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Do Not Disturb (II)

Mary Ellen Stockley stood outside admiring the grand facade.  It had certainly been restored to its' former glory.  She was trembling with excitement and happiness.  This house had been the scene of an amazing antebellum love story, and she, Mary Ellen Stockley, was the heir to the legacy of that story, if not the house. Her novel, "Antebellum Twilight", based on the story of that house, was all but ready for sumission after months of hard work.    She just had some rewriting to do.  She now wanted to lay claim to the legacy to which she was entitled, by virtue of her family background.

Mary Ellen had always known that she was descended from old, southern stock.  She had decided to research on her family background a few years earlier, in order to discover some interesting plots about which she could write, with an authentic southern voice.  When she had discovered the story of the sister of her great great many times removed grandfather, she knew that she had struck oil.  Absolutely.

Mary Ellen had been amazed to discover that her ancestress, Mrs Seraphina  Duplessis nee Stockley, had, at the age of twenty one, been married off to Mr. Sinclair Duplessis, a rich landowner many years her senior.  She had been deeply disappointed in her marriage and several years later had eloped with Caleb, her husband's trusted slave.  The fugitives were apprehended and brought back to Plesseville.  The unfortunate Caleb was allegedly lynched by an angry mob, outraged at his shamelessness at eloping with his master's wife.  Seraphina was taken back by her husband, but was never seen in public again.  She died of an undisclosed illness a few years later.

Mary Ellen had felt that the time had come to to disclose this story.  It was, in her opinion, a love story to rival Margaret Mitchell's novel.  Over the last few years she had written her novel, a fictionalised account of this tale,   and in the closing paragraphs, disclosed her identity as an indirect descendent of the heroine.  This would lend  her work of fiction an authenticity which most novels could not enjoy.  Reviewers would take her far more seriously, she felt.  She could feel it in her bones!  Her novel was certain to be a hit.  Now if she could just get the support of  'Duplessis House Memorial Trust', yet another badge of authenticity could be claimed.  So she took a deep breath and walked right in.

As she entered the front door of  'Duplessis House', she looked around for the manager's office and yes, there it was!  Near the door was a small office bearing the name 'Lance Devereaux - Manager'.  As she was about to knock, prior to entering, she became aware of an argument going on inside.  Two male voices were discussing something in an agitated manner.  Mary Ellen stopped and listened.

"The fact is," a man was arguing, "that a member of the African-American community was murdered publicly  in this very town.  The very fact is a shadow on the history of the local community.  The injustice has not yet been acknowledged.  I have been bringing this to the attention of the powers-that-be for years.  Is anyone listening?"

"What you say is true" came the reply.  "But we might as well face facts.  No town is going to advertise the shameful stories of it's past.  It wants to highlight the positive aspects.  The things which make it great.  And proud."

"I truly believe," replied the first voice, "that the injustice done to Caleb Duplessis can never be undone.  But an acknowledgment of some sort would go some way towards alleviating the injustice.  And the slander.  Caleb Duplessis was a devoted husband and father as well as a devoted servant.  He could never have done what Sinclair Duplessis claimed he did.  And there is documentary evidence to prove that both Caleb and Seraphina denied their so called 'affair'."

Mary Ellen Stockley stood riveted to the spot.  That 'so called' affair of which that  voice was speaking was the very nail on which the plot of her novel hung.  If there was no affair, then, there was no story.

Yes, Mary Ellen knew that there were letters and diaries in which members of the Stockley family, Seraphina's family, had refuted the idea of an affair.  But, Ellen had reasoned, the social conventions of the time made the very idea of a mixed race affair shameful and degrading.  The climate of today was altogether different.  Who was this man who was refuting the idea of the affair, and why was he doing it?

The two men in the room ended their conversation, and a tall, well built African-American man appeared in the doorway.  Mary Ellen held her breath momentarily.  He was attractive.  Very much so.  After his departure, she tentatively knocked on the door.

"Mr. Devereaux, sir, may I come in?' she requested.  Taking a deep breath, she entered.  Lance Devereaux looked up from his desk and noticed the young, eager woman in the doorway.

"I'm Mary Ellen Stockley," she said, offering her hand.  "How do you do, sir?"  To which Lance Devereaux replied with the usual gallant pleasanteries.  She told him that she was a writer who had recently completed a novel on one of the great stories of Duplessis House.   Lance Devereaux listened patiently.  He heard her out.

"So how may I be of service to you Ma'am?" he her.  He had heard many speculations on the so-called 'lovers', Caleb and Seraphina before.   People were always supposing about the tragic pair.

