October 15th, 1856. Oxford, England.
Thank you so much for your letter and for all the wonderful news from home. Oxford is certainly different from our plantation and it might take me a while to completely settle down and get used to my surroundings. Still, I find that I am getting accustomed quite quickly to life here. The truly strange thing is the British accents that constantly surround me. I have a lot of classes and hardly any free time to do interesting things, which does not leave me as happy as I could be. I hope to be able to make a trip to London as soon as possible, if I manage to find a moment to myself that is. The voyage to England wasn’t quick enough. I find I have neither heart nor stomach for sea and could not wait to get off the blasted ship! I miss you and Uncle and Aunt, inform them I shall write them shortly. Of course I miss Priscilla Thompson too, pass on greetings from me. I hope to be able to write her as well, though perhaps it would be considered improper. Well, I must end this letter.
I hope you are in good health, please write to me and keep me informed of life on the plantation.
“And he calls this a letter?” I grumbled to Sammy, waving the pathetic piece of paper in the air. “This random collection of sentences on a feeble sheet? The boy is halfway across the world and he can’t even fill me one complete page. Does it even cross his mind I want to know details! Goodness, I…” My voice suddenly trailed off as I caught myself before blabbering that I got more information from the letter Albert had sent me.
“You?” Sammy looked at me with raised eyebrows.
“I…I filled up nearly five pages, writing on both sides of how life was going here,” I quickly found a different subject that still had to do with Jeff’s letter. “If you notice, the only reason he almost filled a page was because of his handwriting, write a little smaller than this and it won’t even be half a page.”
“Sarah, stop exaggerating.” Sammy laughed. A noise from the house made him jump up and assume to be tilling the ground under the rosebushes. I looked up and stiffened; Aunt Helen had just entered the garden and was walking up to me.
“You got post from Jeff?” She asked once she was near me.
“What did he write?”
“It was a very short letter, he wrote that he is well and settling in.”
“That is all?”
“He also mentioned he will write you and Uncle Andrew when he gets the chance.”
“Is that all?”
“Just about, if you wish, you may read the letter.” I handed the letter to her. Aunt Helen gave a crisp shake of her head.
“I don’t read letter addressed to other people, it is bad manners to do so!” With that she turned and left the garden. I allowed myself to relax and let out a long sigh of relief. “Thank God, it went better than I thought.”
“What do you mean?” Sammy came back and seated himself on the bench.
“Jeff wrote me first and not Aunt Helen, I was afraid she might be mad at me because of it.”
“Why is it that you are so afraid of your Aunt?”
“Trust me, if you knew her the way I do, you’d be afraid of her too. That woman has nerves of steel and a sharp tongue she’s not afraid to use!”
“I wouldn’t be afraid of her,” Sammy scoffed. “I’m never afraid of masters with sharp tongues, or sharp whips for that matter. Take ol’ Barnaby Thorp, Massa Earl’s overseer for example, he would constantly lash at you with tongue and whip at the same time.”
I shuddered, I couldn’t stand the thought of beatings; it made me sick to my stomach. “Sammy, does Uncle Andrew beat the slaves a lot? Are his overseers very cruel?”
“Massa Greensten does not believe in harsh and constant beatings. Far be it for me to praise a master, but I will say that of all the ones I’ve been through Massa Greensten is the most fair. He tries to keep an eye on his overseers and make sure they are fair to the slaves as well, but when you’ve got around seventy slaves and have to hire several overseers its not easy to keep track of them all.”
“So there is harsh treatment towards the slaves?”
“Naturally, I’d be surprised to find one large plantation that didn’t have harsh treatment, but compared to other plantations of this size, life on Greensten is probably about as good as a slave can get. Massa Greensten tries his best to keep honest overseers, he feeds the slaves well and the worky fair. As for punishments, they are not nearly as harsh or regular as over at Earl’s or Thompson's. I’d say that Massa Greensten has earned my respect, grudgingly to be sure, there’s nothing worse than having respect for someone you hate, but he has earned it none the less.”
“Oh.” All that Sammy had said put me deep in thought. Uncle Andrew was ‘fair’ to the slaves, but wasn’t it terribly unfair to make them slaves in the first place? I had asked him something similar long ago and he told me it was just the way it was, but that didn’t make it any more fair. Somehow, with all his goodness, Uncle Andrew was still a man of contradiction.
“You’ve never been to visit the plantation slaves have you?” Sammy suddenly asked. I shook my head.
“Uncle doesn’t want me going over there, he says the plantation and all that has to do with it is none of my concern. It’s the general policy here that the women stay out of plantation affairs, that is purely a men’s world. My Aunt does manage the food and clothing of the slaves, but she does it from the parlor or drawing room, she’s never been down to the slaves’ quarters either.”
“Your mother used to go down there a lot.”
“She did?” I was filled with a large quantity of curiosity.
“Why is it that I seem to know more of your mother than you do?”
“Maybe because there isn’t anyone who will tell me anything about her.”
“But you actually knew her, you lived with her for eight whole years.”
