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The Inner Life of Martha Jefferson
By Kelly Joyce Neff
Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc.Copyright © 1997 Kelly Joyce Neff
All rights reserved.
Governor's Palace, Williamsburg, September, 1779
Dearest Pattsey: The perceptions of our youth being so greatly different from those of our maturity, I will hazard that when you read this little journal as a young woman, you will not recall the circumstaunces under which it was wrote for you. So I will tell you that, being in indifferent health, and at some constraints to be useful in my enforced inactivity, I took to mind writing up some observations of mine, which may be helpful to you when you are grown.
I never knew my own mother. She died of childbed fever when I was a few weeks old. She was born at Bermuda Hundred, being an Eppes by birth, and I was called Martha after her. It is said that I resemble her, and by the miniature my father owned, it is so. She was small with reddish hair likewise, and musical. The spinet in the parlor at The Forest belonged to her, and she played excellently well, to credit my Aunt Randall, her sister Elizabeth. So I come by my small musical talent from her. Her family came from north of Williamsburg along the Tide water and made their fortune in shipping and receiving goods.
My father, like your Papa, was of Welsh ancestry. He came to Virginia from Lancashire at the age of seventeen years, being the youngest son of Thomas Wayles, of whom there were three. He apprenticed to the law with Mr. William Smythe and so began the practice of that profession. An inheritance enabled him to marry my mother and purchase land which he afterwards called The Forest. He was a man of above middle height, with a round face and broad frame. His hair must have been black in his youth, but I recall him ever as having grey hair, which he wore naturally. His eyes were large and round and kind, and this kindness showed in other parts of his sensibility as well, for he was never known to raise his voice or mistreat an inferior.
Of my childhood, I would say that I had no more anguish than any other child, and rather less, given that my half sisters and I were orphaned at tender ages. When Mother Elizabeth, my father's third wife, died I was not yet of marriageable age, being thirteen, and my sisters accordingly younger down to Anne, who was seven. We were very close, especially Elizabeth and I, being less than three years apart in age, and we spent much time together reading and sewing and practicing French and Latin. My sisters and I were taught to ride, but I was never exceeding fond of it, though of necessity I do to transport from one locale to another. I do not ride for pleasure. This must be viewed as a weakness in our country, where ladies are not unknown to enjoin the Hunt. Howsoever, I must say that I prefer less strenuous Pursuits....
When I was sixteen, I went to Williamsburg for the Assembly with my father and sister Elizabeth and there met a kinsman of mine who had studied philosophy at the College of William and Mary, Mr. Bathurst Skelton, a lawyer. Mr. Skelton was the brother of Mother Elizabeth's first husband–Reuben was his name–and was at that time twenty-one years old. He read law along with several others, including Mr. Jefferson, at the offices of Mr. George Wythe in the town. His practice had begun some half-year before after admission to the bar by writ of Mr. Wythe.
Mr. Skelton was–
A knock sounded on the door opposite, and Patty put down the pen on the lap desk.
"Come," she called out. Nance entered with a tray of dishes and a pot of precious Jamaica coffee. Nance Hemings was one of the house servants she had brought from Monticello when she joined Thomas in Williamsburg two weeks ago.
"Thank you, Nance," she said to the girl as she removed the lap desk and placed the tray in front of Patty on the daybed. "I didn't think it was so late ..." She pushed aside the curtain and glanced out the window that overlooked the gardens. The day had been warm, but clouds were gathering now, and the sky began to darken.
"It looks as if we might have a thunderstorm this evening," she said to Nance and spread out the cloth before her and the tray of supper.
"Yas'm, Mrs. Jefferson. Martin was saying so too." Martin was the chief servant of the house and Nance's brother, in charge of all the others' duties, excepting Nance and Thomas's own body servant, Jupiter. "He was saying them chickens is acting mighty peculiar, and he can always tell thunderstorms by the chickens."
Patty smiled at the homely story, for the Negroes were often right in such matters, and she lifted the cover of the central dish to find poached fish in milk gravy and her own black bean soup. Thomas liked both, being largely in disfavor of meat, and he usually joined her for these quiet suppers once his duties were over for the day.
She paused suddenly in her musing, holding the fork in midair, the unbidden thought stealing into her mind: he was usually not so long in coming home. What if he had come to some harm? Her heart pounded in her chest at the antique fear, and she felt cold in spite of the quilted coverlet surrounding her. Bathurst had been likewise late in homecoming on a September evening, and his advent only momentary before he was torn from her forever. No! She would not think it! Fate could not be so cruel twice. She averted the thought in a voice of hope.
