November 6, 1851 Transcription

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Chapter XIX.—Topsy.[1]

One morning, while Miss Ophelia was busy in some of her domestic cares, St. Clare’s voice was heard, calling her at the foot of the stairs.

“Come down here, Cousin, I’ve something to show you.”

“What is it?” said Miss Ophelia, coming down with her sewing in her hand.

“I’ve made a purchase for your department; see here,” said St. Clare; and, with the word, he pulled along a little negro girl, about eight or nine years of age.

She was one of the blackest of her race, and her round, shining eyes, glittering as glass beads, moved with quick and restless glances over everything in the room. Her mouth, half open with astonishment at the wonders of the new mass’r’s parlor, displayed a white and brilliant set of teeth. Her woolly hair was braided in sundry little tails, which stuck out in every direction. The expression of her face was an odd mixture of shrewdness and cunning, over which was oddly drawn, like a kind of veil, an expression of the most doleful gravity and solemnity. She was dressed in a single filthy, ragged garment, made of bagging, and stood with her hands demurely folded before her. Altogether, there was something odd and goblin-like about her appearance—something, as Miss Ophelia afterwards said, “so heathenish,” as to inspire that good lady with utter dismay; and turning to St. Clare, she said—

“Augustine, what in the world have you brought that thing here for?”

“For you to educate, to be sure, and train in the way she should go. I thought she was rather a funny specimen in the Jim Crow line. Here, Topsy,” he added, giving a whistle, as a man would, to call the attention of a dog, “give us a song, now, and show us some of your dancing.”

The black, glassy eyes glittered with a kind of wicked drollery, and the thing struck up, in a clear, shrill voice, an odd negro melody, to which she kept time with her hands and feet, spinning round, clapping her hands, knocking her knees together, in a wild, fantastic sort of time, and producing in her throat all those odd guttural sounds which distinguish the native music of her race; and finally, turning a summerset or two, and giving a prolonged closing note, as odd and unearthly as that of a steam whistle, she came suddenly down on the carpet, and stood with her hands folded, and a most sanctimonious expression of meekness and solemnity over her face, only broken by the cunning glances which she shot askance from the corners of her eyes.

Miss Ophelia stood silent, perfectly paralyzed with amazement.

St. Clare, like a mischievous fellow as he was, appeared to enjoy her astonishment, and addressing the child again, said:

“Topsy, this is your new mistress. I’m going to give you up to her; see now that you behave yourself.”

“Yes, mass’r,” said Topsy with sanctimonious gravity, her wicked eyes twinkling as she spoke.

“You’re going to be good, Topsy, you understand,” said St. Clare.

“Oh yes, mass’r,” said Topsy, with another twinkle, her hands still devoutly folded.

“Now, Augustine, what upon earth is this for?” said Miss Ophelia. “Your house is so full of these little plagues now, that a body can’t set down their foot without treading on ’em. I get up in the morning, and I find one asleep behind the door, and see one black head poking out from under the table, one lying on the door mat, and they are mopping and moving and grinning between all the railings, and tumbling over the kitchen floor. What on earth did you want to bring this one for?”

“For you to educate—didn’t I tell you? You’re always preaching about educating. I thought I would make you a present of a fresh-caught specimen, and let you try your hand on her, and bring her up in the way she should go.”

I don’t want her, I am sure—I have more to do with ’em now than I want to.”

“That’s you, Christians all over—you’ll get up a Society, and get some poor missionary to spend all his days among just such heathen. But let me see one of you that would take one into your house with you, and take the labor of their conversion on yourselves. No; when it comes to that, they are dirty and disagreeable, and it’s too much care, and so on.”

“Augustine, you know I didn’t think of it in that light,” said Miss Ophelia, evidently softening. “Well, it might be a real missionary work,” said she, looking rather more favorably on the child.

St. Clare had touched the right string. Miss Ophelia’s conscientiousness was ever on the alert. “But,” she added, “I really didn’t see the need of buying this one—there are enough now in your house to take all my time and skill.”

