November 11, 1860
Cedar Grove Plantation
Secreted in the belvedere atop the manor house at Cedar Grove, Uranie Delacroix enjoyed an enduring view of the sugar plantation with its miles of verdant fields, but more, she had a direct view of the village of cabins where her mama lived, along with her brother, Daniel and his pregnant wife, Maddie. After a day’s work in the cane fields, the exhausted men and women gathered around the old sugar kettle in the middle of the Quarters, and listened to Cubby and George sing their beloved plantation songs. The crisp autumn air carried the sweet twang of the juice harp through the open windows in the belvedere.
She adjusted Colonel Jared’s old field glasses to get a better view of Daniel stomping the ground as he played his homemade banjo for the dancers.
Ranie’s beloved mother, Rebecca, or Mama Blue, as everyone called her for her love of the color, puffed on her corncob pipe, even as she hooked arms with young Jacob from the tanning house. She threw her head back and twirled, her mouth split by a smile. She let out a howl as her next partner grabbed her arm and spun her.
Fitzgerald, the main house’s butler, stood beneath an ancient pecan tree, and clapped his white gloved hands. Well-spoken when he needed to be, and some said well-read, at a time when such was against local law, he’d treated Ranie kindly when other slaves begrudged her mixed parentage and privileged position in the house.
She huffed in frustration. There’d been times when she wished the Colonel had left her with Mama Blue, considering his wife, Elnora, had hated her from the moment Ranie drew her first breath in the weaver’s cabin almost nineteen years before.
Fitzgerald had been with the Colonel since before the Colonel went into the army, he said, and would’ve followed him, if the old master, Charles, Jared’s pa, had allowed it. He’d promised to watch over her in the house when the Colonel took her away from her mama. “He got plans for ya, chile. You’ll see. Master Jared, he a good man. He’ll do right by ya.”
Jared’s frequent absences had afforded Elnora ample opportunity to express her scorn, not only toward Mama Blue, who’d given birth to Jared’s first child, but she’d never missed an opportunity to compare Ranie to Elyse by pointing up Ranie’s shortcomings. Blessed was the day when he hung up his sword and gold epaulets, one of which he’d given to her and the other to Elyse.
Through her endless spying, she’d learned that the Colonel and Mama Blue had been childhood friends and that they’d experimented with each other. Through their girlish giggles, Ranie and Elyse had spied on many a Madeira-sodden conversation, with Elnora dressing the Colonel down for his unseemly behavior with a “slave woman” and the resulting “beige brat.”
Even Elyse knew about their father’s dalliance, and spoke not a word in favor of her irascible mother. Born a day apart, Ranie, the older by less than twelve hours, the girls had glommed onto each other from their early days in Louisiana’s kitchen. When Elnora thought it time to instill “the proper manners and refinements” in Elyse, the Colonel insisted she include Ranie.
The music changed to a Pattin’ Juba, and damn if Mama Blue didn’t keep up with the others. She held her blue skirt up to circle and stomp with the best of her friends. The laughter chased the birds from the trees, save Ol’ Chester, the hooty owl that lived in the pecan grove.
Ranie laughed, just as the door opened behind her and Elyse burst in. “What you doin up here? Gimme them glasses. Yep, I knew it. Papa’s comin’ down the drive.”
“About time. S’pposed to be back three days ago.” She rose and dusted off her flowered cotton dress. “Do I look all right?”
Elyse set the glasses down, licked her finger, and smoothed a wisp of Ranie’s hair. “I never saw such unruly hair.” Elyse giggled. “There, you look as good as you can. Be careful around Mother. She’s had a few glasses of wine and she’d been thinkin’ about England again.”
They stepped onto the staircase leading from the belvedere. “When doesn’t she lately? That letter from her brother didn’t set well.”
“I should say not. Stodgy ol’ Grandpapa died right at the dinner table. That had to have been unsettlin’ for everyone.”
