Thus it was not money but conscience that had propelled me on this journey. Conscience, that crabbed and ecclesiastical nag, which inevitably spoke, whether I heeded it or not, in a voice much like my mother’s.
The remains of Pilgassi Acres became visible as we rounded a final bend, and I was frankly astonished that so much of it remained intact. Percy Camber drew in his breath.
Here were the administrators’ quarters (a small building with pretensions to the colonial style), as well as five huge barnlike buildings and fragments of paving stones and mortared brick where more substantial structures had been demolished.
All silent, all empty. No glass in the small windows. A breeze like the breath from a hard-coal stove seeped around the buildings and tousled the meadow weeds that lapped at them. There was the smell of old wood that had stood in the sunlight for a long time. There was, beneath that, the smell of something less pleasant, like an abandoned latrine doused with lime and left to simmer in the heat.
Percy was working to conceal his excitement. He pretended to be casual, but I could see that every muscle in him had gone tense.
“Your camera, Tom,” he said, as if the scene were in some danger of evaporating before our eyes.
“You don’t want to explore the place a little first?”
“Not yet. I want to capture it as we see it now—from a distance, all the buildings all together.”
And I did that. The sun, though masked by light high clouds, was a feverish nuisance over my right shoulder.
I thought of my daughter Elsebeth. She would see these pictures some day. “What place is this?” she would ask.
But what would I say in return?
Any answer I could think of amounted to drilling a hole in her innocence and pouring poison in.
Every Measure Short of War
, the title of Percy’s first book, implied that there might have been one—a war over Abolition, that is, a war between the states. My mother agreed. “Though it was not the North that would have brought it on,” she insisted. (A conversation we had had on the eve of my marriage to Maggie.) “People forget how sullen the South was in the years before the Douglas Compromise. How fierce in the defense of slavery. Their ‘Peculiar Institution’! Strange, isn’t it, how people cling most desperately to a thing when it becomes least useful to them?”
My mother’s dream, and Mrs. Stowe’s, for that matter, had never been achieved. No Abolition by federal statute had ever been legislated. Slavery had simply become unprofitable, as its milder opponents and apologists used to insist it inevitably would. Scientific farming killed it. Crop rotation killed it. Deep plowing killed it, mechanized harvesters killed it, soil fertilization killed it.
Embarrassment killed it, once Southern farmers began to take seriously the condescension and disapproval of the European powers whose textile and tobacco markets they craved. Organized labor killed it.
Ultimately, the expense and absurdity of maintaining human beings as farm chattel killed it.
A few slaves were still held under permissive state laws (in Virginia and South Carolina, for example), but they tended to be the pets of the old planter aristocracy—kept, as pets might be kept, because the children of the household had grown fond of them and objected to their eviction.
I walked with Percy Camber through the abandoned administration building at Pilgassi Acres. It had been stripped of everything—all furniture, every document, any scrap that might have testified to its human utility. Even the wallpaper had peeled or rotted away. One well-placed lightning strike would have burned the whole thing to the ground.
Its decomposing stairs were too hazardous to attempt. Animals had covered the floorboards with dung, and birds lofted out of every room we opened. Our progress could have been charted by the uprisings of the swallows and the indignation of the owls.
“It’s just an empty building,” I said to Percy, who had been silent throughout the visit, his features knotted and tense.
“Empty of what, though?” he asked.
I took a few more exposures on the outside. The crumbling pillars. The worm-tunneled verandah casting a sinister shade. A chimney leaning sideways like a drunken man.
I did not believe, could not bring myself to believe, that a war within the boundaries of the Union could ever have been fought, though historians still worry about that question like a loose tooth. If the years after ’55 had been less prosperous, if Douglas had not been elected President, if the terrorist John Brown had not been tried in a Northern court and hanged on a Northern gallows . . .
if, ad infinitum
All nonsense, it seemed to me. Whatever Harriet Beecher Stowe might have dreamed, whatever Percy Camber might have uncovered, this was fundamentally a peaceable land.
This is a peaceable land
, I imagined myself telling my daughter Elsebeth; but my imagination would extend itself no farther.
“Now the barracks,” Percy said.
It had been even hotter in the administration building than it was outside, and Percy’s clothes were drenched through. So were mine. “You mean those barns?”
“Barracks,” Percy repeated.
Barracks or barns—they were a little of both, as it turned out. The one we inspected was a cavernous wooden box, held up by mildew and inertia. Percy wanted photographs of the rusted iron brackets that had supported rows of wooden platforms—a few of these remained—on which men and women had once slept. There were a great many of these brackets, and I estimated that a single barracks-barn might have housed as many as two hundred persons in its day. An even larger number if mattresses had been laid on the floors.
I took the pictures he wanted by the light that came through fallen boards. The air in the barn was stale, despite all the holes in the walls, and it was a relief to finish my work and step out into the relentless, dull sunshine.
The presence of so many people must have necessitated a dining hall, a communal kitchen, sanitary facilities at Pilgassi Acres. Those structures had not survived except as barren patches among the weeds. Dig down a little—Percy had learned this technique in his research—and you would find a layer of charcoal for each burned building or outhouse. Not every structure in Pilgassi Acres had survived the years, but each had left its subtle mark.
One of the five barns was not like the others, and I made this observation to Percy Camber as soon as I noticed it. “The rest of these barracks, the doors and windows are open to the breeze. The far one in the north quarter has been boarded up—d’you see?”
“That’s the one we should inspect next, then,” Percy said.
We were on our way there when the first bullet struck.
My mother had always been an embarrassment to me, with her faded enthusiasms, her Bible verses and Congregationalist poetry, her missionary zeal on behalf of people whose lives were so tangential to mine that I could barely imagine them.
