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Shockoe Creek was a creek emptying into the James River – a
creek now mostly channelized and paved over. It lay between two substantial
hills upon which the city of Richmond, Virginia, was built; in the earliest
days of the city, it was the market district; convenient to the waterfront, the
main roads, a transshipment node where goods from deep-water cargo ships were
transferred to smaller boats, to wagons, and warehouses. Commerce was the lifeblood
of that part of Richmond, within sight of the grand white neo-classical
building which was the state capitol. Here was the shipping basin and canal
which led to it, the market building housing venders of meat, produce and other
comestibles. Nearby was the bridge which crossed the James, the Haxall mill
which ground fine white flour for shipment throughout the Americas. Up-river a
little way was the Tredegar Iron Works complex, the pride of the ante-bellum
industrial South.

And another kind of commerce was centered in the Shockoe
Bottom – the trade in slaves. In the decades before the Civil War, Richmond was
the second-largest wholesale and retail market in the South: the offices of brokers,
agents and traders in slaves, auction houses, and holding-pens – known as slave
jails, all were situated in a quarter-mile square area. I have discovered all
kinds of curious things about the slave trade as practiced in Richmond –
curious to me, that is. I wasn’t raised in the South, the ancestors of my one
American-born grandparent was a fire-eating abolitionist; frankly, all I knew
about the matter was what there was in the generalist history books pertaining
to the Civil War. Nothing much about the nuts and bolts of actual practice, as
it were.

I have had to become acquainted with all of this, as I am working
on the next historical novel – and this involves a heroine, Minerva Templeton
Vining, a spinster of independent means and thinking, who becomes an active
campaigner for abolition in the 1850ies, and then a volunteer battlefield nurse
during the war itself. The catalyst for all of this is a visit that she makes
to Richmond to visit kinfolk – and while she had to that point been of abolitionist
sympathies, she is radicalized by what she sees in the course of that visit. So
I have to write about what she sees, and create the conversations that she
would have had, dealing with what was termed the ‘peculiar institution.’ I don’t
think that she would actually have witnessed a slave auction first-hand; so
far, all the accounts and pictures that I have found have only men attending
the auctions. It seems that male slaves were often asked to strip entirely, so
that their state of health and soundness could be judged – I have read one
account of a woman slave being stripped for a prospective buyer in private, but
not at the auction location.  Both male
and female slaves often had to show their bare back and shoulders, though, to
determine if they had been whipped. The degree and age of scarring would
indicate a discipline problem, and downgrade market value in the eyes of a
potential purchaser.

I did go into this project knowing that for most
Southerners, a slave was a luxury good. A first-rate young field hand was worth
$1,500-2,000; something on the order of $25,000 to $30,000 in today’s dollars.
A slave who was trained in a particular skill might command an even higher
price.

A particular curiosity – which makes sense, once I thought
about it – was that the dealers in slaves who kept a slave jail (basically a
warehouse/boarding house/dormitory) took every effort to make their sellable
human merchandise look good upon being put up for auction, although the actual
conditions in the slave jail may not have been very good. Those slaves being
held for sale were provided with decent food, medical care if required, and a
period of recovery from any particularly grueling travel. On the day of
auction, they were provided with means of bathing, were groomed and dressed in
new clean clothes. There is a painting by an English abolitionist who made sketches
of an auction on the spot and later produced a then-well-known painting: five female
slaves, clad in grey dresses and white aprons, with red bows at the throat,
with one man, in trousers, white shirt, tan trousers and a red waistcoat. One
of the women has a small child in her lap; they sit patiently in a row. They
are luxury goods – of course, the vendors want the merchandise to look good. I
think that is the most unsettling aspect of it all; not outright cruelty (of
which there was some, although not quite as much as the campaigners for
abolition would have had it) but the fact that it was just business, the
business of selling and buying human beings.

Finally – an interesting curiosity: one Robert Lumpkin, who
kept a slave jail of such notoriety that the compound was called “Hell’s Half
Acre” was formally married to a slave woman, who had five children by him –  including daughters who were sent to a finishing
school in the North. When he died, at the very end of the Civil War, his wife
inherited the property … and sold it to a Baptist minister who founded a school
for blacks – the Richmond Theological Seminary. The site is half-under a
freeway, now; the half that isn’t is an empty lot with an outline of some of
the buildings in the compound.

