October 12th 1834
Late yesterday afternoon I was reading in the study when I heard a great commotion along the corridor. Beatrice appeared in the doorway, face wild and arms outstretched.
“Mistress yuh muss come!”
“What on earth is the matter Beatrice? Take a breath and speak to me calmly.”
“No Miss! There is trouble. Di masta inna great rage.”
“You know my father by now surely, he is often in a rage about something.”
“No Miss! It Jacob, yuh muss come.”
At the mention of his name I stood from my chair, the book falling from my lap.
“What has happened?” I asked, fear pulsing through every part of me.
She began to speak, calling over her shoulder as she led me from the house and pointed in the direction of the garden. Her words swam together making no sense as we raced across the lawn and out to the place where I first met Jacob all those years ago. My eyes blurred as I ran with all my might until I came crashing upon a horribly familiar scene. There was a small gathering of Negroes being held at bay by a snarling Thomas and in the midst of them, in direct opposition to one another, stood the only two men in the world of any importance to me. As I came closer I saw Jacob’s face, held high in defiance, becoming the recipient of my father’s fist. He fell to his knees as Papa raised the whip aloft ready to fall. Crying out I threw myself between them, shielding Jacob and cowering ready for the pain of the lash. Instead there was a stunned silence. I held Jacob’s gaze for a brief moment and his eyes registered with surprise and joy. Then fear. Daring to look around I saw my father’s face wearing an expression of confusion and shock. He had not yet grasped the fullness of the situation, thinking his daughter simply too compassionate to stomach more of his ire and violence, and in a moment his mood darkened once more.
“Out of the way Molly” he bellowed.
I stood and shook my head.
“No Papa. No.”
“What is this? What do you think you are doing?”
He was panting, breathless, anger still coursing through his veins and yet now he was unsure of where to place it. The whip twitched in his hand as I felt Jacob stand behind me. Instinct made me spread my arms that I might form a barrier around Jacob and then something of the sight of the two of us standing so closely together brought realisation and then disgust to my father’s face. There was no going back now.
“I love him Papa.”
The world seemed to stop. A breeze rustled through the cane, as though a great crowd was looking on, whispering among themselves to guess what might happen next. All emotion seemed to leave father’s body and he looked at me as though I were suddenly a stranger. Taking one small step toward me he lowered his voice to speak to me slowly.
“I don’t care who you love. This boy will be shot for his insolence, you will marry Robert McKay, and this family will keep its good name.”
Standing back he raised his voice for the rest to hear.
“And anyone here who wishes to keep his life will not breathe a word of this moment to another living soul.”
He began to back away, eyes flitting between us all.
“Thomas, take care of the boy,” he called, as he turned to go.
Thomas had no such opportunity. Instead he found himself the one being seized as the three other men with Jacob took hold of him, keeping him back from their friend, joining him in bold defiance of their master. Papa came rushing back towards the fray and for the first time in my life laid hands upon me, pushing me side to get to Jacob himself. This time it was Jacob’s turn to stand in front of me, protecting me from my father and pointing the finger back at his accuser.
“You will not touch her,” he screamed as I scrambled to my feet and stood behind him, looking across his shoulder at the contorted face of the man who once bounced me upon his lap. How had we come to this? Papa lowered his hands and tried, without much success, to regain some composure.
“Molly, you will come with me now and we’ll say no more of this.”
He held out his hand to me, beckoning me to follow him up the hill to home and the future he had laid out for me. I looked into his face, seeing both the tyrant master and my sweet Papa all in one fragile human body. His voice still held a hint of the softness with which he used to sing to me and yet the longer I delayed the gruff frustration in his breath truly frightened me. I saw just a glimpse of what it felt to be under the rule of the Masta. This was truly it, the moment of decision, the fork in the road. A life in society, surrounded by comfort and wanting for nothing, if I simply took my father’s hand and allowed him to lead me to Robert McKay. Or the other path, towards Jacob and an entirely unknown future, yet certain to bring shame and scandal, possibly even ruin to my family. I wished desperately for my heart to break into two pieces, so that all might have what they need of me and be satisfied. Instead it urged me on to the road I had moments earlier embraced, allowing it to finally be free whatever the cost.
“I’m sorry Papa,” I whispered, shaking my head.
He looked at his feet for a moment and then up at his surroundings, taking in the enormity of the scene before him, the possible repercussions of this wild and reckless act of betrayal, before a cloud of disdain drifted across his face and a cold note of hatred entered his voice.
“Then you are no daughter of mine.”
He turned to leave, a glimpse of defeat revealing itself in his shoulders as he threw his whip to the ground. I slumped against Jacob’s back watching my father walk away from me and with each step of distance I felt my strength fail me and the tears began to fall. The others backed away, slave and overseer both confused and uncertain of what had just happened and what it meant for them in the hours and days to come. Jacob turned and wrapped his arms around me as my whole body heaved with sobbing. What had I done? Thoughts and fears flooded in, images of Mama, of a wedding dress waiting in my chamber, the whispers and the disgrace about to befall us. And yet here I was back in the arms of the man I loved, the place I have longed for each night as I fell to sleep. Slowly we knelt together in the dirt, finding each other once more, holding each other desperately like two souls cast adrift on the ocean.
