• Steven Leech

"Fadette’s Secret"


The northbound train on which Dr. Kendal was riding stopped in Wilmington long enough to take on passengers and for a vendor to come aboard briefly to sell copies of The Every Evening. Dr. Kendal, who had been employed part of the year in his advancing age at the Old Soldiers’ Home in Washington D.C., bought a copy. He was travelling to Boston, where he would catch a coach to a little plot of land with a modest cabin homestead in Maine. He bought the newspaper to keep abreast of the latest tensions with Spain. War clouds were looming only weeks after the explosion that had sunk the U.S.S. Maine in Havana’s harbor.

Dr. Kendal had been a deserter during the Civil War some thirty-five years before. As part of the Union medical corps, he’d experience too much battlefield carnage and fled to the peaceful forests of Maine, but after a short spell while he grappled with his conscious, he returned to the battlefield to try to save the wounded. While in Maine, in a hopeful gesture, he’d bought a small piece of land as an incentive. It was there, after the Civil War had ended, that he met Fadette.

Dr. Kendal must have dozed. He was shaken awake by the lurching train. It had just picked up passengers in Philadelphia. In a vacant moment he picked up The Every Evening to read more about the growing war tensions. Growing weary of reading the war mongering rhetoric, he began to leaf through the other pages snatching a morsel of an article here and there. Then he stopped startled on the page that contained the death notice. He had found Fadette. She had died suddenly on April first. He had known her as Fadette, but her real name was Marian C. L. Reeves and her hometown was New Castle, Delaware.

Marian, or Missy as her mother had called her, or “Fadette” as she wished to be called, was also a veteran of the Civil War. She and her family had fled into the Confederacy. Her mother, a granddaughter of George Read, a Signer of the Declaration of Independence, had eventually landed at Rossmere, which was in the Chicot Country, not far from the Mississippi River. He remembered her brown warm eyes, her delicate square jaw, her brown and often disheveled tresses, and her knack for appearing suddenly and almost magically disappearing. She could find those moments when no one was watching to eavesdrop, only to later divulge a tidbit of gossip no one suspected she’d been harboring.

Dr. Kendal and Fadette were both avid readers of books and poems, and often shared the books they’d read. She liked the stories and poems of Edgar Allan Poe, as well as stories by Washington Irving. She had liked their supernatural and sometime nefarious nature. One of the novelists she liked was one who lived in New Castle before she was born. His name was Robert Montgomery Bird, and he had written a novel using the new science of metempsychosis as a theme. She also liked novels by Charles Brockton Brown, James K. Spaulding, and particularly those by Timothy Shay Arthur, which she had found reassuring. She had also read some novels in French, but because Dr. Kendal didn’t know any French, they were not discussed.

Not long after leaving New York, after changing trains for Boston, Dr. Kendal saw a familiar face walking down the aisle toward him. The familiarity was mutual.

There are certain days, or tight knit periods of time, when coincidence gathers, driven by forces as mysterious as covert agents peddling suspicion. The man who settled in the seat beside his was Dallas Fraser.

The last time Fraser and Dr. Kendal had seen one another was in southern New Brunswick, near the border of Maine. The reason they were there was Fadette.

It had not been long after the Civil War. Each separately had been fleeing the aftermath of the war. For both the green and changing seasons were remission for the deep red of fresh blood, the gray of gun smoke and black of gangrene. Better the babbling of the brook and the rich scent of the forest after rain than the distant trembling of cannon fire and sickly stench of death.

The difference for Fadette was that she was fleeing as a refugee, from the raw recriminations from the victorious who gloated in her face back home in New Castle. It was much better to be far away, in a comforting forest and soothing comforting waters.

Many of the manners Fadette had adopted reinforced her recovery from the trauma of war, her ease with avoiding contact with human cruelty, her knack for exiting a scene unnoticed and suddenly reappearing only to make herself inconspicuous almost to the point of being invisible.

