She Was a Child is a novel about the courtship and marriage of Edgar Allan Poe and his cousin Virginia Clemm, narrated primarily through Virginia's point of view, from childhood through adulthood until death. While the first few chapters occur in the South, most of the novel is set in Philadelphia and New York, where Poe was looking for work, writing and editing magazines. In this chapter "The Messenger," Virginia acts as messenger between Poe and Mary Devereaux, a teenage girl he has been courting.
Baltimore, May 1832
Virginia Clemm sits with Cousin Eddy on the small stoop in front of the little brick house in Baltimore, Maryland, in the Republic of the United States of America of which the president is Andrew Jackson, known as Old Hickory, slave owner and Indian killer. The street is unpaved, but a slave on the other side sweeps the dirt with a long-handled broom because his mistress says he must. A brown and white dog sleeps in the wagon ruts, and he will be run over if he doesn’t move; drovers are hauling produce to market in their rattling, trundling wagons. Eddy is teaching Virginia the names of the English kings in order, reading from a worn-out old book that flecks of leather fall out of every time he turns a page, but there are too many kings named Henry and James and Charles. Such ordinary names! Shouldn’t kings have magnificent names? King Grumpledoodle! King Gollybumpus! King Snickerbottom! (And she snickers to herself, tee-hee.)
Eddy’s right hand bears a bandage over the knuckles, with a trace of rust-colored blood in the center of the white cloth. Virginia says, “Cuz, what did you do to your hand?” and he bites his lip and answers, “I hit something I had no business to hit.” Eddy is growing sideburns that blur the crisp turn of his jawline. He doesn't require to look older than he is, if that's what he is trying to do, and Virginia wishes he would shave.
Then he closes the smelly old book and says, “Sister, do you know Mary Devereaux?”
She happily volunteers, “Indeed I do know Miss Mary Devereaux!”
“’Indeed, you do’! Who taught you to speak like an English lady?”
Virginia knows that he is making fun of her because the skin under his eyes crinkles like the tissue paper they use to wrap hard candy you can suck on for an hour until it turns into a slick flavorless splinter. “Muddy says what we lack in worldly goods we make up for in cleanliness and decorum.”
“Well” – Eddy stretches and tosses a rock at the dog; the dog stretches and shakes himself all over, even his ears and tail, and trots away without a glance – “well, Muddy is certainly correct, but what do you think ‘decorum’ is?”
She knows this answer. “Being nice.”
“I won’t dispute that,” says Cousin Eddy. “In fact, I think you are a grand example of decorum for one so young.”
She practices being indignant, a new word. “I am not so young.”
“No,” he says, “nine is not so young but just old enough that you know how important it is to be nice, as Muddy tells us. And old enough to know how much I love my dear cuz.”
“I love you too.” You see, though, Virginia knows that Eddy is teasing again, but he doesn’t know that she loves him with all the courage of her girl’s hot, beating heart. Oh, even now she feels her heart pound like an agitated dove within her childish breast! It makes her woeful and indignant!
“So.” He puts the history book with its torn covers back in the pocket of his military coat and takes out an envelope. “Concerning Miss Mary Devereaux, do you know where she lives?”
“You showed me one time. She lives on the other side of the market in a fine house with a stairway of granite up to the front door. Her street has paving stones and not dirty old dusty dirt.” Virginia was very impressed the day when they stepped away from the market square filled with squealing pigs and quacking ducks, clucking chickens and poor silent rabbits, shouting people and doomed darkies being bought and sold into a quiet shaded street of tall quiet houses. Eddy said that this was the new part of Baltimore and that they lived in the old part.
“Could you find your way there and back?”
“Does the idea frighten you?” He is not looking at her exactly.
“No, it’s not so far, but I have to ask Muddy. I’m not supposed to go off our street without a…a…”
“No, a different word.”
“Let’s see.” He pretends to think most fiercely. “A chaperone?” He rolls the word out like a comic Frenchman.
