DIANA STAYED WITH the Carters for two nights and three days. She was welcomed with such enthusiasm that under different circumstances she would have felt guilty for disliking her host. Mister Carter was so courtly and deferential that he drove Diana to distraction. If she took one sip from her glass, he was glowering at a slave to refill it. He was so intense, Diana was in a terror that if the slave did not move quickly enough, Mister Carter would have him whipped.
The moment he spoke, even his oldest son would fall silent. The silence would last until everyone was sure Father was done. His method of entering a conversation was to abruptly ask a question. No matter his audience was discussing something else. He would wait impatiently until he felt the answerer had enough time to get out whatever was to be said, then veer sharply to the topic Adam Carter had really been bent on discussing—hunting, gambling, and horseflesh.
For instance, at the barbecue that commenced shortly after Diana's arrival, his wife had been shyly pressing her on fashions. Diana had been delicately trying to get across that waistlines were no longer gathered just under the bosom, without mocking Sarah's own costume, and that oiled Grecian curls were definitely out, when Adam Carter broke in.
"If you please, my dear Mrs. Shannon," he'd said in his heavy drawl, "I would treasure your opinion of this ham." He cut a thick slice with his own hands, and had a slave pass it to her.
She had dutifully tasted it and remarked on its goodness. It was true: the ham was delicious. Adam had nodded proudly around the table. Then, as Diana had tried to resume her conversation with his wife, Mister Carter had addressed John Maguire: "How's that speckled foal of yours getting along, Major?" It was the first time Diana heard Maguire addressed by rank.
"Over the colic now," was all Maguire had said.
Evidently, from long practice this was the most he had attempted. It was sufficient for Mister Carter's purpose. He had then launched into a lengthy discussion on animal husbandry according to Adam Carter.
The man reminded her of Nate Hatch. It was an unsettling connection. She found herself watching Adam Carter more closely. The accent was different but the attitudes were similar. Like the New Kent innkeeper, Mister Carter was a bloated monarch in a minuscule society. In his extreme isolation, the power the planter wielded increased proportionally. It was like one of those mathematical games invented by the ancient geometers, where a small sum quickly grows to the size of mountains. Remove his dependence on his fellow citizens for profit, allow him greater freedom to manipulate the law—in fact, give him vastly greater power over his fellow man—and Nate Hatch would have behaved exactly the same as Adam Carter.
What made the situation intolerable was that the power of the planters had been confirmed on the highest level. First Jefferson and then Madison—both slaveholders—had forged a Democratic-Republican coalition of southern planter and northern merchant and tradesman to make their party supreme for fourteen years. Diana realized only a hopeless optimist could imagine anything changing in this lifetime. Or the next. But here she was, a lowly woman by Adam Carter's lights, being treated with a respect far beyond her role as guest. There was condescension, to be sure. Diana was used to that. Still, even in this place where the "Cult of True Womanhood" reigned supreme, she was listened to in greater detail than most other people of her sex. Money and presumed influence was the answer. Perhaps all that achieving hadn't been wasted. Perhaps it wasn't so empty. And her current frustration was that she was growing tired fighting alone all this time, and felt she was falling behind.
Then her head had come up as she realized she had drifted into a long reverie. No one had noticed. But the conversation had taken several turns since her attention had lapsed. John Maguire was holding forth. He was talking about the war. Actually, it was more of an impassioned plea than mere talk. The major was describing the desperate plight of the army, telling of his fears that the war would be lost if desperately needed troops were not continuously supplied.
She noticed Mister Carter and his sons listened respectfully, but with small smiles playing at their lips. Diana also saw that the rank conferred on Maguire was no empty title. Whispers among the women confirmed he had fought long and valiantly during the Revolution when most men from these parts were only peripherally—if at all—involved. Plainly, the major was making a pitch. A recruitment pitch. He was pressing Adam Carter for his sons; he was raising a militia to fight the king.
As soon as she caught the drift of what he was attempting to sell, she could see from the faces of the Carter men that they would never enlist. Still, she thought it a brave effort and was disappointed on his behalf when he came to the end. Mister Carter waxed long and eloquently on his great poverty and how—although Maguire must be aware of his ardent belief in such a patriotic cause—such a sacrifice would be his ruin. With regret he was forced to deny this favor to his neighbor and dearest friend.
Oddly, she had caught no sense of loss on the major's features. He seemed to have expected the answer. In fact, he was shaking his head, sympathizing with his host and encouraging Adam Carter to describe his difficulties in great detail. He has more in mind, she'd thought.
Sarah Carter rose, a signal for the other women to withdraw and leave the men to their business. Diana had nearly snapped at the woman. She wanted to see how the game between Maguire and Carter came out. But custom and dreaded tradition ruled otherwise. As she withdrew, John Maguire had looked her way, disappointment on his face. Then he turned back to focus all of his attention on Adam Carter. The more she saw of Major Maguire, the more she found favor in him. What a pity.
They were only a few steps into the garden—on the way back to the house—when Sarah gave a gasp of pain. She stood frozen and what little color she had drained from her face, until she was ghastly white. She sagged, and her sisters and aunts had descended on her. Propping her up, spewing orders to the slaves who always followed as if they were living shadows, they had fled through the garden with their burden. Leaving Diana forgotten in their wake. She'd wondered what the trouble was with the poor child. It didn't seem to her that a difficult pregnancy could be the sole cause. But it was none of her business, she had told herself. Besides.[..
Diana slipped back to the edge of the garden. A thorny hedge, covered with tasseled red flowers, hid her from the view of the men.
". . . How can I refuse you, John?" Mister Carter was saying. "If it's that nigger wench you want, then you shall have her. And at a fair price as well ..."
It was as if the sun had been blown out by a mighty breath. Chilled by these words—delivered as casually as if they were discussing a prized hunting bitch—Diana had fallen back from the hedge, so stunned at witnessing the sale of another human being, she had almost fled to her room like a maiden.
Reason had returned with the sound of footsteps coming down the garden path: Kitty. Before her maid could speak and alert the men of Diana's presence, she shushed her with a raised finger. Another wave had brought the girl to her side, and Diana had resumed her spying.
". . . Then it's settled, and I thank you," the major was saying. "When I return home in a day or so, I'll send my headman, Paul, to fetch her."
From Carter's reaction, Diana could see the bargain was not as settled as the major was saying. For some reason, the planter seemed about to object to the timing, or some other matter that Diana could not make out. But Maguire had seemed prepared for this.
"Now, as to my first request, Adam," the major went on, "all I'm asking is for one of your boys. And only for a month or so. It would have a powerful effect on my recruiting efforts, for a man such as yourself to stand with me in this matter. And volunteer his son to his country's call."
Mister Carter had blustered. But still the major pressed. Then he suddenly relented with good grace. He let the planter steer the conversation back to the bargain involving the woman slave. There would be no delay in delivery. Then the major had shifted the conversation to an idle discussion on the prospects for the hunting season. Silently, Diana had ghosted away, pulling Kitty with her. It was plain what Maguire's real mission was: the purchase of a "nigger wench." But why would this be more important than recruiting soldiers for his militia? It didn't make sense. Later, Kitty had enlightened her.
The girl was so young and naive that she had quickly shed her shyness in the company of the other children running about the Carter plantation. Diana had watched them at play: the boys, young ruffians like their fathers and uncles, stalking each other and small unwary animals with pointed sticks for rifles; the girls, sunbonnets the size of bassinets to protect their skin, dresses hiked up so that all one could see of them as they ran about was the floppy hat and long, coltish legs. So wild was their play, that trees seemed no bar to their path. Even the girls ran right up them like squirrels.
