Sapphira and the Slave Girl, by Willa Cather

Book VII

Nancy’s Flight

I

The wheat harvest was nearly over. Nancy and her companions had been carrying dinner to the mowers, in the big wheat field on the other side of Back Creek. On her way home Nancy slipped from the company and ran through Mrs. Blake’s yard to her kitchen door. Mary and Betty had finished washing the dishes, and their mother was preparing to roast coffee beans in the oven. After one look at Nancy’s face, she told the children they could go down the road and watch Grandfather cutting his wheat. When they were gone, she turned to the yellow girl.

“What’s the matter now, child? Has that scamp been pestering you again? Set down and tell me.”

Nancy dropped into a chair. “Oh, I’m most drove out-a my mind, I cain’t bear it no longer, ‘deed I cain’t! I gets no rest night nor day. I’m goin’ to throw myself into the millpawnd, I am!” She bowed her head on her arms and broke into sobs.

“Hush, hush! Don’t talk so, Nancy, it’s wicked. Stop your crying, and tell me about it.” She stood over the girl, stroking her quivering shoulders until the sobs grew more throaty and, as it were, dried up. Nancy lifted her face.

“Miz’ Blake, you’s the only one I got to talk to. He’s just after me night an’ day, till I wisht I’d never been bawn.”

“I guess a good many of us wish that, sometimes. But we come right again, and bear our lot. Have you said anything to my father?”

“How could I, Miz’ Blake? I’d die a’ shame to speak it before that good ole man. I got nobody I kin come to but you.”

“Then you must try to make it plain to me, Nancy. Can’t you keep out of his way?”

“It’s worst at night, Miz’ Blake. You know I sleeps outside Miss Sapphy’s door, an’ he’s right over me, at the top of the stairs. One night I heard him comin’ down the stairs in his bare feet, an’ I jumped up an’ run into the Mistress’s room, makin’ out I thought I heered her callin’ me. She was right cross ‘cause I’d waked her up, and sent me back to my bed, an’ I layed there awake till mornin’. If I was to sleep sound, he could slip in to me any time. If I hollered, the Mistress would put it all on me; she’d say I done somethin’ to make him think I was a bad girl. Another time I heard him slippin’ down at night, an’ I jumped an’ run to old Mr. Washington. You know he sleeps on a cot in the wine closet. He give me his bed, an’ he set up all night in the hall. So I cain’t run in to the Mistress agin, an’ I hates to go to Mr. Washington. He needs his rest. Why, Miz’ Blake, there ain’t no stoppin’ Mr. Martin. He kin jist slip into my bed any night if I happens to fall asleep. I got nobody to call to. I cain’t do nothin’!”

Here Nancy sprang from her chair and stood with her hands pressed against her forehead and her blue-black hair.

“I tell you, I’d druther drown myself before he got at me than after! Only I want SOMEBODY as’ll speak up for me to the Master, an’ tell him I didn’t do it from wickedness. Please, mam, tell him how I was drove to it.”

When she spoke of the Master, she began to cry again, and could not go on.

Presently Mrs. Blake said quietly but resolutely: “I’m a-going to get you away from all this, Nancy. Mind you, no more talk about the mill dam. You’re young and have life before you. I’ve seen how things were going, and I’ve been figuring on how to get you away from the mill. You’ve not been real happy over there for a good while back.”

“No’m, not since she turned on me.” Nancy spoke absently, as if talking to herself. “It ain’t nothing she DOES to me. I don’ know what it is, but she never looks at me no more. She’s jist turned on me.”

Mrs. Blake took her by the shoulders, as if to rouse her. “Now you must listen to me, Nancy. Would you be brave enough to go away from here to a better place, where you’d be safe? I can’t run Mart Colbert out of the neighbourhood, but I think I can get you away. Would you go?”

“I’d go anywheres to git away from him. I’d sooner go down to Georgia an’ pick cotton, ‘deed I would.”

“It won’t come to that, Nancy. Just you hold out a little longer, and I’ll get you out of these troubles. Have you said anything to Till?”

