The Unknown Beauty

He came to me at night, as black as the night, my darkie. I was naked for him, ready for him. He’d whispered on our first coupling in this way he’d like me out of my night attire. We had to be furtive. It wasn’t the done thing in those times – nor would it have been in these. It only lasted a few months and I was constantly surprised at my wantonness; my daily yearning for night to come. Sometimes, if his days were particularly arduous out back in the gardens and orchard, he’d simply put his arm over my breasts and spoon into me – just cuddle me tight, whisper into my ear. Occasionally, I was asleep when he entered my chamber and he’d take pains not to wake me. But I knew – in the morning there’d be evidence of his presence. Sometimes I’d wake as the dawn broke and we’d be passionate. Most nights, though, I’d be waiting for him and usually his man-member would soon be erect and I’d guide him into me. He was slow and considerate – he would never take me quickly and urgently as had been my experience with my late, departed husband. My dusky man’s ministrations were so controlled and powerful he usually had me in such fervour I would cry out into my pillows. He always left me soon after the dawn, going back to his duties – my charcoal coloured man of the night.

The old woman, a septuagenarian now, sat by her window overlooking Sabattus Street. The Maine spring was morphing into another summer, but a cool maritime breeze ruffled the curtains as she attempted to air the room before her departure. Odile was awaiting the arrival of Lyman, her eldest son, named after his father. Her other boy was far away, across the Atlantic, with the troops fighting for the country of her birth. Her adopted nation was yet to enter the great European conflict, but the signs were it was only a matter of time before the United States did. The Huns had committed one atrocity too many. She knew war. Not first hand, of course, but the damage its barbarism could do – and this one, according to the reports she read in the press, was even more consuming in its sacrifice of men than the battles that tore her country apart when she was a young woman.

Lyman was to accompany his mother to the railway station and travel with her down to Philadelphia. She would now become a guest in his home – she hoped not an unwelcome one. Odile Ham had a pleasant relationship with her daughter-in-law, Sarah. And she adored her grandchildren. But they were growing up too quickly. Odile knew she would spend her final days in the bosom of their family. She was glad to do so. Mentally, on this late March day, 1916, she was ready for what lay ahead.

The huge old house, facing hard up against Sabattus Street, was far too big for her now. In fact it had been that way for a while. Most rooms had long been shuttered up and staff laid off. The death of her beloved Avril, a year or so previous, had been the indication that she could no longer carry on in her present circumstances. These days she lived frugally; even though, on paper, she was still a wealthy woman, thanks to Lyman Senior. Both her sons were doing fine in their own right, so she had seen to it the grand children would inherit. The house would revert to her brother-in-law’s family.

For all her life she had prided herself on always thinking ahead. She had trained her mind not to dwell on the past. But in the last week there came much cause for her to revisit her memories. The first came in the form of an unexpected post, a letter that took her back to those war years. It solved a conundrum for her, one that had fluttered around the periphery of her thoughts. He’d left her in1865, once peace had been declared. No, not her husband – he’d passed before the guns fell silent. She had never let what became of her real love to unduly trouble her, never sought to find out – but now she knew. That was deeply satisfying; even if, uncharacteristically, she’d shed a tear at the news and precious item the envelope also contained.

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The second need for recollection was, of course, the publication of her reminiscences of a long life lived in Lewiston – she being very much regarded as a town matriarch. The Daily Sun had issued them a few days ago to mark her impending departure. She was rereading the full page article as she awaited the carriage that would take her and her son to the station. She still preferred the old ways – these new ‘infernal’ combustion horseless contraptions were noisy, smelly and wholly unacceptable on the byways to her way of thinking – but she quite liked the idea of going up in a flying machine one day. She must broach that subject with Lyman.

She recalled the reporter visiting a few weeks beforehand after a telephone call from his editor. He resembled a weasel, this young fellow in a greasy suit with overly slicked hair and acrid body odour – not her cup of tea at all. But, credit where it is due, his article was well constructed. She enjoyed reading it – even if it was as far from the truth as it was possible to be. ‘A woman has to do what a woman has to do,’ she thought. The piece reflected on her prominence, for decades, in the little city’s social scene. It told of her former husband being brother to and partner in business with the burg’s first mayor, Jacob Barker Ham. Together the pair had set up a profitable textile mill on the banks of the Androscoggin River that flowed through the town’s heart, driving its industry. Lyman Senior, the article informed, was now long buried, lost in the final year of that other terrible conflict, the war between the states. There were no wounds involved in his demise. It, she knew, was the result of his unsustainable habits, although there was no mention of that in print. To all outward appearances his widow had stayed true to his memory. She knew, as she reclined in the sun’s rays coming in through the window, warming her, that the real story of her life was very different to one she was now engaged in perusing. It was a story she could only tell to herself, as she was now doing, These thoughts provided a very different parallel to the scribe’s account in the journal of the town’s happenings.

