CHAPTER 1: FROM CRADLE TO CRISIS NEW YORK 1863
The bayonet blade locked into place with an ominous click. Its wicked tip pointed straight upwards – like the chimneys and towers of New York in the background; like the rioters’ smoke plumes. It gleamed in the summer sun. Would it gleam today with Irish blood?
“Do your duty, Sergeant,” rasped the voice of the only man Ira hated. Sergeant Ira Coan had always done his duty. He had suffered sixteen months of Confederate imprisonment for doing his duty.
“Y’know what y’r duty is, don’t ya?” muttered the companion to his right. “Y’have t’kill Irishmen.”
Even as he spoke, a hail of rocks and stones thudded into their ranks. One soldier took a rock in the face, just below the eye. Blood oozed, but he kept his position. The mob surged and the bayonets lowered in unison, like an alley cat baring its fangs to a pack of dogs. Sergeant Coan, at the age of twenty six, was a seasoned Army veteran, but as his unit began its grim advance, the thought uppermost in his mind was, “What will I tell my mother?”
*** Syracuse -1852
Deep in the basement of the Syracuse cotton mill, Ira worked with rage in his heart and an ax in his hand. He held the blade to the sharpening wheel, sending a volley of orange and blue sparks flying at the heavy oak ceiling. The massive oaken baulks throbbed to their own life rhythm, as the cotton bales from the South were ingested, processed and transformed into manchester and clothing by the mighty machinery of the Syracuse Cotton Mill. Feathery clouds of cotton fluff suffused the chill air in the vast spaces of the mill, while higher still the plume of black coal smoke struggled to rise into the pearl-gray December sky. Black above – the smoke. And black below – the mood of 16 year-old Ira.
In the steely, still and frigid air outside, something stirred. A horse approached, its walk rhythm jostling in time with the gentle clatter of wood and iron in the cart. There was nothing gentle, however, in the voice of command as the cart was backed up – the harsh voice of a godly man directed at a gentle and lowly beast. Ira’s mood blackened further. The workshop doors swung open letting in a blast of heavy, chill air, the smell of horse, rain and wood. Ira refused to look up, but felt, rather than saw, the tall energetic figure of his father bustling round the cart. The bolts in the tailgate shot back and the load of oaken planks, shakes and strips began its slide into the cellar workshop. On and on went the avalanche of wood, destined to emerge in barrels and boxes, ready to enclose their treasures of whisky and wine, corn and wheat, butter and cream. And the hand which would effect this transformation was the one which held the cooper’s broad-ax, the hand of Ira Coan.
At last the cascade subsided, and the final iron hoop chose to prolong its landing with a virtuosic journey across the floor, ending with a rolling dance on its rim, accelerating to a final plop. Despite the muted thunder of the mill machinery, the silence was painful. Ira could no longer avoid it. The black-suited figure loomed over him, expectant and threatening. Ira gritted his teeth, looked up directly at Sylvanus and said “Good morning, Father.”
Sylvanus was not a young man. Nor was he what you would call an old man, even at 72. He was dark and lean, well-dressed in an ecclesiastical frock coat which did nothing to hamper his movement as he strode across the cellar to a window ledge. With an imperious swipe he grasped something from it, and Ira gasped. Sylvanus drew back his arm, clutching the newly carved figure produced by Ira that morning. And as he did, he glanced at it briefly, and his arm faltered. Ira had expected his work to be splintered against the wall, but he saw that it was tossed, not quite carelessly, onto a pile of sacking. A grim satisfaction softened his rage. Yes, he thought, it is good, isn’t it? The lecture would be easier to manage now.
The tirade came; the rewards of industry, the perils of sloth, the grace of God, the company of virtuous folk, the dedication of one’s life to goodness, and Ira bore it with a new, fascinated stoicism. His gaze rested on his latest creation, which lay on the rough sacks. He didn’t even know what it was. A female figure certainly, but was it his mother, Frances, or the girl he hoped one day to win though he hadn’t met her yet, or even the Virgin Mary whom all those Irish girls seemed to revere?
As he gazed, he imagined the words she would speak if only she could. He seemed to hear them spoken aloud, and imagined they were being relayed through his own mouth. He imagined himself talking of Sylvanus and the hasty marriage in his teens, the young wife dead before age twenty, the second wife who divorced him and the tribe of children scattered across the state; his father ranted on.
He thought of his stolid Uncle Gaylord, Sylvanus’ brother, so different, a beacon of homely comfort on his farm; still Sylvanus lectured. He thought of his own cousin Titus, fully thirty-five years older than Ira, a champion of Christianity among the heathen of Hawaii. He thought of the last Titus story he had heard, (the Spanish priest who addressed an Hawaiian girl as 'daughter of Satan' and was answered with a polite “Yes, Father”) and still the words formed in his head.
