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Elsie's Womanhood (Chapter6)

2006-09-07 20:23

  Chapter Sixth.

  “Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?

  Draw near them then in being merciful,Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge.“——SHAKESPEARE.

  “Papa, it seems an earthly paradise,” said Elsie, “and like a dream that I have seen all before.”

  “A dream that was a reality. And it is all your own, my darling,” he answered with a proud, fond look into the bright animated face, keenly enjoying her pleasure.

  “But what, what is going on there?” she asked, gazing intently in the direction of the negro quarter, where a large crowd of them, probably all belonging to the plantation, were assembled.

  At that instant something rose in the air and descended again, and a wild shriek, a woman's wail of agony, rent the air.

  Elsie flew over the ground as though she had been a winged creature, her father having to exert himself to keep pace with her. But the whip had descended again and again, another and another of those wild shrieks testifying to the sharpness of its sting, ere they were near enough to interfere.

  So taken up with the excitement of the revolting scene were all present, that the landing and the approach of our friends had not been observed until Elsie, nearing the edge of the crowd, called out in a voice of authority, and indignation, “Stop! not another blow!”

  The crowd parted, showing a middle-aged negress stripped to the waist and tied to a whipping post, writhing and sobbing with pain and terror, while a white man stood over her with a horse-whip in his uplifted hand, stayed in mid-air by the sudden appearance of those in authority over him.

  “How dare you! how dare you!” cried Elsie, stamping her foot, and drawing a long, sobbing breath. “Take her down this instant.”

  “Mr. Spriggs, what is the meaning of this?” asked Mr. Dinsmore, in tones of calm displeasure; “did I not forbid all cruel punishment on this estate?”

  “I've got to make 'em work; I'm bound they shall, and nothing but the whip'll do it with this lazy wretch,” muttered Spriggs, dropping his whip and stepping back a little, while two stalwart fellows obeyed Elsie's order to take the woman down, a murmur at the same time running from lip to lip, “It's Marse Dinsmore, and our young missus.”

  Elsie shuddered and wept at sight of the bleeding back and shoulders. “Cover her up quickly, and take her away where she can lie down and rest,” she said to the women who were crowding round to greet and welcome herself. “I will speak to you all afterwards, I'm glad to be here among you.” Then leaning over the sufferer for an instant, with fast-dropping tears, “Be comforted,” she said, in tones of gentle compassion, “you shall never have this to endure again.”

  “Come, daughter, speak to these eager people, and let us go into the house,” said Mr. Dinsmore.

  “Yes, papa, in one moment.”

  Drawing herself up to her full height, and flashing one look of scorn and indignation out of her dark eyes upon the crest-fallen Spriggs, she addressed him with the air of a queen. “You, sir, will meet me in the library at eight o'clock this evening.”

  Turning to the men, “Dig up that post, and split it into kindling-wood for the kitchen fire.”

  Her father, while shaking hands with the blacks, speaking a kindly word to each, regarded her with mingled curiosity and admiration; thoroughly acquainted with his child as he had believed himself to be, he now saw her in a new character.

  She took his arm, and he felt that she was trembling very much. He supported her tenderly, while the women flocked about them, eagerly welcoming her to Viamede; kissing her hand, and declaring with tears in their eyes, that it was just their “dear dead young missus come back to them, like a beautiful white angel.”

  The first who claimed her attention, introduced herself as “Aunt Phillis de housekeepah. An' I'se got eberyting ready for you, honey; de beds is aired, de fires laid in de drawin'-room, an' library, an' sleepin' rooms, an' de pantry full ob the nicest tings dis chile an' ole Aunt Sally know how to cook; an' I sent Jack right to de house to start de fires de fust minute dese ole eyes catch sight ob massa an' young missus, an' knows dey heyah.”

  “My dear child, all this is quite too much for you,” said Mr. Dinsmore, attempting to draw his daughter away.

  “Just a moment, papa, please,” she answered in a slightly unsteady voice; “let me speak to them all.” He yielded, but cut short the garrulity of some who would have liked to mingle reminiscences of her baby-hood with their rejoicing over her return, telling them they must reserve such communication for a more suitable time, as their young mistress was faint and weary, and must have rest.

  The appearance of Chloe and her recovered husband upon the scene, now created a diversion in their favor, and he presently succeeded in leading Elsie to the house.

