Monticello

Excerpt

Chapter 1
1789

Martha Jefferson had dreamed of Monticello all though her five years spent in a French convent while her father served as America’s minister to France.  In her dreams Monticello had loomed above her as if it were the earth’s ultimate height, its brightest palace, its most fruitful garden.  Always in her dreams the forest was so green it shimmered, the vegetable garden sat heavy with melons and cucumbers and cabbage and squash, the orchard dropped blushing apples into her lap as she passed, sunflowers queened over the lesser hyacinths and sweet peas and primrose in the flowerbeds, while curling around their little kingdom the Blue Ridge Mountains formed a mystical, protective wall. Now, as the carriage took the first turn in the roundabout, Martha saw nothing but bare, red earth, naked branches, bitter wind, and after five years of  absence, more than one untended, sagging fence.

 Monticello 1825

Monticello 1825

The mountain had also grown dark.  Sprinkled over these outer edges of the plantation sat the slave quarters of the field workers, and as Thomas Jefferson’s carriage ascended, pockets of slaves began to approach it, to follow it as if escorting him homeward, their laughing, weeping, joyful black faces pressing closer and closer to the carriage.  Martha never saw such masses of Negroes in Paris -- the few she had seen were free citizens of France – and the sight disconcerted her. The twelve-year old who’d left America for France might have thought these slaves’ affection for their kind and generous master prompted this welcome, but the seventeen-year-old now returning had to wonder if what she saw might in fact be relief. What if Thomas Jefferson had never returned?  What if the poor creatures had gotten sold away from their families, sold out of the county, sold to the slave-hell of a West Indian sugar plantation?  Or maybe what Martha saw around her was hope.  Just before they’d sailed for France Virginia had passed a law that had, for the first time, allowed a master to free his slaves.  These slaves would have heard of that law; did they imagine that the man who had freed America from bondage might now free his slaves?

In Paris Martha had overheard her father telling his secretary William Short of his plan to convert certain of his choice slaves into free tenant farmers, and Short had leaped to endorse the scheme. The two men had talked it this way and that until it had seemed a real plan, prompting Martha to ask her father on the ship home which slaves he’d decided to set off on their own farms.  

“This is an idea that will require greater thought,” her father had said.

Martha drew her mind from William Short and her gaze from the fearful hope she now believed she read in the faces outside the carriage.  She stared instead at the two faces that sat in the opposite seat -- her eleven-year-old sister Mary, whom they’d begun to call Maria in France,  and the sixteen-year-old Negro Sally Hemings – but this sight couldn’t cheer her either, as the two girls shared a similar face. Thomas Jefferson had inherited the Hemings family on the death of his father-in-law, John Wayles.  Their privileged status before and since had only confirmed rumors that these pale Negroes were indeed the offspring of John Wayles and his slave Betty Hemings, which made Sally Hemings Martha’s and Maria’s aunt.  Yes, Maria’s skin was linen-white and her curls auburn, while Sally’s skin was the color of dusk and her hair long and straight and black, but both shared the same delicate, symmetrical features of Martha’s dead mother.  Martha glanced sideways at her father. Did he see his wife’s face in these two sitting opposite?  Did he ever think of Sally as his wife’s sister?  His face showed little beyond an increased tightening around the mouth. 

Maria squeezed Sally’s arm as the carriage lurched through the crowd and up to the house.  "See how the Negroes love you, Papa!" Martha watched Sally to discover what she might think of Maria’s comment, but as was ever the case, Sally’s eyes remained averted.  According to French law, Sally might have stayed in Paris and lived free instead of returning to her slave life at Monticello, and so too her brother James, whom Martha’s father had trained in the art of French cookery.  James could have easily found work as a pastry chef in any nobleman’s house in France, and Sally, a competent seamstress, could certainly have found herself a place. Instead, brother and sister had chosen to return to Virginia and their slave state.  Could it be that these Negroes did love Thomas Jefferson as much as Maria believed they did?

