Muttering of the Storm

Events moved rapidly during the next few days. The reproduction, in the Chronicle, of the article from the Afro-American Banner, with Carteret’s inflammatory comment, took immediate effect. It touched the Southern white man in his most sensitive spot. To him such an article was an insult to white womanhood, and must be resented by some active steps⁠—mere words would be no answer at all. To meet words with words upon such a subject would be to acknowledge the equality of the negro and his right to discuss or criticise the conduct of the white people.

The colored people became alarmed at the murmurings of the whites, which seemed to presage a coming storm. A number of them sought to arm themselves, but ascertained, upon inquiring at the stores, that no white merchant would sell a negro firearms. Since all the dealers in this sort of merchandise were white men, the negroes had to be satisfied with oiling up the old army muskets which some of them possessed, and the few revolvers with which a small rowdy element generally managed to keep themselves supplied. Upon an effort being made to purchase firearms from a Northern city, the express company, controlled by local men, refused to accept the consignment. The white people, on the other hand, procured both arms and ammunition in large quantities, and the Wellington Grays drilled with great assiduity at their armory.

All this went on without any public disturbance of the town’s tranquillity. A stranger would have seen nothing to excite his curiosity. The white people did their talking among themselves, and merely grew more distant in their manner toward the colored folks, who instinctively closed their ranks as the whites drew away. With each day that passed the feeling grew more tense. The editor of the Afro-American Banner, whose office had been quietly garrisoned for several nights by armed negroes, became frightened, and disappeared from the town between two suns.

The conspirators were jubilant at the complete success of their plans. It only remained for them to so direct this aroused public feeling that it might completely accomplish the desired end⁠—to change the political complexion of the city government and assure the ascendency of the whites until the amendment should go into effect. A revolution, and not a riot, was contemplated.

With this end in view, another meeting was called at Carteret’s office.

“We are now ready,” announced General Belmont, “for the final act of this drama. We must decide promptly, or events may run away from us.”

“What do you suggest?” asked Carteret.

“Down in the American tropics,” continued the general, “they have a way of doing things. I was in Nicaragua, ten years ago, when Paterno’s revolution drove out Igorroto’s government. It was as easy as falling off a log. Paterno had the arms and the best men. Igorroto was not looking for trouble, and the guns were at his breast before he knew it. We have the guns. The negroes are not expecting trouble, and are easy to manage compared with the fiery mixture that flourishes in the tropics.”

“I should not advocate murder,” returned Carteret. “We are animated by high and holy principles. We wish to right a wrong, to remedy an abuse, to save our state from anarchy and our race from humiliation. I don’t object to frightening the negroes, but I am opposed to unnecessary bloodshed.”

“I’m not quite so particular,” struck in McBane. “They need to be taught a lesson, and a nigger more or less wouldn’t be missed. There’s too many of ’em now.”

“Of course,” continued Carteret, “if we should decide upon a certain mode of procedure, and the negroes should resist, a different reasoning might apply; but I will have no premeditated murder.”

“In Central and South America,” observed the general reflectively, “none are hurt except those who get in the way.”

“There’ll be no niggers hurt,” said McBane contemptuously, “unless they strain themselves running. One white man can chase a hundred of ’em. I’ve managed five hundred at a time. I’ll pay for burying all the niggers that are killed.”

The conference resulted in a well-defined plan, to be put into operation the following day, by which the city government was to be wrested from the Republicans and their negro allies.

“And now,” said General Belmont, “while we are cleansing the Augean stables, we may as well remove the cause as the effect. There are several negroes too many in this town, which will be much the better without them. There’s that yellow lawyer, Watson. He’s altogether too mouthy, and has too much business. Every nigger that gets into trouble sends for Watson, and white lawyers, with families to support and social positions to keep up, are deprived of their legitimate source of income.”

“There’s that damn nigger real estate agent,” blurted out McBane. “Billy Kitchen used to get most of the nigger business, but this darky has almost driven him to the poorhouse. A white business man is entitled to a living in his own profession and his own home. That nigger don’t belong here nohow. He came from the North a year or two ago, and is hand in glove with Barber, the nigger editor, which is enough of itself to damn him. He’ll have to go!”

“How about the collector of the port?”

“We’d better not touch him. It would bring the government down upon us, which we want to avoid. We don’t need to worry about the nigger preachers either. They want to stay here, where the loaves and the fishes are. We can make ’em write letters to the newspapers justifying our course, as a condition of their remaining.”

“What about Billings?” asked McBane. Billings was the white Republican mayor. “Is that skunk to be allowed to stay in town?”

“No,” returned the general, “every white Republican officeholder ought to be made to go. This town is only big enough for Democrats, and negroes who can be taught to keep their place.”

“What about the colored doctor,” queried McBane, “with the hospital, and the diamond ring, and the carriage, and the other fallals?”

“I shouldn’t interfere with Miller,” replied the general decisively. “He’s a very good sort of a negro, doesn’t meddle with politics, nor tread on anyone else’s toes. His father was a good citizen, which counts in his favor. He’s spending money in the community too, and contributes to its prosperity.”

“That sort of nigger, though, sets a bad example,” retorted McBane. “They make it all the harder to keep the rest of ’em down.”

“ ‘One swallow does not make a summer,’ ” quoted the general. “When we get things arranged, there’ll be no trouble. A stream cannot rise higher than its fountain, and a smart nigger without a constituency will no longer be an object of fear. I say, let the doctor alone.”

“He’ll have to keep mighty quiet, though,” muttered McBane discontentedly. “I don’t like smart niggers. I’ve had to shoot several of them, in the course of my life.”

“Personally, I dislike the man,” interposed Carteret, “and if I consulted my own inclinations, would say expel him with the rest; but my grievance is a personal one, and to gratify it in that way would be a loss to the community. I wish to be strictly impartial in this matter, and to take no step which cannot be entirely justified by a wise regard for the public welfare.”

“What’s the use of all this hypocrisy, gentlemen?” sneered McBane. “Every last one of us has an axe to grind! The major may as well put an edge on his. We’ll never get a better chance to have things our way. If this nigger doctor annoys the major, we’ll run him out with the rest. This is a white man’s country, and a white man’s city, and no nigger has any business here when a white man wants him gone!”

Carteret frowned darkly at this brutal characterization of their motives. It robbed the enterprise of all its poetry, and put a solemn act of revolution upon the plane of a mere vulgar theft of power. Even the general winced.

“I would not consent,” he said irritably, “to Miller’s being disturbed.”

McBane made no further objection.

There was a discreet knock at the door.

“Come in,” said Carteret.

Jerry entered. “Mistuh Ellis wants ter speak ter you a minute, suh,” he said.

Carteret excused himself and left the room.

“Jerry,” said the general, “you lump of ebony, the sight of you reminds me! If your master doesn’t want you for a minute, step across to Mr. Brown’s and tell him to send me three cocktails.”

“Yas, suh,” responded Jerry, hesitating. The general had said nothing about paying.

“And tell him, Jerry, to charge them. I’m short of change today.”

“Yas, suh; yas, suh,” replied Jerry, as he backed out of the presence, adding, when he had reached the hall: “Dere ain’ no change fer Jerry dis time, sho’: I’ll jes’ make dat fo’ cocktails, an’ de gin’l won’t never know de diffe’nce. I ain’ gwine ’cross de road fer nothin’, not ef I knows it.”

Half an hour later, the conspirators dispersed. They had fixed the hour of the proposed revolution, the course to be pursued, the results to be obtained; but in stating their equation they had overlooked one factor⁠—God, or Fate, or whatever one may choose to call the Power that holds the destinies of man in the hollow of his hand.