|FEB. 5, 1852
It was late in the evening when the weary occupants of the shanties came flocking home—men and women in soiled and tattered garments, surly and uncomfortable, and in no mood to look pleasantly on new-comers. The small village was alive with no inviting sounds; hoarse guttural voices contending at the hand-mills where their morsel of hard corn was yet to be ground into meal, to fit it for the cake that was to constitute their only supper. From the earliest dawn of the day they had been in the fields, pressed to work under the driving lash of the overseers, for it was now in the very heat and hurry of the season, and no means was left untried to press every one up to the top of their capabilities. "True," says the negligent lounger, "Picking cotton isn't hard work." Isn't it? And it isn't much inconvenience, either, to have one drop of water fall on your head, yet the worst torture of the inquisition is produced by drop after drop, drop after drop, falling moment after moment, with monotonous succession, on the same spot; and work in itself not hard becomes so by being pressed hour after hour with unvarying, unrelenting sameness, with not even the consciousness of free will to take from its tediousness. Tom looked in vain among the gang, as they poured along, for companionable faces. He saw only sullen, scowling, imbruted men, and feeble, discouraged women, or women that were not women—the strong pushing away the weak—the gross, unrestricted animal selfishness of human beings, of whom nothing good was expected and desired, and who, treated in every way like brutes, had sunk as nearly to their level as it was possible for human beings to do. To a late hour in the night, the sound of the grinding was protracted, for the mills were few in number compared with the grinders, and the weary and feeble ones were driven back by the strong, and came on last in their turn.
"Ho, you," said Sambo, coming to the mulatto woman, and throwing down a bag of corn before her, "what a cuss yo name?"
"Lucy," said the woman.
"Wal, Lucy, yo my woman now. Yo grind dis yer corn, and get my supper baked, ye har?"
"I aint your woman, and I won't be," said the woman, with the sharp, sudden courage of despair; "you go long."
"I'll kick yo, then," said Sambo, raising his foot threateningly.
"Ye may kill me if ye choose—the sooner the better. Wish't I was dead," said she.
"I say, Sambo, you go to spilin the hands, I'll tell mass'r o' you," said Quimbo, who was busy at the mill, from which he had viciously driven two or three tired women who were waiting to grind their corn.
"And I'll tell him ye won't let the women come to the mills, yo old nigger," said Sambo. "Yo jes keep to yo own row."
Tom was hungry with his day's journey, and almost faint for want of food.
"Thar, you," said Quimbo, throwing down a coarse bag, which contained a peck of corn; "thar, nigger, grab, take car on't—you won't get no more dis yer week."
Tom waited till a late hour, to get a place at the mills, and then, moved by the utter weariness of two women, whom he saw trying to grind their corn there, he ground for them, put together the decaying brands of the fire, where many had baked cakes before them, and then went about getting his own supper. It was a new kind of work there—a deed of charity, small as it was; but it woke an answering touch in their hearts—an expression of womanly kindness came over their hard faces, they mixed his cake for him, and tended its baking; and Tom sat down by the light of the fire, and drew out his Bible—for he had need of comfort.
"What's that?" said one of the women.
"A Bible," said Tom.
"Good Lord! han't seen un since I was in Kentuck."
"Was you raised in Kentuck?" said Tom, with interest.
"Yes, and well raised, too; never 'spected to come to dis yer," said the woman, sighing.
"What's dat ar book, any way?" said the other woman.
"Why, the Bible."
"Laws a me! what's dat?" said the woman.
"Do tell! you never hearn on't? I used to har missis a readin out sometimes in Kentuck; but laws o me! we don't har nothin here but crackin and swarin."
"Read a piece, anyways!" said the first woman, curiously, seeing Tom attentively poring over it.
Tom read—"Come unto ME, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
"Them's good words enough," said the woman; "who says em?"
"The Lord," said Tom.
