JOURNEY TO HONOR (XI)
Anti-slavery literature began to appear about 1820. Abolitionist press produced newspapers, periodicals, sermons, children's books, speeches, abolitionist society reports, handbills, and memoirs of former slaves.
The anti-abolitionist handbill below demonstrates the depth of pro-slavery feeling.
In St. Louis, a numbness closed around the hearts of Eliza and Portia Shepheard.
Eliza had changed. Many years after she and Jim had fallen in love, abandonment had made her old at thirty-one and more compassionate of other people’s sorrow. She missed her youth.
Jim kept her as his fiancée. She was imprisoned by the notion.
Eliza clinged to old ways and things. She saved everything. It was a habit that she always had but as she grew older, it became more pronounced. The objects multiplied. The Shepheard house was crammed with chipped vases, broken enamel boxes and faded fabrics. Were her dreams faded too?
Christmas was the most difficult time. Jim was never there. Eliza would see empty places left by her yet-to-be family at the table. She would hold onto the last letter she had received from Jim. It would be worn, sometimes a line would be smudged by a tear. These letters and her memories of their time together secured her loyalty.
Jim was a man of his own making. Eliza enjoyed a certain social standing for being engaged to him. This formal link satisfied her craving for acceptance. She needed to be engaged to James Pierson Beckwourth, a mulatto who possessed culture, a high social rung and a life that dazzled most. There was promise with Jim. For that, Eliza would wait.
Portia had grown wizened all of a sudden. Her skin hung leathery on her neck and the top of her hands. The clear whites of her eyes had turned to chalk. Her gait began to drag, making her destinations seem impossible.
This woman hated to see her daughter so patient. She had never trusted Jim. She wanted a life for Eliza with a man who legally recognized her as his wife. Portia thought that Eliza’s marriage would redeem her own life. But Eliza insisted on waiting, Portia believed betrayed, for the far-away adventurer.
One day in April when the irises were in bloom and the sparrows sang, the strong back of a new man in town named Frank Whitmore could be seen through the window of the Shepheard’s downstairs sitting room. He wore a white shirt and his clean fingernails caught the light as he gestured. Portia and Eliza sat opposite him, peering at his round, brown eyes, dark, sienna skin and short, neatly cut hair. Two large vases filled with the white lilies he had brought stood on tables on either side of them beside their tea cups.
The proud son of free Philadelphia blacks, Frank did not doubt his worth as a man. He had no need for swagger, or arrogance or bombast. His insides were not tied up because he had never tasted the bitterness of bondage. He directed his anger about slavery toward working for its end.
“I cannot accept barbaric treatment of the race,” he said, in the fiery tone of an orator. “To enslave anyone is an outrage to humanity. And I am not going back to Africa. The American colonists in Liberia are ripe to commit the same atrocities there that have been done to them here. This is where I was born. This is where I will stay. It’s difficult to believe that this is the nineteenth century!”
Frank wrote essays for the abolition newspaper The Liberator and lobbied for publication in other papers like the Missouri Gazette. He had never lived as far south as St. Louis. At first, the apparent complacency of blacks there shocked him. Then, as he learned to leave his Northern prejudice behind him, he realized that those in slavery wore smiles but seethed inside with a rage that sabotaged their effort to right injustice. They softened the barbed edges of reality with church, music, sex, liquor. They sought deliverance from evil in the haze of forgetting. What else could they do, they asked themselves. Frank was beginning to understand their plight, but he was a man of action who could not live their lives.
“I have got to convince the Gazette’s publisher of the inhumanity of slavery,” he said.
“But Mr. Whitmore,” Eliza said, “He is not convinced of it. He has slaves himself.”
“Doesn’t that make you angry,” Frank nearly shouted.
“Mr. Whitmore, my mother has a school for free black children. I teach at it, too. We, who are free, are not many here. But the few of us that there are must accomplish everything of which we are capable. We can only do that if we are educated.
“Am I angry about slavery? Mr. Whitmore, I try not to think about it. I’m grateful that I was born free, as you must be, but I do not fantasize about what it would have been like otherwise.”
“What about the others who were not so fortunate,” Frank asked, subdued and sincerely.
“I am sorry for them but I don’t know what I can do to change things,” Eliza said, sadly and helplessly.
“I was a slave, Mr. Whitmore,” Portia said. “I wasn’t freed until my twenties. That was thirty years ago. But at night, I still dream of those shackled times and the awful things I did to survive. When I’m awake, I try to forget.”