Kitty had fit right in. Soon she was spending all her time with them, playing and gossiping. "... They're all odd ones here, missus," she had said, "but they don't see it that way. They're so used to the way they're living, they think we're the ones that lost the bell rope. Us and the major."
"Us, I understand, but why the major, Kitty, dear?"
"I think it's because he's more like us. At least that's what they say. He doesn't whip his black fellahs, missus. And he feeds them well. And it's said he spends all his money putting clothes on their backs, and good roofs over their heads."
"It's still slavery, Kitty. And he's a master, whether kind or foul."
"I know that, missus. But they don't see it the same. They say he's weak in the head. And that he's gonna ruin his fortune until there's nothing left for his sons to inherit. . . . It's like that girl he came to buy."
Diana's interest perked. "Yes? What about her?"
"The children say he didn't want her for himself. They said the girl belonged to one of his sons, who gave her to Mister Carter to settle a gambling debt. The trouble was, Major Maguire has this black fellah, named Paul. The girl is the black fellah's wife. That's why the major wanted her back. They all think he's crazy for that. But I think it is just grand, missus. And very brave of him. They could make a lot of trouble."
"I wonder why they haven't?" Diana mused, not expecting an answer.
"Oh, because he's a great hero, missus. He came back from the Revolution with everyone singing his praises and giving him honors. Now, he's the only real soldier in these parts. They're all ashamed because they don't want to fight. Cowards. I'd fight if they let me. But I'm just a girl. So they won't."
Diana saw the major in a different light. But so sudden and bright was the glare, she couldn't quite make out the details from the size of the shadow it cast.
"But I still don't understand why once Mister Carter agreed to let the major have the girl, he resisted doing it right away. What does it matter if it's the day after tomorrow or a week from tomorrow? Can you answer that?"
Kitty turned scarlet. She ducked her head and muttered.
"Speak up, Kitty, dear. I can't hear you."
More mumbling. Then she had reached up with a hand to brush away a tear. Diana gentled the girl, smoothing her hair, straightening the folds in her frock. When the girl was calm, she had repeated the question.
Again Kitty flushed. But she looked Diana straight in the eye and got it out: "He hadn't had her yet!"
"What?" Diana was aghast.
"She's said to be very pretty, but Mister Carter hadn't had his chances with her yet. With all of Missus Carter's family about, I guess he was ashamed to. And now I don't think he'll have that chance, missus. He was mad at first, but then they said he thought it was an awfully good joke on him. ..."
Kitty had lapsed into silence. From the shudder she gave, Diana knew she was putting herself in the slave girl's place, and thinking of Adam Carter crawling into her bed. "I don't think it's very funny, missus."
"Nor do I," Diana said.
She went riding the next day with John Maguire. They packed a picnic lunch in the saddlebags of his big blaze-faced chestnut, Balthazar. Some cold meats and fruit and a little wine. She rode a sturdy bay mare.
Maguire took her on a long, circuitous route, avoiding the shacks where the slaves lived and the fields where they worked. She knew this because she felt no eyes on her for the first time since she'd left the broken-down coach. Diana was not surprised at his sensitivity to her unspoken feelings. For a man she had only known a short time, he seemed amazingly natural with her, talking lightly of this and that, searching out common ground.
They moved through pure Virginia countryside, dressed in its best green and floral print. Little trails took them across small brooks and around leafy bowers through the woods. They broke out of the treeline and into a large, overgrown meadow. A stream rushed down the hills and emptied into a wide pond in the middle of the meadow. At the edge of the pond was a long-abandoned mill, a relic from a time of individual enterprise. The roof was caved in and the mill wheel stopped by tumbling rocks. Maguire found a soft, grassy place near the wheel. While she spread the blanket and laid out the food, he freed the horses to graze in the meadow. Maguire said Balthazar would come when he called, and the bay would follow. They made a lazy meal in the early afternoon sun.
He asked about her, and Diana gave him a much edited version of her life. At least she attempted to. But Maguire had a way of asking a quiet question that meant no harm and was easily evaded if privacy were threatened. But it made a person want to answer. Because John Maguire was sure to understand and be supportive. She had not met a man since Emmett with whom it was so easy to talk. Maguire seemed honestly in awe of her success.
Unlike most planters, he was not disdainful of business. "I wish I were better at it," he said. "Otherwise I might be much farther along in my plans."
"Which are . . . ?"
He hesitated for so long a time that Diana was first a little hurt, then angry that her confidences in him—edited though they might be—were not to be returned.
But when he finally spoke, she immediately relented. "Part of the blame is the war," he said. "At least that's the excuse I make to myself. But ... to be absolutely honest with you, Mrs. Shannon—"
"Diana, please. A rescue from that dreaded coach deserves at the very least first names between us, don't you think?"
He laughed at this, nodding vigorously, taking heart. She liked his laugh. "For some time now," he continued, a little firmer than before, "I've had a mind to give up everything. Make an early settlement on my sons and daughters, sell what 1 can, and go. Of course, my family thinks I'm mad. And if my neighbors knew, they would believe worse."
"Where would you go?"
"I have some land on the river in Mississippi Territory. I was thinking of a farm. A real farm. Vegetables and meat. And perhaps a little shipping business on the side. I think the traffic is enough so that it would be profitable."
"What's to stop you?"
He turned his blue eyes on her with a look so mournful she almost lost her heart. "I'm fifty-seven years old," he said in a harsh whisper. "And I don't know how I came to be in this place."
He looked around, brooding. Diana knew it wasn't the lovely meadow he was seeing. Then: "Sometimes I think a great trick was played on the Maguires. But there's no humor attached to this trick, only a curse. And I call that curse the fifty human beings I own body and soul. Besides that fifty, there are thirty more. Men and women: the property of my sons. They inherited them from their mother, but I've kept them in trust far past the legal limit ... a source of great controversy in my family, as you can imagine." The last was delivered a bit dryly, with a hint of a cynical smile.
Diana hesitated to answer. To her it seemed simple: free them. But if it was so simple, why was this otherwise intelligent man suffering so? She needed to know more. Diana determined to make it her business to find out. Not so much for John Maguire, but for the eighty men and women in his power.
Feeling a bit like a young, guilt-stricken sailor quizzing a harlot, she asked him how a nice Irish boy came to be in such foul company. John told her that his grandfather had been transported early in the last century. His crime was lost to family history, but was said to be quite minor. The fact that he was Irish made things much worse for him. More telling, however, was that the crime was committed in an age when even slight offenses were considered great threats to the social order.
After months of living in the squalor of the old prison ships at the London docks, he was transported to the colonies. The first American Maguire landed in Connecticut and was sold into indenture. For seven years, it was said, he labored for a cruel farmer. But when the term of his service came to an end, the farmer used lies and influence to have another seven added as a penalty. He fled and made his way to Virginia. He was twenty-seven.
John Maguire's grandfather was noted for his thrift and hard work. He labored at menial jobs, but studied late into the night. He taught himself to read and write, and finally came to the attention of a judge, who employed him as a clerk and tutored him on the law. Eventually he became a judge himself. He married well, the daughter of a prominent family with land but no money. The first American Maguire had money, but no land. It was said to be a great match. The dowry included one hundred slaves.
"But how could he?" Diana interrupted. "I'm sorry if this offends you, but after hearing that tale, I think your grandfather must have been . . ." She hesitated to use so impolite a word.
"A great hypocrite?" Maguire helped.
"Yes," Diana said. "Where was his sympathy? He knew the evil firsthand, had lived under a master's hand, or worse. I see no excuses or hope for him, and I'm sorry once again for maligning your family. But I can't help but speak the truth."
