Saturday, April 15, 2017

Sapphira and the Slave Girl by Willa Cather

I very much enjoyed the warning printed under the copyright notice of my battered copy of what I take to be a first edition of Sapphira and the Slave Girl.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review to be printed in a magazine or newspaper.

Hopefully, what I’m doing on this blog will qualify as a modern-day equivalent.

Let’s start here.

Ever since she could remember, she had seen her mother show shades of kindness and cruelty which seemed to her purely whimsical.

It might be a throwaway line (although one of the things I like best about Cather’s fiction is the disciplined lack of throwaway lines it contains) but it nicely summarizes the main themes of the novel. It comes from late in the narrative. “She” is Rachel Blake and “her mother” is Sapphira Dodderidge Colbert, and the context the slavery. Rachel’s mother, the titular Sapphira, shows shades of kindness and cruelty which seem purely whimsical to Rachel. And in the same respect, slavery is an institution that shows both kindness and cruelty, in ways that are generally indecipherable, even to the people, black and white, whose lives are bound up with it.

This theme comes together powerfully in a scene from much earlier in the novel, one that follows the funeral of an old slave woman named Jezebel.

That night there was a big supper in the kitchen for the Colbert negroes and all the visitors; a first and second sitting at table. The darkies were always gay after a funeral, and this funeral had pleased everyone. “Miss Sapphy sho’ly give Jezebel a beautiful laying away,” they all agreed.

Washington, serving his master and mistress in the big house, noticed that they, too, were more animated than usual, expressing their satisfaction that things had gone so well and that Jezebel’s young kinsmen had been able to come and carry her. The Master sat long at table; had two helpings of pudding and drank four cups of tea. When at last he rose, his wife said persuasively:

“Surely you don’t mean to go back to the mill tonight, Henry, with your good clothes on.”

Henry, we are told in the opening pages of the novel, sleeps not in the house with his wife, but by himself in a small room in his flour mill. Apparently, this situation is related to the seriousness and commitment that he has for his business.

“Yes I think I must. I have been away all day. I want to speak to those boys from town and give them a little money. They will be starting back late tonight. Good night, Sapphira. I expect you are tired, and I hope you sleep well.”

But Sapphira, his wife, has other suspicions.

“The same to you,” she said with a placid smile, which changed to an expression of annoyance while her eyes followed him to the door. As she sat there alone, her face grew hard and bitter. A few hours ago, when she was being carried out of the graveyard after the burial…

Sapphira suffers from dropsy, which has left her mostly crippled.

...she had seen something which greatly disturbed her. Behind the dark cedars just outside the stone wall, her husband and Nancy stood in deep conversation.

Nancy is the “slave girl” of the book’s title. Old Jezebel, who has just died, is Nancy’s grandmother, and her mother, Till, is Sapphira’s body servant. Nancy is about sixteen and very attractive. Who her father is, apart from definitely being a white man, is a matter of household gossip.

The girl was in an attitude of dejection, her head hanging down, her hands clasped together, and the Master, whatever he was saying, was speaking very earnestly, with affectionate solicitude. Sapphira had put her handkerchief to her eyes, afraid that her face might show her indignation. Never before had she seen him expose himself like that. Whatever he was pressing upon that girl, he was not speaking as master to servant; there was nothing to suggest that special sort of kindliness permissible under such circumstances. He was not uttering condolences. It was personal. He had forgotten himself. Now, as she sat at the table, opposite his empty chair, she felt her anger rising. She rang the bell for the old butler.

Sapphira suspects her husband of conducting a sexually-intimate relationship with Nancy, and while that suspected outrage certainly angers her, we see here that it is his impropriety of revealing such a secret that truly infuriates her. Such relationships, after all, are actually quite commonplace in their society--Nancy herself being the product of one. But the same society that allows them is absolutely dependent on them not being publicly acknowledged.

“Washington, you may take me to my room. Send Till to me.”

Till got Mrs. Colbert into her ruffled nightgown, and stood brushing out her heavy hair. She felt there was something wrong. She began to talk soothingly about the old days at Chestnut Hill. The Mistress scarcely heard her. As she walked toward her bed on Till’s arm, she paused at the window, drew aside the long chintz curtains, and looked out toward the mill. There was a red patch in the darkness down there; the lights in the miller’s room were burning.