“My mother never told me a thing about her past; I don’t even know what sort of a life she led when she lived in New York, much less when she lived here. The only thing I ever knew about my mother’s past was she was an actress, she carried some man’s child without marrying him, she left New York and came to Boston where she worked in a factory till the day she died. Over everything else there is drawn a dark veil the whole world tells me to leave untouched.”
“Your mother was very fond of going over to the slaves, she would bring them food and water and even went so far as to secretly teach some of them to read. I know this from what my mother told me. She was very fond of her, you know.”
“I guessed as much. Em is perhaps the only person who has this sad sort of pity for my mother, as though once upon a time she loved her with all her heart.”
“My mother loved the young Evelyn almost as her own child, which I suppose shouldn’t be surprising, since she nursed Evelyn from the day she was born.”
“Em nursed my mother?” My eyes grew wide.
“You didn’t know?”
“As you can see. Once more, Samuel Climb, I don’t know hardly anything about my mother’s past.”
“Mama brought up your mother, Sarah, she was her nurse and personal slave till the day your mother ran away.”
“Wait a minute,” I was busy doing math in my head. “Em can’t be older than fifty, how could she have nursed my mother at such a young age? She must have been around sixteen or something.”
“It’s a little more complicated than you think. Yes, my mama was very young, and she had had a little child, sadly the infant was born dead.”
“Oh.” My heart filled with pity for poor Em.
“At first Mama thought she would hate the little white child they gave her to nurse in place of her own, but as she told me, her mother’s instinct took over and a bond was formed between her and the Massa’s daughter. I don’t think the Massa and Mistress should hear this, but Mama claims to have been more of a mother to Miss Evelyn than the Mrs. Beverly was.”
“Em married Ben at such a young age?” I was still trying to figure out how Em at fifteen or sixteen could have already been married and had a child. I guessed that maybe some masters married there slaves as early as possible, but somehow I had always assumed Em had been closer to twenty when she married Ben.
“Who said anything about her being married?” Sammy’s voice became very dry. The truth suddenly dawned on me.
“Who…who…” I couldn’t bring myself to say the words. Sammy shrugged.
“Don’t know, and it’s not like it matters. Thankfully, her becoming Miss Evelyn’s nurse saved her from any more such treatment."
Oh Em, poor dear Em, what sorrows hid behind her calm face and soft eyes.
“When did Em take charge of the kitchen?”
“After your mother ran away.”
“Sammy, do you, do you know why mother ran away?”
Sammy shook his head. “No, I don’t. I was only a baby when it happened and nobody talks about it.”
I sighed and frowned, why did it have to be such a mystery?
“I do know that she was considered quite the rebel. Mama said she was filled with energy and life and had a very loose tongue. Miss Evelyn Beverly someone who constantly spoke her mind.”
“Everyone is always telling me she was too independent, what’s more they are constantly warning me not to be like her or else I’ll come to the same tragic end.”
“Is that why you are constantly behaving like a frightened puppy when around others?”
“What on earth do you mean?”
“Deep down in there,” Sammy pointed to my heart, “is a headstrong woman who has her own opinion and can speak her mind, I see her come out when you are around me and I’ve seen her come out often when around Massa Jeffrey. Funny thing is, when you are around anyone else, you’re this frightened, scared creature, who can’t open her mouth and is afraid of making one tiny little step in the wrong direction. You allow other people to govern your moves, govern your thoughts, govern everything aspect of your life. Why do you suppress yourself all the time?”
“Independence is not something encouraged in a young woman, it is meekness and silence people want to see in me. There is a code of conduct that I must follow. Like it or not, Sammy, I don’t make the rules, I am merely bound to obey them. My Aunt once told me too much fire will burn the house down. I guess everyone is right, I am too much like my mother, but I don’t want to end up like her. I don’t want to prove everyone right, I need to stay on the safe side of things, I can’t afford to break the rules, I can’t afford to have an opinion and I certainly can’t approve to voice it. I often wish I could, but I can’t. I don’t know why, it’s as though there is something inside keeping me from being who I really am.”
Sammy was silent for a moment. “It’s a chain, Sarah, an invisible chain.” He said at last.
“What do you mean?”
“Remember, you once told me I was a free soul in the body of a slave?”
“Please don’t take this the wrong way, but you, Sarah, are the exact opposite of me. You are an enslaved soul in the body of a free man.”
The statement took me so off guard I didn’t know what to say.
“You have allowed fear to enslave your entire being and control every aspect of what you are! Sarah, take a look at yourself and you will realize you are more of a slave than I am. I’m only a slave in body, give me an opportunity and I’ll rush and embrace the freedom that burns within my very soul, but you, you are a slave at heart.”
I wanted to argue, but found I couldn’t because I realized that Sammy was telling me the truth. A truth I didn’t want to accept but at the same time couldn’t deny. I was enslaved to my fear, but for the life of me, I didn’t how I could break this invisible chain of which he spoke.
Not much happens in this chapter, but we do get to know a little more about Sarah's mother and her past, as well as a little more about Em.
I hope you are enjoying it so far :)