Women's Short Fictions: A Nineteenth-Century Online Anthology--return to Index

Down the River

by Harriet Prescott Spofford (1835-1921)

Text from Atlantic Monthly, 16 (Oct. 1865), 468-490.

She was of pure race, black as her first ancestor,--if, indeed, she ever had an ancestor, and were not an indigenous outcrop of African soil,--so black that the sun could gild her. Her countenance was as unlovely as it is possible for one to be that owns the cheeriest of smiles and the most dazzling of teeth. It would have been difficult to say how old she was, though she had the effect of being undersized, and, with sharp shoulders, elbows, and knees, seemed scarcely possessed of a rounded muscle in all her lithe and agile frame.

Nevertheless, she was a dancer by profession,--if she could have dignified her most frequent occupation by the title of profession. With a thin blue scarf turbaned round her head in floating ends, and with scanty and clinging array otherwise, tossing a tambourine, and singing wild, meaningless songs, she used to whirl and spring on the grass-plot of an evening, the young masters and mistresses smiling and applauding from the verandah, while the wind-blown flame of a flaring pitch-pine knot, held by little Pluto, gave her strange careering shadows for partner.

She had not yet been allotted to any particular task by day, now running the errands of the house, now tending the sick, now, in punishment of misdemeanors, relieving an exhausted hand in the field,--for, though all along the upland lay the piny woods of the turpentine-orchards, she belonged to an estate whose rich lowlands were devoted to cotton-bearing. But whatever she did by day, she danced by night, with her wild gyration and gesture, as naturally as a moth flies; and when not in demand with the seigniory, was wont to perform in even keener force and fire at the quarters, to an admiring circle of her own kind, with ambitious imitators on the outskirts.

It was not, however, an indiscriminate assemblage even there that encouraged her rude art. There are circles within circles, and the more decorous of the slaves gave small favor to the young posturer, although the patronage she received from the house enabled her to meet their disapprobation defiantly; while to the younger portion, in the vague sense that there was something wrong about it, her dance became surrounded by all the attraction and allurement of seeing life. It was not that the frowning ones did not go through many of the same motions themselves; but theirs were occasioned by the frenzy of religious excitement, where pious rap-


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ture and ecstasy were to be expressed by nothing but the bodily exertion of the Shout: the objectless dance of the dancer was a thing beyond their comprehension, dimly at first, and then positively, associated with sin. But she laughed them down with a gibe; she felt triumphant in the possession of her secret, known to none of them: her dance was not objectless, but the perpetual expression of all emotions, whether of beauty or joy or gratitude or praise. Some one at the house had given her a pair of little hoops with bells attached, which she was wont to wear about her ankles, and it afforded her malicious enjoyment to scatter her opponents by the tintinnabulation of her step. For all that levity, she was not destitute of her peculiar mode of adoration. For the religioun of the Shout she had no absorbents whatever; she furtively watched it, and openly ridiculed it; but she had a religion of her own, notwithstanding,--a sort of primitive and grand religion, Fetich though it was. She reasoned, that the kindly brown earth produces us, bears us along on it flight, nourishes us, gives us the delights of life, takes us back into its bosom at last. She worshipped the great dark earth, imparted to it her confidence, asked of it her boons. As she grew older, and her logic or her fancy strengthened, she might have felt the sun supplying the earth, and the beings of the earth, with all their force, and have become a fire-worshipper, until further light broke on her, and she sought and found the Power that feeds the very sun himself. But at present the dust of which she was made was what she could best comprehend. So, fortified by her inward faith, and feeling herself fast friends with the ancient earth, she continued to ring her silver bells and spin her bare twinkling feet with contented disregard of those, few of whom in their unseemly worship had the faintest idea of what it was that ailed them.

Although known by various titles on the plantation, objurgatory among the hands, facetious among the heads, such as Dancing Devil, Spinning Jenny, Tarantella, Herodias's Daughter,--which last, simplifying itself into Salome, became in its diminutives the most prevalent,--the creature had a name of her own, the softest of syllables. Black and uncouth as she was, a word, one of those the whitest and most beautiful, named her; and since they tell us that every appellation has its significance for the wearer, we must suppose that somewhere in her soul that white and blossoming thing was to be found which answered to the name of Flor.

She possessed a kind of freehold in the cabin of an old negress yclept Zoe; but she seldom claimed it, for Zoe was outspoken; she preferred, instead, to lie down by night on a mat in Miss Emma's room, in a corner of the staircase, on the hall-floor, oftenest fallen wherever sleep happened to overtake her;--having so many places in which to lay her head was very like having none at all. She was at the bidding of every one, but seldom received a heavy blow; as for a round of angry words, she liked nothing better. She fell heir to much flimsy finery, as a matter of course, and to many a tidbit, cake or sweetmeat; she made herself gaudy as a butterfly with the one, and never went into a corner with the other. Of late, however, the finery and the delicates had become more uncommon things: Miss Emma wore a homespun gingham; her muslins, and Miss Agatha's, draped the windows,--for curtains and carpets had all gone to camp; bacon had ceased to be given out to the hands, who lived now on corn-meal and yams; the people at the house were scarcely better off,--for, though, as no army had passed that way, the chickens still peopled the place, they were reserved for special occasions, and it was only at rare intervals that one indulged at table in the luxury of a fowl. This was no serious regret to Flor on her own account: the less viands, the less dishes, she could oftener pause in the act of wiping a plate and perform an original hornpipe by herself, tossing the thin translucent china, and rapping it with her knuckles till it rang again. She had, however, a pang once when


