Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
Poor Chloe
By Lydia Maria Child (1802–1880)
 
[Born in Medford, Mass., 1802. Died at Wayland, Mass., 1880. From The Atlantic Monthly. 1866.]

CHLOE, who was carefully instructed to use up every scrap of time for the benefit of her mistress, had seated herself to braid rags for a carpet, as soon as the tea-things were disposed of. The entrance of the minister into her apartment surprised her, for it was very unusual. She rose, made a profound courtesy, and remainded standing.
  1
  “Sit down, Chloe! sit down!” said he, with a condescending wave of his hand. “I have come to speak to you about an important matter. You have heard me read from the Scriptures that marriage is honorable. You are old enough to be married, Chloe, and it is right and proper you should be married. My Tom wants a wife, and there is nobody I should like so well for him as you. I will go home and send Tom to talk with you about it.”  2
  Chloe looked very much frightened and exclaimed: “Please don’t, Massa Gordonmammon. I don’t want to be married.”  3
  “But it’s right and proper you should be married,” rejoined the minister; “and Tom wants a wife. It’s your duty, Chloe, to do whatever your minister and your mistress tell you to do.”  4
  That look from Jim came up as a bright vision before poor Chloe, and she burst into tears.  5
  “I will come again when your mind is in a state more suited to your condition,” said the minister. “At present your disposition seems to be rebellious. I will leave you to think of what I have said.”  6
  But thinking made Chloe feel still more rebellious. Tom was fat and stupid, with thick lips, and small dull-looking eyes. He compared very unfavorably with her bright and handsome Jim. She swayed back and forth, and groaned. She thought over all the particulars of that last walk on the beach, and murmured to herself, “He looked jest as ef he wanted to say suthin’.”  7
  She thought of Tom and groaned again: and underlying all her confusion of thoughts there was a miserable feeling that, if the minister and her mistress both said she must marry Tom, there was no help for it.  8
  The next day, she slashed and slammed round in an extraordinary manner. She broke a mug and a bowl, and sanded the floor with a general conglomeration of scratches, instead of the neat herring-bone on which she usually prided herself. It was the only way she had to exercise her free-will in its desperate struggle with necessity.  9
  Mrs. Lawton, who never thought of her in any other light than as a machine, did not know what to make of these singular proceedings. “What upon airth ails you?” exclaimed she. “I do believe the gal’s gone crazy.”  10
  Chloe paused in her harum-scarum sweeping, and said, with a look and tone almost defiant, “I don’t want to marry Tom.”  11
  “But the minister wants you to marry him,” replied Mrs. Lawton, “and you ought to mind the minister.”  12
  Chloe did not dare to dispute that assertion, but she dashed her broom round in the sand, in a very rebellious manner.  13
  “Mind what you’re about, gal!” exclaimed Mrs. Lawton. “I am not going to put up with such tantrums.”  14
  Chloe was acquainted with the weight of her mistress’s hand, and she moved the broom round in more systematic fashion; but there was a tempest raging in her soul.  15
  In the course of a few days the minister visited the kitchen again, and found Chloe still averse to his proposition. If his spiritual ear had been delicate, he would have noticed anguish in her pleading tone, when she said: “Please, Massa Gordonmammon, don’t say nothin’ more ’bout it. I don’t want to be married.” But his spiritual ear was not delicate; and her voice sounded to him merely as that of a refractory wench, who was behaving in a manner very unseemly and ungrateful in a bondwoman who had been taken from the heathen round about, and brought under the guidance of Christians. He therefore assumed his sternest look when he said: “I supposed you knew it was your duty to obey whatever your minister and your mistress tell you. The Bible says, ‘He is the minister of God unto you.’ It also says, ‘Servants, obey your masters in all things’; and your mistress stands to you in the place of your deceased master. How are you going to account to God for your disobedience to his commands?”  16
  Chloe, half frightened and half rebellious, replied, “I don’t think Missis would like it, if you made Missy Katy marry somebody when she said she didn’t want to be married.”  17
  “Chloe, it is very presumptuous in you to talk in that way,” rejoined the minister. “There is no similarity between your condition and that of your young mistress. You are descended from Ham, Chloe; and Ham was accursed of God on account of his sin, and his posterity were ordained to be servants; and the Bible says, ‘Servants, obey your masters in all things’; and it says that the minister is a ‘minister of God unto you.’ You were born among heathen and brought to a land of Gospel privileges; and you ought to be grateful that you have protectors capable of teaching you what to do. Now your mistress wants you to marry Tom, and I want you to marry him; and we expect that you will do as we bid you, without any more words. I will come again, Chloe; though you ought to feel ashamed of yourself for giving your minister so much trouble about such a trifling matter.”  18
  Receiving no answer, he returned to the sitting-room to talk with Mrs. Lawton.  19
  Chloe, like most people who are alone much of their time, had a confirmed habit of talking to herself; and her soliloquies were apt to be rather promiscuous and disjointed.  20
