Read CHAPTER XI of Cudjo's Cave , free online book, by J. T. Trowbridge, on ReadCentral.com.

SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY.

If what Silas Ropes had said of his patron, Augustus Bythewood, was true, great must have been the chagrin of that chivalrous young gentleman when an interview was brought about between him and Lysander, and he learned that Penn, instead of being driven from the state, had found refuge in the family of Mr. Villars that he was there even at the moment when he made his delightful little evening call, and was entertained so charmingly by Virginia.

Bythewood gave Sprowl money, and Sprowl gave Bythewood information and advice. It was in accordance with the programme decided upon by these two worthies, that Mr. Ropes at the head of his gang presented himself the next night at Mr. Villars’s door.

Virginia, by her father’s direction, admitted them. They crowded into the sitting-room, where the old man rose to receive them, with his usual urbanity.

“Virginia, have chairs brought for all our friends. I cannot see to recognize them individually, but I salute them all.”

“No matter about the cheers,” said Silas. “We can do our business standing. Sorry to trouble you with it, sir, but it’s jest this. We understand you’re harboring a Yankee abolitionist, and we’ve called to remind you that sech things can’t be allowed in a well-regulated community.”

The old man, holding himself still erect with punctilious politeness, for his guests were not seated, and smiling with grand and venerable aspect, made reply in tones full of dignity and sweetness: “My friends, I am an old man; I am a native of Virginia, and a citizen of Tennessee; and all my life long I have been accustomed to regard the laws of hospitality as sacred.”

“My sentiments exactly. I won’t hear a word said agin’ southern horsepitality, or southern perliteness.” Mr. Ropes illustrated his remark by spitting copious tobacco-juice on the floor. “Horsepitality I look upon as one of the stable institootions of our country.”

“No doubt it is so,” said Mr. Villars, smiling at the unintentional pun.

“That’s one thing,” added Silas; “but harboring a abolitionist is another. That’s the question we’ve jest took the liberty to call and have a little quiet talk about, to-night.”

“Sit down, dear father, do!” entreated Virginia, remaining at his side in spite of her dread and abhorrence of these men. Holding his hand, and regarding him with pale and anxious looks, she endeavored with gentle force to get him into his chair. “My father is very feeble,” she said, appealing to Silas, “and I beg you will have some consideration for him.”

“Sartin, sartin,” said Silas. “Keep yer settin’, keep yer settin’, Mr. Villars.”

But the old man still remained upon his feet, his tall, spare form, bent with age, his long, thin locks of white hair, and his wan, sightless, calm, and beautiful countenance presenting a wonderful contrast to the blooming figure at his side. It was a picture which might well command the respectful attention of Silas and his compeers.

“My friends,” he said, with a grave smile, “we men of the south are rather boastful of our hospitality. But true hospitality consists in something besides eating and drinking with those whose companionship is a sufficient recompense for all that we do for them. It clothes the naked, feeds the hungry, shelters the distressed. With the Arabs, even an enemy is sacred who happens to be a guest. Shall an old Virginian think less of the honor of his house than an Arab?”

Silas looked abashed, silenced for a moment by these noble words, and the venerable and majestic mien of the blind old clergyman. It would not do, however, to give up his mission so; and after coughing, turning his quid, and spitting again, he replied,

“That’ll do very well to talk, Mr. Villars. But come to the pint. You’ve got a Yankee abolitionist in your house that you won’t deny.”

“I have in my house,” said the old man, “a person whose life is in danger from injuries received at your hands last night. He came to us in a condition which, I should have thought, would excite the pity of the hardest heart. Whether or not he is a Yankee abolitionist, I never inquired. It was enough for me that he was a fellow-creature in distress. He is well known in this community, where he has never been guilty of wrong towards any one; and, even if he were a dangerous person, he is not now in a condition to do mischief. Gentlemen, my guest is very ill with a fever.”

“Can’t help that; you must git red of him,” said Silas. “I’m a talking now for your own good as much as any body’s, Mr. Villars. You’re a man we all respect; but already you’ve made yourself a object of suspicion, by standing up fur the old rotten Union.”

“When I can no longer befriend my guests, or stand up for my country, then I shall have lived long enough!” said the old man, with impressive earnestness.

