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Spofford, "Down the River," Part II--continued

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Page 480--continued

It was between two and three o'clock in the morning, when, chilled, draggled, and dripping wet, they reached the house. Lights were moving everywhere about it: no one had slept there that night. There was a great shout from high and low as the two forlorn little objects crept into the ray. Miss Emma was


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met with severe reproaches, afterwards with tears and embraces; and cordial drinks and hot flannels were made ready for her in a trice. As for Flor, she was warmed after another fashion,--being sent off for punishment; and, in spite of the implorations of Miss Emma and the interference of Miss Agatha, the order was executed. It was the first time she had ever received such reward of merit in form; and though it was a slight affiair, after all, the hurt and wrong rankled for weeks, and, instead of the gay, dancing imp of former days, henceforth a silent, sullen shadow slipped about and haunted all the dark places of the house.

Mas'r Henry, being a native of Charleston, was also a gentleman of culture, and fond of the fine arts to some extent. Indeed, looking at it in a poetical view, the feudality of slavery, even more than the inevitable relation of property, was his strong tie to the institution. He had a contempt for modern progress so deeply at the root of his opinions that he was only half aware of it; and any impossible scheme to restore the political condition of what we call the Dark Ages, and retain the comforts of the present one, would have found in him a hearty advocate. One of his favorite books was a little green-covered volume, printed on coarse paper, and smelling of the sea which it had crossed: a book that seemed to bring one period of those past centuries up like a pageant,--so vividly, with all the flying dust of their struggle in the sunbeam before him, did its opulent vitality reproduce, in their splendors and their sins, the actual presences of those dead men and women, now more unreal substance than the dust of their shrouds. He like to carry this mediaeval Iliad round with him, and, taking it out at propitious places, go jotting his pencil down the page. He had heard it called an incomprehensible puzzle of poetry; it gave him pleasure, then, to unriddle and proclaim it plain as print. He was thus delectating himself one day, while Flor, still in her phase of moodiness, stood behind Miss Agatha's chair; and, the passage pleasing him, he read it aloud to Miss Agatha, whom, in the absence of his son, her husband, he was wont to consider his opponent in the abstract, however dear and precious in the concrete.

"As, shall I say, some Ethiop, past pursuit

Of all enslavers, dips a shackled foot,

Burnt to the blood, into the drowsy, black,

Enormous watercourse which guides him back

To his own tribe again, where he is king;

And laughs, because he guesses, numbering

The yellower poison-wattles on the pouch

Of the first lizard wrested from its couch

Under the slime, (whose skin, the while, he strips

To cure his nostril with, and festered lips,

And eyeballs bloodshot through the desert blast,)

That he has reached its boundary, at last

May breathe; thinks o'er enchantments of the South,

Sovereign to plague his enemies, their mouth,

Eyes, nails, and hair; but, these enchantments tried

In fancy, puts them soberly aside

For truth; projects a cool return with friends,

The likelihood of winning mere amends

Erelong; thinks that, takes comfort silently,

Then from the river's brink his wrongs and he,

Hugging revenge close to their hearts, are soon

Offstriding to the Mountains of the Moon."

Flor stood listening, with eyes that shone strangely out of the gloom of her face.

"Well, child," said her master to Miss Agatha, "How does that little monodrame strike you? Which do you find preferable, tell me, Ashantee at home or Ashantee abroad? civilized or barbarized? the institution or the savage? Eh, Blossom," turning to Flor, "what do you think of the condition of that ancestor of yours?"

"Mas'r Henry," said Flor, gravely, "He was free."

"Eh? Free? What! are you bitten, too?"

And Mas'r Henry laughed at the thought, and pictured to himself his dancer dancing off altogether, like the swamp-fire she was. Then his tone changed.

"Flor," said he, sternly, "who has been talking to you lately? Do you know, Agatha? I have seen this for some time. I must learn what one among the hands it is that in these times dares breed disaffection."

"No one's talked to me, Sah," said Flor,--"no one onter der place."

"Some one off of it, then."


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"Mas'r Henry, I's been havin' my own t'oughts. Mas'r knows I couldn' lebe Miss Emma nowes. Couldn' tief her property nowes. But ef Mas'r Henry 'd on'y jus' 'sider an' ask li'l' Missy for to make dis chil' a presen' ob myse'f"--

"So that's what it means?" and Mas'r Henry smiled a moment at the ludicrous idea presented to him.