“Hee, yes, a chaperone.” She gives him a tender slap on his left wrist, a gesture of teasing reproof filled with – oh, if only he knew, blind silly cuz! – the sweet dark lithesome power of her little girl's bursting soul.
“What if I walk you to the near edge of the market and you go the rest of the way yourself?”
“I can do that, but, Eddy, why?”
He holds the envelope, square and cream-colored, in the palm of his right hand. The sun has risen over the opposite roofs, and the light shines full on his face. The fledgling sideburns make his jaw look dry and frizzly. He squints and holds the envelope out to shield his eyes.
“To deliver this missive to Miss Mary Devereaux and wait to see if she offers reply.”
Virginia thinks about this proposition. “Why don’t you give it to the postman?”
“The postman only delivers ordinary letters. This is a special letter, one that only a little girl with a great amount of decorum can deliver.”
“I suppose it will be all right, but you have to do something for me back.”
“Oh ho, the nine-year-old miss wants to bargain!”
“No tutoring tonight!”
He frowns, squinching up his face. “Now this is serious bartering. I suppose – I suppose geography could wait until tomorrow, seeing that you are going on a tremendous quest for me.”
The sun climbs toward 10 o’clock. The darkie has left his broom leaning against his mistress’ front stoop and is nowhere to be seen. Perhaps he ran away, sans shoes, sans food, sans wife and children, to join with other desperate fleeing slaves seeking freedom, sleeping hidden in deserted barns or in the woods by day, traveling only by darkness, stealthily avoiding the sheriffs and nightriders, lighting no fires, forging on toward the broad, blue Susquehanna, so dangerous to cross that the fearful make up mournful songs about it, and beyond to the brotherly refuge of Philadelphia or New York or Boston.
Virginia is glad that slaves are not being bought and sold this morning. Once she and Muddy were buying collard greens and black-eyed peas out of a farmer's wagon and Virginia, hearing shouting and screaming, looked around and saw a female darkie naked, with shining black boobies sticking straight out from her chest and her hand clutched in front of her other lady parts, and white men with their tall hats staring at her and laughing. And a skinny white man with a beard just on the bottom of his chin forced the darkie's hands away so everybody could see all her nakedness. And her little children stood next to her, crying their eyes out until the mean old white man with the funny beard told them to shut up and struck them with a stick. Virginia could not turn away as she saw money change hands and another white man lead the woman away, after she had put on a ragged old dress wearing no drawers underneath. They made her leave her children behind, while she was screaming and wailing and trying to fall on the ground, but the white man dragged her away and threw her in a cart with some other slaves and another woman reached out a hand to comfort the crying darkie but she shook off the hand and put her face down. Virginia could not imagine what she would do if someone dragged Muddy away and made her live all by herself. What if a man hit her with a stick or a whip? Or made her go around with no drawers on?
Six broad steps led to the carved wooden door enclosed by narrow windows divided into many little panes and an elegant fan-shaped window on top. Virginia stands tiptoe and thumps the brass lion-headed knocker against its base. A moment passes that feels like a minute stretched sideways. The door opens slowly and a tall black man dressed all in white peers down at her forlornly and says, more kindly than she expects, “Little miss, what may I do for you?”
Virginia holds the letter before her. “I am to deliver this message solely to the hand of Miss Mary Devereaux.”
The tall black man turns his head on one side and examines Virginia from his height, as if he is used to dealing with gentlemen callers but not with little girls.
“And may I tell Miss Deveraux who calls upon her?”
Virginia admires the man's sense of decorum, and she believes that he is the first butler she has encountered, though a darkie butler, of course, however decorous, is still a slave.
“I am Miss Virginia Clemm.”
The butler ponders this information.
“All right, Miss Virginia Clemm, come inside, and I will tell Miss Devereaux that you wish to see her.”
The entrance hall – another word is foyer, which is French, her favorite language – the foyer, then, is long and high, holding, like a stage set, an abundance of little tables whose purposes are obscure to her and a facing pair of mirrors ornately framed in carved gilt and a pole set on four curved legs that holds an array of scarves and hats and canes on metal hooks fashioned to resemble the heads of birds. At the far end, a towering staircase with an elaborate balustrade winds up to the second floor. Muted light spills from an upper source, as if from heaven.
