The Secret of Emerson Hall is something I'm working on. Your critique would most definitely be appreciated.
Low Country, North Charleston, South Carolina, August, 1876
A postman drove a horse and buggy onto the road that was once the Avenue of Live Oaks for the Ashton Plantation. The magnificent oak trees had been cut to low stumps and the Spanish moss that once climbed up the trunks, and hung from the branches, covered the stumps like a peculiar veil. He pushed his cap back and wiped his forehead with his hand. Though the morning was picturesque with a clear and sunny shine, he thought the weather too humid for so early. His shirt and waistcoat were sweated through. He looked between the spaces of bordering pines to where there used to be a village of Ashton slaves. After Edith Emerson bought the abandoned plantation, the mansion, workhouses, village, and landscaping were torn up and replaced with Emerson Sea Island Cotton.
The postman shook the reins and made clicking noises with his mouth, urging the horse on. The road narrowed and wound through another patch of woods. Ahead of that there was only sky, sun, and more flat fields of cotton. It was no longer still. At a short distance he saw some of the cotton workers, and heard the guttural sounds of the repetitive song they sung. He guided his horse into a sharp-right turn and the cotton field’s disappeared behind him. When the road straightened out, and the dirt ground was smooth and free of debris, the unattractive land, as if by magic, changed to the elegance of plantation landscaping.
The horse trotted onto the Emerson’s Avenue of Live Oaks. It was wider and more magnificent than most. Thicker and longer stretches of Spanish moss ran up the trunks and hung lower from crisscrossing branches. When the wind blew the moss swayed like billowing canopies. To his left, he looked over a wall, stretching the length of the avenue, where horses were grazing in a green pasture. All around the glitter of the sun showed more of the flourishing land while giving a lighted preview of the mansion that was straight ahead. He drove halfway around a circular drive path and stopped in front of the mansion called Emerson Hall.
Jean came out of the main entrance and walked down the staircase. She wore a colorful damask turban embellished with patterns of West African design. Her muslin dress, a subtle light grey, was brightened with wraps of damask around her waist. She was in her early thirties, radiant, regally slender, and graceful with eyes that sparkled like diamonds from coal. The confident way she carried herself told one she was dependable, trusting, and sharp.
“Good morning, Mr. Postman,” said Jean. She stood at the side of his buggy and smiled up at him.
“Good morning, Jean. I’ve got a letter for Miss Edith. It came all the way from Vienna, Austria.”
“It must be from Miss Isabella.”
“I suspect it is.” He handed her the letter and pulled the horse’s reins, continuing around the path. “Good day, Jean.”
“Good day, sir.” Though Jean spoke Gullah, a Creole blend of Elizabethan English and African Languages, her American English was perfect.
The postman looked back at the mansion made of smooth white stone with the feminine curve of two staircases. Two levels of veranda went out far. French doors in most every room opened out onto it. Six antebellum columns, three on either side, were so impressive they appeared to be one foreign entity. In the center, not far from the columns, to the left and right of the drive path, and going around to the back, were inlays of ornamental shrubs; vibrant gardens with winding paths, ponds, statuesque fountains, and low hills of lawn. Edging thickets of wild flowers added a passionate contrast of brilliant colors. Maintaining the family’s privacy were spreads of palmetto, magnolia, sourwood, sweet-gum, and chestnut trees.
Local politicians, the religious community, and those planter’s who now lived in Charleston but lost their property because of the war, often asked the postman what was happening in the Town of Emerson Hall. He had nothing to tell them, because Edith prohibited him from veering left onto a side road that led away from the back of Emerson Hall. If he did, after about a half mile, he would have been on the main street of the predominantly all black town.
When a construction crew came two years ago he was permitted to deliver mail to the crew. He saw the progression of the town unfold. In the beginning they destroyed the old Emerson slave village and cleared acres of Emerson property. In the center of the town they built a general store, hospital, church, and a one-room schoolhouse. Those buildings were made of oak and painted white.
