At home for the week between Christmas and New Year's, Simon rushed to the house on North Charles Street as soon as he received Doctor Heskitt's message.
Jane insisted on going with him.
They left the baby at home with the Irish nanny Jane had imported from Boston shortly after arriving in Baltimore. "I won't allow any Confederate, black or white, to touch my child," Jane had carped. "I hate these Southerners! If it weren't for them, we could have stayed in New England where we belong!" Ever feckless with his wife, Simon had offered no argument.
When Bessie opened the door at their knock, Jane swept past with disdain. Simon, however, offered a worried smile in greeting. Bessie took his hat and coat.
"Is Doctor Heskitt here?" he asked.
"No, sir, the doctor has gone to fetch the attorney," Bessie replied.
"Is Missus Duncan any better?"
"She's awake, and I just took her some broth. She will receive you in her room."
Simon hurried up the stairs ahead of Jane who dawdled at a table near the parlor doorway.
She picked up an exquisitely made porcelain figurine of a dark-haired young girl and examined the imprint on the bottom.
Impressed, she exclaimed: "Dresden! My Irene will be as lovely in a few years. I haven't seen this piece before. Where did it come from?"
Her question was directed imperiously at Bessie.
"It was a Christmas gift, Miz Shirley," the maid answered quietly.
"Missus Shirley, not miz!" said Jane crossly. "Why can't you darkies speak properly? And I want to know who gave them this gift!"
Bessie always had difficulty understanding Jane's nasal down-easter twang. After a moment's hesitation, she replied, "The mayor of Baltimore, Ma'am." "Madam, not ma'am, you slow-witted ninny!" Jane scowled. "Really, Mister Lincoln did not know what he was doing when he set you people free!"
Jane slammed the fragile statuette on the table and marched upstairs.
Bessie, accustomed to Jane's rude remarks, lifted the small figure with painstaking care and studied it to make sure no damage had been done. Satisfied, she dusted it lightly with the tip of her apron and returned it lovingly to its place.
Nelle greeted Simon with quiet seriousness, begging him to sit in the chair beside her bed. Annie and Bessie had prettied up her hair, but nothing could hide her pallor or the sadness in her eyes.
Simon took her hand and kissed it in his formal Bostonian manner, but would not let it go.
"Oh, Nelle, Doctor Heskitt has apprised me in his note of...oh! What can I say? Is there anything I can do?"
Nelle squeezed his hand companionably in return. "You can do what you have always done since Philo went away...be a wonderful friend. I need you now more than ever before."
Jane entered the room at that moment. "A pretty scene!" she snapped, taking note of their intimacy.
Instinctively, Simon dropped Nelle's hand.
"My dear Nelle, you do look dreadful!" Jane went on. "You must be frightfully ill indeed!"
Standing near a window, Annie glowered in Jane's direction.
(03janeRIGHT)"It's quite stuffy in here," Jane remarked with an exaggerated flutter of her hand. "That fire on the hearth is stoked too high! With the wartime price of wood being what it is, one must be rich as Croesus - like you - to keep it going so hot! I shall open that window!"
As Jane moved toward it briskly, Annie stepped in her way.
"Miz Nelle got to be kept warm de doctuh say. Dey ain't gonna be no winder open in dis here room!" There was finality in the mammy's voice.
"My goodness, Nelle," Jane whined, "how you do allow your darkies to talk to your guests!"
"We don't use the word 'darky' in this house, Jane," Nelle chided gently, "and Annie belongs only to herself." Then, trying to sound cheerful, she added: "It was kind of you to come with Simon. I'm sorry to drag you out in such cold weather."
"You call five degrees below zero cold? Ha!" Jane exclaimed incredulously. "In Maine, the temperature can drop to forty below! Why, on Squirrel Island where I grew up, you can freeze your fingers solid just trailing them in the water on the way over in the ferry from Boothbay Harbor! Well, I suppose there's nothing I can do here. I'll wait for you downstairs, Simon."
She pivoted without coming closer to Nelle and bustled out of the room, calling over her shoulder: "Get well, Nelle. We must have you up and about when Philo comes home!"
Annie's face set in a furious frown at sight of Nelle's pained expression.
"Forgive Jane, please," Simon hastened to say. "I did not tell her...the news. I thought it might upset her. She still nurses Irene, you know. A shock might...uh..." - he paused in confusion - "...dry up...her milk."
Rolling her eyes, Annie turned away to hide an expression of wholehearted contempt.
A hubbub downstairs announced the return of Doctor Heskitt, with the family attorney in tow.
"Good afternoon, Missus Shirley," the doctor was heard to say. "Have you met Frank Patterson?"
No reply wafted upstairs from Jane. It was assumed she gave her usual crisp nod of acknowledgment and passed them by.
Directly, the two men entered Nelle's room.
The conference about Philo's estate lasted as long as Nelle's waning strength would permit. After an hour of discussion, and signing the requisite papers prepared before their arrival by Frank and the doctor, she indicated she could endure no more.