“His haughty Patrician nose right in his Yorkshire puddin’.” Ranie loosed an uncharitable laugh, but sobered at Elyse’s scowl. “I’m sorry, but you gotta admit, that musta been a sight.”
“I’m sure it was.” Elyse chuckled.
Downstairs, they pulled up short before running into Elnora, her half-full wine glass aloft. “Where are you two going in such a hurry?”
“Papa’s home from New Orleans!” Elyse clapped her hands several times. “I hope he found the books I wanted.”
Elnora glared over the top of her spectacles. “Young ladies don’t romp about like Uranie’s relations. I sent Fitzgerald down to the Quarters to put a stop to that savage music.”
Ranie bit her tongue, but glanced at Elyse to see if she was going to say anything. She didn’t.
“May we greet Papa, Mother?”
Elnora sighed with a generous dose of her inbred English vexation. “Don’t run. Bad enough you do when I’m not watching.”
“Never would.” Elyse raised a scampy brow and tugged Ranie away.
They burst onto the wraparound gallery at the front of the house, and into Fitzgerald’s stiff back, as Jared Delacroix, the Colonel to those who knew and respected him, alighted the carriage. He grabbed his walking stick from inside and turned with a smile.
“There’s my girls. Those smiles make that bumpy journey worth the effort.”
Each girl pecked a cheek and danced before him. “What did you bring us?”
“You must guess. What do you two think I have?”
“Books, and…” Elyse presented prayer-like hands. “My sheet music.”
Jared jigged between unbalanced steps. “What about you, Uranie? What do you think I brought you?”
Ranie shrugged, never sure if he’d remember the items she’d requested. “The hair pins we saw in Mendenhall’s window?” She glanced at Elyse. “I promise to share. Please say you got them.”
Elnora’s footfalls on the sweeping gallery sobered the enthusiasm.
“How is she, girls?”
“Started tipping at four.”
Jared slipped his pocket watch out of his vest. “She’s had plenty of time to build her arguments.” His smile disappeared. “My dear. Good to see you.”
Elnora’s gaze hardened. “Did you take receipt of the goods my family sent over?”
As though summoned from the netherworld, a wagon rumbled down the winding drive, shadowed by the vast arch of ancient oak boughs. “Three crates full.”
Elnora inclined her head once. “Have them brought into the house.”
Jared opened his mouth as though to answer, but Elnora turned her back and disappeared through the open double door. He sighed, but again turned his attention to his girls.
“So tell us, Papa. What’s the news from New Orleans? How did the election go?”
Jared hung his head. “Lincoln won, despite our best efforts. His party opposes everything we believe in. Here.” He handed Elyse a brown paper package tied with twine. “Read slower this time. There’s only two books there, and I’m not due back in New Orleans for a month. And Uranie, here are those hair pins you admired in Mendenhall’s window. I expect you to wear them at your birthday dance.”
Ranie tore through the small vellum package and gasped as she turned the twin tanzanite hairpins over in her hands. “Look, Elyse, our birthstone. We can each wear one at the dance.”
“I have plenty hairpins. You wear them.” Elyse leafed through her new copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. “Thank you, Papa. I’m dying to read this.”
“I love these, Papa. Thank you.”
He bowed on hobbled legs. “I am your humble servant.”
Elyse skimmed Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. “You’ll help fix the political situation. I’m sure of it.”
Jared shook his head. “There’s strenuous talk of secession. I’m inclined to lean in that direction myself. States should have the right to conduct their affairs without the interference of the Federal government.”
Elyse patted her father’s shoulder. “You mustn’t get your dander up, Papa. Everything will work out as it should.”
He nodded. “Has everything gone well in my absence?”
“About the same. Mother has me practicing my music for hours at a time. She’s all but ignored Ranie, except to yell at her for sneaking off to Mama Blue’s cabin or for not working hard enough at…”
“Shh.” Ranie slapped Elyse’s arm.
