Into the Lion’s Jaws

The party under Josh’s leadership moved off down the road. Miller, while entirely convinced that he had acted wisely in declining to accompany them, was yet conscious of a distinct feeling of shame and envy that he, too, did not feel impelled to throw away his life in a hopeless struggle.

Watson left the buggy and disappeared by a path at the roadside. Miller drove rapidly forward. After entering the town, he passed several small parties of white men, but escaped scrutiny by sitting well back in his buggy, the presumption being that a well-dressed man with a good horse and buggy was white. Torn with anxiety, he reached home at about four o’clock. Driving the horse into the yard, he sprang down from the buggy and hastened to the house, which he found locked, front and rear.

A repeated rapping brought no response. At length he broke a window, and entered the house like a thief.

“Janet, Janet!” he called in alarm, “where are you? It is only I⁠—Will!”

There was no reply. He ran from room to room, only to find them all empty. Again he called his wife’s name, and was about rushing from the house, when a muffled voice came faintly to his ear⁠—

“Is dat you, Doctuh Miller?”

“Yes. Who are you, and where are my wife and child?”

He was looking around in perplexity, when the door of a low closet under the kitchen sink was opened from within, and a woolly head was cautiously protruded.

“Are you sho’ dat’s you, doctuh?”

“Yes, Sally; where are”⁠—

“An’ not some w’ite man come ter bu’n down de house an’ kill all de niggers?”

“No, Sally, it’s me all right. Where is my wife? Where is my child?”

“Dey went over ter see Mis’ Butler ’long ’bout two o’clock, befo’ dis fuss broke out, suh. Oh, Lawdy, Lawdy, suh! Is all de cullud folks be’n killt ’cep’n’ me an’ you, suh? Fer de Lawd’s sake, suh, you won’ let ’em kill me, will you, suh? I’ll wuk fer you fer nuthin’, suh, all my bawn days, ef you’ll save my life, suh!”

“Calm yourself, Sally. You’ll be safe enough if you stay right here, I’ve no doubt. They’ll not harm women⁠—of that I’m sure enough, although I haven’t yet got the bearings of this deplorable affair. Stay here and look after the house. I must find my wife and child!”

The distance across the city to the home of the Mrs. Butler whom his wife had gone to visit was exactly one mile. Though Miller had a good horse in front of him, he was two hours in reaching his destination. Never will the picture of that ride fade from his memory. In his dreams he repeats it night after night, and sees the sights that wounded his eyes, and feels the thoughts⁠—the haunting spirits of the thoughts⁠—that tore his heart as he rode through hell to find those whom he was seeking. For a short distance he saw nothing, and made rapid progress. As he turned the first corner, his horse shied at the dead body of a negro, lying huddled up in the collapse which marks sudden death. What Miller shuddered at was not so much the thought of death, to the sight of which his profession had accustomed him, as the suggestion of what it signified. He had taken with allowance the wild statement of the fleeing fugitives. Watson, too, had been greatly excited, and Josh Green’s group were desperate men, as much liable to be misled by their courage as the others by their fears; but here was proof that murder had been done⁠—and his wife and children were in the town. Distant shouts, and the sound of firearms, increased his alarm. He struck his horse with the whip, and dashed on toward the heart of the city, which he must traverse in order to reach Janet and the child.

At the next corner lay the body of another man, with the red blood oozing from a ghastly wound in the forehead. The negroes seemed to have been killed, as the band plays in circus parades, at the street intersections, where the example would be most effective. Miller, with a wild leap of the heart, had barely passed this gruesome spectacle, when a sharp voice commanded him to halt, and emphasized the order by covering him with a revolver. Forgetting the prudence he had preached to others, he had raised his whip to strike the horse, when several hands seized the bridle.

“Come down, you damn fool,” growled an authoritative voice. “Don’t you see we’re in earnest? Do you want to get killed?”

“Why should I come down?” asked Miller. “Because we’ve ordered you to come down! This is the white people’s day, and when they order, a nigger must obey. We’re going to search you for weapons.”

“Search away. You’ll find nothing but a case of surgeon’s tools, which I’m more than likely to need before this day is over, from all indications.”

“No matter; we’ll make sure of it! That’s what we’re here for. Come down, if you don’t want to be pulled down!”

Miller stepped down from his buggy. His interlocutor, who made no effort at disguise, was a clerk in a dry-goods store where Miller bought most of his family and hospital supplies. He made no sign of recognition, however, and Miller claimed no acquaintance. This man, who had for several years emptied Miller’s pockets in the course of more or less legitimate trade, now went through them, aided by another man, more rapidly than ever before, the searchers convincing themselves that Miller carried no deadly weapon upon his person. Meanwhile, a third ransacked the buggy with like result. Miller recognized several others of the party, who made not the slightest attempt at disguise, though no names were called by anyone.

