sixty-nine             

            Freshly shoed from the hotel livery, tail and mane bobbed smartly, coat well-groomed, the chestnut filly canters. It is morning. An April sun is lapping up dew, the air like vapour, cloying in its sweetness, pregnant with spring, rivalled in its pungency by the rider's rank cologne. The filly now trots, the road appearing to end, or divide, at the base of a stately gate, its decorative ironwork anchored in Squire Plantation stone.

            Horse and rider slow to a walk, then halt. Jake Ebersole appraises. There is wealth beyond this threshold, wealth, influence, even opulence—tantalizing to any who have done without. Jake proceeds, nerves just edgy enough to keep him sharp, his mind rehearsing. After all, there may be factors yet unknown. Patience, with inquisitive diplomacy, is advisedshrewdness, as well, always shrewdness. Watch and listen. Test the waters. Decide beforehand what is wanted, then be flexible in attaining it. And above all else pay attention to what the customer needs, or thinks he needs; evaluate, take firm hold, thus govern the reins that guide.

            Gravel crunches audibly under horse hooves treading a drive that arcs toward an edifice looming like some hoary mausoleum. Imported marble, Jake takes note. His price might tolerate revision. If he keeps a level head, works things correctly, a handsome profit might add another rung to his social-ladder climb. What he would not give to erase conceited sneers that typically greet the "merchant". What he would not sacrifice to leave behind ignominy incurred by the appellation "flesh-monger".

            "Us has a vis'tor, Tessie! Tessie, lookee here!"

            "What you runnin' off 'bout?"

            "Come an' stand where I is, an' you'll see."

            Tess limps to the window. She peers out through the curtains Marisee holds apart.

            "Dat some dude."

            "I tol' you. Lookee how him dress; gots him on gloves an' hand-tool' boots, an'look dat hat. You ev' see such a hat?"

            "Got eyes, don' I?"

            "Ain' he a ma'vel? Ain' him a sight?"

            "What you two find so all-fire fas'natin' out dat window?"

            "Gots us a vis'tor look like a Prince o' somethin', Beulah."

            "'S if de likes o' you two rec'nize Princes. Move 'way from dere. It rude be gawkin' at a gues', if in fac' us has one."

            "Oh, him comin' dis way."

            Tess hooks her arm around Marisee's elbow and drags her away.

            "Wan's us tell de Mist'ess, Beulah?"

            "No. De Mist'ess bad again today. Bes' hope her 'sleep. Someun gots to run fetch Massah Zach'ry."

            "Massah lef'."

            "What you mean, lef'?"

            Marisee grows reticent. For months now life in the Big House has been tense. First, it was malaria carrying off so many—Tessie's lover and their newborn child among them. Then Felicia acting stranger day by day, wits awry, temper tantrums striking without warning. Then the Larchmont incident, which put everyone on trial, only Felicia knowing exactly what had transpiredand refusing to say. Mister Tune was privately questioned, privately reprimanded—not, however, discharged; if anything, his authority was reinstated. And finally, Master Zachary, about whom little could be gleaned in that he travelled for weeks on end, always away on "business." Of course, the purpose of these absences was obvious to all, commencing as they did with Jewel's disappearance"abduction" as it was deemed—though why he would go to such great lengths in pursuit of a common house-slave—neglecting duties of a husband, abandoning hearth and home—remained indefensible.

            "Dis mo'nin', early, Massah lef' to visit Randolph Bates. Say him mayhap won' be back 'fo'e suppertime."

            The door chimes sound. Jake waits. No livery boy? How disgruntling. He adjusts his vest, checks his pocket watch, then taps his boots free of clogs with the knob end of his cane.

            "Tess, go fetch Massah."

            "How's come I..."

            "Tell Rufus hitch you up de buckboar'."

            "Why can't Rufus go hisse'f?"

            "'Cause I tol' you."

            Tess limps away, her exit mocked by Marisee, who lingers with a smirk.

            As the front door opens, Jake is apprehended midst a formal (practice) bow.

 

 

            "I told you a hundred times already; this makes a hundred one; a few weeks after she run off..."

            "Jewel did not run off."

            "I know, I know, she was stole. I s'pose my midget snatched her the day he flew the coop. Anyway, a few weeks later, after you drove every Patroller in the county drag-ass ragged, word comes 'keep a eye peeled for some traders'."