"I jest wish I knowd whar to find Him," said the woman; "I would go; 'pears like I never should get rested agin. My flesh is fairly sore, and I tremble all over every day, and Sambo's allers a jawin at me, 'cause I doesn't pick faster; and nights it's most midnight fore I can get my supper; and den 'pears like I don't turn over and shut my eyes, 'fore I hear de horn blow to get up and at it agin in de mornin. If I knew whar de Lor was, I'd tell him."
"He's here, he's everywhere," said Tom.
"Lor, you aint gwine to make me believe dat ar; I know de Lord aint here," said the woman; "taint no use talking, tho'. I's jest gwine to camp down, and sleep while I ken."
The women went off to their cabins, and Tom sat alone, by the smouldering fire, that flickered up redly in his face.
The silver, fair-browed moon rose in the purple sky, and looked down, calm and silent, as God looks on the scene of misery and oppression—looked calmly on the lone black man, as he sat with his arms folded and his Bible on his knee.
"Is God HERE!" Ah, how is it possible for the untaught heart to keep its faith, unswerving, in the face of dire misrule and palpable, unrebuked injustice? In that simple heart waged a fierce conflict, the crushing sense of wrong and injustice, the foreshadowing of a whole life of future misery, the wreck of all past hopes mournfully tossing in the soul's sight, like dead corpses of wife, and child, and friend, rising from the dark wave and surging in the face of the half-drowned mariner! Ah, was it easy here to believe and hold fast the great pass-word of Christian faith, that "God IS, and is the REWARDER of them that diligently seek Him?"
Tom rose, disconsolate, and stumbled into the cabin that had been allotted to him. The floor was already strewn with weary sleepers, and the foul air of the place almost repelled him; but the heavy night dews were chill, and his limbs weary, and, wrapping about him a tattered blanket, which formed his only bed-clothing, he stretched himself in the straw and fell asleep.
In dreams, a gentle voice came over his ear; he was sitting on the mossy seat in the garden by Lake Pontchartrain, and Eva, with her serious eyes bent downward, was reading to him from the Bible; and he heard her read—
"When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee, and the rivers they shall not overflow thee; when thou walkest through the fire thou shalt not be burned, neither shall the flame kindle upon thee; for I am the Lord thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour."
Gradually the words seemed to melt and fade, as in a divine music: the child raised her deep eyes, and fixed them lovingly on him, and rays of warmth and comfort seemed to go from them to his heart; and, as if wafted on the music, she seemed to rise on shining wings, from which flakes and spangles of gold fell off like stars, and she was gone.
Tom woke. Was it a dream? Let it pass for one. But who shall say that that sweet young spirit, which in life so yearned to comfort and console the distressed, was forbidden of God to assume this ministry after death?
It is a beautiful belief,
"And behold, the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power, but they had no comforter."—Eccl. iv, 1.
It took but a short time to familiarize Tom with all that was to be hoped or feared in his new way of life. He was an expert and efficient workman in whatever he undertook, and was, both from habit and principle, prompt and faithful. Quiet and peaceable in his disposition, he hoped, by unremitting diligence, to avert from himself at least a portion of the evils of his condition. He saw enough of abuse and misery to make him sick and weary, but he determined to toil on, with religious patience, committing himself to Him that judgeth righteously, not without hope that some way of escape might yet be opened to him.
Legree took silent note of Tom's availability. He rated him as a first-class hand; and yet he felt a secret dislike to him—the native antipathy of bad to good. He saw plainly, that when, as was often the case, his violence and brutality fell on the helpless, that Tom took notice of it; for, so subtle is the atmosphere of opinion, that it will make itself felt, without words; and the opinion, even of a slave, may annoy a master. Tom in various ways manifested a tenderness of feeling, a commiseration for his fellow-sufferers, strange and new to them, which was watched with a jealous eye by Legree. He had purchased Tom with a view of eventually making him a sort of overseer, with whom he might at times intrust his affairs in short absences; and, in his view, the first, second, and third requisite for that place, was hardness. Legree made up his mind, that as Tom was not hard to his hand, he would harden him forthwith; and some few weeks after Tom had been on the place, he determined to commence the process.
