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First edition, 2001
Academic Affairs Library, UNC-CH
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill,
(title page) The Story of a Slave. A Realistic Revelation of a Social Relation of Slave Times--Hitherto Unwritten--From the Pen of One Who Has Felt Both the Lash and the Caress of a Mistress
vi, 214 p., ill.
Wesley, Elmore & Benson
Call number 326.48 S887 (Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University Libraries)
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Library of Congress Subject Headings, 21st edition, 1998
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Had it been possible in the discussion of the Negro Question in the ante-bellum days as well as since to have removed its agitation from the political arena into the more penetrating light of the Forum of Reason, in which the vital questions of civilization alone find just and final settlement, what bloodshed might have been averted and what acrimony and sectional hatred might never have been aroused to disturb the peace, the prosperity and tranquillity of our country? We are told that the Civil War was inevitable. Yet in this hour of dispassionate philosophy, it is clear to the unbiased student of Sociology that had the Negro Question--the institution of slavery--been more fully understood in its social as well as political bearing, the settlement of the question--one infinitely more just to all concerned and promotive of an infinitely higher political and social status, might have resulted from a peaceful abandonment of an institution wholly foreign to the American atmosphere and equally inimical to American progress--social and industrial. But it was not understood, and in failing to have been, lay the gravest consequences to the peace of the Nation.
It is but just, however, that many of the distorted and in many instances wholly inaccurate and perverted views of slave life--painted in the moments of heated and acrimonious partisan debate--be corrected or wholly obliterated. To accomplish this, it is necessary to lift the dust-laden veil which has obscured the truer pictures,
and thereby give the reader who would look upon a faithful portrayal, a glimpse into a social condition possible only in the Old South under slavery, of which comparatively little has been told and less has been written.
We say glimpse, because in the narrative which follows the autobiographer confines himself to a faithful accounting of the events which marked his own life in bondage, analyzing the problems which slavery presented, only in their relevancy to his own condition. Much that is not said, and more which cannot be written, is plainly to be read between the lines.
As a penetralia of the old Southern home, it discloses to profane eyes the anomalous relation which the slave held in the household--a relation which hardly justifies retaining some of the pictures which have been burned into the imaginations of the people and the very pages of history by the inflamed partisan and misinformed philanthropist--pictures which invoked such righteous indignation for the "horrors" of the institution of slavery. Had the truer picture been taken at the time--the abolition of the system would have been demanded no less speedily--but its abandonment might have been accomplished at infinitely less cost to the Nation, the people of the South, and to the Negro himself.* * It is not the purpose of the prefacer to show wherein Emancipation failed to solve the Negro Question--save so far as any other party or political expedient could have done--suffice it to point out the indisputable fact that the Negro Question confronts us today and particularly the people of the South with mein grave and portentous. Let the statesman and the student examine the labor situation of the South and then deny.
* It is not the purpose of the prefacer to show wherein Emancipation failed to solve the Negro Question--save so far as any other party or political expedient could have done--suffice it to point out the indisputable fact that the Negro Question confronts us today and particularly the people of the South with mein grave and portentous. Let the statesman and the student examine the labor situation of the South and then deny.
But every transgression of nature's laws carries with it a swift and sure punishment, and who after comprehending the paradoxical position in which the master placed his bondman, but will regard the price paid by the former as in the very nature of retributive justice. What excuse can be offered for such a blind disregard of the very strongest law of nature?
That the slaveholder regarded the Negro as a human species of a lower type than his own--from which status, despite, too, the oft-time preponderance of Caucasian blood, he was morally and physically unable to arise, much less aspire--was clearly shown in the vast liberties allowed the slaves in the household. That the bondman did on more than one occasion rise far above the status described by the master, should not be cause for wonder at this day, when both the political and social equalities of the races are better understood, if not generally conceded. And granting that a majority of the slaves were incapable of attaining to an intellectual equality with the masters what excuse can be offered for having imposed upon the bondman a condition which was the very essence of refined cruelty and torture? Did the slaveholder--the aristocratic master--pay the penalty for his egregious blunder? The traditions of the freedman will sufficiently answer.
To those who have a correct knowledge of the familiarity which the Negro, now a freedman, enjoys today in the Southern household, "The Story of a Slave" will not come wholly as a revelation. Much as the slaveholder of former times and the present employer of Negro labor in the South, regard themselves immeasurably above the
blackman, they held and still hold the latter as an indispensable fixture in the household, in the field, and in the factory. The Negro having been accorded so useful and permanent a position in the domestic and industrial fabric of the South, is it any wonder that the social fabric should show upon its woof of white the unmistakable evidences of its ever-present warp--a cross of--black? To have expected otherwise would have been to ignore the most imperative, the most irresistible law of nature.
In the North, where freedom, and particularly Negro freedom, has ever been preached as a gospel--where emancipation was considered essential to the preservation of the Union--the Negro himself has ever been held at arms-length socially, and freedman, though he has ever been, his social status has been one of prescribed limits, enforced by convention if not upheld by law. Therefore to a majority of the people of the North the position of the slave in the old Southern household will appear all the more anomalous, the ignorance of facts having resulted wholly from an inadequate and at best wholly superficial study of the race and labor question of the South.
For this reason, coming even at this late day, "The Story of a Slave," will carry with it ample food for the serious reflections of the students of Sociology and open up an avenue of discussion which has been obstructed by political exegency and through which alone can come a pacific settlement of the social problem of the South.
Dismissing entirely the importance of the philosophical deductions, which can be made from the pages which follow, and looking at the "Story of a Slave" purely as the memoirs of one whose youth and early manhood were
spent in the despised station of a bondman, first on the plantation and later in the household of his master in Alabama, the morals to be drawn, if such there be, must depend largely upon their authenticity as an autobiography. It is for this reason that it is desired to fully impress the reader as to their genuineness--without desiring or attempting to impose upon his credulity in the smallest measure. The thread of romance which runs throughout the narrative was not spun from the distaff of Fiction, but from that distaff of Fate, from which runs the ever-varying, never-ending thread of destiny, holding in its slender bond, joys for some and sorrows for us all. Is there need to explain why the identity of the autobiographer is withheld? Were the "Story of a Slave" an invention, or did it pursue less closely the events which in almost startling sequence rounded up his life in bondage, or laid less bare the lives of those intimately related there to, a pseudonym might have taken the place of the real name of the author. But why attempt to mislead investigation in one direction or invite speculation in another by such an apparent subterfuge? Could the real name be given, it would startle the reader hardly less sensibly than will the story. The eminence which he has since attained, the well-earned successes which have come to him in his life as a freedman, devoted to labors which would adorn the proudest manhood, would possibly be the strongest proofs which could be advanced to convince the most skeptical as to the truthfulness of the story, disclosing, as they would, a character and personality which would reconcile even the most intolerant "nigger-hater" to the startling, yet not unnatural denouement of the story.
It is upon this one point, no doubt, that the veracity of the autobiographer will be assailed, but to those who may thrust aside as absurd or abhorrent the possibility of such a relation between mistress and slave (the common relation between master and his black bondwomen requiring no proof or defence here) to them we will say that hundreds of indisputable proofs can be quickly advanced to show that such relations were not only sustained in other instances, but that in many, nay, in a majority, they did not as in this, emanate from, or were they hallowed by, a mutual love, however justified they may have been by the wretchedly perverted social condition of which they were an inevitable consequence.
While in the annals of slavery there is scarcely a mention of this condition, while in the volumes written and spoken in antagonism of the then existing system of slavery never a syllable was uttered, while the press itself with rare exceptions and with a consideration strangely in contrast with journalistic enterprise of this period, passed over the most flagrant instances, without comment, often dismissing with "A Taste of Hell for a Ravisher," what should have been called "Another Burnt Offering" on the altar of the Furies of Slavery, it was and should have been one of the strongest and most appealing reasons for the speedy abolition of the iniquitous system. And only one who has given this subject the serious consideration it deserves, and acquainted himself with the real facts and the social conditions which were inseparable from that institution, can appreciate the truth and motive of the "Story of a Slave."
It is now more than thirty years ago, counted by the lapse of days it seems but a little while, scarcely a decade; but measured by events, the mutations and astounding changes that have come in such marvelous rapidity, it may be counted a century.
I was young then, in the full vigor of lusty manhood. I am really not so very old now, and still straight, and strong, and active, but not strong as I was then. Not so full of the bounding, melting, passionate vitality of life, not so buoyant with animal vivre. I feel the tempering hand of years.
I was a slave then, a human chattel, but one degree above a horse, to be bought and sold, beaten and driven at the caprice of a master or the still more eccentric whim of a mistress. I am a freeman now, clad in the proudest political vesture that ever clothed a freeman, the panoply of American citizenship.
But it is not for this that I care. Freedom and the franchise, with their magnificent political possibilities, have brought no pleasures to me. Their honors I have worn and could still command, but they are hardly worth the wearing, and still less the winning. Where ignorance, and prejudice, and superstition are the stepping-stones to distinction, it is no great merit to attain it.
The golden days of my life, the bright joy of living,
the triumph of my manhood, the heavenly bliss of loving, came to me as a slave. One day, even the most insipid of that happy, happy epoch, is worth more to me than all the years I have lived since. I would not exchange its bitterest memories for all the honors men could pile upon me.
It is not a half century since, and all these changes have come. She of whom I am going to write is dead now. Her sins--if sins they be--are with her Savior, and her secret is left alone with me. No human being, save us two, ever knew or ever suspected, not even those nearest to her, whom she has left behind.
No breath of scandal, no taint of shame, no shadow of reproach ever clouded the cerulean purity of her name. With impunity to her memory, I could mount the house top and proclaim aloud the story of her heart's hidden secret; for no one would believe me, and in grateful reverence I bow my head and thank my God that it is so. Those who knew her and loved her, that gentlest, sweetest, and fairest of women, can proudly stand before the world and defy the accusation of an angel from the foot of the Great Throne itself, because in their hearts and in the eyes of all men and all women, she was pure as the spotless daughter of Jeptha was pure.
Nor is it for me, who loved her so well, to defile her memory. Oh, no! Sooner than write one line that would identify her, I should wish my wrist to rot from its socket. But there is no danger. Her children, now grown and married, can read all that I write and never once dream that it is of their gentle mother I write. Her identity and her secret are alone with me, with me and my God, and no mortal may ever know of whom it is I speak.
But why write at all? Why not let it rest with her in the silence of death? Why not still the aching throb of my heart, as I have hushed it all these years, and go down to my grave with its sweetest idyl unsung?
Perhaps I should; only I cannot. My heart is so full of her, of her kindness, her beauty, her sweetness, that it is choking for utterance, and I must needs speak or it will burst.
Love scorns degrees; the low he lifteth high,
The high he draweth down to that fair plane
Whereon, in his divine equality,
Two loving hearts may meet, nor meet in vain.
--PAUL HAMILTON HAYNE.
I was born a slave on one of the river plantations of my mother's master, General Jules Choteaux, an old soldier of the Empire, who, after the disastrous wreck of Waterloo, had sought safety to neck and fortune in the wilderness of Alabama.
It was no unmeaning boast of my mother that she was no common negress. There was no Guinea blood in her veins, no ashy Congo, but pure, proud Senegambia. And more than that, she was of royal blood, daughter of a prince, and granddaughter of a king. Her father, "daddy T'sa," and mother, "mammy Zozu," were brother and sister, eldest and twin children of the King of Uamassa. Heirs to the throne, they were married while children, and would have succeeded to the kingdom had they not been captured by an invading host and sold into slavery before they were yet full grown. Happily, they were not separated during the long voyage across the seas, and more fortunate still, they were both bought, with a gang of others, by the old General and placed upon the same plantation, where, in due course of time, my mother was born.
Inheriting something of her parent's princely dignity of
character and pride of caste, my mother grew up feeling an innate superiority to her black yoke-mates in slavery. Her parents had told her of her royal descent--for negroes are as tenacious of caste as other races--and taught her to despise the common negro, the plebian herd. Thus despising, she could not, when grown into lissom womanhood, consort with one of their number, and so, looking higher, she gave me for a father her young master, Jules, the eldest son of General Choteaux--for negress as she was, and black as the purest-blooded negro could be black, she was a remarkably attractive woman, whose good looks, graceful figure, voluptuous bust, cleanliness of dress, and queenly air, caught the vagrant fancy of the young master, not very dainty at best; and so, without thought for the issue, I was begot--conceived and born.
I am thus particular, at the risk of being tedious, in giving the particulars of my lineage and birth, that the reader in judging my presumption, my longings, my desperate and seemingly sacrilegious love, may the more fully understand all its controlling influences. I wish them to see me as I was, to put themselves in my place, to stand as I stood, a mulatto slave, but still a man--a strong, robust man--with the blood of a savage race of kings mingling in my veins with the passionate blood of a high-spirited southerner, to feel as I felt, with the heart, the brain, the sensibilities, and the passions of a man.
My father never saw me; he would not have acknowledged or even noticed me if he had. The day upon which I was born, he was killed in a duel at Bladenburg, a few miles beyond Washington. That same year, the old master, General Choteaux, was gathered to fathers fathers, and the
vast plantations, with the hundreds of negroes, passed into the possession of his only surviving heir, Gustave Choteaux, at once my uncle and my master.
I remember, very pleasantly, my boyhood's days on the plantation. Slavish though they were, they were not hard. There were more negroes, stout, able-bodies men and women, than could be profitably employed at work, and save, at certain seasons, to herd the cattle in the canebrake, we youngsters had nothing to do but to eat, to drink, to trap birds, to fish, and to roam the woods for berries and nuts. The business of the old plantation consisted as much in raising negroes as it did in cotton or sugar, and like a lot of thoroughbred colts fattening for market the young negroes were allowed to frisk at will.
My aristocratic mother took care to impress me with a due sense of my own superior birth. She told me of my royal descent through her, and of my father's claims to distinguished ancestry. My grandfather, her master, she told me, had been an officer under the Grande Napoleon, and his father was a peer of France.
"Through me," she said, over and over again, "you have the blood of kings in your veins, and through your father you have the best blood of freemen. Now you must remember this, and let me catch you fooling with one of these corn-field niggers."
Thus inspired and admonished, I fell into my mother's ways and grew up feeling in my own superiority a pitying contempt for the more ignorant and stotish of my fellow slaves. And then, a little later on, as I grew more intelligent, my mind began to reach out with a wondering yearning for knowledge. The wish to learn how to read
and write as I saw the overseer's children learning, took possession of me.
I was handy with my knife and had fashioned me a pretty bow and set of arrows, with which to shoot birds, lizards and frogs. This toy excited the cupidity of Willie Gans, the son of the overseer, a lad of about my own age, and he proposed to buy it. I agreed to let him have it for one of his old spelling books, provided he would teach me as far as "baker," and the lessons were started then and there. This was one Friday afternoon, and by supper I had mastered the intricate mysteries of the alphabet and by Sunday evening I knew every little syllable and word to "baker."
"And now, Willie," I supplemented, "I will give you my pet squirrel and a poke full of goobers if you will teach me all through the book."
"I will do it" he said, and in a month's time, encourraged by the plaudits of my mother, and by unflagging interest and close application I was as perfect in orthography as it was possible for that good old spelling book to make me.
This, the most difficult step surmounted, I found no further trouble in climbing into the temple of knowledge, the only drawback being the lack of books.
My mother helped me over this trouble by placing a well-filled gourd of picayunes and dimes, the accumulated savings of her patient life, at my disposal, and through the friendly offices of Willie, I managed to get together quite a little shelf of simple but useful books, stretching in their range from Mother Goose's Melodies to a battered copy of Pope's Translation of Homer's Iliad.
But time wore on and when I was about eighteen years old, I with a gang of other young fellows like myself, was put in the field to work. The task was light, however, and I did not mind it, I was young, well grown to my age, in fact a man in stature, active, lithe and strong, and happily had a ready knack and disposition for work. I could easily lead all others in anything we had to do. As I look back now, after all the changes that have come, and review my life and my work on that river plantation, cut off almost from all intercourse with the outside world, I do not find in it so much to condemn or deplore. We worked it is true, but not tiringly or unwillingly. We were hale, healthy and hearty. We had a sufficiency of palatable and wholesome food, good clothes to wear, shelter from the storm and fire from the frost, and so far as the article of living, the matter of animal existence, was concerned, we were as well to do as kings, and a deal more contented.
I have since made the history of labor and the subjects of political and social economy a study, and slave though I once was, and with all the prejudices against the system, I do not hesitate to say, that in all my researches in books or travels, I have never been able to find a more contented, thrifty, prosperous, and happy community of laborers than that which flourished on the Cossetot plantation of Col. Gustave Choteaux, in Alabama.
But this is digressive. Four years I worked in the fields on the plantation, growing in the meanwhile into stalwart manhood, when there came another great change in my life.
It was in August when Colonel Choteaux, our master, with his wife, our mistress, came on a visit of inspection
to the plantation. It was the first in many years that the master had come and was the first within my memory that the mistress had ever been seen. Their coming was greeted something like the visit of a king with his consort to an outlying province would have been, with loyal grins of welcome, awkward bows of homage, and gaping wonder and, withal, much gladness.
I remember my own sensations--comparatively well read as I then was--I stood in open-eyed wonder and speechless admiration of the splendor of the equipage, the elegance of the mistress' toilet, the fragrance of her presence, and the glitter and flash of her jewelry. It was a marvel and a revelation to me. Even Hance, the coachman, with his smooth hat, his fleckless coat, long buff gauntlets and shiny boots, was a surprise and a pleasure.
For two days they stopped, lodging at the overseer's house, and the morning they were ready to start away a score of us young men, the likeliest of the lot, were ordered to dress ourselves in our best and march up to the yard for inspection.
"Your master wants a house-boy, and you must all look your best and brightest," explained Mr. Gans, when he summoned us to go.
Like recruits to be mustered in we were aligned in one rank before the piazza, and with hats off and eyes to the front we stood ready for inspection, each in tremulous suspense for the issue; for, be it known, that to be a house-boy, to live in the "big house," to wait upon the master and the mistress, was the acme of a negro's ambition. It was to him an office more exalted in dignity and honor than the office of queen's chamberlain. No wonder we
stood in breathless expectancy, while the master carelessly flashed his glance up and down the line.
Thanks to my mother's tidy and cleanly habit, my Sunday suit was in the neatest trim, and it was with something nearly akin to pride that I took my place in line next to the head. I felt proud of my strength, proud of my stature, proud of my supple limbs, by well turned wrists and shapely hands. I was proud too--I may be pardoned for the vanity--of my head and face, with features regular, clear cut and almost classic. Baring the swarthy complexion and the too crispy curling hair, there was but little of the negro that showed in my physique. Could I have bleached my skin and straightened the crisp locks, I could have passed not only for a white man, but a strikingly handsome one at that. But alas! as if in grim mockery of my father's features, nature had given me my mother's ebony skin, only softening it enough to let the warm blood show through when called up into my face in a tide of passion or of anger.
I watched my master--who, be it remembered, was my uncle also--and was struck with his pleasing appearance, handsome, good natured, easy, dainty. There was nothing in form or features to suggest the remotest suspicion of kinship between us--my mother always declaring that my father was the handsomer man of the two, and that they were antipodal in looks as well as in disposition, my master fair and effeminate, my father dark, rugged and manly.
All this I recalled as I watched his glance and then I held my breath to catch his words as he spoke: "That fellow there in the middle! You, sir; what is your name?" he asked, pointing to a full blown, lazy-eyed negro who stood some distance below me.
"Name's Handibal, sah."
"Hannibal is it? How old are you?"
"Do'an know, sah. I'ze grown, I s'pects."
"Very well, I think you will do. What about him, Gans?"
"He is good enough for a house nigger, only lazy. The strap though will keep him awake."
"Very well, that will give employment to Joe and help to keep him awake. I will take Hannibal. What say you, Pauline?"
"I don't like him. There," pointing to me, "is a much likelier boy. What is your name?"
With a little triumph I placed my hands upon my breast and bowed as gracefully as I could.
"My name is Paul."
"A very good name! And how old are you?"
"I am twenty-two years old."
"Ah! and do you think you could wait upon me, rock my chair, swing my hammock, fan me to sleep, fetch my slippers and such things?"
"I should be glad to serve you any way, as long as I live," I said a little impulsively, for I was carried away by the prospect.
"Ah! that is nice. And what of him, Mr. Gans?"
"Oh! he is an improvement on Ham. A little starchy and slightly stuck up, but a good larruping occasionally will keep him down; only to do him justice I must say that I never had to strike him a lick in my life. He is one of the best niggers on the place. It will be a pity to spoil such a good field hand by making a house-boy of him."
"Is he a good field hand? Then he will make a better house servant. Gustave, we will take Paul."
And thus it was decided that without any volition of my own, I was to be lifted out of the even tenor of my old life, and transplanted from the field to the garden, from the old cabin under the gnarled chestnut to the proud mansion among the elms.
I looked at my mistress and thanked her with my most humble obeisance. She was a lovely lady, and though the mother of grown-up children, was yet fresh and fair with the traces of a once radiant beauty clinging lovingly to her still. I felt that it would be no drudgery to serve her, but a happiness, instead.
"You need not to trouble about clothes," she said as she waived me away. "We will have new clothes made for you at home. Take nothing from here that you would not wish to have burned. You will have to strip when you get there and have your old clothes burned. We can not allow the smell of the plantation to invade the house."
And with this I was dismissed to follow them on as soon as I could catch and saddle my mule.
I had read in the rambling course of my studies of the beautiful homes of the rich; pictures of suburban villas and historic mansions had given me an idea of architectural beauty and splendor, but I had never conceived anything so really beautiful and grand as the home mansion of my master. It was large, roomy and elegant. A broad portico, columned with marble, running the entire length, shaded the front. To the right of the spacious entrance hall was the parlor; opening into this was the music room, and into this the picture gallery. To the left were the library, the gentlemen's smoking room and the billiard room. In an L running back from this was the cozy dining room. In a corresponding wing on the right was the family sitting room, opening into the master's office and through it into the mistress's boudoir and bed room. The upper floors of this wing, reached by a broad stair-way from the hall, was appropriated to the ladies' rooms, as the second story of the opposite wing was assigned to the gentlemen, a court in the center separating the two divisions. Still back of the dining room were the kitchen and pantries, over which were the servant's rooms. Altogether it was a magnificent place, palatial in the splendor of its appointments.
It was sun-down when I arrived and reported to my master.
"Oh, yes, you are the new boy! Here, Joe." Joe was the steward, or rather factotum of the household. "Here, Joe, is a boy I have brought from the plantation to take the place of Tom. He will wait upon the mistress and attend to the women. You had better stall him in the little cuddy upstairs at the end of the ladies' hall. He looks like a stout young buck and the girls will feel safer when they have such a burly young fellow to keep off the boogers. Take him around to the kitchen and give him his supper, and then shake him down in his cell until morning when your mistress will take him in hand."
"Yes, sah. Yere, yo' nigger, dis way, foller me," said Joe, leading the way to the kitchen where a warm supper was ready for me.
After supper and the interchange of courtesies with my new mates, Joe conducted me around to the east wing, up the stairway and through the ladies' hall to my little cell of a room, a box as it were against the outer wall at the end of the hall and overhanging the rear veranda below. It opened into the hall and seemed built for a sentry box from which to watch and guard the sanctity of the ladies' rooms which occupied the entire wing, opening on either side from the long broad hall. The room was bare of furniture but a roll of carpeting spread upon the floor made an excellent bed on which, bewildered by my strange and surprising surroundings, I vainly tried to sleep.
Early in the morning, Joe came for me, the more I soon found, to show his authority than for anything else.
"De fust thing yo' habs ter do ob a mornin' is ter trot down ter de wash-hole an' jump years ober head an' scrub
yerself," he explained leading the way, with the household gang, to the wash-house. After breakfast he conducted me back into the master's office for instructions.
"Oh, here you are again; well, Joe, take him to his mistress. He is her dog. She will tell you what to do with him," pointing by a nod of the head to the mistress's room.
Without the ceremony of knocking, Joe pushed me before him into the chamber of the mistress, where much to my confusion we found her sitting in the airiest kind of a morning dress, while her maid was combing her hair.
And right here, as this is a history of the inner life, the penetralia of the old southern home, it may not be amiss to refer to one of its most peculiar, puzzling and paradoxical features. I mean the shameless, or not shameless, but rather unconscious, though immodest familiarity of the southern mistress with slave, male or female, boy or man.
I know that they were modest, these southern mistresses. The slightest approach to a wilful indencency would cause their cheeks to burn scarlet and call down a swift and sure reprimand upon the indiscrete slave that exhibited it. But in their intercourse with their negro slaves they seemed to have no thought of propriety, no sense of shame, no idea of immorality. I remember the surprise, even shock, it gave me that morning when I stood in her chamber and looked upon that proud lady, more loosely draped than I had ever seen my own mother. But abashing as was the sight, my first experience, it was nothing, hardly a suggestion of imprudence, to what I was afterwards to see and at last learn to look upon with
indifferent familiarity. It may seem incredible to those who do not know, but I have been called into her bath-room to adjust the faucet or to temper the bath while she stood by as innocent of drapery, and I may say as unconscious of impropriety, as Mother Eve when she first stood before the wondering eye of Adam.
And yet Madam Choteaux was not a lickerish, or even immodest woman. She would have screamed in confusion and blushed crimson had it been her own husband instead of me, the negro slave, who stood gaping upon her.
The slaveholders, masters and mistresses, had been educated to regard their negroes as they regarded the furniture, or their cats and dogs, a species of domestic fixture, having eyes to see not, and ears to hear not, senses to feel and yet to feel not. My God! when I look back upon those times, and knowing the warm, passionate, almost bestial propensities of my race, and the terrible temptations which the then prevailing, unconscious indiscretions of the southern mistresses, in the exposure of their charms, daily put before their slaves, I shudder even now at the danger and can only wonder that there were not more outrages, with the inevitable hanging or burning, or emasculation following swiftly after.* * The legal tribunals were not troubled with such offenses, but conventional usage, more swift and more inexorable, had prescribed the punishment according to the degree of the offense. Of these degrees there were three, rape, assault and fornication. The penalty for the first was burning at the stake, for the second hanging, and the third castration and sale to the "speculator," or negro trader, the master being both judge and executioner. Sometimes the value of the negro and the cupidity of the master, influenced the judgment, and not infrequently castration and sale took the place of death.
* The legal tribunals were not troubled with such offenses, but conventional usage, more swift and more inexorable, had prescribed the punishment according to the degree of the offense. Of these degrees there were three, rape, assault and fornication. The penalty for the first was burning at the stake, for the second hanging, and the third castration and sale to the "speculator," or negro trader, the master being both judge and executioner. Sometimes the value of the negro and the cupidity of the master, influenced the judgment, and not infrequently castration and sale took the place of death.
It is for this, the removal of such a terrible temptation
from the weakness of my helpless fellow slaves, more than any emoluments freedom has brought them, that I thank my God for the abolition of a system that made such a social condition possible.
Nor was this imprudent exposure of charms that should have been hidden, confined to the matron or mistress alone. The girls and young ladies were taught from babyhood to regard the negro boy or man as a stick or stone, a species of animated dummy with only feeling and sense enough to fetch and carry.
The eunuchs in the eastern harem had no more liberty of association with the inmates of the seraglio than the southern negro slave had with the ladies of his master's house.
Take my own case, for instance. I was a young man, healthy, strong and robust and full of animal spirits, a stranger in the house, and yet I was to be invested with the keys and midnight surveillance of every lady's chamber in the house. It was to be my duty, not absolutely, to disrobe and put them to bed, but to stand by if I wished and look on while the more deft-fingered maid performed the delicate service. And then, when all were tucked snugly away and ready for dreamland, it remained for me to see that the windows were secured, the fire well banked and all safe before I could go. And then, the first in the morning I had to go in and kindle the fire, to arrange the bath and to polish the dainty boots. This much I write, to further explain the bewildering, entrancing, treacherous, smoothness of the stream upon which, helpless as a cork drifting down Niagara, my destiny had been launched.
* * * * * * * * * * *
"Well, what is it, Joe?" asked my mistress without troubling herself to close the open plaquet through which two still plump and pinky breasts unwinkingly peered.
"Yere's dis nigger wot yo' fotched from the corn-field. Marster tole me to fotch 'im ter yer an' ax yo' wot ter do wid 'im."
"Oh yes, the new boy, Peter, I had forgotten."
"Not 'Peter', but 'Paul,' if you please, ma'am," I respectfully corrected.
"Oh, yes, so it is; well, Joe, the first thing is to have him properly dressed. Take him to the tailor and have an outfit at once, everything from his shoes to his hat. You seem to look neat; have you taste enough to know what is becoming to you or shall I write Mr. Murdough to select for you?" she asked, turning to me.
"I should like best to please you and not myself," I answered.
"Very well; Joe, tell Mr. Murdough to fit him up nicely, and have two other suits made for him. And, mind, when you come back, take him down to the wash-house and have him scrubbed. Make him scrub himself from the crown of his head to the sole of his feet. Burn up your old clothes, and then when you are properly dressed you can come to me and let me see if I can make anything out of you," and with a waive of her hand she dismissed us.
At the gate Joe put on the air of a master.
"Yo' go down ter de lot dar, an' tell Dick ter cotch my mare foh me, an' yo' cotch a mule foh yo'rself, an' lem me tell yo' boy yo's got ter step along a heap moah libely or fuss thing yo' knows I'll hab ter take a cowhide ter yo'. Yo' moves too slow ter suit me; mine, now,
wot I tells yo'; niggers has got ter stir der stumps when dey roosts 'bout me, I do'an like a nigger no how."
I felt strongly tempted to resent this gratuitous insolence, but was not certain of the fellow's authority and power, and so hurried away to execute his order without cavil.
The horses were soon ready and mounting we rode away in a trot, Joe asserting his dignity by springing a few paces ahead, while I a little doggedly jogged on behind.
As soon, however, as we were well out of sight from the house the fellow's garrulous curiosity got the better of his dignity and nodding back for me to come up he commenced:
"Now, Buck, I wants ter know who yo' is, an' whar yo' comes from; wot's yer marmmy's name, an' all 'bout yer?"
I thought it well enough to conciliate his friendliness and answered with due respect that my name was "Paul" and that I came from the plantation.
"Wot one ob de plantations, yo' signify?" he interrupted.
"Oh, the master's plantation, of course."
"But wot one, yo' fool yo'; do'an yo' knows dat we uns hab three plantations?"
"No, I did not know it."
"Well den, we has. Dar's de Muskerdine plantation, an' dar's de Magnowly place, an' dar's de Cossertot, wid ober a hundred niggers on each place, wid mules accordin'. Now, wot one am it yo' was fotched up on?"
"I do not know the name, but suppose it must be the
Cossetot, as that is the name of the stream that runs through it."
"Who's der boss oberseer?"
"Yuh, dat's de Cossertot. An' wot de debbil yo' specs ole mistus wants wid yo'; dar's ten boys a'ready in de house, an' dat's moah dan I kin keep strate."
I could not enlighten him on that point, and he went on.
"An' how yo' 'spects yo'll like it? Yo'll fine Miss Pauline a monstrus good mistus, 'cept w'en yo' makes her mad, an' den, phew, w'en yer jist git her dander up she's a pufect singe cat. I tell yo,' nigger, yo'll hab ter walk a chalked line w'en yo' steps 'bout her."
I assured him it would be my greatest care to always please her, and then, still uneasily perplexed at our unceremonious intrusion upon the privacy of her chamber, I asked:
"Don't you think it was too saucy in us to go into her room as we did this morning and catch her undressed. I am sorry we did it."
"Shoo, boy, dats nuffin', yo'll soon get usen ter all dem kine o' tricks. De mistus do'an no moah kere fer yo' den she do fer de ole pussy cat. But mine, now, nigger, lem me tell yer, yo' mussen mine needer. Yo' haster keep yer fool eyes shet an' do'an yer see nuffin', an' zif yer do peep one eye on it, sorter sly like, des keep yer mouf shet an' hole yer tongue. Dem is things as mussent be talked 'bout, or fust thing yo' knows, yer'll des know nuffin'. Dat war des de matter wid Tom."
"With Tom?" I asked.
"Yuh; de nigger wot waited on de wimmin fokses afore Tom got too biggity like, an' went ter sniggerin' one day w'en de mistus slipped up on a bannaner peelin' on de porch an' happen ter hab er little axcerdent."
"Accident?" I repeated.
"Yuh, axcerdents will sometimes happen ter de quality folks as well's ter de buckra, an' so mistus's heels flewed up an' Tom seed sumfin', an' den stid o' shettin' his eyes like a nigger orter, de blame fool went ter sniggerin' like a baboon, an' de nex' day he war marched off ter town an' sole ter a specerlater, an' dats de lass we's seed ob him. White fokeses is mity kurus fokses enyhow, an' dey won't stan' fer a nigger ter notis nuffin', leas'wise zif dey do dey mussn't go ter grinnin' at 'em. White lady's tricks wosn't made fer niggers ter grin at. So now I puts yer on yer excusements soze yer kin mine wot's wot."
