For my wife Shona 2/26/18
The Story of the Day is Foundation
The year was 1782. She was a young beautiful teenage girl, now 17, who had grown up in her Victorian plantation home on a river in Charleston South Carolina… It was a beautiful large white 3 story house including servants quarters with close to 20,000 square feet of interior floor space. Her back yard was off a large porch that spanned the immense stretch of pillars of the rear façade of the house. She was in love with this maze of stone stairs and flagstone corridors that made up the back of their property. 2 swimming pools could be found within the cold stone maze. The upper pool stayed warm all summer… too warm for her taste, as it caught direct sunlight from dawn until dusk every day, and the Charleston heat and sunlight could be relentless… but one of her two favorite spots on the grounds was taking the steep stone steps down to the older lower pool. The original pool that her parents constantly threatened to fill with dirt for as long as she could remember…
There she sat at the foot of the side steps. Resting on the moss covered cobblestones in shade… this swimming pool was carved into the earth and lined with blue-green porcelain tile. Virtually underground with plants and vines climbing the cooling earth around the pool, the pool was completely shaded for most of the day by the canopy above her, she could sit for hours with her feet in the ice cold water and feel the cool stones beneath her… An escape from the hot summer sun… calmed by the foliage around her, feeling safe in the shade of the trees far above. With her dress pulled up above her knickers staring at the water and playing with the surface of the immense deep pool with her toes, the deep end so dark that the bottom vanished into blackness below.
“Can you dive to the bottom?” he said in a thick Irish accent… startled she looked up to find the chef’s apprentice standing in the middle of the adjacent end of the pool in front of the steps leading up to the house. He smiled at her and repeated his quarry “have you been to the bottom? It gets colder the farther down you dive”… There he stood, a red haired boy about a year her senior with a deep scar down the right side of his face that cut from his hairline through his right brow and down his cheek. She noticed that the sun peaking over the staircase gently touched the tips of his hair making them appear to glow like flames. She hadn’t seen him smile in a while, but he stood there, with a warm smile today… meeting her gaze directly for the first time since they were children. She noticed he held a rose sideways in both hands, and as he smiled at her he nervously spun it in his fingers… She tried to remember the last time he looked anything that resembled happy.
Since he returned alone from the war, she spent the last few months unable to take her eyes off of him. This servant who left as a child and came back in the form of a beautiful yet sorrow filled man… He must have noticed by now how she watched him… She didn’t try to hide it well. She wondered how long he had considered speaking to her. She wondered why today he decided to finally do so.
Since losing her own father in the war with the crown, and since the chef’s son’s return, the house had become somehow warmer to her, brighter, as if he brought the sunlight back with him… She loved her father, yet he was so serious, so stern and so very strict, and almost never affectionate. Always correcting her. Telling her how a “lady” should act: “A lady doesn’t enter a room at a hurry”… “A lady doesn’t hike up her dress above the ankle to sit”, “a Lady finishes the food that is in her mouth before she takes another bite!”, “A lady changes out of dirty clothes when they become soiled!”… Her mother, much less proper… married into this wealth, while her father was born to it… so her mother would secretly sneak her cookies, or giggle with her in quiet times tucked away where no one could hear. Her mother also would speak to the servants when father was out and their laughter would fill the house in those moments… She would hide just around corners for a chance to hear her mother’s laugh…
When the war broke out she remembers her father spouting off about the ungrateful revolutionaries, the traitors in the northern colonies… Then when his plant was forced to shut down his tone changed, he began to curse the East India Trading company. He began to speak ill of the king, and talk about the crown taking everything from them…
She remembers the day they left… that was the last time she saw the chef’s boy smile… The men of the house packed bags, and set off with rifles in hand. Her father never kissed her goodbye, never even looked back at her… She stood on the porch with her mother, and only the Chef’s boy glanced back over his shoulder… she caught his gaze, a full head shorter than his own father, awkwardly carrying a musket, heading off to war… a frightened boy of 14. As their eyes met while the boy walked towards the stables his brow raised in a look that seemed as though his fear subsided slightly. He smiled at her, when he saw her eyes were on him… She suddenly realized she would miss him. She hoped he felt that he had something to fight for… something to fight to come back to. She sometimes pretended he could have been looking at his home, but even though it made it more painful, she allowed herself to hope it was her that made him smile.
She remembers those years, when the men of the house all disappeared. Many, including her father and the chef, would not return from the war. A few would… the Chef’s son among them. 3 years gone… This nearly 18 year old man came back and chose to stay and continue his work as Chef, after his indentures were long past complete. Her mother ever so grateful for his service, agreed to pay him a wage and allow him to live in the main house. Apparently having read in letters that her father’s wish was to give him quarter in the guest wing, and treat him as family not servant.
