A Lesson from the Life of Mary Boykin Chesnut

By Philip Hanson

I am always studying these creatures. They are to me inscrutable in their ways and past finding out.

Mary Chesnut’s Civil War                                                                               

The Lesson: What You Feel May Be Truer than What You Know

I was willing enough to speak to [the de Saussures’ slave man], but when he saw me advancing for that purpose, to avoid me he suddenly dodged around a corner. . . . His mistress never refused to let him play for any party. . . . He was far above any physical fear for his sleek and well-fed person. How majestically he scraped his foot?as a sign that he was tuned up and ready to begin.

Now he is a shabby creature indeed.

Mary Chesnut’s Civil War, March, 1861                                                                               

Richard sat out at the edge of the porch just around the corner of the big house, out of sight. He knew exactly how much you could see from that corner window on the porch. You take your rest when you can get it, since you never know how long they might keep you on your feet at any one stretch. Dear old Richard, never misses a beat. Never have to tell him twice. Just the sort of fellow to drop dead standing behind some half-blind old white lady at the table some night. Loyal as a tick hound. Old Richard had taken two fingers of that twenty year-old Scotch, then watered it to make up the difference. He felt fine as the sun reached a point that signaled the onset of dusk. How come blood don’t tell? Ain’t it unerring? You take a drink of that watered down Scotch, ain’t all them generations of aristocratic bloodlines supposed to gather up and scream out the liquor’s been watered? Blood’s failed the test. Maybe a Richard in the closet a generation or two back.

Way off down the road Richard could see a little swirl of dust rising. Course no one bothered to tell Richard maybe a wagon full of relatives was on their way in. Maybe, maybe not. You could not be Richard and not be patient. Now he would have to watch out of the corner of one eye for any movement out of the house, as he had been doing, and watch out of the other for when that swirl of dust started turning into a carriage of some sort. No question whoever it was would be sure to report on seventy-one-or so-year-old Richard stealing his master’s time resting. Richard could just make out a gentry coach of some sort, and he was on his feet and on his way into the house. “Folks comin’ down the road,” he announced before Missus Elizabeth had actually spotted him. Already Missus Nancy and Master Henry were here visiting. Now more. Richard went into the big kitchen, where Marcy had laid a row of plucked chickens out on the cutting board. Some of that was for Rennie’s boy, George, who lay in his cabin with a fever. Missus would go down there later with a flock of gabbling children, black and white, to tend George. So there was some slack. George could have meal? probably wasn’t even sick anyway. Soon Uncle Edwin entered followed by a young black man carrying a pair of dusty travel bags with an air of importance. He crossed directly to Richard and extended the bags. Without outward sign of resentment, Richard took the bags and before he had turned around Rennie’s boy, Carter, was there with an alarmed expression and arms extended. Richard melted into the shadows and listened. As he listened he tallied up. Another face to be shaved. Another room to be tended. An outside African to be watched. And he was in the middle of that inlay work on the windows.

In the morning Richard hovered over Master John with a straight razor. On a table beside him lay his brush, scuttle cup, and shaving soap. Young Master Henry and Uncle Edwin sat nearby, waiting their turns.  In the doorway, behind Richard, Edwin’s boy, Jarvis, hovered. Master John spoke and Richard’s razor hovered, still, patient, just at his throat.

“Chesnut might form a company, I hear.”

“If I had my health,” Edwin replied.

“No one expects you to go.”

Richard could feel Jarvis lean in. He watered his brush and swirled it in the soap in the scuttle cup. He unobtrusively applied the soap to the old man’s cheek. He moved the razor as though he were drawing a feather across the cheek. After he finished with Master John, he started on Uncle Edwin. As Richard was doing Edwin, Edwin sat up abruptly. “Careful there!” he cried. “Don’t worry,” John answered. “Richard ain’t cut me or anybody in twenty-five years.”

“I thought I felt something.” John obligingly stood up and examined Edwin. “No scratch,” John pronounced.” Richard stood at attention, impassive. “Well, go ahead,” Edwin growled.

Richard’s razor hovered just an inch from Edwin’s throat. “We ain’t safe,” Edwin announced.

“How so?”

“In Savannah, with that Lincoln blockade General Scott thought up.”

“Charleston isn’t altogether safe either, “John added.

“Your plantation here is inland,” Edwin countered. “They sure as hell can’t shell you from a ship the way they can Savannah.” Edwin said this and waited.

“You got a point.” To this John added nothing and at last Edwin grunted.

Richard resumed shaving Edwin. When Richard finished and Edwin stood up, Jarvis moved in close to examine him. Richard gave Jarvis a look. “You got that inlay work to do this afternoon,” John told Richard.

“Yessir.”

He wanted to get to the inlay work and he wanted to be done with these men.

“Wait’ll you hear Richard play tonight after dinner,” John told Edwin. “This should be a treat for you, your knowing the violin.”

