The Strength of Gideon
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Old Mam' Henry, and her word may be taken, said that it was "De
powerfulles' sehmont she ever had hyeahd in all huh bo'n days." That
was saying a good deal, for the old woman had lived many years on the
Stone place and had heard many sermons from preachers, white and
black. She was a judge, too.
It really must have been a powerful sermon that Brother Lucius
preached, for Aunt Doshy Scott had fallen in a trance in the middle of
the aisle, while "Merlatter Mag," who was famed all over the place for
having white folk's religion and never "waking up," had broken through
her reserve and shouted all over the camp ground.
Several times Cassie had shown signs of giving way, but because
she was frail some of the solicitous sisters held her with
self-congratulatory care, relieving each other now and then, that each
might have a turn in the rejoicings. But as the preacher waded out
deeper and deeper into the spiritual stream, Cassie's efforts to make
her feelings known became more and more decided. He told them how the
spears of the Midianites had "clashed upon de shiels of de Gideonites,
an' aftah while, wid de powah of de Lawd behin' him, de man Gideon
triumphed mightily," and swaying then and wailing in the dark woods,
with grim branches waving in the breath of their own excitement, they
could hear above the tumult the clamor of the fight, the clashing of
the spears, and the ringing of the shields. They could see the
conqueror coming home in triumph. Then when he cried, "A-who, I say,
a-who is in Gideon's ahmy to-day?" and the wailing chorus took up the
note, "A-who!" it was too much even for frail Cassie, and, deserted by
the solicitous sisters, in the words of Mam' Henry, "she broke
a-loose, and faihly tuk de place."
Gideon had certainly triumphed, and when a little boy baby came to
Cassie two or three days later, she named him Gideon in honor of the
great Hebrew warrior whose story had so wrought upon her. All the
plantation knew the spiritual significance of the name, and from the
day of his birth the child was as one set apart to a holy mission on
Say what you will of the influences which the circumstances
surrounding birth have upon a child, upon this one at least the effect
was unmistakable. Even as a baby he seemed to realize the weight of
responsibility which had been laid upon his little black shoulders,
and there was a complacent dignity in the very way in which he drew
upon the sweets of his dirty sugar-teat when the maternal breast was
far off bending over the sheaves of the field.
He was a child early destined to sacrifice and self-effacement, and as
he grew older and other youngsters came to fill Cassie's cabin, he
took up his lot with the meekness of an infantile Moses. Like a Moses
he was, too, leading his little flock to the promised land, when he
grew to the age at which, barefooted and one-shifted, he led or
carried his little brothers and sisters about the quarters. But the
"promised land" never took him into the direction of the stables,
where the other pickaninnies worried the horses, or into the region of
the hen-coops, where egg-sucking was a common crime.
No boy ever rolled or tumbled in the dirt with a heartier glee than
did Gideon, but no warrior, not even his illustrious prototype
himself, ever kept sterner discipline in his ranks when his followers
seemed prone to overstep the bounds of right. At a very early age his
shrill voice could be heard calling in admonitory tones, caught from
his mother's very lips, "You 'Nelius, don' you let me ketch you
th'owin' at ol' mis' guinea-hens no mo'; you hyeah me?" or "Hi'am, you
come offen de top er dat shed 'fo' you fall an' brek yo' naik all to
It was a common sight in the evening to see him sitting upon the low
rail fence which ran before the quarters, his shift blowing in the
wind, and his black legs lean and bony against the whitewashed rails,
as he swayed to and fro, rocking and singing one of his numerous
brothers to sleep, and always his song was of war and victory, albeit
crooned in a low, soothing voice. Sometimes it was "Turn Back
Pharaoh's Army," at others "Jinin' Gideon's Band." The latter was a
favorite, for he seemed to have a proprietary interest in it,
although, despite the martial inspiration of his name, "Gideon's band"
to him meant an aggregation of people with horns and fiddles.
