Ella pulled the child closer to her breast and set her mouth to protest.
"Ella, don't make a fuss," Sylvie said impatiently. "Just do what she says tonight. Anything in the world to calm her down. Nobody getting any rest until she do. Let her name your baby if she has a mind. She been taking so much medicine, she'll forget her own name by morning."
Ella saw the resoluteness in the faces of the couple. She finally gave a trembling nod.
As the three walked down the lane of cabins, they passed smoldering heaps of pine and cypress, attempts by the inhabitants to purify the air and keep the mosquitoes at bay. The acrid, suffocating smoke seemed to travel with the little group, enveloping them in a cloud that seared the lungs. Up in the distance, the lights in the great house came into view. No words were spoken as Sylvie, ever crisp and efficient, walked beside Ella while Silas lit the path.
It was Old Silas whom the master had first sent down to the quarters days ago with the news of Miss Becky's death. Ella remembered how odd Silas's little speech had been.
"Miss Becky has passed of a summer fever," he said, "not the cholera, understand? If any of those who come to pay respects should ask you, that is what you are to say. It was a summer fever that took Miss Becky. Don't say a word more."
Someone had asked Silas why they had to lie. It was known to everyone on the plantation that the girl had come down with the same sickness that had killed nearly two dozen of his field hands. Sylvie had already let it be known that she had watched Miss Becky suffering in her four-poster bed, halfway to heaven on her feather mattress. Sylvie had witnessed the sudden nausea and the involuntary discharges that didn't let up through the entire night. She had seen the girl's eyes, once the color of new violets, go dim and sink deep into their sockets, her face looking more like that of an ancient woman exhausted by life than a twelve-year-old girl. From what Sylvie had said, Miss Becky's dying had been no different than their own children's.
Before answering the question, Silas jawed the chaw of tobacco to his other cheek. "He's doing it to protect Miss Becky's good name. Master says the cholera is not a quality disease. The highborn don't come down with such. Especially no innocent twelve-year-old white girl." Silas put two fingers up to his mouth and let go a stream of brown juice.
A dark laughter rippled through the survivors who stood there, all of whom had lost family or friends. What Silas wouldn't say, Sylvie made sure the others knew. She said the master was so afraid of what his neighbors thought he had refused to send to Delphi for the doctor lest the news get out that Miss Becky had caught a sickness so foul that it was reserved for Negroes and the Irish. He had stood there and watched while the girl's breathing became so faint it didn't even disturb the fine linen sheet that covered her. He ranted about how Rubina, Becky's constant companion and the daughter of a house slave, was healthy as a colt. "There is no way," he swore, "the cholera would pass over a slave and strike down a white girl!"
Sylvie remembered the mistress's face when her husband has said that. The cook had never seen that much agony in a white person's eyes. When all hope was lost, the master finally turned his back on his wife and daughter and home, leaving Becky to lie motionless, shrouded by the embroidered canopy of pink-and-white roses; Mistress Amanda to witness alone the inevitable end; and little Rubina to sob outside her dying playmate's room. He rounded up a work gang and several bottles of whiskey, saddled his horse, and hightailed it out to the swamps to burn more Delta acreage.
"I guess that's the white man's way," Sylvie had told them all, disgusted. "Lose a child, sire more land."
That's when the mistress's mind finally broke. At first she wanted to have little Rubina whipped and her wounds salted, sure the girl had given her daughter the disease. But soon enough she relented. It was clear that she couldn't hurt Becky's friend. Mistress Amanda's crazed search for blame finally settled on her husband. She cursed him night and day and threw china dishes against the wall. When Master Ben sent for some medicine to calm her, she swallowed all she could get her hands on. Anyway, that's what those who worked in the house said.
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