Dedicating this chapter to my sister, agapye, thanks so much the time you took to read and criticize my story Roses of Blue. I look forward to hearing your opinions on the sequel. :)
That was how I found myself, that chilly day in October, walking down the muddy road to the cluster of houses. They were getting closer and closer and I could feel my heart beating faster and faster. I was excited and frightened at the same time. I knew why I was excited, but what exactly scared me I couldn’t understand, but then, I always had a great fear of the unknown.
“Excuse me.” I said as I approached an old, wrinkled woman sitting on a wooden bench. She eyed my suspiciously, almost as though I was a great evil. “I was wondering if you could point me in the direction of Harriet’s home.” I felt silly not knowing Harriet’s last name, but no one had ever given it to me. She stared at me for a few more minutes before replying in a raspy voice.
“Go down the road, it’s the last one. Terrible shape, you won’t miss it.”
I thanked her and placed a quarter in her hand. She was about to refuse, but changed her mind and put the quarter in her pocket. People stared at me as I walked down the grim road. I felt very out of place, seeing I was the only white girl in a sea of colored people, and being so finely dressed compared to all of them didn't help matters. At last I was at the little house at the end of the street. The old lady had been right about saying it was in terrible shape. I was almost hesitant to knock on the door in fear it would collapse if I dared to touch it. The surroundings looked familiar to me, but my memory of this settlement was poor as the only time I had been here, my mind had been occupied with thoughts of Sammy’s escape plan.
“Sarah, you can do this,” I chided myself for my hesitancy. “Pull yourself together and knock.” I brushed the dust off my coat, patted my hair into place and taking a deep breath, reached out and gave the door a rap.
“Come in.” A frail voice called out from the other side. I put my door on the handle and pushed, it didn’t budge, I pushed again, nothing. Was it locked perhaps? A thought struck me and I tugged on the door handle. It creaked and squeaked, but with a little force the door opened. Inside the room was dim and damp and smelled of mold. My eyes took in a broken table, an old stove, a couple of chairs and cabinets. There was a cradle of sorts by one wall and a heap of blankets next to it on the floor. An old bed with rotting wooden posts and thin blankets stood in the very corner. I saw a head raise a little and catch sight of me. The light from outside shone and illuminated me as I stood in the doorway wondering what to do next. The graying head jerked a little higher, and I got a good look at her face. Her cheeks were sullen and she looked thin and worn. I could tell from one look that she was very, very, very sick.
“Evelyn! Is that you?” Her frail voice was filled with hope. I shook my head.
“Ah, forgive me Miss; you are far too young to be her. My eyesight is not what it used to be and I mistook you for someone else.”
I softly closed the door behind me and walked up closer to the bed.
“Are you Harriet?” I asked.
“That is my name,” she confirmed. “Who are you? You’s remind me of someone I knew a long time ago.
“I remind you of Evelyn Beverly?” I gently asked.
“How did you guess?” Her eyes became puzzled.
“My name is Sarah and I am her daughter.”
“Evy has a daughter?” She her entire face lit up when I said those words. “Ah, that is so wonderful to hear. Did she move back here or are you just visiting? Has she made peace with her sister?”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry to have to say this, but my mother died eleven years ago when I was eight.”
“Died!” Harriet gasped. “And so long ago at that! To think that I have been living all this time without knowing she has been gone for so many years. Did she return home before her death?”
“No, my mother died in Boston.”
“Boston is such a long ways from here. How did she die? Tell me the whole story, child.”
I bit my lower lip. Tell her the whole story? Uncle had instructed me never to tell the whole story, and yet at the same time I felt uncomfortable telling her lie I told the rest of society. “I can’t.” I finally confessed.
“I can’t tell you the whole story.”
“Because my uncle and aunt forbid me to ever tell anyone the whole story.”
“But child, you must tell me. I knew your mother way back when we were still young. I’d always hoped she would come home one day. I’s believe I was the only one after Missus Beverly passed to the grave to keep the hope she would return.. You must tell me what happened to her. I’ve been wondering and guessing for over twenty years. I know how to keep a secret, that whole family is wrapped up in secrets and I know so many of them, one more won’t hurt me. Please, heed the plea of a dying woman, tell me what became of Evelyn Beverly.”
“There really isn’t much to tell,” I gave in with a sigh. “Mother never revealed anything of her past to me. The only mother I knew was the mother who would rise early in the morning and walk to the factory and only return home late at night. We were poor and never had any money. My mother was weak and pale and the hard work and poor living conditions wore away at her until one day she collapsed. She died only a few days later.”
Harriet’s face grew sad. “She was bred for a life of ease and comfort, not for hard work. After all, roses do not grow in the smoke of a city, but in the fresh green fields. But if she never told you about yous family on the Beverly Estate, how did you get here?”
“The night before she died she told our landlord’s wife about her sister living in the south. She asked that they send me to her as I was an orphan had nowhere else to go.”
“Your father died earlier?”
I looked down, “My mother never married, I was born out of wedlock.”
“So that was how it all ended for her,” she spoke in a whisper, “alone, in poverty and disgrace.”
“Mother left something for you though.”
