The Quadroon's Story
And behold the tears of such as are oppressed; and on the side of their oppressors there was power. Wherefore I praised the dead that are already dead more than the living that are yet alive. — ECCL. 4:1.
It was late at night, and Tom lay groaning and bleeding alone, in an old forsaken room of the gin-house, among pieces of broken machinery, piles of damaged cotton, and other rubbish which had there accumulated.
The night was damp and close, and the thick air swarmed with myriads of mosquitos, which increased the restless torture of his wounds; whilst a burning thirst — a torture beyond all others — filled up the uttermost measure of physical anguish.
"O, good Lord! Do look down, — give me the victory! — give me the victory over all!" prayed poor Tom, in his anguish.
A footstep entered the room, behind him, and the light of a lantern flashed on his eyes.
"Who's there? O, for the Lord's massy, please give me some water!"
The woman Cassy — for it was she, — set down her lantern, and, pouring water from a bottle, raised his head, and gave him drink. Another and another cup were drained, with feverish eagerness.
"Drink all ye want," she said; "I knew how it would be. It isn't the first time I've been out in the night, carrying water to such as you."
"Thank you, Missis," said Tom, when he had done drinking.
"Don't call me Missis! I'm a miserable slave, like yourself, — a lower one than you can ever be!" said she, bitterly; "but now," said she, going to the door, and dragging in a small pallaise, over which she had spread linen cloths wet with cold water, "try, my poor fellow, to roll yourself on to this."
Stiff with wounds and bruises, Tom was a long time in accomplishing this movement; but, when done, he felt a sensible relief from the cooling application to his wounds.
The woman, whom long practice with the victims of brutality had made familiar with many healing arts, went on to make many applications to Tom's wounds, by means of which he was soon somewhat relieved.
"Now," said the woman, when she had raised his head on a roll of damaged cotton, which served for a pillow, "there's the best I can do for you."
Tom thanked her; and the woman, sitting down on the floor, drew up her knees, and embracing them with her arms, looked fixedly before her, with a bitter and painful expression of countenance. Her bonnet fell back, and long wavy streams of black hair fell around her singular and melancholy-face.
"It's no use, my poor fellow!" she broke out, at last, "it's of no use, this you've been trying to do. You were a brave fellow, — you had the right on your side; but it's all in vain, and out of the question, for you to struggle. You are in the devil's hands; — he is the strongest, and you must give up!"
Give up! and, had not human weakness and physical agony whispered that, before? Tom started; for the bitter woman, with her wild eyes and melancholy voice, seemed to him an embodiment of the temptation with which he had been wrestling.
"O Lord! O Lord!" he groaned, "how can I give up?"
"There's no use calling on the Lord, — he never hears," said the woman, steadily; "there isn't any God, I believe; or, if there is, he's taken sides against us. All goes against us, heaven and earth. Everything is pushing us into hell. Why shouldn't we go?"
Tom closed his eyes, and shuddered at the dark, atheistic words.
"You see," said the woman, "you don't know anything about it — I do. I've been on this place five years, body and soul, under this man's foot; and I hate him as I do the devil! Here you are, on a lone plantation, ten miles from any other, in the swamps; not a white person here, who could testify, if you were burned alive, — if you were scalded, cut into inch-pieces, set up for the dogs to tear, or hung up and whipped to death. There's no law here, of God or man, that can do you, or any one of us, the least good; and, this man! there's no earthly thing that he's too good to do. I could make any one's hair rise, and their teeth chatter, if I should only tell what I've seen and been knowing to, here, — and it's no use resisting! Did I want to live with him? Wasn't I a woman delicately bred; and he, — God in heaven! what was he, and is he? And yet, I've lived with him, these five years, and cursed every moment of my life, — night and day! And now, he's got a new one, — a young thing, only fifteen, and she brought up, she says, piously. Her good mistress taught her to read the Bible; and she's brought her Bible here — to hell with her!" — and the woman laughed a wild and doleful laugh, that rung, with a strange, supernatural sound, through the old ruined shed.
Tom folded his hands; all was darkness and horror.
"O Jesus! Lord Jesus! have you quite forgot us poor critturs?" burst forth, at last; — "help, Lord, I perish!"
The woman sternly continued:
"And what are these miserable low dogs you work with, that you should suffer on their account? Every one of them would turn against you, the first time they got a chance. They are all of 'em as low and cruel to each other as they can be; there's no use in your suffering to keep from hurting them."
"Poor critturs!" said Tom, — "what made 'em cruel? — and, if I give out, I shall get used to 't, and grow, little by little, just like 'em! No, no, Missis! I've lost everything, — wife, and children, and home, and a kind Mas'r, — and he would have set me free, if he'd only lived a week longer; I've lost everything in this world, and it's clean gone, forever, — and now I can't lose Heaven, too; no, I can't get to be wicked, besides all!"
"But it can't be that the Lord will lay sin to our account," said the woman; "he won't charge it to us, when we're forced to it; he'll charge it to them that drove us to it."
"Yes," said Tom; "but that won't keep us from growing wicked. If I get to be as hard-hearted as that ar' Sambo, and as wicked, it won't make much odds to me how I come so; it's the bein' so, — that ar's what I'm a dreadin'."
The woman fixed a wild and startled look on Tom, as if a new thought had struck her; and then, heavily groaning, said,
"O God a' mercy! you speak the truth! O — O — O!" — and, with groans, she fell on the floor, like one crushed and writhing under the extremity of mental anguish.
There was a silence, a while, in which the breathing of both parties could be heard, when Tom faintly said, "O, please, Missis!"
The woman suddenly rose up, with her face composed to its usual stern, melancholy expression.