OUT OF A CHILLY FOG
The winter of 1976, in Hansleyville, Delaware, under the cover of a chilly fog, tall, brown-skinned Charles Whitney began a solitary stroll across his 250-acre of corn, barley, soybean and wheat fields. No matter the season, even the cold weather nothing could deter him from his union with these surroundings, contemplating life in the presence of nature. About ten minutes into his excursion over his wasteland farm, Charles caught sight of something incredible which he had never, in all of his thirty-seven years seen. “What in the world is this?” he asked himself out loud wondering if the stranger he thought he saw in the distance was for real. More perplexing, he realized that a tall, extremely gallant Caucasian gentleman dressed in an early-nineteenth century costume was crossing his land. This taking place in winter, certainly not the time for a Fourth of July celebration, he thought, baffled. And he couldn’t recall anything taking place that warranted someone dress like the man he spotted. “Althea didn’t mention any celebration or anything. She would have told me,” Charles Whitney said to himself out loud realizing how his sister Althea kept track of all happenings historical or otherwise going on in Hansleyville. Charles Whitney decided to study the gentlemanly stranger from where he was.
Fifty-nine-year-old George Hansley served as Representative for Delaware, his home state, at the Continental Congress conducted in Philadelphia. The tall, handsome Congressman, landowner came from a long line of aristocrats. His grandfather Governor Milton Hansley, a wealthy landowner from Thadford, England had been sent in the middle 1600’s by King George of England to establish and govern a new colony in America.
At one of the buildings that stabled his fourteen horses on his property George Hansley’s favorite stable hand, nineteen-year-old Israel Calhoun, a free Negro approached him. (Some Negro slaves came into his possession with the 500 acres of farmland and woodland passed on to George Hansley by his father Governor Milton George Hansley. Nevertheless, George Hansley immediately gave freedom to every slave he’d inherited). Israel assisted and George Hansley climbed atop his handsome, black stallion, Prince and the congressman took off.
A flight of black birds sawed through the chilly atmosphere in the background as Charles Whitney in disbelief, waited to see if something further would take place. After a couple of minutes of just staring across the field into the horizon, he continued his walk, although, baffled instead of the peace and meditation that usually accompanied his daily excursion.
Powerful landowner, aristocrat, United States Representative George Hansley had fought during the Revolutionary War, and at one point, served at Valley Forge. His courage and bravery during the long hard war with England gained him many military honors. With the war over, he returned to his landholdings in Hanselyville, resuming life as a gentleman farmer and aristocrat with his wife, Madelein and the couple’s five children. Following that he became a member of the Continental Congress.
You have been introduced to George Hansley, and briefed on his background. We continue with his story.
Before George Hansley entered Madame Renee’s dressmaker shop, he removed his hat and returned to the door to shake it outside. He also dusted off snow that had accumulated on tie-a short dark brown wig worn during the period that resembled the wearer’s own hair that was pulled to the back and tied with a short ribbon. He’d just left a meeting of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, the session had lasted a couple of weeks.
When he saw twenty-two-year-old mulatto seamstress, Priscilla Martin coming from the back of the dress shop, Representative George Hansley thought he’d laid eyes on the loveliest woman he’d ever seen. He was so taken aback that when he went to speak words haltingly came out of his mouth. “Hello, Miss, Madame, I’m Representative George Hansley, ah, have this, uh,” he announced haltingly. “Uh, my wife has a pattern she desires to have Madame Renee transform into a dress.
“Yes, Sir, I’m Madame Renee’s assistant seamstress. We’ll be glad to make the dress for Madame Hansley,” she replied, as she accepted the pattern he handed her. She couldn’t understand why the tall, handsome gentleman made her heart beat wildly. Priscilla Martin had striking looks: tall, slender, well-proportioned with a smooth beige complexion, delicate features and silky raven-black shoulder-length hair.
He graciously thanked her, and as he turned to leave,” Uh, excuse me, Madame, please excuse me for saying this, but you have a most pleasing, beautiful smile…you’re ravishing.” She responded smiled with some embarrassment, and graciously thanked him. He then turned, and left.
Outside, the snow had begun falling heavily. The deepening weather caused George Hansley to think he might need to find accommodation in Philadelphia instead of chancing the long journey home to Hansleyville.