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she saw Miss Emma lunching with relish on cold sweet potato. She spent all the rest of the day floating on the tide in an old abandoned scow secured by a long rope to the bank, and afterwards wading up and down the bed of a brook that ran into the river, until, having left a portion of her provision, to be sure, at Aunt Zoe's cabin, she busied herself over a fire out-of-doors, and served up at last before Miss Emma as savory a little terrapin stew as ever simmered on coals, capering over her success, and standing on her head in the midst of all her scattered embers, afterwards, with pure delight. The next day she came in at noon from the woods, a mile down the river-bank, with her own dark lips cased and coated in golden sweets, and, after a wordy skirmish with the cook, presented to Miss Emma a great cake of brown and fragrant honey from a nest she had discovered and neglected in better seasons, and said nothing about her half-dozen swollen and smarting stings. Mas'r Rob having shouldered his gun and taken himself off, and Mas'r Andersen having followed his example, but not his footsteps, long ago, there was nobody to fill the deficiencies of the larder with game; and thus Flor, with her traps and nets and devices, making her value felt every day, became, for Miss Emma's sake, a petted person, was put on more generous terms with those above her, and allowed a freedom of action that no other servant on the place dreamed of desiring. Such consideration was very acceptable to the girl, who was well content to go fasting herself a whole day, provided Miss Emma condescended to her offerings, and, in turn, vouchsafed her her friendship. She had no such daring aspiraions towards the beautiful Miss Agatha, young Mas'r Andersen's wife, and admired her at an awful distance, never venturing to offer her a bit of broiled lark, or set before her a dish of crabs--beaming back with a grin from ear to ear, if Miss Agatha so much as smiled on her, breaking into the wildest of dances and shuffling out the shrillest of tunes after every such incident. Moreover, Miss Agatha was hedged about with a dignity of grief, and the indistinct pity given her made her safe from other intrusion; for Mas'r Andersen, in bringing home a Northern wife, had brought home Northern principles, and, in his sudden escape forced to leave her in the only home she had, was away fighting Northern battles. This was a dreadful thing, and Mas'r Andersen was a traitor to somebody,--so much Flor knew,--it might be the Government, it might be the South, it might be Miss Agatha; her ideas were nebulous. Whatever it was, Mas'r Rob and his gun were on the other side, and woe be to Mas'r Andersen when they met! Mas'r Rob and his friends were beating back the men that meant to take away Flor and all her kind to freeze and starve; 't was very good of him, Flor thought, and there ceased consideration. Meanwhile, wherever Mas'r Andersent might be, and whether he were so much as alive or not, Miss Agatha was not the one that knew; and Flor adapted many a rigadoon to her conjectioured feelings, now swaying and bending with sorrow and longing, head fallen, arms outstretched, now hands clasped on bosom, exultant in welcome and possession.

The importance to which Flor gradually rose by no means led her to the exhibition of any greater decorum; on the contrary, it seemed to impart to her the secret of perpetual motion; and, aware of her impunity, she danced with fresher vigor in the very teeth of her censurers and their reproaches.

"Go 'long wid yer capers, ye Limb!" said Zoe to her, late one afternoon, as she entered with the half of a rabbit she had caught, and, having deposited it, went through the intricacies of her most elaborate figure in breathless listening to an unheard tune. "Ef I had dem sticks o' legs, dey 'd do berrer work nor twirlin' me like I was a factotum."

At this, Flor suddenly spun about on the tip of one toe for the space of three minutes, with a buzzing noise like that of a top in hot motion, pausing at last to inquire, "Well, Maum Zoe, an'


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w'at's dat?" and be off again in another whirl.

"I'd red Mas'r Henry ob sich a wurfless nigger."

"Wurfless?" inquired Flor, still spinning.

"Wuss'n wurfless."

"How'd y' do it?"

"I'd jus' foller dat ar Sarp," said Zoe, turning over the rabbit, and considering whether a pepper-corn and a little onion out of her own patch wouldn't improve the broth she meant to make of it.

"Into de swamps?" said Flor, in a high key. "Sarp's a fool. I heerd Mas'r Henry say so. Dey'll gib him a blue-pill, for sartain."

"Humph!" said Aunt Zoe, as if she could say a great deal more.

"Tell ye w'at, Maum Zoe," replied Flor, shaking her sidelong head at every syllable, and accentuating her remarks with her forefinger and both her little sparkling eyes, "I'll 'form on ye for 'ticin' Mas'r Henry's niggers run away."

"None o' yer sass here!" said Maum Zoe, with a flashing glance.

"You take my rabbit, you mus' hab my sass," answered Flor, delicacy not being ingrain with her. "W'at 'ud I cut for to de swamps, d' ye s'pose?" she said, slapping the soles of her feet in her emphasis, and pausing for breath. "Dar neber was a lash laid on dat back"--

"No fault o' dat back, dough," interposed Aunt Zoe.

"Dar neber was a lash on dat back. Dar a'n't a person on de place hab sich treatem as dis yere Limb o' yourn. Miss Emma done gib me her red ribbins on'y Sa'd'y for my har. An' Mas'r Henry, he jus' pass an' say to me, 'Dono w'at Miss Emma 'd do widout ye, Lomy. Scairt, ye hussy!' So!"

