The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 17/Number 101/Poor Chloe
A TRUE STORY OF MASSACHUSETTS IN THE OLDEN TIME.
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor."
IT was a long, long time ago, before the flame of gas was seen in the streets, or the sounds of the railroad were heard in the land; so long before, that, had any prophet then living foretold such magical doings, he would have been deemed a fit inhabitant of Bedlam. In those primitive times, the Widow Lawton was considered a rich woman, though her income would not go far toward clothing a city-fashionable in these days. She owned a convenient house on the sea-shore, some twelve or fifteen miles from Cape Ann; she cultivated ten acres of sandy soil, and had a well-tended fish-flake a quarter of a mile long. To own an extensive fish-flake was, in that neighborhood, a sure sign of being well to do in the world. The process of transmuting it into money was slow and circuitous; but those were not fast days. The fish were to be caught, and cleaned, and salted, and spread on the flake, and turned day after day till thoroughly dry. Then they were packed, and sent in vessels to Maryland or Virginia, to be exchanged for flour or tobacco; then the flour and tobacco were sold in foreign ports, and silks, muslins, and other articles of luxury procured with the money.
The Widow Lawton was a notable, stirring woman, and it was generally agreed that no one in that region kept a sharper look-out for the main chance. Nobody sent better fish to market; nobody had such good luck in hiving bees; nobody could spin more knots of yarn in a day, or weave such handsome table-cloths. Great was her store of goodies for the winter. The smoke-house was filled with hams, and the ceiling of the kitchen was festooned with dried apples and pumpkins. In summer, there was a fly-cage suspended from the centre. It was made of bristles, in a sort of basket-work, in which were arranged bits of red, yellow, and green woollen cloth tipped with honey. Flies, deceived by the fair appearance, sipped the honey, and remained glued to the woollen; their black bodies serving to set off the bright colors to advantage. In those days, such a cage was considered a very genteel ornament for a New England kitchen. Rich men sometimes have their coats of arms sketched on the floor in colored crayons, to be effaced in one night by the feet of dancers. The Widow Lawton ornamented her kitchen floor in a manner as ephemeral, though less expensive. Every afternoon it was strewn with white sand from the beach, and marked all over with the broom in a herring-bone pattern; a very suitable coat of arms for the owner of a fish-flake. In the parlor was an ingrained carpet, the admiration and envy of the neighborhood. A large glass was surmounted by a gilded eagle upholding a chain,—prophetic of the principal employment of the bird of freedom for three quarters of a century thereafter. In the Franklin fireplace, tall brass andirons, brightly burnished, gleamed through a feathery forest of asparagus, interspersed with scarlet berries. The high, mahogany case of drawers, grown black with time, and lustrous with much waxing, had innumerable great drawers and little drawers, all resplendent with brass ornaments, kept as bright as new gold.
The Widow was accustomed to say, "It takes a good deal of elbow-grease to keep everything trig and shiny"; and though she was by no means sparing of her own, the neat and thriving condition of the household and the premises was largely owing to the black Chloe, her slave and servant-of-all-work. When Chloe was a babe strapped on her mother's shoulders, they were stolen from Africa and packed in a ship. What became of her mother she knew not. How the Widow Lawton obtained the right to make her work from morning till night, without wages, she never inquired. It had always been so, ever since she could remember, and she had heard the minister say, again and again, that it was an ordination of Providence. She did not know what ordination was, or who Providence was; but she had a vague idea that both were up in the sky, and that she had nothing to do but submit to them. So year after year she patiently cooked meals, and weeded the garden, and cut and dried the apples, and scoured the brasses, and sanded the floor in herring-bone pattern, and tended the fish-flake till the profitable crop of the sea was ready for market. There was a melancholy expression in the eyes of poor, ignorant Chloe, which seemed to indicate that there might be in her soul a fountain that was deep, though it was sealed by the heavy stone of slavery. Carlyle said of a dog that howled at the moon, "He would have been a poet, if he could have found a publisher." And Chloe, though she never thought about the Infinite, was sometimes impressed with a feeling of its mysterious presence, as she walked back and forth tending the fish-flake; with the sad song of the sea forever resounding in her ears, and a glittering orb of light sailing through the great blue arch over her head, and at evening sinking into the waves amid a gorgeous drapery of clouds. When the moon looked on the sea, the sealed fountain within her soul was strangely stirred. The shadow of rocks on the beach, the white sails of fishing-boats glimmering in the distance, the everlasting sighing of the sea, made her think of ghosts; though the oppressive feeling never shaped itself into words, except in the statement, "I'se sort o' feared o' moonlight." So poor Chloe paced her small round upon the earth, as unconscious as the ant in her molehill that she was whirling round among the stars. The extent of her moral development was, that it was her duty to obey her mistress and believe all the minister said. She had often been told that was sufficient for her salvation, and she supposed it was so.
