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Captain Fabriches Langston reclined on the deck of a northbound steamship headed to New York City. He was not the captain of this ship. He was not Navy at all. He was Cavalry. However, he had not seen action in Mexico and got no further west than New Orleans by the time that action was resolved in ’48.

From New York, he would take a train to Hartford, Connecticut. With a calm and agreeable ocean and no delays, the passage from Charleston to New York City would take seven to eight days. The ship’s agent in Charleston assured him that the bourbon would hold out. Then another day on a train from New York to Hartford.

He stared toward the horizon holding his drink aloft to avoid spillage. The view included occasional glimpses of land and, when passing Chesapeake Bay, a variety of vessels were seen headed in all directions, but none of them were engineering marvel the equal of the “Star of the South”, the ship he was now aboard. It displayed three masts and a smokestack but no side wheel. The Star had a new device called a “propeller.” But for the tolerable rumble of the coal fired engine, it was a quiet innovation. Mrs. Langston did not demur from telling the ladies of Summerville, South Carolina, that they would be arriving in New York City, wined and dined, in record time, a time hitherto dreamed impossible: a mere 6 days.

Pilford, the bank manager in Charleston, advised the captain not to take his manservant deep into the bowels of abolitionist country.

“The unhinged Sodomite women will catch wind of it and you’ll be a month in a Yankee courthouse trying to get your property back, if that is even possible.” The Captain knew the value of trusted advice and so settled on the company of his wife, for three weeks at most.


Months prior to this voyage, something odd had started to occur on the plantation, the Captain’s plantation. It started with one of the field bosses coming to the Big House to show his employer something he had discovered.

It was a drawing on the back of a bounty bill for a runaway from the next county over. The damage to the paper, torn from a tree or post, made the theft of this notice evident. The field boss, illiterate himself, insisted that “Learnin’ to draw come right before learnin’ to read. The criminal must be found and whipped, then burnt alive before the whole bunch of ’em starts to book learnin’, not to mention rippin’ down a white man’s bill.”

In another situation, the Captain might have given his blessing to this remedy, immediately. Here he did not.

“Keep your eyes peeled, your powder dry and the whip wet. Please bring me any more of these found on the premises. I shall make inquiries.” Samuel was rewarded with a tall glass of bourbon and a handshake of gratitude.

“Man don’t have the sense of a mud turtle,” thought the Captain as he retired to his “library.”

It was a portrait of a woman holding an infant. A field woman no doubt, the hands were scarred and swollen, painful even to look at, but they held the child in strength. Her eyes scanned a future neither hopeful nor tormented. The babe seemed undernourished but content in the moment. The detail, probably provided from a pencil, was breathtaking, if only one looked. In shades of one color, her skin came alive, eyes focused on their objects, and all the trespasses of a life of undeserved suffering were spoken by her frozen parted lips.

Nothing and no one had ever set his mind to wonder as did this image. He sat with it for an hour, maybe more. Minutes became as irrelevant to him as they were to her. He retrieved a large atlas from a nearby shelf and stored her in there, then returned the atlas to its shelf. With the drawing out of sight, he began to think again.

When the Master entered the kitchen, which he never did, all movement stopped. Breath stopped, no one blinked. Dellfy was the head woman in the kitchen and after a brief perusal of the younger women, the Captain approached his not so undernourished Dellfy,

“Dellfy, is there anyone in my chattelage who shows an ability to draw pictures? Tell me true and quick now. I will know who is drawing pictures on my plantation. Answer!” The Captain made a show of leering at a young girl assigned to shelling pecans.

“I swear Massuh, nobody here has time for making pictures and wouldn’t begin to know how if’n they did. We be makin’ you an’ duh missus dinner, then we clean, then we sleep. No pictures Massuh Sir.”

Captain scanned the room, drinking in the terror his mere presence created and found no denial on any face present. Turning to leave, he grabbed some of those pecans on his way out.

