Monday, May 29, 2017

Lost Pages by Maryetta Ackenbom

In the Deep South of 1950s America, when anti-miscegenation laws were still firmly enforced, plantation owner Eleanor considers herself liberal - but learns that prejudice is more than just skin deep; by Marietta Ackenbom.

Eleanor sighed and reached into the dusty box again. Pulling out another handful of papers, she sorted through them quickly. Nothing - only old bills, receipts, a few newspaper clippings. All went into the trash.

She looked into the box. Oh, what was this, a book? No - a journal. Now this might be interesting. She flipped through a few pages and recognized her mother's elegant handwriting. No. I'll read it later - Mother's life can't have been too mysterious.

She pushed her hair back from her forehead with her dusty hands, coughed, and slowly got up from the floor.

Why do I have to do this? Isn't there anyone else?

No, there was no one. Only Roy, the aging family butler would have helped, but Eleanor needed to go through her mother's things by herself.

She headed down the hall toward the kitchen, her legs unsteady from the cramped position on the floor. She needed coffee.

"Coffee, Ellie?" Roy always knew.

"Oh, Roy, thanks." She smiled at him and accepted the cup - a little sugar and half milk, just as she liked it. Roy never failed.

"I'm getting near the end, Roy. I just have to finish one last box of papers. Sit, have some coffee with me. I need company."

Roy poured himself a cup and sat gingerly at the edge of the kitchen chair farthest away from Eleanor. Won't he ever just act human? It was 1950, the world has changed. But he was the son and grandson of black house servants. Eleanor guessed he had to be extremely careful never to cross the line between master and servant. The color of his skin could have allowed him to pass as - not Caucasian - perhaps Latin American.

After the death of Eleanor's mother three short months ago during the unusually harsh winter, Eleanor was left alone. Roy and the household maid, Sara, were the only servants remaining after the sale of most of the land around the small plantation house. But her father's investments before his death ten years ago had provided sufficient income to support Eleanor and her mother. The old house was a day's carriage ride, or an hour's drive in a car, from the outskirts of New Orleans.

"Are you taking the day off tomorrow?" she asked Roy. "You haven't been away from the house for weeks - since Mother died."

"No, I'm happy here. I have my books, and the chickens to look after, and my grown chick." Roy grinned at her, then lowered his head.

"Tomorrow's Sunday. Don't you want to go to mass?"

"Well, maybe - will you need anything? I'll fix your breakfast, leave about ten and be back couple of hours later."

The rest of that Saturday day saw the end of the boxes of papers. Eleanor showered the dust of ages from her body and changed into her nightgown. Taking the journal she had found in the box with her, she climbed into her old four-poster bed and tried to read, but sleep took her quickly.



The morning sun reached in her east window and woke her. She slipped on a light cotton robe and went looking for her breakfast.

Roy served her on the back veranda, already warmed by the April sun, and brightened even more by mounds of yellow forsythia crowding the banister. The fried eggs were perfect and the toast done to a light golden brown, butter seeping into its pores.

She had brought the journal with her, after wistfully considering the novel she had begun. Always eating alone now, she had taken to reading while she ate. Might as well see if Mother's hiding any secrets from me, then I'll be done with that huge task.

Eleanor opened the fading red leather cover of the journal. The flyleaf bore the inscription, "Mrs. Grace Beaumont, Mount Haven Plantation, Christmas, 1927." Two years before Eleanor's birth. The first entry began, "Thank you, dear Father, for a lovely and useful gift. You will never know what deep and tangled feelings I'll be recording here. I wish I could confide in you and ask for your advice, but my life has taken a turn you could not comprehend or approve."

Eleanor's eyes widened. She calculated - her grandfather had died when she was a tiny child. He lived close to the family his daughter had married into, and saw them frequently. What must her mother have done that Grandpapa would not approve of? Her saintly mother, the darling of the entire parish!

The next few pages described the first days of 1928, giving the usual details of the plantation life, still growing cotton and giving employment to about fifty people. Eleanor remembered her Grandmother Beaumont, the benevolent tyrant of the household until her death in the mid 1930s. After Grace's marriage to Louis Beaumont, her mother happily left the running of the household to her mother-in-law until the older lady's death. Then she just as happily took over the reins herself.

Eleanor saw nothing in the writings that her mother's father might not approve of. She skimmed the pages of the entire book. Her mother had written some poetic passages about the changing seasons and daily plantation life, nothing else.

Toward the end of the volume, the entries were less frequent, and the last few pages were written just after Eleanor's birth. Her mother's last entry read, "How lucky we are! Curly blond hair, a champagne complexion! A beautiful baby girl, Eleanor."

Eleanor closed the book. Holding it between her two hands, she wished for more. She must have written more. There's no explanation for that first entry. She opened the book again. The pages were coming free of the binding, probably because of age and humidity. Were there pages missing?

She pulled on her slacks, saddled her pinto mare, Molly, and cantered out the entrance to the plantation, through the overhanging oleanders, and onto the road. Her mind was still on the journal, and soon Molly slowed to a walk, then stopped to graze along the roadside.

"Molly, come on, let's go! I'm not paying attention to you and you're just taking advantage." Eleanor urged her into a trot, then after a few minutes turned her around and headed home.

She found Roy in the kitchen preparing the usual Sunday chicken dinner. Eleanor showered and changed, then joined him. She had begun to take all her meals at the small kitchen table. The dining room was far too large for one person. She had grown used to Roy, silent in the background, but always there if anything was needed, or if she wanted to chat. She brought the journal with her to the table.

