March a novel, p.3

March: a novel, page 3

 

March: a novel
 



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  The home’s massive entrance was to my right, the wide door surrounded by lights of beveled glass, and I sat there, watching the golden morning sunshine fracture into tiny rainbows. Because I had been staring into the bright light, I could not see him well when he at last opened the library door, for he stood in its shadow. There was an impression only; of great height, very erect bearing, and a mellow voice.

  “Good day to you, sir. Would you kindly come in?”

  I entered and I stopped and twirled as if I were on a pivot. It was a double-height room, with a narrow gallery at the midpoint. Books lined every inch of it. A very large, plain, and beautiful rosewood desk stood in the center.

  “Augustus Clement,” he said, holding out his hand. I shifted the weight of the books into the crook of my left arm and shook his hand absently, for I was transfixed by the magnitude of his collection. “I’ve always imagined paradise as something like a library. Now I know what it looks like.” I barely realized I had spoken aloud, but Mr. Clement laughed and clapped me on the shoulder.

  “We get a few of you men through here, or we used to, before my daughter married. I think the word went out that she was-what do you call it? A mark? A touch? In any regards, she bought a bushel of worthless notions from your colleagues over the years; I think she just liked to talk to young men, actually. But I’ve never come across one of you with an interest in books. Set them down there, would you?”

  I placed them on the rosewood desk, and he worked briskly through the pile. Now that I had seen the magnitude of his library, I doubted he would find anything of interest to him. But the Lavater Phyisognomy caught his eye. “This is a later edition than the one I have; I am curious to see his revisions. Tell Grace what you require for it and she will see to your payment.”

  “Sir, I don’t sell the books for cash.”

  “Oh?”

  “I trade for them-barter-a book for a book, you know. That way I keep myself in something fresh to read along the journey.”

  “Do you so! Capital idea!” he said. “Though no way to make a profit.”

  “I am interested in money, of course sir; it is necessary for a young man in my circumstances to be so. But I trust you will not think me irresponsible if I tell you I am more interested in laying up the riches of the mind.”

  “Well said, young Mr.—March, was it? Well, as it happens I have business elsewhere this day, so why don’t you make yourself free of the library. Do us the honor of taking dinner here, and you can tell me then what volume you would consider in barter for the Lavater.”

  “Sir, I could not impose upon you—”

  “Mr. March, you would be doing me a great kindness. My household is reduced, at present. My son is away with my manager on business. Solitude is no friend to science. You must know that we in the South suffer from a certain malnourishment of the mind: we value the art of conversation over literary pursuits, so that when we gather together it is all for gallantries and pleasure parties. There is much to be said for our agrarian way of life. But sometimes I envy your bustling Northern cities, where men of genius are thrown together thick as bees, and the honey of intellectual accomplishment is produced. I would like to talk about books with you; do be kind enough to spare me an evening.”

  “Mr. Clement, sir, it would be my very great pleasure.”

  “Very good, then. I shall look forward.” He paused at the door, and turned. “Grace mentioned you had some notions for children. Whatever you have in picture puzzles or games for the illiterate, I will take-presents for the slaves’ little ones, you know. Just let Grace know what compensation you think fair.”

  I realize that lust stands high in the list of deadly sins. And yet lust-the tightening throat, the flushed cheeks, the raging appetite-is the only word accurate to describe the sensation I felt that morning, as the painted door closed and I was left with the liberty of all those books. By afternoon, I could say I was ready to love Mr. Clement. For to know a man’s library is, in some measure, to know his mind. And this mind was noble in its reach, wide in its interests, discerning in its tastes.

  Grace knocked on the door at some point and brought me a cold collation on a tray, but even had it not been meat I would not have paused to eat it. I did not want to take even a moment from my perusal of the books. About an hour before dinnertime, she came again, clucked at the uneaten food, and offered to show me to my quarters-I was to use the absent estate manager’s cottage. There I attempted to make myself presentable within the very severe limits of my wardrobe. Not for the first time since I set out, I was mortified to have to present myself at a civilized table clad in a suit of linen, harvested from our own flax fields, spun and sewn by my mother. I resolved that I would reserve some part of my profits for a decent suit from a New York tailor when I returned north.

