The Ingrate by Paul Laurence Dunbar
Mr. Leckler was a man of high principle. Indeed, he himself had
admitted it at times to Mrs. Leckler. She was often called into
counsel with him. He was one of those large souled creatures with a
hunger for unlimited advice, upon which he never acted. Mrs. Leckler
knew this, but like the good, patient little wife that she was, she
went on paying her poor tribute of advice and admiration. To-day her
husband's mind was particularly troubled,—as usual, too, over a
matter of principle. Mrs. Leckler came at his call.
"Mrs. Leckler," he said, "I am troubled in my mind. I—in fact, I am
puzzled over a matter that involves either the maintaining or
relinquishing of a principle."
"Well, Mr. Leckler?" said his wife, interrogatively.
"If I had been a scheming, calculating Yankee, I should have been rich
now; but all my life I have been too generous and confiding. I have
always let principle stand between me and my interests." Mr. Leckler
took himself all too seriously to be conscious of his pun, and went
on: "Now this is a matter in which my duty and my principles seem to
conflict. It stands thus: Josh has been doing a piece of plastering
for Mr. Eckley over in Lexington, and from what he says, I think that
city rascal has misrepresented the amount of work to me and so cut
down the pay for it. Now, of course, I should not care, the matter of
a dollar or two being nothing to me; but it is a very different matter
when we consider poor Josh." There was deep pathos in Mr. Leckler's
tone. "You know Josh is anxious to buy his freedom, and I allow him a
part of whatever he makes; so you see it's he that's affected. Every
dollar that he is cheated out of cuts off just so much from his
earnings, and puts further away his hope of emancipation."
If the thought occurred to Mrs. Leckler that, since Josh received only
about one-tenth of what he earned, the advantage of just wages would
be quite as much her husband's as the slave's, she did not betray it,
but met the naïve reasoning with the question, "But where does the
conflict come in, Mr. Leckler?"
"Just here. If Josh knew how to read and write and cipher—"
"Mr. Leckler, are you crazy!"
"Listen to me, my dear, and give me the benefit of your judgment. This
is a very momentous question. As I was about to say, if Josh knew
these things, he could protect himself from cheating when his work is
at too great a distance for me to look after it for him."
"But teaching a slave—"
"Yes, that's just what is against my principles. I know how public
opinion and the law look at it. But my conscience rises up in
rebellion every time I think of that poor black man being cheated out
of his earnings. Really, Mrs. Leckler, I think I may trust to Josh's
discretion, and secretly give him such instructions as will permit him
to protect himself."
"Well, of course, it's just as you think best," said his wife.
"I knew you would agree with me," he returned. "It's such a comfort to
take counsel with you, my dear!" And the generous man walked out on to
the veranda, very well satisfied with himself and his wife, and
prospectively pleased with Josh. Once he murmured to himself, "I'll
lay for Eckley next time."
Josh, the subject of Mr. Leckler's charitable solicitations, was the
plantation plasterer. His master had given him his trade, in order
that he might do whatever such work was needed about the place; but he
became so proficient in his duties, having also no competition among
the poor whites, that he had grown to be in great demand in the
country thereabout. So Mr. Leckler found it profitable, instead of
letting him do chores and field work in his idle time, to hire him out
to neighboring farms and planters. Josh was a man of more than
ordinary intelligence; and when he asked to be allowed to pay for
himself by working overtime, his master readily agreed,—for it
promised more work to be done, for which he could allow the slave just
what he pleased. Of course, he knew now that when the black man began
to cipher this state of affairs would be changed; but it would mean
such an increase of profit from the outside, that he could afford to
give up his own little peculations. Anyway, it would be many years
before the slave could pay the two thousand dollars, which price he
had set upon him. Should he approach that figure, Mr. Leckler felt it
just possible that the market in slaves would take a sudden rise.
When Josh was told of his master's intention, his eyes gleamed with
pleasure, and he went to his work with the zest of long hunger. He
proved a remarkably apt pupil. He was indefatigable in doing the tasks
assigned him. Even Mr. Leckler, who had great faith in his plasterer's
ability, marveled at the speed which he had acquired the three R's. He
did not know that on one of his many trips a free negro had given Josh
the rudimentary tools of learning, and that since the slave had been
adding to his store of learning by poring over signs and every bit of
print that he could spell out. Neither was Josh so indiscreet as to
intimate to his benefactor that he had been anticipated in his good
It was in this way, working and learning, that a year passed away, and
Mr. Leckler thought that his object had been accomplished. He could
safely trust Josh to protect his own interests, and so he thought that
it was quite time that his servant's education should cease.
"You know, Josh," he said, "I have already gone against my principles
and against the law for your sake, and of course a man can't stretch
his conscience too far, even to help another who's being cheated; but
I reckon you can take care of yourself now."