Steve, who was Cassie's man, declared that he had never seen such a
child, and, being quite as religious as Cassie herself, early began to
talk Scripture and religion to the boy. He was aided in this when his
master, Dudley Stone, a man of the faith, began a little Sunday class
for the religiously inclined of the quarters, where the old familiar
stories were told in simple language to the slaves and explained. At
these meetings Gideon became a shining light. No one listened more
eagerly to the teacher's words, or more readily answered his questions
at review. No one was wider-mouthed or whiter-eyed. His admonitions to
his family now took on a different complexion, and he could be heard
calling across a lot to a mischievous sister, "Bettah tek keer daih,
Lucy Jane, Gawd's a-watchin' you; bettah tek keer."
The appointed man is always marked, and so Gideon was by always
receiving his full name. No one ever shortened his scriptural
appellation into Gid. He was always Gideon from the time he bore the
name out of the heat of camp-meeting fervor until his master
discovered his worthiness and filled Cassie's breast with pride by
taking him into the house to learn "mannahs and 'po'tment."
As a house servant he was beyond reproach, and next to his religion
his Mas' Dudley and Miss Ellen claimed his devotion and fidelity. The
young mistress and young master learned to depend fearlessly upon his
It was good to hear old Dudley Stone going through the house in a mock
fury, crying, "Well, I never saw such a house; it seems as if there
isn't a soul in it that can do without Gideon. Here I've got him up
here to wait on me, and it's Gideon here and Gideon there, and every
time I turn around some of you have sneaked him off. Gideon, come
here!" And the black boy smiled and came.
But all his days were not days devoted to men's service, for there
came a time when love claimed him for her own, when the clouds took on
a new color, when the sough of the wind was music in his ears, and he
saw heaven in Martha's eyes. It all came about in this way.
Gideon was young when he got religion and joined the church, and he
grew up strong in the faith. Almost by the time he had become a
valuable house servant he had grown to be an invaluable servant of the
Lord. He had a good, clear voice that could lead a hymn out of all the
labyrinthian wanderings of an ignorant congregation, even when he had
to improvise both words and music; and he was a mighty man of prayer.
It was thus he met Martha. Martha was brown and buxom and comely, and
her rich contralto voice was loud and high on the sisters' side in
meeting time. It was the voices that did it at first. There was no
hymn or "spiritual" that Gideon could start to which Martha could not
sing an easy blending second, and never did she open a tune that
Gideon did not swing into it with a wonderfully sweet, flowing,
natural bass. Often he did not know the piece, but that did not
matter, he sang anyway. Perhaps when they were out he would go to her
and ask, "Sis' Martha, what was that hymn you stahrted to-day?" and
she would probably answer, "Oh, dat was jes' one o' my mammy's ol'
"Well, it sholy was mighty pretty. Indeed it was."
"Oh, thanky, Brothah Gidjon, thanky."
Then a little later they began to walk back to the master's house
together, for Martha, too, was one of the favored ones, and served,
not in the field, but in the big house.
The old women looked on and conversed in whispers about the pair, for
they were wise, and what their old eyes saw, they saw.
"Oomph," said Mam' Henry, for she commented on everything, "dem too is
jes' natchelly singin' demse'ves togeddah."
"Dey's lak de mo'nin' stahs," interjected Aunt Sophy.
"How 'bout dat?" sniffed the older woman, for she objected to any
one's alluding to subjects she did not understand.
"Why, Mam' Henry, ain' you nevah hyeahd tell o' de mo'nin' stahs whut
sung deyse'ves togeddah?"
"No, I ain't, an' I been livin' a mighty sight longah'n you, too. I
knows all 'bout when de stahs fell, but dey ain' nevah done no singin'
dat I knows 'bout."
"Do heish, Mam' Henry, you sho' su'prises me. W'y, dat ain'
happenin's, dat's Scripter."
"Look hyeah, gal, don't you tell me dat's Scripter, an' me been
a-settin' undah de Scripter fu' nigh onto sixty yeah."
"Well, Mam' Henry, I may 'a' been mistook, but sho' I took hit fu'
Scripter. Mebbe de preachah I hyeahd was jes' inlinin'."
"Well, wheddah hit's Scripter er not, dey's one t'ing su'tain, I tell
you,—dem two is singin' deyse'ves togeddah."
"Hit's a fac', an' I believe it."
"An' it's a mighty good thing, too. Brothah Gidjon is de nicest house
dahky dat I ever hyeahd tell on. Dey jes' de same diffunce 'twixt him
an' de othah house-boys as dey is 'tween real quality an'
strainers—he got mannahs, but he ain't got aihs."
