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Life was gracious and tranquil for the inhabitants of Natchez, Mississippi, the richest city in the country's richest state. Plantation owners in ruffled shirts and lace cuffs ruled over their households and vast cotton empires with a firm hand and relaxed authority that rarely made it necessary to raise the whips they carried jauntily. No perspiration from labor ever soiled their custom-made suits and no calluses ever appeared on their soft-palmed hands. As long as the pink and white blossoms of the cotton plants burst open every spring, their pleasing color stretching as far as the planter's eye could see from the balustraded captain's walk atop the hipped roof of his stately mansion, all was right with his world. He could continue to live a life matched only by royalty in its splendor and grace.
He was respected and feared by the Negroes that worked the fields and called him master. The planter owned them body and soul, just as he owned the cotton, the mansion he lived in with its priceless furniture from France, English glassware, Italian marble, first editions of classics, master paintings and art objects, blooded racehorses imported from Kentucky, and the fair lady dressed tastefully in tightwaisted gowns and billowing skirts. All belonged to him and were instrumental in allowing him to live in the best of all possible worlds this side of Paradise.
In the most magnificent mansion in all Mississippi, Louis Antoine Beauregard, one of the wealthiest cotton planters in the South, stood in his sun-filled bedroom, being assisted with his jacket by his faithful manservant, Daniel. Daniel was smiling sunnily, white teeth splitting the black face, happy with his task, pleased to be of service to the white man he had loved and respected for the entire forty-five years Louis Antoine Beauregard had lived. Daniel was only a boy of nine when Louis Beauregard was born in this very bedroom on a cold winter day in 1809.
Louis put his long arms into the jacket Daniel held out for him. He stood at the tall windows and looked over his estate, shimmering in the hot afternoon sun. The fertile land that had been in his family for generations spread out below him and the big house with its many rooms, gleaming columns, circular stairways, high ceilings, imported carpets, broad porches, and priceless treasures was far grander today than when it was built a half century ago in 1804. His burgeoning riches made refurbishing, upgrading, and beautifying the old estate, inside and out, every few years, as effortless as the snap of his long, slender fingers.
In front of his beloved Sans Souci, acres of rolling green lawn sloped down to the terraced gardens of azaleas and roses, camellias and wisterias, interspersed with lush green hedges. Huge trees, a century old, cast their welcome shades at intervals around the vast garden. Thick green vines climbed the white latticed summer house in the distance where three young girls in their white summer dresses chattered in hushed tones, passing the lazy afternoon on the long white settee under the octagon-shaped roof, glasses of cool lemonade in their hands.
Louis turned and gazed down on the long rows of cotton plants, bursting with white, almost ready for the harvest, their delicate bolls facing the sun in all their glory, mature and ready to be pulled by hundreds of nimble black fingers, tossed in long sacks, loaded onto wagons, taken to the gin. The soft white cotton would then be turned to the color of money, bringing new riches to the master of Sans Souci, new frocks and jewelry for its mistress, new party dresses and dancing slippers for the master's young daughter, new trinkets and gifts for the black hands that picked the cotton, and a respite from their labors. Frolicking and celebrations spread throughout the quarters where they lived at the back edge of the big plantation. It was the best time of year for Louis Beauregard, the master of Sans Souci, and for everyone and everything he owned.
Abigail Howard Beauregard, Louis' attractive blond wife, a soft-spoken, elegant lady, reserved in manner, delicate of features, high born and bred, remained coolly detached from the running of the estate, preferring to leave it in the capable hands of her adoring husband and the trusted servants he had placed in command. Not wishing any care ever to crease the high, fair forehead of the grand, blue-blooded beauty he'd been married to for over seventeen years, Louis was careful to guard her from anxiety. He made it clear to his staff of house servants that their mistress was to be pampered and respected above all else and no discouraging words should ever reach her shell pink ears. Her world was as pleasant and carefree today as it had been when she was a young girl in her father's home. Her husband had taken her as a young bride, determined to spoil and shield her from the world in a grander manner than her father before him. The white bolls of cotton at Sans Souci had made it possible and Abigail had never in her thirty-five years wanted for anything. Life was as easy for her as fluttering her thick lashes over big blue eyes and expressing her latest desire in a voice barely above a whisper.
Abigail was in the room adjoining her husband's. Hannah was hooking up the tight-bodiced dress while Abigail stood, her hands on her small waist, studying her reflection in the mirror. A hint of a frown was on her pale face and the small mouth was turned down slightly at the corners. Hannah raised her eyes from her mistress' back and saw the look of displeasure on Abigail's face. Hannah, tired from a long day's work, weary from climbing the winding stairs time and again throughout the long, hot day, her bulky weight bearing down on tired, aging legs, was not concerned with her own misery, but with the clouded blue eyes of her mistress.
