CHAPTER XIV

THE PRISON

 

WHILE poor little Clotelle was being kicked about by Mrs. Miller, on account of her relationship to her son-in-law, Isabella was passing lonely hours in the county jail, the place to which Jennings had removed her for safe-keeping, after purchasing her from Mrs. Miller. Incarcerated in one of the iron-barred rooms of that dismal place, those dark, glowing eyes, lofty brow, and graceful form wilted down like a plucked rose under a noonday sun, while deep in her heart's ambrosial cells was the most anguishing distress.

Vulgar curiosity is always in search of its victims, and Jennings' boast that he had such a ladylike and beautiful woman in his possession brought numbers to the prison who begged of the jailer the privilege of seeing the slave-trader's prize. Many who saw her were melted to tears at the pitiful sight, and were struck with admiration at her intelligence; and, when she spoke of her child, they must have been convinced that a mother's sorrow can be conceived by none but a mother's heart. The warbling of birds in the green bowers of bliss, which she occasionally heard, brought no tidings of gladness to her. Their joy fell cold upon her heart, and seemed like bitter mockery. They reminded her of her own cottage, where, with her beloved child, she had spent so many happy days.

The speculator had kept close watch over his valuable piece of property, for fear that it might damage itself. This, however, there was no danger of, for Isabella still hoped and believed that Henry would come to her rescue. She could not bring herself to believe that he would allow her to be sent away without at least seeing her, and the trader did all he could to keep this idea alive in her.

While Isabella, with a weary heart, was passing sleepless nights thinking only of her daughter and Henry, the latter was seeking relief in that insidious enemy of the human race, the intoxicating cup. His wife did all in her power to make his life a pleasant and a happy one, for Gertrude was devotedly attached to him; but a weary heart gets no gladness out of sunshine. The secret remorse that rankled in his bosom caused him to see all the world blood-shot. He had not visited his mother-in-law since the evening he had given her liberty to use her own discretion as to how Isabella and her child should be disposed of. He feared even to go near the house, for he did not wish to see his child. Gertrude felt this every time he declined accompanying her to her mother's. Possessed of a tender and confiding heart, entirely unlike her mother, she sympathized deeply with her husband. She well knew that all young men in the South, to a greater or less extent, became enamored of the slave-women, and she fancied that his case was only one of the many, and if he had now forsaken all others for her she did not wish to be punished; but she dared not let her mother know that such were her feelings. Again and again had she noticed the great resemblance between Clotelle and Henry, and she wished the child in better hands than those of her cruel mother.

At last Gertrude determined to mention the matter to her husband. Consequently, the next morning, when they were seated on the back piazza, and the sun was pouring its splendid rays upon everything around, changing the red tints on the lofty hills in the distance into streaks of purest gold, and nature seeming by her smiles to favor the object, she said,--

"What, dear Henry, do you intend to do with Clotelle?" A paleness that overspread his countenance, the tears that trickled down his cheeks, the deep emotion that was visible in his face, and the trembling of his voice, showed at once that she had touched a tender chord. Without a single word, he buried his face in his handkerchief, and burst into tears.

This made Gertrude still more unhappy, for she feared that he had misunderstood her; and she immediately expressed her regret that she had mentioned the subject. Becoming satisfied from this that his wife sympathized with him in his unhappy situation, Henry told her of the agony that filled his soul, and Gertrude agreed to intercede for him with her mother for the removal of the child to a boarding-school in one of the Free States.

In the afternoon, when Henry returned from his office, his wife met him with tearful eyes, and informed him that her mother was filled with rage at the mention of the removal of Clotelle from her premises.

In the mean time, the slave-trader, Jennings, had started for the South with his gang of human cattle, of whom Isabella was one. Most quadroon women who are taken to the South are either sold to gentlemen for their own use or disposed of as house-servants or waiting-maids. Fortunately for Isabella, she was sold for the latter purpose. Jennings found a purchaser for her in the person of Mr. James French.

Mrs. French was a severe mistress. All who lived with her, though well-dressed, were scantily fed and over-worked. Isabella found her new situation far different from her Virginia cottage-life. She had frequently heard Vicksburg spoken of as a cruel place for slaves, and now she was in a position to test the truthfulness of the assertion.

A few weeks after her arrival, Mrs. French began to show to Isabella that she was anything but a pleasant and agreeable mistress. What social virtues are possible in a society of which injustice is a primary characteristic,-- in a society which is divided into two classes, masters and slaves? Every married woman at the South looks upon her husband as unfaithful, and regards every negro woman as a rival.

Isabella had been with her new mistress but a short time when she was ordered to cut off her long and beautiful hair. The negro is naturally fond of dress and outward display. He who has short woolly hair combs and oils it to death; he who has long hair would sooner have his teeth drawn than to part with it. But, however painful it was to Isabella, she was soon seen with her hair cut short, and the sleeves of her dress altered to fit tight to her arms. Even with her hair short and with her ill-looking dress, Isabella was still handsome. Her life had been a secluded one, and though now twenty-eight years of age, her beauty had only assumed a quieter tone. The other servants only laughed at Isabella's misfortune in losing her beautiful hair.

