It was an uncertain time. The long-anticipated war between the States had come at last. Secession began early in 1860 and soon involved many of the southern states. Too much was at stake to ignore. Rumblings of discontent had been building over the years, and growing anti-slavery sentiment made some people nervous, while others wanted resolution.
Jeffrey Belding was still intoxicated after celebrating the victory of the South at Manassas more than a week earlier, but his good mood soon soured. Nothing had gone as he had intended that day. His new horse, a young mare, had been much more of a handful than he had anticipated. Unexpectedly, and to his surprise, she had thrown him repeatedly while others had watched from the shelter of the cabins, or out of sight behind the windows of the house, taking care not to be seen, and feeling satisfaction in what they saw. He was being beaten by a horse, and it was well deserved, though no one would ever dare allude to it or express any pleasure at seeing him bested. There would be a price to pay for what was happening, and the horse would be the one to pay it. But so would anyone else who was unwise enough to get in his way after that.
His daughter, Elizabeth, had gone with him to see the horse and to judge it for herself, but he had not asked her opinion. He did not care what she thought. She was there only to ride the horse so that he would see it with a strange rider on its back. She had known better than to voice what she thought and to bring down his wrath upon her. He would never have taken her advice anyway. She had appeared to have agreed with everything he had said while saying nothing. It was safer that way.
He was as violent with his own family as he was with his slaves if they were seen not to support him in everything he did, and usually with as little reason. He was justly feared, but doubly so because of his ignorance as well as his unpredictable temper. Like most ignorant men, he resented that he was disliked, without understanding why, tending to blame it, as he did most of the unpleasant things in his life, upon others. He had no use for the opinion of any woman. He still saw Elizabeth as an awkward, contrary girl with a lot to learn, rather than as the woman she had become. He preferred to keep her by him, where he could keep her away from the slaves and to stop her creating more trouble, as he saw it, for him to deal with.
The horse had worked well under saddle before he bought her, but with a kinder rider, and a gentler bit. But not after he had got her home. He had forgotten the cautions that the seller—Stephenson—had stressed, concerning the manner of dealing with this particular horse and her high-spirited nature, and he could not understand it. He had not liked being told anything about gaining the confidence of the horse gradually and letting her settle in. He had no patience for negotiation or to learn anything.
He knew all he needed to know about horses, and gaining their trust and confidence was not something one negotiated. It was the same with slaves. Gaining mastery and control was what it was all about. He believed that one dominated whatever one wished to control. Any other way was to risk losing that control. That is what had been drummed into him by his father and grandfather, and he had seen how they had succeeded with whatever they touched. Both of them had intended to break a horse’s spirit rather than to understand and work with it. He had seen the mare’s quality even as she had been shown, but had not made the effort to understand the horse and to gain its trust and affection, as most careful and considerate riders would have done.
Stephenson had been reluctant to sell her to him, knowing something of his ways, but he had to reduce his stock now or see most of it confiscated by the army. He had few slaves, so he was also facing conscription. He had stressed that if the mare did not work out, to bring her back immediately, and Belding would be given his money back. He had been looking at Belding’s daughter as he had spoken those words, knowing that they would likely just bounce off her father. He had learned more to her credit in the last hour than he had ever known of her father in the forty years that he had known him. He liked what he saw of her, but what influence she could have on her father was not something he could place much reliance upon.
She had ridden the horse as her father had watched. Stephenson had liked the way she handled her. She was gentle and patient with it. He was not to know that it would be the only time she would be allowed to ride the mare. Her father had wanted to see her ridden by someone he knew and trusted. His daughter had brought out the best in the mare, unfortunately for the horse.
When they got her home, he had gone into the house and changed, intending to ride the horse in the privacy of his own paddock with few to observe him at that time of day.
Predictably, he ignored all that Stephenson had told him. He replaced the bit that Stephenson had given him with the horse, with one of his own choosing. It would take the horse no more than ten minutes to discover the hand of a master and to learn to obey his immediate dictates and to re-learn those gentle responses that Stephenson had carefully nurtured in the horse over weeks and months.
Far from being a gentle voyage of discovery as they learned of each other and catered to a few changes, it had turned into a battle of wills. It had been a battle that had been watched with apprehension and pity for the horse as his anger grew over the next few minutes. The horse was clearly confused about what he wanted.
He used his heels with ever more force on the horse’s side, slamming them into her if she seemed slow to respond. Though he had been warned about not using a crop on the mare, he ignored Stephenson’s advice and brought his crop to bear on the balky animal, not realizing or, perhaps more accurately, not caring that horses respond even more poorly to harsh punishment than people do, especially with a cruel bit in its mouth, and when confused about what the rider wanted.
Others had watched the unfolding battle from a safe distance without being observed themselves. They felt sorry for the horse but knew better than to think they could change anything. They had felt a growing sympathy with the horse each time the man had been thrown—as he was, repeatedly—hoping to see the horse kick him and possibly even kill him. If it didn’t, it would pay an even greater price later on. Of course one should not hope or wish for the death of another, but Belding was a particularly vicious and cruel master with everything and everyone he touched, including his own family, and it would be what he richly deserved.