"Gentlemen," she said wearily, "I pray all is in order, at least enough for me to rest until tomorrow."
Doctor Heskitt, who had carefully monitored her condition throughout the meeting, patted her hand. "Missus Duncan," he said, "you are a veritable pillar of strength, an example to us all. Everything has been accomplished, with the exception of one thing."
Frank Patterson extracted a document from his portfolio on the floor beside his chair. An exceedingly portly man of distinguished appearance, he groaned audibly from the effort.
"Frank has suggested that special arrangements be made for the care of Little Bart and Ardie in the event of your further incapacitation. This is not to suggest, of course, dear lady, that you are....."
Nelle silenced him with a slight wave of her hand. "I have placed myself in God's care," she smiled thinly, "as well as in yours. What He decrees for me will come to pass, but you are right...there must be special provision for the upbringing of my boys...in the most extreme of eventualities.
"We have seen to it," she began to summarize, "that the Duncan Cargo Line will stay under the worthy management of Mister Shirley, for the time being." She nodded toward Simon, who leaned forward to touch her arm reassuringly.
"My husband's estate, and whatever accrues to me from the estates of my late mother and brother," she continued, "are to be combined in trust under your joint administration."
She lifted both hands to indicate Doctor Heskitt and Frank Patterson.
"And now," she inclined her head toward the window before which Annie remained in place, "let me say in the presence of y'all that Miss Annie Creel - for she has taken the family name of her former master, Doctor William Creel - is to be the legal guardian of Barton Creel and Ardmore Duncan until they reach the age of twenty-one. They will remain, as they are now, Annie's boys."
While she spoke, Frank Patterson annotated the document on his lap. He passed it to Nelle for her signature. She signed, then lay back her head on the pillow.
"Please," she sighed, "may I rest now?"
Annie, tears streaming down her plump cheeks, rushed to Nelle's side. "You gentlemens go on an' git, iffen y'all please. My lady got her Annie to take good care ob her."
The three men rose to leave. Doctor Heskitt promised to return in the evening. He reminded Annie that a few drops of laudanum were in order to help Nelle sleep.
Simon escorted the others to the front door where Bessie helped them with their coats. Donning his greatcoat as well, he stepped outside with them to the verandah for a last word. Bessie went downstairs to the kitchen.
Shortly thereafter, having seen her husband pass the parlor where she sat alone, Jane went into the hallway. Looking around for observers and finding none, she quickly removed the Dresden figure from the table, stuck it into her black fox muff, and started for the door.
"What'd you do that for? You're a thief!" a boy's voice called out angrily from the doorway to Philo's study.
Jane whirled to face her accuser.
There stood Little Bart, his hands clenched in fists, his face crimson with fury. Behind him came Ardie, red-eyed from weeping. They had been crowded together into Philo's sizable desk chair for most of the afternoon, commiserating with each other until Little Bart had gone to see what was happening with Nelle. He had seen Jane as he went to leave the room.
He lifted a small fist and jabbed a finger at her.
"Stealing is a sin, Miz Jane!" he cried. "You put that back!"
Unnerved at being caught, and self-righteously enraged by the child's audacious behavior, Jane flew at him with a scream.
"You orphan brat!" she shouted, jerking the figurine from her muff. "What right have you to this grand house when I live in a shack? You! A Rebel's leavings! You! Southern white trash!"
Drawing back her arm, she pitched the piece of porcelain with deadly aim. It struck Little Bart full in the face. The boy crashed to the floor in a spray of blood, with Ardie falling over him, yelling at Jane: "No! No! Don't hurt my brother any more! Annie! Annie!"
Annie was already on the way, bounding down the stairs with murder in her eye.
Jane saw her coming and backed away. "Don't you touch me, you...you...nigger!"
Annie had her fingers around Jane's throat when Frank Patterson came at them from behind and wrestled both women to the floor.
Doctor Heskitt was crouching over Little Bart, and Simon stood dumbfounded at the front door.
Suddenly, Nelle drifted wraith like to the top of the wide staircase. At sight of the pandemonium in the hallway below, she cried out, clutched her midriff, and tumbled down. Landing on her back, she made a frightening thud.
With a terrible groan, Nelle arched, spat blood, and lay still.
All movement ceased in the hallway, frozen in that instant of time.
Doctor Heskitt broke the spell. He jumped to his feet. Rushing to Nelle, he fell to his knees and took her wrist in his hand.
He shook his head. An eerie moan issued from Annie's throat as she sprang up, shaking off Frank's powerful grasp.
"You done kilt the sweetest woman dat evah lived!" she boomed down at the still prostrate Jane, then turned her wrathful face to Simon. "Take dat witch away now, an' see to it she don' nevah come near dis house agin!"
Dizzily, Simon hauled Jane up from the floor and half-carried, half-dragged her from the house to their carriage.
The final words Jane heard Annie cry thundered from the verandah when the raging mammy ran out shaking her fists at the buggy careening away.
"You be a crazy woman!" Annie roared. "De day I catches you near mah boys be yo' las' day on earth!"  

Table of Contents · Continue