Read When This Cruel War Is Over Online

Authors: Thomas Fleming

When This Cruel War Is Over

BOOK: When This Cruel War Is Over
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To Dick, for his help on many books
IN HER BLUE-WALLED BEDROOM on the second floor of Hopemont, her family's redbrick mansion on the Ohio River, Janet Todd sat at a gleaming seventeenth-century marquetry desk writing a letter. Through the French doors that led to the upper porch overlooking the tree-lined front lawn flowed a current of thick warm air. For a month the temperature had hovered around 100 degrees. But Janet seemed immune to the disarray this sort of heat induced in most people. There was not a trace of a wrinkle in her white muslin dress, nor in the overskirt of white lace. Her glossy black hair retained its luxurious wave.
Janet fingered the blue-and-white bow sprinkled with red stars—a variation on the Confederate flag—that she was wearing in her hair. This was not a letter she was eager to write. She took a deep, slow breath and dated it:
July 4, 1864.
For several minutes she sat there mournfully pondering the numbers. Once the Fourth had been a day that everyone in America celebrated with pride.
Dearest Adam,
she began.
She pondered these words and tore the paper into shreds. Seizing another piece of paper from one of the many cubicles on the back of the desk, she dated it and began again:
Dear Adam,
The money and the guns have been guaranteed by our friends in Richmond. It is imperative that you or General Morgan bring your division into the battle beside us. I hope he will be well enough
to accompany you. But his presence is not a necessity. In fact, it might be better if he remained behind. His last visit to these parts did not win him many friends.
The Sons of Liberty are not the bravest fellows in the world. They have avoided military service in either army for three years. But they are very angry men and they will rise and fight if there are trained soldiers on hand to support them.
Orders to undertake this mission will arrive from Richmond. I am merely trying to reinforce them. I've been told General Morgan has a dislike of obeying orders from anyone. But this one comes from the very highest authority, I assure you.
If we take and hold Keyport and the rest of Hunter County, it will release a wave of fury that will oust the tyrants in Indianapolis. With Indiana in our hands, Kentucky and other states will swiftly follow us.
I have hopes of persuading a certain Union major—a West Pointer, no less, with a name that reverberates in the East—to join us. He has been wounded twice and is thoroughly sick of the way the war is being fought by the Union Army's butchers. His late father was a U.S. senator from New Jersey, a Democrat and warm friend of the South.
Janet paused, her pen hovering above the page, while more words rushed through her mind.
What would you say if I resorted to the ultimate persuasion? Will you despise me? I know what your answer will be. My response is: so be it. This war has destroyed so many things. Why shouldn't it destroy love itself?
Janet was tempted to write it, tempted to end once and for all the charade that she was waiting for outsize Adam Jameson to return from the war and marry her. Three years ago, he had used the war to extract a promise from her that she would never have given him under ordinary circumstances. But she had to pretend to be Adam's faithful sweetheart for a few more months. She finished the letter with words that were almost as meaningful to her:
However great the risk, you must come. Nothing matters now but victory. Only victory will rescue our dead from a fate worse than death itself—to have died in vain.
With deep affection,
Janet
She sealed the letter and called, “Lucy!”
“Yes, Mistress?” Lucy said, stepping through the French windows from the porch.
Lucy wore a calico dress that she had cinched at the waist with one of Janet's cast-off leather belts. On her ears she wore a set of cheap jade earrings Janet had given her last Christmas. Janet found these attempts at style mildly amusing. It never occurred to her that by some standards Lucy was attractive. The light-devouring blackness of Lucy's skin barred the idea from her mind.
“Take this letter to the Confederate Post Office. Tell them it should go express to Saltville, Virginia. Hurry. We've got to leave for Keyport the minute you come back.”
“I'll run all de way, Mistress,” Lucy said.
Instead of dashing out the door, Lucy hesitated, bit her thumb, and said, “'Fore we go, Miz Janet, could you look into my mammy's cabin? She's awful low this
mornin'. She sure could use a visit and maybe some of dat medicine de doctor lef' with you.”
“I'll go see her while you're gone,” Janet said.
“Oh, thank you, Miz Janet. I'm off and runnin'.”
This time Lucy darted out the bedroom door and down the stairs. In seconds she was racing across Hopemont's green lawn, ignoring the fierce July sun. Janet watched her with an unstable mixture of approval and concern. The Confederate Post Office was in a cave on the riverbank, two long hot miles away. She did not want Lucy to collapse from heat prostration.
Lucy and Janet had been born on the same day. That coincidence had prompted Colonel Gabriel Todd to make Lucy his daughter's body servant. Janet and Lucy had been raised together, sleeping in the same bedroom, eating at the same table while they were children. Colonel Todd believed this was the best way to create devotion between mistress and servant. As he saw it, Lucy was almost as fortunate as Janet in this conjunction of their stars. She was destined to be a house servant, to eat decent food and sleep in a warm room for the rest of her life. She would never be sold, because her mistress could not imagine life without her.
“Janeykins!” The ragged voice reverberated in the hall. “Janeykins!” The choice of Janet's baby name was a bad sign. Her mother only used it when she was distraught.
In her bedroom, decorated with the ornate mirrors and sensuous gilded furniture she had bought in France on her honeymoon, Letitia Breckinridge Todd sat in dimness and shadow, the drapes drawn. “You're going to Keyport?”
“Yes. I feel—I feel a need to enjoy myself, Momma.”
“I want more laudanum.”
“Momma, I told you—you must break your dependence on that drug. Dr. Kennedy has warned you—”
“My hip—my hip is a mass of pain.”
