"Oh, no," says Reuben, gayly. "I see Dr. Mowry off and on, pretty often. He's a clever old gentleman,—Dr. Mowry."
Clever old gentleman!
The Doctor walked on oppressed with grief,—silent, but with lips moving in prayer,—beseeching God to take away the stony heart from this poor child of his, and to give him a heart of flesh.
Reuben had improved, as we said, by his New York schooling. He was quick of apprehension, well informed; and his familiarity with the counting-room of Mr. Brindlock had given him a business promptitude that was specially agreeable to the Doctor, whose habits in that regard were of woful slackness. But religiously, the good man looked upon his son as a castaway. It was only too apparent that Reuben had not derived the desired improvement from attendance at the Fulton-Street Church. That attendance had been punctual, indeed, for nearly all the first year of his city life, in virtue of the inexorable habit of his education; but Dr. Mowry had not won upon him by any personal magnetism. The city Doctor was a ponderously good man, preaching for the most part ponderous sermons, and possessed of a most imposing friendliness of manner. When Reuben had presented to him the credentials from his father, (which he could hardly have done, save for the urgency of the Brindlocks,) the ponderous Doctor had patted him upon the shoulder, and said,—
"My young friend, your father is a most worthy man,—most worthy. I should be delighted to see you following in his steps. I shall be most glad to be of service to you. Our meetings for Bible instruction are on Wednesdays, at seven: the young men upon the left, the young ladies on the right."
The Doctor appeared to Reuben a man solemnly preoccupied with the immensity of his charge; and it seemed to him (though it was doubtless a wicked thought of the boy) that the ponderous minister would have counted it a matter of far smaller merit to instruct, and guide, and save a wanderer from the country, than to perform the same offices for a good fat sinner of the city.
As we have said, the memory of old teachings for a year or more made any divergence from the severe path of boyhood seem to Reuben a sin; and these divergencies so multiplied by easy accessions as to have made him, after a time, look upon himself very confidently, and almost cheerily, as a reprobate. And if a reprobate, why not taste the Devil's cup to the full?
That first visit to the theatre was like a bold push into the very domain of Satan. Even the ticket-seller at the door seemed to him on that eventful night an understrapper of Beelzebub, who looked out at him with the goggle eyes of a demon. That such a man could have a family, or family affections, or friendships, or any sense of duty or honor, was to him a thing incomprehensible; and when he passed the wicket for the first time into the vestibule of the old Park Theatre, the very usher in the corridor had to his eye a look like the Giant Dagon, and he conceived of him as mumbling, in his leisure moments, the flesh from human bones. And when at last the curtain rose, and the damp air came out upon him from behind the scenes as he sat in the pit, and the play began with some wonderful creature in tight bodice and painted cheeks, sailing across the stage, it seemed to him that the flames of Divine wrath might presently be bursting out over the house, or a great judgment of God break down the roof and destroy them all.
But it did not; and he took courage. It is so easy to find courage in those battles where we take no bodily harm! If conscience, sharpened by the severe discipline he had known, pricked him awkwardly at the first, he bore the stings with a good deal of sturdiness. A sinner, no doubt,—that he knew long ago: a little slip, or indeed no slip at all, had ranked him with the unregenerate. Once a sinner, (thus he pleasantly reasoned,) and a fellow may as well be ten times a sinner: a bad job anyhow. If in his moments of reflection—these being not yet wholly crowded out from his life—there comes a shadowy hope of better things, of some moral poise that should be in keeping with the tenderer recollections of his boyhood,—all this can never come, (he bethinks himself, in view of his old teaching,) except on the heel of some terrible conviction of sin; and the conviction will hardly come without some deeper and more damning weight of it than he feels as yet. A heavy cumulation of the weight may some day serve him a good turn. Thus the Devil twists his vague yearning for a condition of spiritual repose into a pleasantly smacking lash with which to scourge his grosser appetites; so that, upon the whole, Reuben drives a fine, showy team along the high-road of indulgence.
Yet the minister's son had no love for gross vices; there were human instincts in him (if it maybe said) that rebelled against his more deliberate sinnings. Nay, he affected with his boon companions an enjoyment of wanton excesses that he only half felt. A certain adventurous, dare-devil reach in him craved exercise. The character of Reuben at this stage would surely have offered a good subject for the study and the handling of Dr. Mowry, if that worthy gentleman could have won his way to the lad's confidence; but the ponderous methods of the city parson showed no fineness of touch. Even the father, as we have seen, could not reach down to any religious convictions of the son; and Reuben keeps him at bay with a banter, and an exaggerated attention to the personal comforts of the old gentleman, that utterly baffle him. Reuben holds too much in dread the old catechismal dogmas and the ultimate "anathema maran-atha."
So it was with a profound sigh that the father bade his son adieu after this city visit.
"Good bye, father! Love to them all in Ashfield."
So like Rachel's voice! So like Rachel's! And the heart of the old man yearned toward him and ached bitterly for him. "O my son Absalom! my son! my son Absalom!"
Maverick hurried his departure from the city; and Adele, writing to Rose to announce the programme of her journey, says only this much of Reuben:—"We have of course seen R——, who was very attentive and kind. He has grown tall,—taller, I should think, than Phil; and he is quite well-looking and gentlemanly. I think he has a very good opinion of himself."
The summer's travel offered a season of rare enjoyment to Adele. The lively sentiment of girlhood was not yet wholly gone, and the thoughtfulness of womanhood was just beginning to tone, without controlling, her sensibilities. The delicate attentions of Maverick were more like those of a lover than of a father. Through his ever watchful eyes, Adele looked upon the beauties of Nature with a new halo on them. How the water sparkled to her vision! How the days came and went like golden dreams!
Ah, happy youth-time! The Hudson, Lake George, Saratoga, the Mountains, the Beach,—to us old stagers, who have breasted the tide of so many years, and flung off long ago all the iridescent sparkles of our sentiment, these are only names of summer thronging-places. Upon the river we watch the growth of the crops, or ask our neighbors about the cost of our friend Faro's new country-seat; we lounge upon the piazzas of the hotels, reading price-lists, or (if not too old) an editorial; we complain of the windy currents upon the lake, and find our chiefest pleasure in a trout boiled plain, with a dressing of Champagne sauce; we linger at Fabian's on a sunny porch, talking politics with a rheumatic old gentleman in his overcoat, while the youngsters go ambling through the fir woods and up the mountains with shouts and laughter. Yet it was not always thus. There were times in the lives of us old travellers—let us say from sixteen to twenty—when the great river was a glorious legend trailing its storied length through the Highlands; when in every opening valley there lay purple shadows whereon we painted castles; when the corridors and shaded walks of the "United States" were like a fairy land, with flitting skirts and waving plumes, and some delicately gloved hand beating its reveille upon the heart; and when every floating film of mist along the sea, whether at Newport or Nahant, tenderly entreated the fancy.
But we forget ourselves, and we forget Adele. In her wild exuberance of joy Maverick shares with a spirit that he had believed to be dead in him utterly. And if he finds it necessary to check from time to time the noisy effervescence of her pleasure, as he certainly does at the first, he does it in the most tender and considerate way; and Adele learns, what many of her warm-hearted sisters never do learn, that a well-bred control over our enthusiasms in no way diminishes the exquisiteness of their savor.
Maverick should be something over fifty now, and his keenness of observation in respect to feminine charms is not perhaps so great as it once was; but even he cannot fail to see, with a pride that he makes no great effort to conceal, the admiring looks that follow the lithe, graceful figure of Adele, wherever their journey may lead them. Nor, indeed, were there any more comely toilettes for a young girl to be met with anywhere than those which had been provided for the young traveller under the advice of Mrs. Brindlock.
It may be true—what his friend Papiol had predicted—that Maverick will be too proud of his child to keep her in a secluded corner of New England. For his pride there is certainly abundant reason; and what father does not love to see the child of whom he is proud admired?
Yet weeks had run by and Maverick had never once broached the question of a return. The truth was, that the new experience was so charming and so engrossing for him, the sweet, intelligent face ever at his side was so full of eager wonder, and he so delightfully intent upon providing new sources of pleasure and calling out again and again the gushes of her girlish enthusiasm, that he shrunk instinctively from a decision in which must be involved so largely her future happiness.
At last it was Adele herself who suggested the inquiry,—
"Is it true, dear papa, what the Doctor tells me, that you may possibly take, me back to France with you?"
"What say you, Adele? Would you like to go?"
"But," said Maverick, "your friends here,—can you so easily cast them away?"
"No, no, no!" said Adele,—"not cast them away! Couldn't I come again some day? Besides, there is your home, papa; I should love any home of yours, and love your friends."
"For instance, Adele, there is my book-keeper, a lean Savoyard, who wears a red wig and spectacles,—and Lucille, a great, gaunt woman, with a golden crucifix about her neck, who keeps my little parlor in order,—and Papiol, a fat Frenchman, with a bristly moustache and iron-gray hair, who, I dare say, would want to kiss the pet of his dear friend,—and Jeannette, who washes the dishes for us, and wears great wooden sabots"——
"Nonsense, papa! I am sure you have other friends; and then there's the good godmother."
"Ah, yes,—she indeed," said Maverick; "what a precious hug she would give you, Adele!"
"And then—and then—should I see mamma?"
The pleasant humor died out of the face of Maverick on the instant; and then, in a slow, measured tone,—
"Impossible, Adele,—impossible! Come here, darling!" and as he fondled her in a wild, passionate way, "I will love you for both, Adele; she was not worthy of you, child."
Adele, too, is overcome with a sudden seriousness.
"Is she living, papa?" And she gives him an appealing look that must be answered.
And Maverick seems somehow appalled by that innocent, confiding expression of hers.
"May-be, may-be, my darling; she was living not long since; yet it can never matter to you or me more. You will trust me in this, Adele?" And he kisses her tenderly.
And she, returning the caress, but bursting into tears as she does so, says,—
"I will, I do, papa."
"There, there, darling!"—as he folds her to him; "no more tears,—no more tears, cherie!"
