh," he said, scanning it as

it lay in Si's palm, while the cold steel-blue eyes of the white man looked

down into his stomach, "'tain't no knife er mine." But he knew the knife. He

knew it as if it had been his mother. And at the same moment a spark flashed

through his head and made wise his understanding. He knew everything.

"'Tain't much of er knife, Mist' Bryant," he said, deprecatingly.

   "'Tain't much of a knife, I know that," cried Si, in sudden heat, "but I

found it this mornin' in my watermelon-patch -- hear?"

   "Watahmellum-paitch?" yelled Alek, not astounded.

   "Yes, in my watermelon-patch," sneered Si, "an' I think you know

something about it, too!"

   "Me?" cried Alek. "Me?"

   "Yes -- you!" said Si, with icy ferocity. "Yes -- you!" He had become

convinced that Alek was not in any way guilty, but

he was certain that the old man knew the owner of the knife, and so he

pressed him at first on criminal lines. "Alek, you might as well own up now.

You've been meddlin' with my watermelons!"

   "Me?" cried Alek again. "Yah's ma knife. I done cah'e it foh yeahs."

   Bryant changed his ways. "Look here, Alek," he said, confidentially. "I

know you and you know me, and there ain't no use in any more skirmishes. I

know that you know whose knife that is. Now whose is it?"

   This challenge was so formidable in character that Alek temporarily

quailed and began to stammer. "Er -- now -- Mist' Bryant -- you -- you --

frien' er mine -- "

   "I know I'm a friend of yours, but," said Bryant, inexorably, "who owns this knife?"

   Alek gathered unto himself some remnants of dignity and spoke with

reproach: "Mist' Bryant, dish yer knife ain' mine."

   "No," said Bryant, "it ain't. But you know who it belongs to, an' I want

you to tell me -- quick."

   "Well, Mist' Bryant," answered Alek, scratching his wool, "I won't say 's

I do know who b'longs ter dish yer knife, an' I won't say 's I don't."

   Bryant again laughed his Yankee laugh, but this time there was little

humor in it. It was dangerous.

   Alek, seeing that he had gotten himself into hot water by the fine

diplomacy of his last sentence, immediately began to flounder and totally

submerge himself. "No, Mist' Bryant," he repeated, "I won't say 's I do know

who b'longs ter dish yer knife, an' I won't say 's I don't." And he began to

parrot this fatal sentence again and again. It seemed wound about his

tongue. He could not rid himself of it. Its very power to make trouble for

him seemed to originate the mysterious Afric reason for its repetition.

   "Is he a very close friend of yourn?" said Bryant, softly.

   "F-frien'?" stuttered Alek. He appeared to weigh this question with much

care. "Well, seems like he was er frien', an' then agin, it seems like he --


   "It seems like he wasn't!" asked Bryant.

   "Yes, seh, jest so, jest so," cried Alek. "Sometimes it seems like he

wasn't. Then agin -- " He stopped for profound meditation.

   The patience of the white man seemed inexhaustible. At length his low and

oily voice broke the stillness. "Oh, well, of course if he's a friend of

yourn, Alek! You know I wouldn't want to make no trouble for a friend of


   "Yes, seh," cried the negro at once. "He's er frien' er mine. He is dat."

   "Well, then, it seems as if about the only thing to do is for you to tell

me his name so's I can send him his knife, and that's all there is to it."

   Alek took off his hat, and in perplexity ran his hand over his wool. He

studied the ground. But several times he raised his eyes to take a sly peep

at the imperturbable visage of the white man. "Y -- y -- yes, Mist'

Bryant....I raikon dat's erbout all what kin be done. I gwine tell you who

b'longs ter dish yer knife."

   "Of course," said the smooth Bryant, "it ain't a very nice thing to have

to do, but -- "

   "No, seh," cried Alek, brightly; "I'm gwine tell you, Mist' Bryant. I

gwine tell you erbout dat knife. Mist' Bryant," he asked, solemnly, "does

you know who b'longs ter dat knife?"

   "No, I -- "

   "Well, I gwine tell. I gwine tell who, Mr. Bryant -- " The old man drew

himself to a stately pose and held forth his arm. "I gwine tell who. Mist'

Bryant, dish yer knife b'longs ter Sam Jackson!"

   Bryant was startled into indignation. "Who in hell is Sam Jackson?" he


   "He's a nigger," said Alek, impressively, "and he wuks in er lumber-yawd

up yere in Hoswego."