1772 – Scotchtown Plantation, Virginia.
John and William’s vibrant youth shows when they frolic, hoot and holler. Their energy and enthusiasm for life always puts a smile on my face. In fact, once while Martha, John, William, their parents, and myself sat in the keeping room exchanging morning prayers with the mighty Lord, the third youngest, William, tugged the sleeve of my shirt, forcing me to halt. I glanced up. He grinned. Mister Henry continued muttering Psalms. His missus, Miss Sarah, never acknowledged one of her children had stopped too soon but regardless, I sat back in my seat and returned William’s enormous smile. I put a finger to my lips, cautioning him not to laugh and mouthed the words, ‘Do not move,’ because sounds might disturb two babes—Neddy, and Elizabeth Henry, sleeping— Neddy in a cradle, and Anne tucked in a little cot swaddled last I observed earlier before we sat thanking Lord Christ that we live to another morning.
William ignored my request completely. He reached across the table, and slipped his tiny hand in mine. A crumbled ball of parchment was left in it.
I closed my fist with concern. I observed Mister Henry. He was still muttering. I remembered exhaling with relief and then I watched Miss Sarah. Her head also hung low with folded fists like her husband. John and Martha mimicked their parents. I smiled again and opened the paper. There was an awful crinkling. Mister Henry glanced up and frowned. I coughed and squirmed in the chair. Through the corner of my right eye, Miss Sarah glared too. The Henry children giggled, which made the humiliation unbearable. I reacted by staring at the table blankly.
"Give it here, Nehemiah," Mister Henry said pointedly.
I flinched at the sharpness of his voice. I grabbed the piece of paper and passed it to Miss Sarah.
"Thank you, Nehemiah," she said politely. "Children!" Miss Sarah clapped.
The boys closed their jaws. Maratha gave me a scornful glance, one of ridicule and contempt.
I watched Miss Sarah pass the paper to her husband. I momentarily glanced at William. He was still smiling as if nothing had gone wrong.
"Read it, Papa!" William giggled.
"Shh, son," he cooed. "I am having a time deciphering a child's scribbles."
"I will tell you what it says!" William roared enthusiastically.
Mister Henry placed the paper in front of him, straightening himself. "Enlighten us then. Explain the message.”
Young Master William boldly stood up on his chair and stomped, giggling. "’Mia came to live with us. I am glad about it."
"Oh? And that is what you wrote?"
William nodded and then sat.
Mister Henry reached across, cupped the top of his missus's knuckles, and graced me with a thoughtful smile. At once, my anxiety vanished. I smiled awkwardly back.
"We are delighted to have you in our home, even if temporary," Miss Sarah commented cheerfully.
"Yes, Nehemiah, at best, you have proved to be an apprentice any decent gentleman would willingly accept. And, I appreciate assisting my wife with the children and babes in arms when I am elsewhere."
A high-pitched ring from under his floorboards causes me to halt dead in the memory. Her screech, a long, shrill scream, one devoid of any hope, a sound that emptied her lungs, is chilling. There was a full minute of silence after the shriek of Miss Sarah’s initial response had faded away. I study my mentor innocently, mentally shoving down the somber emotion breaking through. It could account for the distraught expression, the knit eyebrows, and his cross-eye look of concentrating.
“If it is any comfort, the devil has not inhabited her.”
His reply is somewhat comparable to the creaking of wood, choked up with intense emotion, but nay, naught a shred of proof of remorse is in those steely, dry eyes.
“A protective heart cannot enjoy affection,” I say. “Surely.” I stop abruptly, unsure how to help him feel happier. “You are a family man. I have proof of it,” I add instead.
“Do you now?” he asks, and then reaches out, tweaking my nose gently, almost playfully, as one would do to a friend.
“I’ve observed examples.”
“Hmm. Examples,” he nods, releasing, frowning.
“Of grief, a gloomy cast of mind.”
“I am afraid,” Mister Henry says.
“Of everything,” I shrug.
“More than I wish to let on.”
“I am afraid of telling you,” he swallows, “my feelings. You are not of my family. You are not kin.”
