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Brooklyn Heights March 7, 1887, 7:00 a.m.
A persistent skittering sound from the darkened space between floor and baseboard pulls Isabella from an uneasy sleep. She sits up, shivering in her thin cambric nightgown, scanning the room. The bed in which she lies, no more than rusting scrap iron, creaks ominously as she hugs her knees to her chest.
Her gaze travels from an old sideboard with broken drawer pulls to the green curtains hanging like seaweed from the window, resting finally on a scattering of black pellets that confirm the origin of the sound coming from the floorboards.
Mice. She hates mice.
What is she doing here? She wonders if she is insane after all.
But the day has begun, and there's no use crouching in a ball feeling sorry for herself, wishing only that she could drift back to sleep and pick up the threads of her dream. She had been a child again, with Henry's large hands gripping hers, swinging her by the arms, both of them laughing; she, knowing he would not let go, knowing it was safe to throw her head back and not worry that her feet were nowhere near the ground.
Fully awake now, Isabella presses her fists into her eyes to stop sudden tears. At this moment a few houses away, Henry lies in his own bed, cut down by a stroke. Everyone from President Cleveland to Queen Victoria is keeping a death vigil for Henry Ward Beecher, for his eloquent preaching has enthralled the country for decades. But she, his sister, uneasy occupant of a garret room, is keeping vigil for the brother who played with her as a child, the one who hasn't spoken to her in fifteen years.
"Why?" John Hooker's voice had been more exasperated than astonished when she told him she was going to Brooklyn. His face had that worried look which she had come to know so well through the long years of their marriage. "You've got this vague idea that he wants to see you. If you show up now, that family of yours will pull you apart. You're making a mistake."
"I want to see him before he dies. He's my brother; I love him."
"He's in a coma."
"He'll know I'm there."
"What is it you want, Bella? An apology?"
"I want...mutual forgiveness."
"You are fantasizing," John said somberly.
"I have to try," she said.
She knows the words ring hollow. Persuading Henry's wife to let her see Henry will not be easy. Eunice does not forgive.
Isabella swings her feet to the floor, searching with her toes for her slippers before padding to the window. People are gathering on the sidewalk. There are some with heads bent, praying silently, probably Henry's parishioners from Plymouth Church. But most are men milling about, talking in low voices, stamping their feet to warm them on this frosty morning. They wear bowler hats, cheap black ones, which mark them as reporters. Maybe it is the angle of the hats jaunty, pushed back but she knows there is more going on down there than a death watch. Those men are salivating for a meal long gone cold. They want to revive what twelve years ago they dubbed the "trial of the century." Henry's trial. They want it back in all its lurid detail: the accusing, cuckolded Theodore Tilton raging for justice; his waiflike wife, Elizabeth, alternately confessing and denying her guilt; Henry, insisting he, as a man of God, would never commit adultery.
Twelve years now since the scandal that tore her family apart. Twelve years since she and her brothers and sisters were said to wobble on their national pedestal of moral virtue. The Beecher family, shaken by accusations of Henry's human frailty that was the story reporters fed on, and it was true.
She knows the scandal still courses under the surface, emerging from time to time in jokes and ditties sung on the streets and in the saloons. And she knows that even though Henry continued to preach on Sundays from the pulpit of Plymouth Church, his voice was never again quite as strong or his demeanor quite as confident.
Had those snickers and snatches of song bothered him? Or did he come so to believe his own recounting of events that he became detached from the pain and the lies that destroyed so much? Isabella wonders where that calamity lives in his heart. She knows where it is in hers.
She draws back into the room. She can't afford to let anyone see her yet, particularly her sister Harriet, who arrived in her carriage late last night. It was Harriet, after all, who sent the chilly note reminding her she was not welcome in Henry's home. Sitting back in Hartford with that note on her lap, staring at the formality of its stiff phrasing, parsing each word for hidden meaning, Isabella had made her decision: enough of deferring to the nurtured wrath of her family. She would go to Brooklyn.
