4 Curiosities South of the Border. A Child Departs from the Way. The Education of Henry Townsend.
Beginning in the mid-1870s and continuing throughout most of the 1880s, a white man from Canada, Anderson Frazier, made a good living in Boston publishing two-cent pamphlets about America and its people, especially what he called their “peculiarities.” Most of what he published was gleaned from newspapers and magazines, but he rehashed everything in his pamphlets in a most colorful way, delighting thousands of readers. He had come to America in 1872, having grown frustrated with what little he had in Canada. He was the middle of seven children and did not want to go into the trading business that his father and his grandfather had established and that his older brothers were so comfortable with. He was also tired of what he saw as a certain Canadian ruggedness that had served the country well in the days when Europeans set out to make the place safe for white people; but he had come to believe that that once-necessary ruggedness, most evident in his brothers, was becoming the defining quality of the country. And he wished to be free of it. He did not see Canada again until 1881. The country would be more or less the way he had left it, but his family would be different, for the worse, and there was a part of himself-as he sat in a kitchen full of nieces and nephews talking to one of his sisters-that felt had he not gone away, most of his family would have remained going down the fairly good path on which he last saw them.
Once he went into pamphlet publishing in Boston, he began traveling up and down the east coast of America, down to Washington, D.C., and all the way out to the middle of the country, gathering additional material for The Canadian Publishing Company. In 1879, he met in New York a young woman named Esther Sokoloff, who returned with him to Boston but who refused to marry him though she would never say why. He loved Esther more than he thought he could ever love an American, he wrote to a friend in Canada who could not read and had to get someone else to read Anderson’s letters. During their first year and a half together she would leave him from time to time without a word and go back to her people in New York, refusing to see him when he came to that city. He once had a female intermediary go to her house to ask that she meet with him, and when Esther refused, Anderson decided to visit the America below Washington, D.C., an area of the country he had not been curious about before the pain that came with Esther.
It was in the South that Anderson came upon material he would later put in a new series of pamphlets he called Curiosities and Oddities about Our Southern Neighbors. The Economy of Cotton. Good Food Made from Next to Nothing. The Flora and Fauna. The Need for Storytelling. This series was Anderson’s most successful, and nothing was more successful within that series than the 1883 pamphlet on free Negroes who had owned other Negroes before the War between the States. The pamphlet on slaveowning Negroes went through ten printings. Only seven of those particular pamphlets survived until the late twentieth century. Five of them were in the Library of Congress in 1994 when the remaining two pamphlets were sold as part of a collection of black memorabilia owned by a black man in Cleveland, Ohio. That collection, upon the man’s death in 1994, sold for $1.7 million to an automobile manufacturer in Germany.
Anderson Frazier began the southern series just three months before Esther returned from New York one March day and told him she would not leave him again. He converted to Judaism two months later. He kept putting off the circumcision until his rabbi, a very short man with untamable hair, told Anderson he was in danger of abandoning his faith and his covenant with God. He and the rabbi sat in the rabbi’s study. “God is all,” the rabbi told him. He had known the rabbi for many years by then, had sought him out for advice and comfort the first time Esther returned to her people. Before Anderson had found the rabbi that first time, he had heard that a rabbi in the area had recently lost his son and daughter-in-law and three grandchildren in a fire. Anderson went to the man’s house that first day seeking solace, not knowing that he was entering the home of the rabbi who had had the tragedy. Anderson thought that the deaths of five people had happened to another rabbi in another neighborhood.
So after the rabbi told him he was in danger of abandoning the covenant, Anderson was circumcised and then was married.
The pamphlet on free Negroes who had owned other Negroes was twenty-seven pages, not including the six pages of drawings and maps. There were seven pages devoted to Henry Townsend and his widow Caldonia and her second husband, Louis Cartwright, the son of William Robbins. Cartwright was the last name Louis’s mother, Philomena, had chosen for herself and her children. On one of those seven pages in the pamphlet there were two long paragraphs mentioning Fern Elston the teacher, who “herself had owned some Negroes,” Anderson wrote.
Anderson met Fern one day in August 1881, had come up to her sitting on her porch with her glass of lemonade and large hat and asked her if he could speak with her. Fern had never been one to suffer white people and that condition had only worsened over time. “I suppose,” she said, under the shade of a mulberry tree that was not as old as she was. “I suppose, if you will not take up too much of my time. We do not have time for the picayune, not you, and certainly not me.” To Anderson, Fern could have been sixteen or thirty-nine or fifty-five or seventy-eight. He felt that as a journalist he should have been able to nail down her age without asking her. He never asked, and in his report for the pamphlet on free Negroes owning slaves he never mentioned age.
He came up to the porch of a pleasant house in a Negro neighborhood of pleasant houses. At first he thought that the dark-skinned man at the street corner had directed him to the wrong place because the woman he was seeing was surely a white woman, indeterminate age or not.
Once he was on the porch, she was cordial, and after he had been sitting more than half an hour, she offered him some lemonade. A man who had once been her slave and who was now the closest friend she had in the world brought the lemonade out to Anderson.
Anderson had first heard about free Negroes owning slaves only five months before and had thought that it was the oddest of all the oddities he had come upon. He said that to Fern.
“I don’t know,” he said near about eleven o’clock, “it would be for me like owning my own family, the people in my family.” He had not long come back from seeing his family for the first time since leaving Canada in 1872. As he spoke to Fern, his siblings came into his head and he wished that he could be with them, that he had never left Canada the first time, and now a second time. The name of each sister and brother marched through his mind, slowly, so he had all the time in the world to trace each letter in their names with his mind’s finger.
“Well, Mr. Frazier, it is not the same as owning people in your own family. It is not the same at all.” Fern smoothed down her dress though it didn’t need it. “You must not go away from this day and this place thinking that it is the same, because it is not.” Whenever she looked at him, and it was rare that she did, her wide-brimmed hat would obscure part of her face. From the side, with her looking out into the street, he had a much better view. “All of us do only what the law and God tell us we can do. No one of us who believes in the law and God does more than that. Do you, Mr. Frazier? Do you do more than what is allowed by God and the law?”
“I try not to, Mrs. Elston.”
“Well, there you are, Mr. Frazier. We are alike in that way. I did not own my family, and you must not tell people that I did. I did not. We did not. We owned…” She sighed, and her words seemed to come up through a throat much drier than only seconds before. “We owned slaves. It was what was done, and so that is what we did.” She told him her last name was Elston, but that was her first husband’s name. The world about her knew her by her third husband’s last name. That husband was a blacksmith, a former slave, a pecan-colored man by whom she had had two children at a time when she thought her body could not do that for her. Her husband called her “Mama” and she called him “Papa.” She said to Anderson, “We, not a single one of us Negroes, would have done what we were not allowed to do.”
Fern looked down into the palm of her hand. Had Anderson not been white and a man, had the day not started out hot and gotten hotter, had she and her husband not quarreled that morning about such a trifle it did not deserve the name trifle, had the gambler not gone away to Baltimore a long time ago with one leg missing, had all of this not been so, Fern might have opened up to Anderson. This is the truth as I know it in my heart. Had the gambler left with both of his legs, had he just lost some tiny, tiny finger there on the outer reaches of one of his hands.
The names of his family members stayed with Anderson as he sat with Fern and it was a strange comfort. “Have you ever been homesick, Mrs. Elston?” Negroes, all of whom said good morning to her, walked by her house, up and down the dusty street of a little Virginia town where the railroad tracks said very clearly to the natives: All Negroes over here and all the white people over there. Anderson, not being a native, on his way to being a pious Jew, had gotten lost at first.
“No, I have endeavored to live beyond the control of such a malady,” Fern said, waving away a fly. “Though I understand that it is not as debilitating and not as life-threatening as all the other illnesses. The ones they write about in books”-she turned to him-“and in pamphlets.” She turned away again.
