Authors: Katherine Hall Page
“I'm surprised it was open,” Sophie said.
“I was too, but someone had checked and it's where we go a lot, so a perfect start to the day. And being here is the cherry on top!”
Will came over and greeted Ruth. “These folks”âhe gestured to his wife and Randy, who was back with a cup of punch for Sophieâ“think they're the ones keeping the firm in business. But I know who is really keeping things on track. They'd be lost without you. Merry Christmas!”
Ruth blushed, which made her even prettier.
A server approached with a tray of assorted hot hors d'oeuvres. Sophie recognized a version of the Southern Sushi they'd had at the Olde Pink House, as well as small crab cakes, skewers of shrimp, and hush puppies. She'd have to pace herself, as they'd planned to go to three other houses after this one. Still, all she'd had for breakfast was a muffin.
“The hush puppies are greatâthey have a little cayenne,” Randy said. “And be sure you get some oysters. Mama fusses about this party every yearâthat there won't be enough food, but I always tell herâ”
“Tell her what?” Gloria gave her son a playful tap on the arm. “What could you possibly tell me that I don't already know?”
“Nothing, Mama,” Randy said in mock obedience. “Was only adding that folks come for the drink, too, and your famous fancy to-go cups.” He pointed toward the front door, where rows of sturdy silver and gold plastic cups stood waiting.
“You girls go mingle. Don't let this naughty boy of mine monopolize you,” Gloria instructed. “And, Randy, I want you to go tell the caterer to have the servers top up everyone. Will, you'd better go with him. Make sure he doesn't get sidetracked talking to everybody on the way. It's a thirsty crowd!”
Sophie gave Ruth a hug. “Merry Christmas. I guess we'd better do as we're told. New Year's lunch?”
“Absolutely,” Ruth agreed and went off toward the front of the house.
Sophie stayed put for a moment, taking in the scene. As usual Savannahians had come determined to have fun. Even the elderly cousins had abandoned their muted colors and were
sporting bright silk shirts, one red and one green, with circle skirts to match.
But where was Patty Sue? Sophie thought it was all hands on deck for the start of the family open house. Maybe she was late? Overserved last night? Sophie was almost sure it had been her sister-in-law who had locked Sophie in the box room. No one else made sense. The question was why? Could it all be because Will hadn't married the right woman? Surely it couldn't be a grudge against Sophie's Northern roots. She'd been hoping to catch a telltale look of guilt on the young woman's face when she saw Sophie today.
“You look very serious for such a festive gathering.”
It was Francis WhelanâSophie remembered to add “the third” mentally as wellâthe elderly gentleman she had met while peering into the tunnel at The Pirates' House. Today he was wearing what she had heard referred to as “an ice cream suit”âivory linenâover a red-and-white-striped shirt, the pelican cane over one arm.
“Merry Christmas,” she said. “I don't feel serious, just the opposite! Will and I have a new house.”
He nodded. “So I hear. That little jewel on Habersham.”
Sophie was not surprised. Word traveled fast here. “I'm sorry I haven't had time to come to the Mercer Williams House for a tour,” she apologized.
“We'll both be there for a while. No rush.”
They were standing in front of the portrait of Aurora Maxwell. Francis gestured toward it. “We were all more than a little in love with her. You can see from this how beautiful she was, but it doesn't show other qualities she had. You felt as if you were the most important person in the world when she talked to you. That what you had to say was exactly what she had been pining to hear. Cherished. That's it. She made people feel cherished.”
For the second time in twenty-four hours, Sophie said, “I wish I had known her. And Will's mother, Amanda, as well. Paul McAllister married my great-aunt Priscilla, and I'm looking
forward to learning more from him about his sister and his niece.”
“I know Paul well. And knew Priscilla. I'm sorry for your loss, and then these two women as well. Tragic. Just tragic beyond the imagining, especially Aurora. I still find it hard to believe.”
This wasn't the time nor place to ask him more, but here was her best source, Sophie realized. Before she could frame a way to ask him something that might lead to a future conversation, Francis said, “I often go out to Bonaventure to visit themâand plenty of others, too. It's a beautiful place, isn't it?”
