Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The Fugitive Slave in the North
By John Townsend Trowbridge (18271916)
[Neighbor Jackwood. 1857.]
THERE was a cow-path trodden through the snow, leading across the meadows, over the bridge and along the banks of the stream. This path Charlotte took; passing in her flight scenes which she had first visited in company with Hector, and which had become linked in her memory with warm and dear associations. But now how changed, how cold, how desolate, were they all! The snow lay heavy and deep on the interval; the willows were naked and dark; the stream was blocked with ice. Beyond, frowned the inhospitable forest on the mountain side. The heavens above were leaden, with grayish streaks; and now the slow, dull, wintry rain began to fall.
Beyond the bridge, the track threw out branches in several directions; for here, all winter long, Mr. Dunburys cattle and sheep had been foddered from the stacks in the valley. But the main path led along the banks of the creek; this Charlotte chose, perhaps because among the willows her flight would be concealed, or it may be that she cherished some half-formed design of reaching Mr. Jackwoods house.
But the way was rude and difficult for her unaccustomed feet. Since the thaw, the track had been broken through by sharp hoofs; water had settled in the low places; and often, slipping upon the icy cakes, she fell, hurting her naked hands, bruising her limbs, and saturating her garments in the pools. Then, palpitating and breathless from the shock, she would pause, and glance up and down the wide, white valley, with fearful looks, as if expecting momently to see her pursuers appear.
A glimpse she caught of Mr. Jackwoods house in the distance inspired her with courage to keep on. She saw the red-painted kitchen dimly defined upon the field of snow; the trees and fences speckling the ground; the heavy plume of smoke from the chimney trailing low across the plain; and a vision of hope, and help, and rest, in that humble home, flitted before her mind. But the path by the willows had now dwindled to a scarcely-trodden track. At each step, her feet sank down in the soft, wet snow. Her efforts to proceed cost all her remaining strength. Only the desperate extremity in which she was sustained her. But hope and fear alike failed her at last; and, having climbed the tangled brush of a valley fence, she fell powerless in the snow, upon the other side.
The short winters day was drawing to a close. The shades of the solemn hills shut in the plain. A dreary silence reigned, broken only by the lowing of cattle, and the faint, sad bleating of sheep in the distance, the sighing of the wind among the willows, and the melancholy drip of the rain. Having got a little rest, Charlotte summoned her energies for a fresh attempt to traverse the snowy track. But now formidable doubts stood in her way. She had faith in her old friends; but would Mr. Jackwoods house, which had twice received her in its hospitable retreat, be overlooked by her pursuers? Perhaps already they were there before her; and to proceed might be to fall at once into their hands. In her deep perplexity, she crept under the fence, with a wild thought of passing the night in that wretched place. But the rain beat upon her still; her bruised hands ached from contact with the snow; and her feet were drenched and cold.
The approach of footsteps startled her; but she dared not look around, nor move; she lay still as death in her retreat. The sounds drew near, and presently a dog began to bark, plunging into the snow, close by where she lay.
It was the voice of Abimelech Jackwood, the younger. The dog ran back, with excited yelps, and jumped upon his arm, then rushed to the attack again, bristling up, and barking furiously at the object by the fence. Charlotte spoke: Rover! Instantly he sprang towards her, with a joyous demonstration; hesitated at half way, and ran back again to his master; whisked about in the snow; and finally, having fulfilled all the requirements of canine etiquette on the occasion, leaped upon her lap, wagging his tail violently, caressing her with his feet, and licking her wounded hand.
She tottered forward. The boy, not so easily satisfied as the dog, showed a disposition to retire. But, in a few hurried words, she gave him to understand that she was no apparition,that it was indeed Charlotte who spoke to him,and that he was not to fear, but to aid her.
Yes, Ill go! cried Bim. Buthesitatinglyhadnt you better go up to the stack, and wait there? Id ruther ye would; I come down here to fodder the steers and lambs, and father told me not to go and look at my muskrat-trap, cause twas goin to rain. Its righ down here; an if he knows where I found ye, hell spect I was goin there.
Charlotte accepted the boys guidance; and immediately around the bend in the creek, they came in sight of the stack. It was a low, gloomy mass, in the midst of a dark, trodden space, around the edges of which appeared Abimelechs steers and lambs, feeding on wisps of hay he had scattered over the snow. The stack was defended by a fence, on one side of which was a temporary shelter, formed of rails and boards, thatched with straw.
Ill show ye! and Bim, slipping a couple of rails from their place, crept through the fence, and began to pull away the hay from the stack. A dark cavity was exposed. Its a den I made for me an Rove! Once I had a notion o runnin away, an I was goin to live here, and have him bring me my victuals! Its real slick an warm in here!
He crept around the stack, leaving Charlotte listening breathlessly in her hiding-place. In a moment he returned, and whispered hoarsely in the hay. Theres a man a-comin with a big hoss-whip! Say! is he one of em?
Charlotte knew not what she said, if indeed she uttered any reply. She heard the boy hastily smoothing the hay at the entrance of her cell; then all was still, only the dog barked; and as she strained her ear to listen, the straw beneath her rustled with every throb of her heart.
Look a here! thundered Dickson, none o yer trash with me! I cut a boys trouses-legs right off with this black-snake, tother day! He was a boy about your size, and his trouses was stouter stuff than yours, too, I reckn! Which way did that gal go?