Slaves Waiting to Be Sold -1861 -Eyre Crow

(Minerva “Minnie” Vining, a spinster of independent means in the early 1850ies is visiting relatives in Richmond, Virginia.)

On her return to the Edmonds house, the maid who opened the door for her whispered,

“Ma’am is in de parlor with Ma’am Vining an’ de girls, Miss Minerva…”

Susan called from the parlor, obviously having heard the bell, and the
door open and shut. “Minnie, is that you, dear? You must join us – Mrs. Van Lew
just sent a boy with a note saying that she and Miss Elizabeth would be here
momentarily …”

“Allow me to change my dress, Sue,” Minnie replied, and hastened up the
stairs to the room that she and Annabelle shared, to discover that someone –
either Annabelle or one of Susan’s housemaids had already laid out one of her
afternoon dresses; a simple gown in the s pale violent of half-morning, with a
lacy fichu – all with the creases from having been packed in a trunk neatly
pressed out by the unseen hands of Cousin Susan’s Negro maids. Minnie hastily
unbuttoned the skirt and bodice of her walking costume and exchanged her
stockings and high-buttoned boots and for clean white stockings and plain
dainty slippers. By the time she had effected this change, and hurried
downstairs, the maid was already opening the front door to admit two ladies.
Minnie fairly scampered into the parlor, and settled onto the divan next to
Annabelle, who whispered,

“You’re late! We were beginning to despair! Did you lose track of the
time?”

“The gardens of Church Hill are so splendid,” Minnie gasped. “I confess
that I did – I am sorry, Susan – I was admiring certain of the trees; those
with white flowers, of four or five petals.”

“Dogwood trees,” Charlotte piped up, and Susan chided her.

“Dear, speak when you are spoken to. Yes, the dogwood trees are
particularly splendid this spring, although you have missed the jonquils at
their best. But the magnolias are soon to bloom…Yes, Sadie?” That last was
addressed to the maid, deferential in her dark dress, white apron and turban,
lingering in the doorway.

“Mrs. Eliza Van Lew, Miss Elizabeth, Ma’am,” she murmured, and stepped
aside from the doorway as Susan rose from her chair.

“Eliza, my dear!” she exclaimed to the older lady; a pleasant-faced
matron with pink cheeks and very white hair, dressed as modestly as a Quaker in
a grey walking dress bereft of any additional adornments. “And Lizzie – we are
so pleased to see you today! Come in, come in! I must introduce you to my
cousins, visiting from Boston: Mrs. Annabelle Vining, and Miss Minerva Vining –
they have come to celebrate Lydia’s marriage with us and then to stay the
summer over … the gentlemen will join us shortly.” Susan and the Van Lew ladies
exchanged brief social embraces – the older lady with more open affection than
the younger. “They traveled by train, all of the way,” Susan added, and the Van
Lew ladies chorused their wonder and approval.

“From Boston!” Exclaimed Eliza Van Lew, as she turned her attention
towards Minnie and Annabelle. “And on the train – what a marvel the railway has
become. Now, I was brought up in Philadelphia, and my daughter attended school
there, and now the matter of travel has become so much less onerous than it
once was … how welcome you are to Richmond!”

“We have been received with every fond courtesy,” Annabelle replied,
while – unobserved – Minnie regarded Miss Lizzie Van Lew, recognizing as if
with a secret Masonic handshake, another stubborn spinster of her ilk. Yes,
Miss Elizabeth was pleasing in her aspect and person, and fashionably-clad; a
perfect blonde rose of the South, with the flaxen hair, unearthly blue eyes,
and that fine complexion lauded by every sentimental novelist and fashion-paper
… and yet, Miss Van Lew defied that convention, for her nose was a perfect beak
and those eyes reflected a piercing and unsettling intelligence.

“Miss Vining,” she said, and her voice was pleasant and cultured. “May
I sit with you and converse? I would adore to hear of how the abolitionist
cause is progressing in the North. We hear so very little of the matter here in
Richmond, you see – only fulminations against such wicked persuaders such as
your Mr. Garrison, and the Reverend Slocomb – since he is of Boston, may I
presume that you are acquainted with him?”

