© 2012 By C. J. Wells
Disclaimers: See Chapter One.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803 –1882) was an American essayist, lecturer and staunch abolitionist who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. Moncure Conway (1832-1907), the son of a wealthy southern white slave owner, was a clergyman, scholar and author, best known for his outspoken opposition to slavery in the decades prior to and during the Civil War.
CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR
CONTENU SOUS PRESSION
Rejeanne felt the churning in her stomach that indicated hunger. Lindsay, who was thumbing through the pages of one of Maggie's journals, heard the noise. “Hungry, my love?” she asked.
“Starving,” Rejeanne replied. “You think Sir Robert will let us order pizza or something?”
“I don't know if there's any pizza delivery places here in Leominster ,” Lindsay answered. “But we can ask when he returns.”
Sir Robert had exited the study to try to locate any article of Maggie's personal effects that could possibly have traces of her DNA on it. While they waited, both women decided to peruse through Maggie's journals to try to glean any additional information on the whereabouts of the scrolls. Both women were also very interested in reading more about Maggie's relationships with Bronny, Lucy and Peg.
“Do you remember that original ancestry piece on-line that we had read about Maggie?” Lindsay asked.
“Yeah, what about it?”
“Didn't it say that Maggie's brother's name was Ronald or Raymond or something?”
“Richard!” Rejeanne exclaimed. “That's right. That was the older brother who was the ancestor to the writer in the site. So where do the names Forrest or Peyton come into play?”
“I can answer that,” Sir Robert responded as he entered the study. “Peyton was born Richard Carl Needham, but he changed his name to Peyton R.C. Needham in the mid 1850s whilst at doctoral studies in New York . While he was away at university, he attended a lecture of Ralph Waldo Emerson where he met the famed southern abolitionist Moncure Conway. What he took away from that lecture was monumental. You see, Peyton adopted the abolitionist philosophy. The name ‘Peyton' was Conway 's father's middle name, I believe, and was a quiet act of defiance on his part. Of course, to your typical wealthy southern white, abolition was considered as blasphemous as worshipping Satan. So Peyton returned to Charleston deeply in the proverbial closet, if you will. He was only able to disclose his feelings to his sister Maggie, with whom he felt most comfortable and close, especially after she had earlier asked him to watch over Lucy whilst she was at university.”
“What ever became of Peyton?” Lindsay asked.
“In due time,” Sir Robert replied cryptically. “In due time.”
Lindsay looked over at Rejeanne, who returned the glance. Both women were dumbfounded by Sir Robert's cryptic remark. “I'm hungry,” Rejeanne professed. “Are there any pizza delivery places around here?”
Sir Robert chuckled. “Actually, as we speak, Paul is preparing roast beef and mash for lunch.”
“Sounds yummy,” Rejeanne said sardonically.
* * * *
The trio left the study to eat lunch in Sir Robert's stately dining room. As they ate and chatted, both women looked around the room at the various paintings and portraits. Most were of Sir Robert's family and ancestors. One portrait, however, stood out to both women. It was a sepia tintype photograph of a large family. Overcome with curiosity, Lindsay inquired about the portrait.
“Ah, I'm not surprised that that one portrait would gain your attention,” Sir Robert said. “It's the Forbes family.”
At that moment, both women rose from their seats to get a closer look at the picture. There were twelve people in the photograph. Bronwyn was easily noticeable as she was positioned dead center. “It is a portrait of Bronny, her mother, her three brothers, and their wives and children.” Sir Robert explained. “Do you notice anything unusual about Bronny?” he asked.
“Well, she doesn't have the Princess Leia hairdo thing going like the other women in the photo,” Lindsay remarked.
“Yeah,” Rejeanne agreed. “Her hair is loose and long, like a hippie. If you were to cut her out and put a tie-dyed tee-shirt on her, you could argue that the picture was taken in 1972.”
Sir Robert chuckled. “Women rarely wore their hair down in that fashion in those days,” he remarked. “Bronny was way ahead of her time in that and in many regards.”
“Did she wear her hair like that when she was with Maggie?” Lindsay asked.
“Usually,” Sir Robert replied. “It was one of the first things that Maggie noticed about Bronny when they met. In one of her journals, she characterized Bronny's hair as ‘thick strands of honeyed silk.' She was clearly smitten early on.”
