Authors: Pearl S. Buck
The Angry Wife
Pearl S. Buck
A Biography of Pearl S. Buck
E ARE FORTUNATE,” PIERCE
Delaney said to his wife.
She did not answer. Outside the window open by her couch, the deep stillness of late October afternoon lay across the landscape of Malvern. The air was warm and fragrant. The servants had been picking the purple grapes. She could not learn to call them servants instead of slaves. Pierce was going to pay them wages. Georgia, her own maid, would get wages!
“Aren’t we fortunate, Luce?” Pierce’s big voice demanded.
“I wish you wouldn’t call me Luce,” she answered. “I like my own name.”
“Lucinda,” he said, smiling. “It’s such a prim name.”
“Nevertheless, it’s my name,” she replied.
But he could not quarrel even in fun. He wanted peace, now; as long as he lived he wanted only peace. He stood before the high window and gazed at the landscape for which he had been as homesick, all during the war, as he had been even for his family. There were not many in the world to match it for beauty. Beyond the rich level lands of his farms the foothills rose, softly wooded, into the blue heights of the Alleghenies. It was country fit for all his dreams of peace and he would spend his life in fulfilling them. Only to live, after these years, would be enough, but to live here was heaven.
Without turning he spoke. “The war is over, Tom and I are both alive, the house isn’t in ruins. Not many families have as much!”
At the sound of Lucinda’s voice he wheeled. She was lying on her rose satin sofa, her white arms flung above her head, her white hands clasped. Her slender body was hidden in a froth of creamy lace and silk, except for her little bare feet.
He took off the stiff leather belt of his uniform, threw it on the floor and went across the bedroom. He knelt beside her and lifted her into his arms. The moment stood still for him, clear and deep. For the first time he felt sure of being alive. He was at home again, in his own house, with Lucinda, his wife. His two children, his sons, were sound and full of health. Even the work on the land had not stopped. Everything he possessed had miraculously escaped destruction. His mind raced back over the years through which he had just passed. They were already compressed into a single experience of torture, in which he saw the faces of his own men whom he had not often been able to save. They were not all dead—a few had escaped, many more lay in hospitals. But most of them were dead. Kneeling there with his face in the laces upon his wife’s bosom, he read upon his brain the figures of the dead. They were so young! This was their tragedy—so young to die for so vague a cause. Thousands of young boys in uniforms had died to compel the nation to remain a union, thousands in grey had died for the right of a state to be free if it liked. Somewhere between them the fate of black men and women had been entangled.
Feeling the beat of Lucinda’s heart under his lips, aware of the softness of her flesh, breathing in her scent, he asked himself if even the death of many could hold united those who wanted to be free of one another. It might have been easier if he and his family had lived in the high North or the deep South. But Malvern, his inheritance, lay in the borderland. Men from the south and the north had swept across the mountains to rest here in Malvern Valley, under the great oaks, even upon the verandas of the house. He had been home for a few days of furlough when Grant’s men had come marching by, and looking down on them from an attic window, hiding himself, he had been horrified to see how much his enemies looked like his own men, There was only the slight outward difference of the uniform. The boys’ faces were the same.
More than Malvern lay in the border country. In the months when the war drew nearer, grim and inevitable, he had had to decide whether, when war was declared, he would go North or South. He hated slavery, while he loved his own slaves. Some deep conservatism in his being, love of form and order, necessity to preserve and persist, made him know that union was essential for their country, still so new. A handful of states, flying apart in quarrels, would mean early death to the nation. But he had stayed by the South. The last moment had come, and in its clarity Lucinda and Malvern had outweighed all else. Heart and not head had decided. He knew that he would fight and perhaps die for her, here in his house. But Tom, his brother, had gone North.
“When do you think Tom will get home?” Lucinda asked.
She curled herself into his arms. When she made herself small in his arms his heart quivered with tenderness. It seemed impossible that she had borne him two sons. He thought of them playing somewhere about the place, sturdy, blond, gay and quarrelsome, affectionate and rebellious, as he and Tom had been in this house of their fathers. By her own strength Lucinda had kept them untouched by the miseries of the war. She was a strong little thing!
“Joe will be here at any moment with him,” he said. He laid her gently back on her silken pillows and got up and walked to the window. Almost unconsciously he had picked up his belt and now he stood by the window, strapping it about his waist again.
A slender, hard waist, Lucinda thought with pleasure. The war had done him good. She felt idly complacent. She was safe. The house needed new hangings and new carpets. She wanted to cover the mohair furniture in the parlors with satin as soon as she decently could. Enough of the slaves had stayed on, for wages, to make her life still possible. Nothing would be changed.