In the coming weeks, more drawings appeared. One found in the peach orchard was done on a shred of laundry. Delivered to him in the library by Custus, his manservant and butler, it was an image of a stable boy brushing a familiar horse. Clearly, the horse loved the boy. Later, on a stretched cowhide by the leather shop, was the image of an old man supporting the expired body of a younger man released from agony, life, and the whipping post.

By New Year ’55 the atlas proved insufficient to contain the strange harvest of the Langston plantation.

A letter of invitation was sent to a professor Andersun Douglas, Lecturer of Classics at a nearby Charleston college. The professor assumed some dimwitted planter had an equally dimwitted daughter in need of tutoring in order to enhance her value as a premium bride. The invitation specified only the carriage ride and lunch.

“No field hand produced this work sir. This is testimony of high intellect, I’d say even a touch of the divine. I’ve not seen its like in this country before. Europe, yes, here, not by a damn sight, pardon.” The professor focused on the drawings as he spoke and the drawings stared back.

The Captain listened intently, more than intently. Half of the suspect pool, by the professor’s estimation, had just been summarily eliminated. His own bosses, tenant farmers and folks from town would all have to be interviewed. Estimating the size and number of just that end of the suspect pool he began to consider, who might reasonably be excluded: himself and the missus, that blind fella, that veteran without arms, etc. He spoke with the tenants on their premises and met with the townsfolk in the sheriff’s office. The sheriff tied up the loafers and drunks out back while the Captain conducted his investigation. News flies on fast wings. A cobbler came in with a drawing his Mayellen had done. “You must be very proud,” the Captain offered. Weary of this process, polite was becoming difficult. No credible source of the drawings could be found.

A letter arrived from Professor Douglas stating that he had been in contact with colleagues at the Wadsworth Atheneum in godforsaken Hartford, Connecticut, America’s first and then only art museum on European standards – that is, housing no scalps nor any of Washington’s wooden teeth.

“The curators and learned men there,” on the Professor’s recommendation, “would be happy to examine the works in question and share their insights with you at your convenience. Please wire them as to when they might expect you, if you so choose.”

“What, pray tell me, can be convenient about traveling 1,000 miles to step into an abolishee hornets’ nest like Connecticut?” Still, the Captain made his arrangements the following day and there it was. Skimming over the water at near light speed, he sipped bourbon and struggled not to tally what this expedition was going to cost.

The level of activity around and in New York Harbor made the Chesapeake traffic look like three horses grazing in the grass of a meadow. Madame and the Captain watched the spectacle leaning on a railing from the deck of the Star. Smoke and soot sat over New York City like a halo. One might have thought the place was on fire. In some sense, it was. The Brooklyn side looked nicer and not on fire. The other shores surrounding the harbor were undeveloped and had not earned the halo.

Once inside the protective reach of the artillery positions, the Star of the South was met by a pair of tugboats that cooperatively brought her into her appointed berth. From a few hundred yards out New York City looked like a city of spires and masts. From close up, it looked awful, indeed, hellish. The stench of rotten fish, manure, coal fires and open sewers lined up in a symphony of smells. Add the yelling, the bells, ships horns and terrified horses on cobblestones and you had an opera.

Even though armed as a gentlemen must be, the Captain considered whether it was safe to even get off the boat. The travel arrangements provided a carriage for two passengers and their luggage but after an abrupt meeting with the captain of the Star (whom they would see again in a week, if they lived), two armed guards were hired to ride shotgun atop the carriage for the trip to the train yard.

At some point riding up Broadway, Mrs. Langston said, “God help us, we are traveling through Sodom.” Later, one of the escorts had to use his blackjack on a teenager who was going for the luggage.

The area around the train yard had plenty of coppers about and the two escorts saw them safely onto their rail cars. The Captain did not take his hand from his pistol until they were past the village of Haarlem.

Arriving in Hartford near sundown, they settled into their accommodations and asked the desk to get a note to the museum informing the “esteemed gentlemen” that Captain Langston would be by at noon of the following day.

The Captain had come North with two examples of the enigma; the Madonna with Weeping Hands and a landscape showing men and women at harvest. He kept them in a leather attaché and there was hardly ever much space between the Captain and his paramour.