Every morning beginning shortly after his return, the young woman began to take her tea on the indoor porch on the left side of the house just off the kitchen. Her other favorite spot in the house. Not because of the warm morning sun coming through the 8 foot tall glass windows. Or the comfort the rod iron furniture offered… not for the creaking boards, or smell of peeling white paint from the window lattice, nor the smell of old wood… but because it was a pass through from the food cellar to the kitchen. Every morning she would see him… as he walked back and forth bringing up the items that would be carried rather than be sent by dumbwaiter from below the kitchen. She would see him round the corner from the atrium leading to the cellar stairs. Pretending not to be waiting for him, searching out of the corner of her eyes. Pretending not to hear the sounds of his heavy boots on the floorboards. Yet something in her stomach would flutter, and she would look to him, and she would hold her gaze long enough for him to catch her. She would try to see him looking back as he walked by, and he always did, just a glance, just for a moment… Then her favorite part was admiring his broad back and shoulders after he passed, and admittedly catching a glimpse of his behind as he walked towards the entrance to the kitchen as the small flutters in her stomach took flight. Every day she pretended not to notice him, as he pretended not to notice her… every day until today… When he came down to the pool, and he spoke.
“Can you dive to the bottom?” I said… out of breath from my brisk jog from the house… There she was, this beautiful 17 year old woman, just stared back at me with her mouth slightly agape. I grew up with this talkative chatterbox, I know she isn’t a mute so I spoke again with a small laugh in my breath as the first words escape my lips… “have you been to the bottom? It gets colder the farther down you dive”… Still nothing but a stunned stare and a raised brow, as if she is just about to talk… I grin… it feels… natural… even though I haven’t smiled since I held her father in my arms and watched the life drain from his body. She has his blue eyes…
“please…” he said to me… “Please look after them… please, promise me…” and then he was gone.
I never really liked the man before we left together to fight the British… He was never kind to the servants of the house like his wife who frequently snuck me cookies and chocolate. My father signed us all into indentured service as his chef, and I became my father’s apprentice at age 5. We managed the kitchen in this enormous home. I could never have imagined such grandeur and excess existed before we made the cross from Ireland to the colonies of the Americas. I often wish my mother could have seen it, but mother didn’t survive the journey across the Atlantic… we were already starving, and her taking ill along the passage, like so many others, ended her journey too soon. I spent nearly 10 years in this home with only my father, who was always in the cellar working on the next meal… always out of sight of the noble family of three that lived there. Sneaking quietly through back corridors, we lived almost entirely out of sight or in the attic servant’s quarters, which always frightened me. I never wanted to be alone up there, so I would find myself spending time outside on the grounds. Trying not to be noticed on the property I would often spend my free time playing in the small stone maze of walls and pottery that made up the back yard.
I would run into her frequently, this girl about my age… She was beautiful, tough, and full of life. Always laughing when she saw me, always playing shy, but never afraid to run up and tag me “your it!”… She was frequently scolded for playing with me. She, like her mother was always kind to us, always had a smile, and was always friendly. She even said “hello” before the normal act of starting an impromptu game of hide and seek which would leave us muddy and laughing when her father wasn’t around to scold her for it… I would usually win… I am not even sure she knew half the hidden corridors in that house existed. “A lady does not carry on conversing with the help” he would say whenever he found her speaking to me.
I grew to dislike him strongly the day he found us running down the flagstones in a game of tag… he flew into a rage and snatched her up and dragged her into the house roughly by her arm, locking her in her room. She wasn’t allowed to dinner that night, and the next time I saw her she wouldn’t even glance in my direction. I suppose he was quite clear with his punishment that day. We were nearly teenagers then… practically the same age, and not allowed to even glance at each other, much less enjoy the company of one another. Her father believing she was too good for me at an age when I began to want to spend more time with her… at an age when I came to realize just how beautiful she truly was. All that nobility and separation of classes doesn’t last long in war… A noble man will piss his pants in his first battle, and fall from a musket ball or cannon fire the same as a peasant boy… War is the great equalizer of men I suppose.
Being of noble birth, her father was recruited as an officer into the Continental Army. My father his indenture, would willingly accompany him into war when he found out his intentions, and told me I would be going with them. The master’s attitude towards me changed from that of master to that of superior officer… Which means he would speak to me directly for the first time I can remember, as we rode on the road to the northern colonies to enlist in Washington’s army. “Can you use that thing son?”, he asked gesturing at my rifle…
“I spent years hunting to put food on your table sir, I imagine I can use this thing… better then you”
“Show some respect!” my father barked through his thick red beard. Shocked at how frank and direct I was.
“I am not allowed to speak to his family, but I am allowed to die for them?” I responded to him… I suppose not much worse could be done to me than being pulled from my home and forced to fight for a man who had not shown me much kindness.
“It’s ok Sam… The boy has some fight in him… we will need it” her father responded to mine… I looked up at him, and he gave me a small grin and a wink. I suppose a bit of mild tough insubordination earned me a small modicum of respect… It was hard not to smile back.