Nancy looked up at her with wondering, startled eyes. “To Maw? How could I, mam?”

Mrs. Blake turned away and began to put slow wood in her stove to get on with her roasting. “Here come my girls up the road. You better let them go along home with you. Maybe Mother’s missed you, but if they’re with you, nothing will be said.”

After Nancy and the children were gone, Mrs. Blake sat down to watch over the pans of browning coffee. She understood why Nancy did not go to Till for advice and protection. Till had been a Dodderidge before ever she was Nancy’s mother. In Till’s mind, her first duty was to her mistress. Ever since Mrs. Colbert had become an invalid, Till’s position in the house was all-important; and position was dear to her. Long ago Matchem had taught her to “value her place,” and that became her rule of life. Anything that made trouble between her and the Mistress would wreck the order of the household.

Nancy had come into the world by accident; the other relation, that with the Dodderidges, Till regarded as one of the fixed conditions you were born into. Beginning with Jezebel, her kin had lived under the roof and protection of that family for four generations. It was their natural place in the world.

Yes, Mrs. Blake knew why Till shut her eyes to what was going on over at the Mill House. And she realized once more that she herself was by nature incapable of understanding her mother. Ever since she could remember, she had seen her mother show shades of kindness and cruelty which seemed to her purely whimsical. At this moment Mrs. Blake could not for the life of her say whether Mrs. Colbert had invited this scapegrace to her house with the deliberate purpose of bringing harm to Nancy, or whether she had asked him merely for the sake of his company, and was now ready to tolerate anything that might amuse him and thus prolong his stay. This was quite possible, since Mrs. Colbert, though often generous, was entirely self-centred and thought of other people only in their relation to herself. She was born that way, and had been brought up that way.

Yet one must admit inconsistencies. There was her singular indulgence with Tansy Dave, her real affection for Till and old Jezebel, her patience with Sampson’s lazy wife. Even now, from her chair, she took some part in all the celebrations that darkies love. She liked to see them happy. On Christmas morning she sat in the long hall and had all the men on the place come in to get their presents and their Christmas drink. She served each man a strong toddy in one of the big glass tumblers that had been her father’s. When Tap, the mill boy, smacked his lips and said: “Miss Sapphy, if my mammy’s titty had a-tasted like that, I never would a-got weaned,” she laughed as if she had never heard the old joke before.

When the darkies were sick, she doctored them, sent linen for the new babies and had them brought for her to see as soon as the mother was up and about. Recalling these things and trying to be fair to her mother, Mrs. Blake suddenly rose from her chair and said aloud:

“No, it ain’t put on; she believes in it, and they believe in it. But it ain’t right.”

II

By the next morning’s stage Mrs. Bywaters sent an important letter to David Fairhead, asking him to come out to Back Creek as soon as possible. He rode up to her gate next evening on his old grey horse. That night Mrs. Blake and Mr. Whitford, the carpenter, met at the post office to confer with him. When they were seated in the postmistress’s private parlour, where they would not be disturbed, Mrs. Blake revealed her bold purpose. Mrs. Bywaters sat by to encourage her.

To the two women the plan seemed a desperate undertaking. No negro slave had ever run away from Back Creek, or from Hayfield, or Round Hill, or even from Winchester. But Mr. Fairhead was reassuring. He told them the underground railroad was now busier than ever before. The severe Fugitive Slave Law, passed six years ago, had by no means prevented slaves from running away. Its very injustice had created new sympathizers for fugitives, and opened new avenues of escape. From as far away as Louisiana, negroes were now reaching Canada; the railroads and the lake steamboats helped them. If a negro once got into Pennsylvania or Ohio, he seldom failed to go through.

Fairhead explained to Mrs. Blake how simple it would be to get Nancy from Winchester to Martinsburg, and from there into Pennsylvania. While she sat by, he wrote a letter to his cousin in Martinsburg, who would be very glad to assist her. This letter would go off by the stage tomorrow morning.

