It was a long train ride from Boston to Savannah, and Beau and I hadn’t bought sleeper tickets. When night fell, he covered me with his suit jacket and we dozed a bit, my head on his shoulder.
Early in the morning, we rattled into Savannah station; Beau’s mother sent a car to meet us there. My linen dress, the color of fresh butter, had wrinkled. I tried in vain to smooth it out—it was the dress I’d worn to marry Beau a month earlier.
I’d not intended to ever go south again. My mother’s rigid back and my sister’s tears were the last sights I’d expected to see through Georgia’s haze. Apparently, however, one does not ignore a summons from Mrs. Beauregard Montgomery, especially one that will probably be her last.
She was seated in the parlor, a yellowing lacy shawl around her shoulders and a quilt on her lap. Behind her, a set of crossed Confederate swords—her grandfather’s—were mounted above the fireplace. Vases everywhere were filled with lemony lady’s-slippers. Beau knelt beside her chair, grasping her hand in both of his. “Mother,” he said. Then again, “Mother…” I stood at the doorway, silent.
She touched his cheek, then chastised him in a wavering voice. “Where are your manners, junior? Tell your bride to come closer. I want to look at her.”
Beau beckoned me over and I approached her, my heart in my throat. “Mrs. Montgomery, I’m…I’m pleased to meet you.” I offered her my gloved hand, and she pulled me closer. Her eyes held mine, then she reached up and fingered an escaped ringlet, damp with Georgia air.
She didn’t speak for an eternity. Then—“What did you say your name is?”
Beau spoke up. “Mother, I wrote you. My lovely bride is Jeanette. Jeanette Willis. Jeanette Montgomery now.” He put his arm around my waist.
Her eyes were filmy and jaundiced. She squinted, tilted her head, and gripped my hand tighter. “There’s a Willis family in Bulloch County. Are they your people?”
“No ma’am. I…don’t think so, ma’am.” I was finding it difficult to speak.
Mrs. Montgomery released my hand and spoke—she addressed Beau, but she was looking at me. “Beau, do you remember the Westbrook boy? Henry Westbrook…he married last year, a girl not from around here. I went to the wedding, and I knew that marriage would bring him nothing but heartache. I could tell…Lavinia, bring the tea.”
I looked past Mrs. Montgomery and saw her servant emerge from the shadows. She’d been there all along, and I hadn’t noticed. Lavinia was balancing a silver tea service; without thinking, I took a step and reached out to help her. “No, missus,” she whispered. “I can manage.” She shook her head at me, her eyes wide—a warning.
“Thank you, Lavinia.” Mrs. Montgomery continued her story. “Henry’s wife gave birth to a little boy last month, Beau. Blood will tell, son. That boy was darker than my Lavinia here. Henry’s wife was a…she was high yellow, and she’d…passed.” She leaned back, breathing heavily. Beau knelt again, taking his handkerchief and dabbing his mother’s forehead. She grasped his collar. “This is what came of Mr. Lincoln’s war, Beauregard. Blood will tell.”
Beau’s eyes found mine. I dropped my silver spoon on the floor; Lavinia rushed to pick it up. Her skin was the pale tan of chicken’s eggs, her hair warm brown sugar. She reminded me of…
My sister’s tears glisten on her caramel cheeks. “Jeanette, if you go…” I understand the unfinished sentence, have already seen it finished in Mama’s steely black eyes. I can not come home again. But I have to do this; I have to know if I will bloom in the cool of the north.
That night, Beau turned away from me in our bed.
He spent the next two days talking to doctors and bankers; he had few words left over, it seemed, for me. We boarded the train back to Boston on a sweltering Saturday morning; Beau carried his suit jacket slung over his shoulder, and even the daisies embroidered on the bodice of my summer frock seemed to droop in the humidity.
I took a window seat and watched fields of sunflowers fly by, thinking about mothers, Beau’s and mine. Beau sat silently with his own thoughts. After a while, I slept.
When I awoke, I found that Beau had taken my hand, and was holding it in the vicinity of his heart.
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