EDIFYING TALK AMONG LADIES

I was not a little surprised to find young master now in an apparently
earnest colloquy with Aunt Polly. A deep carnation spot burned upon his
cheeks, and his soft eye was purple in its intensity.

“What is the matter?” I asked.

“Lor, chile,” replied Aunt Polly, “Lindy can’t be found nowhar.”

“Has every place been searched?” I inquired.

“Yes,” said little John, “and she is nowhere to be found.”

“Does master know it?”

“Not yet, and I hope it may be kept from him for some time, at least two
or three hours,” he replied, with a mournful earnestness of tone.

“Why? Is he not well enough to bear the excitement of it?” I inquired.

The boy fixed his large and wondering eyes upon me. His gaze lingered
for a minute or two; it was enough; I read his inmost thoughts, and in
my secret soul I revered him, for I bowed to the majesty of a
heaven-born soul. Such spirits are indeed few. God lends them to earth
for but a short time; and we should entertain them well, for, though
they come in forms unrecognized, yet must we, despite the guise of
humanity, do reverence to the shrined seraph. This boy now became to me
an object of more intense interest. I felt assured, by the power of that
magnetic glance, that he was not unacquainted with the facts of Lindy’s
flight.

“How far is it from here to the river?” he said, as if speaking with
himself, “nine miles–let me see–the Ohio once gained, and crossed,
they are comparatively safe.”

He started suddenly, as if he had been betrayed or beguiled of his
secret, and starting up quickly, walked away. I followed him to the
door, and watched his delicate form and golden head, until he
disappeared in a curve of the path which led to the spring. That was a
favorite walk with him. Early in the morning (for he rose before the
lark) and late in the twilight, alike in winter or summer, he pursued
his walk. Never once did I see him with a book in his hand. With his eye
upturned to the heavens or bent upon the earth, he seemed to be reading
Nature’s page. He had made no great proficiency in book-knowledge; and,
indeed, as he subsequently told me, he had read nothing but the Bible.
The stories of the Old Testament he had committed to memory, and could
repeat with great accuracy. That of Joseph possessed a peculiar
fascination for him. As I closed the kitchen door and rejoined Aunt
Polly, she remarked,

“Jist as I sed, Lindy is off, and we is left here to hab trouble; oh,
laws, look for sights now!”

I made no reply, but silently set about assisting her in getting
breakfast. Shortly after old Nace came in, with a strange expression
lighting up his fiendish face.

“Has you hearn de news?” And without waiting for a reply, he went on,
“Lindy is off fur Kanaday! ha, ha, ha!” and he broke out in a wild
laugh; “I guess dat dose ‘ere hounds will scent her path sure enoff; I
looks out for fun in rale arnest. I jist hopes I’ll be sint fur her, and
I’ll scour dis airth but what I finds her.”

And thus he rambled on, in a diabolical way, neither of us heeding him.
He seemed to take no notice of our silence, being too deeply interested
in the subject of his thoughts.

“I’d like to know at what hour she started off. Now, she was a smart one
to git off so slick, widout lettin’ anybody know ob it. She had no close
worth takin’ wid her, so she ken run de faster. I wish Masser would git
wake, kase I wants to be de fust one to tell him ob it.”

Just then the two field-hands, Jake and Dan, came in.

“Wal,” cried the former, “dis am news indeed. Lindy’s off fur sartin.
Now she tinks she is some, I reckon.”

“And why shouldn’t she?” asked Dan, a big, burly negro, good-natured,
but very weak in mind; of a rather low and sensuous nature, yet of a
good and careless humor–the best worker upon the farm. I looked round
at him as he said this, for I thought there was reason as well as
feeling in the speech. Why shouldn’t she be both proud and happy at the
success of her bold plan, if it gains her liberty and enables her to
reach that land where the law would recognize her as possessed of
rights? I could almost envy her such a lot.

“I guess she’ll find her Kanady down de river, by de time de dogs gits
arter her,” said Nace, with another of his ha, ha’s.

“I wonder who Masser will send fur her? I bound, Nace, you’ll be sent,”
said Jake.

