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Uncle Tom's Cabin (Chapter16)

2006-08-22 22:19

  Chapter XVI. Tom's Mistress and Her Opinions

  “And now, Marie,” said St. Clare, “your golden days are dawning. Here is our practical, business-like New England cousin, who will take the whole budget of cares off your shoulders, and give you time to refresh yourself, and grow young and handsome. The ceremony of delivering the keys had better come off forthwith.”

  This remark was made at the breakfast-table, a few mornings after Miss Ophelia had arrived.

  “I'm sure she's welcome,” said Marie, leaning her head languidly on her hand. “I think she'll find one thing, if she does, and that is, that it's we mistresses that are the slaves, down here.”

  “O, certainly, she will discover that, and a world of wholesome truths besides, no doubt,” said St. Clare.

  “Talk about our keeping slaves, as if we did it for our convenience,” said Marie. “I'm sure, if we consulted that, we might let them all go at once.”

  Evangeline fixed her large, serious eyes on her mother's face, with an earnest and perplexed expression, and said, simply, “What do you keep them for, mamma?”

  “I don't know, I'm sure, except for a plague; they are the plague of my life. I believe that more of my ill health is caused by them than by any one thing; and ours, I know, are the very worst that ever anybody was plagued with.”

  “O, come, Marie, you've got the blues, this morning,” said St. Clare. “You know 't isn't so. There's Mammy, the best creature living,——what could you do without her?”

  “Mammy is the best I ever knew,” said Marie; “and yet Mammy, now, is selfish——dreadfully selfish; it's the fault of the whole race.”

  “Selfishness is a dreadful fault,” said St. Clare, gravely.

  “Well, now, there's Mammy,” said Marie, “I think it's selfish of her to sleep so sound nights; she knows I need little attentions almost every hour, when my worst turns are on, and yet she's so hard to wake. I absolutely am worse, this very morning, for the efforts I had to make to wake her last night.”

  “Hasn't she sat up with you a good many nights, lately, mamma?” said Eva.

  “How should you know that?” said Marie, sharply; “she's been complaining, I suppose.”

  “She didn't complain; she only told me what bad nights you'd had,——so many in succession.”

  “Why don't you let Jane or Rosa take her place, a night or two,” said St. Clare, “and let her rest?”

  “How can you propose it?” said Marie. “St. Clare, you really are inconsiderate. So nervous as I am, the least breath disturbs me; and a strange hand about me would drive me absolutely frantic. If Mammy felt the interest in me she ought to, she'd wake easier,——of course, she would. I've heard of people who had such devoted servants, but it never was my luck;” and Marie sighed.

  Miss Ophelia had listened to this conversation with an air of shrewd, observant gravity; and she still kept her lips tightly compressed, as if determined fully to ascertain her longitude and position, before she committed herself.

  “Now, Mammy has a sort of goodness,” said Marie; “she's smooth and respectful, but she's selfish at heart. Now, she never will be done fidgeting and worrying about that husband of hers. You see, when I was married and came to live here, of course, I had to bring her with me, and her husband my father couldn't spare. He was a blacksmith, and, of course, very necessary; and I thought and said, at the time, that Mammy and he had better give each other up, as it wasn't likely to be convenient for them ever to live together again. I wish, now, I'd insisted on it, and married Mammy to somebody else; but I was foolish and indulgent, and didn't want to insist. I told Mammy, at the time, that she mustn't ever expect to see him more than once or twice in her life again, for the air of father's place doesn't agree with my health, and I can't go there; and I advised her to take up with somebody else; but no—— she wouldn't. Mammy has a kind of obstinacy about her, in spots, that everybody don't see as I do.”

  “Has she children?” said Miss Ophelia.

  “Yes; she has two.”

  “I suppose she feels the separation from them?”

  “Well, of course, I couldn't bring them. They were little dirty things——I couldn't have them about; and, besides, they took up too much of her time; but I believe that Mammy has always kept up a sort of sulkiness about this. She won't marry anybody else; and I do believe, now, though she knows how necessary she is to me, and how feeble my health is, she would go back to her husband tomorrow, if she only could. I do, indeed,” said Marie; “they are just so selfish, now, the best of them.”

  “It's distressing to reflect upon,” said St. Clare, dryly.

  Miss Ophelia looked keenly at him, and saw the flush of mortification and repressed vexation, and the sarcastic curl of the lip, as he spoke.