"Roy, did you know that Mother kept a journal?"

Roy whirled toward her. "No, Ellie. She never told me. May I ask - when did she write it?"

"From 1928 until I was born, in 1930."

Roy was silent. He turned back to the stove.

Eleanor watched him for a moment. "I wish you would sit and eat with me, or at least sit and be comfortable while I eat. You are too well trained."

"That wouldn't be right, Ellie." He busied himself with a saucepan on the stove, his back to her.

"Well, I don't know what's not right about it. We are the only ones here, and you are family."

"No, not family. I could never be. Not here in this parish. What if someone came in?"

"Who would come in? And they'd certainly give us some warning. The old floors creak, you know."

"Ellie, I'm curious, just can't hold it in. Did your mother write anything about me?"

She thought for a moment. "No, and that's odd. She wrote about the doings of the house and plantation, and other workers, but she didn't mention you. Were you working in the house then?"

"Not all the time."

"Would you like to see the book?"

"Very much so. I loved your mother, you know."

She left the book with him.



Still pondering the vague mystery of her mother's journal the next morning, Eleanor rode Molly to the small schoolhouse where neighborhood children gathered for their first few years of school. Eleanor organized the school and had the concrete block house built a few years ago. She and her friend Julie instructed the thirty children, all of whom were colored, colors ranging from deepest ebony to cream. White children were bussed to the school in town.

Julie had opened the building and welcomed the early arrivals. Eleanor turned Molly out into the small paddock behind the school. Two or three other horses, ridden in by the children, would join Molly. Julie's bicycle and a few others leaned against the outside wall.

"Mornin'. How you doin'?" Julie grinned. "Heard from Richard?"

"Hi Julie. No, he had to go to Mexico for the bank. Some romance I've got."

"He's makin' money, honey."

"I suppose."

Julie took the smallest children to one part of the room, and Eleanor tried to instill reading and arithmetic in those children who would ordinarily be in the fifth and sixth grades. Her college degree in elementary education suited her well for this volunteer job, which had been her intention for as long as she could remember. She wondered how she could combine school teaching in the country with marriage to a New Orleans banker.

Eleanor had met Richard at college and they planned to marry, but her mother's illness interrupted their plans. The delay gave Eleanor time to reconsider, and although she cared for Richard enough to make a life with him, she loved her house and her job and hated the thought of moving to the city. She was not anxious to open the subject with Richard, now that she had no reason for delaying the wedding.

In the evening, she joined Roy in the kitchen again. "What did you think of the journal, Roy?" she asked him.

"A nice job. She wrote well. Seemed to leave a lot out, though."

Eleanor picked up the book and handed it back to him. "Look at the binding. Do you think some pages might have been removed?"

"Oh, I don't think so, Ellie. Why would she do that?"

"Well, considering the first entry, that she could not confide her thoughts to her father, I thought it might be possible."

"Don't let it worry you. That didn't happen."

Puzzled, Eleanor looked at him. His face was somber, his eyes shadowed. "Why would you...?" No, better not to question him. He could be stubborn.



Eleanor welcomed Richard home the following week with a picnic dinner on the veranda. Sunday meant chicken again, southern fried, one of Roy's specialties. Richard had driven his prewar Ford convertible out to the hacienda, taking much less time than a carriage ride would.

After they consumed most of the chicken, a savory potato salad, and pecan pie, they sat in the sun on the swinging garden bench and chatted.

Eleanor unconsciously tried to steer the conversation away from commitments. "Too bad we don't have another horse. We could go for a ride."

"No, we couldn't, Ellie. I don't like horses and I never rode well. I don't like the idea of your riding around the countryside by yourself. When we get married you won't need a horse."

"I can't give up Molly, she's a love. I ride her to school."

"And you won't need to go to that shabby little schoolhouse anymore, either."

"You're talking about changing my life, Richard. I can't give up the school, and I won't give up Molly."

"Don't you want to marry me? You said you loved me."

She grasped his hand and kissed his cheek. "Of course I love you. We could live here..."

"And I'd drive back and forth every day? That won't work, Ellie. You have to move to the city, get rid of the house. My family's house is big enough for us and the ten children we'll have." He put his arm around her shoulder and hugged. "You know, it's time you retired Roy, too. It isn't seemly that you should live here alone with him."

"Oh! I hadn't thought of that. No, Roy has no place to go - I could retire him but he wouldn't consider himself retired. And I love him like a brother."

"You shouldn't say things like that, Ellie. People will believe you, and they'll wonder. My parents have already asked me about Roy."

Eleanor didn't answer. What would they ask, why would they wonder? He's family, don't they understand? Doesn't Richard understand that?

Richard moved away from Eleanor - she watched his brown eyes narrow, his brow crease.

"Ellie, I must go. Next week we must make some definite plans. We need to set a date and reserve the cathedral."

"St. Louis Cathedral? Oh, Richard, that's extravagant! How can I prepare for a wedding there?"

"My sisters will help you." He stood and took her hand, leading her along the pathway to his car, parked on the front drive.

She hung back a little, doubts fogging her mind. But before he climbed into the sleek old Ford, they kissed, and Eleanor's thoughts cleared.



Molly poked along the road to the schoolhouse the next morning, with Eleanor deep in thought on her back. Sleep had escaped her the previous night. She needed to talk with Julie, her best friend. A few years older, Julie could always offer advice or a shoulder to cry on.

She arrived at the school just as Julie rode up on her bicycle. "Come home with me this afternoon, Julie. I need to talk."

