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Uncle Tom's Cabin (Chapter19)

2006-08-22 22:20

  Chapter XIX. Miss Ophelia's Experiences and Opinions Continued

  “Tom, you needn't get me the horses. I don't want to go,” she said.

  “Why not, Miss Eva?”

  “These things sink into my heart, Tom,” said Eva,——“they sink into my heart,” she repeated, earnestly. “I don't want to go;” and she turned from Tom, and went into the house.

  A few days after, another woman came, in old Prue's place, to bring the rusks; Miss Ophelia was in the kitchen.

  “Lor!” said Dinah, “what's got Prue?”

  “Prue isn't coming any more,” said the woman, mysteriously.

  “Why not?” said Dinah. “she an't dead, is she?”

  “We doesn't exactly know. She's down cellar,” said the woman, glancing at Miss Ophelia.

  After Miss Ophelia had taken the rusks, Dinah followed the woman to the door.

  “What has got Prue, any how?” she said.

  The woman seemed desirous, yet reluctant, to speak, and answered, in low, mysterious tone.

  “Well, you mustn't tell nobody, Prue, she got drunk agin,——and they had her down cellar,——and thar they left her all day,——and I hearn 'em saying that the flies had got to her,——and she's dead!”

  Dinah held up her hands, and, turning, saw close by her side the spirit-like form of Evangeline, her large, mystic eyes dilated with horror, and every drop of blood driven from her lips and cheeks.

  “Lor bless us! Miss Eva's gwine to faint away! What go us all, to let her har such talk? Her pa'll be rail mad.”

  “I shan't faint, Dinah,” said the child, firmly; “and why shouldn't I hear it? It an't so much for me to hear it, as for poor Prue to suffer it.”

  “Lor sakes! it isn't for sweet, delicate young ladies, like you,——these yer stories isn't; it's enough to kill 'em!”

  Eva sighed again, and walked up stairs with a slow and melancholy step.

  Miss Ophelia anxiously inquired the woman's story. Dinah gave a very garrulous version of it, to which Tom added the particulars which he had drawn from her that morning.

  “An abominable business,——perfectly horrible!” she exclaimed, as she entered the room where St. Clare lay reading his paper.

  “Pray, what iniquity has turned up now?” said he.

  “What now? why, those folks have whipped Prue to death!” said Miss Ophelia, going on, with great strength of detail, into the story, and enlarging on its most shocking particulars.

  “I thought it would come to that, some time,” said St. Clare, going on with his paper.

  “Thought so!——an't you going to do anything about it?” said Miss Ophelia. “Haven't you got any selectmen, or anybody, to interfere and look after such matters?”

  “It's commonly supposed that the property interest is a sufficient guard in these cases. If people choose to ruin their own possessions, I don't know what's to be done. It seems the poor creature was a thief and a drunkard; and so there won't be much hope to get up sympathy for her.”

  “It is perfectly outrageous,——it is horrid, Augustine! It will certainly bring down vengeance upon you.”

  “My dear cousin, I didn't do it, and I can't help it; I would, if I could. If low-minded, brutal people will act like themselves, what am I to do? they have absolute control; they are irresponsible despots. There would be no use in interfering; there is no law that amounts to anything practically, for such a case. The best we can do is to shut our eyes and ears, and let it alone. It's the only resource left us.”

  “How can you shut your eyes and ears? How can you let such things alone?”

  “My dear child, what do you expect? Here is a whole class,——debased, uneducated, indolent, provoking,——put, without any sort of terms or conditions, entirely into the hands of such people as the majority in our world are; people who have neither consideration nor self-control, who haven't even an enlightened regard to their own interest,——for that's the case with the largest half of mankind. Of course, in a community so organized, what can a man of honorable and humane feelings do, but shut his eyes all he can, and harden his heart? I can't buy every poor wretch I see. I can't turn knight-errant, and undertake to redress every individual case of wrong in such a city as this. The most I can do is to try and keep out of the way of it.”

  St. Clare's fine countenance was for a moment overcast; he said,

  “Come, cousin, don't stand there looking like one of the Fates; you've only seen a peep through the curtain,——a specimen of what is going on, the world over, in some shape or other. If we are to be prying and spying into all the dismals of life, we should have no heart to anything. 'T is like looking too close into the details of Dinah's kitchen;” and St. Clare lay back on the sofa, and busied himself with his paper.

  Miss Ophelia sat down, and pulled out her knitting-work, and sat there grim with indignation. She knit and knit, but while she mused the fire burned; at last she broke out——“I tell you, Augustine, I can't get over things so, if you can. It's a perfect abomination for you to defend such a system,——that's my mind!”

  “What now?” said St. Clare, looking up. “At it again, hey?”

  “I say it's perfectly abominable for you to defend such a system!” said Miss Ophelia, with increasing warmth.

