As she absorbed his words, Noelle lifted a spoonful of steaming beef bullion to her lips, savoring the sheer goodness of the aromatic broth before swallowing it. This morning, though feeling sturdy enough to venture from her stateroom, she had entered the dining saloon leery of her stomachs reaction. It was no small relief when the aromas of breakfast victuals had sent her stomach gurgling, not churning. After a week-long diet of bland benne wafers, it had been difficult not to fall upon this delicious fare like a ravenous beast. But she managed.
It was harder, however, to rein in her curiosity. Why had Geneva stormed out of the stateroom all those mornings ago? What made the girl react to Tobias name with such passionate terror? Apart from the need for physical nourishment, these additional mysteries had forced Noelle to swallow her pride, seek Lafes companionship, and grill him for information. She soon regretted not having done it earlier, for her cousin proved a mother lode of knowledge, and unlike Geneva, seemed all too delighted to share his fortune.
Now, she scooped up a spoonful of bullion and hazarded another question. If this Tobias is as wonderful as you claim, why would the mere mention of his name cause Geneva to react in such a fearful manner?
Because she is one uppity wench, thats why. He gave a snort of disdain, then slathered butter over his griddlecakes before drowning them in orgeat. No offense to your departed father—Lord knows Zale Etheridge was a wise man—but he possessed an unnatural soft spot for that bizarre darky.
How so? asked Noelle, doing her best to overlook the mild slur cast upon her fathers memory.
Gave her too much free reign, he did, replied Lafe between bites. A cushioned life! Turned her uppity! But now that shes in Savannah, she is finally having to work for her bread and butter. No more frittering away the days fashioning good-luck charms, concocting love potions, and all that other Negro fiddle-faddle.
The idea moved Noelle to pity. But thats what makes Geneva Geneva. Shes not like any other servant Ive ever known.
Thank the heavens!
I think its horrible, her being forced to change her ways after all those years. She must be beside herself.
Shes just in a royal snit. Thats what happens when darkies are indulged, treated above their natural station—they become lazy and insolent. Do not cater to her, Cousin.
Well just see about that.
With his fork, Lafe clanked a frantic tattoo on the Wedgwood china. Noelle watched as a mental debate ensued in his eyes. I feel it is my duty to issue some imperative advice, said Lafe. His voice assumed a didactic tone; Noelle steeled herself for what she prayed would not become a lengthy reprimand. At Destiny, things are run quite differently than they were in the Etheridge household. The heart of Destiny beats at its own rhythm, you see. A rhythm that has existed, and succeeded, for decades. Ajax Kilbourne will not tolerate interference from you nor any other do-gooder. Just dare ask him what he thinks of all the Abolitionist hoopla in the North and you are certain to receive an earful. And as far as you encouraging Geneva to carry on her superstitious absurdity, you can cause irreparable damage to Destinys delicate system.
In what way? asked Noelle, finding it difficult to draw rein on her mounting anger.
Genevas whims may have been—cute—when she was a girl, but as a young woman they are disturbing. Ajax will not tolerate such shenanigans under his roof, and Tobias, with Ajaxs blessing, sees to it that all the Kilbourne house servants earn their keep. Humoring Genevas quirks will only cause resentment among the other servants, and might even—God forbid—plant rebellious notions in their heads if they sense favoritism. You have to understand, in order to maintain a profitable cotton plantation, all darkies must be guided with the same firm hand.
Thats absurd. Geneva belongs to me, and no one, including my new stepfather, will dictate how I chose to treat her.
Lafes attention swept to the nearest diners, as if to verify that what he was about to say went unheard. Do you have any idea what will happen, began Lafe, sotto voce, as he leaned into the table, if Genevas ability to read is ever discovered?
Noelles stomach tightened, not from the recent bout of seasickness, but from the alarm his disclosure generated. As a diversion, she spooned sugar into a cup of steaming coffee and attempted to master her shock. Whatever do you mean?
