I JONATHAN, MY LOW COUNTRY SOJOURN IN THE TIME OF REBELLION
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Excerpts from Chapter One - Rogue
My father was quite ready and prepared to be single again, and after a few weeks of appropriate mourning found himself in the sights of an impoverished New Jersey widow of ancient name and little fortune. Though he was not wealthy, his legal practice had grown enough to provide a comfortable life for my new mother and her daughters.
The wedding service was brief, and I found myself suddenly living in close proximity to two lively and pretty young women, one older and one younger than myself. The careful nurturing by my judicious and wise mother was completely swept away with the fiery compulsions of the unexpected drives of my impending manhood.
Fanny was two years my senior. She often dressed in white with lacework about her neck, and with a glorious curving figure that would require a casual observer to give copious thought to the handiwork of God. She would carelessly brush against me in passing in the hall, her chestnut hair trailing an aroma of musky jasmine – and some indefinable woman-scent. I would catch my breath and turn to watch her, wondering what spirit had possessed me. She would continue on her way, briefly glancing back at the discomfort she had caused and perhaps noticing the arousal I was at a loss to conceal.
The younger girl Laura, still deceptively clothed as a child, crept behind me on one such occasion and leaned to whisper in my ear, her warm breath pricking the hairs on my neck, “Come with me. I want to show you something.” My mood at this moment prevented me from doing otherwise.
The careful and tender care of Mother who kept me under her gentle protection did not prepare me for the disruption which so easily and carelessly devastated my life.
What she “showed” me was, in review, a childish exploration of something that could generate a reaction in an adolescent, though the surprising experience elicited an emotion that went beyond the simple physical euphoria of sensation.
Four times on different days this wide-eyed child of soft hair and a teasing smile led me to a deserted room to explore my response to her caresses. This experience generated in me such a nervousness that I was constantly desperate, in hopeful anticipation of the look from her, a small beckoning, a breathless walk to the darkened room, and a complete submission to this young girl with the soft hands and smiling lips.
It was Laura who was the spark of my humiliation, my hope, and my downfall.
On my new mother's discovery of us together one afternoon in the empty and darkened chamber, Father was quickly persuaded to send me to Europe, where I was to live in Paris with a distant unmarried aunt of my father’s and to study architecture at the School of Beaux-Arts in hopes of my developing a talent along those lines, but mainly to get me out of the way for his wife to better establish herself in our house.
I was rapidly packed and sent to the docks where I embarked on a merchantman from America to the Old World.
Before leaving I secretly met a last time with young Laura, now wearing adult clothes better fitted to her blooming figure, and I swore I would be faithful to her forever. I elicited the same promise from the very young woman, and we imagined how our lives would permanently be entwined and we would live happily together the years of our future.
I was a callow seventeen then, still idealistic.
My time in Europe was instructive on one level, less so on another. My aunt kept me sheltered from the more free culture of France. I'll tell you about that sometime, but I want to get back to my coming to South Carolina.
Charleston, you see, was not my intended destination.
I had spent the previous summer and winter in Paris an ocean and half-year away from my Boston home and the woman I knew I loved, who I had poured all my anticipation of life into. I had sent Laura many letters expressing my continued faithfulness and longing, but got none in return. I had planned to stay another year, but my sojourn was cut short when a letter reached me in Brussels where I was traveling, I the grieving and lonely lovesick fool missing two women, Mother and Laura, the only two women in my world.
My father was ill, and he wanted to see me as soon as could be. Included was a bank draft for the money to travel back home to Boston.
As rapidly as I could manage, I booked a cabin on a sail-steamer and left Le Havre in mid summer.
My passage was not an easy one.
The first days were placid as the wheels of the steamer plied the dark waters when the wind was against us, and the sails carried us when it was fair. The vast unmarked waste of the water loomed as a background in my tumultuous mind.
The hours I spent on deck when the sun was out were periods of reverie and dreams, of my impending marriage to Laura, standing before her mother to declare our love and taking my inheritance to establish our home. I could find work as a tutor at first, until I found an apprenticeship at an engineering house where I would continue my studies in structure design. We would live on what my father left me, and on love, and build our world.
I was in one such ponderous daydream as I gazed at the regular rippling waves of about six feet in height spreading into the distance, finally to be lost as they flowed over the curvature of the world, when I saw far to the south a strange and shocking vision.
Without apparent cause at about a mile distant the water had shifted. A deep trench in the sea reversed itself and a dune of rolling ocean had lifted to an enormous height in a freakish wave. It arose from the bottomless void below, and advanced, moving and growing, a monster shifting the waters and approaching our vessel obliquely.
Some of the crew saw it and called to the captain who was below decks. He jumped onto the deck and urgently ordered the ship's sails trimmed and the bow turned toward the freak wave. All hatches were quickly sealed.
