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

A MAN’S STORY.

Three days longer Penn lay there on his rude bed in the cave, helpless still, and still in ignorance.

Pomp repeatedly assured him that all was well, and that he had no cause for anxiety, but refused to enlighten him. The negro’s demeanor was well calculated to inspire calmness and trust. There was something truly grand and majestic, not only in his person, but in his character also. He was a superb man. Penn was never weary of watching him. He thought him the most perfect specimen of a gentleman he had ever seen; always cheerful, always courteous, always comporting himself with the ease of an equal in the presence of his guest. His strength was enormous. He lifted Penn in his arms as if he had been an infant. But his grace was no less than his vigor. He was, in short, a lion of a man.

Cudjo was more like an ape. His gibberings, his grimaces, his antics, his delight in mischief, excited in the mind of the convalescent almost as much surprise as the other’s princely deportment. For hours together he would lie watching those two wonderfully contrasted beings. Petulant and malicious as Cudjo appeared, he was completely under the control of his noble companion, who would often stand looking down at his tricks and deformity, with composedly folded arms and an air of patient indulgence and compassion beautiful to witness.

Meanwhile Penn gradually regained his strength, so that on the fourth day Pomp permitted him to talk a little.

“Tell me first about my friends,” said Penn. “Are they well? Do they know where I am?”

“I hope not, sir,” said the negro, with a significant smile, seating himself on the giant’s stool. “I trust that no one knows where you are.”

“What, then, must they think?” said Penn. “How did I leave them?”

“That is what they are very much perplexed to find out, sir.”

“You have heard from them, then?”

“O, yes; we have a way of getting news of people down there. Toby has nearly gone distracted on your account. He is positive that you are dead, for he believes you could never have got well out of his hands.”

“And Miss Mr. Villars?”

“They have been so much disturbed about you, that I would have been glad to inform them of your safety, if I could. But not even they must know of this place.”

“Where am I, then?”

“You are, as you perceive, in a cave. But I suppose you know so little how you came here that you would find some difficulty in tracing your way to us again?” This was spoken interrogatively, with an intelligent smile.

“I am so ignorant of the place,” said Penn, “that it may be in the planet Mars, for aught I know.”

“That is well! Now, sir,” continued the negro, “since you have several times expressed your obligations to us for preserving your life, I wish to ask one favor in return. It is this. You are welcome to remain here as long as you find your stay beneficial; but when you conclude to go, we desire the privilege of conducting you away. That is not an unreasonable request?”

“Far from it. And I pledge you my word to make no movement without your sanction, and to keep your secret sacredly. But tell me will you not? how you came to inhabit this dreadful place?”

“Dreadful? There are worse places, my friend, than this. Is it gloomy? The house of bondage is gloomier. Is it damp? It is not with the cruel sweat and blood of the slave’s brow and back. Is it cold? The hearts of our tyrants are colder.”

“I understand you,” said Penn, whose suspicion was thus confirmed that these men were fugitives. “And I am deeply interested in you. How long have you lived here?”

“Would you like to hear something of my story?” said the negro, the expression of his eyes growing deep and stern, his black, closely curling beard stirring with a proud smile that curved his lips. “Perhaps it will amuse you.”

“Amuse me? No!” said Penn. “I know by your looks that it will not amuse: it will absorb me!”

“Well, then,” said Pomp, bearing his head upon his massy and flexible neck of polished ebony like a king, yet speaking in tones very gentle and low, and he had a most mellow, musical, deep voice, “you are talking with one who was born a slave.”

“You know what I think of that!” said Penn. “Even such a birth could not debase the manhood of one like you.”

“It might have done so under different circumstances. But I was so fortunate as to be brought up by a young master who was only too kind and indulgent to me, considering my station. We were playmates when children; and we were scarcely less intimate when we had both grown up to be men. He went to Paris to study medicine, and took me with him. I passed for his body servant, but I was rather his friend. He never took any important step in life without consulting me; and I am happy to know,” added Pomp, with grand simplicity, “that my counsel was always good. He acknowledged as much on his death-bed. ’If I had taken your advice oftener,’ said he, ’it would have been better for me. I always meant to reward you. You are to have your freedom your freedom, my dear boy!’”

The negro knitted his brows, his breath came thick, and there was a strange moisture in his eye.

“I loved my master,” he continued, with simple pathos. “And when I saw him troubled on my account, when he ought to have been thinking of his own soul, I begged him not to let a thought of me give him any uneasiness. My free papers had not been made out, and he was for sending at once for a notary. But his younger brother was with him he who was to be his heir. ‘Don’t vex yourself about Pomp, Edwin,’ said he. ’I will see that justice is done him.’

“‘Ah, thank you, brother!’ said Edwin. ’You will set him free, and give him a few hundred dollars to begin life with. Promise that, and I will rest in peace.’ For you must know Edwin had neither wife nor child, and I was the only person dependent on his bounty. He was not rich; he had spent a good part of his fortune abroad, and had but recently established himself in a successful practice in Montgomery. Yet he left enough so that his brother could have well afforded to give me my freedom, and a thousand dollars.”

“And did he not promise to do so?”

“He promised readily enough. And so my master died, and was buried, and I had another master. For a few days nothing was said about free papers; and I had been too much absorbed in grief for the only man I loved to think much about them. But when the estate was settled up, and my new master was preparing to return to his home here in Tennessee, I grew uneasy.