But even while he says it, he is nervously searching his pockets, since there is a little dew that must be wiped from his own eyes. Maverick's emotion, however, was but a little momentary contagious sympathy with the daughter,—he having no understanding of that unsatisfied yearning in her heart of which this sudden tumult of feeling was the passionate outbreak.
Meantime Adele is not without her little mementos of the life at Ashfield, which come in the shape of thick double letters from that good girl Rose,—her dear, dear friend, who has been advised by the little traveller to what towns she should direct these tender missives; and Adele is no sooner arrived at these postal stations than she sends for the budget which she knows must be waiting for her. And of course she has her own little pen in a certain travelling-escritoire the good papa has given her; and she plies her white fingers with it often and often of an evening, after the day's sight-seeing is over, to tell Rose, in return, what a charming journey she is having, and how kind papa is, and what a world of strange things she is seeing; and there are descriptions of sunsets and sunrises, and of lakes and of mountains, on those close-written sheets of hers, which Rose, in her enthusiasm, declares to be equal to many descriptions in print. We dare say they were better than a great many such.
Poor Rose feels that she has only very humdrum stories to tell in return for these; but she ekes out her letters pretty well, after all, and what they lack in novelty is made up in affection.
"There is really nothing new to tell," she writes, "except it be that our old friend, Miss Almira Tourtelot, astonished us all with a new bonnet last Sunday, and with new saffron ribbons; and she has come out, too, in the new tight sleeves, in which she looks drolly enough. Phil is very uneasy, now that his schooling is done, and talks of going to the West Indies about some business in which papa is concerned. I hope he will go, if he doesn't stay too long. He is such a dear, good fellow! Madame Arles asks after you, when I see her, which is not very often now; for since the Doctor has come back from New York, he has had a new talk with mamma, and has quite won her over to his view of the matter. So good bye to French for the present! Heigho! But I don't know that I'm sorry, now that you are not here, dear Ady.
"Another queer thing I had almost forgotten to tell you. The poor Boody girl,—you must remember her? Well, she has come back on a sudden; and they say her father would not receive her in his house,—there are terrible stories about it!—and now she is living with an old woman far out upon the river-road,—only a little garret-chamber for herself and the child she brought back with her. Of course nobody goes near her, or looks at her, if she comes on the street. But—the queerest thing!—when Madame Arles heard of it and of her story, what does she do but walk far out to visit her, and talked with her in her broken English for an hour, they say. Papa says she (Madame A.) must be a very bad woman or a very good woman. Miss Johns says she always thought she was a bad woman. The Bowriggs are, of course, very indignant, and I doubt if Madame A. comes to Ashfield again with them."
And again, at a later date, Rose writes,—
"The Bowriggs are all off for the winter, and the house closed. Reuben has been here on a flying visit to the parsonage; and how proud Miss Eliza was of her nephew! He came over to see Phil, I suppose; but Phil had gone two weeks before. Mamma thinks he is fine-looking. I fancy he will never live in the country again. When shall I see you again, dear, dear Ady? I have so much to talk to you about!"
A month thereafter Maverick and his daughter find their way back to Ashfield. Of course Miss Johns has made magnificent preparations to receive them. She surpassed herself in her toilette on the day of their arrival, and fairly astonished Maverick with the warmth of her welcome to his child. Yet he could not help observing that Adele met it more coolly than was her wont, and that her tenderest words were reserved for the good Doctor. And how proud she was to walk with her father upon the village street, glancing timidly up at the windows from which she knew those stiff old Miss Hapgoods must be peeping out! How proud to sit beside him in the parson's pew, feeling that the eyes of half the congregation were fastened on the tall gentleman beside her! Ah, happy daughter! may your beautiful filial pride never have a fall!
Important business letters command Maverick's early presence abroad; and, after conference with the Doctor, he decides to leave Adele once more under the roof of the parsonage.
"Under God, I will do for her what I can," said the Doctor.
"I know it, I know it, my good friend," says Maverick. "Teach her self-reliance; she may need it some day. And mind what I have said of this French woman. Adele seems to have a tendresse that way. Those French women are very insidious, Johns."
"You know their ways better than I," said the Doctor, dryly.
"Good! a smack of the old college humor there, Johns. Well, well, at least you don't doubt the sacredness of my love for Adele?"
"I trust, Maverick, I may never doubt the sacredness of your love in any direction. I only hope you may direct it where I fear you do not."
"God bless you, Johns! I wish I were as good a man as you."
A little afterwards Maverick was humming a snatch from an opera under the trees of the orchard; and Adele went bounding toward him, to take the last walk with him for so long,—so long!
Autumn and winter passed by, and the summer of 1838 opened upon the old quiet life of Ashfield. The stiff Miss Johns, busy with her household duties, or with her stately visitings. The Doctor's hat and cane in their usual place upon the little table within the door, and of a Sunday his voice is lifted up under the old meeting-house roof in earnest expostulation. The birds pipe their old songs, and the orchard has shown once more its wondrous glory of bloom. But all these things have lost their novelty for Adele. Would it be strange, if the tranquil life of the little town had lost something of its early charm? That swift French blood of hers has been stirred by contact with the outside world. She has, perhaps, not been wholly insensible to those admiring glances which so quickened the pride of the father. Do not such things leave a hunger in the heart of a girl of seventeen which the sleepy streets of a country town can but poorly gratify?
The young girl is, moreover, greatly disturbed at the thought of the new separation from her father for some indefinite period. Her affections have knitted themselves around him, during that delightful journey of the summer, in a way that has made her feel with new weight the parting. It is all the worse that she does not clearly perceive the necessity for it. Is she not of an age now to contribute to the cheer of whatever home he may have beyond the sea? Why, pray, has he given her such uninviting pictures of his companions there? Or what should she care for his companions, if only she could enjoy his tender watchfulness? Or is it that her religious education is not yet thoroughly complete, and that she still holds out against a full and public avowal of all the doctrines which the Doctor urges upon her acceptance? And the thought of this makes his kindly severities appear more irksome than ever.
Another cause of grief to Adele is the extreme disfavor in which she finds that Madame Arles is now regarded by the townspeople. Her sympathies had run out towards the unfortunate woman in some inexplicable way, and held there even now, so strongly that contemptuous mention of her stung like a reproach to herself. At least she was a countrywoman, and alone among strangers; and in this Adele found abundant reason for a generous sympathy. As for her religion, was it not the religion of her mother and of her good godmother? And with this thought flaming in her, is it wonderful, if Adele toys more fondly than ever, in the solitude of her chamber, with the little rosary she has guarded so long? Not, indeed, that she has much faith in its efficacy; but it is a silent protest against the harsh speeches of Miss Eliza, who had been specially jealous of the influence of the French teacher.
"I never liked her countenance, Adele," said the spinster, in her solemn manner; "and I am rejoiced that you will not be under her influence the present summer."
"And I'm sorry," said Adele, petulantly.
"It is gratifying to me," continued Miss Eliza, without notice of Adele's interruption, "that Mr. Maverick has confirmed my own impressions, and urged the Doctor against permitting so unwise association."
"When? how?" said Adele, sharply. "Papa has never seen her."
"But he has seen other French women, Adele, and he fears their influence."
Adele looked keenly at the spinster for a moment, as if to fathom the depth of this reply, then burst into tears.
"Oh, why, why didn't he take me with him?" But this she says under breath, and to herself, as she rushes into the Doctor's study to question him.
"Is it true, New Papa, that papa thought badly of Madame Arles?"
"Not personally, my child, since he had never seen her. But, Adaly, your father, though I fear he is far away from the true path, wishes you to find it, my child. He has faith in the religion we teach so imperfectly; he wishes you to be exposed to no influences that will forbid your full acceptance of it."
"But Madame Arles never talked of religion to me"; and Adele taps impatiently upon the floor.
"That may be true, Adaly,—it may be true; but we cannot be thrown into habits of intimacy with those reared in iniquity without fear of contracting stain. I could wish, my child, that you would so far subdue your rebellious heart, and put on the complete armor of righteousness, as to be able to resist all attacks."
"And it was for this papa left me here?" And Adele says it with a smile of mockery that alarms the good Doctor.
"I trust, Adaly, that he had that hope."
The good man does not know what swift antagonism to his pleadings he has suddenly kindled in her. The little foot taps more and more impatiently as he goes on to set forth (as he had so often done) the heinousness of her offences and the weight of her just condemnation. Yet the antagonism did not incline her to open doubt; but after she had said her evening prayer that night, (taught her by the parson,) she drew out her little rosary and kissed reverently the crucifix. It is so much easier at this juncture for her tried and distracted spirit to bolster its faith upon such material symbol than to find repose in any merely intellectual conviction of truth!
Adele's intimacy with Rose and with her family retained all its old tenderness, but that good fellow Phil was gone. A blithe and merry companion he had been! Adele missed his kindly attentions more than she would have believed. The Bowriggs have come to Ashfield, but their clamorous friendship is more than ever distasteful to Adele. Over and over she makes a feint of illness to escape the noisy hilarity. Nor, indeed, is it wholly a feint. Whether it were that her state of moral perturbation and unrest reacted upon the physical system, or that there were other disturbing causes, certain it was that the roses were fading from her cheeks, and that her step was losing day by day something of its old buoyancy. It is even thought best to summon the village doctor to the family council. He is a gossiping, kindly old gentleman, who spends an easy life, free from much mental strain, in trying to make his daily experiences tally with the little fund of medical science which he accumulated thirty years before.
The serene old gentleman feels the pulse, with his head reflectively on one side,—tells his little jokelet about Sir Astley Cooper, or some other worthy of the profession,—shakes his fat sides with a cheery laugh,—"And now, my dear," he says, "let us look at the tongue. Ah, I see, I see,—the stomach lacks tone."
"And there's dreadful lassitude, sometimes, Doctor," speaks up Miss Eliza.
"Ah, I see,—a little exhaustion after a long walk,—isn't it so, Miss Maverick? I see, I see; we must brace up the system, Miss Johns,—brace up the system."
And the kindly old gentleman prescribes his little tonics, of which Adele takes some, and throws more out of the window.
