Updated September 6, 2010. Here is the prologue and first chapter of my new book. Wish me luck!
Callie Carter stood near the east entrance of the Larmiteau ballroom while the orchestra played a Viennese waltz. She moved her scarlet-colored iris-shaped mask to the side now and again to get a better look at women dressed in colorful silk gowns and men dressed in white ties and tails. They all wore masks to disguise themselves as some kind of exotic flora, but Callie was determined to discover the true identity of each and every person. Or at least, each and every interesting person. She was equally determined to keep her identity a secret to everyone at the ballroom except for Reby.
Reby stood next to Callie dressed in a burgundy-colored satin dress. The long earrings Callie had lent her reflected the golden glow from the gas lamps. She kept turning her wrists so that the gold bracelets on her brown arms clinked together. Callie knew she was not accustomed to wearing jewelry. Her mask was shaped liked the mythical black orchid.
"If I get caught," Reby said, "I am going to put all the blame on you."
"Of course," Callie said. "If I get caught, I will put all the blame on my poor upbringing. I'm an American and didn't know what I was doing." She fluttered her hand in front of her face.
Callie smiled. She liked being far from Virginia and the families who lived along the James River near Mount Joy, her father's plantation. For one thing, Reby was free here. They could walk the streets as sisters. Maybe no one bothered them because Reby was light-skinned for a slave and Callie was dark-skinned for a white Southerner, so no one knew what to make of them. Callie did not care about the reason. She just knew here she was surrounded by culture, freedom, and handsome young men and women.
"Tonight I will be Countessa Iris Mountjoy," Callie said. "And you?"
"I will be Duchess Wilhemina Orchid," Reby said. "From Barbados. An exotique!"
"I think the Countessa will have two children and one husband," Callie said. "Or maybe she is a widow with three children."
"Last night the Baron Margrave actually believed you when you said you had three children. We are not yet eighteen. How could they think such a thing?"
"Mother says men know nothing about women," Callie said, "and we should take advantage of their ignorance because we have so few natural advantages out in the world."
"You are very good at pretending," Reby said. "This all makes me a little nervous."
"Father says it's the little liar in me," Callie said.
Callie heard someone say her name. She turned around. Their hostess Madam Larmiteau stood behind Callie holding an opened telegram in her hand.
"Callie, dear, I'm afraid there has been some bad news," Madam said in French. "Will you come to the sitting room to hear it?"
Callie shook her head. "No, tell me here and now."
Madam Larmiteau held out the telegram to Callie and said, "I'm sorry to tell you but your parents have been in a terrible accident."
Callie Carter stood with her hand on the cold gray marble tombstone. She wanted to run her fingers inside the chisel marks that became her mother's and then her father's name: Emma Jean Ames Carter and Jacob William Carter. Beloved Mother and Father to Calantha Carter.
Her parents could not be dead. Not in some freak carriage accident. She had spent many wakeful nights during the winter she was forced to spend in France and ten on the sea-voyage home trying to figure out what had happened--and then even more hours trying not to picture the accident over and over in her mind's eye.
Now she stood quietly in the small family cemetery outside of the boxwood that surrounded the Georgian mansion that was her home. She couldn't see the mansion from here, at least not all of it. Pieces of the red brick became visible here and there through the bare branches of the willow and poplar trees.
She tried not to listen to her uncle Charles Ames drone on to Preacher Jones about the quality of the lettering on the tombstones. The day was too cold for March. Callie shuddered. It didn't feel as though spring was right around the corner. Everything looked dead. Felt dead.
Her old life was certainly dead. Seventeen years old and now her uncle Charles, her mother's brother, was her guardian. Callie didn't like Uncle Charles. Something about his pale fat little fingers that didn't quite match his tall frame. Or the way he never looked anyone in the eyes even while he was smiling slyly. Or maybe it was because her mother had always tensed when he came into a room. Her true legal guardian was her godfather, her uncle James, who was on a botanical expedition to the Amazon.
