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The Confessions of Nat Turner Part 19

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All day after that we swept north through the countryside.

Despite certain unforeseen halts and delays, our advance was everywhere successful. The Porter place, Nathaniel Francis's, Barrow's, Edwards's, Harris's, Doyle's-each was overrun, and each was the scene of ruthless extermination.We missed laying hold of Nathaniel Francis himself (much later I learned from Hark that he had been away at the time in Suss.e.x County), and so it was one of the lesser ironies of our mission-and a source of bitter disappointment to both Sam and Will-that almost the only white man in the county who owned a truly ill.u.s.trious reputation for cruelty to Negroes escaped the blade of our retribution. His ending would have had a quality all its own. Such are the fortunes of war. By early afternoon I had regained my stability and composure; my strength came back, I felt immeasurably better and took heart and vigor from our rapid gains. Under the influence of Nelson-but also because of my actions at the Whitehead place-Will had become somewhat more subdued, and I felt that finally he was under a semblance of control. By late afternoon there was no one who was white left alive along the twenty miles we had traveled.

Even so, our work of death was not absolutely exhaustive, not complete, and I am far from sure that this was not the ruination of my mission, since it took but a single soul to raise the alarm.

And I must admit to a failing on my own part which may have caused more than anything else the fact of the resistance we began to encounter the following day and which slowed us to a fatal pace. For as I told Gray, late that afternoon just before twilight at the Harris farm we had seen a young white girl of fourteen or so flee to the woods, screaming her terror as she 330.

rushed into the haven of a grove of juniper trees. And Gray himself had established that it was this girl who had managed to reach the Williams place near dark, allowing that fortunate man to hide his family and his slaves and to ride off north, spreading the alarm. In turn it had been that alarm which may or may not (I cannot be certain) have given the enemy their ultimate advantage and tipped the balance against us. What I failed to confide to Gray is that it had not been "us" who had seen her but I alone, rocking weary in the saddle as dusk descended and my men killed and ransacked and looted the Harris house. I heard her faint frantic cry, saw a flicker of color as she vanished into the darkening thicket of trees.

I might have reached her in a twinkling-the work of half a minute-but I suddenly felt dispirited and overcome by fatigue, and was pursued by an obscure, unshakable grief. I shivered in the knowledge of the futility of all ambition. My mouth was sour with the yellow recollection of death and blood-smeared fields and walls. I watched the girl slip away, vanish without a hand laid upon her. Who knows but whether we were not doomed to lose. I know nothing any longer. Nothing. Did I really wish to vouchsafe a life for the one that I had taken?

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331.

Part IV

"It Is Done ..."

Surely I Come Quickly . . . . . .

Cloudless sunlight suggesting neither hour nor season glows down upon me, wraps me with a cradle's warmth as I drift toward the river's estuary; the little boat rocks gently in our benign descent together toward the sea. On the unpeopled banks the woods are silent, silent as snowfall. No birds call; in windless att.i.tudes of meditation the crowd of green trees along the river sh.o.r.e stands drooping and still. This low country seems untouched by humanity, by past or future time. Beneath me where I recline I feel the boat's sluggish windward drift, glimpse rushing past eddies of foam, branches, leaves, clumps of gra.s.s all borne on the serene unhurried flood to the place where the river meets the sea. Faintly now I hear the oceanic roar, mark the sweep of sunlit water far-near, glinting with whitecaps, the ragged shoulder of a beach where sea and river join in a tumultuous embrace of swirling waters. But nothing disturbs me, I drowse in the arms of a steadfast and illimitable peace. Salt stings my nostrils. The breakers roll to sh.o.r.e, the lordly tide swells back beneath a cobalt sky arching eastward toward Africa. An unhurried booming fills me not with fear but only with repose and slumbrous antic.i.p.ation-serenity as ageless as those rocks, in garlands of weeping seaweed, thrown up by the groaning waves.