Priscilla Martin and her two sisters and two brothers belonged to servant parents. She and her expertise as a seamstress had brought great pride to her, her family and the community where she’d grown up. Her sewing talents as a seamstress had been noticed very early by people in her community, especially the women: “Young Priscilla gone really make somethin’ outta herself. She can out-sew all the women around here; I’d go as far to say, it’s not a white woman in Philadelphia who can match that child sewing.” Her caring nature, her uprightness, and swan-like grace brought Priscilla great admiration. “That young lady really knows how to carry herself.” Comments such as that commonly came from people in her community.
From the very beginning her life held great promise. She began by sewing for many of the families in her community. Word got out, and it wasn’t long before she’d gained notice for her sewing skills around most of Philadelphia. Her big break came at sixteen when the famous Madame Renee sought her out.
He’d traveled twenty miles and nearing Plymouth Meeting, just outside of the city where a blizzard had transformed the countryside into arctic plain. George Hansley’s horse, Prince started to stall because of the deep snow now above the stallion’s knees. As he gazed out over the bleak, white horizon he came to think that Hansleyville, and even the inn where he could stop and wait out the snow storm unreachable, and turned his horse around.
That afternoon, at the close of the congressional meeting his fellow-representatives had tried to dissuade him from making the trip home with such a raging snow storm going on. Until weather conditions got better, some were going to remain in the city; even some who lived much closer to Philadelphia decided to stay until weather conditions improved enough for travel. Soon rider and his horse Prince had labored through the furiously falling snow, and re-entering Philadelphia. George hoped with all of his heart Priscilla hadn’t left the dressmaker shop.
Just as he was riding up, George Hansley couldn’t believe his good fortune to find her outside having just closed the dress shop, to leave. Seeing her lovely image caused his heart to leap with joy. He hurriedly climbed down and very quickly had secured his horse to rail outside the shop. She stopped on the doorstep, smiling, surprised to see him, but wondering or he’d returned over something to do with the dress for his wife.
“I’m glad I caught you,” he smiled and said, trying to conceal uncertainty puncturing his self-confidence.
“Did you leave something, Sir? I was just leaving. Madam Renee had informed me to close up and go home if the weather worsened. I can open up.” Priscilla immediately said, hiding a sense of joy she felt for the chance to see him again.
“I’m not here for anything I may have left or forgot to tell you. May I escort you home?” he asked, his sharp, blue eyes conveying a plea. Please, don’t let her reject me, he worriedly thought. Her face revealed happy surprise. “Do you live near here?” He swiftly asked.
“I live with my Aunt Emily in a house just around the corner. I can make it there without any trouble, she replied to show a gentleman respect, as she well knew to do. Thank you, Mr. Hansley.” Although her response didn’t satisfy, as he searched her lovely face, he thought he saw a spark of interest expressed in her dark brown eyes, and then he knew for sure , “I’d be honored to have you accompany me to my home.”
“Let’s not stand around in this horrible weather,” he returned, and swiftly, but gently he took her arm in his, and the two went rushing down the snow-laden street in the direction of where she lived. Priscilla Martin boarded with an aunt in a little row house not far from the dressmaker’s shop. Her mother’s older sister, Emily, a spinster worked as a servant to a very aristocratic Philadelphia family. When they arrived and stepped into the tiny parlor, Priscilla hoped her aunt wouldn’t display her disapproval to the guest. Her mother’s old maid sister was extremely kind in spirit, but was rigid and strict in manner. The aunt didn’t disappoint, and seemed comfortable with the unexpected guest.
“Aunt Emily, this is Senator Hansley, from Delaware. He stopped in at the dressmakers to place an order for his wife, and make the long journey home. But the snowstorm might force him to lodge in Philadelphia for the night.” He made his acquaintance, thanking her for opening up her pleasant home to him unannounced.
“A pleasure to meet you, Sir,” she said nodding. “I’ll get some tea and cakes. It’s frightful weather; you must both be shivering cold. Take off that wet clothing, and warm yourselves. The aunt left for the kitchen. George Hansley had already removed his hat and placed it on the floor at the small entry and assisting Priscilla as she removed her things. After helping her, he took off the sopping wet cloak and hung their dripping things on the wooden stand by the door. George Hansley moved to the hearth nearby, spitting flames. The tiny orderly house made him feel welcomed as he warmed himself in front of the fireplace. Priscilla asked him to excuse her while she went to assist her aunt in the kitchen.
