The Collections of Bethlehem
Trace Edward Zaber
They had come one by one, within a forty-eight hour period, a few mounted, most on foot, but each from the southwest, down Hackett’s Hill, over the once-bountiful cornfield, and straight to her door. All eight of them. Some were blond, some brunette; some bewhiskered, some not; some rangy, some stout; yet all sported filthy blue uniforms and possessed an identical air of roguishness.
This might have terrified Bethlehem LeRoux Hackett were it not for the initial gang of Yankee foragers - bummers, they were being called - that had appeared two weeks earlier to ransack her home of valuables, to thieve her livestock and cellar-stashed provender. And worse, to perform that final barbarous, unprovoked attack on -
Shuddering, she closed down her mind to that memory.
No, when the first of this new wave of bummers made his appearance, she had been long past terror. She was furious. Vengeful, even, especially by the way these individual Yanks - stragglers, most likely - had all sauntered onto her shady verandah with their noses held high, as if sniffing a preordained ictory. Yet, their manner grew easier to tolerate once her victories began to pile up, and her confidence had escalated. Had they opted to besiege her farmstead as a single unit, she knew she would’ve never summoned the pluck to perform her chosen deeds. If she had, they would’ve certainly triumphed over her, a young widow, residing alone, the closest neighbor nearly a mile away. But she had been struck by an overwhelming impulse and surprised them, even herself, with her savagery. Their disorganization, along with that cocky Yankee fearlessness Bethlehem utterly detested, had brought on her unrepentant rage, and their misfortune.
After dealing with each bummer in diverse, yet deserving fashion, she had kept a steady vigil for several days, but no more of General William Tecumseh Sherman’s riffraff arrived. This morning, having exhausted the remainder of her hidden foodstuffs, Bethlehem had dug up several gold coins from her garden. With December winds nipping at her heels, she tramped the two miles toward the southern tip of Glascock County, into Gussville, a tiny hamlet along the Ogeechee River. Half-way there, muscles and back still aching from her recent activities, she berated herself for running off the few horses that had come within her grasp. But the mounts, with a telltale US branded on each of their rumps, might have led to her downfall, so she suffered the trek without further self-reprimand.
In town, she learned from Mr. Dinsdale at the General Store - about the only Gussvillian open for trade, also about the only Gussvillian who habitually bestowed kindness upon her - that Sherman’s forces had supposedly fled the area for good.
"Some of our scouts rode through this morning," reported the elderly and arthritic Dinsdale, "saying Sherman’s boys - after torching what was left of Atlanta - have cut a blackened path some sixty miles wide across our beloved Georgia. Tearing up the rails, coercing faithful slaves to skedaddle, stripping the land of edibles, even destroying nearly every building in Milledgeville but the state capitol and executive mansion. Put a torch to both Sandersville and Louisville in the south, then Waynesboro in the east," added the hunch-shouldered gent, shaking his head of hoary locks as he studied his own fire-singed walls. "And all because some defiant Southron patriots in those towns offered meager resistance."
It chilled Bethlehem to contemplate how the Yanks would’ve retaliated against her had they learned of her deeds. Yet it also painted a faint smile on her lips.
"Still," continued Dinsdale, breaking her thoughts, "I reckon we should consider ourselves fortunate for being on the extreme northern fringe of Sherman’s path. We missed the worst. Now, our boys claim he’s heading for Savannah, and may hellfire engulf him there."
Dinsdale filled her order as best he could, but little remained after the Yankee hoards had ransacked his shop. Indeed, the shelves were nearly barren, except for what lay to rot outside of smashed jars. But the wizened Dinsdale, as if anticipating the Yankee’s plans, had buried a portion of his wares, he had explained. "This second wave of bummers was the worst. Spiteful devils, by golly! Have any more trouble from those Lincolnites up your way?" he inquired, while placing a sorry hank of ham and an even sorrier rasher of bacon in her market basket.
Bethlehem had visited town several weeks earlier, just after the initial bummers vandalized the area. Then, she had confided in Dinsdale some of the outrages she’d faced, but not all. Not the parting one, for that memory was too painful. And now, though feverishly proud of her recent adventures, Bethlehem maintained her modesty and shook her head.
"The Good Lord must have kept an eye cocked in your direction, Mrs. Hackett. Bless his name!"
