Read an Excerpt
I've always thought of myself as a Cinderella who never had a prince come with a glass slipper to whisk her away to a wonderful life. Instead of a prince, I had a businessman who won me in a card game, and just like a chip that is tossed across the table, I was tossed from one world into another.
But that had always been my destiny, right from the day I was born. It wouldn't change until I was finally able to change it myself, following the philosophy an old black laborer at The Meadows told me when I was a little girl. His name was Henry Patton and he had hair so white it looked like a patch of snow. I would sit with him on an old cedar log in front of the smokehouse while he carved me a small rabbit or a fox. One summer day when a storm had begun to build a layer of dark clouds on the horizon, he stopped and pointed to a thick oak tree in the east meadow.
"You see that branch there, bending in the wind, child?" he asked.
"Yes, Henry," I said.
"Well, my mammy once told me something about that branch. You know what she told me?"
I shook my head, my golden pigtails swinging around to slap me gently on the mouth.
"She told me a branch that don't bend in the wind, breaks." He fixed his large, dark eyes on me, the eyebrows almost as white as his hair. "Remember to go with the wind, child," he advised, "so you don't ever break."
I took a deep breath. The world around me seemed so pregnant with wisdom back then, knowledge and ideas, philosophy and superstition hovering in the shape of a shadow, the flight of chimney swallows, the color of caterpillars, the blood spots in chicken eggs. I just had to listen and learn, but I also liked to ask questions.
"What happens when the wind stops, Henry?"
He laughed and shook his head. "Well, then you can go your own way, child."
The wind didn't stop until I was married to a man I didn't love, but when it did, I followed Henry's advice.
I went my own way.
Chapter 1: Sisters
When I was very young, I thought we were royalty. We seemed to live just like the princes and princesses, the kings and queens in the fairy tales my mother loved to read to me and my younger sister, Eugenia, who would sit perfectly still, her eyes as wide and as filled with awe as mine, even though at two she was already quite sickly. Our older sister, Emily, never liked to be read to and chose instead to spend most of her time by herself.
Just like the regal men and women who pranced over the pages of the books in our library, we lived in a big, beautiful house with acres and acres of prime Virginia tobacco farmland and beautiful forests. We had a long, wide, rolling front lawn that grew thick with clover and Bermuda grass and on which there were white marble fountains, small rock gardens, and decorative iron benches. On summer days, the wisteria tumbled over the verandas and joined with the pink crepe, myrtle bushes and the white-blossomed magnolias that surrounded the house.
Our plantation estate was called The Meadows and no visitor, old or new, came up the long gravel driveway without remarking about the splendor of our home, for in those days Papa had an almost religious devotion to its upkeep. Somehow, maybe because of its location deep enough off the road that passed by, The Meadows escaped the destruction and plunder so many southern plantations experienced during the Civil War. No Yankee soldiers ground their heels into our fine wood floors or filled their sacks with our valuable antiques. Grandfather Booth was convinced the plantation had been spared just to demonstrate how special The Meadows was. Papa inherited that devotion to our grand home and vowed that his last dollar would go toward maintaining its beauty.
Papa also inherited our grandfather's rank. Our grandfather had been a captain in General Lee's cavalry -- it was as good as being knighted and made us all feel regal. Even though Papa was never really in the army, he always referred to himself, and had others refer to him, as Captain Booth.
And so, just like royalty, we had dozens of servants and laborers ready to move at our beck and call. Of course, my favorite servants were Louella, our cook whose mamma had been a slave on the Wilkes plantation not twenty miles south of our home, and Henry, whose daddy, also once a slave, had fought and died in the Civil War. He fought on the side of the Confederacy because "he thought loyalty to his master was more important than freedom for himself," as Henry put it.
I also thought we were royalty because we had so many fine and rich things in our mansion: vases of shining silver and gold, statues from places all over Europe, fine hand-painted knickknacks, and ivory figures that came from the Orient and India. Crystal prisms dangled from lampshades, from wall sconces, from chandeliers catching colors, refracting rainbows that flashed like lightning whenever sunlight managed to steal through the lace curtains. We ate on hand-painted china, used sterling silver dinnerware, and had our food served on sterling silver platters.
