Chapter XXIX - The Unprotected
We hear often of the distress of the negro servants, on the loss of a kind master; and with good reason, for no creature on God's earth is left more utterly unprotected and desolate than the slave in these circumstances.
The child who has lost a father has still the protection of friends, and of the law; he is something, and can do something,--has acknowledged rights and position; the slave has none. The law regards him, in every respect, as devoid of rights as a bale of merchandise. The only possible ackowledgment of any of the longings and wants of a human and immortal creature, which are given to him, comes to him through the sovereign and irresponsible will of his master; and when that master is stricken down, nothing remains.
The number of those men who know how to use wholly irresponsible power humanely and generously is small. Everybody knows this, and the slave knows it best of all; so that he feels that there are ten chances of his finding an abusive and tyrannical master, to one of his finding a considerate and kind one. Therefore is it that the wail over a kind master is loud and long, as well it may be.
When St. Clare breathed his last, terror and consternation took hold of all his household. He had been stricken down so in a moment, in the flower and strength of his youth! Every room and gallery of the house resounded with sobs and shrieks of despair.
Marie, whose nervous system had been enervated by a constant course of self-indulgence, had nothing to support the terror of the shock, and, at the time her husband breathed his last, was passing from one fainting fit to another; and he to whom she had been joined in the mysterious tie of marriage passed from her forever, without the possibility of even a parting word.
Miss Ophelia, with characteristic strength and self-control, had remained with her kinsman to the last,--all eye, all ear, all attention; doing everything of the little that could be done, and joining with her whole soul in the tender and impassioned prayers which the poor slave had poured forth for the soul of his dying master.
When they were arranging him for his last rest, they found upon his bosom a small, plain miniature case, opening with a spring. It was the miniature of a noble and beautiful female face; and on the reverse, under a crystal, a lock of dark hair. They laid them back on the lifeless breast,--dust to dust,--poor mournful relics of early dreams, which once made that cold heart beat so warmly!
Tom's whole soul was filled with thoughts of eternity; and while he ministered around the lifeless clay, he did not once think that the sudden stroke had left him in hopeless slavery. He felt at peace about his master; for in that hour, when he had poured forth his prayer into the bosom of his Father, he had found an answer of quietness and assurance springing up within himself. In the depths of his own affectionate nature, he felt able to perceive something of the fulness of Divine love; for an old oracle hath thus written,--"He that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him." Tom hoped and trusted, and was at peace.
But the funeral passed, with all its pageant of black crape, and prayers, and solemn faces; and back rolled the cool, muddy waves of every-day life; and up came the everlasting hard inquiry of "What is to be done next?"
It rose to the mind of Marie, as, dressed in loose morning-robes, and surrounded by anxious servants, she sat up in a great easy-chair, and inspected samples of crape and bombazine. It rose to Miss Ophelia, who began to turn her thoughts towards her northern home. It rose, in silent terrors, to the minds of the servants, who well knew the unfeeling, tyrannical character of the mistress in whose hands they were left. All knew, very well, that the indulgences which had been accorded to them were not from their mistress, but from their master; and that, now he was gone, there would be no screen between them and every tyrannous infliction which a temper soured by affliction might devise.
It was about a fortnight after the funeral, that Miss Ophelia, busied one day in her apartment, heard a gentle tap at the door. She opened it, and there stood Rosa, the pretty young quadroon, whom we have before often noticed, her hair in disorder, and her eyes swelled with crying.
"O, Miss Feeley," she said, falling on her knees, and catching the skirt of her dress, "do, do go to Miss Marie for me! do plead for me! She's goin' to send me out to be whipped--look there!" And she handed to Miss Ophelia a paper.
It was an order, written in Marie's delicate Italian hand, to the master of a whipping-establishment to give the bearer fifteen lashes.
"What have you been doing?" said Miss Ophelia.
"You know, Miss Feely, I've got such a bad temper; it's very bad of me. I was trying on Miss Marie's dress, and she slapped my face; and I spoke out before I thought, and was saucy; and she said that she'd bring me down, and have me know, once for all, that I wasn't going to be so topping as I had been; and she wrote this, and says I shall carry it. I'd rather she'd kill me, right out."
Miss Ophelia stood considering, with the paper in her hand.
"You see, Miss Feely," said Rosa, "I don't mind the whipping so much, if Miss Marie or you was to do it; but, to be sent to a man! and such a horrid man,--the shame of it, Miss Feely!"
Miss Ophelia well knew that it was the universal custom to send women and young girls to whipping-houses, to the hands of the lowest of men,--men vile enough to make this their profession,--there to be subjected to brutal exposure and shameful correction. She had known it before; but hitherto she had never realized it, till she saw the slender form of Rosa almost convulsed with distress. All the honest blood of womanhood, the strong New England blood of liberty, flushed to her cheeks, and throbbed bitterly in her indignant heart; but, with habitual prudence and self-control, she mastered herself, and, crushing the paper firmly in her hand, she merely said to Rosa,
"Sit down, child, while I go to your mistress."