"I agree with all of it and more," Maguire said, surprising her more than a little. "But my grandfather is the minor villain in this piece. My father was much worse. He doubled my grandfather's fortune ... in the slaving trade."
Maguire attempted no verbal tricks to soften the statement. Instead, he watched her steadily as she reacted in shock to the news, judged him, and found the Maguires guilty.
"There's more," he finally said. "But I won't torment you with it. I'm sure you can see that I have come to my current confusion by a long and tortuous route."
With that, he stood up abruptly, strode to the mill wheel, and began kicking away the rock barrier that kept the wheel motionless. Not another word passed between them for a full hour as he worked steadily at this odd task. A shriek like a banshee rent the silence. The great wheel jumped forward six feet or more. Then it hung there, swaying back and forth. Maguire kicked loose a remaining rock. The wheel sprang into full life. And the meadow was filled once again with the peaceful sound of the millstream at work. For a long time they watched it spin. Then Diana patted the grass beside her and John came to sit.
Without taking her eyes from the wheel, Diana said: "I think you must be a very kind man. But kindness, you see, is of no consequence under the circumstances. The Greeks, I understand, wrote that the moral scale can only be balanced if an ethic is set against another ethic of equal weight. But they were ardent slavers themselves, so might think your moral exchange sufficient."
"There isn't enough coin in the world," Maguire said.
Diana turned to him with a smile. "That's the other thing I was going to say. That I think you are greatly exaggerating your confusion. I believe you have made up your mind, John Maguire."
He nodded. Diana was right.
"When?" Flat. Demanding.
Maguire struggled with his answer. "It's not so easy as that," he said.
"I'm not sure how to go about it. No, that's not true. I know how to accomplish it. But I fear for their future. How will they make their way? They would be in danger of starving."
"If that occurs, I agree," Diana said. "It would be a terrible tragedy. But they would be free. It's not for you to say or judge or rule."
"Yes, I know," Maguire said. Anguish in his voice. "I've thought about giving them a choice: travel with me to Mississippi as free men and women, or take their chances with freedom here. I can provide them with some money to make it easier."
"Then do it," Diana said. "But don't tie it to a new beginning elsewhere. That is another and quite personal decision. The issues are separate. And these unfortunate people should not have to wait out one second of your own crisis."
"I've thought that already." Maguire sighed. "Although you make the point far stronger. But there's also the matter of the thirty or more people owned by my sons. ... I don't have the legal right to free them."
"Buy them," Diana said. "Then act."
"It would bankrupt me," Maguire said.
Diana just stared at him. He had no answer. "I'll loan you the money," she said.
He shook his head: no.
"You are a soldier," Diana said, "and from what I hear, a very brave one . . . who has risked his life, and is willing to do so again. What's a fortune against a life? Answer me that, John Maguire!"
He had none. Because there was none to give.
Their words were strained and a little forced on the ride back. Even so, they both somehow felt closer: a bond had been established. But it was as fragile as a web spun across a garden path.
* * * *
To Diana, the rhythms of plantation life were all a-kilter. Carter and his sons slept in until ten most mornings. They would be greeted with a toddy or a sangaree in a chilled glass fetched by their personal slaves from the icehouse. A leisurely breakfast was made on a veranda, then they would retire to loll upon a cool pallet. There they would remain most of the day with endless drinks and tidbits fetched for them, fanned and cozened by their slaves like Oriental pashas. Dinner was at two, followed by more relaxation, or hunting or fishing. Or endless talk of sporting feats.
Gambling seemed their greatest passion. She heard tales of enormous wagers on the most trivial events. Adam Carter said his doctor had wagered an entire year's medical practice against a gallon of rum in a dispute over how a viper delivered its venom. The doctor lost and was impoverished along with his family—who had never been consulted in the matter. Men would travel for days to witness a cockfight. More tobacco notes would be bet on a blood feud between two chickens than there was cured product to support them. A man with the pedigree of a southern aristocrat would think nothing of sucking a clot from a favored rooster's wounded throat so it could continue the battle.
But this was nothing against their favorite pastime: racing. In the South, Diana reflected, horseflesh and horsemanship defined manhood. The bloods—young men like Carter's sons—deigned to wear only one spur upon their boot. They said it was to lessen the risk of being hung up on a stirrup during a racing heat. Which didn't explain why they wore that single spur all day, even if no race was contemplated. John Maguire said the crops of entire plantations were bet at these races. The crops were often redeemed by money borrowed at enormous rates of interest.
But if the men lived their whole lives in idle games, they did it not only at the expense of their slaves, but also of their wives. The women were in the kitchen at five in the morning to oversee the cooking. Anything of value was kept under lock and key to guard against theft. They carried bunches of keys at their waists and were always doling out portions of food and drink and even soap to wash their husbands' clothes. Every task was done by hand by the slaves, but it was up to the mistress of the house to check each detail.
From talking to one of Sarah's aunts, Diana realized few wives of northern farmers would envy her lot. A plantation mistress was raised to believe that a woman's most priceless possession was her "magic spell," defined as some mystical power her sex had to subtly bend men to her will. The reality was that the men paid little attention to their wives at all. And that was even if they had been coaxed out of bachelorhood by a handsome dowry. Then, with no previous education or training, the new mistress of the house would be expected to be an expert housekeeper whether she wanted to or not.
Of course all sewing, spinning, weaving, and knitting was to be done by her. She was also expected to be doctor to her family and household slaves, as expert at poultry breeding as she was at making cider, candles, or soap. In the fall she oversaw the hog butchering; in the winter, drying the fruit.
Where and when she was supposed to learn to perform these feats, Diana couldn't tell. Sarah was certainly unprepared. Even at fifteen, Diana had seldom met so ignorant a woman. She could barely read or write. But she struggled desperately just the same, in constant fear of her husband's displeasure. So much for the mistress.
From what Diana could see, the life of a slave was far worse than anything even she had imagined. The plantation—which she later learned was typical—was blotched with their cabins every thirty rods or so. These were built of rough timbers, crossed and then interlocked at the corners like a cob house. A very few had outside chimneys constructed of stone. The floor inside was hard earth. Diana quizzed Sarah, who was proud to say her husband allowed his field hands a cap, shirt, and a pair of drawers—paid for out of his own pocket. They also got a blanket, but only in the winter. The household servants lived with their master and mistress and slept on the floor in front of the fire. She noticed they all had classical names, like Plato or Pompey, or Flora or Lily. With so much human labor, there was no thought of any kind of convenience. The main well was a long way from the house, and all day long the slave women trooped back and forth, carrying big stone jugs on their heads. The kitchen was so far from the house, it was impossible to deliver hot food to the table. At mealtimes the path between kitchen and house was one long line of women fetching and toting.
She watched them make cider one day. There was not even the cheapest apple press available. Instead, the slave women wielded big logs, crushing the pomace in a big wooden trough and singing to the rhythm of the work. One of the women was larger and appeared stronger than the rest. But from the odd way her cotton shift hung from her body, she appeared deformed. When she turned, Diana could see that one breast was missing, and the side of her face was a large, white blotch. As if someone had placed a hot blister pack on her cheek. Why this would be done, Diana couldn't say. The woman's voice, however, was a marvel.
It soared above the others, as sweet as a bell at Eventide. Her song was so beautiful, Diana closed her eyes for a moment, shutting out the terrible view—not of the woman's deformities, but her plight. The singing abruptly stopped. Diana opened her eyes to see the women working silently at the cider trough. But now there was no pleasure in the work. The big woman dared to glance in Diana's direction. It was a look that branded her a thief of songs. Ashamed, Diana stumbled away. When she was well beyond sight, she heard the wonderful voice lift again, soaring free in the sky. Diana walked quickly out of hearing. She had no right to the music.
