فصل 15کتاب: Beloved / فصل 15
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Lady Jones went to the door expecting raisins. A child, probably, from the softness of the knock, sent by its mother with the raisins she needed if her contribution to the supper was to be worth the trouble. There would be any number of plain cakes, potato pies. She had reluctantly volunteered her own special creation, but said she didn’t have raisins, so raisins is what the president said would be provided–early enough so there would be no excuses. Mrs. Jones, dreading the fatigue of beating batter, had been hoping she had forgotten. Her bake oven had been cold all week–getting it to the right temperature would be awful. Since her husband died and her eyes grew dim, she had let up-to-snuff housekeeping fall away. She was of two minds about baking something for the church. On the one hand, she wanted to remind everybody of what she was able to do in the cooking line; on the other, she didn’t want to have to.
When she heard the tapping at the door, she sighed and went to it hoping the raisins had at least been cleaned.
She was older, of course, and dressed like a chippy, but the girl was immediately recognizable to Lady Jones. Everybody’s child was in that face: the nickel-round eyes, bold yet mistrustful; the large powerful teeth between dark sculptured lips that did not cover them.
Some vulnerability lay across the bridge of the nose, above the cheeks.
And then the skin. Flawless, economical–just enough of it to cover the bone and not a bit more. She must be eighteen or nineteen by now, thought Lady Jones, looking at the face young enough to be twelve. Heavy eyebrows, thick baby lashes and the unmistakable love call that shimmered around children until they learned better.
“Why, Denver,” she said. “Look at you.”
Lady Jones had to take her by the hand and pull her in, because the smile seemed all the girl could manage. Other people said this child was simple, but Lady Jones never believed it. Having taught her, watched her eat up a page, a rule, a figure, she knew better.
When suddenly she had stopped coming, Lady Jones thought it was the nickel. She approached the ignorant grandmother one day on the road, a woods preacher who mended shoes, to tell her it was all right if the money was owed. The woman said that wasn’t it; the child was deaf, and deaf Lady Jones thought she still was until she offered her a seat and Denver heard that.
“It’s nice of you to come see me. What brings you?”
Denver didn’t answer.
“Well, nobody needs a reason to visit. Let me make us some tea.”
Lady Jones was mixed. Gray eyes and yellow woolly hair, every strand of which she hated–though whether it was the color or the texture even she didn’t know. She had married the blackest man she could find, had five rainbow-colored children and sent them all to Wilberforce, after teaching them all she knew right along with the others who sat in her parlor. Her light skin got her picked for a coloredgirls’, normal school in Pennsylvania and she paid it back by teaching the unpicked. The children who played in dirt until they were old enough for chores, these she taught. The colored population of Cincinnati had two graveyards and six churches, but since no school or hospital was obliged to serve them, they learned and died at home. She believed in her heart that, except for her husband, the whole world (including her children) despised her and her hair. She had been listening to “all that yellow gone to waste” and “white nigger” since she was a girl in a houseful of silt-black children, so she disliked everybody a little bit because she believed they hated her hair as much as she did. With that education pat and firmly set, she dispensed with rancor, was indiscriminately polite, saving her real affection for the unpicked children of Cincinnati, one of whom sat before her in a dress so loud it embarrassed the needlepoint chair seat.
“Yes. Thank you.” Denver drank it all down.
“Here. Go ahead.”
“How’s your family, honey?”
Denver stopped in the middle of a swallow. There was no way to tell her how her family was, so she said what was at the top of her mind.
“I want work, Miss Lady.”
“Yes, ma’am. Anything.”
Lady Jones smiled. “What can you do?”
“I can’t do anything, but I would learn it for you if you have a little extra.”
“Food. My ma’am, she doesn’t feel good.”
“Oh, baby,” said Mrs. Jones. “Oh, baby.”
Denver looked up at her. She did not know it then, but it was the word “baby,” said softly and with such kindness, that inaugurated her life in the world as a woman. The trail she followed to get to that sweet thorny place was made up of paper scraps containing the handwritten names of others. Lady Jones gave her some rice, four eggs and some tea. Denver said she couldn’t be away from home long because of her mother’s condition. Could she do chores in the morning? Lady Jones told her that no one, not herself, not anyone she knew, could pay anybody anything for work they did themselves.