“No,” Anderson said. “No, it is not as life-threatening. Indeed, it can be quite pleasant.” He looked out at the ground before them, the grass, the trees on either side of the winding path that led up to her porch, the sunlight blanketing everything, and then he saw his brothers and sisters standing there side by side. He had heard three months before his visit to Canada that one of his sisters, Sheila, second from the left there in Fern’s yard, had died. All his siblings now stood in Fern’s summer yard in the heaviest of winter clothes, coats, boots, fur hats. It was snowing. His sisters and brothers were waving at him, one hand from each of them, and aside from the waving, they were very still, the way they would have been had they been posing for a photographer. “Yes, quite pleasant.”
Fern turned to him, a man perhaps done in by the unsparing heat of the South. “I see,” and she looked away. “I will have to take the word of a journalist.”
A man passed the house and told Fern good morning, that it looked like another hot one.
“Did you get to taste those okras I sent over, Herbert?” she asked the man.
“Yessum,” he said, raising his hat, “and I do preciate em. Adele fixed them up right nice. Just the way I like em. I’m gonna finish up that back fence a yours tomorrow. Adele wants to know when you comin by.”
“Tell her I will see her soon. Please give my best to her. And, Herbert, there will be more okra to come. I can promise you that.”
“And I thank you right on.”
She and Anderson watched the man go down to the corner, look left and right, then go left. “I sometimes think I put too much faith in my garden,” Fern said. “One day it will fail me and I will come to be known as a liar to one and all.”
“Mrs. Elston, would you tell me about Mr. Townsend?”
She sipped from her lemonade but did not look back at him. She took a long time swallowing, and then she considered the glass when she was finished. Cold glasses of lemonade cry, she thought. Some poet should put that in a poem to his lady, unless the lady has already said it twice in one of her letters to him. “Henry or Augustus? I can say I knew Henry. I think I knew Henry very well. But I cannot say that I knew Augustus at all.” Even as she spoke, she was trying to remember Augustus, but the memory of him was full of holes, the same as her memory of the one-legged gambler. Such duty, such a wife. In her life, she had not seen very much of Augustus, and most of what she retained came from the day she stood across from him at Henry’s funeral. He was a handsome man, she said of Augustus. “I never leaned toward exaggeration,” she said to Anderson. “So when I say he was a handsome man, he was indeed. Henry was, too, but he never got old enough to lose that boyish facade colored men have before they settle into being handsome and unafraid, before they learn that death is as near as a shadow and go about living their lives accordingly. When they learn that, they become more beautiful than even God could imagine, Mr. Frazier.”
In addition to being William Robbins’s groom, the boy Henry Townsend had been an apprentice to the boot- and shoemaker at the Robbins plantation. He became better than the man who taught him. “There ain’t nothin else for me to put in his head, Master,” the man, Timmons, told Robbins about two years before Augustus and Mildred bought their son’s freedom. “He done ate up all I had and lookin round now for some more.” It was not long after that that Robbins allowed Henry to measure him and had the boy make him boots for the first time. He was very pleased. “If Mrs. Robbins would permit, Henry, I would sleep in them.” This was shortly before he and his wife began sleeping in separate beds, she in a part of the mansion their daughter as a child called the East and he in what the daughter called the West.
As the days dwindled down to the time Henry’s parents would take him into freedom, Robbins was surprised to know that he would miss the boy. He had not been so surprised about his feelings for a black human being since realizing that he loved Philomena. He had gotten used to seeing Henry standing in the lane, waiting as Robbins came back from some business or from visiting Philomena and their children. The boy had a calming way about him and stood with all the patience in the world as Robbins, often recovering from an episode of a storm in the head, made his slow way from the road to the lane and up to the house. Fathers waited that way for prodigal sons, Robbins once thought.
“Good mornin, Massa Robbins,” the boy would say, for it was invariably morning when Robbins returned home.
“Mornin, Henry. How long have you been here?”
“Not so long,” the boy would say, though he usually had been waiting for hours, starting in the dark, no matter what the weather. Robbins would make his way off the horse, and sometimes he needed help getting to his door. Once the man was inside, the boy would tend to the horse.
When Henry went into freedom, Robbins had the boy come back again and again to make boots and shoes for him and his male guests. Henry was, to be sure, not allowed to touch a white woman, but by using one of Robbins’s female house slaves to measure their feet, he made the same for Robbins’s wife, Ethel, his daughter, Patience, and for any women guests at the plantation. Such measurements done by slave women were not as perfect as he would have liked, and he soon learned to take their measurements and a sighting of the women’s feet to come up with more exact ones. Robbins put Henry’s name out wherever he went, and with Robbins’s praise and the praise of the guests returning to their homes, Henry became known for what one guest from Lynchburg called “the kind of footwear God intended for feet to have.”
Henry began to accumulate money, which, along with some real estate he would eventually get from Robbins, would be the foundation of what he was and what he had the evening he died. It was Robbins who taught him the value of money, the value of his labors, and never to blink when he gave a price for his product. Many times he traveled with Robbins as the white man worked to create what he had once hoped to be an empire, “a little Virginia in big Virginia.” In Clarksburg once, Robbins was conversing with the master of the house as Henry measured the man for a pair of riding boots. The man became restless and kicked at Henry, saying the nigger was hurting his feet. Robbins, a man with five pairs of Henry’s boots by that time, told Henry to go outside, and when he returned, the man, face reddened, was far more agreeable, but he never bought another thing from Henry.
Augustus Townsend would have preferred that his son have nothing to do with the past, aside from visiting his slave friends at the Robbins plantation, and he certainly would have preferred he have nothing to do with the white man who had once owned him. But Mildred made him see that the bigger Henry could make the world he lived in, the freer he would be. “Them free papers he carry with him all over the place don’t carry anough freedom,” she said to her husband. With slavery behind him, she wanted her son to go about and see what had always been denied him. That it was often Robbins who took him about was a small price for them, and, besides, he was the one who had limited his world in the first place. “All this takin him about is just redeemin hisself in God’s eyes,” Mildred said.
At the end of two weeks or so of being with Robbins, Henry would come back to his parents, his eyes gleaming and his heart eager to share whatever part of Virginia he had been to. Mildred and Augustus, hearing their son’s horse approach, would go out into the road and wait for him to appear, as patient as Henry waiting for Robbins to come up the lane to the mansion. Robbins had told him to trust the Manchester National Bank and Henry would put part of what he earned there. The rest he and his father would, as soon as he was off his horse, bury in the backyard, covering it all with stones so the dog would not dig there. Their neighbors were all good and honest people but the world had strangers, too, and some of them had strayed from being good and honest. Then the three would walk the horse into the barn, settle it down and come into the house, holding close to each other.
Henry went through his late teens that way.
The desire to live in Richmond had seized Philomena Cartwright when she was small, long before she became free. She was born on Robert Colfax’s plantation, which was where Robbins first saw her when she was fourteen. When she was eight, Colfax purchased two slaves from a man traveling about the countryside selling off his property, human and otherwise, because he was going bankrupt. He aimed to make a new start in a new life, the man told Colfax, and he started that new life by giving Colfax a good price for the slaves. One of them was Sophie, a thirty-five-year-old woman who liked to tell the young Philomena what a grand place Richmond was, though in fact she had gotten no closer to Richmond than a dot called Goochland. In Richmond, Sophie said, the masters and their wives lived like kings and queens and had so much that their slaves lived like the everyday white masters and wives they saw around Manchester. The Richmond slaves had so much to eat that they were forever having to get new clothes as their bodies changed practically every week. There were Richmond slaves who themselves had slaves, and some of the slaves of slaves had slaves, Sophie said. And there were fireworks every night to celebrate anything under the sun, even a little child losing the first tooth or taking a first step. If it was a happy part of life, Richmond would celebrate it. The stories about Richmond started when Philomena was eight, and they were still coming when Robbins saw her for the first time.
That day Robbins came up to Colfax’s house on Sir Guilderham and saw the girl come down from the back of the house and walk down to the quarters. She had a load of laundry she was carrying on her head. He got off the horse and walked with the horse to the quarters, and he noted the cabin she went into. He often had to go to Richmond but he thought it as bad as Sodom.
