March a novel, p.12

March: a novel, page 12


March: a novel

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  “There now, Mother,” I remonstrated. “Surely it’s not necessary to strike such a small child?”

  She squinted up at me through opaque eyes. “And who be tellin’ me that, then?”

  I introduced myself She cackled. “Well, you being a minister, you tell me now; what the good Lord go make switches for, if it ain’t for lickin’ boy chilluns?”

  She rose then and hobbled to the doorway. “Doan none of you move an inch, hear?” she croaked loudly at the poor little black lambs, who shrank back from the terrible crone and looked completely fearful. “I’s got to manage these newcomers,” she explained, “and I’s also got to nurse the ones who’s leaving us shortly.” She extended a boney claw to me as she said this, and I took her hand, reluctantly. Leaning on me and on her staff, she made her unsteady way out of the infants’ cottage along the packed earth path to an adjacent one. As she opened the door, a stink of sickness greeted us. This, then, was what passed for an infirmary. Some dozen souls lay on filthy floor mats. Roaches ran over those too weak to swat them or too ill to care. It was not necessary to be a physician in order to perceive that every one of them was most gravely ill.

  There was a bucket of water near the door and the woman drew a wet cloth from it and went from one prostrate figure to the next, bathing each sweaty brow. A second pail contained a ladle, so I dipped this and followed her, offering water to those who could drink, and dribbling a few drops on the parched lips of those too weak to make that effort.

  “What illnesses are they suffering?” I asked.

  She shrugged her hunched shoulders. “Fevers, fluxes. Some’s got the yellow sickness. Some’s got the white flux. That girl there, she got childbed fever.”

  “Has a doctor seen to these people?”

  The woman gave a snort. “Ain’t no doctors in these parts, not for such as we.”

  I thought it odd that Canning had not summoned a Union medic. “What used to happen here, Mother, when people became ill?”

  “Why, every spring the old marse done give molasses and sulfur and sassafras tea to purify they blood. He give the same spring clean medicine to every mule and pig and slave on the whole place. It worked good. Time the old marse, not so many people get so much sick as now. If they gets a little sick, they take a little this, little that, herb and root medicine that the Missus Croft knew ’bout. Someone done git fever, she say wash ’em in strong pokeroot, and vinegar and salt, but we doan have no salt nor no vinegar nowadays. But mainly she and de old marse says to the sick uns, just set a little, and they be better by an’ by. Young marse say no, make the sick ones get up and work till they cain’t get up no mo’.”

  I made my way back to the house with a fury at Canning and his cruelties fomenting in my breast. I waited for him, formulating my complaints, pacing the dusty drawing room so that the motes leapt and sparkled in the slanting light. When I heard his irregular tread I hurled myself out into the hallway, ready to accost him. But the sight of him gave me a check. The man was ashen. His limp was far more pronounced, so that he seemed to be dragging his left leg like a deadweight behind him. I calculated then that he must have been driving the laborers for a full sixteen hours. This further enraged me. Army directives said contraband labor should be worked not more than ten hours of a summer’s day and nine in winter. My temper must have shown in my face, for Canning raised a hand when he saw me, and murmured, “Soon, not now. Give me just some little time, chaplain, before you subject me to your terrible, swift sword.” He climbed the stairs, with some difficulty, pulling himself upward with the aid of the banister. Ptolemy followed him, bearing ewers and a square of ill-laundered linen.

  A half hour later, Canning descended, looking somewhat restored. I had waited by the black marble mantel of the drawing room, my hands, in their agitation, tapping a tattoo on the cool stone. The drawing room’s wide, high windows offered a sweeping prospect of the gardens, which must have been very fine when they were properly maintained. But the boxwood hedges were shaggy now and what must have been the cutting garden was brown and dead and untended. I turned from the fireplace when Canning entered. He drew up a spindle-back chair and sat down heavily. “Now,” he said. “Now you may do your worst.”