Cather uses this visual allegory to good effect. It is light in the darkness--by which Sapphira Colbert no doubt thinks her husband is doing evil, but by which he, in fact, typically reads the Good Book, trying his humble best to discern God’s intentions in our fallen world. More on that later.

She let the curtain fall and continued her way to the wide four-post bed. Till said good-night, blew out the candles, and went away.

Left alone, the Mistress could not go to sleep. Her training and her own good sense had schooled her to know that there are very few situations in life worth getting wrought up about. But tonight she was angry. She was hurt -- and remorseful. Because she was hurt, her mind kept going back to Chestnut Hill and her father. She wished she had been kinder to him in the years when he was crippled and often in pain. She wished she had shown him a little tenderness. His eyes used to ask for it sometimes, she remembered. She had been solicitous and resolutely cheerful; kept him up to the mark, saw that his body servant neglected nothing. But she knew there was something he wanted more than he wanted clean linen every morning, or to have his tea just as he liked it. She had never given in to him, never humoured his weakness. In those days she had not known the meaning of illness. To be crippled and incapacitated, not to come and go at will, to be left out of things as if one were in one’s dotage -- she had no realization of what that felt like, none at all. Invalids were to be kept clean and comfortable, greeted cheerily; that was their life.

A sad and lonely portrait, yes, but it also communicates something more. As she treated her father, now is she being treated. It’s a cycle of norms and expectations. Invalids, all of stripes, and in denial of the humanity that lives and pulses within them, are treated just as society determines they are to be treated. No more and no less. Kindness and cruelty.

The longer she lay awake thinking of those things in the far past, the more lonely and wretched and injured she felt herself to be tonight. Her usual fortitude seemed to break up altogether. She reached for it, but it was not there. Strange alarms and suspicions began to race through her mind. How far could she be deceived and mocked by her own servants in her own house? What was the meaning of that intimate conversation which had gone on under her very eyes this afternoon?

In the darkness of her room and her mind, Sapphira contemplates the biggest fear of them all--not just of her but of her whole society. That the illusionary decorum of slavery--the separation between slaves and masters on which everything depends--is understood and mocked by the very people that the institution holds in bondage.

Unable to lie still any longer, she got cautiously out of bed, reaching for her cane and her armchair. Pushing the chair along beside her, she got to the window and again held back the curtain. The ruddy square of light still burned in the dark mill. She sat down in the chair a reflected. Hours ago she had heard Nancy put her straw tick outside the door.

Some time ago, suspicious of the intimacy developing between Nancy and her husband, Sapphira had commanded the slave girl to sleep on a straw mattress placed immediately outside Sapphira’s bedroom door.

But was she there now? Perhaps she did not always sleep there. A substitute? -- There were four young coloured girls, not counting Bluebell, who might easily take Nancy’s place on that pallet. Very likely they did take her place, and everyone knew it. Could Till, even, be trusted? Besides, Till went early to her cabin -- she would be the last to know.

She has succumbed to outright paranoia.

The Mistress sat still, scarcely breathing, overcome by dread. The thought of being befooled, hoodwinked in any way, was unendurable to her. There were candles on her dressing-table, but she had no way to light them. Her throat was dry and seemed closed up. She felt afraid to call aloud, afraid to take a full breath. A faintness was coming over her. She put out her hand and resolutely rang her clapper bell.

The chamber door open, and someone staggered in.

“Yes mam, yes mam! Whassa matter, Missy?”

Nancy’s sleepy, startled voice. Mrs. Colbert dropped back in her chair and drew a long, slow breath. It was over. Her shattered, treacherous house stood safe about her again. She was in her own room, wakened out of a dream of disaster.

The double meaning here is deeply poetic. Her house is shattered and treacherous both in her paranoid fears and, of course, in the savage and inhuman realities of slavery. And only one meaning can be so easily dismissed with the ringing of a clapper bell.

But she must see it through, what he had begun.

The subterfuge, at all costs, must be preserved.

“Nancy, I’m taken bad. Run out to the kitchen and blow up the coals and put the kettle on. Then go for your mother. I must get my feet into hot water.”

Nancy scurried down the long hall and out to the kitchen. She was wide awake now, and alarmed. She wasn’t a girl to hold a grudge.

Till came, sooner than her mistress would have thought possible. Nancy brought the foot-tub and the big iron teakettle. Till sat on the floor rhythmically stroking her mistress’s swollen ankles and knees, murmuring: “It’s all right, Missy. They is no worse than common. It’s just a chill you caught, waitin’ out there by the graveside.”

