The Young Master
Two days after, a young man drove a light wagon up through the avenue of China trees, and, throwing the reins hastily on the horse's neck, sprang out and inquired for the owner of the place.
It was George Shelby; and, to show how he came to be there, we must go back in our story.
The letter of Miss Ophelia to Mrs. Shelby had, by some unfortunate accident, been detained, for a month or two, at some remote post-office, before it reached its destination; and, of course, before it was received, Tom was already lost to view among the distant swamps of the Red river.
Mrs. Shelby read the intelligence with the deepest concern; but any immediate action upon it was an impossibility. She was then in attendance on the sick-bed of her husband, who lay delirious in the crisis of a fever. Master George Shelby, who, in the interval, had changed from a boy to a tall young man, was her constant and faithful assistant, and her only reliance in superintending his father's affairs. Miss Ophelia had taken the precaution to send them the name of the lawyer who did business for the St. Clares; and the most that, in the emergency, could be done, was to address a letter of inquiry to him. The sudden death of Mr. Shelby, a few days after, brought, of course, an absorbing pressure of other interests, for a season.
Mr. Shelby showed his confidence in his wife's ability, by appointing her sole executrix upon his estates; and thus immediately a large and complicated amount of business was brought upon her hands.
Mrs. Shelby, with characteristic energy, applied herself to the work of straightening the entangled web of affairs; and she and George were for some time occupied with collecting and examining accounts, selling property and settling debts; for Mrs. Shelby was determined that everything should be brought into tangible and recognizable shape, let the consequences to her prove what they might. In the mean time, they received a letter from the lawyer to whom Miss Ophelia had referred them, saying that he knew nothing of the matter; that the man was sold at a public auction, and that, beyond receiving the money, he knew nothing of the affair.
Neither George nor Mrs. Shelby could be easy at this result; and, accordingly, some six months after, the latter, having business for his mother, down the river, resolved to visit New Orleans, in person, and push his inquiries, in hopes of discovering Tom's whereabouts, and restoring him.
After some months of unsuccessful search, by the merest accident, George fell in with a man, in New Orleans, who happened to be possessed of the desired information; and with his money in his pocket, our hero took steamboat for Red river, resolving to find out and re-purchase his old friend.
He was soon introduced into the house, where he found Legree in the sitting-room.
Legree received the stranger with a kind of surly hospitality,
"I understand," said the young man, "that you bought, in New Orleans, a boy, named Tom. He used to be on my father's place, and I came to see if I couldn't buy him back."
Legree's brow grew dark, and he broke out, passionately: "Yes, I did buy such a fellow,--and a h--l of a bargain I had of it, too! The most rebellious, saucy, impudent dog! Set up my niggers to run away; got off two gals, worth eight hundred or a thousand apiece. He owned to that, and, when I bid him tell me where they was, he up and said he knew, but he wouldn't tell; and stood to it, though I gave him the cussedest flogging I ever gave nigger yet. I b'lieve he's trying to die; but I don't know as he'll make it out."
"Where is he?" said George, impetuously. "Let me see him." The cheeks of the young man were crimson, and his eyes flashed fire; but he prudently said nothing, as yet.
"He's in dat ar shed," said a little fellow, who stood holding George's horse.
Legree kicked the boy, and swore at him; but George, without saying another word, turned and strode to the spot.
Tom had been lying two days since the fatal night, not suffering, for every nerve of suffering was blunted and destroyed. He lay, for the most part, in a quiet stupor; for the laws of a powerful and well-knit frame would not at once release the imprisoned spirit. By stealth, there had been there, in the darkness of the night, poor desolated creatures, who stole from their scanty hours' rest, that they might repay to him some of those ministrations of love in which he had always been so abundant. Truly, those poor disciples had little to give,--only the cup of cold water; but it was given with full hearts.
Tears had fallen on that honest, insensible face,--tears of late repentance in the poor, ignorant heathen, whom his dying love and patience had awakened to repentance, and bitter prayers, breathed over him to a late-found Saviour, of whom they scarce knew more than the name, but whom the yearning ignorant heart of man never implores in vain.
