IN WHICH I am paid, learn of wealth on the Chesapeake, and get shaved by a Negro.
It was dark and smoky inside the War Office. A portly gentleman in a fine grey coat was seated at the desk facing the door; it was he who had spoken to me. The polished gold buttons on his coat were straining against his generous paunch as he rocked slowly back and forth on his chair, and the stub of a rich-smelling cigar was balanced precariously atop his papery lower lip. "What is it you want, b'hoy?" he asked in a voice that grated against my ears like sandpaper.
I stiffened at his choice of words. "I've come to collect my dues, marse."
The man raised his eyebrows and leaned forward to rest his elbows on the desk. "Oh? And who, pray, are you?"
"Priva—" I began, then corrected myself. "Corporal Jeremiah E. Howell, sir. I was…told to come to you to receive my wages and bounty…"
He fixed me with a dark glare that I'm sure had something to do with the fact that I was taking money from the Confederacy and stood up to consult a series of cubes arrayed on the wall in a sort of pigeonhole-like bookcase, where stacks of papers were gathering dust. He pulled a few out, blew the dirt away and sat down heavily. "Corporal Jeremiah E. Howell, eh? Well, I'm afraid your name's not under the Richmond corporals, b'hoy. You'd best run—"
"Sir," I interrupted softly, "I enlisted in Harris, Virginia, though as of now I am from the 13th Virginia, Company 'K. And I didn't receive the rank of corporal until just this morning, when I was also honorably discharged. I believe my name would be under 'Private'."
The man sighed and returned the papers to a hole and selected a few others. "Howell…Howell…" He sighed again. "Ah, here we are. Enlisted April 30th, 1861?"
The man extinguished his cigar in a glass of corn liquor, took a pen out and scratched some figures on the inside cover of a book, then pulled out a drawer and counted out a stack of bills. "476 dollars, Corporal, is your total," he said, handing me the stack.
"476?" I blurted in surprise, taking the money from him. This sum was more than twice what I thought I was owed!
He raised an eyebrow, then looked down at the paper he held in his hand. "Private's eleven dollars a month for thirty-three months—363 dollars—plus 100 dollars bounty—463 dollars—plus one month's corporal's wages, thirteen dollars. Total, 476 dollars."
I fingered the coarse paper money clasped in my hands, feeling a thrill run up my spine. Subtract the amount of money needed to do my errands (300 dollars, if I remembered correctly), and I would still have nearly 200 dollars left! Enough to restock in Pennsylvania and go home, and perhaps even buy a farm in Tennessee.
A farm…I remembered with a start the deed to the Chesapeake land in my pocket. "Tell me, sir," I said slowly, "what is the going price per acre for land these days?"
The man took another cigar from his pocket and lit up. "Lessee," he said, puffing thoughtfully, "well, my wife's cousin recently sold a packet for a tidy sum…25 per acre, I believe, and not all too nice land, either. Got some real nice land on the Potomac, though, or the sea, I bet you can sell for…eighty, hundred per acre, maybe. Why?"
"Own a parcel on the Chesapeake," I admitted. "Fifty acres. Don't ever intend on living there, though. My home's in Tennessee."
"Chesapeake, eh?" he said, and blew a ring of smoke up to the ceiling. "Bet you can sell for a hundred, real easy. 5,000 dollars, quick."
If Eliza had been present, she would have pounded my back, for I inhaled so quickly I nearly choked. The man watched me cough and wheeze with a slightly raised eyebrow, then said when I'd recovered, "Let me give you the name of a friend who's been looking for a good packet to start out on."
"Thank you, sir," I said in surprise, and he shrugged it off.
"You seem like fresh fish to me, and it'll be hard to sell anything with that bum limb o' yours, so I figured you could use a little help. Here. Tell him Abner Geary sent you."
He handed me the slip of paper with an address a few blocks away and blew a puff of smoke towards me.
"Thank you, sir," I repeated.
He nodded. "Now—is there anything else, or will you leave?"
I was about to say no, when a sudden thought struck me. "Please, sir," I said, "do you have a listing for…for a John Towne in there? He was a drummer boy, sir, from the 13th Virginia."
"'Was'?" the man asked.
I had to swallow before I could reply. "He was killed in Gettysburg, sir."
"Shame," he said, and went to his papers. "Towne…Towne…I have a Judson Town."
"No, sir, John. Towne with an 'e'."
"Ah. Well…here. John Towne. Missing in action, July 1863. I thought you said he was killed."
"I did," I replied. "He was."
The man had a doubtful expression on his fleshy face.
"Look here, sir," I said, perhaps more loudly than I intended, "the boy was my cousin. He was chawn up by a Yankee cannonball, and he bled out on my hands! These hands, sir! 'Twas I who heard his last words, who saw his blood pour out, who held him as he begged for water…"
Geary looked slightly alarmed, and made a quick note on Johnnie's papers. "I can see you tell the truth, corporal. I'll make the necessary changes to his status."