When the Mistress was again put to bed, Till begged to stay with her. But Mrs. Colbert, comforted by the promptness and sympathy of her servants, thanked them both, said the pain was gone now, and she would sleep better alone. As they helped her from her chair she had looked once more from her window: the miller’s lights were still burning in the west room of the mill.

What are her suspicions now?

Was the man worrying over some lawsuit he had never told her about, she wondered? Or was he, perhaps, reading his religious books? She knew he pondered at times upon how we are saved or lost. That was the disadvantage of having been raised a Lutheran. In her Church all those things had been decided long ago by heads much wiser than Henry’s. She had married the only Colbert who had a conscience, and she sometimes wished he hadn’t quite so much.

No worry any longer about darkly suspected pecadillos with his young and beautiful slave, the veil of propriety and understanding has once again fallen over Sapphira’s eyes. She is even able to conjure up a tinge of condescension for her husband and his imprecise religion.

Sapphira, and the world she represents, is fascinating and expertly drawn, but Henry, and his meaning in the story, is even more compelling.

The metaphor of the miller is not lost on me. Like in the paintings by the old Dutch masters, the mill is the spindle on which the world turns, and the work that goes on within, preoccupied as it is with the provender that makes earthly life possible, makes it a difficult place to decipher divine meaning on a cosmic scale. There are two struggles--a bodily one, necessary to keep the mill stone turning--and a spiritual one, necessary to discern wisdom from the inexorable procession of heavenly justice. The miller in our tale, Henry Colbert, embodies them both.

Behind the square of candlelight down there, the miller, in his mill clothes, was sitting with his Bible open on the table before him, but he was no longer reading. Jezebel’s life, as Mr. Fairhead had summed it up, seemed a strange instance of predestination. For her, certainly, her capture had been a deliverance. Yet he hated the whole system of slavery. His father had never owned a slave. The Quakers who came down from Pennsylvania believed that slavery would one day be abolished. In the North there were many people who called themselves abolishers.

That is the opinion of men, one that Henry and others shared, but its justice was not so obvious, was it?

Henry Colbert knew he had a legal right to manumit any of his wife’s negroes; but that would be an outrage to her feelings, and an injustice to the slaves themselves. Where would they go? How would they live? They had never learned to take care of themselves or to provide for tomorrow. They were a part of the Dodderidge property and the Dodderidge household. Of all the negro men on the place, Sampson, his head millhand, was the only one who might be able to get work and make a living out in the world. He was a tall, straight mulatto with a good countenance, thoughtful, intelligent. His head was full behind the ears, shaped more like a melon lying down than a peanut standing on end. Colbert trusted Sampson’s judgment, and believed he could get a place for him among the Quaker mills in Philadelphia. He had considered buying Sampson from Sapphira and sending him to Pennsylvania a free man.

What could be wrong with that?

Three years ago he had called Sampson into his room one night, and proposed this plan to him. Sampson did not interrupt; he stood in his manly, responsible way, listening intently to his master. But when it was his turn to speak, he broke down. This was his home. Here he knew everybody. He didn’t want to go out among strangers. Besides, Belle, his wife, was a slack worker, and his children were little. He could never keep them in a city as well off as they were here. What ever had put such a notion in Mister Henry’s head? Wasn’t he real smart about his work? Belle, he know, wasn’t much account to help down at the house, but she was good to the chillun, an’ she didn’t do no harm. Anyhow, he’d a’most sooner leave the chillun than leave the mill, when they’d got everything fixed up so nice and could bolt finer white flour than you could buy in town.

“I guess I’d miss you more than you’d miss the mill, Sampson. We’ll say no more about it, if that’s how you feel,” said the miller, rising and putting his hand on Sampson’s shoulder. There it ended. Sampson never afterward referred to this proposal, nor did his master.

What else could he say? A slave who preferred comfortable bondage to hard freedom. So the opinions of man are stymied by the very fellows those opinions seek to help. But what of the opinion of God? Where does divine truth come down in the matter of slavery?