He had rarely been thrown from any horse, but he knew enough to pick himself up and begin again, except the horse had other ideas about this bruising rider who had caused her intense pain for the first time in her life. She skittered away from him and laid her ears back along her head, lunging at him with her teeth and striking out with her front hooves before she turned her hindquarters to him. He backed away as the horse followed, until he wisely retreated faster and farther.
He had never had a horse take such exception to him, and he did not like it. He knew he would eventually win in what he wanted, even if he had to completely break the spirit of the horse and effectively destroy her, but the horse had become a devil and would not let him near her. He was conscious that others watched and had delighted to see him beaten.
Rather than suffer any further loss of face in front of those that he knew were watching, albeit from a distance and unseen, he had walked quickly away from the horse, climbed the fence, and returned to the house with a grim look on his face and murder in his heart.
Another observer had seen what he had done and knew what he would do. As he disappeared into the house, his daughter came out from the barn where she had watched everything with a sinking heart. She spoke gently to the horse standing there trembling, bewildered by this new circumstance, and wet with the effort of trying to understand what the man had wanted, as she had steadily fought him to get rid of the pain in her mouth and to her body.
The animal recognized that voice from earlier and knew she was someone to trust, though she was wary, remembering the pain that she had just gone through, with the aches to her body from his boots and the feel of the crop, repeatedly applied with force, on her rump. The gentle voice overcame her fear and encouraged her to approach. This was not an enemy.
Others appeared from where they had watched, intent on protecting and helping the young woman, just turned eighteen but mature in so many ways far beyond her age, if she needed their help, but knew better than to approach without her asking them.
Elizabeth knew what she was doing, and intended to do it quickly before her father appeared once more. When he came back, it might be with a whip rather than a crop, and maybe even with a gun if the mood took him. At those times he could be like a petulant child, prepared to destroy a valued item that had been denied him, once a tantrum took hold of him.
She spoke continuously, to calm the animal, and gently reached out to touch the horse’s neck, and then moved closer to breathe into her nostrils. She unfastened the bridle, taking care to ease the bit out of her mouth rather than have it drop, and chip a tooth. She replaced it with a rope, loosely placed about its neck and then, as the horse stood still, trusting her where it could not trust a man like her father, she undid the saddle and pulled it slowly to the ground. She left it where it fell for others to deal with as she led the horse off through the barn. It followed her easily, showing none of the resistance that it had with her father.
She paused, once inside, and replaced the rope with a halter, picked up a jar of salve and a brush, and walked on through the barn to the open field beyond. She did not stop there but walked quickly over to a gate into an even more distant enclosure. Once there and out of sight of the barn, she tied the horse to the fence post and began to gently apply the salve to the raised welts on the horse’s rump and then moved her hands over the horse, searching for other tender areas as she continuously spoke kindly to the horse. She kept her eyes open for her father.
After she had finished, giving the horse some obvious relief, though for how long, she did not know, she moved back to the horse’s head and breathed gently into her nostrils once more as though to let her know that the hell had now gone. If she had her way, the horse would never feel her father’s mood again. She would need to let her dry out before she brushed her, but would do that this evening, once her father had gone.
“He shall not harm you again, I can promise you that, though I am not sure how I can be sure of anything just yet. I may have to take you back to Mr. Stephenson at first light tomorrow without saying anything to my father. Stephenson will understand, and if not, I shall tell him.” She took the halter from the horse, leaving nothing about her head that anyone could use to hold her. She knew she would have no difficulty catching the horse herself with one of the early apples but would not make it easy for others, and especially not for her father.
She put the rails up and returned through the barn, finding that others had picked up both the saddle and the bridle already and were busy doing other things to be out of the way of her father and his questions. They would say nothing. She had returned just as her father entered the barn to find out where the horse was.
“Where is she?” Her father was flushed. He saw the saddle and the bridle hanging up. She knew that he had probably drunk off a large whiskey as soon as he entered the house, and then had picked up his whip from where it was hung, coiled, on the wall. He intended to teach that horse a lesson she would never forget. At least he had left his gun behind for once.
She could see the way his mind was working, and decided that she should stable the horse in one of the outer buildings until her father’s mood had changed, or until she could persuade him to give or sell the horse to her. He would probably choose to shoot it rather than do either of those.
It could stay hidden away, and she would brave his wrath over that. She responded calmly and without the extreme anger, disgust, and hatred that she felt, even for her own father.
“She is where you will not harm her.” She was setting herself up against him again. His eyes flashed in anger to hear that, and he bit back the words he would have said. He knew enough not to respond as he wanted to and take the coiled whip to her. Others were too close and would be intent on protecting her, and he knew it. Elizabeth saw him walk over to look in the stall the horse had occupied, and then walk to look into the first field. He saw nothing. He knew better than to ask any of those who worked in the barn. They would shrug their shoulders while saying nothing, as they usually did when he was in one of his moods, even if he were to strike at them or kick them as he cursed at their stupidity. She had probably sent it farther out, knowing what his response to the horse would be. No matter. What he intended could wait until tomorrow. He knew that his mood at this moment was dangerous for everyone close to him, and for himself.
