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Chapter 6:

  • Aunt Phillis and her Domestic Trials.
  • -- knitting around the fireside. -- tramp, tramp of the spinners

One blustering, drizzling March night at our home in Alabama the two little daughters of Uncle Ben and Aunt Phillis, who, since their early childhood had been brought up in Mr. G--‘s house as servants, came rushing into our room with the startling intelligence that “Daddy's arter mammy; he's got an axe in his hand and says he's gwine ter kill her dis berry night.” Where Phillis was hiding the little girls knew not. She was not in the kitchen, nor in her cabin; neither had she come into the house to her master and mistress. “Her's dodgina 'round to keep out'en daddy's way,” the younger of Phillis's girls declared. We all became deeply interested in Aunt Phillis's troubles, and dropped our knitting and crocheting in severe disapprobation of the way in which Ben was treating his helpmate, and our censure was the more emphasized when we remembered the smutting he had given [77] our dresses. The smaller boys and girls of the household came also into our room to hear Martha and Maria tell of Ben's chasing Phillis around with the axe, and soon we had ten all told around the fire, all gathered close together.

The mournful echoing and reechoing of the March wind as it rushed past in fitful, heavy gusts, sometimes rattling the window panes, then dying away through the dark pine forests that bounded one side of the mansion, added not a little to our excited imaginings, and we lapsed into a kind of dread silence, when all of a sudden an unearthly scream came from just beneath our feet, it seemed, and we sprang up instantly. Martha, who had recognized her mother's voice, at one bound passed through our room door to the rear hall door, which she opened in a twinkling and Aunt Phillis flew into our room. We slammed the door to on the instant, thinking Uncle Ben was at his wife's heels, and that one of us might catch the hurl of the axe intended for Phillis. We braced our shoulders against the door with all our strength, but Uncle Ben was prudent enough not to try to force an entrance. [78]

Mrs. G--, hearing our screams, imagined that the house had caught fire. She sped to our room and reached the door just as we were in the act of slamming it shut, so that it caught her left hand just across the knuckles, and she was held all of a minute before she could make herself heard in the great uproar. The third finger of her left hand was badly crushed, and to this day shows the imprint of that accident. Mr. G-- also hastened to our room, and, finding that Ben was after Phillis with an axe, got his gun, and from the rear hall door peered forth into the bleak night for Ben; but no Ben could be seen or heard. When the Babel-like confusion of our tongues had somewhat stilled, Aunt Phillis was called upon to explain her piercing scream. She said that as she was putting her kitchen in order for breakfast in the morning, Ben had told her he was going to split her head open that very night with the axe, and went to the wood-pile for the axe. Then Aunt Phillis slipped round on the front colonnade next her mistress' room, thinking if Ben should come for her there she could quickly spring into that room. From the [79] front colonnade she saw Ben go into the kitchen axe in hand. Not finding her there, he came out again and went to the rear of the house. Although the night was dark, she imagined her dress was of light enough color to betray her to Ben, should he come on that side of the house. She then thought of our room, which, on account of an incline in the yard toward the front gate, was not raised as high off the ground by two or three feet as the rooms on the front colonnade. Aunt Phillis reasoned that if she crept under the house as far as our room, where a good fire was always burning in the winter time, she could keep warm seated at the base of the chimney, and if need be, sleep there all night, secure from the fury of Ben. So she crawled as far down as our room, and made herself as comfortable as the ground would permit, chuckling the while at Ben's prowling around for her in the raw March wind and rain. She was the more content as she knew her two girls slept in her mistress's room. To use her own words, “I was gitten good and warm ‘gin the bricks oa de chimbley, and feeling sort oa sleepy, soon was nodden. I jest happened to [80] open my eyes as I raised my head of a sudden, and bless God! dar was Ben crawlin‘ right up to me on his knees, wid de axe in his hand. I tell yer, I never knows how I did got out fro‘ under dar.”

Uncle Ben, despite his eccentricities, lives yet on the old plantation with his mistress; but Mr. G-- died years gone by now. No one bears any ill-will, I am sure, to venerable Uncle Ben, not even those of us who well remember his misdeeds; and this episode of those days of civil strife — an episode connected with the two oldest daughters of Mrs. G--, her niece, and myself,--stands out with clear distinctness, though more than twenty years have gone.

While knitting around the fireside one night, talking of what we had done, and could yet accomplish, in industries called into existence by the war and blockade, we agreed then and there that each of us four could and would card and spin enough warp and woof to weave a dress apiece. This proved a herculean task for us, for at that time we barely knew how to card and spin. Mrs. G-- smiled incredulously, we thought, but kindly promised [81] to have the dresses dyed and woven, in case we should card and spin them. The older daughter and I elected to work together. I was to card and spin eighteen yards of warp-nine yards of our wide heavy homespun being then ample enough for one plain dress. Of course we used the same style the whole four years of the war, in our secluded settlement; not a fashion plate or “ladies' magazine” did we see during that entire period, so that we were but little troubled as to “latest styles.” My companion in work was to card and spin eighteen yards of filling. Similarly the other daughter and her cousin agreed as to carding and spinning their warp and woof. We imposed the number of cuts each should spin, agreeing that each should spin one cut every night after our suppers, Saturday night excepted. Every Saturday we were to card and were spin six cuts apiece, till eighteen yards finished.

Inasmuch as it took about six cuts of our soft spun woof to make one yard of thick heavy cloth, and about the same of hard twisted warp, we were not long in numbering the weeks we should be in spinning [82] the four dresses; and of course, going to school or teaching school, and spinning only nights and Saturdays, our progress on the eighteen yards was necessarily slow. We thought, however, that we would have them ready for the loom in ten weeks at the farthest. Mrs. G — said if we had them ready to dye and weave in three or four months we would do well. But there were those who could card and spin from one to two yards of cloth per day and do it easily.

