Varina, p.12

Varina, page 12

 

Varina
 


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  —Madame, he said.

  A formulaic blurt. To be followed by some wearying assumption of behavior more appropriate to Lancelot and Guinevere than to the current world. He looked so earnest she almost laughed.

  She sat next to him and held his twitchy hand. She said, When you’re confused, don’t talk. Listen. Yes?

  He nodded assent.

  —What we will do instead of your plan is become best of friends and allies. You will never again apologize to me. And no foolish confessions, ever. Not to anyone. We won’t even speak of this to each other. At least not for twenty-five years. At which point, if we’re both alive and lucid, this moment won’t seem tragic or comic, only a cherished shared memory that binds us even tighter. We will drink a bottle of wine or two and look back with warm nostalgia. Yes?

  Burton’s face bunched around his nose, a painful contraction. So V went on talking, improvising. She said, Let’s do our anniversary near water. At the beach or on a riverboat or at a mountain lake resort. Someplace where sunset is an event. Right now let’s be quiet and drink our coffee and think our thoughts until you’re able to say something not foolish.

  They sipped until eventually he said, Yes?

  His voice was speculative and searching, an explorer finding his way into unmapped territory.

  She sipped and looked at him without offering directions.

  He said, The two of us longtime friends. Decades on. A bottle of wine together. That will be a moment to anticipate.

  —Forever friends, she said. But it won’t just happen. It’s up to us to make it so. And I’ll do my share. But just as important, from this moment forward, you will become more careful with women and not allow us to twist you up with so little effort and to your disadvantage. Not all of us will let you down easy. Some keep a tally of broken hearts, and they like to break them hard enough to stay broken. You’ll be more careful. Yes? And don’t fall for some little fool who’ll become jealous of us for all the wrong reasons?

  Burton nodded. Yes, he said. Absolutely yes.

  —Now, V said, rising from her chair. Come kiss me again, this time on the cheek, and we’ll both meet the afternoon fresh and free. Though if I were fresh and free as you, well I won’t even begin imagining how this afternoon might have played.

  He set his cup in its saucer and rose and gave her a very polite kiss, a soft trembly peck, his hands clasped behind his back to keep them out of trouble.

  V said, Go and do, Burton. Go and do. The day still has legs.

  Mary said, Oh my. I had no idea, and I was in and out of your house every day or two back then. That sort of thing led to so many stupid but thrilling duels back before the war. There were many who believed you and Judah had a long affair in Washington. Which I’m convinced you did not. I’d bet my house in Camden that it was no more than a brief few urgent encounters in carriages. He was so full of life and humor and of himself back then.

  —That’s another story, V said.

  THEY TALKED ALL NIGHT, and in the silences, V thought how much she loved Mary Chesnut. Like everybody else’s, Mary’s life collapsed around her day by day, but she sparkled in the face of it, at least in her talk. V and Mary—or, to be exact, their husbands—were about to go broke spectacularly and apocalyptically. They would all soon find themselves where her father was when he bet all he had on the hope that a shooting match might be watched over by a benevolent god.

  But a good dinner and better conversation, a bottle or two of Bordeaux dating back to the young days, some generous pinches of medicine, and for a few hours it became easy to pretend that the past few years had never happened, that the only thing wrong was that people hadn’t had time recently to do as much reading as usual. Which of course didn’t keep the real world from scything you off at the knees for having made a series of choices counter to good sense or common morality or even to the movement of history under whose cold gaze the pain of your existence factors less than chimney smoke in the wind.

  It wasn’t quite dawn, but close enough, when V helped Mary to bed and kissed her on the forehead and blew out the candle.

  THREE MORNINGS LATER they stood on the porch, wagons loaded and waiting. V carried a small musette bag tinkly with little brown bottles.

  Mary said, I’m hoping this is not the last good-bye.

  The corners of her big eyes welled and spilled.

  V kissed her the polite way, pecks on the cheeks. And then she gripped Mary’s tiny body, wrapped herself around the fine bones of Mary’s frame so tight that she worried she would break her.