"Flor," said he then, abruptly, "I have never heard the whole of that night in the swamp. It must be told."

"Lors, Sah! So long ago, I's done forgot it!"

"You may have till to-morrow morning to quicken your memory."

"Haan' nof'n' more to 'member, Mas'r."

"You heard me. You have your choice to repeat it either now or tomorrow morning."

"Couln' make suf'n', whar nof'n' was. Couldn' tink o' nof'n' all ter once. Couldn' tell nof'n' at all in a hurry," said Flor, with a twinkle. "Guess I'll take tell de mornin', anywes, Mas'r." And she was off.

And Mas'r Henry went back to his book, --the watcher nodding on his spear,--and all the stormy scenes he expected soon to realize in his own life, when the sword of conscription had numbered his old head with the others.

Flor went out from the presence defiant, as became a rebel.

Although that special mode of martyrdom was not proper to the plantation, and Flor felt in herself few particles of the stuff of which martyrs are made, she was determined, that, as to telling so much as that Sarp was still in the swamp, let alone betraying the way to his late habitat,--even were she able,--she never would do it, though burned at the stake. The determination had a dark look; nevertheless, two glimmers lighted it: one was the hope, in a mistrust of her own strength, that Sarp had already gone; the other was a perception that the best way to keep Sarp's secret was to make off with it. She began to question what authority Mas'r Henry had to demand this secret from her; she answered in her own mind, that he had no authority at all;--then she was doubly determined that he should not have it. She had heard talk of chivalry at table and among guests; she had half a comprehension of what it meant; she wondered if this were not a case in point,--if it were, after all, the color, and not the sex, that weighed. That aroused her indignation, aroused also a feeling of race: she would not have changed color that moment with the fairest Circassian of a harem, could the white slave have appeared in all the dazzle of her beauty,--Mas'r Henry had called that man, of whom he read aloud to-day, her ancestor. She knew what that was, for she had heard Miss Emma boast of her progenitors. But he was free; then it followed that she was not a slave by nature, only by vicious force of circumstance. Mas'r Henry had no right to her whatever; instead of her stealing herself, he was the thief who retained her against her will. What could be the name of the country where that man had lived? It was somewhere a long way from this place, down the river, perhaps beyond the sea;--there were others there, then, still, most likely. Flor had an idea that among them she might be a superior, possibly received with welcome, invested with honors;--she lingered over the pleasant vision. But how was one ever to find the spot? Ah, that book of Mas'r Henry's would tell, if she could but take it away to those kind people Sarp had told of. So she meditated awhile on the curious travels with Sordello for a guide-book, till old affections smote her for having thought of taking the thing, when "Mas'r Henry set so by it," and she put the vision aside, endeavoring to recall in its place all that Sarp had told her of the North. She realized then, personally, what a wide world it was. Why should she stay shut in this one point upon it all: a hill and the fir wood behind her; marshes on this side; woods again on the other; low hills far away before her; out of them all, the dark torrent of the river showing the swift way to freedom and the great sea? She drew


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in a full breath, as if close air oppressed her.--A bird flew over her then, high above her head, careering in fickle circles, and at length sailing down out of sight far into other heavens. Flor watched him bitterly; she comprehended Zoe's scorn of her past content;--if only she had wings to spread! But Sarp had told her, that, if she went away, she would one day have wings. None of Sarp's other arguments weighed a doit,--but wings to roam with over this beautiful world! The liberty of vagabondage! She watched the clouds chasing one another through the sunny heaven, watched their shadows chasing along the fields and hills below; her heart burned that everything in the world should be more free than she herself. She felt the wind fanning over her on its way, she took the rich odors that it brought, she looked after the flower-petal that fluttered away with it, she saw the strong sunshine penetrating among the shadows of a jungly spot and catching a thousand points of color in the gloom, she recognized the constant fluent interchange among all the atoms of the universe;--why was she alone, capable of flight, chained to one spot?--She gazed around her at the squalor and the want, the brutish shapes and faces, her own no better, at the narrow huts; thought of the dull routine of work never to enrich herself, the possiblity of purchase and cruelty; --she sprung to her feet, all her blood boiling; it seemed out of the question for her to endure it another moment.--Mas'r Henry had told her once that he could make his fortune with her dancing, if he chose; she stood as much in need of a fortune as Mas'r Henry,--why not make it for herself? why not be off and away, her own mistress, earning and eating her own bread, sending some day for Zoe, finding Sarp in those far-off happy latitudes?--It occurred to her, like a discovery of her own, that, doing the work she was bidden, taking the food she was given, whipped at will, and bought and sold, she was no better than one among the cattle of the place;--the sudden sense of degradation made even her dark cheek burn. She laid a hand down on the earth, her great Teraph, to see if it were possible it could still be warm and such a wrong done to her its child. Then, all at once, she understood that wood and river were open to her fugitive feet, and if she stayed longer in slavery, it was the fault of no one but herself.--She stood up, for some one called her; she obeyed the call with alacrity, for she found it in her power to do so or not as she chose. She felt taller as she stepped along, and held up her head with the dignity of personality. She acknowledged, perhaps, that she was no equal of Miss Emma's,--that the creative hand, making its first essay on her, rounded its complete work in Miss Emma; but she declared herself now no mere offshoot of the sod,--she was a human being, a being of beating pulses and affections, and something within her, stifled here, longing to soar and away.