No one had heard from him in over a year, so Uncle Charles convinced Judge Zebadiah that Uncle James might be lost for good and his "very young niece" must have adult supervision until such time as James's body was recovered, dead or alive.
Judge Zebadiah. Callie's father had never liked him much either. But he was a good friend of Uncle Charles's, so by the time Callie stepped off the ship in Norfolk, Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Charles had moved into the main house. From there, Uncle Charles claimed, he could better oversee the plantation and Aunt Elizabeth could better oversee Callie.
Callie had not been in the house yet. Uncle Charles had whisked her immediately out to the cemetery, as though he was delaying her return to the house for as long as he could.
Callie wasn't sure why Preacher Jones was in the family cemetery with them.
She sighed. She was so tired she could barely breathe. Nothing in the world seemed right. Not a single thing.
A bird called out just then. She looked toward the sound. A crow hopped along the edge of the cemetery, near the wrought iron fencing. It looked straight at her, then bounced up and flew away, quickly becoming a black speck on the overcast sky.
As Callie looked back at the grave site, she glimpsed of a bit of color. On the soggy ground near the tombstone, along the side of the grave marker, a single trumpet-shaped orange flower surrounded by teethed egg-shaped green leaves grew up from the ground.
Callie smiled. Jewelweed. Usually it grew closer to the water and was surrounded by other jewelweed. It was one of her mother's favorite flowers. Her mother said people often didn't see jewelweed or ignored it all together if they did see it even though it was a great healer. Get stung by nettle or touched by poison oak and the juice from jewelweed would sooth the inflammation away.
Her mother believed wildflowers could fix anything.
Uncle Charles cleared his throat. Callie dropped her hand from the cold marble and looked at him and Preacher Jones.
Mr. Jones smiled. "I wanted you to know, Callie, that your parents got a lovely service. Everyone in the community came out for it. They were well-loved and will be missed." Jones glanced at Uncle Charles, as if to see if he needed to say anything else.
"Your uncle spared no expense on these tombstones," he said.
Callie glanced at the stone. Really? Then why was a crack running up the left hand side of the stone. And some of the chisel marks were ragged.
"I should like to pay for it myself," Callie said.
Jones looked at Uncle Charles again.
Charles said, "You mustn't worry your pretty self about such things now. The judge has put all of that into my capable hands. Now say goodbye to Reverend Jones and we'll get you something to eat. Unless you'd like to stay for dinner, Jones?"
Jones looked at Callie this time. She had not noticed before how small he was. Or how nervous. He kept smoothing his black hair over the ivory-white bald spot on the top of his head and then turning his hat in his hands. Callie's mother once said he had beady eyes.
"No, thank you," Jones said. "Let me know if you need anything, Callie."
Jones put his hat on his head, then walked back toward the mansion. Charles looked at Callie.
"Ready to go, dear?" he asked.
Callie tried not to scowl--or growl. She had to keep her own council for a time, at least until she figured out exactly what part Uncle Charles was to play in her life. Uncle Charles thought of her as a child. As a stupid child. She would let him. For now.
"We have got to keep this place looking better," Charles said. "Your mother always let every weed thrive. It's so untidy. I've hired an overseer. We'll get more work out of your father's worthless slaves yet and get this place cleaned up." He bent over. Before Callie could say anything, he pulled up the jewelweed and crushed it in his hand. Then he tossed it over the fence.
"Come, child," he said. "We have much to show you." He held out his arm for her. She gritted her teeth, then put her hand on his elbow, and they walked out of the graveyard, toward the boxwood and the mansion. Callie looked over her shoulder once to try and spot the ruined orange flower. But she saw only gray.
"Callie, I hope your time away was profitable for you," Uncle Charles said. "I know you disagreed with our decision to have you spend the winter in France. But we knew your parents would have wished you to continue your education, even though your aunt and I didn't quite understand why you were there."
