From the story ...

       In March of 1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in book form (previously serialized), and by 1853 the novel had sold over one million copies. And just as the book’s readership was getting a shocking view of slave life on Southern plantations, Jennie Bell learned that girls who were about to turn eleven, whether residing up north or down south, weren’t supposed to be so clever.
       Sister Alexis was upstairs, sick again—she had always been a sickly child—and this time the family feared the family curse: tuberculosis. But when both children were well, their cheeks glowed pink, their hair rich and shiny black, and those pale blue eyes could disarm you, everyone, that is, but their father.
       So, Jennie, who always snapped back from one illness after another, was left to her own devices, but forbidden to go into the city as she might spread her sister’s infection. For this reason, and because her personal servant had recently been sold, an inconsolable Jennie Belle wandered the Big House, disturbing the servants and annoying those from the “yard” who had sneaked inside and wanted to socialize with the household help, but without some little white girl underfoot.
       Jennie wandered into her father’s study which was guarded by the imposing portrait of Pierre Belle. On the other side of the room sat Pierre’s rather large and ornate desk with an enormous upholstered chair behind it, a layer of dust on both, and opposite it, a fireplace with a small fire to chase away the chill; in front of it a woven, circular throw rug. The windows were closed and shuttered, the wall behind the desk packed with books. Indeed, it had been the third generation of Belles who had purchased those books by weight and filled the huge bookcase occupying one wall of their new plantation study.
       Jennie could read quite well for a ten-year-old, though she’d been warned not to read too much, for books could fill her head with nonsense. She should stick to romances, such as The Pickwick Papers. Bored beyond belief, Jennie began to walk back and forth in front of the rows of books, running her fingers over the spines until her fingers bumped into one title taller than the others and jutting out from the lowest rows.
       Prying the book loose, Jennie discovered it bore some odd and intriguing drawings burned into the cover. So she lugged the volume over to her grandfather’s desk, and unable to maneuver the unwieldy book onto the desktop, slumped to the floor and began to turn the pages; but only after brushing her hands against her gingham dress and sneezing more than once. And wherever she opened this amazing book, she found points, lines, and angles described in drawings, numbers, and words that intrigued her, but in such detail that it took a great deal of concentration for her to understand. So absorbed in the book’s pages, Jennie never heard her father, her uncle, and their factor enter the study.
       Jennie’s father wore a pair of tan trousers and a blue cutaway coat with a ruffled white linen shirt. In his hand was a tan gray hat he placed on the corner of his father’s desk on the way over to a card table at the far side of the room.
       He said, “It’s a remarkable idea, but who shall we get to build the boat?”
       “Ship, brother, ship,” said his brother, coming through the door behind him. “Boats are crafts you and I could master, but to ship cotton overseas, we’ll need a packet. We shall be rich beyond our dreams, and instead of having to depend on Cooper Hill, people will come to us to ship their cotton overseas.”
       Jennie’s uncle, Jean Louis, wore fawn-colored trousers and a rich green cutaway coat. A pearl stickpin held together the tan silk fabric around his neck and set off his light, grayish brown suit. In his hand was a tall, gray hat that he placed on their father’s desk before joining his brother at the card table.
       Early on the brothers had agreed that, because only a year separated their births, it would be improper for one of them to occupy the chair behind the desk, and now that François had chosen a career in the military, it seemed even more so. Sooner or later the affairs of Cooper Hill would rest on the shoulders of Louis, and it was important that these two brothers put on a united front. The fact that Louis now studied at the Citadel gave them a sense of relief, but there was no relief from the increasing debt eating into the resources of the Belle family estate.
       Jennie’s father, Claude, had decorated the Big House with elegant furniture, tables covered with the finest Egyptian marble, and gorgeous curtains and sparkling mirrors shipped all the way from New York, and he entertained accordingly. The same could be said for Jean Louis’ bachelor quarters in the city and was to be expected. A planter’s status was for naught if his home failed to measure up to his neighbors, which meant the house in the city couldn’t be any less stylish.
       So, as if it made any difference, neither brother took a seat behind their father’s desk but sat at straight-back chairs at a former whist table. The game of poker had become all the rage while their generation had been growing up— several games were played weekly at the bachelor home of Jean Louis—and both Claude and Jean Louis owed large sums to their fellow Charlestonians, who, in the most tactful manner, pressed them for payment. Another reason for the shipbuilding scheme.
       The third man was Abraham Marcus, and he took his customary seat between the two brothers in a futile gesture to split their power. Overhead, from the expensive oil painting, Pierre Belle stared down at them.
       Marcus wore a black suit, dark tie, and white shirt with a heavily starched collar. Marcus was a Sephardic Jew whose family had lived in Charleston since the 1740s when Jewish immigrants from London and Amsterdam began arriving in the Low Country to work in the indigo trade. Marcus handled all the family business, what little of it there was, and fought diligently against any and all attempts by these two middleaged fools to bankrupt the Belle family estate.
