The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #39746   Message #571244
Posted By: Peter T.
13-Oct-01 - 12:16 PM
Thread Name: Story: The Drinking Gourd I
Subject: RE: Story: The Drinking Gourd
Vashti McCallister had this bee in her bonnet about a charity spring dance, and although the winter had hung around unconscionably long, she persisted. It was well known in Methodist circles that the proceeds of the dance would be funnelled into activities that would bear no deeper scrutiny, but elsewhere it was accepted that as one of the first families of Charlottesville, the McAllisters were fine folk. As the esteemed Professor of History, Chauncey McAllister was able to secure the fine assembly room at the University, and, as an extra fillip, the dashing Mr. Eaton and the kind Mr. Owen had suddenly re-appeared in town, complete with a new portfolio of striking sketches and paintings in high Romantic style, of the wilds around the Cumberland Gap, and throughout Shenandoah.

A bevy of intensely serious female admirers at a planning tea for the great event persuaded Mr. Eaton to deliver an impromptu lecture on his impressions of the West, during which he answered delightful and pointed questions on "How does one keep one's paint from freezing?", "Were you warm enough, were you not shamefully in need of warm scarves and other apparel?", "Why are there no people in your paintings?" Seated in an adjacent corner, Gerald gave himself over to helpless, occasionally muted, fits of laughter, especially whenever his friend spoke of the many hardships and travails of the outdoor artist.

On the 21st of March, the Spring Ball held Charlottesville in its glittering grasp, as it had done for days beforehand, hopes and hoops alike being marshalled for the event.

In support of the proceedings, the heavens themselves had cleared, and the master of all ceremonies had scattered His stars across the night sky, almost as carefully as seamstresses in the four directions of the compass had bedizened and begemmed the myriad gowns that sparkled and attracted the admiring eyes of gentlemen lining the assembly room walls. Mrs. McCallister and her husband, with his vast whiskers and genial personality, were naturally the centre of attention as the presiding deities at the occasion, but it was widely acknowledged among the mortal females present that the dark clad angels, Mr. Eaton and Mr. Owen, were far above charming. Mr. Eaton, it was true, seemed to be prey to momentary fits of absence; and Mr. Owen did occasionally speak a bit too glowingly of persons in Philadelphia; but these were minor failings: indeed, they were completely swept aside when Mr. Eaton, in a moving gesture, donated his winter's work to the McCallister's charity for whatever price they might fetch, in honour, he said," of the hospitality and love my friend Gerald and I have experienced from the first moment we came to Charlottesville, fabled even in my native land, Canada, where the fables speak of its cherishing of the intellect, freedom, and Jeffersonian style; but the fables have until now been silent of the virtues of hospitality and beauty, so lavishly personified in our hostess" (sustained applause and cheers) "and in the lineaments of grace embodied in the budding spring flowers we find upon every hand around us this equinoctical evening (more cheers)". A brief reply by Professor McCallister: "A few more months among us, Tom, and you will even begin to outtalk one of us Southerners!!" ( general laughter, shaking of head in the negative by Tom, embracing, dancing sweeps everyone up again).

Towards the end of the evening, as replacements for some of the exhausted musicians take up the strains, Tom, dancing with his hostess, catches sight of a violinist on the makeshift stage, and his step falters. "My dear Constance, does not that violinist --?"he began.

"Yes, yes," she smiled, "It is uncanny, is it not. You of course as an artist would see it immediately, but you would be surprised at how many look and do not see. There is much that is unspoken, but known -- thank goodness, for our work, but not so good for others, certainly."

"What is the violinist's name?"

"Hemings. Eston Hemings. He is one of us, of course. His brother, Thomas Woodson, of whom you have heard me speak, is a stalwart of the Underground Railway in Ohio. "

"And he?"

"Oh, even more striking, almost like a cast for a coin, it seems that all the virility of our President went into their making."

"And are there others?"

"I believe there are, though some have gone elsewhere. It is naturally common knowledge in the Negro community, a source of some rueful pride."

"Is there no end to this society?"

The music of the dance came to a stop. They bowed, and Constance said: "If by end, do you mean no end to the depths of the hypocrisy, no; if by end do you mean will it come to an end, I can only say that it will, in the Lord's time, and that time is approaching, is at hand. He will not turn his face from this forever. He will not, Tom, He will not."

A pretty face interposed between the two of them. "We are pledged, Mr. Eaton, for the schottische."

"You will excuse me, Constance?", and the hostess brought her best smile back to her face, waved the couple away, and Tom whisked his pledge back onto the increasingly exuberant, pinwheeling dancefloor.

They were, by some accounts, six or seven dances before the end of the evening, when Mr. Eaton went unaccountably missing. Upon application to Mr. Owen, he shrugged and said that his friend had gone for some air.

