[Continued from YOUNG ROBERT & CLAY:
The Life and Times of Young Robert Shelby]
This is a fan fiction story based on characters from the Lonesome Dove television show, which belong to Rysher Entertainment and Hallmark. No infringement on copyrights is intended. All other characters and storylines belong to me.
The story presented here is a continuation of my earlier story about Robert and Clay at age eleven and a half. It is set at Christmas time in 1853, but itís not really a story about Christmas. I was more interested in the development of the boys' friendship, and there are long discussions between them in this installment.
My second interest was in their interactions with the ever-present servants (slaves) in their world and what these interactions said about their characters. To this end, I read a number of personal narratives written by both slaves and Southern whites on an excellent website put up by the University of North Carolina called Documenting the American South. I have used a modified version of slave dialect in the story dialogue in order to give it an authentic feel while still maintaining readability.
I must warn you, however--Clay expresses racist attitudes in some of the dialogue. As much as I was tempted, I thought it would be dishonest to edit out this reality of the antebellum South. However, I think I have provided a (necessarily subtle) glimpse into the hidden world of the slaves as viewed through Robert's young perspective.
In terms of Clay's family background, I have portrayed his father as a no-longer practicing doctor. I got the idea for making him a planter and doctor from several sources, most notably the journal of Benjamin Robert Fleet along with letters between his family members published in a book titled Green Mount, A Virginia Plantation Family during the Civil War.
Benny was 13 when he began the journal in 1860 and he kept it until his untimely death at 17 in 1864. Benny's father was both a planter and a physician, as were several other men in the extended family. Benny had thought about becoming a doctor himself, and his older brother was hoping to go to medical school after the war. The family lived next to the Mattaponi River, about two miles from Aylett (it still exists) and somewhere around thirty miles from Richmond.
Another source was the narrative of Robert Q. Mallard, in a book called Plantation Life Before Emancipation, which I accessed on the website mentioned previously. In chapter five, titled "The Negro - How He Was Housed, Fed, Clothed, Physicked, and Worked," he wrote:
"As for their physicing, this was largely, and not unskillfully, done by the planter himself. In each plantation library was a book of medicine - my father's, I remember, was 'Ewell's Practice' - books written without technical phrases, clearly describing, in the language of the common people, diseases and their remedies. As the maladies of the African, with his simple civilization, were rarely obscure, many planters acquired a very considerable skill in diagnosing and prescribing; and probably killed no more of their patients than the young M.D. graduate is said to kill, just in getting his hand in!"
After that frightening statement, he went on to describe some of the popular medical treatments and when a real doctor was called on for expert help (usually once the case had progressed to a fatal condition). At any rate, whether or not Clay's father was a trained physician, it seems reasonable to view Clay's apparent medical knowledge in LD:TS as having started at home, observing his father.
Planters' wives also ministered to sick slaves, but it was more in the form of providing extra food and clothes rather than through hands-on nursing care. From what I've read in a number of sources, it was a notable event when a white woman actually cared for the sick body of a servant, and those cases usually involved a child, an elderly person, or a servant who had been particularly loyal and favored.
Finally, two common 19th century boys' games are mentioned in passing toward the end of the story, but in case you want to know what they are, quoits was a ring-toss game using rings of rope or flattened metal, and bandy was similar to hockey, played on either ice or a field.
Please write to me about my stories if you get the urge. I welcome any and all comments from my readers.
Colleen J. MacLennan
Christmas vacation at the Mosbysí house--Robert could almost believe he was dreaming the idea except for Clayís constant, excited reminders. Still, everything depended on the approval of his brother and guardian, Thomas, and watching for his letter in the mail at the academy became a daily ordeal in disappointment.
Finally, with the holiday less than two weeks away, Robert received the long-awaited missive. He and Clay rushed to the dormitory after supper to open it, and the two of them sat on Robertís bed as he broke the wax seal on the stiff envelope. Clay seemed anxious to read the letter with him, and it took some fancy leaning to keep it private.
"Robert," it began, and although that was terse, he was nevertheless surprised by the personal address. Not that Thomas ever wrote to him, but even in person, his brother rarely called him by name--by given name, that is. Usually, it was "little bastard" or "nigger boy," the latter because Robert spent so much time in the company of the servants.
The body of the letter contained no surprises, however.
"I donít know how you managed it, but you have made friends with a boy from one of the wealthiest families of Virginia. This is an opportunity for us, so you have my permission to go to Hatton Willows for the holiday. But mind yourself there! Donít say anything stupid and act the fool as you usually do. In fact, I would advise you not to talk much at all, except of course, you should mention me to Langdon Mosby in favorable terms. If you handle this well, the invitation will be for the whole Shelby family next time and that could be a boon for my new business venture." He signed it as "Your brother, Thomas," another show of convenient kinship.
Robert hadnít expected loving sentiment, but it still stung that his brother had not even wished him well or said anything about Christmas. All he could think about was how he might curry favor with Clayís father and get money from him. Robert folded the letter quickly so Clay wouldnít see its contents and tucked it inside his coat pocket, wondering what business scheme Thomas had devised now and who he was referring to as "the whole Shelby family."
"Well? What did he say?" Clay asked impatiently. "Will he let you come home with me?"
"Yes, he gave his permission," Robert said, but his brotherís words suddenly filled him with anxiety at the thought. He turned to his now happy friend. "Maybe I shouldnít go with you after all, Clay. I wouldnít know how to act. Iíd probably just do something stupid and ruin Christmas for your family."
"Donít be silly. Youíll get along just fine with everyone. I want you to come, Robert."
Clay gave him that intense look then, that mesmerizing stare that could wrap around Robertís heart, reach down to his soul, and claim both for his own, compelling Robert to obey out of a growing devotion. He felt himself succumbing, but there was one more obstacle to consider. "I donít have any money for gifts, Clay," he said softly, embarrassment coloring his face.
Clay leaned close to prevent other boys from hearing. "Iíll give you some. No one will know," he whispered without an instantís hesitation. "Weíll go into town tomorrow and buy something you can give my parents. Weíll say itís from your family. That would be the proper thing." He put his arm around Robertís shoulders. "Donít worry, Robert. Itíll be the best Christmas you ever had."
The comforting gesture so surprised Robert that he almost didnít hear Clayís last comments. It was the first time his new friend had touched him like that, and he knew it was Clayís way of saying he was in charge and would manage everything. Mostly, though, it said Clay cared about him, and that felt very good to Robert at the moment.
The next day, with the permission of the headmaster and dressed in their Sunday best, they rode double on Bucephalus into the town of Thornhill nearby. After perusing the shops in the merchant district, Clay selected one that had the appearance of quality to his critical eye, and they reined in to dismount before it. The shop sold fine furnishings made of china, crystal, and porcelain, and once inside, Robert almost held his breath for fear he would break something horribly expensive. Clay, however, seemed perfectly at ease as he moved about, appraising the displayed items.
A youthful, spotty-faced clerk came out from a back room and stood with arms crossed over his skinny chest, watching them as if they meant to steal something. When it became apparent the young man had no intentions of attending them, Clay took the initiative, his expression much annoyed.
"Iíd like to see the vase you have in the window," he told the clerk imperiously.
"Which one?" the young man asked with exaggerated indifference.
Clay straightened his posture as if he were about to deliver a speech. "The one on the right, with the roses on it," he said, his demeanor still commanding despite the fact that he referred to the smallest vase on display.
Robert cringed at the clerkís condescending tone of voice and eye-rolling. He remained silent while Clay handled the entire transaction, from selection of the gift to negotiations over price and packaging. In the process, he discovered Clay actually possessed very little spending money, but that fact seemed inconsequential to his friend, who continued to exude self-assurance to the end.
Pleased with his conquest of the surly clerk, Clay wanted to go to the confectionerís shop afterwards to buy them some penny candies, which was all the money he had left. Robert normally jumped at any opportunity for sweets, but today, he trailed along reluctantly, clutching the boxed vase to his chest with both arms, anxious to get it back to school in one piece as soon as possible.
The ride on Bucephalus later was fraught with even more white knuckles, and Robert felt incredibly relieved when they reached the school grounds and he could stash the delicate burden in his trunk at the end of his bed. Only then could he truly anticipate the unknown wonders of the month-long Christmas holiday at the Mosbysí house.
