THE PRATTLINGS OF INSANITY

As Mr. Peterkin was passing through the vestibule of the front door, he
met young master standing there. Now, this was Mr. Peterkin’s favorite
child, for, though he did not altogether like that quietude of manner,
which he called “poke-easy,” the boy had never offered him any affront
about his incorrect language, or treated him with indignity in any way.
And then he was so beautiful! True, his father could not appreciate the
spiritual nobility of his face; yet the symmetry of his features and the
spotless purity of his complexion, answered even to Mr. Peterkin’s idea
of beauty. The coarsest and most vulgar soul is keenly alive to the
beauty of the rose and lily; though that concealed loveliness, which is
only hinted at by the rare fragrance, may be known only to the
cultivated and poetic heart. Often I have heard him say, “John is pretty
enoff to be a gal.”

Now as he met him in the vestibule, he said, “John, I’m in a peck o’
trouble.”

“I am sorry you are in trouble father.”

“That cussed black wench, Lindy, is off, and I’m ‘fraid the neighborhood
kant be waked up soon enough to go arter and ketch her. Let me git her
once more in my clutches, and I’ll make her pay for it. I’ll give her
one good bastin’ that she’ll ‘member, and then I’ll send her down the
river fur enough.”

The boy made no reply; but, with his eyes cast down on the earth, he
seemed to be unconscious of all that was going on around him. When he
raised his head his eyes were burning, his breath came thick and short,
and a deep scarlet spot shone on the whiteness of his cheek; the veins
in his forehead lay like heavy cords, and his very hair seemed to
sparkle. He looked as one inspired. This was unobserved by his parent,
who hastily strode away to find more willing listeners. I tarried in a
place where, unnoticed by others, I commanded a good out-look. I saw
young master clasp his hands fervently, and heard him passionately
exclaim–“How much longer, oh, how much longer shall this be?” Then
slowly walking down his favorite path, he was lost to my vision.
“Blessed youth, heaven-missioned, if thou wouldst only speak to me! One
word of consolation from God-anointed lips like thine, would soothe even
the sting of bondage; but no,” I added, “that earnest look, that gentle
tone, tell perhaps as much as it is necessary for me to know. This
silence proceeds from some noble motive. Soon enough he will make
himself known to us.”

In a little while the news of Lindy’s departure had spread through the
neighborhood like a flame. Our yard and house were filled with men come
to offer their services to their neighbor, who, from his wealth, was
considered a sort of magnate among them.

Pretty soon they were mounted on horses, and armed to the teeth, each
one with a horn fastened to his belt, galloping off in quest of the poor
fugitive. And is this thing done beneath the influence of civilized
laws, and by men calling themselves Christians? What has armed those
twelve men with pistols, and sent them on an excursion like this? Is it
to redeem a brother from a band of lawless robbers, who hold him in
captivity? Is it to right some individual wrong? Is it to take part with
the weak and oppressed against the strong and the overbearing? No, no,
my friends, on no such noble mission as this have they gone. No purpose
of high emprise has made them buckle on the sword and prime the pistol.
A poor, lone female, who, through years, has been beaten, tyrannized
over, and abused, has ventured out to seek what this constitution
professes to secure to every one–liberty. Barefoot and alone, she has
gone forth; and ’tis to bring her back to a vile and brutal slavery
that these men have sallied out, regardless of her sex, her destitution,
and her misery. They have set out either to recapture her or to shoot
her down in her tracks like a dog. And this is a system which Christian
men speak of as heaven-ordained! This is a thing countenanced by
freemen, whose highest national boast is, that theirs is the land of
liberty, equality, and free-rights! These are the people who yearly send
large sums to Ireland; who pray for the liberation of Hungary; who wish
to transmit armed forces across the Atlantic to aid vassal States in
securing their liberty! These are they who talk so largely of Cuba,
expend so much sympathy upon the oppressed of other lands, and predict
the downfall of England for her oppressive form of government! Oh,
America! “first pluck the beam out of thine own eye, then shalt thou see
more clearly the mote that is in thy brother’s.”