“Well, then, cousin,” said St. Clare, drawing her aside, “I ought to beg your pardon for my good-for-nothing speeches. You are so good, after all, that there’s no sense in them. Why, the fact is, this concern belonged to a couple of drunken creatures that keep a low restaurant that I have to pass by every day, and I was tired of hearing her screaming, and them beating and swearing at her. She looked bright and funny, too, as if something might be made of her—so I bought her, and I’ll give her to you. Try, now, and give her a good orthodox New England bringing up, and see what it’ll make of her. You know I haven’t any gift that way, but I’d like you to try.”

“Well, I’ll do what I can,” said Miss Ophelia; and she approached her new subject very much as a person might be supposed to approach a black spider, supposing them to have benevolent designs toward it.

“She’s dreadfully dirty, and half naked,” she said.

“Well, take her down stairs, and make some of them clean and clothe her up.”

Miss Ophelia carried her to the kitchen regions.

“Don’t see what mass’r St. Clare wants of nother nigger,” said Dinah, surveying the new arrival with no friendly air. “Won’t have her round under my feet, I know.”

“Pah! said Rosa and Jane, with supreme disgust, “let her keep out of our way. What in the world mass’r wanted another of these low niggers for, I can’t see.”

“You go long. No more nigger dan you be, Miss Rosa,” said Dinah, who felt this last remark a reflection on herself. “You seem to tink yourself white folks. You aint nerry one, black nor white. I’d like to be one or turrer.”

Miss Ophelia saw that there was nobody in the camp that would undertake to oversee the cleansing and dressing of the new arrival, and so she was forced to do it herself, with some very ungracious and reluctant assistance from Jane.

It is not for ears polite to hear the particulars of the first toilet of a neglected, abused child. In fact, in this world, multitudes must live and die in a state that it would be too great a shock to the nerves of their fellow mortals even to hear described. Miss Ophelia had a good, strong, practical deal of resolution, and she went through all the disgusting details with heroic thoroughness, though, it must be confessed, with no very gracious air; for endurance was the utmost to which her principles could bring her. When she saw, on the back and shoulders of the child, great welts and calloused spots, ineffaceable marks of the system under which she had grown up thus far, her heart became pitiful within her.

“See there!” said Jane, pointing to the marks, “don’t that show she’s a limb? We’ll have fine works with her, I reckon. I hate these nigger young uns! so disgusting! I wonder that mass’r would buy her.”

The “young un” alluded to heard all these comments with the subdued and doleful air which seemed habitual to her, only scanning with a keen and furtive glance of her flickering eyes the ornaments which Jane wore in her ears. When arrayed at last in a suit of decent and whole clothing, her hair cropped short to her head, Miss Ophelia with some satisfaction said she looked more Christian-like than she did, and in her own mind began to mature some plans for her instruction.

Sitting down before her, she began to question her.

“How old are you, Topsy?”

“Dun no, missis,” said the image, with a grin that showed all her teeth.

“Don’t know how old you are? Didn’t anybody ever tell you? Who was your mother?”

“Never had none!” said the child, with another grin.

“Never had any mother? What do you mean? Where were you born?”

“Never was born!” persisted Topsy, with another grin, that looked so goblin-like, that if Miss Ophelia had been at all nervous she might have fancied that she had got hold of some sooty gnome from the land of Diablerie; but Miss Ophelia was not nervous, but plain and business-like, and she said, with some sternness—

“You mustn’t answer me in that way, child; I’m not playing with you. Tell me where you were born, and who your father and mother were.”

“Never was born,” reiterated the creature, more emphatically; “never had no father nor mother nor nothin. I was raised by a speculator, with lots of others. Old Aunt Sue used to take car on us.”

The child was evidently sincere, and Jane, breaking into a short laugh, said—

“Laws, missis, there’s heaps of ’em. Speculators buys ’em up cheap when they’s little, and gets ’em raised for market.”

“How long have you lived with your master and mistress?”

“Dun no, missis.”

“Is it a year, or more, or less?”

“Dun no, missis.”

“Laws, missis, those low negroes, they can’t tell; they don’t know anything about time,” said Jane; “they don’t know what a year is; they don’t know their own ages.”

