Hiram has finally mastered Conduction, and this achievement brings him immense joy. He spends his nights with Sophia, theoretically keeping this secret from Thena, until she reveals she knows by telling him she is happy for him. However, more problems come in December with the return of Nathaniel. Hiram is forced to drive Sophia to Nathaniel’s house, a task that horrifies him, but which he forces himself to accept. On the way, Sophia asks him about the splendor she imagines at Corrine’s house, and he answers vaguely. Sophia says she’s heard that Corrine often travels North, and says she assumes Hiram never went there with her.
Sophia’s questions about Corrine’s house and the North serve as a reminder that, despite how close Hiram and Sophia have now become, he is still keeping an enormous secret from her. Although Hiram is surely planning to reveal this secret at some point, the longer it goes on, the more likely Sophia is to feel betrayed by him not having told her earlier.
Hiram asks Sophia how she got to Nathaniel’s while he was away, and to his astonishment, she says she walked. She talks about how degrading this felt, and then expresses the murderous rage she feels against white people. She has often thought about seeking violent revenge, although this changed after she had Caroline. When they get to Nathaniel’s, a servant greets them and says that Nathaniel can’t see Sophia that day, and that he will send for her when he is able to. Driving away, both Sophia and Hiram are happy about this, but Sophia also remarks that it is strange, as something like it has never happened before. She jokes that somehow Hiram managed to do it.
The change of circumstances at Nathaniel’s, while positive, is a reminder of how unpredictable life under slavery is, as well as how totally beyond the control of the enslaved. Sophia’s joke that Hiram somehow stopped Nathaniel from seeing her seems almost more like a wish expressed on both their behalves.
Speaking from a future perspective, Hiram reminisces about how happy he is in this moment. They talk about the falling fortunes of Elm County, and Hiram hints that there might be something better for them on the horizon. Sophia says she cannot trust him unless he tells her his entire plan in full. When they get back to Lockless, they find Thena with a bandage around her head. When they ask what happened, she says she doesn’t remember. After checking that Caroline is fine, Sophia bursts into tears and says, “They took it.” Going in himself, Hiram sees that the whole room has been smashed up. All the money that Thena has been saving from her laundry work has been taken.
This cruel turn of events is the kind of thing that happened all too regularly under slavery. Women like Thena had essentially no means of redress. If they were robbed, raped, or beaten—either by enslavers or even by other enslaved people—they had very little chance of receiving justice.
Although enslavers are known to steal from the enslaved, the way that Thena’s house has been smashed up proves that the culprits are themselves enslaved. Following the attack, Hiram, Sophia, and Thena all move in together in Thena’s cabin, and they make sure Thena is never left alone. Meanwhile, they learn that Nathaniel never actually returned from Tennessee. One night, Sophia mentions that she’s heard that in Tennessee, there are different “customs,” and sometimes white men take black women as wives. She wonders if this is what Nathaniel is planning.
Hiram, Sophia, and Thena’s little family unit had a brief moment of seeming happy and secure, but tragically, such moments are usually not able to last long under slavery. Facing threats from every side—from Nathaniel to the other enslaved people who robbed Thena—the family is in grave danger.
During Christmastime, Corrine comes to stay with Lockless, bringing a great number of servants as well as guests with her. This greatly cheers Howell. Hiram knows that in reality, all the servants as well as the guests are actually agents of the Underground. After arriving, she requests that Hiram take her on a tour of the grounds. While they are alone, he tells her it is time to conduct Thena and Sophia to the North. He explains about the attack on Thena’s house, and mentions his fears that Nathaniel is going to take Sophia to Tennessee. However, Corrine then says that this won’t happen; she has already made a deal with Nathaniel, and in one week, Sophia will become Corrine’s property.
Again, Corrine’s actions teeter on the edge between commendable and cruel. She has prudently arranged for Sophia to be kept safe from Nathaniel; the fact that she has bought Sophia from him means that within a week, Sophia will essentially be free. At the same time, the fact that she did this without Sophia’s consent and kept it hidden from both Sophia and Hiram illustrates her ruthless nature and suggests she might even enjoy the power she has over others.
Hiram observes that Corrine is one of the most “fanatical” Underground agents that he has ever met, and that all of these agents have been white. This frenzy lies in the fact that slavery is a personal affront to them, challenging their belief in their own goodness. Hiram demands that both Sophia and Thena be liberated immediately, but Corrine says there is already a plan in place, from which they cannot deviate. If Sophia disappears as soon as she falls into Corrine’s possession, it will look suspicious. She insists they need more time. Hiram knows that Corrine is right, but he is still furious. Hiram refuses to comply, but Corrine urges him to “think beyond all [his] guilt” and see sense. She asks him to promise that he will not “doom” them, and he does, though not in the way she means.
This is a crucial passage in the novel, as it explores how a person’s motivations can complicate their involvement with liberation work. Hiram describes how Corrine is almost dangerously “fanatical” because her involvement with the Underground is motivated by her own damaged ego. Meanwhile, Corrine herself accuses Hiram of being clouded by his own feelings of guilt in a way that inhibits his ability to make rational decisions. Arguably the accusations they make of each other are both correct.