March a novel, p.18

March: a novel, page 18


March: a novel

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  I had never spoken to him so harshly before, even at the height of our many disagreements. He looked at me, and the bantam cock arrogance seemed to drain right out of him.

  “I hadn’t thought of it like that ... I mean to say, I see what you...” Suddenly, he looked very young.

  I changed my tone and reached out to lay a hand on his shoulder. “What will come, will come,” I said gently. “And we will face it together.”

  And so July waned, and the drawdown at the Waterbank post took place as expected, but the locality remained quiet, with no reports of pronounced increase in guerrilla activity. As day followed upon uneventful day, we went about our various tasks of pencil and plow, and tried not to think about our vulnerability. In the first week of August I lost three more days to fever delirium, and when I recovered it was to the grim realization that I might never be quite well again. For it was now clear that I had not the common river ague, but saddleback fever, named because a period of health is just a temporary respite between the spikes of recurring debility. Yet dejection need not always partner with despair. For me, the knowlege of my fragile state proved a prod to greater efforts in the classroom. If my time was to be shortened by ill health, then all the more need to impart some useful learning to my eager charges. I worked them hard, and they did not complain.

  The Darwin’s Bend Negroes had not, after all, run off perhaps because they feared the uncertainties of the road more than the uncertainties of staying. Men and women who had been,refugees once did not relish experiencing that state again. They knew firsthand the dangers that stood between them and any scant sanctuary they might find behind Union lines; they also knew the squalor and disorganization of the contraband camps that awaited them there. Or perhaps they stayed because they had liked the experience of earning wages for their work, and were unwilling to abandon the monies due them at the nearing harvest. Perhaps they stayed because they had come to trust us and put their faith in our decision not to flee.

  There is a vividness to seasons lived as we lived that summer. Even as we pursued our routines and went about our tasks, the medium in which we moved had been stirred. A rat’s tooth of uneasiness gnawed at me, and at Canning, and I am certain that the field hands felt it, too.

  I recognized the tokens of the time, because I had lived through just such another uneasy season, when every day was tainted by the foul breath of a fear that could not be faced forthrightly, yet could not be ignored.


  Folling Bells

  Are there any two words in all of the English language more closely twinned than courage and cowardice? I do not think there is a man alive who will not yearn to possess the former and dread to be accused of the latter. One is held to be the apogee of man’s character, the other its nadir. And yet, to me, the two sit side by side on the circle of life, removed from each other by the merest degree of arc.

  Who is the brave man—he who feels no fear? If so, then bravery is but a polite term for a mind devoid of rationality and imagination. The brave man, the real hero, quakes with terror, sweats, feels his very bowels betray him, and in spite of this moves forward to do the act he dreads. And yet I do not think it heroic to march into fields of fire, whipped on one’s way only by fear of being called craven. Sometimes, true courage requires inaction; that one sit at home while war rages, if by doing so one satisfies the quiet voice of honorable conscience.

  In Concord, because of our work in the Underground Railroad, we had come to know many who fit the latter description. Mostly they were Quakers, whose abolitionism and pacifism sprang from the selfsame core belief: there is that of God in every person, and therefore you may not enslave any man, and neither may you kill him, even to liberate the enslaved.

  And then, in October of 1859, John Brown, supported wittingly or unwittingly by Quakers and others who deplored violence, killed to liberate. Brown had three of his sons among the twenty men he led in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. He expected the slaves in the surrounding area to rise up in rebellion as soon as they heard of his act. He had the weapons—a thousand spears, wagon loads of Sharps rifles and pistols—waiting for them. I felt ill when I learned that the first to be mortally wounded by Brown’s men was no slave owner, but Hayward Shepherd, a free black man who worked as railway baggage master. But Brown’s “bees,” as he described the slaves he believed would flock to his banner, failed to swarm. Two of his sons and several other followers were killed; he was wounded and taken prisoner.

