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All places where the French settled early have corruption at their heart, a kind of soft, rotten glow, like the phosphorescence of decaying wood, that is oddly attractive. Seductive, even, if my mother-in-law, whose astonishing opinion that was, was to be believed. And she was always believed. The conventional wisdom of her day was that Hannah Stuart Chambliss would rather be burnt at the stake than tell a lie. I don't find that surprising at all. I think the Maid of Orleans role would have pleased Mother Hannah to a fare-thee-well, even the fiery martyr's death. Mother H had a streak of thespian in her as wide as her savage stratum of truth, and she employed it just as fiercely when the need arose. I never knew anyone who escaped those twin lashes except my husband, Peter. He alone might have profited from them.
She told me that, about the corruption and the seduction, on the evening I came to Retreat colony for the first time. It must have been in her mind ever since she first met me, the year before, when Peter took me to the big house in Boston to meet her and his father, but she had never voiced it until then. But it was plain to me--and, I suppose, to Peter--that it, or something like it, lay like an iceberg beneath her austere and beautiful surface. Oh, she smiled her carved Etruscan smile, all the years of our relationship, and hugged me lightly and kissed my cheek with lips like arctic butterflies, but none of us were fooled. I don't think she meant us to be. My unsuitability hung in the pristine air of the Chambliss drawing room like a body odor.
But it was not until Peter brought me as a bride to the old brown cottage on Penobscot Bay, in northern Maine, where the Chamblisses had summered for generations, that she allowed that particular little clot of displeasure to pass, and with it damned me and Charleston, and, indeed the entire indolent, depraved South to Retreat's own efficient purgatory. That she said it with a little hug of my shoulders and a small laugh, in response to something old Mrs. Stallings bellowed in her ginny bray, did nothing to mitigate its sting.
Augusta Stallings looked at me, small and roundly curved and black-eyed and -haired and brown with sun, standing in the chilly camphor dusk of the cottage's living room, and fell upon my utter alienness, in that place of fair straight hair and rain-colored eyes and long bones and teeth and oval New England faces, like a trout on a mayfly.
"Charleston, you say?" she shouted. "Gascoigne, from Charleston? I know some Pinckneys and a Huger, but I never met any Gascoignes. French, is it? Or Creole, I expect. Well, you're a colorful little thing, no doubt about that. You'll open some eyes at the dining hall, my girl."
And that is when my mother-in-law laid her long Stuart arm around my shoulders and made her light little speech about the French and corruption and seduction. My face flamed darker, but I doubt that anyone noticed. The cottage's living room was as dark as a cave because Hannah would rarely allow the huge lilac trees that obscured its windows to be cut. It was the first thing I did after she died.
Peter pulled me close, grinning first at his mother and then at Augusta Stallings.
"The only French who settled in Charleston were four hundred good gray Huguenots on the run after Louis the Fourteenth revoked the Edict of Nantes," he said. "Not a jot or tittle of corruption in the lot of them. Or seductiveness either, I imagine. Unless, of course, you meant that Maude was an octoroon, Mama?"
"Don't be silly, Peter," Hannah said, in a tone that said she had indeed entertained the possibility. There was my dark skin, after all, and the black eyes, and the hair that curled in tight ringlets around my head. And something about the nose....
"You mean a nigger?" Augusta Stallings brayed, peering more closely at me in the cold, pearly dusk. The tumbler of neat gin that she held sloshed onto the sisal rug.Colony. Copyright © by Anne Rivers Siddons. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Colony by Anne Rivers Siddons
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