Across the Chasm

Across the Chasm

MARGARET TREVENNON was young and beautiful. Her faithful biographer can say no less, though aware of the possibility that, on this account, the satiated reader of romances may make her acquaintance with a certain degree of reluctance, reflecting upon the two well-worn types—the maiden in the first flush of youth, who is so immaculately lovely as to be extremely improbable, and the maturer female, who is so strong-minded as to be wholly ineligible to romantic situations. If there be only these two classes Miss Trevennon must needs be ranged with the former. Certainly the particular character of her beauty foreordained her to romantic situations, although it must be said, on the other hand, that the
 term “strong-minded” was one which had been more than once applied to her by those who should have known her best.
She lived with her parents on the outskirts of a small Southern town, in a dilapidated old house, that had once been a grand mansion. The days of its splendid hospitality had passed away long since, and as far back as Margaret’s memory went the same monotonous tranquillity had pervaded its lofty corridors and spacious rooms. In spite of this, however, it was a pleasant, cheerful home, and the girl’s life, up to her nineteenth year, had been passed very happily in it. She had had occasional changes of scene, such as a visit to New Orleans or a brief season at some small Southern watering-place; but she had never been North, and so by birth and circumstance, as well as by instinct and training, she was a genuine Southern girl. The fact that Mr. Trevennon had managed to save from the wreck of his large fortune a small independence, had afforded his daughter the opportunity of seeing something
 of men and manners beyond her own hearthstone, and this, together with her varied and miscellaneous reading, gave her a range of vision wider and higher than that enjoyed by the other young people of Bassett, and had imbued her with certain theories and opinions which made them regard her as eccentric.
One bright autumnal day, when the weather was still warm and sunny in this fair Southern climate, Miss Trevennon, clad in an airy white costume, and protected from the sun by a veil and parasol, took her way with the rather quick motions usual with her, down the main street of Bassett. When she reached the corner on which Martin’s drug store was situated, she crossed over and passed down on the opposite side; but, doubly screened as she was, she turned her eyes in that direction and took a hurried survey of the loungers assembled on the pavement. Perhaps it was because her gaze especially sought him out that she saw Charley Somers first. This was a young man who had been her unrequited adorer, hoping
 against hope, ever since they had gone to the village school together, and Margaret had all her life been trying, in a flashing, impetuous way that she had, to fire him with some of the energy and enthusiasm which she herself possessed so abundantly, and in which this pleasant, easy, indolent young Southerner was so absolutely lacking. Young Somers had come of a long line of affluent and luxurious ancestors, and though cut off from an inheritance in their worldly possessions, he had fallen heir to many of their personal characteristics, which hung about him like fetters of steel.
Although Miss Trevennon hurriedly averted her gaze after that one swift glance, she had received a distinct impression of Mr. Somers’ whole manner and attitude, as he sat with his chair tipped back against the wall, his heels caught on its topmost round, his straw hat pushed back from his delicate, indolent face, and a pipe between his lips. In this way he would sit for hours, ringing the changes on the somewhat restricted theme of county politics
 with the loungers who frequented “Martin’s.” The mere thought of it, much more the sight, infuriated Miss Trevennon. She could not grow accustomed to it, in spite of long habituation.
As she tripped along, erect and quick, she heard a familiar footstep behind her, and in a moment more was joined by the young man.
“Where are you going?” he said, giving his hat a little careless push and re-settlement, without lifting it from his head. “May I go with you and carry your basket?”
“If you like,” said Margaret, distantly, yielding up to him the little white-covered basket. “I am going to see Uncle Mose.”
“As usual! What has Uncle Mose done to be so petted? I wish you would treat me with half as much consideration.”
“I don’t think you entitled to it,” she answered. “Uncle Mose is at the end of a long life of continuous, patient labor, and has won a right to my consideration, which you never have. You have often heard me say, of course,
 that ever since I’ve been able to form an opinion at all, I’ve been a thorough-going Abolitionist; but all the same, I think there is virtue in a system which makes a man work, whether he wills it or not. Servitude itself seems to me a nobler life than absolute idleness.”
“Oh, the same old thing!” said the young man, wearily. “I wonder when you will give up expecting me to be a paragon!”
“I’ve given it up long ago. I’ve seen the futility of any such expectation; but I will never give up wishing that you would be a man, and do something worthy of a man.”
“You can’t say I don’t work. I attend to my cases, and am always on hand during court week.”
