May 1846, Lorman, Mississippi
The temperature was unseasonably hot, insufferably repressive. By all accounts, springtime had scarcely arrived in Mississippi, but nature's cruel trick was going unnoticed by no one, including the residents of The Willows plantation.
Jasmine Wainwright flattened herself against the bedroom wall, her right arm wedged against the red oak window frame. She wriggled in protest when a tickling bead of perspiration inched its way down her narrowed shoulders. Taking great care, she lifted the lace curtain between two fingers and peeked below. "I see a carriage arriving, Mammy. It must be Papa's houseguests. I'm tempted to pretend I have a headache and remain in my room. I know he plans to show me off like prize cotton from the season's first picking."
Mammy stood by Jasmine's dressing table with her arms folded across her ample bosom. "Um hum. Well, you don't know fer sure what your papa got in mind, but iffen you don't set yourself down, supper's gonna be over and dem visitors be gone afore I get a chance to fix your curls."
Jasmine glanced at the plump servant who had been her caregiver since birth and knew she could remain a few more moments before provoking Mammy. The old woman's gaze had not yet grown stern. "Just let me get a glimpse of them first. I'd like an idea of who will greet me when I descend the stairs. Oh, look, Mammy! One of them is nearly as old as Papa, but the other appears much younger --- and more handsome."
"I thought you weren't lookin' fer no husband."
"I'm not! But Papa seems determined to marry me off." She pulled the curtain back a bit farther and continued spying on the two men. "The younger one has a kind face."
The familiar sound of Mammy slapping the hairbrush on her open palm captured Jasmine's attention. "Oh, all right. I only wanted one more look," she said while scurrying back to the dressing table. "The older man looks rather austere and rigid. Perhaps he's the younger man's father."
She plopped down and stared into the oval mirror as Mammy plunged her thick fingers in and out of Jasmine's heavy golden-brown hair, coaxing the strands into perfectly formed ringlets. Perspiration trickled down the sides of the black woman's face and dripped onto her bodice, leaving her cotton dress dotted with wet spots.
"Chile, I ain't never gonna get these curls fixed proper if you don't quit flutterin' that fan back and forth. Jest when I think I got one curl fixed all nice an' proper, you go whipping that fan around and stirring up a whirlwind. And quit that frowning. Them creases you's making in your forehead is gonna turn into wrinkles. You gonna look like your grandma afore you turn twenty if you don' stop making dem faces."
"Ain't funny, chile. When you's gone and got yourself all wrinkled and can't find no man to marry you, what you gonna do then? Come runnin' to Mammy, 'spectin' me to make you look young and purty?"
Jasmine met Mammy's stern gaze in the mirror's reflection. "I'm sorry," she said while grasping the servant's roughened hand and drawing it against her own soft, powdered cheek. "But since I don't want a man, I don't suppose it matters very much if I wrinkle my face," she added with another giggle.
"You bes' get that out o' your mind. 'Sides, I's hoping to see you bring some little babes into this house one day. Maybe I'll be takin' care o' them too."
Jasmine flushed at the remark. "Whatever would I do without you, Mammy?"
"Don't know, chile, but ain't no need to worry 'bout that. I ain't made plans to meet my Maker jes' yet. 'Course, He may have some different ideas. But if so, He ain't told your ole Mammy. And since I ain't never plannin' to be parted from you any other way, I's thinkin' we'll be together for a spell o' time." The servant gave a hearty chuckle, her ample figure jiggling up and down in tempo as she laughed. "We better hurry or you gonna be late to supper for sure. Then we both be in trouble. Anyways, that's as good as them curls is gonna get for now. This hot, damp weather makin' everything limp, including your hair."
Jasmine checked her appearance in the mirror one last time, patted the ringlets, and rose from the cushioned chair. "You won't get in trouble, Mammy. I'm here to protect you." She pulled the woman into a tight hug, her slender arms barely spanning the old servant's broad waist. "Besides, after all these years, you know Papa is all bluster and bristle. He'd never lay a hand on anyone."
"Um hum, you jes' go on thinkin' that, child."
Jasmine loosened her hold and leaned back. She looked deep into the old woman's eyes. "Whatever do you mean?"
