Though it feels as if my eyes only closed for a second, they snap open at the sound of my father gruffly clearing his throat and looking pointedly at me. I blush, realizing I must’ve dozed off, and straighten up, my neck protesting the awkward angle. I glance around and realize that we are approaching our destination. Even though we’re still half a mile out, I can clearly see the sprawling brick manor with white accents that practically glow in the harsh sunlight. Hurriedly, I straighten my skirts, wrinkled from the long journey, and shrug my petticoat back on despite the heat. I try to fix my blond braided updo, loose and frizzy from the humidity, placing a few strategic pins and running my hand over it. It was far from perfect, but it would have to do. I wince, still sore from the long and rough ride, and fan myself, looking forward to our arrival. Though I knew that the trip was mostly going to consist of my father and Mr. Johnson discussing business, I was still eager to explore the beautiful estate. I may disagree with its owner’s morals, but I couldn’t deny their house’s charm. Though most of my father’s potential clients were surprised by my presence, they always had an extra guest room due to these plantation manors’ sheer size. It was definitely unusual that I traveled with him, but he insisted I accompany him on these business trips. It was a practice born of equal parts paranoia and protectiveness. My mother had died when I was young, killed in a home invasion while he was on a trip, and I was sleeping peacefully in the room next to her. He never remarried, and I never left his side.
I watch as we approach our next client’s manor. Like most cotton plantation owners, they were extremely wealthy and apparently very eager to rub it in their nonexistent neighbor’s faces. Their home was huge, with three floors and two porches supported by massive columns. Slowly, we come to a stop in front of the large wooden door. Letting out a sigh of relief, my father stands, cracking him back and opening the coach.
“Hurry along Mags, I don’t think I can handle another moment in this heat.”
He turns towards me, holding out his hand to help me step down. A couple slaves hurry around the house to help us unload our luggage. They grab our trunks, avoiding eye contact, and haul them around to the side of the home, and I assume they’ll take them to our room through the servants’ entrance. I thank them, smiling, and they give me a nod, heads bowed, but my father sends me a warning glance. Internally, I roll my eyes but follow after him as he approaches the manor. As we ascend the stairs leading to the porch, the door swings open, and we are greeted by a petite African American woman dressed in the servant’s uniform. She’s thin, clearly malnourished, and I struggle to hold back a scowl. Though slavery was legal in Maryland, my father and I always found it quite distasteful and honestly unnatural. I send her a tight-lipped smile, and father remains stoic beside me.
“We are here to see Mr. Johnson- I believe he was expecting us,” my father says, and she nods, opening the door further.
“The Johnson family will be with you shortly, Sir,” she said with a smile that didn’t reach her eyes, “you can get situated in the drawing-room. Please follow me”
We step into the foyer, and I peer around the room, my eyes adjusting from spending so long in the bright southern sun. Much like the outside of the house, it is extravagantly decorated with beautiful woodwork and large windows. Most of the room is taken up by a grand staircase that most likely led to the Johnsons’ personal living quarters. The tall ceilings help keep the room cool, and I let out a sigh of relief as we step out of the muggy weather. We follow her through a doorway to the left into a small but well-kept drawing-room.
“Would you like any tea or refreshments?” she asks us politely.
I hadn’t realized how parched I am until she had asked, but now the idea of something to drink sounded heavenly.
“Tea would be great; thank you,” Father responded. I knew tea prices were higher in the south right now, but the Johnson’s could clearly afford it, so I had no qualms about asking. Taking this as a dismissal, the attendant hurries out to fulfill our request, and my father settles into a high back leather armchair. I sit delicately on the nearby velvet sofa and slowly fan myself, examining the room. The drawing-room was obviously used to entertain guests; it had plenty of seats and extravagant decor- used to both impress and intimidate. Above the grand fireplace hung a magnificent painting of who I could only assume was the Johnson family. A woman in a white gown sat in the center with deep brown curls, and a white rose in her hair. On her right stood two stern, almost identical, men in expensive suits. I assumed these were Thomas and Henry Johnson- the father and son who ran the plantation. Looking at their intense gazes, I smile slightly- this deal was most likely going to be more challenging than Father expected.
My eyes finally settle upon the last person in the painting. I pause curiously; it was a boy who looked around ten years old, but we hadn’t heard about the second son in Mr. Johnson’s letters. He had his mother’s curling brown hair, which couldn’t be tamed, even for the portrait, and his father’s blue eyes. Instead of holding a piercing gaze, they twinkled with mischief, and a suppressed smile played on his lips. I wonder how long ago the portrait was painted; the girl who greeted us had mentioned the ‘Johnson family,’ and I wonder if we’d meet him today. I wouldn’t mind having someone to help entertain myself this week, as long as he isn’t my age. I had come to learn the worst part of traveling with my father wasn’t the 24-hour cart rides or tedious social parties’ it was fending off suitors without offending their family. Though I knew my father loved my company, he also loved his company- he had definitely tried to nudge me towards some of his past clients’ sons in the past. I snort as if I would ever agree to regularly deal with this heat and play house with a ‘southern gentleman’ for the rest of my life. Usually, when I hear there’s a son around my age, I stay home in Maryland. Suddenly my eyes widen with realization, and I whip my head towards my father. Recently he had been dropping hints about me settling down and wondering if you’d ever have grandchildren, but are usually warns me before I have to deal with a new suitor!