“And yet, I’ve been a witness to pensive sadness, and I know not where to stop. I could say many things on this subject; if I could put balm into your; alas, the wounds that cannot be seen, bleed the most. You are too guarded,” I say, rolling my eyes. “Money and material success impress me not. Kindness and authenticity do.”
“If you do not smarten up, I will take those rolling eyeballs and use them as marbles,” Mister Henry growls.
“People with guarded hearts are trusting and caring and should be treated as such,” he tuts.
“Mourn not the death of a life well-lived, but a life well-lived when alive,” I mumble quietly.
“What was it you said?”
Mister Henry misses nothing.
Another series of wild screams and the sounds underneath the kitchen floorboards remind me a soul is decaying. I put my hand in his for support. I watch fingers jerk, but eventually, they respond and curl around mine.
“Thank you,” he sniffs. “I am frightened confiding for fear my words would be used against me again, even if it was an accident. You said kindness and authenticity impress you. And here I am, showing explicable, undeniable affection now, am I not?”
As if he needed to reconfirm his declaration, Mister Henry pulls our fist to his lips and kisses the top of his hairy knuckles with mine sandwiched inside his. Mister Henry then affectionately pats it.
“My bride is unable to talk coherently to her husband. He wants to converse, seek counsel, hear opinions, laugh, cry, all these things he cannot do anymore. It is a harrowing, lonely existence. It is terrible knowing I acted out of ignorance when I revealed secrets and such to supposed friendships, resulting in distress. Would you do me the honor, Nehemiah?”
“I would hope you are not suggesting marriage?” I quip.
“Hardly,” he snorts. “You are a tad ugly to be delicious, which a female heartily affords a feast for the male eyes.”
“So, she does,” I fidget. “A little too much information.”
“First, you said I was holding back, and now, I am being too honest. There is just no pleasing you, is there?”
“What I meant was, I want to trust you.”
“Mehaps. I am your teacher; you are my pupil. That fact has not and will not change until I release and return you to your parent’s establishment. I want to think we developed some bond as well. What I am trying to say is, can I put faith in a person who lives in my home and treat them with unbridled, unrestricted feelings as I did with her? I mean absolute faith. I need an individual I can confide in, and a man is important, key.” After his speech, I want to tell Mister Henry I love him. I do not see much of my father. I never have. I suppose Mister Henry filled that void, but now, with his tenderness, I feel special. Important. But I will not tell him. It would be awkward if Mister Henry knew the truth.
“Sir, you can trust me. Say what you wish.”
He leans forward, squeezes my wrist gently with his free hand, and says, “I know. The early years of our marriage were beautiful. Neddy’s birth put my wife into antipathy. Sarah’s health decreased shortly after. It is all we can come up with.”
When his wife’s name was said, I saw his eyes soften. He stares longingly in my direction. I had to check to see if there was a person behind me. No, there was not.
“I did not know one of your children was responsible,” I say, turning back around.
“Now, you do.”
“You showed me where the key is hidden, where the secret stairwell is located.”
“It took some courage and strength to do so.”
“I appreciate it. I keep out of range. I have not forgotten the warning.”
“For your safety.”
I mumble sadly, “I know.”
“How many know she is locked down there?”
“You know very well the answer. Do not behave stupidly looking for favors boasting ego.”
“But has she eaten anything?”
“Na—,” he coughs. Mister Henry’s voice gave out an almost inaudible squeak.
I pause, considering how honest an apprentice should or should not be to their elder. Either way, if I earn a cuff around the ears disrespecting him, the sting is worth it if I can assist in some fashion. Death is not a new concept in the Cuthbert household. I know it well.
A gloomy face looks up.
I pause. Neither of us says nothing. Those squinty eyes are hurt untold. A sword and shield are his armor.
“Let it out,” I say sharply. “All the anger, the terror, everything brewing inside of you. It all starts from there. So.”
“No. If I do, well, I want to sleep tonight.”
I open my mouth to say—
“Close your mouth. You are not a codfish.”
Mister Henry lets go of my hand, then brings himself to his feet, stretches, and yawns.
“You mustn’t hide from grief,” I insist.
