15th July 1823
Proposals of marriage should not cause panic. That much she knew.
Eli knelt before her on the riverbank. His cheekbones paled into marble above his high collar. Behind him, the water rushed in silver eddies, dashed itself against the bank, and spiraled onward out of sight. If only she could melt into the water and tumble away with it down the narrow valley.
She clutched the folds of her skirt, as the answer she wanted to give him also slid away and lost itself in her jumbled thoughts.
Afternoon light burnished his blond hair to gold. “Must I beg for you? Then I shall.” He smiled. “You know I have a verse for every occasion. ‘Is it thy will thy image should keep open, My heavy eyelids to the weary night? Dost thou desire my slumbers should be broken, While shadows like to thee do mock my sight?’”
The silence lengthened. His smile faded.
“No.” The single word was all Ann could muster. It sliced the air between them with its awkward sharpness.
He faltered. “You refuse me?”
He released her hand, his eyes wide, his lips parted. After a pause, he closed his mouth and swallowed visibly. “But why?” Hurt flowered in his face.
“We’re too young.” The words sounded tinny and false even to her.
“You’ve said that youth is no barrier to true love. And I’m nineteen.” He rose to his feet, buttoning his cobalt cutaway coat.
“But I’m only fifteen.” Again Ann failed to disguise her hollowness.
She had never imagined a proposal so soon, always assuming it years away, at a safe distance. She should never have told him how she loved the story of Juliet and Romeo. Only a week ago, she had called young marriage romantic, as she and Eli sat close to one another on that very riverbank, reading the parts of the lovers in low voices.
“There is some other reason.” In his mounting indignation, he resembled a blond avenging angel. “What is it? Is it because I did not ask your father first?”
“You should have asked him, but even so, he would not have consented. Father will not permit me to marry until I am eighteen.”
“Eighteen? Three years?” His eyes were the blue at the center of a candle flame. “Then you must change his mind. I cannot wait.” He slid his hands behind her elbows and pulled her close. His touch aligned all her senses to him like nails cleaving to a magnet. With an effort, she twisted from his grasp and shook her head.
His brow creased and he looked away as if he could not bear the sight of her. “I think it very callous of you to refuse me without the slightest attempt to persuade your father.”
“I do not think he will change his mind. He has been very clear.”
“Then perhaps you should have been—clearer— yourself.“ His faint sarcasm stung her, as if a bee had crawled beneath the lace at her bodice.
He dropped his gaze. “You would not give up so easily, if you cared. You have deceived me, Ann.”
He turned and walked up the river bank, the white lining flashing from the gore of his coat over his boot tops. Before she could even call out, he topped the ridge and disappeared from view.
She stared blankly after him. She was so certain that the Lord had intended Eli to be her husband. But that once-distant future had arrived too early, and now it lay in ruins.
Numb, she collected the history and rhetoric books that she had dropped on the grass. She must change her father’s mind, as Eli had said. If she did not, all was lost.
She clutched the books to her like a shield, and began the long walk home.
In front of the farmhouse, her two young sisters crouched in the grass in their flowered frocks. Mabel pointed her chubby little finger at an insect on the ground. Susan brushed back wispy strands of light brown hair and peered at it.
“Have you seen Father?” Ann asked them.
Their soft faces turned toward her.
“He’s in the work-shop.” Mabel’s voice was high and pure and still held a trace of its baby lisp. She turned back to inspect the grass.
“ He said he is writing a sermon and please not to disturb him.” Susan added with the panache of an eight-year-old giving orders.
Without comment, Ann angled towards the barn, which held the horses and also a workshop for her father’s saddle and harness business. Like most circuit-riders, he did not earn his living from his ministry, and so he crafted sermons and saddles at the same workbench.
He glanced up when the wooden door slapped against its frame behind her.
“Ann,” His clean-shaven face showed the wear of his forty years, though his posture was vigorous and his constitution strong from hours of riding and farmwork. “I asked Susan to let you know I was writing.” There was no blame in his voice. He had always been gentle with them, and even more so since their mother had passed away.
“I must speak with you.”
“You seem perturbed.” He laid down his quill and turned around in his chair. “Will you sit down?”