“Yes, if dar is any fun, I is sure to be dar; but hurry up yer
hoe-cakes, old ‘ooman, so dat de breakfust will be ober, and we can hab
an airly start.”

The latter part of this speech was addressed to Aunt Polly, who turned
round and brandished the poker toward him, saying,

“Go ’bout yer business, Nace; kase you is got cause fur joy, it is not
wort my while to be glad. You is an old fool, dat nobody keres ’bout, no
how. I spects you would be glad to run off, too, if yer old legs was
young enuff fur to carry you.”

“Me, Poll, I wouldn’t be free if I could, kase, you see, I has done
sarved my time at de ‘post,’ and now I is Masser’s head-man, and I gits
none ob de beatings. It is fun fur me to see de oders.”

I turned my eyes upon him, and he looked so like a beast that I shut out
any feeling of resentment I might otherwise have entertained. Amy came
in, bearing little Ben in her arms, followed by her two sisters, Jinny
and Lucy.

“La, Aunt Polly, is Lindy gone?” and her blank eyes opened to an unusual
width, as she half-asked, half-asserted this fact.

“Yes, but what’s it to you, Amy?”

“I jist hear ’em say so, as I was comin’ along.”

“Whar she be gone to?” asked Lucy.

“None ob yer bisness,” replied Aunt Polly, with her usual gruffness.

Strange it was, that, when she was alone with me, she appeared to wax
soft and gentle in her nature; but, when with others, she was “wolfish.”
It seemed as if she had two natures. Now, with Nace, she was as vile and
almost as inhuman as he; but I, who knew her heart truly, felt that she
was doing herself injustice. I did not laugh or join in their talk, but
silently worked on.

“Now, you see, Ann is one ob de proud sort, kase she ken read, and her
face is yaller; she tinks to hold herself ‘bove us; but I ‘members de
time when Masser buyed her at de sale. Lor’ lub yer, but she did cry
when she lef her mammy; and de way old Kais flung herself on de ground,
ha! ha! it makes me laf now.”

I turned my eyes upon him, and, I fear, there was anything but a
Christian spirit beaming therefrom. He had touched a chord in my heart
which was sacred to memory, love, and silence. My mother! Could I bear
to have her name and her sorrow thus rudely spoken of? Oh, God, what
fierce and fiendish feelings did the recollection of her agony arouse?
With burning head and thorn-pierced heart, I turned back a blotted page
in life. Again, with horror stirring my blood, did I see her in that
sweat of mortal agony, and hear that shriek that rung from her soul! Oh,
God, these memories are a living torture to me, even now. But though
Nace had touched the tenderest, sorest part of my heart, I said nothing
to him. The strange workings of my countenance attracted Amy’s
attention, and, coming up to me, with an innocent air, she asked:

“What is the matter, Ann? Has anything happened to you?”

These questions, put by a simple child, one, too, whose own young life
had been deeply acquainted with grief, were too much for my assumed
stolidity. Tears were the only reply I could make. The child regarded
me curiously, and the expression, “poor thing,” burst from her lips. I
felt grateful for even her sympathy, and put my hand out to her.

She grasped it, and, leaning close to me, said:

“Don’t cry, Ann; me is sorry fur you. Don’t cry any more.”

Poor thing, she could feel sympathy; she, who was so loaded with
trouble, whose existence had none of the freshness and vernal beauty of
youth, but was seared and blighted like age, held in the depths of her
heart a pure drop of genuine sympathy, which she freely offered me. Oh,
did not my selfishness stand rebuked.

Looking out of the window, far down the path that wound to the spring, I
descried the fair form of the young John, advancing toward the house.
Pale and pure, with his blue eyes pensively looking up to heaven, an air
of peaceful thought and subdued emotion was breathing from his very
form. When I looked at him, he suggested the idea of serenity. There was
that about him which, like the moonlight, inspired calm. He was walking
more rapidly than I had ever seen him; but the pallor of his cheek, and
the clear, cold blue of his heaven-lit eye, harmonized but poorly with
the jarring discords of life. I thought of the pure, passionless apostle
John, whom Christ so loved? And did I not dream that this youth, too,
had on earth a mission of love to perform? Was he not one of the sacred
chosen? He came walking slowly, as if he were communing with some
invisible presence.