“What happens now?” I wondered aloud, my voice a weak blend of hope and fear.
Jacob’s body trembled but his voice was strong.
“Yuh come home wid mi an wi face di day togetha.”
Rising to our feet he led me by the hand through the cane, out to the slave village. As we passed the other Negroes they moved aside, a hush falling upon the place. Each person looked at this curious sight, uncertain of whether to be jubilant or terrified, some daring to smile while others looked away and shook their heads. Finally we came to one of the smallest dwellings I have ever seen, a simple hut with only a single door. As my eyes came out of the bright sun and adjusted to the darkness my nose registered the smell of the earth beneath my feet, the stale straw which stuffed the bed and the sweat of Jacob’s body all around me. Tiny shafts of light found their way through the gaps where the roof met the walls, allowing a dim view of my surroundings. It took the briefest of moments to see all there was in the room – a single bed fashioned from mismatched timber with a hand-stuffed mattress and a simple linen sheet, a chair with a couple of shirts draped over the back, and an empty bucket by the doorway. I had walked less than half a mile from where I was born yet had travelled into a new world and it was suddenly overwhelming. Exhaustion swept through my body and as I weakened Jacob lifted me in his arms and laid me upon the bed.
The turmoil in my body began to subside and as Jacob sat in the chair beside me stroking my hair I fell into the deepest of sleeps.
I awoke early this morning to the sound of Beatrice outside shooing chickens from the path and announcing herself at Jacob’s door with a mighty bang of her fist.
“Mi ave di Mistress tuh see Miss Molly,” she announced.
Jacob stepped outside dipping his head as Mama walked past him and came in to sit on the bed beside me. Silently we held each other for a long time, as she rocked me in her arms like she did when I was a little girl and had fallen and cut my knees. Everything about her had a softness that spoke of the world I had just left behind – her skin, her dress, her smell, her voice – all wrapped in a gentility entirely unfamiliar with the harsh reality in which we now sat together.
“Does Papa know you’re here?”
“No,” she said quietly, “he was still asleep when I left. I think he drank half the rum on the island last night.”
“I’m sorry Mama, I truly am.”
She shook her head.
“No my darling. You followed your heart. Although I fear for you in all that lies ahead and my mother’s love would want to keep you safe by my side all of your days, I know that you have chosen that which is true over that which is easy, and for that I could not be more proud.”
“And what of Robert and the wedding?”
I was aware of Jacob outside the door, could sense him leaning in to hear the answer.
“Your father went up there last night to break the news to them. I do not think he spoke to Robert directly but rather with Mr McKay who said that if we leave quickly and quietly and return to Scotland then he will smooth the way for as little indiscretion as possible. I believe there is a ship due to leave on Friday in which we are to seek a berth, leaving Thomas to run the estate for the time being.”
“Friday?” I whispered, my voice stolen away by the shock of it all. “That is but two days away.”
Mama nodded and looked at her hands.
“And what of the money, the claim?” I asked, thinking that I may have ruined my family’s financial as well as social prospects.
“It is all settled, your father will get what he needs to pay off any debt and we shall still be able to live in some comfort. It may not be all that he hoped for, but it is more than enough.”
A heavy silence hung between us as we both searched for a compass to guide us in these uncharted waters.
“I cannot tell you what to do now Molly, and I cannot know what your father will say, but will you come and speak with him?”
“To what end?”
Mama made to speak again but words failed her. She looked up and into my eyes and I saw her deep sorrow and fear.
“Let me gather myself and I shall be there presently.”
As soon as she was gone Jacob came into sit by me on the bed.
“Mi wud like fi come wid yuh,” he said, more a declaration than a request. “Yuh will nuh go an see yuh fada alone.”
“Mi ave worked haad an mi ave di money now tuh buy mi freedom. Mi wi ask yuh fada fi it an then as a truly free man mi ask fi yuh han inna marriage. Him wi nuh say yes, but mi wi ave done what is right an proper. Mi ave weathered many a storm til now. Yuh choose mi an mi choose yuh. Togetha we can face anyting.”
Within the hour we walked up the perfectly manicured lawn and approached the Great House, my home and place of refuge for the last seventeen years. Never could I have believed it possible that I would enter it with such trepidation, feeling adrift from all I had ever known. I stood in the hallway with Jacob at my side, the ticking of the grandfather clock marking each anxious second of our waiting. Beatrice had gone to fetch Papa and as she did I tried in vain to think of how I might begin the conversation. My mouth ran dry as agitation filled my body. And then in a moment he was before me, my sweet and loving Papa, the fearsome intolerant master of this place, looking back and forth between his daughter, his only child, and the slave she had chosen as her one true love. His hands were clenched by his side, his face tried to keep its composure but with each moment the mask slipped further to show his anger and confusion, hurt and disgust. I wanted to throw myself into his arms and have him spin me around and around one more time, to hear him laugh with his whole being as we would fall to the ground breathless and joyous in each other’s company. I cast around for something, anything to say, but no words came. Jacob stepped forward and as he did Father stiffened his body and hardened his face.
