The Wife of His Youth
by Charles W. Chesnutt
Mr. Ryder was going to give a ball. There were several
reasons why this was an opportune time for such an event.
Mr. Ryder might aptly be called the dean of the Blue
Veins. The original Blue Veins were a little society
of colored persons organized in a certain Northern city
shortly after the war. Its purpose was to establish and
maintain correct social standards among a people whose
social condition presented almost unlimited room for
improvement. By accident, combined perhaps with some
natural affinity, the society consisted of individuals
who were, generally speaking, more white than black.
Some envious outsider made the suggestion that no one
was eligible for membership who was not white enough
to show blue veins. The suggestion was readily adopted
by those who were not of the favored few, and since that
time the society, though possessing a longer and more
pretentious name, had been known far and wide as the
"Blue Vein Society," and its members as the "Blue Veins."
The Blue Veins did not allow that any such requirement
existed for admission to their circle, but, on the contrary,
declared that character and culture were the only things
considered; and that if most of their members were
light-colored, it was because such persons, as a rule,
had had better opportunities to qualify themselves for
membership. Opinions differed, too, as to the usefulness
of the society. There were those who had been known to
assail it violently as a glaring example of the very
prejudice from which the colored race had suffered most;
and later, when such critics had succeeded in getting on
the inside, they had been heard to maintain with zeal and
earnestness that the society was a lifeboat, an anchor, a
bulwark and a shield,--a pillar of cloud by day and of
fire by night, to guide their people through the social
wilderness. Another alleged prerequisite for Blue Vein
membership was that of free birth; and while there was
really no such requirement, it is doubtless true that
very few of the members would have been unable to meet it
if there had been. If there were one or two of the older
members who had come up from the South and from slavery,
their history presented enough romantic circumstances to
rob their servile origin of its grosser aspects.
While there were no such tests of eligibility, it is true
that the Blue Veins had their notions on these subjects,
and that not all of them were equally liberal in regard
to the things they collectively disclaimed. Mr. Ryder was
one of the most conservative. Though he had not been among
the founders of the society, but had come in some years
later, his genius for social leadership was such that he
had speedily become its recognized adviser and head, the
custodian of its standards, and the preserver of its
traditions. He shaped its social policy, was active in
providing for its entertainment, and when the interest
fell off, as it sometimes did, he fanned the embers until
they burst again into a cheerful flame.
There were still other reasons for his popularity. While
he was not as white as some of the Blue Veins, his
appearance was such as to confer distinction upon them.
His features were of a refined type, his hair was almost
straight; he was always neatly dressed; his manners were
irreproachable, and his morals above suspicion. He had
come to Groveland a young man, and obtaining employment
in the office of a railroad company as messenger had in
time worked himself up to the position of stationery clerk,
having charge of the distribution of the office supplies
for the whole company. Although the lack of early training
had hindered the orderly development of a naturally fine
mind, it had not prevented him from doing a great deal of
reading or from forming decidedly literary tastes. Poetry
was his passion. He could repeat whole pages of the great
English poets; and if his pronunciation was sometimes
faulty, his eye, his voice, his gestures, would respond
to the changing sentiment with a precision that revealed
a poetic soul and disarmed criticism. He was economical,
and had saved money; he owned and occupied a very comfortable
house on a respectable street. His residence was handsomely
furnished, containing among other things a good library,
especially rich in poetry, a piano, and some choice engravings.
He generally shared his house with some young couple, who
looked after his wants and were company for him; for Mr. Ryder
was a single man. In the early days of his connection with
the Blue Veins he had been regarded as quite a catch, and
young ladies and their mothers had manoeuvred with much
ingenuity to capture him. Not, however, until Mrs. Molly
Dixon visited Groveland had any woman ever made him wish
to change his condition to that of a married man.
Mrs. Dixon had come to Groveland from Washington in the
spring, and before the summer was over she had won Mr. Ryder's
heart. She possessed many attractive qualities. She was
much younger than he; in fact, he was old enough to have
been her father, though no one knew exactly how old he was.
