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Glory over Everything: Beyond The Kitchen House
Author:Kathleen Grissom

Glory over Everything: Beyond The Kitchen House

Kathleen Grissom

To my husband, Charles, for his unfailing support

I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person now I was free. There was such a glory over everything. The sun came up like gold through the trees, and I felt like I was in heaven.




March 1830



ROBERT’S FAMILIAR RAP on the door came as I was studying a miniature portrait of myself. The small painting, meant as a parting gift to my beloved, had just been delivered, and I was debating the artist’s interpretation. I had to admit that Miss Peale’s suggestion to paint my face in profile, and thus avoid the black patch covering my left eye, was a good idea. Too, she had captured my features well in this, my thirty-third year: the length of my oval face, my aquiline nose, and the cleft in my square-cut jaw. But I disliked the distinct set she had given my mouth.

Robert knocked again.

“Yes,” I called, and my butler entered.

“A letter, sir,” he announced, coming forward. I lifted the letter from the tray and noted the familiar script. Robert gave me a concerned glance, but a bell above the mantel clinked once, signaling that he was needed elsewhere. Fortunately, he made a quick exit.

Alone again, I slit the seal. Caroline’s simple words were so potent that the paper vibrated in my hand.

Darling, I will see you this evening.

Your C.

I had avoided her for weeks, but my presence at the event tonight was mandatory, and now Caroline meant to attend.

Though I longed to see her, I was filled with dread. Time was running out, and I could no longer escape. Tonight I must tell her the truth, though in the telling I would almost certainly lose her. And to lose her was to lose my life.

Again Robert was at the door, but this time, after a sharp rap, he entered on his own. He looked about uneasily, as though unsure how to deliver his next message.

“What is it, Robert?” I finally asked.

“Sir, there is someone here to see you,” he said, his eyes scanning my person and for only the briefest moment settling on the letter. “The caller is . . . at the back door,” he added, indicating that my visitor was likely a man of color. Robert paused as though looking for words, an unusual thing for this sophisticated man who ran my household. “His name is Henry.”

I stiffened. Surely it could not be Henry! We had an understanding.

“He said to tell you that he is Pan’s father,” Robert added carefully.

So it was Henry! I rose suddenly. Then, to cover my distress, I brushed at my jacket sleeves. “Have him wait in the kitchen,” I ordered, until I remembered I would want complete privacy. “No. Take him to my study.”

“Your study, sir?” Robert’s eyes opened wide. My study, my private workroom, was seldom open to anyone but Robert, and that was only for cleaning. It had been that way for years.

“Yes, my study,” I said with some irritation, and my butler quickly took his leave.

HENRY WAITED JUST inside the study. I closed the wide double doors firmly behind me and carefully made my way past both drawing tables to my desk. The three tall windows in this room shed enough of the darkening light for Henry to follow. I sat and nodded toward the chair across from me, but the visitor ignored my request as his dark fingers nervously circled the frayed brown hat that he held. I was momentarily startled to see his gray hair, then remembered that years had passed since I had seen him last.

He wasted no time with polite discussion and burst forth, “My boy gone! My Pan gone! They take him. I know they do. You got to help me!”

“Please, Henry! Slow down! What are you talking about? Where is Pan? What do you mean? He is missing?”

“This the third day. All along, I’m thinkin’ he here working in the kitchen. When he don’ come see me Sunday like always, I’m thinking he needed here, but then I hear that two more boys get took from the docks. Las’ time I see him, I say again, ‘You stay away from that shipyard, those men snap you up, put you on a boat, an’ sell you down south.’ That’s why I come here to see him for myself, an’ now Molly say she don’ see Pan for two days an’ was thinkin’ he was with me.”

My cook had said nothing. “Why didn’t Molly come to me with her concern?”

“She say you got so much goin’ on with sellin’ your business and your trip comin’ up that you don’ need to be lookin’ out for your help.”

“Pan is more to me than help, you know this, Henry.”

“I knows this, Mr. Burton. You treat him real good. He gettin’ book-smart like you, and he learn how to work in the white man’s house.”

“He is a quick student,” I said.

“My boy never go off like this on his own. He comes see me direct every Sunday, then goes back Monday mornin’, jus’ like always.”

I tried to recall when I had last seen Pan. Wasn’t it just yesterday that he had requested permission to take a book from my library? Or was that already two days ago? I had been so distracted with my own doings . . .

“He a good boy, he don’ believe nobody mean him no harm. I tell him all the time, ‘You got to be careful of those nigga traders.’ At twelve years, he jus’ the age they lookin’ for. They get him on a boat, take him down the river, and sell him for a slave. You know what I’s talkin’ ’bout!” Henry’s voice grew loud and I put my finger to my mouth. Henry leaned toward me and whispered loudly, “You know what I’s talkin’ ’bout!”

I did! I did know!

“There’s word that two more boys is missin’ from the South Ward, and they say that a schooner leave for the Carolinas this mornin’. I jus’ know my boy’s on it! You got to go get him! Pan’s been tellin’ me how you goin’ down there on that ’scursion. You got to bring him back!”

I stopped him. “Henry! I don’t leave for another month! If it is true that he was taken, how do you know that they would sell him in the Carolinas? In all likelihood, they would take him farther down.” I spoke without thinking and, too late, saw the effect of my words. The man’s shoulders dropped. It had grown dark in the room, but I could see well enough when he wiped his eyes on the sleeve of his coat. Then he fell to his one knee.

“Please, Masta James, please! I only ask for help one time, an’ that’s when I firs’ bring my boy to you jus’ after my Alice die. Our Pan come late to Alice and me, an’ now he all I got left of her. I gets you the money, you go down, get him back.” His voice caught as he choked back sobs. “I know what they do to him. I’s been a slave. I’d soon see him dead before I see him sol’ for a slave. Please, Masta James, he my only boy!”

“Stand up, Henry!” I said. “Get ahold of yourself!” How could he call me by that hated title? And to be subjugating himself on his knees! Had he no pride, no sense of having bettered himself? He was no longer a slave. And neither was I.

I HAD MET Henry twenty years earlier, when, at the age of thirteen, I arrived in Philadelphia, ill and terrified and fleeing for my life.