Authors: Al Lacy
As Earline was commenting on a particular painting, Daisy entered the room with a warm smile. “May I bring you ladies coffee and cookies?”
“No, thank you, Daisy,” said Evelyn. “We will wait until Miss Catherine and Miss Angeline arrive.”
Daisy curtsied politely and left the room.
Less than ten minutes had passed when above their light conversation they heard a carriage draw up in front of the mansion. Dorena hurried to the front window and peeked through the lace curtains. “It is them, Miss Evelyn.”
“Thank you, Dorena.”
The young slave girl returned to the small couch where she sat beside her mistress. Priscilla smiled at her and patted her hand affectionately. The love Dorena felt for her mistress shone from her dark eyes.
Seconds later, they heard the mansion’s front door open, and Daisy’s voice telling Catherine that her guests were in the sitting room. Footsteps echoed in the hallway, and presently Catherine Johnson entered the room with Angeline at her side. Dan Johnson followed close behind, and Daisy brought up the rear.
Dan was in his midtwenties, just over six feet tall, with dark brown hair and eyes to match. Like his younger brother, he was quite handsome. Blond Angeline showed a close resemblance to her mother … tall, slender, and pretty.
Greetings were offered and introductions made, then Dan excused himself and left the room.
“Ladies, I’m sorry to be late,” Catherine said as she removed her hat and handed it to Daisy, “but we were detained on the road in front of your place, Martha.”
“What was it?”
Catherine’s voice was a bit shaky as she said, “Just as we were passing your plantation, we came upon your slaves, Henry and Trevor. They were repairing fence near the gate, right by the road. They were weeping.”
Martha’s brow furrowed. “Weeping?”
“Yes. I had Dan stop and ask them what was wrong. Martha, they told us that one of their fellow slaves died this morning, just minutes before we came along. They said you couldn’t have known about it … that it happened after you left to come over here.”
“Did. did they say who it was?”
“Oh, no!” Martha began to wring her hands. “Did Henry and Thomas say what happened?”
“I asked them, but they seemed frightened. Trevor said that Nathaniel wasn’t feeling well this morning, and one of the other slaves had come to tell them he had died.”
Martha put trembling fingers to her face and tears filled her eyes. “If whatever was ailing Nathaniel took his life, that would be no reason for Henry and Trevor to be frightened.”
Catherine moved to where Martha was sitting and eased down beside her. She looked toward Evelyn and gave her a meaningful look.
Immediately Catherine turned to Priscilla and Angeline and said, “Why don’t you girls go up to Angeline’s room for a while? We’ll let you know when coffee time is on.”
Dorena sprang to her feet and offered her hand to Priscilla. When her mistress was up, she offered her hand to Angeline. All three girls left the room quietly. Daisy followed them and headed down the hall toward the kitchen.
When they were gone, Catherine took hold of Martha’s hand. “You’re afraid it’s happened again, aren’t you?”
Martha closed her eyes and nodded.
Evelyn left her chair and knelt in front of Martha. “Honey, we know about your strong aversion to the way Finn and your sons treat the slaves.”
Martha looked into Evelyn’s eyes and said, “The only thing you don’t know is
strong my aversion is. Every time this happens I feel like something has died inside of me.”
Earline rose from her chair, pale of face. “Maybe I should go elsewhere.”
“There’s no need for that, Earline,” said Martha. “It won’t make any difference if you know that my husband and my two sons have beaten slaves to death in the past. The slaves are afraid to tell it to anyone. Case in point … Henry and Trevor. Catherine says they
would only say that Nathaniel was not feeling well and now is dead. They know what killed him, but they were too frightened of Finn, George, and Edward to tell her. They probably know
did the beating, too.”
Earline’s shocked face grew even paler. “I … I’ve heard about plantations here in the South where this kind of thing happens, but I’ve never been this close to it. Do people in the community suspect what’s going on?”
“Not that I know of,” said Martha. “It’s no secret in the community that Finn beats on his slaves and often works them too hard, but I’ve never heard it said that they think Finn and my sons have killed any slaves.