"You never know. Your pappy might jes' decide you're still young enough to turn over his knee." The words were followed by another deep-throated laugh. "Now get on downstairs and be nice to your papa's visitors."
"You know they'll bore me. Papa's visitors always want to talk about business matters instead of entertaining topics."
"Well, hot as it is this evenin', you know your pappy's bound to be in bad humor. He don't like this heat --- never has."
"He complains about the heat every summer. I don't understand why Papa doesn't move us north with Grandmother."
"How he gonna do that? Can't move this cotton plantation up there where it's cold. 'Sides, your papa stays here 'cause this here is his home. He wouldn't live nowhere else. Even if he could, can't nobody get your mama out o' this house anymore."
Jasmine's brown eyes momentarily clouded. "I convinced her to go to White Sulphur Springs two years ago."
The old servant's head bobbed up and down. "Um hum. And she convinced all of you to return home only three days after you got there. Your mama doin' some better this past year, though."
"It's her headaches," Jasmine commented.
"It's her fears," Mammy corrected. "I don' know --- maybe that's what causes her headaches. But your mama's been full of fears ever since I knowed her. Yes, sir. Being afraid, that's her real problem. Don' know what she thinks is gonna happen outside this here house." The old woman shook her head back and forth. Her forehead creased and formed a deep V between her wide-set eyes. "Um, um, it's a terrible thing to be so afraid of life."
Jasmine knew her father wouldn't care for Mammy's forthrightness, especially in regard to the mistress of the plantation. But Jasmine wouldn't forbid Mammy to address the matter. At least Mammy was honest with her, saying the things that others thought but refused to confide.
Jasmine shook her head at the frustrating situation. "But she's been doing much better managing the household this past year. I've not been required to help her nearly so much."
Mammy patted Jasmine's narrow shoulder. "You's right, chile. She is doin' better." Mammy seemed to realize Jasmine needed encouragement. "'Sides, the Good Lord, He done give us His promise to never leave us or forsake us. He won't be desertin' us now."
Jasmine smiled. Kindness shone in the devoted servant's eyes as their gazes locked. "What about you, Mammy? Wouldn't you like to live somewhere besides Mississippi?"
"Don't reckon I need to be givin' much thought to such a notion. The Willows is where I been livin' most all my life, and it's where I'll die. Don't know why we're even talkin' 'bout such a thing, 'specially when you need to go get yourself downstairs. You's jes' tryin' to avoid going down to supper."
Jasmine flashed a smile that brightened her whole face. "You never know where God might take you, Mammy. You're always singing that song about meeting Jesus." Her words grew distant as she raced down the stairs with her blue silk gown swaying in quickstep rhythm while she descended the spiral staircase. However, one stern look from Madelaine Wainwright slowed Jasmine's pace.
All eyes were focused upon her as she entered the parlor. She looked at her father. His normal pleasant demeanor appeared to have escaped him this evening. He pulled on his fob and removed the gold watch from his vest pocket, giving the timepiece a fleeting look. "I was beginning to wonder if you were going to join us."
"I apologize for rushing down the stairs --- and for my tardiness. I hurried only because I didn't want to further delay dinner."
Her lips curved into what she hoped was an apologetic smile before her gaze settled on one of her father's guests. He was grinning back at her.
"Jasmine, I'd like to introduce you to Bradley and Nolan Houston. They've come from Massachusetts."
The words brought a broad smile to her lips. "Massachusetts? Oh, but this is wonderful. Do you live in Lowell? My grandmother lives in Lowell. Perhaps you know her? Alice Wainwright?"
Malcolm Wainwright cleared his throat and moved to his daughter's side. "I believe we would like to go in for supper, Jasmine. You can interrogate our guests once they've had something to eat. You'll recall that we've been awaiting your arrival."
Jasmine's three brothers were all smirking at their father's riposte when Bradley Houston stepped forward and drew near to her side. He didn't appear quite so old as she had first thought when she spied him from the upstairs window, and when he smiled, the sternness temporarily disappeared from his expression. "Miss Wainwright, I'd be happy to await my supper every evening if it afforded me the opportunity to keep company with someone of your beauty and charm."