* * * *
On the final day, Adam Carter's wife came to her for advice. She was so shy and fearful of coming to the point, that more than an hour passed in silence, with only occasional one-word answers to Diana's questions to break it. Diana could see Sarah was not only shy, but in pain. And her face—already a sickly white—was heavily powdered in an attempt to hide the tiny red eruptions on her skin. Whether this was a symptom of the pain or adolescent blemishes, Diana didn't know.
The longer she spent with the child, however, the more difficult Sarah's mysterious errand seemed to get, until Diana could see she was about to depart without speaking up. She almost let her, as some sort of vague revenge for the part she played as mistress of the plantation. Diana thought it was as if cruelty were an affliction caused by some small organism that bred in southern air. Like the pox. And now maybe she had been infected. So she took pity and asked her hostess why she had come.
"I have been feeling . . . unwell for some time," Sarah said. "I thought it was the pregnancy at first. But my aunts . . ." Her voice failed along with her courage.
Diana now understood the nature of the visit. How it came about was obvious: her medical prowess had been vastly exaggerated by young Kitty. Still, from what she had seen of the region, it was likely any doctor would be even more ignorant. Especially if it involved a female complaint. She coaxed Sarah into describing the symptoms. They were delivered haltingly, with long lapses between each descriptive fact. And the whole time the girl spoke, she never once looked Diana in the eye. But Diana knew the answer before more than a few words were out.
At first the little red spots had only appeared on her palms and the soles of her feet. Then they spread to the rest of her body. Then her private parts had become sore and greatly inflamed. Not just her vagina, but in the anal region as well. This was followed by a painful and embarrassing discharge. More recently, she had suffered from nausea and intermittent fevers. And her entire body ached as if from the flux. But this was a torment she was willing to bear, compared to the awful cramps she had been suffering. It was as if a clawed hand were reaching straight into her gut to rip at her.
As Sarah spoke, Diana realized she knew the answer as well, but she was fearful of admitting it. It was a disease few had ever cared to name, much less admit its cause. A hundred years before it was said to have been transmitted in the air, or by a giant lizard. Some modern quacks even blamed it exclusively on women. They said all females carried the organism and denied they even suffered from it, but only passed it on to innocent men, who caught it from engaging in excessive sex. These doctors also had an odd notion for its cure.
Diana gently steered the conversation to Sarah's relations with her husband. Normally, she would never have questioned Carter's reasons for marrying so young a bride. But he was too rich to need the dowry, and he was so cold to his wife that she knew it wasn't lust or an old man's pride of possession.
Sarah had the clap. And there was only one person who could have given it to her: Adam Carter. If Diana was right, his marriage to Sarah was part of his doctor's recommended cure. What a lovely present for a marriage bed.
Now Sarah was not only infected, but three months pregnant. If the child survived the womb and delivery, it too would be infected. If she told the girl all this, the only comfort she could offer was that it was unlikely Sarah would live to see the child weaned, much less the pain and deformities of its later life. So all she told her was that she had the clap, that she and her unborn child were possibly in grave danger, and that there could be no other source for her misery but her husband.
For a time the girl fought so hard to keep her head that Diana almost burst into tears herself out of sympathy. Sarah asked her for the cure. Diana carefully explained there really was only one, but that it failed more often than it succeeded. She would have to take a pill every day, containing fifteen grains of calomel and ten grains of mercury. It's a poison, she said, and it will make you miserable. But you dare not weaken, even if your teeth get so loose they rattle in your head. The doctor will also want to bleed and purge you. If you let him convince you of this course of treatment, I doubt if you can survive. I know your child won't.
Diana desperately wanted to leave the girl more hope. But she knew if she lied to her, or put a sugar teat on the facts, Sarah Carter and her baby were doomed. The only thing else she could tell her was that at all costs to keep her husband from her bed, at least until Diana returned home and could send her a supply of "British Overcoats." She told her these devices were simple to use, but she would enclose instructions just in case.
Invented by a Col. Cundum, these devices were made of lamb intestines, and should not only protect her from further infection, but any unwanted pregnancy as well.
"What if ... he won't ... use them?"
Her faltering whisper was torment. Diana just stared at her. There was nothing else to say. From this moment on, what happened to Sarah was entirely up to her. The silence was broken by the sound of two young slave girls giggling as they worked outside the door. Sarah flew into a blinding rage. She flung open the door and shouted hysterically for silence. Then she slammed it on the shocked faces and whirled back to Diana.
"I live in a harem," she screamed. "Full of nigger whores. I see them after my husband. I know how they entice him. Sluts and whores and—" She collapsed on the floor sobbing so fitfully she could barely breathe.
There came a tap on the door. But Sarah was so overcome, she didn't notice. Diana slipped it open and saw it was one of the girls Sarah had ordered away. She was frightened, but had forced herself to return to see if she could help. Sarah saw her and screamed an obscenity. She tore a large pin from her hair and rushed the door like an animal in a panic attack. The pin was six inches long and as sharp as a shoemaker's awl. She thrust it at the girl, but Diana closed the door just in time. The force of the thrust was so hard that more than an inch of pin was buried into the wood before it snapped off.
Sarah came to her senses for a moment. She stood there motionless, staring at the pin. Realizing what she had almost done. She looked up at Diana, her eyes brimming. Pleading. Then her face became quite cold and stern. She apologized to Diana for troubling her. And left without another word.
Diana found John Maguire alone in the stable, tending his blaze-faced chestnut. She was sick to her stomach, and her hands were shaking from tension.
"I must leave here," she said.
Maguire was startled. "It shouldn't be much more than another two days or so, Diana," he said. "Plenty of time to make the wedding."
"Please," she said, "I can't bear this any longer. If you are my friend ..."
Diana stayed that night at Maguire's house, in a room he had hastily made ready. But she didn't sleep. Instead, she sat on the hard window seat, staring out into the darkness, brooding on the madness in this sad land. She spent the whole next day in her room. John sent for Kitty and their baggage, and the wife he had bought back for his headman. He didn't trouble Diana, but only had food and drink sent up to her room. Which she didn't touch.
That night he coaxed her down to his library, where he built up a fire against a sudden, sharp spring wind. He plied her with a little brandy, but didn't speak or in any way intrude on her thoughts until she was ready. After a while Diana told him the story of Sarah Carter and her complete despair. She also told him of the woman's final outburst, and how she almost slew the little black child who had come to her aid.
Maguire listened without comment until she was done. Then he poured them both another drop and turned down the lamp until only the fire lit the room. Then he told her a story of his own. It was about his mother. Her name was Angelina and she was from a very old family that predated even the institutions of the king. She was intelligent and literate and John thought her quite beautiful, although this memory was dim. He was not quite thirteen when she died.
"I remember her as the most talented woman who ever lived," he said. "And not just in those skills which are said to be the sole province of women. My father was hopeless as a manager. He would have lost everything he had gained from his evil business if my mother had not overseen the plantation. She tended the crops and the money and the slaves who tilled our land. For a long time this worked well. Especially since my father was usually away in the trade.
"But several years before she died, he came home to stay. We had an orchard then. With a few figs and almonds, and some fruit trees. There was even a brook and a small path with flowers growing along the lane. Quite lovely. My father had a small, white house built out in this orchard. He made it his permanent home. He rarely came to the main house, except for holidays or visitors. He filled this house with slave women. And I don't mean just young, pretty women. But women of every shape and age and variety. And as far as I know, he never came to my mother's bed again."
"How could she bear it?" Diana asked.
"I can't say. In the same circumstances, I know I couldn't."