When I watched those armed men ride away, in such high courage and
eagerness for the hunt, I thought of Lindy, poor, lone girl, fatigued,
worn and jaded, suffering from thirst and hunger; her feet torn and
bruised with toil, hiding away in bogs and marshes, with an ear
painfully acute to every sound. I thought of this, and all the
resentment I had ever felt toward her faded away as a vapor.

All that day the house was in a state of intense excitement. The
servants could not work with their usual assiduity. Indeed, such was the
excitement, even of the white family, that we were not strictly required
to labor.

Miss Jane gave me some fancy-sewing to do for her. Taking it with me to
Aunt Polly’s cabin, intending to talk with her whilst time was allowed
me, I was surprised and pleased to find the old woman still asleep. “It
will do her good,” I thought, “she needs rest, poor creature! And that
blow was given to her on my account! How much I would rather have
received it myself.” I then examined her head, and was glad to find no
mark or bruise; so I hoped that with a good sleep she would wake up
quite well. I seated myself on an old stool, near the door, which,
notwithstanding the rawness of the day, I was obliged to leave open to
admit light. It was a cool, windy morning, such as makes a woollen shawl
necessary. My young mistresses had betaken themselves to cashmere
wrappers and capes; but I still wore my thin and “seedy” calico. As I
sewed on, upon Miss Jane’s embroidery, many _fancies_ came in troops
through my brain, defiling like a band of ghosts through each private
gallery and hidden nook of memory, and even to the very inmost
compartment of secret thought! My mother, with her sad, sorrow-stricken
face, my old companions and playfellows in the long-gone years, all
arose with vividness to my eye! Where were they all? Where had they been
during the lapse of years? Of my mother I had never heard a word. Was
she dead? At that suggestion I started, and felt my heart grow chill, as
though an icy hand had clenched it; yet why felt I so? Did I not know
that the grave would be to her as a bed of ease? What torture could
await her beyond the pass of the valley of shadows? She, who had been
faithful over a little, would certainly share in those blessed rewards
promised by Christ; yet it seemed to me that my heart yearned to look
upon her again in this life. I could not, without pain, think of her as
_one who had been_. There was something selfish in this, yet was it
intensely human, and to feel otherwise I should have had to be less
loving, less filial in my nature. “Oh, mother!” I said, “if ever we meet
again, will it be a meeting that shall know no separation? Mother, are
you changed? Have you, by the white man’s coarse brutality, learned to
forget your absent child? Do not thoughts of her often come to your
lonely soul with the sighing of the midnight wind? Do not the high and
merciful stars, that nightly burn above you, recall me to your heart?
Does not the child-loved moon speak to you of times when, as a little
thing, I nestled close to your bosom? Or, mother, have other ties grown
around your heart? Have other children supplanted your eldest-born? Do
chirruping lips and bright eyes claim all your thoughts? Or do you toil
alone, broken in soul and bent in body, beneath the drudgery of human
labor, without one soft voice to lull you to repose? Oh, not this, not
this, kind Heaven! Let her forget me, in her joy; give her but peace,
and on me multiply misfortunes, rain down evils, only spare, shield and
protect _her_.” This tide of thought, as it rolled rapidly through my
mind, sent the hot tears, in gushes, from my eyes. As I bent my head to
wipe them away, without exactly seeing it, I became aware of a blessed
presence; and, lifting my moist eyes, I beheld young master standing
before me, with that calm, spiritual glance which had so often charmed
and soothed me.

“What is the matter, Ann? Why are you weeping?” he asked me in a gentle
voice.

“Nothing, young Master, only I was thinking of my mother.”

“How long since you saw her?”

“Oh, years, young Master; I have not seen her since my childhood–not
since Master bought me.”

