Miriam sat in her lowly cabin, painfully rocking her body to and fro; for a great sorrow had fallen upon her life. She had been the mother of three children, two had died in their infancy, and now her last, her loved and only child was gone, but not like the rest, who had passed away almost as soon as their little feet had touched the threshold of existence. She had been entangled in the mazes of sin and sorrow; and her sun had gone down in darkness. It was the old story. Agnes, fair, young and beautiful, had been a slave, with no power to protect herself from the highest insults that brutality could offer to innocence. Bound hand and foot by that system, which has since gone down in wrath, and blood, and tears, she had fallen a victim to the wiles and power of her master; and the result was the introduction of a child of shame into a world of sin and suffering; for herself an early grave; and for her mother a desolate and breaking heart.
While Miriam was sitting down hopelessly beneath the shadow of her mighty grief, gazing ever and anon on the pale dead face, which seemed to bear in its sad but gentle expression, an appeal from earth to heaven, some of the slaves would hurry in, and looking upon the fair young face, would drop a word of pity for the weeping mother, and then hurry on to their appointed tasks. All day long Miriam sat alone with her dead, except when these kindly interruptions broke upon the monotony of her sorrow.
In the afternoon, Camilla, the only daughter of her master, entered her cabin, and throwing her arms around her neck exclaimed, “Oh! Mammy, I am so sorry I didn’t know Agnes was dead. I’ve been on a visit to Mr. Le Grange’s plantation, and I’ve just got back this afternoon, and as soon as I heard that Agnes was dead I hurried to see you. I would not even wait for my dinner. Oh! how sweet she looks,” said Camilla, bending over the corpse, “just as natural as life. When did she die?”
“This morning, my poor, dear darling!” And another burst of anguish relieved the overcharged heart.
“Oh! Mammy, don’t cry, I am so sorry; but what is this?” said she, as the little bundle of flannel began to stir.
“That is poor Agnes’ baby.”
“Agnes’ baby? Why, I didn’t know that Agnes had a baby. Do let me see it?”
Tenderly the grandmother unfolded the wrappings, and presented the little stranger. He was a beautiful babe, whose golden hair, bright blue eyes and fair complexion showed no trace of the outcast blood in his veins.
“Oh, how beautiful!” said Camilla; “surely this can’t be Agnes’ baby. He is just as white as I am, and his eyes—what a beautiful blue—and his hair, why it is really lovely.”
“He is very pretty, Miss, but after all he is only a slave.”
A slave. She had heard that word before; but somehow, when applied to that fair child, it grated harshly on her ear; and she said, “Well, I think it is a shame for him to be a slave, when he is just as white as anybody. Now, Mammy,” said she, throwing off her hat, and looking soberly into the fire, “if I had my way, he should never be a slave.”
“And why can’t you have your way? I’m sure master humors you in everything.”
“I know that; Pa does everything I wish him to do; but I don’t know how I could manage about this. If his mother were living, I would beg Pa to set them both free, and send them North; but his mother is gone; and, Mammy, we couldn’t spare you. And besides, it is so cold in the North, you would freeze to death, and yet, I can’t bear the thought of his being a slave. I wonder,” said she, musing to herself, “I wonder if I couldn’t save him from being a slave. Now I have it,” she said, rising hastily, her face aglow with pleasurable excitement. “I was reading yesterday a beautiful story in the Bible about a wicked king, who wanted to kill all the little boys of a people who were enslaved in his land, and how his mother hid her child by the side of a river, and that the king’s daughter found him and saved his life. It was a fine story; and I read it till I cried. Now I mean to do something like that good princess. I am going to ask Pa, to let me take him to the house, and have a nurse for him, and bring him up like a white child, and never let him know that he is colored.”
Miriam shook her head doubtfully; and Camilla, looking disappointed, said, “Don’t you like my plan?”
“Laws, honey, it would be fustrate, but your Pa wouldn’t hear to it.”
