As usual, as in winter, the snow was falling this evening. And loving the white flakes that tumbled down in the air, Soleil pulled back the drapes. Maurice was late this evening, which it in itself, was curiously strange. Usually, when she had managed to wait until Annabelle's soft snores, Maurice would be waiting with tea. Pressing her hand against the cold glass, she noticed how her breath made the glass fog a whitish-clear.
Their relationship, as it had been, was still standing. But she felt somehow the smallest tinge of compassion for him-something she knew was not mutual. If only their relationship could be, what was that word he had used for her and Ephraim-platonic? Platonic, if only their relationship could be platonic, or even one he used with his other house servants. But no, he wanted his relationship wit her to be intimate, romantic, most likely sexual. Fortunately, she mused, that she could not ever see herself in the position to be his Negro wench, his concubine-while his white wife lived in feigned ignorance.
The very thought disgusted her. Thank God that most women were blessed with some sense of morality, some sense of honor, some sense of duty. She was fortunate that she was one of them, a distant figure, of an old slave woman, mulatta, too dark to have been seen as white- Mama Betty. Strict with manners, strict with morals, teaching her solitary-for children did not seem to fare with her, save for Soleil. But then again, she never was a child really.
Having lost both parents to whom she couldn't remember. Being under the care of a nice mistress with darkish and curly brown hair, being spared the humidity and heat of the seaside grateful toward a woman who made her work moderately. The other children never spoke to her, she never spoke to them, had no reason to. Intimacy always made her uncomfortable. Then the old mistress died, and she was sent to the auction block-displayed amongst hundreds of people at the tender age of seven, all those pale faces scrutinizing, searching, glaring-accompanied with the slightest glimpse of superiority.
Transferred to a different plantation. Where she grew up, advancing to adolescence hearing the lash used regularly, the blood pooled beneath the whipping post. Being close to no one in particular, save for a Negro boy with light brown eyes, who talked to her. Had made her laugh when she first arrived, introduced her to other adolescents who inquired suspiciously to why her eyes were green and why was her hair was so long and wavy. The very same children who had been contemptuous of her, calling her the "blackest Cracker", calling her Mistake, because her eyes were green but her skin a very dark brown. Because her hair was longish and wavy, but her lips full. Ephraim, as generous and altruistic as he was, had managed to quiet their teasing, and Soleil, ever since had been grateful. Not being close to anyone, an act of charity was not forgotten by her.
They had grown together. It was concealed by many, but it was outwardly seen that one day, the two would be together and possibly make the most handsomest and compatible couple. Even the slightly jealous Massa grudgingly admitted to this. By this time, it was when she was beginning to change physically and he began casting lascivious eyes to her, subtly at first, but then spoke blatantly about it. Of course, her adolescent mind conjectured to what he supposed, and she blushed, even now when remembering it.
His attempts, his hand gripping her like iron, warm as fire, his eyes blazing, until she was convinced that through all the hellish occurrences she had had ever with white people, that Satan himself also must be one of them. She remembered one incident, being pushed to the floor, when he groped her and she had struck him with his cane. She remembered that conversation well, his ranting threats about her ingratitude, though he rarely lavished her, her attempting to bewitch him, his indignance about her threat to tell his wife.
Less than a month later, he had come crawling into her miniature weaving house he had built for her, with the loom that took up a vast amount of space, the cozy bed that she was relieved to have been supplied with warm linen, the bureau, and the wooden floor, supplied with a small fireplace. Everyone had talked of it, she remembered their eyes. Their indignant and envious eyes. "Wench pretendin' t'be Cracka gettin' ev'ry thang…" the only and most distinct whisper she could remember whispered disdainfully to her.
Then she remembered her loud refusal, his grunt about forcing her to submit, her grabbing the poker from the fire, stabbing him through the chest, piercing his stomach, all the blood gushing from his torso, the poker piercing his skin, coming clean straight through his back. In her rage, she took the whip- that she found in his pocket, seeing his quivering flesh, and she lashed out at him, five blows in succession. The blood trailing in miniature streams, the flesh molding into his torn shirt, her nausea.
Then the auction block, just recently a birthday having been passed, sixteen and in demand. All myriads of questions about her. Her whereabouts, her beautiful green eyes, her long hair. How much would she cost? They all asked, some reaching into their pocketbooks. A sickening feeling that she might be placed into a sort of placage system, which was characteristic in Louisiana. But usually for the light girls, quadroons, perhaps a mulatta or two. Unusually, though, beautiful dark skinned girls, like her, would be placed to a white wealthy gentleman, who would set up a household and a lifetime of care, in return for her chastity and acceptance of his on-going sexual advances.
All the pale faces, with their long noses, their different colored eyes, some brightest of blue, some light brown, some green like hers. All bidding, the auctioneers voice booming, she had heard the words, and they were all blurred now. Young gentlemen bidding, her reduction of feeling as if she were an object, feeling as if her humanity had been stripped to the core. Her wish to feel nothing. Their glares, their contemptuous glares, mocking her, degrading her-all knowing that they were superior.
