Authors: Rochelle Hollander Schwab
“Have been much occupied since our meeting with reporting the protests of right-thinking men against the extension of slavery into the Kansas-Nebraska territories by that devil, Sen. Douglas. It was a black day for our nation when his bill was passed into law by the traitors of the Senate. Greeley has hauled down the Stars and Stripes from its rooftop staff; the glory has gone out of them.”
There seemed little to write in reply. Other than agreeing once again to paint the scenery for the fall production of the Alexandria Dramatic Association, there was little of interest in David’s life.
He pushed the letter aside and reached into the desk drawer for the plans he’d drawn to scale of the stage area. Within moments, he was engrossed with sketching in the main elements of the scene design.
The thud of footsteps on the stairs recalled him from his preoccupation. Hurriedly he began to return his sketches to the drawer before the arrival of a possible client, then relaxed as Tom Miller, the proprietor of the downstairs bakeshop, entered.
“Dotty saved you a few of the gingersnaps we baked yesterday.” Tom placed a small sack of cookies on David’s desk. “She remembered they’re your favorites.”
David smiled his thanks. “She never stops trying to fatten me up.”
Tom laughed. “You’re in no danger of growing stout. Dotty has more luck with me; I reckon I’ve put on a few pounds since our wedding.” He looked down at his expanse of stomach, chuckling comfortably. “You doing the scenery for the theatrical again?” he asked, waving at David’s sketch.
David nodded. “I got a little ahead on my work, so I thought I’d spend a few minutes looking these over.” It was a pointless pretense. He’d been acquainted with Tom since they’d been boys together. Tom knew as well as David that he’d precious little law work to keep him from the scene designs.
“I always enjoy your scenery. We’ll be looking forward to the show.” Tom stopped, at a loss for further conversation. “Well, Dotty’ll be cross if I let my lunch grow cold.” His footsteps pounded down the stairs.
David pulled the sketches toward him as Tom left, then stopped, wearying of his efforts. Putting the scene designs back in the drawer, he picked up his pen and returned to his letter to Walker.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
“We share a common enthusiasm, it would seem,” Walker responded. “Some of my happiest hours have been passed in the theatre. In fact, I’ve trod the boards myself from time to time in amateur theatricals— though I must admit, in most minor roles.”
David smiled and leaned back in the wing chair. The oil lamp cast its circle of light on Walker’s letter, which had been awaiting him on the hall table. The stillness in the room was broken only by the rustling of the paper. His father had retired for the night, probably hours before David had parted company from Doug and Phil, his assistants at scene painting. They’d had an extra glass of ale apiece at Gadsby’s Tavern to celebrate finishing the scenery.
He returned to the letter, turning the page with fingers still showing faint streaks of paint. “Have had little time for such pleasures of late. Our struggle against the extension of slavery into the Northwest Territories continues despite the setback of this wicked law. Greeley is determined to keep up the fight for Free Soil.
“It’s occurred to me that you are bound to have first-hand knowledge of the evils of slavery, situated as you are in a slave-holding state. Any illustrations you can forward to the
will be of immense value in bringing home to our readers the cruelties of human bondage during the coming political struggle.”
David set down the letter, frowning in dismay. Despite the abolitionists’ trumpetings of the horrors of slavery, he’d seen little evidence of such cruelty himself. There were occasional separations of families in the slave trading establishments lining Duke Street, when circumstances made a sale of household servants unavoidable. But for the most part, his neighbors treated their Nigras with consideration.
He leaned back, suddenly tired, rubbing his forehead to forestall the beginnings of a headache. Most of the slaves he saw seemed contented enough to him. And certainly the large numbers of free colored in town bore evidence of the indulgence of their former owners.
Just look at Mike’s old friend, Ned. In the hours his master had allowed him to work on his own behalf, he’d managed to buy his way out of slavery. In the years since, he’d not only succeeded in helping the rest of his family purchase their freedom, but was prospering in the carpentry shop he’d opened on South Royal Street.
David rose, extinguished the lamp, then froze as another memory surfaced. He stood a moment as remembered images filled his mind, alive before him in the darkened room, then hurried up the stairs to his bedchamber.
