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The Confessions of Nat Turner Part 17

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Could it be, too, that I felt her relax, go the faintest bit limp, as she slumped against me? This I would never know, for swiftly we were apart; a cloud pa.s.sed over the day, bringing shadows and a breeze which teased the loosened, wanton edges of her hair.

The flicker of an instant then, no more, but she was frozen in an att.i.tude of stiff, still death. As the wind rose there was a clatter in the trees like the noise of cataclysmic strife, and I was suddenly-without reason-inconsolable with an emptiness such as I have never known.

Then she trembled as if with a chill, saying gently, "We'd better hurry back, Nat." And I, walking beside her now, replied, "Yes, missy," and this was the last time-but for one-that I ever looked into her face.

We were ready. I knew that the exodus of many of the Baptists of the county to their camp meeting down in Carolina would commence on Thursday the eighteenth of August, and they would not return until the following Wednesday. And so for close on to a week Southampton would be deprived of a large portion of its white population, and the armed enemy would be considerably fewer both in Jerusalem and the outlying countryside. I hit upon Sunday night as the time to begin my a.s.sault, largely on the advice of Nelson, who pointed out with his usual shrewdness that Sunday nights were habitually the nights when Negroes went hunting for c.o.o.n or possum, at least during 297.

the leisurely month of August; those evenings always resounded until dawn with a great commotion in the woods-hoots and shouts and the yapping of dogs-and so our own disturbance would be less likely to attract notice. Furthermore, it would be simply easier to a.s.semble on Sunday, normally the Negroes'

free day. Seizing an early advantage by slaying all at Travis's, equipping ourselves with his several guns and two horses, we should then be able to proceed along the lower loop of the great "S" I had laid out on the map and (after invading the properties in between and slaughtering all therein) arrive sometime the next day at the middle of the "S" and thus at what I had long since termed my "early objective"-Mrs. Whitehead's home with its rich store of horses, guns, and ammunition. I would have by then a goodly body of troops. Including the Negroes I had "spotted" at the intervening houses (plus two of Miss Caty's boys, Tom and Andrew; them I had easily recruited during my final stay), I calculated that upon leaving Mrs. Whitehead's our force should number more than a score, apart from another four or five whom out of instinct I had not trusted enough to take into my earliest confidence but who I expected would join us when we appeared.

Provided that we took the most extreme care to prevent anyone from escaping and raising an alarm, we should be able to sweep the rest of the country and arrive, triumphant, in Jerusalem by noon of the second day, our force swollen into the many hundreds.

Late that Sunday morning my four inmost followers gathered themselves for a final barbecue in the dense woodland ravine beyond my sanctuary. At the last moment, the night before, I had sent Hark up the road to the Reese farm with instructions for him to tell one of the Reese Negroes, Jack, to join the barbecue and so become a member of our initial striking force. I had felt the need for a strong arm to augment our first blow, and Jack fitted the requisite details-weighing well over two hundred pounds and by luck boiling at a high pitch of resentment and wrath: only one week before, Jack's woman, a b.u.t.ter-skinned, almond-eyed beauty, had been sold to a Tennessee trader scrounging quite openly he allowed to planter Reese (and within Jack's hearing), "for likely-looking p.u.s.s.y for gov'mental gentlemen in Nashville."

Jack would go with me to the far ends of the earth; certainly he would make quick work of Reese.

All morning and most of the afternoon I withdrew from my followers, remaining near my sanctuary, where I read from my Bible and prayed for the Lord's favor in battle. The weather had 298.

become sultry and close, and as I prayed a single locust shrilled somewhere amid the trees, playing like an incessant tormented fiddle-string on my eardrums. After my long prayers I set fire to my tabernacle and stood aside from the clearing as the pine logs which had for so many years sheltered me went up in blue smoke and a roaring and crackling of flames. Then when the ashes had cooled I knelt amid the ruin and made a final prayer, beseeching G.o.d for his protection in the coming struggle: The The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?

It was just after I had risen from my knees that I heard a rustling in the underbrush behind me and turned to see the demented, murderous, hate-ravaged, mashed-in face of Will. He said nothing, merely looked at me with his bulging eyes and scratched at his naked black scarred belly below which a pair of gray jeans hung in tatters. I was seized by reasonless fear.

"What you doin' here, boy?" I blurted.

"I seed de smoke. Den I done seed dem n.i.g.g.e.rs down dere in de gully," Will replied coolly. "Dey done gib me some barbecue. I heered dem talkin' 'bout startin' a ruction an' killin' de white folks.

When I ax Sam an' Nelson if'n I could jine up dey tol' me to ax you."