  V said, Please no.

  And yet, despite deepest feelings and best intentions, that was the last good-bye. Later, they wrote letters, and Mary sent V bits of the book she had started writing in the first days of the war. But in the chaos of life and years of complicated legal and personal trials and prison and exile, they never saw each other again.

  * * *

  Sun breaks through clouds and catches V’s attention. She asks the time.

  —Quarter to two.

  —Still a few races to go. We could take the hotel surrey.

  —Or walk on the grounds here if you’d rather, James suggests. Easier to talk. Quieter.

  They take wide paths where the golf course will soon be, down toward the pond. Artfully rustic wooden benches appear every hundred yards or so, and they stop frequently for V to rest, catch her breath.

  —If we go all the way around the pond, I can count this as physiotherapy, V says.

  —Back to your arriving in Washington that first time—when you and Mrs. Chesnut were so young. Your husbands must have been busy in Congress. I’m wondering what you did to fill a day?

  —Well, the days filled themselves. Brown’s Hotel was packed with interesting and amusing and annoying people all during the session. You could sit in the lobby and entertain yourself for as long as you wanted. And there were dinner parties and gatherings most nights of the week. Everything from staid receptions at the White House to the hops Mary and I organized at the hotel for younger people.

  V tells him about a dinner party, sitting with a secretary of the treasury, a vice president, and a few other old powerful men and talking about literature—Dante and Virgil, Byron and Wordsworth. They thought it was surprising and delightful that a girl had read so much and held strong opinions. They talked to her a little like fishing in shallow water, but they kept talking. She says, I wore a flower in my hair that night—that was the year of japonicas, whether they were heaped in table bouquets at the White House or pinned singly in the hair of young ladies.

  She remembers that one of those important fishermen was an elderly scientist, and he invited her to his studio for a tour. A few days later she visited, and she recalls a roomful of telescopes and theodolites and microscopes, bent and corroded orreries, dusty geodes and staurolites, many framed maps on the wall, and an enormous faded brown globe in a corner, its geographic boundaries and names representing an obsolete world. She remembers telling the old scientist that she could hardly hold herself back from smacking a palm to the equator and giving it a spin. He said, Do it, dear girl—and she set the globe whirling.

  * * *

  Dull days, wandering the Capitol never failed to entertain. She could happily spend a morning in the steep seats above the House floor listening to speeches—the rube rhetoric, the various accents, the wisdom and foolishness of lawmakers. On the Senate side, Sam Houston roamed the halls flirting with every young woman he met. He wore a cougar hide vest and left his coat open to display it, hoping to be asked what the material was. He introduced himself to V the same as to all the young ladies, with a set of moves like a fencing exercise. He lunged an aggressive step forward—pushing up much too close—then bowed low, and in a deep voice said, Lady, I salute you. Then he stood and took a snakeskin pouch from the pocket of his cougar vest and plucked out a little carved wooden heart. He spent his days on the Senate floor whittling dozens of them. He reached it out and said, Let me give you my heart.
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  MOSTLY DURING THAT FIRST TIME in Washington, like any young person intent on charming everyone in earshot, V chattered on about books she had read or a piece of music currently stuck in her head. She and Mary Chesnut vied to be considered Washington’s most well-read ladies still in their teens. Mary once told grand old Senator Benton—a man they both revered—that V was particularly knowledgeable in regard to Icelandic literature and mythology. After which, for several days, she buried herself in the Library of Congress reading translations of Snorri Sturluson just in case Benton asked her about his work.