From their lodgings, the museum was only a stroll away at most. Hartford was a lovely city, without the industry or mongrel inter-racialism that made New York such a godless abyss. They might have walked but instead, they hired a carriage with a proper driver sporting a top hat. In front of the museum, the Captain asked the driver to wait.


“Sir, if these works were signed by Rubens himself, we would be no less enchanted.” WHO IS SAYING THIS?  TRANSITION

Clearing her throat, Mrs. Langston asked, “Pardon sir but, Rubin who?”

Assembled there were three men representing the museum, plus the Langstons, and none of these [Langston’s]? men welcomed the interjection of a woman. That the abolition matter did not come to fore in this encounter was as difficult as it was deliberate. The assembly was positively awestruck in the presence of what seemed a perfect miracle of creation. The handkerchiefs came out as the wise men began to sweat. The humanity of the hands left their hearts shattered, in pieces on the floor. WOULD AVOID THIS

“Sir, may we inquire please, who did these and, are there more?”

“I prefer not to say gentlemen. I prefer not to say.” The professors interpreted this as him being cagey. None presumed honesty.

“While you visit here a few days, may we keep these works for study? They will be seen only by ourselves and senior members of the museum council and we pledge our reputations on their absolute safekeeping. Would that be all right with you?” Appreciating their appreciation of the work as similar to his own, Captain Langston consented to leave the drawings. To his surprise, he was given a consent form to sign, it being a formality required by the insurance underwriters of the museum. Skimming, then signing the document, the Captain mumbled, “You know we started this tedium in Charleston don’choo?” They did not know.

Captain and Mrs. Langston returned to their waiting carriage and requested the driver take a scenic route for their return trip. He obliged. Not far from the museum was the State House. “This is where they tried the Amistad boys and Mrs. Crandall.” The Captain turned his head and spat in the direction of the Courthouse, something manners should have prohibited in the company of a lady. “She had it coming. Drive on sir.”

Though Mrs. Langston could not make sense of the notion that all those myriad citizens seen to and fro at their various labors were recompensed for their work, she thought it a lovely locale. There were beautiful stately homes and the appearance of a dense community where the lower classes seemed somehow elevated compared to their counterparts back in Charleston. This struck her as charming. The Captain however, thought two “darkies” leaning on a lamp post, talking and laughing, a disgusting sight, one that might promote similar arrogance in others.

There were attractive shopping streets where a fashionable woman might spend her husband’s money freely, in service to him, of course. The Captain stopped his wondering as to why his wife had brought an empty trunk.

“You paid one of those fugitives to stitch a dress?” Smoke came from the Captain’s ears. I’D AVOID USING THIS FIGURE OF SPEECH AS IF IT WERE REAL

“I paid one of those fugitives to fit a dress and I would pay her again, with pleasure, to come South and teach our house girls to sew like this!!”

The Captain wished to be headed home on the steamer again, home where things made sense. He found the North to be an unendurable captivity, a lawless place pocked with incivility and cruelty.

On the day before their departure, the Captain asked the same driver and horse to wait for them in front of the museum. A butler with a German accent brought them, this time, to a boardroom with a larger assembly than before, though the three gentlemen they had first met were part of the new larger group. Hearing the names of the men he now shook hands with did not make the introductions a friendly matter.

The guest position was assumed by the Captain as the rest took their usual assigned seats around the table, and Madame was seated on the periphery. The curator who had spoken those days ago was seated directly across from the Captain. Before anything was said, he slid a document across the table towards a perplexed Captain Fabriches Langston.

There, before him, lay a check for $20,000. He did not wish to engage with the abolitionists as they did not wish to do business with a slaver. He spoke only to the curator in front of him.

“I don’t understand, sir. Did something happen to my drawings?” Now, the Captain started to sweat.

“No, sir. They are as they were when you entrusted them to us. However, we wish to purchase them. $10,000 is what we paid for a de Hooch just last year. This would put your anonymous artist in rather good company, I’d say. Is this agreeable to you?” In 1856 20,000 dollars was a fortune.