"Where you been all these yere weeks?" I asked. "Nat Francis see you an' he'll shoot you dead."

"Don' s.h.i.t me s.h.i.t me 'bout no Nat Francis," Will retorted. "I shoot 'bout no Nat Francis," Will retorted. "I shoot him him now!" now!"

"Where you been?" I repeated.

"Aroun'," he replied. "All aroun'." He shrugged. His eyes caught the light in disks of malign fire, and I felt anew the old dread his presence always caused me, as if I had been suddenly trapped like a fly in the hatred he bore toward all mankind, all creation.

His woolly head was filled with c.o.c.kleburs. A scar glistened on his black cheek, shiny as an eel cast up on a mud bank. I felt that if I reached out I could almost touch with my fingertips the madness stirring within him, feel a s.h.a.ggy brute heaving beneath a carapace of scarred black skin. I turned away.

"You git on out of here," I said. "We don' need no more men."

Abruptly, in a single bound from the underbrush, he was at my 299.

side. He brandished a k.n.o.bbed fist beneath my chin. "Don' s.h.i.t s.h.i.t me, preacher man!" he said. His voice was the hiss of a cornered cat. "You try an' s.h.i.t me, preacher man, an' you in me, preacher man!" he said. His voice was the hiss of a cornered cat. "You try an' s.h.i.t me, preacher man, an' you in bad bad trouble. I isn't run in de woods all dis yere time fo' nothin'. I'se tired of huckaberries. I gwine git me some meat now- trouble. I isn't run in de woods all dis yere time fo' nothin'. I'se tired of huckaberries. I gwine git me some meat now- white white meat. I gwine git me some dat white c.u.n.t too." For weeks he had hidden in the woods, grubbing for berries and nuts and earthworms-even carrion-stealing an occasional chicken in between times of pursuit by white men and dogs; he had lived like an animal and now, streaked with mud, stinking, fangs bared beneath a nose stepped upon and bent like a flattened spoon, it seemed to me that he meat. I gwine git me some dat white c.u.n.t too." For weeks he had hidden in the woods, grubbing for berries and nuts and earthworms-even carrion-stealing an occasional chicken in between times of pursuit by white men and dogs; he had lived like an animal and now, streaked with mud, stinking, fangs bared beneath a nose stepped upon and bent like a flattened spoon, it seemed to me that he was was an animal-a wicked little weasel or maddened fox-and the blood ran chill in my veins. I felt that he might at any moment leap for my throat. "You s.h.i.t me, preacher man," he said hoa.r.s.ely, "an' I fix yo' preacher a.s.s! I knock you to yo f.u.c.kin' black knees! I isn't gwine hang out in de swamp no mo' eatin' huckaberries. I gwine git me some an animal-a wicked little weasel or maddened fox-and the blood ran chill in my veins. I felt that he might at any moment leap for my throat. "You s.h.i.t me, preacher man," he said hoa.r.s.ely, "an' I fix yo' preacher a.s.s! I knock you to yo f.u.c.kin' black knees! I isn't gwine hang out in de swamp no mo' eatin' huckaberries. I gwine git me some meat meat. I gwine git me some blood blood. So, preacher man, you better figger dat Will done jined de ruction! You maybe is some fancy talker but you isn't gwine talk Will out'n dat!"

( After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a beast dreadful After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a beast dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; it devoured and brake in and terrible, and strong exceedingly; it devoured and brake in pieces pieces . . . ) . . . ) Even as he spoke I knew that I was on the verge of capitulating to him, backing down. I was, to be sure, fearful of him, afraid that I could not control him or bend him to my will; and it was this instinctive mistrust that had caused me months before to eliminate him from my plans. At the same time, it was clear now that if I could channel his brutal fury and somehow keep him in check he would make a potent addition to our striking force. All the privation in the woods had not weakened him but rather had lent to his sinewy body furious zeal and strength; the muscles along his purplish black arms quivered and jumped with murderous power. I saw the vicious scars implanted upon his flanks by Francis's lash and suddenly, though without spirit for the move, I relented.

( Then I would know the truth of this beast, which was diverse Then I would know the truth of this beast, which was diverse from all the others from all the others . . . ) . . . ) "Awright," I said, "you can jine up with us. But let me tell you one thing good, n.i.g.g.e.r. I I is the boss. is the boss. I I runs this show. When I says jump there, you jump right runs this show. When I says jump there, you jump right there there, not in no still or cider press and 300.

not in no haystack, neither. You ain't goin' to spread no white woman's legs, not on this trip you ain't. We got a long way to go and a pile of things to do, and if the n.i.g.g.e.rs start a-humpin' every white piece in sight we ain't goin' to get half a mile up the road. in no haystack, neither. You ain't goin' to spread no white woman's legs, not on this trip you ain't. We got a long way to go and a pile of things to do, and if the n.i.g.g.e.rs start a-humpin' every white piece in sight we ain't goin' to get half a mile up the road.