She felt joy running in her veins. Her heart softened, She got up and went over to the tall figure at the window. He was staring out into the sunshine, his face grave and his steel blue eyes tragic. She hated the look. He was remembering something she did not know.
“Pierce,” she said, “Pierce, darling—”
He turned to her quickly, seized her in his arms again and held her with pain and love. How much he could never tell her!
“Everything is going to be the same,” she whispered.
“I’ll make it the same,” he said passionately, and felt his throat grow tight over tears. Strange how a man could go through death again and again, could lose what he loved most! For in the hour of battle he had loved his men better than anything. There had been moments when if sacrifice of himself and his wife and his sons, his house and lands, all that he was fighting for, could have saved the losing day, he would have let them all go into the loss, for victory’s sake. Yet he had never wept, or wanted to weep, as he did now, when he had come home to his unchanged house. It was so exactly the same that he could not keep back his tears. But this Lucinda could not understand, and for no fault of her own. They would have had to live through the same things to have had the same understanding and he could only be thankful that she had stayed safely at home.
The door opened. Someone stood on the threshold an instant, saw them and closed the door.
Lucinda pulled herself out of his arms and smoothed her straight fair hair. “Come in, Georgia,” she called.
Georgia opened the door gently and stood, hesitating and shy, aware that she had interrupted a scene of love. Pierce saw the awareness in her dark eyes, in the half smile of her lips, in the timidity of her bearing. She looked at Lucinda and he saw what he had not known before, that she was afraid of her mistress.
“It’s all right, Georgia,” he said kindly.
“I declare I didn’t know you were in here, Miss Lucie,” the dark girl said.
“Don’t come in without knocking, Georgia,” Lucinda said sharply.
“I did knock, Miss Lucie,” Georgia said in her even, gentle voice. “When I heard no answer I came in. I was looking for you and Master Pierce to say that Joe has come ahead to tell that they’ll be here in just a few minutes. He says Master Tom isn’t hurt by wounds but he’s starved near to death.”
The tears brimmed her great eyes and hung on her lashes. These lashes, black and long, held the drops and she put up her hand and wiped them away.
“Starved?” Lucinda repeated.
“It’s that damned prison,” Pierce muttered. He turned to Georgia. “Tell Annie to have some warm milk ready. A half cup of milk with brandy will do him more good than anything. You can’t feed a starving man real food. God, I knew they were starving the Yankee prisoners—but my own brother!”
“It comes of his joining the North,” Lucinda said bitterly. “If he’d—”
“Never mind now, sweet,” Pierce interrupted her. “The war’s over.”
“I’ll hate the Yankees as long as I live,” she retorted.
Georgia went away. The moment which she had interrupted was gone and Pierce bent to kiss his wife quickly. “I’ll go along down myself, Luce, and see that everything’s ready. I wish I’d gone to meet him. But he sent word he was all right … Luce, who’s going to nurse him?”
“Bettina,” Lucinda replied. She sat down in her rose colored chair. The satin was grayed and Georgia had darned it carefully. “I couldn’t spare Georgia,” she went on, “but the boys are so big now I thought we could turn them over to Joe.”
“Good,” he said.
He hurried out of the room into the wide hall. At the door of the nursery he saw the two sisters, Georgia and Bettina, in whispering talk. They looked alike, both tall, both golden-skinned, dark-eyed, slender. But Bettina, the younger, showed the Indian blood in her black ancestry. Georgia did not. Georgia’s face was soft and oval, the cheeks smooth, the lips full. Bettina’s cheeks were flat, her nose sharper, her eyes keener, her hair less curly. Where the two girls had come from Pierce did not know, except that they had been part of Lucinda’s father’s estate, and when he died they were for sale. He had bought them because Lucinda wanted them. “Wonderful workers,” Lucinda had called them. He scarcely knew them, because a month after they had come into the house he had gone to war.
“Bettina!” he said abruptly. There was something so delicate, so sensitively aware of him in the faces the two women turned to him that he was disconcerted. He had seen this delicacy often enough in the faces of slaves, even wholly ignorant ones, a refinement of the human being so extreme that he was always made uncomfortable by it. It was the result of utter dependence, the wisdom of creatures who could only exist by pleasing their masters. But in these two women it was pathetic and shameful, because they were not ignorant. He must ask Lucinda why they were not ignorant.
