This is the story of a master, told by his slave. As I sit now, after the flight of so many years, and gaze at the pictures in the fire—the hills and the valleys of my boyhood, so bright, so glowing—I am oppressed with the fear that my rude hand can but ill execute the work that I have undertaken. And yet, I feel the force that truth alone can lend, for although my transcript may be crude, I know that in the years now far away but which are coming toward us, my history will be read by the thoughtful man who seeks to portray the strange social conditions that once existed in our country.
I was born in the State of Kentucky, on the blue-grass farm owned by Guilford Gradley. Many changes may have taken place, but in my day the northern boundary line of the farm and the southern corporate limit of the town of Litchford here came together; and I think that one of my earliest recollections is of a Sunday morning, when my young master and I got on the ground and parted the long grass to search for the line. I know it must have been on a Sunday, for the church bells were ringing, and Old Master and Old Miss (as we always called his wife) passed us on their way to town. Old Master was one of the most prominent men in the State (had been a general in the militia), and this influence was felt even by the humblest negro on the place, for to belong to a great man was of itself a social prominence not enjoyed by the bondman of the ordinary individual. Why, I remember seeing a little negro boy weep bitterly because a playmate had taunted him with the humiliating fact that his master lived in a log house. Ah, those old days, by turns a sad and a happy freak in the history of man!
Old Master had three children, Miss Lou, who had married a doctor; Miss May, about twelve years old, when my story begins; and Mars. Bob, about my age. The doctor that married Miss Lou was a neat man, all the time picking at himself and cleaning his fingernails, it seemed to me, and I had thought that he must be a great man, being a doctor and wearing so white a shirt, until one day I heard Old Master tell Old Miss that he wasn't worth the powder and lead to kill him. And after that I noticed that he didn't amount to much, and I firmly believed that Toney, the yellow blacksmith on our farm, could throw him down. Miss Lou was a handsome young woman, with beautiful eyes; and even now her voice sometimes comes to me at twilight, singing, 'I have no mother now.' The song always made me cry, for I had no mother. Old Balch, the shoemaker, used to tell me about my mother. He said that he had often seen her standing in the door of the cabin, with me in her arms, singing that song; and he said that she was a beautiful creature, with hair almost straight. And I recall that the first time he told me this, I slipped away, into old Mammy Liza's cabin, where I climbed upon a chair to look at myself in an old broken glass, to see how white I was. And it occurs to me that this must have been the day when a preacher, evidently from the North, made Old Miss boiling mad by patting me on the head and saying, "What a handsome little fellow." Mars. Bob was with me on the veranda at the time and it was a great scandal that the preacher should not have given him his first and most flattering attention. But he did not, and his stay in our house was short.
One morning, Old Master called Mars. Bob and me into his library. He sat there, smoking his long-stem pipe, with his elbow resting on a table. I had often run through the room, but this was the first time that I had ever taken a good look at it, with its innumerable books and dark busts of long-haired men. And I was staring about when Old Master said: "Dan, look at me."
I turned my eyes upon him, not in fear, but more in awe, for I felt his greatness, not so much in his ownership of me, as in the searching light in his eye and the rumbling depths of his voice.
"Dan," he said, "your Mars. Bob is six years old to-day—you and he are nearly of an age—and I have given you to him for a birthday present." I looked at Mars. Bob and he looked at me. Old Master continued: "You are to be his, to go with him, to fight with him, and to play with him. If the time ever comes when it is necessary for you to die in order to save him, do it. Bob."