forty-eight            

            Her know... Mayhap Mist'ess young, but her a woman nev'de'less; an' a woman know, straight off, her man untrue. "Intuition" dey calls it. Kine creeps up on de heartcan take some while fo' to reach it, but reach de heart it do. Which is how it ackin' wiff de Mist'ess. Her treatin' me de us'al way so far—but dat won' las'. Iffen me an' Massah on'y slip de once, her maybe not fine out... but... well... it mo'e now. Him say come, I come. Him say meet him such an' such a place, I dere. Cain't say no;  him de Massah; dat part simple. De part what gets confuse' is would I say no iffen I allowed to. Not sho' I wouldno matter it be wrong, not to mention niggah-daft.

            At fust I think my body doin' de talkin'—couplin' downright pleasant. But las' few times I look at Massah's face an' dey 's somethin' deep-down touchful. Massah Zach'ry contrary an' sometime ack pecul'ar but dey 's goodness in dat man jus' achin' to bus' on out.

            Cou'se him don' let on; not direc'ly. Fac' him hardly speak—'cep' to say how good Jewel be at list'nin'... an' how him hates hisse'f fo' neglectin' Mist'ess Felicia. But mos'ly what him worry 'bout is will de slaves revolt—unlikely 'coun' him treatin' dem wiff fairness 'stead o' crue'ty—but Massah aw time frettin' jus' de same.

            Jewel hears a squeal—its source twin rusty hinges on the stable's double doors—followed by fervent thumping of her agitated pulse as she waits in an empty stall—the appointed meeting place. Footsteps softunhurried, atypically sluggishcome to a halt outside. The stall gate swings open. Jewel's eagerness turns to awkwardness as old eyes peer down at hers.

            Donner leans then stoops until his face is nose to nose with the dimly-lit occupant.

            "What has we here? Why, it de gal wit de purty eyelashes; mercy me. Jewel, ain't dat right? What you doin' idlin' by yo' lonesome in dis o' dingy ol' stall? Let Donner he'ps you up. Dat right. No trouble at all; yo' light 's goose down. Brush you off a bit; don' wan' Mist'ess misinterpretin', thinkin' you sneakin' a midday snooze out here on de sly."

            The old man winks. Jewel lets him groom her, allows his gentle, patient hands to pick and pluck off hay.

            "Yassuh. Yassuh. Don' wan's no misinterp'etin'. Dere now; yo' respec'able. Sho' look mo'e conten' dan de day you fust arrive. Nuthin' but teardrops fillin' dem eyes back den. Ain't dat de way, chile—one time human bein' mou'nful, an' de nex' time dey all smiles, laughin', cryin', laughin 'til dey weep, cryin' 'til dey finely has to chuckle? Yassuh, ain't dat de way—life pretendin' ev'thing come in opp'sites, when all de while dem opp'sites might's well be de same?"

            Jewel's embarrassment, having cooled, is abruptly rekindled as Zachary enters the stable. Donner's grey head swivels, his foggy glance shifting from slave to Master, female to male, lover to lover. Shielding both from acknowledging the other's presence, Donner steps from the stall and betrays no hint of surprise at his Master's feigned dispassion.

            "Where's my horse? I need my horse, Donner. Will you saddle him?"

            "Yassuh, Massah Squire, sho' will. I do it promp'ly. Yo' hawse not in dis stall. Dis stall bare." He shuts the gate behind him. "Yo' hawse up dis end like us'al. Yassuh, right up here; right where him b'long. You wan's to wait, suh, o' you wan's I bring 'im 'roun'?"

            A Master need not justify his actions, least of all to his slaves. If Donner disapproves, what difference? It is not his place to judge. If anyone disapproves, what right have they to criticize? Husbands have had mistresses before. Whites have lain with Negresses. "Lighter shades" among the Negro population bear witness to the colour-line's crossing. God Almighty himself made Jewel as she is made, namely black but no less comely... steeped in humours that virility cannot help but feverishly crave; her body courts coupling—strive as one might strive to  stave off temptation... stave off adultery(?); the term hardly suits... steal oneself in any case from committing miscegenation—by all accounts criminal.

            "Massah Squire?"

            Donner has been waiting as if in suspended animation. Zachary now regards him, notes the old man's deferential posture, the servile cast of his expression, his readiness to obey, pander, apologize superfluously, kowtow and submit—attributes latterly dubious in their benefactor's eyes.

            "What? No, don't bother; I've changed my mind."

            Zachary, visibly flustered, turns on his heels and leaves.

            "Dat lad not right wit hisse'f, Donner sad to say. No, suh. Caught him a case o' de contraries; goin' ev'ry which-a-way at once."

            Jewel comes out from the shadows.

            "Hows come you let on dat I not here?"

            "On accoun' o' yo' not 'spose' to be here, chile, nev' mine him ast you. Massah Squire be wearin' dat head o' hissen backwards. Yassuh. Seen dat state befo'e. Dat lad don' know up from down, front from back, an' what's worse right from wrong."

            "How you know dat Massah ask me here?"

            Donner lifts his hand and strokes Jewel's temple.

            "Same way I know Springtime follow winter; it in de air, chile. Come set down wit Donner on dis hay bale; len' him yo' ear. Nothin' I gwon say do you no harm, I promise. Set yo'se'f downdat right—an lissen; dey's impo'tant things need tellin'."

            They sit together on the bales of hay as beams of sunlight spill through an open transom in the loft overhead.