Do not play the innocent, Cousin Noelle. I have known for years. Now, whether it was you or your father who taught Geneva her letters is not my concern. I mention it now simply as a warning. Thus far, it seems no one at Destiny has discovered this special gift of hers. Thats good! But if they do, there will certainly be reprisals. The laws against Negro education are firm. Without warning, an expression of horror puckered Lafes brow. God forbid the other servants should stumble upon Geneva reading a book! Do you have any idea what could happen? They will all desire to learn their letters. Perhaps some will rebel in protest, or worse still, accomplish it. Then they will tutor other servants in neighboring plantations and the disease will spread like an outbreak of smallpox. Before you can say mass uprising, darkies throughout the South will escape to the North, but not before slaughtering the entire white race in their beds.
Noelle, dropping her pretense of naïveté, laughed in his panic-stricken face. What a load of political poppycock! If that was indeed true, then my family would be long dead. I taught Geneva her letters, and will never regret it. Yet here I sit, Cousin, a living testament to the inaccuracy of such ludicrous Southern propaganda.
It could happen.
Could, but wont.
Cousin Noelle, said Lafe in a voice loaded with censure, this is exactly the kind of attitude that will not be tolerated at Destiny. Ajax Kilbourne has rules, and rules are created for a reason.
Noelle took a sip of coffee. As she held her cousins unwavering gaze, defiance rose up within her. And as Madame Mintock would say, rules are created to be broken.
His lips, as she expected, all but disappeared. He sat iron-erect in his chair, his cheeks aflame with consternation. Listen here—he waggled a scolding finger at her—if you meddle with the system, you will bring trouble upon yourself. Or upon Geneva. Like all pampered darkies, she was stubborn at first, I am told. But she has settled into the ways of Destiny and is quite content, so do not interfere!
Are you suggesting that Geneva has been treated cruelly? Noelle caught her breath. Just the notion jangled her nerves. Because if thats the case, Ill—
I wouldnt go so far as to say cruel. Stern, perhaps, but not cruel. Your stepfather has never advocated barbarism toward his people, nor does he allow Tobias or the field overseer—a jasper by the name of Pleatis Yarnell—to dole out extreme punishment. As Lafe took another mouthful of omelette, a devilish flicker lit his eyes. Unless, of course, necessity requires stiffer measures. But thats rare. Very rare.
What does that mean?
Like dealing with runaways and— He paused and gave a throaty laugh. Frowning in such a fierce manner, my dear, will only add premature lines to that pleasing face. And then what a shame it would be for the admiring gentlemen. See? That is the reason why ladies—especially attractive young lasses—should not fret over such mundane matters as darkies.
Noelle experienced another hot surge of fury. Mundane matters? And talking to her like an empty-headed child, one unable to contemplate the perplexities of the Souths peculiar institution? His words, topped with a patronizing smile, might have been enough to spark another full-fledged verbal battle between them. But for the sake of keeping the river of information flowing, Noelle stifled the scathing retort forming behind her lips. Though the news she had thus far received put her in a nettlesome mood, she truly couldnt blame her cousin, for after all, it was she who had invited it.
Leave that bit of nuisance work to our Southern leaders, and gentleman like Ajax Kilbourne, added Lafe in a voice that essentially slammed a door to this particular line of questioning. They know best.
Noelle doubted it, but decided not to press the issue.
So, what else did you want to ask me about Savannah and Destiny?
Now that I understand the manner in which he treats Geneva and the other servants, said Noelle, doing nothing to masquerade her sardonic tone, tell me everything else you know about my stepfather.
Surely Aunt Rachelle has told you all there is to tell? No?
Before replying, Noelle swallowed another spoonful of beef bullion, along with an additional dose of her pride. When it comes to matters of detailed correspondence, my mothers skills have always lacked.
Alas, like our green-russet eyes, tis also a DArcy trait, avowed Lafe, lessening the sting of her embarrassing admission. Write only those words which are necessary and omit any embellishment. Your mother and my father were cut from the same cloth, never realizing that their lack of words created riddles in themselves. Is that your dilemma?
Well, perhaps I can fill in the blanks.
My mother did write that Mr. Kilbourne, besides being a plantation owner, is a well-to-do shipping merchant. Also, that she met him when he came to Charleston to inquire about the sale of my fathers shipping company.
