The first thing she hears when she comes through the door is a song being played on a piano. She assumes, of course, that it’s a recording—until the song stops abruptly and starts again, and she realizes someone is practicing on a real piano.
The song is a peaceful one, but also full of chords that make her ache. It’s a sad peacefulness.
Who’s playin the piano? she asks Johns.
Mr. Grierson practices in the mornings.
And who’s that on the wall?
She points to a portrait of a man dressed in an old-fashioned gray military uniform standing beside a woman sitting on a chair in a long red gown. Behind them is a flag with an X on it, which she recognizes as the one belonging to the South of the olden days.
They are Henrietta and William Cuthbert the Third, great-great-grandparents of Mrs. Grierson.
I’m gettin the picture. In other words, this is the Grierson estate.
It is called Belle Isle.
Whatever you say. Let me just wipe the blood off my feet so I keep from trackin it in.
Johns gives her a withering look, and she smiles back sweetly.
How shall I announce you? he asks.
Your normal way is fine by me.
What name shall I give?
Oh, Sarah Mary Williams.
And his name?
You can just call him dummy—me and him don’t stand on ceremony, do we, dummy?
Johns swings open one of the tall sets of doors off the entrance hall to reveal a parlor filled with floral-patterned couches and chairs and a massive black piano with its lid propped up to reveal all the strings inside. At the side of the room a nicely dressed woman sits at a card table playing solitaire and sipping a drink with what looks like crushed leaves in it. She seems to be in her seventies, but regal seventies, handsome-looking, wearing a gown like Temple’s never seen before in real life, full of shimmer and rustle.
At the piano sits a young man dressed in a full suit, his hair slicked back, and his body leaning and swaying with the music he’s playing. When he turns around, Temple sees his delicate green eyes and his closely shaven face, and she supposes that he must be five years older than she is.
Mrs. Grierson, Johns announces, this young lady and her friend were traveling by and needed assistance. Miss Sarah Mary Williams.
We don’t really need no assistance, Temple says, just maybe a bite to eat or somethin.
Well, isn’t this a lovely surprise! Mrs. Grierson says, getting up from the table and sweeping across the room to take Temple in her arms and kiss both her cheeks.
Sir, welcome, she says, holding out her hand to the large slow-eyed man standing next to Temple.
Oh, never mind him, Temple says. He don’t know how to shake—
But to her surprise, he holds out his hand and lets Mrs. Grierson shake it.
Come in, come in, Mrs. Grierson says. I want you to meet my grandson Richard.
The young man at the piano stands and bows slightly in their direction.
Grandson, Temple says. With all the mister and missus talk going on, I figured the two of you was married.
Oh my no. I’ve been a widow for as long as I care to remember. Now it’s just myself and my boys—my two grandsons and their father. Their poor father isn’t well at the moment, I’m afraid. Would you care for some iced tea?
Temple looks at the glass on the card table.
What you got in it, plants?
That’s fresh mint. We grow it in the garden.
Sure, I’m game.
So Johns goes out and a woman who looks like she could be Johns’s wife or sister brings in a tray with glasses of iced tea on it, and sets it on the coffee table and goes out again, and they sit around on the couches and talk and Temple makes a special effort to be cordial and ladylike and she tries not to gulp down her tea like she wants to but rather sip it like Mrs. Grierson seems to be doing, and she tries to remember to wipe her mouth with the little cloth napkin by her drink rather than with her sleeve, and she sits back and crosses her legs like someone once told her she should rather than sitting forward with her elbows on her knees—which is obviously the better way to sit if you have to defend yourself all of a sudden.
Now tell us where you hail from, Sarah Mary, Mrs. Grierson says.
Me? I’m from the area—just two towns over.
She pointed in a direction.
Oh, you’re from Georgia? I could tell it. I know a Georgia peach when I see one. Which town? Lake Park? Statenville?
Statenville. That’s the one. Me and him grew up there. He’s my brother. My mama waited fifteen years to try again after him because of the way he turned out.
You shouldn’t be traveling by yourself, Richard says. He has a child’s voice, despite his age, and when he uses it to sound authoritative it trips over itself. It’s a good thing you found us. We’ll take care of you.
Thank you, Richard, Temple says politely. I like the song you were playing before.
That was Chopin. I can play others. You should stay with us, it’s not safe outside.
Oh, Richard, Mrs. Grierson chides. Let’s not talk about unpleasant things. I can’t remember the last time we had a girl in the house, other than Maisie. You know, Sarah Mary, I never had any granddaughters. I have some wonderful frocks upstairs that I bet would fit you perfectly. Before dinner we can go up and have a look around. Of course you will both stay as long as you like. We have plenty of room for guests.
Two grandsons? Temple asks.
Before you said you had two grandsons?
Oh, yes, Richard and James, my two boys. It’s just the four of us left, I’m afraid. But they are fine boys. Such handsome and talented boys.
My older brother, Richard says, likes to seclude himself in his room when he’s not wandering in the fields. He is my brother and I love him, but he can be—
Richard, Mrs. Grierson warns.
I was just going to say elusive, Grandmother. Elusive. Wouldn’t you say that sums him up fairly well?
My boys, she says to Temple. They take such good care of me.
THE FIRST thing she does is ask Johns to open the front gate so she can bring her car up from the road and park it in the back of the house.
Then she and her companion are shown to adjoining guest rooms by Maisie, the woman who brought them iced tea earlier and who Mrs. Grierson refers to as a girl even though she must be almost twice Temple’s age.
You like it here? Temple asks when Maisie is on her way out.
Where else is there, miss?
I mean, they treat you all right?
The Griersons are very kind.
Temple nods and looks around at the lace doilies and floral wallpaper above the wainscoting.
To wake up in this house, she says, you might never guess the world’s got half eat up, huh?