"Yes, you are very kind and I shall remember," I answered, wondering if the fellow really meant it for a caution or was only playing on my natural credulity.
"So yer do, an' fudder on arterawhile we most in general sometimes hab a monstrus heap ob company, young ladies an' young gemmens, all de quality nabers comin' ter take Chrismus, an' den yer'll see der sites as'll make yer mouf water. Fine young ladies des as fine as fiddles, an' as plump as pa'tridges an' as purty as hollyhocks, sly pussies, all on 'em; an' though dey'd be shamed like ter talk 'bout a kitten's whiskers afore de beaux, yo' des wait twill dey gits in dey rooms an' fix foh bed zif yo' wants ter see tomboy capers--raslin', turnin' summersets, skinnin' cats an' all udder kines ob projickin'. Yo'll hab ter wait on dey rooms, make fires, fasten winders, tote water
"Oh, Miss Jinny, please do--doan be too hahd on me."--Page 49.
an' black dey shoes, an' yo' can't keep from seein' 'em, fer dey won't mine yo' no moah dan dey'ill mine de fire-dogs. It's purty hahd on a pooh devil ob a nigger like yo' but yer'll des hab ter stan' it, speshally twill yer gits usened ter it."
I thanked him for his friendly advice and we cantered along.
It was some four miles to the village, a straggling county town, but our rapid pace soon brought us to it, Joe resuming his dignity and reasserting his precedence as we came in sight.
Going directly to the tailor's shop, Joe presented me.
"Yere's a coon Mistus Choteaux cotched in de Cossertot swamp, an' she tole me to fotch 'im ter yo' an' let yer see if he is wuff skinnin'."
Mr. Murdough was a jolly Scotchman, half tipsy.
"Ah, yes, a fine looking coon. Haul off your coat and turn around and let me see. By Hercules, what a splendid physique. You would do for a model. Hand me my tape, Randall; let me measure. Eh, mon, I will have to make you a coat, there is none in the shop broad enough in the shoulders for you," applying the measure as I turned for his inspection. "What all is it he wants, Joe?"
"He wants eberything, from sorks to a hat; Mistus Choteaux ses ter rig 'im out an' out from tip to toe. She wants three suits as soon as yo' kin fix 'em."
"Then he will have to come back to-morrow evening. I will have a suit by then; there is nothing in the shop to fit him now." And after a complete measurement, I was dismissed and we rode back home.
"Here he are, Mistus," said Joe, ushering me into the mistress's little drawing-room.
"But where are his clothes?"
Mr. Murder haster make 'em--dar wan't none big enuff fer him. He ses send 'im back termorrer ebenin' an' git 'em."
"Very well. Send him out to the stables and let him stay there until he gets them. I will have Sealy to make his shirts. Send Sealy to me."
Sealy was the house-seamstress or superintendent of the sewing room, in which a half dozen smart negro girls were kept constantly busy with the family sewing.
"You stand here until she comes," added my mistress, as I turned to follow Joe. "She will want to measure your collar."
In a moment Sealy appeared, tape and scissors in hand.
"Measure this boy for a dozen linen shirts, and have them made right away. Let me see; turn around. A Byron collar, with a little pink ribbon for a tie will suit him best. And, now, Buck, I want you to understand that you are to keep clean. The least fleck of dirt on your coat, shirt or collar, will be whipped off with the cowhide. I can't stand dirt around my house. You must strip and scrub yourself, thoroughly, every morning, the first thing you do, and change your underwear every day. You will have a dozen changes, and Winnie will see that they are properly laundried. Do you understand?"
"Yes, ma'am, and will be glad to do it."
"Very well; now you can go to the stables and stay there until your clothing is ready. When you have scrubbed and dressed you can come, and I will tell you what you have to do," and with this she dismissed me.
Now this may sound trivial, but I give it to illustrate
the dainty fastidiousness, so far as cleanliness was concerned, of the old aristocratic mistresses. Nothing like dirt could be tolerated in the house or about the person. There was a large bath house down by the spring in which every negro on the place had a tub, or more properly, a vat, into which, rain or shine, hot or cold, he was required to plunge, head and ears, every morning of his life. Some of them would shrink from the plunge and especially on an icy, winter morning, and Joe had to occasionally use his whip to enforce the duty; but to me it was a luxury, healthy, sweet and exhilarating.
I went to the stable where I remained immured with the hostler, in a species of punitive probation, until the following afternoon, when Joe came to tell me to mount my mule and tote into town after my clothes.
Mr. Murdough had worked diligently and I found a suit ready, a handsome suit of blue, light summer cassimere, fitting to a nicety and setting off my naturally good figure to the best advantage. I was vain enough to be proud of and flattered by it.
Many of the house negroes in the south were attired in livery, but not so ours. The good taste of the mistress had seen that our different physiques and colors required different styles of costume, and while our clothing was of the best, and even finest materials, each was required to wear that which best became him.
With my outfit carefully wrapped I hurried back to report to Joe. Sealy had been equally expeditious and had an outfit of linen ready.
Armed with a pan of soft soap and a bundle of corn cobs, which by the way make excellent flesh brushes, I was ordered
to follow Joe to the bath-house, where a vat was assigned me, as my own exclusive property, and in a few moments I was stripped and covered from head to heels with a stringing, lathery foam, Joe, whip in hand, standing by to see that the "scrubbing" was thoroughly done.
Having completed my purification to Joe's critical satisfaction, and rubbing myself dry I was invested in my new attire. The old plantation clothes were gingerly bundled up and cast into the wash furnace to be burned, and with them I put away the old plantation life and like the butterfly, emerging from its shell, I became a new man. Even my old shoes were cast aside with my hat, of which I had once been so proud, and light congress gaiters, and a nobby Kossuth hat replaced them.
I had a natural taste for the elegant in dress and deftly arranging my cuffs and collar, with its dainty little tie of pink ribbon, I stepped out, quite a dandy in my glory.
"Yes, yo'll do fust-rate, an' ef yo' doan't mine, yo'll hab all de gals takin' arter yo' foh a sweetheart. Yo' must be keerful though, how yo' project wid dem or yo'll hab yo' mistus sendin' yo' an' dem off ter de plantation. Yo' has ter be mity sly, I tells yo', she watches dem gals like a hawk."
"She needn't have any fear for me," I answered a little stiffly. "I wouldn't wipe my foot on any negro girl that ever lived."
"Huh, whose yo', I'd like ter know. But nevah mine, yo' des wait till Miss Jinny comes back home wid Sally an' den we'll see."
"And who is Miss Jenny?" I asked, curious to know something more about the family.
"Why, yo' fool nigger, doan't yo' know she's de young mistus, ob cose, wots off ter school, away up norf whar she's ben foh moh'an a yeah."
"And who is Sally?"
"Sally is de yaller gal, wot waits on her. She's most white an' des as purty as new shoes. Yo' des wait till Miss Jinny fotches her back home an' den we'll see wot yo's got ter say 'bout wipin' yo' foot on a nigger. I'll 'low Mastah Victor will broke yo' fool head 'bout her yet; yo' mine if he doan."
"And who is Master Victor?"
"Dar yo' is agin. I 'clare yo's de biggest fool nigger I eber seen. Why, doan yo' know Mastah Victor is de young mastah? He's off ter school, too; up at de univarsity?"
"And how many young masters are there?"
"Wot, doan yo' knows?"
"No, I know nothing of the family."
"Well, well, wot a moke yo' iz, not ter know yo' own mastahs. Well dar's two ob em, Mars Louis wot is married an' libs in de city, an' Mastah Victor."
"And how many young mistresses have we?"
"Only one, Miss Jinny, an' she's a young lady most growed. She'll be home nex' yeah, an' 'ill fotch Sally."
"But what has the young Master Victor got to do with Sally that he should break my head about her?"
"Humph! Well yo' des wait an' see. But yondah is yo' mistus on de portico now, an' I'll fotch yo' to her." A moment later, "Heah, mam, heah's dis nigger. I made him scour hisse'f as clean as a picked chicken, an' his close is all right," presenting me to the lady, who surveyed
me from head to foot with a critical but approving eye, as I stood, hat in hand, before her.
"Yes, you will do; a very fine looking fellow. You can go now, Joe. And you, 'Paul,' you say is your name?"
"Yes, madam, 'Paul.'"
"Very well, Paul, I like the name; but now I will tell you what you have to do. This side of the house is mine, that is, it is set apart to ladies. The parlor there, the music room and my drawing room, my boudoir and bedchamber, these you will have to look after--air them in the day and close the windows at night. Up stairs, on this side, is also appropriated exclusively to ladies, visiting friends, or the family. My daughter's room is up there, immediately over mine. These you will also have to look after,--airing them in the summer and making fires in the winter. You will sleep up there in the little chamber where you slept the other night. That is your room and you must keep it neat and clean. Dora will show you a bed-stead and bedding, which you will move in there to make yourself comfortable. She will also give you a wash-stand and a bureau with towels and drawers. You will have a comb and a brush and you must always keep yourself in a presentable condition. You will also have to wait upon me and your master. Wheel my chair for me, look after my bath, fan me if necessary, and rub my back when it aches. You will eat in the kitchen with the other negroes. And now you can go. I shall give you a day or two to get accustomed to your new surroundings and shall not require any service of you until then. Look about you in the meantime and learn all you can, and day after to-morrow come to me again for orders."
With a very clear idea of what was to be expected of me and an honest desire to please my gracious mistress in all things I bowed myself off.
I have ever had the happy faculty of readily adapting myself to my surroundings. It was no task then for me to fall into the ways of my new life, and with the still happier disposition to make myself agreeable and useful to all with whom I came in contact, I soon won my way into the confidence of my master and mistress, and to the good-will of my fellow servants.
My duties were light, in truth, they were hardly to be called duties at all, so pleasant were the services. Not a fourth of my time was required in the performance of my daily routine of work, leaving me free to devote the remainder to eager, zealous study.
My master cared little for books, but for all that he had a valuable and extensive library, more for ostentation, perhaps, than for practical use. This, albeit surreptitiously, I invaded and placed under contribution, and drew upon its resources without stint. Ah, how I gloated upon its treasures, grappling even with its most erudite mysteries and compelling their secrets.
As may be supposed, many of the works were in French, but with the aid of a French and English lexicon as a key, I soon unlocked their treasures, and ere the long, idle wintry nights were passed, and the spring had come again I could read them with almost as much ease and intelligent understanding as I could read my own mother tongue.
Having no definite plan in view, I cared little for the abstruse sciences, but works in lighter vein, poetry, fiction, history, biography and travels were sources of unfailing delight.
No one knew of my studies. I do not know that they would have interfered if they had. Still, I thought it well to keep them in the dark. And it was not until June had come and master and mistress had gone north to witness the graduating honors of their daughter, and to bring her home, leaving the library in my absolute charge, that I threw off all reserve and boldly pursued my studies in the broad open day as well as in the secrecy of the night.
The young mistress, Miss Virginia, was at the Patapsco Institute at or near Baltimore, and after the closing of the commencement exercises they expected to spend the summer north, alternating between the breezes and surf of Cape May and the mountain springs of Virginia.
It was early in June when they went away and not until the first of October did they return, thus giving me quite four months of cumberless, uninterrupted study. I do not write of it boastingly, but I very much doubt if ever another student has made such use of his time or mastered so much that was useful to the understanding, as I did in that, the golden summer of my life. My powers of assimilation were unusually large and combined with a retentive faculty which in later life aided me in rapidly making up the lost ground of my youth and early manhood, my store of knowledge--practical information--was vastly augmented, more greatly than I, myself, could appreciate at that time.
But the home-coming put a stop to all this. We had been expecting them for more than a week, and every day,
during the while Hance, the carriage driver, had driven to the landing at the river to meet them. It was a bright October afternoon when they came, in the soft aftermath of summer. Far down the long, elm-shaded avenue we saw the carriage, and knew by the flutter of scarlet ribbons by Hance from his seat on the box, that they were coming, and in glad expectancy the household ran to the "big gate" to meet and welcome them.
Soon the carriage drew up and hardly waiting for it to stop, Sally, the maid, a pert mulatto girl, bounced down from her perch on the driver's box and opened the chorus of boisterous "how-dy's." Then Joe, with the gravity of his importance, opened the carriage door and let down the steps and the mistress, all smiles and gladness, stepped out. I felt a positive joy in seeing her kindly, smiling face again.
And then, like a sudden burst of morning light, with the beautiful face of a Hebe, the form of a Venus and the grace of Diana, the young mistress appeared, the loveliest, fairest and sweetest vision that ever dazzled the sight and brain of mortal man.
I have seen many beautiful women since that day. I love to look upon them because they are always a joy to behold. I have seen pictures, too, of lovely women, the famed beauties of royal courts; but never anywhere in the flesh, radiant with health and life, or glowing in life-like semblance on canvas of the masters, have I seen a woman so perfectly lovely, so ravishingly beautiful, so bewitchingly sweet and fair to look upon as she who had so unexpectedly burst at once upon my life and vision.
For a moment she stood, stooping in the carriage door
and then, as if disdaining the puerile superfluity of the steps, she lightly sprang out tripping forward as lissom as a fawn and as blithe as a bird.
And then came the affectionate greetings of the negroes. First her old nurse, Mammy Julia, gathered her in her arms as she sobbed her blessings; then her old duenna, Aunty Dilsey, then Sealy and the cook, and then younger girls, each kissing her hand and each receiving a smile and pleasant word of recognition in return. And then, after the women, the men with mouths grinning from ear to ear pressed forward to claim their smile and to shake the pretty hand. I alone stood back; it would have been a sacrilege for me to have grasped that dainty hand as those others grasped it, and feigning some neglected duty in the house I hurried away to avoid her notice.
"She's des as purty as ebber, an' de sweetes' young mistus dat ebber war. I wants ter tote her, 'caze she's des too sweet ter walk upon de groun'," blubbered Aunt Dilsey, as she brushed by me on her way back to her dairy over which she queened it with a regal sway.
It was easy to see that they all adored their lovely young mistress as much for her gentle sweetness as for her glorious beauty.
The radiance of her presence affected me strangely, inexplicably, at that time. In the glamour which she cast upon me then she seemed an angel from heaven. Its spell has never fallen from me; it rests upon me now. Death may not deprive me of its ineffable influence. Yet I had deserted that presence almost in fear. An undefinable dread seemed to oppress me. Unconsciously I went upstairs and shut myself in my little room. I tried to think.
Out of a tangle of thoughts came a knowledge that I was standing on the eve of the greatest change in my life. I felt a premonition of its nearness--a shadow, as it were, of the yet to come cast before. For days the shadow lay uneasily upon me.
But bye and bye, it grew bright again, and my spirit, naturally buoyant and light, was able to throw the disquieting shadow aside and I went about my work as blithely as ever. I saw the young mistress every day and though it lost nothing of its radiance I learned to look upon her surprising beauty with something like rational composure. In a blind, unmeaning way I worshiped her as one worships the angels. I could have kissed the very ground she walked upon, but would no more have dared the wish to touch her hand, or even the hem of her garments, than I would have thought to violate the sanctity of a vestal shrine.
As yet she had not noticed me, not even with a look of inquiry, and not until a week had passed, when her mother called me into her presence to commend me to her service, did I catch the glance of her eye.
"Virginia, my darling," said the mistress, "this is Paul, the new negro we brought from the plantation to take the place of Tom. Tom grew to be quite impudent and we had to send him away. I don't think we will have any such trouble with Paul, whom I have found to be quite a smart and handy fellow, not at all impudent or saucy. He waits upon me and will wait upon you. And you, Paul, this is your Miss Virginia. She complains that her fires are neglected. Come, you must not let that occur again. It is quite cool enough for fires now and
you must see to it that a bright, warm one is always in her room. Do you mind?"
"And beside the fire, you must see to her windows. Every night when she goes to bed you must see that the windows are secure and the fire well banked. You must wait upon her just as you do me. Paul sleeps in the little cuddy at the end of the hall, Tom's old den, so if you want anything in the night make Sally call him."
I tried to stammer my profession of a grateful service, but was somehow too confused to make myself understood, and the young mistress, evidently amused at my bashfulness, smilingly spoke:
"Oh, yes, I am sure that you did not mean to neglect me, and now that you know your business I think we can get on nicely together."
"You have a latch key to her room, so there will be no need of you disturbing her when you go in," continued her mother. "And now she wants you to move the piano from the window across to the wall, and you had as well make a fire in there now. Virginia may wish to play this evening."
Glad of the happy privilege of serving her, I salamed myself out--cutting, I fear, a somewhat awkward figure--and went to move the piano and to kindle a glowing fire upon the broad open hearth.
That evening while the family were at supper I softly stole to her room to kindle the fire there. I felt a reverential awe as I stepped across the threshold and stood in that sacred chamber, that seemed redolent of virgin sweetness and maiden purity. With a positive dread of being
caught I piled on the wood and kindled it and slunk out as stealthily as I had entered. After supper the family repaired to the music room. Pretending to inquire if the piano had been properly placed, but really to listen to the sweet gush of bird-like song that trilled from the silvery throat of the singer, I ventured to the door.
"What is it you want?" asked the mistress, surprised at my presumptuous intrusion.
"If you please, ma'am, I came to see if I had placed the piano right," I meekly stammered.
"Yes, it is right, just where I wanted it," interposed the young mistress very graciously. "It is very well, and you can go."
With a choking sense of my slavish degradation and the still more wretched taint of race, I crept away. Such music was not intended for such ears as mine.
The next morning after I had made the fires in the rooms below, I again went up to make hers. With a trepidation as nervous as before, I softly opened the door and tiptoed in. She was sweetly sleeping, and on the little trundle bed at the foot of her own, Sally, her maid, lay sprawled out in somnolent oblivion.
As softly as I could, I put down my burden of wood and opened the slumbering embers to kindle them into a blaze. I hardly dared to look around, but while waiting for the flames to ignite, I stole a glance over the room. It was not actually littered, but was recklessly tumbled with a confusion of mysterious and unmentionable feminine apparel. A skirt here, a corset there, and a little circular nest of snowy crinoline yonder, such a confusion as can only be accounted for by the supposition that the sleepy-eyed
maid had gone to bed first, leaving the easy-natured young mistress to disrobe herself. On the rug, close to where I knelt, was her dainty little boot. It was bold, almost madness, but I could not resist the wild impulse to take it to my breast and then to kiss the unconscious sole. Then I softly, tenderly put it down and giving the fire one more assuring poke, I arose and turned to creep from the room. My eyes unconsciously sought her couch and I had to pause a moment, holding my breath in a positive awe as I looked upon the slumbering beauty. One fair arm had escaped from the coverlet and was lying in a graceful sweep by her side; the other was resting across her breast. Her hair, unloosed from its coil, lay like a ripple of sunshine over her pillow; her rich ripe lips were parted just enough to reveal the pearly teeth within, while in gentle, but strong and healthy respiration, her snowy bosom rose and fell.
I have seen her often since; in fancy I see her still, and every night of my solitary life she comes to me in my dreams, always beautiful, always lovely, but never so beautiful, never so sweet and inexpressibly fair as she appeared just as she lay before me that morning in the perfection of maidenly beauty and maidenly purity. Whispering a blessing upon her sweet life I tiptoed out again and softly closing the door, went down to my ungrateful work.
All day long I thought of that beautiful picture, and with the thought would come an uneasy consciousness of unfaith, of treachery and meanness. I had no right to look upon such innocent loveliness, albeit, the glance I stole was one of reverential, almost holy adoration. There
was no guilt in the look, no unholy desire, and I would have cut my throat rather than to have wronged her with an impure thought. But I would not look again. No, no, though heaven itself should open to my vision I must close my eyes to its beauties. Negro slave, pariah that I was, such loveliness was not for me, and firm in this resolve I dropped my eyes the next morning as I went in to make the fire, and hurriedly striking the kindling I quickly stole from the room without a glance either to the right or to the left.
But my overcaution confounded me, for in my haste to get away from the enchanting presence I did not sufficiently kindle the fire and instead of blazing up in grateful warmth it set up such an asthmatic sputtering as to call for a remedy, and I had scarcely finished the work of polishing my master's boots when Sally came with a lazy irritation to berate me for my dereliction.
"Say, yo' niggah yo', Miss Jinny ses fer yo' ter come back an' fix her fire. Wot sort ob a moke is yo' ennyhow, ter run off like dat an' 'spect de fire ter kindle itse'f?"
In dire dismay I ran to the wood-shed and gathering an armful of resinous splinters, I hurried back to make amends for my laches. Thinking that she was now up and dressed or at least awake I gave a warning knock at the door.
"Come in," was the response.
Boldly I entered when, heavens, what a sight! Diana stepping from her bath was never more glorious, as with her discarded night-robe at her feet she stood bare armed and bare kneed, with only the loosely falling folds of her chemise to drape her queenly form. Abashed at the unexpected
sight I drew back with a start and a gasp, when with the naive innocence of a child, she said:
"Ah, it is you! you have come to kindle the fire, but you see it has concluded to burn of itself. You really needed not to come. However, a few splinters will not hurt it."
"I am very sorry," I stammered as best I could as I stooped and applied the fuel, and then with averted eyes I turned to go.
"Stay a moment. You have forgotten my boots, I shall expect you to keep them clean for me," she ordered, pointing with her foot to the boots.
With a desperate dive I gathered them up and hurried out thoroughly shocked, but more angry with myself for my intrusion than with her for the naivete with which she received me.
In order to give her maid sufficient time to complete her toilet I loitered over my work and then waited at her door a little while before knocking again.
"Wot yer keep dat knockin' foh, why doan yo' come in," said Sally in disgust at my timidity, as she opened the door. "Yo' needn't be skeert, nobody's gwine ter bite yer."
Thus assured I stepped in to receive a still more embarrassing shock, for there on a low ottoman near the hearth, directly facing me, with a little cloud of fleecy drapery in her lap, the young mistress sat drawing on her stockings.
Without lowering her skirts or drooping her knees she looked me innocently in the face and with a smile of kindness she said, reaching out her hand for the boots:
"Yes, you have brought my boots, they are really nice. I think I must pay you for them. Sally, look in my drawer and give him a dollar."
"Oh, no, please not; I do not wish pay," I protested, drawing back.
"Yes take it, heah 'tis," said Sally holding out the coin.
"Yes, you can have it; take it," insisted the young mistress.
"I--I had rather not," I stammered. "I do not need it. I had rather always serve you for nothing. I do not ask pay."
"Den I'll hab it," said Sally closing her fingers upon it.
"If the young mistress is willing," I said, unwilling to accept the humiliating gratuity.
"Thankee, sir," cut in Sally, anxious to close the offer.
"Ah, I see; sweet-hearts already," laughed the lady. "That is charming. But you must be on your guard against Sally. She's a great flirt and will jilt you sure. There is no telling the conquests she has made or the hearts she has broken," and fastening the jewelled clasp of her garter she gave the lapful of laces and flounces a deft little shake that tumbled them above her feet as she straightened down her knees. "Here, Sally, put them on for me, and you" nodding to me, "may go." Mentally thanking her for not requiring me to draw on and lace her boots for her, I backed out too sadly upset to think of closing the door after me.
I went to my little cell and sat for a while, pondering in a sad perplexity. I wondered what to do, whether to try to blind my eyes to all that was beautiful and ravishing to see, to steel my senses against all that was intoxicating
and sweet, or to go at once honestly to my master and implore him for the love of Christ to send me away, either back to the old life on the plantation, or else to sell me to vilest "nigger-trader" in the land and let him ship me off to the swamps of the Mississippi. I could not decide and so went drifting on.
Drifting on; ah, helpless as a cockle-shell on the broad bosom of the Atlantic, I was drifting I knew not where. All that I could do was to shut my eyes, in a dumb endurance, and let the future take care of itself. I knew then as I know now, what it was that had come over me, what the shadow meant that had so mysteriously gathered around me. I loved Virginia Choteaux, my own cousin by blood, my queenly mistress by fate. Loved her madly, blindly, despairingly, but not sinfully, nor selfishly. I have never seen the moment since I first knew her that I would not have willingly died to have saved her. Ah, what folly, what a wild infatuation! But oh, how sweet, how thrilling, how exalting and ennobling!
As electricity is said to be the soul of all nature, so is love the soul of human existence; and he who has not felt its vivifying power, its wild throbbings of hope and its despairing doubts, knows nothing of life, nothing of the essence, the spirit, the heavenly joy of living; and wretched as I then was, miserable, degraded, I yet had my flashes of joy, and my bitterest hell was at the same time my sweetest heaven.
I went out from her presence that morning humbled and degraded, feeling the despised reality of my position as I had never felt it before. I was not only a negro slave, but a stot, less than a man, and hardly a beast. I knew
very well in my secret conscience, that it was not for a lack of maidenly modesty she so unblushingly exposed her person to my unforbidden sight. I well understood that it was no coquettish trick of froward maidenhood to reveal the hidden charms a Venus might well have been pardoned for wishing to display, that it was not to fire my blood and madden my brain she stood so naively before me with nothing but a gauzy tissue of lace to cover the snowy breasts which no man of mortal flesh and blood could have looked unmoved upon. I knew that it was not to tantalize a despairing desire she sat upon that low ottoman, unconsciously caressing with her jewelled fingers the pinky dimples in a knee that would have been a heaven to kiss. No, no, not for any of these, but for the want of a decent respect for me. Had she regarded me as anything better than a soulless brute, had she esteemed me as a man, endowed with the sense and feelings of a man, she would have screamed with affright and driven me with furious wrath from the room.
But I was not a man, only an animated machine, a bloodless, soulless automaton to fetch and carry, with eyes to see not and nerves to feel not. This was my depised status--despicable, degraded, emasculated--and wretchedly did I realize it.
And thus appreciating my utter insignificance I thought seriously of going to my master, and to beg him to send me away. I had actually started, when there came over my soul such a dark and desolate lonesomeness that, sick with my burden of gloomy despair, I had to stop. I could not conceive the possibility of living away from her, the light of my life, the sun of my soul. No, no, I could
not go, I would stay; like the poor silly moth ffluttering around the candle. I could not tear myself away. And what need of going, thus blindly, I reasoned. Why not stay and bask in the sunlight as long as I could, only taking care to keep myself at a distance. I should avoid her presence as much as possible, and never again permit myself to see aught of her charms that a man, a white man, her equal in caste, might not with chaste propriety look upon. And thus resolved and feeling strengthened by the honest resolution, I went about my daily work avoiding her presence and her room as much as I could do without a dereliction of duty, taking care that no more lapses in kindling her fire and polishing her boots might occur again. To this end I made her fire the first in the morning while she was still asleep, heaping high the wood and always seeing that it was thoroughly ignited before leaving it; and in the matter of boots, I arranged with Sally to leave them without at the door, compensating her for her trouble by keeping her own broad-bottomed, flat-toed balmorals cleansed and polished.
And so the weeks sped on, silently slipping away and at length Christmas, with its rolicking holidays, came bringing with it a gay throng of visitors, young ladies and gentlemen, aristocratic friends and neighbors, until the house, large as it was, was full.
Their coming brought additional work for me, and in keeping the dozen fires burning, polishing their boots and doing odd little services, I found nearly all my time occupied.
It was a gay season and a vivacious party, and most enthusiastically did they enjoy it, abandoning themselves
to the fullest and finest measure of social pleasures--croquet, tennis, riding, walking and rambling through the woods in sunny weather and dancing, billiards, whist, readings, recitations and tableaux-vivants in-doors. It was one continued round of hilarious fun and frolick. But none of it was for me. The other slaves enjoyed it, something like the hounds enjoy the excitement of the chase, grinning in jolly delight at the universal hilarity. But I felt too keenly the degradation of my place and like a human machine, deaf and dumb and blind, I had to move through it all.
There were fifteen young ladies, beautiful as so many houris, all under my care and sight. The privacy of their chambers had no secrets from me. They would dress and undress before me with naive impunity, standing in charming dishabille, or reclining in voluptuous ease, blabbing of their sweethearts, telling their piquant little stories and shrugging their pretty shoulders at the lubricious witticisms that would sometimes slip out from the more hoiden and unguarded lips while I would move about, in and out, as free to see and to hear as the sniggering maids who unloosed their zones and laced their boots for them.
There was one chamber, however, that I always entered with reverential tread and eyes drooped, one fair presence sacred from my profane gaze, but as for the others, n'importe, I cared almost as little for them as they cared for me, and would scarcely pause to look twice upon a charm which would have held the breath of almost any other man. The great absorbing devotion that filled my soul left no room for anything else. Not an inconstant, nor incontinent thought ever came.
Among the gayest of the young men, was my young master, Victor, home from the university to spend the Christmas holidays. He was a tall, handsome young fellow with the old Choteaux form and features. Had I not been so black or had anyone, even his father, suspected the consanguinity the resemblance between us would have been noticed, but as it was, the despised negro was nothing, while he, the young master, was a prince. I remember once for a moment, gritting my teeth over the seeming injustice, but it was only for a moment. My better sense could not locate the blame, and he, the young man, was really too good natured, too frank and buoyant, for me to harbor an envious resentment against. As his rooms were in the opposite wing of the house and my duties never carried me there, we saw but little of each other, only once or twice he noticed me and then it was with such a kindly smile that I could not choose but warm to him. He was a general favorite with the gentlemen and of course immensely popular with the young ladies. It was a little amusing to watch the pretty eyes they made at him. The pretty eyes, however, were harmless, or at least immaterial, for according to the old French custom, his parents had already arranged for a marriage with his pretty cousin, Isaura Noltrieb, and they only waited the completion of his studies to settle down to domestic felicity.
There was one thing I noticed, not without a soupcon of disgust, and that was the jealous spitefulness of the mulatto girl, Sally, toward his betrothed. Then I recalled the warning Joe had given me the year before, and I laughed to think how little the warning was needed. No, no, let him, the proud young master, the man of sensibility
and refinement, the social prince, condescend to a liaison with such a creature if he choosed, but for me, negro, stot though I be, I held myself high above such a debauching connection.
But time on pleasure wings flits by, far more rapidly than the sober-paced, sorrow-laden moments, and soon the holidays were over and gone. In little parties, like swallows taking their flight, the guests departed, and now the household sank back into its normal state of placid content. A month went by without any change in the old routine of humdrum life, except to my disgust, I found Sally trying her libidinous wiles upon me. As for the young mistress, she was the same--artless, gentle, kind--with always a smile for all who came anear. If she had ever noticed my studious avoidance of her presence in her chamber, she did not evince the fact by any change of manner. I could sometimes fancy, however, that she did feel it, whether consciously or not, as she never gave me the slightest cause to criticise her modesty. I was a little surprised, though, one morning in the early spring, as I was turning from the hearth after having kindled the fire, to hear her call.
"Stay a minute, Paul, I wish to talk to you," she said in a tone of command.
I turned an inquiring look, but the drapery of the bed was drawn well under her chin, and there was no impropriety in her position although she looked very fair and very sweet as she lay with her head slightly raised on her pillow.
"Yes, miss," I answered, respectfully dropping my glance to my feet.
"I wish to speak to you about Sally."
"About Sally?" I interrupted, wonderingly.
"Yes, I will tell you--you must not interrupt me when I am speaking. Sally, you know, belongs to me, and papa I am sure, will give you to me, too. Now, I think it best when girls get as Sally is, that they marry. I do not believe in this loose way you negroes have of living. I have noticed you and think Sally and you would make a good match. She has told me of her trouble and by marrying at once the trouble can be cured. She, like a good girl, is anxious to marry you and will, I am sure, be true to you, at least so far as any other negro is concerned. Sally is really a good girl and not bad looking. You two will make a fine-looking couple, and as long as I live I shall see that neither you nor your children, shall ever be sold away from one another. Now what say you?"
I was too dumb with indignant contempt and disgust to answer and stood scowling.
"Do you understand me?" she commanded with imperious emphasis.
"Yes, Miss Virginia, I understand you only too well, and am sorry that I can not obey your wishes," I answered controlling my voice as well as I could.
"I will make it a command," she interrupted a little hotly.
"I hope not; oh, please do not."
"Because, glad, willing as I am to serve you always and to obey you in all things, I should have to refuse in this. I cannot marry this woman."
"Why not?" flushing with anger at my presumption.
"Because, slave though I be, I am not of her kind. I hold myself high above her and such as she."
"Humph! you should have thought of that before. You owe it to her now to marry her, and undo the wrong you have done her, so far as marrying can undo such a naughty wrong."
"I have done her no wrong. Before that God who made us both, and who will judge us both, I have never touched nor even thought of stooping to that woman," I said with a solemnity of voice and manner that touched her.
"Go, send her to me, and when I have dressed you come, too. I must have you face to face."
"I am ready to face high heaven itself," I boldly declared as I hurried out to find the girl.
I had but little ways to go, but found her in the hall a poor, abject creature, shame-faced and guilty.
