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Natchez, Mississippi, 1861
She was alone and far from home, and if she wasn't careful, she could get caught in the middle of a war. Eva Sparrow walked through the darkness between rows of lush magnolias and inhaled the scent of recently turned soil in the flowerbeds of Eastman Hall in Natchez, Mississippi. She must leave America soon. She wouldn't be here when the trees bloomed or see the magnificent explosion of camellias that lent such charm to the warm Southern nights. But even if there was no war coming, nothing could keep her here in this land where, from the comfort of a graceful white mansion, she could hear the crack of the lash and the cries of slaves being whipped.
After exploring America from New York to Texas and back, she would go home. At home people led uneventful lives secure in the knowledge that they lived in the most powerful country in the world. At home her family and friends all knew the same people, did the same things year after year. In April they returned to London from their country houses. In May the Season began. For months they rushed from dinner to ball to luncheon to dinner and to the next ball. In July they went to the Henley Regatta and the cricket finals. In August after Parliament adjourned they went north for grouse season. Thus began the season for shooting things and hunting--partridge, pheasant, fox. Then came Christmas, and soon it was time to go back to London and do it all over again, and again, and again. Eva had long ago realized that the sheer busyness of the social calendar did little to make up for its tedium and emptiness. So she had stopped being busy. At least, the way everyone she knew was busy.
Her relatives wouldn't believe the things she'd done--traipsing through swamps outside New Orleans, learning to ride a quarter horse, driving cattle down the Chisholm Trail. Had they lived, her parents would have been shocked. Her friend Winnie, with whom she was staying at the moment, was shocked. Eva didn't know whether Winnie was more alarmed by Eva's adventures or her sun-browned complexion. The only members of her family who weren't shocked at Eva's new life were her great-aunt Lettice and uncle Adolphus. Aunt Lettice would have liked to go along on Eva's journeys if she weren't so frail, and Uncle Adolphus admired everything Eva did. Having been something of a reprobate in his youth, he saw a little of himself in his niece.
Her brothers disapproved most of all. They were both older than she was. The oldest spent most of his time in his country house, having inherited his father's earldom. The younger relished his career in the admiralty. Conforming and comfortable in their places in British Society, neither had ever had occasion to question its tenets. Eva had once been as compliant as they, and it had taken her a long time and much maturing to abandon her dependence upon the approval of her family and social set. Now that she'd succeeded, she was enjoying her freedom.
Eva went up the steps, between the soaring columns of Eastman Hall, and walked down the veranda. The upper and lower porches extended around the entire circumference of the house. She glanced inside to see the Negro footman Josiah and Betsy, the cook, clearing away the remains of this evening's meal. Even in March, Eastman Hall sat in the midst of lush greenery, a stately colonial house bearing classical fixtures and an air of refinement. Various Eastman ancestors had brought Greek statuary from Europe and placed it among the azaleas, ivy and willow trees. Last summer Eva had seen the house wearing roses, gardenias and azaleas like some grand aristocratic lady.
She passed the windows of the music room, smiled and nodded at Winnie and another dinner guest, but didn't linger there. Once she had envied the Honorable Winifred Broome for her dashing, handsome young husband and especially for her chance to travel to a new and exciting country. Then she'd come for this visit. She'd lived for weeks here and at the Eastmans' plantation, Fairfield, and witnessed the enforced servitude of hundreds of people. And the consequences.
Eva would never forget that first morning at Eastman Hall, how Winnie had appeared at breakfast gowned in splendid yellow muslin with her face as pale as the white lace on her dress. Her husband, Cyrus, had come into the dining room shortly after, and a lovely young Negro woman had appeared on his heels. She'd scurried into the kitchen, her head down, her face grim and anxious. Eva's gaze had darted from the slave, to Cyrus' cheerful countenance, to Winnie's drawn features, and she'd come to the most likely conclusion. In all the time they'd spent together she and her friend had never spoken of that morning, but the truth was there between them, an open secret and secret shame.