“Neighbors around usually know when a slave has died. We all have special burial grounds for the slaves, and some neighbors can see them from the roads or from their own places. Most slaves die before they’re fifty, so there are many burials. Anyone observing services on our plantation wouldn’t know the difference between a slave being worked to death or beaten to death.
“It wouldn’t do any good to report my husband and my sons to the law, either. Neither the county sheriff nor the town constables would do anything about it. Like so many white people here in the South, they look at the Negroes as no different than animals. For a plantation owner to kill a slave is no worse than if he decided to kill one of his horses. The cotton growers own their horses and they own their slaves. So, in the eyes of the law and in the eyes of so many people, it’s nobody’s business what they do with them.”
Earline pressed a hand over her eyes and shook her head. “Oh, Martha, how do you stand it?”
“It’s horrible, Earline. I was raised on a rice plantation in North Carolina, but my father, his foreman, and his overseers always treated our slaves well. When I married Finn, I didn’t know he had a cruel side. And now my sons are the same way. It’s almost more than I can bear. But I love my husband and my boys. I can’t just up and leave them.”
“I understand that,” said Catherine. “But I don’t know how you can take it when those poor slaves die unnecessarily.”
Martha squeezed her friends’ hands. “Sometimes I think that if another slave dies from a beating or overwork, I’ll lose my mind. Evelyn … Catherine … what will it take to change Finn and my boys?”
Catherine glanced at Evelyn, then bent close to Martha and said, “Honey, if they were to open their hearts to Jesus, He would change them so they wouldn’t want to be that way with the slaves. Only Jesus can do a work within us that will make us different.”
Evelyn nodded and said, “Just this past Sunday, Martha, our pastor preached a wonderful sermon about the change that takes place in a lost sinner when he or she is born again. He used Saul of Tarsus as an example.”
“Who is Saul of Tarsus?” Martha asked.
“He’s the man who became the apostle Paul. You see, Saul of Tarsus had a burning hatred toward the Lord Jesus Christ and against Christians. He led others who felt as he did in putting Christians to death. He is quoted in the book of Acts as saying that he was a killer of God’s people. But when he became a Christian, he did a complete turnaround and became one of the mightiest preachers this world has ever seen. It took the hand of the Lord to give him a new heart and a new outlook, just as it does for all of us sinners.”
“That’s right,” Earline said. “If your husband and your sons would let the Lord save them, He would also change them like He did Saul of Tarsus.”
“And the rest of us, too,” said Catherine. “All of us are not like Finn and your sons, but we
guilty sinners before a holy God, and we need our wicked hearts cleansed and made new through the blood of Christ. This can only come when we are willing to admit we’re depraved hell-deserving sinners in need of salvation, and we ask the Lord Jesus to save us.”
Martha nodded. “You’ve talked to me about this several times before.”
“Have you given it more thought, honey?” Evelyn asked.
“Yes, I have. But there is a problem. I … I just can’t do it.”
“Don’t you want to be saved?”
Martha took a deep, shuddering breath. “Evelyn, I’m afraid.”
“Of Finn. I’m afraid of what he would do if I became a Christian.”
“I understand your fear, honey,” said Evelyn, “but if you die lost, you will spend eternity in hell. You mustn’t let your fear of Finn’s reaction keep you from being saved.”
“That’s right,” said Catherine, “Proverbs 29:25 says, ‘The fear of man bringeth a snare.’ Martha, please don’t let the devil snare you into hell by using your fear of Finn to keep you from the Lord.”
Martha passed a shaky hand over her face. “I … I’ll seriously consider what you two are telling me.”
“You do that, honey,” said Evelyn. “And don’t put it off.”
“Martha,” Catherine said, “I know my family will want to attend the burial service. We met both Nathaniel and Matilda when you had them working around the house serving guests.”
“Yes,” said Evelyn. “Will you let us know when the service will be held, so we can come too?”
“I certainly will. And I appreciate your willingness to come.”
“I’m sure other neighbors who knew Nathaniel will want to attend too,” said Catherine.
“I’ll see that all the neighbors are advised,” Martha said, wiping a tear from her cheek. “I feel so terrible about this. I’m so ashamed of the way Finn and my sons treat our slaves. Not only are they overworked and underfed, but they have to live in broken-down huts.”
