Authors: Hope Denney,Linda Au
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Gothic, #Romance, #Historical, #Historical Romance
“Thank you for telling me all that again,” she said. “I need to bring something up to you, though, something I’ve never said. This is the part where I’m afraid of what you’ll think of me.”
“After this night, I fail to see where you would fear judgment from me. What is it?”
“Could Eric still be alive out there?”
“No.” Joseph’s answer was confident.
“There was no body, Joseph. His grave is empty. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
“There are lots of empty graves in this country now, Somerset. Lots of bodies never made it home.”
“I don’t see it that way. Why did Eric’s body disappear while you were left to die? There were four of you together, and two of you were dead from any man’s reasonable perspective. Sawyer was knocked out from his fall. Theodore had to run down the ridge for quite a stretch to even get to his rope to make it down. There were the two of you lying dead together in the brush, and only Eric’s body disappeared. He might have dragged himself to safety. He could have forgotten who he was and wound up in a new life anywhere. He might be in a home for veterans or he might be out west somewhere. Think how many men started over in the west. He could have even been captured and taken to prison and died there. The possibilities are disturbing. All I know is that my darling’s body is not here and I would be amiss not to ask why.”
“I understand your perspective, Somerset, but listen to mine. There was only one other man involved in the ambush. He knocked my head in. He wouldn’t possibly have been able to drag off both of us in the time it took Theodore to get down and Sawyer to come to consciousness. So it strikes me as a little personal. Eric was the first of our party to be injured and only his body disappeared. I don’t mean to intimate that we all have a dark enemy out there and we should all fear for our safety. What I mean is that whoever murdered him probably did it in retribution for a kill Eric made. Some wealthy socialite or powerful officer lost a husband or brother to Eric and decided that he would have to die as payment. A lot of things happened to enemy bodies in those days. We don’t really want or need to know.”
“You were hit before you could see him die. You don’t know that he died.”
“He had a terrible wound, a neck wound—I’ve told you. People who get shot in the neck die. They bleed to death or their neck is broken. They don’t survive and go on to reconstruct a meaningful life. Let’s say he did survive and crawled away into the river. It snowed that day. The temperatures were dropping while we were out fighting for our lives. He would have died from exposure to the elements.”
Somerset shook her head.
“You haven’t examined all the angles, Joseph. You admitted that it seemed a little personal to you. What if whoever shot him wanted Eric alive? He might have been taken in for questioning to learn more about your sniping practices. He might have died in custody or been sent to a prison. It struck me as bizarre when you were the only one out of the group who was captured and sent to prison. What if you were captured based on what Eric said about you to the enemy? Maybe he didn’t have the enemy. Perhaps you did.”
“That is a fanciful but intelligent hypothesis,” agreed Joseph. “I’ll say something to refute it, though. Maybe it was far more personal than I can grasp. Maybe it was me who had the enemy after all. You’re concerned with whether Eric is alive and the answer is no. He would have died in captivity quickly. Even if he was only taken to prison, his odds were slim to none. I don’t talk about prison for a reason. If it can kill a healthy man, it will eat up a wounded man before anyone knows he’s there.”
“But if you all were of interest to the United States government—”
Joseph threw up a hand.
“Somerset, good grief! We weren’t that important. The armies on both sides were full of snipers like us. I know we wrote home and made it sound adventurous and grand like something out of a dime novel. Believe me, sometimes it was, but shooting a gun is shooting a gun and the fate of the Confederacy didn’t rest on our shoulders. I know Theodore polished up the stories so that you girls felt like we were powerful, but he really only said those things to keep you from worrying so hard about us. He thought you’d all have time enough to grieve if something really happened and didn’t want you so distracted you couldn’t function when you had animal husbandry and crop planting to learn.”
“Fine,” she acquiesced, “but what if he is alive in a hospital for veterans or someone’s home? He might be so addled he doesn’t know who he is. He might be in a bed, unable to move and dreaming of home.”
Joseph rubbed his finger along the rim of his glass so that it began to sing. He looked thoughtful, as if he was weighing every word before he placed it in his sentence for effect. It was a long time before he spoke again, and when he did so he spoke to give all of his words due measure.
