Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
The horseman rode at the gallop along the hard dirt avenue between the field of sugar cane and the river road, between rows of tall oaks and elms. The night was cool, the moon was full and its radiance lighted the familiar outlines of the road. The big gray stallion between the legs of its rider ran with fresh strength; it did not need the flick of reins or the touch of spur to make it pound the roadbed with its hooves.
Randolph Stone was an unhappy man.
I should have stayed overnight in New Orleans, he told himself for the dozenth time. A soft bed, maybe even one of those pretty tavern waitresses to take between the sheets after two more mugs of mulledale. Instead, here I am galloping homeward like a prisoner recently freed from jail.
He grinned, then laughed. Well, maybe it was like being let out from behind cell bars, coming home to Louisiana and Stonehedge after close to eight years in Europe, building up clients for his Louisiana cane sugar. It was his efforts that had made Stonehedge sugar a household word in London and Paris, his industry that had bought ships to carry that sugar from New Orleans and carried back Paris silk and lace from the London markets, to the store on Chartres Street in New Orleans that had been the brainchild of his father.
Both store and sugar cane fields were coining gold for the Stone family now. Randolph Stone told himself he soon might be the richest man in Louisiana. As such, money meant little to him, he was a man whose life was bound up in business, dedicated to making Stonehedge the finest plantation of any, in all the parishes of his home state. He was well along on his way to his ambition, his sugars were familiar in every capital in Europe.
Now he was coming home. In the distance, he could see the lights of the slave quarters, the flickering candle-flames and oil lamp wicks. To his right as he rode north was the miles-long stone fence that gave his plantation its name. Years back, his father had worked his male slaves to exhaustion to build that rock hedge. It was a sign that the Stones were here to stay, to raise their families, to make their marks in the world, his father loved to say. Inside those stones was a world which the Stones themselves had built.
Hoof-beats pounding on the hard dirt, the smell of magnolia in the air, this was happy country. Randolph Stone relaxed a little in his saddle, smiling and dreaming as he eased the big gray to a canter, letting his gaze study the rolling meadow, the fields where the sugar cane grew and the estate itself that opened to his eyes the further he ran.
His hand on the rein drew the horse to a sliding halt. The man stood in the iron stirrups, frowning slightly. He could hear, in the still spring air, the laughter of men and women, and the sounds of their voices muted with distance. Was Melissa having a party? But, no: The mansion itself was relatively dark.
Curious, he toed the gray to a gallop. He leaped the low stone fence, ignoring the wrought-iron gate between its gray-stone pillars. There should have been a slave at the gates to open them. He wondered why they had been left alone, this night.
The gray came of the grass onto the gravel road that was the visitors approach to the manse. Between the oak and the red maple trees he could see the lighted windows of the spinning house. The festivity was in there, then. But surely, this was a curious place to hold a party!
He cantered down the drive, past the massive flower garden to his left, with some of the slave quarters beyond them, and the greenhouse. There were candles lighted in the storehouse, too, he noticed.
Randolph Stone came down out of the saddle at the gardener’s house. Old George was probably sleeping at this hour. Old George worked hard during the day, he was in his bunk by dusk. In solicitude for his slumber, the man walked his horse past the building, halting outside the closed door of the storehouse.
He froze a moment, listening. A woman was weeping in there, crying out in a broken voice. There was another female with her; slaves, no doubt. Nobody else ever went into the storehouse since his hard-working father had died.
He put a hand on the iron latch, swung the door inward. Two girls stood there, one in a long robe, the other in a cotton dress of the fashion most Stonehedge slaves wore. They did not see him, nor did they hear his light step.
“I wa—want to d—die,” the girl in the robe sobbed. To his surprise, she was extremely attractive. I never knew we grew them so pretty, he thought dazedly.
The other girl said, “You won’t die, Big Cass hurt a little, no more. Now buck up, Lilah! I’m tired yo carryings—on!”