“Have you ever heard anything about God, Topsy?”

The child looked bewildered, but grinned as usual.

“Do you know who made you?”

“Nobody, as I knows on,” said the child, with a short laugh.

The idea appeared to amuse her considerably, for her eyes twinkled, and she added—

“I spect I grow’d. Don’t think nobody never made me.”

“Do you know how to sew?” said Miss Ophelia, who thought she would turn her inquiries to something more tangible.

“No, missis.”

“What can you do—what did you do for your master and mistress?”

“Fetch water, and wash dishes, and rub knives, and wait on folks.”

“Were they good to you?”

“Spect they was,” said the child, scanning Miss Ophelia cunningly.

Miss Ophelia rose from this encouraging colloquy; St. Clare was leaning over the back of her chair.

“You find virgin soil there, cousin; put in your own ideas—you won’t find many to pull up.”

Miss Ophelia’s ideas of education, like all her other ideas, were very set and definite, and of the kind that prevailed in New England a century ago, and which are still preserved in some very retired and unsophisticated parts where there are no railroads. As nearly as could be expressed, they could be comprised in very few words: to teach them to mind when they were spoken to; to teach them the catechism, sewing, and reading; and to whip them if they told lies. And, though of course in the flood of light that is now poured on education, these are left far away in the rear, yet it is an undisputed fact that our grandmothers raised some tolerably fair men and women under this regime, as many of us can remember and testify. At all events, Miss Ophelia knew of nothing else to do, and therefore applied her mind to her heathen with the best diligence she could command.

The child was announced and considered in the family as Miss Ophelia’s girl; and as she was looked upon with no gracious eye in the kitchen, Miss Ophelia resolved to confine her sphere of operation and instruction chiefly to her own chamber. With a self-sacrifice which some of our readers will appreciate, she resolved, instead of comfortably making her own bed, sweeping and dusting her own chamber, which she had hitherto done in utter scorn of all offers of help from the chambermaid of the establishment, to condemn herself to the martyrdom of instructing Topsy to perform these operations—ah, wo the day. Did any of our readers ever do the same, they will appreciate the amount of her self-sacrifice.

Miss Ophelia began with Topsy by taking her into her chamber the first morning, and solemnly commencing a course of instruction in the art and mystery of bed-making.

Behold, then, Topsy, washed and shorn of all the little braided tails wherein her heart had delighted, arrayed in a clean gown, with well-starched apron, standing reverently before Miss Ophelia with an expression of solemnity well befitting a funeral.

“Now, Topsy, I’m going to show you just how my bed is to be made. I am very particular about my bed. You must learn exactly how to do it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” says Topsy, with a deep sigh and a face of woeful earnestness.

“Now, Topsy, look here—this is the hem of the sheet—this is the right side of the sheet, and this is the wrong—will you remember?”

“Yes, ma’am,” says Topsy, with another sigh.

“Well, now, the under sheet you must bring over the bolster—so, and tuck it clear down under the matrass nice and smooth—so, do you see?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Topsy, with profound attention.

“But the upper sheet,” said Miss Ophelia, “must be brought down in this way, and tucked under firm and smooth at the foot—so—the narrow hem at the foot.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Topsy, as before—but we will add what Miss Ophelia did not see, that during the time when the good lady’s back was turned, in the zeal of her manipulations, the young disciple had contrived to snatch a pair of gloves and a ribbon, which she had adroitly slipped into her sleeves, and stood with her hands dutifully folded as before.

“Now, Topsy, let’s see you do this,” said Miss Ophelia, pulling off the clothes and seating herself.

Topsy with great gravity and adroitness went through the exercise completely to Miss Ophelia’s satisfaction—smoothing the sheets, patting out every wrinkle, and exhibiting through the whole process a gravity and seriousness with which her instructress was greatly edified. By an unlucky slip, however, a fluttering fragment of the ribbon hung out of one of her sleeves, just as she was finishing, and caught Miss Ophelia’s attention. Instantly she pounced upon it. “What’s this? you naughty, wicked child—you’ve been stealing this!”