“Nehemiah, I think you are a remarkable lad,” Mister Henry says, quite choosing to ignore discussion about his affliction. “Where society sees the whole family if one suffers, the populace judges a family with twisted preconceptions: melancholia, madness, and, well, you know about the worst-case scenario should happen if madness is discovered.”
“As I affirmed, the Evil One has not riddled, tampered with her senses. I know it. How can a pure,” I shake my head.
“Shh. Please listen. My pupil sees beyond doubt because he knew my wife’s character before she fell sick.”
“There is no black blood in her.”
“You’ve formed your own opinions without being swayed.”
“Correct?” I ask, pleading, hopeful.
“I do not know. Honestly, I do not know,” Mister Henry sighs.
“Your voice is so soft, so gentle. Not like its usual tone.”
“It is getting late, and I am exhausted. There will be no time for continuing studying. And I want to check on Martha and see how she cared for Neddy and her other siblings today.”
“What about Miss Sarah?”
He flinches at hearing his wife’s name. She might,” he yawns, “scratch you.”
“But I want to help,” I plead.
Instead, Mister Henry answers by encircling behind. He wraps his arms around me in a tight embrace.
“I earnestly wish I could let you, but I cannot,” he whispers. “Your folks would disapprove if I returned their son broken in two.”
I smile weakly. “I suppose.”
“Bed,” he whispers and then releases.
“Will I ever be admitted past the Bar?” I ask, exasperated.
“My, changing the subject, are we?”
“You dislike your pupil,” I sulk.
“On the contrary, I dislike when he wanders off in a mental fog repeatedly."
Mister Henry points to the pages scattered in disarray upon the long kitchen’s rectangle table first, and then he taps the cover of the Holy Book.
"Give it to me, Nehemiah. I shall engage with the Lord's words while you tidy and straighten the papers."
The anguish in his voice disappears. I lower my head. "Forgive me; I have let distractions grip my responsibilities."
"It cannot be emphasized too strongly that your explicit diversion will never earn a seat alongside me in a courthouse," he groans, which persuades me further, avoiding eye contact.
When I finally do raise my neck, I slide the Bible across without questioning. He takes the object. Flipping through the pages, he continues tarnishing my spirit this evening. I listen obediently, and although some of the barefaced phrases Mister Henry spoke of his apprentice, I sense I was the scapegoat for a reason I could not comprehend.
"Honestly!" he shouts at the Bible’s pages instead of offering the shared curiosity of at least looking at his pupil’s furrowing eyebrows. "Regardless of the service spent under my watchful eye, the time involved has been less than satisfactory. I assumed a lad born into an affluent family, one whose father manages their countinghouse, his son would have the mannerisms of a Saint. But, no, his heir has the manners of a toddler who has barely learnt the feat of walking.”
I moan. In a silent solution from his attacks, I gather all the pieces of paper and stack them as neatly as possible. I hope if my mentor saw I listened to his instructions, the insults would at least lessen.
"Oh," he interrupts, "cease on the formalities. You might as well call me by my name. You have been an apprentice in my home; how long now?"
"Quite a long while, si–, I mean, Mister Henry.”
“Patrick,” he tuts.
“I mean, sir, Mister Henry, I mean, Patrick,” I sputter.
Mister Henry reaches up and grips his spectacles on his head. He drops them abruptly on the table.
“Spit it out. Say whatever in the Almighty’s good name is distracting you,” he encourages, massaging his temples clockwise and then counterclockwise.
“Uh, you might not like it.”
“The only thing I do not like right now is your being vague.”
I swallow nervously. He is an authoritarian, but Mister Henry has always been diligent with his teaching practices, either by willingly following along with an index finger as I read out loud or patiently, explaining certain passages thoroughly in such a way I understood, mostly anyway. My conscious mind comprehends I am not the tidiest man to ever graced God's green Earth, but although my expression must look stoic to him, Mister Henry's attack—
"Mister Cuthbert?" There was a firm jerk to my shoulder blade.
I blink. "Huh?" I ask confusingly. I blink again, and then Mister Henry folds his hands neatly in his lap, crossing one leg over the other, glaring.
"The toll has chimed seven. What is troubling you?"
“Miss Sarah,” I blurt.
Mister Henry winces at the words.
“It seems now that life will offer me a little respite from woe,” Mister Henry croaks.