Faintly, she could hear a familiar voice, speak her name with a concerned hint. Maurice. How long had he been standing there while she focused her eyes from the snow, and turned. Her smile weary. His concern, his brows furrowed, he muttered something about her health.
"I feelin' fine, I…was thinkin'. Sorry I ain't answered soona…" she closed her eyes, the odd apology stirring a memory in her- the insincere apology she had given to her late Massa when he had summoned her at one time.
"Are you alright? Here. You're hands are freezing." Maurice led her to the chair in front of the fire, and she felt oddly sickened, thinking back to the night where all the blood had stained her hands, clung to her hair, caking it, spilling and staining the wooden floor. She felt the nausea creeping and settling in the back of her throat. Maurice handed her a mug to hold, and she held it, her shaking hands, in her somewhat nervous state, causing her to drop it on the rug, hearing a distinct crack.
Regrettably, she rushed to the floor, apologizing profusely, muttering in an odd tone of urgency and anxiety about allowing it never to occur again. Curiously, Maurice, stooped to her, setting out the tray to help collect the porcelain pieces, then he placed them on the table next to him.
Still on the floor, in front of the fire, her legs tucked under her, the fire warming her through her somewhat thin chemise. And he next to her, with a look of concern and worry. At last, he took her hands, and held them for a moment.
"Would you tell me what's the matter?" his voice was soothing and gentle.
Those sincere eyes, bluish-gray, with a aura of security, of protection. She wished, perhaps that in his comfort, she could find the sort of security she always craved and never had. But not now. "I'm feelin', pressed. I…memories." She concluded, quietly. No use hiding much from Maurice, he had been heedful to her, relaxing her, the least he deserved was truth.
Feeling unusually helpless, he saw her, knew she was hiding them. Would she ever confess to her memories? Perhaps not. She was a very intimate, private person. He doubted that even the infamous Ephraim knew them. Though, he grudgingly would admit that Ephraim was close to her-in a way that he wanted to be, closer, in fact, than that.
For now, he could only stare at her helplessly.
"Massa, you wouldn' hurt me…" she trailed off, looking up, her eyes carrying an odd tinge of supplication.
Perhaps she had been hurt in the past? Saving that logical piece of information in his mind for later reference and contemplation, he smiled warmly. "I could never think of ever striking you, again. Or even speaking harshly to you. Always, you are to feel comfortable in my presence. I want you to feel that."
Her lips curved slightly at the corners. Her soft smile bringing him a rush of happiness, all that brought him to his feet. And in their held hands, he felt her slide into him-an embrace. The first embrace he had received from her. It warmed him, made him content. Her arms encircling his chest, her dark cheek against his breastbone, his beating heart. Wishing to give her his heart. It was wonderful to hold her and be held by her, and comfortably, he stroked her black hair.
He reflected over the past hour, as he usual did right before he felt himself slipping to the unconsciousness of sleep. Often, as his thoughts did, his mind wandered to Soleil. And the question that had gnawed the back of his mind since he had heard it, nearly an hour before. She was sleep now, her tired smile conveyed that. She had inquired if he would ever hurt her.
Maurice chuckled to himself.
How could he ever bring himself to speak to her harshly. His own memories of his raised voice, her defiant yet vulnerable expression, his iron grip causing her to cry out. It shamed him to remember actions he committed against her, in her jealous rage, envious of that boy-Ephraim. The tinge still remained, though he was grateful that she managed not to see him, through his own insistence. He wished he could take back his early behavior-how he wished with his heart that he could.
The worse memory he could conjecture. The one memory-where in his rage, he had struck Soleil. Her vulnerable expression. The vulnerable expression like that of a frightened child. He had seen it, and in a mere moment, it had changed to one of defiance. He remembered the look, while watching a duel-where the eyes of the participants were emotionless, balanced, stoic. Her cold words, her freezing compromise, her distinct and dripping dislike. It had stung him to his core.
His behavior had changed. The fateful afternoon when their heated argument caused them both contrition, made him feel his weight in disgust, and notice how much her contempt bit him. From that situation, which oddly enough began with her mentioning the overseer and his alleged practices of 'taking women'. He had never seen her so passionate about such a wrong. But then again, what other practice had been evoked? A few days following, their mutual politeness escalated into a comfortable silence, and a few muttered pleasant comments. And now, he felt them becoming closer.
The initial contact of his lips to hers, was met with her harshest words. The situation, he did not deem worthy to be named their initial kiss. No. The first kiss shared by the two, in the study, when he questioned her if she could read. It was rhetorical, and in his proximity to her, her full lips so close to his, he brought himself to them. More sensual and intimate than he could've imagined, her full lips moist and tasting of tea. And staggeringly, she did not pull back as he expected. She followed his lead, albeit stiffly. An anomalous question that perhaps she might not consider the profundity of their initial kiss mocked his mind. But to this he could produce no conjectures as to why.