“But if you all need to eat until your mother is well, all you have to do is say so.” She mentioned her church’s committee invented so nobody had to go hungry. That agitated her guest who said, “No, no,” as though asking for help from strangers was worse than hunger.
Lady Jones said goodbye to her and asked her to come back anytime.
“Anytime at all.”
Two days later Denver stood on the porch and noticed something lying on the tree stump at the edge of the yard. She went to look and found a sack of white beans. Another time a plate of cold rabbit meat. One morning a basket of eggs sat there. As she lifted it, a slip of paper fluttered down. She picked it up and looked at it.
“M. Lucille Williams” was written in big crooked letters. On the back was a blob of flour-water paste. So Denver paid a second visit to the world outside the porch, although all she said when she returned the basket was “Thank you.”
“Welcome,” said M. Lucille Williams.
Every now and then, all through the spring, names appeared near or in gifts of food. Obviously for the return of the pan or plate or basket; but also to let the girl know, if she cared to, who the donor was, because some of the parcels were wrapped in paper, and though there was nothing to return, the name was nevertheless there. Many had X’s with designs about them, and Lady Jones tried to identify the plate or pan or the covering towel. When she could only guess, Denver followed her directions and went to say thank you anywaym whether she had the right benefactor or not. When she was wrong, when the person said, “No, darling. That’s not my bowl. Mine’s got a blue ring on it,” a small conversation took place. All of them knew her grandmother and some had even danced with her in the Clearing.
Others remembered the days when 124 was a way station, the place they assembled to catch news, taste oxtail soup, leave their children, cut out a skirt. One remembered the tonic mixed there that cured a relative. One showed her the border of a pillowslip, the stamens of its pale blue flowers French-knotted in Baby Suggs’ kitchen by the light of an oil lamp while arguing the Settlement Fee. They remembered the party with twelve turkeys and tubs of strawberry smash.
One said she wrapped Denver when she was a single day old and cut shoes to fit her mother’s blasted feet. Maybe they were sorry for her. Or for Sethe. Maybe they were sorry for the years of their own disdain. Maybe they were simply nice people who could hold meanness toward each other for just so long and when trouble rode bareback among them, quickly, easily they did what they could to trip him up. In any case, the personal pride, the arrogant claim staked out at 124 seemed to them to have run its course. They whispered, naturally, wondered, shook their heads. Some even laughed outright at Denver’s clothes of a hussy, but it didn’t stop them caring whether she ate and it didn’t stop the pleasure they took in her soft “Thank you.”
At least once a week, she visited Lady Jones, who perked up enough to do a raisin loaf especially for her, since Denver was set on sweet things. She gave her a book of Bible verse and listened while she mumbled words or fairly shouted them. By June Denver had read and memorized all fifty-two pages–one for each week of the year.
As Denver’s outside life improved, her home life deteriorated. If the whitepeople of Cincinnati had allowed Negroes into their lunatic asylum they could have found candidates in 124. Strengthened by the gifts of food, the source of which neither Sethe nor Beloved questioned, the women had arrived at a doomsday truce designed by the devil. Beloved sat around, ate, went from bed to bed. Sometimes she screamed, “Rain! Rain!” and clawed her throat until rubies of blood opened there, made brighter by her midnight skin. Then Sethe shouted, “No!” and knocked over chairs to get to her and wipe the jewels away. Other times Beloved curled up on the floor, her wrists between her knees, and stayed there for hours. Or she would go to the creek, stick her feet in the water and whoosh it up her legs.
Afrerward she would go to Sethe, run her fingers over the woman’s teeth while tears slid from her wide black eyes. Then it seemed to Denver the thing was done: Beloved bending over Sethe looked the mother, Sethe the teething child, for other than those times when Beloved needed her, Sethe confined herself to a corner chair. The bigger Beloved got, the smaller Sethe became; the brighter Beloved’s eyes, the more those eyes that used never to look away became slits of sleeplessness. Sethe no longer combed her hair or splashed her face with water. She sat in the chair licking her lips like a chastised child while Beloved ate up her life, took it, swelled up with it, grew taller on it. And the older woman yielded it up without a murmur.
Denver served them both. Washing, cooking, forcing, cajoling her mother to eat a little now and then, providing sweet things for Beloved as often as she could to calm her down. It was hard to know what she would do from minute to minute. When the heat got hot, she might walk around the house naked or wrapped in a sheet, her belly protruding like a winning watermelon.