“Provided it doesn’t clash with fishing week or hunting week, or any pursuit that happens to offer a more attractive prospect than that of discussing county politics and smoking bad tobacco with some other loungers at ‘Martin’s’!”
“I know I am not what you like,” said Somers despondently; “but there is one thing that would make me different. If you would give me some hope for the future——”
“I begged you never to say that again,” interrupted Margaret, quickly. “You know how indignant it makes me, and the worst of it is that you really believe it to be true. If you won’t do right for right’s sake, you would never do it for mine.”
He made no answer to her words. But one form of response suggested itself, and to that he knew she was in no mood to listen; so, for the space of a few moments, they walked along in silence. But Margaret’s thoughts were very active, and presently she broke out:
“Why, Charley, when I heard you complaining the other day, that the tailor who has a shop opposite you kept you from sleeping in the morning by his violin practice begun at daylight, I remembered how you had told me once that you frequently saw him at his work until after midnight; and do you know what I
 thought? I thought: I wish to goodness Charley would try to be a little more like him.”
“What do you mean?” the young man cried, angrily. “You don’t know what you are talking about. Do you think I could ever so far forget myself as to imitate a beastly little Yankee tailor, or to desire to be like him in any way whatever? I can stand a good deal from you, Margaret, but this is a little too much!”
“Of course! His happening to be a Yankee puts him down at once. But I can tell you what it is, Charley, there is one lesson you might profitably learn from him, and that the most important in the world for you. It is, to make something of the powers you have. That poor little man has no possibilities, I suppose, beyond the attainment of a certain degree of skill in making clothing, on the one hand, and learning to play popular airs indifferently on a cracked little fiddle, on the other. But with you, how different it is! Papa says you would be an able lawyer, but for the trifling obstacle that you don’t know any law. We all know
 how well you talk, on those rare occasions on which you become really interested. And as to the other point, the music—oh, Charley, what mightn’t your voice become, if you would avail yourself of the means of cultivation within your reach? But no! Your teacher told you that you must practise patiently and continuously to procure its proper development, and this you would not do; it was too troublesome!”
“Trouble apart,” said Somers, “the notion does not please me, and I must say I wonder that you, who make such a point of manliness in a man, should favor any one’s regularly preparing himself to be the sort of drawing-room pet that one of your trained song-singers is certain to become.”
“You can say the most aggravating things!” said Margaret. “Is it possible that you can consider it unmanly to cultivate such a gift as that? But what’s the use of all this? You don’t care.”
“No, I don’t care much,” he answered
 slowly. “When a man has one supreme, paramount care forever possessing him, and is constantly being told that the object of his desires is beyond his reach, other things don’t matter very much.”
At the sight of the weary discontent on his handsome face, her heart softened, and as they stopped before the little cabin, which was their destination, she said kindly:
“Come in and see Uncle Mose with me, won’t you?”
But the young man excused himself rather hurriedly, and delivering the basket into her hands he said good-morning, and walked rapidly back toward the town.
Margaret pushed open the door of the wretched little cabin, and just within sat Uncle Mose, engaged in his customary avocation of shoemaking, or to speak more accurately, shoe-mending. He was a spare and sinewy old negro, whose age, according to his own account, was “somewhar high up in de nineties.” He was much bowed in figure, and lame in one leg.
 Bushy tufts of dull gray hair rose on each side of his brown and polished crown, and his wrinkled and sunken cheeks were quite beardless. His expression was one of placid benevolence and contentment—a strange contrast to his surroundings. The room he occupied was hideously squalid and confused. The roof sloped in one direction and the floor in another, and the stove, which was unreasonably large, in a third. Old phials, suspended by their necks and partly filled with muddy liquids, decorated the walls, together with a pair of patched boots, a string of red peppers, several ears of pop-corn, and a leather-covered whipstock. In one corner hung a huge walking cane. Everything was thickly coated with dust.
The old man was seated near the perilously one-sided stove, in which a fire smoked and smouldered, though it was a balmy day, and in front of which a rusty old iron spade did duty for a door. His few old tools and pegs and twines were on a broken chair beside him.
 When he looked up, over the top of his brass-rimmed spectacles, and saw who his visitor was, he broke into a broad smile of welcome, as he raised his withered old hand to his head in token of salutation.
“Dat you, missis?” he said. “What bin fetch you out dis time o’ day? I is glad to see you, sho’. Come in, en take a seat.”