            "I thought your runt escaped the following day."

            "Maybe he did; I don't recollect... Yeah, he musta; it was you showed up that evenin' rantin' and ravin'. Didn't give a hoot I'd lost a valuable piece o' property. Didn't care my nigger up and scrammed—or got 'stole'. 'Double the patrols,' you hollered; 'unleash the hounds; Jewel's been abducted!'"

            Zachary's memory, even now, of that day plagues. He stoops to gather a fistful of flattened stones... attempts to skip one. The pond's smooth surface splashes once-twice-thrice then "plunk" the stone submerges.

            "Didn't you say you forgot to lock the cage and fell asleep, and that the runt was gone by the time you woke back up?"

            "Well, somethin' like that... not exactly."

            At the time, Bates offered what he thought was a plausible explanation. What he had actually experienced was something altogether else—a sort of daydream.

            "Not exactly?"

            "Zack, you know it's the damnedest thing but I'd swear it was her—your Jewel—come set him free."

            "What!"

            Zachary gapes in disbelief.

            "I know just what you're thinkin'; how's come I never said so, not before now? I figured it was a dream, is all. And you was so worked up, and she was just as gone no matter, and if I'd told you then, you'da made out I was daft, so I kept my trap shut. But it didn't really happen the way I said." The men are facing one another, Bates sitting casually, legs astride a fallen tree, Zachary rearing like a bear pumped-and-prime to charge. "Now don't get riled. I said it didn't matter. It's just what really happened that day was downright weird." Bates spits out his chaw. "You gonna listen, or you gonna swing? You start a fight, I'll whip your ass... Come on, sit down. Forget it... I'm sorry I even mentioned it."

            Zachary sits dejectedlyhis nerves worn raw—months of futile searches having cost him dearly in time, energy, resources, and his household's peace of mind; his own, as well.

            "Sorry, Randy. Guess I'm not myself."

            Bates' self-defensiveness dissipates.

            "Give it up, Zack."

            Zachary shifts his gaze from log to  pond... pond to sky... sky to stones still held in his tightly clenched fist... fist to earnest face of his long-established pal... then, with a fatalistic aspect, Zachary shrugs.

            "I can't."

 

 

            "I was absolutely mortified when my servants finally told me a distinguished visitor was waiting for my husband un-entertained."

            Jake rises from the parlour chair to take Felicia's handheld out as she floats across the drawing room's mauve and purple carpet, dressed exquisitely in a Paris evening gown with full regalia: diamond bracelet, platinum earrings, gold tiara in her grandiose coiffure, make-up subtly restrained save for her bright crimson lipstick.

             "Mrs. Felicia Squire."

            "Jake Ebersole, Madam; charmed, I'm sure."

            Jake bows urbanely, then tenders a kiss to Felicia's wilted hand.

            "Firstly, sir, welcome. I hope you will consider our humble home yours."

            "Thank..."

            "And secondly, I apologize for the inhospitable..."

            "No, really, Mrs...."

            "...INhospitable rudeness of my servants' failure to announce your presence immediately. Has it been hours? I fear it has. I have this picture in my head of you just languishing by your lonesome here for hours. I am sorry."

            "Not at all, dear lady. I arrived not long ago, and had I known that eventually one so fair as you would come to receive me, I could have been content to wait a fortnight."

            "Why, Mister Ebersole, I do declare. What a gentlemanly speech. Do I detect the vocation of an orator?"

            "You flatter me, no. It does behove a man, however, to now and then turn a phrase—provided the substance of what he says rings true."

            "Oh, I agree. And how refreshing, Mister Ebersole, to hear the language spoken in the way our Lord intended." Jake smiles through his perplexity. "I am constantly correcting people's grammar and pronunciation. 'Him wen' dis 'way, her wen' dat.' I must confess, it makes me positively spastic. If I hear one more 'd' for 't-h' in this house, I'm docking tongues. The servants have been forewarned, thrust those tongues between your teeth 'o' you gwon lose 'em.'"

            Felicia cackles at her dialect's caustic authenticity.

 

 

            "Damnedest thing it was, Zack. Ever find yourself lookin' at a object, starin' at it like, but not really seein' it?"

            "Like a trance?"

