"The Man in the Cage"
December 1877
Harper's New Monthly Magazine

Dublin Core


"The Man in the Cage"
December 1877
Harper's New Monthly Magazine


“The Man in the Cage”

“What is that you say, Glosher? In a cage? A human being in an iron cage?”

“Just so. That’s the house, and that’s the window of the room he’s in. I saw him led in, chained like a mad steer, three men with their guns pointed behind. That’s a year ago this September. It’s a low cage, with bars as thick as my wrist. He’s chained to the floor inside it.”

The house was a small brick building, the shingled roof curled and black with age; it stood in a field overgrown with thistles and Jamestown weed. A rotting paling fence separated it from the crooked grassy highway which served as a street for the village—a drowsy hamlet in North Carolina, lying literally above the clouds, on one of the mountains of the great Balsam range.

Glosher lounged on, whistling, to the inn, with the string of trout which they had caught, and Mr. Britton, his rod in hand, leaned over the fence looking at the window inside of which was the cage.

He was a sensitive little man, and this thing had startled and moved him greatly. He had been sauntering along just now, a noon sunshine was warm and brilliant: every color kindled in it and the thin air to new vigor. These weeds alone shone like bits of pure lavender; and the blackberries glowed upon the tumble-down fences in knobs of rubies and garnet. Every body in the little hamlet had a friendly greeting for him. At the door of one unpainted house an old woman sat carding wool, her yellow-haired grandchild asleep at her feet; on the porch of another pretty girl was spinning. Glosher, who was a manly young fellow, had looked sheepish as they passed, and the girl blushed and broke her thread. Mr. Britton smiled to himself. He was but three months married, and every lover was his brother. The village hung on the edge of the height; below it the sea of cirrus clouds was full of light and motion, while a range of mighty peaks beyond shut the hamlet, so it seemed to his fancy, into a strange and sunny calm. A moment before he had thus been filled with a soft feminine content in himself and his world and his God, thankful for the happy chance which had led him to this peaceful eyrie to spend his hardly earned holiday. Now he could think only of this window. It was a gaping cave of darkness in the sunshine, and the man within for a year had seen nothing of grassy street, or of young girls, or little children, or driving clouds. He was a beast, chained like a beast in a cage.

As Mr. Britton waited uncertain, he heard coming out of the darkness a sigh and the clank of a chain.

“Good God! That these things should be in such a world! –In such a world!”

He hurried on, very sorry for this human beast, but more stung and aggrieved that the ennobling emotions and harmony of his holiday had been impaired. His coat sleeve, too, was stained with some of the dank lichen on the fence about this accursed place. He wiped it off with a quick sense of loathing and taint. The Rev. Edward Britton was noted for the dainty fastidiousness of his dress and of his morals.

When he reached the little inn he found the landlord waiting at the gate under the walnut-trees. Guests were a novelty, and were made much of by these mountaineers.
“We are a-waiting supper for you, Sir. Oh, no difference; it’s you that’s to be consulted”--walking beside him down through the old-fashioned garden, with its border of hollyhocks and blue succory.

“You had good luck, Glosher says, Sir.”

“What has that man done, that you cage him like a brute?“ interrupted the young clergyman, in a harsh, excited tone.

“Done? Ef you’ll come into this room, I’ll tell you the story,” dropping his voice. It’s a strange one enough.”

“No,” pushing past him. “Why should I hear it?”

Mr. Britton changed his coat before going into his wife’s room. It was a cozy apartment, with windows looking out over the stretch of solitudes and heights of the Nantahala range. A wood fire burned on the hearth. Mrs. Britton, who had been a shy girl but two or three months ago, sat before it trimming a hat. She was a plump, pink-cheeked dot of a woman, with quick-glancing dark eyes, and a habit of frequent decisive little nods and gestures. Her lap was full of brightly colored ribbons; her hand, with its tiny gold thimble, fluttered about her work like a white glancing bird.

“And what have you discovered in this queer corner of the world today, Phoebe?” he asked, with a qualm of apprehension.

