DIANA STAYED WITH the Carters for two nights and three days. She was welcomed with such enthusiasm that under different circumstances she would have felt guilty for disliking her host. Mister Carter was so courtly and deferential that he drove Diana to distraction. If she took one sip from her glass, he was glowering at a slave to refill it. He was so intense, Diana was in a terror that if the slave did not move quickly enough, Mister Carter would have him whipped.
The moment he spoke, even his oldest son would fall silent. The silence would last until everyone was sure Father was done. His method of entering a conversation was to abruptly ask a question. No matter his audience was discussing something else. He would wait impatiently until he felt the answerer had enough time to get out whatever was to be said, then veer sharply to the topic Adam Carter had really been bent on discussing—hunting, gambling, and horseflesh.
For instance, at the barbecue that commenced shortly after Diana's arrival, his wife had been shyly pressing her on fashions. Diana had been delicately trying to get across that waistlines were no longer gathered just under the bosom, without mocking Sarah's own costume, and that oiled Grecian curls were definitely out, when Adam Carter broke in.
"If you please, my dear Mrs. Shannon," he'd said in his heavy drawl, "I would treasure your opinion of this ham." He cut a thick slice with his own hands, and had a slave pass it to her.
She had dutifully tasted it and remarked on its goodness. It was true: the ham was delicious. Adam had nodded proudly around the table. Then, as Diana had tried to resume her conversation with his wife, Mister Carter had addressed John Maguire: "How's that speckled foal of yours getting along, Major?" It was the first time Diana heard Maguire addressed by rank.
"Over the colic now," was all Maguire had said.
Evidently, from long practice this was the most he had attempted. It was sufficient for Mister Carter's purpose. He had then launched into a lengthy discussion on animal husbandry according to Adam Carter.
The man reminded her of Nate Hatch. It was an unsettling connection. She found herself watching Adam Carter more closely. The accent was different but the attitudes were similar. Like the New Kent innkeeper, Mister Carter was a bloated monarch in a minuscule society. In his extreme isolation, the power the planter wielded increased proportionally. It was like one of those mathematical games invented by the ancient geometers, where a small sum quickly grows to the size of mountains. Remove his dependence on his fellow citizens for profit, allow him greater freedom to manipulate the law—in fact, give him vastly greater power over his fellow man—and Nate Hatch would have behaved exactly the same as Adam Carter.
What made the situation intolerable was that the power of the planters had been confirmed on the highest level. First Jefferson and then Madison—both slaveholders—had forged a Democratic-Republican coalition of southern planter and northern merchant and tradesman to make their party supreme for fourteen years. Diana realized only a hopeless optimist could imagine anything changing in this lifetime. Or the next. But here she was, a lowly woman by Adam Carter's lights, being treated with a respect far beyond her role as guest. There was condescension, to be sure. Diana was used to that. Still, even in this place where the "Cult of True Womanhood" reigned supreme, she was listened to in greater detail than most other people of her sex. Money and presumed influence was the answer. Perhaps all that achieving hadn't been wasted. Perhaps it wasn't so empty. And her current frustration was that she was growing tired fighting alone all this time, and felt she was falling behind.
Then her head had come up as she realized she had drifted into a long reverie. No one had noticed. But the conversation had taken several turns since her attention had lapsed. John Maguire was holding forth. He was talking about the war. Actually, it was more of an impassioned plea than mere talk. The major was describing the desperate plight of the army, telling of his fears that the war would be lost if desperately needed troops were not continuously supplied.
She noticed Mister Carter and his sons listened respectfully, but with small smiles playing at their lips. Diana also saw that the rank conferred on Maguire was no empty title. Whispers among the women confirmed he had fought long and valiantly during the Revolution when most men from these parts were only peripherally—if at all—involved. Plainly, the major was making a pitch. A recruitment pitch. He was pressing Adam Carter for his sons; he was raising a militia to fight the king.
As soon as she caught the drift of what he was attempting to sell, she could see from the faces of the Carter men that they would never enlist. Still, she thought it a brave effort and was disappointed on his behalf when he came to the end. Mister Carter waxed long and eloquently on his great poverty and how—although Maguire must be aware of his ardent belief in such a patriotic cause—such a sacrifice would be his ruin. With regret he was forced to deny this favor to his neighbor and dearest friend.
Oddly, she had caught no sense of loss on the major's features. He seemed to have expected the answer. In fact, he was shaking his head, sympathizing with his host and encouraging Adam Carter to describe his difficulties in great detail. He has more in mind, she'd thought.
Sarah Carter rose, a signal for the other women to withdraw and leave the men to their business. Diana had nearly snapped at the woman. She wanted to see how the game between Maguire and Carter came out. But custom and dreaded tradition ruled otherwise. As she withdrew, John Maguire had looked her way, disappointment on his face. Then he turned back to focus all of his attention on Adam Carter. The more she saw of Major Maguire, the more she found favor in him. What a pity.
They were only a few steps into the garden—on the way back to the house—when Sarah gave a gasp of pain. She stood frozen and what little color she had drained from her face, until she was ghastly white. She sagged, and her sisters and aunts had descended on her. Propping her up, spewing orders to the slaves who always followed as if they were living shadows, they had fled through the garden with their burden. Leaving Diana forgotten in their wake. She'd wondered what the trouble was with the poor child. It didn't seem to her that a difficult pregnancy could be the sole cause. But it was none of her business, she had told herself. Besides.[..
Diana slipped back to the edge of the garden. A thorny hedge, covered with tasseled red flowers, hid her from the view of the men.
". . . How can I refuse you, John?" Mister Carter was saying. "If it's that nigger wench you want, then you shall have her. And at a fair price as well ..."
It was as if the sun had been blown out by a mighty breath. Chilled by these words—delivered as casually as if they were discussing a prized hunting bitch—Diana had fallen back from the hedge, so stunned at witnessing the sale of another human being, she had almost fled to her room like a maiden.
Reason had returned with the sound of footsteps coming down the garden path: Kitty. Before her maid could speak and alert the men of Diana's presence, she shushed her with a raised finger. Another wave had brought the girl to her side, and Diana had resumed her spying.
". . . Then it's settled, and I thank you," the major was saying. "When I return home in a day or so, I'll send my headman, Paul, to fetch her."
From Carter's reaction, Diana could see the bargain was not as settled as the major was saying. For some reason, the planter seemed about to object to the timing, or some other matter that Diana could not make out. But Maguire had seemed prepared for this.
"Now, as to my first request, Adam," the major went on, "all I'm asking is for one of your boys. And only for a month or so. It would have a powerful effect on my recruiting efforts, for a man such as yourself to stand with me in this matter. And volunteer his son to his country's call."
Mister Carter had blustered. But still the major pressed. Then he suddenly relented with good grace. He let the planter steer the conversation back to the bargain involving the woman slave. There would be no delay in delivery. Then the major had shifted the conversation to an idle discussion on the prospects for the hunting season. Silently, Diana had ghosted away, pulling Kitty with her. It was plain what Maguire's real mission was: the purchase of a "nigger wench." But why would this be more important than recruiting soldiers for his militia? It didn't make sense. Later, Kitty had enlightened her.
The girl was so young and naive that she had quickly shed her shyness in the company of the other children running about the Carter plantation. Diana had watched them at play: the boys, young ruffians like their fathers and uncles, stalking each other and small unwary animals with pointed sticks for rifles; the girls, sunbonnets the size of bassinets to protect their skin, dresses hiked up so that all one could see of them as they ran about was the floppy hat and long, coltish legs. So wild was their play, that trees seemed no bar to their path. Even the girls ran right up them like squirrels.
Kitty had fit right in. Soon she was spending all her time with them, playing and gossiping. "... They're all odd ones here, missus," she had said, "but they don't see it that way. They're so used to the way they're living, they think we're the ones that lost the bell rope. Us and the major."
"Us, I understand, but why the major, Kitty, dear?"
"I think it's because he's more like us. At least that's what they say. He doesn't whip his black fellahs, missus. And he feeds them well. And it's said he spends all his money putting clothes on their backs, and good roofs over their heads."
"It's still slavery, Kitty. And he's a master, whether kind or foul."
"I know that, missus. But they don't see it the same. They say he's weak in the head. And that he's gonna ruin his fortune until there's nothing left for his sons to inherit. . . . It's like that girl he came to buy."
Diana's interest perked. "Yes? What about her?"
"The children say he didn't want her for himself. They said the girl belonged to one of his sons, who gave her to Mister Carter to settle a gambling debt. The trouble was, Major Maguire has this black fellah, named Paul. The girl is the black fellah's wife. That's why the major wanted her back. They all think he's crazy for that. But I think it is just grand, missus. And very brave of him. They could make a lot of trouble."
"I wonder why they haven't?" Diana mused, not expecting an answer.
"Oh, because he's a great hero, missus. He came back from the Revolution with everyone singing his praises and giving him honors. Now, he's the only real soldier in these parts. They're all ashamed because they don't want to fight. Cowards. I'd fight if they let me. But I'm just a girl. So they won't."
Diana saw the major in a different light. But so sudden and bright was the glare, she couldn't quite make out the details from the size of the shadow it cast.
"But I still don't understand why once Mister Carter agreed to let the major have the girl, he resisted doing it right away. What does it matter if it's the day after tomorrow or a week from tomorrow? Can you answer that?"
Kitty turned scarlet. She ducked her head and muttered.
"Speak up, Kitty, dear. I can't hear you."
More mumbling. Then she had reached up with a hand to brush away a tear. Diana gentled the girl, smoothing her hair, straightening the folds in her frock. When the girl was calm, she had repeated the question.
Again Kitty flushed. But she looked Diana straight in the eye and got it out: "He hadn't had her yet!"
"What?" Diana was aghast.
"She's said to be very pretty, but Mister Carter hadn't had his chances with her yet. With all of Missus Carter's family about, I guess he was ashamed to. And now I don't think he'll have that chance, missus. He was mad at first, but then they said he thought it was an awfully good joke on him. ..."
Kitty had lapsed into silence. From the shudder she gave, Diana knew she was putting herself in the slave girl's place, and thinking of Adam Carter crawling into her bed. "I don't think it's very funny, missus."
"Nor do I," Diana said.
She went riding the next day with John Maguire. They packed a picnic lunch in the saddlebags of his big blaze-faced chestnut, Balthazar. Some cold meats and fruit and a little wine. She rode a sturdy bay mare.
Maguire took her on a long, circuitous route, avoiding the shacks where the slaves lived and the fields where they worked. She knew this because she felt no eyes on her for the first time since she'd left the broken-down coach. Diana was not surprised at his sensitivity to her unspoken feelings. For a man she had only known a short time, he seemed amazingly natural with her, talking lightly of this and that, searching out common ground.
They moved through pure Virginia countryside, dressed in its best green and floral print. Little trails took them across small brooks and around leafy bowers through the woods. They broke out of the treeline and into a large, overgrown meadow. A stream rushed down the hills and emptied into a wide pond in the middle of the meadow. At the edge of the pond was a long-abandoned mill, a relic from a time of individual enterprise. The roof was caved in and the mill wheel stopped by tumbling rocks. Maguire found a soft, grassy place near the wheel. While she spread the blanket and laid out the food, he freed the horses to graze in the meadow. Maguire said Balthazar would come when he called, and the bay would follow. They made a lazy meal in the early afternoon sun.
He asked about her, and Diana gave him a much edited version of her life. At least she attempted to. But Maguire had a way of asking a quiet question that meant no harm and was easily evaded if privacy were threatened. But it made a person want to answer. Because John Maguire was sure to understand and be supportive. She had not met a man since Emmett with whom it was so easy to talk. Maguire seemed honestly in awe of her success.
Unlike most planters, he was not disdainful of business. "I wish I were better at it," he said. "Otherwise I might be much farther along in my plans."
"Which are . . . ?"
He hesitated for so long a time that Diana was first a little hurt, then angry that her confidences in him—edited though they might be—were not to be returned.
But when he finally spoke, she immediately relented. "Part of the blame is the war," he said. "At least that's the excuse I make to myself. But ... to be absolutely honest with you, Mrs. Shannon—"
"Diana, please. A rescue from that dreaded coach deserves at the very least first names between us, don't you think?"
He laughed at this, nodding vigorously, taking heart. She liked his laugh. "For some time now," he continued, a little firmer than before, "I've had a mind to give up everything. Make an early settlement on my sons and daughters, sell what 1 can, and go. Of course, my family thinks I'm mad. And if my neighbors knew, they would believe worse."
"Where would you go?"
"I have some land on the river in Mississippi Territory. I was thinking of a farm. A real farm. Vegetables and meat. And perhaps a little shipping business on the side. I think the traffic is enough so that it would be profitable."
"What's to stop you?"
He turned his blue eyes on her with a look so mournful she almost lost her heart. "I'm fifty-seven years old," he said in a harsh whisper. "And I don't know how I came to be in this place."
He looked around, brooding. Diana knew it wasn't the lovely meadow he was seeing. Then: "Sometimes I think a great trick was played on the Maguires. But there's no humor attached to this trick, only a curse. And I call that curse the fifty human beings I own body and soul. Besides that fifty, there are thirty more. Men and women: the property of my sons. They inherited them from their mother, but I've kept them in trust far past the legal limit ... a source of great controversy in my family, as you can imagine." The last was delivered a bit dryly, with a hint of a cynical smile.
Diana hesitated to answer. To her it seemed simple: free them. But if it was so simple, why was this otherwise intelligent man suffering so? She needed to know more. Diana determined to make it her business to find out. Not so much for John Maguire, but for the eighty men and women in his power.
Feeling a bit like a young, guilt-stricken sailor quizzing a harlot, she asked him how a nice Irish boy came to be in such foul company. John told her that his grandfather had been transported early in the last century. His crime was lost to family history, but was said to be quite minor. The fact that he was Irish made things much worse for him. More telling, however, was that the crime was committed in an age when even slight offenses were considered great threats to the social order.
After months of living in the squalor of the old prison ships at the London docks, he was transported to the colonies. The first American Maguire landed in Connecticut and was sold into indenture. For seven years, it was said, he labored for a cruel farmer. But when the term of his service came to an end, the farmer used lies and influence to have another seven added as a penalty. He fled and made his way to Virginia. He was twenty-seven.
John Maguire's grandfather was noted for his thrift and hard work. He labored at menial jobs, but studied late into the night. He taught himself to read and write, and finally came to the attention of a judge, who employed him as a clerk and tutored him on the law. Eventually he became a judge himself. He married well, the daughter of a prominent family with land but no money. The first American Maguire had money, but no land. It was said to be a great match. The dowry included one hundred slaves.
"But how could he?" Diana interrupted. "I'm sorry if this offends you, but after hearing that tale, I think your grandfather must have been . . ." She hesitated to use so impolite a word.
"A great hypocrite?" Maguire helped.
"Yes," Diana said. "Where was his sympathy? He knew the evil firsthand, had lived under a master's hand, or worse. I see no excuses or hope for him, and I'm sorry once again for maligning your family. But I can't help but speak the truth."
"I agree with all of it and more," Maguire said, surprising her more than a little. "But my grandfather is the minor villain in this piece. My father was much worse. He doubled my grandfather's fortune ... in the slaving trade."
Maguire attempted no verbal tricks to soften the statement. Instead, he watched her steadily as she reacted in shock to the news, judged him, and found the Maguires guilty.
"There's more," he finally said. "But I won't torment you with it. I'm sure you can see that I have come to my current confusion by a long and tortuous route."
With that, he stood up abruptly, strode to the mill wheel, and began kicking away the rock barrier that kept the wheel motionless. Not another word passed between them for a full hour as he worked steadily at this odd task. A shriek like a banshee rent the silence. The great wheel jumped forward six feet or more. Then it hung there, swaying back and forth. Maguire kicked loose a remaining rock. The wheel sprang into full life. And the meadow was filled once again with the peaceful sound of the millstream at work. For a long time they watched it spin. Then Diana patted the grass beside her and John came to sit.
Without taking her eyes from the wheel, Diana said: "I think you must be a very kind man. But kindness, you see, is of no consequence under the circumstances. The Greeks, I understand, wrote that the moral scale can only be balanced if an ethic is set against another ethic of equal weight. But they were ardent slavers themselves, so might think your moral exchange sufficient."
"There isn't enough coin in the world," Maguire said.
Diana turned to him with a smile. "That's the other thing I was going to say. That I think you are greatly exaggerating your confusion. I believe you have made up your mind, John Maguire."
He nodded. Diana was right.
"When?" Flat. Demanding.
Maguire struggled with his answer. "It's not so easy as that," he said.
"I'm not sure how to go about it. No, that's not true. I know how to accomplish it. But I fear for their future. How will they make their way? They would be in danger of starving."
"If that occurs, I agree," Diana said. "It would be a terrible tragedy. But they would be free. It's not for you to say or judge or rule."
"Yes, I know," Maguire said. Anguish in his voice. "I've thought about giving them a choice: travel with me to Mississippi as free men and women, or take their chances with freedom here. I can provide them with some money to make it easier."
"Then do it," Diana said. "But don't tie it to a new beginning elsewhere. That is another and quite personal decision. The issues are separate. And these unfortunate people should not have to wait out one second of your own crisis."
"I've thought that already." Maguire sighed. "Although you make the point far stronger. But there's also the matter of the thirty or more people owned by my sons. ... I don't have the legal right to free them."
"Buy them," Diana said. "Then act."
"It would bankrupt me," Maguire said.