"Did she ever speak of it?"
"Only indirectly. But I'll tell you this—she had great sympathy for these women. As much sympathy as she had hate for my father. I think she saw them as doubly enslaved. In fact, she used to say all women are slaves. And that even queens were forced to sell themselves into marriage."
Diana understood exactly what Angelina Maguire had meant by this. She also understood her reaction to her husband's massive infidelities. Some women—like Sarah Carter—refused to blame the betrayal on their husbands. To them the villain was the victim. She was a slut and a whore, with morals so loose and compelling that no man could resist. Even if it was rape. Angelina Maguire reacted the second way: she placed the blame squarely on the cause and pitied the victim. Diana was sorry she had died so long ago. Angelina sounded like a woman she would have liked to have known.
"The next thing you may find odd," John said, "was her attitude on slavery."
"She opposed it," Diana said, firmly. She knew this without a flicker of thought.
"My mother was quite outspoken in her views," John said. "Of course, it was safer then. Although, if it weren't, I doubt that it would have stilled her tongue."
Diana nodded: absolutely!
"She said her grandmother had been opposed as well. The two of them used to pray together the thing would be outlawed. I remember her arguing with a doctor's wife. She said this: 'If they don't end it soon, my headwoman and I will die from exhaustion.' She was right. I believe it killed them both."
Diana wanted to ask him why—if this was his background—he had not divested himself of this manner of life many years before. But she hadn't the strength to manage it now.
She was not surprised, however, that Maguire's mind was on the same path. "When I was young," he said after a while, "I was stupid and filled with conceit." He smiled at her. A shy, little boy smile. "I think, after all these years," he said in an aside, "I have at least shed some of the conceit.
"I was not much different than my own sons, or even Adam Carter's. I was a young blood up for the game. I can't say when things exactly began to change. After the war, I suppose. All of it seemed so pointless and alien to me when I returned home. I began to read. I know that affected my views.
"Then I married. She was a good wife. I was a faithful husband. And I believe we loved one another. At least, later we did. She had a cancer. It took her some years to die. Terrible years for her. And then . . . when she was gone ..."
Maguire didn't go on from there. He didn't need to for Diana to fill in the rest. He had suffered the kind of wound from which many people take years to recover, if at all. The silence lingered. Maguire stared into his glass.
Diana thought about his tale for some time. She didn't remember falling asleep. But when she awakened in the morning, John was gone, and she was curled up by the still glowing fire. A blanket drawn over her. And a pillow under her head.
NEXT: DIANA IN A QUANDARY
A Daughter Of Liberty
VIRGINIA - JUNE 1814
* * * *
SHE WAS THREE days out of Manassas on the road to Richmond when the river burst its banks and flooded the highway. It was no surprise. Though the weather had been delightfully clear all morning, Diana and Kitty had watched distant storms rage across the Appalachians, lightningcrashing continuously on the black peaks. She was sure the storms were more than the little Pamunkey River could bear. Certainly the poorly maintained dikes thrown up where the river's banks curved in to kiss the road were no match for the unusually wet spring and summer of 1814. From where she sat in the carriage, she could see raw marks of many other breaks.
The driver cursed, said something in the unintelligible English of a lower-class white southerner, then clambered off the coach to oversee the unhitching of the horses. By the time he'd harangued the two sullen slaves into turning the coach on the narrow dirt track, it was late afternoon. Diana hid her amusement as the blacks pretended puzzlement over the simplest directions, then invariably got them wrong. When the job was done and the red-faced driver had bustled over to her with great importance, Diana saw the slaves whispering animatedly in obvious satisfaction at the distress they'd caused the boss. She caught the eye of one of the men and gave him a grin of sympathy. He flickered, then she saw the flicker turn to a great blank look that she was already becoming familiar with, although she had been in the South less than a week.
The driver was muttering to her, and she forced herself to ignore the foul waves of whiskey rising from him and pay attention. Jamestown she recognized. It was her destination. He was saying something about another road. It apparently bypassed Richmond, which was a disappointment, but it eventually hooked up with the main thoroughfare to Williamsburg and then Jamestown.
Kitty whined about the uncomfortable delay, but Diana gently hushed her. Poor child. She was the granddaughter of her cook, Mrs. Kenrick. In looks she was a lush, ripe twenty. But she'd only just turned fifteen, and even this age seemed beyond her. She was a pleasant child, but a bit of a scatterbrain, and Diana had only taken her on as a favor to Mrs. Kenrick.
Kitty seemed to have few defenses. Recently she'd been "discovered" by a group of apprentices, who swarmed about her like a pack of wasps invading a sweet shop. They praised her and flattered her until her head was spinning. It was obvious all they wanted was to get her skirts over her head. To rescue her reputation, Mrs. Kenrick had begged Diana to take the child with her to Virginia until matters cooled in the city. Kitty would act as her maid, if Diana could bear her clumsiness. Perhaps the journey would mature her. So, Diana reminded herself to be patient with the child. Mostly Kitty's natural, cheery good nature had been a plus. Now, however, her youthful complaints about the fate luck had handed them were beginning to grate. On this long road— which had been empty of traffic for nearly two days—there weren't any other obvious choices.
Diana soothed the girl, then nodded agreement to the coachman. She settled back as the coach jolted and slowly creaked forward on its rickety axles and wheels. And they were off, more or less, to Jamestown. Where James Emmett was to be wed.
* * * *
The letter announcing her son's betrothal had struck Diana like the lightning on those Appalachian peaks. He was marrying Eliza Hope Beecham. Of the Five Forks Beechams. The woman brought a dowry of 1,001 acres, planted mostly in cotton and some tobacco, with one acre reserved for a family graveyard. God's Acre, they called it down here. James Emmett boasted the cotton was of the finest and whitest variety: Nankin Boll.
It was what he'd left unsaid that troubled her. Her son hadn't mentioned whether the dowry also included slaves. First Diana had wept. The tears were followed by a rage so great, no one could remember a time when the Widow Shannon had been so angry. The rage was followed by intense self-loathing.
It was her fault she'd failed him, Diana thought, and failed the memory of his long dead father. On and on she berated herself, endless torment, until Connie could bear no more and told her if she wanted to wear a hair shirt, could she be doing it in private so everyone else could have some peace. Let Farrell take on all the guilt of the Shannons, she had said. He'd consider it a favor, I'm sure.
Diana had sat down with Connie for a long heart-to-heart. Her first instinct had been to avoid the wedding at all costs.
"What if there are no slaves?" Connie asked. "And you didn't attend the wedding of your own flesh and blood? You would never forgive yourself."
Diana grabbed at this as if her life depended on it. Connie was right. Besides, how could James Emmett contemplate such an action? Of all her failings with her son, the issue of slavery certainly couldn't be one of them. Could it? It was settled then. She should go.
As soon as she said it, she knew she was lying to herself. James was an ardent sportsman, risking life and broken limbs to ride with the hounds after some bloody stump of fox fur. Hunting and fishing and gambling were his sole passion. At thirty-five, he lived the life of a young buck. It was a life idealized in the South. Temptation would outweigh his conscience. On this she was positive. Diana Shannon had always had trouble not speaking her mind. At age fifty-two it wasn't getting any easier. If James proved a slaveholder, she would rip his heart out, ruining the wedding and the memory of that wedding for as long as he and his new wife lived. Therefore, she shouldn't go.
"Then no one from his family will be there to support him," Connie argued. "In the circumstances, I fear for his future marriage. I've watched events unfold like this at my father's tavern," she said. "Decisions are made that can never be taken back once put into effect. And in every case, the tragedy that resulted far outweighed the momentary victory of pride.