One morning when the hands were mustered for the field, Tom noticed with surprise a new-comer among them, whose appearance invited his attention. It was a woman, tall and slenderly formed, with remarkably delicate hands and feet, and dressed in neat and respectable garments. By the appearance of her face she might have been between thirty-five and forty, and it was a face that once seen could never be forgotten—one of those that at a glance seem to convey to us an idea of a wild, painful, and romantic history. Her forehead was high, and her eyebrows marked with beautiful clearness. Her straight, well-formed nose, her finely-cut mouth, and the graceful contour of her head and neck, showed that she must once have been beautiful; but her face was deeply wrinkled with lines of pain, and of proud and bitter endurance. Her complexion was sallow and unhealthy, her cheeks thin, her features sharp, and her whole form emaciated. But her eye was the most remarkable feature—so large, so heavily black, overshadowed by long lashes of equal darkness, and so wildly, mournfully despairing. There was a fierce pride and defiance in every line of her face, in every curve of the flexible lip, in every motion of her body, but in her eye was a deep, settled night of anguish—an expression so hopeless and unchanging as to contrast fearfully with the scorn and pride expressed by her whole demeanor.
Where she came from, or who she was, Tom did not know. The first he did know, she was walking by his side, erect and proud in the dim gray of the dawn. To the gang, however, she was known, for there was much looking and turning of heads, and a smothered yet apparent exultation among the miserable, ragged, half-starved creatures by whom she was surrounded.
"Got to come to it at last—grad of it!" said one.
"He! he! he!" said another; "you'll know how good it is, Misse!"
"We'll see her work!"
"Wonder if she'll get a cutting up at night like the rest of us!"
"I'd be glad to see her down for a flogging, I'll bound," said another.
The woman took no notice of these taunts, but walked on with the same expression of angry scorn as if she heard nothing. Tom had always lived among refined and cultivated people, and he felt intuitively from her air and bearing that she belonged to that class, but how or why she could be fallen to those degrading circumstances he could not tell. The woman neither looked at him nor spoke to him, though all the way to the field she kept close at his side.
Tom was soon busy at his work; but as the woman was at no great distance from him, he often glanced an eye to her at her work. He saw at a glance that a native adroitness and handiness made the task to her an easier one than it proved to many. She picked very fast and very clean, and with an air of scorn, as if she despised both the work and the disgrace and humiliation of the circumstances in which she was placed.
In the course of the day, Tom was working near the mulatto woman who had been brought in the same lot with himself. She was evidently in a condition of great suffering, and Tom often heard her praying, as she wavered and trembled, and seemed about to fall down. Tom silently, as he came near to her, transferred several handfulls of cotton from his own basket to hers.
"Oh, don't, don't!" said the woman, looking surprised; "it'll get you into trouble."
Just then Sambo came up. He seemed to have a special spite against this woman; and, flourishing his whip, said, in brutal, guttural tones, "What dis yer, Luce—foolin a'?" and with the word kicking the woman with his heavy cowhide shoe, he struck Tom across the face with his whip.
Tom silently resumed his task, but the woman, before at the last point of exhaustion, fainted.
"I'll bring her to!" said the driver, with a brutal grin. "I'll give her something better than camphire;" and, taking a pin from his coat-sleeve, he buried it to the head in her flesh. The woman groaned, and half rose. "Get up, you beast, and work, will yer, or I'll show yer a trick more."
The woman seemed stimulated for a few moments to an unnatural strength, and worked with desperate eagerness.
"See that you keep to dat ar," said the man, "or yer'll wish yer's dead to-night, I reckin."
"That I do now," Tom heard her say; and again he heard her say, "Oh, Lord, how long! Oh, Lord, why don't you help us?"
At the risk of all that he might suffer, Tom came forward again, and turned all the cotton in his basket into the woman's.
"Oh, you musn't; you donno what they'll do to ye," said the woman.
"I can bar it," said Tom, "better's you;" and he was at his place again. It passed in a moment.