“An old slave in a hut out of town, who told me she refugeed from Virginia during the war, leaving two sons behind her in Albemarle. I wrote an advertisement and some letters about them. I think they will bring the boys to light.”

“What more did you do my dear?”

“I made a sketch of an Indian who came in with his blow-gun and some skins, and of a mountaineer who was going up to the high range to salt the wild cattle. See, here he is: blue homespun, high boots, bags of salt on his hips, gun for wolves, and whiskey for rattle snakes.”

“It is very spirited, Phoebe. A little faulty as to the knees, eh?” with kindling interest in his face. There were one or two good prints on the wall, which they had brought in their trunks. Phoebe and he were amateurs in art, and had found a good deal of keen enjoyment already in their work and disputes. Phoebe took out her pencils and retouched the sketch. Then she went back to her sewing and her husband stirred the fire, and began to talk of home and parish work. Outside, the cloud of fog had risen, and began to shut them in. The logs crackled and sparkled, turning Phoebe’s blue ribbon into green. Presently Joe, the lame waiter, came up carrying a tray with their supper. As he spread it on a round table at the side of the fire, Mr. Britton scanned eagerly the smoking coffee, the brown biscuits, the delicate salmon-colored trout. He always did relish a good meal, and the days fishing had made him hungry. Joe was dismissed, and Phoebe drew closer to the table. How rosy and fair she was! How warm was the fire! When he proceeded to dress a trout for her he had quite forgotten the man in the cage, and all the rest of the world outside of that wall of screening mist. It seemed to him as if his life was rounded and perfect just then. He and his wife ate their trout, and talked pleasant parish gossip. He was twenty-three. He had graduated the year before, with the reputation of possessing a nice talent for English verse and a vein of tender sentimentalism, which would not impair his usefulness as a popular preacher. His only doubt as to his own qualifications for the heavenly calling was as to his lack of stature in the pulpit. But when he really went into the pulpit, a stool on which he could stand remedied that difficulty. When he was mounted on the stool his face appeared above the snowy surplice blue-eyed, calm, and fastidious, framed in fair hair and wide whiskers, and as innocent of all knowledge of human nature as the insipid Madonna in the window overhead. As soon as he was called to the parish of All-Saints he married. All-Saints was a snug nest for these two tame birds. It was made up of half a dozen families in a town which had sprung up about a railway station in Ohio. The church was new, from the red cushions to the tiny organ and painted window. Choir, vestry-men, congregation, all were new and full of zeal. There was the gray old senior warden, who kept an exceedingly sharp eye on the Reverend Edward; there were the bustling matrons in black silk, with their sewing circle; there was the inevitable cordon of adoring young girls. Mr. Britton was wont to declare that his flock were one with him in spirit, that they held up his hands in his battle with error. He had, in fact, carried his own belief into practice with regard to changes in albs, chasubles, and altar cloth, and the whole congregation supported him heartily, as they did in his dispute with the Low-Church pastor of St. Thomas concerning the number of genuflections requisite in the creed.

It will thus be seen that the Rev. Mr. Britton had reason when he felt his life to be rounded and complete. He could have wished, perhaps, that Phoebe had not been too much occupied with housekeeping duties to take much interest in the alb or chasuble troubles. She was always ready, however, to stand sponsor for the children of the congregation, or to nurse them when they were sick, and was as anxious about the brides, and cried over the dead, as if the people were her own kinfolk.

He was talking of some of these babies whom he had baptized and young girls whom he had married.

“I thank God often for the happy lot that has fallen to me, my dear,” he said, his voice unsteady. “To be the shepherd of this little flock from the cradle to the grave! I little thought when I was a boy such good fortune would be mine.”

“When you were a boy, and your stepfather used to thrash you so horribly!” said Phoebe in her brusque way. “Matthew Pansent? Pansent? It seems as if I had heard that name within a day or two. Didn’t you tell me he went to South Carolina after your mother’s death?”

“Yes. It is not necessary to speak farther of him.” Mr. Britton’s voice was singularly altered. He rose hastily, and began to pace up and down the room. When she looked up she saw that his mild face has undergone a ghastly change. He stopped in front of her. “Phoebe, I desire that you will never mention that man’s name to me again”—in a harsh, strident tone.