With that, Dinsdale clawed up a broom in his gnarled hands and returned to the work he’d been performing when she had entered. On the floor, pickle juice and molasses from ax-rendered barrels had made a gummy paste of the flour, sugar, and indiscriminate spices that had been maliciously spilled. He began sweeping the goo into mini-Himalayas; glass shards from the shattered windows or confectionery jars twinkled like ice crystals on their peaks.
Bethlehem hesitated at the door. Eyeing Dinsdale’s swollen knuckles, she felt profound sympathy for his plight. Yet, she could offer little help, she decided, glancing at the bandages gloving her own hands. Additionally, she also had countless cleaning duties to perform, and the two-mile trek back home would certainly tire her further. So, with nothing more than a meager word of thanks, she left the old man to his formidable task.
Late that evening, as she sat in her parlor, a fire crackling in the hearth, Bethlehem rubbed a greasy balm onto her sore fingers, now raw and bloody from the additional blisters she had gathered since the afternoon’s cleaning. Yet, a proud smile tugged at the corners of her mouth as she scanned the mound of firearms, knives, silver spurs, and other war accoutrements she had collected.
Bethlehem had always been a collector of things. It began on her sixth birthday when her father, Finius LeRoux, a Charleston shipping merchant, presented her with a porcelain lamb. The delicate hand-painted creature so enchanted her, that on each of his subsequent trips abroad, her father never returned without additional Dresden, Tanagra, or Staffordshire beasts for her steadily growing menagerie. She would spend hours polishing or stroking their sleek, recumbent bodies, sharing with them all the fanciful notions that only a siblingless child could share.
Years passed before her attention switched to dolls - more lifelike, more like sisters - and by the time she turned ten, her playroom had become a virtual doll metropolis. Wooden ones, porcelain ones, even celluloid, wax, or cornshuck ones, lined the wall - shelves her father had lovingly constructed. Bisque-headed Dressels or Schillings lounged beside Gaultiers or Pierre Jumeaus with winkable eyelids, and she prided herself on making for them - with the aid of her mother and a capable servant - exquisite gowns of satin, silk, and lace.
As her teen years approached, and maturity overran childhood whimsy, the more ladylike collection of tea cups became her chief obsession. Then later, music boxes. Then rings, cameos, and, finally, bracelets. By the age of eighteen, her vast and numerous collections had become the talk of Charleston.
But then came the summer of her nineteenth year, and her flourishing collections ended with the yellow fever epidemic. As if in the twinkling of an eye, scores of friends, neighbors, and relatives evaporated from her world forever, but to Bethlehem, her parents were the greatest loss.
Unfortunately, her loving and charitable father had not been blessed with a brilliant business sense, for he - unbeknownst to her until after his death - had started a collection of his own - he had amassed a fortune in debt. Within weeks, Bethlehem’s days, which had once been a fun-filled whirl of dances and courting and picnics and laughter, became a hell of creditors and bankers and funerals and the ever-present loneliness.
When her father’s attorney, Jonas P. Ratcliffe, began assessing her financial situation, her nightmare deepened. In order to pay off the debts and back taxes, Ratcliffe advised her to sell LeRoux Shipping. Next went the house-servants, the stable boy, the driver, the groom. Then the horses, the carriages, the family silver, the real estate holdings, the furniture, and soon thereafter, the Charleston home itself.
Yet, to Bethlehem’s astonishment, the creditors were still not satiated, and inevitably, Ratcliffe cast his eye toward her collections. Bethlehem was horrified. The thought of relinquishing her most treasured possessions was akin to relinquishing her soul. They, in their glory, represented the sole remaining legacy of parental love. Hadn’t she already lost more than one human could bear?
But Ratcliffe insisted. Soon, the collection of bracelets disappeared, followed by the cameos, then the rings. Next, vanished the music boxes, then individually, or by the handful, Meissen, Sèvres, and Wedgwood tea cups left the dining room shelves until all were laid bare. It seemed Ratcliffe was working backward through her history, peeling away the years until she was again a defenseless child. And by the time the attorney turned his attention to her priceless dolls, Bethlehem could take no more. Must he deprive her of every memory? But as it happened, the sale of her valuable tea cups finally appeased the last creditor, and Ratcliffe assured her she would not have to forfeit her remaining collections.