She walks now over to the chest and picks up a pink tortoiseshell hand mirror, stroking the garnet beads that frame the back in a graceful, curving line. How many times has she done this? Hundreds of times.
"They aren't real," Hattie had said quickly when Isabella, with a cry of pleasure, pulled the mirror from its wrappings on her fifteenth birthday.
"Why would I care? It's beautiful, Hattie, it's the most beautiful thing I own. Thank you, thank you!" She threw her arms around her older sister.
"I wanted you to have something elegant," Hattie whispered, hugging her back. "I wanted you to see how lovely you are. But be sure to keep it in your room. Father would disapprove."
Isabella had nodded silently. Lyman Beecher was a towering figure of moral authority, both at home and throughout the nation, and he would call this a vain, frivolous gift, a bauble flouting modesty, an occasion for the sin of pride. It awed her to realize Hattie was willing to risk his displeasure.
"I would like to be a writer someday, like you," Isabella had said shyly as Hattie leaned over to pick up the wrapping paper crumpled on the floor. Harriet glanced up with a smile, and then said something Isabella would never forget: "You are a dear girl, Bella, and just as smart as anyone in this family, and you will find your own way. I want you to start by enjoying the gifts God has given you."
So long ago...Isabella stares down at the mirror in her hand. She has never reached the level of Hattie's fame, but she has made a name for herself. She has traveled the country, speaking and organizing women to fight for suffrage and legal rights, trying to instill in them a passion for what should be theirs. She has tried to stay true to her values. Would that Hattie valued her for that.
Why has she kept this old treasure all these years? And why did she bring it with her?
Slowly she turns the mirror and stares into the glass. She no longer sees the surface image the dark hair and smooth skin that still draw attention. She would like to find some clue as to who she really is, but the mirror won't tell her that. So what is she looking for? Hattie, of course. All her life, she has looked for resemblance to the vibrant, brilliant sister she loves most, straining to see more similarity than could ever have been possible with two different mothers. How exciting it had felt as a young woman to stand proudly and say, "Yes, my sister is Harriet Beecher Stowe, and yes, she is indeed the author of Uncle Tom's Cabin." How thrilling to realize her big sister had awakened the nation to the evils of slavery and shaped the focus of the War Between the States, an amazing achievement, all with the imagined story of one humble man.
"Hattie, where did you go? Where are you?" She listens to the sound of her own voice in the empty room, hearing it more as an echo deep from the past. From when?
She closes her eyes. It was that first summer in Cincinnati, after Lyman Beecher moved the entire family west to establish a new seminary. She was ten years old. She can feel the spongy wood of the old dock under her feet, smell the acrid, soupy air, hear the water sloshing against the rotting piles.
The weather was burning hot, but she didn't care. She loved being with Hattie on any venture, and going down to the river was the most fun. It seemed to her this time that the crowd of grown-ups around her were jostling one another too much, and Harriet explained they were impatient for the late-arriving mail boat. Just like me, she said with a smile. If I get the big batch of student applications I'm hoping for, our new school can open and we can all make some money. Isabella smiled back and held on tight to her sister's hand as they pressed to the front of the crowd.
But it wasn't a mail boat steaming up the Ohio River to the dock. It was a vessel with the name The Emigrant painted on the bow. Its deck was jammed with people, most of them half-naked, the hot sun glistening off the sweat of black skin. They seemed to sway in unison with the vessel as it approached across the lapping waves. Isabella guessed there were a hundred of them.
"Hattie? Who are those people?" she whispered, tugging at her sister's sleeve.
"Slaves," Harriet said, pulling her little sister closer, squeezing her hand.
The boat docked amidst shouts from the crowd on the wharf. "About time!" yelled one. "We've got eight escaped ones for you!"
"Bella, let's go," Harriet said, sounding alarmed. "This isn't the mail boat." But the crowd was pushing forward, and they couldn't retreat. Isabella lifted a hand to keep her hat from being knocked off, still staring at the people on the deck as the vessel docked.
