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IN THE CHARLESTON MANNER
A Southern Mystery
Second in the Sheila Travis series
Author: Patricia Sprinkle
South Carolina, everything moves slowly. Languid mules, pulling ancient
carriages around the Battery. Carpenters, restoring buildings first refurbished
long before the Civil War. Sailboats, lazing across the bay. Bees, buzzing
away spring afternoons. Nothing hurries. Not even murder.
It was late afternoon,
and still Francine had not come. Dolly tried once again to pin her soft
hair into a bun on top of her head, but arthritis made stiff sausages
of her fingers and sent waves of pain up her forearms.
"Oh, bother!" She was more annoyed with
her body than with her absent nurse. After all, she had given Francine
the afternoon off. But why was the woman so late? Dolly fumbled for the
gold watch that swung from a chain around her neck. Ten past six. In another
five minutes it would be time to go down, and she had especially wanted
to put on a fresh wrapper. This week was so hot for March. Still, it was
not half as important to change clothes as it was to get downstairs first.
Dolly liked to be in the living room, sherry in hand, before Cousin Annie
and the Judge arrived. It preserved, she felt, a modicum of dignity, a
shred of the illusion that she was still in control of her life and her
It was Wednesday, when the whole family came for
dinner. They came other times, too, of course, flowed in and out so often
that a stranger might wonder who actually lived in the old Wimberly house
and who lived elsewhere. But on Wednesdays they washed their faces and
changed their clothes before they came.
Every Wednesday Nell brought out the damask tablecloth
and napkins, soft as butter from many washings and faded to the color
of a spring sky. She planned a company dinner that took her all afternoon
to prepare. Marion came home early from the shop to pick flowers for the
cut-glass bowl on the table. One of the twins arrived soon after six to
lay the gold-rimmed plates and heavy silver their thrice-great-grandmother
had successfully concealed from the Yankees. Buddy left the restaurant
by half past, to pick up the other twin on his way. And just before Cousin
Annie steered Judge Black by one elbow up the sidewalk from the house
next door, Francine wheeled Dolly into the elevator andfor
the only time all weekdownstairs
But where was everyone tonight? With difficulty
Dolly propelled herself to the doorway of her bedroom and listened intently.
She heard Marion ask a question, Nell rumble a honey-soft reply. No lively
chatter from Rake or gentle hum from Becca.
Mildly troubled, she returned to her mirror. She
hoped no one was ill. Then, illogically, she hoped someone was. What else
would Marion forgive? "Don't borrow trouble, dear," she told
her reflection with an insouciance born of years of putting up with her
elder sister's tart temper. "Your immediate problem is what to do
with that mop of hair."
Her hair was one of Dolly's glories. Still honey-brown
with only a few threads of gray, it flowed past her shoulders in waves
to curl impudently at the ends. But it was too soft for her unwilling
fingers to control. She reached for another pin and tried again. When
she dropped the pin behind her and heard it hit the wide old floorboards,
she could have wept with frustration.
Instead, she knotted her hands in her lap and
took three deep breaths. Jamison had been blunt last week about the condition
of her heart, and she certainly wasn't going to get upset over hair streaming
down her back. "It isn't worth dying for," she reminded herself,
brushing it as well as she could.
She wheeled herself awkwardly out into the hall
and across to her sitting room with its bay window overlooking the street.
En route to the window she changed direction toward the love-seat, fumbled
beside a cushion, and almost crowed in triumph. Rake, who scattered possessions
like a queen distributing bounty, had left an interesting new hair clip
there yesterday. What would it look like on a woman past seventy?
A few minutes later she picked up her hand mirror
to survey the results: a cascading ponytail with a few soft curls around
her face. "Not bad," she murmured. "Maybe even nice, for
a change." She arranged one of the curls to her satisfaction and
reached for a puff to cover her face in a layer of soft white powder.
Dolly was not a vain woman, but she did, in her own words, "like
to look nice."
When her reflection met her approval, she rearranged
the ruffles on her ample bosom and resolutely wheeled herself over the
threshold and into the small elevator beside the stairs. Just because
she'd never operated the elevator before was no reason she couldn't.
But once inside, she found she had miscalculated.
The elevator, installed where hall closets had been on each floor, was
too tiny for her to maneuver her chair. No amount of twisting could force
her stiff arms to reach the button over her left shoulder. Not for the
first time, Dolly wished her grandfather had built larger closets.
