Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Summer in Jamestown, Virginia

August, 1826
Jamestown, Virginia

"Benjamin Franklin," said George Pledger, "is supposed to have said that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in Jamestown, Virginia." The dinner party laughed -- some politely, some loudly, depending on how much wine they'd had. Zeb Pledger, who had barely sipped his, and anyway held his drink well, scowled at his father's joke and tapped his spoon on the tablecloth nervously. Where was Abigail?

"Well, you've been here three weeks now, George," said John Dare the elder. Dare was deep into his eighties and not well, looking more like a corpse than a living man; his eyes were almost all creamy white. His hands shook as he handed his wine glass to a slave. "What do you think of our weather?"

"It's been chillier than I expected," admitted Zeb's father. He turned to his wife. "What do you think, dear? Colder than Boston this time of year?"

Zeb just about lost it then. Talking about the weather? While slaves were walking to and fro, waiting on them hand and foot as if they were gods? Three weeks the Pledgers had been visiting the Dares, three weeks of this madness, and it hadn't gotten any easier. Especially once he'd seen Abigail. Where was she?

There she was! Coming out of the kitchen with two other slaves, carrying the sea lion on a huge silver platter. Did she glance at him as she came out? Maybe -- but now her eyes were averted. A slave could never look a white man full in the face. Zeb's father and the elder Dare kept up their inane chatter about the climates of Virginia and Quatsino, but Zeb's attention was now only on Abigail -- her small, delicate fingers, her broad, curved nose, skin like chocolate and exotic bushy hair bound up in --

"Zeb, what do you think?" said his father. "It would be fun, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, definitely," said Zeb, without thinking. The table burst out laughing. Zeb forced his anger down and laughed with them. "I'm sorry, father, I was woolgathering," he said. "What did you ask?"

"I was just inviting young John here to come visit us in Boston later in the year," said George. He gestured down the table at John Dare Jr., a man in his mid-thirties who looked and acted half that age. Zeb judged he'd grown up like a stunted sapling in the shadow of John Dare the elder, whose voice still carried the weight and power of being Master for eighty years. It can't be healthy, Zeb thought, to order people around your whole life. It twists the soul. Why can't father see that? All he sees is their wealth.

Inviting John Jr. to Boston? Why on earth -- and then he saw John looking at Zeb's sister Purity, and Purity blushing so brightly it was amazing she didn't burst into a sweat. God above, thought Zeb, that's what this is about. John Jr. may act half his age, but Purity is half his age. Father doesn't care about that, all he sees is John Dare's gold.

For a few seconds, as Abigail and the other slaves served the sea lion meat, and the faces around the table looked at him expectantly, Zeb's mind raced.

"What an excellent idea," said Zeb. He smiled, and tried to keep the glee out of it. "We'd have a great time showing him around Boston. You know, though, come to think of it -- why just John? All of you here have been such wonderful hosts, everyone in your household." He swallowed. "I'm thinking, in fact, of Abigail in particular. Father, why don't we invite her to come as well?"

He kept his eyes focused on his father, forcing himself not to look at Abigail. George only looked confused.

"Abigail?... Who is that?"

"Oh, you remember her, father. She was introduced right when we first arrived. She was kind enough to take your coat, I think. She's just served you your meat."

George started, as if a ghost had just been pointed out to him, and he looked over his shoulder at Abigail in shock. But Abigail was standing hands folded and eyes on the ground, like a good slave. George turned back to face Zeb, who was now giving him a glare.

"Why? What?" stammered George. "Are you serious?"

"I am very serious, father," said Zeb. What will the old fool do now, he wondered?

The elder John Dare came to George's rescue. "That is a kind offer," he said, but Zeb could hear the steel around the edges of his ancient voice. "But quite impossible. I can understand Zeb's confusion, since this situation is so rare in Quatsino, but Abigail belongs to this household and we will keep her here."

"I am not confused," said Zeb, and he tried to add steel to his own voice. "I understand the situation. Mr. Dare, I offer to buy her from you."


"You can name your price, Mr. Dare."

"Zeb!" said his father. "Stop this idiocy. The Dares are our hosts, and this rudeness -- "

"How is it rude to offer a business arrangement?" snarled Zeb.

"There will be no sale," said John Dare, and his hands were white where they pressed the table. His nearly-blind eyes blinked furiously.

"And why not, Mr. Dare?" demanded Zeb. "I will offer you double her worth. Triple."

"There will be no sale!" cried John Dare. Zeb could hear the years of command behind the words.

But Zeb thought he could match the tone. He gathered up all his indignation and self-confidence. "And why not?" he said, his voice ringing over the table.

John Dare faltered, and his shaking hands fumbled with his fork. A slave bent next to him and adjusted his napkin where it had fallen. There was silence for a moment.

"Abigail has never left the plantation," said Dare at last. "It would be cruel to take her away now. Besides, her mother is here."

"Then I will buy her mother as well," said Zeb instantly.

"Her mother?" said Dare. "No. Impossible. She will not want to go."

Then Zeb got help from an unexpected quarter. "Father," said John Jr., "I'm sorry, but -- I don't understand what the issue is. You were saying just the other day that you wanted to sell a few slaves. The Pledgers are our friends and a friendly business arrangement would be -- "

"No," said Dare firmly. "I will not have it. Impossible. I -- I am only thinking of their happiness."

"Well, then, should we ask them?" said Zeb. "Has anyone thought to ask Abigail and her mother what they think? If it's their happiness in question -- "

"No! No!" said Dare, and raised his fist. "I will not hear any more about it!" He pounded his fist down, and even from across the table Zeb could hear the old bones snap.

Zeb jumped to his feet. John Dare seemed to collapse around his broken arm, his silence more chilling than any cry could be. And Abigail rushed over to him, shouting, "Father!"

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