Author's Notes: I'm putting these before the story this time because I don't want anyone getting uncessesarily offended by my use of the word "negro," as it was a term used differently back in the era I tried to represent. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe even Africans called themselves by that word in days gone by.) I tried to be as historically accurate as possible, and if you can't tell from the story, I am one hundred percent absolutely against any form of racism which sickens me to the very core. I beg of you not to get the wrong impression of me from any sentiments in this story that may not seem to express that. Pointers on expanding my historical knowledge are always welcome. Thank you, that is all. :)
Chains of Love
A salty breath met my nostrils, and I drank it greedily with the necessity of a faint woman at her wine, knowing at any moment the stench of affliction would come to pollute my precious ocean breeze. I tilted my parasol to protect my fair skin from the African sun and felt my face with the back of my palm to see that I had not been burned already. My fashionable English gown with its heavy bustle and numerous petticoats was hardly suited for such a warm climate, but father hadn't given much thought to proper clothing for his seventeen year old daughter when he decided to settle in Africa for a spell.
It wasn't long before the air grew rife with the sound of metal clinking, followed close by scattered shouts, a long, eerie wail, and the foul odor of perspiration. It was the very evil I had anticipated; the signal to end my short time of peace, that marred the easy tranquility of what could have been a decidedly lovely spot had the devilish practice of the slave trade not been established on the island.
The plight of the slaves was what brought my father there in the first place. He was the kind of clergyman who could not suffer to sit and listen to reports of barbarism without seeing for himself how close to rumor the situation really was. He needed only to look upon a single shipment of the abducted souls when we first arrived to realize all he'd been told was true. Indeed, it was more desperate than we could have imagined.
At the start the slaves were obtained from chiefs who bargained away their captured prisoners of war in exchange for European goods. But the slaves brought great profit, and for merchants the sound of clinking chains was too often associated with the clink of a gold coin. Men grew greedier and their compassion diminished as they stooped to kidnapping children and keeping them locked away in coastal forts while they waited for the ships of death to take them away.
Immediately, my father set out to compile a record of the injustices our African neighbors suffered, aspiring to persuade our countrymen to end the madness. I do believe he wished to become another Wilberforce, though admittedly, I didn't think my father's writing style was very eloquent, or even remarkably interesting. Still, he felt a duty to at least try the abilities of his persuasive powers. Sad as it was, I had little faith in them.
My father submersed himself in his work and gave me the task of observation; to take note of such details that a young woman of feeling would be likely to perceive, and to supply him with this information in order that he might have the opportunity to remain indoors and write.
In truth, I preferred it that way. My mother who we'd left behind in England with my nine siblings was always fond of the outdoors, and she taught me from childhood to loathe a long period of confinement. I was the eldest of the children, exhibiting such characteristics as a slim figure, deep brown hair and eyes to match, a quick tongue, and a righteous fury when provoked. Quite often I was given a sharp rebuke for speaking without heeding my thoughts.
"Move out of the way, girl!" A middle aged man in merchant's attire scowled threateningly at me as he prodded the dark mass of bodies towards the fort. His face was brown and beaten from years of laboring in the sun, though the brown color often gave way to a reddish one when he had cause to be angry. His white sideburns stopped just short of his square jaw, his eyes were a blue with no reflection of peace. An overwhelming desire to increase his financial status was the driving force behind all his actions, and day by day he sought after this end with the vigor of a mad dog. The name belonging to this man was Mr. Thomas Holbright, but I would have given a king's ransom to call him a good many other things that would shame my father to hear me speak.
I stepped aside and attempted to bear the countenance of one who feels all the wretchedness that I did, looking upon the frightened faces that filed past me. I prayed that at least a few of them would see by the good will in my eyes that I was not in league with their captors. Some would not lift their heads to look at all, a few seemed almost to understand, and many of the girls stared at my bright lavender dress with unconcealed wonder, never losing the poignant expression of a person just separated from freedom.