But the dream that takes possession of young hearts came to Chloe also; though in her case it proved merely the shadow of a dream, or a dream of a shadow. On board of one of the sloops that carried fish to Baltimore was a free colored man, named Jim Saunders. The first time she saw him, she thought his large brown eyes were marvellously handsome, and that he had a very pleasant way of speaking to her. She always watched for the ship in which he came, and was very particular to have on a clean apron when she was likely to meet him. She looked at her own eyes in a bit of broken looking-glass, and wondered whether they seemed as handsome to him as his eyes did to her. In her own opinion she had rather pretty eyes, and she was not mistaken; for the Scriptural description, "black, but comely," was applicable to her. Jim never told her so, but she had somehow received an impression that perhaps he thought so. Sometimes he helped her turn the fish on the Flake, and afterward walked with her along the beach, as she wended her way homeward. On such occasions there was a happy sound in the song of the sea, and her heart seemed to dance up in sparkles, like the waves kissed by the sunshine. It was the first free, strong emotion she had ever experienced, and it sent a glow through the cold dulness of her lonely life.
Jim went away on a long voyage. He said perhaps he should be gone two years. The evening before he sailed, he walked with Chloe on the beach; and when he bade her good by, he gave her a pretty little pink shell, with a look that she never forgot. She gazed long after him, and felt flustered when he turned and saw her watching him. As he passed round a rock that would conceal him from her sight, he waved his cap toward her, and she turned homeward, murmuring to herself, "He didn't say nothin'; but he looked just as ef he wanted to say suthin'." On that look the poor hungry heart fed itself. It was the one thing in the world that was her own, that nobody could take from her,—the memory of a look.
Time passed on, and Chloe went her rounds, from house-service to the field, and from field-service to the fish-flake. The Widow Lawton had strongly impressed upon her mind that the Scripture said, "Six days shalt thou work." On the Sabbath no out-door work was carried on, for the Widow was a careful observer of established forms; but there were so many chores to be done inside the house, that Chloe was on her feet most of the day, except when she was dozing in a dark corner of the meeting-house gallery, while the Reverend Mr. Gordonmammon explained the difference between justification and sanctification. Chloe didn't understand it, any more than she did the moaning of the sea; and the continuous sound without significance had the same tendency to lull her to sleep. But she regarded the minister with great awe. It never entered her mind that he belonged to the same species as herself. She supposed God had sent him into the world with special instructions to warn sinners; and that sinners were sent into the world to listen to him and obey him. Her visage lengthened visibly whenever she saw him approaching with his cocked hat and ivory-headed cane. He was something far-off and mysterious to her imagination, like the man in the moon; and it never occurred to her that he might enter as a disturbing element into the narrow sphere of her humble affairs. But so it was destined to be.
The minister was one of the nearest neighbors, and not unfrequently had occasion to negotiate with the Widow Lawton concerning the curing of hams in her smoke-house, or the exchange of pumpkins for dried fish. When their business was transacted, the Widow usually asked him to "stop and take a dish o' tea"; and he was inclined to accept the invitation, for he particularly liked the flavor of her doughnuts and pies. On one of these occasions, he said: "I have another matter of business to speak with you about, Mrs. Lawton,—a matter nearly connected with my temporal interest and convenience. My Tom has taken it into his head that he wants a wife, and he is getting more and more uneasy about it. Last night he strayed off three miles to see Black Dinah. Now if he gets set in that direction, it will make it very inconvenient for me; for it will take him a good deal of time to go back and forth, and I may happen to want him when he is out of the way. But if you would consent to have him marry your Chloe, I could easily summon him if I stood in need of him."
"I can't say it would be altogether convenient," replied Mrs. Lawton. "He'd be coming here often, bringing mud or dust into the house, and he'd be very likely to take Chloe's mind off from her work."
"There need be no trouble on that score," said Mr. Gordonmammon. "I should tell Tom he must never come here except on Saturday evenings, and that he must return early on Sunday morning. My good woman has taught him to be so careful about his feet, that he will bring no mud or dust into your house. His board will cost you nothing for he will come after supper and leave before breakfast; and perhaps you may now and then find it handy for him to do a chore for you."
Notwithstanding these arguments, the Widow still seemed rather disinclined to the arrangement. She feared that some moments of Chloe's time might thereby be lost to her.
The minister rose, and said, with much gravity: "When a pastor devotes his life to the spiritual welfare of his flock, it would seem reasonable that his parishioners should feel some desire to serve his temporal interests in return. But since you are unwilling to accommodate me in this small matter, I will bid you good evening, Mrs. Lawton."
The solemnity of his manner intimidated the Widow, and she hastened to say: "Of course I am always happy to oblige you, Mr. Gordonmammon; and since you have set your mind on Tom's having Chloe, I have no objection to your speaking to her about it."
