Read Different Sin Online

Authors: Rochelle Hollander Schwab

Different Sin (2 page)

“You call him your half brother. I gather your father owned up to it then?”

David sighed. “He was far too ashamed to admit he’d fathered Mike, though any of the town gossips could’ve told you. I know Mike knew. His mother died when he was a boy, but I’m certain she told him before she passed on.

“I suppose Dad might’ve sold Hetty and Mike out of consideration for my mother’s feelings, but Mother succumbed to her illness shortly after Mike was born. I’ve no memory of her at all. So Dad held on to Hetty. She was a well-trained housekeeper; it was the easiest course. I doubt he ever bedded her again.”

“And the boy?”

David sighed again, seeing the unslaked curiosity on the other man’s face. “Well, of course Dad kept him too. He’s not the sort of man to have sold a child away from his mother. Mike and I played together when we were boys.” He smiled slightly, remembering. “Once I’d started school, of course, our ways parted.”

Walker frowned in thought. “Your father never gave him any schooling? Even though he was his son?”

“He couldn’t have, not without sending him up North. And it was his belief that Nigras were better off not trying to shift for themselves. He was doing his best by Mike as he saw it.

“Mike managed to learn on his own though—talked other boys into teaching him his letters, then read everything he could get his hands on. Dad’s retired now, but he practiced medicine most of his life. He used to have Mike help out in his office. Mike got it into his head that he could become a doctor himself if he could get his freedom. You could see Dad was secretly proud of how bright he was. But as I said, he felt the colored were better off in slavery. So he told him it was out of the question.”

“So Mike ran off from your father then?”

“Not then. He was only thirteen or fourteen at the time. But he started sassing Dad more and more. Of course Dad resented his attitude. They used to have words fairly often, as I remember.

“Finally, Mike defied some order Dad gave him. I’m not sure what. I was away at university by then. But Dad felt he’d completely lost control of him and sold him to one of the slave traders in town. Luckily for Mike, he managed to escape from the trader and make his way up North.”

David stopped, uncomfortably aware of the shock and outrage spreading across Walker’s face. “I couldn’t understand it either—how Dad could sell his own flesh and blood. It wasn’t like him to do a thing like that. But he lost his temper and acted before he came to his senses.

“He regretted it afterwards. He spent years fretting over Mike. I know he missed him—even if he never said it in so many words.” David stopped, feeling the onslaught of a headache. He leaned back and rubbed his forehead.

“Are you all right, Mr. Carter?” David was surprised at the concern in the other man’s voice.

“I’m fine, sir. I suffered a head injury a few years ago. I’ve been prone to headaches since. I think the motion of the train is bringing this one on.”

Walker smiled. “I feared I’d pressed you too hard with my confounded curiosity.” He reached into his coat pocket for a flask. “A swallow of this may help.”

“Whiskey makes it worse, I’m afraid.” David smiled regretfully, watching Walker take a swig.

“I don’t mean to press you, if you’re not up to conversing.”

David turned his head, meeting Walker’s eyes. Reluctantly he smiled at the almost childlike disappointment on the bearded man’s face. “I don’t mind talking, Mr. Walker.”

Walker beamed. “You said he was recaptured. I’ve covered most of the fugitive cases for the
Tribune
since the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law. I don’t recall a runaway by the name of Carter.”

“Mike took a new last name after he escaped: Mabaya. He claims it was the name of some African ancestor. Anyway, he was right about what he could accomplish. He found a medical school in New England willing to accept colored students. He’s practicing in Boston now.

“We’d still have no idea where he was if Dad hadn’t been leafing through a medical journal. He stumbled on a letter to the editor taking exception to a paper that Mike and another doctor—a Hebrew friend of his—were about to give at the medical society there. When Dad saw the name, Michael C. Mabaya, together with the information that he was a colored man, he dropped everything and went running up to Boston to see if it could possibly be Mike.”

“And saw that it was, I take it.” Walker beamed again. “I remember the case now. Just a few months after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850, if memory serves. How could your father have brought himself to drag him back to slavery?”