The fluid ridge did not tarry but grew to more than a hundred feet above its neighbor waves in a great rush of water. I knew not what it was, and thought it might portend the end of the world.
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Excerpts from CHAPTER 8 - STRAWBERRY TEA
The air was cool but not cold compared to Boston or Paris, the cloudy sky dimming to dark. I rolled up Queen and pulled the team to a halt in the alley, tied the horses and knocked at the rear door. When it opened the fragrance of baking bread and ginger cakes wafted to me, reminding me of my last meal, or rather lack of it. I was greeted by a slim woman in her late twenties. She was wearing a simple shift with a ruffled apron and sturdy work shoes, apparently a white serving maid in the large house. Her expression was not happy, not depressed exactly, but more like she was living a life without joy.
Her name was Isabella.
As with any first meeting, I had no inkling of how this person would influence my life and my view of the world. And of myself.
“I'll get the servants to unload,” she stated. “You can sit here.” I placed my hat on the kitchen chair she indicated, and after leading the two dark-skinned young men to the cart I sat in the kitchen where the maid brought me a cup of tea, a small pitcher of cream, a tiny cup of white lumps of sugar.
“Will you join me?” I asked, unsure of how I should address the woman. My appearance, though cleaner than my worst was certainly not up to the standard of the suit-clad party-goers.
Her hair was a dark brown, rather stiff. I recognized her accent as different from Charleston. She had a slim, slight build unexpected for one who did manual labor – washing and loading and scullery. Her face was regular, a short pug nose, a long jaw, stern eyes, not showing rouge or powder on her cheek. Not smiling, but not unpleasant for all that. A smile could have made all the difference.
“I am working.” She turned and left to tend and serve the party. My suggestion was dismissed, but with cause, so perhaps not “dismissive.”
The sounds of a piano crept from the parlor as the guests began to arrive, the young debutantes and their beaux.
I sweetened and milked my tea and had a brief thought of how I as dispossessed refugee myself without home, friends, family, position, was seen as deserving of tea while bondsmen attached to this house where they had worked for years unloaded my cart and could not take ease to enjoy this small pleasure of refreshment. Yet they who knew the warm companionship of family and friends, who were likely known throughout the community were because of their heritage viewed as less than the vile, unworthy character as I then saw myself, who sat in my chair and drank from my cup.
Perhaps the workers will have tea with their families at the end of their day.
I was surprised that my drink had a surprising hint of a strawberry flavor, pleasant in its sweetness.
As I took my tea the house was a bit disrupted by the arrival of some new guests at the front. Excited voices of young men were greeted by the higher tones of the women of the house as they welcomed them into the parlor where a decorated Christmas tree still stood.
As the music permeated the house the servants were drawn into listening as well and I, after carefully placing my cup on its saucer crept into the back edge of the audience as the men began to speak.
“He's done it now! We all hoped Major Anderson would just pack up and go, or even join us. He is from Kentucky, and has a Southern wife!”
“He is friends with General Beauregard!” said another. “He was Beauregard's artillery instructor at West Point!”
There was some discussion in the little groups, with the girls flirting with their fans and young men in uniform or waistcoats striking heroic poses. I kept my place in the shadows as the pianist began a stirring interpretation of La Marseillaise, and the men stood tall in self-congratulatory grandeur. The music was such that it made even me tap my foot, enticing even me to march off to battle.
One of the young men named Timmy, too young for arms at this point at about 15 years, seemed in amazement at the pianist, and his gaze never left him that evening, enraptured by his digital dexterity and mostly by the dynamism of his body in motion, and of his face.
The music washed over us all. I have always found it intriguing that a tune can generate moods and emotions sometimes not appropriate to the time.
When the pianist had completed his work he was roundly applauded by his audience, and he accepted a glass of claret. Then all glasses were charged and a toast was called, “Damnation to the Yankees!”
There was an immediate apology for allowing profanity to fall upon the assumed innocent ears of the women. Some blushed, most grinned and sipped their glass. The high spirits and good feelings of the evening were too strong to be upset by that simple breach of etiquette.
Again I heard the term “Yankee” as if it referred to disparaged foreigners from another land, not Americans. I had grown up thinking it a term of honor.
The chaperones, mostly matrons with an elder spouse or two, were seated against a wall near the fireplace and nodded approvingly as the different young men approached and greeted the women visiting their house. The promises of new configurations of planter dynasties were forming in the giddy air.
One of the older men suggested a reading. There was a quick response, and the favorite recitist young Timmy gave forth with a popular poem by Tennyson. Many of these men had by now memorized the work, and it was not unknown to me from my readings to my dying mother.
