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March 12, 1889. Charleston, South Carolina
HE WAKES AS HE IS FALLING.
He feels himself plunging into space, a great wheeling emptiness below. He’s been on the edge of a cliff, grappling with a man trying to shoot him. Dawson grabs him, wrestling for the gun, but he wrenches away, pulling Dawson off-balance. The man presses the gun against Dawson’s chest; he hears the great enveloping sound of the shot. Then he feels the sickening shift beneath his feet as he loses his grip on the world.
As he falls Dawson grabs the man’s shoulder to save himself, but instead pulls the man over with him. They fall together, still grappling, as though holding on to each other will help. Dawson’s body is clenched and tight, muscles still focused on what he just had, solid ground beneath him, but instead there is this: the long drop into whistling black.
Dawson sits up, sweating.
He’s in the narrow bed in his dressing room. His thrashing has pulled the sheets loose, and his feet are now tangled and trapped. The room is dim and shadowy, the curtains drawn for the night. The patterned wallpaper, the tall mahogany bureau, the brass bedstead are all familiar but irrelevant. He’s still in his nightmare, heart hammering. He still feels the terror of pitching into space, the body’s last clenching try at holding on to life. He still feels the man’s coarse sleeve in his grasp, smells his sour rankness. The sound of the gunshot still explodes in his ears.
He kicks his feet free and gets up. He goes through the connecting door into their bedroom, where his wife lies submerged in the big mahogany bed, nearly hidden by pillows.
She lifts her head and sees his face. “What is it?”
The struggle is still running through him. He takes a breath and shakes his head. In his body, it’s still happening. He begins walking up and down the room. This is familiar, too, the mirrored armoire, the high sleigh bed, the dressing table. Also irrelevant in this swift current of feeling.
“What’s wrong?” Sarah sits up, the white nightgown crumpled high around her throat.
“I had a dream,” says Dawson. “A man had a gun and was going to shoot me. I was trying to stop him. We were on the edge of a cliff.” Again he feels himself pitching into emptiness; he can smell the man. “Then he did shoot me, and I fell. I can feel it still.”
The dream possesses him. And some other moment flickers into his mind, when he stood somewhere high, behind him emptiness.
“My poor Frank.” Sarah’s hair is in its nighttime braid, the loosened strands making a fine furred halo around her face.
“What do you think it means?” he asks.
He doesn’t really believe in this—the reading of dreams, second sight, premonitions—but Sarah does. She’s the seventh child of a seventh child, and believes in another realm of perception. Dawson believes there are kinds of knowledge we don’t understand, but he also believes that most people who claim this knowledge are frauds. Sarah is not a fraud. Sometimes her intuitions are uncanny. He’s seen it happen; sometimes she’s attuned to something he can’t explain. Though sometimes she’s wrong.
Right now he wants to rid himself of this feeling, the sickening plunge. He hopes that whatever Sarah says will lessen its power.
“Did you know the man?” Sarah leans forward.
“I’d never seen him before.”
“A stranger,” says Sarah, “trying to harm you. Maybe it’s someone who’s attacking the newspaper?”
Dawson snorts. “The people attacking the paper are quite open about it,” he says. “I know exactly who they are. They don’t need to hire anonymous assassins.”
The dream begins to recede, which is what he’d hoped for, though not like this. Now he’s back in another kind of conflict, the alarms and confusions of daily life.
In daily life Dawson is the editor and part owner of the Charleston News and Courier. He and Bartholomew Riordan bought it twenty years ago, first the News, then the Courier. Dawson was editor in chief, Riordan business manager. Now that Riordan’s gone, Dawson runs more or less everything. The paper has always been his voice. He’s always written the editorials, always had strong opinions, and he has become a kingmaker. His candidates usually win. He was a representative at the Democratic National Convention; he’s a friend of President Cleveland. The News and Courier is one of the most influential newspapers in the South. Dawson thinks privately that it’s the most influential.
He and Riordan met in Richmond, after the war. They were both Catholic, both hardworking, earnest, principled. They trusted and complemented each other. Riordan was quiet and reserved, Dawson bold and forceful. Their mission was to inform and educate. They believed in integrity. They wanted to rebuild the world: the one they’d known was gone.
Dawson wrote daily editorials. He was fast, informed, and opinionated, never afraid to challenge his readers. Riordan scrawled comments in the margins. Is this what we want to say? Sometimes he’d put a query at the head of the whole piece. Sometimes he wrote, Too strong. Sometimes just No. Sometimes Yes! Dawson had relied on his responses; sometimes he changed the piece, sometimes he didn’t, but always he listened.