Copies of the newspaper were packed away in her trunks to distribute to family members on her arrival in Pennsylvania’s largest city. Her husband’s good name would never be sullied by her. She was now enjoying revisiting those early years in the calm before her boy was due. She didn’t allow herself to go back into past times too often, but on this auspicious occasion she felt she could indulge herself. Aiding what Deaver, her interviewer, had written was the image that sat next to the letter on the small table beside her. She would not entrust either to the trunks – both would travel in her handbag. The portrait she regarded was the finest ever captured, by artist or photographer, of her. It was when her beauty was at its peak – taken soon after her spouse’s death. It once had a pair, kept in her chamber – and, until recently, she thought that one had been lost to her long ago.

As the newspaper biography imparted, she was not a native of the United States, but was born to the north, across the Canadian border. She was Québécois, from Pleissisville to be perfectly exact, close to the southern shore of the St Lawrence. She and her two sisters, Maëlle and Vivianne, were born to that sleepy backwater. Her father worked the land, hiring himself out as a labourer to local farmers. He also owned a small apple orchard that bought in some seasonal money from its produce and he turned its windfall into a palatable cider, popular in the small community. There was enough from his toil to keep the wolf from the door, but it was a hardscrabble life and her father yearned for betterment. Their mother had married down, it was accepted, part of the cause for her husband’s dissatisfaction. He badly wanted to prove himself to her family – to join the droves crossing the border to work the Maine mills, as his brother had done. Her mother would not be shifted away from her family connections. It was she who taught Odile and her sisters much about keeping a house in the proper manner and Odile could read and write, albeit in the archaic French that was the patois of the region. Then, in her eighteenth year, tragedy struck when a fourth female child was stillborn and Odile’s mother, Francine Aubois, gaunt already, died of the toll the exertions took on her body. Strangely, although he grieved, her father seemed to become re-energised by this turn of events and they were soon packing, making ready for a cart to take them to his land of dreams.

The old lady informed Deaver that they settled in the town, up-country from Portland, just as the new mills were springing up along the Androscoggin. Her father knew that, with three able-bodied girls to work the looms; with himself fit and able for any labouring, employment would soon be forthcoming for all. It was. Her father repeated a mantra over and over again that here in Maine they finally had a future – if they took their chances. The chance soon arose. He took it without remorse. But of course that’s not how she phrased events to journalist Deaver. Back then Odile knew she was a beauty to behold, even if she was still held back by her circumstances. Although she possessed little experience in the ways of men, Odile was worldly enough to know that there could be currency in her looks – and her father was no dullard. He knew it too. She was statuesque, well proportioned with a clear complexion. But it was her hair – all who encountered her commented on it. Thick and luxuriant, if somewhat unruly, it crowned her fine features and ensured, even without the frippery of fashion, that she stood out to a discerning eye. Odile was a beauty.

A gentleman of discerning eye was close to entering her life. By 1858 the motherless family was settled into Little Canada, as the area around Lisbon Street in Lewiston, housing the immigrants from the north, was termed. Soon jobs were found at the new Ham Brothers Mill, the girls on the weaving machines, the father packing the product for transportation to the four corners of the country and beyond.

As for the mill owners, Odile knew little of Jacob or Lyman, apart from the gossip on the factory floor. The senior brother, it was passed on to her, had a large brood of offsprings and political aspirations. On the other hand, Lyman was a widower and childless. There was, it was said in lowered tones, some mystery about his wife’s demise.

Then, in 1861, war broke out. Odile noticed that many of the younger men folk departed, replaced by extra women, as well as Negro men who’d arrived recently and mysteriously in the town. The looms were soon making uniforms of blue for the Union army.

