This serialized novel follows 17 year-old Mayella Winton, who has recently been expelled from the tony Freemont Academy for Negro Girls, and comes to live with her Mother, Delores, who is the live-in housekeeper for Herbert Halethorpe, a rich, Baltimore industrialist.
This excerpt: Mr. Herbert gets ready for his guests. Thanks for reading.
The Charm Offensive -- Chapter Seven (Excerpt)
Herbert Halethorpe rarely came home for lunch, even so there was much to be seen to before his guests arrived later that evening. He didn’t sit in the kitchen as was his practice, but asked that Cook prepare a tray for him to be served in one of the upstairs sitting rooms. After a lunch of cold salmon left over from the night before, and potatoes, laced with dill from his garden, he headed for the master bedroom suites, and tapped lightly at the door.
“Come in, darling, I’m awake.”
Greta Halethorpe sat upright in bed, her hair in a high and neat tower of pin curls. She wore a silk lavender bed jacket, one of 20 she wore when she entertained guests. Her pallor was often pale, and so, even the slightest application of rouge left her looking painted and contrived, like a “carnival kewpie doll,” Herbert’s mother had said at first meeting her. Greta didn’t like the outdoors, but on occasion, at his insistence, she would allow herself to be carried to her bedroom’s balcony which overlooked Herbert’s prized garden, and she would sit quietly at his side as he admired it.
“I had a feeling you might come home early today,” she said, smiling.
Herbert nodded, taking a seat at the writing desk across from her. He casually scanned the correspondence. Letters, some opened, some unopened, were scattered across the desk. One was from a sister in New York. Several were from other relatives overseas; all dated nearly a year before.
“I know, darling. I haven’t been keeping up,” she said, smiling, embarrassed.
“Well, yes, it’s understandable. Even so, we don’t want people thinking I’m holding you hostage. Delores can give you a hand,” he said, not liking to make too much of these things. Not today, anyway.
“No, Herbert, Delores has too much to do getting things ready for this evening. I wouldn’t dare think of putting not another thing on her plate, not with her having to also tend to both her little ones, especially the baby.”
Herbert Halethorpe laughed. Little ones. One was nearly a woman at seventeen, and the other was hardly a baby at five years.
“It’s your call, sweetheart,” he said, knowing his wife to be unusually gifted at reading people, their moods, especially his own when it came to dealing with the situation with Delores.
Before he stopped up to see Greta, he had called all the staff into his study to go over that night’s preparations. He had spoken to Cook earlier that morning before leaving for the office, and so she was not present. There they were: Delores, Benny, the outdoors man, Dickie, and his son, Dick Jr., all standing at attention with expectant, dutiful smiles. All, of course, except for Delores.
Delores twisted in place, with her lips, as they tended to be most times, either pursed or poked out. He had thought to explain straight off that Cook wasn’t with them because he had given her her instructions earlier that morning, but the idea irked him. He didn’t think he should have to explain to anyone his motivations or reasoning for doing a thing. And so he hadn’t. He merely allowed Delores to continue to turn every so often looking back at the doors, as though she was expecting a guest who was central to the festivities, but who was now also unforgivably late.
Watching her, he remembered once more that he had not chosen her for her skills or intelligence, but for what he immediately perceived as her superior ordinariness. She was an attractive girl for a Negro. But she certainly was nothing he would have found exotic, or as his mother would have said, “One of those dusky hussies even intelligent white men often find themselves bewitched by.” Glancing over at her this day, Delores appeared as she had seemed when he first set eyes on her in the steno pool nearly twenty years earlier–tragically average.
“So, we all have our marching orders,” he said to them. All nodded, except for Delores, who he knew did this in order that he would ask her if all was right on her end, but he hadn’t. He had dismissed the lot and went upstairs, where Cook had already delivered his lunch, along with a short note on what she had seen to thus far for the evening.
He looked over at his wife, who was now trying to stifle a small yawn. He stood to leave, when he heard a small creak at the bedroom door.
“There you are. I was hoping you’d visit me today.” Greta said, motioning to the candy dish at her bedside. Leni, visibly scared, stood frozen at the sight of Herbert Halethorpe.
“Come, come, no lurking, in or out,” Herbert Halethorpe said, smiling as he sat back down in his seat. “Which is it to be, young lady?”
Leni looked back out into the dark hallway, hearing just the faint workings of the house and its staff, and back again into the bedroom, transfixed by the candy dish nearly brimming over with all kinds of confections. She then took one small step, and then a bigger one into the room, allowing the heavy mahogany door to close behind her.
To read previous chapters, go to: The Charm Offensive