True on both counts. Lafe set down his eating utensils and began tapping the table with his fingertips. Ajax Warrington Kilbourne—a brilliant and well-respected businessman. Comes from good stock. Dabbles in local politics. Has considerable connections throughout the States and abroad. And—until he met your mother—was thought by many to be a confirmed bachelor. He was looking to expand his business into South Carolina, you see. The sale of Etheridge Shipping was the perfect opportunity for him to do so. And during the course of negotiations, he charmed your mother into marrying him. Lafe cocked his head and smiled. Or perhaps it was vice-versa?
What happened to my fathers company?
Its a division of Kilbourne Shipping, with headquarters in Savannah. Ajax also owns a cotton factorage which earns him a tidy sum. All in all, his businesses are successful and growing steadily. And as Ive mentioned, Destiny is equally profitable, and quite the spread, I daresay. Face it, Cousin, your stepfather is about as rich as Croesus, therefore, you shant want for anything.
Knowing her mother, Noelle assumed as much. Rachelle DArcy Etheridge, always a bit of a sybarite, would have never consented to marry a gentleman with an empty billfold. From her own standpoint, however, Noelle couldnt have cared less whether Ajax Kilbourne was affluent or one step away from debtors prison. In her eyes, a poor man was a worthy man as long as he possessed an ounce of Zale Etheridges fine character. But after hearing how Ajax Kilbourne governed his servants, Noelle suspected he did not.
Youve been to Destiny often, Cousin Lafe?
On several occasions. A dinner party here, a cotillion there, even an old-fashioned ridotto once. Then of course, there was the wedding three years ago. What a grand affair, with its luxe buffet and copious spirits. And dancing till dawn! Everyone who is anyone was in attendance. Even my sister managed to tear herself away from whatever European duke or prince she had conquered to attend the festivities. For once, Salem behaved herself. Abruptly, he choked off his narrative. Color drained from his face, as if he suddenly realized that Noelle, herself, had not witnessed the event. To his credit, Lafe did seem sincerely rueful for his awkward blunder. That is—well, you were at school and—what I meant to say was—
And how is my mother? asked Noelle, saving him further chagrin while doing her best to ignore the familiar pinch of resentment.
Her cousin leapt at the opportunity to change the subject. She is quite happy and comfortable. At least, thats what Ive been told.
Then you havent seen her recently? What about when she asked you to escort me to Savannah?
That request was hand-delivered to me by your stepfather, who was in Charleston on business. No, I havent had the pleasure of your mothers company for at least a year.
What exactly did her note say?
She simply wondered if I would be so kind as to journey to New Orleans to fetch you.
Nothing else? No reason why?
Ah, that nasty DArcy trait yet again. Galling, is it not? He chuckled. But you are her daughter. I would think thats sufficient reason enough.
And Mr. Kilbourne—did he not give a reason as to why I have been summoned?
Lafe squinted at her. No, my silly cousin, he did not. Perhaps he wants to meet his stepdaughter and share his wealth? A mischievous tone crept into his voice. Or perhaps he heard rumors that you were studying to become a scullery maid and he refused to become a laughing stock?
Blast it, thought Noelle, disregarding his needling comment. She had hoped Lafe might have knowledge regarding her mothers change of heart, but it appeared that the mystery would remain. For the moment, anyway. Still, she had a willing informant at her disposal, and as long as she could endure his finger-tapping and suggestive remarks, not to mention his sometimes disturbing news and condescending attitude, she would slap a smile on her lips and pepper him with questions.
You know what this means? asked Lafe, grinning from ear to ear. Without waiting for a reply, he snatched Noelles hand and pulled her from the chair. The mouthful of unchewed scrambled eggs muffled her protest as he dragged her toward the door. Other diners, who also seemed to sense something was afoot, followed them in an uninterrupted stream.
I was correct! Weve arrived, proclaimed Lafe, bursting out onto the deck where sunshine painted his hair a brilliant gold. He consulted his pocket watch, then thumped his chest like a madman. And right on schedule! Right on schedule! God bless the captain!
