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

CHIVALROUS PROCEEDINGS.

Thus the question of what should be done with his guest, which Mr.
Villars knew not how to decide, had been decided for him.

Great was the mystery. There was the bed precisely as Penn had left it a minute since. There was the candle dimly burning. The medicines remained just where Toby had placed them, on the table under the mirror. But the patient had vanished.

What had become of him? It was believed that he was too ill to leave his bed without assistance. And, even though he had been strong, it was by no means probable that one so uniformly discreet in his conduct, and ever so regardful of the feelings of others, would have quitted the house in this abrupt and inexplicable manner.

In vain the premises were searched. Not a trace of him could be anywhere discovered. Neither were there any indications of a struggle. Yet it was Toby’s firm conviction that the ruffians had entered the house, and seized him; that Pepperill was in the plot, the object of whose visit was merely a diversion, while Ropes and the rest accomplished the abduction. This could not, of course, have been done without the aid of magic and the devil; but Toby believed in magic and the devil. The fact that Dan had taken advantage of the confusion to escape, appeared to the Ethiopian mind conclusive.

Nor was the negro alone in his bewilderment. Carl was utterly confounded. The old clergyman, usually so calm, was deeply troubled; while Virginia herself, pierced with the keenest solicitude, could scarce keep her mind free from horrible and superstitious doubts. The doors between the sitting-room and back stairs were all wide open, and it seemed impossible that any one could have come in or gone out that way without being observed. On the other hand, to have reached the front stairs Penn must have passed through Salina’s room. But Salina, who was in her room at the time, averred that she had not been disturbed, even by a sound.

“He has got out the vinder,” said Carl. But the window was fifteen feet from the ground.

Thus all reasonable conjecture failed, and it seemed necessary to accept Toby’s theory of the ruffians, magic, and the devil. Only one thing was certain: Penn was gone. And, as if to add to the extreme and painful perplexity of his friends, the clothes, which had been stripped from him by the lynchers, which he had brought away in his hands, and which had been hung up in his room by Toby, were left hanging there still, untouched.

The family had not recovered from the dismay his disappearance occasioned, when they had cause to rejoice that he was gone. Ropes and his crew returned, as Pepperill had predicted. They were intoxicated and bloodthirsty. They had brought a rope, with which to hang their victim before the old clergyman’s door. They were furious on finding he had eluded them, and searched the house with oaths and uproar. Virginia, on her knees, clung to her father, praying that he might not be harmed, and that Penn, whom all had been so anxious just now to find, might be safe from discovery.

Exasperated by their unsuccessful search, the villains hesitated about laying violent hands on the blind old man, and concluded to wreak their vengeance on Toby. That he was a freed negro, was alone a sufficient offence in their eyes to merit a whipping. But he had done more; he had been devoted to the schoolmaster, and they believed he had concealed him. So they seized him, dragged him from the house, bared his back, and tied him to a tree.

As long as the mob had confined itself to searching the premises, Mr. Villars had held his peace. But the moment his faithful old servant was in danger, he roused himself. He rushed to the door, bareheaded, his white hair flowing, his staff in his hand. Both his children accompanied him, Salina, who was really not void of affection, appearing scarcely less anxious and indignant than her sister.

There, in the light of a wood-pile to which fire had been set, stood the old negro, naked to the waist, lashed fast to the trunk, writhing with pain and terror; his brutal tormentors grouped around him in the glare of the flames, preparing, with laughter, oaths, and much loose, leisurely swaggering, to flay his flesh with rods.

“My friends!” cried the old clergyman, with an energy that startled them, “what are you about to do?”

“We’re gwine to sarve this nigger,” said the man Gad, “jest as every free nigger’ll git sarved that’s found in the state three months from now.”

“Free niggers is a nuisance,” added Ropes, now very drunk, and very much inclined to make a speech on a barrel which his friends rolled out for him. “A nuisance!” he repeated, with a hiccough, steadying himself on his rostrum by holding a branch of the tree. “And let me say to you, feller-patriots, that one of the glorious fruits of secession is, that every free nigger in the state will either be sold for a slave, or druv out, or hung up. I tell you, gentlemen, we’re a goin’ to have our own way in these matters, spite of all the ministers in creation!”

The men cheered, and one of them struck Toby a couple of preliminary blows, just to try his hand, and to add the poor old negro’s howls to the chorus.