Upon his arrival Dr. Kendal had assumed his role as a doctor, and while he was attending to the death throes of a distant relative of Fadette did he first encounter her, brief as it had been.

After greetings infused with surprise Dr. Kendal handed him the newspaper he’d picked up in Wilmington with the page with the news about Fadette opened.

“You most certainly remember her,” pointing to the article.

Fraser, who was about eight years younger and with a fairly full crop of blonde hair and cleanly shaved, took a moment to read the article then fell silent and brooding for a moment.

“Yes,” he said, “how could I forget? Fadette and I got lost when we absently allowed ourselves to drift in a canoe down an unfamiliar stream. We were so captivated by each other. I’m sure you remember. You came along with some others and found us.”

“That was such a brief encounter,” remarked Dr. Kendal smiling beneath his thick moustache, “I thought you might’ve forgotten.”

“It was quite memorable in fact,” said Fraser looking into the past through the train window and into the daylight emerging from the dank of the station. “I got to know Fadette fairly well that day. I even stole a kiss,” he said with a whimsical grin.

Fraser stopped his reverie abruptly.

“Wait a minute,” he said. “Let me see that paper again.”

And rereading the article, he declared, “I’ve heard of this man, one of those hucklebearers. This David Elkinton. About six years before I remember hearing about this case at the office. He and his partners were trying to get out of repaying a loan, yes down in Delaware, to one William Terry by claiming the loan was officiated on a Sunday, which rendered it null and void. What a bunch of yokels,” Fraser chuckled. “Small world indeed.”

“You’re a barrister then?” Dr. Kendal asked.

“Yes, about ten years after I matriculated at law school in Boston and I was admitted to the bar in New York and joined a small law firm.”

“Did you ever find out how she got the name ‘Fadette’?”

“Actually I did,” Fraser replied, “from a character in a French novel by George Sand.”

“Never heard of him.”

“Her,” Fraser replied. “Sand was a woman and her novel Le Petite Fadette was only in French, which she was fluent in.”

“She was that impressed with it, heh?”

“Yes,” continued Fraser. “Evidently Sand wrote the novel just after the political troubles in France in 1848. Sand had a big stake in the losing side.”

“And why did Fadette end up in Maine?” Dr. Kendal asked.

“Well,” Fraser was quick to answer, “life goes on. Actually, she went to Europe first, then came to New Brunswick very near the border with Maine. If you’re on the losing side, whether with what went on in France or with the American Civil War, there’s a lot to suffer, with all the violence and turmoil in the first place and then the recriminations and, in some cases, an impulse for revenge. But for Fadette, and for Sand I suppose, the overwhelming urge was to find peace and healing and redemption. Funny as it may seem, I suspect that was the moment she realized she was destined to be an author. She needed to return to being gentle and regain those tender feelings of the heart. The forest and the stream led her to peace and perfect balance.”

“And what happened to you and Fadette?”

“Well,” continued Fraser raising an introspective eyebrow, “we drew closer. I wanted to marry her, but she demurred. I think there was something she couldn’t tell me that got in the way. Near the time I had to leave, when I had to make decisions on other matters, she asked me suddenly –– she was like that –– if I was related to Stephan Fraser. I said I had a cousin from Kansas who was in some sort of brokerage business in the South. It was then that she grew quiet and I could feel some distance growing between us, which soon grew into a chasm.”

It was then that Fraser fell into pensive silence allowing Dr. Kendal to ask, “What became of Fadette after that?”

His query shook Fraser from his private thoughts. “She eventually returned to New Castle and began to write romances, some with her Aunt Emily. Some were serialized in Goday’s and Arthur’s magazines. Some of them have been made into books. I even heard she’d written about her experience in the Confederacy.”