They were close up now. There were men and women, and there were children too. She saw a girl about her own age and impulsively waved. The girl slowly raised an arm but kept it motionless, as if to shield her eyes from the sun. Only then did Isabella see an iron cuff on her wrist. From it swung a chain of iron links, one looped through another, like the daisy chain of paper Isabella had made that very day at home for her mother. Her eyes followed the links to a woman standing next to the child, to a band on her wrist. And from there to a man, and from there to another child. They were all chained together.
"Hattie " Isabella turned to her sister, but she wasn't there. A man's arm pushed her aside. A corridor had been improvised through the crowd, and eight people with dark skin were walking single file to the boat, their hands cuffed in front of them, each held to the others by the same heavy chains. One had white hair; he looked a little like Father, except for his skin color. His head hung heavy, and his arms shook under the weight of the iron.
"Where are they going?" Isabella yelled to the man on the boat who had just tied up at the dock.
"To market, child," he said with a cheerful grin. "Know anyone who needs a good colored? We grow 'em ripe in Kentucky."
A commotion broke out back in the crowd, and a man pushed forward. "You can't take that one!" he shouted at the boat captain. "That big buck there, he's mine. I own 'im! Took me a month to track him down!" He pointed at a man with sturdy shoulders and a long scar cut ragged across his nose and right cheek.
"You'll have to prove it on the other side," the captain said, a careless thumb pointing toward the Kentucky shore. "I paid a bounty hunter for him, fair and square."
The man asserting ownership was standing now next to Isabella. His eyes were furious. "He's my property, damn it. I own him, not you. And I'll prove it." He turned, pointing at the man with a scar. "Silas, you kneel!" he yelled. "I'm your master, and you know it. Kneel!"
Isabella watched, transfixed, as the man with the scar stared straight ahead. He seemed turned to stone.
"Kneel, damn it!"
The man with the scar didn't so much kneel as buckle at the knees. The movement jerked the chain shackling him to the others, causing a slightly built woman in front of him to stumble back and almost fall.
"You haven't proved anything, you just scared the son of a bitch," the captain said with a chuckle. "All right, climb on. We'll hash it out on the other side."
The man was still on his knees, his head hanging down between his arms, which were pulled taut by the connecting chain. He looked like he was praying, Isabella thought.
"Get up," said the captain. He yanked on the chain, pulling the slave to his feet. The line moved on again. When the man shuffled past Isabella, she smelled something strange and acrid, a very different smell from that of sweat on a hot day. What was she smelling? Suddenly panicked, Isabella began flailing against the legs of the men pressing forward.
"Hattie, Hattie, where did you go?" she wailed. "Where are you?"
Someone shouted that a child was alone on the dock. Men who had been focused on the escaped slaves began looking down at her, which only made her scream louder. One tried to pick her up, and she punched out at him, refusing touch or help. But then suddenly Hattie's familiar arms were wrapped around her.
"I thought I lost you, I thought you fell in the water," Harriet said, holding her tight, her voice shaky with relief.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Isabella sobbed. "I'm sorry I let go."
Later that night, back at home in Walnut Hills, they lay in bed, hugging each other. "Hattie, what did I smell when those poor people in chains were going onto the boat? What was it?" Isabella asked.
Harriet pulled her so close, she could feel the thumping of her heart. "You smelled fear, Bella," she said. "The fear of people who are never free. It's wrong, it's wrong."
Isabella would remember that talk with Harriet as her first lesson on the dark contradictions of human souls. Good people turned away from slavery because they felt no moral obligation to interfere, Harriet said, her voice trembling with anger. They wanted trade with the South, so they kept quiet. Hypocrisy was the enemy of truth, she said. It was the coward's way out, and don't you forget it, Bella.
