Chapter 17

May 12th 1834

These past months I have walked like a shadow, stepping towards a future that is drawing me in and which I have neither the strength nor substance to resist. During daylight my feet still take me to hide among the trees, to watch Jacob from afar as he toils and sweats in the sweltering sun. He has grown yet taller and stronger since last he stood in front of me, his face no longer has anything of the boy left in it yet his eyes still flash with fire. As far as I am aware he has never seen me watching and has no notion of how my heart still leads me to be near him.

Yet when the sun falls behind the far hills and darkness descends then I go to play the part of dutiful daughter, at least as well as I can manage. I sit at the table to smile and nod through dinner, offering the occasional hollow laugh when it is required. I dress as a lady ought and remember my manners, because to express what is truly in my mind would see us all ruined. Robert McKay has become a regular feature around our table, no longer coming with his entire family but as a man of the world entirely about his own business. He has been cunning in his approach, gathering my father as an ally in the first instance before wooing my darling Mama, that she might speak softly to me in his favour. She knows, she sees that my heart is not in it and at times her endorsement of Robert is transparently lacklustre, but I see now that she is also playing the part given to her and while both of us dream of choices far beyond our reach, reality binds our hands.

And so I have come to tolerate Robert McKay and his advances, trying to look for the good in him, willing myself to find some part of him toward which I can feel enough affection. He can be amusing, that is certain, and has the ability to tell a tale around the dinner table that has his listeners waiting with baited breath. There have been times of late when, in spite of myself, I have been wrapped up in his story and hanging on his every word to discover the ending, and he has looked across the table delighted in my attention. He smiles and winks with triumph at having drawn me in and at times I am disgusted with myself, and in others I find myself laughing in spite of that because I cannot deny the humour or the gift he has for delivering it.

Last night, towards the end of his visit, he spoke with me alone in the garden. It seems the plan is set in place and I am simply a pawn being moved on the board at will. In a few months, as we transition from a system of slavery to apprenticeship, the compensation fund will open and our two families shall apply, with Father riding on the favourable coat tails of Sir George McKay ensuring that we will find ourselves fully reimbursed for our loss of property and earnings. How can we speak of human flesh and blood as property? The very act of writing these words turns my stomach! Once this tawdry transaction is complete, Robert and I shall marry and remain in Jamaica to oversee both plantations, allowing our families to return to Scotland and enjoy their considerable wealth, the fruit of other people’s labour.

“Won’t that be marvellous my dear?” Robert asked, fully expecting my ringing endorsement. I could not speak, feeling suffocated by the future laid out for me. I tried to gather myself but a tear began to fall. Stepping forward Robert reached to brush it away.

“Oh I know it’s overwhelming and you shall miss your Mama, but we can be happy here, you and I. I wish this to be a good match for us both and I will play my part in making you happy Molly. This makes sense, you must see that? But that doesn’t mean it can’t also be a good and loving marriage.”

And like the sensible and obedient girl, I nodded before lowering my head to hide my despair. Robert put an arm around my shoulder and kissed the top of my head before bidding me goodnight. 

The die is cast, the deal is done. I shall be swept along with this tide of events and try to keep myself from drowning.

August 28th 1834

We have passed into a new era and almost nothing has changed. The slaves are now free but it is a counterfeit freedom, for they have neither choice nor opportunity of which to truly avail themselves. Their masters hold all the cards and have dealt them a rotten hand. They work the land, as they always have, with the same brutal punishments meted out as before.

The compensation claims are under way, but the sums of money being distributed are considered to be barely enough and so the slaves shall continue to work for nothing until such times as the planters are satisfied that they have their full worth from what they will lose. Papa has submitted his paperwork to the committee and he has been given reassurances of favourable consideration. Robert’s Father says there is no question of them getting their full amount, although it may take several months for the process to be completed.

“Be assured sir, that all of my connections are in the right places. We will not be seen to go short.”

This was declared with more bravado than I could stomach, chased down with more rum than was necessary. In the meantime, a wedding date had been set for mid-November, whereupon I shall apparently become mistress of all I survey.

October 3rd 1834

I daresay there was never a more reluctant and sullen bride than I, entering into Mrs Pettigrew’s haberdashery this morning. Mama and I had taken the carriage into town to inspect the latest fabrics recently arrived from Europe, hoping to find something suitable with which to make my wedding dress. During the journey we made polite conversation with each other about the weather and people passing by, neither of us wishing to acknowledge our heavy hearts or that this day is not how either of us imagined it would be. We pulled up outside the store and as we waited for Samuel to help us down Mama reached across to me and patted my hand. Such a small and seemingly insignificant gesture, but within it were a thousand words of understanding and sympathy. We paused by the shop window to gather ourselves, every part of me wanting to take a backwards step, but before I could move Mrs Pettigrew rushed to the door in a blaze of excitement to usher us inside. It took a little time for my eyes to adjust to the darker interior but I was led by the arm and shown to a seat as Mrs Pettigrew began to call her young and much put-upon assistant Edith to carry bolt after bolt of fabric for us to consider.

“The wedding everyone is talking about Miss Molly. You’ve made a wonderful match there. Master Robert is the most eligible bachelor on the island I’d venture to say – oh but not anymore, for you have stolen his heart that’s for certain. ”

She clucked and fussed about me until my head was spinning, Edith being dispatched again and again with instructions to retrieve corresponding ribbons and trimmings for each new material under consideration.  I had resisted coming to her store, preferring instead the smaller and more discreet Mr Franklin on Harbour Street, but Papa had scoffed at such a notion, insisting that I would not marry into the McKay family in the kind of plain garment that might be fashioned from anything available at such a small establishment. Pettigrew’s are known to be the best in town, and for all her many faults, the proprietor does have exquisite taste. She is also, unfortunately, known to be the biggest gossip in town and when not serving her customers, takes full advantage of her shop’s prime location on the corner of the busiest street in Kingston to keep an eye on everyone’s comings and goings.