A crisp rustle of fabric descending the stairs announces the arrival of Mary Devereaux, who is, to Virginia's surprise, only a few years older than she is, fifteen or perhaps sixteen, and a divine vision of fashion and beauty. Her at-home dress is robin's-egg blue highlighted with silver embroidery at the high neck and wrists. The slightly flared skirt stops just above her ankles, and beneath the fringed hem Virginia spies the lacy cloud of purest white pantaloons. Mary Devereaux's shoes, slippers really, are also white and seem to be made of the softest lamb's leather. Her hair is so blonde that it looks like pale sunlight spun with dandelion fluff.
She stops in front of Virginia and says, not in the most friendly manner, “I see that Mr. Poe sends a surrogate in his stead.”
Virginia cannot stand not to know what a word means. “What is a surrogate?”
“Do you know the tale of Miles Standish?” Mary Devereux's voice falls more gently and kinder.
“Yes,” says Virginia, “I do. He employs another man, John Alden, to court the woman they both love, Priscilla something. It all happened back in Pilgrim days.”
“John Alden was the surrogate for Miles Standish, his substitute. As you are the substitute or surrogate for your cousin, Mr. Poe.”
Now Virginia does not want to know what sort of letter she carries for delivery to the hand of Mary Devereaux, and she feels as if she has been hoodwinked by her beloved Cuz. She wishes she had not agreed to bring this missive from the old shabby section of Baltimore to the new, shining streets of the city where fifteen-year-old girls look like angels and dress as if they lived in Paris, France.
Mary Devereaux says, choosing her words as if she understands something that Virginia Clemm cannot hope to, “Little miss, would you like some tea? I think you must have walked a considerable distance to my door. Come here and sit down.” Her voice is high and sweet, a tinkling of cymbals and lutes.
“I would like some tea, thank you.” Virginia follows the girl into a parlor where paintings of solemn ancient people wearing lace and velvet hang on the walls and a crowd of small, fragile tables stand amid stuffed chairs resting on wooden legs carved to resemble the claws of animals and a long settee covered in shiny striped material faces the hearth. Rich people, she thinks, have an inordinate love of little tables.
“It won't take a moment,” says Mary Devereaux, “and then you can deliver what you came to give me.” She pulls a silver cord that hangs from the ceiling near the doorway. Far in the distance a tiny bell shivers.
They arrange themselves on the settee, which is smooth and a little slippery. On the table next to Virginia's end stands a glass dome under which perches a red-winged blackbird that stares at her with dull, dumbfounded eyes.
“Are you in school?” Mary Devereaux knows how to carry on a social conversation.
“No, my cousin tutors me.”
“Of course. No one is as erudite as Edgar Poe.”
“What does 'erudite' mean?”
“Very smart and learned.”
A lull ensues, and the house seems perfectly silent, poised, swallowing volumes of air.
“I think I'm going to get a piano,” Virginia Clemm informs her hostess. “Muddy – my Mama – says that every girl should know how to play the piano and sing.”
“Your mother is correct. It is a great thing in society to play and sing and be comfortable displaying your talents. Do you like to sing?”
“I do like to sing, but I don't know many songs. Only really what Muddy, I mean my Mama taught me.”
Mary Devereaux smiles. “My mammy taught me to sing, but Mama says those songs are not appropriate for me now. “
“Child, they were nigger songs, of course! Though sweet and comforting.”
The butler appears from the hallway, carrying a silver tray laden with a tea service, a maid following with a platter of cakes and cookies.
Virginia cannot help herself. “Oh my –”
“Please,” says Mary Devereaux, pouring a stream of steaming amber tea into a china cup of outlandish delicacy, “cream and sugar?”
