Rowing to Darien

Pam Durban

March 1839, just after midnight on the Altamaha River, and it’s cold, the thin, watery cold of spring on the coast of Georgia. Fluky breezes blow, smelling of silt and fish and woodsmoke. The hoot of a horned owl carries across the water, a heron’s croak, the creak of oarlocks and the splash of oars. The moon is up, one night past full; it throws a bright track on the water and across this track, Frances Butler rows a boat with a lantern set on the thwart. Out under the moon which lights up the whole sky, the lantern flame looks small, a small brightness crossing the river to safety. That’s how she thinks of it as she rows—a mission, not a flight—to dignify the journey and to keep the fear at bay.

Fear of the river to begin with. The Altamaha only looks slow because it is wide and deep, coiling through the Georgia swamps. But the Altamaha is a tidal river; the whole river moves as the tide pushes inland for twenty miles, then flows out again. On a tidal river, lacking strength and will, you go where the water goes which is—it occurs to her now as she rows away from her husband’s rice swamp—what Mr. Butler expected of her once they were married. He the river and she the boat, carried on his tide. Whither thou goest; wives be subject to your husbands and all the other trappings of this world in which she has found herself, down here in the dark pockets of his wealth, the flood and drain of his profitable estuary.

Now, as her husband’s boatmen have taught her to do, she sweeps the oars back, dips them deep, pulls with all her strength, all of this done quickly, for in the pause between strokes, when the oars are lifted, she feels the current grab the boat and pull it downriver. She is an accomplished horsewoman, a hiker in the Swiss Alps; she is no flower, but this is hard, nearly desperate, work. The sleeves of her dress are pushed up over her elbows; her hair straggles out of its twist. She rows steadily away, but someone rowing a boat across a river has to face the shore she’s leaving. One last trial, she thinks and would have laughed if she’d found the breath for it: to watch the scene of her downfall dwindle and disappear, though in this endless flat landscape that might take all night. So be it, she thinks, because once Butler Island is out of sight, she will be free. It is only a matter of time.

Back on Butler Island, the tall cane and grasses stir and hiss. She sees the landing from which she’d untied the boat, the rice dike and beyond it their house, then the kitchen house and rice mill and the cabins of the nearest slave settlement beyond the mill. Smoke pours out of many chimneys there and flattens like a ceiling, so that the whole scene lies under a smokey haze lit by the bright moon. Otherwise all is still. No torches move along the dike that separates the river from the rice fields; no light shines on the water, as it would if someone on shore held up a lantern and looked into the river. No one is searching for her yet. Across the Altamaha lies a wide marsh island, General’s Island, and beyond that island, the town of Darien, a line of two-story warehouses, glimpsed over her shoulder, standing white as salt in the moonlight. In Darien, she thinks as she rows, in Darien, she will get on a ship and sail away north, then home to England and become again the woman she was before she married Pierce Butler and came down to Georgia—mistress to no Negroes, no slaveholder’s wife.

SEVEN YEARS EARLIER she’d come to America with her father, the actor Charles Kemble, on a tour to raise money for the Covent Garden theater in London. The two of them performing scenes from Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, at theaters in New York, Philadelphia, Boston. The newspapers in those cities called her glorious, sublime, and everywhere they went people shouted her name, threw yellow roses onto the stage until she stepped out from behind the curtain to curtsy again and speak a few more lines.

Still, she found acting demeaning, a kind of drudgery. A nightmare, really, for a woman of her sensibilities. Standing among the dusty drapes and props, the shabby backstage clutter, waiting for her cue. Then out onto the stages of those packed and stifling theaters where in winter, tin stoves blazed in the aisles, and candles cast wavering shadows across the rows of upturned faces. She was a writer, a poet, a published diarist, sister in soul to Byron and Keats. Byron above all, that reckless hero poet-man of the tragic limp and the swagger, whose poetry had moved her, she once wrote, like an evil potion taken into my blood.

They had not been in America long when an English friend, another conoisseur of women, wrote to Pierce Butler at his home in Philadelphia: You must go and see this Frances Kemble perform. Her eyes flash with passion, he wrote, and when, as Juliet, she flings her head back in love’s tormented ecstacy, you will be deeply stirred.

