After the many flashbacks and sidebar comments, Jack returns to where he was at the end of Chapter One. It's 1936 and Jack is in the car, with the Boss, receiving instructions to "dig up" the dirt on Judge Irwin.
Jack tells us that because he "was once a student of history" this is a good job for him because students of history don't care what they find.
This marks the second time that Jack will go rooting around in the past. This time will be successful. (The first time was not successful, because Jack had "walked out" on the research he had been doing for his Ph.D.)
Now Jack is going to tell us about that time, and that research.
Begin flashback on Jack's Ph.D. research.
He lived in a messy apartment with two other graduate students, one who was "industrious" and "unlucky," and the other who was "idle" and "lucky."
Both of them were alcoholics, at least at the beginnings of months, when the University paid them for teaching. Neither of them was much interested in their work, and their futures look grim. Eventually they would have to leave behind the comforts of graduate student life to teach in some repressive school.
Jack liked living with them in the messy apartment.
When his mother visited, she couldn't understand why he was living like that. She sent him money to buy new clothes, but he and his roommates went on a five-day bender. After their alcoholic binge, the "unlucky" roommate lost his job, and the "lucky" one got a sexually transmitted disease. Jack alone remained unscathed.
The student who got fired stayed in the apartment, but didn't pay rent and became depressed. One day the unemployed roommate left and they never heard from him again.
Before that the three lived together like brothers – the two students "hiding from the future […] in the present," while Jack was "hiding from the present […] in the past."
Jack's "past" consisted of a bunch of letters, eight journals, a photo, and a man's gold ring.
These were the papers of Cass Mastern, an uncle of Ellis Burden. Cass's brother, Gilbert Mastern, died a rich man in 1914 at the age of 94.
Ten years later Gilbert's heir sent Cass's papers to Jack, hoping to sell them to the University library. Jack told him that since Cass wasn't a famous historical figure, the papers probably weren't worth anything.
We now get some background on Cass Mastern.
Cass "died in 1864 at a military hospital in Atlanta." The last letter in the bundle of letters was a dictated good-bye letter to brother Gilbert. Cass, Gilbert, and sister Lavinia had been born in Atlanta in a log cabin.
When Cass was a student at Transylvania College in Kentucky, he had begun the journal. This was after what Cass called "the darkness and trouble." The journals are Cass's confession – he considered himself a great sinner.
They begin with some brief background.
Cass was fifteen years younger than his brother, Gilbert. Gilbert ran away from home when he was about seventeen, and when he returned, fifteen years later, he was already well on his way to being a wealthy plantation owner.
In that final letter to Gilbert, Cass suggests that he is lucky to die, and that Gilbert is unlucky to live. Cass predicts that as a result of his brother's involvement in slavery, his life will be "bitter."
Jack got involved in these papers when one of his professors suggested Jack write his dissertation on them.
The research went smoothly at first. Jack could easily put together the man's life. The Mastern parents died, and Gilbert came home. Gilbert put Lavinia in school in Atlanta, and took Cass home with him.
At Gilbert's plantation a tutor gave Cass a basic education, and Gilbert taught him how to run a plantation. After that Gilbert sent him to school at Transylvania.
Cass "discovered pleasure" While at college.
During that time a woman, unnamed in the journal, was pursuing Cass.
Jack was able to find out her name: Annabelle Trice. Her husband was Duncan Trice, a Kentucky banker, and a friend of Cass's.
(Jack found out Annabelle's name in an 1850s newspaper reporting on Duncan's death.
He had accidentally shot himself while cleaning his gun.)
Back to Annabelle and Cass. The two met when Duncan brought Cass home. Cass found her beautiful, and in the journal likened her to Venus.
A few years passed and Duncan and Cass grew closer. Duncan taught Cass to drink and gamble, but not to chase women. (Duncan was completely in love with Annabelle.)
One night, when Duncan left them alone for a few minutes, Annabelle put the moves on Cass, beneath some jasmine bushes. Annabelle informed Cass that she' basically his age: she's twenty-nine and he's twenty-two. Duncan came back before anything can happen.
Cass left soon after to work for his brother over the summer.
He was thinking about heading back to school, when one day he got a letter. In the envelope was a jasmine blossom, and a letter with the words, "Oh, Cass!"
