An Outcast/Chapter XVII
Our very chivalric dealers in human merchandise, like philosophers and philanthropists, are composed merely of flesh and blood, while their theories are alike influenced by circumstances. Those of the first, we (the South) are, at times, too apt to regard as sublimated and refined, while we hold the practices of the latter such as divest human nature of everything congenial. Nevertheless we can assure our readers that there does not exist a class of men who so much pride themselves on their chivalry as some of our opulent slave-dealers. Did we want proof to sustain what we have said we could not do better than refer to Mr. Forsheu, that very excellent gentleman. Mrs. Swiggs held him in high esteem, and so far regarded his character for piety and chivalry unblemished, that she consigned to him her old slave of seventy years—old Molly. Molly must be sold, the New York Tract Society must have a mite, and Sister Abijah Slocum's very laudable enterprise of getting Brother Singleton Spyke off to Antioch must be encouraged. And Mr. Forsheu is very kind to the old people he sells. It would, indeed, be difficult for the distant reader to conceive a more striking instance of a man, grown rich in a commerce that blunts all the finer qualities of our nature, preserving a gentleness, excelled only by his real goodness of heart.
When the old slave, leaning on her crutch, stood before Mr. Forsheu, her face the very picture of age and starvation, his heart recoiled at the thought of selling her in her present condition. He read the letter she bore, contemplated her with an air of pity, and turning to Mr. Benbow, his methodical book-keeper of twenty years, who had added and subtracted through a wilderness of bodies and souls, ordered him to send the shrunken old woman into the pen, on feed. Mr. Forsheu prided himself on the quality of people sold at his shambles, and would not for the world hazard his reputation on old Molly, till she was got in better condition. Molly rather liked this, inasmuch as she had been fed on corn and prayers exclusively, and more prayers than corn, which is become the fashion with our much-reduced first families. For nearly four months she enjoyed, much to the discomfiture of her august owner, the comforts of Mr. Forsheu's pen. Daily did the anxious old lady study her Milton, and dispatch a slave to inquire if her piece of aged property had found a purchaser. The polite vender preserved, with uncommon philosophy, his temper. He enjoined patience. The condition and age of the property were, he said, much in the way of sale. Then Mrs. Swiggs began questioning his ability as a merchant. Aspersions of this kind, the polite vender of people could not bear with. He was a man of enormous wealth, the result of his skill in the sale of people. He was the president of an insurance company, a bank director, a commissioner of the orphan asylum, and a steward of the jockey club. To his great relief, for he began to have serious misgivings about his outlay on old Molly, there came along one day an excellent customer. This was no less a person than Madame Flamingo. What was singular of this very distinguished lady was, that she always had a use for old slaves no one else ever thought of. Her yard was full of aged and tottering humanity. One cleaned knives, another fetched ice from the ice-house, a third blacked boots, a fourth split wood, a fifth carried groceries, and a sixth did the marketing. She had a decayed negro for the smallest service; and, to her credit be it said, they were as contented and well fed a body of tottering age as could be found in old Carolina.
Her knife-cleaning machine having taken it into his head to die one day, she would purchase another. Mr Forsheu, with that urbanity we so well understand how to appreciate, informed the distinguished lady that he had an article exactly suited to her wants. Forthwith, Molly was summoned into her presence. Madame Flamingo, moved almost to tears at the old slave's appearance, purchased her out of pure sympathy, as we call it, and to the great relief of Mr. Forsheu, lost no time in paying one hundred and forty dollars down in gold for her. In deference to Mr. Hadger, the House of The Foreign Missions, and the very excellent Tract Society, of New York, we will not here extend on how the money was got. The transaction was purely commercial: why should humanity interpose? We hold it strictly legal that institutions created for the purpose of enlightening the heathen have no right to ask by what means the money constituting their donations is got.
The comforts of Mr. Forsheu's pen,—the hominy, grits, and rest, made the old slave quite as reluctant about leaving him as she had before been in parting with Lady Swiggs. Albeit, she shook his hand with equal earnestness, and lisped "God bless Massa," with a tenderness and simplicity so touching, that had not Madame Flamingo been an excellent diplomat, reconciling the matter by assuring her that she would get enough to eat, and clothes to wear, no few tears would have been shed. Madame, in addition to this incentive, intimated that she might attend a prayer meeting now and then—perhaps see Cicero. However, Molly could easily have forgotten Cicero, inasmuch as she had enjoyed the rare felicity of thirteen husbands, all of whom Lady Swiggs had sold when it suited her own convenience.
Having made her purchase, Madame very elegantly bid the gallant merchant good morning, hoping he would not forget her address, and call round when it suited his convenience. Mr. Forsheu, his hat doffed, escorted her to her carriage, into the amber-colored lining of which she gracefully settled her majestic self, as a slightly-browned gentleman in livery closed the bright door, took her order with servile bows, and having motioned to the coachman, the carriage rolled away, and was soon out of sight. Monsieur Gronski, it may be well to add here, was discovered curled up in one corner; he smiled, and extended his hand very graciously to Madame as she entered the carriage.