Elyse’s face reddened. “I’m sorry. It kinda slipped out.”
“Does she have you working, Uranie, instead of learning like I instructed?”
“Only sometimes. I like to work.”
You shoulda seen Mother, Papa, the night Ranie dropped a plate on the dining room floor. Her eyes were big as dinner plates. She caterwauled so loud, I thought she’d peel the paper off the walls. She scared the house servants something awful.”
“We’ll see about that.”
“Now, my young misses. You tellin’ tales ain’t gettin’ the Colonel in the house any faster. Leave the man alone.”
Jared winked at the girls, their backs to Fitzgerald. “That’s all right, Fitz. I missed these faces while I was gone. Did the new carpenter arrive?”
Fitzgerald nodded. “He did, sir. He’s set up nice.”
“I never saw a man so handsome.” Ranie hugged herself. “He’s got muscles for days.”
Jared’s steely-eyed expression threw Ranie out of her dreamy state. “Girl, understand your place, and his. They aren’t the same. I have plans for you, and you won’t spoil that, you hear?”
“What plans? You’ve never mentioned plans.”
“Never mind for now. That boy is on loan from the DeVille’s plantation. He’s here to build some new tables and chairs for the cottages, not to visit.”
Ranie glanced in the direction of the carpentry shop. “I can talk to him?”
“No. No matter you being born in the Quarters, you’re as gentle born as your sister. You have a bright future ahead of you.” He tapped Ranie’s nose with a gloved finger. “You must let me guide you.”
“Why should Ranie listen to you? You didn’t do too well for yourself.”
“Elyse Marie Delacroix! Mind your tongue. Your mother has done right by you both. Taught you all the fine English fussiness she learned. More than I had a right to expect from her.”
Elyse huffed and crossed her arms. “Papa, the things you choose not to see, I swear.”
“Perhaps you’re right, but I’m exhausted from the journey, and I still have letters to write. What are you two supposed to be doing?”
“’Scuse me, sir. Where you want these crates?”
Jared raised his hand. “Give me a moment and you can follow me.” Jared doffed his hat and scrubbed his matted silver hair. “So what does your mother want you doin’?”
“I want to go night giggin’ with Daniel, but Mother has had her eye on me all evenin’.”
“And I’ve been in the belvedere listening to the music in the village. Much as I wanted to go the Quarters, I didn’t. That ought to be worth somethin.”
Jared rubbed his chin. “I see. So, you Elyse, are wanting to sneak off, and Uranie, you know Miss Elnora doesn’t want you listening to that music.” He chuckled. “The notions that woman gets. E, you go on with my blessing. Uranie, you and I should break the rule and go listen together, so you can visit with Rebecca?”
Elyse squealed and clapped her hands. “See you later, Ranie. Thank you, Papa.”
Elyse disappeared in a flash of gingham, her brown hair swinging as she chased the night.
“You mean you’ll take me to see Mama?”
“I do. Been awhile since I’ve been down there, and I don’t suppose either one of us will be missed in the house.”
Fitzgerald came off the gallery. “Sir, if that’s what you’re doin’, I’ll take your cape and hat, and after I stow ’em, I’ll go with you.”
“That’d be nice.” He handed the garments to Fitzgerald and put his arm around Ranie. “New Orleans is bustlin’ with activity. Talk of secession is on everyone’s lips.”
She skipped alongside her father on the path to the Quarters. “What’s that mean? Secession?”
“Excellent question. Shows me you still want to learn. Now, some of us want to pull out of the United States, so we can keep Mr. Lincoln out of our business. We want to preserve our way of life.”
“Does that include keepin’ slaves?”
Jared cleared his throat, his face mottled. “Daughter, our way of life depends upon slave labor. Simple economics. We treat our people here good, and that won’t change. Slavery is a nasty business, but without it, the South would perish.”
