I gave myself the pleasure this afternoon of walking by the churchyard wall; and when I reached the iron gate, there was Daddy Ben. So full was I of my thoughts concerning John Mayrant, and the vicissitudes of his heart, and the Custom House, that I was moved to have words with the old man upon the general topic.
“Well,” I said, “and so Mr. John is going to be married.”
No attempt to start a chat ever failed more signally. He assented with a manner of mingled civility and reserve that was perfection, and after the two syllables of which his answer consisted, he remained as impenetrably respectful as before. I felt rather high and dry, but I tried it again:—
“And I’m sure, Daddy Ben, that you feel as sorry as any of the family that the phosphates failed.”
Again he replied with his two syllables of assent, and again he stood mute, respectful, a little bent with his great age; but now his good manners—and better manners were never seen—impelled him to break silence upon some subject, since he would not permit himself to speak concerning the one which I had introduced. It was the phosphates which inspired him.
“Dey is mighty fine prostrate wukks heah, sah.”
“Yes, I’ve been told so, Daddy Ben.”
“On dis side up de ribber an’ tudder side down de ribber ’cross de new bridge. Wuth visitin’ fo’ strangers, sah.”
I now felt entirely high and dry. I had attempted to enter into conversation with him about the intimate affairs of a family to which he felt that he belonged; and with perfect tact he had not only declined to discuss them with me, but had delicately informed me that I was a stranger and as such had better visit the phosphate works among the other sights of Kings Port. No diplomat could have done it better; and as I walled away from him I knew that he regarded me as an outsider, a Northerner, belonging to a race hostile to his people; he had seen Mas’ John friendly with me, but that was Mas’ John’s affair. And so it was that if the ladies had kept something from me, this cunning, old, polite, coal-black African had kept everything from me.