“Yes, he would, Mammy, because I’ll tell him I’ve set my heart upon it, and won’t be satisfied if he don’t consent. I know if I set my heart upon it, he won’t refuse me, because he always said he hates to see me fret. Why, Mammy, he bought me two thousand dollars worth of jewelry when we were in New York, just because I took a fancy to a diamond set which I saw at Tiffany’s. Anyhow, I am going to ask him.” Eager and anxious to carry out her plan, Camilla left the cabin to find her father. He was seated in his library, reading Homer. He looked up, as her light step fell upon the threshold, and said playfully, “What is your wish, my princess? Tell me, if it is the half of my kingdom.”
Encouraged by his manner, she drew near, perched upon his knee, and said; “Now, you must keep your word, Pa. I have a request to make, but you must first promise me that you will grant it.”
“But I don’t know what it is. I can’t tell. You might want me to put my head in the fire.”
“Oh no, Pa, you know I don’t!”
“Well, you might wish me to run for Congress.”
“Oh no, Pa, I know that you hate politics.”
“Well, darling, what is your request?”
“No; tell me first that you will grant it. Now, don’t tease me, Pa; say yes, and I will tell you.”
“Well, yes; if it is anything in reason.”
“Well, it is in reason, let me tell you, Pa. To-day, after I came home, I asked Annette where was Agnes, and she told me she was dead. Oh I was so sorry; and so before I got my dinner I hastened to Mammy’s cabin, and found poor Mammy almost heart-broken, and Agnes lying dead, but looking just as natural as life.”
“She was dead, but had left one of the dearest little babies I ever saw. Why, Pa, he is just as white as we are; and I told Mammy so, but she said it didn’t matter; ‘he is a poor slave, just like the rest of us.’ Now, Pa, I don’t want Agnes’ baby to be a slave. Can’t you keep him from growing up a slave?”
“How am I to do that, my little Abolitionist?”
“No, Pa, I am not an Abolitionist. I heard some of them talk when I was in New York, and I think they are horrid creatures; but, Pa, this child is so white, nobody would ever know that he had one drop of Negro blood in his veins. Couldn’t we take him out of that cabin, and make all the servants promise that they would never breathe a word about his being colored, and let me bring him up as a white child?”
“Well,” said Mr. Le Croix, bursting into a hearty laugh, “that is a capital joke; my little dewdrop talk of bringing up a child! Why, darling, you would tire of him in a week.”
“Oh no, Pa, I wouldn’t! Just try me; if it is only for a week.”
“Why, Sunbeam, it is impossible. Who ever heard of such a thing as a
Negro being palmed upon society as a white person?”
“Negro! Pa, he is just as white as you are, and his eyes are as blue as mine.”
“Still he belongs to the Negro race; and one drop of that blood in his veins curses all the rest. I would grant you anything in reason, but this is not to be thought of. Were I to do so I would immediately lose caste among all the planters in the neighborhood; I would be set down as an Abolitionist, and singled out for insult and injury. Ask me anything, Camilla, but that.”
“Oh, Pa, what do you care about social position? You never hunt, nor entertain company, nor take any part in politics. You shut yourself up in your library, year after year, and pore over your musty books, and hardly any one knows whether you are dead or alive. And I am sure that we could hide the secret of his birth, and pass him off as the orphan child of one of our friends, and that will be the truth; for Agnes was our friend; at least I know she was mine.”
“Well, I’ll see about it; now, get down, and let me finish reading this chapter.”
The next day Camilla went again to the cabin of Miriam; but the overseer had set her to a task in the field, and Agnes’ baby was left to the care of an aged woman who was too old to work in the fields, but not being entirely past service, she was appointed as one of the nurses for the babies and young children, while their mothers were working in the fields.
Camilla, feeling an unusual interest in the child, went to the overseer, and demanded that Miriam should be released from her tasks, and permitted to attend the child.
In vain the overseer plead the pressure for hands, and the busy season. Camilla said it did not matter, she wanted Miriam, and she would have her; and he, feeling that it was to his interest to please the little lady, had Miriam sent from the field to Camilla.
“Mammy, I want you to come to the house. I want you to come and be my Mammy. Agnes is dead; your husband is gone, and I want you to come and bring the baby to the house, and I am going to get him some beautiful dresses, and some lovely coral I saw in New Orleans, and I am going to dress him so handsomely, that I believe Pa will feel just as I do, and think it a shame that such a beautiful child should be a slave.”
