"I don't want to hear such sermons; I never wish to hear Mr. B. in our church again. Ministers can't help the evil, perhaps, — can't cure it, any more than we can, — but defend it! — it always went against my common sense. And I think you didn't think much of that sermon, either."
"Well," said Shelby, "I must say these ministers sometimes carry matters further than we poor sinners would exactly dare to do. We men of the world must wink pretty hard at various things, and get used to a deal that isn't the exact thing. But we don't quite fancy, when women and ministers come out broad and square, and go beyond us in matters of either modesty or morals, that's a fact. But now, my dear, I trust you see the necessity of the thing, and you see that I have done the very best that circumstances would allow."
"O yes, yes!" said Mrs. Shelby, hurriedly and abstractedly fingering her gold watch, — "I haven't any jewelry of any amount," she added, thoughtfully; "but would not this watch do something? — it was an expensive one, when it was bought. If I could only at least save Eliza's child, I would sacrifice anything I have."
"I'm sorry, very sorry, Emily," said Mr. Shelby, "I'm sorry this takes hold of you so; but it will do no good. The fact is, Emily, the thing's done; the bills of sale are already signed, and in Haley's hands; and you must be thankful it is no worse. That man has had it in his power to ruin us all, — and now he is fairly off. If you knew the man as I do, you'd think that we had had a narrow escape."
"Is he so hard, then?"
"Why, not a cruel man, exactly, but a man of leather, — a man alive to nothing but trade and profit, — cool, and unhesitating, and unrelenting, as death and the grave. He'd sell his own mother at a good percentage — not wishing the old woman any harm, either."
"And this wretch owns that good, faithful Tom, and Eliza's child!"
"Well, my dear, the fact is that this goes rather hard with me; it's a thing I hate to think of. Haley wants to drive matters, and take possession tomorrow. I'm going to get out my horse bright and early, and be off. I can't see Tom, that's a fact; and you had better arrange a drive somewhere, and carry Eliza off. Let the thing be done when she is out of sight."
"No, no," said Mrs. Shelby; "I'll be in no sense accomplice or help in this cruel business. I'll go and see poor old Tom, God help him, in his distress! They shall see, at any rate, that their mistress can feel for and with them. As to Eliza, I dare not think about it. The Lord forgive us! What have we done, that this cruel necessity should come on us?"
There was one listener to this conversation whom Mr. and Mrs. Shelby little suspected.
Communicating with their apartment was a large closet, opening by a door into the outer passage. When Mrs. Shelby had dismissed Eliza for the night, her feverish and excited mind had suggested the idea of this closet; and she had hidden herself there, and, with her ear pressed close against the crack of the door, had lost not a word of the conversation.
When the voices died into silence, she rose and crept stealthily away. Pale, shivering, with rigid features and compressed lips, she looked an entirely altered being from the soft and timid creature she had been hitherto. She moved cautiously along the entry, paused one moment at her mistress' door, and raised her hands in mute appeal to Heaven, and then turned and glided into her own room. It was a quiet, neat apartment, on the same floor with her mistress. There was a pleasant sunny window, where she had often sat singing at her sewing; there a little case of books, and various little fancy articles, ranged by them, the gifts of Christmas holidays; there was her simple wardrobe in the closet and in the drawers: — here was, in short, her home; and, on the whole, a happy one it had been to her. But there, on the bed, lay her slumbering boy, his long curls falling negligently around his unconscious face, his rosy mouth half open, his little fat hands thrown out over the bedclothes, and a smile spread like a sunbeam over his whole face.
"Poor boy! poor fellow!" said Eliza; "they have sold you! but your mother will save you yet!"
No tear dropped over that pillow; in such straits as these, the heart has no tears to give, — it drops only blood, bleeding itself away in silence. She took a piece of paper and a pencil, and wrote, hastily,
"O, Missis! dear Missis! don't think me ungrateful, — don't think hard of me, any way, — I heard all you and master said tonight. I am going to try to save my boy — you will not blame me! God bless and reward you for all your kindness!"
Hastily folding and directing this, she went to a drawer and made up a little package of clothing for her boy, which she tied with a handkerchief firmly round her waist; and, so fond is a mother's remembrance, that, even in the terrors of that hour, she did not forget to put in the little package one or two of his favorite toys, reserving a gayly painted parrot to amuse him, when she should be called on to awaken him. It was some trouble to arouse the little sleeper; but, after some effort, he sat up, and was playing with his bird, while his mother was putting on her bonnet and shawl.
"Where are you going, mother?" said he, as she drew near the bed, with his little coat and cap.
His mother drew near, and looked so earnestly into his eyes, that he at once divined that something unusual was the matter.
"Hush, Harry," she said; "mustn't speak loud, or they will hear us. A wicked man was coming to take little Harry away from his mother, and carry him 'way off in the dark; but mother won't let him — she's going to put on her little boy's cap and coat, and run off with him, so the ugly man can't catch him."
Saying these words, she had tied and buttoned on the child's simple outfit, and, taking him in her arms, she whispered to him to be very still; and, opening a door in her room which led into the outer verandah, she glided noiselessly out.
It was a sparkling, frosty, starlight night, and the mother wrapped the shawl close round her child, as, perfectly quiet with vague terror, he clung round her neck.