Monday, December 05, 2005

Beautiful...Tangled Roots - Ch. 5

Chapter 5
1846
On a day when brown and yellow autumn leaves were falling gently from the surrounding trees, Edric went out to greet his overseer in time for the newest group of slaves to arrive on his plantation. His brothers had gone to another auction and brought back more laborers. Unfortunately, they seemed to have taken all the best ones for themselves, because many of the slaves before him looked either too old - despite the black dye in some of their heads to camouflage their age - or else too young.

So this is how they repay me for a life of misery, Edric mused angrily, recalling how each year his older brothers did less and less for him. Now it was as if they’d never promised to help him tend to his land. Now they were always too busy with their own plots, with their own slaves to help him with his. Where was their appreciation for him marrying Abigail now?

These days all Dr. Wainwright’s older brothers did for him was purchase laborers. And based on today’s motley bunch, they weren’t even doing a good job of that anymore. Well, as of today, Edric would see to it that he paid more attention to his own land and related affairs, even if he had to scale back his medical practice to do so. After all, he had no children to keep him occupied in the evenings and on weekends. And that was after five years of marriage. In fact, Edric only had a superficial wife whose main concern was what she was going to wear to which social event next.

I feel like the proverbial sacrificial lamb, Dr. Wainwright mused, thinking that everyone was happy except for him. His brothers were being fruitful in their bodies and in their fields. Two of them even had babies by their female slaves. But not Edric who, although he was extremely miserable, still wouldn’t cheat on a woman that had never really satisfied him in the bedroom and who was also way too fickle to trust.

Edric remained faithful to Abigail because of his principles and honorable nature, but mostly because he feared losing the quarterly finances that her father constantly gave to his family. If only their land was able to fully pay for itself, then he wouldn’t feel so obligated to remain miserably attached to a flighty wife who only seemed to care about her social life.

Each year Edric had watched Abigail’s social engagements steadily increase while his steadily and deliberately decreased. As the only doctor in a two city radius, he found it hard to have a good time at social events, because everyone constantly came up to him for medical advice. Thus Dr. Wainwright now kept his visiting to a minimum, hardly even staying in touch with old classmates unless they needed him professionally.

Just then, Edric’s eyes lit upon a smooth-skinned, mocha-colored slave that looked neither too young nor too old. He reasoned her to be around eighteen or nineteen. She wore her braids like a queen and her simple gray slave clothes seem tailored to her voluptuous frame. But most intriguing of all was her unique hazel eyes that spoke of intelligence and refused to drag the ground as the rest of the slaves were doing.

The thirty-year-old gentleman felt something move within him as he experienced what it was like to be attracted to a Negro woman for the first time in his life. It was as if the blood in his head actually started to rapidly drain south, leaving him feeling lightheaded right now.

Whereas Edric had been able to easily look past the physical attributes of his ex-slave Jeanne who’d looked less like a Negro woman and more like a tanned white woman with her bronze skin and straight sand-colored hair, he feared that he would not be able to do the same with the mocha beauty in front of him now.

A question formed in Edric’s eyes and he looked towards his overseer. “What say you of this wench?”

“Sir, I hear she be an ornery one,” the sweaty overseer named York informed him. His brown shirt and black trousers were just as dirty as the field hands he managed, even though York didn’t do an ounce of fieldwork. Sadly, his filth was due to lack of regular washing.

Not another difficult slave, Edric thought, already filling up with anger towards his brothers again. He fought not to cringe with dread as he thought of Jeanne who - last he heard - had been sold again for starting trouble between her new master and his wife. This time she’d been sold into prostitution, despite the fact that she’d begged to be turned over to the organizers of a Quadroon Ball. At least in a genteel sex market Jeanne could have obtained a formal arrangement with a white suitor who would financially support her and any children she had in exchange for her long-term sexual services.

“I be happy to tame her for ya though,” York continued with a wide grin as he licked his lips in a hungry manner. His right hand went up to his long moustache and twirled the waxed ends that stood straight out at the sides.