By the time she had backed into the hall and turned
around, she was trembling with weakness, damp from perspiration, and close
to tears. With relief she heard Marion mounting the stairs.
As soon as Marion reached the landing and could
see her sister's wheels, she spoke. "Not a soul is here yet, and
I can't think where they could all be." Her voice was sharp with
irritation, not worry. Marion never worried, but considered tardiness
a capital sin. Her antique store opened promptly at nine, and lagging
afternoon browsers were surprised to find themselves brusquely steered
onto the sidewalk by five.
Marion's head appeared over the top step and her
eyes widened. "What on earth have you done to your hair?"
Dolly smoothed it with a sunny smile. "Do
you like it?"
Except for the shape of their chins and a certain
way they carried their heads, no one would have known they were sisters.
Where Dolly was round, Marion was angular. Where Dolly was soft, Marion
was firm. Dolly's eyes could have been made from chips of sky, Marion's
from bits of bright coal. And unlike Dolly's fine, brown hair, Marion's
was thick, the color of old pewter, and wornas
she herself would have saidsensibly
short. Her mouth twisted as she surveyed her younger sister's newly arranged
curls. "Not on a woman your age. But it's too late to do anything
about it now. I just heard Annie coming up the sidewalk." Deftlyfor
Marion was still strongshe pushed
Dolly into the elevator and jabbed the button. "Where's Francine?"
"I gave her the afternoon off. Nell was in
the kitchen, and I couldn't stand to have anyone puttering around me.
It's too hot."
"She's not supposed to leave you alone."
Dolly could almost see Marion's lips tightening. "And I can't imagine
where she could have gone this late."
Dolly hesitated. She hated to upset Marion further,
but she'd know soon enough. "I think she and Buddy went out to Boone
"Humph." Dolly couldn't tell if Marion's
snort was for Buddy's taking Francine somewhere, or for his taking an
afternoon off. Thank goodness they reached the first floor before Marion
could say more.
They found Cousin Annie and the Judge hovering
just inside the screen door, looking uncertainly first into the living
room then into the dining room across the hall, where Nell moved around
the table like a portly dark shadow. Annie often looked like a bird. Tonight,
peering from side to side in a pale-blue double-knit suit and a pink blouse
that strained over her plump chest, she only needed a perch to make the
"Come on in," Nell was saying, not breaking
her rhythm distributing silverware. Under most circumstances she would
have greeted the old couple at the door.
What creatures of habit we are, Dolly marveled
silently, when four people late for dinner can throw us all off our stride.
The Judge's almost toothless mouth widened into
a grin as she rolled into the hall. "Now that's what I call a coiffure,
Dolly! Why don't you do that to your hair, woman?"
Annie peered from beneath her scraggy, too-often-permed
bangs. Before she could make an acid comment, Dolly motioned Marion to
push her into the living room. "Who's ready for sherry?" she
asked gaily. "I certainly am."
As usual, Annie made a quick, negative motion.
Also as usual, the Judge ignored her. He shuffled to the couch and planted
himself at one end, hands clasped on his ebony cane and chin tilted defiantly.
"Pour it quick, before my old woman objects. She's always going on
and on about saving my heart. At eighty-nine, who the hell does she think
I'm saving it for?"
He cackled at his own wit. In two gulps he downed
the small sherry Marion had handed him and held out his shaking hand.
"More than that, Marion. That scarcely wet my whistle."
She refilled his glass, saying with the familiarity
of one who'd lived next door most of her life, "That's all you get."
For a few minutes they sat in silence, ears strained
to hear approaching cars or the telephone. "Where is everybody?"
Annie finally asked, making a point of not touching the drink she held.
"I don't know where the girls are. Buddy
and Francine went out to Boone Hall, and I guess they got caught in traffic."
Dolly brushed away a tendril of hair and enjoyed her own sherry. Marion
only permitted her one a week, and she always savored it to the last drop.
The Judge leaned so far forward he almost fell
off the couch. "That traffic gets worse and worse," he said
in a quavering tone. "They just fly up this street. Take Heyward
Bennett, nowcomes speeding in
here like a bat out of hell. I gave him a piece of my mind last week,
and I would've given him a piece of my cane, too, if he'd been close enough.
Rhoda needs to control that boy."
"Heyward's all right," Dolly said indulgently.
"Sowing no more wild oats than you did at twenty-six, I'd wager."
"A sight less," he boasted, "but
I didn't run over old men while I was sowing."
