Everyone is born with a special talent a gift. Or so they say. Beatrice Wallace believed that and that hers was that of a good memory. She could recall events in her life in precise detail. They came to her in dreams every night. The things in our life we forget may never have happened, but she had many memories, real and illusive. She used to tell her best friend Victoria that her memory was like a book where they had come to know one another, on the pages where all her life was lodged. Awake it was hard to find anything in that muddled confusion, but at night, asleep she could enter the place of her dreams along a well traveled path of visions and return to the harsh light of reality. Or were her dreams reality? She had had the dream so many times she refined it to the point where she could see herself clearly in large rooms and hallways.
“You cannot believe these dreams are connected to reality Beatrice.” Elizabeth insisted the few times the topic was brought up.
Possible or not, these places were imprinted in Beatrice’s psyche, and she could never accept any other explanation.
“You have never lived anywhere but here at Wallace Manor with your father and I,” Elizabeth assured her. “I am sure you are perhaps confusing your dreams with reality.”
Beatrice’s early childhood was a subject not brought up;. such delicate matters were never discussed between Elizabeth Stoddard and her brother William Wallace. However it was aired in whispers in the kitchen. Rosie, the faithful family nanny never wavered in her description of when the child arrived at the plantation. She kept her true knowledge of the matter close to her heart, but her spoken version had turned into somewhat of a fairy tale. According to her, Beatrice had been born on a hot, humid and stormy Georgia night. Her mother had been in hard, exhausting labor for two days before giving birth to the child. Her mother had died shortly thereafter, leaving her father a widower. Closer to Beatrice’s memories was that she had shown up at the estate with her father as a toddler of barely three. He had returned from a trip to England, one of many he had made over the years. He told everyone that his wife, whom had stayed in England to recover from Beatrice’s birth had died shortly before his arrival. He had no choice but to bring his daughter back to Savannah with him.
Beatrice celebrated her birthday on May 20th. Everything else in her life was a web of contradictions and she finally decided that it wasn’t worth the effort to keep pouring over it, because whatever the truth, she could do nothing to change it. What really matters is who you are and what you do in it, not how you came into it. She would make this statement numerous times to Victoria in the many years of their friendship. Victoria however, did not agree with Beatrice. It was hard for her to envision not being able to believe how and where you came from. Beatrice out of respect for the truth found she did not believe it either. She could remember scents and sounds from early in her life that were not part of Wallace Manor.
Beatrice grew up on the vast plantation of her father. It was located in the middle of vast oak trees covered in years of moss. The house was meant to imitate a style found in vogue in the American South. It had huge white columns and vast porches that encased the house on two levels. In the rear of the house were various windowless rooms with massive doors where her father stored valuable items that tended to disappear if kept elsewhere in the house.
“There are thieves among us. Nowhere else in the world does a man have to spend so much money safeguarding his family’s livelihood? Everything gets stolen if it’s not locked up.” he said every time he had to enter one of the rooms.
From sitting on the porch overlooking the long, tree lined driveway, Beatrice convinced herself that she was the child of a horrible accident and not of a child whose mother had died in childbirth. She wrote in her journal that highway men had found her on the side of the road, amid the debris of the wrecked coach. The stranger wrapped her in his coat, and left her on the doorstep of her father’s house. As time passed, she decided that the story wasn’t all that bad. There was a little mystery to it.
Around the time that Beatrice arrived at Wallace Manor, William was then in his early thirties and beginning to build a promising future with his fledgling company, Wallace Shipping, along with his plantation. In social circles he was known as an honorable man, his word and handshake were as good as a signed contract, an indispensable asset in a business deal, where letters of credit took months to cross the ocean. To William Wallace, his good name was more important than life itself. With much sacrifice on his part, he achieved a solid reputation and the last thing he wanted in his perfect life was this child ruining everything. But his resolve was crushed when he saw his sister, Elizabeth, clinging to the child.
