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.