"Why, thank you, Mr. Houston. You are absolutely too kind." Jasmine grasped Bradley's arm, graced him with an endearing smile, and permitted him to escort her into the dining room. The moment he glanced in the other direction, Jasmine turned toward her three older brothers and, with a great deal of satisfaction, stuck out her tongue.
"You must be careful if you ever visit up north where the weather is cold, Miss Wainwright. You wouldn't want your lovely face to freeze in such a position," Nolan Houston whispered as he took his seat next to her at the table.
Jasmine looked up in surprise, then leaned slightly closer and grinned. "Thank you. I shall make note of your kind advice, sir."
Nolan laughed aloud at the reply.
Bradley furrowed his brow and turned his attention to Jasmine. "Pray tell, what advice has my brother given you?"
"Cold weather. I was merely explaining how easily one can freeze when the weather turns frigid," Nolan replied.
Jasmine gave a quick nod of agreement to Nolan's reply before whispering a brief thank-you to him. Although she knew her brothers would have enjoyed listening while she attempted to wiggle out of such inappropriate behavior, it appeared Nolan Houston had been amused rather than offended.
Malcolm Wainwright pulled a freshly pressed white handkerchief from his pocket and mopped the beads of perspiration from his forehead. "I could do with some frigid weather right now. This heat is stifling, and it's barely the end of May. I don't know how I'm going to make it through another summer in Mississippi. Once the cotton crop has been laid by, I'm hoping to convince Madelaine we should make a return visit to White Sulphur Springs in Virginia or perhaps journey to Niagara Falls."
Jasmine's mother flinched at the suggestion but nevertheless remained the epitome of genteel womanhood. "I don't think we need to weary our guests with such a topic just now," she said and smiled. "After all, they've known nothing but travel these past weeks. They must be anxious to settle in for a time."
"I wasn't asking them to make further journey, my dear," Jasmine's father stated evenly, the tension evident in his tone.
Jasmine listened with interest to her parents' exchanged remarks. Perhaps over the next two months she could influence her mother to travel east. Certainly such an excursion would do them all good.
A wisp from a large feather plume floated downward, interrupting her thoughts, and she glanced up at Tobias. The young slave was perched on his small swing secured to the ceiling above the dining table. Tobias gave her a toothy grin as he swung back and forth above them while brandishing his oversized plume to deflect any flies that might enter through the open windows and hover over the dining table.
"If you don't stop distracting Tobias, he's going to fall off that swing one of these days," Samuel said.
"And a fine mess that would make. I don't believe Father would be quick to forgive you if Tobias dropped into the middle of the dining table," David agreed.
Malcolm glanced back and forth between his two older sons. "Gentlemen, please forgive the behavior of my children. It appears as if we're having a jousting match rather than dinner conversation."
"I believe McKinley should be applauded for his behavior. He hasn't said a word all evening," Jasmine commented while giving her youngest brother a bright smile.
Her father shook his head. "I'm going to hire someone to teach all of you proper etiquette if this sparring doesn't cease immediately. Ring that bell, Madelaine, and let's get this meal underway."
The jingling bell signaled two servants into immediate action. They entered the room carrying heaping platters of ham, biscuits, and roasted potatoes. Jasmine daintily helped herself to a biscuit before turning her attention to Nolan. "I'm still anxious to discover where you live in Massachusetts and if you might possibly know my grandmother. She lives in Lowell," Jasmine eagerly explained.
"Although I've visited Lowell on several occasions, I continue to make my home in Boston. Were I ever to move, I believe it would be to Cambridge rather than Lowell. I have far more friends located in Boston and Cambridge," Nolan replied. "Bradley, however, has numerous contacts in Lowell. In fact, he recently relocated from Boston to Lowell in order to expand his business ventures."
"Truly, how interesting. I thought Boston was a much larger city than Lowell. How is it your business will expand by moving to a smaller city, Mr. Houston?" Samuel Wainwright inquired.
Bradley straightened in his chair, obviously pleased by the question. "I'm a member of a prestigious group of men known as the Boston Associates. Perhaps you've heard of them?"
