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Authors: Erika Robuck

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BOOK: Receive Me Falling
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“I pray for you all, that God enlightens you, as
he has enlightened me.”

Catherine looked from the Quaker to the freed
slave.
 
William’s face was shining with
perspiration and he shifted his weight from foot to foot.
 
His posture was erect, but his quivering
mouth betrayed his confident appearance.
  
She met his eyes, and suddenly felt a lump rising in her throat.
 
She could not account for the heaviness in
her chest, nor could she understand why she suddenly felt so ill. Cecil urged
his daughter forward and mumbled about getting her out of the heat, but
Catherine continued to watch the African as Cecil pushed her toward the church.
 
Just before passing through the arched
entrance, she looked over her shoulder and saw James and Albert exchanging
smiles with the orator.

 

 

“Then
the Lord God said to the serpent:
 
‘Because you have done this, you shall be banned from all the animals
and from all the wild creatures.
 
On your
belly shall you crawl, and dirt shall you eat all the days of your life.”
 
The reverend wiped his brow, closed the
Bible, and began speaking of the first sin.
 
As his voice rose and fell over the assembled congregation, Catherine
stole glances at James and Albert, increasingly curious about the newcomers.

It was difficult for Catherine to concentrate on
the sermon, and she was grateful when the closing hymn began.
 
At the end of the service, her father led her
by the arm out of the church and into the blazing
midday
sun, followed by Albert and James.
 
The Dalls exchanged a farewell with the
Silwells, and remarked on their pleasure at having them to dinner later that
evening.
 
Cecil helped Catherine into the
carriage, and as it moved away from the church, she peered from behind the
canopy at the Silwells until they were out of sight.

 

 

The
golden glow of evening settled over the island, and a curious quiet fell over
its inhabitants from the mountainside down to the shoreline.
 
The night song of the bellfrogs started with
one tiny call that grew to a hushed conversation between thousands of
creatures.

As Albert and James approached Eden, Beethoven’s somber Sonata reached out
and drew the men into the house.
 
A slave
led them to a large, high-ceiling room where Catherine sat playing the
pianoforte, watched by a small audience.

James took note of the lavishly dressed men and
women sitting in the room.
 
The women
fanned themselves through sweaty layers of costume and shifted in their
chairs.
 
The men smoked in the corner
while one stared through the smog at Catherine.
  
Cecil sat in the back row swirling the
liquid in his glass and smiling at the others as if to say, “Isn’t she
talented?”
 
Catherine sat at the
instrument, deep in concentration.
 
A
fine layer of perspiration wet her face and chest, and her hair stuck in curls
to her neck.
 
The conclusion of the song
brought applause and much commendation.
 
Catherine bowed and proceeded to James and Albert.

“Welcome,” said Catherine.
 
“We are delighted to have you here.”

Cecil stood up and motioned for the Silwells to
join the men in the corner.
 

As they walked into the group Catherine said, “I
must apologize on behalf of my father.
 
Several of the men have been over since we returned from Services.”

“You need not make any apologies,” said James.

Cecil introduced the Silwells to the owners of the
neighboring plantations, the Ewings and the Halls.
 
Then dinner was announced.
 

James waited for the guests to make their way into
the dining room, and followed behind.
 
As
he turned through the doorway he was stopped at the sight of the massive floor
to ceiling mural of the fall of Adam and Eve.
 
It took his breath away to see the life-sized figures of Genesis in
living color before him.
 
Eve had already
bitten the apple and was passing it to Adam.
 
She was dark with windswept hair.
 
Adam was light, except for his arm reaching for the apple.
 
The devil with its snake’s tail and cherub
head leered behind them.
 
James strained
to see the signature on the wall.

“West,” said Catherine.
 
“Benjamin West of America.
 
He painted it before I was born.
 
It’s a pity I was never able to question him
about it.
 
There is much about it that
warrants discussion.”

“Perhaps you would ask about Eve’s startling likeness
to you?” asked Edward Ewing, the man who had been staring at Catherine earlier.

“No, only your startling resemblance to the
snake.”
 

The company giggled and Edward nodded.

James saw that the seat next to Catherine was
empty and that it was intended for him.
 
Edward sat on the other side of Catherine.

“You mustn’t be shocked by our banter, Mr.
Silwell,” said Catherine.
 
“We’ve known
one another since childhood.”

“I would not presume to be shocked by anything.”

“Miss Dall often tries to shock with her tongue,”
said Edward, “but it’s only the attention she wants.
 
She’s quite harmless.”

“There is certainly nothing I would do to
encourage more of your attention, Mr. Ewing; I have more than I care to of
that.”

Edward turned away from Catherine for the
remainder of the meal, but kept an ear on her conversation with James and his
father.