“No, Edward.”

Mr. Britton walked up and down the dim fire-lighted room. He did not speak again. He was a gentle, submissive Christian. Every body knew that. He knew it of himself. But at the bare mention of Pansent’s name his head began to throb, and the blood burned in his veins with the fire of hell. His sole thought was of what punishment he would mete out to the wretch if he had the power. None seemed to him sufficient. Hate him? Why should he not hate him? Had he not tortured his youth, made his mother’s old age one long breath of misery? To hate him was to hate sin—fraud-- He caught one of Phoebe’s keen glances and tried to smile back at her.

“I will go out in the fresh air a while, my dear. Am not well.” His countenance was pinched and colorless; there was a different man looking out from it than the sentimental little clergy man whom she had married.
As he went down the stairs into the impenetrable fog he staggered. It was hard that he, a clergyman, a godly man, should be thus torn with wrath, however righteous. How could he follow out the holy, calm life he purposed, while this man lived? If he were dead, if he could see him lying on the ground here—

He stopped, staring before him with a long breath of relief. It seemed for a moment as if the world was actually rid of this incubus; then, recollecting himself with a shudder, he went on.

When Mr. Britton returned, an hour later, the only trace of the moral convulsion through which he had passed was that he was cross and peevish. These weak, sweetly toned natures are not frequently found with an obstinate, inhuman chord running through them, and when it is struck, all their all their ordinary harmonies are jarred out of tune. This may account for the fact that Mr. Britton presently told his wife of the man in the cage, although, an hour or two before he had been anxious to keep her in ignorance of this terrible thing.

“It is the barbarous custom of this State,” he continued, irritably. “They treat a criminal as a brute—chain him by leg and arm to the floor, inside of just such a cage as is used for wild beasts.”

Phoebe turned very pale as she listened; but she said, calmly, “Does this man have enough to eat?”

“How should I know, my dear? I suppose that depends on the humanity of his keeper.”

“Are his friends allowed to see him?”

“I believe that he has none. Glosher tells me that nobody has visited him except the jailer.”

Her eyes filled with tears. “Caged and chained for a year in a Christian country, and not a soul to speak kindly to him, or tell him of Jesus who died for him!”

Mr. Britton moved uneasily. “That is owing to the fact that there is no regular chaplain; there could not be, of course. This is a mere country jail, with the one inmate—not a penitentiary.”

“You are going to him tomorrow, Edward!”


Mrs. Britton did not look up. She was trimming the lamp, and her fingers move nervously. There was a moment of silence. Mr. Britton’s pale blue eyes stared vacantly; he pulled unconsciously at his neat whiskers, ran his forefinger about the pretty white band around his neck. This was no question of albs and altar cloths, of baptizing babies or preparing timid young girls for confirmation. It was as if a door had suddenly opened into the horrors of the shadow of death, and a voice commanded him to walk through it.

“Yes, I will go” he said, humbly, after a while. But he was taciturn for the rest of the evening, and bore himself toward his wife with an aggrieved air.

The next morning Mr. Britton rose with an exalted sense of heroism upon him. Phoebe was right. Undoubtedly this was a part of his high duty. But he really, after all, did not think much of the message he was to carry—that was all such a familiar subject to him. He was a little disappointed that Lodon, the jailer, received his proposal to visit the prison without surprise or admiration.

“I thought it was time some of you preachers was seein’ to him,” he said dryly. “Can’t take you in till evenin’, though. I’m powerful pushed getting’ in my hay just now.”

He was surprised, too, to find Phoebe ready to go with him, as she always did when he visited the sick.

“I have put up a few peaches and cakes, and some salve. They tell me the chains have worn into the flesh.”

“Salve and peaches! Why, this is a murdered who killed an old, feeble man. He is under sentence of death.”

“He is a man, after all, I suppose,” said Mrs. Phoebe, calmly packing a jar of honey in her basket.

When Lodon that evening led them through the yard, overgrown with lilac and Jamestown weed, Mr. Britton felt his heart sicken within him. The great iron door of the jail creaked on its hinges. They entered a low brick passage. Lodon locked the door behind him, and drew the bars from a heavy iron trap which closed the stairs. In another moment they would be shut in with this human beast.