“I’ll say it again. People don’t usually survive the type of wound Eric received. Let’s say you’re correct, and there was an ulterior motive at play. Let’s assume that he went to prison for questioning by the U.S. government.”
Joseph stood up and turned so that his back was on full display. He held the lamp so that the rosy light reflected on a multitude of scars that Somerset averted her eyes from. She’d always suspected he’d been flogged. The scars on his back attested to the fact. There were indentations and gouges as deep as two of her fingers held together. There was scar tissue woven into scar tissue in a pattern so grotesque that he was covered in a flesh tapestry of his own suffering. She made a noise of revulsion before she thought. Joseph topped her glass off again.
“It was outlawed supposedly, but I’ve been flogged,” said Joseph, replacing the lamp and reclining once more. “I’ve been flogged, bucked and gagged, and before they released me, they branded me. I’ve starved. I’ve slept in a rank bed with corpses, and I’ve slept in my own filth. I’ve had dysentery and the measles. Prison was the longest year of my life, and I’ll never be imprisoned again.
“I’m telling you this because I want to you to know some things, and I want you to hold them at the center of your being. I try on a daily basis to survive my past. You see me as your handsome, dashing older brother, the mischievous one who likes his fun. I play the part because it keeps me from settling back into my coarse nature. Drink keeps me in the present. Hard work helps me know that I am useful and haven’t been completely degraded. If prison did all of this to me and they ultimately released me, can you imagine what they did to Eric if your theory is correct?
“I’m telling you to take a good, hard look at who I am and accept that if he is out there somewhere, you don’t want him. If he’s alive after any of the outcomes you suggested, then he truly loves you because he had sense enough not to come home.
“None of it is true, though. I’d wager this wounded leg that I’m so wild to keep that he’s dead. You’ll come out of this better if you blindly believe it. I know you wish there was a body. So do I. One isn’t going to turn up.
“I want you to go to bed and think about what a good man loved you. He was true to you in every way. I’m wild about Fairlee and I can’t say the same. Most women can’t boast the type of love that you had. It might not be enough for you now, but it’s far more than most get. You aren’t ruined like Victoria, and you aren’t a drunk like me. You still have a chance. You can go into Mother’s annals a raging social success.
“I don’t know about this man you love now, but I’m not completely out of tune with women. I have my guesses. Don’t debase yourself by begging to be with any man who doesn’t want to be with you. As Mother would say, you’re a Forrest and a Marshall, and that counts for something. Don’t tell her I agreed with her, please. We’ll blame it on the liquor just this once. If you’re curious if I know anything about the sudden change of interest, no, I don’t. I also am not going to get involved so don’t ask.”
Somerset rose from her seat. She grabbed the console, finding herself swaying on her feet. The full effects of the alcohol were settling in and she got the dim impression she should go drink some water. She hoped Cleo or Bess had a pitcher in her room.
“I’ll think about everything you said tonight if I can remember it all in the morning,” she said, her words sounding thick. “Thank you for listening to me, for treating me like an equal whose thoughts matter. I don’t know if I’ll come to agree with you on every point, but you’ve given me plenty of information. I loved him. I still do. He’d go to the ends of the earth for me. Why shouldn’t I do the same for him?”
Joseph went to reply but, realizing he wasn’t certain who exactly she was speaking of, he passed over the remarks. He limped across the room on a damaged leg that was starting to show the full extent of pain he felt and held the door open for her.
“I want you to remember our deal,” he said and she weaved passed him into the hall. “I talked to you man to man like you wanted, when I prefer to go forward not backward. I’ll never speak of it again. Don’t ask. I want you to leave me alone about it. The war, the day Eric died, Elmira, all these ideas you’ve troubled yourself with—none of them will change any of our circumstances now. Get up tomorrow and live a day that you’d be proud of instead of trying to please everyone around you. I’ve played that game and I was never happy at the end of the day. Just remember, I’m not talking about it anymore.”
He shut the door against her and left her standing in the dark hall. The emptiness of his words reverberated in her chest. She saw the murky blue light beginning to tinge the edges of the draperies and retreated to her own quarters but did not sleep.