“Thar comes young Masser, and I is glad, kase he looks so good like. I
does lub him,” said Amy.

“Now, I is gwine fur to tell Masser, and he will gib you a beatin’,
nigger-gal, for sayin’ you lub a white gemman,” replied the sardonic
Nace.

“Oh, please don’t tell on me. I did not mean any harm,” and she burst
into tears, well-knowing that a severe whipping would be the reward of
her construed impertinence.

Before I had time to offer her any consolation, the subject of
conversation himself stood among us. With a low, tuneful voice, he spoke
to Amy, inquiring the cause of her tears.

“Oh, young Masser, I did not mean any harm. Please don’t hab me beat.”
Little Ben joined in her tears, whilst the two girls clung fondly to her
dress.

“Beaten for what?” asked young master, in a most encouraging manner.

“She say she lub you–jist as if a black wench hab any right to lub a
beautiful white gemman,” put in Nace.

“I am glad she does, and wish that I could do something that would make
her love me more.” And a _beatific_ smile overspread his peaceful face.
“Come, poor Amy, let me see if I haven’t some little present for you,”
and he drew from his pocket a picayune, which he handed her. With a wild
and singular contortion of her body, she made an acknowledgment of
thanks, and kissing the hem of his robe, she darted off from the
kitchen, with little Ben in her arms.

Without saying one word, young master walked away from the kitchen, but
not without first casting a sorrowful look upon Nace. Strange it seemed
to me, that this noble youth never administered a word of reproof to any
one. He conveyed all rebukes by means of looks. Upon me this would have
produced a greater impression, for those mild, reproachful eyes spoke
with a power which no language could equal; but on one of Nace’s
obtuseness, it had no effect whatever.

Shortly after, I left the kitchen, and went to the breakfast-room,
where, with the utmost expedition, I arranged the table, and then
repaired to the chamber of the young ladies. I found that they had
already risen from their bed. Miss Bradly (who had spent the night with
them) was standing at the mirror, braiding her long hair. Miss Jane was
seated in a large chair, with an elegant dressing-wrapper, waiting for
me to comb her “auburn hair,” as she termed it. Miss Tildy, in a lazy
attitude, was talking about the events of the previous evening.

“Now, Miss Emily, I do think him very handsome; but I cannot forgive his
gross Abolition sentiments.”

“How horribly vulgar and low he is in his notions,” said Miss Jane.

“Oh, but, girls, he was reared in the North, with those fanatical
Abolitionists, and we can scarcely blame him.”

“What a horrible set of men those Abolitionists must be. They have no
sense,” said Miss Jane, with quite a Minerva air.

“Oh, sense they assuredly have, but judgment they lack. They are a set
of brain-sick dreamers, filled with Utopian schemes. They know nothing
of Slavery as it exists at the South; and the word, which, I confess,
has no very pleasant sound, has terrified them.” This remark was made by
Miss Bradly, and so astonished me that I fixed my eyes upon her, and,
with one look, strove to express the concentrated contempt and
bitterness of my nature. This look she did not seem to heed. With
strange feelings of distrust in the integrity of human nature, I went on
about my work, which was to arrange and deck Miss Jane’s hair, but I
would have given worlds not to have felt toward Miss Bradly as I did. I
remembered with what a different spirit she had spoken to me of those
Abolitionists, whom she now contemned so much, and referred to as vain
dreamers. Where was the exalted philanthropy that I had thought dwelt in
her soul? Was she not, now, the weakest and most sordid of mortals?
Where was that far and heaven-reaching love, that had seemed to encircle
her as a living, burning zone? Gone! dissipated, like a golden mist! and
now, before my sight she stood, poor and a beggar, upon the great
highway of life.

“I can tell you,” said Miss Tildy, “I read the other day in a newspaper
that the reason these northern men are so strongly in favor of the
abolition of slavery is, that they entertain a prejudice against the
South, and that all this political warfare originated in the base
feeling of envy.”