            "When Mist'ess Isabella—dat Zach'ry's momma (God rest 'er soul)—when Mist'ess die durin' chilebirth, Massah Zachariah—Zach'ry's daddy—took it purty hard. Took it so hard, in fac', him roun' up ev'ry female niggah on de place ('cep' fo' Beulah) an' march 'em straight off to auction, in yonder Charleston town. Dem gals was wives an' daughters an' sweethearts an' it de sorries' sight you ev' wan' see. Think on yo' own fo'ks, Jewel, an' I sho' you know what happen to de hearts on dis plantation. Lamentations, yassuh. Massah Zachariah make sho' him not alone in mou'nin'. So us mou'n, an' mou'n aplen'y, den mou'n some mo'emou'n so long an' loud dat Massah Zachariah hire Mistah Tune. You seen Mistah Tune, I 'spec'." Jewel nods. "A mo'e infernal man you nev' wan' meet. Mistah Tune come; it grow quiet right quick. But mou'nin' be like bleedin'; got to flow o' de woun' won' heal—an' when de mou'nin stanch' on de outside, on de inside it c'mmence to fes'er, turn to hate. An' it in dat world o' hate dat Massah Zach'ry growed. 'Twas Beulah made the subs'tute fo' dead Isabella. Now Beulah a good woman mayhap orn'ry sometimes, mayhap gruffbut her got love to spare an' her lavish dat love on young Massah Zach'ry—'cep' it flawed. You see Beulah 'bout dat time give birth her own se'f. But de Massah took her boy-chile an' lef' in de woods fo' dead." Jewel breaks into a sweat, then starts to shiver, hot and cold at once. "So Beulah have to swallow dat, an' give her milk to Zach'ry. Her done it, but it hard. Yassuh. An' dat po' baby suffer. Not from Beulah so much. Beulah 'ventu'ly ovahcome her hate, but some fo'ks less fo'givin', see de baby Zach'ry like a evil-doin' signhates 'im to dis day. Cain't blame 'em; Massah Zachariah sholy done us pow'ful wrong. But Massah Zach'ry not his daddy. Massah Zach'ry tryin' make amends by fightin' off de meanness in his blood to set things square."

            Jewel twirls a piece of straw between her thumb and index finger. She has seen the Master's meanness—unleashed by drunkennessand seen his kindness, too—heaped upon her person in outbreaks of devotion, arousing physical raptures so many and varied she surrenders to them totally, while stimulating emotions so tender yet alien she cannot fully fathom them.

            "Den comes you."

            Jewel clamps the straw in her teeth and chews with trepidation.

            "Does you know de Massah went to fetch a fiel' han' time he tote you back? Sho 'nuff. Tol' me so hisse'f; 'Gwon buy me a big buck niggah what work wit dil'gence, set a good example.' So when it turn out you what Massah Zach'ry brung it push up de eyebrows—'specially wit you bein' so pichure-purty shaped. Now don' let dis upset you, chile, but mos' fo'ks jumps to de obvious conclusion. Course dem ignoran' 'bout yo' char'cter. But no one too su'prise at Massah Zach'ry 'takin' to de nipple,' dey calls it. Him lonesome; always lonesome. All while him growed up dey's not a soul 'roun' to plays wit. Oh, him wen' to school, o' course, eve' wen' off fo' a time get higher ed'cation, but seem like him come home same way him lef'; frien'less. 'Cep' fo' Randolph Bates, dat is; dem two close—spite de fac' dat Massah Zachariah claim Randolph Bates 'riffraff,' tries to keeps 'em sep'rate for fear dat Zach'ry led astray—which sho' 'nuff so ev' time him an' Mistah Bates goes off carousin'." The old man hesitates... studies Jewel's expression. "An'way, soon 's Massah 'nounce him marryin' Miss Felicia, fo'ks stop tongue-waggin' 'bout him an' you, starts in on him an' her. Yo' quiet, Jewel, mayhap don' 'preciate how mos' fo'ks wag dey tongues. Yassuh, yassuh. Tongues betimes like whips de way dey slash an' leave deir mark." He pats Jewel's knee. "Dey sayin' things unnat'ral 'twix' de Massah an' de Mist'esswhat don' confoun' since lots o' things unnat'ral 'bout goin's-on dese days. Ole Donner seen a omen; yas indeedy, seen a crow tap, tap, tap, tappin' at de Big House top-flo' winder... three nights runnin'... plenty mo'e unnat'ral things a-comin' iffen dat sign true."

            Jewel grows uneasy at Donner's mentioning the bird; her ruby necklace pulsates in the groove between her breasts. More alarming still are rumours about the newlywedsJewel no doubt at fault for the couple's strained relations (a fact in which she takes no personal pride).

            "De Massah contrary; been so all his life. Yassuh. Why, I remember dat lad insis' grass be blue, sky be green; do like dat fo' spite to show who boss. Him boss. Gots slaves to proves it. 'Climb down from dat sky,' him tol' me once—him hangin' from a tree limb, me down b'low; 'Don' you know fo'ks' feets b'longs up here on de groun'?' An' dat scamp have me nigh convince' I upside-down, him right-side-up. Seems White fo'ks make us dark fo'ks b'lieve whatev' dey choose. Power like dat go straight to a youngun's headwhat Massah Zach'ry's problem, havin' power o' life an' death over fo'ks mos' twice his age. Make him confuse'ack impropah. Dis talk 'bout him an' de Mist'ess, iffen true... well... it impropah."

            As is infidelity itself, in Donner's humble opinion, though he spares Jewel censure.

            "Dat gal too high-strung, I fears, fo' Massah Zach'ry. Trouble brewin' worser dan trouble a'ready here. An' yo' in danger, chile, 'coun' o' how dat lad behavin'. White on black don' wash when dey's White on White at stake. Iffen him won' stop dis foolishness, yo' sho nuff gwon have to."

            Jewel is heartsick. Doubtless, Donner is right. She can think of one and only one solution to save the situation. Tonight, she is resolved, is the night that she must run.