This evening, though had also toyed his mind. Her question, posed as a statement. He could not ever hurt her again. She knew nothing of her past, never spoke of any relatives, through other servants, he had found that she had no known relatives. The only person close to her, even spoke to her beyond a few words, was Ephraim. She always spoke in the present, he noticed. Perhaps she was uncomfortable with her past, too somnolent for the future. Living in the here and now.
The future. He had dreamt of them, occasionally. His mind wandered to his most recent dream, taking place a couple of nights before, embarrassingly enough causing him to wake up-feeling himself moist. As he was thinking of his dream now, he felt himself blush. It had been a dream taking place in the garden, where he was witness to her brown skin, the only item concealing her having been a sheer cloak, but she was modest, even still. Long black wavy hair, falling past her shoulders. Her brilliant smile, the sunset as the backdrop. Nothing but quiet and no one else alive save for the two of them. No one else in his conscious save for her.
He had met with her, embracing her, his arm traveling across her waist, and his lips pressed against hers, softly. In a blur, the scenery had transformed from the garden to his bedroom, where he had watched her slide into his bed, modestly removing the cloak and her naked back, her hair falling to its length, a few inches short of the middle of her back. The rosewater smell she used, the one he had bought her, in his dream. The very same smell that she had radiated this evening when she embraced him, in that one moment where her warmness became all too apparent.
In his dream, her back toward him, her cascading hair, and he, who unfastened his pants, sliding under his linen sheets to her. Even now, his head pulsed to think of it. His hands itched to relieve himself of this passionate warmth which traveled to the most intimate parts of his body. Clergymen condemned against it, calling the practice a vessel to hell. But, now it seemed feasible. Feasible to release the tension that such an explicit dream created.
He had seen her, her bright green eyes-locked on his, her subtle smile, her lips curling upwards slightly-her trademark smile. In his dream, he had entered her. Presently, his hands were feverish and soon he could no longer feel or hear anything.
When he revived, he thought of her once more. Her loveliness and her charming personality in all its silence, his thoughts when he was awake during the witching hour, and even on some occasions, in his conscious, seemed always to be focused on her. And he wanted it to be so.
It was late afternoon, the following day when Soleil, certain to make sure that Maurice wouldn't see her, took a small book of Annabelle's literature and went to meet Ephraim-on the back porch. Maurice had always been envious of Ephraim and not wanting to cause confrontation between their temporarily peaceful state, she briefly told the napping Annabelle that she would be back within a couple of hours. For it was Saturday, and since she was to have a free afternoon, she sent word for Ephraim to meet her at the back porch.
The air was humid and muggy, as was early spring, the sun hidden by thick clouds which more likely than not signaled fore coming precipitation. Sliding past the study door, she saw Massa Williamson, writing a letter or some sort of document-grateful she was that it wasn't Maurice. But as she passed the parlor, she was spotted by him. And in a radiant smile, he drew himself up fluidly, introducing conversation. Presently, she attempted to conceal the book behind her back.
"Soleil, I've not seen you since last evening. But how you rush about so. Where are you headed?" his pleasant attitude was infectious, but still cautious, she was very still.
"Outdoors." His gaze was intense. "I'm gonna read outdoors." She elaborated.
"You are? Well, may I join you?" he inquired, picking up the book he was reading from a small table next to the comfortable armchair he was sitting in. Her worried expression was not lost on him, however and he replied. "You would not like me to?"
She opened her mouth, but abruptly closed it. "I'd be pleased to read outdoors with you, some otha time. I…" she closed her eyes, not wanting to see his expression. "I…I'll be visitin' Ephraim 'fo I read."
His gaze was blank, not the usual hawk-like intense stare or harsh words he bestowed upon her. At length, he sighed and commented. "I hope, you enjoy your afternoon, Soleil." And with that he picked up his book and began again to read from it. Soleil stood there, for a small moment, and as though her mouth and her mind were not connected, she heard herself speak. "If it makes you uncomfortable, Maurice, then I won't see 'im."
His expression was again blank, unreadable. But then it changed to one of compassion. "Soleil, you want to spend time with Ephraim. Do not displeasure yourself with how I feel about him." In an awe of gratitude, she nodded, and left. Leaving Maurice to wonder if the vivid dream he had recalled the night before affected him more than what he thought.
Closing the door inaudibly behind her, Soleil smiled to herself softly. Teaching Ephraim the first ten letters of the alphabet, and writing them had been a rather amusing experience. His quiet side comments, some genuine, and some sarcastic, caused her to laugh. And with some diligence, he could probably finish the alphabet in the next week. His laughing and smiling was infectious, and so now, it seemed she could prevent either from entering her expression.
She held the book in her hand, thankful that no Negro in his cabin thought it suspicious that she could 'speak quietly' to Ephraim alone-in his part of the cabin, partitioned by a heavy cloth. There, strangely enough, he had seem restless, but she didn't bother herself to remark. Usually, she would comment, say something of a statement aloud to herself, which he would correct or rebut, but now as she noticed she was keeping more to herself, she also did not reach out to him as much as she thought she should.