It was dark before Flor had ceased her novel course of thinking, pursued through all her little tasks,--beautiful star-lighted dark, full of broken breezes, soft and warm, and loaded with passionate spices and flower-breaths; she was alone again, under the shadows of the trees, entirely surrendered to her whirling fancies. In these few hours she had lived to the effect of years. She was neither hungry nor tired; she was conscious of but a single thing,--her whole being seemed effervescing into one wild longing after liberty. It was not that she could no longer brook control and be at the beck of each; it was a natural instinct, awakened at last in all the strength of maturity, that would not let her breathe another breath in peace unless it were her own,--that made her feel as though her chains were chafing into the bone,--that taught her the unutterable vileness and loathliness of bonds,--that convicted her, in being a slave, of being something foul upon the fair face of creation. She sat casting about for ways of escape. It was absurd to think she could again blunder on that secure retreat of the swamp before being overtaken; no boats ever passed along down the foaming river;


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if she were some little mole to hide and burrow in the ground till danger were over,--but no, she would rather front fear and ruin than lose one iota of her newly recognized identity. But there was no other path of safety; she clutched the ground with both hands in her powerlessness; in all the heaven and earth there seemed to be nothing to help her.

So at last Flor rose; since she could not get away, she must stay; as for the next day's punishment, she could laugh at it,--it was not its weight, but its wickedness, that troubled her; but escape, some time, she would. Lying in wait for method, ambushed for opportunity, it would go hard, if all failed. Of what value would life be then? she could but throw that after. So at some time, that was certain, she would go,--when, it was idle to say; it might be years before affairs were more propitious than now,--but then, at last, one day, the place that had known her should know her no more. Nevertheless, despite all this will and resolution, the heart of the child had sunk like a plummet at thought of leaving everything, at fear of future fortune; this deferring, after all, was half like respite.

Flor drew near the out-door fire, where Zoe and one or two others busied themselves. Something excited them extremely, it was plain to see and hear. Flor, beyond the circle of the light, strained her ears to listen. It was only a crumb of comfort that she obtained, but one of those miraculous crumbs to which there are twelve baskets of fragments: the Linkum gunboats were down at the mouth of the river. Oh! heaven a boat's length off! A day and night's drifting and rowing; then climbing the side slaves, treading the deck freemen,--the shackles fallen, the hands loosened, the soul saved!

But the boat? There was not such a thing along these banks. Improvise one. That was not possible. Flor listened, and the wild gasps of hope died out again into the dulness of despair. Some other time,--not this. As she stood still, idly and hopelessly hearkening to the mutter of the old women, with the patches of flickering firelight falling on their faces in strange play and revelation, there stole upon her ear a sweeter and distincter sound, the voice of Miss Agatha, as, leaning out upon the night, she sang a plaint that consorted with her melancholy mood, learned in her Northern home in happier hours, without a thought of the moment of misery that might make it real.

Sooner or later the storms shall beat

Over my slumber from head to feet;

Sooner or later the winds shall rave

In the long grass above my grave.

I shall not heed them where I lie,

Nothing their sound shall signify,

Nothing the headstone's fret of rain,

Nothing to me the dark day's pain.

Sooner or later the sun shall shine

With tender warmth on that mound of mine;

Sooner or later, in summer air,

Clover and violet blossom there.