Being in the South had made Eva realize that despite her unconventional ways--her traveling without a chaperone, her adventures in the American West and in the Middle East--her life had no more meaning that it had had before. Thousands upon thousands of people suffered here while she saw the sights and visited. She wanted her life to matter, but she wasn't sure how to make it so.
Swinging her crinoline around the wide corner of the veranda, Eva took the exterior stairs to the next floor. She had reached the back of the house, where a particularly tall magnolia tree grew outside the doors to her bedroom. She liked to lean on the porch rail and lift her face to the soft southern breeze. She should be inside making conversation with the other houseguests. Winnie had invited newspaper publisher Lorenzo Ward to meet Eva as well as two local planters and their wives. Another planter from Texas, Stephen Nash, represented Winnie's only attempt at matchmaking, not for Eva, but for a local belle named Adele Hunter. But soon into the evening Eva had realized there was another purpose to this gathering. The men were all rich and politically prominent and had participated in forming the new Confederate States of America last month.
Ambrose Vickery had chortled to his wife, Grace, "I declare, Mrs. Vickery, I do wish these matters would come to a head. Otherwise I will have raised a company of soldiers for nothing and will have no chance to knock the heads of those damned Yankees."
At other times during the evening the men had gathered together to speak quietly in shadowy corners, and if she drew near, they would all bow and smile and change the subject of their conversation. Eva still didn't know what they had been talking about, but she had read concern and bitter determination in every face.
Shaking her head, Eva leaned against a corner post, delaying a few more minutes her return to the party. There were at least two eligible men inside, but Eva had no interest in them. Thank goodness Winnie knew better than to try to matchmake for her widowed friend. Eva had lost her much-older husband several years ago and was in no hurry to replace him. After a marriage stifled by convention and propriety, she was reveling in her freedom.
Soon she would have to return to the house even though she disliked the air of conspiracy that prevailed there. Even the ladies seemed on edge, whispering, casting anxious glances at the huddled men, shushing one another when Eva or one of the slaves passed. Eva felt like telling the poor creatures she had no interest in their secrets. The things that bothered her were blatant--the contrast, for example, between the gracious manners and lifestyle of these people and the conditions in the quarters behind the screen of moss-draped oak trees at the back of the garden. Clutching her shawl about her shoulders, Eva sighed. For once it would be good to go home.
She turned to go inside, but a small click in the silence of the garden drew her back to the railing. She looked down to see light from an open door spread onto the lawn. Someone closed the door and silently slipped over the banister. As he left the dim light Eva glimpsed the tall form of a Negro man. Then a whispered conversation began, and Eva realized that two people stood under the branches of the giant magnolia and were concealed by the wide, waxy leaves that formed an impenetrable screen to her. She turned once again, but one word froze her. She thought she heard one of the speakers say "secession."
They were keeping their voices low, but Eva heard more phrases. First the word "summer," then "get north" and "Fort Sumter." Finally came a last exchange.
"Come with me."
Leaves rustled on the grass, and Eva thought she heard a retreat toward the slave cabins. A lithe shadow whisked back into the house, and all was silent again. Frowning, Eva considered what she'd heard. One of the slaves seemed to be planning his escape. She didn't blame him, even though his chances of success weren't good. Once his absence was discovered, Cyrus would offer a reward when he published the slave's description throughout the South. He would also hire slave-catchers to pursue his property. Everyone would be on the lookout for the slave. Cyrus might even allow the use of dogs to run down the escapee.
Eva shuddered and pulled her shawl around her neck. She would keep silent. Her own fruitless efforts at freeing slaves had taught her the value of circumspection. After leaving Natchez for Texas she'd thought of a plan to purchase slaves, take them north and free them. She'd gone to a horrible auction house in New Orleans; her presence in a place where no lady went had caused a furor. The owners of the auction house had gawked at her when she put forth her request to purchase an entire family of Negroes. They had refused, of course. Their reasons had been twofold: First, she was a woman, and second, she was British, and would take the slaves out of the country. She could have asked for no clearer proof of the fixed intentions of the wealthy planters of the South. Negroes were property, and they would remain so.
