The Doctor came back from New York, of course without accomplishing his purpose. He had expended considerable money, and was rather disheartened. My brother and the children had now been in jail two months, and that also was some expense. My friends thought it was a favorable time to work on his discouraged feelings. Mr. Sands sent a speculator to offer him nine hundred dollars for my brother William, and eight hundred for the two children. These were high prices, as slaves were then selling; but the offer was rejected. If it had been merely a question of money, the doctor would have sold any boy of Benny’s age for two hundred dollars; but he could not bear to give up the power of revenge. But he was hard pressed for money, and he revolved the matter in his mind. He knew that if he could keep Ellen till she was fifteen, he could sell her for a high price; but I presume he reflected that she might die, or might be stolen away. At all events, he came to the conclusion that he had better accept the slave-trader’s offer. Meeting him in the street, he inquired when he would leave town. “To-day, at ten o’clock,” he replied. “Ah, do you go so soon?” said the doctor. “I have been reflecting upon your proposition, and I have concluded to let you have the three negroes if you will say nineteen hundred dollars.” After some parley, the trader agreed to his terms. He wanted the bill of sale drawn up and signed immediately, as he had a great deal to attend to during the short time he remained in town. The doctor went to the jail and told William he would take him back into his service if he would promise to behave himself but he replied that he would rather be sold. “And you shall be sold, you ungrateful rascal!” exclaimed the doctor. In less than an hour the money was paid, the papers were signed, sealed, and delivered, and my brother and children were in the hands of the trader.
It was a hurried transaction; and after it was over, the doctor’s characteristic caution returned. He went back to the speculator, and said, “Sir, I have come to lay you under obligations of a thousand dollars not to sell any of those negroes in this state.” “You come too late,” replied the trader; “our bargain is closed.” He had, in fact, already sold them to Mr. Sands, but he did not mention it. The doctor required him to put irons on “that rascal, Bill,” and to pass through the back streets when he took his gang out of town. The trader was privately instructed to concede to his wishes. My good old aunt went to the jail to bid the children good by, supposing them to be the speculator’s property, and that she should never see them again. As she held Benny in her lap, he said, “Aunt Nancy, I want to show you something.” He led her to the door and showed her a long row of marks, saying, “Uncle Will taught me to count. I have made a mark for every day I have been here, and it is sixty days. It is a long time; and the speculator is going to take me and Ellen away. He’s a bad man. It’s wrong for him to take grandmother’s children. I want to go to my mother.”
My grandmother was told that the children would be restored to her, but she was requested to act as if they were really to be sent away. Accordingly, she made up a bundle of clothes and went to the jail. When she arrived, she found William handcuffed among the gang, and the children in the trader’s cart. The scene seemed too much like reality. She was afraid there might have been some deception or mistake. She fainted, and was carried home.
When the wagon stopped at the hotel, several gentlemen came out and proposed to purchase William, but the trader refused their offers, without stating that he was already sold. And now came the trying hour for that drove of human beings, driven away like cattle, to be sold they knew not where. Husbands were torn from wives, parents from children, never to look upon each other again this side the grave. There was wringing of hands and cries of despair.
Dr. Flint had the supreme satisfaction of seeing the wagon leave town, and Mrs. Flint had the gratification of supposing that my children were going “as far as wind and water would carry them.” According to agreement, my uncle followed the wagon some miles, until they came to an old farm house. There the trader took the irons from William, and as he did so, he said, “You are a damned clever fellow. I should like to own you myself. Them gentlemen that wanted to buy you said you was a bright, honest chap, and I must git you a good home. I guess your old master will swear to-morrow, and call himself an old fool for selling the children. I reckon he’ll never git their mammy back again. I expect she’s made tracks for the north. Good by, old boy. Remember, I have done you a good turn. You must thank me by coaxing all the pretty gals to go with me next fall. That’s going to be my last trip. This trading in niggers is a bad business for a fellow that’s got any heart. Move on, you fellows!” And the gang went on, God alone knows where.
Much as I despise and detest the class of slave-traders, whom I regard as the vilest wretches on earth, I must do this man the justice to say that he seemed to have some feeling. He took a fancy to William in the jail, and wanted to buy him. When he heard the story of my children, he was willing to aid them in getting out of Dr. Flint’s power, even without charging the customary fee.
