Can one die of a broken heart? I don’t know. I only know that my heart was broken, and I died.
My brother, a doctor, would say it is not possible. But then, as he was the cause of my broken heart, he must cling to that belief.
Many accounts of my life, death and appearances have been recounted, but Halloween seemed a good time to share my side of the story, which began 164 years ago.
My brother was Allard Flagg, a wealthy, upper-class physician, who built a large home in what is now Murrells Inlet in 1849. Soon he invited me and our widowed mother to live with him at the estate he called The Hermitage.
Through the decades, I’ve overheard visitors describe men like him in a variety of ways depending on the year and the speaker: well-born; egotistical; self-centered; uppity; class-conscious; snob; and more recently, control freak.
He would call himself an aristocrat. At first, I called him selfish and cruel. Through the years I’ve come to realize that in his own narrow-minded way, he was trying to protect me at least as much as he was trying to protect his own good name.
But I’m getting ahead of my story.
When mama and I first went to live at The Hermitage, I was 16 years old and delighted. The salt tang that wafted through the coastal air smelled like the spice of life, a life I hungered to live.
Those who’ve told my story in the past have described me kindly, as Dorothea Frank Benton did in “Pawleys Island (a Low Country Tale),” as “a beautiful young girl with long, thick auburn hair and bright brown eyes.”
I did not see myself that way. Like most 16-year-olds, even then, I focused on what I viewed as my weaknesses: a gawky stance; a too-small bosom; an over-large nose.
Still, once I arrived, many young men of what my brother described as “the right kind” called upon me. For the most part, they were polite and sometimes handsome. But they had naught to talk of but balls and hunting and how wealthy they were.
As young people today would say: b-o-o-o-oring.
Ne’er once had one read the literature of the day. I could understand that Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” might not have captured their attention, though I quite idolized her spirit and loyalty. But they hadn’t even read any of Charles Dickens’ wonderful tales.
Then everything changed.
One day, mama and I went on a shopping trip. While she looked at various fabric and buttons for a new ball frock, I wandered outside to enjoy the warm breeze and sunshine. And even though I had been warned over and over about the dangers of freckles that could appear if I exposed by face to the sun, I could not resist.
As I stood with my head back and eyes closed, I soaked in warmth that made me think of Jane Eyre by the fire with her Rochester and it made me smile to myself. At least I thought I was smiling to myself.
“What thought has made you look so happy?” a male voice asked playfully.
I snapped my eyes open to face a somewhat rough-hewn young man smiling down at me. The sun glinted off his dark curls and I could see his kind brown eyes crinkling in a good-natured grin.
“Why,” I stammered, too stunned to be coy, “I was enjoying the warmth and thinking of Jane Eyre.”
“Ah,” he replied. “Now I understand. She is my sister’s favorite heroine.”
“You’ve read ‘Jane Eyre?’” I replied in blunt astonishment.
“Well, yes,” he said. “I had to read it to my younger sister. She’s been blind since birth.”
I was stunned into silence by this revelation, stunned that he could read and by his kindness toward his sister.
“Ah, beautiful lady,” he said, breaking the silence. “What I’d give to make you smile like that.”
I invited him to visit The Hermitage the following day. And so it began.
I slept poorly that night, excited about the visit. I was up before dawn, trying on different frocks, not wanting to seem too “lady of the manor” so I didn’t make the lumberman ill at ease.
I needn’t have worried. My brother took care of that for me.
He met John Braddock on the grounds and forbade him to have contact with me.
My brother didn’t tell me what he’d done. He let me wait, and wait, and wait, thinking John had changed his mind.
But the next week, when mama and I went shopping again, I made an excuse to leave the shop and there he was. Standing just where we’d met. Ducking behind the store, he told me of my brother’s actions and we made plans to meet again.
The next day, I took out my mare for our usual dawn hack, but diverted into the woods near the corner of our property. John was there, waiting, and we talked for more than an hour. After that, we met nearly every day. After a month, he came with a gift, a ring. On it was engraved: “Love never fails.”
Once home, I tied a ribbon around my neck and hung the ring there, wanting more than anything to wear it and shout our love to the world.
At dinner that night, I received another surprise. My brother announced he’d enrolled me in school in Charleston where I would be more likely to find a beau worthy of our wealth. I left the table weeping and locked myself in my room, but my brother was unmoved by my despair. He already had instructed my maid pack my bags, and the next morning, a coach came to collect me.
He rode alongside as we left Murrells Inlet, caring not that I wept unceasing, except for the few moments that we passed one of John’s worksites. I craned my neck for just a glimpse. Alas, I did not see him. I held my hand to my chest, holding tight to the ring, and began crying anew. When we crossed into Charleston County, my brother pulled away, apparently confident I wouldn’t bolt from the carriage that far from home.
He was right, though how I would regret it once I got to the school. There was nothing wrong with the place, except that the girls were vacuous and constantly gossiping about this one or that one and how they’d never find a suitor.
The coursework was aimed more at needlework and etiquette than learning about the world, and I soon closed myself off. I didn’t allow the others to engage me in conversation and cared not that they talked about me behind my back.
One day while sitting in the school’s garden, it began to rain. I didn’t move, just sat there as the warm waters fell. Soon, it stopped, the sun appeared and the garden grounds became warm and soupy as a steam bath. The rains awoke the mosquitoes, which finally drove me inside.
A few days later, I became feverish and was put to bed. My fever did not get better, and the school sent for my brother. I barely remember him arriving but he apparently put me in a coach to take me home. I remember awaking in my room, seeing the tree outside my open window waving in the breeze. I clutched my throat for my ring just as my brother came in the room.
Seeing the ring, he flew into a fury such as I’d never seen before. He grabbed it with such force he broke the ribbon, and flung my love’s token through the window, into the marsh beyond. I remember naught after that, until I found myself looking down as if from a great height, at my weeping mother and brother. They were gathered ‘round my bed, holding hands beseeching God to revive their “beloved angel.”
At All Saints Cemetery, visitors can still see evidence of my brother’s anger. He would allow the masons to carve only my first name on the stone, so embarrassed was he at the damage he thought I’d done to the family name.
He never visited after my death, but I have not been alone. Many visit my grave. Some leave behind rings and other tokens, apparently in sympathy for my plight. For I have never found my ring, though sometimes I still search the grounds at what is now called Wachesaw Plantation. Sometimes my sadness overwhelms me as I search, and I can tell that a passerby has caught a glimpse of me, or a corner of my white burial gown.
I do not know if there is a power than can quench my sadness. But still I search, for my ring and for my love. If you see me, fear not, but hold your own loved ones close when you return home and give thanks for your good fortune.