She was whiter than he, and better educated. She had moved
in the best colored society of the country, at Washington,
and had taught in the schools of that city. Such a superior
person had been eagerly welcomed to the Blue Vein Society,
and had taken a leading part in its activities. Mr. Ryder
had at first been attracted by her charms of person, for
she was very good looking and not over twenty-five; then
by her refined manners and the vivacity of her wit. Her
husband had been a government clerk, and at his death had
left a considerable life insurance. She was visiting friends
in Groveland, and, finding the town and the people to her
liking, had prolonged her stay indefinitely. She had not
seemed displeased at Mr. Ryder's attentions, but on the
contrary had given him every proper encouragement; indeed,
a younger and less cautious man would long since have spoken.
But he had made up his mind, and had only to determine the
time when he would ask her to be his wife. He decided to
give a ball in her honor, and at some time during the
evening of the ball to offer her his heart and hand. He
had no special fears about the outcome, but, with a little
touch of romance, he wanted the surroundings to be in
harmony with his own feelings when he should have received
the answer he expected.
Mr. Ryder resolved that this ball should mark an epoch in
the social history of Groveland. He knew, of course,--no
one could know better,--the entertainments that had taken
place in past years, and what must be done to surpass them.
His ball must be worthy of the lady in whose honor it was
to be given, and must, by the quality of its guests, set an
example for the future. He had observed of late a growing
liberality, almost a laxity, in social matters, even among
members of his own set, and had several times been forced
to meet in a social way persons whose complexions and
callings in life were hardly up to the standard which he
considered proper for the society to maintain. He had a
theory of his own.
"I have no race prejudice," he would say, "but we people
of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether
millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white
race and extinction in the black. The one doesn't want
us yet, but may take us in time. The other would welcome
us, but it would be for us a backward step. 'With malice
towards none, with charity for all,' we must do the best
we can for ourselves and those who are to follow us.
Self-preservation is the first law of nature."
His ball would serve by its exclusiveness to counteract
leveling tendencies, and his marriage with Mrs. Dixon
would help to further the upward process of absorption
he had been wishing and waiting for.
The ball was to take place on Friday night. The house
had been put in order, the carpets covered with canvas,
the halls and stairs decorated with palms and potted
plants; and in the afternoon Mr. Ryder sat on his front
porch, which the shade of a vine running up over a wire
netting made a cool and pleasant lounging place. He
expected to respond to the toast "The Ladies" at the
supper, and from a volume of Tennyson--his favorite
poet--was fortifying himself with apt quotations. The
volume was open at "A Dream of Fair Women." His eyes
fell on these lines, and he read them aloud to judge
better of their effect:----
"At length I saw a lady within call,
Stiller than chisell'd marble, standing there;
A daughter of the gods, divinely tall,
And most divinely fair."
He marked the verse, and turning the page read the
"O sweet pale Margaret,
O rare pale Margaret."
He weighed the passage a moment, and decided that it
would not do. Mrs. Dixon was the palest lady he
expected at the ball, and she was of a rather ruddy
complexion, and of lively disposition and buxom build.
So he ran over the leaves until his eye rested on the
description of Queen Guinevere:----
"She seem'd a part of joyous Spring;
A gown of grass-green silk she wore,
Buckled with golden clasps before;
A light-green tuft of plumes she bore
Closed in a golden ring.
* * * * * *
"She look'd so lovely, as she sway'd
The rein with dainty finger-tips,
A man had given all other bliss,
And all his worldly worth for this,
To waste his whole heart in one kiss
Upon her perfect lips."
As Mr. Ryder murmured these words audibly, with an
appreciative thrill, he heard the latch of his gate
click, and a light footfall sounding on the steps. He
turned his head, and saw a woman standing before his
She was a little woman, not five feet tall, and
proportioned to her height. Although she stood erect,
and looked around her with very bright and restless
eyes, she seemed quite old; for her face was crossed
and recrossed with a hundred wrinkles, and around the
edges of her bonnet could be seen protruding here and
there a tuft of short gray wool. She wore a blue calico
gown of ancient cut, a little red shawl fastened around
her shoulders with an old-fashioned brass brooch, and
a large bonnet profusely ornamented with faded red and
yellow artificial flowers. And she was very black,--so
black that her toothless gums, revealed when she opened
her mouth to speak, were not red, but blue. She looked
like a bit of the old plantation life, summoned up from
the past by the wave of a magician's wand, as the poet's
fancy had called into being the gracious shapes of which
Mr. Ryder had just been reading.
He rose from his chair and came over to where she stood.
"Good-afternoon, madam," he said.