“No, thank you.” She clasped her hands in front of her and pressed them firmly against her wide sash to steady herself as she took a quick breath.. “Eli Bowen proposed to me today.”
“Without asking my blessing?” A small line appeared between his brows. “And what did you tell him?”
“That I cannot marry until I am eighteen. That you have forbidden it.”
“That is true. I have good reason to ask you to wait.” He regarded her steadily.
She summoned restraint with effort. “What reason? I am young, I know, but he is nineteen. He can make his way in the world. He wishes to go to medical school.”
“I don’t doubt that Mr. Bowen is a fine young man.” Her father’s reply was calm. “But I do not think your mother would have let you marry so young.”
“Diana Sumner married last year, and she was only sixteen.” She paced across the room, casting her eyes on the floor, on the walls, anywhere but on him. He must not refuse, he must not. He did not understand.
“I am not Diana’s father.” His voice was flat, unyielding. He turned to his table and gently closed his Bible. When he faced her again, his demeanor softened. “Your mother almost married another man when she was your age. She told me it would have been a terrible match. She was glad she waited until she was eighteen.” He looked at her mother’s tiny portrait in its oval ivory frame on the table. “She said that by the time she met me, she knew her own mind, and wasn’t quite as silly.”
“I am not silly. I know how I feel. And he is not a terrible match.” Her voice grew quieter as her throat tightened.
“I am sorry, Ann. I must do what I think is right.” He was sober and sad.
Or what is convenient. For who else would care for my sisters, if not me?
But such thoughts wronged her father, for she had never known him to act from self-interest.
“But how can he wait for me? He is older than I am. He will want to marry before three years are out.” She did not try to keep the pleading from her voice, though her face tingled.
He paused, then leaned forward, steady and quiet as when he comforted a bereaved widow. “Then he does not deserve you.”
“No, you are simply mistaken. And cruel.”
He stood up and walked to the back of the barn.
Clutching her skirt, she whirled around, pushed through the door, and ran for the house.
She would not give way to tears. She must stay calm. She slowed to a walk so her sisters would not be startled, and passed them without a word.
Her bedroom beckoned her down the dark hallway.
She did not throw herself on the bed, as she had so often that first year after the loss of her mother.
Instead, she went to her desk, lifted the top, and fished out her diary. Her skirts sent up a puff of air as she flounced into the seat and began writing feverishly. After some time, the even curves of her handwriting mesmerized her, and her quill slowed.. She lifted it from the page of the book and gazed ahead at the dark oaken wall.
What if he does not wait for me?
She must not doubt him so. Eli would regain his good humor and understand. He had told her many times that she was his perfect match, that he would never find another girl so admirable and with such uncommon interest in the life of the mind.
Besides, she had been praying to someday find a husband of like interests and kind heart, And God had provided. Eli loved poetry and appreciated fine art, but he was nonetheless a man’s man who liked to ride and hunt. And of course, he was every village girl’s dream, with his aristocratic face. No other young man in Rushville could compare..
She doodled on the bottom of the page. First she wrote her own name.
Then she wrote his. Then she wrote her name with his.
She smiled, pushed the diary aside, and pillowed her head on her arm to daydream of white bridal gowns and orange blossoms.
18th July 1823
If a young man had to sign away his freedom for five whole years, surely this was the best way to do it. Will pulled the heavy window cloth aside and leaned forward to look out the carriage window.
“Not yet, boy,” Master Good said.
What a kind voice Will’s future master had. It was smooth as oiled leather, befitting a man with a calm brow and a steady gaze. Master Good’s hair was uncommonly dark for a man of middle age, his light blue eyes ageless under the rim of his fine black hat. He lifted his hand with fluid grace to gesture at the window. “See that hill?”
“Yes sir.” The carriage rode alongside a huge mound that obscured their view. All Will could see was a tapestry of grass rolling past the window at a rapid rate. The foot-tall growth on the hillside was mostly green, but here and there, threads of dry straw whispered of colder days to come.
“The city won’t come into view until we round the hill.” Master Good lifted his leather satchel into his lap. Unbuckling the clasp, he drew out several pieces of ivory parchment and thrust them in Will’s direction. “Look, boy.”
Will let the cloth fall back over the window and wiped his hand on his pants before taking the papers.