The blanket chest at the foot of his bed was crammed with sketches he’d saved over the years. It took several minutes to find the one he had in mind. He moved across the room, studying the drawing critically in the light of the lamp on the bureau. He’d been just seventeen when he drew it, but it was better than anything else he’d done as a boy.
He hadn’t signed it when he’d done the drawing. David inscribed his name at the bottom now. He’d write Walker in the morning and enclose the sketch with his letter.
THE THEATER PIT HAD BEEN CONVERTED TO A BALLROOM to celebrate the success of the fall theatrical. Jubilant actors, their faces still greasy with hastily removed makeup, accepted congratulations from the enthusiastic audience. Taffeta gowns rustled as party-goers greeted one another, admiring the production in high-pitched, honeyed tones. “The show never would’ve been such a success without your scenery! We’ve raised a record amount for the poor,” Martha Ann Simpson gushed as David took her arm.
David smiled. “We’d probably never get set to put on a show at all, if you didn’t manage the Dramatic Association so well.”
Martha Ann beamed, her face and neck rosy with pleasure over the low neckline of her blue satin gown.
David was at a loss for further conversation, as he seemed to be whenever he found himself escorting Martha Ann. “Would you like a cup of punch?” he offered at last, making his way gratefully to the refreshment line.
Mrs. Taylor, widow of the Association’s founder, presided over the punch bowl, where a colored servant was filling glasses from the commodious, cut glass bowl. “You and Martha Ann make a handsome couple, David,” she said.
David glanced in bewilderment at Martha Ann as he threaded his way across a floor crowded by women’s fashionably full hoop skirts. Martha Ann’s soft curves swelled her lace-trimmed bodice. Her thick brown hair billowed into a loose bun caught up with flowers. Her small, shapely figure was a study in contrast to his own slender frame and height—nearly six feet when he remembered to stand up straight.
He smiled down at her as he handed her the punch, then sat listening to her earnest chatter as they drank, grateful to have little to do but nod. With a corner of his mind, he wondered why Mrs. Taylor thought they made such a well-matched pair.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
“You’re off to Nell’s again?” Dr. Carter demanded from his wing chair.
David nodded shortly, flushing. He grasped the doorknob, shifting his weight uneasily as he awaited the rest of his father’s words. Traffic clattered on the cobblestones outside; from the kitchen came the faint notes of a spiritual as their colored housekeeper did the washing up.
George Carter sighed. “David, you’re not a boy. It’s past time you gave up these visits to whorehouses and settled down. Have you given thought to the kind of diseases you’re courting by bedding prostitutes?”
“Nell runs a clean house,” David mumbled.
“That may be.” His father turned to look David in the face. “But you’d be far better off to marry and settle down. You’re not a boy,” he repeated.
“Well, I know that,” David snapped, wishing his father’s scrutiny didn’t leave him feeling self-conscious as a boy. He tried to smile. “I guess I’m just an old bachelor, Dad. I doubt I could find a woman who’d have me, anyway.”
“You’re not that old. You’re still a fine looking man.” George Carter looked at David fondly. “Martha Ann Simpson would marry you in a minute.”
“Martha Ann?” David stared his surprise. “I scarcely know her. I never even know what to say to her.”
“You’ve known her all your life, David.” The older man’s voice quickened with exasperation. “You could do a lot worse for yourself too. Martha Ann’s a fine girl. It’s not as if she hasn’t had offers to marry, you know. She’d have been wed long ago if she hadn’t felt it her duty to nurse her mother after she took to her bed.”
David shifted his weight again, hoping his father would return to his reading. George Carter sat up straighter, set down his newspaper as he focused his attention on his son. David sighed. “Dad, you know I don’t earn enough to keep a wife,” he said finally, in a low voice.
“There’s no reason why you still can’t make a success of your profession if you’d just put forth a little effort, son. But in any case, Martha Ann has money of her own, now that her mother’s passed on at last.”
For a moment, David tried and failed to imagine a life with Martha Ann. Why was everyone so set on marrying him off? “Dad, I’m happy as I am.” He shoved open the door, nearly stumbling over the sill as he made his escape.
He frowned in dismay as he entered Nell’s softly lit front parlor and saw two customers waiting their turns. “Evening there, David,” tavern keeper Pete Smith boomed out in greeting. David nodded stiffly and crossed to the far side of the room.