The day after their first Philadelphia performance she walked into the outer room of their hotel suite to find Pierce Butler sitting down to tea with her father. He wore fawn colored trousers, a green coat and pale yellow satin vest over a creamy shirt. As she entered the room, he stood and bowed, then kissed her hand, held it tightly between both his own. His eyes were deep, soft, and brown; they’d flown to her when she’d walked into the room and stuck to her when she smoothed her hair, and when she spoke they watched her lips. “Please do sit down,” she said. He wore three gold rings on one hand and carried a cane with a silver handle. He had a child’s brown curls; his mouth was small, moist, pouting; his chin was weak. He lounged when he sat, as though expecting to be served. In this luxurious room where yellow brocade swags and fringed drapes framed the tall windows, he seemed completely at home. “Miss Kemble,” he said in his buttery voice, soft and broad of vowel, “I hope that in the future you will number me first on the list of your greatest admirers.” He sat with his back to the window, sunlight pouring in around him.

She sat across from him, next to her father, in the circle they’d made with their chairs. “I might consent, Mr. Butler, had I such a list,” she said, smiling at him as she sipped her tea. “Though in America I fear I shall be judged a traitor should I encourage such undemocratic ranking.”

“Then allow me to keep that traitor’s ledger for you,” he said. “I shall be honored to take the blame as fair exchange for being listed first in your favor.”

She learned that he was rich and that he would be richer when his father’s last sister died and he claimed his share of the family’s Georgia rice and cotton plantations. He was waiting for that day, passing time in a rich man’s way: cards and music, the racetrack, the theater. Rich enough to follow her from Philadelphia to New York to Boston, to take rooms in the hotels where she and her father stayed, to buy a seat at every performance. He slid into her life that way and she let him come. Every night from the stage she’d skim the front row faces, and there he’d be, smiling up at her, the silver handle of his cane shining. In New York, he filled her dressing room with yellow roses; in Boston, bottles of old port and madeira appeared backstage. In Philadelphia his carriage waited at the stage door to drive her to his house on Chestnut St. for a late supper. Once she returned to her dressing room, exhausted, after three curtain calls. Her face ached from smiling; her throat felt raspy raw; her legs ached from striding and curtsying. On the dressing table she found a pair of cream colored leather gloves tied up with a narrow, rose ribbon, gloves so soft, so warm, they seemed to melt like warm wax on her hands.

This went on for two years. The American tour. Flowers and port and gloves and candlelight. Get this for Miss Kemble. Take that away. Quiet, please. Bring the carriage. Mr. Butler the first on his feet when the curtain came down, leading the applause, pressing money into her father’s hand. “For the theater,” he would say, “for Covent Garden, Mr. Kemble.” Riding in his carriage with the curtains drawn, falling into his arms. Deep kisses in the deep night, his words breathed into her ear: “Marry me, Fanny, marry me, marry me,” until, resting in his arms, she began to feel the whole tiresome weight of herself, her vividness and intelligence, this life of roles and exile, and to imagine how it would be to shrug it off like a heavy coat and rest lightly, cherished, in his care.

SO WHAT HAS gone wrong, five years and two daughters later? Why is she fleeing now, without coat or bag or money, across this dangerous river? In January, they’d traveled south from Philadelphia to the Georgia coast: herself and Mr. Butler, leaving Sarah and Francis back in Philadelphia in the care of an Irish girl, Margaret. He’d come to inspect his properties and to oversee the rice planting at Butler Island and the planting of cotton at Hampton, a short distance down the coast on St. Simon’s island. She had come for her own reasons.

They’d arrived at Butler Island on New Year’s Day, on a sloop breasting upriver from Darien under full sail on the incoming tide. Sun a white disk in the palest blue sky she’d ever seen. The river had looked dark as strong tea and the winter marsh was a rippling palette of brown, red, gold, where flocks of red-winged blackbirds wheeled and settled in the grasses. After the pleated, rocky folds of New England, the landscape had looked startling: flat all the way to dim, distant trees or open to the horizon where the sky came down and met the land, like a seal. A world of grass and water and sun, clouds piled high in towers.