Our furniture had many styles, all of them fancy. It seemed each of the rooms was in competition, trying to outdo each other. Mamma's reading room was the brightest with its light blue satin curtains and its soft carpet imported from Persia. Who wouldn't feel like royalty on Mamma's purple velvet lounging chaise with the gold cording? Sprawled elegantly on that chaise in the early evenings, Mamma would put on her mother-of-pearl framed glasses and read her romance novels, even though Papa ranted and raved about it, claiming she was poisoning her mind with polluted words and sinful thoughts. Consequently, Papa rarely set foot in her reading room. If he wanted her, he would send one of the servants or Emily to fetch her.
Papa's office was so wide and so long that even he -- a man who stood six feet three in his bare feet, who had wide, powerful shoulders and long, muscular arms -- looked lost behind his oversized dark oak desk. Whenever I went in there, the heavy furniture rose up at me in the half-light, especially the highbacked chairs with deep seats and wide arms. Portraits of Papa's father and his grandfather stood over him, glaring out from large dark frames as he worked in the glow of his desk lamp, his hair in a riot of soft curls over his forehead.
There were pictures everywhere in our house. There were pictures on practically every wall in every room, many of them portraits of Booth ancestors: dark-faced men with pinched noses and thin lips, yet many with copper-brown beards and mustaches, just like Papa's.
Some of the women were lean with faces as hard as the men, many looking down with an expression of chastisement or indignation, as if what I was doing or what I had said, or even what I had thought, was improper in their puritanical eyes. I saw resemblances to Emily everywhere, yet in none of the ancient faces did I find the smallest resemblance to my own.
Eugenia looked different too, but Louella thought that was because she had been a sickly baby and had developed a disease I couldn't pronounce until I was nearly eight. I think I was afraid to say it, afraid to utter the words for fear the sound could somehow spread a contagion. It made my heart thump to hear anyone say it, especially Emily, who, according to Mother, was able to pronounce it perfectly the first time she had heard it: cystic fibrosis.
But Emily was always very different from me. None of the things that excited me excited her. She never played with dolls or cared about pretty dresses. It was a pain for her to brush her hair and she didn't mind that it hung listlessly over her eyes and down her cheeks like worn hemp, the dark brown strands always looking dirty and drab. It didn't excite her to go running through a field chasing after a rabbit, or go wading in the pond on hot summer days. She took no special pleasure in the blooming of roses or the burst of wild violets. With an arrogance that grew as she sprouted taller and taller, Emily took everything beautiful for granted.
Once, when Emily was barely twelve, she took me aside and squeezed her eyes into tiny slits the way she always did when she wanted to say something important. She told me I was to treat her special because she had seen God's finger come out of the sky that very morning and touch The Meadows: a reward for Papa's and her religious devotion.
Mother used to say that she believed Emily was already twenty years old the day she was born. She swore on a stack of Bibles that it took ten months to give birth to her, and Louella agreed that "a baby cookin' that long would be different."
For as long as I could remember, Emily was bossy. What she did like to do was follow after the chambermaids and complain about their work. She loved to come running with her forefinger up, the tip smeared with dust and grime, to tell Mother or Louella that the maids didn't do a good enough job. When she was ten, she didn't even bother to go to Mamma or Louella; she bawled out the maids herself and sent them scurrying back to redo the library or the sitting room, or Papa's office. She especially liked to please Papa, and always bragged about the way she had gotten the maid to shine up his furniture or pull out each and every one of the volumes of books on his dark oak shelves and dust each jacket.
Even though Papa claimed he had no time to read anything but the Bible, he had a wonderful collection of old books, most first editions bound in leather, their untouched and unread pages slightly yellow on the edges. When Papa was away on one of his business trips and no one was watching, I would sneak into his office and pull out the volumes. I'd pile them beside me on the floor and carefully open the covers. Many had fine ink illustrations, but I just turned the pages and pretended I could read and understand the words. I couldn't wait until I was old enough to go to school to learn to read.
Our school was just outside of Upland Station. It was a small, gray clapboard building with three stone steps and a cow bell that Miss Walker used to call in the children when lunch was over or recess ended. I never knew Miss Walker to be anything but old, even when I was little and she was probably no more than thirty. But she kept her dull black hair in a severe bun and she always wore glasses as thick as goggles.