"Let me go home first and tell Mom so she won't worry."

"Good. Then we'll have supper together."



After the two friends settled down with iced tea on the back veranda, still warm in the late sunshine, Eleanor told Julie what Richard had said.

Julie put her hand on Eleanor's arm. "Sounds to me like you two are about to follow different paths in life. I don't like what he plans for you."

Eleanor wiped a tear from her eye. "I do care for him, but I don't think I can let him change my life so much. I love my home, I love the school, and I adore Roy. And Molly. I can't face giving them up."

"My mom always told me marriage is a sacrifice. I don't think she meant that great a sacrifice. Don't tell Richard you prefer Roy to him, or any of those other things. But do tell him you're having second thoughts."

"Thank you. I worried that I was asking too much. Yes, I agree, it is too much for Richard, and for me."

"I'm gonna consult with my mom, if you don't mind."



Julie met Eleanor before class started the next day. "Mom agreed with us about Richard. She also told me something strange - you should look at old Doc Hansen's records on your father. All of them."

"How would I do that? Doc Hansen died years ago."

"His son is a doctor."



Eleanor located Dr. James Hansen and made an appointment. Three days later, she sat before him in his office, in a remodeled residence in a populous suburb of New Orleans.

She hesitated a moment before speaking, taking in the youthful face behind the wire-rimmed spectacles. "Doctor, a good friend of mine, and friend of my father's, advised me to look into my father's medical record. He was a patient of your father all his adult life. Do you have access to your father's records?"

"Why would your friend have told you that?"

Eleanor shook her head. "I'm not sure. I planned on getting married and asked her for advice. I've about decided that Richard is not the man for me, and my friend agrees." Her hands gripped her purse, twisting the handles. "I don't know if that has something to do with my father's medical history or not. Could it be I've inherited a weakness that I wouldn't want to pass on to my children?"

"That's a good reason to take a look at the records." He leaned forward, studying her face. "I have some of my father's records, stored away in boxes in the attic. I'll have to see if Mister Beaumont's are available, and I'll need to review them before letting you have access to them. I think you understand."

"Certainly. Of course, I'll pay you for your time, as for a consultation."

"We'll see."



When Richard came to see her the following Sunday, Eleanor arranged for the meal to be served in the large dining room.

"Aren't we being a little formal today?" he asked.

"Not so much. My mother and I ate here alone for several years. Now, when I'm by myself, I make do in the kitchen."

Richard lowered his voice. "With the servants? Isn't that uncomfortable?"

"Not at all. It's only Roy, and as I told you, he's family."

"Eleanor, we need to talk about that."

"Yes, we do. I've thought a lot about our conversation last week. Richard, I..."

"Have you decided to retire him?"

"I've decided not to retire him. I can't do it, Richard. And I'm finding it difficult to cope with the idea of moving to New Orleans and leaving my home here. I need some time."

"Don't take too much time, Eleanor. I don't want to wait any longer. You don't have your mother to worry about now, and enough time has passed for you to recover from your grief. I want to get married right away."

"Just let me..."

"I hoped for a June wedding, but there isn't enough time to make preparations. We need to set a date as soon as possible."

"I'm not sure I can do this, Richard."

"What? What do you mean?"

"I don't think I can cut all my ties here. The community depends on me, and I love being here."

"You need to make a choice. Your community, your house, your servants, or me."

She frowned and put down her fork. "I don't take well to ultimatums, Richard. Perhaps we should call off the engagement, at least for a while."

He pulled his chair back, away from the table. "I'm sorry you feel that way. Call me when - if - you decide you could stand to marry me."

"I'm sorry, too, Richard. I certainly didn't mean to lead you on. We haven't had much chance to talk things over, and I didn't realize how my life would change."

Richard rose and left.

Eleanor stood at the door, watching the red convertible pull away. How odd. We never mentioned love.



Dr. James Hansen called Eleanor a few days later. He had found Louis Beaumont's medical records. Eleanor made an appointment to go over them with him.

He welcomed her to his office, smiling briefly and then turning serious. "I'm happy to have located the files without too much digging. You'll find some information here which might be upsetting, but it's something you should know."

"Thank you, Doctor. I don't know what I expect, but I think I'm prepared for anything - Father can't be harmed now.

The doctor pulled an old file folder from a drawer in his desk. "My father was somewhat older than yours, but he began to see Louis Beaumont when he first started in practice. Your father was about fifteen at the time. Here's the first record - an infected cut on his hand."

Eleanor's eyebrows rose. "He still had a scar when he died."

"Dad cleaned the cut and gave him a salve. Told him to come back in a week. Here's the next record."

Eleanor took the paper, concerned that the doctor wanted her to read it rather than his reading it to her.

She ran her finger down the page. "It says - Louis suspected he had an abnormality of some kind and asked Dr. Hansen to advise him privately. The doctor asked him to come in with his mother or father."

"That would be normal procedure with a minor. But he wanted to describe the problem first, before he brought his parents in. That's where this record ends. I think we can assume that the boy told my dad about the abnormality. Next, Louis comes back with his father." He handed her the record.

"Penile dysfunction." Eleanor read aloud. "I understand that, but wouldn't that be rare for a fifteen-year-old? Does that mean he was sleeping with someone?" She could not prevent a flush rising to her face.

"Not necessarily. Probably, as a normal teen-age boy, he would have experimented and talked to other boys. It's more likely that he could not complete a sexual act. Dad wrote here that it appeared to be a congenital condition and irreversible."

