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By Lyn Cote
Warner FaithCopyright © 2005 Lyn Cote
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTidewater, Maryland, April 1936
Bette Leigh screamed herself awake. She jerked up in her bed. A feeble glow outside her window pierced the predawn gray. Her heart pounded hard and fast. She fought for air. What-what happened?
A blast exploded outside. Gretel's scream joined hers. "Was ist los?"
Bette heard the sound of bare feet pelting down the hardwood hallway and then down the steps. Her mother's voice called out to her stepfather, "Roarke, wait! Get your gun first!"
Bette tossed back the covers and nearly landed on Gretel in the trundle bed below her. "Come on!" She grabbed her friend's hand and dragged her from their bedroom. Her mother, Chloe, was before them, racing down the stairs to the foyer. "Mother!" Bette screeched, afraid her mother might run outside into danger.
"Wait!" Chloe held up both hands to stop them. Bette and Gretel halted near the middle of the staircase, both winded and panting.
Roarke hurried from the rear of the house, his rifle in his good hand. "All of you stay in here till I see what's out there." He threw open the door. Cold damp air rushed in and they all saw it at once.
A cross burned on their wide front lawn. Bette gasped so sharply her tongue slammed against the back of her mouth, nearly making her gag. "What is it?" Gretel repeated in a hollow voice.
Shock and fear shimmered through Bette. She tightened her grip on Gretel's hand. "It's the Klan," she whispered. At this, Gretel pressed herself close to Bette as if seeking refuge. "Why? Oh, why?"
Roarke stalked outside. "No, Roarke, they might-" Chloe's voice was overwhelmed by a blast from her husband's rifle.
"Come out, you lousy cowards!" he roared. "Show yourselves and face me like men!"
Silent night was the only response. "Cowards!" he shouted. He stalked to the cross and, using the butt of his rifle, knocked it to the ground. It sizzled in the early morning dew. Bette knew she'd never forget the sound, a hissing like a poisonous snake. A snake poised to strike them. He turned back to the house. "They shot out the parlor window." He marched onto the white-pillared porch and ripped off a paper nailed to the doorframe.
Chloe joined him in the open doorway. "What is it?" He shoved it into her hands. "Garbage." Mad to find out what the paper said, Bette tugged Gretel down the steps. She peered over her mother's shoulder and glimpsed the brief note. In large, clumsy capitals, it read: "Get rid of the Jew Girl."
"What do you think about what happened last night at Bette Leigh's?"
Bette froze where she stood behind the partition in the chemistry lab of the Croftown High School. She recognized the malicious voice as that belonging to a fellow senior named Mary.
Girlish snickering. "It's about time." It was Mary's chum, Ruth; the two led a nasty clique of girls at school.
"My daddy," Mary continued with scorn, "says someone had to set the McCaslins straight. That Jew girl should have stayed in Germany where she belongs."
The partition hid Bette from their view, letting them feel free to spew their venom. What was worse was that Bette wasn't alone. She and the handsome new transfer student, Curtis Sinclair, had been asked to wash up the glass instruments after the final chemistry class. Even worse, Gretel-the target of all this ridicule-sat hunched on a lab stool beside them, hearing everything. Her expression showed that each word pierced her like thorns.
Despite the situation, Bette felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle with an awareness of Curt. Ever since he'd first arrived at the school, she had been fascinated with him; he was different than any other boy here, and she'd found herself daydreaming about him more than once. And now she stood side by side with this young man, unseen, but able to hear every horrible word spoken about her best friend. She wondered what he was thinking.
"Well, my mother said this all started when Miss Chloe ran off and married that doughboy like she did." Ruth sounded self-righteous. "She said Miss Chloe come back from New York City with plenty of strange ideas."
Bette's hands trembled as she washed the glass tubes in the small sink. Though she tried to make no noise, they clinked softly. The enforced quiet maddened her. She wanted to explode around the partition and confront them. But Gretel looked ready to faint. Would putting a stop to this gossip session help Gretel or make things worse for her?
This morning, someone-maybe a son of one of the cross-burners-had painted a swastika on Gretel's locker. Gretel had withdrawn further at this. Bette wanted to shake someone, scream her outrage. Instead, she held her peace- for Gretel's sake. Let them leave, she thought now. Don't let them know that we heard their poison.
"A Jew girl, staying at Ivy Manor," Mary snapped. "Daddy says Miss Chloe's ancestors are spinning in their graves."
"Well, the whole family is strange. Adopting kids from an orphanage," Ruth said. "No decent family does that." "Well, Jamie McCaslin may be an orphan, but he'll inherit half a bank, and half a bank is good enough for me," Mary said slyly. "And he's dreamy."
Brisk footsteps ended the talk. "Why are you two girls loitering here?" the chemistry teacher's deep voice demanded. "I wanted to ask you a question about the homework, sir," Mary replied in a butter-will-melt-in-my-mouth tone. She was nothing if not quick on her feet.
"Just a moment." The teacher raised his voice. "Miss McCaslin and Mr. Sinclair, are you still back there?"
