|OCT. 16, 1851
Our friend Tom, who had been in the kitchen during the conversation with the old rusk woman, had followed her out into the street. He saw her go on, giving every once in a while a suppressed groan. At last she sat her basket down on a door-step, and began arranging the old, faded shawl which covered her shoulders.
"I'll carry your basket a piece," said Tom, compassionately.
"Why should ye?" said the woman. "I don't want no help."
"You seem to be sick, or in trouble, or somethin," said Tom.
"I aint sick," said the woman, shortly.
"I wish," said Tom, looking at her earnestly, "I wish I could persuade you to leave off drinking. Don't you know it will be the ruin of ye, body and soul?"
"I knows I'm gwine to torment," said the woman, sullenly. "Ye don't need to tell me that ar. "I's ugly—I's wicked—I's gwine straight to torment. Oh, Lord! I wish I's thar!"
Tom shuddered at these frightful words, spoken with a sullen, impassioned earnestness.
"Oh, Lord have mercy on ye! poor crittur. Haint ye never heard of Jesus Christ?"
"Jesus Christ—who's he?"
"Why, he's the Lord," said Tom.
"I think I've hearn tell o' the Lord and the judgment and torment. I've heard o' that."
"But didn't anybody ever tell you of the Lord Jesus, that loved us poor sinners, and died for us?"
"Don't know nothin bout that," said the woman; "nobody haint never loved me, since my old man died."
"Where was you raised?" said Tom.
"Up in Kentuck. A man kept me to breed chil'en for market, and sold em as fast as they got big enough; last of all, he sold me to a speculator, and my mass'r got me o' him."
"What set you into this bad way of drinkin?"
"To get shet o' my misery. I had one child after I come here, and I thought then I'd have one to raise, cause mass'r was't a speculator. It was de peartest little thing! and missis she seemed to think a heap on't at first; it never cried; it was likely and fat. But missis tuck sick, and I tended her; and I tuck the fever, and my milk all left me, and the child it pined to skin and bone, and missis wouldn't buy milk for it. She wouldn't hear to me when I telled her I hadn't milk. She said she knowed I could feed it on what other folks eat; and the child kinder pined, and cried, and cried, and cried, day and night, and got all gone to skin and bones, and missis got sot agin it, and she said 'twant nothin but crossness. She wished it was dead, she said; and she wouldn't let me have it a nights, cause, she said, it kept me awake, and made me good for nothing. She made me sleep in her room, and I had to put it way off in a little kind o' garret, and thar it cried itsef to death one night. It did; and I tuck to drinkin to keep its crying out of my ears. I did—and I will drink. I will, if I do go to torment for it. Mass'r says I shall go to torment, and I tell him I've got thar now."
"Oh, ye poor crittur!" said Tom, "haint nobody never telled ye how the Lord Jesus loved ye, and died for ye? Haint they telled ye that he'll help ye, and ye can go to heaven, and have rest at last?"
"I looks like gwine to heaven," said the woman; "aint thar where white folks is gwine—spose they'd have me thar? I'd rather go to torment, and get away from mass'r and missis. I had so," she said, as, with her usual groan, she got her basket on her head, and walked sullenly away.
Tom turned, and walked sorrowfully back to the house. In the court, he met little Eva—a crown of tuberoses on her head, and her eyes radiant with delight.
"Oh, Tom, here you are. I'm glad I've found you. Papa says you may get out the ponies, and take me in my little, new carriage," she said, catching his hand. "But what's the matter, Tom—you look sober?"
"I feel bad, Miss Eva," said Tom, sorrowfully. "But I'll get the horses for you."
"But do tell me, Tom, what is the matter. I saw you talking to cross old Prue."
Tom, in simple, earnest phrase, told Eva the woman's history. She did not exclaim, or wonder, or weep, as other children do. Her cheeks grew pale, and a deep, earnest shadow passed over her eyes. She laid both hands on her bosom, and sighed heavily.
"Tom, you needn't get me the horses. I don't want to go," she said.
"Why not, Miss Eva?"
