It had been so long. But tonight, surely tonight, he would appear, as he had so often before.
She would forget the letter, the letter that lay on her bedside table, while she waited for him to come. She would put it out of her mind. It was white against the polished mahogany, a deathly white that glowed in the dim room like a ghost in the steamy darkness.
She wouldnt think about it, not now. Shed think about Philippe, and how happy they were going to be, together, when her parents allowed them to wed.
Ellen had known him all her life. He had been a part of her, blood and bone, spirit and soul. He was her cousin, youngest son of her fathers older brother, and he was as dark and wild as his favorite stallion. He had held her heart in his hand since that day she had looked into his black eyes and fallen under their wild spell. It had been her birthday, her thirteenth. Philippe was nearly nineteen, tall, beautiful in his black coat and snowy linen.
He had handed her his present, a heart-shaped locket containing his picture and an inscription which read, Forever yours. Ellen had clasped it in her hands and looked up into his eyes, eyes that smiled only for her, eyes that mirrored a soul twin to her own.
Looked up and was lost.
That night, at the ball in her honor, she had danced with him, light as thistle in his arms. They had twirled about the sleek and shining dance floor, her snowy dress billowing like sea foam, his slender figure as upright as a soldiers. His hand caressed hers as they floated about the floor, and he murmured the words she had waited all her short life to hear.
I adore you.
Her heart had danced within her when she heard the words, danced in tune to the waltz, danced as though dancing was all it would ever do again, until the day they died together.
Ellen whirled now in her empty bedroom, the still night air caressing her through her nightgown. She could hear the music, see the ball around her. For this one moment, she could forget the white envelope that lay upon her bedside table.
But her parents had not approved of their love. They said that Philippe was wild, profligate, not fit for her husband. How could that be? Was he not her cousin, her blood? If he was not fit, then who could be? But they continued to refuse her pleas, her threats to join the convent if they did not allow her to wed her darling Philippe.
Philippe was hurt at first by their decision, but his hurt soon turned to anger. He still loved her, Ellen knew he still loved her. But he began to visit less and less, ceased to write her, to write those words that burned the page, tormented her heart.
Torment like the letter on her bedside table, the one that—no, she would not think of it, not now.
The real trouble did not start until she turned fourteen. That evening he did not come to her birthday ball. He was with his friends, gambling in the wild dens of Savannah, after a day of racing their blooded stallions in the fields outside of town. There were rumors that he visited worse places, places that Ellen had only heard mentioned in secret, places that her mother would not explain to her.
She did not dare to ask her father of them.
But he was still her Philippe, her beautiful cousin, her beloved. Her birthday passed as the previous one had passed, she danced and laughed and drank tiny sips of champagne. Ellen was the belle of the ball, and her two older sisters frowned and blamed her for their own lack of beaux. But his locket dangled between her breasts, warm against her heart, and through all the festivities she thought only of him.
Tomorrow he would be with her. Tomorrow was another day, and her beloved would belong to her once more.
But tomorrow did not bring Philippe. It brought only the news of disaster. Philippe had been gambling with his cronies. There had been too much wine and brandy. Philippe had a head for wine, all their family did, a legacy of their French blood; but brandy made him wilder, brasher, readier to take offense. There was a disagreement, no more than words spoken in anger, but it had turned ugly. Ellen heard about it from her brother Charles.
We were only playing whist, it was a friendly game, Charles murmured, his hand to his head to soothe the pounding. Philippe had won all night, nearly every hand, and his horse had won races all afternoon as well. Armand Gastonne was angry—you know how easily the Gastonnes get angry?
Charles turned to her, pleading with her to understand.
Ellen nodded, her hands clasped at her breast, Philippes locket held tight inside them, as though it were an amulet to protect her from the bad news she knew was coming. Charles reached for the tea Ellen had brought him, tried to sip it but set the cup back down untasted. They were on the wide veranda of their white town house, set back from the dusty streets behind a high wrought-iron wall. It was a sleepy Savannah morning, hot and humid though it was only May, and the rich scent of the gardenias blooming in the garden rose about them.
Ellen would forever associate the smell of gardenias with sadness, sadness and despair.
