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

CARL MAKES AN ENGAGEMENT.

Lysander looked in through the doors and saw flames. She had touched the lamp to the sitting-room curtains, and they had ignited the wood-work.

“Your own house,” he said, furiously. “What a fiend!”

“It was my father’s house until you took possession of it,” she answered. “Now it shall burn.”

If he had not already considered that he had an interest at stake, that gentle remark reminded him.

“Boys! come quick! By! we must put out the fire!”

He rushed into the kitchen. The German brothers had come to execute his commands: whether to flay a negro or extinguish a fire, was to them a matter of indifference; and they followed him, seizing pails.

Salina was prepared for the emergency. She held a butcher-knife concealed under her folded arms. With this she cut the cords above Toby’s thumbs. It was done in an instant.

“Now, take this and run! If they go to take you, kill them!”

She thrust the handle of the knife into his hand, and pushed him from the shed. Terrified, bewildered, weak, he seemed moving in a kind of nightmare. But somehow he got around the corner of the shed, and disappeared in the darkness.

The brothers saw him go. They were drawing water at the well, and handing it to Lysander in the house. But they had been told to hand water, not to catch the negro. So they looked placidly at each other, and said nothing.

The fire was soon extinguished; and Lysander, with his coat off, pail in hand, excited, turned and saw his “fiend” of a wife seated composedly in a chair, regarding him with a smile sarcastic and triumphant. He uttered a frightful oath.

“Any more of your tantrums, and I’ll kill you!”

“Any more of yours,” she replied, “and I’ll burn you up. I can set fires faster than you can put them out. I don’t care for the house any more than I care for my life, and that’s precious little.”

By the tone in which she said these words, level, determined, distinct, with that spice which compressed fury lends, Captain Lysander Sprowl knew perfectly well that she meant them.

The brothers looked at each other intelligently. One said something in German, which we may translate by the words “Incompatibility of temper;” and he smiled with dry humor. The other responded in the same tongue, and with a sleepy nod, glancing phlegmatically at Sprowl. What he said may be rendered by the phrase “Caught a Tartar.”

Although Lysander did not understand the idiom, he seemed to be quite of the Teutonic opinion. He regarded Mrs. Sprowl with a sort of impotent rage. If he was reckless, she had shown herself more reckless. Though he was so desperate, she had outdone him in desperation. He saw plainly that if he touched her now, that touch must be kindness, or it must be death.

“Have you let Toby go?”

“Yes,” replied Salina.

“We can catch him,” said Lysander.

“If you do you will be sorry. I warn you in season.”

Since she said so, Lysander did not doubt but that it would be so. He concluded, therefore, not to catch Toby that night. Moreover, he resolved to go back to his quarters and sleep. He was afraid of that wildcat; he dreaded the thought of trusting himself in the house with her. He durst not kill her, and he durst not go to sleep, leaving her alive. The Germans, perceiving his fear, looked at each other and grunted. That grunt was the German for “mean cuss.” They saw through Lysander.

After all were gone, Salina went out and called Toby. The old negro had fled for his life, and did not hear. She returned into the house, the aspect of which was rendered all the more desolate and drear by the marks of fire, the water that drenched the floor, the smoky atmosphere, and the dim and bluish lamp-light. The unhappy woman sat down in the lonely apartment, and thought of her brief dream of happiness, of this last quarrel which could never be made up, and of the hopeless, loveless, miserable future, until it seemed that the last drop of womanly blood in her veins was turned to gall.

At the same hour, not many miles away, on a rude couch in a mountain cave, by her fathers side, Virginia was tranquilly sleeping, and dreaming of angel visits. Across the entrance of the cavern, like an ogre keeping guard, Cudjo was stretched on a bed of skins. The fire, which rarely went out, illumined faintly the subterranean gloom. By its light came one, and looked at the old man and his child sleeping there, so peacefully, so innocently, side by side. The face of the father was solemn, white, and calm; that of the maiden, smiling and sweet. The heart of the young man yearned within him; his eyes, as they gazed, filled with tears; and his lips murmured with pure emotion,

“O Lord, I thank thee for their sakes! O Lord, preserve them and bless them!”

And he moved softly away, his whole soul suffused with ineffable tenderness towards that good old man and the dear, beautiful girl. He had stolen thither to see that all was well. All was indeed well. And now he retired once more to a recess in the rock, where he and Pomp had made their bed of blankets and dry moss.

The footsteps on the solid floor of stone had not awakened her. And what was more remarkable, the lover’s beating heart and worshipping gaze had not disturbed her slumber. But now the slightest movement on the part of her blind parent banishes sleep in an instant.