"Shameful! monstrous! outrageous!" she said to herself, as she was crossing the parlor.
She found Marie sitting up in her easy-chair, with Mammy standing by her, combing her hair; Jane sat on the ground before her, busy in chafing her feet.
"How do you find yourself, today?" said Miss Ophelia.
A deep sigh, and a closing of the eyes, was the only reply, for a moment; and then Marie answered, "O, I don't know, Cousin; I suppose I'm as well as I ever shall be!" and Marie wiped her eyes with a cambric handkerchief, bordered with an inch deep of black.
"I came," said Miss Ophelia, with a short, dry cough, such as commonly introduces a difficult subject,--"I came to speak with you about poor Rosa."
Marie's eyes were open wide enough now, and a flush rose to her sallow cheeks, as she answered, sharply,
"Well, what about her?"
"She is very sorry for her fault."
"She is, is she? She'll be sorrier, before I've done with her! I've endured that child's impudence long enough; and now I'll bring her down,--I'll make her lie in the dust!"
"But could not you punish her some other way,--some way that would be less shameful?"
"I mean to shame her; that's just what I want. She has all her life presumed on her delicacy, and her good looks, and her lady-like airs, till she forgets who she is;--and I'll give her one lesson that will bring her down, I fancy!"
"But, Cousin, consider that, if you destroy delicacy and a sense of shame in a young girl, you deprave her very fast."
"Delicacy!" said Marie, with a scornful laugh,--"a fine word for such as she! I'll teach her, with all her airs, that she's no better than the raggedest black wench that walks the streets! She'll take no more airs with me!"
"You will answer to God for such cruelty!" said Miss Ophelia, with energy.
"Cruelty,--I'd like to know what the cruelty is! I wrote orders for only fifteen lashes, and told him to put them on lightly. I'm sure there's no cruelty there!"
"No cruelty!" said Miss Ophelia. "I'm sure any girl might rather be killed outright!"
"It might seem so to anybody with your feeling; but all these creatures get used to it; it's the only way they can be kept in order. Once let them feel that they are to take any airs about delicacy, and all that, and they'll run all over you, just as my servants always have. I've begun now to bring them under; and I'll have them all to know that I'll send one out to be whipped, as soon as another, if they don't mind themselves!" said Marie, looking around her decidedly.
Jane hung her head and cowered at this, for she felt as if it was particularly directed to her. Miss Ophelia sat for a moment, as if she had swallowed some explosive mixture, and were ready to burst. Then, recollecting the utter uselessness of contention with such a nature, she shut her lips resolutely, gathered herself up, and walked out of the room.
It was hard to go back and tell Rosa that she could do nothing for her; and, shortly after, one of the man-servants came to say that her mistress had ordered him to take Rosa with him to the whipping-house, whither she was hurried, in spite of her tears and entreaties.
A few days after, Tom was standing musing by the balconies, when he was joined by Adolph, who, since the death of his master, had been entirely crest-fallen and disconsolate. Adolph knew that he had always been an object of dislike to Marie; but while his master lived he had paid but little attention to it. Now that he was gone, he had moved about in daily dread and trembling, not knowing what might befall him next. Marie had held several consultations with her lawyer; after communicating with St. Clare's brother, it was determined to sell the place, and all the servants, except her own personal property, and these she intended to take with her, and go back to her father's plantation.
"Do ye know, Tom, that we've all got to be sold?" said Adolph, and go back to her father's plantation.
"How did you hear that?" said Tom.
"I hid myself behind the curtains when Missis was talking with the lawyer. In a few days we shall be sent off to auction, Tom."
"The Lord's will be done!" said Tom, folding his arms and sighing heavily.
"We'll never get another such a master, said Adolph, apprehensively; "but I'd rather be sold than take my chance under Missis."
Tom turned away; his heart was full. The hope of liberty, the thought of distant wife and children, rose up before his patient soul, as to the mariner shipwrecked almost in port rises the vision of the church-spire and loving roofs of his native village, seen over the top of some black wave only for one last farewell. He drew his arms tightly over his bosom, and choked back the bitter tears, and tried to pray. The poor old soul had such a singular, unaccountable prejudice in favor of liberty, that it was a hard wrench for him; and the more he said, "Thy will be done," the worse he felt.
He sought Miss Ophelia, who, ever since Eva's death, had treated him with marked and respectful kindness.
