Reunion

The continuation of The Fall of the House of Hawkins, read the previous installments here.

         Charlotte knew he couldn’t hear her, buried beneath the verdant ground somewhere in the tangle of weeds and flowers. She knew the graveyard would be like this–abandoned, forgotten. Even before Mother’s mind began to wander, she never could face the loss of her husband. They would have lost the plantation without several kind neighbors. Charlotte remembered watching the Hawkins plantation crumble before her very eyes, along with the owners. Just thirteen when it all happened, she sprawled on the landing, peeking through the stairway railing as she listened to her parents discuss Mason Hawkins’ ruin. Her father died not long after, when the nagging cough he blamed on the dust became bloody.
         Charlotte turned from the overgrown tombstones, the decaying fence. Her father–his twinkling eyes rimmed with white webbing from the smile lines where sunlight never reached, his booming laugh–was gone. With some difficulty maneuvering her skirts into the phaeton after climbing up one of the large wheels, Charlotte left the whispering trees and the weed-blanketed graves behind.

         Joshua trudged through the tall, unkempt grasses. He glanced back once at the mansion, grown small in the distance. Sweat trickled down his spine under his shirt and soaked his collar. He was glad he thought to wrap the bundle of clean clothes in his driving coat. He shaded his eyes against the sun, hoping he was going in the right direction. The land seemed brown and listless, nothing like the rolling green fields filled with churning machines and the singing of the field slaves. He tried humming to himself, but the dust fogging the air seemed to choke the song, so he continued in silence. At last, he spotted a few stunted trees, remnants of the proud thicket he remembered. He picked up his pace until he reached them. The swimming hole was still there. Almost miraculously, it shone out of the dust, like an emerald laying forgotten on a jeweler’s shelf. He stuffed his bundle of clothes in the crook of a tree and stripped off his dust and sweat stained shirt and trousers.
         Not bothering to test the water, he made sure no fallen tree branches stood in his way and dove in. The warm green water closed over his head, embracing him with weightless arms. His eyes penetrated the sun-filled depths before his head broke the surface again, water streaming down his face. His cogwork leg pulled at him as he tried a few exploratory strokes, but it was light enough not to drag him under. He floated, lopsided, letting the sun kiss his bare body as he stared up at the clear sky. He ducked under the water again to run his fingers briskly through his hair, his cogwork leg was tinted green under the water. When he came up for air, he heard the unmistakable rumble of wheels and looked up.
         “Why Mr. Hawkins, what an odd time to go for a swim,” Charlotte had pulled the horses to a halt when she saw a ripple of water in the old swimming hole that stood just over the fence marking the boundary of Polk plantation.
         “I’m so sorry Miss…Charlotte?” Joshua squinted in the sunlight, pushing his wet hair away from his face.
         Surely it wasn’t Charlotte Polk.
         She laughed, throwing back her blonde hair with abandon. He could see it now, the resemblance to the scrawny sixteen year old he remembered. He suddenly wished for the water to be a good deal murkier. Hopefully she was far enough away. He swam towards the meager shadows just to be sure.
         “Did you fall in or was this on purpose?” she asked, shading her eyes with one gloved hand.
         “There’s no water at the plantation and I rather wanted a wash,” he said, still trying to fit the gangly tomboy he remembered into the young woman he saw now.
         “You look as if you need it. You always were grubbing about, weren’t you? I’d have thought you’d grown up by now, Mr. Hawkins,” she tsked at him and then laughed again. “What would dear Isabella say if she saw you now?”
         “I imagine she would ride on by and pretend not to see me in such a state,” he called back, wishing his clothes were nearer to hand.
         “How did you get all the way out here?” Charlotte scanned the field behind him. There was no gleam of his autocar in the tall grasses and no horse in sight. “You didn’t walk all this way?”