“And that is true,” put in Miss Jane; “they know that cotton, rice and
sugar are the great staples of the South, and where can you find any
laborers but negroes to produce them?”

“Could not the poor class of whites go there and work for wages?”
pertinently asked Miss Tildy, who had a good deal of the spirit of
altercation in her.

“No, of course not; because they are free and could not be made to work
at all times. They would consent to be employed only at certain periods.
They would not work when they were in the least sick, and they would,
because of their liberty, claim certain hours as their own; whereas the
slave has no right to interpose any word against the overseer’s order.
Sick or well, he _must_ work at busy seasons of the year. The whip has a
terribly sanitary power, and has been proven to be a more efficient
remedy than rhubarb or senna.” After delivering herself of this
wonderful argument, Miss Jane seemed to experience great relief. Miss
Bradly turned from the mirror, and, smiling sycophantically upon her,
said: “Why, my dear, how well you argue! You are a very Cicero in
debate.”

That was enough. This compliment took ready root in the shallow mind of
the receiver, and her love for Miss B. became greater than ever.

“But I do think him so handsome,” broke from Miss Tildy’s lips, in a
half audible voice.

“Whom?” asked Miss Bradly.

“Why, the stranger of last evening; the fair-browed Robert Worth.”

“Handsome, indeed, is he!” was the reply.

“I hope, Matilda Peterkin, you would not be so disloyal to the South,
and to the very honorable institution under which your father
accumulated his wealth, as to even admire a low-flung northern
Abolitionist;” and Miss Jane reddened with all a Southron’s ire.

Miss Bradly was about to speak, but to what purpose the world to this
day remains ignorant, for oath after oath, and blasphemy by the volley,
so horrible that I will spare myself and the reader the repetition,
proceeded from the room of Mr. Peterkin.

The ladies sprang to their feet, and, in terror, rushed from the
apartment.

It was as I had expected; the news of Lindy’s flight had been
communicated by Nace to Mr. Peterkin, and his rage knew no limits. It
was dangerous to go near him. Raving like a madman, he tore the covering
of the bed to shreds, brandished his cowhide in every direction, took
down his gun, and swore he would “shoot every d—-d nigger on the
place.” His daughters had no influence over him. Out of bed he would
get, declaring that “all this devilment” would not have been perpetrated
if he had not been detained there by the order of that d—-d doctor,
who had no reason for keeping him there but a desire to get his money.
Fearing that his hyena rage might vent some of its gall on them, the
ladies made no further opposition to his intention.

Standing just without the door, I heard Miss Jane ask him if he would
not first take some breakfast.

“No; cuss your breakfast. I want none of it; I want to be among them ar’
niggers, and give ’em a taste of this cowhide, that they have been
sufferin’ fur.”

In affright I fled to the kitchen, and told Aunt Polly that the storm
had at length broken in all its fury. Each one of the negroes eyed the
others in silent dismay.

Pale with rage and debility, hot fury flashing from his eye, and white
froth gathering upon his lips, Mr. Peterkin dashed into the kitchen. “In
the name of h–ll and its fires, niggers, what does this mean? Tell me
whar that d—-d gal is, or I’ll cut every mother’s child of you to
death.”

Not one spoke. Lash after lash he dealt in every direction.

“Speak, h–ll hounds, or I’ll throttle you!” he cried, as he caught Jake
and Dan by the throat, with each hand, and half strangled them. With
their eyes rolling, and their tongues hanging from their mouths, they
had not power to answer. As soon as he loosened his grasp, and their
voices were sufficiently their own to speak, they attempted a denial;
but a blow from each of Mr. Peterkin’s fists levelled them to the floor.
In this dreadful state, and with a hope of getting a moment’s respite,
Jake (poor fellow, I forgive him for it) pointed to me, saying:

“She knows all ’bout it.”