He swept his tools and twines from the wooden seat to the floor, and rubbed the dusty surface several times with his hard palm. Margaret at once sat down, laying her long white draperies across her lap, to protect them from the dusty floor, showing a pair of neat little boots as she did so. Then she took off the cover of the basket, and revealed its contents to the old man’s delighted gaze.
“Well, missis, to be sho’!” he exclaimed, his features relaxing in a grin of anticipative enjoyment, “Light bread, en chicken, en grapes! en what’s dis, missis? Gemarna![A] Whoo! How come you bin know so good what I done
 bin hankerin’ arter? I gwine tase a little, right now.”
And using his shoemaking weapon as knife, fork and spoon indifferently, he fell to in earnest. He had probably been honest in his intention of only tasting a little, feeling it perhaps a lack of decorum to eat in the presence of his guest; but once embarked on the alluring enterprise, he was in no humor to relax, and, uttering from time to time expressive ejaculations of enjoyment, he went on and on, until only the fruit remained. As he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, he drew a long sigh of contented repletion.
“Dat wor good, sure ’nuff, missis,” he said. “White folks’ vittles tase mighty chice to me now, I tell you.”
“I’m glad you liked it, Uncle Mose,” said Margaret. “But tell me—I always meant to ask you—where that immense stick came from. Did any one ever use it?”
“What, dat air ole stick, missis? Why, bress you, honey, dat air ole stick wor ole mars’r’s,
 whar he bin use ter take when he druv out in de kyarrge, arter he bin git so big en fat. Yes, missis; he bin put he han’s on de top en res’ he chin on ’em, en when I bin had ter git out’n de ole place, de bin gin it ter me fur a sort o’ memorandum.”
“You were mighty fond of your old master, weren’t you, Uncle Mose?” asked Margaret.
“Ah, dat’s a fac’, missis—dat’s a fac’. Ole mars’r war mighty good to us. De wor three hund’rd on us, en he wor de mars’r, en we had ter know it. He done bin gin he n*****s mighty good chance, ole mars’r is. Ebery man bin had he pig en he chickens, en ole mars’r he buy de young chickens en de eggs, en pay us de market price fur ’em. Yes, missis.”
“And what would you do with the money, Uncle Mose?” Margaret asked.
“Dress my wife, missis. Lor’ yes, dress my wife, en Queen. Queen war my oldes’ daughter; en if you b’lieve me, missis, I dress dem two n*****s same as de done bin white. I
 bin lucky n****r all my life, missis. Ole mars’r wor good enough, en when he bin die en young Rawjer take de place, t’war mos’ same as hebben. I dunno how come young Rawjer wor so mile, for all he par wor so blusterin’. You see ole mars’r he mighty quick en hot-heddy. He let out at you sometimes, en hawler ’twel you think he gwine tar you to pieces; but done you be skeered, missis; he ain’ gwine hit you a lick. When de new overseers’d come, ole mars’r he ’low de mus’ keep us down en work us hard, but Lor’ missis, he ain’ mean it. He gwine watch mighty close nobody don’ ’buse his n*****s, en he giv’ ’em plenty good food to eat, and see it done bin cook right, too. De did’n have no plates en knives to eat with. No missis; but what dem n*****s want long o’ plates en knives? De ain’ got no right to complain cause de ain’ eat offn chany. De needn’t think ole mars’r gwine let em come sit down at his table long o’ him, ’kus he worn’ gwine do it, en he did’n do it. No, missis.”
The old man’s tone was one of vehement indorsement
 of his master’s policy, that there could be no mistaking.
“Did you marry one of your own master’s slaves, Uncle Mose?” asked Margaret, presently.
“No, missis,” Uncle Mose responded blandly; “I marry a gal whar ’long to one Mr. Fitzhugh. De war heap o’ likely gals whar ’long to ole mars’r, some bright yaller, and some black ez coals, en some mos’ white, but seem like I could’n make up my mine to marry air one on ’em, I dunno what make I could’n take to ’em, but ’t’war no use! I bin sot my eyes on a tall black gal, over to Mars’r George Fitzhugh’s, en ebery other Sad’dy ole mars’r lemme knock off early en go see her. She done bin younger’n me, some odd yeers, en I tell her I wor’n’ gwine cheat ’er. I tell her she mought look roun’ a while, ’fo’ we bin settle de thing. So, eff you b’lieve me, missis, I bin wait on her three yeers, ’fo’ she compose her mine to marry me.”
