Fit for Freedom (part 13)

Grateful in Richmond

New to the series? Start here.

Read the previous part here.

The walk from the last coach station the rest of the way into Richmond proper proved to be a difficult one for Sophia. She had been riding and walking and hiking for days, spending as much as she dared out of the money that the Kentucky Abolition Society had given to her, praying that the trail of her husband’s captors would not turn cold. It had led her here to the capital, but her weary legs would have to carry her the last few miles. No amount of money would persuade the coachman to drive the rest of the way to the jail where runaway slaves were held.

She arrived in the middle of the morning amid a bustle of activity in the midsummer sun. There happened to be a blacksmith’s shop nearby and, seeing that a dark-skinned man was working the anvil, she waited for a break in his work to ask him for directions.

“Take you ‘til midday to get there, probably,” he said. “You’re on the wrong end of town. But this road goes clear across from one end to the other. Keep on it and you’ll find it sure.”

“Thank you,” she said and prepared to trudge onward.

“Won’t do no good, your bein’ there,” the man called after her.

Sophia ignored him. No doubt he knew how things usually went around here, but he didn’t know her and he didn’t know Isaac. She was not about to give up after coming this far. She had to at least try to see his face.

She was exhausted by the time she arrived at the jail. The sight of the dreary building only added a layer of despair to her physically spent condition. No windows faced the street. The thought that he was not only in bondage, but that he could not even see the sun only increased her pity for him. But she banished the thoughts. She must put on a strong face before she saw him.

She approached what she took to be the entrance and spoke to the man sitting there. He jerked upright, as if roused from a fitful sleep, spilling the unidentified contents of the tin cup that he had been holding in one hand.

“What do you want?” he growled.

Sophia decided that he had been sleeping and that he did not much appreciate having his sleep interrupted. Looking her over he continued, “Well, you are fine-looking negress, aren’t you? You should stay away from here.”

Avoiding the man’s leering gaze as much as she could, Sophia said, “I’m here, sir, to find my husband, Isaac. Can you tell me if he’s here?”

The man’s look of lascivious interest transformed in an instant into one of contemptuous disgust.

“That runaway? Yeah. The bastard’s here all right. They got him here two days ago, but he’ll be strung up before long.”

“What?!?” Sophia cried out in spite of herself. “That can’t be!”

“Shut up! You didn’t think he’d get to run away and then kill one of the men who brought him back and get away with it, did you? Now get out of here, if you know what’s good for you!”

“He didn’t kill anybody! He’s a good man!”

The man began to rise from his seat and raised the tin cup as if he were about to launch it at her. Before he could turn the cup into a missile, however, Sophia turned and ran back toward the center of the city.

She wandered aimlessly for what seemed like a long time, no longer noticing her exhaustion or her hunger. She felt nothing but a growing sense of defeat. Everyone knew how these trials went--if trials they could be called. Her husband was accused of being a runaway slave and a murderer; justice was like something in a childhood dream now. Eventually, not knowing where she was going, and not knowing what to do, she sat down on the low curb of the street, and buried her face in her hands.

The street was oddly quiet for the middle of the day and after a long time she looked up to survey her surroundings. Directly across the street one of the houses displayed a sign and a glimmer of hope appeared. She crossed over and knocked on the door, looking once more at the sign that said, “Joseph Randolph, Esq., Attorney and Counselor at Law.”

She was momentarily surprised to see a woman answer the door (and a young woman at that) but supposed that it would not be unusual for a lawyer to have a housekeeper or someone to admit people to the office.

“I’ve got to see Mr. Randolph,” she blurted out. “I have to see him right away!”

“Calm down,” the young woman said. “Mr. Randolph is away, but--”

Sophia collapsed to her knees and the tears that had been welling up for days finally broke loose. “Isaac . . . they’re going to kill my Isaac!” she managed to get out between breathtaking sobs.

The young woman stooped down to help her up and said, “Come in, please. Let me get you something to drink while you sit for a moment. Rest and then you can tell me everything.”

Sophia soon found herself seated in a room with a fireplace. The windows were open and a gentle breeze soothed the heat she felt rising in her face for the first time. Soon, the young woman returned with a glass of water and sat down next to her on the couch.

“My name is Georgiana. Please tell me what has happened. My uncle is away, but his partner remains here and might be able to help.”

Sophia took a long drink of water. “My name is Sophia Freeman,” she began, and then recounted the recent horror she had been made to endure. She did not think she had left out any details, but her memory did not seem to be working quite the way it usually did. Just before she finished her story, Georgiana gently placed her hand on Sophia’s.

“Mr. Page will know what to do. Be assured of that,” Georgiana said. “He had to go to court, but I expect him to return very soon.” Reaching for a shawl and draping it over Sophia’s shoulders, she continued, “Until then--and please forgive my saying so--you look more than exhausted, Mrs. Freeman. I must insist that you allow me to take you upstairs where you can rest more comfortably.”

“Yes, yes,” Sophia said almost sleepily. The other woman’s recognition of Sophia’s exhaustion somehow seemed to make her body accept reality. How she had willed herself forward for so long suddenly seemed strange and impossible. “But I have to do something first.”

Sophia carefully slid off the couch and onto her knees, gesturing for Georgiana to join her. “It was the Lord who got me here and who’s kept Isaac alive all this time. I’d be the most ungrateful child he’s ever known if I didn’t stop to praise him.”

Georgiana herself seemed about to break into tears, but she gathered her skirts and lowered herself next to the woman she had only just met, confident that she was preparing to take petitions before the heavenly throne with one whom she would now know forevermore as her sister.