"Your mistress wants you. You know what for. Make haste to dress her and then let me know; I will be here," I sternly ordered, taking my stand at the head of the stairs.
In a surprisingly short time the door was opened and Sally called me to come.
Drawing myself up to my proudest height, I went in. The young mistress was dressed and sitting in her rocker with the gravity and dignity of a queen. Sally was standing, with head bowed down, behind her.
"Now, Sally, stand here before me, and look me straight in the face, while you tell me the truth," commanded the queen.
The girl moved forward, but sinking on her knees and piteously holding up her hands, she cried:
"Oh, Miss Jinny, please do--doan be too hahd on me
and sell me away, kase I didn't go ter do it. I 'clare ter gracious I couldn't help it. It warn't my fault an' I couldn't help myse'f."
"You say it was this fellow's doing?" sternly interrupted the young mistress.
"Yes'em, I did so, but--but it warn't. I--I'll tell yer de truff now, Miss Jinny, it warn't Paul; leastwise I didn't know it zif it war, but it war Marse--Marse Vic--Vic--Victor as made me," stammered the poor girl.
"Victor! my brother?" with the crimson glow suffusing her cheek.
"Yes, yes'em. Long time ago when we war chilluns togedder an' den when he comed back home dis las' time, an' I'll nevah do de like any moah. I'se willin 'ter marry Paul heah, an' ole mistus will nevah know."
"No, hush up! Leave the room before I strike you."
The girl almost crawled from the room.
"And you, Paul, I am very sorry that I accused you so wrongfully. I must ask your pardon. I did not think it was such a really bad thing for you to do, but I am sorry that I wronged you at all. Here, you may kiss my hand, and then you can go."
There is an inate gallantry in an honest adoration, and with all the chivalry of a knight, I dropped on my knee and respectfully raised the precious hand to my lips.
"I don't think," she called after me as I opened the door, "that I need to tell you to say nothing of this affair."
"Oh, no, miss; I could not think of such an indiscretion," I answered.
"I am sorry for the poor girl. If you see her, tell her to come back. It is not for me to judge, nor to punish,"
she said, and I thought it a sweet humility as I went away to send the girl back.
That afternoon I was summoned to the family sitting room. With a slight trepidation I presented myself.
"What do you know about horses? Did you ever handle one?" asked the master.
"Oh, yes, sir. I used to break all the colts on the plantation," I answered a little proudly.
"Very well; do you think I could trust you to attend your young mistress on her rides, to groom her horse and see to her safety."
"I hope so, sir."
"Very good; we will try you. Her old groom, Louis, is getting too fond of his toddy--the rascal is tipsy half his time--and it is no longer safe to trust your Miss Virginia with him. You will have to look after her bridles and girths. She rides a spirited mare and you must never let her mount without seeing that everything is secure and properly adjusted. If you were to let her get hurt, I should hang you. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, sir, and will take care that no harm shall come to her."
"Yes; I think I can trust you. What say you Pauline?"
"Oh, yes, certainly; she will be safe with Paul. I wanted to give him to her before Christmas, but she begged so hard for Louis that I let her keep him. It is the rascal's own fault, however, that he loses his place, and Virginia wants Paul," answered the mistress, and thus taking the matter altogether in her own hands, as she invariably did, she turned to me.
"You, Paul, will be relieved from making the fires in the
evening. All your afternoons will be devoted to your Miss Virginia. You will take Louis' horse and will have to look after it and Dido. You must hold yourself always ready and absolutely at her service. So go, now, and tell Joe to give you Louis' horse and you go to Mr. Barclay's and fit yourself with a pair of top boots. That is all we wanted with you. Go!"
And thus one more leaf in the book of my destiny was turned.
The next day I entered upon my new service, that of groom to my young mistress. Perhaps it was the genial balm of the bright afternoon that tempted her to ride, or mayhap it was to test the capacity of her new groom. Be which it may, immediately after dinner I was ordered to fetch out the horses.
Declining, with a silent shake of the head and a repellant wave of the hand, my awkward offer of help, she lightly sprang to the saddle and dashed away, leaving me to mount in haste and gallop on after. She rode a splendid animal, a thoroughbred mare, high strung and spirited, too spirited for an ordinary woman; but she was a magnificent rider, and with a cool head and steady nerve, always keeping her reins well in hand, she managed, without any great trouble, to control her. My own mount was a lumbering cob, better fitted for the plow than the saddle, but, by lifting his head with my bridle arm and a vigorous exercise of my heels, I contrived to keep in a helping distance of my charge.
For more than a mile, through a stretch of sunny lane, she lead the way, without so much as a glance back at me, and then, as if in sudden thought for the laborious work of my floundering hack, she drew rein and allowed me to approach in regulation distance.
In order to catch the sunshine, she turned her way
through the winding lanes, until she had traversed the entire plantation and then coming to a halt, she ordered me to dismount and let down the fence, making a way for a canter through the open fields back home.
It was a spirited ride, fully ten miles, in and out, before we reached the door, just as the sun was going down.
"Oh, I have had a delightful ride!" she cried to her mother, as she lightly sprang to the ground.
"And how will Paul do for a groom?" asked the mistress.
"Well enough, only he must have a better mount. That old hack cannot begin to keep up, and I had to hold Dido back all the way to keep from losing him."
"Then let him try Selim. If he can manage to sit him, he will give Dido as much fun as she will want," said the master, and turning to me he added:
"Do you hear, Paul, the next time you ride tell Joe to let you have Selim. The pampered dog needs handling anyhow. He is getting positively vicious. Do you think you can ride him?"
I will be glad to try, sir."
"Very well, you had as well begin with him in the morning. Take him out and try him. He is a perfect devil and will need breaking before you venture with your young mistress."
Selim was a powerful young stallion, almost unbroken, and not only high spirited, but really vicious. It required a firm hand and a strong arm to conquer him, and I had to work hard all the forenoon before I could overmaster him.
The afternoon was inviting again and the horses were ordered out. The master, in order to see Selim's performance, would ride with his daughter.
"No, no, carry her to my room--to my bed."--Page 76.
Selim was still spiteful and I had to have a little fight with him at the stable before he would submit to the saddle, and then, when the master and young mistress had mounted and turned to go, he revolted again and refused to let me mount. I saw that it was a case of human determination against brute obstinacy, and determined to conquer him thoroughly, at once. First, I was to let him know that I was not afraid of him, and next, I was to make him afraid of me.
This is the secret of horse taming. He was a powerful animal and desperate, and it was a fierce struggle between us. At length, by sheer force of my herculean strength, I succeeded in throwing him by a dexterous trip of his fore leg, and kneeling with my heavy weight upon his head held him down and gave his jaws such a pounding with my fist as to completely subdue him. With a piteous whinny, as if calling for quarter, he ceased his struggle and lay passive as a dog. Then I released my heavy weight from his head, and rising without touching the bridle, I bid him in a gentle tone to rise. As meekly as a lamb, he obeyed, and from that moment on I had not the slightest trouble with him.
"Bravo! You did that well," said the master, as I mounted and gave him the spur.
"Yes, that was really brave and grand," enthusiastically said the young mistress. "What a magnificent strength the fellow must have."
"Yes. I don't believe there is another negro on the place that could have thrown him as you did," supplemented the master.
"Perhaps not," I answered a little ungraciously.
"But is it quite safe, do you think, to ride him? I am almost afraid to let you risk it," said the young lady.
"There is no more danger," I replied, and thus assured, they rode on, I following at a respectful distance.
And thus our rides began. The next day it rained and she could not venture out, but the following afternoon it was bright and sunny and she started early in order to make an extended excursion around the plantation and out into the woods beyond.
On we swept, fully five miles away, she galloping ahead, I following at the same speed a few paces behind--sunshine and shadow--she every now and then breaking out into little snatches of song, I grimly silent, not a word being spoken between us. The fields were passed and we came to the woods, when she suddenly drew up, casting a questioning glance around as if in search of her bearings.
"I believe it is over the next hill, a little way to the right," she said, more to herself than to me.
"What is it you seek?" I ventured to ask.
"The Ball Cave--quite a curiosity. Have you seen it?"
"Oh, no, I have seen but little of the outdoors here," I answered.
"Yes. Well, I am quite sure that it is over there," and urging her mare onward, with a little touch of the whip, she rode by a dim bridle path through the woods, over a little hill, until she found the place.
It was, indeed, in a miniature way, quite a curiosity of nature. It was a deep, broad, and sandy bottomed gully or cave, washed out of the foot of the hill by the winter torrents, or, in plantation parlance, wet-weather branch.
From a small beginning, a little break at first, a few
years before, it had by constant caving in of the sides and washing out of the bottom, widened and lengthened and deepened, until now it was a yawning chasm, some fifteen or twenty feet deep and as many feet wide at the neck.
For a few moments the young mistress sat and looked it over, and then half in soliloquy, she said: "How rapidly it widens. I used to make Dido jump it before I went away to school. I wonder if you can jump it now, Dido? I believe I will let you try."
I hardly thought her in earnest, but respectfully raising my hat, I ventured a protest.
"That would be dangerous," I said.
"And so much more exciting. Yes, Dido, you must carry me over," she said, fixing herself firmly in the saddle and drawing the mare back for a start.
"Surely, you are not in earnest," I cried involuntarily starting forward.
"Do you think I am an idle boaster?" she said sharply, resenting my presumptuousinterference.
"No, no; but please do not attempt this. You overestimate the strength of your mare, as you underestimate the width of the chasm. Your mare could not possibly make the leap. It would be as much as I could do to make it myself."
"You," with a pretty scorn, "you make it on Selim and Dido can't?"
"No, Selim could not make it. It would be as much as his neck is worth to try it. I meant on my own feet."
"Well, I will see. I shall make Dido jump first and then you shall follow. Get down and hitch your horse and
prepare to jump. I will teach you how to interfere with my pleasure. You forget your place, sir."
In dismay at the foolish caprice, I dismounted and hitched Selim; but not to humor her whim.
"Please, Miss Virginia, do not try it. It will be certain hurt, more probably death, for you to attempt it," I implored, standing before her mare.
"Stand out of my way," she cried, angered at my determined opposition.
"But you must not. It would be death to you, and I would be a murderer to permit it," I replied, reaching out my hand and grasping the bridle.
"Let go my reins," she ordered, with crimson cheek and flashing eyes.
I could not reply, but kept a firm hold on the snaffle.
"I will ride you down," she almost hissed in her passion, and giving her mare a cut with her whip she urged her on me.
The excited creature made a lunge forward, but with less strength than it took to conquer Selim, I threw her back on her haunches and held her with an iron grip.
"Wretch! slave! dog of a negro! how dare you, dare you, dare you!" she fairly screamed, fiercely lashing me in the face with her whip, fairly raining the stinging blows upon me with each repeated vehement utterance.
The cuts were severe, one even bringing the blood from my temple, but I felt not the sting, neither did I heed her wrathful words of contumely and scorn. Only closing my eyes to protect them from the lash, as each blow fell in lightening succession, I stood unmoved and immovable. I knew in her frantic rage that it would be a waste of
words to speak, and so like a statue of bronze, with muscles flexed, silent and almost motionless, I stood holding the mare back with vise-like grip.
"I shall report this outrage to my father, and have Joe to flay you alive for this insolence," she said, as for lack of strength she suspended her blows.
"Your father, when he knows, will not blame me for saving you from your folly. Oh, my mistress, do please, please stop one moment and think. It is not to displease you, to offend or to vex, that I do this, but it is for your own sake. It would be worse than folly, it would be madness for you to drive your mare to this leap. You would both go down to the bottom and be crushed. I cannot, I shall not allow you to do it," I answered, taking a reassertive grip on the bridle.
"You still defy me?"
"No, Miss Virginia, I do not defy you. In all things else I will obey you, even to making the jump myself, even to die myself and for you; but you, you must not be hurt. It is not to insolently brave you that I interfere, but you shall not attempt this danger. You may lash me as much as you please, and have Joe to whip me like a dog, but unless my arm withers, I shall stand here until dark and hold you back."
It may have been the firmness of my tone, that subdued her wilful caprice, or it may have been the natural subsidence of a woman's sudden wrath that sobered her; one, or both, perhaps, but I felt a giving away of the strained hold on the reins and in a second more she was crying.
I knew then that the danger was over, and gently patting the nose of her mare to quiet her restive excitement, I released my hold and stood back.
"Oh, did I do that? I am so sorry!" she cried, and there was genuine contrition in her voice as she noticed the blood which in a little rill from my temple was trickling down my cheek and staining the whiteness of my collar and shirt front. "Oh, I have hurt you, please, please forgive me."
I had not noticed it myself until then, as I had felt no smart of pain.
"It is nothing," I assuringly answered, drawing my bandana to wipe it away.
"But I am very, very sorry. Here, stand nearer and let me wipe it away, please," she cried, as impulsive in her pity as she had been frantic in wrath; and before I could draw back she was leaning forward and softly wiping my cheek with her snowy and daintily perfumed handkerchief. The soft, zephyr-like cambric greedily absorbed the little tide, and in an instant its snowy whiteness was changed to scarlet.
"Oh, this is cruel, so unkind, so unlady-like. I am so sorry, truly, truly sorry. You must please, please forgive me," she continued, and there were tears of pity in her eyes as she spoke.
"Oh, this is nothing. It does not hurt, nor does it matter. Only see you have soiled your handkerchief," I answered, drawing away and using my own.
"It was so wrong in me to strike you. You must please forgive me. I--I hardly knew what I was doing."
"Certainly, I can excuse you. It was a desperate boldness in me to stand against your wishes; only I was sure that you did not understand the danger, and I had to do it to save you."
"Yes, I see, now, and I ought not to have lost my temper. But I did not think it dangerous, and then the danger fascinated me--it always does. I still believe that I can make the leap on Dido."
"But I pray you never to try it," I interrupted with a vehemence which fairly startled her.
"No, since you--you have--have--I mean, since you so unselfishly oppose it," she stammered. "No, I shall never again attempt it. But I see I shall have to avoid the place or I may be tempted again.
"It is dangerous, and ought to be either filled in with timbers or else fenced around," I ventured, anxious to keep her mind from coming back to the matter of my hurt. "May I mount, now, and will you go?"
"Yes, mount and we will go; only I must again ask you to forgive me, and thank you for so bravely doing what you thought to be your duty."
"That I thought it my duty was why I did it. You know I would not willingly oppose or vex you," I answered rather fervidly.
"Oh, yes, I see now, and am very sorry; only somehow, I could not help it. I am so fond of the excitement of a 'dare.' It would have been such a pretty boast to have made my friends what a gallant leap I had made. And you--you said you could jump it! Do you really mean it?"
"I did not say it boastingly," I answered.
"I cannot believe it," with a dubious shake of the head.
And wishing to divert her mind from her own fiasco, as well as to display an agility and strength of which I was really proud, I instantly resolved to do it.
"I will show you; only, first you must promise that you will not try to make Dido follow?"
"I have already said it, and you--I must not let you attempt it. There is the same danger to you," she said.
"No, not nearly so much. Were I to miss the bank I should light safely on my feet at the bottom. If you will permit the discourtesy, I will lay off my coat," I answered as obstinately determined as she herself had been.
"Of course; nobody cares for your coat," with a soupcon of disdain. "But I really ought not to allow you to undertake the leap."
But before she could further protest, I had thrown off my coat, and girding my loins with my handkerchief I stepped back a few paces for a running start.
With a spring, bold and strong as a panther's, I vaulted up and forward, landing with all ease upon the farther bank. But I had not reckoned on the treacherous nature of the soil, and had I, it would possibly have availed me little. The winter torrents and early spring freshets had under-washed the bank to an extent undiscernible from the other side, and under the sudden impact of my weight a mass of earth gave way. But for the tegument of sod, which, clinging for a second, afforded me a momentary foundation, I should have been precipitated ingloriously with the rushing sand to the depths below; and it was only by an almost superhuman effort that I gathered myself sufficiently to make a second spring, gaining an absolutely firm footing beyond the treacherous brink.
I fancied I heard a little startled cry of affright as the earth gave way, quickly followed by a joyous clapping of hands and little shouts of excitement as I regained my footing in safety.
It was indeed a gallant leap, full twenty feet; but I knew
my strength, imbued by that inspiring presence, and I did not fear to make it, and doubly assured by her applause I took another running start and with a stronger bound landed safely back again.
"Ah, that was bravely done," she cried, as I unloosed my girth and hastily donned my coat. "But it was fearful, really dangerous. I could not conceive the danger until I saw you in the air and measured the distance by your flight, and then when the earth gave way. I--I--I see now that Dido could never have carried me over, and I--I have to thank you for saving me from a great peril," and much to my surprise I looked up to find her crying again.
I felt a nameless and unconscious thrill of delight as I saw the tears, but to sooth her I answered, softly:
"You must not exaggerate the service. I hardly think that you could have urged your mare to make the trial," and then mounting and respectfully touching my hat, I added, "And now, if you please, I am ready."
"Well, come on; only, you need not keep your place so far behind. You can come nearer. I wish to talk."
It was not the gracious permission so much as the rosy flush of her cheek and the shy, half-shamed drooping of her expressive eyes that so exalted my soul as I answered:
"You are very kind. May I thank you for your grace?"
"Oh, no need of thanks. It is for my own pleasure," she said, reining her mare to the right to make room for me on her left.
With a proper deference I accepted the place, only drawing back enough to give her a due precedence.
"I noticed your magnificent strength the other day in your contest with Selim, and your wonderful activity today.
Both feats were worthy an athlete. Are they not remarkable or are they both common to your race?" she asked.
"I do not know," I answered modestly, and then to belie the humility I added, boastingly, "I have never yet found a man whom I could not easily handle."
"I can well believe that. You should be proud of such--such a--a glory."
"As I have nothing else to be proud of I am indeed proud of my strength," I answered a little scornfully.
"Oh! you mean because you are a negro slave?" she asked quickly.
"Not because I am a slave, but because I am a negro. Do you think," I added almost fiercely, "that were it not for this, the accursed blood of Ham that taints my manhood and darkens my life, I would remain a slave a day, that all the chains ever forged could hold me in bondage?"
"What?" with an imperious erection of the head. "What, would you defy the authority of your master, of my father?"
"I should defy the authority and the power of all hell itself," I answered.
"Then, sir, you must fall behind to your proper place, I can not trust such an insolence nearer," waving me back as she slightly touched up her mare.
I could have bitten off my tongue for its bold and defiant words.
"Oh, my mistress, please forgive me; forgive my madness, my impertinent heat, but I did not intend it for insolence. I would not offend or frighten you, you of all the world. Please let me apologize or at least explain,"
I cried in such penitent eagerness that she was mollified, if not touched.
"How can you justify the threat you have made," she asked.
"But it was no threat. It was only a proposition--a violent one I grant--but it was qualified by an impossible condition. I said 'if I were not a negro.' But, alas, I am a negro, and that conviction subdues me. Being a negro, I am perhaps unfitted for freedom. I am a slave simply because I am a negro, and not a negro because I am a slave. It is the race and not the condition I despise. If I were a white man, I should be free even though I had to conquer my freedom at the point of a dagger. But I am a negro, and being one I do not so much as care to be free; certainly, I should not be willing to exchange my servitude here with a mistress so gracious and a master so kind, for a barbarian kingdom in Africa."
"Very well, I excuse you. You need not fall back. But somehow you strangely puzzle and almost frighten me. There is something, a kind of magnetic mastership about you that I almost fear. You do not seem like a negro to me, nor do you talk like one. You speak and reason as if you were educated. You have excited my curiosity and you must tell me something of yourself. Can you read? Do you know anything about books?" she asked, dropping the imperious tone of the mistress and speaking almost as an equal, as she drew back her mare instead of waiting for me to spur my own horse up to her side.
I could not help the little triumph of pride with which I answered.
"Oh, yes, I can read."
"Yes, quite legibly," I answered.
"Ah, and who taught you?"
"The young son of the overseer on the plantation taught me my letters, and to spell. What else I have learned I taught myself."
"Indeed, and how much have you learned?
"As much as with hard study, with my limited opportunities, I could acquire."
"That hardly answers my question. What branches have you studied, and how far have you advanced?"
"I have a little smattering of everything--that is to say of the sciences; but I am more proficient in literature--that is, in history, biography, travels, poetry, with a slight acquaintance with the classics."
"You surprise me; and when did you find time for all this, and where did you get the books?"
"I employed all my idle moments on the plantation, and all last year here. I picked up a scant supply of books on the plantation and when I came here I ventured to steal from the library. I considered it no wrong and since you have asked me, I will confess that I have read almost every volume in my master's library."
"No, it was no wrong; only many of the works are in French, our mother tongue, you could not read them?"
"Yes, miss, pardon the seeming egotism, but I mastred the language, too, and can read French as understandingly as I can English."
"This is a revelation," she murmured half to herself, and then she went on with her interrogations.
"You say you like poetry? Now, tell me your favorite author. I wish to know your taste."
"You are very kind. My taste may not stand approved, I hardly think it would in some instances, but still as you wish to know I will tell you. I think of all the poets who have written the truest and the grandest is Shakespeare."
"That is good--he is incomparable; and which of his works is best?"
"I can hardly say, but I like his historical plays best; his stories of the English kings, his Henrys and Richards, the wars of the Plantagenets and the Tudors."
"That is good again. Your taste is not so barbarous as you think, but what of Othello, I should think a fellow feeling would incline you to that--the exploits of the Moor."
"That is too unnatural, too gloomy and sad."
"The injustice of fate--the retribution that followed the gentle Desdemona's unnatural love for the black hero seemed out of all proportion to the supposed offense. It was as unnaturally cruel as her misplaced love was unnaturally sweet. Such tender devotion deserved a far different fate. I do not like Othello."
"Still you must admit--I credit you with more than ordinary intelligence--that it was a wretched perversion of maidenly affection and maidenly virtue for such a girl, the daughter of a senator, to fall so madly and blindly in love with such a man--a moor, a negro."
"In truth it was," I answered soberly, and then we rode on in silence, leaving us both to cogitate upon the vagaries, the possibilities and fortunes of the human heart.
While this little episode served to make us the better acquainted, it also served to put us farther apart. The old familiarity of mistress and slave had mysteriously vanished and instead of treating me, as heretofore, with innocent indifference, she unconsciously drew herself back in a little shell of maidenly reserve, not absolutely cold, but infinitely more becoming to her womanly sweetness, and so much more just to me.
This change I noticed the next morning, when, as usual, I went into her room to make her fire; for the early spring mornings were yet chilly. I found the curtains of her bed closely drawn, and not a thread of lace, not a suspicion of hosiery, nor a frill nor a furbelow could be seen to suggest the mystery of a lady's chamber. And when I went out and stooped at the door to find her boots they were not there. Thinking that the careless Sally had neglected to set them out, I gently knocked, when the young mistress, herself, answered.
"What is it you want?"
"If you please, I came for your boots. Sally has forgotten to put them out," I explained.
"Never mind about my boots. I shall not trouble you to polish them any more. Stumpy Jake has nothing else to do and hereafter he will attend to my boots."
I turned away a little sadly, feeling, somehow, that something bright had been taken from me.
That afternoon she rode again, but when she went to mount, instead of hoidenly springing into her saddle in innocent disregard of the exposure of tantalizing embroidery and immaculate skirts as she had heretofore done, she demurely nodded for me to come.
"Hereafter, I shall have to place a little of your magnificent strength under contribution. You must help me to mount."
"All of my strength is at your service," I answered, but instead of crouching on my hands and knees with my back for a step, as Louis had done, I chivalrously stooped, offering my hand for her foot. She drew back her skirts and placed it in my broad palm, and with one hand grasping her reins and the other resting on my shoulder, I lifted her up to her seat as easily as if she had been a laughing little child.
I am sure that she must have felt something of the magnetism of my strength, for I thought I felt a little fluttering of her fingers on my shoulder as I raised her in the air. With a slight flush, she smilingly thanked me for the service, and calling me to follow, she galloped away.
She chose that afternoon a new route. Instead of the lanes which ran to the south, she turned to the wooded hills north. She galloped a matter of a mile or more before she drew rein and nodded for me to come up.
"I wish you to show me how badly I hurt you yesterday. Is it very painful?" she asked with contrite tenderness in her voice.
"It is nothing, hardly a scratch. It was only a little cut that happened to strike a vein. It is quite well now you can see," I assuringly answered, raising my hat and turning my temple towards her.
"And you will promise me again that you forgive me. You cannot know how truly sorry I have been. I thought of it over and over again, all the livelong night--and of you--and I had to cry with shame and sorrow for my cruel and unjust anger, when it was all for me, for my safety, you did it. Oh, you must tell me again that you forgive me."
"That it made you think kindly of me, more than pays for the little hurt. I should be willing to bear anything from you if--if--"
"If what?" she asked, as my tongue stammeringly refused to speak.
"I must not say. It would be a presumption in me to speak it." I answered.
"But you may speak almost anything without offense to me. After doing all that you did for me, despite, too, of my wicked anger, I feel that I owe you something more than an apology. What is it then that you would ask?"
"I can ask nothing, my lady, that would be sweeter or dearer to me than to have you think always, always kindly of me."
"Then I shall always think kindly of you," she answered sweetly, "and I may tell you more, how much I like you; how very pleased I am with your manly, I may say gentlemanly, deportment, and" adding with considerable empressement, "how much I admire your magnificent strength. Do you know that I think physical prowess one of the noblest attributes of man--that in a superb physique, in courage and strength he approaches nearest to the gods?"
I am sure that the hot blood in my cheeks must have
told what a riot of thoughts and passionate hopes her words had kindled in my heart, for her own face flushed red as a rose in June as I thanked her with my eyes.
Steadying my voice, as well as I could, I answered by qualifying her extravagant proposition. "The gods of mythology, you mean? Yes, their physical prowess seems to have been their chief glory!" and then, with a pardonable vanity, I added, "Yes, I am proud of my strength, proud of my stature, proud of my manhood; and I thank my God that in giving me my life of shame and degradation, my father had, perforce, to give with it something of his own herculean strength and athletic form."
"Do you know your father? Few like you do." she said
"I never saw my father," I answered, evasively, but unthoughtfully added, "he was killed the day on which I was born."
"Killed? how sad. But, who was your father?" she asked, half curiously, half kindly.
"It can do no possible good for any one to ever know. Had he lived he would have scorned to own me. Being dead, I shall not reproach his shade by claiming him. I am proud of the strength he gave me and can forgive him for the laches of a name."
"I am very sorry," she softly said, "It seems that a great wrong has been done."
I hardly know. It is a puzzling question. I have studied much about the matter, the mystery of being, of birth, of life and of death, and I am no wiser yet. We will say a wrong has been done me in my creation. Now, which of my parents am I to reproach for the wrong?
My father gave me my physique, my manly mould, my strength and a certain refinement of thought and feeling that no one else, perhaps, could have given; but in the laws of the land, in the decree of society, he denied me a name. My mother gave me life. It was through her I breathed and had my being, without her I had never been. But in giving me life, she gave with it the curse of her race, the taint of her blood, the negro skin of her father. She could not help that because it was hers from the beginning of creation. If it be good for me that I am alive--that I exist and have a being--I cannot blame my mother for bringing me into life; and surely I cannot blame my father for giving me all that makes life worth living."
"You perplex me," she said with a gentle wonder in her eyes.
"I hope I do not offend," I answered humbly.
"Oh, no. It is the mystery that puzzles me, the mystery of life," after a moment's meditation, "of your life," she replied with a smile.
"Yes, it is a riddle, my life, a dark and grewsome riddle, as profound and mayhap as sad as that one of OEdipus. But I do not care to solve it. I can only suppose that there is some inscrutable purpose in my being, that there is something in this world for me to do--some niche to fill, some destiny pre-ordained, perhaps--and so believing, I leave the issue with the same power that so ordained it."
"And you say your father was killed? I hope not murdered," she asked after a little silence.
"No, hardly murdered--that is, the world did not call
it murder. My father was a gentleman--even if he were my father--and was killed in a duel."
"A duel? That was sad; and do you know that I had an uncle--my father's only brother--killed in a duel?"
"I have been told so."
"Yes, it was many years ago, ever so long before I was born, but I have heard my father talk so much about it that I can fancy I had almost seen it." And, as if saddened by the remembrance, she lapsed into silence, while I dropped back to my proper place.
But little more was said during the ride. When we returned I dismounted and offered my assistance to her. Again disdaining the toad-like hump, I stood proudly before her in my upright strength. She lightly rested her hands on my shoulders and reaching up my hands I clasped her waist and lifted her down. Ah, what a tremor choked me as I held her almost in my arms, feeling her warm breath upon my cheeks, inhaling with greedy inspiration its virgin fragrance.
"Thanks," she smilingly said and lightly tripped away.
The spring, in this sunny southland of ours, was now coming, and, like the gardens and fields and woods without, the house had to be put in summer dress. The warm billowy Turkish carpets had to be taken up and cool summer oils and mattings were put down. The heavy damask curtains of the windows gave place to airy cloud-like lace. It was my place to see to all this, and in the task I found employment for every moment of the morning and forenoon. I remember what a pleasure each morning's work was, inspired by the happy anticipation of the afternoon's ride.
I was thus busy one morning after breakfast, when I was summoned by the shrill call of my master's whistle to the office. I may mention that whistle. It was an unique object, massive and of solid gold, and as an heirloom for generations in the family it had its legend. It was double throated, sounding two distinct notes, the one shrill and keen he used for his dogs, the other more musically sonorous he used for calling his negroes.
Responding to the call, I found him with the ladies in his office.
"Paul," he said, "get Jake and Bony and Bob to help you. I want my iron safe moved to the other corner," pointing to an old-fashioned money chest that stood in the farther corner of the room. It was an awkward affair, made of thick plates of iron, heavy and unwieldy, with two massive iron rings at the sides through which hand spikes had to be thrust to lift it.
I glanced at it to measure its weight and then rather boldly ventured to try it with my hands.
"Oh, you need not try. It takes the united strength of four men to move it. There never lived but two men who could lift it, my father and my brother Jules. Go call the boys to help you," again ordered the master.
"If you please, sir, I should like to try," I said, and without waiting further permission I caught the rings and bracing every muscle to its utmost work, I stooped and lifted it to a level with my knees.
"Where will you have it?" I asked, standing firm as a statue.
"In the corner there. But, put it down; do not try to tote it," he ordered. But unheeding the command, I
carried it with a steady step and without quavering a muscle, to its place across the room.
"My God, fellow! what a giant you must be. Pauline, did you see that? What would father say, think you, if he could have seen it?" cried the master in astonishment.
"He would have envied the negro his strength. You know how jealous he was of this feat, and how proud it made him when Jules lifted it. It was their boast that no one else could do it," answered the mistress.
"Yes, but neither of them could fairly straighten with it, much less carry it across the room. Paul, we shall have to yield you the belt. I am glad though, that it doesn't have to go out of the family. I shall have you a silver mounted belt made. You deserve it. But now you can go back to your work."
All this was very flattering to my manhood and I was honestly proud of his praise, but not half so grateful for it as I was for the admiring, almost tender, glance my queenly young mistress gave me, as I turned away.
It was an hour or two later, and I had just finished hanging the curtains of the drawing room, when I heard a startled cry, a confused rushing of feet across the hall and a terrified chorus of screams. Hurrying out to ascertain the cause, I saw the negroes all rushing toward the yard in the rear of the house where I heard the mistress screaming:
"Oh, my darling! my child, my child! She is dead, she is dead!"
In an instant I was there, I hardly knew how I went, and had no consciousness of going, where I found the mistress kneeling beside her daughter, with her head resting in her lap, pale, senseless and seemingly dead.
Without thought of anyone else in the world. I stooped and gathered her in my arms, clasping her close to my heart, her beautiful head on my shoulder and her lily-white face resting against my swarthy cheek. I turned and without question or order dashed into the house, down the hall and was turning to dash up the steps to her room, when her mother, following almost as distractedly close after me, cried out:
"No, no, carry her to my room--to my bed."
Her voice sobered me, and for the first time my senses returned. A wild, frantic impulse had moved me before, but now I was cool and self-possessed as ever, and releasing the mad, almost crushing clasp with which I had strained her to my heart, I tenderly bore her to the room and as softly placed her on the bed.
"Oh, my darling, my beautiful darling--dead, dead," again screamed the mother, sinking on her knees and covering the pulseless hands with kisses.
"No, no, mistress, please God, she may not be dead," I answered, encouragingly. "She may have fainted--please unloosen her clothing and let her breathe."
"Then why don't you do it? Quick; cut them, tear them open. You know the others haven't the sense to do anything," she ordered, almost angrily at my stupid hesitancy.
It needed no further order. My own judgment told me what ought to be done, and done quickly.
With the imperious authority of a master I ordered the screaming mob to clear the room, and then as reverently as if she had been dead indeed, I unloosed her zone, opened her bodice and unlaced her stays.
"Oh! she is dead, my child, my child," again moaned the mother, and then aroused to a sudden hope, she cried: "See if she breathes and put your hand on her heart and feel if it beats."
