Beaufort
1849

by Karen Lynn Allen

(To listen to Cara’s waltz, click link at bottom of page.)

Chapter One

Though Jasper Wainwright had once lived in Beaufort, a score of years had passed since then, years he’d mostly spent drifting from Canton to Bengal to Paris like a ghost ship borne by the currents. Despite his long absence, on this mild April day Jasper could still navigate with ease the part of town known as the Point, his route taking him along sandy streets strewn with crushed oyster shells and lined with stands of cabbage palmettos and gardens of forsythia and quince. After all as boys he and Henry had explored every inch of this district flanked on three sides by the Beaufort River. A few new houses here and there made little difference. Yet, like a clever mistress, Beaufort could still surprise him. On rounding a corner, Jasper chanced upon a tableau so striking he had to rein in his horse in order to savor it fully.
It was a pretty picture to be sure. In the middle distance, framed by an alley of oaks, a girl—a young lady, actually—strolled down a lane holding a parasol while her slave girl followed a step behind, basket in hand. Their progression was leisurely, meditative. The fair-skinned girl was clearly lost in her thoughts as her parasol spun slowly behind her head. Her dusky maid cooperated with the silence.
Jasper unexpectedly found such matter-of-fact evidence of owner and owned in his native land unsettling. Still he lingered where he was, admiring the scene before him. He told himself he should wait in any case as a courtesy to allow Mercer, his Yankee companion, to catch up. It turned out Mercer wasn’t much of a horseman, and the stallion he’d been loaned was beyond his faculty. The Bostonian must have made a wrong turn a few streets back because he was nowhere to be seen.
The girls had not yet noticed Jasper. As he watched, they passed under a canopy of live oak branches that hosted colonies of Spanish moss and Resurrection ferns. The shade was gentle. Flecks of spring light mottled the girls’ arms and shoulders, while a few languid fingers of silvery-green moss draped low enough to skim the blue silk of the parasol. 
As the two drew closer, he could see that the dark-skinned girl was similar in age to her mistress but shorter and stockier. Though her head was bare and her dress made from practical brown calico, a glimpse of shoe tip beyond her hem showed her to be highly valued by her masters. His gaze traveled to the young woman whose auburn curls peeped from beneath a rice straw bonnet. Her dress of gauzy silken yellow had a narrow waist and wide pagoda sleeves that had been all the rage in Paris the year before. At her throat a jabot of lace made a delicate white froth. She must be a wealthy planter’s daughter, he deduced, to go out for a walk in so fine an outfit.
Beaufort still grew its girls pretty, Jasper acknowledged with a smile remembering girls from another age who had worn fashions now long outdated. Even though this land resisted change like it was a disease—neither the marvels of the telegraph nor the railroad had reached this part of South Carolina yet—in this instance he couldn’t deny it was to everyone’s benefit.
The young lady was bound to spot him soon and wonder at his stares. Jasper was about to direct his horse down an intersecting street when scampering in a tree branch caught his eye. A squirrel above the girls’ heads was admiring the fringe on the parasol, scolding and chattering like a fishmonger in a Cantonese market. The rodent was so admiring, in fact, that it reached out a paw and caught hold of the fringe. Objecting to this larceny, the girl pulled her parasol away, though not vigorously, fearing to damage the sunshade. The short slave waved her arms and basket; still the squirrel persisted in its tug of war from the low-hanging branch.
The situation was irresistible. With a laugh Jasper urged his horse forward.
As he approached, his horse must have upped the ante beyond rodent caution because the squirrel scampered off. In the struggle, however, the parasol had become caught on the branch itself. The chestnut-haired girl in the straw bonnet stood on tiptoe, trying to disengage the fabric from the tree with her outstretched gloved fingertips.
“Allow me, Miss,” Jasper said. The girl was even prettier at close distance. Perhaps it was fortunate that his stay in Beaufort would be short, he thought. He’d forgotten how potent the Lowcountry’s attractions could be.
Accepting his assistance, the girl stepped back to make room for the horse. It was the work of a moment for Jasper to free the parasol from a twig and hand it to her. Both her smile and curtsy in response were charming. 
“I’m much obliged. Thank you, sir.”
The gentleman, for he was clearly that, had dark, waving brown hair and a generous moustache that drooped slightly at the ends. He tipped his hat and was off. Cara watched him go with interest since unknown gentlemen seldom appeared in the town of her birth. At the junction with the next street he was joined by a younger man who trotted up on a stallion that he had some trouble reining in. Catching sight of her, the younger man raised his hat well off his head and did his best to bow from the top of his fidgety horse. Though Cara declined to acknowledge the salutation, she did look on attentively as the two men disappeared from view.