As the Butler Island landing came in sight, they’d stood at the rail together. He’d taken her hand, and feeling its warm pressure, she’d smiled up at him and renewed the vow she’d made to herself. She would rescue her husband’s soul from the darkness in which it now lived and kindle within it the light of moral conscience. Her friend and mentor, Dr. William Channing, had often preached that it was the duty of the Christian opponent of slavery to accomplish this waking and kindling, for it was by this persuasive pressure of one soul upon another that slavery would be abolished, one slaveholder at a time. Sailing for Butler Island, she remembered listening to Dr. Channing speak as light poured in through the tall, clean windows of his Boston church, and how she’d imagined Mr. Butler’s soul bathed in such a light, imagined it freed and rising to meet her own. She’d never loved her husband more than she did that morning as she sailed toward his rice swamp, imagining his salvation.

As the sails were furled and the sloop tied up for the first time at the Butler Island landing, the people swarmed out to them, weeping, dancing, clapping, crying Massa and Missis, kissing the hem of her dress, stroking her hair, until, frightened, she’d called out for Mr. Butler, who was also being plucked at, spun, wept over. Up at the house, long after the noisy, happy mob had gone away and all the doors were closed, the shutters latched over the windows, she sat with her hand pressed to her chest to quiet her pounding heart. She found herself in a long, bare room furnished with a pine table and a sofa with a dull green baize cover. Candles flickered in sconces along the walls and on the table. At one end of the room there was a fireplace, and as she waited for her heart to slow, he began to build a fire. When she found her voice again, she said, “This is idolatry, Pierce, or something very like it.”

He knelt on the hearth, pushing sticks into the fireplace. “You are their mistress now, Fannie,” he said over his shoulder.

“I will not be worshipped,” she said. “I will not have them groveling before me.”

Already he was weary of her intensity, her forceful mind. “You will understand,” he said. “After you’ve been here for a while you will acclimate yourself to their feeling for you.”

“I never shall,” she said, “not if I live a thousand years here.”

It had only felt like a thousand years since she’d come to this place. A thousand more to leave it. From the river where she rows, their house on Butler Island looks peaceful. A whitewashed, square, wooden box of a house squatting on brick pillars behind the river dike. The rice fields begin behind the house and run for miles, from the house to the river and across the river and out of sight. In January the people had moved into those fields. They’d chopped and hoed the boggy ground; in late February, they sowed and tamped the rice seed. They opened the trunk gates and flooded the fields, squatted under trees at noon, scooping food out of cedar piggins with their fingers. Their children ran around half-naked, and when they were sick they laid down on the floor of the sick house and recovered or died. Seeing them lying under their wretched scraps of cloth on the sick house floor she’d decided: if she must be their mistress, she would raise them up; she would teach them their worth. She went down to the slave settlements with lessons on cleanliness and order. She bought glass for the sick house windows, new blankets for the sufferers there.

All winter, she went out in the long plantation canoe, up and down the Altamaha in any kind of weather. Primus, Quash, Hector, Ned, and Frank rowed, and Kate’s John, the foreman of the boat crew, rowed and shouted orders and led the singing that thrilled her to hear, wild songs on the wild water. She went out on horseback with Renty, Jack, and Ben moving ahead of her, machetes in hand, cutting trails through thick stands of oak and pine,through nets and loops of vines and creepers, and for these services (until he found out and forbade her to do it) she paid small wages to Mr. Butler’s men, to teach them the value of their labor. That winter, from Darien to St. Simon’s, their plantation neighbors talked: Pierce Butler could not control his wife, that English actress, that scribbler, that abolitionist on a mission to their country, to her own husband, as though he were the one in need of civilizing. Every day, so they heard, every waking hour, she lectured him on the evils of slavery, on the will to power that corrupts master and slave alike.

A BREEZE COMES up and cools her scalp and her face which is hot with the work of rowing. Flying fast, a flock of swifts skims the water. She is one of them, she thinks, flying away. She thinks: you row and the distance widens between you and the place you are leaving. There is comfort in this simple, physical fact of distance and how it grows if you keep moving in the direction you want to go. She’s almost to General’s Island now. Back on Butler Island, the dwelling house and kitchen house and the cabins behind the kitchen house look smaller, as though the distance were at last restoring order and scale, reducing Butler Island to a small place under an enormous sky. As she rows she sees light—a torch? two?—moving from the slave quarters toward the house. Perhaps the women are coming back, a dozen of them trooping in to sit in front of the fire; it makes her smile to think of it. And only Pierce to listen to them now or to send them away.

