Authors: Jana Petken
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #History, #Americas, #United States, #19th Century, #Historical Romance
The Mercy Carver Series:
First Published December 2014
Also available from Jana Petken:
The Guardian of Secrets
The Mercy Carver Series:
My thanks to Bob Martin, my proofreader.
Many thanks to Nick Wale, my publicist.
To Karen Osman and Darrell A Butler for their unwavering support and friendship
For my mother, Rena
April 17, 1861
Mercy Carver watched the extraordinary scenes in Newport News unfold and was unable to rid herself of the dreary premonitions of doom that had plagued her for days. She stood by Jacob Stone’s side, clasping his hand between the folds of her gown, and every now and then she gave his fingers a comforting, gentle squeeze.
The news of the attack on Fort Sumter by Confederate forces led by Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard had been brought to the people of Newport News days earlier by couriers, who had instilled an atmosphere of great excitement and, for a few people, dismay. The crowd of Southerners had stood in deathly silence when the messengers described in detail South Carolina’s demands to the United States Army – to abandon its facility in Charleston Harbor.
The Yankees had stubbornly refused to surrender, the couriers had declared, forcing South Carolina to take an aggressive stance. The attack had begun in the early hours of April twelfth and had lasted thirty-four hours. No one had been killed, as far as the messengers knew, but crashing shots, bursting shells, and the roar of flames had brought the fort’s walls down, leading to the capitulation of the United States and Major Anderson.
Along with Jacob, Lina, and Charlie, Mercy had listened to long speeches and vicious rhetoric against the Northern states, and she had held the opinion that many would die, should the passions of men ignite a war, following the pandemonium at the fort. Heated words had been relentless in the past week, but the conflict of verbal insults and threats no longer mattered as far as Mercy was concerned. A spiral of violence was coming, and it would consume every person from the extreme north to the deepest south. It would be like an assiduous pestilence sweeping the country, leaving nothing and no one unscathed.
The population had high expectations today. Along with her companions, Mercy watched in silence as men threw hats in the air whilst shouting and whooping as though something wonderful were about to happen. Banjos, drums, and flutes were playing gay tunes that echoed through the port and down to the water’s edge. But at times, even the music was drowned out by the sheer volume of noise coming from the mouths of the local population as they screamed for war. She assumed that not all Virginians wanted war, but those who could have demonstrated against it were not here today to voice their opinions.
This morning tables and chairs had been brought onto the street, and men already dressed in grey uniforms were being bombarded by a civilian crowd queuing up to sign enlistment papers and pledging to lay down their lives for the cause, should Virginia’s secession be announced.
As she watched the men’s fervency, Mercy wondered why the thought of killing their northern neighbours seemed so appealing to them. Was it hatred for President Lincoln and his policies on slavery, the fact that the southern states had no power or clear voice in Washington over states’ rights, or had the growing tensions in the past months simply turned these civilised people into frenzied war mongrels?
Mercy studied Jacob’s unfathomable expression. His dark eyes and thick lashes looked even darker this morning against his pallid skin. He hadn’t slept a wink. She knew this because neither had she. He stood slightly hunched, his broad shoulders no doubt weighed down with worry. He was very deft at hiding his feelings, Mercy thought. She supposed this skill had been acquired after years of negotiating with toughened businessmen, bartering over the price of his cotton and tobacco, and running a large plantation. He possessed a calm demeanour, which she had noticed the very first time she met him. He complemented her fiery temper and impulsive nature, and his willingness to listen to her prattle on for hours never ceased to amaze her. In the Elephant and Castle, no one had ever listened to anything she had to say.
Jacob would leave her now. He had already volunteered with one of the Virginia militias, and should war come, he would enter the fray as a cavalry officer. Yet this morning he voiced neither sentiment nor opinion on this great matter; Jacob strongly believed, as did everyone else she saw and spoke to, that the Virginia convention being held at this very moment would finally obtain the necessary votes to secede from the Union. She guessed that his thoughts were directed towards honour, duty, and exigency, for waiting and wondering was all but over.