Callie said nothing. She had gone to France to study art and improve her already remarkable drawing and painting skills--and to learn more about the world and get away from the sometimes claustrophic community of people who lived around Mount Joy.
"It was difficult to be alone in a strange country mourning the deaths of my parents," Callie said.
Difficult was not the right word. It had been excruciating. After she got the news, everyone seemed a stranger, even those friends she had made during her time in France. She and Reby stayed inside the apartment together most of the time, although sometimes her tutors visited, and she drew a bit, painted even less. She had not been capable of coherent conversation. And she had no money. Her aunt and uncle cut off her funds so that she could not get on a ship herself. Fortunately, she stayed with friends of her parents, Madam Larmiteau and her husband, so she was not thrown into the streets while she waited for permission to come home. Besides her mother's three brothers and their families, Callie had no other relatives. So she had waited until Uncle Charles released some funds, and she and Reby headed home.
She shook herself and looked ahead as she and Uncle Charles neared the mansion.
It was a relief to see Henry standing just outside the door, so tall and straight, dressed in his black suit, his white-gloved hand on the door as he prepared to open it. He wore a black armband on his left arm--the black a little darker than his coat--in honor of her parents, no doubt. It was more than her uncle had done.
Callie let go of her uncle's arm and walked up to Henry.
"It is good to see you, Henry," she said. She smiled.
Henry bowed and said, "Welcome home, Miss Callie." He opened the door. Callie noticed his skin seemed a little ashy and maybe his hand trembled slightly. She would not ask him about it now. Instead, she strode through the open door into her home. Her parents were gone, but this was where she had grown up. This was where Henry, Pearl, Reby, Martha, and Joseph still lived--well, they lived nearby in the Little House near to this Big House.
As soon as Callie stepped over the threshold, she stopped so suddenly her uncle nearly ran into her. She heard Henry close the door behind them. She waited for her eyes to adjust.
Why was this room so dark?
They stood in a kind of foyer with gentle arches that led into the East parlor to her right and the dining room to her left. Beyond the parlor was the sun parlor, then the ballroom. Beyond the dining room was one of the pantries, the kitchen office, the kitchen and another pantry. And the stairs were straight ahead.
When Callie left for France a year ago, the walls had been cream-colored, and a vase of brightly-colored flowers greeted guests and family all year round. Now a kind of dark gold urn stood on a tall black table and the walls were a hideous shade of brown.
Callie heard the rustle of satin. Aunt Elizabeth came out of the east parlor, dressed in blue satin. She smiled and held out her hands to Callie.
"Isn't this lovely?" Elizabeth said. "I can't imagine your mother actually liked that other color. It was so light! It gave me a headache. I hope you don't mind. We've made little changes here and there. We were certain your poor dear mother would have made the same changes had she lived."
Callie glanced at Henry. He practically blended into the walls. She reminded herself that she was going to hold her tongue until she got the lay of this new land. She needed to get upstairs to see if Reby had found out anything yet.
Her aunt embraced her slightly, kissed the air on either side of Callie's face, and then stepped back to look at her.
"Oh my! Didn't they have parasols in France?" she asked. "You're dark enough to be mistaken for a pickaninny! You're nearly as black as your dress."
"I hardly think that is true," Callie said.
Her aunt shrugged. "I have some powder if you want, before you see anyone."
"No thank you," Callie said. "I'd like to go up to my room and change."
"Of course," Aunt Elizabeth said. "Dinner is at the usual hour. Heddie has made you a welcome home dinner."
"Who is Heddie?" Callie asked.
Aunt Elizabeth rolled her eyes. "How silly of me. You don't know anything about what's been happening, do you?" She looked over at her husband. "Have you told her nothing?"
"I leave it to you, wife," he said. "And now if you'll excuse me, I have some work to do." He bowed slightly. Then he slipped off his coat and handed it and his hat to Henry.