He decided that he would strive to control his anger and deal with the horse when no one would see him. That horse needed to be taught who was master here. In the barn with her tied up, it would be a different kind of fight. He walked back to the house.
The entire house had been on tenterhooks most of the evening after that, with the servants trying to stay out of his way as much as they could. When he raised his voice or rang, they responded with alacrity as they knew they must, or face worse at his hands. He also knew that as much as he was feared and hated, there would come a time . . . They were just waiting for an opportunity.
Elizabeth had tried to bring reason to him once, about how he was generally hated, even by his friends, and she had been told off for presuming to tell him anything he did not wish to know. She had been lucky it had not been worse. He had responded to her in typical fashion, decrying her opinion and showing his scorn of her.
“What would you know of anything? Of course I am hated. Behind my back. But they respect me!”
She corrected him, realizing that it would inflame his anger, but not caring about that after what he had thought to do to the horse. “They fear you. They do not respect you. It is better and more productive to be respected out of love, rather than fear, Father, and you would then lose fewer slaves.” He did not like to be corrected or opposed in any way, especially not by his daughter.
“As you do with the slaves? I expected that you would say that. Women’s sentiments!” He was openly scornful. “Love is for weaklings, and gets nothing done, or will get you killed. They are just waiting for an opportunity, and my back to be turned. You leave them unconfined at night, and think I do not know it. One night you will be murdered in your bed, if not worse. You give them every opportunity to run off.” He glared at her. “Why do you constantly stand between me and everything that I choose to do? Fear keeps everyone attentive to what I want and expect, and better than anything you could do.” This time she held her peace. She knew where such a disagreement would lead. She still had the bruises on her arm from the last time.
Slavery was a monstrous system in which men, women, and children were bought like cattle and cruelly exploited in every way imaginable as they were subjugated and taught to fear. The slaves were mistreated at every turn and had no freedom or any rights that could not be removed on a whim. The younger women were treated as concubines and mistresses of their owners, with children resembling their white fathers running all about the place. They were never acknowledged. It all served as clear testament to the lack of Christian moral values when a supposedly civilized, God-fearing man, who attended church each Sunday with his wife and family, had a number of other “wives” and children for whom he held neither gentle nor sentimental feelings of being related in any way, but who were his ‘property’.
Their acknowledged wives were little better than chattels themselves, usually having little or no say in anything, and no rights or true freedom. It had been that way with her great-grandfather and grandfather, and to some degree with her own father until she had begun to interfere in ways he did not at first recognize—she had done it so gradually and cleverly—though she risked much by doing so.
Her father was both hated and feared. Justifiably so. Of the two, he preferred to be feared. Hate was devious and encouraged resistance and opposition. Fear was a much stronger deterrent. Respect and love were the stuff of weakness and failure and did not make good slaves but made them lazy. He would not aggravate himself further by arguing with his daughter.
He strode off to change his clothing. He needed to get out of the house and relax. He looked forward to going over to the Henderson estate of a Saturday evening. A select few of the plantation owners met there and, over drinks and cigars, discussed those things that gave them pleasure or discomfort, depending upon which side of the scales the outcome was seen to be in their favor or against them. The war against the Yankees and the Confederate victory at Manassas would be discussed this evening and where the war would go from there, as would various points of politics as well as the price that cotton was likely to bring this year, or tobacco and other crops. He would not mention that disastrous episode with the horse. It still rankled him.
However, the evening would need to be particularly interesting to dispel his present mood. This seemed to be one of those days where nothing was as he wanted it to be. It had been that way for many weeks now with Angelique, his stepdaughter, still in New Orleans, recovering from her miscarriage of their son, though she was expected back in another week or two to calm his moods and violent swings of temper. She was the only one who was able to do so, but she was not there now to help him when he most needed her.
He bathed in front of the window, annoyed that the girl he had told to lay out his clothes and then to help him bathe and dress had been sent off by his daughter to do other things. That was another way she constantly annoyed him. Fortunately, the water had been brought in just ahead of him by one of the older women—that was her doing too—and was still hot. He poured himself another large whiskey to take the edge off his mood, but he had too much on his mind for it to be settled that easily. He discovered another reason to be angry after that disastrous effort with the horse and his daughter setting herself against him. As he dressed for his weekly card game, he noticed that his shirt had a button missing. It seemed to be the final straw.
He said nothing when he entered the washhouse where the laundry was still being seen to, thrust the offending garment under the young black woman’s face, took her cruelly by the arm, and struck her hard with his open hand across the face, knocking her to the floor.
“I do not have you here to make such a slapdash job of my clothes. See to it now, and see it does not happen again.” He tossed the shirt at her. He would have kicked her to encourage her to her feet but found that he was being pushed back by his daughter, barely more than half his weight but well prepared to set herself up against him. He could see that she was angry that he would dare strike a helpless girl, but he knew of no other way to make his point. He did not see a fragile girl, or a woman, as his daughter did, but a slave, and one who was there to do his bidding, no matter what it was.