Diana just stared at him. He had no answer. "I'll loan you the money," she said.
He shook his head: no.
"You are a soldier," Diana said, "and from what I hear, a very brave one . . . who has risked his life, and is willing to do so again. What's a fortune against a life? Answer me that, John Maguire!"
He had none. Because there was none to give.
Their words were strained and a little forced on the ride back. Even so, they both somehow felt closer: a bond had been established. But it was as fragile as a web spun across a garden path.
* * * *
To Diana, the rhythms of plantation life were all a-kilter. Carter and his sons slept in until ten most mornings. They would be greeted with a toddy or a sangaree in a chilled glass fetched by their personal slaves from the icehouse. A leisurely breakfast was made on a veranda, then they would retire to loll upon a cool pallet. There they would remain most of the day with endless drinks and tidbits fetched for them, fanned and cozened by their slaves like Oriental pashas. Dinner was at two, followed by more relaxation, or hunting or fishing. Or endless talk of sporting feats.
Gambling seemed their greatest passion. She heard tales of enormous wagers on the most trivial events. Adam Carter said his doctor had wagered an entire year's medical practice against a gallon of rum in a dispute over how a viper delivered its venom. The doctor lost and was impoverished along with his family—who had never been consulted in the matter. Men would travel for days to witness a cockfight. More tobacco notes would be bet on a blood feud between two chickens than there was cured product to support them. A man with the pedigree of a southern aristocrat would think nothing of sucking a clot from a favored rooster's wounded throat so it could continue the battle.
But this was nothing against their favorite pastime: racing. In the South, Diana reflected, horseflesh and horsemanship defined manhood. The bloods—young men like Carter's sons—deigned to wear only one spur upon their boot. They said it was to lessen the risk of being hung up on a stirrup during a racing heat. Which didn't explain why they wore that single spur all day, even if no race was contemplated. John Maguire said the crops of entire plantations were bet at these races. The crops were often redeemed by money borrowed at enormous rates of interest.
But if the men lived their whole lives in idle games, they did it not only at the expense of their slaves, but also of their wives. The women were in the kitchen at five in the morning to oversee the cooking. Anything of value was kept under lock and key to guard against theft. They carried bunches of keys at their waists and were always doling out portions of food and drink and even soap to wash their husbands' clothes. Every task was done by hand by the slaves, but it was up to the mistress of the house to check each detail.
From talking to one of Sarah's aunts, Diana realized few wives of northern farmers would envy her lot. A plantation mistress was raised to believe that a woman's most priceless possession was her "magic spell," defined as some mystical power her sex had to subtly bend men to her will. The reality was that the men paid little attention to their wives at all. And that was even if they had been coaxed out of bachelorhood by a handsome dowry. Then, with no previous education or training, the new mistress of the house would be expected to be an expert housekeeper whether she wanted to or not.
Of course all sewing, spinning, weaving, and knitting was to be done by her. She was also expected to be doctor to her family and household slaves, as expert at poultry breeding as she was at making cider, candles, or soap. In the fall she oversaw the hog butchering; in the winter, drying the fruit.
Where and when she was supposed to learn to perform these feats, Diana couldn't tell. Sarah was certainly unprepared. Even at fifteen, Diana had seldom met so ignorant a woman. She could barely read or write. But she struggled desperately just the same, in constant fear of her husband's displeasure. So much for the mistress.
From what Diana could see, the life of a slave was far worse than anything even she had imagined. The plantation—which she later learned was typical—was blotched with their cabins every thirty rods or so. These were built of rough timbers, crossed and then interlocked at the corners like a cob house. A very few had outside chimneys constructed of stone. The floor inside was hard earth. Diana quizzed Sarah, who was proud to say her husband allowed his field hands a cap, shirt, and a pair of drawers—paid for out of his own pocket. They also got a blanket, but only in the winter. The household servants lived with their master and mistress and slept on the floor in front of the fire. She noticed they all had classical names, like Plato or Pompey, or Flora or Lily. With so much human labor, there was no thought of any kind of convenience. The main well was a long way from the house, and all day long the slave women trooped back and forth, carrying big stone jugs on their heads. The kitchen was so far from the house, it was impossible to deliver hot food to the table. At mealtimes the path between kitchen and house was one long line of women fetching and toting.
She watched them make cider one day. There was not even the cheapest apple press available. Instead, the slave women wielded big logs, crushing the pomace in a big wooden trough and singing to the rhythm of the work. One of the women was larger and appeared stronger than the rest. But from the odd way her cotton shift hung from her body, she appeared deformed. When she turned, Diana could see that one breast was missing, and the side of her face was a large, white blotch. As if someone had placed a hot blister pack on her cheek. Why this would be done, Diana couldn't say. The woman's voice, however, was a marvel.
It soared above the others, as sweet as a bell at Eventide. Her song was so beautiful, Diana closed her eyes for a moment, shutting out the terrible view—not of the woman's deformities, but her plight. The singing abruptly stopped. Diana opened her eyes to see the women working silently at the cider trough. But now there was no pleasure in the work. The big woman dared to glance in Diana's direction. It was a look that branded her a thief of songs. Ashamed, Diana stumbled away. When she was well beyond sight, she heard the wonderful voice lift again, soaring free in the sky. Diana walked quickly out of hearing. She had no right to the music.
* * * *
On the final day, Adam Carter's wife came to her for advice. She was so shy and fearful of coming to the point, that more than an hour passed in silence, with only occasional one-word answers to Diana's questions to break it. Diana could see Sarah was not only shy, but in pain. And her face—already a sickly white—was heavily powdered in an attempt to hide the tiny red eruptions on her skin. Whether this was a symptom of the pain or adolescent blemishes, Diana didn't know.
The longer she spent with the child, however, the more difficult Sarah's mysterious errand seemed to get, until Diana could see she was about to depart without speaking up. She almost let her, as some sort of vague revenge for the part she played as mistress of the plantation. Diana thought it was as if cruelty were an affliction caused by some small organism that bred in southern air. Like the pox. And now maybe she had been infected. So she took pity and asked her hostess why she had come.
"I have been feeling . . . unwell for some time," Sarah said. "I thought it was the pregnancy at first. But my aunts . . ." Her voice failed along with her courage.
Diana now understood the nature of the visit. How it came about was obvious: her medical prowess had been vastly exaggerated by young Kitty. Still, from what she had seen of the region, it was likely any doctor would be even more ignorant. Especially if it involved a female complaint. She coaxed Sarah into describing the symptoms. They were delivered haltingly, with long lapses between each descriptive fact. And the whole time the girl spoke, she never once looked Diana in the eye. But Diana knew the answer before more than a few words were out.
At first the little red spots had only appeared on her palms and the soles of her feet. Then they spread to the rest of her body. Then her private parts had become sore and greatly inflamed. Not just her vagina, but in the anal region as well. This was followed by a painful and embarrassing discharge. More recently, she had suffered from nausea and intermittent fevers. And her entire body ached as if from the flux. But this was a torment she was willing to bear, compared to the awful cramps she had been suffering. It was as if a clawed hand were reaching straight into her gut to rip at her.
As Sarah spoke, Diana realized she knew the answer as well, but she was fearful of admitting it. It was a disease few had ever cared to name, much less admit its cause. A hundred years before it was said to have been transmitted in the air, or by a giant lizard. Some modern quacks even blamed it exclusively on women. They said all females carried the organism and denied they even suffered from it, but only passed it on to innocent men, who caught it from engaging in excessive sex. These doctors also had an odd notion for its cure.
Diana gently steered the conversation to Sarah's relations with her husband. Normally, she would never have questioned Carter's reasons for marrying so young a bride. But he was too rich to need the dowry, and he was so cold to his wife that she knew it wasn't lust or an old man's pride of possession.
Sarah had the clap. And there was only one person who could have given it to her: Adam Carter. If Diana was right, his marriage to Sarah was part of his doctor's recommended cure. What a lovely present for a marriage bed.
Now Sarah was not only infected, but three months pregnant. If the child survived the womb and delivery, it too would be infected. If she told the girl all this, the only comfort she could offer was that it was unlikely Sarah would live to see the child weaned, much less the pain and deformities of its later life. So all she told her was that she had the clap, that she and her unborn child were possibly in grave danger, and that there could be no other source for her misery but her husband.
For a time the girl fought so hard to keep her head that Diana almost burst into tears herself out of sympathy. Sarah asked her for the cure. Diana carefully explained there really was only one, but that it failed more often than it succeeded. She would have to take a pill every day, containing fifteen grains of calomel and ten grains of mercury. It's a poison, she said, and it will make you miserable. But you dare not weaken, even if your teeth get so loose they rattle in your head. The doctor will also want to bleed and purge you. If you let him convince you of this course of treatment, I doubt if you can survive. I know your child won't.
Diana desperately wanted to leave the girl more hope. But she knew if she lied to her, or put a sugar teat on the facts, Sarah Carter and her baby were doomed. The only thing else she could tell her was that at all costs to keep her husband from her bed, at least until Diana returned home and could send her a supply of "British Overcoats." She told her these devices were simple to use, but she would enclose instructions just in case.
Invented by a Col. Cundum, these devices were made of lamb intestines, and should not only protect her from further infection, but any unwanted pregnancy as well.
"What if ... he won't ... use them?"
Her faltering whisper was torment. Diana just stared at her. There was nothing else to say. From this moment on, what happened to Sarah was entirely up to her. The silence was broken by the sound of two young slave girls giggling as they worked outside the door. Sarah flew into a blinding rage. She flung open the door and shouted hysterically for silence. Then she slammed it on the shocked faces and whirled back to Diana.
"I live in a harem," she screamed. "Full of nigger whores. I see them after my husband. I know how they entice him. Sluts and whores and—" She collapsed on the floor sobbing so fitfully she could barely breathe.
There came a tap on the door. But Sarah was so overcome, she didn't notice. Diana slipped it open and saw it was one of the girls Sarah had ordered away. She was frightened, but had forced herself to return to see if she could help. Sarah saw her and screamed an obscenity. She tore a large pin from her hair and rushed the door like an animal in a panic attack. The pin was six inches long and as sharp as a shoemaker's awl. She thrust it at the girl, but Diana closed the door just in time. The force of the thrust was so hard that more than an inch of pin was buried into the wood before it snapped off.
Sarah came to her senses for a moment. She stood there motionless, staring at the pin. Realizing what she had almost done. She looked up at Diana, her eyes brimming. Pleading. Then her face became quite cold and stern. She apologized to Diana for troubling her. And left without another word.
Diana found John Maguire alone in the stable, tending his blaze-faced chestnut. She was sick to her stomach, and her hands were shaking from tension.
"I must leave here," she said.
Maguire was startled. "It shouldn't be much more than another two days or so, Diana," he said. "Plenty of time to make the wedding."
"Please," she said, "I can't bear this any longer. If you are my friend ..."
Diana stayed that night at Maguire's house, in a room he had hastily made ready. But she didn't sleep. Instead, she sat on the hard window seat, staring out into the darkness, brooding on the madness in this sad land. She spent the whole next day in her room. John sent for Kitty and their baggage, and the wife he had bought back for his headman. He didn't trouble Diana, but only had food and drink sent up to her room. Which she didn't touch.
That night he coaxed her down to his library, where he built up a fire against a sudden, sharp spring wind. He plied her with a little brandy, but didn't speak or in any way intrude on her thoughts until she was ready. After a while Diana told him the story of Sarah Carter and her complete despair. She also told him of the woman's final outburst, and how she almost slew the little black child who had come to her aid.
Maguire listened without comment until she was done. Then he poured them both another drop and turned down the lamp until only the fire lit the room. Then he told her a story of his own. It was about his mother. Her name was Angelina and she was from a very old family that predated even the institutions of the king. She was intelligent and literate and John thought her quite beautiful, although this memory was dim. He was not quite thirteen when she died.
"I remember her as the most talented woman who ever lived," he said. "And not just in those skills which are said to be the sole province of women. My father was hopeless as a manager. He would have lost everything he had gained from his evil business if my mother had not overseen the plantation. She tended the crops and the money and the slaves who tilled our land. For a long time this worked well. Especially since my father was usually away in the trade.
"But several years before she died, he came home to stay. We had an orchard then. With a few figs and almonds, and some fruit trees. There was even a brook and a small path with flowers growing along the lane. Quite lovely. My father had a small, white house built out in this orchard. He made it his permanent home. He rarely came to the main house, except for holidays or visitors. He filled this house with slave women. And I don't mean just young, pretty women. But women of every shape and age and variety. And as far as I know, he never came to my mother's bed again."
"How could she bear it?" Diana asked.
"I can't say. In the same circumstances, I know I couldn't."
"Did she ever speak of it?"
"Only indirectly. But I'll tell you this—she had great sympathy for these women. As much sympathy as she had hate for my father. I think she saw them as doubly enslaved. In fact, she used to say all women are slaves. And that even queens were forced to sell themselves into marriage."
Diana understood exactly what Angelina Maguire had meant by this. She also understood her reaction to her husband's massive infidelities. Some women—like Sarah Carter—refused to blame the betrayal on their husbands. To them the villain was the victim. She was a slut and a whore, with morals so loose and compelling that no man could resist. Even if it was rape. Angelina Maguire reacted the second way: she placed the blame squarely on the cause and pitied the victim. Diana was sorry she had died so long ago. Angelina sounded like a woman she would have liked to have known.
"The next thing you may find odd," John said, "was her attitude on slavery."
"She opposed it," Diana said, firmly. She knew this without a flicker of thought.
"My mother was quite outspoken in her views," John said. "Of course, it was safer then. Although, if it weren't, I doubt that it would have stilled her tongue."
Diana nodded: absolutely!
"She said her grandmother had been opposed as well. The two of them used to pray together the thing would be outlawed. I remember her arguing with a doctor's wife. She said this: 'If they don't end it soon, my headwoman and I will die from exhaustion.' She was right. I believe it killed them both."
Diana wanted to ask him why—if this was his background—he had not divested himself of this manner of life many years before. But she hadn't the strength to manage it now.
She was not surprised, however, that Maguire's mind was on the same path. "When I was young," he said after a while, "I was stupid and filled with conceit." He smiled at her. A shy, little boy smile. "I think, after all these years," he said in an aside, "I have at least shed some of the conceit.
"I was not much different than my own sons, or even Adam Carter's. I was a young blood up for the game. I can't say when things exactly began to change. After the war, I suppose. All of it seemed so pointless and alien to me when I returned home. I began to read. I know that affected my views.
"Then I married. She was a good wife. I was a faithful husband. And I believe we loved one another. At least, later we did. She had a cancer. It took her some years to die. Terrible years for her. And then . . . when she was gone ..."
Maguire didn't go on from there. He didn't need to for Diana to fill in the rest. He had suffered the kind of wound from which many people take years to recover, if at all. The silence lingered. Maguire stared into his glass.
Diana thought about his tale for some time. She didn't remember falling asleep. But when she awakened in the morning, John was gone, and she was curled up by the still glowing fire. A blanket drawn over her. And a pillow under her head.
NEXT: DIANA IN A QUANDARY
A Daughter Of Liberty
VIRGINIA - JUNE 1814
* * * *
SHE WAS THREE days out of Manassas on the road to Richmond when the river burst its banks and flooded the highway. It was no surprise. Though the weather had been delightfully clear all morning, Diana and Kitty had watched distant storms rage across the Appalachians, lightningcrashing continuously on the black peaks. She was sure the storms were more than the little Pamunkey River could bear. Certainly the poorly maintained dikes thrown up where the river's banks curved in to kiss the road were no match for the unusually wet spring and summer of 1814. From where she sat in the carriage, she could see raw marks of many other breaks.
The driver cursed, said something in the unintelligible English of a lower-class white southerner, then clambered off the coach to oversee the unhitching of the horses. By the time he'd harangued the two sullen slaves into turning the coach on the narrow dirt track, it was late afternoon. Diana hid her amusement as the blacks pretended puzzlement over the simplest directions, then invariably got them wrong. When the job was done and the red-faced driver had bustled over to her with great importance, Diana saw the slaves whispering animatedly in obvious satisfaction at the distress they'd caused the boss. She caught the eye of one of the men and gave him a grin of sympathy. He flickered, then she saw the flicker turn to a great blank look that she was already becoming familiar with, although she had been in the South less than a week.
The driver was muttering to her, and she forced herself to ignore the foul waves of whiskey rising from him and pay attention. Jamestown she recognized. It was her destination. He was saying something about another road. It apparently bypassed Richmond, which was a disappointment, but it eventually hooked up with the main thoroughfare to Williamsburg and then Jamestown.
Kitty whined about the uncomfortable delay, but Diana gently hushed her. Poor child. She was the granddaughter of her cook, Mrs. Kenrick. In looks she was a lush, ripe twenty. But she'd only just turned fifteen, and even this age seemed beyond her. She was a pleasant child, but a bit of a scatterbrain, and Diana had only taken her on as a favor to Mrs. Kenrick.
Kitty seemed to have few defenses. Recently she'd been "discovered" by a group of apprentices, who swarmed about her like a pack of wasps invading a sweet shop. They praised her and flattered her until her head was spinning. It was obvious all they wanted was to get her skirts over her head. To rescue her reputation, Mrs. Kenrick had begged Diana to take the child with her to Virginia until matters cooled in the city. Kitty would act as her maid, if Diana could bear her clumsiness. Perhaps the journey would mature her. So, Diana reminded herself to be patient with the child. Mostly Kitty's natural, cheery good nature had been a plus. Now, however, her youthful complaints about the fate luck had handed them were beginning to grate. On this long road— which had been empty of traffic for nearly two days—there weren't any other obvious choices.