This was the nub of the version provided by the old woman for public consumption, the events suitably sanitised. But what followed deviated from the truth markedly – what happened when a pair of discerning eyes first alighted on her. Deaver almost swooned when she reported how the younger brother, on a rare visit, spotted her at her tasks and was immediately smitten. He arranged an introduction and she was impressed with his impeccable manner and deportment. This, it appeared to her, was a Christian man of substance. He proposed after a few weeks of ‘walking out together’ and she readily accepted. She vowed at a small, but exquisite, wedding service that she would serve him to the end of their days together. The old lady dabbed at her eyes as she told how short that period of service would turn out to be, but at least she was able to provide him two fine heirs. Deaver was not to know they were crocodile tears.

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Thinking back now to how it all came about – the events that brought me to this stage in my life – a woman well past her prime with her independent existence now largely over – much of the tale can never be known. I feel no shame about it – but I doubt that the society I live in would agree. My son would be mortified for his good standing – although I think Davy would be more one to understand. We ‘Canadiens’, as the locals referred to us Québécois, seem much more liberal about such things – probably the French in us – and he has chosen to live his adult life in my birth country. I wish he were there now, across the border, instead of being in over there in France, albeit away from harm. Lyman Jr is far too American to have any flexibility in his views

No I have no regrets about the way Lyman Senior took me away from that dust-moted mill. I knew, deep down, that I’d have my day in the sun – that I was destined for a life better than sweating on a factory floor. I only needed the means – and he certainly provided me with that. The war was now well under-way when I noticed his presence in my part of the factory more and more. He was hard to miss. His face was dominated by that bushy black beard. He was quite ample in girth and with that stove-pipe hat, seemed very imposing. He always had his cigar in place, in hand or mouth, leaving a stinky odour in his wake. I was initially perplexed by this and the inordinate amount of time he seemed to be spending looking my way. But still, it came to the stage that I missed him when he did not appear – but love at first sight? It was never remotely that.

One day something unusual happened. My father appeared on the floor and informed me that a carriage was waiting outside for me. Stunned, I demanded of him what was going on. Father told me that Mr Ham had taken an interest in me and had a proposition. He then told me I was not to let him down in this matter as certain arrangements had been made in my best interest. I was required to return to our lodgings, pack and he would take me to the younger Ham’s home on Sabattus Street.

When we arrived it was apparent that Mr Lyman Ham was indeed expecting me, greeting me politely at the front door before withdrawing. I was taken to the elegant front reception room and was told to wait. My father then disappeared. On his return he quickly kissed me on both cheeks, told me that this was my chance and that I should take care not to ruin it. He then bade me farewell. I was not to set eyes on him, or my sisters, again. In due course Lyman informed me that I had cost him ‘a pretty penny’. But then, I was no fool either.

The old lady continued her responses to the journalist’s queries. She informed Deaver that her marriage had been the happiest period of her long existence, being so fruitful in producing two fine sons. She told her whiffy interviewer she received immense pleasure from running the household, thus allowing her new husband to concentrate on his business interests. Odile Ham described how this consisted of a bevy of indoor maids, cooks and eventually a trusted nanny for each of the lads. Out the back there were the gardens and orchard to be cultivated and managed. The man directly responsible for all this was a Mr Cherry, but her input was essential. Cherry came in each day, but the female staff lived at the top of the house in small attic vestibules. The men, maintaining the outdoor areas, bedded down in various outhouses. What was unusual for Lewiston, before the war, was that the indoor staff had been largely Negro rather than young local girls. That remained the case once the conflict between the states commenced, but when all the young white men left to fight, the reliance on former slaves in the gardens also became more pronounced.

I remember, that on my very first day, after my father took his leave, the whiskery, self-important Cherry came to fetch me and accompanied me to Lyman Ham’s study. Words were exchanged between the two men and Cherry went off and summoned a black maid to join us. She spoke my language, although with a markedly different inflection. Later I was to discover that she was originally from Louisiana. In fact Avril was to become my closest confidante and dearest friend – but I did not know this then. I was shown my room. It was full of the latest furnishings and even possessed a wash stand. The drapes were heavy and rich in colour. Avril then then took me to the bath house, told me to step out of my clothing and assisted me in scrubbing myself from top to bottom. She then spent several hours attending to my hair, ensuring it was ready for Mr Ham’s visit which, she informed me, was imminent. When she left I tried the door to my chamber. As I suspected, it was locked.

