Plot summary[ edit ] Dred is the story of Nina Gordon, an impetuous young heiress to a large southern plantation , whose land is rapidly becoming worthless. Nina is a flighty young girl, and maintains several suitors, before finally settling down with a man named Clayton. Clayton is socially and religiously liberal, and very idealistic, and has a down-to-earth perpetual-virgin sister, Anne. There is also a family of poor whites, who have but a single, devoted slave, Old Tiff.
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OUR readers will perhaps feel an interest to turn back with us, and follow the singular wanderings of the mysterious personage, whose wild denunciations had so disturbed the minds of the worshippers at the camp-meeting.
There is a twilight-ground between the boundaries of the sane and insane, which the old Greeks and Romans regarded with a peculiar veneration. They held a person whose faculties were thus darkened as walking under the awful shadow of a supernatural presence; and, as the mysterious secrets of the stars only become visible in the night, so in these eclipses of the more material faculties they held there was often an awakening of supernatural perceptions.
The hot and positive light of our modern materialism, which exhales from the growth of our existence every dewdrop, which searches out and dries every rivulet of romance, which sends an unsparing beam into every cool grotto of poetic possibility, withering the moss, and turning the dropping cave to a dusty den -- this spirit, so remorseless, allows us no such indefinite land.
There are but two words in the whole department of modern anthropology -- the sane and the insane; the latter dismissed from human reckoning almost with contempt. We should find it difficult to give a suitable name to the strange and abnormal condition in which this singular being, of whom we are speaking, passed the most of his time. It was a state of exaltation and trance, which yet appeared not at all to impede the exercise of his outward and Page 6 physical faculties, but rather to give them a preternatural keenness and intensity, such as sometimes attends the more completely-developed phenomena of somnambulism.
In regard to his physical system there was also much that was peculiar. Our readers may imagine a human body of the largest and keenest vitality, to grow up so completely under the nursing influences of nature, that it may seem to be as perfectly en rapport with them as a tree; so that the rain, the wind, and the thunder, all those forces from which human beings generally seek shelter, seem to hold with it a kind of fellowship, and to be familiar companions of existence.
Such was the case with Dred. So completely had he come into sympathy and communion with nature, and with those forms of it which more particularly surrounded him in the swamps, that he moved about among them with as much ease as a lady treads her Turkey carpet. What would seem to us in recital to be incredible hardship, was to him but an ordinary condition of existence. To walk knee-deep in the spongy soil of the swamp, to force his way through thickets, to lie all night sinking in the porous soil, or to crouch, like the alligator, among reeds and rushes, were to him situations of as much comfort as well-curtained beds and pillows are to us.
It is not to be denied, that there is in this savage perfection of the natural organs a keen and almost fierce delight, which must excel the softest seductions of luxury.
Anybody who has ever watched the eager zest with which the hunting-dog plunges through the woods, darts through the thicket, or dives into water, in an ecstasy of enjoyment, sees something of what such vital force must be. Dred was under the inspiring belief that he was the subject of visions and supernatural communications.
The African race are said by mesmerists to possess, in the fullest degree, that peculiar temperament which fits them for the evolution of mesmeric phenomena; and hence the existence among them, to this day, of men and women who are Page 7 supposed to have peculiar magical powers.
He had taught him the secret of snake-charming, and had possessed his mind from childhood with expectations of prophetic and supernatural impulses. That mysterious and singular gift, whatever it may be, which Highland seers denominate second sight, is a very common tradition among the negroes; and there are not wanting thousands of reputed instances among them to confirm belief in it.
What this faculty may be, we shall not pretend to say. Whether there be in the soul a yet undeveloped attribute, which is to be to the future what memory is to the past, or whether in some individuals an extremely high and perfect condition of the sensuous organization endows them with something of that certainty of instinctive discrimination which belongs to animals, are things which we shall not venture to decide upon.
It was, however, an absolute fact with regard to Dred, that he had often escaped danger by means of a peculiarity of this kind. He had been warned from particular places where the hunters had lain in wait for him; had foreseen in times of want where game might be ensnared, and received intimations where persons were to be found in whom he might safely confide; and his predictions with regard to persons and things had often chanced to be so strikingly true, as to invest his sayings with a singular awe and importance among his associates.
It was a remarkable fact, but one not peculiar to this case alone, that the mysterious exaltation of mind in this individual seemed to run parallel with the current of shrewd, practical sense; and, like a man who converses alternately in two languages, he would speak now the language of exaltation, and now that of common life, interchangeably.