“But certainly,” Minnie answered, pleased and heartened at encountering
a kindred spirit among Susan’s circle. “Mr. Garrison was a particular friend of
my late brother, although they had fallen out over … some aspect of campaigning
for the cause of abolition. I cannot recall the specific issue as Mr. Garrison
is a passionate advocate and not easily brought to compromise. But he and my
brother did eventually reconcile. Reverend Slocomb ministers to the
congregation which I attend – and I have the privilege of a personal
acquaintance with him, as well as a personally-inscribed volume of his sermons
…”

“Indeed, I have a copy of that very same book!” Miss Lizzie beamed,
radiantly, and Minnie laughed.

“I am reassured in making your acquaintance, Miss Van Lew – I had
become convinced that such abolitionist sentiments are most rare in the South,”

“Alas, they are,” Lizzie Van Lew agreed, without rancor. “But I care
little, nor does Mama, or my brother John. Among our circle of friends, it is
considered – so far – merely an eccentricity peculiar to the Quakers of the
northern States, and thus tolerated. My late father left us so considerable an
estate as to shelter us well against that public opprobrium which might fall
upon those of lesser means, otherwise …”

At that moment in their conversation, Richard and Cousin Peter joined
what had become a most pleasant gathering: Susan fussed over settling her
father into the most comfortable chair, and Richard took a seat on one of the
spindly parlor chairs opposite the divan where Annabelle sat with Minnie and
Miss Van Lew. No sooner was the introduction made, than Susan’s maid announced
the arrival of another party.

“Captain and Mrs. Shaw, and Mr. Devereaux, Ma’am,” the girl said, and
suddenly it seemed that Susan’s parlor was very full, although a large portion
of that came from Mrs. Shaw’s fashionable crinoline as she leaned on her
husbands’ arm, and the breadth of shoulder of the man who followed the pair
into the parlor. Minnie couldn’t help that her eyes were drawn to him, as if by
a magnet; tall and fair-haired, with rugged sun-bronzed features and eyes of a particular
pale blue hue, a specimen of vigorous maturity, whom she judged to be about the
age of her own. He possessed the same arresting quality as the Reverend Slocomb
– that of an actor commanding the attention of an audience as he strode the
boards.

“Why, Miss Elizabeth!” he exclaimed, in a gentle drawl which Minnie had
begun to identify as that trait of those from the deeper south. “You mus’ do me
the honor of acquainting me with your charming friends!”

Elizabeth appeared entirely unmoved by his courteous regard, even
though it drew the interest of the other women in the room as a sunflower
follows the sun. “These ladies are Mrs. Edmonds’ Boston relations,” she
replied, in a voice devoid of the least scrap of flirtatious interest. “Miss
Minerva and Mrs. Annabelle Vining. This gentleman is Preston Devereaux, lately
returned from … where was it? I heard that it was traveling abroad; I cared
little for where, although I prayed that it be far, far from Richmond…”

“My dear lady Tongue,” Preston Devereaux returned, seemingly much
amused. “I thank you for your courtesy, Miss Elizabeth of Kate Hall. Ladies …”
he kissed Annabelle’s raised hand, and then Minnies’, “Consider me to be at
your most devoted service!”

Minnie and Annabelle briefly met each other’s eyes.

A rogue, indeed, was Annabelle’s unvoiced comment.

Yes, but an amusing one, Minnie signaled.

“I deduce from your manner of speech that you are from another place
than this,” Minnie ventured, for yes, Preston Devereaux’s accent was the most deeply
marked in Southern inflection that she had heard thus far.

“Charleston, Miss Vining,” he replied, with a smile which drew her –
although not as deeply as it would have, if she had been as young as Charlotte
Edmonds. “My family there is said to be descended from a latter sprout on the
family tree of that Robert Deveraux, once the Earl of Essex and favorite of
Good Queen Bess.”

“Charleston,” remarked Captain Shaw, from across the parlor where he
had taken a seat next to Cousin Peter. Captain Shaw was dark of hair and yet
had the same pale blue eyes as his cousin. His young wife was deep in converse
with the Eliza Van Lew. “Where it is often said that the inhabitants most resemble
the heathen Chinee – in that all eat rice and worship their ancestors.”

That bon mot earned a ripple of amused laughter from the ladies within
hearing, and a chuckle from Preston Devereaux, who appeared to take no offense,
as he regarded the three ladies – Miss Elizabeth, Annabelle and Minnie.