She caught her breath. "Oh, my poor father! How he must have suffered."

Dr. Hansen placed his hands on the desk and pushed his chair back, his solemn face watching Eleanor. "What does this mean to you, Miss Beaumont?"

"It means - am I right? It means he was not my father."

"That's a logical conclusion. It may not be a true one. But it is information that a person should have, in my opinion. Nothing more is entered on that subject. Only a broken arm later, an attack of poison ivy, minor things."

"Doctor... I... I don't know how to take this. I need some time to think it through."

"Come and see me any time, Miss Beaumont."



"Julie, I need to talk to your mother." Eleanor swung down from the saddle and began to undo the cinch. "The doctor left me with a dilemma, a conundrum, a puzzle."

"Now which is it? Sure, come home with me tonight. I think we're havin' a pot roast for supper. Can you give me a hint?"

"I'd rather explain it just once. I don't know if I could go through it more than one time."

"Well, I hope my mom can help you. Looks like you've not been sleeping well."

After the school day, Eleanor followed Julie to her home and they sat on the front porch with tall glasses of lemonade. The afternoon sun shone from the side, almost too warm. The summer was going to be a scorcher. Julie's mother joined them.

Eleanor began. "Mrs. Grey, thank you for pointing me in the right direction to find out about my father."

Mrs. Grey reached out and patted Eleanor's arm. "I always wanted to let you know about this problem, Ellie, but I didn't know how to start. I'm glad you confided in Julie and me about your problems with Richard."

"May I ask, how did you find out?"

"Ellie, your mother and I were great friends. I was also a friend of your grandmother Beaumont. We talked. Your grandmother confided in me once how horrified she was when she found out her son, your father, could not have children. She said she took to her bed for a week in mourning. She had trouble with his birth, and afterwards she couldn't get pregnant again, so the Beaumont family's bloodline ended with Louis."

Eleanor gave a little sob before she spoke. "You know the next question. Who... who was my father?"

"I don't know. I have no idea." Mrs. Grey gathered the young woman in her arms and held her while she cried.



Eleanor mourned the loss of her father's virility just as his own mother had, many years ago. She could never stop thinking of him as her father. No matter the circumstances, Louis had always been caring and gentle with her, and had shown his great, paternal love. He helped to guide her way through life until the day he died. She was, indeed, his creation.

But she found it difficult to cope with the knowledge that he could not have been her natural father. Everyone had a father, didn't they? Why didn't she? Why had her parents kept this overwhelming fact from her? Was it simply because they were embarrassed, or were there other circumstances she should know about?

Eleanor had lost her bearings. She'd turned away the man she was to marry and now she didn't know who she really was. For days she was depressed, unable to sleep and eating little. She did not want to leave the house, except to go to the schoolhouse, where she knew who she was and what she should be doing.

A week had passed since her last visit to the doctor when Roy finally spoke to her. "Ellie, are you sick? You're not eating, not sleeping. What's wrong? Can I do anything for you?

She looked at him over the rim of her coffee cup - half coffee, half milk, a little sugar. "I wish you could, Roy. You know I broke up with Richard."

"I'm sure not unhappy about that. He just didn't seem right for you. He didn't care about the things you care about."

"I wish I'd seen that before we became engaged."

"Well, I don't think you really loved him. And I'm glad you're not considering leaving the house and your school."

"You're right, I wasn't in love - I just thought the time and circumstances were right for me to get married. He didn't just want me to leave the house and school - but you - and Molly."

"Oh my. I'm glad I didn't know that."

"Roy, you have a place here as long as you and I live. Don't be concerned about that." Eleanor studied his face, wondering. "You grew up with Father, didn't you? How did you come to be here?"

"A short, sad story. Your grandparents took in my mama when her master kicked her out. He'd made her pregnant. He wasn't from around here. Your granddad called him a carpetbagger. He'd grabbed some land and treated the servants badly. He died a few years later, and my mama died when I was born. Mister Beaumont, he raised me and sent me to school, right along with Mister Louis. He and your grandmother were my true parents, and Mister Louis was like a brother to me."

She frowned. "But you have an education. You could have gotten a job in town, made good money. Why did you stay on here as a butler?"

"You don't know how difficult it is for a colored man to get a decent job, Ellie. I looked around for a while, when I graduated from high school. I found no job better than this one. Also, I loved your family, all of them, and they always treated me like one of them. Now, you are the only family I have, and I think you're not well."

"I'm just getting used to the idea... Roy, did my father ever tell you he had medical problems?" Now why did I mention that to Roy? Father kept it a secret, and I should, too.

Roy's eyes widened and a blush suffused his pale face. "What do you know about that, Ellie?"

"Damn! Am I the only one who didn't know? Roy, tell me!"

"Tell you what?"

"I'm going crazy." She was shouting. "Roy, who was my father?"

Roy collapsed into the other kitchen chair. "No one knows, Ellie. You don't want to know."



That Saturday, a black Buick pulled up to the front of the house. Eleanor watched Dr. Hansen get out. He stood for a moment, looking around, then closed the car door and approached the veranda.

"Hello, Miss Beaumont. This is a house call, or a social call, or both."

She grinned at him. "Welcome, whatever you want to call it. I hoped for some company this Saturday afternoon. Come in. I'll get you some iced tea. Let's sit out here on the veranda."

"Thanks." He walked around, looking at the flowering azaleas and peonies around the base of the house and driveway while Eleanor brought the refreshments.

"This is a grand old place," he said. "Your family has kept it up so nicely."

