I essayed to make some answer, but emotion choked all utterance, and I was silent. The slaves, utterly confounded, stood gazing upon the scene, their open mouths and rolling eyes indicating the utmost wonder and astonishment. For ten years I had dwelt among them, in the field and in the cabin, borne the same hardships, partaken the same fare, mingled my griefs with theirs, participated in the same scanty joys; nevertheless, not until this hour, the last I was to remain among them, had the remotest suspicion of my true name, or the slightest knowledge of my real history been entertained by any one of them.
Not a word was spoken for several minutes, during which time I clung fast to Northup, looking up into his face, fearful I should awake and find it all a dream.
“Throw down that sack,” Northup added, finally; “your cotton-picking days are over. Come with us to the man you live with.”
I obeyed him, and walking between him and the sheriff, we moved towards the great house. It was not until we had proceeded some distance that I had recovered my voice sufficiently to ask if my family were all living. He informed me he had seen Anne, Margaret and Elizabeth but a short time previously; that Alonzo was also living, and all were well. My mother, however, I could never see again. As I began to recover in some measure from the sudden and great excitement which so overwhelmed me, I grew faint and weak, insomuch it was with difficulty I could walk. The sheriff took hold of my arm and assisted me, or I think I should have fallen. As we entered the yard, Epps stood by the gate, conversing with the driver. That young man, faithful to his instructions, was entirely unable to give him the least information in answer to his repeated inquiries of what was going on. By the time we reached him he was almost as much amazed and puzzled as Bob or Uncle Abram.
Shaking hands with the sheriff, and receiving an introduction to Mr. Northup, he invited them into house, ordering me, at the same time, to bring in some wood. It was some time before I succeeded in cutting an armful, having, somehow, unaccountably lost the power of wielding the axe with any manner of precision. When I entered with it at last, the table was strewn with papers, from one of which Northup was reading. I was probably longer than necessity required, in placing the sticks upon the fire, being particular as to the exact position of each individual one of them. I heard the words, “the said Solomon Northup,” and “the deponent further says,” and “free citizen of New-York,” repeated frequently, and from these expressions understood that the secret I had so long retained from Master and Mistress Epps, was finally developing. I lingered as long as prudence permitted, and was about leaving the room, when Epps inquired,
“Platt, do you know this gentleman?”
“Yes, master,” I replied, “I have known him as long as I can remember.”
“Where does he live?”
“He lives in New-York.”
“Did you ever live there?”
“Yes, master—born and bred there.”
“You was free, then. Now you d—d nigger,” he exclaimed, “why did you not tell me that when I bought you?”
“Master Epps,” I answered, in a somewhat different tone than the one in which I had been accustomed to address him “Master Epps, you did not take the trouble to ask me; besides, I told one of my owners— the man that kidnapped me—that I was free, and was whipped almost to death for it.”
“It seems there has been a letter written for you by somebody. Now, who is it?” he demanded, authoritatively. I made no reply.
“I say, who wrote that letter?” he demanded again.
“Perhaps I wrote it myself”, I said.
“You haven’t been to Marksville post-office and back before light, I know.”
He insisted upon my informing him, and I insisted I would not. He made many vehement threats against the man, whoever he might be, and intimated the bloody and savage vengeance he would wreak upon him, when he found him out. his whole manner and language exhibited a feeling of anger towards the unknown person who had written for me, and of fretfulness at the idea of losing so much property. Addressing Mr. Northup he swore if he had only had an hour’s notice of his coming, he would have saved him the trouble of taking me back to New-York; that he would have run me into the swamp, or some other place out of the way, where all the sheriffs on earth couldn’t have found me.
I walked out into the yard, and was entering the kitchen door, when something struck me in the back. Aunt Phebe, emerging from the back door of the great house with a pan of potatoes, had thrown one of them with unnecessary violence, thereby giving me to understand that she wished to speak to me a moment confidentially. Running up to me, she whispered in my ear with great earnestness,
“Lor a’ mity, Platt! what d’ye think? Dem two men come after ye. Heard ’em tell masse you free— got wife and tree children back thar whar you come from. Goin’ wid ’em? Fool if ye don’t—wish I could go,” and Aunt Phebe ran on in this manner at a rapid rate.
Presently Mistress Epps made her appearance in the kitchen. She said many things to me, and wondered why I had not told her who I was. She expressed her regret, complimenting me by saying she had rather lose any other servant on the plantation. Had Patsey that day stood in my place, the measure of my mistress’ joy would have overflowed. Now there was no one left who could mend a chair or a piece of furniture—no one who was of any use about the house—no one who could play for her on the violin —and Mistress Epps was actually affected to tears.
Epps had called to Bob to bring up his saddle horse. The other slaves, also, overcoming their fear of the penalty, had left their work and come to the yard. They were standing behind the cabins, out of sight of Epps. They beckoned me to come to them, and with all the eagerness of curiosity, excited to the highest pitch, conversed with and questioned me. If I could repeat the exact words they uttered, with the same emphasis—if I could paint their several attitudes, and the expression of their countenances—it would be indeed an interesting picture. In their estimation, I had suddenly arisen to an immeasurable height—had become a being of immense importance.
The legal papers having been served, and arrangements made with Epps to meet them the next day at Marksville, Northup and the sheriff entered the carriage to return to the latter place. As I was about mounting to the driver’s seat, the sheriff said I ought to bid Mr. and Mrs. Epps good bye. I ran back to the piazza where they were standing, and taking off my hat, said,
“Good-bye, Platt,” said Mrs. Epps, kindly.
“Ah! you d—d nigger,” muttered Epps, in a surly, malicious tone of voice, “you needn’t feel so cussed tickled—you ain’t gone yet—I’ll see about this business at Marksville to-morrow.”
I was only a “nigger” and knew my place, but felt as strongly as if I had been a white man, that it would have been an inward comfort, had I dared to have given him a parting kick. On my way back toward the carriage, Patsey ran from behind a cabin and threw her arms about my neck.
“Oh! Platt,” she cried, tears streaming down her face, “you’re goin’ to be free—you’re goin’ way off yonder where we’ll neber see ye any more. You’ve saved me a good many whipping, Platt; I’m glad you’re goin’ to be free—but oh! de Lord, de Lord! what’ll become of me?”
I disengaged myself from her, and entered the carriage. The driver cracked his whip and away we rolled. I looked back and saw Patsey, with drooping head, half reclining on the ground; Mrs. Epps was on the piazza; Uncle Abram, and Bob, and Wiley, and Aunt Phebe stood by the gate, gazing after me. I waved my hand, but the carriage turned a bend of the bayou, hiding them from my eyes forever.