"'Zackly. We's 'mos' w'ite, we be! How much dey do make ob us up to de house! De leopard hab change him spots, an' we hab change our skin! W'at's de use o' bein' free, when we's w'ite folks a'ready? Tell me dat!" said Aunt Zoe, turning on her witheringly, rising from a deep curtsy and smoothing down her apron. "Tell ye w'at, ye Debil's spinster!" added she, with a sudden change of tone, as Flor began to mimic one of Miss Agatha's opera-tunes and with her hands on her hips slowly balance up and down the room, and came at last, bending far on one side, to leer up in the face of her elder with such a smile as Cubas was wont to give her Spanish lover in the dance. "So mighty free wid yer dancin', 'pears like you'll come to dance at a rope's end! W'at's de use o' talkin' to you? 'Mortal sperit, it's my b'lief dat ar mockin'-bird in de branches hab as good a lookout!"

"Heap better," said Flor, acquiescently, and beginning to hold a whistling colloquy with the hidden voice.

"You won't bring him down wid yer tunes. He knows w'en he's well off; he's free, he is,--swingin' onto de bough, an' 'gwine whar he like."

"Leet de chil' alone, Zoe," said a superannuated old woman sitting in the corner by the fire always smouldering on Zoe's hearth, and leaning her white head on her cane. "You be berrer showin' her her duty in her place dan be makin' her discontented."

"She doan' make me disconnected, Maum Susie," said Flor. "'F he's free, w'at's he stayin' here for? Dar's law for dat. Doan' want none o' yer free niggers hangin' roun' dis yere. Chirrup!"

"Dar's a right smart chance ob 'em, dough, jus' now," said Aunt Zoe, chuckling at first, and then breaking into the most boisterous of laughs. "Seems like we's all ob us, ebery one, free as Sarp hisse'f. Mas'r Linkum say so. Yah, ha, ha!"

"Linkum!" said Flor, "Who dat ar? some o' yer poor w'ite trash? Mas'r Henry doan' say so!"

"W'a' 's de matter wid dat ar boy Sarp, Zoe?" recommenced Flor, after a pause. "Mus' hab wanted suffin,--powerful,--to lib in de swamp, hab de dogs after him, an' a bullet troo de head mos' likely."

"Jus' dat. Wanted him freedom,"


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said Zoe suddenly, with crackling stress, her eyes getting angry in their fervor, as she went on. "Wanted him body for him own. Tired o' usin' 'noder man's eyes, 'noder man's han's. Wanted him han's him own, wanted him heart him own! Had n' no breff to breathe 'cep' w'at Mas'r Henry gib out. Di'n' t'ink no t'oughts but Mas'r Henry's. Wanted him wife some day to hisse'f, wanted him chillen for him own property. Wanted to call no man mas'r but de Lord in heaben!"

"W'y, Maum Zoe, how you talk! Sarp hadn' no wife."

"Neber would, w'ile he wor a slave."

"Hist now, Zoe!" said the old woman.

"I jus' done b'lieve you's a bobolitionist!" said Flor, with wide eyes and a battery of nods.

"No 'casion, no 'casion," said Zoe, with the deep inner chuckle again. "We's don 'bolished,--dat's w'at we is! We's a free people now. No more work for de 'bominationists!" And on the point of uncontrollable hilarity, she checked herself with the dignity becoming her new position. "You's your own nigger now, Salome," said she.

"We? No, t'ank you. I 'longs to Miss Emma."

"You haan' no understandin' for liberty, chil'. Seems ef 't was like religion"--

"Ef I wor to tell Mas'r Henry, oh, wouldn' you cotch it?"

"Go 'long!" cried Zoe, looking out for a missile. "Doan' ye bring no more o' yer rabbits here, ef ye'r' gwine to fetch an' carry"--

"Lors, Aunt Zoe, 'pears like you's out o' sorts. Haan' I got nof'n berrer to do dan be tellin' tales ob old women dat's a-waitin' for de Lord's salvation?" said Flor, with a twang of great gravity,--and proceeded thereat to make her exit in a series of lively somersaults through the room and over the threshold.

Aunt Zoe, who, ever since she had lost the use of her feet, had been a little wild on the subject of freedom, knew very well within that Flor would make no mischief for her; but, except for the excited state into which the news brought by some mysterious plantation runner had thrown her, she would scarcely have been so incautious. As it was, she had dropped a thought into Flor's head to ferment there and do its work. It was almost the first time in her life that the girl had heard freedom discussed as anything but a doubtful privilege. First awakening to consciousness in this state, it was with effort and only lately she had comprehended that there could be any other: a different condition from one in which Miss Emma was mistress and she was maid seemed at first preposterous, then fabulous, and still unnatural: nevertheless, there was a flavor of wicked pleasure in the thought. Flor looked with a sort of contempt on the little tumbling darkies who had never entertained it. Ever since she was born, however, she had frequently fancied she would like the liberty of rambling that the little wild creatures of the wood possess, but had felt criminal in the desire, and recently she had found herself enjoying the immunity of the mocking-bird on the bough, and was nearly as free in her going and coming as the same bird on the wing.