"We've always loved it. Doctor, I'd be delighted to call this a social call."

"Please call me James. Mainly, I wanted to see how you were getting along after that shock I gave you a couple of weeks ago. And I wanted to know you better."

"I'm still not reconciled to it, James, especially since we found no way to discover who my natural father was."

"Do you have any other relatives?"

"Not that I know of. The mother of my friend Julie was close to the women in the family. She's the one who suggested I find the medical records. She said my grandmother's greatest sorrow was finding that my father would be the last Beaumont. Except for me, of course. But then, I'm not a Beaumont by blood, am I?"

Roy came to the door. "Would y'all like some fresh-baked oatmeal cookies?" He passed them the plate.

"Yes, Roy, we would, thank you." Eleanor turned to James. "Roy here is the closest family I have, now. He's been with the Beaumonts since he was born. Roy, this is Dr. Hansen."

Roy inclined his head. "Glad to meet you, Doctor."

"Same here, Roy." James smiled at the older man. "Miss Beaumont, have you asked Roy what he knows?"'

"He says he knows nothing. Actually, he said I didn't want to know. I've been musing over that for several days, now, Roy."

Roy was silent.

James stood and began to walk around the veranda. "You know, Eleanor, it would be good to know who your natural parents are, for medical reasons. If there's anyone... maybe Roy knows of someone who could enlighten us."'

Eleanor smiled. "It would also be helpful to my peace of mind."

Roy turned and went back into the house.

James said in a low voice, "He knows something, and he wants to tell you. Give him time."

He sat again, on the wicker chair next to Eleanor. "Do you ride, Miss Beaumont? I see you have a great place to keep horses."

"Oh, please, James, call me Eleanor. Yes, I have a beloved sweet mare named Molly. She takes me to school and brings me home every day, and on the weekends we often go roaming. Do you like to ride?"

"I do, and I'm looking for a place to board my horse. The stable where he lives now is not adequate, and he has no freedom. Do you think Molly would like a companion?"

"She'd love it, and I'd love some company roaming around on the weekends."

"It's a deal. Do you have an extra stall? I could bring Bill out next weekend."

"Yes, that would be fine. Let's walk down and I'll show you the stable."



Roy was unusually silent during the next few days. In his presence, Eleanor tried not to show her concern, but she knew that Roy sensed her anxiety. She carried on like she always did, with her simple, undemanding way of life. She got a lot of reading done in the quiet kitchen.

One Saturday morning, as Eleanor lingered over her toast and eggs, Roy said, "Ellie, I want to tell you a story. It may be true, or it may not be. The ending is the truth."

She smiled at him. "Then sit here with me and tell me your story."

He flashed a quick smile and again sat as far away from her as possible at the small table. "This story begins where I begin, born here on the plantation. Of course I don't remember my birth, and my poor mother didn't survive it. You know that. But I've been told that people - my people, the colored people - worried when they saw how light I was. That is always a problem, unless the light-skinned person is able to find a supporting place and hang on for dear life.

"My colored mammy nursed me along with her own babe, and in the few years I was with her she protected me. She continued to treat me as a son until she died, some twenty years later.

"When I was about six years old, they took me into the house - this house - to become a companion to your father. I always felt like a servant, but I knew I was a loved and protected servant. Observing the life of other colored people, even in such a well-run and liberal plantation as this one, I knew I was fortunate, and I was content.

"I went to school with Mister Louis - the first two or three years with a tutor here on the plantation - and his dad encouraged me to continue, even though we had to go to separate schools. I was given a mule and rode five miles away, to a schoolhouse similar to the one you built here. High school was difficult, but your grandfather found a family in the outskirts of New Orleans where I could stay during the week. He paid my room and board, and I rode that mule many miles to return home on the weekends.

"Before Mister Louis went away to college, I met Miss Grace. She was the prettiest girl around, and only sixteen when she, among other young women, began to spend time at the plantation. Louis's parents and Miss Grace's, too, wanted a match between the two. I fell in love with Miss Grace the moment I saw her. Always in the background, I watched her constantly. She noticed. Gave me a little smile whenever our eyes met. My God, was she interested in me? Could not be.

"She found opportunities to talk with me. It was hard for me to respond - I wasn't used to being treated as an equal, in spite of my caring family. She noticed that, too, that all the Beaumonts treated me gently, almost - almost! - like family. Before long, she would walk around the grounds with me, asking me about the different plants. She loved to go to the stables. At that time we had about six horses, some for riding, others for the carriage and for working the farm. She asked me to introduce her to them. When I did, in the stable by ourselves with only the horses looking on, she put her hand on my arm and looked into my eyes. I was struck dumb."

Roy gasped, rubbed his eyes. "This is the hardest part of the story, and I'm not ready to tell it to you yet. Ellie, give me a couple of days to pull my fantasy story together." He rose and left the kitchen.

What was she to think? Obviously, Roy and her mother cared for each other. What happened then? Her mind whirling, she knew Roy was right to put off the rest of the story until she'd absorbed the first part.



James brought his gelding the next day, and the two went riding through the numerous trails and paths in the plantation lands. Woods were plentiful, and summer was in full sway. Hedges and trees were crowded with leaves, with branches often overhanging the trails. Birds dipped and trilled through the greenery.

James laughed as they ducked under the wild branches. "I'll have to bring my machete next time."

Eleanor glanced at him. "Since I'm the only one who uses these trails now, the wilds have taken over."