Now as I approach the edge of land I look up for one last time to study the white building standing on its promontory high above the sh.o.r.e. Again I cannot tell what it is or what it means. Stark white, glittering, pure as alabaster, it rests on the precipice unravaged by weather or wind, neither temple nor monument nor sarcophagus but relic of the ages-of all past and all futurity-white inscrutable paradigm of a mystery beyond 332.

utterance or even wonder. The sun bathes its tranquil marble sides, its doorless facade, the arches that sweep around it, revealing no entry anywhere, no window; inside, it would be as dark as the darkest tomb. Yet I cannot dwell on that place too long, for again as always I know that to try to explore the mystery would be only to throw open portals on even deeper mysteries, on and on everlastingly, into the remotest corridors of thought and time. So I turn away. I cast my eyes toward the ocean once more, watch the blue waves and glitter of spume-borne light approaching, listen to the breaking surf move near as I pa.s.s, slowly, in contemplation of a great mystery, out toward the sea . .

I come awake with a start, feeling the cedar plank cold beneath my back, the leg irons colder still-like encircling bands of ice. It is full dark, I can see nothing. I rise up on my elbows, letting the dream dwindle away from my mind, fade out-this one last time, and forever-from recollection. The chains at my feet c.h.i.n.k in the morning's black silence. It is bitterly cold but the wind has died and I no longer shiver so; I draw the remnant of my ragged shirt close around my chest. Then I tap with my knuckles against the wall separating me from Hark. He sleeps deeply, his breath a jagged sigh as it rattles through his wound. Tap-tap. Silence.

Tap-tap again, louder. Hark awakes. "Dat you, Nat?"

"It's me," I reply, "we go soon."

He is quiet for a moment. Then he says, yawning: "I knows it.

Lawd, I wish dey would git on wid it. What time it is you reckon, Nat?"

"I don't know," I say, "they must be a couple hours more."

I hear the heavy thump of his feet and the sound of his chain-links clinking together, then the noise of a bucket sc.r.a.ping across the floor. Hark chuckles faintly. "Lawd me, Nat," he says.

"Wisht I could move about. Hit hard enough to pee lyin' down in de daytime, at night I cain't hit dat bucket in no way." I hear a noisy spatter and splash and Hark's laughter again, low in his throat, rich, amused at himself. "Ain't nothin' mo' useless dan a twofifty-pound n.i.g.g.e.r dat cain't hardly move. Did you know, Nat, dey gwine hang me all roped up in a chair? Leastwise, dat's what dat man Gray done said. Dat sho' is some way to go."

I make no reply, the sound of flowing water ceases, and Hark's voice too falls still. Somewhere far off in the town a dog howls on 333.

and on without lull or respite, a continuous harsh lonely cry from the bowels of the dark morning, touching me with dread. Lord, I whisper to myself in anguish, Lord? And I clench my eyelids together in a sudden spasm, hoping to find some vision, some word or sign in the profounder darkness of my own mind, but there is still no answer. I will go without Him, I think, I will go without Him because He has abandoned me without any last sign at all. Was what I done wrong in His sight? And if what I done was wrong is there no redemption?

"Dat G.o.d durned dog," I hear Hark say. "Lissen at him, Nat. Dat sho de sign of somepn, awright. Lawd, dat dog done barked right on th'ough my dreams jes' now. Dreamed I was back home at Barnett's long long time ago when I was jes' a little ole thing 'bout knee-high to a duck. An' me an' my sister Jamie was gwine fishin' together down in de swamp. And we was walkin' along underneath dem wild cherry trees, jes' as happy as we could be, talkin' about all dem fish we was gwine catch. On'y dey dis yere dog a-barkin' at us an followin' us th'ough the woods. An' Jamie she done kep' sayin', 'Hark, how come dat dog make all dat holler?' An' I say back to Jamie, 'Don' bothah 'bout no dog, don'

pay dat ole dog no nem'mine.' Den you done knock on de wall, Nat, and now here dat same dog a-barkin' way off in de road, and here I is, an' dis mornin' dey gwine hang me."

Then behold I come quickly . . .