He mentioned the girl to Colfax and within two weeks Colfax had sold her to him. Robbins had two children by a slave who lived with those children on a far cabin on his plantation but it had been nearly a year since he had been with her. Six months after his relationship with Philomena began, after he had put her in a house a little ways outside the town with a maid he brought in from his plantation, she told Robbins she wanted her mother and brother with her, and Robbins purchased them as well, though Colfax was not as generous with the price as he had been with Philomena. Robbins freed Philomena for her sixteenth birthday and several months later gave her her mother and brother. She had him purchase Sophie-who told stories about Richmond-two months after that, in her first month of being pregnant with Dora. Philomena’s brother soon managed to run away with Sophie and Philomena proclaimed her ignorance about what they had been up to, and she said it in such a way that Robbins believed her. Robbins did everything he could to have them found and brought back but they had disappeared. He offered a bounty of $50 for each of them, and then a month later he raised it to $100 each, making the dollar amount the largest thing on the wanted posters. Philomena didn’t seem to mind that she had lost two pieces of property. She told her mother that she believed they had ended up in Richmond, and some days she was happy for Sophie, having loved her for many years, but on other days she despised her for now having the life she herself wanted in Richmond. Would they, she wondered one day after Sophie had been gone a year, run out of fireworks before she herself could see Richmond?
The birth of Dora pulled Robbins even closer to Philomena than he could imagine. She called him “William” for the first time when the child was a week old and he did not correct her, came to enjoy the way his name flowed out of her mouth and seemed to swirl about in the air like some meaningless song before his brain registered and told him that was his name. He enjoyed being with her even when she was pouting and acting too much the child. “You don’t be treatin me right, William. You just don’t, William.”
The need to be in Richmond returned strong with the birth of Louis, three years after Dora’s. The need had never gone away but the birth of Dora had helped turn her into a woman who could bide her time; even devoid of fireworks, Sophie’s Richmond was an eternal city and would wait for Philomena. But Louis’s coming made her morose, and day by hard day, she turned over the care of the children to her mother and the maid, who was now her property as well.
She ran away to Richmond for the first time when Dora was six. Robbins sent his overseer to fetch her and that man found her sleeping in the streets, where she lived after she had used up what little money she had brought to Richmond. The overseer let it be known, in his indirect way, that he did not appreciate being used to haul back his employer’s bed partner. The second time Philomena fled to Richmond she took her children and had more money than the first time. Dora was eight and Louis was six. Robbins himself went for them and took Henry, who was sixteen years old at the time. It was Henry’s second time in Richmond.
At the end of a long day Robbins found the three in a boardinghouse less than ten blocks from the Capitol, the same place Philomena had stayed in her first time in Richmond. The man and the woman who owned the place, people who had been born into freedom, opened the door and held their candles high to take in the face of the tall Robbins and told him which room upstairs he could find Philomena.
Robbins stood at the closed door for a long time and Henry stood less than two feet away, wanting, for the first time ever, not to be anywhere near the white man who had come to mean so much to him. At last Robbins turned and looked briefly at Henry in the dim hall. Henry held a lamp the owners of the house had given him but the smoking lamp was poor with light. “What is today, Henry?” “Wednesday, Mr. Robbins.” “I see. And so far from midnight to make it Thursday.” “Yessir. A good ways from midnight.” Robbins opened the door.
Henry watched from the doorway, afraid to go and afraid to stay. Philomena was sitting on the side of the bed, one slipper on and the other across the room, and she did not look surprised to see Robbins. She was alone in the room and the two lamps there, one on the table beside the bed and the other atop the chiffarobe, gave abundant light to the room. Henry could see her face almost as well as he could have seen it under a midday sun.
“I don’t wanna go back. You hear me, William? I don’t wanna go back! Don’t make me.” He went to her and held her shoulders and she pulled away and fell back on the bed. “Where are the children?” Robbins asked and she managed, after a time, to raise her finger and flick it feebly toward the wall, toward the room on the other side of the wall. He looked at the wall as if he could see through it and into the other room and when he looked back at her he was angrier than the moment before. He picked her up by the shoulders and when she began to wiggle, he slapped her. She slapped him, the first time only a soft tap but the second had the force of a punch and it turned his head. He released one of her shoulders and showed her his fist, then he punched her and he immediately was sickened. She dropped her arms and fell back on the bed. Henry, seeing Philomena dissolve into nothing, screamed and Robbins then remembered he had not come alone.
Henry continued to scream until Robbins reached him and told him to be quiet. “Stop that! Stop that, I say!”
“But she dead,” Henry said, looking around Robbins and pointing at the still Philomena.
“She ain’t no more dead than you or me.” Robbins held him gently by the throat. “Now hush that ruckus.” Robbins went back to Philomena and Henry followed him. The man sat on the bed and held Philomena and shook her, and with each moment, the sickening subsided. Henry watched and said nothing. “Go find them children,” Robbins said. “In the next room. Go find em and see to em.” He watched Henry leave and wished he had not told him to go. I am in this nigger house, he thought, surrounded by niggers. He watched the pulsing vein in her neck, counting the beats. When the number was nearing 75, he closed his eyes but went on counting.
Henry did not see the partly opened door to the left leading to the room where the children were. He went out into the hall to the right, never thought to knock and simply pushed open the door and saw only darkness. He did not sense that the children were there and went to the door on the other side of Philomena’s room and opened that door. Dora and Louis were in the bed and the girl was holding her brother. They had heard their mother shouting and then their father shouting and then they had heard Henry screaming.
He went to them and told them everything would be fine and, within a few minutes, they began to believe him. He had made their shoes, which were in a little pile in the corner. He gave them water and they drank as if it were the first in a very long time. This was the beginning of why Louis would get down into the hole without a second thought and dig for some while to help make Henry’s grave. Without even knowing why, Henry began to sing to them and gradually Dora was able to let go of her brother.
Robbins found Henry kneeling beside the bed, still singing. Henry had found a piece of string from somewhere and with the string he was making and unmaking Jacob’s Ladder, the one thing Rita, his second mother, had known how to do with string.
“I’m just a little somebody and I don’t care a bit,” he kept singing. “I’m just a little somebody and I don’t care. A little somebody…” Robbins stood in the doorway and listened. “I’m just a little somebody and I don’t care a bit.” He wondered if his wife back home was asleep. Someone across the hall laughed and he remembered the laugh from a slave working in his fields. Robbins touched the door with his fist and watched it open wide and then wider.
Dora saw him first and bounded out of the bed and into his arms. He kissed her cheek. She held on to him until he took her back to the bed and put her down. He touched Louis’s cheek, but the boy did not respond because Henry had given him the string and that was all the little boy knew for that moment.
“I want you to stay with em tonight, Henry,” Robbins said, pulling the covers up to Dora’s neck and blowing out the lamp on her side of the bed. “Stay with em and keep em peaceful. Just stay with em.”
He went to Louis’s side of the bed and laid him down and pulled the covers up to his neck. “Yall listen to Henry,” he told them. He took a few blankets piled on a chair and told Henry to lie beside the bed, and Henry took off the shoes he himself had made and he lay down and Robbins blew out the candle at Louis’s side of the bed and left the room.
The owners of the boardinghouse were with Philomena when he returned to her room. The side of her face was bloating, turning purple with each moment, but he didn’t know what color it was because the lamp on that side of the room had gone out. “I want somebody to attend to that,” Robbins said to the husband and then repeated himself to the wife, nodding all the while in the direction of the injury. “We will,” the woman said. “We will,” the husband said. He went to the bed and thought for the first time that what he felt for Philomena might well doom him. His wife liked to retire early, but his daughter would stay on in the parlor to read or to keep up with her correspondence. The downstairs of his mansion his daughter called the South and the upstairs she called the North. “Go to the East, Mama,” Patience, the daughter, would say years later on that day Dora came to the mansion. It was the day Patience thought William Robbins was near death. “Go to the East and I will seek you out there. Please, Mama. Please, sweetheart.” Dora would be standing in the mansion doorway. The two daughters had never seen each other before that day. “Go to the East and I will seek you out, Mama.”