“Masta,” his voice faltered and he paused to compose himself. “Mi work hard fuh yuh all mi life, an mi work hard for miself, tuh grow vegetable tuh feed miself an also tuh sell. Mi ave been diligent an saved so mi come tuh yuh one day wid di means tuh buy mi freedom. Dat day have now come.”
He produced, from behind his back, a pouch full of coins and held it in front of him.
“Mi ave inna dis purse di price fi slaves of mi age fi be release. Mi ask yuh sir, fi mi freedom.”
Father said nothing but his nostrils flared as he puffed and panted like his finest horse being held back from wanting to cut loose and run wild. On not receiving an answer Jacob stepped forward and placed the pouch on the ground between himself and Papa.
“Go and be free,” Father growled slowly and quietly, “and never set foot on this property again.”
Jacob breathed deeply, a look of peace and satisfaction settling upon his face. But he was not finished.
“Now dat mi a free man mi wish tuh marry yuh dawta.”
The words hung in the air, like a spark released from a fire, dancing for a moment in the gentle breeze, carefree and mesmerizing, as each of us watched to see where and how they would land. What had smouldered in Papa was at once set alight as he contorted into a fiery rage, flying towards Jacob and calling for someone to fetch his rifle. I called to Jacob to run and I threw myself upon Papa’s back as he made to give chase, holding on until he stumbled and fell, his body surging with energy. He roared into the floorboards, thumping them with his fists until they bled, rolling on his back and spitting profanities to the sky. Kneeling nearby I watched, waiting in wonder for my father to return to himself. For a long time after the last curse had left his lips we stayed on the floor, close in distance but never farther apart. Eventually he got to his feet and began to walk away.
“You shall return to Scotland with me or never more be called my daughter.”
It was then that I found my voice.
“You were satisfied to leave me behind with a man I did not love as long as I played my part in your game of fortune.”
Father spun around on his heel to address me.
“I was doing what was best for you. You’re young and foolish with no idea of what you need in this life.” He turned to walk away once more, thinking he had the final say.
“You were doing what was best for you! I know my mind and my heart very well. Scotland is not my home. This is the only place I have ever lived and loved. You have your blood money now, so take it and go. I have rolled the dice for myself and shall take what is waiting for me.”
He paused in the doorway and heard me out without turning to look at my face. Then he was gone. I stood for a few minutes utterly lost amongst all that was most familiar. Turning around I tried to take in my new landscape, the way one looks to find the familiar after a hurricane has shifted all the usual points of reference. Mama appeared at the top of the stairs and held out her hand beckoning me to join her on the veranda. We sat together, arms entwined, looking out over all that we were about to leave behind. After a time she turned to face me, full of tenderness and love.
“My darling girl, I cannot imagine what lies ahead of you, but you will need a friend. I have written to Pastor Philippo in Spanish Town. He is a friend of Pastor Knibb and a good man. He has many slaves in his congregation and is seeking to help those who are free to find somewhere to live. Go to him first, he will be expecting you. Take the small carriage and have Jacob drive it, so as not to arouse suspicion. I have told Samuel you will be coming for it and so he will not question you or stand in your way. Beneath your pillow is a small bag of coins. It won’t last you long but it will be enough to get by for a time. Go now, gather your things and meet me on the porch.”
I did as my mother had told me, gathering a small bundle of belongings together and packing them into my smallest trunk. As I was about to leave I stood in front of my wedding dress still hanging by the side of the wardrobe. I ran my hand across the delicate fabric appreciating the beautiful workmanship of Mrs O’Shea, sorry that her labour would be in vain and yet relieved to abandon the gown hanging where she was, now truly the ghost of a bride who would never be. For one last time I turned my back on Molly McKay and made my way downstairs to Mama.
“I will get Samuel to put your things in the carriage and drive it down to the gate. Jacob is waiting for you just beyond the garden. I shall write to you through Pastor Philippo once we are settled so that you can send me word of how you are.”
The enormity of the situation began to overwhelm me and my stricken face caused Mama to pull me close and hold me as tightly as she has ever done. Then taking me firmly by the shoulders and speaking intently she reminded me that the world was changing for the better.
“It is a slow and painful process Molly, not fast enough for either of our liking, but there is a different future ahead and we simply have to hold on until it is here. Then it might be possible for us to be together again. When all of this business is over I can send for you both. I will not lose you.”
We walked out to the garden together, arm in arm, drinking in every last moment in each other’s company. At the bottom of the lawn Mama stroked my hair, kissed my cheek and told me how proud she was of the woman I had become. Despite the fear in my belly and the grief in my heart I gave a final embrace to my mother and turned my back on the Great House for the very last time.