In the boardinghouse, she wipes her eyes, reminding herself that brooding only feeds the strange pleasure of melancholy, and she cannot afford that anymore. She has to believe that Harriet suffers too, otherwise their love for each other could not have been real, and that would be a travesty. The big sister who taught her to read at the age of five by holding up word cards, who patiently coaxed her through learning her sums, who walked her to school each day for those precious few years she was allowed to attend could she truly be gone? No, it wasn't possible.
But the truth is, her family is gathering today in a house that has no room for her. In this neighborhood of elegant homes graced with mellow brownstone stoops and finely wrought iron balustrades, she sits in a room with mouse droppings. On the sidewalk, the reporters think of her as the shunned daughter of the famed Beecher family. The pariah. What an irony that her banishment came for telling the truth.
"I am not crazy," she whispers into the air. "No matter who says so."
She hears something new from outside, a different sound. A snatch of song? Isabella goes back to the window and gazes across the street in the direction of Plymouth Church. She glances again at the sidewalk in front of Henry's house and sees the bowler hats watching a strange-looking creature perform some kind of dance. She rubs her eyes. It cannot be. But yes, a man dressed as a caricature of Uncle Tom, his face darkened with lampblack and burnt cork, his lips wide, thick, and painted a gleaming white, is prancing before the Beecher home.
Beecher, Beecher is my name Beecher till I die! I never kissed Mis' Tilton I never told a lie!
"Go away, you stupid fool!" she screams before she can stop herself. She sticks her fist out the window and shakes it, venting her rage, only to see the figure in blackface dance away down the street, followed by the guilty chuckles of the bowler hats.
A right turn from this dreary rooming house onto the sidewalk leads down the street, past three houses, and across the road directly to 124 Hicks Street. Henry Ward Beecher's home is tall and sturdy, built solidly of dull brick. The windows are elegantly corniced, capable of providing ample sunlight to the interior, but the shutters inside are tightly drawn. A sleepy-looking newsboy stands at the corner, waving newspapers at the few carriages now bumping across the cobblestones, pulled by horses expertly keeping their balance, lifting their hooves high over the familiar terrain. henry ward beecher in coma, reads the headline of the paper in his grubby hand. Below it, renowned american family gathers for vigil.
The carriage occupants stare at the Beecher home. He's dying, they whisper to one another. The old man is dying. The most brilliant preacher in America, that's what everyone says. Even more than his father was...What was his name? Lyman. Lyman Beecher. A family of preachers, all of them. Except for the women.
Inside the house, dust hangs in the air. The windows have not been opened in days. The walls of the parlor to the right of the front door are covered in very expensive satin paper, purchased for three dollars a roll (thirteen single rolls to do the job) but unfortunately in a snuff brown color that Eunice Beecher insisted upon because she was sure it would fade and she didn't want to start with something too light. It has not faded.
The stairs are steep, and any visitors today will be met at the top with the mix of sweet and acrid smells of the sickroom: tallow, various medicinal syrups, slops, perspiration. In the presence of illness, Eunice does not believe in excessive ventilation.
There is, unsurprisingly, little light in Henry's sickroom. A coal fire not stoked for hours has burned out, leaving white ash in the fireplace. The room is cold, so cold. At the foot of the bed stands the small figure of a woman with slightly sunken cheeks and dark eyes that seem too big for her face. But Harriet Beecher Stowe stands erect, projecting a strength that commands the room as she crosses her arms, tucking her fingers under the armpits of her compact body for warmth. She wears one of her usual severe black dresses, a tacit acknowledgment that the mourning of one loss quite quickly blends into the mourning of another, and sometimes it is too much effort to change one's wardrobe. Her hair is pulled back into a tight bun.
Henry lies motionless, his body, sheathed in a white blanket, an imposing hillock rising from the bed. His inordinately large head takes up the entire pillow, but without animation his face looks oddly loose and fleshy. His long, white hair lies tamed, tucked behind his ears, and his eyes are closed.
It makes Harriet uneasy to stare at him when he looks so vulnerable. Her eyes turn in the direction of the oak armoire, where her sister-in-law is rummaging for something in a large trunk under the windowsill.
"What are you looking for? Can I help?" she asks.
