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(Yes – for reasons, Minnie will say ‘no’ to the question that Pres Devereaux asks of her, after she has recovered from injuries in the dreadful carriage accident in the previous snippet.)

Within a week, Minnie was able to leave the bed and sickroom and dress herself with the aid of Annabelle, for her broken arm was still splinted and bound. It was Tuesday, Susan’s customary at-home day. Hepzibah fussed at her to rest and not overexert herself; which attention Minnie found at once endearing and exasperating.

“I’m not a child, Hepzibah – and not entirely
incapable of caring for myself!” Minnie complained. She was seated at the
dressing table, having combed out her long hair, but it was Annabelle weaving her
hair into a long braid and pinning it up into a bun. Hepzibah had remade the
bed with clean linen, and was folding up Minnie’s nightgown and wrapper, laying
them in readiness on the smooth coverlet. For some curious reason Hepzibah had
begun to treat Minnie, and to a lesser degree, Annabelle, in the same
proprietary manner that she treated Susan’s daughters. 

“I done doubt that, Miz Minnie – it’s only been a week
since you wuz feelin’ better. An’ if you have a relapse, don’t you go on
blamin’ anyone but yourself.”  Annabelle’s eyes met Minnies’ in the mirror, a
shared look of amused resignation in them.

“I will ensure that our dear invalid doesn’t overexert
herself, Hepzibah,” Annabelle inserted the last of several hairpins into
Minnie’s coiffure, and regarded her handiwork with an air of satisfaction.
“There! Are you ready to go downstairs? Mr. Devereaux presented his card this
morning – along with the usual tokens of his regard for you and dear little
Charlotte … although my own suspicion is that he wished to observe and confirm
for himself that you are well-recovered from your little adventure with the
smashed carriage …”

“Carried you in his arms all de way from out Stony
Creek ways,” Hepzibah interjected, with a shake of her head and with tones
which combined awe and disapproval. “Even do’ a waggoneer brought y’all back
the last couple mile… Miz Minnie, dat is a devotion mos’ powerful. You take
care, you hear me? Marse Devereaux, he a man to be reckoned with – an’ careful,
like. Like a flame in a powder-mill!”

With that dire prophetic statement, Hepzibah collected
the most aged flower bouquets from the room and absented herself, her
petticoats swishing with emphasis. Minnie looked into the mirror again, as
Annabelle pinned a lace and linen house-cap over Minnie’s hair.

“Honestly, Minnie – she is so forward!” Annabelle
lamented. “A woman of that color and station! I wonder how Susan endures such
presumption!”

“I wonder also,” Minnie confessed, after a moment.
“But it comes to me that women of determination and ability, no matter of what
color, or station in life; they can exercise power, in any way that they can.
It’s the power of the queen on the chessboard, you see. Hepzibah may be a
slave, owned as certainly as Mr. Devereaux owns his prized carriage horse. But
she is skilled in household management; dear Susan depends on that skill … and
that is Hepzibah’s entrée into power.” Minnie laughed a little, as the
certainty of this realization came to her. “Subtle power within the household,
you see. Cousin Susan desires her household to run smoothly and well, for the
love of My-Dear-Ambrose … and Hepzibah manages all that very well. And being a
privileged house slave, she is afforded a certain degree of authority. Being a
woman, she demonstrates that to other women. As well that she has probably
supervised Susan’s girls from the time they were in the cradle. Still … her
position is perilous.”

“How so, dear,” Annabelle ventured. “As near as I may
see, there is much affection between Susan and Hepzibah – and not misplaced in
the least.”

“Because as dear as Hepzibah may be to Susan and her
daughters, as skilled as she might be in managing a domestic establishment,”
Minnie adjusted the set of the lace fichu at her throat, and yielded up her
seat at the dressing table for Annabelle to make adjustments to her own
afternoon attire, “Her comfortable existence in this house hangs on chance…”

“As does the existence of every woman not blessed with
a secure and independent income,” Annabelle settled herself before the mirror
and began taking the pins out of her own hair. Minnie, feeling suddenly tired –
although she would never admit this to Annabelle or to Hepzibah save under the
tortures of the Spanish Inquisition – sat on the side of the bed and waited for
Annabelle to finish with her own toilette. She continued, feeling as if she had
been given the answer to a small puzzle. “Suppose that My-Dear-Ambrose fell
into debt, through some mischance. Although honestly, I do not think he has
ever felt the least bit reckless in his life, unlike some gentlemen of the
South that I might mention. But suppose that he did, for the purposes of my
argument. And by some further mischance, he died, leaving Susan in debt to
creditors. She would have no choice; she must sell all those assets of value,
just to keep herself from poverty and starvation. It is a wicked choice
presented to her … but a household of slaves present the most substantial block
of value to an estate, as such it stands under the slave system.”