         “Did your sister tell you about the leg then?” Joshua felt the angry flush darken his neck and ears.
         “The leg?” Charlotte looked confused. “Oh, that,” she waved a hand dismissively. “I only meant it’s rather a rough walk since the fields have gone wild and it’s quite hot.”
         Joshua gaped at her for a moment, trying to find words.
         “If you’d like I can drop you at home, it’s on the way,” Charlotte inched closer in the buggy and Joshua sank down deeper in the green water.
         “It’s really no trouble, I wouldn’t mind the walk,” his voice grew almost frantic.
         “Mr. Hawkins, I’ll turn around and you can get to your horse blanket or whatever it is you’ve got hanging in that tree over there and then I’ll take you home.” True to her words, she promptly turned her back to him, her words brooking no more argument.
         Joshua scrambled up the bank, feeling his cogwork leg slip in the mud before he reached dry land. He scrubbed himself dry and dressed quickly, pulling on his boots and running a hand through his wet hair. He suddenly realized how shaggy it was now that it dripped into his eyes.
         “Are you decent, Mr. Hawkins?” Charlotte’s voice was thick with suppressed laughter.
         “Yes,” Joshua had walked quickly through the field and was at the edge of the phaeton.
         Charlotte started, turning at the sound of his voice so close. She grinned down at him and he was forcibly reminded of a much younger girl staring down triumphantly from a magnolia tree with her skinny legs wrapped around a branch higher than he or any of the other boys could reach.
         “Well, I declare, if it isn’t Joshua Hawkins,” her imitation of Isabella was scathing as she stretched out her hand limply as though expecting him to bow over it. He hopped up into the phaeton beside her, unable to resist returning her smile.
         “Well, Miss Charlotte, I sure am glad to see you,” he said in the same exaggerated drawl.
         “I never thought I’d hear you call me ‘Miss Charlotte,'” she broke off the charade with a shake of her blonde curls.
         He noticed that there was dirt on her face and that her long hair was loose and tangled. The corner of his mouth turned up in a smile. The tree-climbing, frog-catching girl he remembered was still in there. She saw the smile and raised one eyebrow at him in the perfect expression of a well-bred, southern lady. He stilled his face with an apologetic look and sat back as she snapped the reins and clucked to the horses.
         “Well, I can’t very well call you Lottie anymore, can I?” he returned back to their earlier tack, admiring the way she handled the spirited animals and enjoying the feel of the hot wind as it dried his hair.
         “I’ll shove you out of the phaeton here and now if you do,” she spared him a wicked glance.
         “You’d do that to a cripple?” the words were out of his mouth before he could pull them back and he looked away over the fields to avoid meeting her          She snorted.
         “Some cripple, swimming around in that over-sized puddle after walking all this way. And I had to practically heave you into the carriage myself,” her voice was dry. “Don’t think I’ll feel sorry for you Joshua Hawkins, not after all the times you teased me and dumped me in that same pond.”
         “You haven’t changed a bit, have you?” he turned back to appraise her.
         “What a thing to say! Last time you saw me I still wore my hair in tails and ribbons to match my pinafores.”
         “Ribbons? You?” it was his turn to scoff. “The only thing that ever matched between your hair and your frock was dirt.”
         She pulled a face at the back of the trotting horses that was meant for him and he laughed. Then, he realized suddenly how insulting that must have sounded.
         “That is…you weren’t…” he floundered for an apology that wouldn’t sound insincere.
         “Ah, there’s the tongue-tied Joshua I remember so well,” she said. “You sound like you did when you used to come and call on ‘Bella. Don’t let her hear you stammer like that around me. She might think I’ve finally gone and stolen her beau at last.”
         She turned back to the horses, completely missing the expression on his face. It–and not his stammer—would have given Isabella a twinge of unease.