       Marcus’ hands were large and stubby, he had a pockmarked face from a youthful bout of chickenpox, and there was always a leather notebook in his hands, a record of all transactions made for the families by whom he was employed.
       “And who shall pilot this ship,” he asked. “You, yourself, Jean Louis, have admitted such a craft would be beyond either of you.”
       “Beyond me to build and navigate, but not to own,” said the brother who usually came up with these crazy schemes.
       “Yes, yes,” said Claude. “We would simply wait until the ship returns and pocket our fortune. You yourself, Abraham, must agree that the returns on shipping cotton have been far out of proportion for the risk.”
       “But in that case the Belle family was not responsible for the return of the ship, only the return on the cargo.”
       “Abraham, these are packets, not clipper ships, and would be able to carry tons of cotton.”
       “And passengers!” said Jean Louis. “You’ve repeatedly counseled us to spend wisely the capital left to us by our father, and in the past we’ve listened to your advice, but now that the economy’s on a solid footing once again, this is our family’s hour, our generation’s opportunity.”
       “And certainly won’t be as boring as raising cotton.” Claude was the gentleman farmer who resided at Cooper Hill.
       A servant entered the room, passed around glasses of Madeira, and left, after adding a log to the fire and closing the door behind him. During this brief interlude, Abraham wondered if he could talk these two fools out of this latest venture. Railroads, canals, or horse breeding. None of them had paid off, but all had become a constant drain on the Belle’s family resources. Unfortunately, Abraham knew he’d probably lose this battle, as Claude, the usually sensible one, had come up with this particular scheme, overheard while attending Race Week.
       Jean Louis held up his cup in toast. “To The Belle of Charleston.”
       Claude had not heard this before, but quickly warmed to the ship’s name. Over the course of a lifetime he and his brother had been the butt of more than one humorous remark because of their surname.
       “Yes,” he said, raising his cup. “To The Belle of Charleston.”
       Abraham did not raise his cup. He hadn’t even touched his drink. Instead, he opened his journal. “How much cotton will this ship carry?”
       The two brothers looked at each other. “Tons!” they shouted in unison and toasted The Belle of Charleston once again.
       “Yes, yes, I understand,” said their factor. “A long ton is two thousand, two hundred, and forty pounds, but what's the weight of a bale of cotton these days?”
       “Long ton, short ton, what does it matter?” asked Jean Louis. “It all shall be weighed before being put aboard.”
       Abraham thumbed to a well-used page. “At last count a bale of cotton . . . with the new methods of baling was . . . four-hundred fifty pounds. So what will be the registered tonnage of this . . . Belle of Charleston?
       “And passengers,” added Jean Louis. “Don’t forget that packets carry passengers and make regular runs despite the weather.”
       “Yes,” joined in Claude after putting down his glass. “And weather always affects cotton production.”
       Abraham stared at Claude as the fire hissed and crackled behind him, a piece of unseasoned wood having been added to the fire by the departing servant. Bankruptcy was the only thing that could bring these two fools to their senses. Still, it was his responsibility to hold the line until the money ran out.
       Abraham turned to a new page in his journal as the fire bit into the unseasoned wood. “Let’s say this Belle of Charleston has a thousand ton capacity . . . and if a long ton is two thousand two hundred and forty pounds and you divide that number by a bale of cotton weighing four hundred and fifty pounds, then you would have . . . .”
       “Four point nine seven, or five bales of cotton,” said a small voice from under the desk.
       After writing down the number, Marcus continued: “And five bales of cotton times a thousand ton capacity would be five thousand bales of cotton shipped to Liverpool.”
       “That much,” said Jean Louis, amazed.
       Enthralled by the large number, the timbre of the voice did not register. Abraham, under the same spell, simply wrote down the number. But Jennie’s father was on his feet, chair screeching back, and looking for the source of that voice. He found Jennie in the kneehole of his father’s desk, feet scooted up and the oversized book opened against her knees.
       “What are you doing there, child?”
       Jennie closed the book. “Reading, sir.”
       “I’ve told you that you’re not to enter this room. This is a room for adults, not children.”
       Jennie scrambled from under the desk, dropping the book where it came to rest against the base of her grandfather’s chair. Though Jennie loved books and would never dishonor them, she knew from past experience that she’d need both hands free to protect her bottom.
       “I’m sorry, Papa, but I was lonely.” Backing away, she tried to round the desk to the door.
       Her father came after her, and with one of his boots, knocked the book across the floor where it slammed into the baseboard. By this time his brother was on his feet. Jean Louis had seen his brother’s rages before, and usually they were directed at any female in the household.