“You wish I change the subject again.”
“I am allowed to speak about my feelings.”
“I can say anything? Anything at all?”
“For Heaven’s sake, yes.”
“Tell me a little more about Miss Sarah. Please?”
“About her illness or something else?”
“I like hearing stories about her. Anything you want to share.”
“Interesting. Why now?”
“Never mind,” I say, embarrassed.
“As you wish.”
“No, I want to say something sincere, like you did yesterday evening. But it is difficult, you know?”
“It is not easy, is it?” he asks wryly. I inhale a puff of air and exhale loudly. “A son who longs to receive attention from his father seems always to come up short; the son feels he needs to perform better to merit his father’s consideration. This performance shows itself in arenas such as setting higher standards and goals and improving physical appearance. A son can think, ‘Maybe if I look and act right, his parent will like his son more.’”
“That was a considerable amount of . . .,” Mister Henry swallows, “words. What am I to you then?”
Startled, I answer meekly, “My mentor, my teacher.”
“Oh? Am I only an instructor?”
“No,” I sigh. “A friend too.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean your confession just now about your father neglecting his son; his son vainly tried to receive attention in any way possible. I think I am more than a friend, or why else would my pupil speak unsatisfactory about a relationship with his parent?”
I shrug. “You said you need a man to talk to. Maybe I want that as well.”
“Ask, and you shall receive.”
“Would you be my surrogate father?”
“Understood,” I say glumly.
Miss Sarah began another round of this relentless howling, her wordless disease all too apparent.
* * *
Startled, I let out a yelp. "Yes, sir, I mean, Mister Henry.”
“Patrick,” he yawns. “I foresee a lawyer within you yet. Keep to your studies, and your work ethic will reward you eventually."
"Thank you," I say.
"You are quite welcome. Now," he yawns again, "it is time.”
A deep sigh is heard. I watch my mentor turn around and glance at the clock affixed to the wall. Another sigh comes, and then he turns to face me.
"Your parents entrusted me to care for you. By all accounts, Nehemiah, heir to Ezra Cuthbert, I see potential. It is why I remain rigorous with your studies.”
The compliment makes me flush. "I promise I will finish this chapter tomorrow. I will not sully my mentor’s reputation.” He points to the Bible. "I have a copy in my quarters. Take this with you, and may the Almighty Christ visit your dreams."
"Thank you, Mister Henry. I will read some before I sleep."
“Patrick,” he yawns loudly.
Patrick leaves his spectacles behind, trudging wearily away.
I stand, grab my books and the Bible, and shove them under my right arm. Before I exit the kitchen, I push the two chairs neatly under the table so Mister Henry would not have another chore to attend to.
"Nehemiah, it is past the hour of eight o'clock," he calls impatiently. "We will continue at precisely six in the afternoon."
I whirl around. Mister Henry is watching me intently over his left shoulder. I obey and quickly catch up with him. We walk side-by-side and then make a right-hand turn leading to the bedrooms. Mister Henry walks to his quarters first, yawning loudly, and I follow his slow pace from behind.
In the hallway, he pinches the nape of my neck gently with a thumb and forefinger. "May the Almighty protect and watch over a member of my family."
I lower my head sheepishly. The creaking of floorboards makes me look up. Mister Henry shuffles in the direction of his room, where he, sadly, shares space with no one.
His remark causes a smile from ear to ear. I turn to my left, heading for my own bedchamber, one I have all to myself.
I hope Miss Sarah’s mind returns and angry outbursts become less prominent.
I pull the wool blankets high above my shoulders. My last thoughts turn to Miss Sarah. I wonder; I hope she is not too terribly chilled in the cellar. Perhaps, I should, should spare a few blankets. Yes, she had been kind.
I swing my legs out of bed. I lit a candle on a bedside table and peer into the hallway, tiptoeing to Mister Henry’s bedroom. When a floorboard creeks, I jump, laying flat against the wall, praying my thumping heart slows faster and bravery arrives quicker. When I am confident enough, I continue cautiously, only now I test each board by applying a fraction of my weight, determining which one is quieter. What would have taken five minutes took triple the time to arrive.
“Whoever it is, what are you doing, and what do you want!”