“Did you want something, Master Pierce?” Bettina asked. Their voices were alike, deep and soft.
“You’re to take care of my brother.”
“Yes, Master Pierce,” Bettina said.
Pierce paused. “You two,” he said abruptly, “don’t call my brother and me masters. I lost the war—Tom won. I can’t be called master any more—Tom won’t want to be, if I know him.”
“What shall we call you, sir?” Bettina asked.
It was disconcerting that both of them spoke with a clear English accent, without a trace of the shambling dialect of slaves. It was suddenly monstrous that he had bought these women. But he had not heard them speak when he bought them. They had simply stood hand in hand, their heads downcast.
“You—you can just call me mister,” he said abruptly.
“Yes, sir,” they breathed. They looked at one another. He saw they would simply call him nothing, ending every sentence with “sir.”
He looked out of the window. A slow procession was winding along the road between the oaks—Tom! He ran down the stairs, threw open the front door, leaped the stone steps and lifted from the litter his brother. But could this be a human creature, this tall stick, this gangling monkey, this handful of bones, loose in a bag of skin?
“Tom!” he muttered strangling, “Tom, boy, you’re home!” Then he said sternly. “Look here, we’ll soon have you—you fed—well again—”
The dark skeleton face could not smile. The fleshless lips were drawn back from his teeth, fixed in a grin of agony. Tom’s voice came in a faint gasp:
Pierce carried his brother up the steps, and was horrified to feel the looseness with which Tom’s head upon the stem-like neck hung over his arm. His own people had done this—in a secessionist prison they had starved his brother! He had tried to reach through the walls of war to save Tom, but hatred had been stronger than love. Then he pushed aside anger and pain, in the way he had learned to do, to save his own being. Fifty thousand men had been starved to death in those prisons, but Tom was still one of the living. And the war was over.
“Everything is going to be all right, Tom,” he said gently.
He carried his brother through the great dim hall, up the stairs into the west bedroom. The room was full of late sunshine, and on the hearth a fire burned. Bettina stood at the bedside, holding the sheets ready, and Georgia moved the copper warming pan to and fro. Georgia was crying silently, but Bettina’s face was grave. She put out her arms and slipped them under Tom’s bony frame, and lowered his head gently to the pillows. Then she drew the covers over him.
“Where’s the brandy milk?” Pierce demanded.
“Here, sir,” she said.
A spirit lamp stood on the table, and she poured the milk from a small skillet into a blue flowered cup set in a saucer.
The ghastly lips drew back still further over Tom’s strong white teeth. “My cup—” he whispered.
“Annie told me it was, sir,” Bettina said softly. She took up a thin old silver spoon and began to feed the milk to him.
“Don’t—know you,” Tom whispered.
“Bettina,” Pierce said. “I got her—and Georgia—after you left home, Tom, I reckon. It was just before the war. Of course, they’re free now, working for wages.”
“Sir,” Bettina begged him, “it doesn’t matter.”
Across the hall Lucinda’s voice floated clearly. “Georgia, Georgia!”
“Don’t let her come in yet,” Pierce said.
“No, sir,” Georgia agreed. She wiped her eyes and hurried out of the room.
Bettina slipped to her knees. Tom was swallowing drop by drop, as she fed him. He looked up at his brother from bottomless eyes.
“I can’t—eat,” he whispered, and two small thick tears forced themselves from under his papery eyelids.
“You’ll be eating everything a month from now,” Pierce said.
“I thought I’d die,” Tom whispered. He longed to speak, but Pierce would not let him.
“Don’t think about it,” he urged. “Just rest, Tom—it’s all over.”
Drop by drop from the silver spoon Bettina fed him. Pierce gazing down at Tom’s face saw her slender hand holding the spoon steadily, putting the drops between the waiting lips until the cup was empty.
In the warm silence Tom’s eyes closed. Bettina looked up. “He’s falling asleep, sir,” she whispered. “’Tis the best thing.”
She rose and noiselessly drew the old red velvet curtain across the western windows. “I’ve tried to get a doctor from Charlottesville,” Pierce whispered back. “But there’s not one even there.”
“We’ll heal him ourselves, sir,” Bettina said.
“It’ll be mainly on you, Bettina,” Pierce said. “Neither I nor Miss Lucie know much about such things.”
“I’ll do it, sir,” she said softly. “I’ll make it my task.”
Where did she get such words? He wasted a moment in wonder.
“I shan’t leave the house tonight,” he told her abruptly. “Call me when he wakes.”