I put my face close to her lips, but there was no breath, and then lifting its gauzy veil I put my hand, my swarthy, broad, strong hand upon the snowy breast, when, oh joy as if electrified into life by the magnetism of the touch, the precious heart gave a flutter, at first as faint and tremulous as the flutter of a bird, but growing stronger and faster with each tremor until the warm tide of life was put to flowing again.
I softly withdrew my hand and as softly drew the loose covering over the quivering bosom, and unconsciously as if to help her breathing, I inhaled a great draught of air as I watched the twitching of her lips, the little gasps and then the baby-like catching of breath.
"Oh, my mistress," I cried, turning to the distracted and still kneeling mother, "let us thank God, for she is alive. She still lives, and will live."
"Yes, let us thank God. Oh, my God, I do thank Thee, and will bless Thee so long as I live for giving my darling back to me," she cried, with eyes streaming with grateful tears, and then putting away her weak fears she arose and stooping over to kiss the still quivering lips, she said: "Bring me the brandy, Winnie, and you, Sally, tell Joe to ride for Doctor Blue and to send for your master."
The brandy was brought and a spoonful forced unto the unconscious lips and mechanically gurgled down and then she turned to me.
"Paul, I can trust your tender hand and steady nerve.
You must see now, before she recovers sensibility to pain how badly she is hurt--if there be any broken bones."
My mistress had sufficient reason for her confidence in the tender touch of my hand for she had often required me to rub her spine and to chafe her ankles and her knees, when suffering with her periodical attacks of rheumatism.
Too deeply concerned for the safety of my love, I did not hesitate now, and commenced at once an examination of the unconscious sufferer. A little contusion on the fair forehead, now black and swollen into a little knot, spoke for itself. This, though trifling, was really the cause of her fainting. I then pressed my hands down her arms, giving each wrist a severe pull, but no injuries developed there. Next I gently straightened out the still passive limbs and gave her right foot a sharp little wrench, but no responsive sign of injury, but when I attempted to take hold of her left foot, with an instinctive flinch it was jerked back and a little moan escaped her lips.
"Her left foot or leg seems to be hurt. Will you see?" I asked drawing back for the mother to make the more delicate examination.
"No, you see. You need not mind it. I could not bear the sight of my darling's hurt," she answered.
I unlaced and as gently as I could drew off her boot, that precious little boot which I had so often polished and as often kissed, but in drawing it off I unavoidably twisted the ankle again, when this time the little flinch became a spasmodic drawing up of the leg and the little moan be came a cry of conscious pain.
"Ah, here is the trouble. She has sprained or broken the ankle," I cried, with a load of fear lifted from my mind.
I knew by the strength with which she drew it away that the leg could not be broken and the injury extended no higher than the ankle.
"Thank God, it is no worse," cried the mistress venturing to withdraw her hands from the eyes she had blinded against the possibility of witnessing pain.
"Draw off her stocking and see," she said, as I again drew back for her.
I hesitated a moment. The beautiful girl that lay so fair before me was no longer an inanimate form, insensible to sight or touch, but a living, breathing body with the warm blood pulsing as strongly as ever.
Impatient at my indecision, the mistress again ordered: "Pull off her stocking, I say, why do you hesitate? It should be done before the ankle is swollen.
"As daintily as I could I unclasped the garter and commenced drawing off the stocking, but the swelling had already commenced and a sharp cry of pain compelled me to stop.
"Get me the scissors, I will have to rip the stocking. The foot is too badly swollen," I cried.
"Yes, yes--here they are. Cut it into shreds. Never mind the stocking."
I seized the scissors and dextrously ripped the silken meshes apart and the poor wounded ankle lay bare before me, purple with bruises and swollen with inflammation.
I had a very fair knowledge of the human anatomy. Of all the sciences upon which I had touched in the course of my discursive readings that of physiology with its concomitant subjects had most interested me. I had even, in my restless discontent with my degraded condition and the vague longing to be something better than a chattel, thought upon the possibilities it possessed for usefulness, if not for distinction and somehow had seized upon it as the one possible hope of deliverance. If I could master it with the materia medica, I could make myself more useful than a drudge and rise to the status of a useful manhood, if not of freedom. Thus dreaming, I had given the science more study than I had given all others put together. I trust then that I may be acquitted of the charge of egotism when I say that I had fully as clear an idea of the subject and its practical application, as half the diploma-fledged young doctors the colleges of our country annually turn loose upon suffering humanity today.
Happily this knowledge served me now. Without torturing the sufferer with a painful exploration, I was able to diagnose with a touch the nature and extent of the hurt.
"There is no fracture--only a slight dislocation," I reported to the anxious mother. "Shall I reset it or wait until the doctor comes?"
"Can you? Are you sure?" she anxiously added.
"It is simple, and I am quite sure. If you can trust me, I can easily do it. And if you please, mistress, it had better be done so soon as possible, as the longer it be delayed the more painful it will become."
"Then do it. I can trust you.
With a firm hand, although it was like tugging at my own heartstrings, I caught her foot and grasping her limb firmly with my other hand, I gave the necessary pull and with a little pop the joint slipped back into its place.
With a cry of pain the young lady started up, waking back to consciousness.
"There, darling, it is all over now," soothingly said her mother, putting her back on the pillow and gratefully kissing her.
"But what is it? Where am I--and what has happened?" she asked in puzzled confusion. "Ah, yes; I remember now. The ground did really fly up and hit me," she added, as a gleam of remembrance flashed through her brain.
"Yes, you fell from your swing and were hurt. But you are better now; tell me darling, that you are better," assuringly coaxed her mother.
"Oh, yes, that was how it came. How silly I was, and how like a dream. I was swinging when the rope broke and I was dashed to the ground."
And this was indeed what had happened. The long sweeping swing suspended from the high branch of the oak had broken. In swinging its full length, as was her almost daily amusement, one of the ropes had worn in two and breaking, threw her as we had found her.
"But darling, tell me how you feel. Where are you
hurt? Can you move? Try, sit up. Clap your hands and kick; try your legs," said the practical mother, still doubtful.
Unconscious of her dishabille, she raised up, and Raphael himself would have despaired to paint the blush on her cheek as she realized the situation and with a little cry she hugged up her arms to hide her breast with her hands.
To relieve her blushes I turned to the window.
"Does anything more hurt you? Tell me all," again asked the mother, alarmed at the little cry.
"Oh, no; only what have you done to my dress? How came it in this plight?"
"We had to open your basque and corset to give you breath. But, never mind your dress; see if you can kick."
"I am hurt nowhere except my ankle. Tell Sally to come and dress me."
"But you cannot stand; you must lie still. Paul says your ankle is broken and you must not try to walk," protested the mother.
"If you please, Miss Virginia, I will send Sally, but first will you let me bandage your ankle. It should be kept tightly bandaged to subdue the swelling, and a constant application of cold water must be kept up to subdue the inflammation," I suggested, somewhat empirically I grant.
"Yes, certainly you must. There--here are the bandages," tearing a piece of muslin into broad bands. "Virginia, you must let him do it."
"Very well--only why can't you call Mammy Dilsey and let her do it. I am afraid of Paul's strong hand."
"Paul's hand can be tender as well as strong; he can do
it much better than Dilsey. There, you lie still and he will not hurt you," answered the mistress, and sinking back upon her pillow the young lady submitted without a moan, while as softly as I could I tightly bandaged the ankle.
"There, that is better already--stronger and better. I am greatly obliged to you, Paul," she said after I had finished.
"It is a great happiness for me to serve you," I answered. "And now if you please, I will send Sally to attend you," and to relieve any further sense of embarrassment, I went out to call her maid.
It was more than an hour before the doctor came, and I was called in to explain to him what I had done. With as much respect for my own judgment as I had for his, I told him in as few and simple words as possible, avoiding even the explanatory technicalities of the subject.
"Aha, eh-he--yes, well that was all right; very good. I could not have done better myself. I am glad to find no bones broken, only Miss Choteaux you will not be able to walk for some time to come. You must not attempt it, although it is hardly necessary for me to interdict it, as the pain itself, I am sorry to say, will keep you quiet. I see, too, that it gave you a little bruise on the forehead--a little beauty spot, or rather knot, he-he! I will leave you emollientfor that, and by keeping your ankle tightly bandaged, like it is, until the swelling is all gone and continuing the application of cold water you will, in the course of a few weeks, be able to hop around on crutches. I know that it is hard on such a gay spring bird as you to be caged up in bed when there is much that is pleasant outdoors; but there is no help for it." And making out
the prescription for the lotion he took his fee and with it his leave.
"Oh, I don't believe it is half so bad as all that, or that I shall have to lie abed so long. I am sure I shall be able to walk in a day or two. I believe I can walk now. And my rides--oh, I cannot give up my rides!" cried the young lady as the door closed behind the doctor.
"Well, we shall see about the rides, but you must not attempt to walk. You must be perfectly quiet. Paul will fetch a bed in for me, and we will make it as pleasant for you here as it can be," assuringly answered her mother.
"Oh, no--not here, mamma; I must go up to my own room since I must perforce be caged. I must have the bars so I can see the glad world outside. I can see all over the garden, and the field beyond, from my own windows, but here I had as well be in a prison cell--no sunshine, nor anything except the bare garden wall."
"Very well, anywhere that you wish. Paul can carry you."
"Oh, no. Can't I lean on Sally's shoulder and walk?"
"Just try to move your foot and see."
The experiment was tried and a cry of pained disappointment was the result.
"Now, you see the folly of trying to walk. Sally, run ahead and fix her bed. Paul, you must carry her. You need not be afraid, darling; he toted you in from the yard as easily as if you had been a baby."
She had not been dressed--only a dainty night robe of snowy whiteness and soft, clinging fabric, by half concealing only made her exquisite loveliness the more
ravishing, and I hesitated a moment in positive dread of the contact before I could steel my senses against it. I saw, though, that my hesitancy was beginning to confuse her and dreading that my mistress might suspect something of my feelings, I respectfully advanced.
"Will you please hold to my shoulders," I asked, calmly as I could, as I stooped forward to lift her in my arms; and with her fair arms clasped firmly around my neck, her beautiful head resting on my shoulder, and the sweet heart fluttering like a bird against my own, I lifted and bore her to her room--out into and down the long hall and up, up that high flight of stairs, each step of which seemed to lift me that much nearer to a heaven that would have burst my heart with very joy to have entered.
"Thanks. You are so good to me," she whispered, so softly, so sweetly, and so close to my cheek that it seemed almost a caress.
A convulsive tightening of my arms, and a wild throbbing of the heart was all the answer I could give, as I gently placed her on her bed. And that was enough, for it called a crimson flush to her neck, her cheek and her forehead, as with a little drooping of the eyes--shy, timorous--she settled her head on its pillow.
The mistress, with Winnie, her own personal maid, followed in and began at once to make the room bright.
"May I go now?" I asked of her.
"Yes, but you must stay near. Remember you have nothing else to do but to wait on your young mistress. I relieve you from all service down stairs and you will devote your whole duty to her."
"I shall always be within call," I answered, as I bowed myself out.
On the stairs I met the master, who had been in the woods gunning, and had just returned to meet the exaggerated reports of his daughter's injuries. The anxious almost haggard look of suspense and dread I read on his countenance, told how much that beloved daughter was to him, and I instinctively shuddered as I thought of the vengeance that would inevitably fall upon the head of the wretch who would dare to harm her.
"How is she, your Miss Virginia?" he asked, without pausing for an answer.
"There is nothing serious--only a sprained ankle."
"Thank God! They told me she was dying," and in he rushed.
I loitered aimlessly and uneasily for a while in the hall below, and then catching the scent of early spring roses in the garden I thought that their beauty and fragrance would add a charm to her room. I hurried out with a flower basket to cull a bouquet for her table.
"I have brought some flowers for the young mistress," I said in unconscious apology for the presumption, as I offered the basket to the mistress.
"Certainly, that was right. Put some fresh water in the vases, and let Sally arrange them. And, now, darling, we must go to dinner. How lonesome it will be without you--but never mind, it won't be long. What is it nice I must send you?"
"Oh, anything will do, I am not a bit hungry."
"Then come, Sally, and fetch her dinner," and kissing her daughter, the gentle mother went out with the master,
I carried it with a steady step and without quivering a muscle.--Page 75.
followed by Sally, and leaving me alone with her, who was all the world to me.
"Ah, you brought me the flowers. How good of you and how thoughtful. Let me see--ah, pretty roses, and so sweet; here, give me one--this one--this Marechal Niel," selecting with a dainty taste a snowy bud. "Now, will you arrange them in the vases for me? I cannot trust awkward Sally."
With no mean taste for floral effects, I made the bouquet, and wheeling a little table by the bed side, I placed them on it.
"Ah, that is very pretty, and it was kind and gallant in you to think of bringing them for me. You must have known how dearly I love them?"
"I only hoped that they might please you."
"Yes, they do please me, and I thank you for them. And, Paul, mamma has told me how good you were to me--so very, very good--and I--I am so grateful," and the tears, precious, priceless tears, trembled on the long silken lashes.
I could not trust myself to speak and had to turn away to hide my own perceptible show of feeling.
"And now," she went on more brightly, after a second, "you must not think me a baby, only I--I do, do thank you," breaking off with a little laugh, more akin to a sob.
The entrance of Mammy Dilsey, followed by Winnie and Sally, all three loaded with dainties for her dinner, relieved me from a reply, and I hurried out to fetch a little round dining table for her.
Her mother, still anxious, hurried her own dinner to come back.
"How is your dinner, sweet?" she asked, fondly patting the beautiful head.
"It is very nice, and I was more hungry than I thought. I have made a voracious meal of it."
"I am glad that you did; and, now, what next do you want. We must try to amuse you."
"I hardly know. I shall miss my ride. Oh, you don't know how pleasant my rides are getting to be!"
"Yes, I can imagine how pleasant it must be this delightful weather. But you mustn't fret, but get well as soon as you can, that you may ride again," encouragingly smiled the mother. "We must devise some other divertisement for you. What shall it be, darling?"
"I cannot imagine anything half so pleasant as riding," a little dolefully, and then brightening up, "unless it be, ah, let me see--oh, yes, I will tell you, mamma--it be reading."
"Ah, yes, that will be nice. I will send to-morrow for Miss Fouche to read for you. She will be very glad to come. I had a note from her yesterday asking for some kind of employment. They are very poor, you know, and I should like very much to help them."
"Yes, do help them, mamma. Send her the salary, but do not let her come--at least, just now. Somehow I do not like Miss Fouche."
"Very well, then, I shall not have her. But, darling, whom shall we get?"
"I will tell you, mamma; it is a secret that I have found out. Paul, there, says he can read. Will you have him to try, and maybe he can read for me?"
"Oh, yes, of course; make him do anything you like.
How is it, Paul?" asked the mistress, picking up a little book of poems from the writing table, and turning to me. "Here, let me hear you try to read."
I reached for the book. It was a volume of Bryant's poems, his latest, and by chance I opened it at that spirited piece, "The African Chief," and with all the energy and grace of inflection and tone of which I was master, I read it.
"That is well enough," said the mistress, as finishing, I closed the book and awaited her judgment. "You read surprisingly well, but I do not think your master would approve, or even allow such--such, well I may say such incendiary matter."
"Oh, I think it is very sad," gently protested the young mistress.
"It was a chance selection altogether. I had never seen the poem before," I apologized.
"Perhaps not, but it is unsuitable for you. The poem may do very well for those who can appreciate its maudlin sentimentality and understand its falsity, but it is not such matter as a negro should read. Let me see--who is it you read from?"
"From William Cullen Bryant," I answered, handling her the book.
"No," drawing back from the book, "I do not care to see it. Put it on the hearth there and burn it up. Virginia, I must interdict the reading of Bryant. You must have no more of him. There, that is right, Paul," as obeying her order I struck a match and applying it to the crisp leaves of the book, placed it on the hearth, where it soon crackled into ashes.
"I do not object to the English poets," continued the censor, "or to our own Southern poets, Poe, or Pinckney, or Requir, or Flash, or Meek, but I cannot permit those wretched abolitionists to inject their fanatic poison in my household."
"But, mamma, you needed not to burn the book. I am sure that Paul has the good sense to discriminate between the poison and the honey," again protested the daughter.
"But when there is honey without the poison, one had better always take it."
"If you please, mistress," I said, "I understand that poem, its animus and its object. It is, as you say, poison, not intended to excite the negro, but to prejudice the minds of a class of whites as ignorant themselves as the negro. I know enough about the history of my race to know that such a story as this is impossible. I know, too, that the most abject slave in the South is infinitely better off than the most powerful barbarian chief in Africa. It is a boast of my mother's--not of mine--that my own grandfather was a chief, the son of a king, and I trust you will believe me sincere when I say that so far as my own life is concerned, so far as it be good for me to live at all, I am thankful to the Providence, or fate, or destiny, whichever you may call it, that made me a slave, and gave me such a mistress. I had rather be the slave I am than to be the king of the Zululand, itself."
"That is right. I should have known you had better sense than to be moved by the heroics of a crazy poet. I am glad that you do understand and will leave Virginia free to have you read what she thinks will best amuse her.
You can go, now, and get your dinner and then come back to Virginia," and with a gracious wave of the hand, I was dismissed.
"What is it I shall read?" I asked as I reported after dinner for orders.
"You said you liked Shakespeare best of all. You may read Shakespeare," was the gracious command.
I hurried down to the library for the book and was soon back ready for service.
"You may sit, if you wish. I do not mind," she kindly said as I took my stand by the window near the head of her bed.
"It is best that I stand," I answered, not yet bold enough to venture such a liberty. "What story may I read?"
"We were discussing 'Othello' the other day; read 'Othello'."
In my happiest vein I read the story, not pausing once to watch its effect upon my sweet auditor, and after I had finished I stood silent a moment before she spoke.
"That was all very sad. Poor Desdemona, I know not whether most to blame or pity her. What a maddening thing love must surely be," she softly said.
The ground, the crumbling brink, upon which I was standing was too dangerous for me to offer to speak, and closing the book I turned to the window to hide the expression of my countenance that it would have been imprudent for her to see.
"You are tired standing still so long and wish to walk. You may go now. I must thank you, though. I enjoyed your reading as well as I could have enjoyed a ride. After supper you must come back to me. I want to hear you read again, and to talk. It is the evenings I dread more than anything else, and without my music to divert me I do not see how I can endure them. Somehow they are bringing so many strange and disquieting fancies--silly thoughts and almost wicked. You must help me to drive them away."
"I shall be very glad if I can amuse you," I answered. "Yes, you can. So come directly after you have had your supper. I do not wish to worry my sweet mamma, and papa will want to smoke until bedtime--so I will have to rely upon you to keep away the blues," and with a kindly smile, she nodded for me to go.
In order to divert her thoughts from the sorrowing and puzzling sympathy with the sad fate of the gentle Desdemona, I thought to find something if not less heroic, at least less saddening in its afterthoughts, and to that end selected some early English translations of the "Stories Miletus," for the evening's reading.
I said heroic, for somehow, in a kind of blind, intuitive selfishness, common in fact to us all, I wished to feed her imagination upon fancies and stories of heroic achievements, of manly daring and fortitude, of strength and God-like powers--for in all these physical attributes of heroism, I felt myself a man. It was all I had to commend me, my tremendous strength, my powerful physique, my agile, gainly motion, and strong shapely limbs.
Slight wonder is it then, that I in a natural, albeit
selfish, wish to appear to my best before her whom I loved with all the strength of my being, I should select for my themes stories in which I myself, negro, slave that I was, could have figured as the hero, and stories, too, that would leave no sombre aftermath of reflections to darken the brightness of their suggestions.
My selection for this evening was a happy one, and when after an hour's pleasant reading I left her to sleep and to dream, she was smiling over the cunning roguery of Sisyphus instead of crying over his unending task.
Her injuries were not, in truth, so severe as the doctor had said, and the next morning by leaning on Sally's broad shoulder, she was able to move about her room and in the afternoon, when her crutches came she could explore the entire length of the upper hall.
And then the morning after, she insisted upon dressing and venturing down to breakfast, and I was called to lift her down the stairs, her mother utterly refusing to allow her to make the venture on the steps.
As lightly as before and with less trepidation, I lifted her in my arms and carried her softly down.
"Oh, that is so pleasant," she smiled as I steadied her a second to adjust her crutches.
After breakfast she fluttered about the house for a while like a wounded bird and then I was called to carry her back to her room again.
Again it was like mounting the golden stairs as I strained her yielding form to my breast and fancied that I could feel a responsive clasp clinging lingeringly to my neck as I put her down.
"Now read me something pleasant, something in lighter
vein. I am feeling too buoyant for tragedy this morning," she said, her cheeks glowing with the color of roses.
"How will the 'Comedy of Errors' do, or the 'Taming of the Shrew,'--which shall it be?" I asked opening the volume.
"Oh, the two Dromeos, I like them best of all. 'The Shrew' is too tame. Do you know I think Kate a travesty upon womanly spirit. No man could subdue me with such a loonish petulence of temper. I should require something more manly, a masterful strength of arm as well as of will. Katharina was a chit and Petruchio a brawling fop. Let us have the 'Comedy of Errors,' " she said.
With as much spirit as I could throw into the subject I read the charming farce, receiving for the service a little fusilade of vivas, which I acknowledged with a gallant obeisance.
Dinner-time I again carried her down, bodily in my arms and my poor heart leaped into my throat almost choking me with its wild delirium of passion as I felt the warm soft bloom of her cheek nestling against my own. It was a torture to keep from turning my face and dashing burning kisses upon the melting lips so dangerously near, but with a nerve of steel I choked backed my heart and without daring to once look in her eyes I gently steadied her on her feet and turned quickly away.
After bolting my dinner in my eagerness to again serve my divinity, I stationed myself near the stairs in the hall in eager anticipation of the happiness of holding her once more in my arms.
But she did not come. Perhaps she too had felt something of the danger and wiser than I had drawn back. I
waited with something like angry impatience for more than an hour, and then with a presumption that would have appalled me the day before, I turned for the first time to seek her--for the first time to intrude myself unbidden upon her presence.
I found her on the front portico. A low easy couch had been wheeled out into the genial sunlight for her comfort, and she was sitting with her wounded foot resting on a little mound of downy pillows.
"What is it you want?" she asked with a little touch of hauteur in her tone, as I stood before her.
"If you please, I came to see if I could serve you," I answered with an apologetic bow.
"No--when I want you I will have you called. You can go back to your work. You must not forget your place and presume too much upon my condescension. You can go."
I was more astounded than hurt at this sudden change in a manner always generous and kind, and sadly puzzled what to make of it I turned away.
She did not go up to her room that afternoon, nor evening until she was ready to retire, and then she had Joe called to carry her up. It was with a grim, spiteful delight that I stood on the dark porch without and peered through the sidelights of the hall door to watch the awkward, staggering steps the fellow made as he tottered under the weight of his heavy load. Toiling, panting, up, up, up, pausing at each step to gather strength for the next until exhausted an unlucky trip at the top plunged him with his helpless charge downward--tumbling bump, bump, over and over like harlequins in a pantomime, until they reached the landing below.
The cries of the young mistress, the grunts of Joe and the sceaming of Sally who had been following up close after them, and was now perched astride the banister, whither she had scrambled to clear the way for the down-tumbling avalanche, brought the startled household out in a wild alarm.
My own heart fluttered in pained suspense, as I too rushed forward to the young mistress's help. My hand was the first to reach her, and gathering Joe, who had fallen prone across the young lady's breast and was smothering the breath out of her, by the nape of his neck and the belt of his trousers I gave him a pitch that landed him like a chunk half way across the hall, and then I lifted her to a seat on the steps and looked to my master for further orders.
Happily she was not hurt, for Joe, to give him credit, with a frantic energy had softened each bump so far as possible, and now that the fright was over the ludicrousness of the situation came flashing over her mind; and hushing her cries, she burst out into merry peals of laughter.
The laugh was a glad relief to all; but the master was not so merry.
"I am glad that you are not hurt, but it is nothing to laugh at. I have a great mind to give Joe a thrashing for his awkwardness," he said sternly.
"Oh, no, papa," sobered by the angry threat. "It was not his fault, he really is not strong enough. I ought to have supported myself when I felt his strength giving way, but I--I didn't think that I was so heavy. Please don't blame Joe, papa, he could not help it and I am not
hurt a bit, and oh, it was so ridiculous--and Sally, there scrambling over the banister to get out of our way."
"You had no business to trust yourself to Joe. Paul should have carried you. Paul, I have a great mind to buck you down and give you fifty lashes for not attending to your business, you lazy scoundrel, you," said the master turning fiercely to me.
"I am sorry--" I commenced when he imperiously stopped me.
"Hush your mouth, none of your impudence, or I shall knock you down. Lift her up now and carry her to her room and let us see how badly she is hurt. Joe, you had better send Dick for Dr. Blue."
"Oh, no, papa; you are mistaken. I am really not hurt at all. See here," thrusting out her foot, "I can twist my ankle without the least bit of trouble or pain. Please do not be angry, papa; it was all so funny."
"Yes, dear. Never mind it now; there is no harm done. Take her up, Paul," interrupted the mistress, after assuring herself by a loving pat of the wounded foot that it was indeed not hurt.
I stooped and lifted her up, not claspingly as before, but slipping my hands under her as she sat and making a kind of chair of my arms I raised her up and holding my face aside I carried her safely up to her room.
"Ah, this is so much better," she said as I sat her on her lounge. "I ought to have known that poor Joe could not carry me, and do you know," she added brightly, "that I was thinking of old Sisyphus and his stone all the time that Joe was tugging me up the steps--and then to cap the climax, just as he reached the top he had to slip
back and here we went tumbling down again just for all the world like old Sisyphus and his stone. Poor Joe, he was hurt much worse than I. It was mean in you to pitch him so hard across the floor."
"Yes, miss, I am sorry I touched him. Have you any further use for me, now?"
"No, you may go--only, Paul," softly, as I turned to go, "it was foolish in me to be angry with you today--you must not mind it. Now, you may go."
The next morning the mistress called me. "Paul, go up and see if your Miss Virginia will come down to breakfast, and if she will, you must fetch her. I want no more nonsense with Joe."
I found her ready for breakfast. She was charmingly dressed in some dainty summer fabric, and never before had she looked so bewitchingly lovely.
"If you please, miss, my mistress has sent me to see if you will go down for breakfast," I said.
"Yes, I was waiting for someone to come to help me."
"Mistress is afraid to trust you again with Joe and she sent me."
"And it was you I wanted. You should have come without waiting to be told."
"Then I--I must beg your pardon, but you told me yesterday never to come unless called."
"Yes, yes--so I did; but I was silly yesterday--upset and out of humor. I must ask you to forgive me," and, as if in penitential assurance, she reached up her arms for me to take her.
I stooped with a respectful courtesy and lifting her, carried her safely down, Sally going ahead with the crutches.
"I must thank you--your strength is so-so exhilarating. Come to the library after you have had breakfast and we will read there," she said with a kindly smile, as she turned into the dining hall.
When I went into the library I found her waiting.
"We must have something light to-day, some simple love story," she said, as I halted for a suggestion.
Quite by chance I took down the first book I touched.
"Ah, here is something if you have never read it," I ventured, "the West India story, 'Paul and Virginia.' "
"Yes, I have heard mamma tell it. Read it. It will be nice I am sure," and thus enjoined I took my place at the window and began.
Those who have been charmed with the simple story of the castaways can understand how it was that dinner was announced before we had thought of the lapse of the moments.
"Oh, is it that late, and I have kept you standing all this long while. That is really too bad. You shall sit the next time--I shall command it," she said as the announcement of dinner recalled her to the hour.
"As soon as you have dined come back and finish it for me, I could not sleep without hearing the last of it," she called as she went out.
It took but a short while after dinner to finish the story.
"I am sorry it turns out so sadly. What a pity! Why is it that such--such unequal or misplaced love always turns out so sadly?" she asked.
"I do not know, I am sure, unless it be that sorrow and suffering are the price that must be paid for all that is best and sweetest in life," I answered.
"It is all a perplexity," she said soberly, and then reaching for her crutch (she had discarded one and was beginning to take little steps with only one), she added, "Let us go in the gallery, I wish to see the pictures.
"The gallery was quite an extensive one, and besides the family portraits contained a number of rare and valuable paintings.
After looking idly over these for awhile, she turned to the portraits, where gazing with puzzled wonder for a moment upon one, she suddenly turned to me with a scrutinizing glance in my face.
"Ah, I think I have found it at last," she cried excitedly. "I have been so strangely puzzled to know what it was about you that seemed so--so--so familiar,--that made you more to me than any other man--or negro man I mean. Here, look at this picture. It is the portrait of my uncle Jules, painted the year he died. Is it not wondrously like you?"
"There is a resemblance" I answered evasively.
"But isn't it strange. You--you surely comprehend it."
"The resemblance or the cause?" I asked.
"The resemblance, of course--there can be no cause for it," she answered quickly.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean that there is no accounting for the strange coincidences that are sometimes found in nature."
"Is this only a coincidence?" she asked a little soberly.
"I may not presume to say."
"But that is no answer. You should not be impertinent. Tell me, what do you argue from this strange resemblance?"
she demanded with a little scorn.
"Since you so imperiously demand it, I will tell you. That is the portrait of my father," I said unconsciously answering her scorn.
"Oh, no, no!" she cried in indignant protest against the assumption, "that cannot be. You are bold--you are insolent--to think so. You are impudent to say so."
"My features must speak for themselves," I answered a little proudly as catching the attitude and expression of the portrait, I thrust one hand in the bosom of my coat and looked her quietly in the face.
"Yes, yes, I know, the favor is there; but I do not believe it."
"Nor should you believe it. I am sorry that you should ever even suspect it," I answered.
"And you tell me this--and you have known it all the while? How, how do you know it?"
"By the truth I have always found in my mother."
"Your mother! the negro strumpet. And she has the shameless audacity to boast of this?" she fiercely interrupted with flashing eyes and cheeks red with anger.
"No, Miss Virginia, she never boasted. She thought, perhaps, that it was at least my right to know, and she told me--told me and no one else. I do not believe there is another living soul that knows. I am sorry that this chance has revealed it to you. There was nothing to boast of, no name, no honor, no fortune, nothing save the strength of which he himself was so proud, and which is all my own without boasting. Since some one had to be my father, I mean since it was decreed that I was to have a being, I am glad that it was through the loins of such a
man I came, not because of the individual man--not because he was a Choteaux--but because of his race, because he was a caucasian, and being one, made me at least a degree above a negro."
"A mongrel," she scornfully interjected.
"Yes, mongrel, if you please, with a chance to inherit something of the virtues of my father, even though tainted with the dark blood of my mother. But I repeat I am sorry that you have discovered my secret. Will you let me beg you never to let any one else know?"
"I shall not be likely to speak of such a thing, even though I were satisfied of its truth," she said haughtily--and then as suddenly softening she asked, "but your mother: who is your mother?"
"Not a common strumpet, Miss Virginia, as you charge, although the concubine of her master, but a woman who so jealously guards the royal blood she inherits from her father and mother that she scorned to let it once mingle with that of negro."
"Royal blood? That's a little grandiloquent."
"It is true, nevertheless; but if it displeases you to hear I had better be silent."
"No, tell me. Since your insolence persists in establishing our kinship, I am curious to know all about you. It may be a compensation to know that I am first cousin to a prince of the royal blood."
"The kinship is not of my making, nor seeking," I answered, stung to the bitter by her sarcasm.
"Never mind the kinship. I was only jesting."
"Very well. It is proper matter for jesting. I shall certainly never presume upon it, even in jest."
"Of course not. You had better never dare such a presumption. But what of your mother's royal blood?"
"It was rightfully hers. Her father and her mother were the children of a king, not a chief, but the king of chiefs. It may shock you to know also that they were brother and sister."
"No, not horror; incestuous as it is by civilized law, it is still the law in Africa, as it once was in the East, and even in the days of the Patriarchs. Abraham married his sister Sarah; Cleopatra, the famous queen of Egypt, was not only the daughter of such a marriage, but she was herself married to her brother; and as it was then with princes of the East, so it is still with the heirs to the kingdoms of Africa. To preserve the purity of the dynasty the children of the king must intermarry. My mother's father was the heir to his father's throne. He married his sister and of them my mother was born."
"Ah, quite a romance you have woven around the geneological tree, and I suppose it is from this long line of pure, thoroughbred African kings that you inherit your magnificent strength?" she asked saucily.
"No, I inherit their skin, the accursed mark of Ham. My strength comes from my father and his father, the Choteaux.
She gave a little shrug of her shoulders and casting a quick glance up at the portrait, which, had it been in crayon instead of colors, would have passed for my own, she turned away.
That evening she did not ask my help up the stairs, but leaning on the shoulder of Sally she made her own way. I was almost glad that she did.
She had discarded her crutch and was standing, a little tremulously, on her feet, the next morning when I went in to take her down to breakfast.
