The Tragedy of Rozillah
“Just look at her now, Molly!
Isn’t she the sweetest thing you ever saw?”
Molly, that is, Myself, sitting on
the door-step, elbows on knees and shoulders hunched
sullenly up to my ears, did not budge or speak.
Before my gloomy eyes was the kitchen
yard, a gray and gritty expanse, with never a tree
or bush to shade it except the lilac hedge bounding
it on the garden side, and one sickly peach tree growing
at the corner of “the house.” Three
hens and one rooster were scratching about the flat
stone at the kitchen door.
On the other three sides of the house
were rustling boughs and cool grass and flower-beds.
It suited my humor to sit in the scanty strip of shadow
cast by the eaves, my feet upon the step that had soaked
in the noonday heat, and to be as wretched as a five-year-old
could make herself, with a sharp sense of injury boring
like a bit of steel into her small soul. The
room behind me was my mother’s the
“chamber” of the Southern home. A
big four-poster, hung with dimity curtains, stood in
the farther corner. The dimity valance, trimmed,
like the curtains, with ball fringe, hid the trundle-bed
that was pulled out at night for Mary ’Liza
and me to sleep in. At the foot of the bed was
my baby brother’s cradle. As Mam’
Chloe was walking with him in the garden, it should
have been empty. Whereas, Mary ’Liza was
putting her doll-baby to sleep in it. We said
“doll-baby” in those days. There was
Musidora, my rag-baby, who was a beauty when she was
She was not old now, but Fate had
been unkind to her. Twice I had left her out-of-doors
all night. The first time was when I laid her
at the foot of a particularly tall corn-stalk, telling
her that I would return presently, but could not find
her at all when I went back. I was up and out
early next morning and “found her indeed, but
it made my heart bleed,” for a field mouse with
six acres of roasting-ears to choose from had
made his supper on the bran that served my poor Musidora
for brains, nibbling a hole in the exact region of
the medulla oblongata. My mother plugged
the cranium with raw cotton and stitched up the wound,
and the dear patient was doing better than could be
expected, when there was a thunder-storm and Musidora
was on a bench in the summer-house. The rain
lasted all night, and I could not go out again.
One immediate and obvious consequence
of this adventure was that there was nothing left
of Musidora’s features except her eyebrows, which
were laid on with indelible ink instead of water-colors.
She hung, head downward, in front of the kitchen fire
for twelve hours before she was thoroughly dry.
My mother “indicated” eyes, nose, and mouth
with pen-and-ink, but the effect was flat and mournful.
While I sat in the door that evening,
putting on Musidora’s night-gown, I overheard
Mam’ Chloe say to my mother:
“I declar’ to gracious,
Miss Ma’y Anna, you ought to buy that chile
a sure-’nough doll-baby while you are in town.
It f’yar breaks my heart to see how much store
she sets by that po’ wrack of a rag thing
she’s got thar.”
My mother’s reply was so low
that I did not catch it, but her tone was not unpromising.
I said nothing to her, or to anybody of what I had
heard. Only, of course, Musidora and I talked
it all over. I assured her that she was going
to have a beautiful sister who would love her and
play with her and tell her stories of the wonderful
city, and of how happy we three should be together.
My father and mother went away to
Richmond. They took the baby with them, and Mary
’Liza and I were sent to my Aunt Eliza Carter’s
to stay until they returned, when Cousin Molly Belle
took us back home and told my mother before my face
that I had been as “good as gold.”
“I am very glad to hear it,”
said my mother, giving me a squeeze and kiss.
“I was afraid she might be troublesome.
She is not as steady as Mary ’Liza, you know.
I have something nice in my trunk for each of my daughters.”
She always spoke of us in that way,
although Mary ’Liza was her niece, and an orphan.
She was seven now, and the pattern child of the county.
Pretty, too, with a fair skin and shiny braids of golden
hair, and innocent blue eyes, and dimpled arms, and
fluffy, kittenish ways, while I was as lean as a snake,
as brown as a chinquapin, and as wild as a hawk.
I was used to hearing myself compared to all three.
Mary ’Liza could read in the New Testament without
stopping to spell a word, at three, and write in a
copy-book at five, and do sums on the slate at six,
and at seven was as much company to my mother as if
she had been seventeen. In a word, my cousin
was “a comfort.” I was often called
Yet, as I can honestly affirm, I had
never known, until this black day when Cousin Molly
Belle took me home, what it was to be envious.
