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Authors: Rochelle Hollander Schwab

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BOOK: Different Sin
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It was a relief to sit down in Pfaff’s with his friends and hear talk on another topic, as Stephen Van Dyjk, his face alight with quiet joy, told Elliot, Zach, Dick Potter and David of his forthcoming marriage to the young woman he’d been courting for the past year.

“She’ll be sending out formal invitations,” Stephen said. “But I wanted you to know when it’ll be. We’ve planned the service for the Saturday after Thanksgiving. We’re hoping you’ll all be able to attend.”

“We’ll be delighted to,” Zach said heartily. He sat back, lifting his tankard, looking nearly as pleased as the prospective bridegroom.

David smiled regretfully. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it. I already promised Mike and Rachel I’d come up for Thanksgiving.”

“Well, we’ll miss you, but of course family comes first.”

Dick leaned forward, suddenly intent. “That’s the
Negro
branch of your family, am I correct? Isn’t Mike the fugitive Zach told us about, whom you helped escape from slavery? You’re going to his house for Thanksgiving dinner?”

“Well, I think Mike wrote we’d be eating at his sister-in-law’s. They have more room for company. It’s the same size house, actually, but Mike uses what was meant to be the dining room to see patients, so that leaves the kitchen the only place to eat, and that’s not really big enough for a crowd.” David stopped, feeling foolish. Dick wouldn’t be interested in Mike’s room arrangements.

But Dick was staring at him intently. “I find it hard to believe you’re intending to sit down at table with a tribe of Africans.”

“Mike’s not African. He was born in Virginia, same as I was. I don’t see why I shouldn’t eat with him. We grew up in the same house. He used to sleep on the floor of my bedroom when we were boys.” David flushed, thinking how that must sound to them.

He looked back at Dick, his perplexity changing to annoyance. “I don’t see why you should object, Dick. I thought you were such a strong abolitionist.”

“An abolitionist, yes. I do my utmost to obey the will of the Lord in all things, including his words in Deuteronomy that ‘Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee.’ But that doesn’t mean we need to live cheek by jowl with heathen savages. The Lord intended Africa as the home of the Negro people. Blacks liberated from bondage should be colonized there as soon as practicable.”

“I can’t imagine Mike and Rachel wanting to go live in some jungle.” David glanced at the others, wondering if they all felt the same as Dick. Stephen seemed barely aware of the conversation, his mind still on his upcoming wedding. Elliot was turning from David to Dick like a spectator at a tennis match, an expression of obvious amusement on his face.

Zach cleared his throat, turning toward Dick. “I know you think I’m little better than a heathen myself, Dick, but it may surprise you to learn that my upbringing included a thorough grounding in the Scriptures. I believe the rest of that passage you just quoted goes,” He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best’.”

Elliot laughed.

David smiled at Dick’s look of dismay, then nodded his thanks to Zach for his support. Zach smiled back warmly. He continued looking at David a moment, then pulled an envelope from his breast pocket, scribbling on it with the stub of a pencil.

He looked across the table at David again. “Just you, your father and Mike lived in your house together?” he asked.

David nodded, startled. “And Hetty, of course, till she died. Mike’s mother. He must’ve been about twelve then. Let me see. Yes, she died right after the big fire in twenty-seven, when I was thirteen. We were all out the entire night passing buckets up from the river. She took a chill, passed on just a week or two later.”

“Do you know how long your father owned Hetty when Mike was born?”

“No, I have no idea.”

“Well, it’s not that important.” Zach looked at his scribbles again, frowning in concentration.

“What did you want to know for?” David asked.

“Just an idea I had. You told me your father was always fond of Mike, that he had him run his errands, do odd jobs in his office. I suppose he realized, even then, that Mike was his son?”

“Well, of course he did. He always knew that.” David stared at his friend. “I’ve already told you all about Dad and Mike.”

Zach smiled. “I know. I just wanted to check my facts before I started writing. Yet your father sold him to a slave trader. He wasn’t much more than a boy then, either. Didn’t you tell me seventeen or eighteen?”

“About that.” David was filled with sudden unease. “Before you start writing what?”