Robbins knew Philomena would not be able to travel in the morning and he decided then that he would have to leave her. And he did not want his children to see her face. He told the boardinghouse owners that he wanted to see that Philomena got back to Manchester. “I see to it,” the man said. “I got somebody and we see to it.” Robbins had no faith in the man’s word but it would have to do. “She be ready in a day or two,” the woman said, holding Philomena’s chin and inspecting the injury. Even as they all spoke and the man and the wife tried to assure him that they would bring Philomena to him, he began to fear that he would not see her again. He looked at her and could not take his eyes from her. He hoped that her love for their children would compel her back to Manchester. He dared not hope that any love for him would do it.
He went back to the white hotel he had registered in earlier and drank a good bit, though that had not been his intention when he first entered the Negro boardinghouse. He awoke about eight, later than he would have liked, and returned with his horse to the boardinghouse and was surprised to see that Henry had already made arrangements for the trip. He had secured a surrey for himself and the two children and for Philomena, since he had not known that she would not be returning with them. The surrey would be pulled by the horse Henry came in on and another horse he had gotten from a stable nearby, using the name of William Robbins as currency because he had come to Richmond with little money of his own. After seeing to Philomena, Robbins found the children in their room, fed and rested and full of giggles. He took them to Philomena, for the swelling in her cheek had subsided, and then he took them out and down to the carriage. Philomena slept through their visit.
They left for Manchester near about ten o’clock. At five that day they stopped at a house close to Appomattox, about halfway to their destination, and at that house they stayed the night. The owner of the house, a white man of forty-nine then married to his fourth wife, who was the sister of his dead second wife, was used to much traffic on the road, had made a good life catering to it. He knew Robbins well enough to let him keep three Negroes in the room next to Robbins and he didn’t charge him any extra for having Negroes in the place and not in the barn.
Henry drove the surrey the whole way to Manchester, Louis beside him and Dora in the back, a cloth doll for company, and for a good bit of the way Robbins rode Sir Guilderham beside them. Once, way on the other side of Appomattox, Dora looked out and up at him. He smiled at her and then, after about half a mile, told Henry to stop and he tied the horse to the back of the carriage and he got in with Dora and she moved without words into his arms. Robbins looked at the back of Henry’s head, at the way Louis watched him, as if this was all a lesson he would later be tested on. Dora dozed and Robbins thought that this would be a good way for him to die, right there, on the road home with his children. The only thing to make it better would be to have his daughter Patience on the other side of him. Looking at the back of Henry absorbed in his work, it came to him like something he had long been avoiding, that the world would not be very good to the children he had had with Philomena, but whatever world it would be, he wanted Henry in it for them.
They arrived at the house he bought for Philomena a little after sundown of the second day of their trip. Philomena’s mother was at the door, waiting. She had been seeing a man from a nearby plantation and he had just left after she fed him. That man liked the banjo, which he played for her all the time, but it had a strange sound because it was missing a string. The children’s grandmother came down to the surrey and made quite a fuss over the two children, whom she called her little hushpuppies. Her daughter owned her but that didn’t mean anything between them.
When Henry, at twenty, bought his first piece of land from Robbins, he told his parents right off. The land was miles from where they lived but a short ride from Robbins’s plantation, though it was not connected. By the time he died he would own all the land between him and Robbins so that there was nothing separating what they owned. He had supper with Mildred and Augustus the day of the land sale. But the day he bought from Robbins his first slave, Moses, he did not go to their house and he did not go to them for a long time. He spent that first day of ownership with Robbins, and Moses and he and the white man planned where he would build his house. He did not have a wife, was not even courting anyone. When he told his parents about Moses, the house-two floors and half as large as Robbins’s-was a third completed, and still he did not have a wife.
When the house was half done, Robbins, one afternoon in early fall, rode up on a horse sired by Sir Guilderham and stopped, watching Henry and Moses tussling in front of the unfinished house. Henry and Moses had not noticed him come up, and the dog, so used to seeing Robbins, had not bothered to bark.
“Henry,” he said at last, still on the horse. “Henry, come here.” He turned and rode away several yards and Henry came out, followed by Moses. When Robbins, still moving, turned his head to see Moses following, anger appeared on his face. He shouted to Moses, “I said ‘Henry, come here.’ If Ida wanted you, Ida said for you to come.”
Moses stopped and Henry looked back at him. Robbins rode slowly on, then a bit faster, and Henry finally had to run to keep up. When Robbins had come to the road again, he stopped but did not turn around. When Henry reached Robbins, he could hardly catch his breath. He leaned over behind Robbins, his hands on his knees. “Yessir?” Henry kept saying. “Yessir?” Robbins still did not turn around and Henry went around to face him, putting a hand up to the horse’s forehead, which was a good two feet higher than his own head.
“Who is that?” Robbins said, raising his gloved hand and pointing his thumb over his shoulder. “Who is that you playin with like children in the dirt?”
“That Moses. You know Moses, Mr. Robbins.” Moses had been his slave for less than six months.
“I know you bought a slave from me to do what a slave is supposed to do. I know that much.”
“Henry,” Robbins said, looking not at him but out to the other side of the road, “the law will protect you as a master to your slave, and it will not flinch when it protects you. That protection lasts from here”-and he pointed to an imaginary place in the road-“all the way to the death of that property”-and he pointed to a place a few feet from the first place. “But the law expects you to know what is master and what is slave. And it does not matter if you are not much more darker than your slave. The law is blind to that. You are the master and that is all the law wants to know. The law will come to you and stand behind you. But if you roll around and be a playmate to your property, and your property turns round and bites you, the law will come to you still, but it will not come with the full heart and all the deliberate speed that you will need. You will have failed in your part of the bargain. You will have pointed to the line that separates you from your property and told your property that the line does not matter.” Henry pulled his hand down from the horse’s forehead. “You are rollin round now, today, with property you have a slip of paper on. How will you act when you have ten slips of paper, fifty slips of paper? How will you act, Henry, when you have a hundred slips of paper? Will you still be rollin in the dirt with them?”
Robbins spurred the horse and said nothing more. Henry watched them, the man and the horse, and then looked over at Moses, who waved, ready to return to work. Moses, with a saw in his hand, did a little dance. Henry went to him.
“We can get in a good bit fore dark,” Moses said and lifted the saw high above his head.
“We ain’t workin no more today.”
“What? But why not?”
“I said no more, Moses.”
“But we got good light here. We got good day here, Massa.”
Henry stepped to him, took the saw and slapped him once, and when the pain begin to set in on Moses’s face, he slapped him again. “Why don’t you never do what I tell you to do? Why is that, Moses?”
“I do. I always do what you tell me to do, Massa.”
“Nigger, you don’t. You never do.”
Moses felt himself beginning to sink in the dirt. He lifted one foot and placed it elsewhere, hoping that would be better, but it wasn’t. He wanted to move the other foot, but that would have been too much-as it was, moving the first foot was done without permission.
“You just do what I tell you from now on,” Henry said. He dropped the saw on the ground. He bent down and picked it up and looked for a long time at the tool, at the teeth all in a row, at the way they marched finely up to the wooden handle. He dropped the saw again and looked down at it. “Go get my horse with the saddle on top of it,” Henry said, still looking at the saw. “Go get my horse.” “Yessir, I will.” Moses soon came with the animal.
“I be back later. Maybe I be back tomorrow. But I want you here doin right when I get back, doin good.” The horse walked off. Henry was many yards from his place when he remembered that he had left his hat, but the day had been a pleasant one and he figured he could get by without it. It was not many more feet beyond that point that he heard the sounds of Moses working. The birds of the day began to chirp, and in little more than a mile, the bird songs had replaced completely the sound of the man working behind him. Then, in little more than another quarter-mile, a mule was honking, joined by the lowing of a cow, and as he rode on farther, the crickets came in, and then the birds and the cow mooing and the crickets and the evening air all came together.