He heaved a deep sigh, but said nothing; those eyes, with a soft,
shadowed light, as though they were shining through misty tears, were
bent upon me.

“Where is your mother now, Ann?”

“I don’t know, young Master, I’ve never heard from her since I came
here.”

Again he sighed, and now he passed his thin white hand across his eyes,
as if to dissipate the mist.

“You think she was sold when you were, don’t you?”

“I expect she was. I’m almost sure she was, for I don’t think either my
young Masters or Mistresses wished or expected to retain the servants.”

“I wish I could find out something about her for you; but, at present,
it is out of my power. You must do the best you can. You are a good
girl, Ann; I have noticed how patiently you bear hard trouble. Do you
pray?”

“Oh, yes, young Master, and that is all the pleasure I have. What would
be my situation without prayer? Thanks to God, the slave has this
privilege!”

“Yes, Ann, and in God’s eyes you are equal to a white person. He makes
no distinction; your soul is as precious and dear to Him as is that of
the fine lady clad in silk and gems.”

I opened my eyes to gaze upon him, as he stood there, with his beautiful
face beaming with good feeling and love for the humblest and lowest of
God’s creatures. This was religion! This was the spirit which Christ
commended. This was the love which He daily preached and practiced.

“But how is Aunt Polly? I heard that she was suffering much.”

“She is sleeping easily now,” I replied.

“Well, then, don’t disturb her. It is better that she should sleep;” and
he walked away, leaving me more peaceful and happy than before. Blessed
youth!–why have we not more such among us! They would render the thongs
and fetters of slavery less galling.

The day was unusually quiet; but the frostiness of the atmosphere kept
the ladies pretty close within doors; and Mr. Peterkin had, contrary to
the wishes of his family, and the injunctions of his physician, gone out
with the others upon the search; besides, he had taken Nace and the
other men with him, and, as Aunt Polly was sick, Ginsy had been
appointed in her place to prepare dinner. After sewing very diligently
for some time, I wandered out through the poultry lot, lost in a
labyrinth of strange reflection. As I neared the path leading down
toward the spring, young master’s favorite walk, I could not resist the
temptation to follow it to its delightful terminus, where he was wont to
linger all the sunny summer day, and frequently passed many hours in the
winter time? I was superstitious enough to think that some of his deep
and rich philanthropy had been caught, as by inspiration, from this
lovely natural retreat; for how could the child of such a low, beastly
parent, inherit a disposition so heavenly, and a soul so spotless? He
had been bred amid scenes of the most revolting cruelty; had lived with
people of the harshest and most brutal dispositions; yet had he
contracted from them no moral stain. Were they not hideous to look upon,
and was he not lovely as a seraph? Were they not low and vulgar, and he
lofty and celestial-minded? Why and how was this? Ah, did I not believe
him to be one of God’s blessed angels, lent us for a brief season?

The path was well-trodden, and wound and curved through the woods, down
to a clear, natural spring of water. There had been made, by the order
of young master, a turfetted seat, overgrown by soft velvet moss, and
here this youth would sit for hours to ponder, and, perhaps, to weave
golden fancies which were destined to ripen into rich fruition in that
land beyond the shores of time. As I drew near the spring, I imagined
that a calm and holy influence was settling over me. The spirit of the
place had power upon me, and I yielded myself to the spell. It was no
disease of fancy, or dream of enchantment, that thus possessed me; for
there, half-reclining on the mossy bench, I beheld young master, and,
seated at his feet, with her little, odd, wondering face uplifted to
his, was Amy; and, crawling along, playing with the moss, and looking
down into the mirror of the spring, peered the bright eyes of little
Ben. It was a scene of such beauty that I paused to take a full view of
it, before making my presence known. Young master, with his pale,
intellectual face, his classic head, his sun-bright curls, and his
earnest blue eyes, sat in a half-lounging attitude, making no
inappropriate picture of an angel of light, whilst the two little black
faces seemed emblems of fallen, degraded humanity, listening to his
pleading voice.