"Miss Feely," he said, "Mas'r St. Clare promised me my freedom. He told me that he had begun to take it out for me; and now, perhaps, if Miss Feely would be good enough to speak bout it to Missis, she would feel like goin' on with it, was it as Mas'r St. Clare's wish."
"I'll speak for you, Tom, and do my best," said Miss Ophelia; "but, if it depends on Mrs. St. Clare, I can't hope much for you;--nevertheless, I will try."
This incident occurred a few days after that of Rosa, while Miss Ophelia was busied in preparations to return north.
Seriously reflecting within herself, she considered that perhaps she had shown too hasty a warmth of language in her former interview with Marie; and she resolved that she would now endeavor to moderate her zeal, and to be as conciliatory as possible. So the good soul gathered herself up, and, taking her knitting, resolved to go into Marie's room, be as agreeable as possible, and negotiate Tom's case with all the diplomatic skill of which she was mistress.
She found Marie reclining at length upon a lounge, supporting herself on one elbow by pillows, while Jane, who had been out shopping, was displaying before her certain samples of thin black stuffs.
"That will do," said Marie, selecting one; "only I'm not sure about its being properly mourning."
"Laws, Missis," said Jane, volubly, "Mrs. General Derbennon wore just this very thing, after the General died, last summer; it makes up lovely!"
"What do you think?" said Marie to Miss Ophelia.
"It's a matter of custom, I suppose," said Miss Ophelia. "You can judge about it better than I."
"The fact is," said Marie, "that I haven't a dress in the world that I can wear; and, as I am going to break up the establishment, and go off, next week, I must decide upon something."
"Are you going so soon?"
"Yes. St. Clare's brother has written, and he and the lawyer think that the servants and furniture had better be put up at auction, and the place left with our lawyer."
"There's one thing I wanted to speak with you about," said Miss Ophelia. "Augustine promised Tom his liberty, and began the legal forms necessary to it. I hope you will use your influence to have it perfected."
"Indeed, I shall do no such thing!" said Marie, sharply. "Tom is one of the most valuable servants on the place,--it couldn't be afforded, any way. Besides, what does he want of liberty? He's a great deal better off as he is."
"But he does desire it, very earnestly, and his master promised it," said Miss Ophelia.
"I dare say he does want it," said Marie; "they all want it, just because they are a discontented set,--always wanting what they haven't got. Now, I'm principled against emancipating, in any case. Keep a negro under the care of a master, and he does well enough, and is respectable; but set them free, and they get lazy, and won't work, and take to drinking, and go all down to be mean, worthless fellows, I've seen it tried, hundreds of times. It's no favor to set them free."
"But Tom is so steady, industrious, and pious."
"O, you needn't tell me! I've see a hundred like him. He'll do very well, as long as he's taken care of,--that's all."
"But, then, consider," said Miss Ophelia, "when you set him up for sale, the chances of his getting a bad master."
"O, that's all humbug!" said Marie; "it isn't one time in a hundred that a good fellow gets a bad master; most masters are good, for all the talk that is made. I've lived and grown up here, in the South, and I never yet was acquainted with a master that didn't treat his servants well,--quite as well as is worth while. I don't feel any fears on that head."
"Well," said Miss Ophelia, energetically, "I know it was one of the last wishes of your husband that Tom should have his liberty; it was one of the promises that he made to dear little Eva on her death-bed, and I should not think you would feel at liberty to disregard it."
Marie had her face covered with her handkerchief at this appeal, and began sobbing and using her smelting-bottle, with great vehemence.
"Everybody goes against me!" she said. "Everybody is so inconsiderate! I shouldn't have expected that you would bring up all these remembrances of my troubles to me,--it's so inconsiderate! But nobody ever does consider,--my trials are so peculiar! It's so hard, that when I had only one daughter, she should have been taken!--and when I had a husband that just exactly suited me,--and I'm so hard to be suited!--he should be taken! And you seem to have so little feeling for me, and keep bringing it up to me so carelessly,--when you know how it overcomes me! I suppose you mean well; but it is very inconsiderate,--very!" And Marie sobbed, and gasped for breath, and called Mammy to open the window, and to bring her the camphor-bottle, and to bathe her head, and unhook her dress. And, in the general confusion that ensued, Miss Ophelia made her escape to her apartment.
She saw, at once, that it would do no good to say anything more; for Marie had an indefinite capacity for hysteric fits; and, after this, whenever her husband's or Eva's wishes with regard to the servants were alluded to, she always found it convenient to set one in operation. Miss Ophelia, therefore, did the next best thing she could for Tom,--she wrote a letter to Mrs. Shelby for him, stating his troubles, and urging them to send to his relief.
The next day, Tom and Adolph, and some half a dozen other servants, were marched down to a slave-warehouse, to await the convenience of the trader, who was going to make up a lot for auction.
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