“Nehemiah, sir! I, er, am thirsty!”
“Come here,” I hear him shout.
Shoulders slump. Another tongue-lashing.
I step in.
“Close the door.”
“I would rather not.”
“Do as you are told. My house, my rules.”
“Are you going to hit me?”
“For sake, no. Have I ever?”
“No, but my father, he, never mind.”
“Close the door. Quietly.”
I did. Trapped.
“Do you intend to stand there all night? Come here. Now.”
My feet move this instant. I hate them for doing it. They should have asked permission first before betraying their master.
A silhouette swings legs out and towers above, staring me down. For a few moments, I resisted the temptation to flee, but his embrace was unexpected, and I found myself returning the affection.
“I’m not used to this.”
“Never be afraid to release feelings from a still cage, Nehemiah,” Mister Henry encourages softly.
We hear the door open. “Papa?”
“Might as well. Come join us, daughter.”
His left arm opens up, inviting Martha into the fold.
“I wanted to break down so many times,” Mister Henry utters a low, scratchy sound.
“Neamiah, loves you, Papa.”
Mister Henry gently pushes us off his chest.
“Get some sleep. It is getting on in hours. Nehemiah, a word before you leave.”
“Sleep well, Papa,” and then she exits.
“She never could pronounce my name,” I smile. “William too. I’m ‘Mia’ to him.”
Two palms clasp each of my shoulder blades.
“I can not have a moment’s happiness or rest. I shall be so nervous and out of spirits if I cannot simply kiss Sarah tomorrow morning without restraints. I had so set my mind upon seeing her set free from them that I can not wean myself from it, and I know I shall agonize tonight over my family. It may sound ridiculous, but it is true that I feel every day how much more I love my wife. The ruling passion of my heart is affection and tenderness for her.”
“You unguarded yourself,” I note.
“You are like a son to me. There is no plainer truth.”
“These are the feelings you’ve hid.”
“Never am I afraid showing them to the ones I care about.”
“But why me?”
“You said we should trust each other.”
I catch a glimpse of a tilted neck, and hear sniffling. Mister Henry dabs each eye of his with the cuff of a shirt.
“Excuse me. It happens frequently at night. My children never would understand. I keep emotions suppressed.”
“I will, I will leave you alone.”
“Yes, you need rest, as I as well.”
I turn about-face.
“Nehemiah,” I hear. “Thank you.”
I nod. Finding a match, I scrape it along the dresser. The friction makes the sulphur form a small torch. I light the candle once more. Picking up the chamberstick, I shut Mister Henry’s door.
* * *
I made my way along the pitifully small hallway and down creaky stairs towards where the key to Miss Sarah’s room is hidden. The cellar is rather gloomy and has a musty, old moldy smell about it in this section of it. Regardless, the space is steamy and warm because of the two fireplaces burning embers.
I shuffle a little further towards the back wall. Below, I remember plain as day, the third rock to the left is where the lock’s key is concealed. Mister Henry said he hauled three of them with one especially selected that hid the key completely. I asked once why he did not have one of the slaves do the grunt work for him. He said it was easier putting on the façade of normalcy if he did it himself but Miss Sarah was never alone. Mister Henry assured me a young woman slave kept below, minding his wife until he was home, and then the woman went outdoors to the slave’s shelter where they all slept.
Balancing weight on the haunches of my bent legs, I swing the candlestick over, see the rock, pry it up, grab the wrought iron key, and run to the lock. When it clicked, I place it in the pocket of my breeches.
I discover Miss Sarah hunching. She starts bleating when she spots me. There is saliva dribbling down her chin.
“Evening, Miss Sarah,” I say, smiling uneasily. “I will be slumbering here tonight.” She tries to voice incomprehensible words, spitting afterward. When communication fails,
Miss Sarah lunges.
I cautiously sidestep from the entrance.
She twists and yanks, but the straight-dress holds firm.
Still, Miss Sarah was not shivering. I decide after a few moments to sleep in the cellar, chancing danger. He will likely be agitated in the morning, but Mister Henry did say I was akin to a family member.
