After my nap, I breathed deeply, gathered my determination, and stepped through the dining room arch. Papa sat at the head of the long table, brother Marcus to his right, brother John to the left. Brother George sat next to Marcus, and the empty place beside John begged for my presence.
Three slaves dressed in the finest butler attire stood at attention in a line against the wall behind Papa. The serving platters sat on the table, and every plate bulged with cornucopia save mine.
I ran my hands down the front of my evening dress to smooth out the folds along with the little bit of last-minute self-doubt that had invaded.
“Sam,” Papa said, “it’s about time you decided to join us.”
My eyes shot to his, but the distance between us kept me from reading them. I’m sure he knew about me whipping overseer Mr. Jarvis and equally as sure he didn’t about Marcus fornicating with a slave girl. Walking toward my chair, I stared at my eldest brother. His expression shot back shouting, “you’d better not say a word.”
Reaching the chair, I stopped behind it and met my father’s eyes. He knew—and I knew how he would play it. Papa never dealt with direct confrontation when in the presence of others. He found subtler ways of meting out his wrath; but when he got his victim alone—then he’d move in for the kill.
This certainly won’t be the best evening of my life. Oh well, let’s get started and ring up the curtain on Act One.
Standing behind my chair forced the three slaves to spring into action. Socrates pulled out my chair, I sat, and he spread the napkin in my lap. Hezekiah and Plato brought the serving platters one at a time and filled my plate. All the tasks performed, they returned to their military posture behind my father.
“We’ve already said grace for you, Sam.” Papa dabbed his lips with a napkin. “We didn’t think you’d be up for it.” He turned to Marcus. “Everything set for the race tomorrow?”
“Yes, sir,” Marcus replied. “Sam wanted to ride Katie.”
Pressing a hand to my stomach, I shot a glare toward Marcus. That’s a lie.
“It is not necessary.” Papa set the napkin down. “We have a good jockey in Homer. Sam needn’t waste her time interfering in slave affairs.” He turned toward me and lifted one eyebrow. “Isn’t that so, Sam?”
I lowered my eyes and stared at my silverware. Picking up a fork, I poked at the roast. This is the gesture of a subservient.
I jabbed a smaller piece of meat, swung it upward, and looked at him. “If you say so, Papa.” I jammed it in my mouth, my eyes glued to his. He’s steaming under all that composure.
Papa looked at John. “The corn’s coming right along.”
John wiped his mouth with a napkin. “Yes sir.”
“Next year, it’ll be time to rotate the tobacco again,” Papa said.
“Yes, sir,” John replied.
Papa turned to Marcus. “We can move the wheat to take its place.”
Papa’s playing it more subdued than usual. The calmer the calm, the more turbulent the storm.
We ate in silence for two more minutes—a silence that nearly pierced my eardrums.
What is he doing … changing his strategy by planning to start a tirade before meal’s end … or planning the tirade-to-end-all-tirades right afterwards?
I turned and analyzed his inflection. Inquisitive with no trace of anger or impatience.
“Heard you had an interesting day.”
Two can play at his game. “Yes, sir. Took Katie out for a hard and fast ride.”
“You still wearing men’s clothes while riding?”
“It gives me more freedom.”
“Young ladies ride sidesaddle … in riding dresses.”
I sat back and dabbed my mouth with the napkin. “Not this one. I’ll always sacrifice ladylike demeanor for freedom of movement.”
“You should let me ride Katie, Papa. I know how to get the most out of her. Besides, I’ll wager Homer outweighs me by ten pounds.”
His eyes narrowed. “It is easy to wager against me with my money.” He released his eyes to normalcy, scooped up some mashed potatoes, and eased them into his mouth—just as fine as any aristocrat in the English monarchy.
My remarks hopefully sent a message. Maybe now he’ll cease playing this detestable game.
He dabbed his mouth clean. “Like other things you’ve done, riding in tomorrow’s race wouldn’t be very ladylike.”
I picked up my fork. “It’s not for me to say.”
“Now, that’s a good girl.”
He’s playing it for all it’s worth. Since Mama’s death, he’s become a harder man.
We ate in silence again, this time for more than two minutes.
Papa set his fork by his plate and sat back. “You know, Sam, I can’t help wondering why you and Mr. Jarvis cannot get along. What he does is really none of your business, yet ….”