Martha’s eyes drifted from Sally’s profile to her hands, where they lay cupped in her lap, as decorous – more decorous – than the women Martha had come to know and both envy and despise in France. That more than all the rest reminded Martha of her mother, and as the graceful, stately house that her mother had so loved rose in the distance, Martha’s eyes filled.  Her mother had died in that house.  How easy to see again the darkened room, her mother’s still shape beneath the coverlet, her father bending over it in shameless weeping that racked him head to foot.  He’d risen only to crumple to the floor in a swoon that set the Negroes running; they’d carried him to his adjoining cabinet and laid him on the pallet where he’d insisted on sleeping through his wife’s long illness.  Martha had hovered, awash in her own tears, until her nurse, Ursula, circled her in sinewy, strong arms. “You cry,” she’d said. “And then you brace up.  Your mother’s made your father promise never to marry again just so there won’t be any stepmothers bossing your life.  Now you pay back.  Now you be your father’s comfort.”

When Martha’s father had emerged from his room weeks later he’d taken to his horse, riding through the Monticello woods day after endless day, until Martha begged to ride with him.  In time he agreed, allowing her to witness the freshets of grief that continued to overcome him for months.  And here they were again, the carriage climbing through those same woods, her father no doubt even more leveled by grief than Martha was.  She’d done her best to comfort her father while they lived in France, but Paris had offered its own distractions, and Martha had been off at the convent, too often out of touch. Now back at Monticello, with fresh reminders skulking behind every shadow, it would be that much harder to fill the empty places her mother had left, to be, as Ursula had instructed, her father’s comfort.

But as Martha strained through the carriage window to see every angle and bend of the old house, every tree no matter how bare it was, and every familiar peak of the distant mountains, all Monticello’s darkness vanished. Yes, Paris glittered and shone, its art, architecture, and theater unmatched, but also unmatched was its stink, its beggars, its mud. Martha was home.  Her father and sister were home.  This was where they should be in life, and once her father puzzled out what to do about the slaves, all would be right.  Martha groped sideways on the seat till her hand touched her father’s, waited until his turned over and clasped hers.  "’Tis lovely to be home, isn’t it Papa?"

Martha’s father didn’t seem to hear; he remained silent, his eyes sweeping continuously over the bare fields, no doubt taking note of every rundown outbuilding, untended fence, and peeling column in front of the house. It didn’t matter, Martha wanted to tell him; it was Monticello, their beloved Monticello, and what it had lost by five years of neglect could be regained by a single year of devotion.  And what devotion Martha could give it now, older and more sensible of the role she was to play, not only as comfort to her father but as steward of the house.  She was no longer the young girl she’d been when she’d left Virginia for France; she was mistress of Monticello now, and it would fall to her to direct the Negroes in shaking out and pressing her father’s clothes, in making sure his sheets were fresh and his chamber aired, in overseeing the dinner preparations.  With no mother to guide her, Martha had been trained in none of these things; her education, overseen by her father, had thus far consisted of books, music, art, and pleasant conversation; she’d worked hard to master all these things in order to please her father, but to please him now, she knew, she must master the rest.

The carriage drew up to the walk; in the seconds it took the wheels to stop spinning Martha jettisoned her fine Paris training, grabbed her sister’s hand, tumbled out and bolted up the steps.  Don’t run, her mother used to chide her, but even the fine young Paris lady couldn’t slow her feet.

"Look, Maria, our ash tree!  And the rail we walked on.  And our window.  Do you see our window above?" 

Maria pulled back.

Sally spoke from behind them.  "Elle ne se souvient pas."  She doesn’t remember.

Martha looked to her sister, hoping she would see what she needed to see in order to counter Sally’s pronouncement, but the great doors had already swung open and the house servants, mostly Hemingses, had swarmed out.  Some of the male Hemingses had been allowed to go off and work for their own wages while the Jeffersons were in France, and their master greeted them now as if they’d returned to him out of nothing but love; yes, looking at the eager faces around them Martha could almost believe it herself.  Behind them came Betty Hemings, the concubine of Martha’s grandfather; Sally fell into her mother’s arms and broke into tears, surprising Martha until she remembered that mother and daughter had been apart for two years.  Why, of course, thought Martha, an odd relief overcoming her; surely that was why Sally chose to leave freedom behind in France -- here was the whole of her family. Thomas Jefferson always kept his slave families together wherever he could, and James and Sally no doubt understood that they could count on finding not only mother and siblings but nieces and nephews together at Monticello where they’d been left.