Adele does not mend, and the rumor is presently current upon the street that "Miss Adeel is in a decline." The spinster shows a solicitude in the matter which almost touches the heart of the French girl. For Adele had long before decided that there could be no permanent sympathy between them, and had indulged latterly in no little bitterness of speech toward her. But the acute spinster had forgiven all. Never once had she lost sight of her plan for the ultimate disposal of Adele and of her father's fortune. Of course the life of Adele was very dear to her, and the absence of Phil she looked upon as Providential.
Weeks pass by, but still the tonics of the kindly old physician prove of little efficacy. One day the Bowriggs come blustering in, as is their wont.
"Such assurance! Did you ever hear the like? Madame Arles writes us that she is coming to see Ashfield again, and of course coming to us. The air of the town agrees with her, and she hopes to find lodgings."
The eyes of Adele sparkle with satisfaction,—not so much, perhaps, by reason of her old sympathy with the poor woman, which is now almost forgotten, as because it will give some change at least to the dreary monotony of the town life.
"Lodgings, indeed!" says the younger Miss Bowrigg. "I wonder where she will find them!"
It is a matter of great doubt, to be sure,—since the sharp speech of the spinster has so spread the story of her demerits, that not a parishioner of the Doctor but would have feared to give the poor woman a home.
Adele still has strength enough for an occasional stroll with Rose, and, in the course of one of them, comes upon Madame Arles, whom she meets with a good deal of her old effusion. And Madame, touched by her apparent weakness, more than reciprocates it.
"But you suffer, you are unhappy, my child,—pining at last for the sun of Provence. Isn't it so, mon ange? No, no, you were never meant to grow up among these cold people. You must see the vineyards, and the olives, and the sea, Adele; you must! you must!"
All this, uttered in a torrent, which, with its tutoiements, Rose can poorly comprehend.
Yet it goes straight to the heart of Adele, and her tongue is loosened to a little petulant, fiery roulade against the severities of the life around her, which it would have greatly pained poor Rose to listen to in any speech of her own.
But such interviews, once or twice repeated, come to the knowledge of the watchful spinster, who clearly perceives that Adele is chafing more and more under the wonted family regimen. With an affectation of tender solicitude, she volunteers herself to attend Adele upon her short morning strolls, and she learns presently, with great triumph, that Madame Arles has established herself at last under the same roof which gives refuge to the outcast Boody woman. Nothing more was needed to seal the opinion of the spinster, and to confirm the current village belief in the heathenish character of the French lady. Dame Tourtelot was shrewdly of the opinion that the woman represented some Popish plot for the abduction of Adele, and for her incarceration in a nunnery,—a theory which Miss Almira, with her natural tendency to romance, industriously propagated.
Meantime the potions of the village doctor have little effect, and before July is ended a serious illness has declared itself, and Adele is confined to her chamber. Madame Arles is among the earliest who come with eager inquiries, and begs to see the sufferer. But she is confronted by the indefatigable spinster, who, cloaking her denial under ceremonious form, declares that her state of nervous prostration will not admit of it. Madame withdraws, sadly; but the visit and the claim are repeated from time to time, until the stately civility of Miss Johns arouses her suspicions.
"You deny me, Madame. You do wrong. I love Adele; she loves me. I know that I could comfort her. You do not understand her nature. She was born where the sky is soft and warm. You are all cold and harsh,—cold and harsh in your religion. She has told me as much. I know how she suffers. I wish I could carry her back to France with me. I pray you, let me see her, good Madame!"
"It is quite impossible, I assure you," said the spinster, in her most aggravating manner. "It would be quite against the wishes of my brother, the Doctor, as well as of Mr. Maverick."
"Monsieur Maverick! Mon Dieu, Madame! He is no father to her; he leaves her to die with strangers; he has no heart; I have better right: I love her. I must see her!"
And with a passionate step,—those eyes of hers glaring in that strange double way upon the amazed Miss Eliza,—she strides toward the door, as if she would overcome all opposition. But before she has gone out, that cruel pain has seized her, and she sinks upon a chair, quite prostrated, and with hands clasped wildly over that burden of a heart.
"Too hard! too hard!" she murmurs, scarce above her breath.
The spinster is attentive, but is untouched. Her self-poise never deserts her. And not then, or at any later period, did poor Madame Arles succeed in overcoming the iron resolve of Miss Johns.
The good Doctor is greatly troubled by the report of Miss Eliza. Can it be possible that Adele has given a confidence to this strange woman that she has not given to them? Cold and harsh! Can Adele, indeed, have said this? Has he not labored with a full heart? Has he not agonized in prayer to draw in this wandering lamb to the fold? He has seen, indeed, that the poor child has chafed much latterly, that the old serenity and gayety are gone. But is it not a chafing under the fetters of sin? Is it not that she begins to see more clearly the fiery judgments of God which will certainly overwhelm the wrongdoers, whatever may be the unsubstantial and evanescent graces of their mortal life?
Yet, with all the rigidity of his doctrine, which he cannot in conscience mollify, even for the tender ears of Adele, it disturbs him strangely to hear that she has qualified his regimen as harsh or severe. Has he not taught, in season and out of season, the fulness of God's promises? Has he not labored and prayed? Is it not the ungodly heart in her that finds his teaching a burden? Is not his conscience safe? Yet, for all this, it touches him to the quick to think that her childlike, trustful confidence is at last alienated from him,—that her affection for him is so distempered by dread and weariness. For, unconsciously, he has grown to love her as he loves no one save his boy Reuben; unconsciously his heart has mellowed under her influence. Through her winning, playful talk, he has taken up that old trail of worldly affections which he had thought buried forever in Rachel's grave. That tender touch of her little fingers upon his cheek has seemed to say, "Life has its joys, old man!" The patter of her feet along the house has kindled the memories of other gentle steps that tread now silently in the courts of air. Those songs of hers,—how he has loved them! Never confessing even to Miss Eliza, still less to himself, how much his heart is bound up in this little winsome stranger, who has shone upon his solitary parsonage like a sunbeam.
And the good man, with such thoughts thronging on him, falls upon his knees, beseeching God to "be over the sick child, to comfort her, to heal her, to pour down His divine grace upon her, to open her blind eyes to the richness of His truth, to keep her from all the machinations and devices of Satan, to arm her with true holiness, to make her a golden light in the household, to give her a heart of love toward all, and most of all toward Him who so loved her that He gave His only begotten Son."
And the Doctor, rising from his attitude of prayer, and going toward the little window of his study to arrange it for the night, sees a slight figure in black pacing up and down upon the opposite side of the way, and looking up from time to time to the light that is burning in the window of Adele. He knows on the instant who it must be, and fears more than ever the possible influence which this strange woman, who is so persistent in her attention, may have upon the heart of the girl. The Doctor had heretofore been disposed to turn a deaf ear to the current reproaches of Madame Arles for her association with the poor outcast daughter of the village; but her appearance at this unseemly hour of the night, coupled with his traditional belief in the iniquities of the Romish Church, excited terrible suspicions in his mind. Like most holy men, ignorant of the crafts and devices of the world, he no sooner blundered into a suspicion of some deep Devil's cunning than every footfall and every floating zephyr seemed to confirm it. He bethought himself of Maverick's earnest caution; and before he went to bed that night, he prayed that no designing Jezebel might corrupt the poor child committed to his care.
The next night the Doctor looked again from his window, after blowing out his lamp, and there once more was the figure in black, pacing up and down. What could it mean? Was it possible that some Satanic influence could pass over from this emissary of the Evil One, (as he firmly believed her to be,) for the corruption of the sick child who lay in the delirium of a fever above?
The extreme illness of Adele was subject of common talk in the village, and the sympathy was very great. On the following night Adele was far worse, and the Doctor, at about his usual bedtime, went out to summon the physician. At a glance he saw in the shadow of the opposite houses the same figure pacing up and down. He hurried his steps, fearing she might seek occasion to dart in upon the sick-chamber before his return. But he had scarcely gone twenty paces from his door, when he heard a swift step behind, and in another instant there was a grip, as of a tigress, upon his arm.
"Adele,—how is she? Tell me!"
"Ill,—very ill," said the Doctor, shaking himself from her grasp, and continued in his solemn manner, "it is an hour to be at home, woman!"
But she, paying no heed to his admonition, says,—
"I must see her,—I must!"—and dashes back toward the parsonage.
The Doctor, terrified, follows after. But he can keep no manner of pace with that swift, dark figure that glides before him. He comes to the porch panting. The door is closed. Has the infuriated woman gone in? No, for presently her grasp is again upon his arm: for a moment she had sunk, exhausted by fatigue, or overcome by emotion, upon the porch. Her tone is more subdued.
"I entreat you, good Doctor, let me see Adele!—for Christ's sake, if you be His minister, let me see her!"
"Impossible, woman, impossible!" says the Doctor, more than ever satisfied of her Satanic character by what he counts her blasphemous speech. "Adaly is delirious,—fearfully excited; it would destroy her. The only hope is in perfect quietude."
The woman releases her grasp.
"Please, Doctor, let me come to-morrow. I must see her! I will see her!"
"You shall not," said the Doctor, with solemnity,—"never, with my permission. Go to your home, woman, and pray God to have mercy on you."
"Monster!" exclaimed she, passionately, as she shook the Doctor's arm, still under her grasp; and murmuring other words in language the good man did not comprehend, she slipped silently down the yard,—away into the darkness.
DOWN THE RIVER.
She was of pure race, black as her first ancestor,—if, indeed, she ever had an ancestor, and were not an indigenous outcrop of African soil,—so black that the sun could gild her. Her countenance was as unlovely as it is possible for one to be that owns the cheeriest of smiles and the most dazzling of teeth. It would have been difficult to say how old she was, though she had the effect of being undersized, and, with sharp shoulders, elbows, and knees, seemed scarcely possessed of a rounded muscle in all her lithe and agile frame.
Nevertheless, she was a dancer by profession,—if she could have dignified her most frequent occupation by the title of profession. With a thin blue scarf turbaned round her head in floating ends, and with scanty and clinging array otherwise, tossing a tambourine, and singing wild, meaningless songs, she used to whirl and spring on the grass-plot of an evening, the young masters and mistresses smiling and applauding from the verandah, while the wind-blown flame of a flaring pitch-pine knot, held by little Pluto, gave her strange careering shadows for partner.