"Are you going to Women of the Church tomorrow
afternoon?" Annie asked Marion. "They're showing the video from
the preacher's trip to China."
Marion nodded. "I promised to take a cake.
Nell will bake it in the morning. I'll pick you up about three."
Relieved that she didn't have to ask, Annie sat
back in her chair and almost relaxed. "How are you getting along
with Francine?" she asked Dolly.
Dolly shook her head. "Nearly drives me crazy,
puttering around. I'm too healthy to need a full-time nurse."
"She ain't full-time nursing." Judge
Black chuckled. "Meeting Heyward under the magnolias in the dark.
Probably takes him in the house, too, when you ain't looking."
"There's no such word as 'ain't,'" Annie
burst out. "And why a man with your education and experience"
"Woman, when a man has my education and experience,
he can say any damn word he pleases. And what's got you so riled up ain't
my language. It's the thought of what them young 'uns might be up to.
Once an old maid, always an old maid," he said to Dolly in a very
audible aside, "even if she has been married nigh on fifteen years."
"I could kill him," Annie muttered.
"Sometimes I could just kill him."
It was time, Dolly felt, to change the subject.
"I've been thinking of asking Francine to write a little history
of our family. What do you think?"
Marion raised a skeptical eyebrow. "What
on earth for?"
Dolly shrugged. "The girls, I guess. When
we're all gone, there's so much nobody else would know."
Annie made a face of disgust. "Don't speak
of such things, Dolly. It's bad luck."
"What you worrying for, gal? I got a good
fifteen years on you, and I ain't worrying about dying." The Judge
held out his glass. "Marion, give me one more sherry."
Marion filled it half full, then turned back to
her sister. "Why, Dolly? You've never been interested in history
before. Aunt Bella and I tried for years"
Dolly interrupted with an impatient wave of her
hand. "I'm still not interested in the United Daughters of the Confederacy
nor the South Carolina Historical Society. I just want a little record
of our family, for the girls. Nobody's ever done one before."
Marion sipped her sherry and shook her head. "For
a very good reason. There's nothing to say. It's a very ordinary family."
The Judge leaned back and worked his thin cheeks
in and out importantly. "Oh, I wouldn't say that. Your mama"
Marion turned sharply, but Dolly interrupted again.
Like most placid women, she could be remarkably stubborn. "No matter
how ordinary it, it's our family. I'd like the girls to have some
notion of where they came from."
The two sisters confronted one another across
the roomMarion lean and tanned,
crisp in white linen, Dolly flowing in ribbons and ruffles out of the
chair that tried to contain her. Marion spoke with a trace of asperity.
"You'd do better to help them decide where they're going."
Dolly sighed softly. The girls seemed to irritate
Marion more these days. Becca by getting so serious about marine biology
when Marion had set her heart on leaving her the shop. And Rake . . .
She picked up her sherry and sipped it to keep
from saying "Rake's all right, Emnot
much different than I was at her age, head full of parties and boys. She'll
settle down." Saying that wouldn't do any good. Marion hadn't approved
of Dolly in those days, either. Better to stick to her guns. "I still
want her to do it."
"But Francine's a nurse, Dolly, not a historian.
What would she know about writing history? If it's just facts you want,
I can . . ."
Dolly shook her head. "No, you don't have
time and she does. All I want is a few pages, saying who married whom
and what they did for a living. Francine can do it in the afternoons while
I'm resting. But she'll need your help to find any old letters or things
that are in the attic. I'd do it, but . . ." She spread her hands
to encompass not only the chair, but her reasons for being in it.
Marion hesitated, then relented. "I'll see
what I can find."
Judge Black leaned even farther forward, until
Annie grabbed his coat and pulled him back. "You want hist'ry, gal,"he
punctuated each word with his empty glass"you
tell Francine to come to me. I've forgotten more hist'ry about your family
than you ever knew. And I wouldn't mind spending a few afternoons with
that bit of fluff. You tell her"
"Speaking of Francine"Annie
quivered on her perch"I
do hope nothing has happened to them."
As if on cue, a car door slammed in the street
beyond the open front window. Feet trooped along the porch, and the screen
door banged. Four voices spoke in unison:
". . . sorry we're late."
"glad you didn't go with us, Aunt Em."
". . . nothing we could do."
Rake's voice rose dramatically over them all.
"We could have all been killed!"
© 2017 Patricia Sprinkle