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Tanika Johnson
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I had this idea that my latest book needed a little bit more feedback...It's called Belhaven. It's quite the labor of love, based "romantically" on my own family history. My turn at historical fiction...

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If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write something worth reading or do things worth the writing.

~Benjamin Franklin

 

 

Prologue

 

Virginia Colony, 1765

 

William Hepburn sat on a stool slumped over the large butcher block table in the warmth of the kitchen. A very pregnant Miss Anna stood beside him as she worked. Her quick pained glances in his direction as she set about completing various activities brought him the smallest bit of well-being. William sighed feeling the great swell of grief rise in him again as he made eye contact with Miss Anna from across the table. Anna forced herself to smile faintly; reminding William of his mother, Rachel, who often gave him that same apologetic grin when his father drilled him on his lessons. William’s emotional resolve threatened to give in to the sadness and emptiness that had been stewing for the past sixteen hours at Rachel’s death. William blinked away the pain and dropped his gaze from Miss Anna’s face; he attempted to focus instead on the chaotic choreography of the constant motion of the other slaves in the room. All six of whom kept giving him fleeting glances of sympathy as well as grief in their shared loss.

Miss Anna reached for him, squeezing his arm. William managed to look at Miss Anna and smile before tears pooled in his eyes. He turned his head from her gaze. Anna loosened her grip, moving around the table she stood beside him a moment her arm reaching around him. William felt odd, and gangly in her arms. At ten years of age Miss Anna’s head came just below William’s chin. Miss Anna chuckled despite the mood, her joyous laugh, danced around the room, “We must look a sight,” She spoke with adoration, “You almost as high as a man.” She looked him in the face.

William studied her, desperate to stifle all reminders of his mother. Miss Anna’s small turned up nose had a round almost bulbous tip which moved up and down as she frowned then smiled, her big black eyes doll-like against sun-kissed copper skin. “Man of da house now.” Anna grinned satisfied with the amount of joy she found in his dark blue eyes she set off to continue her tasks.

William watched her again, finding peace in her busy labor. Anna quickly resumed her tasks toiling in the kitchen mixing up a feast for those who would be coming by the next day to pay respects to William and his father. He watched Miss Anna bustling about mixing bowls, and directing the others in the kitchen, including her eldest son, Percy, in ways to proper prepare the chicken and swine. First wiping her hands on her apron Miss Anna scornfully demonstrated the proper way to season the loin for her son. She cleansed her hands once more before hastily indicating the correct way to pluck the fowl’s feathers for another slave before finally crossing the floor in her bare feet to stand before William once again.

He could feel her patient gaze waiting for him to focus upon her face indignantly he focused on Miss Anna's well-used hands as they touched her swollen abdomen. William blinked amazed as her stomach appeared to tighten and release a moment perplexed he looked at Miss Anna once more; her face placid and sad, “You don’ have ta sit ther’. I know ya wan’ ta help Master Will.” She smiled.

William reluctantly returned the gesture and pulled to him a basket of corn and began husking. Watching and listening to the slaves as they worked under Miss Anna’s stern yet gentle guidance. He always found Miss Anna’s accent peculiar. It enhanced the mystery of her origins. She had the tone and inflections like the merchants formerly of the Scottish highlands his father dealt with on a regular basis but there was just a hint of some other far off place. She was without a doubt mulatto with skin the color of winter squash, soft and aged by the long hours she endured, her black hair straight and thick, coarser than others of her kind. William sensed wherever Miss Anna’s dark skinned kin came from it was farther away than any he would ever see.

Miss Anna had come to them from a plantation they had since sold in San Domingo, along with her husband, George. They had already had two children, Hannah and Percy, both older than William and more skilled at their trade than many of the others in the region. One of his mother’s last requests before she fell ill had been finalized that very morning as William set about reading in his father’s library. Hannah was to leave in the next coming days after his mother was interred to work in one of William’s father’s services as a washer woman. Percy was set to be hired out and apprentice with the baker, Levi Andersson. Their father George had been on hand to hear the plan but did not give any input as it was not his place. William could see the worry in George’s face at the thought of his two children going off to places in Belhaven proper to work.

“I was up at the wharf waiting for Master’s things off the boat!” George’s entrance into the kitchen was always heard before he was seen. “They’re all talking about somethin’ in New York. People angered ove’ what tha’ Stamp Act don’ to the’ lives.” George approached Miss Anna kissing her cheek gently touching her stomach with his large brown hand. “Freemen losin’ hope fa’ wha’ they came here fa.” William found him an amusement, so did his father, George always listened to things his father read from the Virginia Gazette and publications coming from up north in Boston and was asked his opinion. George never hesitated to speak his mind, however in a lower tone. “Good day to you Master William sir.” He greeted formally with a wink.