The minister at once proceeded to the kitchen. Chloe, who was carefully instructed to use up every scrap of time for the benefit of her mistress, had seated herself to braid rags for a carpet, as soon as the tea things were disposed of. The entrance of the minister into her apartment surprised her, for it was very unusual. She rose, made a profound courtesy, and remained standing.
"Sit down, Chloe! sit down!" said he, with a condescending wave of his hand. "I have come to speak to you about an important matter. You have heard me read from the Scriptures that marriage is honorable. You are old enough to be married, Chloe, and it is right and proper you should be married. My Tom wants a wife, and there is nobody I should like so well for him as you. I will go home and send Tom to talk with you about it."
Chloe looked very much frightened, and exclaimed: "Please don't, Massa Gordonmammon, I don't want to be married."
"But it's right and proper you should be married," rejoined the minister; "and Tom wants a wife. It's your duty, Chloe, to do whatever your minister and your mistress tell you to do."
That look from Jim came up as a bright vision before poor Chloe, and she burst into tears.
"I will come again when your mind is in a state more suited to your condition," said the minister. "At present your disposition seems to be rebellious. I will leave you to think of what I have said."
But thinking made Chloe feel still more rebellious. Tom was fat and stupid, with thick lips, and small, dull-looking eyes. He compared very unfavorably with her bright and handsome Jim. She swayed back and forth, and groaned. She thought over all the particulars of that last walk on the beach, and murmured to herself, "He looked jest as ef he wanted to say suthin'."
She thought of Tom and groaned again; and underlying all her confusion of thoughts there was a miserable feeling that, if the minister and her mistress both said she must marry Tom, there was no help for it.
The next day, she slashed and slammed round in an extraordinary manner. She broke a mug and a bowl, and sanded the floor with a general conglomeration of scratches, instead of the neat herring-bone on which she usually prided herself. It was the only way she had to exercise her free-will in its desperate struggle with necessity.
Mrs. Lawton, who never thought of her in any other light than as a machine, did not know what to make of these singular proceedings. "What upon airth ails you?" exclaimed she. "I do believe the gal's gone crazy."
Chloe paused in her harum-scarum sweeping, and said, with a look and tone almost defiant, "I don't want to marry Tom."
"But the minister wants you to marry him," replied Mrs. Lawton, "and you ought to mind the minister."
Chloe did not dare to dispute that assertion, but she dashed her broom round in the sand, in a very rebellious manner.
"Mind what you're about, gal!" exclaimed Mrs. Lawton. "I am not going to put up with such tantrums."
Chloe was acquainted with the weight of her mistress's hand, and she moved the broom round in more systematic fashion; but there was a tempest raging in her soul.
In the course of a few days the minister visited the kitchen again, and found Chloe still averse to his proposition. If his spiritual ear had been delicate, he would have noticed anguish in her pleading tone, when she said: "Please, Massa Gordonmammon, don't say nothin' more 'bout it. I don't want to be married." But his spiritual ear was not delicate; and her voice sounded to him merely as that of a refractory wench, who was behaving in a manner very unseemly and ungrateful in a bondwoman who had been taken from the heathen round about, and brought under the guidance of Christians. He therefore assumed his sternest look when he said: "I supposed you knew it was your duty to obey whatever your minister and your mistress tell you. The Bible says, 'He is the minister of God unto you.' It also says, 'Servants, obey your masters in all things'; and your mistress stands to you in the place of your deceased master. How are you going to account to God for your disobedience to his commands?"
Chloe, half frightened and half rebellious, replied, "I don't think Missis would like it, if you made Missy Katy marry somebody when she said she didn't want to be married."
"Chloe, it is very presumptuous in you to talk in that way," rejoined the minister. "There is no similarity between your condition and that of your young mistress. You are descended from Ham, Chloe; and Ham was accursed of God on account of his sin, and his posterity were ordained to be servants; and the Bible says, 'Servants, obey your masters in all things'; and it says that the minister is a 'minister of God unto you.' You were born among heathen and brought to a land of Gospel privileges; and you ought to be grateful that you have protectors capable of teaching you what to do. Now your mistress wants you to marry Tom, and I want you to marry him; and we expect that you will do as we bid you, without any more words. I will come again, Chloe; though you ought to feel ashamed of yourself for giving your minister so much trouble about such a trifling matter."
Receiving no answer, he returned to the sitting-room to talk with Mrs. Lawton.
Chloe, like most people who are alone much of their time, had a confirmed habit of talking to herself; and her soliloquies were apt to be rather promiscuous and disjointed.