“I will, sir,” she promised. She moved silently and swiftly across the room and held open the door, to his vague annoyance. She was so little like a slave. “You feel quite safe alone with him?” he demanded. “You think you can manage?”
“He’s safe,” she said calmly. Then she smiled a sweet and bitter smile. “I don’t forget it was to free me that he’s like this—”
He paused on the threshold, and comprehending these words, saw for an instant into her soul. He was made intensely uncomfortable. “Maybe,” he said drily and went on.
He went across the hall to his own bedroom. The door was open into Lucinda’s room beyond and he walked to the threshold.
“Ready for dinner?” he asked. It was an idle question. She had put on a pale blue satin, wideskirted. There was lace at her bosom and she was fastening about her neck the gold chain and locket he had given her when he went away to war. Inside it was his picture. He tried to fasten, it for her, and the locket flew open. He saw his own young face, smiling out of the small oval.
“The catch doesn’t hold,” she said.
“I don’t look like that now,” he said. “I’ll have to get another picture taken for you.”
“I like this one,” she said, looking up at him.
He looked down at her. “Meaning you don’t like the way I look now?”
“Of course I do,” she said. She closed the locket with a snap.
He turned away. He knew of old that she would not allow probing beneath the level of her serenity.
“Where are the boys?” he asked abruptly. The house was too quiet.
“They’re having their supper,” she said.
He was staring out the window again at the mountains and Lucinda saw the bitterness of his mouth.
“How is he, Pierce? Georgia says he looks awful. She said you said I wasn’t to come in.”
“I don’t think there’s any use in your seeing him just yet, Luce.” He turned, sat down, felt for his pipe and remembered that he was in his wife’s room and did not draw it from his pocket. “He’ll look a different fellow in a few days. Now he looks what he has been through—like hell.”
“Does he know people?”
“Yes—even knew he’d never seen Bettina before.”
“I don’t suppose he asked for anybody—the children—”
“He’s not up to that yet.”
Her eyes were fixed on him strongly. “What is it?” he asked, trying to smile.
“I have a queer feeling you haven’t really come home.”
“It takes time,” he agreed. “You know, Luce, I have to bring myself home—bit by bit. I’ve lived so many days and nights away. Sometimes the nights were the worse—wondering about you, when the letters didn’t come.”
“Pierce, you won’t be restless now? I mean—war’s awfully exciting, isn’t it?”
“No—unless you like horror,” he said gravely.
He looked around the room. “There’s nothing more exciting to me than this—being here at home—in your room. Luce, we’ll have lots more children, won’t we? That’s what’s exciting—you and me and our children growing up.”
She drooped her beautiful blonde head. Somehow she had managed to keep her skin like a child’s in spite of these years of war. She was young, and so was he—she twenty-six, and he not yet thirty. They could have a half dozen children, easily. Her shining yellow hair, real yellow, rare as gold, was twisted about her head in a crown, not braided or curled, and her eyes were blue like his, but more blue.
“How do you keep your dresses so pretty?” he muttered foolishly. He wanted to take her to bed now, this instant, and suddenly his physical need stupefied him with its intensity. He had been home for a week but it seemed to him he had only just seen her.
“Georgia irons them every day,” she said.
She was perfectly aware of what his look meant, the flame in the eyes, the concentration in his gaze, the slight tightening of his lips. But she saw no need to yield to it at this moment. After all, he was home to stay now. Old routines must be set up again. She rose, linked her hands together and yawned behind them prettily, smiling at him.
“Here come the boys,” she said and threw open the door.
The two boys were leaping up the stairs ahead of Georgia. They ran into the room, Martin, the elder, was eight and Carey five. “Where’s Tom?” Martin demanded. He was not afraid of his father because he had forgotten how it was to have a father in the house before. He had been loudly disappointed because Pierce declared himself too big and too old to play all the time.
“Hush—Uncle Tom’s asleep,” Lucinda said, smiling. She was very proud of the two handsome blond boys she had borne.
“How big is he?” Martin demanded.
“As big as I am,” Pierce said, “but very thin.”
“Big as you!” Martin wailed.
“Maybe taller,” Pierce said firmly. “Looks like Tom’s grown during the war.”
The interest went out of Martin’s face but he hid his disappointment by pushing his younger brother. Carey fell and cried.
“Oh, you naughty boy,” Lucinda said. “Pierce, why must they always fight?”