She had not yet been allotted to any particular task by day, now running errands of the house, now tending the sick, now, in punishment of misdemeanors, relieving an exhausted hand in the field,—for, though all along the upland lay the piny woods of the turpentine-orchards, she belonged to an estate whose rich lowlands were devoted to cotton-bearing. But whatever she did by day, she danced by night, with her wild gyration and gesture, as naturally as a moth flies; and when not in demand with the seigniory, was wont to perform in even keener force and fire at the quarters, to an admiring circle of her own kind, with ambitious imitators on the outskirts.
It was not, however, an indiscriminate assemblage even there that encouraged her rude art. There are circles within circles, and the more decorous of the slaves gave small favor to the young posturer, although the patronage she received from the house enabled her to meet their disapprobation defiantly; while to the younger portion, in the vague sense that there was something wrong about it, her dance became surrounded by all the attraction and allurement of seeing life. It was not that the frowning ones did not go through many of the same motions themselves; but theirs were occasioned by the frenzy of the religious excitement, where pious rapture and ecstasy were to be expressed by nothing but the bodily exertion of the Shout: the objectless dance of the dancer was a thing beyond their comprehension, dimly at first, and then positively, associated with sin. But she laughed them down with a gibe; she felt triumphant in the possession of her secret, known to none of them: her dance was not objectless, but the perpetual expression of all emotions, whether of beauty or joy or gratitude or praise. Some one at the house had given her a pair of little hoops with bells attached, which she was wont to wear about her ankles, and it afforded her malicious enjoyment to scatter her opponents by the tintinnabulation of her step. For all that levity, she was not destitute of her peculiar mode of adoration. For the religion of the Shout she had no absorbents whatever; she furtively watched it, and openly ridiculed it; but she had a religion of her own, notwithstanding,—a sort of primitive and grand religion, Fetich though it was. She reasoned, that the kindly brown earth produces us, bears us along on its flight, nourishes us, gives us the delights of life, takes us back into its bosom at last. She worshipped the great dark earth, imparted to it her confidence, asked of it her boons. As she grew older, and her logic or her fancy strengthened, she might have felt the sun supplying the earth, and the beings of the earth, with all their force, and have become a fire-worshipper, until further light broke on her, and she sought and found the Power that feeds the very sun himself. But at present the dust of which she was made was what she could best comprehend. So, fortified by her inward faith, and feeling herself fast friends with the ancient earth, she continued to ring her silver bells and spin her bare twinkling feet with contented disregard of those, few of whom in their unseemly worship had the faintest idea of what it was that ailed them.
Although known by various titles on the plantation, objurgatory among the hands, facetious among the heads, such as Dancing Devil, Spinning Jenny, Tarantella, Herodias's Daughter,—which last, simplifying itself into Salome, became in its diminutives the most prevalent,—the creature had a name of her own, the softest of syllables. Black and uncouth as she was, a word, one of those the whitest and most beautiful, named her; and since they tell us that every appellation has its significance for the wearer, we must suppose that somewhere in her soul that white and blossoming thing was to be found which answered to the name of Flor.
She possessed a kind of freehold in the cabin of an old negress yclept Zoe; but she seldom claimed it, for Zoe was outspoken; she preferred, instead, to lie down by night on a mat in Miss Emma's room, in a corner of the staircase, on the hall-floor, oftenest fallen wherever sleep happened to overtake her;—having so many places in which to lay her head was very like having none at all. She was at the bidding of every one, but seldom received a heavy blow; as for a round of angry words, she liked nothing better. She fell heir to much flimsy finery, as a matter of course, and to many a tidbit, cake or sweetmeat; she made herself gaudy as a butterfly with the one, and never went into a corner with the other. Of late, however, the finery and the delicates had become more uncommon things: Miss Emma wore a homespun gingham, her muslins, and Miss Agatha's, draped the windows,—for curtains and carpets had all gone to camp; bacon had ceased to be given out to the hands, who lived now on corn-meal and yams; the people at the house were scarcely better off,—for, though, as no army had passed that way, the chickens still peopled the place, they were reserved for special occasions, and it was only at rare intervals that one indulged at table in the luxury of a fowl. This was no serious regret to Flor on her own account: the less viands, the less dishes, she could oftener pause in the act of wiping a plate and perform an original hornpipe by herself, tossing the thin translucent china, and rapping it with her knuckles till it rang again. She had, however, a pang once when she saw Miss Emma lunching with relish on cold sweet potato. She spent all the rest of the day floating on the tide in an old abandoned scow secured by a long rope to the bank, and afterwards wading up and down the bed of a brook that ran into the river, until, having left a portion of her provision, to be sure, at Aunt Zoe's cabin, she busied herself over a fire out-of-doors, and served up at last before Miss Emma as savory a little terrapin stew as ever simmered on coals, capering over her success, and standing on her head in the midst of all her scattered embers, afterwards, with pure delight. The next day she came in at noon from the woods, a mile down the river-bank, with her own dark lips cased and coated in golden sweets, and, after a wordy skirmish with the cook, presented to Miss Emma a great cake of brown and fragrant honey from a nest she had discovered and neglected in better seasons, and said nothing about her half-dozen swollen and smarting stings. Mas'r Rob having shouldered his gun and taken himself off, and Mas'r Andersen having followed his example, but not his footsteps, long ago, there was nobody to fill the deficiencies of the larder with game; and thus Flor, with her traps and nets and devices, making her value felt every day, became, for Miss Emma's sake, a petted person, was put on more generous terms with those above her, and allowed a freedom of action that no other servant on the place dreamed of desiring. Such consideration was very acceptable to the girl, who was well content to go fasting herself a whole day, provided Miss Emma condescended to her offerings, and, in turn, vouchsafed her her friendship. She had no such daring aspirations towards the beautiful Miss Agatha, young Mas'r Andersen's wife, and admired her at an awful distance, never venturing to offer her a bit of broiled lark, or set before her a dish of crabs,—beaming back with a grin from ear to ear, if Miss Agatha so much as smiled on her, breaking into the wildest of dances and shuffling out the shrillest of tunes after every such incident. Moreover, Miss Agatha was hedged about with a dignity of grief, and the indistinct pity given her made her safe from other intrusion; for Mas'r Andersen, in bringing home a Northern wife, had brought home Northern principles, and, in his sudden escape forced to leave her in the only home she had, was away fighting Northern battles. This was a dreadful thing, and Mas'r Andersen was a traitor to somebody,—so much Flor knew,—it might be the Government, it might be the South, it might be Miss Agatha; her ideas were nebulous. Whatever it was, Mas'r Rob and his gun were on the other side, and woe be to Mas'r Andersen when they met! Mas'r Rob and his friends were beating back the men that meant to take away Flor and all her kind to freeze and starve; 'twas very good of him, Flor thought, and there ceased consideration. Meanwhile, wherever Mas'r Andersen might be, and whether he were so much as alive or not, Miss Agatha was not the one that knew; and Flor adapted many a rigadoon to her conjectured feelings, now swaying and bending with sorrow and longing, head fallen, arms outstretched, now hands clasped on bosom, exultant in welcome and possession.
The importance to which Flor gradually rose by no means led her to the exhibition of any greater decorum; on the contrary, it seemed to impart to her the secret of perpetual motion; and, aware of her impunity, she danced with fresher vigor in the very teeth of her censurers and their reproaches.
"Go 'long wid yer capers, ye Limb!" said Zoe to her, late one afternoon, as she entered with the half of a rabbit she had caught, and, having deposited it, went through the intricacies of her most elaborate figure in breathless listening to an unheard tune. "Ef I had dem sticks o' legs, dey'd do berrer work nor twirlin' me like I was a factotum."
At this, Flor suddenly spun about on the tip of one toe for the space of three minutes, with a buzzing noise like that of a top in hot motion, pausing at last to inquire, "Well, Maum Zoe, an' w'at's dat?" and be off again in another whirl.
"I'd red Mas'r Henry ob sich a wurfless nigger."
"Wurfless?" inquired Flor, still spinning.
"Wuss 'n wurfless."
"How 'd y' do it?"
"I'd jus' foller dat ar Sarp," said Zoe, turning over the rabbit, and considering whether a pepper-corn and a little onion out of her own patch wouldn't improve the broth she meant to make of it.
"Into de swamps?" said Flor, in a high key. "Sarp's a fool. I heerd Mas'r Henry say so. Dey'll gib him a blue-pill, for sartain."
"Humph!" said Aunt Zoe, as if she could say a great deal more.
"Tell ye w'at, Maum Zoe," replied Flor, shaking her sidelong head at every syllable, and accentuating her remarks with her forefinger and both her little sparkling eyes, "I'll 'form on ye for 'ticin' Mas'r Henry's niggers run away."
"None o' yer sass here!" said Maum Zoe, with a flashing glance.
"You take my rabbit, you mus' hab my sass," answered Flor, delicacy not being ingrain with her. "W'at 'ud I cut for to de swamps, d' ye s'pose?" she said, slapping the soles of her feet in her emphasis, and pausing for breath. "Dar neber was a lash laid on dat back"——
"No fault o' dat back, dough," interposed Aunt Zoe.
"Dar neber was a lash on dat back. Dar a'n't a person on de place hab sich treatem as dis yere Limb o' yourn. Miss Emma done gib me her red ribbins on'y Sa'd'y for my har. An' Mas'r Henry, he jus' pass an' say to me, 'Dono w'at Miss Emma 'd do widout ye, Lomy. Scairt, ye hussy!' So!"
"'Zackly. We's 'mos' w'ite, we be! How much dey do make ob us up to de house! De leopard hab change him spots, an' we hab change our skin! W'at 's de use o' bein' free, w'en we's w'ite folks a'ready? Tell me dat!" said Aunt Zoe, turning on her witheringly, rising from a deep curtsy and smoothing down her apron. "Tell ye w'at, ye Debil's spinster!" added she, with a sudden change of tone, as Flor began to mimic one of Miss Agatha's opera-tunes and with her hands on her hips slowly balance up and down the room, and came at last, bending far on one side, to leer up in the face of her elder with such a smile as Cubas was wont to give her Spanish lover in the dance. "So mighty free wid yer dancin', 'pears like you'll come to dance at a rope's end! W'at's de use o' talkin' to you? 'Mortal sperit, it 's my b'lief dat ar mockin'-bird in de branches hab as good a lookout!"
