Tom was frightened. He tried to order the man out, but the words refused to come, and the other man got the start. He said, in a low voice:
"Keep still--I's yo' mother!"
Tom sunk in a heap on a chair, and gasped out:
"It was mean of me, and base--I know it; but I meant it for the best, I did indeed--I can swear it."
Roxana stood awhile looking mutely down on him while he writhed in shame and went on incoherently babbling self-accusations mixed with pitiful attempts at explanation and palliation of his crime; then she seated herself and took off her hat, and her unkept masses of long brown hair tumbled down about her shoulders.
"It warn't no fault o' yo'n dat dat ain't gray," she said sadly, noticing the hair.
"I know it, I know it! I'm a scoundrel. But I swear I meant it for the best. It was a mistake, of course, but I thought it was for the best, I truly did."
Roxana began to cry softly, and presently words began to find their way out between her sobs. They were uttered lamentingly, rather than angrily.
"Sell a pusson down de river--DOWN DE RIVER!--for de bes'! I wouldn't treat a dog so! I is all broke down and en wore out now, en so I reckon it ain't in me to storm aroun' no mo', like I used to when I 'uz trompled on en 'bused. I don't know-- but maybe it's so. Leastways, I's suffered so much dat mournin' seem to come mo' handy to me now den stormin'."
These words should have touched Tom Driscoll, but if they did, that effect was obliterated by a stronger one--one which removed the heavy weight of fear which lay upon him, and gave his crushed spirit a most grateful rebound, and filled all his small soul with a deep sense of relief. But he kept prudently still, and ventured no comment. There was a voiceless interval of some duration now, in which no sounds were heard but the beating of the rain upon the panes, the sighing and complaining of the winds, and now and then a muffled sob from Roxana. The sobs became more and more infrequent, and at least ceased. Then the refugee began to talk again.
"Shet down dat light a little. More. More yit. A pusson dat is hunted don't like de light. Dah--dat'll do. I kin see whah you is, en dat's enough. I's gwine to tell you de tale, en cut it jes as short as I kin, en den I'll tell you what you's got to do. Dat man dat bought me ain't a bad man; he's good enough, as planters goes; en if he could 'a' had his way I'd 'a' be'n a house servant in his fambly en be'n comfortable: but his wife she was a Yank, en not right down good lookin', en she riz up agin me straight off; so den dey sent me out to de quarter 'mongst de common fiel' han's. Dat woman warn't satisfied even wid dat, but she worked up de overseer ag'in' me, she 'uz dat jealous en hateful; so de overseer he had me out befo' day in de mawnin's en worked me de whole long day as long as dey'uz any light to see by; en many's de lashin's I got 'ca'se I couldn't come up to de work o' de stronges'. Dat overseer wuz a Yank too, outen New Englan', en anybody down South kin tell you what dat mean. DEY knows how to work a nigger to death, en dey knows how to whale 'em too--whale 'em till dey backs is welted like a washboard. 'Long at fust my marster say de good word for me to de overseer, but dat 'uz bad for me; for de mistis she fine it out, en arter dat I jist ketched it at every turn--dey warn't no mercy for me no mo'."
Tom's heart was fired--with fury against the planter's wife; and he said to himself, "But for that meddlesome fool, everything would have gone all right." He added a deep and bitter curse against her.
The expression of this sentiment was fiercely written in his face, and stood thus revealed to Roxana by a white glare of lightning which turned the somber dusk of the room into dazzling day at that moment. She was pleased--pleased and grateful; for did not that expression show that her child was capable of grieving for his mother's wrongs and a feeling resentment toward her persecutors?--a thing which she had been doubting. But her flash of happiness was only a flash, and went out again and left her spirit dark; for she said to herself, "He sole me down de river-- he can't feel for a body long; dis'll pass en go." Then she took up her tale again.