Moses finished the kitchen floor before he lay down to sleep. The darkness came on but he felt some need to complete the work and set up candles and a few lanterns about the room and worked on with their flickering help and with some inner sense of what should go where. It was a sense that would have served him somewhat even if he had toiled in perfect darkness. And gradually, as the evening and night went on, he forgot everything but what he was doing. There was not time and there was not darkness out there beyond the room. There was no empty stomach. There was only work. The sweat came down his face and he licked at the sweat that came near his mouth and drank it. When the work of that day-the thirty-third since the first nail was pounded into wood-was done, he ate some biscuits and three apples and drank all the water his body could hold. He went out to the cabin he and Henry had shared, and he knew that now the cabin would be his alone. Tomorrow, or whenever his master returned, they, he and Henry, could move through from the kitchen toward the front of the house. They might even make it to the beginning of the second floor, and in one of those rooms on the first floor, whether the completed dining room or the parlor, Henry would sleep. Moses stopped at the door of the cabin and looked up at the night. His grandmother, or a woman who told the world she was his grandmother before she was sold away, had tried to tell him about the stars (“Them stars can guide you”), but he had no head for the stars. Now he looked at them and he raised his hand to his eyes to shade them, just the way he would have done if it were the middle of the sunniest day. He was standing less than ten feet from the spot where he would die one morning.
Leaving Henry’s place that day, Robbins went to Fern Elston’s before going home to his wife and daughter. What had always surprised him was that he had never seen as many flaws in Henry as he had seen in white men who had enough possessions in their lives to bring on the envious wrath of the gods. Robbins had always believed that the fewer flaws in a man, the fewer doors there were for the gods to enter a man’s life and pull him down to nothing. And not seeing as many failings, Robbins had thought Henry would make a way for himself where even some good and strong white men had faltered and been ground back down to dust. But over the years he had seen enough wrong in the way Henry sometimes conducted himself to worry him. And no failing had worried him more since the day he brought Henry into his life than wrestling around with the slave Moses like some common nigger in from the field after a hard day. How could anyone, white or not white, think that he could hold on to his land and servants and his future if he thought himself no higher than what he owned? The gods, the changeable gods, hated a man with so much, but they hated more a man who did not appreciate how high they had pulled him up from the dust.
Robbins arrived at Fern’s and saw a servant and told that servant to tell his mistress that he wanted to see her. Robbins did not dismount from his horse and had he not seen the servant he would have remained on his horse, waiting until someone noticed he was there and asked if he might be helped. Fern came out of her door and stepped to the edge of the verandah and Robbins took off his hat but still did not dismount. Fern did not come down the steps and so they were more or less eye to eye.
“Fern, good day.”
“Good day, Mr. Robbins.”
“I have someone who needs to be educated, starting with writing and whatnot. He can’t even write his own name. He should know how to do that and much else besides. He should know how to conduct himself in Virginia.”
“I see,” Fern said. She had not heard that he had any more children with Philomena Cartwright, so she thought that he had taken up with another colored woman and now the child of that coupling needed to be educated. She liked to take children at age four; the older they were after that, the more their heads had been filled with nonsense that her teaching could not extract.
“It’s Henry Townsend. I think you know him.”
She laughed, but when Robbins did not, she stopped. “The Henry I know is a man,” she said. “A man,” and she made sure that he was looking at her when she repeated herself.
“That be him,” Robbins said. “A far piece from being a boy. But he is coming into himself and I would not want to see him hurt by all that he does not know.”
“A man does not learn very well, Mr. Robbins. Women, yes, because they are used to bending with whatever wind comes along. A woman, no matter the age, is always learning, always becoming. But a man, if you will pardon me, stops learning at fourteen or so. He shuts it all down, Mr. Robbins. A log is capable of learning more than a man. To teach a man would be a battle, a war, and I would lose.”
“Not with Henry, Fern. He would be open to what you had to teach him. I would not come to you about any other Negro.” He had paid her $20 a month to educate Dora and Louis. He had been tempted to have her come to his house and give private lessons to his white daughter, so pleased with what she had done with his black children, but there were some things his wife could not abide and that would have been another door for the gods to come through. Patience, that other daughter, had been educated well enough but not as well as Dora had been taught by Fern. “He would not be as obstinate or as thick as a log.”
“The oldest child ever brought to me was ten years old,” Fern said. “It was a war, but I prevailed. I was also a younger woman.” She looked Robbins in the face, then looked to the side, beyond him out to the place where the gambler Jedediah Dickinson would camp. “So you send word to Henry Townsend to come by here at ten tomorrow morning. Any later than that and he will have failed the first lesson.” She did not say that he himself should tell Henry for she knew he would not go and take a message from a woman not his equal to a man who was not his equal.
“Good,” Robbins said. “Let us wait a week and see what price this will be.”
“It will not be a child’s price. I can practically teach children in my sleep.”
“Tell him nothing about this and I will pay the price of a man. Even the price of three children,” Robbins said. He put his hat back on his head. “Good day, Fern.” He still wanted Henry in any world his black children would have to inhabit, but the wrestling around with Moses had shown him how unprepared Henry was. Fern would see that and she would do what had to be done. That August day the Canadian pamphlet writer, Anderson Frazier, came to visit, Fern said, “No, Henry never lived to be completely handsome. Augustus did, but his son fell short.”
“Good day, Mr. Robbins,” Fern said.
She watched him ride out to the road and turn to the left. She had heard from Maude, Caldonia’s mother, that there might be something unnatural between him and Henry. Why else would a white man of his stature spend so much of his life with a young man he had once owned? Now she knew the unnatural was not it. Robbins had a fear in his eyes, the same fear a man would have sending his son out into the world to hunt for bear with only a favorite gun that had failed the father once too often.
She came down the steps of the verandah. Ramsey, her gambling husband, gone a week, had promised to return that day. Zeus, the slave she trusted most, came around the side of her house and asked what he could do for her. “The garden,” she said, pointing her chin out in the direction of the azaleas. “I have not seen to my garden since yesterday.” Zeus would be the man who would bring the lemonade out to Anderson Frazier that August day. Zeus would then be earning a salary from Fern and her blacksmith husband, called them his employers, though he would be, in fact, Fern’s best friend.
“Yes, ma’am,” Zeus said, glancing at the garden. He went to the shed for her gardening hat and all she would need to make it through.
The sound of Robbins’s leaving was no more. She sighed and looked down to the road where the white man had gone. A month to teach him to write his name. No, perhaps two weeks. She was a great teacher and Augustus and Mildred were not thickheaded people, so maybe the going would not be as difficult as chopping a log with a dull ax. She came to the garden and seeing it made her heart beat faster. She had not bathed since her husband left, but her days of being so long from water were coming to an end, though she herself could not see the end. Zeus arrived with her equipment and he set the hat on her head and he did it so well that she did not need to adjust what he had done. “We must get us a new one of these, Mistress,” he said of her hat. Her husband had accepted Zeus as part of a white man’s gambling debt when Zeus was twelve years old. He had come with a name that she did not like and so she, then a new wife, had renamed him. Named him for a god she would have worshiped had she been the worshiping kind. Neither Fern nor Zeus could remember what his old name had been. Fern said now, “Oh, Zeus, this hat will do us for now. At least until the end of the month. And then you and I will see.”
They went into the garden, avoiding the most fragile of what was growing. She herself did not bend down to the flowers but pointed to what she wanted done, what needed snipping, what needed pruning, and Zeus knelt down and made it right. He had a hat of his own and it was as old as the one Fern was wearing. He was never to retire from being employed by Fern and her blacksmith husband. On the day Anderson Frazier the pamphlet writer came to visit, Fern had been earlier that morning in her new garden, working on her knees beside Zeus, her employee. As she sat with Anderson on her porch, she noticed some dirt under one fingernail and silently chastised herself for missing what even a small child would have seen as she washed up.
Fern Elston had chosen not to follow her siblings and many of her cousins into a life of being white. She stayed in Manchester County where everyone knew what she was-a free Negro, though she was as white as any white person. Part of why she stayed was Ramsey Elston, a free Negro who came from north of Charlottesville. Had she gone anywhere else and passed as white, the color of her husband would have made her suspect. While he was quite light-skinned, he was not as light as she was and it was most evident that he was colored. She would have been a white woman in the rest of the world with a Negro husband, and that would have limited her world almost as much as their just living as a colored man and his colored wife. And being a white wife might have gotten her husband killed.