"Heap better," said Flor acquiescently, and beginning to hold a whistling colloquy with the hidden voice.
"You won't bring him down wid yer tunes. He knows w'en he's well off; he's free, he is,—swingin' onto de bough, an' 'gwine whar he like."
"Leet de chil' alone, Zoe," said a superannuated old woman sitting in the corner by the fire always smouldering on Zoe's hearth, and leaning her white head on her cane. "You be berrer showin' her her duty in her place dan be makin' her discontented."
"She doan' make me disconnected, Maum Susie," said Flor. "'F he's free, w'at's he stayin' here for? Dar 's law for dat. Doan' want none o' yer free niggers hangin' roun' dis yere. Chirrup!"
"Dar's a right smart chance ob 'em, dough, jus' now," said Aunt Zoe, chuckling at first, and then breaking into the most boisterous of laughs, "Seems like we's all ob us, ebery one, free as Sarp hisse'f. Mas'r Linkum say so. Yah, ha, ha!"
"Linkum!" said Flor. "Who dat ar? Some o' yer poor w'ite trash? Mas'r Henry doan' say so!"
"W'a' 's de matter wid dat ar boy Sarp, Zoe?" recommenced Flor, after a pause. "Mus' hab wanted suffin,—powerful,—to lib in de swamp, hab de dogs after him, an' a bullet troo de head mos' likely."
"Jus' dat. Wanted him freedom," said Zoe suddenly, with crackling stress, her eyes getting angry in their fervor, as she went on. "Wanted him body for him own. Tired o' usin' 'noder man's eyes, 'noder man's han's. Wanted him han's him own, wanted him heart him own! Had n' no breff to breathe 'cep' w'at Mas'r Henry gib out. Di'n' t'ink no t'oughts but Mas'r Henry's. Wanted him wife some day to hisse'f, wanted him chillen for him own property. Wanted to call no man mas'r but de Lord in heaben!"
"Wy, Maum Zoe, how you talk! Sarp had n' no wife."
"Neber would, w'ile he wor a slave."
"Hist now, Zoe!" said the old woman.
"I jus' done b'lieve you's a bobolitionist!" said Flor, with wide eyes and a battery of nods.
"No 'casion, no 'casion," said Zoe, with the deep inner chuckle again. "We's done 'bolished,—dat's w'at we is! We's a free people now. No more work for de 'bominationists!" And on the point of uncontrollable hilarity, she checked herself with the dignity becoming her new position. "You's your own nigger now, Salome," said she.
"We? No, t'ank you. I 'longs to Miss Emma."
"You haan' no understandin' for liberty, chil'. Seems ef 'twas like religion"——
"Ef I wor to tell Mas'r Henry, oh, wouldn' you cotch it?"
"Go 'long!" cried Zoe, looking out for a missile. "Doan' ye bring no more o' yer rabbits here, ef ye 'r' gwine to fetch an' carry"——
"Lors, Aunt Zoe, 'pears like you's out o' sorts. Haan' I got nof'n berrer to do dan be tellin' tales ob old women dat's a-waitin' for de Lord's salvation?" said Flor, with a twang of great gravity,—and proceeded thereat to make her exit in a series of lively somersaults through the room and over the threshold.
Aunt Zoe, who, ever since she had lost the use of her feet, had been a little wild on the subject of freedom, knew very well within that Flor would make no mischief for her; but, except for the excited state into which the news brought by some mysterious plantation runner had thrown her, she would scarcely have been so incautious. As it was, she had dropped a thought into Flor's head to ferment there and do its work. It was almost the first time in her life that the girl had heard freedom discussed as anything but a doubtful privilege. First awakening to consciousness in this state, it was with effort and only lately she had comprehended that there could be any other: a different condition from one in which Miss Emma was mistress and she was maid seemed at first preposterous, then fabulous, and still unnatural: nevertheless, there was a flavor of wicked pleasure in the thought. Flor looked with a sort of contempt on the little tumbling darkies who had never entertained it. Ever since she was born, however, she had frequently fancied she would like the liberty of rambling that the little wild creatures of the wood possess, but had felt criminal in the desire, and recently she had found herself enjoying the immunity of the mocking-bird on the bough, and was nearly as free in her going and coming as the same bird on the wing.
During the weeks that followed this conversation Flor's dances flagged. They existed, to be sure, but with an angularity that made them seem solutions of problems, rather than expressions of emotion; they were merely mechanical, for she had lost all interest in them. They became at last so listless as to exhibit, to more serious eyes, signs of grace in the girl. Flor wondered, if Zoe had spoken the truth, that nothing appeared changed on the plantation: all their own masters, why so obsequious to the driver still? This was one of the last of the great places; behind it, the small farms, with few hands, ran up the mountains; why was there no stampede of these unguarded slaves? She hardly understood. She listened outside the circle of the fire on the ground at night, where two or three old women mumbled together; she inferred, that, though no one of them would desert Mas'r Henry, they enjoyed the knowledge that they were at liberty to do so, if they wished. Flor laughed a bit at this, thinking where the poor things could possibly go, and how they could get there, if they would; but in her heart of hearts—though all the world but this one spot was a barren wilderness, and she never could desire to leave her dear Miss Emma, nor could find happiness away from her—it seemed a very pleasant thing to think that her devotion might be a voluntary affair, and she stayed because she chose. Still she was skeptical. The abstract question puzzled her a little, too. How came Mas'r Henry to be free? Because he was white; that explained itself. But Miss Emma—she was white, too, and yet somehow she seemed to belong to Mas'r Henry. She wondered if Mas'r Henry could sell Miss Emma; and then the thought occurred, and with the thought the fear, that, possibly, some day, he might sell her, Flor herself, away from Miss Emma and all these pleasant scenes. After such a thought had once come, it did not go readily. Flor let it linger,—turned it over in her mind; gradually familiarized with its hurt, it seemed as if she had half said farewell to the place. Better far to be a runaway than to be sold. But if it came to that, whither should she run? what was this world beyond? who was there in this sad wide world to take care of a little black image? And if she waited for it to come to that, could she get away at all? It was no wonder that in the midst of such new and grave speculations the girl's dance grew languid and her sharp tongue still. The earth was just as beautiful as ever, the skies were as deep, the flowers as intense in tint, the evening air laden with jasmine-scents as delicious as of old; but in these few weeks Flor had reached another standpoint. It seemed as if a film had fallen from her eyes, and she saw a blight on every blossom.
It was about this time, spring being at its flush, that some passing guest mentioned the march of a regiment, the next day, from Cotesworth Court-House to the first railroad-station, on its way to the seat of war. The idea of the thing filled Miss Emma with enthusiasm. How they would look, so many together, in the beautiful gray uniform too, to any one standing on Longfer Hill! She longed to see the faces of men when they took their lives in their hand for a principle. She had practised the Bonny Blue Flag till there was nothing left of it; but if a band played it in the open air, with the rising and falling of the wind, and under waving banners and glittering guidons all the men with their pale faces and shining eyes went marching by——
The end of it was, that, as her father would never have listened to anything of the kind, Flor privately informed her of a short cut down the river-bank and round the edge of the swamp to the foot of Longfer Hill,—a walk they could easily take in a couple of hours. And as nobody was in the habit of missing Flor much, and her young mistress would be supposed, after her custom, to be spending half the day in naps, they accordingly took it. Nevertheless, it was an exceedingly secret affair, for Mas'r Henry had always strictly forbidden his daughter to leave his own grounds without fit escort.
This expedition seemed to Flor such a proud and gratifying confidence, that in her pleasure she forgot to think; she only danced round about her mistress, with a return of her old exuberance, till the more quiet path of the latter resembled a straight line surrounded by an arabesque of fantastic flourishes. But, in fact, the young patrician, unaccustomed to exertion, was well wearied before they reached the river-bank. They had yet the long border of the swamp to skirt, and there towered Longfer Hill. Why could they not go across, she wondered. They would sink, Flor answered her; and then the moccasins! But there were all those green hummocks,—skipping from one to another would be mere play,—and there were no moccasins for miles. And before Flor could gainsay her, she had sprung on, keeping steadily ahead, in a determination to have her own way; and with no other course left her, Flor followed, though, at every spring, alighting on the hummocks that Miss Emma had trodden, the water splashed up about her bare ankles, and her heart shook within her at the thought of fierce runaways haunting these inaccessible hollows, and the myths of the deeper district. Before long, she had overtaken her young mistress, and they paused a moment for parley. Miss Emma was convinced, that, if it were no worse than this, it would be delightful. Flor assured her that she did not know the way any longer, for their winding path between the tall cypresses veiled in their swinging tangles of funereal moss had confused her, and she could only guess at the direction of Longfer Hill. This, then, was an adventure. Miss Emma took the responsibility all upon herself, and plunged forward. Miss Emma must know best, of course, concerning everything. Nothing loth, and gayly, Flor plunged after.
The hummocks on which they went were light, spongy masses of greenery. Their footprints filled at once behind them with clear dark water; there were glistening little pools everywhere about them; the ground was so covered with mats of brilliant blossoms that what appeared solid for the foot was oftenest the most treacherous place of all; and at last they stayed to take breath, planting themselves on the trunk of a fallen tree so twisted and twined with variegated vines and flowers, and deadly, damp fungi, that it was like some gorgeous dais-seat. Behind them and beside them was the darkness of the cypress groves. Before them extended a smooth floor, a wide level region, carpeted in the most vivid verdure and sheeted with the sunshine, an immense bed of softest moss, underlaid with black bog, quaking at every step, and shaking a thousand diamonds into the light. Scarcely anything stirred through all the stretch; at some runnel along its nearer margin, where upon one side the more broken swamp recommenced, a rosy flamingo stood and fished, and, still remoter, the melancholy note of a bird tolled its refrain, answered by an echoing voice from some yet inner depth of forest far away. Save for this, the silence was as intense as the vastness and color of the scene, till it opened and resolved itself into one broad insect hum. The children took a couple of steps forward, under their feet the elastic sod sank and rose with a spurt of silver jets; they sprang back to their seats, and the shading tree above shook down a shining shower in rillets of silver rain. They remained for a minute, then, resting there. Singularly enough, Longfer Hill, which had previously been upon their left, now rose far away upon the right. When at length they comprehended its apparition, they looked at one another in complete bewilderment. Miss Emma began to cry; but Flor took it as only a fresh complication of this world, that was becoming for her feet a maze of intricacy.