When Emily first went to school, she would return each day with horrifying stories about how hard Miss Walker would beat the hands of ruffian boys like Samuel Turner or Jimmy Wilson. Even when she was only seven years of age, Emily was proud of the fact that Miss Walker relied on her to tell on the other children if they misbehaved in any way. "I'm the eyes behind Miss Walker's head," she declared haughtily. "All I have to do is point to someone and Miss Walker will sit him in the corner with a dunce's cap smack over his head. And she does that to bad little girls, too," she warned me, her eyes full of gleeful pleasure.
But no matter what Emily did to make school seem terrifying, it remained a wonderful promise to me, for I knew that within the walls of that old gray building lay the solution to the mystery of words: the secret of reading. Once I knew that secret, I, too, would be able to open the covers of the hundreds and hundreds of books that lined the shelves in our home and travel to other worlds, other places, and meet so many new and interesting people.
Of course, I felt sorry for Eugenia, who would never be able to go to school. Instead of getting better as she grew older, she became worse. She was never anything but thin and her skin never lost that sallow look. Despite this, her cornflower blue eyes remained bright and hopeful and when I finally did start attending school, she was eager to hear about my day and what I had learned. In time, I replaced Mamma when it came to reading to her. Eugenia, who was only a year and a month younger than me, would curl up beside me and rest her small head on my lap, her long, uncut, light brown hair flowing over my legs, and listen with that dreamy smile on her lips as I read one of our children's storybooks.
Miss Walker said that no one, not any of her children, learned to read as quickly as I did. I was that eager and determined. No wonder my heart nearly burst with excitement and happiness when Mamma declared that I should be permitted to begin my schooling. One night at dinner toward the end of the summer, Mamma announced I should go even though I wouldn't be quite five when the school year began.
"She's so bright," she told Papa. "It would be a shame to make her wait another year." As usual, unless he disagreed with something Mamma said, Papa was silent, his big jaw moving unabated, his dark eyes shifting neither left nor right. Anyone else but us would have thought he was deaf or so lost in a deep thought he hadn't heard a word. But Mamma was satisfied with his response. She turned to my older sister, Emily, whose thin face was twisted into a smirk of disgust. "Emily can look after her, can't you, Emily?"
"No, Mamma, Lillian's too young to go to school. She can't make the walk. It's three miles!" Emily whined. She was barely nine, but seemed to grow two years for every one. She was as tall as a twelve-year-old. Papa said she was springing up like a cornstalk.
"Of course she can, can't you?" Mamma asked, beaming her bright smile at me. Mamma had a smile more innocent and childlike than my own. She tried hard not to let anything make her sad, but she cried even for the smallest creatures, some days even moaning about the poor earthworms that foolishly crawled onto the slate walkway during a rain and fried to death in the Virginia sun.
"Yes, Mamma," I said, excited with the idea. Just that morning, I had been dreaming about going to school. The walk didn't frighten me. If Emily could do it, I could do it, I thought. I knew that most of the way home, Emily walked along with the Thompson twins, Betty Lou and Emma Jean, but the last mile she had to walk alone. Emily wasn't afraid. Nothing scared her, not the deepest shadows in the plantation, not the ghost stories Henry told, nothing.
"Good. After breakfast, this morning, I'll have Henry hitch up the carriage and take us into town and we'll see what nice new shoes and new dresses Mrs. Nelson has for you at the general store," Mamma said, eager to outfit me.
Mamma loved to shop, but Papa hated it and rarely, if ever, took her to Lynchburg to the bigger department stores, no matter how much Mamma cajoled and complained. He told her his mother had made most of her own clothes and so did her mother before her. Mamma should do the same. But she hated to sew or knit and despised any household chores. The only time she became excited about cooking and cleaning was when she staged one of her extravagant dinners or barbecues. Then she would parade about the house, followed by our chambermaids and Louella, and make decisions about what should be changed or dressed up and what should be cooked and prepared.
"She doesn't need a new dress and new shoes, Mamma," Emily declared with her face screwed into that old lady's look -- her eyes narrow, her lips thin, her forehead crinkled. "She'll only ruin everything on the walk."