Back in Lexington, Cass visited Annabelle one day when Duncan wasn't home.
Cass and Annabelle shook hands, and then looked at each other. Annabelle opened her mouth like she was about to moan, and then they fell into each other's arms. They held each other for a long time, until Annabelle looked up at Cass. She had been crying quietly. Cass wasn't sure exactly why she was crying, but the tears humanized her, and made Cass melt inside. She told him to kiss her, and he did. Then they "performed the act."
Soon after, Annabelle's husband Duncan came home. Cass didn't feel ashamed before him, but rather extremely jealous.
That year, Cass Mastern was a regular visitor at the Trice house, and he still caroused with Duncan.
Cass learned to relax about the situation and enjoyed his love affair with Annabelle, who didn't seem bothered by it at all. The two lovers pretty much had sex everywhere in the Trice house.
Jack Burden had gone to look at the house, and wandered around it imagining Cass and Annabelle there.
Then, on March 19, 1854, Duncan Trice shot himself.
Cass was at the funeral and helped carry the coffin, which felt empty and light. He couldn't quite believe Duncan was dead.
When the coffin was in the ground, Cass "felt a great relief" and wanted Annabelle badly as he watched her kneel in front of the gravesite.
Cass went to the Trice house that night, and found Annabelle in the summerhouse. He watched her, to see how she was taking Duncan's death.
He no longer felt the desire of that afternoon.
After a time he said her name, but she didn't respond, so he repeated it twice until she acknowledged him. He asked her what's going on, and she hints that she thought it was the ghost of Duncan Trice calling her name.
He kissed her cold lips.
She told him that if he hadn't come tonight she would have taken it as a sign that their love was doomed, and would have never seen him again.
She asked for his hand, and he gave it to her. Then she put a ring on his wedding ring finger, and when he asked, told him it was Duncan's wedding ring. Cass asked if she took it off his dead hand. Annabelle replied that it was Duncan who removed it, before he died.
The night of March 19, after Duncan's death, Annabelle was getting ready for bed.
Her servant, Phebe, (who is described as "yellow," meaning she has light skin) was turning down the bed. She found the ring under what used to be Duncan's pillow, and gave it to Annabelle, who noticed that Phebe's skin was the same gold color as the ring. Phebe Looked at Annabelle.
Then Annabelle knew that Phebe knew that Duncan had found out about the affair, removed the ring, and then shot himself.
Annabelle is horrified because she thinks Phebe will tell the other servants, and that they will all look at her and judge her while they wait on her. She says she can't let that happen, and then she runs off, leaving Cass with the ring on his finger.
Annabelle left with Phebe to see some friends out of town. One her return, Cass went to the Trice house and again found Annabelle in the summerhouse sitting in the dark.
She greeted him and told him she had gone "down the river to Paducah" after visiting her friends.
When Cass asked why, she accused him of interfering in her business and told him to stop.
Then she tells him that she sold Phebe "down the river" so she could never look at Annabelle again.
She got a good price for Phebe, and then she gave the money to a blind, old black man. Cass asked why she didn't just set Phebe free. Annabelle explains that Phebe wouldn't have left, that she would have stayed there looking at Annabelle. Phebe wouldn't have left because she was married to another slave of another family.
Cass said that if Annabelle had come to him, he would have helped her buy and free both Phebe and her husband.
Annabelle got mad and told him to stay out of her business.
Cass didn't stop though. He reminded Annabelle that she got so much money for Phebe because Phebe is good looking, and will be used as a sex slave.
Annabelle says she wishes Cass had shown this much care about her dead husband, Duncan Trice.
The injustice of everything welled up in Cass.
He wanted to do something good, and tried to asked Annabelle for the name of Phebe's new owner. Annabelle wouldn't say.
Cass told her he was going to find out, buy Phebe, and set her free.
Annabelle went frantic and scratched Cass's cheek with her nails. She told him it was over between them if he did it.
The next day Cass left on his mission. He tracked down Phebe's original buyer, but found out that Phebe had been sold yet again.
Cass decided to visit the Lewis C. Robards barracks. Robards was a big slave trader, and might know something.
Mr. Robarbs wasn't in, but the office boy told Cass to go next door where a Mr. Simms was displaying some slaves for purchase.