I shall not feel in that deep-laid rest

The sheeted light fall over my breast,

Nor ever note in those hidden hours

The wind-blown breath of the tossing flowers.

Sooner or later the stainless snows

Shall add their hush to my mute repose;

Sooner or later shall slant and shift

And heap my bed with their dazzling drift.

Chill though that frozen pall shall seem,

Its touch no colder can make the dream

That recks not the sweet and sacred dread

Shrouding the city of the dead.

Sooner or later the bee shall come

And fill the noon with his golden hum;

Sooner or later on half-paused wing

The blue-bird's warble about me ring,--

Ring and chirrup and whistle with glee,

Nothing his music means to me,

None of these beautiful things shall know

How soundly their lover sleeps below.

Sooner or later, far out in the night,

The stars shall over me wing their flight;

Sooner or later my darkling dews

Catch the white spark in their silent ooze.

Never a ray shall part the gloom

That wraps me round in the kindly tomb;

Peace shall be perfect for lip and brow

Sooner or later,--oh, why not now?

Little of this wobegone song touched Flor even enough to let her know there was some one in the world more wretched than herself. The last word, the last


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phrase, rang in her ears like a command,--now, why not now?--waiting for times and chances, hesitating, delaying, since go she must,--then why not now? What more did she need than a board and two sticks? Here they were in plenty. And with that, a bright thought, a fortunate memory,--the old abandoned scow! And if, after all, she failed, and went to watery death, did not the singer tell in how little time all would be quiet and oblivious once again? Oh, why not now?

Perhaps Flor would never have been entirely subjected to this state of mind but for an injury that she had suffered. Miss Emma had been rendered ill by the night's exposure in the swamp. In consequence of her complicity in this crime, Flor had been excluded from her young mistress's room during her indisposition, and ever since had not only been deprived of her companionship, but had not even been allowed to look upon her from a distance. A single week of that made life a desert. Too proud to complain, Flor saw in this the future, and so recognized, it may be, that it would be easy to part from the place, having already parted with Miss Emma. She drew nearer to the group now, and stood there long, while they wondered at her, gazing into the fire, her head fallen upon her breast. There was only one thing more to do: her little squirrel; nothing but her front of battle had kept it safe this many a day; were she once gone, it would be at the mercy of the first gridiron. Nobody saw the tears, in the dark and the distance, fast falling over the tiny sacrifice; but the cook might have guessed at them, when Flor brought her last offering, and begged that it might be prepared and taken in to Miss Emma.

How many things there were to do that evening! One wanted water, and another wanted towels, and a third wanted everything there was to want. Last of all, little Pluto came running with his unkindled torch,--Mas'r Henry wanted dancing.

Flor rummaged for her castanets, her tambourine, her ankle-rings,--they had all been thrown hither and thither,--and at length, as Pluto's torch flared up, ran tinkling along the turf, into the glow; and her voice broke, as she danced, into high, clear singing, triumphant singing, that welled up to the very sky, and made the air echo with sweetness. As she sang, all her slender form swayed to the tune, posturing, gesturing, bending now, now almost soaring, while, falling in showers of twinkling steps, her fleet feet seemed to weave their way on air. What ailed the girl? all asked;--such a play of emotion of mingled sorrow and ecstasy, never before had been interpreted by measure; so a disembodied spirit might have danced, and her dusky hue, the strange glancing lights thrown upon her here and there by the torch, going and coming and glittering at pleasure, made her appear like a shadow disporting before them. At length and slowly, note by note, with wild lingering turns to which the movement languished, her tone fell from its lofty jubilance to a happy flutelike humming; she waved her arms in the mimic tenderness of repeated and passionate farewells; then, still humming, faint and low and sweet, tripped off again, through the glow, along the turf, into the shadow, and out of sight; and it seemed to the beholders as if a fountain of gladness had gushed from the sod, and, playing in the light a moment, had run away down to join the river and the breaking sea.

Mas'r Henry called after Flor to throw her a penny; but she failed to reappear, and he tossed it to Pluto instead, and forgot about her.

So, bailed out and stuffed with marsh-grass in its crazy cracks, the old scow was afloat, the rope was cut, and by midnight it went drifting down the river. Waist-deep in shoal water, it appropriator had dragged it round inside the channel's ledge of rocks, with their foam and commotion, to the somewhat more placid flow below, and now it shot away over the smooth, slippery surface of the stream, that gave back reflections of the starbeams like a polished mirror.