His neck turned red. He started to choke. Mrs. Langston jumped to his aid while scanning the document with her free eye. The Captain and Mrs. Langford left the Museum again with the attaché that once contained the souls of black folks but now, a check for $20,000 was tucked into a vest pocket close to where his pistol slept.

Back on the deck of the Star of the South, the Captain’s calculations were not about what the trip had cost. In fact, an anonymous party had signed off on the hotel stay, meals and livery expenses. His calculations now were to what the aggregate value of the contents of “Cary’s New and Correct English Atlas” might be.

Every piece contained there was inventoried with accuracy in his head, and $10,000 seemed an easy enough figure to multiply, but he just could not figure it. Or refused to. He did not try to calculate it on paper since that, if found, might reveal what he was bringing back to Charleston. So he drank some more and studied the flight of the gulls.

Docking at Charleston in late afternoon, the Captain resolved it would be best to send his wife home in a carriage posthaste and he would stay in town to deposit “the thing” in the morning. The twirl of her parasol vanishing in a carriage up Meeting Street brought a smile to his heart. He whistled “Hard Times” as he strolled up Beresford Street to Miss Grace’s Big Brick.

Savvy as she was buxom, Miss Grace made it her business to know her clientele. Greeting the Captain, already ensconced in a parlor chair, drink in hand, she inquired about the plantation, the trip, and Mrs. Langston. All, he assured, were splendid.

“Leave this one alone. When he wants something, he’ll ask.” And Miss Grace was correct.

The man at the piano did not play plantation songs or anything like that. Light-skinned to white, he was one of those New Orleans Creole types who thought themselves European. He played Mr. Beethoven and a new fella named Chopin. Hearing this music only rarely, THE CAPTAIN … (DANGLING MODIFIER) it saturated the Captain’s brain like a downpour in the desert. His eyes roamed the candle-lit room and the pearls that vanished between buttressed breasts did not pique his interest that night. Instead, it was the parlor walls, covered in paintings he had not noticed before.

As quickly as he could focus on them, he dismissed them as rubbish. Fleshy peasant women, bowls of fruit, and impossible horses, works not worth their paint and probably bought by the pound, like most of the books in his library. These dull impersonations of art did not make the Big Brick an elevated place, only a brothel. He dozed. Grace took his drink and put his feet up on an ottoman. In the morning, she put a cup of strong coffee in his hand. He put down the coffee and checked his pockets.


Mr. Pilford sat up straight quick when he caught sight of the check. “May I inquire how you came into such a windfall, Sir? I only ask for curiosity’s sake.”

“The sale of a parcel of property up north, left to me by a deceased relative. And, might I add, you would have to pay me that again to ever, I say ever, venture into that disgusting den of abolishee insurrection. Devil take them insurrection all. Pardon.”

The Captain extracted a pledge of secrecy from Mr. Pilford promising that no one would get wind of this deposit. His WHOSE? left hand fell on a copy of “Putnam’s Monthly” freshly opened to a story called “Benito Cereno.” He raised his other hand and did swear. Then he gave the Captain a receipt for the deposit and informed him the funds would be available in 28 business days. “Out-of-state checks are complicated. You do understand, sir.”

“May I ask, how are Mrs. Pilford and the children?”

Mr. Pilford was back to his magazine before the Captain was out the door.

The plantation house was a spacious brick mansion built and enlarged by two generations of Langstons, the current Langstons being the third. The Captain really did not know the extent of his home. Upstairs there was his, the Master’s, bedroom and guest rooms and parlors, closets, and a nursery yet unoccupied. Downstairs was even larger by way of extensions. There were pantries below ground, accessible from the large kitchen. Then, by way of grand double doors, you were in the dining room with a table that sat twenty. In a word, it was a mansion. The Captain was more familiar with the stables, the planting fields, the slave shacks, and the various sheds and shops where things were repaired or fabricated. He knew the orchards and the streams where he had fished as a boy and fished still. But he didn’t know the big brick house. So, Custus, who knew the house well, took him on a tour of every last inch of it. NOT CLEAR WHY HE DOES NOT KNOW IT BETTER. IS IT A NEW HOME FOR HIM?