  A young mulatto girl followed them into the drawing-room, where a bright wood-fire was blazing on the hearth, asking if she should take Miss Elsie's things.

  “Yes,” Mr. Dinsmore said, removing his daughter's hat and shawl, and handing them to her.

  She left the room; and taking Elsie in his arms, and gently laying her head upon his breast, “Let the tears have their way, darling,” he said, “it will do you good.”

  For several minutes the tears came in floods. “Oh, papa,” she sobbed, “to think that my people, my poor people, should be so served. It must never, never be again!”

  “No,” he said, “we will find means to prevent it. There, you feel better now, do you not?”

  “Yes, sir. Papa dear, welcome, welcome to my house; the dearest guest that could come to it.” And wiping away her tears, she lifted her loving eyes to his, a tender smile playing about the sweet lips.

  “Save one,” he answered half-playfully, passing his hand caressingly over her hair, and bending down to press his lips on brow, and cheeks, and mouth. “Is not that so?”

  “No, my own dear father, save none,” with a charming blush, but eyes looking steadily into his; “when he comes, it shall be as master, not guest. But now tell me, please, what can I do with this Spriggs? I should like to pay him a month's wages in advance, and start him off early to-morrow morning.”

  Mr. Dinsmore shook his head gravely. “It would not do, my child. The sugar-making season will shortly begin; he understands the business thoroughly; we could not supply his place at a moment's notice, or probably in a number of months, and the whole crop would be lost. We must not be hasty or rash, but remember the Bible command, 'Let your moderation be known unto all men.' Nor should we allow ourselves to judge the man too hardly.”

  “Too hardly, papa! too hardly, when he has shown himself so cruel! But I beg pardon for interrupting you.”

  “Yes, too hardly, daughter. He is a New Englander, used to see every one about him working with steady, persevering industry, and the indolent, dawdling ways of the blacks, which we take as a matter of course, are exceedingly trying to him. I think he has been very faithful to your interests, and that probably his desire and determination to see them advanced to the utmost, led, more than anything else, to the act which seems to us so cruel.”

  “And could he suppose that I would have blood wrung from my poor people that a few more dollars might find their way into my purse?” she cried in indignant sorrow and anger. “Oh, papa, I am not so cruel, you know I am not.”

  “Yes, my darling, I know you have a very tender, loving heart.”

  “But what shall I do with Spriggs?”

  “For to-night, express your sentiments and feelings on the subject as calmly and moderately as you can, and enjoin it upon him to act in accordance with them. Then we may consider at our leisure what further measures can be taken.”

  “Papa, you are so much wiser and better than I,” she said, with loving admiration, “I'm afraid if you had not been here to advise me, I should have sent him away at once, with never a thought of crops or anything except securing my people from his cruelties.”

  “You should never allow yourself to act from mere impulse, except it be unquestionably a right one, and the case admitting of no time for deliberation. As to my superior wisdom,” he added with a smile, “I have lived some years longer than you, and had more experience in the management of business matters.”

  “I am very sorry, my darling, that the pleasure of your return to the home of your infancy should be so marred. But you have scarcely taken a look yet at even this room. What do you think of it?”

  She glanced about her with freshly aroused curiosity and interest. “Papa, it is just to my taste!”

  The firelight gleamed upon rare old cabinets, gems of art in painting and statuary, and rich, massive, well-preserved, though old-fashioned sofas, chairs, tables, etc. But it was already growing dark, deep shadows were gathering in the more distant parts of the spacious apartment, and only near the fire could objects be distinctly seen. Elsie was about to ring for lights, when Sarah, the mulatto girl, appeared, bringing them, Chloe following close in the rear.

  “Have you fires and lights in the library, the dining-room, and your master's rooms and mine?” inquired Elsie.

  “De fires is lit, Miss Elsie.”

  “Then add the lights at once, and put them in all the principal rooms of the house. We will have an illumination in honor of our arrival, papa,” she said, in a sprightly tone, turning to him with one of her sweetest smiles, “and besides, I want to see the whole house now.”

  “Are you not too much fatigued, daughter? and would it not be better to defer it till to-morrow?”

  “I don't think I'm too tired, papa; but if you forbid me——”

  “No, I don't forbid or even advise, if you are sure you feel equal to the exertion.”