"Heish, ain't you right!"
"An' while de res' of dem ain' thinkin' 'bout nothin' but dancin' an'
ca'in' on, he makin' his peace, callin', an' 'lection sho'."
"I tell you, Mam' Henry, dey ain' nothin' like a spichul named chile."
"Humph! g'long, gal; 'tain't in de name; de biggest devil I evah
knowed was named Moses Aaron. 'Tain't in de name, hit's all in de man
But notwithstanding what the gossips said of him, Gideon went on his
way, and knew not that the one great power of earth had taken hold of
him until they gave the great party down in the quarters, and he saw
Martha in all her glory. Then love spoke to him with no uncertain
It was a dancing-party, and because neither he nor Martha dared
countenance dancing, they had strolled away together under the pines
that lined the white road, whiter now in the soft moonlight. He had
never known the pine-cones smell so sweet before in all his life. She
had never known just how the moonlight flecked the road before. This
was lovers' lane to them. He didn't understand why his heart kept
throbbing so furiously, for they were walking slowly, and when a
shadow thrown across the road from a by-standing bush frightened her
into pressing close up to him, he could not have told why his arm
stole round her waist and drew her slim form up to him, or why his
lips found hers, as eye looked into eye. For their simple hearts
love's mystery was too deep, as it is for wiser ones.
Some few stammering words came to his lips, and she answered the best
she could. Then why did the moonlight flood them so, and why were the
heavens so full of stars? Out yonder in the black hedge a mocking-bird
was singing, and he was translating—oh, so poorly—the song of their
hearts. They forgot the dance, they forgot all but their love.
"An' you won't ma'y nobody else but me, Martha?"
"You know I won't, Gidjon."
"But I mus' wait de yeah out?"
"Yes, an' den don't you think Mas' Stone'll let us have a little cabin
of ouah own jest outside de quahtahs?"
"Won't it be blessid? Won't it be blessid?" he cried, and then the
kindly moon went under a cloud for a moment and came out smiling, for
he had peeped through and had seen what passed. Then they walked back
hand in hand to the dance along the transfigured road, and they found
that the first part of the festivities were over, and all the people
had sat down to supper. Every one laughed when they went in. Martha
held back and perspired with embarrassment. But even though he saw
some of the older heads whispering in a corner, Gideon was not
ashamed. A new light was in his eyes, and a new boldness had come to
him. He led Martha up to the grinning group, and said in his best
singing voice, "Whut you laughin' at? Yes, I's popped de question, an'
she says 'Yes,' an' long 'bout a yeah f'om now you kin all 'spec' a'
invitation." This was a formal announcement. A shout arose from the
happy-go-lucky people, who sorrowed alike in each other's sorrows, and
joyed in each other's joys. They sat down at a table, and their
health was drunk in cups of cider and persimmon beer.
Over in the corner Mam' Henry mumbled over her pipe, "Wha'd I tell
you? wha'd I tell you?" and Aunt Sophy replied, "Hit's de pa'able of
de mo'nin' stahs."
"Don't talk to me 'bout no mo'nin' stahs," the mammy snorted; "Gawd
jes' fitted dey voices togeddah, an' den j'ined dey hea'ts. De mo'nin'
stahs ain't got nothin' to do wid it."
"Mam' Henry," said Aunt Sophy, impressively, "you's a' oldah ooman den
I is, an' I ain' sputin' hit; but I say dey done 'filled Scripter
'bout de mo'nin' stahs; dey's done sung deyse'ves togeddah."
The old woman sniffed.
The next Sunday at meeting some one got the start of Gideon, and began
a new hymn. It ran:
"At de ma'ige of de Lamb, oh Lawd,
God done gin His 'sent.
Dey dressed de Lamb all up in white,
God done gin His 'sent.
Oh, wasn't dat a happy day,
Oh, wasn't dat a happy day, Good Lawd,
Oh, wasn't dat a happy day,
De ma'ige of de Lamb!"
The wailing minor of the beginning broke into a joyous chorus at the
end, and Gideon wept and laughed in turn, for it was his wedding-song.