On this night after Jezebel’s burial, Henry Colbert had been reading over certain marked passages in the Book he accepted as a complete guide to human life. He had turned to all the verses marked with a large S. Joseph, Daniel, and the prophets had been slaves in foreign lands, and had brought good out of their captivity. Nowhere in his Bible had he ever been able to find a clear condemnation of slavery. There were injunctions of kindness to slaves, mercy and tolerance. Remember them in bonds as bound with them. Yes, but nowhere did his Bible say that there should be no one in bonds, no one at all. -- And Henry had often asked himself, were we not all in bonds? If Lizzie, the cook, was in bonds to Sapphira, was she not almost equally in bonds to Lizzie?

That’s not so clear either, is it?

The miller knew the hour must be getting late. His big silver watch he had left up at the house, on his wife’s dressing-table. But he and the negroes could tell time by the stars. At this season of the year, if the Big Dipper had set under the dark spruce-clad hills behind Rachel’s house, it would be past midnight. He opened his north window and looked out. Yes, the Dipper had gone down. The air of the soft, still, spring night came in at the window. There was no sound but the creek, pouring steadily over its rocky bottom. As he stood there, he repeated to himself some verses of his favourite hymn:

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will.

But that’s okay. God, after all, moves in mysterious ways. And while a miller works to develop an understanding, beside him his mill stone keeps turning, grinding seed into flour, and outside the creek keeps flowing, turning his mill wheel, and above it all the celestial lights keep revolving on their heavenly course. Now and forever.

We must rest, he told himself, on our confidence in His design. Design was clear enough in the stars, the seasons, in the woods and fields. But in human affairs -- ? Perhaps our bewilderment came from a fault in our perceptions; we could never see what was behind the next turn of the road. Whenever he went to Winchester, he called upon a wise old Quaker. This man, though now seventy, firmly believed that in his own lifetime he would see one of those great designs accomplished; that the Lord has already chosen His heralds and His captains, and a morning would break when all the black slaves would be free.

Such musings certainly helped Henry Colbert sleep at night. But Nancy, the slave girl, does not have the luxury of such philosophical repose. In the course of the narrative she is set upon by Henry’s nephew Martin, a Southern blueblood with a rakish reputation, intent on deflowering her, with or without her consent.

Martin had gone to the kitchen to complain that Nancy had not done his room, and Bluebell told him Nancy was out picking cherries. There never was a finer morning for picking cherries or anything else, he was thinking, as he went out to the kitchen garden and round the stables. …

“Good morning, Nancy,” he called up to her as he stood at the foot of the tree. “Cherries are ripe, eh? Do you know that song? Can you sing, like Bluebell?”

“No, sir. I can’t sing. I got not singin’ voice.”

“Neither have I, but I sing anyhow. Can’t help it on a morning like this. Come now, you’re going to give me something, Nancy.”

His tone was coaxing, but careless. She somehow didn’t feel scared of him as he stood down there, with his head thrown back. His eyes were clear this morning, and jolly. He didn’t look wicked. Maybe he only meant to tease her anyhow, and she just didn’t know how young men behaved over in the racing counties.

“Aren’t you going to give me something on such a pretty day? Let’s be friends.” He held up his hand as if to help her down.

She didn’t move, but she laughed a soft darky laugh and dropped a bunch of cherries down to him.

“I don’t want cherries. They’re sour, and I want something sweet.”

“No, Mr. Martin. The sour cherries is all gone. These is blackhearts.”

“Stop talking about cherries. You look awful pretty, sitting up there.”

Nancy giggled nervously. Martin was smiling all the time. Maybe he was just young and foolish like, not bad.

“Who’s your beau, anyhow, Nancy Till?”

“Ain’t got none.”

“You goin’ to be a sour old maid?”

“I reckon I is.”

“Now who in the world is that scarecrow, comin’ on us?”

Nancy followed his eyes and looked back over her shoulder. The instant her head was turned Martin stepped lightly on the chair, caught her bare ankles, and drew her two legs about his cheeks like a frame. Nancy dropped her basket and almost fell out of the tree herself. She caught at the branch above her and clung to it.

“Oh, please get down, Mr. Martin! Do, please! Somebody’ll come along, an’ you’ll git me into trouble.”

Martin laughed. “Get you into trouble? Just this? This is nothin’ but to cure toothache.”

The girl had gone pale. She was frightened now, but she couldn’t move, couldn’t pull herself up with him holding her so hard. Everything had changed in a flash. He had changed, and she couldn’t collect her wits.

“Please, Mr. Martin, please let me git down.”