Big Cass was the stud slave at the plantation. Randolph Stone remembered him, even if he did not know these females.
“Why are you using the storehouse?” he asked suddenly.
He knew well enough that this Lilah was going to be bred by Big Cass. He saw nothing wrong with it, they both were a part of Stonehedge plantation, they were his property just as was the gray stallion outside in the darkness. He only wondered why the girl should be taking it this way. Most of the black girls were eager to go to bed with Casanova.
The girl whirled, gawking at him. By God. This Lilah was pretty as a picture! He found himself staring at her wet eyes, at her tip-tilted nose, at the full red mouth. Her long brown hair was loose, hanging to her shoulders and the wide collar of the old-fashioned pelerine that hid her body. Her skin was the color of ivory.
“I asked you a question,” he snapped.
“Who you?” demanded Vergie pertly.
Randolph Stone chuckled. “Girl, do you want your backside bloodied? I’ll get Cass to do a job on you before he takes on this other one. And who knows? It might make his pecker all the stronger.”
He walked forward. Vergie poised to hurl herself before the shrinking Delilah. Despite his fine talk and his white skin, this big stranger had no call to come to Stonehedge and order its slaves around. Her face assumed a sullen, defiant look.
“Mistress not like this,” she threatened.
Randolph Stone did not even look at her. He was too engrossed in this lovely girl who shrank from him with eyes and flesh, who cowered inside the cape as if it were the shield she needed against her world.
He put a hand to the front of the pelerine, to draw it open.
Vergie shrilled, “You touch her, I call Mark Antony!”
“Girl,” the man said, “go stand with your face in the corner, over near that old plow.”
“You don’ own me,” Vergie said sullenly.
His hand across her face drove her backward to the wall. He was a big man, heavily muscled. In London and Paris salle d’Armes, he had spent much time fencing and he liked to ride horseback for hours along the paths of Hyde Park and the Bois de Boulogne. Dazedly, Vergie sagged against the wall and stared at him.
“I could have you whipped, you silly wench, he told her gently, “Be glad it was only my hand. Before God What kind of plantation does Liss run, that the slaves are so defiant?
Delilah whispered, “She was only trying to protect me.”
“Against what, child?”
“From Cass, from any man.” Randolph Stone studied her face, realizing for the first time that he had been a long time without a woman. His devotion to duty, his many business interests, had kept him from female charms as might a vow of chastity. Staring down into this lovely face with the wet tears still streaking her flushed cheeks, he knew suddenly that to give this Lilah to Big Cass was to cast pearls before swine.
“What’s your name?”
“Delilah—sir.” He nodded, “Delilah. It suits you, in a sense. Though I do believe you have not the fleshy charms that temptress did, if I understand my Bible correctly. Still!”
His eyes were respectful, Delilah saw. There was no lust inside them, no hot eagerness to throw her down on a round couch and rape her. There was, however, a flicker of interest in her as a female. It made Delilah feel warm and good, suddenly.
She took a step forward. Her hand came up. Vergie had come away from the wall and was studying the big man with the thick blond hair and sun-bronzed face, the wide shoulders and muscular arms. A chord of memory flicked to life inside her but it died away before she could catch hold of it.
“I could, yes. But shall I?”
“I’m afraid of Big Cass,” she breathed, her eyes on his.
“Are you a virgin?”
She nodded, touching her full mouth with her red tongue-tip.
“The people in the spinning house, are they with Melissa Stone? What is it, a party of some sort?”
She told him everything, running over her words like water above a fall in her eagerness to win this man as a champion. He knew the mistress, he had even called her Liss. His word might carry some weight with that haughty woman.
When she was done, his face was like rock. He whirled on Vergie. “Is this true?”
“Yes, it is.” She hesitated, reading his eyes, and added, “—Sir!”
Randolph Stone laughed. “You saved yourself a strapping with that word, girl. Now come along, the two of you. I am of a mind to have words with the mistress of Stonehedge.”