“That would be … wicked!” Annabelle considered that
prospective event, outlined by Minnie, who continued, remorselessly.

“Yes, it would be. But it would be a solution to a
temporary market reversal. That quadroon child whom Miss Van Lew purchased, on
the occasion of our excursion into the Shockoe Bottom? She was a natural
daughter of man dealing in … what was it? Rice, I think. She was a child,
indulged and loved, or so Miss Van Lew informed me – but when all was reversed
upon the death of her father, her value was all in the marketplace. I am
certain that Susan feels the most tender regard for Hepzibah; but what Hepzibah
must know, although she might be able to tell herself otherwise – is that she
can be sent to the Shockoe Bottom slave markets and sold. Perhaps with regret
on the part of the family that are all but blood her own. But she can be
sold. And that … that is a cruelty. A cruelty which must weigh heavily upon those
who have the intellect to think on it, overmuch.”

“I see,” Annabelle set down her hairbrush, and met
Minnie’s eyes in the mirror. “Malignant, is it not? The whole of the peculiar
institution? I vow that we shall be more dedicated abolitionists after this
visit than we ever were before.”

“There is much to be said for observing the monster
with your own eyes, rather than at a comfortable distance and in a church pew,
listening to the Reverend Slocomb,” Minnie ventured. “Perhaps I might do
lectures on that subject … oh, to groups of ladies,” she added hastily, upon
seeing Annabelle’s expression of utter horror, reflected in the mirror.

“Public talks?” Annabelle pushed in the final pin to
her own coiffure and settled the brief lace and lawn widow’s house-bonnet over
it. “Really, Minnie – that just won’t do! You have a social position to uphold!
You can’t just go about giving public talks! Why, anyone might attend! What
would everyone think? What would the Judge have said about that?”

“That the cause, my conscience and the occasion demand
it,” Minnie replied. “I imagine that the same was said to Papa-the-Judge and to
Cousin Peter in their youth when the matter of revolution against King George
first came about. ‘Oh, think of your social position! Rebel against our King?
Why, we’d never!”

“I suppose that you are right,” Annabelle admitted
with a sigh. “Still, I consider what social cost we may have to pay amongst
those whom we think of as friends and kinfolk, should we come out foursquare in
public for abolition of the noxious practice.”

“There is always a cost for doing right, ‘Belle,”
Minnie replied, feeling quite comfortable in that statement of which – to her –
was obvious. “And if they should think the worst of us, in opposing slavery,
and putting all the energies and resources that we have to bear against it …
then, such persons were no true friends of ours!”

“Would you cast off dear kin from your regard,”
Annabelle still appeared troubled in her mind, as she stood from before the
dressing-table mirror. “Those who have tendered us hospitality and their fond
regard – their deepest affections, their care for you, for us both. Especially
after your unfortunate accident…”

“I admit, my dear – that Susan may feel that I have
betrayed her hospitality,” Minnie took up her light shawl, a woolen thing from
India, woven as finely as the flimsiest lawn fabric and colored in bright and
exotic patterns. “But the vileness of the peculiar institution! I cannot remain
silent for long, when silence implies approval.”

“Courtesy demands a tactful silence under this roof,”
Annabelle reminded her. “There; are you ready for Susan’s callers? When you
tire, dear – you can easily make your excuses.”

“I am not the least bit tired,” Minnie insisted. “Of
being confined to a bed in this chamber. Otherwise I hunger for social
diversion; thirst for it, like a man on a deserted island!”

Annabelle tilted her head, hearing some slight noise
from downstairs – a door opening and closing, distant voices in the entry hall.