"Ah, a prince of the royal house of Gooragooraboora," she said with a mock courtesy, very charming not withstanding its insulting irony. "And what is it your royal highness will condescend to have?"
"I was so unfortunate as to incur your displeasure yesterday morning, by not coming in time to carry you down the steps, I hope I have not offended again," I answered a little stiffly.
"Oh! but you were not a prince, then. I cannot expect such a service now. Fortunately, I do not longer need help, or I should have to find someone else. You need not trouble yourself to come any more." And dropping the tone of irony, she imperiously waved me back with her hand. "You may go."
Hardly knowing whether to be glad or sorry I went away to give the matter more rational thought, and resolved at last to put an end to this maddening folly by asking my master to send me back to the plantation. I had seen enough of the family management to learn that my mistress was really the master, and that her will in the matter would be the law. As soon, then, as her breakfast was finished, I sought her in her room. The
master had gone out, but the young mistress was with her.
"Well, Paul, what is it you want?" she asked, as I bowed before her, hat in hand.
"Mistress," I answered, in my most appealing tone, "I come to beg a great kindness of you."
"Well, haven't I always been kind to you, Paul?"
"Yes, madam, always, the kindest mistress in all the world, and I shall never forget your goodness--and it is that that emboldens me to come."
"Well, what is it you want?"
"If you please, I want you to send me back to the plantation?"
"Back to the plantation?" she repeated, in astonishment. "What an idea! You are the first negro I ever saw who wanted to give up the good things of the white house for the plantation. Surely, boy, you must be crazy."
"Oh, no, mistress, not crazy, but in my best senses. I pray you to let me go."
"Why? Have you a wench there that you are thinking of? Tut, tut, boy--you must get over that. There are girls plenty here that will suit you much better. Here is Winnie, there," smilingly pointing to the simpering maid, "a buxom, bouncing heifer who is itching for just such a fellow. You may have her. Or may be," and a little frown took the place of the smile, "you've been nest-finding already and want to get away before it is found out. It that it?"
"No, madam; there is no heifer in the case, nor wench either, if you please. I only think that as a negro I am
better suited for the plantation than the service I have to perform here," I started when she interrupted.
"Tut, tut, this is all nonsense. I can't spare you, Paul. Who will I ever get to rub my back and my feet and knees like you? There is no one else can do it. And who would wait upon your Miss Virginia? Suppose you had not been here, who could have lifted her about as you did? And then there is your master, I am sure he could not do without you. I heard him say only last night that he wouldn't take two thousand dollars for you, and do you suppose he would let a two thousand dollar negro run to seed on a plantation, when a common moke would do as well? No, Paul, you must not think any more of such an impossible thing. You cannot go. You couldn't give him up yourself, could you, darling?" turning to her daughter.
Naturally I glanced in the face of the young mistress to catch her answer, but was unable to read the troubled expression of her countenance.
"I do not know, mamma," at last she spoke. "Paul has been very kind to me, and very useful, and although I sometimes have to get very angry with him, I--I do not believe that--that--oh, I can not decide, mamma."
"Angry with him? Paul, how is this! Do you ever dare to vex your mistress?" turning frowningly to me.
"Oh, no, mamma. It was all my fault, and he was right. But I must tell you. I wanted to make Dido jump the Ball Cave and he wouldn't let me. He caught my bridle and held me back, and I lashed him in the face with my whip to make him leave off, but he would not and I had to cry with anger. But it was well that he
did not let me have my way, for Dido could not have made the leap and we both might have been killed. I saw it all afterwards and was sorry for my cruel injustice, but I was furiously angry then. It is only because he is so strong and masterful and won't always let me do as I please."
"You are a silly child and I fear a little spoiled by over-indulgence. And I am glad that Paul has the good sense not to mind your tantrums. You need just such a groom to keep you out of danger. No, Paul, you can't go. You must stay for your young mistress's sake, if for nothing else. So you may put all thought of going from your mind. If it be true, as I really suspect, some little love scrape with one of the girls here, we will try and overlook it. Of course I don't like such ugly things about the house--but then negroes will be negroes, and little slips will have to happen. So tell me your trouble and I will promise to overlook it," said the mistress, with the patronizing grace of a queen.
"There is no such trouble as you imagine," I answered, a little stiffly. "Your negro girls might as well be marble statues of vestal saints for all the use I could make of them. They would be no more safe from me. I am very sorry that you will not let me go back to my old work in the fields. I am sure I can better serve you there than here, and, oh, it would be ever so much better for me."
"Ah, well, the loss of work will be mine and you need not to care. It is none of your business where I put you, so you get enough to eat and wear. I know you can best please me here and there is an end to the matter. So
go, now, about your business. Virginia, is there anything you want him to do?"
"Yes, I wish him to move the piano back on its summer side, by the window. Come on, Paul, I will show you."
Her ankle was yet tender and it gave her gait a little halt that made it charmingly pretty as she chipped along before me to the music room.
"Paul, she said, lightly touching my arm, after I had wheeled the piano to its place and was turning to go, "Paul, is it for me that you want to go away?"
"No, Miss Virginia, it is because of myself."
"I feared that it was because you thought I was angry with you for what you told me yesterday," she said softly.
"And I should not have blamed you had you been," I answered.
"But I was not angry, that is, angry with you. But I was vexed at my own self for not being angry. Of course, I was shocked at first. It seemed so--so shameful and humiliating to think that I was so closely akin to a negro. It was horrible, but after I had gone to bed, and shutting my eyes thought it all over and over again, almost the livelong night, and knowing that it was not your fault, nor any fault of mine, and it being you--you yourself, Paul,--you, who are so strong, so manly, so grand, so handsome and so much superior to all other negroes and to--to all other me--me--men, that I did not mind it so much. Had it not been you, Paul," using the softest and most confiding tones and with a gentle uplifting of her glorious eyes, "had it, been any other man in all the world, I would have had him driven away and sold as far from here as
a speculator could carry him. But it was you, you who have been so kind and good to me, so thoughtful and strong and brave, and then the more I thought of you the less repulsive became the thought, until at last--you--you must not think me bold, Paul,--I--I was really glad of it. And it was this, this--my own humiliating weakness--that made me so angry with myself when you came this morning, and for meanness I had to take my spite out on you. I must ask you to forgive me, Paul?"
"It is not your scorn, Miss Virginia, that I minded, nor your anger, although I would not willingly offend you, and it would hurt me to even give you cause to be angry. It is because that I am no fit com--no, I shall not say companion--but servant for you. The very manhood which commends me to your favor makes it the more unhappy for me."
"Because of its nearness to a heaven it would be a profanity for me even to dream of," I answered softly, but earnestly.
She understood me, I am sure, for the blood mounted to her face and ears and she shrank back with a convulsive start. But in a moment she smiled, oh, so sweetly, as she answered:
"Ah, there can be no harm in dreaming. If it be so sweet I give you leave to dream. I, too, have my dreams and they are pleasant, too pleasant to ever speak," and then as if abashed at the confession she flushed crimson again and turning away her face she said: "Open the piano and I will sing some."
Glad of the diversion, I opened the piano and adjusted
her stool for her, when seating herself she began a little prelude.
"Must I go now?" I asked.
"Not if you would like to hear me sing," and then with a sudden animation she looked up and added, "Oh, by the way, Paul, I have often heard you singing to yourself at night when you thought me asleep. And last night you were singing one of my favorite songs. You have picked it up, no doubt, but it kept me awake so long."
"Oh, I am so sorry to have offended," I said earnestly. "I am sure I will not give you cause to complain again."
"But I was not offended," she answered. "One loves to hear one's favorites sung by others. And I thought some of the fugitive notes I caught were really good. Do you know anything about music?"
"Only what I caught from the birds," I answered.
"But you can sing, I am sure. There is another air I have heard you humming, 'When the Swallows Homeward Fly,' look in my portfolio and find it, I think we can sing it."
It is one of the few compensative gifts nature has made to my unlucky race, the rare gift of song, and I had a good voice, a deep resonant baritone, and happily for my credit the chance selection my young mistress made was well adapted to its scope, and with fair success I sang, my deep bass harmonizing well with the flute-like sweetness of her soprano.
"That is charming; we must sing for papa this evening. I know it will astonish him as it has surprised me," she said in genuine delight. "What other songs do you sing?"
"None, except--except a few of your songs which I
caught," I said with some hesitancy, "and the wild plantation airs. And there is the Marseillaise--I learned that I think correctly when a boy, from Major Chalon, an old French soldier who had lived a recluse in the Cossetot swamp. If you please, I will try that?"
"Yes, that is grand; I will play the accompaniment," she said, striking up the prelude at once.
With all the fire of a full-blooded Frenchman I sang it, and when I had finished she gave a little "vive" with her hands, while her eyes sparkled more than thanks.
"Oh, that will charm papa--I am so glad that I have found you out," and then rising from the piano she turned to go.
"I believe you may get out Dido after dinner, I am so longing for the woods once more. Do you think I can ride?"
"I do not think it prudent for you to undertake it for yet awhile. It was your stirrup foot, you know, that was hurt, and you might hurt it again. The slightest strain now would upset it again," I ventured to caution.
"Ah well, if you think so I shall not. Only you must fix my swing for me and let me swing. I am anxious to try that refractory swing again. You can mend it, can't you?"
Yes, I could mend it and I did, as securely as if my own immortal soul depended upon its strength for safety, and after dinner I lifted the young mistress in it and she spent a golden afternoon in its exhilarating oscillations.
In the evening after supper I was called to the music room.
"Papa," explained my young mistress, "I have found a new use for Paul."
"Yes, Paul is a fellow of infinite capacity, as universal as a quack nostrum. What is it you have discovered?"
"That he can sing."
"Oh, all negroes can sing."
"Yes, but none like Paul. I wish you to hear him. Come, Paul," and without prelude she dashed into the song.
"That is very good," said the master.
"It is really charming," said the mistress.
"But you should hear him in solo--the Marseillaise hymn. Sing, Paul," said the young mistress.
The words are as peculiarly French as the air, no translation can do the sentiment justice, and to make the performance as effective as possible I sang it in the original French.
It was a study to watch the countenance of my master as I sang. At the first note of the grand anthem, he lifted up his head as an artillery horse raises his ears at the bugle call. Then his lips parted and his eyes kindled and before I had finished his face was fairly ablaze with enthusiasm.
"Ah, Pauline--that is grand, that is brave, and oh, how much like the old days when we were young. Ah, don't you remember?"
It may be stated just here that my master and mistress were cousins, her mother being the sister of the old General Choteaux.
"Oh, yes," acquiesced the lady, recalling with evident animation those early days, "and Paul's voice, does it not haunt you as a memory?"
"That it does. It is as much the voice of my brother Jules as Jules' was of my father--that same brave roll that
always shook my soul to hear. Paul, where in the world did you learn that song?"
"The good old Major Chalon taught me when a boy," I answered.
"Yes, I remember the old follow."
"But where did you get that voice?" asked the mistress.
"That is a question for psychologists to answer. If our gifts come directly from God, I must thank Him for it, but if they are given to us by our parents, I suppose that I may thank my father," I answered a little boldly.
"Well, it matters not where you got it; but it sounds wonderfully like the voice of my father," said the master. "Sing it again for me."
I complied and the concert was ended.
Many days afterward, it grew to be a puzzle to me to know whether it was really an unlucky trip of the lame foot that caused the cry of pain, or was it only a coquettish ruse to have me carry her in my arms again that she called as she clung to the newel for support, when she had started up to her room.
I did not stop to consider. It sufficed for me to know that she wanted my strong arms to upbear her, and with a fiercely beating heart and closer clasp than ever before I gathered her to my bosom and carried her up, while the master and mistress looked on to applaud my ready obedience and to wonder at my giant strength.
How wretchedly blind were we all, and especially that mother, whose jealous care of her daughter would not have permitted the ungloved hand of a white lover to rest so much as upon her arm, and yet she could stand by and see a strong robust, lusty negro folding her yielding form
to his heart while her cheek lay almost against his lips, kindled into a crimson flame from the fire of the riotous blood that so fiercely pulsed in his own. Such wilful blindness was not merely folly, but it was a crime.
Holding her thus I did not stop on the landing to stand her on her feet, but carried her on down the hall and into her room, where with a lingering, loving, tender pressure I sat her on her bed and turned to run away from the dangerous propinquity, when with a detaining clasp on my shoulder she stopped me.
"Stay a minute, Paul; this is so sweet. You are so strong and your strength so thrills me. It is a glory to be in your arms. I must thank you," she murmured blushingly.
"I--I am glad it serves you. It is yours always to command," I chokingly answered.
"Yes, I know. You are very kind, and I must still further trouble you--I fear I have hurt my ankle over again. Will you please see? It is really painful," she added, daintily drawing up her skirts and extending the wounded foot.
There is a delightful coquetry, as well as artistic charm in the manner a pretty woman flirts her skirts. No skill with the fan, no arch of the eyes, no pretty moue can begin to equal its ravishing effect upon the appreciative eye. My charming young mistress was piquantly graceful in all her actions--every motion was a grace--and the dainty naivete with which she lifted the little cloud of snowy lace and nainsook, themselves so delicately suggestive of unspeakable beauties, was the perfection of maidenly finesse.
As tenderly as my trembling fingers would allow me, I unclasped the bejewelled garter and drew down the stocking, and holding the ball of her plump little heel in my hand I softly pressed my fingers upon the wound. The swelling had all disappeared, but the angry blotches of purple, in painful contrast with the snowy skin, showed that the hurt was still there.
"Oh, ouch!" she cried, with a flinch of pain, as I touched the tender spot, "there is where the hurt is. Have I really broken it over?" she asked.
"Oh no; I think not. You must have given it a wrench at the stairs. I am very sorry it pains you, but I think it will soon be well again," I assuringly answered, unconsciously caressing her foot with a tender stroke.
"Ah, that is soothing. You must rub it for me, Paul. There is magic in your touch. Sally, get the ointment and let him rub it for me. He is so much more tender and soft than you with your awkward thumb," she said as I softly chafed the tender skin.
Sally handed me the bottle.
"Ah, that is so soothing, so pleasant, so delicious. What a wonderful touch you have--how can a hand so strong be so soft, so tender, so delicate? I do not wonder that mamma could not give you up," she burst out again, half laughing, half seriously as I gently applied the aromatic lotion, and softly stroked the glowing flesh, "and I--I am so glad that you did not go."
I hardly know how long I knelt there at my divinity's feet, soothing with my tenderest touch the quivering ankle and softly stroking the snowy instep, with an occasional involuntary and irresistible caress of the soft
velvety calf, throwing into it as much of the subtle force that was thrilling my nerves as it was possible for a caressing contact to infuse. It did not seem a minute, and I could have knelt there all night without tiring or thinking to count the passing time, had not the sleepy-headed and prosaic Sally, after yawning and muttering her discontent for awhile, become desperate at last and broke out, "Dar, now, dat'ill do. Yo' fool yo,' doan yer see hits done pass bedtime and Miss Jinny orter be asleep. Dat'ill do, won't it, Miss Jinny? Send de fool away an' lemme strip yer ter bed," she said, opening the dressing case and producing the young lady's night gown.
"Yes, Paul, that will do. It feels so much better; indeed, it is quite well now--no pain, only, Paul, if you will, you may kiss it, like you would kiss a baby's hurt, and like Sally sometimes kisses it," she added in apologetic explanation as she noticed the flush that shown through my swarthy skin.
I stooped and utterly oblivious of the presence of Sally, I kissed the pinky sole, the toes, the now glowing instep and then with a long, loving, passionate inspiration as if to draw in a surfeit of sweetness I kissed the quivering ankle.
"Thanks, thanks--that is so sweet. Good night, Paul, I shall want you again in the morning," she softly said, as I reluctantly arose to go.
She was a little shy next morning, and blushed with a pretty confusion when I went in to announce breakfast--but she soon rallied and with a smile she said,
"You have come to carry me down. That is good, but I don't think I need to burden you this morning. My
foot is ever so much better. You must be a conjurer, Paul, to thus charm all the pain away. How in the world do you do it? See," putting out the pretty foot with a display of a well turned calf as well, "see I can wear my boot. I do believe I can stand to ride this afternoon. Isn't it nice? Only I--I am almost sorry that it is well. I wanted you to kiss--I--I mean to cure it again."
"I am glad that it does not pain you, but am gladder still that you think so kindly of my skill, and could trust me to care for it. It was very sweet in you, and--and it was inexpressibly sweet to me," I stammered.
"Was it indeed? Then I, too, am glad. I feared that it was selfish in me and that I had tired you. Come, I may not need you to carry me, but I shall need the support of your arm down the steps," she said pausing at the head of the stairs. With her hand lightly resting on my shoulder, she herself drew my arm around her waist and with its strength encircling her in a half embrace I almost bodily lifted her down. Her mother stood at the bottom to receive her with a kiss.
"How is your ankle, darling. Paul said you had strained it again."
"Oh, yes, just a little, but thanks to Paul, it is quite, quite well again. He rubbed it so softly that he charmed all the hurt away. You cannot imagine what a magnetic touch he has in his finger tips."
"Yes, I know. It is equal to a little voltaic battery. Nothing does my back and legs half so much good as for him to rub them. What a pity Paul hadn't been a white man. He would have made a capital doctor. All the ladies would have been crazy after him."
My features must speak for themselves.--Page 102.
"It is happy for us, mamma, that he was not. We can have him all to ourselves, now. I don't think I could care to divide him with any other--I mean with every other--woman. Should you?"
"Oh, no, I am glad that he is all our own. Only we must not spoil him with flattery. We mustn't give him the big-head," answered the mistress with a playful shake of her head at me.
"Ah, I don't think he could be so easily spoiled. He rubbed my foot and ankle so nicely last night and never once got an inch above his business," with a saucy little nod, and then blushing at the sauciness, she added, "He was as backward as a girl and I had to tell him to kiss it. like Sally kisses it, before he would touch it with his lips. And it was that I think, mamma, that cured it. He seemed to kiss all the hurt away, and this morning it is not even colored as it was yesterday."
"Yes, that was very well; and Paul you must come to my room after dinner--I wish you to rub my back," said the mistress, as she put her arm around her daughter's waist and lovingly they walked into breakfast.
I was not derelict in my duty to my mistress and imparted as much of superfluous vitality to her failing nerves as was possible for a purely manual friction to transmit, as after having Winnie to open her corsage, she lay prone upon her stomach and ordered me to rub her spine. There may have been a mesmeric somnolence in it, but I am sure she felt none of the subtle force that had so unconsciously thrilled the being of her daughter the evening before. It was a warm, strong, ruddy glow I brought to the surface, soothing and strengthening, but there was no odic
thrill in the touch and when she gave a little sigh nearly akin to a snore and slightly turned on her side for a sleep, I could withdraw my hand with the cold composure of an octogenarian surgeon.
"Now, you have put mamma to sleep, I must trouble you to wait upon me," said the young mistress, who had been a silent spectator of the mesmeric operation.
"I am always ready to wait upon you," I answered.
"Then come with me to the library. There are some passages in the story you read me of 'Paul and Virginia' I wish you to read again."
Of course an expression of her wish was a law to me and I followed her to the library as closely as my station would allow.
"The volume lay on the table and the passage opened of itself as if she had been reading it before. It was the tender love scene in the grove and when I had read it, I paused for her comment.
She sat silent for a moment, a little pale at first, but I saw the pinky color rising up, a little shell-tint at first, but coloring deeper and deeper into a rosy red, and with a sudden turn she said, "That was very sweet, wasn't it?"
"To Paul it must have been heaven itself," I answered.
"And to Virginia, too," she said; "and suppose, Paul--suppose it had been we two--you and I--that you had been Paul and I, Virginia, what would you have done?"
"Oh, Miss Virginia, you should not ask me. I--I could not dare to make such a presumptuous supposition."
"Well, let me make it then. I will suppose that you are Paul, and I--I am Virginia. What would you have done?"
"No--no, my sweet mistress, let me ask it? Suppose you were Virginia, the gracious mistress, and I poor Paul, the slave, what would you have done?"
"I should have done this, Paul--I should have put my arms up to your neck so, and said, 'Paul, my life, I love you--kiss, kiss me, Paul,'" and rising up she placed her fair round arms about my neck and reaching up her rich, ripe, melting lips to my own she kissed me.
"Oh, darling--darling, my love," I cried, clasping her to my heart and giving her kiss for kiss, dashing them upon her lips, her chin, her eyes and her forehead; and then horrified at my boldness I released her from my arms and placing her back in her chair, I turned and ran away from her presence almost as wild in thought as an animal released from a snare.
The veil was now lifted from both our hearts, the scales from our eyes, and she knew that I loved her as blindly, madly, despairingly as I felt that she, my queenly mistress, loved me. But where was it to lead? Where? Ah, love--such love as ours--had but one goal. And did we know? And knowing, not draw back in shame, confusion and horror? Ah, we hardly knew--we did not think. We could not draw back, but like the doomed of destiny gathering roses on the flowery slopes of Avernus, we only saw its ravishing beauties and felt the subtle charm of their intoxicating odors. As for myself, could I be blamed? For a man of my feelings, with my natural love for the beautiful, my susceptibilities to the charms of sweetness, of womanly loveliness, of my health and strength and manly vigor, to be daily thrown into contact with, to look upon, to touch, to inhale the fragrance of her beauty and to feel the magnetic allurement of the presence of such a woman as Virginia Choteaux and not to surrender himself, heart and soul, to their influences, would be to belie his very nature and to stultify his manhood.
I loved Virginia Choteaux from the first kindly glance she ever gave me. I knew that I loved her then as I know it now. I did not deliberately seek to win--or the world will say debauch--her love, because I never
dreamed of such a sweet possibility. What I did was done in that unconscious or rather instinctive spirit that makes us all, high or low, wish to appear well in the eyes of those we love. It was this blind unconscious groping after applause and sympathetic admiration inherent in all men who respect themselves, that made me in selecting my readings for her entertainment always choose such subjects as made physical strength and courage and stature the standards of manly excellence. I was strong, I was active, I was bold, and despite my swart color, I was not unhandsome. My profile silhouetted on a card would have attracted pleasing notice on any drawing room table or in the studio of any artist. I had a fair share of animal vivre in my loins, but I was not inordinately passionate. There are, I fancy, but few men living who can point to a more continent life than mine. My own father, high-born gentleman that he was, had led less or else I had never been born.
It was not, then, a lecherous desire to riot on her beauty, her sweetness, that drew my heart so madly to hers. I loved her because I should have had to be either more or less than man not to have loved her. And she--she returned that love because she would have had to be more than woman not to have done so. The conditions of the propinquity into which the blindness of the master and the father had placed us, and the disconnected chain of seductive events and circumstances which followed were irresistible.
If we sinned it was because we were both mortal--because God had made her beautiful, lovely and sweet, and the same God had made me strong, manly and attractive.
It was natural then, that thrown together as we were, we should have loved--loved as only two such hearts could love.
* * * * * * * * *
It was not like a guilty conscience quaking with fear for myself that I fled from her presence and hid myself as well as I could all the evening from her sight. For my ownself and the consequences upon my own head I never once thought, but only of her. I dreaded the shock that would come to her when in the soberness of solitude she realized the truth--that I, the ill-born negro, had dared to lift my soul to hers. I thought not of my slavery--in all my life I have thought but little of that circumstance. It was the taint of the negro that made me a pariah in my own estimation. Slavery was a political and social condition that could--and in a rational prescience I felt would--be set aside, but this other, the ban of Africa could never be lifted. The one was a social status that could be changed at the will of man, the other was a physical essence, a vital and distinguishing feature of racial inferiority, that only the bleaching of my bones in the grave could efface. This it was--the fear of reproaching her self-respect with a sense of my nearness--that held me as far away from her sight as my duties would allow me to keep. I was afraid the sight of my face would rebuke her with a sense of her rashness and momentary weakness.
And, well, perhaps, was it that I did avoid her, for it would have embarrassed if not humiliated her to have seen me. I feared, too, that she might think I wished to presume upon what she had done--the amazing condescension she had shown me--and thus thinking might be frightened at my nearness.
It was more than a week before I stood face to face with her, and then it was in answer to a summons from my mistress that I went.
"I wish to know, Paul, what it is you are so sulky about? Is it because I would not let you go back to the plantation?"
"Oh, no, ma'am," I meekly protested.
"Then what is the matter? What are you blowed up about? I have noticed you skulking around for a week like you had been caught in the chicken house. New, sir, I want to tell you, you must put yourself back in your proper place or I will have Joe to give you a strapping. Do you understand?"
"I am very sorry, mistress, that I have displeased you. I didn't mean to neglect my duties, I am sure."
"Didn't mean to do it? Then why did you? You haven't done a hand's turn for your Miss Virginia in I don't know how long. What do you mean by neglecting her, when you know it is for her service alone that I keep you?"
"I don't think, mamma, that Paul meant to neglect me. I--I really haven't needed him," sweetly interposed the young mistress, with a pitying glance at me.
"But Sally says he hasn't so much as brought a pitcher of water to your room this week."
"That is because I ordered her, the lazy hussy, to do it herself. She is mad and wants to set you on Paul. It is her place to fetch the water and I made her do it."
"No, it is not her place. It is Paul's and I mustn't hear of him neglecting it any more. Do you understand, sirrah?"
"Very well, be sure you heed, and now you may go, or wait a minute. Virginia, don't you think you are strong enough for a ride? A gallop would help you I am sure. You have been moping around the house long enough."
"I don't know, mamma; I feel quite strong enough for almost anything, but I do not care to ride."
"But I care; you must take a little gallop if just for the exercise. Go, Paul, and get out her mare."
I knew it was no use to protest--even had I wished to avoid the attendance upon the ride--and with an humble obeisance, I went out to saddle the horses.
I found her ready at the gate, and wishing to relieve her of any further fear of my presumption, I kneeled and offered my back for a step to mount.
"No, no--I cannot accept such an abject service from you. You must give me your hand," she said, with a flush, as she put out her foot.
"I might hurt your ankle. Let me lift you by the waist," I respectfully asked, and without awaiting her answer, I grasped her waist with my hands and lightly lifted her to her seat.
There was no boldness in the action, only a considerate service to avoid a possible discomfort to her, and she graciously recognized it as such, and with something like the old brightness, she said,
"That is much better, and I thank you."
And then we rode away, she giving Dido a free rein and I with difficulty keeping the restive and rampant Selim at a proper distance from the mare.
I could plainly see that it was merely to satisfy her mother that she rode and that she felt a disquieting constraint in being alone with me. I was anxious to reassure her, and to this end scrupulously avoided any reference to what had passed, either by word, look or sign. I kept my place precisely as I had kept it before, neither too near nor too far, and was glad to think that it relieved her.
She took only a short canter through the lane, not venturing into the solitude of the woods, and then rode home. As respectfully as before, I lifted up my hands to her arms and lifted her down. Her mother stood on the portico ready to welcome her.
"Ah, now, you look so much rosier. I am sure the ride has done you good."
"Oh, yes, I do feel ever so much better, and we will have some music after supper," she answered, brightly, and I felt that a little rift in the cloud had been made.
After supper I stood out in the dark of the portico and listened to her songs, while I gloated through the open lattice on the ravishing beauty of her face. I almost hoped to be called in to help in the song, and for the first time in my life felt a little jealous slight that I was not.
The next morning I commenced again my duties of personal attendance upon her room, and although it was earlier than usual when I went in with a can of fresh water from the spring for her morning lavation, I once again surprised her on the ottoman drawing on her stocking. With a quick start she dropped the uplifted foot and shook down her skirts in maidenly confusion, while I with equal perturbation drew back a moment. Then I respectfully advanced with the water.
"I think it is very wrong in mamma to require such a menial service of you, she said, still nervously smoothing down her skirts.
"That it should embarrass you is all that troubles me. The service is really a pleasure to me, anything that I can do for you is a happiness," I answered, speaking with eyes as well as tongue.
"Yes, and everything you do for me is a gladness to me also," she answered. "Only I--I do not like you to do things for me that Sally or Joe, or Stumpy Jake could do. You are worthy of better things. I do not ask a menial's service of you."
"No service, if performed for you, would seem menial to me. I would consider it a pleasure that the proudest gentleman in the land might envy me," I answered earnestly.
"Ah! that is gallant, and you must believe me, Paul, when I tell you how much I appreciate your goodness. How really and truly I thank you for it. Only I must not impose too much upon your kindness. Since mamma demands this of you I must perforce accept it, but I want you to know, Paul, that in accepting it, I do it as a--a token of--of your--your devotion for me, rather than the duty of a servant," she said with a sweet earnestness.
"It is my great, my idolizing devotion for you that dignifies the service into a happy, happy privilege," I answered, and then fearing to again overstep my prudence I adjusted the lavatory and went out.
That afternoon she rode again and on the ride the distance between a servile groom and queenly mistress was insensibly lessened, and when we returned I was riding
close by her side, neither of us knowing when or how the friendly propinquity had been established.
After supper music was again in order, and this time I was called in the last to finish the entertainment with the "Marseillaise."
"If I believed in the old Pythagorean doctrine of the transmigration of souls, and could understand how the souls of men could go into horses and dogs and negroes, I should say that the souls of my father and of my brother Jules had by some fantastic freak crept into Paul. If ever the voice of one man lived in the voice of another the voice of my father lives in the voice of this negro," said my master, turning with a little soberness to the mistress.
"Yes, they are wondrously alike; but perhaps it is the song itself, the words and the air he used to love so well, which suggests the sameness and recalls the good old father," said the mistress, "and now Paul, you may go."
In order to avoid another matutinal surprise, I went in much earlier the next morning, before the young mistress was awake and softly moving about I arranged the room and had turned to go, when she called.
"I wish you to read to me this morning, Paul; after breakfast come to me in the library.
"I shall be so glad to read to you," I answered with the gladness thrilling my voice.
After breakfast, having paid my obeisance to my mistress, I followed my young mistress to the library. Drawing an easy chair for her to the window where the fragrance from the roses could float in and envelop her with their sweetness, I drew the lecturn before her and was ready to take my stand, when she interfered.
"No, no, Paul, you shall not stand any more. Here, you can sit on this rug at my feet, if you will not sit in a chair, but you must not stand."
"Thank you for the grace. It will be so--so--"
"So what?" she asked with a smile as I hesitated to speak.
"May I speak it?"
"Oh, yes, speak what you have a mind to. It would be what?"
"It would be so sweet to always sit at your feet," I answered softly.
"Will it? Then get your book and come."
"What shall I get?"
"Get Shakespeare again. 'Romeo and Juliet'--or, no that was too sad. I should like something happy today. Let me see the book. Ah, this is such a lovely picture," she added, as kneeling at her feet--almost against her lap--I held the volume, opening by chance at an illuminated depiction of Venus weeping over the wounded Adonis. "But this must be sad, too. What is it? 'Venus and Adonis.' Is it so really sad? I have never read it. It is short," turning the leaves to estimate its length. "You may read it for me. Will you please?"
I took the book, and settling myself at her feet and infusing all the fire of my soul into the subject, I read the spirited poem. I did not stop to observe the exciting effect it had upon her--the thrilling starts and crimson blushes--but read on to the end.
When I had finished she sat silent for a moment with cheeks rosy red and heaving bosom, and then she softly said, as if communing with herself,
"Ah, love--love! What a ravishing, maddening thing it must be--if even a goddess could thus be entranced. If she, the proud goddess, the very queen of love itself, could be so weak, what can one expect from a mortal like me?"
"I cannot believe it a weakness," I ventured to say, "but rather an inspiration, making men strong and brave; and women fair and sweet. I never felt so much like a man--nay, more than a man--until--until--" I had to pause.
"Until when?" she asked with an encouraging smile, itself full of meaning.
"I fear it will anger you for me to speak it."
"No, no. I don't think, Paul, that you could ever anger me again. Tell me what is it that makes you feel such a glory in your manhood?"
"The blessed sight of the woman I love," I answered boldly.
"And that woman is?" with a further encouraging arch of her eye-brows.
"My mistress. My beautiful, my sweet, my queenly, gentle mistress," I answered softly.
"And you love me, Paul?"
"Dearer than I love my own soul."
"And I--I love you, Paul--weak, wicked, shameful though it be, I do love you, and I cannot help it," she cried, bowing her head in her hands to hide her shame and bursting into a flood of tears.
I knew not what to say to soothe her--to thank and to bless her--I could only stoop reverently and press my lips to the hem of her garment and in that moment of
supreme adoration, kiss the soles of her feet and then I silently stole away.
After dinner we rode again and though we rode side by side--almost knee against knee--we rode in silence, hardly a word being spoken. But as some draperies reveal more than they conceal, so there are silences which speak more eloquently than words, and such was the silence that held us both mute. There was no need of words between us now--not even to conceal--we both knew that we loved and it would have been a misery to have known more.
The next morning I read to her again. This time I chose a subject less suggestive of passion, but less unhappy, the comedy, "As You Like It." Its genial humor and charming spirit pleased and assured her and when she went out to dinner it was in a gay flutter of spirits, very pretty to see and inexpressibly sweet to me.