But it had never crossed Fern’s mind to pass as white. Not caring very much for white people, she saw no reason to become one of them. She was known throughout Manchester as a formidable woman, and being educated had only piled more formidability on top of what she had been born with. Sheriff John Skiffington’s patrollers came to dread seeing her if she was on the road after dark, which was rare for her.
In the early days of the patrollers, the first thing out of her mouth when they stopped her was “I will not abuse you in word or deed and I do not expect you to abuse me in word or deed. And I do not want my servant abused,” the servant being whichever one of her slaves was driving her at the time. Then she would produce papers showing she was a free woman and that would be followed by a bill of sale for the slave. She waited patiently for them to look over the papers. Some of the patrollers could not read, and she was just as patient with them, waiting as the illiterate man made a show of pretending to read. She knew people were not born knowing how to read. She did not say “Good day” when they stopped her, and she did not say “Good-bye” when they let her go on her way. “Pass on,” she would say to the servant.
If there was something “disagreeable” with the patrollers she would tell William Robbins, not Sheriff John Skiffington, about it the very next day. Once, a patroller, Harvey Travis, who could read, had been displeased with the coldness of her manner and had crumbled up the papers and thrown them in her lap. “Just git now,” he said. “Pass on,” she said to the servant, with the same tone she spoke when she had not been abused. She went to Robbins that next day. She had never gone around to the back door of a white person’s home and she did not do it that day. The servant who drove her went to the back, found a slave who was washing clothes and told her that Mistress Fern would like a word with Master Robbins. By the time Fern’s servant got back to her in the carriage, Robbins was coming down the stairs of the verandah.
“Mr. Robbins,” she said, “I have had a disagreeable episode with one of the patrollers and I fear that if something is not done, there will be more episodes.” She remained in the carriage the whole time as Robbins stood beside it. Both of them paid taxes to fund the patrollers but that was not something that would have meant anything to the patrollers.
He knew her well enough to know that she had not gone to Skiffington. “I will look into it, Fern. I will see what I can do.”
“If you can do something, you will have my gratitude.”
“Then I will work even harder to get something done.”
No patroller ever abused her again. Always after that, when she saw the patrollers on the night road, she would stop and produce the papers even before they had asked. In time, all the patrollers came to know her and did not require the papers. But she pulled them out nevertheless. “We know who you are,” they would say. She said nothing. And then, when it became clear that she never had to stop again in her life, she would still stop and do what she had been doing all along.
Ramsey Elston’s gambling was making them poorer, though it was a poverty that the great majority of the county, white and free black, would have been very comfortable with. He did not gamble in the county. Instead, he would go at least two counties over to find white men sporting enough to gamble with a Negro. And he had to be sure that if he won, they would not be so resentful as to take their losses out on his hide, and then, after the beating, take their money back. He was often gone for three or four days, a week at the most, and in the early time of their marriage it was something she could bear. And, too, he usually won. The acreage that they had was producing, and then there was the money from relatives in Richmond and Petersburg. The money had been coming for years without there ever having been an agreement to it. A bank in Richmond or Petersburg would communicate with the one bank in Manchester and there would be money in Fern’s account. She suspected that the relatives were sending it as Fern-you-keep-our-secret money, but the last thing she would have done was tell the world she had relatives who were passing. She knew them all, had played with some as children, slept beside them in their beds, but she no longer thought of them as people who had the same blood as hers.
Ramsey, especially in the days before the arrival of fellow gambler Jebediah Dickinson, would return and be the most attentive of husbands for weeks and weeks until the need to be around a table of money and cards and men and cigars took hold of him again. That gambling world two counties away tugged at him and she could see it in the way he lumbered through their home, the way he nudged the puppies out of his way with his foot. He needed to be back to that world, all of it, even the sight of that one servant whose one job it was to fan the cigar smoke away with a newspaper none of the gamblers had even bothered to read.
Fern was not a woman to wait for her husband at the window. But she did pine for him. He would tell her the very day when he was coming back. “Don’t wash,” he would say before he left. “Don’t you bathe till I get back.” This was hard for her in the beginning, for she had been raised with the notion that the lack of cleanliness put one closer to those laboring in the fields. “I need to bathe, Mr. Elston,” she said. “I want to bathe.” “Do it after I get back.” “But I will perspire all over myself in the meantime, all the way down to my poor ankles.” “Sweat me up a river, I don’t care. I’ll swim in it. Just don’t bathe.” She tried to avoid her students at such times, for she had taught them, from Dora to Caldonia, the same notion about cleanliness. Ramsey would come back, generally in the late evening, and find her in their bedroom. “I have been a dutiful wife, Mr. Elston.” He would laugh. “And I a dutiful husband, Mrs. Elston,” and she would believe him, night after night, until Jebediah Dickinson came. Then Ramsey would start to undress her, piece by slow piece, the one candle in the room wearing itself away even faster now down to a nub. Long before he had finished undressing her, she would grow heavy with wanting him and feel as if she would drop to the floor, and that was when he would kiss her throat, making the first contact with her skin, tasting for the first time the buildup of salt. The kiss would revive her and she would live until she became heavy once more and he had to kiss her throat again. “Have you bathed, Mrs. Elston?” “I have not bathed, Mr. Elston,” each word being such an effort and yet so very necessary. “I have been a dutiful wife.”
This was in the spring and early summer of their lives together. There was a saying in that part of Virginia that candles burned brighter in the spring and summer of a year because of how the wind came down from the mountains and gave the flames more air to breathe. Other people said no, that they had seen candles burn just as brightly in the fall, and even in the winter when the air wasn’t as nice. Fern Elston subscribed to the latter notion.
The Elstons rarely had more than thirteen slaves, though the gambler Jebediah Dickinson, for the time he was there, would bring the number to fourteen. Thirteen slaves were always enough to serve them in the house and to farm the few acres that would meet all their needs. The field slaves lived in quarters closer to their masters than any hands at any plantation or farm in Virginia. Why this was so, no one ever knew. There was certainly land enough to place them farther away. Those Elstons didn’t have slaves, colored people said, they had neighbors who happened to be slaves.
Fern did not tell Anderson Frazier, the white man who wrote pamphlets, that Henry Townsend was the darkest student she ever had, but she did tell him that he was the first freed slave and was probably the brightest of all her students.
”It might be that his blood was untainted in some way,” she said as the time neared noon that day with Anderson. She was prepared to give no answer if he asked what she meant by that, but Anderson said nothing. She listened to the word untainted echo in her head, thinking that it was the first time she had used it in a long time. “When he could read and write, I opened my library to him, but most of the books did not hold him the way I thought they might have. He was a man, of course, and not a child given to luxuriating. He read, enjoyed, and presented himself for the next one. He would take a book back to his land. Where he got the time to read, I do not know because the word I received was that he was working on the house all day long.” That August day with Anderson, a man and a woman, hand in hand, walked by and she waved to them and the couple waved back. “Now and again some book would take a firm hold of him and he would talk about it for days. Do you know Milton, Mr. Frazier? Do you know Paradise Lost, Mr. Frazier?”
“I do, Mrs. Elston.”
“So did Henry. ‘Ain’t that a thing to say’ is what he said of the Devil who proclaimed that he would rather rule in hell than serve in heaven. He thought only a man who knew himself well could say such a thing, could turn his back on God with just finality. I tried to make him see what a horrible choice that was, but Henry had made up his mind about that and I could not turn him back. He loved Milton and he loved Thomas Gray. I am partial to neither, but I must reveal them to my students nevertheless.” She turned to Anderson and tipped her head back somewhat so that her whole face was visible. She continued, “I could not break him of his diction. Sometimes he spoke the way I wanted him to speak, but there were so many times when he spoke the way a man had to speak who had been twenty years in the field. His own father spoke that way as well.”