As vigorous sea breezes snapped her skirts, Noelle set her hands above her eyes, visoring them from the blinding glare. On the steamers port-side loomed an island and its lighthouse, but nowhere along the marshy coastline could she detect signs of a city. This certainly isnt Savannah. Brows knitted in confusion, she aimed a finger westward where she could just make out a giant brick structure in the distance. Or is that it yonder?
Lafe gave a booming laugh, then escorted her to the rail. This is Big Tybee Island, you silly goose, and youre pointing to Cockspur Island where Fort Pulaski defends the mouth of the Savannah River. The city is about twenty miles upriver from here.
She felt instantly foolish. And envious. To ask her about Charleston or New Orleans, she might be able to provide detailed commentary; to ask her about anywhere else in the world, never. She had liked to think herself a well-educated individual, but people like her cousin, who traveled extensively throughout the continent, always made it glaringly clear just how unworldly she actually was.
How was I to know? And dont call me silly! With that, she tromped back to the dining saloon, not only intent on finishing her abandoned breakfast, but to escape further ridicule.
By the time she rejoined Lafe on deck, the Swan of Grace had advanced around Tybee Island and nosed into the Savannah River. Noelle soon began to wonder whether her cousins characteristic impatience had rubbed off on her, for she found herself irritated at the steamers sluggish progress.
The captains trying to avoid a mishap, explained Lafe, as if sharing her frustration. Maneuvering past the bars is a tricky business, especially if the tides are low. Could be hours before we dock.
Despite the favorable tide, it did take hours, but Noelle somehow managed to control her impatience. For the most part, she remained on deck with her cousin, savoring the moderate temperature and brisk sea air, while observing with a curious eye the beautiful and unfamiliar landscape. Spacious fields of waving rice banked the shoreline, broken occasionally by fresh-water creeks, greening marshes, and forests of towering pines.
Theyve begun calling Savannah the Forest City, said Lafe, shattering nearly a half hour of silence between them. Just last year, a roving Englishman named Charles Mackay published his Sketches of a Tour wherein he described Savannah. Of all the cities in America, he wrote, none impresses itself more vividly upon the imagination and the memory than this green bowery city of the South. And its true, Cousin Noelle. Once youve been to Savannah, you shant ever forget.
Just then, a rumor began circulating among the passengers that mint juleps were being served in the gentlemans saloon to celebrate a favorable end to the long voyage. As Noelle expected, Lafe excused himself forthwith. But she didnt mind being left alone to think.
Lord knows she had possessed misgivings about this voyage, about reuniting with her mother and meeting her stepfather, but now that the journey was winding to a close, a blossoming excitement seemed to sweep away all of her troubling thoughts. Yes, she decided as optimism swelled within her, it might be the end to a voyage but it truly was just a beginning. Madame Mintock would often say, One discovers opportunity at every turn, but one must be willing to keep ones eyes open. Noelle pondered those words. Here in Savannah she might find love. Perhaps marry. Indeed, she might one day defy convention and follow her dream to open a boarding school like her mentor. Who could say? The possibilities were endless. And this elegant countryside, dotted with springtime colors and unblemished tranquillity, seemed somehow conducive for a young woman starting a brand new life.
Some time later, Lafe returned, his manner one of bubbly exuberance. Noelle suspected the aromas of bourbon and mint on his person had much to do with it. Ah, he said, pointing, I see weve made it as far as Jones Island. And just up ahead is Elba Island. Shouldnt be long now. He was correct. A short time later, the river dipped to the south, and a fort loomed up on the left bank. Thats Fort Jackson. Built in the seventeen-forties, I believe, when it was nicknamed Fort Mud. Since then, its been improved with masonry and revetted earthworks. It could prove helpful if those dad-blamed Yankees ever decide to give us difficulty.
Noelle disregarded his comment. In her sanguine mood, the last thing she wanted to think about was the possibility of a war between the States.
At a place where the river curved back to the north forming a half-moon, Noelles gaze fell upon a line of three- and four-story buildings, a nearly solid wall of mortar and brick stretching all along the waterfront. The place bustled with activity—skiffs and canoes to steamers and schooners all jockeying for a space at the harbor; sweaty stevedores hauling off-loaded freight on their backs and into warehouses; cursing Negroes guiding over-burdened wagons up a steep grade to the bluff; top-hatted gentlemen hopping out of regal carriages and rushing into office buildings. Had Noelle not recently experienced the frantic harbor in New Orleans, she might have been impressed at such a sight.