The girls ran ahead of him, both frightened. It had been eight years since there had been a master in residence at Stonehedge, ever since Meriwether Stone had died. They were frightened at the proprietary airs this stranger had assumed, as if he and not Melissa Stone ruled Stonehedge.
As Vergie was about to open the door, his voice halted her. “Wait! I have a mind to study the party before I enter. You,” he said to Vergie, “will go in and tell your mistress that Delilah is not to be given to Big Cass.”
Vergie wailed, “She beat de livin’ skin of my bones”
“No, she won’t. You do as I say or I’ll have it beaten off. I want to see what happens.”
Delilah breathed, “Do it, Vergie”
“Ain’t yo skin’ll be whupped, Lilah!”
She yielded to the hand at her elbow, whimpering. pushing down the latch and moving into the brightly lighted room. She left the door slightly ajar behind her but no eyes saw the man who waited there in the darkness.
Voices cried out eagerly, demanding Delilah show herself. Melissa Stone was sitting on the edge of the chaise-lounge, knees together and leaning forward, her brilliant eyes alive with eagerness.
Big Cass stood by the edge of the round couch, naked. His long organ was rising, stiffening with an eagerness he could not hide. He knew better than to talk, it was not the time for that. When they gave the girl to him, he could talk all he wanted, the white folk were eager to hear dirty words at a time like that. He contented himself with running his eyes over Delilah, aware that she was naked under that robe, and letting his big chest heave. A trickle of sweat was running down his spine.
Vergie and Delilah came to a halt before the chaise-lounge.
“Strip of that cloak,” said the mistress. Vergie hesitated, thinking about the man in the doorway. I cain do that ma’am,” she said clearly. “I’ve been forbidded.”
Clay Moultrie barked laughter. “Is this a jest, Lissa?” Melissa Stone frowned. “Whatever are you talking about, girl? Now strip her down and tell Big Cass to come and gether.”
Big Cass moved forward lightly, on the balls of his feet. He was ready, anybody could see that, all he needed were the words to unleash his lust.
Vergie, greatly daring, shook her head. “No, ma’am. I cain’t!” Her head lifted; she was relishing her moment of triumph—it might be worth a strapping at that, this power she was holding over all these white folk—as she cried, “An’ Big Cass ain’t goan get Lilah, neither”
Melissa screeched in fury. She came off the chaise-lounge, and caught at the riding crop with which Clay Moultrie had been hammering his knee. She hurled herself at the suddenly terrified girl.
The voice froze Melissa Stone in mid-leap, the whip up-raised. She turned vaguely aware that there was a draft in the room. The door had opened, a big man with golden hair was standing there easily, in riding breeches and boots and a short riding jacket. He was smiling but his blue eyes were hard as flints.
Put down the crop, Liss,” he said softly. “I won’t,” she screamed, and finished her swing. The riding whip took Vergie across the cheek. It laid open the flesh, so that red blood came bubbling out through the split black skin. The girl went over on her back, screaming in agony, fingers at her cut cheek.
In one long stride, Randolph Stone was in front of his sister, catching the whip and jerking it from her fingers. She panted with insane fury, pressed against him, body writhing as she struggled to free herself from the hand that gripped her arm like an iron vise. “Let me go, damn you! Let me go!” Clay Moultrie brushed past Felicia Brulot, his face red with angry blood. “Before God, sir—I’ll call you out and—”
Randolph Stone turned his head away from the upturned face of his sister to stare hard at his neighbor. Rage touched his own features.
“Touch me, Clay—and you’ll die for it!” he rasped.
Clay Moultrie paused. His eyes got big. “By the lord Jesus, —it’s Randy” he bellowed suddenly.
Melissa Stone shrieked, drawing back and staring upward with bulging eyes at this handsome stranger. Her eyes searched his face, his blond hair. Then she moaned and sagged, throwing an arm about him.