“I trust that you are finding your visit to Richmond enjoyable?”
Preston Devereaux inquired, as if he really were interested, and Minnie
replied,

“We have only been here for a day, Mr. Devereaux, but we have been
warmly welcomed by our kin, and friends such as Miss Van Lew…”

“Richmond is so very different from Boston,” Annabelle echoed, and Miss
Elizabeth set aside her teacup.

“We were having the most interesting talk,” she remarked, as every word
were a little dagger. “Regarding mutual friends, and an interest in abolition.”

Minnie exchanged a glance with Annabelle; for all the care taken in
leaving certain topics of conversation unexplored in the interests of civility
among friends and kin, Miss Elizabeth was treading heavily among the
conversational caltrops.

“Indeed,” Preston Devereaux raised an eyebrow. “A fascinating topic,
Miss Elizabeth – alas, not one of interest to me: I may truly boast of having
not a single drop of abolition blood in me.”

“A pity,” Miss Elizabeth observed, acidly “For I daresay that a single
drop would make you into a man, rather than your present nonentity.”

Minnie drew in her breath with a horrified gasp, fully expecting
Preston Devereaux to react as any ordinary man who had been insulted by a lady
in the confines of another lady’s parlor, but instead, he merely chuckled
appreciatively.

“Touché, Miss Elizabeth – my dearest shrew. I did invite that hit! Miss
Vining pray do not look as if you meant to take offense on my part. Miss Van
Lew and I have been in the habit of verbal jousts such as this for years. Such
bouts sharpen our relative wits and amuse our friends no end.”

“Be warned concerning Mr. Devereaux’s conversation,” Miss Elizabeth
returned, with an air of stark warning. “He assumes attitudes not from any deep
conviction, but merely from a desire to provoke and tease. He is a veritable
whirligig, turning as the conversational wind blows.”

“I have heard that Mr. Devereaux was abroad on foreign travels,”
Annabelle interjected, in a manner intended to be placating, and that gentleman
smiled as if he divined her motivation and was prepared to be indulgent of it.
“I would like so very much to hear of his adventures – our cousin Susan says
that you sought gold in California! So very exciting! What was it like? One
hears the most fascinating tales of adventures and riches to be had in the
mines. And now California is to be a state, so soon after having been merely a
foreign possession! The gold mines are of an incredible richness, we hear tell.”

“I was in China, on an errand of some import for a relative of mine,
and on my return, the ship on which I was traveling made port in California …
and the news of the discovery of gold caused all of the sailors to desert,” Mr.
Devereaux accepted a cup of tea and a plate of cake from Susan’s silent
housemaids. Minnie made a private memorandum to herself; make sufficient
conversation with Susan’s household slaves to learn their names. It seemed
untoward to not know the names of servants, or not even to be able to tell them
apart, so alike they all appeared, in their anonymous dark dresses and dark
faces, below snowy-white turbans, as if interchangeable human automatons, given
into service.
Mr. Devereaux continued.

“We were there becalmed, in the port of Yerba Buena – although now it
is called San Francisco. Situated on the most marvelous sheltered bay. The word
came that gold had been discovered in the foothills of that mountain-range
which shelters California to the east … even, that discovery was shouted in the
streets, with proof brandished by one of the most respected men of town … I vow
that even the few soldiers of the Presidio deserted their posts! All were
maddened by the possibility of gold to be had, as easily as you ladies might
pluck up and gather flowers from your gardens…”

“And did you find any gold yourself, in those bounteous California
mines?” Miss Elizabeth sounded most skeptical, as Lizzie and Annabelle hung on
every word. Minnie noted that Mrs. Eliza was deep in conversation with the
young Mrs. Shaw – ah, from Philadelphia, she recollected. They must have
interests, if not kin in common. Richard and Cousin Peter were likewise deep in
converse together with Captain Shaw – matters of military import, both recent
and of a historic nature, Minnie assumed. Charlotte and Lydia appeared likewise
engaged in a converse most intense with a slender young gentleman who had also
been announced. Minnie gathered that he was Lydia’s intended, from the fond
manner in which Susan made him welcome to the parlor. She would have been more
interested in the lad – but for being fascinated in the tale which Pres
Devereaux had to tell.

(This is from the new work in progress: the Civil War novel, about the doings of Minnie Templeton Vining, tireless campaigner for the abolition of slavery before the war, and a nurse volunteer during it. In this chapter, Minnie has been left independently wealthy by the death of her father, and then of her oldest brother. She has decided to travel, and see something of the world.)