About six months after the War broke out, Annie Dorsey Read Reeves left New Castle in October 1861 amid jeers of “rebel traitor” with her four children including the twenty year old Marian, who had not yet adopted the name “Fadette.” Annie had decried the tyranny of the “Lincoln government” and the threat to ”our freedom.” She had bemoaned the barrenness of Yankee, Quaker, and Methodist culture and its unwillingness to appreciate the finer qualities of life. With a pistol hidden in her garments, she and her entourage headed to Baltimore.

From Baltimore the five of them, with only spare luggage, boarded a packet for Norfolk and the Confederacy, unlike her distant cousin Lionel Randolph who chose to sneak into the breakaway states overland using the alias of Tom Brown. From there they boarded a train for Memphis, Tennessee.

On the train trending southward across Virginia and into Tennessee, Marian read a book published in French that she had bought in Baltimore at Edward J. Coale’s bookstore. She bought it to help retain her fluency in the language. She had been drawn to the title, La Petite Fadette. The author was George Sand.

Occasionally she would look out the train’s window as it passed through a station where Confederate soldiers gathered in small groups with their muskets tipped with bayonets. Beyond them, tall oak trees had shed their leaves in the November chill leaving patches of mistletoe high in their branches. From Memphis they took a paddle wheeler for Chicot County across the Mississippi River in Arkansas and her late brother’s plantation Rossmere. Her brother George Read IV, and grandson of George Read, had died in August 1859. His widow, Susan Chapman Read, awaited their arrival.

Once the Reeves family settled in, the social gatherings began. First Annie and her older daughters, Marian and Anna, were introduced to neighbors, many of whom would host gatherings at their own homes, but the most lavish were hosted at Rossmere, with its six two story columns encasing its front porch, its front lawn of magnolia, maple, oak, willow and walnut trees giving way to the view of Lake Chicot, where crepe myrtle and catalpa trees grace its bank.

In the waning weeks of 1861, while the War was beginning to rage in the east, a vibrant social life was celebrated under candlelit chandeliers reflecting off windowpanes and silverware during the evenings where the women wore bright colored gowns, and the men in formal wear, many of them in light gray Confederate uniforms with gleaming metal buttons and ornamental swords hung from sashes. The music was sprightly and the dance was formal yet joyous, nothing like those staid Methodist picnics up north and certainly not like those muted Quaker socials with their muttering men and whispering women.

Marian, who had begun to identify with Fadette in Sand’s novel, began to model her behavior little by little on her. Always a precocious young woman, it was not hard to recognize her own keen intelligence and feeling she hold her own in conversation, certainly among women but unabashedly among men.

Among the men who attended those social gatherings were two who caught Marian’s attention. They were Ruthven Erle and Harry Thorne. While Marian often caught Thorne’s sideways glances, much like she had with Lionel Randolph’s back up north, while he spoke with Marian’s mother or others, it was Ruthven Erle who was more bold. Marian enjoyed the verbal sparring which she engaged while conversing with him, her subtle teasing under ironic pretense, and diminutive rebuffs when she thought he’d been too suggestive. More and more she began to feel like Fadette in Sand’s novel when she toyed with Landry Barbeau, the boy with whom she ultimately fell on love.

One unavoidably new thing Marian realized at Rossmere was the large number of black people. In New Castle there had been what had been politely called “Negroes,” and they’d kept to their selves. Their personal lives were, in large part, a mystery, though on Sundays their church services seemed almost to spill out into the street joyously through the seams of their modest Bethany UAME and Mount Salem Methodist Churches, unlike the somber services at the Immanuel Episcopal Church. Interactions in New Castle were usually formal with Negro employees, whether maid, cook, nanny or driver. Customer transactions never took place through the front door. Marian always remembered relations were respectful and civil, except for occasional infractions that happened as often among white common folk as among black troublemakers, and which usually got either strapped to the whipping post behind the court house or several hours locked in the pillory up the ladder above the post, and sometimes both.

