Read Different Sin Online

Authors: Rochelle Hollander Schwab

Different Sin (6 page)

“He’s not talking about changing minds, David,” Zach put in. “It’s a little late for Garrison’s way of leading slaveholders down the path of sweet reason. Dick’s right. It’ll take willingness to fight before Kansas can win admission as a free state. Anyhow, the violence was started by the slaveholders themselves.”

“An eye for an eye, the Bible says,” Dick intoned.

Elliot snorted, fine droplets of ale flying from the ends of his ginger mustache. “You’ll make the whole Northwest territory into an asylum for the blind, at that rate. Who gives a damn whether they come in slave or free or not at all? It’s their worry.”

“We know you don’t give a damn about anything, Elliot,” blond, chubby Stephen Van Dyjk said with unaccustomed vehemence. “But bloodshed’s not the only way. I see a good deal of promise in this new Republican party.”

“Their platform proposals are half measures, Steve,” Dick argued. “It’s not enough to keep slavery from spreading. We’ve got to wipe it out, no matter where it exists.” A teetotaler, Dick washed down his sausage with a swallow of cider.

“I’m afraid you’d have a harder time than you realize,” David said. He picked up his tankard, wishing he’d kept quiet as Dick launched another offensive.

“I keep forgetting you’re a Virginian, David. I suppose you’re going to defend the South’s peculiar institution now.”

“I wasn’t defending it. Matter of fact, I agree with you it’s an evil. But it’s existed for hundreds of years. You can’t end it overnight.”

“So you’d reward evildoers for their past sins by giving them your blessing to continue?!”

David flushed as heads at nearby tables turned toward them, took refuge in a shrug.

“You’ve no business hounding him, Dick.” Zach’s voice boomed out warmly. “Anyway, I’ll warrant David’s the only one of us sitting here who’s endangered his own hide helping a man escape from slavery.”

David flushed again, not at all happy at having the family history he’d shared with Zachary repeated to the whole table. It was too late to protest though. Zach was already launched on the story.

Elliot spoke up as Zach concluded. “Well, David, sounds to me as if you’re the only practicing abolitionist among us.” His long fingers hid a sardonic smile as he smoothed the ends of his mustache.

David shrugged, smiling with embarrassment. He looked down, recalling Mike’s recapture five years earlier, reliving his father’s distress and Mike’s unhappy pacing, penned up in the tiny cell with only his fears for company.

Of course he’d wanted to help his own flesh and blood. What did that have to do with his political views?

He shrugged again, not bothering to argue the point. Let them think what they pleased.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The violence continued into summer. James Redpath, the
correspondent in the Northwest Territory, sent daily dispatches on “bleeding Kansas.” Southern newspaper editors hailed Sumner’s assailant as a hero.

The continuing bloodshed sent newspaper circulation soaring. By June of 1856, Leslie announced that “an American illustrated newspaper of a high order is no longer an experiment, but a necessity to the reading public.”

True to his word, with the success of the fledgling newspaper assured, Leslie raised wages. At last David could move from the shabby boardinghouse that had been the best he could afford. He made up his mind to ask Zach to recommend a decent roominghouse, when his friend returned from covering the Republican convention.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

“Six dollars a week,” Mrs. Chapman said firmly. “And worth every penny.” David looked slowly around the room, as Zach and Elliot waited.

There chanced to be two vacant rooms in the very boardinghouse where he lodged, Zach had said, beaming. The smaller of the two was on the second floor, at the front of the house, and almost directly across the hall from Zachary’s room. Elliot, who was on the lookout for better quarters himself, had already agreed to take it. David stood indecisively in the second vacant room, at the opposite end of the narrow hallway. Like Zach’s room, it occupied a choice corner spot, though at the front of the house rather than the quieter rear.

“Hell of a lot better than that hole you’re living in,” Elliot murmured, too low for the landlady to overhear. David nodded, looking appreciatively at the clean counterpane and Franklin stove. There was no comparison to the unsavory waterfront boardinghouse that sheltered seamen on leave and newly arrived immigrants. And the location of Mrs. Chapman’s, on Broad Street near the corner of Wall, was just a fifteen minute walk to Leslie’s.