“I am sorry,” Frank said. He had not known that his host had been a slave. He felt that he had to defer to someone who had gone through the fire. “I didn’t mean to offend or hurt you, especially in your house at your kind and first invitation. I hope that I shall be invited again.”
“Of course,” Portia said.
“Thank you,” Frank said. “It’s getting late. I’d better go."
“Goodby, Mr. Whitmore. Thank you for coming,” Portia said. Not missing a beat of courteous behavior, she extended her hand. Frank rose and kissed it.
“I’ll walk you to the door,” Eliza said.
She stood and led the way out of the room and through the narrow hallway. Frank followed, hoping that he had not ruined himself in the family. He respected the Shepheard women. He had not meant to prick their pain. These Southern women were proud, he thought. As he looked at Eliza’s petite body, he wondered why she was not married. He found her to be intelligent, confident and stunning. When he first saw her that afternoon, he had stopped breathing. It was his mission, he assumed, to marry a woman of color and raise a family that would carry on the tradition of transcending subjugation. In his twenty-seven years, he had not known anyone whom he had found as enticing on the first meeting as Eliza. When they reached the door, she opened it for him.
“Thank you for having tea with us,” she said. “My mother and I enjoyed having you.”
“It was my pleasure. I hope we can do it again sometime,” he said, wishing that she would say something to let him know her feelings.
“Perhaps,” she said. One small word. But Frank was so smitten that he took it as corroboration that she had an interest in him. Frank left feeling lightheaded. Eliza closed the door behind him and walked back to the parlor where her mother was gathering the pieces of the tea set.
“What do you think of him,” Eliza asked.
“He’s a passionate young man,” Portia said. “He’s a Northerner. They’re all like that—obsessed with abolition. And you, my darling, what did you think?”
“I agree with what he says but his manner is so argumentative and brusque.”
“I believe that his manner is the way of the future. It’s the only way to secure change. I admire Mr. Frank Whitmore. He lives by his principles.”
Portia liked Frank very much. He had come to her school at the house earlier that day and introduced himself. It was then that she had invited him back for tea. She had heard about him before she met him. He had been described as free, erudite and sophisticated—and unmarried. On talking with him, she had found him well-mannered and determined. Here was a man worthy of her daughter and strong-willed enough to persuade her. But Portia did not admit to any of these thoughts. They would only turn Eliza against him.
“He does seem to have strong convictions,” Eliza said, and thought—and strong arms. But she suppressed her physical response to Frank. She was, after all, spoken for.
Portia said nothing. She caught the quickly vanishing upturning of the sides of Eliza’s mouth. She could see that Eliza was whirling inside.
That night, Eliza untied the yellow bow of the flowered enamel box that held Jim’s letters. She fell asleep in bed reading them. She fell asleep thinking of her Jim sitting with her, smiling with her and talking with her in the house of dreams that she had built.
As Eliza read, Frank sat in Estelle’s boardinghouse where he had taken a room. In the downstairs parlor, he learned about Eliza’s fiancé from Estelle.
“I had no idea,” he said.
“How could you,” Estelle said. “Jim is rarely here. You see, Mr. Whitmore, he’s a mountain man. He explores the vast regions of the West.”
“How long has he been doing that?”
“Oh, my. When Jim moved out of his room to go on his first expedition, he was about twenty. Now, he must be in his mid-thirties,” Estelle said. Her wrinkled face broke into a smile at the memory of it.
“You mean he hasn’t been back since then?”
“Oh, he’s been back. He comes and goes although the last time I saw him was seven years ago.”
“He hasn’t been back since then?”
“No, I don’t believe he has.”
“How can Eliza remain engaged to a man whom she hasn’t seen in seven years,” Frank asked, incredulously.
“I don’t know. He is her first and only love. She’s living on a romantic island all alone. Mind you, Jim is an amazing man. He’s handsome, exuberant, a daredevil. She believes in their love triumphant over all.”
“I see,” Frank said. “Do you have any idea when he’ll be back?”
“No,” Estelle said.
“Thank you for your conversation,” Frank said. “I’ll be going to my room now.”
“You’re quite welcome,” Estelle said. “Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” Frank said, and turned to leave for some time of plotting strategy.