“Who are those two, Minnie? I didn’t think anyone in town had guests visiting this week. Have you heard anything?”
“No, Mis Cara. Jus dat Marse Henry’s trabble cuzin due sumtime nex munt.”
“Well, neither of them could be Uncle Henry’s traveling cousin. He’s ever so old.” Cara narrowed her eyes. “The one who helped me with my parasol had a dissolute look to him, didn’t he? Like a riverboat gambler.”
“When yuh see no rivuhbo gambluh?” Minerva asked in her grumbling way.
Cara didn’t answer. It was often best not to hear things from slaves that were inconvenient, and besides, even if she’d never seen a riverboat gambler, she’d certainly read about them. It was hardly her fault she had to rely on the written word. “You know, I could swear one of those horses was the roan Henry bought in Charleston in February. But how could they have company today? Mary and the boys aren’t back from Silver Oaks until tomorrow.”
“Ebbenso, dem two bin head down de road tuh Villuhdessie.”
Cara brightened. “Let’s get home. It’s only just noon. If Mary’s come back early and they have gentlemen guests at Villa d’Este, I expect they’ll invite me and Papa to dinner.” And the young woman, Beaufort’s prettiest girl in a generation, who had just visited her mother’s grave in St. Helena’s churchyard to perform her weekly caretaking duty, picked up her pace and might have run home if it hadn’t been for her stays and her desire not to leave any unpleasant markings in the underarm areas of her dress.

Still in their riding clothes, Jasper Wainwright sat with Mercer Kingsford on the bottom level of the two-story piazza that stretched the entire south-facing front of Villa d’Este. Both men gazed out over the tidal plains of the Beaufort River towards the marsh grasses and woods of Lady’s Island in the distance. Mercer, a young man with sand-colored hair, a thin, prominent nose, and slightly protruding eyes ringed by pale lashes, was enjoying his first ever julep served in a silver cup that had acquired a layer of frost on the outside, courtesy of Couts’s expert preparation. Jasper looked down at the glass in his hand that held water. While Adam’s ale, as men jokingly called it, might have been the drink of choice in the Garden of Eden, it was not a libation Jasper had been known for when he’d called South Carolina home.
Mercer frowned earnestly. “Villa d’Este—you said that was the name of this place. Isn’t that some old estate in Rome?”
A fond smile played beneath Jasper’s moustache. “The story is, when Henry went to build this house, he told his wife, Mary, that it would be the Villa d’Este of Beaufort. I guess it stuck.”
Mercer’s frown didn’t ease. “So it’s some kind of joke? People don’t jest like that in Massachusetts. The name of a place, it’s important.”
Jasper shrugged, though it did seem to him that towns such as Braintree, Sandwich, and Woonsocket might be an occasional source of levity. “Southern humor can be peculiar I suppose.”
“The South seems to relish its peculiarities, institutional and otherwise,” Mercer said darkly. “I don’t understand. I know your sympathies are with the anti-slavery movement, but you don’t seem to disapprove of this opulent and indulgent way of life that slavery makes—”
Jasper raised a hand, silencing the Yankee as Henry Birch strode out from the house onto the porch with his customary energy. Henry had a head full of black hair, bright blue eyes, and a physique trim enough he could ride twelve hours, dance a reel, and then still out-rassle any one of his boys, though he admittedly was likely to lose when all three took him on at once.
“Jasper, Mr. Kingsford, back from your ride, I see. You toured the highlights of our great metropolis, I take it? Excellent. Looks like you’re ahead of me with a drink, Mr. Kingsford. No, don’t apologize. I’d be furious if Couts had done any less. Couts, Couts, where are you? Get me a whiskey.” Henry eased down into a chair next to them. “What’s that in your hand, Jasper—water?”
“Water,” Jasper confirmed.
“Good God Almighty, what kind of savage customs did you acquire during your travels? Don’t they drink wine in Europe anymore?”
“They drink plenty of wine,” Jasper assured him and then sipped his water.
Henry’s sharp eyes evaluated him before turning to his other guest. “Now, where did you say you were from, Mr. Kingsford—Farmingham?”
Mercer cleared his throat. He’d only conversed with his host for five minutes when he first arrived that morning and was still intimidated by the man’s obvious wealth and position, even if he disapproved of the means used to acquire them. “No, sir, Framingham. It’s a town twenty miles west of Boston, though I live in Boston now.”
“Ah, yes, Boston. The shining city on the hill. And that’s where you met up with Jasper?”
