Old Jabe belonged to the Meriwethers, a fact which he never forgot or allowed anyone else to forget; and on this he traded as a capital, which paid him many dividends of one kind or another, among them being a dividend in wives. How many wives he had had no one knew; and Jabe's own account was incredible. It would have eclipsed Henry VIII and Bluebeard. But making all due allowance for his arithmetic, he must have run these worthies a close second. He had not been a specially good "hand" before the war, and was generally on unfriendly terms with the overseers. They used to say that he was a "slick-tongued loafer," and "the laziest nigger on the place." But Jabe declared, in defiance, that he had been on the plantation before any overseer ever put his foot there, and he would outstay the last one of them all, which, indeed, proved to be true. The overseers disappeared with the end of Slavery, but Jabe remained "slick-tongued," oily, and humorous, as before.
When, at the close of the war, the other negroes moved away, Jabez, after a brief outing, "took up" a few acres on the far edge of the plantation, several miles from the house, and settled down to spend the rest of his days, on what he called his "place," in such ease as constant application to his old mistress for aid and a frequently renewed supply of wives could give.
Jabe's idea of emancipation was somewhat one-sided. He had all the privileges of a freed-man, but lost none of a slave. He was free, but his master's condition remained unchanged: he still had to support him, when Jabez chose to call on him, and Jabez chose to call often.
"Ef I don' come to you, who is I got to go to!" he demanded.
This was admitted to be a valid argument, and Jabez lived, if not on the fat of the land, at least on the fat of his former mistress's kitchen, with such aid as his current wife could furnish.
He had had several wives before the war, and was reputed to be none too good to them, a fact which was known at home only on hearsay; for he always took his wives from plantations at a distance from his home.
The overseers said that he did this so that he could get off to go to his "wife's house," and thus shirk work; the other servants said it was because the women did not know him so well as those at home, and he could leave them when he chose.
Jabez assigned a different reason:
"It don' do to have your wife live too nigh to you; she 'll want t' know too much about you, an' you can't never git away from her"—a bit of philosophy the soundness of which must be left to married men.
However it was, his reputation did not interfere with his ability to procure a new wife as often as occasion arose. With Jabez the supply was ever equal to the demand.
Mrs. Meriwether, his old mistress, was just telling me of him one day in reply to a question of mine as to what had become of him; for I had known him before the war.
"Oh! he is living still, and he bids fair to outlast the whole colored female sex. He is a perfect Bluebeard. He has had I do not know how many wives and I heard that his last wife was sick. They sent for my son, Douglas, the doctor, not long ago to see her. However, I hope she is better as he has not been sent for again."
At this moment, by a coincidence, the name of Jabez was brought in by a maid.
"Unc' Jabez, m'm."
That was all; but the tone and the manner of the maid told that Jabez was a person of note with the messenger; every movement and glance were self-conscious.
"That old—! He is a nuisance! What does he want now? Is his wife worse, or is he after a new one?"
"I d' n' kn', m'm," said the maid, sheepishly, twisting her body and looking away, to appear unconcerned. "Would n' tell me. He ain' after me!
"Well, tell him to go to the kitchen till I send for him. Or—wait: if his wife 's gone, he 'll be courting the cook if I send him to the kitchen. And I don't want to lose her just now. Tell him to come to the door."
"Yes, 'm." The maid gave a half-suppressed giggle, which almost became an explosion as she said something to herself and closed the door....