Here’s part 3 of my made-to-order story, Kidnapped to Freedom.
This was not how Val had imagined their reunion; him with a bucket under the chin of one of the children Phoebe had borne his brother, while she tended to another child who, by the look of him, had a different father. He shuddered to think what her life had been like.
If he’d stayed, could he have protected her? He had asked himself the question many times. At 17, he’d been half inclined to blame Phoebe for being selected by his brother. His jealousy had made it easier for him to agree to run with the others after Chan caught them together, and then taken Phoebe and refused to let her out of his sight.
The more Val mixed with the free men of colour in the Maritime States, the more he realised how arrogant and stupid he had been. And after he’d rescued Perry from some privateers and heard of Perry’s anguish at some of the things his sister had been through, he’d felt even worse. He and Perry made a raid on the Georgia plantation that held Perry’s sister and won her free, and Val had been planning to do the same for Phoebe ever since.
Phoebe had never encouraged Chan. And he’d known that then.
Reassured that seasickness was natural, and the children weren’t dying, Phoebe was saying something: apologising for her children being sick, promising to clean up after them, trying to take the jug so she could tend to both children at once. Did she think he would beat her because the ship’s lurching disturbed their stomachs? Yes, in her experience, that was probably normal behaviour for a white man.
“No need to apologise, ma’am,” he said, as gently as he could. “It takes most people a while to catch their sea legs. Some experienced sailors are sick for the first days of every trip.”
Jenkins brought more water, and more buckets. “They’ll be better on deck, cap’n,” he suggested. “I could set a hammock for ‘em, out o’ the way, like?”
Val had hoped to keep Phoebe from the crew’s sight. She was lovely, and they were men. But, he reminded himself, they were men he trusted, for the most part.
“See it done, Jenkins. Ma’am, once the children are settled, you and I need to have a talk.”
The oldest boy, the smaller girl, and the baby joined them for breakfast, while Jenkins sat with the middle boy and the older girl. Both the afflicted looked better for being out in the fresh air, though it was too early to challenge their stomachs with food.
Phoebe looked uncertainly at the table.
“Serve the children,” Val suggested, then you and I will serve ourselves. Shall we try them on porridge? It is a bit like grits, but made from oats.”
The children found porridge very much to their liking, the oldest boy, who Phoebe called Joe, feeding the baby, and the littlest girl feeding herself.
Val filled a plate for Phoebe, who looked surprised when he gave it to her.
“Where I come from, gentlemen serve ladies,” he told her.
“I ain’t… I’m not a lady. I’m just a seamstress. A slave and a seamstress.”
“Not a slave now. Not anymore,” Val said. “And not just a seamstress either. You are the older sister of Joseph and Benita Copeland, proprietors of one of the finest hotels in St John’s, Toronto, a free woman, and a lady of considerable wealth in your own right, Miss Blake.”
Phoebe shook her head, a sharp negation. “Not ‘Blake’.” She clapped her hand over her mouth as if to catch the words, then dropped it again, and straightened her back. “You say I am free, and wealthy. Then I will not bear that man’s name. Let his widow keep it.”
Val was admiring her clear diction—she had always had a facility with languages and could speak English as good as his, but he was fascinated by how quickly she dropped the slave patois. It took a few moments for him to process what she’d actually said. “Widow? Chauncey Blake is dead?”
“Yes. You knew him?”
She was quick. Now Val should tell her who he was. But the same impulse that led him to retain the mask ruled him still. “I did,” he said, “to my sorrow.”
Had their father not intervened, Chan would probably have killed Val twelve years ago. 24 years to 17 is not a fair match. Val’s last memory of his brother was of his face twisted in anger and hatred as he struggled against the restraining arms of the overseers to come back and beat Val some more.
There had been no word of Chan’s death from Val’s friends in Charleston. Mind you, since they found themselves on opposite sides in this war, the correspondence had been sporadic, at best. “When did he die?”
“Three weeks ago. He was thrown by his horse, and broke his neck.”
“There’ll not be many who will grieve, I imagine,” Val said. “His wife; his father. Maybe some of his friends.”
“Miz Blake, she be happy to be a widow, I think, except Ol’ Massa Blake lived just a week longer than his son, so she loses everything but her widow’s portion. She’s mad enough to spit. She’ll be still madder when she finds us gone. She thought to get a good price for us from the traders.”
It was a lot to take in. His brother dead. His father dead. His sister-in-law disinherited, and planning to sell Phoebe—and who else?
“Who inherits?” Val asked. Chan and Nettie had no children, he knew, but his father had a low opinion of most of the Blake cousins.
“Phineas Blake,” Phoebe said. “Mist’ Chan’s younger brother. He’s been gone a long time, but Ol’ Massa Blake, he never changed his will.”