Authors: Patricia Hagan
For my brother, Dr. Garrett Hagan, Jr., who loaned me his courage, borrowed my patience, shared my joys and sorrows, and gave me the loyalty and guidance only a big brother can bestow upon a little sister.
April stood at the top of the long curving mahogany stairway and shook her head in wonder at the activity below. Her father had proclaimed that tonight’s ball would be an event no one in Alabama would soon forget, and the Pinehurst Plantation servants were scurrying about, busily trying to make his words come true.
She watched Buford, her father’s valet, and Posie, the housekeeper, argue about the holly draped over the stair railing. “Pink bows just don’t look right,” Buford snorted.
“What do you know?” Posie countered. “It ain’t Christmas, you old fool. Red wouldn’t look right. If it was spring, we could use dogwood. And look there! You got so much of that stuff draped around nobody can see that pretty wood I worked so hard to polish this mornin’.”
“This ain’t my job, nohow. Why don’t you just do it like you want to. I got other things I can be doin’.”
He turned to leave, but Posie cried, “You just get right back here, Buford. Somebody’s gotta wrap ribbon around that chandelier—” She looked up to the crystal piece hanging from the ceiling and then saw April. Her hand flew to her mouth. “I’m sorry, Miss April. I didn’t see you standin’ up there.”
“Don’t mind me,” April laughed, lifting her skirts to hurry down the stairs. “There’s so much going on around here. I can see why anyone would be irritable. You’re doing a lovely job. Everything looks wonderful.”
Buford had turned back, contrite that his mistress had heard him complaining. April waved him away with a smile. “You do whatever it is you need to be doing. I’ll help Posie with the garlands.”
“You ain’t supposed to be helping,” she protested. “You’re supposed to be getting dressed. It ain’t long till folks start arrivin’.”
“There’s plenty of time for that.” She picked up a holly branch and looked at it skeptically, wondering if the stairway wouldn’t be pretty with just ribbons wrapped around the banisters. “Besides,” she continued, “I’m enjoying all the excitement. A girl doesn’t have a presentation ball every day. Where’s Vanessa? She might want to help, too.” She trailed off at the look on Posie’s face.
“I ain’t seen her since early this mornin’ when she flounced out of here to go ridin’.” Posie bent down to begin tying pink bows among the green foliage. “‘Ain’t seen her since and don’t care if I don’t, the hateful way she was actin’. She don’t care nothin’ about this party, nohow.”
“Of course she does. You know Vanessa’s moods. It probably has nothing to do with the party.”
Posie shook her head. “Believe me, missy, she don’t care nothin’ about it. It’s a shame, too, especially after you had that big fuss with your poppa, ’bout lettin’ the party be for her, too. That girl just don’t appreciate nothin’ nobody does for her. I tol’ her she didn’t have no business out ridin’ when there was so much to be done, and she told me to shut my mouth.”
April frowned worriedly. “Posie, Vanessa doesn’t know that Poppa didn’t want to include her in the ball. I don’t want her to find out that I had to talk him into it. She would be so hurt.”
Posie snorted. “I don’t see how you
able to get him to. He and that girl been fightin’ since the night she was born.”
April began taking off the holly garlands, deciding the ribbons and bows were decoration enough. “We had quite an argument,” she admitted. “Poppa said he didn’t want her included because he considers her so unladylike. He doesn’t want her around his friends. But that’s all his own fault. He’s the one who has always allowed her to run wild, never requiring her to study or learn ladylike graces.”
“She didn’t want to,” Posie pointed out. “She wanted to do just what she did do, what she’s doin’ now—as she pleases.”
“I didn’t want to learn either,” April said in defense of her twin. “At least not as rigidly as Poppa required. Goodness, Posie, there are other things in life besides music and reading poetry and learning to make idle chitchat over tea.”
Posie straightened to point a shaking finger at April. “You hear me good. I’m sayin’ that girl will do somethin’ to embarrass your daddy before this night is over.”
“Oh, I don’t think so. Besides, I told Poppa that if he didn’t include Vanessa, then I would lock myself in my room and not come downstairs. I can’t stand the way he treats her, Posie.”
Posie shook her head. “No matter how mean that girl is to you, you always take up for her. I knows I ought to keep my mouth shut, but I can see how come your poppa didn’t want her at the party. Just wait and see. You gonna be sorry you talked him into lettin’ her come.”
April started to speak but Posie rushed on. “I ain’t sayin’ it’s right the way he’s treated her all these years. Heaven knows, your momma would turn over in her grave if she could’ve seen it. But what’s done is done. Miss Vanessa is like she is and ain’t nothin’ gonna change it. She hates you and she hates yo’ daddy, and she hates ever’body in the whole world.”
“Perhaps with good reason,” April murmured sadly. She threw the ribbons aside and sat down on the bottom step, not caring if her skirts were crushed. Folding her hands beneath her chin, she stared wistfully through the diamond-shaped glass on the side of the double oak front doors. Beyond her was a winter world, ice-sheathed trees creaking like great crystal hands reaching toward the gray February sky. She whispered, “If it’d been me instead of Vanessa, I probably would’ve grown up feeling bitter, too.”
Posie sat down beside her and placed a plump brown arm around her shoulders. “I was there the night you was born, honey. You knows that. And I been with you most ever’day since. I knows what happened that night, and I knows how your poppa has acted ever since.”
April had always known the story of her birth. There were times when she felt sure it was etched in pain across her heart. Her mother had endured agony. April had been the firstborn, delivered by her father because neither midwife nor doctor had arrived. She had almost died. Her father had breathed life into her tiny body and then, jubilant, named her April Lorena for her mother, Lorena April, whom he adored with an almost insane devotion. Even in her weakened condition, her mother had protested such favoritism.