Two jobs before this one; York had been a slave breaker on another plantation. Most slave breakers saw slaves only as animals and treated them that way. Their tools were chains, whips, starvation, and exhaustion from work. Their main goal was to make the slaves lose all hope of being free. In York’s case, he’d tried to get the slaves to a point where they no longer thought of themselves as human at all, to a point where they no longer cared what happened to them.

“No need for that, man. I am sure hard work will tame her soon enough,” Edric replied. He didn’t like the way York was looking at the new slave wench for reasons he didn’t quite understand yet. And although he didn’t allow his overseer to use his whip unnecessarily or rape the female slaves on this plantation, that didn’t mean that York hadn’t done it on occasion without Dr. Wainwright’s knowledge.

“In fact, see that this wench gets cleaned up and sent to help Charlotte and Georgina in the house. The others can help tend to the animals until further notice,” Edric continued, looking at the girl again. He was surprised to see a look of amazement flash in her eyes before it was covered with the same neutral expression that most slaves wore around their masters.

“But, sir, she be more valuable out in the fields,” York protested as Edric turned to walk away.

Edric stopped and turned around with his eyes flashing. “Do you presume to tell me where my property will do the most good?”

The overseer quickly shook his head as he lowered his dirty brown hat respectfully to his chest. “No, sir. Many ‘pologizes, sir.”

“Apology accepted, my good man,” Edric said, fastening a forgiving smile on his face towards one of his most diligent employees. York could get blood out of a turnip if he had to. “Now let us all be off to work, shall we?” Dr. Wainwright concluded before turning to leave again.

Nineteen-year-old Eve stared after her new master with strange happenings coursing through her veins. Not only was Dr. Wainwright the best looking white man she’d ever seen in her life with his stylish loose-fitting brown frock coat and brown and beige checkered trousers, he was also the first white man to ever stand up for her in any way.

Eve suddenly found herself afraid. She was scared of these bewildering feelings that seemed to want to run away from her concerning this unusual man whose aqua eyes reminded her of the rivers her grandmother used to describe from the old country. But more than anything else, Eve was afraid of ever letting these new developing feelings for her master show.

Keep it buried. Keep it buried deep if ya want ta go on living, Eve told herself as she was herded with the rest of the group towards the slave quarters. On the way there, she listened carefully as York instructed all the slaves to call their new master Dr. Wainwright instead of ‘Massa’ since their new owner preferred it that way. That instruction only confirmed what Eve already suspected – Dr. Edric Wainwright was going to be very different from any master she’d ever encountered before.

******

Later that night in bed, Edric found himself thinking about his new female slave, who would now be known as their downstairs maid. He wanted to know what had been going on behind those hazel eyes of Eve’s when she’d looked at him earlier today. Why she hadn’t been afraid to look directly at a white man in the first place? And most importantly, why she held her back so erect as if she was a queen and not a slave?

******

Unknown to the man of the house, Eve was currently in his house. She was downstairs being shown what her duties would be by Georgina, the upstairs maid and the cook’s aunt. Georgina’s husband was Dr. Wainwright’s driver and the only adult male house slave. Homer usually helped with the lugging of the bath water, the moving of furniture and many other strenuous tasks around the house that the female slaves could not easily do.

Among the five house slaves, all of them were somehow related, except for Eve. Even the errand boy was a relative. Jem was the cook’s son. There were no nursemaids in the house because Dr. Wainwright and his wife had borne no children as of yet.

Mindful to pay special attention to Georgina, who had been cleaning both floors of the big house ever since some slave woman named Jeanne was sold; Eve held the lantern in her hand steady and closely followed her guide through the bottom level of the white-painted home.

Guests entered the long foyer area of the house from the big porch outside with its six rocking chairs – three on each side of the front door. On the left side of the foyer was the parlor, the sewing room where the lady of the house oversaw the making of the slave garments every spring and fall, a side hallway that led to the side porch, and the family dining room with its second door that exited to the detached kitchen.

Like many in their social class, the Wainwrights opted to have the kitchen as a separate entity from the house. This way, the heat, noise, smell, and commotion from the kitchen could be kept from the main living area. It also reduced the risk of fire to the main house and in Abigail’s case; it kept the slaves out of her house as much as possible.