Presently, she knocked on the door softly. She waited, as a few moments elapsed. Then the door opened audibly with a low click. Distractedly, Maurice saw her face, and with a soft smile, opened the door wider, the sunlight being let in partially by the thick material of the dark drapes. The single solitary and rather large book he had been reading before she left near two hours before, was still sitting on the small stand near the relaxing maroon armchair he had been in. She looked down at the book she had been hiding behind her back, while walking in the house. It was small and thin, with no more than fifty pages at most. A romance short story, which she had not bothered to notice until she needed something to teach Ephraim with. But now, looking at the cover, she noticed the beautiful sloping writing, which strangely enough looked somewhat like hers.
Then noticing that Maurice had sat, and was looking up at her expectantly. So swiftly, she sat, and took the armchair next to him. She turned to face him, tucking her skirts carefully, it was a new and simple dress she had made from some linen cloth given to her by Annabelle, who's day dress having been made by the seamstresses, had no more use for the extra linen. She held the book in her hands, then she gazed up, noticing Maurice had picked up his book again.
"How was your afternoon?" he inquired, continuing to read as he spoke.
"Fine, I…didn't git t'read much. I came back quick as I could, s'Annabelle wouldn't be sah mad." Her drawl rested easy in the relaxed atmosphere. Maurice paused, and looked over at the book she wad holding in her lap. He laughed quietly to himself, and to answer her questionable gaze, he put his book down, and gestured toward the book.
"I didn't think you were much for romance novels. You must've borrowed this from Annabelle. And if Mother knew she was reading such 'trash', as she calls it, she would be in trouble."
Soleil shook her head. "I ain't read anything. Much. When I was taught how t'read, I only read children's rhymes. And…some small paragraphs by a…abolitionist."
He had been looking through the book, but as he heard that word, his head jerked up swiftly, as swiftly as the rain showers came in April. His gaze was intense, and she wondered if the comfortable atmosphere of the afternoon had been broken by her heedless remark. Still gazing at her intently, she dropped her gaze and let it travel to her folded hands, where she clasped them patiently.
"I…I think may be a…Thomas Jefferson." Her gaze looked up, and an almost relieved look came upon his face.
"Soleil, you have to be careful what you read. Often, Thomas Jefferson, like a vast amount of Southerners are hypocrites, that is…they say something, or think something, then say and think the exact opposite, when or when not it suits them. Does anyone else know you read a work by an abolitionist."
Confusedly, she gazed at him. "Maurice, y'mean, you think I was readin' 'bout some slav'ry abolitionist, an' have me git strung up by some Cracka? It was somethin' 'bout somethin' called serfdom. I ain't knowin' what that quite be, but I think that's how it was wrote. Only tha Missus knew."
His relieved laughter responded to her. "Soleil, you amuse me. But enough, what kind of literature has always interested you?"
Her gaze was one of inquiry. "I ain't knowin', ain't really had time fa much else. I like myst'ries. Them novels that crimes happen and them people dress'd all fancy go an' fin' 'em out." Her smile was bright.
"Mysteries? Well, how adequate! I, too, you know, read mystery. I'll bring some of my books here, for us to read at night. And perhaps during the day." His use of 'us' warmed him, and he looked over at her to see her reaction. She did not seem to have one, save for a slight glint of excitement in her eyes.
"I'd like that, Maurice." She smiled to him, softly.
"I'm not certain to the extent of the baseness of some of the mysteries I've collected. In fact, the one I've wanted to read tonight, might not be the one you'd like to read. I've brought three of my favorites, perhaps you would like to choose one for us to read?" Maurice gestured to the books on the desk, again late night, again they were alone, the only two awake.
Soleil, as usual, nearly half-sleep, languidly trudged over to the desk from her comfortable position on the oversized satin floor pillow in front of the fire. At last, she scanned the titles slowly. Pausing and inquiring to words she did not understand. After a few minutes of flipping through the pages, she settled on one that made Maurice smirk.
"What a title you've chosen. This book was a gift from Flannery, through the course of reading this…or the half of it, I was able to see why. But enough, let us read." He took her hand, leading her to the azure cushion in front of the fireplace. Comfortably, he settled next to her. She, avid to read in comfort, for once in more than two years, radiated an exuberant aura. Propping her chin on the palms of her hands, she read. But seldom had a page been read by her, when she noticed the frequent shifting of Maurice. Having forgotten about his presence, she laughed aloud quietly. And Maurice seeing her unexpected smile and joyous laughter, he laughed also.
"Sorry for disturbing you from reading, but…would it be feasible to have us both read the same book? Perhaps I should read closer to you."
Soleil, sensing his awkwardness, nodded uncomfortably. And so she felt herself startled when he placed the book in her hands, and positioned himself so that she in front of him. And him, being the taller one, wrapped his arms around her waist, resting his chin on her head. And so they read in silence, though Soleil muttered the words to herself under her breath.