"Oh, yes, suh, I reckon I kin," said Josh.
"And it wouldn't do for you to be seen with any books about you now."
"Oh, no, suh, su't'n'y not." He didn't intend to be seen with any
books about him.
It was just now that Mr. Leckler saw the good results of all he had
done, and his heart was full of a great joy, for Eckley had been
building some additions to his house, and sent for Josh to do the
plastering for him. The owner admonished his slave, took him over a
few examples to freshen his memory, and sent him forth with glee. When
the job was done, there was a discrepancy of two dollars in what Mr.
Eckley offered for it and the price which accrued from Josh's
measurements. To the employer's surprise, the black man went over the
figures with him and convinced him of the incorrectness of the
payment,—and the additional two dollars were turned over.
"Some o' Leckler's work," said Eckley, "teaching a nigger to cipher!
Close-fisted old reprobate,—I've a mind to have the law on him." Mr.
Leckler heard the story with great glee. "I laid for him that
time—the old fox." But to Mrs. Leckler he said: "You see, my dear
wife, my rashness in teaching Josh to figure for himself is
vindicated. See what he has saved for himself."
"What did he save?" asked the little woman indiscreetly.
Her husband blushed and stammered for a moment, and then replied,
"Well, of course, it was only twenty cents saved to him, but to a man
buying his freedom every cent counts; and after all, it is not the
amount, Mrs. Leckler, it's the principle of the thing."
"Yes," said the lady meekly.
Unto the body it is easy for the master to say, "Thus far shalt thou
go, and no farther." Gyves, chains and fetters will enforce that
command. But what master shall say unto the mind, "Here do I set the
limit of your acquisition. Pass it not"? Who shall put gyves upon the
intellect, or fetter the movement of thought? Joshua Leckler, as
custom denominated him, had tasted of the forbidden fruit, and his
appetite had grown by what it fed on. Night after night he crouched
in his lonely cabin, by the blaze of a fat pine brand, poring over the
few books that he had been able to secure and smuggle in. His
fellow-servants alternately laughed at him and wondered why he did not
take a wife. But Joshua went on his way. He had no time for marrying
or for love; other thoughts had taken possession of him. He was being
swayed by ambitions other than the mere fathering of slaves for his
master. To him his slavery was deep night. What wonder, then, that he
should dream, and that through the ivory gate should come to him the
forbidden vision of freedom? To own himself, to be master of his
hands, feet, of his whole body—something would clutch at his heart as
he thought of it; and the breath would come hard between his lips. But
he met his master with an impassive face, always silent, always
docile; and Mr. Leckler congratulated himself that so valuable and
intelligent a slave should be at the same time so tractable. Usually
intelligence in a slave meant discontent; but not so with Josh. Who
more content than he? He remarked to his wife: "You see, my dear, this
is what comes of treating even a nigger right."
Meanwhile the white hills of the North were beckoning to the chattel,
and the north winds were whispering to him to be a chattel no longer.
Often the eyes that looked away to where freedom lay were filled with
a wistful longing that was tragic in its intensity, for they saw the
hardships and the difficulties between the slave and his goal and,
worst of all, an iniquitous law,—liberty's compromise with bondage,
that rose like a stone wall between him and hope,—a law that degraded
every free-thinking man to the level of a slave-catcher. There it
loomed up before him, formidable, impregnable, insurmountable. He
measured it in all its terribleness, and paused. But on the other side
there was liberty; and one day when he was away at work, a voice came
out of the woods and whispered to him "Courage!"—and on that night
the shadows beckoned him as the white hills had done, and the forest
called to him, "Follow."
"It seems to me that Josh might have been able to get home to-night,"
said Mr. Leckler, walking up and down his veranda; "but I reckon it's
just possible that he got through too late to catch a train." In the
morning he said: "Well, he's not here yet; he must have had to do some
extra work. If he doesn't get here by evening, I'll run up there."
In the evening, he did take the train for Joshua's place of
employment, where he learned that his slave had left the night before.
But where could he have gone? That no one knew, and for the first time
it dawned upon his master that Josh had run away. He raged; he fumed;
but nothing could be done until morning, and all the time Leckler knew
that the most valuable slave on his plantation was working his way
toward the North and freedom. He did not go back home, but paced the
floor all night long. In the early dawn he hurried out, and the hounds
were put on the fugitive's track. After some nosing around they set
off toward a stretch of woods. In a few minutes they came yelping
back, pawing their noses and rubbing their heads against the ground.
They had found the trail, but Josh had played the old slave trick of
filling his tracks with cayenne pepper. The dogs were soothed, and
taken deeper into the wood to find the trail. They soon took it up
again, and dashed away with low bays. The scent led them directly to a
little wayside station about six miles distant. Here it stopped.