"We must go back," said Miss Emma, at last. "I'm sure, if I'd known——Of course we never can cross here. The very spoonbill wades. Oh, why didn't——Well, there's no blame to you, Floss. I've nobody to thank but myself; that's a comfort."
"Lors, Miss Emma, it's my fault altogeder. I should n' neber told ye. An' as for gwine back, it's jus' as bad as torrer."
"We can't stay here all night! Oh, I'm right tired out! If I could lie down"——
"'Twouldn' do no way, Miss Emma," answered Flor, in a fright for her friend, as a quick, poisonous-looking lizard slid along the log, like a streak of light, in the wake of a spider which was one blotch of scarlet venom.
Far ahead, the strong sun, piercing the marsh, drew up a vapor, that, blue as any distant haze in one part and lint-white in another, made itself aslant into low, delicious, broken prisms, melting all between. This, more than anything else, told the extent of the bog before them, and, hot as it was now, betrayed the deathly chill lurking under such a coverlet at night. In every other direction lay the cypress jungle; and whether they saw the front or back of Longfer Hill, and on which side the river ran, steering for which they could steer for home, they had not the skill to say. Thus, what way to go they still were undecided, when, at something moving near them, they started to their feet in a faint terror, delaying only a single instant to gaze at it,—a serpent, that, coiled round the stem above, had previously seemed nothing but a splendid parasite, and that just lifted its hooded head crusted with gems, and flickered a long cleft tongue of flame over them, while loosening in great loops from its basking-place. They vouchsafed it no second look, but, with one leap over the log, through the black mire, and from clump to clump of moss, sped away,—if that could be called speed which was hindered at each moment by waylaying briers and entangling ropes of blossoming vines, by delays in threatening quagmires and bewilderments in thickets beset by clouds of insects, by trips and stumbles and falls and bruises, and many a pause for tears and complaints and ejaculations of despair.
Meanwhile the heat of the day was mitigated by thin clouds sliding over the sun and banking up the horizon, though the hot wind still blew sweetly and steadily from the open quarter of the sky.
"Oh, what has become of us?" cried Miss Emma at length, when the shadows began to thicken, and out of the impenetrable forest and morass about them they could detect no path.
"We's los' into de swamp, Miss Emma," answered Flor, in a kind of gloomy defiance of the worst of it,—"da' 's all."
"And here we shall die!" cried the other.
And she flung herself, face down, upon the floor.
Flor was beside her instantly, taking her head upon her knee. Her own heart was sinking like lead; but she plucked it up, and for the other's sake snapped her fingers at Fortune.
"Lors, Miss, dar's so many berries we caan' starve nowes. I's 'bout to build a fire soon's it's dark; dis yere's a dry spot, ye see now. An', bress you, dey'll be out after us afore mornin',—de whole farm-full."
"With the dogs!" cried Miss Emma. "Oh, Floss, that I should live for that! to be hunted in the swamp with dogs!"
Flor was silent a moment or two. The custom personally affected her for the first time; worse than the barbarity was the indignity.
"Dey aren't trained to hunt for you, Miss Emma," she said, more gloomily than she had ever spoken before. "Dey knows de diff'unce 'tween de dark meat and de light."
And then she laughed, as if her words meant nothing.
"They never shall touch you, Flor, while I'm alive!" suddenly exclaimed Miss Emma, throwing her arms about her.
"Lors, Miss, how you talk!" cried Flor, and then broke into a gust of tears. "To t'ink ob you a-carin' so much for a little darky, Miss!"—and she set up a loud howl of joyful sorrow.
"You're the best friend I've got!" answered Miss Emma, hugging her with renewed warmth. "I love you worlds better than Agatha! And I'll never let you leave me! Oh, Flor! what shall we do?"
Flor looked about her for reply, and then scrambled up a sycamore like a squirrel.
It was apparently an island in the swamp on which they were: for the earth, though damp, was firm beneath them; and there was a thick growth of various trees about, although most were draped to the ground in the long, dark tresses of Spanish moss, waving dismally to and fro, with a dull, heavy motion of grief. On every other side from that by which they had come it appeared to be inaccessible, surrounded, as well as Flor could see, by glimmering sheets of water, which probably were too full of snags and broken stumps, still upright, for the navigation of boats by any hands but those thoroughly acquainted with their wide region of stagnant pools. This island was not, however, a small spot, but one that comprised a variety of surfaces, having not only marsh and upland within itself, but something that in the distance bore a fearful resemblance to a young patch of standing corn, a suspicion confirmed into certainty by a blue thread of smoke ascending a little way and falling again in a cloud. Once, upon seeing such a sight, Flor might have fallen to the ground herself,—this could be no less than the abode of those sad runaways, those mythical Goblins of the Swamp,—but it would have been because she had forgotten then that she was not one of the strong white race that reared her. Now, at this moment, she felt a thrill of kinship with these creatures, hunted for with bloodhounds, as she would be to-morrow, perhaps.
"May-be I'll not go back," said Flor.
She slipped down the tree, and went silently to work, heaping a bed of the hanging moss, less wet than the ground itself, for her young mistress. Miss Emma accepted it passively.
"Oh, it's like sleeping on hearse-curtains!" was all she said.
It was already evening, but growing darker with the clouds that went on piling their purple masses and awaiting their signal. Suddenly the sweet, soft breeze trembled and veered, there was a brief calm, and the wind had hauled round the other way. A silence of preparation, answered by a long, low note of thunder, and the war had begun in heaven.
Miss Emma buried her face in the moss. But Flor, secretly relishing a good thunder-gust, drew up her knees and sat with equanimity, like a little black judge of the clouds; for, in the moment's dull, indifferent mood, she felt prepared for either fate. It was long before the rain came; then it plunged, a brief downfall, as if a cloud had been ripped and emptied,—a suffocating terror of rain, teeming with more appalling intimations than anything else in the world. But the wind was a blind tornado. The boughs swung over them and swept them; the swamp-water was lifted, and gluts of it slapped in Flor's face. She saw, not far away, a great solitary cypress rearing its head, and bearing aloft a broad eagle's nest, hurriedly seized in the grasp of the gale, twisted, raised, and snapped like a straw. The child began to shudder strangely at the breath of this blast that cried with such clamor out of the black vaults above, this unknown and tremendous power beneath which she was nothing but a mote; she suffered an unexplained awe, as if this fearful wind were some supernatural assemblage of souls fleeting through space and making the earth tremble under their wild rush. All the while the heavy thunders charged on high in one unbroken roar, across whose base sharp bolts broke and burst perpetually; and with the outer world wrapped in quivering curtains of blue flame, now and then a shaft of fire lanced its straight spear down the dense darkness of the woods behind in ghastly illumination, and a responsive spire shot up in some burning bush that blackened almost as instantly. Flor fancied that the lightning was searching for her, a runaway herself, and the burning bush answered, like a sentinel, that here she was. She cowered at length and sought the protection of the blind earth, full of awe and quaking, till by-and-by the last discharge, muffled and ponderous, rolled away, and, save for a muttered growl in some far distant den, the world was still and dark again.
Flor spoke to her mistress, and found, that, utterly worn out with fatigue and fright and exhausted electricity, she was asleep. She then got up and wrung out the rain from portions of her own and Miss Emma's dress, and heaped fresh armfuls of moss upon the sleeper in an original attempt at the pack; then she proceeded to explore the neighborhood, to see if there were any exit in other directions from the terrors of the swamp.
Stars began to struggle through and confuse their rays with the ravelled edges of the clouds. She groped along from tree to tree, looking constantly behind her at the clear, light opening of sky beneath which Miss Emma lay.
Perhaps she had come farther than she knew; for all at once, in the dread stillness that nothing but the dripping dampness broke, a sound smote her like a pang. It was an innocent and simple sound enough, a man's voice, clear and sweet, though measured somewhat, and suppressed in volume, chanting a slow, sad hymn, that had yet a kind of rejoicing about it:—
"Oh, no longer bond in Egypt, No longer bond in Egypt, No longer bond in Egypt. The Lord hath set him free!"
It came from a hollow below her. Flor pushed aside the great, glistening leaves in silence, and looked tremblingly in. There were half-burnt brands on a broad stone, throwing out an uncertain red glimmer; there was an awning of plaited reeds reaching from bough to bough; there was an old man stretched upon the ground, and a stalwart man sitting beside him and chanting this song, as if it were a burial-service: for the old man was dead.
Flor began to tremble again, with that instinctive animal antipathy to death and dissolution. But in an instant a rekindling gleam of the embers, hardly quenched, shot over the singer's face. In the same instant Flor shook before the secret she had learned, Sarp was a runaway, to be sure; and runaways ate little girls, she knew. But Flor, having lately encouraged incredulity, could hardly find it in her heart to believe that the fact of having stolen himself could have so utterly changed the old nature of Sarp, the kind butler, who always had a pleasant word for her when others had a cuff. Yet should she hail him? Ah, no, never! But then—Miss Emma! Her young mistress would die of starvation and the damp.
"Sarp!" whispered Flor, huskily.
The man started and sprang to his feet, alert and ready, waiting for his unseen enemy,—then half relapsed, thinking it might be nothing but the twitter of a bird.
"It's me, Sarp."
Who that was did not seem so plain to Sarp; he darted his swift glance in her direction, then at one step parted the bushes and dragged her through, as if it were game that he had trapped.
"Oh, Sarp!" cried Flor, falling at his feet. "Doan' yer kill me now! I di'n' mean to ha' found yer. I's done los' in de swamp, wid"——
But Flor thought better of that.
The man raised her, but still held her out at arm's length, while he listened for further sound behind her.
"Oh, jus' le' go, Sarp, an' I'll dance for you till I drap!" she cried.