“How did Maggie wear her hair in those days?” Rejeanne asked.
“When she was out and about, in the usual styles for that era,” Sir Robert answered. “However, when she was with Bronny, she went natural as well. Maggie wrote about how both women would spend their evenings brushing each other's hair… which reminds me…”
Sir Robert left the dining room momentarily and returned with a paper bag. “Their hair brushes,” he announced. “Strands of hair are on both, but I don't know if there's any viable DNA that could be extracted from any pulled roots.”
He handed the bag to Lindsay, who opened it and peeked inside. Rejeanne looked as well. “We can take the brushes?” she asked.
“Yes,” Sir Robert replied. “I understand that there are several reputable labs in the States. I only ask that you return the brushes once they're no longer needed.”
Lindsay pulled one of the brushes out of the bag. “Do you have a magnifying glass and a pair of tweezers?” she asked. Sir Robert summoned Paul, who, upon request, presented Lindsay with both requested items. She took the glass and used it to closely inspect the hairs on the old tarnished silver hair brush. The hairs on the brush were a strawberry blonde color. This is Bronny's brush , she thought as she hoped to find a strand of hair with the root still attached. Pleased, she was able to find what she believed to be several hairs with roots. Very carefully, she extracted the hairs from the brush and placed them on a cloth napkin on the dining room table. She then did the same thing with the other brush that she took out of the bag. As she pulled hairs and placed them on a separate napkin, she was ever mindful that she was handling the hairs of two women who were, in essence, her and Rejeanne a century and a half ago.
“I'll have Paul bring two plain envelopes for you to place the strands,” Sir Robert said.
“Great,” Lindsay remarked. “You can keep the brushes. No need for us to take them.”
“I also have several pairs of earrings worn by both women,” Sir Robert said. “Perhaps there's something useable on them. I'll have Paul separate and bag up a couple of pairs for you.”
“Thank you,” Lindsay said.
“Absolutely,” Sir Robert replied. “I'm game to learn the results of your DNA testing.”
“So are we,” Rejeanne chimed in.
After lunch, the trio returned to the study. Sir Robert was eager to continue the story of Maggie, Alemnesh and the scrolls.
“So, where did I leave off?” Sir Robert asked.
“Uh,” Rejeanne thought, “Maggie and Alemnesh discovered the Conqueror's logs.”
“Ah, yes,” Sir Robert responded. “So, Alemnesh had plenty of work on her hands. She was tasked with translating both sets of scrolls. It would take her many months of careful transcribing, but she was able to complete not only the translations of the scrolls, the logs, and Marcella's and Angela's writings, she translated Valentina's chronicles as well. She actually taught herself Valentina's native tongue in order to accomplish that, which was no small feat.”
“Wow,” exclaimed Rejeanne. “What a remarkable woman.”
“She was,” Sir Robert said before continuing, “So, during this time, the two women were living in relative peace and tranquility under the secure auspice of King Menelik. For her part, Maggie turned their little cabin into a functioning farm. She grew vegetables and herbs, raised chickens, cooked, cleaned and went on game hunts. Roasted ibex and wild hog were favorites at their dinner table.
“After the work was completed, the two women debated as to where their valuable cargo should end. Alemnesh, of course, believed that the platinum chest should remain in Ethiopia , since it had safely been there untouched for hundreds of years. She and Maggie would take the English translations back to Britain to publish. Maggie agreed with the second portion of that opinion, but was very hesitant in leaving the scrolls in Africa , given the near-death experience visited upon them when the chest was unearthed. Alemnesh believed that the chest would be as safe with King Menelik as it was in the church. Maggie was dubious, knowing full well how quickly empires crumble and valuables are plundered or destroyed. Alemnesh countered that England was an empire as well, and there was no guarantee that the chest would survive an overthrow of that empire.”
“Hmm,” Rejeanne chimed in. “Good point.”
“So, the women were at a crossroads in their debate that lasted a couple of days, until an unlikely visitor changed the course completely as to where the priceless chest would end,” said Sir. Robert.
“Who was the visitor?” asked Lindsay.
