CHARACTER SKETCHES IN CAMP.
THE NIGGER SERVANT.
It is raining outside my tent. It has rained for three days and nights, and looks quite capable of raining for three days more; everything is simply sodden. You try to look around you at the men’s camps. At every step your boots go up to the ankle, squelch, in the black mud. You slip as you walk, and go down on your hands and knees in the slimy filth; that brings out all the poetry in your nature. If you have had a Christian training in your youth, you think of David dodging Saul, and your sympathies go out towards the stupid king. The mud is everywhere; the horses have trodden it to slime in many places, in others the feet of the soldiers have transformed it to batter. Everything is cold, dreary, dismal; even the tobacco is damp, and leaves a taste in a man’s mouth like the receipt of bad news from home. I look at the soldiers hanging around like sheep round a blocked-up shed in a snow-storm, and I feel sympathetic. Their puttees are wet, and there is a suggestion of future rheumatism in every fold that encircles their calves; I can’t see much more of them except their weather-beaten faces. They wear their helmets and their blue-black overcoats, but both are wet. They don’t look happy, and the cause is not hard to find: they have slept out for three nights without tents. Their blankets are like sponges that have been left in a tub. Each blanket seems to hold about three gallons of water.
I arrived at this computation by watching the men wringing their bedding. Two men got hold of a blanket, one at each end; they twist it different ways, and the water runs out in a stream. The soldiers relapse into language. Most of their adjectives have a decidedly pink tinge, and I shouldn’t wonder if they became scarlet if this sort of weather continued.
My nigger slops along through the slush and tells me that my lunch is ready. He is not a happy-looking nigger by any means. A white man looks bad enough in the mud and cold, but a nigger presents a pitiful spectacle. His face goes whitish green, with an undercurrent of slatey grey running through it. The brilliancy leaves the coal-black eyes, and they become as lifeless and limp as a professional politician at a prayer meeting. The mouth goes agape, the thick lips become flabby, and fall away from the teeth. The mouth does not seem to fit the face, but hangs on to it like a second-hand suit on a backyard fence. My nigger is no better, and no worse, than the rest of them. He looks like a chapter in Lamentations, and is about as much at home in the sodden camp as a bar of wet soap in a sand heap. Just now he is good for nothing except to sing doleful hymns in a key sad enough to frighten a transit mule away from a bag of mealies. When he is not singing sadly he is quoting Scripture and thinking about his immortal soul. When the sun comes out to-morrow and the day after, he will be dancing a most unholy dance or be making love to “Dinah,” filling in the intervals by cursing in three different languages stray horses that steal our fodder.