The Negroes in New Castle that Marian encountered were always kind and polite. She could never accept that they had a savage heart as they were often characterized in the magazines. They bore their children the same as white folk, spoke clear English, and their eyes reflected the inner life of the soul. All of them were freedmen, and Marian occasionally recalled the stories of how some distant relatives in New Castle had granted freedom to their household slaves after the Revolution. She remembered as a young girl how old Creole Augustus Jamot, who her grandfather had helped to set up a barber and hairdressing business years before, would be invited to play his violin during family gatherings. She remembered the haunting melodies he played and she wondered from what mysterious place they came.

At Rossmere, Marian marveled at the elegantly dressed, white gloved Negro servants at those lavish social affairs, and the kindness with which the Black nannies treated the children in their charge and wondered how those children could grow up harboring any cruelty toward those who worked from sunrise to sunset in the fields. Even her mother Annie, who had never given the Black people back in New Castle any thought and rarely commented about them, would occasionally refer to those who populated Rossmere and vicinity as “darkies” and “niggers.” It almost seemed to be her way of warding off their very existence.

The first example Marian observed of the treatment of slaves in the South occurred on an early April day in 1862 when five new Negroes in an open wagon pulled up to Rossmere. In the distance she heard the rumble of thunder where dark clouds were gathering in the west. The five had been hired out by a distant cousin of Marian’s deceased father, Isaac Stockton Reeves, who had died in 1851 when Marian was ten years old. That distant cousin, George Reeves, had brought the five up after a long ride from Texas. The slaves were owned by George Reeves’ father William.

Marian was captivated by the scene, and as close to invisibility as she could get, eagerly observed the event. She listened as introductions were passed around shortly after three men dismounted. It was Harry Thorne who greeted them, first George Reeves, then his driver Stephan Fraser, and to Marian’s surprise, a tall muscular Black man who carried a rifle and had a pistol holstered on his waist who was introduced as Bass Reeves. While he freely shook hands all around, Thorne warily shook Bass Reeves’ hand and then wiped it on his pants.

George Reeves took a key from his waistcoat pocket and unlocked the huge padlock that had secured the chain and leg iron of the five slaves and returned the key to the same pocket. Bass and Stephan Fraser then led the five to one of the nearby slave quarters while Thorne and George Reeves entered the main house through a side door.

Bass returned alone to the wagon shortly after the slaves were sheltered. He undid the rigging, harnesses and bits from the two horses and led them to the stable. Marian watched from behind the corner of the house. After Bass and the horses entered the stable, Marian worked her way through a couple of lose slats she knew were there careful not to snag her apron on them.

Bass had led the horses to a trough of water and was getting ready to strap on feedbags of oats. He spoke kind words to soothe the animals.

“Such a long way, Nester, I know you gonna earn that meal. You too Pollix. I see you’re mighty thirsty too. Eat up hardy. You’ll get your due”

Bass’ speech to the horses seemed nearly poetic, Marian thought as she moved slowly behind the stalls. She’d begun to learn how to not disturb any other critter about. She moved so that Bass would not hear her closing in behind him. When she got close enough, she spoke.

“I never saw a negro carry a gun,” she said as calmly as she could.

Bass Reeves hardly moved to acknowledge her.

“I use it to win turkey shoots for the master,” he replied calmly.

She began to wonder if he had heard her after all. He merely moved his head slightly toward her.

“You named after a fish?” she asked.

“No,” he almost chuckled. “Named after the man who sired me. Now go away. You’ll get me in trouble if I be seen talking to you.”

“What kind of name is that?” she continued.

“Short for Bassa,” he replied. “It’s African. Now shew.”

“Your last name’s Reeves . . .”

“ . . . for Massa George. His father William has ownership over me. Now please go.”

“My last name’s Reeves too,” she said in a low voice.

“Will you git before time cuts us short?” he said just above a curt whisper.

He waited a moment and began to gently brush the lather off the horses in places. He slowly turned his head over his shoulder when the large room fell quiet. She was gone.