* * * * * * *
The Mosbys sent a coach for the boys a week and a half before Christmas. Talbert Wilson and Mace Jackson would be traveling with Clay and Robert as far as Springville, a small township on the way to Hatton Willows plantation, where their parents would have carriages waiting to bring their sons home the rest of the way. The driver, a middle-aged servant named Daniel, secured the boysí luggage on top of the enclosed vehicle and tied the leads of their horses onto the back.
Clay wanted to ride his horse, though, and encouraged Robert to join him. "Come on, Robert," he called. "Coaches are for women and children. Men ride their horses." He went to untie Bucephalus, who was already saddled, and predictably, Mace and Tal jumped to his example, not to be outdone by their leader.
"Oh, no, you donít, Marse Clay." Daniel intervened with a grip on the dapple grayís lead. "Your daddy say to keep you boys off of these horses and in the coach if the weather be bad. It be fixiní to snow here any time--too cold for you youngíuns to be ridiní through this wind."
"We can ride at least a few miles. You donít have to tell my father," Clay wheedled.
Daniel chuckled as he stepped between the boys and their horses. "You somethiní, Marse Clay. Always figuriní to make a deal. Be just my luck all of yous would take sick with a cough on them animals and then I be the one to pay." He motioned toward the coachís open door. "No, suh, I ainít one to cross your daddy, so you boys just get on in there now."
Robert noticed Daniel was careful not to touch Clay throughout the confrontation. If it had been him and Uncle Joshua, the Oak Wood servant would simply have grabbed the back of his neck and propelled him in the desired direction, with a scolding added for good measure. No further force was needed here, though. His friend finally acquiesced to Danielís borrowed authority with a scowl, apparently not willing to face his fatherís wrath either. He turned to climb into the coach, again followed by the rest of them.
Despite the other boysí crestfallen faces, Robert was glad for Danielís firm obedience to Mr. Mosby. Although it was only noon, the sky hung dark and low over their heads with thick, slate-gray clouds that signaled imminent snow, and the wind, though light, was bitingly cold and damp. The last place Robert wanted to be for even a portion of this twenty-mile, four-hour trip was on horseback, manly or not.
Resigned to their confinement as the coach lurched into motion, they began to chatter on happily about their Christmas vacation, ranging from the chances for ice-skating to their favorite desserts to the gifts they hoped to receive this year. Robert laughed with the others whenever a joke was made, but talked little, feeling out of place all over again. He had no expectations for gifts this year or any other, and his mind dwelled worriedly on the one Clay had helped him buy for the Mosbys, sure now it would be inadequate.
Daniel stopped to water the horses about halfway through the journey, and the boys took the opportunity to stretch their legs and relieve their bladders behind the trees bordering the well-traveled road. Snow flurries had started to drift about as they clambered back into the coach twenty minutes later, this time without complaint. No longer concerned with proof of manliness, they wrapped themselves in the thick blankets Daniel had brought and rifled through a basket of delicacies the cook had prepared for them to snack on.
Munching on a fried chicken leg, Robert tried to relax. It would be all right, he comforted himself. Clay had said there would be lots of guests coming and going over the holidays at Hatton Willows. He could just make himself invisible to everyone the way he did at home and no one would even notice if he made a mistake or looked like the poor boy he was.
As if reading his thoughts, Clay nudged him under the blanket they shared and gave him a little smile of encouragement. "Itíll be the best Christmas you ever had, Robert," he said, repeating his earlier words softly as Mace and Tal argued over the last cookie on the opposite seat.
He smiled and elbowed Clay lightly in return, but deep inside, he wasnít convinced.
With their bellies full, it wasnít long before sleepiness overtook them, and one by one, they nodded off, the pairs of seat-mates leaning against each other for warmth and stability. Some time later, the coach stopped abruptly and Robert woke with a start, finding that they were in a little village. This must be Springville, he thought, gazing out the breath-fogged window to see two other covered carriages alongside the road. At least a couple of inches of snow had fallen, too, making everything look like a sugar-sprinkled gingerbread world.
Mace yawned and stretched, throwing Tal off balance as the other boy groaned and blinked his eyes blearily. Clay was still fast asleep, his head on Robertís shoulder, so Robert shook him a little until he began to awaken as well. All four of them were fully alert by the time Daniel came to the door and pulled it open.
"Marse Talbert, Marse Mace, your drivers be here waitiní for you boys. Youíuns might all want to get out aní take care of private business afore you load up again," the servant advised, pointing to the privy behind the general store.
They were quick to take his suggestion and headed off in a competitive race to the outhouse, taking turns then in the order of their arrival. As the winner, Robert went in first. The single-seated privy didnít smell as bad as it would in the summer, nor were the usual spiders in evidence, but he hurried to finish anyway, knowing the others were also bursting from all the apple cider they had drunk with their snacks two hours earlier.
Afterwards, invigorated by their naps and the brisk air, they forgot the waiting servants and called for a snowball fight. Being an excellent aim, the boys of Clayís troupe often vied over Robert for their impromptu teams, a distinction he felt pride in. This time, Tal claimed his support, and they pelted Clay and Mace, who answered the attack with a barrage of their own. Daniel finally stopped them, saying it would be dark before long and their parents would have to hold up supper for them if they didnít get home soon.
Motivated by the threat of parental disapproval, they shook the snow from their clothes and said their farewells. Before they left, Mace and Tal promised to ride over to Hatton Willows in the next couple of days so they could all go skating on the plantationís ice pond. When they had been bundled into their respective coaches, the other two drivers went east while Daniel headed out on the south road for the last few miles of the journey to Clayís home.
It was five oíclock and nearly dark by the time the coach drove up to a wrought iron gate at the end of a gravel driveway. Robert squashed his cheek against the cold glass of the window, trying to get a better look at the brightly lit house in the distance, just visible beyond the veil of bare trees lining the way.
"Weíre home, Robert!" Clay told him excitedly, giving him a playful shake. "This is it--this is Hatton Willows, where I live."
Daniel shouted an order to the servant who had been waiting there with a lantern to greet them. The man swung the gates open so the coach could pass through, and then closed them again before climbing up front for the ride to the Mosbysí mansion.
As they drew closer, the details of the majestic house came clearer in the muted light of the lanterns hung outside. A white-columned portico fronted the main building, which was two stories high and mostly made of red brick. Dormer windows poked from the slanting roof, though, so even the attic must have had rooms in it, probably for storage. This central structure was flanked on either side by a one-story building, making it look like two little houses attached to a big one in the middle, and these wings had their own separate doors for entry.
The coach pulled around the circular drive directly in front of the portico, but before they could even stop, the front door opened and a tiny, dark-haired woman came out to stand at the top of the steps. Servants appeared as if from nowhere to care for the horses and unload the baggage, but Clay didnít wait for the doorman to unlatch the coach door. He shoved it open himself and leapt out, his feet crunching the gravel.
"Iím home, Mama!" he announced unnecessarily, racing up the four stone steps. "Arenít you glad to see me?"
The woman held out her arms and scooped him into a tight hug. "Clay! Of course Iím glad to see you, my dearest. I missed you terribly!" She responded with such force, Robert thought she might start to cry.
Clay pulled away quickly, though, and straightened his clothes with suddenly remembered dignity. "I missed you, too, Mother," he said, more formality in his manner. "I want you to meet my friend, Robert."
Robert had stayed at the bottom of the steps, feeling awkward and hesitant to intrude on the family reunion, but now Clay skipped down and took his arm to drag him forward from the shadows. "Come and meet my mother, Robert," he demanded, then turned to his mother again. "This is Robert Shelby, Mother. Heís nervous about meeting you, but I know youíre going to like him."
Robert blushed and gave his friend a chagrined look.
"Itís all right, Robert. Itís just my mother," Clay said, impatiently brushing aside Robertís embarrassment.
"Iím very pleased to meet you, Mrs. Mosby," he said, bowing his head in respect.
She smiled warmly and seemed to restrain herself from hugging him, too. "Iím pleased to meet you as well, Robert. Clay has written so many good things to us about you. Iím very glad you could spend Christmas with us."
"Thank you for inviting me, maíam," he said, amazed at her graciousness. She acted as if he were doing the Mosbys a favor by visiting.
"Well, letís get you boys in out of the cold, shall we?" she suggested, swinging her sapphire satin skirt with her hands as she turned and crossed the threshold into the brighter light of the entrance hall.