"I urge you to go, Diana. If his situation is as you fear, then he has doomed himself. But by his own hands, not yours. In other words, I think you should make the selfish choice. Hoist the flag for the family, as Isaac would have put it. Run out the guns and sail up their damned river. In the long run, the tears you shed on your pillow may not be quite so bitter."
It was this flawless logic that had set her upon a desolate highway across an equally desolate land.
* * * *
The moment Diana crossed the Potomac, she entered a country so foreign to her that all notions were been turned upside down. They'd traveled for miles without seeing a single active hamlet or village or farm. There were no ruts in the roads from the big four-axle wagons that carried trade goods in other parts of the nation. And almost no travelers. Diana knew this hadn't always been so. Before the cotton boom here'd been life where now she saw none. But all that life had been devoured by the big plantations and their masters. All that easy money, fortunes as vast as those of any European noble family, to be squandered or put to some decent use. The men of the South chose the former.
During her journey, they sometimes passed the fields of one of those great plantations. She saw no ploughs or any other farm implements, just row upon row of slaves working the ground, using clumsy hoes with unpeeled sapling handles that must have made the hardiest hands bleed after only a few minutes. Once, they paused at a crossroads to let traffic pass. The traffic was twenty slaves taking their master's tobacco to market, with no wagons or beasts of burden to aid them. The tobacco leaves had been packed in large wooden hogsheads. Makeshift axles were attached to the hogsheads, so the slaves could roll them to market. Eighty miles or more.
There were certain things Diana also knew from her traders. A long time ago someone had described the beautiful port at Savannah. The shipyards were among the finest in the land, the man had said. And the docks were a picture for a palace wall. They were faced by palmetto logs with oyster shells and white sand. Seven ships at a time would sail up the Medway, loaded with lumber and indigo and rice. Now, she was told, the docks had rotted and fallen into decay. There were few ships sailing into Savannah . . . and this had been true even before the war started and the British blockaded American ports.
Elsewhere, decent roads had collapsed and gone unrepaired. Plans for new ones were abandoned, canals ignored, bridges built and maintained only under threat of heavy penalties. There were almost no schools. Even at the plantations, education for the owners' sons and certainly the daughters was as great a fiction as any of Washington Irving's New York tales, although certainly not so humorous. Money—real cash—was nearly nonexistent. The great fortunes of the South were mostly on paper, and mostly encumbered by debt. Money was so scarce, they'd taken to cutting silver coins into four parts or bits so there could be a little more cash to go around. There was no business as she knew it in this place, no manufacture. How could there be when everything the planters enjoyed was purchased from abroad with cotton money or foreign debt: from brooms to linen, from shoes to the smallest item of furniture. Even with foreign trade strangling from the British blockade, small ships from the South were daring the king's guns to slip across the Atlantic—not to resupply desperately needed goods, but to bring in more of those luxuries, at dearer prices, for the self-declared American aristocracy.
A mile from the sea, however, and the most gifted leather apron went begging for work. No one would hire a smith or a mason. There was no need for these crafts. Nor hooper or cooper, or even a miller. She was told they threshed the wheat by driving horses across the fields. And the slaves ground it by hand in huge hollowed-out stones with eight-foot pestles. Most of the whites seemed not much better off than the slaves. She saw their cabins made of clapboard or rotted logs. From what she could make out, these poor folk spent all their time drinking themselves into oblivion at the unmarked grogshops that appeared now and then right in the middle of all this wilderness.
When they were forced to stop at these places for water or to rest the horses, no one seemed curious. No anxious requests for the latest news of the war, which had raged now for two years with no sign that any end was in sight. If it weren't for the worsening poverty of these people, one could scarcely guess there was any war on at all. Yet wasn't it the South that had pressed so mightily for this war? She looked at the stupor in their eyes and the barely disguised hatred behind that stupor and despaired for the future. What had they done to this place? And why? Could slavery alone explain it? Or was it the nature of the people? That couldn't be, she thought. One way or another, we all came from the same stock. She was beginning to think she'd been a fool to leave Philadelphia. Although as the miles clicked away under the rickety wheels of the coach—and the cares of her business faded with distance—she saw that perhaps it was only the purpose of the journey that was the fool's errand, not the act of leaving. From the moment the stage reached the far side of the Schuylkill, she'd felt as if a great weight had been lifted. Freer now, half-formed thoughts had come into focus.
For some years she had fought against a feeling of dissatisfaction. It was as stifling and stagnant as the worst Philadelphia summer. She had marked it off as merely the heavy burdens of maintaining the family. Diana reacted in her usual manner: she worked harder, constantly rebuilding and adding to the structure of safety. Now it seemed that all her recent efforts were a fiction. All she'd been doing was deepening and improving that root cellar she had dug in Cherry Valley to hide from the Indians. But the greatest fiction of all, she thought, was she was doing it all for the family. For Emmett. No, Diana, she told herself, I won't allow you that. Perhaps it was that way at first, but later it was all for you. For the glorification of the Widow Shannon who defied social tradition to make her own indelible mark. She'd set goals and achieved them. Replaced those goals with new ones. These, too, she'd achieved. On and on at a frantic pace, as if her goals were perishable possessions, until the act itself had become as empty as the cold transactions of the Boston bankers she so despised.
The restlessness she felt had intensified during the two years of warfare. She believed it a stupid war—if any war had any sense to it—and knew it was beyond her control. Young men were dying again, and this tormented her, although she worried that from the safety of Philadelphia the torment was more intellectual than heartfelt. She'd always hated influence peddlers, but hadn't she used her own friendship with Dolly Madison to help David, one of her grandsons?
Oh, come now, Diana, she thought, you've put on that hair shirt again that Connie was mocking. Don't question all of it. You might as well regret the lies you told Nate Hatch to keep your legs beneath you. Or the gold you stole from him. It was rightfully yours, but that's a quibble. And that farmer just beyond New Kent—you helped Emmett cheat. Take that back. And die in the road when the troops catch up. Or, worse, be found out by Nate and carried back to be branded and forced into servitude.
Like his brother Luke, David was for the sea. Farrell had failed to learn his lesson. David became desperate for escape. And so two years ago Diana had written Dolly asking assistance. David had been granted a midshipman's post aboard the Essex under Commander Porter. She had no idea where David might be, but she hoped he was safer, or at least better off, than if he had just run away to sea. He was only fourteen years old.
And what about Luke? He would be twenty now. The last she heard, he was aboard a merchantman out of the Sugar Islands. This would place him far out of harm's way. But what if he weren't? She didn't want to imagine the cannonball crushing out his life, or the great splinter piercing his breast. What would she do if it were necessary to protect him? Would she lie? Certainly. Steal? Without hesitation. Kill? She knew she would.
Diana drew back from what she saw as self-pity at its worst, and pointlessness at its best. She took stock. It was an accounting that was far overdue. As the war had progressed from minor victories to failure to defeat to empty talk of suing for peace, Diana had reduced her business risk. She'd shifted her emphasis from the sea to the western trade: the new lands opened by Jefferson.
She'd also dabbled in the manufacturing boom created by the war, although she refused to put any money in Eli Whitney's guns. Diana was told his process of building identical guns with interchangeable parts was a marvel of the age. Each part was the duty of a single worker. The weapon would be passed from him to the next man or woman until the thing was complete in a matter of a few days instead of weeks. Diana preferred the little inventor who had been using the same system to make cheap clocks for the mantelpiece. Priced so they could be afforded by almost any household or farm, he sold the clocks by sending men out on the road, like her young peddlers of long ago. He expanded on this by creating territories and selling them to eager buyers. Diana was a silent partner in a few of those territories.