Callie watched her uncle walk down the corridor to her father's office, beneath the stairs. He unlocked the door, opened it, and went inside. Then he shut the door.
Her father had rarely kept that door locked.
Callie closed her eyes. Uncle Charles was in her father's office! Her father would be appalled that Uncle Charles now knew all the intimate details of his business life.
"Heddie is the new cook," Elizabeth said. "Pearl was unbearable. I could not eat her food!"
"Pearl has been our cook since before I was born," Callie said.
"Yes, I know your mother brought her into her marriage," Elizabeth said. "But she is old. Her taste is off. She's better off where she is now. She can be of more use there."
"Where is she?"
"She's out in the slave cabins by the fields. She can cook for the pickaninnies and field hands all day and night. They won't notice her tasteless food!"
Callie's stomach fluttered. Her heart started to race.
"Pearl has never lived in with the field slaves," Callie said. "Mother promised she would come with me if she got too old to cook, to care for my children one day. She would have never put her outside."
"Dear, you're overtired and forget yourself," Elizabeth said. "She is a slave and goes where she is told."
"With the death of my mother," Callie said, "she becomes my responsibility."
"We are your guardians," Elizabeth said. "We could not, in good conscience, let you continue to eat that gruel Pearl cooked. Your mother wasn't able to send Pearl away. So I've done it for her."
"My mother would have never sent Pearl away!" Callie said.
Elizabeth stepped back from Callie and arched an eyebrow.
So much for holding her tongue.
"This household is now my responsibility," Elizabeth said. "And will be until you come of age. Pearl will go where I wish. Now, I noticed some of your dresses were a bit frayed. If that is how Rebecca takes care of your things, perhaps it is time to send her away, too. She's at a good age to breed."
Callie stared at her aunt. Was her aunt trying to intimidate her by threatening to take Reby away?
All of this was so wrong.
How was she going to fix this situation? How was she going to get her home back? Her life? How could she get Pearl into the kitchen again? Panic rose in her throat.
How could her parents have left her so vulnerable to these people? Where was Uncle James?
This was not right. None of it.
She would write to Uncle Peter in Richmond again. Until then, she needed to keep things as peaceful as possible.
"I am very tired, dear aunt," Callie said. "I would like to go upstairs now."
"Of course," Elizabeth said.
Callie turned and started walking up the curving staircase.
"See if Reby can find you a dress that isn't torn or soiled at the hems," Elizabeth said. "And no more black. It depresses me."
"But, Aunt Elizabeth, I am in mourning for a year," Callie said. "It would be disrespectful."
"Nonsense," Aunt Elizabeth said. "Your mother was not that old-fashioned and neither am I. I am very proper, but not old-fashioned. And with war so close at hand, we need to live every day to the fullest."
"I know you miss your parents," Elizabeth said, "and I certainly don't want to stop you for mourning in your own way. I'm just giving you permission to take off the widow weeds. It is spring, after all."
Her tone was sugary. Callie felt nauseated. She picked up the hem of her dress slightly as she walked up the stairs. She glanced at the portraits of her ancestors. Her four grandparents from both sides of the family. Her mother. Father.
She wished one of them could come to her rescue now.
"Oh dear," Elizabeth said. "I forgot to tell you that we've moved you to another room."
Callie stopped on the stairs and looked down. Elizabeth had her hand on the banister.
"Excuse me?" Callie said.
"It was time you had a grown-up room, away from your parents," she said. "So we put you in a room on the third floor. That way you have more privacy. Your room was so close to your parents' room. We're staying in your parents' room now."
"You are staying in my parents' room?" Callie asked.
Callie's fingers gripped her dress.
"Of course," Elizabeth said. "They were the best rooms in the house. This is an ordeal for us, you know, to be away from our home to care for you. We knew you would want us to be comfortable."
Callie chewed the inside of her cheek.
"Of course," she finally said.
She turned from her aunt and continued up the stairs.
Reby was sitting in a chair at the top of the stairs waiting for her.