Fairlee’s engagement ring arrived at Orchard Rest by the end of the week. No note or return address accompanied it. Somerset knew this spiteful event never happened before in seven years of courtship. He took the news better than Somerset guessed he would. When Franklin put the square box into Joseph’s palm, Joseph didn’t bother to open it. He tested the weight of the box in his open hand, and he turned and gave the ring to Blanche.
The gesture moved Somerset in a visceral way. Not only was Fairlee unwilling to reconcile, Joseph wasn’t invested enough in her anymore to try.
Somerset watched a gamut of emotions flicker over Blanche’s face. She opened the box as though she could console herself by finding it empty, but the pear-shaped dark blue sapphire Thomas presented her with as a girl resided lonely in its cushioned home. She snapped the box closed, and for a moment Somerset feared she would devastate her son. His head was already bowed as if imagining the coming slights.
“I tried, Mother. I tried to get her to marry me.”
“I’m not worried about it,” said Blanche, the corners of her captivating eyes crinkling with good will. “I wouldn’t have a woman in the family who passed over one of my sons. I never liked that cheap little girl. If she changes her mind—and I’m certain she will—she won’t be getting my ring back. The next one can come from a general store. She won’t know the difference.”
Joseph’s shoulders rose at least four inches, and he walked to the back yard where he was taking care of Blanche’s poultry duties until he had the strength to make it all the way to the barn and care for the horses.
Blanche began to boil water for tea.
“What happened this time?” she asked. She sounded distressed instead of enraged.
Somerset thought and came up with no answer, true or otherwise.
“Mother, I think they deserve each other, and I don’t know why they keep breaking it off.”
“I’m used to our Joseph not doing things the time-honored way, but I did think matters were going to work out this time. I won’t allow myself to be grieved over it. I think her a nasty piece of work, but it’s insulting that she dropped him the way that she did. I admit that I didn’t want them living under my roof, the one place in the world where I find peace above all others. Joseph wouldn’t have tolerated them living under Evelyn Buchanan’s roof for an instant, and Evelyn wouldn’t have enjoyed having her stepdaughter living there. It did leave them at loose ends for a place to live. Maybe it’s for the best, but I feel slighted.”
“He takes things harder than he lets on,” added Somerset, “and while I don’t think as ill of Fairlee as you do, I’d rather see him with someone less spirited.”
Somerset thought of Ivy, whose ears must be ringing as she waited for news of Joseph and Fairlee. She longed to let her know that Fairlee had departed, but it would only serve to get her hopes up. It would be far better to let her know just how complex the relationship between the disjoined couple was, but there was no breaking Joseph’s trust.
“Things in a marriage are easier when one person is mild-mannered,” observed Blanche, more to herself than anyone, as she began to steep her tea.
Somerset recognized that Blanche was speaking of Thomas and deemed fit to make a conversational noise. He let Blanche have things her way as a matter of course. It was simple when he was never home. He was busy trying to reclaim the steamboat business that her daddy had been cheated out of in a different world in Baton Rouge. The affair followed on the heels of Blanche losing her brother Theodore, a man so rich in Marshall looks and brilliance, that Somerset’s own brother, Teddie, would never begin to measure up to him—a galling idea when one considered how Blanche prized her eldest child. Thomas seemed to live to right the wrongs of Blanche’s grim youth.
Most of the handsomeness of his youth was tempered by the end of middle age. His dark hair was thin and his brown face starting to line. He was a lean man, never eating or sleeping much, with thoughtful hazel eyes that were passed down to all the children except Somerset and Theodore. He was around Orchard Rest more when she was a child but she barely remembered anything about him from childhood, and she was hard-pressed to recall a conversation between them since the war ended. She recognized he must be intelligent and hardworking to be successful prewar and to rise above the hardships of Reconstruction, but his silence and distance made him a stranger. She supposed when the competing person in the home was Blanche, it was easy to be eclipsed in memories.