The day Robbins saw him wrestling with Moses, Henry Townsend reached his parents a little after seven that evening. Mildred and Augustus were awake and he was glad. He had stayed away and not told them about the purchase of Moses or that he had started building a house. Part of him just wanted to surprise them about the new house. Part of him had been afraid to tell them about Moses. But Henry was weary in the mind after what Robbins had said to him and thought that sharing the story of his house and Moses would be a good way to pass the evening before sleep. He found them at the kitchen table and Mildred stood and covered his face with kisses. Augustus was playing with one of the dogs, tugging gently at its ears. “Leave off now,” he told the dog as he rose and the dog sidled away. Augustus and Henry kissed on the mouth, a habit born in those days when Henry and Robbins traveled about, a way of pulling Henry back into the family. The day of the wrestling the family had not been together in nearly two months.
They sat at the kitchen table. Mildred put a slice of apple pie before her son, then took it back and put a second slice on the plate right beside the first. As always, they were silent for very long moments. The time the three had spent apart in the early years had built up an awkwardness that came out in such moments: Augustus first being free and working to free his wife and then mother and child living together as slaves and then father and mother working to free Henry and then the three of them together forging a life just when the sap was commencing to rise in the boy. But then, in the midst of the silence, Mildred or Augustus would do some throat clearing and the words would flow again among them.
“I’m workin on a house,” Henry said in between chews on the second piece of pie. “I’m puttin up a house. A big house.”
Mildred and Augustus looked at each other and smiled. “What next, a wife?” Augustus asked.
“Maybe. Maybe. It’s gonna be a good house, Papa. Even white people will say, ‘What a nice house that Henry Townsend got.’ ”
“Why ain’t you tell me, Henry?” Augustus said. “You know I woulda done all I could. I coulda come down there for you. Thas why I’m here.”
“I know, Papa. I just wanted to get anough of somethin for you and Mama to make a fuss over. Maybe you can come in when we get to that second story.”
“Two floors,” Mildred said. “Look out, Augustus, he’s buildin somethin bigger than what you got.” She winked at her husband. “When ‘we’ get to the second floor? Who this ‘we’ you talkin about?”
Henry put down his fork from the last of the pie. “Thas the other part of the news. I got help.”
Augustus shook his head in pleasant wonder. “Who you got? You hired out Charles and Millard from over Colfax’s plantation. They good men with they hands, I haveta say. Good men and worth what you gotta pay. Get your money out the backyard and do right by em. And Colfax’ll let em keep some of what they earn. That Charles could use the money with him tryin to buy hisself away from Colfax. Is it Buddy? Free Buddy, not Buddy thas from Dalford’s plantation. I don’t know bout slave Buddy’s work sometime. But free Buddy be somethin else.”
“No, Papa. I got my own man. I bought my own man. Bought him cheap from Master Robbins. Moses.” The pie had made him drowsy and he was thinking how good it would be to go upstairs and fall asleep. “He a good worker. Lotta years in him. And Mr. Robbins lend me the rest of the men for the work.”
Mildred and Augustus looked at each other and Mildred lowered her head.
Augustus stood up so quickly his chair tilted back and he reached around to catch it without taking his eyes from Henry. “You mean tell me you bought a man and he yours now? You done bought him and you didn’t free that man? You own a man, Henry?”
“Yes. Well, yes, Papa,” Henry looked from his father to his mother.
Mildred stood up, too. “Henry, why?” she said. “Why would you do that?” She went through her memory for the time, for the day, she and her husband told him all about what he should and should not do. No goin out into them woods without Papa or me knowin about it. No steppin foot out this house without them free papers, not even to go to the well or the privy. Say your prayers every night.
“Do what, Mama? What is it?”
Pick the blueberries close to the ground, son. Them the sweetest, I find. If a white man say the trees can talk, can dance, you just say yes right along, that you done seen em do it plenty of times. Don’t look them people in the eye. You see a white woman ridin toward you, get way off the road and go stand behind a tree. The uglier the white woman, the farther you go and the broader the tree. But where, in all she taught her son, was it about thou shall own no one, havin been owned once your own self. Don’t go back to Egypt after God done took you outa there.
“Don’t you know the wrong of that, Henry?” Augustus said.
“Nobody never told me the wrong of that.”
“Why should anybody haveta teach you the wrong, son?” Augustus said. “Ain’t you got eyes to see it without me tellin you?”
“Henry,” Mildred said, “why do things the same old bad way?”
“I ain’t, Mama. I ain’t.”
Augustus said quietly, “I promised myself when I got this little bit of land that I would never suffer a slaveowner to set foot on it. Never.” He put his hand momentarily to his mouth and then tugged at his beard. “Of all the human beins on God’s earth I never once thought the first slaveowner I would tell to leave my place would be my own child. I never thought it would be you. Why did we ever buy you offa Robbins if you gon do this? Why trouble ourselves with you bein free, Henry? You could not have hurt me more if you had cut off my arms and my legs.” Augustus walked out the room to the front door, meaning for Henry to follow. Mildred sat back down but soon stood up again.
“Papa, I ain’t done nothin I ain’t a right to. I ain’t done nothin no white man wouldn’t do. Papa, wait.”
Mildred went to her son and put her hand to the back of his neck and rubbed it. “Augustus…?” Henry followed his father and Mildred followed her son. “Papa. Papa, now wait now.” In the front room, Augustus turned to Henry. “You best leave, and you best leave now,” Augustus said. He opened the door.
“I ain’t done nothin that any white man wouldn’t do. I ain’t broke no law. I ain’t. You listen here.” Beside the door, Augustus had several racks of walking sticks, one under the other, about ten in all. “Papa, just cause you didn’t, that don’t mean…” Augustus took down a stick, one with an array of squirrels chasing each other, head to tail, tail to head, a line of sleek creatures going around and around the stick all the way to the top where a perfect acorn was waiting, stem and all. Augustus slammed the stick down across Henry’s shoulder and Henry crumpled to the floor. “Augustus, stop now!” Mildred shouted and knelt to her son. “Thas how a slave feel!” Augustus called down to him. “Thas just how every slave every day be feelin.”
Henry squirmed out of his mother’s arms and managed to get to his feet. He took the stick from his father. “Henry, no!” Mildred said. Henry, with two tries, broke the stick over his knee. “Thas how a master feels,” he said and went out the door. Mildred followed him. “Please, son. Please.” He kept walking and on the steps he realized that he was still holding the pieces of the stick and turned around and handed them to his mother. “Henry. Wait, son.” He went on to the barn. He had come to stay the night and so had made a place for his horse, but now he saddled it with what little moonlight found its way into the barn. The horse resisted. “Come!” Henry told it. “Come now!” His mother came out into the yard and watched him go away in the dark. For a long time she could hear the horse moving on what passed for a road out where they were and the sounds of his going away gave her an image of him in her mind that stayed with her for days.
The pain in his shoulder did not allow him to ride quickly and it took him some three hours to reach Robbins’s place. Mildred and Augustus had wanted a place as far away from most white people as they could get. Henry feared that Robbins would not be home. He had thought he would simply sleep in the barn until morning. But Robbins was drinking alone on the verandah and neither man said a word as Henry came slowly up into the yard. The moon gave them good light. Robbins’s horse was in the yard and raised his head from the grass to look at Henry. Henry dismounted. He led the white man’s horse away, and after a bit, he returned to get his own horse.
When he returned, he stood in the yard, looking up at Robbins, who was drinking from a bottle, something Henry had never seen him do out in the open.
“May I come up and sit with you, Mr. Robbins?”
“Of course. Of course. I would no more deny you a seat than I would deny Louis.” Robbins was one of the few white men who would not suffer from sitting across from a black man. Aside from the crickets and a sound from the odd creature of the night, their words were all there was. Henry sat on the top step. Robbins’s wife was watching from a window up in the East. Robbins was not in his customary rocking chair, for the rocking had begun to pain his back. “I would offer you somethin, Henry, but there are some roads you’d best not go down. At least not now when you have all your senses.”
“Is today Tuesday, Henry?”
“Yessir, it be Tuesday. Least for a little bit more.”