Ira felt a strange detachment growing inside him. He made a decision, though just what, he couldn’t say. He just that life would never be the same again. Sylvanus was angry. His color was up, his cheeks were aflame, with a white spot at the center. Things were going to get nasty. Detachment grew in Ira, and he began to separate in mind and spirit, from his father. Sylvanus stood over him, striking a pose that had always frightened him. Ira stood, and realized that he was now almost as tall as his father. Suddenly, he saw that the glare which was intended to transfix him had wavered and at the same moment, Sylvanus turned abruptly, and made for a seat at the workbench. There he sat for a moment, looking utterly bewildered and, thought Ira, old.
“...this girl...” muttered Sylvanus.
“Which girl?” was the even response. Sylvanus tensed, but then relented, forcing himself not to react. Ira saw it and understood. The habits of sixteen years were prison enough. What would it be like for his father? He felt himself softening, and yearning again for the warmth and kindness which seemed to be his mother’s province.
Ira dropped the pretense. “I like her. She talks to me, and I like the sound of her voice. Her family look after each other and I don’t care where she goes on Sundays.”
“They are ignorant and superstitious – they drink and brawl and would be traitors to our country. Their very names are foreign and comical”
“I know they don’t like the English. But is it not true father, that we ourselves were not English?”
“The name is Coan, and always has been. It is English, and of great antiquity.”
“Is it, father? My brother Milo told me that our name was otherwise, but the English changed it for us.”
Through gritted teeth Sylvanus insisted, “Your name is Coan. Got that? C-O-A-N, Coan.” Sylvanus walked to the door. Despite his age, he moved briskly and with purpose. His bearing pronounced him a man with purpose and Ira began to realise how much this dignity might have cost.
He picked up his carving, and followed his father to the door. “I’ll see what I can do, father. Some of this looks very good. I’ll have some fine barrels for you by tomorrow evening, I’m sure.”
Sylvanus did not reply, but looked at his youngest with new eyes. Not quite as briskly as usual, he turned the horse, which began to pull toward the gate. His face was unusually thoughtful. He, too, knew that life would never be the same.
Kate stood with a bobbin in her hand and tenderness in her heart for the fine-looking boy she could see in the yard below. A fine-looking boy to be sure. She liked his calm self-assurance, his relaxed stance and straight back. She liked talking to him too, though she knew he was a couple of years younger than she. He looked at her directly, he listened to her and he liked her. This she knew. She knew more besides. She knew she was not the most comely girl in the mill, or the most able. A childhood in famine-ravaged Ireland does that to a girl, she thought. But a pleasant, open countenance, a charming smile and a ready wit seemed to open many doors in this country. And they were needed, she thought.
Look at old man Coan down there in his black frock coat, looking like a dandy undertaker. He was Mr. Everywhere, turning up at meetings, Churches, rallies, running his businesses and poking his nose into others', leaving him hardly enough time to look after his many children, some of them older than her mother. She had left her machine to find a chink at the window, which let in a stream of clear cold air - heady stuff after the linty fug of the mill. Prising the window open with a small wooden offcut, she then sent it arcing out into the air of the mill yard. 'Oh dear,' she thought. Her aim was imperfect.
The piece fell almost exactly between father and son. The horse stopped as Sylvanus hauled it in. An innocent act, she thought, and now I have the undivided attention of two men. I really think one is quite beautiful, like an angel. And the other one looks like the devil. How could they be related? Is this one of the mysteries of life they talk about? The actress in Kate demanded a response. She leaned forward, well aware the window was framing her, and her flaming red hair, to the greatest advantage.
The boy brought his hand out from behind his back, and even from that distance Kate could see the beautiful shape of the carving, though not the detail. She smiled a small smile of trust, and turning her gaze to Sylvanus, lifted her right hand theatrically, and administered the Sign of the Cross, the way she had seen the priests do it. And sure, she thought, it is true. She could tell by the way he reacted that he must be the devil. He couldn't leave quickly enough, and was plainly furious. Well, she thought, we're not a very religious family - like so many of the others - but that was worth all the hours of boredom in the old school.
The smile she wore almost disappeared as she felt a sharp prod in her back. But Kate had time to hold her composure as she turned to inquire pleasantly, "Ah, is it the mill fallin' apart without meself to be runnin' it?"
Miss Stone, ah there's a name to be making fun of, did her best to intimidate Kate, but without much heart, for the truth was that she was a good worker and entertained the others. There was just something worrying though in a free spirit, particularly when it came from that troublesome race from Ireland. Already they were undermining the wages at the mill, they had soaked up the canal labor, and everyone knew they were backward, superstitious and possibly seditious. For all their religion, there was a great deal of drinking and fighting in their unruly community.
Aware of the eyes of her colleagues straying from their tasks to slyly observe, Kate called in stage-Irish, "If yez will, ladies. Twas not the forst toime, 'twill not be last; machines are there," pointing vigorously away from herself.
Amused and obedient, the girls turned back to their tasks. Miss Stone nodded and actually smiled. "Please, Kate," she murmured confidentially, "you could be such a good example to the others."
"Yes, Miss. I could."
They both smiled. And Kate thought, but I won't.