Chapter 5.1: Internal Silence

As noted in previous posts, the Catherine Payne storyline happened about eight years before Captain James Wade was committed to the Almshouse, and so I placed it in an Introduction and a Chapter 0. The real events featured in this post actually occurred about two years before Captain Wade’s commitment, but I have made them a bit more timeless so as to incorporate Hannah Biggs and build bridges for storylines down the road. The incident described here is based on an event recorded in William Still’s record of the Underground Railroad.

Mary Payne liked cool, fall, dew-filled mornings, especially in the hour or two before everyone else was up. She had come to live with the Wrights after her mother had married widower Abraham Brian and settled into a small house in Gettysburg with his four children. There had not been enough room for all of them, so Mary and Eliza Jane had gone to different families in the area—Mary to the home of Willliam and Phebe Wright, Eliza Jane first to the home of Dr. Charles Augustus Hay, who taught at the Lutheran Theological Seminary, and then next to the home of Alexander and Agnes Campbell.

What Mary had come to treasure was silence. This had been hard for her to get used to. When the Wrights had first brought her to a Menallen Monthly Meeting, Mrs. Wright had told her, “This can be hard for children when they first go. It is not like churches that you know. We have no preacher. We contemplate in silence. If the Spirit moves a person, he or she may give a short message, and then we return to contemplation.”

“Contemplation?” Mary had said.

“Deep thinking,” said Phebe Wright. “We are looking to connect to God and to the inner light that shines in each of us.”

“I don’t understand,” said Mary.

“That’s to be expected,” said Mrs. Wright.

It had taken her a couple of years, but she had begun to understand. And in the early morning hours, when she first stepped into the bracing chill and saw her breath billow into the hazy morning, when she approached a gently rising dairy cow or stepped out into the apple orchard as the songbirds first cheeped their songs, she felt a warmth that went from the top of her head through the soles of her feet and that told her that, just as she was not a beast of burden, all living things had a form of divinity. This was hardest to remember in the presence of the cruel and the obscene, but it had to be remembered because it was the truth and the answer. Her own name had come from a white woman who had “owned” her—Mrs. Mary Maddox who had been so gentle with her mother and had created their freedom. She was in Mary and Mary was in her and she and Mary were one, black and white, bond and free.

Her mother had died in the last year while giving birth to another baby who had also died. She had not been present, had only found out her passing a day later from one of her step-siblings who had also made her way out to Eliza Jane and told her. This was how things had always been—life and death, abrupt and short, and it had been tempting to dull herself against the feelings of love and affection, but no, she was connected to the cows and the chickens and the apples and the birds and the coyotes and raccoons that killed and the doves and hens that were their prey. And most of all, she was connected to the dead the same as she was to the living. Her mother was dead and was not. Her father was dead and was not. Two of her baby brothers were dead and were not.

Mary would have to admit that the little girl emerging from the barn startled her. She could not have been more than nine or ten, and she crossed over the wet grass barefoot and with purpose. It was so early, and even the animals were barely stirring. To see someone else moving around—and with such purpose—well, she stood quietly trying to decide if there was a threat somewhere in it.

“This the Wright farm?” the girl said quietly when she was within speaking distance.

“Who’s asking?” Mary said.

“You know we don’t never share names,” said the girl. “You must know.”

And now Mary was certain. She had seen strange people come and go now and again. She knew that Mr. and Mrs. Wright helped many more people than just her family, but she had mostly been shielded from it.

“You got runaways in the barn?”

“Who’s asking?” the girl said.

Mary smiled. “I’m Mary. I will get Mr. and Mrs. Wright.”

“Please hurry,” said the girl. “The catchers is in the area tryin to get em back. Daddy and Mr. Matthews is tryin to throw em off the trail.”

Mary felt a surge of adrenaline. “Go back to the barn. Someone will be out shortly.”

She found Mr. Wright sitting in a chair, one boot off and one boot on, a long stare on his face. “Mr. Wright?” she said.

He blinked and yawned. “Yes, child.” He shook his head. “I suppose I ought not call you that anymore. You are more and more a young lady every day.”

“There’s a little girl,” Mary stammered. “I mean, there’s runaways, sir. A little girl brought them.”

Mr. Wright straightened. “Mmm . . . runaways? Where?”

“The barn, sir. I was fixin to feed the chickens, and the little girl came out the barn and tole me.”

“Led by a little girl, huh?” said Mr. Wright. “Phebe!”

“I heard,” she called back from their bedroom. “I’ll get breakfast going. Mary, be a dear and fetch as many eggs from the hens as you can. Do you know how many people are out there?”