Pierce laughed. “Tom and I always fought,” he said. The small scene made him feel at home as nothing had. All of them were under one roof again, his children, Tom, he, his wife. They were a family. How passionately he had longed for the ties of a family about him! That was the worst of soldiering, after the sheer terror, horrible wounds—or death. A soldier was cut off from everything. He had not so much as a room of his own. He became only an atom, scarcely identified, adding his mite of energy to the great blind force of war.
“Shall I take the children to bed now, ma’am?” Georgia’s voice, sweet and deep, came from the door. She had been standing there in silence, waiting, and when Carey fell, she came in and picked him up. Now he clung to her.
“Go with Georgia, boys,” Lucinda commanded.
Georgia carried Carey away in her arms and Martin leaped froglike from flower to flower in the rose-patterned carpet on the floor. The door closed on them.
“They seem to like Georgia,” Pierce remarked.
“Oh, they like both the girls,” Lucinda said. “Maybe they like Georgia a little better. She’s gentler than Bettina.” She went to the mirror and examined her hair in a hand glass and tucked in a smooth end.
“Where did your father get them?” he asked.
“They were payment for a betting debt,” Lucinda said in a careless voice. “He went to the races in Kentucky—you know he always did. Mother scolded and he went just the same.” She laughed. “He always won, you know, so her scolding never did any good. But she was cross when he came home with two more colored wenches! We had so many already.”
“Good pair, though,” Pierce said.
“Yes, but Mother said they didn’t fit anywhere.”
“You mean—they were rebellious?”
“Oh no, Mother wouldn’t have stood for that. But they’d been taught to read and you never know—” her voice trailed. “For instance,” she said, looking over the top of the ivory glass at her husband. “Why should Georgia suddenly begin to say ‘ma’am’ to me, instead of ‘mistress,’ the way she always has?”
Pierce laughed, aware as he did so of something like an old timidity before Lucinda. Well, he wouldn’t be afraid of his wife, not after four years at war and two of being a major! “Why, I told her to do that, Luce,” he said. “I told her I didn’t want to be called master. We’ve lost the war. Our only hope for the future is to remember we’ve lost it and begin to live in the new way.”
“I haven’t lost any war,” she said.
He laughed at her. “You little Southern rebel,” he said. “Of course you have!”
He seized the mirror and put it down, swept her into his arms and kissed her hard. Then he held her at arm’s length. “You’re going to lose all your battles with me, hereafter,” he said. “I haven’t been a soldier for nothing all these years.”
Yes, he told himself—he was going to keep the upper hand in his own home.
“Pierce, you’re ruining my hair,” she wailed.”
“Damn your hair,” he said.
“Look here, my beauty,” he told her in the night “Don’t bear me a boy this time, if you please. I want some daughters—pretty ones! I shan’t keep the ugly ones.”
Lucinda laughed into her down pillow. “What will you give me for a girl, Pierce?” she asked. The room was flickering with firelight. He had heaped logs on the hearth and blown out the candles. They had no coal oil for the crystal lamps but plenty of candles. Georgia knew how to make them and scent them with bayberries and juniper.
“Girls actually aren’t worth as much in the market as boys,” he said. “Let’s see—I always give you diamonds for the boys, don’t I?”
“My diamond bracelet for Martin and the diamond brooch for Carey,” she said promptly.
“Pearls for the girls?” he suggested.
“Sapphires,” she bargained.
“Sapphires,” he promised. “But you’re greedy, you little wretch! Sapphires—I shall have to get them from Paris.”
“At that it’ll be less trouble for you than for me,” she said, laughing.
“All right, wretch,” he promised. He pulled her into his arms—“anything—anything—little wretch!”
But in the middle of this soft night, in the quiet of the house where he had been born and lived out all his childhood and youth, in the full sight of the thinnest crescent moon he had ever seen, a rim of silver at the edge of the shadowy full moon hanging, above the mountains, in the depth of the great bed where he lay with his wife, he knew that he was changed. War had made him hard. He valued as he never had the few good things of life, love and passion, sleep, morning, food, work, the wind and the sun. But he would never play again as he had played. He would never again be idle, never gay in the old unthinking fashion—
“You hurt me,” Lucinda said suddenly.
He paid no heed to her complaint until he heard her sob.
“What the devil is the matter with you?” he demanded.
“I don’t like you,” she sobbed childishly. “You weren’t like this—before.”
He released her instantly, “You can scarcely expect me to be exactly what I was before.” Lying naked in the bed his formality suddenly seemed ridiculous to him and he burst into loud laughter.
“Pierce, you stop laughing!” Lucinda cried. She beat his breast with her fists when he went on laughing. “Pierce, stop it—you’re crazy!”