  “I defend it, my dear lady? Who ever said I did defend it?” said St. Clare.

  “Of course, you defend it,——you all do,——all you Southerners. What do you have slaves for, if you don't?”

  “Are you such a sweet innocent as to suppose nobody in this world ever does what they don't think is right? Don't you, or didn't you ever, do anything that you did not think quite right?”

  “If I do, I repent of it, I hope,” said Miss Ophelia, rattling her needles with energy.

  “So do I,” said St. Clare, peeling his orange; “I'm repenting of it all the time.”

  “What do you keep on doing it for?”

  “Didn't you ever keep on doing wrong, after you'd repented, my good cousin?”

  “Well, only when I've been very much tempted,” said Miss Ophelia.

  “Well, I'm very much tempted,” said St. Clare; “that's just my difficulty.”

  “But I always resolve I won't and I try to break off.”

  “Well, I have been resolving I won't, off and on, these ten years,” said St. Clare; “but I haven't, some how, got clear. Have you got clear of all your sins, cousin?”

  “Cousin Augustine,” said Miss Ophelia, seriously, and laying down her knitting-work, “I suppose I deserve that you should reprove my short-comings. I know all you say is true enough; nobody else feels them more than I do; but it does seem to me, after all, there is some difference between me and you. It seems to me I would cut off my right hand sooner than keep on, from day to day, doing what I thought was wrong. But, then, my conduct is so inconsistent with my profession, I don't wonder you reprove me.”

  “O, now, cousin,” said Augustine, sitting down on the floor, and laying his head back in her lap, “don't take on so awfully serious! You know what a good-for-nothing, saucy boy I always was. I love to poke you up,——that's all,——just to see you get earnest. I do think you are desperately, distressingly good; it tires me to death to think of it.”

  “But this is a serious subject, my boy, Auguste,” said Miss Ophelia, laying her hand on his forehead.

  “Dismally so,” said he; “and I——well, I never want to talk seriously in hot weather. What with mosquitos and all, a fellow can't get himself up to any very sublime moral flights; and I believe,” said St. Clare, suddenly rousing himself up, “there's a theory, now! I understand now why northern nations are always more virtuous than southern ones,——I see into that whole subject.”

  “O, Augustine, you are a sad rattle-brain!”

  “Am I? Well, so I am, I suppose; but for once I will be serious, now; but you must hand me that basket of oranges;——you see, you'll have to `stay me with flagons and comfort me with apples,' if I'm going to make this effort. Now,” said Augustine, drawing the basket up, “I'll begin: When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for a fellow to hold two or three dozen of his fellow-worms in captivity, a decent regard to the opinions of society requires——”

  “I don't see that you are growing more serious,” said Miss Ophelia.

  “Wait,——I'm coming on,——you'll hear. The short of the matter is, cousin,” said he, his handsome face suddenly settling into an earnest and serious expression, “on this abstract question of slavery there can, as I think, be but one opinion. Planters, who have money to make by it,——clergymen, who have planters to please,——politicians, who want to rule by it,——may warp and bend language and ethics to a degree that shall astonish the world at their ingenuity; they can press nature and the Bible, and nobody knows what else, into the service; but, after all, neither they nor the world believe in it one particle the more. It comes from the devil, that's the short of it;——and, to my mind, it's a pretty respectable specimen of what he can do in his own line.”

  Miss Ophelia stopped her knitting, and looked surprised, and St. Clare, apparently enjoying her astonishment, went on.

  “You seem to wonder; but if you will get me fairly at it, I'll make a clean breast of it. This cursed business, accursed of God and man, what is it? Strip it of all its ornament, run it down to the root and nucleus of the whole, and what is it? Why, because my brother Quashy is ignorant and weak, and I am intelligent and strong,——because I know how, and can do it,——therefore, I may steal all he has, keep it, and give him only such and so much as suits my fancy. Whatever is too hard, too dirty, too disagreeable, for me, I may set Quashy to doing. Because I don't like work, Quashy shall work. Because the sun burns me, Quashy shall stay in the sun. Quashy shall earn the money, and I will spend it. Quashy shall lie down in every puddle, that I may walk over dry-shod. Quashy shall do my will, and not his, all the days of his mortal life, and have such chance of getting to heaven, at last, as I find convenient. This I take to be about what slavery is. I defy anybody on earth to read our slave-code, as it stands in our law-books, and make anything else of it. Talk of the abuses of slavery! Humbug! The thing itself is the essence of all abuse! And the only reason why the land don't sink under it, like Sodom and Gomorrah, is because it is used in a way infinitely better than it is. For pity's sake, for shame's sake, because we are men born of women, and not savage beasts, many of us do not, and dare not,——we would scorn to use the full power which our savage laws put into our hands. And he who goes the furthest, and does the worst, only uses within limits the power that the

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