November 13, 1861
My dearest Viola,
You were right. As ever, my dear, I was wrong and you were right. How many men do you believe are willing to admit as much to anyone, even to their cherished and well-loved wives? Or, should I say, especially to those wives?
But you were also wrong, I hasten to add in defense of my manly pride. You once said that my interest in politics—nay, my fascination with politics—was unhealthy and would be my undoing. It is that unwholesome fascination that brings me to admit my wrongheadedness and say a thing you have waited for our entire married life to hear: “We are wrong to bind people to us against their will. We must give our slaves their freedom.”
How, you may be wondering, has politics brought me to a decision that is, in its way, most personal and intimate? How have scholarly debates over constitutional issues led me to bid good-bye to Bertha, who rocked me to sleep when I was in knee pants? No, long before that. Bertha spooned mashed peaches into my toothless infant mouth. Wave good-bye to Bertha? I might as well bid farewell to Isaiah, who set me on the back of a horse for the first time. But I must, because you—and my infernal politics—have convinced me that it is the just thing to do.
I spent all last night in communion with our confederacy’s newborn constitution. Do you recall my daily letters to you from Montgomery, detailing every scrap of news that leaked out of the constitutional convention? Do you recall my despair when the delegates elected to begin with the United States Constitution, out of sheer expediency, building our new legal system by editing an old one that could not prevent its society from flying apart? And surely you recall my elation at every reform written into the fabric of our new society?
I know your impatience with dry legal issues, but hear me out. The Confederate States of America’s new Constitution prevents our congressmen from handing out public money like pork from a barrel. Our president will serve his six years, then a new man will take his place. He will not be allowed to fire public servants, merely because he wishes to replace them with men of his own choosing. Unlike the Congress of the Federals, our Congress will not be able to tax Georgians to pay for projects that benefit only Texans. We can be proud of the things our delegates accomplished in a mere ten days.
But the foremost goal accomplished in that ten days was the guarantee of sovereignty to our States. In the end, the threat to that sovereignty led us to secede rather than submit to the tyranny of the majority. I gloried in our Constitution’s affirmation of that sovereignty…
…until last night. A cold-eyed reading of the document revealed its fatal flaw—its Achilles heel, if you will.
Viola, our Constitution guarantees every State its sovereignty in all things save one: It prohibits any State from outlawing slavery.
I am so offended by this hypocrisy that I see only one avenue open to me. If Alabama has been denied her sovereignty in this one area, then I declare my own sovereignty at this moment. My slaves are to be freed.
I have resisted this action because of the financial destitution it will likely cause us. I have resisted it because it would mean the dismantling of the agricultural empire my dear father built. I have resisted it because I do not know how the world will treat Bertha and Isaiah and others living among us whom I do truly love. I have resisted it because no one wants to see the whole known world change. And I have resisted it because no man wants to tell his woman that she is right and he is wrong.
So do it, my love. Send me the papers that must be signed. Help me work out the knotty problem of how our new freedmen are to be paid, for we minor public servants are not compensated well here in Richmond. I have converted as many of our assets as possible to hard currency, but I dare not send it to you through the mail. More to the point, we will need it to rebuild after this war, which I fear will last long and end poorly.
I suggest that you wait until the signed papers arrive, then gather everyone together to tell them of their freedom. Offer them food, lodging, clothing, and a token sum in return for their labor, and a promise of better payment when the war is done. Some may choose to leave, but that is what freedom is.
I do not know what this will mean for our future, but we must do the things that God and reason tell us are right. You may find yourself soon penniless, but you will always have me.
Your loving husband,
A good day at work typically left Faye Longchamp covered in sweat, rain, dust, dirt, or mud, depending on weather conditions. A more tedious day at work found her sitting in climate-controlled space, clean and comfortable, surrounded by very dirty things. This, unfortunately, had been one of those tedious days.
Faye knew that real archaeology was only just beginning when she hauled an artifact out of the ground. If that artifact wasn’t cleaned and measured and expertly described, then digging it up had been a waste of time. When Faye was in the right frame of mind, she enjoyed this painstaking work. Today, however, the early evening air outside was light and balmy, as April air in Florida tended to be.
Faye was having trouble staying indoors.
Not that she could see or feel that April air, because she was sitting in a basement, a rare activity in a part of the world where the groundwater is often so shallow that a toddler can strike water with a plastic shovel. Careful planning and a great deal of money had gone into the design of this house, sunk into a low bluff overlooking the cerulean Gulf of Mexico. There aren’t so many bluffs—low or otherwise—in Florida, so a great deal of money had gone into acquiring the land, too. Fortunately, her boss had cash to burn.
The tiny windows in Faye’s basement laboratory were well above eye-level, but the room’s atmosphere stopped short of being depressing. Its walls were a bright cheery yellow and the stainless steel sink gleamed, because Faye’s boss cut no corners on her work space. Thinking of Douglass as her boss always made Faye smile. The word “boss” didn’t begin to cover what Douglass Everett was to her. Friend, role model, father figure—those words came closer, but language fails in matters of the heart.
