by Michelle Isenhoff
The next morning Emily felt as transparent as a window pane. She went through the routine of eating breakfast, certain that Malachi and the others could read her duplicity. Instead of lingering in the kitchen until it was time to leave for church, as she did most Sundays, she escaped to her room to pack.
Her trunk was still in storage in the barn down the road, so she carefully folded her clothing and left it in neat piles on her bed. She wrapped some items she had collected during her stay – a few books, some lace from a shop window, the horse figurine from Melody Thatcher, an engraved pen – to secure them for her journey, but the entire time she was dreading her inevitable meeting with Mr. Burrows.
Church left her feeling downright guilty. During the service, she could feel God watching her, frowning down on the deception she was living, but she couldn’t figure a way to weasel out. No matter who she chose to please, she was bound to disappoint someone.
When the family arrived home, Mr. Burrows and his men were lounging in the lobby, their soiled clothing contrasting with the Sunday best of the others. Shannon slipped away to help serve the noon meal. Emily wished she could hide as easily, but Mr. Burrows rose and greeted them, addressing her specifically.
“Hello again, Miss Preston. What a lovely gown. It becomes you nicely. I hope you will pleasure me by wearing it to dinner. Isaac, she will be joining us, won’t she?”
“Of course,” her uncle conceded, catching her eye and communicating a stern warning. He needn’t have bothered. “Malachi can serve today in her stead.”
Emily looked down at the gown. It was her favorite, the one with the layers of fabric on the skirt and the lacy bell sleeves. She had kept it nice all these months, and its full skirt easily forgave her extra height.
Mr. Burrows turned to her. “Miss Preston?”
Emily dropped a curtsey, hoping her smile didn’t wobble like her knees. “I’d be delighted.”
“Excellent,” he beamed. “Then my boys and I had best quit lounging and make ourselves presentable.”
Emily thought his smile looked predatory. She knew he’d be pumping her for information, however delicately, and she felt like a canary in a cage with the cat sitting outside looking in. The strains of Fur Elise follow her down the hall as she fled to her room.
The piles of clothing on her bed offered a perfect distraction. She scooped up as much as she could carry and hustled for the barn. As she passed through the lobby, her uncle never even looked up from the piano.
The windows of the barn were so dusty they looked as if they’d been painted gray, so she left the door open to cut through the gloom. A sunbeam illuminated the wagon, and just beyond, in a corner, she spotted her trunk.
The barn felt cool and smelled musty, like a cellar in need of a good whitewashing. Thick bricks muffled the sounds of life carrying on outside the walls, and Emily could imagine when the daylight faded the building would feel unmistakably tomblike. The thought made gooseflesh break out on her arms, and she hastened to deposit her belongings.
The sudden flapping of a pigeon roosting under the eaves made her cry out. It let out a soft cooing, and she sagged against the trunk in relief. Mr. Burrows had her strung higher than a Thoroughbred mare. She couldn’t let him get to her like this!
At that moment, the door creaked gently on its hinges behind her.
A breath of sweet air swirled into the room, swaying her skirts and tumbling wisps of straw about her feet. Of course the same breeze had simply nudged the door open wider, but her nerves weren’t acknowledging logic.
Emily locked her trunk and faced the door. It was slanted against the wall with room enough for someone or something to hide behind it. She was being silly, she knew, but if she didn’t take a peek and set her imagination to rest, all manner specters would follow her home.
She approached the door boldly, took hold and swung it closed.
Malachi suddenly jumped out and clapped a hand over her mouth. Emily’s eyes bulged and a scream rose in her throat. She fought for breath.
“I’m sorry, Emily,” the boy spoke softly, “but it’s important that you don’t draw attention to this building. Promise not to scream?”
She nodded, her eyes still huge.
He moved his hand and turned to close the door tightly.
“Why are you doing this?” Emily whispered, drawing clenched hands to her chest.
In answer, he pointed to the hay piled in the back of the barn where two forms huddled, frozen, under a small blanket. Two forms with black, terrified faces.
Sudden understanding dawned on her. Malachi was harboring runaways!
“The piano, that haunting song Mr. Milford always plays,” he explained, “that’s our signal that the barn is occupied. We try to keep folks away, but somehow you blundered in anyway. Now that you know, maybe you can help us.”
“Help you?” she asked weakly. In how many directions could she be pulled?
Malachi leveled her with a frank gaze. “Emily, you are not the same person you were when you came here. You’re deeper, kinder, humbler, and you understand about cages. I’m asking you to help me, to help my people, to help Willis and Rachel.”
Emily looked into his coal black eyes and recalled that magic night at his church; the night Mr. Douglass had made the impossible seem possible. She felt the stirring again in her heart, but it was one thing to listen to fine words being spoken from a podium. It was something else altogether to act on them.
