The Reluctant Master, Part 2

Henry's journey--and that of his slaves--continues through the Low Country of coastal Georgia.

Once they left Savannah, there was little traffic on the road. It was January, overcast and so damp that it felt cold. The cotton crop had been harvested, and only the denuded branches of the plants were left. The road was lined with live oaks, their branches draped with grayish Spanish moss.

As the day wore on, the damp began to seep through everyone’s clothes. Henry, dressed in a wool suit and an overcoat, felt chilled. Minnie, his new cook, wore only a light shawl over her calico dress. When they stopped, he asked, “Minnie, are you warm enough?”

In a voice so soft it was hard to hear, she said, “I’m all right, Massa.” But she was shivering. Minnie’s skin was an African black, and she was so small that he thought she was a child the first time he saw her. But she was a grown woman.

Looking over the side of the wagon, he said, “There are blankets in here. Let me give you one.”

“Massa, don’t trouble yourself.”

“No trouble at all, and believe me, if I find another blanket I’m going to make a cushion on this pine seat for myself. My backside aches.” The blankets were on the top of the pile, easy to find. He gave one to Minnie. “You wrap yourself up in this.” He gave another one to Luke. “You make a cushion for that seat.” He took the third and deftly folded it for himself.

Minnie said, “Massa, you shouldn’t do that.”

Henry looked at his servant. He wondered, Fold cloth? Or show a slave a courtesy? He said, “Luke, give me that blanket you’re holding, you’ve left wrinkles in it.” Luke handed him the blanket and stared as his master folded it smoothly and handed it back.

Used to the pace of a train or a stagecoach, Henry was surprised at how slowly a mule traveled. By the end of the day, they were still in the lowlands, the part of Georgia nearest the coast, where long-staple cotton grew. The plantations they passed belonged to the rich planters whom Henry had learned to envy when he stood behind the counter of Meyer’s Dry Goods in Savannah. The cotton harvest was over, and the stalks were brown and withered, but this part of Georgia never saw a hard frost, and the leaves and the lawns were still green.

By late afternoon, Pretty moved more and more slowly. Zeke said, “Massa, she’s getting ready to quit for the day, I can feel it.”

 “Where do travelers stay around here? Is there a posthouse, or a hotel?”

Zeke said, “Not around here. Stop at the nearest place, and ask to stay.”

“With strangers?”

“We were always putting someone up on the Butler place. Gave them something to eat and a place to sleep. Stabled their horses or their mules. Never turned anyone away.”

Half an hour later, they saw a large, stately house, painted white to deflect the sun, set back a mile from the road. Zeke turned into the driveway, and Pretty increased her pace, as though she knew there would be fodder and rest.

A dignified, middle-aged slave, dressed in a cutaway coat, came down the steps to ask their business. Henry climbed down from his seat. “We’re traveling up to Cass County and we’re hoping to stop here for the night. We don’t want to trouble you.”

A woman came to the front door and ran lightly down the steps. She was young and very pretty, with blonde curls around her face. She wore a white muslin dress, tight in the bodice and enormous in the skirt, in the latest Savannah fashion. She said, “Amos, who are these folks?”

“Travelers, Missus. They’re bound for Cass County.”

“That’s a distance.” She took in the wagon, the people in it, and Henry, tired and travel-worn. She said, “I’m Mrs. Amelia Pierce. You’re welcome to stay with us. Amos, show his people where they can sleep. And have Jim take care of the mule and the wagon.”

“Yes, missus.”

An hour later, Amos ushered Henry into the dining room, which had been decorated when Sheraton’s furniture and Chinese figured wallpaper were in fashion. There he joined Mrs. Pierce and her husband, a tall, beaky man a decade older than his wife. The Pierces inquired after his business, his new place, his old place in Savannah, and his people. It took him a moment to remember that “people,” when white folks used it among themselves, meant “family.”

The Pierces set a lavish table. Amos brought in an unfamiliar soup, which tasted pleasantly of sherry and cream, and trout, which Henry ate with relish, and then the main course.

“Would you care for some ham, Mr. Kaltenbach?” Mrs. Pierce asked.

Surrounded by Jews in Savannah, fed by his Jewish landlady, Henry had never given much thought to the dietary laws. “No, thank you.”

Mrs. Pierce said, “It’s very good. From our own smokehouse.”

“I’m sure it is.” Surprising himself, he said, “I’m an Israelite, Mrs. Pierce. My religion forbids me to eat it.”

Mrs. Pierce raised surprised eyes to her guest’s. “An Israelite! Mr. Pierce, I don’t believe we’ve ever entertained an Israelite before.”

“Don’t you recall, Amelia? We had the Cohens at our table in Savannah. The factor and his wife.”

“Now I do recall. He talked of nothing but money, and I never saw such a gaudy dress as hers.” She looked apologetically at Henry. “I didn’t realize they were Israelites.”