After dinner I was ready at the door waiting the order to fetch the horses for the ride, when Sally in high glee came to tell me that her young mistress had given her a little holiday that afternoon to go down to the branch to hunt "bubby blossoms" and that I would have to wait upon her all by myself.
"She ses she can't ride this evenin', kase ole massa an old misstus am gwine ter town an' she has ter stay an' keep house. An' she ses fer yo' ter run rite now an' fotch her a pitcher ob fresh water from de spring, an' yo' 'ad bettah makaste 'bout it, too, er yo'll kotch it, foh I tells yo', she's in one ob her little tantrums dis evenin', an' is as spiteful as a cat. She's gettin' mitey kurus yere lately, enyhow."
I hurried to the spring and in a few moments I was back with the bubbles still sparkling on the pitcher's brim, as I softly tapped at the door.
"Ah, it is you? Come in. I am so glad that you have come. Mamma has gone to town and I have to keep
house, and so we cannot ride--but--but I--I don't believe that I care as we can make it so much pleasanter here. Give me a sip of water and then you can sit here on the lounge by me and fan me to sleep."
There was in her room, in addition to her high canopied bedstead, a low springy couch or lounge, upon which she took her noon-day siestas. Upon this she was lithely reclining, attired in airy, loose, cooling negligee, every beauty and grace and charm of person revealed--by being half hidden--in its most ravishing loveliness. Ah, had the Venus herself--of whom we had been reading--possessed such a form, such a figure, such a bosom, such arms, as the gossamer-like wrapper so charmingly disclosed, with such lips, such eyes and such breath, the poor weakling milksop of an Adonis would not have required the "ivory pale" to have restrained him from running away.
I filled a glass and proffered it to her, but the tremor of my hand dashed a little spray on her neck.
"Ouch!" she gasped, from the little shock occasioned by the icy douche, "what an awkward Ganymede you make," she laughed as recovering, she took the goblet herself and sipped its coolness. "But," she added, brightly, "I have got my classics confused. It was the strong Hercules that Ganymede served. I must reverse our positions and I will be Ganymede. There, thanks; now my fan, if you please, and let me see if you are so awkward with it."
I took the glass and put it away, and found her fan, a dainty, rose-scented spread of feathers, almost as airy itself as a zephyr.
"Now, Paul, you may sit here by me, close, close as you please. I do so love to feel the subtle, strange, but delicious magnetism of your nearness. It seems as though a part of your magnificent strength were being transfused into my own being. Ah, now fan me gently and let me close my eyes and fancy myself in a beautiful paradise," she continued with a bewitching smile as she languishingly closed her eyes and lay blind for a few moments, as if to give my ravished sight time and chance to explore unabashed the heaven of beauty it would have been too timorous to look upon under the consciousness of her own. And then with a flush she started up, the movement shaking loose the diamond clasp that held the fleecy drapery around her neck and shoulder, and gazing tenderly into my eyes she said,
"Paul, I ought not to have you here, so near me, and we two all alone, and loving as we do--you, so strong and I--I so weak. I--I almost fear it is wrong, that you--you will despise me for it--that you will think me bold, unmaidenly, unwomanly. But, oh, Paul, I do love you so, and there is no hope for my love! You will not despise me, dear Paul, you will not think me bold."
"Despise you, Virginia, my beautiful mistress, my life, my love? No, no you are all the world to me--life, love, heaven!" I cried in a passionate impulse, stooping to kiss her.
"Oh, that is sweet, sweet," she whispered, detaining my head in her arms, "so sweet--kiss me again, Paul, kiss me! Ah, now," relieving my head and at the same time drawing me toward her, "ah, I love you, Paul, with all
my heart--take me, take me," she cried, in her uncontrollable excitement.
It was a wild delirium of love and passion, and when, with the first return of reason, I looked upon the flower I had despoiled, it was yet in a daze of senses and a whirl of brain nearly akin to madness--a tempest of self-reproach crowding in upon me with the return of fuller consciousness. For a moment I watched her as she lay so fair and sweet before me, her heart fluttering faintly against her snowy breast, her lips panting for breath, and her eyes closed in a half sleepy, half stupified langor, and then the faint little flutter suddenly growing into a startled beat, the little babe-like pants into a gasp of pain, and her eyes, her large lustrous fawn-like eyes, opened staring frightenedly around and then putting up her hand to hide her heaving, naked bosom, she threw me aside with an almost superhuman thrust as she started up.
"Oh, horror! Paul, what have you done? Misery, sin, shame, oh, my God, why did you not kill me? Oh, Paul, you have destroyed me. Go, go, leave the room and the house forever, lest our sin consumes us where we stand. Undone, undone--lost, lost!" and springing from the couch she knelt by her bed and burying her face in the pillow, she burst into a piteous wail of moans, of tears and of sobs.
I would have tried to comfort her, but it seemed a sacrilege for me to speak, and like the serpent stealing out from the Eden it had destroyed, I slunk from the room. Gladly would I have hanged myself to the nearest tree to have made her once more what she could never be again.
Oh, how I had wounded my sweet dove! And how I wished I could die if death might recall the blow. Not for any thought of myself, for any dread of the death that would be swift to follow the disclosure of my act, as surely as the withering crash follows the lightning's livid stroke, but all for her whose fair head was now bowed down under its weight of shame--of shame I had wrought--for her, whom I had left kneeling in such an agony of remorse and sorrow, as only the blessed Christ who pities and forgives can ever know.
Had I not loved her as I did, with all my strength, with all my heart, with all my soul, I might have felt the seducer's unmanly pride in his conquest, an exultant triumph in the masterful strength that had enabled me, the despised negro, the slave, to overcome and subdue the queenly mistress; but no, my triumph was to be her eternal shame, and heart-sick with yearning pity for her and contempt and loathing for myself I went down and out from the house--out from the yard, out from the sight and sound of human-kind, to hide myself in the stables among the dumb cattle, wishing that I were one of them, that instead of the susceptibilities of a man, like the ox I had been born with a brute's numbness of soul.
As nearly distracted as it is possible for a rational mind to be without passing forever into the darkness of madness I lay all that afternoon grovelling on my belly in a manger with my lips in the dust, and it was not until Hance, the coachman, came to stable his carriage horses, that I could arouse myself from my frenzy of remorse, and brushing the litter and dust from my clothes I went back to the house to face my master and mistress, without knowing or caring what was to be my doom.
If it had been possible to relieve her soul from even the thought of guilt, and by doing so I could have made her sweetly innocent in her own conscience, I should have walked boldly into the house and facing my master told him that I had broken into her chamber and despite the despairing struggles and cries and tears of the helpless victim, had foully ravished his daughter, and folding my hands to be tied, would have begged him for the love he had for his child to kill me, to shoot, hang, or burn me at the stake. Nay, more, had she in her agony of conscience confessed to her mother our mutual shame, I should have belied her truth and averred that I alone was the guilty ravisher and she the innocent victim.
That much I had firmly resolved upon and it was this, the first intelligent resolution which I could evoke from the despairing chaos of mind, that gave me courage to rise and firm in this purpose I went forth, half expecting to be met at the gate by Joe with the unleashed bloodhounds and chains and handcuffs, to hunt down, to catch and shackle the supposed fugitive. But there were no handcuffs nor chains. The master was there. He had come in high spirits over his unanimous nomination for State senator, and the mistress was there sharing his elation, good natured as ever, but ready to scold me for my truancy.
"Where in the world have you been all the afternoon, you lazy rascal, leaving your young mistress all alone by herself? Joe tells me that you and Sally have both been gone to the woods--nest-hunting, I'll be bound--and not a soul to wait upon Virginia, and if it wasn't that she begged so piteously for you, I would have Joe to whip you both. And now I want to tell you--I lay down this law
--if ever I go off again and leave you to take care of her and come back and find you gone from the house I shall have you bucked down and fifty lashes upon your bare back. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, ma'am," I humbly replied, glad, almost blessing her, for her reproaches.
"Now, run up to her room and see if your Miss Virginia wants you. I found her crying with the headache when I came."
I could not repress a sigh of relief, notwithstanding the desperate resolve I had made to have it out at once if needs be, and anxious to say or do something I knew not what, to soothe her I hurried up and softly knocked.
"Come in," she said, and my keen solicitude detected a hollowness in her voice.
Steadying my own nerves with a desperate energy, I went in.
She shrank back with a little start and threw up her hands as if to wave me away.
"Your mother bid me come?" I started to explain, when she burst out:
"My mother--ah, poor, foolish mamma. Why, why, oh, why, could she not see? Oh, Paul, my heart is broken. Oh, why did you?" and covering her face with her hands she burst into a paroxcism of weeping. What could I do or say--save fall at her feet and kiss them, and clutch her knee in my agony of remorse and sorrow for her wretched, heart-broken condition.
For a moment she sobbed, and then holding back her tears she went on:
"You should have saved me, Paul, from own self--for oh, I do--do love you so."
"And I, my sweet mistress," I cried, at last finding my tongue, "I will willingly do anything, I will gladly die to save you now. It is for this I wished to see you again--to ask you to let me go to your father and tell him how, how grievously I have wronged you, and let my death at the stake atone for it all."
"Oh, no, no, no! you do not know what they would do? They would kill you--they would murder you! You know not how terrible their vengeance would be. No, that must never be. It is madness to talk so! And besides, Paul, it was not you alone. It was my fault, too--mine more than yours. My own great love for you betrayed me and I cannot find it in my heart to blame you. Oh, if I--I myself could die and let my death undo it all, I--I would wish to die, but no harm must come to you. Oh, no, Paul; do not you ever, ever think of such a thing again."
"But darling, the thought of your sorrow almost drives me to some desperate expedient. What can I do to comfort you? Tell me something, please, or your distress will madden me," I cried, still retaining my attitude of suppliance at her feet.
"There is nothing, Paul," she said, bidding me to rise, "only you, you must not despise me. Oh, I can not bear the thought of that, Paul. I care not for all the world beside, but do not you think me bad," she cried piteously stretching out her hands to me.
"And were I ingrate--brute enough--for such a thought I should ask God to visit upon me His most horrible, ineffable curse. No, no, darling, to me you are as an angel of heaven, the sweetest and the best--and I pray God that I alone may bear the consequences of my act."
I am sure that my sincerity and earnestness, my own apparent wretchedness of spirit fully impressed her and in a measure sustained her in this her supreme hour of anguish. She shrank not away--as she first did--and I seized her hand and showered kisses upon kisses upon it--kisses from which all the fire of passion had been burned--in which all the sympathy, all the tenderness of my heart and its hopes for her own eternal salvation were poured fourth in a speechful devotion, little short of idolatry. When we both had recovered somewhat our mental composure, our thoughts returned to things about us and I, to further restore her equanimity, asked:
"But, Miss Virginia, what is it you will do? Can you go down to the table or shall I fetch your supper to you here?"
"No, not you. You must keep away from me, Paul, no matter what mamma may order. But now I will wash my face and go down. Please go away, Paul, and do, oh, please do not despise me."
"You are as sacred to me as an angel," I vehemently answered, as I turned to go.
"And, Paul, one more word," she cried calling me back, "you must not wrong me by thinking that it was for--for that I sent for you to come to me. That it was to tempt you I lay as I did before you--for indeed it was not. God knows I loved you and so longed for your nearness, and to have your arms about me, but it was not for that. Even when I asked you to take me I did not know the danger we both were in. You must not think so wrong of me, Paul."
I had not thought it--but had the thought been burned in my brain a mortal conviction, the truth in her
eyes now, as she so piteously appealed to me, even to me, her ravisher, for charity would have told me how wretchedly I had wronged her.
"No, my sweet mistress, I shall not think that of you. Could I so think, my own remorse would be less bitter. Ah, no darling, let us feel that it was our destiny--that Fate has thrown our lives together, and that I nor you could have resisted its decree no more than the roses can refuse to bloom when the spring sun warms them into fragrance. Please, Miss Virginia, take heart and let me bear all the blame."
"No, I cannot be so simple as that. I was to blame. But you must help me, Paul, to bear it. Your strength of character, now, must save me, as your great strength of arm, of loin and of thigh has undone me. I will go down now. Will my eyes betray me? Are they very red?"
Those blessed eyes, so sweet in their pathos, had been scalded with tears, but she had forced them dry, and now though the lids were swollen, they shone as sweetly bright as ever, as with a courage more than Spartan, she went down to hide by a smiling face the secret that lay so heavily upon her heart.
And then, after supper, to assure her mother's anxious solicitude about her headache, she went into the music room to sing for her father.
Like a bird she carolled two or three little airs and then by a grim mockery of chance he asked her to sing "Evaleen's Bower," one of his old-time favorites. I stood in the dark without and watched her as she sang, and my heart bled as it blessed her for the fortitude with which
she sang the sweet, sad story, so painfully suggestive of her own bitter shame. It was pathetic and touching--but the sorrow of soul that gave it its pathos was accredited to her skill, as with a kiss her father thanked her for the plaintive sweetness of her song.
For some time I studiously avoided her presence and was beginning to dread that my dereliction of duties would again fall under the notice of my mistress, when the arrival of visiting relatives brought a happy relief to both of us. These were her aunt, Marie Noltrieb, her mother's sister, and her pretty cousin and prospective sister-in-law, Isaura.
They came with a retinue of servants for a visit of several days, and in the companionship of the lively young lady, my gentle young mistress forgot something of her sad unrest and found immunity from the embarrassment of my presence, when my duties brought us together.
Miss Noltrieb was a bright, pretty girl, a few months the senior of my young mistress, full of hoiden spirits with a soupcon of something more charmingly piquant. It was really refreshing to hear her bright little sallies of wit, and the naive sparkle of her humor, and in the clatter of her tongue even my own oppression of soul found a respite, as I am sure that my gentle-hearted mistress felt its revivifying effect.
I loved to hear, unnoticed of course, her pretty tattle, with its little surprises of wit and bold flashes of fun, sometimes more piquant than modest, more dainty than proper, albeit the notice she first so graciously deigned to take of me was more flattering to my pride of looks than to my intelligence.
It was during the day after their arrival, I had been called out on the lawn to lay off and set the croquet wickets for the young people, that after watching my movements for awhile, she suddenly turned to my young mistress and said:
"Oh, Cousin, I must tell you what a charmingly handsome waiting-boy you have--what a magnificent stature he has--almost an Apollo--and how elegantly he moves? Look at his legs, how trim and well-rounded and straight! Negro that he is, I don't think I ever saw so handsome a leg before. It makes one almost want to squeeze it. Why, he would do for a model for Apollo. Did you ever notice him?"
"Yes, I think Paul a very strong, finely built man," blushingly answered my young mistress.
"And a surprisingly handsome one, too--good enough looking for a white man. And let me tell you, Coz, how frightened I was this morning when he came into my room to fetch the water."
"Frightened?" with a quick inquiry.
"Yes, positively shocked. It was really too funny. I was lazy, you know, and had just got up, and was sitting in my chemise--yes, with not another blessed thread on--almost as naked as a skinned rat, flat on the floor, buckling my garter, when someone knocked, and thinking it was Nannette, I told her to come, and the door opened and in he came. I saw his feet and legs first and they looked so really nice and trim and elegant that I thought it was a man, and you just ought to have seen me pulling down my chemise with one hand and hiding my bosoms (applying a term less elegant, I must confess) with the other. I never
felt so infinitesimally small before in all my life--an except my bosoms (applying a still more suggestive term) and they seemed bigger than hay-cocks. But I had to look up, and oh, you don't know how relieved I was to find it was a negro, and then he spoke so respectfully and never once looked, that I felt at my ease on the instant, and when he had arranged the washstand and I had put on my boots, I had him to lace them for me, which he did just the nicest you ever saw, kneeling as gallantly as a gentleman, and never once squeezing my ankle nor trying to look up, as I am sure a gentleman would have done. Oh, Cousin Jenny, I would give the world for just such a fellow to wait upon me. Now, would you let me have him, if I can persuade mamma to get papa to buy him for me?"
"Oh, I don't think that mamma would ever let him go, and I am equally sure that papa would not sell him," was the evasive answer, made with a little blush.
"Yes, but if you don't care, I am quite as sure I can beg him into it. How would you like to live with me, Buck? What's his name, Cousin?"
"'Paul'. His name is 'Paul'," was the curt answer.
"Ah, 'Paul', that is nice itself. Say, Paul, how would you like to have me for your mistress?" she continued, turning to me.
"I am sure you would make a good mistress," I answered.
"Yes, I suspect I would soon spoil you. Only there is mamma. Mamma is so prudish--so much like an old maid presbyterian. Do you know, Cousin Jenny, that she is getting so she won't let us girls have a negro boy about
the house? She says they would be sure to be seeing things--like there was anything in that!"
"And I think Aunt Marie is wise in doing so. We girls are apt to be too careless," soberly put in my young mistress.
"Tut. Who would care if they did? I am sure our mammas had better look after their boys instead of watching you and me so closely. They have just as much fun as they please with the yellow girls."
"Oh, Cousin Isaura," with a blushing protest.
"Yes, but they do though. They are all alike, Alphonse, Eugene and Pierre, and mamma don't seem to care a fig about it. Why, Eugene and Pierre actually had a fight about Eloise, the new quadroon girl papa bought for me last Christmas."
"That was shocking!"
"No, it wasn't, for she is really a very pretty girl--almost as white as I am--with a lissom figure and a beautiful bust. I almost envy her her embonpoint (she didn't call them that). But, la! Coz, you needn't be making such awful eyes at me. Cousin Victor is just as bad as my brothers. Oh, yes he is, for I caught him myself, him and your girl, Sally, last Christmas when I was here."
"Caught him?" with an indignant protest.
"Yes, caught him chucking Sally's chin and fooling around with her in a most indecent way, and I am sure he was fixing his fences just like all the rest of the boys. When the sly hussy looked round to watch and happened to see me peeping through the window, you should have seen her look of consternation. I could hardly keep from crying, 'boo!' at him, the naughty fellow. I intend to tell
him about it the very first night we are married. I shall hold him off a week for it. You see if I don't."
"The wickets are ready, Miss Virginia. Do they suit you?" I interrupted, having finished my work as the young lady finished her rather piquant narrative.
"Oh, yes, very well, and you may go, now," and to her relief, as well as my own, I respectfully retired.
I have given the colloquy in its pert and pointed expressions,--only lacking such vernacular diction as would seem wholly indecent, and the charming little shrugs and winks and nods with which the young lady emphasized their meaning--not to fill in a shadow in the picture of the old southern home life, but simply to illustrate more fully the unheeded danger to which the lives and the hearts, to say nothing of the morals, both of master and mistress, as well as of the negro man and the negro girl were exposed.
That evening I appeared in the music room, in response to a summons from my mistress, to sing the Marseillaise hymn for Aunt Marie--in truth she was my father's own cousin--and the subject of buying me was brought up again.
I rendered the hymn with more than ordinary empressement, for I felt that it would please my sweet, young mistress, and had to respond to an encore, when the aunt broke out with a sigh,
"Ah, Gustave, how that reminds me of poor, dear Jules."
Poor, dear Jules would, had he lived, have been her husband, as French-like they had been betrothed to each other while children, and notwithstanding the lapse of all
these years, through which she had rendered a dutiful response to the conjugal regards of Major Noltrieb, she yet carried in her memory a rosy and tender place for poor, dear Jules--so untimely slain.
"Yes, and of my father; we have all remarked it, and I told Pauline that it almost converts me to the Pythagorean theory of the transmigration of souls. I can almost believe that it is the soul of my father and of Jules that I hear singing in Paul," answered the master, soberly.
"And Aunty, dear, I want to beg you," cried Miss Isaura, dramatically, kneeling at my mistress's feet and gushingly kissing her hand, "I want you to give him to me and let papa buy him. Now, Aunt Pauline, won't you?"
"Oh! but Paul belongs to Virginia, and she, I am sure, could not do without him," smilingly answered the aunt.
"No, but I have asked her, and she says I may. Oh, Aunty, darling, please give him to me? Let me have him. He is so nice--so handy about the room and waits upon one so charmingly. He is so much better than a negro girl. He laced my boots for me this morning as Nannette never could have laced them. There was not a wrinkle in them all day and they are just as easy as slippers. Oh, Aunt! you must let me have him; Cousin Jenny, doesn't care."
"No, no; I need him myself. You may have one of my eye teeth if you like, but I cannot spare Paul. Why, he is my conjurer and I should die from my rheumatism if you were to take him."
"Conjurer?" with a pretty opening of her eyes.
"Yes, to conjure the rheumatism away. I verily believe I should have died long ago if it had not been for Paul rubbing me."
"Yes," playfully broke in the master, "yes, Marie, Pauline has made a wonderful discovery. She has found the veritable elixir of life itself, and it exudes from Paul's fingers. She keeps the poor negro's palms sore with rubbing her back and knees."
"Yes, sister was telling me about his wonderful power, and I shall have him to rub me to-night when I go to bed. I can very well understand the principle of the surcharged strength and vitality of the strong flowing out to and revivifying the weak. It is a scientific truth only recently discovered. It is called the 'od' or 'odic force.' M. Reichenback has successfully demonstrated its truth and analyzed its principle. Ah, it is a wonderful discovery. Do you hear, Buck," turning to me, as I stood in a respectful back-ground, "I shall want you to come to me after awhile and mesmerize me to sleep. My knees are as stiff as a rusty gate hinge and you must revivify them with your hands."
Madam Noltrieb had a smattering of scientific knowledge and she never missed an opportunity to display it.
"And, mamma, you will make papa buy him for me, if Aunt Pauline will sell him?" appealed the importunate young lady, turning to her mother.
"We will see, darling."
"Oh! I am so glad. Now, Aunty dear, you--you must let me have him. Mustn't she, Uncle?"
"No, no--not now, darling," smilingly answered the
I took the book, and settling myself at her feet, I read the spirited poem.--Page 130.
mistress, "wait until after Victor comes home and you two are married, and then maybe, if Virginia doesn't care, you may have him."
"Ah, no!--that is too long to wait--and besides I shall not need him then, no how."
"Not need him then? Why?"
"Because I will have Victor, then, and he will be enough."
"Yes, but you must not put too much upon Victor, or you two will soon tire of one another. It will be very nice for him to lace your boots for a month or so, but the pleasure will cease to please when it becomes a service. Anyhow, Pet, you must not ask me for Paul, now. I can not spare him," and to end the matter, she pleasantly kissed the pouting lips and pushed the young lady away.
I had no means of measuring the quantity of odic fluid my perspiring palms infused into the fat but somewhat flaccid calves and knees of the lady that night, as disrobed for slumber, she sat upon her couch with her feet in my lap, but as it soon set her bare toes to convulsively digging in my groins and caused a succession of soft self-satisfied cackles, which in a young lady would no doubt have been giggles, I presumed it was enough to satisfy her of the truth of her new theory.
At any rate, after some ten or fifteen minutes of vigorous rubbing on my part, she dropped back on her pillow; the little cackles gave place to progressive snores, and with a surfeited kick she dismissed me. As gently as I could I composed her limbs to a restful position, and softly withdrew, leaving her to pleasant dreams of her absent lord or, perhaps, of the "poor, dear Jules."
"This negro of yours, Pauline, is worth his weight in gold," she began the next morning as she greeted her sister. "He has the true mesmeric touch. I could feel the thrill as soon as he touched my knee. He put me to sleep almost in a moment and I slept like a babe all night."
"Yes, I told you so."
"And, Pauline, isn't it strange that the negroes more than all others seem gifted with this wonderful power? All the old astrologers and magicians of the olden times were negroes. You know the history of "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp." Well you recollect the magician there was an African. That dark and mysterious land seems to be the home of magic and of the subtle forces. I repeat it, sister Pauline, Paul is worth his weight in gold."
"Yes, indeed, and I wouldn't take a million for him. I don't care how much Gustave laughs at me for my fancy."
"And you will not sell him?"
"Sell him? No. I should as soon sell Gustave himself. I can't spare Paul--neither can Virginia--so there is no further use to discuss it."
This was Saturday. Their visit was protracted until the following Tuesday, when the young mistress went home with them to be gone indefinitely, leaving the house strangely dark and lonesomely dull.
I had no idea of all that her presence was to me until she had gone. How empty, indeed, was my life without her? In her absence, I realized that she was the very light of my existence. The world was a perpetual midnight
and heaven itself would be dark without her. How I longed to look upon her sweet face once more, and catch again the fragrance of her presence--to hear again the voice that was a heavenly music to my ears? How leaden seemed the feet of Time during that interminable absence? Each hour seemed to me a year--each day an eternity. And when, after days of anxious longing and waiting for her return, the carriage drove up, and I caught the smile of gladness which beamed from her beautiful countenance, as she stepped out, I could have fallen at her feet and clutched her knees for very joy. I am sure she read aright the emotions of my heart, for quickly releasing herself from the found embrace of her mother, she ran directly to her room.
"Paul, have you fresh water? Fetch me a pitcherful," she cried, almost excitedly, smiling significantly and, oh, so sweetly, as she passed me.
In a minute more I was in her presence. Ah, yes, there was the same glorious love-light in her eyes, the same sweet smile on her lips, the same fragrance of heaven in her breath, as I filled and handed her the glass.
"Thanks, that is so nice," sipping the cooling draught and then putting away the goblet, she turned to her maid.
"Sally, run down and see if I haven't left my fan in the carriage." And then as Sally disappeared she turned with the warm glow of a womanly love flushing her sweet face, and putting her arms up to my neck and laying her head against my heart, lovingly murmured:
"Oh, Paul, dear, dear Paul, I have come back to you. I have struggled so hard, so long against my love, but I could not stifle it. Oh, darling, I love you, I love you, and I cannot live without you."
I could only stoop and kiss her head, her glorious hair, as I softly enclosed her in my arms, and then as gently releasing her I said:
"And you may never know, my sweet, gentle mistress, what a gladness your coming has brought me. Oh, how my very soul blesses you that you have come!"
"Yes, I can know, for I read it in your eyes. Your soul spoke its gladness to me through your eyes, and oh, it made me feel so happy. But now, darling, one little kiss, quickly for Sally is coming."
I did not stoop to kiss her, but winding my arms about her waist I lifted her bodily up to my lips and then gently put her down. I went out just as the de trop Sally came back with the missing fan.
The music that evening was one sweet trill of love and gladness, thrilling with its nameless magic every fibre of my being, as I listened from my place on the portico.
The next morning I read for her as she rested in her swing. It was from a little volume of poems by Harry Flash, our own Mobile poet--alas, now dead and almost forgotten, but breathing while he lived the divine afflatus of the poet. It was a song of what the "Little Bird Told Me," with its gleeful refrain,
"She loves me, she loves me,"
that pleased me best of all, and even after dinner had been announced and she had gone up to her room to dress, I kept repeating it as I put the book away.
The afternoon was balmy and delightful and there was heaven in her eyes as she called to me after I had had my dinner.
"Have out Dido, Paul, and Selim; we will have a ride,
now--a long, long ride out into the woods and all among the flowers, the wild roses and honeysuckles, the jessamines and lilies," she said archly, and then ran up to her room to arrange her toilet.
I hurriedly brought out the horses and asking Jake to hold them for me, I ran up to my little cuddy to array myself in my best--my very best attire. It was my habit as well as duty to be always cleanly in my person and tidy in my dress. It was no idle threat the mistress had once made, that each fleck of dirt found on the linen of one of the house negroes, was to be whipped off with the cowhide. The order was no reluctantly obeyed command to me, but a luxury and I always was cleanly as well as tastefully dressed. But on this occasion Beau Brummell himself would have with difficulty picked a flaw in the immaculate purity of my attire, as drawing on my well-fitting coat. I went down from my cuddy and announced that the horses were ready.
I found her waiting, radiantly lovely, rosy and sweet. I may never be able to express the feelings that so deliciously thrilled me as I lifted her, the beautiful darling of my life, to her seat in the saddle, and quickly mounting, followed her lead. Followed? Where? Ah, little did I think or care. Had it been into the gaping jaws of death itself, I should have pressed on eagerly after.
I had during her absence given the horses a daily exercise around the fields, but the long rest had somewhat pampered them and feeling their spirits now, they needed no whip or spur to urge them on, as the young mistress led the way straight through the lane to the woods, her magnificent mare coquettishly turning her neck and tossing her head back as if to challenge my equally lusty stallion to catch and master her if he could. I thought of the rampant chase of Adonis's fiery charger and caught something of the voluptuous spirit.
It was a matter of three miles we galloped before we entered the wood, and she drew up to let me approach to a familiar nearness.
It was a delightful May afternoon. The fields were full of fragrance and the woods with bloom. The crab-apple, the hawthorn, the yellow jessamine, the woodbine, the wild rose, the honeysuckle and lily, and grandest of all the magnolia, all were out in their fragrant splendor, filling the air with their intoxicating perfume.
"Now, Paul," she said in her musically tender voice, giving me a look of such languishing sweetness as melted my already suffused heart into a fountain of liquid joy, "we will ride to the cave. It was there, Paul, that first came to me the sweet, wild and fluttering consciousness of love--a love that is stronger to me than life, sweeter than heaven, and sorrowing almost as death. I have tried to
stifle that love, to scorn it, to choke it with the contempt I feel for my own weakness and shame, but I cannot. I have prayed to my God to help me put it from my heart and to save me from its sin, but I cannot. I am but mortal, and can struggle no longer. It has been my bitterest shame. You must make it my greatest joy. I have come, Paul, to surrender myself to you--my life, my soul, my heart, my all. All that I have and all that I am is yours, dear Paul, all, all your own--to love, to fondle, to caress if you will, or to--to contemn and despise. In kisses I shall pledge you a love as true, as deep, as reverent and as pure as ever bride pledged to husband. I shall ask of you no pledge in return, for in the soul I have given you I know that you love me."
I could not answer with words, only through the light of my eyes, she saw in my own soul a love as strong, as tender, as deep, as o'erpowering as her own.
The little turn through the tangled woods was made in silence, and we soon drew up on a bank of the cave.
The season had made a delightful change in the place. The dank, slimy sides of the chasm were now tufted with little beds of wild daisies and snow-drops, and pinks and violets. The overhanging vines that earlier looked like creeping things of ill-omen, were now thick with green and purple, hanging in graceful festoons to curtain the chamber below. The water had all dried from the bottom and the smooth white sand lay soft and cool as some ocean beach.
In the center of the circular chamber, as if raised for a throne or couch for the Queen of the Naiads, was a little bank where the tufted grass, soft strong and willowy, by
knitting its roots together and sinking them deep in the sod had held the earth from washing, while the abrading current of the winter stream wearing down the sand around, had left it a tiny little oasis of daisies and green in that minature desert of white.
"Oh, how pretty! and what a fitting bower for love wild as ours," she cried, looking down into the charming grot. "Let us ride around and down there, Paul, and and--gather the--the daisies," she added with a rosy, rosy blush and soft drooping eyes.
A path around led down the hill to a level with the mouth of the little canyon. An inate sense of manfulness told me to lead the way--that she, my sweet mistress, had shown me the roses and it was now my place to pluck them. And still, too dumb with joy to even thank her for her grace, I rode forward, scaning, as I went, the vista around for any possible danger of surprise from profane intrusion. But the retreat was safe and sacred, and when I drew up at the entrance below I dismounted, and securely fastening my horse, turned and lifted her down in my arms, holding her only long enough to reassure her shrinking modesty with a kiss.
"Stand here a moment, sweet, until I prepare you a seat," I tenderly whispered, and then tethering her mare, I gathered great armfuls of the clustering honeysuckles and spread them upon the center bank, already soft with its grassy carpet, while she stood looking on in shy curiosity and blushing confusion. And then when I had finished that divan of roses, I went to her, my blushing love, and gently lifting her in my arms carried her to it and enthroned her upon that fragrant couch, as the beautiful
queen of my heart, the mistress of my life, and the bride of my soul.
* * * * * * * * *
Ah, one moment of that hour of perfect bliss would be cheaply earned by a lifetime of slavish toil. It paid me for all I had suffered and discounted all that was to come. Ah, those golden-winged, honey-tipped hours, how swiftly they flitted by! Ah,
"Who with clear account e'er marks
The ebbing of his glass,
When all its sands are diamond sparks
That dazzle as they pass?"
And ere we had hardly dreamed of a second's lapse, the four laughing hours of that sweet spring afternoon had roguishly stolen away, leaving the ripples of sunset on the bank above to tell us that they were gone.
With one more lingering kiss upon her sweet, sweet lips and glorious eyes, I tore myself away. And then feeling that her precious feet were too dainty to touch even that crystal sand, I gathered her in my arms and bore her to her mare, and mounting my own steed we dashed away.
The gallop back home was in silence, but not with fluttering fears and doubts and shy reserve, but with a bliss too sweet for speech, each feeling its delicious unction, but too well assured of each other's sympathy to question. Twilight had fallen when we reached the gate at home and the soft young moon lighted the vista in front of the mansion, but not so brightly that I needed fear the risk of holding her on my breast a moment, giving her another kiss as I lifted her from her saddle.