"Nonsense," Mamma said, holding her smile. "Every little girl gets dressed up in new clothes and new shoes the first day of school."
"I didn't," Emily retorted.
"You didn't want to go shopping with me, but I made you wear the new shoes and new dress I bought for you, don't you remember?" Mamma asked, smiling.
"They pinched my feet and I took them off and changed into my older shoes as soon as I left the house," Emily revealed.
Papa's eyes widened and he shifted his aimless gaze in her direction as he chewed, a strange look of curious interest on his face.
"You didn't," Mamma said. Whenever something terrible or outrageous occurred, Mamma always thought it was untrue first, and then, when she had to face it, simply forgot it.
"Yes, I did," Emily replied proudly. "The new shoes are upstairs, buried at the bottom of my closet."
Undaunted, Mamma held her smile and wondered aloud. "Maybe they would fit Lillian."
That made Papa laugh.
"Hardly," he said. "Emily's got twice the foot."
"Yes," Mamma said dreamily. "Oh well, we'll go to Upland Station first thing in the morning, Lillian honey."
I couldn't wait to tell Eugenia. Most of the time she had her meals brought to her because it made her too tired to have to sit up at the dinner table. All our meals were quite elaborate affairs. Papa would begin by reading from the Bible, and after Emily learned how to read, she would often do it, too. But he would pick the passages. Papa liked to eat and relished each and every morsel. We always had salad or fruit first and then soup, even on hot summer days. Papa liked to wait at the table while the dishes were cleared and the table reset for dessert. Sometimes, he would read the newspaper, especially the business section, and while this went on, Emily, Mamma and I would have to sit and wait, too.
Mamma would jabber on and on about the gossip she had heard or some romance novel she was reading at the time, but Papa rarely heard a word, and Emily always looked distracted with her own thoughts. Consequently, it seemed like Mamma and I were alone. I was her best audience. The trials and turmoil, successes and failures of our neighboring families fascinated me. Every Saturday afternoon, Mamma's lady friends would either come here for lunch and gossip or Mamma would go to one of their homes. It seemed they filled each other's ears with enough news to last the rest of the week.
Mamma was always just remembering something told to her four or five days ago, and bursting out with it as if it was a headline in a newspaper, no matter how small or insignificant the information might seem.
"Martha Hatch broke a toe on her stairwell last Thursday, but she didn't know it was broken until it turned dark blue."
Usually something that happened reminded her of something similar that had happened years and years ago and she would recall it. Occasionally, Papa would remember something, too. If the stories and news were interesting enough, I would bring them back to Eugenia when I stopped to see her after dinner. But the night Mamma declared I would go to school, I had only one topic of conversation to relate. I had heard nothing else. My head was full of excited thoughts.
Now I would meet and become friends with other girls. I would learn to write and cipher.
Eugenia had the only downstairs bedroom that was not assigned to any of the servants. It was decided early on that it would be easier for her than having to go up and down the stairs. As soon as I was excused from the table, I hurried down the corridor. Her bedroom was toward the rear of the house, but it had a nice set of windows that looked out over the west field so she could see the sun go down and the farm workers laboring over the tobacco.
She had just finished her own breakfast when I burst into the room.
"Mamma and Papa have decided I'm going to start school this year!" I cried. Eugenia smiled and looked as excited as she would have had it been her who was to be enrolled. She tugged on her long strands of light brown hair. Sitting up in her big bed with its posts twice my height and its large, thick headboard, Eugenia looked younger even than she was. I knew that her illness had retarded her physical development, but to me it made her seem more precious, like a delicate doll from China or Holland. She was swimming in her nightshirt. It poured around her. Her eyes were her most striking feature. Her cornflower blue eyes looked so happy when she laughed that they nearly seemed to be laughing themselves.
"Mamma's taking me to Nelson's to buy a dress and new shoes," I said, crawling over her thick, soft mattress to sit beside her. "You know what I'll do?" I continued. "I'll bring all my books home and do my homework in your room every day. I'll teach you whatever I learn," I promised. "That way, you'll be ahead of everyone your age when you start."
"Emily says I'll never go to school," Eugenia reported.