"Is Mr. Jefferson in?" She asked Nance, who was straightening the cover.
"No'm, he's not. They's having some big ruckus at the Assembly today, I heard from Jupiter when he come back for dinner for the governor. He said he expected they all would run long today." Nance poured out a cup of coffee and topped it with cream, then took away the dish cover. "Is that all, ma'am?"
Patty sighed, distracted. "Yes. Go on Nance, I'll manage. If Mr. Jefferson comes in, tell him I'm awake." At least he was well. That was some balm. But Nance might at least have had the goodness to tell her when the message came. Nance was far more close-mouthed than her mother. Betty Hemings was ever nattering on about something, and mostly it was a mild annoyance, but now she longed for such an annoyance. Anything to distract her mind. But Nance went about her business, fluffing the pillows and doing other odd chores in silence. It was too bad Betty had not been able to come with her. Betty would have livened her dull hours while Thomas was away.
She found it hard to conceal her disappointment. Like as not, he would not be back until very late, and the day had been very long already. The only brightness had been the hours when Patsy and little Polly had been brought in to play with her. In her weakness, she had been confined to the rooms within the mansion the last two days, since the journey from Monticello had been so taxing. And she had only three months before fully recovered from Polly's birth.
The girls would be at their supper now. Off in the south end of the house, away from her. Thomas's well-intentioned edict that they should let their Mama rest was a bleak one for Patty. She fared better with folk about than alone. Not that Thomas had declared his will with any ill wish for her. She knew he only wanted her better as soon as may be. She knew her uncertain health was a weight upon his mind. Still, the company of the children would have cheered her, especially in the gloomy weather.
Her children were always a delight.
As she poked at the fish, she thought on the differences apparent already in her two precious-won little girls. Patsy was seven now, and tall, freckled like Thomas and possessing his temperament and iron constitution. Polly, at a year, was more delicate, darker in coloring and sanguine in temperament.
Patty suspected that her younger child could be more easily led than the tempestuous Patsy, and fretted over that. Polly was a clinging child, content to sit in her lap for hours, where Patsy had walked-nay, run-at nine months' age. She did not think the child lacking in wit, for she was animated enough with her or Thomas, or servants like Nance whom she knew well, but if someone unfamiliar came to call, she was often painfully shy, burying her face in Patty's skirts and crying. It troubled her greatly, but Thomas always reminded her, whenever she voiced her concern, that most of his life he had been shy in company.
It was true. Whenever he was called upon to address a large company, whether friends or strangers, or hold forth in any way, he would be nearly unable to speak, and what did emerge was so softly or hoarsely spoken as to call forth complaints from listeners of being unable to make out a word he said, which infuriated him into tears later. The eloquence of his mind and pen was stymied by the presence of potentially fault-finding outsiders. His friend in the Congress, Mr. Adams of Massachusetts, had teasingly once called him as "silent as a tomb stone". But did Mr. Adams, she wondered, discern the reason for his public silence? Likely not, from everything she had heard of him. At any rate, their Polly had nothing of her own vivacity.
Not that she had been particularly vivacious lately. Since coming to Williamsburg, she had attended only private functions as governor's lady, even though public evenings and visits wanted her presence also. She simply was not capable of public life. She poked at the meal with the long double tines of the fork, gazing distractedly out into the lowering twilight. Intermittent invalidism had become a pall, both within herself and with Thomas. With the war coming ever closer into their own sphere and other concerns pressing upon him as governor, they had little time for their old pleasures together. She was bored and he preoccupied, and they both missed their old quiet life at Monticello.
She ate the meal with little enthusiasm and poured herself another cup of the costly coffee, her gloom and anxiety increasing with the failing light. It was almost completely dark now, and the wind had begun to rise in the trees. She watched the mercury in the thermometer at the window fall steadily. It fell ten degrees in twenty minutes, and she saw a flash of lightning across the sky toward Richmond. She counted. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven. Thunder crackled and then crashed, shaking the window glass. It would be at Hampton Roads or Newport News, maybe going inland now. She opened the window to the heavy air and leaned her arm on it, her mind and heart an ache of worry. The spectres of the past had only abated, and not dissolved. They lurked in the corner of her mind, in the falling shadows about the room. Oh Thomas, she bade him silently, where are you, my darling? What business keeps you so long from home?
There was a discreet knock at the door, and her eyes flew to it.
"Come," she said, but it was only Nance, come to fetch the tray.