Diana soothed the girl, then nodded agreement to the coachman. She settled back as the coach jolted and slowly creaked forward on its rickety axles and wheels. And they were off, more or less, to Jamestown. Where James Emmett was to be wed.
* * * *
The letter announcing her son's betrothal had struck Diana like the lightning on those Appalachian peaks. He was marrying Eliza Hope Beecham. Of the Five Forks Beechams. The woman brought a dowry of 1,001 acres, planted mostly in cotton and some tobacco, with one acre reserved for a family graveyard. God's Acre, they called it down here. James Emmett boasted the cotton was of the finest and whitest variety: Nankin Boll.
It was what he'd left unsaid that troubled her. Her son hadn't mentioned whether the dowry also included slaves. First Diana had wept. The tears were followed by a rage so great, no one could remember a time when the Widow Shannon had been so angry. The rage was followed by intense self-loathing.
It was her fault she'd failed him, Diana thought, and failed the memory of his long dead father. On and on she berated herself, endless torment, until Connie could bear no more and told her if she wanted to wear a hair shirt, could she be doing it in private so everyone else could have some peace. Let Farrell take on all the guilt of the Shannons, she had said. He'd consider it a favor, I'm sure.
Diana had sat down with Connie for a long heart-to-heart. Her first instinct had been to avoid the wedding at all costs.
"What if there are no slaves?" Connie asked. "And you didn't attend the wedding of your own flesh and blood? You would never forgive yourself."
Diana grabbed at this as if her life depended on it. Connie was right. Besides, how could James Emmett contemplate such an action? Of all her failings with her son, the issue of slavery certainly couldn't be one of them. Could it? It was settled then. She should go.
As soon as she said it, she knew she was lying to herself. James was an ardent sportsman, risking life and broken limbs to ride with the hounds after some bloody stump of fox fur. Hunting and fishing and gambling were his sole passion. At thirty-five, he lived the life of a young buck. It was a life idealized in the South. Temptation would outweigh his conscience. On this she was positive. Diana Shannon had always had trouble not speaking her mind. At age fifty-two it wasn't getting any easier. If James proved a slaveholder, she would rip his heart out, ruining the wedding and the memory of that wedding for as long as he and his new wife lived. Therefore, she shouldn't go.
"Then no one from his family will be there to support him," Connie argued. "In the circumstances, I fear for his future marriage. I've watched events unfold like this at my father's tavern," she said. "Decisions are made that can never be taken back once put into effect. And in every case, the tragedy that resulted far outweighed the momentary victory of pride.
"I urge you to go, Diana. If his situation is as you fear, then he has doomed himself. But by his own hands, not yours. In other words, I think you should make the selfish choice. Hoist the flag for the family, as Isaac would have put it. Run out the guns and sail up their damned river. In the long run, the tears you shed on your pillow may not be quite so bitter."
It was this flawless logic that had set her upon a desolate highway across an equally desolate land.
* * * *
The moment Diana crossed the Potomac, she entered a country so foreign to her that all notions were been turned upside down. They'd traveled for miles without seeing a single active hamlet or village or farm. There were no ruts in the roads from the big four-axle wagons that carried trade goods in other parts of the nation. And almost no travelers. Diana knew this hadn't always been so. Before the cotton boom here'd been life where now she saw none. But all that life had been devoured by the big plantations and their masters. All that easy money, fortunes as vast as those of any European noble family, to be squandered or put to some decent use. The men of the South chose the former.
During her journey, they sometimes passed the fields of one of those great plantations. She saw no ploughs or any other farm implements, just row upon row of slaves working the ground, using clumsy hoes with unpeeled sapling handles that must have made the hardiest hands bleed after only a few minutes. Once, they paused at a crossroads to let traffic pass. The traffic was twenty slaves taking their master's tobacco to market, with no wagons or beasts of burden to aid them. The tobacco leaves had been packed in large wooden hogsheads. Makeshift axles were attached to the hogsheads, so the slaves could roll them to market. Eighty miles or more.
There were certain things Diana also knew from her traders. A long time ago someone had described the beautiful port at Savannah. The shipyards were among the finest in the land, the man had said. And the docks were a picture for a palace wall. They were faced by palmetto logs with oyster shells and white sand. Seven ships at a time would sail up the Medway, loaded with lumber and indigo and rice. Now, she was told, the docks had rotted and fallen into decay. There were few ships sailing into Savannah . . . and this had been true even before the war started and the British blockaded American ports.
Elsewhere, decent roads had collapsed and gone unrepaired. Plans for new ones were abandoned, canals ignored, bridges built and maintained only under threat of heavy penalties. There were almost no schools. Even at the plantations, education for the owners' sons and certainly the daughters was as great a fiction as any of Washington Irving's New York tales, although certainly not so humorous. Money—real cash—was nearly nonexistent. The great fortunes of the South were mostly on paper, and mostly encumbered by debt. Money was so scarce, they'd taken to cutting silver coins into four parts or bits so there could be a little more cash to go around. There was no business as she knew it in this place, no manufacture. How could there be when everything the planters enjoyed was purchased from abroad with cotton money or foreign debt: from brooms to linen, from shoes to the smallest item of furniture. Even with foreign trade strangling from the British blockade, small ships from the South were daring the king's guns to slip across the Atlantic—not to resupply desperately needed goods, but to bring in more of those luxuries, at dearer prices, for the self-declared American aristocracy.
A mile from the sea, however, and the most gifted leather apron went begging for work. No one would hire a smith or a mason. There was no need for these crafts. Nor hooper or cooper, or even a miller. She was told they threshed the wheat by driving horses across the fields. And the slaves ground it by hand in huge hollowed-out stones with eight-foot pestles. Most of the whites seemed not much better off than the slaves. She saw their cabins made of clapboard or rotted logs. From what she could make out, these poor folk spent all their time drinking themselves into oblivion at the unmarked grogshops that appeared now and then right in the middle of all this wilderness.
When they were forced to stop at these places for water or to rest the horses, no one seemed curious. No anxious requests for the latest news of the war, which had raged now for two years with no sign that any end was in sight. If it weren't for the worsening poverty of these people, one could scarcely guess there was any war on at all. Yet wasn't it the South that had pressed so mightily for this war? She looked at the stupor in their eyes and the barely disguised hatred behind that stupor and despaired for the future. What had they done to this place? And why? Could slavery alone explain it? Or was it the nature of the people? That couldn't be, she thought. One way or another, we all came from the same stock. She was beginning to think she'd been a fool to leave Philadelphia. Although as the miles clicked away under the rickety wheels of the coach—and the cares of her business faded with distance—she saw that perhaps it was only the purpose of the journey that was the fool's errand, not the act of leaving. From the moment the stage reached the far side of the Schuylkill, she'd felt as if a great weight had been lifted. Freer now, half-formed thoughts had come into focus.
For some years she had fought against a feeling of dissatisfaction. It was as stifling and stagnant as the worst Philadelphia summer. She had marked it off as merely the heavy burdens of maintaining the family. Diana reacted in her usual manner: she worked harder, constantly rebuilding and adding to the structure of safety. Now it seemed that all her recent efforts were a fiction. All she'd been doing was deepening and improving that root cellar she had dug in Cherry Valley to hide from the Indians. But the greatest fiction of all, she thought, was she was doing it all for the family. For Emmett. No, Diana, she told herself, I won't allow you that. Perhaps it was that way at first, but later it was all for you. For the glorification of the Widow Shannon who defied social tradition to make her own indelible mark. She'd set goals and achieved them. Replaced those goals with new ones. These, too, she'd achieved. On and on at a frantic pace, as if her goals were perishable possessions, until the act itself had become as empty as the cold transactions of the Boston bankers she so despised.
The restlessness she felt had intensified during the two years of warfare. She believed it a stupid war—if any war had any sense to it—and knew it was beyond her control. Young men were dying again, and this tormented her, although she worried that from the safety of Philadelphia the torment was more intellectual than heartfelt. She'd always hated influence peddlers, but hadn't she used her own friendship with Dolly Madison to help David, one of her grandsons?
Oh, come now, Diana, she thought, you've put on that hair shirt again that Connie was mocking. Don't question all of it. You might as well regret the lies you told Nate Hatch to keep your legs beneath you. Or the gold you stole from him. It was rightfully yours, but that's a quibble. And that farmer just beyond New Kent—you helped Emmett cheat. Take that back. And die in the road when the troops catch up. Or, worse, be found out by Nate and carried back to be branded and forced into servitude.
Like his brother Luke, David was for the sea. Farrell had failed to learn his lesson. David became desperate for escape. And so two years ago Diana had written Dolly asking assistance. David had been granted a midshipman's post aboard the Essex under Commander Porter. She had no idea where David might be, but she hoped he was safer, or at least better off, than if he had just run away to sea. He was only fourteen years old.
And what about Luke? He would be twenty now. The last she heard, he was aboard a merchantman out of the Sugar Islands. This would place him far out of harm's way. But what if he weren't? She didn't want to imagine the cannonball crushing out his life, or the great splinter piercing his breast. What would she do if it were necessary to protect him? Would she lie? Certainly. Steal? Without hesitation. Kill? She knew she would.
Diana drew back from what she saw as self-pity at its worst, and pointlessness at its best. She took stock. It was an accounting that was far overdue. As the war had progressed from minor victories to failure to defeat to empty talk of suing for peace, Diana had reduced her business risk. She'd shifted her emphasis from the sea to the western trade: the new lands opened by Jefferson.
She'd also dabbled in the manufacturing boom created by the war, although she refused to put any money in Eli Whitney's guns. Diana was told his process of building identical guns with interchangeable parts was a marvel of the age. Each part was the duty of a single worker. The weapon would be passed from him to the next man or woman until the thing was complete in a matter of a few days instead of weeks. Diana preferred the little inventor who had been using the same system to make cheap clocks for the mantelpiece. Priced so they could be afforded by almost any household or farm, he sold the clocks by sending men out on the road, like her young peddlers of long ago. He expanded on this by creating territories and selling them to eager buyers. Diana was a silent partner in a few of those territories.
She had a host of other ventures, most of them beyond the mountains: steel mills near Fort Pitt, salt works in the Lakes region, furs, goods of all kinds moving up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. But just small pieces of them. No great shaking of the dice and a single roll to win or lose at a toss—like the dolls that began it all. She laughed at this thought. Of her whole family, only James Emmett would really understand. So maybe he wasn't such an odd creature to burst from her womb after all.
Diana pulled herself up and put all of it aside. She was nearing the point, no sense shying from it: What do you want, Diana Shannon? It doesn't matter, she told herself. They won't let me have it. Evasion again. Who are they? Answer: the same people as always. The ones who keep me from my task.
It had always been difficult for a woman alone in business. She had to be twice as good as any man who meant to cross the same ground for the same ends. And no mishap of the most minor sort was allowed. For some reason it had seemed to grow harder each year into the new century. It didn't have a name at first. Business dealings became more awkward. To begin with, her money was accepted, but less and less her advice. Which to Diana meant she would be a fool to invest. Then, as her success had grown, they stopped even seeking her investment. It was as if some secret council had met—which she knew was certainly not so—and decided there was to be a ceiling placed over her possibilities. This, more than the war, had forced her hand.
As her business had shifted to the frontiers, so had her spirit. All about her, common folk were being squeezed. Harsh words were being put into laws. Outbursts from working people were quickly quelled. And so people were beginning to trickle away once more. As the lands opened up, the wilderness beckoned; with new dangers, but also with new possibilities.
So that's it, then, she thought. You want out. As badly as your grandsons, David and Luke. Escape from this thing the magazines were calling "The Cult Of True Womanhood." Her sex was to hold itself above the fray. Business, politics, and opinions on matters of the world were for men. Women must be kept as spiritually intact as a maidenhead. Otherwise, the reasoning went, the American family was doomed. But if she were to escape, where would she go and to what purpose?
Once again, Diana, you come to the question: What do you want? 1 want Emmett. That is foolishness to the extreme; he's been dead for thirty-seven years. I know it's foolish, but you asked the question. And that is my honest answer. She knew that Emmett was a girlhood fantasy, and that over the decades, the few months she had spent with him had taken on mystical qualities. In reality, how would it have all come out? Would Emmett have allowed her the freedom of her mind? Or would he have been like most other men of his time? Who could say? It was an unfair question based on a faulty premise. He died. And she had been free to make her own choices. And she had made them.
The crucial decision had been to remain alone, in control. And now, thirty-seven years later, it had come back to haunt her. She had built this marvelous edifice, and as she stepped back to survey it, she found it empty of purpose and therefore pleasure. In her groping, a candle winked to life. Deep within her, Diana believed that what she had accomplished was what both of them would have wanted, with minor variations here and there. Such things that had escaped her grasp—Farrell, James Emmett, David and Luke, and so on—might not have gotten past both of them.
As she thought it through, she realized just how wrong this assumption could be. But it did not remove the belief. And as long as she was afflicted with this lingering malady, she would never be happy. Should she purge Emmett from her system? No. After all these years it wasn't possible, and certainly not desirable. Although he was only a memory, she loved him still. She couldn't bring herself to kill that. Besides, she was no longer certain where Diana left off and Emmett began. They seemed to be as inseparable as any of those joined calf twins that were pickled in brine and placed on display at Mister Peale's museum.
Fine, then. There was no immediate answer. She determined to think harder. When she returned to Philadelphia, she would act. She knew what course that action would most probably be. The family would have to learn to fend for itself. She would go to Pittsburgh, the same place Emmett had in mind during that spring of mutual daydreams. What she would do there, she wasn't sure. It didn't much matter. If there was no cure for this disease, setting new goals under fresh circumstances should at least mask the symptoms. For a time.
While she was in this dark mood, the coach gave a frightening lurch, and she simultaneously heard the crack of an ancient and badly maintained axle. Kitty shrieked as the coach swayed back and forth. There was more cracking all along its length. Then, defying total disaster, the coach settled to the ground. The door opened to her touch, and Diana pulled Kitty kicking and screaming out with her. The coachman hurled curses like foul lightning bolts. The two slaves cowered in fear, although how the accident was their fault, Diana couldn't tell.
Then, as she tried to calm her hysterical young maid, an apparition rose from the side of the road and hailed her. He was old and the color of blasted oak. He hopped about on bare feet, splayed half again the size of a normal man's from so many years treading furrows. What clothes he wore hung in rags that flapped about as he danced and shouted his greeting.
At least Diana thought it was a greeting, because she couldn't understand a word he said. He was quite mad, poor man. And a slave. Chanting, he danced forward a few steps, beckoning with flapping arms and hands. Then he danced back again like a wary bird. What did he want/ Gradually, she made it out. He was leaving to fetch someone, and he wanted her to stay where she was until he returned. Diana looked at the disabled coach and shrugged. She would wait whether through his bidding or not. The slave took her shrug as agreement, turned on his heel and lit out across the fields, disappearing into the tree line.
"What did he want of us, missus?" Kitty asked.
"I think he went to get help."
Kitty looked about the overgrown fields, and brush-choked woods. It was a very lonely place to be. She shuddered. "Are you sure he won't be bringing back some devil, missus?"
Diana ignored this and got Kitty busy pulling a few things from the coach to make them comfortable while the men attempted repair. But once or twice she glanced over her shoulder to the spot where the old slave had disappeared. Diana wasn't superstitious, but she half expected to see the Devil.
The coach was hopeless. The driver said it would take four days to fetch a new one. The only lodgings were a half a day back, and they were reputed to be even meaner than the inn they'd left at three that morning. That had been a shack with infested beds and only a tattered handbill on the sagging door to announce its purpose. All of the inns she had seen or stayed at had been like that. No sashes on the windows. Roofs that let in the rain. Three shillings for lodgings, six pence more for clean sheets, if they had them. Six shillings for breakfast, and no supper available at any price.
The innkeepers laughed when someone complained, and blamed it on the custom of the land.
What food they offered was exceedingly poor. Even the region's highly praised pig flesh was inedible in those inns, putting to lie the famous observation that north of the Potomac there was only good beef and bad bacon, while south of the river there was only good bacon and bad beef. So much for the vaunted southern hospitality.
* * * *
The man who came to fetch her was no devil. He was about her age, and handsome in the way men become if they take care of themselves. He was tall, his waist as narrow as a boy's, and his shoulders stretched the material of his riding jacket. His face was tanned and smooth—except for a silver moustache and the smile creases near his eyes and lips. His hair was dark with heavy streaks of silver and curled a touch carelessly just above the ears and the back of his neck. His eyes were as blue as the Virginia skies. He said his name was John Maguire. Later, she heard someone call him "Major," and was impressed that he had been content to introduce himself without the airs of rank.
As they stood next to his carriage, he only told her his name and that he was not from this plantation—which was owned by Mister Adam Carter—but one farther down the road. He was visiting, he said, and told her news of her misfortune had excited the entire household. Guests, especially guests from distant locales, she gathered, were exceedingly rare. Maguire said that while the master and mistress of the plantation made themselves presentable for her welcome, he had been sent out to fetch her.
"It would be most impolite to reject them, Mrs. Shannon," he said in a soft, civilized voice only just tinted with a drawl.
But he didn't press the point. Instead he inspected the broken-down coach and conferred with the driver while Diana made up her mind. He had a quiet conversation with the two slaves. She was surprised at the unforced animation in their faces as they confirmed the driver's tale. They know this man, she thought. But what was more remarkable was that they seemed to like him.