Three years ago Riordan had left for New York and Dawson had hired his old friend J. C. Hemphill as publisher. Hemphill was trustworthy and experienced, but he never disagreed with Dawson and never asked questions. Last fall he’d left. The new publisher makes no comment at all.
Though Dawson doesn’t really need Riordan. After twenty years he knows how to run a paper. And he knows Charleston; he loves it. He wants to help Charleston move into the larger world; he wants it to thrive.
Dawson believes in God (he’s devout), in education (“A life without Books is death,” he wrote to his younger brother), and in telling the truth. He’s certain of his convictions. He has a vision of Charleston’s future. He wants industry, tourism, railroads, shipping. “Bring the mills to the cotton” is his motto. He is friends with priests, ministers (both black and white), rabbis, policemen. He knows everyone in city politics. He belongs to the exclusive St. Cecilia Society and the populist Hibernian Society. He believes in drawing the community together.
He also believes in the rule of law, and he defends the rights of the freedmen. Once, soon after the war, he’d tried to put Negroes onto the aldermanic ticket. He arranged the first political meeting between colored men and Democrats in Charleston. He’d rented the hall himself, an empty store on Hayne Street, hoping they’d form an alliance. (They hadn’t.) When the big earthquake hit Charleston, three years ago, Dawson led the relief efforts, working with both black and white leaders.
His opinions have made him some enemies. He’s not a native (he was born in England), and his opinions are not always shared by Southerners. Some of his readers don’t want to put the war behind them or give black people political power. Some readers are enraged and accuse Dawson of lying about his rank (captain), his war record (Army of Northern Virginia, Mechanicsville, Gettysburg, served under Longstreet), and his U.S. citizenship (real). He’s been challenged to duels, though he’s denounced dueling and helped to ban it. He’s received death threats, which he ignores. He’s opposed to violence on principle. When he gets a threat he won’t even change his route to the office.
Dawson doesn’t mind all this; he’s certain he’s right. He has Charleston’s best interests at heart. He holds fast, and usually his readers come around. Though when his readers resist too vehemently, or when his candidate loses, Dawson yields and supports the winner. He believes a newspaper should reflect the views of its community. It should lead, but it must also listen.
This has been successful for twenty years, but things have changed, first gradually and now drastically. A group of powerful men, men he used to call his friends, have turned against him. They have founded another newspaper, The Charleston World, which is trying to run him out of business. The World is a year old, and disturbingly popular. It’s cheap, gossipy, and poorly written. Dawson despises it. It’s flourishing. It’s openly hostile to him, mocking his opinions, stealing his staff, undercutting his price, and taking his subscribers. Dawson has had to let reporters go, cut pages, and borrow money. He knows he’ll win in the end, because he has right on his side. He just has to outlast the World, keep going until it fails. The thing is that he’s running out of money.
The problem is a man called Ben Tillman. He’s locked himself onto Dawson like a terrier on an ankle, and Dawson can’t shake him loose. At first Tillman was just a struggling plantation owner from upcountry in Edgefield (they’re all struggling, the farmers all over the South, now that labor is no longer free). Several years earlier Tillman had started by writing fiery letters to the paper, complaining about The Citadel, a military college for planters’ sons. Tillman hated it. He wanted an agricultural college for farmers, instead of an elitist one for rich boys. He was outspoken, energetic, and bold. He simmered with resentment.
Dawson likes controversy. He welcomes new voices and challenging ideas: they make for a good paper. At first Tillman only criticized the school, but his real target was the whole politically powerful Low Country: rich, aristocratic, insular, and exclusionary. Tillman suggested that they meet, and when Dawson agreed, he swore him to secrecy. They met in a remote country inn. There they adopted a strategy: Dawson would support Tillman’s agricultural college if Tillman would stop attacking The Citadel. Tillman told Dawson to criticize him a bit, in order to keep the alliance secret. He’d consider the attacks “love licks”: a light battering by someone who loves you.
Later Dawson saw that Tillman had been planning his strategy from the start. The secrecy was to protect Tillman from accusations of collusion. It had been Dawson who’d given Tillman prominence, publishing his voice in The News and Courier, with one of the largest circulations in the Cotton States. By the time he began his attacks on Dawson, Tillman had a following. Tillman wanted political power, and one way he planned to get it was by bringing down the famous Frank Dawson.