  “Thank you, sir, I think I'll be better able to sleep if I've seen at least the most of it; old memories are troubling me, and I want to see how far they are correct You will go with me?”

  “Certainly,” he said, giving her his arm. “But while the servants are obeying your order in regard to the lights, let us examine these paintings more attentively. They will repay close scrutiny, for some of them are by the first masters. Your Grandfather Grayson seems to have been a man of cultivated taste, as well as great business talent.”

  “Yes, papa. What is it, mammy?”

  “Does you want me, darlin'?”

  “No, not now. Go and enjoy yourself with your husband and old friends.”

  Chloe expressed her grateful thanks, and withdrew.

  Elsie found the paintings and statuary a study, and had scarcely finished her survey of the drawing-room and its treasures of art, when Aunt Phillis came to ask if they would have tea served up immediately.

  Elsie looked at her father.

  “Yes,” he said; “you will feel stronger after eating, and it is about our usual time.”

  “Then let us have it, Aunt Phillis. How is that poor creature now?” asked her young mistress.

  “Suse, honey? oh, she'll do well 'nuff; don't do her no harm to take some ob de lazy blood out. Massa Spriggs not so terrible cross, Miss Elsie; but he bound de work git done, an' Suse she mighty powerful lazy, jes' set in de sun an' do nuffin' from mornin' to night, ef nobody roun' to make her work.”

  “Ah, that is very bad; we must try to reform her in some way. But perhaps she's not well.”

  “Dunno, missus; she's always 'plaining ob de misery in her back, an' misery in her head; but don't ebery one hab a misery, some kind, most days? an' go on workin' all de same. No, missus, Suse she powerful lazy ole nigga.”

  With that Phillis retired, and shortly after, tea was announced as ready.

  Elsie played the part of hostess to perfection, presiding over the tea-urn with ease and grace, and pressing upon her father the numerous dainties with which the table was loaded. She seemed to have recovered her spirits, and as she sat there gayly chatting——of the room, which pleased her as entirely as the other, and of her plans for usefulness and pleasure during her stay, he thought he had never seen her look happier or more beautiful.

  “What rooms have you prepared for your mistress, Aunt Phillis?” asked Mr. Dinsmore, as they rose from the table.

  “De same whar she was born, massa, an' whar her dear bressed ma stay when she livin' heyah.”

  A slight shadow stole over Elsie's bright face. “That was right,” she said, low and softly. “I should prefer them to any others. But where are papa's rooms?”

  “Jes' across de hall, Miss Elsie.”

  “That is a good arrangement,” said Mr. Dinsmore. “Now, daughter, I think we should repair to the library. It is near the hour you appointed for Mr. Spriggs.”

  “Just as handsome, as tastefully, appropriately, and luxuriously furnished as the others,” was Elsie's comment on the library. “I seem to see the same hand everywhere.”

  “Yes, and it is the same all over the house,” replied her father. “The books here will delight you; for a private library it is a very fine one, containing many hundred volumes, as you may see at a glance; standard works on history, and the arts and sciences, biographies, travels, works of reference, the works of the best poets, novelists, etc.”

  “Ah, how we will enjoy them while here! But it seems a sad pity they should have lain on those shelves unused for so many years.”

  “Not entirely, my child; I have enjoyed them in my brief visits to the plantation, and have always allowed the overseer free access to them, on the single condition that they should be handled with care, and each returned promptly to its proper place when done with. But come, take this easy chair by this table; here are some fine engravings I want you to look at.”

  Elsie obeyed, but had scarcely seated herself when the door was thrown open and a servant's voice announced, “Massa Spriggs, Massa Dinsmore and Miss Elsie.”

  Spriggs, a tall, broad-shouldered, powerfully-built man, with dark hair and beard and a small, keen black eye, came forward with a bold free air and a “Good-even', miss, good-even', sir;” adding, as he helped himself to a seat without waiting for an invitation, “Well, here I am, and I s'pose you've somethin' to say or you wouldn't have appointed the meetin'.”

  “Yes, Mr. Spriggs,” said Elsie, folding her pretty hands in her lap and looking steadily and coldly into his brazen face, “I have this to say; that I entirely disapprove of flogging, and will have none of it on the estate. I hope you understand me.”