Mr. Whitford said he could manage for Mrs. Blake as far as Winchester. He had a light canvas-covered spring-wagon in which he carried coffins to distant burying-grounds. Chairs for two women could be put inside under the canvas, and they could make the drive to town unseen by anyone. Travelling late at night, they would reach Winchester in good time to take the morning stage for Martinsburg.

Mrs. Blake went home greatly reassured. But the hardest thing to arrange, the interview she most dreaded, was still before her.

The following night she set out for the mill by the creek road, where she would scarcely be likely to meet any of the house servants. Once at the mill, she went to the north window of her father’s room. He was within, sitting at his table; not reading, but gazing moodily at the floor.

“Can I come in, Father?” she asked quietly.

“Is that you, Rachel? Wait a minute.” He came out to the platform where the wagons were unloaded, took her hand, and led her through the dark passage to his room. When he closed the door he shot the bolt.

Mrs. Blake sat down and drew a long breath. “Well, Father, I’ve come over to have a talk with you. I blame myself I didn’t come before this. I reckon you know what it’s about.”

She looked to him for recognition, but he sat frowning at the floor. It tried her that he gave her no encouragement, when he certainly must know what was on her mind. She was tired, and the road round by the creek had seemed long.

“Father,” she broke out indignantly, “are you going to stand by and see a good girl brought to ruin without lifting a finger?”

The miller crossed the room and shut down the open window. His face had flushed red, and so had Mrs. Blake’s. She went on with some heat.

“You surely know that rake Mart Colbert is after Nancy day and night. He’ll have her, in the end. She’s a good girl, but the Colbert men never let anything get away. He’ll catch her somewhere, and force her.”

Her father clenched his two powerful fists. “No he won’t! It’s only by the mercy of God I haven’t strangled the life out of him before now.”

“Then why don’t you do something to save her?”

He made no reply. His daughter sat watching him in astonishment. His darkly flushed face, his clenched hands gave her no clue to what was going on in his mind; struggle of some sort, certainly. She had always known him quick to act, had never seen him like this before.

“I may be overstepping my duty,” she said at last, “but I couldn’t sit with my hands folded and see what’s going on here. She’s come to me for help, and I couldn’t hold back. I’m a-going to get Nancy away from here and on the road to freedom.”

He looked up now, and met her eyes with a flash in his own. “If only it were possible, Rachel — ”

“Well, it is possible. Mr. Fairhead’s offered to help me. It ain’t so hard as it seems to us out here. Slaves are running away in plenty now. He’s got Quaker friends that will get the girl into Pennsylvania. About five miles out of Martinsburg there’s a ferry will take me and Nancy across the Potomac. When we get across, a conveyance will meet us and carry her on from house to house. In a day and a night I can get her into safe hands.”

“And then what’s to become of her?”

“The Quakers will get her somehow over into New York State an’ put her on the cars. There’s a railroad runs right up through Vermont into Canada, out-a reach of slave-catchers. He says the railroad men are glad to help. It’s a-going on all the time now. They hide runaway slaves in the baggage cars an’ take ’em clear through to Montreal.”

“Montreal? Now what would a young girl like her do in a big strange city? An’ they talk nothing but French up there, I’ve heard. You must be gone crazy, Rachel. There she’d come to harm, for certain. A pretty girl like her, she’d be enticed into one of them houses, like as not.” The miller wiped his forehead with his big handkerchief. The closed room was getting very hot.

“Father, I can tell you there’s many folks in big cities that are a sight kinder than some folks on this farm. You know Mother bears a hard hand on Nancy, and has for a good while back. How the girl’s stood it, I don’t know. God forgive me, but it looks to me like she’d brought that scamp here a-purpose, an’ she’s tried right along to throw the girl in his way. She knows Nancy lays unprotected out in the open hall every night, where he can sneak down to her. He’s tried it more’n once, an’ the pore thing had to run in to old Washington in the wine closet, an’ he let her have his cot. Another time, — ”

The miller sprang to his feet, knocking over the chair behind him. “Hush, Rachel, not another word! You and me can’t talk about such things. It ain’t right. What do you come telling this to me for, if you’ve fixed it up with Mr. Fairhead and Whitford? I can’t be a party to make away with your mother’s property.”