Next to Miss Sarah’s bed, there was a chair where Mister Henry watches over her. I nudge it far enough with a toe so I may have more space, judging carefully an approximant width where I will be excluded if Miss Sarah should decide to spring on me like a rabid, vicious animal. After all, she was allowed enough length of her restraints for lumbering about, exploring, if she wanted. With a decision in mind, I carefully create a place on the dirt floor, folding my couple of blankets in half while balancing the chamberstick in the other hand. I did not have a third for a top layer, but fortunately, warmth aplenty was in the ambient air.
I shall keep his secret. It will be a blot to my mentor’s good name if colleagues of his discovered his missus are in concealment, in the most comfort Mister Henry and Miss Sarah’s loved ones try to provide. I imagine he would be especially mortified.
She returned to the pallet. Miss Sarah’s expression is cold, calculating, and judging . . .
I puff the wick.
“Has he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?” Miss Sarah asks blackness.
Perhaps, this was not such a wise idea . . .
As if a germ invaded an ear, the organism acts like a conductor directing an orchestra of gnashing teeth, the din is Miss Sarah’s song.
My eyes, too heavy to keep open, I slept with noises of grinding teeth.
“Nehemiah. Nehemiah, why in God’s splendid name are you in the cellar?”
I yawn and then sit up. He holds a chamberstick near my face. The glow of the subtle light suggests Mister Henry’s silhouette is discontentment.
Yawning deeply again, I rub the sleepiness out of my eyes. “I wanted to make sure she had enough warmth, sir.”
“It is, Patrick, not sir,” he grumbles. “You may call me Patrick in my home, but in the public eye, it is Mister Henry, but never a sir.”
“Let us go upstairs and fix breakfast before the children wake.”
“What about the babies?”
“Do not worry.”
“The babies need milk. Where is the supply coming from again?”
‘Generous donations.’ Martha is more than capable looking after her older siblings while the babes are nursed by someone else I put in charge.”
“You are not angry?”
“About what?” he yawns.
“Having slept down here with Miss Sarah, it is not suitable, nor proper.”
Patrick’s fingers twitch under his shirt.
“No, Nehemiah. I am not angry.”
“Patrick? Why are you not showing annoyance or exasperation?
“Yes, because. Now, get up, put some clean clothes on, and for God’s sake, lad, would it kill you to comb your hair before leaving? You seem to have a habit of not doing so.”
“But, your shirt is untucked,” I remind him, quite pleased with my observation, if I may so myself. I beam happily for telling such a clever comment. “And you are not wearing a pair of breeches. And your side curls are sticking out annoyingly.”
“Never you mind about how I appear. And take note, my shirt falls long enough. I am covered. Now, go.”
So much for that brief boost in esteem. He has an uncanny way of crushing it, even if unaware.
I watch Mister–Patrick–stretch his arms high over his head and yawn. “Sarah will need to be bathed today. I will do it, not you.”
Bringing my weary legs to a standing position, I toss my shoulders back, wiggling stiffness out of my muscles. “I can stand as a sentry.”
“Bathing is a private act; it is a sign of a strong and comfortable relationship. When we bathe together, well, I will always oblige her.”
“In the same basin?” I ask curiously, impishly. “Wait, what did you mean, ‘you will always oblige her?’”
Mister Henry sighs. “Have I not acted forthcoming without limiting my feelings thus far? Words are privy of, for my wife’s ears only.”
“Your thoughts are touching, heartwarming. They make me feel . . . I do not know how to describe it.”
“Regardless, Nehemiah. Ask no more, this argument is done,” he says with a slight edge to his voice.
Upstairs, Mister Henry blows out the candle and sets it aside. At the foot of the cellar stairs, he lifts my chin with a thumb.
“What?” I ask.
Mister Henry ruffles my unkempt hair. “It pleases me to see another person show facilitated tenderness, unconditional love, and affection towards a human not related to them, but he is compelled enough to show acute concern towards my bride’s situation. It is in good faith I am indebted.”
“Mister Henry? Can—“
“If you keep referring to me as Mister, I will instead put the straight-dress on you.”
“Apologies,” I groan, disappointed I cannot break the habit.
I hear chuckling and not ridicule.
“Superb. Eggs and sausage or leftover salted pork and beans?”