She was wary. She didn't want to confide in anyone what Roy had told her until she knew the end of his story. Maybe not even then. But she felt she might need advice with accepting what Roy would reveal. James, a doctor, might be the most helpful. Her mind drifted. Was Roy going to tell her about how she was conceived? Or was she adopted? She had to wait until Roy was ready to tell her.

Back at the house, Roy served them coffee on the shady veranda and returned inside.

James peered at Eleanor's face. "You seem preoccupied. Is something wrong?"

"I may be able to tell you when Roy finishes his story." She smiled at him. "You were correct in thinking it was only a matter of time. But he hasn't got to the critical part yet and I'm not sure I can handle it. I might need your professional help."

"I'll be here whenever you need me, my dear."



After serving Eleanor a light supper the next day, Roy again sat at the far end of the kitchen table. "I'm not sure how to continue the story."

"Just go ahead with it. You need to tell it and I need to hear it."

"Yes. Miss Grace and I found opportunities to be alone, until Mister Louis went to college. She had no excuse to keep visiting but I couldn't give up her companionship. So I would go to her house frequently, and we'd meet in the woods or in the barn, and just chat. I was afraid to touch her, but she often took my arm, and seemed happy to be close to me. We were in love, but also afraid. We made every effort to cover up our meetings.

"We talked of many things - books, music, the life on the plantations, but we never admitted to each other that we cared more than casually. This went on for the four years Mister Louis was away.

"When he came back, he told Miss Grace that he loved her but couldn't marry her - and he told her why. But he had observed our glances at each other, and knew that we were more than friends. The generous soul that he was, your father suggested that, if Miss Grace was willing, he would go through the motions of marrying her so she could live near me.

"Neither of us ever thought of such a plan. When Miss Grace told me what Louis proposed, I was shocked. I wouldn't see her. Such a thing could not happen. But when Louis saw how the idea affected me, he talked to me. He told me he needed a wife, and he could live with the arrangement. And so it came to be."

Eleanor was distraught, horrified. She began to cry. She shouted at him, "Roy, leave me in peace. Don't come near me. I can't accept this. Just... go!"



It did not matter that Roy was not there to prepare Eleanor's meals. She could not eat. She did not go to the school the next day.

Julie came to the house in the afternoon. When, after fifteen minutes of knocking and calling, she saw Eleanor come to the door, she gasped. Eleanor had not changed her clothes since the day before. Her hair was disheveled, her face puffy.

"Ellie, what's wrong? Are you sick? Can I help you?"

Eleanor tried to speak, cleared her throat and began again in a strangled voice, "Julie, I can't see you now. Please leave me alone." She turned and walked back toward her bedroom.

"Ellie! Ellie, talk to me!" When she heard no response, Julie said, "I'm coming back tomorrow."

Julie brought her mother the next day. Eleanor shuffled to the door, dressed only in a wrinkled nightgown.

Mrs. Grey said, "Ellie, I know most of what happened, and I can guess the rest. You have nothing to hide. Let's talk. Have you eaten?"

Eleanor didn't respond, but unfastened the door latch and turned her back, hiding her face.

Mrs. Grey took charge. "Come on into the kitchen, you two. Let me see what there is to eat."

In minutes, she placed a plate of scrambled eggs and a glass of milk in front of Eleanor.

She sat close to Eleanor and put her hand on her shoulder. "Where's Roy. Has he left?"

"I don't know. I don't care."

Julie started for the telephone. "I'm going to call Dr. Hansen."

"No!"

"Yes! Ellie, you need some help." Mrs. Grey waved Julie toward the telephone in the hallway. "Where's the maid?"

"I sent Sara away."

Eleanor tentatively lifted a forkful of eggs, looked at it, and put it down. Mrs. Grey put the glass of milk in her hand, and she sipped it.

Eleanor mumbled, "I don't want James to know."

Julie came back. "James would be Dr. Hansen. I think he already knows, if there's anything to know. He'll come right away."

Julie began to relate the happenings at the school during the past two days, keeping the conversation light, and making fun of her own attempts to control the fifteen students who attended during the summer. No one laughed, but together the two women made Eleanor smile. Bit by bit, she ate the eggs and drank the milk.

When James arrived, he sat beside Eleanor and took her hands in his. "You have had a tremendous shock, my dear, but you will recover. I'm going to give you a sedative. You need to rest for the next couple of days."

"The school..." Eleanor's eyes turned toward Julie.

Julie smiled. "You'll be back soon. Now, relax and do what the doctor says."

Mrs. Grey leaned toward Eleanor. "Julie will go to the school tomorrow, but I'll stay here with you tonight and tomorrow. Someone has to see that you obey the doctor's orders."

"Perfect," said James. "Can you eat some more, Eleanor?"

"No. Maybe later."

"Then let's get you to bed and let me examine you and give you an injection."

Eleanor slept through the night and was hungry for more eggs in the morning, but after eating, she returned to bed. Mrs. Grey gave her the medicine the doctor had left. James returned in the evening, after Julie had relieved her mother.

"Eleanor's going to sleep through the night again, Julie," the doctor said. "So you can sleep, too - no need to stay awake. Is your mother coming back in the morning?"

"Yes. She'll bring some prepared food."

"After that, Eleanor should be all right."

Eleanor looked up, her face calm. "Thank you, Julie. I'll be all right."



For the next few days, James came every evening, and so did Julie and Mrs. Grey. By the following Sunday, Eleanor wanted to ride. She found that James had been looking after Molly and Bill. Both were fresh and eager for exercise.