“A woman named Cynthia Riley, an American who had briefly befriended Maggie shortly after Bronny's death,” Sir Robert replied. “Maggie had not spoken to Cynthia for over ten years, so her sudden appearance at their cabin in the secure compound astounded Maggie.”
“Who was she, and what was she doing there?” Lindsay asked.
“For that answer, I direct you to the fifth journal, page twelve,” Sir Robert responded.
Lindsay grabbed Maggie's journal and opened it to the directed page. When both women read the heading, they looked at each other. “This isn't going to end well,” Rejeanne commented.
Cynthia Riley's Betrayal
Alemnesh and I had been debating what to do with the chest for two solid days when an envoy to the King knocked and entered the sitting room of our cabin to announce a visitor. Not knowing what or who to expect, both Alemnesh and I drew our pistols when in walked a being I that had not seen in over a decade. It was Cynthia Riley, my dearest Bronny's personal nurse and closest confidant during her last three years at the sanitarium. I had met her when I returned to the States to visit Bronny's gravesite and possibly retrieve whatever personal affects I could. At first, Cynthia had been very helpful in that regard. She gave me Bronny's cherished locket, her photographs and, most significantly, her writings. I took those items from New York to Peyton's cottage in Wellesley , Massachusetts , where I had spent those first emotional weeks pouring over Bronny's voluminous journals. As I had already chronicled in my earlier journals, the things that I learned about my dearest Bronny in the years after our dissolved relationship broke my heart over and over.
So, when Cynthia arrived at Peyton's cottage six months after giving me the journals to demand that I return them to her, I was both astonished and outraged. She had given them to me without questions asked or compensation expected. But now, there she was, at my brother's cottage, claiming that Bronny never meant for me to have her possessions. She claimed that she and Bronny were true soul-mates that my life as a cessationist and murderer frightened Bronny, and I was never any good for her. I countered that I had read Bronny's journals in their entirety, and no where did she proclaim any affection for Cynthia. Quite the contrary, she only mentioned Cynthia toward the end of her last journal entry as a kind nurse who read poetry and prayed with her. Her words of affection for Cynthia were no more profound than her words for any of the other floor nurses who attended to her. On the other hand, Bronny declared her true and unyielding love for me over and over again in her journals. Cynthia disagreed, remarking that Bronny wasn't in her right mind when she wrote those things. She insisted that Bronny's later verbal declarations to her were what mattered, despite the fact that those verbal declarations, had they actually happened, would have occurred mostly after completing the journals when Bronny was ill. Cynthia also unwittingly disclosed three things during her argument with me; one, that most of Bronny's journals were written two years before her mind was ravaged by the disease that claimed her life; two, that Cynthia didn't meet Bronny until seven months before her mind was ill; and three, that Cynthia never even bothered to read the journals. It was obvious to me that Cynthia was both obsessed with Bronny and clearly delusional.
As we continued to argue, I grew more angry, and fearing that my flaring temper would cause me to do something I would later regret, I took a deep breath and offered a compromise to Cynthia. I told her that I would return to her Bronny's locket and half of Bronny's photographs. I also offered to take the journals to Boston , where Peyton had a publisher friend who could print the journals in an uncirculated book form. I would keep the originals and give her the printed book. Cynthia was agreeable, except that she wanted the original journals. I, of course, didn't want to part with them as they were the only things of Bronny that were written by her hand. After haggling back and forth, Cynthia finally agreed to my offer, but only after I included a cash payment to her of $200. It was an expensive, but worthwhile compromise to insure that I would be permanently rid of her.
So when Cynthia Riley appeared, out of all of the places on this planet, the massive and mountainous compound of the King of Ethiopia , thousands of miles and weeks of travel from the States, I almost fainted. How could a docile, 64-year-old woman have ever managed to travel so far alone on her meager earnings, I wondered? Ever more significantly, how and why did she find me?
“Hello, Maggie,” she said before extending her hand to Alemnesh in greeting. Before they could shake hands, I moved to stand in between them.
“What in hell are you doing here?” I demanded to know.
Before she could answer, the door to our sitting room opened and in walked five members of the King's security detail along with three Italian soldiers and that Italian colonel that I had confronted in the Eritrean province. I immediately turned and looked at Alemnesh, who obviously shared my sense of alarm. She approached and began speaking with the leader of the security detail in Amharic. I gazed at Cynthia, who smiled at with me with such wickedness that my face flushed.