"Oh, your ride must have been very pleasant to have
kept you so long," smilingly said the mistress, meeting her at the door.
"The pleasantest in my life," she answered gaily.
"Indeed, I am glad to know it. How far did you go?"
"Oh, not so far--I only loitered. I rode to the Ball Cave, and it was so pretty and cool and tempting, that I had Paul to gather honeysuckles and wild roses and make me a divan, where I played Queen of the Naiads, dallying with its royal splendors until Paul perforce had to make me come away. I seemed almost in Fairy-land, and could have stayed there all night," she playfully chattered, I almost dreading that a slip of the tongue might betray her.
But the mistress was stolidly blind and only answered with an assuring smile, "Oh, that was pleasant, and I am glad you have found it. Only, now, sweet, run up and hurry for supper. It has been ready ever so long."
Her music after supper was an epithalamium of joy, with the grand wedding march as an overture.
I stood behind her as she played. There must be no more standing out in the dark like a thief for me.
"You must come in and stand by my side, Paul," she said as we met in the hall.
"But it will appear unseemly. I must not forget my place," I protested.
"And your place is by my side, Paul. When it becomes so that you are not by to hear, I shall nevermore sing," she answered.
"At least, I must ask the mistress?"
"The mistress? I--I am your mistress," she interrupted with a little of the old imperious scorn of opposition.
"Ah, yes, of my heart and of my soul, but not of my
service. Oh, darling," I whispered, "for your own sweet sake I must the more closely observe the proprieties and duties of my station. Please, let me ask her?"
"No," with almost obstinate resolution, "I will tell her that I wish you to sing and to arrange my music for me, but you shall not be driven out from my presence, in the dark like a negro. Ah, here comes mamma, now," adding, as my mistress approached, "Mamma, I want Paul to help me with my music. I find him so ready with my portfolio, and he knows so well how best to arrange the rack and my seat."
"Well, why don't you make him do it. The lazy rascal has nothing else to do but wait upon you. Make him do anything you like. Paul, I thought I told you before that you were to do anything she wanted, and not wait to be asked. Now, go in and attend her, and never let her have to come to me again to have me make you do anything," said the mistress.
I was too glad of the happy privilege to demur, but in accepting it I resolved to be more circumspect than ever in my outward deportment, and not to show by any presumption of favor that I was anything else to my young mistress than a stotish slave. My greatest fear was that she, the queenly, gentle woman, in the impulsive warmth of her affection, would throw aside all restraint and clinging to the man she loved, openly defy the world. I know, now, that it was fear for me, and not for any consideration of her own self that restrained her from so doing. She knew that it would be certain death to me, and in the horror of that dread she thought not of the shame that would be hers.
I was busied all the forenoon of the day following in overhauling my master's hunting accoutrements, oiling his fowling-pieces and his rifles, and arranging his fishing tackle, for his annual sporting excursion to the Muscadine plantation.
He would start early after dinner and would be gone a week or more, according to the success of the sport. I was to go with him, but a suspicious twitch in my mistress's knee-joint suggested a possible attack of neuralgia and the program was changed.
"I am sorry, dear," she said at the last moment, "but I can't spare Paul. I feel another spell coming on and I shall need him to rub me."
"Hang it all, Pauline, that's too bad. I wish some cute Yankee would invent a rubbing machine. I'd get you one if it cost a thousand dollars--a double-patent, back-acting, spontaneous od-electro rubbing machine," petulently grumbled the master.
"I wouldn't have it if you did. I'd rather have Paul than all the machines that ever could be thought of.
"Oh, well, then, you can have Paul. Mount him on wheels and put a handle to him and go to rubbing, if you like, and I can take Louis. Joe, tell Louis to come."
And so I was left behind, inwardly blessing the mistress for her incipient attack of rheumatism. But the blessing was not without its qaulifying drawback, as no blessing is, for, while it interfered with what would have been a dreary banishment from my love, it also interrupted the delightful program we had each for ourselves arranged for the afternoon's ride.
"I fear, darling, you will have to do without your ride
today," the mistress said, as already dressed the young lady came down with a little flutter of gladness to tell me to order the horses. "I must have Paul myself this evening. I feel them creeping on, now."
"But, mamma--" my charmer commenced with an unmistakable pique in her voice, when a warning appeal from my eyes restrained her.
"No buts about it. I must have him to rub my knees, You can swing and have a romp with Bruno on the lawn, which is quite as healthful as riding; but you must lend me Paul today. Or, if you must ride, let Joe attend you."
Again I nodded an appealing hint to acquiesce, and accepting the disappointment with a charming little pout, she said,
"Joe, indeed! Joe could no more ride Selim than he could fly to the top of the house. But never mind, I don't care so much about the ride. I can go back and finish my nap, and when you get done with Paul, he can swing me," and with a little flush of rebellion on her cheeks, she turned away, halting at the door to add by way of retaliation, "Only, mamma, I do think it is all stuff about this new-fangled idea of the odic force that Aunt Marie is so crazy about. It is only of her hobbies. You know she is full of them. It's the rubbing that does the good, and why can't you let Winnie rub you?"
"Winnie, fiddlesticks! I'd as soon have a frog crawling up and down my legs as to have Winnie piddling at them. No, its the young, soft, lusty strength of Paul's warm hand that makes the tickle. So here, Paul, get on your knees and go to work," answered the mistress, putting her feet upon the ottoman and lifting her petticoats.
"I do wish mamma would not do that," said the young lady after I had exorcised the demon of rheumatism from the mistress's knees, and had been dismissed to go out and swing her daughter.
"Do what, Miss Virginia?" I asked.
"Let you rub her so. It is hardly decent!"
"But, darling, if it relieves her pain, I am glad to do it. I do not mind it, and God knows, my sweet, it has not the slightest effect on me. The good mother of my darling is sacred to me."
"Yes, oh, yes--I know. It is not that, Paul. There are but few men like you, Paul, my own, dear Paul."
After supper and the music was ended, and the mistress was preparing to retire, her daughter called her.
"Mamma," she cried, "I wish to make some different arrangements about Sally's sleeping. She--she snores so loud and incessantly that I can't sleep. She must be moved."
"Yes, I hear her snoring sometimes clear down here, and only last night it waked your papa, and he gave me a dig thinking it was I. I told him then it was Sally, but he wouldn't believe me. But tell me, Virginia, let me ask you--isn't there something the matter with the hussy, anyhow?"
The young lady flushed rosy, as she cast a shy glance at me, and with a lowering of her voice, she answered:
"I am afraid so, mamma."
"Humph! I thought as much. I have been noticing her for sometime and was sure that it was so," and then turning a quizzical, half-frowning glance on me, she cried, "And
you, Mr. Paul, we have caught you, have we? Ah, ha, my buck, and it was for this, was it, that you wanted to go back to the fields? And aren't you ashamed of yourself for trying to get away as you did after putting the girl in such a fix?"
I was hesitating for a reply, when the young mistress, with a pretty little scorn, broke in:
"No, indeed, mamma, it was not Paul. He, I am sure, is above such a disgusting liaison as that."
"Why, child! you know nothing about such things. Paul is not a steer, if he is a negro, and Sally is a bouncing, fine looking wench--with just enough negro in her to make her lickerish. It was the most natural thing in the world that they should get too thick. Only, Paul, you should not have tried to sneak out of it, as you did. You should have owned up like a man, and we would have called you married and let you go on with some sort of respect for the household."
"But I tell you, mamma, it was not Paul," with an indignant flash of the eye.
"And pray, whose is it?--since you seem to know so much about the matter," a little sharply.
"It comes somewhat nearer home than Paul," cuttingly replied the daughter.
"Explain yourself, miss."
"I am sorry you compel me, but since you falsely accuse Paul, I will tell you."
"Tell me then."
"It is brother Victor."
"Victor! How do you know?"
"Sally, herself, confessed it to me; and Cousin Isaura
saw them. But, mamma, I do hope you will not be too hard upon the poor girl. You--you don't know what a terrible thing it is to be tempted."
"Hard! No, of course not. It would be very foolish to be angry, now, or to blame the girl. But Victor, ah, poor boy; maybe he, too, couldn't help it. He is such a spirited, high-strung young fellow, and he gets it from his father. He is a full-blooded Choteaux, and they are all a strong manly race, full of fire and animal vigor. He gets it from his father and from me, for I, too, am a Choteaux. Ah, I am not surprised at this--although perhaps, I ought to have kept them apart. But I don't know as it matters so much. Young men have to sow their wild oats, anyhow, and it may be as well for them to sow them at home where they can be gathered, as to scatter them around here and there, and the Lord knows where. I will be glad, though, when he gets through and settles down with Isaura. She is half Choteaux, too, and will give him enough to do to cultivate the home garden. In the meantime, darling, we must take care of Sally. You can still keep her when you marry, and you will not be the first mistress who has a niece or nephew in the kitchen."
"Yes, I know, and that will all be well. But now, mamma, I wish you to put Sally in another room to sleep."
"Yes, of course, and you must have another girl; I would let you have Win, only she is not--"
"Oh, no," quickly interrupting. "Oh, no, I do not need Winnie. I do not need any one else but Sally, at least, for a while yet. She can still wait upon me, but she can sleep in a room by herself--in the room this side
of mine, or in the one across the hall. I will not be afraid. She will be near enough for me to call, should I need her, and still far enough away not to disturb me."
"Oh, yes; to be sure. Have her moved, and as for being afraid. you have Paul near by and you can call him. There is no danger with Paul in the house. So, go now, I am sleepy. Make Paul move her bed, and see after everything. Paul, do you hear? Attend to it now. Good night, darling."
"Thank you, mamma; good night. Come on, Paul."
And, a willing slave, I followed the no longer blushing, shrinking maiden, but the queenly, imperious woman up to her chamber to do her bidding without question or even suggestion.
"Sally," she said, arousing the sleepy girl from her nod, "Sally, you must not think that I am angry with you, for I am not, but I am going to have your bed moved to another room. You snore so long and loud that I cannot sleep."
"Law, Miss Jinny, yo' knows I doan snoah."
"Yes, but you do. But you can't help it in your sleep, so I shall move you. Here, undress me while Paul moves your things. You shall have a whole room to yourself. Paul, put them in the second room up the hall," she explained, as I commenced at once the ready work of eviction.
By the time I had finished the work of removing, knocking down and setting up the trundle bedstead and lifting out her trunk, Sally had finished her task of disrobing her young mistress and was ready to be dismissed.
"Now, Sally, you may go. Only you must wake when I call you, and never do you come to interrupt me until I call you. Do you understand?"
"Yes'm, zif Paul 'll only wake me when yo' wants me. I kin neber wake myse'f."
"Yes, Paul will wake you. You can go. And now, Paul," turning to me as her maid withdrew, "I will tell you. When I gave myself to you yesterday, it was for
all time. In my heart I wedded myself to you as solemnly and completely as if I had had a priest to mumble the vows, I inwardly swore myself. My room, now, and my bed are yours, as everything else I have is yours. You can go, now, and then come back to me. And do not tarry, darling, for I am longing for a kiss."
I hurried away to make my customary survey of the premises, and then came back, only pausing a moment to listen to the stentorian breathing of Sally, before I turned and boldly went into my own, my very own room, where my sweet mistress, my bride, was waiting to receive me.
* * * * * * * * *
It is neither proper nor necessary that I should relate in detail the events which transpired during those blissful days which followed--those happy, happy days of golden sunshine and ambrosial shadows. They were perilous days also. I held my life not merely in my open hand, but hung it lightly on my sleeve, where the least of the thousand chances which daily surrounded me, would have laid bare our secret and sent me dumb to the stake. Nor was I blind to the perils which beset us. I knew that it was over a mine of powder that I was sleeping, with a burning brand in my hand, but then the couch was a bed of roses and I could smile at the danger. But though I smiled, I did not brazenly defy it. I was scrupulously watchful of myself and of her, who was risking her very soul for me--but it was not with a coward's fear. I felt that the most trifling favor which my beautiful mistress might deign to give me, was worth a lifetime of jealous guarding from the profane knowledge of others.
I have often since analyzed life, the matter of living
and of loving, and I am persuaded, not only by my own experience, but by a close observation of the experiences of others, that all of life worth living, all of its joys worth having, are those which we live in the presence of or sip from the lips of the one woman dearest of all in the world. It matters not whether that time be long or short--measured even by hours or by years--in its span are rounded up the essence of life and the whole glory of mortal being.
Ah, those days that followed! Those few short summer months of unfettered love were the crown and perfection of my life. Could we have both lived centuries together, gathering roses each day, we could not have tasted more fully the uttermost essence of human existence.
It mattered not to us then what the world might think, what judgment the social Pharasee might see fit to pass upon the relations sustained under such covert conditions--in our heart of hearts we both felt we were one in the sight of heaven--that, however, wanting our union was of priestly sanctification, of ritual observance, or of legal recognition, it was hallowed by that divinest of laws--nature's affinity--that each was necessary to the other's happiness, and that the concealment of that love was the result solely of the inexorable laws imposed by man himself. How often, oh! how often, during that union, did she, that gentlest and sweetest of women, hallow that love with tears--not of shame nor of remorse--but of fear for its sudden termination. No husband could have felt a profounder love or more reverent regard for his spouse nor have held more sacred the conjugal relations, than did I during the continuance of that blissful epoch--the crowning glory of my manhood.
I know there are many who will consider it an impiety, a sacrilege, to attempt to hallow that union with the sacred attributes of wedlock--and yet in my innermost soul I knew that a thousand benedictions of the priest could not have increased the devotion and reverence which I felt for her, nor ten thousand certificates of the court could have made more constant or more complete the womanly love that she gave me in return.
There was never a night that I did not go to sleep with a prayer on my lips to heaven to bless and to guard her. There was never a waking hour that I did not invoke the grace of heaven upon her life.
But it was not until then that I felt the utter impotence of my manhood--my slavish degradation, the curse of my skin--which, giant though I were, still made me the veriest pigmy, and which though I were a thousand times a man, imbued with god-like powers and possessing all the attributes of the very flower and essence of manhood, yet divested me of the smallest tittle of responsibility before the eyes of the law and assigned me a place in the social scale, the very mockery of which made manhood a curse and intelligence a crime.
Is it any wonder then that in a spirit of blind and intuitive seeking after justice I should have laid the very flower of womanhood under contribution--that I should have instinctively sought to draw myself up to the very proudest estate to which god-like man can aspire--to love and be loved--to imbibe the very ambrosia of existence from the lips of such a woman as Virginia Choteaux.
* * * * * * * * *
But every summer has its clouds and ours came soon
enough. One morning after the spring days had imperceptibly glided by and midsummer was upon us, I went into her room and found her standing by the window crying.
Distressed at the least shadow of trouble upon that fair brow, and anxious to soothe it away, I stepped quickly to her side and taking her cheeks between my hands I turned up the sweet lips and kissing them, asked:
"What is it, darling?"
"Oh, Paul," she answered, laying her face against my bosom and bursting into sobs, "oh, Paul, Paul! I fear it is something terrible."
My heart, which had misgiven me at first, gave a groan of agony as I divined her appalling meaning.
"No, no!" I involuntarily protested, "that cannot be."
"Alas, I fear it is; the secret of our love will have to be told. And, oh, my poor darling, they will murder you," she cried, raising up and throwing her sheltering arms around my neck as if to shield me from the danger.
I have thought often, in truth I am always thinking, of that yearning, pitying cry--that unconscious outreaching of saving arms, and of the sublime affection that moved her soul, as in that supreme moment of fear for the exposure of her own sorrow and dread and shame, she had no thought of her own self, her own wretched plight, but only of me. Ah, think of it! She, the sweet mistress of all that magnificent home, the petted darling of that loving household, young, beautiful, grand, standing there in the shadow of that, the bitterest peril that ever appalled the heart of woman, unmindful of her own dishonor and shame and ruin, finding in her great love only thoughts
for me, the man, the poor despised negro slave, who was the cause of her undoing. Ah, misery and shame can present their examples of moral heroism as well as the grandest virtues.
"Oh, darling, it is not of me you must think, but of yourself. You need not fear for me, I am nothing; it is yourself--your own peril--we must consider. Tell me, are you quite sure?"
"Yes, yes, I am almost sure. I have never been delayed before, and several days have passed now, and yet no symptoms--and, oh, Paul, I feel something is wrong, and, oh, darling, what shall I do?" she cried breaking down again.
"I--I must think. I am glad that you told me, but you must let me think; ah, fool, madman, wretch! why did I not divine your fears before?" I cried in an agony of remorse and self-approach.
"Ah! but we must think now," she said, recovering her self-possession and speaking with a calmness that steadied me, "and I have been thinking and if it should prove as I dread, there are two things, Paul, we can do, and you must help me to decide."
"But, darling," I interrupted, as much to reassure her in the hour of appalling fears, "you may be harrowing your soul with needless apprehensions. I can not believe it is what you imagine. Perhaps you are after all only suffering from the effects of your recent cold, which, in your otherwise splendid health, you dismissed as of little consequence. It may have been much more deep-seated than you imagined, and a strong sudorific during the night may completely restore you. And I am sure," I added,
taking heart myself at what was mainly intended to quiet her anxieties, "you are allowing your imagination to carry you away needlessly. But what are the alternatives you propose?"
I had a very fair knowledge of what would have been then and is now considered honorable practice in just such a case as then troubled my young mistress, but for a few moments, having allowed her own grave apprehensions to take possession of me, my rather empirical knowledge of medicine had deserted me, but now, having regained my composure I awaited her own suggestions with a remarkable calmness.
"It was what you suggest, yourself, Paul, dear," she answered calmly, "get me something to restore me to my former--health; but if I thought--if I knew--I were really enceinte, I would not think of having it done. I think it is so wicked--almost murder."
"But you cannot regard it in that light, my darling," I interrupted, feeling the shudder that shook her as I held her shelteringly in my arms. "No physiological conditions are present as yet which could possibly admit of a shadow of justice in such a charge. Medical-jurisprudence has settled the legal responsibility in such instances as this, and as there is no way of knowing this early whether your fears are well founded or merely the result of a temporary disorder, you must not, you shall not take such a view of the subject," I said, endeavoring so mould her judgment to my way of reasoning, which was the almost invariable result of our argumental encounters. "But what is your other suggestion?"
"The other is this, Paul, and for your sake I am sure
it is the best for us to do. It is to do nothing now, but await natural developments. Should my fears prove well founded, we can go on here so long as I can without discovery--without showing,--and then to ask mamma to let me go away,--to let me visit some of my old schoolmates in Virginia or Maryland, and to let you go with me, and then when we get away there, to keep on away to Canada or to the end of the earth, where our babe can be born and we may live together always without the constant dread of discovery always handing over our heads."
The scheme was a feasible one, and could have been carried into execution, and for a moment its happy prospects actually dazzled me. But it was only for a moment, when came the realization of the sacrifice she was offering to make for me, of all it would cost her to make it, of the beautiful home, the wealth and care and luxury, the loving mother and almost idolizing father, she would have to abandon and forsake forever, and then of the poverty and perhaps misery that would follow, and I could not permit even thoughts of the sacrifice.
"And you would do all this for me, darling?" I asked.
"Oh, yes, so gladly. And then we could marry by law, and I could stand before all the world and acknowledge you as my husband--my own good, noble, brave-hearted husband, and no one could ever take you away and sell you from me. Not, Paul, that I care so much for the world, or for the law, I could never hold you dearer than I do now were we twenty times married; no legal ceremony could make you any more my husband to my heart than you are now; but then we would have no one to fear--no dread of discovery--no dread of murder and death.
Oh, my dear Paul, I am sure that this is the one thing for us to do."
"Oh, Virginia," I cried, amazed at the greatness of her love, "this is so good in you, so sweet and loving and true, and it would be such a heaven for me, but oh, darling, it would be ruin to you, disgrace and ruin to your family, misery to your good mother and to your father who love you so. Oh, no, it can not, it must not be. Even were it possible for us to do this, to get away safely, I could not allow you to sacrifice so much for me. No, my precious one, I would be utterly unworthy of all this love of yours and you would learn to despise me for my meanness were I ingrate enough to allow it. It would be madness in me to indulge such a dream. You must at least permit me to prescribe you a sudorific, and should the result of that prove my theory to be incorrect, there is yet time to consider the advisability of your suggestion."
"But, won't there be trouble in getting it," she asked, "or danger of exciting the suspicions of mother?"
Briefly I explained to her the very simpleness of an ordinary sudorific treatment--so simple, that she almost blushed for her seeming ignorance.
"But, now, I have a suggestion to make, darling, which I am sure we had better avail ourselves of while there is yet time. As you know, my own knowledge of matters of this kind is what I have gathered in my readings of the medical works in your father's library. My mother, however, is skilled in a practical way. She has a wide knowledge of the uses of nature's remedies. She is a skilled accoucheuse, and among the negroes of the Cossetot
and neighboring plantations, she is accounted a voodoo queen. Of her I may be able to obtain some simple remedy which may restore you, should my own prescription fail. Were I a white man, I could easily consult a physician, but as it is--not without danger of arousing suspicions. Therefore, darling, I had better go to the mistress and ask for a holiday and go at once to the Cossetot. In the meantime, you must follow my instructions as to the other."
My earnestness subdued her--as in fact all through our lives my predominating will has swayed that gentle soul, and without further protest, only with a tearful doubt, she yielded, and together we went down to beg the mistress for my holiday.
"Mamma, Paul has begged me to ask you for a holiday for him. He wishes to go to Cossitot to see his mother."
"Yes, of course he may go. It's the first holiday Paul has ever asked for. Write him a pass, darling, and let him go. You may ride Selim, Paul."
"Thank you, mamma; and I will write the pass," she said, seating herself at her mother's little writing desk.
I have the scrip before me now, a little slip of paper, yellow with age, written in her own fair hand. As a memento of the old slavery days, I will give it.
Rosemere July 19th 1859
Paul has leave to pass and repass on good behavior to and from the Cossetot plantation until Monday morning.
It is the only scrap of writing that she ever gave me, and I have kept it miserly all these years. It is valueless to anyone else, but it is more precious to me than an unlimited check on the Bank of England could possibly be.
I followed her up to her room again, and after giving her explicit instructions, I murmured blessings upon her sweet life, and kissing her good-bye, hurried out armed with my "pass." Mounting Selim I was soon far on my way.
It would have been unnatural for my mother not to have been glad to see me--such a tall, strong fellow, and so handsomely dressed--but she was not demonstrative, and welcomed me with far less warmth than Mammy Dilsey would have welcomed the young mistress from a week's journey.
Adroitly shielding the identity of my mistress from all suspicion I explained the object of my mission.
"Yes, I've been listening for something of the sort. You've been fooling with some of the house niggers and want to hide it. Well, I don't blame you. I don't want you ever in your life to daddy a nigger baby. If you can't get a white girl, don't take any. And that was why, Paul, I didn't want you to go away at first. I was working for you and the Duboise girl to take up with each other, and you could have done it. I had worked on her until I had got her ripe for plucking, and all you would have had to do was to ask her. You could have lived in the swamp and your children would at least have been free. It would have been much better, too, for the girl--for Cosette--than to turn out as she did, a common trollop for old Gans and the steamboat men. But
never mind, maybe your time may come yet; but, my son, if it never does, if you never can get a chance with a white woman, I had rather for my race to die out than for you to keep it up through a nigger. So, now, tell me all about this girl."
Then followed a number of very direct interrogatories and their equally specific replies, in which little remained to be explained.
"Humph," said my mother, with an expressive shrug of her shoulders, "Hain't enough water in your kettle to make such a tempest over. It might only be a little cold--but of course it is best to be on the safe side, and if you act at once and your wench takes a good sweat when you get back and a little of this herb extract I will make for you to-night, she won't know but that she has forgot that four times seven make twenty-eight."
Little as I appreciated having the personality of my sweet mistress even unconsciously alluded to in such a vulgar manner, yet I felt greatly relieved by the assurances of my mother, who, as her conversation will show, had not outgrown any of her early-conceived aversion for her equally black yoke-mates.
I was up bright and early the next morning, and bidding my mother a hasty yet affectionate good-bye, I mounted Selim and rode back home.
I shall never forget the look of happiness which beamed from the countenance of my sweet young mistress as I rode under the "big gate," where she had been loitering for some time in her desire to apprehend me upon my return. In the look of melting tenderness she gave me I more clearly than words could tell of the needlessness of my hasty trip to the Cossetot plantation
"Ah, you are always right, Paul," she murmured, in those liquid tones which have always been the sweetest music to my ears.
I dismounted at once, and leading Selim as near to the side path as possible, soon had an oral description of the efficacy of my own prescription--given in a hesitating and blushing confusion, which lent an additional charm to her high spirits and almost exuberant manifestation of feeling--born of fears and black shadows so recently dispelled.
Warned by the seriousness of the ordeal through which we had passed, I determined to be more cautious in the future, and by a prudent observance of certain physiological rules we were enabled to avoid any further danger, and while what had happened, a mutual peril and a mutual anxiety, drew our hearts the more closely together, it at the same time served to temper the lustihood of our love and to make its more prudent indulgence only the more sweetly tender.
And so our dark summer cloud passed by, leaving the soft, pure blue of its skies more bright than ever.
The young master, Victor, had finished his studies, and, after a summer tour through the Northern States, had come home in October to marry his pretty cousin, Isaura Noltrieb, and leaving off sowing wild oats, to settle down into staid and decorous domestic husbandry. It was a brilliant reception the mistress gave her son and his lovely bride. All the beauty and fashion of the State were there, but among them all there was none to compare in radiant beauty, winsome grace and perfection of womanly loveliness with her, my own heart's idol. Like a lovely rose in a garden of chrysanthemums she stood among them, the observed and the admired of all who saw her, and eagerly sought after. Oh, how proudly my heart swelled, as standing back in my place among the slaves, I saw the homage men paid her, as with the grace of a queen she accepted their devoirs. How my fond heart gloated on her beauty and blessed her even for the smiles she gave them. What a pride of possession I felt in her love? She, the beautiful, the queenly woman was my own--all, all my own--and I could almost find it in my heart to pity those poor moths who fluttered about her, but who could not taste even the least of the sweets it was mine to surfeit upon. Ah, what a proud height it was upon which I stood that night only to be plunged the next day into an abysm of sorrow correspondingly deep.
It was after all the guests had gone and the household had been put to right, that I was in my mistress's room "conjuring," as the negroes called it, her joints, when in response to her summons, her daughter came in.
"Ah, Virginia, I have something good to tell you."
"Oh, what is it?"
"Can't you guess?"
"Didn't Eugene hint it?"
"Eugene?" with a perceptible, half-scared start.
"Yes; Eugene Lavasser. Now, you sly puss, you needn't deny it."
"Deny what, mamma?"
"That you know we have arranged for your marriage."
"My marriage!" repeated with a gasp, while my trembling fingers must have puzzled the mistress.
"Mind, Paul, how you pinch. What's the matter with the boy? There, that will do my knee--now my ankle, and don't be so awkward. Yes, your marriage. Colonel Lavasser has spoken to me and your papa, and it is all arranged and very handsomely, too. Eugene is his only heir, you know, and he is immensely rich. The Colonel is to settle the Mobile plantation on him with five hundred negroes, and your father is to settle the Cossetot plantation with all its negroes upon you. The two places join you know, and you two will be the richest couple in the State. But why do you stand staring so stupidly for? Is the news too good for you to believe?"
"Oh, no, mamma, not too good, but too bad--too wretched and miserable and sad. Oh, mamma, mamma! I cannot, cannot marry! It would be a sin!"
"A sin! What do you mean?"
The gallop back home was in silence, but not with fltutering fears.--Page 159
"I mean that--that--oh, that I do not love Eugene Lavasser and I--I never can marry him. Oh, mamma, please do not ask me!"
"Yes, darling; but you must. It is all fixed, now. Your father has already made the compact. In fact, Colonel Lavasser has by this time made the announcement to his friends and Eugene himself will come up during the week to confirm it with you. So, Virginia, you must reconcile yourself to our wishes. Eugene is a handsome fellow, and a fine, brave gentleman, and I am sure he will make you a good husband."
"But mamma, I cannot!" breaking down utterly, and bursting into sobs and tears.
"Tut, tut, tut--such stuff. Why child that is all nonsense. All women have to marry and, I am sure, it is getting time for you. Or, is it that you have a little love affair of your own, and don't like our choice?"
"Ah, do not ask me, mamma. It is enough that I cannot marry Eugene."
"Phew! what a chit. And that is just the way I felt when your grandmother first told me I must marry your father. I could have cried my eyes out, because I had a silly fancy of my own. But your grandmother had the good sense not to listen to me and by taking the matter in her own hands and making me marry Gustave, saved me from disgrace."
"Yes, and ruin, for I would have run away with Jean Morague, a worthless vagabond, who went completely to the dogs, and was killed in a drunken brawl in a bawdy house. Ah, yes, my child, you must know that parents
know better how to choose for their children than they know themselves."
"But I do not love him. I despise him."
"That's nothing. I didn't love your father, nor he me, for that matter, for he was in a hopeless and not very nice entanglement with a married woman, and thought that the sun, moon and stars rose, revolved around her, and set in her eyes. But the old people cared nothing for this, and they made us marry, anyhow, and a happy marriage it turned out to be; for I hadn't got well into it before I thought it the sweetest thing in the world, and I wouldn't give Gustave's little finger for a cow-pen full of poor, stupid Jeans. So, darling, you must put away all your silly notions and submit like a dutiful daughter. You must know that it is for your own good. You cannot always go on living as you are. Ouch! Paul, you awkward fellow. There!" giving my ear a stinging box as in a shock at the chance words she spoke, I gave her ankle an awkward twitch. "Mind, now, how you hurt me again. Now, you may go, and you, too, Virginia. Think kindly of this matter, darling, and sleep on it and dream sweet dreams of Eugene, so when he comes you will have a mouthful of kisses for him."
"But I hope he will never come. I shall not kiss him if he does; and besides, mamma, I know that he doesn't love me."
"Ah, well, that is of slight consideration. You will soon fetch him to his milk."
"Oh, mamma! don't--don't!" with a gesture of disgust and deprecation.
"Let him once taste what a sweet girl you are and he
will be yours, body and soul. That's the way I conquered Gustave, after I found he was worth having," continued the mistress, unmindful of the apparent distress of her daughter.
"But Eugene is not worth having. I shall never let him touch me, or try to win his love. I shall not ask him to love me for--for I--I will speak it if I die, I do love another," she cried in her desperate distress.
"Ah, well, I suspected as much, but that makes no difference--except it makes it the more imperative that you should be married. When girls get to hankering after lovers, it is time to put them to bed with a husband. We have chosen Eugene Lavasser for your husband and you should know me well enough to know that when I have made up my mind to a thing it has to be done. So go now. I am tired."
A moment later we were in our room, each looking at the other in a dazed and hopeless manner.
"Oh, Paul, dear Paul! What shall we do?" she cried in an agony of despair, throwing herself into my arms as though I could protect her from the impending evil.
I had, after the first sharp pain and shock had allowed me to think, pondered over the matter as seriously and as intelligently as the bitterness of my heart and soul would permit, and bitter as my conclusions were, I could not hide the fact from myself--that even to temporarily stand against the wishes of her parents would not only make the exposure of our shame likely, but further embitter her own life, when forced to succumb to the parental authority, which I had better reasons than she herself to know would brook no such interference. Therefore, I answered her as calmly as I could.
"Dearest, death itself might rob me of your love and sweetness with less bitterness for me--for then, at least, I would know that you had been all mine--mine all alone. But, darling, I cannot hide the truth from myself--I dare not hide it from you. There is no way of escaping the wishes of your parents--not without dragging you down with me to inevitable ruin, misery and shame, and exposing you, darling, to the vilest opprobrium which can be heaped upon the fair name of woman."
"Oh, Paul," interrupting me with a cry that pierced me to the heart, "is it so, is it so that you wish to give me up--that you are tired of me and want to--to push me onto another?"
"No, no darling! You must know better than that. If I did not love you as I do, dearer than my own life, than my own soul, my own happiness, I would take you in my arms and walk boldly out of this house, defying all the powers that be to take you from me. But, darling, I do love you too well, to thus destroy your life, your peace, your future happiness. No, no, sweet, sweet," kissing her soothingly, "I love you, I love you far too well for that, and that I do love you compels me to give you up. You must know, as your good mother so prophetically, if not meaningly said, we can not go on always living as we are without utterly destroying you, my darling. I would be a fiend incarnate to dream myself of such a possibility. Ah, Virginia, I have dreaded the coming of the stroke. We have seen the flash--we dare not defy the bolt. No, darling, you must accede to the wishes of your parents."
"But I shall not! I am yours. In the sight of God I
am your wife. All that a woman, and more than a wife can give, I have given to you, and no other man has a right to take it from you."