On the left and right of the main street they built two, identical, two-story buildings of grey stone. One was for the cotton workers, and one for the rice workers. They were sprawling structures that ran the full course of the main street. Each building provided housing for workers with no more than two children. Inside, on either side of long and narrow corridors, were one room apartments that were considerable in size.
At the end of the main street, made of wood and painted white, was the two-story administration building. It looked out over the town through large windows. Purportedly it was built to house the Henderson brothers. They were three black men, brothers from Canada, who managed the town and its workers from that location.
On edges of the town, side roads, were new work houses made of red brick. They were modern in structure and provided living quarters. In the sewing house women made clothing for workers and weaved baskets and hats. In another two young boys and their father made work boots. All of those items and other personal necessities, like tools for working the fields, were sold inside the general store.
Beyond the town were older buildings: lumber mill, smokehouse, dairy house, soap house, forges, barns, wheelwright shop, cotton gin, and rice house. There was grazing land, and a garden grew a variety of vegetables. Sections were cleared for more building. The town ended along the edges of Hollow Creek.
Jake Wheeler came out of the Wheeler mansion with a bottle of whiskey. He was a gaunt, skinny, downcast man with an intimidating face of unflattering smiles and deceitfulness. Though he was in his early sixties, his white hair and deceptive characteristics made him appear older. He stood on the veranda and looked around at the miserable collapse of a plantation in voracious ruin. The landscaping that surrounded the mansion was a disaster of overgrown brush and lawn. Emptied ponds and statuesque fountains stood at half distinction. At the heart of the once prosperous plantation the old slave village was like a ghost town.
Two Emerson rice workers, from the Emerson plantation, were inside a Wheeler barn where pieces of the roof were missing, stalls empty, and scatters of old hay covered a dirt ground.
One of the workers was still alive. A long piece of whip was wrapped around his neck and tied to an overhead beam. The latter part was stretched out and tied to a post. He stood on two logs of oak the height of a chair seat. His legs and feet trembled while he struggled to maintain his balance. His arms and hands were extended and tied to one post on his left, and one on his right. His chest and back were bloody with welts and he shook with pain. Though he fell, more than a few times, his life was saved so the torture could continue. The dead body of the other worker, used as inspiration to keep the worker alive, hung across from him. They were roughly face to face.
The Terrance brothers, young, faithless, hopeless, white men with eyes and expressions as vacant as the Wheeler plantation were there. Their discontent came from blaming blacks, the North, and white republican planters like Edith Emerson for their poverty, and what they believed a white man’s unjustified discrimination. They were envious of the smallest success and would do anything for a worthless confederate dime.
Bernard Terrance flung out his riding whip and struck the worker across his face and chest. “Go ahead and hang.”
The worker nearly lost his balance. He took in quick gasps of air. Low and resonate groans came from his determination to hold his self solid. His eyes were virtually swollen shut. George pushed the dead body toward the worker who closed his eyes tight, shutting out what he could see.
“What’s the matter with you, boy! You scared of the dead?” George went to the worker, grabbed his ankles, and tugged at them. The logs wobbled and the worker screamed while trying to find his footing. “You scared of the dead, boy?”
Bernard danced around while pretending to grunt, run, and scratch like a monkey. He kept repeating, “I’s scared of the dead, I’s scared of the dead.”
“Please,” the worker said. “Before God, I swear on my children …”
“What you wanna swear on them for? They ain’t nothin’ but lyin’ bastards like they daddy. They can’t save you. God cain’t even save your black ass.”
The barn door opened, letting in sharp streaks of sunlight. Jake Wheeler came in and went over to them. Bernard stopped his monkey imitations.
“Must you boys do everything I tell you? Cut him down.” Jake had lived most of his life in South Carolina, but his Scottish accent was still there. He was seething and didn’t care about the consequences of his actions. Edith Emerson was creeping into his dreams, as if she wanted him to do something to stir things up. Maybe she even wanted him to kill her. Jake looked at the brothers, and the angry look on his face caused their mood to turn somber until he smiled at them.