“Well, and what became of her?” said Margaret, as he paused ruminatively.
“Alter ’bout fo’ yeers, missis, she wor sole away, Liza wor,” he said in tones as benign and free from resentment as ever. “Lor’ me, missis, how well I mine dat day! I bin’ come up from de fiel’ like t’wor down datterway” (suiting the action to the word), “de paff run long by de cabin do’ pretty much. It wor like it done bin dis pass Chewsdy dat I come up to de do’, en Aun’ Tetsy, she tell me she heer ’Liza done bin sole. I stop short like, en I say ‘what?’ en she tell me agin, en say she bin heer’d de done fotch her down to town ter take her off in de drove. I struck out for de great-’us at dat, en I tell ole mars’r all ’bout it. ‘Knock off work, Mose,’ ole mars’r say, ‘en go to town en see eff she’s thar. ’T’ain’ no use try ter keep her, but mebbe you can see her en de chillun one’t mo’. You kin take White-foot.’ I prick up my yeers at dat, for White-foot war de fleetes’ horse ole mars’r got. Lor’, missis, I wish yer could ’a see dat filly. De ain’ no sich hosses now. Her legs war clean en straight ez a poplar, en her coat——”
“But, Uncle Mose, go on about ’Liza.”
“’T’war no use, missis,” he said, with a patient head-shake. “When I got to town I bin hurry to de jail to see eff de bin lodge de gang in dar, but de tell me ’Liza bin gone off wid de rest on ’em dat very mornin’.”
He ceased speaking, and sat staring in front of him in a preoccupied and ruminative way, from which Margaret saw it would be necessary to recall him.
“Well—what else, Uncle Mose?” she said gently; “what finally became of your wife?”
“Which wife, missis?” he replied, rousing himself by an effort, and looking about him blankly; “I had three on ’em.”
Margaret refrained from asking whether it had been a case of “trigamy,” or whether they had been successive, and said:
“You were telling me about ’Liza’s being sold away. Did you never see her again?”
“No, missis,” the old man answered gently. “I never see ’Liza no mo’. I see a man whar met her on de road, en he say she bin had de
 baby in her arms, walkin’ ’long wid de gang, en de t’other chile wor in de cart wid de balance o’ de chillun, en he say ’Liza busted out a-cryin’, en ’low he mus’ tell her ole man, eff we did’n meet no mo’ here b’low, she hope to meet in Hebben. En he ax her den whar she gwine ter, en she say she dunno, she think she bin heerd em say t’wor Alabammer; en dat’s de las’ word I ever heer o’ ’Liza. Yes, missis.”
Another meditative pause followed, and Margaret’s sympathetic eyes could see that he was far back in the past.
“I bin had a daughter sole away, too, missis,” he went on presently. “Yes, missis. She ’long to one Mr. Lane. He bin a hard mars’r, en he treated on her mighty bad, ’twel arter while she run off en went en put herself in jail. Yes, missis.”
“How could she put herself in jail?”
“Dat how de do, missis. You see, when she bin run away, eff she done git caught, de have to put her in jail. So she jes’ go en give herself up, en say she won’ go back ter Mr. Lane,
—she be sole fust! So arter Mr. Lane fine out she one o’dat sort, he sole her. It so happen dat my brother Sawney wor gwine ’long de road, en she wor passin’ in de cart, en she hawler out: ‘Howdy, Unc’ Sawney!’ en Sawney say: ‘Hi! who dat know me, en I don’ know dem?’ En she say: ‘Lor’ Unc’ Sawney, don’t you know Unc’ Mose’s Queen?’ En Sawney say: ‘Hi, Queen! Dat ain’ you! Whar you gwine to?’ En she say: ‘I dunno, I ruther fer ter go ennywhere den to stay whar I done bin.’ En I ain’ never heerd o’ Queen since.”
At this point the old man was seized with a fit of coughing, which he made great efforts to repress, and fluently apologized for.
“You must excuse me, young missis,” he said. “I bin cotch a bad cole, en it cough me all day en cough me all night, clar ’twel mornin’. I’se gettin’ mighty ole en shacklin’. Yes, missis.
