Excerpt: A Visit to Cheshire
Thank you to all my readers who waited patiently for this chapter. I must admit that it took me awhile to write this one because it was the only chapter where I didn't already have all of the details planned out beforehand. But at last I was able to overcome writer's block. So I hope you enjoy it.
After my father finished his business in London, which took all but three days, Sara and I had expected to go straight to India, but he wanted to visit Cheshire beforehand.
"Why Cheshire?" asked Sara quizzically as we waited for our coach.
"That's where our family is from," replied daddy proudly.
"So we have relatives there?" she exclaimed. Maybe we weren't alone after all.
"Only distant ones, unfortunately. But I thought you girls ought to see the place before we left England."
"Where's Cheshire?" I asked.
"Wales, northwest of here. The last time I saw it, I was at my mother's funeral."
"Did she trade crackers, too?" I wondered aloud.
Daddy chuckled. "Trade crackers?"
"The girls at school used to call you the cracker king, papa," explained Sara. "They thought that was how you got rich."
"Well yes, there were crackers, or rather, biscuits. But they were for the tea. We traded mainly tea and spices," he corrected us.
"Papa's teas are delicious," declared Sara with a grin. "They're the best in the world!"
She and I had never seen our father's ancestral land before, but we immediately fell in love with Cheshire's picturesque countryside. We toured the magnificent Crewe Hall, and I was most impressed by the black and white timbered buildings that lined Nantwich's High Street.
"Tomorrow we'll go to St. Mary's Church," declared the Captain.
"But it's not Sunday," I reminded him.
"I know, Rebecca."
He said nothing more, but the glint in his eye betrayed him.
"What is it, papa?" Sara demanded to know. "Tell us, please?"
"It's where I was baptized," he replied solemnly. "Where your grandfather and generations of ancestors are buried... our family is recorded in the registry there."
He snuggled us close to him and said, "I want you to see it. Rebecca should get baptized as well."
We stayed at the Beacon Inn that first night. As I lay in bed, gazing out our window at the stars, I finally admitted my initial jealousy to Sara.
"But why were you jealous, Becky?"
My cheeks burned as I confessed, "because I wanted him to be my dad too."
"But he IS your dad now."
"I know," I said, with tears in my eyes.
Sara gently smoothed my hair and said, "tomorrow you're getting baptized, then we'll go to church the next day."
"When did you get baptized, Sara?"
"In India, when I was a baby. I don't remember it, really. But papa said mama held me in her arms the whole time, and I was a good little girl until I felt those drops of water on my head. Then I cried and cried."
We laughed and talked for a long time before falling asleep. The next morning, the innkeeper, Mrs. Melody, greeted us warmly when we went downstairs for breakfast.
"Did you sleep well, Mr. Crewe?" she asked daddy.
"Indeed I did, thank you."
"How did you girls like your bed?"
"It was so soft!" I replied as Sara nodded.
"And if I may ask, do you have plans for the day?"
"Why yes, we're going to St. Mary's for my daughter's baptism," said daddy.
Mrs. Melody's face turned a little pale.
"Oh," she replied softly. "You aren't takin' them to see Bishop Blaine, are you?"
"As a matter of fact, I am."
"Well, if you must," she said anxiously. "I'll... I'll get you some more tea," she continued before hurrying into the kitchen.
After a sumptuous breakfast of eggs, bacon and fried laverbread, we walked to the old church. Daddy said very little as we passed by townspeople who politely stared at us. Some whispered as if we were exotic travelers, which we were.
We arrived at St. Mary's and entered its hallowed, chilly halls. I almost shivered, even with my coat on. We were greeted by the vicar, a slim, older man with spectacles hanging on his gaunt face.
"This way, please."
After giving Sara and I a stern glance, he lead us to the bishop's office. It seemed austere and gloomy, just like the man who arose from behind his desk to greet us.
"Ah, Mr. Crewe. Do have a seat."
He motioned towards the two chairs in front of his desk. Instead of sitting, daddy turned to us and said, "sit, girls."
Sara and I smiled at each other as we each took a seat. I noticed the bishop's withering glance in my direction.
"What brings you here today, Mr. Crewe?"
"I'd like my daughter Rebecca to be baptized, and her name added to our family records."
Bishop Blaine gave Sara a tight-lipped smile as well as a nod of approval.
"Very good. We can do so right away. How old are you, Rebecca?"
"I'm afraid you are mistaken, bishop. That's Sara."
Daddy put his gentle hands on my shoulders.
"This is Rebecca."
The astonishment on Bishop Blaine's face could not have been more apparent.
His face flushed a deep red as he folded his arms.
"Is something the matter?" asked daddy.
"May I have a word with you in private?" asked the bishop.
Daddy looked at him for a long moment, as if to ascertain the matter. Finally, he grimaced and said, "girls, please go outside for a moment."
Sara and I held hands and reluctantly left the office. After daddy closed the door, we stayed outside, eavesdropping and watching for the vicar. Now sometimes I wish we hadn't.
"Mr. Crewe, you say that the other girl—that is, Rebecca, is your... daughter?" said the bishop.
"Yes, I adopted her. Why?"
"You adopted a Negro girl?"
"I... don't understand this line of questioning. I brought her here to be baptized. Is that a problem?"
"Quite frankly, yes. Don't you know your place, Mr. Crewe?"
"Whites and Blacks shall never mix, and it is beneath you to call a Negro your daughter."
