ONE forenoon, two weeks after the rice harvest, the little village was thrown into a state of intense excitement by the news which a messenger had just brought. "White ooman duh come," was the word that passed from mouth to mouth. Scarcely a half dozen of the inhabitants of the village had seen a white woman, and not more than a third of them had seen a white man, therefore with the approach of two white women and three white men, and their carriers and attendants, curiosity and fear wrought the people up to the highest pitch of expectancy. A miscellaneous company of men, women and children, Konah foremost among them, gathered at the edge of the village to stare at the strangers as they entered. The procession that was approaching was rather imposing. The five white people in hammocks, each hammock supported on the heads of four carriers, and a score of other attendants made up the train. Just as they came opposite the group of natives, one of the missionaries, with the kindest of intentions, looked benevolently around at the people, with results quite contrary to his expectations. One old man uttered a cry of terror, ran into a hut and hid himself, and could not be coaxed out while the strangers were in town. Even Konah shrank back, and felt inclined to run. The interpreter soon discovered that the glasses worn by the missionary had occasioned all this alarm. Superstitious imagination transformed these simple pieces of glass into a dangerous witch medicine, that would enable the wearer to blast with dreadful curses the lives of all upon whom he might look, so the harmless glasses had to be laid aside.
The procession moved on to the barreh, where the white people were left while a messenger went to inform the chief. That personage soon appeared in his native dignity, and on being introduced, touched fingertips with each of the white people, who said "How do" to him with pieces of cloth. He welcomed them with the big-hearted hospitality characteristic of his tribe, and called them his "strangers" (guests). Huts were vacated in order to furnish lodgings; and short, quick orders, called out to right and left, sent the people scurrying away to procure rice and fowls for the use of the visitors. Meanwhile a crowd of natives was banked around the barreh, looking on with undisguised wonder. Konah was mounted on the mud wall, taking in every detail with all absorbing interest. A missionary told the chief that if he would call a meeting of his people, they would talk to them the "God-word." The summons was given, and now Konah had another ravishing experience. The carriers had brought out a little organ which the party carried for the purpose of attracting the people. One of the white women sat down before it, ran her fingers over the keys, and lo, the strangest music Konah's ears had ever heard. Then the white people and their followers sang a tender hymn. Konah was so entranced that she forgot herself and her surroundings. She came behind the organist, moved her hands in the air in imitation of the player's movements, and opened her mouth in an unconscious effort to join in the singing. At the close of the services, the interpreter announced that in the evening the white man would again talk the "God-word", and would show "plenty picture." The curious crowd then followed to the barreh, and watched the preparations for dinner. The meal itself brought the greatest revelations yet witnessed. Wonder of wonders, the white men and women ate at the same time, nay, even the men seemed to serve the women, and to be considerate of their desires. Then these strange people used plates, knives, forks and spoons, the necessity for which Konah could not comprehend. Are white men's hands so dirty that they do not eat with them? Is one hand used to cut with, the other to shovel with? were queries that passed through her mind.
Thought of such things was soon dissipated by a matter of more immediate interest. A lump of sugar was handed to a woman who was standing at the end of a row of natives. She took the lump, drew her tongue across it in one long delicious lick, and passed it on to her neighbor. Here the performance was repeated, and the sugar passed on down the line, becoming visibly smaller at every exchange. It disappeared entirely just before it reached the end of the line, and the last man was compelled to content himself with licking the fingers that had last held the sweetness.
After the dinner was over, some of the people, thinking that the interesting part of the show was ended, went away, but Konah and many others had no thought of going. Emboldened by the gentle voice and kindly smile of the white women, Konah drew near, touched the soft hands, and examined the dress, but most she wondered at the wealth of wavy hair in such contrast with the short kinky covering of her own curly pate. The missionary, seeing that not only the child, but many of the women as well were deeply interested, graciously undid her hair, and as it tumbled down, a wavy flood, reaching far below her waist, amazed ejaculations burst from the beholders, and excited gesticulations gave expression to feelings for which they could not find words. When the first ecstasy of wonder was over, Konah put out her hand timidly, and drew the soft hair through her fingers. But the missionary, who had learned to look through the eyes down into the soul, had marked Konah as one of those peculiarly bright and promising beings sometimes found in darkest surroundings.
Calling the interpreter, she learned all she could about the child, told her about the mission school, and asked her to come there and be taught all the wonders the white people know. Konah was deeply interested, and more than anxious to go, but of course the question was not hers to decide. Sobah and Mamenah were not so easily persuaded, though they were so far impressed by the first interview as to consent to further palaver on the same subject after the evening service.
The time of the evening meeting found a crowd of two or three hundred people assembled; the organ was again played, a prayer of tender sympathy was offered, and then the magic lantern was brought into use. This created another sensation, and held the audience as under a spell, as picture after picture was thrown upon the canvas, representing the life and the crucifixion of the Saviour of men. At the same time, that simple yet extraordinary life-story was told, with all its display of love and self-sacrifice for the good of others. It was a doctrine absolutely new and incomprehensible to the natives, who knew only the law of self-interest, yet some glimmerings of this new and gentler light began to break in upon their minds, and to send touches of warmth into their hearts.
It was evident that Sobah had been impressed with the events of the day and evening, so after the meeting adjourned, the missionaries went to the appointed conference with renewed hope. The palaver was long and earnest. Sobah craved the opportunity to investigate new things, and the offer of employment in connection with the mission boats was very attractive, yet it is no easy matter to break with the environments and habits of a lifetime. Besides, procrastination is part of the life of the black man, and so the final decision was postponed until morning. After the missionaries went away to their lodgings, some of their native helpers remained, at Konah's urgent request, to talk further of life at the mission school. Countless were the questions asked and answered.
"Oh," said the girl, who was giving the information, "dey talk de God-word, dey show plenty picture, dey make we sabbee book, learn we fo' sew clo'es, en--" as an inspiration came to her, "dey pull story."
This was a delightful prospect indeed, and Konah, much elated, wanted to know what kind of stories such people told. This is the sample that was given her.