So brandy and women is out out. Now come on."

In the ravine my followers, together with the new recruit Jack, had finished the last remnants of their barbecue. Pig bones littered the ground around the ashes of a fire, still smoldering.

The five men were reclining amid the cool ferns that rimmed the ravine; they had been talking in soft voices -I heard them as I came down the path with Will-but at my approach they arose and stood silent. Ever since the spring, when I revealed my plans, I had insisted that they pay this deference in my presence, explaining to them patiently that I wished for no obeisance, only absolute obedience; it should not have surprised me, as it did, that they so readilycomplied-endless years of servility had done their abrasive work. Now as they stood waiting among the afternoon shadows I approached them with an upraised hand and said: "The first shall be last."

"An' de last shall be first," they replied, more or less together.

"Report from the First Troop!" I commanded. I used the form of order I had adopted after hearing drills of the mounted militia outside the Jerusalem armory. The First Troop was Henry's responsibility. Because of Henry's deafness I had to repeat the command again, whereupon he stepped forward and said: "First Troop dey all ready. Nathan an' Wilbur bofe is waitin' at de Blunts' place. Davy he waitin' at Mrs. Waters's. Joe he all ready too down at Peter Edwards's. Joe he done got him a bad case of de quinsy, but he put him a hot flannel roun' his th'oat an' he say he 'spect he gwine be all right time we gits dere."

"Report from the Second Troop!" I said.

The Second Troop, a body of six, was Nelson's. "All my n.i.g.g.e.rs is ready an' rarin' to go," he said. "Austin say he could maybe sneak away from de Bryants' dis evenin' an' jine us at Travis's roun' 'bout nightfall. If'n he can, he gwine bring Bryant's horse."

"Good," I said, "more they is at first the better." Then: "Report from the Third Troop!" Just as I gave this command a tremendous belch broke loose from one of my company, followed by another belch, and I turned quickly to see that it had come from Jack. With a brandy bottle clutched against his black 301.

chest he was swaying in a delicate circular motion; his thick lips parted in a self-absorbed grin and he regarded me through eyes misted over with a dreamy film-the gaze oddly studious although utterly blank. In a flood of rage I knocked the brandy bottle from his hand.

"No mo' of that that, n.i.g.g.e.r!" I said. "Applejack is out out, you hear? I catch yo' black mouth at a bottle again and you goin' to get clobbered fo' good. Now git git on back over there in the trees!" on back over there in the trees!"

As Jack sidled away sheepishly, weaving, I called Nelson aside into a small stand of slash pine-a dark place with spongy ground underfoot, swarming with gnats. "Listen!" I said angrily in a low voice. "What's gone wrong with you, Nelson, anyways?

You supposed to be my right arm, an' now look what's done happened already! 'Twas you you been sayin' all along we got to keep the n.i.g.g.e.rs away from the stills and presses! 'Twas been sayin' all along we got to keep the n.i.g.g.e.rs away from the stills and presses! 'Twas you you been warnin' about drinkin', an' now here you let this yere big black clown get p.i.s.sy-eyed drunk right in front of yo' nose! been warnin' about drinkin', an' now here you let this yere big black clown get p.i.s.sy-eyed drunk right in front of yo' nose!

What'm I goin' to do do? If I can't depend on you for a simple thing like that, then we done lost the war before it ever gits goin'!"

"I sorry," he said, licking his lips. His round middle-aged stolid face with its graying stubble and its look of depthless oppression suddenly sagged, became hurt and downcast. "I sorry, Nat," he repeated, "I guess I jes' done forgot 'bout all dat."

"Man, you can't ' low low yo'self to forget," I insisted, boring in hard, yo'self to forget," I insisted, boring in hard, "you my chief lieutenant, you know that, you an' Henry. If y'all can't help me keep these n.i.g.g.e.rs in line, then we might as well run up the white flag right now."

"I sorry," he said again, abjectly.

"Awright," I went on, "forget all that now. Just mind from now on to keep them n.i.g.g.e.rs out'n them stills. Now listen here, one last time. Give me the plan for Travis's so we git it straight with no trouble. Remember, we uses the broadax an' the hatchet. Cold steel. No noise. No shootin' till I give the word. We start shootin'

too soon an' they be on top of us before daybreak."