“We thought you was serious,” said George.
“I am,” said Jake. “Cut him down. Are you too stupid to realize he can tell me nothing if you kill him?”
“We ain’t finished yet,” said Bernard. “We’ll get him to tell you what you wanna know.”
“I said cut him down.”
“Alright, suit yourself.” George removed his pocket knife and cut the ties of rope that held the worker’s arms.
Bernard took apart the knot of the whip wrapped around his neck. When free, the worker fell and clawed the dirt ground. Too weak to pull and slide his self away from them, he rolled on his back and laid still. Between cries, coughing, and trying to catch his breath, his prayers were incoherent.
“I thought slavery was over,” said Jake.
George Terrance laughed. “Me too, hell, we all did.”
Jake leaned and fixed his eyes on the worker. “Are you praying?” He stepped closer to the worker and kicked him. “Are you praying?”
Bernard came and stood alongside Jake. He slammed his foot into the worker’s ribs numerous times.
The worker’s cries were now whispers of pain. He tried to slide away from the kicks.
Jake motioned for Bernard to stop. “Are you praying?”
It took the worker a long time to gather his strength to speak. “Yes sir.”
“God doesn’t have black ears,” said Jake. “If he did, there would be more of you than there are of us. We’re first in line to be heard by God, but you heathens seem to forget that. What has given me a great deal of aggravation is the need to know who else is involved. Who else is sending all these black bastards here to work for that miserable cow?”
“Brothers of the Light.”
“You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know. Who else is involved in her business dealings?
The worker, wanting pity, looked at Jake with swollen eyes that plead for mercy.
Edith Emerson, heir to the Emerson Plantation, turned her horse and looked at the workers laboring in a field of cotton. Most were women in their late teens and early twenties. Seeing a self-reliant woman give the impression of being contented persuaded Edith to relax. The outline of her tanned and lean body was not concealed under her shirt, pants, and boots. The wide-straw hat did not hide the intimidating face of a thirty-year old. Her narrow blue eyes of no regret, sharp enough to burn through liars and thieves, spoke of rules and fact. Fact number one, she followed the rule of no man.
She rode her horse to the edge of the cotton field and looked to the other side of the Cooper River, surveying her fields of Carolina Gold Rice. After the deal was made, with Brothers of the Light, they sent her some of the best rice workers who were older men and women. Most were former slaves that came from West Africa. She glanced at them slinging their rice hooks and flails to thrash stalks of golden rice that almost rose up as high as a tall man. Their shy and quiet faces were half hidden under the brim of their straw hats. They worked like one fine and accurate machine, making it all look effortless.
Some of the rice and cotton workers lived in rooming houses in Charleston. Edith referred to them as independent contractors. As if they had no place, and no business being there, a handful of white planters worked side by side with black men and women in the rice and cotton fields. They were independent contractors working to continue the reconstruction of their land in the upcountry.
Some were Cherokee Indians who once dominated the midlands and the upcountry. Edith said she didn’t care if a worker was as yellow as the sun … If there was work, and she had it, any man or woman deserved a fair wage.
Overseers, now referred to as field managers, were black and white men who were once slave bosses. They were the nicest of those left who were still interested in the management of plantations. They were lovers of the land, of South Carolina, absorbers of the earth.
Patch, a field manager, a black man of questionable age who maintained expressions of work and no nonsense, rode his horse to where Edith sat hers. “Looks like a real good crop, same as always.”
“I’m inclined to agree with you, Patch, looks real damn good.” She took the flask of whiskey he offered, drank from it, and gave it back to him. “Sometimes all this frightens me. They hate me for what I’m doing with my land.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it, Miss Edith. I don’t think too much of anything can scare you. Looking at fear is just what it is, something to look at.”
