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“And behold, the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power, but they had no comforter.”—ECCL. 4:1
It took but a short time to familiarize Tom with all that was to be hoped or feared in his new way of life. He was an expert and efficient workman in whatever he undertook; and was, both from habit and principle, prompt and faithful. Quiet and peaceable in his disposition, he hoped, by unremitting diligence, to avert from himself at least a portion of the evils of his condition. He saw enough of abuse and misery to make him sick and weary; but he determined to toil on, with religious patience, committing himself to Him that judgeth righteously, not without hope that some way of escape might yet be opened to him.
Legree took a silent note of Tom’s availability. He rated him as a first-class hand; and yet he felt a secret dislike to him,—the native antipathy of bad to good. He saw, plainly, that when, as was often the case, his violence and brutality fell on the helpless, Tom took notice of it; for, so subtle is the atmosphere of opinion, that it will make itself felt, without words; and the opinion even of a slave may annoy a master. Tom in various ways manifested a tenderness of feeling, a commiseration for his fellow-sufferers, strange and new to them, which was watched with a jealous eye by Legree. He had purchased Tom with a view of eventually making him a sort of overseer, with whom he might, at times, intrust his affairs, in short absences; and, in his view, the first, second, and third requisite for that place, was hardness. Legree made up his mind, that, as Tom was not hard to his hand, he would harden him forthwith; and some few weeks after Tom had been on the place, he determined to commence the process.
One morning, when the hands were mustered for the field, Tom noticed, with surprise, a new comer among them, whose appearance excited his attention. It was a woman, tall and slenderly formed, with remarkably delicate hands and feet, and dressed in neat and respectable garments. By the appearance of her face, she might have been between thirty-five and forty; and it was a face that, once seen, could never be forgotten,—one of those that, at a glance, seem to convey to us an idea of a wild, painful, and romantic history. Her forehead was high, and her eyebrows marked with beautiful clearness. Her straight, well-formed nose, her finely-cut mouth, and the graceful contour of her head and neck, showed that she must once have been beautiful; but her face was deeply wrinkled with lines of pain, and of proud and bitter endurance. Her complexion was sallow and unhealthy, her cheeks thin, her features sharp, and her whole form emaciated. But her eye was the most remarkable feature,—so large, so heavily black, overshadowed by long lashes of equal darkness, and so wildly, mournfully despairing. There was a fierce pride and defiance in every line of her face, in every curve of the flexible lip, in every motion of her body; but in her eye was a deep, settled night of anguish,—an expression so hopeless and unchanging as to contrast fearfully with the scorn and pride expressed by her whole demeanor.
Where she came from, or who she was, Tom did not know. The first he did know, she was walking by his side, erect and proud, in the dim gray of the dawn. To the gang, however, she was known; for there was much looking and turning of heads, and a smothered yet apparent exultation among the miserable, ragged, half-starved creatures by whom she was surrounded.
“Got to come to it, at last,—glad of it!” said one.
“He! he! he!” said another; “you’ll know how good it is, Misse!”
“We’ll see her work!”
“Wonder if she’ll get a cutting up, at night, like the rest of us!”
“I’d be glad to see her down for a flogging, I’ll bound!” said another.
The woman took no notice of these taunts, but walked on, with the same expression of angry scorn, as if she heard nothing. Tom had always lived among refined, and cultivated people, and he felt intuitively, from her air and bearing, that she belonged to that class; but how or why she could be fallen to those degrading circumstances, he could not tell. The women neither looked at him nor spoke to him, though, all the way to the field, she kept close at his side.
Tom was soon busy at his work; but, as the woman was at no great distance from him, he often glanced an eye to her, at her work. He saw, at a glance, that a native adroitness and handiness made the task to her an easier one than it proved to many. She picked very fast and very clean, and with an air of scorn, as if she despised both the work and the disgrace and humiliation of the circumstances in which she was placed.
In the course of the day, Tom was working near the mulatto woman who had been bought in the same lot with himself. She was evidently in a condition of great suffering, and Tom often heard her praying, as she wavered and trembled, and seemed about to fall down. Tom silently as he came near to her, transferred several handfuls of cotton from his own sack to hers.
“O, don’t, don’t!” said the woman, looking surprised; “it’ll get you into trouble.”
Just then Sambo came up. He seemed to have a special spite against this woman; and, flourishing his whip, said, in brutal, guttural tones, “What dis yer, Luce,—foolin’ a’” and, with the word, kicking the woman with his heavy cowhide shoe, he struck Tom across the face with his whip.
Tom silently resumed his task; but the woman, before at the last point of exhaustion, fainted.
“I’ll bring her to!” said the driver, with a brutal grin. “I’ll give her something better than camphire!” and, taking a pin from his coat-sleeve, he buried it to the head in her flesh. The woman groaned, and half rose. “Get up, you beast, and work, will yer, or I’ll show yer a trick more!”