“He didn’t. Dad was delighted to see him doing so well—a lot happier than Mike was to see him. He came home intending to buy Mike back from the trading company so he could free him legally. My mother’s brother—my Uncle James—dropped by that evening, and Dad told us both of his intention. He couldn’t stop talking about Mike all evening, in fact.”

“Well, then?”

“Well, sir, what Dad and I didn’t know was that my uncle had purchased Mike as a speculation, years before—a few months after he ran off. The slave traders were willing to sell him dirt cheap, since there was no guarantee he’d be found.

“Of course, he’d long since given up hope of tracking Mike down. But when Dad told us his news, Uncle James telegraphed Boston and had him apprehended. Dad and I knew nothing about it till it was a
fait accompli.”

Walker nodded. “I see. Didn’t your uncle have him jailed once he got him back to Virginia?”

“I’m afraid so. Uncle James refused to accept funds from the abolitionists to buy Mike’s freedom. He wasn’t interested in money; he’s well off. But he had the notion that Mike’s birth killed my mother-that Mother lost her will to live rather than be shamed by having her husband’s nigger bastard under her roof. So he was seeking revenge on Dad as well as Mike.

“You’ve no idea what he put my father through. Dad walked the floor night after night, blaming himself for Mike’s predicament. It was a terrible strain on his health. I’ve never been able to forgive my uncle for that.

“I tried reasoning with Uncle James. But he wouldn’t speak to me because of a sketch I’d done at the hearing—of Mike holding his little girl after the commissioner ruled him a fugitive. She was terribly distressed. She’s very attached to her father.”

Walker nodded again. “I remember your drawing. A very affecting piece of work. It circulated as a broadsheet, as I recall. But I take it your uncle finally relented?”

“Yeah, finally.” No need to elaborate further. “He sold Mike back to Dad, who freed him immediately.”

“And your father acknowledges him as his son now?”

“Now you’d think he’d never wanted anything more than a colored family. I think he spends more time in Boston than he does at home. Well, Mike and Rachel’s kids are his only grandchildren. And he always hoped to see his son follow in his footsteps,” David added, after a pause.

“Your inclinations didn’t lie that way, I take it?”

“I’m afraid not. Fact is, just the sight of a cut finger leaves me queasy.”

Walker laughed. “If I’d followed my father’s wishes, I’d have spent my days hunched in the back of a tailor’s shop. I daresay you’re like me in finding a correspondent’s life more to your liking.”

David smiled. “I’m not a newsman either. I was reporting on the trial as a favor to the
Gazette’s
publisher, since I chanced to be on the scene. I’m just an artist, actually.” He flushed, embarrassed to have made the claim.

“And a good one, it would seem. May I?” Walker reached for the portfolio before David could respond, nodded appreciatively as he thumbed through it. “You’re fortunate if you’ve found work as an illustrator. There’s not much demand for artists, more’s the pity.”

David flushed again. “I work as a freelancer. I’m hoping the editor of the
National Era
will print these.”

“I know how that goes.” Walker gave another laugh. “I freelanced for two years before I landed a job on the
Tribune.
Not much of a way to keep body and soul together, is it?”

“I’m afraid you’re right. I’ve had only a handful of sketches printed, to be honest.”

“How do you make your living then, if I might ask?”

“I have a small law practice. And I live simply. I’m a bachelor, so I share expenses with my father. It works out well for both of us.”

“I wouldn’t have taken you for a solicitor,” Walker said thoughtfully.

David shifted uncomfortably, his legs cramped by the seat ahead. “I’m not much of one,” he admitted. “I took up law to please my father. I’m afraid I’m ill-suited to it.” He stopped, astonished to find himself blurting out still more of his private affairs to a stranger. Glancing at the other man, he noted his expression of sympathetic interest. He hesitated, then continued.

“I’ve always had the urge to capture what I saw on paper. When I was a boy, I dreamed of becoming an artist. Then as I grew older, I listened to reason and gave up the notion.”

“And now?”

“Now, if it’s not too late, I’d like to pursue it again.” David searched for words. “I told you I’d been injured a few years ago. I came within a hairsbreadth of dying. It made me realize how little I had to show for my life. I don’t want to live out my remaining years as nothing but a failed solicitor.