            "That's it! A trance was what I was in. That midget commenced to singin' while I was whittlin' and then I stopped, and he kept on, and I kept listenin', you know, half-listenin' 'cause it was strange and all, 'cause the little feller, not once, ever uttered ordinary speech—though I suspected all along he might be playin' possum. What a look he give me, Zack! I commenced to chat natural-like, the way you would to a chum, and I swear that half-pint nigger was hangin' on every word, when all o' sudden I realized 'ours' was a o one-way 'conversation'."

            "Will you get to the point?"

            "What's your hurry; you goin' somewhere? That's your trouble, Zack; you can't set still."

 

 

            "My, my, Mister Ebersole, you do know how to turn a lady's head! I begin to think our tête-à-tête may need a duenna."

            "Mrs. Squire, I must protest, I..."

            "Oh, I was not accusing you of impropriety, upon my word. I'm just unused to receiving chivalrous, that is to say masculine, consideration. I use the term masculine, trusting to your discretion, Mister Ebersole. My husband, all too often, is away... my Zachary travels... makes business trips... incessantly... leaves me all alone. Do men feel loneliness, Mister Ebersole, or do trips on business render them immune from the ravages of solitude? Are you married, may I inquire?"

            "I haven't had that pleas..."

            "I thought not. But if you were, if you could imagine yourself a newlywed... Will you do that, Mister Ebersole? Please? For me? Pretend, for just a moment, that I am your beloved?"

            "Beg pardon, Mrs. Squire, but..."

            "IT'S ONLY MAKE-BELIEVE!... Now then, you be Zachary sitting in that chair—just the way you're sitting—and I'll go out for a moment then come back in." Felicia scurries to the door with a manic-seeming haste. "Don't move, now, will you? Your beloved won't be long."

            Jake, albeit uncomfortable, does as he is bidden.

 

 

            "Zack, you comin'?"

            "In a minute. You go ahead."

            Bates makes his final appeal.

            "Brood all you want, it ain't gonna bring her back. Now give it up. You don't, I'm warnin' you Zack, it'll be your ruin."

             Zachary shrugs another shrug and waves Bates on.

            A woman matching Jewel's description was seen in Georgia twice, two independent sightings, each vouchsafing she was travelling in the custody of traders—one of several slaves they had in tow. So even if this so-called Conjure had, indeed, been freed by Jewel, it would seem they parted company.

            Zachary sighs... becomes aware, then, of his surroundings; birds have lost their voices of a sudden; there is no breeze. He steps from the path... stops... listens... hears his own breathing... feels his own pulse... yet detects a presence other... of someone taking note...

from a distance... standing absolutely still... fixed as a cautious deer... on guard... alert for the slightest threat... perchance to flee

...should Zachary Squire give chase to the figure clad in motley.

 

 

            Felicia, in black-face, re-enters. She wears a simple home­spun dress (a replica of the one provided Jewel). Her feet are bare and blackened like her extremities. A kerchief, knotted slave-style, conceals her auburn hair. A feather duster blossoms from her armpit like a huge corsage. She slips it out, starts to flit about the parlour, dusting bookshelves, dusting furniture, unmindful of her guest.

            Jake, who failed to stand at first, springs gallantly to his feet—this courtesy deemed unwarranted; Felicia protests humbly.

            "'Scuse me, Massah. Don' mine me none. I's jus' doin' my cho'es. No call stan' on my 'coun'—b'sides, dem aw be watchin'!"

            This last is spoken with a stage-whisper from behind the upraised duster. Jake looks nervously around; it appears they are alone.

            "Res' easy, Massah Zach'ry. You looks tire'. Set down a spell."

            "Mrs. Squire..."

            "SIT DOWN!"

            Jake sits.

            "Dat right. Dat feel much bettah, don' it? Here, let Jewel shucks off dem go'geous boots."

            Felicia crosses to her mystified guest, in front of whom she kneels, her eerie histrionics causing Jake alarm.

 

 

            From above—peering through wafer-like birch leaves green and silver-frosted, set clicking by a zephyr blowing clockwise as if stirred by passing wings—a pair of men are visible, one diminutive, one full-size, standing face-to-face: speechless, motionless, incommunicado yet mutually cognizant.

 

 

            "What her doin' now, Prissy? Will you move so's I can see?"

            "Sashayin' in that man's boots."

