Thursday, January 08, 2009

A Story I wrote In a Notebook A Long Time ago and want to record before It gets lost again

Myrtle's feet were sore and tender having been pricked and stabbed throughout her two days of walking. She had lost her shoes along the way, but in truth felt nothing but damned tired ever since she had been put out by her mistress that past monday night. Myrtle wasn't used to walking. She had been finely bred, raised in the Worthington's house, sleeping at the foot of Alice Worthington's bed. She had always shared in the finest clothes and shoes and really anything her heart desired, especially since the age of 14 when she learned the art of lovemaking and became the mistress to the new Master of the House, Adam. She was prized as a mistress because year after year, since she had assumed the role of his courtesan, she had never become pregnant and beyond that she was demure and ladylike and as graceful as any white woman.

As she hobbled down the long, winding road, her ankles weary, making her way through the woods headed to nowhere, she felt the presence at the bottom of her stomach, that awkward feeling that told her that life was growing inside of her. Her mistress had been extremely jealous of her and when the end of the war came to Charlotte and her master lay crippled and sick and on his deathbed, she wasted not a second in expelling her from the plantation.

As she walked, she wondered what she might do, she was too dark to pass for white and too well-kept to do hard labor. She spoke french and had a prized hand. She had been promised her own plot by Adam Worthington before he fell ill. She walked and fidgeted with her fingers, wondering.

For a slave, she had been quite privileged. She had been to France and Martinique, accompanying her young Mistress Anne before she had grown and become a neglected and jealous housewife. She had had access to books and learning, even keeping books in her own cottage after Master Adam had set her up in her own quarters. She thought back to when Adam had her house built. Master had gotten the sturdiest of his slaves and even some of the white trash, to cut wood and hall stones and sew and hammer for eight straight months til her cottage was complete with three rooms, a kitchen, an arbor, and a huge garden.

"Ain't you a dainty fine mistress," Huckajoe had said to her, the white of his teeth a glaring contrast against his stark black skin as he broke ground for her garden. She was 28 and a whore as most slaves figured her. Many of them were worse than Mistress Anne, whom she always addressed,when she had to address her, as Mrs. Worthington, not mistress. Anne had been extremely jealous since Master Worthington first visited Myrtle's bed. After their first liason, Anne Worthington beat her so bad with a piece of chicken wire she thought she might die. When Master Adam found out, he in turn beat Anne near to death. She never ventured to touch her again, but worked to no end to make her life as difficult as possible, including turning the slaves against her. When mammy stopped sending food down to Myrtle's cabin, Adam bought her her own chef, who also acted as a footman and a butler in her house. He had her portrait commissioned and it hung in place over the hearth in her living room. When she was dismissed, she placed the heavy portrait in a sack and it was the only thing she carried with her from the house.

She had to go into town soon and rest her weary self, otherwise she would collapse right their in the woods and be eaten by something wild. She had seen many others along the road as well, walking along with her. Their ragged clothes and bare black feet were anxious and roaming. She had been tossed into nowhere and as she let the gate of the Worthington plantation swing shut and walked across the bridge that took her from the South Carolina Sea Island that she had known her whole life, she prayed she'd find some place to go. She made her way into the town of Beaufort and hobbled towards a mound of hay next to a public horse stall and their collapsed.

The sunlight burned her face and eyelids. She felt a nudging at her shoulder.
"Wake up nigger!" the man held a stick in his hand and poked her. "By God all of you aimless niggers, got you laying around all over the place!" He nudged her some more and she shifted awake. "This hay if for feeding horses! You are obstructing my business! Get up!" She looked up to see a white haired white man standing before her.

Noah Wylde was a towering man at six feet and his temerity and tenacity were seen in the black velvet vest and top hat he wore in the middle of July heat. He wore a gruffy white beard that with his unkempt white hair aged him twenty years past his forty-five years. Myrtle rose sheepishly from the mouond of hay her heavy sack laying slightly underneath her. She tugged it, heavily bouncing it up, but not able to lift it on her first try.

"What's that in your sack?" he looked on in curiosity. She still hadn't seen anything, dumbfounded by sleep and the shock of being assailed by a white man. "Let me see whats in your bag." She pulled at the bag trying to prevent him, but he succesfully grabbed it from her. The sack tugged downward on his hand and he sensed it was something heavy and expensive. He pulled the sack covering down around the portraid and felt its gold frame with his fingertips. "What?" he grumbled feeling the gold under his hand. He quickly pulled the sack down around the portraid and took a look. He paused with a long silence as he looked at the picture. He looked back up at her face and then down ath the portrait again. "So this is you?" He held the portrait in his hands.