Bette couldn't find her voice. She rinsed the last slippery tube and handed it to Curt to dry. Now they had to walk out there and face them. Dry-mouthed, she reached out for Gretel and urged her off the lab stool. She couldn't find words to comfort her friend.
Curt looked at the two of them as he efficiently dried the last vial. "We've just finished, sir," he replied.
Bette envied him his calmness. She wiped her hands on the white cloth beside the little sink and turned to pick up her textbooks. She felt as though all her joints had rusted.
Then Curt touched her arm. Electricity shot through her. No young man had ever touched her like that-so respectful yet so intimate. "Shall we go?" He motioned her and Gretel to go first.
Her chin went up. I'm a Carlyle of Ivy Manor, and a McCaslin by adoption. Her mother had taught her this litany when she was a child and came home crying from grade school taunts. Of course, she usually couldn't help adding, But why can't my family be like other families?
Curt kept his hand just under her elbow, causing her to buzz with a special awareness of him. He nodded, encouraging her.
With Gretel right behind her, Bette stepped out from behind the partition. She did not want to face Mary and Ruth, but her mother had always told her, "Honey, look them straight in the eye. That'll make them mad as fire."
So she stared into her classmates' eyes-two girls who'd tormented her all her childhood, even though their families weren't perfect either. Seeing their expressions, she knew they were embarrassed Curt had overheard their gossip and that somehow they would try to make her pay for their indiscretion.
"Thank you, Miss McCaslin, Mr. Sinclair." The teacher smiled.
She merely nodded at the teacher's thank-you. And, her spine as stiff as a broom handle, she led Gretel out into the hall. Curt stayed right with them, his hand on her arm. The gesture was both tender and devastating. She spared him a quick look as they made their way down the hall. Curt Sinclair was her opposite. Only a few inches taller than Bette, he had blond hair to her black, blue eyes to her gray. And he dressed sharp. She didn't. She wondered, what did he think of what he'd heard? Did he merely think chivalry called for him to protect them?
The three of them stopped at the end of the corridor and only then did he let go of her arm. Gretel stayed right beside Bette, saying nothing. Clutching her books to her chest as a shield, Bette looked down at her scuffed Oxfords. Please don't say anything about the gossip. Please don't.
"Do you need a ride home?" Curt asked politely. "My father loaned me his car today." He smiled and Bette noticed that his blond hair was parted on the side and combed back smoothly like Humphrey Bogart.
"We always walk to the bank and ride home with my stepfather." Momentarily entranced, she detected traces of golden beard on his cleft chin. She thought of running a finger over it and experienced a rush of sensation that shook her. For a second, all she could think of was Curt and his nearness. Then the horror of the past few minutes and the early morning attack surged back. She shook with it.
"I think it would be best if I drove you to the bank today," Curt said.
So he had heard about the cross. Bette wondered what he thought about it. But didn't his gallant actions give his opinion?
"Danke," Gretel murmured, swishing her long dark braids over the shoulders of her plain navy-blue dress. "Danke."
Bette managed to nod before Curt hustled them down the staircase, whistling. The sound did things to the back of her neck. The three of them were passing the glass-encased bulletin board next to the principal's office when Bette caught sight of something pinned there and nearly stopped in her tracks. No!
Later on, Bette sat at the kitchen table at Ivy Manor and set her worn Oxford shoe on a flattened cereal box. Her mind buzzed with ideas of what to do about the notice she'd seen on the bulletin board. But she made herself carefully trace the outline of the shoe's sole onto the cardboard. Gretel sat across from her doing the same to Bette's other shoe. Bette's mother and the housekeeper, Jerusha, were chatting at the stove about someone's new baby as if last night hadn't happened. The radio could be heard from the parlor, playing "I'm Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter."
The image of the flaming cross kept popping into Bette's mind, along with the nasty words she'd overheard at school, like a bad taste in her mouth. She wanted to take her mother aside and pour out the awful, hateful gossip and then curl up in her lap. But that was what she'd done as a child.
I'm nearly a woman now. I'm eighteen and I'll graduate high school in a month. I will only hurt Gretel and Mother if I repeat the garbage I heard. That's what her stepfather always called gossip-garbage. What should she say to Gretel? Not a word about the chemistry lab had been spoken between them. And what could she do about the new notice on the bulletin board? Mary could be viciously jealous and this would make Bette a prime target.
A knock came at the back door. Even that caused a spurt of fear. But Bette stood up as calmly as she could manage and answered it. One of their sharecroppers stood with his sweatstained hat in his dark hands.
"Is Miz Chloe home, please?" "Certainly. Please step in. Mother?" Bette walked back to the table.
Her mother went to greet the man. "Samuel, what can I do for you?"
Bette looked over her shoulder, watching the interaction between the bowing, ragged sharecropper and her kind, neatas- a-pin mother. Bette both liked and disliked her mother's easy way with people. Her mother was good to everyone, whether white or black, rich or poor. Because of this, people respected her mother. But they also gossiped endlessly about her. It didn't make sense.
For a moment, Bette let herself imagine the kind of family she herself wanted in the future: a husband and four children. A small house in a small city. She would dress nicely and have the neighbor ladies over for coffee ...