I was not exactly fond of my cousin, yet we seldom
disagreed openly. She wore clean frocks and liked
to stay indoors and piece bedquilts and knit stockings
and read aloud to my mother. I never willingly
spent an hour in the house when I could get out, and
had odd plays of my own which I kept secret from Mary
’Liza because I was sure she would be shocked,
or laugh at them. I fully recognized the claims
of orphanhood to the buttered side of life, and that
a girl who had no father or mother deserved to be
cared for by everybody else.
My parents had arrived late at night,
and the trunk was unpacked with much ceremony the
next morning. Under my mother’s best new
dresses was a long pasteboard box which she opened,
smiling at our expectant faces. From it she drew
the biggest, prettiest doll-baby we had ever seen,
in a blue silk frock with a sash to match. She
had real hair, curly and black as a coal, and round
black eyes and a cherry-ripe mouth. I reached
out both hands, and a cry of rapture rushed from my
heart to my lips an inarticulate gurgle
of ineffable happiness.
My mother did not see my gesture.
I hope she did not hear the cry. She laid the
doll-baby in Mary ’Liza’s arms.
“Mrs. Hutcheson, who was your
mother’s dearest friend, sent that to you with
For me there was a trumpery book,
with very few pictures, and a good deal of reading
in it also from Mrs. Hutcheson.
“She thought it might coax you
to learn how to read. I was ashamed to have to
say that my little girl does not know her letters yet,”
said my much-tried parent. “And your father
brought you a Noah’s Ark.”
I received book and Ark without a
word, and marched toward the door, my heart ready
“What do you say for your presents, Molly?”
I stood stock-still, my eyes on the floor.
My mother quietly and sorrowfully took the painted
Ark from my hand.
“When you can say ‘thank
you,’ and stop pouting, you can have it back,”
she said, in gentle severity.
I dashed from the room around the
house to the end porch. It was high enough for
me to stand upright under it and the sides were screened
by a climbing sweetbrier. I had often played
Daniel in the lion’s den there, assisted by
a caste of small colored children. They were the
lions, I, with the choice of parts, electing invariably
to play the persecuted and finally triumphant biped.
The fury of forty wild beasts was in my heart, as
I pushed aside the prickly branches and crept into
my lair. The den was paved with bricks, loosely
laid. With a pointed stick I pried one up, and
scooped out with my hands a grave deep enough to hold
the hateful book with the few pictures and the much
reading. I thrust it in without benefit of clergy,
hustled the earth back upon it, pounded the brick
into place, and lay flat down upon the dishonored tomb.
Mam’ Chloe found me there at
dinner-time, fast asleep. She dragged me back
to consciousness and the open air by the heels.
Not in wanton cruelty, but she was a large woman,
and could get at me in no other way. While she
washed and made me decent in clean frock, apron, and
pantalettes, she scolded me for my “low-lived,
onladylike ways,” and warned me of her solemn
intention to “tell my mother on me,” the
next time such a disgraceful thing happened.
I did not mind the lecture. I knew Mam’
Chloe, and she (Heaven rest her white, faithful soul
in the Kingdom where the bond are free!) knew me,
I verily believe, better than the mother that bore
Toilet and tirade ended, she slid
me, as she might a proscribed book, through a crack
in the side-door into the dining room, where Uncle
Ike, her husband, was in waiting. He, in turn,
smuggled me behind my mother’s back to the side-table,
there being no room for us children at the main board
None of the dozen grown-up diners
noticed me, or that Mary ’Liza, sitting prim
and dainty on her side of our table, had her doll by
her in another chair, and interrupted her meal, once
in a while, to caress her or to re-arrange her curls
and skirts. I affected not to see the pantomime,
which I chose to assume was enacted for my further
exasperation. I was apparently as indifferent
to Uncle Ike’s shameless partiality in loading
my plate with choice tidbits, such as a gizzard, a
merry-thought, or a cheese-cake, while Mary ’Liza
had to ask twice for what she wanted. What was
not tasteless was bitter to my palate. I wondered,
dully, why the sight of the doll-baby and the fuss
her owner made over her, turned me sick. As soon
as I could get away, I slipped down, and out at the
friendly side-door, and went to find Musidora.
There was a new bond of union between us. She
had no beautiful sister, I no beautiful daughter.
Sitting down upon the hot step, before the kitchen
yard, I hugged her hard and cried a little over her,
in a brief, stormy way. The tears hurt me, as
they came, and did not ease the hot ache in my chest
or the lump in my throat.