His master leaned back against the leather seat. “We’ll be stopping soon to sign this and have it witnessed by my neighbor. Best to read through it now so we can be quick.”
Will was grateful his father had taught him to read so well. Father would be proud now, if he could see how Will had secured such a good future for himself.
The threat of tears prickled in his eyes. He fought them off. It had been five years since he lost his parents. The boy of ten who wept every night that year was now almost a young man. He would behave like one, especially in front of his soon-to-be master.
Holding the documents in one hand, Will pressed his thin knapsack with the other and reassured himself that his folded packet of letters was still in there. Those letters and the little silver locket were all he had left of his mother and father.
He stared at the papers Master Good had given him. The letters stood out in thick flourishes, stark and black against the purity of the paper.
Mr. Jacob Good Came this Day in the presence of witness, to receive William Hanby as an Apprentice for the period of five years, to learn the art or trade of Saddlery and perform sundry duties to support his Master’s trade. During the whole of this period said Apprentice will be in His Master’s Service and will not work for Hire for any other person; he will be obedient to his Master’s command and diligent in his Employment. To his Master he will grant all Sovereignty over his person and his whereabouts for the duration of his Apprenticeship; his Master shall provide him with bed and board. Upon the successful completion of the Term, his Master shall furnish him with a set of tools of the trade, one new coat and one pair of new shoes.
Signed, dated and countersigned,
“You see that all is in order,” Master Good said. He adjusted his hat and opened his hand for the papers.
“Yes sir. Thank you, sir.” Will gave back the indenture agreement with care.
The driver on top of the carriage whistled to the horses in their traces; the whip cracked. The jostling increased, and Will’s shoulder rammed into the wooden door frame on his left. Wincing, he leaned again to the window and pulled the small curtain aside.
The city of
! The coach had topped the hill. In the valley below, three rivers joined, and a jumbled maze of dark buildings spread out between them. Smoke drifted over the city like thick fog. He smelled something unpleasant, like burning refuse. No matter. Naturally, where there’s industry and wealth, there will be smoke. Nothing could quell his excitement. Pittsburgh
All he had known was life on a farm.When he was seven, his parents and his two sisters had developed a consumption that gave them first a cough, then fever and pains throughout the body. On a doctor’s advice, his father had indentured Will and his still-healthy brother Johnny to two separate farming families, in order to save them from infection. Over the course of two years, one letter after another informed Will that first his sisters and then his father and mother had succumbed to virulent infection of the blood, an effect of consumption no doctor could heal.
With the Quaker farmer, Will’s work had been hard, though the farmer was fair and honest. Will had longed to see more than barns and horses—he wanted to read books, see ships, talk to travelers. When his farm indenture expired last month, he had jumped at the chance for a
apprenticeship. He could hardly wait for the larger world that lay before him. Pittsburgh
At the bottom of the hill, the coach entered a labyrinth of streets dense with buildings. First was a two-story mercantile, then a livery stable. Next came a brick warehouse with “Rifles and Munitions” painted in white across its side. Pedestrians clotted the road. The coach clattered past doctors’ establishments with gilt signs, and offices for attorneys-at law.
“Master Good, look. Another saddler.” Will pointed to a sign with a saddle and two crossed whips.
“Yes, I have plenty of would-be rivals.” His master did not seem curious about the sights, but instead picked up a newspaper that lay on the seat beside him and scanned the advertisements. Outside the window, the crowd thinned and wider plots of land girdled genteel residences.
The carriage slowed and shuddered to a stop as the driver yelled “Whoa there!” Boots thumped on the ground outside, and the driver opened the door for them, his hat and whiskers covered with dust..
Will’s master stooped to exit the carriage, and then it was Will’s turn. He slung his knapsack over his shoulder with care. He would not let it out of his sight until he had a safe place for the letters and the locket in the little drawstring pouch.
When he climbed down from the coach, his master was already striding towards a two-story white home, graceful amid green lawns. Will had never seen such a large dwelling; he tried not to let his eyes pop like a bumpkin’s.
He quickened his step to catch up with his master, who rapped with a brass knocker on the blue double door. After a brief wait, the door opened to reveal a young woman in a gray dress and white apron, her hair bound in a net.