"Frightful," Eva muttered to herself. She went into her bedroom, which was illuminated by gaslight that made the ivory damask bed canopy and comforter glow.
"I don't like his chances at all, and it's a thousand pities," she whispered to herself as she went to the mahogany dresser and fished in a drawer for a fresh handkerchief.
She paused with her hand on an embroidered square of fine lawn as she recalled the other phrases she'd overheard. The slave had wanted someone to go with him--a woman, if Eva was correct about the second voice. Perhaps he intended to escape this summer, and perhaps he'd been encouraged by recent events. In November the Republican Abraham Lincoln had been elected president of the United States. South Carolina had seceded from the union the next month. In January Texas had seceded, and in February seven Southern states had formed the Confederate States of America. The whole country was now in turmoil. Hundreds of army and naval officers from the South were resigning their commissions, leaving the North bereft of its finest military leadership. Many government forts had fallen into Southern hands, and the few still manned by the Union in the Deep South were running out of supplies. Everyone knew that Lincoln would soon have to resupply Fort Sumter in South Carolina or risk its surrender.
Gloom settled over Eva as she contemplated the plight of any slave who chose to try to escape in this political climate. Pulling the handkerchief out, Eva shoved the drawer closed and left her room. She hurried downstairs and paused for breath in the music room, where Adele Hunter was showing off her skill at the piano. The young lady finished to polite applause, and Cyrus Eastman immediately came to Eva and kissed her hand. His red-gold hair flowed in romantic locks over his forehead; he was quite proud of it.
"My dear Lady Eva, your absence has deprived us sorely."
Eastman gave her a courtly smile, which Eva returned more because of his manner of speech than the words themselves. Cyrus drew out most one-syllable words to two, barely touched consonants and spoke with habitual graciousness. Like most Southern gentlemen, he was chivalrous to the point of violence and was easily offended when he thought his honor had been questioned.
"Thank you, Mr. Eastman. I was enjoying your lovely gardens. I shall miss them dreadfully when I return to England."
"And we shall miss your delightful self, Lady Eva."
Her host conducted her to a seat by the fireplace, settling her beside Winnie and his mother, Dolly Eastman. Dolly still affected the sausage-curl ringlets and narrow skirts of twenty years ago. The footman Josiah came in with a silver tray bearing coffee and cups. The room was as fine as any Eva had seen in England. Indeed, many of the fixtures at Eastman Hall had come from Europe. The fireplaces were of Carrara marble; the wallpaper and curtains were French, the furniture English. Eva's feet rested on an Aubusson carpet, and over the mantel hung a painting by Constable. In this elegant room warmed by the glow of gaslight and the flames from the fireplace, lulled by the tinkle of silver spoons against china, Eva tried to forget the desperate whispers she'd overheard on the veranda.
The low, booming voice of the silver-haired Lorenzo Ward intruded on her thoughts. A natural gossip, Mr. Ward was cursed with rheumatic problems that swelled his joints, but his health never interfered with his lust for scandal. Eva resigned herself to listening to the men's conversation, for as usual Cyrus and Mr. Ward dominated it.
"Have you heard the latest news?" Ward asked, standing in the middle of the room waving a glass of sherry.
Cyrus replied, "I doubt it, sir, since everyone knows you're the first to hear everything."
Josiah offered a cup of coffee to Eva.
"Why, the sheriff has arrested one of those confounded Underground Railroad conductors."
Eva's hand touched the china cup Josiah offered and felt it slip. She caught it silently before it slid off its saucer. Josiah was looking at Lorenzo Ward. His dark eyes had flashed wide open, then he jumped as Eva pressed the cup and saucer into his hand to keep it steady. He caught his breath and glanced down at Eva, who smoothly removed the china from his grasp. His startled gaze held hers for a moment before Eva looked pointedly at Winnie to remind Josiah of his task. The young man recovered himself and went back to the serving tray. The ladies were clamoring for more details.
From the Paperback edition.