I drowse off dreamless for a time, then I wake abruptly to see that morning approaches with the faintest tinge of pale frosty light, stealing through the barred window and touching the cedar walls with a glow barely visible, like ashes strewn upon a dying fire. Way off in the lowlands across the river, somewhere among the fields and frosty meadows, I hear the sad old blast of a horn as it rouses up the Negroes for work. Nearer there is a tinkle and a rustle, barely heard; the town stirs. A single horse pa.s.ses cloppetyclop over the wooden bridge, and far away in the distance a c.o.c.k crows, then another, and they cease suddenly; for a moment all is still and sleeping. Hark again slumbers, the air whistles from his wounded chest. I rise and make my way to the end of the chain, shuffling in a sideways motion toward the window. Then I lean forward against the freezing sill, and stand motionless in the still-encompa.s.sing dark. Against the rim of the heavens, high above the river and the towering wall of cypress and pine, dawn begins to rise in light of the softest blue. I raise my eyes upward. There alone amidst the blue, steadfast, 334.

unmoving, fiery marvel of brightness, shines the morning star.

Never has that star seemed so radiant, and I stand gazing at it and do not move though the chill of the damp floor imprisons my feet in piercing icebound pain.

Surely I come quickly . . .

I wait for minutes at the window, looking out at the new day which is still dark. Behind me I hear a noise in the tiny corridor, hear Kitchen's keys jangling, and see against the walls a lantern's ruddy orange glow. Footsteps sc.r.a.pe on the floor with a gritty sound. I turn about slowly and find that it is Gray. But this time he does not enter the cell, merely stands outside the door as he peers in, then beckons me with his finger. With clumsy trouble I move across the floor, chain dragging between my feet.

In the lantern light I see that he is clasping something in his hand; when I draw closer to the door I can tell that it is a Bible.

For once Gray seems quiet, subdued.

"I brung you what you asked for, Reverend," he says in a soft voice. So composed does he seem, so tranquil, so gentle are his tones, that I almost take him for another man. "I done it against the will of the court. It's my doing, my risk. But you've been pretty fair and square with me, all in all. You can have this solace if you want it."

He hands the Bible to me through the bars of the door. For a long moment we gaze at each other in the flickering light and I have a strange sensation which pa.s.ses almost as quickly as it comes, that never have I seen this man in my life. I say nothing to him in answer. At last he reaches through the bars and grasps my hand; as he does so I know by some strange and tentative feeling in his hasty grip that this is the first black hand he has ever shaken, no doubt the last.

"Good-bye, Reverend," he says.

"Good-bye, Mr. Gray," I reply.

Then he is gone, the lantern flame fades and dies out, and the cell again is filled with darkness. I turn and place the Bible down gently on the cedar plank. I know that I would not open it now even if I had the light to read it by. Yet its presence warms the cell and for the first time since I have been in jail, for the first time since I gazed into his irksome face, I feel a wrench of pity for Gray and for his mortal years to come. Again I move to the 335.

window, inhaling deeply the wintry morning air. It tastes of smoke, of burning apple wood, and I am flooded with swift shifting memories, too sweet to bear, of all distant childhood, of old time past. I lean against the sill of the window, and gaze up at the morning star. Surely I come quickly . . .

Then behold I come quickly . . .

And as I think of her, the desire swells within me and I am stirred by a longing so great that like those memories of time past and long-ago voices, flowing waters, rushing winds, it seems more than my heart can abide. Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of G.o.d; and everyone that loveth is born of G.o.d, and knoweth G.o.d. Her voice is close, familiar, real, and for an instant I mistake the wind against my ear, a gentle gust, for her breath, and I turn to seek her in the darkness. And now beyond my fear, beyond my dread and emptiness, I feel the warmth flow into my loins and my legs tingle with desire. I tremble and I search for her face in my mind, seek her young body, yearning for her suddenly with a rage that racks me with a craving beyond pain; with tender stroking motions I pour out my love within her; pulsing flood; she arches against me, cries out, and the twain-black and white-are one. I faint slowly. My head falls toward the window, my breath comes hard. I recall a meadow, June, the voice a whisper: Is it not true, Nat? Did He not say, I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star?

Surely I come quickly . . .