“The old Union,” said Gad, coming to the aid of Silas, “is played out. We couldn’t have our rights, and so we secede.”

“What rights couldn’t you have under the government left to us by Washington?”

“That had become corrupted,” said Mr. Ropes.

“How corrupted, my friend?”

“By the infernal anti-slavery element!”

“You forget,” said Mr. Villars, “that Washington, Jefferson, and indeed all the wisest and best men who assisted to frame the government under which we have been so prospered, were anti-slavery men.”

“Wal, I know, some on ’em hadn’t got enlightened on the subject,” Mr. Ropes admitted.

“And do you know that if a stranger, endowed with all the virtues of those patriots, should come among you and preach the political doctrines of Washington and Jefferson, you would serve him as you served Penn Hapgood last night?”

“Shouldn’t wonder the least mite if we should!” Silas grinned. “But that’s nothing to the purpose. We claim the right to carry our slaves into the territories, and Lincoln’s party is pledged to keep ’em out, and that’s cause enough for secession.”

“How many slaves do you own, Mr. Ropes?” Mr. Villars, still leaning on his daughter’s arm, smiled as he put this mild question.

“I wal truth is, I don’t own nary slave myself wish I did!” said Silas.

“How many friends have you with you?”

“’Lev’n,” said Gad, rapidly counting his companions.

“Well, of the eleven, how many own slaves?”

“I do!” “I do!” spoke up two eager voices.

“How many slaves do you own?”

“I’ve got as right smart a little nigger boy as there is anywheres in
Tennessee!” said the first, proudly.

“How old is he?”

“He’ll be nine year’ old next grass, I reckon.”

“Well, how many negroes has your friend?”

“I’ve got one old woman, sir.”

“How old is she?”

“Wal, plaguy nigh a hunderd, old Bess, you know her.”

“Yes, I know old Bess; and an excellent creature she is. So it seems that you eleven men own two slaves. And these you wish to take into some of the territories, I suppose.”

The men looked foolish, and were obliged to own that they had never dreamed of conveying either the nine-year-old lad or the female centenarian out of the state of Tennessee.

“Then what is the grievance you complain of?” asked the old man. They could not name any. “O, now, my friends, look you here! I believe in the right of revolution when a government oppresses a people beyond endurance. But in this case it appears, by your own showing, that not one of you has suffered any wrong, and that this is not a revolution in behalf of the poor and oppressed. If anybody is to be benefited by it, it is a few rich owners of slaves, who are prosperous enough already, and have really no cause of complaint. It is a revolution precipitated by political leaders, who wish to be rulers; and what grieves me at the heart is, that the poor and ignorant are thus permitting themselves to be made the tools of this tyranny, which will soon prove more despotic than it was possible for the dear old government ever to become. God bless my country! God bless my poor distracted country!”

As he finished speaking, the old man sank down overcome with emotion upon his chair, clasping his daughter’s hand, while tears ran down his cheeks.

His argument was so unanswerable that nothing was left for Silas but to get angry.

“I see you’re not only a Unionist, but more’n half a Yankee abolitionist yourself! We didn’t come here to listen to any sech incendiary talk. Kick out the schoolmaster, if you wouldn’t git into trouble, I warn you! That’s the business we’ve come to see to, and you must tend to’t.”

“Pity him spare him!” cried Virginia, shielding her aged father as Ropes approached him. “He cannot turn a sick man out of his house, you know he cannot!”

“You’re partic’larly interested in the young man, hey?” said Ropes, grinning insolently.

“I am interested that no harm comes either to my father or to his guests,” said the girl. “Go, I implore you! As soon as Mr. Hapgood is able to leave us, he will do so, he will have no wish to stay, this I promise you.”

“I’ll give him three days to quit the country,” said Silas. “Only three days. He’d better be dead than found here at the end of that time. Gentlemen, we’ve performed this yer painful dooty; now le’s adjourn to Barber Jim’s and take a drink.”

With these words Mr. Ropes retired. While, however, he was treating his men to whiskey and cigars with Augustus Bythewood’s money, advanced for the purpose, one of the eleven, separating himself from the rest, hurried back to the minister’s house. He had taken part in the patriotic proceedings of his friends with great reluctance, as appeared from the manner in which he shrank from view in corners and behind the backs of his comrades, and drew down his woe-begone mouth, and rolled up his dismal eyes, during the entire interview. And he had returned now, at the risk of his life, to do Penn a service.