Though at first relieved, Bethlehem soon became despondent. How would she live without an income?
Ratcliffe, perhaps feeling guilty over contributing to her father’s mismanagement of capital or adding to her grief, began acting as her temporary guardian, giving her lodging with his family and locating for her a distant relative of her mother’s. A third cousin. Or was it a fourth? Though Bethlehem knew the names she had bequeathed on every doll, every porcelain animal, she was never good at keeping straight the family tree. Regardless, a response to Ratcliffe’s inquiries arrived from a Mr. Mordecai Hackett. A locksmith by trade, Hackett also owned a modest farm, and though he lived fairly comfortably, he wrote, he had no spare assets to offer his distant cousin. He did, however, state that he’d gladly provide Bethlehem with permanent lodging and a chance to flee her Charleston sorrows if she was willing to work hard.
Though Bethlehem did not joyously jump at the opportunity, she could hardly refuse. Besides, resettling herself in Georgia, miles from the greedy hands of Charleston bankers, might keep her remaining collections safe. Within days, she packed her treasured items and journeyed by rail and buckboard to her cousin’s quaint farmstead.
Mordecai Hackett was a burly man, a few years her senior and well over six feet tall, with bulging muscles and furry forearms. More than a hint of derring-do hovered around his wide shoulders. His voice, as deep and resonant as a pipe organ’s lowest register, possessed a commanding tone. His chest-length whiskers and unruly mop of ebony hair seemed unfamiliar with a brush, while his clothing, though reasonably well-fitting, exhibited the stains of recent meals. Though his dark, deep-set eyes bore the stamp of her mother’s family, they somehow lacked the light-hearted spark that was their trademark. Nevertheless, Cousin Mordecai, despite his shaggy appearance and sometimes-gruff manner, seemed cordial enough, and at least made her feel welcome.
Six rooms of the eight-room house were an uncluttered, tasteful affair, yet devoid of decoration, hungering for a woman’s touch. Two downstairs rooms acted as her cousin’s workshop, with locks and chains and keys galore. With her cousin’s permission, Bethlehem immediately began to fill the parlor with her collection of porcelain animals. Her airy second-floor bedroom soon became a haven for her dolls. It was there that Bethlehem would spend most of her hours during that first week, sitting beside the window that overlooked the Rocky Comfort Creek as it gurgled southeast to merge with the swifter waters of the Ogeechee.
Still, as generally pleasant as those first few days had seemed, Bethlehem could not help wonder the reason for her cousin’s generosity. It didn’t take long to glean the answer. "My wife," volunteered Mordecai one stormy night at supper, "died in childbirth several years ago. I’m lonely," he added, with a strange smile cutting through his bewhiskered face. "Lonely and tired of it."
After hastily excusing herself for the evening, Bethlehem stalked to her bedroom. There, she confided to her dolls her fears. She had observed Mordecai’s eyes appraising her as he talked about his dead wife - it hadn’t been the first time, either, she had sensed something unspoken residing in his dark pupils - and before crawling into bed, admitted her burgeoning discomfort.
After that night, Mordecai began openly paying court to her. Bethlehem was torn. Here she was, isolated, residing in foreign surroundings, with a man she hardly knew - and unchaperoned, mind you, except for one decrepit house servant and three field hands - with no alternate prospects and no money in which to start life anew elsewhere. Yet, she had to admit, Mordecai’s clumsy, almost shy attempts at wooing her were oddly endearing, and behind that blanket of whiskers and splotched clothing, he wasn’t altogether unattractive. So, he in need of a spouse, she in need of a savior, Bethlehem finally surrendered.
On the first morning of December, 1859, exactly six weeks to the day after her arrival in Georgia, nineteen-year-old Bethlehem LeRoux, surrounded in the parlor by her collection of porcelain animals, became the wife of a locksmith and gentleman-farmer. And by the second morning of December, 1859, Bethlehem Hackett realized she had made a dreadful mistake.
She arose from their conjugal bed, bruised and bleeding. In stark morning sunlight, her husband’s furry nakedness reminded her of nothing less than a beast. She could practically see the alcohol fumes wafting up from his open mouth as he snored. How many times he had taken her, she could not- did not want - to recall. Sometime during that never-ending night of pawing and grunting and thrusting she had mentally shut down - probably after he punched her in the face when she tried to refuse him that second encounter. Regardless, drenched in fear and sweat, she had not slept a wink. She dragged herself out of bed, threw a cotton wrapper around her sore body, and stumbled down the hallway to her doll sanctuary. In less than a minute, curled into a fetal position on her own mattress, she cried herself into restive slumber, encircled by the watchful eyes of her cherished comrades.