And hour or so later Lyman came to my room. He knocked, unlocked the door and with Avril in tow to translate, explained my situation. He said I was no prisoner. I was free to go at any time but if I did so I would never see him again, nor work at his mill. No more money would be forthcoming to my father. He stated that Avril would be assigned as my personal maid and I would learn English with her assistance. When it was considered that I was ready to face polite society, as he put it, Lyman would take me as his bride. In return I would be paid a handsome stipend for the rest of my life with him and be fairly rewarded in his will should he predecease me. He also told me that he would continue to look after my father and sisters. It was to be hoped that there would be progeny from this ‘arrangement’, that I would give him an heir. To all this I readily agreed for, after all, I was no fool.
Deaver wanted to know about her time with Lyman in more detail. What was he like? She told him of her great sadness at her husband’s early demise, he not even living to see the Union armies defeat of the Confederacy. Odile reported that the massive turnout of citizenry at his funeral confirmed his standing in the hearts of the Lewiston town folk. His brother, Jacob, by now mayor, gave a fine eulogy and many spoke of his generous attributes. She also praised his tireless work for the anti-slavery leagues in Maine. This was particularly noted in the newspaper. She also praised his first-hand efforts to ease the plight of the Negro. The old lady told Deaver that he was part of the ‘Underground Railroad’, essential in getting many escaped slaves to safety in the North and across the border into Canada. His house on Sabattus Street was a refuge, with many former plantation slaves being gainfully employed in his kitchen and gardens. He encouraged his brother to use his influence so Lewiston never enacted by-laws that dissuaded black men and women coming into their community. Many other municipal councils did this throughout the state of Maine. Negros also came to be employed in his factory. Lyman never exploited them as did other mill owners for, with the white boys away fighting to free their black brethren, he felt it his Christian duty to treat them with dignity. Of course, he was a firm supporter of Lincoln. All this contributed to Odile’s grief at his passing, leaving to her sole care of the two young boys he doted on.

I smiled as I reread my description of my husband in print. In truth our wedding was held in secret. My origin was too low, my looks and manner not yet refined enough to be presented to local society so soon. And my English was only very rudimentary at that stage. Even prior to my vows being taken Lyman was a regular visitor to my bedroom. The first time it felt my body would split in two. With Lyman it was always perfunctory and quickly over. He always returned to his own quarters immediately after coitus. He wasn’t deliberately cruel in any way though. I conceived quickly, causing some consternation as we now had to be wed before I showed. Therefore there was no elaborate ceremony – I was still too uncouth for that. Being no fool, I threw myself into my improvement, with Avril by now indispensable to me – and so she would remain.

As soon as I was in the family way I was no longer subjected to Lyman’s body pounding into mine. He was so heavy it was almost unbearable, so in truth I was relieved at this turn of events. Shortly after our first born came into the world his bedroom visitations returned, until it was confirmed I was pregnant with Davy. After that I was celibate for the rest of my marriage. I doubted that was true for Lyman. And by my second son’s birth I was well and truly that – married. And what’s more, I was ready for my introduction to the wider community as mistress of the household and now a suitable hostess for the many social events we held together, Lyman and I, at our grand Sabattus Street residence. We were also frequent guests at the fine houses of many of the town’s dignitaries. I enjoyed this aspect of our brief time together immensely.

Apart from that, our daily routines kept us apart – he at the factory, I in our home or visiting lady friends. We met over dinner each evening to discuss arrangements, but Lyman always retired early to his quarters – quarters I was forbidden to visit. Of course my suspicions were aroused very early on – but I didn’t really discover why I was so cursorily dismissed each night till after his passing. And that arrived soon enough.

Now, there is no other way to put this, but Lyman was a man of huge appetites. He consumed copious amounts of meat and game, but disdained much of the produce the gardens and orchard grew. Red wine and whiskey went down his gullet in impressive amounts and he never ceased to be chomping on his disgusting cigars. No wonder he dropped dead at forty-nine. Later, I also discovered, he consumed copious portions of something else as well. In fact, he was in the process of doing so when his heart gave out. It was just as I suspected, for I was no fool.

