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Uncle Tom's Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852) Country of origin: USA
Available texts by the same author here
Chapter XLII: An Authentic Ghost Story
For some remarkable reason, ghostly legends were uncommonly rife, about this time, among the servants on Legree's place.
It was whisperingly asserted that footsteps, in the dead of night, had been heard descending the garret stairs, and patrolling the house. In vain the doors of the upper entry had been locked; the ghost either carried a duplicate key in its pocket, or availed itself of a ghost's immemorial privilege of coming through the keyhole, and promenaded as before, with a freedom that was alarming.
Authorities were somewhat divided, as to the outward form of the spirit, owing to a custom quite prevalent among negroes,--and, for aught we know, among whites, too,--of invariably shutting the eyes, and covering up heads under blankets, petticoats, or whatever else might come in use for a shelter, on these occasions. Of course, as everybody knows, when the bodily eyes are thus out of the lists, the spiritual eyes are uncommonly vivacious and perspicuous; and, therefore, there were abundance of full-length portraits of the ghost, abundantly sworn and testified to, which, as if often the case with portraits, agreed with each other in no particular, except the common family peculiarity of the ghost tribe,--the wearing of a white sheet. The poor souls were not versed in ancient history, and did not know that Shakspeare had authenticated this costume, by telling how
"The sheeted dead Did squeak and gibber in the streets of Rome."1)
And, therefore, their all hitting upon this is a striking fact in pneumatology, which we recommend to the attention of spiritual media generally.
Be it as it may, we have private reasons for knowing that a tall figure in a white sheet did walk, at the most approved ghostly hours, around the Legree premises,--pass out the doors, glide about the house,--disappear at intervals, and, reappearing, pass up the silent stairway, into that fatal garret; and that, in the morning, the entry doors were all found shut and locked as firm as ever.
Legree could not help overhearing this whispering; and it was all the more exciting to him, from the pains that were taken to conceal it from him. He drank more brandy than usual; held up his head briskly, and swore louder than ever in the daytime; but he had bad dreams, and the visions of his head on his bed were anything but agreeable. The night after Tom's body had been carried away, he rode to the next town for a carouse, and had a high one. Got home late and tired; locked his door, took out the key, and went to bed.
After all, let a man take what pains he may to hush it down, a human soul is an awful ghostly, unquiet possession, for a bad man to have. Who knows the metes and bounds of it? Who knows all its awful perhapses,--those shudderings and tremblings, which it can no more live down than it can outlive its own eternity! What a fool is he who locks his door to keep out spirits, who has in his own bosom a spirit he dares not meet alone,--whose voice, smothered far down, and piled over with mountains of earthliness, is yet like the forewarning trumpet of doom!
But Legree locked his door and set a chair against it; he set a night-lamp at the head of his bed; and put his pistols there. He examined the catches and fastenings of the windows, and then swore he "didn't care for the devil and all his angels," and went to sleep.
Well, he slept, for he was tired,--slept soundly. But, finally, there came over his sleep a shadow, a horror, an apprehension of something dreadful hanging over him. It was his mother's shroud, he thought; but Cassy had it, holding it up, and showing it to him. He heard a confused noise of screams and groanings; and, with it all, he knew he was asleep, and he struggled to wake himself. He was half awake. He was sure something was coming into his room. He knew the door was opening, but he could not stir hand or foot. At last he turned, with a start; the door was open, and he saw a hand putting out his light.
It was a cloudy, misty moonlight, and there he saw it!--something white, gliding in! He heard the still rustle of its ghostly garments. It stood still by his bed;--a cold hand touched his; a voice said, three times, in a low, fearful whisper, "Come! come! come!" And, while he lay sweating with terror, he knew not when or how, the thing was gone. He sprang out of bed, and pulled at the door. It was shut and locked, and the man fell down in a swoon.
After this, Legree became a harder drinker than ever before. He no longer drank cautiously, prudently, but imprudently and recklessly.