He found himself confronted by his own daughter, angrily and forcefully pushing him away from continuing to punish the girl. “You can blame me for whatever is wrong, Father, instead of picking on a helpless girl. But then you always were a bully with those weaker than yourself, especially women.” He fell back in surprise at the vehemence of her attack. She helped the black girl to her feet as she bit back her tears and touched at her tender cheek as she looked fearfully up at Elizabeth’s father. “You go, Rose. I will see to this.” She nodded for the young woman to leave as soon as she could rather than stay and invite more abuse. She knew the mood her father was in. He had not expected to be bested by that mare and had been seething over that, itching to take his anger out on someone or something. He intended to continue what he had begun and to stop the girl leaving.
“No.” She stepped in front of him once more, risking him striking her instead. “Don’t try to stop her. I was the one who put your clothing up in your room, and I was the one who took it upon myself to mend it, so you should pick on me instead.” He did not believe her. She was covering for the girl’s laziness and deficiencies.
“That is not a job I expect you to do.” He did not like to be opposed by either his son or his daughter. “You and your mother defy me at every turn. You constantly stand between me and them. You countermand my every order and change others behind my back.” If she didn’t, then the estate would not have run as smoothly as it did and he would have lost many more slaves running off, and he knew it, but it still irked him.
“I wanted you at school in the east, years ago, but you went against both your mother and me in that.” Her mother had wanted her in that school to protect her from his moods and from getting stuck in a lifestyle from which she would never be able to escape without friends back east to lure her away.
“Yes I did. I knew why you wanted to be rid of me. You wanted me out of your way so that you could plunder Rose, and other of those girls who dare not refuse your immoral advances and the trouble that comes from that. I shall protect them from you, however I can, and whenever I can. You have always regarded me as a thorn in your side, and thank God I am.” He had a thunderous look on his face and itched to slap her out of his way as he had that other girl, having his less reputable behavior thrown in his face by a mere girl who dared judge him.
“Only when you cross me. Which you seem to have a knack of doing.”
She came back at him.“Not just when I cross you, as you say, Father. All of the time! I would have been out of place back east, and had no desire to go, so I didn’t. I can be more useful here to protect others from your temper and your various unpredictable moods. If I had not intervened in the past, where would we be now? I smooth over all of the difficulties you create, and see that the work gets done, even if I have to work with them to do it.” In truth his lustful moods were too predictable where the younger women were concerned, now that Angelique was not there. She could protect them by remaining at home—no matter how much she had wanted to go to school in the east—and keeping them out of her father’s way.
“I saw your intentions with Rose, so I decided to see to your clothes this evening. If you feel the need to strike out at someone for some perceived deficiency, or because of what happened earlier with that horse, then strike at me. I am used to your moods and your temper.” She was challenging him as she had never done before so openly, satisfied at other times just to work cleverly behind his back and stay mostly out of his way, but not this time.
She goaded him further.“What, am I not as much of a slave to deserve the same punishment? I feel like a slave and am as little appreciated as they are.” She seemed to be always challenging him. Always rebellious. There were times when he liked that streak in her, when it did not go against him, but it frustrated him at times like this when it did, and she let her own emotions show.
He scowled at her. “I give you a roof over your head and food on the table, as I do for them, but that doesn’t make you a slave. You dare to disobey me where they would never dare. I control what I own. You, are my daughter. You are not a menial, though you behave like one most of the time the way you hobnob with those slaves. They’ll turn on you one time. And you are not owned. Not in that way.” She was! As a woman, she had no real freedom. He still controlled too much of her life to suit her.
She was inclined to say more than she should in her anger, ignoring her father’s long-held resentment when anyone went up against him, and heedless, for the moment, that she or others would pay a price for her rebellious feelings.
“Am I your daughter? I sometimes wonder, despite us having the same name. We are so little alike.” He looked surprised that she dare voice her opinion so forcefully when she was usually so careful of what she said around him.
“I am also a slave to this place, to your tantrums, your despicable cruelty with that young horse, this life, and subject to the same undeserved intemperate swings of mood that grip you most of the time. You confuse mastery, cruelty, power of life and death with the attributes of a powerful man.” It was uncharacteristic of him to listen to criticism of himself for so long, and he was taken aback at the forcefulness of her attack, challenging both him and his authority.
“A truly powerful man can afford to be gentle and considerate, even kind. Mr. Stephenson warned you of the horse. He had heard of you and your ways, but you chose to ignore him.” He was flushed red with anger that his daughter dared speak to him so, and in front of others, and withheld from striking her though she could see that she had come close to having him lose control of his anger. She was walking a fine line but almost did not care. His face was flushed and his eyes were hard.
“You have a lot to learn, daughter.” When he called her that, rather than by her name, it was a sign that he was close to a snapping point. “They don’t understand any of those weaknesses. If a man does not rule, he is ruled. If he is not master, then he is mastered. If I weren’t here, you would soon find that out for yourself.”