Cassy, who had glided out of her place of concealment, and, by overhearing, learned the sacrifice that had been made for her and Emmeline, had been there, the night before, defying the danger of detection; and, moved by the last few words which the affectionate soul had yet strength to breathe, the long winter of despair, the ice of years, had given way, and the dark, despairing woman had wept and prayed.
When George entered the shed, he felt his head giddy and his heart sick.
"Is it possible,--is it possible?" said he, kneeling down by him. "Uncle Tom, my poor, poor old friend!"
Something in the voice penetrated to the ear of the dying. He moved his head gently, smiled, and said,
"Jesus can make a dying-bed
Feel soft as down pillows are."
Tears which did honor to his manly heart fell from the young man's eyes, as he bent over his poor friend.
"O, dear Uncle Tom! do wake,--do speak once more! Look up! Here's Mas'r George,--your own little Mas'r George. Don't you know me?"
"Mas'r George!" said Tom, opening his eyes, and speaking in a feeble voice; "Mas'r George!" He looked bewildered.
Slowly the idea seemed to fill his soul; and the vacant eye became fixed and brightened, the whole face lighted up, the hard hands clasped, and tears ran down the cheeks.
"Bless the Lord! it is,--it is,--it's all I wanted! They haven't forgot me. It warms my soul; it does my heart good! Now I shall die content! Bless the Lord, on my soul!"
"You shan't die! you _mustn't_ die, nor think of it! I've come to buy you, and take you home," said George, with impetuous vehemence.
"O, Mas'r George, ye're too late. The Lord's bought me, and is going to take me home,--and I long to go. Heaven is better than Kintuck."
"O, don't die! It'll kill me!--it'll break my heart to think what you've suffered,--and lying in this old shed, here! Poor, poor fellow!"
"Don't call me poor fellow!" said Tom, solemnly, "I _have_ been poor fellow; but that's all past and gone, now. I'm right in the door, going into glory! O, Mas'r George! _Heaven has come!_ I've got the victory!--the Lord Jesus has given it to me! Glory be to His name!"
George was awe-struck at the force, the vehemence, the power, with which these broken sentences were uttered. He sat gazing in silence.
Tom grasped his hand, and continued,--"Ye mustn't, now, tell Chloe, poor soul! how ye found me;--'t would be so drefful to her. Only tell her ye found me going into glory; and that I couldn't stay for no one. And tell her the Lord's stood by me everywhere and al'ays, and made everything light and easy. And oh, the poor chil'en, and the baby;--my old heart's been most broke for 'em, time and agin! Tell 'em all to follow me--follow me! Give my love to Mas'r, and dear good Missis, and everybody in the place! Ye don't know! 'Pears like I loves 'em all! I loves every creature everywhar!--it's nothing _but_ love! O, Mas'r George! what a thing 't is to be a Christian!"
At this moment, Legree sauntered up to the door of the shed, looked in, with a dogged air of affected carelessness, and turned away.
"The old satan!" said George, in his indignation. "It's a comfort to think the devil will pay _him_ for this, some of these days!"
"O, don't!--oh, ye mustn't!" said Tom, grasping his hand; "he's a poor mis'able critter! it's awful to think on 't! Oh, if he only could repent, the Lord would forgive him now; but I'm 'feared he never will!"
"I hope he won't!" said George; "I never want to see _him_ in heaven!"
"Hush, Mas'r George!--it worries me! Don't feel so! He an't done me no real harm,--only opened the gate of the kingdom for me; that's all!"
At this moment, the sudden flush of strength which the joy of meeting his young master had infused into the dying man gave way. A sudden sinking fell upon him; he closed his eyes; and that mysterious and sublime change passed over his face, that told the approach of other worlds.
He began to draw his breath with long, deep inspirations; and his broad chest rose and fell, heavily. The expression of his face was that of a conqueror.