The Fall of the House of Hawkins

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South Carolina – 1840
      Joshua Hawkins pushed his driving goggles back on his dirty forehead and unwound his grimy scarf. There really wasn’t much he could do to avoid dust in July in South Carolina, but it surely was a pain in the nether regions nonetheless. Joshua handed his scarf and long duster coat to his valet, Twiggs, whose dark skin was coated with a layer of grime that made his face look powdered except around his goggled eyes. He stared up at the plantation house. The paint on the once pristine white exterior looked like flakes of skin peeling away to reveal dingy gray bones. The autocar wheezed slightly, emitting a puff of steam. Joshua handed his gloves to Twiggs and stowed his goggles in the special case he kept in the glove-box. They were Italian leather and brass, made by one of the best lensmakers back in England—Jasper & Jessups.
       “Twiggs, take the autocar into the old stable–you remember where it is–and see if the regulator has come loose from the steamshaft,” Joshua turned back towards the plantation house.
       “Yessah,” Twiggs said.
      The autocar let out another large puff of steam and a frightful bang as Twiggs put it in gear and Joshua shook his head. Blasted piece of machinery. The dust kept clogging the regulator and the cogs weren’t catching properly due to all the grit. He never had this problem in Charleston, but luckily Twiggs was not only a perfect manservant but an effective machinist. No one he knew had a slave who knew his way around an autocar from cog to chrome like Twiggs.
      The stairs creaked beneath his feet as he walked towards the front door, stepping around a large hole. Joshua shook his head. He pulled a key from his waistcoat pocket and turned it in the lock with difficulty. The stench of dust and decay assailed him as he entered the foyer. No butler stood at the door to offer him a glass of water or bourbon, more was the pity. His boots echoed hollowly in the hallway. Moths had eaten the magnificent rug from Persia to nearly nothing. He could buy another in Charleston now that they came over on the dirigibles. He had never flown in one himself, but they were marvelous things. He preferred his autocar. Another bang echoed through the open door and he winced. When the confounded thing worked.
      He hesitated before opening the door to his father’s study. Even before the house was closed, this room had been shut for years. He glanced at the wall behind his father’s desk. The hair on his scalp prickled even though the painting that had been spattered with blood and brains had long since been removed.
      The plantation was in deep financial trouble and after the autocar accident cost Joshua’s father his leg, Mason Hawkins had never been quite the same. He refused the offer of a new cogwork leg.
       “I’m no piece of machinery made of gears and metal and pistons!” he shouted. “Worse than being a negro—being half a machine.”
      Joshua remembered his father’s face turning purple; the stump of his leg had seemed to twitch in revulsion and indignation at the thought. Two weeks later, a loud bang shattered the still night air. Joshua made it to the study first, keeping his mother and sisters out. They collapsed in the foyer, clutching each other and wailing fit to wake the dead–which, of course, they couldn’t.
      Joshua walked to the bare bookshelves, resolutely ignoring the stain on the floor that lingered even after the house slaves scrubbed it with sand. He knocked his knuckles against the panels until he heard an echo. Sliding the wood aside, he saw the bottle of dusty bourbon just where he remembered. Now, to find a glass.
       “Well, Mr. Hawkins, I declare, I’m sure pleased to see you.”
      It was the last voice he expected to hear. He turned to see a beautiful lady with auburn hair tucked under a burgundy silk top hat. The net veil covered half her face, but he would recognize that voice anywhere. Her voluminous skirts seemed to fill the hall and the brass driving goggles around her neck gleamed in the late afternoon sun that lit the dust motes on fire.
       “Miss Isabella Polk,” he said. “It is still Miss Polk?”
       “It is indeed, as you very well know,” she laughed, pulling the net back to reveal her long-lashed green eyes. “You called on my mother.”
       “I’m afraid you’ve discovered my deception,” he laughed.
       “Share some of your bourbon with me and we’ll call it square,” she said.
       “I do believe that can be arranged,” he offered her his elbow. “I fear there won’t be any ice.”
      They made their way down the hallway which creaked deplorably. To Joshua’s delight, two tumblers sat in the dark recesses of a cabinet. He wiped them out with his handkerchief and splashed some amber liquid into each. With a clink, they toasted one another.
       “Welcome home, Mr. Hawkins,” Isabella said.
      Joshua lifted his glass to drink but cursed suddenly. Bourbon splashed onto the floor and the bottom of Miss Polk’s dress. He sank to the floor in humiliation as his leg gave out. Isabella shrieked and set her glass down on the edge of the table where it toppled to the floor in a spray of tawny liquid and smashed on the floor.
       “Joshua, what ever is the matter?” Isabella cried, white-faced.
      Twiggs appeared and pulled Joshua over to the side of the room to lean against the wall. He unbuckled Joshua’s left boot and rolled up his trouser leg. Isabella gasped, wavering on high-heeled boots. Twiggs pulled a tool from his pocket and began tightening one of the screws in the gleaming apparatus that began where Joshua’s knee used to be. Joshua leaned back, remembering his father’s last words, scrawled on his desk.
       “Better to die as a man than live as a machine.”
      He started to laugh.

From the Smashing Sub-Genres Challenge, where I “rolled” Southern Gothic and Steampunk.

*The southern Gothic style is one that employs the use of macabre, ironic events to examine the values of the American South (wikipedia)

*Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction that typically features steam-powered machinery,especially in a setting inspired by industrialized Western civilization during the 19th century (wikipedia)

photo also courtesy of wikipedia