forty-one            

            "Where on eart' you been, Jewel? Mist'ess on de war pat' all mo'nin' 'bout you not on de prem'ses. Sen' me lookin'. An' 'er pointy little face gets redder an' redder ev' time I have report da yo' still missin'. Better go straight on up an' show yo'se'f. Beulah 'bout to boil on yo' 'coun', too. Fac' is yo' in HEAPS o' trouble ev'where."

            Jewel hangs up her coat and straightens her shapeless dress.

            "What dat?"

            She stops.

            "What what?"

            "In yo' hair. Look like chicken fetters."

            Tessie limps closer to investigate.

            "Where you been? Gots bits o' fur an' fetters... You rompin' 'bout de coop wit one dem fiel'han's? Tell me true. You fine a man?"

            Jewel turns to face the looking glass, while Tessie busily grooms her.

            "Pine needles. You doin' it in de woods? Best watch yo' step, Jewel. Dem woods dang'rous. Patterrollers ketch you, you be sorry. Who is it? Cotton? I see Cotton wit dat tongue out pantin'. Fac' is, I seen mos' dem scoun'rels catch yo' scent. Which one you pick?"

            Jewel, at last presentable, retrieves the lace chemise and hurries up the cellar stairs.

 

 

            Felicia—Priscilla ministering—sits before her vanity. Lunch has come and gone with no sign of Zachary, who allegedly will attend his wife at dinner. Jewel peeks in.

            "Well, now. Will you look at who has finally condescended to appear? Catching up on your beauty sleep, Jewel? Or does it always take you half a day to do one piece of laundry? Bring it here. Let me see... Come, come, don't stand there pouting. Always pouting. Or is it just your mouth? With lips the size of hog bladders, pouting, I guess, comes natural."

            Jewel holds out the garment. Priscilla retrieves it.

            "Is it clean, Prissy?"

            "Yessum."

            "Does it smell?"

            Priscilla sniffs the undergarment.

            "Don't smell like..."

            "Doesn't."

            "Doesn't smell like roses but it do smell nice."

            Felicia sighs. (Negroes are incorrigible, no matter how one trains them. What was that expression about sow's ears and purses?)

            "I've changed my mind, Priscilla; I'll wear my hair down today."

            "But Mistress. We spent all mornin' long..."

            "With ringlets. Lots and lots of dainty little ringlets."

            "Yessum."

            Jewel is waiting to be dismissed or further reprimanded or both. Suddenly she is conscious of the ruby between her breasts, its subtle pulse reviving the odd sensation in her spine.

            What fo' dat little man try close up my face? Musta said somethin'. 'Lessen him crazy. Could be. Sho look crazy.

            "The pink chemise should do quite nicely; don't you think so, Priss? With the lavender? That lavender is absolutely sinful the way it's top it cut. I do declare those French must always be in heat."

            "It sure is sinful, yessum."

            Cep' it seem him know thin's... o' leas'wise set me to thinkin'... 'bout de pas'—my daddy in partic'lar... 'bout the future—an' aw de grief what 'pears be due.

            "Oh!... I have a little pain."

            "Where, Mistress?"

            "In my shoulder."

            "Here?"

            "No, lower... lower. Ah, you found it. That's it. That's the spot. Oooo, that does feel good!"

            "Might 's well learn accep' it"—slav'ry. Dat it! I say might's well learn accep' slav'ry. Den him make it so's I couldn' breave. Hows come? No escapin' slav'ry. Runnin' do no good. Mayhap him tryin' show how slav'ry smudder us niggahs.

            "I do declare, are you still here?... Girl?"

            Gots fight it off, like I fights him, fo'e slav'ry lets us go.

            "Jewel!"

            "Yes, ma'am."

            "You may leave."

            "Yes, ma'am."

            Jewel departs.

            "Do you believe that girl, Prissmore; now do my neckso dumb? She would have stood there all day long, I have no doubt. Girls with a shape like hers typically have no brains. Even nigger brains. Not that Jewel's physique is anything all that special. Besides which she is brutishly black—black as a boll weevil—and criminally incompetent. Are you sure that chemise is clean? I will have to speak to Zachary about that girl again. Why he won't keeps her on I cannot comprehend."

            "Master Zachary sweet on Jewel, I 'spect."