“Your diversion has arrived, I think!” she replied,
and she and Minnie went downstairs to Susan’s parlor – there to see Pres
Devereaux, with his hat and gloves beside him on the divan. He was alone,
sitting bolt upright on the divan. He stood up readily – with eagerness, even –
as Minnie and Annabelle entered the parlor. His eyes seemed to burn a more vivid
blue in his tanned face, as he clasped Minnie’s hands with tenderness in his.

“My dear Miss Vining!” he exclaimed. “I am lost for
words, in telling you how happy I am to see you recovered! I … and your friends
here were … that is, we were … I called every day hoping for good news of your
condition.”

“As you can see,” Minnie replied, unaccountably warmed
by his obvious regard and relief. “I am well enough to take part in Susan’s
social whirl … and I have such pleasant memories of our chess match…”

“I will call on you for a match as soon as it may be
arranged,” Mr. Devereaux enthused – and Minnie noted that he only released her
hands with reluctance. “In the meantime … if you are sufficiently recovered,
would you take a turn around Mrs. Edmond’s garden with me? I have … well there
is a question to ask of you, a question that I feel would be best asked in
private…” for some unfathomable reason, Mr. Devereaux seemed nervous, uncertain.
Minnie couldn’t begin to fathom why.

“The sunshine will be most welcome to me,” Minnie
replied, “And the sight of Susan’s roses …although,” she added hastily. “The
flowers that you have been sending to us are … they are most welcome, but poor
substitute for a garden in summer.”

The tall French doors opening from the parlor onto the
front verandah stood open, admitting that slight breeze which stirred the
window hangings, and brought the faint scent of jasmine and honeysuckle. After
weeks indoors, confined to bed, the out of doors drew Minnie irresistibly.
Everything seemed impossibly large, lush, colorful. Mr. Devereaux offered her
his elbow, and she leaned on it with good grace, feeling something of the same
feeling of being sheltered and protected, as she had felt when he carried her
away from the scene of that ghastly carriage accident. The garden, even a
little wilted in the heat of late summer, still reflected the anxious care
which Susan’s outdoor slaves took of it; spent blossoms dead-headed and
removed, leaves and twigs swept from the greensward, the rambling jasmine and
roses pruned and trained to arches and trellises. Minnie felt her spirits
reviving, as her strength returned

“I have not been able to thank you properly for your
care,” she ventured finally. “Looking after Charlotte and I, on that day. I
think that I shall not be able to ride with confidence in a carriage again for
some time, knowing that you are not present.”

“Would you, Miss Vining?” This appeared to cheer Mr.
Devereaux. “Indeed, I am honored by your trust and regard. It makes the
question that I mean to ask of you an easier one to venture, knowing that you
think of me in that degree.”

“And what question might that be?” Minnie looked at
him sideways; he was so much taller than she, all she might see of his
countenance was his profile against the sky above, the sky which in summer was
so very like the color of his eyes.

“Come. Let us sit under this trellis,” He led her towards
the pergola at the bottom of the garden, heavily hung with pale pink roses, which
had shed tender velvety petals underneath, like gentle confetti on the benches
set underneath. He took out a handkerchief – one of those vast and useful man’s
articles, not a dainty little wisp trimmed with lace – and swept some invisible
dust off the bench before the two of them sat down upon it, side by side. “Mrs.
Edmonds’ garden is a treasure, is it not? I have found it to be so very
restful. Of all the gardens on Church Hill … hers is the most accomplished in
design. Every aspect rewards the eye and the senses…” his words meandered off into
thought, and Minnie wondered where they had gone, with some impatience.
Charlotte and her mother would be in the parlor soon.

“You had a question which you wished to ask of me?”
she chose in favor of asking directly; Minnie had no gift for social
subterfuge, especially when it came to the male of the breed.

“Yes… of course.” Pres Devereaux appeared to hesitate,
and then to plunge ahead, like a horse to a race. “Minnie … Miss Vining. Would
you do me the honor of consenting to marry me?”

“What?” Minnie gazed at him, in mixed shock and
sheer disbelief

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    OT: Don’t know if you had tracking or such, but books arrived last week and mother is reading throughg Luna City 8. Thank you.