This peculiarity imparted a singular and grotesque effect to his whole personality. On the night of the camp-meeting, he was, as we have Page 8 already seen, in a state of the highest ecstasy. The wanton murder of his associate seemed to flood his soul with an awful tide of emotion, as a thunder-cloud is filled and shaken by slow-gathering electricity.
And, although the distance from his retreat to the camp-ground was nearly fifteen miles, most of it through what seemed to be impassable swamps, yet he performed it with as little consciousness of fatigue as if he had been a spirit. Even had he been perceived at that time, it is probable that he could no more have been taken, or bound, than the demoniac of Gadara.
After he parted from Harry, he pursued his way to the interior of the swamp, as was his usual habit, repeating to himself, in a chanting voice, such words of prophetic writ as were familiar to him. The day had been sultry, and it was now an hour or two past midnight, when a thunder-storm, which had long been gathering and muttering in the distant sky, began to develop its forces. A low, shivering sigh crept through the woods, and swayed in weird whistlings the tops of the pines; and sharp arrows of lightning came glittering down among the darkness of the branches, as if sent from the bow of some warlike angel.
An army of heavy clouds swept in a moment across the moon; then came a broad, dazzling, blinding sheet of flame, concentrating itself on the top of a tall pine near where Dred was standing, and in a moment shivered all its branches to the ground, as a child strips the leaves from a twig.
Dred clapped his hands with a fierce delight; and, while the rain and wind were howling and hissing around him, he shouted aloud: "Wake, O, arm of the Lord! Awake, put on thy strength! The voice of the Lord breaketh the cedars -- yea, the cedars of Lebanon! The voice of the Lord divideth the flames of fire! The voice of the Lord shaketh the wilderness of Kadesh!
Hail-stones and coals of fire! The perception of such awful power seemed to animate him, and yet to excite in his soul an impatience that He whose power was so infinite did not awake to judgment. Avenge the innocent blood! Cast forth thine arrows, and slay them! Shoot out thy lightnings, and destroy them! Could Dred have possessed himself of those lightnings, what would have stood before him? But his cry, like the cry of thousands, only went up to stand in waiting till an awful coming day!
Gradually the storm passed by; the big drops dashed less and less frequently; a softer breeze passed through the forest, with a patter like the clapping of a thousand little wings; and the moon occasionally looked over the silvery battlements of the great clouds.
As Dred was starting to go forward, one of these clear revealings showed him the cowering form of a man, crouched at the root of a tree, a few paces in front of him. He was evidently a fugitive, and, in fact, was the one of whose escape to the swamps the Georgia trader had complained on the day of the meeting. Would I do that? Shepherds that sell the flock, and pick the bones! Take heart, man, take heart! Come, up with you! I must put you over my shoulder as I have many a buck before now!
No sound was heard, save the humming of insects and the crackling plunges by which Dred made his way forward. I have made my bed with the leviathan, among the reeds and the rushes. I have found the alligators and the snakes better neighbors than Christians. They let those alone that let them alone; but Christians will hunt for the precious life. For about twenty paces before he reached it, he waded waist-deep in water. Creeping out, at last, and telling the other one to follow him, he began carefully coursing along on his hands and knees, giving, at the same time, a long, shrill, peculiar whistle.
It was responded to by a similar sound, which seemed to proceed through the bushes. After a while, a crackling noise was heard, as of some animal, which gradually seemed to come nearer and nearer to them, till finally a large water-dog emerged from the underbrush, and began testifying his joy at the arrival of the new comer, by most extravagant gambols. The path wound up and down the brushwood, through many sharp turnings, till at last it ceased altogether, at the roots of a tree; and, while the dog disappeared among the brushwood, Dred climbed the tree, and directed his companion to follow him, and, proceeding out on to one of the longest limbs, he sprang nimbly on to the ground in the cleared space which we have before described.
His wife was standing waiting for him, and threw herself upon him with a cry of joy. I must continue till the opening of the seals -- till the vision cometh! Have ye buried him? At a distant part of the clearing was a blasted cedar-tree, all whose natural foliage had perished. But it was veiled from head to foot in long wreaths of the tillandsia, the parasitic moss of these regions, and, in the dim light of the approaching dawn, might have formed no unapt resemblance to a gigantic spectre dressed in mourning weeds.