Sophie had to admit she hadn't been to the cemetery yet. He seemed surprised. “You don't have a disinclination for such places, I hope?”
“No,” she saidâin fact she found most cemeteries places of peace and beautyâand certain ones, like Highgate in London and Mount Auburn in Massachusetts, fascinating. “Somehow I haven't gotten out to Bonaventure.” It was a partial truth. After the incident with Aurora's wedding gown the night of the party here in the same house, Sophie had avoided thinking about the famous burial ground.
Francis was studying her face. “I'll take you. After New Year's. You'll be fine.” He kissed her hand, smiled, and Sophie felt rather cherished herself.
She remembered he had promised to tell her about Sherman's gift to Lincoln. “Do you have time to tell me more about that Christmas present you mentioned when we last talked?”
“I always have time to relate events of the past. The future is a tad murkier.” He straightened up. “You know about Sherman's infamous March to the Sea, how all Savannah was prepared to suffer the same fate as the rest of Georgia? On December twenty-first at four o'clock in the morning Dr. Richard Arnold surrendered the city, waving a white flag, and Sherman took possession, making the very handsome Green-Meldrim house on Chippewa Square his headquartersâa pleasant change, I
should imagine, from a tent. Green was a British cotton factor, so self-interest definitely played a part. The general sent Lincoln a telegram on the twenty-second, and I quote: âTo His Excellency President Lincoln, Washington, D.C.: I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the city of Savannah, with one hundred and fifty heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.'”
“Why did he spare Savannah after having destroyed so much else?” Sophie asked.
“There are a number of theories, some much more plausible than othersâthe least being that he had a lady friend in the city. You've seen photos of him, no doubt. To say he was plain is being kind, and besides, he was a devoted family man despite what we may think of him otherwise.”
“Maybe because of the city's beautyâthe way Paris was saved during the Second World War?”
“I'd like to think so, but I believe it was the valuable cottonâpiled up because of the blockadeâand the fact that the port was essential to the Union cause to ferry supplies and reinforcements for the next phase of the war Sherman had planned. The port, and all Savannah as a base, would have been rendered useless if destroyed. A discussion to be continued, my dear. Now, I must go on to several other houses before I lose what energy I have.”
Sophie kissed him on the cheek and said, “Merry Christmas, and thank you for telling me the story.” And much, much more, she thought.
Patty Sue was at the Belvederes' house and greeted Sophie with apparent warmth. She cooed about the “precious little house Will put in your stocking” and then headed for her real pals, who were clustered around Laura and the punch bowl. Laura's family home was indeed wonderful, as were the two others the Maxwells stopped in at before Will called it quits.
“We've done our duty, pleasant as it has been, but what would you say to some just-you-and-me time? Starting as soon as you pack a small bag. I'm thinking Tybee for two nights.”
Their honeymoon house was available. Will had arranged it the week before, and someone had even come in on Christmas Day to turn the heat up. Sophie loved beaches in winter, but winter walks along the ocean until now had always involved many layers of outerwear. She needed her down jacket, but it was a light one she'd picked up at Uniqlo last fall. She'd heard about the New Year's Day Tybee Polar Plunge, when thousands of people gathered to rush into the frigidâby their standardsâocean and thought what the Bostonians who did the same thing, in lesser numbers and
lower temperatures, would say about their Southern counterparts.
They stayed out until dusk began to fall and then returned for the supper Sophie had packed from the provisions she was glad she'd picked up for the Savannah house, not knowing about Tybee. After all the heavy food of the last two days, the version of Salade Lyonnaise she put togetherâfrisÃ©e lettuce, crisp bacon, and poached eggsâwith a ripe camembert and crusty baguette was more than enough. Friday they slept in, went out for a late breakfast, and returned to the cottage. The beach beckoned, but the wind had picked up and Sophie decided that Will beckoned more.
Saturday morning Will said, “I've got some stuff to do in town and we have to leave this afternoon, I'm afraid. Gloria's brother and his family are arriving, and it does belong to them. But you can stay a few hours more. I'll come back and get you.”