Elizabeth was only twenty-five, but already a woman with a past. She had already been widowed and decided her chances at remarriage were remote. The chances of her having a good marriage were minimal, and even in the best cases, lackluster. Living with her brother William she enjoyed the independence she never would with a husband. She had her life in order and she was not daunted by the stigma attached to a widow. Quite the opposite, she was determined to be the envy of all the wives in the area. But unlike most wives or widows of her age she had no children and that was the one stigma she could not morph into a triumph. William watched his sister at times, feeling guilty for having dragged her all the way from Charleston after the death of her husband. He could not however, avoid a certain smug satisfaction with their mutual arrangement. As the idea of a second marriage faded, Elizabeth’s presence solved all his problems; his social and domestic life. His sister compensated for his solitary nature, and that was why he endured her mood swings and unnecessary expenditures.
Gossip was unavoidable, but William had to resign himself to it. He also accepted that his sister would in time become a second mother, sleeping in Beatrice’s bedroom and creating a general uproar within the house. Elizabeth spread the questionable story of Beatrice’s beginnings, but no one bought it, and since they could not accuse her of a misstep, they assumed the child might actually have been a product of William’s sordid relationships. William made no effort to quash the rumor mill nor defend himself.
When William brought the child to Wallace Manor, Rosie and April, the woman who served them as a cook argued as to where the child came from. They had known William’s dalliances’ with the local women and wondered if Beatrice herself might be the product of one of them.
In the following years, Elizabeth made Beatrice more like her play toy than her niece. She spent hours teaching the child to sing and dance, braiding her hair and dressing her up. But the minute she found something else to divert her attention or was felled by one of her headache’s, she sent the child to Rosie and April. Elizabeth presented her at her musical evenings, and took her out in the carriage to go shopping or to watch the ships coming into the port, or to stop at the finest bakery for a treat. But she could have just as easily spent her days writing in her notebooks or reading a novel without a thought to her young charge. She devoted herself to giving her the best possible education, not overlooking the skills appropriate for a young lady of her station. The day Beatrice threw a tantrum because she did not want to practice the piano, Elizabeth grabbed by the arm and without waiting dragged Beatrice into the carriage and drove her to a nearby orphanage.
“Be thankful of what you have and where you come from. This is where abandoned and unwanted children end up. Do you want this too?”
Speechless, Beatrice shook her head.
“You would do well then to learn to play the piano like the little lady you’ve been brought up to be. Do you understand me?”
Beatrice learned to play and grew into a fondness of it. By the time she was twelve she could accompany her aunt at her musical evenings. She never lost that talent, despite long periods of not playing.
Many years later on a tranquil night as she drank tea and conversed with her good friend Victoria on one of the manor’s porches, Beatrice concluded that her erratic aunt had been a good mother and she was grateful for the internal freedom she had given her. Rosie was the second beacon in Beatrice’s childhood. She clung to her full skirts, followed her around while she did her chores and drove her crazy with all her questions. She did the same with April and by age ten she could almost cook as well as April. She could spend hours shelling beans, all the while listening to April’s mysterious African legends and stories.
Elizabeth and her brother’s had been inseparable since childhood. Charles, who was closest in age to Elizabeth took great pains to bring his sister gifts and boxes of books upon return from his travels. Several of the books ended up under lock and key in Elizabeth’s armoire. William, as master of the house and head of the family, had the right to open his sister’s correspondence, read her private diary, and demand a copy of the keys to her furniture. He never showed any inclination to do so. William and Elizabeth had a no-nonsense relationship but had little in common except their mutual dependence that sometimes seemed closer to a hidden form of hatred. William paid for his sisters necessities, but financed none of her whims, assuming that Charles paid for it as William had kept Elizabeth’s estate away from his sister’s spending. In exchange for all of this she managed the house with style, kept immaculate household accounts and never bothered him with anything that was not absolutely necessary. She had impeccable taste and effortless grace and her presence was a check to the belief that a man without a family was a potential troublemaker.
“It is a man’s nature to be uncivilized; it is a woman’s destiny to preserve good behavior and moral values,” William Wallace pontificated.
“You and I both know brother, that my nature is more savage,” Elizabeth would joke.