He crept to the kitchen door, and knocked softly. Carl opened it. There stood the wretched figure, terrified, panting for breath.

“Vat is it?” said Carl.

“I’ve come fur to tell ye!” said the man, glancing timidly around into the darkness to see if he was followed. “They mean to kill him! They told you they’d give him three days, but they won’t. I heard them saying so among themselves. They may be back this very night, for they’ll all git drunk, and nothing will stop ’em then.”

Carl stared, as these hoarsely whispered words were poured forth rapidly by the frightened man at the door.

“Come in, and shpeak to Mishter Willars.”

“No, no! I’ll be killed if I’m found here!”

But Carl, sturdy and resolute, had no idea of permitting him to deliver so hasty and alarming a message without subjecting him to a cross-examination. He had already got him by the collar, and now he dragged him into the house, the man not daring to resist for fear of outcry and exposure.

“What is it?” asked Mr. Villars.

“A wisitor!” said Carl. And he repeated Dan’s statement, while Dan was recovering his breath.

“Is this true, Mr. Pepperill?” asked the old man, deeply concerned.

“Yes, I be durned if it ain’t!” said Dan.

Virginia clung to her father’s chair, white with apprehension. Toby was also present, having left his patient an instant to run down stairs, and learn what was the cause of this fresh disturbance.

“He’s a lyin’ to ye, Mass’ Villars; he’s a lyin’ to ye! White trash can’t tell de troof if dey tries! Don’t ye breeve a word he says, massa.”

Yet it was evident from the consternation the old negro’s face betrayed that he believed Dan’s story, or at least feared it would prove true if he did not make haste and deny it stoutly; for Toby, like many persons with whiter skins, always felt on such occasions a vague faith that if he could get the bad news sufficiently denounced and discredited in season, all would be well. As if simply setting our minds against the truth would defeat it!

“But they spoke of fittin’ yer neck to a noose too!”

“Mine? Ah, if nobody but myself was in danger, I should be well content! What do you think we ought to do, Mr. Pepperill?”

“The master has done me a good turn, and I’ll do him one, if I swing fur’t!” said Dan, straightening himself with sudden courage. “Get him out ’fore they suspect what you’re at, and I’ll take him to my house and hide him, I be durned if I won’t!”

“It is a kind offer, and I thank you,” said the old man. “But how can I resolve to send a guest from my house in this way? Not to save my own life would I do it!”

“But to save his, father!”

“It is only of him I am thinking, my child. Would it be safe to move him, Toby?”

“Safe to move Massa Penn!” ejaculated the old negro, choking with wrath and grief. “Neber tink o’ sech a ting, massa! He’d die, shore, widout I should go ‘long wid him, and tote him in my ol’ arms on a fedder-bed jes’ like I would a leetle baby, and den stay and nuss him arter I got him dar. For dem ’ar white trash, what ye s’pose day knows ‘bout takin’ keer ob a sick gemman like him? It’s a bery ’tic’lar case. He’s got de delirimum a comin’ on him now, and I can’t be away from him a minute. I mus’ go back to him dis bery minute!”

And Toby departed, having suddenly conceived an idea of his own for hiding Penn in the barn until the danger was over.

He had been absent from the room but a moment, however, when those remaining in it heard a wild outcry, and presently the old negro reappeared, inspired with superstitious terror, his eyes starting from their sockets, his tongue paralyzed.

“What’s the matter, Toby?” cried Virginia, perceiving that something really alarming had happened.

The negro tried to speak, but his throat only gurgled incoherently, while the whites of his eyes kept rolling up like saucers.

“Penn has anything happened to Penn?” said Mr. Villars.

“O, debil, debil, Lord bress us!” gibbered Toby.

“Dead?” cried Virginia.

“Gone! gone, missis!”

Struck with consternation, but refusing to believe the words of the bewildered black, Virginia flew to the sick man’s chamber.

Then she understood the full meaning of Toby’s words. Penn was not in his bed, nor in the room, nor anywhere in the house. He had disappeared suddenly, strangely, totally.