Priscilla Martin had grown up in Philadelphia in a large family with parents of meager means. Both her parents worked as domestics for the Alan Northrops, an aristocratic Philadelphia family. Her father had been groundskeeper, her mother housekeeper for many years for the Northrops. The aristocratic White family and many of their friends belonged to ‘The Vigilist Committee’, a group of people sympathetic to the anti-slavery movement in the country. The illustrious family was well known for doing everything possible in that regard: inviting lecturers on the subject of slavery into their gracious home, assisting slaves escaping to Canada, fundraising, taking part in protests, and other anti-slavery measures. Alan Northrop and his lovely wife, Ellen, entertained often in their large, gracious home. Very often they hosted gala affairs promoting an end to slavery and abolitionists would lecture to invited guests in their elegant home.
Priscilla had always admired abolitionists, and wished she could be in the presence of such courageous people. For huge events at the Northrops home, Priscilla and her siblings would work as extra hands. You can imagine it must have been when the invitation arrived inviting her to the Northrops’ for a gala affair honoring an abolitionist, as the date of the guest, not as an assistant to her parents.
At this particular gala affair honored William Bates, a twenty-seven-year-old Negro abolitionist. Single, handsome William Gates had become highly admired in America’s Anti-slavery movement. Priscilla Martin had always impressed the Northrops. The aristocratic family had taken notice of the way the lovely, young woman conducted herself whenever she was in their home assisting her parents who were in the family’s employ. She came to mind immediately as the date for their illustrious guest.
Three weeks before the Ball the invitation arrived at the Martin house for Priscilla. A young Negro courier delivered the formal notice: “Dear Miss Priscilla Martin, your presence is requested at the home of the Northrops for a gala affair in the grand ballroom honoring illustrious Abolitionist William Bates.” The date was May l7th, at 7pm. Priscilla was so astonished by the invitation that she had to catch hold of a table, to keep from collapsing. “I’m going to be a guest of the Northrops. I can’t believe I’m going to be escorted by Mr. William Bates,” Priscilla kept saying out loud for at least a minute in disbelief, overcome by excitement and joy “ And then reality kicked in, There isn’t a lot of time to make my gown, she excitedly thought. (She had an enormous amount of seamstress work to do for her customers). She grabbed her cloak, and raced out of the house to share the happy news with all in her community.
“Good evening. How lovely you are, Priscilla,” tall, handsome, smiling William Bates uttered when she greeted him at the door of her home of her Aunt Emily. He’d come for her in a handsome carriage. William Bates looked astounding dressed in finery which only added to his appealing looks —a flawless ebony complexion, sable, mesmerizing eyes, and an incredibly broad smile showing even white teeth. And when he took her hand and kissed it, she felt her heart skip a beat!
Fragrant spring flowers scented the balmy spring atmosphere as the horse-drawn carriage with a young, erect Negro, carried Priscilla Martin and William Bates to the grand Northrops’ affair. She felt pure magic enveloping her as they entered the carriage, and lightly as though lifting a feather, he took her by her elbow. A sense of wonder filled the atmosphere all the while they rode through the city to the Northrops.’ She couldn’t stop thinking the glorious dream would end, and she’d wake up. In their conversation William Bates didn’t care to talk about himself; he wanted to know more about her.
Soon the Negro driver pulled the reins for the carriage to stop for they had arrived at the Northrops’ To Priscilla the house appeared bolder in beauty, more illustrious than it ever had as a guest, and not as a servant. As a worker in the beautiful home, she never entered the front. Tears of joy filled her eyes as the carriage delivered her and her wonderful, marvelous escort to the gated entrance. All of a sudden she caught sight of George Hansley and his wife, a lovely middle-aged woman. The gentleman spotted her, and waved. She responded with a nod and a smile.
The evening turned out marvelously for Priscilla Martin, ’like catching lightning in a bottle.’ That evening at the Northrops’ gala ball changed her life forever. She and abolitionist William Bates found each other and true love.