Authors: Breena Clarke
Copyright © 2008 by Breena Clarke
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Little, Brown and Company
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First eBook Edition: July 2008
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
ALSO BY BREENA CLARKE
River, Cross My Heart
For my husband, my stalwart, my fancy, my Helmar
And for Popsi, always and for all
HERE ARE ENDLESS
stitches to count. Handwork promotes calculation. Gabriel watched his mother pause in her knitting to rest her fingers for the briefest moment—a pause most observers wouldn’t notice. He had always understood that her rest was a part of her work. It was how she could work so long and achieve so much.
As Gabriel made calculations in his own lap—upon his own work—he grew calm. His stomach, which lurched and talked up when he got to thinking about his freedom, would settle alongside Sewing Annie. For these were two folks on a rope. They pulled the same side together and they would never be one swamped by the other. They pulled together.
There hadn’t been much need of Gabriel’s small hands for fieldwork during the time of his babyhood, so he was molded to be a helpmeet for his mother. As he was a good extra hand, close by and circumspect, the Master and Missus allowed Sewing Annie to have her pup at her side.
The woman known as Sewing Annie at Ridley Plantation in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, acquired her name honestly, as she had worked all of her life at sewing, weaving, knitting, and dyeing cloth.
“The woman that knits row after row never gets to the end like a dam that plants and picks down a row in the field. ’Cause when the light goes from the field they likely to let you rest. But a woman that works in her lap can keep on by candlelight and mostly they do. And mostly the mistress expect you to do,” Sewing Annie declared flatly to any who envied her. She knew the field-working folks at Ridley considered her a lucky one who could sit on her duff and work with her fingers. They figured her fortunate on the account that her child worked close alongside. It could not be denied that Sewing Annie’s fortunes were, in some eyes, enviable. She had Gabriel for the blacksmith and had brought a girl, Ellen, for the blacksmith, too.
But Annie did not spare the boy—her helpmeet. Rather she worked Gabriel hard to steel him and he came up a stranger to capering.
The child worked under his mother’s command at hauling water in buckets and fetching and carrying bundles. He got to be good for stirring pots as well as preparing soaps. Aside from his knotted, sinewy upper arms, he was not muscular. Sewing Annie’s Gabriel—as he came to be identified as he grew—-exhibited a genuine aptitude for needlework. He inherited his mother’s dexterity, crisp eyesight, appreciation of hue and balance, and quiet, steady manner. Gabriel’s skills at dyeing yarn gave a considerable boon to Annie’s output, as she could concentrate more time on making up the garments she worked on. She gave over handling the dyeing paddles as the boy progressed to the job of stirring the bath.
Gabriel was delighted by the concoctions to draw out and guide the coloring. His eyes would light up as the yielding and coaxing of tickseed, dusty miller, laurel, and lichens revealed the hues. His mother taught him to restrain his excitement, though. It was her strategy that he maintain his quietude so that he not be rebuked or punished. Gabriel came up to be a good shadow pair of hands, and Annie molded him to his tasks patiently but persistently. She was guided to build him strong and resourceful. She sucked each small finger and pressed it insistently, relentlessly to the jobs of sewing and knitting. She kept him at it even when she would have wanted to let him rest. And if she was loving with him she was not sweet. Many a time she switched him with her hand or a small strop to keep him stalwart—to keep him quietly hardworking and not inclined to lollygag.
When Gabriel gained the age of ten, Master Ridley thought to get more profitable labor out of him. He hired out Sewing Annie’s Gabriel to a tailor named Abraham Pearl in town—in Georgetown. The tailor had advertised for a capable helper. Ridley, who often came to Washington to conduct business, thought the hire arrangement would yield some profit from a youngster ill suited for fieldwork.
Came the day and Annie would not let Gabriel mewl and cry. They would punish a crybaby. He must be firm and solid and do what they told him to do. The prospects for him were bright. This hire-out job would train him up and keep him out of the fields. The expendable ones were those who worked crops at Ridley. Season after season crops flourished or failed and Master Ridley had need of more or fewer workers. Thus he sold or bought persons upon his need of hands for the fields. Hands working specialized jobs were the last to go south.
When Abraham Pearl had arrived from Philadelphia to set up in Georgetown, he hadn’t wanted anything to do with chattel slavery. His wife, Dinah, minded all that he was too busy for. She worked hard beside him and the two closed their eyes to the brutal business conducted throughout the town. Their plan had been to build the tailoring concern around the children they expected to be blessed with.
Together, man and wife made a good beginning. The business grew quickly.
A tailor needs an extra hand for keeping neat, for doing secondary work—setting on snaps and buttons and winding yarns and threads and reaching high and low when the tailor is with the patron. Dinah was capable if not artful.
In the early days of the marriage, Dinah was enthusiastic for the work. She was anxious to prove herself a better catch than her younger sister. She knew like every one else in her family that Abraham Pearl had initially been intrigued by Bessie, her sister, so dark-brown-eyed and milk-complexioned that their father had saved her for the attentions of some man more successful than Abraham Pearl. Dinah had the dark brown eyes, too, but had more time on the bone. She was reckoned a lesser catch.