"Emily doesn't know anything. She told Mamma I wouldn't be able to make the walk to school, but I'll get there ahead of her every day. Just for spite," I added, and giggled. Eugenia giggled too. I hugged my little sister to me. She always felt so thin and fragile to me, so I barely squeezed. Then I ran off to get ready to go with Mamma to Upland Station to buy my first school dress.
Mamma asked Emily to go with us, but she refused. I was too excited to care and although it distressed Mamma that Emily took so little interest in what Mamma called "women's things," Mamma was almost as excited as I was and didn't dwell on it more than enough to sigh and say, "She certainly doesn't take after my side."
Well, I certainly did. I loved to go into Mamma and Papa's bedroom when she was alone and sit beside her at her vanity table while she did her hair and her makeup. And Mamma loved to babble incessantly at our images in the marble framed oval mirror, not turning her head as she spoke. It was as if there were four of us, Mamma and me and our twins who reflected our moods and reacted just the way identical twins might.
Mamma had been a debutante. Her parents introduced her to high Southern society with a formal ball. She went to finishing school and had her name in the social columns often, so she knew all about how a young girl should dress and behave and was eager to teach me as much as she could. With me at her side, she would sit at her vanity table and brush her beautiful hair until it looked like spun gold and describe all the fancy parties she had attended, elaborating in great detail about what she had worn from her shoes to her jeweled tiara.
"A woman has a special responsibility toward her own appearance," she told me. "Unlike men, we are always on a stage. Men can comb their hair the same way, wear the same style suit or shoes for years. They don't use makeup, nor do they have to be very concerned about a skin blemish. But a woman..." she told me, pausing to turn to me and fix her soft brown eyes on my face, "a woman is always making a grand entrance, from the day she first enters school to the day she walks down that aisle to marry. Every time a woman enters a room, all eyes turn toward her and in that first instant, conclusions about her are immediately drawn. Don't ever diminish the importance of first impressions, Lillian honey." She laughed and turned back to the mirror. "As my mamma used to say, the first splash you make is the one that gets everyone the wettest and the one they remember the longest."
I was getting ready to make my first splash in society. I was going to school. Mamma and I hurried out to the carriage. Henry helped us both in and Mamma opened her parasol to keep the sun off her face, for in those days a tan was something only field laborers had.
Henry got up on the seat and urged Belle and Babe, our carriage horses, to mosey on.
"The Captain ain't had some of these potholes from the last rainstorm filled in yet, Mrs. Booth, so you all hold on back there. It'll be a bit bumpy," he warned.
"You just don't worry about us, Henry," she said.
"I gots to worry," he replied, winking at me. "I got two growed women in my carriage today."
Mamma laughed. I could hardly contain my excitement about my first store-bought dress. The late summer rains had made the gravel driveway rough, but I barely noticed the way we were bounced about as we traveled to Upland Station. The vegetation along the way was as thick as could be. The air had never seemed as full of the pungent scents of the Cherokee roses and wild violets as well as the faint fragrance of the lemon verbena sachet that came from Mamma's silk dress. The cooler nights had not arrived with force enough to turn the leaves. The mockingbirds and jays were in competition for the most comfortable branches on the magnolia trees. It was truly a glorious morning.
Mamma felt it too. She seemed as excited as I was and told me story after story about her first days in school. Unlike me, she had no older brother or sister to take her. But Mamma wasn't an only child. She had had a younger sister, who had died of some mysterious malady. Neither she nor Papa liked to talk about her, and Mamma especially would moan whenever something unpleasant or sad was introduced into any of her conversations. She was always chastising Emily for doing that. Actually, it was more like pleading with her to stop.
"Must you bring up such unpleasant and ugly things, Emily," she would lament. Emily would snap her mouth closed, but never looked happy about it.
Nelson's General Store was just what it claimed to be: a store that sold everything from tonics for rheumatism to the new machine-made britches coming down from the northern factories. It was a long, rather dark store, and at the rear of the store was the section for clothes. Mrs. Nelson, a short woman with curly gray hair and a sweet, friendly face was in charge of that department. The dresses for girls and women were on one long rack on the left.