The young man had a confidential chat with his master the next
morning, and the happy secret was revealed.
"What, you scamp!" said Dudley Stone. "Why, you've got even more sense
than I gave you credit for; you've picked out the finest girl on the
plantation, and the one best suited to you. You couldn't have done
better if the match had been made for you. I reckon this must be one
of the marriages that are made in heaven. Marry her, yes, and with a
preacher. I don't see why you want to wait a year."
Gideon told him his hopes of a near cabin.
"Better still," his master went on; "with you two joined and up near
the big house, I'll feel as safe for the folks as if an army was
camped around, and, Gideon, my boy,"—he put his arms on the black
man's shoulders,—"if I should slip away some day—"
The slave looked up, startled.
"I mean if I should die—I'm not going to run off, don't be alarmed—I
want you to help your young Mas' Dud look after his mother and Miss
Ellen; you hear? Now that's the one promise I ask of you,—come what
may, look after the women folks." And the man promised and went away
His year of engagement, the happiest time of a young man's life, began
on golden wings. There came rumors of war, and the wings of the
glad-hued year drooped sadly. Sadly they drooped, and seemed to fold,
when one day, between the rumors and predictions of strife, Dudley
Stone, the old master, slipped quietly away out into the unknown.
There were wife, daughter, son, and faithful slaves about his bed, and
they wept for him sincere tears, for he had been a good husband and
father and a kind master. But he smiled, and, conscious to the last,
whispered to them a cheery good-bye. Then, turning to Gideon, who
stood there bowed with grief, he raised one weak finger, and his lips
made the word, "Remember!"
They laid him where they had laid one generation after another of the
Stones and it seemed as if a pall of sorrow had fallen upon the whole
place. Then, still grieving, they turned their long-distracted
attention to the things that had been going on around, and lo! the
ominous mutterings were loud, and the cloud of war was black above
It was on an April morning when the storm broke, and the plantation,
master and man, stood dumb with consternation, for they had hoped,
they had believed, it would pass. And now there was the buzz of men
who talked in secret corners. There were hurried saddlings and
feverish rides to town. Somewhere in the quarters was whispered the
forbidden word "freedom," and it was taken up and dropped breathlessly
from the ends of a hundred tongues. Some of the older ones scouted it,
but from some who held young children to their breasts there were
deep-souled prayers in the dead of night. Over the meetings in the
woods or in the log church a strange reserve brooded, and even the
prayers took on a guarded tone. Even from the fulness of their hearts,
which longed for liberty, no open word that could offend the mistress
or the young master went up to the Almighty. He might know their
hearts, but no tongue in meeting gave vent to what was in them, and
even Gideon sang no more of the gospel army. He was sad because of
this new trouble coming hard upon the heels of the old, and Martha
was grieved because he was.
Finally the trips into town budded into something, and on a memorable
evening when the sun looked peacefully through the pines, young Dudley
Stone rode into the yard dressed in a suit of gray, and on his
shoulders were the straps of office. The servants gathered around him
with a sort of awe and followed him until he alighted at the porch.
Only Mam' Henry, who had been nurse to both him and his sister, dared
follow him in. It was a sad scene within, but such a one as any
Southern home where there were sons might have shown that awful year.
The mother tried to be brave, but her old hands shook, and her tears
fell upon her son's brown head, tears of grief at parting, but through
which shone the fire of a noble pride. The young Ellen hung about his
neck with sobs and caresses.
"Would you have me stay?" he asked her.
"No! no! I know where your place is, but oh, my brother!"
"Ellen," said the mother in a trembling voice, "you are the sister of
a soldier now."
The girl dried her tears and drew herself up. "We won't burden your
heart, Dudley, with our tears, but we will weight you down with our
love and prayers."
It was not so easy with Mam' Henry. Without protest, she took him to
her bosom and rocked to and fro, wailing "My baby! my baby!" and the
tears that fell from the young man's eyes upon her grey old head cost
his manhood nothing.
Gideon was behind the door when his master called him. His sleeve was
traveling down from his eyes as he emerged.
"Gideon," said his master, pointing to his uniform, "you know what
"I wish I could take you along with me. But—"
"Mas' Dud," Gideon threw out his arms in supplication.
"You remember father's charge to you, take care of the women-folks."