Tillman is now known throughout the South, and his rallies draw big crowds of angry white men. They’ve all lost the world they once knew, these men. Tillman tells them to blame Dawson, their enemy, the voice of Charleston, heart of the Low Country. Tillman calls him a political manipulator, the Lord High Executioner. Tillman claims that Dawson and a circle of his friends control state politics; he calls Dawson the leader of “Ring Rule.” Tillman’s a white supremacist, a Fire-Eater. His world has been destroyed by war and emancipation, and he resents this. Tillman wants Redemption, which will obliterate Reconstruction. The Fire-Eaters hate the fact that Negroes are now free. They hate the fact that these men can now vote. They want to put power back in the hands of white people.
Tillman himself was intelligent and articulate. He’d had a classical education, though he’d had to drop out of school because of the war. He resented that, too.
* * *
NOW THE EARLIER MOMENT comes back to Dawson, the fear of falling. It was when he faced the crowd at City Hall: he remembers looking out over the brilliance of the torches, the high cavernous darkness beyond. He’d stepped up onto the base of the balustrade, setting his feet between the balusters, gripping the railing. Tillman had introduced him with a sneer. That mocking introduction invited the first catcall from the crowd, which was primed for it.
Gentlemen, Dawson began, but they would not let him finish. Ring Rule, they shouted. Each time he spoke there were more catcalls. He kept talking, but he began to realize that they would shout him down. He felt fear enter him, not physical, but some other kind, at being silenced, erased. He felt the crowd’s hostility rise toward him, huge and gusty, like a hot wind.
As he began to speak he’d leaned out over the railing, but as the shouts overrode his voice and uncertainty entered him, he lost his sense of balance. For a moment it seemed that if he stepped backward he’d plunge into deep nothingness. It comes back to him now.
* * *
HE’LL PUT ALL THIS away from him. Dawson stands in the doorway in his nightshirt and puts a hand on the solid hump of his belly. Light seeps into the room in long fiery shafts through the gaps between the curtains. His body is calming, and its big engines—the heart, the lungs—are slowing. It’s morning, light is filling the room and the city. He marshals his own forces—reason, certainty, vitality—against those of fear and darkness.
He’s working for Charleston. He doesn’t care if public opinion is against him now, it’s happened before. He has always prevailed.
Dawson is forty-eight years old, hale and energetic, in his prime. He’s five foot nine, a bit portly, actually, though he thinks of himself as strong. Powerful. Blue-eyed and fair-skinned, a broad forehead, straight thick nose, a firm mouth and forceful gaze. Thick wavy brown hair that refuses to lie flat, a long but sparse mustache curling down over his lip. During the war he couldn’t raise a mustache, and now he sports a long one, to make up. He gives his belly an affirming pat.
Sarah puts her legs over the side of the bed and slides her white feet into her slippers.
“I had a strange dream, too,” she says.
She stands, putting on her thin silk robe. She takes her long braid in both hands, lifts it from inside the robe and drops it outside, down her back. Her hair is thick and honey-colored. The sight of her two-handed gesture, the toppling braid, touches Dawson with its intimacy.
Sarah is in his life. Every day he watches her handling the soft honey-colored braid, putting on her worn slippers. Lifting her chin when she disagrees, pursing her lips when she tries not to laugh. He feels a wave of gratitude.
“Tell me about your dream.” He feels protective now.
Sarah goes to the window and pulls back the heavy portieres, and a wide shaft of light enters the room. The sheer inner curtains blur the view of Bull Street, tree-lined. A shrimp woman calls outside, walking slowly, Raw shrimp, raw shrimp.
Sarah turns. “My dream was that a woman dressed all in black was scattering burning coals on the floor in the parlor.” She’s entering the dream again. “You and I were walking on them, in our bare feet. The bottoms of our feet were burning. I could smell the scorched flesh.”
“And what does your dream mean?” Dawson asks.
He’s only being courteous now; the dreamworld is subsiding. Beyond the railing are high branches, the leaves spring-green, stirring in the early breeze. Mourning doves, invisible, purr to each other their secret messages. From below comes the slow rhythmic clop of hooves, the grinding of cart wheels. The shrimp woman is coming closer. Sarah opens the curtains at the other window and the room is now full of light. Nothing, now, suggests that drop into blackness. He’s back in this world.
“It means that a woman will make trouble for us,” says Sarah darkly, and turns to face him.
Copyright © 2019 by Roxana Robinson