  I had absolved Brown, long ago, for the loss of my fortune; I had schooled myself to look back on the episode without bitterness or blame. But I had advanced him money to free human beings, not to slaughter them. I knew I could not forgive, if my innocent ties to Brown implicated me in such killings, and proved the means of undoing the blessed bonds of my family.

  I soon learned that I was not alone in my anxiety. Young Frank Sanborn, our Concord schoolmaster, had been more closely bound up in Brown’s plans than I ever imagined. Sanborn had been about to lead his annual school chestnut hunt; instead, when a fugitive from the raid turned up unexpectedly at his door seeking sanctuary, he handed the man over to Henry Thoreau and fled the village in panic, saying there were a thousand better ways to continue the antislavery struggle than by risking arrest and extradition to Virginia.

  Sanborn’s assistance to Brown was recent, mine was years behind me. Still, I walked through my life warily, as a man might walk along a cliff edge in a fog. Someone’s money had bought the crates of Sharps rifles for John Brown, and Southerners were baying to know whose.

  In the evenings, with my family gathered in our parlor, fear soured what had been my sweetest hours. I could hardly give myself over to the pleasure of regarding the brown and golden heads bent over sketchbook or journal, Jo’s lush hair tumbling from her snood in lawless strands, Amy’s curls arranged self-consciously about her little shoulders; my kindly Mouse, Beth, talking softly to her kittens; Meg and Marmee collaborating on a piece of needlework. I would gaze on them all, then look away, feeling a premonition of separation. My imagination did not then compass the truth: that it would be I who would choose to sever those sacred ties and bring about a separation whose end none of us would be able to foresee.

  Others in my predicament did more than simply fret. The wealthy Quaker Gerrit Smith, who had long been Brown’s greatest benefactor, arranged to have his friends commit him to an insane asylum so as to be beyond the reach of the Southern inquisitors. Sanborn went to Canada; Frederick Douglass took ship for England. Did these men act the part of cowards? I did not think so, even though Douglass wrote self-deprecatingly that he had “always been more distinguished for running than fighting, and by the Harper’s Ferry test, I am most miserably deficient in courage.”

  If the Southerners had killed Brown on the streets of Harper’s Ferry, or hanged him expeditiously in the week after the raid, I am convinced he would have been but a footnote to history. Mad, misguided: these were among the kindest things first said about him, even in the abolitionist press. But Brown brilliantly used his final weeks on earth. By the time he reached his executioner in early December, his demeanor in captivity, his address in court, the kiss placed on the brow of the slave child as he walked to the gallows-all these had changed the world’s view of him.

  When the news of the raid first reached us, our town was as divided over it as the nation. Henry Thoreau, alone of all of us, was immedately prepared to articulate the case for Brown. Indeed, he became obsessed with it, and declared he would speak at the town hall. All of us, even Waldo, counseled him not to. His reply was typically terse: “I did not send to you for advice, but to announce I am to speak.” When the town selectmen refused to ring the bell to signal commencement of his lecture, Henry tolled it himself. It was one of the most passionate orations I ever heard from him, and one he was asked to give at many venues in the following weeks, on each occasion shifting the ground beneath his audience. “Some eighteen hu
ndred years ago Christ was crucified; this morning, perchance, Captain Brown was hung. These are two ends of a chain not without its links:” Well, I thought, as I listened, Christ never killed anyone in order to earn his death sentence. But as I looked around at the rapt faces in the hall, I realized that the ardor of Henry’s argument was carrying them past any such defects of logic. “He is not Old Brown any longer, Henry proclaimed. “He is an angel of light ...” By the time we gathered again at the town hall, on the unseasonable, almost sultry day when Brown was actually executed, his transfiguration from madman to martyr had been effected, and Henry’s characterization had become a commonplace view.