Beneath this tree Dred had interred, from time to time, the bodies of fugitives which he found dead in the swamps, attaching to this disposition of them some peculiar superstitious idea. The widow of the dead, the wife of Dred, and the new comer, were now gathered around the shallow grave; for the soil was such as scarcely gave room to make a place deep enough for a grave without its becoming filled with water.
The dawn was just commencing a dim foreshadowing in the sky. The moon and stars were still shining. Dred stood and looked up, and spoke, in a solemn voice. Behold those lights in the sky -- the lights in his hands pierced for the sins of the world, and spread forth as on a cross!
But the day shall come that he shall lay down the yoke, and he will bear the sin of the world no longer. Then shall come the great judgment. He will lay righteousness to the line and judgment to the plummet, and the hail shall sweep away the refuges of lies. He must rest till the rest of his brethren be killed; for the vision is sealed up for an appointed time.
If it tarry, wait for it. It shall surely come, and shall not tarry! The rain-drops sparkled and winked from leaf to leaf, or fell in showery diamonds in the breeze. The breath of numberless roses, now in full bloom, rose in clouds to the windows. On the way home, they had spoken of the scenes of the day, and wondered and speculated on the singular incident which closed it.
But, of all the dark circle of woe and crime, -- of all that valley of vision which was present to the mind of him who spoke, -- they were as practically ignorant as the dwellers of the curtained boudoirs of New York are of the fearful mysteries of the Five Points.
The aristocratic nature of society at the South so completely segregates people of a certain position in life from any acquaintance with the movements of human nature in circle below them, that the most fearful things may be transacting in their vicinity unknown or unnoticed.
The horrors and sorrows of the slave-coffle were a sealed book to Nina and Anne Clayton. They had scarcely dreamed of them; and Uncle John, if he knew their existence, took very good care to keep out of their way, as he would turn from any other painful and disagreeable scene. Page 14 All of them had heard something of negro-hunters, and regarded them as low, vulgar people, but troubled their heads little further on the subject; so that they would have been quite at a loss for the discovery of any national sins that could have appropriately drawn down the denunciations of Heaven.
The serious thoughts and aspirations which might have risen in any of the company, the evening before, assumed, with everything else, quite another light under the rays of morning.
All of us must have had experience, in our own histories, of the great difference between the night and the morning view of the same subject. If all the prayers and good resolutions which are laid down on sleeping pillows could be found there on awaking, the world would be better than it is. Of this Uncle John Gordon had experience, as he sat himself down at the breakfast-table. The night before, he realized, in some dim wise, that he, Mr. John Gordon, was not merely a fat, elderly gentleman, in blue coat and white vest, whose great object in existence was to eat well, drink well, sleep well, wear clean linen, and keep out of the way of trouble.
He had within him a tumult of yearnings and aspirings, -- uprisings of that great, life-long sleeper, which we call soul, and which, when it wakes, is an awfully clamorous, craving, exacting, troublesome inmate, and which is therefore generally put asleep again in the shortest time, by whatever opiates may come to hand. Last night, urged on by this troublesome guest, stimulated by the vague power of such awful words as judgment and eternity, he had gone out and knelt down as a mourner for sin and a seeker for salvation, both words standing for very real and awful facts; and, this morning, although it was Page 15 probably a more sensible and appropriate thing than most of the things he was in the habit of doing, he was almost ashamed of it.
The question arose, at table, whether another excursion should be made to the camp-ground. I think you had better keep out of the way of such things. I really was vexed to see you in that rabble of such very common people! People go and get wonderfully wrought up, come away, and are just what they were before.
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OUR readers will perhaps feel an interest to turn back with us, and follow the singular wanderings of the mysterious personage, whose wild denunciations had so disturbed the minds of the worshippers at the camp-meeting. There is a twilight-ground between the boundaries of the sane and insane, which the old Greeks and Romans regarded with a peculiar veneration. They held a person whose faculties were thus darkened as walking under the awful shadow of a supernatural presence; and, as the mysterious secrets of the stars only become visible in the night, so in these eclipses of the more material faculties they held there was often an awakening of supernatural perceptions. The hot and positive light of our modern materialism, which exhales from the growth of our existence every dewdrop, which searches out and dries every rivulet of romance, which sends an unsparing beam into every cool grotto of poetic possibility, withering the moss, and turning the dropping cave to a dusty den -- this spirit, so remorseless, allows us no such indefinite land.
Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp
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