The woman seemed stimulated, for a few moments, to an unnatural strength, and worked with desperate eagerness.
“See that you keep to dat ar,” said the man, “or yer’ll wish yer’s dead tonight, I reckin!”
“That I do now!” Tom heard her say; and again he heard her say, “O, Lord, how long! O, Lord, why don’t you help us?”
At the risk of all that he might suffer, Tom came forward again, and put all the cotton in his sack into the woman’s.
“O, you mustn’t! you donno what they’ll do to ye!” said the woman.
“I can bar it!” said Tom, “better ’n you;” and he was at his place again. It passed in a moment.
Suddenly, the stranger woman whom we have described, and who had, in the course of her work, come near enough to hear Tom’s last words, raised her heavy black eyes, and fixed them, for a second, on him; then, taking a quantity of cotton from her basket, she placed it in his.
“You know nothing about this place,” she said, “or you wouldn’t have done that. When you’ve been here a month, you’ll be done helping anybody; you’ll find it hard enough to take care of your own skin!”
“The Lord forbid, Missis!” said Tom, using instinctively to his field companion the respectful form proper to the high bred with whom he had lived.
“The Lord never visits these parts,” said the woman, bitterly, as she went nimbly forward with her work; and again the scornful smile curled her lips.
But the action of the woman had been seen by the driver, across the field; and, flourishing his whip, he came up to her.
“What! what!” he said to the woman, with an air of triumph, “You a foolin’? Go along! yer under me now,—mind yourself, or yer’ll cotch it!”
A glance like sheet-lightning suddenly flashed from those black eyes; and, facing about, with quivering lip and dilated nostrils, she drew herself up, and fixed a glance, blazing with rage and scorn, on the driver.
“Dog!” she said, “touch me, if you dare! I’ve power enough, yet, to have you torn by the dogs, burnt alive, cut to inches! I’ve only to say the word!”
“What de devil you here for, den?” said the man, evidently cowed, and sullenly retreating a step or two. “Didn’t mean no harm, Misse Cassy!”
“Keep your distance, then!” said the woman. And, in truth, the man seemed greatly inclined to attend to something at the other end of the field, and started off in quick time.
The woman suddenly turned to her work, and labored with a despatch that was perfectly astonishing to Tom. She seemed to work by magic. Before the day was through, her basket was filled, crowded down, and piled, and she had several times put largely into Tom’s. Long after dusk, the whole weary train, with their baskets on their heads, defiled up to the building appropriated to the storing and weighing the cotton. Legree was there, busily conversing with the two drivers.
“Dat ar Tom’s gwine to make a powerful deal o’ trouble; kept a puttin’ into Lucy’s basket.—One o’ these yer dat will get all der niggers to feelin’ ’bused, if Masir don’t watch him!” said Sambo.
“Hey-dey! The black cuss!” said Legree. “He’ll have to get a breakin’ in, won’t he, boys?”
Both negroes grinned a horrid grin, at this intimation.
“Ay, ay! Let Mas’r Legree alone, for breakin’ in! De debil heself couldn’t beat Mas’r at dat!” said Quimbo.
“Wal, boys, the best way is to give him the flogging to do, till he gets over his notions. Break him in!”
“Lord, Mas’r’ll have hard work to get dat out o’ him!”
“It’ll have to come out of him, though!” said Legree, as he rolled his tobacco in his mouth.
“Now, dar’s Lucy,—de aggravatinest, ugliest wench on de place!” pursued Sambo.
“Take care, Sam; I shall begin to think what’s the reason for your spite agin Lucy.”
“Well, Mas’r knows she sot herself up agin Mas’r, and wouldn’t have me, when he telled her to.”
“I’d a flogged her into ’t,” said Legree, spitting, “only there’s such a press o’ work, it don’t seem wuth a while to upset her jist now. She’s slender; but these yer slender gals will bear half killin’ to get their own way!”
“Wal, Lucy was real aggravatin’ and lazy, sulkin’ round; wouldn’t do nothin,—and Tom he stuck up for her.”
“He did, eh! Wal, then, Tom shall have the pleasure of flogging her. It’ll be a good practice for him, and he won’t put it on to the gal like you devils, neither.”
“Ho, ho! haw! haw! haw!” laughed both the sooty wretches; and the diabolical sounds seemed, in truth, a not unapt expression of the fiendish character which Legree gave them.
“Wal, but, Mas’r, Tom and Misse Cassy, and dey among ’em, filled Lucy’s basket. I ruther guess der weight ’s in it, Mas’r!”
“I do the weighing!” said Legree, emphatically.
Both the drivers again laughed their diabolical laugh.
“So!” he added, “Misse Cassy did her day’s work.”
“She picks like de debil and all his angels!”