Welcome to The Forest City, my dear cousin, said Lafe with a sweep of his arm. The county seat of Chatham County. This is Factors Row, Savannahs lifeline to the outside world. Each one of those eclectic buildings house a similarly diverse range of tenants. Everything from shipping companies to cotton merchants. And see that building there with the wrought-iron balconies and arched windows? That is the office of The Kilbourne Shipping Company. The Kilbourne Cotton Factorage is right next door. Now youll know where your stepfather spends most of his time when hes not at Destiny.
And the bluff behind the buildings? Is that where the residential area is located?
Exactly. Yamacraw Bluff, to be precise. We can reach it via those walkways.
Within the hour, after gathering Geneva and making arrangements with the shipping line for the delivery of their luggage to Destiny, they debarked the steamer and climbed one of the walkways up to the city proper. There, they came upon a grassy area, separating Factors Row from a busy east-west thoroughfare. Buildings of multi-colored brick stood along the avenue, facing the river. This is the Strand, said Lafe, as he led them through the park. And thats Bay Street just ahead.
Lafe sprinted to the street and hailed a carriage, an open-air barouche, similar to the one he had hired in New Orleans. This time, however, Lafe made no objections to Geneva riding with them, much to Noelles delight. Though the girl appeared sullen, barely uttering a word since leaving the harbor, Noelle had too much else to occupy her mind than to dwell on the source of Genevas gloom. In her buoyant mood, she felt confident that all the mysteries would soon be cleared away, therefore, she simply patted the octoroons hand and turned her attention to the city. Lafe instructed the driver which roads to take, then with the crack of a whip, the carriage merged into the traffic.
See there? said Lafe, gesturing to a grand building with a lofty bell tower. Thats the City Exchange at the foot of Bull Street. One day, Cousin, I shall escort you up to that cupola where we can gaze out over the river. Indeed, you can see for miles in every direction. He turned in his seat. And there, that columned building across the street is the Customs House and Post Office. With a smile on his face, Lafe seemed to be enjoying the rare privilege of spouting his knowledge about the city without Noelles surly rebuttals or an endless string of questions hurled at him. Noelle didnt mind. In truth, with so much to absorb, she appreciated having such a learned tour guide pointing out sights of interest.
The carriage turned south onto Bull Street, what her cousin referred to as the chief processional artery through town. The city is composed of a series of public squares, you see. Not unlike London, with both wards for homes and trust lots for public buildings surrounding parklike areas. Each of the squares is equidistant from the other, so on a map, the city looks like a perfect grid. What began as four squares in the early eighteenth century has multiplied to twenty-four. Indeed, we are coming before the original square now.
Chinaberry trees and live oaks created lazy patterns of shade on the wide lawn and its crisscrossing sandy footpaths. In the center of the square stood a lofty white-marble obelisk. This is Johnson Square, Derby Ward, laid out in the seventeen-thirties and named for Robert Johnson, the then Royal Governor of our own South Carolina. The monument is dedicated to Nathaniel Greene. Lafe gestured to the east. And there, on the trust lots overlooking the square, are the Bank of the State of Georgia and Christ Episcopal Church. Thats why some people call this Church Square instead of its proper name. It was in this very square that the citizens of Savannah greeted and celebrated the arrival of my namesake, the Marquis de Lafayette in 1825. With that, Lafes handsome face took on a smug expression, almost as if it was he, and not the famous general, who had been honored all those years earlier.
As the carriage moved south from the square, Noelle settled back in her seat, mesmerized by the elegant beauty of the spacious tree-lined avenue. Brick or stucco houses, their tall stoops adorned with handsome ironwork, stood dignified on high basements so that the windows in the main rooms met the treetops, far above the dusty street. Sculptured hedges, trees draped in flimsy Spanish moss, and great batches of colorful flowers peeked out from behind the walls of half-hidden gardens. Noelle smiled. She had arrived in Savannah expecting to find another version of either Charleston or New Orleans. Instead, what she found was a unique setting of restrained charm, very English, or Georgian, in character.