"Now, honey, what troublin' you?" Hannah moved back a step and put her chubby black hands to Abigail's small waist.
"Hannah," Abigail sighed, "this gown does nothing to become me. What shall I do?"
Hannah rushed to the big dressing room filled with frocks of assorted colors and fabrics. Soon she was sashaying back, grinning, a sky blue satin gown over her arm. "Look here, chile, this'll make yo' pretty blue eyes sparkle lak sapphires."
"Perfect, dear Hannah. Get this terrible dress off me." Hannah laid the blue dress on the bed and rushed to unhook the rose cast-off that had displeased her mistress.
"I think I shall die of boredom," Kathleen Diana Beauregard sighed loudly. The usually high spirits of the young mistress of Sans Souci were sagging badly and the hot, sticky air of the late August afternoon weighed down her slim shoulders like an unbearable burden she could no longer carry. She raised her bare arms up to the heavy blond hair laying limply around her neck. With both hands, she jerked the thick tresses up off the glistening nape and held it high atop her head, her features contorted, a pout covering the mobile face, heavy lids drooping over the big blue eyes. "Don't you think this has been the most impossible summer you've ever seen? Not one exciting thing has happened for months!" She leaned further back on the white settee, lowering a hand to fan at the still air. A pesky mosquito determined to make her life ever more miserable.
Kathleen was flanked by her two closest girlfriends. The three were inseparable and spent every long, hot day of summer at one of their homes, usually Kathleen's. Becky Stewart, a tall girl, slim to the point of being skinny, was lethargic today, too. The heat sapped what little strength there was in her thin frame, but she was not as bored as Kathleen. "I don't think it's been so bad," she grinned lazily down at Kathleen.
"Oh you," Kathleen scolded, "you're so smitten with Ben Jackson, you don't know if you're coming or going. You're absolutely no fun at all anymore, Becky. Ben's all you ever talk about. I don't know what you see in him."
The satisfied grin never left Becky's slim face and she giggled suddenly and said, "There's a lot you don't know about, Kathleen Beauregard!"
Kathleen looked at her friend, studied her face carefully, trying to understand what delicious secret Becky was hiding. Becky's smile gave nothing away and Kathleen turned to the tiny girl on her other side. Julie Horne, at five foot one was even tinier than Kathleen. A gentle girl with chestnut hair and big brown eyes, Julie possessed a sweet disposition and a calm nature and rarely complained about anything. Shy around boys, she nevertheless was well liked by the young men of Natchez who found her demure and daintily pretty. Not as pretty as Kathleen, few girls were, but quite fetching. Always optimistic and congenial, Julie looked at Kathleen fanning herself in bored irritation and said, "Kathleen, I think it's been a nice summer. Why, we've had lots of parties and picnics and ..."
"Oh pooh," Kathleen said in a huff. "They were all dreadful. You're as bad as Becky. I know you are sweet on Caleb Bates, but I warn you, you'll have a long wait if you've dreams of being his wife. His father is dead set on Caleb finishing college before he marries and by that time you'll be an old lady."
Julie nervously twisted a chestnut curl and bit her lip. Just the mention of Caleb's name was enough to set her heart to beating a little faster and the thought of becoming his wife brought color rising to her cheeks. "Kathleen, don't tease me. Caleb doesn't know I'm alive. I don't see why you persist in accusing me of fancying Caleb. Really, I don't know where you got that idea, I just think he's nice and mannerly and ... well, he is very nice looking." Her eyes grew dreamy as she discussed him.
"You don't fool me for a minute, Julie Home! I see the way your eyes light up whenever Caleb is around. And I'd say by the way he develops a stammer and turns red as a beet when he asks you to dance, he must feel the same way."
Raising up on the settee, Julie grinned broadly, "Do you really think so, Kathleen? Oh, if only it were true." She wanted reassurance.
"Don't be a goose, Julie. You know very well Caleb likes you."
Still smiling, Becky agreed, "Don't worry, Julie. I think he really likes you; he is just not as forward and worldly as my Ben."
The last sentence caught Kathleen's attention and she felt some of the lethargy slipping away, replaced with curiosity. Turning her attention from Julie and her constant, irritating mooning over Caleb Bates, she caught Becky's arm and asked, "How forward is Ben?" The big blue eyes widened as she looked with interest at Becky's face and waited for an answer.
Looking like the cat who had just swallowed a juicy canary, Becky closed her eyes tightly and simpered, "Wouldn't you just like to know," and settled back on the settee, determined to keep all her secrets safe from her inquiring friend.
Kathleen's fingers tightened on Becky's slim arm and she said, "Becky Stewart, you just open your eyes and look at me this instant. You're hiding something and I want to know what it is. Has Ben, has he ... kissed you?"