“Randolph My God—I never knew you.” Vergie paused to look at her master between bloody fingers. She had defied this man! She had been impertinent and sullen to him. He could order her hung up naked by her thumbs and command Big Cass to strap her until she died. Terror touched her soul. She began to wail and bang her forehead against the floor.
Delilah opened her lips to cry out, Damballah!—forgive me! You sent him in time to save me. She remembered the fierce scorn and renunciation with which she had flung the amulet away. She must go get it back, at first chance.
Right now she was too hypnotized by the sight of Clay Moultrie wringing the master by his big hand, of Melissa clinging to her brother, poised between laughter and tears as she kissed his cheeks.
The other white folk were crowding forward, to kiss or handclasp the returnee. She watched the master, saw his face break from anger into good spirits, into sudden laughter. The slaves had been forgotten, as one might forget a pet dog at more interesting happenings.
Big Cass caught her arm. “Come on, girl—we finish this by ourselfs,” he muttered. She pulled free of him.
“No,” she panted. “You’re not getting me!” Big Cass put a fist over her mouth and lifted her easily, carrying her toward the open door. He was just as happy to have this uppity bitch to his own devices in his own quarters. He did not mind putting on a show for the white folk but he wanted to bring this wench down a few pegs and he knew the ways to do it in his tiny cabin.
He was almost out the door when a voice called, “Cass!”
Casanova halted, turned to stare at Randolph Stone. The master asked softly, “Did you hear what Vergie said, Cass?”
Casanova frowned, trying to remember. He was a superb physical specimen, the muscles rolled in bunches under his blue-black skin, he could fight or run for hours, tirelessly. But against the hard blue eyes that stared at him, he felt nerveless, unmanned.
“She said Delilah was not for you.”
“Mistress promise her me, massa.”
“Delilah, go summon Mark Antony, said Randolph Stone coldly.
Big Cass opened his arms, freeing the girl, realizing she could not obey that order if he had hold of her. He stood there like a big black beast, dumbly waiting, not quite understanding what was happening but vaguely aware that in some way, he had offended.
“Mistress?” he pleaded. Melissa Stone flushed. She understood that she ran the Stone plantation with too light a hand, that she had been most permissive. She looked at her brother tearfully.
“He didn’t mean anything, Randy. He’s—a little slow.”
Randolph Stone ignored her to bow to Felicia Brulot. “The party is over, my dear. I’m sure you will understand.” He reached out a hand toward Clay Moultrie, saying, “I’ll be riding over and paying you a homecoming visit soon, Clay—when I’ve taught my people who gives the orders at Stone House.”
With gentle voice and firm hand he turned them toward the door, toward the phaetons and the carriages in the circular drive. They walked past Big Cass whose face was contorted in an agony of thought. He had erred; he shivered at the thought of what would happen to him. His big hands had punished other Stonehedge slaves, for the dead master and even for Melissa. The idea that he himself might be hung over a hogshead and strapped was gradually sinking into his head.
Big Cass drew a deep breath. His hands opened and closed. He would not be tied down to the lash, he told himself. He was Casanova. He was a stud and very valuable.
Mark Antony stepped into the doorway. Casanova stared at him, measuring him. Mark Antony was the one man whom Big Cass admitted might have a chance of subduing him single-handedly. The youth was taller than he and just as broad of shoulder and deep of chest. There was slab about his own middle, there was only iron muscle around Mark Antony’s trim waist.
“Whut you do, man?” whispered the younger slave. Casanova just moaned, shaking his head. He wanted to run away but he knew only too well what happened to runaway slaves. He had seen a man crucified once, for trying to escape. He could still hear his screams as the big iron nails were driven through his palms and feet.
Big Cass sweated, waiting.
In the cool night air, the last carriage was creaking off toward the neighboring plantations. Randolph Stone stood with his arm about the waist of his sister. He could smell the bourbon on her breath, and more than once he had seen her stagger, following their guests to the drive.
A drunken sister, sullen slaves.
A fine homecoming!
“Go to bed,” he said coldly.