Cass went in and Simms was showing a young woman to a "Frenchman."
(The description of the showing is painful to read – see your book for more.)
When that was over, Cass described Phebe and asked if he's seen her.
Simms says he hasn't seen her, but will keep his eyes open.
He suggested that Cass might prefer a whiter slave, like the one he was just showing.
One of the men in the audience made a comment about Cass wanting to have sex with a "yeller" woman. Cass punched him in the mouth, and drew blood. The man stabbed Cass in the shoulder with a Bowie knife. Cass broke the man's arm, and then knocked him down, and went to where he was staying.
With Annabelle gone, and his stab wound infected, Cass wished he would die.
Cass didn't die, but instead went back to his plantation in Mississippi.
He spent two years praying, reading the Bible, and somehow managed to make lots of money.
He used it to pay back his brother. Cass then freed his own slaves and hired them back for a working wage.
Gilbert objected to this practice. He thought there would be problems if the black workers on one plantation were free, and the black workers on a neighboring plantation were slaves. Gilbert suggested that Cass send the freed slaves "out of this country."
Gilbert also advised Cass to go to school and make a career, or to preach, putting his Bible study to work. Alternatively, Cass could preach abolition.
Cass said he wasn't ready to teach anybody anything, but that he might be in the future.
Tragedy struck one day.
One of the black men that worked for Cass had a wife on another plantation.
The two ran away together. The man was shot, and his wife returned to the plantation.
Cass decided to send the black people he had freed away, as Gilbert had once suggested.
He knew nothing good was waiting for them, though they all thought he was doing them a big favor, and were grateful.
Cass realized that he let the black people go for the same reason Annabelle sold Phebe, because he couldn't "bear their eyes upon them."
Cass elaborated on what he meant. In his journal, he wrote a story he had heard.
A Kentucky lawyer marries a wealthy woman from Boston.
She had been raised to believe that slavery was wrong, and had never been around black people. Yet, she abused the slaves at her husband's house horribly.
So horribly that "all persons of the community" told her to stop.
One day she was whipping a slave in a room on the second floor of her house, a little black boy came in and "began to whimper."
She threw him out the window, breaking his back.
Her husband had her committed, but the doctors said she wasn't crazy.
When her husband died, he didn't leave her any slaves, but she got some on her own.
She chained up one gentle man, and was beating him, but he broke free and choked her and then was hanged for the killing.
Cass never understood why until he sent his freed slaves away.
In some twisted way, the woman abused slaves because she knew slavery was evil. She couldn't stand having them look at her, and got angry when they did.
(Don't worry if you're confused by this strange story. Cass is essentially saying that slavery is so awful that it warps everything with which it comes into contact.)
Once his own slaves are sent away, Cass decided to study law. Gilbert asked if he could run Cass's plantation, but Cass refused.
To keep his land from being worked by slaves, he refused to sell it or work it.
Meanwhile, Civil War threatens to erupt. "On January 9, 1861 Mississippi passed the order of succession."
Gilbert became a colonel in the cavalry regiment, while Cass joined the Mississippi Rifles. This way, Cass could march with the soldiers, but wouldn't be forced to kill other men. He wore the ring of Duncan Trice on a chain around his neck.
Eventually Cass was shot in the leg, and died in an Atlanta hospital. Atlanta fell as he was dying, so his grave was never marked.
A man from the hospital saved the ring and the papers and sent them to Gilbert, and they eventually came to Jack Burden.
Jack studies this history for about a year and a half. He thought he "knew" Gilbert, but he never quite "knew" Cass. To get his Ph.D., he wasn't required to know the man, only his "world." But without understanding Cass, Jack didn't think he could understand his world.
Jack didn't know why he couldn't understand Cass. Maybe it's because he could never understand how trapped Cass was in the time he lived. Or, maybe he was afraid to understand Cass, such understanding might lead to self-criticism.
Whatever the reason, Jack put Cass away and started "one of the periods of the Great Sleep."
During this time he only got out of bed so he would have the pleasure of returning to it later.
Eventually, Jack walked away from Cass, and his life as a PhD student.
Later, the landlady sent him the papers, and since then, he carries that unopened package with him wherever he goes.