Once they were inside, Mrs. Mosby swirled around to face them again, and Robert was even more stunned. She looked uncannily like Clay, or rather, Clay looked like her. Her dark, curly hair, her round face, her golden brown eyes--they were the same, only in dainty feminine form. She was extremely beautiful, he decided.
"Whereís Father?" Clay asked, glancing around the festively decorated hall and staircase.
"Your father was called to the quarters. One of the woodcutters had an accident earlier and cut himself badly. The servants say he might lose his leg, Iím afraid. Your father is attending to him now, but he should be back in time for supper."
Clay looked at Robert. "My father is a doctor. He doesnít practice anymore, though, except on our plantation," he explained.
A doctor! Why hadnít Clay told him that before, he wondered? Now he didnít know if he should call Clayís father Mister or Doctor. He was trying to decide whether he should ask when a womanís amused voice interrupted.
"Emily, surely you donít intend to keep these handsome young gentlemen all to yourself, do you?" An older woman emerged from the door to the left--the parlor, by the looks of it past her outline. She, too, resembled Clay and his mother, although her features were not as finely sculpted.
"Aunt Annie!" Clay exclaimed happily, kissing her cheek and letting her hug him as well. "Are Cousin Olivia and Grandmama Simms with you?"
"Of course, silly! Would I have come all the way from Richmond to enjoy your considerable charm without them? You must think me very selfish," she teased.
"Aunt Annie, youíre making fun of me now," Clay chided with a grin.
"Clay, mind your manners," his mother scolded mildly.
"Itís all right, Sister. Clay and I have an understanding, donít we, Clay?" Aunt Annie interceded.
"Annie, youíll give the boy to think he can do as he likes regardless of propriety."
"Oh, Emmie, let me indulge him a little. I have no boys of my own to spoil, after all." She looked again at her nephew. "Your grandmama and cousin are in the front parlor, waiting breathlessly for your entrance, Iím sure. Your mother has talked of nothing but your impending arrival for hours. Your presence, in fact, has rescued us from hearing one more time how sheís had the cook make all your favorite dishes for supper tonight."
"Anna Leigh, you are incorrigible!" Mrs. Mosby said to her older sister with an embarrassed blush.
Clay flashed his most disarming smile. "Thank you, Mother. That was very thoughtful of you," he said, and Robert detected a soothing tone in his friendís voice. Clay definitely knew how to get around his doting mother. "Come on, Robert," Clay directed then eagerly. He started toward the parlor doorway and whispered close to Robertís ear, "My cousin is the most beautiful lady in the world next to my mother."
"Clay, your manners!" his mother called in frustration.
"Yes, you havenít introduced me yet to your stalwart companion there," his aunt added in a mock stern tone.
"Oh, Iím sorry, Aunt Annie. This is Robert Shelby, my friend from school. Heís going to stay here with me for the whole holiday. Robert, this is my Aunt Annie Jessup."
"Pleased to meet you, maíam," Robert said, bowing his head again.
"And I, you, Mr. Shelby. Knowing my nephewís discerning judgment as I do, I am always pleased to meet his friends." She smiled and gave him a small, playful curtsy, and he knew at once he was going to like Clayís aunt very much.
In the double parlor, more introductions were made to Clayís elderly maternal grandmother and to the second most beautiful lady in the world, Aunt Annieís twenty-year-old daughter Olivia. Clay hovered around the exquisitely petite and pale girl, and even went so far as to rather pretentiously kiss her hand in the greeting. He was so obviously smitten with her that Robert would have laughed but for the fact that he was equally susceptible to Oliviaís bright, innocently flirtatious gaze and graceful movements.
Nevertheless, the heavily ornamented Christmas tree in the back parlor drew his attention more. He had never seen a tree so huge nor so gaily attired, not even when his parents were alive from what he could remember. He wanted to examine it up close, but that would have to wait. Only the enormous pile of gifts beneath the evergreenís drooping boughs gave him any misgivings. His lonely little vase, which he knew he should feel grateful for, seemed even more puny in comparison to the riches those boxes contained, and he hoped again Clay had made the right choice.
Murmuring something then about the laxity of school officials and boysí bad habits, Mrs. Mosby insisted that they bathe before supper and called for the servant who was to attend to them. Under cover of politeness, Clay made Robert go first, so he followed the old black man named Seneca up the stairs and down the central hall that ran the length of the house from front to back, finally entering the large back bedroom to the right.
This was Clayís room, and Robert looked around his friendís personal sanctuary with intense interest and a touch of awe, absorbing the impact of all its luxury.
The first thing he noticed was the canopied bed to the right of him with its thick, spiral-carved columns. Robert stopped just inside the door and gaped at the massive structure, which dominated the room. The canopy was deep red and tasseled, like something from the Arabian Nights, and the mattress was covered with a crazy quilt made of brilliantly colored, embroidered swatches of satin and velvet that made him smile. The fireplace was opposite the foot of this magic bed. A herd of wooden horses galloped along its mantel, and framed paintings of horses decorated all the walls.
He came farther into the room and saw that the rest of the furniture matched the bed, massive and crafted from dark mahogany, and some pieces had tops made of brown-veined black marble he simply had to touch. Imagine having whole slabs of rock in your bedroom! The cool, polished marble exuded strength as he smoothed his hands over it, and if Seneca hadnít been present, he would have laid his cheek against it, too. The entire room, in fact, felt distinctly masculine, mysterious and powerful.
He tore himself from his explorations and remembered why he was here. The servants had placed a copper tub in front of the fireplace and filled it halfway with steaming water, and more water was heating in a kettle above a portable burner set on the hearth. They had also built up a roaring blaze in the fireplace for added warmth on this freezing night and laid towels around the tub to catch stray splashes and drips. Robert marveled at their thoughtfulness, a virtue rarely displayed by Oak Woodís harried and resentful house servants.
Seneca lifted Robertís carpetbag to unpack it for him and lay out fresh clothes for supper, and in a panic, Robert threw himself over it. "No, thank you! Iíll do it myself," he practically shouted. Although he hesitated for anyone to see how little he had brought with him, he mostly didnít want anyone else touching his most private, valuable possession, which he had wrapped inside that fresh change of clothes.
Seneca stepped back and shook his head. "All right, Marse Robert. I let you get your things out if you want."
After Robert had finished withdrawing the required items, he realized Seneca was staying to help with his bath. He began to undress, but when he was down to his drawers, a fit of modesty seized him. No one at home attended him while he bathed anymore--he was too old to need watching and a servant couldnít be spared from necessary tasks just to hand him soap and towels. He talked himself out of it, though, and slid the drawers off as well. After all, Uncle Joshua had helped him bathe all the time when he was younger and Seneca didnít seem that much different from him.
"You set yourself in the tub now, Marse Robert. I got soap aní a real nice ocean sponge right here for you. Mistus Emily want you to wash all over, so I scrub your back for you when you be ready."
Once seated in the tub, Robert took the sponge and bar of lavender scented soap. "Thank you, Seneca," he said as he examined the odd-shaped gold sponge to see what it had to do with the ocean. He couldnít detect the slightest clue. It felt rather stiff and rough, too. He wasnít sure he wanted to rub this thing on his bare skin.
Seneca must have noticed his skeptical expression. "Get it wet and it soften up right away, you gonna see," he urged.
Robert did as he was told and found it was true, the sponge did soften up and felt wonderful on his body. He sudsed himself everywhere he could reach and then handed the sponge back to the servant. "I guess you should wash my back now, please, if you wouldnít mind."
Seneca chuckled to himself while he rubbed soapy circles on Robertís back and shoulders.
"Why did you call it an ocean sponge, Seneca?" he asked, enjoying the sensations of the rubbing and the extra heated water the servant poured over him to rinse away the soap.
"ĎCause it grow in the ocean, just like the grass aní tobacco aní trees grow here on land."
"Oh. I never saw one before."
"You donít got sponges at your house where you live? Where you come from, Marse Robert?"
"I live with my brother at Oak Wood. Itís a plantation north of Richmond." He calculated the distance in his head. If school was twenty miles from Hatton Willows, and Oak Wood was over fifteen miles from school in another direction, then it had to be twenty and fifteen put together, at least. "Itís pretty far from here, maybe almost forty miles," he said.
"Well, that be far, all right. Maybe where your people be, it be too far from the ocean to buy sponges."
"Maybe," Robert agreed. He was washed from head to toe by now and Seneca even shampooed his hair. Time to let Clay have his turn.