  “That's plain English and easy understood, Miss Dinsmore, and Dinsmore, and of course you have a right to dictate in the matter; but I tell you what, these darkies o' yours are a dreadful lazy set, specially that Suse; and it's mighty hard for folks that's been used to seein' things done up spick and span and smart to put up with it.”

  “But some amount of patience with the natural slowness of the negro is a necessary trait in the character of an overseer who wishes to remain in my employ.”

  “Well, miss, I always calculate to do the very best I can by my employers, and when you come to look round the estate, I guess you'll find things in prime order; but I couldn't ha' done it without lettin' the darkies know they'd got to toe the mark right straight.”

  “They must attend to the work, of course, and if they won't do so willingly, must under compulsion; but there are milder measures than this brutal flogging.”

  “What do you prescribe, Miss Dinsmore?”

  “Deprive them of some privilege, or lock them up on bread and water for a few days,” Elsie answered; then turned an appealing look upon her father, who had as yet played the part of a mere listener.

  “I have never allowed any flogging on my estate,” he observed, addressing Spriggs, “and I cannot think it at all necessary.”

  There was a moment of silence, Spriggs sitting looking into the fire, a half-smile playing about his lips; then turning to Elsie, “I thought, miss, you'd a mind this evening to dismiss me on the spot,” he remarked inquiringly.

  She flushed slightly, but replied with dignity, “If you will comply with my directions, sir, pledging yourself never again to be so cruel, I have no desire to dismiss you from my service.”

  “All right then, miss. I promise, and shall still do the best I can for your interests; but if they suffer because I'm forbidden to use the lash, please remember it's not my fault.”

  “I am willing to take the risk,” she answered, intimating with a motion of her hand that she considered the interview at an end; whereupon he rose and bowed himself out.

  “Now, papa, for our tour of inspection,” she cried gayly, rising as she spoke, and ringing for a servant to carry the light. “But first please tell me if I was sufficiently moderate.”

  “You did very well,” he answered, smiling. “You take to the role of mistress much more naturally than I expected.”

  “Yet it does seem very odd to me to be giving orders while you sit by a mere looker-on. But, dear papa, please remember I am still your own child, and ready to submit to your authority, whenever you see fit to exert it.”

  “I know it, my darling,” he said, passing an arm about her waist, as they stood together in front of the fire, and gazing fondly down into the sweet fair face.

  Aunt Chloe answered the bell, bringing a lamp in her hand.

  “That is right, mammy,” Elsie said. “Now lead the way over the house.”

  As they passed from room to room, and from one spacious hall or corridor to another, Elsie expressed her entire satisfaction with them and their appointments, and accorded to Aunt Phillis the meed of praise due her careful housekeeping.

  “And here, my darling,” Mr. Dinsmore said at length, leading the way through a beautiful boudoir and dressing-room into an equally elegant and attractive bedroom beyond, “they tell me you were born, and your beloved mother passed from earth to heaven.”

  “An' eberyting in de room stands jees' as dey did den, honey,” said Aunt Chloe. And approaching the bed, her eyes swimming in tears, and laying her hand upon the pillow, “jes' here my precious young missus lie, wid cheeks 'mos' as white as de linen, an' eyes so big an' bright, an' de lubly curls streamin' all roun', an' she say, weak an' low, 'Mammy, bring me my baby.' Den I put you in her arms, darlin', an' she kiss you all ober your tiny face, an' de tears an' sobs come fast while she say, 'Poor little baby; no fader no mudder to lub her! nobody but you, mammy; take her an' bring her up to lub de dear Lord Jesus.'”

  Silent tears rolled down Elsie's cheeks as she looked and listened; but her father drew her to his breast and kissed them away, his own eyes brimming, his heart too full for speech.

  Presently he led her back to the boudoir, and showed her the portraits of her maternal grandparents, and one of her mother, taken at ten or twelve years of age.

  “What a lovely little girl she was,” murmured Elsie, gazing lovingly upon it.

  “Very much like what her daughter was at the same age,” he answered. “But come, this, too, will interest you.” And lifting the lid of a dainty work-basket, he pointed to a bit of embroidery, in which the needle was still sticking, as though it had been laid down by the deft fingers but a few moments ago.

  Elsie caught it up and kissed it, thinking of the touch of those dear dead fingers, that seemed to linger over it yet.

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