“Where are you going?” demanded the leader.

“I am looking for my wife and child,” replied Miller.

“Well, run along, and keep them out of the streets when you find them; and keep your hands out of this affair, if you wish to live in this town, which from now on will be a white man’s town, as you niggers will be pretty firmly convinced before night.”

Miller drove on as swiftly as might be. At the next corner he was stopped again. In the white man who held him up, Miller recognized a neighbor of his own. After a short detention and a perfunctory search, the white man remarked apologetically:⁠—

“Sorry to have had to trouble you, doctuh, but them’s the o’ders. It ain’t men like you that we’re after, but the vicious and criminal class of niggers.”

Miller smiled bitterly as he urged his horse forward. He was quite well aware that the virtuous citizen who had stopped him had only a few weeks before finished a term in the penitentiary, to which he had been sentenced for stealing. Miller knew that he could have bought all the man owned for fifty dollars, and his soul for as much more.

A few rods farther on, he came near running over the body of a wounded man who lay groaning by the wayside. Every professional instinct urged him to stop and offer aid to the sufferer; but the uncertainty concerning his wife and child proved a stronger motive and urged him resistlessly forward. Here and there the ominous sound of firearms was audible. He might have thought this merely a part of the show, like the “powder play” of the Arabs, but for the bloody confirmation of its earnestness which had already assailed his vision. Somewhere in this seething cauldron of unrestrained passions were his wife and child, and he must hurry on.

His progress was painfully slow. Three times he was stopped and searched. More than once his way was barred, and he was ordered to turn back, each such occasion requiring a detour which consumed many minutes. The man who last stopped him was a well-known Jewish merchant. A Jew⁠—God of Moses!⁠—had so far forgotten twenty centuries of history as to join in the persecution of another oppressed race! When almost reduced to despair by these innumerable delays, he perceived, coming toward him, Mr. Ellis, the subeditor of the Morning Chronicle. Miller had just been stopped and questioned again, and Ellis came up as he was starting once more upon his endless ride.

Dr. Miller,” said Ellis kindly, “it is dangerous for you on the streets. Why tempt the danger?”

“I am looking for my wife and child,” returned Miller in desperation. “They are somewhere in this town⁠—I don’t know where⁠—and I must find them.”

Ellis had been horror-stricken by the tragedy of the afternoon, the wholly superfluous slaughter of a harmless people, whom a show of force would have been quite sufficient to overawe. Elaborate explanations were afterwards given for these murders, which were said, perhaps truthfully, not to have been premeditated, and many regrets were expressed. The young man had been surprised, quite as much as the negroes themselves, at the ferocity displayed. His own thoughts and feelings were attuned to anything but slaughter. Only that morning he had received a perfumed note, calling his attention to what the writer described as a very noble deed of his, and requesting him to call that evening and receive the writer’s thanks. Had he known that Miss Pemberton, several weeks after their visit to the Sound, had driven out again to the hotel and made some inquiries among the servants, he might have understood better the meaning of this missive. When Miller spoke of his wife and child, some subtle thread of suggestion coupled the note with Miller’s plight. “I’ll go with you, Dr. Miller,” he said, “if you’ll permit me. In my company you will not be disturbed.”

He took a seat in Miller’s buggy, after which it was not molested.

Neither of them spoke. Miller was sick at heart; he could have wept with grief, even had the welfare of his own dear ones not been involved in this regrettable affair. With prophetic instinct he foresaw the hatreds to which this day would give birth; the long years of constraint and distrust which would still further widen the breach between two peoples whom fate had thrown together in one community.

There was nothing for Ellis to say. In his heart he could not defend the deeds of this day. The petty annoyances which the whites had felt at the spectacle of a few negroes in office; the not unnatural resentment of a proud people at what had seemed to them a presumptuous freedom of speech and lack of deference on the part of their inferiors⁠—these things, which he knew were to be made the excuse for overturning the city government, he realized full well were no sort of justification for the wholesale murder or other horrors which might well ensue before the day was done. He could not approve the acts of his own people; neither could he, to a negro, condemn them. Hence he was silent.

“Thank you, Mr. Ellis,” exclaimed Miller, when they had reached the house where he expected to find his wife. “This is the place where I was going. I am⁠—under a great obligation to you.”

“Not at all, Dr. Miller. I need not tell you how much I regret this deplorable affair.”

Ellis went back down the street. Fastening his horse to the fence, Miller sprang forward to find his wife and child. They would certainly be there, for no colored woman would be foolhardy enough to venture on the streets after the riot had broken out.

As he drew nearer, he felt a sudden apprehension. The house seemed strangely silent and deserted. The doors were closed, and the Venetian blinds shut tightly. Even a dog which had appeared slunk timidly back under the house, instead of barking vociferously according to the usual habit of his kind.