Still, six dollars was a lot, over half his weekly wages. Zach caught his eye. David smiled at him, unaccountably pleased at the thought of moving into lodgings with this friend.

“I’ll take it, ma’am,” he told Mrs. Chapman.

Chapter 5 — 1856-57

AT LEAST HE’D MOVED TO A DECENT BOARDINGHOUSE before his father’s visit. David sat stiffly on the horsehair sofa in the boardinghouse parlor, searching for a topic of mutual interest. George Carter gazed around the parlor, which they had to themselves on this warm Sunday afternoon, equally at a loss for conversation.

In the two days since his father’s arrival, David had shown him through Leslie’s, explaining the publisher’s innovation in dividing the wood blocks into sections of ten, twenty or more parts, tightly joined with screws on the back. “Then after the drawing’s completed, the block is taken apart for the engravers, so each section can be engraved by a separate man. It’s how we publish illustrations in the paper so soon after events happen. Otherwise it would take days to finish one picture. The engravers have to cut away the entire surface of the wood, except for the lines of the drawing. It’s an incredibly painstaking process.” George Carter had nodded dutifully at David’s words. He’d looked with polite interest at the steam engine that powered the printing press and the overlay forms that produced the effects of tone and shading in the printed illustrations.

That morning, they’d attended services at Trinity Church, returned to Mrs. Chapman’s for Sunday dinner. Now George Carter pulled out his watch. There were several hours yet till the scant supper Mrs. Chapman served on Sundays. He cleared his throat. “Your landlady sets a good table, though a bit heavy for this warm a day.”

David nodded. “How was your visit to Boston?” he inquired, certain he’d asked the question at least once.

“Very pleasant.” The older man brightened. “I accompanied Michael to a lecture by Dr. Bowditch on thoracentesis. It’s a procedure developed a few years ago to remove fluid accumulations in the chest. It’s quite simple really. A long needle is inserted into the chest, and then—”

“Good Lord!”

“Well, I suppose it wouldn’t interest you that much.” His father smiled ruefully.

“I’m afraid not.”

There was another silence. “We went to the Common for the July Fourth celebration,” George Carter said finally. “It was quite spectacular. The highlight was a balloon ascension.”

David smiled. “I know. Elliot—he’s the younger man I introduced you to—made a copy of the balloon on the wood block, from a sketch done at the site. The children must’ve found it terribly exciting.”

“Yes, Becky especially. She talked about it for days.” His father shook his head, smiling. “She’s growing up so fast. She’ll be starting school this fall, you know.”

“It hardly seems possible. It seems just yesterday she was a baby.”

“That reminds me. Have I told you Rachel and Michael are expecting another child? A little after Christmas, they think.” He sat back, beaming.

“No, you hadn’t. Well, they must be pleased.”

“Very much so.” George Carter fell silent a moment. “I’m hoping, if it’s a boy, they’ll consider naming him after me,” he added, his voice suddenly shy.

“He’d still have a different last name though.” David wished he could call back his words, as his father’s face fell.

“Even so, it would be something. Though you’re right. I’d always hoped to have my son carry on my name.” The older man’s voice trailed off wistfully. He straightened his shoulders and looked at David. “Haven’t you ever felt that desire yourself?”

“I’ve never given it much thought.” David fell silent, plunged into introspection by his father’s question.

“I’m afraid I can’t picture myself the head of a household,” he said finally. “What I really hope for, to tell the truth, is to be remembered as an artist. That is, if I ever grow good enough,” he added, embarrassed.

His father nodded slowly. “I see. Well, you may yet change your mind about wanting a family.”

There was no sense upsetting him further. “Well, perhaps so, Dad,” David answered, sighing under his breath.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The supper dishes had already been cleared from the boardinghouse table Monday evening, by the time David returned from New Jersey, where he’d seen his father onto the overnight train to Washington.

“I knew you’d be late,” Zachary told him, “so I thought I’d wait and join you at Pfaff’s. I’ll be glad of a change from boardinghouse food.”

David smiled, glad of Zach’s company.

“Your father didn’t visit very long,” Zach said, once they’d settled themselves at a table and given the waiter their order.

“No, he’s eager to get home. He’s been away over a month.”

“He’s been up in Boston all that time?”