"Yes sir, it is." She answered him half afraid. She wondered if he would take the portrait and leave her alone or what exactly his plans were. She had $130 in her pocket, the only other thing she had taken from the cottage--money she had saved from her allowances that at one point she had thought of giving to Adam to help him in his dire straits now that the Worthington plantation was destitute and worthless. he looked at her again, questions in his eyes.

"What kind of woman are you?" His eyes examined her. "you've certainly been well-kept. You've got a dress on that used to be nice. And this portrait is quite expensive. Tell me, who are you?"

"Myrtle Poitiers," she looked up at him. " I lived on the Worthington plantation out in the Gullah country."

"Were you a concubine?" he asked her frankly. She smiled demurely.

"I was well kept. I was a house slave." He cocked a grin to match hers.

"Are you headed some place?"

"No place in particular." She slightly kicked her foot.

"Well, come along, we'll see what can be done. Can't have you sleeping out here in my hay."
He took her to his house and put her to bed in his only guest room. The next day, he summoned her to meet him in the front parlor by the front door.

"Now, if you're going to stay here, you're going to have to work and you're going to have to pay rent."

"Yes sir." she shook her head obligingly.

"Now, I've arranged work for you as a laundress over at the hotel. They'll pay you two dollars a week for the washing. as for your rent, I'll ask a dollar every other week for board and seventy-five cents every week for food. That means at the end of each month you'll pay me..."he stopped in mid sentence trying to figure it in his head.

"Five dollars," she stopped him in his thoughts. He looked at her, bemused again at the thought that she could calculate--and calculate more quickly in her head than he could out loud.

"You can figure like that in your head?" he questioned her. She threw him a haughty look, taking pleasure at his bemusement.

"I can also read and write in both English and French." Noah grunted under his breath.

"Well, aren't you high and mighty. I thought they beat slaves if they learned how to read?" She smiled demurely. He pursed his lips and rubbed his chin with interest. He had never been good with figuring and barely more able in the reading and writing department. He had become a postmaster and established his hired carriage business out of pure grit and his natural ability to negotiate like a cougar on the prowl. He was beginning to see where this black vixen standing before him might be useful to him beyond the five dollars he might get from her room and board every month. That next week, Myrtle set out early, five o'clock in the morning, and made her way across the center of town to the hotel where each day she spent eight hours dripping sheets into boiling water then lifting them out to be taken and dried. She took her pay earnestly and at the end of each week she faithfully put aside the money that went towards her room and board. She saw that Noah watched her with keen interest and wondered if he meant to make her his mistress. After a few weeks, they had settled into an easy routine and began to feel most comfortable around each other. One eveing, after supper, Myrtle, was sitting at the table, reading while Noah fussed over his books. He called to her.

"Myrtle, you're good at figuring aren't you?" She looked up at him.

"I spose." her hands rested on the table as her body twisted slgihtly in a yawn. He picked up his ledger and brought it over to her to look at.

"Take a look at this," he laid it in front of her. "I can't for the life of me figure these numbers." She took the book and shook her head, scratching out numbers and figuring in the book.

"This is all wrong." After several minutes, she finished. "There. You really have left one thousand two hundered and seventy-five dolloars. Not six hundred and thirty-two." He studied her and the books, thinking.

"Can you figure like that?" he was a bit awed.

"Yes," she nodded. He paused for a long time, then spoke.

"How about you take up keeping my books for me and helping me out with this business. You won't have to do all that laundry anymore."

"How much do you plan to pay me?" he caught his breath looking at the scrawny black girl sitting across from him. He hadn't counted on paying her at all.

"Ten dollars a month. Plus you won't have to pay room and board anymore." She smiled coyly.

"How about ten percent of your profits every month?" He couldn't exactly gather how much ten percent was, but he nodded his head in agreement. He was intimidated by her wits.

"It'll be a good change for you. You shouldn;t be handling all of that heavy laundry with you carrying a child and all." Her eyes got big.

"You know?"

"I know lots of things, my dear." he smiled. It was her turn to be mystified and stuped.