"No, I've found it." Eunice pulls out a black silk dress and briskly shakes it. "I'll have the girl air this out and iron it. I'll need a hat and veil. A heavy veil."
Harriet tightens her arms across her chest and looks away. Eunice is preparing for Henry's funeral, actually planning her wardrobe as he lies in his bed, still breathing.
"You find what I do inappropriate?" Eunice turns and faces Harriet, her long, thin face looking even more sallow than usual.
"I judge you in no way, Eunice. You have a great deal on your mind right now and a great burden to bear. I understand."
Eunice lets the dress fall heavy in her hands, the skirt touching the floor. "Well, you don't really, but you're trying to say the right thing. In truth, you think I'm detached." Her gaze shifts to the bed. "The person lying there" she nods to the still figure in the bed "that isn't really Henry."
"Fiddlesticks." Eunice's voice is matter-of-fact. "Henry has no time to die. He'll be rushing through the door any minute, tugging at his collar, saying he's hungry, imploring me to sit and listen to his latest brilliant sermon, as if I didn't have anything better to do. And then he'll be gone, hardly having seen me, hugging the maids and patting the shoulders of neighbors on the street and never once touching me." She gestures toward the window. "And then I'll stand here and watch him as he strides across the street to where he really lives. His church."
Harriet breathes deeply, trying to shape a response. All these years of puzzling over this difficult sister-in-law. What came first, her dour approach to life or Henry's desire to flee? It is far too tender a question to speak about openly in the family, but there have been whispers about her refusing Henry his marital rights. What are her secrets? Once Henry told Harriet that Eunice's father threw a tureen of hot soup on his daughter when, as a young girl, she wore a slightly low-cut dress to dinner. Harriet tries to imagine not only the shock of such a physical scalding but the shame and humiliation the poor woman must have felt. It makes a charitable response easier.
"This is his home, Eunice. With you," she says.
Eunice makes no reply.
The nurse suddenly appears at the door. "Where have you been?" Eunice demands.
"Taking my breakfast, ma'am."
Harriet sees the dislike in the nurse's eyes as she glances at Eunice and then approaches the bed. She has seen the same expression on the faces of several servants in the short time she has been here. There is more than one reason why this house is so cold.
Her gaze travels to her brother. He hasn't spoken a word since his stroke two days ago. Is she imagining it, or is his breathing more shallow than last night? The doctors know nothing. They stand around the bed and clear their throats and say he is a very sick man, and the outcome is doubtful, although, well, he might regain consciousness.
He "might"? How could that be, when only a few weeks ago, on her last visit, he had entered the parlor in his great melton coat, the cape thrown over one shoulder, a slouch hat covering his long, flowing hair, laughing and having his usual convivial exchanges with friends while she and Eunice provided refreshments? How could someone larger than life be brought down so fast?
"Is there no improvement?"
"No, Mrs. Stowe, I don't see any, but you never know. I've had patients who came back sometimes only for an hour or so, but they talked away and sometimes they recovered."
Harriet bends to stroke her brother's forehead and senses Eunice stiffening. She steps back, quick to cede position. Eunice lifts her husband's head and begins briskly plumping up his pillows.
"Don't shake him, Mrs. Beecher," warns the nurse. "It's not good."
"I'm not shaking him."
Harriet hears the chanting outside first. Moving swiftly to the window, she opens it before Eunice can object.
Beecher, Beecher is my name Beecher till I die! I never kissed Mis' Tilton I never told a lie!
Eunice turns from the bed and put her hands to her ears. "Close that window," she demands and whirls on the nurse. "Call the police, do you hear? I want that scum outside removed! Now, do you hear? Now!"
The nurse pales, and Harriet can see the indignation and then the uncertainty in her eyes as she hurries from the room, eager to be gone as fast as possible. Eunice rushes out after her, running downstairs, her hands still over her ears. Harriet sees her pause only briefly at the polished hardwood telephone box that hangs in the hall. She can imagine the berating the nurse will get on the ground floor for not having used Mr. Bell's telephone to call the police, but Eunice, clearly, is not interested in making the call herself. Harriet's pity for her sister-in-law is dissipating rapidly.