Frederick Holbright, the previously mentioned Mr. Holbright's son tried to count the heads as they went by and hurriedly marked an estimate on a sheet of paper in his hand. He took the sheet to his father, glancing my way as if awaiting my wrath. I sent him the coldest glare I could manage, the one reserved especially for him. As deep as my hatred ran for Mr. Holbright senior, nothing could compare to the way my blood boiled at the sight of the son. Every day I took the short walk from our secluded little house that bore testament of our refusal to live in the fort, to the road that ran between the fort and the docks, and every day Frederick would be there to challenge my convictions. How I longed to wound his conscience; to cause the pain of remorse to rush like a forest blaze through his cold, cruel heart. But nothing I said would touch him.
In my memory is stored one such battle of words that carried out much like all the others.
"Do you hear their cries of anguish at night?" I demanded. "Do you ever picture their faces in your dreams?"
"Whether I do or not is none of your business," he replied, never a variation in his deceptively gentle tone.
"I consider the sufferings of my fellow man to be very much my business. And as you make it your business to oppress and enslave them, it makes it my business as well."
"Some would say that bringing them to the civilized world will give them a chance to be converted."
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" I muttered savagely, heat rushing to my cheeks, "That's the most preposterous excuse ever raised. If you really wanted to Christianize them, you'd send missionaries here, not slave traders. Kidnapping people, chaining them together like cattle, and separating them from their families is hardly the way to show Christian charity. Nor will it bring many converts, I can assure you, either here or back home."
"I'm surprised, Miss Woodsmith, that you take such an interest. You who have all the freedoms in the world. You who do not understand in the slightest what it is to be trapped. Your father allows you many liberties that other girls, indeed, other men even are not so lucky to have."
"I need only ask the thousands of Negroes your father has sent across the Atlantic for a full account on what it feels like to be trapped."
"There are different kinds of chains, you know."
"Yes, and none are so thick as that of a slave's!" So ending the dispute, I turned on my heels and stormed away, feeling as I always did when we argued: that I'd lost, somehow. True, I had the last word, but Frederick hadn't altered his views and our debates seemed to run themselves in circles.
One afternoon, as it was a particularly fine day, I ventured all the way down to the docks, glad that there would be no 'shipments' that week. Frederick was there, just three yards off from where I stood. He seemed to be deep in thought, mulling over financial affairs in all likelihood. I tried to ignore the way his chestnut locks fell over his wide forehead and brought myself to concentrate on his other features instead, hoping to find something less physically pleasing. His face was round, though not overly so, his nose pointed and grim, and his eyes small, boasting a rare hazel coloring I'd noted before. He had the good sense to wear no jacket in the heat of the day, and his sleeves were rolled up to his elbows.
I thought of leaving at once. I felt a little guilty for studying him so long without his knowledge, but in a trice had convinced myself that one must know their opponent to better understand their point of view. I had suddenly and quite conveniently placed my beliefs in the new science of physiognomy to excuse myself of impertinence. I determined to remain within reason, but against my own will was becoming fast distracted with the pleasing nature of his features. A few more moments passed and I was ready to slip away before he noticed me. But I was too late. His head turned and he saw me looking at him. My face drained itself of emotion. I raised my chin a little higher as he nodded to me.
"Mr. Holbright," I dipped my head in return, then made a motion to quit the premises.
"Miss Woodsmith, please wait."
An excuse hung on the tip of my tongue. It had almost made its way past my lips before an inexplicable curiosity forced me to pause.
"Would you have any objections to taking a short walk with me?"
A walk? For what purpose, I could not imagine. Surely we could argue just as well on the docks. My mind screamed refusals; hot and hasty words played in my head. I hushed them up for the sake of womanly grace.
"No," said I, "I'll walk with you a short way."
He looked satisfied. We started towards a road just wide enough for the two of us to travel down side by side.
"You once told me that no chains are so thick as that of a slave's," he reminded me as we passed an unusually picturesque patch of greenery.
"Yes, I did."
"Well, I fear I must disagree with you. I believe that some chains are thicker. I speak concerning the chains of love. They are chains that bind a man to a woman, linking them together more solidly than any metal could. They can be torturous chains as well, if the lady does not return his affections. Even when they're apart, those chains can be felt like a great tugging within the breast. It only lessens when they're near one another, and yet even at that moment, there's a great strain, oft times intensified by the closeness." This message was conveyed with more emotion than I had ever heard from him. It puzzled me.