Douglass was mightily proud of Faye’s accomplishments. He had sat up so many nights reading the papers she wrote for her graduate archaeology classes that she was seriously thinking about seeking independent study credit for him. Though he had risen from the humblest beginnings to his present status as the richest man in Micco County, Douglass never stopped thinking of himself as the son of a poor black sharecropper. Earning an honors diploma from a white high school in 1964 had been proof enough of his intellect and determination but, oh, how proud he would be to earn a college degree.
Faye decided, without consulting him, that a university education would be the perfect retirement project for her friend Douglass.
She hit the intercom button. “You busy?”
“Just correcting the grammar on your lithics paper.”
“Leave my grammar alone. It’s fine just the way it is. But I’m really lonely down here in this yellow cave.”
The intercom didn’t answer her, but she could hear leather-soled shoes thumping down the basement stairs. Those footsteps were heavier than they’d been just a year ago. It hurt Faye to think her friend was getting old. Instead of dwelling on that, she launched her persuasive speech as soon as she saw his face.
“It’s time for you to go back to school.”
The man’s salt-and-pepper eyebrows headed for his hairline. “The museum needs my attention.”
She noticed that he didn’t say that he didn’t want to go to school.
“You’re the kind of man who needs a whole slew of projects to keep himself occupied. If you try to do just one thing, you’ll dry up and get old. You need to keep busy.”
“I’m retired. In case you haven’t noticed.”
“The museum will survive. You’ve got good employees. I’ll make sure they get the tickets taken. Everything will be fine.” Douglass’ Museum of American Slavery was hardly more than a rich man’s hobby, funded by the considerable fortune he had earned with his construction company. Still, he spared no expense in making sure the exhibits accurately told the story of enslaved people in North America starting shortly after European contact and ending with the Emancipation Proclamation. Faye just wished more visitors walked through the museum’s doors. She’d been working on getting the place some publicity, though, so the museum was no reason for Douglass to pass up the chance to go to school.
Faye knew her friend would cut a wide swathe through campus in the same way he’d conquered every other obstacle that life had thrown him. “I can’t wait to see you in class. You’ll be busting bell curves and making undergrads cry. Really, you’re paying me more than enough to take care of things while you do something for yourself.”
He didn’t say no.
It was so good to spend time with Douglass again. It was even better just to be at home. Faye was overjoyed to be back in her beloved gulf islands for a semester. She had procured funding to work on a tiny islet deep in the Last Isles, excavating the remains of the Turkey Foot Hotel, which had been owned by her family prior to the hotel’s destruction in an 1856 hurricane. The hotel site was a short boat ride from her home on Joyeuse Island, so this home-based project gave her the chance to personally manage the ongoing restoration of her cherished two-hundred-year-old house, also known as Joyeuse. And in her spare time, she pointed her skiff toward shore and tied it to Douglass’ beautiful new dock, so that she could sit in this lab and catalog treasures. Since Faye thrived on work, she had never been happier.
Faye’s squawk distracted Douglass from the paper in his hand.
“You hurt?” he asked.
“Nope. But would you take a look at this?”
While pulling a particularly filthy find from its cleaning solution, she had noticed specks of a color that was not dirt-brown. It was green, her favorite color. It was the color of the live oaks that overhung her home. It was the color of the Gulf of Mexico in early morning.
She swished the object around, anxious to remove the encrusted soil without scratching its surface. Flabbergasted, she watched as an emerald’s crystalline facets emerged. She held it in her fingers and its grassy color contrasted with the warm brown of her skin.
The stone was huge, as emeralds go. For some reason, the pure green light reflecting off its surface made her think of the fruit that grew, uncultivated, all over Joyeuse Island. It was the size and shape of a scuppernong grape or a wild plum. Faye, who had never before craved jewelry, felt an unreasoning need to possess this luminous thing.
Because the urge to keep it to herself was so strong, she handed it to Douglass, while she still could. The light in his brown eyes said that he, too, was drawn to its beauty.
He held it up. Light shattered on its surface, flinging green sparks around the room.
“I’ll give you credit for this much, Faye. When you go treasure hunting, you don’t mess around.”
Faye’s work day had effectively ended when she cleaned the dirt off a priceless emerald. Since then, she and Douglass had accomplished exactly nothing. Not unless you counted fruitless speculation about what a treasure like that was doing underground on Joyeuse Island, in Faye’s own back yard.
“It’s not too hard to guess who wore it,” Faye pointed out. “My family only had money for one generation before the Civil War wiped them out. I’m talking about the European branch of the family tree. The African branch never had any money at all. The shape and ornate gold setting—what’s left of the setting—suggest that it would have been the pendant in a grand necklace.”
Douglass squinted at the stone’s setting, as if he wondered how it was made. “It certainly doesn’t look like something a man would have worn.”