“De all been mighty good to me, missis,” went on Uncle Mose, after a short pause,
 “from ole mars’r down. I hope to meet ’em all in Hebben. Ole mars’r ain’ bin much fer religion in he life; but he die a mighty peaceful, happy death, en he forgive all he enemies. He bin kind en merciful, en I ’low de Lord’ll take him in. He always give his n*****s heap o’ religious encouragement, en when we bin go to de lick to be babtize, he bin gin us de fines’ kind o’ notes to de preacher, en eff you bin tell a lie or steal a chicken he ain’ gwine say de fuss word ’bout it. Ef he come roun’ to de cabin while we bin had meetin’, he ain’ gwine make no ’sturbance. He wait roun’ ’twel we done sing de Doxoligum, en den he say what he come fer.”
“Your religion has been a great comfort to you, Uncle Mose—hasn’t it?” said Margaret, making an effort to keep back an irrepressible smile.
“Ah, dat’s a fac’, missis—dat’s a fac’, it has. Sometime it animate me very strong, en make me tower high ’bove de world; but den agin, sometime de very las’ bit on it takes to flight,
 en ef you b’lieve me, missis, I ain’ got no more religion den de palm o’ your han’!”
“The greatest saints have complained of that, Uncle Mose,” said Margaret; “it is one of the devil’s strongest temptations.”
“What, ole Sat’n, missis? Talk to me ’bout ole Sat’n! Don’t I know him? You just give him de chance en he gwine fight you, mean enough!”
Margaret, much amused, was about to make a move to go, when Uncle Mose arrested her intention by saying:
“En so Mars’ Rawjer got a little gal gwine git married. Well, well, well! Is I ever bin tell you, missis, ’bout de time I whip young Rawjer? Ha! ha! ha! I tell you, missis, I whale him good. He make me mad one day, ’bout ketchin de white folks’ hosses, en I break me a little sprout, whar sprung up ’side a ole stump, in de very fiel’ I help to clar forty yeers ago, en I warm he jacket fer him, good fashion. I mighty feared he gwine tell he par, but arter I git up by de stable, I does
 take my han’ en slap it ’gin de stone fence, en one de little white boys say, ‘I tell you, Uncle Mose kin hit hard’; en I say ‘Ah, dat I kin, chile; dat’s a fac;’ en eff you b’lieve me, I skeered dat chile so bad, he ain’ never tell he par yit;” and Uncle Mose went off into a long chuckle of delight. “When he bin git married en bring he wife home, we all went up to de house to see ’em, en drink de healths, en he tell de young missis this war Mose whar bin gin him that air whippin’ he bin tole her ’bout. She war mighty pretty little thing, wid yaller hair en great big sof’ blue eyes, en a little han’ ez sof’ en white ez snow. I was mos’ feared to ketch hold on it, wid my ole black paw, but she would shake han’s wid me, en she ’lowed maybe t’wor dat whippin’ what make her husman sich a good man, en Mars’ Rawjer he look at her fit to eat her up. She bin use ter gin out to de han’s, arter she come, but Aun’ Kitty she tote de smoke-’us key.”
As Margaret rose to take leave, the old man rose also.
“I mighty proud’n dat dinner you bin fotch me, missis,” he said. “Give my ’spects to yo’ par en mar, en call agin, missis.” And he lifted his cap and bowed her out with punctilious politeness.
As Margaret took her way homeward from the old negro’s cabin, she was conscious of a more than usual softness in her heart for Uncle Mose and his reminiscences, and all the customs and traditions of which he was the exponent. Even Charley Somers seemed less reprehensible than he had been an hour ago, for the old man’s talk had brought before her mind a system of things of which the inertia and irresponsibleness that jarred upon her so, in the people around her, seemed the logical outgrowth. She had often been told that her father, when a small boy, had been every day drawn to and from his school in a diminutive coach pulled by ten little negroes; and a number of similar anecdotes which she could recall gave her an insight into the absolute difference between that régime and the present, that made
 her somewhat ashamed of her intolerance, and mollified considerably her feeling toward young Somers, whom she determined to serve more kindly at their next interview. She was prompted further to this resolve by the fact that she had something to break to the young man, which she feared would go rather hard with him.
An opportunity which she had often longed for, to see the great world beyond her own section of country, and observe the manners and habits of men and women whose circumstances and traditions were directly opposed to her own, had been offered recently by a letter, received from a cousin who had married an army officer and was living in Washington, which conveyed an invitation for her to make her a visit. Her father and mother highly approved the plan and it seemed settled that she was to go, and while she longed for the new experience, she found her thoughts dwelling rather tenderly on the dear old home and friends, of whom, it seemed to her now, she had been ungratefully impatient.

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