Always & Forever: A Saga of Slavery and Deliverance (The Plantation Series Book 1) (6 page)

BOOK: Always & Forever: A Saga of Slavery and Deliverance (The Plantation Series Book 1)
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Josie found her grandmother in the cookhouse. Grand-mère’s
sleeves were rolled up and she wore an apron over her black dress. Grand-mère
knew how to roll a pie crust as well as Louella, and the next day, they would
need more food than any one cook could provide. The sweat beaded on her
forehead and upper lip, but not one curl escaped the cotton cap on Grand-mère’s
head.

Louella’s two scullery maids were bustling around the cooks,
and Josie sought a corner at the table where she’d be out of the way.

“Mémère, the beds are ready.”

Grand-mère handed Josie a basket of pecans. “These need
shelling and picking.”

Louella tied an apron around Josie’s waist and passed her a
nut cracker. Grand-mère filled a pie with sausage and potatoes, then rolled out
the next crust.

“Tomorrow, Josephine, you will be hostess to a great many
people. The family, of course, including the Chamards from Cane River. But some
of the newcomers,
l’américains
, will come to pay their respects.”

“My English is not so very good, Mémère.”

“You should know by now, Josephine, that people find a woman
charming if she listens, not if she talks.” Grand-mère gestured for Josie to
pass her the salt.

“I want you to pay special attention to the Johnstons,”
Grand-mère said. “They’ve built a big house on the old Rénard place. Louella,
where’s the cinnamon?”

“I’ll get it,” Josie said.

“Mr. Johnston is going to need cane shoots to plant the new
fields next spring,” Grand-mère said. “I want him to buy them from us. Your
father has lost heavily at the track again this past winter, and we need the
cash. So you will see to it that the Johnston family is welcomed and made
comfortable.”

Josie squeezed so hard the nut shattered instead of cracked.
Grand-mère expected her to conduct business on the very day of Maman’s funeral?
When she ran Toulouse, she would never be so heartless, never.

Cleo came in and curtsied to Grand-mère. “Monsieur DeBlieux
is here, Madame. The son, that is.”

“Good. I sent word I’d need provisions. Josie, go see what
he has. We’ll need it, whatever it is.” As Josie wiped her hands, Grand-mère
added, “Mind your purse.”

She would not embarrass herself this time, Josie resolved.
He was just a Cajun, no matter how good looking he was. She held her hand out
to Cleo. “I’ll carry the money.”

Josie and Cleo found the young man standing in the shade of
the underhouse, not slouching against a pillar. Phanor removed his straw hat
when he saw Josie.

She studied his sober face. No hint of the mocking amusement
she’d seen in his eyes last time.

“Mademoiselle. I offer you my condolences.”

Josie dipped her head.

“My Maman passed on in the new year,” he said. “I am sorry
for your loss.”


Merci
, monsieur. And I am sorry for yours also.”

After an awkward moment, Josie said, “What have you brought,
monsieur?”

“In the wagon, under the trees. Let me show you.”

He uncovered the baskets and itemized the hens, the fish,
the black-eyed peas, the eggs, the dried apples.

“The fish, they are no charge,” Phanor told her. “
Mon
pére
, he say I ask too much for the heart of the palms.” He did not look at
either Cleo or Josie. “If you please, the fish are to balance our account with
Madame Emmeline.”

His embarrassment erased how foolish she’d felt the last
time they met, but Josie decided she would still be careful what she paid out
of the little leather purse. She had mostly forgotten all the tedious figures
in the account books, but she did recall a notation of five cents for a basket
of crawfish, and she took it from there. She ignored Cleo’s nudge when she
bargained for the hens, and then she counted out the coins into Phanor’s hand.

“There is one more thing, Mam’zelle,” he said as he climbed
into the wagon. “My sister, she make you a cake. For all the people who come
tomorrow.” Phanor handed out a large round cake wrapped in a flour sack.

“Your sister is very kind.
Merci
, Monsieur DeBlieux.”

He settled the hat on his head and smiled at her. “Phanor.”


Merci
, Phanor.”

Cleo’s silent role had been to chaperone her mistress while
she was with a young man not her kinsman. Now she stepped forward and spoke for
the first time. “
Au revoir
, Phanor.”

Josie saw the devilish glint return to Phanor’s eyes. He
tipped his hat and said, “
Au revoir,
Cleo.” Then he flicked the reins
and drove the mule and the empty wagon down the alley.