“Hello, Mary,” Master Good said. “I need to speak with the doctor, if you please.”
She bobbed her head and ushered them in, then disappeared into the recesses of the home.
The foyer had a high-ceiling, marble floor and a banister-lined staircase curving up and back to the left. A painting in muted tones depicted a dark valley, relieved only by rays of light breaking through massed clouds above.
“Good afternoon to you, Jacob.” A deep voice issued from the man who stepped through the arched doorway on the far side of the foyer. He of average height and wore a a black frock coat; his hair was pure white and his shoulders straight as a soldier’s. As he crossed the room to offer a hand to Will’s master, he shot Will a quick glance. Will wished his own coat and trousers were not so threadbare and shabby.
“Dr. Loftin,” Master Good shook the doctor’s hand briefly, then clasped Will’s shoulder. “This is my new apprentice, William Hanby.”
The doctor nodded at Will.
“He is entering his term of apprenticeship today. We need a witness for his papers of indenture.” Master Good stepped over to a small mahogany table against the wall, placed his satchel on it, and removed the papers. “Would you serve as our witness?”
The doctor hesitated. His bright green eyes were set in crow’s feet; his gaze lingered on Will’s face. “William.” He did not take his eyes from Will even as he extended his hand to take the papers from Good. “Are you aware of the significance of this contract?”
The doctor’s expression was grave. “You realize you will be irrevocably bound to your master for five years? You understand that?”
“Yes sir. I’m grateful for the opportunity Master Good is providing for me.”
The doctor looked over the papers. At last, he spoke, a furrow creasing his brow. “Very well. The last time I witnessed an indenture document was twenty years ago, and it was for a grown Irishman, not a boy. But if you are certain, William, I suppose we will need a quill.”
It was the work of a moment to call the maid for a quill and inkhorn. Good signed first, writing “Jacob Good” in a jagged hand like an insect’s trail. Will scrawled his name beneath, then the doctor signed “Robert Loftin, MD” at the very bottom.
“Well, it’s done,” the doctor said. “And I pray God will watch over this indenture.” He spoke quietly, almost to himself.
“I’m sure He will,” Master Good said, and shaking the doctor’s hand once more, bid him good day.
Master Good’s household lay just a short walk beyond the doctor’s home. Will trailed his master as they headed down a winding path past the doctor’s animal pens. A fine white sow and her piglets rooted in their trough. His little brother, Johnny, loved feeding piglets and hearing them squeal. He hoped Johnny would get along all right in Beallsville.
A two-story home loomed ahead of them, not as large as the doctor’s, but sturdily-built of whitewashed planks. Master Good must have been very industrious to be blessed with such a home, as well as a large barn and fenced-in land. The master walked up to his front door without ceremony and let himself in. Will ran behind and barely caught the door with his elbow before it closed.
They stood in a dim, large room. To the left, maroon chairs curved in a formal sitting area before a fireplace and mantel. To the right was a kitchen with a large hearth and stone floor. Pots and pans hung from the imposing central beam of the kitchen ceiling. There was a smell of damp, as if the bones of the house were old and in need of air.
“Jane!” Master Good’s unexpected shout made Will jump.
Something thudded to the floor upstairs. Feet pattered on the staircase next to them, and down the lower flight of steps rushed a rail-thin, middle-aged woman with mousy hair pulled tightly back from her forehead. She stopped, poised like a heron about to take flight. “Jacob,” she said. “Welcome to you.”
He brushed past her and into the kitchen. “Come over here, boy,” he said over his shoulder. Will hurried after him to the hearth.
“Jane, where is Tom?” Without waiting for an answer, the master bellowed, “Tom! Tom Reece!”
The kitchen door flew open and a tangle of limbs fell through, sorting itself into the figure of a slight young boy with dark hair and a grimy face. He appeared younger than Will—perhaps a year or two. His cheekbones were sharp, his elbows so skinny they looked as if they would snap at the slightest pressure.
“Tom, this is your new fellow apprentice, Will Hanby. Explain to him our rules.”
“Yes sir,” Tom said faintly.
Good removed his hat. The skinny woman scurried over and took it, then retreated back against the wall. “Well?” Good said to Tom.