“Well, I need to check with Greeley first, but a man selling his own son— You can see what kind of an impact that would have on our readers.”

“On your readers! Forget it, Zach! I don’t want you writing a story about Dad and Mike!”

Zach leaned toward David. “I don’t think you realize how much a piece like this can turn public opinion against slavery. I should think you’d appreciate that more than most, David.”

“I don’t give a damn about slavery! You’re not spreading scandals about my family all over your paper,” David said, angrily aware of the others turned toward them, listening. “And I’m sick of hearing you all talk about them like they were an exhibit from Barnum’s!” He rose, shoving his way through the tables, still furious as he slammed the front door of the boardinghouse.

Mrs. Chapman stuck her head out of her room, glaring at him in annoyance. David sighed. “I’m sorry, ma’am.” He closed the door to his room quietly, trying to calm down. At least he’d nipped Zach’s notion in the bud.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

David overslept the next morning, missing breakfast, just as glad not to see Zach and Elliot. He bought a sweet roll, eating it on the ferry on the way to his assignment in Brooklyn.

He was still put out at suppertime. He nodded shortly to Elliot and Zach, then dug into his food, making desultory conversation with Mr. Wilson, the elderly bank clerk who had the room next to his.

“David.” Zach caught up to him as he left the dining room. “Don’t just rush off without a word.”

David turned, reluctantly smiling at Zach.

“I need to talk to you about the piece on your family.”

David’s smile faded. “There’s nothing to talk about. Just forget it, will you! I’ve had a long day. If you’ll excuse me, I’m turning in.” He took the stairs two at a time, his mood sharp with annoyance again.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

“Care to join me for a beer, David, or are you still in a huff?”

David looked up as Elliot leaned against the edge of his drawing table early the next evening.

“A beer sounds good. I’ve been copying these onto the blocks since morning,” David smiled apologetically. “I’m afraid I got a little peeved the other night over Zach’s notion to do a story on my father.”

“So I saw.” Elliot smiled. “Fact is, I was kind of surprised to learn you changed your mind.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, since he’s gone ahead with it, I just assumed you had.”

“Gone ahead with it!? You’re sure?”

Elliot nodded. “I ran into Dick a couple of hours ago, and he said Greeley was enthusiastic about the idea, told Zach to finish it up this morning so he could make the weekly edition.” He smoothed his mustache and smiled crookedly. “I gather it wasn’t with your okay. Well, Zach can be pretty pigheaded when he gets on his high horse about slavery.”

The pencil fell from David’s fingers. He rushed into the street, dodging heedlessly through the traffic in front of the
Tribune
building. Zach looked at him in surprise.

“Elliot told me you went ahead with your story on my father.”

Zach nodded. “I tried to talk to you about it, but—”

“Goddamn it, Zach!” David took a breath, trying to calm down. “I want you to kill it.”

“It’s too late.” Zach spread his hands. “It’s already gone down to the compositors. David, listen to me—”

“Shut up! Just shut up!” Tremors of rage shook David uncontrollably. His hands tightened into fists. He took two steps around Zachary’s desk and swung. The shock traveled up his arm as his fist thudded into Zach’s cheekbone.

Zach rocked back, grabbing at his desk to save himself from falling over. His chair crashed to the floor. He scrambled to his feet, a look of astonishment on his face.

David stared at him, finally thinking to draw back his hand for another blow.

Zach reached him before it could land, grabbed David’s arms just above his elbows and pinned them to his sides. “Keep your shirt on, David. Just listen to me—”

“Get your hands off me!” David struggled to free himself from Zach’s grip, humiliation warring with fury. He gave a last, desperate heave and wrenched loose, rushing from the news office past the staring faces of the
Tribune
reporters.

He reached the Murray Hill Reservoir, three miles uptown, before exhaustion forced a halt to his flight.

From the broad walls of the reservoir, it was possible to see both the East and Hudson Rivers, plus the village of Harlem in the distance. David didn’t glance at the view.

The weekly digest edition of the
Tribune
circulated nation-wide. There was virtually no chance his father wouldn’t see the story. David stared down into the dark waters of the reservoir, visualizing his father’s shock and humiliation as he read it.

How the hell was he going to face him?