Suddenly the stranger woman whom we have described, and who had in the course of her work come near enough to hear Tom's last words, raised her heavy, black eyes, and fixed them for a second on him; then taking a quantity of cotton from her basket, she placed it in his.
"You know nothing about this place," she said, "or you wouldn't have done that. When you've been here a month, you'll be done helping anybody; you'll find it hard enough to take care of your own skin."
"The Lord forbid, Miss's," said Tom, using instinctively to his field companion the respectful form proper to the high bred with whom he had lived.
"The Lord never visits these parts," said the woman, bitterly, as she went nimbly forward with her work; and again the scornful smile curled her lips.
But the action of the woman had been seen by the driver across the field, and, flourishing his whip, he came up to her.
"What! what!" he said to the woman, with an air of triumph, "YOU a foolin? Go along, yer under me—now mind yerself, or yer'll catch it."
A glance like sheet lightning suddenly flashed from those black eyes, and, facing about, with quivering lip and dilated nostrils, she drew herself up, and fixed her eyes, blazing with rage and scorn, on the driver.
"Dog," she said, "touch me if you dare! I've power enough yet, to have you torn by the dogs, burnt alive, cut to inches. I've only to say the word."
"What the devil you here for, den?" said the man, evidently cowed and sullenly retreating a step or two; "Didn't mean no harm, Miss Cassy."
"Keep your distance, then!" said the woman. And in truth the man seemed greatly inclined to attend to something at the other end of the field, and started off in quick time.
The woman suddenly turned to her work, and labored with a dispatch that was perfectly astonishing to Tom. She seemed to work by magic. Before the day was through, her basket was filled, crowded down, and piled, and she had several times put largely into Tom's. Long after dusk, the whole weary train, with their baskets on their heads, defiled up to the building appropriated to the storing and weighing the cotton. Legree was there, busily conversing with the two drivers.
"Dat ar Tom's gwine to make a powerful deal o' trouble; kept a puttin in to Lucy's basket; one o' these yer dat will get all der niggers to feelin 'bused, if mass'r don't watch him," said Sambo.
"Hey-dey. The black cuss!" said Legree. "He'll have to get a breakin in, wont he, boys?"
Both negroes grinned a horrid grin at this intimation.
"Ay, ay, let mass'r Legree alone for breakin in. De debil heself couldn't beat mass'r at dat," said Quimbo.
"Wal, boys, the best way is to give him the flogging to do, till he gets over his notions. Break him in."
"Lord, mass'r 'll have hard work to get dat out o' him."
"It'll have to come out of him, tho'," said Legree, as he rolled his tobacco in his mouth.
"Now, dar's Lucy—de aggravatinest, ugliest wench on de place!" pursued Sambo.*
"Take care, Sam; I shall begin to think what's the reason for your spite agin Lucy."
"Well, mass'r knows she sot herself up agin mass'r, and wouldn't have me when he telled her to."
"I'd a flogged her into 't," said Legree, spitting, "only there's such a press o' work, it don't seem wuth a while to upset her jist now. She's slender; but these yer slender gals will bear half killin to get their own way."
"Wal, Lucy was real aggravatin and lazy, sulkin round; wouldn't do nothin, and Tom he tuck up for her."
"He did, eh! Wal, then, Tom shall have the pleasure of flogging her. It'll be a good practice for him, and he won't put it on to the gal like you devils, neither."
"Ho, ho! haw! haw! haw!" laughed both the sooty wretches; and the diabolical sounds seemed in truth a not unapt expression of the fiendish character which Legree gave them.
"Wal, but mass'r, Tom and Misse Cassy, and dey among em, filled Lucy's basket. I ruther guess der weight's in it, mass'r."
"I do the weighing," said Legree, emphatically.
Both the drivers again laughed their diabolical laugh.
"So," he added, "Misse Cassy did her day's work."
"She picks like der debil and all his angels."
"She's got em all in her, I believe," said Legree; and, growling a brutal oath, he proceeded to the weighing room.[TO BE CONTINUED.]