"Miss 'Bell needn't strut so big; she got short nappy har's well's I," said Nell, with a broad grin that showed her teeth.

"She tink she white when she cum here, wid dat long har ob hers," replied Mill.

"Yes," continued Nell, "missus make her take down her wool, so she no put it up to-day."

The fairness of Isabella's complexion was regarded with envy by the servants as well as by the mistress herself. This is one of the hard features of slavery. To-day a woman is mistress of her own cottage; tomorrow she is sold to one who aims to make her life as intolerable as possible. And let it be remembered that the house-servant has the best situation a slave can occupy.

But the degradation and harsh treatment Isabella experienced in her new home was nothing compared to the grief she underwent at being separated from her dear child. Taken from her with scarcely a moment's warning, she knew not what had become of her.

This deep and heartfelt grief of Isabella was soon perceived by her owners, and fearing that her refusal to take proper food would cause her death, they resolved to sell her. Mr. French found no difficulty in securing a purchaser for the quadroon woman, for such are usually the most marketable kind of property. Isabella was sold at private sale to a young man for a housekeeper; but even he had missed his aim.

Mr. Gordon, the new master, was a man of pleasure. He was the owner of a large sugar plantation, which he had left under the charge of an overseer, and was now giving himself up to the pleasures of a city life. At first Mr. Gordon sought to win Isabella's favor by flattery and presents, knowing that whatever he gave her he could take from her again. The poor innocent creature dreaded every moment lest the scene should change. At every interview with Gordon she stoutly maintained that she had left a husband in Virginia, and could never think of taking another. In this she considered that she was truthful, for she had ever regarded Henry as her husband. The gold watch and chain and other glittering presents which Gordon gave to her were all kept unused.

In the same house with Isabella was a man-servant who had from time to time hired himself from his master. His name was William. He could feel for Isabella, for he, like her, had been separated from near and dear relatives, and he often tried to console the poor woman. One day Isabella observed to him that her hair was growing out again.

"Yes," replied William; "you look a good deal like a man with your short hair."

"Oh," rejoined she, "I have often been told that I would make a better looking man than woman, and if I had the money I might avail myself of it to big farewell to this place."

In a moment afterwards, Isabella feared that she had said too much, and laughingly observed, "I am always talking some nonsense; you must not heed me."

William was a tall, full-blooded African, whose countenance beamed with intelligence. Being a mechanic, he had by industry earned more money than he had paid to his owner for his time, and this he had laid aside, with the hope that he might some day get enough to purchase his freedom. He had in his chest about a hundred and fifty dollars. His was a heart that felt for others, and he had again and again wiped the tears from his eyes while listening to Isabella's story.

"If she can get free with a little money, why not give her what I have?" thought he, and then resolved to do it.

An hour after, he entered the quadroon's room, and, laying the money in her lap, said,--

"There, Miss Isabella, you said just now that if you had the means you would leave this place. There is money enough to take you to England, where you will be free. You are much fairer than many of the white women of the South, and can easily pass for a free white woman."

At first Isabella thought it was a plan by which the negro wished to try her fidelity to her owner; but she was soon convinced, by his earnest manner and the deep feeling he manifested, that he was entirely sincere.

"I will take the money," said she, "only on one condition, and that is that I effect your escape, as well as my own."

"How can that be done?" he inquired, eagerly.

"I will assume the disguise of a gentleman, and you that of a servant, and we will thus take passage in a steamer to Cincinnati, and from thence to Canada."

With full confidence in Isabella's judgment, William consented at once to the proposition. The clothes were purchased; everything was arranged, and the next night, while Mr. Gordon was on one of his sprees, Isabella, under the assumed name of Mr. Smith, with William in attendance as a servant, took passage for Cincinnati in the steamer Heroine.

With a pair of green glasses over her eyes, in addition to her other disguise, Isabella made quite a gentlemanly appearance. To avoid conversation, however, she kept closely to her state-room, under the plea of illness.

Meanwhile, William was playing his part well with the servants. He was loudly talking of his master's wealth, and nothing on the boat appeared so good as in his master's fine mansion.

"I don't like dese steamboats, no how," said he; "I hope when massa goes on anoder journey, he take de carriage and de hosses."

After a nine-days' passage, the Heroine landed at Cincinnati, and Mr. Smith and his servant walked on shore.

"William, you are now a free man, and can go on to Canada," said Isabella; "I shall go to Virginia, in search of my daughter."

This sudden announcement fell heavily upon William's ears, and with tears he besought her not to jeopardize her liberty in such a manner; but Isabella had made up her mind to rescue her child if possible.

Taking a boat for Wheeling, Isabella was soon on her way to her native State. Several months had elapsed since she left Richmond, and all her thoughts were centred on the fate of her dear Clotelle. It was with a palpitating heart that this injured woman entered the stage-coach at Wheeling and set out for Richmond.

 

 

 


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