He stopped laughing as suddenly as he had begun. “Oh well,” he said. “Maybe it’s worth a sapphire.”
He fell asleep as quickly as though neither passion nor anger had been. The war had taught him that.
In the bedroom across the hall Tom woke. Something warm and sweet was in his mouth. Food again! He began to eat with a new hunger and saw a woman’s face bent over him. It was a brown face, but the lamp shining from the table behind, lit the dark hair curling about it She was feeding him in teaspoonfuls and he was swallowing. His mind was clear, as it had been most of the time even in prison, but to know did not mean he would have strength to speak. Fellows had been taken out of the prison in the dead cart when they were alive and knowing, but too weak to protest against their own burial.
“More,” he said distinctly.
“There’s plenty more,” Bettina answered. “I made a full bowl.”
He wondered drowsily what it was. Something sweet and something smooth, slipping down his throat. A custard, maybe, with eggs and milk and white sugar. Only where did she get eggs and milk and white sugar in a war? He felt impelled to answer his own question. He opened his eyes with effort.
“We won—war,” he announced.
“Surely we did,” she agreed. She lifted another spoonful and put it to his mouth.
When he could swallow no more because sleep made it impossible, she put the dish down. The light fell on his face. The terror was already fading from it. In a few days, when his lips were not fleshless, he would not look so like a skeleton. Then the door opened and Georgia came into the room. She wore a long white dressing gown and she had loosened her hair. It flowed down over her shoulders, fine and curly and black.
“How is he?” she whispered.
“You don’t have to whisper,” Bettina whispered. “When he sleeps he hears nothing.”
They stood looking down at him, side by side.
“He’s so young,” Bettina said.
“I heard them say twenty-three,” Georgia answered.
“Then he went when he was nineteen. How long was he in prison—did you hear them say?”
“That I did not,” Georgia answered.
They lingered, looking at his face, at his hands, lying helpless on the white coverlet. “He has nice hands,” Georgia said, “I like a man to have nice hands. Remember Father’s hands, Bettina?”
“Shan’t I take a turn with him, so you can sleep?” Georgia asked.
Bettina shook her head. “I want to be here when he wakes,” she said.
She gave her sister a gentle push. “You go to your bed,” she commanded her. “It’s me that she set to nurse him back to health and strength.”
She watched her sister’s figure glide across the floor and she watched while the door latched. Then she sat down again in her seat by the bed, her eyes fixed on his face.
Down the hall Georgia walked, barefoot, without sound. She passed “their” bedrooms—her mistress’s and master’s—She remembered what he had told her.
“Surely, I’m free,” she thought. “I could go away. I don’t have to take even their wages.” She heard voices murmuring, and under the door a crack of light showed. The high transom was bright. They were still awake! But she had waked, too, out of dreamless sleep. The house seemed strange now that the master had come home.
“That’s what he is,” she thought, “even though he tells me I’m not to call him that. A house must have a master.”
She had always come and gone into that room, and her mistress had never seemed to care. It was as though she were nobody at all, until now. But now the whole house was different. Her mistress was different, too. Women were always different when men came into the house.
She went noiselessly past the door. Then she reached the attic stairs. “God help me they don’t creak,” she thought.
It was the one thing she and Bettina had asked, that they might sleep in the house instead of out in the quarters. Her mistress had looked at them coldly. They had stood, hand in hand, waiting for her question. But she had not put the question.
“Very well,” she had said in her cool voice. “You may sleep in the attic. But you’ll have to be quiet. I don’t want to hear even your walking around.”
Up in the attic she and Bettina had made a home for themselves. They had found an old rope bottom bed and a discarded bureau. Rags they had made into rugs and they had crocheted covers for the bed and the bureau top. But they had learned to walk as softly as shadows in the top of the great house and to talk in whispers.
She took off her dressing gown and crept into the bed. Still she could not sleep. She lay quivering, aware, feeling, not thinking. There was no use thinking in a life like hers. She was a creature in the sea, tossed here and there by tides she did not understand.
“But wherever you are,” her mother had said, “begin to live right there and look after yourselves. Only thing, I hope you will always be together.”