  The view from the South was very different. If a Northerner such as Brown was prepared to kill fellow whites, regardless of whether they owned slaves or not, and was canonized for it, then war was as good as declared. Southerners began to vilify Northerners long settled amongst them; a mob took one itinerant young peddler such as I had been, cried out that “Northern nigger lovers should be painted nigger-color,” covered the youth with tar, and drove him from their town. Slaves, meanwhile, found the noose of their captivity drawn even tighter around their necks; free Negroes lost their liberty of movement.

  One immediate result was a slowdown in the number of “packages” reaching Concord via the Underground Railroad. I will be blunt: I was glad of it. I did not want to risk any brush with the law, at this time, for this cause. But I knew better than to voice my fears to Marmee. She fretted at this loss of our small work for freedom. Our “line” was one of almost half a dozen that ran from Boston Harbor, where a schooner, supposedly a fishing and pleasure vessel, actually served as transport for escaping slaves. Sometimes, too, stowaways found their own way north by ship. Several homes in our village served as stations, and hence conductors conveyed the packages west to Leominster and Fitchburg, where the trains ran,to waiting friends in Canada. We were required only to supply a night of food, shelter, and safekeeping while the transportation could be arranged. In normal times, we might see two or three packages a month. My girls had grown accustomed to welcoming a strange black face at our table. From earliest childhood, they were schooled in the need for tact within the home and circumspection outside of it. Only once, when Amy was very little, had I caught her boasting to a small friend , about the hidey-hole at the top of the stairs. That evening, when we gathered in the parlor for our reading, I set aside Spenser in favor of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or Life Among the Lowly. Before we were very few chapters into the book, my little one’s hyacinth eyes brimmed with tears of compassion, and I had to say no more to her about guarding her tongue.

  I suppose we had helped some threescore people, all told: mostly young men, a few couples, but only on two occasions a woman making the perilous journey alone. These, to me, were the most poignant. One’s imagination reeled, conceiving what degree of barbarity would drive a woman to risk the terrors of solo flight.

  It was a woman-a girl, rather-who came to us in the early darkness of an icy January evening; the first package since the raid of the previous October. We were gathered around the fire, glad of our ample woodpile, the product of my efforts in the fall forests. When we heard the shake of a harness and the cries of “Whoa!” outside our window, all the girls rushed to lift the curtain to see who could be calling on such a frigid night. They immediately recognized the cart of our friend Mr. Bingham from Boston Harbor, and each of them rushed to do her part. Meg and Beth hurried to the kitchen to warm bread and see if any remnant of the supper’s baked apples yet remained. Jo clumped up the stairs, graceless as always, to tend to the bedding in the hidey-hole. Amy took it upon herself to stand with us and do the part of greeter.

  Mr. Bingham, muffled to the eyeballs, declined to come in, saying that he would not keep the horse standing in such weather. He and I went out to the cart and pulled back the sacking which concealed our package. The figure that uncurled itself appeared to be a boy, but Mr. Bingham introduced her as Flora, and I realized that the male attire was merely a disguise. When I saw she had no shoes, but just some rags tied around her feet, I offered to carry her up the snowy path. She looked at me with huge dark eyes and then glanced away, embarrassed. I saw that she was shivering, so decided to take that for a yes, and swept her down from the dray. Mr. Bingham was already back up in his seat as we reached the door, and his cry of, “Fare thee well and good luck!” was all but lost under the grind of the cartwheels biting the icy gravel.

  She weighed less than Amy, though she was as tall as Meg, and I judged, when I set her down by the fire and got a look at her, about the same age. She was wearing a man’s coat several sizes too large, and I guessed that Bingham had provided it. She kept it clutched tight around her, even in the glow of the fire, but she did raise a hand to draw off a rather dirty kepi and a tightly wound muffler, which I imagined had helped in her disguise, for her face was anything but masculine, even framed by the frizz of coarsely barbered, boyish hair. Through drawn and smeared with the grime of her journey, it was a delicate, pretty face, lit by a pair of large, expressive eyes. As Marmee spoke quiet words of welcome and reassurance, Beth offered warmed washcloths, which Flora, giving a little sigh of pleasure, wielded vigorously over her face, hands, and throat. Then she took a glass of steaming chamomile tea, wrapping both hands around it as though embracing the warmth.