  “Trifling matter!” said she. “S’pose it’s trifling matter to you, Massa Minister. Ugh! S’pose they’ll make me. Don’t know nothin’ ’bout Ham. Never hearn tell o’ Ham afore, only ham in the smoke-house. If Ham’s cussed in the Bible, what fur do folks eat it? Hearn Missis read in the Bible that the Divil went into the swine. Don’t see what fur I must marry Tom ’cause Ham was cussed for his sin.” She was silent for a while, and, being unable to bring any order out of the chaos of her thoughts, she turned them toward a more pleasant subject. “He didn’t say nothin’,” murmured she; “but he looked jest as ef he wanted to say suthin’.” The tender expression of those great brown eyes came before her again, and she laid her head down on the table and sobbed.  21
  Her protectors, as they styled themselves, never dreamed that she had a heart. In their thoughts she was merely a bondwoman taken from the heathen, and consigned to their keeping for their uses.  22
  Tom made another visit to Dinah, and was out of the way when his master wanted him. This caused the minister to hasten in making his third visit to Chloe. She met him with the same frightened look; and when he asked if she had made up her mind to obey her mistress, she timidly and sadly repeated, “Massa Minister, I don’t want to be married.”  23
  “You don’t want to do your duty; that’s what it is, you disobedient wench,” said the minister sternly. “I will wrestle with the Lord in prayer for you, that your rebellious heart may be taken away, and a submissive temper given you, more befitting your servile condition.”  24
  He spread forth his hands, covered with very long-fingered, dangling black-silk gloves, and lifted his voice in the following petition to the Throne of Grace: “O Lord, we pray thee that this rebellious descendant of Ham, whom thou hast been pleased to place under our protection, may learn that it is her duty to obey thy Holy Word; wherein it is written that I am unto her a minister of God, and that she is to obey her mistress in all things. May she be brought to a proper sense of her duty; and, by submission to her superiors, gain a humble place in thy heavenly kingdom, where the curse inherited from her sinful progenitor may be removed. This we ask in the name of thy Son, our Saviour Jesus Christ, who died that sinners might be redeemed by believing on his name; even sinners who, like this disobedient handmaid, were born in a land of heathens.”  25
  He paused and looked at Chloe, who could do nothing but weep. There were many words in the prayer which conveyed to her no meaning; and why she was accursed on account of the sin of Ham remained a perplexing puzzle to her mind. But she felt as if she must, somehow or other, be doing something wicked, or the minister would not come and pray for her in such a solemn manner.  26
  Mr. Gordonmammon, having reiterated his rebukes and expostulations without receiving any answer but tears, called Mrs. Lawton to his assistance. “I have preached to Chloe, and prayed for her,” said he; “but she remains stubborn.”  27
  “I am surprised at you, Chloe!” exclaimed the widow. “You have been told a great many times that it is your duty to obey the minister and to obey me; yet you have put him to the trouble of coming three times to talk with you. I sha’n’t put up with any more such doings. You must make up your mind once for all to marry Tom. What have you to say about it, you silly wench?”  28
  With a great break-down of sobs, poor Chloe blubbered out, “S’pose I must.”  29
  They left her alone; and O how dreadfully alone she felt, with the memory of that treasured look, and the thought that, whatever it was Jim wanted to say, he could never say it now!  30
  The next day, soon after dinner, Mrs. Lawton entered the kitchen, and said: “Chloe, the minister has brought Tom. Make haste, and do up your dishes, and put on a clean apron, and come in to be married.”  31
  Chloe’s first impulse was to run away; but she had nowhere to run. She was recognized as the property of her mistress, and wherever she went she would be sure to be sent back. She washed the dishes so slowly that Mrs. Lawton came again to say the minister was waiting. Chloe merely replied, “Yes, missis.” But when the door closed after her, she muttered to herself: “Let him wait. I didn’t ax him to come here plaguing me about the cuss o’ Ham. Don’t know nothin’ ’bout Ham. Never hearn tell ’bout him afore.”  32
  Again her mistress came to summon her, and this time in a somewhat angry mood. “Have you got lead tied to your heels, you lazy wench?” said she. “How many times must I tell you the minister’s waiting?” and she emphasized the question with a smart box on the ear.  33
  Like a cowardly soldier driven up to the cannon’s mouth by bayonets, Chloe put on a clean apron, and went to the sitting-room. When the minister told Tom to stand up, she did not even look at him; and he, on his part, seemed very much frightened. After a brief form of words had been repeated, they were told that they were husband and wife. Then the bridegroom was ordered to go to ploughing, and the bride was sent to the fish-flake.  34
  Two witnesses were present at this dismal wedding besides Mrs. Lawton. One was the widow’s daughter, a girl of seventeen, whom Chloe called “Missy Katy.” The other was Sukey Larkin, who lived twenty miles off, but occasionally came to visit an aunt in the neighborhood. Both the young girls were dressed in their best; for they were going to a quilting-party, where they expected to meet many beaux. But Catherine Lawton’s best was very superior to Sukey Larkin’s. Her gown was of a more wonderful pattern than had been seen in that region. It had been brought from London, in exchange for tobacco. Sukey had heard of it, and had stopped at the Widow Lawton’s to make sure of seeing it, in case Catherine did not wear it to the quilting-party. Though she had heard much talk about it, it surpassed her expectations, and made her very discontented with her own gown of India-cotton, dotted all over with red spots, like barleycorns. The fabric of Catherine’s dress was fine, thick linen, covered with pictures, like a fancifully illustrated volume of Natural History….  35
