Civil War nurse Charlotte Evans uncovers a mystery at a Mississippi plantation during the middle of the war.
* * * *
Being a New Englander, it had been difficult for me to adjust to the hot and humid summers of Tennessee and Mississippi. To be honest, I still have not adjusted to it. It came as no surprise that I found myself unable to sleep during the sultry nights. The patients' moans and Alma's light snores did not help matters. One night, during our second week at Green Willows, I heard two people arguing next door. Our host and his mother.
"After I had begged you not to hang around that darky, you still defied my wishes during supper. Oh yes, Jenny told me all about it!" I assumed that the screeching voice belonged to Mrs. Scott. "You're just like them. Just like the Scotts! And to think I thought you were a son of mine!"
Major Scott was not as loud. "For heaven's sakes, Mother! Not so loud! The entire house can hear you."
"I don't care! Can you imagine my feelings when I saw you in the garden with that woman? Not only did you upset me, you have insulted Judith's memory!"
That woman? Mrs. Scott had obviously been referring to me.
"Judith has been dead for six years, Mama! And I don't recall you ever having any regard for her! And as for Miss Evans, we happen to be friendly acquaintances. That's all. Unlike you, I happen to like people for whom and not what they are."
A loud slap followed. Mrs. Scott must have struck her son.
"How dare you talk to me like that!" she cried in a voice loud enough to wake the dead.
Mrs. Scott certainly woke up Alma. She sat up in bed, her light brown eyes barely opened. "What's that?" she asked.
I answered, "Mrs. Scott giving her son hell."
Both of us remained silent as we overheard Major Scott continue. "I feel we have nothing further to say ma'am. Now if you will please excuse me." His voice was cold as steel.
"Richard! I won't have it, you hear? I won't have you insult your family name with that black slut!"
"Good-night Mother!" A door slammed shut.
Alma turned to me. "Whew! I reckon you're the . . . black slut Miss Scott was referring to?"
I merely rolled my eyes.
She shook her head. "Lord knows how many times I've heard Miss Catherine call my momma that." Alma sighed. She happened to be one of the offsprings of a cotton planter and his slave mistress. After his death, his widow began making preparations to sell Alma and her brothers to Texas. Which led them to run for the Union lines. "If I were you, Miss Charlotte, I'd stay away from that woman. Maum Janey tole me she was a little crazy."
What Alma had said about Mrs. Scott did not worry me. I felt I could handle the woman easily. What disturbed me was something she had said to Major Scott. "Just like the Scotts!" What did she meant by that?
* * * *
I finished wrapping a clean bandage on the corporal's leg. On the following afternoon, I found myself with Miriam and Doctor Anders on the manor's wide, front lawn. Before I could walk away, the corporal laid a hand on my arm. "Excuse me nurse, but am I crippled?" He looked up at me with brown hopeful eyes.
A lump formed in my throat. I knew he could walk again, but a Minie ball at Vicksburg shot off a fragment of his knee ligament and stiffened his leg for good. He would limp for the rest of his life.
The corporal had been so polite and friendly toward me that I decided to spare him the full details. I told him that he would be on his feet within a matter of days. At least I was being partially truthful. Relieved, the corporal laid his head back on the pillow and closed his eyes with a smile.
"Poor bastard'll be limping for the rest of his days. Won't he?" a voice murmured. I glanced up. Major Scott stood behind me, wearing a sad expression.
"I beg your pardon?" I asked.
"I'm sorry. What I meant was the corporal there has a permanent limp. Am I right?"
"How did you know?"
"I saw the expression on your face." His dark eyes met mine. There was something in them that reminded me of someone from the past. Josh Bradley, the son of a merchant in my hometown, once looked at me in the same manner before proposing marriage. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled.
It was not that I did not find Major Scott unattractive. I did. Very much. But like Josh, I knew there were too many differences in our backgrounds that would divide us. Major Scott happened to be white and I was colored. Jack was colored also, but came from a well-to-do family. Major Scott had the same problem of coming from a wealthy background. And worse, Major Scott was a native of Mississippi. I would not have lasted with him any longer than I would have with Josh.
The front door opened and three people emerged from the manor - Maum
Janey, Shelby and Mrs. Scott. Major Scott followed my stare with uneasy eyes. "Going shopping Mama?" The three females were dressed for travel.