“I don’t know if I’ve any real talent as an artist, but it’s the only thing I’ve ever cared about.” He smiled ruefully. “Determining to pursue it hasn’t done me much good though. As you said, sir, there’s little demand for artists.”

“We come to a parting of the ways, Mr. Carter. I’ve enjoyed our conversation.”

David nodded, acutely aware of how much he’d revealed to Walker over the past hours, relieved they’d be parting once the cars pulled into New York. He checked his belongings at the conductor’s call, eager to catch the ferry to the Washington-bound train.

“I wish you luck in placing those. They should be seen.” Walker nodded toward David’s portfolio. A thought struck him. “Matter of fact, I may be able to assist you. Greeley’s run an occasional woodcut if it can make a point plainer than words. If you’ll entrust me with a sketch or two, it’s not unlikely he’d reproduce them in the
Tribune
while the case is fresh in the public mind.”

The thought of further contact filled David with renewed embarrassment. He shoved it aside. “That’s very kind of you, Mr. Walker.”

The newsman beamed. “Not at all. Greeley’s staunchly opposed to planting slavery on free soil. If I know the man, he’ll be delighted to best our competition with an eyewitness depiction of the cruelty of this damned Fugitive law.”

“I’m still much obliged to you, sir,” David said, leafing through the portfolio for his most telling sketches.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

David set his coffee cup in its saucer with a muted porcelain click and looked up from his plate of eggs and grits. His father sat in his accustomed place across the dining room table, as they’d sat together since David’s boyhood, with the exception only of the four years he’d spent attending university in Charlottesville. Displaying little weariness from his two day journey home, Dr. George Carter sat erect, with a vigor that belied his nearly seventy years, his back barely resting against his chair, his iron gray hair and firm features lit by morning sun that streamed through the archway from the parlor windows.

“I’ve missed your company the past few weeks,” David admitted to him.

His father smiled. “It’s too bad you insisted on cutting short your visit. Things settled down after you left.” For an instant his face was shadowed. Burns’ capture had stunned Boston Negroes. Like the rest, Mike, Rachel and their oldest youngsters, Peter and Abigail, had plunged into a frenzy of anguished protest and futile rescue attempts, that had been—David guessed—a bitter reminder to his father of how he’d inadvertently caused his own son’s recapture. The instant passed, the memory was set aside. “Reverend Grimes is heading a drive to buy Burns’ freedom, and he has a good part of the funds in hand already,” the doctor continued.

David nodded, eager to share his own news with his father. His sketch of Burns as he was marched to the wharf under heavy guard, through streets draped in black bunting, had appeared in the
Tribune
a week earlier—in the weekly digest edition with its nation-wide circulation.
Tribune
editor Horace Greeley had run the drawing as an editorial cartoon, captioned, “Amid cries of Shame, Slavery chains the Cradle of Liberty in its Shackles.”

“Their engraver didn’t do much of a job of copying it,” David said, frowning at the reproduction. “But at least it’s in the
Tribune.”
He passed his father the newspaper, its pages creased open in a permanent fold.

George Carter glanced at the illustration. “Yes, I know. I saw a copy while I was with Michael and Rachel. They were all proud of you for getting a picture published in the
Tribune,”
he said, producing a smile.

“Did I mention that Grimes organized a concert at his church to raise proceeds for Burns? Abigail had a short solo. She has a lovely voice for a youngster. She’s been singing with the Garrison Juvenile Choir, you know. She takes it very seriously; she’s already learned to read music.” He beamed across the table with a grandfather’s pride.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

“Dear Mr. Walker-” David paused, dipped his goose quill into the inkwell, then sighed and laid it down. Abruptly, he stood, wincing as his chair thudded into the wall of the cramped cubicle he rented for his law office. He stood a moment at the open window, hoping for a breeze, gazing desultorily down at wagons clattering along the cobblestone alley below him. The warm, humid air was as heavy as the atmosphere indoors, plastering down the locks of hair that had fallen across his forehead. Sighing again, he shoved his hair back and sat down to finish the letter.

Walker’s letter had arrived with disconcerting promptness in response to his own note of thanks for the newsman’s help in publishing his sketch. “I do hope to keep up our correspondence,” he’d written David. “Letter writing is one of my great enthusiasms.

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