The last two conventions had decided against rebellion. Virginians had not wanted a war, but Lincoln was now asking their state to aid the federal government in quashing the growing rebellion by Southern states – slave states. Would Virginia choose love of state – of slavery, tobacco, and cotton – over love of country? she wondered.
Jacob had already made it clear to her that he would fight alongside any soldier, plantation owner, fork-yielding farmer, or Southerner with a mind to defend Virginia’s borders from states intent on punishing and halting Southern ambitions to expand both economically and geographically in agriculture and slavery. Mercy applauded his loyalty and honour, yet she could not give him her blessing, for war was abhorrent to her.
She stared at men and women who had left their farms and fishing cabins for Newport News, waiting expectantly now for the next courier to arrive waving his missives in the air and declaring Virginia’s loyalty to the Confederacy. Waiting for the convention’s decision was like waiting for a judge’s sentence, she thought. Would it be life or death for America, peace or war, the breaking up of an entire country, or the healing voices of wisdom declaring Virginia’s neutrality or loyalty to Lincoln’s government? She shook her head, already knowing the answer: there was going to be war.
As though sensing her thoughts, Jacob put his arm around Mercy’s shoulder. She smiled tenderly at him, and their eyes locked. For just a moment, everything and everyone around them faded into insignificance as they drank in their last drop of contentment.
Mercy reflected on the past six days spent with Jacob; they had been perfect. Their love for each other had grown and solidified despite a barrage of challenges that could quite easily have divided them. Jacob, the master of a vast plantation, owned more than a hundred slaves. She could not have fallen in love with such a man were it not for his pure and generous heart, his total commitment to her, and his fierce pledge of loyalty.
Tears glistened in her eyes.
She was well aware that crying was a weakness she had grown far too fond of after a lifetime of being slapped by Grandpa Carver for shedding a single tear. Yet she had come to believe that tears were not a pitiful show of weakness at all but rather a demonstration of strength. Weeping allowed emotions to run freely. They washed away the darkest, deepest ails, which she felt should not be bottled up and left to overflow until a person drowned but instead set free in order to cleanse the soul.
She looked across the outdoor table at Lina and closed her eyes, unable to watch her friend’s pain. With her eyes shut, words around her became louder and clearer – nigger, slavery, Lincoln, Federals, whooping, and killing emanated repeatedly from egotistical tongues. “They ain’t taking our niggers – our niggers are staying put. Let’s whoop their behinds; Lincoln is a damn fool if he thinks we’ll give the niggers up on his say so!”
As she listened, she felt her own conflicting emotions rise to the surface. She adored the man standing beside her and wanted more than anything to ask him not to fight. She was not too proud to get on her knees and beg him to leave this madness behind and to retreat with her to Lina and Charlie’s cabin until it was over. But the man beside her was not going to shy away from a cause he so ardently believed in, so she would still her tongue.
She was much like Jacob, for she would not be swayed from
cause. She had not looked for it; it had found her. She was not an American, as he was, but she had spirited away a slave to freedom, and it was the greatest and most satisfying achievement in her eighteen years on earth.
She missed Nelson, the gentle soul, the slave who had been her companion for so long. He had carried her through some very difficult times, both spiritually and mentally, and he had displayed admirable qualities, which were sorely missing from some of the voices that deafened her ears now. His capacity to forgive his masters even though they had whipped and humiliated him surprised her. His unyielding faith in God, his humility, and his love for mankind no matter people’s colour or race had awakened in her the desire to follow his examples. Unfortunately, she had a long way to go before she could say she owned any of these qualities, for she had absolutely no desire to forgive Madam du Pont. Her greatest ambition was to one day see du Pont die and then spit on her grave. She knew she was evil to think such things, but as much as she tried to quash her relentless urges to rid the world of Madam du Pont, she failed miserably.