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Terrified by the course along the rapid river, the little creature crouched in the bottom of the scow, now breathless as it sped along the slope, now catching at the edge as in some chance eddy or flow it swirled from side to side, or, spinning quite round, went down the other way. But by-and-by gathering courage, she took her station, kneeling where with the long poles, previously provided, she could best direct her galley and avoid the dangers of a castaway. Peering this way and that through the darkness, carried along without labor, spying countless dangers where none existed, passing safely by them all, coming into a strange region of the river, she began to feel the exhilaration of venturous voyagers close upon unknow shores; the rush of the river and the rustle of the forest were all the sound she heard; she was speeding alone through the darks of space to find another world. But, with time, a more material sensation called her back,--her feet were wet. What if the scow should founder! She flew to the old sun-dried gourd, and bailed away again till her arms were tired. When she dared leave the gourd, she was more calmly floating along and piercing an avenue of mighty gloom; the river-banks had reared themselves two walls of stone, and over them a hanging forest showed the heavens only like a scarf of stars caught upon its tree-tops and shaking in the wind. The deep loneliness made Flor tremble; the water that upbuoyed her was blackness itself; the way before her was impenetrable; far up above her opened that rent of sky,--so far, that she, a little dark waif among such tremendous shadows, was all unguessed by any guardian eye.

But not for heaven itself bodily before her would she have turned about, she who was all but free. The thought of that rose in her heart like strong wings beating onward;--feverishly she followed.

Flor perceived now that the old scow was being borne along with a strong, steady motion, unlike its first fitful drift; it brought her heart to her throat,--for just so, it seemed to her, would a torrent set that was hastening to plunge over the side of the earth. She remembered, with a start of cold horror, Zoe's dim tradition of a fall far off in the river. She had never seen one, but Zoe had stamped its terrors deeply. Still down in the gloom itself she could see nothing but the slowly lightening sky overhead, the drowning stars, the rosy flush upon the dark old tips feathering against a dewy grayness that was like powdered light. But gradually she heard what conquered all necessity of seeing,--heard a continuous murmurous sound that filled all the air and grew to be a sullen roar. It seemed like the dread murmur from the world beyond the grave, the roar in earthly ears of that awful silence. Flor's quick senses were not long at fault. She seized her poles, and with all her might endeavored to push in towards the side and out of the main channel. Straws would have availed nearly as much; far faster than she went in shore she drove down stream. It was getting to be morning twilight all below; a soft, damp wind was blowing in her face; in the distance she could see, like the changing outline of a phantom, a low cloud of mist, wavering now on this side, now on that, but forever rising and falling and hovering before her. She knew what it was. If she could only bring her boat to that bank,--precipice though it was,--there must be some broken piece to catch by! She toiled with all her puny strength, and the great stream laughed at her and roared on. Suddenly, what her wildest efforts failed to do, the river did itself,--dividing into twenty currents for its plunge, some one of the eddies caught the old scow in its teeth and sent it whirling along the inmost current of all, close upon the shore. The rock, whose cleft the river had primevally chosen, was here more broken than above; various edges protruded maddeningly as Flor skimmed by almost within reach. Twice she plucked at them and missed. One flat shelf, over which the thin water slipped like sheet of molten glass, remained


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and caught her eye; she was no longer cold or stiff with terror, but frantic to save herself; it was the only chance, the last; shooting by, she sprang forward, pole in hand, touched it, fell, caught a ledge with her hands while the fierce flow of the water lifted her off her feet, scrambled up breathlessly and was safe, while the scow swept past, two flashing furlongs, poised a few moments after on the brink of the fall, went majestically over, and came up to the surface below in pieces.