Cleo said, “You paid too much for the hens.”

Josie turned on her, furious for making her feel stupid. “He
knows your name.”

“Well what of it? He probably knows yours, too.”

“He knows better than to use it.”

“He may use my name all he likes,” Cleo said.

Elbow John interrupted the escalating quarrel. “Madame
Emmeline, she send me to tote de provisions. Cleo, you help me wid dese
baskets.”

Cleo, nose in the air, strode over to the chicken cages
Phanor had left in the shade.

Maman was right, Josie told herself. She shouldn’t be
quarreling with Cleo. She put a hand to her aching head.

While Cleo and Elbow John took care of the provisions, Josie
wandered down the alley of oaks to the levee. She sat on the dock and watched
the Mississippi roll by. Muddy and brown, littered with logs and trash floating
downstream, it wasn’t as pretty as the Cane River. Josie had twice visited her
Chamard cousins on the Cane. The up-country side of the family would be here
tomorrow.

For the first time since before dawn, Josie had time to
think about Maman. Her eyes – it was as if a candle in Maman’s eyes had blown
out. Her golden hair had gleamed in the light as it always had, though.

Josie hugged her knees and pictured the previous morning,
only a day ago, when she’d sat with Maman in the gazebo. Maman’s feet were on
the red stool, and a little brother stirred inside her. Or so they had
believed. Josie wished she could ask Maman what she’d meant at the end. Was it
Papa she couldn’t forgive? And for what?

An hour passed, and the sun ate the shade where Josie sat. Maman
had told her and told her to stay out of the sun; her freckles would multiply
overnight.
I should have listened more, and I should have been more careful
with my embroidery
.

When a bloated dog floated against the dock, Josie pulled
herself up with a hand over her nose. There were things to do yet today,
anyway, and she headed back.

Papa appeared on the gallery and motioned for Josie to join
him. Freshly barbered and smelling of wildroot, he kissed Josie and looked at
her carefully.

“Your eyes are red, Josie.”

She began to cry again, and Papa pulled her to him. As he
stroked her hair, Josie remembered how Bibi had caressed Papa the night before,
and how Papa had wrapped his arms around her. She had never seen Papa embrace
Maman like that. But it confused her, and she couldn’t think about it now.

Josie sat on the gallery with Papa and listened to the
carpenters bumping into the house with the casket. They pretended not to hear
the rattle from the room where Celine lay as the men poured a layer of charcoal
on the bottom of the casket. Then it was quiet, and Josie tried not to think
about her mother’s body being lifted into the long box.

After a late supper, Papa, Grand-mère Emmeline, and Josie
each carried a lighted candle into the parlor where the casket had been placed.
Ursaline and Grand-mère had padded the charcoal with a length of cream silk and
had dressed Maman in her favorite blue gown. All around her body they had
arranged roses and gardenias, which would be replaced with fresh blossoms
before the funeral.

And so began the wake. Dr. Benet and Father Philippe kept
vigil with them, and their nearest neighbors, Monsieur Cherleu and the Cummings
family, would join them soon.

“Her rosary, Josephine.” Grand-mère meant for her to place
the beads in Maman’s hands, stiff now and colder than they were last night.
Josie held back.

“I’ll do it,” Papa said.

Grand-mère frowned and flicked her black handkerchief.

“I can do it, Papa.”

Father Philippe said a prayer. Then Grand-mère Emmeline
raised her candle and, in her long-legged way, marched from the room. Papa
knelt at the side of the casket and leaned his forehead against his clasped
hands.

Josie stared at Maman, so pale in the candlelight. The lines
around her mouth were smoothed away, and she looked young and at peace. She’d
never be impatient with Josie again when she ruined her sewing. She’d never be
angry with Papa again, or hateful to Cleo and Bibi.

Josie put a hand to her eyes. That’s not what she wanted to
remember about Maman. Maman was beautiful, and she was a lady. She thought of
Grand-mère’s shrewd, hard face when she was about the plantation’s business,
and that was not the woman Josie wanted to become. She would be like Maman.

And yet, she thought, Maman had not been happy, and she
hadn’t been kind.

CHAPTER FIVE

 

Josie didn’t have a black dress. The last time there’d been
a death in the family was when Oncle Augustine, Papa’s elder brother, had
drowned in the river. Josie was five inches taller now. Grand-mère brought
Maman’s black silk into Josie’s room and held it up.