"You right about dat," he declared. "Anyways-" I listened as he outlined for my satisfaction, one last time, our plan of attack on Travis's house. "-Den you an' Henry goes in to getTravis an'

Miss Sarah, dat right?" he was saying. "Sam goes to git Miss Maria Pope-"

302.

"Only she ain't there," I put in.

"How come?" he said.

"She done gone up to Petersburg on a visit, this very day," I explained with some regret. It was true: the no-account biddy had had supernatural luck.

"Mm- huh huh," Nelson sighed, "too bad 'bout dat. Sam sho would of fixed dat ol' b.i.t.c.h's wagon."

"Anyway, she gone," I said. "Go ahead."

"Well den," he continued, "I 'spect it best dat Sam stay with you, ain't dat right? An' me an' Hark an' Jack goes up to de attic an'

gits Putnam an' dat othah boy. Dis while you takin' keer of Travis. Meanwhiles, Austin he in de barn saddlin' up dem horses. What 'bout Will, Nat? Whar he figgers in?"

"Nem'mine 'bout Will," I replied. "We'll use him as a lookout or somethin'. Nem'mine 'bout Will."

"An' what 'bout dat little baby?" he said. "You done tole me you was gwine tell us what to do 'bout dat business. What?"

I had a sinking sensation deep inside. "Nem'mine 'bout that either," I answered him, "I goin' to git all that straightened out when the time comes. Maybe we jest let that baby alone, I don't know." I was stung with a sudden, inexplicable annoyance.

"Awright," I told him, "go on now and git on back with the men. I'll come down with y'all after dark."

After Nelson had gone back through the trees, leaving me to chew on a piece of pork they had saved for me from their feast, a mood of anxiety began to steal over me, announcing itself with a faint numbness in my extremities, an urgent heartbeat, pain all around the bottom of my stomach. I started to sweat, and I laid the joint of pork aside, uneaten. I had many times prayed to the Lord to spare me this fear, but now it was plain that, unheeding, He was going to allow me to suffer anyway this griping sickness, this clammy apprehension. The waning summer day was humid and still. I could hear nothing except for the gnats' feverish insensate humming around my ears and a m.u.f.fled s.n.a.t.c.h of talk from the Negroes in the ravine. I wondered suddenly if the Lord had also permitted Saul and Gideon and David to endure this fear before their day of warfare: did they too know this demoralizing terror, this tremor in the bones, this whiff of 303.

imminent, hovering death? Did they too taste the mouth go dry at thought of the coming slaughter, sense a shiver of despair fly through their restless flesh as they conjured up images of bloodied heads and limbs, gouged-out eyes, the strangled faces of men they had known, enemy and friend, jaws agape in yawns of eternal slumber? Did Saul and Gideon and David, armed and waiting on the eve of the battle, feel their blood change to water in everlasting fright and then long to sheath their swords and turn their backs upon the strife? For an instant panic seized me. I arose as if to flee headlong through the pines, to find some refuge in the distant woods where I would be hid forever beyond the affairs of G.o.d and men. Cease the war, cease the war Cease the war, cease the war, my heart howled. Run, run Run, run, cried my soul. At that moment my fear was so great that I felt that I was even beyond reach or counsel of the Lord. Then from the ravine I heard Hark's laugh, and my terror subsided. I was trembling like a willow branch. I sat down on the ground and addressed myself to further prayer and contemplation as the shades of evening drew glimmering in . . .

An hour or so after nightfall-at around ten o'clock-I rejoined my men in the ravine. A full moon had risen to the east, something I had antic.i.p.ated for months and was in keeping with my plans. Since I was confident that we would be on the offensive throughout all the first night (and with good fortune the second night too), the moon would favor us rather than the enemy. For added illumination I had torches made of lightwood stakes and rags soaked in a gallon cask of camphene-turpentine mixed with grain alcohol-that Hark had stolen from the wheel shop. These torches would be used indoors and with care on the march, whenever the moonlight failed us. Our initial weapons were few and simple: three broadaxes and two hatchets, all carefully honed on Travis's grindstone. As I made it clear to Nelson, for purposes of stealth and surprise I wished to avoid gunfire at least until the first daylight, when our a.s.sault would have gained a safe momentum.

As for the rest of the weapons-guns and swords-the houses along the way would keep us supplied until we reached Mrs.

Whitehead's and her gun room, a veritable a.r.s.enal. Our enemy had supplied us with all the instruments of his own destruction: now in the ravine Sam lit one torch with a lucifer match from a handful he had stolen from Nathaniel Francis. A ruddy light washed across the grave black faces of the men, flickered out at my command as I raised my hand and p.r.o.nounced a final word of d.a.m.nation upon the enemy: "Let the angel of the Lord chase The Confessions of Nat Turner 304.

them, let them be as chaff before the wind." Then in the moonlight their faces receded into shadow and I said: "All right.