“I have not thought of what I should say to him, and his one chance of salvation is in me,” thought the clergyman, his foot upon the stair. “One moment, Lodon. I—I feel ill. This air---“

Phoebe touched him on the hand. She was very pale, but she smiled cheerfully. “It is only a man just like yourself whom you are going go to meet, Edward,” she whispered.
A man like himself! Really, Phoebe had the strangest way of expressing herself! He passed on, sustained by a fresh sense of dignity and virtue.

Lodon, hurrying through the dark upper passage, stopped at another iron door, rusted with age.

“Now”—turning the key in the lock.

The cage was a network of iron bars, about fifteen feet square, in the centre of a large room, into which the setting sun shone warmly and softly. The air was pure, the cage was scrupulously clean. The murderer was in the centre of it. Phoebe shut her eyes before she could go near him.

“If it was my brother now?” she thought.

When she opened them he was an honest-eyed countryman, clad in decent homespun, rising to meet her with a sudden pleased smile.

I did not know that a lady was coming,” he said. The voice was unembarrassed and sincere.

Mr. Britton hastily went up to the cage, “Who is that?” he cried. “Merciful God! John Matlack! Is that you?”

The two men stared at each other, the iron grating between them. The clergyman held to the bars with both hands; the shock of shame for his old friend was so great that he stammered and choked and then stood dumb. But John Matlack eagerly thrust out his chained hand.

“Edward! God bless you! I—I have not seen a face that I knew for a year, and now you—you!”

He was weak and emaciated with long confinement. The tears ran down his cheeks; he had to raise both bloodless hands together to his face to wipe them off. It was a pitiful sight. But Mr. Britton did not give him his hand. It was John Matlack; but it was no less a murderer. Phoebe thrust hers through the bars. The pity, the tender mercy, of all the good motherly women in the world seemed to look on him through her eyes.

“Why, I have heard so much of you, John. You were on the farm with Edward. He has told me of all the ploughing and ‘coon hunting and-- Oh, Edward, speak to him!”

“Why are you here, John?” Mr. Britton took out his cambric handkerchief and wiped his neatly shaven face nervously. Matlack stood upright and looked him steadily in the eyes. The chain from his leg to the floor creaked like some live thing as he moved.

“Why am I here? Because I have been found guilty of the murder of an old man, and sentenced to be hung for it. That’s why. I have but a few days longer to live.”

“But you did not do it!—you did not do it!” cried Phoebe, breathlessly. “You can not think him guilty, Edward. Look at his face.”

Her husband answered the demand in the prisoner’s eyes rather than her words.

“God knows with what pain I see you here,” he said, evasively. “You are the last man whom I should have through capable of such a crime.”

“If I found you here, Ned, I would have known you incapable of it, and have asked no further,” said the prisoner, with a quiet dignity.

He turned away. The chain, to Phoebe’s excited eyes, crept hideously across the floor, held him, dragged him back. Mr. Britton feebly pulled at his side whiskers. John Matlack, his old playfellow—murder? It was incredible. And yet he had been tried and sentenced by law, and to Mr. Britton the law was an infallible twin to power with the Church.

“Thar’s somethin’ to be said on Mr. Matlack’s side,” Lodon began, slowly, tapping on the cage with his keys to emphasize certain points. “Evidence was circumstantial wholly. Old gentlemen that was killed hed started a mica mine in the Nantahila Mountings. Mr. Matlack hyar was boss. Thar was hard words between them more than once; that was proved on the trial. The old man was powerful aggravatin’. The day afore the murder he came up from Ashville, a-lookin’ into things, and a-swearin’ tremenjus, callin’ Matlack a swindler and what not. Matlack he answers back, with another, as how he’d be even with him and turned and walked off; and them as stood by said they knew he meant it. That night the old man staid up in the cuttin’-house, lookin’ over accounts. Them mine houses is nothin’ but plank sheds, you know. The next mornin’ he was found lyin’ on the pile of mica chips, stone-dead, with a bullet through his heart.”