She began managing his books and slowly began taking on other aspects of his business. She soon became the familiar face checking the public mounds of hay and negotiating contracts. After six months of their collaboration, Myrtle considered herself quite comfortable, having made and managed to save over $400 dollars. By then, she was heavy, with cold and due to deliver, yet tried to hide her pregnancy under heavy,full skirts and belts. She bought a bassinet and hired a midwife to help her with the delivery. The day of her delivery was cold and and dreary and the midwife continually dabbed Myrtle's head as she was sweating profusely. Noah stuck around in the periphery of the house, sometimes drifting out to tend to business. Her belly was swollen enormously and she wormed in the bed trying to make herself confortable. As the first of night fell, the baby came, wailing loudly to match the groans that Myrtle made. The midwife, a tin, frail but strong Black woman, pulled the baby up from the bed and washed him off then sat it on the bed next to Myrtle. Myrtle took the baby in her arms and let out a cry and a laught filled with joy. The midwife wiped the sweat from both of them and performed an old blessing ritual.

"I shall call him Adam." she announced forthrightly. Noah walked in the room shortly aftr the birth and saw the mother and child lying together in their natal bliss. "Noah, look at my new son, Adam Poitier." She glowed as she held her baby in her arms.

"Welcome," Noah cooed over the baby. "Adam is a good name. From the bible. I think it'll stick." He left the room and went and fetched his fiddle. He played for a long while for Myrtle and the tiny baby while the midwife danced in time to his tune. The night was filled with joy and after a long while, the midwife left for home and Noah drifted back into his part of the house to allow Myrtle and the new baby to sleep.

The months went by quickly as Adam grew. Soon, he was two years old, running around in his fine leather shoes, his dark golden curls bouncing on his head, his lightly tanned skin glowing. Myrtle had done well for herself, still maintaining household with Noah and earning $800 dollars a year co-managing Noah's carriage business. She was a hard bargainer and negotiated like a rough sailor. In her dealings though, she expanded Noah's business and eventually threw her hand into owning a sawmill as well. The sawmill became highly successful in just five months of operation and as a result many tongues in Beaufort began to wag in jealousy about Myrtle's business prowess. She had become the richest independent woman in town. She had refrained from social contact for as long as she had been in Beaufort, but quickly decided that as her fortunes grew, it was wise to make appearances and let herself be known to the people of Beaufort. She felt quite blessed that she had grown wealthy and had not needed to depend on the $130 dollars or the portrait. After Adam was born, the portrait was hung above the hearth in the home that she shared with Wylde.

The nature of their relationship was constantly in the mouths of the townspeople. Publicly, she was known as Wylde's housekeeper, but she increasingly ran his business and after she bought the sawmill, the spiteful rumours of her being a concubine flared. In truth, though they had grown close and had formed the closest friendship as well as economic and political alliance, they had never slept together. They existed on mutual appreciation and admiration.

Myrtle set into play her plans to throw a ball for the people of Beaufort taking two months to make careful preparations. Since she had arrived, the town had become integrated with colored businessmen, doctors, lawyers, and politicians all present in the middle and upper classes of Beaufort. She ordered ten hogs slaughtered and roasted for a barbecue. She hired three cooks to bake cakes, make puddings, prepare sweet potatoes and other food stuffs for her ball. She bought 200 bottles of French wine and burgundy and had an oak-enlaid ballroom floor built under a series of tents and draped all of the tables and every other tangible object with silk and satin bunting. The night of her ball, she lit 200candles in the faux ballroom and had her hired help set out enormous servers filled with food on the tables. at 7:30, her guest started to pour in. She had a young servant girl greet each guest at the door and a footman to guide her out to the backyard where the tents were set up. Myrtle had large, plush sofas set out in the huge, constructed rooms under the tents and seated herself on an ottoman and waited to greet each guest.

The first to arrive werethe Covettes. Laura Covette was a prim and proper white woman, the daughter of one of the few remaining prominent Beaufort families that still had money. That was due mostly to the fact that they adapted quickly and adopted the ideas and practices of the new carpetbaggers. She had been quite warm, privately, to Myrtle when she first became known in Beaufort. She was one of the few white women she was on cordial terms with. Throghout the evening, droves of people arrived and merriment was made with liquor flowing in every direction and savory violins being played by young black men near the food section of the tent. Conversation flowed free and easy. At one point in the evening, Laura approached her with a young man with soft blond curls that fell into his face and a slender build.

"Myrtle, I'd like to introduce you to my cousin, Preston Herzog. He's visiting from Washington D.C."