  “Now, Mammy has always been a pet with me,” said Marie. “I wish some of your northern servants could look at her closets of dresses,——silks and muslins, and one real linen cambric, she has hanging there. I've worked sometimes whole afternoons, trimming her caps, and getting her ready to go to a party. As to abuse, she don't know what it is. She never was whipped more than once or twice in her whole life. She has her strong coffee or her tea every day, with white sugar in it. It's abominable, to be sure; but St. Clare will have high life below-stairs, and they every one of them live just as they please. The fact is, our servants are over-indulged. I suppose it is partly our fault that they are selfish, and act like spoiled children; but I've talked to St. Clare till I am tired.”

  “And I, too,” said St. Clare, taking up the morning paper.

  Eva, the beautiful Eva, had stood listening to her mother, with that expression of deep and mystic earnestness which was peculiar to her. She walked softly round to her mother's chair, and put her arms round her neck.

  “Well, Eva, what now?” said Marie.

  “Mamma, couldn't I take care of you one night——just one? I know I shouldn't make you nervous, and I shouldn't sleep. I often lie awake nights, thinking——”

  “O, nonsense, child——nonsense!” said Marie; “you are such a strange child!”

  “But may I, mamma? I think,” she said, timidly, “that Mammy isn't well. She told me her head ached all the time, lately.”

  “O, that's just one of Mammy's fidgets! Mammy is just like all the rest of them——makes such a fuss about every little headache or finger-ache; it'll never do to encourage it——never! I'm principled about this matter,” said she, turning to Miss Ophelia; “you'll find the necessity of it. If you encourage servants in giving way to every little disagreeable feeling, and complaining of every little ailment, you'll have your hands full. I never complain myself——nobody knows what I endure. I feel it a duty to bear it quietly, and I do.”

  Miss Ophelia's round eyes expressed an undisguised amazement at this peroration, which struck St. Clare as so supremely ludicrous, that he burst into a loud laugh.

  “St. Clare always laughs when I make the least allusion to my ill health,” said Marie, with the voice of a suffering martyr. “I only hope the day won't come when he'll remember it!” and Marie put her handkerchief to her eyes.

  Of course, there was rather a foolish silence. Finally, St. Clare got up, looked at his watch, and said he had an engagement down street. Eva tripped away after him, and Miss Ophelia and Marie remained at the table alone.

  “Now, that's just like St. Clare!” said the latter, withdrawing her handkerchief with somewhat of a spirited flourish when the criminal to be affected by it was no longer in sight. “He never realizes, never can, never will, what I suffer, and have, for years. If I was one of the complaining sort, or ever made any fuss about my ailments, there would be some reason for it. Men do get tired, naturally, of a complaining wife. But I've kept things to myself, and borne, and borne, till St. Clare has got in the way of thinking I can bear anything.”

  Miss Ophelia did not exactly know what she was expected to answer to this.

  While she was thinking what to say, Marie gradually wiped away her tears, and smoothed her plumage in a general sort of way, as a dove might be supposed to make toilet after a shower, and began a housewifely chat with Miss Ophelia, concerning cupboards, closets, linen-presses, store-rooms, and other matters, of which the latter was, by common understanding, to assume the direction, ——giving her so many cautious directions and charges, that a head less systematic and business-like than Miss Ophelia's would have been utterly dizzied and confounded.

  “And now,” said Marie, “I believe I've told you everything; so that, when my next sick turn comes on, you'll be able to go forward entirely, without consulting me;——only about Eva,——she requires watching.”

  “She seems to be a good child, very,” said Miss Ophelia; “I never saw a better child.”

  “Eva's peculiar,” said her mother, “very. There are things about her so singular; she isn't like me, now, a particle;” and Marie sighed, as if this was a truly melancholy consideration.

  Miss Ophelia in her own heart said, “I hope she isn't,” but had prudence enough to keep it down.

  “Eva always was disposed to be with servants; and I think that well enough with some children. Now, I always played with father's little negroes——it never did me any harm. But Eva somehow always seems to put herself on an equality with every creature that comes near her. It's a strange thing about the child. I never have been able to break her of it. St. Clare, I believe, encourages her in it. The fact is, St. Clare indulges every creature under this roof but his own wife.”

  Again Miss Ophelia sat in blank silence.