William smiled, “Mister George,” William watched as the robust man took up most of the space with his character as well as his muscular size, teasing his children while they worked and stealing scraps of this and that before taking off with the announcement. “I’ll see to the truth of the matter.” He exited, nearly colliding with his youngest child, Samuel or William’s Boy, as he was called by the others.

“There ya are,” Miss Anna took Samuel by the back of his shirt. “You’re ta stay at Master William’s side thru dis! Master William’s Boy canno’ be dirty. Or tardy!” She admonished him. Samuel made a face which caused William to laugh. Miss Anna was heartened by William’s full-bodied laugh, “I see. He’s bein’ gon’ was part of the plan ta make ya not so solemn than?” She kissed Samuel’s temple, patted his rear end and pushed him toward Hannah. William noticed Miss Anna subtly taking a moment to steady her breathing and caress her belly as the tightening again occurred.

William sat silently a moment before continuing to shuck. It felt better to be a part of the atmosphere than so singular. His solitude was a cross to bear. His was mother dead. His father was off for meetings about the unreasonable taxes and financial matters of this and that. It would soon be him, the field boss, Tobey Daniels and all the house slaves. With his mother’s death William inherited all the house slaves for they had come from his mother’s meager inheritance from her own family back in Edinburgh. They were now his. He looked at them as they worked, they were his responsibility. His mother had, he supposed, cared for them, she never raised a hand let alone her voice to them. She spent a lot of time talking with Miss Anna about everything. His mother once confided she would rather be in Miss Anna’s company than the other women of her Belhaven circle. The women of her circle cared too much for the luxuries that in her mind seemed to be bringing them all further and further into debt with England.

Miss Anna watched William carefully again from the corner of her eye as he moved on to a new task helping with the peas, his brow frowned in thought. His mother loved him so much, and had such hopes for him. Rachel often told Miss Anna about her plans for him. He would have a thriving business and a family he loved, not a gentlemen's agreement as hers had been. Rachel wanted his marriage to be like those characters in her latest love, the works of Homer, brave and forthright. Miss Anna sighed, releasing her own grief; her beloved Mistress would often sit and read aloud to her while she worked. “Master William,” Miss Anna placed a hand on his cheek to gain his attention. “Ya need ta remember the good Lord will take ya mother an’ gran’ her peace. She was a fine person.” She touched her tightening belly once more holding her breath as she tried to dismiss her discomfort.

William grimaced. Her soft voice overwhelmed him. He was so grateful for Miss Anna, she did care for him, he knew it by the way she did for him when she didn’t have to, when it was not about his father being master of both their lives. She was compassionate and humble despite her station. She was his friend. He burst into tears.

“Oh,” Miss Anna immediately pulled him close, her pregnant belly caused him to stand awkwardly at her side, sobbing. “She loves ya Master William.” She paused. “She will always love ya.” She smoothed his dark red hair upon his head.

William fought his mounting terror and sadness by closing his eyes and focusing hard on the smells of the warm room and the sounds of Hannah working the hearth lentil and Percy thumping the table as he kneaded the bread. William took a deep breath, struggling to overcome his desire to scream out. He would no longer spend his days with Samuel running about the grounds or reading the day away. He would be expected to step into the role of a young master. “I know…” he sniffled pulling away from Miss Anna’s grasp. “I know about the problem in New York.”

Miss Anna nodded, “Alright then.” She turned from him and continued to pluck the goose.

“There were men angry about the decision of Parliament. They were harassing the soldiers,” William explained as George entered waving a paper.

“Here!” George exclaimed, placing the large sheet of wrinkled paper on the table. “The men on board ship handed these freely.”

William looked upon the page and frowned, “England's Folly and America's Ruin.” He read aloud. “It’s what the protesters were shouting about.” William glanced at Miss Anna; she was quickly reading what was set before her. She was one of few slaves on their property who could. Her eyes darting back and forth across the page as she did not want anyone to know her gift. William watched her, she comprehended the decrees every word, her cheeks tightened and her breath was slow and deep.

George shook his head. “There will be war.” He kissed Miss Anna on the cheek. “I am off.” He paused, transforming before their eyes as he buttoned his coat and stood straighter. “Master William.” George’s voice grew clearer and subtly calmer as he bowed slightly. “Your father requests your attendance.”

William stared down at the paper, and then looked at Anna’s face, trying her best to feign happiness on his part. His mother had been more than a friend to her. William could see she too missed her, “Good day Miss Anna,” he turned slowly straightening up he followed both George and Samuel out the door into the cold November air.

