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James Baldwin

"Shades of the Prison House"

G OING to school was to me in some respects like reading a new book of surpassing interest—it was a tale of which I never grew tired. Each day brought some new experiences, opened up a new vista of life however narrow, added a little to my scant stock of learning, and alas! led me, step by step, out of and away from the garden of innocence.

My progress in book study was not retarded by any so-called system of gradation. I was my own class, and I shared it with none. I studied what I liked, I recited as often as I was ready, and my advancement was in proportion to my diligence. Within five weeks I had completed the study of geography so far as it was laid down in my Parley Book,  and the master announced that I was ready for an advanced work on that subject. I had also ciphered to the Rule of Three, which was as far as Benjamin Barnacle had agreed in his "article" to pilot me. The great ocean of knowledge was spread out before me, and I eagerly availed myself of every opportunity to pick up a pebble or two along the shore.

It was hard for me to join with the other children in the games and plays with which they amused themselves at the recesses and the noon intermissions. Having always been so much alone, I shrank from intimacy with those of my kind, and my inherent shyness caused me to shun companionship. Besides all this, not being used to the rudeness which prevailed on the playground, I felt that the better part of valor was to keep myself aloof from it. And so, while the other boys and girls were romping with all the energy of young savages, and boiling over with the joy which they derived from it, I—poor, foolish fellow—stood alone on the outskirts of the playground and watched them, sometimes enjoying the sight of their pleasure, sometimes betraying myself because I was by nature so unlike them in tastes and inclinations.

The games most favored by the boys were ball games, the very names of which are now generally forgotten. The best of all was called "town ball." It was played by the larger boys, and was the exact prototype of your baseball, lacking only those features which give it its scientific precision. Then there was "three old cat," a very simple game with three batters and three catchers, the catchers serving also as pitchers. But the most barbaric of all was "bull pen," a game which required but little skill, save quickness, and appealed to the savagest instincts of the players. The boys stand in a ring around one of their number who has volunteered to be the first "bull." A ball, large and very hard, is tossed from one to another, the bull keeping constantly on the alert. Presently, however, something occurs to throw him off his guard, and the ball is hurled at him with all the strength which his antagonist can muster. If he escapes being hit, his antagonist takes his place as bull. If the ball strikes him he must get hold of it as soon as possible and hit some other boy who forthwith takes his place; or, failing in this, he must continue in the ring and take the chances of being hit again. And that is the entire game, a relic no doubt of primitive barbarism.

The girls also had their own innocent little games, such as "ring around a rosy" and "I spy" and "pizen" and "blindman's buff." These I shall not attempt to describe, for doubtless they will have survived to your day, my dear Leona, and you will know more about them than I can tell you.

As the days went by, the boys and girls gradually became less shy of one another, and soon games were inaugurated in which both could engage with equal enjoyment. These games, having none of the elements of rudeness or danger that characterized the ball plays, were much better adapted to my timid ways, and, little by little, I was induced to take part in them. The one known as "black man" was particularly interesting. It was no doubt as ancient as civilization, and was simply a drama without words wherein one of the children assumed the part of the Old Feller and proceeded to harry and capture the other players who must run from one "base" to the next to escape him. Those whom he caught became his allies and were obliged to assist him in his nefarious warfare. Another game, somewhat similar, was called "prison base." It also was a dramatization, representing a state of warfare between savage tribes, the capture of prisoners and their attempted rescue. The game was ended when one tribe was totally destroyed by the other. It was of course great fun for the boys to make prisoners of the girls; and no doubt the girls enjoyed the chase and the capture—as they do even to this day.

At the very time, however, when my pleasure might have been the greatest—because I was gradually learning to be like other children—it was spoiled by the folly of poor Mary Price. If I took the part of the Old Feller in the game of "black man," she would immediately throw herself in my way and insist upon being caught. If I ignored her, the other scholars would jeer at me; if I made her my easy captive they would laugh and hint at shameful things. It was the same way in the game of "base"—Mary Price was always either my willing prisoner or my most zealous lieutenant. Her eyes were on me always; I felt that we were both fast becoming the laughing-stock of the school.