“She’s got ’em all in her, I believe!” said Legree; and, growling a brutal oath, he proceeded to the weighing-room.
Slowly the weary, dispirited creatures, wound their way into the room, and, with crouching reluctance, presented their baskets to be weighed.
Legree noted on a slate, on the side of which was pasted a list of names, the amount.
Tom’s basket was weighed and approved; and he looked, with an anxious glance, for the success of the woman he had befriended.
Tottering with weakness, she came forward, and delivered her basket. It was of full weight, as Legree well perceived; but, affecting anger, he said,
“What, you lazy beast! short again! stand aside, you’ll catch it, pretty soon!”
The woman gave a groan of utter despair, and sat down on a board.
The person who had been called Misse Cassy now came forward, and, with a haughty, negligent air, delivered her basket. As she delivered it, Legree looked in her eyes with a sneering yet inquiring glance.
She fixed her black eyes steadily on him, her lips moved slightly, and she said something in French. What it was, no one knew; but Legree’s face became perfectly demoniacal in its expression, as she spoke; he half raised his hand, as if to strike,—a gesture which she regarded with fierce disdain, as she turned and walked away.
“And now,” said Legree, “come here, you Tom. You see, I telled ye I didn’t buy ye jest for the common work; I mean to promote ye, and make a driver of ye; and tonight ye may jest as well begin to get yer hand in. Now, ye jest take this yer gal and flog her; ye’ve seen enough on’t to know how.”
“I beg Mas’r’s pardon,” said Tom; “hopes Mas’r won’t set me at that. It’s what I an’t used to,—never did,—and can’t do, no way possible.”
“Ye’ll larn a pretty smart chance of things ye never did know, before I’ve done with ye!” said Legree, taking up a cowhide, and striking Tom a heavy blow cross the cheek, and following up the infliction by a shower of blows.
“There!” he said, as he stopped to rest; “now, will ye tell me ye can’t do it?”
“Yes, Mas’r,” said Tom, putting up his hand, to wipe the blood, that trickled down his face. “I’m willin’ to work, night and day, and work while there’s life and breath in me; but this yer thing I can’t feel it right to do;—and, Mas’r, I never shall do it,—never!”
Tom had a remarkably smooth, soft voice, and a habitually respectful manner, that had given Legree an idea that he would be cowardly, and easily subdued. When he spoke these last words, a thrill of amazement went through every one; the poor woman clasped her hands, and said, “O Lord!” and every one involuntarily looked at each other and drew in their breath, as if to prepare for the storm that was about to burst.
Legree looked stupefied and confounded; but at last burst forth,—“What! ye blasted black beast! tell me ye don’t think it right to do what I tell ye! What have any of you cussed cattle to do with thinking what’s right? I’ll put a stop to it! Why, what do ye think ye are? May be ye think ye’r a gentleman master, Tom, to be a telling your master what’s right, and what ain’t! So you pretend it’s wrong to flog the gal!”
“I think so, Mas’r,” said Tom; “the poor crittur’s sick and feeble; ’t would be downright cruel, and it’s what I never will do, nor begin to. Mas’r, if you mean to kill me, kill me; but, as to my raising my hand agin any one here, I never shall,—I’ll die first!”
Tom spoke in a mild voice, but with a decision that could not be mistaken. Legree shook with anger; his greenish eyes glared fiercely, and his very whiskers seemed to curl with passion; but, like some ferocious beast, that plays with its victim before he devours it, he kept back his strong impulse to proceed to immediate violence, and broke out into bitter raillery.
“Well, here’s a pious dog, at last, let down among us sinners!—a saint, a gentleman, and no less, to talk to us sinners about our sins! Powerful holy critter, he must be! Here, you rascal, you make believe to be so pious,—didn’t you never hear, out of yer Bible, ’Servants, obey yer masters’? An’t I yer master? Didn’t I pay down twelve hundred dollars, cash, for all there is inside yer old cussed black shell? An’t yer mine, now, body and soul?” he said, giving Tom a violent kick with his heavy boot; “tell me!”
In the very depth of physical suffering, bowed by brutal oppression, this question shot a gleam of joy and triumph through Tom’s soul. He suddenly stretched himself up, and, looking earnestly to heaven, while the tears and blood that flowed down his face mingled, he exclaimed,
“No! no! no! my soul an’t yours, Mas’r! You haven’t bought it,—ye can’t buy it! It’s been bought and paid for, by one that is able to keep it;—no matter, no matter, you can’t harm me!”
“I can’t!” said Legree, with a sneer; “we’ll see,—we’ll see! Here, Sambo, Quimbo, give this dog such a breakin’ in as he won’t get over, this month!”
The two gigantic negroes that now laid hold of Tom, with fiendish exultation in their faces, might have formed no unapt personification of powers of darkness. The poor woman screamed with apprehension, and all rose, as by a general impulse, while they dragged him unresisting from the place.