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.

Phaetons and Phantoms

I just can’t quite leave Joshua & Co. alone, so here is a continuation of the Southern Gothic-Steampunk saga that began here and continued here and here .

Phaeton

         Joshua woke to blazing sunlight that poured through the dust coated windows of the kitchen, looking like a huge cloud of steam settled just outside. His mouth was dry and his skull began to pound. He shoved the heavy driving coat someone laid over him to the side and struggled to sit up, grimacing at the nausea that roiled through his stomach. Twiggs must have put the jacket over him and left him to sleep when he returned last night. There was little furniture in the house and the floor was as comfortable in the kitchen as anywhere else. He felt stiff and his shoulder ached from being pressed to the wooden floor all night, but the pain in his thigh had subsided. He flexed his cogwork leg experimentally before attempting to stand. Once he was certain it would bear his weight, he leaned against the wall and pulled his plain leather boot back on over the ostentatious gold leg. He attempted to brush some of the dirt off himself but gave up after seeing it was fruitless. Limping slightly, more due to his night on the floor than the leg, he went to look for Twiggs. And some water.
         He found Twiggs on the front porch, surrounded by a dozen or so other slaves. He was giving them instructions on making the house livable. Joshua looked at the faces, he recognized a few of the housemaids and the butler from his house in Charleston, but the others were new faces—men and women Twiggs found for him. Some people would curl their lips at him giving so much power to a slave, but Twiggs kept Joshua alive when he could have let him die. In Joshua’s weakest moments, Twiggs never asked anything of him, or threatened him, or tried to blackmail him. Joshua came to trust Twiggs with his health and his life, trusting him with money to purchase new slaves was nothing.
         “This is Mistah Hawkins,” Twiggs said, noticing Joshua on the porch.
         “Hello,” Joshua said, conscious of the dirt on his face and his disheveled hair. “Twiggs has you well in hand I see. Listen to what he says as you would listen to me. If you are ill or troubled, do not hesitate to speak with him or myself. If you misbehave or run away, you will be punished. If you do not, you will have three meals, a clean place to sleep, and clothes and shoes to wear. I expect the house to be kept clean and the grounds maintained.”
         The chorus of soft “yessahs” was punctuated by several sideways looks from the new acquisitions. Several of them had never been personally addressed by their masters, certainly they were never told to bring their troubles or sicknesses to them.
         “Carry on, Twiggs. Oh, did you bring any food from the hotel?” his stomach reminded him of his reasons for seeking Twiggs.
         “Yessah, it’s in the icebox in the kitchen. There’s fresh water and lem’nade, too. Your suitcase is in the autocar, should I fetch it?” Twiggs gestured towards the stables-turned-garage.
         “No, Twiggs. I’ll get it a bit later. I’m going to see if the old swimming hole still has water.”
         It wasn’t a steaming bath in a copper tub, but it would have to do. Joshua turned back to the house and went in search of food. The cold chicken and cheese he found did wonders to quell the nausea and Twiggs managed to get the old icebox working so the lemonade was almost ice cold. Joshua wondered how soundly he slept if Twiggs worked on the contraption while he slept feet away. He shook his head, then regretted it as a new wave of pounding resounded in his skull. With thoughts of the sparking water he hoped was in the swimming hole, he slipped out the back door and made his way to the autocar to fetch a clean pair of clothes.

         Charlotte sighed as she glanced in the glass. Isabella would approve of this dress from the wide skirts to the lace trim around the sleeves and neckline. At least it wasn’t pink. The hat was absolutely ridiculous. It was a shrunken top hat of red silk, to match the flowers on the straw colored dress and had a tiny wisp of a veil that got caught in her eyelashes and on her nose. She really only wore her working clothes home to annoy Isabella.
         And it worked like a charm, she thought cheerfully.
         Her older sister really was a prig. Charlotte prodded at the net veil before giving it up as lost and strode towards the door, wondering if she would fit through it after all.
         Isabella looked up over the top of the novel she sat reading and gave Charlotte a self-satisfied nod. Charlotte curtsied ostentatiously, just managing to keep the stupid little hat on her head before, with unnecessary flouncing of her full skirts, she walked towards the door.
         “Where are you going?” Isabella demanded. “It’s absolutely scorching outside, you can’t possibly mean to—”
         “I’m going for a drive. I’ll take the phaeton. No, Boggs, no need to fetch anyone,” she said in a stage whisper. “I’m going to drive myself and anyone who disagrees can eat steam,” she raised her voice at the end and was gratified by a yelp from Isabella.
         Charlotte laughed to herself as she let Boggs help her with her driving coat and gloves. She tried to keep the swearing to a minimum when she came home, especially when Mother was around. But Isabella so resembled a gaping fish when even the mildest vulgarity crosses Charlotte’s lips that she simply couldn’t resist. She waited on the porch while the horses were hitched to the phaeton. They were one of the few families that still kept horses, originally because Father insisted and later because Mother couldn’t bear to let them go. The deep roan mares were well looked after, Charlotte saw with pleasure. Their coats gleamed and their silky manes flashed in the sunlight. Charlotte stroked their velvety noses and whispered greetings into their silk feathered ears before she allowed one of the stable boys to help her into the conveyance. The help was necessary in the over-sized balloon she wore.
         She wedged her skirts in the two-seater as well as she could, gave Boggs and the boys a merry wave, and flicked the reins. The phaeton rumbled over the dirt road and soon the house was out of sight. Charlotte enjoyed the feel of the hot sunlight on her nose and cheeks, aware that she would be even browner by the time the day was out. She inherited their father’s looks–tall and lean with skin that weathered and blonde hair that turned nearly white in the sun. Isabella was all their mother–soft and voluptuous with her auburn hair and cream skin. Charlotte flicked the reins again and leaned forward slightly as the horses picked up their pace.
         Aimlessly, she guided them down the roads that ran through their properties, past the fields that gleamed with cogwork machinery and healthy crops, lifting a hand to the field workers that paused as she rocketed by them, destination unsure. Before she quite realized where she was going, she reached the border of their land, where trees grew unchecked and the air was filled with the scent of magnolias and dogwood blossoms. She slowed the horses to a walk as the phateon rolled through the dappled sunlight, bouncing slightly over the uneven pathway, carpeted over the years with grasses and wildflowers.
         “Whoah there, beauties,” she reined the horses to a stop and cranked the handbrake into place.
         She wrenched her fingers free of her gloves and finally unpinned the obnoxious silk hat, throwing it on the seat. With no one to help her down–and no one to care–Charlotte hopped out of the phaeton, feeling for a moment as though her skirts held her aloft before she landed lightly on her feet. She ran a hand over one of the huge yellow wheels. Her father always loved bright colors.
         She wound her way around the trees until she came out into the open again. She paused at the fence. The painted white metal railing was flaking away to reveal spots of rust that sent chills across her spine as she ran her fingers over the pitted surface. Encroaching weeds clung to her voluminous skirts, filled the air with the buzzing of cicadas and the scent of summer and honeyed sunlight. Twin stone columns, velveted with moss and spattered by bird droppings stood sentinel. Charlotte gazed over the edge of the rail where the ground sloped, picking out the headstones that jutted like rotting teeth. Soft wind caressed her long blonde hair, murmured against her neck: Welcome home, Lottie.
         She shuddered and gripped the railing tightly, shaking her head to dispel the words.
         “I’m not home,” she whispered. “This place stopped being home a long time ago, you know that, Papa.”

photo can be found here