One cold day, when there were but few scholars in attendance and the weather made it impossible to play out-of-doors, we were all gathered around the stove during recess, to keep warm. Some were talking, some were quietly playing, and others—myself among them—were improving the time by studying the next lesson in spelling. Suddenly I was surprised and shocked beyond measure by feeling a pair of fat arms thrown around my neck. Oh, the confusion, the awful embarrassment, the flood of sudden anger that overwhelmed me! I knew whose arms they were. I reached up quickly with both my hands and dug my sharp fingernails into them with a ferocity that would have done credit to a catamount. There was a suppressed little shriek, a sob, and the arms, dripping blood, were quickly withdrawn.

I glanced sullenly and savagely around. O my dear Leonidas, my dear Leona, would you believe that your venerable ancestor was capable of such a thing? A million years of regret can never obliterate from my mental vision the look that was in poor Mary's eyes. It indicated neither anger nor pain—it was the look, I fancied, of a broken heart. Did I repent of my thoughtless act? Yea, verily, and in sackcloth and ashes. It was the meanest act of my life, a beastly act, and the memory of it rankles in my heart even now. But Mary Price never again threw herself in my way, never again smiled at me nor manifested any admiration for me. She grew up and married early and became the mother of many children and the grandmother of a host. It is probable that in her matronly years she forgot her childish flame and her cruel disappointment.

If the miserable affair had ended with the commission of the deed, I too might have forgotten it, just as I have forgotten many another momentary lapse into a state of savagery. But there were witnesses of it, and many days elapsed ere they suffered me to hear the last word about it. I was quite sure that Benjamin Barnacle saw the transaction, and I expected to receive from his hands the trouncing which I so richly deserved. But when I ventured to look shamefacedly toward his desk, he was bending over and giving some private instruction to his class in English grammar—a class that was now composed of only one scholar, Lena Bouncer, the two other young women having found the study too difficult for their comprehension. I was at that moment in a thoroughly fighting mood, all the evil passions within me having been awakened, and had he undertaken to "correct" me, there would have been a scene; but, with all his weaknesses, Benjamin Barnacle was a prudent master. He knew when to be blind.

Not so with some of the older scholars. They had little sympathy with foolish Mary, but they had less sympathy with bearish me. The girls contented themselves with pointing their fingers at me and hissing, "For shame! for shame!" And some of the boys, with whom I had never been very friendly, were much less considerate of my feelings. They nicknamed me the Cat, and whenever I appeared on the playground they greeted me with a series of mewings and caterwaulings that made my blood boil and stirred up my savage instincts until if murder was not in my heart it was certainly close by. At such times the friendly protecting arm and voice of big, jovial Ikey Bright proved most welcome and most effectual.

But one day Ikey was absent, and at the noon intermission my tormentors began to make life particularly disagreeable to me. There were only three or four of them, all the other boys being neutral or my silent partisans; but these rude fellows gave their entire energies to the task of annoying me.

"Meow! meow! meow!" they cried in concert.

"Hiss, cat! hiss, cat! hiss-s-s-s!" gibed their leader, a rude boy of my own size, whose name was Timothy Bray.

"Trim the tomcat's claws!" shouted another. "Trim his claws!" And they all laughed.

O my Leonidas! do you think I was not fighting mad? Well, if you had seen the sticks and stones that were presently flying through the air, you would not have the least doubt of it. But what did that avail? Timothy and his crowd were good dodgers, having had practice in the bull-pen ring, and not a single missile reached its mark; and the more furious I became, the more exasperating were my adversaries.

Then Jake Dobson, past master in all sorts of underhand tricks, cried out, "If you fellers want to fight Bob Dudley, why don't you come at him, one at a time? You're afeard. You're cowards."

They paused with their jeering, and came nearer; and I, with my back against a tree, stood at bay and glared at them.

" 'Tain't fair for four to pick on one," continued Jake; "but you do it 'cause you're afeard of him."

Timothy began to chuckle, and when one of his fellows ventured to cry out "Hiss, cat!" I thrust at him fiercely with my fist.

"Take keer! He's a goin' to scratch!" shouted the biggest boy in the school.

By this time I was foaming with rage. All the fighting instincts of the Dudleys—instincts that had lain pent up and repressed through five generations of non-combatants for conscience' sake—were aroused and coursing through my veins.