"Trifling matter!" said she. "S'pose it's trifling matter to you, Massa Minister. Ugh! S'pose they'll make me. Don't know nothin' 'bout Ham. Never hearn tell o' Ham afore, only ham in the smoke-house. If ham's cussed in the Bible, what fur do folks eat it? Hearn Missis read in the Bible that the Divil went into the swine. Don't see what fur I must marry Tom 'cause Ham was cussed for his sin." She was silent for a while, and, being unable to bring any order out of the chaos of her thoughts, she turned them toward a more pleasant subject. "He didn't say nothin'," murmured she; "but he looked jest as ef he wanted to say suthin'." The tender expression of those great brown eyes came before her again, and she laid her head down on the table and sobbed.
Her protectors, as they styled themselves, never dreamed that she had a heart. In their thoughts she was merely a bondwoman taken from the heathen, and consigned to their keeping for their uses.
Tom made another visit to Dinah, and was out of the way when his master wanted him. This caused the minister to hasten in making his third visit to Chloe. She met him with the same frightened look; and when he asked if she had made up her mind to obey her mistress, she timidly and sadly repeated, "Massa Minister, I don't want to be married."
"You don't want to do your duty; that's what it is, you disobedient wench," said the minister sternly. "I will wrestle with the Lord in prayer for you, that your rebellious heart may be taken away, and a submissive temper given you, more befitting your servile condition."
He spread forth his hands, covered with very long-fingered, dangling black-silk gloves, and lifted his voice in the following petition to the Throne of Grace: "O Lord, we pray thee that this rebellious descendant of Ham, whom thou hast been pleased to place under our protection, may learn that it is her duty to obey thy Holy Word; wherein it is written that I am unto her a minister of God, and that she is to obey her mistress in all things. May she be brought to a proper sense of her duty; and, by submission to her superiors, gain a humble place in thy heavenly kingdom, where the curse inherited from her sinful progenitor may be removed. This we ask in the name of thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, who died that sinners might be redeemed by believing on his name; even sinners who, like this disobedient handmaid, were born in a land of heathens."
He paused and looked at Chloe, who could do nothing but weep. There were many words in the prayer which conveyed to her no meaning; and why she was accursed on account of the sin of Ham remained a perplexing puzzle to her mind. But she felt as if she must, somehow or other, be doing something wicked, or the minister would not come and pray for her in such a solemn manner.
Mr. Gordonmammon, having reiterated his rebukes and expostulations without receiving any answer but tears, called Mrs. Lawton to his assistance. "I have preached to Chloe, and prayed for her," said he; "but she remains stubborn."
"I am surprised at you, Chloe!" exclaimed the Widow. "You have been told a great many times that it is your duty to obey the minister and to obey me; yet you have put him to the trouble of coming three times to talk with you. I sha'n't put up with any more such doings. You must make up your mind once for all to marry Tom. What have you to say about it, you silly wench?"
With a great break-down of sobs, poor Chloe blubbered out, "S'pose I must."
They left her alone; and O how dreadfully alone she felt, with the memory of that treasured look, and the thought that, whatever it was Jim wanted to say, he could never say it now!
The next day, soon after dinner, Mrs. Lawton entered the kitchen, and said: "Chloe, the minister has brought Tom. Make haste, and do up your dishes, and put on a clean apron, and come in to be married."
Chloe's first impulse was to run away; but she had nowhere to run. She was recognized as the property of her mistress, and wherever she went she would be sure to be sent back. She washed the dishes so slowly that Mrs. Lawton came again to say the minister was waiting. Chloe merely replied, "Yes, missis." But when the door closed after her, she muttered to herself: "Let him wait. I didn't ax him to come here plaguing me about the cuss o' Ham. Don't know nothin' 'bout Ham. Never hearn tell 'bout him afore."
Again her mistress came to summon her, and this time in a somewhat angry mood. "Have you got lead tied to your heels, you lazy wench?" said she. "How many times must I tell you the minister's waiting?" And she emphasized the question with a smart box on the ear.
Like a cowardly soldier driven up to the cannon's mouth by bayonets, Chloe put on a clean apron, and went to the sitting-room. When the minister told Tom to stand up, she did not even look at him; and he, on his part, seemed very much frightened. After a brief form of words had been repeated, they were told that they were husband and wife. Then the bridegroom was ordered to go to ploughing, and the bride was sent to the fish-flake.
Two witnesses were present at this dismal wedding beside Mrs. Lawton. One was the Widow's daughter, a girl of seventeen, whom Chloe called "Missy Katy." The other was Sukey Larkin, who lived twenty miles off, but occasionally came to visit an aunt in the neighborhood. Both the young girls were dressed in their best; for they were going to a quilting-party, where they expected to meet many beaux. But Catherine Lawton's best was very superior to Sukey Larkin's. Her gown was of a more wonderful pattern than had been seen in that region. It had been brought from London, in exchange for tobacco. Sukey had heard of it, and had stopped at the Widow Lawton's to make sure of seeing it, in case Catharine did not wear it to the quilting-party. Though she had heard much talk about it, it surpassed her expectations, and made her very discontented with her own gown of India-cotton, dotted all over with red spots, like barley-corns. The fabric of Catharine's dress was fine, thick linen, covered with pictures, like a fancifully illustrated volume of Natural History. Butterflies of all sizes and colors were fluttering over great baskets of flowers, birds were swinging on blossoming vines, bees were hovering round their hives, and doves were billing and cooing on the roof of their cots. One of the beaux in the neighborhood expressed his admiration of it by saying "It beats all natur'." It was made in bodice-fashion, with a frill of fine linen nicely crimped; and the short, tight sleeves were edged just above the elbow with a similar frill.