During the weeks that followed this conversation Flor's dances flagged. They existed, to be sure, but with an angularity that made them seem solutions of problems, rather than expressions of emotion; they were merely mechanical, for she had lost all interest in them. They became at last so listless as to exhibit, to more serious eyes, signs of grace in the girl. Flor wondered, if Zoe had spoken the truth, that nothing appeared changed on the plantation: all their own masters, why so obsequious to the driver still? This was one of the last of the great places; behind it, the small farms, with few hands, ran up the mountains; why was there no stampede of these unguarded slaves? She hardly understood. She listened outside the circle of the fire on the ground at night, where two or three old women mumbled together; she infer-


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red, that, though no one of them would desert Mas'r Henry, they enjoyed the knowledge that they were at liberty to do so, if they wished. Flor laughed a bit at this, thinking where the poor things could possibly go, and how they could get there, if they would; but in her heart of hearts--though all the world but this one spot was a barren wilderness, and she never could desire to leave her dear Miss Emma, nor could find happiness away from her--it seemed a very pleasant thing to think that her devotion might be a voluntary affair, and she stayed because she chose. Still she was skeptical. The abstract question puzzled her a little, too. How came Mas'r Henry to be free? Because he was white; that explained itself. But Miss Emma--she was white, too and yet somehow she seemed to belong to Mas'r Menry. She wondered if Mas'r Henry could sell Miss Emma; and then the thought occurrred, and with the thought the fear, that, possibly, some day, he might sell her, Flor herself, away from Miss Emma and all these pleasant scnes. After such a thought had once come, it did not go readily. Flor let it linger,--turned it over in her mind; gradually familiarized with its hurt, it seemed as if she had half said farewell to the place. Bettery far to be a runaway than to be sold. But if it came to that, whither should she run? what was this world beyond? who was there in this sad wide world to take care of a little black image? and if she waited for it to come to that, could she get away at all? It was no wonder that in the midst of such new and grave speculations the girl's dance grew languid and her sharp tongue still. The earth was just as beautiful as ever, the skies were as deep, the flowers as intense in tint, the evening air laden with jasmine-scents as delicious as of old; but in these few weeks Flor had reached another standpoint. It seemed as if a film had fallen from her eyes, and she saw a blight on every blossom.

It was about this time, spring being at its flush, that some passing guest mentioned the march of a regiment, the next day, from Cotesworth Court-House to the first railroad-station, on its way to the seat of war. The idea of the thing filled Miss Emma with enthusiasm. How they would look, so many together, in the beautiful gray uniform too, to any one standing on Longfer Hill! She longed to see the faces of men when they took their lives in their hand for a principle. She had practised the Bonny Blue Flag till there was nothing left of it; but if a band played it in the open air, with the rising and falling of the wind, and under waving banners and glittering guidons all the men with their pale faces asnd shining eyes went marching by--

The end of it was, that, as her father would never have listened to anything of the kind, Flor privately informed her of a short cut down the river-bank and round the edge of the swamp to the foot of Longfer Hill,--a walk they could easily take in a couple of hours. And as nobody was in the habit of missing Flor much, and her young mistress would be supposed, after her custom, to be spending half the day in naps, they accordingly took it. Nevertheless, it was an exceedingly secret affair, for Mas'r Henry had always strictly forbidden his daughter to leave his own grounds without fit escort.

This expedition seemed to Flor such a proud and gratifying confidence, that in her pleasure she forgot to think; she only danced round about her mistress, with a return of her old exuberance, till the more quiet path of the latter resembled a straight line surrounded by an arabesque of fantastic flouishes. But, in fact, the young patrician, unaccustomed to exertion, was well wearied before they reached the river-bank. They had yet the long border of the swamp to skirt, and there towered Longfer Hill. Why could they not go across, she wondered. They would sink, Flor answered her; and then the moccasins! But there were all those green hummocks,--skipping from one to another would be mere play,--and there were no moccasins for miles. And before Flor could gainsay her, she had sprung on, keep-


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ing steadily ahead, in a determination to have her own way; and with no other course left her, Flor followed, though, at every spring, alighting on the hummocks that Miss Emma had trodden, the water splashed up about her bare ankles, and her heart shook within her at the thought of fierce runaways haunting these inaccessible hollows, and the myths of the deeper district. Before long, she had overtaken her young mistress, and they paused a moment for parley. Miss Emma was convinced, that, if it were no worse than this, it would be delightful. Flor assured her that she did not know the way any longer, for their winding path between the tall cypresses veiled in their swinging tangles of funereal moss had confused her, and she could only guess at the direction of Long[f]er Hill. This, then, was an adventure, Miss Emma took the responsibility all upon herself, and plunged forward. Miss Emma must know best, of course, concerning everything. Nothing loth, and gayly, Flor plunged after.

The hummocks on which they went were light, spongy masses of greenery. Their footprints filled at once behind them with clear dark water; there were glistening little pools everywhere about them; the ground was so covered with mats of brilliant blossoms that what appeared solid for the foot was oftenest the most treacherous place of all; and at last they stayed to take breath, planting themselves on the trunk of a fallen tree so twisted and twined with variegated vines and flowers, and deadly, damp fungi, that it was like some gorgeous dais-seat. Behind them and beside them was the darkness of the cypress groves. Before them extended a smooth floor, a wide level region, carpeted in the most vivid verdure and sheeted with the sunshine, an immense bed of softest moss, underlaid with black bog, quaking at every step, and shaking a thousand diamond into the light. Scarcely anything stirred through all the stretch; at some runnel along its nearer margin, where upon one side the more broken swamp recommenced, a rosy flamingo stood and fished, and, still remoter, the melancholy note of a bird tolled its refrain, answered by an echoing voice from some yet inner depth of forest far away. Save for this, the silence was as intense as the vastness and color of the scene, till it opened and resolved itself into one broad insect hum. The children took a couple of steps forward, under their feet the elastic sod sank and rose twith a spurt of silver jets; they sprang back to their seats, and the shading tree above shook down a shining shower in rillets of silver rain. They remained for a minute, then, resting there. Singularly enough, Longfer Hill, which had previously been upon their left, now rose far away upon the right. When at length they comprehended its apparition, they looked at one another in complete bewilderment. Miss Emma began to cry; but Flor took it as only a fresh complication of this world, that was becoming for her feet a maze of intricacy.