I hung my head, but not for long. Sara lifted my chin and gave me a fierce, steady stare, as if daring me to lower it again.
I could hear the edge in my father's voice as he enunciated his next question. "Will you baptize her or not?"
A long silence ensued. At last the bishop replied, "I don't think that's a good idea."
"Why? What harm could it possibly do, baptizing a little girl?" asked daddy indignantly.
"It's against my principles, Mr. Crewe," said the bishop, with no small disdain in his voice. "I hope you understand."
"I should like at the very least to have her name be recorded in the parish register, next to mine."
"Of course. I shall have the vicar do so when he has a chance. Will there be anything else?"
"No, thank you," said daddy in a low voice. Sara and I scampered a few feet away from the door as it opened. Out walked the Captain with his lips drawn taut. He motioned to us and said, "come, girls."
I took his left hand and we silently trotted back towards the inn.
"Papa, is Becky still getting baptized?" asked Sara.
He sighed and shook his head. "I'm sorry, Rebecca."
"It's okay, daddy," I said, despite my dashed hopes. We entered the inn, where Mrs. Melody's sunny demeanor was a welcome respite.
"Mr. Crewe! Back so early? Would you like some lunch?"
"I reckon I could use some tea," he replied. "Come and sit, girls."
We sat at a corner table. It was still morning and the lunch crowd had not yet arrived. Daddy fumed silently between sips of tea, while Mrs. Melody noticed his agitated state.
"Is everything all right?" she asked as she waited on us.
"That bishop..." daddy began.
Mrs. Melody sighed and set down the tea pot. "I was afraid you'd say that. He's new; just moved here from South Africa but a year ago; not very tolerant of outsiders."
"You mean Negroes," replied daddy pointedly.
"Aye, notwithstanding the fact that some families here are descended from Jack Black."
"Jack Black?" asked Sara curiously. "Was he a blacksmith?"
Mrs. Melody chuckled. "No, dearie. He was an African boy; kidnapped and brought over here almost two hundred years ago. They called him John Ystumllyn. He settled in these parts, married a local lass and was buried in Gwynedd. A gentle soul he was."
She paused and glanced around before confessing, "was my great-great-great-great grandfather, you know."
Daddy's jaw dropped, but the innkeeper smiled and patted my head.
"Try the Methodist Chapel on Hospital Street. They're much more welcoming."
"But I'm not a Methodist," daddy countered.
"No matter. They welcome all kinds of folk to attend and be baptized," she said as she patted me on the head.
"Thank you for the suggestion," said daddy as he beamed at me.
I was so excited at another possibility, and I didn't have to wait long. We visited the chapel, and just as Mrs. Melody said, we received a warm welcome. When daddy explained our predicament to the parson, he was very agreeable, and after an hour of counsel with him, I was baptized and my name recorded in the chapel register.
"I have something for you, Rebecca," said daddy afterwards with a grin.
He took it out of his coat pocket and let it dangle from his finger.
Sara drew in her breath. "It's beautiful!"
"A locket...?" I whispered in stunned amazement. It was just like Sara's. Daddy draped it around my neck.
"Can I open it?" I asked.
"Of course, it's yours."
And so I did. Inside were photos of daddy and Sara. I glanced up at him with gratitude. He had been watching me.
"Thank you," I sighed as I held it to my bosom. My eyes were starting to water again. Sara came and put her arm around my shoulders.
"Now we both have a locket."
I gave my sister a tight squeeze until daddy cleared his throat. Then I ran into his arms and held him tight for a long moment.
"Well," he began. "I suppose we should continue our journey home. There's only one more thing left to do."
We said farewell to the good Methodists and bought wildflowers from a young woman and her little daughter on the street.
"Bless you, sir," she said as she gave us a huge bouquet.
"Where are we going now?" I inquired.
"Are we walking back to St. Mary's?" asked Sara.
"Yes," daddy replied. We meandered to St. Mary's churchyard, where rows of headstones lay near the church walls. We followed daddy as he deftly trod between graves until he found one located near the southeast corner of the cemetery. There he laid some flowers gently on George and Eliza Crewe's grave.
"My parents," he said.
Sara traced the letters on the headstone. "Hi, grandfather and grandmother. It's me, your granddaughter Sara. And papa and my sister Becky are here, too."
She beckoned to me, and I joined her. The stone was still in excellent condition.
"Your grandfather also lived in India, once. Then he moved back here and married your grandmother," said daddy.
"I wish we could have known them, Becky." said Sara. "But they died before I was born."
"Indeed, much too early. Father went first, then mother not much long after."
He proceeded to lay flowers on three other small graves.
"Who are they, daddy?" I asked.
"My brother and sisters. I was the only one who survived."
We read the headstones in silence. Richard, Mary, and Sara all died before their tenth birthdays.
"I named you after my sister Sara. She was the kindest, smartest girl in the world."
He knelt down and wrapped his strong arms around us.
"You are all I have now."
He pulled us close and gave us each a kiss on the cheek. I thought of what my life was like before, when I was all alone in the world. When we arose to depart, we saw the bishop glaring at us from his window, but we did not care. As we walked away, I looked back and thought of my mother and my adopted family, and somehow felt loathe to leave.
Sara tugged at me. "They'll always be with us, Becky."
I looked up at daddy, who smiled and nodded.
"We won't forget them."
I took one last look and walked on, awaiting my next destination--India.