"Yes I know, and would to God I could enforce my claim--even at the point of a dagger. It is a joy for me to know that you love me, but we can not resist the inevitable, and besides, darling," I cried falling at her feet and crushing her garment in my hands, as the bitterness of the separation appalled me, "you need not cast me off entirely--you will let me be near you--to serve you as the humblest slave in your household--to receive a smile or a kindly look. God knows I shall not seek to look higher. You may not utterly overlook me. But whatever comes, I shall live in the sweet knowledge that I once possessed your love in its fullest measure--and that will make those after thoughts less bitter, and possibly he may not supplant me in your heart, and, while the law may give him the right to your person, the fragrance of your love will be mine and will cling to me through life."
"Oh, Paul, you do not love me or you would not talk thus of my unfaith to you," she protested.
"But it would not be unfaith. It would really be duty. We cannot live thus always. I have known it and I see it more and more each day when I know you are imperiling your sweet name for me, and I--I am hopelessly dragging you down to a certain destruction--to inevitable ruin and shame. I cannot hide the awful truth from myself and I love you too well to carry you further, and may God give me strength to protect you from all the baser instincts of that love."
"You mean by that, that you are tired of me, and wish
to put me off," she said with forced calmness. "Very well, be it so. You can go now--without another word, without another kiss, go back to your own room, and leave me the woman you first dishonored and now despise," and in a sudden burst of passion she pushed me away from her with her hands, and in the old imperious attitude of a mistress, awaited my departure from her presence.
I was glad for her own sake that she seemed thus to misunderstand me. It was so much easier to obey her anger than to resist her tears.
"Yes, it is best for you that I go now," and turning from the room I went back to my almost disused little cuddy, where falling on my hard bed, I buried my face in the pillow, and gave up to the lonely heart-despair I had struggled so hard to resist in her presence.
I had lain thus hardly an hour when I was aroused by the stealthy opening of my door and the soft, nameless telegraphy of a woman's rustling night apparel, and turning, I saw in the shadowy light of the moon that crept through my blinds, the white-robed figure of my own mistress groping its way to me.
"Oh, Paul," she whispered, in a voice still tremulous with sobs, "I have come to you. I cannot live without you. I am so sorry I drove you away and have come to beg your forgiveness and to ask you to let me remain with you."
"Oh, my darling, my darling," I whispered, springing up and clasping her to my heart, "this is more than I deserve. You overwhelm me with the transcendent grace of your love."
"Then you will let me stay," she sobbed, clinging to me
with appealing strength, "will let me share for one night your own cold room and make it warm for you. Oh, I am so glad," nestling up close to me, "for it will show you, dear Paul, how much I love you--and how soft love can make the hardest couch."
"No, my sweet mistress, I could not permit such a condescension, and besides it is too cold and too hard for you, my darling. Oh, no, Virginia, I can crawl up to you, to your higher estate, but I can not, I must not drag you down to mine."
"Then take me back to my own. It even is cold with out you."
Ah, what mortal could have resisted the alluring sweetness of that tender and gracious appeal?
I shuddered then, and I have shuddered often since for the dangers of that ambrosial night, when, as if courting exposure, she seemed to have lost all sight of prudence or propriety.
"But, darling," I protested, "we must be prudent, certain exposure will be sure to follow."
"Let it follow--let it be exposure and disgrace. I wish it would. I wish I could tell them of my love--if only they would not visit their vengeance upon you--tell them of the sweetness of its taste. Perhaps, then, when I am dishonored, they would not try to take me from you then, and with even this milk-eyed Lavasser, all reeking himself with pollution, to scorn me, I could still be yours. Oh, how I would bless him for his scorn--for Paul, I had rather be your--your--yes, I will speak it in its vilest sense--I had rather be your mistress than to be his wife."
* * * * * * * * *
But daylight brought its moments of rational meditatation, as well as its lethe to passion, and in the hours of sad but calm reflection which followed, my young mistress foresaw the utter fatuity of even the most stubborn resistance to the expressed wishes of her parents. She saw as clearly then as I had seen before that resistance would only augment her own misery and shame, and reluctantly, though she did, she confided to me fully her resignation to what under the circumstances we both regarded as inevitable.
"Oh, Paul, I fear that I was very wicked last night--sinful and mean, but I was so desperate. It seemed so horrible--the idea of marrying any other man but you--of marrying such a man as Eugene Lavasser, while loving such a man as you--you, Paul. But I have thought it all over all morning, and for your own sake, Paul, as well as mine, and because you ask it of me, and because you think it best, I will do it. I know now that you do love me truly--better than I love my own self--and that it is for this you think it best that I should marry that man, who comes between us. I can trust you, Paul, in all things, and I will trust you in this. I will marry Eugene Lavasser, but it will only be with my lips, my heart will not speak the vow, for I shall never cease to love you, never, never. I shall hold you first in my heart, and shall think it no sin to have you near me. If I sin at all it will be against you in marrying him, and not against Eugene Lavasser in still loving you. Now, Paul, can you forgive me for the sin against you, and will you promise to love me none the less if I marry him?"
"Oh darling, you make me very happy. There is
nothing that can ever efface your image from my heart, or lessen the measure of my love," I said, softly kissing her.
The next day young Lavasser came, and the espousals were ratified by the ring and the kiss, the brilliancy of the ring compensating, perhaps, for the coldness of the kiss.
And so they were married, in all the splendor of wealth and of fashion, and no fairer bride was ever seen, her blushing reserve and almost sad drawing back being accredited to a shy, maidenly modesty. And I! I looked on from afar off with a heart as heavy as lead and almost as dead.
I knew it was best for us both that we did not meet or try to speak, and so all the evening I kept as far away as my duties would permit me.
At the usual hour, early the next morning, I went into the nuptial room to build the fire. With the nerve of a stoic, I piled on the wood and applied the kindling match and then as I arose to leave, some blind impulse caused me to look. The heavy curtains were drawn back and there on that couch, which I had learned to regard as my own, she lay with her head drawn on his breast, her face hiding in his shirt frill, while he softly stroked the flossy tangles from her hair. I had to pause a moment when she shyly raised her face to look at me and I saw the tears brimming in her eyes, and then I had to clinch my teeth and steel my senses to keep from springing upon his throat and strangling him as he lay, like the tiger would destroy the ravisher of his mate, and positively blind for the moment, I groped my way to the door and staggered across the hall to lean against the opposite wall.
That moment, I think, was the bitterest of my life, the most hellish. Had I remained in that room one second longer, or cast one more glance in those sorrowing eyes, I should have torn her from his arms, and with a demon's strength thrown him head foremost through the window.
It was more than two months before I saw the bridal couple again. That same morning after early breakfast and before I could creep from the hiding place in the stable, whither I had tottered like a wounded stag to hide his hurt, they had been driven, a gay party to the landing on the river to catch the down boat for their bridal tour, down to the city and over to Havana, and it was not until after the Mardi Gras revel in New Orleans that they returned. I hardly know how I got through the time. It seemed an interminable age of darkness, and with a heavy, unquiet heart I groped through it, performing my light duties with a mechanical hand. My mistress noticed my dejection and with a smile she said,
"Ah, I see Paul, you miss your young mistress. We all miss her. Ah, I didn't know how much of the sunshine she would carry away, or I should not have so easily given her up."
But at last the long night of winter gloom passed away and they came back again and with her the sunshine, he proud, haughty, peevish and puerile, she smilingly sweet and grandly beautiful as ever.
It needed not an eye of jealous affection to see at once that there was but little love between them. There were no characteristics of taste, of sentiment or of feeling in common between them. He was cold, selfish, petulent
and thoroughly little, while she was warm, generous, passionate, gentle and noble. Theirs had been in its every sense a marriage of convenience, and it was likely to hold together only as such. It united in one magnificent domain the broad, fair acres of the two estates which lay side by side on the banks of the sluggish Cossetot, but it left two hearts as coldly apart as if the snows of the Arctics lay banked between them.
I do not know that she tried to win his love or even regard, but I am sure it would have been casting pearls before a swine for her to have offered even the poorest of her graces to him. He thought more of his full-blooded, thick-lipped Amazon negro concubine than he did of his wife, and more of his horse and his hounds than he did of his concubine. It may have been a grim irony of fate which brought these two together. Whatever it was I noticed at the first glance the incompatibility of feeling between them, and in spite of my own jealous despair my heart bled with pity for my sweet mistress.
It was in the forenoon when they arrived, and the house was in a flutter of rejoicing until dinner. Then the bright out-door air suggested a ride to the young gentleman and he asked:
"What kind of a mount can you give a fellow? I should like demnition well to take a gallop this afternoon."
"Oh, you can have my mare, Dido. She is a capital courser," readily offered his wife, her offer evidently prompted by a desire to be relieved of him.
"But I want you to ride with me."
"Oh! Then you will have to ride Prince, papa's horse. Papa will let you, I am sure."
"Certainly, dear; or let him try Selim. He will suit him best, that is, if you can sit him?"
"Sit him, how?"
"Ride him, I mean, he is a tartar."
"Sit him! Humph, I can ride a streak of lightning. Tell them to bring him out. I can ride any demnition horse that was ever foaled. And you, 'Gin, run and get ready! I am impatient to get out of this demnition sickly air. I never could see what folk wanted to shut themselves up in a house for when the air is so bright out of doors."
The master ordered me to get out the horses, and I went away to caparison my own steed for another to take my place by the side of her who had been more than life to me.
As queenly as ever, as much like a Juno, she came forth and not waiting for the offer of the help her husband had no thought of offering, she called to me,
"Here, Paul, you must lift me."
As steadily as I could command my nerves, but with a choking sensation I can never forget, I lifted her as of old, and then turned to surrender Selim to the new master.
But Selim did not like the looks or else the smell of the new master, and after giving a suspicious whiff, he extended his nostrils with a snort and gave a disapproving shake of the head.
"Whoa, sir! whoa, you fool! You don't know who you are fooling with. Hold him, Buck, until I mount and then let him go," ordered the new master, reaching for the pommel.
But Selim would not tolerate the familiar nearness and with a vicious drawing up of the near hind foot warned him to keep his distance.
"What, you threaten to kick? You demnition brute, you! There!" lashing him across the flank with his whip.
The lash enraged the animal beyond all control and rearing with a plunge at the assailant he lifted me bodily from the ground as I held him firmly by the bit. So sudden and unexpected was the plunge that it would have thrown me prone, had not my conger-like activity kept me on my feet, and then steadying myself against another plunge, I said:
"You had better not try to mount. You only enrage the animal, and he will kill you. You could not ride him, if you were to mount."
"And who are you, you demnition nigger you, to tell me what to do? Hold that horse, sir, and keep your demnition mouth shut. There, you brute you!" cried the enraged man, again lashing the horse savagely.
I was for an instant--like a flash it came over me--tempted to give free rein to Selim, and let him strike his tormentor down where he stood, but happily I resisted the awful impulse and held on the more firmly, when, with another rear and wild plunge, the enraged animal struck out madly with his fore feet, the sharp iron caulk of one shoe catching my sleeve and tearing it away like a gossamer web, cutting a sharp gash deep into the flesh. The blow slightly numbed my arm, but I still held on and giving his head a sudden twist I brought the furious animal to his knees.
"Come, Mr. Lavasser," interposed my master, "you must ride Prince. I am sorry I suggested Selim for the brute is untamed. No one but Paul can touch him and he had to conquer him by sheer strength. Take him away, Paul; mount him yourself and give him a gallop
Ride to the post-office for my mail. Joe, fetch out Prince for Mr. Lavasser," called the master.
Glad to get away, I did not wait for remonstrance or protest from the discomfited gentleman, but mounted and turned to go, when the young mistress, who had been sitting quietly on Dido a few paces away, a frightened looker-on, called me with a tender, little cry.
"Oh, Paul! your arm is bleeding. Let me see; I do hope it is not hurt?"
"No, miss, only a scratch. It doesn't matter," I answered, sweeping by.
Dido made an effort to follow, but after a little struggle consented to wait for the more sober-paced Prince. Giving rein to Selim I was soon out of sight, lovingly patting his flowing mane, and soothingly thanking him for his true-hearted loyalty to to me. I almost believe now that the noble fellow understood me.
That same afternoon the young Master Victor and his wife came to welcome the couple home from the wedding journey, and in the evening a fox-hunt was arranged for the morning.
"The foxes are thick as the leaves on the ground, and the hounds are as keen as briers," said the young master in the enthusiasm of anticipation.
There was nothing like a fox-hunt to stir the blood of a young southern planter, and Mr. Lavasser was as keen for the chase as his brother-in-law.
"Have us up at 4 o'clock, Joe. We must be at Gatlin's before day-break," was the last order that night.
And at 4 o'clock, chill, crisp winter morning as it was, they were up, all three gentlemen, with as many negroes
to attend them and with Sampson to manage the hounds, they were off.
"Here, you Buck," said Mr. Lavasser, as I held his stirrup for him to mount. "You are the fellow who makes the fires for your mistress?"
"Then, your Miss Virginia says for you to make her a rousing fire right away. I left her shivering in the cold. Go up at once and make a fire."
And with a brave wind of his horn he was off.
With a light, bounding heart and nerve athrill with gladness I ran to the wood shed and gathering a great load of hickory wood on my shoulder--I verily believe I could have carried a cord--I almost flew up to her room. I found her door as the indifferent young husband had left it--slightly ajar, with the chilly morning air sweeping in.
As steadily as I could I piled on the wood and kindled the blaze, and then arose and looked around with a yearning hesitation. Had I misinterpreted the meaning of that summons? For a moment I stood irresolute, and receiving no encouraging notice, my heart failed me altogether, and I slowly turned to the door. I had placed my hand on the knob, when she softly called, and with a glad uplifting of heart I looked. She had drawn back the curtains and rosy, blushing, sweet as ever she was resting her body on her elbow. After an interrogation or two concerning her recently-departed liege, she said, noticing my diffident attitude,
"Ah! Paul, you think I have ceased to love you?"
"It would have been better, perhaps, if you had," I answered, sadly.
"Yes, maybe it would, and I did try--honestly try--but I could not. Is the heart of a woman a sponge that it can be squeezed dry at will? And then today, Paul, when you stood so brave again, so strong and so grand, and he--Eugene--was so cruel, so unjust and withal so weak and childish, my heart felt that it was burning, and it was all that it could do to keep from crying out in vindication of its darling and scorn for its tyrant. Oh, darling, I do love you still, and dearer than ever."
* * * * * * * * *
Oh, was ever there so gracious a mistress before in all the world, or ever such a dolt of a husband to quit the downy softness of such a bosom and the fragrant warmth of such arms for a gallop in the frosty air through brambles and briers, over stones and fences? Ah, well, chacon a son gout, as the old French are always saying, he enjoyed the chase, while I blessed him for his room.
The hunt was so successful and entrancingly delightful that it was repeated the next morning and then the next, the careless husband leaving the room behind chilled with the draughts of morning air, and I obediently ready to warm it into a rousing glow again.
Until their house in the city could be finished, the young mistress would keep her home at Rosemere. In addition to their large planting interests, the Lavassers were at the head of one of the most extensive cotton commission and brokerage houses in the South. Being an active member of the firm--and to do the gentleman justice, a very efficient one--young Lavasser, now that the tasteless honeymoon was over, would be expected to resume his place in the office. As he kept his negro mistress in the city, and the young wife could so satisfactorily
abide at home with her mother, this imposed no serious hardship upon him, and accordingly it was arranged that he should spend the Sundays at home, coming up on the boat every Saturday evening and returning the next Monday morning, and the remainder of his time he could give to his office.
And thus the broken link in the chain that bound our lives together was reunited and we went on again loving and being loved, as fondly and sweetly as ever. There was nothing to disturb the perfection of our paradise but the hebdomadal visits of the unloved and unloving husband. And these were more distasteful to her, my sweet mistress, than they were provocative of jealousy in me. When she conceded so much to me I could not begrudge the little she so reluctantly doled out to him.
The old delightful rides were resumed, and as soon as the bloom of spring brought the wild roses and the honey-suckles and the daisies came again, we sought once more our pristine bower--the festooned grot. We had named it the Bridal Bower--and bedecking the grassy couch again with flowers, lulled by the drowsy hum of bees and the twitter of birds, I would soothe my darling to sleep, while with a swelling pride of masterful ownership I would sit by keeping watch and ward over her in her slumbers, bewailing only the too, too rapid flight of the golden moments.
But the softest and sweetest of springs must melt at last into sultry summer, and ours was no exception to the fiat. With the closing of the cotton season in May there was no longer need or excuse for the young husband's stay in the city, and turning the key of his bagnio upon his dusky concubine, he came home to prepare for the
fashionable summer season at seaside or mountain resort.
They stayed a week, and then, like summer birds taking their flight, they went away to spend the early season in the Virginia mountains.
In the fall, when they came back, it was to go to their own home--a pleasant mansion, builded especially for them in the city.
It was not until the next January that I saw her again, and then she came home to her mother to give birth to her child. Her husband came with her, but went back the next day to his office. It was in the midst of the cotton season and he thought more of his cotton bales than he did of his wife or prospective heir.
It was not until he was gone that she called me into her presence, sacred now--holy to me.
"Paul," she said, in that same sweet, musical voice of hers, "you will think me weak, I know, but I cannot help it. I have no one else in all the world to whom I can confide my troubles, my doubts and fears and I have to bring them to you."
"Ah! And I would to God I could take them all from you and make them my own," I answered in solemn earnestness.
"Yes, I believe you, Paul; only you cannot and I have to bear them myself--but your sympathy helps me. Now, I will tell you. As you know, I am soon to become a mother. It may be tomorrow, or may be not for a week. But, Paul, I--I really do not know whether--whether Eugene, my husband, or you is the father. Oh, isn't it horrible--such a thought--such suspense?" and the tears came to her eyes as she spoke. "And worse than all, Paul, I--I can hardly tell whose I most wish it to be."
"Oh, not mine--for your sake and for the sake of the innocent child, not mine!" I interrupted, awed by the awfulness of the thought.
"Ah, it is of it, my child, I am thinking. If it could inherit something of your truth, Paul, something of your strength and mind, and courage, of your goodness of heart and nobleness of character, I would be glad it was yours."
"Oh, but with these it would have to inherit the taint of my race--the dark stain of my blood."
"Yes, I have thought of that, too. But the taint is not enervating, nor debasing. Alexander Dumas had it."
"But, my dear mistress," I hastily interrupted, "think of the shame, the reproach. No--no! God forbid the shame of such an exposure," I cried.
"There need be no exposure. No one but you and I and our God need to ever know," she answered bravely.
"But suppose it should be black, that the blood of my mother should be strongest in its veins and darken its skin?"
"I had thought of that, and that is all that troubles me. It is for this I came to consult you. You, who are so much stronger and wiser than I, must think and tell me," she said with a sweet trust in my judgment and loyal faith.
"I can suggest but one plan," I said, after a moment's sober reflection.
"And what is that?" eagerly.
"To have no one else with you, but your mother and mine, and should it be so, let them decide."
"But it would kill my mother."
"No, not kill her. It would shock and distress her,
but she would still have strength to bear it, and thoughts to conceal it. The child could be taken away and cared for by my mother and no one should ever know."
"And I--oh, I could not give up my baby, for I love it, Paul, already, more dearly than my own life," she cried.
"No, you would not have to give it up--you could still watch over it, and could devise to see it."
"You think this could be done?"
"I am sure of it."
"And you. Oh, Paul, they would kill you. They may tear my tongue out before I would tell on you."
"No danger for me. To punish me might possibly expose the secret. Oh, my mistress, you must not fear for me, whatever be the issue!"
"Are you sure this is best, Paul?"
"I am sure."
"Then you must go at once for your mother. My time is almost up. I will go now and tell mamma. But, Paul, you will not tell your own mother?"
"Oh, no, no! Not even if the worst should come, she shall not know," I answered, as she slowly made her way into her mother's room.
A few moments after I was summoned to the mistress's presence.
"Paul, you must get the wagonette at once and drive to Cossetot and fetch Tsa. Your Miss Virginia is going to be confined, and she has taken it into her silly head that no one but Tsa shall be with her. Of course, Tsa is as safe as any doctor and we will have to humor her. Go, now, Paul, as quickly as you can, and get back tonight. You can get fresh mules at the plantation, and don't spare
them. We can't tell at what moment something may happen.
As might be supposed, I lost no time in hurrying away, nor in returning, and though it was nine o'clock in the morning when I started, it was not yet sundown when I drove back into the yard at Rosemere. And it was well that I hurried, for that night at 1:30 A. M. her baby was delivered.
Had I been drawing on the imaginative resources of the writers of romantic fiction--and therefore naturally straining for dramatic effects, instead of chronicling the somewhat romantic happenings of my life as a slave, I should have closed with the preceding chapter, leaving the reader to wonder which the baby was--blue blood or mongrel, magnolia-white or mahogany-brown, but such is not my purpose. I never could tolerate a mise en scene and to attempt one myself would be to court failure.
"Ah, darling, I have a great mind to switch you--you ungrateful child, you!" playfully exclaimed the proud grandmother, as she placed the lusty little stranger in the arms of its mother.
"Why, mamma?" with a pretty wonder in the languid eyes.
"For not giving me a full-blooded Choteaux. Your boy is all Lavasser--even to the blue eyes; while, you know, I wanted it to be all Choteaux," and there was really a little pique in the mistress's tone, playfully as she tried to hide it.
I wondered if she would have so desperately cared had she known how alarmingly near the little fellow had come of being at least six-eights Choteaux--even with her dislike for her son-in-law, for Eugene Lavasser was a disappointment and consequent abomination to her.
I was still nothing but a negro slave to the household,
and as such had been called in the first moment after the delicate crisis was passed to help with my strong arms and ready hands where service might be needed.
"Oh, it is all mine, mother--my new-born love, my joy, my precious, precious babe. Oh, my God, I do thank Thee," cooingly cried the young mother, hugging the child to her bosom and baptizing its head with a mother's tears and kisses of gratitude and love.
She was a magnificent woman, never having known a day of real sickness in all her life, and from her confinement she rallied almost in a day, and before the week was ended she was able not only to walk about her room, but to go down stairs.
It was one day the next week, when I went in to heap up the fire, that I found her sitting alone with her babe in her arms.
"Paul, dear, good Paul," she said, calling to me as I turned to go, "stay a little while--I wish to talk, and besides, you haven't seen my baby yet. Here, look at it, Paul, and kiss it."
For a second or two I hesitated--it seemed such a hard thing to ask--to have her, who had been so much to me, my wife in soul, as sacredly my own as any human vows could have made her, to have her place his child--the child of my rival--in my arms, and ask me to kiss it.
For a moment only I hesitated and then, as I saw the tears welling up in her eyes, I pressed the babe to my heart and for her sweet sake, I tenderly kissed it.
"Thank you, Paul, you are very good--oh, so good, and I know that God will bless you for your goodness. I know, Paul, what a bitter thing it was I asked you to do--to kiss his child--but I knew the strength of your
goodness. And, now, I have something to tell you. I should have told you before, but I know you will not doubt me now. When I was in my dilemma of doubt and perplexity about my unborn babe, and about you and Eugene, and about my duty to you all, I made a vow, a sacred vow to God, that to which one of you, you or Eugene, He had given my babe, to him, its father, I would thenceforth give a wife's undivided duty. I cannot live this bigamous life always. I cannot live it any longer. Had the babe been yours, Paul, I should have clung to you always. God, it seems, has willed it otherwise, and God knoweth best; and, now, I must ask you, Paul, to help me put you away--now and forever--and to help me to cling to my husband--to the father of my child. For my babe's sake I must be true to the father. Had you been the father, for its sake, still, I should have been equally true to you. Do you understand, Paul?"
"Oh yes, I understand," I answered huskily.
"And you will not think ill of me, Paul?"
"Think ill of you? Ah no. May God bless you for your resolution. You have decided rightly, and I should be unworthy of your--your esteem--your slightest regard, I should be worse than a viper, should I attempt to further cross your path, or ever seek to move you from your duty," I said, solemnly and with a perfect sincerity, born of an almost reverential awe for the look which seemed to glorify the sweet face of the young mother.
"You have made me so happy, Paul; and, now, all is over between us--all, but my gratitude to you, my undying gratitude for your great goodness," she said.
"I shall always be ready to serve you and yours with my life," I answered, again softly kissing the babe, as it
unconsciously smiled at me, and then I quietly went out from her presence, feeling that a wild, riotous, passionate rapture had gone out of my heart forever, and that a peace, nearly akin to gladness, had taken its place.
The next month she went home. The day before she went, she asked the master and mistress to come to her in the parlor, and then calling me, she said:
"Papa, and you, mamma, come into the gallery. I wish to show you something. Something I wonder that you, yourselves, have not seen long ago. Come on, Paul, I want you, too."
Half wondering what was to come, I followed.
"Now, Paul, stand there, in that light--so," placing me in position and assisting my pose. "Now, papa,--now, mamma.--look on this picture," pointing to my father's portrait, "and then at Paul, here."
"Well?" questioned my master, in a mystified puzzle.
"Don't you see the resemblance between the two--my uncle, Jules, and his son, Paul?"
"My God, it is so!" cried the master with a start, as the truth for the first time flashed upon his mind, "Pauline, do you see it?"
"Yes, I see it, and it is so. I wonder I hadn't noticed it before. And that accounts for the voice."
"Yes, and the magnificent strength. I should have known that no one but a Choteaux could have lifted that safe. Egad, Paul, I believe I am glad of it!"
"And it upsets your Pythagorian theory of the transmigration of the soul, ha--ha," laughed the mistress.
"And Marie's theory of the African magi and the odic principle," retorted the master. "I knew it was all tomfoolery."
"Yes, I should have known that no other but the hand of a Choteaux could have rubbed so softly--could have thrilled so greatly. But, Virginia, darling, how in the world did you find it out?"
"By the picture," she answered. "But, now, papa, we must do something for Paul. He is, as you say and as you see, a Choteaux; and we must give him a chance."
"Yes, yes--to be sure. But, Paul, did you know this?" turning to me.
"Yes, sir; I have known it all the while."
"And it never gave you the big-head?"
"It made me think myself above a common negro, but I never could forget that I was not a white man."
"Good! you are a man of more than common sense. Now, what is it we can do for you?"
"I have nothing to ask."
"Ah, then you must be a fool. What is it, Jenny, you want me to do for him?"
"Give him his freedom and set him up in life," she answered promptly and practically
"No, I can't do that. The law will not allow me to emancipate him. But I tell you what I can do, Paul. I can take you up North and free you there. Take you to Boston among the Freedmen shriekers and let them steal you. Egad, that's the trick! They will make a hero of you, and the women will all go crazy over you. You can sell your wool for a dollar a lock. You must play the martyr, Paul, the poor down-trodden brute. What a pity you have been such a good fellow and escaped the cowhide? A few scars on your back would come in so nicely--we must get a scarificator and provide a few, and you must improvise a story, the old, old story--horrible to
relate and too bad to tell--of nothing to eat but cotton seeds, of feeding nigger babies to blood-hounds, et cetera, et cetera. Ah, my boy, your fortune is made. Pauline, we will start right away. What say you, Paul? I am in earnest. We will go to Boston and I will settle you there with three thousand dollars. Will that do, Jenny?"
"Oh, yes; with such a start, I am sure, that Paul can make his way to fortune, and besides, we can send him more as he needs it," said the generous-hearted woman.
"Yes, of course. What say you, Pauline; would you like a little trip yourself and go with us?"
"Oh, no, not now. It's too cold up there. But take Paul and set him up in life. It is right that we should do something for him," readily acquiesced the mistress.
"Well, what say you, Paul? How does that suit you?" asked the master turning again to me.
"You are very good--and I do thank you for your kindness from the bottom of my heart, but I do not care to go. I have no wish for freedom. I could scarcely do more for myself anywhere than I have done and can do here, and I wish for nothing better than to live with you and my kind mistress as long as you two may live. Mistress, may I stay?" I asked, turning to her.
"Yes, Paul, if you will; for I do not see how in the world I could possibly do without you. Only, you are to have a new room, and are to wait upon no one else in the world but me," she answered.
And so it was decided, and with the exception of a new and better appointed room, a carte blanche to the library, and immunity from the assumptions of Joe, my life went on the same as before.
The next morning the young mistress, Virginia, went
away. I stood at the carriage with the others to bid her good-bye. Mine was the last leave-taking and she gave me her hand.
"Good-bye, Paul; dear, good Paul--may the good God bless you," she said, and there were sobs in her voice as well as tears in her eyes as she spoke.
And this was our parting.
Everything was lonely after she went, as my life has been lonely ever since. But it was not like the old passionate, rebellious, despairing loneliness that embittered as it filled my heart before, but rather that chastened sorrow one feels when mourning the saintly dead.
The next year the war came on with its disastrous consequences following in rapid succession.
To those who do not understand the subject in its correct as well as its generally accepted relations and bearings, it may be a matter of surprise to know that my sympathies, as were the sympathies of most of my race, were all with our people, and by our people I mean the people of the South. It is true that out of the struggle came the emancipation of the slaves, but I have ever regarded that as a sequence rather than a cause. Had it not come then, it must have come later through the pacific measures suggested by the best interests of the nation. It was not to free the negro that the war against the Southern States was prosecuted, and when at last driven to a desperate extremity the proclamation was issued, who will deny that the great martyr, whose memory we now justly reverence and respect, did not reckon on the strength which it would bring the cause of the Union as a war expedient rather than its justice to the slaves? It was a war measure, simply that and nothing more. Had there been
no secession there would have been no emancipation at that time.
The war came and brought sorrow and death, and disaster to the Choteaux, as it did to thousands of other Southern homes. The eldest son, Louis, was killed at Bull Run. The youngest, Victor, was left cold and stiff on the bloody field of Perryville, while the son-in-law, Eugene Lavasser, was brought home from Chickamauga, blind, maimed and hopelessly demented from a bullet hole through his temple.
And then it was that Virginia Choteaux showed the true nobility, the grandeur and sublimity of her character, by the loving, tender, patient and thankless care she bestowed upon that poor wreck of a husband. It was a beautiful thing to see the devotion she showed him, waiting upon him--singing, reading, laughing for him, giving all her life to his peevish and petulent whims.
And then later on, when all the horrors of war came down upon their home, destroying everything in its path as completely as a cyclone marks its track, it was pitiful to see her, that tenderly-reared woman, driven from the burning mansion, taking shelter in one of the negro cabins, performing for him, with her own, tender hands, the most menial of services--cooking, sewing, washing, in fact doing everything that a slave might be expected to do, and all the while going about with that same sweet smile glorifying her face and making sunshine for all.
Ah, how glad was I that I could help her in this the dark night of her trouble? How happy that I had not accepted my master's offer of freedom, but had remained to share the family misfortune?
The old master had died the second year of the war.
He too was in service, commanding a regiment, and died in a hospital away from home. The mistress never recovered from the blow and followed him a short month afterwards. It was a sorrow to the sweet heart of the daughter to give them up, but I am sure it was a blessing that they went as they did, before the coming of such bitter trials and troubles and deprivations.
But even misery, slowly as it drags its weary lengths along, must have its end at last, and after many desolate months the war was ended, the work of destruction done, and the almost hopeless task of reconstruction was commenced. Gathering up the scattered fragments of their property--for poor Lavasser was a physical and mental wreck, entirely incapacitated for business, I set to work to rehabilitate the devastated plantations, and after nearly two years of hard work and thoughtful management, I succeeded in lifting her and her dependent ones out of the slavish poverty in which she had so patiently trudged into comparative wealth and luxury again.
And then knowing I could safely depend upon her own business skill and excellent judgment I relegated my self-assumed trust back to her, and came away where I could see her no more.
She may have wondered--and I am sure she did--what became of me; for changing my name, I dropped as completely out of her life and of her ken as if I had been spirited away into another world by the mysterious hand of ironical fate.
True, my life since that day has not been without incident, but its vicissitudes, its upward struggles, and its successes cannot affect in any degree the story of my bondage.
Last week I read the announcement of her death. It came to me in the home paper--for I still call the old place home--and my heart received a blow when I read it. It was a tender tribute to a good woman, and read as follows:
"Died, at her home near the city, on the 24th instant, Mrs. Virginia Choteaux Lavasser, relict of the late Col. Eugene Lavasser, and daughter of the lamented Col. Gustave Choteaux. Mrs. Lavasser was a woman of rare Christian virtues, rich in all the graces of a true and lovely womanhood, a tender, devoted wife, a loving mother, a generous giver to the needy, and a sympathetic friend and neighbor. She filled all the duties of life with exemplary grace and sweetness. Her late husband Col. Eugene Lavasser, had been a hopeless, helpless invalid and sufferer ever since he was so terribly wounded at the battle of Chickamauga and had only preceded her to rest a few weeks. A son and daughter survive her, Paul Lavasser, Esq., our rising fellow-citizen, and Julia Lavasser B--, of Mobile, to whom are intrusted as a priceless legacy the perpetuation of her virtues and the sacredness of her memory."
My eyes grew dim as I read and the world seemed strangely dark, and the darkness is hanging heavily over me still.