"Who,--who,--who shall separate us from the love of Christ?" he said, in a voice that contended with mortal weakness; and, with a smile, he fell asleep.
George sat fixed with solemn awe. It seemed to him that the place was holy; and, as he closed the lifeless eyes, and rose up from the dead, only one thought possessed him,--that expressed by his simple old friend,--"What a thing it is to be a Christian!"
He turned: Legree was standing, sullenly, behind him.
Something in that dying scene had checked the natural fierceness of youthful passion. The presence of the man was simply loathsome to George; and he felt only an impulse to get away from him, with as few words as possible.
Fixing his keen dark eyes on Legree, he simply said, pointing to the dead, "You have got all you ever can of him. What shall I pay you for the body? I will take it away, and bury it decently."
"I don't sell dead niggers," said Legree, doggedly. "You are welcome to bury him where and when you like."
"Boys," said George, in an authoritative tone, to two or three negroes, who were looking at the body, "help me lift him up, and carry him to my wagon; and get me a spade."
One of them ran for a spade; the other two assisted George to carry the body to the wagon.
George neither spoke to nor looked at Legree, who did not countermand his orders, but stood, whistling, with an air of forced unconcern. He sulkily followed them to where the wagon stood at the door.
George spread his cloak in the wagon, and had the body carefully disposed of in it,--moving the seat, so as to give it room. Then he turned, fixed his eyes on Legree, and said, with forced composure,
"I have not, as yet, said to you what I think of this most atrocious affair;--this is not the time and place. But, sir, this innocent blood shall have justice. I will proclaim this murder. I will go to the very first magistrate, and expose you."
"Do!" said Legree, snapping his fingers, scornfully. "I'd like to see you doing it. Where you going to get witnesses?--how you going to prove it?--Come, now!"
George saw, at once, the force of this defiance. There was not a white person on the place; and, in all southern courts, the testimony of colored blood is nothing. He felt, at that moment, as if he could have rent the heavens with his heart's indignant cry for justice; but in vain.
"After all, what a fuss, for a dead nigger!" said Legree.
The word was as a spark to a powder magazine. Prudence was never a cardinal virtue of the Kentucky boy. George turned, and, with one indignant blow, knocked Legree flat upon his face; and, as he stood over him, blazing with wrath and defiance, he would have formed no bad personification of his great namesake triumphing over the dragon.
Some men, however, are decidedly bettered by being knocked down. If a man lays them fairly flat in the dust, they seem immediately to conceive a respect for him; and Legree was one of this sort. As he rose, therefore, and brushed the dust from his clothes, he eyed the slowly-retreating wagon with some evident consideration; nor did he open his mouth till it was out of sight.
Beyond the boundaries of the plantation, George had noticed a dry, sandy knoll, shaded by a few trees; there they made the grave.
"Shall we take off the cloak, Mas'r?" said the negroes, when the grave was ready.
"No, no,--bury it with him! It's all I can give you, now, poor Tom, and you shall have it."
They laid him in; and the men shovelled away, silently. They banked it up, and laid green turf over it.
"You may go, boys," said George, slipping a quarter into the hand of each. They lingered about, however.
"If young Mas'r would please buy us--" said one.
"We'd serve him so faithful!" said the other.
"Hard times here, Mas'r!" said the first. "Do, Mas'r, buy us, please!"
"I can't!--I can't!" said George, with difficulty, motioning them off; "it's impossible!"
The poor fellows looked dejected, and walked off in silence.
"Witness, eternal God!" said George, kneeling on the grave of his poor friend; "oh, witness, that, from this hour, I will do _what one man can_ to drive out this curse of slavery from my land!"
There is no monument to mark the last resting-place of our friend. He needs none! His Lord knows where he lies, and will raise him up, immortal, to appear with him when he shall appear in his glory.
Pity him not! Such a life and death is not for pity! Not in the riches of omnipotence is the chief glory of God; but in self-denying, suffering love! And blessed are the men whom he calls to fellowship with him, bearing their cross after him with patience. Of such it is written, "Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted."