1772 – Scotchtown Plantation, Virginia.
A shrill ring is heard from under his kitchen floorboards, and causes us to stop dead in our tracks. Her scream, a long, shrill scream, one devoid of any hope, a scream that emptied her lungs, chills my blood. But deep down I feel for him because the pain and anguish he and his family are going through, is immense. There was a full minute of silence after the shrill of his wife’s initial response had faded away. I study my mentor innocently, mentally shoving down the somber expression trying to break through. It could account for the distraught expression on his face, the knit eyebrows and his cross-eyes look of concentrating.
“If it is any comfort, I am of my own mind, the devil has not inhabited her.”
His reply is somewhat comparable to the creaking of wood, choked up with strong emotion, but nay, naught a shred of proof of remorse is in those steely, dry, eyes.
“A guarded heart cannot enjoy affections,” I dispute. “Surely, shame and disgrace cancels.” I stop, unsure how I can help him feel happier. “You are a family man. I have proof of it,” I add instead.
“I am afraid,” he says.
“More than I wish to let on. I am afraid to tell more.”
“Because of losing your reputation in the Legislature, your slaves, fortune, losing Scotchtown; being driven out by mobs, and thrown in water to drown.”
“Similarly, except for the drowning part. Much obliged adding a longer set of fears, which mind you, I am aware of, but that’s not why.”
“Because of her then. Because of your wife.”
“As you said, I am a family man.”
“You did show me where the secret stairwell is located.”
“It took some courage and strength to do so.”
“Only to visit.”
“For your safety.”
“Yes,” I mumble sadly. “I know. Biting.”
“Yes,” Mister Henry nods in agreement.
“You are missing the point,” I sigh.
“I was trying to suggest indiscreetly that my mentor trusts his student.”
“I suppose,” I say in the near chocked up emotional voice as him.
“It makes me so sad, Mister Henry.”
He leans forward a little, squeezes my wrist gently, and says quietly, “I know.”
“It’s not fair.”
“The early years of our marriage were very happy. Nettie’s birth put my wife into antipathy.”
“Why are you looking at me weirdly now?”
“Oh, thanks for the answer,” I say.
“Nehemiah, I am thinking you are a remarkable lad. Where society sees the whole family, if one is sick, the entire family will be judged with twisted preconceptions. You see beyond a shadow of a doubt because you knew her character before she fell ill. You’ve formed your own opinions without being swayed.”
“I thought you said your heart is guarded?”
“My privacy is only for these walls. They do not talk back.”
“Well, I did not know one of your children was responsible.”
“Now, you do. At least, my wife’s health decreased shortly after Nettie’s birth. It is all we can come up with.”
“You said walls do not talk back, which is true, but you told me a little more about your family. I am not a wall.”
“Indeed, you are not.”
“Is she eating anything?” I ask, trying hard to keep all of it inside.
“Na—,” he coughs, “Na, no.” Mister Henry’s voice gave out an almost inaudible squeak.
“Will I ever be admitted to the Bar?” I ask, changing the subject.
Mister Henry points to the pages scattered in disarray upon the long, rectangle table first, and then he taps the cover of the Holy Book.
"Hand me the Bible, Nehemiah. I shall engage with the Lord's words while you tidy and straighten the papers upon my table."
And like that, his personality flips a mental switch. The anguish in his voice dissolves. 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 says, which persuades me further to divert my attention from directly exchanging eye contact.
When I do raise my head, I immediately pass the Bible without questioning. I lean forward. 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 he spoke of his apprentice, I sense I was the scapegoat for a reason I could not comprehend.
"Honestly!" he declares to the Bible’s pages, instead of offering the common curiosity of eye contact. "Regardless the service spent under my watchful eye, the time involved has been less than satisfactory. I assumed a lad born into an affluent family, and one whose father manages their own counting house, his son would have the mannerisms of a Saint. But, no, his heir has the manners of a curious child who in my humble opinion 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 sees I listened to his instructions the insults would cease.
"Oh," he interrupts, "cease on the formalities, and you might as well call me by my name. You have been an apprentice in my home, how long now?" he asks.
"Little over a year, si–, I mean, about a year and a half, Mister Henry.”
In response, Mister Henry reaches up, and grips his spectacles resting on top of his head. He drops them abruptly on the table, and rubs his temples counterclockwise.
“Mister Henry . . .”
“Patrick,” he groans.
“I mean, sir, Mister Henry, I mean, Patrick,” I sputter.
“Spit it out, Nehemiah.”
“Are you sure?”