            "Naw! "

            "Marisee, stop leanin' on me; this hedge tearin' up my skirt!"

            Prissy thrusts her butt into Marisee's stomach to make more room. They are spying, hidden by shrubbery that encircles the veranda, windows of the parlour affording an open view.

            "Don' see how you could let de Mist'ess dress herse'f like dat. When Massah Zach'ry come, him..."

            Priscilla turns on Marisee.

            "Not my doin'! Don't you dare tell Master this my doin'! You know's well 's I do what de Mistress like'specially when her havin' one o' her fits."

            "Okay, okay, don' bites my head off ; jus' lemme look."

            Grudgingly, Priscilla changes places.

            "Beulah dere!"

            "Lemme see!"

            "It my turn, Prissy, stop shovin'. Look like Beulah hollerin'."

            "What Mistress doin'?"

            "Cain't you hear?"

            "No."

            "Hollerin' back."

            "What was that?"

            "Her throw a chair."

            "Who? At what?"

            "Mist'ess. At Beulah. Mist'ess runnin' wild... Prissy, where you goin'?"

            "Got to save my Mistress!"

            Prissy scrambles from the hedge and races off.

            "Save yo' Mist'ess? Way her wavin' dat can'lestick seems Beulah de one needs savin'."

            Marisee, torn between watching the scene from without and rendering on-the-spot aid, finally cuts and runs, close on Prissy's heels.

 

 

            "Heard you lost a sucker to the malaria."

            Tessie glowers, ill-disposed to the likes of Randolph Bates.

            "Yassuh."

            "No call scrinchin' your face up, girl. Only brung it up to say I'm sorry."

            Tess looks sceptical.

            "Thank you, suh."

            "No, honest. Seems like nothin' human ever sprouts at the Squire Plantation. When Zack got hitched I was hopin' there'd soon be a little life. Guess there's not much chance the way things are."

            Tess turns mum. Mister Randolph Bates is White, and worse yet a 'Patterroller'—thus not to be trusted.

            "How's your Mistress, nigger?"

            "My name Tessie."

            "Tessie. Heard she'd taken ill... That so?"

            The buckboard creaks as Tessie cranes her neck in search of Zachary.

            "He'll be by, I told you. Who's this visitor, anyway? What's his name?"

            "Don' know."

            Bates spits.

            "Don't know? You mean you come out all this way without even askin'? That's nigger-typical." Bates spits again. "That's nigger-dumb."

            Tessie must concede the omission was not smart. She searches for an excuse—cut short on catching sight of Zachary. She waves her arms frenetically.

            Head bowed, he seems oblivious.

            "MASSAH ZACH'RY!"

            Startled by the summons, Zachary's blank stare fades.

 

 

            A boot flies off as feet kick, elbows flail. Jake has to duck; a second boot whistles past his ear. Beulah holds Felicia in a bear hug from behind, face averted (to avoid raining blows), forearms squeezing (assaulted by gouging fingernails), strength overpowering (lungs deflated resist... until Felicia goes inert), Beulah hoisting her semi-conscious burden and lugging her...

            "Prissy. "

            "MISTRESS! WHAT YOU DONE TO..."

            "Prissy, hol' dat doe'!"

            "YOU KILLT MY MISTRESS?"

            "Don' be stupit, her jus' pass out. Do like yo' tol'."

            Marisee clambers in.

            "What happen'?"

            "You, hol' dat doe'!"

            Beulah barges past Priscilla.

            "Ten' our gues'!"

            Priscilla turns and looks dumbfounded at Jake, whose shock is ebbing. (Watch and listen. Test the waters. Decide beforehand what is wanted, then be flexible... he follows his own advice.)

 

 

            Zachary enters. Jake is already standing, having over­heard the commotion of stressful voices in the hallway.

            "Mister Ebersole. What an unexpected pleasure, sir. Welcome. Welcome."

            They shake hands, Jake somewhat taken aback by Zachary's altered appearance, much leaner, his azure eyes more poignant in their single-minded cast, his general mien direct if notably selective—neglecting to excuse his wife's unseemly conduct.

            "Am I intruding, Mister Squire?"

            "Not at all; my home is yours. Had I foreknowledge of your intention to pay a call, I would have been here. But let us talk on the veranda, shall we? Tessie?"

            Tessie, who has been waiting in the hallway per instructions, steps inside.