After dinner George Reeves and Stephan Fraser decided to stay the night. It would be a long ride back to Texas. Besides, it had begun to rain in torrents, pelting waves of rain against the windows. To pass the time Harry Thorne invited the guest to a card game after the women and children retired to the second floor. Around the table set up in the parlor were Stephan Fraser, Harry Thorne, George Reeves, Ruthven Erle who’d arrived shortly before dinner while Marian was talking to Bass Reeves in the stable, and Bass Reeves.

Marian refrained from the rooms upstairs and found a perch, in a nook hugged by shadows on the stairs, far away not to be noticed yet near enough to see and hear the five men settling in over cards. The rain continued in uneven waves. She was fascinated by the talk and manners of the men, their jocular banter and their stories. Throughout they sipped their whiskey, all except Bass, and all smoked cigars, all except Bass.

The game continued for over an hour. The men fell almost quiet, their banter reduced to counting chips, calls declaring the cards in their hands. Marian was nearly getting drowsy and thinking she had about all she could take.

She very nearly dropped off catching herself. The last conscious thing she heard in the fog was the man’s voice, “I call.” Then with a clap of thunder from outside shaking her awake, the room exploded into shouting.

“Where’d you get that ten o’diamonds?” was the man’s shout just after Ruthven Erle had issue, “I call.”

Harry Thorne, to whom Bass had directed his sharp inquiry, countered with a question of his own, “Are you accusing me of cheating?”

Standing, Bass Reeves declared, “I am. You had that card hidden on your person for just when you needed it.”

Thorne shot up in his seat. “Ain’t no nigger ever accused me of cheatin’. Only coons like you cheat at cards.”

“Now gentlemen,” Ruthven Erle exerted in a commanding and calming voice, during which Stephan Fraser, who had slunk down in his chair, used the move to slink from it, and in a hunched pace, grabbing an empty whiskey bottle on the way, snuck behind Bass Reeves and brought the bottles crashing in a splash of broken glass upon the back of his head. Bass dropped immediately to the floor and with consciousness slipping away swore no one would ever get the drop on him again.

The men gathered over him for a moment.

“We can ship him down the river,” Fraser commented, “to Hugh Magee’s in Loosiana. He knows how to break an uppity nigger.”

Finally George Reeves spoke knowing he could not make decisions regarding his father’s property, “I’ll think about it. In the meantime I’ll chain him to my wagon.”

It took all four men to drag the unconscious man out of the room.

Marian departed after she felt they were fully outside and quietly slipped into her room. The others on the second floor gave no indication from their slumber that they heard the fracas. The whole house fell quiet as Marian fidgeted nervously, unable to sit or stand. Sleep would not come easily as it would either drunkenly or sublimely for the others.

Still wide awake, sleep finally did overcome the whole household. Marian waited until she felt the depth of sleep among the others was deep and certain. She reached for the single lit candle and brought it toward her at her desk, and dipping pen into inkwell, pulled a piece of paper to write a note. It would be for the hunchback who lived in a cave not far away and who would appear on the scene occasionally to grant an uncannily placed favor for Marian’s family. She was sure she could count on him.

She would come back for the note, the ink surely dried. She knew where George Reeves was sleeping. It was easy to sneak into his room silently. He was still gaining the weight of sleep, motionless in the bed. His clothes lay about on the various chairs. She knew where the keys were and she found them, took them in her fist so they wouldn’t jingle, and stepped out of the room. The ink and paper on which she’d written the note had fused together by now. On the way outside she picked up an unlit lantern and some matches wrapped in a heavy tea towel.

Bass Reeves was drenched and motionless in chains sitting against one of the wagon wheels. The rain was still falling in a steady drizzle. She knelt down to speak low to him. She shook him gently.

“Mr. Reeves,” she said, suddenly remembering how she spoke respectfully to the Negroes she would encounter back in New Castle. He stirred, his eyes widened as he recognized her.