"Has any of you got a chip?" asked Jake Dobson.

"Here's one," said a small boy, stooping to pick it up from the ground.

"Gimme it," commanded Jake. He took the chip in his hand, turned it over, spat on one side of it, and then laid it on my shoulder.

"Now, Tim," he said, "I'll bet thee don't dare to knock that chip off'n Bob's forequarter."

Timothy advanced sidewise toward me, and when within a convenient distance, swept his hand around and sent the chip flying to the ground. In a moment I was upon him. I didn't know anything about fighting, being a non-combatant by birth and having never seen a performance of that sort; but all my energies were directed to the one effort to disable my enemy. For perhaps two brief seconds the air around us was luminous with the exhalations of wrath. I smote Timothy on the cheek; he tripped me up; we were rolling on the ground—and then suddenly a silence as of the grave pervaded the place of combat, and a hand that was not Timothy's grasped the collar of my wawmus, and lifted me to my feet. At the same time, a voice that was neither loud nor angry, but nevertheless terrible as an army with banners, spoke up and said:

"Come, boys! We will go into the house a while and try to cool ourselves off."

The master led us both into the schoolhouse and directed us to take our accustomed seats and remain there until he should see fit to have a season with us. Then he closed the door with a decisive warning to the other scholars not to approach the house until books was called.

In a state of deep contrition I sat down and bowed my head forward upon the desk. My heart was very bitter, and the world seemed indeed a cheerless place without one ray of comfort to illume its dreary wastes. During the first few moments the schoolroom was so still that I could hear the despondent breathings of my fallen adversary a dozen feet away. Then I heard the master's footsteps returning to his platform; and a slight rustling, as of the leaves of a book, reminded me that the class in English grammar was probably waiting to say its lesson. I raised my head a little and looked. Yes, there was the class, sitting by the master's desk; and the master was in the act of leaning over to look into Goold Brown's Institutes of English Grammar  which the class was holding in its hands. Then in my misery I again dropped my head upon the desk and gave way to desperate musings.

I was no longer angry. I had given Timothy a bloody cheek and was ready to make up with him. But what was the use? I was disgraced. Never again, so long as life endured, would I find pleasure in books or play, in school or home. My brief race had been run; henceforth there was nothing in store for me but labor and sorrow.

Then I heard a voice. It was that of the class in English grammar, otherwise called Lena Bouncer; but she was not saying her lesson.

"I don't think the boys will give any more trouble," I heard her say. "Why not make 'em promise to be good and then let 'em go out? They need the fresh pure air."

"But they were fighting," I heard the master softly reply. "They were bad, extremely bad, and they must be punished."

"They are both usually so good! I'm sure they didn't mean it," said the other voice. "Why not have a little season with 'em right now, and then let 'em go? I cain't recite my lesson with their sad faces before me."

"Thee is a pretty good counselor," returned the master; "and I think I will follow thy advice." Then raising his voice, he said in quite other tones, "Timothy! Robert! Both of you come forward."

We rose sulkily, reluctantly; and Timothy, seeing the long hickory on the wall, and in imagination feeling it on his tender rear parts, began to whimper.

"Don't cry, boys," said tender-hearted Lena. "Come up here and see what the master will say to you."

"Yes, come forward!" said Benjamin, not unkindly.

We shambled up to his desk, hanging our heads and feeling very penitent.

"Now, boys," said the master in a jolly mood, "I'm going to let you off easy this time; but if it happens again, I'll give it to you double. Robert, look at Timothy. Timothy, look at Robert. Now, shake hands like two good little Friends."

We obeyed him, and immediately felt better.

"Robert, does thee forgive Timothy?"

I nodded my head.

"Timothy, does thee forgive Robert?"

He assented in like manner.

"Now, boys, do you both promise that you will never again say an unkind word the one to the other, or do an unkind act the one to the other?"

We raised our heads and each bravely, but faintly, answered "Yes!"

Then Lena came with her handkerchief and would have wiped our eyes had we not resented the indignity.

"The poor dears," she said, "I knowed that they didn't mean to be naughty."

"Now, boys," said the master, "you may go out and play, remembering your promise. But be sure not to make any unnecessary noise, and don't linger around the door; for the class in English grammar is going to recite."