Jasmine's father gave a brief nod. "I've heard some vague references to the group. Seems I've been told they're intent upon monopolizing the entire textile industry in this country."
Bradley shifted in his chair and faced Malcolm. "Actually, the Boston Associates are the textile industry in this country," Bradley said with authority. "There are others, of course, but they are inconsequential. However, the Associates are anxious to see this country achieve industrial independence from England rather than attempting to monopolize trade for themselves. By basing our own textile industry in America, we reap the benefit of creating jobs that utilize products raised in this country and are then sold both here and abroad. It also lessens our dependence upon England for manufactured goods. Additionally, it gives cotton producers an excellent market for their crop."
Malcolm finished chewing a piece of ham and then lifted his glass and took a drink of water. "We already have an excellent market for our cotton. The Wainwrights have exported their cotton to the same English mills for as long as I care to remember. Don't expect we'll be changing business partners at this juncture."
"I hope while I'm here you'll permit me to at least point out the possibilities for business growth and higher income by considering another market. Doubtless you want to receive the best price for your efforts. Am I correct?"
"I want a good return, but profit isn't my only consideration when forming a business alliance. Trust and reliability are key factors I insist upon from my business partners, and I give them the same in return. I owe loyalty to my English customers. They were understanding during the drought that hit us back in 1834. While many cotton growers determined it was best to leave this area and move west, my family was able to sustain with advances on future crops paid to us by our English buyers."
Samuel nodded his head in agreement. "There were many cotton growers who posted signs on their property reading 'GTT' --- Gone to Texas."
"Then you were indeed fortunate to have aligned yourself with such loyal buyers. However, one must constantly be looking toward the future. I believe you will find the Boston Associates can meet your every expectation in areas of trust and loyalty, plus provide a higher profit margin," Bradley said.
Jasmine listened intently, although she was rather bored by the conversation. Her mother had always taught her that a woman's place was to be supportive of her menfolk. She should appear interested, but not in a mannish fashion that would lead to asking questions. But her brothers certainly could ask their questions, and they did so with an amazing like-mindedness to her own thoughts.
As if reading her mind, McKinley turned toward their father as a wry smile curved his lips. "Perhaps you don't concern yourself with the profit factor, Father, because you no longer worry over the accounts. I would like to see The Willows receive a higher price for its cotton. Certainly the cost of shipping cotton to Massachusetts would be somewhat less than shipping it to England. Isn't this true, Mr. Houston?"
"What difference? The buyer pays the shipping costs," David retorted.
McKinley tapped the side of his forehead with his index finger. "Ah, but if the shipping costs are less, we can demand a higher price for the cotton based upon that very issue. Could we not?"
"Exactly!" Bradley replied. "And the higher the volume you can deliver, the higher the price the Associates will offer."
Jasmine couldn't help but find herself caught up in the moment. Bradley's enthusiasm was contagious. Samuel leaned forward and gazed down the table toward his father. "Perhaps we should talk to our uncles about the possibility of a joint venture in which we could all obtain the higher price."
Jasmine's father waved his hand back and forth as if shooing flies away from his plate. "Now hold on! You boys are moving much too quickly with this idea. Making business decisions is not something done over the course of only one evening. My brothers are cautious men --- steeped in tradition and fiercely loyal, just as I am."
Samuel would not be put off. "But how many times have you admonished us to be considerate of change and the development of products that will improve our abilities? I'm merely suggesting that this might well be one of those times."
Jasmine could read in her father's expression that he was more than a little annoyed to find his son brazenly sharing information that had at one time passed for private family business issues. She bit her lip to keep from saying something that might further upset her father. She caught Bradley Houston's expression even as her father began to counter Samuel.
"We in the South have always prided ourselves on moving ahead --- not in speed and haste, but rather in determined, well-planned movements. We aren't talking of popping pieces back and forth atop a checkerboard. Rather, we prefer something more like a game of chess, where each move will have consequence for the moves to come." Their father toyed with his glass before taking a long, steady drink. Jasmine thought it a nice touch, an emphasis of his previous words.
Putting down the glass, her father continued. "I could never risk the well-being of my family --- my beloved wife and daughter, our home, and all of the people who live here --- without a great deal of prayerful consideration."