"Good-evenin', suh," she answered, ducking suddenly with
a quaint curtsy. Her voice was shrill and piping, but
softened somewhat by age. "Is dis yere whar Mistuh Ryduh
lib, suh?" she asked, looking around her doubtfully, and
glancing into the open windows, through which some of the
preparations for the evening were visible.
"Yes," he replied, with an air of kindly patronage,
unconsciously flattered by her manner, "I am Mr. Ryder.
Did you want to see me?"
"Yas, suh, ef I ain't 'sturbin' of you too much."
"Not at all. Have a seat over here behind the vine, where
it is cool. What can I do for you?"
"'Scuse me, suh," she continued, when she had sat down
on the edge of a chair, "'scuse me, suh, I's lookin'
for my husban'. I heerd you wuz a big man an' had libbed
heah a long time, an' I 'lowed you wouldn't min' ef I'd
come roun' an' ax you ef you'd ever heerd of a merlatter
man by de name er Sam Taylor 'quirin' roun' in de chu'ches
ermongs' de people fer his wife 'Liza Jane?"
Mr. Ryder seemed to think for a moment.
"There used to be many such cases right after the war,"
he said, "but it has been so long that I have forgotten
them. There are very few now. But tell me your story,
and it may refresh my memory."
She sat back farther in her chair so as to be more
comfortable, and folded her withered hands in her lap.
"My name's 'Liza," she began, "'Liza Jane. W'en I wuz
young I us'ter b'long ter Marse Bob Smif, down in ole
Missoura. I wuz bawn down dere. W'en I wuz a gal I wuz
married ter a man named Jim. But Jim died, an' after
dat I married a merlatter man named Sam Taylor. Sam wuz
free-bawn, but his mammy and daddy died, an' de w'ite
folks 'prenticed him ter my marster fer ter work fer
'im 'tel he wuz growed up. Sam worked in de fiel', an'
I wuz de cook. One day Ma'y Ann, ole miss's maid, came
rushin' out ter de kitchen, an' says she, ''Liza Jane,
ole marse gwine sell yo' Sam down de ribber.'
"'Go way f'm yere,' says I; 'my husban' 's free!'
"'Don' make no diff'ence. I heerd ole marse tell ole
miss he wuz gwine take yo' Sam 'way wid 'im ter-morrow,
fer he needed money, an' he knowed whar he could git a
t'ousan' dollars fer Sam an' no questions axed.'
"W'en Sam come home f'm de fiel' dat night, I tole him
'bout ole marse gwine steal 'im, an' Sam run erway. His
time wuz mos' up, an' he swo' dat w'en he wuz twenty-one
he would come back an' he'p me run erway, er else save
up de money ter buy my freedom. An' I know he'd 'a' done
it, fer he thought a heap er me, Sam did. But w'en he
come back he didn' fin' me, fer I wuzn' dere. Ole marse
had heerd dat I warned Sam, so he had me whip' an' sol'
down de ribber.
"Den de wah broke out, an' w'en it wuz ober de cullud
folks wuz scattered. I went back ter de ole home; but
Sam wuzn' dere, an' I couldn' l'arn nuffin' 'bout 'im.
But I knowed he'd be'n dere to look fer me an' hadn'
foun' me, an' had gone erway ter hunt fer me.
"I's be'n lookin' fer 'im eber sence," she added simply,
as though twenty-five years were but a couple of weeks,
"an' I knows he's be'n lookin' fer me. Fer he sot a heap
er sto' by me, Sam did, an' I know he's be'n huntin' fer
me all dese years,--'less'n he's be'n sick er sump'n, so
he could n' work, er out'n his head, so he could n'
'member his promise. I went back down de ribber, fer I
'lowed he'd gone down dere lookin' fer me. I's be'n ter
Noo Orleens, an' Atlanty, an' Charleston, an' Richmon';
an' w'en I'd be'n all ober de Souf I come ter de Norf.
Fer I knows I'll fin' 'im some er dese days," she added
softly, "er he'll fin' me, an' den we'll bofe be as happy
in freedom as we wuz in de ole days befo' de wah." A smile
stole over her withered countenance as she paused a moment,
and her bright eyes softened into a far-away look.
This was the substance of the old woman's story. She had
wandered a little here and there. Mr. Ryder was looking
at her curiously when she finished.
"How have you lived all these years?" he asked.
"Cookin', suh. I's a good cook. Does you know anybody
w'at needs a good cook, suh? I's stoppin' wid a cullud
fam'ly roun' de corner yonder 'tel I kin git a place."