He stood and let Seneca wrap a large towel around him, warm from hanging near the fire. "Thank you," he said, probably the fourth time this evening he had expressed gratitude for the old manís help.
Seneca chuckled that same private way. "You donít have to thank me, Marse Robert. This be my job, to care for Marse Clay, aní for you while you be here," he said, drying Robertís wavy, gold-tipped hair.
Robert felt suddenly awkward. Had he done something wrong already? "Iím just trying to be polite, sir," he said apologetically.
"There you go again, calliní me Ďsuhí," Seneca laughed. "I ainít no white man, young massa!" He started to comb the knots out of those stubbornly tangled waves. "Still, I suppose it be better to have too many manners than too little."
"I say Ďthank youí to my Uncle Joshua. Heís the one who takes care of me at Oak Wood, or he used to, anyway, before I got too old. He says itís important to let people know you appreciate what they do for you. That way, they want to help you more and theyíll always do their best."
"Your Uncle Joshua be right about that, aní if it be a righteous world we live in, I be the first to say ĎPraise the Lord.í But your olí black uncle ainít done you no favors with his teachiní in the real world, boy."
Seneca seemed to relax as he warmed to his topic, and Robert had the sense he didnít talk like this to the Mosbys. "What do you mean, he didnít do me any favors?" he asked, feeling a little defensive of his beloved servant, who had been a father to him ever since his own fatherís death.
"Just donít be sayiní all them Ďthank yousí and Ďpleasesí to us Negroes Ďround the white folk, Marse Robert. They be thinkiní the servants is puttiní on airs and gettiní too full of theirselves. It be us who supposed to say Ďpleaseí aní Ďthank youí to them, not the other way Ďround."
"That doesnít seem fair when youíre the ones doing all the work," Robert protested, although he knew it was true. Most white people acted like the blacks who waited on them were just part of the furniture, something in the background of their lives, functional but not noteworthy. And a few were like his brother, downright mean to them no matter how hard they worked.
Seneca snorted. "Fair got nothiní to do with it, Marse Robert. Now you finish gettiní dressed soís I can get Marse Clay washed, too."
* * * * * * *
Freshly bathed and dressed for supper, Robert descended the staircase slowly, unsure of what to do now without Clayís guidance. A servant exiting the front parlor below must have noticed his lost expression, because he stopped despite the heavy silver tray and tea service he carried.
"Might I help you, young massa?" said the man, looking up at Robert with a cocked eyebrow.
"Um...Iím looking for Clay," he answered nervously. The manís close-clipped hair was graying, and though a servant, he wore good clothes and had a stately, authoritative bearing that scared Robert a little. "Iím his friend, Robert Shelby," he added, in case an explanation was required to gain the information he sought.
"And I be Joseph, the butler of this house. I know all about it, so you come to the right place." Joseph turned toward the doorway opposite the parlor. "That thereís the music room. If you go through there, you be in the east wing part of the house. Thatís where the library aní the olí massaís study be. I just seen Marse Langdon take the young massa in there. It be all right if you go wait in the library, Marse Robert. Iíse sure they wonít be long Ďcause supper be just about on the table."
"Thank you, Joseph," Robert said, then bit his lip. Old habits died hard.
Joseph nodded and smiled for the first time during their exchange. "You welcome, Marse Robert," he responded, and resumed his path toward the back of the house.
Robert peeked into the music room and was relieved to see it was empty. Everyone was either in the parlor socializing or in their rooms preparing for supper. Everyone but Clay and his father, that is. He continued through the music room with its harp and piano and flowery blue rug, and cautiously entered the library.
This was one of the rooms with a separate entrance from outside. It, too, was empty, but a fire burned in the fireplace anyway, and he supposed it was in case someone wanted to read one of the boring-looking leather-bound volumes that filled the dark wood shelves around the walls. A gold-covered sofa and chairs were arranged before the fireplace, and a writing desk stood beneath the windows facing the front lawn. A large painting of a shining chestnut horse, obviously a champion of the racetracks, hung above the fireplace, to the right of which was the door to the study. Clay and his father must both love horses because this was the only other place in the house he had seen thus far that displayed their images so prominently.
As he looked around with mild interest, he thought again about the dilemma of what to call Clayís father. He hadnít had an opportunity to hear what other people called him yet except the butler, and he didnít count because the servants addressed all the white males by the title "master." The best solution, he decided, was to circumvent the question altogether and simply call him "sir."
The murmuring sound of voices drifted toward him from the hallowed study, and he saw that the door was slightly ajar. He hesitated, but curiosity got the better of him. He stepped to it quietly and listened, hoping to get an idea of Mr. Mosbyís temperament before meeting him face-to-face. Of all Clayís family, his father was the one Robert was most concerned with impressing.
Their conversation was clearly audible from this vantage point, and it was Mr. Mosbyís voice that resonated loudest.
"He says in the letter that you defied his authority--let me see...." Robert heard papers rustle in the pause and then Clayís father went on sternly. "Yes, here it is. He says you defied his authority, refused to accept appropriate discipline, and spoke rudely to him in defense of a known miscreant beneath your acquaintance."
"He means Robert," Clay said, and Robert could almost see his friendís eyes darken with anger. They were talking about the letter Headmaster Wynne must have sent.
"Robert is a miscreant?" Mr. Mosby asked.
His stomach dropped at the sharp tone. Clayís father would surely agree with the headmasterís opinion of him. He was doomed to be poor white trash forever!
Clayís voice interrupted his despair. "No, sir," Clay said, but he sounded anxious, too. "Itís just that some of the boys pick fights with him because of his circumstances, so he has to fight back. His honor demands it!"
"And what matter of honor occasioned your defense of him?"
"We had a fight, sir. Thatís how we met. I started it, though," Clay hastened to add. "I thought Robert stole something from me. He didnít, but Headmaster Wynne was going to whip him anyway, and I couldnít let Robert be punished for something that wasnít his fault, so I said it would be unChristian to whip him,...sir."
"I see. And I assume the good headmaster wanted to whip you, too?"
"And thatís when you," more paper shuffling, "Ďrefused to accept appropriate discipline.í"
"Yes, sir." Robert heard only silence for a few agonizing seconds and then Clay continued, defending himself now. "I told the headmaster that you never whip me. And besides, Robert and I already settled the matter between ourselves like men, ... sir."
An awful lot of "sirs" were coming out of Clayís mouth. This was very bad. Mr. Mosby would think he was a terrible influence on his son and might even make him leave, Christmas or no.
Mr. Mosby cleared his throat. "You are not quite a man yet, Clay," he began somewhat ominously. "But I believe in this instance you behaved with justification. A gentleman always stands up for those who are less advantaged than he, and to accept punishment for a wrong you had already corrected would be senseless. You showed good judgment, son. Iím proud of you."
"Thank you, sir."
Robert heard Clayís sigh of relief as he breathed out his own, but it was less than a second before a new realization tormented him. If Clayís father didnít see him as a bad influence, he did believe him to be "less advantaged," and that was just a nicer way of saying "poor white trash."
"Now I believe your mother wants us both to wash before supper, so I suppose weíd best get to it," Mr. Mosby said, his chair creaking as he stood up.
The moment of truth had arrived. Robert bit his lip and hurried to sit on the sofa, trying to look as though nothing was wrong. Why, oh why, had he agreed to come here, anyway? He would never be like Clayís other friends. This wasnít his world. Heíd never fit in and he was stupid to try. He was just a charity case to all these people, Clay included.
His mind and body churned with apprehension by the time Clay emerged from the study half a minute later, his father behind him with a hand on his shoulder. Without thinking, Robert was on his feet at the imposing sight of the man he had convinced himself to fear. Mr. Mosby was neither very tall, nor especially well-dressed at the moment, but with the graying hair at his temples and mustache, erect bearing, and piercing gaze, he conveyed a formidable presence nevertheless. Rather like Clay at his most determined, Robert recognized.
Clay broke into a wide smile. "Robert! Iím glad you found me. Now you can meet my father." He rushed to Robertís side eagerly, at which point he suddenly straightened his posture and cleared his throat, apparently to say something of great import. "Father, I would like to present to you my best and most honorable friend, Robert Shelby," he announced in an unusually formal style.