She had a host of other ventures, most of them beyond the mountains: steel mills near Fort Pitt, salt works in the Lakes region, furs, goods of all kinds moving up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. But just small pieces of them. No great shaking of the dice and a single roll to win or lose at a toss—like the dolls that began it all. She laughed at this thought. Of her whole family, only James Emmett would really understand. So maybe he wasn't such an odd creature to burst from her womb after all.
Diana pulled herself up and put all of it aside. She was nearing the point, no sense shying from it: What do you want, Diana Shannon? It doesn't matter, she told herself. They won't let me have it. Evasion again. Who are they? Answer: the same people as always. The ones who keep me from my task.
It had always been difficult for a woman alone in business. She had to be twice as good as any man who meant to cross the same ground for the same ends. And no mishap of the most minor sort was allowed. For some reason it had seemed to grow harder each year into the new century. It didn't have a name at first. Business dealings became more awkward. To begin with, her money was accepted, but less and less her advice. Which to Diana meant she would be a fool to invest. Then, as her success had grown, they stopped even seeking her investment. It was as if some secret council had met—which she knew was certainly not so—and decided there was to be a ceiling placed over her possibilities. This, more than the war, had forced her hand.
As her business had shifted to the frontiers, so had her spirit. All about her, common folk were being squeezed. Harsh words were being put into laws. Outbursts from working people were quickly quelled. And so people were beginning to trickle away once more. As the lands opened up, the wilderness beckoned; with new dangers, but also with new possibilities.
So that's it, then, she thought. You want out. As badly as your grandsons, David and Luke. Escape from this thing the magazines were calling "The Cult Of True Womanhood." Her sex was to hold itself above the fray. Business, politics, and opinions on matters of the world were for men. Women must be kept as spiritually intact as a maidenhead. Otherwise, the reasoning went, the American family was doomed. But if she were to escape, where would she go and to what purpose?
Once again, Diana, you come to the question: What do you want? 1 want Emmett. That is foolishness to the extreme; he's been dead for thirty-seven years. I know it's foolish, but you asked the question. And that is my honest answer. She knew that Emmett was a girlhood fantasy, and that over the decades, the few months she had spent with him had taken on mystical qualities. In reality, how would it have all come out? Would Emmett have allowed her the freedom of her mind? Or would he have been like most other men of his time? Who could say? It was an unfair question based on a faulty premise. He died. And she had been free to make her own choices. And she had made them.
The crucial decision had been to remain alone, in control. And now, thirty-seven years later, it had come back to haunt her. She had built this marvelous edifice, and as she stepped back to survey it, she found it empty of purpose and therefore pleasure. In her groping, a candle winked to life. Deep within her, Diana believed that what she had accomplished was what both of them would have wanted, with minor variations here and there. Such things that had escaped her grasp—Farrell, James Emmett, David and Luke, and so on—might not have gotten past both of them.
As she thought it through, she realized just how wrong this assumption could be. But it did not remove the belief. And as long as she was afflicted with this lingering malady, she would never be happy. Should she purge Emmett from her system? No. After all these years it wasn't possible, and certainly not desirable. Although he was only a memory, she loved him still. She couldn't bring herself to kill that. Besides, she was no longer certain where Diana left off and Emmett began. They seemed to be as inseparable as any of those joined calf twins that were pickled in brine and placed on display at Mister Peale's museum.
Fine, then. There was no immediate answer. She determined to think harder. When she returned to Philadelphia, she would act. She knew what course that action would most probably be. The family would have to learn to fend for itself. She would go to Pittsburgh, the same place Emmett had in mind during that spring of mutual daydreams. What she would do there, she wasn't sure. It didn't much matter. If there was no cure for this disease, setting new goals under fresh circumstances should at least mask the symptoms. For a time.
While she was in this dark mood, the coach gave a frightening lurch, and she simultaneously heard the crack of an ancient and badly maintained axle. Kitty shrieked as the coach swayed back and forth. There was more cracking all along its length. Then, defying total disaster, the coach settled to the ground. The door opened to her touch, and Diana pulled Kitty kicking and screaming out with her. The coachman hurled curses like foul lightning bolts. The two slaves cowered in fear, although how the accident was their fault, Diana couldn't tell.
Then, as she tried to calm her hysterical young maid, an apparition rose from the side of the road and hailed her. He was old and the color of blasted oak. He hopped about on bare feet, splayed half again the size of a normal man's from so many years treading furrows. What clothes he wore hung in rags that flapped about as he danced and shouted his greeting.
At least Diana thought it was a greeting, because she couldn't understand a word he said. He was quite mad, poor man. And a slave. Chanting, he danced forward a few steps, beckoning with flapping arms and hands. Then he danced back again like a wary bird. What did he want/ Gradually, she made it out. He was leaving to fetch someone, and he wanted her to stay where she was until he returned. Diana looked at the disabled coach and shrugged. She would wait whether through his bidding or not. The slave took her shrug as agreement, turned on his heel and lit out across the fields, disappearing into the tree line.
"What did he want of us, missus?" Kitty asked.
"I think he went to get help."
Kitty looked about the overgrown fields, and brush-choked woods. It was a very lonely place to be. She shuddered. "Are you sure he won't be bringing back some devil, missus?"
Diana ignored this and got Kitty busy pulling a few things from the coach to make them comfortable while the men attempted repair. But once or twice she glanced over her shoulder to the spot where the old slave had disappeared. Diana wasn't superstitious, but she half expected to see the Devil.
The coach was hopeless. The driver said it would take four days to fetch a new one. The only lodgings were a half a day back, and they were reputed to be even meaner than the inn they'd left at three that morning. That had been a shack with infested beds and only a tattered handbill on the sagging door to announce its purpose. All of the inns she had seen or stayed at had been like that. No sashes on the windows. Roofs that let in the rain. Three shillings for lodgings, six pence more for clean sheets, if they had them. Six shillings for breakfast, and no supper available at any price.
The innkeepers laughed when someone complained, and blamed it on the custom of the land.
What food they offered was exceedingly poor. Even the region's highly praised pig flesh was inedible in those inns, putting to lie the famous observation that north of the Potomac there was only good beef and bad bacon, while south of the river there was only good bacon and bad beef. So much for the vaunted southern hospitality.
* * * *
The man who came to fetch her was no devil. He was about her age, and handsome in the way men become if they take care of themselves. He was tall, his waist as narrow as a boy's, and his shoulders stretched the material of his riding jacket. His face was tanned and smooth—except for a silver moustache and the smile creases near his eyes and lips. His hair was dark with heavy streaks of silver and curled a touch carelessly just above the ears and the back of his neck. His eyes were as blue as the Virginia skies. He said his name was John Maguire. Later, she heard someone call him "Major," and was impressed that he had been content to introduce himself without the airs of rank.
As they stood next to his carriage, he only told her his name and that he was not from this plantation—which was owned by Mister Adam Carter—but one farther down the road. He was visiting, he said, and told her news of her misfortune had excited the entire household. Guests, especially guests from distant locales, she gathered, were exceedingly rare. Maguire said that while the master and mistress of the plantation made themselves presentable for her welcome, he had been sent out to fetch her.
"It would be most impolite to reject them, Mrs. Shannon," he said in a soft, civilized voice only just tinted with a drawl.
But he didn't press the point. Instead he inspected the broken-down coach and conferred with the driver while Diana made up her mind. He had a quiet conversation with the two slaves. She was surprised at the unforced animation in their faces as they confirmed the driver's tale. They know this man, she thought. But what was more remarkable was that they seemed to like him.