"Hello, Mr. Herzog. Welcome to my party. I hope you're enjoying yourself." Preston bowed deeply and kissed her hand.

"Oh yes, Ms. Poitiers. You are a most gracious hostess." Myrtle was immediately charmed. The violinists began to play a waltz. "May I ask you to dance?" He kept her hand firmly pressed between his.

"Why of course." she batted her eyes coquettishly. Preston nodded at Laura and led Myrtle back onto the floor. Sheinstantly felt secure in his strong arms. His hands were manly and filled hers like warm gloves. She laughed softly into his ear.

"You are a woman alone?" He asked her as they twirled around on the floor.

"Yes I am." she dug her nose into the shoulder of his coat. "I have a son. But if it wasn't for the generosity of Mr. Wylde, we would have been destitute."

The dance ended and he led them off of the ballroom floor. They took a walk beneath the persimmon trees.

"What happened to Mr. Poitiers?"

"He's dead." she stated flatly. "He died fighting along side our master."

They stopped over a bridge and looked out over the water. Preston turned to her, took her in his arms and kissed her. She fell into his arms and was drawn to his lips.

After the ball, Preston stayed with his cousins and courted Myrtle heavily. Through Laura, she found out that Preston's family was among the settled Washington D.C. rich. He was a distant cousin of the Custis family and his late father had been the under-secretary of the U.S. Treasury. His mother had died when he was an infant. He had an income of $30,000 a year from his inheritance from his father and as an attorney, he earned another $10,000 a year. By the beginning of September, with the amber fall taking over Beaufort, Preston and Myrtle announced their engagement. The wedding was set for December, to be helt at the Covette House, attended by the gentried colored people of Beaufort and those whites who would come. Tensions between whites and blacks were at a peak, yet their were some points of reserved gentility. The wedding had been announced in the Beaufort and Washington D.C. papers. Myrtle was an elegant bride in a gown of white satin with a five foot train and white orchids. Young Adam, who was almost four, served as the ringbearer. All of Beaufort's elite, white and colored, turned out for the wedding.

It was decided after the wedding that Adam would stay in Beaufort with Noah and not accompany his mother and new stepfather to D.C. When the day came for them to leave, Myrtle held Adam in her arms, standing on her knees as her servants carted out the last of her trousseau. The sawmill was bringing her in an income of over $5000 a year by that time and it was decided that that income would be kept for him under the care of Noah, who would also raise him. Noah also declared that Adam was his sole heir and willed him his entire estate, which would provide him with an extra income of over $8000 a year. Myrtle kissed his cheeks and his soft curls and bode him to be good and obey Noah. At dusk, Myrtle and her new husband set off for D.C.

The Herzog House in Washington D.C. sat on the corners of two fashionable streets. Tall and Tudor, the mansion had fifteen rooms and sat off of the road, surrounded by a wrought iron gate enclosing magnficient gardens in the front of the house. They were welcomed home by the assembled staff of ten servants and the butler. It was finer living than Myrtle had ever seen. Ife in D.C. was a thousand times more cosmopolitan than life on the Worthington plantation. She hired carriages to ride through the park every day. She bought expensive perfumes and shopped at the finest ladies stores. After three months, she and Preston set sail for Spain where they traveled from Cadis to Paris on their honeymoon. She brought back seven trunks from Europe, filled with dresses, trinkets, linen, and fine china. On their return from Europe, she made her first entrances into Washington D.C. society,her first outing to the opera. She cut a very elegant picture in a fox stole, white gloves, and sweeping fog-gray gown with a feather studded cap to match.As she settled into her life, she grew to accept the distance from her son. She wrote to him everyday, even from Europe and collected oods and ends and sent them to him at least once a month. She decided that she would visit him that summer.

By the next July, she was pregnant. As her belly grew, she would stand in front of her mirror and admire herself. Preston saw that she wanted for nothing. She made a small circle of friends among the wives of the colored bourgoeisie and she made friends some of the white women in Washington D.C.'s white elite. She busied herself with converting one of her second floor rooms into a nursery. The baby arrieved as the first ice appeared on the trees and fall turned into winter. Lying in her bed, surrounded by hired nurses and a white doctor who delivered babies among the Washington colored aristocrats, she delivered a healthy boy with a head full of red hair and cream-colored skin. She named him Noah. Preston climbed into bed with her and hugged her and the new baby to him and cried out tears of joy.

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