Marah Emerson came out of the town’s hospital carrying a bucket of water. She was a former slave born into slavery on the Emerson plantation. A blend of white and black blood gave her skin an even shade of red and golden brown. The quickness of her walk, bounce in her step, bright-brown eyes, and contagious smile, suggested she was fifteen going on sixteen. She had an abundance of naive energy and ambitious desire of wanting to be something more than a schoolteacher.
She raised the skirt of her white dress, walked a short distance past a side road, and lifted the lid of a barrel. While tossing the water inside, she watched a group of children play chase and tag games on the main street. They were waiting for her to finish her duties. It was time to begin teaching her reading class. As she went back toward the hospital a farm cart, in speed of distress, came and stopped alongside her.
The young and troubled black driver jumped down from his buggy and went to the back of the cart and unlatched it. “Help me,” he told Marah.
She hurried to the cart and looked inside. An Emerson rice worker cried and struggled underneath a bloody blanket. Marah took a few steps backward. He was not much older than she.
The one-room hospital was clean, well equipped, and generously lit by a chain of tapered four-paned windows. The floor and walls were made of wooden planks and all of it was painted white. Medicine bottles, bandages, and surgical materials sat on crude wooden shelves embedded into the wall in back of the room. Two examining tables were closed off with sheets of white muslin.
Four of the six cots were taken with sick workers, mosquito nets surrounded them. To keep down cases of malaria, three black nurses were spreading Emerson salve on the arms and legs of young adults who stood in a long line waiting their turn. The back door had a piece of wood wedged under it to keep it open, and the line kept going into a small dirt yard in back of the hospital.
When Marah entered with the driver, and the wounded man, the three nurses hurried to their side.
“What happened to him?” asked one of the nurses.
“He’s been shot,” said the driver.
“Marah,” said another nurse. “Go get Edith. Tell her we’ve got trouble. Tell her to hurry.”
Wilson and his horse took the Emerson ferry’s short ride from the rice fields, across the river to the cotton fields. He was a young, white, field manager with hair and eyes brown like rich dirt. One look at him showed that God born him rooted into the earth. And wherever the earth flourished beyond reason, beyond dreams, his kind of man would travel great distances to help it along. The Emerson plantation was that bigger-than-life place.
He climbed onto his horse and gave him a twist of his boots. It was his intention to join Edith and Patch, but he saw the flair of Marah’s bloodstained dress as she ran toward Edith.
“Edith, come quick," said Marah. "We’ve got trouble.”
Edith walked into the hospital and stood at the edge of the worker’s cot. He was dead.
“We tried to stop the bleeding,” cried one of the nurses.
The driver went to Edith. “He said when he and two others were coming back from Charleston, Jake Wheeler and the Terrance brothers ambushed them. When he ran, one of the Terrance brothers shot him. He said he kept runnin’ into the woods.”
Rushes of calm, practical, thinking did not yield Edith’s anger. She stomped her foot and took off her hat. A wreck of blond and sunburned hair flowed onto her shoulders and down her back. She pulled a soiled handkerchief from her pocket, wiped the sweat from her neck and face, and stomped her foot. “Damn you to hell, Jake Wheeler.” She looked at the nurses. “Not one of you will shed another tear. Isn’t there enough to do without tears dictating how a woman uses her head? They turned away from her stare. “Well, isn’t there?”
“Yes, Edith,” said one of the nurses.
Inside the town’s building of administration the three brothers were dressed in lightweight sack suits, white muslin shirt’s with stand-up collars, and floppy black neckties. They sat behind their desk on the main level. Their sleeping quarters were on the second.
Collin, the youngest brother, was near to his mid twenties. He took his pocket watch from his waistcoat and read the time. He was tall, reddish brown, and big-boned. His sweet-charismatic face encompassed the power to inspire others. Behind his show of subtle ambition, a delightful boyishness intrigued women and young girls.