Eleanor and James rode into the woods, to a little clearing beside a stream. They dismounted and released the horses so they could graze in the patch of weedy grass. Sitting side by side near the stream, they looked at each other, and both began to talk at once.

"Ellie..."

"James..." Eleanor continued. "You have been so good to me. I owe you for I don't know how many house calls."

He grinned. "Take it out of the stable fees. No, Eleanor, it was something I wanted to do. I'm glad your friends could help out - I didn't want to hospitalize you."

"I don't know what to do. I am ashamed, humiliated, belittled..."

"Well, why? Tell me why. Or shall I tell you?"

Her head fell. "I'm not sure I'm ready to hear."

James put his hand on her shoulder. "Then, let's make some plans. You can't stay here by yourself. Can your maid stay with you, or do you know someone else who can stay with you?"

"No, I can't have the maid back. I can't think of anyone..."

"I have a couple of contacts. They'd have to be paid, but it wouldn't be much."

"James..." She covered her face with her hands.

"I'm here, Eleanor."

"James, I can't have a colored person in the house. I'd go crazy."

"I think I understand. I'll see if I can find someone - maybe a retired nurse, or a nurse who works a day shift and could be here for you in the evening and at night. Would that be all right?"

"I guess so. I feel so... dirty."

"Eleanor, we'll have to work on that, but let's give it another week. Then we'll talk, and you'll see that you're clean and respectable again."



James arranged for Mrs. Pearson, a practical nurse, to stay with Eleanor. The nurse, a widow with a small income, was used to taking care of a household. Eleanor was stiff with her at first, but the lady was so friendly and competent that Eleanor soon felt at ease.

But she still felt a profound sense of shame and humiliation. She returned to her classes, but led her students like an automaton, and they quickly sensed her lack of involvement. They became lax in their studies.

Eleanor bathed twice a day, scrubbing herself thoroughly, and she paid special attention to the cleanliness of her clothing. She knew this could turn into an obsession, but she could not control herself.

Slowly she came out of the state of shock, but then her mind returned again and again to the truth: She was colored! A Negress!

And she could do nothing about it. All her upbringing in the household, the toleration taught her by her parents, she set aside as unreal, part of a fantasy world. The real world was full of bigotry and hate, and now she was a target. Her self-image diminished, and kept shrinking.



James came to see her every few days, staying only for a few minutes, but brightening her bleak outlook with his caring. He'd said he would give her a week, and then they'd talk. About what? What could be said? What could he tell her that she didn't already know? She was born with the blood of Africans, of slaves. How could she live with that knowledge?

The following Sunday, James arrived in the morning and said, "I want to spend the day with you, if you don't mind."

Eleanor smiled, but didn't meet his eyes. "Of course I don't mind. You make me feel worthy, for a short while, anyway. Let's have some coffee in the kitchen."

After settling at the table with coffee and some of Mrs. Pearson's fresh sugar cookies, James began. "What do you know about Negroes?"

"Must we do this, James?"

"I think so. I want to make sure you have facts, not fantasy, about your ancestry."

"Oh! My ancestry!"

"Actually, a very small portion of your ancestry. Your father is less than half colored - I think perhaps one-eighth. You, therefore, have a tiny amount of Negro in your inheritance."

"But one drop means..."

"That is a false theory, fabricated by people who needed to feel better than others, and who required uneducated laborers. Those who espoused that idea are the ones most likely to have more than one drop of Negro blood."

"How do you know this?"

"In medical school, I studied population statistics, and as a sideline, I read a lot of history. World history, too. Do you know that the Negroes in the U.S. are descended from emperors? There were a number of Negro empires in Africa. Some still exist, but Arab and European colonists weakened them."

"How was it so easy to bring slaves from Africa?"

"It wasn't easy, especially for the poor Africans who were betrayed and sold by their own people to the slave importers. Many thousands died of starvation, illness, and mistreatment, before and during the voyage to America."

"I never thought how awful it must have been."

"Worse than you can imagine. And yet, many slaves and sons of slaves struggled to better themselves, to become free and educated. Many became doctors, lawyers, educators, writers."

"I didn't think they were capable of higher education."

"Look at Roy, for example. A house servant, he graduated from high school. He could have gone to the north and found a job with a decent wage, but stayed here because he loved your people. And they loved him."

"But still..."

"Still, even though he had a better education than most so-called white boys, he was considered a servant. Except by two people."

"How do you know that?"

"I've listened to your neighbors and friends, the Greys, and I have deduced a lot. No, they don't know for sure what happened in your family, but it became obvious to me when I put the story together. Oh, and I met Roy."

"I can't imagine how my mother could have done what she did."

"Neither could she, at first. You need to hear more of Roy's story."

"I don't want to hear more."

"Then I won't say any more, for now. But think about what I've said. Next week we'll talk about it. For now, let's go for a ride."



During the following week, Eleanor became even more despondent. James had made it clear to her whose daughter she was, and she began to rage against her mother, Louis, and Roy. How could they have done this to her? She took to her bed again, wondering how she could ever raise her head in public. Shame overwhelmed her.



One day, she rose, dressed, and saddled Molly. She rode for hours, oblivious of the world around her and completely uncaring. Miles away, Molly entered a dense thicket, where Eleanor slowly slid off her back into a faint.

Hours later, Roy found her. He sat beside her and tenderly brushed the hair from her face. She woke, and smiled, then turned away from him, sobbing.

"I want to die. Why did you find me?"

"I found you because I love you and don't want you to die. Do you feel like riding?"