He pulled her to where the runaways huddled, a girl and a boy, about the ages of herself and Malachi. Their faces were guarded, but they could not disguise their exhaustion. Nor could they conceal the hardship of their journey. It was written all over their tattered clothing and gouged into the soles of their bare feet.
But old ways die hard. Despite the eloquence of Frederick Douglass and her respect for Malachi, Emily couldn’t help but wonder if she knew their master.
And what about Mr. Burrows? How could she hide this from him?
She opened her mouth to tell Malachi that she could not help him. And then she saw the wound.
The girl’s leg stretched out beyond the edge of the blanket, straight and taut. A dirty bandage wrapped around her calf muscle seeped with fresh blood.
Blood as red as her own.
She looked again into the girl’s face, and this time she saw the shadow of a whip. She felt the wrench of hunger and the scorch of a burning sun. She heard the rattle of chains, felt their cold bite on her wrists. She could smell the stench of sweat and blood and fear.
For the first time she saw beyond herself. And she couldn’t walk away.
“Burrows?” she asked.
She remembered her own journey north, how terrified she had felt on the train, how unfamiliar the sights and sounds were. What if she’d had to travel all that way on foot? What if she had been without Zeke’s protective guidance? What if she’d been pursued, and capture meant torture or even death?
The pair had traveled far. The river flowed only a few streets away. She could walk there in ten minutes.
She glanced back at the wound, at the red, red blood.
“I’ll do it.”
Malachi’s words came low and urgent, “Be back this evening, just before dark. Use the alley door.”
Emily arrived late to the dining room. A brief glance showed her uncle sharing a table with Jarrod Burrows and his two thugs. They had already been served plates of meatloaf with early lettuce and huge slices of crusty bread. She marched to the table. She knew what she had to do.
At her appearance, Mr. Burrows stood and pulled out the empty chair beside her uncle. “Miss Preston,” he nodded, “I had begun to wonder if you took ill.”
Though her hands shook beneath the tablecloth, she forced a beaming smile. “I’m sorry I’m late. I have acquired quite a collection of trinkets during my visit and I thought to pack them in the bottom of my trunk. But as my trunk is still out in the barn,” she said significantly, “it took a little time.”
Her uncle’s head snapped up and he scrutinized her keenly.
“They are all hidden away quite nicely,” she continued, “but I simply cannot pack the rest of my things until my trunk is delivered to my room.” She said it like the spoiled, petulant child she once was.
Isaac smiled lightly and Emily knew he’d taken her meaning. He looked around the table of men and gestured helplessly. “I am correctly chastised for overlooking a woman’s luggage. I’ll have it delivered promptly.”
“Thank you.” She gave a toss of her hair.
Ezekiel appeared. He set a plate before her and filled her cup from a cut-glass pitcher. When he had gone, Mr. Burrows asked, “So you are leaving, Miss Preston?”
Emily took up her fork. Her insides felt so queasy she didn’t know if she could swallow. “Very soon.”
“You won’t even stay for this wedding Isaac has been telling me about?”
She paused a bit guiltily. “I’ve been away so long already.”
Mr. Burrows turned to Isaac. “You know, a man with your name and background would have had the ladies scheming for his hand long ago in Carolina.”
“A poor man, however, must rely more heavily on character,” Isaac replied.
As Mr. Burrows pondered this, Emily wondered again how her uncle had lost his fortune, but she kept up her act. “I’m going to marry the richest man in Charleston County when I get home,” she announced.
Mr. Burrows laughed out loud. “Spoken like a true southern belle!”
Isaac raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Aren’t you still a bit young?”
She ignored him. “He has to have lots of money and lots of slaves. And if a one of them tries to escape, I’ll promptly send for you, Mr. Burrows.”
Perhaps she’d gone a bit overboard. The old Quaker couple had never been back, but she glanced around the dining room to make certain she hadn’t upset anyone else. No one even sniffed. In fact, she’d been so late to the table the room was already beginning to empty.
She lowered her voice. “I have some information that may help you.”
Her uncle looked up sharply, but she wouldn’t even rat out Helen and Angelina. Her only thought was to send Mr. Burrows as far from the river as he would go. She cut her eyes at him craftily. “I had almost forgotten what I overheard at school this winter. Two of my classmates were whispering together about a fellow from Shyne’s Grocery up on Charlotte Avenue who sometimes makes special after hours deliveries. I wondered later just exactly what it was he delivered.”
Mr. Burrows exchanged shrewd glances with his friends. He pushed his plate away and stood, his polished smile in place once again. “Miss Preston, I thank you. You have been very helpful. Isaac,” he nodded, “always a pleasure.”
With a flick of Mr. Burrows’ head, his two lackeys followed him upstairs. Isaac winked at Emily before he also excused himself. When they were gone, she sank into her chair and worked to calm the elephants stampeding just beneath her ribs.