“Wherever you go, or in whatever condition you may be, Amy, never forget
to pray to the good Lord.” As he said this, he bent his eyes
compassionately on her.

“Oh, laws, Masser, how ken I pray! de good Lord wouldn’t hear me. I is
too black and dirty.”

“God does not care for that. You are as dear to Him as the finest lady
of the land.”

“Oh, now, Masser, you doesn’t tink me is equal to you, a fine, nice,
pretty white gemman–dress so fine.”

“God cares not, my child, for clothes, or the color of the skin. He
values the heart alone; and if your heart is clear, it matters not
whether your face be black or your clothes mean.”

“Laws, now, young Masser,” and the child laughed heartily at the idea,
“you doesn’t ‘spect a nigger’s heart am clean. I tells you ’tis black
and dirty as dere faces.”

“My poor child, I would that I had power to scatter the gloomy mist that
beclouds your mind, and let you see and know that our dying Saviour
embraced all your unfortunate race in the merits of his divine
atonement.”

This speech was not comprehended by Amy. She sat looking vacantly at
him; marvelling all the while at his pretty talk, yet never once
believing that Jesus prized a negro’s soul. Young master’s eyes were, as
usual, elevated to the clear, majestic heavens. Not a cloud floated in
the still, serene expanse, and the air was chill. One moment longer I
waited, before revealing myself. Stepping forward, I addressed young
master in an humble tone.

“Well, Ann, what do you want?” This was not said in a petulant voice,
but with so much gentleness that it invited the burdened heart to make
its fearful disclosure.

“Oh, young Master, I know that you will pardon me for what I am going to
ask. I cannot longer restrain myself. Tell me what is to become of us?
When shall we be sold? Into whose hands shall I fall?”

“Alas, poor Ann, I am as ignorant of father’s intentions as you are. I
would that I could relieve your anxiety, but I am as uneasy about it as
you or any one can be. Oh, I am powerless to do anything to better your
unfortunate condition. I am weak as the weakest of you.”

“I know, young Master, that we have your kindest sympathy, and this
knowledge softens my trouble.”

He did not reply, but sat with a perplexed expression, looking on the
ground.

“Oh, Ann, you has done gin young Masser some trouble. What fur you do
dat? We niggers ain’t no ‘count any how, and you hab no sort ob
bisiness be troublin’ young Masser ’bout it,” said Amy.

“Be still, Amy, let Ann speak her troubles freely. It will relieve her
mind. You may tell me of yours too.”

Sitting down upon the sward, close to his feet, I relieved my oppressed
bosom by a copious flood of tears. Still he spoke not, but sat silent,
looking down. Amy was awed into stillness, and even little Ben became
calm and quiet as a lamb. No one broke the spell. No one seemed anxious
to do so. There are some feelings for which silence is the best
expression.

At length he said mildly, “Now, my good friends, it might be made the
subject of ungenerous remarks, if you were to be seen talking with me
long. You had better return to the house.”

As Amy and I, with little Ben, rose to depart, he looked after us, and
sighing, exclaimed, “poor creatures, my heart bleeds for you!”

Upon my return to the house I hastened on to the cabin, hoping to find
Aunt Polly almost entirely recovered. Passing hastily through the yard I
entered the cabin with a light step, and to my surprise found her
sitting up in a chair, playing with some old faded artificial flowers,
the dilapidated decorations of Miss Tildy’s summer bonnet, which had
been swept from the house with the litter on the day before. I had never
seen her engaged in a pastime so childish and sportive, and was not a
little astonished, for her aversion to flowers had often been to me the
subject of remark.

“What have you there that is pretty, Aunt Polly?” I asked with
tenderness.