Camilla went home, and told her father what she had done. And he, willing to compromise with her, readily consented; and in a day or two the child and his grandmother were comfortably ensconced in their new quarters.
The winter passed; the weeks ripened into months, and the months into years, and the child under the pleasant dispensations of love and kindness grew to be a fine, healthy, and handsome boy.
One day, when Mr. Le Croix was in one of his most genial moods, Camilla again introduced the subject which she had concealed, but not abandoned.
“Now, father, I do think it is a shame for this child to be a slave, when he is just as white as anybody; I am sure we could move away from here to France, and you could adopt him as your son, and no one would know anything of his birth and parentage. He is so beautiful, I would like him for my brother; and he looks like us anyhow.”
Le Croix flushed deep at these words, and he looked keenly into his daughter’s face; but her gaze was so open, her expression so frank and artless, he could not think that her words had any covert meaning in reference to the paternity of the child; but to save that child from being a slave, and to hide his origin was with her a pet scheme; and, to use her own words, “she had set her heart upon it.”
Mr. Bernard Le Croix was the only son of a Spanish lady, and a French gentleman, who were married in Hayti a few months before the revolution, which gave freedom to the Island, and made Hayti an independent nation.
His father, foreseeing the storm which was overshadowing the land, contrived to escape, bringing with him a large amount of personal property; and preferring a climate similar to his own, he bought a plantation on Red river, and largely stocked it with slaves. Only one child blessed their union; Bernard Le Croix, who grew up sensitive, shy and retiring, with a taste for solitude and literary pursuits.
During the troubles in Hayti, his uncle and only daughter escaped from the Island, leaving every thing behind except the clothing upon their persons, and a few jewels they had hastily collected. Broken in spirits, feeble in health, Louis Le Croix reached Louisiana, only to die in his brother’s arms and to leave his orphan daughter to his care. She was about ten years old and Bernard was twelve, and in their childhood was commenced a friendship which ripened into love and marriage. Bernard’s father and mother lived long enough to see their first and only grandchild, and then died, leaving their son a large baronial estate, 500 slaves, and a vast amount of money.
Passionately fond of literature, aesthetic in his tastes, he devoted himself to poetry and the ancient classics; filled his home with the finest paintings and the most beautiful statuary, and had his gardens laid out in the most exquisite manner. And into that beautiful home he brought his young and lovely bride; but in that fair house where velvet carpets hushed her tread, and magnificence surrounded her path, she drooped and faded. Day by day her cheek grew paler, her footsteps slower, until she passed away like a thing of love and light, and left her heart-broken husband and a child of six summers to mourn her loss.
Bernard, ever shy and sensitive, grew more so after the death of his wife. He sought no society; seemed to lose all interest in politics; and secluded himself in his library till he had almost passed from the recollection of his nearest neighbors. He superintended the education of his daughter, because he could not bear the thought of being separated from her. And she, seeing very little of society, and reading only from the best authors, both ancient and modern, was growing up with very little knowledge of the world, except what she learned from books.
Without any female relatives to guide her, she had no other associates than the servants of her household, and the family of Mr. Le Grange. Her mother’s nurse and favorite servant had taken the charge of her after her death, and Agnes had been her nurse and companion.
Camilla, although [adored?] and petted by every one, and knowing no law but her own will, was still a very lovely child. Her father, wrapped in his literary pursuits, had left the entire control of his plantation to overseers, in whom he trusted almost implicitly. And many a tale of wrong and sorrow came to the ear of Camilla; for these simple-minded people had learned to love her, and to trust in her as an angel of mercy. Often would she interfere in their behalf, and tell the story of their wrongs to her father. And at her instance, more than one overseer had been turned away; which, coming to the ears of others, made them cautious how they offended the little lady, for young as she was they soon learned that she had great influence with her ease-loving father, who would comply with almost any fancy or request rather than see her unhappy or fretting.
And Camilla, knowing her power, insisted that Agnes’ child should be raised as a white child, and the secret of his birth effectually concealed. At first, Mr. Le Croix thought it was a passing whim that she would soon forget; that the child would amuse and interest her for awhile; and then she would tire of him as she had of other things; such as her birds, her squirrel, and even her Shetland pony. But when he found that instead of her intention being a passing whim it was a settled purpose, he made up his mind to accede to her wishes.