Now. We commence the battle."

In silence and in single file-Nelson leading, I close at his heels-we came out of the woods and into the cotton patch behind Travis's wheel shop. One of the men coughed in the darkness behind me and at that instant two of Travis's cur dogs set up a yapping and howling in the barnyard. I whispered for quiet and we stood stock-still. Then (having foreseen this too) I motioned for Hark to go ahead before us and hush up the dogs: he was on good terms with them and could put them at ease. We waited as Hark stalked across the moonlit field and into the barnyard, waited until the dogs gave a friendly whimper and fell silent. The moon in an opalescent hush came down like dust, like dim daylight, exfoliating from the shop and the barn and sheds elongated shadows-black sharp silhouettes of gable, cornice, roof beam, door.It was hot and still. There was no sound from the woods save for the katydids' high-pitched cheercheer-cheercheer cheercheer-cheercheer and the peeping of crickets among the weeds. In the flat blazing yellow of the moonlight Travis's house slumbered, dark within and still as the halls of death. Nelson suddenly laid a hand on my arm and whispered: " and the peeping of crickets among the weeds. In the flat blazing yellow of the moonlight Travis's house slumbered, dark within and still as the halls of death. Nelson suddenly laid a hand on my arm and whispered: "Look dar."

Then I saw Hark's huge outline detach itself from the shadow of the barn, and still another, angular and tall: this would be Austin, the last member to join my striking force. Twenty-five or so, he had nothing against his present owner, Henry Bryant, who had treated him amiably, but felt nothing for him either and had sworn that he would gladly kill him. He had, however, once gotten into a vicious fight with Sam over a yellow girl in Jerusalem and I only hoped that their enmity would not flare up now again.

I signaled for the other men to follow me and we proceeded in Indian file across the cotton patch, clambered quietly over a stile, and met Hark and Austin in the lee of the wheel shop, out of sight of the house. We were now eight. As I gave my keys to Nelson and whispered instructions to him and Sam, I could hear Travis's hogs grunting sleepily in their pen. Now while Sam and Nelson stole into the shop for a ladder, I told Austin to go to the stable and saddle up Travis's horses, bidding him to work as silently as he could. He was a tall, lanky field hand with a mean black skull-shaped face, agile and quick despite his height, and very powerful. On the way over through the woods from Bryant's his horse had flushed a skunk and he stank to heaven. No sooner had he gone off to the stable than Sam and Nelson 305.

returned with the ladder. I joined them in walking across the yard to the side of the house while the other four moved noiselessly ahead in front of us to their station in the shrubbery around the front porch. The skunk stench lingered, hot in the nostrils. The two cur dogs ambled along with us beneath the ladder; their bony flanks were outlined in sharp moonlit relief, and one dragged a game leg. A faint breeze sprang up and the skunk odor was obliterated. The air was filled with the rank fragrance of mimosa. I caught my breath for an instant, thinking of the time so long ago when I had played with a boy named Wash in a mimosa-sweet glade at Turner's Mill. The brief reverie burst like splintered gla.s.s. I heard the ladder make a faint taptapping taptapping as they set it against the side of the house and quickly I tested it for balance, gripping it tight by a chesthigh rung, then without a word began my climb up the side of the house, past the newly whitewashed clapboard timbers that hurt my eyes in a calcimine lunar glare. Even as I reached the open upper hallway window with its fluttering curtains I heard from the main bedroom a stertorous rasping sound, deep-throated, half-strangled, and recognized it as Travis's snore. (I remembered Miss Sarah's as they set it against the side of the house and quickly I tested it for balance, gripping it tight by a chesthigh rung, then without a word began my climb up the side of the house, past the newly whitewashed clapboard timbers that hurt my eyes in a calcimine lunar glare. Even as I reached the open upper hallway window with its fluttering curtains I heard from the main bedroom a stertorous rasping sound, deep-throated, half-strangled, and recognized it as Travis's snore. (I remembered Miss Sarah's "Land sakes alive, Mister Joe does make a racket but you jus' do learn to live with it after a bit.") I heaved myself silently over the sill into the dark hallway, into the very bosom of the cavernous snoring noise that m.u.f.fled the sound of my feet as they struck the creaking floor. I was all aslime with sweat beneath my shirt, my mouth had the dry bitter taste of a walnut sh.e.l.l. It's not I who's doing this, I thought abruptly, it is someone else. I tried to spit but my tongue sc.r.a.ped at the roof of my mouth as if against plaster or sand. I found the stairs.