"What o'clock is it now, Nance?" She asked, putting her arm in from the window and leaning on the pillows. The girl went over to the Geneve clock on the dresser and peered at it on tiptoe. "Almost nine, ma'am. Do you want me to turn down the bed?"
Patty sighed, pushing away from the pillows with her hands. "You might as well. It looks as if Mr. Jefferson will be very late." She rose slowly from the daybed and replaced the quilted coverlet from whence it had fallen. She sat on the turned bed and pulled a hairbrush through her loose hair, which fell to her lap, letting Nance put her mules away in the wardrobe. It was thus she sat in her loose dressing sacque and rumpled stockings, yet uneasy, when the door opened without warning.
He filled the doorway with his height and the heavy black greatcoat he wore against the rain. Under the bicorne hat, his sandy hair was damp and his face haggard. She threw herself off the high bed, and on silent feet hurried over in relief, her dark auburn hair flowing about her. She launched herself on him, crying, "Thomas, you're home at last!"
His greenish-hazel eyes regarded her with kindly welcome, and he kissed her briefly before putting her away. "I'll get you wet," he smiled wearily. He divested himself of the hat and coat, laying them on a chair. She tossed her head.
"No matter that!" she exclaimed, taking his hands. She looked up at him. "What happened today that you are so late? Nance said Jupiter told her there was trouble. You look so weary! What were they gainsaying now? Come sit and I'll have Nance fetch you a plate." She scurried to the bell pull by the mantel and yanked on it. He looked up at her in amusement from where he had sat on the bed to remove his boots.
"You take good care of me, Patty," he said, putting an arm about her as she sat next to him. He heaved a sigh and put a bony hand to his forehead. "I have just spent the last six hours trying to convince this mulish Assembly to remove the capitol to Richmond. Williamsburg is too close to the coast, and within reach of British warships. I wore them down about it, but they gave me a most wretched headache."
"Oh my dear–" She put her fingers to his temples, wanting to soothe away the creases of pain she saw. Nance knocked upon the door and entered, carrying a tray of cold food for the master. He looked up at it in distaste.
"I'm sorry," he said to Nance. "Please take it away." Nance hesitated, glancing at Patty.
"Now Mr. Jefferson," she murmured, "you must keep up your strength. Just a little ... a glass of canary. 'Twill ease your head. For me, sir." He looked at her askance from under the hand on his brow. "Very well. You may leave it then," he told the girl. "And you may retire if you like. I can attend to your mistress' wants."
Nance bobbed a curtsey. "Yassir." She left on silent feet, closing the door noiselessly behind her. Thomas rose and took the tray over to the bed where Patty still sat, and poured out two small glasses of canary wine from the decanter on the dresser. He gave her one and a wry smile.
"You are insidious, my Patty. You know just how to get your way." He put his hand under her chin and, lifting her face, kissed her again.
"I only want what is best for you...." She took a sip of the wine, her dark eyes luminous, glad of his safe presence once more within her sphere, and put down the glass on the tray. She looked up at him again, considering now. "You should eat something, my darling. It is very late and I know you missed your supper. Would you like me to rub your head?"
He took her reaching hand. "Not if it is a strain on you." His eyes sought hers, a silent message written there, full of nuances. How many times had she heard admonitions from him that she overtaxed herself? They were countless. But now she could belay them earnestly. "Oh no," she said softly. "I am much stronger today. Let me, my dearest."
"As you wish." He finished the half-glass of canary he held.
She reached for her bottle of toilet water and applied it to her hands. Sitting behind him on the bed, she slowly rubbed his head while he ate the meal of cheese and common crackers. His tension melted under her fingers and she felt him relax. She wished he would not take public matters so seriously. Every concern that came under his eye, he took onto himself as a personal responsibility because he was governor, or legislator, or burgess. It was bad for him. He needed to laugh more, to potter about more in the garden, to lose himself in books or some scientific concern. There was little of that in the last three months since his investiture. All his time was taken up with matters of state or requisitions for the army. Dear God, the army! How would they ever feed them all? Even in Virginia, far away from the fighting, the war was making itself felt. A combination of high prices and bad harvests had taken its toll. Fruit was scarce these days and even apples were costly, but they had brought with them some of the produce from Monticello including peaches, which she had put up according to his instructions the summer before.
Excerpted from Dear Companion by Kelly Joyce Neff. Copyright © 1997 Kelly Joyce Neff. Excerpted by permission of Hampton Roads Publishing Company, Inc..
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