Her drooping head lifted and she once more gazed at me earnestly. “She mentioned me?”
“On her deathbed she asked me to give you this note.” I carefully pulled the crumpled paper from my coat pocket and handed it to her. She took it from my hands and unfolded it. When she was finished reading it, she pressed the tattered paper to her breast as more tears welled up in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks.
“Thank you child.” She whispered, “Now I can truly die in peace.”
“I’m sorry it took me so long to get it to you. Trying to find out who you were was very difficult, and for so long I couldn’t get anyone to reveal your identity, much less tell me where you lived.”
“I’s not someone the family likes to talk about,” she cracked a smile. “You know who I was?”
“Yes, I do.” I looked around at the dismal, miserable surroundings, “and this is how you ended up.” I shook my head pity. How could my grandfather have done this to another living soul?
“Not quite unlike Evelyn.”
“Oh, no, that was different. Mother was to blame for the way she ended, you didn’t have a choice.”
Harriet gave her head a weary shake, “it wasn’t her fault.”
A flashback suddenly struck me; a dying man in a bed, grasping my hand and saying in a weak voice: “It wasn’t her fault. Don’t let anyone tell you it was her fault.”
“She had so many dreams, so many plans,” Harriet kept on speaking, “and they never came true.”
“They did for a little while,” I attempted to comfort her. “Before she came to Boston, I heard she was an actress in the theater. Somewhere along that line of work she passed beyond the point of no return and ended up in disgrace. But again, mother kept her past a secret from me and so I know nothing.”
“She never mention anything about your father to you?”
“As far as I can guess he was one of her admirers who abandoned her when she told him she was expecting his child. But that is only my supposition.”
“Evelyn always was very independent and never knew her limits,” Harriet gave a sigh. “She had such a strong character with so much will power. What she needed was someone to guide her, a firm, honest hand to show her the right way, but she never had that at home. They handled her wrong way and so it all ended wrong.”
We sat silently together. I found it hard to think of my mother as a strong woman. To me she had always been so weak and frail, in both body and spirit. It was almost as though the Evelyn everyone else talked about and the Evelyn I had known as my mother were two completely different people.
With some difficulty, Harriet propped herself up a little more. “Tell me a little about yourself, Miss Sarah. How did the Missus Greensten react to your coming to live with them?”
“My aunt wasn’t very pleased about my scandalous past. She said I was a disgrace to the…”
“Family name,” Harriet finished for me. “It is always about the family name. Massa Beverly was always ingraining that doctrine into everyone. If you can keep the family name clean you can use it build a wall around your life.”
“A wall for what?”
“A wall to hide what your life was really like. You could do as you pleased as long as there was that wall to protect you.”
I couldn't help shaking my head in disgust. The more I heard about my grandfather, the happier I was he had died before I came to live on the plantation.
“So, the Missus doesn’t like you, but how did the Massa Greensten react?”
“Strangely enough, he was both sympathetic and understanding. It’s like my past doesn’t matter with him. He treats me as his own daughter. It is very strange, you would think it would be the opposite, Aunt Helen would be more sympathetic and Uncle Andrew would be the one who would be unhappy.”
“No, this is the only way it could be. Mr. Greensten ain’t a Beverly, so he is free to love you and care for you, but you’s Aunt is obligated to hate you.”
“She's obligated to hate me?” I was confused at what Harriet had just said.
“On the memory of her dead father. I would have been surprise to find out she had accepted you with open arms. Her reasons for disliking you go far back.”
“What reasons?” I hoped maybe Harriet could give me some answers.
“Didn’t they tell you anything about you’s family, the family history?”
“I did have a brief overview of my family tree, but I was never told the things I wanted most to know. There are so many secrets in that house that no one wants to tell me. It is very frustrating.”
“They’s have their reasons for keeping everything in the dark,” Harriet explained. “The Missus Greensten is greatly respected and it is her duty to keep the secrets hidden and away from gossip. Believe me, there is plenty tied up in that family to drown the entire area in gossip.”
“What was your acquaintance with my mother?” I asked, hoping to get at least some light shed on the dark subject of the Greensten Estate and all tied up in it.
