Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896). Uncle Tom’s Cabin. 1852.Volume I
Chapter II. The Mother
The traveller in the south must often have remarked that peculiar air of refinement, that softness of voice and manner, which seems in many cases to be a particular gift to the quadroon and mulatto women. These natural graces in the quadroon are often united with beauty of the most dazzling kind, and in almost every case with a personal appearance prepossessing and agreeable. Eliza, such as we have described her, is not a fancy sketch, but taken from remembrance, as we saw her, years ago, in Kentucky. Safe under the protecting care of her mistress, Eliza had reached maturity without those temptations which make beauty so fatal an inheritance to a slave. She had been married to a bright and talented young mulatto man, who was a slave on a neighboring estate, and bore the name of George Harris.
This young man had been hired out by his master to work in a bagging factory, where his adroitness and ingenuity caused him to be considered the first hand in the place. He had invented a machine for the cleaning of the hemp, which, considering the education and circumstances of the inventor, displayed quite as much mechanical genius as Whitney’s cotton-gin.
He was possessed of a handsome person and pleasing manners, and was a general favorite in the factory. Nevertheless, as this young man was in the eye of the law not a man, but a thing, all these superior qualifications were subject to the control of a vulgar, narrow-minded, tyrannical master. This same gentleman, having heard of the fame of George’s invention, took a ride over to the factory, to see what this intelligent chattel had been about. He was received with great enthusiasm by the employer, who congratulated him on possessing so valuable a slave.
He was waited upon over the factory, shown the machinery by George, who, in high spirits, talked so fluently, held himself so erect, looked so handsome and manly, that his master began to feel an uneasy consciousness of inferiority. What business had his slave to be marching round the country, inventing machines, and holding up his head among gentlemen? He ’d soon put a stop to it. He ’d take him back, and put him to hoeing and digging, and “see if he ’d step about so smart.” Accordingly, the manufacturer and all hands concerned were astounded when he suddenly demanded George’s wages, and announced his intention of taking him home.
“But, Mr. Harris,” remonstrated the manufacturer, “is n’t this rather sudden?”
“What if it is?—is n’t the man mine?”
“We would be willing, sir, to increase the rate of compensation.”
“No object at all, sir. I don’t need to hire any of my hands out, unless I ’ve a mind to.”
“But, sir, he seems peculiarly adapted to this business.”
“Dare say he may be; never was much adapted to anything that I set him about, I ’ll be bound.”
“But only think of his inventing this machine,” interposed one of the workmen, rather unluckily.
“O yes!—a machine for saving work, is it? He ’d invent that, I ’ll be bound; let a nigger alone for that, any time. They are all labor-saving machines themselves, every one of ’em. No, he shall tramp!”
George had stood like one transfixed, at hearing his doom thus suddenly pronounced by a power that he knew was irresistible. He folded his arms, tightly pressed in his lips, but a whole volcano of bitter feelings burned in his bosom, and sent streams of fire through his veins. He breathed short, and his large dark eyes flashed like live coals; and he might have broken out into some dangerous ebullition, had not the kindly manufacturer touched him on the arm, and said, in a low tone,
“Give way, George; go with him for the present. We ’ll try to help you, yet.”
The tyrant observed the whisper, and conjectured its import, though he could not hear what was said; and he inwardly strengthened himself in his determination to keep the power he possessed over his victim.
George was taken home, and put to the meanest drudgery of the farm. He had been able to repress every disrespectful word; but the flashing eye, the gloomy and troubled brow, were part of a natural language that could not be repressed,—indubitable signs, which showed too plainly that the man could not become a thing.
It was during the happy period of his employment in the factory that George had seen and married his wife. During that period,—being much trusted and favored by his employer,—he had free liberty to come and go at discretion. The marriage was highly approved of by Mrs. Shelby, who, with a little womanly complacency in match-making, felt pleased to unite her handsome favorite with one of her own class who seemed in every way suited to her; and so they were married in her mistress’ great parlor, and her mistress herself adorned the bride’s beautiful hair with orange-blossoms, and threw over it the bridal veil, which certainly could scarce have rested on a fairer head; and there was no lack of white gloves, and cake and wine,—of admiring guests to praise the bride’s beauty, and her mistress’ indulgence and liberality. For a year or two Eliza saw her husband frequently, and there was nothing to interrupt their happiness, except the loss of two infant children, to whom she was passionately attached, and whom she mourned with a grief so intense as to call for gentle remonstrance from her mistress, who sought, with maternal anxiety, to direct her naturally passionate feelings within the bounds of reason and religion.
After the birth of little Harry, however, she had gradually become tranquillized and settled; and every bleeding tie and throbbing nerve, once more entwined with that little life, seemed to become sound and healthful, and Eliza was a happy woman up to the time that her husband was rudely torn from his kind employer, and brought under the iron sway of his legal owner.
The manufacturer, true to his word, visited Mr. Harris a week or two after George had been taken away, when, as he hoped, the heat of the occasion had passed away, and tried every possible inducement to lead him to restore him to his former employment.
“You need n’t trouble yourself to talk any longer,” said he, doggedly; “I know my own business, sir.”
“I did not presume to interfere with it, sir. I only thought that you might think it for your interest to let your man to us on the terms proposed.”
“O, I understand the matter well enough. I saw your winking and whispering, the day I took him out of the factory; but you don’t come it over me that way. It ’s a free country, sir; the man ’s mine, and I do what I please with him,—that ’s it!”
And so fell George’s last hope;—nothing before him but a life of toil and drudgery, rendered more bitter by every little smarting vexation and indignity which tyrannical ingenuity could devise.
A very humane jurist once said, The worst use you can put a man to is to hang him. No; there is another use that a man can be put to that is