His brothers, Emmett, and Lewis, in their mid-twenties, were tirelessly handsome with airs of dignity and authority. They were exact men who did their work without hesitation, meeting deadlines as though it was a challenging game.
The brothers were always at the head of field and town gossip because they were Canadians, unmarried, and never experienced slavery.
Collin put his feet on his desk and leaned back in his chair. He looked at his brothers working attentively, their desks flooded with ledgers and papers. Lewis raised his head and looked out the window, checking on the town.
Collin, always more than not, wanted to joke with them. “Remember that pretty one that came through here last year before she ran off?”
“Yes,” said Emmett. He was the oldest. He kept his eyes on his work, dipping his pen into a bottle of ink, writing, raising and fixing his glasses back into place.
“I would have married a girl like that.”
“Yes,” said Lewis, the middle brother. He was a bit heavier than Collin and Emmett. “I remember her. Isn’t she the one that tried to knock out your side tooth, with her bible, when you told her the other things you could teach her besides music?”
The two brothers laughed at Collin’s frustrated expression. “I’d say she learned a lot about music, the Lord, and the evils of sin pretty damn quick.”
As if caught doing something wrong, Collin took his feet from his desk. “Here she comes.”
They glanced out the windows and saw Edith.
She came into the building. “We’ve got trouble. I need you and Lewis to come with me.”
Chick, a Cherokee Indian, was in his mid fifties. He possessed an awed degree of healthy and legendary good looks. His work on the Emerson Plantation began as a young man. He was a fine and talented carpenter. Though he carried his self, inside a calm disposition that never showed his true character, his kindness was evident in the tender resonance of his voice.
Long before the war his people labored alongside slaves in the indigo, rice, and cotton fields. Though Malaria and yellow fever killed many of them, including his wife and four children, some of them still worked on plantations throughout South Carolina. He stepped outside his workhouse. In front of it young helpers were sanding and carving plain tables and chairs. He looked onto the busy main street where workers were coming out of the rice and cotton buildings with tools in their hand. It was time for the second load of the first shift.
For the fluidity of work, without the hindrance of heavy clothing, those who worked the rice fields wore short sleeved shirts. Their loose fitting trouser legs were rolled above the knee and held up by suspenders. Those that worked the cotton fields, because of the cutting danger of the thorny plants, wore long sleeve shirts with the legs of their trousers let down.
The workers crowded into the back of wagons and farm-carts driven by mules, oxen, and horses. Patch, with three of his sheep dogs, herded the teams into a tight group. As they left, the town was overcome with the loud grind and screech of wheels that brought up rising clouds of fine dust. When Chick attempted to go inside his workhouse he saw Edith, Wilson, and two of the brothers riding toward him.
“Answer him, boy,” Bernard Terrance told the worker.
“Sir, I came here to make a living for my family. I came here to work the rice fields. I can’t tell you anything else.”
“You can’t tell me, or you won’t tell me?” asked Jake. “Which is it?”
“I don’t know business.”
“Oh! So there is business involved," said Jake. "How many are involved in this business? Those three from Canada, what have they told you of their arrangement?”
“She must’ve told them something, and they must have told you something. You don’t expect for me to believe that Brothers of the Light are her only business partners? Have you seen her meeting with any white men whose name you may recognize?”
“Not that I recall.”
Jake glanced at the brothers. “Did you hear that boys? He said not that I recall.”
George Terrance attempted to kick the worker but, happening with speed and accuracy, an arrow penetrated his leg. He glanced down at his leg and when he looked up, into the eyes of Edith, the pain hit him.
She removed another arrow from her satchel and pulled it taunt, aiming it at his chest.
George went for the pistol in his waist band. Edith let loose her arrow. It penetrated his heart. He glanced at the arrow protruding from his chest, and saw blood pooling through his shirt. He felt the stab of immense pain and collapsed to his death.
