28. October 2019 · Comments Off on Another Snippet of the Work in Progress: That Fateful Lightning · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

(Miss Minnie Vining has returned to Boston from a long stay with kinfolk in Richmond, Virginia, early in the 185ies. She is enjoying a night of rest in her own home.)

Minnie, exhausted and bone-weary from several days of uninterrupted travel on the cars, retired early, and slept soundly that first night upon returning home to Boston, although she did experience a particularly vivid dream, of being carried in Pres Devereaux’s arms, while he protested his love for her. In that odd, unsettling manner of dreams, she found herself arrayed in a white dress and a veil over her hair, standing in a church, protesting that she didn’t want to be married, and Miss Beauchamp from the Richmond train standing next to her, saying,

“But he is your husband now, so of course you must obey him.”

“No!” Minnie exclaimed, and threw her bouquet on the floor, and tore the veil from her head. “No, I detest veils, and I will never obey!”

“You’ll be sorry,” Miss Beauchamp promised as she turned into Susan’s domineering housekeeper, black Hepzibah. “You shouldn’t overtax yourself!”

“I won’t!” Minnie replied, defiantly, and somewhere a clatter of horse hoofs on the cobbles resounded like a thunderclap and she woke, sitting straight up in bed. The light of a pale dawn leaked around the edges of the window curtains. Minnie regarded the familiar walls of her own bedroom with relief and wondered what had led to that particular dream.

She had no intention of obeying – obeying anyone – as if she were a being with no thoughts or desires of her own. From downstairs came the faint clatter of iron potlids on the great cookstove in the basement of the tall old house, and the indistinct voices of Mrs. Norris and Jerusha; the reassuring tenor of life as it had always been in Papa-the-Judges’ house. Minnie slid out from the covers and dressed; a plain toilette, and her hair in a simple and heavy knot at the back of her neck. The tall clock in the hallway struck the hour of eight as she hurried down the stairs, through the parlor and into the dining room, where the double-rank of elegant chairs flanked the dining table on either side.

“I’ll have breakfast in the parlor,” she called into the stairwell, reconsidering the lonely dignity of sitting in the dining room by herself. She supposed that she should sit at the head of the table now that she now owned that portion of Papa-the-Judge’s estate; a bleak honor, indeed. When she was a girl, the dining room had often been a crowded, lively place, with Papa-the-Judge at the head chair, and her brothers, their friends, Annabelle, Cousin Peter and his family … no, the dining room was the refuge of shades and memories. Best to close the doors between the parlor and the dining room, crowded as the latter was with the ghosts of brothers and friends.

Perhaps she might invite Annabelle, Sophie and Richard to dine, on some later occasion.

“Very well, Miss Minnie,” Mrs. Norris called in return. A moment later, Bertha came up the steps from the cellar kitchen, slightly out of breath between the hurry up the narrow utility stair and the weight of the tray with a teapot, a rack of newly toasted bread, and a plate of scrapple and scrambled eggs upon it. Bertha set the tray on the unfolded stand, which stood before the largest window in the parlor, that which gave a view out onto the street, and into the meadows and solitary stands of lonely trees in the Common.

There was talk of building a public garden adjacent to the Common, Minnie had heard through gossip with various friends.

That would be nice, she thought again, as she attended to her breakfast, after expressing her gratitude to Bertha and her sister, over her hunger for breakfast and a good stout cup of strong tea, without having to be diplomatic over the breakfast table. “And I will wish to consult with your sister about menus for the week, and the marketing. There is no need to fix a supper for me, this evening; I will be dining at the Brewers’ tonight. Richard has said that he will send the coach for me…”

Bertha cleared her throat. “Shall I bring up more tea … and some cakes, when Mrs. Bard arrives? She left her card yesterday, saying that she had something of importance which she wanted to discuss with you …”

“I remember,” Minnie sighed. “I will receive her visit, since I have no plans for the day, other than to write letters, and an account of our stay in Richmond and my visit to the slave markets for Mr. Garrison’s newspaper. I hope that Mrs. Bard will be concise as to the purpose of her visit. She is otherwise the most tedious woman of my acquaintance…”

Tem had been even more scathing; ‘That woman is too good for this earth,’ he declared on many occasions. ‘She deserves to be under it, inspiring the roses and daisies.