Denver thought she understood the connection between her mother and Beloved: Sethe was trying to make up for the handsaw; Beloved was making her pay for it. But there would never be an end to that, and seeing her mother diminished shamed and infuriated her. Yet she knew Sethe’s greatest fear was the same one Denver had in the beginning–that Beloved might leave. That before Sethe could make her understand what it meant–what it took to drag the teeth of that saw under the little chin; to feel the baby blood pump like oil in her hands; to hold her face so her head would stay on; to squeeze her so she could absorb, still, the death spasms that shot through that adored body, plump and sweet with life–Beloved might leave. Leave before Sethe could make her realize that worse than that–far worse– was what Baby Suggs died of, what Ella knew, what Stamp saw and what made Paul D tremble. That anybody white could take your whole self for anything that came to mind. Not just work, kill, or maim you, but dirty you. Dirty you so bad you couldn’t like yourself anymore. Dirty you so bad you forgot who you were and couldn’t think it up. And though she and others lived through and got over it, she could never let it happen to her own. The best thing she was, was her children. Whites might dirty bet all right, but not her best thing, her beautiful, magical best thing–the part of her that was cl ean. No undreamable dreams about whether the headless, feetless torso hanging in the tree with a sign on it was her husband or Paul A; whether the bubbling-hot girls in the colored-school fire set by patriots included her daughter; whether a gang of whites invaded her daughter’s private parts, soiled her daughter’s thighs and threw her daughter out of the wagon. She might have to work the slaughterhouse yard, but not her daughter.
And no one, nobody on this earth, would list her daughter’s characteristics on the animal side of the paper. No. Oh no. Maybe Baby Suggs could worry about it, live with the likelihood of it; Sethe had refused–and refused still.
This and much more Denver heard her say from her corner chair, trying to persuade Beloved, the one and only person she felt she had to convince, that what she had done was right because it came from true love.
Beloved, her fat new feet propped on the seat of a chair in front of the one she sat in, her unlined hands resting on her stomach, looked at her. Uncomprehending everything except that Sethe was the woman who took her face away, leaving her crouching in a dark, dark place, forgetting to smile.
Her father’s daughter after all, Denver decided to do the necessary.
Decided to stop relying on kindness to leave something on the stump. She would hire herself out somewhere, and although she was afraid to leave Sethe and Beloved alone all day not knowing what calamity either one of them would create, she came to realize that her presence in that house had no influence on what either woman did. She kept them alive and they ignored her. Growled when they chose; sulked, explained, demanded, strutted, cowered, cried and provoked each other to the edge of violence, then over. She had begun to notice that even when Beloved was quiet, dreamy, minding her own business, Sethe got her going again. Whispering, muttering some justification, some bit of clarifying information to Beloved to explain what it had been like, and why, and how come. It was as though Sethe didn’t really want forgiveness given; she wanted it refused. And Beloved helped her out.
Somebody had to be saved, but unless Denver got work, there would be no one to save, no one to come home to, and no Denver either. It was a new thought, having a self to look out for and preserve.
And it might not have occurred to her if she hadn’t met Nelson Lord leaving his grandmother’s house as Denver entered it to pay a thank you for half a pie. All he did was smile and say, “Take care of yourself, Denver,” but she heard it as though it were what language was made for. The last time he spoke to her his words blocked up her ears.
Now they opened her mind. Weeding the garden, pulling vegetables, cooking, washing, she plotted what to do and how. The Bodwins were most likely to help since they had done it twice. Once for Baby Suggs and once for her mother. Why not the third generation as well?
She got lost so many times in the streets of Cincinnati it was noon before she arrived, though she started out at sunrise. The house sat back from the sidewalk with large windows looking out on a noisy, busy street. The Negro woman who answered the front door said, “Yes?”
“May I come in?”
“What you want?”
“I want to see Mr. and Mrs. Bodwin.”
“Miss Bodwin. They brother and sister.”
“What you want em for?”
“I’m looking for work. I was thinking they might know of some.”
“You Baby Suggs’ kin, ain’t you?”
“Come on in. You letting in flies.” She led Denver toward the kitchen, saying, “First thing you have to know is what door to knock on.” But Denver only half heard her because she was stepping on something soft and blue. All around her was thick, soft and blue.