When Mamma told her what we were after, Mrs. Nelson took out a measuring tape and took down my sizes. Then she went to her rack and pulled out everything she thought would fit, some with a little alteration here and there. Mamma thought a pink cotton dress with a lace collar and yoke was most darling. It had frilly lace sleeves, too. It was a size or so too big for me, but Mamma and Mrs. Nelson decided if the waist was taken in and the hem raised, it would do. We then sat down and Mrs. Nelson brought out the only shoes that would fit me: two pair, one patent leather, black, with straps, and one with buttons. Mamma liked the one with straps. On the way out, we bought some pencils and a tablet and I was outfitted for my first day at school.
That night Louella did the alterations on my new dress. We did it in Eugenia's room so she could watch. Emily came around once and peered in, shaking her head in disgust.
"No one wears such fancy clothes to school," she complained to Mamma.
"Of course they do, Emily dear, especially on the first day."
"Well I'm wearing what I have on," she retorted.
"I'm sorry to hear that, Emily, but if it's what you want to do..."
"Miss Walker doesn't like spoiled children," Emily spat. It was her final comment on the activities, which had seized everyone else's imagination and attention, even Papa's. He stopped by to express his approval.
"Just wait until you see her all dressed up in the morning, Jed," Mamma promised.
That night, I could barely fall asleep because I was so excited. My mind was full of thoughts about the things I would learn and the children I would meet. I had met some of them when Mamma and Papa staged one of their elaborate barbecues or when we attended one. The Thompson twins had a younger brother about my age, Niles. I remembered he had the darkest eyes and the most serious and thoughtful face I had ever seen on a boy. Then there was Lila Calvert, who had started school last year, and Caroline O'Hara, who would be starting this year with me.
I told myself that whatever my homework was, I would do twice as much. I would never get into trouble in class or not pay attention to Miss Walker, and if she wanted me to, I would eagerly wash down her blackboards and pound out her erasers, chores I knew Emily loved to perform for the teacher.
That night when Mamma came in to say good night, I asked her if I had to decide right then and there tomorrow what I would be.
"What do you mean, Lillian?" she asked, holding her smile tight and small around her lips.
"Do I have to decide if I want to be a teacher or a doctor or a lawyer?"
"Of course you don't. You have years and years to plan, but I rather think you'll make some successful young man a wonderful and beautiful wife. You'll live in a house as big as The Meadows and have an army of servants," she declared with the authority of a Biblical prophet.
In Mamma's mind, I would eventually go to a fine finishing school, just like she did, and when the time was right, I would be introduced to fine society, and some handsome, wealthy, young southern aristocrat would begin to court me and eventually come calling on Papa with a request for my hand. We'd have a big, elaborate wedding at The Meadows and I would go off, waving from the back of the carriage, to live happily ever after. But I couldn't help wanting more for myself. It would remain my secret, something to keep deeply in my heart, something I would reveal only to Eugenia.
Mamma came in to wake me up the next morning. She wanted me fully dressed and ready before breakfast. I slipped into my new dress and put on my new shoes. Then Mamma brushed my hair and tied a pink ribbon around it. She stood behind me as we both looked into the full-length mirror. I knew, from the many times Papa had read it out loud to me from the Bible, that falling in love with your own image was a dreadful sin, but I couldn't help it. I held my breath and gazed at the little girl captured in the mirror.
I looked as if I had grown up overnight. Never had my hair appeared as soft or as golden, nor had my blue-gray eyes looked as bright.
"Oh, how beautiful you are, honey," Mamma declared. "Let's hurry down and show the Captain."
Mamma took my hand and we walked down the corridor to the stairway. Louella had already forewarned some of the chambermaids, who poked their heads out of the rooms they had begun to clean. I saw their smiles of appreciation and heard them giggle.
Papa looked up from the table when we arrived. Emily was already sitting prim and proper.
"We've been waiting a good ten minutes Georgia," Papa declared, and snapped his pocket watch shut for emphasis.
"It's a special morning, Jed. Feast your eyes on Lillian."
"She looks fine, but I've got a full day ahead of me," he said. Emily looked self-satisfied with Papa's abrupt reaction. Mamma and I took our seats and Papa quickly muttered grace.
As soon as breakfast ended, Louella gave us our box lunches and Emily declared that we had to hurry.
"Waiting for you for breakfast put us behind," she whined, and started quickly for the front entrance.
"Now watch over your little sister," Mamma cried after us.