On a certain Monday evening, after we had supper, we began quite merrily the carding and spinning for our four dresses, and made our first cut of thread by the number of rolls we had carded and spun. I remember that seventy rolls carded evenly and smoothly, if of medium size, would reel one cut of thread. We invariably added two or three rolls to the seventy for good measure. Our rolls at first were oddly shaped, often evoking ridicule, but we soon learned to mould them to perfection.

Our first Saturday to spin was looked forward to with great expectations by the four, as six cuts were marked down for [83] that day. I smile even now, as memory wanders back over the tide of years, to think how, all during the week preceding that Saturday, I was resolving in my mind to far outstrip the number of cuts imposed as our task. I kept this resolution all to myself, inwardly chuckling at the grand surprise I was to give them all when the day's work should be finished; and I did give a surprise, too, but in a way that was by no means pleasing to me.

The eagerly wished for Saturday dawned. Two spinning-wheels and two pair of cotton-cards, with a basket of nice white lint cotton, were set in our room before we had risen from bed, according to orders delivered the evening previous; and as the sun rose the hum of the spinning-wheels began, as we had the night before carded enough rolls to supply us with material. Two would be carding rolls and two spinning, and by alternating between carding rolls and spinning, we rested, both as to standing and sitting, discoursing meanwhile what color, or what variety of colors, these self-spun dresses should be dyed; whether plain, plaid, checkered, or striped they should be woven. Now and then the [84] monotony would be enlivened by snatches of song; merry laughs and jests went round; first one and then another of us would cry out above the never-ceasing humming of the wheels, “I know I shall have my six cuts by the time the sun is down;” and I thought to myself, but did not give voice to the words, “Should n't wonder if I have seven cuts or more, when the sun sets.”

Steadily all that Saturday was heard the tramp, tramp, as we marched up and down the floor beside our spinning-wheels. We were glad indeed to see the sun sinking like a huge ball of fire behind the greentopped pines, plain to view from the windows of our room. That evening the words, “The night cometh, when no man can work,” had for us a new meaning. We were more joyful, I believe, as the eve was drawing on, than we had been at dawn. We were wearied, but were in a fever of anxiety to know the result of our steady labor. So diligently had we applied ourselves that two carded and spun while two were at dinner; there had been no cessation of our work.

When the sun set, the whirring ceased, [85] and gathering up our broaches which looked like so many small pyramids, we marched Indian file to the sitting-room for Mrs. G -- to reel the thread we had spun. Our broaches had to be placed in a basket for the thread to be run off as it listed. There was “a scientific way” of running the thread on to the bobbins, which were of corn-husks or thick paper, and placed on the spindle of the wheel for the thread to be run on to form the broach. Any one at all experienced in spinning could so run the thread on the broach that in reeling, the broach being held at the base by the hand, the thread would run smoothly off the apex of the broach without ever a break or tangle to the very last strand. We had not run our thread on the broaches with the same amount of skill we had shown in spinning, hence there was much difficulty in reeling, but before we had finished the thirty-six yards of cloth our broaches ceased to give annoyance.

It was decided by all in the room that my broaches must be the first reeled,how strangely these names sound now, then familiar household words, “broach,” “reel,” “hank,” “rolls,” “card,” “warp,” “web [86] of cloth,” and so on! With no little pride I saw my great day's work sailing round on the reel. At every one hundred and twenty rounds, a sharp click of the reel, and one cut would be told. A thread was looped around that cut, to separate it from the next cut. But as the reel gave the second sharp click, and that cut was looped, I saw with dismay that what was left of my broaches would barely reel another cut. I almost held my breath as the third cut was flying round. “Shades of Pallas!” thought I, “am I to have only three cuts?” Alas! click! only three cuts and a few strands of thread over. How glad I was that I had not voiced in the household my being so sure of seven or more cuts! All were quite mystified for a few moments to know why after such a day's carding and spinning I should have fallen so short of the task allotted each one, and which was fairly within our power. Some of the girls were saying “I think I won't have my broaches reeled.” Mrs. G--, meanwhile, was giving my small hank the necessary loops around the reel before removing, and when she did remove my hank from the reel it rolled a ball of kinks in her hands. [87] Having been warned that the warp, to make it strong, required much more twisting than filling, but being an entire novice in the art, I had given the thread I spun entirely too much twist,--had really put six cuts in three, so that, after all, I had not done so bad a day's work, and could join as heartily as the others in ridiculing my ball of kinks, as it passed from one to another for inspection.

The other warp spinner had not given her thread enough twist to answer for warp, so that it had to be used for woof. Mrs. G--, dear motherly woman that she ever was, knowing how assiduously we had applied ourselves to the card and wheels, and wishing to give encouragement to our undertaking, gave to each of us unfortunates eight cuts of warp so that we also closed that Saturday night rejoicing with the other two spinners, who had made just their number of cuts. But as I lay down to sleep, it was with the thought that the twelve labors of Hercules were as nothing compared to the eighteen yards of warpthread which I had given my pledge to card and spin.

As the novelty of carding and spinning [88] wore off, we often grew weary in our strife, and it is not to be denied that all four of us became heartily sick of our agreement by the time we had carded and spun two weeks at night and two Saturdays, and never another Saturday dawned that found us so eager to spin as did the first one. Each of the four felt inclined to withdraw from the compact, but that was never acknowledged until victory had crowned our efforts.

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