  I began with the “infirmary” and the criminal neglect of the gravely ill. “To have that old woman-who looks almost dead herself-as the only comfort for those people is appalling.”

  “Mr. March,” he said with an exaggerated courtesy. “Almost the first thing I did when I got here was to apply to the Union surgeon at Waterbank. That good doctor at first demurred on the grounds that the needs of the soldiery were too pressing. When I remonstrated with him, detailing the plight of the human beings under my charge, he replied that ‘niggers were only animals, and not half as valuable as cattle.’ After that, I ceased my pursuit, for what healing could come from a man of such monstrous convictions?”

  “Well,” I said, “but what of the sicknesses that old woman carries back to the infants she neglects and abuses. Is it worth a few more bags of cotton to put those infants at such risk? Could you not spare one of the mothers to the task?”

  “The mothers are not always the Madonnas you conceive them, Mr. March. Have you heard the way they speak to their children?” He gave a thin smile. “In these times the infants’ fates are uncertain, whatever I do. But I will consider sparing a half hand, yes: it does seem an unnecessary risk to expose infants to the miasma that the crone brings from the sick-house.”

  “How could you not have thought of this?” I said, disarmed by his ready assent on the point.

  He ran a hand through his sandy hair. “There are things, a myriad things, every day, that I wish that I had thought of I came here to see a cotton crop to market, not to be a politician, a doctor, and a wet nurse. I am an attorney, Mr. March. A bachelor attorney. I have had to learn how to farm and factor with only the assistance-contrary to the romantic nonsense that has been bruited about them-of a very abject and unpromising class of beings. How can I be expected to master medicine and midwifery as well? I am doing my best, March, damn it.”

  “Your best?” I said, freshly incensed. “How can you call it so, when you cast a human being into a sodden hole for the crime of being hungry?”

  “Ah,” he said. “We come to the matter of Zeke.”

  “Yes,” I snapped, “and the poor man was in a most wretched-”

  He cut me off. “I suppose he told you he stole the hog to feed his children?”

  “Are you saying that is false?”

  “No, it is true. What he neglected to tell you is that those ‘children’ are youths well grown, who wear butternut and ride with the rebels.” My face must have been blank with confusion. His tone became testy. “Don’t be a simpleton, March. There are Negroes who serve the secessionist side. You must know this.”

  “Yes, of course. But only under duress...”

  Canning shook his head. I was clearly trying his patience now. “Zeke’s wife was the overseer’s house servant, so her boys grew up as servants and companions to the overseer’s sons. By all accounts they were quite privileged-spared field work, trained in crafts such as smithying and saddlery, allowed to earn a little cash on their own account hiring out these skills. When the overseer’s boys joined the army, Zeke’s sons went along as their servants. One of the white youths died in the engagement that killed Croft. The surviving son joined the irregulars. Zeke’s boys drifted back here, but ran off directly they learned that I expected them to work in the fields alongside everyone else. It seems they’d rather be slaves living off plunder than contraband working for their keep. But you will, I trust, forgive me if take exception to this plantation’s depleted livestock being used to feed the very men who harass and threaten my existence.”

  “Well,” I said, “perhaps they would not have run off if you did not drive everyone so cruelly.”

  “I came here to get cotton picked for the Union cause that is so dear to you, Mr. March, and getting it picked-this late i
n the season, in these conditions-requires sacrifices, yes, from everyone. To do it I have to wrest the maximum amount of labor from the sinews of every man, woman, and child on this place, including myself. And I will not apologize for that!” He had jumped up, in the course of this speech, his voice rising. Then he staggered slightly and rubbed at his chest.

  I took an involuntary step toward him, thinking he might be about to faint, but he waved me away and sat again, sighing. When he resumed speaking, his tone was level and calm. “What I have had to contend with here is not just foul weather and murderous rebels, but an attitude of mind, Mr. March. It will take some considerable time to make the Negro understand that to be emancipated does not mean to be liberated from toil, which has been the lot of all the children of God since Adam and Eve were cast from Eden. Why, some of them here seemed to apprehend that Mr. Lincoln meant to carry them all in state on up to Boston, and give them white men for their slaves!”