Glass cases crammed full of glistening things. Books on tables and shelves. Pearl-white lamps with shiny metal bottoms. And a smell like the cologne she poured in the emerald house, only better.
“Sit down,” the woman said. “You know my name?”
“Janey. Janey Wagon.”
“How do you do?”
“Fairly. I heard your mother took sick, that so?”
“Who’s looking after her?”
“I am. But I have to find work.”
Janey laughed. “You know what? I’ve been here since I was fourteen, and I remember like yesterday when Baby Suggs, holy, came here and sat right there where you are. Whiteman brought her. That’s how she got that house you all live in. Other things, too.”
“What’s the trouble with Sethe?” Janey leaned against an indoor sink and folded her arms.
It was a little thing to pay, but it seemed big to Denver. Nobody was going to help her unless she told it–told all of it. It was clear Janey wouldn’t and wouldn’t let her see the Bodwins otherwise. So Denver told this stranger what she hadn’t told Lady Jones, in return for which Janey admitted the Bodwins needed help, although they didn’t know it. She was alone there, and now that her employers were getting older, she couldn’t take care of them like she used to.
More and more she was required to sleep the night there. Maybe she could talk them into letting Denver do the night shift, come right after supper, say, maybe get the breakfast. That way Denver could care for Sethe in the day and earn a little something at night, how’s that?
Denver had explained the girl in her house who plagued her mother as a cousin come to visit, who got sick too and bothered them both. Janey seemed more interested in Sethe’s condition, and from what Denver told her it seemed the woman had lost her mind.
That wasn’t the Sethe she remembered. This Sethe had lost her wits, finally, as Janey knew she would–trying to do it all alone with her nose in the air. Denver squirmed under the criticism of her mother, shifting in the chair and keeping her eyes on the inside sink. Janey Wagon went on about pride until she got to Baby Suggs, for whom she had nothing but sweet words. “I never went to those woodland services she had, but she was always nice to me. Always. Never be another like her.”
“I miss her too,” said Denver.
“Bet you do. Everybody miss her. That was a good woman.”
Denver didn’t say anything else and Janey looked at her face for a while. “Neither one of your brothers ever come back to see how you all was?”
“Ever hear from them?”
“No, ma’am. Nothing.”
“Guess they had a rough time in that house. Tell me, this here woman in your house. The cousin. She got any lines in her hands?”
“No,” said Denver.
“Well,” said Janey. “I guess there’s a God after all.”
The interview ended with Janey telling her to come back in a few days. She needed time to convince her employers what they needed: night help because Janey’s own family needed her. “I don’t want to quit these people, but they can’t have all my days and nights too.”
What did Denver have to do at night?
“Be here. In case.”
In case what?
Janey shrugged. “In case the house burn down.” She smiled then.
“Or bad weather slop the roads so bad I can’t get here early enough for them. Case late guests need serving or cleaning up after. Anything.
Don’t ask me what whitefolks need at night.”
“They used to be good whitefolks.”
“Oh, yeah. They good. Can’t say they ain’t good. I wouldn’t trade them for another pair, tell you that.”
With those assurances, Denver left, but not before she had seen, sitting on a shelf by the back door, a blackboy’s mouth full of money.
His head was thrown back farther than a head could go, his hands were shoved in his pockets. Bulging like moons, two eyes were all the face he had above the gaping red mouth. His hair was a cluster of raised, widely spaced dots made of nail heads. And he was on his knees. His mouth, wide as a cup, held the coins needed to pay for a delivery or some other small service, but could just as well have held buttons, pins or crab-apple jelly. Painted across the pedestal he knelt on were the words “At Yo Service.”
The news that Janey got hold of she spread among the other coloredwomen. Sethe’s dead daughter, the one whose throat she cut, had come back to fix her. Sethe was worn down, speckled, dying, spinning, changing shapes and generally bedeviled. That this daughter beat her, tied her to the bed and pulled out all her hair. It took them days to get the story properly blown up and themselves agitated and then to calm down and assess the situation. They fell into three groups: those that believed the worst; those that believed none of it; and those, like Ella, who thought it through.
“Ella. What’s all this I’m hearing about Sethe?”
“Tell me it’s in there with her. That’s all I know.”
“The daughter? The killed one?”