“Yes I would, wouldn’t I! Roll on that day when you are not here! You control my life at the moment just as you control theirs, and that of everyone in this house, and on this estate, but that will not be forever. You may drink yourself to death, or drop dead like your own father when his temper got the better of him, as it will of you one day. You will achieve far more with a kind word than you ever will with a blow or a curse, to anyone. Even me. But especially with a horse.” Reminding him of the horse had not been wise.
“You sound just like a woman.” He was rapidly losing patience with her. “Weakness and tearful emotion is all you bring to the table. You have constantly interfered and come between me and what I wanted. You have got away with it up till now, but you will step in my way once too often.” She came right back at him.
“Never often enough, unfortunately.”
His daughter had taken to waiting on him when she was aware of his intent with any of the girls who came near him. Especially when he had been drinking. He had not liked that, but more and more he found her standing between him and what he desired now that Angelique was temporarily removed from his life. It constantly angered him. She did not let up.
“Yes, I know about all of that, and your reasons for having one of them wait upon you at night, and your cruelty if they dare think to try and refuse your disgusting advances, or escape what you intend, which is why you are seeing me more often than you like, instead of one of them.”
He pushed her off roughly in frustration for daring to speak about his intentions and desires. It was none of her business. She was hitting too close to the mark, and it made him want to strike out at something. He saw her stumble and fall to the floor with a cry. She struck her head against the side of the boiler and was momentarily stunned. He had gone too far and knew it, but could not correct it. She recovered and turned to look up at him with hatred blazing from her eyes. She was too much like him, but in the opposite way. He could see a small cut had opened just above her eye.
It was unfortunate that he had let his temper overcome him at just that moment. A young black man, William, had brought wood in to keep the boiler heated all night and had seen what had happened. He said nothing but dropped his armload of wood and threw himself at her father, striking him full in the face with horrendous force, knocking him off balance and causing him to stumble over a chair to the floor, taking him completely by surprise. He then stood over him, threateningly, unafraid and defiant.
Her father had fallen hard, momentarily senseless with the breath knocked out of him, certainly caught off guard and suddenly scared to see one of his slaves standing over him with murder in his eyes. He had never expected that from one of his slaves. It would cost the man his life, and Elizabeth knew it.
With the fear of a slave revolt always in the air, he had ensured that he was rarely without a gun and would not hesitate to use it. Fortunately he had not had it upon him when the horse had exposed him as the bruising rider that he was, or he might have used it. But he had it now.
Elizabeth saw what would happen. While her father was still dazed, she quickly rose to her feet, took his revolver from his belt, and dropped it out of sight into the hot water of the boiler. He would not retrieve it easily from there if he had seen what she had done. She gestured to William to leave as quickly as he could. He stood his ground, anger blazing from his eyes, challenging her father to get to his feet.
Her father slowly climbed to his feet, his face flushed with anger but also tinged with fear. There was a growing red mark on his cheek where he had been struck, and the skin had been split. He fumbled for his gun, not finding it where it should have been. He stared at the black with both fear and hatred in his eyes but knew better than to try and take him on. His anger overcame his momentary fear. He must not be seen to be weak and must not back down.
“I’ll kill you for that!” He intended to, and he would, but the means had been removed from him, and he would not take the young man on in a fair fight he would not be able to win without the one-sided advantage of a gun. He looked around to see what other weapon he could find to defend himself. He truly feared for his own safety at that moment as a coward would, and he felt it. There were many such times when he was made to feel deficient or inadequate in some way, and he did not like the feeling. His own daughter did that to him too often for comfort, as she had tonight when he had blown up in anger.
Elizabeth turned to the man and pushed him toward the door, coming between him and her father before it became worse. “Go, William. Go. I am not worth it that you should get yourself killed. Get out of here before he carries through on his threat.” She stood between her father and the stocky black man, just as she had kept him from Rose earlier, anger still blazing from his eyes and loath to leave her to face her father’s anger alone.
“Missy?” He stood ready to come to her defense again. He would not have hesitated.
“Go, William. Go!” There was desperation in her voice. “He shall not harm me, not now. He would not dare. But he will harm you.” He would kill him.
For the first time in his life, Belding was without his gun or someone close by to help him. As he saw the young man begin to leave as his daughter wanted, he found his courage once more and raised his voice to follow him.
“You won’t be able to hide, boy. I’ll put the word out for you and get the dogs out come first light. I’ll find you, and you’ll be made to regret this.” He turned to his daughter. “That horse, and now this. I’ll remember this. I’ll deal with you, and him, when I get back tomorrow.” He dared not do anything at that moment with it getting dark, and knowing that William would not have gone far and might return to finish what he had begun, with the threat of death already hanging over him.
It was at times such as that when Belding feared most for his life, realizing that he was so despised and hated by his own slaves, that there could come a time when he could face almost certain death at their hands, and there would be no one to help him. His daughter wouldn’t. She would be more likely to side with them. Charles, his son from his previous marriage, was away for a few more days, but was useless at the best of times and would never lift a hand to help his own father.
Once they had dealt with the father, it would not take much to deal with the son. If the house were to burn down around them both after that, with their bodies in their respective beds and the womenfolk out of the house, who would know what had happened? It was no comfort to him to realize that his youngest child, Elizabeth, would be the one to light the match and would then see that the truth might never be learned. He could not understand how he could have brought such an unnatural child into the world.