I scurried as quickly as I could in my stiff, shiny new shoes, clinging to my notebook, pencils and box lunch. The night before there had been a short but hard downpour, and although most of the ground was already dry, there were some potholes still full of rainwater. Emily kicked up a cloud of dust as she marched down our driveway and I did the best I could to avoid it. She wouldn't wait up for me or hold my hand.
The sun hadn't finished poking its face over the line of trees, so there was a slight chill in the air. I wished we could slow down and take in some of the bird songs. There were wonderful wild flowers still plush and in bloom along the sides and I was wondering if it wouldn't be nice for us to pluck some for Miss Walker. I asked Emily, but she barely turned around to reply.
"Don't start apple polishing the first day, Lillian." Then she turned and added, "And don't do anything to embarrass me."
"I'm not apple polishing," I cried, but Emily just said, "Humph," and walked on, her long strides getting longer and faster so that I practically had to run to keep up. When we made the turn at the bottom of our driveway, I saw a large puddle had formed across the road and still remained from the night before. Emily hopped over some large rocks, balancing herself with remarkable agility and not so much as getting the bottom of her soles damp. But to me the puddle looked formidable. I paused, and Emily spun around, her hands on her hips.
"Are you coming, little princess?" she asked.
"I'm not a little princess."
"Mamma thinks you are. Well?"
"I'm afraid," I said.
"That's silly. Just do what I did...walk on the rocks. Come on or I'll leave you here," she threatened.
Reluctantly, I started. I put my right foot on the first stone and gingerly stretched to get my left foot on the next, but when I did so, I had stretched too far and couldn't bring my right foot forward. I started to cry for Emily's help.
"Oh, I knew you would be a problem for me," she declared, and came back. "Give me your hand," she ordered.
"Give me your hand!"
Barely balancing myself, I leaned forward until I reached her fingers. Emily grasped mine tightly and for a moment, did nothing. Surprised, I looked up at her and saw a strange smile on her lips. Before I could retreat, she tugged me hard and I slipped off the rock and fell forward. She let go and I landed on my knees in the deepest part of the puddle. The muddy water quickly soaked into my beautiful new dress. My notebook and my box lunch sunk and I lost all my pens and pencils.
I screamed and started to cry. Emily, looking pleased, stood back, and offered me no assistance. I got up slowly and sloshed my way out of the puddle. On dry ground, I looked down at my beautiful new dress, now stained and soaked. My shoes were covered with grime, the mud seeping through my pink cotton socks.
"I told Mamma not to buy you fancy clothes, but she wouldn't listen," Emily said.
"What am I to do?" I moaned. Emily shrugged.
"Go home. You can start school another time," she said, and turned away.
"No!" I cried. I looked back at the puddle. My new notebook was just visible beneath the surface of the muddy water, but my box lunch was floating. I scooped it out quickly and went to the side of the gravel drive to sit on a large rock. Emily was moving away quickly, her pace quickening. Soon, she was gone around the end of the driveway and well on her way. I sat there crying until my eyes ached. Then I got up and considered returning home.
It's what Emily wants, I thought. Suddenly, a rush of anger overtook my sorrow and self-pity. I brushed down my new dress as best I could, using some leaves, and then I plodded on after her, more determined than ever to attend school.
By the time I arrived at the schoolhouse, all of the children were already inside and seated. Miss Walker had just begun to greet them when I stepped into the doorway. My tears had streaked my face and the ribbon Mamma had taken such care to tie in my hair had fallen out. All faces turned in surprise, Emily looking disappointed.
"Oh dear," Miss Walker said. "What happened to you, sweetheart?"
"I fell into a puddle," I moaned. Most of the boys all laughed aloud, but I noticed that Niles Thompson didn't laugh. He looked angry.
"You poor dear. What's your name?" she asked, and I told her. She whipped her head around and looked at Emily.
"Isn't she your sister?" she asked.
"I told her to go home after she fell in, Miss Walker," Emily said sweetly. "I told her she would have to start school tomorrow."
"I don't want to wait until tomorrow," I cried. "Today's the first day of school."
"Well, children," Miss Walker said, nodding at the class, "that's the sort of attitude I hope you will all have. Emily," she said, "watch the classroom for me while I see about Lillian."