Her thoughts turned back to Nelson. She wondered if he had taken her advice to seek out Isaac in Boston. Nelson was unworldly and had never been alone. He had never made a single decision in this life, but he had character and was not, as Southerners so often stated, a mindless nigger. He would realise that in these grave times, a friend like Isaac would be necessary. She prayed that Nelson was with Isaac now or safely on his way to him. He had been gone from her for nine days – nine long days of hearing nothing from him.
She had given him a thick canvas knapsack containing food and water. She had left him with a good pair of shoes, a decent set of clothes, and the means to pay for transportation. Her only concern was his understandable lack of experience needed to manoeuvre streets and towns brimming with white people who might take advantage of him. She had warned him that his freedom papers were his life’s blood, for without them he could find himself sold once more as a slave by unscrupulous slave traders. She had not mentioned that even with the papers, some slavers would take him regardless.
Jacob leaned in close and whispered something in Mercy’s ear. She jumped, guilty of thoughts best hidden from him, and then nodded in agreement with his words.
“Lina, Charlie – Mercy and I have things to discuss before I leave. Please excuse us for a little while. We’ll be back down soon.”
Lina smiled. “You take your time. We ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
“Don’t you want to stick around for the big news? I suppose you’ll be riding home at a gallop to join up with these fools if the so-called Confederate government says yes,” Charlie grumbled.
“That’s enough, Charlie,” Lina said, throwing him daggers with her eyes. “Jacob is free to do what he feels is right for him, and it ain’t no concern of ours.”
Jacob smiled at Lina and then turned to Charlie, saying respectfully, “Charlie, I guess we’re all fools. Look around you. We don’t even know what the convention’s resolution is, yet I fear Virginians will fight no matter what the politicians decide, such is the madness in these men’s souls. No good will come of this, not for the North or the South, but if I’m to be marked a fool, I’ll be a loyal fool to my Southern brothers. I believe a bigger fool would be the man who sits back and allows his life’s work and earnings to be taken from him without a protestation. I’ll come find you both before I leave. I would like to thank you properly for bringing me to Mercy.”
The noise from the street emanated through the boarding house’s upstairs bedroom window. After making love, Mercy and Jacob lay spent in each other’s arms. Their passion was like an inferno which could not be doused by man or circumstance. Even so, at this moment, their ardour was heightened further with a palpable urgency and sadness. “When will you leave? Where will you go?” Mercy asked.
“I have to leave within the hour. I need to get to Portsmouth and then to Stone Plantation. I have to settle some affairs and say goodbye to my brother, Belle … and Elizabeth.”
“I hate you saying that name.”
“I hate that she’s my wife, but she’s not the guilty party. I am. I was a coward.”
“Shh, we’ve come to terms with this, my darling. Anyway, it doesn’t matter who you’re married to, not if you’re leaving to go off somewhere, for neither she nor I will have you.”
“You’re wrong. You have me. You have my whole heart. You are my wife in all but name, and as soon as I am free of her, I intend to rectify my mistake and make you Mrs Stone. Mercy, do not feel pity for Elizabeth. She has no love for me.”
“I don’t pity her. I just hate that you have to tend to divorce proceedings, especially now, when nothing in life is certain. You do know that I have never blamed you for marrying her? You kept your promise to her. You were honourable, and I would expect nothing less from you.”
“Where’s the honour in marrying a woman I didn’t love and will never have affection for? It’s ironic,” Jacob said scornfully. “Had I called off the wedding, I would not have broken her heart, only her ambitions.”
Mercy wondered if Elizabeth’s ambitions would outweigh Jacob’s desire to be free of her. She could refuse to divorce him, she thought. “Jacob, will she give you what you want? Do you think she will agree to your demands?”
“I’ll make a grand gesture. I’m hoping that money might be more important to her than being mistress of my plantation. There’s nothing a woman round here likes more than to demonstrate wealth and self-importance. I’ll pay her what she wants to do just that. I’m praying she says yes.”
Mercy snuggled into his chest. She refused to speak any more about his wife. “May I ask you something?” she began hesitantly. “It’s got nothing to do with Elizabeth.”