"Please, sir," I said again, "his mother is a widow, and I'm sure his wages would be of great help to her…"
"Oh, really," Geary laughed. "I have heard that one so many times, corporal, that—"
"No, sir," I snapped back, "I care for my mother's sister and her dead son. He was all she had, and I stole him from her. The least I can do is give her something to put away!"
Geary seemed easily alarmed. "All right, b'hoy. John Towne was owed…264 dollars, as per to his contract—the hundred dollars and land is not awarded as he was not honorably discharged and the war is not yet over, and he enlisted as a drummer boy. Here. Take it and begone!"
He shoved the bills into my hand and shooed me away. I tucked Johnnie's money away into a deep pocket on the inside of my jacket and patted it, as though I could touch Johnnie's curly head by doing so, and kicked open the door and hobbled out, leaving Geary to close it himself.
Once on the sidewalk, I stopped to get my bearings. I now had 476 dollars in my pocket, a packet of land worth 5,000 dollars, and money to give Johnnie's mother—my dear aunt—at least some consolation. For I knew I was to be the news-bearer of Johnnie's death, if he was until now listed as missing. A sick feeling started stirring in my stomach, and I quickly cleared my throat and looked down at my list, rubbing the bristles on my chin. Haircut and a shave, I thought decisively, and set out for a barber's I'd seen earlier.
As I approached, I noticed that the windows were rather grimy, the walk outside muddy, and the general area of the shop nearly deserted. All the foot traffic went by on the other side of the street. Tentatively, I reached out and rapped at the paned glass on the door. A moment passed, and then the door creaked open, revealing a tall, ebony-skinned man in a canvas apron. I couldn't help but stare—his face was noble, with a broad forehead and high cheekbones, wide lips, and a straight, dignified nose. His eyes were nearly as dark as his skin, and they watched me intently, narrowed with suspicion.
"How may I help you, massuh?" he asked, in a voice that rumbled from deep in his barreled chest.
"I'd like a shave, please," I replied.
He looked me up and down a moment, his eyes lingering on my corporal's chevrons. Suddenly, he stood aside. "Come in, then."
The barber ushered me in and sat me down on a hard wooden stool, slinging a rough apron over my shoulders. His brown, long-fingered hands raked a comb through my unkempt hair, while an assistant—a likely-looking Negress, but just as dark as he—stirred tonic into a creamy froth in a bowl.
"A cut, massah?" came the low, rolling voice from behind me.
"Er…I have a mind to cut it all," I admitted.
"'Tis ten cents, for de shave, an' twenty for de cut, massah."
"Go on, then."
The pretty assistant gave her bowl over to the barber, and he immediately took the brush and slathered my face with the tonic. "Shave it all, massuh?" he asked, holding the blade to my cheek in a rather alarming fashion.
I didn't dare nod. "Yes. All of it."
"No Icadilly Weepers?"
"Not even muttonchops sans moustache?"
"No," I said firmly. "Shave it all clean off."
So he did, and followed my directions to the letter. I have never been more pleased with a shave as I was when the Negress held the mirror up to my face. My hair was horrendously unkempt and long, but my face was clear and whisker-free. I looked nearly sixteen again!
"Thank you, my good man," I said, and he nodded silently before attacking my hair. He looked to be done fairly quickly, and actually reached for curling tongs before I realized what he meant to do. "No, no, that won't be necessary, sir," I said, catching his hand. It vaguely registered in my brain the intense contrast between my white skin and his Ethiopian skin before he took his hand back.
"What would massah have me do, then?" he asked quietly.
"Cut it neat and short," I replied firmly.
"To the head, massah?"
He sighed doubtfully and began cutting, more carefully, thank goodness. I myself began having second thoughts, but it was the way my mother had always cut it, and I thought I looked most presentable that way, even if it was not 'in vogue.' An accident with a pair of shears in my seventh summer, and my long locks were gone for good—my mother fancied me more likely that way after she'd repaired the damage, and so that way I remained.
When the barber was finished, his assistant held the mirror up to me, and I surveyed his work with pleasure. "Thank you, my kind sir," I said gratefully, and he removed the apron. Locks of my fair hair tumbled to the dirty floor as I pulled a dollar from my pocket. "I'm afraid I haven't got any change, so you'll just have to keep it…"
He took the dollar with a dignified expression. "Thank you, massuh."
I nodded, and after a brief silence, lifted my hand in farewell and hobbled out of the shop. The Negro had done a fantastic job on my head, and I cursed the proud white folk that traipsed across the road to avoid seeing his noble Ethiopian face. They had no idea the able blood that coursed through his veins…