As the months passed, the situation grew worse. Mordecai’s penchant for the physical side of married life never wavered. Night after night, Bethlehem suffered his needs without protest, fearful of another beating. Mordecai’s proclivity for a daily intake of corn-whiskey also began to make its presence known, especially after their first jaunt as man and wife into downtown Gussville. The rutted streets, still littered with bottles, confetti, and firecracker remains from the New Year’s celebration, soon became littered with the pain-racked bodies of Gussvillians who had dared to look at the new Mrs. Hackett with - what Mordecai contended - a lustful eye. Though he walloped them bloody, he blamed her, with her high society upbringing, for encouraging their attentions.
"You’re mine, and mine alone," he proclaimed, as he dragged her by the arm toward the wagon, parked before Mr. Dinsdale’s Store. "And if I ever again witness your scandalous flirtations, I swear you’ll feel the sting of my wrath."
That night, after her spouse imbibed almost a full jug of stomach-eroding rotgut, Bethlehem endured nothing short of rapine, the absolute loss of whatever dignity she had remaining, when each of his violent thrusts aimed to prove his ownership of her.
Mordecai’s increase in alcohol consumption, his violent fits, served to alienate them from the rest of the community. When they made their biweekly treks into Gussville, his watchful eyes rarely released her, and not so much as a "good morning" escaped his pursed lips when any citizen chanced a neighborly greeting. About the only time she was free of his manic gaze was when he left her in Mr. Dinsdale’s Store to traipse to the tavern across the street. Mordecai felt safe leaving her in Dinsdale’s company, he had once professed, because, "That shriveled ol’ pecker of his could never satisfy a slut like you. Besides, Dinsdale knows I’d kill him if he tried." But even with a wide street between them, Bethlehem knew her insecure spouse was watching through the tavern window, just waiting for a reason to hightail it back to Dinsdale’s Store, especially if a man younger than Dinsdale should enter.
Bethlehem did not, however, cherish these brief respites, for with the absence of Mordecai’s intimidating presence came a harvest of whispers from Dinsdale’s other clientele. It seemed her husband’s name was forever on their lips. Fables of drunken brawls, swindled merchants, cuckolded husbands, or deflowered daughters flooded her ears, and Bethlehem, knowing in her soul the validity of such claims, was left feeling hopeless. It soon became clear that the reason Mordecai had opted to farm his land was because his locksmithing trade had diminished - the locals preferred broken locks to Mordecai’s boorishness.
And what they said about her hurt almost as much as one of her husband’s well-aimed fists. Some thought it amusingly ironic that a former debutante - a spoiled, high-minded, rich girl - should be subjected to a life with Mordecai Hackett, while others thought her smooth diction and hoity-toity mannerisms were nothing but a façade, claiming she was truly as uncouth and corrupt as her husband. Some thought her foolish or mad for not fleeing her marriage, speculating that the shame of divorce might be preferable, but then one wicked shrew suggested she was not Mordecai’s wife at all, but a high-priced courtesan, imported from Charleston to satisfy his vile needs. Mr. Dinsdale, however, put a halt to such cattiness if he happened upon it, which gave Bethlehem, usually teary-eyed by that point, a reason to adore the old man. At least she had one friend in this backwoods town.
But no one that could help her. No one that could understand - truly understand - her situation. Certainly, it was easy for the locals to disburse gratuitous advice, but how could any one of them conceive that she had no choice but to stay with Mordecai, especially with the locks and chains he kept around the house, used for more than staving off slave desertions? They would never know her humiliation at being chained up in the cellar whenever Mordecai left the house on some depraved errand, nor her abject terror whenever she heard the clunky, drunken footfalls signaling his return. They would never know how many bite marks she bore on her breasts, nor how her thighs continually carried a rainbow of hideous bruises. They would never know how her ribs ached after his jealous kicking frenzies, how many blood-drawing lashes she had received for burning his meals, nor how he nightly tortured her by randomly selecting one of her precious dolls and tearing it to shreds, then raping her on top of the broken bisque, celluloid, or cornshuck body.