  Mr. Clement was waiting in the drawing room when I presented myself He was alone. I had hoped to meet the lady of the house. My face must have registered surprise.

  “Mrs. Clement bids you welcome and sends her apologies. She is not well, Mr. March: she does not dine down. However, she said she would like very much to make your acquaintance tomorrow, if you would be kind enough to visit her. She would like to hear your impressions of Virginia, as they have been informed by your travels.”

  I have never been in the habit of consuming alcohol, but out of politeness I took the glass of champagne Mr. Clement held out to me. My mood was elevated enough by the joys of my day, and by the time we sat down in the handsome dining room, the bitter little bubbles seemed to be bearing me aloft. A Negro glided in with a silver salver, upon which stood a slab of sanguinary beef swaddled in a blanket of glistening yellow fat. The drippings from this joint had contaminated the potatoes so as to render them inedible to me. Next, he proffered a dish of greens, and I accepted a liberal serving. But as I brought a forkful to my mouth I caught the stench of pork grease and had to lay it down.

  Still, I barely noticed my hunger, engrossed as I was in the conversation. I cannot say now all the topics upon which we alighted, only that we moved from the ancient world to the modern, from Rome’s Cato to our revolutionary Catos, from Kant on apperception to Coleridge on Kant, to Coleridge’s unacknowledged debts to Schelling. Clement led the way and I followed, the wine on my empty stomach providing volatile fuel for my flight. I hardly noted the translation from dining room to drawing room and do not know what time it was when Clement finally drew a hand, on which a handsome signet ring gleamed, across a brow which I suddenly noted was gray with fatigue.

  “You must forgive me, but I am not accustomed to attending to estate matters, as I had to do today. Usually my son and the manager between them handle the business of the farm, deferring to me on only the most consequential issues. Since they are away, I must concern myself, and as a result I find myself weary. But I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a young man’s company so. You have a supple mind, Mr. March. It’s clear that you have read widely for such a youth, whose circumstances, forgive me, could not have made this easy. If your plans allow for it, you are welcome here for as long as you would care to remain.”

  There was a saying among the Connecticut peddlers: beware the hospitality of the planters. Many a young man had been turned from the road and its profits by just such an offer as. was now extended to me, and had ended his journey in idle dissipation. And yet I was hungry for knowledge in those days, and the prospect of spending more time exploring the library and the intellect of Mr. Clement was more than I could withstand.

  The next day, I paid a call upon Mrs. Clement. I found her reclining on a chaise in a sunlit sitting room, a, huge-eyed beauty clad in a froth of white lace and broderie anglaise. Grace sat in a high-backed chair at her side, reading poetry, with a surprising delicacy of expression. “Thank you, Grace, my dear. That was lovely, as usual. Why don’t you take a little break now, while this fine-looking young man is here to amuse me?” Hearing Mrs. Clement speak, I realized that Grace’s voice had been schooled in imitation of her mistre
ss, and yet the slave, having a naturally lower register, had the richer and more resonant timbre.

  Mrs. Clement held out a hand to greet me. The touch of her skin-hot, dry, papery-was a shock. I did my best to hide my recoil. “My husband said you were a very conversible young man, but he did not mention that you were so handsome. Quite ‘the golden lad’ the poet speaks of, indeed. Why, you must have the belles of Virginia casting themselves at your feet!” She tittered girlishly. I coughed with embarrassment. Grace shot me a cool look as she slipped a silk bookmark into the slim volume and slid from the room. Mrs. Clement saw my eyes following her silent exit. She sighed. “Sometimes, I believe I am more fond of that girl than of my own daughter. Do you think that very wicked of me, Mr. March?” She did not expect an answer, and I gave none. “One’s son is so much in the world, and a daughter marries young and leaves. My daughter was married last year, and only fifteen. Can you imagine? Such a little girl, to be mistress of her own great estate. Though I warned her. Oh yes, I tried. But she stamped her dainty foot and would accept the young gentleman’s proposal, for all her father and I counseled her to wait. The young are willful, Mr. March, as you should know, being so very young yourself Why, you can’t be much more than a boy...”

