March a novel, p.10

March: a novel, page 10

 

March: a novel
 


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  I drew Sophia aside. “Do I understand correctly, that Miss Day has involved herself with the Underground Railroad?”

  Sophia’s intelligent eyes scanned my face. She lowered her voice. “Miss Day and her brother have been conductors for some time,” she murmured. “She told me that tonight’s package will be making a brief stop of some hours only, but at times she has harbored fugitives for many days. She is a resolute woman, Mr. March. Although some”—she shot her eyes in the direction of Mr. Emerson—“say she is reckless.” We were forced to separate then, as we were called to be seated. I could take no pleasure in the dinner, though Mrs. Thoreau had troubled to order wholesome vegetable fare in deference to my scruples. The party never really recovered, breaking up early, to my great relief

  It was hot that night, the air stubbornly refusing to cool, so after tossing and turning I rose, dressed in my walking clothes, and took my restless thoughts outside. A full moon lit my way through the village, and seemed to lead me on, to take the now familiar wooded path that wound toward the ponds. Under the trees, the air felt cooler, and the haze in my head began to lift. Long before I gained sight of the moonlit water, I realized I was not the only one there. Sound carries by night. The notes of a flute told that Henry, too, was out. He was somewhere in the middle of the pond, in his boat, serenading the perch. I walked around the pond shore, the smooth white stones glowing clear enough to make the way easy. My thoughts were all on Miss Day. I imagined her, mortified by her outburst, sleepless and fretful. I could not conceive her insensible of her fault, nor of the need to conquer it. I did not know Mr. Emerson and therefore was not in a position to judge the fairness or otherwise of her attack. Certainly, if any cause merited heat in argument, this one did. But it was the manner of the attack, the scorching flare of temper ... Perhaps, I mused, a husband’s gentle guidance could assist her in the battle against such a dangerous bosom enemy. But what if she were insensible, after all: what if the ungoverned tongue and the impulse to wound with it were so deeply ingrained as to be ineradicable ? What sort of wife, what sort of mother ...

  And at that moment, my eye was caught by a glimmer of white, flickering through the woods farther up the shore. As if I had conjured her, there she was: walking through the trees like a wood sprite. At the mere glimpse of her, my mental reservations were swept aside by my bodily longing. I called to her. She started, and turned, and as she recognized me, replied to my greeting with a laugh. “Is all of Concord here tonight, then?” Changing her direction, she made her way through the forest fringe to join me on the stones. She passed her foot lightly back and forth over the smooth flat disks, so that they clattered.

  “My brother and I used to come here on summer nights like this, when we were children. We’d make a fire and catch fish with worms strung on a thread. They made me give it up when I got older., They would keep me instead in their stifling parlors, making polite conversation—”

  She broke off. I wondered if she were thinking, as I was, of an exchange in a parlor that had been in no wise polite. “Well,” she continued in the same light tone. “Now I am older still, and can choose for myself, so I choose to come here. Although Father does not know of it; he could not approve that I come alone.”

  She sat down then and commenced work upon the lacings of her boots. These she stood upon the white shingles, and then set about peeling off her stockings. She looked up at me. “Do you think it very shocking, Mr. March?” The whites of her dark eyes gleamed. She jumped up, lifting the hem of her dress so that the pale curve of one bare calf was exposed. She skipped down the beach, dipping her toe in the lapping water. An animal sound escaped me. She must have taken it for a snort of disapproval. “You do!” she exclaimed. “In but a single evening I have exposed myself to you as both a Harpy and a Helen!” She tossed her head back and gave what I thought at first was a soft laugh. But then her shoulders shook and I realized she wept. A long strand of her hair escaped its pins and came tumbling, a dark skein unspooling over the white of her dress. “They branded him, Mr. March, the man I helped tonight. A human being, and they shoved a red-hot iron into the flesh of his face ... And we sit in our parlors, and talk, and do nothing, and tell ourselves that is enough ...” She gulped, and the weeping overtook her ability to go on. Crunching the stones, I was beside her. I reached for her, pushing back the fall of hair—it was heavy and thick and smooth to the touch—and tilted her chin so that the moonlight shone on her wet face.