I waited for him to finish, but he only picked up his fork and continued eating.
These waters are uncharted. To ignore or not to ignore … that is the question.
I reached for the bread and looked at the three butlers. One broke rank, rushed to my side, and cut off a slice.
“Thank you, Socrates.” I took it. He marched back and re-joined the ranks.
“It isn’t necessary, my dear daughter, to thank a slave.”
“Yes,” Marcus replied. “It’s not as if they have souls.”
I dropped my fork in my mashed potatoes, ground my back molars, and glared at Marcus. “Well, let me tell you, brother, I’ve looked into my handmaiden’s eyes many times. If there’s no soul there, then there’s none in me, either. Think about that the next time you look into any young slave girl’s.”
“Maybe you don’t have a soul, Sam.” John waited, then smiled. “Maybe no woman does.” I glanced at him and resettled my eyes on my eldest brother.
Marcus shot back enough contempt to equal my own. “Why don’t you keep your slave business confined to Esmeralda?”
“Fine.” I glared at him. “As long as you don’t.”
Papa laid his fork down and grabbed the table edge. “Stop it, Sam. You do as Marcus suggests. What goes on beyond this house is of no concern to you. You are the only woman now. Please confine yourself to womanly things.”
I gnashed my teeth and closed one eye. If anyone wanted to light a fire under me, then let them tell me to keep my business behind my skirts. However, I swallowed a tirade perched on the tip of my tongue and resumed eating.
Papa sat back and smiled. “Boys, I’ve got some good news for you. Doctor Mace of Green Hill … his sons have decided not to join the South’s cause. He told me that he would be glad to lend me a few for the fall harvest. You can join up immediately.”
My brothers hooted and hollered. Marcus and John sprang up, meeting behind my father, shaking hands and slapping backs.
That’s it. I jumped up, my left fist choking the napkin while wishing I could carry it around to strangle them with it one at a time. “Congratulations, brothers. There’s nothing like getting behind a doomed cause, supporting a vile institution, and getting your fool behinds shot off for it.”
They stopped and stared at me, eventually looking toward Papa.
They’re waiting for the demagogue to cast the first boulder.
Papa shook his head and kept his smile. “Sam, you—”
“Well, Papa, listen to me!” I balled up my napkin in my palms. “Mr. Lincoln sent me an invitation to serve with him. I’ll be leaving to accept an officer’s commission in the Army of the Potomac.”
Papa and his sons exchanged glances before breaking out in laughter.
“If you were a man,” George said, “you’d probably do it.”
I dabbed my mouth and looked around at my broken family. “Excuse me, please. I’ll be in the back parlor.” I walked to the door followed by a silence that seemed heavy-laden with frustration and anger. At the dining room entranceway, I pivoted back. “… confining myself to a womanly thing.”
I’m sure Papa will interpret that as a shot across his bow. Oh well, after my earlier actions, it had to come down to this.
I spun around and walked out.
After fighting the urge to cry, I settled in my favorite reading chair by the parlor window holding a copy of Jane Eyre.
Give Papa a little time. After that tumultuous supper, he’ll be in here in a—
I spun my head and stared at the parlor entrance. Papa stood tall; seemingly well beyond his six feet, his fists balled up.
The back of my neck stiffened, and my stomach rippled with pain as I dropped the book. It bounced on the armrest, off my skirts, and plopped onto the floor with a thud.
I jumped up. “Yes, sir?”
“What in the world has gotten into you, girl?”
This is it … the defining moment in my life has arrived. The way I live the rest of my life depends on how this scene plays out. If I choose subservience, I’ll end up someone else’s property, only a few steps above slavery itself … for a plantation owner’s son not only owns the slaves, but his wife and children as well.
“What do you mean, Papa?”
“What do I mean?” He stomped forward and towered over me. “Sam, you’ve gone off before, but never like this. It’s as if some devil’s taken over your body causing you to spout all this Yankee philosophy. You must understand what’s at stake. We went over this so many times before. Now, it’s time for you to cease the nonsense and see to reason.”
While he spoke, I fought to round up my scattered, wild-horse emotions into one corral. That attempt meant I owned a willingness to fight; but my emotions needed to be out of the way. I had to be like a calm lawyer in the courts and argue my case bringing only logic and reason to the table.