The representative from the town’s leading daily asked his old aristocratic-appearing interviewee about her relationship with the black workers who arrived from the south, giving their labour to her household. Odile Ham explained that for most it was a staging post before they journeyed to other parts, mainly across the border into Canada. Few stayed longer than a couple of months, although she stated Lyman encouraged those who displayed genuine promise in their duties to remain on. One such was her dear, recently departed personal maid, Avril. The work outside was very much seasonal, adding to the turnover. She explained that Mr Cherry made all the arrangements for employment and dismissal. She knew what they earned was only a pittance, but all their workers were provided equally with ample food and shelter. As for her relationships with them, apart from her devoted Avril, she was largely aloof – but always polite. It was not done to be seen fraternising too closely. There were occasions when the former black employees returned to the mansion, resplendent in blue uniform, on their way south to fight in the Negro battalions of the Union army. She felt proud that what they wore with such pride may have been made in her husband’s very own mill. As for Lyman, when this occurred, he greeted them warmly, always making sure they had a bed for the night if needed, as well as a generous bag of victuals to see them on their way.

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Yes, I really did keep my distance. Of course Avril, to me, was much more than a maid – she became my closest companion, confidante and later, in a way, co-conspirator. Even the nature of this relationship had to be kept secret from the cronies around town who delighted in gossip and ruining reputations. I had some friends, wives of the businessmen and dignitaries we entertained, but there were none that rivalled Avril as keeper of my inner thoughts – and my, let us say, later active night life. Knowledge of the latter would have produced scandal and ruined me. Lewiston prided itself of being an upstanding, God-fearing community. Avril will always have a special place in my heart till the day I pass – she spoke my native tongue, was the creator of the way I wore my hair, became Davy’s nanny and finally, the carrier to me of my husband’s greatest secret.

Davy was a sickly child who needed special nursing, something I’d only entrust to Avril. He grew into a strapping army major – though thankfully not one who would see active service in this terrible conflict in Europe. I think my Avril is responsible for that transformation. I would certainly have no other maid attend to my personal grooming, especially my hair.

It was Arvil’s friendship and good counsel that saw me through years of marriage. She was the one that was a salve to my loneliness in that regard. And, after Lyman’s demise – she let the cat out of the bag. She told me of his mammoth appetite for the young Negresses who passed through this old house. I had confided my suspicions just before the funeral and Avril tried alleviate my concerns. She shrugged it off saying it was all scuttlebutt. But soon after he was laid to rest she came to me and told me she had lied to me for the first time. She wanted me to get through the service and burial. I’d be on show for the whole town. She didn’t want anything of an unsavoury nature wearing me down. Then she told me of how he picked them out, the ones he’d share his bed with – the same way as he more or less selected me from all the other mill girls. It was Cherry who organised it all – who gave the chosen ones little choice but to acquiesce if they knew what was good for them. I asked if she was one of them and she nodded her head. She said it was the ‘plantation way’ – pretty girls were expected to ‘serve’ their white masters – why would it be any different in the north? Those who fell pregnant were sent on their way – Lyman always gave those fallen with child enough monies to ensure they caused no trouble. It seems Avril, with her exotic looks and accent, was similarly favoured and soon she too was pregnant. She was sent away with the usual parting gift, but as her child was still-born, she returned and Lyman was welcoming, but she never graced his chamber again. She said that Lyman was a ‘good’ master compared to those of her knowledge in the south and that she was happy in his employ – even more so now that I had arrived.

So, you see, there is much humour for me in these newspaper columns extolling my time in Lewiston . I did have another life, a parallel existence if you like. That one was for no readership, for Odile Ham is nobody’s fool.

One morning, after the funeral, I rose early, just as the dawn was breaking. I recall the night had been one of interrupted sleep and it was just before the reading of Lyman’s will. At that stage I was unsure of my future – what was to become of me? I was troubled. All I had was his promise. As it transpired he was true to his word. His lawyer informed me I had the use of the house and its complement of servants for as long as I cared to live in the Maine mill town. All else would pass to our sons, with brother Jacob appointed to oversee their affairs till they reached majority age. I found Jacob to be the most understanding of men in such matters – he even agreed to cease Cherry’s employment. I never liked nor trusted that odious man. His role, in all but name, became Avril’s position – with Jacob’s blessing. But I doubt my brother-in-law would have been as tolerant had he known the extent of my secret doings in the grand house.

That morning I felt like some air, but I knew there would be still a crispness that indicated summer no where near ready to bloom. I wrapped a shawl around my night attire. I felt an early walk down to the orchard and back would clear my head, possibly placing me in a better frame of mind. The garden was dewy, fresh and invigorating; my bare feet relishing the soft grass despite the chill. Before the orchard were the out-buildings housing the Negro workers, but all was quiet at that hour so I felt it reasonable that I should proceed beyond them. It was then, as I followed the track around to the rear of those clap-board huts, that I spotted him a short distance away. He had his unclad back to me and was engaged in his morning ablutions, washing down his body with a wetted rag. He looked a magnificent specimen, perfect in every way – apart from severe welts striping his back. It was the first time I’d seen a man in his naked glory.