There were reports around the country, soon after that he was sick and dying. Excess had brought on that frightful disease that seems to throw the lurid shadows of a coming retribution back into the present life. None could bear the horrors of that sick room, when he raved and screamed, and spoke of sights which almost stopped the blood of those who heard him; and, at his dying bed, stood a stern, white, inexorable figure, saying, "Come! come! come!"
By a singular coincidence, on the very night that this vision appeared to Legree, the house-door was found open in the morning, and some of the negroes had seen two white figures gliding down the avenue towards the high-road.
It was near sunrise when Cassy and Emmeline paused, for a moment, in a little knot of trees near the town.
Cassy was dressed after the manner of the Creole Spanish ladies,--wholly in black. A small black bonnet on her head, covered by a veil thick with embroidery, concealed her face. It had been agreed that, in their escape, she was to personate the character of a Creole lady, and Emmeline that of her servant.
Brought up, from early life, in connection with the highest society, the language, movements and air of Cassy, were all in agreement with this idea; and she had still enough remaining with her, of a once splendid wardrobe, and sets of jewels, to enable her to personate the thing to advantage.
She stopped in the outskirts of the town, where she had noticed trunks for sale, and purchased a handsome one. This she requested the man to send along with her. And, accordingly, thus escorted by a boy wheeling her trunk, and Emmeline behind her, carrying her carpet-bag and sundry bundles, she made her appearance at the small tavern, like a lady of consideration.
The first person that struck her, after her arrival, was George Shelby, who was staying there, awaiting the next boat.
Cassy had remarked the young man from her loophole in the garret, and seen him bear away the body of Tom, and observed with secret exultation, his rencontre with Legree. Subsequently she had gathered, from the conversations she had overheard among the negroes, as she glided about in her ghostly disguise, after nightfall, who he was, and in what relation he stood to Tom. She, therefore, felt an immediate accession of confidence, when she found that he was, like herself, awaiting the next boat.
Cassy's air and manner, address, and evident command of money, prevented any rising disposition to suspicion in the hotel. People never inquire too closely into those who are fair on the main point, of paying well,--a thing which Cassy had foreseen when she provided herself with money.
In the edge of the evening, a boat was heard coming along, and George Shelby handed Cassy aboard, with the politeness which comes naturally to every Kentuckian, and exerted himself to provide her with a good state-room.
Cassy kept her room and bed, on pretext of illness, during the whole time they were on Red river; and was waited on, with obsequious devotion, by her attendant.
When they arrived at the Mississippi river, George, having learned that the course of the strange lady was upward, like his own, proposed to take a state-room for her on the same boat with himself,--good-naturedly compassionating her feeble health, and desirous to do what he could to assist her.
Behold, therefore, the whole party safely transferred to the good steamer Cincinnati, and sweeping up the river under a powerful head of steam.
Cassy's health was much better. She sat upon the guards, came to the table, and was remarked upon in the boat as a lady that must have been very handsome.
From the moment that George got the first glimpse of her face, he was troubled with one of those fleeting and indefinite likenesses, which almost every body can remember, and has been, at times, perplexed with. He could not keep himself from looking at her, and watchin her perpetually. At table, or sitting at her state-room door, still she would encounter the young man's eyes fixed on her, and politely withdrawn, when she showed, by her countenance, that she was sensible to the observation.
Cassy became uneasy. She began to think that he suspected something; and finally resolved to throw herself entirely on his generosity, and intrusted him with her whole history.
George was heartily disposed to sympathize with any one who had escaped from Legree's plantation,--a place that he could not remember or speak of with patience,--and, with the courageous disregard of consequences which is characteristic of his age and state, he assured her that he would do all in his power to protect and bring them through.
The next state-room to Cassy's was occupied by a French lady, named De Thoux, who was accompanied by a fine little daughter, a child of some twelve summers.
