CHLOE stepped out on the porch of her little cabin. She was small, supple, and yellow, and as she spoke she kept bending and gesturing.
‘I see you comin’ ’crost country like a lighten-gale,’ she said, smiling, and the lines around her large mouth were like spreading circles in water.
She had a comical face, the forehead receding and the jaw projecting, with high-lifted eyebrows above her protruding eyes. Her crinkly hair, parted from forehead to neck, was plaited, and worn in a circular rosette behind each ear. She was scrupulously neat.
‘We all so-so,’ she said, in answer to my greeting, ‘although Enoch, he ain’t much. But then that’s natchel. In the spring, you know, the boil always rises in the cistern.’
Chloe’s pronunciation was elegant. She always spoke of a pint of flour as a ‘point,’ and was alluding now to the bile in the system.
Her little cabin, on the outskirts of Natchez, stood on the very edge of the bayou, its roof swept by the gray moss of a great live oak. A tiny paled-in garden in front had beds bordered with violets and was full of red lilies.
‘Come right in, Miss Rose,’ she ended hospitably.
In the front room was a fine walnut set. There was a red tester above the bed, and a red-striped lambrequin on the high mantelshelf. On the backs of the chairs were clean white hemstitched towels. China and glass ornaments adorned the bureau, and crayon portraits hung on the papered walls. On a table was a large photograph of the colored pastor, in a plush frame decorated with a crush bow of Nile green satin.
Chloe gave me her best rockingchair and stood until I asked her to be seated.
‘So you’ve been to the plantation?’ she exclaimed. ‘How’s all the folks? Aunt Nicey have n’t moved off yet? She mus’ be all of ninety. She stayed with us endurin’ of the high water. All the time honin’ to get back to the plantation. All the Palmyra folks were. They were currentined so long, the men would ha’ been ’rested as vacants if they’d a hung roun’ Natchez, doin’ nuthin’, much longer.’
Chloe had been the upstairs servant at Monmouth. She was quick, bright, enthusiastic, and responsive, with a positive genius for misusing words. Her husband, Enoch, a dark, unknown quantity, was only visualized through her fluency, and their one child, Cassandra, I remembered as a whirlwind of arms and legs, driving the turkeys past the Big House, morning and night.
‘I want you to tell me about old times,’ I said.
Chloe threw out both hands. ‘Oh, it’s all changed!’ she cried. ‘Natchez would have been an indifferent place ef the war had n’t came. I was just a youthful young girl myself, but I remember the levee days when the ladies driv to see one another. These ole places all gone to rack now, and a whole passle of new people in town. They’re climbin’ steady.’
Her tone was politely scornful.
‘I were fifty-three this gone May,’ she continued. ‘ I always worked to the Big House. Even when I were little I helped on-sheet the beds. I married when I were seventeen. I wore a Swiss dress with ruffles on the tail. Ole Miss had it made for me, an’ it were a perfect germ. The ’Pistopal minister married me in the big hall at Monmouth. Enoch, he looked gamey then. Thist as spry an’ sprout. So sprutish. He were tendin’ resteroy at the time. They made him treasurer because he was such a savery man. The resteroy shop were owned by a kinder bossy bully ooman, an’ she got very ill toward him after he married. It became a jealousy, an’ she caused desease to creep upon him. He got porer an’ porer, an’ wade away to a wapor, an’ at last he had to go to a doctor’s cemetarium.
‘Cassandra were born about that time, an’ that’s what th’owed me. I had to scramble to help the family, an’ I uster feel right squandered in my min’. All my white folks gone, an’ the Big House on the hill shut up. I’d go outside at night an’ look up at it, dark an’ still, an’ I’d hol’ out my arms, an’ call for help. But no help came. All I’d hear was the quivel owl in the bayou, saying he-e-e-e!'
‘But I taken it very Jobly,’ she said, ‘an’ we’ve done well since then.
I were offered a place to the Shielses’, an’ I took it in a winkle. An’ Enoch, he driv a liver wagon. But that resteroy lady would n’t let him be. She was black an’ evil-minded, an’ had little mercurial ways to worry you, an’ he got a backhanded letter ’bout froggin’ him. She thought she was going to devote me, but I would n’t let her, but Enoch was tore up in his min’, an’ he’s kinder knocked off from work since then.
‘Oh, yes’m! Work’s plentiful. I’m washin now. Doin’ up these-here corkbosom shirts, an’ fine wais’s. Enoch, he scratches roun’ an’ makes us a gyarden, an’ Cassandra, she teaches. She always were smart. When she were a little chap she walk all by herself to town. Ole Man in the lane say, “Is you los’, gal?” An’ she upped an’ says, “I ain’t nuvver los’. Wherever I’m is, dat’s where I’m at.” It’s an ole ooman live on the Washington Road want to tell her fortune. Cassie say, “I knows my fortune already. I gwine live tell I die.”’
Chloe laughed enjoyably.
‘Yes. Cassandra’s my right han’. An’ now she’s come thu. She were baptized this past gone Sunday in Macedonia. The baptizin’ passed off beautiful. All the cannidates were perfectly qualified an’ quiet, an’ the roster were decorated with flowers. — Yes’m, we all got religion. I b’longs to the Courts Calanthus. It were named for Damon’s wife. We wears canary color an’ red, copied after Damon’s robe. Enoch, he b’longs to the Knights of Pathos.
‘Yes’m, Cassandra’s engaged. Bob Patton’s courtin’ her. He’s livin’ with us. — No’m. They ain’t goin’ to marry yet awhile. He’s tied. He were courtin’ a bright girl on St. Catherine Street, an’ she put her accident on him, an’ he were kinder conscrip’ up. He could ’a’ been loose long ago, but he were kinder cowered like — on account of her mother.’ She lowered her voice. ‘Folks goes to her to get knowledge.’
When I rose at last, she exclaimed, ‘Oh, mus’ you go? Can’t you have mercy, an’ stay a little longer? — Nearly dark?’
She opened the door and looked out.
‘Why, the sun mus’ be in a clip!’ she cried.
In the little garden she filled my hands with red lilies. Then she stood with her hands locked and her head on the side.
‘You sho’ do hol’ your own, Miss Rosie,’ she said admiringly. Then, in open wonder, ‘An’ you ain’t married yet? ’
' I never expect to be.’
There was a thoughtful look on Chloe’s face as she opened the sagging gate, which was wired to the palings, and stood aside to let me pass.
‘Well, I kin tell you this much,’ she said. She lifted her brows, closed her eyes, and smiled with faint scorn. ‘You ain’t missin’ a thing.’