There was a trickle of blood down Elizabeth’s face. He had been shown in a bad light and, as with most weak men, he found refuge in hiding behind bluster and making threats to those too helpless to oppose him. William had brought to the forefront a long-held fear that had been growing in the minds of many plantation owners after a few glaring examples that had shown what the future possibly had in store: that a slave revolt was always possible. This war wouldn’t help in that, but would add just another layer of uncertainty in what the outcome would be. The South had better win this war as fast as they could, or risk a revolt from within.
“So how will you deal with me, Father? How? Will you strip me and whip me in the yard as you do with those others who displease you, or try to avoid your persistent advances? Will you manacle me, as you do them, and lock me up at night?” She was being reckless in her own anger. “What a pity I am only a woman, and your daughter, and am only fit to be raped”—he took a step toward her, but then thought better of it—“whipped senseless, or beaten into submission, which you know so well how to do, as your own father and grandfather did.” He did not like to have his less-creditable pursuits thrown at him by his own daughter. She always stood in his way and could bring the worst out in him all too easily.
“Don’t tempt me.” She could see that the small tic by his left eye, a certain indicator of his anger, was moving the skin, although William’s blow may have done that. He was red faced with anger but was still wary of William returning. If he were not careful, he would drop dead from an overstressed heart like his father had when he had flown into such a mood, four years before.
If there had been no one else there to possibly return and to stop him, he would likely have taken a crop to her in his anger. He had never come so close to it as now.
“Perhaps if you cannot control your anger you will shoot me down too.” She could see that if his gun had been at hand and with him in such a mood, that both she and the young black might have been shot. “You rule these people by fear, and by violence . . . your children too.” She was close to tears but would not give in to that weakness.
“They and you, seem to understand nothing else.” He glared at her, but she did not hold her feelings back.
“But then you learned nothing better from your own father.” He didn’t like his own father being brought into the conversation again. His own father had been much more of a man than his son, and he knew it and felt it sorely, aware that others judged him silently that way too.
“And how would you do it? With kindness, with getting them to believe in a future they don’t have but for me. I feed them, house them, clothe them. I give them life.”
“You give them nothing! You strip away even what little hope they have.” The bitterness dripped from her lips. “You know only how to take. You kill them too, when it suits you. Some future! Why not kindness? Except you do not know that word or that emotion. They saved your life when you lay near death’s door last year with that fever, and this is how you repay them, by raping and brutalizing the women, chaining the men up each night, and castrating them if they dare oppose you in any way, or displease you”—he looked at her sharply. What did she know of that? “And flogging them. I have no trouble getting them to put themselves out for me, with them happy to do it, yet I order nothing. I just ask.”
“You tempt fate. They have killed the likes of you and me before now when they got the bit between their teeth and went on a killing spree in the name of winning freedom they do not deserve. You are safe with them only because I stand between you and them. You do not have responsibility for them as I do. If you did, you might understand.”
“I will never understand. Slavery, is against everything that a civilized people should aspire to be. I have more responsibility and more compassion for their plight and suffering after you finish with them. I have to pick up the pieces when you have gone, and wonder how I will have enough of them survive your brutality, never mind are fit to work so that they, and we, can at least eat.”
“So they die. They are slaves. They have no rights that I do not give them. I can buy more. That fever? They didn’t save me. I saved myself.” She dismissed his obvious nonsense with a snort.
“Where did you hide my gun?”
“Where you will not find it.” He glanced about the room but decided not to go looking for it; William may not have gone far. He was probably listening just outside of the door, ready to intervene again, but perhaps in a more certain way.
“No matter. I have another.” He raised his voice to be sure that he was heard if anyone was lurking just outside of the door. “If he is here tomorrow I’ll kill him, and if he isn’t, I’ll hunt him down with the dogs as an escaped slave and kill him then.” He glared at his daughter. “Don’t get in my way or I will be likely to forget that you are any daughter of mine!” He often forgot that when she opposed him. He stormed off, in case William felt tempted to return after those threats.
She knew that he would do just as he had said. His pride had been hit hard by that horse, and now his authority and his way of dealing with his own slaves was being challenged by a mere woman; his own daughter. But being openly attacked by a slave? That had been something else that he could never allow to go unpunished. He would drag him back and string him up from that oak tree in the yard. He would face a long and painful death, serving as an example to the rest of them.
She kept out of his way after that and made sure the slaves did the same, as she watched her father ride off not a half hour later. His mood had not improved.
After he had gone, Elizabeth took a long piece of bleached wood, used for lifting clothing out of the boiling water, fished around in the bottom, and then slowly brought the pistol up to where she could reach it to lift it out of the hot water. The metal was hot to the touch.
She sat down with a towel beside her on the table and fumbled nervously with the gun to dry it off. Her emotions, anger and fear—not fear for herself but fear for others, especially for William—made thumbs of her fingers. She was even trembling with anger, frustration, and uncertainty and was striving to bite the tears back. This was too common an occurrence with Angelique out of the house. She had fought with her father before, and had even intervened before too—to soften his edicts—but he had never pushed her off with such violence and knocked her to the ground as he had.
