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
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
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
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
“Yes,” he said, raising his cup. “To The Belle
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
“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
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
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
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
“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
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,
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
“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
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.”