“In my family’s one wealthy generation, there were only two free women on the island: my great-great-great-grandmother Mariah Whitehall and her daughter-in-law, Carole LaFourche. Since I think we can presume that none of the slave women ever wore this thing, it had to be one of them.”
“Then I guess it’s yours.”
“I feel like it belongs in a museum. Fortunately, you’ve got one handy.”
Douglass rolled the bauble around on his palm. “Before you give your treasure away, why don’t you sleep on the idea?”
“I couldn’t sleep with something that valuable in my house. And I hate to leave it here for you to worry about.”
Douglass inclined his head toward a walk-in safe. “I got that thing so I wouldn’t have to worry about my stuff. Leave it here until you decide what to do.”
As Faye gathered her things to go home, she reflected that the reporter had come a week too soon. Six months of nagging phone calls from Faye had finally persuaded the features editor of the Tallahassee newspaper to do an article on Douglass’ museum. She was afraid the man had been disappointed by its lack of flashy displays.
The sexiest artifact Faye had been able to show him was an engraved silver hip flask. The reporter had photographed Douglass holding the flask, knowing that it would be interesting to his readers because it was marked with a real person’s name—an old-fashioned name, Jedediah Bachelder—because it was made from a precious metal, and because it had once held liquor.
Faye had tried to call his attention to other more significant artifacts—a broken hoe left behind by a long-ago field hand or a shattered pot of African design—but he’d had a magpie’s eye for shiny stuff. Only the silver hip flask held his interest. After snapping its photograph, he’d gone on his merry way. This emerald would have impressed him a heckuva lot more.
“How old do you think this thing is?” Douglass was still fondling the emerald.
“Judging from the old-fashioned cut, I’d say it’s at least a couple hundred years old. The setting’s broken, but it looks about the same age. Mariah and Carole weren’t around that long ago, but that doesn’t mean they never wore this emerald. It just means that it wasn’t new when they bought it. Or maybe Carole inherited it. I don’t know anything about Carole’s family, but it’s for certain sure that Mariah’s father never bought her a priceless emerald.”
Faye bent down to rifle through a box full of her field notebooks, then another. Victorious, she pulled out the one documenting the find, saying, “I need to refresh my memory on where I found this baby. Maybe it has brothers.”
“Maybe they’re already here,” Douglass says, gesturing at all the artifacts yet to be cleaned.
“That may be,” Faye says, “but you keep your hands off. If you want your museum to be taken seriously, we have to do things right.”
Douglass rolled the emerald around on his palm. He was still laughing, an hour after she left, at the bossy angle of Faye’s head as she told him to keep his hands off her precious artifacts. He knew better than to try his luck at amateur archaeology. He had learned long ago that it was worth the money to hire smart, competent people. That was why he kept Faye around.
Well, he also kept her around because she fussed over him like the daughter he and Emma had never had. And every now and then, she let him fuss over her, although she remained remarkably resistant to letting him give her things. She continued to let him pay her a nice little salary, but only because she knew she earned it.
Sometimes, he fancied that she looked like the daughter he and his wife should have had. She wore her hair cropped short like Emma, but her glossy and straight black locks looked nothing like his wife’s soft, tight curls. Faye’s determined jawline reminded him of his own, but he suspected that it was due less to genetics than to sheer, stubborn cussedness. And he and Faye both had cussedness to spare.
He felt in his pocket for the cigar that he was saving for this moment, when neither Faye nor Emma was around to fuss at him for tainting his lungs. Retirement gave a man so few opportunities to do things that met with his womenfolk’s disapproval.
A noise at the top of the stairs told him that Emma had finally come home from her regular Saturday-night bridge party. There would be no cigar tonight.
“I’m down here!” he called out, holding the emerald up to the light and knowing how much his wife would appreciate this rarity that Faye had dug up. Maybe Emma would like some emeralds. He’d never bought her any, not that he could remember.
The footsteps on the stairs were loud and hurried, which wasn’t like Emma. Maybe if she’d been the kind of woman who drank while she was playing bridge, her step might not be as light and ladylike as it always was. He rose from his chair. “Emma? Are you okay?”
Another set of footsteps and a deep voice told him that he and Emma had an uninvited guest. “Shit. There’s somebody down there. I thought you saw two cars leave. Shit.” Clattering footfalls echoed down the staircase.
This was a most inopportune time to be balancing a fortune on his palm.
At least two sets of footsteps rushed down the basement steps toward him. The building inspector had approved the room’s small, high windows as “emergency escapes,” but Douglass knew he could never haul himself out before the intruders arrived. Nor could he leave Emma to a stranger’s mercy. For the first time, he wondered if she were even home. He prayed she was still trumping her partner’s aces. He’d presumed the first footsteps were hers, but he’d never heard her speak. All he knew was that here were at least two intruders closing in on him. There could be more.
His fist closed over the emerald. He needed to hide it, but the safe mocked him from across the room. It might as well be a million miles away.
With an odd pang of relief, he watched two men, and only two men, clad in dark clothing barrel into the room. Emma wasn’t here. Knowing she was safe gave him the strength to face this danger alone.