His plan was to take the child North, to have him educated, and then adopt him as his son. And in fact the plan rather suited him; for then he could care for him as a son, without acknowledging the relationship. And being a member of two nations having a Latin basis, he did not feel the same pride of race and contempt and repulsion for weaker races which characterizes the proud and imperious Anglo-Saxon.
The next Summer Mr. Le Croix took a journey to the North, taking Louis and Camilla with him. He found a very pleasant family school in New England; and having made suitable arrangements, he left Louis in the care of the matron, whose kindness and attentions soon won the child’s heart; and before he left the North, Louis seemed perfectly contented with his new home.
Camilla was delighted with her tour; the constant companion of her father, she visited with him every place of amusement or interest they could find. She was much pleased with the factories; and watched with curious eyes the intelligent faces of the operatives, as they plied with ready fingers their daily tasks. Sometimes she would contrast their appearance with the laborers she had seen wending their way into their lowly huts; and then her face would grow sober even to sadness. A puzzled expression would flit over her countenance, as if she were trying to solve a problem which was inexplicable to her.
One day on the hunt for some new excitement, her father passed down Tremont St., and saw advertised, in large letters, on the entrance to Tremont Temple, “Anti Slavery Meeting;” and never having been in such a place before he entered, impelled by a natural curiosity to hear what could be said against a system in which he had been involved from his earliest recollections, without taking the pains to examine it.
The first speaker was a colored man. This rather surprised him. He had been accustomed to colored men all the days of his life; and as such, he had known some of them to be intelligent, shrewd, and wide awake; but this was a new experience. The man had been a slave, and recounted in burning words the wrongs which had been heaped upon him. He told that he had been a husband and a father: that his wife had possessed (for a slave) the “fatal gift of beauty;” that a trader, from whose presence her soul had recoiled with loathing, had marked her as his prey. Then he told how he had knelt at his master’s feet, and implored him not to sell her, but it was all in vain. The trader was rich in sin-cursed gold; and he was poor and weak. He next attempted to describe his feelings when he saw his wife and children standing on the auction block; and heard the coarse jests of the spectators, and the fierce competition of the bidders.
The speaker made a deep impression upon the minds of the audience; and even Le Croix, who had been accustomed to slavery all his life, felt a sense of guilt passing over him for his complicity in the system; whilst Camilla grew red and pale by turns, and clutching her little hands nervously together, said, “Father, let us go home.”
Le Croix saw the deep emotion on his daughter’s face, and the nervous twitchings of her lips, and regretted that he had introduced her to such an exciting scene.
When they were seated in their private parlor, Le Croix said: “Birdie, I am sorry that we attended that meeting this morning. I didn’t believe a word that nigger said; and yet these people all drank it down as if every word were gospel truth. They are a set of fanatics, calculated to keep the nation in hot water. I hope that you will never enter such a place again. Did you believe one word that negro said?”
“Why, yes, Pa, I did, because our Isaac used to tell me just such a story as that. If I had shut my eyes, I could have imagined that it was Isaac telling his story.”
“Isaac! What business had Isaac telling you any such stories?”
“Oh, Pa, don’t get angry with Isaac. It wasn’t his fault; it was mine.
“You know when you brought him home to drive the carriage, he used to look so sorrowful, and I said to him one day, Isaac, what makes you so sad? Why don’t you laugh and talk, like Jerry and Sam?
“And he said, ‘Oh Missus, I can’t! Ise got a mighty heap of trouble on my mind.’ And he looked so down-hearted when he said this, I wanted to know what was the matter; but he said, ‘It won’t do, for a little lady like you to know the troubles of we poor creatures,’ but one day, when Sam came home from New Orleans he brought him a letter from his wife, and he really seemed to be overjoyed, and he kissed the letter, and put it in his bosom, and I never saw him look half so happy before. So the next day when I asked him to get the pony ready, he asked me if I wouldn’t read it for him. He said he had been trying to make it out, but somehow he could not get the hang of the words, and so I sat down and read it to him. Then he told me about his wife, how beautiful she was; and how a trader, a real mean man, wanted to buy her, and that he had begged his master not to sell her; but it was no use. She had to go; but he was glad of one thing; the trader was dead, and his wife had got a place in the city with a very nice lady, and he hoped to see her when he went to New Orleans. Pa, I wonder how slavery came to be. I should hate to belong to anybody, wouldn’t you, Pa?”