Robert guessed Clay must have practiced this particular introduction, but it made him happy to hear the compliments it contained. At least Clay really liked him. "Iím honored to meet you, sir," he said, since honor seemed to be the theme of the day. He gave his holiday benefactor a low bow of deep respect. When he looked up again, Mr. Mosby was regarding him with a stern expression.
"Well, so you are Robert. Your reputation precedes you, young man." Mr. Mosby glanced at his son as Robert held his breath and tensed for the verbal blow he expected. "I must say Clay has given me a glowing report of your impeccable qualities. Iím very pleased you were able to join us for the holiday, as I know Clay would not enjoy it half as well without you."
Mr. Mosby smiled at him then, another resemblance to Clay, he noticed as he exhaled in a second round of relief. He didnít know what "impeccable" meant, but it must be something good. He returned the smile as best he could manage. "Thank you for inviting me, sir. I ... I wouldnít enjoy the holiday either without Clay," he said, hoping that wasnít too bold of him to admit.
"Well, I expect you both will have a very good time, being away from all those schoolmasters and their rules for a whole month."
Robert was surprised to see Mr. Mosby wink teasingly at Clay. Maybe he wasnít so forbidding after all. Now, there was something he was supposed to do. What was it? Oh, yes. "My brother Thomas sends his regards, sir, and wishes you and your family a Merry Christmas." That was more than Thomas had instructed, but he thought it would be the right thing to say.
"Does he now?" Mr. Mosby lost some of his smile, stirring the embers of Robertís fear. "Well, you must give him my thanks when you see him again, Robert."
"I will, sir," he answered, feeling the anxiety rise again. He might have impeccable qualities, but he knew Thomas certainly didnít, and apparently Mr. Mosby knew that as well.
"I see youíre all ready for supper," Mr. Mosby said, then turned to Clay and ruffled his hair. "You and I could benefit from some soap and water, too, if we want the ladies sitting next to us at the table."
"Yes, sir," Clay grinned.
Robert noticed suddenly that blood stains dotted Mr. Mosbyís trousers and shirt sleeves. He wondered if the woodcutter had to have his leg cut off like Mrs. Mosby said. He hoped not. That would be a terrible thing to have happen, especially right before Christmas.
"You may stay here and read one of these fascinating volumes in the interim, Robert, or you may go to the parlor for a little socializing," Mr. Mosby suggested, "but if I were you, Iíd choose the latter. Miss Annie and Miss Olivia make for enchanting company."
Robert took his advice and went to the parlor, intending to sit quietly, invisibly on the fringes of social intercourse. But Clayís aunt would have none of that. She immediately engaged him with earnest inquiries into his opinions on this or that matter. The topics were unimportant. What impressed him was her genuine belief that he himself possessed some importance. No adult had ever treated him, a mere boy, with such respect. By the time Clay and his father joined the small family group, in fact, he felt quite at ease.
Until they adjourned to the dining room, that is.
A confusing array of plates, glasses and silverware set each place at the table, and although Mrs. Mosby called the meal a "light supper," an abundance of food was served in courses. Creamy mushroom soup, fried oysters, roast duck with gravy, ham steaks, candied sweet potatoes and plain mashed potatoes, string beans cooked with fat bacon, pecan pie and chocolates for dessert--in short, all of Clayís favorite dishes except turkey, which was in reserve as the centerpiece of a grand Christmas dinner. Servants came and went with fluid motions, serving and removing things silently and without direction, all while family members ate and conversed with unconcern. And every course required its own special china, its own peculiar utensils.
Generally, Robert ate heartily of food this delicious, but the rigors of protocol interfered with his appetite tonight. He studied Clay, who sat next to him, trying to decipher the use of all the dinnerware, and luckily, his friend soon realized the dilemma.
"Just do everything I do, Robert," Clay whispered before turning back to the object of his infatuation, the demure Cousin Olivia.
Awkwardly, he mimicked Clayís behavior, but he never thought heíd be so happy to have a meal come to an end.
* * * * * * *
The long day wound to a close as well shortly afterward when Mrs. Mosby decided it was time he and Clay retired for the night. Clay went reluctantly, not wanting to miss out on any fun, but Robert was more than ready. While Hatton Willows transformed Clay from a guarded scholar into a playful boy, it overwhelmed and exhausted him. And this was just the beginning--many more relatives and friends of the Mosbys would arrive in the next few days.
When they entered Clayís room, Robert saw that the servants had cleared away the bathing materials and prepared it for comfortable slumber instead.
"You have another bed in here!" he exclaimed upon seeing the low trundle bed next to the big feather bed, pulled out and made up with the covers drawn back, apparently for him. "That wasnít there before."
"It stores under mine. It was where Willy used to sleep, in case I needed something in the night."
"Whoís Willy?" Robert noticed a nightshirt had been laid out for him, too, one of Clayís, he guessed, so he started to undress.
Clay followed suit, wriggling out of his confining clothes to don the loose cotton nightshirt laid out on his own bed. "He was my Negro boy. He was born when I was, so my parents gave him to me for my own. That way, Iíd have someone to play with, and when we grew up, he was going to be my body servant. He died last winter, though. Caught pneumonia and even Papa couldnít do anything to help him."
"Do you miss him?"
"I suppose. We were sort of friends," Clay shrugged, like he didnít want to let on that he cared. Suddenly, though, he looked brightly at Robert. "But I have you now."
Robert frowned. "Iím not going to be your body servant, Clay."
"I know. Seneca takes care of me since Willy died. I meant I have you to play with now. You can come to Hatton Willows all the time and stay with me during school vacations. Youíre lots better than any Negro boy."
"Why is that?"
"Well, because youíre white," Clay said, as if the answer was obvious.
Robert wondered at the logic behind Clayís statement, but he said nothing about his doubts. Instead, he sat on the trundle bed and began to unpack his threadbare carpetbag, arranging his few possessions in categorized piles on the floor next to him. In the morning, heíd put them in the bureau drawer Clay had cleared for him to use while visiting. "You didnít tell me your father was a doctor, Clay," he said as he worked. "Do people call him Dr. Mosby?"
"No, he thinks that would give people the wrong idea since he doesnít really do doctoring anymore." Clay lay on his belly crosswise over his bed, looking down on the unpacking procedure with interest. "Whatís in that tin?" He pointed at a scratched and beaten tin box that Robert had set aside with great reverence.
"Thatís my treasure box," Robert said solemnly, smoothing his hand over its grubby surface as if touching a sacred relic. "I take it with me everywhere."
"Why havenít you shown it to me before?"
Robert shrugged. "Itís sort of private."
"Whatís in it?" Clay asked, his interest sharpened.
"Important things." Robert evaded the question, not sure if he felt ready to reveal his treasures to Clay, who might make fun of them. After all, he had made fun of Robertís quartz collection, which he kept on the windowsill next to his bed at school so it would catch the morning sunlight. Clay had called it "a poor manís treasure," although he did say he was sorry later.
No amount of reserve could daunt Clayís eagerness. "Letís see!" he urged with excitement. "Come up here and letís open it on my bed where thereís more room." He sat up and moved back to make space.
Robert thought a moment, chewing his lip. They had already shared their deepest, darkest secrets with each other, so itíd probably be all right, he decided. He placed the tin on the bigger bed and climbed up after it. Prying the lid off required some less than graceful effort in contrast to his otherwise reverent approach, but Clay sat in respectful silence throughout.
When he had it opened, he began laying its contents one by one on the quilt. "This is a Jewís harp I got from a boy named Charlie at my first school. He was my best friend then, and he gave it to me for beating up another boy who was always picking on him."
Clay seemed impressed. "Did you get into trouble?"
"The schoolmaster made me write ĎI will live in peace with my fellow maní a hundred times for punishment, but I donít think he was too angry about it. That boy picked on everyone who was littler than him, but he didnít bother anyone after I whipped him."
"You did the right thing," Clay nodded in approval. "An honorable gentleman always stands up for people who are less advantaged."
Robert felt a little shock to hear Clay mouth the same words Mr. Mosby had used in reference to him. He blushed with shame, and looked down to hide his face.
He neednít have worried. Oblivious to his discomfort, Clay was already absorbed in examining the key-like metal instrument. "How do you play it?"
Robert took it from Clayís hand, hoping his cheeks werenít still red. "You hold it in your teeth like this," he said, demonstrating. "And then you pluck this part with your thumb." He thrummed the single flexible tongue that ran down the center, creating a twanging sound that changed in pitch as he made different shapes with his lips.
"Can I try it?"
"If you want."