"Do you really expect to find your husband? He may be
dead long ago."
She shook her head emphatically. "Oh no, he ain' dead.
De signs an' de tokens tells me. I dremp three nights
runnin' on'y dis las' week dat I foun' him."
"He may have married another woman. Your slave marriage
would not have prevented him, for you never lived with
him after the war, and without that your marriage doesn't
"Would n' make no diff'ence wid Sam. He would n' marry
no yuther 'ooman 'tel he foun' out 'bout me. I knows it,"
she added. "Sump'n 's be'n tellin' me all dese years dat
I's gwine fin' Sam 'fo' I dies."
"Perhaps he's outgrown you, and climbed up in the world
where he wouldn't care to have you find him."
"No, indeed, suh," she replied, "Sam ain' dat kin' er
man. He wuz good ter me, Sam wuz, but he wuz n' much
good ter nobody e'se, fer he wuz one er de triflin'es'
han's on de plantation. I 'spec's ter haf ter suppo't
'im, w'en I fin' 'im, fer he nebber would work 'less'n
he had ter. But den he wuz free, an' he did n' git no
pay fer his work, an' I don' blame 'im much. Mebbe he's
done better sence he run erway, but I ain' 'spectin'
"You may have passed him on the street a hundred times
during the twenty-five years, and not have known him;
time works great changes."
She smiled incredulously. "I'd know 'im 'mongs' a hund'ed
men. Fer dey wuz n' no yuther merlatter man like my man
Sam, an' I could n' be mistook. I's toted his picture
roun' wid me twenty-five years."
"May I see it?" asked Mr. Ryder. "It might help me to
remember whether I have seen the original."
As she drew a small parcel from her bosom he saw that
it was fastened to a string that went around her neck.
Removing several wrappers, she brought to light an
old-fashioned daguerreotype in a black case. He looked
long and intently at the portrait. It was faded with
time, but the features were still distinct, and it was
easy to see what manner of man it had represented.
He closed the case, and with a slow movement handed it
back to her.
"I don't know of any man in town who goes by that name,"
he said, "nor have I heard of any one making such inquiries.
But if you will leave me your address, I will give the
matter some attention, and if I find out anything I will
let you know."
She gave him the number of a house in the neighborhood,
and went away, after thanking him warmly.
He wrote the address on the fly-leaf of the volume of
Tennyson, and, when she had gone, rose to his feet and
stood looking after her curiously. As she walked down
the street with mincing step, he saw several persons
whom she passed turn and look back at her with a smile
of kindly amusement. When she had turned the corner,
he went upstairs to his bedroom, and stood for a long
time before the mirror of his dressing-case, gazing
thoughtfully at the reflection of his own face.
At eight o'clock the ballroom was a blaze of light and
the guests had begun to assemble; for there was a literary
programme and some routine business of the society to be
gone through with before the dancing. A black servant in
evening dress waited at the door and directed the guests
to the dressing-rooms.
The occasion was long memorable among the colored people
of the city; not alone for the dress and display, but
for the high average of intelligence and culture that
distinguished the gathering as a whole. There were a
number of school-teachers, several young doctors, three
or four lawyers, some professional singers, an editor,
a lieutenant in the United States army spending his
furlough in the city, and others in various polite
callings; these were colored, though most of them would
not have attracted even a casual glance because of any
marked difference from white people. Most of the ladies
were in evening costume, and dress coats and dancing
pumps were the rule among the men. A band of string
music, stationed in an alcove behind a row of palms,
played popular airs while the guests were gathering.
The dancing began at half past nine. At eleven o'clock
supper was served. Mr. Ryder had left the ballroom some
little time before the intermission, but reappeared at
the supper-table. The spread was worthy of the occasion,
and the guests did full justice to it. When the coffee
had been served, the toast-master, Mr. Solomon Sadler,
rapped for order. He made a brief introductory speech,
complimenting host and guests, and then presented in
their order the toasts of the evening. They were responded
to with a very fair display of after-dinner wit.
"The last toast," said the toast-master, when he reached
the end of the list, "is one which must appeal to us all.
There is no one of us of the sterner sex who is not at
some time dependent upon woman,--in infancy for protection,
in manhood for companionship, in old age for care and
comforting. Our good host has been trying to live alone,
but the fair faces I see around me to-night prove that he
too is largely dependent upon the gentler sex for most
that makes life worth living,--the society and love of
friends,--and rumor is at fault if he does not soon yield
entire subjection to one of them. Mr. Ryder will now
respond to the toast,--The Ladies."