“That was no proof!” cried Phoebe.

“No, but you hevn’t heerd me out, Mistress Britton,” said Lodon, warming in the recital. “A bit of the waddin’ was found with the bullet, and it as a scrap of an envelope directed to ‘John Mat’—the rest to swar that he was a home all night, taking’ care of their sick boy. That was plenty mor’d hev sworn they didn’t believe John Matlack could do such a thing nohow. But that kind of testimony isn’t law.”

Matlack had remained with his back turned to them, unmoved while Lodon told his story. The truth was that Mr. Britton’s belief in his guilt had stunned him. He had grown used to looking the coming death in the face. After a year of solitude this friend of his youth had suddenly appeared—and condemned him. It was a fresh cut of pain, and a deep one. When his wife was named, however, he turned quickly and glanced at Phoebe.

“Yes. Where is she? What can I do for her, or for you?” demanded that little woman, her cheeks on fire.

“Nothing. She is ill—dying, they tell me. I could save her if I were near her. She knows whether I am innocent or not, thank God!”

“I know it. You don’t suppose that I believe that evidence. Not a syllable of it.”

Mr. Britton was miserable enough while all this was going on. He would have silenced his wife if he could; but how could he? John had been like a brother to him when they were both hard-worked, farm boys. The law could not be wrong. It was his duty as a man of God to exhort this criminal to repentance; but when he looked into the candid, noble face the words died on his lips.

“Who was this murdered man?” he stammered, not knowing what to say.

“Surely you have heard,” said Matlack—“Matthew Pansent.”

“Pansent? –dead?” Mr. Britton began slowly to pace up and down on the cell, as was his habit when he was studying his sermons, his white fingers working with his collar. Phoebe looked after him in terror: she alone saw how greatly he was shaken. He understood it now. John Matlack was innocent. It was he who was the murderer. God had given him his wish.

He went up to the cage; but his jaws refused to move when he would have spoken to Matlack.

“I had forgotten that he was you stepfather, Ned,” John said. “But I had nothing to do with his death. He tried me hard, but I never would have harmed the old man.”

“I would. There never was a time when I should not have been glad to see him dead. It is I who ought to be chained there, not you.” Mr. Britton said this in a low, rapid whisper, and then went straight to the door. He moved and looked like a man demented.

For a week after this night Mr. Britton shut himself up in his chamber. In his agony of remorse and humiliation he acted very like a child, and Phoebe was as a mother to him. He protested that he would leave the ministry—even the Church. Blood-guiltiness was on his soul, if not his hands. He never had understood the religion he taught: he never had known the Saviour whom he had showed to others.

Phoebe left him only to visit the innocent man in the cage. She read to him, wrote letters to his wife for him and about him.

One day she came home trembling and little disposed to talk.

“The Governor has set the day for—for—“

“The execution?”

“Yes. Next Friday. He has but four days to live.”

“He will die an innocent man.”

“Why need he die at all?”

“There is no chance. The Governor has been besieged for his pardon. It is necessary to have an example. There has been too great laxity, it appears, in this part of the State.” He had been trying to read a circular letter from the bishop, but he threw it down and wandered on. “Why, look at us, Phoebe! I ought to be in his place, and here I am, with my priestly coat and white surplice, regarded as a godly man. John Matlack is in chains, and next Thursday a rope about his neck! Think what justice there is in that! Think—“

But Mrs. Britton went hastily into her own room. She was not fond of thinking.

“What is to be done?” she said to herself. When she came back her countenance was rigid as that of a middle-aged woman. She spoke no more of the prisoner.

She went down the next day, as usual, to the jail. She stopped in her reading once or twice, looking at Matlack with a shudder.

“What is it that you see, ma’am?” asked Lodon, with surprise, for she was not a nervous woman.

“Oh, the chain. It seems alive to me. It creeps after him, holds him until they are ready to murder him.”

“You ought not to come back here, Mrs. Britton,” said Matlack. “It is too great a strain on any woman.”