Sophie knew that they had to vacate the house but had hoped to have one last lazy morning. “No, that doesn't make sense. I'll come with you,” she said, hoping to pick up on what sort of “stuff” Will might have to do.
After making sure the house was in even better shape than when they arrived, and leaving a bottle of champagne in the fridge, they went back to Savannah. Will hadn't responded to any of her gentle
queries about what “stuff” he had to do. He didn't change out of his jeans and tee shirt, long sleeved as a nod to the season, but otherwise like all the ones Sophie had seen him in last summer, his gimme hat on his head. Today's was red with Uga the bulldog embroidered in white. Whatever it was, it didn't require dressier garb.
She watched him get back into the Triumph Stagâthey'd put the top up todayâand made a sudden decision. She'd do some “stuff” of her ownâpick up some groceries, buy about a hundred home decorating magazines, and start out in the same direction her husband might be going. She had finally agreed with Will several weeks ago that she needed her own car and bought a small Subaru.
It was easy to keep the vintage sports car in sight. She wasn't following him, she told herself, just taking the same route. He was headed out of town and south. She kept back, feeling a little like she should be wearing a trench coat and fedora. Soon they were outside downtown and before long she recognized the route as the one she'd taken to look at houses at The Landings on Skidaway Island across the Moon River Bridge. Was Will going to see someone out there? Maybe get in a couple of rounds of golf ? But he would have said. Golf was in his blood just as much as almost every other person she'd met since moving to Savannah. She'd have to take it up one of these days, if only to keep the stunned expression from faces when she revealed her unfamiliarity with the sport.
No, he wasn't going across the bridge, but turning right onto another road. There was a sign for the Pin Point Heritage Museum, surely closed for the holidays. She let him get far ahead. According to the map on her GPS there weren't too many streets nearby. There were a lot of Subarusânot as many as in Maine, where the brand was the state carâbut she didn't want to chance Will spotting her.
And so she lost him. She went down the winding streets, but her husband's car had completely disappeared. At last she turned around and headed for the Piggly Wiggly.
Will still wasn't back when she got home, and after seeing an e-mail from Patrick Smith asking for a small change in wording
before he signed the contract, she decided to go to the office and do it herself. Maxwell & Maxwell was closed until January 2. It was a simple change, and she could do it without bothering Ruth. She left a note for Will inside the front door and went out.
Letting herself into the firm, Sophie was surprised to hear a voice from Randy's office. The door was open, and as she passed by she saw it was Randy himself on the phone. Hearing him say, “I'll have to get back to you on that,” she lingered to tease him about being a workaholic.
“Hey, sis,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing. I've been abandoned by my spouse, who had some âstuff' to do.”
“Ah, how quickly the honeymoon ends.” His grin took the sting from the words. “But seriously, Sophie, what is so gawd almighty important to bring you into work?”
She told him and he congratulated her again on the new client. “Always wanted to go to the Oscars. Well, Carlene is waiting on me. You be sweet now.” And he was gone, locking his office door behind him.
Sophie sent off the revised contract and was rewarded by an almost immediate response. Patrick was working today, too. He planned to be back in Savannah soon and invited her to dinner, “with your husband if he's back.” Sophie certainly hoped Will would be. She was tired of being a lonely bride.
But when Will returned late that afternoon she learned to her dismay that he would have to go to Atlanta Monday and Tuesday, driving back “as soon as the Triumph will get me here” on Wednesday for New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. They would be going out to Bells Mills for Hoppin' John, the traditional black-eyed peas and ham dish that guaranteed good luck for the following year.
New Year's Day, it felt as if Sophie had just gotten to sleep when the phone started ringing. Will had gotten home in plenty of time
to celebrate their first New Year's Eve together, and they had gone to dinner at Elizabeth on 37th with a small group of Will's college friends who were in town. When they left the restaurant, Sophie realized the whole city was one very big party. They headed to the City Market, which was offering music of every sort imaginable. Later the fireworks over the river had been spectacular. They'd watched from the rooftop bar she had been to with Randy and Carlene. It had been perfect, but they'd finally called it a night, or early morning.