It did not escape Minnie’s observation that Bertha smothered a small burst of laughter at her own observation.

“Very well, Miss Minnie – I will bring a tray of tea and cakes to the parlor when Mrs. Bard is received.”

“Thank you, Bertha,” Minnie answered, and consumed the remainder of her breakfast, feeling a mix of relief at being home … and yet a small portion of boredom. Today she would write letters, begin an account of that visit to the Richmond slave markets – but what then? What should she do with herself now, as a woman of active years, possessed of an independent income, an interest in public matters, especially regarding those victims of the peculiar institution, and no small feeling of obligation towards those others less blessed by fortune; no, there were no feelings of guilt over being thus favored, but such a standard had been bred into her bones and encouraged since birth.

Sufficient unto the day, Minnie told herself. And I hope that I may dissuade Lolly Bard from lingering too long. Today she was given over to letters, words and memories of that appalling venture into the Shockoe Bottom district – and to firmly suppress any feelings of belated love for Pres Devereaux. She would rather think of him as a guide and worthy opponent.

She had too much to do, to bother with romance.

When Minnie had finished with breakfast, she didn’t wait for Bertha or Mrs. Norris to come and retrieve the tray. She walked across the hallway into Papa-the-Judges’ library and study, a magnificent room with tall bookshelves on every wall, save that of the front, where a deep window embrasure and built-in seat commanded a view of the common. This apartment now was entirely her own, as was every other room. Here, her brother Tem had chosen to spend his last days and hours, sleeping fitfully on a day-bed chaise moved into the corner, and in his more alert hours, dictating a stream of letters to Minnie, sitting with her pen in hand, and inkpot at the ready, at the elaborate slant-front desk which had been Papa-the-Judges’. With his riches earned from investing in the China trade, the tall secretary desk was a magnificent thing; dark golden maple wood adorned with contrasting inlay, full of niches, shelves, drawers large and small, some of them secret … of course, Minnie knew the hidden catches to all the secret spaces within the desk. Papa-the-Judge had trusted her, implicitly. She uncapped the ink-bottle, dipped her trustiest pen into it, and began to write …

My dear Miss Van Lew … we are safely returned at last from our long visit…   

Minnie had finished that letter, one to Susan, enclosing a second for Cousin Peter, and begun on her account of visiting the Shockoe Bottom, when Bertha tapped discretely on the door to the study.

“Mrs. Bard is here, Miss Minnie – I showed her into the parlor. I’ll bring up the tea directly.”

“Thank you, Bertha,” Minnie wiped her pen nib clean and corked the ink bottle with a sigh. “I’ll be in directly.”

She performed a quick assessment of her appearance in the gilt-trimmed Spanish looking glass hanging in the entryway, and set a hospitable smile on her face, before opening the parlor door.

“Mrs. Bard,” she exclaimed. “How kind of you to call! Mrs. Norris told me you had left your card yesterday.”

Eulalia Bard was Minnie’s age; short, plump and pretty still, with round blue eyes in a girlish face, and soft tendrils of light brown hair curling between her cheeks and the brim of her bonnet. She had several children, all grown, and was the widow of a man who had been, as Lolly often insisted, very important in railways. She had settled in Boston after the death of her husband, to be near the home of her oldest son. Over the previous three or four years, Minnie and Annabelle had listened to Lolly Bard chatter about her husband and her boys’ every excellence, to the point of tedium. The other ladies in the Congregationalist parish tolerated her with mixed fondness and exasperation; while feather-headed in the extreme, her heart and sympathy were in the right place. She had never a bad word to say to or of anyone, save those who owned slaves. For Lolly Bard, silly and charming – was at least as adamant as Tem Vining had been, regarding the Abolition cause. Minnie had often wondered if Lolly had set her cap at Tem Vining as a potential suitor, but Tem’s feelings towards her, even before his health declined, had been one of waspish exasperation.

“We were expecting your return weeks ago, dear Miss Vining,” Lolly Bard had put down her bulging reticule on the settee, but as was proper, had not removed her shawl or her gloves. “And … I had hoped that we were sufficiently close enough friends that you would call me Lolly, and I might use your first name.”