Two weeks after they’d come to Butler Island, she’d invited the women to bring their needs to her, and every night as she sat writing at her table at one end of the long, barnlike room, they came, asking for cloth and meat. Nancy. Judy. Sophy. Sally. Charlotte. Sukey. House Molly. “How de, Missis,” they said, and sat or squatted in front of the fire.

One night last week, she’d asked: “How many children have you had, House Molly?” thinking to record their histories in her journal so that one day the world would look into slavery’s face as she had done. 

House Molly was a tall, thin, light brown woman with a long neck and golden eyes. She sat on the floor in front of the fireplace, legs straight out in front of her, massaging her knees. “Six, Missis. Four in the earth now,” the woman said, staring into the fire. 

“Charlotte?” she asked the tall woman with the broad, flat, face who squatted next to House Molly.

“Three, Missis, all in the earth.”

In the earth? She’d sat back in her chair, put down her pen. She thought of her own children in Philadelphia. She imagined them in the winter garden with Margaret, rolling hoops and rattling the seeds in the brown pods there. When someone asked how old they were, she did not feel it necessary to add that they were still alive.

Sukey, who was short and very black, had four, and two still walking this earth. A terrible mathematics. She covered pages with the sums and stories which they told in the plainest way, a series of facts. The women worked, they worked in the fields with the men, into the last weeks of pregnancy and went back to the fields three weeks after the children were born. Chopping weeds around the new rice shoots, up to their ankles in the gray muck of the fields, skirts tied up between their legs. Shovelling out the rice field ditches in winter, out in the cold mud and the scouring wind. An occasional piece of fatty bacon or fish. Thin milk in their breasts, or none. 

A dozen times a night her heart was broken by their stories, and she took their stories to Mr. Butler in hopes that his heart would be broken as well, for the chastened heart, the broken heart, is the heart prepared for salvation. But his heart would not be broken, it would not be touched. He lost the pages that she brought him; he folded and stuffed them in his pockets and never mentioned them again. He was planting a rice crop on Butler Island, cotton at Hampton. Surely his own wife could see that he was busy and not trouble him with the complaints of malingering women. Finally, last week, he’d forbidden her to bring him any more grievances. “You must no longer call me Missis,” she said to them that night, after she’d told them that her husband would hear no more their troubles from her. Who was this mistress they cried out to?  Surely it was not she. She could not think of herself as mistress of this world in which children went into the earth and their mothers called to her for help and she could not help them. House Molly had stood up then. “Night, Missis,” she said, and the rest followed. “Night, Missis,” they said, one by one, curtsying as they filed out. Now she is fleeing them, fleeing them all, their faces and their voices, the children in the earth. But their voices follow her as she rows, calling Missis, Missis across the water.

LOOKING OVER HER shoulder across the marshes of General’s Island, she sees the flickering light of candles in the upper story windows of the warehouses that line the Darien waterfront. She’s that close. A short pull through the canal across General’s Island that connects the Altamaha with the Darien River and she’ll be there. She works one oar, then the other, steering toward the opening in the grass that marks the canal. As she rows she feels her heart lighten and lift. Soon, she thinks, soon she will be free of the river’s hold and Butler Island will drop from sight as though it were a ship that sank, carrying her husband and his people to the bottom.

No sooner does she row into the canal than the bottom of the boat scrapes mud, the boat stops. It has taken her too long to cross the river and now the tide is dead low, the water all drained out of the canal. She knows the tide will turn; it will fill the canal and lift the boat, and on the other side of General’s Island the tide will be coming up the Darien River; it will sweep her upriver, toward the town. But for now, there is nothing to do but pull in the oars and wait. Her dress is soaked halfway up the skirt and drapes heavily across her legs. She is tired and chilled, and her heart pounds, her arms tremble from the rowing. Worst of all, the lighted windows and the chimney smoke of Butler Island still hang above the horizon, and she can still see the glow of a fire inside the kitchen house from which she had fled.

Tonight she’d been sewing in front of the fire when Mr. Butler came in, dressed in a clean white shirt, his hair damp and combed back from his face. He’d poked up the fire then leaned over her shoulder, testing the cloth between finger and thumb. 