“That’s what they tell me.”
“How they know that’s her?”
“It’s sitting there. Sleeps, eats and raises hell. Whipping Sethe every day.”
“I’ll be. A baby?”
“No. Grown. The age it would have been had it lived.”
“You talking about flesh?”
“I’m talking about flesh.”
“Like she was batter.”
“Guess she had it coming.”
“Nobody got that coming.”
“But nothing. What’s fair ain’t necessarily right.”
“You can’t just up and kill your children.”
“No, and the children can’t just up and kill the mama.”
It was Ella more than anyone who convinced the others that rescue was in order. She was a practical woman who believed there was a root either to chew or avoid for every ailment. Cogitation, as she called it, clouded things and prevented action. Nobody loved her and she wouldn’t have liked it if they had, for she considered love a serious disability. Her puberty was spent in a house where she was shared by father and son, whom she called “the lowest yet.” It was “the lowest yet” who gave her a disgust for sex and against whom she measured all atrocities. A killing, a kidnap, a rape–whatever, she listened and nodded. Nothing compared to “the lowest yet.” She understood Sethe’s rage in the shed twenty years ago, but not her reaction to it, which Ella thought was prideful, misdirected, and Sethe herself too complicated. When she got out of jail and made no gesture toward anybody, and lived as though she were alone, Ella junked her and wouldn’t give her the time of day.
The daughter, however, appeared to have some sense after all.
At least she had stepped out the door, asked or the help she needed and wanted work. When Ella heard 124 was occupied by something or-other beating up on Sethe, it infuriated her and gave her another opportunity to measure what could very well be the devil himself against “the lowest yet.” There was also something very personal in her fury. Whatever Sethe had done, Ella didn’t like the idea of past errors taking possession of the present. Sethe’s crime was staggering and her pride outstripped even that; but she could not countenance the possibility of sin moving on in the house, unleashed and sassy.
Daily life took as much as she had. The future was sunset; the past something to leave behind. And if it didn’t stay behind, well, you might have to stomp it out. Slave life; freed life–every day was a test and a trial. Nothing could be counted on in a world where even when you were a solution you were a problem. “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof,” and nobody needed more; nobody needed a grown-up evil sitting at the table with a grudge. As long as the ghost showed out from its ghostly place–shaking stuff, crying, smashing and such–Ella respected it. But if it took flesh and came in her world, well, the shoe was on the other foot. She didn’t mind a little communication between the two worlds, but this was an invasion.
“Shall we pray?” asked the women.
“Uh huh,” said Ella. “First. Then we got to get down to business.”
The day Denver was to spend her first night at the Bodwins’, Mr.
Bodwin had some business on the edge of the city and told Janey he would pick the new girl up before supper. Denver sat on the porch steps with a bundle in her lap, her carnival dress sun-faded to a quieter rainbow. She was looking to the right, in the direction Mr.
Bodwin would be coming from. She did not see the women approaching, accumulating slowly in groups of twos and threes from the left. Denver was looking to the right. She was a little anxious about whether she would prove satisfactory to the Bodwins, and uneasy too because she woke up crying from a dream about a running pair of shoes. The sadness of the dream she hadn’t been able to shake, and the heat oppressed her as she went about the chores. Far too early she wrapped a nightdress and hairbrush into a bundle. Nervous, she fidgeted the knot and looked to the right.
Some brought what they could and what they believed would work. Stuffed in apron pockets, strung around their necks, lying in the space between their breasts. Others brought Christian faith–as shield and sword. Most brought a little of both. They had no idea what they would do once they got there. They just started out, walked down Bluestone Road and came together at the agreed-upon time.
The heat kept a few women who promised to go at home. Others who believed the story didn’t want any part of the confrontation and wouldn’t have come no matter what the weather. And there were those like Lady Jones who didn’t believe the story and hated the ignorance of those who did. So thirty women made up that company and walked slowly, slowly toward 124.
It was three in the afternoon on a Friday so wet and hot Cincinnati’s stench had traveled to the country: from the canal, from hanging meat and things rotting in jars; from small animals dead in the fields, town sewers and factories. The stench, the heat, the moisture— trust the devil to make his presence known. Otherwise it looked almost like a regular workday. They could have been going to do the laundry at the orphanage or the insane asylum; corn shucking at the mill; or to dean fish, rinse offal, cradle whitebabies, sweep stores, scrape hog skin, press lard, case-pack sausage or hide in tavern kitchens so whitepeople didn’t have to see them handle their food. But not today.