The ribbon was pulled out of Topsy’s own sleeve, yet was she not in the least disconcerted; she only looked at it with an air of the most surprised and unconscious innocence.

“Laws, why, that ar’s Miss Feely’s ribbon, aint it? How could it a got caught in my sleeve?”

“Topsy, you naughty girl, don’t you tell me a lie—you stole that ribbon.”

“Missis, I declar for’t I didn’t—never seed it till dis yer blessed minnit.”

“Topsy,” said Miss Ophelia, “don’t you know it’s wicked to tell lies?”

“I never tells no lies, Miss Feely,” said Topsy, with virtuous gravity—“it’s jist the truth I’ve been a tellin now—and aint nothin else.”

“Topsy, I shall have to whip you if you tell lies so.”

“Law, missis, if you’s to whip all day, couldn’t say no other way,” said Topsy, beginning to blubber. “I never seed dat ar—it must a got caught in my sleeve—Miss Feely must have left it on the bed, and it got caught in the clothes, and so got in my sleeve.”

Miss Ophelia was so indignant at the bare-faced lie, that she caught the child and shook her.

“Don’t you tell me that again!”

The shake brought the gloves on to the floor from the other sleeve.

“There, you!” said Miss Ophelia, “will you tell me now you didn’t steal the ribbon?”

Topsy now confessed to the gloves, but still persisted in denying the ribbon.

“Now, Topsy,” said Miss Ophelia, “if you’ll confess all about it, I won’t whip you this time.” Thus adjured, Topsy confessed to the ribbon and gloves, with woeful protestations of penitence.

“Well, now, tell me. I know you must have taken other things since you have been in the house, for I let you run about all day yesterday. Now, tell me if you took anything, and I shan’t whip you.”

“Laws, missis, I took Miss Eva’s red thing she wars on her neck.”

“You did, you naughty child! Well, what else?”

“I took Rosa’s yer rings—them red ones.”

“Go bring them to me this minute, both of ’em.”

“Laws, missis, I can’t—they’s burnt up!”

“Burnt up! what a story! Go get ’em, or I’ll whip you.”

Topsy, with loud protestations and tears and groans, declared that she could not. “They’s burnt up—they was.”

“What did you burn ’em up for?” said Miss Ophelia.

“Cause I’s wicked—I is. I’s mighty wicked anyhow. I can’t help it.”

Just at this moment, Eva came innocently into the room, with the identical coral necklace on her neck.

“Why, Eva, where did you get your necklace?” said Miss Ophelia.

“Get it? Why, I’ve had it on all day,” said Eva.

“Did you have it on yesterday?”

“Yes; and what is funny, Aunty, I had it on all night. I forgot to take it off when I went to bed.”

Miss Ophelia looked perfectly bewildered, the more so as Rosa at that instant came into the room, with a basket of newly-ironed linen poised on her head, and the coral ear-drops shaking in her ears!

“I’m sure I can’t tell anything what to do with such a child!” she said, in despair. “What in the world did you tell me you took those things for, Topsy?”

“Why, missis said I must ’fess, and I couldn’t think of nothin else to ’fess,” said Topsy, rubbing her eyes!

“But of course I didn’t want you to confess things you didn’t do,” said Miss Ophelia; “that’s telling a lie just as much as the other.”

“Laws, now, is it?” said Topsy, with an air of innocent wonder.

“La, there aint any such thing as truth in that limb,” said Rosa, looking indignantly at Topsy. “If I was mass’r St. Clare, I’d whip her till the blood run. I would—I’d let her catch it.”

“No, no, Rosa,” said Eva, with an air of command, which the child could assume at times; “you mustn’t talk so, Rosa. I can’t bear to hear it.”

“La sakes, Miss Eva, you’s so good you don’t know nothing how to get along with niggers. There’s no way but to cut ’em well up, I tell ye.”

“Rosa!” said Eva, “hush; don’t you say another word of that sort;” and the eye of the child flashed, and her cheek deepened its color.

Rosa was cowed in a moment.

“Miss Eva has got the St. Clare blood in her, that’s plain. She can speak for all the world just like her papa,” she said, as she passed out of the room.