This lady, having gathered, from George's conversation, that he was from Kentucky, seemed evidently disposed to cultivate his acquaintance; in which design she was seconded by the graces of her little girl, who was about as pretty a plaything as ever diverted the weariness of a fortnight's trip on a steamboat.
George's chair was often placed at her state-room door; and Cassy, as she sat upon the guards, could hear their conversation.
Madame de Thoux was very minute in her inquiries as to Kentucky, where she said she had resided in a former period of her life. George discovered, to his surprise, that her former residence must have been in his own vicinity; and her inquiries showed a knowledge of people and things in his vicinity, that was perfectly surprising to him.
"Do you know," said Madame de Thoux to him, one day, "of any man, in your neighborhood, of the name of Harris?"
"There is an old fellow, of that name, lives not far from my father's place," said George. "We never have had much intercourse with him, though."
"He is a large slave-owner, I believe," said Madame de Thoux, with a manner which seemed to betray more interest than she was exactly willing to show.
"He is," said George, looking rather surprised at her manner.
"Did you ever know of his having--perhaps, you may have heard of his having a mulatto boy, named George?"
"O, certainly,--George Harris,--I know him well; he married a servant of my mother's, but has escaped, now, to Canada."
"He has?" said Madame de Thoux, quickly. "Thank God!"
George looked a surprised inquiry, but said nothing.
Madame de Thoux leaned her head on her hand, and burst into tears.
"He is my brother," she said.
"Madame!" said George, with a strong accent of surprise.
"Yes," said Madame de Thoux, lifting her head, proudly, and wiping her tears, "Mr. Shelby, George Harris is my brother!"
"I am perfectly astonished," said George, pushing back his chair a pace or two, and looking at Madame de Thoux.
"I was sold to the South when he was a boy," said she. "I was bought by a good and generous man. He took me with him to the West Indies, set me free, and married me. It is but lately that he died; and I was going up to Kentucky, to see if I could find and redeem my brother."
"I heard him speak of a sister Emily, that was sold South," said George.
"Yes, indeed! I am the one," said Madame de Thoux;--"tell me what sort of a--"
"A very fine young man," said George, "notwithstanding the curse of slavery that lay on him. He sustained a first rate character, both for intelligence and principle. I know, you see," he said; "because he married in our family."
"What sort of a girl?" said Madame de Thoux, eagerly.
"A treasure," said George; "a beautiful, intelligent, amiable girl. Very pious. My mother had brought her up, and trained her as carefully, almost, as a daughter. She could read and write, embroider and sew, beautifully; and was a beautiful singer."
"Was she born in your house?" said Madame de Thoux.
"No. Father bought her once, in one of his trips to New Orleans, and brought her up as a present to mother. She was about eight or nine years old, then. Father would never tell mother what he gave for her; but, the other day, in looking over his old papers, we came across the bill of sale. He paid an extravagant sum for her, to be sure. I suppose, on account of her extraordinary beauty."
George sat with his back to Cassy, and did not see the absorbed expression of her countenance, as he was giving these details.
At this point in the story, she touched his arm, and, with a face perfectly white with interest, said, "Do you know the names of the people he bought her of?"
"A man of the name of Simmons, I think, was the principal in the transaction. At least, I think that was the name on the bill of sale."
"O, my God!" said Cassy, and fell insensible on the floor of the cabin.
George was wide awake now, and so was Madame de Thoux. Though neither of them could conjecture what was the cause of Cassy's fainting, still they made all the tumult which is proper in such cases;--George upsetting a wash-pitcher, and breaking two tumblers, in the warmth of his humanity; and various ladies in the cabin, hearing that somebody had fainted, crowded the state-room door, and kept out all the air they possibly could, so that, on the whole, everything was done that could be expected.
Poor Cassy! when she recovered, turned her face to the wall, and wept and sobbed like a child,--perhaps, mother, you can tell what she was thinking of! Perhaps you cannot,--but she felt as sure, in that hour, that God had had mercy on her, and that she should see her daughter,--as she did, months afterwards,--when--but we anticipate.