With a wondering, childish smile, she held the crushed blossoms up, and
turning them over and over in her hands, said:

“Putty things! ye is berry putty!” then pressing them to her bosom, she
stroked the leaves as kindly as though she had been smoothing the truant
locks of a well-beloved child. I could not understand this freak, for
she was one to whose uncultured soul all sweet and pretty fancies seemed
alien. Looking up to me with that vacant glance which at once explained
all, she said:

“Who’s dar? Who is you? Oh, dat is my darter,” and addressing me by the
remembered name of her own long-lost child, she traversed, in thought,
the whole waste-field of memory. Not a single wild-flower in the wayside
of the heart was neglected or forgotten. She spoke of times when she had
toyed and dandled her infant darling upon her knee; then, shudderingly,
she would wave me off, with terror written all over her furrowed face,
and cry, “Get you away, Masser is comin’: thar, thar he is; see him wid
de ropes; he is comin’ to tar you ‘way frum me. Here, here child, git
under de bed, hide frum ’em, dey is all gwine to take you ‘way–‘way
down de river, whar you’ll never more see yer poor old mammy.” Then
sinking upon her knees, with her hands outstretched, and her eyes
eagerly strained forward, and bent on vacancy, she frantically cried:

“Masser, please, please Masser, don’t take my poor chile from me. It’s
all I is got on dis ar’ airth; Masser, jist let me hab it and I’ll work
fur you, I’ll sarve you all de days ob my life. You may beat my ole back
as much as you please; you may make me work all de day and all de night,
jist, so I ken keep my chile. Oh, God, oh, God! see, dere dey goes, wid
my poor chile screaming and crying for its mammy! See, see it holds its
arms to me! Oh, dat big hard man struck it sich a blow. Now, now dey is
out ob sight.” And crawling on her knees, with arms outspread, she
seemed to be following some imaginary object, until, reaching the door,
I feared in her transport of agony she would do herself some injury,
and, catching her strongly in my arms, I attempted to hold her back; but
she was endowed with a superhuman strength, and pushed me violently
against the wall.

“Thar, you wretch, you miserble wretch, dat would keep me from my chile,
take dat blow, and I wish it would send yer to yer grave.”

Recoiling a few steps, I looked at her. A wild and lurid light gathered
in her eye, and a fiendish expression played over her face. She clenched
her hands, and pressed her old broken teeth hard upon her lips, until
the blood gushed from them; frothing at the mouth, and wild with
excitement, she made an attempt to bound forward and fell upon the
floor. I screamed for help, and sprang to lift her up. Blood oozed from
her mouth and nose; her eyes rolled languidly, and her under-jaw fell as
though it were broken.

In terror I bore her to the bed, and, laying her down, I went to get a
bowl of water to wash the blood and foam from her face. Meeting Amy at
the door, I told her Aunt Polly was very sick, and requested her to
remain there until my return.

I fled to the kitchen, and seizing a pan of water that stood upon the
shelf, returned to the cabin. There I found young master bending over
Aunt Polly, and wiping the blood-stains from her mouth and nose with his
own handkerchief. This was, indeed, the ministration of the high to the
lowly. This generous boy never remembered the distinctions of color, but
with that true spirit of human brotherhood which Christ inculcated by
many memorable examples, he ministered to the humble, the lowly, and the
despised. Indeed, such seemed to take a firmer hold upon his heart.
Here, in this lowly cabin, like the good Samaritan of old, he paused to
bind up the wounds of a poor outcast upon the dreary wayside of
existence.

Bending tenderly over Aunt Polly, until his luxuriant golden curls swept
her withered face, he pressed his linen handkerchief to her mouth and
nose to staunch the rapid flow of blood.

“Oh, Ann, have you come with the water? I fear she is almost gone; throw
it in her face with a slight force, it may revive her,” he said in a
calm tone.

I obeyed, but there was no sign of consciousness. After one or two
repetitions she moved a little, young master drew a bottle of sal
volatile from his pocket, and applied it to her nose. The effect was
sudden; she started up spasmodically, and looking round the room laughed
wildly, frightfully; then, shaking her head, her face resumed its look
of pitiful imbecility.