Timothy, with an air of mingled humility, thankfulness and joy, strode quickly to the door, opened it and was soon regaling the other boys with a dreadful tale of the master's wrath. But I hesitated and hung back. The prospect of another half-hour on the playground that day was not in the least alluring. I felt sure that my appearance there would be immediately greeted with cat-calls from all the other boys, and that I would again be goaded to anger, and perhaps be forced to engage in another miserable fight. There was no longer an ounce of courage in my body. Having already disgraced myself twice through being mastered by my hot temper, I had no heart to risk another fall. So, instead of availing myself of the master's permission to go out and play, I went stiffly back to my seat, opened the Parley Book  at the next lesson, bent over it with my elbows on the desk and made a brave show of studying.

"Robert!" It was the master's voice, but I pretended not to hear.

"Robert, ain't thee going out to play?"

I made a faint negative motion of the head, but without raising my eyes.

"Robert, I want thee to go out and play."

The voice was sharper and more decisive; but it served only to increase my determination not to obey the master's wishes. There was a sound of footsteps—Old Benny was coming to enforce obedience—but I did not look up. I was resolved that, if he chose, he might tear my limbs from my body and throw me piecemeal out of doors to be reviled by my tormentors, but never would I voluntarily place myself in their power. The steps came nearer, and again the master's hand sought the collar of my wawmus.

What might have happened had there been no interference, it is useless to surmise. But at that decisive moment, the class in English grammar with pleading voice cried out:

"Oh, Benjamin, the little feller is afraid. Please let him stay. He will be very still, and I'm sure he won't interrupt us."

The master made no reply, and I heard him return to his table. I looked up, but the high desk in front of me hid both him and his class from view. I sat very still, listening to the shouts and the merry laughter of the children on the playground. Boys and girls were playing "black man" together, and I was forgotten.

Then I was aware that the class in English grammar had begun to recite, speaking low and softly as if desirous not to disturb my meditations. I peeped around the projecting corner of my desk and saw the master, this time sitting beside the class and holding the grammar book in his hand. The recitation proceeded. It consisted of the repetition of something which the class had memorized verbatim from Goold Brown's immortal work. It was interesting and musical, and I listened.

Like a love-lorn whippoorwill on a midsummer's night, the class never once stopped to take breath as it recited the world-old paradigm: "First person, I love; second person, thou lovest; third person, he loves—"

"The potential," interrupted the master.

The class proceeded: "First person, I may love; second person, thou mayst love—"

Master: "Yes! yes! The emphatic form?"

Class: "First person—first person—"

Master: "I do love."

Class: "Yes! Second person, thou dost love; third—"

Master: "Never mind the third person. Give the progressive, interrogative. First person—"

Class: "Art thou loving?"

Master: "Next, the progressive, positive, first person—" Class: "I am loving; second person, thou art loving."

Master: "That's right; let's keep on. Future, interrogative, second person—"

Class: "Wilt thou love? First person—"

Master: "Yes, yes! I will love! I do love! Plural—Shall—"

Class: "Shall we love!"

Master: "Certainly. That's right. We do love!"

And then,—O my dear Leonidas, my dear Leona, tell it not in Gath, publish it not in Askelon—there was a sound like that of a cork twisted quickly from the neck of a peppermint bottle, after which the master rose and took two or three steps forward to ascertain if I were really asleep as I pretended to be.

"Poor little fellow!" said the class in English grammar. "He ain't used to fightin', and he's all worn out with the excitement."

"How fast the minutes fly!" exclaimed the master, looking at his great watch. "I declare, it's time to take up books again."

And ferule in hand, he strode to the door, rapped lustily in his usual manner, and repeated the old familiar cry:

"Books! books! books!"

Contrary to my fears, the scholars seemed no longer to remember my unseemly exhibitions of bad temper. They looked at me kindly, spoke to me in the old familiar manner, and refrained from any allusions to the unfortunate incidents of the day. Even Timothy Bray and his backers manifested their compunction by being more friendly than at any former time; and not one voice was raised to call me a "tomcat" or to hiss me into a state of unreasoning fury.