Frank did get more invitations to tea at the Shepheard’s. Always, he brought flowers for both women. He strived to be a delightful guest full of entertaining anecdotes about his parents, his older sister and her family back in Philadelphia and the memories of growing up in a cultured, politically astute household.
“Will you be returning to Philadelphia soon,” Eliza asked, one day.
“It depends,” Frank said.
“On what,” she asked.
“On how long it takes for me to get what I want,” he said.
His answer had two interpretations.
“Powerful men usually are stubborn. And the thinking in newspapers is hard to change,” Eliza said, referring to the Gazette and other Southern newspaper publishers.
“Yes,” Frank said, submitting to Eliza’s interpretation and her naivete.
Nearly a year passed. Portia’s opinion of Frank remained unchanged as did Frank’s of Eliza. lthough Eliza’s faithfulness to Jim did not waver; her friendship with Frank grew. Eliza talked with Frank about her life with Jim as the center of it. Frank did not question Jim’s presence; he did not criticize his absence. He could see Eliza’s heart swell with pride and her eyes become hazy with the far away when Jim’s name passed her lips. What could she possibly be thinking, Frank thought. This man of hers is certainly nothing like she remembers him eight years ago. Time can wear a man down. Eliza did not seem to think that a different Jim might come home--if he ever came home at all. But Frank said nothing. He simply listened.
“Jim would visit every day after working at Casner’s. He is very attentive. He writes me. I haven’t received a letter in some time but I know that means that he can’t get a letter to me. Jim loves me. And I love him. I always will.”
’I always will.’ The words rang through the house. The house chanted them. Eliza would wait for Jim whether he was dead or alive. It was like she was living in a bottle.
‘I always will.’ Who makes these promises outside of marriage, Frank asked himself. ‘Always’ would be a hard vow to break. Frank left soon afterwards hating a man he had never met.
After hearing her daughter’s proclamation of love, Portia felt confused. Why was her daughter so faithful to a ghost? Suddenly, Portia thought that Eliza was imitating her by holding onto the past.
Portia had not been with anyone since Jason, but it was not because of loyalty. Sex nauseated her. It sickened her to think that Eliza was wasting a part of her life because of her example. Much of Portia’s life had been beyond her control; that was not true for Eliza. She had to take action for the sake of her daughter, sweet Eliza, who could never know her father. There was no putting it off now. Portia excused herself from the parlor and went to the library where she began writing a letter until dinner and then returned to it after the meal. When she finished, she stood and looked at the moon through the window, so full, so right. She felt excruciating pleasure. For thirty minutes, she posed there like that losing herself in the light. Then, still in a daze, she walked to the kitchen where she boiled water and steeped leaves of a herb in a pot. It was the same tea that she had prepared monthly for years when she was intimate with Jason. Tonight, she had added more of the herb than ever before.
Portia carried the tea set into her bedroom and crawled into bed where she sipped all of the tea. Slowly, she bled from where she had given life. And bled and bled and bled. Through the night. Into the next day.
Eliza knocked on her door the next morning. Hearing no response, she left her mother undisturbed. It was a Saturday; there was no school. And she knew that Portia had stayed up late writing. Eliza ran errands all day. She returned home about four in the afternoon and was surprised to find her mother’s door still closed. She knocked again; again, there was no answer.
“Portia, you’re sleeping the day away,” she said, as she opened the door. “Are you ill?”
Silent response to her words. She sat beside Portia and felt her forehead. It was warm. Then she spotted the Bible at the foot of the bed and a folded paper stuck inside. Eliza got up and pulled out the letter which she unfolded and read:
Life became too much for me.
I described my relationship with your father as all honey and sweetness because it hurt so much to admit the truth. I preferred to tell you what could have been if we could have listened only to our hearts. We could not.
Your father and I never married. He forced me to become intimate with him when I was young. After that first time, he realized that he had done wrong. He felt sorry for me, worse for himself. He nursed me for several days and asked me to stay with him. I became his secret mistress about whom everyone knew. I left him when he became engaged to another woman, a white woman, and I became pregnant with you. We went our separate ways. We had to.
For all the time I was with him—ten years—I never forgave him. But we grew to care for each other very much. Very much, darling.
Eliza, I regret my life. All except you and your freedom.
Darling please, don’t believe whispered promises. Soft and gentle as they sound, they will caress your ears before ripping your heart and, sometimes, your life apart. This much I know about life.
Please forgive me.
Your loving mother,
Eliza wailed for mercy.