“Daughter, are you here?”

“I am here, father!”

“Are you well, my child?”

“O, very well! I have had such a sweet sleep! Can I do anything for you?”

“Yes. Let me feel that you are near me. That is all.” She kissed him. “Heaven is good to me!” he said.

She watched him until he slept again. Then, her soul filled with thankfulness and peace, she closed her eyes once more, and happy thoughts became happy dreams.

At about that time Salina threw herself despairingly upon her bed, at home, gnashing her teeth, and wishing she had never been born. And these two were sisters. And Salina had the house and all its comforts left to her, while Virginia had nothing of outward solace for her delicate nature but the rudest entertainment. So true it is that not place, and apparel, and pride make us happy, but piety, affection, and the disposition of the mind.

The night passed, and morning dawned, and they who had slept awoke, and they who had not slept watched bitterly the quickening light which brought to them, not joy and refreshment, but only another phase of weariness and misery.

Captain Lysander Sprowl was observed to be in a savage mood that day. The cares of married life did not agree with him: they do not with some people. Because Salina had baffled him, and Toby had escaped, his inferiors had to suffer. He was sharp even with Lieutenant Ropes, who came to report a fact of which he had received information.

“Stackridge was in the village last night!”

“What’s that to me?” said Lysander.

“The lieutenant-colonel ” whispered Silas. Sprowl grew attentive. By the lieutenant-colonel was meant no other person than Augustus Bythewood, who had received his commission the day before. Well might Lysander, at the mention of him to whom both these aspiring officers owed everything, bend a little and listen. Ropes proceeded. “He feels a cussed sight badder now he believes the gal is in a cave somewhars with the schoolmaster, than he did when he thought she was burnt up in the woods. He entirely approves of your conduct last night, and says Toby must be ketched, and the secret licked out of him. In the mean while he thinks sunthin’ can be done with Stackridge’s family. Stackridge was home last night, and of course his wife will know about the cave. The secret might be frightened out on her, or, I swear!” said Silas, “I wouldn’t object to using a little of the same sort of coercion you tried with Toby; and Bythewood wouldn’t nuther. Only, you understand, he musn’t be supposed to know anything about it.”

Lysander’s eyes gleamed. He showed his tobacco-stained teeth in a way that boded no good to any of the name of Stackridge.

“Good idée?” said Silas, with a coarse and brutal grin.

“Damned good!” said Lysander. Indeed, it just suited his ferocious mood. “Go yourself, lieutenant, and put it into execution.”

“There’s one objection to that,” replied Silas, thrusting a quid into his cheek. “I know the old woman so well. It’s best that none of us in authority should be supposed to have a hand in’t. Send somebody that don’t know her, and that you can depend on to do the job up harnsome. How’s them Dutchmen?”

“Just the chaps!” said Lysander, growing good-natured as the pleasant idea of whipping a woman developed itself more and more to his appreciative mind.

From flogging a slave, to flogging a free negro, the step is short and easy. From the familiar and long-established usage of beating slave-women, to the novel fashion of whipping the patriotic wives of Union men, the step is scarcely longer, or more difficult. Even the chivalrous Bythewood, who was certainly a gentleman in the common acceptation of the term, magnificently hospitable to his equals, gallant to excess among ladies worthy of his smiles, yet who never interfered to prevent the flogging of slave-mothers on his estates, saw nothing extraordinary or revolting in the idea of extorting a secret from a hated Union woman by means of the lash. To such gross appetites for cruelty as Ropes had cultivated, the thing relished hugely. The keen, malignant palate of Lysander tasted the flavor of a good joke in it.

The project was freely discussed, and in the hilarity of their hearts the two officers let fall certain words, like crumbs from their table, which a miserable dog chanced to pick up.

That miserable dog was Dan Pepperill, whose heart was so much bigger than his wit. He knew that mischief was meant towards Mrs. Stackridge. How could he warn her? The drums were already beating for company drill, and he despaired of doing anything to save her, when by good fortune or is there something besides good fortune in such things? he saw one of his children approaching.

The little Pepperill came with a message from her mother. Dan heard it unheedingly, then whispered in the girls ear,

“Go and tell Mrs. Stackridge her and the childern’s invited over to our house this forenoon. Right away now! Partic’lar reasons, tell her!” added Dan, reflecting that ladies in Mrs. Stackridge’s station did not visit those in his wife’s without particular reasons.

