Douglas W Shouse

My Book

douglass house

American Janus

PROLOGUE December 1899 The grayish-blue cigar smoke slowly curled upward and away from the well-appointed, polished mahogany desk. Outside, the darkening December afternoon brought with it a quick and even rain shower that suddenly turned the cobblestones slick and a bit muddy. Pushing back from the desk with one knee, he closed his eyes and tried to close his mind. But, there it was: the low-grade grinding of banded wheels and twisting tack – more than one hundred wagons trekking the pitted roads. The incessant moans, most low yet some plaintive howls, worked their way into one’s very soul. It had never been too far away, but as of late, this insistent companion was most inescapable. Was it never quiet then? Had it really been more than three decades? Had he changed thoroughly – or had he changed at all? Checking his silver pocket watch, he rose, straightened slowly, and stepped to the window. The sidewalks were virtually clear of pedestrians, having been driven inside by the rain. A few carriages, their drivers with heads down, made their way up Liberty Street to appointed destinations. Harper Clayton, “Harp” to his family and friends, was about to turn sixty years old but, strangely, felt much younger most days. His large dark brown eyes and even, angular face had always attracted attention. His hair, now somewhat silver, was full. His build was solid enough, although a bit worn by the years and many physical engagements.

In the 35 years following the war, Harper Clayton had achieved success on many levels and failure on a few. Building the respected Clayton-Harmon Esq. law practice with his lifelong friend, Christian Harmon, was a particular source of pride. He believed his work in guiding the Freedmen’s Bureau in the piedmont area of North Carolina and into Reconstruction a qualified success. Just how much success, of course, depended on one’s political and cultural viewpoint. Yet, respect had been undeniably earned among many factions, both locally and across the state. His family was where his heart ultimately resided. If there was a legacy to convey, Harp was convinced it lay in the virtues and potential of his large and passionate family. He had married Susan Bostic the year after he returned home from Appomattox with parole in hand. He remembered the little Lutheran church in Bethania overflowing with family and friends. The occasion was bright on that fine early spring day, even in the face of turbulent times and terrifying uncertainty. Yet, Susan had risen above all that. Her grey hazel eyes, softas-down skin, and generous smile filled him with a wondrous zeal when she was near, an ardor that had never totally left him in all these years. She had that special, giving quality that made those around her better in both small and not-so-small ways. And Harper loved her deeply for such a benevolent spirit. Children came as if ordered on some heavenly bill of lading. There was Eli, the eldest, who had come into the world kicking and screaming and seemed to insist on maintaining that dynamic trait from childhood into adolescence and adulthood. Eleanor was the second born, a raven-haired beauty that saw the good in all of God’s creations around her. Then there was Jacob. This small and clever lad always seemed to see around the next corner and be patiently waiting for others to catch up.

Phillip had followed and just refused to be missed. “Philli’s effervescence and humorous escapades had brought regular light and laughter into the home. Eight years had produced four offspring. Finally, with a long intervening space of time came Cornelia, “Nell,” truly an unexpected joy. Harp and Susan were not exactly Abraham and Rebecca but felt just as blessed in their middle-aged years with this wonderful child of God with her bright yet silent nature. By all appearances, Harper Clayton had achieved a great deal. But as the year was coming to a close, he felt a struggle in his soul. He sensed both a reckoning from the past and a euphoria for the coming 20th century — the dark and brutal crucible of his coming of age and the intense draw of what was to come. Grabbing his leather satchel, overcoat, and black wool scarf, yet forgetting his hat, Harp closed and locked the door to the empty office. The others had already left for home and families, including Christian, who had announced he was done for the week and the law could wait until Monday. Harp knew Christian couldn’t wait to get home to “his girls,” wife, Eloise, and four daughters. Holding the satchel over his head to block at least some of the rain, he walked briskly to the carriage house where Silver would have his simple sulky hitched and ready. “Old Tom” Silver had been loyal to Harper all these years since the Freedmen’s Bureau, and they had a common bond. Heck, they were friends, and while around town, he was known as “Old Tom,” Harp called him “Silver.” In a time when most black folks were known by only a given name, Harp purposely used Thomas Silver’s sir name as a statement of both admiration and respect. The raw and windy afternoon had Harp shaking the rain from his wet head. He was anxious to get home to Susan as well. “You always know my timing, Silver. Get on home to Sadie and Jeff now. They’ll be lookin’ for you.”