Eva stood looking at Topsy.

There stood the two children, representatives of the two extremes of society. The fair, high-bred child, with her golden head—her deep eyes—her spiritual, noble brow, and prince-like movements; and her black, keen, subtle, cringing, yet acute neighbor. They stood the representatives of their races. The Saxon, born of ages of cultivation, command, education, physical and moral eminence; the Afric, born of ages of oppression, submission, ignorance, toil, and vice!

Something, perhaps, of such thoughts struggled through Eva’s mind. But a child’s thoughts are rather dim, undefined instincts; and in Eva’s noble nature many such were yearning and working, for which she had no power of utterance. When Miss Ophelia expatiated on Topsy’s naughty, wicked conduct, the child looked perplexed and sorrowful, but said, sweetly—

“Poor Topsy, why need you steal? You’re going to be taken good care of now. I’m sure I’d rather give you anything of mine than have you steal it.”

It was the first word of kindness the child had ever heard in her life; and the sweet tone and manner struck strangely on the wild, rude heart, and a sparkle of something like a tear shone in the keen, round, glittering eye, but it was followed by the short laugh and habitual grin. No! the ear that had never heard anything but abuse is strangely incredulous of anything so heavenly as kindness; and Topsy only thought Eva’s speech something funny and inexplicable—she did not believe it.

But what was to be done with Topsy? Miss Ophelia found the case a puzzler; her rules for bringing up didn’t seem to apply. She thought she would take time to think of it; and by way of gaining time, and in hopes of some indefinite moral virtues supposed to be inherent in dark closets, Miss Ophelia shut Topsy up in one till she had arranged her ideas further on the subject.

“I don’t see,” said Miss Ophelia to St. Clare, “how I’m going to manage that child, without whipping her.”

“Well, whip her, then, to your heart’s content; I’ll give you full power to do what you like.”

“Children always have to be whipped,” said Miss Ophelia; “I never heard of bringing them up without.”

“Oh, well, certainly,” said St. Clare; “do as you think best. Only I’ll make one suggestion; I’ve seen this child whipped with a poker, knocked down with the shovel or tongs, whichever came handiest, &c.; and seeing that she is used to that style of operation, I think your whippings will have to be pretty energetic, to make much impression.”

“What is to be done with her, then?” said Miss Ophelia.

“You have started a serious question,” said St. Clare; “I wish you’d answer it. What is to be done with a human being that can be governed only by the lash—that fails—it’s a very common state of things down here!”

“I’m sure I don’t know; I never saw such a child as this.”

“Such children are very common among us, and such men and women too. How are they to be governed?” said St. Clare.

“I’m sure it’s more than I can say,” said Miss Ophelia.

“Or I either,” said St. Clare; “the horrid cruelties and outrages that once and a while find their way into the papers—such cases as Prue’s, for example—what do they come from? In many cases it is a gradual hardening process on both sides—the owner growing more and more cruel, as the servant more and more callous. Whipping and abuse are like laudanum; you have to double the dose as the sensibilities decline. I saw this very early when I became an owner, and I resolved never to begin, because I did not know when I should stop; and I resolved at least to protect my own moral nature. The consequence is, that my servants act like spoiled children; but I think that better than for us both to be brutalized together. You have talked a great deal about our responsibilities in educating, cousin. I really wanted you to try with one child, who is a specimen of thousands among us.”

“It is your system makes such children,” said Miss Ophelia.

“I know it; but they are made—they exist—and what is to be done with them?”

“Well, I can’t say I thank you for the experiment. But, then, as it appears to be a duty, I shall persevere and try, and do the best I can,” said Miss Ophelia; and Miss Ophelia, after this, did labor with a commendable degree of zeal and energy on her new subject. She instituted regular hours and employments for her, and undertook to teach her to read and to sew.