Somerset wanted to hear the story of Thomas’s proposal to Blanche, but her mother was not a woman who as a matter of habit talked about her youth. The luster of her eyes and the gentle set of her mouth told Somerset that she was reminiscing and she sought to get her to tell her stories out loud. The tale of Thomas’s proposal was a mix of the romantic and macabre, a story made for the society pages of big newspapers but best forgotten.
“Joseph is twenty-seven and not settled,” said Somerset. “How old were you when you married, Mother?”
“Papa was on holiday and came to Baton Rouge to see you.”
“No. We never courted in Virginia although Thomas wished for it. Our families were old friends, and our mothers were visiting. The entire Forrest family came with Mrs. Forrest. To see their faces was something. You would have thought they landed on another continent, it looked so foreign and foreboding to them.” Blanche’s laugh reminded Somerset of flickering butterfly wings.
“Everything went wrong on that visit,” pressed Somerset. “What happened?”
Blanche’s eyes were filmed with a faraway nostalgia that made her eyes resemble blue ice as she looked back over the troublesome, cheating years.
“Our mothers were good friends, but they also despised each other,” she said as she sipped her tea. “You don’t have friends of that nature because you’ve been sheltered out here from the brittle shellac of society living. With competing successful tobacco plantations, one was always looking to outdo the other. When my father, Admiral Marshall, announced he was moving us to pursue the steamboat business, Miriam Forrest was ecstatic. Richmond would finally be her sole hobby. The sewing circles, the church groups, the gardening clubs would be her children to do with as she wished.”
“They came to visit us after a few years, mostly for amusement, I think, but everywhere Miriam looked made her envious. She didn’t realize that we didn’t sell the Marsh in Richmond. We sublet it for a time and made a profit on it. The Admiral’s success in Louisiana turned her hateful with jealousy. Mother is a domineering, pragmatic woman who can carve out a fruitful life on a slab of marble if she chooses, and when Miriam saw Somerset Manor she became petulant. She couldn’t be satisfied with Brightleaf Manor anymore. She wanted everything that Honor had, and she cursed the Admiral’s ingenuity each night as she paced the guest rooms of Somerset Manor. She emasculated Edward Forrest when she tantrumed each night about the money Mother and Pa spent, the dresses we wore, and the table we set. She demanded that he provide her with the same standard of living. He was cracked after decades of her venomous tirades, and he came up with a way to take Marshall Steam.”
“What did he do?” asked Somerset. She knew the story. It was sewn on her heart, but it sounded better when told by the woman who lived it.
“Pa was in the middle of making improvements to his ships and going through the local banks to get loans. Edward offered him the money at lower interest rates, and not long after Pa accepted, he called in the loans. It was obvious that Pa had been cheated, but there was nothing to be done about. We lost Marshall Steam but not Somerset Manor. Miriam was irate to learn it was paid for in cash on the day we laid the final stone.”
Somerset wrapped her shawl around herself and snuggled deeper into her corner of the settee.
“It was worse than that,” she said. “What happened next?”
“Oh, next.” Blanche shook her head. “What happened next compounded the nightmare and set everything in motion up to this day.
“My brothers and I took the Forrests’ children out boating while Edward was calling in Papa’s loans. We were around the same ages and we’d been in the same circles in Richmond. Thomas was there with his dashing brother Gentry and his sisters, Millicent and Muriel. We dined on the deck of the largest Marshall steamboat while we paddled down the Mississippi. I can’t tell this story without tasting the meal: roast quail with Bess’s mother’s fig preserves. I haven’t eaten any to this day and figs used to symbolize home to me.”
“I remember you didn’t like Pa.”
“Oh, he was handsome in his observant, unassuming way. Thomas was on the fringe of things. I had eyes for Gentry. Gentry was daring and his hazel eyes used to singe the lace on my basque, he’d look so hard at me. Gentry was a madcap, always telling the most outrageous jokes and squiring so many girls that a handful were always exasperated with him. He caused more duels than anyone I’ve ever known, come to think of it.”
“He sounds like Joseph.”
“I never thought of that, but yes, some of our Joseph came from Gentry. I spent the entire boat ride trying to impress Gentry with everything the Admiral was doing with his industry. It makes me angry to think of it now. He was old enough to know what Edward was doing. He lapped up our hospitality that day even though he was aware his family was sending us to Purgatory.