Mercer leaned forward, his enthusiasm tempering his bashfulness. “Yes, we were both attending a lecture on Buddhism’s influence on the West given by Professor Horace Flaxberg. Have you heard of Mr. Flaxberg’s theories on the Four Noble Treatises?” When Henry shook his head, the earnest Yankee actually looked disappointed. “Well, afterwards I elicited from Mr. Wainwright—” Mercer gestured appreciatively to Jasper. “—who happened to be sitting next to me, the tales of his journeys through the Orient. He’s seen things rare for a Westerner, most rare indeed. When he indicated that his next destination was Beaufort, I was astonished at the coincidence. You see, I’d been intending for the last year to visit your fair town in order to consult with Professor Randall who wrote the illuminating monograph on Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi in The North American Quarterly of Oriental Study. I’m sure you’ve read it. No? And that’s when Mr. Wainwright kindly invited me to travel with him. Naturally I never dreamt of imposing on hospitality as gracious as your own.”
As genial as he was, this was as much academic zealotry as Henry could stand without a drink in his hand. “Couts, where are you?” he called out crossly.
A black man with grizzled grey hair walked softly onto the porch. In his white-gloved hands he carried a silver tray that held a glass of whiskey and a cup of green tea. “Ders no sugah in der, Marse Jaspuh, suh. Spit Jim say dats da way yuh like it.”
Jasper took the cup from the tray. “It’s perfect, Couts. Thank you.”
With an impassive face Couts offered the tray to his master.
“At last,” Henry said testily. He took a large swallow from his glass as his servant left the porch and was instantly in a better mood. “All right, where were we? Oh yes, old Qin Shi Huangdi. Just fascinating.” Henry glanced at Jasper who seemed to be repressing a smile as he enjoyed the sunlight playing on the Beaufort River bounded by its shores of undulating cordgrass. “I’m sure the good professor will be overjoyed to discuss every aspect of the old geezer with you for hours at a time. In fact, you’ll be delighted to know I’ve invited him—Professor Randall, I mean, not Emperor Qin—to dine with us this very afternoon.”
“This afternoon? But I didn’t realize Mr. Wainwright had told you of my interest in Chinese history. In fact, I thought you were unaware I was accompanying him.”
“You’re correct, I didn’t know. I thought clever Jasper, here, would be traveling alone three weeks from now. You were lucky to find us returned to Villa d’Este ahead of schedule. Of course, since the telegraph hasn’t reached Beaufort yet, communication can be slow. They do say letters still work, though, if people trouble themselves to write them.” He gave Jasper a sideways reproving look. “Anyway, as it turns out, Professor Randall is a kinsman of mine, my brother-in-law, in fact, though his wife died long ago. He and his daughter dine with us often.”
A heron near the shore stretched out its great wings like two silken fans in a ceremonial dance. “Professor Randall,” Jasper repeated thoughtfully. “I don’t think I ever knew your brother-in-law had a reputation as a Chinese scholar. I take it his daughter is your little niece who was so fascinated with the Orient that I was obliged to send postal cards and remembrances from my travels. Did they amuse her when she got them? I’ve always wondered.”
“Oh, they amused her,” Henry said. “But that wasn’t the reason I put in the request. You’re a rotten correspondent. It was our way of keeping tabs on you, or you’d never have written at all. But as you’ll soon see, our niece is not so . . . Ah, here’s Mary.” The gentlemen all rose as a dark-haired woman in a dress of myrtle green joined them on the porch.
“Mary, my dear, may I present Mr. Mercer Kingsford?”
Though Henry’s wife of seventeen years was in her mid-thirties, her dimpled smile hadn’t lost its ability to warm the hearts of gentlemen of a certain age from three counties around. Willowy in her youth, she hadn’t grown stout as many women did who had born five children and buried two of them. Henry was proudly aware her figure still received its share of admiring glances, and as long as the looks remained only glances, he didn’t mind.
Home only an hour, Mary had already made sure her boys were settled and would be fed soon in the back parlor. In addition she’d given nearly a score of instructions to various slaves concerning the comfort of her unexpected guests and the quickly approaching dinner, not to mention she still had to attend to her toilette and change out of her travelling clothes into a gown that she hoped Nettie was busy pressing the wrinkles out of with a hot iron at the moment. In spite of these demands, her good manners were easily equal to the challenges presented by a surprise Yankee from Boston. “Mr. Kingsford,” Mary said, holding out her hand, “any friend of Jasper’s is a friend of ours.”
“Mrs. Birch, it’s an honor,” Mercer said, bowing clumsily but still touchingly over her hand.
To Jasper she went so far as to embrace him as she would a brother. “At last,” she said, her eyes misting as she took his two hands in hers. “At last you’ve returned after so many years. I can’t tell you how much this means to us.”