  It was fortunate for both of us that she had such long practice in these illicit evening outings, for some hours later, when we made our clandestine way back to the village, neither of us was in any state that could have been easily explained. I have no idea what she did with that white dress, stained as it was with mud and, yes, blood. For we married each other that night, there on a bed of fallen pine needles-even today, the scent of pitch-pine stirs me—with Henry’s distant flute for a wedding march and the arching white birch boughs for our basilica. At first, she quivered like an aspen, and I was ashamed at my lack of continence, yet I could not let go of her. I felt like Peleus on the beach, clinging to Thetis, only to find that, suddenly, it was she who held me; that same furnace in her nature that had flared up in anger blazed again, in passion.

  I did not sleep that night. Too early for a seemly morning call, I was at her house, admitted by the housekeeper, Mrs. Mullet, who was surly—she may have known something of the ruined dress—and, in due course, shown to her father’s study, where I went through the formality of asking for what I had already taken. The old man fretted and complained when I said we would have a simple ceremony, right there in the parlor, and as soon as could be, rather than the large and formal church wedding he had always wanted for his daughter. But I could brook no delay that would keep us apart for one unnecessary night, and so we were lawfully joined there by her brother within the fortnight, with only her father, my uncle and aunt, and the Thoreaus as witnesses.

  It was well I insisted, for on the full moon exactly nine months later I held our first child in my hands. The babe emerged into the world with a countenance and coloring that were a tiny miniature of my own. We had jested privately that if it were a man-child, the circumstances of his conception would oblige us to name him Achilles. But we had a little woman, and so I was free to call her by the name that had become dearest in the world to me: her mother’s. I named our firstborn Margaret.

  CHAPTER SIX

  Yankee Leavening

  Aboard the Hetty G., March 10, 1862

  My dearest,

  How much this month I have felt like one of the Magi, setting out on a journey in a bleak season, yet knowing in my heart that the goal of the going will reward every hardship of the way. I lie down this night upon our vessel’s rough deck in the hope that tomorrow I will be better housed in one of the great white mansions vacated by the chevaliers of this rebellion. You, who have been so busy about scraping lint, rolling bandages, and sewing gaiters, know better than most how dire is the need for the cotton that grows here, weed-choked from neglect, or rots unpicked, or worse, is wantonly destroyed simply to deny it us. At times I have espied rising curls of smoke that I must think mark the firing of fields by retreating rebels. At other times, we have steamed through waters strewn with cotton spilled from bales broken open and rolled into the river.

  Tomorrow should see me at last arrived at my assigned destination: a thousand liberated acres where the Negros now under our protection are learning the sweet savor of toil performed for the reward of wages. My heart is light tonight, as I think about my part in this first great experiment of equality.

  I have now traveled so far south that I find myself come to a place where our common expression “white as snow” has no useful meaning. Here, one who wishes his words to make plain sense had better say “white as cotton.” I will not say that I find the landscape lovely We go up through Nature to God, and my Northern eye misses the grandeur that eases that ascent. I yearn for mountains, or at least for the gen
tle ridges of Massachusetts; the sweet folds and furrows that offer the refreshment of a new vista as each gap or summit is obtained Here all is obvious, a song upon a single note. One wakes and falls asleep to a green sameness, the sun like a pale egg yolk, peenng down from a white sky.

  And the river! Water as unlike our clear fast-flowing freshets as a fat broody hen to a hummingbird. Brown as treacle, wider than a harbor, this is water sans sparkle or shimmer. In places, it roils as if heated below by a hidden furnace. In others, it sucks the light down and gives back naught but an inscrutable sheen that conceals both depth and shallows. It is a mountebank, this river. It feigns a gentle lassitude, yet coiled beneath are currents that have crushed the trunks of mighty trees, and swept men to swift drownings...