Sukey had before envied Catharine the possession of a gold necklace; but that grew dim before the glory of this London gown. She repeated several times that it was the handsomest thing she ever saw, and that it was remarkably becoming. But at the quilting-party the bitterness of her spirit betrayed itself in such remarks as these: "Folks wonder where the Widow Lawton gets money to set herself up so much above other folks. But she knows how to drive a bargain. She can skin a flint, and tan the hide. She makes a fool of Catharine, dressing her up like a London doll. I wonder who she expects is going to marry her, if she brings her up with such extravagant notions."
"Mr. Gordonmammon thinks a deal of the Widow Lawton," said the hostess of the quilting-party.
"Yes, I know he does," replied Sukey. "If he was a widower, I guess they'd be the town's talk. Some folks think he goes there full often enough. He brought his Tom there to-day to marry Chloe. I wonder the Widow could spare her time to be married,—though, to be sure, it didn't take long, for the minister made a mighty short prayer."
Poor Chloe! Thus they dismissed a subject which gave her a life-long heart-ache. There was no honey in her bridal moon. She told Tom several times she wished he would stay at home; but he was so perseveringly good-natured, there was no possibility of quarrelling with him. By degrees, she began to find his visits on Saturday evening rather more entertaining than talking to herself.
"I wouldn't mind bein' so druv wi' work," said Tom, "ef I could live like white folks do when they gits married. I duz more work than them as has a cabin o' their own, an' keeps a cow and a pig. But black folks don't seem to git no good o' their work."
"Massa Minister says it's 'cause God cussed Ham," replied Chloe. "I thought 'twas wicked to cuss, but Massa Minister says Ham was cussed in the Bible. Ef I could have some o' the fish I clean and dry, I could sen' to Lunnun for a gownd; but Missy Katy she gits all the gownds, 'cause Ham was cussed in the Bible. I don't know nothin' 'bout it; seems drefful queer."
"Massa tole me I mus' work for nothin', 'cause Ham was cussed," rejoined Tom. "But it seems like Ham cussed some black folks worse nor others. There's Jim Saunders, he's a nigger, too; but he gits his feed and six dollars a month."
The words were like a stab to Chloe. She dropped half a needleful of stitches in her knitting, and told Tom she wished he'd hold his tongue, for he kept up such a jabbering that he made all her stitches run down. Tom, thus silenced, soon fell asleep. She glanced at him as he sat snoring by her side, and contrasted him with the genteel figure and handsome features that had been so indelibly photographed on her memory by the sunbeams of love. Tears dropped fast on her knitting-work; but when Tom woke up, she spoke kindly, and tried to atone for her ill-temper. Time, which gradually reconciles us to all things, produced the same effect on her as on others. When the minister asked her, six months afterward, how she and Tom were getting along, she replied, "I's got used to him."
Yet life seemed more dreary to her than it did before she had that brief experience of a free feeling. She never thought of that look without longing to know what it was Jim wanted to say. But, as months passed on, the tantalizing vision came less frequently, and at the end of a year Chloe experienced the second happy emotion of her life. When she looked upon her babe, a great fountain of love leaped up in her heart. She was never too tired to wait upon little Tommy; and if his cries disturbed her deep sleep, she folded the helpless little creature to her bosom, with the feeling that he was better than rest. She was accustomed to carry him to the fish-flake in a big basket, and lay him on a bed of dry leaves, with her apron for an awning. As she paced backwards and forwards at her daily toil, it was a perpetual entertainment to see him lying there sucking his thumbs. But that was nothing compared with the joy of nursing him. When his hunger was partially satisfied, he would stop to smile in his mother's face; and Chloe had never seen anything so beautiful as that baby smile. As he lay on her lap, laughing and cooing, there was something in the expression of his eyes that reminded her of the look she could never forget. He had taken the picture from her soul, and brought it with him to the outer world; but as he lay there, playing with his toes, he knew no more about his mother's heart than did the Rev. Mr. Gordonmammon.