In truth, it was not the first time I’d noticed this Negro’s presence. I’d seen him quite often during those spring months – always with the same boy beside him, hoeing away or at some such task. He reliably removed his cap and bowed slightly when he espied me in passing. Occasionally he’d greet me with a, ‘Morning Missus.’ – and I would acknowledge this with a tilt of my head, in response. If I was being completely honest, it arrived to the situation whereby I would look forward to an encounter with him. I started wandering the gardens more frequently in the hope that I would see him. Often I would even watch him, for some time, from a secluded vantage point. Once I was forward enough to inquire of him about his constant companion. What was he called; how old was he? To that he answered, ‘I have no idea of his true name or birth, Missus, just as I know not my very own. I call him Job for he is always doing a very good job for me.’ With that he let out a laugh that came from deep inside. With it I spotted those startling ivory white teeth of his, so distinct against his black features.

Seeing him unclothed in those early hours I felt it wise to beat a hasty retreat. He must have sensed me there so he turned before I could withdraw. Our eyes locked and he showed no inclination to hide his most private part from me. Then he raised his arm and beckoned me over. I didn’t hesitate. I was no fool, was I?

As she predicted he would, the scribbler asked her how she had managed all these years alone in this large house on Sabattus Street. Odile knew full well what he was alluding to – as if she’d she let him in on her secrets! She responded with a litany of all that kept her busy – her many friends; her community work with the poor and later her involvement in the movement for women’s suffrage. She told of her travels within the US and abroad; her love of going to Philadelphia and doting on her grandchildren. She had no time, she stated, to dwell on the past – and to his credit Deaver had written it all up pretty much as she had relayed it to him. It was an account of a blameless, most worthy life.

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Yes, I certainly had no qualms about approaching him once he had gesticulated to me. He stood motionless as I placed one hand on his moist chest. With the other I took hold of his man-member, marvelling how it rose up, engorged itself and swelled to my touch. He reached under my nightdress and I felt him press gently inside. He took his time, I took mine and I felt what it could  possibly be  like with a man. After our exquisite fumblings I rearranged my attire and asked that he be present in the same spot for another assignation the next morning, followed by another and so on. I wouldn’t allow him to enter me with his man-member, but I did allow him to see me naked in return once we found a secluded bower amongst the blossoming apple trees. I knew I had to have more of this man, but how could that be possible? I was too concerned with the consequences, considering how easily I had conceived with Lyman. After a most satisfactory series of trysts as the sun came up, I informed my dark lover that I wished for him to share my bed. He laughed and asked how could that  occur. At that stage I didn’t know – and it was then that I took Avril into my confidence. I’d shared all else with her – why not this? If she was in any way shocked she didn’t show it. She told me of a door she would leave unlatched of a night and that, if there was any gossip with the servants, she would see to that too. Avril, then and later, became my Mr Cherry.

On that first night he lay between my sheets I informed him how much I wanted his man-member inside me. I confided my fears that that could never occur – but with that he surprised me by whispering, ‘Now don’ you worry Missus. I will be careful and I promise, you will never bear a little-un to me.’ I believed him and he was true to his word. He was the most considerate of lovers – I can judge that now. He gave me such pleasure in those few months of our joining together, but I knew – I just knew. It couldn’t last – for I was no fool.

Deaver had been admiring the portrait of her as a younger woman. Odile could see that he was quite taken by it. In the end he asked – did it have some special significance? He referred to it as being very fine. Odile Ham replied that she decided to have it taken in Mr Crosby’s new studio in the town, in the last year of the war, to alleviate her mourning – and to please herself. She confided to him that, at twenty-five, she felt she was at the height of her charms and she wanted a record of it to look back on when, as now, her beauty had faded. Deaver seemed very pleased with her answer. He remarked on how beguiling her hair in particular was arranged. Odile reached up to her now lustre-less grey braids and told him that there is no joy to be had from her hair now, that sometimes growing old does disappoint. She remembered back to the morning of her appointment with the photographer; to just how long and hard Avril had laboured to get her coiffure shaped just so. She gave thanks to Deaver for his compliments and felt a little softer towards him. She explained to him that a long time ago there had been a smaller copy of it in her private quarters but that had long disappeared. She was on the tip of saying that it had been returned to her only recently – but that was going too far towards a place that no one else should enter.