  I looked up from my page, over the ship’s rail, to the thing itself, and the scene was again before me: the federal ram-boat steaming into the enemy’s vessel, staving its side like crumpled paper so that it sank in less than three minutes, with the loss of all hands. I did not tell her I had witnessed this. Neither did I tell her of the silent gloom aboard the Hetty G. the night before that engagement; the surgeon flinging down sawdust to receive the blood that was yet to flow, each man on board left to reflect on whether it would be his own or his companion’s. And how it flowed. That day, I moved from man to wounded man, loosening a bandage on a swollen limb, holding cones of chloroform for the surgeon, bathing the wounds of men blistered with steam burns from a shell-ruptured pipe. One of these, who was clearly dying, said he was a Catholic and asked if I was a priest. Knowing full well that there was no priest to bring to him, I looked around to see if we were overheard, and then I whispered to him that I was. I let him make his confession, and gave him absolution as I had seen the Fathers do it. I have wondered, since then, if I did wrong. I cannot think that even the exacting God of Rome would find so.

  The deck remained stained dark from that grim morning, despite a week of hard swabbing. Still, I rested content upon those bloodied boards, because I believed that the letter I had penned would bring an end to the necessity for dissembling. Of my new duties, I felt sure, there would at last be nothing unfit to share with my wife. Finally, I would be about work that had as its object the betterment of life rather than the ending of it.

  All the next day, from sunup, I was by the bow, impatient for the first glimpse of the landing that would mark my new home. There was little wind and the air was inconceivably mild for the season. How strange it seemed to be passing by banks where the high green grasses grew on, insensible of the browning blight of frost.

  I had been assigned to an estate named Oak Landing, now in the hands of one Ethan Canning, an Illinois attorney. He had secured a year’s lease from the owner, the widow of a Confederate colonel named Croft. That lady, a Northerner by birth, had removed herself to the city after her lands fell under Union occupation and had readily taken the loyalty oath. In consequence, her property was now afforded Union protection, and she was free to lease it, which she had done, for small payment plus a half share in whatever profit Mr. Canning might be able to wrest from it.

  The intention of leasing to such men as Mr. Canning was, as I understood it, threefold: to save what could be of the sorely needed cotton, to introduce a certain Yankee leaven into the Southern loaf, and to provide direction for the slaves fallen under our protection. These would now work for the first time willingly, rather than from fear of the lash. Adult male hands were to be paid ten dollars a month, less some small amount retained for the provision of clothing and other essential supplies.

  My part was to help in establishing schools for the colored children and those among their parents who had the desire to learn their letters. I had occupied my idle hours aboard the steamer in drawing up lesson plans and making alphabets that could be hung in the ginning room, the cookhouse, or the smithy, so that adults might learn even as they labored. Busying myself about this work had acted like a salve on the sting of the colonel’s decision to send me hence. Indeed, as my enthusiasm mounted, my true feelings began to reflect the fair face I had put upon the change in my letters home. I did most sincerely look forward to this new calling.

  I suppose I had expected Canning himself to meet me at the landing, word of my arrival having been sent ahead with the patrol. So I was surprised to see no one but a ragged, skinny Negro who could not have been more than twelve years old, waiting with a spavined mule that cropped the river grass in the slanting light of late afternoon. Upbraiding myself for my pridefulness, in expecting any larger reception, I arranged my face into a cheerful expression and greeted the boy, who I assumed would soon be one of my scholars, with an enthusiastic salute. The boy neither returned my smile nor raised his eyes. I introduced myself and asked him his name. His answer was inaudible, so I was obliged to ask again, leaning down to catch his reply.