  “I shall be nineteen in November, ma’am.”

  “You see? A boy, as I said ... but a very well-grown boy...” The large, dark eyes appraised me. “What are you? Six feet?”

  “A little over, ma’am.”

  “Good for you. And broad-shouldered, too. I do like a tall, broad-shouldered man. My husband is six feet, but he will sit all day in his library and I am afraid he has not the manly figure he could have, if he would only ride out more ...” She gave another mannered, musical little laugh, and then she frowned as her fluttering thoughts alit once more upon her absent daughter. “I said, ‘Marianne, they might call you “mistress,” but one thing you must know: on most great plantations the mistress is the most complete slave on the place.’” She tittered again. “I tell you, Mr. March, my Grace has a great deal more freedom than my daughter now enjoys. Not freedom to leave me, no; that she will never have. Grace is mine, here with me forever. She was born right here, you know. Mr. Clement gave her to me as a wedding gift. Such a pretty infant. I suppose he thought I could practice my mothering skills upon her until our own children came. Who could guess that one’s first essay would be the most eloquent ? I taught her to read, you know. It was no effort, no effort at all. She picked up her letters better than I had as a child, and much better than Marianne. I do not know what I would do now, ill as I am, without my Grace to read to me. My daughter never cared for books. No poetry in the girl at all. I can’t think why that is. Can you, Mr. March? No, how could you have an opinion? You haven’t met her, have you? My mind wanders, forgive me. It’s the illness. My son is a busy man. He never comes to see me. Hasn’t been for days ...”

  “I believe he is away on estate business, ma’am.”

  “So he is. Mr. Clement did say something about that. It’s the illness, you see? I forget things. When you go down, do send my son to me, would you? A boy should visit his mama, do you not think? I think it is not so very much to ask. My daughter, now, you would think she at least would come. But no, she married, didn’t she? Where was it she went off to? I can’t recall the name of the estate. Brilliant match, I recollect that everyone said so. Most brilliant match of her season. But I can’t recall now who it was she married ... Grace will know.” She turned her head. “Grace, who was that gentleman?” She swiveled, looking all about for the absent slave. Her expression became frantic. “Where is Grace?” Her voice scraped like a knife on pewter.

  “You sent her out, ma’am.”

  “Fetch her back! Fetch her back! I can’t be alone with a gentleman caller! What would Mr. Clement say? Grace!” The effort of crying out set her coughing, horrible wracking spasms that raised blood onto her lace handkin. Grace, who must have been hovering, slid into the room, carrying a pitcher of minted lemon water, which she poured and offered her mistress. Mrs. Clement took the glass in a trembling hand and drank thirstily. Grace gently lifted a lock of pale hair that had fallen from the lace cap, tucked it away, and stroked the parchment brow.

  “I think Mrs. Clement is tired now. I am sure she would like you to visit her again, another time, perhaps.”

  I nodded and withdrew with relief. Later, in the cool of the afternoon, I walked out into the fields. The light slanted on the brightly clad field hands, who sang as they planted out vivid green tobacco seedlings. I breathed the scented air and thought how lovely the scene was, compared to the spare fields of Spindle Hill. I had not been wont to sing at my labors. I had cursed rather, as the stony soil dulled the shares and the refractory beasts stood stubborn in their traces. Turning back toward the house, I came across Grace, picking early roses in the cutting garden.

  I held her basket for her, so she could reach some blooms high on an arch of braided locust boughs. As she reached up, she looked like a young bough herself, supple and slender. “Mr. Clement did not tell you what to expect of Mrs. Clement’s condition, did he? I thought not. He finds it hard to accept her decline. She has never been entirely well, but two years ago there was an accident. She was riding, coming out of the shadow of the woods into sunlight, and her mare shied and threw her. Since then, she has had no sure sense of balance, and keeps to her couch. The cough and fever seem to grow worse from the lack of exercise and outside air. She is terrified of the world, Mr. March. If she stands her head spins, and she feels that she is falling from the horse all over again. She sleeps a great deal nowadays, which is a blessing.”