Benjamin Smith, a charismatic man with the most beautiful voice heard on those shores, disembarked in Savannah in 1850 with boxes and boxes of the latest women’s toiletries straight from London and Paris. No one was surprised to see him; he was anxiously welcomed by all the female persuasion. His voyage however, was the result of an explorer’s curiosity. He was a footloose bachelor and having no ties in England or anywhere else, the outlandishness of such a voyage was attractive to him. Cheered on by his friends and with the financial backing several large firms, he began the long voyage on a ship bound for Savannah. Benjamin read everything he could on his destination in the Southern United States.
Savannah was more than the weary traveler thought possible. Before his eyes was a port, bustling with ships from around the world. The inky dark waters of the harbor contrasted with the lush green flat terrain. The ship dropped anchor in the harbor amid thousands of seagulls shattering the air with their greedy screeches. Landing boats ferried passengers and cargo from the sailing ships to dry land. Benjamin stepped onto the dock amid sailors, passengers, visitors and wagons. He found himself within a city of such magnificent architecture and cobblestone streets he almost forgot to breath. A carriage drawn by two black bay horses carried him and his trunks to the Hotel Lafayette. They passed countless buildings and residences surrounded by gardens. Off in the distance he glimpsed a fishing village where shacks were exposed to the wind off the harbor and behind them fertile fields were planted with vegetables. He saw coaches as new as any in London or as old as one could imagine.
Benjamin was sitting in the elegant salon of the hotel, taking in the sights. He sighed as sigh of relief. It seemed he would have no problem adapting to his new home. If he managed his money properly he could life here as well as he had in London. Waiting for someone to come serve him, he was approached by Charles Wallace, the captain of the ship he had sailed. Wallace was a hefty man, tall as he was round with black hair and eyes and skin tanned to match. He took pride in his reputation of being a womanizer, card shark and hard drinker. They had struck up a friendship and playing cards entertained the men through the endless nights at sea. Charles Wallace was in the company of a slighter built, well dressed version of himself. He introduced the man as his brother William. It would be difficult to find two brothers more different than these two. Charles was the reflection of health, loud and likeable, while his brother carried on airs, like someone trapped by their own destiny. Without waiting for an invitation, the two men joined him at his table. Finally someone showed up and the sea captain ordered a bottle of whiskey for all.
“How are things in London?” William inquired. His accent was one of the upper class and quite proper in his articulation.
“Nothing ever happens in England,” the captain answered.
“Forgive my curiosity, but did I see you arrive at the hotel with boxes marked ‘Women’s Toiletries’?” asked William.
“You are correct. That is what they are.”
“No one told us another merchant would be arriving.”
“We were at sea together and not once did I make you out to be a shop-keep, Mr. Franklin,” the captain exclaimed.
“I must make a confession, that I am not,” Smith replied, desperately trying to hide his nervousness of the subject.
“Oh? Then what?” William commented. “Sell your wares to the highest bidder?”
“Had I known Mr. Smith that you were coming to ruin our fair ladies, I would have thrown you overboard in the middle of the Atlantic.”
They were interrupted by the arrival of their whiskey. The young woman who brought it to them deliciously poured out of the uniform she wore. It had been weeks since Benjamin Smith had seen a woman and the sight of this one made something flicker within him. Charles waited until the woman had left.
“Careful Benjamin, don’t you know women are fatal,” he said.
“Now I know I’m no authority when it comes to women as I do not have the time for it as I must look after my businesses and our sister, or had you forgotten about her?”
“Not for a second brother; you always remind me. You see, Mr. Franklin, I am the black sheep of our family. My brother here believes a man must be a landowner and profit from his ventures.”
“Mr. Franklin is not interested in our family matters or making a fortune. He has his own interests.”
“Come to my home tomorrow evening. On Wednesdays my sister organizes a little musicale; it will be a good opportunity for you to meet the right people. I will send my carriage to pick you up,” said William Wallace, excusing himself from the situation.
The next day, refreshed by a long bath to remove the salt that clung to his skin and a peaceful night’s sleep, Benjamin Smith went out to walk through the city. He walked along the street that paralleled the river, had a few drinks along the way and ate in a tavern next to the river. He had left England towards the end of winter. He found himself now in a warm and humid land. He got lost more than once and eventually found his way back to his hotel through the streets, stumbling upon romantic plazas that reminded him of London.