Nevertheless, there was still one scholar who kept me in a state of disquietude and was my bête noir  every day of my life. That scholar was Jake Dobson. He overwhelmed me with attentions; he was profuse in his expressions of admiration; he was never tired of slobbering over me. But all his services, all his praises, all his flattery were, as I soon learned, mere preludes to induce me to swap something of mine for something of his.

In his absence, I hated him, I resolved to shun him, I made all sorts of plans to circumvent and out-trick him, I hoped against hope that something dreadful might happen to him. In his presence, I found him so humble, so devoted to my interests, so persuasive in his manners, that I was irresistibly drawn into whatsoever net he chose to spread for me. And so, I was never done swapping with him. It was in vain that Ikey Bright warned me, in vain that I resolved and re-resolved to resist his blandishments; I was his helpless and not unwilling victim. I swapped six of my beautiful striped marbles for an old white taw with holes in it. The remaining three marbles I swapped for a sling-shot, which I broke and threw away the next day. I swapped the old white taw back to Jake for three brass buttons with a fox's head on them in relief. Then he offered to swap me a peck of walnuts for the brass buttons, and after the trade was consummated I discovered that every walnut was rotten. Thus, at the end of the fourth week, I found myself utterly bankrupt, all of my possessions, except my books, having been transferred to Jake Dobson, the millionaire in embryo. Even the horn buttons on my wawmus and the brass buckles on my "galluses" were sacrificed to the greed of this young Shylock.

One evening as Ikey Bright and I were wending our way homeward in the gathering twilight we saw a small animal dragging itself across the open road at a little distance ahead of us.

"Be careful!" said Ikey. "I think it is a polecat and it's making believe hurt, so as to play a trick on us."

I ran forward, however, and soon discovered that it was a large squirrel which had been wounded in such a way as to render his hind legs useless. He struggled painfully forward through the dust and the roadside weeds, evidently trying to reach a tree that was near by; but how did the poor creature hope to climb any tree with only his two front paws to cling by?

"Don't touch him, he'll bite!" shouted Ikey, seeing that I was bent on picking him up.

But I was on familiar terms with the timid beasts of the woods; and feeling that they understood me, I had little fear of any of them. The crippled fellow struggled valiantly to escape, and then faced about and feebly offered fight. I reached down to seize him, but was not quick enough. He leaped suddenly upward and fastened his four long incisors in the fleshy part of my hand. The pain was intense; but I knew how to disengage him, which I did without unnecessary roughness.

"Why don't you choke him to death?" cried Ikey, seeing the blood dripping from my hand.

"Oh, he didn't mean to hurt me," I answered. "See how gentle he is." And, indeed, he had ceased all resistance and was cuddling softly in my arms as though conscious he had met a friend.

"Look at him, Ikey," I said. "I do believe he is our old Esau."

"He knows how to bite, anyhow," said Ikey.

We examined the little creature as he snuggled, panting and trembling, in the folds of my wawmus sleeve. Yes, he was red and hairy like his Scriptural namesake; and there were the two brown streaks over his eyes, and the white spot on the tip of his tail, and the little notch in his ear that his brother Jacob had made when they were both very little.

"It is Esau!" I cried. "There's no mistake about it. He's come home again to be with his friends."

"But look at your hand, how it's bleeding," said Ikey. "Here, let me wrap my handkerchief round it."

I submitted to his kind surgery, and then with Esau in my bosom, hastened homeward.

It was almost a year since I had last seen my old pets and playmates romping about in the freedom of the big woods, and I was overjoyed to recover one of them if only for a little while. Esau manifested no disposition to escape. We made a warm nest for him in the loft, close by the boys' bed, where he could sit and look out if he chose through the crack between two clapboards. Mother, after she had poulticed and bandaged my wounded hand, tried to bind up his poor broken legs—broken by a shot from some cruel rifle—but he would have none of it. He would be his own surgeon, as all wild animals are; and if we would only give him rest and quiet and plenty of food, he would heal himself. So we fed him well, and every morning I carried him out into the yard and to the cherry trees where he used to gambol; and he appeared to understand it all and to be content. His wounds healed rapidly, and he was soon able to make little excursions about the house all alone.