  “Mr. Gordonmammon thinks a deal of the Widow Lawton,” said the hostess of the quilting-party.  36
  “Yes, I know he does,” replied Sukey. “If he was a widower, I guess they’d be the town’s talk. Some folks think he goes there full often enough. He brought his Tom there to-day to marry Chloe. I wonder the widow could spare her time to be married, though, to be sure, it didn’t take long, for the minister made a mighty short prayer.”  37
  Poor Chloe! Thus they dismissed a subject which gave her a lifelong heart-ache. There was no honey in her bridal moon. She told Tom several times she wished he would stay at home; but he was so perseveringly good-natured, there was no possibility of quarreling with him. By degrees, she began to find his visits on Saturday evening rather more entertaining than talking to herself.  38
  “I wouldn’t mind bein’ so druv wi’ work,” said Tom, “ef I could live like white folks do when they gits married. I duz more work than them as has a cabin o’ their own, and keeps a cow and a pig. But black folks don’t seem to get no good o’ their work.”  39
  “Massa Minister says it’s ’cause God cussed Ham,” replied Chloe. “I thought ’twas wicked to cuss, but Massa Minister says Ham was cussed in the Bible. Ef I could have some o’ the fish I clean and dry, I could sen’ to Lunnun for a gownd; but Missy Katy she gits all the gownds, ’cause Ham was cussed in the Bible. I don’t know nothin’ ’bout it; seems drefful queer.”  40
  “Massa tole me I mus’ work for nothin’, ’cause Ham was cussed,” rejoined Tom. “But it seems like Ham cussed some black folks worse nor others. There’s Jim Saunders, he’s a nigger, too; but he gits his feed and six dollars a month.”  41
  The words were like a stab to Chloe. She dropped half a needleful of stitches in her knitting, and told Tom she wished he’d hold his tongue, for he kept up such a jabbering that he made all her stitches run down. Tom, thus silenced, soon fell asleep. She glanced at him as he sat snoring by her side, and contrasted him with the genteel figure and handsome features that had been so indelibly photographed on her memory by the sunbeams of love. Tears dropped fast on her knitting-work; but when Tom woke up, she spoke kindly, and tried to atone for her ill-temper. Time, which gradually reconciles us to all things, produced the same effect on her as on others. When the minister asked her, six months afterward, how she and Tom were getting along, she replied, “I’s got used to him.”  42
  Yet life seemed more dreary to her than it did before she had that brief experience of a free feeling. She never thought of that look without longing to know what it was Jim wanted to say. But, as months passed on, the tantalizing vision came less frequently, and at the end of a year Chloe experienced the second happy emotion of her life. When she looked upon her babe, a great fountain of love leaped up in her heart. She was never too tired to wait upon little Tommy; and if his cries disturbed her deep sleep, she folded the helpless little creature to her bosom, with the feeling that he was better than rest. She was accustomed to carry him to the fish-flake in a big basket, and lay him on a bed of dry leaves, with her apron for an awning. As she paced backwards and forwards at her daily toil, it was a perpetual entertainment to see him lying there sucking his thumbs. But that was nothing compared with the joy of nursing him. When his hunger was partially satisfied, he would stop to smile in his mother’s face; and Chloe had never seen anything so beautiful as that baby smile. As he lay on her lap, laughing and cooing, there was something in the expression of his eyes that reminded her of the look she could never forget. He had taken the picture from her soul, and brought it with him to the outer world; but as he lay there, playing with his toes, he knew no more about his mother’s heart than did the Rev. Mr. Gordonmammon.  43
  One balmy day in June, she was sitting on a rock by the sea-shore, nursing her babe, pinching his little plump cheeks, and chirruping to make him smile, when she heard the sound of footsteps. She looked up, and saw Jim approaching. Her heart jumped into her throat. She felt very hot, and then very cold. When Jim came near enough to look upon the babe, he stopped an instant, said, in a constrained way, “How d’ye, Chloe,” then turned and walked quickly away. She gazed after him so wistfully that for a few minutes the cooing of her babe was disregarded. “’Pears like he was affronted,” she murmured, at last; and the big tears dropped slowly. Little Tommy had a fit that night; for, by the strange interfusion of spirit into all forms of matter, the quick revulsion of the blood in his mother’s heart passed into his nourishment, and convulsed his body, as her soul had been convulsed.  44
  But the disturbance passed away, and Chloe’s life rolled on in its accustomed grooves. Tommy grew strong enough to run by her side when she went to the beach. Hour after hour he busied himself with pebbles and shells, every now and then bringing her his treasures, and calling out, “Pooty!” When he held out a shell, and looked at her with his great brown eyes, it stirred up memories; but the pain was gone from them. Her heart was no longer famished; it was filled with little Tommy.  45
 
 
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