Footsteps outside the door jar me from my reverie, I hear white men's voices. Again a lantern casts a bloom of light through the cell, but the half-dozen men go past with thumping boots and stop at Hark's door. I hear jingling keys and a bolt slides back with a thud. I turn and see the outline of two men pushing the chair past my door. Its legs b.u.mp and clatter on the plank floor, there is a heavy jolt as its arms strike against the doorjamb of Hark's cell. "Raise up," I hear one of the men say to Hark. "Raise yore a.s.s up, we got to rope you in." There is silence, then a creaking sound. I hear Hark begin to moan in pain. "Easy dar!"

he cries out, gasping. "Easy!"

"Move his legs," I hear one of the white men order another.

"Grab him by the arms," says someone else.

336.

Hark's voice becomes a wail of hurt and wild distress. The sound of b.u.mping and shoving fills the air.

"Easy!" Hark cries out, sobbing.

"Push him down!" says a voice.

I find myself hammering at the walls. "Don't hurt him!" I rage.

"Don't hurt him, you white sons of b.i.t.c.hes! You've done hurt him enough! All his life! Now G.o.d d.a.m.n you don't hurt him no more!"

Silence descends as the men cease talking. In a long drawn-out breath Hark's wail dies away. Now I hear a hurried sound of snapping ropes as they tie him into the chair. Then the white men whisper and grunt while they strain beneath the weight of their burden and lift Hark out into the hallway. Shadows leap up and quiver in the lantern's bra.s.sy radiance. The white men shuffle in furious labor, gasping with the effort. Hark's bound and seated shape, like the silhouette of some marvelous black potentate borne in stately procession toward his throne, pa.s.ses slowly by my door. I reach out as if to touch him, feel nothing, clutch only a handful of air.

"Dis yere some way to go," I hear Hark say. "Good-bye, ole Nat!"

he calls.

"Good-bye, Hark," I whisper, "good-bye, good-bye."

"Hit gwine be all right, Nat," he cries out to me, the voice fading.

"Ev'ythin' gwine be all right! Dis yere ain't nothin', Nat, nothin'

atall! Good-bye, ole Nat, good-bye!"

Good-bye, Hark, good-bye.

The edge of dawn pales, brightens; stars wink away like dying sparks as the night fades and dusty sunrise begins to streak the far sky. Yet steadfast the morning star rides in the heavens radiant and pure, set like crystal amid the still waters of eternity.

Morning blooms softly upon the rutted streets of Jerusalem; the howling dog and the crowing roosters at last are silent.

Somewhere behind me in the jail I hear a murmuration of voices; I sense a presence at my back, I feel the approach of gigantic, unrelenting footfalls. I turn and retrieve the Bible from the cedar plank and for one last time take my station by the window, breathing deeply in the apple-sweet air. My breath is smoke, I shudder in the cold newborn beauty of the world. The footsteps 337.

draw near, suddenly cease. There is a rattle of bolts and keys. A voice says: "Nat!" And when I do not answer, the same voice calls out: "Come!"

We'll love one another, she seems to be entreating me, very close now, we'll love one another by the light of heaven above. I feel the nearness of flowing waters, tumultuous waves, rushing winds. The voice calls again: "Come!"

Yes, I think just before I turn to greet him, I would have done it all again. I would have destroyed them all. Yet I would have spared one. I would have spared her that showed me Him whose presence I had not fathomed or maybe never even known. Great G.o.d, how early it is! Until now I had almost forgotten His name.

"Come!" the voice booms, but commanding me now: Come, My son! I turn in surrender.

Surely I come quickly. Amen.

Even so, come, Lord Jesus.

Oh how bright and fair the morning star . . .

The bodies of those executed, with one exception, were buried in a decent and becoming manner. That of Nat Turner was delivered to the doctors, who skinned it and made grease of the flesh. Mr. R. S. Barham's father owned a money purse made of his hide. His skeleton was for many years in the possession of Dr. Ma.s.senberg, but has since been misplaced.

-Drewry, The Southampton Insurrection The Southampton Insurrection And he said unto me, It is done.

I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I of life freely. He that overcometh shall inherit all things; and I will be his G.o.d and he shall be my son. will be his G.o.d and he shall be my son.

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The Confessions of Nat Turner Part 19 summary

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