James was overwhelmed by the opulent displays of
fine plates, silver, goblets, urns, and candlesticks that glittered over the
abundant feast of game, fruits and vegetables.
  
Four finely dressed slaves—two men and two women—served the meal. The
men carried, the women cleared, and James scarcely would have noticed their
presence if he had not been looking for them.
 
One of the slave women was young and beautiful under the shadows that
hung over her face.
 
She and Catherine
exchanged many looks throughout the meal.
 
He once caught them smiling conspiringly at one another, but as soon as
a smile touched the woman’s face it was gone, leaving James wondering if she
had smiled at all.
  

Throughout the meal, James learned that Edward and
his father, Bartholomew, lived at the neighboring plantation, Goldenrise.

“So named because of the curious golden hue
pervasive in the area at sunset,” said Edward.
 

“I noticed that coming in,” said James.
 
“It would seem that all of Nevis
is a Garden of Eden—rivers flowing to the sea, the gold of Havilla, the trees
and fruits.”

“The snakes,” said Catherine.

“And delinquent women,” said Edward.
 
The group laughed and the meal
continued.
 

Course after course of steaming and sumptuous fare
sedated the company into a drowsy silence.
 
For dessert, James tasted his first Bananas Flambe.
 
The shredded coconut was crispy with brown
sugar, and complemented the soft, warm fruit.
 

After dinner, in the billiard room, James was
uncomfortable from the large meal, the heat, and the smoke.
 
He opened the buttons on his jacket and
watched the curtains move in the breeze, which disappeared as soon as he
reached the open window.
 
While he stared
out the window and watched the world alive and crawling with the wind that
refused to enter the house with any regularity, he listened to the men’s
conversation.
 
Every now and then he
turned to look at Catherine, who was also straining to catch bits of the
conversation over the drone of the women.

“England
has no jurisdiction over any of the big planters in the Caribbean,”
said Bartholomew.
 
“We will continue
practicing slavery, if banned, after their removal.”
 

“Wilberforce is a fool,” said William Hall. “It
has been twenty-five years since he persuaded Parliament to ban slavery on the
mainland.
 
He will never succeed in
persuading them to abolish slavery throughout the empire.”

“Parliament only agreed to ban slavery on the
continent because they knew slaves served little use in such a climate,” said
Bartholomew.
 

“I fear our timing is off,” said Albert.
 
“It is little wonder we were able to purchase
the land at such a bargain.
 
Planters on
St. Christopher are fearful of their futures and are selling out.”

“Our neighbors on the island of St. Christopher
have always been skittish,” said Edward.
 
“I, for one, am glad to form a relationship that could lead to a formal
alliance between the two island Council’s.
 
Be sure to involve yourself politically on St. Christopher as soon as
possible.
 
Our opinions will hold more
stock in Britain
if we have larger numbers.”

The gentlemen continued their discussion until
Cecil suggested an evening walk to the cliffs.
 
Catherine was eager to remove herself from the stale air of the house
and mind-numbing conversation of her counterparts, but the other ladies in the
party elected to stay indoors on account of her neighbor, Mrs. Hall, remarking
that the tropical night air was dangerous for the lungs.

“Catherine, you really should heed my warning,”
instructed Mrs. Hall.
 
“It is already
scandalous that your skin is so burnt by the sun, but you will truly do
yourself an injustice by exposing yourself to the nighttime elements.”

“Your advice is falling on deaf ears, I’m afraid,”
replied Cecil.
 
“It is certainly my fault
for not enforcing more feminine restrictions upon my motherless daughter, but I
fear it is too late to impose such rules.”

“You are correct in that assumption, Father,” said
Catherine.
 
“I do appreciate your
concern, Mrs. Hall, but I am sure my father will send me indoors the moment he
fears for my health.
 
Besides, it is he
who needs looking after.”

James stifled a smile as he watched Mrs. Hall
ruffle herself in agitation on the settee.
 
She remained indignant as Catherine and the gentleman proceeded out of
the house.

The night air was, in fact, invigorating.
 
James inhaled the sea air and watched the
sapphire sheen on the folds of Catherine’s dress ahead of him in the glow of
the moonlight.
 
He became transfixed in
its motion and thought back to his travels across the Atlantic,
looking over the deck of the ship into the water below.
 

He thought back to his third week onboard The
Clarkson with Albert.
 
The surface of the
ocean had swirled and churned blackish-blue in the night.
 
Shimmers of moonlight had flashed at him on
the curling waves below.
 
The fluid
liquidity of the waters was both mesmerizing and frightening, and he was filled
with dread as he thought of falling overboard and being stranded in the middle
of the ocean.

BOOK: Receive Me Falling
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