Second floor, southwest corner was Mrs. Langston’s upstairs parlor, used when the ladies came to call.

“Empty it. Except that chair. That was my Daddy’s chair. And get rid of that damnable wallpaper. Paint it all white, but not the wood. And the curtains. Get rid of those curtains. Give ’em to your women to make dresses for church. Start today and inform me when I can move in. Thank you, Custus.”


Mrs. Langston was not amused by her husband’s requisition of her upstairs parlor and further incensed by his refusal to explain himself. As was her habit, she took her rage out on others.

With the boon of the art sale, Mrs. Langston got her parlor back by way of another extension on the house. The plantation too, was enlarged by buying out small adjacent farms and making their former owners tenant farmers. Most of those arrangements worked well and most, except for the souls who did all the work, prospered.

The carpentry shed was directed to making frames, as per the master’s specifications. He wanted simple frames, not the gold-plated monstrosities the likes of the Hartford Museum or Miss Grace’s. He had a decorative carpenter from Charleston come to show his shop boys some new skills for the framing work.

The Captain started seeding the woods with sheets of paper or crayons or brushes sent to him by the Hartford Board. It was their hope to acquire more works for the Museum, but to no avail. The materials became as offerings to some ubiquitous forest deity. The Captain paid the Board for what they sent from Connecticut, but did not sell any more work to them. Every piece had taken on a value to the Captain far above money. He regretted deeply having parted with the two pieces that now resided up north. He even told the Board, in a letter, that the supplies went to the missus who had, herself, taken up painting after the Hartford trip. This, he hoped, would dispel their relentless inquiries.

Captain Fabriches Langston’s life was on a new trajectory. Once the keeper, now the kept. Clearly, he was always adept in his business. By creating practical management strategies, he disengaged himself from daily operation of the expanding plantation. He gave increased responsibility and reward to his most capable managers. Wealth came and the plantation grew but those were not his objectives. To sit in his gallery, solitary and without distraction, was the desired result. Having never exercised self-reflection, he did not now question how strange his new behaviors might appear to those around him and none of those around him could begin to gauge the depth of the Captain’s obsession. Emotional diagnosis was not a thing then.

It must be said here that the regular cruelty upon the enslaved workforce decreased at the Captain’s request. He worried, still unaware of who the artist was, that that individual might be hobbled or killed due to a whipping for a crime like stealing an egg.                                                                                                                                              

Now he could spend his days sitting in his ancestral chair surrounded by the artwork that loved him NOT SURE ABOUT THAT and he loved so deeply. As works were found and brought to the big house, the deliverer was rewarded, or beaten near to death for trying to pass off a fake. That stopped quickly.

His drinking abated effortlessly. Away from his gallery he might tipple as before, but in his room, he was just happy to see the images and be washed over by them. Had he socialized more, sure he would have drunk more, but the hours a day spent in his cloister were, he thought, socializing.

As to his marital obligations, likely the nursery would not find an occupant anytime soon but, maybe. They went to church on Sunday, but he spent that time scanning the congregation in hopes of spotting the artist. This too, produced no result.

His life was becoming monastic and he devoted hours and hours a day to being alone in his room. If a new piece was found, the hours might tick up. No one understood this behavior. Certainly not his wife, though maybe the butler did. Custus had a heart, the Captain came to understand.

This went on for years, tough years. The plantation was sound and solvent but the nation was not. Would Mr. Buchanan [could]? have managed the affairs of state half as well as Capt. Langston soberly managed his estate? That would have been a better state indeed. When the murdering pirate abolitionist John Brown attempted to vandalize the agriculture producing Southern states, now referred to as “slave states,” his actions were quickly suppressed, but a great chill wind blew across the land.

No one really ever cared who was making pictures in the woods, but now, now suspicion of any conspiratorial secret — anything  —could get a slave killed. Or a white man. As the great friction heated up, militias formed overnight. In letters to the Connecticut boys who were petitioning to come down for a visit, the Captain assured them, if they ventured down now, they would not be going home with fingers and toes, if at all.

