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  • “Zelika—A Story”
  • Victoria Earle [Matthews]


On the suburbs of Atlanta stood the old Claiborne mansion, with its broad, sweeping avenues, lined with sturdy old trees, that, in the golden past, had nodded and waved above many generations of proud Claibornes. But now their long, arm-like branches seemed bent and twisted into an almost human endeavor to shield from view the old place. Mournful in its decay, a slumbrous, meditative spirit brooded o’er the broad portal and airy piazza, blending into a delicious charm the crumbling waste with the wild, rank, overgrown weeds and shrubs, reaching from the very doorstep to the winding roadway, just discernible beyond a tumbling gate at the extreme limit of the once neatly-kept flower-bordered walk. Once this pathway, winding around velvety lawns and through aromatic groves of sweet shrubs, reveling in the mingled sweetness of jonquil, syringa and jasmine, was, in truth, a field of delight, leading to as gay an “Alhambra”1 as ever graced chivalrous old Spain—now, alas! crumbling walls and rank weeds.

Around this habitation, now presided over by an ancient couple who first saw the light in slavery’s thrall, hung many gruesome tales—tales that seemed like fantastic figures cut from the “bad man’s” sooty cloak, and, like that individual’s eerie exploits, seemed blacker upon each telling. Outside of these, there is one, however, clinging around the old place, vouched for by many who remember well the chief characters in it, and, while they do not know the exact ending of the story, yet, sympathetic acquaintance has awakened a train of events that not only soothe, but suggest, the finale.

The legend in question is the story of Zelika, whose life represented to those who knew and loved her everything that is meant by loyalty, hope and love. Zelika, according to the custom then in vogue, was given to Valerie Claiborne in much the same way as a Northern mother would give her child a doll.

Old Robert Claiborne, her paternal grandfather, dwelt alone with this tendril clinging to him. All the rest of the direct blood was in that world whose entrance is a narrow grave; I know not whether they are resting there, for they were, in truth, a harsh, ill-natured race.

The two children were about the same age and were given over to the full [End Page 176] charge of an old nurse and housekeeper. Both were beautiful. In Valerie’s eyes and silken curls there seemed to be a pinch of blue sky and a sheath of golden sunlight; Zelika was, in very truth, a sweet glimpse of shadowy loveliness, with delicate, cameo-like2 features, a wealth of raven hair, finely arched eyebrows, and long, curling lashes, her mouth, with its dainty coloring and beautiful teeth, made one instinctively think of the luscious pomegranate. At times she seemed an indescribably picturesque illusion—so calm and emotionless—her eyes reminded one of a deep spring in a sequestered spot, where a ray of sunlight seldom penetrated—clear, soulful orbs that strengthened you in some strange, unaccountable way, as you gazed into them. Her face, on the other hand, invariably wore an expression of utter hopelessness. A look of wasting, impossible to picture, had ineffaceably stamped itself on the sad lines of her sweet face, as well as the soft curves of her slender form. At once her personality seemed to breathe, not resignation, but patience.

As the children grew, for Valerie’s pleasure Zelika was taught to read and write, and often in after-times, when Valerie rode gayly away with some gallant cavalier, Zelika was bidden to old Claiborne’s chamber, there to sit and read to him during the long, sunny hours, and then to uncoil with soft touch the shining tresses of her dainty mistress and tuck the dimpled form in its perfumed couch, and then to watch the stars, or lie down within call, to sleep and awaken to live to-morrow as to-day.

Among old Claiborne’s attendants was one of especial value to him—one upon whom his failing strength found support—George, King George, so nicknamed, the story...


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