At this juncture, when my misery was
at its height, I heard Mary ’Liza in the chamber
behind me, cooing to, and hushing her doll-baby, with
tones and words copied faithfully from my mother’s
talk over my brother’s cradle.
“Wouldn’t you like to
rock her a little while?” she called presently.
“I wouldn’t mind if you’d promise
not to touch her. Sometimes your hands are not
clean, you know.”
I set my jaws savagely outside of
my leaping tongue, not moving or looking up when I
felt her standing close by me. Musidora had dropped
from my lap, and lay, face downward, on the step.
Mary ’Liza picked her up, and brushed the dust
from her inexpressive visage.
“Poor thing!” purred she.
“I hope nothing will ever happen to Rozillah.
Isn’t that a love-el-ly? I made it
out of my own head from Rosa and Zillah, two love-el-ly
girls I read of in a book.”
“I think it is a nasty name,” was my deliberate
She recoiled with a fine horror which stung me like
“Oh, Molly! what a word for a little lady to
I looked up at her for the first time, my eyes burning
in dry sockets.
“I think your doll-baby is nasty,
and Rozillah is a nigger name! So there!”
I could command no worse language, for I knew none.
Mary ’Liza looked shocked and
terrified. She glanced right and left and upward
nervously, as fearing the punishment of heaven upon
“I am afraid that you are in
a very bad humor,” she faltered, her self-possession
forsaking her for a moment. “I’d better
She had gone a dozen paces when she
glanced over her shoulder to say, in her most grown-up
and judicial manner:
“I hope you will not make any
noise and wake Rozillah up.”
I rose and went straight to the cradle
as soon as my cousin was out of sight. Cold,
deadly fury possessed and filled me, casting out fear
of consequences and routing the weakling conscience
engendered and nourished by parental counsel.
I plucked Rozillah from her downy bed and bore her
into the air, cuffing her polished red cheeks soundly
on the way. Then I stripped off her gay raiment
and knotted the ribbon sash about her smooth neck.
I had never tied a knot before, but this held, as
did the loop I cast over a projecting branch of the
sickly peach-sapling. Naked and forlorn, Rozillah
dangled a foot and more from the ground. I fetched
my father’s riding-whip from the hall table,
and the last feeble check upon my fury was released.
The next I knew a pair of cool, white
arms closed about me and the whip together, and Cousin
Molly Belle’s voice, half-laughing, half-horrified,
cried through the roaring in my ears:
“Dear little Namesake! what has got into you?”
All at once, red mists parted and
rolled away from my eyes, and I became conscious that
Mary ’Liza was jumping up and down and screaming
piteously, that everybody was on the spot my
father and mother and all the dinner company, and
Mam’ Chloe with the baby in her arms, and a ring
of my small black servitors on the outside of the group;
also that all eyes were focussed on me and what was
left of Rozillah.
The lash had drawn sawdust at every
blow. One arm and both legs were torn off and
weltered in the scattered stuffing beneath; the crop
of black curls was tangled in the topmost limb of
the sapling. The blue silk gown would never fit
the pliant waist again. Rozillah was beyond the
possibility of reconstruction.
I threw my arms around Cousin Molly
Belle’s neck, and burst into a torrent of childish
I think I must have been whipped for
that afternoon’s work. I ought to have
been, and Solomon, as a disciplinarian, was in high
repute in the family connection. I am sure that
I was put forthwith to bed and left alone for an eternity
without even Musidora to bear me company. I had
an indefinite impression that they feared the effect
of association with such a wicked child upon her morals
I recollect that my mother brought
me the bread and milk which was all the supper I was
to have, and talked me tenderly into tears.
But most vividly do I recall the apparition
which stole into my solitude after supper which
I had scented longingly from afar. A wraith all
in white gown and neck and arms and face,
the masses of fluffy hair making this last more wraith-like.
It sank to the floor beside my low bed, and gathered
me, miserable culprit, in a cuddling embrace, and bade
me “tell Cousin all about it the
whole truly truth.”
I could always talk to her, and I
began at the beginning and went straight and steadfastly
through to the nauseous end.
I did not cry while I talked, and
when struck by her silence I raised a timid hand to
her dear cheek and found it wet, I was surprised.
“Why, Cousin Molly Belle!”
I stammered. “Are you so angry with me as
“Angry? yes, Namesake, but not
with you, poor little sinner! You and I are always
getting into scrapes aren’t we?
Maybe that is why I am going to ask your mother to
let you sleep with me to-night.”
Which delicious cup of happiness consoled
the outgoing of the first tragical day of my life.