Though Jasper’s answering smile was fond, he couldn’t help look at her quizzically. “You can’t possibly have missed my wretched company, Mary, but in any event, I’m delighted to be here, meet your fine passel of boys, and see what you and Henry have created here in Beaufort. From the day you were married, I knew the two of you would make an unbeatable team.” He gestured at the grand structure around him. “And look what you’ve produced. A palace on the Beaufort River befitting a woman who was always meant to be a queen. You know you don’t look a day older than when I left.”
Mary positively beamed at him. Henry laughed. “All right, enough gallantry, or I’ll suspect you of having designs on my wife. Besides, you two gentlemen had better get busy and change out of your riding clothes. Have a bath if you’d like, just tell Couts and he’ll get it going for you. Dinner’s at two.”

At half past one the gentlemen were assembled in the formal parlor in frock coats and silk waistcoats, their black cravats tied in elegant knots under the pointed tips of their snow-white collars. With a rustle of skirts, Mary joined them accompanied by an elderly man and a young woman. Mary’s dress, a plum silk with long, full sleeves, sloped shoulders, and a scooped neckline, showed off to advantage an intricately carved coral necklace against the background of her fair skin. The young lady at her side wore lavender silk cut in a similar fashion, but this dress exposed a delicate neck that had seen only twenty years instead of thirty-five. It was an advantage lost on none of the men in the room, however handsome a woman Mary still was, and however fond of her they might be.
“Ah, our guests have arrived to make us a fashionable party,” Henry said buoyantly. “Gentleman, this is, my niece, Miss Cara Randall.” Cara curtsied to the men. “Cara, this is my peripatetic cousin, Jasper Wainwright, whom you’ve heard so much about over the years. And this is his recently acquired friend, Mercer Kingsford.”
The girl’s hair had been freshly arranged into a coil in the back interwoven with a ribbon rather than the ringlet curls she’d sported earlier. To be sure, Jasper recognized the pretty girl accosted by the squirrel, but as he bowed he couldn’t entirely hide his surprise at her identity. Interestingly, he noted that consternation was also evident on her face. Mercer, on the other hand, showed no ambivalence in his certainty of the felicity of the moment.
“Delighted to meet you, Miss Randall,” he said, pumping her hand that had only been hesitantly extended as an accommodation of unusual Northern customs. “We saw you in the street earlier. I must say you were a vision of loveliness under those grand oaks.”
“You’re too kind,” Cara murmured, gently extricating her fingers.
Having a Yankee fall at his niece’s feet was entertaining to Henry, homage to Cara being due course with young men, but he felt the need to move the conversation along. “Professor, these two gentlemen are both so deeply interested in all things Oriental that I’m sure our table will be laden with Chinese verbiage the entire meal. We must make sure the three of you sit together so the rest of us can converse in English.”
In his early sixties, Professor Randall looked older than his years. A faded, graying man with a small goatee, he gave the impression of attending to ordinary conversation with only half of his attention, as if the call of history had dibs on the rest. “Oh, I don’t speak Chinese,” the Professor said with a vague laugh.
“Nor do I,” Mercer said with matching jocularity.
Henry knowingly looked at Jasper for what now had to be admitted.
“Badly,” Jasper said. “I speak it badly. I would pain the ears of any Chinaman within earshot, I assure you. Jim’s the one who really picked it up. He turned out to be quite the linguist on our travels.”
“Who’s Jim?” Mercer asked, brightening at the possibility of yet another Chinese expert in residence.
Mary darted a glance at her husband. The subject was a difficult one.
“His servant,” Henry said brightly.
Mercer’s face fell in disappointment and confusion. He’d already met Jim on the trip south, and while it might be admirable for a Negro to learn Chinese, it wasn’t as if he could discuss the experience with him over dinner.

The group settled into pairs under the high ceiling of the front parlor as they awaited their meal. The first five feet of the walls were wainscoted with wood that had been painted pale green. Above the wainscoting, silver and green wallpaper extended all the way to the elaborate cornice that demarcated the ceiling. The room itself was richly furnished with settees, chairs and elegant side tables, some dating from the Federal Period, though most had been acquired after the Jackson presidency. Gracing the wall at the far end of the room hung a full-length portrait of Mary painted two years before by a Dutch artist fashionable in Charleston. Jasper thought the likeness quite good, capturing both her humor and tenderness in the carefully applied layers of paint.
With the women deep in conversation, and Mercer exploring the joys of Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi with the Professor, Jasper and Henry had a chance to talk in armchairs at one end of the room.
“I can’t tell you how good it is to see you, Jasper. First we thought we’d lost you with the Dengue fever, and then there was that month in a Nabob’s prison over what, a gambling debt?”
