forty-four             

            "Mister Randolph Bates to see the Master, Mistress."

            "Of all the nerve. Send him away. Tell him Zachary... No, on second thought, Priscilla, bring 'Mister Randolph Bates' to me. "

            "You mean, here, Mistress; to your bedroom?"

            "Of course not here precisely! I'll receive him in the drawing room."

            "Yessum. "

            Priscilla exits. Felicia gives the finishing touches to her afternoon toilette, (of late she has taken to bathing thrice daily and donning as many costumes) fluffs the ruffles of her formal, flaming-pink dress, and makes her way, with regal affectation, to greet the unwanted guest.

 

            "Why, Randolph Bates. To what do we owe the pleasure of this unexpected visit? It has been ages since we saw you."

            "I was here just yester..."

            "Ages! You simply must come by more often. That is, unless you're here again to haul my ever-loving husband off to Charleston."

            "No, ma'am. We..."

            "Because if that's the case I must implore you, Mister Bates, to show a trifle of compassion for us newlyweds. You may think I'm being selfish or unreasonably over-possessive, but a day without the sight of my beloved is like a century; I am absolutely miserable every second we part."

            "No, ma'am. I come..."

            "Of course, it might be argued that the dew is off the blossom, in that vows we exchanged weeks and weeks old. I do declare, I have had trouble recollecting them myself. Something about fidelity, I believe, was seriously mentioned, along with 'loving' and 'obeying' and... Have I left a declaration out?"

            "Excuse me, Miss Felicia... "

            "Mrs. Squire."

            "Beg pardon, Misses. I only come to..."

            "'Honouring'; that was it. Zachary and I pledged 'honour' to one another, 'for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer,' onto death—or words to that effect, though I may have misremembered our vows exact order. Still, those were our sentiments... at the time...  way back when."

            "Excuse me, Misses, but would you kindly tell your husband that I'm here?"

            "I would. Believe me, Mister Bates, I truly would if that were possible. It is not, I regret to say; meaning he is nothere, that is. I have checked. I have asked all the servants. They have checked. And I am told the Master is nowhere to be found."

            "Then, I'll be.. "

            "I have a theory, however. Would you like to hear my theory, Mister Randolph Bates? Do stop fidgeting and sit down; you remind me of a rabbit caught in a snare." Bates sits down. "That's better; certainly more civil. Civility is important, Mister Bates—take off that hat, please—as is decorum. There are certain things one does, and does not do. One does not, for example... STOP THAT! Honestly, your manners leave much to be desired."

            Bates deposits the bugger he has excavated into his hat. He likes Felicia. He likes her spunk, her haughtiness, way she puts on airs. He likes her figure for its solidity, the angle of her chin, her little-girl pout, her tiny feet, her perky, high-strung gestures, even her fits of temper. He reaches into his pocket for a chaw of tobacco.

            "You may not consume that substance in my presence."

            He puts it back. He likes her bossiness, too. No doubt she is spoiled, but strip away the pretences, pamper her when necessary, make her feel secure, and Felicia, in Bates' opinion, could be the ideal wife—though not for Zachary.

            "Where was I? Yes; my theory. It is highly controversial so I trust you'll be discreet? I have your word?"

            Bates nods.

            Felicia, with a demented glint, ventures a half step closer and lowers her voice.

            "Zachary—your incorrigible chum, my purportedly loving husband—can change himself, at will, into a blackamoor." She pauses to observe her words' effect. Bates almost guffaws, and would, were  it not for Felicia's agitated state. "Don't you see? That's how he does it; how he disappears from dawn till dusk most every day. For all intents and purposes, Zachary is a slave."

            Felicia grins, then titters, then laughs right out loudlaughs hysterically. Bates is inclined to join her save for Felicia's pitch, which he finds manic thus inhibiting... then embarrassing as her laughter persists / stops abruptly as she circles Bates where he sits, to feign interest in his hair, making as if to touch it—to pull it, perhaps, like a petulant child—resisting the temptation as she comes to a halt back in front of him.

            "I do apologize for keeping you, Mister Bates; you must be bored to tears. The chatter of a discontented wife is hardly scintillating. Why, hush my mouth! Did you hear what I just said; a discontented wife? Here I am with all these riches, a grand house furnished any way I please, slaves to serve me, fashionable clothes to wear, youth, health, wealth, status, a husband so good-looking my girlfriends still sigh with envy, and I describe myself as discontented? Shame on me! My sole request? That Zachary spare me a little more time. Is that too much to ask? Is that unreasonable, Mister Bates? Am I so terribly, terribly tiresome? I mean, I know I'm young and silly and utterly inexperienced. I am refined, nonetheless. I thought refinement counted as a virtue. I thought men married to achieve refinement. I thought men wanted wives who are ladies, not ladies-of-the-night.

            Bates has begun to take an interest in his boots; he contemplates one, then the other, musing about the leather, assorted rough spots, scuffs, bits of earth that clog their well-worn seams.

            "Mister Bates, I do believe I was asking your opinion. Would you condescend to venture one? Or is the mud your feet have tracked onto my carpet more worthy of your concern?"

            "Sorry, Misses. If you want me to, I'll..."

            "Leave it! That's what servants are for. Jewel!... JEWEL!"

            "I really gotta be goin', Misses. We caught us..."

