Now that we have a complete manuscript, the time has come to hack and slash at it to make it a mean-lean-fiction machine. But some of the cuts are painful. I’m bleeding a little inside to ditch this scene, because it’s one of the only opportunities we have in the book for our heroine to reflect with historical accuracy upon the moral conflicts of her time. I think it will bandage the wound if I post it, so here you go…
“I don’t understand it,” Aunt Elizabeth said, sitting on the front veranda and teaching me some tricks of mending while we watched Polly play with the puppies in the summer sun. “You need a maid with you when you’re in this condition, Patsy. Every Virginia gentleman gives one to his daughter on her wedding day, and Sally should be tending you. Is your father saving her for your sister?”
Perhaps it was having lived so long in Paris, or perhaps it was the strong emotions my pregnancy had drawn out of me, but every word of my aunt’s inquiry aggravated me. There seemed to be so much wrongness in it that I’d go mad trying to unravel it all. Sally was, after all, almost as much my aunt Elizabeth’s sister as Polly was mine. But my aunt never acknowledged the colored part of the family except by calling them that. And I’d have to learn to quiet the part of my mind that persisted in thinking about the connection.
As for her question, I knew my father had no intention of giving Sally away. Not to me. Not to anyone. Not ever. So I just shrugged. “Sally and I wouldn’t get on well.”
“Still, your father only gave you field slaves,” Aunt Elizabeth said, pushing the needle in deep. “You can’t trust them in the house. You need someone you know. Someone with intelligence and character.”
Someone with lighter skin, she meant. Someone who behaves more like a servant so as to uphold the polite fiction of it all. Someone in the family…
“Papa intends to free James Hemings,” I blurted. “And Mary is now living with Mr. Bell, who means to free her; my father will help arrange that, too. You ought to know my father believes slavery is an injustice.”
“Your father and every cultured gentleman in Virginia,” Aunt Elizabeth said, not looking very impressed. “The world is how it is and no one can change it. Not even your father.”
She was wrong! Papa had already changed it. Liberty was spreading across the ocean and the whole world. And what about William? He was a Virginia gentleman who had taken a principled stand on the matter and surely other men would follow suit. My own husband wanted only a small farmstead he could work himself, but right now, slavery was a way of life, and it would be the way of my life. We couldn’t get by without the negroes and my father said they couldn’t get by without us.
“Ask your father to give you Molly Hemings,” Aunt Elizabeth said. “She’s almost fourteen now. She knows how a house should run and she’s not so pretty as Sally, so your father won’t mind parting with her.”
That shut me right up. And for more reasons than one.
When I said nothing, my aunt added, “With a child on the way and no proper homestead, you can’t get along without a maid. Especially not at Varina, where you’ll be the only woman. What with your husband in the field and you alone in some old shack, I’d worry about you night and day.”
“It’s where they say Princess Pocahantas used to live,” I said, more hopeful than I had any right to be. “I’m sure it’s not so bad.”
Alas, it was entirely horrible.