As Jasper crossed one elegant leg over the other, Henry couldn’t help admire the French tailoring of his trousers. “Not exactly,” Jasper countered placidly. “It had to do with a borrowed elephant. And it was only three days, not a month.”
Henry cocked his head. “Elephant? No, don’t tell me; spin the yarn at dinner sometime, when we have a passel of guests to entertain. Anyway, even though you survived fever and prison, when I heard about the siren charms of Paris, I was certain you were gone from us forever.”
Jasper smiled. “The siren songs were temporary. There was a time when I didn’t expect to return to the South, but as you can see,” he waved a hand, indicating the present, “I changed my mind.”
“As I can see,” Henry repeated. “And you brought a Yankee with you, trailing along like a lost puppy, not that I mind in the least. It’s good for Northerners to see the real South in person. Maybe it’ll counter the cock and bull stories those newspapers up in Beantown like to fob off as journalism. Well, Jasper, now that you’ve made it all the way back to Beaufort, I hope you’ll honor us with a long and proper visit.” Henry nodded toward the women. “So, what do you think of my little niece?”
Jasper gave him an arch look. “You told me she was a child. You had me traipsing through Chinese toy shops.”
“She was a child . . . twelve years ago. She grew up.”
“Oh.” Jasper glanced at the women again uncomfortably. “I suppose I lost track of time.” He took his pocket watch from his waistcoat and eyed it. “I brought her a doll from Paris.”
“I’m sure she’ll love it,” Henry said with a laugh.

Cara and Mary were murmuring by the fireplace in the way women do when, for reasons of privacy, they want to be seen but not heard by their menfolk. If they had a mind to, women could plot entire revolutions, all within sight of their unsuspecting kin. “Surely he’s not old enough,” Cara was saying. “I thought he’s been traveling for decades.”
“Twelve years,” Mary said. “It’s not all that long.”
“Over half my life,” Cara insisted.
Mary smiled. “You’re young. So I see he’s not what you expected. What did you envision all those years you were tracking his expeditions in the atlas and plotting his ports of call?”
“I don’t know, someone . . . august. A scar on his face, a limp, a lion’s mane of white hair, maybe?”
“Oh dear,” Mary said with a laugh. “An ancient warrior with one foot in the grave. Well, I’m afraid he’s fallen off the lofty pedestal you had him on. Let’s hope it’s a soft landing.”
Cara glanced over at the mustached man who oddly seemed both comfortable and ill at ease while Henry described his latest project for improving the drainage at Silver Oaks. That there was an unusual air about him was certain.
“Aunt Winnie said he nearly killed himself with drink,” Cara noted.
Mary looked down at the rings on her left hand. “He did. After his wife and son died.”
“Aunt Winnie said he nearly killed himself with drink before that, too. And that there were duels.”
Mary frowned. “Aunt Winnie says a great many things she should keep to herself. Jasper was always a good man deep down, and during his travels, he brought that good man to the surface. You know Henry thinks the world of him, and when it comes to people, Henry’s always right.”
Cara glanced at her mother’s sister a touch maliciously. “Aunt Winnie says Mr. Jasper Wainwright is a known abolitionist.”
Mary pursed her lips. “Don’t say such things, Cara, not even in jest.”

Henry nodded at his niece by marriage. “Don’t you think she’s a pretty little thing?”
Jasper coughed slightly into his fist. “Lovely. You going to marry her off?”
“I’m trying. You know she’s had fifteen offers of marriage? Fifteen. The young bucks of the county practically line up to throw themselves at her. She’s turned them all down.”
“Why?” Jasper said with amusement. “I’m told girls in Boston only decline the first half-dozen. Gets too risky after that.”
“She’s a stubborn cuss, that’s why. Says she’ll never marry. Why, she’s twenty already. She’ll be an old maid soon if we’re not careful. It’s a pity my boys are too young for her. If Billy were sixteen instead of twelve, I’d lock her up in a room and make her wait for him.”
Jasper folded his hands across his waistcoat fashioned out of bright blue Chinese silk. “Women in Europe often don’t marry until their late twenties.”
Henry snorted. “Well, we’re not Europe, are we, thank God. We’d be having revolutions and rebellions like fleas on a hog if we were. I don’t know what got into those people there last year. It’s not like it did them any good. Now they have a Napoleon in charge of France again, for heaven’s sake. These people don’t understand democracy even when it slaps them in the face. Oh, I grant you, Zachary Taylor may not be the finest product of our three-quarters of a century experiment, but at least we don’t have rioting in the streets. What’s that, Couts? Dinner?” And the host led his guests into the dining room that was designed to show that after five generations in South Carolina, the Birch family had finally arrived in the world.

