Chapter 4: Settling Differences
A clatter followed by a crash sent Lucretia Towne, with apron askew and flour in her hair, dashing up the back stairs to find out what had happened. She found her sister Laura sitting on a trunk at the foot of the attic stairs, looking disheveled and ruefully rubbing her knee.
“What in heaven’s name are you up to now, Laura?”
Laura laughed despite herself. “I was trying to be useful without disturbing anyone. I guess I failed, didn’t I? I’m sorry if I frightened you.”
“What’s in the trunk?”
“I’ve just finished cleaning out my room. I thought I would store the things I’m not taking with me in the attic, so my room will be empty if you should want to use it for something else. But the trunk was heavier than I expected. I thought I could drag it up the stairs, but I couldn’t budge it. So I came down to the bottom and tried pushing it up the steps ahead of me. That almost worked, but I couldn’t figure out how to hold it in place and climb the stairs myself at the same time. I must have let go for a second, and it came barreling down on top of me. I’ve been sitting here trying to come up with a new idea.”
“Here, let me help you. It’s obviously a job for two. I’ll go above and pull while you push from down here.”
Together they managed to bounce the trunk from step to step until it rested safely on the attic floor, but both were panting from the effort. They sat side by side on the trunk to catch their breath. Lucretia made a small clearing noise in the back of her throat—one Laura recognized as an expression of disapproval. She peeked at her from the corner of her eyes to determine how angry her older sister might be. The frown on Lucretia’s face was not reassuring.
“Thanks for your help, Lucy,” she said, hoping to stave off the inevitable.
“Humph! The trunk is safely up here, but I don’t understand what’s going on. You’ve cleaned out your room? Why? I’m all in favor of neatness, but not to this extent. You make it sound as if you are not planning to come back. And what am I supposed to do with an extra empty room?”
“I don’t know when I’ll be back. I could be gone for a very long time,” Laura said.
“Stuff and nonsense! How long does it take to sail from here to South Carolina? Three days? Four? And then how long will it take you to distribute the food and clothing supplies you are delivering? I understand that you’re responsible for their safe arrival, but surely you’ll be back within the month. And if you think I’m then going to help you drag this infernal trunk back downstairs, you . . .”
“Dear Lucretia, please try to understand. Mine is not a task that can be handled quickly. Yes, my ostensible job at the moment is to deliver the goods the Committee has collected. But that title simply justifies them paying my passage on the transport. Once I’m there, I have much bigger plans.”
“Seems to me you always have ‘big’ plans. You just conveniently forget to tell anyone about them.”
“Please don’t be angry. I only have a few more days here at home, and I don’t want to spend them fighting with you. Come, let’s go down to the kitchen and put the kettle on for a cup of tea. I’ll try to explain exactly what we have planned.”
Laura settled herself at the kitchen table, but Lucretia refused to sit down. She returned to the sideboard, where she had been in the midst of kneading a loaf of bread. The vigorous punches and slaps she delivered to that lump of helpless dough made Laura cringe. She fully understood that they were also meant to express her sister’s displeasure.
“Lucy, I know you understand the abolitionist position as well as I do. I’ve sat beside you in church as we listened to Reverend Furness preach about the evils of slavery, and I’ve seen you nod your head in complete agreement with what he says. Our country is fighting this terrible war to rid ourselves of an evil practice. But there’s much more to the problem than simply putting down the Southern rebellion and telling the slaves that they are free.”
“Of course I understand that, and I understand that our government will be faced with great difficulties in assimilating the slaves into normal society once the war is over. But that’s going to take government policies and government action. You’re just one woman—more intelligent than the average woman, I grant you—but still just one small woman against a very large problem. I fail to see why the solution has suddenly become your responsibility, when you have responsibilities right here at home.”
“At Port Royal, the problems can’t wait until the war is over.”
“Why not? Surely the war can’t go on for much longer.”
“I’m afraid that’s where you are wrong, sister. The Army has stopped signing soldiers up for a three-month enlistment. Now they sign on for three years, and even that may not be long enough, according to some of the speakers we have heard recently.”
Lucretia whirled around and glared at her. “Well, if that is true, just how much do you expect to accomplish with a war raging all around you—if you even manage to survive?”
“Port Royal is perfectly safe, my dear. The Confederate forces abandoned it, and some twelve thousand of our boys are now stationed on the islands to protect the area. I’ll probably be safer there than on the streets of Philadelphia. You keep telling me how dangerous our own streets are at night.”
“So it’s safe. And the Army is in control. And the slave owners are gone. What, exactly, do you think you are going to do, beyond the obvious, benevolent gesture of passing out some used clothing?”
“I’m hoping to set up a permanent resource center, where ex-slaves can come for all sorts of assistance. We’ll provide food and clothing, of course, but I can also offer medical treatment. We’ll have a lawyer or two to help them handle their legal affairs. There are already cotton agents in place to help with the selling of crops, and Ellen will start a school to teach both the children and their parents.” Laura’s excitement was so great when she talked about this idea that she could not help but smile in anticipation.
Lucretia simply stared at her for a moment. Then she spoke slowly, emphasizing each word. “Are you telling me . . . that you’re taking . . . that young girl . . . with you?”
“Ellen Murray? Of course.”
Lucretia turned away. She picked up the bread dough she had been working and slammed it into a pan. “Raise!” she ordered, and Laura could have sworn she saw the dough gather itself up to make a greater effort.
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