“I come to you because we need money, a hundred dollars, to get her safe through into Canada. An’ I ain’t got it. If I had, I’d turn to nobody.”

Henry Colbert walked slowly about the room, his eyes downcast. He was ashamed to show such irresolution before his daughter. She would think he grudged the money, maybe. The money was there, in his secretary. It made her plan possible, made it almost an accomplished fact; a loss that could never be made up to him. He had been humouring himself with the hope that, once Martin was out of the way, things might be as they used to be. But every word his daughter said made him know Nancy could never be the same again, could never be happy here. He must face it.

“Rachel,” he said presently in his natural voice, “nothing must pass between you and me on this matter; neither words nor aught else. Tomorrow night I will go to bed early, and I will leave my coat hanging on a chair by the open window here — ” he raised the north window and propped it up on its stick. “Now I will walk home with you.”

“No, Father, thank you. We might meet somebody. I’d sooner we weren’t seen together tonight.”

The following night Mrs. Blake came again to the mill by the creek road. Her father’s room was dark, but the window was open. She put in her hand, took out the coat that hung on the chair-back, and felt through the pockets. From the inside pocket she took a flat package of bank-notes.

The miller, in his bed, heard her come and go. He lay still and prayed earnestly, for his daughter and for Nancy. Not a sparrow falleth to the ground without Thy knowledge. He would never again hear that light footstep outside his door. She would go up out of Egypt to a better land. Maybe she would be like the morning star, this child; the last star of night. . . . She was to go out from the dark lethargy of the cared-for and irresponsible; to make her own way in this world where nobody is altogether free, and the best that can happen to you is to walk your own way and be responsible to God only. Sapphira’s darkies were better cared for, better fed and better clothed, than the poor whites in the mountains. Yet what ragged, shag-haired, squirrel-shooting mountain man would change places with Sampson, his trusted head miller?

III

Mr. Whitford was to be at Mrs. Blake’s house at one o’clock in the morning. Starting at that hour, he would be unlikely to meet travellers on the road, and he would get into Winchester well before daylight. He and his passengers were to have an early breakfast with the old Quaker who was a friend of the miller and of Mr. Fairhead. From the Quaker’s house they would take the stage for Martinsburg. If Mrs. Blake chanced to meet an acquaintance on the street or in the stage, it was quite natural that she should be going to Martinsburg on a visit, attended by her mother’s maid.

Nancy was to come over to Mrs. Blake’s about midnight. When all was still at the Mill House, she got up from her pallet, dressed in the dark, and slipped out of the back door, carrying her shoes and stockings in one hand, and in the other an old pillowcase stuffed with her spare clothes and her few belongings.

When she got to the stile, she sat down behind it and put on her shoes. It was the dark of the moon, and anyone crossing the meadow could not easily be recognized. But if she met anyone, the fact that she was wearing her winter shawl and a hat would arouse curiosity. To travel as Mrs. Blake’s lady’s maid, she must be dressed for town. Her hat was an old black turban of Mrs. Colbert’s. Till had put a red feather on it when Nancy accompanied her mistress to Winchester at Easter.

Mrs. Blake was sitting on her doorstep, waiting, and her house was dark. She drew a sigh of relief when she saw a figure come out of the meadow and cross the road. She met Nancy at the gate, took her into the parlour, pulled down the blinds, and lighted a candle.

“Now, Nancy, here’s my old carpet sack. I’m going to give it to you for your own, and you can pack away in it whatever you’ve got in your bundle there. From now on we must look spruce, like we was going visiting. I’m glad you’ve got a feather in your hat. It’s real becoming to you, and it was a good hat in the first place, when Mother got it. I see you’ve brought along one of the old reticules. That will be handy to carry the letters I’ve written out for you to show to the Quaker folks, and maybe to the railroad men, telling how you’re a deserving girl and I stand behind you. But when I give you your money, in Martinsburg, you must put it in your stockings. Never let it off your body.”