Flor wrung her hands in dismay. She had not understood her situation before. There was no escape now, it seemed,--not even to return. Nothing was possible save starving to death on this ledge,--and after that, the vultures. She sat there for a little while in a kind of stupor. She saw the light falling slowly down, as it had fallen millions of mornings before, and bringing out, all blue and purple shadows on the wet old rock; she saw the current ever hurrying by to join the tumult of the cataract; she heard the deep, sweet music of the waters like a noisy dream in her ears. With the shock of her wreck coming at the instant when she fancied herself so swiftly and securely speeding on towards safety and freedom, she felt indifferent to all succeeding fate. What if she did die? who was she? what was she? nothing but an atom. What odds, after all? The solution of her soliloquy was, that, before the first ray of sunshine reached down and smote the dark torrent into glancing emerald, she began to feel ravenously hungry, and found it a great deal of odds, after all. She rose to her feet, grasping cautiously at the slippery rock, and searched about her. There was another ledge close at hand, corresponding to the one on which she stood; she crept forward and transferred herself, with an infinitude of tremors, from this to that; there was a footfold just beyond; she gained it. Up and down and all along there were other projections, just enough for a hand, a foot: a wet and terrible pathway; to follow it might be death, to neglect it certainly was. What had she danced for all her days, if it had not made her sure and nimble footed? Under her the foam leaped up, the spectral mist crept like an icy breath, the spray sprinkled all about her, swinging herself along from ledge to ledge, from jap to jap, like a spider on a viewless thread. Now she hung just above the fall, looking down and longing to leap, with nothing but a shining laurel-branch between her and the boiling pits below; now, at last, a green hillside sloped to the water's edge, sparkling across all its solitude with ten thousand drops of dew, a broad, blue morning heaven bent and shone overhead, and having raced the river in the moment's light-heartedness of glee at her good hap, she sat some rods below, looking up at the fall and dipping her bleeding and blistered feet in and out of the cool and rapid-running river.

What was there now to do? To go back,--to go back,--not if she were torn by lions! That was as impossible for her as to reverse a fiat of creation. God had said to her,--"Let there be light." How could she, then, return to darkness? To keep along on land,--it might be weeks before she reached the quarter of the gunboats,--she would be seized as a stray, and lodged in jail, and sold for whom it might concern. But with her scow gone to pieces, what other thing was there to do? So she sat looking up at the spurting cascades, with their horns of silver leaping into the light, and all the clear brown and beryl rush of their crystalline waters, and longing for her scow. If she had so much as the bit of bark on which the squirrels crossed the river! She looked again about her for relief. The rainbow at the foot of all the falls, in its luminous, steady arch, seemed a bridge solid enough for even her little black feet, had one side of the stream been any surer haven than the other; and as she sought out its bases, her eye lighted on something curiously like a weed swaying up and down. She picked her way to it, and found it wedged where she could loosen it,--two planks still nailed to a stout crossbar.


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She floated it, and held it fast a moment. what if she trusted to it,--with neither sail nor rudder, as before, but now with neither oar nor pole? On shore, for her there were only ravening wolves; waterfalls were no worse than they, and perhaps there were no more waterfalls. She stepped gingerly upon the fragment, seated and balanced herself, paddled with her two hands, and thought to slip away. In spite of everything, a kind of exultation bubbled up within her,--she felt as if she were defying Destiny itself.

When, however, Flor intrusted herself to the stream, the stream received the trust and seemed inclined to keep it; for there she stayed: the planks tilted up and down, the water washed over her, but there were the falls at nearly the same distance as when she embarked, and there they stayed as well. The water, too, was no more fresh and sweet, but had a salt and brackish taste. The sun was nearly overhead, and she was in an agony of apprehension before she saw the falls slide slowly back, and in one of a fresh succession of wonders, understanding nothing of it, she found herself, with a strange sucking heave under her, falling on the ebb-tide as before she had fallen on the mountain-current.

Gentle undulations of friendly hills seemed now to creep by; and through their openings she caught glimpses of cotton-fields. Twas a wicked relish in her thoughts, as she pictured the dusky laborers at work there, and she gliding by unseen in the idle sunshine. She passed again between high banks of red earth, scored by land-slides, with springs oozing out half-way up, and now and then clad in a mantle of vivid growth and color,--a thicket of blossoming pomegranate darkening on a sunburst of creamy dogwood, or a wild fig-tree sending its roots down to drink, with a sweet-scented and gorgeous epiphyte weaving a flowery enchantment about them, and making the whole atmosphere reel with richness. But all this verdant beauty, the lush luxuriance of grape-vines, of dark myrtle-masses, of swinging curtains of convolvuli almost brushing her head as she floated by,--nothing of this was new to Flor, nothing precious; she could have given all the beauty of earth and heaven for a crust of bread just then. She thought of the plantation with a dry sob, but would not turn her face. She could not move much, indeed, her position was so ticklish; hardy wretch as she was, she had already become faint and famished: she contrived, resting her arms on the crossbar, at last, to lay her head upon them; and thus lying, perpetually bathed by the soft, warm dip and rise of the water, the pain of hunger left her, and she saw the world waft by like a dream.