I’m ready. “Our livelihood depends on free labor from slavery, but that doesn’t make it right.” I pointed toward the window. “Those slaves are people, and Mr. Jarvis will conjure up any reason to beat them; because he looks at them as animals and places his own worth as far above theirs as God does above ours.”
He stepped closer and glared at me. I glared back. “Sam, I won’t revisit that argument because everyone knows you’re just plain wrong-headed.”
“Well, it looks as if more than half a nation is wrong-headed then.”
He nodded. “Looks that way.”
I turned, walked to the window, and folded my arms.
Seconds passed before his footsteps clunked closer. His presence loomed behind me, reaching out and crowding me; his breath audible, like a bull readying for the charge. The charge never materialized, and as the seconds ticked away, his breath eased until it became undetectable.
He sighed. “Sam, Mama’s passing crushed you dearly. It has me, but we have to move on. You have no other female influence in this house. Please … accept the role of dutiful daughter. Marry Mr. Gold. You’ll see … that world will hold a shower of gifts for you.”
I spun around so fast our bodies nearly collided. “This world is not meant for me. How can a dutiful daughter, and a more dutiful wife, endure a world turned upside down?”
He eased his hands on my arms. “Just do it. You’ll see. You’ll grow to like it, and soon it will seem like the most natural thing—”
I broke away and ran to the bookshelves pretending to search for a book. “Believe me, Papa, there’s nothing natural about slavery.”
His footsteps sounded twice as loud. I didn’t turn, but listened to him breathing heavily again, this time without abating. “You did a damn fool thing to Mr. Jarvis … humiliating him like that in front of the slaves. How is he ever going to live that down?” He paused, but I waited. “He wants your head on a platter … and he deserves it.”
I spun around. “Tell him to meet me on the north lawn tomorrow morning at eight with dueling pistols. I’ll gladly blow what little brains he has from his ugly head.”
He grabbed one arm and shook it for several seconds. “Sam, don’t act this way. The man demands satisfaction, and you had better think of some way to provide it.”
I yanked my arm from his grasp and backed into the bookshelves. “Perhaps he would like the same satisfaction that Marcus gets from Celia.”
His face reddened to a degree I thought not possible. He reached for me, but I dodged and ran toward the hearth across the room.
He followed. “You’re not implying that Marcus—”
I spun, grabbed a handful of skirt over one thigh, and squeezed the life out of it. “Saint Lucifer, Papa. There is no need to imply. I walked in on them in the stables, his body on top of her naked one. Yes, if slaves are indeed animals then your innocent daughter witnessed the vile act of bestiality.”
He arrived and grabbed an arm. I let him. “You take that back. No one in this family is animal enough to do such a thing.”
I leaned forward and raised my voice a little. “I can’t take back what my own eyes witnessed. Face it, Papa, it comes with the territory of slave ownership.”
He glared at me, and his eyes told of a desire to hurt me—and I wanted him to, but he held back.
My heart raced as dizziness forced me to squint. “Papa, how many times have you been to the stables since Mama died?”
He reached back with his right hand leaving plenty of time for me to dart aside and run out the door. He knew that, too, and wanted my exit so he wouldn’t have to strike me. Instead, I moved my head closer and cocked it upward.
The blow arrived seconds later with more force than I had anticipated. My head felt as if it would tear from its neck, and my body flew to the right. My right leg moved in that direction, but my body hit the floor before the leg could prevent it. Pain burned the left side of my face like a hot metal skillet, and I almost cried out. I rolled over once while the shadows grew darker and spread to every other part of the room. A feeling overwhelmed me to close my eyes and go to sleep, but my mind fought against unconsciousness. I looked up to see Papa massaging his right hand.
“I hardly would have believed that I’d ever have to do such a thing. Your mother never needed such a thrashing. She knew her place, and it gave her happiness.”
He walked to the entranceway and turned back. “There will be a check on my desk in the morning. It will be for your dowry. On Monday, take it to the bank. Then take a carriage and horse, whatever clothing you want, jewelry, and anything else you deem to be yours, and leave.” He looked at the floor. “I’ve done my duty by you, but I never want to see you or hear from you again.”
He marched out, and my wild-horse emotions escaped their imprisonment. Ignoring the pain, I shut my eyes, but it didn’t stop the tears. I didn’t want to cry, but I couldn’t help it. A feeling of dread overcame me, and, for the first time in my life, I wished death to visit me.
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