  “Josiah, marse,” he said, his chin tucked into his chest and his eyes on the pebble he rotated under a bare and calloused toe. He tugged on the mule’s headstall to bring it round, seemingly expecting me to mount, and when I said I would walk alongside him so that he could more easily tell me about the place, he shot me a swift, scared glance. I spoke brightly to him, but failed to extract more than a mumbled word or two in reply to any of my queries. His eyes were crusted with some pussy discharge, and before we had walked any distance at all he was wheezing and laboring for his breath. We went along the yellow clay track in silence for a while, past trees mottled with lichens and swagged with Spanish moss. I had to slow my step to accommodate the boy, who nonetheless fell behind even my slowest pace. When his brow became damp from fatigue I could bear it no longer. I stopped on the path and waited until he drew level with me.

  “Get up on the mule, Josiah,” I said in a kindly voice. He shook his lowered head sharply and gave a grim ebony frown.

  “Go on,” I urged. “You’re too ill to walk.”

  “No sir, marse. S’not allow.”

  “Josiah,” I said. “Look at me..”

  Slowly the boy raised his rheumy eyes. “I know it must be hard to get used to such a vast change in your condition, but you are going to be a free boy directly. Get up on the mule. No one is going to beat you anymore.”

  “Go in dat hole be worse than beating.”

  “What hole?”

  “Place for bad niggers.”

  He would say no more than this, though I pressed him gently. He turned his face away from me and would not meet my eyes. I reasoned that he spoke about some barbarity of the former regime, the subject of which distressed him, and so I ceased my inquiries and simply walked on, as slowly as I could. I hoped that the boy’s listlessness was the product of his ill health merely, and not a harbinger of some shared trait to be overcome with all my pupils.

  The ground began to rise gently, signaling our approach to the house. I had noted from the bow of the Hetty G. that the buildings of the gentry always occupied any slight elevation that might be had above the flats and swamps. It was dusk when the track took a sharp turn and widened suddenly into a grand avenue, shaded by the curvaceous boughs of live oaks. The house gave only a glimpse of itself, a flash of white amid the shadows cast by the trees. Only when the trees gave way to gardens of crape myrtle and azalea did the mansion materialize: a two-and-a-half-story brick house with eight plain Tuscan columns forming its portico and supporting an entablature in the temple style. At either end of the portico, sets of moss green shutters promised shady respite. I could see that every room on the first two floors had a doorway to the porch. My imagination ran to visions of languid ladies, their silken skirts swishing through those doors in the early evening, as they came out to catch the breezes from the river.

  The vision dissolved as I crossed the plaited brick patio and a slight young man opened the paneled door. Inside, the house had been stripped bare of its former luxuries. I stepped into a hall innocent of any carpet, the floorboards wearing instead a mantle of dust that spoke of neglected housekeeping. Ethan Canning held out his hand
and grasped mine in a vigorous shake. Though his was the soft hand of a man unacquainted with physical labor, his grip was almost painfully firm, as if he wished to leave me in no doubt of his power. It was, I thought, the overzealous handshake of a boy playing at being a man. Indeed, I was astonished at his youthfulness. He was a sharp-featured, intelligent-looking fellow, but I doubt he had reached his mid-twenties. His smooth skin was puckered with a harassed expression, and as he turned to lead the way inside, he walked with a limp that spoke of clubfoot and explained why a man of his age was not in uniform. He was not particularly tall, his stature bringing him barely to my shoulder. He had to peer up at me through a pair of gold half glasses he wore perched on the end of his nose.

  “I thought we would sup directly, if you don’t mind, Mr. March. I expect you are hungry from your journey and we keep early hours here.”

  He led me into what must once have been a considerable dining room, the paneled walls painted with frothy scenes of French fops at play upon flower-decked meadows. The Southern chivalry who designed this room might once have enjoyed a similar life of pleasant idleness. Now, however, the painting’s beribboned ladies turned their gaze of amusement upon a hollow, echoing space. A small utility table had been pressed into service instead of whatever fine piece had once held pride of place. Upon it were a few dishes of chipped and mismatched china. As I seated myself gingerly on a rickety stool, an elderly black manservant made to serve me a greasy piece of pork. I declined this, contenting myself with a watery dollop of sweet potato. It was not the dinner I had conjured for myself.

 
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