“Say whatever in God’s good name is distracting you,” he encourages, all the while massaging his temples, rubbing them clockwise and counterclockwise.
“Uh, you might not like it.”
“The only thing I do not like right now is your being vague and stupid.”
I swallow nervously. He is an authoritarian, but he has always been diligent with his teaching practices, either by willingly following along with an index finger while I read out loud in books in preparation to be tested, 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 have graced God's green Earth, but Mister Henry's attack was a bit hurtful. Although, I have kept my composure by not physically displaying emotions.
"Mister Cuthbert?" I felt a hand jerk my shoulder blade.
I shook my head quickly and blink. "Huh?" I ask confusingly. I blink again, and then I watch Mister Henry fold his hands neatly in his lap, crossing one leg over the other. He glares.
"The toll has chimed seven. What is troubling you?"
He winces at the words.
“It seems now that life will offer me little respite from woe and anguish,” Mister Henry says in another hoarse croak as before.
“You wish I change the subject.”
I open my mouth to say something but before I can, “You are not a cod fish, Nehemiah. Close your mouth.”
I did as I was told.
Mister Henry's missus has been nothing but supportive and encouraging in my favor. The Henry children, their vibrant youth shows when they frolic, hoot and holler. The children's energy and enthusiasm for life, they always put a smile on my face. In fact, once while the six of us, (including myself, which made it seven), were sitting in the parlor exchanging morning prayers with the Mighty Lord, the oldest, Miss Martha, tugged the sleeve of my shirt, forcing me to halt. I glanced up. She smiled, like the pretty young thing Martha is, with her youthful rosy cheeks; she had received her Mother's looks, which was certain. The master and my teacher never looked up but continued muttering Psalms. Mister Henry’s missus, Miss Sarah, never acknowledged one of their children had stopped an hour too soon but regardless, I sat back in my seat and returned Martha's enormous smile. I put a finger to my lips, cautioning her not to laugh and mouthed the words, ‘Do not move,’ so sounds would not disturb the others. Instead, Martha ignored my gesture completely by reaching across the table. She slipped her tiny hand in mine. A crumbled ball of parchment was left in my palm.
I closed my fist with concern. I glanced first at Mister Henry. His head was still hung low, muttering amongst himself. I remember exhaling with relief and then I observed Miss Sarah. Her head also hung low with folded fists like her husband. John and William Henry mimicked their parents. I remembered smiling again and opened the paper. There was an awful crinkling, and so it was enough of a sound to trigger distraction. Mister Henry instantly looked up and frowned. I coughed, and fidgeted uncomfortably in the chair. Through the corner of my right eye, Miss Sarah glared at me too. The Henry children giggled, which only made the humiliation worsen. I reacted by staring at the table blankly.
"Give it here, Nehemiah," Mister Henry said pointedly.
I flinched at the tone 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 her hands. The boys closed their jaws. I was grateful for the silence and voluntarily basked in it.
I watched Miss Sarah pass the paper over to her husband. I momentarily glanced at Martha. She was still smiling and it appeared it broadened upon her face.
"Read it Papa!" Martha giggled.
"Shh, m'dear," he cooed to his daughter. "I am having a time deciphering a child's handwriting."
"I will tell you what it says!" Martha roared enthusiastically.
Mister Henry placed the paper in front of him and then folded his hands again upon the parlor’s table. "Enlighten us, m'dear. Explain the message," Mister Henry said without a trace of an expression.
Miss Martha boldly stood up on her chair and pointed directly at me, giggling. " Nehemiah came to live with us. I am glad about it."
"Oh? And that is what you wrote?" he asked.
Martha 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 disappeared. I smiled awkwardly at him.
"We are delighted to have you in our home, Nehemiah, even if it is temporary," Miss Sarah commented cheerfully.
"Yes, Nehemiah, at best, you have proven to be an apprentice which any decent gentleman would willingly accept. And, I appreciate assisting my wife with the children when I am elsewhere."
"In a short while, we will retire, Nehemiah. The hands are pointing to seven-thirty of the Clock, and I am extremely exhausted. There will be no time for you to continue.”
His voice snaps me out of the memory. I nod earnestly. "Yes, sir, I mean, Mister Henry.”
“Patrick,” he yawns. “I foresee a lawyer within you yet. Keep to your studies, and your work ethics will reward you eventually."
"Thank you," I say simply.
"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.
"Nehemiah, your parents entrusted me to care for you. In truth, when this tentative lad first entered my home, I admit, I had my doubts. Here was a well-dressed gentleman, and his son whom spoke two words in the entire introductions. Yet, now here you remain, and by all accounts, Nehemiah, heir to Ezra Cuthbert, you are intelligent. It is why I remain rigorous with your studies, I honestly sense potential."