He took the servant's hand, and, black man and white, they looked into
each other's eyes, and the compact was made. Then Gideon gulped and
said "Yes, suh" again.
Another boy held the master's horse and rode away behind him when he
vaulted into the saddle, and the man of battle-song and warrior name
went back to mind the women-folks.
Then began the disintegration of the plantation's population. First
Yellow Bob slipped away, and no one pursued him. A few blamed him, but
they soon followed as the year rolled away. More were missing every
time a Union camp lay near, and great tales were told of the chances
for young negroes who would go as body-servants to the Yankee
officers. Gideon heard all and was silent.
Then as the time of his marriage drew near he felt a greater strength,
for there was one who would be with him to help him keep his promise
and his faith.
The spirit of freedom had grown strong in Martha as the days passed,
and when her lover went to see her she had strange things to say. Was
he going to stay? Was he going to be a slave when freedom and a
livelihood lay right within his grasp? Would he keep her a slave? Yes,
he would do it all—all.
She asked him to wait.
Another year began, and one day they brought Dudley Stone home to lay
beside his father. Then most of the remaining negroes went. There was
no master now. The two bereaved women wept, and Gideon forgot that he
wore the garb of manhood and wept with them.
Martha came to him.
"Gidjon," she said, "I's waited a long while now. Mos' eve'ybody else
is gone. Ain't you goin'?"
"But, Gidjon, I wants to be free. I know how good dey've been to us;
but, oh, I wants to own myse'f. They're talkin' 'bout settin' us free
"I can wait."
"They's a camp right near here."
"The of'cers wants body-servants, Gidjon—"
"Go, Martha, if you want to, but I stay."
She went away from him, but she or some one else got word to young
Captain Jack Griswold of the near camp that there was an excellent
servant on the plantation who only needed a little persuading, and he
came up to see him.
"Look here," he said, "I want a body-servant. I'll give you ten
dollars a month."
"I've got to stay here."
"But, you fool, what have you to gain by staying here?"
"I'm goin' to stay."
"Why, you'll be free in a little while, anyway."
"Of all fools," said the Captain. "I'll give you fifteen dollars."
"I do' want it."
"Well, your girl's going, anyway. I don't blame her for leaving such a
fool as you are."
Gideon turned and looked at him.
"The camp is going to be moved up on this plantation, and there will
be a requisition for this house for officers' quarters, so I'll see
you again," and Captain Griswold went his way.
Martha going! Martha going! Gideon could not believe it. He would not.
He saw her, and she confirmed it. She was going as an aid to the
nurses. He gasped, and went back to mind the women-folks.
They did move the camp up nearer, and Captain Griswold came to see
Gideon again, but he could get no word from him, save "I'm goin' to
stay," and he went away in disgust, entirely unable to understand such
obstinacy, as he called it.
But the slave had his moments alone, when the agony tore at his breast
and rended him. Should he stay? The others were going. He would soon
be free. Every one had said so, even his mistress one day. Then Martha
was going. "Martha! Martha!" his heart called.
The day came when the soldiers were to leave, and he went out sadly to
watch them go. All the plantation, that had been white with tents, was
dark again, and everywhere were moving, blue-coated figures.
Once more his tempter came to him. "I'll make it twenty dollars," he
said, but Gideon shook his head. Then they started. The drums tapped.
Away they went, the flag kissing the breeze. Martha stole up to say
good-bye to him. Her eyes were overflowing, and she clung to him.
"Come, Gidjon," she plead, "fu' my sake. Oh, my God, won't you come
with us—it's freedom." He kissed her, but shook his head.
"Hunt me up when you do come," she said, crying bitterly, "fu' I do
love you, Gidjon, but I must go. Out yonder is freedom," and she was
gone with them.
He drew out a pace after the troops, and then, turning, looked back
at the house. He went a step farther, and then a woman's gentle voice
called him, "Gideon!" He stopped. He crushed his cap in his hands, and
the tears came into his eyes. Then he answered, "Yes, Mis' Ellen, I's
He stood and watched the dusty column until the last blue leg swung
out of sight and over the grey hills the last drum-tap died away, and
then turned and retraced his steps toward the house.
Gideon had triumphed mightily.