“Why, yes, darling, but then the negroes are contented, and wouldn’t take their freedom, if you would give it to them.”
“I don’t know about that, Pa; there was Mr. Le Grange’s Peter. Mr. Le Grange used to dress him so fine and treat him so well that he thought no one would ever tempt Peter to leave him; and he came North with him every year for three or four summers, and he always made out that he was afraid of the abolitionists—bobolitionists he used to call them—and Mr. Le Grange just believed that Peter was in earnest, and somehow he got Mrs. Le Grange to bring his wife North to wait on her. And when they both got here, they both left; and Mrs. Le Grange had to wait on herself, until she got another servant. She told me she had got enough of the North, and never wanted to see it again so long as she lived; that she wouldn’t have taken three thousand dollars for them.”
“Well, darling, they would have never left, if these meddlesome abolitionists hadn’t put it in their heads; but, darling, don’t bother your brain about such matters. See what I have bought you this morning,” said he, handing her a necklace of the purest pearls; “here, darling, is a birth-day present for you.” Camilla took the necklace, and gazing absently upon it said, “I can’t understand it.”
“What is it, my little philosopher, that you can’t understand?”
“Pa, I can’t understand slavery; that man made me think it was something very bad. Do you think it can be right?”
Le Croix’s face flushed suddenly, and he bit his lip, but said nothing, and commenced reading the paper.
“Why don’t you answer me, Pa?” Le Croix’s brow grew darker, but he tried to conceal his vexation, and quietly said, “Darling, never mind. Don’t puzzle your little head about matters you cannot understand, and which our wisest statesmen cannot solve.”
Camilla said no more, but a new train of thought had been awakened. She had lived so much among the slaves, and had heard so many tales of sorrow breathed confidentially into her ears, that she had unconsciously imbibed their view of the matter; and without comprehending the injustice of the system, she had learned to view it from their standpoint of observation.
What she had seen of slavery in the South had awakened her sympathy and compassion. What she had heard of it in the North had aroused her sense of justice. She had seen the old system under a new light. The good seed was planted, which was yet to yield its harvest of blessed deeds.
“What is the matter?” said St. Pierre Le Grange, as he entered suddenly the sitting-room of his wife, Georgietta Le Grange, and saw her cutting off the curls from the head of little girl about five years old, the child of a favorite slave.
“Matter enough!” said the angry wife, her cheeks red with excitement and her eyes half blinded with tears of vexation. “This child shan’t stay here; and if she does, she shall never again be taken for mine.”
“Who took her for yours? What has happened that has brought about all this excitement?”
“Just wait a minute,” said Georgietta, trying to frame her excitement into words.
“Yesterday I invited the Le Fevres and the Le Counts, and a Northern lady they had stopping with Mrs. Le Fevre, to dine with us. To-day I told Ellen to have the servants all cleaned up, and looking as well as possible; and so I distributed around more than a dozen turbans, for I wanted Mrs. King to see how much better and happier our negroes looked here than they do when they are free in the North, and what should Ellen do but dress up her little minx in her best clothes, and curl her hair and let her run around in the front yard.”
“So she overdid the thing,” said Le Grange, beginning to comprehend the trouble.
“Yes, she did, but she will never do it again,” exclaimed Mrs. Le
Grange, her dark eyes flashing defiantly.
Le Grange bit his lip, but said nothing. He saw the storm that was brewing, and about to fall on the head of the hapless child and mother, and thought that he would do nothing to increase it.
“When Mrs. Le Fevre,” continued Georgietta, “alighted from the carriage, she noticed the child, and calling the attention of the whole party to her, said, ‘Oh, how beautiful she is! The very image of her father.’ ‘Mrs. Le Grange,’ said she, after passing the compliments of the day, ‘I congratulate you on having such a beautiful child. She is the very image of her father. And how large she is for her age.’ Just then Marie came to the door and said ‘She’s not my sister, that is Ellen’s child.’ I saw the gentlemen exchange glances, and the young ladies screw up their mouths to hide their merriment, while Mrs. Le Fevre, with all her obtuseness, seemed to comprehend the blunder, and she said, ‘Child, you must excuse me, for my poor old eyes are getting so good for nothing I can hardly tell one person from the other.’ I blundered some kind of answer, I hardly know what I said. I was almost ready to die with vexation; but this shall never happen again.”