"We must go back," said Miss Emma, at last. "I'm sure, if I'd known--Of course we never can cross here. The very spoonbill wades. Oh, why didn't--Well, there's no blame to you, Floss. I've nobody to thank but myself; that's a comfort."

"Lors, Miss Emma, it's my fault altogeder. I shouldn' neber told ye. An' as for gwine back, it's jus' as bad as torrer."

"We can't stay here all night! Oh, I'm right tired out! If I could lie down"--

"'Twouldn' do no way, Miss Emma," answered Flor, in a fright for her friend, as a quick, poisonous-looking lizard slid along the log, like a streak of light, in the wake of a spider which was one blotch of scarlet venom.

Far ahead, the strong sun, piercing the marsh, drew up a vapor, that, blue as any distant haze in one part and lint-white in another, made itself aslant into low, delicious, broken prisms, melting all between. This, more than anything else, told h xtent of the bog before them, and, hot as it was now, betrayed the deathly chill lurking under such a coverlet at night. In every other


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direction lay the cypress jungle; and whether they saw the front or back of Longfer Hill, and on which side the river ran, steering for which they could steer for home, they had not the skill to say. Thus, what way to go they still were undecided, when, at something moving near them, they started to their feet in a faint terror, delaying only a single instant to gaze at it,--a serpent, that, coiled round the stem above, had previously seemed nothing but a splendid parasite, and that just lifted its hooded head crusted with gems, and flickered a long cleft tongue of flame over them, while loosening in great loops from its basking-place. They vouchsafed it no second look, but, with one leap over the log, through the black mire, and from clump to clump of moss, sped away,--if that could be called speed which was hindered at each moment by waylaying briers and entangling ropes of blossoming vines, by delays in threatening quagmires and bewilderments in thickets beset by clouds of insects, by trips and stumbles and falls and bruises, and many a pause for tears and complaints and ejaculations of despair.

Meanwhile the heat of the day was mitigated by thin clouds sliding over the sun and banking up the horizon, though the hot wind still blew sweetly and steadily from the open quarter of the sky.

"Oh, what has become of us?" cried Miss Emma at length, when the shadows began to thicken, and out of the impenetrable forest and morass about them they could detect no path.

"We's los' into de swamp, Miss Emma," answered Flor, in a kind of gloomy defiance of the worst of it,--"a' 's all."

"And here we shall die!" cried the other.

And she flung herself, face down, upon the floor.

Flor was beside her instantly, taking her head upon her knee. Her own heart was sinking like lead; but she plucked it up, and for the other's sake snapped her fingers at Fortune.

"Lors, Miss, dar's so many berries we caan' starve nowes. I's 'bout to build a fire soon's it's dark; dis yere's a dry spot, ye see now. an', bress you, dey'll be out after us afore mornin',--de whole farm-full."

"With the dogs!" cried Miss Emma. "Oh, Floss, that I should live for that! to be hunted in the swamp with dogs!"

Flor was silent a moment or two. The custom personally affected her for the first time; worse than the barbarity was the indignity.

"Day aren't trained to hunt for you, Miss Emma," she said, more gloomily than she had ever spoken before. "Dey knows de diff'unce 'tween de dark meat and de light."

And then she laughed, as if her words meant nothing.

"They never shall touch you, Flor, while I'm alive!" suddenly exclaimed Miss Emma, throwing her arms about her.

"Lors, Miss, how you talk!" cried Flor, and then broke into a gust of tears. "To t'ink ob you a-carin' so much for a little darky, Miss!"--and she set up a loud howl of joyful sorrow.

"You're the best friend I've got!" answered Miss Emma, hugging her with renewed warmth. "I love you worlds better than Agatha! And I'll never let you leave me! Oh, Flor! what shall we do?

Flor looked about her for reply, and then scrambled up a sycamore like a squirrel.

It was apparently an island in the swamp on which they were: for the earth, though damp, was firm beneath them; and there was a thick growth of various trees about, although most were draped to the ground in the long, dark tresses of Spanish moss, waving dismally to and fro, with a dull, heavy motion of grief. On every other side from that by which they had come it appeared to be inaccessible, surrounded as well as Flor could see, by glimmering sheets of water, which probably were too full of snags and broken stumps, still upright, for the navigation of boats


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by any hands but those thoroughly acquainted with their wide region of stagnant pools. This island was not, however, a small spot, but one that comprised a variety of surfaces, having not only marsh and upland within itself, but something that in the distance bore a fearful resemblance to a young patch of standing corn, a suspicion confirmed into certainty by a blue thread of smoke ascending a little way and falling again in a cloud. Once, upon seeing such a sight, Flor might have fallen to the ground herself,--this could be no less than the abode of those sad runaways, those mythical Goblins of the Swamp,--but it would have been because she had forgotten then that she was not one of the strong white race that reared her. Now, at this moment, she felt a thrill of kinship with these creatures, hunted for with bloodhounds, as she would be to-morrow, perhaps.