Four years ago, Letty Todd had been pretty enough and lively enough to play the belle on their annual visits to the races at Lexington, even though she had sons and a daughter of marrying age. Letty had been a fiery participant in the family's political debates, ready and eager to endorse secession, especially when her first cousin, John Cabell Breckinridge, the former vice president of the United States, became a Confederate general. Letty had played no small part in persuading most of the Todds and the Breckinridges to side with the South. Gleefully pitting herself against the influence of Mary Todd Lincoln, she had emerged a clear winner.
Now Letty Todd sat here in semidarkness, drugging herself into hypochondria. Besides laudanum, her only consolation was expensive visits from her spiritualist, Mrs. Virginia Havens, who claimed the power to help her communicate with her beloved dead.
“I'll speak to Dr. Yancey when I get to Keyport. But if he says no, you'll just have to endure it, Momma.”
“You're as cruel as your father.”
“It's for your own good, Momma. Now excuse me. I have to go see Lillibet. She's too sick to leave her cabin. As you may have noticed from the meager breakfast you got.”
“She hasn't been the same since your father sold Maybelle. I sensed that was a mistake at the time. Remember how she reacted when he tried to sell Luther and Tom? They're different, the house servants. More like us.”
“Should I give her the medicine Dr. Kennedy prescribed? It doesn't seem to help.”
“Try some brandy. More than once I've found that a veritable elixir.”
Janet descended the majestic spiral staircase that was Hopemont's claim to architectural fame. The house had been designed by the greatest architect of his era, John Latrobe. In the main floor rooms hung splendid crystal
chandeliers, the equal of the ones Latrobe had created for the White House in Washington, D.C. On the outer walls climbed ivy cut from Shakespeare's garden in Stratford-upon-Avon. The shutters were reeded so delicately, they seemed almost an illusion. Touring English and French writers often mentioned Hopemont's Georgian majesty in their travel books.
In the dim dining room, Janet poured two or three ounces of brandy into a glass and mixed it with water. On the walls hung portraits of her grandparents and her Virginia-born great-grandparents, the first comers to Kentucky. All of them gazed at her with the complacent pride of people accustomed to prevailing in life and in love, in peace and in war. Would this be the first generation of Todds to admit defeat?
Never,
Janet vowed.
Outside, the heat was so ferocious, it was like walking into a gigantic furnace. There was not a scintilla of wind. The drought that began on the first of June continued to torment men, women, animals and plants. Janet put up her blue parasol and trudged the quarter of a mile down the dusty road to the slave quarters.
The twenty-five cabins formed a little town, with a main street along which several children scampered after a squawking rooster. Each house had a garden beside it, where the owners raised vegetables they sold either to the kitchen at Hopemont or at the market in nearby Owensboro. A half-dozen calico-clad women were hard at work in these plots, hoeing, hacking away weeds, watering lettuce and other green produce. At the end of the street, Hopemont's parched corn and wheat fields stretched for a mile to a fringe of woods. The long furrows were empty. Colonel Todd gave his slaves a day off on the Fourth of July. Most of the men were visiting friends or wives on nearby plantations, arranging parties that would begin at sundown. No one loved a party more than black folk, Janet mused.
Janet turned into Lillibet's cabin. Hopemont's cook
lay on her narrow bed, her gray hair streeling down both sides of her mournful face. The single room, with the planked wooden floor, was as scrupulously neat as her kitchen at Hopemont. Lillibet was forty-five, but she looked like an old woman. Janet felt a twinge of guilt as she gazed down at her.
“Oh, Miz Janet, I was prayin' you'd come,” Lillibet said.
“Lucy told me you were feeling poorly.”
“What a pretty dress. Is that new?”
“I bought it last Christmas in Cincinnati. This is the first chance I've had to wear it. No one gives parties anymore.”
“It's real pretty,” Lillibet said.
“What's wrong?” Janet asked.
“It's my legs, Miz Janet. I just ain't got no strength in my legs.”
“The longer you stay in bed, the worse that will get. I brought you some good French brandy. Sip it slowly over the next hour or two and then see if you feel better. Try to stand up and walk a bit. Will you promise me?”
“I'll try, Miz Janet.”
“It's the Fourth of July, you know. My father was hoping you'd cook him some of your special beaten biscuits and fried chicken.”
“Maybe I can, Miz Janet.”
“Drink the brandy now and you'll feel better. I'm sure of it.”
Janet leaned over and kissed Lillibet's sweaty cheek. She inhaled the odor of blackness. They were different from white people. But they were similar, too. Their hearts could be damaged or broken. They had hopes and fears—above all the fear of being sold, to begin life again among strangers. Who wouldn't dread such a fate? It was not a frequent fear among Hopemont's slaves, thank God. But when it happened, it often left scars. By now everyone had noticed Lillibet's spells occurred
mostly on days that reminded her of her lost daughter. Maybelle had been born on the Fourth of July.
Suddenly Janet was a thousand miles away from this hot cabin, sitting on the broad veranda of the United States Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York. The year was 1857. It was a sunny August day, but the air was deliciously cool. As they had done in many previous years, the Todds had traveled north to escape Kentucky's brutal summer heat.
Janet was eighteen years old, wearing a sea green walking dress created by a new Paris designer named Worth. Her mother, equally well gowned, sat beside her, waiting for Gabriel Todd and his sons to take them to the races. On Janet's right sat a pert young blond woman in another Worth gown of burnt orange. The dresses created a sort of bond between them. In a Massachusetts accent, the stranger introduced herself as Isabelle Eustis.
Isabelle seemed agreeably surprised to discover Worth's gowns were being sold in Louisville. Janet's mother laughed and joined the conversation, eager to tell the young lady that the latest fashions had been a hallmark of genteel life in Kentucky in her own girlhood.
On Isabelle Eustis's right sat a small, severe older woman who listened to their remarks with pursed lips and a cold stare. She leaned toward them and asked, “Excuse me. Do you own slaves?”
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