"These things sink into my heart, Tom," said Eva—"they sink into my heart," she repeated, earnestly. "I don't want to go;" and she turned from Tom, and went into the house.
A few days after, another woman came in old Prue's place, to bring the rusks; Miss Ophelia was in the kitchen.
"Lor!" said Dinah, "what's got Prue?"
"Prue isn't coming any more," said the woman, mysteriously.
"Why not?" said Dinah. "She ain't dead, is she?"
"We doesn't exactly know. She's down cellar," said the woman, glancing at Miss Ophelia.
After Miss Ophelia had taken the rusks, Dinah followed the woman to the door.
"What has got Prue, any how?" she said.
The woman seemed desirous, yet reluctant to speak, and answered in a low, mysterious tone.
"Well, you mustn't tell nobody. Prue, she got drunk agin—and they had her down cellar—and a drefful time—and thar they left her all day, and I hearn 'em saying that the flies had got to her—and she's dead!"
Dinah held up her hands, and, turning, saw close by her side the spirit-like form of Evangeline, her large, mystic eyes dilated with horror, and every drop of blood driven from her lips and cheeks.
"Lor bless us! Miss Eva's gwine to faint away! What got us all, to let her har such talk! Her Pa'll be rail mad."
"I shan't faint, Dinah," said the child, firmly; "and why shouldn't I hear it? It ain't so much for me to hear it as for poor Prue to suffer it?"
"Lor sakes! it isn't for sweet, delicate young ladies like you—these yer stories isn't; it's enough to kill 'em!"
Eva sighed again, and walked up stairs with a slow and melancholy step.
Miss Ophelia anxiously inquired the woman's story. Dinah gave a very garrulous version of it, to which Tom added the particulars which he had drawn from her that morning.
"An abominable business! perfectly horrible!" she exclaimed, as she entered the room where St. Clare lay reading his paper.
"Pray, what iniquity has turned up now?" said he.
"What now? why, those folks have whipped Prue to death!" said Miss Ophelia, going on with great strength of detail into the story, and enlarging on its most shocking particulars.
"I thought it would come to that some time," said St. Clare, going on with his paper.
"Thought so; ain't you going to do anything about it?" said Miss Ophelia. "Haven't you got any select men, or anybody to interfere and look after such matters?"
"It is commonly supposed that the property interest is a sufficient guard in these cases. If people choose to ruin their own possessions, I don't know what's to be done. It seems the poor creature was a thief and a drunkard, and so there won't be much hope to get up sympathy for her."
"It is perfectly outrageous! it is horrid! Augustine. It will certainly bring down vengeance upon you!"
"My dear cousin, I didn't do it, and I can't help it; I would if I could. If low-minded, brutal people will act like themselves, what am I to do? They have absolute control; they are irresponsible despots; there would be no use in interfering; there is no law that amounts to anything practically, for such a case. The best we can do is to shut our eyes and ears, and let it alone. It's the only resource left us."
"How can you shut your eyes and ears? How can you let such things alone?"
"My dear child, what do you expect? Here is a whole class—debased, uneducated, indolent, provoking—put without any sort of terms or conditions entirely into the hands of such people as the majority in our world are; people who have neither consideration nor self-control, who haven't even an enlightened regard to their own interest—for that's the case with the largest half of mankind. Of course, in a community so organized, what can a man of honorable and humane feelings do but shut his eyes all he can, and harden his heart? I can't buy every poor wretch I see. I can't turn knight-errant, and undertake to redress every individual case of wrong in such a city as this. The most I can do is to try and keep out of the way of it."
CHAPTER XIX.—St. Clare's History and Opinions.*
St. Clare's fine countenance was for a moment overcast; he looked annoyed, but suddenly calling up a gay smile, he said:
"Come, cousin, don't stand there looking like one of the Fates; you've only seen a peep through the curtain—a specimen of what is going on the world over, in some shape or other. If we are to be prying and spying into all the dismals of life, we should have no heart to anything. 'Tis like looking too close into the details of Dinah's kitchen;" and St. Clare lay back on the sofa, and busied himself with his paper.