Harriet slams the window shut and presses her forehead against the glass. She is having a hard time drawing a deep breath, but not because of that prancing fool in blackface. The angry yell spiraling up from the street, that was Isabella. She knows her sister's voice.
She moves to the side of her brother's bed and sinks to her knees. Will she have to protect him against yet another assault? Just remembering him up on that stand in the Brooklyn courthouse, facing mocking lawyers and treacherous friends it is too much. Bella had no judgment then, and certainly would have none now. What did she hope to accomplish by coming to Brooklyn Heights? She had to be here to put herself somehow at the center of Henry's dying, that's what she was about. She was trying once again to force herself to center stage.
Henry moans, and his eyelids seem to flutter. Harriet catches her breath. Will he open his eyes? Look at me just once more, she pleads silently. But his eyes remain closed.
Harriet stands up and pulls a chair close to the bed, still hearing in her head the coarse chant from the sidewalk. There is no way to erase what the trial did to Henry's life. He has come through it and lived honorably, but the press will be delighted to drag the details out again. There will be no stopping them, of that, she is sure.
Harriet takes a folded washcloth from the bedstand, moistens it with water from a small earthenware pitcher, and presses it to Henry's cracked lips. It is perhaps a futile gesture, but she has to do something. How much care is he getting from the nurse, she wonders. Or, more to the point, from Eunice.
A memory flashes: Bella turning to her on one occasion when Eunice's disapproving presence had flattened out a family evening and whispering, "Save us from the sourpuss." Harriet had giggled into her napkin, delighted with her sister's mischievous streak. The Bella she remembers from those years would certainly have had something pithy to say about Eunice already planning her wardrobe for the funeral.
But not anymore. Bella's sense of mischief turned destructive long ago, and what she is most capable of now is something melodramatic and harmful. Had Calvin been right? Harriet cannot forget his comment about Bella's shocking behavior before the trial. "Hattie, don't expect anything from Bella. Separate blood breeds separate loyalties," he had said.
"Are you implying we are not true sisters?" she'd demanded.
"You have different mothers. I'm saying that means different natures." He had looked tired, as if unwilling to go another round with his strong-willed wife.
"That's absurd. She's a Beecher, and Beechers stand together."
"Well said. But it isn't happening."
He was right, of course. But why then, as she sits next to Henry's shrouded, still form, bracing for his imminent death, does the sound of her sister's voice almost move her to tears?
Deep in memory, something else stirs, the sound of another angry, spiraling wail. She closes her eyes and grabs again at the flailing fists of thirteen-year-old Bella, trying to hold her close. Poor child, her mother gone. The beautiful, melancholic stepmother who cared not a fig for her stepchildren, but whose death had left Bella bereft. It was strange to soothe her little sister that day, strange to feel again a distant mourning for her own lost mother, and only detachment for the loss of this one.
"Hattie, help me. I'm trying to accept God's will, but I can't!"
"You don't have to." Harriet's voice caught.
"No, no, Papa says I grieve too much and it is a sin."
Bella's eyes widened at this apostasy. "But he never is," she whispered.
"Bella." Harriet cupped her sister's chin in her hands and looked her straight in the eye. Even as she spoke she felt her recklessness. Who was she, at twenty-four, to challenge the orthodoxy of her father? But it was what she and Henry talked about, somewhat guardedly, to be sure, for they did not want to hurt or outrage Lyman Beecher. Yet was his vision of a vengeful God the only one in this day and age?
"God will forgive you. Grieving is not a sin," she said.
How startling to realize, all these years later, why her eyes are indeed filling with tears. The look of gratitude on Bella's young face, the sense of having lifted a stone from that sister's heart, had forged a bond of love. Harriet had thought it would last for eternity.
Copyright © 2008 by Patricia O'Brien