But oh, dear Lord, here came Ursula, pushing through the Hemingses, as tall and wiry as Martha remembered her, Ursula who had nursed Martha when her own mother’s milk had dried up, Ursula who’d switched her when she’d caught her trying to walk on that rail, Ursula who’d held her while she cried for her dead mother. Ursula was not a Hemings but another illustration of the same point: Thomas Jefferson had inherited Ursula along with the Hemingses, but Ursula’s husband and son had been left to his sister-in-law.  Martha’s mother begged her new husband to get them back, so he’d ridden fifty miles and spent two hundred dollars to reunite the family at Monticello. Perhaps Ursula loved her master because of this?  Martha had seldom contemplated such things when she lived in France.  They’d called Sally Mademoiselle Sally and James Monsieur James and their master paid them a wage and Martha forgot they were slaves.  But did they forget?

Martha drew free of Ursula’s embrace and moved deeper into the house, going from parlor to dining room to tea room, only peeking into her father’s chamber and the room that he called his cabinet, afraid of  restarting her tears, unwilling for her father to see her in such a state.  She galloped up the steep, narrow stairs to the four rooms above, to her room.  Oh, how faded and small it seemed, compared to the room that she’d occupied in memory! And how bare, as bare as her French convent!  But eighty-six crates of all that they’d accumulated in France were traveling behind them – furniture, busts, paintings, curios of every size, and crate after crate of books in seven languages, all of which her father could and did read, although he never could speak French as well as his daughters.

Or Sally.

Maria stepped hesitantly into the room, her eyes shadowed and blinking against the clear mountain light.  She’d been away from Monticello most of her life, having spent those first years after their mother’s death with an aunt and uncle farther south, and no wonder she should look so bewildered now, so out of place.  Martha crossed the room to her sister, took her hand, and drew her to the window. "See the mountains?  Aren’t they the loveliest thing on earth?"

"I like the river best."

The river.  The Appomattox River, which ran through their uncle’s plantation, which to Martha had always offered a far less interesting prospect than her mountains. "Come; let’s see if Papa’s spyglass is still here.  And the clock, and the checker board.  Surely you remember those."  Martha led Maria down the stairs, planning to distract her with as many objects of interest as she could until the girl’s things were unpacked, but as they reached the parlor it was Martha who was distracted by one of her father’s trunks, riding into the parlor on James’s shoulder. The trunk reminded her of her new role.

"Take the trunk to my father’s chamber," Martha said, but James had already set off with it, for indeed, where else would he take it?  Martha turned next toward the kitchen steps, but before she’d gone far her father appeared, beckoning to her from the door of his cabinet.

"Martha, dear, come.  I should like to speak with you a minute."
Martha hastened to her father’s door and stepped into the room after him, noting that it appeared well aired and recently swept and dusted, even without her directing it.  Her father stood examining a bare spot on the shelf.  He looked well after their journey, as straight and strong as a Virginia pine, his eyes clear, the angles of cheek and jaw unobstructed by any sagging flesh, but Martha would not be fooled by his supposed strength; he would need her here far more than he’d ever needed her in France. "I shall put my new biscuit statuettes here,” he said. “Venus and Hope, side by side."  He paused, turning to Martha.  "As we touch on the subject of Hope, I’d hoped not to have to take up this matter with you just yet, to allow you to refamiliarize yourself with your heritage in peace.  But you spoke in the carriage . . .  I now see the unfairness in my original course.  Martha, my dear, I’m to join President Washington in New York.  I’ve been offered, and I’ve accepted, the post of secretary of state."

Such new words, thought Martha.  Such thrilling words.  President.  Secretary of state.  But New York!  To fall so violently back in love with Monticello only to be asked to leave it again!  She struggled to keep her heartbreak from her face. "’Tis a very great honor, Papa," she said.  "And perhaps ‘tis best you’ve told me now, so I might think as I unpack my trunk how best to repack it for New York." 

Her father turned even graver, shook his head.  "Only I move to New York, Martha, my love.  You and Maria move to Eppington and enter into the care of your Aunt and Uncle Eppes."

Monticello  - The Story Behind the Story

Monticello Reading Guide

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