She found herself idly wondering how this could be. Perhaps she'd misheard him. Perhaps the neighboring plantation he spoke of wasn't his, but belonged to a family member, and he was visiting from the North after many years' absence. Yes, that must be it. Despite his age, his legs were slender and well-formed under the tight riding breeches. Diana was sure he was married.
Maguire turned back to her. "I would offer you the hospitality of my own house," he said, "but the Carters would never forgive me for stealing you." That answered the first question, and she was disappointed in her error.
"Besides," he said, "I live alone, and it would be unseemly." Error number two, but no matter. The answer to the first question canceled out any satisfaction in the second.
Still, he put her so much at ease that she accepted the Carters' offer of rescue and soon found herself being helped into the carriage. Kitty followed. Diana noticed his glance didn't linger on Kitty's young and well-rounded form, not the way he looked at Diana when he handed her aboard. This pleased her. She knew her figure still drew admiring gazes from men much less her age, but it had been a long time since she welcomed them.
Perhaps it was the confusion in her own mind that caused this. When she was unsettled, she had no patience for any kind of distraction. It wasn't that Diana disliked men. Far from it. She enjoyed their company, and if the circumstances were right, relished their lovemaking. But too often, she thought, men drew the most alarming conclusions from the scantiest evidence. In matters of business or love, they sometimes saw signals where none existed, mistook kindness or attempts at fair play for weakness. And so, more than most women, Diana chose caution as the best defense. Otherwise she feared she would soon have an empty purse and bankrupt reputation. But as she grew older, Diana had grown more and more weary of the game. For once she would like to simply relax and let the moment carry itself.
She studied Maguire's handsome profile beside her. He had a cheery, intelligent look about him. Yes, and admit it, sensuous as well. She wondered what he would be like in bed. The quick flush she felt partially answered her question. Diana let the feeling linger a few seconds, enjoying it. It had been so long since she had let a man hold her, she sometimes jested that revirgination was becoming a real possibility.
Beneath the cheeriness, there was something a bit sad about John Maguire. No, not sad, but apart. As if he didn't quite belong because of some secret and treasured difference between himself and others. Diana knew the feeling well. His hands were strong and sure on the reins, and he guided the horse with a gentle touch. Diana let the moment pass. These hands are also slave-branding hands, she thought. Like the people she'd seen along the roads and in those inhospitable taverns, she knew him to be as fatally flawed as Cain himself. No, John Maguire, if you're contemplating what I think you are, cut it from your mind with as sharp a knife as you can find.
Except for occasional outbursts of excited chatter from Kitty, they moved along the narrow carriage track in silence for a while. Diana didn't know if the trail was the main road to the plantation. The road was pinched in closely by untended trees of such wide variety, Diana couldn't tell which had been brought here and which were native. They were choked by thick brush with large, fleshy leaves that were so green, they appeared somehow unhealthy. She heard no birds singing or movements of small animals, only the dry buzz of locusts in the trees and the abrupt rat-a-tat of a woodpecker. The brush was broken here and there by what seemed to be thin Indian paths that snaked through the vegetation and disappeared. Once in a while she thought she heard rustling—as if a large body was moving along one of the trails—and snatches of what seemed to be whispering. Her skin prickled and the small hairs on the back of her neck rose. Diana knew she was being watched by many eyes.
She shivered and turned to Maguire. A little conversation might mask her edginess. "It was fortunate for us," she said, "that the old man happened to be out on the road to see our dilemma. Otherwise Kitty and I would be making poor beds tonight. You must point him out to me when we arrive, so I can thank him."
Maguire flinched when she said this. Instead of starting a conversation, her remarks seemed to make the silence deepen. What had she said to give offense? She saw him struggle to find words to answer. "You won't find him there," he finally said. "It was no accident that he saw you. The roadside is his post. His duty."
Oh, now she could see. He didn't want her speaking to the old man. A slave. A chill descended on her as quickly as a squall in one of Isaac's stories of the sea. How in hell was she to survive the next few weeks among these people?
"We get so few visitors out here," Maguire continued, not noticing her reaction, "that each one is a prize. Some of the planters—like Mister Carter—set men upon the road to watch. They have standing orders to waylay any and all travelers and to bring them to the master's house. So you see, the accident to the carriage had nothing to do with the invitation. You would have been pressed to stay in any event."
Maguire chuckled at this. But Diana thought she caught a forced edge to the laugh, and she realized he was just as unsettled. For what reason, she couldn't make out. Another long silence followed. Then: "I gather you haven't visited a plantation before," he said.
"No." She said it flatly.
"…Then, perhaps I should . . ." His voice trailed off. Although he tried to hide it, she could see the mental struggle resume. What was the man finding so difficult to say? His look became a little grim as a decision was reached. He forced a smile and continued, but Diana knew the words that followed were not what he originally meant to say.
"Perhaps I should explain about your hosts ..."
He said Adam Carter was middle-aged and, like Maguire, had been a widower for a number of years. But not before his wife had produced six sons and as many daughters. All of them were grown now, and Carter had recently remarried.
"Sarah—that's Mrs. Carter—is with child. But she's been having difficulty. So her sisters and two of her aunts are here to help. Counting them and Adam's great brood, you'll find quite a crowd to welcome you."
"I hope they find me worthy of the trouble," Diana snapped. She couldn't bear the blather any longer.
Diana didn't care a whit about the Carters, and dreaded the prospect of forced politeness in her near future. But as soon as she snapped at Maguire, she regretted it. He had been about to say something more, but lapsed back into silence, pretending to concentrate on his driving. And so she had no warning of the strange sight that greeted her as the carriage track suddenly broadened and then curved into a broad avenue of yellow Virginia sand, lined with graceful, well-cared-for trees.
At the end of the avenue was the Carter house: a mansion dropped from the skies into the middle of the wilderness, more than a hundred feet long and three stories high. Diana learned later the top story was entirely devoted to a ballroom, where hundreds of guests could be entertained by a full orchestra of costumed slaves. The house was the color of the sand, with green sashes and trim and an enormous front door that appeared to be faced with copper or brass.
Everything about the house and its grounds was bizarre. There was a sprawling garden—aping the style of the British magazines. To the side of the garden Diana could see black figures erecting a false arbor thirty feet high. Behind the arbor another slave was pursuing a litter of pigs with a sack and an axe. An open fire was being built, and a grate readied for the fire. Pig and fire and grate equaled barbecue. I'll have supper, at least, Diana thought dryly. A crowd was gathering, and in all her life Diana had never seen anything quite so strange. Twenty or more slaves were hastily lining up. They wore stunning green and gold livery, as if they were the servants of European royalty. A few carried the marks of their posts: a silver tray was held by a butler; a whip by a coachman; there was even what proved to be a cup bearer. As the coach drew closer, Diana saw how great a mockery it all was. The slaves' faces were pocked with disease, their hair tinged orange from lack of nourishment. Rags peeked out from the livery as the clothing was hastily drawn together and buttoned or hooked to a frog. Footwear ranged from boots to old shoes sliced along the side for a better fit. Some had no shoes at all. One man to the rear of the group was turned away, his back to the road, pulling a jacket over his naked torso. The man's back was livid with ancient scars.
It was only then that Diana saw the white masters. They had been standing there all along. A group of about a dozen of them, men and women, as expensively dressed as any grand assembly in Philadelphia. Except the clothing was all ten years or more out of date. A big, dull-faced man stepped out in front. Beside him was a wisp of a girl, no more than fifteen, but she looked even more a child in her blue frock with little bunches of ribbons spotted about like posies in a garden. Her hair was pale yellow and her skin a ghastly white.
Diana did not need an introduction. It was Adam Carter and his new wife.
NEXT: The Face Of Evil
FARRELL HAD DECEIVED her. For weeks he'd been sending bleak progress reports from Boston. The chandlery was in worse shape than Ruth had portrayed. He complained it was near impossible to keep Isaac's generous fingers out of the till. Each time he'd won agreement, Isaac would find a charming way to circumvent Read More
THE DEATH TOLL mounted daily as the crisis worsened. Residents were stunned the great storm from the northeast brought no relief from the fever. Some thought it was the stagnant air, trapped over the city since winter, now replaced by equally foul solids from the inland ether. A few blamed it on the shipload of spoiled coffee that had been dumped on the docks. The city ordered this removed, but weeks went by with no action because there was no one to carry out the orders. Others said the infection was carried by the refugees from the French islands. Others held this to be nonsense. Yellow fever could not be transmitted by one person to another.
Dr. Benjamin Rush said the cause was the climate. His theory was listened to as intently as were his prescriptions. He was America's most prominent doctor, educated at Edinburgh University, published author, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a noted educator and reformer. As far back as Hippocrates, Rush noted, doctors had said mild winters followed by drought brought great illness. It was an observation borne out by previous outbreaks of the yellow fever in Philadelphia; although it had been many decades since the last, and that had been far less deadly. Also, that epidemic had ended after a large storm. Why not this time?
Diana and her people huddled in Elm Court watching the city's social structure collapse.
Most members of the Congress were already on summer holiday. But the heart seemed to go completely out of the residents when President Washington reluctantly agreed to return to the safety of his home in Virginia. Thomas Jefferson left the city for a home along the Schuylkill, and then spent most of his time writing cynical letters deploring the discomfort of the house that had been made available to him. One by one the few other great national leaders took flight.
Soon the courthouses were nearly empty. City offices closed. Only the mayor, Matthew Clarkson, and a few other council members dared death by remaining in town to fight the plague. But all efforts seemed so puny.
Daily, Diana walked down empty streets to the offices of the Federal Gazette. Andrew Brown was the only publisher to remain in the city. The Gazette was the sole source of news. Diana knew she looked like a specter on those daily walks, draped head to toe and heavily veiled, reeking of penny royal, drifting through dust which stood as deep as two feet in some places. No one ever spoke to her. The few people on the streets would go to great extremes to avoid another human being. No handshakes. No greetings. When a person saw another, he would make a wide berth.
At the Gazette she heard deplorable tales. Husbands abandoning stricken wives of many years. Mothers deserting ailing children. Helpless old people left to starve. Stranded servants too frightened to fetch water from the street. Diana, a close and cynical student of human nature, did not doubt these stories.
Although the cannon fire had ceased, the eerie silence that had enveloped Philadelphia was occasionally broken by crashing musket fire when frightened householders tried to purify the atmosphere with their guns. Everywhere there was the smell of smoke and rotting trash. Corpses of cats littered the alleys; killed by the foul air, it was said. Businesses were shuttered. The entire harbor out to the sea was choked with ships filled with cargo no one would unload. The captains had no other markets for their goods.
More refugees arrived. But this time they were denied entry and quarantined on the Delaware pesthole known as Mud Island. Hospitals barred victims with fever symptoms. The city was forced to take over Mister Ricketts's empty amphitheater for the ailing paupers and their orphaned children.
Doctors argued heatedly on methods of treatment. Sometimes, Diana thought, there were as many theories as victims.
Dr. Young and his adherents insisted the only course was massive purges and blistering on the wrists and back of the necks. Others added dust baths to this remedy, and injections of wine. Or chewing garlic. Or constant doses of vinegar and tobacco. Camphor was also considered a preventive, and the city was filled with people—especially children—whose throats were raw from breathing noxious fumes.
But mainly it was Dr. Rush's method of treatment that prevailed: intensive purging followed by equally intensive bleedings. As week folded into horrible week, he increased his purging and bleeding and urged his colleagues to follow suit in impassioned letters to the Gazette. He assured all he was seeing success by taking a quart of blood at a time, repeated several times a day. Diana remembered the late Dr. Franklin had mocked that the great fevers plaguing the Sugar Islands hadn't ceased until the last physician had fled or died. In her view, it was no jest.
But no matter what anyone did, people kept dying. Two hundred or more burials a week. Hundreds more lay decaying in their homes because no one would come to fetch their corpses.
On Saturday, September 7, a bonfire set to ward off the fever was left unattended. It spread to Mister Kennedy's soap factory, which burned to the ground, taking an adjacent stable and warehouse with it. A few brave souls came out to fight the blaze, blankets soaked in vinegar draped over their heads. But it was no use. The incident spurred orders from Mayor Clarkson to end the bonfires. The orders were ignored. The fire was the major event in the city that day. The plague toll was a by now commonplace twenty-five dead. For the Jews in the community, the day had special bleak significance. It was Rosh Hashanah, the new year of 5544 on their ancient calendar. It was mentioned in the Gazette that only a handful were left to celebrate the day with Rabbi Jacob Cohen.
Diana would remember that Saturday for a different reason. For her it was the day of an unusual request. Mrs. Leclerc wanted time off from her duties. A silly request, since there were no duties for a seamstress to perform. Then she told Diana why. It had been noted by the African Society's leaders, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, that no person with black skin had been infected. The word was spreading through the city that men and women of color were immune. Mister Jones and Mister Allen were urgently asking for volunteers to tend the sick and bury the dead. Black volunteers.
Mrs. Leclerc wanted to be one of those volunteers. "Everyone has been so kind," she said. "I lost everything. Family. Friends. My possessions, which I care nothing for. But here ... I have found a new life. I feel I must do something to repay—"
She burst into tears. She was terrified of what she was about to do. Especially since Diana's court seemed a haven. Not one person who lived under her roof had taken sick, although no one could say why. To leave such apparent safety would take great courage. More, Diana feared, than poor Mrs. Leclerc could provide. So she told her no. Firmly.
She thought of Moses and Aaron. God—whoever, or whatever that might be—certainly never granted them any immunities to compensate for their exile among people of fair skin. They caught all of the common diseases, including the childhood illnesses of Farrell and James Emmett, Diana told Mrs. Leclerc. In her experience, tropical skin offered no special protection.
The woman greeted this with visible relief. Strange. Diana had just informed her that she was as vulnerable as the rest of them. Still, she was no longer the victim of her conscience. Mrs. Leclerc could die along with the rest of them. For one week the black residents of Philadelphia rallied to their white employers and neighbors. They eased the desperately ill to their graves. Nursed people in conditions of unbelievable filth and squalor. Cared for their orphaned young. Fed them from dwindling supplies in their own kitchens. Drove the funeral coaches. Tenderly lifted rotting corpses into coffins. Wielded the shovels in the graveyards. And commended their souls to their Maker.
On Saturday, September 14, forty-eight people died. Among them were six blacks. The occasion was marked by a meteorite which fell in Third Street.
* * * *
From September sixteenth through the twenty-third, sixty or more people were buried each day. Some saw hope in this. The plague had to get worse before it ebbed. Now it was almost over, these optimists said. The following day was horror. Ninety-six people died. As month end neared, the toll was edging two thousand—already far more than the yellow fever outbreak of 1762.
That terrible day created a panic upon a panic. Hundreds more fled the city. The roads out, it was said, were jammed from edge to edge with wagons and livestock and foot traffic. There were stories in the Gazette of whole communities turning their backs on these people. Damning them to starvation or death by illnesses caused by exhaustion and exposure to the intense heat of the drought. Diana took bitter note of the worst of these heartless communities: Bethlehem, Nazareth, Easton, and Reading. Emmett had told her about these cruel folk. Could even he have imagined just how cruel?
On the twenty-sixth a note came from Dolly Todd. It had taken nearly two weeks to reach Diana, although the letter only had to travel a short distance from the Gray's Ferry home in which Dolly's husband had installed her and her family. Diana read it with relief. She had feared for her Quaker friend, whose pregnancy was near full term when they last spoke. The note contained the cheerful news that she had borne the child, her second son, William Todd. Dolly would be safe out of the filth of the city. The note urged Diana to join her on the cool banks of the river. It was an invitation Diana would have ignored even if she were not determined to see the disaster out. If she were going to flee, she would pick a place farther from Philadelphia than the far bank of the Schuylkill. But she took comfort her friend was out of this horror. It would be more than a month before she learned Dolly's true fate.
Her handsome young lawyer husband, John Todd, saw her to the safety of the old farmhouse and then turned back into the city. His own parents were too ill to move. They died several days later. John himself was afflicted. Delirious from the fever, he made his way across the river. And fainted on the doorstep. Dolly's mother helped her carry him into the house and placed him on a couch. A few hours later Dolly was stricken. She lapsed into a coma for several days, then recovered to learn that her husband and infant child were dead. But at least her first son, Payne Todd, survived. Years later Diana would wonder if his survival was as great a tragedy as his brother's and father's death.
For the moment, however, Diana believed the note to be good news. She saw it as a leavening to the tragic news that came the following day. A minuscule leavening, as small as the little animals that lived in the ether and somehow entered people's bodies to kill them.
It was another letter. From Mister Walsh. Diana was wrong in her belief that neither Anne nor Michael would leave without first telling her. The letter was even longer delayed than Dolly's. It was from Baltimore, where Mister Walsh had taken refuge with a cousin. Anne was dead.
The letter was rambling and hysterical. Full of guilt. Anne had seemed to recover. Then came the relapse. Exactly what followed was difficult to make out, so frantic the prose, so tear-smudged the ink. In desperation, Mister Walsh had chosen not to ask Diana for help. Although how could she have aided, sick and helpless herself from the summer flux?