On the right side of the long foyer was a great room filled with furniture that Mrs. Wainwright had custom-made and imported from a place overseas called Paris. Georgina mentioned that the furniture was in Rococo style and that it was the most popular thing among the rich white folks right now. She particularly mentioned how expensive the walnut and mahogany sofas were and that the lady of the house was very fussy about how they were to be maintained. Especially with the intricate carvings on the front and back panels.

To that, Eve only nodded. She would take special care to make sure that she did a good job in the whole downstairs area, especially the great room. After all, being a house slave was a whole lot better than working in the fields all day.

The next room on the right was the formal dining room where Miss Abigail, as she was called by the slaves, held her dinner parties. The room right after that one, beyond the wide staircase, was Dr. Wainwright’s study/office. Anatomy charts, scales, and surgical needles, and medicines were located in this room. Eve was admonished by Georgina to take special care of this room as well, seeing as the good doctor liked for all of his things to stay neat and tidy.

To that, Eve said, “Not ta worry, Georgina. Da Wainwrights won’t have no need ta fuss ‘bout da’ downstairs whiles I’m here.”

Georgina turned around and looked the new slave square in the eye, trying to discern if she could trust her or not. After deciding to go with her inner hunch that never led her wrong about people, the older slave made a startling and very somber revelation.

“Not ta worry, Eve. Miss Abigail will find somethin’ ta fuss ‘bout anyhow. Anytime of day or night, too,” Georgina whispered, recalling that Mrs. Wainwright continually found fault with the servants no matter how attentive or industrious they might be.

Eve’s eyes first bore a question. Then they filled with realization. Georgina had revealed a lot in that statement. Not only was Miss Abigail apparently a fussbox, it was clear that being a house slave had its down points, too. And as they exited the Wainwright house, Georgina saw fit to tell Eve what those down points were.

Although they were better fed and clothed than field hands and were not obliged to rise at the ringing of the bell, but about a half hour later, house slaves were constantly exposed to the whims and rages of their owners, from the least to the greatest. They also worked longer hours than the field slaves because they were always required to sit up until all the family had retired.

In the summertime, house slaves had to get up at early dawn. In the wintertime, they had to be up before daybreak. And if they failed, through weariness or some other reason, to appear at the morning summons, Miss Abigail made sure that they were punished in some way.

“Is Miss Abigail Christian?” Eve asked as they made their way across the dark fields towards the slave quarters. She’d heard that some Christian masters and their wives treated slaves better than non-Christians did. Her last master had been in the non-Christian category and he’d been horrible to serve under.

Georgina stopped in her tracks. She took a few moments to respond to Eve this time as well as she pondered the other woman’s trustworthiness again. Then deciding to go with the lingering inner peace she felt about Eve, Georgina answered, “Miss Abigail be a member of a church. And she be partaking of da Lord’s Supper every second Sunday. But dat don’t seem ta mean a hill of beans wit how she treat us slaves, dat’s for sho’.” Georgina sighed sadly and added, “Even so, it beats being out in da field wit dat rattlesnake York.”

Eve nodded sadly in acknowledgment of the hypocrisy of Miss Abigail. She also nodded in full agreement with Georgina’s assessment of the Wainwrights’ overseer. York was definitely a man she planned on staying as far away as possible from. And even though Dr. Wainwright didn’t come across as a rattlesnake, Eve would endeavor to stay out of his sight as well.

© 2005 Suprina Frazier

2 comments:

Count said...

Okay. You know I don't normally read stuff like this but you got me in. I hate to be reminded about the days of slavery ... it pisses me off. Edric is a bastard at this time but you make him seem so righteous and noble. You like him and hate him at the same time. I think you do a swell job of emotionally atttaching the reader. Good work!!

Suprina said...

As always, I appreciate your honesty, Count. And yes, this is a sensitive topic for a lot of us. To be honest, I did not want to come anywhere near the slavery issue. But since I felt compelled to write this story, I did, not knowing how people were going to take it.

Thanks for the compliment, man. It means a lot.