She found herself idly wondering how this could be. Perhaps she'd misheard him. Perhaps the neighboring plantation he spoke of wasn't his, but belonged to a family member, and he was visiting from the North after many years' absence. Yes, that must be it. Despite his age, his legs were slender and well-formed under the tight riding breeches. Diana was sure he was married.
Maguire turned back to her. "I would offer you the hospitality of my own house," he said, "but the Carters would never forgive me for stealing you." That answered the first question, and she was disappointed in her error.
"Besides," he said, "I live alone, and it would be unseemly." Error number two, but no matter. The answer to the first question canceled out any satisfaction in the second.
Still, he put her so much at ease that she accepted the Carters' offer of rescue and soon found herself being helped into the carriage. Kitty followed. Diana noticed his glance didn't linger on Kitty's young and well-rounded form, not the way he looked at Diana when he handed her aboard. This pleased her. She knew her figure still drew admiring gazes from men much less her age, but it had been a long time since she welcomed them.
Perhaps it was the confusion in her own mind that caused this. When she was unsettled, she had no patience for any kind of distraction. It wasn't that Diana disliked men. Far from it. She enjoyed their company, and if the circumstances were right, relished their lovemaking. But too often, she thought, men drew the most alarming conclusions from the scantiest evidence. In matters of business or love, they sometimes saw signals where none existed, mistook kindness or attempts at fair play for weakness. And so, more than most women, Diana chose caution as the best defense. Otherwise she feared she would soon have an empty purse and bankrupt reputation. But as she grew older, Diana had grown more and more weary of the game. For once she would like to simply relax and let the moment carry itself.
She studied Maguire's handsome profile beside her. He had a cheery, intelligent look about him. Yes, and admit it, sensuous as well. She wondered what he would be like in bed. The quick flush she felt partially answered her question. Diana let the feeling linger a few seconds, enjoying it. It had been so long since she had let a man hold her, she sometimes jested that revirgination was becoming a real possibility.
Beneath the cheeriness, there was something a bit sad about John Maguire. No, not sad, but apart. As if he didn't quite belong because of some secret and treasured difference between himself and others. Diana knew the feeling well. His hands were strong and sure on the reins, and he guided the horse with a gentle touch. Diana let the moment pass. These hands are also slave-branding hands, she thought. Like the people she'd seen along the roads and in those inhospitable taverns, she knew him to be as fatally flawed as Cain himself. No, John Maguire, if you're contemplating what I think you are, cut it from your mind with as sharp a knife as you can find.
Except for occasional outbursts of excited chatter from Kitty, they moved along the narrow carriage track in silence for a while. Diana didn't know if the trail was the main road to the plantation. The road was pinched in closely by untended trees of such wide variety, Diana couldn't tell which had been brought here and which were native. They were choked by thick brush with large, fleshy leaves that were so green, they appeared somehow unhealthy. She heard no birds singing or movements of small animals, only the dry buzz of locusts in the trees and the abrupt rat-a-tat of a woodpecker. The brush was broken here and there by what seemed to be thin Indian paths that snaked through the vegetation and disappeared. Once in a while she thought she heard rustling—as if a large body was moving along one of the trails—and snatches of what seemed to be whispering. Her skin prickled and the small hairs on the back of her neck rose. Diana knew she was being watched by many eyes.
She shivered and turned to Maguire. A little conversation might mask her edginess. "It was fortunate for us," she said, "that the old man happened to be out on the road to see our dilemma. Otherwise Kitty and I would be making poor beds tonight. You must point him out to me when we arrive, so I can thank him."
Maguire flinched when she said this. Instead of starting a conversation, her remarks seemed to make the silence deepen. What had she said to give offense? She saw him struggle to find words to answer. "You won't find him there," he finally said. "It was no accident that he saw you. The roadside is his post. His duty."
Oh, now she could see. He didn't want her speaking to the old man. A slave. A chill descended on her as quickly as a squall in one of Isaac's stories of the sea. How in hell was she to survive the next few weeks among these people?
"We get so few visitors out here," Maguire continued, not noticing her reaction, "that each one is a prize. Some of the planters—like Mister Carter—set men upon the road to watch. They have standing orders to waylay any and all travelers and to bring them to the master's house. So you see, the accident to the carriage had nothing to do with the invitation. You would have been pressed to stay in any event."
Maguire chuckled at this. But Diana thought she caught a forced edge to the laugh, and she realized he was just as unsettled. For what reason, she couldn't make out. Another long silence followed. Then: "I gather you haven't visited a plantation before," he said.
"No." She said it flatly.
"…Then, perhaps I should . . ." His voice trailed off. Although he tried to hide it, she could see the mental struggle resume. What was the man finding so difficult to say? His look became a little grim as a decision was reached. He forced a smile and continued, but Diana knew the words that followed were not what he originally meant to say.
"Perhaps I should explain about your hosts ..."
He said Adam Carter was middle-aged and, like Maguire, had been a widower for a number of years. But not before his wife had produced six sons and as many daughters. All of them were grown now, and Carter had recently remarried.
"Sarah—that's Mrs. Carter—is with child. But she's been having difficulty. So her sisters and two of her aunts are here to help. Counting them and Adam's great brood, you'll find quite a crowd to welcome you."
"I hope they find me worthy of the trouble," Diana snapped. She couldn't bear the blather any longer.
Diana didn't care a whit about the Carters, and dreaded the prospect of forced politeness in her near future. But as soon as she snapped at Maguire, she regretted it. He had been about to say something more, but lapsed back into silence, pretending to concentrate on his driving. And so she had no warning of the strange sight that greeted her as the carriage track suddenly broadened and then curved into a broad avenue of yellow Virginia sand, lined with graceful, well-cared-for trees.
At the end of the avenue was the Carter house: a mansion dropped from the skies into the middle of the wilderness, more than a hundred feet long and three stories high. Diana learned later the top story was entirely devoted to a ballroom, where hundreds of guests could be entertained by a full orchestra of costumed slaves. The house was the color of the sand, with green sashes and trim and an enormous front door that appeared to be faced with copper or brass.
Everything about the house and its grounds was bizarre. There was a sprawling garden—aping the style of the British magazines. To the side of the garden Diana could see black figures erecting a false arbor thirty feet high. Behind the arbor another slave was pursuing a litter of pigs with a sack and an axe. An open fire was being built, and a grate readied for the fire. Pig and fire and grate equaled barbecue. I'll have supper, at least, Diana thought dryly. A crowd was gathering, and in all her life Diana had never seen anything quite so strange. Twenty or more slaves were hastily lining up. They wore stunning green and gold livery, as if they were the servants of European royalty. A few carried the marks of their posts: a silver tray was held by a butler; a whip by a coachman; there was even what proved to be a cup bearer. As the coach drew closer, Diana saw how great a mockery it all was. The slaves' faces were pocked with disease, their hair tinged orange from lack of nourishment. Rags peeked out from the livery as the clothing was hastily drawn together and buttoned or hooked to a frog. Footwear ranged from boots to old shoes sliced along the side for a better fit. Some had no shoes at all. One man to the rear of the group was turned away, his back to the road, pulling a jacket over his naked torso. The man's back was livid with ancient scars.
It was only then that Diana saw the white masters. They had been standing there all along. A group of about a dozen of them, men and women, as expensively dressed as any grand assembly in Philadelphia. Except the clothing was all ten years or more out of date. A big, dull-faced man stepped out in front. Beside him was a wisp of a girl, no more than fifteen, but she looked even more a child in her blue frock with little bunches of ribbons spotted about like posies in a garden. Her hair was pale yellow and her skin a ghastly white.
Diana did not need an introduction. It was Adam Carter and his new wife.
NEXT: The Face Of Evil