“No, ma’am,” Mary called back. “The little girl just said runaways and I tole her that y’all would hurry out.”

“I will go find out,” Mr. Wright said loudly to Phebe.

Phebe suddenly emerged into their small living room, her hair still a mess from the night but her day dress firmly in place. She straightened her dress and looked at Mary.

“What’s the matter, dear?” she said.

“It’s just that, well, the girl said that the catchers is in the area and her Dad and Mr. Matthews is tryin to throw em off the trail. I think they need help in a hurry.”

Mr. Wright nodded. “Hannah knows her business.”

“Hannah?” said Mary.

“Yes,” said Mr. Wright. “That’s the girl.”

“She wouldn’t tell me her name,” said Mary.

“Of course not,” said Mr. Wright. “Because she doesn’t know you. But she will after today. You two would make good friends if she didn’t live so far away.” He stretched and stepped into his second boot. “She is smart and fearless and totally committed to the liberty of her people. Ah! Anyway, I should go see them.”

With that, he was out the door and on the way to the barn, and within a few minutes, he was leading them all back to the house. There were four of them plus Hannah—all adult men.

Mary hustled in behind them with a basket full of eggs. She placed the eggs on the counter near Mrs. Wright who had fired up the wood stove and had slabs of bread face down in pats of butter in a large frying pan.

“Please, take seats at the table. You all must be starving,” she said.

“Thank you, ma’am,” a tall man in ragged homespun clothes said. “We’s all starvin, ma’am, but beggin yo pardon, the catchers is nearby and we’s wonderin if we ought not be goin, if they isn’t some place next to go.”

Mr. Wright trundled in behind and sat at the head of the table. “If they’re close, you’re as likely to meet them out there on the road somewhere as they are to come here. And if they come here, we can keep them occupied awhile for you to get a start. On the road? If they get you, they get you. You got no help.”

“Guess we hadn’t thought of it that way, Massa,” said the tall man.

“There are no masters in this house,” said Mr. Wright. “There is only one master, and that is our Lord. You can call me William.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” the man said.

“Now Mrs. Wright has got us some bread and some day-old biscuits. We have apple butter and jam and in a few, we will have eggs. Let’s have you eat up. And we will trust in the Lord and Mr. Biggs that they will keep the catchers away while we eat.”

“Who’s Mr. Biggs?” Mary said suddenly from the corner of the room.

“My daddy,” said Hannah from the other corner.

“He lives on the south side of Gettysburg,” said Phebe.

Mary marveled at Hannah—so far away from home, so young, and yet in charge of this group. Could she be like her at some point? The terror of her own kidnapping stayed with her, and when she thought of it, she felt cold and frozen inside. Could she put herself in the way of that again?

After breakfast, Mr. Wright had a private huddle with the men. Mary came to know them as Tom, Sam, Rob, and John, but she couldn’t be sure those were real names. She assumed they would be on their way, and while they shuffled off to other parts of the farm that day, they did not leave. They remained another couple of days, resting up, eating, and getting new clothes.

Then, about three days later, in mid-morning when Mary was running water out to some of the men working the orchard, she saw two white men on horses approaching. Tom, Rob, and John were in the orchard, and when they saw the white men, the set their tools down and headed back to the house. As they passed, Mary said, “Is everything ok?”

“Massa’s people comin,” Tom muttered.

The men on horses approached, as the three runaways disappeared. Mary thought to run, but she did not. She thought of Hannah, of Phebe, of silence in church meetings, of her own mother and how calmly she had managed them in the Washington prison. She felt a strange serenity as the two large men rode up.

“Morning, Miss,” one of them said. “This here your farm?”

“No, sir,” she said.

“There were men just out here helping you. They from this farm?” The fellow talking had short brown whiskers, a wide-brimmed hat, and broad shoulders. His companion had flowing blond hair that nearly reached his shoulders.

“Why else would I bring them water, sir?” Mary said, surprising herself with her firmness.

The man chuckled. “Folks tell us this here is Mr. Wright’s farm. That so?”

“Yes, sir,” said Mary.

“Can you bring us to him?”

“No, sir,” Mary said, and for a second, she saw anger flash over the man’s face. “But I will go get him.”

“All right, well, you do that.”

One thing the silence had taught her was the embrace of time, the expansion of it, the patience to wait and to have others wait to have their needs or desires fulfilled.

She turned and walked slowly, ever so slowly, toward the house.


After reading Chapter 5.1, teachers, parents, or learners may want to dive into more historical sources by visiting the Chapter 5.1 resource page. Resources for all chapters can be found at the book’s resources page. Or keep reading by going to American Crucible.

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