Maurice continued to read, and upon hearing her soft voice forming the words, he was inebriated, as he always was with her voice. He soon closed his eyes, no longer reading but listening to the story as if it were the first time he had heard it. Two debtor criminals, in jail swapping stories….Presently, he opened his eyes and the missed feeling of beholding her mesmeric eyes traveling across the page seized his mind, and so he brought his chin to her shoulder.
Soleil continued to read, heedless of him and only cognizant of the story. It was an interesting beginning, she was near the end of the first chapter, and ceased turning the pages to reflect upon to two debtors who were criminals but recounting the events of their life. One was an aristocrat and the other had been an indentured servant, the latter she was oblivious to their historical existence. She was going to ask Maurice what exactly were they, but she noticed in her peripheral vision that his eyelids were shut, though his grasp about her waist was still firm, accompanied by a comfortable hardness against her back.
Thinking it a disadvantage to rouse him, she turned the page and began reading again, though she noticed that Maurice had opened his eyes but was not reading, cautiously, she decided to see what he was viewing and in doing so, she met his intense but soft gaze. It was surprising, and she turned back to the book, before Maurice guided her face back to his with his hand.
"I came in hur to read, Maurice, and not be fo' ex'bition." She concealed a small smile.
"I'm sorry." And with the comment came a faint flush of his cheeks, and then she realized what it had been that pressed into her back. Embarrassed, she returned to read. But later, feeling his grip becoming looser, she roused him enough to detangle herself, and bid him good-night.
Almost a fortnight and a half later, Soleil found herself waiting as Maurice and Flannery chatted to themselves alone in the second parlor, the one she found most comfortable. Usually reserved for family members only, and rightly so, for the furniture was not so ostentatious as that in the receiving parlor. As usual, she was silent, having just presented the tray which Maurice suggested she make for them. Lemon cakes, it was a favorite of his, so he had said. And the way Flannery seemed to be inhaling them, she mused that they were not unpleasant to his taste buds either.
Their conversation was dull enough, much to her surprise this time. Flannery had spoken of his father's exports on tobacco, and how it sufficed enough for them to make renovations on their home. Also, he spoke of the Grand Tour that his elder sister and her newly-wed husband were to take in Europe, preferably to Spain and Germany. Then he spoke off-handedly of an invitation, circulated by his valet, that a party to celebrate the wedding of a couple of nigras, alongside the celebration of their owner's election to the Senate. It was to take place in the near future, and he was sure that if his family was invited, the Williamsons were sure to expect an invitation.
Soleil, listening to the monotonous drone of conversation, shifted and stood at the door, her hands folded clasped neatly in front of her, her expression blank as always; conveying no emotion. Her shifting caused the conversation to start anew.
"Is there any more cakes left?" Maurice questioned softly, turning his eyes from his cup to Soleil.
"No, Maurice," she began, but heedful of her mistake, she continued, not wanting to recant to bring about more attention. "But I c'n go see if Abner ain't stole any." She suppressed a smile.
After she left, the comfortable silence that had before engulfed them ensued. But Flannery, attentive, spoke slowly and broke the silence. He helped himself to more tea, taking the intricate porcelain kettle and pouring the lemon-scented tea into his matching porcelain cup.
"She called you Maurice, do you not care?" Flannery inquired, offhandedly.
Maurice, grateful that his closest friend had the quiet personality he possessed and the characteristic trait of not being prying such that his sister was. He watched as Flannery helped himself and looking at the plate that Maurice had, half a lemon cake left, eyed it enviously before Maurice commented he may have it.
"I told her so." He replied quietly. "I wanted her to."
Flannery, unable to conceal a smile, commented. "Did I not tell you? Did I not tell you that I could see that day months ago that I could see in your eye contact with her, that you may have fallen for Soleil? I, myself, have found solace in the comforting beds of our house wenches. She is a good choice, she's lovely. I've told you before, and you always spited those men who bedded their nigras!" his laughter caused Maurice's countenance, that had become sour to brighten.
"Ah, you are but wrong, Flannery. I have not bedded her. She is quite an intellect, and," his expression became solemn, "I despised those men who bedded their wenches because of the complete powerlessness the wenches had, they only bedded the nigras from lust."
Flannery, his laughter dying, but the smile still present countered lightly. "You have feelings for her, then?"
Maurice, always presenting his outward calm, and finding no way to get around the question nor wanting no way around the question, felt comfortable confiding his deepest thoughts with the childhood friend that he had cemented lifetime ties with. "Yes, how could I not?"
"And she exhibits these same feelings toward you also then?"
Maurice sat, for a moment, summoning that thought he had nearly forgotten. The thought that when their lips met, that perhaps Maurice was more attentive to her, and enjoying than she. But, she would have confided in him, if she did not. Would she not? But, he had sensed her comfort, the times when they read together, always at least twice a week in the study near midnight, and in front of the fire. He had sensed her comfort, the morning he had awoken to her, roused by her movements. It had felt intuitive, to have her fit against him perfectly, when he held her, that night in the parlor, her voice near entreating him for the satisfaction that he would not harm her.