Clay put the small object in his teeth the way Robert had shown him and plucked a few times, experimenting with the sound. Satisfied, he nodded and laid it down again. "What else do you have in there?" he asked, peering into the tin.
Feeling better now, Robert withdrew a few of his smaller treasures next. Out came the pieces of dark blue glass he thought were so pretty, and the corked bottle of beetles he kept because he liked their iridescent green bodies. Then he set a black cloth pouch on the bed. "I have twenty-three marbles in here," he announced. "I used to have thirty-five, but I traded the colored ones for a book about Indians from David Rutherford. I can show that to you later, too, if you want. I brought it with me."
"All right," Clay agreed. He lifted the bag and this time he didnít ask permission before he opened its drawstring and poured the dull brown balls into a little pile between them. "I have some marbles, too. We could play a game with them tomorrow."
For a couple of minutes, they shot individual marbles into the central pile with deft thumb and forefinger technique, trying to knock as many as possible out of an area defined by several patches on the quilt. Finally, Clay gathered them up and dropped them back into the bag. "Letís see more," he directed.
Robert lifted up a cluster of shiny metallic crystals to reflect the light. "This is a piece of pyrite. Some people call it foolís gold, though, because it looks like gold if you donít know any better."
Clay fingered the pyrite with admiration. "You know a lot about rocks and things, Robert."
"Iíve studied up on them," Robert acknowledged modestly. He reached into a corner of the tin and pulled out a much smaller cardboard box. Opening it, he carefully probed through a wad of cotton inside and held up a little blue egg. "I have two eggs that never hatched. This one is a robinís egg, and this one," he said, producing an even tinier white ball, "is a lizard egg."
Clay lifted each one gingerly in turn, looked at it against the lamplight, and shook it next to his ear. "Desiccated," he pronounced, placing them back in their cotton nest.
Robert looked at him with uncertainty.
"That means dried up," Clay explained, without a trace of condescension.
"Oh. I guess they would be." Robert returned his attention to the few items he had yet to unveil. He had saved the best for last. He pulled out a small carved wooden cage with an even smaller ball carved inside and free to move about. "Uncle Joshua made this for me for my birthday this year. He carved it all from a single piece of wood."
Clay took it and turned the cage in all directions to see the ball roll around. "How did he do it, do you suppose?" he asked in wonderment.
"I donít know. He didnít show me because it was a present. He promised to teach me how to carve like that, though, when I get older. I think heís afraid I might cut myself now and heíd get in bad trouble with my brother. Uncle Joshua hasnít been whipped in a long time, but Thomas is always saying heís gonna teach that uppity nigger a lesson."
"Itís better not to whip your servants unless thereís no other way," Clay said as if he were master of the plantation already. "It just makes them mean and then they try to get back at you."
Robert was fairly certain these were more words of wisdom from the elder Mosby. Clay was learning fast to think like the leader he dreamed of becoming.
"Thereís still some things left in the tin," Clay hinted.
Only two treasures of any significance remained--his two most precious possessions in the whole world. "My fatherís ring," he said, carefully presenting it for his friendís perusal. "Itís a signet ring, made of gold and onyx."
"Thatís very valuable," Clay nodded. "Did your father give it to you?"
"No. My Mammy Lou stole it for me from his dressing table after the train accident. She said I should have something to remember my papa by before Thomas took it all for himself." He dug back in the bottom of the tin. "My mama gave me this, though, right before their trip so I wouldnít miss them so much." He unwrapped a black velvet cloth to reveal a large, intricately engraved silver locket on a chain. It was two-sided and Robert pried both little doors open. "Thatís my mama, there," he said proudly, indicating the tiny painted portrait of a very young woman. "Her name was Alice--Alice Anna Pryor Shelby."
"She was beautiful, Robert."
He smiled in acknowledgment and turned the locket to display the other portrait, this one of an older man with a stern expression. "That was my papa, Richard James Shelby."
"He looks like he was a strong and honorable man."
"This here, in the center glass, is their hair woven together," he explained of a minuscule braid made of yellow and light brown hair matching that of the paintings. "Mama made it as a keepsake when they were married." After Clay had admired it all appropriately, he shut the locket again, resisting his usual closing ritual of a kiss to each parentís face first. He didnít want Clay to think he was a baby.
A knock at the door startled them both, and as Robert scrambled to repack his treasure box, Seneca poked his head in the room. "You still awake, Marse Clay? It past midnight, boy. Your mama say put the lamp out aní go to sleep now."
Clay gave the old servant an annoyed look. "I will in a few minutes. Weíre not done yet."
"I ainít fooliní with you, Marse Clay." Seneca stepped into the room and walked with a rheumatic limp to the fire, stirring it to bring up the flames. "You want your mammy to come and give you what for?"
"Mammy Rose isnít in charge of me anymore!" Clay declared defiantly.
"No, suh, but I is, aní I aim to see you in that bed like your mama want!" the servant returned, just as firmly. "If that take gettiní your poor olí mammy out of her bed to come whip your smart little behind, I just go do that."
"Youíre just saying that because you canít whip me," Clay taunted.
Seneca turned and narrowed his cataract-clouded eyes. "You gonna put that lamp out, Marse Clay?" he asked, a warning in his voice.
Robert had the feeling Clay was showing off for his benefit, but he wished he wouldnít. His reputation with the Mosbys was already tenuous, and Clayís disobedience would only prove that he was, indeed, a bad influence on their son. He hastily climbed down to the trundle bed and slipped under the covers, tucking his treasures in as well. "Weíll put it out, Seneca, wonít we, Clay? Weíre going to bed right now."
Clay glanced at him like he was a traitor, but then sighed and surrendered to his black caretaker. "Yes, weíre going to bed now. You donít have to keep on."
Seneca looked triumphant and nodded his old gray head at Robert. "You a good boy, Marse Robert. Maybe some rub off on that one." He waited for Clay to snuff the lampís flame and then went to the door, muttering on the way out, "Iíse too old for chasiní after half-growed boys. Donít know what Mistus Emily be thinkiní, puttiní me to this kinda work...."
"Whyíd you do that, Robert?" Clay demanded accusingly after the servant had gone.
"You gave in. Why didnít you stand up for me?"
"Well," Robert said slowly, "I guess I didnít think you were less advantaged."
Clay paused, apparently brought up short by that. "Hm!" he grunted at last, flopping down in his bed and digging a place under the covers. A half-minute passed in only the sounds of the crackling logs when suddenly he announced as calm as could be, "We'll look at your Indian book tomorrow night."
Robert smiled sleepily to himself in the fire-lit darkness and snuggled down deeper. "All right," he mumbled, succumbing without a fight to the dreamy depths that claimed him.
* * * * * * *
They both slept late into the morning. Mrs. Mosby had granted them a reprieve from schedules this first full day of vacation, and it was past noon by the time they had dressed and descended the stairs to begin the dayís activities. First on the agenda was breakfast, but the dining room had already been cleared to prepare it for the big afternoon meal, so Clay decided to go directly to the source--the kitchen building just behind the big house.
The heat of the kitchenís two fireplaces blasted them as they entered out of the chilly December air, but Robert thought it smelled wonderful. His mouth watered and his stomach rumbled in response to the delicious aromas of baking breads and cakes, roasting meat and simmering pots of vegetables tended by several bustling cooks. After the anxiety-ridden supper the night before, his appetite had returned with a vengeance.
"Why, lordy, Marse Clay, I do believe you done growed another whole foot taller since I seeíd you last!" exclaimed a big woman rolling out pie dough on a floured wooden table.
Clay smiled at her with real affection, piquing Robertís curiosity.
"Iím not that much taller--just an inch or two, maybe," Clay said. He put an arm around Robertís back and led him closer. "This is my friend Robert from school, Aunt Daisy."
"So you be Marse Robert. And a fine friend you be to our young massa, too, I hear tell," she noted, beaming at him.
"Aunt Daisy is the best cook in Virginia, Robert. Wait till you taste her gingerbread. Itís the finest youíll ever eat."
"Oh, I sees now why you come out to see your olí Aunt Daisy! You aims to get you some of that gingerbread I just baked up," she accused, pointing to a large pan of the spicy brown cake cooling off to the side of the table. In spite of her bluster, though, Aunt Daisy looked quite pleased to discover Clayís motives.