  Other days, V drooped under the load of her strong dreams. Mostly they crowded with intense physical details that left her disoriented at dawn until she adjusted herself to the waking world. She had not yet become known for the frequent truth of her dreams, visited like some Cassandra by prophetic and terrifying night visions. She gave one of the most powerful of them a title—The Execution of Jefferson Davis, Traitor and Assassin. It began as an outdoor performance, a huge audience standing in a misty rain watching black-hat, frock-coat men climb stairs to the high stage. At the top they hesitate and mill about deciding where to stand. All of them—dignitaries, representatives of law and justice, deep believers in the paradigm of the passing moment—are intent on a simple performance of a simple role. Among them but not of them, Jeff climbs the risers imperially slim in black suit and white shirt. His eyes are sunken behind defiant cheekbones, equitation-perfect posture even though his hands have been tied behind his back in a fat wrap of fresh yellow hemp. He’s hatless, since a hat would be inconvenient when it comes time to fit the noose, and his still-voluminous salt-and-pepper hair sweeps back dramatically like that of an aging hero leaning against the wind. He climbs like he’s going somewhere he desperately wants to be, as if at the top of the stairs his true essence will finally reveal itself to the world and to himself.

  The hangman waits onstage, occupying his mark. This is not a beheading needing a hulk in a black hood to slam a silver axe blade clean through a gristly neck into a wood block. He is a little man—brown suit, hair combed over a bald patch, narrow shoulders. His task at the moment is only the pulling of a lever a few degrees of arc against the light resistance of a simple mechanism—gears and pulleys—to trip the release of the deadly square of stage opening onto another world. Two fingers would do it. His real job is already done—solving a schoolboy arithmetic problem, a matter of acceleration per foot per second, a calculation of weight and force and the fragility of the human body. A foot of rope either way can make the difference between success and bright red faces for the dignitaries. Hard to remain dignified when a man hangs for long minutes bucking and choking ten feet below your boot soles while the audience gasps.

  V woke from the dream feeling whispered to by snakes in her sleep, a taste of somebody else’s spit in her mouth.

  IN ALL ITS MUDDY, SMELLY GLORY, Washington pulsed with endless excitement and entertainment until all of a sudden the party ended. War with Mexico had been brewing, sold to the public as a simple and stupid issue of border enforcement, though Texas had only been a state for a short while, and its southern boundary was still disputed and vaporous. The real issue involved a complicated, contentious grab of land that included Texas and the entire Pacific Coast up to Vancouver Island. And with it, an attempt to draw a line east to west across the continent, below which slavery would extend Atlantic to Pacific for ever and ever.

  As war fever grew hot during the winter of 1846, V extracted a promise from Jeff that he would not volunteer to fight that utterly stupid fight. And she wasn’t entirely being a new, young wife not wanting her new husband to leave her. The Whigs—party of her raising, party of Winchester—saw the war for what it was and opposed it, and decades later Ulysses S. Grant in his memoir said we intentionally provoked the war to grab territory.

  A few weeks after Jeff’s solemn promise, V discovered by accident—meaning one of his fellow politicians told her—that Jeff had lied to her and accepted an offer to lead the Mississippi militia with the rank of colonel. So not a U.S. Army colonel, just a Mississippi colonel, which she thought established an uncomfortably low price for betraying her.

  V and Jeff fought hard and bitter for two days in Brown’s Hotel over the war and his decision and especially his deception. Then she packed a small leaving trunk and abandoned Washington, went westward by stagecoach to one of those little villages in the shadow of the Blue Ridge.

  V spent a quiet spring month in a cottage with a sunset view. The ridges of old blue mountains rolled south to north in waves. The air remained dry and clear, sky crystalline blue rather than the humid summer color of shrimp shells. New, small leaves hazed the mountainsides.

  She turned twenty and miscarried out there. It happened early days in a pregnancy she hadn’t yet announced to Jeff. All he knew from her letters was that she had not been feeling her best. She saw a doctor in Culpeper who, of course, suggested strong doses of opium. Every few days—without actually apologizing for breaking his promise—Jeff wrote letters ending with his usual declarations of love in formulaic French.

  Alone, V became peaceful. Clear nights she sat outside watching the sky until midnight, feeding a little twig fire for company. She followed moon phases for a month and watched bright planets set over the mountains. It focused her mind. Sometimes she breathed deep and let go all her resentments for as high as a day at a time. The thing that kept pulling at her the hardest was that Jeff had resigned from the army in order to marry Knoxie but rejoined it to leave V behind.