She removed another arrow from her satchel, positioned it, and pulled it taunt. The creak of the bow told her the arrow was in the right position. After her arrow hit a target, the sound and quick vibrations of the string gave her feelings of gratification and triumph. It was her choice of weapon. As a child she learned how to use one. Chick trained her. She stepped to the side for a better angle. The stifling stench of blood and sweat gagged her and the ground felt unsteady.
Wilson moved a few paces forward and kept aiming his rifle.
Emmett and Lewis aimed revolvers. Their hearts were beating fast and they felt nauseous. They never saw a man killed.
Bernard Terrance, enraged, looked down at his brother and then at Edith. “You cold-hearted whore. You killed my brother. He started toward her.
She angled her bow and pulled the arrow. It lodged in Bernard’s thigh.
When he cried out, she heard the discomfort of his pain but couldn’t stop. He struggled toward her. She shot an arrow into his neck.
He gurgled for what seemed like a long time before he collapsed and died. His blood gushed out and around Jake’s feet.
Jake stepped away from the two dead men, out of their blood, and looked at them. He stared defiantly at Edith and then the rest of them. “By God you’ve killed two white men.”
Edith could smell his fear. She removed another arrow from her satchel, positioned it, pulled it taunt and listened to the creak of the bow. She aimed at Jake’s heart. “I killed two white men. I’m about to kill myself another one.”
“Edith,” said Emmett, tucking his revolver into his waist band. Lewis did the same and Wilson lowered his rifle.
“Why not? He should be killed.” She felt relieved of stress and frustration. Her hatred for the Terrance brothers was justified. They were murderers and thieves anyway. She kept aiming her arrow at Jake’s heart. She nodded her head at Chick, and Wilson, to cut down the dead worker and help the other to his feet. She glared at Jake. “They were three of my best men, Wheeler.”
“Men—men—you call them? You and your nig—”
She shot her arrow into Jake’s shoulder. He cried out and stumbled toward her. She pulled another arrow from her satchel, positioned it, and pulled it taunt. “Come any closer and I’ll kill you.”
“Don’t do it, Edith,” said Emmett. He reached out and slowly lowered her arm until her bow was relaxed in one hand and her arrow in the other.
Jake’s pain was too great. He fell on his knees and pointed a finger at her. “You’ll never get away with murder. I will personally see to it.”
“I want you off my land.”
The howl of laughter that came from Jake’s belly told her he was going mad.
“We have three years left on our contract!”
She moved slowly to him and spat in his face.
Jake glared at her. He clenched his teeth and balled his fist, forgetting his pain. “You think you’re a man? You know what you are? A greedy whore, an imitation of a man, a murdering cow in a man’s clothing. You are uncouth and—and—ill bred. You are an uncivilized-lout bitch.”
She moved in and rammed her foot in his chest, sending him spilling backward and into the bloody pool that came from George Terrance. She watched him wither and struggle to slide out of the blood.
“Edith,” said Emmett. He touched her shoulder, breaking her out of a blind stare. It was obvious she was thinking of killing Jake.
She moved in closer to Jake. “You’ll get out and get out now. If you don’t, I’ll have you thrown out.” She turned to leave.
“We have a year left on our contract,” Jake yelled after her.
During the ride back Edith thought about her mistake. Breaking the contract would be too costly. But, if all of what happened should encounter legal issues that turned out in her favor, she could throw him out and no one would stop her. She wasn’t sure if Jake had money. He was a cheap man, a miser, the kind who kept one guessing, trying to figure out how much value he truly held. Still and all, she should have never bought his plantation. She convinced him the land and its structures were worthless ruins. She offered to buy the entire plantation for a quarter of its previous value and he sold it to her.
For the sake of pity, reluctant compassion, over their three sons being killed in the war, she let Jake and his wife stay on in what she called a supervisory position. Regardless of her humanity, it suited her to watch Jake Wheeler live in squalor. She thought Emmett shouldn’t have stopped her. It was the perfect opportunity to kill her father’s long time enemy. Now he was hers.