“Well, I think” – this is a question no one has asked Virginia Clemm before – “one sugar and just a drop of cream will be fine.” It is all too much. She feels warm tears swelling from her eyes. Mary Devereaux takes her hand and kisses it softly. “It's all right, my dear. We women – well, you'll understand someday.” She sets her cup and saucer on the table and pushes the tea service away in mild dismissal. “Perhaps you should give me the note.”
Virginia brushes away tears with her fingers and extracts the stiff envelope from the pocket of her jacket and hands it to – there's no other word – her rival. Mary Devereaux takes a letter opener from the table – a special knife just for opening mail! – and slides the blade under the flap. She slips the note from the envelope and reads for a moment, her eyes darting back and forth, and the faint blush that rises on her pale face is the pink of sunset reflected in a nymph's eyes. “I – I'll return shortly..........,” and she runs from the room. Virginia hears the dim footfalls as Mary Devereaux ascends the stairs. She sips her tea, to be polite.
Silence ensues, until a young man strides into the room, stops, and stares at her. “Who might you be?” His clothes, evidently slept in, are wrinkled and carelessly buttoned, the white shirt half tucked in. He radiates rude privilege.
“I am Miss Virginia Clemm.”
“Why are you here?”
“I delivered a note to Miss Devereaux from my cousin.”
“All too mysterious. Who might your cousin be, then?”
“Mr. Edgar Allan Poe.”
The young man draws up, red-faced, stamps on the carpet with one foot and flings his arms in the air.
“Damn the scoundrel! D'ye see this?” He points to a purplish bruise around his left eye. “Tried to put that good-for-nothing out of the house last night, and he had the reckless arrogance to sock me in the face! Who does he think he is, calling court upon my sister and asking for her hand? An orphan son of dead actors! Drummed out of West Point!”
Virginia cannot tolerate this tirade. “Edgar Poe is a better man than you any day! He was a soldier at a fort! And he's a poet and a gentleman!”
“Your cousin may be a scribbler of verse, whatever paltry virtue obtains to that sordid profession, but he's no gentleman –”
Mary rushes into the parlor. “Shame on you, Robertson Devereaux!” She grabs one of her brother's arms and pulls him around. “You have no quarrel with this child! You would be fortunate to find a wife as kind and courageous as this one is!”
Virginia feels neither kind nor courageous. She simply wants to be home with her Muddy and her somewhat sullied cousin.
“You go on out of here,” Mary Devereaux commands her brother, “and let me conclude my business. Which, I will add, is none of your business! Never have I seen a man who deserved a black eye more than you.”
Virginia Clemm stands behind the settee. Mary comes forward and kneels on the cushion in front of her guest, reaches down and takes her hand and places an envelope in it. It's smaller than the note from Eddy and bears the initials MSVD on the back flap.
“What do the 'S' and 'V' stand for?”
“Mine is a long name, Mary Suzette Vandiveer Deveraux. What is your whole name?”
“Virginia Eliza Clemm. It's not as pretty as your name. I got it from my dead sister.”
“It's a fine name, and you should be proud of it. Your grandfather was a hero of the Revolutionary War. The city will ever be grateful to him.”
“I know,” Virginia says disconsolately. “Everybody says that.”
“Well,” Mary Devereaux turns toward the foyer, “it's time you were getting home. Your mother will be worried.” They stand before the door and Mary says, “Let me give you a kiss.” She takes Virginia's head with her fine fragile fingers and, instead of kissing her cheek, kisses Virginia's lips lightly, delicately. Virginia Clemm never knew that a mouth could be so soft and fetching. “Sisters forever,” Mary Devereaux whispers, and opens the door.
But once Virginia Clemm abandons this tidy street in the new part of Baltimore and passes through the raucous, crude market, she opens the envelope and finds enclosed within the folded paper no words of love, no confession, no sonnet, but a single lock of Mary Devereaux's supernal blond hair, and Virginia shoves the curl back into the envelope and stops before a pen of complacently slumbrous grunting pigs and holds the envelope through the bars of the fenced enclosure until a huge curious brown and white monster, sucking up mud and shit with each moist ponderous step, conveniently and fastidiously takes the envelope from her and without a care in the world devours it.