In the former act, the child was quick enough. She learned her letters as if by magic, and was very soon able to read plain reading, but the sewing was a more difficult matter. The creature was as lithe as a cat, and as active as a monkey, and the confinement of sewing was her abomination; so she broke her needles, threw them slyly out of windows, or down in chinks of the walls; she tangled, broke, and dirtied her thread, or, with a sly movement, would throw a spool away altogether. Her motions were almost as quick as those of a practiced conjurer, and her command of her face quite as great; and though Miss Ophelia could not help feeling that so many accidents could not possibly happen in succession, yet she could not, without a watchfulness which would leave her no time for anything else, detect her.

Topsy was soon a noted character in the establishment. Her talent for every species of drollery, grimace, and mimickry—for dancing, tumbling, climbing, singing, whistling, imitating every sound that hit her fancy—seemed inexhaustible. In her play hours, she invariably had every child in the establishment at her heels, open-mouthed with admiration and wonder, not excepting Miss Eva, who appeared to be fascinated by her wild diablerie as a dove is sometimes charmed by a glittering serpent. Miss Ophelia was uneasy that Eva should fancy Topsy’s society so much, and implored St. Clare to forbid it.

“Poh, let the child alone,” said St. Clare; “Topsy will do her good.”

“But so depraved a child—are you not afraid she will teach her some mischief?”

“She can’t teach her mischief; she might teach it to some children, but evil rolls off Eva’s mind like dew off a cabbage leaf—not a drop sinks in.”

“Don’t be too sure,” said Miss Ophelia. “I know I’d never let a child of mine play with Topsy.”

“Well, your children needn’t,” said St. Clare, “but mine may; if Eva could have been spoiled, it would have been done years ago.”

Topsy was at first despised and contemned by the upper servants. They soon found reason to alter their opinion. It was very soon discovered that whoever cast an indignity on Topsy was sure to meet with some inconvenient accident shortly after—either a pair of earrings or some cherished trinket would be missing, or an article of dress would be suddenly found utterly ruined, or the person would stumble accidentally into a pail of hot water, or a libation of dirty slop would unaccountably deluge them from above when in full gala dress—and on all these occasions, when investigation was made, there was nobody found to stand sponsor for the indignity. Topsy was cited and had up before all the domestic judicatories time and again, but always sustained her examinations with most edifying innocence and gravity of appearance. Nobody in the world ever doubted who did the things, but not a scrap of any direct evidence could be found to establish the suppositions, and Miss Ophelia was too just to feel at liberty to proceed to any lengths without it.

The mischiefs done were always so nicely timed, also, as farther to shelter the aggressor. Thus the times for revenge on Rosa and Jane, the two chambermaids, were always chosen in those seasons when (as not unfrequently happened) they were in disgrace with their mistress—when any complaint from them would of course meet with no sympathy. In short, Topsy soon made the household understand the propriety of letting her alone, and she was let alone accordingly.

Topsy was smart and energetic in all manual operations, learning everything that was taught her with surprising quickness. With a few lessons she had learned to do the proprieties of Miss Ophelia’s chamber, in a way with which even that particular lady could find no fault. Mortal hands could not lay spread smoother, adjust pillows more accurately, sweep and dust and arrange more perfectly than Topsy, when she chose—but she didn’t very often choose. If Miss Ophelia, after three or four days of careful and patient supervision, was so sanguine as to suppose that Topsy had at last fallen into her way, could do without overlooking, and so go off and busy herself about something else, Topsy would hold a perfect carnival of confusion for some one or two hours. Instead of making the bed, she would amuse herself with pulling off the pillow cases, putting her woolly head among the pillows, till it would sometimes be grotesquely ornamented with feathers sticking out in various directions—she would climb the posts and hang head downward from the tops—flourish the sheets and spreads all over the apartment—dress the bolster up in Miss Ophelia’s night clothes, and enact various scenic performances with that—singing and whistling, and making grimaces at herself in the looking glass—in short, as Miss Ophelia phrased it, “raising Cain” generally.

On one occasion, Miss Ophelia found Topsy with her very best scarlet India Canton crape shawl wound round her head for a turban, going on with her rehearsals before the glass in great style—Miss Ophelia having, with carelessness most unheard-of in her, left the key for once in her drawer.

“Topsy!” she would say, when at the end of all patience, “what does make you act so?”