Armand was mad, Ellen, mad. And Philippe ignored him, which made him madder still. Philippe kept winning and winning. Armand kept losing and getting angrier—
Charles gulped, reached for his tea and tried to drink it again, again failed in his distress.
Armand challenged Philippe to a duel. We had all had too much wine, we thought it was a good idea, the honorable thing to do. We went outside, gathered in the field where we had raced that day. Armand had his body slave fetch his fathers dueling pistols. I tell you, Ellen, it was like a dream, nothing seemed real. We were stumbling about in the near dark, it was—
Charles stopped as the full realization of that nights work washed over him yet again. His florid face grew pale as ash, a pale to match Ellens own.
They stood, back to back. I counted their steps. Ten, nine, eight, as they walked slowly away from each other, pistols held upright. I could hear the tree frogs screaming in the swamp. Seven. Six. A moth flew at my face and I jumped, waved it away. Five. Four, three. One of the others sagged against a tree, unconscious, whether from drink or fear I cannot say. Two. I paused, hoping it would end, that they would turn and laugh at each other, call it off. One.
Ellen could see the scene in her mind, in her heart, in her soul. The two young men, dizzy from drink, unsteady, turning to face each other. Their right hands raised as one, they sighted along the slender barrels of the pistols. The sound, the blast, the flash of flame in the early morning dimness as the bullets exploded forth, racing for the two beating hearts.
Then, only one young heart left beating.
Philippe was the better shot, Ellen, you know how good he is with a pistol, with a rifle. Armand never stood a chance, never knew. Philippe had won again. Charles babbled on, but Ellen knew that Philippe had not won. He had lost.
And so had she.
He had to run, you know he had to run, Ellen, or the law would have him. No male of our blood could stand jail, you know that, dont you, Ellen? You know that?
Charles begged for her understanding, her agreement in Philippes rapid flight for New Orleans.
A new hope surged through her. He would go west, to the new lands there, and when he was settled he would send for her. She would leave all she knew, all she loved, her family and friends, to go to him, be with him forever.
Forever yours, Ellen thought, clasping her locket tighter.
Three months passed, six. It was Christmas and Ellen awaited the only gift she would ever want, could ever desire—word from Philippe. A letter telling her to join him in the territories, in California, at the ends of the earth. She was ready, her jewelry packed, money secreted away. She could leave at a moments notice.
A small man had begun to visit, a red-haired Irishman who had come to see her father and stayed to stare at her. He barely reached her shoulder and she could not help but smile kindly at his loud voice, a brogue thick as the molasses they shipped in from the Caribbean.
But he did not matter. Nothing mattered but word from Philippe. When it came, she would go to him, never to be separated again. She would lose herself once more in his black eyes, drown in his love.
The short Irishman asked her father for her hand. Ellen laughed when her father told her, sure that she would be with Philippe soon.
Then, this morning.
It lay now on her bedside table. It had no address, only her name andcity. It was from a kind doctor in New Orleans.
Philippe had been killed in a bawdy house in New Orleans, shot in a drunken brawl over a woman. The doctor had taken a letter from Philippes pocket at his death and found her name on it.
Ellen dropped the letter as though it could burn her fingers the way it had burned her heart. Her black mammy shut the door to all in the great house, held Ellens head as she sobbed out her soul. Through all that long night came tears, then denial, then tears again.
The next morning the tears were gone, never to return. The heart-shaped locket around Ellens neck would never leave her, but it was more alive than the flesh-and-blood one in her chest.
She went down to breakfast, nodded to her sisters, kissed her mother.
Father, Ellen said quietly, sitting at her place at the long mahogany table, I will marry whomever you please, if you will let it be soon.
So Ellen married the feisty Irishman who was old enough to be her father. He, the upstart immigrant, received a bride from one of the oldest families in Savannah. He always questioned his good fortune, he never ceased to wonder why she had chosen him.
But he never dared to ask Ellen herself.
A year after they were married, on his plantation in the raw red soil of the upcountry, within the walls of the house he had won in a card game, their first child was born. A daughter with black hair and green eyes and a lusty, life-loving cry.
Ellens husband gave his new daughter two old Irish names. He called her by both, but Ellen called her only by her second—