After a leisurely meal, when the ladies left the gentlemen to their brandy in the dining room, Jasper excused himself and stepped out onto the verandah with a cup of green tea. The sun was beginning to drop in the sky, creating long shadows in the front garden. Maintained with meticulous care, the area between the front of the house and Villa d’Este’s dock on the river was a paradise of flowers, blooming trees and a stretch of lawn that no doubt kept Mary’s gardener and yard boy well occupied. With the benefit of the early Southern spring, a pair of camellias by the stairs were in full bloom, and out next to the front gate an orange tree scented the mild Sea Island breeze with its blossoms. In the distance, a crescent moon hung low over Lady’s Island hours ahead of when any stars might join it. The idyllic panorama caused Jasper to think back to other Aprils and other moons so long ago. Through all the years and all the continents, the beauty of Beaufort had endured in his imagination. Now the reality—this halcyon blend of river, sky and graceful culture—did not let him down.
In the midst of his reverie, Cara stepped out on the porch for the air as well. “Pardon me,” she said with surprise when she found she wasn’t alone. “I thought the gentlemen were still in the dining room.” She moved to head back inside.
“It’s a fine afternoon,” Jasper observed. Something caught his eye. “Look, the dolphins agree.” He nodded at several gleaming bodies that arched and splashed their way through the river in front of them.
Cara glanced at the animals briefly. “They’re often here at high tide,” she acknowledged and turned to leave, her eyes averted.
“May I observe, Miss Randall, that you seem somewhat . . . unsure of me?” Jasper said, trying to be as kindly, even fatherly as he knew how. After all, he must be some sort of absent uncle figure to her, mustn’t he? “Whatever stories you’ve heard,” he joked, “I promise I’m less dangerous than that squirrel this morning.”
She glanced away. “You’ll have to excuse me, sir. You’re just not         . . . what I expected.” With an uncomfortable curtsy, she escaped back into the house.
In spite of himself, Jasper was offended. “Not what she expected?” he said to Mary when she found him fuming on the porch a short time later. “I go to the trouble of sending her trinkets from around the world, and she’s disappointed in me?”
“Those trinkets meant the world to her, Jasper,” Mary assured him. “The combs, the fans, that precious little tea set. She played with them for hours on end, and the stories she created around them—why, you’ve never heard such tales. In her mind, you were a hero more glorious than Ivanhoe, impossible for any mortal to live up to. Don’t be offended. She’ll come to know and like the real you very soon.”
Jasper frowned as he considered the advice. “She really liked the fans?”
Mary smiled. “She still uses them.”
He shrugged. “I suppose being confronted with me when you were expecting Ivanhoe would be a cruel blow to anyone.”
“She’ll recover,” Mary assured him.

The next morning Jim carefully scraped a razor along Jasper’s neck in the upstairs bedroom at Villa d’Este. “So, what time are we leaving for Sleety Pines tomorrow?”
Jasper laughed as well as a man might laugh with a sharp piece of steel pressed against his throat. “We’ve been gone a dozen years, Jim. I’ve got to stay at least a fortnight.”
“So you can drink sweet tea and talk nonsense with these pampered lords and ladies of slavery.” Jim snorted as he wiped the razor on the rag he was holding. “This place hasn’t changed one damn bit.”
“You’ve no fondness for the years we spent here?” Jasper asked whimsically.
Jim glowered as he straightened up. Half a decade older than Jasper, he was taller as well, with skin as black as ebon that testified no hodgepodge mulatto blood ran in those veins. His mother had been pregnant with him when she was captured at the end of the slave trade years. She’d lived through the horrific passage only to be brought to South Carolina, the last U.S. state to receive such cargo, and sold as chattel. The child she gave birth to had been her sole connection to the husband, children and life she left behind. Language and stories were lovingly taught; medicine, crafts and religion transmitted; hopes and dreams passed down. Though neither born nor bred on the Dark Continent, Jim had felt its reach through all the strange twists and turns of his life. A life he’d mostly spent somehow connected to Jasper Wainwright. “Please explain how nostalgia grows from blood and servitude.”
Jasper considered the point. “My years in Beaufort were the best ones of my childhood. In fact, they’re the only good memories I have of the entire South.”
Jim tilted Jasper’s jaw to access the other side of his neck. “Don’t know why you need to spend time cherishing anything here. Beaufort may look pretty, but its foundation ain’t tabby. It’s suffering.” Jasper made no effort to disagree. “With all this nostalgia,” Jim said, carefully shaving around the mustache, “you ain’t perhaps fixing to change your mind?”
Jasper caught Jim hard by the wrist. Jim stood still as their eyes met. “How could you possibly ask that?” Jasper said, his expression fierce.
Jim stared back a long tense moment. “I’m sorry,” he said finally. “That was uncalled for.”