Martin framed his face closer and shut his eyes. “Pretty soon. -- This is just nice. -- Something smells sweet -- like May apples.” He seemed murmuring to himself, not to her, but all the time his face came closer. Her throat felt tight shut, but she knew she must scream, and she did.

“Pappy! Oh, Pappy! Come quick!”

The menace of this scene is palpable, draped, as it is, in slavery’s horrid and beastly sexual intimidation. And what happens next is even more horrific, as Nancy’s would-be protectors, Sampson and Old Jeff (Till’s husband, who had adopted Nancy as his own child, even though she wasn’t), and Nancy herself, are forced by convention to excuse and cover-up Martin’s crime.

The moment she screamed, Martin stepped down from the chair. Old Jeff came running round the end of the smokehouse, up to the foot of the tree where Nancy sat, still holding on to the limb above her. “Whassa matter, chile? Whassa matter?”

Sampson followed more deliberately, looking about him, -- looking at Martin Colbert, which it was not his place to do.

Nancy said she was “took giddy like” in the tree, and was afraid she would faint and fall. Sampson got on the chair and lifted her down, but before he did so he took it in that there were already wet boot tracks on the seat. Martin, standing by, remarked that if the girl had had any sense, he would have helped her get out of the tree.

“Co’se you would, Mr. Martin,” Jeff jabbered. “Young girls has dese sick spells come on ‘em, an’ den dey ain’t got no haid. Come along, honey, you kin walk, Pappy’ll he’p you.”

Sampson picked up the chair and carried it back to the smokehouse. Martin strolled down the path, muttering to himself. “God, I’d rather it had been any other nigger on the place! That mill-hand don’t know where he belongs. If ever he looks me in the face like that again, I’ll break his head for him. The niggers here don’t know their place, not one of ‘em.”

Sampson does more than just look Martin Colbert in the face. He reports the instance to Martin’s uncle, Henry. And when confronted with these ugly facts about his relative, which are not wholly unknown to him, it awakens in him a deeper and uglier understanding of the world, which, apparently, has been.

The miller closed his book and began to move slowly about the room. In a flash he realized that from the first he had distrusted his nephew, though he had never thought of him in connection with Nancy. To him Nancy was scarcely more than a child. It was his habit to refer to her in that way. In reality, of course, she was a young woman. His three daughters had married when they were younger than Nancy was now. Wrath flamed up in him as he paced the floor; against his nephew and the father who begot him, against all his brothers and the Colbert blood. His own father he could hold in reverence; he was an honest man, and the woman who shared his laborious and thrifty life was a good woman, but there must have been bad blood in the Colberts back on the other side of the water, and it had come to light in his three brothers and their sons. He knew the family inheritance well enough. He had his share of it. But since his marriage he had never let it get the better of him. He had kept his marriage vows as he would keep any other contract.

The miller got very little sleep that night. When the first blush of the early summer dawn showed above the mountain, he rose, put on his long white cotton milling coat, and went to bathe in the shallow pool that always lay under the big mill-wheel. This was his custom, after the hot, close nights which often made sleep unrefreshing in summer. The chill of the water, and the rays of gold which soon touched the distant hills before the sun appeared, restored his feeling of physical vigour. He came back to his room, leaving wet footprints on the floury floor behind him. Having dressed and shaved, he put on his hat and walked down along the mill-race toward the dam. He did not know why, but he felt strongly disinclined to see Nancy this morning. He did not wish to be there when she came to the mill; it would not be the same as yesterday. Something disturbing had come between them since then.

For years, ever since she was a child, Nancy had seemed to him more like an influence than a person. She came in and out of the mill like a soft spring breeze; a shy, devoted creature who touched everything so lightly. Never before had anyone divined all his little whims and preferences, and been eager to gratify them. And it was for love, from dutiful affection. She had nothing to gain beyond the pleasure of seeing him pleased.

Now that he must see her as a woman, enticing to men, he shrank from seeing her at all. Something was lost out of that sweet companionship; for companionship it has been, though it was but a smile and a glance, a greeting in the fresh morning hours.

The paternal relationship of master to slave that Henry has teased out his Bible simply cannot survive this sexual awakening. It is revealed as a sham, a dressing draped over a more urgent reality--something the miller is all his studies was not able to see, but which had been inflaming everyone else in his household.

One person who wants to help Nancy is the Colberts’s daughter Rachel Blake. Let’s return to the passage I started this post with.