“‘Master,’ said I, taking off my hat to him one morning, ’there is nothing more I can do for him who is gone; so I am thinking I would like to be for myself now, if you please.’

“‘For yourself, you black rascal?’ said my new master, laughing in my face.

“I wasn’t used to being spoken to in that way, and it cut. But I kept down that which swelled up in here” Pomp laid his hand on his heart “and reminded him, respectfully as I could, of the doctor’s last words about me, and of his promise.

“‘You fool!’ said he, ‘do you think I was in earnest?’

“‘If you were not,’ said I, ‘the doctor was.’

“‘And do you think,’ said he, ’that I am to be bound by the last words of a man too far gone to know his own mind in the matter?’

“‘He always meant I should have my freedom,’ I answered him, ’and always said so.’

“’Then why didn’t he give it to you before, instead of requiring me to make such a sacrifice? Come, come, Pomp!’ he patted my shoulder; ’you are altogether too valuable a nigger to throw away. Why, people say you know almost as much about medicine as my brother did. You’ll be an invaluable fellow to have on a plantation; you can doctor the field hands, and, may be, if you behave yourself, get a chance to prescribe for the family. Come, my boy, you musn’t get foolish ideas of freedom into your head; they’re what spoil a nigger, and they’ll have to be whipped out of you, which would be too bad for a fine, handsome darkey like you.’

“He patted my shoulder again, and looked as pleasant and flattering as if I had been a child to be coaxed, I, as much a man, every bit, as he!” said Pomp, with a gleam of pride. “I could have torn him like a tiger for his insolence, his heartless injustice. But I repressed myself; I knew nothing was to be gained by violence.

“‘Master,’ said I, ’what you say is no doubt very flattering. But I want what my master gave me what you promised that I should have I shall be contented with nothing else.’

“‘What! you persist?’ he said, kindling up. ’Let me tell you now, Pomp, once for all, you’ll have to be contented with a good deal less; and never mention the word “freedom” to me again if you would keep that precious hide of yours whole!’

“I saw he meant it, and that there was no help for me. Despair and fury were in me. Then, for the only time in my life, I felt what it was to wish to murder a man. I could have smitten the life out of that smiling, handsome face of his! Thank God I was kept from that. I concealed what was burning within. Then first I learned to pray, I learned to trust in God. And so better thoughts came to me; and I said, ’If he uses me well, I will serve him; if not, I will run for my life.’

“Well, he brought me here to Tennessee. Here he was managing his aunt’s estate, which she, soon dying, bequeathed to him. Up to this time I had got on very well; but he never liked me; he often said I knew too much, and was too proud. He was determined to humiliate me; so one day he said to me, ’Pomp, that Nance has been acting ugly of late, and you permit her.’ I was a sort of overseer, you see. ’Now I’ll tell you what I am going to have done. Nance is going to be whipped, and you are the fellow that’s going to whip her.’

“‘Pardon, master,’ said I, ‘that’s what I never did to whip a woman.’

“’Then it’s time for you to begin. I’ve had enough of your fine manners, Pomp, and now you have got to come down a little.’

“‘I will do any thing you please to serve your interests, sir,’ said I. ‘But whip a woman I never can, and never will. That’s so, master.’

“‘You villain!’ he shouted, seizing a riding whip, ’I’ll teach you to defy my authority to my face!’ And he sprang at me, furious with rage.

“‘Take care, sir!’ I said, stepping back. ’’Twill be better for both of us for you not to strike me!’

“‘What! you threaten, you villain?’

“’I do not threaten, sir; but I say what I say. It will be better for both of us. You will never strike me twice. I tell you that.’

“I reckon he saw something dangerous in me, as I said this, for, instead of striking, he immediately called for help. ’Sam! Harry! Nap! bind this devil! Be quick!’

“‘They won’t do it!’ said I. ’Woe to the man that lays a finger on me, be he master or be he slave!’

“‘I’ll see about that!’ said he, running into the house. He came out again in a minute with his rifle. I was standing there still, the boys all keeping a safe distance, not one daring to touch me.

“‘Master,’ said I, ’hear one word. I am perfectly willing to die. Long enough you have robbed me of my liberty, and now you are welcome to what is less precious my poor life. But for your own sake, for your dead brother’s sake, let me warn you to beware what you do.’

“I suppose the allusion to his injustice towards me maddened him. He levelled his piece, and pulled the trigger. Luckily the percussion was damp, or else I should not be talking with you now. His aim was straight at my head. I did not give him time for a second attempt. I was on him in an instant. I beat him down, I trampled him with rage. I snatched his gun from him, and lifted it to smash his skull. Just then a voice cried, ‘Don’t, Pomp! don’t kill master!’

“It was Nance, pleading for the man who would have had her whipped. I couldn’t stand that. Her mercy made me merciful. ‘Good by, boys!’ I said. They were all standing around, motionless with terror. ’Good by, Nance! I am off; live or die, I quit this man’s service forever!’

“So I left him,” said Pomp, “and ran for the woods. I was soon ranging these mountains, free, a wild man whom not even their blood-hounds could catch. I took the gun with me a good one: here it is.” He removed the rifle from its crevice in the rocks. “Do you know that name? It is that of its former owner the man who called himself my master. Do you think it was taking too much from one who would have robbed me of my soul?”

He held the stock over the bed, so that Penn could make out the lettering. Delicately engraved on a surface of inlaid silver, was the well-known name,

Augustus Bythewood.