One balmy day in June, she was sitting on a rock by the sea-shore, nursing her babe, pinching his little plump cheeks, and chirruping to make him smile, when she heard the sound of footsteps. She looked up, and saw Jim approaching. Her heart jumped into her throat. She felt very hot, and then very cold. When Jim came near enough to look upon the babe, he stopped an instant, said, in a constrained way, "How d' ye, Chloe," then turned and walked quickly away. She gazed after him so wistfully that for a few moments the cooing of her babe was disregarded. "'Pears like he was affronted," she murmured, at last; and the big tears dropped slowly. Little Tommy had a fit that night; for, by the strange interfusion of spirit into all forms of matter, the quick revulsion of the blood in his mother's heart passed into his nourishment, and convulsed his body, as her soul had been convulsed.
But the disturbance passed away, and Chloe's life rolled on in its accustomed grooves. Tommy grew strong enough to run by her side when she went to the beach. Hour after hour he busied himself with pebbles and shells, every now and then bringing her his treasures, and calling out, "Pooty!" When he held out a shell, and looked at her with his great brown eyes, it stirred up memories; but the pain was gone from them. Her heart was no longer famished; it was filled with little Tommy.
This engrossing love was not agreeable to the Widow Lawton. If less was accomplished in a day than usual, she would often exclaim, "That brat takes up too much of your time." And not unfrequently Chloe was compelled to go to the beach and leave Tommy fastened up in the kitchen; though this was never done without some outcries on his part, and some suppressed mutterings on hers.
On one of these occasions, Sukey Larkin came to make a call. When Mrs. Lawton saw her at the gate, she said to her daughter, "How long do you suppose she'll be in the house before she asks to see your silk gown?"
Catharine smiled and kept on spinning flax till her visitor entered.
"Good morning, Sukey," said Mrs. Lawton. "I didn't know you was about in these parts."
"I come yesterday to do some business for mother," replied Sukey, "and I'm going back in an hour. But I thought I would just run in to see you, Catharine. Aunt says you're going to Jane Horton's wedding. Are you going to wear your new silk?"
"So you've heard about the new silk?" said Mrs. Lawton.
"To be sure I have," rejoined Sukey. "Everybody's talking about it. Do show it to me, Catharine; that's a dear."
The dress was brought forth from its envelope of white linen. It was a very lustrous silk, changeable between rose-color and apple-green, and the delicate hues glanced beautifully in the sunlight.
Sukey was in raptures, and exclaimed, "I don't wonder Mr. Gordonmammon said Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like Catharine, when she went to the great party at Cape Ann. I do declare, you've got lace at the elbows and round the neck!" She heaved a deep sigh when the dress was refolded; and after a moment's silence said, "I wish mother had a fish-flake, and knew how to manage as well as you do, Mrs. Lawton; then she could trade round with the sloops and get me a silk gown."
"O, I dare say you will have one some time or other," rejoined Catharine.
"No, I shall never have one, if I live to be a hundred years old," replied Sukey. "I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth, like some folks."
"I wonder what Tommy's doing in the kitchen," said Mrs. Lawton. "He's generally about some mischief when he's so still. I declare I'd as lief have a colt in the house as that little nigger." She looked into the kitchen and added, "He's sound asleep on the floor."
"If he's so much trouble to you," said Sukey, "I wish you'd give him to me. I always thought I should like to have a nigger."
"You may have him if you want him," replied Mrs. Lawton. "He's nothing but a pester, and he takes up a quarter part of Chloe's time. But you'd better take him before she gets home, for she'll make a fuss; and if he wakes up he'll cry."
Sukey had a plan in her mind, suggested by the sight of the silk gown, and she was eager to get possession of little Tommy. She said her horse was tackled to the wagon, all ready to start for home, and there was some straw in the bottom of it. The vehicle was soon at the widow's door, and by careful management the child was placed on the straw without waking; though Catharine said she heard him cry before the wagon was out of sight.
Chloe hurried through her work on the beach, and came home at a quick pace; for she was longing to see her darling, and she had some misgivings as to how he was treated in her absence. She opened the kitchen-door with the expectation that Tommy would spring toward her, as usual, exclaiming, "Mammy! mammy!" The disappointment gave her a chill, and she ran out to call him. When no little voice responded to the call, she went to the sitting-room and said, "Missis, have you seen Tommy?"
"He a'n't been here," replied Mrs. Lawton, evasively. "Can't you find him?"
The Widow was a regular communicant of the Reverend Mr. Gordonmammon's church; but she was so blinded by slavery that it never occurred to her there was any sin in thus trifling with a mother's feelings. When Chloe had hurried out of the room, she said to her daughter, in a tone of indifference, "One good thing will come of giving Tommy to Sukey Larkin,—she won't come spying about here for one spell; she'll be afraid to face Chloe."
In fact, she herself soon found it rather unpleasant to face Chloe; for the bereaved mother grew so wild with anxiety, that the hardest heart could not remain untouched. "O missis! why didn't you let me take Tommy with me" exclaimed she. "He played with hisself, and wasn't no care to me. I s'pose he was lonesome, and runned down to the beach to look for mammy; an' he's got drownded." With that thought she rushed to the door to go and hunt for him on the sea-shore.