David nodded. “He likes to spend as much time as he can with his grandchildren. And Mike and Rachel too, of course.” He fell silent, reaching into the bread basket for a roll.

Zach reached into the basket without taking his eyes from David, his thick brows rising in silent inquiry.

“To tell the truth, I’m afraid Dad and I don’t have much in common.” David tore the roll in two. He stared down at the two halves. “I’ve always been a disappointment to him. He wanted a son like Mike,” he said, unable to stop himself.

Zachary stared in astonishment. “I don’t see how you can say that. You’ve told me he could never even bring himself to acknowledge him.”

“Well, of course, he was ashamed to admit he’d fathered a colored son. That’s not what I meant.” David hesitated, his fingers shredding the roll into crumbs.

“I think Mike spent more time with Dad than I did,” he said finally. “Dad always had him doing some job around his office. And he was always pleased with Mike. Well, not when he’d grown old enough to defy Dad, though I’m sure he cared for him, even then. But when he was a child, nine or ten, maybe....”

His words trailed off as his mind shifted back in time to another hot August evening. He sat in his room, staring idly out the open window, watching the shadow of the shed slowly creep across the yard. He could see his father’s stocky figure pass the entrance to the alley, Mike trotting alongside him, lugging the heavy medical kit proudly. He could hear them talking, though their words were too faint to make out.

David crossed the hall to his father’s room, looking out the window as his father and Mike came around the corner and passed beneath him. He could hear Mike’s words clearly now.

“Yassuh, but how you knows when his leg be healed enough so he don’t need the splint no more?”

David watched another moment as his father turned his head toward Mike, his expression softening into a smile as he started to answer. He didn’t feel like hearing any more. He walked back to his room and sank down on his bed.

He heard the door open. His father’s footsteps sounded on the stairs as he headed to his room to wash up for dinner. He looked in on David. “Good evening, son.” He paused. “What are you doing?”

David shrugged. “Nothing much, sir.”

His father sighed. “Surely you could find something worthwhile to fill your time. If nothing else, you could review your school lessons from last term. I’m expecting you to bring home better school reports than last year.”

“Yes, sir,” David mumbled.

He forced his thoughts back to the present, surprised to discover that his dinner had been set in front of him. Zach was still staring at him in surprise.

“He was always so damn eager to learn. Mike, I mean.” David smiled ruefully. “He was just the way Dad wanted me to be, to tell the truth.”

“The father... manly, mean, anger’d, unjust. The blow, the quick loud word.”

David blinked. “What’s that?”

“A poem, or part of one anyway. By a man named Walt Whitman. He’s had a number of poems published in the
the past few years. I’d like you to meet him one day. I warrant you he’ll be known as one of the great American poets, one of these days.”

“Oh. It didn’t sound much like poetry. Dad wasn’t like that though. I mean, he wasn’t harsh. He didn’t beat me. He never raised his voice much, for that matter. It’s just that he always let me know he was disappointed in me.”

Zach’s wide mouth curved upward in a smile, goodhumored lines forming above his silvery wreath of whiskers. “I didn’t mean Whitman’s words as a literal description of your father, David. They just came to mind.” He took a bite of his food, chewing with relish, then set down his fork.

“That’s not quite true, either. I guess you could say that quoting him was my roundabout way of saying it’s the nature of fathers and sons to disappoint each other.”

“Oh. Dad’s not disappointed in Mike though,” David blurted. “I mean, they’re always arguing about something, but you can see they like each other. And Dad’s forgotten he was ever ashamed of fathering Mike, he’s so proud to have a son who followed in his footsteps.”

“Not every son turns out the way his father hoped.”

“I suppose not.” David picked up his fork and pushed his food around his plate.

Zachary watched him a moment. “Perhaps it’s none of my business, but I am your friend. Why worry what your father thinks now? You’re not a boy, after all.”

David flushed. “That’s just what Dad’s always saying.”

“Well, he’s right. About that.” Zach smiled. “But far as I can see, you’ve turned out fine. You needn’t doubt yourself.”

David smiled back, warmed by his friend’s regard. “I try not to. Anyway, thanks for saying so.” He looked down at his plate again, in mingled pleasure and embarrassment.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

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