As the county’s leading citizen with a reputation for organizational genius and some military training, Captain Langston was made executive officer of the newly established county militia, “the Carolina Emancipators.” Riders brought official directives from Charleston or Richmond right to his door. How many men? Guns, men with military experience, horses, cannon if any? There were procedures and drills now required so that disparate militias might function effectively in a larger centralized fighting force.

The Captain understood and executed the initiatives, but he did not care a great deal. He thought, even if this Lincoln miscreant got into office, he would not be so stupid as to go to war with that part of the country that puts food on the table and clothes on the nation’s backs. The Captain did as he was requested of him and when asked for an opinion, he responded, “Opinions abound here, you won’t suffer from the lack of mine.”

Some days, after the regimental drilling, he would ride about the plantation, now too vast to cover in a morning or a day. He dismissed the notion that this agrarian Promised Land could be erased by a godless Yankee horde set on getting a bigger piece of the peach pie. “Never going to happen. Never.”

By default, the plantation, and indeed the big house, had become the de facto center of command for the county. More worried about local hotheads starting a war than an invasion from the North, the Captain resolved that arms and munitions should be arsenaled on his premises. The rifles were kept in a guarded barn and the gunpowder stored underground in the pantries of the big house. Here, he felt, they would be safe. Many small barrels were neatly stacked beneath and as far from the kitchen as possible.

Some were more than alarmed about this arrangement, but the Captain assured them that this was temporary, until proper bunkers could be built, and nothing bad ever happened down there before, and that he would not put himself or his wife at risk.

No longer just a gallery or salon, the room with the art became his refuge in these times of considerable trouble. He called it his “Chamber of Consolation” and discussed it with no one.

Then Lincoln was elected and escaped WHY? into Washington. Then Sumter and First Manassas. The war would be over soon, and upon gentleman's terms. The South was elated and simultaneously furious that Confederate generals did not, then and there, march into Washington and end it when they had the chance. Many in the South were madder’n hornets. SAME CONCERN ABOUT THE NARRATOR’S TONE

Having lost the bulk of his daylight hours in his chamber, he took to spending his nights there, to make up the difference. Sometimes, drink and dread pulled a blanket up to and around his neck.

Of course, no one lived to account how it happened. The gunpowder blew up. The house, its inhabitants and everything inside was simply and completely gone. Captain Fabriches Langston and his collection of works by an unknown creator were gone as though they never existed. There was not enough left of anybody to bait a hook. The blast was heard in town three miles away. Those After two or three years of losing a war despite superior numbers, President Lincoln in a desperate last-ditch effort to get reelected, unleashed three rabid Dogs of War who then ran over the South like a plague of locusts on a wheat field. They burned cities, tore up the railroad tracks, murdered innocents and freed what would become the new citizens of these re-united States. All that and more. The Captain said it would never happen due to simple exercise of common sense. It happened, Captain, sleep well.

So, who made the drawings and, later paintings? The list of suspects is not exhaustive; the local white trash I’D AVOID, enslaved blacks, store owners, farm owners, teachers and ministers, redskins, and loafers. In all fairness, Captain and Mrs. Langston and even the banker Pilford should be included in that list. But in truth, none were credible candidates.

The Captain had ceased to dwell on the question. To a man whose life became a silent devotion to each and every representation of struggle and soul and humanity, the identity of the creator no longer mattered. The images were. That is all. That’s what mattered. Had he been told on good authority that these images were the actual Tears of God, he would have dismissed the notion and gone to bed.

Nothing was left and the war took the rest. The drawings stopped turning up around the time of Gettysburg and the Emancipation. No one was looking because no one cared. What they combed the woods for then were things they could eat.

The war, as it generally does, brought out the worst in people. Suffering can be different. What came out of those sacred woods around Summerville, South Carolina, in those years before and during the war was very different. Then it was gone. Back into the ether. Back into the ground.

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