Her mistress held her back with a strong arm, and, finding it impossible to pacify her, she at last said, "Sukey Larkin wanted Tommy, and I told her she might have him; she'll take good care of him."
The unhappy bondwoman gazed at her with an expression of intense misery, which she was never afterward able to forget. "O missis! how could you do it?" she exclaimed; and, sinking upon a chair, she covered her face with her apron.
"Sukey will be good to him," said Mrs. Lawton, in tones more gentle than usual.
"He'll cry for his mammy," sobbed Chloe. "O missis! 't was cruel to take away my little Tommy."
The Widow crept noiselessly out of the room, and left her to wrestle with her grief as she could. She found the minister in the sitting-room, and told him she had given away little Tommy, but that she wouldn't have done it if she had thought Chloe would be so wild about it; for she doubted whether she should get any work out of her for a week to come.
"She'll get over it soon," said the minister. "My cow lowed dismally, and wouldn't eat, when I sold her calf; but she soon got used to doing without it."
It did not occur to him as included within his pastoral duties to pray with the stricken slave; and poor Chloe, oppressed with an unutterable sense of loneliness, retired to her straw pallet, and late in the night sobbed herself to sleep. She woke with a weight on her heart, as if there was somebody dead in the house; and quickly there rushed upon her the remembrance that her darling was gone. A ragged gown of his was hanging on a nail. How she kissed it, and cried over it! Then she took Jim's pink shell from her box, folded them carefully together, and laid them away. No mortal but herself knew what memories were wrapped up with them. She went through the usual routine of housework like a laborer who drags after him a ball and chain. At the appointed time, she wandered forth to the beach with no little voice to chirp music to her as she went. When she saw prints of Tommy's little feet in the sand, she sat down on a stone, and covered her face with her apron. For a long time her sobs and groans mingled with the moan of the sea. She raised her head, and looked inland, in the direction where she supposed Sukey Larkin lived. She revolved in her mind the possibility of going there. But stages were almost unknown in those days; and no wagoner would take her, without consent of her mistress, if she pleaded ever so hard. She thought of running away at midnight; but Mrs. Lawton would be sure to overtake her, and bring her back. Thoughts of what her mistress might do in such a case reminded her that she was neglecting the fish. Like a machine wound up, she began to go her customary rounds; but she had lost so much time that it was late before her task was completed. Then she wandered away to a little heap of moss and pebbles, that Tommy had built the last time they were together on the beach. On a wet rock near by she sat down and cried. Black clouds gathered over her head, a cold northeast wind blew upon her, and the spray sprinkled her naked feet. Still she sat there and cried. Louder and louder whistled the wind; wilder and wilder grew the moan of the sea. She heard the uproar without caring for it. She wished the big waves would come and wash her away.
Meanwhile Mrs. Lawton noticed the gathering darkness, and looked out anxiously for the return of her servant. "What upon airth can have become of her?" said she. "She oughter been home an hour ago."
"I shouldn't wonder if she had set out to go to Sukey Larkin's," replied Catharine.
The Widow had thought of that; she had also thought of the sea; for she had an uneasy remembrance of that look of utter misery when Chloe said, "How could you do it?"
It was Saturday evening; and, according to custom, Tom came to see his wife, all unconscious of the affliction that had befallen them. Mrs. Lawton went out to meet him, and said: "Tom, I wish you would go right down to the beach, and see what has become of Chloe. She a'n't come home yet, and I'm afraid something has happened." She returned to the house, thinking to herself, "If the wench is drowned, where shall I get such another?"
Tom found Chloe still sitting on the wet stone. When he spoke to her, she started, as if from sleep; and her first exclamation was, "O Tom! missis has guv away little Tommy."
It was some time before he could understand what had happened; but when he realized that his child was gone, his strong frame shook with sobs. Little Tommy was the only creature on earth that loved him,—his only treasure, his only plaything. "It's cruel hard," said he.
"O, how little Tommy is crying for mammy!" sobbed Chloe; "and I can't git to him nohow. Oh! oh!"
Tom tried to comfort her, as well as he knew how. Among other things, he suggested running away.
"I've been thinking 'bout that," rejoined Chloe; "but there a'n't nowhere to run to. The white folks has got all the money, and all the hosses, and all the law."
"O, what a cuss that Ham was!" groaned Tom.
"Don't know nothin' 'bout that ole cuss," replied Chloe. "Missis was cruel. What makes God let white folks cruellize black folks so?"
The question was altogether too large for Tom, or anybody else, to answer. After a moment's silence, he said, "P'r'aps Sukey Larkin will come sometimes, and bring little Tommy to see us."
"She shouldn't have him ag'in!" exclaimed Chloe. "I'd scratch her eyes out, if she tried to carry him off ag'in."