            "JEWEL! "

            Jewel hurries in.

            "Yes, Mist'ess?"

            "Our guest has accidentally soiled the carpet."

            "Yes, Mist'ess."

            Jewel goes out, followed by an appreciative glance from Bates—observed by Felicia.

            "You were saying, Mister Bates?"

            "Huh? Oh. We caught us a maroon. You know, a runaway?"

            "I know what a maroon is. Caught one where?"

            Jewel re-enters, short-broom and dustpan in hand. Bates' attention strays once more as the servant stoops to sweep up dislodged crumbs of clay—her sack dress bodice swagged, affording him glimpses of her prepossessing bust.

            "Caught one where? Not on our property, I pray."

            "Damn near. Excuse me, pretty near. Got 'im treed, other side the crick. You shoulda heard 'im howl. Howled like a banshee. Won't come down—got Jeff and Amos scared half to death to go up after 'im."

            "Now that I would like to see; two overgrown brutes scared 'half to death' by... This maroon must be a most imposing nigger."

            "Ain't the nigger's size that's got 'em spooked."

            Jewel starts to leave; Felicia stops her.

            "Do his boots."

            "Yes, Mist'ess."

            "Oh, that's alright. They'll just be—you don't have to, girl—they'll just be gettin' all muddied up..."

            "Do the gentleman's boots, Jewel."

            Bates protests no further, resumes his seat, admires an uncensored view as Jewel performs the task.

            "It's not his size, as I was sayin'. In fact, the nigger's downright puny; a runt, I'd say'less he's shimmied higher than we three reckoned. It's what the little feller's doin'makin' signs and hexes and suchlike—that's caused consternation. Amos and Jeff swear he's a Conjure man; won't go no where near 'im. And the midget's noncompliant. I raised my gun and threatened to shoot and he still refused to heed. That's how come I'm here; need to borrow an axe to fell the tree he's in."

            (Jewel imagines a plaintive howling, feels the axe-edge strike...)

            "Amos! Keep that line taut!"

(...feels the ruby on her bosom palpitating wildly...)

            "Almost through."

            "Stand clear; she's about to fall!"

 (...feels fear, then pain, then numbness in her limbs—so weak, so horribly heavy—as she gets up from her knees and leaves the drawing room, wracked by prescient pangs.)

 

            "Tim-berrrrr!"

            The elm tree falls.

            "Jeff! Amos! Lend a hand; I got 'im. Christ, come on! Come quick! This small fry's passing powerful!"

            The men join forces, wrestling flailing arms and kicking legs while Bates applies a choke hold.

            "Bind 'im! Bind 'im fast!"

            Knots pinch wrists and ankles as the captive is pinned and hogtied. A branch is threaded through the ropes. He is hoistedwrithing like a weaselrags in tatters.

            "Well, I'll be damned." Bates prods with a stick. "This boy's a genuine dwarf. What they call 'Piggies' over there in Africa."

            "Pygmies, Randy."

            "Pygmies, right. I'll bet we caught us a genuine African Pygmy. Ain't he wild?"

            "Ain't no Pygmy, Randy; that's Mojo Rags."

            The captive slowly turns his scraggly head toward Amos.

            "Don't look 'im in the eye!"

            Amos turns askance; Jeff follows suit. Bates frowns derisively.

            "What is all this? That boy can't do no harm trussed up like a drawstring purse."

            The captive grunts. Bates takes his measurement with a dangling tail of rope and compares it to himself.

            "Nary belt-buckle high. Don't that beat all?"

            "You best watch out, Randy."

            "Why?"

            "That's Mojo Rags."

            "Who's Mojo Rags?"

            "He is. Never seen 'im for myself, but I heard tell."

            "Heard tell? Heard who tell what?"

            "All folks in these parts know about Mojo Rags. He's a Conjure. And a mute."

            Bates prods with the stick somewhat harder, eliciting a snarl.

            "Then what was that?"

            "Can't talk, is what I mean. The niggers say he traded in his tongue for the evil eye. Can make a man go crazy just by lookin' at 'im."

            "Bullshit."

            "I heard folks say Mojo Rags was sired by a rabid dog."

            "No, not just one, Jeff; it was a whole pack. Dragged this coloured girl off and made 'er run with 'em for months before she finally birthed a pup. Pack then turned on the bitch and, rumour has it, ate 'er."

            "You two are really somethin' else; grown men believin' in all that claptrap."

            "Didn't say believed it; just heard tell. Heard tell about them dud's he's wearing, too. Take a gander at 'is get-up."

            Bates examines Mojo's clothing.

             "Who owns 'im?"

            Amos shrugs.

            "Jeff, you know?"

            "Can't say 's I do."

            "Guess he's ours, then."

            "You can have 'im, Randy"

            "Yeah, he's all yours."

            "Why thank you, gents; I'll take 'im."

            Bates has hit upon a plan.

            "Don't rightly know what you have in mind, Randy, but was it me, I'd turn 'im loose."

            "Not on your life. Just hoist 'im up..." Bates mounts his horse. "...and loop 'im round about here."

            The men secure their burden like a yoke round the horse's neck...

            "Much obliged."

...exchanging looks of apprehension as Bates rides off (at a bundle-bouncing canter) with his legendary prize.