            "Yassuh?"

            "I'm sure our guest would appreciate some refreshment. Have you eaten, Mister Ebersole? No?"

            "A light repast, then, Tessie."

            "Yassuh."

            "You may serve our lunch out here." He pushes open the French doors. "After you."

            The men pass onto the veranda. Its latticework is honey­suckle-laden and alive with bees. Beams above are hung with fuchsias, below which terracotta urns spill wandering Jew. The tile is red, the wrought-iron furnishings white—as is the table where the men now sit, a fresh bouquet of narcissus in the cut-glass vase between them.

            "Would you care to join me, Mister Squire? Best blend Virginia has to offer."

            "Thank you, no. I shall abstain 'til after lunch; but, please, indulge."

            A plume of smoke from Jake's cigar enshrouds the pungent flowers, fragrances admixed, the effect rather noxious. Jake considers: there is something, a presentiment, that his purpose may be knownunlikely, yet he cannot shake the feeling.

            "Mister Squire, you're a busy man; I'll state my business promptly, for business is about which I have come, sir, strictly business. I ask that I may state it?"

            "By all means."

            Jake takes a preparatory puff on his cigar. He exhales slowly.

            "It has come to my attention you have lost a piece of property. In fact, that very piece of property I once helped you to procure. Do you remember?"

            Zachary fails to betray the slightest reaction.

            "Yes, I remember."

            "I've made inquiries, Mister Squire, and it seems your search, though extensive, has yet to yield results."

            "That is true."

            "It is my privilege to announce, then, your search has ended; the girl is found!"

            A clatter heralds Tessie's intrusion.

            "'Scuse me, gent'men. Massah? Wants I set dis down?"

            "Yes, would you please?"

            The tray is brought and nearly fumbled—Tess, having overheard, grown clumsy.

            "That will be all."

            "Yassuh."

            She leaves—both men regretting the ill-timed interruption: Jake for having missed his mark's response; Zachary for concern lest the hearsay reach Felicia.

            "You're not surprised, I take it? Pardon my inquisitiveness, but may I ask why?"

            The Conjurer's voice is strange, other-worldly, as it issues from his lipsecho-like in character, a bizarre reverberation:

"Beware de fancy-man what come to make a offer
De thing you seek not won by guile o' gold"

            "Let us say I guessed. Don't suppose you brought Jewel with you?"

            "Would that it were so easy, Mister Squire, but I must be honest. If you want the girl returned, it will cost a sizable sum, not to mention the time and energy I am willing to expend if you'll entrust me as your ambassador in this enterprise."

            Jake cocks his head—striking an at-your-service posture.

            "Where is she, Mister Ebersole?"

            "I was coming to that, Mister Squire. New Orleans. In a house of ill-repute, I am sorry to divulge."

            Finally Zachary reacts—colour draining from his face. Jake finds his theme.

            "Of course I sympathize with your natural concern for the girl's..." Jake stops himself, searching for the proper term ('fidelity' comes to mind but is dismissed as too presumptuous) "...well-being. But if we act with haste, I believe she may be rescued from a happenstance that most would judge calamitous. You see, the Madam who runs said house caters exclusively to Caucasians, and though Jewel is quite a beauty, Mother's girls are typically passing-pale. For the moment, Jewel tends solely to the needs of sundry urchins."

            "Mother's?"

            "A profanation, yes, I grant you, but the Madam's moniker nonetheless. She is the primary obstacle, Mister Squire; Mother Moss must be paid, and her rates are well nigh larcenous. New Orleans, unlike cities with which you may be familiar, plays by a different set of rules—if rules indeed apply in the face of sheer iniquity.

            "I believe I have clear title, as in proof of purchase."

            "Mother will have that, too. Hers will be a forgery, of course, but in New Orleans it hardly matters. Your word versus hers, will be the issue, and though Mother Moss is black..."

            "This woman is coloured!"

            "As I tried to communicate, Mister Squire, New Orleans plays by a different set of rules regardless our distaste."

            "What is your proposition, sir?"

            Jake studies every indicator—from the set of Zachary's jutting chin to the crease of his resolute brow—concluding that this gamble is poised to pay off handsomely.

 

 

            The road is dusty and is long. Two men, three horses pass deliberately, their destination south-southwest, to the state of Louisiana and the Port of New Orleans.