Soon, they came before Wright Square, then Chippewa Square, then Madison Square, each with their shady walkways, strolling pedestrians, and grand monuments. See that house? Lafe directed Noelles focus to a two-story Gothic Revival mansion, fashioned from what appeared to be red sandstone. It had a crenellated roof, oriel windows, and a sweeping gallery awash with filigreed ironwork. You, my dear, will be spending much time in that house, I venture.
Why? asked Noelle, enchanted by the notion.
Its owned by Mr. Charles Green, an English cotton merchant who is quite friendly with your stepfather. Ajax knows just about all of Savannahs imported Englishmen—William Battersby, Andrew Low, Edward Molyneux, to name but a few. Many of the American town-worthies also. And each of them have grand homes. Yes, my dear cousin, before long, you will be dancing under that rooftop at one of Greens many soirées. Perhaps even waltzing on a starlit evening through that luscious garden, or one similar, in the arms of some very fortunate gentleman.
Though Lafe had spoken that last sentence with more than a flavor of seduction in his voice, Noelle told herself to ignore it. Snipping at him, as she had done in the past, seemed only to encourage more such suggestive talk.
Still, the possibility that she might one day find a gentleman to dance with her under the stars gave her giddy notions. Living in exile in the Crescent City had robbed her of many opportunities, but none more so than being formally presented to Southern society at the annual Saint Cecelia Ball. Held every January at the height of racing season, the Ball was the pinnacle of Charleston social activity, especially for the debutantes who would wear their finest white ball gowns and make the Grand March on the arm of their father, brother, or other male relative. A participant could expect to dance away the evening in the arms of handsome young bachelors, and all the while praying that their one special gentleman would scribble his name on her card for the sixteenth dance, the one reserved for sweethearts.
But Noelle had missed her official coming out and often wondered how she would meet eligible gentlemen. Yes, the promise of elegant parties gave her hope that all was not lost. One discovers opportunities at every turn, she thought, remembering again the words of Madame Mintock, and as the barouche clattered into Monterey Square, she prayed she would be able to keep her eyes open to spot the opportunity when it arrived.
Presently, Bull Street came to an end before a wide verdant park. In its center, encircled by a cast-iron fence, stood a glorious white fountain. Sunlight caught the sprays of water, creating rainbows of color in the air. This is Forsyth Place, said Lafe. They had just completed the fountain last year when I was leaving for Charleston. I have yet to see it working.
Where is Destiny? asked Noelle, gazing beyond the park and seeing nothing but a few scattered houses snuggled in the shadows of a great pine forest.
We still have some miles to go, answered Lafe, just as the teamster guided the carriage several blocks to the east, then turned south. This is Abercorn Street, which will ultimately merge into White Bluff Road. Destiny is along the Vernon River, though not as far as the little village of Vernonsburg.
A half-hour passed before the barouche rolled into an area of rich farmland. Noelle, shaking off the lure of slumber that had come over her during the uneventful ride through the dense forest, now sat up and took notice. Geneva napped beside her, while Lafe, with pocket watch in hand, looked up at her and smiled. Were almost there, he said.
Porticoed plantation houses and their sprawling villages of attendant buildings grew numerous along the horizon. Here and there, waist-high cornstalks rustled in the breeze, while wheat ripened in the golden fields. Occasionally, patches of beans, potatoes, or emerald green sorghum divided the land. But by far, the principal acreage had been reserved for cotton. Miles upon miles of it. Almost everywhere Noelle looked, she could see hunched black-skinned workers toiling between rows of still-unripened harvests, wielding hoes and rakes, pushing wheelbarrows or leading plow horses. Snatches of work songs filled her ears, punctuated by the squawking of a chicken, the yipping of a dog, and the persistent clatter of hooves.
Scattered amongst the grand estates stood humble, weather-beaten farmsteads and outbuildings, indicating that not all of the areas planters were swimming in opulent wealth. Ignorant strawfeet, muttered Lafe, gazing upon one such farm. He gave a snort of ridicule. Simple-minded buffoons who specialize in food crops instead of planting cotton. They will be nothing more than plowmen for the rest of their sorry days.