In letters to the Gazette, Father Fleming had been urging his Catholic parishioners to follow the course of treatment prescribed by Dr. Rush. Only this would save them, he wrote, commenting that he himself had undergone the bleeding and it had prevented him from falling ill. Mister Walsh had sought out the good doctor. He almost turned back when he saw the scene in front of the famed physician's home. The front yard, sidewalk, and street were packed with people begging for help. Exhausted, Rush and his assistants strode through the crowd, ministering to the sick and the merely frightened as they stood. Purges were given. People vomited in the street. And always there were the lancets, plunging into vein after vein. Until the gutters ran with all the spilled blood. The blood dried in thick scabs upon the street, drawing huge clouds of mosquitoes.
But Mister Walsh had taken courage. He would have to be brave if he was to save his Anne. Dr. Rush had agreed to come. He purged her, then purged her again, until Anne's stomach constantly and involuntarily heaved and she screamed with pain from the cramps. And he bled her. Fifty ounces the first day, seventy-two the second. But he took only a pint the third day. He couldn't take more. Because Anne was dead.
The letter went on and on. Mister Walsh had become hysterical in his grief. He had left the city with only a horse and a barely packed saddlebag. But he couldn't escape what he had done. Diana could see him, weeping and beating his Catholic breast, praying, over and over: "To my fault ... to my fault ... to my most grievous fault."
"I killed her," Mister Walsh wrote in one clear, almost sane sentence. "I killed her as sure as if I had wielded the lancet myself. Oh, my darling, darling Anne . . ."
Diana knew when she saw Michael again it would be difficult to comfort him, because in one thing he was correct: he had killed her. Although he would have to share the blame with Father Fleming. But it was only his memory the two of them could blame together. Father Fleming had died of the fever as well.
But Diana would never have to face this task. In the fall, Mister Walsh's cousin would write to her. Michael became suicidal. The family had him committed to a home for the insane. He was dead before Christmas.
* * * *
Tragedy comes in threes, the folktales say. But this year they came three times three times so many more threes, it would take a mathematician of Euclid's like to count all the woes that piled up at everyone's doorstep.
For Diana, the next bleak incident came from her own household. It was her stalwart housekeeper, Miss Graham. This time there was no letter. The spinster failed to show up after four days. A little over a week into the plague, Miss Graham had informed her she could no longer in good conscience stay overnight at the Elm Court house. She had a sister fifteen years her junior, a widow with five children. They lived packed into two small rooms in a Water Street tenement. Miss Graham said—and she was firm about this— it would be necessary for her to go to her sister's home each night to help care for the children.
At the time, Water Street was the most notorious pesthole in the city. In the course of eleven days, forty people had died on Water Street, eleven in one family. Diana warned Miss Graham of this.
"If I'm to die," the housekeeper said matter-of-factly, "I'd soon it be with my own."
"Then have them come live here," Diana urged.
Miss Graham gave a sharp shake of her head. This was impossible, she said. She could not permit it.
"But why?" Diana asked.
The woman wouldn't answer. It was the way things would be, and she refused to offer a reason. So there was nothing Diana could do but grant her request.
For weeks Miss Graham arrived early every morning to work, and left for Water Street before dusk. Then, no Miss Graham. Another day passed; still nothing. On the fourth day, Diana determined to investigate. She wanted to go alone, but Mister Park wouldn't allow it. He said even in the best of times the section along Water Street where Miss Graham's sister lived was no place for a lady like Diana to dare alone. She could fire him for insubordination if she chose, but he would go just the same.
He carried his stoutest cudgel and wore his fiercest look for the journey. But Diana could tell that beneath the gnarly surface was a man as frightened as a small child. She pretended female weakness, and gripped one of his thick arms for reassurance. Soon as she laid a small hand on his forearm, she could feel his spine stiffen. His walk took on a bow-legged swagger. He growled fiercely at the few who dared to walk into their path.
It was late afternoon. The heat hung as close to the city as the swarms of mosquitoes that skimmed just past the fumes of penny royal that Diana had daubed heavily on her veil, gloves, and outer clothing. She tried to get Mister Park to follow her example, but he insisted the little biters affected him not at all. He said there was something in his blood that turned them away, and it was rare the insects made a meal on him. But within a few squares of the oasis that was Elm Court, he was already cursing under his breath and slapping at his exposed neck and face and hands.
The city was silent. It was a silence no one could grow accustomed to. Blocks away someone hammered on a door with its big brass knocker, and Diana could hear the hammering echo all along Race Street. Almost no one was about, especially children. She knew from the Gazette and the stories from her staff that the fever had been especially cruel to children. The young died faster and in greater numbers than their elders. It was one of the many oddities of the plague—equally as odd as how few old people had been afflicted. Or that not as many women had died as men.
They found the building just past Alum Court. It sat at a crazy angle on the bank, half buried in muck and rubble. The river stink was so thick, Mister Park accepted a handkerchief soaked in vinegar from Diana. When she saw the place, Diana began to get an inkling of why Miss Graham had insisted she not meet her sister. It was set amongst a nest of dirty yellow buildings, notorious in the city as a breeding ground for whores. She entered the building pitying Miss Graham, whose sister was a whore.
Everyone was mad in this place. Mad or dead. She could smell the rotting flesh as she entered. Mister Park tried to go in front of her, but she brushed past him into the dank warren. Silence. Except for the creaking of timbers. Or the cracks of steps as she ascended the stairs. She moved by instinct, hesitating at first, then quietly opening doors and looking inside. Most of the rooms were empty. Horribly, some were not. Skeletal remains swarming with maggots. Corpses fully dressed. Others gruesomely naked. One of the rooms held a coffin set upon a pallet. It was made of expensive wood and lined with soft cloth. In it lay a woman in a revealing dress of bold red. She wore flashing beads at her throat and wrists. The woman had doused herself with what seemed like gallons of cheap perfume. A whore at final rest. Was it Miss Graham's sister?
Diana stepped in to see. And the woman rose up. Mister Park shouted a warning and leapt forward with his cudgel raised to strike. Diana jumped in between, then saw something gleam at her and ducked aside just in time to avoid a knife so sharp that, although it barely brushed her, it sliced through her dress like a whisper. Mister Park swung around to strike again, then stopped. The knife cut seemed to have taken everything out of the whore. She sagged back on the satin pillow. But her eyes were still open and angry red. Her skin was yellow with oozing sores.
Diana asked her name. She got an obscene curse for an answer. She asked for Miss Graham. Another curse. And then the children. Five, weren't there? A short silence. She asked again. More silence. The woman began babbling. Meaningless babble. Except for a few obscenities, Diana couldn't make out a word. For a moment she thought wildly of that child Emmett had tended. The child with the pox. The only one alive in a community of corpses. What was her name? Emmett was insistent she remember. It was important to the child, he said. As were the other names in the commune. As she faced the dying whore, the names escaped her. Every single one of them that she had committed to memory. Ah, well, perhaps the shock. When this was over, she would recall. Yes, she certainly would. But she never did.
"Ricketts," the whore was muttering. "Ricketts. They took 'em off to Ricketts's."
Diana knew to enter that amphitheater requisitioned for the poor was to be sentenced to death. Although, hadn't she heard it had been abandoned, the dying moved to the great, dilapidated mansion Andrew Hamilton had built many years ago on Bush Hill? In either case, she feared for the children and Miss Graham—if, indeed, the whore was Miss Graham's sister. Diana had no other options but to assume she was. She left the woman to die in peace in the final resting place she had so carefully prepared.
They retraced their steps back down Water Street, up Race, and then cut across to the High. Then past Diana's house to the circus. There were no bands to greet them this time. No crowds of eager people with shillings in their hands to press on the ticket takers. No one about at all, except a great crow sprawled noisily in a heap of dust by the entrance. It squawked at them as they entered, and Mister Park brandished his cudgel, but it paid him no mind. Inside the place was dark. The stands empty, the ring littered with garbage, bed ticking, and mounds of moldy blankets.
The last time she was here with Dolly Todd, the seats were packed until they were groaning. The wooden roof strained with the huzzahs, Mister Ricketts amazing one and all with his feats. The colors of the audience's dress flashed, colors to make a rainbow envious. But now no one could imagine there had ever been anything like a circus here. The only smell was the cloying, musty scent of stale blood and human waste.
They searched among the heaps of greasy blankets. They found two corpses, neither of them Miss Graham. Several more were lying in the stands, the fresh wounds of the lancet marking their arms. A few pitiful dribbles of blood stained the ground next to them, all that was left. Someone screamed from a side room off the stands. A woman. Mister Park and Diana rushed off.
Two black women were trying to load a middle-aged white woman on a stretcher, her skin the telltale yellow of the fever. She was begging them not to take her. Not to Bush Hill. She had survived this place, she pleaded. Let her stay. In an hour or so she would be well enough to make her own way home. As she wept and pleaded, tears streamed down their own faces as they pleaded in return: be calm, missus. They have doctors there. And medicine. Even food and drink. Help us, missus. No, no, please, missus. Don't fight us so. Finally she went limp. The black women noticed Diana and Mister Park. Not a word was exchanged. No need to. The woman had won. She was dead.
Diana and Mister Park set off for Bush Hill. They found Miss Graham. She was lying on the clumps of dead vegetation that had once been a lawn and garden. Around her were fifty others, some dead, others moaning and weeping bitterly in their misery. There was no remorse so great as that brought on by the yellow fever, it was said, and Diana knew it now to be true and no hoary folktale. Miss Graham was alive but unconscious, waiting to be carried inside to join the hundreds there for treatment. A young doctor paused over a man on the lawn to watch as Diana helped Mister Park lift Miss Graham up and over his heavy shoulders. The doctor didn't protest as they walked away. In fact, Diana thought for a moment that he looked relieved. Then he went back to work with his bloody lancet.
They carried her to Elm Court and laid her in her own bed. Diana nursed her for a week. Slowly she regained her health. Mister Park died three days later. His death was unusually swift. But it was the fever just the same.
As for the five children, Diana never found out whether they were real or part of the fiction Miss Graham had invented to hide her sister's seamy business. She tried to ask, but Miss Graham would always just stubbornly shake her head and go about her tasks in that firm, bustling manner she had.
Miss Graham stayed with Diana for another ten years, until her death by natural causes. And she never, ever was heard to speak again.
THEY BURIED MISTER Park in the Lutheran cemetery. He was a Methodist. But it was the only cemetery open. Just as Reverend Helmuth was one of the few ministers to stay with his flock to the last.
Diana quite liked the little minister. The man confessed that for a time he went through much soul searching. It seemed as if so many more Lutherans were dying than Quakers, or Catholics, or Methodists. Each day the boy he kept at the gate issuing tickets for burial saw scores of people arrive. The poor brave grave digger, a Mister Martin Brown, toiled all day burying corpses no one else would touch. The Lutheran driver was one of the few men who would lift a corpse into its box.
At first the good reverend assumed there were so many Lutherans dying because the people of his flock were relatively poor. He prayed it wasn't also because his people were greater sinners than the others. Then he realized there was no place else for people of other faiths to be buried. There was nothing else to be done but have the corpses convert to Lutheran. When he finally understood this, Reverend Helmuth ended the small charge required for burial.
Before the fever ended, one thousand would be buried in the tiny cemetery.
* * * *
The city was coming apart. The clocks had all stopped because there was no one to tend them. Sometimes the watch called the wrong hour the whole night because they were given the wrong time. The stories grew worse. Nurses looted patients. Hearses were sent for, and living bodies placed in coffins to avoid the bother of waiting until they were properly dead. Even heroes fell. Captain Sharp, of local Revolutionary War fame, hid himself in his room for days while his wife lay dying. The only people on the streets seemed to be doctors, nurses, bleeders, or the servants of the dead. The true heroes were the small people, many of them black. Sarah Bass, a widow Diana knew, went from home to home, nursing the sick far into the night. Another woman, Mary Scott—also black—nursed for fifty cents a day. Barely enough to keep herself alive. Many times she charged nothing. When one poor old woman insisted she name a price, Mrs. Scott answered: "... a meal, missus, on some cold winter's day." Caesar Cranchal, a friend of Mrs. Leclerc, refused all offers of pay for his help. He said it would be wrong. He couldn't sell life for money. Even if he should die himself. Which he did.
Meanwhile, misery heaped upon misery. The living starved and went about in rags, and the dead were to be envied. At least it was over. No more awful suspense. Diana finally had enough. She went to see Lydia Clarkson, the mayor's wife. Diana wasn't the only one who had decided to seize the reins if she could. There were other men and women like her who seemed to have come to the same conclusion at the same time, all of them middle-class or less. Merchants and carpenters and brick layers, salt makers and butchers; and shopkeepers like herself. Somehow order must be returned. Later, Diana thought the simultaneous decisions came because the rich and landed had fled. Ordinary people finally realized they held their fate in their own hands. Not unlike Dr. Franklin's jest about the plague ending in the Sugar Islands, she thought, when the last of the medical men had gone.
Lydia told her that scores of people had been to see the mayor. An organization was already beginning: the city had been divided into ten districts, and brave volunteers had come forward to police the area and see to the needs of the healthy as well as the sick. Streets were starting to be cleaned, the garbage carried away by scavengers—at musket point if necessary. Word had gone out all over the land for food, clothing, drink, anything at all that could be spared. No one knew if the cry would be answered. Even the greediest traders had stopped coming into the city.
A dark bit of plague humor summed it up for Diana. It seemed there were two Germantown farmers who had heard of the plague, but also had heard of the incredible prices being offered at market. They could not resist. The farmers found the city yellow as a pumpkin patch and filled with terrible odors. A breeze came up. The smell wafted over a crowd and ten fell instantly dead. The deadly wind shifted for the farmers. They ran screaming, but it overtook them. Both fell to the ground, one dead, the other senseless. The surviving farmer came to several hours later. Instantly he rushed to market, where he received five and nine for butter and four shillings for eggs. He returned home with fat pockets and sorrowful tales. The next day he loaded up his wagon again to return to Philadelphia. His wife wept and pleaded with him. How could he dare the plague again? "Be quiet, woman," he thundered back. "At four shillings an egg, I'd dare the Devil himself!"
The problem with supplies is what Diana wanted to see Lydia about. She had a plan, but she required wagons and drivers to carry it out. Lydia agreed. There was no need to consult her husband. He would support her in whatever she decided.
* * * *
Diana sent for Mister Park's sons, Bob and Little Tom. They were brutes in size and intelligence, but not in demeanor. They always had such sweet smiles on their faces that you had to forgive them their stupidities. She carefully explained what she wanted, watching closely for signs of fear. She saw nothing except dumb smiles and nods. Off they went, leaving her to feel a bit like she was sending them to the hangman. They scoured the city for Diana's lads—the peddlers. A dozen or more remained. She had packs waiting, filled to the brim with little baubles and trinkets for the farm women. All gifts.
She also sent the dolls, dressed in her finest. To each one was pinned a letter. A letter begging for help.
* * * *
On October 1, seventy died. On the fifth, Father Fleming was buried. On the seventh, the toll was eighty-two. Ninety on the eighth. More than a hundred on the ninth. The same on the tenth. And on the eleventh of October, Black Friday, 120 people breathed their last.
The weekend of the twelfth, another storm broke. It rained steadily for two days. The following two days the weather was brisk. The death toll was lighter. People began hoping the end of the plague was in sight. Then sixty died. Then eighty. And then eighty-one. At any one time, Lydia Clarkson said, at least six thousand people were ill.
Little Tom took sick and died. Diana knew it was she who had killed him. She ordered the house scoured and painted. The court itself she had flushed out with precious water. She did her best not to shiver at the mosquito swarms the water attracted. She had more oil poured on the worst of the standing pools to murder the wrigglers. But the luck that had been with her from the start seemed to end with Little Tom's death. The stable man followed. Then his assistant. Her cook, Mrs. Kenrick, became ill. But she rallied, with no apparent danger of relapse. Diana and the rest huddled in the house. Waiting. Who was next?
The first wagon crossed the river on October 21. lt was from the Widow Grubb of Chester, who clutched one of Diana's dolls in her hand. The wagon was heaped with supplies. Diana wept as the lad helped the driver unload the wagon into the city's warehouse. She prayed it wasn't the last. More wagons came, and livestock, and blankets and medicines and clothing. And not just from Diana's farm women. The city's pleas were finally being heard. Within three days, 36,000 pounds of goods had arrived, and there were more crossing the river; so many that the ferrymen were shamed out of hiding at last and the long wait on the far banks of the rivers ceased.
Like magic, it rained again on October 21. The temperature dropped to the mid-fifties and a brisk wind blew in from the seas, sweeping away the smell of smoke and the enormous insect swarms. The death toll dropped to fifty-four, then thirty-eight, then twenty-five. On Sunday, October 27, only twelve people died. The plague was over.
On October 28—again like magic—the first packets returned. People poured back into Philadelphia. Boards came off the windows of shops and houses. The heavers went back to work at the docks. The ships came in to unload their goods. Within a week all seemed normal.
The people who returned found a place different from what they had left. The streets were sparkling, the marketplace cleaner than anyone had ever seen it. The crowds of beggars had dwindled to nearly nil. The same with the poor, and the orphaned. It was no wonder, Diana thought, because most of them had died.
Some said it was human spirit that conquered the plague—people like Diana, or Absalom Jones, or Lydia and Matthew Clarkson, who finally forced their will upon the fever. Others said it was the last storm that cleared the air and ended the drought. A few said it was proof of the power of prayer—even though most of the ministers had fled their flocks.
But Diana always believed the end came for different reasons. A little over a week prior to the arrival of the Widow Grubb's wagon, Dr. Rush had been publicly branded a fool. Already his colleagues were turning their backs on his drastic cure, and had adopted far milder methods of treatment. Methods that at least allowed the body to heal itself if the fever gave it the chance. The number of deaths, she noted, plummeted from that time.