“What are you going to do?”
“You see what I have begun to do. I am going to have all this curling business broken up, and I am going to have her dressed in domestic, like the other little niggers. I’ll let Ellen know that I am mistress here; and as soon as a trader comes along I mean to sell her. I want a new set of pearls anyhow.”
Le Grange made no reply. He was fond of the child, but knowing what a termagant his wife was, he thought that silence like discretion was the better part of valor, and hastily beat a retreat from her presence.
“Take these curls and throw them away,” said Mrs. Le Grange to Sally, her waiting-maid. “Move quick, and take this child into the kitchen, and don’t let me see her in the front yard again. Do you hear what I say?” said Georgiette in a sharp, shrill tone. “Don’t you let me see that child in the front yard again. Here, before you go, darken this room, and let me see if I can get any rest. I am so nervous, I am almost ready to fly.”
Sally did as she was bidden; and taking the child to the kitchen, exclaimed to Milly, the cook, “Hi! Oh! there’s been high times upstairs to-day.”
“What’s the matter?” said Milly, wiping the dough from her hands, and turning her face to Sally.
“Oh! Missus mad ’bout Ellen’s child. She’s mad as a March hare. See how she’s cut all her hair off.”
“A debil,” said Milly. “What did she do dat for? She is allers up to some debilment. What did that poor innercence child do to her? I wonder what she’ll get at next!”
“I don’t know, but to-day when Mrs. Le Ferre come’d here she kissed the child, and said it was the very image of its father, and Missus just looked mad enough to run her through.”
Milly, in spite of her indignation could not help laughing. “Well, that’s a good joke. I guess Missus’ high as ninety. What did Massa say?”
“He neber said a word; he looked like he’d been stealin’ a sheep; and Missus she jist cut up high, and said she was going to keep her hair cut short, and have her dressed in domestic, and kept in the kitchen, and when she got a good chance she meant to sell her, for she wanted a new set of pearls anyhow. Massa neber said beans. I jist b’lieve he’s feared of her. She’s sich a mity piece. I spect some night the debil will come and fly way wid her. I hope so anyhow.”
To which not very pious wish Milly replied, “I am fraid there is no such good luck. Nothin’ don’t s’prise me that Miss Georgiette does ’cause she’s a chip off the old block. Her mother’s poor niggers used to be cut up and slashed all the time; for she was a horse at the mill. De debil was in dat woman big as a sheep. Dere was Nancy, my fellow servant; somehow she got a spite agin Nancy’s husban’, said he shouldn’t come dere any more. Pore Nancy, her and Andy war libing together in dar nice little cabin, and Nancy did keep ebery ting shinin’ like a new pin, ’cause she would work so hard when she was done her task for Missus. But one day Missus got de debil in her, and sayed Andy shouldn’t come der any more, and she jist had all Nancy’s tings took out de cabin and shut it up, and made her come and sleep in de house. Pore Nancy, she cried as if her heart would break right in two; and she says why does you take my husban’ from me? and Missus said I did it to please my own self, and den Nancy kneeled at her feet and said, ‘Missus I’ll get up before day and set up till twelve or one o’clock at night and work for you, but please don’t take me from my husban’. An’ what do you think ole Missus did? Why she jist up wid her foot and kicked Nancy in de mouf, and knocked out two of her teef. I seed her do it wid my own blessed eyes. An’ I sed to myself de debil will never git his own till he gits you. Well she did worry dat pore cretur almost to death. She used to make her sleep in the room wid her chillen, and locked de door ebery night, and Sundays she’d lebe some one to watch her, she was so fraid she’d git to see her husban’. An’ dis Miss Georgiette is de very moral of her Ma, and she’s jist as big as a spitfire.”
“Hush,” said Milly, “here comes Jane. Don’t say no more ’bout Missus, cause she’s real white people’s nigger, and tells all she knows, and what she don’t.”
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper