Elizabeth Keckley, seamstress to Mary Lincoln, finagles an invitation to the White House
Elizabeth had lived in, or at least visited, most of the major cities in America, and Washington, D.C. was the only one where the smell was improved by the passing of a herd of pigs. This particular herd was some two dozen Berkshire pigs being shepherded down Pennsylvania Avenue by a Negro boy and his assistant – a Louisiana Catahoula Leopard dog. The boy walked behind and the dog trotted to the outside of the herd. Elizabeth assumed neither was being paid for their services, but the dog seemed far more attuned to the task, running back and forth and threatening a nip each time a pig turned wayward.
Elizabeth, walking on the cobblestone sidewalk, stopped and leaned her angular body against the unpainted lap siding of a hardware store, her sepia toned face blending chameleon-like into the faded poplar boards, and watched the procession. She had always been fond of pigs. Her first two chores as a five year old slave were the caring for the three year old daughter of her owners and the feeding and watering of a litter of shoats. She was fond of all of her dependencies, but she found the piglets somewhat easier to train.
Even when the streets were tolerably dry, there was a stench from the road apples deposited by the horses and pigs and goats so that Washington bore the perpetual odor of an out-house. The olfactory assault was intensified by the breezes sweeping across the muddy tidal basin of the Potomac River and over the open canal used as a sewage depository. The Dearborn wagons coming around every morning to handle the night soil were over-matched. “Politicians turn out more manure than any other creature on earth,” Elizabeth was fond of saying.
She wondered how the Catahoula, without a detectable sign from the drover, knew to divert the herd from Pennsylvania Avenue and onto 7th Street towards Clary’s Abattoir. She lacked sufficient time today to pursue the young man and slake her curiosity, but she indexed his shabby clothes in her mind’s closet. After over forty years as a seamstress and dress-maker, she frequently remembered people not so much by their faces but rather by their choice of apparel and the definition it lent to their bodies. And she doubted if that young man owned more than one change of clothes.
She pivoted and entered through the mahogany doors into her sectarian cathedral – the clothier firm of Harper & Mitchell’s.
Upon closing the doors she saw Mr. Harper engaged in trade with Mrs. General McClean, with whom Elizabeth was only casually acquainted. Mrs. McClean, with a ‘noblesse oblige’ smile, nodded a greeting in her direction.
Mr. Harper, whose fondness for Elizabeth was decidedly north of a mere mercantile relationship, greeted her with his usual “All the pleasantries of the day to you, Mrs. Keckley.” His phrases always reminded Elizabeth of his mahogany doors: well polished with linseed oil so they glistened and shone, but sufficiently wiped down so as not to be sticky.
Mr. Harper extended a yard or so of cashmere from a bolt while Mrs. McClean fondled the cloth between her thumb and forefinger. “Tell me frankly, Mrs. Keckley, do you think this would make a suitable morning robe?”
Elizabeth hesitated as she eyed the cloth and said, “At the risk of seeming rude, I have a matter of some small importance to discuss with Mr. Harper that would take only a minute or two in his office and then I would be free to give you my ideas.”
“Of course,” Mrs. McClean said.
Mr. Harper gestured Elizabeth toward his office with a sweep of his open hand. He closed the door behind her.
“Mr. Harper, you extended me credit when I first came to town on nothing more than the fact you thought I had an honest face. Some proprietors won’t deal with a Negro under any circumstances, and yet you let me walk out with over $200.00 in materials with no security whatsoever, except my pledge to return the next day. You pay me a generous commission on all the cloth I purchase for my clients. In short, you have been a godsend.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Keckley,” said Mr. Harper, steeling himself for what was yet to come.
“But that new cashmere is not of good quality. Good cashmere is made only with the soft undercoat of the goat, and the longer coarse hairs must be combed out. It’s a tedious, time-consuming task. That bolt of cloth, I’ll warrant, came from an English mill where they are not as fastidious as the Asians. But I would sooner have my tongue pulled out than say that to Mrs. McClean and cause you to lose a sale.”
“Thank you for your concern, Mrs. Keckley, but we are the largest clothier in Washington D.C. precisely because we sell only the finest material at a fair price. Now go tell Mrs. McClean exactly what you told me. We’ll return that bolt to the manufacturer, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you secured Mrs. McClean as a patron.”
When Elizabeth returned, Mrs. McClean had wandered over to the silks. She listened patiently to Elizabeth’s lecture on the demerits of English cashmere and she had barely finished speaking when Mrs. McClean said, “I’m invited to a supper at Willard’s this Sunday and I don’t have a decent dress to wear. I want you to make me a dress out of this material. You choose the laces. You can take my measurements now or you can come by my house this afternoon.”
Elisabeth was caught off-guard by the suddenness of the request.
“It’s quite impossible. I’m over-subscribed and short-handed as it is.”
“Pshaw! Nothing is impossible. Besides,” Mrs. McClean looked conspiratorial, “I happen to know you are desirous of working for the ladies of the White House. I happen to be a good friend of Mrs. Lincoln and I have it in my power to procure you her work.”
Elizabeth wanted to do cartwheels down the aisles. This was her unfulfilled ambition and the reason she had come to Washington.
“Do you know Portia, the young quadroon owned by Colonel Burkey? She’s a veritable witch with needles and thread and the Colonel wishes to rent her out. He’ll be at my house at two o’clock.”
“But, I’m not certain I’m in a position to take on another employee,” Elizabeth mumbled as a sort of half-apology.
“Horse feathers,” said Mrs. McClean. “The colonel wants $200.00 a year for Portia. I’ll front him the money and deduct it from you as you finish my dresses. Then you’ll have Portia for the remainder of the year.”
Mrs. McClean augured a look deep within Elizabeth’s head. “If you’re squeamish about hiring a slave, then pay her a salary or set the money aside to buy her freedom. You’ll still make out handsomely. I trust all of our dealings aren’t going to be such a wrestling match. Remember, two o’clock.”
She talked over her shoulder as she fastened her bonnet and headed for the door. “You come by then and you can make the financial arrangements with Colonel Burkey and then take my measurements. And bring the laces you select.”
Elizabeth felt the calm that always followed when a whirlwind blew away. Turning towards Mr. Harper, Elizabeth said, “And which one is the general, her or Mr. McClean?”
“That woman could march cats through a fish market without a one breaking ranks. And if she sets her mind on introducing you to Mrs. Lincoln, don’t you doubt it for a moment.”
* * *
Elizabeth had five minutes to spare as she approached the Georgian townhouse of General and Mrs. McClean. She grasped the brass knocker in her right hand and slammed the tiny lion’s head smartly against the door. Soon, a rather imposing black man in well-tailored livery opened the door. Elizabeth recognized the man as someone involved in a rather nasty altercation at “Tall Freddie’s” just a week ago. “Tall Freddie’s” was a bar and restaurant in the Murder Bay section of town, and when she saw straight razors being drawn, Elizabeth made a hasty exit. The man before her had obviously come to no harm and if he recognized Elizabeth, he gave no indication. “This way, please.” he said, pivoting and leading Elizabeth to a large waiting room on the east side of the house. A mature, but vigorous, white man and a young black woman with an oak-leaf complexion were sitting on a sofa covered in a floral themed Aubusson needlepoint. Elizabeth hoped the girl had made the dress she was wearing, for it was apparent to her well-trained eye that a seamstress of considerable skill had been involved in its crafting.
The man rose and said, “Allow me to present myself. I’m Colonel Junius Burkey. And this is Portia.”
Portia made a perfunctory curtsey and sat back down. With that sixth sense that can only be developed by years of living in bondage where your ability to read the whims and moods of others frequently led to your physical safety, Elizabeth intuited that drama was afoot.
“I’m Elizabeth Keckley. It’s a pleasure to meet you both.”
“Mrs. McClean has taken the liberty of preparing a document outlining our respective obligations. If you wish to consult with counsel before signing I’ll certainly understand.”
“I’m certain Mrs. McClean has covered everything adequately. Do you have a pen?”
Colonel Burkey produced a gold pen from the inside pocket of his coat. “This was made for me by my friend the jeweler Richard Cross. Isn’t it exquisite? It’s the latest; the ink is actually carried inside the pen. Unfortunately, I seem to have damaged the nib when I dropped it the other day. Pray be careful, or your hands could be covered in ink.”
Elizabeth, with her magical hands, signed with a flourish without so much as a smidgeon of ink running amok.
“Well, I’ll leave you two to get acquainted. If you don’t object, I’ll drop in next week to ensure the transition has come about smoothly.”
He turned and headed towards the front door, seemingly unaware that tears had begun to run down Portia’s face.
Elizabeth put her arm around Portia and stood silently. After a short while, the doorman returned and said, “Mrs. McClean will see you upstairs now.”
As Elizabeth entered the room Mrs. McClean said, “I prefer my shoulders exposed and my bosom well covered. And at my age I prefer a comfortable waist – I don’t want to be corseted in like a German sausage. Leave that to the younger women.”
Elizabeth’s fingers nimbly pulled the tape measure over and around her body. “Do you need to write those numbers down?”
“I’ll remember,” Elizabeth said matter-of-factly.
“Elizabeth, I think we shall be friends. I intend to help you in any way I can. Just remember, although it may seem as though I stampeded you into this, I think the outcome will be to the greater good of everyone involved. This will all become clearer as time goes by, but I’ll be here to help you in anything you may need on Portia’s behalf. The Colonel’s wife is a dear friend of mine...” Her voice trailed off softly. Elizabeth was beginning to understand.
“I’ll expect you here Sunday at ten o’clock with the dress,” said Mrs. McClean as she snapped back into martinet mode. “And I’ve scheduled you a meeting with Mrs. Lincoln early next week at the White House. She will be interviewing mantua makers at that time. Don’t let her know we have already decided on you. Let her think it’s her idea.” Then, like Eve and the serpent, they both smiled warmly.
When Elizabeth returned, Portia was no longer tearful, having summoned some inner reservoir of strength. “Let me carry one of your valises. It’s fifteen blocks to my house.”
They were no more than two doors from the McClean mansion when Portia grabbed the wrought iron hand-rail of a neighbors step and silently deposited her breakfast on the cobblestone sidewalk. Elizabeth extended her a kerchief to wipe her mouth. “How far along are you?”
“Better part of three months. Do you know how to keep it from becoming four?”
“I know how to make cotton root bark tea, if that’s what you really want to do?”
“Will it hurt?”
“No more than getting kicked by a mule.”
Portia managed a thin smile. “Have you ever taken it?”
“Thought about it once. Thought better about it and didn’t. Glad I didn’t. My boy George hung the moon.”
Elizabeth sat the valise on the sidewalk. “Let’s rest a spell.” She commandeered the suitcase into a chair of sorts and sat. “Did you steal all of their silverware? This thing must weigh fifty pounds.”
“I’m carrying in my belly the only thing I took from that house, and I certainly didn’t steal it. But it’s lost all of its value to me now. Can we do the cotton root bark tonight?”
“No, tonight we start on Mrs. McClean’s dress. We’ll have a tea party Sunday night after the dress is delivered. Here comes the omnibus. It goes within two blocks of my house.”
Although it was only early afternoon on a mild winter day, the two horses pulling the omnibus were both foaming generously at the mouth. Elizabeth knew a certain amount of foam was caused by the bit, and was probably salubrious. But this foam was thick and tinted, as though they had been grazing in a pasture of red clover. Elizabeth thought about not boarding, but decided two more riders wouldn’t add that much of a burden to the beasts. About thirty of the forty seats were occupied. There were two seats together about five rows behind the driver. Portia slid in first and they balanced their packages on their knees.
The horses started their uphill ascent on 7th street. As they neared the busier mercantile district near Pennsylvania Ave. the bus exceeded its capacity and two lads in their late teens or early twenties were standing in the aisles. The driver turned and looked at Portia and then at Elizabeth. Elizabeth was in a reverie, mentally making Mrs. McClean’s dress.
“Move to the rear, please.”
Elizabeth was jerked back into the present. Anger started to build in her as she realized they were being ordered to relinquish their seats to two young men who looked strong enough to pull a plow.
“But she is with child.”
“And she will be with the chief-of-police if she doesn’t step to the rear.”
Anger and rage burned within Elizabeth as she ceded their seats to the young men. She spoke in a Gullah accent so she would not be understood and pasted the driver with an African curse – “May your fingers turn into fish hooks and may your ass itch for five hundred years.”
“Hice un chune sistuh,” rejoined Portia.
After several blocks the number of departures exceeded the number of new riders until at last Elizabeth and Portia were the sole riders. The universe had shrunk until there were only three inhabitants. The last three people on earth. There were no laws, no customs, no nothing, save the vast expanse of eternity that awaited them. At the terminus of his route the driver asked, “How much further to your house?”
“I’m ahead of schedule. I’ll take you so you don’t have to slog through the mud with your valises.”
“Thank you, but only if you’ll allow me to pump a bucket of fresh well water for the horses. They seem to be in danger of foundering.”