This had the desired effect; finding one upon whom he could vent his
whole wrath, Peterkin rushed up to me, and Oh, such a blow as descended
upon my head! Fifty stars blazed around me. My brain burned and ached; a
choking rush of tears filled my eyes and throat. “Mercy! mercy!” broke
from my agonized lips; but, alas! I besought it from a tribunal where it
was not to be found. Blow after blow he dealt me. I strove not to parry
them, but stood and received them, as, right and left, they fell like a
hail-storm. Tears and blood bathed my face and blinded my sight. “You
cussed fool, I’ll make you rue the day you was born, if you hide from me
what you knows ’bout it.”

I asseverated, in the most solemn way, that I knew nothing of Lindy’s
flight.

“You are a liar,” he cried out, and enforced his words with another
blow.

“She is not,” cried Aunt Polly, whose forbearance had now given out.
This unexpected boldness in one of the most humble and timid of his
slaves, enraged him still farther, and he dealt her such a blow that my
heart aches even now, as I think of it.

A summons from one of the ladies recalled him to the house. Before
leaving he pronounced a desperate threat against us, which amounted to
this–that we should all be tied to the “post,” and beaten until
confession was wrung from us, and then taken to L—-, and sold to a
trader, for the southern market. But I did not share, with the others,
that wondrous dread of the fabled horror of “down the river.” I did not
believe that anywhere slavery existed in a more brutal and cruel form
than in the section of Kentucky where I lived. Solitary instances of
kind and indulgent masters there were; but they were the few exceptions
to the almost universal rule.

Now, when Mr. Peterkin withdrew, I, forgetful of my own wounds, lifted
Aunt Polly in my arms, and bore her, half senseless, to the cabin, and
laid her upon her ragged bed. “Great God!” I exclaimed, as I bent above
her, “can this thing last long? How much longer will thy divine patience
endure? How much longer must we bear this scourge, this crown of thorns,
this sweat of blood? Where and with what Calvary shall this martyrdom
terminate? Oh, give me patience, give me fortitude to bow to Thy will!
Sustain me, Jesus, Thou who dost know, hast tasted of humanity’s
bitterest cup, give me grace to bear yet a little longer!”

With this prayer upon my lips I rose from the bedside where I had been
kneeling, and, taking Aunt Polly’s horny hands within my own, I
commenced chafing them tenderly. I bathed her temples with cold water.
She opened her eyes languidly, looked round the room slowly, and then
fixed them upon me, with a bewildered expression. I spoke to her in a
gentle tone; she pushed me some distance from her, eyed me with a vacant
glance, then, shaking her head, turned over on her side and closed her
eyes. Believing that she was stunned and faint from the blow she had
received, I thought it best that she should sleep awhile. Gently
spreading the coverlet over her, I returned to the kitchen, where the
affrighted group of negroes yet remained. Stricken by a panic they had
not power of volition.

Casting one look of reproach upon Jake, I turned away, intending to go
and see if the ladies required my attention in the breakfast-room; but
in the entry, which separated the house from the kitchen, I encountered
Amy, with little Ben seated upon her hip. This is the usual mode with
nurses in Kentucky of carrying children. I have seen girls actually
deformed from the practice. An enlargement of the right hip is caused by
it, and Amy was an example of this. Had I been in a different mood, her
position and appearance would have provoked laughter. There she stood,
with her broad eyes wide open, and glaring upon me; her unwashed face
and uncombed hair were adorned by the odd ends of broken straws and bits
of hay that clung to the naps of wool; her mouth was opened to its
utmost capacity; her very ears were erect with curiosity; and her form
bent eagerly forward, whilst little Ben was coiled up on her hip, with
his sharp eyes peering like those of a mouse over her shoulder.

“Ann,” she cried out, “tell me what’s de matter? What’s Masser goin’ to
do wid us all?”

“I don’t know, Amy,” I answered in a faltering tone, for I feared much
for her.

“I hopes de child’en will go ‘long wid me, an’ I’d likes for you to go
too, Ann.”

I did not trust myself to reply; but, passing hastily on, entered the
breakfast-room, where Jane, Tildy, and Miss Bradly were seated at the
table, with their breakfast scarcely tasted. They were bending over
their plates in an intensity of interest which made them forget
everything, save their subject of conversation.