  EVENTUALLY, WHAT ELSE? They left Washington together in early July, and again took the northern route, but the trip lacked all romance this time. A dreary, sweaty, mosquito-plagued float down the muddy river.

  Jeff headed on to New Orleans and Mexico almost immediately after arriving at Davis Bend, and now all V remembers are the discussions between Jeff and Pemberton about whether he should go to Mexico with Jeff or stay at Brierfield. Pemberton finally decided to stay, arguing that V would need him.

  OLD JOSEPH LIKED TO TELL PEOPLE what to do and to have them do it, and he strongly preferred that the white women of Davis Bend either praise him for his efforts or keep their mouths shut. Before Jeff even finished crossing the Gulf from New Orleans to Mexico, V learned she would have to deal face-to-face with Joseph by herself, without an ally.

  Things quickly came to a head one night at The Hurricane when after supper Joe stabbed a long roll of paper across the table at her. When she spread it out, she recognized doodles depicting an ugly revision of the new house she and Jeff were about to build to replace Jeff’s cat-and-clay experiment in architecture. Joe’s vision grafted another house onto theirs—a lopsided wing with a sitting room and three large bedrooms. He said a cousin or niece or some other recently widowed in-law V didn’t even know would be moving in with many children—too many to bother counting or differentiating—as soon as the construction concluded. They could all share the one kitchen and dining room.

  V said, Mr. Davis, this won’t be convenient at all. I don’t think we’re aiming for anything along the lines of a row house.

  Old Joe looked off toward the windows and then looked straight at V and said, Not convenient? Let me be clear. This is going to happen whether you think it’s convenient or not.

  —We’ll see, V said.

  —No, we won’t see. I’ll see.

  Joseph reached across the table for his plans and rolled them back into a tight cylinder and shook them in her face and said, You’re evasive, elusive. I ask simple questions about the management of Brierfield, and you slide away into vagueness. I can’t get a straight answer out of you to save me.

  V said, Mr. Davis, What do you tell me about your business? Nothing. And I don’t expect it, given that it’s none of my business. But if a straight answer is what you want from me, then I’ll say that I find the subjects of your curiosity to be essentially none of your concern. If I’m indirect, it’s in an attempt to be mannerly. You call it elu
sive, but I call it etiquette. Brierfield is my husband’s plantation, and I doubt we’ll be building a wing for distant relatives. We don’t intend to run a boardinghouse.

  Joe reddened and glared like he wanted to slap her down. He shoved back his chair and stood up so abruptly his empty Champagne coupe tipped and broke against the edge of his plate. He came around the table and stood over her. He crowded close, twitching with anger. She pinched her lips shut and stood and faced him.

  He said, You want to try me, little girl? I’ll quickly become a master under whom you will be the first to learn obedience.

  Eliza and Florida and the younger girls looked at their laps.

  V’s hands and voice shook. Very slowly she said, Mr. Davis, you may feel free to threaten me now. But I suggest we wait until Jeff returns from Mexico to sort this out.

  —Oh, of course, Joseph said. My brother will sort this right out for you. Maybe he’ll start by telling you things you apparently don’t know. Like the fact that he doesn’t own an acre of this land. It was a family handshake deal, an understanding with no legal foundation. On paper, Brierfield is still mine. I hold the deed, not Jeff. So whatever goes on anywhere here at the Bend is every bit my business and none whatsoever of yours.

  V couldn’t think what to say except, Even the house Jeff is paying to build?

  —Strong argument to be made that it falls under the heading of improvements to the property conveying to the owner. Meaning me. Have you even looked at Jeff’s will?

  —No.

  —I wrote it. Should make interesting reading. If Jeff dies—whether it’s fighting in Mexico or whatnot—you don’t inherit anything except the right to keep living here as a dependent of mine until you pass away or find some crazy old widower with a cornfield and a hog-lot out at Catahoula Lake willing to take you on.

 
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