The plague's final toll was never counted. Gravestones held no clues. It was the rare person's grave that had a mark. And what of all the corpses that had no name? And never would? Some said the death toll was over ten thousand. Others mocked this, charging this figure only counted people of means. Twenty thousand was the number they favored. Diana would live to see even this eclipsed by scholars who said it was more like thirty thousand. From a city of 55,000.
Whatever the number, Diana only knew this: there was one murderer in this piece. The man who slew her friends. And thousands of others. He was a famous man. One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. A hero. A man of science, renowned even abroad.
Before the plague, Diana didn't believe in Hell. She thought the notion superstitious. Now she believed, prayed, even, that the hell-fires burned as eternally and painfully as promised. For it, she had some fuel. A great villain she was sure would make a lovely flame.
His name was Dr. Benjamin Rush.
NEXT: The Master Weaver Of Donegal
IT WAS JUST after midday on Wednesday, August 21, that Diana received a message from Mister Walsh urgently requesting her presence. She put on a heavy walking dress and high boots for the short journey. She drew on long gloves and pinned a heavy veil to her hat, so not an inch of flesh was exposed. She loaded a cotton swath with penny royal and dabbed every possible gateway with the strong-smelling oil.
Diana knew what lay outside. It wasn't the stifling heat she was guarding against. Some said Philadelphia was the hottest port town in the nation, even hotter and more humid than Savannah. Diana didn't doubt this, but she saw the weather as just a condition no one could change, so there was no sense in complaining. Besides, she noted the most vocal of the complainers seemed to be the rich. They could spend the summer in one of the cool luxury homes along the Schuylkill, or even flee to kinder climes. Diana had to stay. She had a business to run. More importantly, she had many people who depended on her. What would they do if she left? How would they eat? Provide for their families? No, for the working class there could be no escape, no matter how unpleasant or intense the season.
There was one thing about this summer she detested. She knew it was silly and leftover childhood nonsense fear. But it was there just the same.
Mosquitoes disgusted her. The thought of one of them piercing her flesh and sucking her blood almost made her violently ill. It was because of Nate Hatch, and one of his favorite summer jests. In the long, sultry afternoons after a storm, he would sit on the stoop drinking with his friends, slapping at the mosquitoes that prized this weather. He would drink and talk until he became bleary, flushed, and full of that touchy kind of humor that borders quick anger. When he was ready for his little joke, he would hush everyone to silence and demand loudly that they sit quite still. Then he would bare a fat, hairy arm to the buzzing insects. They would alight by the scores. Then he'd suddenly tense, trapping their beaks in his flesh. He'd laugh, waving his arm about like a great prize. Then he would smash all but a few. His arm would run with blood, trickling through the thick black hairs and mingling with the beads of sweat. The others he would let escape. There would be greater laughter as the insects bumped about, stunned from the alcoholic brew they'd sucked in along with his blood.
The first time Diana witnessed this jest, she'd been quite small. He had spied her at some menial task, shushed his companions, and called her over to see. When he began slapping at the beasts and the blood ran, she had screamed and ran to Gramer Fahey, where she was sick all over the floor. The old woman tried to tell her it was just Nate Hatch being a fool. But little Diana was inconsolable. She couldn't get the blood and the mosquitoes and Mister Hatch's mocking laugh from her head. It was a joke he'd terrorized her with ever since that day.
Now that she was the mistress of her own home and business, she saw no reason for torment. When the sultry season came, she ordered the windows covered with muslin doused with penny royal. She even went so far as to use a trick that Gramer Fahey had taught her. The wrigglers that became mosquitoes, the old woman pointed out, lived in standing pools of water. A little oil applied to the water would cover the surface with a thin scum, and the wrigglers would smother. It was a remedy Diana had carried out with a passion. If she spotted the smallest little puddle in the court or her gardens, or if she saw the little wrigglers swimming about in a rain barrel, Diana would run to fetch the oil. And she would gleefully murder every one of them.
Her friends' house was a twitter of servants when she arrived. All was in disorder, with small groups huddled about, whispering and casting dark looks at the staircase. Diana was met by Beth, Mrs. Walsh's personal maid. The woman's eyes were red-rimmed from weeping. She quickly led her up the stairs and tapped softly on Anne's bedroom door, which was flung open with such haste that Diana jumped back, startled. It was Mister Walsh. His face was drawn and gray, bare spots on his face stubbled from a too quick shave. His dress was uncharacteristically disheveled. His eyes were as red as the maid's.
He tried to speak, but his voice came out a croak. He shook his head, and Diana realized he was fearful he would break down if he tried to speak further. He wavered in front of her, struggling, then drew her into an embrace so desperate she could barely breathe. Diana didn't draw back. She let him hold her until he recovered and drew away.
"She's sick," was all he said. In such a trembling voice that Diana needed no other description.
"Three days. But it might as well be weeks for the toll it's taken. I wanted to send for a doctor, but she refused. She . . . Please, Diana . . . She asked for you."
She pushed past him into the room. Anne had aged twenty years. She lay unconscious in her bed, twisting and turning, uttering low moans. Diana touched her, the skin feverish. Anne's eyes opened at the touch. They were glazed and yellow at the edges. Then they sharpened as she recognized her friend. A hand moved toward Diana's slowly, as if it were a painful weight the arm could hardly bear. Fingers touched, then squeezed. She took a breath to speak, but all that issued from her lips was: "Diana ..." Then she was still. Her eyes closed again. So soft was the whisper, and so sudden the stillness, that for a second Diana feared her friend had died and her soul had taken flight.
She looked at Mister Walsh, who seemed as if he were about to rush headlong from the room, screaming wildly for help. And so, with a confidence she did not feel, she rose from the bed and began issuing a stream of orders. ". . .Go to the apothecary on Seventh Street . . . I'll need the bark . . . only the freshest will do . . . laudanum . . . the same . . . tell the cook . . . the very best broth ... I want it hearty . . . and fruit . . . again, fresh . . . boiled to a soup and chilled…"
Soon staff and Mister Walsh were running about to do her bidding. She turned back to Anne to start thinking what she really needed to do. First, it was plain Mister Walsh was not happy with this arrangement. He wanted a doctor. And he wanted him now! Specifically, he wanted Dr. Alexander, to whom he paid thirty dollars a year insurance to treat his family. Diana knew the man to be a disciple of Dr. Rush, a confirmed believer in massive bleeding and purging. Anne and Diana had talked about Michael Walsh's faith in modern science and medicine. It was a faith both felt unjustified, especially Diana. She had witnessed more people killed or injured by doctors' cures than made whole. Anne had made her promise if she ever really fell ill, to dissuade "dear Michael from summoning a powder wig who will lay me in an early grave with his remedies."
The trouble was, although Diana knew much about country medicine, and had been forced to depend solely on her knowledge most of her life for the good of her family and friends, she felt herself far from expert. The great problem she had right now was if she tried to call in someone with more expertise, Mister Walsh would overrule her. Dr. Alexander would come, with his purges and his emetics and plasters so hot, the skin would blister and scar.
At this moment it was Diana, or . . . Ah, but you're here, Diana Shannon. And you must act. So, displaying a confidence that she didn't feel, she set about her task. She had the maids haul in a tub and fill it with icy water. She undressed Anne herself and helped lift her into the bath. There was only a sigh from her friend and she remained unconscious. Diana had Beth bring in pans of hot water, and she washed Anne's hair and dried it tenderly.
She had the sheets and bedding changed and the mattress turned. They lifted Anne from the bath, dried her and placed her on the bed. Diana sent for spirits and rubbed Anne's poor, frail body. Almost immediately the fever broke and the chills and sweats set in. Diana had her wrapped tightly in a sheet. When her supplies came, she had a soothing tea made up with a camomile base, which she dribbled through Anne's parted lips. She also sent for Madeira and mixed in a little laudanum. This she coaxed Mister Walsh into drinking. A preventative, she said. Actually she just wanted him out of her way.
As the hours progressed, she got some broth down her friend. Then the cold fruit soup to ease her constricted bowels. And water. So much water Anne groaned with the effort. But in time the padding she had placed beneath her was soiled and changed and soiled again. Diana stayed all night and most of the morning. By the time the midday sun pressed through the open windows, Anne's eyes were open. And she was weakly alert.
In the parlor, Mister Walsh thanked Diana profusely, calling it a miracle. She told him flatly not to talk nonsense. Anne was strong, she said. She would heal herself.
Diana left directions for her treatment. The fever would return, she was sure of that; but in theory it should be milder. And if treated properly, should finally disappear.
"It's the way of the flux," she said. "It has to run its course before it can be coaxed out." She gave stern orders she was to be sent for if Anne's condition took a turn for the worse.
A weary Diana dragged herself back the few blocks to Elm Court. Nothing was changed outside. The air was still stifling. The dust still billowed up from cartwheels. The mosquitoes buzzed about in clouds thicker and blacker than that dust. People sat on their porches, or on the curbs in front of their shops, hardly moving in the intense heat. Halfheartedly brushing away insects that fed on them. Panting like dogs. But, after many weeks of drought, this was all quite normal.
What was making her uneasy? There was nothing remarkable about Anne's flux. Midwives and barbers and healers were always kept busy this time of year. Although she'd heard this summer was more severe than most. What was so different? So ominous?
When she reached her court, she realized what it was. A bell was tolling. For a funeral. Were there more funeral bells ringing of late, or was it her imagination?
* * * *
Diana was exhausted. All she wanted was to float away the filth from the streets in a hot bath, then fall into her bed to sleep. But the uneasy feeling persisted. She called her staff together.
There was Mrs. Leclerc, the head seamstress, high-strung and nervous, but sound, in Diana's judgment. The burly, aged Mister Park was her driver, loader, and general handyman, along with his two not too quick, but strong and willing sons. There was real strength in her housekeeper, Miss Graham, a rangy, middle-aged spinster who took no nonsense from anyone, especially James Emmett.
Finally, there was her cook, Mrs. Kenrick, a tubby, salty little widow of a ship's carpenter.
"What is the trouble, missus? Is it your friend, the dear Mrs. Walsh? Is she still unwell?" This from Miss Graham.
"She's doing better, thank you," Diana said. "And it's not about her. And I'm not sure if there's trouble or not. . . ." Her voice trailed off, uncertain. Her people looked at one another, worried. They'd never seen Diana uncertain.
"It's probably nothing," Diana said. "I'm being a child and letting my imagination go spooking in the forest. But . . . when I was returning home, I heard funeral bells ..."
" 'Twas only Paul Read. The old man who owned the Drunken Squab down Water Street way," said Mister Park, a man who knew his tavern keepers. "Died of the flux, I believe. No one will miss him, I suspect. He was a surly sort. And mean-spirited. He'd only buy a round when we threatened to take our business elsewhere." He gave a brisk nod at this, as if it was only to be expected that such a man was the special mark for the Reaper.
"But haven't there been more funerals of late?" Diana asked.
"No, missus, I don't believe it so," said her housekeeper. "Four or five a day at most, I should think. No more than usual. Especially in this heat. Which, as any thinking person knows, is nearly as hard on the old as a harsh winter." Miss Graham sniffed at Mister Park. She was of the opinion he lacked this natural talent. Although not as much as his sons.
So it wasn't the funeral bells. Still, with no letup in sight for the drought, Diana decided it was time to take a few extra precautions she'd had in mind for some weeks now. She explained what she wanted done and her reasons for it, so as not to unduly alarm her staff. The longer the drought, she said, the higher the market prices. She wanted to be prepared for as long a spell of harsh weather as possible. Also, Mrs. Walsh's illness reminded her of how many afflictions could strike the unwary during especially hot summers. Even so, the shopping list she laid out had them all raising startled eyebrows. There were so many supplies required that several trips would be needed.
The water level was falling in the well, she noted, so she also set Mister Park the task of deepening it. This was to be done immediately. She also wanted a good supply of those medicinals her garden didn't provide. If there was flux about to trouble her staff, she wanted to be prepared. She was too tired to hear them all out after she was done. She left them at the kitchen table, rattling on about their tasks and what assistance would be required from one another.
Her room was upstairs and overlooking the garden. An ancient elm shaded the room, so that even in the stillness it felt remarkably cool. All she wanted was sleep. The bath would wait. She stripped off her clothing, doused a soft cloth with scented spirits and dabbed herself all over. It brought instant relief. Coolness. She even imagined a touch of a chill. She pulled down the covers and crawled into bed, pulled a sheet over herself and fell into a deep sleep.
She awoke with a start just before dawn. Her heart was hammering as if she had just had a bad dream. Her throat was sore and raspy. Her limbs were aching and heavy, her skin dry and hot. She wanted badly to get up for a glass of water, but for some reason she found it impossible to move. For a moment she was frightened. Her senses seemed to be warning her. But of what? Was there something just beyond the door? She struggled to get up again. But then a great feeling of lethargy overtook her. Almost against her will, she was swept back to sleep.
But this time she dreamed constantly. Snatches of dreams, each one oddly troubling. Bits of innocuous conversation. But all of them loaded with peril just beneath the surface. Once she thought Miss Graham was trying to awaken her. Diana protested. But the woman kept tugging at her. Trying to tell her something. Something urgent.
"Is it Mrs. Walsh?" Diana thought she asked. But Miss Graham shook her head. Mumbled to her. Mumble. Mumble. Tug some more. Then the tugging became the sheet being pulled back around her and tucked in.
"What is it, Miss Graham?"
"Yellow fever," she said. At least that's what she thought she said.
"No it's not," Diana said, matter-of-factly. "Just a chill. A summer chill. Let me sleep."
"Yellow fever," Miss Graham said once again.
Would the woman never stop! Then a cold cloth was draped over her eyes and everything was comforting darkness again. The last thing she heard was the buzzing mosquitoes outside her window. The buzz grew louder and louder, until she could hear no more. The next time she awoke, there was a heavy thundering outside. The crack of lightning. The sound of a heavy downpour. She opened her eyes briefly. The curtains were closed, but she could hear the rain battering against the sill. The sill. The one that needed caulking. She must get up to see. Call Mister Park if it wanted fixing.
Miss Graham was asleep in a chair near the bed. What was she doing here? Why wasn't she in her own room? Then Diana realized it was the middle of the day. But which day? She knew she had been asleep for . . . well, a long time. Since she came back from Anne's house. She wondered how her friend was. On the table next to her bed, she saw a cup of tea. Was it for her? Of course it was. She touched the cup. Cold. But she was so thirsty, she didn't care. She lifted the cup to her lips and sniffed. Lemon tea. That's good. And something else. Brandy. Better. She drank it down, and was surprised there was no resistance from her sore throat. Then she realized her throat was fine now. In fact, she felt well all over. Except for this confounded sleepy feeling she couldn't shake.
She thought about waking Miss Graham. But the woman seemed so tired, poor dear. No, let her sleep. And in just one minute, I'll get up myself. Come on, woman!
You have a business to oversee. Get up and get about it. Yes. But just a small nap first. And then I'll . . .
* * * *
She didn't come fully awake again until Monday. It was August 26. Diana's diagnosis had been correct. She had only suffered a severe case of the summer chill. The storm was no dream. It had rained heavily for two days, but the drought had instantly seized the city in its hot grip again.
The incident involving Miss Graham had also been no dream. Her housekeeper had come to awaken her with urgent news. But then she had found her mistress desperately ill, and had nursed her and coaxed her back to sleep.
But what was the news, Miss Graham? What was so urgent? Farrell sick? James Emmett in trouble? A ship in port with goods at bargain prices?
"No, missus. It was in the papers. Everyone's dying! Yellow fever, missus. Yellow fever."
It began with chills, a desperate headache, and a rapidly climbing temperature. The bowels and bladder refused to work and so the chamber pot remained empty. This condition lasted several days, then the patient usually made a rapid recovery. In other words, yellow fever began as no more than a mild case of the summer flux.
Herbalists and wandering quacks did a brisk business in purgatives, restorers and tonics. But they were soon overwhelmed by what followed. The fever came back full force. The patient began vomiting black blood from internal hemorrhages. The skin turned bright yellow. Then came the typhoid state: stupor, deep depression, dry brown tongue, incontinence, a pulse rapid but weak, a sudden and frightening wasting. The stink of the sickroom was overpowering. Then the body turned a purplish hue. Death came within twelve hours. One symptom the doctors noted accompanying the disease was tiny, angry eruptions on the skin. They were usually inflamed, sore, and they itched. They looked like small bites, and no one could account for their presence.
* * * *
Diana's imagination hadn't regressed to childhood. She had heard more funeral bells than usual. On Thursday twelve had died. Thirteen on Friday. Saturday seventeen. Miss Graham wasn't sure about Sunday. Besides the weekend storm, the city had been put into a panic by the plague.
The storm had turned the dusty streets into a sea of mud. Despite this, hundreds of people had fled the fever. Entire wagonloads of personal belongings were left stranded in the muck as the well-off or unattached poured out of Philadelphia. As the weeks went on, the flood grew to even greater proportions. Employees and servants were abandoned without funds or means of getting any. And even if they had the money, there was little to buy. The market stalls were empty. Rotted fruit, vegetables, and animal carcasses were left lying in the gutters. Water was getting scarcer by the hour, since the countryside had also panicked and no water carts dared to cross the Schuylkill.