His mind flashed to the morning he had made them the small breakfast he could, the best breakfast he could, and was secretly surprised at his own self. The scullery maid, half-sleep, but still puzzled that he could in reality, make a tray for himself. A white man that had done something for himself without the help of servants. Of course, their help was necessary. He grew up in a world where whites were literally dependent on the works of Negroes to survive. In fact, his family's fortune was made on the backs of blacks.
"You haven't answered my inquiry." Flannery roused him from his thoughts.
He thought once more, of the gentle expression Soleil had given him, when he had set the breakfast tray in front of her, and began watching her. It was a cherished memory, how ironic that he the "Massa" should be waiting on the docile slave woman, lying in his bed, gazing softly with heavy lids and curiously at him. How he cherished the memory of her lips brought to his cheek, when he presented her with the gifts from their excursion to Charleston.
Then, he brought himself to the memory of the first time their lips had met, when he had brought his lips to hers, and afterwards, it made him question the satisfaction she received from it. But, the most recent kiss, having lend him a different hint made him feel at best, a little frustrated, he wanted to ask her, but felt uncomfortable asking her such a question. Perhaps she would be offended?
"So you do not know then, that she receives gratification from the feelings you convey to her?" his friend generalized.
He began languidly, synthesizing his thoughts. "She must enjoy it partly, for she has struck me before when I attempted kissing her. She doesn't seem bothered by our occurrences, she looks forward to our company alone at night."
Flannery's eyebrows raised quizzically, then his mischievous grin followed. "Alone at night together, perhaps not a tinge of lust does not accompany both of you?"
Maurice thought to the evening when he had arrived from the ball, how he had felt her hands on his biceps, then fluidly she had moved herself into him, her hands around his neck. He remembered the languid moment, wishing it to last for eternity, his hands encompassing her small waist and the softness of her lips.
His faint flush across his cheeks was not lost on his companion, who watched him with diligence. Though Maurice had strove to retain the reddening, a rebellious part of his mind remembered the expansion of one certain male organ as their bodies were pressed against each other.
"It does!" Flannery laughed aloud, and sat back in the parlor seat. "At any rate, I have always been attracted to our house wench, Bella, and you know of our encounters."
Maurice, picking up Flannery's euphuism, smiled. "She was likely looking, you haven't spoken much of her lately."
"I used to sense you becoming uncomfortable when I talked of our lustful episodes. But now, since I know you may very well be concealing lustful occurrences of your own, perhaps I may speak more freely of them."
"Lust is not the prevalent factor."
" You've so said."
"Massa," Soleil's quiet voice entered his mind, just as Flannery finished his statement. Her hands carried a small tray of lemon cakes. "I had to wait fo' dem to bake. Sorry Massa."
Maurice wanted to wince at her word, repeated twice and almost stinging. How he longed to hear her lips form his name, her delicate and soft voice vibrating in his mind with startling clarity. "Please, Maurice."
Soleil, her ears perked to his correction in front of this stranger, made eye contact with him. And in his shining eyes, she knew they held that emotion some were likely to identify as compassion. Flannery, then, must be a closer acquaintance than she had previously imagined. Perhaps his only close friend, for she had not seen any others.
With this new sense of startling compassion, she held his gaze, "Yes, Maurice."
To his satisfaction, she was always attentive, and noticing his drained cup, she poured more tea. Knowing how much cream and how many sugar cubes he liked, she made him his tea. Then, as her rosewater perfume lingered in his wake, he gave her his customary soft smile.
After Maurice had escorted Flannery out, Soleil was gathering the cups and trays together to carry them back to the kitchen when Maurice entered, stealthily and treading softly with that natural grace that always made her curious as to whom he acquired it from, certainly his parents had no natural grace as she had seen, it seemed forced.
She stood, patiently. Her hidden smile tugging at her lips, and within the proximity of her beauty, he felt emboldened. "Might I ask you a simple question?"
She tilted her head slightly to nod yes, and so he continued. "Do you enjoy when we kiss? My mind carried doubts."
It was a question that had nagged her for weeks, and in seeing the sincerity in his eyes and simple courtesy, she knew there could be no other answer. "Yes."
It was completely dark; almost so dark she could feel the thickness of night. Something had been calling her; something distant and sounding like the voice of a woman. It sounded placid and soft, the voice of a woman. She could not ever remember hearing a voice so unfamiliar call her name, and she had seen green eyes like hers when it began to fade she had experienced a lost she had felt but once in her life.
She was sweating profusely, feeling the cotton of her nightgown mold itself to her body, and she sat up, steadying her breathing. She closed her eyes, becoming shrouded in darkness and uncomfortably opened them again. She had had enough obscure and unsettling dreams to know that it would be some time before she would fall asleep, if she did at all that night. Perhaps walking would clear her mind.
She had had a couple or so of these certain dreams since her relocation here, to this plantation since the auction block. The first had been nothing short of a nightmare and had kept her up for nearly two days, the second had only robbed her a night's sleep. She could not quite make a distinction between what it was in the kind of dreams and what kind kept her from falling back into a peaceful sleep. But she had experienced enough of them after her murder that Ephraim had frightened her into telling her, gravely, that the dark circles under her eyes might carry suggestive hypothesizes.