“Dunno, missis—I spects cause I’s so wicked!”

“I don’t know anything what I shall do with you Topsy.”

“Law, missis, you must whip me; my old missis allers whipped me. I aint used to workin unless I gets whipped.”

“Why, Topsy, I don’t want to whip you; you can do well if you’ve a mind to; what is the reason you won’t?”

“Laws, missis, I’s used to whippin; I spects it’s good for me.”

Miss Ophelia tried the recipe, and Topsy invariably made a terrible commotion, screaming, groaning, and imploring, though half an hour afterwards, when roosted on some projection of the balcony, and surrounded by a flock of admiring “young uns,” she would express the utmost contempt of the whole affair.

“La, Miss Feely whip!—wouldn’t kill a skeeter, her whippins. Oughter see how old mass’r made the flesh fly; old mass’r know’d how!”

Topsy always made great capital of her own sins and enormities, evidently considering them as something peculiarly distinguishing.

“La, you niggers,” she would say to some of her auditors, “does you know you’s all sinners? Well, you is—everybody is. White folks is sinners too, Miss Feely says so; but I spects niggers is the biggest ones; but lor, ye aint any on ye up to me. I’s so awful wicked there can’t nobody do nothin with me. I used to keep old missis a swarin at me half de time. I spects I’s the wickedest critter in the world,” and Topsy would cut a somerset, and come up brisk and shining on to a higher perch, and evidently plume herself on the distinction.

Miss Ophelia busied herself very earnestly on Sundays, teaching Topsy the catechism. Topsy had an uncommon verbal memory, and committed with a fluency that greatly encouraged her instructress.

“What good do you expect it is going to do her?” said St. Clare.

“Why, it always has done children good. It’s what children always have to learn, you know,” said Miss Ophelia.

“Understand it or not,” said St. Clare.

“Oh, children never understand it at the time, but after they are grown up it’ll come to them.”

“Mine hasn’t come to me yet,” said St. Clare, “though I’ll bear testimony that you put it into me pretty thoroughly when I was a boy.”

“Ah, you were always good at learning, Augustine. I used to have great hopes of you,” said Miss Ophelia.

“Well, haven’t you now?” said St. Clare.

“I wish you were as good as you were when you were a boy, Augustine.”

“So do I, that’s a fact, cousin,” said St. Clare. “Well, go ahead and catechise Topsy; may be you’ll make out something yet.”

Topsy, who had stood like a black statue during this discussion, with her hands decently folded, now, at a signal from Miss Ophelia, went on:

“Our first parents, being left to the freedom of their own will, fell from the state wherein they were created.”

Topsy’s eyes twinkled, and she looked inquiringly.

“What is it, Topsy?” said Miss Ophelia.

“Please, missis, was dat ar State Kintuck?”

“What State, Topsy?”

“Dat state dey fell out of. I used to hear mass’r tell how we came down from Kintuck.”

St. Clare laughed.

“You’ll have to give her a meaning, or she’ll make one,” said he. “There seems to be a theory of emigration suggested there.”

“Oh! Augustine, be still,” said Miss Ophelia; “how can I do anything if you will be laughing?”

“Well, I won’t disturb the exercises again, on my honor;” and St. Clare took his paper into the parlor, and sat down, till Topsy had finished her recitations. They were all very well, only that now and then she would oddly transpose some important words, and persist in the mistake, in spite of every effort to the contrary; and St. Clare, after all his promises of goodness, took a wicked pleasure in these mistakes, calling Topsy to him whenever he had a mind to amuse himself, and getting her to repeat the offending passages, in spite of Miss Ophelia’s remonstrances.

“How do you think I can do anything with the child, if you will go on so, Augustine?” she would say.

“Well, it is too bad, I won’t again; but I do like to hear the droll little image stumble over those big words!”

“But you confirm her in the wrong way.”

“What’s the odds? one word is as good as another to her.”

“You wanted me to bring her up right; and you ought to remember she is a reasonable creature, and be careful of your influence over her.”