"Mr. Holbright, I don't understand what this has to do with the slaves."
"I doesn't. Not a great deal, in any case. I wish to ask you something."
There was a mystery in those words that caught my attention. Were I older and wiser they may have prepared me for what was to come, but having never been the recipient of such sentiments about to be presented to me, their meaning eluded my suspicion. I faced my opponent as I saw him to show Mr. Holbright that I would listen. My face told him plainly that I was making no promise to be charming in whatever reply he provoked.
"I ask you," he almost smiled as his green tinted eyes lowered themselves to meet my dark pupils, "If you would care to relieve the burden of my chains..." A hundred, nay, a thousand unspoken questions hung in the space of his hesitation, "...by marrying me?"
My first reaction was hardly volatile. Although my heart quivered, and my stomach felt queasy, my mind was in a state of paralysis. There was no doubt Frederick was in earnest. Every contour of his face, every expression in his stance, the very steadiness of his gaze assured me of this.
"You?" Cool and lucid was my speech, despite the ruckus within, "I marry you? How could I marry, care for, or even respect a man who has no regard for the well being of his fellow creature? How could I, who have made it my life's mission to do everything in my limited power to end the slave trade, marry you, who actively support the very thing which I despise most in this world? This desert heat has gone to your head. There is no other explanation for such madness."
"You know my father is a hard, controlling man; merciless as well as mercenary. He makes it impossible for me to disobey," he said with feeling. "If you could only see how similar my sufferings are to those of the slaves, you would pity me as you did them."
"You presume too much. I cannot believe your thoughts have ever dwelt on the grievances committed against the slaves unless twisted by your prejudice to involve some rejoicing in profits."
"That is altogether untrue. Have you not seen the distinction in the way I treat them as opposed to my father's conduct? Despite my convictions I have a duty owed my father not easily disregarded. I wish the slaves to be free as much as you and I am willing to swear it before you now, if it would only guarantee to dissuade your anger!"
"And what of your moral duty; of your duty before God? Do not swear to me, for I am disinclined to take your oaths as anything more than tricks to alter my opinion of you. What have you ever done to make me think that there's an inkling of truth in what you profess?"
"You accuse me of being a liar?"
"Aye, and why not? Every day you give me reason to believe you hold the same position as your father on all subjects concerning the slaves, and now you suddenly wish to retract it all!"
"If I have been dishonest, it has been to my father, not to you. The man is a tyrant! I cannot openly go against him."
"Then you are a coward as well as a liar! To mask your fears under a cloak of submission while thousands are led to die, crammed into ships' holds fraught with refuse! You can have nothing more to say to me sir, and I wish to be free of your company. My answer is most decidedly no."
"Belle," Frederick's fingers closed around my wrist as I sought my escape. His grip was firm, but not painfully constricting. "I've never told you a falsehood. I admire your determined efforts for the cause of liberty. How could anyone not? Belle, I love you. I'll do anything you ask to prove the truth of my words. I'll tell my father to sink to the bottom of the ocean, if it will make you mine."
"Remove your hand, and please be so kind as to refrain from addressing me by my Christian name," I cried, removing the hand for him. "Your touch offends me. I'd as soon allow the hand of a murderer on my own! A river of blood and tears runs between us that no petty words can cross."
Silence prevailed for a lapse of a few anxious seconds.
"I leave for England tomorrow," the full sting of my words had not yet penetrated Frederick's resolve to win me, and he spoke with only a whisper of sorrow, "Is there any chance that you shall miss me at all?"
"As a flower misses the frost."
"Your words are harsh, Miss Woodsmith. As you continue to fight against the chains of the Africans, remember mine, also. For whatever distance separates us, I fear my chains may never be broken."
"I hope to forget you ere a month has passed."
"It is not in your nature to forget. You'll remember me. Whether in love or hatred, you'll remember me until you've grown too old to recall your own name. Of this at least I am confident."