“Oh, Miz’ Blake, the reticule ain’t mine! Miss Sapphy give it to me yisterday, with three pairs a-her good silk stockings for me to darn. I did mean to darn ’em today, but some way I jist couldn’t git down to it. I been kind-a flighty in the haid like. I’ll mend ’em as soon as I git there, an’ send ’em back by stage, or somehow.” Nancy was nervously packing the carpetbag as she spoke.

Mrs. Blake glanced up, and then stepped quickly into the kitchen to get command of herself. She thought how vague, even to her, was this “there” that Nancy spoke of — THERE was Canada, wasn’t it? Mrs. Blake herself had never been farther north than Baltimore. She had always thought of Boston as very, very far north. And Montreal was away, away longer off than Boston. And Nancy spoke of sending things back by stage! For a moment she felt her courage sink.

When she returned to the parlour, she set about straightening the tidies on the chairs, speaking over her shoulder in a matter-of-fact tone. “You better leave your darning right here. I’ll mend ’em up neatly and send ’em over. Things often get lost on the stage. Listen! There’s Mr. Whitford for sure. He’s stopped his horses at our gate. I’ll get my things on.”

A few minutes later Mrs. Blake walked out of her door in her Sunday best, even to black gloves, and Nancy walked behind her, carrying the carpet sack. Mr. Whitford helped them into the back of his wagon and then untied his horses. Very soon the team splashed through Back Creek. Mrs. Blake had a moment of apprehension and glanced at Nancy. But the girl seemed worn out and dulled by the day’s excitement; her head drooped forward on her knees as if she were dozing. It was not until they were passing the old Elliot place, and a jolt over a limestone ledge threw her chair to one side, that she wakened up.

The houses along the road were all dark. The first lighted windows were in the disreputable tavern near Hoag Creek, a place where bad men got together: moonshiners and sheep-stealers and fist-fighters who wore brass knuckles in a fight, drank bad whisky, and threw dice and told dirty stories about decent folk until daybreak. The sound of horses’ hoofs on the road at this late hour brought the revellers reeling and shouting out into the road.

“Hold on, stranger, give us a ride up the Gap! Who be ye? Issa damned Gov’ment officer! Pull him in an’ fill him up, fellers. He’s after moonshiners, an’ we’ll show him some.”

“We’ll give him a whole bellyful-a moonshine!”

Bill Hooker, who had only one eye and bragged he had never cut his hair, caught the horses by the bits, but they kicked at him, and he fell in the road.

“Drag him out,” Whitford called, “and go back where you came from. I’m Whitford, of Back Creek, and I’m carrying a coffin home.”

The rowdies let out a spiritless yell or two, and stumbled back toward the tavern.

“Hope you wasn’t scared, Mrs. Blake,” said Whitford. “It’s funny; those fellows don’t blink an eye at murder, but they don’t like to interfere with a corpse.”

IV

In Martinsburg Mr. Taverner, Mr. Fairhead’s cousin, met the stage and took Mrs. Blake and her companion to his house, where his wife made them very comfortable.

After dark he drove the two women out to the ferry in his buggy. He had warned the ferryman that he would be sending two friends across tonight, so the ferryman asked no questions. He said “Good evening, mam,” to Mrs. Blake, and held out his hand to help her into the boat. Nancy followed. She had never been in a boat before, never seen any stream wider than Back Creek.

The Potomac ran strong here, leaped over ledges and boulders with a roaring sound like a waterfall. It was cold out on the river, and the churned water threw up a light spray. Nancy’s winter shawl was not heavy enough to keep out the chill; Mrs. Blake could feel her shivering as they sat on the narrow seat. The boat swayed and swung on its wire, however carefully the ferryman used his oars to right it. Once Mrs. Blake thought they certainly had broken loose. When they reached shallow water, the ferryman tied up his boat and helped the two women to climb up the rocks to level ground. He called: “Hello,” but there was no answer.

“We got a little cabin here, where passengers waits. Their folks is sometimes late comin’. You better come in an’ set down on the bench till your folks come. Don’t be skeered of nothin’; I’ll be around. Mr. Taverner told me one of the passengers was to go back. I’ll be right around where you kin call me.”

