“That’s mighty fine cotton you got there, Beau.”
Jeb stiffened. He’d seen how Beauregard Armand’s overseers worked the blacks of Moss Oak Estates and he’d seen the lash scars embossed on the backs of the slaves when they worked shirtless in the heat of the day.
“You interested, Jeb?” Beau continued, ignoring Jeb’s discomfort. “I can let you have a pre-deal deal, if you know what I mean. Fairly offered for a fair offer, if you know what I mean.
“Thanks, Beau, but I’ll offer at the auction. Gives me some time to sell those two mares for some real cash.” Jeb knew that some plantation owners sold cotton before the big auction in Atlanta, thus avoiding the low bidding near the end of the sale. It all depended on what position the seller drew.
Jeb didn’t care much for the practice. Besides, he needed to get a governess for the twins with the money he had. He tried not to think of Violet back home in Boston because of the impending war. Secession! He hated even the sound of it.
“All right, if you change your mind—“ One of the black girls carried a huge basket of cotton to the gin. She tripped and went sprawling, raw cotton flying everywhere. Beau slapped her hard across the face.
“You clumsy fool,” he yelled at the girl. “I’ll give you the lash for this.”
Jeb noticed her for the first time. There was something different about her that he couldn’t put his finger on. Maybe it was her fine, aristocratic features. The girl got to her feet, gaping at Beau as if he had lost his senses.
Her look didn’t escape Beau’s notice. “You sassing me, girl?” he hissed menacingly.
She shook her head mutely. He grabbed her by the arm and started hitting her. Jeb tried to protest.
“She’s sassing her master,” Beau yelled, hitting the girl some more. She protected her head with her arms, but still said nothing.
“STOP!” Jeb shouted. “I’ll pay you one thousand dollars in gold for her, not Confederate currency.”
Beau dropped his hand to his side and stared at Jeb. “Make it fifteen hundred dollars gold, and you have a deal.”
Jeb gave the man all the money he had. Cotton was king in his world and the fact that he had the finest horse flesh in the county meant nothing until after the cotton auction, when the plantation owners had fat purses and wide grins.
“What’s your name, girl?” he asked as they rode back to Sweet Spirit Acres.
“Arabella,” she said, keeping her eyes downcast.
“Do you have a last name?”
“Yes,” she replied. “Zulu.”
Jeb thought a moment. “Isn’t that the name of the…uh…a South African clan?”
“Yes. It is my name, too.”
They rode in silence after that. Jeb had noticed Arabella had not called him sir or master, and her accent was as good as his own. When they drove up the winding lane to the big wooden mansion that was the home at Sweet Spirit Acres, he jumped down from the carriage. The girl was struggling to get down from the seat to the step but she hunched over.
“Are you badly hurt, Arabella?” Jeb asked.
“I don’t know. It pains a fair amount when I bend or breathe deeply.”
He helped her down and looked at her in perplexity. “What am I going to do with you?”
Before he could decide, two young girls dressed identically in white dresses with pink sashes and pink slippers raced to the carriage.
“Papa, papa, you are back, did you sell the horses?”
Jeb smiled, scooped a girl up in each arm and hugged them. “No, I bought something instead.”
The girls squealed with laughter and wriggled to get free. “What, papa?” they chorused. “Is it something to play with?”
“No, my darlings, it’s a new slave. Her name is Arabella Zulu.”
Jeb watched in amazement as the black girl knelt down and gravely held out her hand to the girls.
“And what might your names be, children?”
He could swear, if he closed his eyes, he would think a well-educated white woman was kneeling there.
“I’m Rose,” one of the girls giggled, and the other one chimed in, “I’m Violet.”
“Both lovely names, my little flowers,” Arabella said. “I hope we meet again.”
“Papa,” Rose said solemnly, “I b’lieve Mother will like Arabella.” Violet nodded, her black curls bouncing enthusiastically.
“Yes, I’m sure she will, angels. Now, run along and find Hetty. Send her out here quickly and tell her to bring her healing kit. We’ll be up to the house directly.”
The girls each flung their arms around Arabella and ran off laughing to the big house.
The girl stood up with a gasp of pain, not quite able to stand straight. She looked Jeb in the eye though. “I am neither of those things.”
“Well, by all that’s holy, what…who are you?”
The girl gave a faint smile. “I am a princess of the Shaka Zulu tribe, but no one cares here. And no one cares that their importation of me was illegal. All they care about is the color of my skin.” The depth of bitterness in her voice did not surprise him.
Suddenly Jeb realized the celebrity of her statement. “THE Shaka Zulu? The man who mobilized 20,000 Zulu warriors and defeated the British with all their cannons and rifles?”
She nodded, seeming surprised at how much he knew. “Shaka Zulu was my great grandfather.”
“And yet you speak perfect English…”
“The families of the high tribal chiefs are now being sent to European cities to be educated so that we can survive in a world dominated by the white man.”
Jeb mulled that over for a moment. “You do not belong here in this society.”
She shrugged, then winced. “I am a victim of the times. Europeans entered our village and killed everyone. I was coming back from school in Durban with my brother Emmanuel. They killed him and took me. There is nothing more for me there.”
She had spoken in a low tone, with no emotion, but Jeb sensed a storm roaring beneath the calm exterior.
He regarded her thoughtfully for a moment. He didn’t want this extraordinary woman to work for him if she was unwilling. It would be like breaking the spirit of a fine Arabian mare.
“I’ll make a deal with you,” he said finally.
“A deal? You are master and I am slave. You have but to order me to do your bidding and I must comply.”
“I don’t want that kind of relationship,” Jeb said earnestly, then paused as her face clouded over and she drew back a little.
“No, not that kind of relationship either,” he said quickly.
“I think you would make a splendid governess for my daughters. They need someone who can provide an education and give them the maternal affection they are missing. The girls don’t know it yet, but their mother is not returning home.
“If you will do this, I will free you when they no longer need a governess…in about ten years. In the meantime, I will treat you with respect and dignity, and you will be well treated and cared for. ”
The silence stretched out. Then she spoke. “How could I refuse such a gracious offer, sir?”
“Deal, then,” the young man said, relieved, and gently shook her hand. Now he only had to worry about Violet and his broken heart.
Southern Princess © 2011 by Sandra Bell Kirchman. No reproduction allowed other than excerpts for the use of critiques or reviews. Full credit must be given to the author. All rights reserved.
THE ABOVE FLASH FICTION STORY was written to answer Haley Whitehall’s challenge to step out of our comfort zones and write a historical piece of fiction. After struggling some, this is what I came up with. Word count was originally close to 1500, then down to 1215. When Haley clarified that the length could be up to 1500, I fleshed it out a little to its current length of 1315 words.