She smiled at me and took my hand. Then she led me to the back of the schoolhouse where there was a bathroom. She gave me towels and washcloths and told me to clean myself as best I could.
"Your dress is still quite wet," she said. "Rub it as dry as you can."
"I lost my new notebook and pens and pencils, and my sandwich is soaked," I moaned.
"I have what you need and you can share my lunch," Miss Walker promised. "When you're ready, come back and join your classmates."
I swallowed my remaining tears and did as she instructed. When I returned, all eyes were on me again, but this time, no one laughed, no one even smiled. Well, maybe Niles Thompson smiled. He looked like he did, although it was going to be some time before I knew when Niles was happy and when he was not.
As it turned out, my first day at school was okay. Miss Walker made me feel very special, especially when she gave me one of her own sandwiches. Emily looked sullen and unhappy most of the day and avoided me until it was time to make the walk home. Then, under Miss Walker's eyes, she seized my hand and led me off. When we were far enough away from the schoolhouse, she let me go.
The Thompson twins and Niles walked with us two thirds of the way. The twins and Emily stayed in front and Niles and I lagged behind. He didn't say much to me. I would remind him years later that when he did speak, it was to tell me how he had climbed to the top of the cedar tree in front of his house the day before. I was reasonably impressed because I remembered how tall that tree was. When we parted at the Thompson driveway, he muttered a quick good-bye and sprinted away. Emily glared back at me and walked as quickly as ever. Halfway up our driveway, she stopped and spun around.
"Why didn't you just go back home instead of making us the laughingstocks of the school?" she demanded.
"We weren't the laughingstocks."
"Yes, we were -- thanks to you my friends are laughing at me, too." She fixed her eyes on me, narrowing them angrily. "And you're not even my real sister," she added.
At first, the words seemed so strange, it was as if she had said that pigs could fly. I think I even started to laugh, but what she said next stopped me fast. She stepped toward me and in a loud whisper repeated her statement.
"I am too," I declared.
"No, you're not. Your real mother was Mamma's sister and she died giving birth to you. If you weren't born, she'd still be alive and we wouldn't have had to take you in. You carry a curse on you," she taunted. "Just like Cain in the Bible. No one's going to ever want to love you. They'll be afraid. You'll see," she threatened, and then pivoted on her heels and marched away.
I walked slowly after her, trying to make sense out of what she had said.
Mamma was waiting in the sitting room for me when I entered the house. She got up and came out to greet me. The moment she saw the mud-stained dress and shoes, she uttered a cry, her hands fluttering up to her throat like frightened little birds.
"What happened?" she asked tearfully.
"I fell into a puddle this morning on the way to school, Mamma."
"Oh, you poor dear." She held out her arms and I ran to her, ran to her embrace and her comforting kisses. She took me upstairs and I pulled off my new dress and shoes. "There's mud all over your neck and hair. You'll have to take a bath. Emily didn't say a word about this. She just marched into the house as usual and went right to her room. I'm going to have a word or two with her right away. In the meanwhile, you take that bath," Mamma said.
"Mamma," I called as she started toward my door. She turned around.
"Emily said I wasn't her sister; she said your sister was my real mother and she died giving birth to me," I told her, and waited, holding my breath, anticipating Mamma's denial and laughter at such a fantastic story. But instead, she looked troubled and confused.
"Oh dear," Mamma said. "She promised."
"Promised what, Mamma?"
"Promised not to tell until you were much, much older. Oh dear," Mamma said. She screwed her face into as angry an expression as she was capable of having. "The Captain is going to be furious with her, too," she added. "I declare that child has a streak in her and where it came from I'll never know."
"But Mamma, she said I wasn't her sister."
"I'll tell you all about it, honey," Mamma promised. "Don't cry."
"But Mamma, does that mean Eugenia's not my sister, either?"
Mamma bit down on her lower lip and looked as if she was going to cry herself.
"I'll be right back," she said, and hurried away. I flopped back on my bed and stared after her.
What did all this mean? How could Mamma and Papa not be my mamma and papa and Eugenia not be my sister?
This day was supposed to be one of the happiest days of my life, the day I started school, but at that moment, it appeared to be the most dreadful day I had ever lived.
Copyright © 1993 by Virginia C. Andrews Trust