Jasper let Jim’s hand go as he eyed his former slave narrowly. “A few weeks, Jim, that’s all. They’ve waited twelve years; they can wait a few more weeks. Sleety Pines will still be there.”
Jim shook his head. “Being here again is like someone walking over my grave. It does things to me. Bad things. Forget I said anything.”
Jasper wiped his face with a towel. “We’ve been vagabonds for over a decade. No roots, no family, hardly even any memory. Facing this was inevitable.”
Jim snorted. “Fine. Face it and get out already.”
Standing in front of an oval mirror hanging on the wall, Jasper pinned a collar onto his shirt, then slipped a cravat around his neck and began to tie it.
“Here,” Jim said impatiently. “Let me do it. You always mess it up and then people think I can’t tie no stupid knot. It’s humiliating.”
Jasper put his hands down and let his valet do his work.

Up at dawn as usual, Henry had already been out for his morning ride and now awaited a hearty breakfast in the dining room. For family breakfasts, they usually used the back parlor, but with guests in the house, especially a Yankee guest, the impressive dining room was pressed into service as often as possible. Henry’s three boys, Billy, Hugh and little Robert, were already tucking into their shortcakes and slices of ham before they left to attend to their studies. The lads were quieter than usual this morning, all three still cowed by the arrival of their mythic and long-awaited Uncle Jasper.
“Ha,” Henry said, striking his paper with delight. “Eustace Woods has struck again.”
“What does he say this time, dear?” Mary inquired as she poured Jasper tea. She’d ascertained that he took one cup of black tea at breakfast. The rest of the day it was all green.
“This time it’s crop rotation, and he says just like I do that you can’t be putting cotton in every year just to squeeze out every dollar you can. You’ll destroy the soil that way until there’s nothing left. That’s why you see all these crackers packing up and going west—their soil’s exhausted and won’t be good again for years. Every third year you’ve got to rotate your cotton with corn underplanted with cowpeas, and after the harvest, let the pigs graze on the leftovers and do their business.  Of course, every seventh year you’ve got to let the field rest completely with just a cover crop, and that takes a mighty amount of discipline, let me tell you, but it has to be done. The health of the soil is everything. Now, with these rotations of crops and fallow, I might have a few less fields planted in cotton than some people, but I get double the yield of most Sea Islands planters, and it’s not like I can’t use the corn and cowpeas, too. Plus I get fat pigs. I must say, Mr. Woods is exceedingly sensible when it comes to the science of agronomy. I’m proud to see his letters in a Southern paper.”
“Is Mr. Woods a Beaufort man?” Jasper asked.
“No one knows where he’s from,” Mary said. “He signs letters to the editor of The Charleston Courier with just his name. But Henry admires him. In fact, I think they may be twins, separated at birth.”
“I take it he rarely writes about politics then, knowing your distaste for the subject, Henry.”
“Only to lambast the idiots in Columbia, again exactly to my liking,” Henry said, folding his paper shut.
“What I find pleasant about him is his turn of phrase,” Mary said. “He uses words so eloquently, it makes me wonder if he isn’t a literary man.”
Henry looked skeptical. “There’s too much science and industry in him for that. Why would Eustace Woods waste his time on literary matters when there’s the whole Southern economy to reform?” He turned to Jasper. “We’ve been a backwater for industry far too long. Why send our cotton to mills in Massachusetts or Manchester to be made into cloth when we can do it right here? I’m hankering to start a mill myself, but I don’t have a proper creek. I’d have to do it with steam power.”
“You’re not content with your agricultural paradise at Silver Oaks?” Jasper asked with a smile. “I thought mechanical pursuits were outside the realm of a gentleman.”
Henry shook his head. “I’ll never understand why dirt and manure are considered acceptable for a gentleman while the steam engine is not.”
Mary patted his hand. “You do very well with dirt and manure, dear. And remember our last steam engine exploded. Luckily no one was killed.”
“You have to experiment,” Henry countered. “That’s how progress happens.”
The boys were ready to depart for the activities of their day. They each received a kiss from their mother and a quick pat on the back from their father before bravely setting off to decipher the mysteries of the alphabet, the victory at Yorktown, or the opening lines of The Aeneid, depending upon their age. After they left, Mary received a letter carried by a small black girl with braids sticking out every which way on her head. She took the paper and waved the girl away with a flick of her fingers. “Oh, lovely,” she said as she read it. “Professor Randall has invited us all to supper.”
“You mean Cara has invited us all to supper,” Henry said. “She probably wants to show off.”
“Well, let her,” Mary said. “It’s how she prepares for when she’s     really running her own household.”