As we lay together, after our coitus, we talked of many things. He told me of his early years on a Georgia cotton plantation, working all the hours of daylight for as far back as he could remember. He had no real memories of his parents. He told of the overseers and their whips, of some of the lashings he had endured. He spoke of the plantation owners and their treatment of the womenfolk. They forced to their beds any who took their fancy, married or not, some barely into double figures in years. He told me of his despair that he would never achieve a better life. When he worked out that the ‘Underground Railway’ was more than just a rumour, he resolved to take his chances and escape. He moved north from safe house to safe house, suffering many tribulations in doing so. En route he’d heard word of the house in Lewiston where he might find work, as well as a haven – and so it was. He informed that Ham had been a considerate man. Had he still been alive he would never have been so forward as he had been that first morning. He had found peace of heart and was happy to see out the summer behind the house on Sabattus Street. These last words cut me to my core for, by then, I knew I was in love. It was not just total lustfulness on my part.

I asked how old he imagined himself to be. ‘I truly not know Missus’, he breathed into my ear, ‘but I calculate somewhere betwixt thirty and forty years on this good earth.’ I remember him saying that like it was just yesterday.

Then it came as I knew it would. He had already lingered far longer than I had a right to expect. It was well into the autumn that I awoke one morning without him beside me. That was not unusual as he often departed before my eyes were open, but I sensed that something else was not as it should be. It took a while to discern what it was – but then I noticed an empty frame on the bedside table. My small portrait was not behind its glass. I dressed quickly and went out to the gardens at the rear. He was neither there nor in the orchard. I made inquiries from the others working and was told that he had packed up and was gone without saying farewells to anyone. A short time later it became clear that Job had left with my Negro man. I had known for some time that it had to end, but still I was distressed. But then I realised he had given me something that eased my grief – he’d given me a certain kind of freedom. I would put that freedom to good use for then, as now, I am no fool.

She remembered the reporter closing his notebook and taking leave from her, praising Odile for her fulsome and honest responses. ‘If only he knew – that would set the cat among the pigeons.’ she thought to herself. She initially considered Deaver a man of little merit but, once reading the article, perhaps not quite the fool she originally took him to be. She had warmed to him over the course of their discussions – but he was so far from the type she invited to her bed once upon a time. He would never know the real truth of her life. As she sat and waited, Odile cast her mind back over the lovers that had populated her world since the departure of her ‘original sin’. She had remained alluring till well into her fifties, taking great comfort in the charm and attention of the menfolk who came calling over the years. If she approved, she took them to her chamber. She only gave herself to men of breeding. With Avril’s assistance it was all so terribly discreet. Many had departed after a few beddings – semi-paralysed with fear that wives and family would discover their indiscretions. Some souls of a more libertine nature stayed around longer, but of course they had to measure up where it counted – her first indiscretion had given her a taste of how men could truly please. Some were fumblers – she couldn’t abide that. She can truthfully say that she never fell in love again. Few of her lovers were free – and really, she preferred it that way.

Now she was too old for all that. Odile prepared to resign herself to devoting her remaining years to her grandchildren, but knew she – when allowing herself revisit the past – would miss her home hard up against Sabattus Street. When she was young, she had imagined a life akin to the one she’d had here. Luck went her way – but she knew her great beauty made it all possible. She thought of those of her gender who had devoted themselves to just one man – even after they had long departed. These women, she muttered, were the true fools – not her.

At long last Odile was removed from her reverie by a rap at the door down below. Lyman Junior had arrived. She reached for her portrait and the other item that lay beside it – the letter. In it was an exact copy of that very same portrait, taken so long ago now – only smaller. The envelope was adorned with a Canadian stamp – it had come down from Louzon, on the banks of the St Lawrence, not so far from where she herself had been born over seventy years beforehand. It was ironic, she thought, that he had been so close to her in that way throughout all these years. The signatory had informed her of the passing of one Otis Freeborn. In his will her ‘dusky man’ had instructed that the small photograph, wrongfully taken many years beforehand, be returned to its rightful owner. The letter was signed – Jobias Freeborn.

unknown beauty

The Unknown Beauty by Curtis Crosby, Lewiston, Maine, USA, ca. 1870

1 thought on “The Unknown Beauty

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