Miss Ophelia sat down and pulled out her knitting work, and sat there grim with indignation. She knit and knit, but while she mused the fire burned; at last she broke out—
"I tell you, Augustine, I can't get over things so, if you can; it's a perfect abomination for you to defend such a system; that's my mind."
"What now?" said St. Clare, looking up. "At it again, hey?"
"I say it's perfectly abominable for you to defend such a system," said Miss Ophelia, with increasing warmth.
"I defend it, my dear lady; whoever said I did defend it?" said St. Clare.
"Of course you defend it—you all do—all you Southerners. What do you have slaves for, if you don't?"
"Are you such a sweet innocent as to suppose nobody in this world ever does what they don't think is right? Don't you, or didn't you ever do anything that you did not think quite right?"
"If I do I repent of it, I hope," said Miss Ophelia, rattling her needles with energy.
"So do I," said St. Clare, peeling his orange; "I'm repenting of it all the time."
"What do you keep on doing it for?"
"Didn't you ever keep on doing wrong after you'd repented, my good cousin?"
"Well, only when I've been very much tempted," said Miss Ophelia.
"Well, I'm very much tempted," said St. Clare; "that's just my difficulty."
"But I always resolve I won't, and I try to break off."
"Well, I've been resolving I won't, off and on, these ten years," said St. Clare, "but I haven't, somehow, got clear. Have you got clear of all your sins, cousin?"
"Cousin Augustine," said Miss Ophelia, seriously, and laying down her knitting work, "I suppose I deserve that you should reprove my short-comings. I know all you say is true enough; nobody feels them more than I do; but it does seem to me, after all, there is some difference between me and you. It seems to me I would cut off my right hand sooner than keep on, from day to day, doing what I thought was wrong. But then my conduct is so inconsistent with my profession, I don't wonder you reprove me."
"Oh, now, cousin," said Augustine, sitting down on the floor, and laying his head back in her lap, "don't take on so awfully serious! You know what a good-for-nothing, saucy boy I always was. I love to poke you up—that's all—just to see you get earnest. I do think you are desperately, distressingly good; it tires me to death to think of it."
"But this is a serious subject, my boy, Auguste," said Miss Ophelia, laying her hand on his forehead.
"Dismally so," said he; "and I——well, I never want to talk seriously in hot weather; what with mosquitoes and all, a fellow can't get himself up to any very sublime moral flights; and I believe," said St. Clare, suddenly rousing himself up, "there's a theory now! I understand now why Northern nations are always more virtuous than Southern ones—I see into that whole subject."
"Oh, Auguste, you are a sad rattle-brain."
"Am I? Well, so I am, I suppose; but for once I will be serious now; but you must hand me that basket of oranges—you see—you'll have to "stay me with flagons and comfort me with apples," if I'm going to make this effort. Now," said Augustin, drawing the basket up, "I'll begin: When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a fellow to hold two or three dozen of his fellow worms in captivity, a decent regard to the opinions of society require"——
"I don't see that you are growing more serious," said Miss Ophelia.
"Wait—I'm coming on—you'll hear. The short of the matter is, cousin, said he, his handsome face suddenly settling into an earnest and serious expression, "on this abstract question of Slavery there can, as I think, be but one opinion. Planters, who have money to make by it—clergymen, who have planters to please—politicians, who want to rule by it, may warp and bend language and ethics to a degree that shall astonish the world at their ingenuity; they can press nature and the Bible, and nobody knows what else, into the service; but, after all, neither they nor the world believe in it one particle the more. It comes from the Devil—that's the short of it—and, to my mind, it's a pretty respectable specimen of what he can do in his own line."
Miss Ophelia stopped her knitting, and looked surprised; and St. Clare, apparently enjoying her astonishment, went on.