Meanwhile, the death toll was growing. Even as she and Miss Graham spoke, Diana could hear the church bells ringing. As soon as one stopped, presumably as the dead were lowered into their grave, another bell took up the mournful tolling. Miss Graham said people had become so fearful, the city fathers were considering banning the bells. As if that would hold back death itself. She said when coffins passed, people were slamming their doors and windows to shut out the plague.
"What else are they doing?" Diana asked.
Old public health laws were dusted off and put into action. Houses were ordered thoroughly cleaned and whitewashed, gutters flushed with precious water, sidewalks and streets scoured. The scavengers had been ordered to make daily pickups of garbage to reduce the number of breeding spots for the fever. Bonfires were also being lit. Tobacco and gunpowder burned on every street corner. Diana thought all this made good sense. Clean the city. Purge the air.
There was a sudden rolling crash, as if the storm had come back with three or four times the fury. All over her household, Diana heard shrieks of alarm. But she knew it wasn't thunder. It was a terrible sound she knew too well. For a moment she had an almost uncontrollable urge to flee to the safety of her root cellar. But this wasn't Cherry Valley. There was no threat of war or Indians.
She rushed out of the house, Miss Graham in her wake, and sprinted across the cobbled court street to the entrance. As she reached the corner, she saw the uniforms. It was a squad of soldiers, hauling a cannon. They would march in unison for ten or twenty yards, fire the cannon into the sky, reload, march on, stop, fire another volley. With each volley, windows shattered and old brickwork rattled loose and showered to the ground. Up and down the street people were shouting and screaming. The heavy scent of gunpowder was laden with the sickly, overpowering smell of tobacco from a roaring bonfire down the street.
A voice came from a few feet away. Diana turned to see a man sitting astride his horse. A gentleman. From his dress, he had just returned from a long journey. He was bewildered, asking what was going on. Before Diana could answer, shutters flew open overhead. She looked up to see a wild figure. A middle-aged man in his nightdress, his hair standing straight up on his head.
"Is that you, Mister Niven?" he shouted.
The man on the horse said he was.
"Why in God's name have you come back?" the man screamed. "It's the plague! Flee, man, flee!"
Without a word, Mister Niven swung his horse about and fled. At the corner he had to pull up fast, his horse pawing air and wheeling to the side. Another kick and the horse squeezed frantically past a hearse bearing a load of fever victims, and then was gone.
The coach was black. The driver in rags. A starveling no doubt, so hungry that he was willing to dare a nightmare to ease the one he was living. As the coach approached the soldiers, a young officer shouted for the driver to stop. The coach came on. The officer shouted again. Still it came on. Closer. The squad wavered. Now the officer was shouting at his men. But the coach still came, creaking forward with its fearful burden. The squad broke and ran. The officer stood there helpless beside the cannon. The coach passed. After a moment the officer walked away. There was nothing else to be done.
Diana turned back into the court. She would put her household in order and then see about Anne.
* * * *
The Walsh house was barred and shuttered. No one answered to the bell. Diana knocked next door. She spoke to a woman through shuttered windows. The woman didn't know anything. She thought Anne had died. Down the street, another conversation through barred windows. No, Anne had recovered, this person said. It was Mister Walsh who had died. Still another said both were well and had fled the city, taking all their servants. This made more sense, but not fully. If they had left, either Anne or Michael would have stopped to see her. Diana went home again, sure, at least, both were alive.
* * * *
Once again Diana called her staff together. The atmosphere was entirely different. No easy, but respectful jollity, or casual sniping at one another. And they were all dressed in their best clothes. Bathed. Coiffed. In Mister Park's case a few lonely strands of gray hair were slicked to his bare skull with water. Their faces were frightened. Eyes bruised from lack of sleep. All were silent. Waiting for what she would say.
Diana was surprised when she had learned that almost her entire household was intact. Few had bolted the city. At first she thought it was out of loyalty to her. This was only partly the case. As she looked at them, she realized they had no place else to go. No gardened farmhouse in the country. No summer place by a cool stream. No faraway relations with provisions to share beyond the immediate family. Now they fully expected Diana to issue final orders, then close up the house and go. Mrs. Leclerc sobbed softly, was patted to stillness by Miss Graham.
Diana asked if her orders had been carried out, the pre-visions bought and stored, the well deepened, the medicines stocked. Yes, all this had been done, Miss Graham assured her.
"I am schooled in keeping accounts, madam," Mrs. Leclerc said, voice rasping from crying, her skin an unhealthy pallor beneath its lovely light chocolate hue. "To which address should I post them?"
Diana pretended surprise. "Why, nowhere," she said. "I'm not going anywhere."
There was instant relief all around the table. A chorus of stage-whispered "I told you so's." Diana waited until they were quiet again, Miss Graham sweeping the small gathering with hot eyes that said she doubted least of all.
"I didn't flee the Indians in Cherry Valley," Diana said. "Nor the soldiers. None of them drove me out. I stayed. I prospered. And everyone with me prospered as well." She paused for effect. "If the Indians couldn't roust me," she said, "I'll be damned if I'll be put to flight by the fever. At least you die with your hair on."
There were only four people in the room besides herself. But the shouts and cheers of joy sounded like a crowd coming to its feet at Mister Ricketts's circus. Diana had a bottle and glasses brought in, and they sat about the table, talking and joking like old tavern chums.
Diana joined in, laughing and jesting. But it was a sham. Not everyone had prospered at Cherry Valley. Far from it. She looked about the table and wondered how many faces would still be there when it was all over. And wasn't even that thought selfish on the face of it? Foolishly so. When it was over, would she even be here to see?
NEXT: The Never-Ending Battle
ALL THAT SPRING and all that summer she searched. She visited the textile mills in Kensington, weighing the quality and cost of the cloth produced there. She noted there were few deficiencies in grade and color. She also discovered a shortage of hand looms. What looms there were belonged to immigrant weavers Read More
"WHAT A WONDER of a life you've lived, Diana dear," Mrs. Walsh said. "Perhaps my great-grandmother could equal you. Although I doubt it . . . She had a wilderness upbringing for a time. But she always had a house full of servants, so I'm sure it was not the same."
So was Diana. Servants? Hah! The fact Anne Walsh's gramer was assured a house disqualified her. But Diana didn't say this. You would have to have a heart of ice to mock a woman as sweet as Anne Walsh.
Anne was a small woman—just Diana's size—in her middle years. She had the face of a cherub, with lips like a bow that were always untying into a smile. Anne had a lovely full figure she fussed over as too fat and matronly, and wore billows for dresses to hide. Despite their difference in age and background, Mrs. Walsh and Diana became fast friends. Mrs. Walsh urged Diana to reside with her until she hired permanent lodgings. Diana refused this kind offer. She needed freedom of movement for her plans as much as she needed friendship. A lovely old boarding home was found, offering ample room and respectability. Meanwhile, Anne Walsh and her husband took Diana under their wings. Especially Anne.
With idle chatter and pleasantries, the woman kept hidden a mind as sharp as her husband's. But Diana noted that whenever Anne Walsh had an opinion to express, her husband listened, and always took her advice. Her kindly manner could deceive. Diana had watched her watching other people and caught the look of cool appraisal when sizing up a boaster. After weeks in her company, Diana knew that Anne Walsh passed on her views—many times unfavorable—to her husband. In short, she was a woman whose friendship was hard won, and therefore of immense value.
Still, she had many eccentricities. Like her love of nature—especially birds. The fact that Mister Peale—painter of revolutionary heroes, and keeper and owner of the city's fabled museum of American natural history—had actually raised and bred two hummingbirds, was of more import to her than the ratification progress of the Constitution. The states would either ratify it or they would not. General Washington would be president, or not. Life would go on, with or without the presence of these elements.
The high drama of the previous summer was still on everyone's lips. The meaning of General Washington's silence during the proceedings was still being debated. Madison's role as impresario and architect of the final document could still spark heated words, or worse. To Anne, the Congress had done nothing more than survive one of the hottest summers on record by drinking enormous quantities of punch.
"Every one of them was drunk," she sniffed one day when she and Diana were discussing the matter over tea. "Except possibly General Washington. Certainly not that thin-lipped little toad, Mister Madison. No wonder he carried the day. He was the only man among them sober. If the business had been turned over to women—and don't peep a word of my views to Mister Walsh—it would have been settled in a few days.
"There's talk—and money settling on that talk—that Congress will find a home here. In our city. You mark my words, Diana, if that happens, it will be our ruin."
But the matter of the hummingbirds in Mister Peak's museum . . . now that was progress of the grand scale, just as news of hunters or encroaching civilization threatening a feathered creature's existence was proof all mankind was at heart evil.
"Why, we don't even know how many species there are with any certainty," she wept, "and we've already killed off some. What if there are as many as two hundred—I believe the number to be slightly more—but by the time we learn it, there are only one hundred left? What tragedy our children should not see them!"
Diana had laid siege to Anne's lack of taste and style almost on first meeting. It took time to convince her she had an excellent figure which should be displayed to its best advantage. Which meant chopping away at the material Mrs. Walsh draped about herself until a woman's form emerged. Diana then instructed her seamstress on methods of defying the dictates of bustle and hoop.
Diana would live to see a time when underwear took on scandalous connotations, but in this day it was not considered unseemly for an outfit to reveal chemise or petticoat. Anne's choice in these things was dull, but with coaxing, Diana convinced her to buy delicately made and patterned small clothes, which could nod their provocative little heads at the world through artful slits and dips and tucks.
Diana's greatest success had just come out of the seamstress's shop. It was a walking dress—a costume Mrs. Walsh had always avoided because she said on her short form it made her look dumpy. This was not the case in Diana's design. The dress fell above the top of the toe and was slightly clinging to better display her rounded form. It featured a long robin's-egg-blue kerchief that exposed Anne's lovely white shoulders, slipped under her bosom, where it was tied with a ribbon, and extended to either side, where it was secured to the dress itself, which was silver in color. The kerchief continued to the back, where it formed a tasty outside bustle. (No, Anne, dear. We'll dispense with one underneath. You don't need help in that part of your anatomy.) She helped Anne choose a hat to set the whole thing off—wide-brimmed and trimmed with gauze and ribbon. But she talked her out of the frizzy hairdo favored by the young ladies of Philadelphia and instead guided her to a softer look, which framed Anne's face in a romantic portrait.
The improvements in Anne's wardrobe were greeted enthusiastically by her husband. He showered the two with compliments, Anne for her renewed beauty, Diana for her art. He needn't have said a word. Diana's ego had already been boosted by Mister Walsh's more private reactions. The couple had been going about all starry-eyed of late, with many sweet whisperings and furtive touching. It was obvious to her that although their long marriage was childless, it wasn't for lack of effort.
* * * *
Although the city Anne and Michael Walsh introduced Diana to would grow enormously during her lifetime, it would always retain its heart and basic form. Her first impressions of Philadelphia—no matter how romantically tinged—proved correct. This was the place to make her stand. But it wasn't until fall that Diana became confident enough to trust her business instincts.
Meanwhile, she had a city to investigate, a future life to ferret out. Mister Walsh had a carriage waiting outside the boardinghouse each day for Diana and her sons. She began the morning full of enthusiasm and ideas; by night they had all drifted into vagueness, like the reverse side of bad embroidery.
The first physical feature that struck Diana about Philadelphia was how flat it was. Flat and swampy, except for a slight rising tilt in the lands to the south. The city consisted of a few square miles between the Schuylkill and the Delaware, and owed its prosperity to the natural sheltered port the Delaware provided—the Schuylkill was useless for anything but small craft—plus the great road that led out beyond its western boundaries to Lancaster County, Chester, and beyond. Within a few years of her arrival, the road became the Lancaster Pike, the finest paved highway in America, connecting Philadelphia with the headwaters of the Ohio River.
There were a few foundries in the Schuylkill Valley that smelted iron with native hardwoods. It was a region that would soon see countless foundries, forges, and ironworks up and down the valley. From the Middle Ferry at the Schuylkill until just beyond Broad Street, there wasn't much to the city. Although the streets in this area were broad and straight and crisscrossed with alleys and courts, they were sparsely populated by the poor. Their homes ranged from Irish thatch-and-wattle straight from the Old Country, to pine shacks, to roofed-over holes.
One thing of note: even in the poor section, the city was as clean as a Dutch housewife's kitchen. Every morning and every evening the women and their unwilling children were out scrubbing steps, holystoning the board sidewalks— brick, or even white marble in the nicer areas—and actually washing down the flagstone streets on their hands and knees. It would be five years before Diana learned there was more behind this cleanliness than a charming Quaker-influenced custom.
No one visited Philadelphia in those times without being stunned by the main market area, and Diana was no exception. Philadelphians bragged the High Market was the largest of its kind in all the states. There was no exaggeration. It ran a full mile—eight squares—down the High. More remarkably, the whole thing was entirely roofed over. On main market days all but foot traffic was barred by the chain men, who also hustled a fistful of pennies parking and minding carriages for their owners.
The official market days were Tuesdays and Fridays, but actually every day was Market Day in Philadelphia—including Sunday, when an enlightened ordinance allowed the delivery of fresh milk. In a letter to Ruth, Diana told how she saw the milk being brought to market in churns. But not ordinary churns. These were "white as curd and bound with copper hoops, and as bright as hands and clean sand can make them."
There were also spontaneous market days when a fresh boatload of provisions arrived from the West Indies or France and the whole city would be turned out by the great market bell. A bell alerted people to the arrival of mail, and they'd rush to the central delivery area with their shillings—or even empty-handed—to loiter about and hear other people's news. Another event was the arrival of the stage, and the folk would hurry to the Indian Queen Hotel to see what famous person was arriving.
The High Market was exceptionally clean, with all the benches and stalls scrubbed white. Even the meat was clean, well-cut and laid out on tables covered with constantly changed white cloth. The butchers presided over their stalls, nodding and smiling at the crowds, looking like brawny, red-faced angels in the white linen frocks that covered their clothes. There were vegetables of every variety, and also fruit, which included oranges from the Indies; fish and shellfish—especially the oysters; game right from the hunter's pocket; butter and cheese; and spices and herbs from far afield, "fit to flavor any dish or cure any ailment."
She was also struck by the orderliness, especially after the confused squalor of New York. "Everyone has a place assigned to them" she wrote to Ruth in Boston. "The butcher his table, the woman her stall . . . and there is no one moving about except the public, who come and go throughout the day from nine o'clock of the morning till nine that night . . . and all in great order, with only a little prompting from the chain men. ..."
There were other markets in the city, but the one on High Street would remain her favorite. With one exception: the Southwark Market by the Delaware. But only on what was known locally as Jersey Market Day. Anne tried to describe it to her, but kept succumbing, lapsing into honks of laughter. Finally, she gave up and took her friend to see for herself.
Diana met the ladies from Jersey that day. They were overgrown, shapeless businesswomen who were accomplished bargainers in the morning, but grew friendlier and less tight-fisted as the day progressed. This was because, as Anne said, they had a "fondness for the comfortable, which you can spy for yourself as that great jug of jack they keep under their stools. Mark my word, dear, they'll nip at that jug until they're well corned and fast asleep where they sit. Then watch the fun begin."
A hefty snore fluttering the lips of a face as round as a melon and purple as a plum. The first snore brought the plunderers. The second the thieves. The third the saucy children who plagued the area. Diana watched as two of them sauntered up to a cake stall. Behind it, Mrs. Plum Face, arms folded on a vast bosom, chins tucked under her shawl, lips in a dainty quiver of sleep. One child snatched, then the other. They would have gone undetected, but a neighbor of Mrs. Plum Face raised a howl. This brought Plum Face to her feet, sputtering and wailing as the boys took to their heels. And off she went after them, like a Spanish galleon, sailing into first one stall then another, until the boys were gone and she collapsed in weeping self-pity on the ground. But another Jersey woman—you could make them out, Anne said, because they are thicker than they are long, and their faces are like the Lady Moon at the full—brought her a jug of comfort. Soon the incident was forgotten in a big boozy embrace.
Now to the shops, Anne sang, and off they went to the district sprawling along Chestnut. A profusion of merchandise filled the long, low windows that projected into the street. Dry goods were strewn along the brick sidewalks. Flannels, cloths, muslins, silks, and calicoes hung over doors in whole pieces, or draped down on either side of the pavement. Other materials were stacked in rolls all down the street, pure heaven for a seamstress. There were barrels of sugar and raisins and coffee and dried fruit, intermingled with shoe shops, jewelers, saddlers; china, tin, iron, and copperware; and grocers with goods from every hill and creek in the land.
Anne giggled and pointed to the fine young men lined up to see the daily parade of beauties, who vied with hoop, bustle, and big flowered hat for their attention. Diana couldn't help but imagine how she would nip here, tuck there, and blouse out there, and tsk, tsk, don't you think the color a touch drab and matronly, Madame?
To James Emmett, the best time was night, when the little man went around with his small can of oil, bag of tools, and a short ladder over his shoulder. James never tired of watching the man. The lamplighter would clean the glass of each streetlight, trim its wick, top it off with oil, and light it with his long match. This went on for street after street, until the whole town glowed. Now the shops gave off a magic gleam. Especially those filled with silver, or worked glass, or the medicinal stores with their beautifully colored potions in even more beautifully colored bottles of every shape and style, filling row after gleaming row until the whole window throbbed with light.