"We got up too late for breakfast and we sure are hungry, arenít we, Robert?" Clay said, maneuvering shamelessly. "A piece of your excellent gingerbread is just the thing we need."
"Well, I donít care what your mama say about spoiling your appetite before dinner, growiní boys gotta eat when theyís aíhungeriní. Youíuns pull up a chair aní sit right down there--donít you mind the mess--and Iíse gonna give you somethiní to make you grow, that for sure."
Clay was quick to take advantage of her offer, making a space on the long table amidst the flour and cooking utensils where he and Robert could station themselves while Aunt Daisy cut generous portions of the moist, steaming cake.
"Lucie, go fetch that pitcher of buttermilk we brought up from the springhouse for the biscuits," the cook instructed one of the young girls, who was sitting with a bowl in her lap to catch the peels from the potatoes she was cutting. Lucie was a pretty girl, Robert thought, noticing that she and Clay exchanged glances before she got up to obey Aunt Daisyís order.
While she was gone, Robert thought of something that had worried him. "Is the woodcutter all right, Aunt Daisy?" he asked. "The one that chopped his leg yesterday--did he have to get it cut off?"
"That be Nathan you talkiní about, Marse Robert. He still gots that leg thanks to Marse Langdon, but he be laid up in bed for awhile, I spect. Showiní off for the youngíuns, he was, and got to swinginí too hard. That boy gots more strength in his arms than in that thick head of his, but that be the way of young men sometimes."
She looked at them and shook her head, and Robert wondered what she would have said if his friend werenít present. Would she have spoken more freely, like the servants did with him at home? He had forgotten, though, that he was white, too, and that probably mattered here.
Lucie returned from outside with the heavy, frost-clouded metal pitcher. She set it on the table and said, "Here you go, Mama."
Robert watched as she sat down to her chores, again looking at Clay, who looked at her.
"Now you boys fill up on this Ďcause it be at least two hours before dinner be served, aní I knows you gonna be hungry again by then," the cook announced as she set the large pieces of gingerbread in front of them, accompanied by glasses of fresh cold buttermilk.
"Thank--" Robert started to say, then caught himself nervously, remembering what Seneca had told him. Lucie and another kitchen girl giggled and looked at each other, and he stuffed a hunk of the cake in his mouth. "Itís delicious, Aunt Daisy," he mumbled self-consciously in lieu of thanks.
The cook nodded and smiled warmly as she wiped her hands on her apron and went back to the pie crust she had been making. "You is welcome to it, Marse Robert," she said, tacitly acknowledging his half-spoken gratitude.
"Whereís Obie, Aunt Daisy?" Clay asked between mouthfuls.
"He down at the pond with some of the hands cuttiní ice for the icehouse. We ainít had much cold here till the last few days, but it froze up good now."
Clay turned to Robert. "Obie is Aunt Daisyís son. Heís been my boy since Willy died. He went with me fishing and swimming last summer."
"Marse Delbert say he gotta work with the hands now, with you at school most times, Marse Clay," Lucie volunteered in a high-pitched voice from her corner.
"Hush, girl!" her mother admonished. "You just peel them taters aní keep quiet Ďround the young massas."
Robert couldnít see that she had said anything out of line, but he decided keeping quiet was the best course for him as well. Although he lived on a plantation, too, there was no comparison between Oak Wood and Hatton Willows. Clayís home was another world completely, a world in which he was a foreigner. It would be some time before he had learned all its customs.
Eating in the kitchen, though--that was very familiar, and far more comfortable for him than sorting through numerous forks and spoons and praying not to break any china dishes or crystal glassware.
Clay must have been thinking along similar lines. "Aunt Daisy, I need one of the girls to get a table setting from the pantry and bring it here--everything thatíll be used at dinner today," he instructed.
Aunt Daisy raised her eyebrows at him. "You want china aní silver brought out to the kitchen?"
"Yes. All the forks and plates and such for one place at table," he answered cryptically.
"Pardon me for aksiní, but what you need this for, Marse Clay? Your mama ainít gonna like her fine things taken out of the house like that."
"Tell my mother I need to show Robert something and Iíll make sure everything is returned safely."
Aunt Daisy chewed on that thought for a moment and then said, "Lucie, you take that basket aní aks Joseph to wrap you up a place settiní from the pantry like Marse Clay want, aní make sure he tell the mistus what the young massa say about bringiní it all back."
"But Mama, they gonna say Iíse stealiní it!"
"Not if you does what I say aní tell the mistus why you want it."
"But what if I fall aní break somethiní?"
Robert sympathized with Lucieís terror. "Clay, you donít have to show me anything. Iíll just watch you like last night," he said on Lucieís behalf.
Aunt Daisy took over before Clay could respond. "Girl, you ainít good for nothiní sometimes," she scolded her fearful daughter, reaching for the basket herself. "You just wait here, Marse Clay. I be back with your dishes quicker than a fox in the henhouse."
After she had left, Clay looked at Lucie again, but it wasnít the same this time, Robert noticed. Compelled to do something to draw his friendís moody attention from the hapless girl, he said, "Aunt Daisyís real nice, Clay, and you sure were right about her gingerbread. I never tasted any better in my life!" His words were perhaps a trifle too enthusiastic, but they did the trick.
Clay looked at him and smiled. "Want another piece?" he asked, getting up to cut some more himself.
Robert wondered if they were eating up gingerbread intended for a party in the big house, leaving Aunt Daisy to explain its disappearance, but his hunger outweighed his concern and he eagerly accepted a second helping.
When the cook returned, she wiped a place on the table clean with the bottom of her apron and unloaded the basketís precious cargo. "This hereís everythiní gonna be used at dinner, Joseph say, but you have to lay it out proper, Marse Clay. I donít know nothiní about how it all goes together."
"Thatíll be fine, Aunt Daisy," Clay said, getting up again to take charge of his motherís valuable dining ware.
Robert watched as his friend arranged plates of varying sizes, flanked by an army of forks, spoons and knives, and headed by several glasses. Clay explained then what each item was used for, and in what order, and how the food would be served to them, and which plates and things would be removed between courses. He showed Robert how to put the napkin in his lap, how to wipe his mouth and especially how to spit out a fish bone or bit of meat gristle so no one would notice. He demonstrated the way to hold and fill a fork or spoon and how to cut meat with the knife. He emphasized the importance of breaking off bite-sized pieces of bread to be buttered one by one, and he noted the taboos against licking the knife clean, slurping the soup, and last but not least, belching at the table.
At the end of the exhausting etiquette lesson, Robert was more convinced than ever that he would make a mistake. "Iíll never remember all that, Clay," he said worriedly.
"Yes, you will. All you have to do is watch me and youíll remember everything I told you," Clay encouraged him. "Itíll be all right, youíll see. Now letís get our coats and Iíll show you the grounds before dinner."
Clay had Aunt Daisy repack the dinnerware and returned it as promised to Joseph, the head butler, who always handled the dining room preparations. Then he went in search of his mother to tell her where he and Robert would be for the next hour or so. He found her in the parlor again with the other ladies, where they were tying bundles of mistletoe and holly with ribbon.
"Mother, Iím going to show Robert the grounds near the house for awhile," he said in his most persuasive voice. "Donít worry, weíll be back in time for dinner." He added a kiss on her cheek for bribery.
"All right, but donít go too far now. I donít want to have to send James after you," Mrs. Mosby cautioned, adding as they hurried to the door, "And keep yourselves out of the dirt. You both had baths last night--you should stay clean for at least one day."
"Yes, Mother," Clay called over his shoulder, and they dashed from the parlor to the front door, making good on their escape from formalities for a little while, anyway.
* * * * * * *
"My father owns almost nine hundred acres of land and about a hundred servants," Clay said, surveying the view of the harvested fields from where they stood on the service road. "We grow half tobacco and half food crops like wheat and corn. Those are the tobacco barns there, and farther on are the barns for the animals and the storage buildings. We also raise hogs and sheep and cattle, and horses, of course. It takes a lot of work to run a plantation."
"It sure seems like it," Robert said, thinking about the fallow fields and empty barns at home. Thomas didnít like hard work--he always said it was beneath him. He was not above selling off his inheritance bit by bit to support his gentlemanly vices, however.
They began to walk toward the complex of outbuildings and servantsí quarters as Clay continued to talk.