“I’s was her personal slave,” Harriet replied, her voice growing distant. “The Missus Beverly purchased me when I was fourteen years old to serve Evelyn, who was then thirteen. We became friends very quickly. I was alone and frightened and your mother was lonely and friendly. Granted, Evelyn was rather spoiled, but she had a warm heart and she became very attached to me. She taught me to read and write and would bring me books from the library. So many nights she would insist that I stay in her room and then we would discuss books and share secrets. I told her of my life as a slave and it so horrified her that she made me a promise. Evelyn said that when she would come of age she would grant me my freedom, and if I wanted to stay in her service she would pay me a proper salary. Sadly, it all turned out very different that the way we both planned.” Harriet broke off here as a deep cough racked her body. When she regained her breath she continued. “As young as sixteen I noticed the Massa Beverly eyeing me in a way that I did not feel comfortable with, but I felt sure I had nothing to fear, Evy would keep me safe from anything. But just about a month after I turned seventeen, the Massa approached me and told me I was to be his mistress. I didn’t want to be, but he gave me no choice. It was either that or send me to work in the cotton fields. Oh how I was scared, the cotton fields meant beatings and being raped by his horrible overseers. So I gave in, I gave in even though I knew it would break Evy’s heart.” Poor Harriet wiped tears that were coming down her cheeks. “I will not talk about those horrible years of my life, but I became the most hated person on the plantation. Missus Beverly and Helen knew the whole truth and though they never said anything to me on the subject, they treated me as a contagious disease and would often degrade me in front of the other slaves. They tried to keep Evelyn in the blue, but of course the truth came out very quickly. one day the truth came out. I was sitting in Massa Beverly's study, waiting for him to come and she barged in. At first she though I was in trouble with her father, but then he walked in and a few words explained everything to her. I'll never forget the look on her face, hurt and betrayal was written all over it. That night Massa Beverly went traveling on business and took me with him. When we came back two weeks later Evelyn was gone. She had run away only two days before and there was no trace of her. It struck me hard, Miss Sarah. You see I had planned on explaining everything to her. I knew if I told her the full truth she would understand my terrible predicament. I even dared to hope she would help me escape from the clutches of her father. I kept waiting and waiting for her to return. Evelyn had been pampered and spoiled since the day she was born, and I was sure a few days in the cold hard world would send her running back. But I was wrong and Evelyn never returned. Time passed and everyone in the house tried to behave as though Evelyn had never existed. The gossip finally died down and life went on, but I always grieved that I hadn’t been able to tell her that I was not to blame. i hadn't wanted to become Massa Beverly's mistress, it had been forced on me. Now I see she had understood right from the start. The look of betrayal had not been meant for me, but for her father. Oh Miss, thank you for the pains you took to bring this to me.”
I cracked a smile and patted her hand. I couldn’t believe the story she had told me, why had she been treated like this? Now she was all alone, poor and sick and where were the people who had done this to her? They tried to pretend she had never been.
“Tell me about the plantation,” Harriet thought it best to change the subject. “How are Ben and Em and the little ones. Though of course they ain’t little no more, Elsie and Sam would have been grown by now…if they are still alive that is
“Things are going well with the plantation…at least I think. I’m not let in on my Uncle’s business affairs. Ben and Em are no longer on the plantation. They ran away, along their youngest daughter Nettie and Sam.”
“You don’t say, how glad I am for them. But what happened to Elsie.”
“Elsie is still living on the plantation.”
“Why didn’t she leave with the rest of the family?” Harriet was very surprised.
“Elsie didn’t leave because of me,” I felt very ashamed for some reason.
“Ah, that’s how it is. Yes, that is the way of the Climbs, they get attached to someone and think it their duty to take care of them till the very end. No doubt she told you that you would be lost if she wasn’t there to guide you.”
I nodded my head, “she said exactly that.”
Harriet gave a weak laugh, “Em once said the same thing about Evelyn, and Elsie is Em’s daughter through and through.
I had to admit, the Climbs and their dedicated way of living impressed me more and more. How unworthy we were of such devotion from them.
“How did Mr. Greensten react when the Climbs ran off? Did he punish Elsie?”
“I’m not sure. I was away in Europe when it all happened. He never told me about it and from the way they are all behaving, it doesn’t look like she was punished. I could ask Elsie though.”
Harriet sighed. “That man was the best thing that ever happened to the Beverly family. Mr. Beverly never understood what a treasure he had for a son-in-law. I always knew that if one person could save the family, it was Mr. Greensten. I could tell from the day he agreed to marry Miss Helen.”
“Agreed? You mean theirs was an arranged marriage?”
“But of course, you didn’t know?”
I shook my head.
“Sick and frail Helen never had any suitors, and it was shameful for the Massa Beverly to have an old maid for a daughter, so he found her a husband from good family with plenty of money. I still remember the first time he came to the house to meet his future bride. He was twenty seven years old and even I had to admit rather handsome.” Harriet gave a chuckle. “Compared to Massa Beverly, he was a breath of fresh air. I almost wished I was his mistress and not Mr. Beverly’s, but of course, Mr. Greensten never kept mistresses, it went against his moral principles. Helen gained a husband every woman can only dream of.”
“What happened to you after my grandfather died?” I was curious to know how she ended up here.
“Well, that man kept his promise, his will stated I was to be freed after his death. I was completely on my own though, with nothing except the clothes on my back. I left the plantation with my youngest daughter, she hadn’t been freed but I took her anyway. I began a search for my other children, I had three others who had been sold off, but it led me nowhere. I’s not going to go into details of my life, it was hard and that’s all I’m going to say. I’m ill and weak now and I’m not going to make it much longer. We’re low on money and food and I don’t know how we will make it through the winter.”
As if on cue, as soon as I had asked, the door suddenly opened and two children came running in. I looked over at them and couldn’t suppress the gasp. The little girl who had just slammed the door shut was the child I had rescued from that drunkard over a year ago. It dawned on me why I had thought the surroundings outside familiar. I had already been at this house when I had brought the little girl, Evelyn, to her home.
At last we have met Harriet and found out about her. And too think that Sarah had been so close to meeting her before :) Hope you are enjoying the story. More to come :)