Just as I am about to say something, the door creaks we hear footsteps approaching.
I look towards the door, expecting the attendant to be back with a tea tray, but instead, my eyes fall upon the man and women from the painting. My heart sinks a little as I take in their appearance. They had both aged well, but still aged, meaning the second son probably wasn’t a cute ten-year-old anymore-oh Lord; if he was over sixteen, my plans for a relaxing week were ruined. Mr. Johnson enters first, looking even more refined and stern in person. He smiles politely, and we rise to our feet, my father offering him his hand.
“Thank you so much for having us, Mr.Johnson. It’s an honor to be here,” my father says as they exchange a firm handshake.
“The pleasure is all mine, Mr. Brown, please sit down,” he replies.
I curtsy, and Mrs. Johnson smiles kindly at me as we return to our seats.
“It was quite pleasant,” my father responds; I raise my eyebrows; that was definitely not what he’d been saying last night. “It was too kind of you to book us a room at the inn so we could break up the journey,” he continues.
I roll my eyes, the Johnsons may be willing to squander their money on the extravagant jewelry draped on Mrs. Johnson, but they had spared plenty of expenses on the sad excuse for a room we were greeted with last night. As if reading thoughts, my father shoots me a look- signaling to sit still, look pretty, and try not to offend the hosts five minutes into our stay.
Mr. Johnson nods, “I’m glad you found it suitable; I had nearly forgotten about your daughter when booking. It’s not often we have a young lady coming to visit.”
I smile politely- struggling not to fidget as he inspects me. I understand that I’m not at my best, who would be after a 5-hour carriage ride, but this scrutiny hardly seems called for. I’m left feeling like I’m missing something. With a final look up and down, he smiles slyly at me,
“It’s so nice to finally meet you in person, Ms. Brown; you are even more beautiful than your father described.” He stands, taking my hand and kissing it lightly, “My son was very eager to hear that you’d be visiting; I’d be happy to introduce you at dinner.”
And there it was; in my head, I groaned. I should’ve known it was going to end exactly like this. People tend to be more willing to bargain with shipping prices if marriage is part of the package deal. It wasn’t the first time my dad had used this strategy on the more unwilling clients, but that didn’t make it any less uncomfortable. Luckily, spending one week with me was often enough to send most suitors running for the hills. They brag about hunting a bear but run the moment they meet a headstrong and independent woman with actual opinions.
Thankfully a soft knock saves me from having to respond to that. The girl who greeted us at the door walks in a tray with a tea set balanced in her arms. She makes her way over to the table and sets it on the table between us.
“Can I get you anything else?” she asks politely, eyes fixed on the floor.
“That will be all; well, ring if we need anything,” Mr.Johnson responds dismissively, not even glancing at her. She nods and scurries out of the room, shutting the door silently. We sit around, sipping tea, and chatting for about an hour. Father and Mr. Johnson discuss the weather and the upcoming election before focusing on the details of the deal my father is hoping to make with the Johnson Plantation. We live in Maryland, and my father runs a successful exporting business. Now that ore railroads were connecting the 100 miles between the Johnson’s northern Virginia plantation and the port, my father is convinced he can offer him a better deal exporting from Port of Baltimore than his current one on the coast of southern Virginia.
Meanwhile, I’m being told all about the marvelous Henry and how ‘we’d get along so well.’
He stood saying, “Would you look at the time?! I could’ve sworn it was noon five minutes ago,” it had been 73 minutes in counting, I would know, “After such a long journey in this weather, I’m sure you’ll be looking to freshen up,” he added, “Louise, the slave who greeted you at the door, will lead you to your rooms. After you’ve settled in, we can meet for supper at five o’clock.”
We all rise to our feet; I practically leap up in anticipation until I feel the dreaded hand on my arm. I look over at Mrs. Johnson, hoping she can’t tell how strained my polite smile is.
Oblivious to my clear agitation, she smiles brightly and says, “I noticed you inspecting the house, and you seem to be a lady of good taste. I’d love to give you a tour of Thornton after you have a moment to freshen up. Maybe we’ll even run into my son, and I can introduce the two of you.”
I barely stop myself from dropping my head into my hands, but I see my dad looking pointedly at me across the room. I paste on a smile and respond, “That would be lovely.”
“Fabulous, I’ll meet you in the foyer in, let’s say, an hour? Is that long enough? I know how long it would take me to get ready if I knew I might be meeting a charmer like my Henry.”
Oh, Father so owed me for this.
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