Mrs. Blake and Nancy sat huddled together in the damp little hut which smelled of tobacco smoke and rotting wood. A cricket was chirping sharply inside, and outside was the perpetual, agitating rush of the river, — a beautiful sound when you are not frightened, but Nancy was. And Mrs. Blake was disappointed. So far, the journey had been swift and pleasant, but this halt was a little disturbing. She could feel the courage oozing out of the girl beside her. It might be best to say something, something practical, to divert Nancy’s thoughts. She asked her to feel whether her garters were tied tight, and her money safe in her stockings. In a flash she knew she had said the wrong thing. The girl wilted altogether.

“Oh, Miz’ Blake, please mam, take me home! I can’t go off amongst strangers. It’s too hard. Let me go back an’ try to do better. I don’t mind Miss Sapphy scoldin’. Why, she brought me up, an’ now she’s sick an’ sufferin’. Look at her pore feet. I ought-a borne it better. Miz’ Blake, please mam, I want to go home to the mill an’ my own folks.”

“Now don’t talk foolish. What about Martin?”

“I kin keep out-a his way, Miz’ Blake. He won’t be there always. I can’t bear it to belong nowheres!”

“You’ve been a brave girl right along, an’ you mustn’t fail me now. I took a big risk to get you this far. If we went back, Mother would never forgive you — nor me. It would be worse than before. These Quaker folks will be kind to you, an’ you’ll be bright an’ happy, like you used to be. If you ain’t happy when you get to your journey’s end, I’ll fetch you back somehow. Don’t give way, after all Mr. Fairhead and Mr. Whitford have done for you. Remember, you were ready to throw yourself in the mill dam.”

“Yes’m,” the girl breathed. But Mrs. Blake didn’t believe she had heard her at all. She couldn’t take anything in; her mind was frozen with homesickness and dread. After that they sat in silence.

The nerve-racking suspense did not go on much longer. Through the rushing of the river Mrs. Blake thought she heard the rattle of wheels and hoofs over a stony road.

“Listen, I believe they’re coming now. Listen!” She hurried out of the cabin, dragging Nancy after her.

An old chaise emerged from the dark wood, and the driver got out. He was a coloured man, she knew at once from his voice; a negro preacher, as it proved, and a freed man. In greeting Mrs. Blake he took off an old beaver hat, which he wore as the sign of his calling.

“Is this Miz’ Blake? I’m ‘fraid I kep’ you waitin’, mam. I had some trouble on de way. De road, from Williamsport on, is very bad, an’ they’s been heavy rains. De folks sent me along to drive, ‘cause Reverend Fairhead wrote how de gal was young an’ easy skeered. I am a minister of de gospel, well known hereabouts, an’ dey figgered she wouldn’t feel so strange wid me.”

“I’m glad you came, Uncle. The girl’s lost heart a little. She’s never been away from home before, an’ she’s afraid with strangers.”

The tall black man turned to Nancy and put a hand on her shoulder. “Dey ain’t strangers, where you’re goin’, honey. Dey calls theyselves Friends, an’ dey is friends to all God’s people. You’ll be treated like dey had raised you up from a chile, an’ you’ll be passed along on yo’ way from one kind fambly to de next. Dey got a letter all ‘bout you from de Reverend Fairhead, an’ dey all feels ‘quainted. We must be goin’ now, chile. We want to git over the line into Pennsylvany as early tomorrer as we kin.” There was something solemn yet comforting in his voice, like the voice of prophecy. When he gave Nancy his hand, she climbed into the chaise. He put her bag in after her, then turned to Mrs. Blake, still holding his hat over his chest.

“An’ you, lady, the Lawd will sho’ly bless you, fo’ He said Hisself: Blessed is the merciful.”

He untied his team and waited a moment, but Nancy never said a word; not to him, not to Mrs. Blake. She had stood dumb all the while the old man spoke to her, as if she were drugged; indeed she was, by the bitterest of all drugs. The preacher clucked to his horses, seeing that the girl had no word of farewell to say. But as they started off, Mrs. Blake called out to her:

“Good-bye, Nancy! We shall meet again.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30