"You seem to wonder; but if you will get me fairly at it, I'll make a clean breast of it. This cursed business, accursed of God and man, what is it? Strip it of all its ornament, run it down to the root and nucleus of the whole, and what is it? Why, because my brother Quashy is ignorant and weak, and I am intelligent and strong—because I know how, and can do it, therefore I may steal all he has, keep it, and give him only such and so much as suits my fancy. Whatever is too hard, too dirty, too disagreeable for me, I may set Quashy to doing. Because I don't like work, Quashy shall work! Because the sun burns me, Quashy shall stay in the sun. Quashy shall earn the money, and I will spend it. Quashy shall lie down in every puddle, that I may walk over dryshod. Quashy shall do my will, and not his, all the days of his mortal life, and have such chance of getting to heaven at last as I find convenient. This I take to be about what slavery is. I defy anybody on earth to read our slave code as it stands in our law books, and make anything else of it. Talk of the abuses of slavery! Humbug! The thing itself is the essence of all abuse! And the only reason why the land don't sink under it, like Sodom and Gomorrah, is because it is used in a way infinitely better than it is. For pity's sake, for shame's sake, because we are men born of women, and not savage beasts, many of us do not, and dare not, we would scorn to use the full power which our savage laws put into our hands. And he who goes the farthest, and does the worst, only uses, within limits, the power that the law gives him."
St. Clare had started up, and, as his manner was when excited, was walking with hurried steps up and down the floor. His fine face, classic as that of a Greek statue, seemed actually to burn with the fervor of his feelings. His large blue eyes flashed, and he gestured with an unconscious eagerness. Miss Ophelia had never seen him in this mood before, and she sat perfectly silent.
"I declare to you," said he, suddenly stopping before his cousin, ("it's no sort of use to talk or to feel on this subject,) but I declare to you, there have been times when I have thought, if the whole country would sink, and hide all this injustice and misery from the light, I would willingly sink with it. When I have been travelling up and down on our boats, or about on my collecting tours, and reflected that every brutal, disgusting, mean, low-lived fellow I met, was allowed by our laws to become absolute despot of as many men, women, and children, as he could cheat, steal, or gamble money enough to buy—when I have seen such men in actual ownership of helpless children, of young girls and women, I have been ready to curse my country—to curse the human race!"
"Augustine! Augustine!" said Miss Ophelia, "I'm sure you've said enough. I never in my life heard anything like this, even at the North."
"At the North!" said St. Clare, with a sudden change of expression, and resuming something of his habitual careless tone. "Pooh! your Northern folks are cold-blooded; you are cool in everything! You can't begin to curse up hill and down as we can, when we get fairly at it."
"Well, but the question is," said Miss Ophelia—
"Oh, yes, to be sure—the question is—and a deuce of a question it is! How came you in this state of sin and misery? Well, I shall answer in the good old words you used to teach me Sundays. I came so by ordinary generation. My servants were my father's, and, what is more, my mother's; and now they are mine, they and their increase, which bids fair to be a pretty considerable item. My father, you know, came first from New England, and he was just such another man as your father—a regular old Roman—upright, energetic, noble-minded, with an iron will. Your father settled down in New England, to rule over rocks and stones, and to force an existence out of Nature; and mine settled in Louisiana, to rule over men and women, and force existence out of them. My mother," said St. Clare, getting up and walking to a picture at the end of the room, and gazing upward with a face fervent with veneration, "she was divine! Don't look at me so! you know what I mean! She probably was of mortal birth; but as far as ever I could observe, there was no trace of any human weakness or error about her; and everybody that lives to remember her, whether bond or free, servant, acquaintance, relation, all say the same. Why, cousin, that mother has been all that has stood between me and utter unbelief for years. She was a direct embodiment and personification of the New Testament—a living fact, to be accounted for, and to be accounted for in no other way than by its truth. Oh, mother! mother!" said St. Clare, clasping his hands in a sort of transport; and then suddenly checking himself, he came back, and seating himself on an ottoman by Miss Ophelia, he went on:
"My brother and I were twins; and they say, you know, that twins ought to resemble each other; but we were in all points a contrast. He had black, fiery eyes—coal-black hair—a strong, fine Roman profile—and a rich brown complexion. I had blue eyes, golden hair, a Greek outline, and fair complexion. He was active and observing—I dreamy and inactive. He was generous to his friends and equals, but proud, dominant, overbearing to inferiors, and utterly unmerciful to whatever set itself up against him. Faithful we both were; he from pride and courage—I from a sort of abstract ideality. We loved each other about as boys generally do—off and on, and in general—he was my father's pet, and I my mother's.