Time dragged on. A midwife arrived and, after realizing what a struggle Lorena April Jennings was having, told Carter Jennings that unless he could locate the doctor, his wife was going to die before giving birth to the second baby. Carter galloped into town in the middle of the night, found the doctor drinking and gambling in a saloon, and threatened to shoot him if he did not come to Pinehurst and save his wife.
Vanessa finally was born, but not before everyone was sure that Lorena April would die very soon.
“Mastah Carter, he say he wished the baby would die,” Posie had confided to her. “He blamed that child for Miz Lorena’s sufferin’, and he blamed her fo’ Miz Lorena never bein’ right after that night. And the day she died, when you young’uns was only three years old, he blamed Miss Vanessa all over again.”
Posie clucked sympathetically. “It won’t Miz Vanessa’s fault. No, it sho’ won’t. It was just the Lord’s will. And it won’t her fault that yo’ momma was poorly from that night on and finally died. That was the Lord’s will, too. But yo’ poppa, he ain’t never gonna see it that way, and nobody can tell him different. Goodness knows, folks tried. Finally, they just gave up. Yo’ daddy ain’t the kind of man you can tell somethin’ to when he’s got his mind set.”
To make matters worse, April reflected painfully, he had lavished all his love on
neglecting Vanessa, almost pretending she did not exist at all. April had tried to make it up to her. Each time her father showered her with gifts, she shared them with Vanessa. She lost count of the number of toys and dolls her sister had maliciously destroyed.
Posie had said many times that it was beyond her why April did not hate Vanessa, for Vanessa seemed to go out of her way to be cruel. April had tried to make Posie understand. “She behaves as she does because she doesn’t feel that anyone loves her. I do love her. And I’ll never stop trying to make her believe that.”
Posie and April looked up as they heard the sound of footsteps clicking along the polished hallway leading toward the entrance foyer. Carter Jennings stepped into view, a wide grin on his face. He was a powerfully built man, tall, with an authoritative air about him. He was successful and wanted the whole world to know it. Some thought Carter Jennings arrogant, but all were awed by his immense wealth and political influence.
“My darling.” He walked over quickly to kiss April’s upturned cheek as she stood to greet him. He clasped her hands and smiled with fatherly pride. “Tonight is your night. All of Alabama will know how proud I am to present you to society.”
April returned his smile, but tightly. “Posie and I were just discussing our party, Poppa…mine and Vanessa’s,” she added with emphasis.
Posie glanced up to see Carter Jennings’s frown.
He rushed on. “It’s going to be quite an affair. I’ve checked everything, and I find nothing out of order. The pigs are roasting, and the smells coming from the kitchen make my mouth water.”
He put his arm about her and gave her a quick hug. “Some of the most important people in the South will be here tonight to see my little girl presented.”
“Not just to see me,” she corrected him gently. “And I happen to know that you planned this party for tonight because President Davis is being inaugurated on Monday. You knew that important people would be in Montgomery this weekend.”
He winked. “Perhaps. There are many parties being held in Montgomery tonight, but you will see which one they all attend. I wouldn’t be surprised if President Davis himself made an appearance.”
“Speaking of surprises,” he added mysteriously, “I have one for you.”
“What kind of surprise?” April asked.
He snapped his fingers at Posie. “Get a wrap for April. It’s quite chilly out, and we’re going to take a little walk.”
Posie scurried to obey, while April attempted to pry the secret from her father. But he laughed mysteriously and refused to say more.
Posie returned with a long green velvet cape, which Carter draped about April’s shoulders. Pulling the hood up to cover her long golden hair, he whispered, “Beautiful. Just like your precious mother. An angel come down to earth.”
April always felt uncomfortable when he looked at her so adoringly. It made her feel eerie, somehow. A strange look would come into his eyes, and she shivered to think that, for one fleeting moment, he was not really seeing
but her long dead mother.
“Poppa, let’s go wherever it is you want to go.” She stepped out of his embrace and moved toward the door. “It will soon be time for me to begin dressing.”
He made a grand bow, then winked mysteriously once more before opening one of the doors. “All right, my beautiful daughter. Let’s be on our way.”
April stepped onto the wide marble porch that ran the length of the great house. She took her father’s arm, and they descended the long steps between the tall white columns. A blast of cold wind pushed back her hood, sending her hair flying about her face.
“Poppa, you’ve given me so much already,” she protested once more as he led her across the lawn. “There is no need for whatever it is you’re about to do.”
“Nonsense.” His arm went about her as he tried to shield her from the icy wind. “A father certainly wants to give his daughter a gift on the day she is presented to society. But this isn’t to be your only gift, by any means. I have something to give you later that is very precious…something that belonged to your dear mother.”
April realized it was useless to argue. She just hoped he would also have a gift for Vanessa.
They passed beneath an archway of bare crepe myrtle trees. In the spring, when the pink and purple blossoms burst forth, it would be a myriad of beauty. Now the passage only reminded her of the ugly gloom of winter.
The stables loomed ahead, two large buildings which housed all the fine horses that Carter took such pride in. Many of his horses had been brought over from England. Besides showing his stock in the ring from time to time, he also entered many of his horses in match and heat races.
“Virginia calls itself the horse capital,” April had often heard him scoff. “I defy anyone to show me horses from the state of Virginia any finer than mine. One day I will make Alabama the horse capital of the whole damned world!”