“After we dined, Muriel went to the railing to admire the view. She was silly and shallow, but she was always dressed like a color plate out of
. Her wardrobe made Mother’s look conservative. Muriel went to the railing hoping to attract Theodore and when she looked over her bare shoulder at him, she slipped on a slimy patch in her ridiculous shoes and fell under the railing into the water.”
“He tried to save her.” Somerset pulled the shawl up to her chin and gripped it as though she could ward off the chill creeping over her body.
“Theodore stripped off his suit before the rest of us could finish our cries of alarm.” Blanche’s voice purred with pride. “He swam better than the fishmongers at the wharfs or the sea captains on their vessels. He was a golden boomerang as he dove into the water. Only he didn’t return.”
The impact of Blanche’s ending thudded between Somerset’s shoulders with the same brutality as the kick of a rifle or a blow on the back. She’d heard the story from Blanche only once before, but she hoped the ending would be different this time. Blanche’s eyes were dry and distant as she paused to drink her tea.
“He didn’t come back,” echoed Somerset.
“No, he didn’t. Thomas dove into the water and rescued Muriel while your Uncle David lowered the dinghy, and all the servants combed the waters for Theodore. We never found him. I can’t fathom a watery grave as the final home for that boy. He belonged in the family crypt with carved marble and boughs of roses over him.”
“Anything might have happened to him,” said Somerset. “He might have hit his head when he dove or broken his neck when he hit the water. He could have been caught up in the current from the paddlewheel.”
“The fish got him in the end,” Blanche said. “We never found him. He might have changed everything, been a general in the war or became president of the Confederacy. So much hope squandered. So much potential lost. All because a pretty girl in high heels wanted him for herself.”
“Wait a minute!” cried Somerset. “Why wasn’t there a lawsuit or a duel challenge? Why have I never heard about the Admiral demanding justice?”
Blanche’s lips pressed fine.
“He demanded justice. He roared like a wounded bull when he lost Marshall Steam and challenged Edward. They were to fire once at twenty paces. The Admiral’s pistol jammed, and he was unable to signal before Edward got him through the collarbone. Don’t you remember the way he used to hold his left arm?”
“The authorities showed up and they both spent time in the jailhouse for disorderly conduct. Pa wasn’t satisfied, but he owned Somerset Manor and all of the Marsh. He announced that he was going back to tobacco farming. With the exception of Miriam, the Forrests were too much objects of hate to ever go home, and the Admiral lost his tobacco competition forever. He made up every penny he ever lost. The Forrests remained in Baton Rouge. I’ve heard that Muriel couldn’t leave the safety of their house because of public sentiment against her. Those were wild, dark days and the people of Baton Rouge thought someone should die to atone for Theodore. Miriam fled to Brightleaf Manor. It seems she didn’t care for money and nice new things so much as the ability to queen herself over everyone else. She found plenty of ways to spend Pa’s hard-earned money, though she was ostracized everywhere she went.”
“Then Pa proposed to you.” Somerset clapped.
“Your pa did something that has turned into storybook lore. He said that if I would marry him, he’d sever all ties with his family and work toward regaining what we lost one day. The only catch was that he didn’t want to live in Louisiana or Virginia. He thought separation would give us room to heal. We were homeless for a year. We roamed across the South, staying with my cousins and family friends. Then we found Century Grove and Orchard Rest was finished just in time to have Theodore.”
Yes, that was the story. Blanche and Thomas settled in time enough to bring Teddie into the world, a throwback to the first Theodore. He would never be as handsome, accomplished, or intelligent as the original, but he brought healing to a damaged girl. Somerset wondered if Thomas felt he’d received a good exchange for all he gave up. Blanche might be beautiful, but she was so particular, spoiled, and temperamental that she couldn’t help but think he had been taken in by her attractive veneer. She could admit he was selfless and brave, but she didn’t know quite what to think of her mother accepting him after all his family did. She wasn’t sure selflessness and bravery were adequate compensation for all that was lost by the wayside.