  “It must be; I mean, to give you some respite.”

  “It is a blessing for her, Mr. March. She is the one who requires respite-from her fears, her confusion.”

  I felt the force of her rebuke. “She loves you like a mother,” I blurted.

  She turned and placed the roses carefully in the basket, then regarded me with a steady gaze. I could not read her expression. When she spoke, her voice was low, her words clipped. “Does she so? I wouldn’t know. My mother was sold south by Mr. Clement before I was one year old.” She took the basket from me and walked, erect, swaying, up the path to the house.

  That evening, Mr. Clement was full of his reading in Lavater, and from there we progressed to Samuel Morton’s book on human crania-a handsome new volume, to which I had been drawn by virtue of its elegant plates. Mr. Clement, in his generosity, had offered it as barter-a most unfavorable one for him. It was inevitable that we should move from there to the science of “Niggerology,” as Mr. Clement called it, and from there, by easy stages, to the matter of slavery. I thought to begin by praising the smooth management of the estate, and the relations of affection and trust I had observed between master and servant.

  “Trust!” He laughed, dabbing at his chin with a heavy damask napkin. “The only way to keep slaves honest is not to trust them!” He must have seen me wince. “Does that seem to you a harsh assessment, Mr. March? I daresay it is, and yet it is unfortunately too true. Why, I had a neighbor, a capital fellow, lived just west of here. Never known to punish his slaves. Boy became insolent one day, and when my friend reluctantly raised the lash to him, why, the boy grabbed a white-oak branch and beat my friend’s head to a pomace.” He grimaced and put down his food-laden fork, signaling to the hovering slave to take the plate away. The man was barely through the door, and hardly out of earshot, when he continued. “Name a vice, Mr. March: laziness, deceit, debauchery, theft. Place your trust in a slave and soon, very soon, you will see how proficient he is in any and all of them.”

  “But, sir, surely the very condition of enslavement, not the slaves’ inherent nature, must account for such lapses of honor. The heart is a crimson organ, be it within white breast or in black, and surely wickedness may dwell alike in either...”

  “But I do not speak of wickedness!” Clement said, almost gleefully, bringing his hand down upon the table. “You ha
ve touched upon the sinew of the matter! Does one speak of wickedness in a child of four or five, a child who has not reached the age of reason? Not at all. For the child knows not the distinction between honesty and falsehood, nor does it think of future nor of consequence, but only of the desire of the moment and how to gratify it. So it is with the African. They, too, are children, morally speaking, and it is for us to guide and guard them until their race matures. And I believe it will, Mr. March. Oh yes. I am not one of Morton’s skull-spanning acolytes. I do not think the current order immutable. Don’t judge a book by its cover, March, nor by its plates. You take with you a handsome volume, but you will soon see that Morton’s methods are flawed, very flawed. Why, even the great Aristotle was wrong in this: he held that no race other than the Hellenes could be elevated to civilization.” He placed his glass on the damask cloth and gestured at his finely appointed room, its gleaming crystal and bone china. “And yet here we are, you and I, whose forebears were blue-painted savages gnawing on bones when Aristotle’s city flowered.” He flourished his napkin, dabbing delicately, at his lips. The candlelight flared on his signet ring.

  “Slavery will wither, in time. Not my time. Not my son’s. Yet wither it will, as the African grows morally in each succeeding generation. His mere residence among us has already wrought a great and happy change in his condition. We have raised him out of the night, and, into the light, Mr. March. But the work is far from complete. It is our place to act the role of stem father. We should not rush them out of their childhood, as it were. And if sometimes that means a resort to punishment, so be it, as the father must punish the wayward child. But never in anger.” He leaned back in his chair, draining the wine in his glass. His tone, when he continued, was reflective, as if he were speaking to himself, rather than instructing me. “To manage the Negro without an excess of passion, this is the Christian challenge. In this way no one mistakes personal malice for what is mere necessity of good husbandry.”

 

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