Down on the first floor at the foot of the stairs I lit a candle with a lucifer match, meeting as I did the black wonder-struck face of the servant boy Moses, who had been aroused from his tiny cupboard beneath the stairway by the sound of my feet. His eyes rolled white with alarm. He was stark naked. "What you doin', Nat?" he whispered.

"Just never you mind," I whispered in return. "Go back to sleep."

"What time hit?" he whined.

"Hush up," I replied. "Go to bed."

I removed two rifles and a sword from their rack at my elbow and then crossed to the front door, where I unhooked the inside latch and let the others enter, one by one, from the front porch. Will 306.

was last. I put a restraining hand against his chest. "You stay here at the door," I told him, "Be on the lookout if anybody comes. Or tries to get out this way." Then I turned to the others and said in a low voice: "Nelson and Hark and Jack up to the attic and at them two boys. Sam and Henry stay with me." The six of us mounted the stairs.

In the many weeks since that night I have wondered more than once what pa.s.sed through Travis's sleep-drowned senses when with such violence and rude suddenness we flung ourselves into his presence and made clear those designs which even he, a forbearing and lenient master, must have considered a nightmare possibility but long since put away from his thoughts as one puts away all ideas of remote and improbable ruin. For surely in the watches of the night, like all white men, he must from time to time have flopped over with a sick groan, thinking of those docile laughing creatures down at the rim of the woods, wondering in a flash of mad and terrible illumination what might happen if-if if-if like gentle pets turned into rampaging beasts they should take it into their hearts to destroy him, and along with him all his own and dearest and best. like gentle pets turned into rampaging beasts they should take it into their hearts to destroy him, and along with him all his own and dearest and best. If If by some legerdemain those comical simpleheads known for their childish devotion-so affecting along with their cunning faults and failings-but never known for their manhood or their will or their nerve, should overnight become transformed into something else, into implacable a.s.sa.s.sins, let us say, wild dogs, avenging executioners-what then would happen to this poor frail flesh? by some legerdemain those comical simpleheads known for their childish devotion-so affecting along with their cunning faults and failings-but never known for their manhood or their will or their nerve, should overnight become transformed into something else, into implacable a.s.sa.s.sins, let us say, wild dogs, avenging executioners-what then would happen to this poor frail flesh?

Surely at one time or another Travis, like other white men, had been skewered upon such disquieting fancies, and shuddered in his bed. Just as surely his pathetic faith in history had at last erased these frights and apprehensions from his head, allowing him more often sweet composure and pleasant dreams-for was it not true that such a cataclysm had never happened? Was it not fact, known even to the humblest yeoman farmer and white-trash squatter and vagabond, that there was something stupidly inert about these people, something abject and sluggish and emasculate that would forever prevent them from so dangerous, so bold and intrepid a course, as it had kept them in meek submission for two centuries and more? Surely Travis put his trust in the fragile testimony of history, reckoning with other white men that since these people in the long-recorded annals of the land had never risen up, they never would would rise up, and with this faith-rocklike, unswerving as a banker's faith in dollars-he was able to sleep the sleep of the innocent, all anxieties laid to rest. rise up, and with this faith-rocklike, unswerving as a banker's faith in dollars-he was able to sleep the sleep of the innocent, all anxieties laid to rest.

307.

Thus it may have been disbelief alone that governed his still-drowsing mind, and no recollection of past fears, when he shot upright in his bed next to Miss Sarah, cast his eyes at my broadax in a gaze of dull perplexity, and said: "What you all think you're doin' in here?"

The sharp piney odor of camphene stung in my nose. The air was blurred with greasy smoke. By the light of the torch that Henry held aloft I could see that Miss Sarah too had risen up in bed, but the look on her face was not one of puzzlement, like her husband's, but of naked terror. Instantly she began to moan, a castaway whimper low in the lungs, barely audible. But I turned back to Travis now, and in doing so I realized with wonder that this was the first moment in all the years I had been near him that I had ever looked directly into his eyes. I had heard his voice, known his presence like that of close kin; my eyes had a thousand times glanced off his mouth and cheek and chin but not once encountered his own. It was my fault alone, my primal fear but-no matter. Now I saw that beneath the perplexity, the film of sleep, his eyes were brown and rather melancholy, acquainted with hard toil, remote perhaps, somewhat inflexible but not at all unkind, and I felt that I knew him at last-maybe even now not well but far better than one knows another man by a pair of muddy trousers viewed from the level of the ground, or bare arms and hands, or a disembodied voice. It was as if by encountering those eyes I had found the torn and longmissing fragment of a portrait of this far-off abstract being who possessed my body; his face was complete now and I had a final glimpse of who he truly might be. Whatever else he was, he was a man.