“Try it on.”

Bibi helped Josie out of her dress and into the black one.
The buttons up the back didn’t meet across Josie’s shoulder blades, and the hem
hardly came to her ankles. Grand-mère let out a disgusted snort.

“Wait here.”

Grand-mère came back with a dress from her own wardrobe. The
silk taffeta was so old that the black dye had a purple cast to it. Josie
wrinkled her nose against the reek of camphor and pulled the dress over her
head.

The bodice hung limp on Josie’s frame, and the skirt dragged
the floor. Tears filled Josie’s eyes, but she didn’t dare let Grand-mère see
them.

“After breakfast, sit down with your needle, Josephine. You
can hem that skirt in half an hour, and take a tuck or two in the bosom.”

Grand-mère bustled on to other duties, and Josie let loose.
She cried as though the dress itself had broken her heart.

“Josie, Josie,” Bibi said. “I help you wid de dress.”

“It stinks, Bibi! How can I see people when it stinks like
camphor?”

“Wash your face. Go to breakfast. I take de dress outside
and let de wind blow through it. And I ask Louella if she know what else we can
do.”

Before Josie had to greet the first arrivals, Bibi had aired
the dress, Josie had taken it in, and Cleo had ironed it with a cloth dampened
in lavender water. Cleo fixed Josie’s hair and helped her into the purply-black
gown. The two of them stood in front of the long mirror and stared at the
dress.

The dark gown washed out Josie’s complexion and robbed her
hazel eyes of their green tones. The freckles on her nose shone through the
powder, and Cleo had accidentally singed one of Josie’s curls. Josie was sure
she’d never looked so awful. She thought, just for a moment, of Grammy Tulia’s
cabin, of a safe haven while the strangers were here for Maman’s funeral.

“One more thing,” Cleo said. She left the room only a moment
and came back with Maman’s perfume bottle. She dabbed Josie’s neck and inner
elbows, and after a slight hesitation, she dabbed the dress itself. “That’ll
help,” she said.

Josie joined Grand-mère in the alley of oaks in front of the
house. The servants had set up tables from the front gate to the road. The two
rows of trees funneled the river breeze, and the canopy shaded the lane.
Thibault was peering under the table drapes while Elbow John, cleaned and
combed, oversaw the women setting the china and glassware.

“Thibault,” Josie said, “what are you doing?”

Thibault hung his head.

“You’re not in trouble, Thibault. It’s all right. Do you
remember me?” Josie hadn’t been down to the quarters in such a long time.

He lifted his head and beamed at her. “You Josie.”

Josie glanced at Grand-mère, but she hadn’t heard. “You must
say ‘Mam’zelle Josie,’ Thibault. What are you doing under the tables?”

“It my job. I the snake hunter.” He showed her the forked
stick in his hand. “I find a snake, I call Elbow John. He kill it fo me.”

“You be careful, Thibault.”

Josie’s head turned when the steamboat whistle blew. In
another ten minutes, it would dock and their first guests would arrive. From
the garden, Grand-mère crooked a finger at Josie to come to her. As she passed
the statue of the Virgin, Josie genuflected, then joined Grand-mère in the
rose-covered gazebo.

Grand-mère looked Josie over. “You’ll do,” she said. “I want
you to sit here until luncheon is served. People will want to pay their
respects, and you will receive them here.” Grand-mère was scheming, as always, Josie
thought with distaste. The scent of the roses would help to mask the smell of
camphor emanating from her.           

A small local steamboat churned up-river and crossed the
flow to the dock. Several people disembarked quickly, the eldest man’s voice
carrying as he shouted last minute instructions about being picked up again
later in the day.

“These are
l’américains
I told you about,” Grand-mère
said. “That’s Monsieur Johnston, and that’s his wife in the silly hat. The
children are Albany, see the young man, the plump one with the sandy hair? And
Abigail. She’s a little older than you, but it will do no harm if you become
friendly with her, even if she is Anglo.”

In due course, the visitors came to Josie in the gazebo.

After their introduction, Abigail Johnston kept Josie
company as friends and business associates of the family stopped by her bench
to offer their sympathy. Josie nodded, said thank you, and counted the minutes
until the formalities were over. Her head ached, and she wished Abigail would
leave her.

BOOK: Always & Forever: A Saga of Slavery and Deliverance (The Plantation Series Book 1)
10.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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