"May-be I'll not go back," said Flor.

She slipped down the tree, and went silently to work, heaping a bed of the hanging moss, less wet than the ground itself , for her young mistress. Miss Emma accepted it passively.

"Oh, it's like sleeping on hearse-curtains!" was all she said.

It was already evening, but growing darker with the clouds that went on piling their purple masses and awaiting their signal. Suddenly the sweet, soft breeze trembled and veered, there was a brief calm, and the wind had hauled round the other way. A silence of preparation, answered by a long, low note of thunder, and the war had begun in heaven.

Miss Emma buried her face in the moss. But Flor, secretly relishing a good thunder-gust, drew up her knees and sat with equanimity, like a little black judge of the clouds; for, in the moment's dull, indifferent mood, she felt prepared for either fate. It was long before the rain came; then it plunged, a brief downfall, as if a cloud had been ripped and emptied,--a suffocating terror of rain, teeming with more appalling intimations than anything else in the world. But the wind was a blind tornado. The boughs swung over them and swept them; the swamp-water was lifted, and gluts of it slapped in Flor's face. She saw, not far away, a great solitary cypress rearing its head, and bearing aloft a broad eagle's nest, hurriedly seized in the grasp of the gale, twisted, raised, and snapped like a straw. The child began to shudder strangely at the breath of this blast that cried with such clamor out of the black vaults above, this unknown and tremendous power beneath which she was nothing but a mote; she suffered an unexplained awe, as if this fearful wind were some supernatural assemblage of souls fleeting through space and making the earth tremble under their wild rush. All the while the heavy thunders charged on high in one unbroken roar, across whose base sharp bolts broke and burst perpetually; and with the outer world wrapped in quivering curtains of blue flame, now and then a shaft of fire lanced its straight spear down the dense darkness of the woods behind in ghastly illumination, and a responsive spire shot up in some burning bush that blackened almost as instantly. Flor fancied that the lightning was searching for her, a runaway herself, and the burning bush answered, like a sentinel, that here she was. She cowered at length and sought the protection of the blind earth, full of awe and quaking, till by-and-by the last discharge, muffled and ponderous, rolled away, and, save for a muttered growl in some far distant den, the world was still and dark again.

Flor spoke to her mistress, and found, that, utterly worn out with fatigue and fright and exhausted lectricity, she was asleep, She then got up and wrung out the rain from portions of her own and Miss Emma's dress, and heaped fresh armfuls of moss upon the sleeper in an original attempt at the pack; then she proceeded to explore the neightborhood, to see if there were any exit in other directions from the terrors of the swamp.

Stars began to struggle through and


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confuse their rays with the ravelled edges of the clouds. She groped along from tree to tree, looking constantly behind her at the clear, light opening of sky beneath which Miss Emma lay.

Perhaps she had come farther than she knew; for all at once, in the dread stillness that nothing but the dripping dampness broke, a sound smote her like a pang. It was an innocent and simple sound enough, a man's voice, clear and sweet, though measured somwhat, and suppressed in volume, chanting a slow, sad hymn, that had yet a kind of rejoicing about it:--

"Oh, no longer bond in Egypt,

No longer bond in Egypt,

No longer bond in Egypt.

The Lord hath set him free!"

It came from a hollow below her. Flor pushed aside the great, glistening leaves in silence, and looked tremblingly in. There were half-burnt brands on a broad stone, throwing out an uncertain red glimmer; there was an awning of plaited reeds reaching from bough to bough; there was an old man stretched upon the ground, and a stalwart man sitting beside him and chanting this song, as if it were a burial-service: for the old man was dead.

Flor began to tremble again, with that instinctive animal antipathy to death and dissolution. But in an instant a rekindling gleam of the embers, hardly quenched, shot over the singer's face. In the same instant Flor shook before the secret she had learned. Sarp was a runaway, to be sure; and runaways ate little girls, she knew. But Flor, having lately encouraged incredulity, could hardly find it in her heart to believe that the fact of having stolen himself could have so utterly changed the old nature of Sarp, the kind butler, who always had a pleasant word for her when others had a cuff. Yet should she hail him? Ah, no, never! But then--Miss Emma! Her young mistress would die of starvation and the damp.

"Sarp!" whispered Flor, huskily.

The man started and sprang to his feet, alert and ready, waiting for his unseen enemy,--then half relapsed, thinking it might be nothing but the twitter of a bird.

"It's me, Sarp."

Who that was did not seem so plain to Sarp; he darted his swift glance in her direction, then at one step parted the bushed and dragged her through, as if it were game that he had trapped.

"Oh, Sarp!" cried Flor, falling at his feet. "Doan' yer kill me now! I di'n' mean to ha' found yer. I's done los' in de swamp, wid"--

But Flor though better of that.

The man raised her, but still held her out at arm's length, while he listened for further sound behind her.

"Oh, jus' le' go, Sarp, an' I'll dance for you till I drap!" she cried.

"Is it a time for dancing," he replied, "and the earth open for burying?"

"Lors, Sarp!" cried Flor, shrinking from the shallow grave she had not seen, "how's I to know dat?"--and she gave herself safe distance.

"Help me yere, then," said he.