They would never know. So she suffered in silence.
In a way, the war had come as a blessing. After all, Mordecai could hardly keep her chained in the cellar for weeks, months, even years, while he was off proving his manhood for the Confederacy. So when he left home in May of 1861, Bethlehem considered the day one of the happiest in her life, surpassed only by the day in August when he returned to her, just after the Battle of Bull Run, in a pine box. A box as coarse and lowly as the devil it housed.
That day atop the hillock, after the slaves left her alone beside the grave, she caroled hosannas to the heavens, danced a private jig on the freshly-turned earth, then wrenched up the crude wooden cross, casting it into the Rocky Comfort Creek. She stood there for a long moment, watching as the last memories of her hated spouse floated out of memory for all eternity.
Later that night, in the company of her remaining dolls, and her porcelain animals - the only collection intact and unsullied - she rocked the walls with hysterical laughter until dawn.
Now, as Bethlehem massaged the healing balm into her hands, she remembered those days following Mordecai’s death. So hopeful she had been that her life would improve. So hopeful. But her happiness was short-lived. Within the year, the slaves absconded, taking with them much of her food. Ready money dwindled, and she was forced to locate buyers for her remaining dolls, not an easy task in a war-torn country.
But worse, unlike her financial situation, the gossip prospered.
She had correctly assumed Gussville’s residents, whether in secret or in public, collectively celebrated her husband’s demise. Yet she soon came to realize, that in a tight-knit community such as this, memories of Mordecai’s monstrous deeds were not so easily forgotten. Nor forgiven. Instead of welcoming her into their hearts, sympathizing with her hellish experiences, they scorned her, blamed her for Mordecai’s wickedness. Almost immediately, stories began circulating about her questionable mental stability; more than once she overheard whispers regarding the Widow Hackett who, on steamy nights, could be heard through her open windows conversing with porcelain animals. The fervent susurration never ceased, no matter how many times Mr. Dinsdale or other charitable souls attempted to end it. She became Gussville’s pariah. The crazy Charlestonian. The widow of a man who conducted a systematized reign of terror throughout this otherwise Christian community. So, turning her back on those so-called Christians, except for Mr. Dinsdale and a miscellany of other goodhearted souls, Bethlehem became a recluse, finding what little comfort she could in her one remaining collection.
Her porcelain beasts.
Until the first wave of Yankees arrived, she thought, eyeing the empty parlor shelves. She had surrendered to them her few valuables, her livestock, even her food, but why they had chosen to destroy her cherished porcelain she could not - would never - understand. Demonic malevolence was the only plausible answer. Without warning, their leader had lifted his sword, and with one sweep of his weapon, the sole memories of her father, her childhood, of happier times, were demolished. Silenced.
But Bethlehem had made them pay for destroying her collection, her only friends in the years following parental death, of national strife, of noxious wedlock. Made them pay dearly. Between the first and second wave of bummers, the weight of her loneliness had pressed down upon her, making life unbearable. But when the second wave of individual soldiers began appearing, the notion sparked in her mind, and she had acted accordingly.
She smiled triumphantly, looking first at her blistered hands, then at her new collection of war accoutrements. Though the weaponry could never take the place of her porcelain animals - one would feel foolish conversing with steel, iron, and wood - the other collection just might.
Bethlehem Hackett rose from her chair, and using a candle as a guide, crept down the creaking stairs to the dank cellar. There, along the walls, chained by the wrists to ceiling beams, her collection of bleeding and dying Yankees awaited, the perfect audience for a lonely soul who had no one else with which she could share her innermost thoughts.
Trace Edward Zaber is a Chicago-area writer specializing in Civil War fiction. He is currently writing his fifth novel, and has authored a number of short stories, several of which have been published on and off the net.
Additionally, Trace moderates several writers’ critique groups, was a featured author at Barnes & Noble’s Writers’ Harvest 1997, and gives workshops on Writing Historical Fiction. He is also the owner/editor of the award-winning Of Ages Past, The Online Magazine For Historical Fiction.
On the side - and much to the surprise of those who know him only by his prose - Trace is a long-haired rock ‘n’ roller who has just signed his fifth recording contract as the lead vocalist with DSG (The Dave Shankle Group).