Tom spoke in a quick monotone as if reciting a lesson learned by heart. “In this house, Master Good, you are the head and your word law. Your authority covers Mistress Good,” the boy turned his head toward the bird-like woman, “and she has your authority over me as well.”
Jane Good hunched her shoulders at the mention of her name. She clutched her husband’s hat, her face pale.
“Will, you shall learn from Tom what is expected of you.” Master Good’s tone was controlled. “You will gather wood, do washing, prepare leather for me, and anything else I desire. You will be instantly obedient, not wasting my time in dithering, nor slouching, nor remaining in bed like a sluggard. I expect you to have already risen and stoked the fire by the time I arrive downstairs. You will sleep in the hayloft with Tom, as we cannot have two servant boys here in the house with us.”
The hayloft. We will freeze to death in winter. Will tried to keep his face blank, but a cascade of cold shock poured over him.
“In your best interest, I will instill discipline in you.” Master Good walked past the hearth and plucked with his long fingers a thin cane that leaned in the corner. “I am sure you agree that it is a master’s duty to ensure his apprentice has the qualities to do well in the world.” He flexed the cane in his fingers, then set it back against the wall. “Tom, show Will where the dirty crockery is and how to take it for washing to the pump outside.”
Tom scuttled to the hutch and opened the wooden door, a visible tremor in his outstretched arm. He removed a small stack of bowls, tucked the bowls in the crook of one arm and closed the hutch. As he turned toward the kitchen door, the stack of bowls shifted, and the top bowl teetered. It eluded Tom’s desperate grab and tumbled to the floor, its green curve shattering with a loud crash. Shards littered the stone floor.
Breathless silence fell. Jane Good’s white face froze in a hard mask. Tom blinked and cowered behind his forelock of dark hair, his arms curled around the remaining bowls.
“You clumsy boy,” Master Good said. “Put down those bowls on the table before you drop another.”
Tom did so, his eyes glued to Master Good, who bent to the floor to gather a few shards. He straightened up and walked over to Tom at the table, placing the broken pieces gently beside the other bowls. Without any warning, the master drew back his arm and struck Tom with great force on the temple. The boy lost his footing, slammed sidelong into the wall, and fell to the ground.
“I would request that you pick up the rest of this mess, Tom,” Master Good said. “But I’m afraid that for such a clumsy boy, these sharp pieces might be dangerous.”
Tears etched white streaks in the grime on Tom’s face.
Moved, Will spoke up. “Master, surely it was an accident.”
An icy light kindled in the depths of Master Good’s eyes. “Oh, you disagree with my discipline of the boy? I can see that you and I will need to have a long talk.”
Hairs lifted on the back of Will’s neck.
“Get out to the barn, Tom, and make yourself presentable,” Good said, his mouth twisting in disgust. “And show him the pump, as I told you. You, boy,” he indicated Will, “take the bowls.”
Tom pushed himself to his feet and staggered out the door.
The last thing Will wanted was to approach Master Good, but he had to pass by him in order to get the bowls.
Will stepped up to the table. As he reached for the dishes, his master grabbed him by the shoulder and hooked one finger under the strap of his knapsack. “What’s in here, boy? I need to make sure you’re bringing nothing indecent into the home.”
His stomach turned at the master’s touch, but he dared not move.
Master Good yanked the knapsack off his shoulder and emptied it on the floor. “Underdrawers? And what’s this?” Snatching the doeskin bag, he picked at its tight drawstrings and pulled out the letters from Will’s mother.
Frowning, he perused them. “Worthless. Sentimental. You’ll need to learn to avoid sentiment if you’re to be worth anything. To start, we’ll toss these in the rubbish.” He handed the letters to Mistress Good, who crumpled them in her fist.
The gesture knocked the wind from Will’s lungs. In his airless state, he could not manage a protest.
Master Good pulled out the locket with his father’s portrait and fingered it. “Pretty, but also of no value. Mistress Good may keep it or sell it as she pleases.” His master dropped the locket back in the sack and tossed it at his wife. It hit her in the chest and fell at her feet, but she snatched it up and scurried away toward the stairs.
“Now, my boy,” and he sounded, if anything, even kinder than ever. “Go with Tom. He will tell you about some other lessons—the ones you may wish to avoid.”