  “Now, there's no way with servants,” said Marie, “but to put them down, and keep them down. It was always natural to me, from a child. Eva is enough to spoil a whole house-full. What she will do when she comes to keep house herself, I'm sure I don't know. I hold to being kind to servants——I always am; but you must make 'em know their place. Eva never does; there's no getting into the child's head the first beginning of an idea what a servant's place is! You heard her offering to take care of me nights, to let Mammy sleep! That's just a specimen of the way the child would be doing all the time, if she was left to herself.”

  “Why,” said Miss Ophelia, bluntly, “I suppose you think your servants are human creatures, and ought to have some rest when they are tired.”

  “Certainly, of course. I'm very particular in letting them have everything that comes convenient,——anything that doesn't put one at all out of the way, you know. Mammy can make up her sleep, some time or other; there's no difficulty about that. She's the sleepiest concern that ever I saw; sewing, standing, or sitting, that creature will go to sleep, and sleep anywhere and everywhere. No danger but Mammy gets sleep enough. But this treating servants as if they were exotic flowers, or china vases, is really ridiculous,” said Marie, as she plunged languidly into the depths of a voluminous and pillowy lounge, and drew towards her an elegant cut-glass vinaigrette.

  “You see,” she continued, in a faint and lady-like voice, like the last dying breath of an Arabian jessamine, or something equally ethereal, “you see, Cousin Ophelia, I don't often speak of myself. It isn't my habit; 't isn't agreeable to me. In fact, I haven't strength to do it. But there are points where St. Clare and I differ. St. Clare never understood me, never appreciated me. I think it lies at the root of all my ill health. St. Clare means well, I am bound to believe; but men are constitutionally selfish and inconsiderate to woman. That, at least, is my impression.”

  Miss Ophelia, who had not a small share of the genuine New England caution, and a very particular horror of being drawn into family difficulties, now began to foresee something of this kind impending; so, composing her face into a grim neutrality, and drawing out of her pocket about a yard and a quarter of stocking, which she kept as a specific against what Dr. Watts asserts to be a personal habit of Satan when people have idle hands, she proceeded to knit most energetically, shutting her lips together in a way that said, as plain as words could, “You needn't try to make me speak. I don't want anything to do with your affairs,”——in fact, she looked about as sympathizing as a stone lion. But Marie didn't care for that. She had got somebody to talk to, and she felt it her duty to talk, and that was enough; and reinforcing herself by smelling again at her vinaigrette, she went on.

  “You see, I brought my own property and servants into the connection, when I married St. Clare, and I am legally entitled to manage them my own way. St. Clare had his fortune and his servants, and I'm well enough content he should manage them his way; but St. Clare will be interfering. He has wild, extravagant notions about things, particularly about the treatment of servants. He really does act as if he set his servants before me, and before himself, too; for he lets them make him all sorts of trouble, and never lifts a finger. Now, about some things, St. Clare is really frightful——he frightens me——good-natured as he looks, in general. Now, he has set down his foot that, come what will, there shall not be a blow struck in this house, except what he or I strike; and he does it in a way that I really dare not cross him. Well, you may see what that leads to; for St. Clare wouldn't raise his hand, if every one of them walked over him, and I——you see how cruel it would be to require me to make the exertion. Now, you know these servants are nothing but grown-up children.”

  “I don't know anything about it, and I thank the Lord that I don't!” said Miss Ophelia, shortly.

  “Well, but you will have to know something, and know it to your cost, if you stay here. You don't know what a provoking, stupid, careless, unreasonable, childish, ungrateful set of wretches they are.”

  Marie seemed wonderfully supported, always, when she got upon this topic; and she now opened her eyes, and seemed quite to forget her languor.

  “You don't know, and you can't, the daily, hourly trials that beset a housekeeper from them, everywhere and every way. But it's no use to complain to St. Clare. He talks the strangest stuff. He says we have made them what they are, and ought to bear with them. He says their faults are all owing to us, and that it would be cruel to make the fault and punish it too. He says we shouldn't do any better, in their place; just as if one could reason from them to us, you know.”

  “Don't you believe that the Lord made them of one blood with us?” said Miss Ophelia, shortly.

  “No, indeed not I! A pretty story, truly! They are a degraded race.”

  “Don't you think they've got immortal souls?” said Miss Ophelia, with increasing indignation.