Fitzgerald joined them under the sprawling tree. “I suspect Loo-si-ana’s gonna give ol’ Mr. Lincoln what for, don’t you, Colonel?”
They set out for the village. “If we are to believe the talk, yes. But we’ll see.”
As they walked, Uranie turned her new hairpins over in her hands. “You ever thought of freein’ Mama Blue an’ them?”
“Darlin’, where would they go? How would they get on? They only know Cedar Grove.”
Ranie shrugged. “What about me? Don’t you own me too?”
“You sure are full of questions, aren’t you? That’s a question for another day. Come on. Daniel’s got some snappy music goin’ tonight.”
Ranie tucked the hairpins in her pocket. “You gonna dance tonight, Papa?”
He lifted his silver-topped cane. “I can barely stand, child. But I like to watch.”
Old Dover Jack rocked outside a well-kept cabin. “Evenin’, Colonel. I’d get up, but the rheumatiz has me hobbled some ter’ble.”
“That’s all right, Jack. You sit. I brought ya back some of that sweet tobacco you like so well.” Jared tugged two pouches out of his frock coat pocket. “Don’t know how long we’ll be able to get it, so I got you two.”
Jack flashed a toothless grin, holding the cloth bags aloft. “’Preciate it, Colonel. ’Bout the only pleasure I got these days.”
Jared gave the old man a mock salute and guided Ranie toward Mama Blue’s place, three doors down.
As they pulled the door open, Elyse burst through the creaky wooden door wearing a pair of Daniel’s breeches and an old homespun shirt. “Land sakes, you scared the bejesus outta me.”
“Is that how you talk when you’re out of our hearing?”
Elyse bowed her head, even as Ranie choked down a laugh. “Sorry Papa. We’re headin’ out to the pond.”
“I should hope you wouldn’t dress like that for any other reason. Sometimes I think I shouldn’t know certain things about you and your carryin’ on.”
“We’re just catchin’ frogs. You appreciate that frog stew Louisiana makes you.”
“That I do. Go on, then. Don’t make noise comin’ in the house, in case your mother hasn’t had enough wine.”
Daniel burst through the door. “You ready? Oh, sorry. Evenin’ Colonel. Mr. Fitzgeral’. We bes’ git to da pon’. I hear the bullies croakin’ from here.”
Elyse grabbed a gig from the nail under the roof. “I’m ready. We’ll be about an hour.”
“Make sure it’s no longer. We’re treadin’ dangerous ground as it is.”
Breathless from a dance, Mama Blue tugged Uranie close for a hug. “Oh, my girl. I don’t get to do this of’en enough.”
“How you been, Mama?”
The older woman held up her bandaged hands and shrugged. “Getting’ the woik done. Colonel, good to see you too.”
Ever the gentlemen, Jared inclined his head. “I got any number of compliments on my new striped shirt. Several acquaintances wanted to know if you’d weave them the cloth so they could have similar shirts made.”
“I got all the woik I can handle tending to you and the res’.” Mama Blue wave a dismissive hand.
Jared laughed. “That’s what I told them. I brought you back that loom oil you wanted.”
The casual politeness between her two parents had always confused Ranie, compared to the tense air in any room with Elnora and the Colonel in it. Ranie melted into the music as Jared and Mama Blue chatted. Their voices blended into the crickets chirping and squirrels scampering in the trees.
She inched toward the fire in the middle of the conclave of cabins and leaned against one of the many trees. Children, their hands interlocked, danced in a circle, to a dreary song about cradles and trees. “Ashes, ashes, we all fall down” brought them crashing to the earth amidst carefree giggles.
She’d never been one of those children. Her clothes had never smelled of wood smoke. Unless she snuck about, she’d never listened to Cubby’s and George’s deep voices singing the praises of their Lord. Ranie closed her eyes and prayed. For what, she wasn’t sure. Please Lord was as far as she ever got in her dreams for the future.