Christmas Eve, 1864

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An excerpt from Brendan’s Cross

On Christmas Eve 1864, at Fleur-de-Lys Plantation near Camden, South Carolina, Brendan Bonneau is on furlough from his assignment as first officer aboard the blockade runner, Kendal. Brendan has returned to help his family, now in the direct path of General Sherman’s planned march north from Savannah, Georgia to Richmond, Virginia. While home, Brendan has learned some troubling news about his sweetheart, Arabella… 

…meanwhile, on that same Christmas Eve in Wilmington, North Carolina:

A young woman sat on a dais at the center of a large room in the glow of several lamps, reading to a large assembly. Men sat or reclined on an assortment of chairs, rough wooden benches, camp cots and steel beds, even one rather battered velveteen-covered chaise lounge, a throne of sorts, that was commandeered for young Shelby King. The few women were dressed in their best for Christmas Eve and listened to the story, too, but remained vigilant and ready to cater to the unpredictable needs of the men.

Even while reading, Arabella wondered about the men gathered around, the audience being an odd mix that, before the war, would never have shared an evening’s entertainment together. Tonight, she looked up from the page and her glance took in the faces of tired old warriors and baby-faced boys, all looking at her with rapt attention waiting for the next sentence of the story.

For each character, she used a different tone or accent, but for the narrative she relaxed into her own voice, which, she was told, was a pleasure to hear because she could be sassy, sultry, or soothing.

“And which was it tonight, Captain?” she had asked the handsome Virginian cavalry officer who had made that observation early one evening. 

“Just depends on who you were talkin’ to and what you were sayin’, ma’am,” he had said with a wink, before putting on his hat and striding out into the night.

Lucas Kershaw, had told her outright that he liked to watch her read so he could imagine … other things. She answered him as boldly, that if he must she would rather not know about it, thank you very much. She glanced towards the back of the room, where Lucas was leaning against one of the support columns. He smiled that slow smile of his that let her know exactly what he was thinking.

Let him think whatever he wanted, she thought, trying not to blush and give him even that satisfaction. She had not been able to be there for what he needed most. He was too close, had been her brother’s friend, for heaven’s sake, and used to pull her braids when she was little.  There were other women here who could tend to him.

Others she could help, and would, because somewhere Brendan may need kindness and tenderness. If it could not be her, then let it be another.

She turned to the last page.

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. …

The good old world for most of these men was gone. Arabella glanced up from the page to see the general, who had lost his wife to illness at the end of the first year of the war, his son in the battle of Chancellorsville one year later, and finally, his home in Atlanta only weeks before. He listened with his head back on the padded wing of the threadbare old chair, his eyes closed and the lantern light revealing tears streaming down his face. She wondered if he were remembering Christmases past, or anticipating the bleakness and emptiness of those yet to come. 

She looked down at the book once again, willing the knot of pain in her throat to ease as she continued on through the final few lines, until finishing the story in her most soothing voice,

May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed,

God Bless Us, Every One!

Arabella closed the book. Before standing to accept the cheers and applause from her audience, she kissed the sapphire on her ring and whispered, “God bless and keep you, Brendan.”

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