       His brother pressed on, lecturing his daughter and reaching for her. “Loneliness isn’t an excuse for using the materials of others. You must have permission to enter this room. No telling what mischief you might get into.”
       Jennie backed up to the door, and when she fumbled behind her for the knob, her father seized her arm. Jennie cried out as she was whipped around to where her father’s hand could reach her bottom. There was no switch nearby; more’s the pity.
       “Claude!” said Jean Louis again, raising his voice.
       Claude looked at his brother.
       “Would you please stop playing with Jennie and return to the table?” Jean Louis inclined his head toward their factor entering numbers in his journal.
       Claude took a breath, and his hand shot past his daughter’s head—Jennie cowed. She’d been smacked over the head before—and yanked a velvet cord. When Claude opened the study door, someone was already hurrying down the hallway.
       “Yes, sir, Mister Claude?” The young black woman wore a dress and blouse, her hair in a white wrap.
       “Hattie, please find some way to usefully employ my daughter. Preferably in the kitchen.”
       “Yes, sir, Mister Claude.” And Hattie took Jennie by the arm and marched her down the hall toward the rear of the Big House.
       After closing the door, Claude turned around to find his brother standing behind their father’s desk and examining the oversized book. Jennie Belle was Jean Louis’ favorite. The girl had perfect pitch and could recite nursery rhymes from memory, making a joyful noise in an old bachelor’s life.
       Holding out the book, Jean Louis asked, “Do you suppose Jennie was actually reading this?”
       “Nonsense,” said Claude, looking at the title: The Elements of Basic Geometry. “Jennie merely said that to avoid being disciplined.” He glanced at the door of the study. “Discipline that should make it very difficult for her to sit down at supper for this and several other evenings.”
       “I’m sure she meant no harm.” Jean Louis walked over to the poker table, opened the book, and flipped through the pages.
       Claude joined him, returning to his seat. Behind him the fire flared up as the older logs bit into the greener one. “Now where were we?”
       Abraham looked up from his journal. “But the number is correct.”
       “Pardon me,” said Claude.
       “The number Miss Jennie gave me.”
       “The number . . . Jennie gave you?”
       “Four point nine seven, or five bales of cotton per long ton.”
       Claude was still trying to understand, and making plans for a more severe punishment for his daughter. Embarrassing him in front of his factor . . . . Jennie would regret the day she’d entered this room.
       “What number?” he asked.
       “The number used for calculating the number of bales of cotton to be shipped on The Belle of Charleston.”
       Claude didn’t understand. He didn’t even recognize the name of the ship.
       The Belle of Charleston? Oh, yes, the name Jean Louis wanted to christen their ship.
       Jean Louis asked, “Didn’t Jennie’s mother say the girl was advanced in performing her sums?”
       His brother pushed the open geometry book across the table, but when Claude looked down, all he saw were incomprehensible points, lines, and angles.
       Abraham was staring at his notes. He’d calculated the number three times; Abraham being from the school that said it was better to be slow and sure. But the child had simply called out the answer. Amazing.
       Jean Louis had left the poker table and was looking under the desk, pulling back their father’s chair and examining the floor. “I don’t see a pencil under here.”
       “Pencil?” asked Claude.
       Abraham turned around in his chair to examine the floor behind him. He saw nothing and said so. “No pencil. No paper. The child simply did the sum in her head.”
       Jean Louis studied the floor on the far side of the desk, then pushed the chair back into the kneehole. He returned to the poker table to stand beside Claude. He thumbed through the front and the back of the oversized text as if searching for something.
       Claude glanced up, looking from one man to the other. “May I ask what in the devil the two of you are talking about?”
       Abraham closed his journal and placed it on the table in front of him. “What I believe Jean Louis is saying is that your daughter calculated the answer without the use of a pencil or pen. No paper, and if I don’t miss my guess”—he gestured at the geometry book—“there are no tables of division in that book.”
       “None whatsoever,” said Jean Louis, leaving the book open in front of his brother, “and nothing that would assist her in dividing such a sum. Claude, I have never seen anyone who could do large sums in their head. I have heard such people exist, but I’ve never met one.”
       “Nor have I,” said Abraham, nodding.
       Claude stared at the two men, the knowledge of what they were saying, finally sinking in. “Are we sure that Jennie did the calculations in her head . . . and arrived at the correct figure?”
       Abraham nodded, as did his brother.
       Claude flipped through the pages of the open geometry book. Behind him a log broke in half, fell from the grate, and the fire spit and hissed as the greener log found its place on the grate.
       Claude closed the book and looked up. “None of this is to leave this room. If it became common knowledge that my daughter can do sums in her head, she would never find a suitable husband.”

Copyright Steve Brown 2005
All Rights Reserved
ISBN 0-9712521-3-0

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