The compliment only makes me flush. "I promise I will finish this chapter tomorrow. I will not disappoint my mentor," I remark firmly.
He points to the Bible. "I have copy in my quarters. Take this with you, and may He visit you in your dreams."
"Thank you, Mister Henry. I will read some before I sleep."
“Patrick,” he yawns loudly.
Mister Henry stands, leaving behind his spectacles and trudges wearily away.
I stood, grab my books, 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 too.
"Nehemiah, it is past the hour of eight o' clock," he calls. "We will continue tomorrow at precisely six in the afternoon."
I whirl around. Mister Henry is watching me over his left shoulder. I obey and quickly catch up with him. We walk side-by-side, and then make a right-hand turn, which leads 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. Vibrations of footsteps echo. I glance up. Mister Henry trudges slowly in the direction of his bedroom where he, sadly, shares a space by his lonesome.
His remark causes a smile from ear to ear. I turn to my right, heading for my own room, and one I have all to myself. I hope Miss Sarah’s mind comes back and angry outbursts become less prominent. Mister Henry knows quite well about disability so I shan’t worry too much in future gatherings studying for the Bar. I pull the wool blankets high above my shoulders. My last thoughts turn to him. Mister Henry respects me. Miss Sarah, I wonder, I do hope she is not too terribly chilled in the cellar. Perhaps, I should, should, spare a few of my blankets. Yes, she has been kind until she fell ill. I swing my legs out of bed. I lit a candle resting on a bedside table and tiptoe into the hallway. I hear snoring from Mister Henry’s room, which is a relief. Now that he is asleep, I can sneak down the secret stairwell.
I find Miss Sarah on her back in bed. She starts to mewl incoherently, and saliva dribbles down her chin; she tries to voice incomprehensible words sputtering in confusion. Perhaps what I had heard was her thin mewl of frustration, which issues from her again. There are a few wool blankets already wrapped around her like a cocoon. It makes me unhappy to see Miss Sarah in confinement, and in restraints. A strait-dress cannot be at all delightfully comfortable, but it is very necessary. Still, she was not shivering. I decide after a few moments to sleep in the cellar with Mister Henry’s wife. He will likely be agitated in the morning, but he said I was akin to a surrogate 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, but I also judge carefully an approximant width where I will be excluded if Miss Sarah should decide to spring on me like a rabid, viscous animal. With a decision in mind, I create a place on the dirt floor, folding my couple of blankets in half. 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 would be a blot to my mentor’s good name if colleagues of his discovered his missus is in concealment, restrained, but in the most comfort Mister Henry and Miss Sarah’s loved ones try to provide. I imagine he would be especially mortified. I see her now muttering on about a message she deems important. Finally, my eyes were too heavy to keep open. I sleep right through the night until I jump in the early morning.
“Nehemiah. Nehemiah, why in God’s splendid name, are you in the cellar?”
I yawn, and then sit up. He holds a chamber stick near my face. It was difficult determining Mister Henry’s disposition but by the glow of the candle, although he is frowning, I sense not a trace of 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 groans. “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.”
“You are not angry?”
“No, Nehemiah.” I watch Mister–Patrick–stretch his arms high over his head and yawns himself. “Sarah will need to be bathed today. I will do it, not you.”
“Understood.” I thought for a moment. “Patrick? Why are you not showing annoyance or exasperation? It cannot be suitable to be down here with your wife. Sleeping nearby too.”
Patrick’s fingers were under his shirt, scratching the left side of his ribcage. “Because.”
“Yes, because. Now get up, put some clean clothes on and for God’s sakes lad, would it kill you to comb your hair before leaving? You seem to have a habit of not doing so.”
“But your own 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 in bunches.”
“Never you mind about how I dress, or 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 he does not know. Upstairs, Mister Henry blew out the candle and set it aside. Still, a strong feeling bubbles to the surface. My body moves on its own. I rush forward, and hug him, which he staggers and produces an “Oomph,” sound. Mister Henry gently pushes me away after a bit of time. I grin.
“Well, yes, I am quite fond of you too. By the way.”
My grin dissolves. “What?”
His palm ruffles my unkempt hair. “It pleases me to see another person show facilitated tenderness; unconditional love and affection towards a human whom is 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. I entrust my student keeps my requested secret private, regarding my wife?”
“Yes, of course I have, Mister Henry.”
“If you keep insisting referring to me as Mister, I will put the straight-dress on you instead.”
“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, Nehemiah?”