When they caught up with each other, all thirty, and arrived at 12 4, the first thing they saw was not Denver sitting on the steps, but themselves. Younger, stronger, even as little girls lying in the grass asleep. Catfish was popping grease in the pan and they saw themselves scoop German potato salad onto the plate. Cobbler oozing purple syrup colored their teeth. They sat on the porch, ran down to the creek, teased the men, hoisted children on their hips or, if they were the children, straddled the ankles of old men who held their little hands while giving them a horsey ride. Baby Suggs laughed and skipped among them, urging more. Mothers, dead now, moved their shoulders to mouth harps. The fence they had leaned on and climbed over was gone. The stump of the butternut had split like a fan. But there they were, young and happy, playing in Baby Suggs’ yard, not feeling the envy that surfaced the next day.
Denver heard mumbling and looked to the left. She stood when she saw them. They grouped, murmuring and whispering, but did not step foot in the yard. Denver waved. A few waved back but came no closer. Denver sat back down wondering what was going on. A woman dropped to her knees. Half of the others did likewise. Denver saw lowered heads, but could not hear the lead prayer–only the earnest syllables of agreement that backed it: Yes, yes, yes, oh yes.
Hear me. Hear me. Do it, Maker, do it. Yes. Among those not on their knees, who stood holding 124 in a fixed glare, was Ella, trying to see through the walls, behind the door, to what was really in there.
Was it true the dead daughter come back? Or a pretend? Was it whipping Sethe? Ella had been beaten every way but down. She remembered the bottom teeth she had lost to the brake and the scars from the bell were thick as rope around her waist. She had delivered, but would not nurse, a hairy white thing, fathered by “the lowest yet.” It lived five days never making a sound. The idea of that pup coming back to whip her too set her jaw working, and then Ella hollered.
Instantly the kneelers and the standers joined her. They stopped praying and took a step back to the beginning. In the beginning there were no words. In the beginning was the sound, and they all knew what that sound sounded like.
Edward Bodwin drove a cart down Bluestone Road. It displeased him a bit because he preferred his figure astride Princess. Curved over his own hands, holding the reins made him look the age he was.
But he had promised his sister a detour to pick up a new girl. He didn’t have to think about the way–he was headed for the house he was born in. Perhaps it was his destination that turned his thoughts to time–the way it dripped or ran. He had not seen the house for thirty years. Not the butternut in front, the stream at the rear nor the block house in between. Not even the meadow across the road.
Very few of the interior details did he remember because he was three years old when his family moved into town. But he did remember that the cooking was done behind the house, the well was forbidden to play near, and that women died there: his mother, grandmother, an aunt and an older sister before he was born. The men (his father and grandfather) moved with himself and his baby sister to Court Street sixty-seven years ago. The land, of course, eighty acres of it on both sides of Bluestone, was the central thing, but he felt something sweeter and deeper about the house which is why he rented it for a little something if he could get it, but it didn’t trouble him to get no rent at all since the tenants at least kept it from the disrepair total abandonment would permit.
There was a time when he buried things there. Precious things he wanted to protect. As a child every item he owned was available and accountable to his family. Privacy was an adult indulgence, but when he got to be one, he seemed not to need it.
The horse trotted along and Edward Bodwin cooled his beautiful mustache with his breath. It was generally agreed upon by the women in the Society that, except for his hands, it was the most attractive feature he had. Dark, velvety, its beauty was enhanced by his strong clean-shaven chin. But his hair was white, like his sister’s–and had been since he was a young man. It made him the most visible and memorable person at every gathering, and cartoonists had fastened onto the theatricality of his white hair and big black mustache whenever they depicted local political antagonism. Twenty years ago when the Society was at its height in opposing slavery, it was as though his coloring was itself the heart of the matter. The “bleached nigger” was what his enemies called him, and on a trip to Arkansas, some Mississippi rivermen, enraged by the Negro boatmen they competed with, had caught him and shoe-blackened his face and his hair. Those heady days were gone now; what remained was the sludge of ill will; dashed hopes and difficulties beyond repair. A tranquil Republic?
Well, not in his lifetime.
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