"We're heading into town to purchase new shoes for Shelby," Mrs. Scott replied coolly. "We should return before supper." Mrs. Scott deliberately ignored me. That is until Major Scott helped her settled in an old barouche. For a brief moment, I felt the malevolence in her eyes, as she glanced at me. Major Scott excused himself and returned inside the manor. The carriage rattled down the road, driven by a dark old man.
"My goodness," Alice declared in a breathless manner. "Did you see the way Mrs. Scott looked at you? She must really hate you!"
I shrugged. "What can you expect? I'm a free, colored and a Yankee."
"I don't think so, Charlotte. I've never seen her look at Alma like that. She usually gets one of those 'don't-sass-me-I-am-your-superior' looks." I stared at Alice. I never realized she was capable of such cattiness.
Alice continued, "But you . . . she gave you a look of pure hatred. Like it was personal." Her remarks produced a glimmer of suspicion in my mind. Perhaps the reason Mrs. Scott disliked me so, was because I reminded her of Marie. After all, the man in my dream strongly resembled Major Scott. Perhaps his father had been Marie's lover. If so, then Mrs. Scott must have killed the nursemaid.
* * * *
Later that night, I had that same dream. Unable to return to sleep, I slipped out of bed and went downstairs to the library, hoping that I could find a book to read.
Decorated in brown oak paneling, the library was scantily furnished. The only furnishings in the room were a large desk with a kerosene lamp, green cushioned chair, two small wood-carved chairs and a tall grandfather clock.
After I had lit the lamp, my eyes fell upon two portraits hanging side by side on the north wall. Both men in the paintings strongly resembled Major Scott. Both possessed the dark hair and eyes, cleft chin and the aquiline nose of the Scotts. The man in the left portrait, with his fleshy skin and ruthless set of the mouth, had a more dissipated look. The other happened to be an exact replica of Major Scott.
The signatures of both paintings were the same. Solomon Green. Both paintings had been completed in June 1840. "That's Massa Richard's papa and uncle," a voice behind me said. I turned around. It was Maum Janey. She continued. "What you doin up so late, child?"
"I had a bad dream and could not go back to sleep," I answered. Looking at the paintings again, I realized that handsomer one must have been Major Scott's father. "What was Major Scott's father like?"
A heavy sigh escaped from Maum Janey's lips. "A real bastard." She paused momentarily before adding, "Pardon my language, miss. As I was trying to say, but Massa Coleman barely paid any attention to Miss Deborah, young Massa Richard or any of the other children. And he treated his niggers like dirt. Hardly a soul mourned his death."
I looked at the handsome man in the painting. This man was Marie's lover?
"No female slave, house or field, was safe from him," Maum Janey continued. "Except a few. You know I can't get over how much you look like her. Like Marie."
"Were you two close?"
"We were friends. Massa Coleman bought brought both of us from Nawlins years ago." I gathered Maum Janey meant New Orleans. Ironically, the housekeeper never struck me as someone with a Creole background. She continued, "I reckon almost thirty years ago. She became Massa Richard's nurse mammy and I became a house maid."
I asked, "Were you in the house when she died?"
"No. No I wasn't. Marie slept in Massa Richard's room and I slept in the slave quarters. Massa Coleman was getting ready to sell her anyhow. I saw him and Massa Brent - his brother - with Marie in this room the very day she died. Massa Coleman tore off her blouse so that he could look her over. Almost made her bend down to look some more, but a visitor was coming and they stopped."
I flinched at her story. Poor Marie. To be treated so brutally by her lover. So Major Scott's father had planned to sell Marie. I wondered why. I asked, "Did Mrs. Scott force him to sell her?"
"Why you ask that?" Maum Janey demanded.
"Perhaps Marie and Mr. Scott . . ." I began.
Maum Janey snorted with derision. "Are you kidding? Massa Coleman had never shown the least bit interest in Marie. Not during the five years she had been there. Besides, I doubt Miz Deborah could make Massa Coleman do anything. She couldn't care less about him and felt the same about her. They stayed away from each other."
Now, I felt confused. Perhaps Maum Janey did not know about Marie and Coleman Scott. I looked at the handsome man on the right. "I must say that Major Scott is the spitting image of his father."
Maum Janey followed my gaze. "Oh, that's not Massa Coleman." She pointed to the left portrait. "That's him. You were looking at his brother, Massa Brent. Now he . . . was more than interested in Marie." The old housekeeper paused momentarily. "She was his bed wench."
Completely astonished, I realized my mistake. Marie had an affair with Major Scott's uncle, not his father. So that meant Mrs. Scott had no reason to kill Marie. But who did?
End of Chapter Three