Burning with the chase, Mr. Leckler hastened to the station agent.
Had he seen such a negro? Yes, he had taken the northbound train two
"But why did you let him go without a pass?" almost screamed the
"I didn't," replied the agent. "He had a written pass, signed James
Leckler, and I let him go on it."
"Forged, forged!" yelled the master. "He wrote it himself."
"Humph!" said the agent, "how was I to know that? Our niggers round
here don't know how to write."
Mr. Leckler suddenly bethought him to hold his peace. Josh was
probably now in the arms of some northern abolitionist, and there was
nothing to be done now but advertise; and the disgusted master spread
his notices broadcast before starting for home. As soon as he arrived
at his house, he sought his wife and poured out his griefs to her.
"You see, Mrs. Leckler, this is what comes of my goodness of heart. I
taught that nigger to read and write, so that he could protect
himself,—and look how he uses his knowledge. Oh, the ingrate, the
ingrate! The very weapon which I give him to defend himself against
others he turns upon me. Oh, it's awful,—awful! I've always been too
confiding. Here's the most valuable nigger on my plantation
gone,—gone, I tell you,—and through my own kindness. It isn't his
value, though, I'm thinking so much about. I could stand his loss, if
it wasn't for the principle of the thing, the base ingratitude he has
shown me. Oh, if I ever lay hands on him again!" Mr. Leckler closed
his lips and clenched his fist with an eloquence that laughed at
Just at this time, in one of the underground railway stations, six
miles north of the Ohio, an old Quaker was saying to Josh: "Lie
still,—thee'll be perfectly safe there. Here comes John Trader, our
local slave catcher, but I will parley with him and send him away.
Thee need not fear. None of thy brethren who have come to us have ever
been taken back to bondage.—Good-evening, Friend Trader!" and Josh
heard the old Quaker's smooth voice roll on, while he lay back half
smothering in a bag, among other bags of corn and potatoes.
It was after ten o'clock that night when he was thrown carelessly into
a wagon and driven away to the next station, twenty-five miles to the
northward. And by such stages, hiding by day and traveling by night,
helped by a few of his own people who were blessed with freedom, and
always by the good Quakers wherever found, he made his way into
Canada. And on one never-to-be-forgotten morning he stood up,
straightened himself, breathed God's blessed air, and knew himself
To Joshua Leckler this life in Canada was all new and strange. It was
a new thing for him to feel himself a man and to have his manhood
recognized by the whites with whom he came into free contact. It was
new, too, this receiving the full measure of his worth in work. He
went to his labor with a zest that he had never known before, and he
took a pleasure in the very weariness it brought him. Ever and anon
there came to his ears the cries of his brethren in the South.
Frequently he met fugitives who, like himself, had escaped from
bondage; and the harrowing tales that they told him made him burn to
do something for those whom he had left behind him. But these
fugitives and the papers he read told him other things. They said
that the spirit of freedom was working in the United States, and
already men were speaking out boldly in behalf of the manumission of
the slaves; already there was a growing army behind that noble
vanguard, Sumner, Phillips, Douglass, Garrison. He heard the names of
Lucretia Mott and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and his heart swelled, for on
the dim horizon he saw the first faint streaks of dawn.
So the years passed. Then from the surcharged clouds a flash of
lightning broke, and there was the thunder of cannon and the rain of
lead over the land. From his home in the North he watched the storm as
it raged and wavered, now threatening the North with its awful power,
now hanging dire and dreadful over the South. Then suddenly from out
the fray came a voice like the trumpet tone of God to him: "Thou and
thy brothers are free!" Free, free, with the freedom not cherished by
the few alone, but for all that had been bound. Free, with the freedom
not torn from the secret night, but open to the light of heaven.
When the first call for colored soldiers came, Joshua Leckler hastened
down to Boston, and enrolled himself among those who were willing to fight to maintain their freedom. On account of his ability to read
and write and his general intelligence, he was soon made an orderly
sergeant. His regiment had already taken part in an engagement before
the public roster of this band of Uncle Sam's niggers, as they were
called, fell into Mr. Leckler's hands. He ran his eye down the column
of names. It stopped at that of Joshua Leckler, Sergeant, Company F.
He handed the paper to Mrs. Leckler with his finger on the place:
"Mrs. Leckler," he said, "this is nothing less than a judgment on me
for teaching a nigger to read and write. I disobeyed the law of my
state and, as a result, not only lost my nigger, but furnished the
Yankees with a smart officer to help them fight the South. Mrs.
Leckler, I have sinned—and been punished. But I am content, Mrs.
Leckler; it all came through my kindness of heart,—and your mistaken
advice. But, oh, that ingrate, that ingrate!"