Let me reach you with this lash, and Ill tickle your recollections! Youll look paler than that when I draw about a quart of blood out of ye! I mean that gal that come along about twenty minutes ago.
That wont do, boy! Dickson cracked his whip savagely. Ill give ye jest about a minute n a haf to think about it; then, if ye dont walk straight up to the scratch, and spit out what ye know, you may expect to have your clos cut right offm your back, and your hide with m!
Then Charlotte heard a sound as of some one climbing the stack-yard fence, and a heavy body jumped down upon the ground at the very entrance to her retreat. There was a shaking in the hay which Bim had thrown before it; Dickson was kicking it open with his foot; he trod it down by the stack.
Well see! said Dickson. Having during the dialogue struck a match under his coat and lighted a cigar, he inserted the latter between his teeth, and, once more measuring out his whip, cracked it at the boys ears. Times up! now, what ye got to say?
If youre goin to smoke, said Bim, from a safe position, you better git over the fence; youll set the stack afire. Ow! as the whip-lash whistled by his face, you hadnt better hit me with that! Theres father, an Im darned glad!
Dickson changed his tactics; perhaps because he found threats of no avail; perhaps because the boy had an adroit way of dodging over the stack beyond reach of his whip; or in consequence, it may be, of misgivings with regard to the parent Jackwood. He therefore opened a parley, and offered Bim half a dollar to tell him which way Charlotte went.
I guess so! said Bim. You want me to come down an git it, then youll ketch me, an gi me a lickin I know! And he made preparations to slide off the opposite side, in case Dickson attempted to climb the stack.
But Dickson had a more important matter to attend to. Either the match he had thrown down after lighting his cigar, or cinders falling in the hay, had set fire to the heap. The flame, shooting up with a sudden crackling and glare, was the first warning he received of the danger. He had left the spot, and was standing by the cattle-shed, when the blaze caught his eye. He rushed to extinguish it, stamping and trampling, and calling to the boy to bring snow.
Already Charlotte had smelt the burning straw. Then, through chinks in the opening of her cell, she caught fearful glimpses of the struggling flame and smoke. She heard the alarm, the oaths, the trample of feet. The stack was burning!
Her first impulse was to cry out and rush from her retreat. But the certainty of falling into the hands of Dickson paralyzed her tongue and chained her limbs. Death was nothing; a moment since, she would have risked a hundred deaths sooner than be taken; but to be burned, to perish in a slowly consuming mass, to die by torment in a tomb of fire! the thought was maddening; it filled her with an insensate fear, that caused her for the instant to forget all other danger. With frantic hands she tore the hay that blocked the opening. But a volume of smoke, pouring in upon her, changed her purpose. She thrust back the hay, while at the same time it was trampled and packed from without. She heard the simmer of snow upon the flames; she thought the fire was being extinguished. She hoped, she prayed, that she might yet be preserved.
But now the trampling feet, and snow packed down upon the burning hay, drove the smoke into the cell. Charlotte was suffocating. The torture almost forced her to cry out. Oh, that she might have power to endure yet a little while! She thought of Hector. For his sake she conquered her agony. Writhing in torment, she clasped her hands upon her face to stifle her own cries. Yet a little while! yet a little while! Oh, yet one moment more!
It could not be. She fought with death itself. It seemed that almost the last struggle, the last mortal throe, had come. Still Hector filled her soul. She might have endured and died; but, no! for him she would risk all things; for him she would suffer on; for him she would live! Again she tore the hay from the opening of the cell. But the act was forestalled. A hand, thrust in, met hers.
There was no service Bim would more gladly have performed. Anything rather than that Dickson should return to the stack. He looked for the whip, but could not find it. The man had thrown it down whilst extinguishing the fire, and thought it must have become trodden in the hay. He returned; they looked for it togetherBim keeping at a respectful distance, and holding himself ready to run the instant the whip appearedDickson growling and swearing. Suddenly, the end of the lash was discovered hanging off the cattle-shed, close by the stack. Dickson seized it; Abimelech fled; Charlotte, who had listened all the time with a fluttering heart, began to breathe again. But at the moment there was a movement at the mouth of the cell. The hay was opening; some object forced its way into her retreat. She was shrinking away in terror, when Rover, scrambling through, leaped into her face, and expressed his delight by barking playfully, licking her hands, and thumping the sides of the niche with his animated tail.
Fortunately Dickson had turned again to go, and was at that moment making long strides across the field. Bim returned to Charlotte just in time to bump noses with Rover, who, not liking the smoke, was leaping out of the hay.
A faint no was the response; and the excited boy, having thrown the superfluous hay over the fence, and rearranged that at the mouth of the cell, leaving only a breathing-place, as he called it, went off whistling, to appear unconcerned. She listened in her retreat; the sounds grew faint and fainter, ceasing at last; and she was left alone, in darkness and silence, hemmed in by the low roof and prickly walls of her cell.
For some minutes she lay still, and prayed. In that simple and child-like act new strength was given her, and she was enabled to think calmly of her state. She took care of her feet, removing their wet covering, and drying them in the warm hay. Then, finding that Abimelech had shut her in too closely, and that the air of the cell was still poisoned with smoke, she moved the hay from the opening, and lay down upon it, where she could look out upon the thickening darkness and listen to the sighing wind and pattering rain.