Good Reading : February 2007
his part, sending you these chocolates,’ he observed. Emmeline gestured across the table. Her hand was, as always, somewhat ink-stained. ‘Do have one, Father.’ ‘Thank you, I will.’ And he popped a hazelnut-encrusted globe into his mouth, allowing it to melt against his palate while his daughter read the letter in silence. Dear Miss Curlew, Thank you for your letter. May I say that you have the most elegant handwriting? Quite a change from that produced by any of the ladies here.Your signature especially caused me to linger over it, admiring its combination of simplicity, confidence & grace. Less refined females imagine that a paroxism of calligraphic flourishes consigns elegance upon them. It takes a signature such as yours to make clear the gulf between the genuine article & its imitations. However, you will be growing impatient with these flatteries (however sincerely meant). You wish to know what I thought of your advice to me.You hope, perhaps, for news that I have freed my slaves & dedicated myself to Christ. On the latter matter I can reassure you; I love our Lord as much as any decent, imperfect man can.The passages you quoted from the Good Book are of course well known to me, as are other passages which take a different position. As far as my slaves are concerned, they are free already.That is, I give them as much freedom as good sense allows, & care for them as conscientously as I would my own children (of whom, sadly, I have none). My slaves are contented and healthy; their duties are not onerous.The climate in Georgia is rather more salubrious than you may be accustomed to in England, and the crops grow with little fuss, ripening in the glorious sun that God has seen fit to shine over my modest domain. As I pen these words, Perry, one of my field hands, is playing with Shakespeare, my dog. He does this not because he is obliged to but because he likes Shakespeare and, if you will forgive me boasting, is fond of his master too. In fact, if slavery should ever be abolished – as I fear it will be, if the strident voices in our own Northern states exchange their shouting for bellicose action – I am worried for my poor Perry. He is a trusting & gentle creature, and if he is forced to make his own way in this cruel world, without so much as a roof over his head, I suspect he will suffer a dismal fate. I do not expect that these few words will convince you of the rightness of my way of life. I regret that you cannot visit my home & make your own judgements. I can only hope that if you were, by some miracle, to arrive as my esteemed guest, you would find this place to be a happy & pleasant one, lacking only the charm that a mistress might have provided, had not my fiancée been taken from me in tragic circumstances. I can assure you that, far from being the hotbed of savagery and squalor that you may imagine, Georgia is really quite a civilised place. It even has a chocolate shop, as you have no doubt already divined. I offer you these sweet trifles as a token of my gratitude for your interest in my soul. A poor gift, I know; some might say an impertinent one. But since you already possess a Bible, the most precious gift any of us can own, it is difficult to imagine what else you might possibly need. Chocolates can, at least, give pleasure, & if you don’t eat them, you can always give them to your parents. With my most cordial best wishes … Emmeline looked up from her reading. ‘Well?’ said her father. ‘What’s your opinion of this fellow?’ Emmeline folded the letter in her strong fingers and wedged it under the saucer of her teacup.Then she gazed past her father’s shoulder at the snowfrosted window, her eyes half-closed.The grey terraced houses of Bayswater, the iron lamp-posts and the hearse- like delivery carts, had lost some of their solidity for her; they were semi-transparent, shifting ephemera in a mono- chrome kaleidoscope. ‘He can’t spell “paroxysm” or “con- scientiously”,’ she remarked, in a faraway tone. Her eyes grew more and more unfocused. She was picturing the lush fields of Georgia, endless acres of fertility. Her man’s property was a vast bed of soft green enlivened with ripe cotton, a wholly mysterious substance she imag- ined resembling snow-white poppies. And, standing erect in the middle of those fields, his hands on his hips, there he was, silhouetted against the cloudless sky, his outline shimmering in the heat. An ecstatic dog ran up to him, leaping against his chest, licking his neck, and he embraced it, laughing.To the far left, in the corner of her mind’s eye, stood a dark figure, a Negro bearing an uncanny resemblance to an illustration in Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp, one of several novels by Harriet Beecher Stowe in Emmeline’s bookcase. ‘Anyway,’ she added, ‘he keeps slaves.’ Dr Curlew harrumphed. ‘Is that the only reason you wrote to him?’ Emmeline blinked, looked away from the window, returned home to England. ‘Have another chocolate, Father, ’ she said. ‘Might you perhaps write to him again?’ asked Dr Curlew. ‘Or is he past saving?’ Emmeline lowered her head and smiled, blushing a little. ‘No one is past saving, Father,’ she replied, and fetched up the letter and photograph.The mute form of Gertie was hovering in the doorway, waiting for permission to clear the table. Luncheon had run overtime; Dr Curlew must call upon his patients, and Miss Curlew must retire to her bedroom, her favoured place, always, for correspondence. © Michel Faber 2006. Story taken from The Apple by Michel Faber, published by Canongate, rrp $27.95. 52 goodreading ı FEBRUARY 2007 She was picturing the lush fields of Georgia, endless acres of fertility. Her man’s property was a vast bed of soft green enlivened with ripe cotton.
December / January 2007