All right, man, I thought.

With this knowledge I raised the broadax above my head, and felt the weapon shiver there like a reed in a savage wind. "Thus "Thus art thou slain!" art thou slain!" I cried, and the ax descended with a whisper and missed by half a foot, striking not Travis's skull but the headboard between him and his wife. And at that moment Miss Sarah's soft moan bloomed into a shriek. I cried, and the ax descended with a whisper and missed by half a foot, striking not Travis's skull but the headboard between him and his wife. And at that moment Miss Sarah's soft moan bloomed into a shriek.

In this way I inaugurated my great mission- Ah Lord! Ah Lord! -I who was to strike the first blow. It seemed as if all strength had left me, my limbs were like jelly, and for the life of me I could not pry the blade of the broadax from the imprisoning timber. Murmuring a prayer, I struggled with the haft. Travis in the meantime, with a terrified bellow, had escaped from the bed and in the sudden The Confessions of Nat Turner -I who was to strike the first blow. It seemed as if all strength had left me, my limbs were like jelly, and for the life of me I could not pry the blade of the broadax from the imprisoning timber. Murmuring a prayer, I struggled with the haft. Travis in the meantime, with a terrified bellow, had escaped from the bed and in the sudden 308.

dawning of fright, weaponless and with his exit blocked by three Negroes and the bed itself, had become overmastered by raw panic and was trying to find his way out through the wall. "Sarah!

Sarah!" I heard him wail. But she could not help him. She shrieked like a demented angel. My G.o.d, My G.o.d, I thought, as I worked at the ax handle; in a fog of senseless deliberation I commenced to catalog the miscellany of homely bedroom artifacts that by torchlight swarmed at the rim of my sight: gold pocket watch, blue hair ribbon, pitcher, faded slate-gray looking gla.s.s, comb, Bible, chamber pot, portrait of a grandmother, quill pen, gla.s.s of barley water half full. "s.h.i.t!" I heard Sam say behind me. "s.h.i.t! I thought, as I worked at the ax handle; in a fog of senseless deliberation I commenced to catalog the miscellany of homely bedroom artifacts that by torchlight swarmed at the rim of my sight: gold pocket watch, blue hair ribbon, pitcher, faded slate-gray looking gla.s.s, comb, Bible, chamber pot, portrait of a grandmother, quill pen, gla.s.s of barley water half full. "s.h.i.t!" I heard Sam say behind me. "s.h.i.t!

Kill dat f.u.c.kin' bastid!" With a squeal of sprained timber I yanked the blade from the oak, raised it up, swung again at Travis, still clawing at the wall, and-incredibly, impossibly-missed once more. The outside of the blade glanced lightly from his shoulders and the ax handle itself made a deft little pirouette in my hand, twinkled from my grasp, and slid harmlessly to the floor. Half deafened by Miss Sarah's screams, I reached to retrieve the ax; as I bent down I saw that Travis, regaining charge of his senses, had wheeled about and now stood with his back against the wall and clutched a pewter vase in hand, prepared to defend himself. dat f.u.c.kin' bastid!" With a squeal of sprained timber I yanked the blade from the oak, raised it up, swung again at Travis, still clawing at the wall, and-incredibly, impossibly-missed once more. The outside of the blade glanced lightly from his shoulders and the ax handle itself made a deft little pirouette in my hand, twinkled from my grasp, and slid harmlessly to the floor. Half deafened by Miss Sarah's screams, I reached to retrieve the ax; as I bent down I saw that Travis, regaining charge of his senses, had wheeled about and now stood with his back against the wall and clutched a pewter vase in hand, prepared to defend himself.

His gaunt work-worn face was the hue of his white nightshirt-but at last how brave he was! Ready for anything, he had joined the battle. In his strong woodsman's hands the flimsy vase seemed as lethal as a bludgeon. His head moved from side to side in a wary, dangerous rhythm like that of a bobcat I had once seen cornered by a pack of dogs. "Kill "Kill him!" I heard Sam roar behind me. But him!" I heard Sam roar behind me. But I I was not ready. was not ready.