"There was a morbid sensitiveness and acuteness of feeling in me on all possible subjects, of which he and my father had no kind of understanding, and with which they could have no possible sympathy. But mother did; and so, when I had quarrelled with Alfred, and father looked sternly on me, I used to go off to mother's room, and sit by her. I remember just how she used to look, with her pale cheeks, her deep, soft, serious eyes, her white dress—she always wore white; and I used to think of her whenever I read in Revelations about the saints that were arrayed in fine linen, clean and white. She had a great deal of genius of one sort and another, particularly in music; and she used to sit at her organ, playing fine, old, majestic music of the Catholic church, and singing with a voice more like an angel than a mortal woman; and I would lay my head down on her lap, and cry, and dream, and feel—oh, immeasurably!—things that I had no language to say!
"In those days, this matter of slavery had never been canvassed as it has now; nobody dreamed of any harm in it.
"My father was a born aristocrat. I think, in some pre-existent state, he must have been in the higher circles of spirits, and brought all his old court pride along with him—for it was ingrain, bred in the bone, though he was originally of poor, and not in any way of noble family. My brother was begotten in his image.
"Now, an aristocrat, you know, the world over, has no human sympathies beyond a certain line in society. In England the line is in one place, in Burmah in another, and in America in another; but the aristocrat of all these countries never goes over it. What would be hardship and distress and injustice in his own class, is a cool matter of course in another one. My father's dividing line was that of color. Among his equals, never was a man more just and generous; but he considered the negro, through all possible gradations of color, as an intermediate link between man and animals, and graded all his ideas of justice or generosity on this hypothesis. I suppose, to be sure, if anybody had asked him plump and fair whether they had human immortal souls, he might have hemmed and hawed, and said yes. But my father was not a man much troubled with spiritualism—religious sentiment he had none, beyond a veneration for God, as decidedly the head of the upper classes.
"Well, my father worked some five hundred negroes; he was an inflexible, driving, punctilious business man; everything was to move by system—to be sustained with unfailing accuracy and precision. Now, if you take into account that all this was to be worked out by a set of lazy, twaddling, shiftless laborers, who had grown up all their lives in the absence of every possible motive to learn how to do anything but `shirk,' as you Vermonters say, and you'll see that there might naturally be, on his plantation, a great many things that looked horrible and distressing to a sensitive child like me.
"Besides all, he had an overseer—a great, tall, slab-sided, two-fisted renegade son of Vermont—(begging your pardon)—who had gone through a regular apprenticeship in hardness and brutality, and taken his degree to be admitted to practice. My mother never could endure him, nor I, but he obtained an entire ascendency over my father; and this man was the absolute despot of the estate.
"I was a little fellow then, but I had the same love that I have now for all kinds of human things—a kind of passion for the study of humanity, come in what shape it would. I was found in the cabins and among the field hands a great deal, and, of course, was a great favorite; and all sorts of complaints and grievances were breathed in my ear; and I told them to mother, and we, between us, formed a sort of committee for a redress of grievances. We hindered and repressed a great deal of cruelty, and congratulated ourselves on doing a vast deal of good, till, as often happens, my zeal overacted. Stubbs complained to my father that he couldn't manage the hands, and must resign his position. Father was a fond, indulgent husband, but a man that never flinched from anything that he thought necessary; and so he put down his foot, like a rock, between us and the field hands. He told my mother, in language perfectly respectful and deferential, but quite explicit, that over the house servants she should be entire mistress, but that with the field hands he could allow no interference. He revered and respected her above all living beings, but he would have said it all the same to the virgin Mary herself, if she had come in the way of his system.[TO BE CONTINUED.]