Tim’s slight figure and gentle posture transformed into something martial and strong. His high voice took on a timbre and resonance which demanded attention. He spoke with authority, this child, and before our eyes became a captain:
“Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward
All in the valley of death
Rode the six hundred….”
The group stayed silent, rapt by the cadence, the imagery, themselves believing how these very young men in the room around me would, when called, demonstrate a heroism as great as the doomed Englishmen on that battlefield at the end of the world.
“...Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred….”
Each young man present imagined himself on that field, achieving the glory he knows is within him, soon if needed, to chase the Federals out of Sumter and build their new nation. This small, gentle and effeminate child reciting the tale of the great deeds of that Crimean afternoon became a stern vessel of Truth, of Gallantry, pouring the fire of brazen manhood of the martyrs into his speech:
“...Flashed all their sabres bare,
Flashed as they turned in air
Sabring the gunners there,
Charging an army, while
All the world wondered….”
We in Massachusetts had learned this poem in school, and there is no denying its effect on young men, who in their northern climes were perhaps reciting it themselves in those days before the war.
Now, as I understand such things there is no denying that a light cavalry brigade conducting a frontal attack on emplaced canon is usually not the most rewarding military maneuver.
But that is not the point of the poem, nor the reason for its popularity.
“...When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered.
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!”
Noble six hundred! This is the sort of thing that channels youthful high spirits into the organized, state-sponsored murder of other young men identical to themselves!
Honor! Ha! How little they knew of the trials ahead. And many of them indeed lived up to the standards of those light cavalry warriors, though unsung and many dying, far away in a dark forest, beside a bridge, in a wheat field, a peach orchard, a river bank, a nameless road.
The audience stood in humble ardor of the words and the moving delivery of little Timmy in his verbal valor. The eventual fate of this child none of us could have imagined, this youth so smitten with the piano player.
“Please, give us another, Abe!” cried a cadet, and the pianist again took his seat at the instrument to the enchantment of his enraptured admirer, now shrunk again to youthful innocence. Yet Abe seemed to share my thoughts.
He played a Christmas hymn, a plaintive tune of thoughtful melancholy.
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Excerpts from CHAPTER 40 - SEARCH BY SMOKE
As we moved downstream on the river into the harbor bay I glanced back at the dock and saw Isabella near a lantern standing near the warehouse watching the boat slowly drive to Sumter. Her face shone white in the lamplight beneath a slacked hood covering her scar.
I had told Isabella I’d be back, God willing, in less than a month. Some ships made the passage and back in less than a week; some never returned. She had packed some food for me which I had brought aboard earlier. I watched her as she turned to stare at me with a stark capturing gaze, firm of chin, sorrow in her eyes.
I thought of her life, a pretty young woman marred with her trial by marriage, then while recovering something of a reputable station marred again by fire and defaced as it were, and slipping to a state of desperate survival that led her to take even me as a companion, me in my own low state.
Now she survived as a white serving girl with a bond of casual convenience to me, impossible to be called anything like marriage, and with no hope of anything better in life, no future beyond this. What a prospect!
And now even I was leaving her, if only perhaps for a few weeks.
I waved, and she stood still and stared at us. This public yet deeply private scene struck me to the heart. I waved again, and watched her standing as a statue as she shrank in my sight and finally was lost in the darking mist.
What was she seeing? What was she hoping?
How would she greet me when I returned?
* * *
No smoking was allowed. The glowing tip of a lit cigar could be the beacon that revealed us to the blockading Federal vessels, and could raise a cry, “Look! A runner heading out,” to sell cotton, and to bring needed food, materiel, and weapons to continue the war, to kill loyal Americans.
All non-crew were ordered below, and to remain silent until the ship had passed the cordon of blockading ships. This was a part of the “Great Snake” or “Anaconda” of General Winfield Scott. The plan was devised by the venerable old commander of the U. S. Army who at the start of the war convinced President Lincoln that the South's seaports could be blockaded and strangled as if by a great constrictor snake. Squadrons of ships, he said, would end the sea trade of the rebellious states and prevent their supply from friendly interests in Europe.
It wasn't completely effective as three out of four times the blockade runners made it out and safely returned, but it did add a level of danger. After all, those Federal ships were armed and the blockade runners were not.
The crews manning the runners were mostly English or Scottish or other foreigners, though I think I identified more than one adventurous New England Yankee posing as Irish or Welsh. I wonder what they might have thought of me.
Our crew was all dressed in black or dark gray. The captain had run ships to and from Nassau four times since the war began, and because of earlier service for the government in Washington had long been very familiar with the shifting sandbars, the tidal patterns of the inlets, the tactics of the blockaders, and the quantity of money he made every voyage. All was paid in Yankee gold or British sovereigns, and deposited in a British Colony bank.