Ever since she could remember, she had seen her mother show shades of kindness and cruelty which seemed to her purely whimsical. At this moment Mrs. Blake could not for the life of her say whether Mrs. Colbert had invited this scapegrace to her house with the deliberate purpose of bringing harm to Nancy, or whether she had asked him merely for the sake of his company, and was now ready to tolerate anything that might amuse him and thus prolong his stay. This was quite possible, since Mrs. Colbert, though often generous, was entirely self-centered and thought of other people only in their relation to herself. She was born that way, and had been brought up that way.

Rachel is a counterbalancing character in Cather’s story. Grown and widowed with two young girls, she is a kind of self-taught country doctor, tending to the sick and injured in her parents’s household as well as throughout the county. She is traveled and educated in her way, and brings a skeptical analysis and piercing understanding to everything she does. She the daughter of her mother and her father, but she is not like them, almost opposite them in many important ways.

Having posed to herself this question--is her mother being intentional vicious to Nancy or forlornly hospitable to Martin--she must analyze whatever evidence she can bring to bear.

Yet one must admit inconsistencies. There was her singular indulgence with Tansy Dave, her real affection for Till and old Jezebel, her patience with Sampson’s lazy wife. Even now, from her chair, she took some part in all the celebrations that darkies love. She liked to see them happy. On Christmas morning she sat in the long hall and had all the men on the place come in to get their presents and their Christmas drink. She served each man a strong toddy in one of the big glass tumblers that had been her father’s. When Tap, the mill boy, smacked his lips and said: “Miss Sapphy, if my mammy’s titty had a-tasted like that, I never would a-got weaned,” she laughed as if she had never heard the old joke before.

When the darkies were sick, she doctored them, sent linen for the new babies and had them brought for her to see as soon as the mother was up and about.

And her conclusion?

Recalling these things and trying to be fair to her mother, Mrs. Blake suddenly rose from her chair and said aloud:

“No, it ain’t put on; she believes in it, and they believe in it. But it ain’t right.”

Spot on--as usual. Both about her mother and the institutional that shaped her. It is believed in. But it ain’t right.

And is it significant, therefore, that it is Rachel who can see what is wrong and what must be done when neither her gentrified mother nor her biblical father cannot.

Once at the mill, she went to the north window of her father’s room. He was within, sitting at his table; not reading, but gazing moodily at the floor.

“Can I come in, Father?” she asked quietly.

“Is that you, Rachel? Wait a minute.” He came out to the platform where the wagons were unloaded, took her hand, and led her through the dark passage to his room. When he closed to door he shot the bolt.

Mrs. Blake sat down and drew a long breath. “Well, Father, I’ve come over to have a talk with you. I blame myself I didn’t come before this. I reckon you know what it’s about.”

She looked to him for recognition, but he sat frowning at the floor. It tried her that he gave her no encouragement, when he certainly must know what was on her mind. She was tired, and the road round by the creek had seemed long.

“Father,” she broke out indignantly, “are you going to stand by and see a good girl brought to ruin without lifting a finger?”

The miller crossed the room and shut down the open window. His face had flushed red, and so had Mrs. Blake’s. She went on with some heat.

“You surely know that rake Mart Colbert is after Nancy day and night. He’ll have her, in the end. She’s a good girl, but the Colbert men never let anything get away. He’ll catch her somewhere, and force her.”

Her father clenched his two powerful fists. “No he won’t! It’s only by the mercy of God I haven’t strangled the life out of him before now.”

“Then why don’t you do something to save her?”

He made no reply. His daughter sat watching him in astonishment. His darkly flushed face, his clenched hands gave her no clue to what was going on in his mind; struggle of some sort. Certainly. She had always known him quick to act, had never seen him like this before.

“I may be overstepping my duty,” she said at last, “but I couldn’t sit with my hands folded and see what’s going on here. She’s come to me for help, and I couldn’t hold back. I’m a-going to get Nancy away from her and on the road to freedom.”

The mercy of God. Sitting with folded hands. The allusions are clear. I believe Cather is saying, here and throughout the novel, that, as often lauded as it is, religion would not and could not end slavery. Like Henry Colbert, it clouds the minds of its followers with conflicting aphorisms and a morality that seems to exclude some people from the common humanity we all share. In the end, it is Rachel who gets Nancy to safety, and it is her mother and father who do nothing but comfort and reassure themselves that they did all that they could.

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This post first appeared on Eric Lanke's blog, an association executive and author. You can follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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