Abraham and Dinah were blessed with compatibility, but no children.
“Aye, God is angry that we are so happy, he will not send a child,” Abraham said with good humor. “Perhaps we should turn sour on each other.”
“As I have not brought forth a hand for you, tailor, you must hire,” Dinah answered. “The work is too much for a dry old woman,” she continued, though she was just upwards of thirty. It became a business imperative for Pearl to get help when Dinah died of consumption.
The boy Pearl hired from Jonathan Ridley was not delicate or sickly, but he wasn’t broad-built either. Pearl was relieved. He hadn’t wanted a slave who would have to be subdued by force. He didn’t have the stomach for whipping and beating.
The first night, the evening Gabriel arrived in Georgetown, he stood in the middle of the workroom with his eyes on the floor and shivered.
This child was unexpectedly slim about the shoulders but very well developed in his forearms, wrists, and hands. Pearl first examined the hands closely by turning them over in his own. To gauge his own power to control the child, he grasped him forcefully and exposed his palms. The boy submitted silently. He flinched when Pearl ran his fingers over the welts on his palms. He had received discipline here—more likely a mother’s chastisement than an overseer’s. Pearl removed the boy’s shirt under witness of the broker to look for signs of gross punishment and found nothing on the child’s back or chest.
At a nod from the broker the child unhitched his pants and dropped them off. He remained standing straight but trembled. He seemed to be approaching the end of his steady nerves. Pearl glanced quickly at Gabriel’s smooth buttocks, his belly, the backs of his legs, and noted them unscarred. He did not indulge in any further curiosity though encouraged to do so by the leering broker.
“Take up your clothes, child,” Abraham Pearl commanded gruffly. He was embarrassed at seeing the naked child and angry at feeling so. He gave the broker his fee and shifted from foot to foot impatiently. The man expected a cup of coffee or a biscuit or both to close the deal. But Pearl extended no welcome and the broker slapped his hat on his thigh and finally departed.
“Ah, the hooknoses have no manners! When the money has passed the deal is done,” he griped to his associate when he left the shop.
The gruffness covered Pearl’s profound distaste for the process of hiring slave labor. He knew he must examine the boy —look at him to see if there were hidden signs of gross punishment or deformity. He had contracted for a smart, quick half-hand —a boy for fetching and training. He was nervous of getting a difficult, brooding helper. But he was not prepared to see a child stripped and shivering.
Pearl directed the child to make a pallet for himself in the corner. Certainly there was no need for him to fear his ability to control this slave. The boy could have been knocked to the floor with an errant elbow. The boy’s face looked like a falling mud fence all during the first meal. Pearl worried that he’d not thrive—might not live even. He might crumble under the work and become a burden. Perhaps he had been too soon separated from his mother.
After eating and tending his wants with circumspection, the boy turned his face toward the wall and away from Pearl, who sat at his table and stitched on a commission by the light of a sputtering candle. Pearl intermittently looked over his glasses at Gabriel and wondered what this youngster was. He had been quiet and composed when he arrived with the broker from Ridley Plantation. But since the uncouth character had departed, the little fellow seemed to have lost his nerves and become tearful. When the boy began to snore, Pearl covered his shoulders with a blanket.
The boy’s proficiency with needlework was clear from the first, and Pearl was surprised. Would Ridley have hired him out so reasonably if he’d known how skilled the boy was? He’d had practice with taking instructions and following steps to the letter and he was agile and accomplished at simple sewing. Pearl realized right away that this little Gabriel was a competent hand for tailoring.
Gabriel started in to learn the trade from Mr. Abraham Pearl and within a while of four years he graduated from doing the general work around the shop to accomplishing commissions.
After the first term of their agreement ended, Pearl attempted to convince Jonathan Ridley that his instructing the boy in the craft of tailoring should offset a part of the fee for Gabriel’s work. After all, he argued, the boy had come to him in ignorance and was receiving an education. Ridley countered that the maturing slave boy was capable of more expert assistance, thus more valuable to the tailor.
When, after eight years, Gabriel’s second term of service to the tailor came to an end, Ridley and Pearl negotiated a contract to employ Gabriel as a tailor’s assistant. The increase Ridley proposed this time angered Pearl. The two men haggled and wrangled and tugged Gabriel between them.
Ah! It is prudent to be practical, Pearl decided. He was intimidated by Ridley’s influence. And Ridley knew that he was now attached to the boy as well as dependent upon his assistance. True, Pearl had spurred the boy’s development and felt pride in what he’d done. He’d shaped a son of sorts from this boy and did not want to lose his assistance in the shop or his companionship. He agreed to the steeper hire terms in large because of these feelings.
Pearl had seen Gabriel’s eyes as he’d grown and thrived in the shop. Sometimes they were lit from beyond themselves. The boy had learned the work and a sense of himself had emerged.