She didn’t like it when I volunteered for Cuba in 1880. It wasn’t a proper war, she said. She said it was yet another concession to the South, to the aristocracy’s greed for expansion toward the equator. “A war engineered at the Virginia Military Institute,” she called it, “fought for no good reason.”
But it blended Northerners and Southerners on a neutral field of battle, where we were all just American soldiers. It was the glue that repaired many ancient sectional rifts. Out of it emerged great leaders, like old Robert E. Lee, who transcended regional loyalties (though when he spoke of “America,” I often suspected he used the word as a synonym for “Virginia”), and his son, also a talented commander. In Cuba we all wore a common uniform, and we all learned, rich and poor, North and South, to duck the Spaniards’ bullets.
The bullet hit a shed wall just above Percy Camber’s skull. Splinters flew through the air like a cloud of mosquitoes. The sound of the gunshot arrived a split second later, damped by the humid afternoon to a harmless-sounding
. The rifleman was some distance away. But he was accurate.
I dropped to the ground—or, rather, discovered that I had already dropped to the ground, obeying an instinct swifter than reason.
Percy, who had never been to war, lacked that ingrained impulse. I’m not sure he understood what had happened. He stood there in the rising heat, bewildered.
“Get down,” I said.
“What is it, Tom?”
“Your doom, if you don’t get down.
He understood then. But it was as if the excitement had loosened all the strings of his body. He couldn’t decide which way to fold. He was the picture of confusion.
Then a second bullet struck him in the shoulder.
“Liberty Lodges,” they had been called at first.
I mean the places like Pilgassi Acres, back when they were allowed to flourish.
They were a response to a difficult time. Slavery had died, but the slaves had not. That was the dilemma of the South. Black men without skills, along with their families and countless unaccompanied children, crowded the roads—more of them every day, as “free-labor cotton” became a rallying cry for progressive French and English buyers.
Who were Marcus and Benjamin Pilgassi? Probably nothing more than a pair of Richmond investors jumping on a bandwagon. The Liberty Lodges bore no onus then. The appeal of the business was explicit: Don’t put your slaves on the road and risk prosecution or fines for “abandonment of property.” We will take your aging and unprofitable chattel and house them. The men will be kept separate from the women to prevent any reckless reproduction. They will live out their lives with their basic needs attended to for an annual fee only a fraction of what it would cost to keep them privately.
What the Pilgassi brothers (and businessmen like them) did not say directly—but implied in every line of their advertisements—was that the Liberty Lodge movement aimed to achieve an absolute and irreversible decline in the Negro population in the South.
In time, Percy had told me, the clients of these businesses came to include entire state governments, which had tired of the expense and notoriety incurred by the existence of temporary camps in which tens of thousands of “intramural refugees” could neither be fed economically nor be allowed to starve. It had been less onerous for them to subsidize the Lodges, which tended to be built in isolated places, away from casual observation.
Percy’s grandfather had escaped slavery in the 1830s and settled in Boston, where he picked up enough education to make himself prominent in the Abolition movement. Percy’s father, an ordained minister, had spoken at Lyman Beecher’s famous church, in the days before he founded the journal that became the
Percy had taken up the moral burden of his forebears in a way I had not, but there was still a similarity between us. We were the children of crusaders. We had inherited their disappointments and drunk the lees of their bitterness.
I was not a medical man, but I had witnessed bullet wounds in Cuba. Percy had been shot in the shoulder. He lay on the ground with his eyes open, blinking, his left hand pressed against the wound. I pried his hand away so that I could examine his injury.
The wound was bleeding badly, but the blood did not spurt out, a good sign. I took a handkerchief from my pocket, folded it and pressed it against the hole.
“Am I dying?” Percy asked. “I don’t feel like I’m dying.”
“You’re not all that badly hurt or you wouldn’t be talking. You need attention, though.”
A third shot rang out. I couldn’t tell where the bullet went.
“And we need to get under cover,” I added.
The nearest building was the boarded-up barracks. I told Percy to hold the handkerchief in place. His right arm didn’t seem to work correctly, perhaps because the bullet had damaged some bundle of muscles or nerves. But I got him crouching, and we hurried toward shelter.
We came into the shadow of the building and stumbled to the side of it away from the direction from which the shots had come. Grasshoppers buzzed out of the weeds in fierce brown flurries, some of them lighting on our clothes. There was the sound of dry thunder down the valley. This barracks had a door—a wooden door on a rail, large enough to admit dozens of people at once. But it was closed, and there was a brass latch and a padlock on it.
So we had no real shelter—just some shade and a moment’s peace.
I used the time to put a fresh handkerchief on Percy’s wound and to bind it with a strip of cloth torn from my own shirt.
“Thank you,” Percy said breathlessly.
“Welcome. The problem now is how to get back to the carriage.” We had no weapons, and we could hardly withstand a siege, no matter where we hid. Our only hope was escape, and I could not see any likely way of achieving it.
Then the question became moot, for the man who had tried to kill us came around the corner of the barracks.
“Why do you want to make these pictures?” Elsie asked yet again, from a dim cavern at the back of my mind.
In an adjoining chamber of my skull a different voice reminded me that I wanted a drink, a strong one, immediately.
The ancient Greeks (I imagined myself telling Elsebeth) believed that vision is a force that flies out from the eyes when directed by the human will. They were wrong. There is no force or will in vision. There is only light. Light direct or light reflected. Light, which behaves in predictable ways. Put a prism in front of it, and it breaks into colors. Open a shuttered lens, and some fraction of it can be trapped in nitrocellulose or collodion as neatly as a bug in a killing jar.
A man with a camera is like a naturalist, I told Elsebeth. Where one man might catch butterflies, another catches wasps.