But Flor remained immovable, and Sarp was obliged to perform by himself the last offices for the old slave, who, living out his term of harassments and hungers, had grown gray and died in the swamps. He went at last and brought an armful of broken sweet-flowering boughs and spread them over the place.

"Free among the dead," he said; then turned to Flor, who, having long since seen daylight through the darkness of her fears, proceeded glibly and volubly to pour out her troubles, on his beckoning her away, and to demand the help she had refused to render.

"There's the boat," said Sarp, reflectively. "And the rain will float it 'most anywheres to-night. But--come so far and troo so much to go back?"

Flor flung up her face and held her head back proudly.

"Yes, Sash! Doan' s'pose I'd be stealin' Mas'r Henry's niggers?"

For, having meditated upon it an hour


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ago, she was able to repel the charge vigorously.

"Go'n' to stay a slave all your life?"

"All Miss Emma's life."


"Den I'll go back to de good brown earth wid her," said Flor, solving the problem promptly.--"I don' see de boat."

"Ah, she'll make as brown dust as you,--Miss Emma,--that's so! But the spirit, Lome!"

"Sperit?" said Flor, looking uneasily over her shoulder with her twinkling eyes.

"The part of you that doan' die, Lome."

"I haan' nof'n ter do wid dat; dat 'longs to dem as made it; none o' my lookout; dono nof'n 'bout it, an' doan' want ter hear nof'n about it!" said Flor; for, reasoning on the old adage of a bird in the hand being worth two in the bush, she thought it more important just at present to save her body than to save her soul, admitting that she had one, and felt haste to be of more behoof than metaphysics.

There was a moon up now, and Flor could see her companion's dark face above her, a mere mass of shade. [I]t did not reassure her any to remember that her own was just as black.

"Lome," said Sarp, setting his back against a tree like one determined to have attention, "never mind about the boat yet. You've heard Aunt Zoe say how't the grace of the Lord was free?"

"Yes, I's heerd her kerwhoopin'. I's in a hurry, Sarp!"

"But's how't the man that refuses to accept it, when it's set before him, is done reckoned a sinner?"

"S'pose I has?"--and in her impatience she began to dance outright.

"It's jus' so with the present hour," he continued, not giving her time to interpose about escape again. "You have liberty offered you. If you refuses, how can you answer for it when your spirit 'pears afore the Judge? You choose him, and you choose righteousness, you chooses the chance to make yourself white in the Lord's eyes,--your spirit, Lome. Refuse, and you take sin and chains and darkness; you gets to deserve the place where they hab their share of fire and brimstone."

"Take mine wid 'lasses," said Flor, who, though inwardly a trifle cowed, never meant to show it. "W'a' 's de use o' bodering' 'bout all dat ar, w'en dar's Miss Emma a-cotchin' her deff, an' I's jus' starved? Ef you's go'n' to help us, Sarp"--

"You don' know what chains means, chil'," said the imperturbable Sarp. "They're none the lighter because you can't see 'em. It a'n't jus' the power to sell your body and the work of your hands; it's the power to sell your soul! If Mas'r Henry hab de min',--ef Mas'r Henry have the mind, I say, to make you go wrong, can you help it while you's a slave?"

"'T aan' no fault o' mine ter be bad, ef I caan' help it. Come now," said Flor sullenly, seeing little hope of respite,--"should 'tink 't was de Ol' Sarpint hisself!"

"And 't aan' no virtue of yours to be good, ef you caan' help it; you'd jus' stay put--jus' between--in de brown earth, as you said. You'd never see that beautiful land beyond the grave wid the river of light flowing troo der place, an' the people singing songs before the great white t'rone."

"Tell me 'bout dat ar, Sarp," said Flor, forgetfully.

"Dey's all free there, Lome."

"How was dis dey got dere? Couldn' walk nowes, an' couldn' fly"--

"Haan' you seen into Miss Emma's prayer-book the angels with wings high and shining all from head to foot?"

"Yes," said Flor,--"Angels."

"And one of them you'll be, Lome, ef you jus' choose,--ef, for instance, you choose liberty to-day."

"Lors now, Sarp, I doan' b'lieb a word you say! Get out wid yer conundrums! Likely story, little black nigger like dis yere am be put into de groun' an' come out all so great an' wh'ite an' shinin'-like!"

"'For God shall deliver my soul from the power of the grave.' 'Shall.'


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That's a promise,--a promise in the Book. Di'n't yer eber plant a bean, Lome,--little hard black bean? And did a little hard black bean come up? No, but two wings of leaves, and a white blossom jus' ready to fly itself, and so sweet you could smell it acrost de field. So they plant your body in the earth, Lome"--

"You go 'long, Sarp! Ef you plant beans, beans come up," said Flor, decisively.

This direct and positive confutation rather nonplussed Sarp, his theory not being able at once to assimilate his fact, and he himself feeling, that, if he pushed the comparison farther, he would reach some such atrocity as that, if the the white and shining flower produced in its season again the black bean from which it sprung, so the white and shining soul must once more clothe itself in the same sordid, unpurified body from which it first had sprung. He had a vague glimmer that perhaps his similie was too material, and that this very body was the clay in which the springing, germinating souls was planted to bloom out in heaven, but dared not pursue it unadvised, for fear of the quicksands into which it might betray him. He merely tied a knot in the thread of his discourse by answering,--

"Jus' so. The bean planted, the bean comes up. You planted, and what follows?"