The captain had been a coastal surveyor in the U. S. Navy for a decade before the war began and had offered his services to command a warship for the Federal government. He was deemed by a clerk in Washington too old at sixty-two years to command and was rejected. Perhaps his sensibilities were hurt. His vigorous nature would not let him rest, so he was hired by a firm that would pay him handsomely to employ those skills he had so completely developed.
All lights on Fort Sumter were quenched, or at least shuttered so that the silhouette of our ship would not eclipse the view of a lantern's glow when viewed from the deck of a blockading ship out to sea.
We passed out of the harbor and the ship's master directed the steersman as we wove over the changing channels through the sand bars.
We turned up Maffitt’s Channel to the north, easing along Sullivan’s Island, past Fort Moultrie and up the coast. Our boat was not racing but making a quiet swift headway in the gloomy mist. After cruising carefully northward we turned to the open sea about the hour of three in the morning with no sign of a horizon nor a pursuer.
The Federal ships were out there, but were invisible to all that black night.
The Gawain had a shallow draft and could sail in only eight feet of water depth. The Federal boats had much deeper drafts and coming within a quarter mile of shore was a risk. Several in past months had been grounded, leaving them open to the guns of Fort Moultrie, Johnson or Sumter.
I wrapped myself in a dark oilskin cloak and crept on deck.
The night was sheer black, the oilskin warming, and the sea not too rough. I was rocked in a cradle of gray on an ocean of black with the heartbeat of the engine throbbing beneath me. I drifted to sleep on deck, the cloudy shroud of sky above me and the plumbless deep below, and awoke in the early gloom to light my pipe, cool in the May dawn.
The journey from port to port can take as little as thirty-two hours, but using our circuitous route of evasion we wouldn’t expect to see Nassau for three days.
I have seen the sun rise from the ocean many times in my life. This time as black faded to gray, I knew the light would bring visibility to our craft, this mountainous pile of cotton driving more eastward now.
And that is when the early morning cannon ball thumped into the cotton by my head, as I mentioned earlier.
He had fired a shot ahead of our craft earlier to order us to halt, but I had not heard nor seen that one.
The marksman on the Federal blockading ship put his missile on board the rocking, cruising platform well over a mile in the distance where I had been resting. That seemed to me to be really quite a feat.
My primary reaction was to duck. The distant crack of the cannon arrived shortly, and I looked around at my fellow passengers in the early dim light to see their reactions.
“It must be the 'crack of dawn,'” quipped Charles who had stepped nearby.
I saw crewman and passengers in various positions of collapse, alarm, and crouch, with the exceptions of the ship's master who was employing a telescope, the first mate steady at the wheel, and the young matron Mrs. Trent in a blue frock. She stood quite erect and boldly followed the gaze of the captain toward the other ship. The bleary dark shape of a pursuing Federal blockader was becoming more defined.
All of us aboard were aware of the danger of the passage, though when the reality of a piece of hurtling metal came among us the emotions of excitement which we expected became something more disturbing.
Men react differently to different challenges. Some in a chase like this would become anxious, furtive. Some would act angrily. The captain acted as if this was normal procedure, and spread his cool confidence among his crew and passengers. Perhaps in his world of chase and evasion this is regular rote of action.
The sun broke out from the clouds and bathed the Federal ship in a celestial glow. It seemed to glint from it. I watched its light sweep in progress across the shaded waves between the Yankee boat and our own like a drape being pulled from a window. The ship was definitely closer.
“She’ll be within easy range soon, Captain.”
As the sailor spoke, I saw a flash of fire from the other ship. As I watched, a puff of smoke in the distance dashed away from its side, then we heard the crying shriek as a ball sped past our bow.
“Fine shooting,” stated the captain.
A passenger, Mr. Jones, was having none of this praise. “Captain, we cannot countenance cannon fire! We must surrender! There are women aboard!”
Mrs. Jones was made of sterner stuff. “Hush, Willie. Let the captain do his work.”
Then Mrs. Jones stood on tip-toe to view the pursuing ship. She was dressed in white this morning, and Willie stood beside her, crouching and shielding his daughter. The girl struggled to get a glimpse of the attacker.
The captain serenely moved to the very bow of the ship, and trained his glass upon the sea before him. Charles and I watched the approaching vessel as the sun slowly crept toward its zenith.
More shots followed. Charles spoke, and I listened to his soliloquy of muzzle velocity, ballistic arcs, how cannon barrels are rifled to improve aim, and even methods of gunpowder storage. How does one learn all these things? When broken into the abstract, the flying iron around our boat was not so frightening, except when another thudded into one of the large bales of pressed cotton on deck.
“More coal,” commanded the captain, “more pressure.”
The sun hung like a beckoning lantern above the eastern horizon beyond the attacker.
The Federal bow-chaser barked again, and the ball splashed a few yards to the side.