“Oh, dismal! so I ought; but as Topsy herself says, ‘I’s so wicked!’ ”

In very much this way Topsy’s training proceeded for a year or two—Miss Ophelia worrying herself from day to day with her, as a kind of chronic plague, to whose inflictions she became in time as accustomed as persons sometimes do to the neuralgia or sick head-ache.

St. Clare took the same kind of amusement in the child that a man might in the tricks of a parrot or a pointer. Topsy, whenever her sins brought her into disgrace in other quarters, always took refuge behind his chair, and St. Clare, in one way or other, would make peace for her. From him she got many a stray picayune, which she laid out in nuts and candies, and distributed with careless generosity to all the children in the family; for Topsy, to do her justice, was good-natured and liberal, and only spiteful in self-defence. She is fairly introduced into our corps de ballet, and will figure from time to time in her turn with other performers.

[to be continued.]

 

Notes

This Stowe Center edition reproduces the National Era serial text of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The wording of the newspaper in many cases differs from publisher John P. Jewett’s first edition. At the conclusion of each installment, notes are provided on a small selection of textual variants, those which have the greatest interpretive significance. The model for these notes is editor John Bryant’s concept of fluid-text editing, which foregrounds the interpretation of textual variants as an act of critical reading. Readers who hold alternate interpretations are encouraged to submit comments to the blog. For general comments on the text and the bibliography, see the Note on the Text.

Note 1

Chapter XIX.Topsy. | Era pg. 177
CHAPTER XX.topsy. | Jewett (1852) vol. 2, pg. 32

In the Era text, the chapter “Topsy” in the 6 November installment is numbered XIX. The chapter numbering sequence reflects the continuation of a previous error, but the error is unlikely to have been noticed by serial readers. In the Jewett edition, the “Topsy” chapter is numbered XX. The serial form’s chapter numbering error began with “Chapter XVIII.—Continued,” which appeared on 23 October. That chapter should have been named “Chapter XIX.—Continued,” but the serial compositor did not notice that “Chapter XIX.—St. Clare’s History and Opinions” had begun during the middle of the 16 October installment. The editor Gamaliel Bailey did not notice, and he promised the forthcoming chapter 19 in his October 30 editorial notice. If you as a reader can recall chapters by number that you were reading three weeks ago, you may notice the error. If your recall is not so exact, you like most of Stowe’s original serial audience would not have realized that this chapter is mis-numbered until and unless you noticed the discepancy by comparing it to the Jewett edition that would appear in March.

No further instances of textual variation are marked in this 6 November serial installment. An edition of this chapter has been submitted for publication during winter 2012 in the journal Scholarly Editing, the online journal for the Association for Documentary Editing. That project will present a full apparatus for this chapter in four publication forms—Era serial, the three Jewett editions (2 vols. [1852]; paperback [1852/1853]; and illustrated [1853]), and the Houghton Osgood New Edition (1879). Editorial notes for this installment would necessarily draw from that project, which is currently scheduled for peer review, the method that scholars present their work to other scholars for evaluation. I decline to present an abbreviated treatment here in prepublication form. If a general reader has developed an interest in textual variation, I apologize for the intrusion of scholarly protocols into the Stowe Center’s genial blog publication format. The analysis of textual variation will resume in the following installment.

Readers who wish to pursue their own investigation of variants in this or any other chapter of Stowe’s novel can find the transcribed text that is the basis for this Stowe Center edition of the National Era on Stephen Railton’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture site. Reasonably reliable texts of John P. Jewett’s two-volume edition have been published on that site as well as in the University of Virginia’s Early American Fiction collection and the University of Indiana’s Wright American Fiction, 1851-1875. Scholarly text collation software can be intimidating, but the project NINES has prepared a user-friendly tool called JUXTA. That software permits immediate recognition of variants in plain (ASCII or Unicode) or XML-encoded texts without requiring the user to rigorously prepare the text according to a standard encoding method. [Back]

Copyright 2011. For introduction and annotation, all rights reserved. The text is distributed under a Creative Commons License. Creative Commons License Uncle Tom’s Cabin: National Era by Harriet Beecher Stowe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at Copyright Commons License.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents


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