My uncle procured a wagon and carried William and the children back to town. Great was the joy in my grandmother’s house! The curtains were closed, and the candles lighted. The happy grandmother cuddled the little ones to her bosom. They hugged her, and kissed her, and clapped their hands, and shouted. She knelt down and poured forth one of her heartfelt prayers of thanksgiving to God. The father was present for a while; and though such a “parental relation” as existed between him and my children takes slight hold on the hearts or consciences of slaveholders, it must be that he experienced some moments of pure joy in witnessing the happiness he had imparted.
I had no share in the rejoicings of that evening. The events of the day had not come to my knowledge. And now I will tell you something that happened to me; though you will, perhaps, think it illustrates the superstition of slaves. I sat in my usual place on the floor near the window, where I could hear much that was said in the street without being seen. The family had retired for the night, and all was still. I sat there thinking of my children, when I heard a low strain of music. A band of serenaders were under the window, playing “Home, sweet home.” I listened till the sounds did not seem like music, but like the moaning of children. It seemed as if my heart would burst. I rose from my sitting posture, and knelt. A streak of moonlight was on the floor before me, and in the midst of it appeared the forms of my two children. They vanished; but I had seen them distinctly. Some will call it a dream, others a vision. I know not how to account for it, but it made a strong impression on my mind, and I felt certain something had happened to my little ones.
I had not seen Betty since morning. Now I heard her softly turning the key. As soon as she entered, I clung to her, and begged her to let me know whether my children were dead, or whether they were sold; for I had seen their spirits in my room, and I was sure something had happened to them. “Lor, chile,” said she, putting her arms round me, “you’s got de high-sterics. I’ll sleep wid you to-night, ’cause you’ll make a noise, and ruin missis. Something has stirred you up mightily. When you is done cryin, I’ll talk wid you. De chillern is well, and mighty happy. I seed ’em myself. Does dat satisfy you? Dar, chile, be still! Somebody vill hear you.” I tried to obey her. She lay down, and was soon sound asleep; but no sleep would come to my eyelids.
At dawn, Betty was up and off to the kitchen. The hours passed on, and the vision of the night kept constantly recurring to my thoughts. After a while I heard the voices of two women in the entry. In one of them I recognized the housemaid. The other said to her, “Did you know Linda Brent’s children was sold to the speculator yesterday. They say ole massa Flint was mighty glad to see ’em drove out of town; but they say they’ve come back agin. I ’spect it’s all their daddy’s doings. They say he’s bought William too. Lor! how it will take hold of ole massa Flint! I’m going roun’ to aunt Marthy’s to see ’bout it.”
I bit my lips till the blood came to keep from crying out. Were my children with their grandmother, or had the speculator carried them off? The suspense was dreadful. Would Betty never come, and tell me the truth about it? At last she came, and I eagerly repeated what I had overheard. Her face was one broad, bright smile. “Lor, you foolish ting!” said she. “I’se gwine to tell you all ’bout it. De gals is eating thar breakfast, and missus tole me to let her tell you; but, poor creeter! t’aint right to keep you waitin’, and I’se gwine to tell you. Brudder, chillern, all is bought by de daddy! I’se laugh more dan nuff, tinking ’bout ole massa Flint. Lor, how he vill swar! He’s got ketched dis time, any how; but I must be getting out o’ dis, or dem gals vill come and ketch me.”
Betty went off laughing; and I said to myself, “Can it be true that my children are free? I have not suffered for them in vain. Thank God!”
Great surprise was expressed when it was known that my children had returned to their grandmother’s. The news spread through the town, and many a kind word was bestowed on the little ones.
Dr. Flint went to my grandmother’s to ascertain who was the owner of my children, and she informed him. “I expected as much,” said he. “I am glad to hear it. I have had news from Linda lately, and I shall soon have her. You need never expect to see her free. She shall be my slave as long as I live, and when I am dead she shall be the slave of my children. If I ever find out that you or Phillip had anything to do with her running off I’ll kill him. And if I meet William in the street, and he presumes to look at me, I’ll flog him within an inch of his life. Keep those brats out of my sight!”
As he turned to leave, my grandmother said something to remind him of his own doings. He looked back upon her, as if he would have been glad to strike her to the ground.
I had my season of joy and thanksgiving. It was the first time since my childhood that I had experienced any real happiness. I heard of the old doctor’s threats, but they no longer had the same power to trouble me. The darkest cloud that hung over my life had rolled away. Whatever slavery might do to me, it could not shackle my children. If I fell a sacrifice, my little ones were saved. It was well for me that my simple heart believed all that had been promised for their welfare. It is always better to trust than to doubt.