As the days stretched into months, I began to respect this man more and more. He was firm, yet fair to his troops. My father always at his right hand, and I being family was invited to meetings standard infantry wasn’t. It wasn’t long before I was a non commissioned sergeant in his company, and we started to speak less as servant and master or even brigadier general and sergeant, and more as friends. It was at the Monmouth courthouse where we would see we were not so different from one another… the day I first saw the horrors of true battle… the day I earned my scar from a bayonet, and the day my father fell. As Lee lead our men on retreat, Washington turned us back towards a battle that we knew could not be won… I saw my father fall from his mount as we charged the heavy cannon and this man, her father, leaped from his own horse, picked me up from pawing over my father’s body, with dirt on his face and caked into his beard, with blood streaming down my chin, and scorched earth around us he shouted to me “Morn for him tomorrow… today, you pick yourself up and stay alive for him!”… I’ll never forget those words… I, a 16 year old man with stripes on my sleeve, stuck to his shoulder until cannons subsided and both armies fell back. With musket and bayonet I learned that all men tested as equals in battle.
He had only a daughter at home in Charleston, who I knew he cared deeply for. A daughter he spoke of frequently, and who had often been in my thoughts for some reason during those years following my father’s death at the battle of Monmouth. She was the only friend I had growing up, which I reflect on being amusing since she wasn’t allowed to speak to me. I think my father’s passing opened a door for him to have a son he wanted and never had, and we became much closer in the final years of the war as I became his ward and he became my only family I had left to lose.
He fell in Yorktown… the final battle of the war. I witnessed the British surrender with the sorrow of a man who lost two fathers. I returned home with the sorrow of a man who killed men he didn’t know, in a war I didn’t truly understand against an enemy I didn’t even know if I hated. I witnessed the surrender of the crown, knowing I would return home without joy of victory, but with news of so much loss… I left company with little but a promise I made to a dying father “Please look after them… please, promise me”. A vision forever burned into my mind, of holding his hand still slick with blood, and promised I would never leave them alone.
Upon my return I took over my father’s old duties at first, until the letter arrived from atournies and everything changed… but the house had a different feel to it than the home I grew up in. Without her father, the house was somehow happier, warmer, it developed a kinder and less formal atmosphere while we were away. His wife was born poor like us, she didn’t have an air of pomp and circumstance, she didn’t care much for corsets, sitting upright, and acting proper, and definitely didn’t suppress her laughter. She began to allow her 17 year old daughter just about any uncouth behavior she liked including taking her morning tea on the side porch pass through from the kitchen to the cellar. Allowed her to move the rod iron lawn furniture to the wide hallway where she would sometimes sit with her feet on the windowsill forcing herself to lower them for me as I walked through… So I began to walk through more often… making unnecessary passes, as I could easily rely on other house staff to retrieve food from the dumbwaiter… but I liked walking by her, I noticed how she looked at me… Even though it was hard to put a smile on my face it was easy to rest it in my heart when I felt her eyes on me in that way.
It had been 4 months since I returned from war when a package arrived by post… Shortly after breakfast. Her mother sat in the kitchen reading from a document that had come, and as I tended to cleaning, I glanced out to the porch where I would normally find her sipping tea with her dress tucked between her thighs, and find her slender feet up on the window as she looked out over the river that ran to the east side of the house… I tilted my head and leaned over the counter hoping to see her there… but she had left.
She was frequently on my mind after my return… as I was replaying her small smile as she catches my gaze each morning, as I was remembering how she holds her tea cupped in both hands with one index finger through the teacup handle, and carefully blows on it as it cools… As I was lost in the image of the way her dress pinches between her thighs and how her hair falls to her shoulders… Her mother called to me… “Joel, you need to read this son”… She looked up at me and I realized she had tears in her eyes… as I came across the kitchen wiping my hands on a cloth, I glanced down at the papers strewn on the kitchen table… Grateful her husband had taught me to read over our years at war. I realized this document appeared to be the settling of the estates, and the last will of her husband possibly written just months before his death. Half way down the page she was reading, I caught my name, and I read: And to Joel, the son I should have had – I leave my textile plants and all monies and profits of accounts their-in with all deeds and titles to the properties and all empowerments of my corporation. May he find the wealth, success and happiness he deserves in this life. I also leave Joel with one small request that I assume wouldn’t be a difficult task for him, the details of which are enclosed in the addressed letter within.
I tore open a small envelope and found a short note. I placed it on the table to allow her mother to read with me: Joel, if this letter has found its way to you, then you survived the war and I have not. My family needs you son. In this regard I make a humble request, not a demand… that you court my daughter if you find her pleasing. I do not give you her hand in marriage, as our daughters heart is free and her hand is hers to give. Through these years of watching you become the man you are, I cannot imagine a finer husband to give to one of the only wonderful things I created in this life. I wish you the best of luck taming such a wild one. I know she has always been fond of you.
I sat in awe for a moment… and then spoke
“Where is she?” I asked her mother hastily, with the excitement of a young boy. She smiled up at me from the table
“Down by the lower pool I think, she likes to sit with her feet in the water… she thinks I don’t know” she chuckled… as I turned she spoke again “Joel… She likes roses… and she has the most beautiful laugh you have ever heard”
“I remember” I replied with the first excited smile that my face had felt in years.
“Joel… you know she is never going to be tamed”
“I wouldn’t have her if she could be…” I smiled once again “good day madam”.
“I have a feeling it will be”…