“Fanny,” he’d said, “oh, Fanny,” in the fond, punctilious, and lordly voice she bristled at the sound of these days, “on whose behalf are you straining your eyes and laboring over this cloth?”

She’d stabbed the needle through the cloth, pulled another stitch tight, tight, “For Judy, your cook, Mr. Butler,” she’d answered, “who is in need of these trousers to ease the pain in her knees.” In the fire, a log collapsed in a shower of sparks. She heard Mr. Butler breathing, she felt his hands tighten on the back of her chair. 

“But what you must recognize by now, Fanny, is that there is no need for you to do this work when there are women always within the reach of your voice who will sew if you tell them to sew, as they are to us as my fingers are to my hand.” As he spoke, he held out his hand to her, the seamless joining of wrist to palm, palm to fingers, illustrating the relationship he wished her to grasp.

“They will never be the fingers of any hand of mine, Mr. Butler,” she said, head bowed over her sewing. 

Words had flown between them then, about Judy’s flannel trousers, then hotter words about the fact that his own wife felt free to match words with him at all. And in the middle of the shouting, she’d sewed the last stitch and bitten the thread, she’d stalked out of the house to find Judy.

The moon had risen then, fat and white, and smoke from the kitchen house chimney feathered out on the breeze. Just over the dike, she heard the river sweep by, its eternal windy rush, and from the kitchen house she heard Judy singing, a sharp, wailing song that slid up and down a mournful scale. She’d walked toward the sound. Outside the kitchen house door, in a wooden tub, she saw hooves and legs and the head of a sheep, dead eyes staring up into the sky. She stopped for a moment, stood on the round, flat stone outside the door and looked in. In the middle of the room, in front of the fire, Judy stood behind the chopping block, knife in hand. At the sight of Judy’s bowed head, the sound of her voice, Frances Butler’s heart had grown quiet. She had come with the soothing garment; knowing her fondness for mutton, Judy was cutting up a sheep. She had never felt it before, the exchange by which her husband swore they all lived here: kindness or a favor given, work and gratitude returned. She smoothed the trousers, and Judy looked up, beckoned her with the knife: “Oh, Missis, come for see.” 

She stepped up into the kitchen house, into the smokey heat, the reek of blood, the thick, familiar smell of mutton. As always, the smell brought a picture to mind: sheep grazing on green hills under old castle walls, the tinkle of bells. England. The trencher on the corner of the wooden block was stacked with meat. “Look, Missis,” Judy said, and she put down the knife and wiped her hands on her apron, “I be for cut the beautifullest mutton you ever see.” She held the trencher up in front of Frances Butler’s face, smiling. She was a tall, stooped woman with a long, puckered welt across her forehead where the iron arm that held pots over the fire had swung out and burned her. 

“Oh, Judy, thank you,” she said. Then she looked down. The platter was stacked with strips, ragged diamonds, thick squares of bloody meat. Twice, three times, she’d tried to teach Judy to cut a sheep into proper pieces. She and Mr. Butler had laughed about the first platter of bizarre, roasted shapes that had come to their table; the second time, only Mr. Butler had laughed while Judy smiled and smiled and curtsied as though she’d handed Frances a plate of gold. She’d repeated the lesson a third time,tracing for Judy with a carving knife on a sheep’s body the shapes of brisket, saddle, leg and joint. Three lessons and now the meat still looked as if it had been torn from the sheep by a wild animal and spat onto the platter.

“Oh, Judy, now you must really tell me” she said, trying to wipe that image from her mind, “is it so difficult to cut up a simple sheep?” Her voice had come out sharper than she’d intended. She felt her smile tremble, her heart begin to pound, and she saw in Judy’s eyes a moment’s cringing fear. 

“Oh, Missis,” she said quickly, twisting her hands in her apron. “I so sorry.” 

“Look at me,” she said to Judy’s bowed head. “I said look at me.” The woman raised her head; the fear had cooled now, changed to something watchful. She must be gentle, have patience. “You spoiled this meat again, Judy,” she said, and then she waited.

Outside, the marshes croaked and sang; inside, the fire crackled. Judy watched the floor, pushed at the dirt with a bare toe. “Sorry, Missis,” she said, again, flapping a rag at flies that had begun to settle on the meat.