I gave no sharp reply, no sarcastic retort. Instead, I altered course and strode haughtily towards my father's dwelling. Once the landscape hid me from my would-be lover's view, my chest heaved forth the sobs that had been swelling all the while. My cheeks were still blazing, and the violent weeping had not ceased by the time I pushed aside the wooden door to our glorified hut and stumbled into my bedroom.
"Belle?" I could hear my father's heavy step near the door of sticks. He would not open it without my express consent. "What's happened? Are you hurt?"
"No," I moaned. "I wish to be left alone."
"What's the matter, then? Let me talk to you."
I am not well acquainted with other girl's fathers, but mine never could understand the complexities of the female mind. He offered advice when I wished for silence, begged admittance when I wished for solitude, and sought to embrace when I longed for vengeance. I loved my father dearly, but it was impossible to communicate with him on such a matter. After a while, I ignored his entreaties and was left to reflect on my own.
Why had Frederick's proposal affected me so? Why did I now drench my handkerchief in tears when such an offer should have filled me only with fury? It was too incredible. This man whom I had firmly etched in my mind as a vicious monster for many a month was showing me in one fantastic revelation that he had a heart after all and it was mine. Perhaps there was more credibility to his story than the fog of my unbalanced emotions had first refused to show me. In recalling all our previous conversations it became evident that Frederick had never contradicted me. Merely, he had pointed out facts and voiced the opinions of others. The words, 'I believe,' had not once passed his lips during the course of our debates. Indeed, it could be said that Mr. Holbright had tutored me well in the art of debate. From him I learned the sort of entrapments men are apt to make with their tricky tongues, and I was now enabled to dodge and counterattack those traps; a thing that would have been impossible to learn from either a revered elder or my own father, who never disagreed with me over anything more significant than my choice of dress.
What he had said of his own father made sense to me as well. Anyone could see that the man was a tyrant. Frederick was still at fault for heeding every word of his instructions, but his weakness was far less of a crime than Thomas Holbright's disgusting brutality.
As the hours of my restless night pressed on like the weary tramp of soldiers marching on foreign soil, a liberating truth began to make itself known to me and I grasped for it ere it was lost. I loved Frederick Holbright! I was attracted to his handsome features, calm manner, and passive voice. What I had mistaken for hatred was frustration over the difference of our beliefs. I was angry that a man of such noble countenance could be so wicked at heart. I was incensed by the deceit I supposed was written across his face, but now had touched upon the notion that the deceit was in the farce he played for fear of reprisal from his father.
Frederick had faults and sins a plenty; that was obvious enough, but here I was ready to love him in spite of them all. He'd spoken the truth when he'd said the chains of love can be torturous. I saw now that two choices were put before me. I could wear the iron band across my heart in silence, throw away the key and keep my feelings locked inside forever. Or I could give the proverbial key to Frederick, hoping that in knowledge of his ownership he would set my heart at liberty to love. My chains would remain, but a joy they would be instead of a burden.
With these thoughts in mind, I cried myself to exhaustion. I am unaware of what the clock was when I finally fell asleep.
The light of a new dawn lured me out of a dreamless slumber. I took my time in dressing, and was glad that my eyes were no longer swollen and red. My mind was much calmer than it had been in a while. I had reached a decision and was resolved to carry through with it. Somehow, this resolution seemed to quell my perturbation from the night before.
No mention was made of my distress as I poured father his tea. He knew that if I wanted to bring the matter up, I would—or else last night's episode had been entirely forgotten. The latter was more probable.
I sat on our matted floor, trying to maintain a ladylike position as I sipped my steaming beverage. Father raised his head and smiled a brief thanks for his tea. He took no time at all to get back to the richly bound book in his hand.
"You're not going to see the ship off?" he murmured, nose still buried in the pages before him.
Then I remembered. Oh, how could I forget! Frederick was sailing away this morning; far across the ocean to beloved England. But I did not know where in England he traveled to, how long he would stay there, or if he had plans on ever returning to Africa. Once lost, he was lost forever.
Not having heard my father's explanation, and yet being vaguely aware of his deep voice forming words of some kind, I interrupted him hastily.
"Father, when is the ship expected to set sail?"
"I believe it already has." Upwards I rose, abandoning grace and poise. "Belle, what's the matter with you? You aren't going to faint, are you?"
