ninety            

            Zachary sits stiffly at table, rehearsing in his mind some weighty proclamation, envisioning an audience and its reaction to words he resolutely measures... as Marisee enters.

            "Jewel say her not hungry, Massah. Wan's be 'xcused."

            "Go ask again."

            "Won' do no good. I told 'er Massah say 'come' but her too stubbo'n. Tol' her cain't say no when Massah give a..."

            "Ask is what I said. Tell Jewel I said please."

            Marisee fails to note, at first, the distinction... Finally it registers; she scowls with disapproval, turns, and leaves.

 

 

            Marisee jus' here sayin' Massah Zach'ry waitin' on me fo' breakfas' "in de dinin' room", what her say real nas'y, 's if it some kine sin ask a niggah sit at de table. Know dat feelin'. When life wiff Zach'ry jus' us two den mos' thin's come 'cross no'mal; soon dey's ot'er fo'ks 'roun' dem same thin's strange; make Marisee hate me. Her think colourt fo'k 'pose' to ack like slaves 'coun' us infer'or. But mayhap colourt fo'k on'y infer'or 'coun' dey gots be slaves. But fo'ks is fo'ks, I 'spec', on de insi'e no mattah what deir colah... Sometimes I 'spec' dat.

            The attic door opens.

            "Him say, 'Please'. Now you comin'?"

            "De Mist'ess dere?"

            "In 'er room, as us'al. Don' come out no mo'e. Takes 'er meals in bed. You comin'?"

            Marisee folds her arms, distends her lips in a dumb-show of contempt.

            Jewel, resignedly, dresses (if only she could talk, explain the situation, maybe Marisee's hatred might be lessened, her own misgivings eased). Donning an indigo smock—and a pair of shoes—Jewel acquiesces.

 

 

            "Good morning, Zachary, darling. How lovely; I am expected!"

            Felicia glides to her seat (before the place setting meant for Jewel), adjusts her petticoat, plucks up the napkin daintily and drapes it on her lap, then reaches for a sterling silver bell with which she rings for coffee. Zachary stands nonplussed, caught unawares by Felicia's appearance—in both senses of the term, her arrival inopportune, her  countenance back to normal:

  • no signs of stress,

  • ensemble modest (a beige and cream-coloured bodice, subtly ruffled, with matching full skirt),

  • make-up notably tasteful (a touch of rouge to enliven her lacklustre cheeks),

  •  hair-do tied with a ribbon (also beige),

  • jewellery unremarkable (apart from the five carat diamond that glistens from her engagement ring),

  • her whole demeanour a tableau of unperturbed gentility.

            Recovering from his disgruntlement, Zachary answers.

            "Good morning."

            Ignoring his discomfort, Felicia once more rings.

            "I am absolutely famished, and I mean ravenous. Now isn't that astonishing? I mean for weeks, it seems, I have not had the courage to so much as look at food, let alone consume any. Were I any less endowed, I do declare, I would be skin and bones or worse—why, as it is, my figure barely fills out this costume. But not to worry; a woman puts on flesh in a loving husband's care, hence I anticipate, soon, to be complaining of excess girth." She rings the bell a third time, with a little more impatience... "Where IS that girl?" ...then gives it a fierce, extended shake.

            "US COMIN', MASSAH."

            Marisee enters on the run/stops dead in her tracks.

            Felicia, eying her coolly, parrots the pronoun:

            "Us?"