Her mother had died so long ago she could remember her now only by summoning her consciously to memory. All she saw was a dim dark face, darker than her own or Bettina’s, dark but beautiful, more like Bettina than like her, more Indian than Negro. But her father she remembered well. He was an old white man, always old. They had lived with him in a great house with pillars to hold up the heavy roof of the porch. Once there had been a white mistress in the house but never had there been children. She and Bettina were his only children. He had treated them as his children, too, and had made the slaves treat them so after his white wife died. It had been easy, for there were no visitors. Long before Georgia’s memory visitors had stopped coming. She and Bettina both knew that it had happened when he took their mother into the house. She had not been one of the slaves. She was a stranger whom he had bought in New Orleans and she had kept herself a stranger always. But she had been wise. She had lived in the house but she allowed none of the slaves to wait on her or on the children. She had made herself a housekeeper, and she thanked the slaves carefully when they helped her, and she never gave an order. It was always “please, will you”—and “I’m sorry to ask you”—Behind the extreme courtesy they had lived together, the three of them, separate from everyone, even the father.
“He’s your father, but you can’t act like his children,” she had told them, “even if he does treat you right,” she had added.
So she and Bettina had grown up as solitary as orphans, even when the tall thin old Englishman had held them on his knees and kissed their smooth golden cheeks.
After their mother died, when she was eleven and Bettina nine, they had gone on alone together, growing up, slender, silent, obedient always to the old man. “Sir,” they had always called him, neither master nor father. He used to look at them. She remembered and never could she forget how he used to look at them, pitying and frightened, as though something he had done in a moment had surprised even himself.
“I don’t know what’s to become of you two girls,” he used to mutter. He was very old, then, too old to do anything but let them wait on him.
“Don’t worry about us, sir—” she had always said. That, too, was her mother’s teaching … “Don’t ever let men get to thinking you trouble, father or husband. Men don’t like trouble with women.”
She had kept these teachings in her heart and had taught them to Bettina who could not remember the least image of their mother.
After a while the old man had given up even his worry. He grew older and slept more often, and had taken much waiting upon, until the day when he died in a moment and they had found him dead.
“What’s goin’ to become of us, Georgia?” Bettina had asked.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” she had answered.
“Maybe he’s left his will for us,” Bettina whispered.
“Hush,” Georgia said. One of the teachings of her mother had been, “Don’t expect anything. Then what you get seems good and enough.”
But there was no will and no mention of them and when a cousin came as the next heir, he sold the house and the land and the slaves, and they were sold, too. If they had not been slaves before they now became slaves.
Thus had they gone into the next great house. It was no question there—they were slaves. And then, because they had worked well and always in that deep silence which they kept about them like a dark velvet curtain, Miss Lucie had brought them here when again the great house fell. Great houses always fell. She lay gazing up into the thick beams above her head. Would this great house fall, too?
Pierce, waking just after dawn, got out of the bed. He moved as stealthily as he knew how, but Lucinda waked.
“Go to sleep, Luce,” he commanded. “It’s the middle of the night for you.”
“Where are you going?” she asked. Her blue eyes opened wide at him.
“I’m going for a ride,” he said. “I’ll be back in time to breakfast with you.”
He stooped and kissed her mouth. Her breath was not quite sweet in the morning. He knew it and yet it always shocked him a little that it could be, so fastidious was she in every detail of her person. Inside the lovely shell of her body surely there should be no corruption. She was asleep again, lying placidly on her pillow, her hands on her breast. Lovely she was, and he had no complaint against her. By the time he got back she would have washed her mouth with one of her fragrant waters. He had no need to notice an offense not greater than the scent of a faded rose—he who was fresh home from the stench of dying men on a battlefield! Yet that stench had so pervaded him for four years that now his nostrils were always to the wind, like a dog’s. He smelled what he would never have noticed in the days before he had smelled death.
He splashed in his wash basin in his dressing room, blowing out gusts of bubbles through the water, he sponged his body, brushed his teeth and put on clean garments under his riding suit. Clean he would be so long as he lived. He had had enough of filth.
Clean to his marrowbones he went out of the door and into the great upper hall, down the winding stairs which were one of the beauties of Malvern, and into the lower hall. The hall ran through the house, and front and back doors were wide open to the morning.
At the table by the door Georgia was putting white and purple asters into a yellow bowl.
“Hello, Georgia,” he said.
She turned her head, and he saw with discomfort that she was really very beautiful. He did not want a beautiful slave in his house. Though she wasn’t a slave any more—“Good morning, sir,” she said.
“A fine morning,” he said abruptly.
“I suppose nothing’s been heard of Tom yet? I didn’t go in—didn’t want to wake him.”
“No, sir,” she replied. “Bettina hasn’t come out. Likely he’s sleeping.”