After speaking for a few minutes, Alemnesh turned to me with fear in her eyes. She said that the Italians have offered to purchase the original Xena scrolls and the Erasmus translations for a sum that could feed the Ethiopian people for fifty years.
“Hell no!” I replied.
Alemnesh took me aside. “I do not believe that this offer is subject to negotiation, Maggie,” she said. “The Italians are willing to kill us for the scrolls, and I'm afraid that my kinsmen will not intervene on our behalf. We have the translations. We know the truth. What does it matter now if the Italians possess the originals? Is it worth dying for?”
I love Alemnesh as a sister, but I was enraged at her defeatist outlook. “Harry died because of these scrolls,” I declared. “Hell, Xena died because of these scrolls. The world needs to know that. If these wogs get the scrolls, they'll destroy them to prevent the truth from coming out.” I turned to Cynthia, whom I believed orchestrated this whole affair. “I'm not about to let that happen.”
When Alemnesh began to plead again, I interrupted her. “All of your life, you have sacrificed for your country,” I said. “You forfeited happiness with Harry almost 40 years ago to avoid a scandal. After your husband died, you could have left this place to fulfilled your dream of becoming an esteemed educator in Europe, but your kinsmen insisted that you remain here as a glorified translator for these wog invaders. And now, after all you've done, we've done, to accomplish something this historic, this vital, you're going to once again defer to a kingdom that, because of your gender, barely considers you a worthy citizen?
A tear streamed down Alemnesh's face as, I believe, she considered my words. “Finding these scrolls was your dream, never my dream,” she finally said, but as my heart began to sink, she continued, “Having said that, however, you are right. I have sacrificed much happiness. But these months with you, even with the fighting and the labor and everything that we gave up to possess these scrolls, have been the most exciting and alive for me. The only episode of forlorn was holding my dearest Harry as she died in my arms… You're right, Maggie. Her death will not be in vain.” Alemnesh returned her attention to the leader of the detail and announced in Amharic that we will not relinquish the scrolls. Then she turned to me and simply said, “Do what you must.”
At that moment, I did what I should have done in Eritrea . I raised my pistol and put a bullet between the eyes of that Italian colonel. Alemnesh raised her pistol and shot the leader of the detail in his chest. As he fell, the other men in the room came toward us, drawing weapons. They didn't get very far, as Alemnesh and I were able to dispatch all of them.
“Good shot,” I said to her as I turned my pistol on Cynthia, who was gripping a leather satchel. Shaking, she nervously reached into it and pulled out a dagger. She then raised it, let out a shriek and charged toward me. I kicked the dagger out of her hand, cocked my pistol and aimed it between her eyes.
“I learned from the best,” Alemnesh said as she hurriedly began gathering up her translations to secure in the chest. “I guess that the scrolls are not staying here in Ethiopia after all.”
I returned my attention to Cynthia, who stood in place dumbfounded. With evil delight and a smile on my face, I whispered to her, “This is going to hurt.” But as I felt my finger pulling on the trigger, a soft voice that sounded just like my dearest Bronny whispered, “Xena, don't kill her.” I lowered by pistol, but grabbed Cynthia by her throat. “You will die, Cynthia, but not today.” I punched her in her face, rendering her unconscious. I then bound her hands and began covering her mouth with torn cloth. As I covered her mouth, I noticed that she was wearing a heavy silver necklace. I lifted the chain and discovered Bronny's locket attached to it. I angrily yanked the chain from Cynthia's neck and placed the locket in the pocket of my trousers.
Alemnesh and I had precious little time to get out of that compound. We were barely able to lift that chest on the dolly used to get it into cabin, but once it was on it, we quickly rolled it out to a covered carriage located next to an adjacent building. Because of where we were located on the compound, no one was immediately alarmed as to what had just happened in our cabin. However, missing officials of the King wouldn't go unnoticed very long.
Alemnesh asked two young gardeners who were working nearby to assist us in lifting our precious cargo. Once the chest was on the carriage, we covered it in blankets before I went back to retrieve the most important of our personal affects, all of our weapons, and Harry's urn. After placing our possessions and the urn in the carriage, I went back to carry a still unconscious Cynthia to the carriage, heaving her into it next to the chest. I then climbed in as Alemnesh, with help from those two gardeners, was hurriedly tying two camels to it.