“The light is quenched, and forever,” said young master, and the tears
came to his eyes and rolled slowly down his cheeks. Amy, with Ben in her
arms, stood by in anxious wonder; creeping up to young master’s side,
she looked earnestly in his face, saying–

“Don’t cry, Masser, Aunt Polly will soon be well; she jist sick for
little while. De lick Masser gib her only hurt her little time,–she
‘most well now, but her does look mighty wild.”

“Oh, Lord, how much longer must these poor people be tried in the
furnace of affliction? How much longer wilt thou permit a suffering race
to endure this harsh warfare? Oh, Divine Father, look pityingly down on
this thy humble servant, who is so sorely tried.” The latter part of the
speech was uttered as he sank upon his knees; and down there upon the
coarse puncheon floor we all knelt, young master forming the central
figure of the group, whilst little Amy, the baby-boy Ben, and the poor
lunatic, as if in mimicry, joined us. We surrounded him, and surely that
beautiful heart-prayer must have reached the ear of God. When such
purity asks for grace and mercy upon the poor and unfortunate, the ear
of Divine grace listens.

“What fur you pray?” asked the poor lunatic.

“I ask mercy for sore souls like thine.”

“Oh, dat is funny; but say, sir, whar is my chile? Whar is she? Why
don’t she come to me? She war here a minnit ago; but now she does be
gone away.”

“Oh, what a mystery is the human frame! Lyre of the spirit, how soon is
thy music jarred into discord.” Young master uttered this rhapsody in a
manner scarcely audible, but to my ear no sound of his was lost, not a
word, syllable, or tone!

“Poor Luce–is dat Luce?” and the poor, crazed creature stared at me
with a bewildered gaze! “and my baby-boy, whar is he, and my oldest
sons? Dey is all gone from me and forever.” She began to weep piteously.

“Watch with her kindly till I send Jake for the doctor,” he said to me;
then rallying himself, he added, “but they are all gone–gone upon that
accursed hunt;” and, seating himself in a chair, he pressed his fingers
hard upon his closed eye-lids. “Stay, I will go myself for the
doctor–she must not be neglected.”

And rising from his chair he buttoned his coat, and, charging me to take
good care of her, was about starting, but Aunt Polly sprang forward and
caught him by the arms, exclaiming,

“Oh, putty, far angel, don’t leab me. I kan’t let you leab me–stay
here. I has no peace when you is gone. Dey will come and beat me agin,
and dey will take my chil’en frum me. Oh, please now, you stay wid me.”

And she held on to him with such a pitiful fondness, and there was so
much anxiety in her face, such an infantile look of tenderness, with the
hopeless vacancy of idiocy in the eye, that to refuse her would have
been harsh; and of this young master was incapable. So, turning to me,
he said,

“You go, Ann, for the doctor, and I will stay with her–poor old
creature I have never done anything for her, and now I will gratify
her.”

As the horses had all been taken by the pursuers of Lindy, I was forced
to walk to Dr. Mandy’s farm, which was about two miles distant from Mr.
Peterkin’s. I was glad of this, for of late it was indeed but seldom
that I had been allowed to indulge in a walk through the woods. All
through the leafy glory of the summer season I had looked toward the old
sequestered forest with a longing eye. Each little bird seemed wooing me
away, yet my occupations confined me closely to the house; and a
pleasure-walk, even on Sunday, was a luxury which a negro might dream of
but never indulge. Now, though it was the lonely autumn time, yet loved
I still the woods, dismantled as they were. There is something in the
grandeur of the venerable forests, that always lifts the soul to
devotion! The patriarchal trees and the delicate sward, the wind-music
and the almost ceaseless miserere of the grove, elevate the heart, and
to the cultivated mind speak with a power to which that of books is but
poor and tame.

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