"I feel like dying."

"Why do you feel that way, when everything that was done was for love?"

"Roy, how can that be? I was created by two people who should not have loved each other, and permitted to live and thrive by a third who had only his interests at heart. I don't want to continue to thrive, for you three."

They heard sounds of a horse moving through the brush, and soon, James found them. He had heard Eleanor's last statement, and as he dismounted, he said, "Eleanor, for now, live and thrive for me. I'm not going to let you go."

Slowly, the two men who loved her lifted her from the ground and helped her onto Molly. James insisted that Roy ride Bill, and he mounted Molly behind Eleanor.

James whispered many things in Eleanor's ear on the way back to the house. Much of it was repetition, an insistence on how much he cared for her, and some of it included plans for their future together. Eleanor heard but did not respond.

Julie was waiting, hands on hips, when they returned to the house. "Ellie, you fool, what are you trying to do? Think, girl! Think of the things you love - the house, your school, me, Roy, James. Are you trying to abandon all that? You think all that is meaningless? And listen - we've gone to a lot of trouble to try to bring you back to your senses. It's time to scold, not to coddle!"

Eleanor slipped off Molly and fell into Julie's arms, sobbing and laughing at the same time. "I deserve your scolding. You've done so much - all of you."

James took Eleanor's hand. "I must go. Shall I Ieave Roy with you? He's been staying at my house."

"Yes, yes, this is Roy's home. I have been horrid. But I am still confused and dismayed. Please give me time to recover."

She walked with James to his car. "Thank you for those lovely things you said to me. I want to respond. Give me some time."

"I'll be back to see you in a couple of days. Please don't take any more of those pills and then go riding."

"Thank you, James."



Roy sat on his usual chair, far away from Eleanor's, the next morning. He had prepared her coffee - half milk, a little sugar - and her eggs and toast, just right.

She smiled. "We'll get Sara back, Roy, with my apologies and a raise. You don't need to run this whole house by yourself."

"Good, I'll tell her." He looked down, then up again into Eleanor's eyes. "There's a little more to the story, Ellie. Can you listen?"

"Yes."

Roy lowered his head again and began. "I knew about the journal. Miss Grace was so happy with it - she wanted to describe everything about the love we shared, the three of us. I asked her to be careful - who was going to read it? 'You and I,' she said. 'And perhaps Louis.'

"Miss Grace and Louis had just gotten married, and the three of us were alone in the house - the servants, except for me, had been dismissed for the first few days of that sham marriage. The true marriage was yet to begin. Until then, we had only hugged and held hands - I had not even dared to kiss her. But we knew. From then on Miss Grace and I were married, and Louis was our beloved friend and brother."

Eleanor raised her eyebrows. "Then she did write about your relationship?"

"Oh yes. I suggested she keep the pages separate, so they could be removed if we thought it wise. That, she did. But she wrote so beautifully, describing our love. It was like poetry. We did show it to Louis, and he even had the idea of publishing parts of it - anonymously."

Eleanor was crying. "I want to read it."

"Ellie, I destroyed those pages. After you were born, we decided we couldn't keep a written record, it was too dangerous. Miss Grace's last entry in the journal was your birth. Very simply, she wrote how happy and how lucky we were that your skin was almost as light as hers. Then I removed the risky pages and your mother packed the journal away."

Sobbing, Eleanor murmured, "Do you remember some of the passages?"

"I didn't destroy the pages right away. I read them over and over, and I memorized many of them." Roy shifted in his chair. "I was frightened when you found the journal, afraid there might be some reference to our bond. But you found nothing, and I had time to think, and realized that you should know more of the story. When you're ready, I can recite some of the passages for you."

"Roy, you are a blessing to me. I do want to hear it, all you can remember, maybe a little bit at a time. What you've just told me is going to take me some time to get used to, but I think perhaps now I can mend my ugly thoughts and accept the truth."

Eleanor rose and knelt before him, and for the first time, she hugged her father. He held her close and reached for a napkin to dry her tears.



Renewed, Eleanor returned to her students. Her school again gave her pleasure, and again the children were anxious to learn from her. She still had flashes of panic from time to time, but a session with Roy, reciting what he remembered from the lost pages of the journal, was like a balm to her occasional confused thoughts.

Roy told her he had gone to see James when Eleanor had rejected him. "I had to tell him quite a bit, Ellie, but he had already figured out the truth."

"Do you think we can tell him about the journal?"

Roy shook his head, not in denial but in uncertainty. "Should we tell anyone?"

"Oh Roy, it would be a shame to lose those beautiful passages forever. I think maybe my father - my other father - had his reasons when he thought about publishing them. Anonymously, of course. The world is not yet ready to accept the consequences of such a relationship. Let's think about it."



James visited frequently. "Purely social, from now on," he said. He and Eleanor grew closer, as time healed her wounds. He continued to talk to her about a future together, here on her beloved plantation.

3 comments:

  1. I enjoyed this exploration of tangled lives, received prejudices and sustaining, unusual love. Many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  2. I enjoyed the leisurely pace of the narrative, the compelling detail of the coffee cup, the sugars, the milk. I liked the careful and gentle reinforcement of the characters; the slightly Gilbert Osmandish 'Richard', the good-hearted Doctor 'James', the reliable Julie, the rather limp Eleanor, and good old Roy!
    B r o o k e

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  3. Wonderfully crafted story. Loved your pace and style of writing. Liked the ending in that the Roy issue was not completely resolved for Eleanor. Probably never will.

    ReplyDelete