Sinking onto the plush couch, he stared down at his hands, abashed at making such public display of his private needs. The sound of a woman’s high laughter drifted down the stairs. Pete nudged his companion in the ribs; both men guffawed before returning to their talk. David glanced at the other men, wondering how they could banter with such apparent lack of embarrassment.
His own awkwardness had diminished but little since his first visit to a bawdy house, as a university freshman. He’d agreed, shyly but eagerly, to accompany John Eustis, who occupied the room next to his and was as close to a friend as he’d come to making there. He’d stood uncomfortably in the red plush parlor, admiring the ease of John’s manner, the way his thick, chestnut hair brushed his neck as he tossed his head back in laughter, the proud set of his muscular shoulders....
Two of Nell’s boarders sashayed into the parlor, giggling and beckoning, causing David to start from his reverie. Pete grinned as he rose, then halted halfway out of the room, addressing David over his shoulder. “Say, Nat and me are fixin’ to do some business together. How’s about you drawing us up an agreement Monday?”
“Be glad to, Pete.” He watched in relief as the two men headed upstairs.
Nell’s third boarder, Lucy, signaled him to accompany her to the familiar bedroom. He fumbled clumsily with the buttons of his pants. For an unaccountable moment his desire ebbed, the swelling of his organ that had left him flushed with embarrassment in the downstairs parlor diminished. Then his mind veered again to that first time, once again seeing John drape an arm around the giggling bawd he’d selected, the hairs glinting on the back of his hand, his stance easy with lusty masculine assurance, and his urgency returned.
Lucy spread-eagled herself on the bed, her masses of brown hair falling across her full breasts. She hid a yawn with her hand before pulling David atop her. He closed his eyes and thrust with steady, intent strokes till the dammed up tension burst from his body.
For a moment he lay limply. Lucy gave another delicate yawn beside him. David rose, shoving his legs into his trousers.
Lucy produced a smile. “Reckon I’ll be seein’ you in a couple of weeks, honey.”
David nodded reluctantly, mumbling his farewell under his breath as he hurried from the room.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Monday afternoon dragged by, the tedium of his practice more apparent after a day of leisure. David read over the agreement he’d drawn up for Pete and Nat, then slipped it into his drawer to await their signatures. He’d told Mr. McPherson he’d have the latest revision of his will ready that afternoon. Setting a clean sheet of paper alongside the old document, he dipped his quill into the inkwell, sighing unconsciously as he set to work.
Tom’s footsteps sounded heavily on the stairs. David looked up to greet him, glad of a few minutes diversion, then started at the fury on Tom’s face.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing, David!?”
He shook his head, bewildered. Tom covered the distance to his desk in two strides, shoving David’s papers to the floor as he thrust the newspaper he carried in front of him.
“Don’t play dumb! That’s your signature, dammit!”
Slowly David nodded. “I didn’t realize it had been printed. I haven’t picked up my mail today.”
He studied the reproduction in silence. The
artist had done a better job of copying this drawing. The lines of the seated Negro youth were clearly etched, his shoulders bowed, head resting on one arm. His other arm lay outstretched across the table in front of him, fingers tightened into a fist. Across the tensed muscles of his bare back were the numerous slashes of barely healed whip marks.
“How Southerners Lead Slaves to Civilization: the Penalty for Reading and Writing.” Tom spat out the words of the caption as if they dirtied his mouth. “What kind of lies are you trying to spread?”
David looked back at Tom. “It’s no lie. That’s Mike. He was caught giving lessons to Ned and Titus, and the magistrate sentenced all three of them to twenty lashes. I would’ve thought you’d remember.”
David looked at the picture again, remembering it himself as if it were just happening. The sudden growl of voices downstairs. “Gotta search all the Nigra quarters in town. Can’t take any chance of another Nat Turner here!” Then the sounds of blows and curses as Mike and his friends were dragged off to jail, the geography book they’d been unable to hide in time carried along as triumphal evidence.
He didn’t think about Mike much at school the next day. How much trouble could he get into just for looking at a book, even if Nigras weren’t supposed to get together anymore? He had his own troubles with this new Latin master.