“Then I suppose that we should,” Minnie agreed – anything to rush Lolly Bard’s visit so that she could return to her writing. “I have sent for tea to be served, if you would care to partake with me.”

“I did not wish to interrupt what you might be doing,” Lolly make a not very convincing protest. “Since we have only just returned… please do not trouble yourself.”

“It is no trouble,” Minnie yielded, well-resigned and knowing that Lolly would take her time approaching any discussion of whatever it was which had so worried her. “I was writing letters, and an account of a visit to the slave market in Richmond, which I intend to forward to the Reverend Slocomb, and perhaps to Mr. Garrison for publication in the Liberator, but I needed to rest my hand after so long a stint with pen and ink.”

“You write with so fine a hand,” Lolly replied, innocent of any artifice. “As fine as any scrivener or secretary. Your little notes are a pleasure to read, indeed. My own writing … Dear Mr. Bard would say that he had pleasure unending from any of my letters, for it would take him months to decipher what I had written to him when he was away, overseeing the building of his railway.”

At that moment, Bertha carried in the tea-tray, laden with teapot, sugar-bowl, creamer, china cups and saucers, and a three-tiered tray of small cakes and tartlets which were the pride of Jerusha’s kitchen. She set it on the folding stand which had supported Minnie’s dinner tray the previous evening, and tactfully withdrew. Minnie poured out the tea and wondered when Lolly would come to the point of her visit, or how very much longer this process might take. She really wanted to return to her writing.

“Here is your tea, Lolly – you have some matter of concern to discuss with me?” Minnie ventured, and Lolly accepted the china cup with a sigh, and added sugar and cream to it.

“It’s the Reverend Slocomb,” Lolly confessed, after a stir and a sip. “Minnie, dear, I am most awfully concerned. I fear that in his … injudicious affections, that he has let our cause down, most horribly.”

Minnie repressed her impatience and replied, “I have heard talk of … a lawsuit was it? A suit for divorce. He was making protestations of love to a married woman…I cannot think that such may be true…”

“But it is,” Lolly replied, in all earnest. “He has been pledging love to Caroline Forbes for simply months, and she has been returning it. No, it is not gossip, for I have observed them on many occasions, with mine own eyes; their affection is not a thing about which I can be mistaken. It is most distressing – surely, she is old enough to know better than to be so flagrantly indiscreet; and now that Mr. Forbes has petitioned for a divorce! How could the Reverend be so thoughtless as to compromise his own moral standing in our cause? She will be cut off from her children, and he … from the pulpit and leadership within the church! How can he be so recklessly indiscreet, Minnie! The scandal of an adulterous connection taints every word he has ever spoken. How can he take any position of moral authority with any credibility, now! Mark my words, the husband of every woman in his congregation will be wondering if he is speaking words of love to their wives, and with justification! He and Caroline will become pariahs in society, in Boston and everywhere else.”

“I am certain that the situation cannot be as public as you declare…” Minnie began, and Lolly replied,

“But it is already become an open scandal in Boston, and very soon everywhere else! The newspapers have already gotten ahold of it … you would not have known, since you were traveling; doubtless you will not have already seen the libelous speculation in the Southern newspapers. It is horrible, Minnie – the things that have been published regarding Reverend Slocomb, and to the embarrassment of our congregation, they are mostly true! How could he have done this, to us, and to our cause?”

“A man,” Minnie replied, sore to her heart with a sense of betrayal, as she had taken the Reverend Slocomb to be at least an honest and moral man. “Only a man, my dear Lolly – and prone to fits of irrationality in their affections. The stories that Papa-the-Judge related to me touched on every imaginable vice, large and small. I confess that I am disappointed in the character of the Reverend Slocomb! But I cannot divine the purpose of this visit, Lolly – is there some action that you wish me to take, in regard to his matter?”

“Yes,” Lolly replied, setting down her teacup with an air of resolution. “The Reverend Slocomb was to deliver a public lecture regarding the evils of the slave system … at the beginning of next month, in a hall hired for the purpose. For the reason of public scandal, he cannot … we were wondering if you would do the lecture instead?” “Me … a public lecture?” Minnie was utterly taken back.

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