"I have to stop it."
"Stop what? Belle, where are you going? Wait... you can't leave without telling me where you're going! You forgot your umbrella!"
My parasol wasn't the only thing I'd forgotten in my haste. A pair of blue satin shoes sat alone in my bedroom as my unshod feet smacked against the scorching terrain. I gave no thought to the painful blisters already forming on them, nor did I care that the sun was multiplying my freckles and doing its best to darken the pale complexion I was so proud of. The chief, nay, the single image impressed in my mind was one of Frederick on a slave ship, suffering severe lashings for disobedience to his father, heartbroken over my rejection. This conjured image blurred my sight with fresh tears and urged me to run double the pace.
When finally I drew close enough to view the expanse of water we call the Atlantic, a surge of new hope filled me near to bursting as I made out the great shape of a ship, too distinct to be much far from shore. The moment my sore feet made contact with the wooden boards of the dock, however, I saw that the ship had raised anchor, and was at least four feet out into the water.
I spied Frederick on deck, his arms crossed over each other as he stood erect; his seaman's legs undisturbed by the rocking of the ship. He was engaged in a battle of words with another man, one Mr. Holbright, who was quickly losing his temper. His arms gestured violently towards a dark skinned lad who cowered behind Frederick. Were I able to discipline my mind at that moment to discern individual words I would have heard every one from his vile mouth as he shouted loud enough to carry his voice past the small distance between us. True to character, Frederick remained gentle and cool, though his stance affirmed he was not in a humor to be trifled with. I had never seen him so defiant.
I called his name. My breath was gone. I waited for it to return to me, and then I called again. Frederick turned his head and at last he saw me.
Several things then happened at once. Mr. Holbright ceased his shouting long enough to glance my way while the lad took advantage of his temporary distraction, escaping by way of the sea. A fire ignited in Frederick's eyes with something akin to passion and Mr. Holbright was compelled to restrain him from coming after me.
My tears were dried; my cry had been nothing more than a shout. He didn't understand why I had come, and yet he had not hesitated. I could wait no longer. My voice could not be trusted to convey a message across the distance and as Frederick fought to free himself of his father's grip, the ship floated farther and farther out into the ocean. Action was necessary.
I ran to the edge of the dock, not comprehending what I was about. Sense caught hold of me just in time, and I found myself clinging desperately to the wooden structure. Water soaked my petticoats and the weight threatened to drag me down under the depths. I couldn't swim, and in an attempt to save myself, I dug my nails into the boards of the dock. For all my efforts, I was slipping fast and three splinters had already found a new home in my palms.
Panic laid siege to my heart. My hands would give way any second now. I heard a man shout. From whence it came, I do not know, but soon a noose found its way around my shoulders. By some miracle, I got the rope pulled tight around my waist, and found myself clutching the yellow cord of salvation with both hands. Frederick raised me up over the side of the vessel and loosed the rope that was biting into the soft flesh at my hips. Confusion racked the boat over an unconscious body lying face up on deck, forced there by the unlikely hand of his son.
Now that the immediate danger was past, terror gave way to something new and I began to cry again. I'm sure Frederick thought I was mad. He turned my head so that our eyes met and wished to know if I was alright. His tone was as soft and tranquil as it had ever been; his hands warm and comfortable against my cheeks.
I offered him the only explanation there was. "I love you too."
He tilted his head as if to question me further and I cut him short by arching my face upwards and pressing his head down in a way that forced our lips to touch. Frederick returned the gesture and we knew nothing but each other for the next five, glorious seconds. Activity continued all around us, but we were lost in the enchantment of our own imaginations.
"Oh dear!" I broke away, frowning suddenly. Lines of worry passed over Frederick's forehead. He must have feared I was changing my mind again.
I pressed my lips firmly together, then parted them again to ask in trepidation, "How will we get back?"
"The boy was of the right inclination. I intend to follow his example."
The madness which had gripped me that day must have taken hold of him as well, for he drew me up in his arms and made ready to throw us both over the ship's railing.
I clung to him, bracing for the approaching slap of the ocean's wild and unfettered waves.