Like a pilgrim in search of some promised land, Molly adjusted her crutch, and over the sandy road trudged, with truculent face, to her new home, humming to herself "dah-is-a-time-a-comin, den da Lor' he be good!!"
On the following morning, Lady Swiggs received her account current, Mr. Forsheu being exceedingly prompt in business. There was one hundred and twenty-nine days' feed, commissions, advertising, and sundry smaller charges, which reduced the net balance to one hundred and three dollars. Mrs. Swiggs, with an infatuation kindred to that which finds the State blind to its own poverty, stubbornly refused to believe her slaves had declined in value. Hence she received the vender's account with surprise and dissatisfaction. However, the sale being binding, she gradually accommodated her mind to the result, and began evolving the question of how to make the amount meet the emergency. She must visit the great city of New York; she must see Sister Slocum face to face; Brother Spyke's mission must have fifty dollars; how much could she give the Tract Society? Here was a dilemma—one which might have excited the sympathy of the House of the "Foreign Missions." The dignity of the family, too, was at stake. Many sleepless nights did this difficult matter cause the august old lady. She thought of selling another cripple! Oh! that would not do. Mr. Keepum had a lien on them; Mr. Keepum was a man of iron-heart. Suddenly it flashed upon her mind that she had already been guilty of a legal wrong in selling old Molly. Mr. Soloman had doubtless described her with legal minuteness in the bond of security for the two hundred dollars. Her decrepit form; her corrugated face; her heavy lip; her crutch, and her piety—everything, in a word, but her starvation, had been set down. Well! Mr. Soloman might, she thought, overlook in the multiplicity of business so small a discrepancy. She, too, had a large circle of distinguished friends. If the worst came to the worst she would appeal to them. There, too, was Sir Sunderland Swiggs' portrait, very valuable for its age; she might sell the family arms, such things being in great demand with the chivalry; her antique furniture, too, was highly prized by our first families. Thus Lady Swiggs contemplated these mighty relics of past greatness. Our celtic Butlers and Brookses never recurred to the blood of their querulous ancestors with more awe than did this memorable lady to her decayed relics. Mr. Israel Moses, she cherished a hope, would give a large sum for the portrait; the family arms he would value at a high figure; the old furniture he would esteem a prize. But to Mr. Moses and common sense, neither the blood of the Butlers, nor Lady Swiggs' rubbish, were safe to loan money upon. The Hebrew gentleman was not so easily beguiled.
The time came when it was necessary to appeal to Mr. Hadger. That gentleman held the dignity of the Swiggs family in high esteem, but shook his head when he found the respectability of the house the only security offered in exchange for a loan. Ah! a thought flashed to her relief, the family watch and chain would beguile the Hebrew gentleman. With these cherished mementoes of the high old family, (she would under no other circumstance have parted with for uncounted gold,) she in time seduced Mr. Israel Moses to make a small advance. Duty, stern and demanding, called her to New York. Forced to reduce her generosity, she, not without a sigh, made up her mind to give only thirty dollars to each of the institutions she had made so many sacrifices to serve. And thus, with a reduced platform, as our politicians have it, she set about preparing for the grand journey. Regards the most distinguished were sent to all the first families; the St. Cecilia had notice of her intended absence; no end of tea parties were given in honor of the event. Apparently happy with herself, with every one but poor Tom, our august lady left in the Steamer one day. With a little of that vanity the State deals so largely in, Mrs. Swiggs thought every passenger on board wondering and staring at her.
While then she voyages and dreams of the grand reception waiting her in New York,—of Sister Slocum's smiles, of the good of the heathen world, and of those nice evening gatherings she will enjoy with the pious, let us, gentle reader, look in at the house of Absalom McArthur.
To-day Tom Swiggs feels himself free, and it is high noon. Downcast of countenance he wends his way along the fashionable side of King-street. The young theologian is at his side. George Mullholland has gone to the house of Madame Flamingo. He will announce the glad news to Anna. The old antiquarian dusts his little counter with a stubby broom, places various curiosities in the windows, and about the doors, stands contemplating them with an air of satisfaction, then proceeds to drive a swarm of flies that hover upon the ceiling, into a curiously-arranged trap that he has set.
"What!—my young friend, Tom Swiggs!" exclaims the old man, toddling toward Tom, and grasping firmly his hand, as he enters the door. "You are welcome to my little place, which shall be a home." Tom hangs down his head, receives the old man's greeting with shyness. "Your poor father and me, Tom, used to sit here many a time. (The old man points to an old sofa.) We were friends. He thought much of me, and I had a high opinion of him; and so we used to sit for hours, and talk over the deeds of the old continentals. Your mother and him didn't get along over-well together; she had more dignity than he could well digest: but that is neither here nor there."
"I hope, in time," interrupts Tom, "to repay your kindness. I am willing to ply myself to work, though it degrades one in the eyes of our society."