As soon as she heard it, she knew it was not what she’d wanted to hear. The tone was wrong, there was something quick and heedless about it, as if, in apologizing, the woman had simply recited something learned by rote. It meant nothing. Now she would have to wait. If she’d learned anything in her time in this place, it was patience with these poor, wretched people who sometimes required many lessons to learn the simplest task. She would wait, and when Judy was truly sorry she would forgive her, and then it would be finished and they would go on. That was all she wanted; it was little enough to ask and when enough time and silence had passed, Judy would realize that and give her what she wanted. And so she waited, and the longer she waited the more she wanted what she was waiting for until it began to seem that the apology she wanted belonged to her and unless Judy gave it back, it was stolen. 

But Judy did not speak, the mutton lay on the trencher, and as the silence went on the idea of theft began to take hold in her. And as she thought of the respect that was being withheld from her, kept from her willfully, cunningly, with a great dumbshow of humility, she found herself studying the tools that hung on the kitchen house walls—the pokers and the heavy tongs. It seemed that she could feel the weight of each one in her hand, feel it brought down hard to break this unrepentant silence. That is when she’d dropped the trousers and run, climbed into the boat, lit the lantern and started rowing, each stroke carrying her away, away from Pierce Butler and from the rice fields and the kitchen house and the sorry-making weight of those tools that hung so close at hand. That is what she remembers from her perch in the mud of General’s Island with the night almost gone and Butler Island still in sight.

NEXT MORNING IN Darien she will find no ship going anywhere, no ship expected for days. She will be hungry and stiff and so tired all she wants to do is to curl up and sleep in the sun on the wharf among the bales of cotton and barrels of rice. The white men who pass her, sitting at the edge of the wharf on a trunk, staring into the river, will touch their hat brims and turn away. The black people will not look at her at all. “Missis,” they will say and slip past her, heads down. Pierce Butler’s wife. Before noon, the long plantation canoe will arrive and the six oarsmen will row her silently back to Butler Island, her own boat in tow.

Their separation will be long and bitter. She will leave him, and he will take her children, sell her favorite horse, Forrester, to a livery stable so that she will have to go back onstage to make the money to rescue him. They will try for a while to live together again and each time, before she moves back into Mr. Butler’s house, his lawyers will draw up agreements for her to sign. I will observe an entire abstinence from all references to the past, neither will I mention to any person any circumstances which may occur in Mr. Butler’s house or family. I will not keep up an acquaintance with any person of whom Mr. Butler may disapprove. Their divorce will be famous, the details printed in the Philadelphia newspapers. She will threaten scandal and he will swear she knows no names, has returned all the letters that she found. He will publish a statement in the Philadelphia paper offering evidence of her irrational anger, her refusal to yield to him, all the refusals that had corroded their marriage from the inside out.

Still later, in 1859, after Pierce Butler has gambled and speculated most of his fortune away, the Butler Island people will all be sold. The weeping time, they will call it. A three day auction at the race track in Savannah in a steadily falling rain, where Pierce Butler will walk among them, carrying two canvas bags of twenty-five cent pieces fresh from the mint, handing out to each of them a dollar’s worth of new coins.

So the details will be reported in The New York Tribune. By then she will be Frances Kemble again, herself alone, reading the paper on the porch of her house in Lenox, Massachusetts. It will be a bright, cool morning in May that smells of cedar and balsam. Goldfinches everywhere in the purple thistles. Down a long meadow in front of her house and through a gap between two low hills, a lake will shine in the sun. Her American home, “The Perch,” where her girls spend their summers and Emerson comes to call. She will read the story three times through, then drop the paper in her lap, close her eyes. And what she will feel then will follow her for the rest of her life. Not the sorrow. She’s ready for the sorrow; it sweeps through her whenever she remembers the faces of House Molly, and Renty and Quash or Kate’s John, standing solemnly in the back of the boat, or when she thinks of the children, the women who bore them and the men who carried them, small bundles wrapped in cloth, to their graves. When the sorrow comes, she lets it carry her. She welcomes the sorrow because by it she knows that the light of her conscience has not been snuffed out. What catches her by surprise and holds her is the satisfaction she feels, such as a person feels when a hard job is finished, at the thought of Judy the cook standing humbly in the rain, holding out her hand for Mr. Butler’s coins.