"This way, Miss," Reby said formally.
Callie looked down the stairs. She couldn't see Elizabeth, but she sensed she was still there, listening, waiting.
Callie followed Reby up the second set of stairs and then down the hallway to the end of it. At least Elizabeth hadn't redecorated this floor. The wallpaper with pale red and pink roses brightened up the corridor still.
Reby opened the door to the last room. Callie couldn't remember ever being in this room. Reby had already opened the windows. Good thing. It still smelled a bit stale.
Callie looked around the small room. She didn't see any other door besides the one they had just come through. A small window seat looked down at the garden, the row of poplars beyond, and the James River beyond them. A wardrobe, bed, dresser, dressing table, and writing desk practically filled the room.
"Where's your room?" Callie asked. Reby had slept next to her nearly her entire life.
"Miss Elizabeth says I have to sleep in the Little House now with the others," Reby said. "She wants me to do more kitchen duty, help in the smoke house and with the sewing more. She says you don't need a maid full time and she doesn't have enough slaves to do all the work that needs to be done."
"There is truth that I don't need a fulltime maid," Callie said, "but she doesn't need to know that."
Callie sat on the bed. Reby sat on the floor and leaned against the bed.
"Come sit with me," Callie said.
Reby shook her head. "Miss Elizabeth catches us, we're done for."
Callie sighed. Everything had changed. Reby was acting and talking strangely. Like she was back on the farm.
Which she was. They both were.
"She was lookin' at your clothes," Reby said. "She said if I couldn't do a better job, she was gonna have Mr. Charles sell me."
"He can't do that," Callie said. "I know that for sure. According to the law you are mine and I wouldn't consent to your sale."
"They've got Pearl down by the fields," Reby said. "I heard she's doing poorly."
"Aunt Elizabeth told me," Callie said.
"You ever been down there?" Reby asked.
"Once, when I was little," Callie said. "Father came close to whipping me when he found me." She had been sitting on the floor in the dirt, eating with the other children when her father strode into the cabin.
"Mr. Carter," someone had said. Callie didn't remember now who it had been. "We was just comin' to git ya."
And then things got confusing. Her father yelled. The driver got out his whip.
Callie shook her head. She didn't want to remember that.
"It ain't fit fer man or beast," Reby said. "Not them places."
"Reby, quit talking like that," Callie said. "You sound like a field hand."
"We ain't in Paris any more," Reby said. "I've got to know my place and be in my place until this blows over or Miss Elizabeth is going to get rid of me. I talked to Martha. She says your aunt and uncle have come to stay and they're going to run things wicked hard."
"My parents didn't raise any shrinking violet," Callie said. She stood and began pacing the room. "I need to see a lawyer. Find out what my rights are. Uncle Charles showed me the papers the judge signed. And he signed. About them being my legal guardians for the time being. And I tell you I intend to spend no time being under their thumbs. I'll write a letter to Uncle Peter, too. But for a while, Reby, I will pretend to be on my aunt and uncle's side. They think I'm an ignorant child, so that's what I will be. But first I've got to dress for dinner."
Reby got off the floor. Callie turned around so her back was to her. Reby took off Callie's coat and lay it on the bed. Then she began unbuttoning Callie's dress. When it was loose enough, Reby helped Callie step out of it.
Callie walked to the wardrobe and opened it. She pulled out a blue-silk dress. It was almost the same color as the one her aunt was wearing.
"It would be so gauche if I wore this tonight," Callie said. "Auntie might feel as though I was trying to outshine her." Callie nodded. "Perfect. She wanted me out of black. I will obey her."
She handed the dress to Reby. Reby took it. The two looked at each other for a moment. Callie turned away first. "I better hurry," she said. "Before she comes looking for me. You keep your head down, Reby. Let's not rock the boat until we're ready to sink it."
Monday, September 6, 2010
Updated September 6, 2010. Here is the prologue and first chapter of my new book. Wish me luck!