And why had he fled here like a fool, instead of marching into Greeley’s office and demanding he kill the story?

He pulled his watch from his pocket. The editor would be gone by now. He resumed his fruitless pacing along the promenade though it had long since grown too dark to see even the waters below.

Only two or three fellow lodgers still occupied their favorite seats in the parlor when he entered Mrs. Chapman’s. David ignored their greetings, heading straight for his room. He couldn’t settle down. He paced restlessly from the door to the window and back again, hearing the remaining tenants climb the stairs for the night.

There was no point even trying to sleep. David pulled out a sheet of writing paper. If he could somehow explain to his father— It was no use. He threw the crumpled paper into the stove, pulled out a fresh sheet, then tossed it away too, resumed his unavailing pacing.

There was a rap on his door. David yanked it open. Zachary stood in the doorway. His broad shoulders were slumped with weariness, his normally ruddy complexion pallid with fatigue. The purple bruise on his cheek stood out in sharp contrast.

“What the hell do you want?”

“To give you this.” Zach thrust several sheets of closely scrawled manuscript into David’s hand. “I was going to burn it, but I saw your lamp through the window and thought you’d prefer to see it done yourself.”

David stared at him blankly.

“You rushed off before I could tell you that I’d see Greeley about pulling it.”

“It’s not in the paper?” David looked down at the manuscript, weak with relief. He sank onto the edge of his bed.

“No it’s not in the paper. I thought Greeley was going to have a fit of apoplexy, but he finally agreed to break up the forms. I suppose I’d let him think you were agreeable to running the piece in the first place.

“I would’ve let you know sooner, but I had to crank out a story to fill the hole, and then I stayed on to help with the typesetting.” Zach rubbed his eyes. “Mind if I come in a minute?” He slumped onto David’s chair without waiting for an answer.

David looked at him. “Do you ever wait for permission before you go ahead and do what you damn well please?”

Zach smiled sheepishly. “I suppose that’s one of my failings. I was sure you’d see it my way once you thought things over. I didn’t understand how distressed you were till you burst in and punched me this afternoon.”

“I don’t recall ever hitting anyone before,” David said slowly.

“I didn’t think you had.” Zach gave another sheepish smile and felt the bruise gingerly with his fingertips. “It was an honest mistake on my part though. I assumed you’d drop your objections once you understood how such a story could aid the anti-slavery cause. Especially after what you’ve told me of the suffering that slavery caused your brother.

“And it isn’t as if you kept your connection a secret. Your father even showed us a daguerreotype of his grandchildren when he was here.”

“That doesn’t mean you need to brand him an adulterer in front of the whole country!”

“I didn’t look at it that way. I daresay I completely misapprehended how you felt.”

“How the hell would you feel if it was your father?”

“I don’t know. I don’t think about my father very often.” Zach lapsed into silence, staring down at the backs of his hands. “He threw me out of the house when I was fifteen,” he said finally.

“Threw you out! How could he? What for? Because you wouldn’t follow the occupation he wanted?”

“What? No, it was nothing like that. He— he caught me doing something he didn’t approve of.”

“You never said—”

“It’s not a subject I’m fond of talking about.”

David stared at Zach, trying to imagine a circumstance that would have made his own father evict him from his home when he was still a half-grown boy. “But what did you do? I mean at fifteen—”

Zach gave a thin smile. “Oh, I didn’t have to fend for myself. I had an aunt in the next village, who was charitable enough to take me in. I found work in the local printing shop so I could at least repay her for my keep. And my mother stood by me. She slipped over to see me once or twice a month, till she took ill with pneumonia a year later. I attended her funeral service, of course.” He paused. “My father wouldn’t speak a single word to me, even then. The day after we laid Mother to rest, I packed up what possessions I had and struck out on my own. Worked here and there, at printing and reporting, till I ended up in New York City. I haven’t seen my father since that day. I don’t even know if he’s alive or dead.” Zach’s voice trembled slightly. He attempted a shrug.

David studied him, taking in the rigid set of Zach’s shoulders, the way his fingernails dug into the palms of his hands. He walked over to him and laid a hand on his shoulder.

BOOK: Different Sin
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ads

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