She looked at him. Considerate of her, with death just at hand!—with a wife and child in the world whom he should never see again! But Matlack bore himself with the same gravity and simplicity in the face of his terrible fate as he had done when he was a boy. Nothing but his deathly pallor told of any suffering.

“Do not come to-morrow,” he said, when she rose to go. “There will be another day. I should like to give you another message then for—“

“For your wife and little Charley. I know, John.”

“There’s nobody else I’d ask to see them, though some of my old friends have been down this week. They’re very kind. But you—“

“Yes, yes. Good-by now,” shaking his hand and turning away. “Oh, this copy of hymns—I have been reading to you. I will leave it.” She handed It to Lodon for inspection—a few small sheets of manuscript bound in a thick parchment cover. The jailer noticed how cold her hand was as he touched it. He passed the roll through the bars of the cage.

“You will find much comfort in some of them” she said, looking Matlack steadily in the eye—“especially in the first.”
As she turned away, the cell grew suddenly dark before her, and the hideous clank of the chain jeered and mocked at her.

The street was drowsier than usual that evening. It was the day for the weekly mail to come in, but the carrier had arrived, and his mule and cart were put away, and all the excitement was over. Most of the houses were already closed for the night. The doctor and squire were seated in front of the store, finishing a game of draughts by the fading twilight, and a negro near by was “picking” a banjo, while another shuffled a doleful jig and sang, “Fahwell foreber—oh-h, foreber.”

Mrs. Britton laughed nervously. The moon hung low in the horizon, heavy masses of fog drove through the valley. She remembered that the moonlight would only last an hour. She looked out to the vast sweep of mountain ranges. Once safe in these impenetrable solitudes, no fugitive could be discovered, thank God! There was a little chamber, too, where a young wife lay near to death, with her boy beside her, waiting to hear that her husband had died upon the gallows. If—

Mr. Britton happened to read that night the story of how Lazarus was snatched out of the jaws of death. His wife listened, with her head lying on her folded arms on the table.

“This man too, O God!” she said.
When her husband read the evening prayers she did not kneel, and did not know he was praying.

Mr. Britton touched her gently after a while. “You are feverish, my dear; you need rest,” he said.

She walked quietly to the window. The fog had blotted street and houses out of sight, and without was the silence of death.

Early the next morning a commotion was heard on the street below, shrill cries and men running. Mrs. Britton was already seated, her sewing in hand. She stitched on carefully without lifting her eyes.

Lame Joe tapped at the door. He stuttered with excitement when Mr. Britton opened it.

“De prisoner am escaped, Sah. Watchspring saw—cut the iron. Too many ob he’s frens hyah las’ week.”

Mr. Britton ran down the stairs to join the excited crowd below. Phoebe did not move, but as she sewed her eyes shone and tears feel like rain.

Four years later Mr. Britton sat reading the newspaper one evening to his wife. He was a changed man in these four years, it was reported in church gossip. His sermons were no longer the fine efforts of literary skill and scholarship which they had been at first, but there was a humility and earnestness in them, like the voice of a man saved from shipwreck crying to his fellows, which gave them strange power.

“Look at this,” he said, laying the newspaper before her, and pointing to a passage. His finger shook as he did it.
“E. P. Connors, who died in the State-prison on Tuesday, confessed to the murder of Matthew Pansent, in this county five years ago. His anti-mortem statement was sworn to before a magistrate. This is the murder for which Matlack, as our readers will remember, was convicted, and is still under sentence of death.”

Mrs. Britton did not say a word after she had read the paragraph, but she rose quickly and left the room. She came back carrying a folded paper; she was evidently struggling with deep controlled excitement.

“Will you send this telegram to-night to California?”

He took it gravely. “Is it to John Matlack?”


“What of him, Phoebe?”

“He is with his wife and boys. This is all he needs in life.”

“You have been his friend all this time?”

“Yes, Edward.”

“I thought so.” He laughed to himself when he went out of the room. Then he put on his overcoat and took the telegram to the office.


Janice M. Lasseter
Samford University



Janice M. Lasseter Samford University, “"The Man in the Cage" December 1877Harper's New Monthly Magazine,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed February 22, 2019, http://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/98.