We rode nonstop day and night across the treacherous and sometimes unforgiving highlands and savannah of Eastern Africa until reaching the port city of Mombasa in the southern region of the British Protectorate of Kenya . During our journey, I only removed Cynthia's mouth binding long enough to give her some of what little food and water we had. During this time, she attempted her incessant protests or would howl through the binding, forcing me to punch her into unconsciousness repeatedly to keep her quiet. We were also accosted by nomadic thugs on more than one occasion. I did not wish to waste precious ammunition on them, for we had to preserve our stock to protect us from our largest enemies, the hungry prides of lions that roamed the savannah. During that dangerous journey, I killed six thugs with my pistol and shot one lioness with my muzzleloader. Our camels were also attacked by packs of hyenas twice. We were able to kill the majority of the packs both times, but one of our camels succumbed to its injuries after the second attack.
We reached Mombasa hungry, thirsty and frightful looking, but despite our appearance, Alemnesh and I immediately went to the royal consulates' office and advised one of the colonial officials that we were in possession of the remains of a member of the British peerage and the American woman responsible for her murder. The latter may or may not have been true, but I am almost convinced that Cynthia had something to do with that ambush in Gondar that cost Harry her life. As she was taken into custody, Cynthia began ranting about how we stole the Xena scrolls. I wasn't alarmed by her accusatory outburst, because days of little food and water, along with the filth of the African savannah and a possible concussion from my blows, gave Cynthia the appearance of a blathering scatterbrained old woman. Also, who would have ever believed that two elder women, such as Alemnesh and me, could have possibly procured the legendary Xena scrolls in the vast expanse of the Horn of Africa ?
What was definitely a falsehood of our account was our explanation as to the heavy platinum chest in our possession. We convinced the official that it contained the entire contents of Lady Harry's Birmingham boudoir. We were highly confident, correctly, that the official wouldn't want to go near a chest containing ladies perfumes, trinkets and undergarments. We were also able to convince him to grant us passage on the next vessel bound for London .
Once we arrived in England , Alemnesh and I honored the wish of our dear friend Harry and returned her remains to her family in Birmingham . We stayed in Birmingham long enough to come to an agreement as to the contents of the chest. We concurred that it would be better not to keep all of our eggs in one basket, as it were. Alemnesh took the Erasmus Italian translated scrolls with her to Mantua, where she would establish residence. I presented the Xerxes translations of the scrolls to Harry's sister, Olivia. With Harry's family's help, I was able to sail to Boston with the platinum chest still containing the original scrolls and Alemnesh's English translations. From there, I returned, ironically, to the locale where Cynthia Riley was thrown into my life ten years before; Peyton's Wellesley cottage. I did not learn the extent of Cynthia's involvement in what transpired in Ethiopia until I returned to the States.
When Lindsay and Rejeanne finished reading that point of the journal entry, Lindsay quietly closed the book. Rejeanne began rubbing her eyes as Lindsay cracked her neck. Sir Robert, who had exited the room some time before, returned to check up on the women.
Lindsay rose. “I need to stretch,” she said.
Rejeanne chuckled. “Yeah, ‘Stretch Junior' needs to stretch,” she quipped.
“Ha-ha, Rejeanne,” Lindsay retorted. “I'm stepping outside.” Once outside, Lindsay lifted her head skyward and gazed at the clouds. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths to clear her mind. She allowed herself to hear the sound of a nearby wind chime, the rustle of bare apple tree branches and sheep bleating. She relaxed with the tranquility of her surroundings until she felt a small warm hand take hers.
“Are you okay?” Lindsay heard the soft voice of her beloved Rejeanne ask.
“Yes,” she responded quietly. “Did you know that $200 in 1880 was the equivalent to $3,000 today?
“Didn't know that,” Rejeanne replied as she squeezed Lindsay's hand. “Lin, I think I know who Cynthia was.”
Lindsay opened her eyes and turned her attention to Rejeanne. “Who?” she asked.“Najara.”
CONTINUED IN CHAPTER 25
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