"I come up," said Flor, consentingly, and quite as if he had got the better of the discussion.

Then he rose, and Flor led the way back to Miss Emma,--having first, upon Sarp's serious hesitation, pledged herself for Miss Emma's secrecy and gratitude with tears and asseverations.

In spite of the fact that he had never meant nor cared to see it again, there was something pleasant to Sarp in the face of the sleeper upturned in a moonbeam. He stooped and lifted her tenderly, and laid her head on his shoulder. The young girl opened her eyes vacantly, but heard Flor's voice beside her still,--

"Doan' ye be scaret now, honey! Bress you, 's a true frien': he'll get us shet of dis yere swamp mighty sudd'n!"

And soothed by the dreamy motion, entirely fatigued, borne swiftly along in strong arms, under the low, waving boughs in the dim forest darkness, she was drowsed again with slumber, from which she woke only on being placed in the bottom of a skiff to turn over into a deeper dream than before. Flor nodded triumphantly to her companion, in the beginning, keeping pace beside him with short runs,--there could be no fear of babble about that of which one knew nothing,--and took her seat at last in the boat as he directed, while with a long pole he pushed out into the deeper water away from the shadow of the shore, and then went steering between the japs and gnarls, that, half protuding from the dark expanses, seemed the heads of strange and preternatural monsters. Now and then a current carried them; now and then their boatman sculled, now and then in shallower places poled along; sometimes he rested, and in the intervals took occasion to continue his missionary labor upon Flor,--his first object being to convince her she had a soul, and his second that in bondage every chance to save that soul alive was against her. Then he drew slight pictures of a different way of things, such as had solaced his own imagination, rude, but happy idyls of freedom: the small house, one's own; the red light in the window, a guiding star for weary feet at night coming home to comfort and smiles and cheer; no dark, haunting fear of a hand to reach between one and those loved dearest; no more branding like cattle, manhood and womanhood acknowledged, met with help and welcome and kind hands, cringing no more, but standing erect, drinking God's free sunshine, and growing nearer heaven. How much or how little of all his dream poor Sarp realized, if ever he reached the land of his desire at all, Heaven only knows. But Flor listened to him as if he recited some delightful fairy-tale,


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--charming indeed, but all as improbable as though one were telling her that black was white. Then, too, there was another dream of Sarp's,--the dream of a whole race loosening itself from the clinging clod. Flor got a glimmer of his meaning,--only a glimmer; it made her heart beat faster, but it was so grand she liked the other best.

So, creeping through narrow creeks, now they skirted the edges of the long, low, flat morass,--now wound round the giant trunk of a fallen tree that nearly bridged the pool whose dark mantle they severed,--now pushed the boat's head up into a wall of weeds, that bent back and let it through the deep cut flooded by the rain, where the wild growth shut off everything but the high hollow of a luminous sky, with ribbon-grasses and long prickly leaves brushing across their faces from either side, here and there a sudden dwarf palmetto bristling all its bayonets against the peaceful night, and all the way singular uncouth shapes of vegetation, like conjurations of magic, cutting themselves out with minuteness upon the vast clear background so darkly and weirdly that the voyagers seemed to be sliding along the shores of some new, strange under-world,--now they got out, and, wading ankle-deep in plashy bog, drew the boat and its slumberer heavily after them,--now went slowly along, afloat again, on the broad lagoons, which the moon, from the deep far heaven, shot into silver reaches, and, with the trees, a phantom company of shadows, weeping in their veils along the farther shore, with all the quaint outlines of darkness, the gauzy wings that flitted by, the sweet, wild scents across whose lingering current they drifted, the broad silence disturbed only by the lazy wash of a seldom ripple, made their progrerss, through heavy gloom and vivid light, an enchanted journey.

At length they lifted overhanging branches, and glided out upon a sheet of open water, a little lake fed by natural springs; and here, paddling over to the outlet, a tide took them down a swift brook to the river. Sarp stemmed this tide, made the opposite bank of the brook, and paused.

"Have you chosen, Lome?" said he. "Will you go back with me, and so on to the Happy Land of Freedom? Not that I'll have my own liberty till I've earned it,--till I've won a country by fighting for it. But I'll see you safe; and if I'm spared, one day I'll come to you. Will you go?"

Flor hung back a moment. "I'd like to go, Sarp, right well," said she, twisting up the corner of her little tatter of an apron. "But dar am Miss Emma, you see."

"We can leave her on the bank here. She'll be all right when de day breaks, and fin' the house herself. There's as good as she without a roof this night."

"She's neber been use' to it. She wouldn' know a step o' de way. Oh, no, Sarp! I 'longs to Miss Emma; she couldn' do widout me. She'd jus' done cry her eyes out an' die,--'way here in de wood. No, Sarp, I mus' take her back. She's delicate, Miss Emma is. I'd like to go right well, Sarp,--'t a'n't much ob a 'sapp'intment,--I's use' to 'em,--I'd like for to go wid you."

Lingering, irresolute, she stood up in the swaying skiff, keeping her balance as if she were dancing; then, the motion, perhaps, throwing her back into her old identity, she sprang to the shore like a cat. Sarp laid Miss Emma beside her, and then shot away, back over all the desolate reaches and lonely shining pools; and Flor, with a little wail of despair, hid her face on the ground, that her weakened and bewildered little mistress might not see the flood of tears that wet the grass beneath it.

(Story continued--click here)

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