“Hmm…,” Robbins muttered and drank from the bottle, two quick sips. “My mother was born on a Tuesday, in a nice place just outside Charlottesville. I’ve always thought of Tuesday as my lucky day, even though I myself was born on a Thursday. I cannot go wrong on a Tuesday. I married on a Tuesday, though Mrs. Robbins would have preferred a Sunday.”
“Do you know what day your mother was born on, Henry?”
“No, Mr. Robbins, I don’t.”
“I got down the big book last week. Not my Bible. The other book. The book of all my servants and all else. No, maybe it wasn’t last week. Maybe it was two weeks ago, or whenever it was you started in on your house. And I looked up her name. She has a Tuesday, Henry. Remember that. Marry on a Tuesday and you will be happy. You were born on a Friday, the book says. But pay that no mind.”
Henry said he would pay it no mind.
“Are you happy with your house, Henry?” He could see Henry kneeling before the bed as he amused his children that night in Richmond. His children would be better for having Henry in their world, if he could just stop wrestling with niggers.
“Yessir, I am.” He kept shifting to get the best relief for his pained shoulder.
“Don’t settle for just a house and some land, boy. Take hold of it all. There are white men out there, Henry, who ain’t got nothin. You might as well step in and take what they ain’t takin. Why not? God is in his heaven and he don’t care most of the time. The trick of life is to know when God does care and do all you need to do behind his back.”
“I know you have it in you to want, to want to take hold and pull it in for yourself, don’t you, Henry?”
“I do, Mr. Robbins.” He did not know how much he wanted until that moment.
“Then take it and let the world be damned, Henry.”
Henry waited until then to tell Robbins he thought his shoulder was broken and that he might need some help moving from the steps.
Fern Elston said to Anderson Frazier the pamphlet man that day in August, “A woman born to teaching wakes in the morning desperate to be near her pupils. I was that way. I am that way. I have told my own children and my husband to put on my grave marker ‘Mother’ and ‘Teacher.’ That before all else, even my own name. And if the chiseler has room, to have him put ‘Wife.’ ‘Wife’ below my name. ‘Dutiful Wife,’ if he can manage it.” She paused for some time, then returned to the subject of Henry Townsend. “I had nothing in mind beyond a pleasant afternoon and early evening when I invited Henry to supper with some of my former students. I believe it was a little less than a year since I began teaching him and he was still my student. He came in some woolen suit, much too warm for the day. I suspect that if you had taken a beater to that suit, the dust would have been enough to engulf him. I believe he himself was the owner of three servants by then. Perhaps four, one of them being a woman to cook for him…”
”How did he acquit himself that evening, Mrs. Elston?” Anderson said.
“Quite well. Dora and Louis knew him, of course, adored him. He was a kind of older brother to them, so it was not going to be an uncomfortable gathering. Calvin, Caldonia’s brother, took to him right away. Calvin had long been uneasy in his own person and so lived to put everyone else at ease. The two of them talked together most of the afternoon, into the evening. Then, toward the end, having sat across the table from her the whole time but never spoken to her, Henry said to Caldonia, ‘I saw you ridin and sometime you keep your head down.’ He didn’t excuse himself from talking to Calvin and he didn’t excuse himself to Frieda, to whom Caldonia was talking. Manners had not yet been one of my lessons with him. It would have been one of the first lessons with them, with children, of course, but in teaching a man, the fundamentals must change.” She went on to describe the remainder of the evening. It was clear that it was one of her favorite memories.
Caldonia had looked across at Henry as if she had not noticed him before. “Oh,” she said after he said he saw her riding. “You keep your head down and that ain’t right,” Henry said. He took the pepper shaker in his right hand, extended his arm before him and moved the arm from right to left. Everyone at the table was now watching him. The hand with the shaker moved smoothly, gracefully from the right to the left. “Thas how everybody else rides,” Henry said. “Me and everybody else.” Henry put the pepper shaker in his left hand, tipped it and moved his arm less gracefully from the left to the right. And as it moved, pepper poured out of the shaker onto Fern’s white tablecloth. He said, “I’m sorry to say this, but thas how you ride.” Henry did this with the shaker several times-going from right to left, the pepper shaker was upright, but going from left to right, the pepper flowed down. Fern thought there was something rather sad about the pepper falling, and it was all the sadder because it really didn’t have to be that way. She said to Anderson, “This was his clumsy way of telling Caldonia she was losing something by not looking up.”
In the end, Henry noticed the line of pepper on the tablecloth and looked at Fern. “I’m sorry,” he said to her. “It is not the problem you think,” Fern said. “Mr. Elston has done far more harm to my tablecloth.”
Caldonia had not taken her eyes off Henry, and she finally smiled at him. “I will try to do better from now on,” she said. “I know I will do better.” Henry put the shaker back on the table and used his finger to sweep the pepper into a little pile.
Calvin, Caldonia’s twin brother, said to her, “I’ve been telling you for years that you ride that way and you have never listened to me.”
Her eyes were still on Henry and for the moment she had forgotten where Calvin was sitting. He was two people to the left of Henry, but Caldonia began looking to the right for him, not really focusing very well because her concentration was on Henry. “Well, dear brother,” she said as her eyes went from the right to the left, trying to direct her words to her brother. “Dear brother, you never in all that time spoke to me as if my life depended upon what you were saying.” Everyone laughed and Frieda said, “Touch'e.”
Fern said to Anderson Frazier, “Caldonia’s father was alive then, so he was there to give his permission to Henry’s courting her. The mother’s maid went about with them, as good girls did not go about alone with men they were not related to. Had her father been dead, I do not think her mother would have given permission, and Caldonia did not then have a mind to go against her mother.”
“Why,” Anderson asked, “would she not have given her permission?”
Fern was reminded again that he was white. If he were to come to know things about black people, about what skin was thought worthy and what skin was not, he would not learn them from her. “I don’t know why,” she said. “Maude, her mother, could be peculiar about certain things.”
Henry’s funeral lasted a little more than an hour. All the slaves he owned surrounded his family and friends and the hole where they put him. Because Valtims Moffett was late, they started without him. Not knowing when Moffett would arrive, Caldonia decided that there, at the end, God would not hold it against Henry Townsend for not having a proper conductor on his last train. Mildred spoke for a long time. She rambled and everyone knew that was fine and Caldonia had her arm through Mildred’s the whole time. Fern sang a song about Jesus that she had learned as a child. She started to sing believing she still knew the words, but midway through the song her memory failed and she proceeded with words she made up. Augustus did not speak. Robbins, with Dora and Louis on either side, did not speak. A storm came into his head and he missed a good part of the service. This was Robbins’s second colored funeral in less than a year. One of the first slaves he ever owned had died, had stood in the field, stopped working and slowly sank down and down to one knee, then the other knee. The slave was alone in his row, his full sack around his neck, and for a long time people worked on and did not notice that Michael had disappeared. “You make a soft place for me in the bye and bye, son,” Mildred said at her son’s grave, “and I’ll be along directly.”
Moses and Stamford and Elias filled in the hole. The people of the field had that day off, but the servants of the house worked very late caring for those who stayed to mourn and remember Henry. Robbins did not stay. He had come in on a horse, not in the surrey of the day before.
After the Richmond evening when Robbins hit her, Philomena Cartwright would not see the city again for many, many years. Her jaw did not heal properly and she could never eat hard food on that side of her mouth. The one time she threatened to flee and return to Richmond, Robbins told her he would sell her back into slavery. “You can’t,” she said. “You can’t, William. I got my free papers.” He told her that in a world where people believed in a God they could not see and pretended the wind was his voice, paper meant nothing, that it had only the power that he, Robbins, would give it. When she saw Richmond that third and final time, it was on a day not long after the Army of the North had burned most of it to the ground. She was forty-four years old then, and it had been thirty years since the day Robbins first saw her with the laundry on her head, practically skipping along, her mind full of what Sophie had been telling her about Richmond. The fires were still smoldering in Richmond when Philomena got there that last time, and she commented to Louis and Dora and Caldonia and her grandson that the fires on the ground were a poor substitute for fireworks in the air.