The sudden anger roused her from her lethargy; and she rose immediately when Tom reminded her that it was late, and they ought to be going home. Home! how the word seemed to mock her desolation!
Mrs. Lawton was so glad to see her faithful servant alive, and was so averse to receiving another accusing look from those sad eyes, that she forbore to reprimand her for her unwonted tardiness. Chloe spoke no word of explanation, but, after arranging a few things, retired silently to her pallet. She had been accustomed to exercise out of doors in all weathers, but was unused to sitting still in the wet and cold. She was seized with strong shiverings in the night, and continued feverish for some days. Her mistress nursed her, as she would a valuable horse or cow.
In a short time she resumed her customary tasks, but coughed incessantly and moved about slowly and listlessly. Her mistress, annoyed not to have the work going on faster, said to her reproachfully one day, "You got this cold by staying out so late that night."
"Yes, missis," replied Chloe, very sadly. "I shouldn't have stayed out ef little Tommy had been with me."
"What a fuss you make about that little nigger!" exclaimed Mrs. Lawton. "Tommy was my property, and I'd a right to give him away."
"'Twas cruel of you, missis," rejoined Chloe. "Tommy was all the comfort I had; an' I's worked hard for you, missis, many a year."
Mrs. Lawton, unaccustomed to any remonstrance from her bondwoman, seized a switch and shook it threateningly.
But Catherine said, in a low tone: "Don't, mother! She feels bad about little Tommy."
Chloe overheard the words of pity; and the first time she was alone with her young mistress, she said, "Please, Missy Katy, write to Sukey Larkin and ask her to bring little Tommy."
Catharine promised she would; but her mother objected to it, as making unnecessary trouble, and the promise was not fulfilled.
Week after week Chloe looked out upon the road, in hopes of seeing Sukey Larkin's wagon. But Sukey had no thoughts of coming to encounter her entreaties. She was feeding and fatting Tommy, with a view to selling him and buying a silk gown with the money. The little boy cried and moped for some days; but, after the manner of children, he soon became reconciled to his new situation. He ran about in the fields, and gradually forgot the sea, the moss, the pebbles, and mammy's lullaby.
One day Mrs. Lawton said to her daughter, "How that dreadful cough hangs on! I begin to be afraid Chloe's going into a consumption. I hope not; for I don't know where I shall find such another wench to work."
She mentioned her fears to the minister, and he said, "When she gets over worrying about Tommy, she'll pick up her crumbs."
But the only change that came over Chloe was increasing listlessness of mind and fatigue of body. At last, she was unable to rise from her pallet. She lay there looking at her thin hands, and talking to herself, according to her old habit. The words Mrs. Lawton most frequently heard were, "It was cruel of missis to take away little Tommy." Notwithstanding all the clerical arguments she had heard to prove the righteousness of slavery, the moan of the dying mother made her feel uncomfortable. Sometimes the mind of the invalid wandered, and she would hug Tommy's little gown, pat it lovingly, and sing to it the lullaby her baby loved. Sometimes she murmured, "He looked jest as ef he wanted to say suthin'"; and sometimes a smiled lighted up her face, as if she saw some pleasant vision.
The minister came to pray with her, and to talk what he called religion. But it sounded to poor Chloe more than ever like the murmuring of the sea. She turned her face away from him and said nothing. With what little mental strength she had, she rejected the idea that the curse of Ham, whoever he might be, justified the treatment she had received. She had no idea what a heathen was, but she concluded it meant something bad; and she had often told Tom she didn't like to have the minister talk that way, for it sounded like calling her names.
At last the weary one passed away from a world where the doings had all been dark and incomprehensible to her. But her soul was like that of a little child; and Jesus has said, "Of such are the kingdom of heaven." They found under her pillow little Tommy's ragged gown, and a pink shell. Why the shell was there no one could conjecture. The pine box containing her remains was placed across the foot of Mr. Lawton's grave, at whose side his widow would repose when her hour should come. It was the custom to place slaves thus at the feet of their masters, even in the graveyard.
The Reverend Mr. Gordonmammon concluded to buy a young black woman, that Tom might not be again induced to stray off after Dinah; and Tom passively yielded to the second arrangement, as he had to the first.
In two years after Sukey Larkin took possession of little Tommy, she sent him to Virginia to be exchanged for tobacco; with the proceeds of which she bought a gold necklace, and a flashy silk dress, changeable between grass-green and orange; and great was her satisfaction to astonish Catharine Lawton with her splendor the next time they met at a party.
I never heard that poor Chloe's ghost haunted either them or the Widow Lawton. Wherever slavery exerts its baneful influence, it produces the same results,—searing the conscience and blinding the understanding to the most obvious distinctions between right and wrong.
There is no record of little Tommy's fate. He disappeared among "the dark, sad millions," who knew not father or mother, and had no portion in wife or child.