"Is it a time for dancing," he replied, "and the earth open for burying?"
"Lors, Sarp!" cried Flor, shrinking from the shallow grave she had not seen, "how's I to know dat?"—and she gave herself safe distance.
"Help me yere, then," said he.
But Flor remained immovable, and Sarp was obliged to perform by himself the last offices for the old slave, who, living out his term of harassments and hungers, had grown gray and died in the swamps. He went at last and brought an armful of broken sweet-flowering boughs and spread them over the place.
"Free among the dead," he said; then turned to Flor, who, having long since seen daylight through the darkness of her fears, proceeded glibly and volubly to pour out her troubles, on his beckoning her away, and to demand the help she had refused to render.
"There's the boat," said Sarp, reflectively. "And the rain will float it 'most anywheres to-night. But—come so far and troo so much to go back?"
Flor flung up her face and held her head back proudly.
"Yes, Sah! Doan' s'pose I'd be stealin' Mas'r Henry's niggers?"
For, having meditated upon it an hour ago, she was able to repel the charge vigorously.
"Go'n' to stay a slave all your life?"
"All Miss Emma's life."
"Den I'll go back to de good brown earth wid her," said Flor, solving the problem promptly.—"I doan' see de boat."
"Ah, she'll make as brown dust as you,—Miss Emma,—that's so! But the spirit, Lome!"
"Sperit?" said Flor, looking uneasily over her shoulder with her twinkling eyes.
"The part of you that doan' die, Lome."
"I haan' nof'n ter do wid dat; dat 'longs to dem as made it; none o' my lookout; dono nof'n 'bout it, an' doan' want ter hear nof'n about it!" said Flor; for, reasoning on the old adage of a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush, she thought it more important just at present to save her body than to save her soul, admitting that she had one, and felt haste to be of more behoof than metaphysics.
There was a moon up now, and Flor could see her companion's dark face above her, a mere mass of shade; it did not reassure her any to remember that her own was just as black.
"Lome," said Sarp, setting his back against a tree like one determined to have attention, "never mind about the boat yet. You 've heard Aunt Zoe say how't the grace of the Lord was free?"
"Yes, I's heerd her kerwhoopin'. I 's in a hurry, Sarp!"
"But 's how't the man that refuses to accept it, when it's set before him, is done reckoned a sinner?"
"S'pose I has?"—and in her impatience she began to dance outright.
"It's jus' so with the present hour," he continued, not giving her time to interpose about escape again. "You have liberty offered you. If you refuses, how can you answer for it when your spirit 'pears afore the Judge? You choose him, and you choose righteousness, you chooses the chance to make yourself white in the Lord's eyes,—your spirit, Lome. Refuse, and you take sin and chains and darkness; you gets to deserve the place where they hab their share of fire and brimstone."
"Take mine wid 'lasses," said Flor, who, though inwardly a trifle cowed, never meant to show it. "W'a' 's de use o' boderin' 'bout all dat ar, w'en dar 's Miss Emma a-cotchin' her deff, an' I 's jus' starved? Ef you 's go'n' to help us, Sarp"——
"You don' know what chains means, chil'," said the imperturbable Sarp. "They're none the lighter because you can't see 'em. It a'n't jus' the power to sell your body and the work of your hands; it's the power to sell your soul! Ef Mas'r Henry hab de min',—ef Mas'r Henry have the mind, I say, to make you go wrong, can you help it while you 's a slave?"
"'Taan' no fault o' mine ter be bad, ef I caan' help it. Come now," said Flor sullenly, seeing little hope of respite,—"should t'ink 'twas de Ol' Sarpint hisself!"
"And 'taan' no virtue of yours to be good, ef you caan' help it; you 'd jus' stay put—jus' between—in de brown earth, as you said. You 'd never see that beautiful land beyond the grave, wid the river of light flowing troo der place, an' the people singing songs before the great white t'rone."
"Tell me 'bout dat ar, Sarp," said Flor, forgetfully.
"Dey 's all free there, Lome."
"How was dis dey got dere? Could n' walk nowes, an' could n' fly"——
"Haan' you seen into Miss Emma's prayer-book the angels with wings high and shining all from head to foot?"
"Yes," said Flor,—"Angels."
"And one of them you 'll be, Lome, ef you jus' choose,—ef, for instance, you choose liberty to-day."
"Lors now, Sarp, I doan' b'lieb a word you say! Get out wid yer conundrums! Likely story, little black nigger like dis yere am be put into de groun' an' 'come out all so great an' w'ite an' shinin'-like!"
"'For God shall deliver my soul from the power of the grave.' 'Shall.' That's a promise,—a promise in the Book. Di'n't yer eber plant a bean, Lome,—little hard black bean? And did a little hard black bean come up? No, but two wings of leaves, and a white blossom jus' ready to fly itself, and so sweet you could smell it acrost de field. So they plant your body in the earth, Lome"——
"You go 'long, Sarp! Ef you plant beans, beans come up," said Flor, decisively.
This direct and positive confutation rather nonplussed Sarp, his theory not being able at once to assimilate his fact, and he himself feeling, that, if he pushed the comparison farther, he would reach some such atrocity as that, if the white and shining flower produced in its season again the black bean from which it sprung, so the white and shining soul must once more clothe itself in the same sordid, unpurified body from which it first had sprung. He had a vague glimmer that perhaps his simile was too material, and that this very body was the clay in which the springing, germinating soul was planted to bloom out in heaven, but dared not pursue it unadvised, for fear of the quicksands into which it might betray him. He merely tied a knot in the thread of his discourse by answering,—
"Jus' so. The bean planted, the bean comes up. You planted, and what follows?"
"I come up," said Flor, consentingly, and quite as if he had got the better of the discussion.
Then he rose, and Flor led the way back to Miss Emma,—having first, upon Sarp's serious hesitation, pledged herself for Miss Emma's secrecy and gratitude with tears and asseverations.
In spite of the fact that he had never meant nor cared to see it again, there was something pleasant to Sarp in the face of the sleeper upturned in a moonbeam. He stooped and lifted her tenderly, and laid her head on his shoulder. The young girl opened her eyes vacantly, but heard Flor's voice beside her still,—
"Doan' ye be scaret now, honey! Bress you, 's a true frien': he'll get us shet ob dis yere swamp mighty sudd'n!"
And soothed by the dreamy motion, entirely fatigued, borne swiftly along in strong arms, under the low, waving boughs in the dim forest darkness, she was drowsed again with slumber, from which she woke only on being placed in the bottom of a skiff to turn over into a deeper dream than before. Flor nodded triumphantly to her companion, in the beginning, keeping pace beside him with short runs,—there could be no fear of babble about that of which one knew nothing,—and took her seat at last in the boat as he directed, while with a long pole he pushed out into the deeper water away from the shadow of the shore, and then went steering between the jags and gnarls, that, half protruding from the dark expanses, seemed the heads of strange and preternatural monsters. Now and then a current carried them; now and then their boatman sculled, now and then in shallower places poled along; sometimes he rested, and in the intervals took occasion to continue his missionary labor upon Flor,—his first object being to convince her she had a soul, and his second that in bondage every chance to save that soul alive was against her. Then he drew slight pictures of a different way of things, such as had solaced his own imagination, rude, but happy idyls of freedom: the small house, one's own; the red light in the window, a guiding star for weary feet at night coming home to comfort and smiles and cheer; no dark, haunting fear of a hand to reach between one and those loved dearest; no more branding like cattle, manhood and womanhood acknowledged, met with help and welcome and kind hands, cringing no more, but standing erect, drinking God's free sunshine, and growing nearer heaven. How much or how little of all his dream poor Sarp realized, if ever he reached the land of his desire at all, Heaven only knows. But Flor listened to him as if he recited some delightful fairy-tale,—charming indeed, but all as improbable as though one were telling her that black was white. Then, too, there was another dream of Sarp's,—the dream of a whole race loosening itself from the clinging clod. Flor got a glimmer of his meaning,—only a glimmer; it made her heart beat faster, but it was so grand she liked the other best.
So, creeping through narrow creeks, now they skirted the edges of the long, low, flat morass,—now wound round the giant trunk of a fallen tree that nearly bridged the pool whose dark mantle they severed,—now pushed the boat's head up into a wall of weeds, that bent back and let it through the deep cut flooded by the rain, where the wild growth shut off everything but the high hollow of a luminous sky, with ribbon-grasses and long prickly leaves brushing across their faces from either side, here and there a sudden dwarf palmetto bristling all its bayonets against the peaceful night, and all the way singular uncouth shapes of vegetation, like conjurations of magic, cutting themselves out with minuteness upon the vast clear background so darkly and weirdly that the voyagers seemed to be sliding along the shores of some new, strange under-world,—now they got out, and, wading ankle-deep in plashy bog, drew the boat and its slumberer heavily after them,—now went slowly along, afloat again, on the broad lagoons, which the moon, from the deep far heaven, shot into silver reaches, and, with the trees, a phantom company of shadows, weeping in their veils along the farther shore, with all the quaint outlines of darkness, the gauzy wings that flitted by, the sweet, wild scents across whose lingering current they drifted, the broad silence disturbed only by the lazy wash of a seldom ripple, made their progress, through heavy gloom and vivid light, an enchanted journey.
At length they lifted overhanging branches, and glided out upon a sheet of open water, a little lake fed by natural springs; and here, paddling over to the outlet, a tide took them down a swift brook to the river. Sarp stemmed this tide, made the opposite bank of the brook, and paused.
"Have you chosen, Lome?" said he. "Will you go back with me, and so on to the Happy Land of Freedom? Not that I'll have my own liberty till I've earned it,—till I've won a country by fighting for it. But I'll see you safe; and if I'm spared, one day I'll come to you. Will you go?"
Flor hung back a moment. "I'd like to go, Sarp, right well," said she, twisting up the corner of her little tatter of an apron. "But dar am Miss Emma, you see."
"We can leave her on the bank here. She'll be all right when de day breaks, and fin' the house herself. There's as good as she without a roof this night."