Slowly the evening began to fall. Flor marked the bright waters dim and put on a bloomy [gloomy?] purple along which rosy and golden shadows wandered and mingled, stars looked timidly up from beneath her, and just over her shoulder, as if all the daylight left had gathered in that one little carved line, lay the suspicion of the tenderest new moon, like some boatman of the skies essaying to encourage her with his apparition as he floated lightly down the west. Flor paid heed to the spectacle in its splendid quiet but briefly; her eyes were fixed on a great trail of passion-flowers that blew out a gale of sweetness from their broad blue disks. She had reached that hanging branch, lavishly blossoming here on the wilderness, and had hung upon the tide beneath it for a while, till she found herself gently moving back again; and now she swung slightly to and fro, neither making nor losing headway, and, fond of such sensuous delights, half content to lie thus and do nothing but breathe the delicious odor stealing towards her, and resting in broad airy swaths, it seemed, upon the bosom of the stream around her. By-and-by, when the great blue star, that last night at the zenith seemed to suspend all the tented drapery of the sky, hung there large and lovely again, Flor, gazing up at it with a confused sense of passion-flowers in heaven, half woke to find herself sliding down stream


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at last in earnest. Her brain was very light and giddy; all her powers of perception were momentarily heightened; she took notice of her seesawing upon the ebb and flow, and understood that washing up and down the shores, a mere piece of driftwood, life would long have left her ere she attained the river's mouth, if she were not stranded by the way. The branch of a cedar-tree came dallying by with that, brought down from above the falls; she half rose, and caught at it, and fell back, but she kept hold of it by just a twig, and,, fatigued with the exertion, drowsed away awhile. Waking again, after a little, her fingers still fast upon it, she drew it over, fixed it upright as she could, and spread her petticoat about it at the risk of utter capsize. The soft sweet wind beat against the sail as happily as if it had been Cleopatra's weft of purple silk, and carried her on, while she lay back, one arm around her jury-mast, and half indifferently unconscious again. She had meant, on reaching the gunboats,--ah, inconceivable bliss!--to win her way with her feet; with willowy graces and eloquent pantomime, to have danced along the deck and into favor trippingly: now, if she should have strength enough left to fall on her knees, it would be strange. She clung to the crossbar in a little while from blind habit; the rest of her body seemed light and powerless. She was neither asleep nor awake now, suffering nothing save occasionally a wild flutter of hope which was joy and anguish together; but all things began mingling in her mind in a species of delirium while she gave them attention, afterwards slid by blank of all meaning but beauty. The lofty cypresses on the edge above loomed into obelisks, and stood like shafts of ebony against a glow of sunrise that stirred down deep in the night; dew-clouds, it seemed, hung on them, and lifted and lowered when their veils of moss waved here and there; the glistering laurel-leaves shivered in a network of light and shade like imprisoned spirits troubling to be free; but where the great magnolias stood were massed the white wings of angels fanning forth fragrances untold and heavenly, and one by one slowly revealing themselves in the dawn of another day. It seemed as if great and awful spirits must be leading this little being into light and freedom.

So the river lapsed along, and the sun blazed, and a torture of thirst came and went as it had come and gone before; and sometimes swiftly, sometimes slowly, the veering winds and the pendulous tides carried the wreck and its burden along. Flor had planned, before she started, that all her progress should be made by night; by day she would haul up among the tall rushes or under the lee of some stump or rock, and so escape strange sail and spying eyes. But there had been no need of this, for no other boat had passed up or down the river since she sailed. If there had, she could no more have feared it. She stole by a high deserted garden, the paling broken half away. A tardy almond-tree was stirring its tower of bloom in the sunshine up there; oranges were reddening on an overhanging bough, whose wreaths of snowy sweetness made the air a passionate delight; a luscious fruit dropped, with all its royal gloss, into the river beside her, and she could not put out a hand to catch it. She saw now all that passed but no longer with any afterthoughts of reference to herself; so sights might slip across the retina of a dead man's eye; her identity seemed fading from her, as from some substance on the point of dissolution into the wide universe. She felt like one who, under an aesthetic influence, seems to himself careering through mid-air, conscious only of motion and vanishing forms. Cultured uplands and thick woods peopled with melodies all stole by, mere picture; the long snake of the river crept through green meadowy shores haunted by the cluck and clutter of the marsh-hen; from a bluff of the bank broke a blaze of fire and a yelping roar, and something slapped and skipped along with water,--a ball from a Rebel battery to bring the strange craft to,--others