Apart from the generously flung stars, it was pitch black, and Tom wordlessly thanked the sloping landscape that led away from the rotunda for not being too sloping. He wandered past the flanking array of miniature temples and Palladian villas that lined both sides of the campus, shrouded in darkness, and even more extraordinary evocations of that Jeffersonian mind whose exuberance had found such multiplicities of form -- living as well as built, he amusingly aphorized. As he walked, he found himself carried back in his mind to some strange field of never existing memory, as if the ancient and modern worlds were simultaneously inhabiting him, haunting him with the deeds and dreams he had not yet fulfilled. There also came into his mind the terrible struggles of the past icy months, the screaming of horses and the onrushes of uncontrolled fury and grief. He knew that both he and Gerald had changed, grown, that their bones were harder, and that they had become brothers, had seen each other in mindless fear and desperation, and that they had some, a few, a very few, free people to their credit. They could die a little happier, if dying was what was waiting for them in the mountains.

He got to the open field at the end of the campus, and looked up at the stars, so close, so ancient, and so mysterious in their own way. Foolish that human beings kept trying to make patterns of them -- or were some patterned in some grand cosmic joke, tempting, or comforting human beings in their ridiculous attempts to make sense of the stars? -- a Dipper here, a Swan there, random objects, random gods and goddesses. And what did the stars say for him? For the first time since he had come South, he began to miss his home, even, though he could scarcely admit it, his brother and sister. The Grange. All these people with their homes, and their stories and their families and their interminable children, their interweavings, all of which he had so often found so tiresome; and yet, he had more than once in the past winter sat around a fire in the deep woods, the warm light illuminating a black "Flight into Egypt", a noble Joseph, Mary, and infant Jesus, and even on occasion a donkey. And these scenes out of Rembrandt would tug at his heart, and bring unaccustomed tightness to his breast.

In his reverie, another image came into his mind, from that cursed and misshapen night when they had faltered into the Miller farm, and how the woman flashed into and out of the scene like lightning, moments here and there, and the only steady moments the absurd argument that got out of hand like an untended fire, and then the steady movement of the battered group and their horses past the house as they left; and what stuck in his mind was not so much the woman, standing there stock still on the porch, watching them, defiantly perhaps, perhaps not, who could tell, but the small light in the window behind her, just to one side, that caught his artist's eye, and something else that he only realized later, after he had sketched that scene -- the light, the barely illuminated verticals of the window, and the black outline of a woman's head and shoulders -- a hundred times in a hundred places, which was the question: what was illumined by that light in that house, that world behind her, that he could not see? What did she do when she went back inside? What happened in the morning, when she awoke: what happened every morning, when she awoke?

At that moment, his musings were broken by the arrival, diagonally from the shadow of the last house, of a dark figure.

Tom stiffened, and the figure whispered loudly upon closer approach, "Mr. Eaton, I am a friend. "

"Yes," said Tom pointlessly, realizing, and dismissing from his mind the thought that he was unarmed, and without recourse.

"I am Eston Hemings, Sir."

Tom shook his hand in the darkness. "You are a fine fiddler, Sir, I was enjoying the evening."

"Mrs. McCallister and I spoke a few minutes ago, and she told me of your work, and that you well knew the Eastern Tennessee line, and that you and your friends were proposing to return there as soon as possible."

"Yes, Mr. Hemings, we do. "

"There is a desperate need, I cannot tell you how desperate, to get a message down the Tennessee line. My brother in Ohio, Thomas Woodson --"

"Yes, " said Tom, " Yes, I have just heard of him."

"He has sent me an urgent message that only a few days ago, at the beginning of March, a negro runaway was tortured and broken, somewhere in northern Tennessee, and has given into the hands of our enemies names and places and dates of virtually every station on the line. They are all in terrible peril."

"But is it not too late already?"

"My brother says that, according to his informant, the negro victim tried, at the end, to undo some of the damage by making as many false accusations as he could, so as to discredit the rest, but it is only a matter of time. He says that they are proposing to strike all up and down the line in days, and to winnow the innocent from the guilty afterwards. There is only so many we can warn, Mr. Eaton, through our own lines to Ohio; Mrs. McCallister says that you are a link to the Pennsylvania and Maryland lines, it is those lines to the Coxes and to the Hunters in Philadelphia and Baltimore that require alerting. "

Tom spun around, and began moving quickly back up the slope to the lighted rotunda. "Come, we will talk as we go, there is little time."

"Yes, Sir, " said Eston, following at the same pace, "There are the Willises, and the Bagleys, Mrs. Miller, and the Warrens. "

"Mrs. who?" he said, pausing for a fraction of a second.

"Mrs. Miller," he said, "Along the Tombigbee."

"I know the place," Tom replied, and broke into a run.