“How she could have gotten off without creating any alarm, is to me a
mystery,” said Miss Jane, as she toyed with her spoon and cup.

“Well, old Nick is in them. Negroes, I believe, are possessed by some
demon. They have the witch’s power of slipping through an auger-hole,”
said Miss Tildy.

“They are singular creatures,” replied Miss Bradly; “and I fear a great
deal of useless sympathy is expended upon them.”

“You may depend there is,” said Miss Jane. “I only wish these Northern
abolitionists had our servants to deal with. I think it would drive the
philanthropy out of them.”

“Indeed would it,” answered Miss Bradly, as she took a warm roll, and
busied herself spreading butter thereon; “they have no idea of the
trials attending the duty of a master; the patience required in the
management of so many different dispositions. I think a residence in the
South or South-west would soon change their notions. The fact is, I
think those fanatical abolitionists agitate the question only for
political purposes. Now, it is a clearly-ascertained thing, that slavery
would be prejudicial to the advancement of Northern enterprise. The
negro is an exotic from a tropical region, hence lives longer, and is
capable of more work in a warm climate. They have no need of black labor
at the North; and thus, I think, the whole affair resolves itself into a
matter of sectional gain and interest.”

Here she helped herself to the wing of a fried chicken. It seemed that
the argument had considerably whetted her appetite. Astonishing, is it
not, how the loaves and fishes of this goodly life will change and sway
our opinions? Even sober-minded, educated people, cannot repress their
pinings after the flesh-pots of Egypt.

Miss Jane seemed delighted to find that her good friend and instructress
held the Abolition party in such contempt. Just then young master
entered. With quiet, saintly manner, taking his seat at the table, he
said,

“Is not the abolition power strong at the North, Miss Emily?”

“Oh, no, Johnny, ’tis comparatively small; confined, I assure you, to a
few fanatical spirits. The merchants of New York, Boston, and the other
Northern cities, carry on a too extensive commerce with the South to
adopt such dangerous sentiments. There is a comity of men as well as
States; and the clever rule of ‘let alone’ is pretty well observed.”

Young master made no reply in words, but fixed his large, mysterious
eyes steadfastly upon her. Was it mournfulness that streamed, with a
purple light, from them, or was it a sublimated contempt? He said
nothing, but quietly ate his breakfast. His fare was as homely as that
of an ascetic; he never used meat, and always took bread without
butter. A simple crust and glass of milk, three times a day, was his
diet. Miss Jane gave him a careless and indifferent glance, then
proceeded with the conversation, totally unconscious of his presence;
but again and again he cast furtive, anxious glances toward her, and I
thought I noticed him sighing.

“What will father do with Lindy, if she should be caught?” asked Miss
Tildy.

“Send her down the river, of course,” was Miss Jane’s response.

“She deserves it,” said Miss Tildy.

“Does she?” asked the deep, earnest voice of young master.

Was it because he was unused to asking questions, or was there something
in the strange earnestness of his tone, that made those three ladies
start so suddenly, and regard him with such an astonished air? Yet none
of them replied, and thus for a few moments conversation ceased, until
he rose from the table and left the room.

“He is a strange youth,” said Miss Bradly, “and how wondrously handsome!
He always suggests romantic notions.”

“Yes, but I think him very stupid. He never talks to any of us–is
always alone, seeks old and unfrequented spots; neither in the winter
nor summer will he remain within doors. Something seems to lure him to
the wood, even when despoiled of its foliage. He must be slightly
crazed–ma’s health was feeble for some time previous to his birth,
which the doctors say has injured his constitution, and I should not be
surprised if his intellect had likewise suffered.” This speech was
pronounced by Miss Tildy in quite an oracular tone.

Miss Bradly made no answer, and I marvelled not at her changing color.
Had she not power to read, in that noble youth’s voice and manner, the
high enduring truth and singleness of purpose that dwelt in his nature?
Though he had never spoken one word in relation to slavery, I knew that
all his instincts were against it; and that opposition to it was the
principle deeply ingrained in his heart.

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