I had laid my fingers on the haft of the ax again-dismayed at my irresolution and clumsiness, trembling in every bone-when there now took place that unforeseen act which would linger in my mind during whatever remaining days I was granted the power of memory. Just as I saw it happen I knew that it would be part of my being wherever I went, or whatever I was or became through my allotted time, even in the serene pastures of ancient age. For now as if from the outer dark, from nowhere, and with a silence that was a species of mystery in itself, Will hurled his body into the narrow s.p.a.ce between myself and Travis, and his small black shape seemed to grow immense, somehow amorous, enveloping Travis's nightshirted figure in a brief embrace, almost as if he had joined him in a lascivious dance.

There were no words spoken as Will and Travis met thus in the torchlight glare; only Miss Sarah's scream, rising now to an even higher pitch of delirium, informed me of the true nature of this 309.

anxious coupling. So quickly that it took a moment for me to realize that the flash of light I glimpsed was from one of the hatchets, honed to an exquisite edge. I saw Will's arm go skyward,all black resistless sinew, and come down, go up again, and down, up and down once more, then he jumped backward and away, parted company with this companion he had so intimately clasped, and it was at that instant that Travis's head, gushing blood from a matrix of pulpy crimson flesh, rolled from his neck and fell to the floor with a single bounce, then lay still.

The headless body, nightshirted, slid down the wall with a faint hissing sound and collapsed in a pile of skinny shanks, elbows, k.n.o.bby knees. Blood deluged the room in a foaming sacrament.

"Dar now, preacher man!" I heard Will howling at me. "If'n you cain't do it, I heard Will howling at me. "If'n you cain't do it, I I do it! do it! Das Das de way us rock dem white f.u.c.kahs! Shut yo' face, white cun!" he cried to Miss Sarah, then to me: "Does you git her, preacher man, or does I?" de way us rock dem white f.u.c.kahs! Shut yo' face, white cun!" he cried to Miss Sarah, then to me: "Does you git her, preacher man, or does I?"

I had no power of speech-though I tried to move my lips-but it made no difference anyway. Will had just begun, his l.u.s.t was so voracious as to be past all fathoming. Before I could make a sign he had absolved me from the choice. The initiative had become his alone. "Git on aside, preacher man!" he commanded; despite myself I did so, and in a single leap he was across the bed and astride the screaming, squirming fat woman, friendly soul, who had not been able to go to that camp meeting after all. Once again the act was done with prodigious speed and intensity; again in its absolute devotion and urgency it was as if by his embrace this scarred, tortured little black man was consummating at last ten thousand old swollen moments of frantic and unappeasable desire. Between Miss Sarah's thrashing, naked thighs he lay in stiff elongate quest like a lover; his downward-seeking head masked her face and mostly hid it-all but for the tangled tresses of her hair and the pupil of one eye, wildly quivering, which cast me a glint of lunatic blankness even as the hatchet went up again, and down, and chopped off her scream. Then unimaginable blood spewed forth and I heard the inhabiting spirit leave her body; it flew past my ear like a moth. I turned away as the hatchet made a final chunk-chunk chunk-chunk and became still. I thrust aside Henry and Sam (can it really be that I was trying to escape?) and reached the open door. As I gained the threshold I saw the black boy Moses standing with a candle, mouth agape, rigid and transfigured as if in a sleepwalker's dream. Oddly like music, a horn blow, the voice of a Negro cried out upstairs-surely it was Hark-a jubilant sound; The Confessions of Nat Turner and became still. I thrust aside Henry and Sam (can it really be that I was trying to escape?) and reached the open door. As I gained the threshold I saw the black boy Moses standing with a candle, mouth agape, rigid and transfigured as if in a sleepwalker's dream. Oddly like music, a horn blow, the voice of a Negro cried out upstairs-surely it was Hark-a jubilant sound; 310.

there was the rough scuffling of something being dragged, a creaking of attic timbers, and the blanched, hacked, bleeding corpses of Putnam and the Westbrook boy came clumpety-clumping down the steep steps together like huge loose-limbed dolls hurled by an angry child, drenching Moses's bare feet in vermilion. Streams of blood past all comprehension lay across the walls and timbers of the evening, blood like all the billows and deeps of the oceans of the world. "Ah my G.o.d!" "Ah my G.o.d!" I thought, half aloud. I thought, half aloud. "Hast Thou truly called me to this?" "Hast Thou truly called me to this?"

Suddenly Hark plunged with thundering footsteps down the attic stairs, and his eyes glittered in the torchlight, wearing an expression of serene joy. He vaulted the two bodies in a bound.

A servant of servants was Hark no more; he had tasted blood.

The lost and grieving father had become a killer of men.

"Hot d.a.m.n!" I heard him say.

"Let's git out of here!" I called, controlling my voice.

"Let's git movin' on!"

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The Confessions of Nat Turner Part 17 summary

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