APRIL 11, 1861
“Girl, my fingernails could grow an inch just waiting for you.” Di-Peachy leaned in the doorway to Geneva’s bedroom.
“If they grow an inch, you’ll work them off tomorrow.” Geneva yanked a shawl out of her bureau, twirled it around her shoulders, and breezed past her oldest friend and personal property, Di-Peachy. At eighteen Geneva Chatfield was the tallest girl in Albemarle County as well as the best rider. She stood six feet in her stocking feet. Towering over Di-Peachy, who at five feet six inches enjoyed some height, Geneva banged down the stairs.
“Last one to Auntie Sin-Sin’s—”
Geneva was interrupted by Lutie Chalfonte Chatfield, her mother. Lutie had the metabolism of a hummingbird and the nerves, too. “Calm yourself!”
Di-Peachy tiptoed up behind Geneva. Lutie flashed like a sheet of heat lightning. “You’re going to be married tomorrow, and you’re running around here like you’re in a footrace.”
“I know you haven’t the sense God gave a goose, Geneva, but”—Lutie turned to Di-Peachy—“you do! What are you doing galloping down the steps? Is there no one in this house with a sense of proper decorum?”
Portia Chalfonte Livingston, Lutie’s younger sister at forty-one, strolled out of the parlor. A huge harp gleamed behind her. “Lutie, don’t rile yourself. This will all be over tomorrow, and things will return to normal.”
“Normal, Poofy, normal! We’ve got a lunatic president in Washington, another lunatic in Montgomery, Alabama, who says he’s president, my son crows he can’t wait for a war, and my daughter is getting married. Normal? I tell you nothing will ever be the same and I feel pulled around backwards.” Lutie returned her attentions to her fidgety daughter. “In the face of all this chaos, I would appreciate it if you would play your part and act like a bride!”
“Yes, Mother. May I be excused now?”
Imperiously Lutie waved her hand, and that fast Geneva shot out the door with Di-Peachy in hot pursuit.
Poofy took her sister’s elbow in the palm of her hand and discreetly walked her down the long hallway of the Georgian mansion that was the pride of the Chatfield family since 1796 when the cornerstone was laid. Under no circumstances was Poofy about to allow Lutie to strain herself. She’d begin talking to Emil and, well, the less said about Emil, the better. His name was not to be mentioned at this wedding.
The house was jammed with guests, family, and shirttail relatives. More would come from Charlottesville itself on the wedding day. Portia Chalfonte Livingston left Bedford, New York, a month ago to assist Lutie in preparing for the wedding. Their brother, younger by nearly twenty years, T. Pritchard Chalfonte, arrived from Runymeade, Maryland, a week ago to help out. Everything was under control except for Lutie and Geneva. Poofy sighed to herself. “Lord, just let us get through tomorrow.”
“Do you think there’s going to be a war?” Lutie shook Poofy out of her musings.
“How can we avoid it now that the radical tail shakes the dog? My husband will raise up a regiment for New York State and your son will enlist for Virginia and our brother will join the South. If I were a man, I don’t know what I’d do. Living all these years in Bedford gives me a different perspective.”
“Oh, perspective? I’d like to know how anyone can have perspective on murder, pure and simple!” Another flash of sheet lightning.
Poofy decided against a long discussion with her volatile sister on the merits of tariffs and the protection of industries versus slavery as a base for agricultural wealth. Portia smiled. “It’s going to be a splendid wedding.”
“I hope so. I feel this is the last time we’ll all be together. Henley is more nervous than Geneva, I think. He says he wishes Sumner married first. You don’t have to give your son away. That would toughen him up for Geneva.”
“He’s a wonderful father, your Henley.”
“And a lackluster husband,” Lutie snapped.
Portia dismissed this. “Sometimes I don’t like my husband, but sometimes I don’t like myself. Men—” Portia sighed again, “are different.”
“Different? I’ll tell you what’s different between men and women, sister mine: There’s one set of rules for us and another for them. I suppose my poor girl will find out just like every other woman!”
“Nash Hart is a good young man, and he loves Geneva.”
“Loves her! They all love you in the beginning. Oh, Poofy”—Lutie wrung her hands—“I’ve started to tell her so many times, tell her about the way things really are between men and women, about the way your heart shatters or maybe it disintegrates like a fine powder.”
“Don’t start. Geneva will find out things in her way and in her day. What good would it do you to tell her? Would she listen? Does any young person listen to an old one?”
“I’m not old—not yet!” Lutie appeared in command again. “I must put Di-Peachy further from the front than Geneva wishes. She’ll overshadow the bride.”
“Don’t waffle. We both know that girl is the most beautiful female God ever put on this earth—to torture me, I suppose!”
It was true. Di-Peachy was lustrous in her beauty. The only way a man couldn’t get a hard-on around her was if he was stone queer or dead. She had almond-shaped eyes of light hazel. What a contrast those eyes were against her coffee-colored skin and her long curly hair. Her breasts stuck straight out like hard melons, and her hands were as aristocratic as a queen’s. At seventeen Di-Peachy was still far away from her full power, yet she defeated other women simply by drawing breath.
While not immune to the effect of her beauty, it brought her no pleasure. She learned to read and write even though whites thought slaves were best kept in ignorance. The only way Lutie could get Geneva, a lackluster dull student, to do her lessons was if Di-Peachy did them with her. What she learned did not make her position in life easy to bear. Her bondage, like her beauty, was a burden whose weight increased yearly. Her thoughts of freedom conflicted with her love for Geneva who up until now had been the compass of her young life.
“Geneva is a healthy, happy, young woman, and she’ll shine at her own wedding.” Poofy cooed.
“I gave birth to a plain girl, but she’s the best horseman in the whole country. What good will it do her?”
“A great deal, honey. She and Nash will continue Henley’s breeding programs. She’s going to make a good wife, and her skill with horses will serve her well. Just you wait and see.”
In a moment of anguish, Lutie squeezed her sister’s bejeweled hand. “Poofy, I don’t want the world to rudely cross my threshold. Not tomorrow! Not on my baby’s wedding day.”
Poofy sighed a great sigh and kissed her sister’s freckled hand. Lutie smiled. “I wish you’d stop that damn sighing! It sounds like respiratory martyrdom!”
Copyright © 2011 by Rita Mae Brown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.