“Randy, wait! Please? Don’t be hard on Big Cass. Isn’t it bad enough I hit Vergie?”
“I shall make it up to the girl. Big Cass must understand that a master rules at Stonehedge now. A master is not a mistress. When I speak, those slaves must jump. I will be happy then and they will be happy. Big Cass is an example. How do you think I felt, with Clay Moultrie and Claude Brulot looking on, with his rebellious attitude?”
“I know,” she moaned, clasping her fingers.
“Then go to bed,” he told her.
He walked toward the spinning house, turning his head once to observe her moving with mincing steps toward the white pillars of the manse. She was a good girl, Melissa, but she enjoyed the taste of bourbon a little too much. He would cure her of that, as he would cure his slaves of disobedience. It was a good thing he had come home, he thought.
Big Cass was standing as he had been standing when he had released Delilah. The cold blue eyes of his master stared at him, as the slave shivered. Mark Antony stood to one side of him; quiet, waiting.
“I could have you whipped, Cass,” Randolph Stone said softly, closing the door, hearing the iron latch click.
“Yassah,” the slave nodded.
“Have you ever heard of the flaying knives of the Cold Coast, Cass? In Africa, those who defy their king are staked out naked on the ground, and men with very sharp knives cut their skin. They grip the skin and peel it back—as you might peel a bullfrog to eat its legs, Cass.”
Big Cass shook in sudden terror. “Massa,” he moaned. “My friend Clay Moultrie owns a flayer, Cass. He has ordered some of his slaves flayed alive for disobedience. For less disobedience than you have shown me, this night.”
Casanova fell to his knees. His hands met, his fingers intertwined. “No, massa, Forgib, Cass not know you. Cass listen to missy.”
“I don’t want more blood on my hands, Cass. But I must have obedience. You understand this?”
Casanova touched the floor with his forehead, groveling.
Above him, Mark Antony stood like an ebon statue. His eyes touched the man on the floor with a faint contempt. He would not so humble himself. Suddenly, the awe with which he had regarded Big Cass no longer existed. He heaved a sigh.
Randolph Stone smiled, watching both men. He said suddenly, “You will spend the night in the storehouse, Cass. Mark, take him there.”
Big Cass stumbled to his feet. He went meekly ahead of Mark Antony, letting the younger man shove him into the dimness where only a guttering candle showed where Vergie and Delilah had stood earlier.
Before the youth could close the door and lock it, Randolph Stone was speaking. “You will never so much as look at Delilah again, Casanova. She is a house girl. You are a stable hand. Do you understand?”
“Yes, massa,” came the voice out of the darkness.
“Lock the door, Mark—and go to bed.”
The lock clicked into place. Randolph Stone scarcely heard it, walking toward Stone House. His thoughts were on Delilah. He could protect the girl easily enough, but he wanted more than that, suddenly. He found himself thinking of her long hair and pretty face. Her lips were so full, so ripe. She was just out of childhood but a nigra matured early,
He opened the front door and moved into the hall, not noticing the Turkey carpet or the gilded sconces and torcheres, the Pembroke table and the gilded mirror on the wall. He had fond memories of this lower hallway with its curving staircase, the crystal chandelier lighted with candles on state occasions, memories that included handsome men in tail coats and frock coats, lovely women in falling tuckers and stomacher fronts, their shoulders bared to catch the golden candlelight.
Yet memory had no part of him, this night. He was too intent on the present. He went down the long rear hall, past the staircase, toward the rooms where the house slaves slept. A door was open. He walked into the room.
Vergie was seated on the edge of the bed, moaning. Juno bent over her, damp cloth working at the swollen red welt on her cheek. With interest, Randolph Stone saw that Delilah was seated with Vergie, holding her hand and soothing her.
Juno was saying, “There now, chile, ain’t gonna hurt yo—”
She broke off. All three women looked at the master, who was so much a stranger. There was sullen resentment in Vergie’s wide eyes, respect and deference in the glance of the old woman, and an emotion he could not define in the frightened stare of young Delilah.