She opened the door silently, and walked down the stairs allowing only two steps to creak. She sat on the very last steps and remained satisfied by hearing herself breathe. Where was her ole Massa now? She often contemplated that he had possessed too much Devil to have gone to heaven. Heaven…would she go? Being raised in religion, she knew of the Ten Commandments, or at least she thought she knew. Many times, she would ask for forgiveness, some days more oftener than she could count. But, she had murdered, premeditated transgression-what did her future have for her?
And Ephraim, it made her shiver. Her plight had drug him to her level. But she had been frantic, she had just murdered her Massa, or thought she had-what to do? She had ran to Ephraim and Maridum and wept quietly, mumbling what she had done. Technically, they had been made accomplices to murder-if they were ever discovered, it would be their necks, just as well as hers.
What could she have done? Let him take her? She heard of many willing, what she liked to term as 'whores', who played just as much part in consorting with their Massas demands. It was repulsive to think about. She had always repeated to herself in her mind, perhaps and most likely in her sleep that she would rather die from her neck being stretched on a rope than capitulate to a lecherous man's hassles. If she would rather spend her life becoming a 'whore' to a man who exerted power over her, than what state had she reduced her life to? She was already a slave, the one thing she had, in essence the only thing she had left to herself- was her chastity.
She had not even memories to herself, most people knew at the very least who their mammies were, and she, she did not know who her mammy had been, nor her pappy. It bothered her, not as much as it used to, when she had been a little girl. It had always made her feel worthless-she had become accustomed to it. Not usually did it bother her now, she would never know. Never know who had given birth to her, who had conceived her…
She felt something wet slide down her chin, and knew what it was. Tears…of what? Her tears were always silent, she had never been one to bawl or bemoan when she wept. Only the soft and quiet tears, a small outlet for what ever she happened to be feeling. Strange now, that she should feel that inexplicable sadness that made her disoriented.
She laid her head back against the cool wood of the wall against the stair case and closed her eyes, perhaps it would cool the her eyes burning with curiously salty water, rolling gently to her chin where they fell.
It was early morning, as usual, he was descending the stairs to reach the kitchen, where the scullery maid would set his coffee as she was beginning the fire for the next morning. In the dimness of the morning light, he could make out a mass at the bottom of the stairs, breathing shallowly and in a thin cotton nightgown.
Maurice wondered curiously why Soleil was sleeping on the stairs and shook her gently. Reflexively, her eyes opened instantaneously and her blank stare met him. He could tell she had been weeping or very, very tired because her eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot. Her black hair was tousled, and her breathing was irregular.
"What are you doing sleeping on the stairs?"
Soleil looked down and shrugged apathetically, "It don't bother me."
"Did Annabelle want you out?" he questioned concernedly.
"She don't know I left."
"Are you…feeling well?" He whispered, his gray eyes searching her face.
She looked at him blankly, almost through him. "Couldn't sleep."
He brought her to her feet, and muttered. "Why didn't you tell me you couldn't sleep?"
"Didn't wan' t'wake you."
He sighed exasperatedly, "It's what I'm here for, here…Is there anything I can do?"
His obvious concern and his stance, always wanting to be of service and always courteous made her smile faintly. But he caught it.
"There, you look so pretty when you smile." He complimented her seriously, but as usual with his confident grin.
Feeling her mood strangely lightened she sighed heavily, and questioned gravely with a hint of irritation. "Why you care so much 'bout me?"
"Because," he took he took her hand and kissed it gently. "It pleases you."
Maurice wavered before opening his father's cigar case on the surface of the mahogany desk. Striking a match, he hesitated before placing the Cuban cigar in his mouth and placed the lighted match to the cigar. The familiar but strange sensation filled his lungs and he exhaled, wanting to dissipate his thoughts in the fog of smoke before him.
Soleil. His thoughts glided to her again, and settled there. She was presently asleep in front of the fire on an oversized Persian cushion, all dressed in the customary cotton sleeveless gown, this one dyed a reddish-brown. He had said little to her all evening, but he watched her read for nearly an hour. The clock struck half past midnight.
He had found her on the stairs that morning in the ghoulish daze of a clouded mind stupor, not unlike the one he was presently in. Her eyes were vacant and dead, she seemed almost lifeless not unlike the Gothic novels he often immersed his intellect. She seemed so frail, defensive as always, but so frail-it frightened him. Her independence but her weakness was-she certainly must have occurrences in her past that pushed her mind to extremities, a personality quirk.
She would take her own time to tell him, for now he took another drag. The vanilla smoke wafted across the desk. It was a strong and masculine smell, oddly gratifying. He had not indulged in smoking since his trip to his Aunt Liana's plantation in North Carolina. His uncle-in law had kept boxes full of cigars, which he had sworn to his wife Liana that he would not smoke again for it was damaging to his susceptible lungs, he had already been plagued by tuberculosis and was a chronic asthmatic. But the addiction proved too much for him, and he succumbed to his second bout pneumonia in four years.