Then, one day, very thoughtlessly, I happened to tell Jake Dobson about him. From that moment I had no peace, but was constantly beset with propositions to swap Esau for some marbles, for a top, for a knife without blades, for anything that Jake happened to possess. To all these propositions, however, I turned a deaf ear, Esau remained safe in his snug warm quarters in the loft, and I felt very proud that I was his protector.

Soon Jake came with a new proposition; for he understood my ruling passion, and in his small way he was as skilled in temptation as Mephistopheles or Satan.

"Say, Bob," he whispered in school one morning; "I've got a new book at home. Aunt Mahaly, she fetched it to me from Sin Snatty for my birthday present."

"What kind of book is it?" I asked.

"Oh, it's a big book full of verses and pieces about animals and trees and kings and good little boys, and such things. And there's lots of picters in it. But I don't keer for it. It's too hard readin' for me."

"What's the name of it?"

"The Book of Jims."

"What a funny name! I wish I could see it."

"Well, I'll give thee a chance to see it and to own it if thee wants to. I'll fetch it over to school to-morrow, if thee would like to swap for it."

I suspected his plan and resolved to thwart it. But the thought of a new book was overpowering.

"Fetch it anyhow," I said; "but I hain't got anything to swap for it."

"How about that there squeerel?"

"I wouldn't swap Esau for anything in the world."

"All right, Bob; thee needn't. But I'll tell thee what. Thee would like to see the book and I would like to see the squeerel. So, if thee'll fetch the little critter to school to-morrow, I'll fetch the Book of Jims,  and we'll both be tickled."

"But it's against the rules, and Old Benny won't allow it," I protested.

"Old Benny won't know nothin' about it," he answered. "We'll fetch 'em and hide 'em out till recess; and then we'll sneak off from the other boys, and look at 'em. I dare thee to fetch the squeerel, Bob."

Was there ever a boy who would back down on a dare? Besides, I was burning with the desire to see what that Book of Jims  was like. So, I said, "All right, Jake! I'll do it."

The next morning, therefore, I secretly enticed poor Esau to come and sit on my shoulder in expectation of a nut. Then I treacherously seized him and thrust him into the little old box cage which David had made for him and his brother when he captured them for me in their infancy. He could scarcely turn himself around in his cramped quarters, but I had grown so hardened that I felt no pity for him; and when he put one little paw out through the wires and turned his large dark eyes up toward me, as though asking the reason for my rough behavior, I was moved to no compunctions but rather to feelings of anger toward the helpless dumb creature.

I looked, guiltily, toward the cabin door. No one had seen me. Like a cowardly thief, I quickly tucked the cage under my arm, picked up my dinner bucket, and started sneakingly to school. As I was opening the gate, I heard mother calling me from the door of the weavin'-room:

"What's thee going to school so early for?"

"I have to," I answered without turning round. "Benjamin told me I must come early and do my sums on the blackboard!"

Oh, my dear Leonidas! that was not the kind of lie that good Friend William had in mind when he counseled my mother not to worry if I sometimes enlarged the truth. And was it a vivid imagination, or was it a guilty conscience that enabled me to see the Old Feller, that morning, grinning at me from behind every tree as I strode doggedly along the lonely road?

That evening when I returned home, I did not go directly into the house, as was my custom, but sneaked around to the weavin'-room. It was late, and so dark that even the loom was invisible. I groped my way across to the farther end of the little enclosure, and there, after making sure that no person could see me, I knelt and lifted a loose puncheon from the floor. Then I unbuttoned my wawmus and from beneath its folds drew a book—the Book of Jims—which I inserted into the open space and effectually concealed by returning the loose puncheon to its place.

When I entered the cabin a few moments later, the family were at supper.

"Robert, does thee know what's become of Esau?" inquired Cousin Mandy Jane. "We hain't seen nothin' of the pore critter all day long."

"How do I know where he is?" I whined, feeling very sulky and cross. Then I thought of something that I had read in an old book: "Am I my brother's keeper?" And I felt like Cain.

Mother, being always quick to discern every species of trouble, looked at me with sympathetic eyes. "I guess Robert ain't very well to-night," she remarked. "It's too hard for him to traipse all the way to the Dry Forks and back every day; he ain't strong enough."

And just before the chapter reading began, she poulticed my hand anew and obliged me to bathe my feet in hot water and drink a cupful of hot pennyroyal tea.