The ever practical Farrell most admired the homes. He noted that the best residences—including the Walshes', who lived a few houses down from the eminent Dr. Benjamin Rush—were near the city center, especially in the Walnut area between Third and Fourth streets. Farrell loved to stroll down these avenues. The homes were of elegantly handcrafted brick, shaded by beautiful buttonwoods and willows and other native trees. Farther west, toward the Schuylkill, were the less elegant, but comfortable homes of the tradesmen. Like those of the rich, these residences were also tree-shaded against the city's stifling summers.
Through all this Farrell remained his humorless, but dependable self. His lack of humor made conversation dullish, but when Diana thought about James Emmett, she supposed this was a blessing. Now there was a boy who had humor stuffed into him like a great bag of pudding that kept swelling and swelling until it burst in every direction. The child was curious about anything not good for him. She'd already caught him experimenting with tobacco, spirits, gaming, and even a girl—his breeches down to his knees and his bony behind sticking out, and him brandishing his little thing as if he knew what to do with it.
Yes, she punished him. Sometimes she feared she was too strict. But then just as she was considering some other approach, off he would go again, committing a transgression whose only answer was a licking. But it never seemed to do any good. No matter how much he was punished, James Emmett never relented. Never said he was sorry. Not that he was sullen, or resentful. Oh, no, not James Emmett Shannon. The boy would bide his time, then come up to you with a great soft smile on his lips, love in his eyes and an embrace to melt a snow witch. It was as if you were being forgiven for not realizing all he did was as necessary as breath itself. And he pitied you for not understanding.
Only Farrell had some control over James Emmett, although who actually was doing the controlling could be debated. Regardless, Farrell's protectiveness of his half brother was one of the few things that made him human. He was stern with the child, but seemed to know his fears and needs more than Diana. Although the two were nothing alike, Farrell usually anticipated his brother. If he didn't, and the error threatened disaster, James would throw himself on Farrell's mercy. This would result in a stern lecture, which the child listened to in all apparent seriousness. Then would come the inevitable rescue. Sometimes this would mean intercession with Diana. Most likely, Farrell would cover up the trail James Emmett left.
It was the only time Farrell would lie. Diana had never chastised him for this, or even told Farrell she knew he was lying. Because if she did—if she confronted him, broke him—she wasn't sure what, or who, would be left.
One day after the Jersey Market, Diana and Anne had taken the boys for an outing on Front Street. A lovely stroll on a riverfront packed with ships and people and bargains from everywhere. Suddenly Diana noted a Great Absence of James Emmett. Fortunately, so did Farrell. He looked about with a start, then noticed Diana doing the same. More eye-darting, and then a sigh of relief. "There he is, Mother," he said, pointing vaguely at a crowd of people. "You go on. I'll fetch him."
Go on, they did. Fetch him, he did not. For a long time. Just past the point of worry, as Diana was trying to turn Anne about without alerting her, she spied Farrell. And James Emmett, coming from quite another direction. She saw Farrell shaking a finger at the child, James Emmett hanging his head in shame. More lecturing. More head hanging. Then James fumbled in his pocket and handed an object to Farrell, who looked nervously about before stuffing it away. Then Farrell hustled James down a side street and out of sight. A moment later they'd both appeared, this time walking from the correct direction. James's face was as innocent as an angel's as he joined her on the stroll.
That night she searched Farrell's clothing. A small, wooden object fell out. It was a carving of a man and a woman, in naked embrace, and carved in such stark detail that Diana flushed in shame. And then the flush disappeared as she marveled at the craftsmanship. And their features, not rutting rictus grins. She saw, or imagined, tenderness . . . brought to life by soft burnishing. She thought of the hand that had brought out such emotion with each stroke of emery. And in a slip of a dream it became Emmett's sweet stroking. . . . She shuddered, suddenly cold, and replaced the figurine.
* * * *
The priest was a fiery old man in purple vestments. His name was Father Coogan and he held the congregation spellbound as he led the faithful through the mysteries of the mass.
St. Joseph's Church at Fourth and Walnut was a plain building, a square, drab edifice with only a tower and bell to prove it a church; no different from any built by the Protestant faiths. Ostentation was distrusted in these days of Republicanism, and there was nothing about the church to test this view. It sat upon land owned by the lay members of the congregation—also like the Protestants.
Inside there was no elaborate statuary, only hard pews, and a cross above a thin, pine tabernacle without even a simple carving to show it held the Sacred Host. The drabness of the church, however, gave way to a mystical hue the moment the priest entered and the mass began. The atmosphere was heavy with incense, the silence thick as fog; so that each Latin phrase falling from the priest's lips had a romantic, ghostly tone. During the blessing of the Sacrament, small bells chimed, chalices rang like larger bells, and the leaves of the great book the priest read from rustled—all with unnatural loudness.
Diana sat quietly in her pew, feeling as out of place as if she were attending the Presbyterian church in Cherry Valley. She knew she was witnessing a rare thing. Few people outside this city had ever seen a simple mass, much less a full-blown ceremony with lovely vestments for the priest, laymen to attend him, and a worshipful congregation that knew every step of the way—with enough churchly Latin at hand to decipher the holy words the priest spoke.
St. Joseph's was one of two Catholic churches in Philadelphia. It was nearly fifty-five years old when Mister and Mrs. Walsh took the Shannon family to the services. Before that Catholics in Philadelphia gathered at the home of Elizabeth McGauley on Nicetown Road for the plain, communal services and shared reading of prayers that Emmett had described to her.
Elsewhere, as Mister Walsh had said, intolerance kept the choices for Catholics slim. After all, there were perhaps no more than thirty priests in the whole country. In all of America there were 35,000 of the faith, Mister Walsh had said, and of that number, possibly 7,000 resided in Pennsylvania.
The mass was well-attended, but Diana's friends had reserved places ahead of time, so with a bit of squeezing she, Farrell, and James Emmett were made at home.
Prior to the service the first thing they noticed was a long line going up the far aisle. It stopped at a small door. Anne said it was people for confession. Diana saw Farrell raise his brows at that. He whispered a question to Anne, and she explained that Catholics confessed even their most dire sins to the priest in private, that the priest was sworn never to reveal the shame, and that a penance was set afterward. Once it was performed, absolution for the sin was assured.
From the look on Farrell's face, Diana could see he was impressed with this system, although she didn't know why. What possible sin could Farrell imagine was marring his young soul? Now, if it were James Emmett—she looked at her youngest son. As usual, he was squirming and paying little attention to anything. Ah, well. At least he was quiet.
Finally the mass began and Diana lost her direction in the dead language liturgy. She could see there was a rhythm to it that everyone else could follow, but it made no sense to her.
Later she asked Mister Walsh why they just didn't use plain English. Knowledge of Latin, he said, was the boast of noble, lettered men. This she thought pretentious, and a danger as well, because it hinted at a class system. This was a new nation, with theoretical equality. The language of the common folk—the vernacular—would be better. Mister Walsh agreed and said many others felt the same way. This included Father John Carroll of Maryland—one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence—whom everyone said was sure to be named by the Pope as the first bishop in America.
"They want no one to have the notion," Mister Walsh said, "that we do the bidding of a foreign monarch. But it's a battle I fear has been lost, once and for all. Some say— and I mean the common folk you spoke of—that Latin makes them feel special, that great secrets are being divulged to them, and them only. Personally, I believe they love the ceremony more than the Lord."
Little bells called the freshly innocent—Anne and Michael among them—to the altar, where they partook of the Host. This was followed by the gospel. Then a sermon in English. It was a thundering good one, too, Diana observed. Sinners were warned, hellfires were pumped up with scriptural bellows, and the repenters were praised. After that there were more odd mutterings by the priest, the big book and the chalices changed places for some reason, and the mass came to its conclusion.
Diana thought it was all very refreshing, but mainly because it was a new experience. Now that she had seen it, however, she had no desire for repetition. This was an attitude of hers she would have to watch. If she was too disdainful in front of her sons, she would be hard-pressed to keep her promise to Emmett that they would be raised in his faith.
James Emmett burst away as soon as the service ended. For a change, Farrell was not right on his heels, dragging him away from potential mischief. She saw Farrell had hung back. He was gazing at the tabernacle, his eyes wide, and there were tears welling up. Diana tugged at him to go, but he pulled away before he realized it was her plucking at his shirt.
He looked up at her, so full of emotion he seemed about to burst. "Didn't you feel it, Mother?" he asked. He rushed on before she could answer. "At first, I was a little bored, to tell the truth. Then, when the priest began speaking, I got interested in the Latin. I was trying to make out some of the words—it's not that hard, you know. A lot of them seem the same as English. I got so interested, I lost the time until communion.
"The priest was praying over the bread and wine for communion when I started thinking about what was really going on. That wine was becoming the blood of Jesus Christ . . . our Savior. And the bread became his flesh ... I thought, how could that be?"
Diana frowned, thinking of Farrell's trouble with all fictions, no matter how well meant. To this day he mocked Hamlet for its ghost. What was happening here, with her hard-headed practical son?
"Then it—I don't know—it suddenly made sense. No. Not sense." He stumbled for words, his face flushed with effort. Then: "He forgives you, Mother. He really does."
Farrell lapsed into silence, but she could see the thoughts swirling, swirling.
"What, Farrell? Forgives you what?"
"Brian," was all he said.
"But you don't need forgiveness for that, Farrell, dear," Diana said as gently as she could. "You weren't responsible for what happened to poor Brian."
Farrell looked up again, his eyes a tempest. He started to speak, but emotion overcame him and he just shook his head. "I'd like to come again," was all he said.
There was no reason for Diana to say no. She should be happy at this turn of events. Wasn't a church an important ritual in raising a child? Why did she distrust this so?
How could she deny him? And for what reasons? Diana said he could.
From that day forward, Farrell became the most devout member of the congregation. He went at religion as he did everything—at full force. In not many years he was as knowledgeable as the priest, if not more. Church became the center of him. Even James Emmett came second.
The oddest thing in his behavior was that as the mystical part of him rose, the practical side grew as well. In business he was still all facts and double totted-up figures.
Ah, well, Diana thought. If it comforts him, what can be the harm?
* * * *
In matters of finance, Mister Walsh was a disciple of patience. He constantly counseled and supported Diana to take her time in setting a future course. Just as he had counseled others since the end of the Revolution.
"Anyone could see difficult times were ahead and hurry would court disaster," he said one night. "It cost sixty million dollars to rout the king. All of it debt with no means to pay.
"Who was responsible? Congress? How were they to raise the funds? No law required it, and without a law, no one has yet volunteered to be the first to make the gesture. The small authority we granted gave us Shay and his rebellion.
"The states? Bah! They can't get funds for a bridge, much less a road of any length. No, the war debt will not be assumed by the states. That's why we must suffer these infernal lotteries. We have no other means of launching a civic program."
Diana listened intently, soaking up every bit of information. Mister Walsh smiled at her gently through his pipe fumes—seeing real talent in the young, pretty face, thinking what a fine son she would have made Anne and himself.
A cough from Anne brought him back to his point.
"But where we bought uncertainty for our sixty million, we also purchased opportunity," he said. "A little care. A little reason. And unless God smites thee, a profit will result."
Mister Walsh had kept his own counsel all those years. Especially the last four, when hard times had settled over the land as each state struggled to make sense of its own highly individual economy.
Alone, he believed, the task was nearly impossible. "You saw the result," he said, "when talk grew serious that we must all unite under one banner. To act in concert. Just talk of unity stirred the fires of hope . . . happy times, again. Just from talk, if I may repeat myself. Now, with ratification fever upon all the states, let us see what real action can do!"
"You present a lovely view," Diana said. "And I pray that it is real, and not the product of the fever you mentioned."
Mister Walsh sighed. Diana was correct in thinking he painted too glowing a picture. "Damned ignorant fools," he muttered. "Money is at the root of it. Just as money is the way out."
"I don't see the connection, if you please, Mister Walsh," Diana said.
"No, of course you don't, my dear," Anne broke in. "Michael prides himself in obscurity in matters of philosophy. This is because he has a notion that in the laws of finance, all things can be explained."
"Well, not all," Diana said. She knew some mysteries of life had nothing to do with money. But with a few tragic exceptions, she couldn't think of any. In a flash she eliminated one of those exceptions. It was money—or the lack of it—that killed Emmett. Just as sure as Frenchy McShane.
"Go on, then," she said to Mister Walsh.
"I said we must act in concert," he resumed on cue. "But we have a host of laws that prevent this. And the laws are different state by state. Why, in some of the places I travel, if my religion were revealed, I could be cast out, or worse. They fear because our spiritual leader is in Rome, that we Catholics are under the influence of some foreign devil of a monarch. Never mind how many of us took up arms and stood side by side with other Patriots. Our mettle somehow remains unproven, our Republican ideals and loyalty in question.
"In other towns, they would tax me at twice the rate of other citizens. Should I deny my Savior? Or withhold my business? Must Michael Walsh suffer the thrice-crowing cock? But I am a fortunate man. I have money to choose the countenance of saint or sinner, and let God be the judge when I'm done."
"At least you can afford that luxury," Diana said.
She did not mean this archly. To her the lesson of the Apostle Peter had always seemed incomplete. What of the two Marys? Whore and mother. No cock crowed for them. And it was they who rolled the stone from the grave. But Peter was rewarded in this world for his cowardice. The two Marys had to await the hereafter. But that had always been her trouble with religion. Gentle words, but muddled thinking. Of course she believed in and feared a higher power. But in her experience it always came with tomahawk or gun. Or was simply represented by a body of men who could change her life with a nod and a quill scratch on paper.
So that was what she meant by her comment. Mister Walsh was as secure in his home as he was in his beliefs. To Diana, the two went together. The afterlife was for the rich, or hopeless.
Mister Walsh plunged on, warming up to his favorite topic, the plight of the Average Man. "If you are poor, you can be compelled to take a master, who may use you and pay you as he wishes. If you are in debt, you can be placed in prison, or condemned to be chained to a barrow to collect the offal from the streets. On the land, the practice of tenancy can require you to toil for another's profit.
"And then there is the keeping of slaves. Illegal by the laws of God and man in all the civilized world. Which by definition does not include many of our sister states. Why, it was only outlawed two years past in New York! And here we are, the most modern people since the days of Athens, in the waning days of the eighteenth century, eighteen hundred years since the birth of our Lord and Savior."
Ah. Finally. Mister Walsh was nearing his goal.
"I submit to you, Diana Shannon, that in all those years since He died for our sins, we have made less than an inch of progress in matters of humanity. And most of that is recent. And most of that when we told the king to go to hell!
"So, yes, I see hope in unity. Despite the ills I mentioned. For in this land a pact was made for Freedom. The rich were the architects of the Revolution, true. But they could not accomplish it without striking a bargain with the poor. And now the rich have no choice but to see that bargain is kept."
It had not been kept in Cherry Valley, Diana thought. Or in Boston, where Ruth struggled to keep her optimism. Not even here, in Philadelphia. The City of the Enlightened, where the beggars swarmed behind the carts and gobbled the raw grain that fell in the filth. Or the Irish teagues who stayed eternally drunk at the waterfront taverns. The king was gone, but the order remained. And Diana believed her only hope was to build a wall so high and thick that not even Joshua's horn could bring it down.
Mister Walsh's views were pretty thoughts, in keeping with the times, if Diana was to judge from the free-spirited conversations she had heard during her journey. Here they all were, a few desperate souls abandoned on a narrow coastline with a great unexplored and dreaded wilderness at their backs. And if they could all put aside their narrow interests, that elusive and magical Grail of Freedom would be theirs.
But who was to define this Freedom? To Mister Walsh, it was the happy pursuit of fair profit. The farmer Shay agreed with that principle, and federal troops were sent against him. The printers in Philadelphia defined it as six dollars per week. They got it. But the next time they struck—especially if the commodity were more precious than the production of broadsides—would the fates smile so sweetly? For the desperately poor, a full plate would suffice. And a bit of fire. For the indentured and the enslaved, Mister Walsh's definition might take on philosophical tones again: Dignity. Ah, but fire and food were easier to win.
Some pursued this elusive freedom in distant forests and field. But it still had to be won at someone else's expense— the Indians. Or even the poor pigeons of passage that Anne mourned, shot from the rooftops by the hundreds of thousands as they soared to their winter homes.
Diana gave no hint of these thoughts as she looked at her mentor and smiled. He was quick to respond. "Do you see my point?" he said anxiously. "Do you agree?"
She didn't. She also wanted to ask how far her enlightened friend would take this business of equality. He said he was with the Radicals, or near to it. That all men—not just the propertied—should have a say in the nation's affairs. Did that mean in his Utopia, the freed man of color would have that right? Possibly. But what about her own sex? She doubted it. What if Diana married? Would Mister Walsh agree all her worldly goods were hers and hers alone, to be shared with her husband as she saw fit? Or would he agree with the law, that it would all belong to that man, as if he had earned it himself?
She looked over at Anne, who was watching her husband with loving eyes. Diana decided not to ask.
"I suppose you're right," she said.
Next: Ready To Take Wing Read More
THE INDIANS—SEVENTY-NINE braves and two white renegades—came again a year later. They intended but one thing: to obliterate Cherry Valley. The frontier war had gone on too long. Atrocity begat atrocity; murder, murder. Sullivan's army had torn the guts out of the civilized Iroquois and their Susquehanna Valley granary. Forty-one Read More
JAMES EMMETT SHANNON was born on the Second Sunday after Epiphany. Attending at his birth were Ruth Conners and the spirit of Abigail Fahey.
As Diana grew closer to term, Ruth became more and more nervous. There was no midwife in the valley. Ruth was appalled that Diana mostly ignored her advice. Read More