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followed and danced like demons through the hissing tide that rocked under her and plunged up and down, tilting and turning and half drowning the wreck. Flor looked at them all with wide eyes, at the battery and at the bluff, and went by without any more sensation than that dazed quiet in which, at the time, she would have gone down to death with the soft waters laying their warm weight on her head, not even thanking Fortune that in giving her a slippery plank gave her something to elude either canister or catapult. Occasionally she felt a pain, a strange parched pain; it burned awhile, and left her once more oblivious. She slept a little, by fits and starts; sometimes the very stillness stirred her. She listened and heard the turtle plumping down into the stream, now and then the little fishes leaping and plashing, the eels slipping in and out among the reeds and sedges at the side; far away in the broad marshes, that, bathed in dim vapor, now lay all about her, the cry of a bittern boomed; she saw a pair of herons flapping inland over the gray swell of the water; there were some great purple phantoms, darkly imagined monsters, looming near at hand:--all the phantasmagoria drifted by,--and then, caught in the currents playing forever by noon or night round the low edges of sand-bars and islets, she was sweeping out to sea like chaff.

The sun was going down, a mere redness in the curdling fleecy haze; the weltering seas rose and fell in broad sheets of burnished silver, the monotone of their music followed them, a cool salt wind blew over them and freshened them for storm. Flor rose on her arm and looked back,--the breeze roused her; pain and fear and hope rose with her and looked back too. Eager, feverish, fierce, recollecting and desiring and imprecating, her dry lips parted for a shriek that the dryer throat had at first no power to utter. In such wild longing pangs it seemed her heart would burst as it beat. The low land, the great gunboats, all were receding, and she was washing out to sea, a weed.--Well, then, wash!

The stem of the boat rose lightly, riding over the rollers; the sturdy arms kept flashing stroke; the great gulfs gaped for a life, no matter whose; night would darken down on them soon;--pull with a will!

They hear her voice as they drew near: she had found it again, singing, as the swan sings his death-song, loud and clear,--singing to herself some song of her old happy dancing-days, while the spray powdered over her and one broad wave lifted and tossed her on to the next,--no note of sorrow in the song, and no regret.

It was but brief delay beside her; then they pulled back, the wind piping behind them,--nearer to that purple cloud with its black plume of smoke, up the side and over; all the white faces crowding round her, pallid blots; one dark face smiling on her like Sarp's; friendship and succor everywhere about her; and over her, blowing out broadly upon the stormy wind, that flag whose starry shadow nowhere shelters a slave.

* * *

Other Online texts by Spofford

  • Down the River (alternate source)
  • The Amber Gods (alternate source: The Amber Gods, Part I and Part II)
  • Circumstance (alternate source: Circumstance, author anonymous)
  • Dark Ways--by Harriet E. Prescott (U of Virginia)
  • In a Cellar--by Harriet E. Prescott (U of Virginia)
  • The Mad Lady (U of Virginia)
  • The Nemesis of Motherhood (U of Virginia)
  • The South Breaker, author anonymous (U of Cornell)
  • Making of America (U of Cornell Library)--images of the original journal pages on which the following texts were printed are available, but in an awkward format. The texts include stories, novellas, articles, and poems. Spofford's texts are listed under several different versions of her name or under "anonymous":
    • Page 1--9 texts under Harriet Prescott or Harriet E. Prescott
    • Page 2--15 texts under Harriet E. Prescott
    • Page 3--2 texts under H.P. Spofford or H. Prescott Spofford
    • Page 4--28 texts under Harriet Spofford, Harriet P. Spofford, and Harriet Prescott Spofford
    • Page 5--30 texts under Harriet Prescott Spofford
    • Page 6--29 texts under Harriet Prescott Spofford
    • Page 7--29 texts under Harriet Prescott Spofford or Harriet Spofford
    • Page 8--9 texts under Harriet Prescott Spofford

Online Sources about Spofford


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