Miss Anna closed her eyes, silently torn between her loves for both boys. Samuel, going off to be dealt a heavy blow, treated so gently by the Mistress these ten years only to be given his rightful place with little instruction and a heart full of admiration and affection for Master William. And Master William, whose life, if that paper spoke plainly of what was a foot, would not be seeing prosperous times with nearly all things taxed as it was so decreed. Anna prayed the fields would yield what was to be expected. She prayed all the goods for the store and the people who leased things from Master Hepburn would not lose too much and still be able to rent. And now this little one, Miss Anna, leaned on the table, as the strongest contraction yet hit her full force, “Percy,” she took a deep breath. “I need ya ta fetch Old Gran in the field.” It was not going to be easy. “Tell her I’m ready.” She reached for her eldest. “Hannah.”

Hannah and Percy each moved with lightning speed. Percy tore out the door across the field, just in time to see his father, Master Hepburn, Master William, and Samuel riding quickly from the barn and disappear around the building. George would have to be told upon his return. They were told the group was going to Richmond, but it seemed as of late they really went off to Philadelphia or Williamsburg as they would not return for over a week. Percy hastened his way past the quarters for the house slaves and across the tobacco fields to the quarters for the field families, to fetch Old Gran.

***

William sat in silence. His arms resting on the armrests feeling odd and oversized for the well upholstered chair. Samuel stood at his side as if at attention mimicking his father’s actions just a few feet away in the well-lit front hall of Master Haynes’ home. William was nervous and a bit angry. Here his mother had not been gone a full setting and rising of the sun and moon and they were off doing business. William glanced at Samuel, who regarded the portrait of Master Haynes on the wall, unable to gain his attention.

“Father!” a female voice called from the far end of the house accompanied by the sound of footsteps. “Father!” the footsteps stopped just out of visual range.

“Rebecca,” another female voice spoke strictly. “Ladies do not carry their voices higher than a whisper.” She reprimanded.

“Yes Ma’ma,” Rebecca replied.

Slowly the pair entered the hall, dressed in silken fashions in different shades of blue, lace dripping sparingly from their sleeves. Mistress Haynes and her daughter, Rebecca, wisely taking a more genteel pace behind her mother paused upon the waiting group. Both pairs of Rebecca’s green eyes looking first at William who quickly stood and bowed a greeting, then to his father, who had already done the same.

“Oh Patrick,” Mistress Hayes addressed both William and his father. “I am filled with such sorrow for you,” Mistress Haynes took his father by the hand. “She was a woman I could only speak highly of.”

William looked at her closely; she actually looked as if she had been crying, “Thank you.” He glanced at Rebecca; she stood a few inches taller than he.

“I don’t believe I have had the pleasure of introducing William to Rebecca before?” Patrick Hepburn paused. “William this is Miss Rebecca Haynes.”

William stared in her eyes, she was very pretty, kind eyes, helped along by the color of her dress he took her hand in the formal fashion and bent toward it, “Pleased to meet you.”

“As am I,” Rebecca blushed.

“My husband will be in shortly,” Mistress Haynes explained. “We will leave you gentlemen to your pursuits.” She lowered her gaze and head a little and led her daughter from the hall toward the back of the house.

“William,” his father stated. “She may make a grand wife one day.”

Samuel immediately burst into laughter.

“Samuel!” George stepped across the room taking him by the collar he throttled him atop his head and pulled him toward the front door. “You shall wait by the horses.”

William too shocked by the quick turn of events and declarations could only stare at the spot where Samuel once stood.

“Gentlemen!” Master Haynes entered the hall with an echo. “I have been eagerly awaiting your arrival.” He crossed the hall in long strides. His tall thin frame looked as if he too had just returned from a special occasion; his clothes were cream colored silk and white cotton buttoned with ornate gold colored buttons. “William.” He greeted.

William had only met Master Haynes on the few occasions when he had business at their house. He was about the same age as his father however he carried himself much younger, so full of life. He was a member of the Sons of Liberty and a risk taker, boisterous and brilliant with knowing when and what to bring to the colonies to sell, “So Patrick we are beginning to groom young Master William?” Master Haynes took his large hand and placed it upon William's shoulder. “You shall be the catalyst for our legacy my dear boy.” He smiled, looking up at George, then around for Samuel. “We must talk about this dreadful Stamp idea. They are already actively participating in non-importation and consuming of all goods from Britain in Boston. It seems the riots in New York are in response to it.”

“And what of our colony?” William asked.