  “How can you expect them to feel emancipated when you tyrannize them in every way short of the lash, and meanwhile pay them nothing?”

  “Why, I am paying hands eight dollars a month, and half hands-children, the elderly-according to their stint.”

  “But they say they have received nothing.”

  “Well, of course they’ve received nothing yet. I will pay them from the factor’s funds, when we receive these after the harvest.”

  I thought it no great surprise that men like Zeke doubted such promises, when every white had always lied to them as a matter of policy. I knew the kind of “facts” slaves were taught; that those who fled to Canada would be caught by the British, who would have their eyes put out and set them to toil in underground mines till death overtook them.

  I thought of the women I had seen that day in the fields, their shifts shot through with holes, not an undergarment in evidence. I thought of the naked, crying infants in their urine-soaked hammocks. “Is there no way that in the meantime you could do something to increase their rations, improve their clothing?” Canning looked up then and raised his hands in a gesture of despair. “You tell me, March! You tell me a way. I have racked my brains on this. I was not a rich man when I came down here. I spent every penny I’d managed to save from my practice and put myself in debt to buy the lease from Mrs. Croft and pay for those few scraggly mules you see, to replace the ones that had been stolen. Now I find that I have a lease that likely will yield but half of what I expected. I will be very lucky to leave here without being ruined. And that is if fever or a rebel raiding party doesn’t kill me first. How, then, am I to feed and clothe 167 people? I don’t suppose you have a private fortune on which you’d like to draw?”

  I thought, but did not say, that not a decade earlier I would have had just such a fortune. But I did not wish to canvas to Canning the whole tangled history of my swift journey from plenty to poverty. Still, the young man’s words had inspired me. There were men of fortune-in Concord, in Boston, and in New York-to whom we might apply for help.

  “Loaves and fishes, Mr. Canning. That is what we need.”

  “I suppose a belief in miracles is a requirement of your calling?”

  “Indeed, Mr. Canning. And I intend to convert you. I don’t suppose I might have the use of your horse tomorrow?”

  “If Aster can help you work a miracle, then by all means. But may I ask what you propose?”

  We went in to dinner then, and over a supper much more agreeable than I had expected (both for my finding reason to hope that Mr. Canning might not be quite the young ogre I had conceived him, but also for the cook’s managing to make some tolerable beans without the inevitable inclusion of swine fat) I set out for him the outline of my scheme.

  At the end of it, he shook his head, but he was smiling as he spoke. “A miracle indeed, if you can make it happen, Mr. March. But I wish you all success.” We rose then, he to his nightly rounds, I to my bed, on which I lay much of the night wakeful. I began by going over the details of the next day’s tasks, many of which had to do with the penning and dispatch of various begging letters to wealthy abolitionist acquaintances. As I mentally composed these letters, it was inevitable that my mind would turn to the days when it was myself to whom such epistles had been directed. From there, my thoughts traveled in easy stages to the unraveling of my fortune, and to the exigencies of a current situation so threadbare that even my daughters are forced to toil for wages. None of them blames me, I know that. But it is a hard thing when a man is ruined by the very idea that most animates him. And that night, when I found myself tossing sleeplessly, I could not help but blame myself


  Bread and Shelter

  If a man is to lose his fortune, it is a good thing if he were poor before he acquired it, for poverty requires aptitude. Lucky for me that I knew how to wield an adz and a hoe long before I learned to read a ledger book or negotiate a contract.

  While it was true that as newlyweds we lived without ostentation in the home I established in Concord, it is also true that we lived entirely without want. My mission was to provide Marmee with complete liberty of mind so that she might tend to her twin passions-the education of our little women and the cause of abolition-without having to trouble about the least detail of housekeeping. For we had not long passed a year of blissful absorption in our golden Meg than our dark, lusty little Josephine-the image of her mother-arrived to join her.

