“Oh, that ain’t a supposable case,” said Epps, still laughing; “hope you don’t compare me to a nigger, Bass.”
“Well,” Bass answered gravely, “no, not exactly. But I have seen niggers before now as good as I am, and I have no acquaintance with any white man in these parts that I consider a whit better than myself. Now, in the sight of God, what is the difference, Epps, between a white man and a black one?”
“All the difference in the world,” replied Epps. “You might as well ask what the difference is between a white man and a baboon. Now, I’ve seen one of them critters in Orleans that knowed just as much as any nigger I’ve got. You’d call them feller citizens, I s’pose?”—and Epps indulged in a loud laugh at his own wit.
“Look here, Epps,” continued his companion; “you can’t laugh me down in that way. Some men are witty, and some ain’t so witty as they think they are. Now let me ask you a question. Are all men created free and equal as the Declaration of Independence holds they are?”
“Yes,” responded Epps, “but all men, niggers, and monkeys ain’t;” and hereupon he broke forth into a more boisterous laugh than before.
“There are monkeys among white people as well as black, when you come to that,” coolly remarked Bass. “I know some white men that use arguments no sensible monkey would. But let that pass. These niggers are human beings. If they don’t know as much as their masters, whose fault is it? They are not allowed to know anything. You have books and papers, and can go where you please, and gather intelligence in a thousand ways. But your slaves have no privileges. You’d whip one of them if caught reading a book. They are held in bondage, generation after generation, deprived of mental improvement, and who can expect them to possess much knowledge? If they are not brought down to a level with the brute creation, you slaveholders will never be blamed for it. If they are baboons, or stand no higher in the scale of intelligence than such animals, you and men like you will have to answer for it. There’s a sin, a fearful sin, resting on this nation, that will not go unpunished forever. There will be a reckoning yet—yes, Epps, there’s a day coming that will burn as an oven. It may be sooner or it may be later, but it’s a coming as sure as the Lord is just.”
“If you lived up among the Yankees in New-England,” said Epps, “I expect you’d be one of them cursed fanatics that know more than the constitution, and go about peddling clocks and coaxing niggers to run away.”
“If I was in New-England,” returned Bass, “I would be just what I am here. I would say that Slavery was an iniquity, and ought to be abolished. I would say there was no reason nor justice in the law, or the constitution that allows one man to hold another man in bondage. It would be hard for you to lose your property, to be sure, but it wouldn’t be half as hard as it would be to lose your liberty. You have no more right to your freedom, in exact justice, than Uncle Abram yonder. Talk about black skin, and black blood; why, how many slaves are there on this bayou as white as either of us? And what difference is there in the color of the soul? Pshaw! the whole system is as absurd as it is cruel. You may own niggers and behanged, but I wouldn’t own one for the best plantation in Louisiana.”
“You like to hear yourself talk, Bass, better than any man I know of. You would argue that black was white, or white black, if any body would contradict you. Nothing suits you in this world, and I don’t believe you will be satisfied with the next, if you should have your choice in them.”
Conversations substantially like the foregoing were not unusual between the two after this; Epps drawing him out more for the purpose of creating a laugh at his expense, than with a view of fairly discussing the merits of the question. He looked upon Bass, as a man ready to say anything merely for the pleasure of hearing his own voice; as somewhat self-conceited, perhaps, contending against his faith and judgment, in order, simply, to exhibit his dexterity in argumentation.
He remained at Epps, through the summer, visiting Marksville generally once a fortnight. The more I saw of him, the more I became convinced he was a man in whom I could confide. Nevertheless, my previous ill-fortune had taught me to be extremely cautious. It was not my place to speak to a white man except when spoken to, but I omitted no opportunity of throwing myself in his way, and endeavored constantly in every possible manner to attract his attention. In the early part of August he and myself were at work alone in the house, the other carpenters having left, and Epps being absent in the field. Now was the time, if ever, to broach the subject and I resolved to do it, and submit to whatever consequences might ensue. We were busily at work in the afternoon, when I stopped suddenly and said—
“Master Bass, I want to ask you what part of the country you came from?”
“Why, Platt, what put that into your head?” he answered. “You wouldn’t know if I should tell you.” After a moment or two he added—”I was born in Canada; now guess where that is.”
“Oh, I know where Canada is,” said I, “I have been there myself.”
“Yes, I expect you are well acquainted all through that country”, he remarked, laughing incredulously.
“As sure as I live, Master Bass,” I replied, “I have been there. I have been in Montreal and Kingston, and Queenston, and a great many places in Canada, and I have been in York State, too—in Buffalo, and Rochester, and Albany, and can tell you the names of the villages on the Erie canal and the Champlain canal.”
Bass turned round and gazed at me a long time without uttering a syllable.
“How came you here?” he inquired, at length, “Master Bass,” I answered, “if justice had been done, I never would have been here.”
“Well, how’s this?” said he. “Who are you? You have been in Canada sure enough; I know all the places you mention. How did you happen to get here? Come, tell me all about it.”
“I have no friends here,” was my reply, “that I can put confidence in. I am afraid to tell you, though I don’t believe you would tell Master Epps if I should.”
He assured me earnestly he would keep every word I might speak to him a profound secret, and his curiosity was evidently strongly excited. It was a long story, I informed him, and would take some time to relate it. Master Epps would be back soon, but if he would see me that night after all were asleep, I would repeat it to him. He consented readily to the arrangement, and directed me to come into the building where we were then at work, and I would find him there. About midnight, when all was still and quiet, I crept cautiously from my cabin, and silently entering the unfinished building, found him awaiting me.
After further assurances on his part that I should not be betrayed, I began a relation of the history of my life and misfortunes. He was deeply interested asking numerous questions in reference to localities and events. Having ended my story I besought him to write to some of my friends at the North, acquainting them with my situation, and begging them to forward free papers, or take such steps as they might consider proper to secure my release. He promised to do so, but dwelt upon the danger of such an act in case of detection, and now impressed upon me the great necessity of strict silence and secresy. Before we parted our plan of operation was arranged.
We agreed to meet the next night at a specified place among the high weeds on the bank of the bayou, some distance from master’s dwelling. There he was write down on paper the names and address of several persons, old friends in the North, to whom he would direct letters during his next visit to Marksville. It was not deemed prudent to meet in the new house, inasmuch as the light it would be necessary to use might possibly be discovered. In the course of the day I managed to obtain a few matches and a piece of candle, unperceived, from the kitchen, during a temporary absence of Aunt Phebe. Bass had pencil and paper in his tool chest.