Food is an important commodity, Cousin Lafe, countered Noelle, instantly vexed at his holier-than-thou attitude, his lack of compassion for those less fortunate. Wherever would any of us be without it?
Not as important as King Cotton. Thats a high-yield crop! And wealth, after all, can purchase victuals, but these dirt-eaters dont seem to understand that.
Why do you insist on condemning the lower class? Heavens! Most of them are probably doing their best to earn an honest living. Thats more than I can say for people who lounge in their ivory towers and cast stones at all they feel are unworthy to kiss their boots.
Noelle, Noelle, Noelle—that New Orleans schoolmarm has certainly planted outlandish seeds in your head. Ones you must not cultivate, I might advise. People of our class are special, and I pray you will one day accept that.
And I pray, Lafayette Bancroft DArcy, that you will one day accept the fact that money does not make a gentleman!
Oh? Then what does?
An upstanding character, for one! Firm convictions, morals, determination, and a vision to succeed—
He snickered, as if saying he thought her viewpoint just the silly whims of a female. You must understand, Cousin Dear, that is exactly what separates wealthy planters like your stepfather from the struggling plowmen—the vision, or more to the point, the lack thereof. These ignoramuses are too blind to see what benefits the land can provide. That is why Ajax Kilbourne is able to live in style, while the hardscrabble farmers can barely afford a pair of shoes. Gentlemen? Hardly! Nothing more than unlearned baboons!
Exasperated, Noelle shook her head and checked her retort. Her spoiled cousin may be swimming in wealth, but he also seemed to forget that it was inherited wealth. Hardly earned, she thought, as his manicured nails clicked against the watch in his hand. Indeed, she wondered how swiftly Lafayette DArcy would change his tune if one day he was to find himself ousted from his pedestal and thrust into the world of physical labor. Hed probably starve, she decided with a satisfied smirk.
Soon, the barouche curved a bend in the road and came upon another broad cotton field in the west. Across the road in the east, partially hidden behind a tangle of laurels and pines, loomed a red-brick house on a small rise. Lafes spirits perked up. Finally.
Destiny? asked Noelle, as the slumbering Geneva stirred on the seat beside her.
No, but were close. This is Laurel Heights, the plantation of the St. Clair family, or what little remains of the clan. Yellow fever epidemic took all the womenfolk some years ago. Rutherford St. Clair resides here with his only son, Cameron. You will probably meet them before long, since Rutherford and your stepfather are on friendly terms, being neighbors and all.
Unable to catch a clear view of the house, Noelle turned back to the west and the seemingly endless cotton fields of Laurel Heights. After a time, a snake-rail fence marked the boundary of another farmstead, this one governed by a modest dwelling and its outbuildings, set back from the road and shaded under the ancient branches of overhanging trees. Before the house, stood hardy gardens of vegetables and potatoes. Beyond it, a respectable field of corn waved in the breeze. And farther still, Noelle could just distinguish a peach orchard. But no sooner had this farm come into view, than another sturdy fence designated the onset of still more cotton fields.
And who lives back there, she asked, sandwiched between the two plantations?
A clan of thieves and scoundrels, thats who! exclaimed Lafe with a scowl. From what your stepfather has divulged, they are the best of a bad breed!
They stole that property from Ajaxs father some twenty years ago. Destiny, you see, used to stretch all the way to the cotton fields of Laurel Heights. Ah, but tis too long a story to explain further. Lets just say they are worthless, stubborn peckerwoods who have heretofore refused to sell the ill-gotten land back to your stepfather!
Then these fields beside us, began Noelle, pointing to the expansive sea of cotton, are a part of—?
Yes, my dear cousin. He gestured to the east and beamed. Welcome to your new home.
Experiencing both a shudder of anticipation and a shiver of dread, Noelle spun around in her seat just as the barouche turned onto a wide avenue. Giant live oaks hugged the lane on both sides, while their moss-draped branches formed a weblike ceiling overhead, leaving blotches of shadow on the road. And at the end of the long drive, surrounded by gardens of sweet-scented peonies and pink and yellow primrose, stood the rambling, three-story house of her future—