It was clear that there would be a price to pay for all that had gone on that day. She was fearful for others. Her father was a bully, and worse, but he was no different from other slave owners. She had always tried to stand between him and the slaves but had never had to do it in such an obvious and openly confrontational way as she had this time, choosing always to work behind his back and unobtrusively where it was possible to do so.
She did not know what to do. Her nerves were working against her. Such altercations between them were a common occurrence, but she had never seen him become so angry before, and it had never been so violent. He had also never before been attacked like that by one of his slaves. He would not let this go. His stupid pride demanded that he hunt William down and kill him.
Until Angelique returned, this would only get worse. It would be likely to become more common as she found enough voice and determination to go against her father to protect others from his increasingly awkward moods. What had happened tonight would almost certainly cost a man his life. She would be unable to do anything about it other than to see William hidden out of the way, like that horse, until she could see him safely gone from where her father might find him, even with dogs. The estate was big enough that he could easily evade her father indefinitely, with her help and that of others. She had time to think about what she would need to do. Her father would not return until the early hours and would sleep it off till noon, unless he was still angry enough to go hunting for William.
Too many things had begun to sour after Angelique, her older half sister, had left for New Orleans to get needed medical care after giving birth to a premature baby boy. She had been gone almost six weeks. The father of that baby had not been a mystery to anyone. He, the man she had called Father from being born, had been its father. Elizabeth had not approved of what they were doing, no one did, but had seen how his moods had changed for the better after Angelique had willingly entered his bed just three years earlier.
Angelique had not cared about how it had seemed, or that she was not married. She had been with the man she had loved all of her life, though only for the previous three years had they lived openly together, even as his real wife, Angelique’s own mother, lived under the same roof. It was more than scandalous, but no one dared say anything.
Her mother had married Belding while she was in the early stages of carrying Angelique after losing her own husband in a boiler explosion on a riverboat near the estate. Belding had taken her in after she had lost everything in that tragedy. He had needed a mother for his own son, two years old at the time. Two years after that, Elizabeth had been born. After that, her mother had made herself unavailable to Belding in that intimate way, and his predations on the slave women had increased.
He and Angelique were not blood related in any way, as Angelique had even pointed out to him when she had set out to seduce him, but few knew that, and others had judged them accordingly, while daring to say nothing. Even Angelique’s own mother, living under the same roof, dare say nothing of what was obviously going on between her own daughter and her husband, as though she were not even there. As embarrassing as it was, it conveniently fitted in with her own needs well enough, and continued to provide her with a roof over her head.
Their shocking relationship had been interrupted only by that miscarriage and would soon pick up again when Angelique returned in another week or so, but until then, he had slipped back to his earlier habits out of utter frustration, and preying upon vulnerable girls and young women.
Six weeks earlier, there had been a simple burial of a small though ornate coffin holding a premature baby, recognizably a boy, on the hill behind the house. Immediately after that, Angelique and their mother had gone off downriver on the next steamer to get medical treatment in New Orleans. She had miscarried in the final month of her pregnancy, and there were complications that required medical care that she could not get here.
The loss of that baby had struck Belding almost as hard as it had affected Angelique. No one dared speak of it, or of the relationship that had blossomed between Belding and his stepdaughter under everyone’s noses, and was openly carried on as though there were no questions raised, or shame to it. As shocking as it was, it came with its own blessings. Her father’s inroads upon those other women ceased at that same time as Angelique had entered his life in that way, and he had willingly left more responsibility in the hands of his actual daughter, Elizabeth.
When her father returned in the early hours of the morning, he might remember what had happened the night before, or he might not—he had never been so far inebriated that he would be likely to forget it entirely. He was more likely to remember than forget when he saw that red mark on his cheekbone where William had struck him, and might see that bruise and the scar on her forehead too and remember what had happened. His pride would not allow him to forget any of it. She was startled by a voice beside her. It was that of an older black man.
“He’s gone, missy. I watched him ride off. Let me help you. I know how to clean, and load and unload ’em. But they don’t know I know that, or they’d be mightily concerned. I’ll see it dried out and oiled before the water does any damage.” She smiled at his kindness but still felt like crying. She would not give in to that emotion, however. A man’s life was in the balance here.
“Thank you, Andrew. I am not as familiar with a gun as I should be.” She knew enough, but her nerves were working against her. “Would you leave it on the table just inside my room.”
“Yes, miss.” He passed her a warm damp cloth to wipe the blood off the side of her face and a mirror so that she could see what she was doing. “I’ll leave it unloaded. Best hide it away or he’ll use it on you with that temper of his.” She doubted that. He was not so stupid as to go that far. Yet. “Or he might be afeared one of us would get it.” If he were to harm this young woman, there would be any number of men and women about the place who would sacrifice their own lives, as highly valued as they were to themselves, for this young woman. She had done almost as much for them, intervening between her father and them on many occasions, and had the marks on her arms and her body to prove it, and now another one on her forehead.