“I don’t want to be overbearing about this, honey,” said Catherine, “but one reason there’s a difference in the way we treat our slaves is because we’re Christians. We give them Sundays off to attend church services morning and evening on the plantation grounds, and they’re only worked ten hours a day the rest of the week.”
Martha nodded. “Finn allows our slaves to hold their church services only because all the plantation owners do it, but they pay for it during the rest of the week by working twelve hours a day to make up for not working on Sunday.”
Silence followed Martha’s words, and Catherine said, “Well, ladies, let’s call the girls down from Angeline’s room and have some coffee together.”
When everyone was seated around the beautiful marble-topped table in the center of the sitting room, Daisy carried in an ornate silver coffee server. She placed it on the table along with a silver tray of sweet delicacies.
Catherine poured the steaming, pungent brew and handed the cups and saucers around, inviting her guests to help themselves to the sweets. The women settled back into their comfortable chairs and talked of happier things.
Angeline and Priscilla listened quietly as they had been taught to do. Dorena sat next to her mistress and listened to the ladies talk. From time to time, she found Priscilla’s eye and gave her a smile.
Martha spoke periodically, but most of the time, what the other ladies were saying seemed to be coming from a distance. Her thoughts were on Nathaniel’s death. A deep horror filled her heart. She knew there had been times when one of the overseers had beaten a slave to death, but most of the time, it was Finn, George, or Edward.
She prayed it was one of the overseers this time.
When Martha Colvin returned home late that afternoon, Mammy was at the door to meet her. “Did you have a nice day, ma’am?”
“Yes, I did.” Martha removed her hat and handed it and her parasol to Mammy. “Is Master Finn in the house?”
“Yes’m. He’s in the library.”
Martha thanked her and made her way down the long, broad hallway to the library. She found the door closed but tapped on it, saying, “Finn, are you in there?”
“Yes,” came the response.
When Martha stepped inside, she saw her husband sitting at his large Mediterranean-style desk. She closed the door behind her and crossed the room to stand before him.
Finn looked up from the paperwork spread before him and gave her a tight smile. “Have an enjoyable day?”
“I did until I found out that Nathaniel died this morning.”
“Oh. Mammy tell you?”
“No. Catherine did. She heard from a couple of our slaves who were working on the fence by the gate.”
Finn’s face hardened. “Who were they? Did they give her any details?”
“No. Only that Nathaniel had died. It was Henry and Trevor. Apparently Catherine and Dan stopped to talk to them because they saw them weeping.”
Martha’s delicate features paled slightly and her throat tightened as she said, “What happened?”
Finn eased back in his chair and squared his jaw. “Nathaniel became very insubordinate this morning. Instead of showing up at the field where he and Matilda were to work, he stayed at the shack. When George went to see him, he was doing the wash. George told him to get to the field, but he refused, saying he had a stomachache.”
“Well, if he said he had a stomachache, he most certainly did,” said Martha. “Nathaniel wouldn’t lie about it.”
lie! If he could do the wash, he could work in the field!”
“So he was beaten for it, I assume?” said Martha.
“He was. I administered the punishment myself, inside one of the barns. None of the slaves saw it.”
Martha’s eyes misted and her lower lip trembled. “Did you have to beat him to death?”
Finn bristled and stood up. “He tried to resist me while I was lashing him, Martha! He had it coming! No more questions.”
Martha turned silently and left the room. She wiped tears as she climbed the broad, curving staircase. Mammy was at the top of the stairs, waiting for her. Frowning, she said, “Are you all right, Miz Martha?”
“I just want to be alone,” Martha said, choking on her tears. “Thank you.”
Martha was sniffling as she entered her room that she had not shared with Finn for over ten years. Her head was pounding, and her heart was sore as she stepped to a small table near the dresser.
With shaking hand, she poured water from the pitcher into the wash bowl. Using a soft cloth, she began washing her face, wishing she could wash the filth of her fragmented world away as easily.
After dabbing at her face with a towel, she went to the comfortable lounge by the window and looked down into the yard. She saw a trio of sad-faced male slaves working in one of the flower gardens. All of the slaves loved Nathaniel, and they would mourn his death for a long time to come.