  “O, well,” said Marie, yawning, “that, of course——nobody doubts that. But as to putting them on any sort of equality with us, you know, as if we could be compared, why, it's impossible! Now, St. Clare really has talked to me as if keeping Mammy from her husband was like keeping me from mine. There's no comparing in this way. Mammy couldn't have the feelings that I should. It's a different thing altogether,—— of course, it is,——and yet St. Clare pretends not to see it. And just as if Mammy could love her little dirty babies as I love Eva! Yet St. Clare once really and soberly tried to persuade me that it was my duty, with my weak health, and all I suffer, to let Mammy go back, and take somebody else in her place. That was a little too much even for me to bear. I don't often show my feelings, I make it a principle to endure everything in silence; it's a wife's hard lot, and I bear it. But I did break out, that time; so that he has never alluded to the subject since. But I know by his looks, and little things that he says, that he thinks so as much as ever; and it's so trying, so provoking!”

  Miss Ophelia looked very much as if she was afraid she should say something; but she rattled away with her needles in a way that had volumes of meaning in it, if Marie could only have understood it.

  “So, you just see,” she continued, “what you've got to manage. A household without any rule; where servants have it all their own way, do what they please, and have what they please, except so far as I, with my feeble health, have kept up government. I keep my cowhide about, and sometimes I do lay it on; but the exertion is always too much for me. If St. Clare would only have this thing done as others do——”

  “And how's that?”

  “Why, send them to the calaboose, or some of the other places to be flogged. That's the only way. If I wasn't such a poor, feeble piece, I believe I should manage with twice the energy that St. Clare does.”

  “And how does St. Clare contrive to manage?” said Miss Ophelia. “You say he never strikes a blow.”

  “Well, men have a more commanding way, you know; it is easier for them; besides, if you ever looked full in his eye, it's peculiar,——that eye,——and if he speaks decidedly, there's a kind of flash. I'm afraid of it, myself; and the servants know they must mind. I couldn't do as much by a regular storm and scolding as St. Clare can by one turn of his eye, if once he is in earnest. O, there's no trouble about St. Clare; that's the reason he's no more feeling for me. But you'll find, when you come to manage, that there's no getting along without severity,——they are so bad, so deceitful, so lazy”。

  “The old tune,” said St. Clare, sauntering in. “What an awful account these wicked creatures will have to settle, at last, especially for being lazy! You see, cousin,” said he, as he stretched himself at full length on a lounge opposite to Marie, “it's wholly inexcusable in them, in the light of the example that Marie and I set them,——this laziness.”

  “Come, now, St. Clare, you are too bad!” said Marie.

  “Am I, now? Why, I thought I was talking good, quite remarkably for me. I try to enforce your remarks, Marie, always.”

  “You know you meant no such thing, St. Clare,” said Marie.

  “O, I must have been mistaken, then. Thank you, my dear, for setting me right.”

  “You do really try to be provoking,” said Marie.

  “O, come, Marie, the day is growing warm, and I have just had a long quarrel with Dolph, which has fatigued me excessively; so, pray be agreeable, now, and let a fellow repose in the light of your smile.”

  “What's the matter about Dolph?” said Marie. “That fellow's impudence has been growing to a point that is perfectly intolerable to me. I only wish I had the undisputed management of him a while. I'd bring him down!”

  “What you say, my dear, is marked with your usual acuteness and good sense,” said St. Clare. “As to Dolph, the case is this: that he has so long been engaged in imitating my graces and perfections, that he has, at last, really mistaken himself for his master; and I have been obliged to give him a little insight into his mistake.”

  “How?” said Marie.

  “Why, I was obliged to let him understand explicitly that I preferred to keep some of my clothes for my own personal wearing; also, I put his magnificence upon an allowance of cologne-water, and actually was so cruel as to restrict him to one dozen of my cambric handkerchiefs. Dolph was particularly huffy about it, and I had to talk to him like a father, to bring him round.”

  “O! St. Clare, when will you learn how to treat your servants? It's abominable, the way you indulge them!” said Marie.

  “Why, after all, what's the harm of the poor dog's wanting to be like his master; and if I haven't brought him up any better than to find his chief good in cologne and cambric handkerchiefs, why shouldn't I give them to him?”

  “And why haven't you brought him up better?” said Miss Ophelia, with blunt determination.

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