“She’s not running it now?” Jasper asked, curious because he knew Cara’s mother, Mary’s sister, had died nearly two decades before.
“She likes to think so,” Mary said fondly, “but Ceres does most of it, truth be told.”
“Ceres?” Jasper said. “Like the goddess?”
Henry looked up from his latest copy of Scientific American. “Didn’t I ever tell you that story? When the good Professor married Annabelle all those years ago, he got it into his head to rename the slaves after Chinese dynasties, but the house staff wouldn’t have it. No Shang, Qin, or Ming for them, no sir. So the Professor compromised with Roman gods and goddesses. They’ve got a Neptune and a Saturn over there, as well as a Minerva and a Pomona. It’s delightful.”
Mary glanced at her husband. “I’m afraid not everyone shares Henry’s sense of humor.”
“More fool them, not to enjoy the eccentricities of life when they trot across your path,” Henry said, perusing his magazine again. “I don’t need to visit the Pantheon; I can have the gods serve me right here in Beaufort.”
Mary frowned. “Dear, that borders on blasphemy.”
“There’s no one here but Jasper, and I know for a fact he’s more sacrilegious than I am.”
Jasper smiled. “I’ll no doubt be persona non grata to Reverend Smith far into the afterlife, God rest his soul. I’m sure he never forgave me.”
“Forgave you for what?” Mercer said, wanting to share in the good humor as he joined them at the grand table. His face was freshly shaven by Piper, the valet that Henry had generously shared that morning since Mercer had not traveled with a servant.
Neither Mary nor Jasper was inclined to acquaint Mercer with Jasper’s youthful run-in with Reverend Smith, but they couldn’t stop Henry. “Well, Mercer,” Henry drawled, “years back, when he first came to us to drink from the scholarly fountain of Beaufort College, our Jasper was a regular hellion. Liquor and guns were all he cared about, that and every dangerous, crazy stunt he could come up with. On dares he climbed across ridgepoles, swam during storms; he even tried to trap an alligator. You’ve still got the scar from that one, don’t you, Jasper? If my boys pulled any one of those harebrained stunts, I’d whip their behinds and wonder if they were suicidal, but in those days, Jasper had nine lives. One night, under the influence, he went out for target practice with his rifle and shot a hole right through the cross on top of St. Helena’s steeple. Reverend Smith’s response was decidedly unchristian.”
Mercer looked at Jasper oddly. “I thought you attended Harvard.”
Henry waived a hand. “That was later, after he got expelled from South Carolina College.”
“Beaufort College is a preparatory school,” Mary told a confused Mercer. “Our oldest son, Billy, attends there when we’re in town.”
“By the way,” Henry said to Jasper, “we’re planning on a new building for the college on that empty lot on Carteret at Duke Street. Something larger, more substantial. In fact we’re raising funds for the project right now. And seeing as how I’m a trustee—”
Jasper smiled. “You’re soliciting alumni to contribute? I’d be glad to.”
Henry nodded in approval. “Much obliged. I knew you wouldn’t let the alma mater down. We’ll settle the details later. By the way, they’re also looking to fix up the old Arsenal—”
“Which I will decidedly not contribute to,” Jasper replied before eating his last piece of biscuit. Henry just laughed. After the target practice incident, Jasper’s rifle had been confiscated and kept in the Arsenal for three long months, a punishment he’d felt to be grossly unjust at the time.
Mercer, however, wasn’t prepared to let the subject go. “How old were you when you got drunk and shot the cross?” he asked Jasper.
Jasper shrugged. “Must’ve been thirteen.”
Mercer stared, uncertain whether to be impressed or horrified.
“After that, he reformed,” Henry assured him. “His father wanted to flay him alive, but instead my father persuaded him to send Spit Jim to Beaufort. Calmed Jasper right down, Spit Jim did. Magic touch. Our Jasper laid off the liquor and was nearly a model student the rest of his time in our fair burg.”
“Has this become local lore?” Mercer asked in his quaint, clipped accent that reminded his Southern hosts of a barking dog. “When people in Beaufort see Mr. Wainwright, do they say, ‘That’s the boy who shot the cross’?”
“We’ll soon see,” Henry said, amused by the young man’s goody two-shoes incredulity. “But I expect so. No one ever forgets anything in the South.”
How very agreeable this stay in Beaufort was going to be, Jasper thought as he sipped his tea resignedly. He mentally made plans to leave this land of backwater and gossip as soon as he could gracefully do so without offending Mary. Though his mother’s lineage allowed him to lay claim to a string of Sea Island ancestors as long as Henry’s, he was sure Beaufort didn’t reciprocate any feeling of kinship and would shed few tears over his departure.

Listen to Cara’s Waltz