“I’m releasing you,” she said. Then after she had unlocked all the padlocks she could find, she moved beside him, close enough that they could smell each other’s body heat in the rain.

“About three quarters of a mile northwest from here you’ll come to a ravine marked on either side by an oak and a pine tree. At the bottom of the ravine there’s a cave. Inside lives a hunchback man. Give him this note. He’ll hide you out until they think you’re long gone.”

“Thank you Mam,” Bass said when the chains lay free all around him.

“It’ll be our secret,” Marian stipulated.

“Forever,” Bass replied and both were gone from that puddle of chains where no airborne dust gave a clue and the rain filled in the tracks and dissolved them in mud.

A few days later came the battle nearby at Shiloh Church. The war had come west and both Ruthven Erle and Harry Thorne were summoned. The house at Rossmere was quiet for a while.

Bass Reeves waited two weeks in the cave as guest of the malformed man who’d been disfigured by both blast and fire. He spoke low and sometimes in a harsh whisper. After that Reeves traveled by night until he made it to Oklahoma territory. He would hide out there for the remainder of the Civil War near ‘til Juneteenth.

Lincoln had been assassinated when the War ended and Fadette and her family were footloose in New Orleans. Both Ruthven Erle and Harry Thorne had lost arms in battle. What had surprised Fadette the most was that the hunchback man arrived as well, all waifs from war. That hunched man, in the pure light of peace, she could clearly see was Lionel Randolph.

Sense had come together and decisions needed to be made. Fadette caught a ship leaving New Orleans.

Bass Reeves, a free man, became a family man and worked a small farm until he got a call from Fort Smith at the edge of the Indian territory of Oklahoma and was deputized as a United States Marshall. He strapped on some guns and joined posses looking for desperados. By then Fadette had found herself far away in pastoral Europe keeping a live journal before she settled for a while in Canada. From her journals she would write chapters published in ladies’ magazines, and with her Aunt Emily back in New Castle write novels together.

The West, much like the East, was becoming its new self. Fadette’s mother Annie found more comfort living in Baltimore, though visits to New Castle were tight lipped and cordial. In the dusty West, where warmth prevailed all year and the summers were insufferable, horse lather, gun smoke, and burning bovine flesh wrought by the branding iron mingled with the dust. There were wide wild spaces where a man could hide out. It was there that Bass Reeves roamed with a Cherokee or Wyandot guide and right hand man.

Using disguises and cunning Reeves always got his man in shackles, usually bringing them in alive. It was steady work and the arrests rose into the hundreds. When Fadette wrote her final novel Bass Reeves was thinking of retirement, but he rode on into the 20th century. No longer did he hand out silver dollars as both bribe and calling card. Now the silver came in the form of bullets. He had kept his white horse. He took to wearing a simple black mask across his eyes to hide his skin.

His indigenous companion took a name. He called the masked man “Kemosabe.” His own name was “Tonto.” Wherever they solved a case and made an arrest, they never hung around and disappeared without anyone noticing.

Steven Leech has written articles in mainstream magazines like Wilmington’s Out & About. He is a veteran of the counter culture press beginning with The Heterodoxical Voice, as well as Wilmington’s African American press: the Delaware Spectator, The Delaware Valley Star, Wilmington Gazette, and the Wilmington Spectator. His literary works have appeared in Dreamstreets, where he has been editor since 1980, as well as in The Delaware Literary Review, Delaware Sampler, Expressions: First State Journal, Expresso Tilt, and The Broadkill Review. He has also written several novels as well as Valdemar’s Corpse, a survey of the history of Delaware literature. He currently lives in a cramped apartment within the sprawl between Newark and Wilmington, Delaware. It is here that he staves off poverty and strives to gain a better understanding of the world and cosmos around him, and communes with the ineffably divine spirit dreaming in every sentient being.


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