She pronounced her words so purely that he was curious to know where she had learned them so. But he refused himself the luxury of curiosity and went on down the steps, into the cool bright morning. At the stables his groom was already brushing his horse.
He looked up with a grin. “Sure is good to have somepin like a horse again, marster.”
“The stables are pretty sorry, Jake,” Pierce agreed. “But give me time—I’ll be looking around for some real horseflesh in a month or so.”
“Sure will be good to git the stables full,” Jake said.
He slipped the saddle on the mare, steadied her with his hand on her neck, murmuring and hissing through his teeth to soothe her.
“She’s raring to go,” Pierce said fondly. “But it won’t be to war any more, Beauty—”
“Sure is good they ain’t any mo’ wa’,” Jake said.
“You’re going to get wages from now on, Jake, like all the rest of the sl—servants,” Pierce said.
“I’d rawther you kep’ the money, please, marster,” Jake laughed, and his open mouth was like the inside of a watermelon.
“You’ll be having to buy your food, though, and clothes for you and Manda and the children,” Pierce said. He tested the stirrups as carefully as though he were going into battle. A horseman was no better than his stirrups. He heard a gasp from Jake.
“You ain’t goin’ to feed us no mo’?” Jake’s face was lined with terror.
“Now, Jake, what do I give you wages for?” Pierce demanded. He leaned against his horse. This sort of thing was going to take a mighty lot of patience!
“I don’t want no wages,” Jake wailed. “I wants our food and does like we allays had had!”
“Great day in the morning!” Pierce shouted, “why, the war was fought so you could be free, man!”
“But my food and cloes!” Jake moaned.
Pierce broke into sudden laughter and leaped on his horse. “Oh well, I reckon you won’t starve at Malvern,” he said. “And if you want, I’ll give you food and clothes instead of wages.”
“Thank you—thank you, marster!” Jake bellowed after him.
That was the trouble, Pierce thought. You fought a war for people, you all but died, or you rotted in a prison, the way Tom had rotted nearly to death, and you come home and the people don’t know what it’s all about, or why you fought and rotted. They want everything just the way it was before.
In the brilliant morning sunshine, cantering across his own lands, his face grew grim. “I’m going to live for myself from now on,” he muttered.
He looked across the lands of Malvern, his land. Two hundred years ago his great-grandfather had come from England, a landless young son, and had bought this valley set high in the mountains of the Alleghenies. He had cut the forests and ploughed the earth, he had built the foundations and the heart of the big house. The soil was rich, and the encircling fields were still fringed with virgin forest, great oaks and beeches and maples.
“I will restore my soul,” Pierce said to himself.
He turned his mare’s head away from the line of cabins to the north of the road. He did not want to see his own black folk, not even to hear their greetings. He was tired of them because he had fought to keep them. Hell, he had lost and they were free. He still believed that it was the wrong way to free them. That was what he would have liked to have told that tall gaunt man in the White House, had he not been killed. All during the war he wanted to go and tell Abe Lincoln, “Man, I don’t want slaves! I’ll be as glad as you could be to have everyone of them free and wage earning. But it’s got to be done slowly, the way our family has been doing it, freeing the men when they get to be thirty-five, freeing the women when they marry. Then they’re fit for freedom. The Delaneys have been freeing their slaves for fifty years.”
Well, almost freeing them! They had their papers, even if they didn’t get real wages. They were like Jake, still wanting their food and clothes and cabins. It scared them if they had only cold money in their palms. They couldn’t imagine money turning into food and clothes and cabins.
His horse picked her way delicately about something in the road and he looked down and saw a yellow backed turtle slowly making its way across the dusty stretch. It went on, regardless of the peril it had so narrowly escaped. He laughed at its earnest persistence. It was the comforting and delightful thing about land and forest, and beast and bird—they went on, oblivious of wars.
“I’m going to be like that,” he thought. He lifted his head, gave his mare rein and she broke into a gallop. He brought her home an hour later in a froth, and leaped up the steps to have breakfast with Lucinda and the little boys. They were already at the table, when he had washed and dropped into his seat. He had not changed his riding things. After breakfast he wanted to go out again, this time on business. But he must see Tom first.
“Hello, you two,” he said to his boys. He reached out his hands and rumpled both blonde heads. “See how pretty your mama is?” They turned at the question and stared at her.
“Are you pretty, Mama?” Martin asked, surprised.
“How pretty, Papa?” Carey asked.
Lucinda bore the scrutiny of three pairs of male eyes with lovely calm. She smiled at Pierce as the one most important.