  Marmee’s father had moved in with us, bringing with him his long-time housekeeper, Hannah Mullet. She was a capable soul but crude in her perceptions of what a home might be. I imagined a seminary of society, a place of calm, beauty, and order. At first, Hannah saw the chef, the valet, and the nursery maid I employed as usurpers in her realm, but her grumbling ebbed as Mr. Day’s decline demanded more of her, and she was glad to have the extra time to devote to his care.

  Marmee, for her part, chided me that the large staff left her little more to do in a practical way than “tend her pocket handkerchief.” Sometimes, when I came upon her by Jo’s crib, humming some movement from a Beethoven symphony that was by no means a soothing lullaby, or rolling on the grass in some wild tussling play with little Meg, I recalled our first private conversation in her brother’s house and teased her, asking if she had determined yet which of the girls was to be the famous author and which the renowned artist.

  In the months that had followed our marriage I quietly conspired to build beauty into our daily life. The house I had purchased was large but charmless. By ordering the removal of a partition here and a set of folding doors there, a pair of boxy sitting rooms became a generous parlor through which light spilled even on the grayest of days. Old ovens and ash holes I had converted into graceful arched alcoves; gradually, and with not a little tact, I replaced the conventional and undistinguished furniture that Mr. Day had gifted us with items of more elegance and lineage. A table of polished elm found its way into the dining room; a set of sofas covered in French silk graced the parlor. I also put in place an ambitious scheme for the garden. It is a pleasure to complete the design of Nature by adding something to the landscape, rather than merely denuding it for the production of fuel and fodder. I extended the stables and added a ring so that our daughters might learn to ride at the earliest opportunity. Along our boundary walls I started espaliered fruit trees-apple, plum, and pear. Because we stood at the foot of a steep slope, I had this terraced and created upon the levels a number of different styles of planting. Some acres I left quite wild, a refuge for the birds and small beasts and pollinating insects. Upon others I devised parterres of a classic formality. I started climbing roses over bowers and devised a pleasance for the children by the brookside. Under the cover of all these improvements made for enjoyment and elegance, I also undertook, in secret, the conversion of an attic stairway to something resembling a “priest’s hole” of medieval times. When it was completed, I brought Marmee upstairs and showed her how an innocent-seeming wainscot concealed our new “railway station,” where a fugitive could
rest, in comfort and safety, for as many days as might be needed. Her delight in this exceeded her pleasure in all my other improvements combined.

  Freed from the quotidian, Marmee and I spent our first years together most profitably: she would lead me through the hidden paths and byways around Concord that had been her childhood haunts, teaching me to know my new place. In turn, I tried to teach her something about her new place, giving her to understand, with gentle hints and loving guidance, that what might be considered lapses born of high spirits in a young maiden were in no way proper in one who was now a mother and a wife. And just as some of the ways she showed me were stony and bramble-thatched, so, too, did we stumble, from time to time, in our progress upon that other difficult road. But we pressed on, growing in intimacy with each other, and then with those others whom we were most fortunate to call neighbors.

  Waldo Emerson was by no means the closed and aloof figure I had conceived him upon our first meeting. At the risk of self flattery, I can say that he came to value my opinions upon the ideas of our time. Before very long it was unusual if we did not spend part of every other day in company and close discussion. Marmee was delighted when Mr. Emerson began to be more outspoken, indeed, passionately eloquent, on the subject of emancipation, and was inclined to take a little credit for the change. But I think the Thoreaus had a greater, if quieter, share of influence there, especially Henry, through his unusual intimacy with Lidian Emerson. Waldo’s wife was the one adult with whom Henry was never awkward or reserved, and to her children he could not have been more affectionate if they had been his own. With my girls, too, he was considerate and interested, and as soon as they were conversible, he elected himself their unofficial tutor in the ways of the natural world and became, perforce, our daily intimate. He delighted to take Meg and Jo into the woods to observe the life within. It was not all science with him: a row of orange fungus was an elven staircase, a cobweb the fairies’ lace handkin.

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