“Why only this morning I saw young Annabelle Lewis making her way past here with not only a brand new parasol but also a couple of militia men, one hanging on either arm – and not the same two who escorted her last week.”

All of this was shared with a knowing glance and more than a hint of delicious disapproval. She delights in other people’s business with a distasteful amount of relish and can sniff out the faintest possibility of scandal at twenty paces. I can only assume that this is her only source of diversion as I have met her husband and he is the most unspeakably boring man I have ever encountered. He has an office upstairs from the shop and looks after the book-keeping side of the business, as well as attending to the finances of several other small store owners in town. I cannot believe that anyone craves his company as he seems to have next to nothing to say, however an hour spent with his wife makes me wonder if he has simply never had the opportunity. Perhaps he would be a great mine of fascinating information and a wealth of brilliant knowledge but, never having been afforded the space to contribute more than two sentences at any one time, his conversational muscle has been rendered utterly useless.  Poor man.

Mrs Pettigrew paused from her social commentary to gush over a new ivory satin that has just come in this week. As Edith obediently unrolled the cloth Mama declared it to be the finest she’d ever seen, running her hand along the length of its softness. That was all the excuse needed for me to be ushered to my feet so that it might be draped across my body to see how it held up to my complexion, as talk of styles and patterns, bonnets and petticoats swarmed in my ears. I cannot say for certain but I believe decisions were made about delivery and payment but I had simply begun to agree and allow myself to be carried along by other people’s knowledge and enthusiasm, having none of my own available in that moment.

From there we called with Mrs O’Shea the seamstress, whose small workshop is in a quiet side street away from the noise and dust.  I stood in a daze as a tape measure weaved its way expertly around my person and my particulars jotted down by her slender, nimble fingers. Every other dress I have owned has been made by Mama or Kitty, her lady’s maid, but neither of them would dare take on a project so grand nor would it be deemed appropriate, I daresay, for such an apparently auspicious occasion.

Towards the end of our appointment Mama excused herself to run a short errand nearby and we agreed to meet back at the carriage once we were both finished. Mrs O’Shea stood behind me as I faced a mirror dressed only in my undergarments. Her delicate touch as she placed the end of the tape measure on various points of my body, along with her still, gentle presence was quite the contrast from the previous hour of frantic excitement. As I looked at my reflection I tried to imagine the dress I would wear in a few short weeks, of how it would feel to have Papa walk me up the aisle of the church and into a new life as Mrs McKay. All of the fear and uncertainty must have shown in my face as Mrs O’Shea made her way to stand in front of me. She paused and draped the tape measure around her neck before reaching forward and taking both my hands in hers. For the first time since entering her small room I looked into the face of what I now came to realise was quite an elderly lady. Her diminutive stature had me looking down into her kind face and she wore an expression of such understanding and empathy that I almost knelt before her to pour out all my heart and every secret it carries. Although I said not one word she reached up to place a finger to my lips. “Hush now Miss Molly.”

I found myself wondering how many brides she had dressed over the years, how many fears had been allayed by her calming spirit. She seemed to reach into my mind, sensing what I needed to hear most in that moment.

“There are many ways to make a good marriage my dear – kindness, cooperation and understanding – and in the midst of it all love will grow day by day. I have seen the most excited brides turn into bored and bitter ladies of leisure, and faces of concern and care can become the picture of happiness, given time and the right attitude.”

She finished her work around my body and stood back for one final assessment.

“Yes, that will be enough I think. I have all I need now my dear.”

We shared a warm smile and a sense of resolve settled upon me. Being with Jacob was a childhood fantasy and one which I entertained for too long. It is time to grow up and that means doing what is expected of me and making the best of it. Robert McKay is not a bad man, could be a good man with the right influence, and perhaps that shall come from me. He seems to have genuine affection for me and if I set my mind to it I am sure we could make a satisfactory partnership. I have seen Mama pursue her own interests, some of which even go against her husband’s wishes, and so I may still do some good in this world despite my circumstances. Robert is calling this evening and I shall look at him with fresh eyes, accepting him finally as my husband and determined to start making a path towards our future.

October 10th 1834

This week Robert has come calling most days, and with each visit he grows sweeter in his affections to the point that I now almost look forward to his company. There remains a stiffness and formality to our interactions at times, particularly when we talk alone, as his confident appearance falls away and he is more uncertain, and there are other times when he still can feel like a stranger despite the many hours spent in each other’s presence. There remain flashes of the arrogant and brash boy I first encountered, but rather than allow those to vex me I now intend using my position to soften those troublesome characteristics, as one polishes a rough stone into a gem. I noted how he recently amended his words and temperament favourably after I had walked into the room and even smiled across at me to see that I had noticed. If he truly wishes to please me then perhaps I can harness this intent for good.  I must certainly try.

I took delivery of my wedding gown yesterday morning and it hangs now in my chamber awaiting the day for which it was made, ticking closer with every moment. Last night as I lay in bed I tried to settle my mind to read. The moon cast her light through the window bathing the gown in a shimmering glow. In that moment it was as if she became another person in the room with me, silently pointing me towards my destiny. I longed to speak to her, to call out to the Molly who had worn her and ask if all was well. I tried to cast my mind into an imagined future, to life on the other side of her, as wife and mother. But alas I could not summon anything of substance to bring comfort or hope. Indeed as the time passed I rather thought she began to take on more of a ghostly quality, representing the girl who would step into her form in this very room, only to be left behind here forever. This thought troubled my heart to the point I could stand to look at her no longer and so I rose from my bed to place her on the other side of the wardrobe, where she could haunt me no more.

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