The child ran away, and Pepperill fell into the ranks, only to get repeatedly and severely reprimanded by the drill-officer for his heedlessness that morning. He did everything awkwardly, if not altogether wrong. His mind was on the child and the errand on which he had sent her, and he kept wondering within himself whether she would do it correctly (children are so apt to do errands amiss!), and whether Mrs. Stackridge would be wise enough, or humble enough, to go quietly and give Mrs. P. a call.

After company drill the brothers were summoned, and Lysander gave them secret orders. They were to visit Stackridge’s house, seize Mrs. Stackridge and compel her, by blows if necessary, to tell where her husband was concealed.

“You understand?” said the captain.

“Ve unterstan,” said they, dryly.

Scarcely had the brothers departed, when a prisoner was brought in. It was Toby, who had been caught endeavoring to make his way up into the mountains.

“Now we’ve got the nigger, mabby we’d better send and call the Dutchmen back,” said Silas Ropes.

“No, no!” said Lysander, through his teeth. “’Twon’t do any harm to give the jade a good dressing down. I wish every man, woman, and child, that shrieks for the old rotten Union, could be served in the same way.”

Having set his heart on this little indulgence, Sprowl could not easily be persuaded to give it up. It was absolutely necessary to his peace of mind that somebody should be flogged. The interesting affair with Toby, which had been so abruptly broken off, left, like a novelette in the newspapers, to be continued, must be concluded in some shape: it mattered little upon whose flesh the final chapters were struck off.

In the mean time the recaptured negro was taken to the guard-house. There he found a sympathizing companion. It was Carl. To him he told his story, and showed his wounds, the sight of which filled the heart of the lad with rage, and pity, and grief.

“Vot sort of Tutchmen vos they?” Toby described them. Carl’s eyes kindled. “I shouldn’t be wery much susprised,” said he, “if they vos no matter!”

Lieutenant Ropes arrived, bringing into the guard-house a formidable cat-o’-nine-tails.

“String that nigger up,” said Silas.

Ropes was not the man to await patiently the issue of the woman-whipping, while here was a chance for a little private sport. He remembered how Toby had got away from him once that he too owed him a flogging. Debts of this kind, if no others, Silas delighted to pay; and accordingly the negro was strung up. It was well for the lieutenant that Carl had irons on his wrists.

The sound of the poor old man’s groans, the sight of his gashed, oozing, and inflamed back, bared again to the whip, was to Carl unendurable. But as it was not in his power to obey the impulse of his soul, to spring for a musket and slay that monster of cruelty, Ropes, on the spot, he must try other means, perhaps equally unwise and desperate, to save Toby from torture.

“Vait, sir, if you please, vun leetle moment,” he called out to Silas. “I have a vord or two to shpeak.”

He had as yet, however, scarcely made up his mind what to propose. A moment’s reflection convinced him that only one thing could purchase Toby’s reprieve; and perhaps even that would fail. Regardless of consequences to himself, he resolved to try it.

“I know petter as he does about the cave; I vos there,” he cried out, boldly.

“Hey? You offer yourself to be whipped in this old nigger’s place?” said Ropes.

“Not wery much,” replied Carl. “I can go mit you or anypody you vill send, and show vair the cave is. I remember. But if you vill have me whipped, I shouldn’t be wery much surprised if that vould make me to forget. Whippins,” he added, significantly, “is wery pad for the memory.”

“You mean to say, if you are licked, then you won’t tell?”

“That ish the idea I vished to conwey.”

“We’ll see about that.” Silas laughed. “In the mean time we’ll try what can be got out of this nigger.”

Toby, who had had a gleam of hope, now fell again into despair. Just then Captain Sprowl came in.

“Hold! What are you doing with that nigger?”

Silas explained, and Carl repeated his proposal. Lysander caught eagerly at it. He remembered Salina’s warning, and was glad of any excuse to liberate the old negro.

“You promise to take me to the cave?” Carl assented. “Why, then, lieutenant, that’s all we want, and I order this boy to be set free.”

“This boy” was Toby, who was accordingly let off, to his own inexpressible joy and Ropes’s infinite disgust.

“If Carl he take de responsumbility to show de cave, dat ain’t my fault. ‘Sides, dat boy am bright, he am; de secesh can’t git much de start o’ him!”

Thus the old negro congratulated himself on his way home. At the same time Carl, still in irons, was saying to himself,

“So far so goot. If they had whipped Toby, two things vould be wery pad the whipping, for one, and he would have told, for another. But I have made vun promise. It vas a pad promise, and a pad promise is petter proken as kept. But if I preak it, they vill preak my head. Vot shall I do? Now let me see!” said Carl.

And he remained plunged in thought.