"Thatís why my father isnít a doctor anymore," he explained. "He was going to be one in Richmond and thatís where we were supposed to live. Back then, when my parents were just married, my fatherís older brother worked the plantation for my grandfather. But then Uncle George was killed when a horse he was breaking threw him and kicked him in the head, so my father came back to run things. That was before I was born, though."
"Are you glad you live here?" Robert asked.
"Of course," Clay responded quickly. "Hatton Willows has always been my familyís home, since the first colonists came here. I donít ever want to live anywhere else. Besides, there isnít any other place thatís as good as Virginia." He looked at Robert. "Most of the Founding Fathers were Virginians, you know. We come from a long line of noble English cavaliers."
"What are cavaliers?"
"Gallant, brave knights, like King Arthurís Knights of the Round Table."
"I wouldíve liked to be a knight," Robert mused. "They were always going on adventures and helping people."
A raucous noise rose from a tightly-fenced enclosure in front of them as they approached and Robert perked up at the sound. "Dogs!" he exclaimed, running toward the pen to get a better look. He stopped short of sticking his fingers through the fence to pet the roiling canine mass, but the way they wagged their tails and wiggled their agile bodies communicated more happy excitement than territorial agitation. Still, it was better to be on the safe side. "Will they bite?" he asked.
"No, theyíre pretty tame," Clay said.
That was all the encouragement Robert needed. He crouched down to their level and poked his fingers in to scratch their chins and any other parts he could reach as fox hounds, pointers and setters climbed over each other to vie for his attention. "Can we go in and pet them?"
"I donít have the key to unlock the gate."
"Oh," Robert sighed in disappointment. "I wish you did. I like dogs, donít you?"
"Theyíre all right. Horses are better, though."
"Why do you have all these dogs here? Are they for hunting?"
"Yes. Weíll be going on a hunt in a few days, as soon as some of my other relatives get here," Clay noted casually.
Robert stood up straight, forgetting the dogs as utter panic squeezed his belly. It was bad enough that he could hardly ride a horse by himself, and now this. "I canít shoot a gun!" he blurted. "Will I have to shoot? Iíve never done it before. My brother never let me."
Clay frowned in consternation. "He never taught you? Why not?"
"He...he doesnít want me touching any of his things. Iím not supposed to go near his horse or his gun or anything. Heíd kill me if I did!" Robert turned and kicked at the snow mounded against the dog kennel in frustration. "Oh, gosh, Clay, I donít know how to do anything! Iím just stupid, I guess."
Clay thought a moment and then bent to pick up a small stone. "Here," he said, handing it to Robert. "Throw this at that tree over there, the sapling by the woodshed."
Robert took the stone, but he was puzzled by this odd command. "Why do you want me to throw it at a tree?" Surely, Clay didnít expect him to throw stones at their quarry come the day of the hunt.
"Just do it," Clay directed.
He sighed and looked at the target, feeling the weight of the stone as he judged the distance. It would be easy to hit the tree, even though it was rather narrow. He had a sling at home that he used for lobbing acorns at his brother in his drunken stupors and at his sister when she visited with her bad-smelling old husband. He was good at hitting them, although he always did it from a treetop so they would think it was the squirrels. He drew his arm back and then swung it forward again, letting go of the stone with a snap of his wrist. It smacked against the saplingís trunk, leaving a little white nick in the bark.
"There, you see?" Clay pointed. "You can aim just fine. Thatís the hardest part about shooting a gun and you can already do it. My father and I will teach you the rest."
Robertís tension eased a little. "Do you think I can learn in time for the hunt?"
"Of course you can." Clay looked over at him and added very seriously, "Donít ever say youíre stupid, Robert. Youíre not stupid. Youíre good at a lot of things."
"Youíre having to teach me everything, though, even how to eat dinner!"
Clay shrugged. "How would you know things if no one ever showed you? Your brother is the stupid one for treating you the way he does. He should be thankful he has a brother to teach things to." He started toward the river. "Come on, letís go see if any boats are out today."
Robert followed, happy for the distraction from his worries over the hunt.
The path they took led them to the top of the hill above the river bank. A dock had been built below for the barges that transported the plantationís tobacco and other goods to market in Richmond. Despite the freezing weather, the river flowed briskly, heading out to the ocean not too far away. There were no boats to be seen, though. They pitched a few rocks to see who could throw the farthest and make the biggest splash, and then the cold, wet wind coming off the water made them turn back to the house.
"Those are the guest houses," Clay said as they returned, pointing to two one-story brick buildings set off from the mansion, one on either side of the back lawn and gardens, facing outward to benefit from the view of the river. "When I get older, my father says I can use one to have friends over so we donít disturb my motherís peace in the house. My old governess used to live in that one, over there, so I think Iíll pick the other one to have my parties in."
Robert wondered what ill memories Clay had of his old governess to make him think her former home too tainted for his use. "You had a governess? When was that?" he asked.
"My father employed her when I was nine. There was another one before her, but she married after two years and thatís when Miss Schumm came. She was from Pennsylvania and she was very strict--thatís the way the Germans are, you know. She used to hit me on the hands with a ruler if she thought I wasnít trying hard enough." Clay narrowed his eyes and noted with vehemence, "I hated her."
"Did you tell your father she hit you?" Robert asked.
"No. That would be the cowardís way out. A real man fights his own battles, like you fought me when we first met," Clay answered, turning briefly to look at him with approval. "Of course, you canít hit a woman, so I used to say things to her instead, until sheíd get all red in the face. She said it was evil back talk, but I think I was just speaking the truth. It wasnít my fault she didnít appreciate honesty." He grinned slyly. "She looked like a bug-eyed dog when she was angry."
Robert grinned, too, at the image. "What did you say to her?"
"Oh, things like how Northerners are cold-blooded like reptiles because they live in a cold climate for most of the year, and how the South is superior because we know how to enjoy life and arenít working all the time like they do at the North. She said we donít work because we have our servants to do it for us. She was always arguing about the servants, even though I know she didnít like them. She was afraid their blackness would rub off on her like dirt if they touched her.
"One day I just told her, if she loved the Negroes so much, she should marry one. She slapped my face then, hard enough to leave finger marks. I guess she didnít like the idea of a Negro man in her bed," Clay smirked.
There was something about Clayís triumphant comment that reminded Robert uncomfortably of Thomas, but he was too caught up in his friendís narrative to stop and figure it out just now. "What happened then?"
"I told her I wasnít a servant and she had no right to treat me like one, but she was so angry, she ended my lessons right then, even though it was still morning. My mother saw the slap marks on my face, though, and made me tell my father what she did, so he summoned Miss Schumm to his study and said she had to apologize to me or heíd dismiss her from service immediately."
"Did she apologize?"
"No, and I was glad, too! She was very disrespectful to my father and told him he had raised an insolent brat who deserved more than a slap. She said I should be whipped regularly until the devil was out of me, and if my father wouldnít beat me, I would surely lose my immortal soul." Clay laughed at this preposterous notion. "Papa just told her it was the spirit of the South that was in me, not the devil, and if she couldnít tell the difference, she wasnít qualified to teach his son."
"Your father told her that? He must have been very angry to talk to a lady like that." Robert was amazed at Mr. Mosbyís defense of his son, and wished he could count on a grown-up to look out for him that way. Thomas would have more than agreed with the governess and beaten him daily, glad for the excuse.
"I donít think Iíve ever seen him that angry at a woman before or since," Clay said, shaking his head for emphasis. "But then she said something that really made him furious. She said as far as she could see, there was no difference. Thatís when he yelled that he wasnít about to let some overeducated blue-stocking from the North turn me into a weakling, and he dismissed her."
"Whatís a blue-stocking?"
"A woman who learns too much at school. Too much education can make girls think theyíre like men and then theyíre ruined for their God-given duties as wives and mothers."
"Oh." Clayís truths were incomprehensible sometimes. "So after she left, is that when you started school at Thornhill?"
"Yes. My mother didnít want me to go--she said I was too young yet, but my father said I was too strong-minded for a woman to teach me anything and I needed the influence of men to guide me. I wasnít very happy about it at first, but then Mace and Talís fathers said they could go with me and it turned out all right." Clay suddenly smiled at Robert. "And besides, if I hadnít gone there, I would never have met you."
"I guess Iím glad your governess slapped you, then," Robert said wryly.
"It was the best thing she ever did for me," Clay agreed, and they both burst into laughter.
* * * * * * *
[Continued in YOUNG ROBERT & CLAY: Brothers, Part 2]
Colleen J. MacLennan