There was a pensive look in Mr. Ryder's eyes as he took
the floor and adjusted his eyeglasses. He began by speaking
of woman as the gift of Heaven to man, and after some
general observations on the relations of the sexes he
said: "But perhaps the quality which most distinguishes
woman is her fidelity and devotion to those she loves.
History is full of examples, but has recorded none more
striking than one which only to-day came under my notice."
He then related, simply but effectively, the story told
by his visitor of the afternoon. He gave it in the same
soft dialect, which came readily to his lips, while the
company listened attentively and sympathetically. For the
story had awakened a responsive thrill in many hearts.
There were some present who had seen, and others who had
heard their fathers and grandfathers tell, the wrongs and
sufferings of this past generation, and all of them still
felt, in their darker moments, the shadow hanging over
them. Mr. Ryder went on:---
"Such devotion and confidence are rare even among women.
There are many who would have searched a year, some who
would have waited five years, a few who might have hoped
ten years; but for twenty-five years this woman has
retained her affection for and her faith in a man she
has not seen or heard of in all that time.
"She came to me to-day in the hope that I might be able
to help her find this long-lost husband. And when she
was gone I gave my fancy rein, and imagined a case I
will put to you.
"Suppose that this husband, soon after his escape, had
learned that his wife had been sold away, and that such
inquiries as he could make brought no information of her
whereabouts. Suppose that he was young, and she much older
than he; that he was light, and she was black; that their
marriage was a slave marriage, and legally binding only
if they chose to make it so after the war. Suppose, too,
that he made his way to the North, as some of us have
done, and there, where he had larger opportunities, had
improved them, and had in the course of all these years
grown to be as different from the ignorant boy who ran
away from fear of slavery as the day is from the night.
Suppose, even, that he had qualified himself, by industry,
by thrift, and by study, to win the friendship and be
considered worthy the society of such people as these I
see around me to-night, gracing my board and filling my
heart with gladness; for I am old enough to remember the
day when such a gathering would not have been possible in
this land. Suppose, too, that, as the years went by, this
man's memory of the past grew more and more indistinct,
until at last it was rarely, except in his dreams, that
any image of this bygone period rose before his mind. And
then suppose that accident should bring to his knowledge
the fact that the wife of his youth, the wife he had
left behind him,--not one who had walked by his side
and kept pace with him in his upward struggle, but one
upon whom advancing years and a laborious life had set
their mark,--was alive and seeking him, but that he was
absolutely safe from recognition or discovery, unless
he chose to reveal himself. My friends, what would the
man do? I will presume that he was one who loved honor,
and tried to deal justly with all men. I will even carry
the case further, and suppose that perhaps he had set
his heart upon another, whom he had hoped to call his
own. What would he do, or rather what ought he to do, in
such a crisis of a lifetime?
"It seemed to me that he might hesitate, and I imagined
that I was an old friend, a near friend, and that he had
come to me for advice; and I argued the case with him.
I tried to discuss it impartially. After we had looked
upon the matter from every point of view, I said to him,
in words that we all know:----
'This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.'
"Then, finally, I put the question to him, 'Shall you
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, friends and companions,
I ask you, what should he have done?"
There was something in Mr. Ryder's voice that stirred
the hearts of those who sat around him. It suggested
more than mere sympathy with an imaginary situation; it
seemed rather in the nature of a personal appeal. It
was observed, too, that his look rested more especially
upon Mrs. Dixon, with a mingled expression of renunciation
She had listened, with parted lips and streaming eyes.
She was the first to speak: "He should have acknowledged
"Yes," they all echoed, "he should have acknowledged
"My friends and companions," responded Mr. Ryder, "I
thank you, one and all. It is the answer I expected,
for I knew your hearts."
He turned and walked toward the closed door of an adjoining
room, while every eye followed him in wondering curiosity.
He came back in a moment, leading by the hand his visitor
of the afternoon, who stood startled and trembling at the
sudden plunge into this scene of brilliant gayety. She was
neatly dressed in gray, and wore the white cap of an elderly
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "this is the woman, and
I am the man, whose story I have told you. Permit me to
introduce to you the wife of my youth."
~~~~~~~ THE END ~~~~~~~