Becky's eyes flew open and she pitched forward on the settee, jerking Kathleen's hand from her arm. She said indignantly, "That's a terrible thing to say, Kathleen. Do you really think I would let Ben do anything like that? Why, I'm mortified that you would think such a thing," but the green, catlike eyes gave her away and the mock horror at her friend's probing question didn't fool Kathleen for a second.
"I knew it, I knew it, you did let Ben kiss you," she turned excitedly to Julie. "She's let Ben kiss her, Julie. Ben has kissed her!"
Julie's big brown eyes grew even bigger and her tiny hand went to her mouth as she gasped, "Is it true, Becky?" and leaned out to look at Becky's face, the hand still at her mouth.
"When," Kathleen questioned, "when did Ben kiss you? Did you like it? Was it like you expected? Please, Becky, quit acting coy and tell us about it. I think you're terrible for not telling us right away. Aren't we your best friends?"
The smile had finally left Becky Stewart's thin mouth under the furious questioning of her girlfriends. Embarrassment replaced the self satisfaction of a moment ago and she found her throat dry and had trouble finding her tongue as she looked at the shocked expression on Julie's face and the excited, piercing blue eyes of Kathleen. Girlish guilt mixed with feelings of betrayal. She had told Ben she would never tell a soul and swore him to secrecy. Ben had assured her wild horses could never drag it out of him and she knew he spoke the truth because Ben was the most honorable man she had ever met and would never compromise her. Finally she spoke, looking from Kathleen to Julie. "If either of you ever tell, I shall never speak to you again and I mean it!"
"We won't," both girls promised in unison. "Tell us about it. Oh, I knew it," Kathleen rubbed her palms together, forgetting the sultry heat and the boredom of the day.
Becky coughed and cleared her throat, "I suppose you both think I'm awful, but remember, I'm already sixteen, a year older than you. Lots of girls are married by the time they are my age. You know I love Ben; I have for ever so long. He's been coming over to call on me all summer and bringing me flowers and holding my hand any time he got the chance."
"Yes, so go on," Kathleen prodded.
The smile was returning to Becky's face and the green eyes softened. "Exactly two weeks and four days ago, Ben came over to take me for a buggy ride. I packed a lunch and Mother said since it was the middle of the day she saw no harm in us going on a picnic alone as long as we didn't stay more than an hour or so, just long enough to eat our lunch. She told us to take our fried chicken and go over to the park and cool ourselves under the old trees there while we ate. We said we would do just that and she waved goodbye as Ben lifted me up to his carriage." Becky paused for effect. "And then, instead of going to the park, Ben headed out to the Bayou country."
"You're joking," Julie was shocked anew.
"Be quiet," Kathleen frowned at Julie, "let her finish. Then what, Becky?"
"I put up a terrible fuss and told Ben to just turn the carriage right around, that I wasn't going anywhere with him but to the park in Natchez proper, but he just smiled at me and kept right on going. That made me mad and I folded my arms across my chest and rode all the way in a huff, swearing I would never speak to Mister Ben Jackson again as long as I lived." Becky sighed contentedly and began again. "But even as I tried to be angry with him, I ... I just couldn't make myself and, by the time we reached the country, I found myself so excited to be alone with him, no matter where he was taking me. I slipped my hand under his elbow and he smiled at me in an impish way and I just had to smile back. He pulled the carriage up and helped me down and nodded to a shade tree. He said, 'This is a much shadier spot and I really think we'll be cooler here, don't you agree?' Before I could answer he had the picnic hamper out of the carriage and he was propelling me toward the tree. He was so commanding and sure of himself, I went along asking no further questions. He set the basket down and spread a blanket on the ground. He held out his hand to me, I took it, and we sat down together. He dropped my hand and looked at me and his eyes seemed to be questioning me, searching mine for an answer. I grew flustered under his steady gaze and turned quickly to the picnic lunch. I took out the fried chicken and without a word he took it from me and set it aside. When I reached for the basket again, he stopped my arm. He raised my hand up to his lips and kissed it, then he leaned close to me, still holding my hand, and he said very softly, 'Becky, I've been seeing you all summer and I've yet to be alone with you. We're finally alone now and I want to kiss you.' Well, of course, I was shocked and told him in no uncertain terms that I would not allow it. I tried to pull my hand away, but he refused to let it go. Instead, he pulled me closer and put his other hand on my cheek...." Her voice trailed off.
"Becky Stewart, if you don't finish the story, I will choke you with my bare hands," Kathleen's eyes were dancing.
"Please," Julie begged, "what happened then?"
Excerpted from Kathleen's Surrender by Nan Ryan. Copyright © 1983 Nancy Henderson Ryan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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