"Don't you think, Mr. Devereaux, sir, that your Trust could be of help to me in promoting my work?  The more publicity that comes my way, the more will come the way of Duplessis house.  You must understand I'm not just another writer.  I am a Stockley, just like Seraphina.  I am a direct descendent of her elder brother."

"Ma'am, you must understand something.  You are more or less taking it for granted that the pair were lovers.  It is not the official line however.  There are many who would disagree.  The official line is that the fact that Seraphina and Caleb were lovers is mere speculation.  He was married, and his wife and son had recently been sold into slavery in another household.  Caleb Duplessis, the slave who bore his master's surname, at that time, decided to desert his master and go north where he hoped to find some way to earn the money to free his wife and son.  He was merely escorting Mrs. Duplessis to a safe place with relatives."

"That is bullshit!  I think anyone could tell you that in that time, the very idea of a mixed race relationship was distasteful and inconceivable.  It is only natural that any right thinking person would deny it.  But not so in the climate of  today.  A mixed race relationship was not only understandable, but possible also!" spat Mary Ellen in disgust.

"'Ma'am!" said Mr. Devereaux, raising an eyebrow, "if you are thinking of pushing your literary work by claiming descendence from Mrs. Duplessis, I think it is only fair to warn you that the gentleman who was in here before you will oppose you every step of the way.  He may even sue you for slander!"

"What?  Now why would he want to do that?" enquired Mary Ellen, frowning.

"Because he is  directly descended from the hero of your so-called love story, Mr. Caleb Duplessis!"

"Oh, my God!"  The information hit Mary Ellen like a whirlwind.  She felt breathless.  "I have to meet him!"

Half an hour later she sat waiting in a nearby diner, to meet the gentleman she had seen earlier leaving Lance Devereaux's office.  Mr. Devereaux had made the appointment on his telephone, and she had immediately proceeded to the proposed venue.  He arrived within five minutes of Mary Ellen.  She recognised him immediately and introduced herself.  And he, in turn, introduced himself.  As "Jamal Ali," much to Mary Ellen's astonishment.

"Are you a citizen of the United States?" she asked incredulously.  He smiled and said that he was, and that he had been born and raised as Jim Duplessis, but that he had abandoned the 'slave name' when he had embraced Islam about twenty years earlier.  He conceded that life had become a little more difficult for him after 9/11.

Mary Ellen did not beat about the bush.  She told him that as a descendent of  Seraphina Stockley, she was interested to know his view of the situation regarding their ancestors.  She knew what it was already, but there was no harm in asking.  She told him about her novel and asked him what he thought.  He smiled.

"Ma'am, you are free to write whatever you want.  But if you write as much as a word implying that  my ancestor was anything less than an honourable man, I will most certainly consider it my duty to sue you for slander," he said.

"I see," replied Mary Ellen.  There was no more to be said then.  "Seraphina Stockley is my ancestor.  But by writing her love story I would not consider that I was slandering her, " she said, almost absent mindedly.  She looked at Mr. Ali.  A very handsome African-American man.  If he resembled his ancestor in any way, then she would most certainly not be surprised if her ancestress and he had........well, had a passionate affair.  Seraphina's husband had been almost fifty years older than she was, after all.

"Are you married, Mr. Ali?" she asked him, out of the blue, as they finished up their coffee.  He smiled again.

"Yes, Ma'am.  Eight children," he replied.  Mary Ellen gulped her coffee in surprise.  Eight!  That was a lot of kids.  Oh well.  Today's married man is tomorrow's eligible divorce.  She would wait.  After all, tomorrow was another day, as Scarlett had famously said, in that other great southern novel.

So Caleb and Seraphina's two descendents shook their hands and went their separate ways.  Already Mary Ellen was trying to work another way of using the story.  Yes!  Change the names!  To Joshua and Evangeline!  Duplantis would do instead of Duplessis.  And she could work authenticity into it another way, showing a fictional descendent, say,  Mary Jo Ridgeley finding an old diary or something.  Yes, lots of novelists did that and got away with it.  Had readers thinking they were reading a true story when it was a work of fiction.  It was a great hook.

"I'd better be careful to put in a disclaimer claiming that it is a work of fiction and bears no resemblance to anyone living or dead," she said to herself as she walked to her car.  "Can't have Mr. Jamal Ali suing me.  Not a good idea!"

This post originally appeared on Write Away on WordPress on 2/3/2010

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