“Absolutely.”

Richard stood at attention, patient, impassive.

Once freed of the work of caring for the men, Richard went into the carpentry shed followed by Jarvis. Richard closed the door of the shed, as he always did. Forcing someone to open the door provided him a notice of someone coming. He didn’t like to be surprised by white men. Jarvis sat down on the floor, his back propped against the door. Richard understood.

Richard took out a panel of the damaged inlay work. Many years earlier, old Henry de Saussure had brought an Italian back from Europe who taught Richard how to use a Buhl-saw. No one else in the county knew how to use one the way Richard did. He took a panel of decaying inlay work that he was going to replace and propped it up as a model. The Italian had called it “Reisner work.” Jarvis was already asleep, his back firmly propped against the door. Richard glued thin panels of wood to either side of a large sheet of paper. He pasted another sheet on the outside and began to trace the design of the decaying original. All afternoon he worked on his inlays, while Jarvis slept. That was all right. Jarvis had to wake up each day to Uncle Edwin. As he worked Richard struggled not to think about how Uncle Edwin was fishing for an invitation to stay with the family.

After dinner Richard played “Durang’s Hornpipe” then “Aura Lee.” He scraped his foot before each song as a sign he was ready to begin. He’d scarcely finished the last note when Uncle Edwin took him roughly by the wrist. “Pull that bow with your shoulder a little, boy, not just your elbow.” Richard knew this to be patently wrong.

Neverthless. “Yessir.”

“Don’t just yessir me. I want to see you do it that way at the Chesnuts’.”

“Yessir.”

Days later on the night of the Chesnut party Richard stood in the area set off for musicians. Master Randolph’s Beau sat at the piano. Lots of the men wore their gray uniforms, now that the Yankees were coming. Richard could see Missus Chesnut and her adopted belles, Buck and Mary Preston, the ones all the men were all the time sniffing around. He peeked around and saw Uncle Edwin was paying no attention at all. He played “Castle in the Air” with his eyes shut, as he almost always did at these parties. This and a couple of fingers of Scotch were about as near as he ever got to being alone. He stole a glance at Missus Chesnut and her girls. They had already been pulled in by the music. He and Beau began playing a waltz and men and women began to couple up and dance. As they danced he became aware of Uncle Edwin’s eyes on him, watching for him to use his shoulder. He closed his eyes and played. Each time he peeked toward Uncle Edwin, the old man looked that much more incensed. He must foul up or the old man would make something of it. He told himself he would do it at the next number or the last number. He could see Missus Chesnut, her face in a kind of trance. The last number came around and Richard played with his eyes shut, never once checking on Uncle Edwin. Then the party was over.

Not using his shoulder at the party had been Richard’s firing the first shot. Now Uncle Edwin was at war with him. Uncle Edwin blew up at him after the party, then day after day he pecked away at everything Richard did. And soon Master John grew tired of it. He began to peck away at Richard too, taking out his irritation at Uncle Edwin’s staying on Richard. Richard passed through his days like a sleepwalker. Only as Uncle Edwin grew violent, slapping Richard or shoving him into a wall, did Master John act. The de Saussures had a reputation as quality folk. They saw themselves as above slave whipping and such. Master John asked Richard how he would like to be hired out to Hamil Gillespie, the carpenter in town. Richard would.

Gillespie was a red-faced Irish man, who did all kinds of work on wood. He made furniture, he worked on houses. He was no artist, but he did steady work. Richard had been in close quarters with whites his whole life. But he had never been around one like Gillespie. Gillespie had not been born in America. He told Richard he left Ireland when the “dirty blue bloods starved us out.” “Darks aren’t treated the same back home,” he confided to Richard. I seen one once when I was in London with a white woman.” Richard took in this news with no expression. Gillespie did not have any twenty-year-old Scotch but he had quite a bit of good serviceable whiskey, and in the many slow times he showed no reluctance to share with Richard. As a consequence Richard and Gillespie were drunk a good deal. Richard’s appearance underwent a slow transition. He had formerly dressed in expensive hand-me-down suits from the white men in the family. In recent years he had been receiving a new suit at Christmas. Now he wore coarser clothes and soon took little heed of his appearance, shaving maybe every third day or once a week as Gillespie did.

After months of working with Gillespie one had to look close to see if that man with him was still Richard. One day when it had been a solid week since he had shaved and his clothes had remained unchanged for as long, Gillespie sent him down to the store for some nails. Richard stepped around a corner and there was Missus Chesnut. It took her a second to recognize him.  Her face registered shock, then a kind of horror at Richard’s descent from his former position. Richard believed he detected something else, something rare in white folks, a kind of recognition of the indignities Richard had suffered or of Richard himself. It was a fleeting expression. She steeled herself to encounter him and her face took on the plantation master’s wife mask, but Richard decided he did not have to meet her or sooth her discomfort, and he dodged around a corner.

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