  Marmee had already noted the deplorable condition of her feet, and quietly whispered to Beth to fetch the rest of the hot water in a basin. She began untying the filth-stiffened rags, only to gasp as a piece of flesh, adhering to the blackened cloth, peeled away from the girl’s foot. “Oh my dear, I am so sorry!” Marmee cried. Flora showed no reaction, no sign of pain. She set down the tea and leaned forward, continuing the work of unwrapping the red-raw flesh of her blistered feet. She winced for a second as she eased them into the water, and then calmly accepted the plate of bread and baked apples Meg offered her.

  We had all learned long ago not to interrogate our railroad travelers, for reasons pragmatic as well as kind. The people who came to us were often in a sort of trance, brought on by fear, exhaustion, and, I imagined, a kind of mourning for what they had left behind—family, perhaps; friends, likely, and the certainty of all that had ever been familiar. A home in bondage is a home, still, and it is no light matter to leave such a place, knowing that one’s act is irrevocable. But Marmee had also explained to me, at the time of our marriage, that the less we knew, the less we could betray, and this was particularly important when our girls were young and details such as a route or a name might innocently have slipped from them, or been prised loose by clever questioning.

  So Marmee continued her reassuring words that required no reply, as she dressed the feet with a cool mint salve and bound them in clean bandages. When she held out the fetid rags to be carried away and burned, Amy, who was nearest, took a step backward, her little white hands fluttering behind her back. Marmee cast her a look that could have iced a pond over, and Amy colored, and reached for the bundle, taking care to hold it well away from her spotless pinafore as she carried it from the room.

  When Flora had eaten and warmed herself, Marmee and Meg between them supported her to the kitchen, where Hannah had prepared a bath, and from there they helped her up the stairs to her “hole,” which Jo had made bright and cozy with candle, quilts, and a bed warmer. Since I could do nothing to help with these female rites, I retired. When Marmee joined me, her face was creased with anguish. She closed the door, then stood with her back pressed to it, her eyes closed. A great sigh shook her.

  “Whatever is it, my dear? Is she not comfortable now?”

  “Comfortable! I doubt she knows what that word means.” She crossed to the bed and flopped down upon it, her fingers working angrily at the strings of her tippet. I reached across to help her, but she batted my hand away and turned to face me. There was something in her face—a trace of the old rage, like a cloud shadow passing swiftly over a sunlit field. “That girl is carrying a child,” she said blu
ntly. “And it’s a miracle she. is, for her back is all marked with fresh.. .” And at this point her voice broke, and she stopped, and buried her head in my shoulder.

  Marmee’s great desire was to keep Flora with us through her confinement. She hated the thought of letting her go on, in her condition, to an uncertain future in a new country. Even though her welcome among the free blacks in Canada was assured, that community had few resources. I saw her point, but even setting my own selfish anxieties aside, I could not think it wise. The Fugitive Slave Act hung heavy over every escapee, even in Massachusetts, and I could not condone keeping the girl, and the infant she carried, at daily risk of their being returned to bondage. So we resolved that she should stay with us a fortnight, resting safely while her feet mended, and Marmee set about nursing the little mother-to-be with her own prodigious motherly skills.

  In the days that followed, we tried to keep as close to our normal routines as possible so as to attract no unwelcome attention. Meg went to her work with the King children, and that week, for once, I didn’t have to chide any overheard grumbles about the difficulties of “running after spoiled midgets all day.” Likewise, Jo had no ill words for her aunt’s crotchets, and even Amy managed to speak only cheerfully of her vexing schoolmates.

  Flora I saw little: despite my soft words to her, she seemed shy of me to the point of fear, and I did not press myself upon her. Given her condition, I could imagine several reasons why she might associate only ill things with white men of my age. But Marmee, too, reported the girl impenetrably withdrawn.

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