“How are you, Vergie” he asked pleasantly. “I’m sorry you had to take that cut because you obeyed my orders. However, I promise you won’t regret the momentary pain. From now on, you’ll take over Delilah’s chores.”
The sullenness faded before a smiling pleasure. Thank you, master. I’ll do a good job.”
The man studied the shrinking Delilah. He said, “It occurs to me I’ll need a body servant, to pick up after me. You shall be that servant, Delilah.” She nodded dumbly, not speaking. The master said, “A salve, Juno, in my saddlebags. Send Delilah to fetch it. Oh, and Delilah—rouse up Mark, tell him to stable the horse, if he hasn’t already done so. Then you may come to my room.”
He wheeled on a heel and was gone. Vergie waited before she spoke, until his heel falls faded out. Then she muttered, “Be different, now he home. Thet slut upstairs won’t—”
“Yo hush, Vergie!” snapped Juno, dabbing at the swollen cheek again. “None of yo business whut the white folk do. Them’s different.”
The black girl shrugged a shoulder. “Jessa same, it’ll be different. No more them parties wid Big Cass doin’ dirty things while she gets hot in her box, lookin on, makin’ eyes at Ned.”
Juno paused with the wet cloth suspended. Sparks flamed in her eyes. “You goin’ bush? Yo best learn keep yo mouth shut, girl. Yo too lippy for yo own good.”
The older woman glanced at Delilah. “Well? Whut yo waitin’ foh? Yo heard him, din yo? Theres salve in his saddlebags. Yo bring it to me, girl.”
Delilah fled in a swish of whipping skirts, running as fast as her legs could move, heart slamming, breathing suddenly difficult. Her mind was in a turmoil. What does a body servant do? she asked herself in an agony of dread. The only thing she could think of, was that she had to tend his body and—and that meant. . . . Her fists were clenched so tightly they hurt. She came out into the moonlight, staring around her. The horse was nowhere around and so she ran for the stables beyond the butler’s house and the smokehouse. Her thin slippers made faint noises on the gravel.
A man stepped from the open stable door. “Mark? That you?”
“Nobody else,” the big youth chuckled. “You comin’ see me, Lilah?”
“Not likely I’ve come for the master’s saddlebags.”
“He buy you present?”
“There’s salve in them for Vergie.” Ned disappeared into the darkness of the stable. His voice was difficult to hear as he said, “Too bad bout Vergie. She bring it on herself, sassing mistress.”
“He told her to, I was there. I heard him.” A chuckle was her answer, “You sweet on him, ain’t you? Betcha he takes you into his bed ‘fore long. You pretty, Lilah. Too pretty to go to waste, where a red-blooded man’s involved.”
She aimed a palm at him with a swinging arm but he ducked and laughed. Almost quicker than her eyes could see, his hands draped the heavy saddlebags over her moving arm. Squealing, she made a grab for them.
“You have a big mouth, Mark! It going to get you in trouble some day.”
His soft laughter was filled with the pure joy of being alive and healthy. “You jess take them bags into master, Lilah. I only speaks my mind to them as can’t hurt me like pretty girls.”
“You’re a rapscallion, Mark Antony!”
“You want me help you carry them bags?” he teased. She switched her behind at him as she moved along the gravel walk behind the coach-house and toward the manse. She liked big Mark and his teasings. It made her feel she was a female and attractive. He was not like Casanova, he was no lecher.
Vergie was smiling as Delilah came into the little room where she was slipping out of her blue muslin dress. Her cheek seemed less swollen, and Delilah was certain the pain was gone, because Vergie seemed to have recovered her good spirits.
Juno took the saddlebags, opened them, removed a jar of salve. She unscrewed the top, smelled the smooth cream paste inside and nodded. Smearing her forefinger with the stuff, she began easing it over the angry red welt.
A whistle shrilled upstairs.
In the silence of the house it was very loud.