"She's neber been use' to it. She would n' know a step o' de way. Oh, no, Sarp! I 'longs to Miss Emma; she could n' do widout me. She'd jus' done cry her eyes out an' die,—'way here in de wood. No, Sarp, I mus' take her back. She's delicate, Miss Emma is. I'd like to go right well, Sarp,—'ta'n't much ob a 'sapp'intment,—I's use' to 'em,—I'd like for to go wid you."
Lingering, irresolute, she stood up in the swaying skiff, keeping her balance as if she were dancing; then, the motion, perhaps, throwing her back into her old identity, she sprang to the shore like a cat. Sarp laid Miss Emma beside her, and then shot away, back over all the desolate reaches and lonely shining pools; and Flor, with a little wail of despair, hid her face on the ground, that her weakened and bewildered little mistress might not see the flood of tears that wet the grass beneath it.
It was between two and three o'clock in the morning, when, chilled, draggled, and dripping wet, they reached the house. Lights were moving everywhere about it: no one had slept there that night. There was a great shout from high and low as the two forlorn little objects crept into the ray. Miss Emma was met with severe reproaches, afterwards with tears and embraces; and cordial drinks and hot flannels were made ready for her in a trice. As for Flor, she was warmed after another fashion,—being sent off for punishment; and, in spite of the implorations of Miss Emma and the interference of Miss Agatha, the order was executed. It was the first time she had ever received such reward of merit in form; and though it was a slight affair, after all, the hurt and wrong rankled for weeks, and, instead of the gay, dancing imp of former days, henceforth a silent, sullen shadow slipped about and haunted all the dark places of the house.
Mas'r Henry, being a native of Charleston, was also a gentleman of culture, and fond of the fine arts to some extent. Indeed, looking at it in a poetical view, the feudality of slavery, even more than the inevitable relation of property, was his strong tie to the institution. He had a contempt for modern progress so deeply at the root of his opinions that he was only half aware of it; and any impossible scheme to restore the political condition of what we call the Dark Ages, and retain the comforts of the present one, would have found in him a hearty advocate. One of his favorite books was a little green-covered volume, printed on coarse paper, and smelling of the sea which it had crossed: a book that seemed to bring one period of those past centuries up like a pageant,—so vividly, with all the flying dust of their struggle in the sunbeam before him, did its opulent vitality reproduce, in their splendors and their sins, the actual presences of those dead men and women, now more unreal substance than the dust of their shrouds. He liked to carry this mediaeval Iliad round with him, and, taking it out at propitious places, go jotting his pencil down the page. He had heard it called an incomprehensible puzzle of poetry; it gave him pleasure, then, to unriddle and proclaim it plain as print. He was thus delectating himself one day, while Flor, still in her phase of moodiness, stood behind Miss Agatha's chair; and, the passage pleasing him, he read it aloud to Miss Agatha, whom, in the absence of his son, her husband, he was wont to consider his opponent in the abstract, however dear and precious in the concrete.
"As, shall I say, some Ethiop, past pursuit Of all enslavers, dips a shackled foot, Burnt to the blood, into the drowsy, black, Enormous watercourse which guides him back To his own tribe again, where he is king; And laughs, because he guesses, numbering The yellower poison-wattles on the pouch Of the first lizard wrested from its couch Under the slime, (whose skin, the while, he strips To cure his nostril with, and festered lip, And eyeballs bloodshot through the desert blast,) That he has reached its boundary, at last May breathe; thinks o'er enchantments of the South, Sovereign to plague his enemies, their mouth, Eyes, nails, and hair; but, these enchantments tried In fancy, puts them soberly aside For truth, projects a cool return with friends, The likelihood of winning mere amends Erelong; thinks that, takes comfort silently, Then from the river's brink his wrongs and he, Hugging revenge close to their hearts, are soon Offstriding to the Mountains of the Moon."
Flor stood listening, with eyes that shone strangely out of the gloom of her face.
"Well, child," said her master to Miss Agatha, "how does that little monodrame strike you? Which do you find preferable, tell me, Ashantee at home or Ashantee abroad? civilized or barbarized? the institution or the savage? Eh, Blossom," turning to Flor, "what do you think of the condition of that ancestor of yours?"
"Mas'r Henry," said Flor, gravely, "he was free."
"Eh? Free? What! are you bitten, too?"
And Mas'r Henry laughed at the thought, and pictured to himself his dancer dancing off altogether, like the swamp-fire she was. Then his tone changed.
"Flor," said he, sternly, "who has been talking to you lately? Do you know, Agatha? I have seen this for some time. I must learn what one among the hands it is that in these times dares breed disaffection."
"No one's talked to me, Sah," said Flor,—"no one onter der place."
"Some one off of it, then."
"Mas'r Henry, I's been havin' my own t'oughts. Mas'r knows I could n' lebe Miss Emma nowes. Could n' tief her property nowes. But ef Mas'r Henry 'd on'y jus' 'sider an' ask li'l' Missy for to make dis chil' a presen' ob myse'f"——
"So that's what it means!" And Mas'r Henry smiled a moment at the ludicrous idea presented to him.
"Flor," said he then, abruptly, "I have never heard the whole of that night in the swamp. It must be told."
"Lors, Sah! So long ago, I's done forgot it!"
"You may have till to-morrow morning to quicken your memory."
"Haan' nof'n' more to 'member, Mas'r."
"You heard me. You have your choice to repeat it either now or to-morrow morning."
"Could n' make suf'n', whar nof'n' was. Could n' tink o' nof'n' all ter once. Could n' tell nof'n' at all in a hurry," said Flor, with a twinkle. "Guess I'll take tell de mornin', any-wes, Mas'r." And she was off.
And Mas'r Henry went, back to his book,—the watcher nodding on his spear,—and all the stormy scenes he expected soon to realize in his own life, when the sword of conscription had numbered his old head with the others.
Flor went out from the presence defiant, as became a rebel.
Although that special mode of martyrdom was not proper to the plantation, and Flor felt in herself few particles of the stuff of which martyrs are made, she was determined, that, as to telling so much as that Sarp was still in the swamp, let alone betraying the way to his late habitat,—even were she able,—she never would do it, though burned at the stake. The determination had a dark look; nevertheless, two glimmers lighted it: one was the hope, in a mistrust of her own strength, that Sarp had already gone; the other was a perception that the best way to keep Sarp's secret was to make off with it. She began to question what authority Mas'r Henry had to demand this secret from her; she answered in her own mind, that he had no authority at all;—then she was doubly determined that he should not have it. She had heard talk of chivalry at table and among guests; she had half a comprehension of what it meant; she wondered if this were not a case in point,—if it were, after all, the color, and not the sex, that weighed. That aroused her indignation, aroused also a feeling of race: she would not have changed color that moment with the fairest Circassian of a harem, could the white slave have appeared in all the dazzle of her beauty.—Mas'r Henry had called that man, of whom he read aloud to-day, her ancestor. She knew what that was, for she had heard Miss Emma boast of her progenitors. But he was free; then it followed that she was not a slave by nature, only by vicious force of circumstance. Mas'r Henry had no right to her whatever; instead of her stealing herself, he was the thief who retained her against her will. What could be the name of the country where that man had lived? It was somewhere a long way from this place, down the river, perhaps beyond the sea;—there were others there, then, still, most likely. Flor had an idea that among them she might be a superior, possibly received with welcome, invested with honors;—she lingered over the pleasant vision. But how was one ever to find the spot? Ah, that book of Mas'r Henry's would tell, if she could but take it away to those kind people Sarp had told of. So she meditated awhile on the curious travels with Sordello for a guide-book, till old affections smote her for having thought of taking the thing, when "Mas'r Henry set so by it," and she put the vision aside, endeavoring to recall in its place all that Sarp had told her of the North. She realized then, personally, what a wide world it was. Why should she stay shut in this one point upon it all: a hill and the fir wood behind her; marshes on this side; woods again on the other; low hills far away before her; out of them all, the dark torrent of the river showing the swift way to freedom and the great sea? She drew in a full breath, as if close air oppressed her.—A bird flew over her then, high above her head, careering in fickle circles, and at length sailing down out of sight far into other heavens. Flor watched him bitterly; she comprehended Zoe's scorn of her past content;—if only she had wings to spread! But Sarp had told her, that, if she went away, she would one day have wings. None of Sarp's other arguments weighed a doit,—but wings to roam with over this beautiful world! The liberty of vagabondage! She watched the clouds chasing one another through the sunny heaven, watched their shadows chasing along the fields and hills below; her heart burned that everything in the world should be more free than she herself. She felt the wind fanning over her on its way, she took the rich odors that it brought, she looked after the flower-petal that fluttered away with it, she saw the strong sunshine penetrating among the shadows of a jungly spot and catching a thousand points of color in the gloom, she recognized the constant fluent interchange among all the atoms of the universe;—why was she alone, capable of flight, chained to one spot?—She gazed around her at the squalor and the want, the brutish shapes and faces, her own no better, at the narrow huts; thought of the dull routine of work never to enrich herself, the possibility of purchase and cruelty;—she sprung to her feet, all her blood boiling; it seemed out of the question for her to endure it another moment.—Mas'r Henry had told her once that he could make his fortune with her dancing, if he chose; she stood as much in need of a fortune as Mas'r Henry,—why not make it for herself? why not be off and away, her own mistress, earning and eating her own bread, sending some day for Zoe, finding Sarp in those far-off happy latitudes?—It occurred to her, like a discovery of her own, that, doing the work she was bidden, taking the food she was given, whipped at will, and bought and sold, she was no better than one among the cattle of the place;—the sudden sense of degradation made even her dark cheek burn. She laid a hand down on the earth, her great Teraph, to see if it were possible it could still be warm and such a wrong done to her its child. Then, all at once, she understood that wood and river were open to her fugitive feet, and if she stayed longer in slavery, it was the fault of no one but herself.—She stood up, for some one called her; she obeyed the call with alacrity, for she found it in her power to do so or not as she chose. She felt taller as she stepped along, and held up her head with the dignity of personality. She acknowledged, perhaps, that she was no equal of Miss Emma's,—that the creative hand, making its first essay on her, rounded its complete work in Miss Emma; but she declared herself now no mere offshoot of the sod,—she was a human being, a being of beating pulses and affections, and something within her, stifled here, longing to soar and away.