"As to that," returns the old man, "why, don't mention it. Maria, you know, will be a friend to you. Come away now and see her." And taking Tom by the hand, (the theologian has withdrawn,) he becomes enthusiastic, leads him through the dark, narrow passage into the back parlor, where he is met by Maria, and cordially welcomed. "Why, Tom, what a change has come over you," she ejaculates, holding his hand, and viewing him with the solicitude of a sister, who hastens to embrace a brother returned after a long absence. Letting fall his begrimed hand, she draws up the old-fashioned rocking chair, and bids him be seated. He shakes his head moodily, says he is not so bad as he seems, and hopes yet to make himself worthy of her kindness. He has been the associate of criminals; he has suffered punishment; he feels himself loathed by society; he cannot divest himself of the odium clinging to his garments. Fain would he go to some distant clime, and there seek a refuge from the odium of felons.
"Let no such thoughts enter your mind, Tom," says the affectionate girl; "divest yourself at once of feelings that can only do you injury. You have engaged my thoughts during your troubles. Twice I begged your mother to honor me with an interview. We were humble people; she condescended at last. But she turned a deaf ear to me when I appealed to her for your release, merely inquiring if—like that other jade—I had become enamored of—" Maria pauses, blushing.
"I would like to see my mother," interposes Tom.
"Had I belonged to our grand society, the case had been different," resumes Maria.
"Truly, Maria," stammers Tom, "had I supposed there was one in the world who cared for me, I had been a better man."
"As to that, why we were brought up together, Tom. We knew each other as children, and what else but respect could I have for you? One never knows how much others think of them, for the—" Maria blushes, checks herself, and watches the changes playing over Tom's countenance. She was about to say the tongue of love was too often silent.
It must be acknowledged that Maria had, for years, cherished a passion for Tom. He, however, like many others of his class, was too stupid to discover it. The girl, too, had been overawed by the dignity of his mother. Thus, with feelings of pain did she watch the downward course of one in whose welfare she took a deep interest.
"Very often those for whom we cherish the fondest affections, are coldest in their demeanor towards us," pursues Maria.
"Can she have thought of me so much as to love me?" Tom questions within himself; and Maria put an end to the conversation by ringing the bell, commanding the old servant to hasten dinner. A plate must be placed at the table for Tom.
The antiquarian, having, as he says, left the young people to themselves, stands at his counter furbishing up sundry old engravings, horse-pistols, pieces of coat-of-mail, and two large scimitars, all of which he has piled together in a heap, and beside which lay several chapeaus said to have belonged to distinguished Britishers. Mr. Soloman suddenly makes his appearance in the little shop, much to Mr. McArthur's surprise. "Say—old man! centurion!" he exclaims, in a maudlin laugh, "Keepum's in the straps—is, I do declare; Gadsden and he bought a lot of niggers—a monster drove of 'em, on shares. He wants that trifle of borrowed money—must have it. Can have it back in a few days."
"Bless me," interrupts the old man, confusedly, "but off my little things it will be hard to raise it. Times is hard, our people go, like geese, to the North. They get rid of all their money there, and their fancy—you know that, Mr. Snivel—is abroad, while they have, for home, only a love to keep up slavery."
"I thought it would come to that," says Mr. Snivel, facetiously. The antiquarian seems bewildered, commences offering excuses that rather involve himself deeper, and finally concludes by pleading for a delay. Scarce any one would have thought a person of Mr. McArthur's position, indebted to Mr. Keepum; but so it was. It is very difficult to tell whose negroes are not mortgaged to Mr. Keepum, how many mortgages of plantation he has foreclosed, how many high old families he has reduced to abject poverty, or how many poor but respectable families he has disgraced. He has a reputation for loaning money to parents, that he may rob their daughters of that jewel the world refuses to give them back. And yet our best society honor him, fawn over him, and bow to him. We so worship the god of slavery, that our minds are become debased, and yet we seem unconscious of it. Mr. Keepum did not lend money to the old antiquarian without a purpose. That purpose, that justice which accommodates itself to the popular voice, will aid him in gaining.
Mr. Snivel affects a tone of moderation, whispers in the old man's ear, and says: "Mind you tell the fortune of this girl, Bonard, as I have directed. Study what I have told you. If she be not the child of Madame Montford, then no faith can be put in likenesses. I have got in my possession what goes far to strengthen the suspicions now rife concerning the fashionable New Yorker."
"There surely is a mystery about this woman, Mr. Snivel, as you say. She has so many times looked in here to inquire about Mag Munday, a woman in a curious line of life who came here, got down in the world, as they all do, and used now and then to get the loan of a trifle from me to keep her from starvation." (Mr. Snivel says, in parentheses, he knows all about her.)
"Ha! ha! my old boy," says Mr. Snivel, frisking his fingers through his light Saxon beard, "I have had this case in hand for some time. It is strictly a private matter, nevertheless. They are a bad lot—them New Yorkers, who come here to avoid their little delicate affairs. I may yet make a good thing out of this, though. As for that fellow, Mullholland, I intend getting him the whipping post. He is come to be the associate of gentlemen; men high in office shower upon him their favors. It is all to propitiate the friendship of Bonard—I know it." Mr. Snivel concludes hurriedly, and departs into the street, as our scene changes.