            Felicia stiffens, eyes igniting, fingernails impaling her tightly clenched fists.

            "WHAT!"

            Priscilla baulks.

            "Didn't mean it! Honest, Mistress!"

            "WHY WOULD ANYBODY UTTER SUCH AN IGNOMINIOUS SLANDER?"

            "Didn't."

            "YOU DID!"

            "No, not me, Mistress. I didn't say it; Tessie did. It was Tessie said it. I heared her talkin' wit Marisee and her said..."

            Prissy falters.

            "She said what?"

            "Her, she said somethin' like..."

            "DON'T give me somethin' like! What did she say exactly?"

            "I don't... I... She said, 'Fust time her'—meanin' you—'ketch Massah wit dat look him looks'—meanin' at Jewel—'boun' ta be firewo'ks.'"

            Felicia rises from her vanity in an apoplectic rage—looking to smash things, itching to scream bloody murder, spoiling to have that bitch bound, gagged, and summarily flayedpoised, lest the charge be true, to tear Priscilla's tongue out.

            "She said THAT?"

            "Yessum."

            "YOU shut up. Tessie said THAT? She said MY husband has a look he reserves for some bubble-butted slave? She implied MY husband would hold his wife in such low esteem as to glad eye a Hottentot? She suggested that I would believe such a thing, that I would make some sort of scene over a blatant, bold­faced LIE?"

            Abruptly, like an implosion, Felicia sucks in her anger; face gone calm, composure recollected, she smoothes the ruffles from her petticoat and settles back down at her vanity.

            "Come and do my neck some more, Priscilla; there still is a teeny little pain that needs to be rubbed out."

 

 

            The muscles in Beulah's forearms flex as potato parings curl into a pail. She does not watch what she is doing, devoting her eyes to Jewel's interrogation.

            "Where you wen', chile?"

            Jewel stands head hung silent. Beulah's facial scars appear especially ferocious.

            "You run off. You lef' early, run to de woods 'cause you done somethin' yo' 'shamed of?"

            No one saw her leave; of this Jewel is certain; Beulah must be using her powers of divinationnotorious for missing the mark.

            "Took nuthin'. Not so much 's a slice o' bread. So you wan'ers a while 'til you gets hungry, den re'lize jus' how dumb yo' runnin' off gwon be—'specially in de ha'f-ass way yo' done it—so home you come... Dat 'bout right?"

            Jewel refrains from comment, hoping her silence silent will serve as an affirmation.

            "Runnin' nev' done solve no problem, Jewel. Mist'ess makin' it hard on you, I know. Dat White fo'ks' way. But lissen to Beulah; let me tells you a li'ly-bitty secret. Mist'ess jealous. Dat right; don' look su'prise'. Mist'ess green-gill jealous on accoun' o' yo' so comely, an' dat a fac'. Now I not tellin' you dis make yo' head swoll up. Nuthin' in dis whitewash world fetch a niggah mo'e mis'ry dan a swoll up head. I tellin' you dis so's you can tuck it in yo' heart. Keep you warm sometime when it cold out. Niggah gots have somethin' what keep 'em warm inside, somethin' cain't be took, somethin' what preserve yo' self-respec'. You make a White girl jealous, what goes-to-show yo' bettah. Dat right. Yo' black 's coal, an' poor 's dirt, an' owned 'stead o' bein' free, but when it come to female comeliness de Mist'ess secon'-bes'. Course dat dang'rous. Whites behave much worser dey's de leas' bit doubtful dey super'or. Dat why you gots tuck de truth deep inside where no one else can fine it. Yo' luckier dan mos', Jewel. Mos' us niggahs got hate inside, preservin' self-respec'. But hate mos' like a worm inside a apple; 'ventu'lly eat it up... Still, us niggahs got have somethin' cain't be took; hate mayhap serve." Beulah's lecture—uttered introspectively—readdresses Jewel. "Yo' bein' quiet 's in yo' favour. Mayhap, iffen you can keep a-holt yo' tongue, what Beulah fear gwon happen will pass dis househol' by." Jewel's confused expression suggests that she does not follow. "Nev' mind. Beulah know what Beulah know; jawin' not gwon change thin's. Got some chores need ketchin' up on, Jewel; you bes' get at 'em."

            Grateful to have gotten off so easily, Jewel contritely nods.