“No doubt,” the old clergyman’s voice rose above the tumult, “you will have your way for a season. You will commit injustice with a high hand. You will glut your cruelty upon the defenceless and oppressed. But, as there is a God in heaven,” he lifted up his blind white face, and with his trembling hands shook his staff on high, like a prophet foretelling woe, “as there is a God of justice and mercy who beholds this wickedness, just so sure the hour of your retribution will come! so sure the treason you are breathing, and the despotism you are inaugurating, will prove a snare and a destruction to yourselves! Unbind that man! leave my house in peace! go home, and learn to practise a little of the mercy of which you will yourselves soon stand in need. His venerable aspect, and the power and authority of his words, awed even that drunken crew. But Silas, vain of his oratorical powers, was enraged that anybody should dispute his influence with the crowd. Holding the branch with one hand, and gesticulating violently with the other, he exclaimed,

“Who is boss here? Who ye goin’ to mind? that old traitor, or me? I say, lick the nigger! We’re a goin’ to have our way now, and we’re a goin’ to have our way to the end of the ’arth, sure as I am a gentleman standing on this yer barrel!”

To emphasize his declaration, he stamped with his foot; the head of the cask flew in, and down went orator, cask, and all, in a fashion rendered all the more ridiculous by the climax of oratory it illustrated.

“Just so sure will your hollow and inhuman schemes fail from under your feet!” exclaimed Mr. Villars, as soon as he learned what had happened. “So surely and so suddenly will you fall.”

This incident occurred as Toby’s flogging was about to begin in earnest. Virginia had instinctively covered her eyes to shut out the terrible sight, her ears to shut out the sounds of the beating and the poor old fellow’s groans. Luckily, Silas had fallen partly in the barrel, and partly across the sharp edge of it, and being too tipsy to help himself, had been seriously hurt, and was now helpless. The ruffians hastened to extricate him, and raise him up. Carl, who, with an open knife concealed in his sleeve, had been waiting for an opportunity, darted at the tree, cut the negro’s bonds in a twinkling, and set him free.

Both took to their heels without an instant’s delay. But the trick was discovered. They were pursued immediately. Carl was lively on his legs, as we know; but poor old Toby, never a good runner, and now stiff and decrepit with age, was no match even for the slowest of their pursuers.

They ran straight into the orchard, hoping to lose themselves among the shadows. The glare of the burning wood-pile flickered but faintly and unsteadily among the trees. Carl might easily have escaped; but he thought only of Toby, and kept faithfully at his side, assisting him, urging him. A fence was near if they could only reach that! But Toby was wheezing terribly, and the hand of the foremost ruffian was already extended to seize him.

“Jump the vence over!” was Carl’s parting injunction to the old negro, who made a last desperate effort to accomplish the feat; while Carl, turning sharp about, tripped the foot of him of the extended hand, and sent him headlong. The second pursuer he grappled, and both rolled upon the ground together.

Favored by this diversion, Toby reached the fence, climbed it, and without looking how, he leaped, jumped down upon a human figure, stretched there upon the ground!

Notwithstanding his own danger, Toby thought of his patient, and stopped.

“Is it you, massa?”

The man rose slowly to his feet. It was not Penn; it was, on the contrary, the worst of Penn’s enemies, who had stationed himself here, in order to observe, unseen, and from a safe distance, the operations of Silas Ropes and his band of patriots.

“O, Massa Bythewood!” ejaculated Toby, inspired with sudden joy and hope; “help a poor old niggah! Help! De Villarses will remember it ob ye de longest day you live, if you on’y will.”

“Why, what’s the matter, Toby?” said Augustus, full of rage at having been thus discovered, yet assuming a gracious and patronizing manner.

Toby did not make a very coherent reply; but probably the young gentleman was already sufficiently aware of what was going on. He had no especial regard for Toby, yet his credit with Virginia and her father was to be sustained. And so Toby was saved.

Augustus met and rebuked his pursuers, released Carl, who was suffering at the hands of his antagonist, and led the way back to the house. There he expressed to Mr. Villars and his daughters the utmost regret and indignation for what had occurred, and took Mr. Ropes aside to remonstrate with him for such violent proceedings. His influence over that fallen orator was extraordinary. Ropes excused himself on the plea of his patriotic zeal, and called off his men.

“How fortunate,” said Augustus, conducting the old man, with an excessive show of deference and politeness, back into the sitting-room, “how extremely fortunate that I happened to be walking this way! I trust no serious harm has been done, my dear Virginia?”

Bythewood no doubt thought himself entitled to use this affectionate term, after the service he had rendered the family.

After he was gone, Toby, having recovered from his fright and the fatigue of running, and got his clothes on again, rushed into the presence of his master and the young ladies.

“I’ve seed Mass’ Penn!” he said. “Arter Bythewood done got up from under de fence whar I jumped on him, I seed anoder man a crawlin’ away on his hands and knees jest a little ways off. ‘Twas Mass’ Penn! I know ’twas Mass’ Penn.”

But Toby was mistaken. The second figure he had seen was Mr. Lysander Sprowl, now the confidential adviser and secret companion of Augustus.