“This was a bad night, with bad goings on, missy, and will almost certainly see a man die for it.”
She looked sharply at him. What did he mean? She had thought the same thing. In the back of her mind there were stirrings of recalling something she had read only recently about the Greeks and similarly confusing utterances described as being Delphic, in the way that they could be interpreted two ways. The strange part of it was that the receiver of the utterances seemed always to misunderstand that there were two interpretations to what was being said, and tended to believe the wrong one. However, she knew that if William did not hide from her father in some way or escape, he would be a dead man before the day ended tomorrow, but she would not allow that.
She took a kerosene lamp and went up to her room to think about what she should do to stop what seemed likely to happen. It was a common occurrence for her father to fly off the handle as often as he did, and usually over nothing, lashing out at those within reach and vulnerable to his moods, but it had gone too far this time. He was a weak man who thought that sudden and extreme violence against those who dare not respond, indicated strength. He was also ignorant in the worst way. It was her mother that had ensured that the children, all three of them—Charles, the eldest from his previous marriage; Angelique, the daughter that their mother had brought into the marriage; and then Elizabeth herself, the only offspring of that marriage—had all been exposed to a good education. There were trunks stuffed with books that her father would not tolerate about the house. They were hidden in the attic. He had been ready to burn any of those he came across if they were not placed out of sight. The only book he tolerated was the family Bible, though he never opened it beyond the front where the family hierarchy—the one that the family was allowed to know—was laid out. Like all ignorant and weak men, he had resented in others what he did not understand himself and regarded schooling as filling anyone’s head with nonsense and too much ambition, as well as being a complete waste of time.
He did not favor slaves being taught to read either; it fomented discontent when they saw how others chose to live different from them. Somehow, they had learned to read. He knew who to blame for that and resented that about his daughter too. There was nothing worse than a slave who could read or believed that he was the equal of any white.
He was unaware of another family Bible kept by his half sister, Betty, a black woman, and in which she maintained a scrupulously accurate record of births that he would never care to see, or have acknowledged. Elizabeth knew of it. It showed things about the actual lineage that would have had her father not only astounded but also shunned by his so-called friends and would drive him mad with disbelief and frustration. One day it might get told.
Elizabeth sat up in her room for some time, not knowing what she would do, but well aware that she would have to see that William was out of the way by midmorning if he had not already gone off to one of the far cabins or barns, or had taken to the river.
The older man brought the gun up to her room. She recognized his steps. When he tapped gently on the door, she called him in. He would never have dared be in the house at that time of night if her father had been there. He passed her father’s gun into her hands.
“It’s dry and lightly oiled now. As good as it was. Let me show you how to use it, if you would like.” She nodded as he showed her how to load it, unload it, and how to fire it. He was aware that she already knew all of that. He was determined to see that she at least had the means to defend herself if he was not close by when her father returned.
For the hundredth time, Andrew made his own plans and then put them aside. He had always intended to run off to the north and escape from slavery as many others had before him, carrying that slip of paper that Miss Elizabeth had written for them all—without her father’s knowledge—stating that he was a free man, but he couldn’t leave others behind that would then take the brunt of her father’s anger for his absence. If her father ever discovered her hand in those slaves running off as “free,” she would pay the price for that, even with her own life, and he would not let that happen.
They were locked in at night, most of the time, but there was always a way out. If her father died after dark and well away from the estate, and with the slaves locked up for the night, then who would suspect any of them? But with the father dead, then Charles or others would step into his shoes and take over. The old order would change. Nothing would change.
He recalled the words that his mother had spoken to him: “Better the devil you know, Andrew, than the one you don’t. At least you can protect yourself in some small way from what you know. Uncertainty leaves too much to be found out that you won’t like. We was never meant to have it easy down here on earth, but why the good lord would want to see us suffer so much and turn his back on us, I cannot fathom. It sometimes taxes my faith, but I still have that. It’s the only thing they can’t take away from me. That, and what I learned and know.”
There was much more that she had not said, but he had overheard others talking about something disturbing and secretive in low voices. There would come a time . . . He now understood what they had hinted at. Maybe that time had to be now. He had never seen Mr. Belding so angered against his own daughter, and he had not liked it. Her father would see her suffer in some way for that, and Andrew would not easily stand aside and let that happen. Miss Elizabeth smiled at him as she always did, but there was a sadness about her face too.
“Thank you for your help.” Her hand fell over his, in thanks. “Go and get your rest, Andrew. It’s late, and what’s done, is done. It will be a difficult day tomorrow. Please make sure that William is at least as far as the three-mile cabin by morning. There are enough outbuildings far enough out, that Father need never find him. If he brings dogs in, we can lay enough false trails and see them sent off in any number of directions, as we have done before, until we decide what to do.” He smiled to hear that, remembering what they had done to confuse those dogs and keep them from following a scent before, but it was not a matter in which anyone could find much satisfaction, not with a man’s life hanging in the balance.
Indeed it would be a difficult day when her father returned. The old man left her and went off to his cabin across the yard, and the wife that Belding knew nothing about. This was one night he would not be locked in.