His father knew vaguely of his occasional cigar-smoking. For his father was a social and occasional cigar smoker also. He made it a point to posses the most tasteful and expensive cigars of high society and enjoyed them with reverence. Occasionally, he had asked Maurice to take drink and smoke with him in the study, but Maurice would never smoke. Now, tonight, he had sat himself at his father's desk and becoming distracted from Soleil he began looking across the study and his eyes settled on the cigar case in front of him.
He exhaled again, and heard a loud patter of feet outside the study window. Curiously, he stood and pulled the drapes aside to see black forms dart across the yard with lightening speed. Irritated, he took a drag of the cigar his handsome face in a balanced expression neither frowning nor smiling. If someone went missing, his father would raise hell and the whole house would rock with his smooth and merciless punishments. His mother would rant with shrillness of the ungratefulness of Negroes.
When he was little, a couple of slaves had gone missing. The event was now obscure in his mind, as he had not understood it. White people could go and come as they would, but Negroes could not. Peaking from his window, he could hear the merciless cries of the slave and in the distance he could see the brown form wringing as a long whip held by the white overseer slashed out at him. Fascinated by the cruelness and repulsed, he turned, trembling and frightened he hid under his mattress the rest of the day.
When his father found him, Maurice had hollowly asked why the man was beaten. His father replied that he had run away. Another time, Maurice had heard a slave whipped and learned from a little black boy that he had been too slow at his work. Maurice then brought his up to his father, who replied that Negroes were naturally lazy and dull and it was ambiguous as to whether their ailments were real or imagined. This did not all together seem fair but knowing not to question his father, he smoldered at the injustice.
His father couldn't have been all together right about slaves. One of the most independent, generous and if white perhaps the most-cultured person he would know would be Soleil. She was by no means lazy and exerted as much effort in generosity than perhaps some of the best field hands in work performance and diligence.
He turned from the drapes, letting them fall back in their original place, covering the window and shielding the study from the ambiguity of darkness. The dimness of the study was apparent, as he looked at the dark brown form in front of the fire, stirring. He thought that she might wake, but she merely shifted and continued in her beautiful slumber. He took the armchair next to her, and sat. She stirred again, and drew herself up.
"How are you enjoying the book?" he inquired, the vanilla wafting across to her.
She nodded, "One of them is on try'yal."
"You've read farther than me on the book. It bored me, and usually I am beginning to be interested in Gothic novels."
"Gothic novals?" her accent accentuated each word.
Distracted, he asked if she spoke French. Soleil, wanting to know the answer to his question nodded half-interestedly quickly.
"I see, Gothic novels are scary novels. With ghosts, spirits, the dead."
"Maybe I'll like them too." She stressed each word slowly.
He blew smoke and stood, going over to the desk and dousing his cigar in a small vat of water next to the cigar case. He yawned and looked over at Soleil tiredly, "It is near one in the morning, you must be very tired. I, myself, may fall asleep right this moment as I talk. Let us retire? I'll wake you before Annabelle awakes."
As Soleil and he climbed the stairs with fluid and silent movements, she ascending the stairs before him, he whispered if she may want to learn how to write French as well as speak it more fluently. She whispered in the same near inaudible tones that Annabelle planned to teach her what she had learned from the ladies academy, and from her tutor. Affirmatively, Maurice nodded.
It was warm here, and Soleil rolled into the instinctive warmth. Maurice. It was very early morning and uncomfortably cold. Perhaps the fireplaces had burned out during the night. She breathed deeply, he smelled faintly of a cologne and the vanilla cigar he had smoked the night before still clung to him, even though he was now in cashmere bed wear. An odd sense of security always permeated her when she was with him, odd.
She felt him stir, and she was undoubtedly grateful that he was adamant about lavishing her with gifts and other luxuries denied to most slaves. But as always, she was never selfish. With some of her lace, she wove a shawl and made Ephraim promise to give it to his mother. His mother then relayed a message that she was a 'gen'rus darlin' and deserved all of God's mercy and more. With some of her extra linens, she made sure Ephraim and his cabin mates were never cold, and always asked frequently if he were ever hungry that she would gladly give half her rations to him.
He shook her gently, and she looked up already up and attentive. Beaming with interest, he rubbed her arm one arm behind his head. His silly handsomeness was evident, and Soleil seeing his silly and boyish grin caused her own face in a balanced expression to tug into a plausible smile.
She was so very beautiful to him, but never so much as she was now. Her hair gracefully tousled and her eyes alert and her eyes-huge and bright green. Enchanting, one of his dreams had just occurred, the dreams that caused most of his blood to gear toward his groin and causing him to awake half-dissatisfied. But now, she was here with him and he wanted nothing more than to hold her like this forever. He closed his eyes.
Always silent but saying more than words ever could, she slid from him and stood up. With the grace of a cat, she slipped from the room. Content to lay in his bed and think of her, he placed both of his hands behind his head and fell into the embrace of light slumber.