Bradley nodded in agreement. "Nor without evaluating additional reports and information upon which to base your decision. However, I can assure you that the Associates would be pleased to count you among their suppliers. It would appear to even a casual observer that your home and grounds are evidence of how well you've managed your plantation --- especially in light of the depression you suffered only twelve years ago."
"We haven't always lived so well, but this house was Madelaine's dream. Wasn't it, my dear?" Malcolm's gaze settled upon his wife.
"I will admit that after visiting several other plantations, I was somewhat obsessed with having a Greek Revival home in which to rear our children," she replied.
"And it reflects the charm of the two ladies who grace its interior," Bradley added.
"Why, thank you," Madelaine replied, a tinge of pink coloring her cheeks. "I was determined to find the exact pieces of rococo furniture to accentuate the beauty of our home. I had given up all hope of finding a reviving-game sofa that met my expectations when I discovered one of our slaves is an extremely talented woodcarver. He carved and fashioned the woodwork and frame, leaving only the upholstering to be completed."
"I find all of your furnishings exceptional," Bradley said, his gaze scanning the immediate area.
Madelaine appeared to bask in Bradley's flattering remarks. "I don't think my husband shares your enthusiasm for household furnishings, although he has been very generous in permitting me my fancy," she modestly replied.
"Ah, but your husband realizes that a finely furnished home increases his social standing. It's a visible sign of his wealth and status," Bradley said.
"I thought the South's most desirable social status was that of slaveholder, not of home or property owner," Nolan interjected.
"That's true," Malcolm responded with a modicum of pride. "And here at The Willows, I have nearly a hundred slaves. Why, some of my prime hands are worth fifteen hundred dollars, and I could easily get two thousand for that woodcarver Madelaine mentioned --- not that I plan to sell him."
"Of course not," Nolan replied quietly.
Jasmine heard the reproach in Mr. Houston's tone. She eyed him curiously. What was it he meant to interject? She suddenly felt uncomfortable, but she had no idea why. This was her own home, her family table where conversations of productivity and the land often took place, but Mr. Nolan Houston did not seem impressed or approving.
Bradley cleared his throat and appeared to frown at his brother. "How much land do you own?" he inquired, shifting his attention back to Malcolm.
"Two thousand acres --- some planted with corn, but the vast majority is cotton. It's as much as we can handle unless I purchase additional slaves, and we're making a nice profit at this juncture. No need to be greedy."
Before Bradley could reply, Jasmine pushed aside her discomfort and flashed a charming smile in his direction. "I wonder if we might discuss something other than cotton and slaves." She looked to her father as if asking permission for such a transition. She saw her mother nod in agreement.
"Our women are of such a delicate nature," Jasmine's father began. "They are strong, don't get me wrong. But such matters are well beyond them, and I have come to realize that it wearies them if we remain upon such topics overlong."
Bradley wiped his mouth with one of the monogrammed linen napkins and gave Jasmine his full attention. "I'm sorry. I have monopolized the conversation, haven't I? What topic would be of interest to you?"
She straightened in her chair and met his gaze. "I'd like to return to my original question regarding my grandmother."
"Ah yes. I never did respond, did I? Well, I'm sorry to say I have not met your grandmother. However, it is because of your grandmother that I've come here."
"How so?" Jasmine asked.
"I'm told your grandmother visits frequently with the wife of Matthew Cheever. Mr. Cheever holds a position of importance with the mills in Lowell. During their conversations, your grandmother mentioned the fact that her family was involved in raising cotton. Since our mills are always in need of cotton, I decided a visit to The Willows might prove beneficial to all of us."
"I see." She twisted in her chair to face Nolan. "And you, Mr. Houston? What brings you to The Willows?"
"I'm a poet and writer, Miss Wainwright. I've accompanied my brother in the hope of capturing the tangible essence of the South in some of my writings. I find it difficult to adequately describe places or people in my writings without actual observation. Since I want my readers to authentically experience the words I write, I thought this visit would prove fruitful."
Bradley raised one brow and gave a sardonic grin. "Nolan is quit