Bette heard her mother close the back door and walk up behind her. She began cutting out the cardboard inserts for her shoes. Chloe stopped and patted her on the shoulder. "New shoes for you. Very soon. Thanks for being so patient."
"It's all right, Mother. I don't mind." Bette felt guilty for imagining a life so different from her parents. They were good people. Even though her stepfather was the president of the local bank, times were still hard. So many people needed help and farm prices were below rock-bottom. No doubt Mary and Ruth's parents didn't bother themselves about whether the A.M.E. reverend's son needed costly insulin injections to live, but her mother and stepfather did.
Besides, why should I even be thinking about having my own family? I'm not beautiful like Mother. Not even pretty new shoes and a dress would make Curt Sinclair notice me.
Then she recalled his light touch under her elbow and her heart pounded all over again.
Her two little brothers, Rory and Thompson burst in, slamming the back door behind them. "Mom! Mom!" the two shouted in breathless unison.
Chloe turned and bent down and, catching a body in each arm, hugged them. The boys' heads came only as high as her waist. "I was wondering when you'd decide to come home. Which one of you fell in the creek today?" "We didn't go to the creek!" Rory, who was fair like Chloe, announced in his boyish soprano. "We went to see Mr. Granger's horses."
In the background, the news came onto the radio. A broadcaster announced in a smooth professional voice, "Today Secretary of State Cordell Hull again urged that the US aid Polish Jews. Labor chiefs join 350,000 American Jews in asking for a protest to Warsaw persecution."
Bette watched a shadow pass over Gretel's face. The news from Europe was never good if it was about Jews.
"Mr. Granger, he let us comb the horses," Thompson, who was dark-haired, continued their conversation. "It was really swell."
"When are we going to get a horse, Mom?" Rory asked. "Unfortunately that isn't on our current list of priorities," Chloe replied mildly. "Now, go wash your hands and tell your father supper's ready and it's time to gather in the dining room."
Rory and Thompson crowded around the sink and then pelted out into the hall, calling, "Dad! Dad!"
Soon all six of them sat around the long table. Thinking about becoming an adult and leaving home made Bette look around at her family differently tonight. Roarke, with his bent arm that had been injured in the Great War, sat at the head of the table and Chloe at the foot. Gretel and she sat opposite Rory and Thompson, who were five and six years old respectively. Bette loved them all more than words could express.
As her stepfather finished saying grace, another familiar face appeared at the kitchen doorway. "Uncle Ira!" Gretel sprang up and rushed to him.
The short, balding man opened his arms and clasped Gretel to his thin chest. "Liebchen," he murmured, looking meaningfully at Bette's parents over his niece's head. Seeing the worry there, Bette's mother spoke up. "Everyone, but Bette and Gretel slept-"
"Hey, Mr. Sachs, did you know that somebody burned a cross on our lawn last night?" Rory asked.
There was a shocked silence. Then Roarke cleared his throat. "We thought you boys slept through that." "Everybody at school knew about it," Rory declared. "I told them that you had a gun and they better watch out."
"I hear about it also," Uncle Ira said. Gently urging Gretel back into her place, he pulled out a chair and sat beside his niece. "Good evening, Mrs. McCaslin, Mister." He nodded politely at them. Ira Sachs showing up for supper on Fridays had become a weekly ritual. Gretel stayed with Bette during the week so she could ride to school with Bette. On Fridays, Uncle Ira came for Gretel and took her home to spend the rest of the weekend with him in Baltimore. The routine had begun nearly a year ago when Gretel's family had sent her from Germany to live with Ira Sachs, her great-uncle.
They'd met because Bette's mother sold their excess eggs to Mr. Sachs, who gathered eggs and then drove them to the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore grocery stores he supplied. On one of his stops in the early summer of 1935, Chloe had seen the new girl sitting in his faded pickup truck and talked to her. She'd invited Gretel to spend time with Bette and improve her broken English before school started in the fall. It had been hard at first for Gretel to adjust to living with a Gentile family, but her uncle wasn't Orthodox so he didn't keep Kosher-as he called it-anyway. In the end, Gretel had settled in as Bette's first and only close girlfriend.
Again, Bette glanced around the table. The cross-burning was just one nasty event in a continuing conflict between the majority of people in northern Anne Arundel County and her parents. No doubt Mary and Ruth would never invite the Jewish egg man to dinner and no doubt their mothers would never take in an orphan like Thompson. Chloe had explained to her why people didn't adopt orphans. They thought that most of them were bastards, children who had been conceived in sin and who even their fathers and mothers had rejected. Chloe had called it foolish, mean-hearted prejudice. She'd used the same words to explain why people called Gretel and Mr. Sachs names.
"I'm so sorry that you had to suffer this cross business," Mr. Sachs said in his thin voice, which still held a trace of German. But he passed the bowl of mashed potatoes to Chloe as if nothing untoward had happened.
"It's just a few KKK, probably liquored up," Roarke dismissed it. "Gretel, you shouldn't let it hit you too hard. They're just ignorant men, cowards."
Excerpted from Bette by Lyn Cote Copyright © 2005 by Lyn Cote.
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