Both his father and Master Haynes looked at him in respectful surprise, “We still hold to Mr. Henry’s ideas that we are the only ones who may tax us.” Master Haynes replied.  “We will pay for now. Debate if we must and carry on however we can. Best not upset ole King George if we can help it, but let him know we disagree. They are still trying to give all lands west to the Indians in an effort to avoid another costly war which prohibits people such as ourselves from becoming prosperous as we have done with these lands we own. Like your father. The waterfront lands, the distillery, and the stores. They want to take our money by taxing the lot and not allow us to expand and proceed with our way of life. Double edged sword.” He answered honestly. “You are not much younger than my Rebecca?”

“I am ten sir,” William answered.

Master Haynes nodded.

“He has inherited a great deal with his mother’s passing. He has much to learn in managing his business,” his father chimed in. “I have seen to it that he is completely aware thus far and now he will be put to task.”

Master Haynes nodded again, “I will see to it that a tutor or two are sent to him. I have a friend in mind.”

His father gave William a hard nod, “That shall be most welcome.” He replied. “He has had French lessons and mathematics since he was three. His mother saw to it that he had intensive instruction on the classics of both Greece and Rome.”

William watched the two of them as they racked up his pedigree with bantering on how he could improve and what he should or should not be doing. William imagined glancing at George, he was experiencing what George must have felt when they are sitting around discussing what was to be done regarding George’s own children without his input or even a question of his opinion. William was a motherless boy. Another thing he shared in common with George.

William once questioned George in the summer when his mother had first taken ill. George had found him out near the creek sitting beneath a tree crying. He confessed his fear of her dying, and George told him the years William had spent with his mother were to be seen as a blessing. He could have never known her at all. William asked him if he had ever known his mother. George stated that his mother had been a white indentured servant in Barbados. She had him with one of the black slaves of the house. She was set free and unable to free him. She was still living in Barbados for all he knew. The master he grew up under in turn sold him to William’s grandfather’s sugar plantation. George said he did not fault her. If not for her he would have never have met Miss Anna. William never understood how George or Anna or any of the others could remain so accepting of what they had been given instead of being born free.

“We will leave for Philadelphia in the morning,” Master Haynes announced. “There are people there you should meet.” He turned and looked at William. “Important business camaraderie to be established. Regardless of how this all plays out we must secure free enterprise.”

***

Miss Anna held the sleeping baby to her breast trying to coax her to suck. She stared at her older children, wide eyed and adoring as they busied themselves making clean the bloody mess she had made of her bed linens. Old Gran was chanting about the room walking about with bundles of herbs blessing the walls and floor. Anna had the overwhelming need to hold her children in her arms all at once. Only yesterday she had sat bedside Mistress Rachel as she struggled between the love for her son and home and the never-ending peace of freedom from the physical torments of the cancer which ravaged her. Miss Anna knew from previous discussions she had with George that both Hannah and Percy were to be sent to work and taught various trades in Belhaven. An arrangement she knew was unavoidable. Anna closed her eyes and sighed as the bittersweet tug of the newborn’s suck pulling the substance from within her bosom washed over her a feeling of heartache she had been trying to suppress since Rachel died.

She wept silently.

Hannah knelt beside her, “Mum.” She caressed her arm. “It has been a most tryin’ time. With Mistress Rachel…” Hannah broke off as tears streaked down her own cheeks, knowing full well with her passing it would also mean she could no longer live there. She looked down at the fortunate addition. “What will her name be?”

Miss Anna breathed in, awash with sentiment, “Esther Rachel,” she kissed her bald head. “She shall be called Essie.” She smiled.

Percy came to stand beside her, “Essie.” He touched the baby. “I think Papa will like Esther.”

“As will Samuel,” Hannah lay her head down upon the bedside, her eyes diverted from her mother’s view. “I will miss you Momma.” She confessed allowing the grief to swell.

Miss Anna reached for her tentatively, stroking her hair feeling the delicate texture of waves beneath her fingers. She thought back to many moments like this she would never have again, “I will miss ya both.” Miss Anna looked up at Percy. “My boy, now a man.” She reached up and grabbed his arm. “Be proud of who ya’re. Remember ya’re an able man. A free man.” Both of them looked up at her with confused expressions. “No matta wha’ they beat inta ya ya’re free. Ya’re God’s creation.” She looked from one face to the other.

Percy knelt beside the bed, “We will come as much as we are able.” He paused. “I long to see her as she grows.” He touched Esther’s cheek which caused her to make a face.

Miss Anna laughed and yawned simultaneously.

“We shall let ya rest Mum,” Hannah stood. “We’ll finish the preparations.” Hannah tugged Percy as she backed away watching her mother’s eyelids grow heavier and heavier.

“Lord’s work here be don’,” Old Gran sighed. “I watch her.” She assured them.