It was somewhat later than Georgiana had expected when Camden eventually returned. Mary had already set out dinner, but Georgiana waited to eat, occupying herself in the meantime by organizing--hoping in vain that it would be the last time--her uncle’s mountains of books.

As Camden came in and dusted off his shoes, she greeted him with a brief embrace--too brief, she could tell, for Camden’s liking.

“Are you all right, Georgiana?”

“Yes, I’m perfectly well, Cam. Mary,” she called down the hall, “we’ll come in for dinner in just a few minutes. You go ahead and eat.”

“Yes, ma’am,” came the reply from the direction of the dining room, accompanied by the light clinking of plates and glasses being rearranged.

Leading him into the office area, Georgiana said, “There’s something I must tell you before dinner.”

Camden seated himself behind the desk, in Mr. Randolph’s seat. She noticed that he was far more comfortable doing so now than he had been in the first couple of days since her uncle had left for Vermont.

“Is it very serious?

She could tell by the deep lines forming between his eyebrows that he was anxious. “It’s quite serious, yes, but at present it involves neither us nor any of our family. Rather it’s someone who came looking for help.”

“Ah, a prospective client, perhaps?” The worry slid from his face almost instantly.

“Yes, that is precisely why she came here today. In fact, she is still here, resting upstairs.”

“That’s a bit odd. She came while I was away and you spoke to her, I presume? Did her husband not accompany her?”

Georgiana took a deep breath before continuing. “It is the inability of her husband to come with her that makes the situation so serious. The woman upstairs, Sophia Freeman, is seeking help for her husband who was captured as a runaway slave and is now accused of murdering one of the slave catchers.”

Camden’s eyes widened and he opened his mouth as if he were about to speak. When nothing immediately came out, Georgiana quickly continued.

“But he’s not a runaway. His name’s Isaac and he and his wife are free. The last time she saw him was on their homestead in the Northwest Territory. She’s adamant that she’s followed the trail of his abductors all the way from there. And if anyone was killed, it could only have been in self defense. She saw the sign outside and came to the door in a state of desperation. After I brought her in and calmed her down she told me everything. I believe her, Cam.”

Camden sat motionless for what seemed to Georgiana to be an impossibly long interval. Eventually he turned toward the window and gazed out toward the road.

Hoping she would not be interrupting some deep train of thought, she cleared her throat and said, “Can you help her, my dear? She believes she has nowhere left to turn.”

Camden slumped forward, resting his forearms on his knees, and let out a kind of sigh that Georgiana was sure she had never heard from him before.

“If only it were that simple, Georgiana. He is a black man accused of running away and then killing a white man. You know what kind of justice he can expect, no matter what I or any other attorney can do. It’s almost a pity that he’s managed to stay alive this long, only to have his wife come all this way to see him--”

“Don’t say it, please, Cam! If you could have seen the faith that dripped from this woman’s every word, how she knelt to thank God in spite of her hardships, then perhaps you’d see . . .” Her voice trailed off, overcome with compassion.

“See what? I see the sadness in your eyes--a sadness that always breaks my own heart--but what I do not see is what I can possibly do that will make the situation any better. Again, he is a black man--”

Georgiana’s eyes blazed alive with a righteous fury that showed itself only in her most passionate moments.

“He is a man, Camden! Do not let the darkness of his skin obscure the truth that he is every bit as much created in the image of God as are you yourself. If our laws do not treat him equally--if our laws deny what God himself shows us to be true in His world--then our laws are not deserving of the name ‘laws.’ Mr. Jefferson may still be across the ocean in France, but when he wrote that there are certain self-evident truths, was he right or wrong?”

Camden’s face had changed. Where at first he wore a look of anxiety and then resigned disappointment, now she could not quite tell from his expression what he was thinking. Since he did not seem eager to respond, she continued, placing her hands on the desk that stood between them.

“I do not claim to know as much about the law as you or my uncle. What I do know, however, is that there is a woman upstairs and a man across town that need your help. And I know that no man in the capital can meet their needs better than you.”

“Georgiana, that’s very kind, but--”

“I know you’re about to say that there are other more experienced attorneys. I won’t argue with you there, but you can see this case in ways they never will. Even if the worst were to come, I’ll be able to sit with Sophia in that room, where we prayed and cried earlier today, and know for certain not only that everything that could be done was done, but that it was done for the right reasons. I’ll know that it was done, not out of grudging obligation, but because a man of integrity and courage saw two people--his equals--in need, and did his utmost to rescue them from their plight. I believe that about you and I know I’m right.”

She had held back as long as she could, but the emotion of the moment finally overcame her. She quickly dabbed a tear from each eye with a deft sweep of her handkerchief. Camden rose from his chair and took her hand as he seated himself next to her.

“I know something else,” he said. She looked up into his eyes. “I know it’s part of why you love me. Part of why I love you is that I want to be the kind of man you believe me to be, because you always believe the best of me. I don’t know whether I’ll ever be more than a dim likeness of that man, but if not, I’m certain I’ll die trying.”

She threw her arms around his neck and laid her head on his chest. “Camden, I . . .”

“I will go to the jail this evening and see what I can find out. Perhaps--”

At that point there was light rapping on the door. Mary was standing just outside the room. Georgiana and Camden both abruptly sat back from one another.

“Ohh, young people,” Mary chimed. “I remember what it was like. Even as chaperone I won’t begrudge you a chaste embrace, but the food will certainly begrudge your waiting any longer. Come eat it while it’s still warm.”

Georgiana rose from her seat. Camden took her by the hand and led her to the dining room. They had eaten more than a few meals there together, under the watchful eye of Mary and her uncle, but after what had just passed between them, this meal seemed as if it would be different. A difference for the good, Georgiana thought.