 

 

            I watch dat face turn vineg'ry—Mist'ess see straight off dat I wiff chile. Den her go aw fidg'ty, staggerin' to her feets, knock down her chair backin' 'way 's if I contrac' de pox. Den I feels dis hatefulness—aimin' at my belly'til I wan's to make her quit it; 'cep' aw o' sudden her run like de devil on her tail—keeps on runnin' 'cross de veranda onto de grass den down de footpaf', Zach'ry chasin' af'er her, Mist'ess screechin' top her lungs fo' Mistah Tune. Hear dat name, my sucker give a kick—scairt same 's me—an' den I c'mmence to hurt real bad so Marisee yell fo' Beulah; Beulah come, an' I so sickly, dey has to carry me up de stairswhere I is now, Beulah playin' nursemai', bein' so kine an' ten'er make me think I fo'gived. Tess here, too. So 's Marisee. An' dough it awful wiff de Mist'ess runnin' wile an' ev'thin' topsy-turvy, mayhap some fo'ks 'lowin' my chile an' me b'long.

 

 

            "STAY AWAY FROM ME!"

            Felicia's frenzied shriek keeps Zachary at a distance; Tune stands beside her, having answered her distress call (having sensed the time to act may be at hand with wife and husband locked in a bitter confrontation that threatens to upset the balance of power). Zachary takes a step; Felicia hollers:

            "STOP! "

            Whispering to Tune, she hurriedly pleads her case—as Zachary, out of earshot, ventures forth regardless.

            "Felicia, this is ridiculous. Mister Tune, I beg your pardon. My wife is not herself, as you can plainly see. Whatever she has told you, credit to hysterics. "

            "You do your wife disservice, Mister Squire; she makes good sense—unless you are not guilty of the travesty she has charged."

            "I see no need to explain myself to you."

            "Or to anyone else, it would appear. Wise course, Mister Squire—considering none condone your vile abominations."

            "Nor will I abide your gall in passing judgment."

            "The Lord will be your judge, sir, and He will damn your soul to everlasting Hell-fire. A man doth not his lawful wife forsake, not to crossbreed with a jig-a-boo."

            "Hold your tongue, man!"

            "I will not! I have held my tongue too long while you have squandered your inheritance, traipsin' thither and yon, makin' a fool of yourself to recover a worthless runaway, heaping shame on your father's venerated name. The Squire Plantation once was an estimable edifice, a model of Southern respectability. You, with your taste for poontang, have reduced it to a sty."

            "Enough!"

            "A  boon farm, with your nigger-tupping fixation and namby-pamby ways."

            "You are discharged!"

            "You cannot discharge me; it says as much in writing; consult your daddy's will. I quote:

'Mister Tune shall be maintained in his capacity as Overseer,
until such time he desires to terminate his post.'

'He' meaning me, Zachary Squire! You thought me unaware of your father's Last Will and Testament? You thought I was expendable, to be sacked without retort? Well let me disabuse you of one misconception; everything worth knowing about the Squire Estate, I know—including why your daddy safeguarded my position."

            "Felicia, leave us."

            "Oh, I wouldn't dream of it, my darling doting husband. Mister Tune, I do declare, you MUST tell all."

            "For 'just in case' is what he said, the day I got my copy. For 'just in case' his son should prove less than worthy."

            "That's a lie!"

            "Zachariah knew you were 'a momma's boy sans momma' was how he put it—her being soft on the coloured, you showing selfsame signs."

            "Enough of this, Mister Tune; you are way out of..."

            Felicia intervenes:

            "What kind of signs, pray tell?"

             If Tune can offer some "plausible" explanation, Felicia is keen to learn it.

            "Pardon me for saying so, Mrs. Squire, but it seems you've seen the upshot."

            "But why? I must know WHY!"

            "He thinks they're human beings—the niggers; especially that bitch, the one he's bunked an' bred with, that filthy, smelly, sister-to-a-smudge-pot whore."

            Zachary, with a single blow, knocks Tune to the ground. The overseer looks up and glowers, but does not retaliate (vowing under his breath to avenge the affront).

            "You, sir, are dismissed! Be off these premises by daybreak on the morrow or I will have you brought before me, bound and roundly flogged. Felicia, come. No nonsense, now. Conduct yourself with dignity."

            Zachary takes the lead; Felicia meekly followsthough casts a conspiring look in Mister Tune's direction. Getting to his feet, the overseer nods.