“Don’t fuss so, Richie,” Minnie chided Sophia’s seven-year old son, as she and Annabelle waited on the platform of the Lowell Street Station, that magnificent modern temple of commerce on Causeway and Lowell. The clamor of the busy station echoed around them; the shriek of steel wheels on rails, the gasp of steam escaping, newsboys shouting their wares. “We’ll only be gone for the summer. We’ll be back before you know it.”
She and Annabelle were to travel to Richmond by gradual stages and all the way by train, escorted by Cousin Peter and Annabelle’s son-in-law, Richard Brewer. Minnie had impatiently thrown back the black veil that draped her bonnet, and now a slight breeze from the harbor – wandering tentatively between the pillars which upheld the station roof, and the clattering engines with their burden of railcars – blew the ends of that veil to and fro. She and Annabelle wore the deep black of morning – although not the unrelieved shrouds suitable for widows, to Minnie’s great relief. She hated looking through a black fog of a veil.
“Don’t want Grammy to go ‘way!” Richie’s lower lip stuck out, mutinously, and he aimed a kick at the stack of trunks and carpetbags stacked next to Minnie and Annabelle and those friends and kin come to see them away. “Make her stay, Papa!” Sophia chided the boy, without any real conviction, but Richard shot out a swift arm and pulled the lad by his ear away from the luggage. Richie screwed up his face and yelped in pain.
“Stop that!” Richard commanded forcefully. “Behave like a young gentleman, Richie, or you’ll get a good thrashing over my knee!”
“Oh, you’re hurting him!” Sophia protested, while Minnie and Anabelle exchanged glances of mutual exasperation. Richie was a handsome lad, big for his age, well-mannered when he felt like it, but Minnie privately felt that Sophia mollycoddled and indulged him better than was good for his character; a young mother, and to date, Richie was the only chick in the Brewer family nest. Stubborn, willful and thoroughly spoiled, yet Richie was charming … when he wanted to be. Fortunately, Richard Brewer was not inclined toward indulgence.
“I’ll hurt more of him than his ear, if he doesn’t behave, my dear,” Richard sounded exasperated, even as Annabelle murmured, “All he hurt was his own toe, dear – I doubt that our luggage has any feelings at all.”
“It was an unmanly display of temper,” Richard retorted, in lawyerly dispassion. “And Richie is sufficiently old enough to learn not to give way to them. He is supposed to be the man of the house while I am away – not a spoilt infant.”
Minnie privately agreed with Richard – whom she had always found to be a sensible young man, sober beyond his years and yet graced with a puckish sense of humor which somewhat alleviated the solidity of his bearing and the burden of wealth and privilege. Her gaze fell with relief upon a pair off familiar figures, coming along the platform towards their party. To distract what she feared might become an unseemly public dispute, Minnie exclaimed,
“Look, it is the Reverend Doctor Slocomb, accompanying Cousin Peter! Dare I think that he has come to bid us farewell, or a safe journey? Or is he perhaps bound on a journey likewise? I would relish his company, if so – for his opinions and discourse are always so diverting!”
“I doubt that he can be parted so long from his adoring flock! Especially the ladies of the parish,” Annabelle observed, with a mischievous smile in Minnie’s direction. “Perhaps he is making an exception in your case, Minnie! You are, after all, an heiress to no small estate, and the good reverend is yet unwed…”
“Ridiculous!” Minnie snorted – for Annabelle would gently tease her about the handsome reverend – a half-decade Minnie’s junior, but his waving locks of dark hair already touched with gray, making him look as of he was her equal in years. And he was not unpleasing to look upon – nor was Minnie quite without susceptibility to male charms.
For the Reverend Slocomb was a man fully in command of those charms; a rugged physique, tall and broad of shoulder, a countenance in which the features of a classic Greek statue mingled appealingly with lively intelligence and charm. An passionate orator and of an abolitionist sympathies, his sermons in the pulpit of Beacon Street Congregationalist Church riveted the attention of all listeners, packed closely in the private pews and in the galleries – he had even had a collection of them published, and Minnie had purchased a copy from her allowance, although the late Judge waspishly described him as a producer of pretentious windbaggery sufficient to raise a Montgolfier balloon.
Now the Reverend Slocomb had spotted them – the party of three black-clad women, a man, and a small boy, with the towering mountain of trunks and carpetbags piled next to them on a pair of luggage barrows.
“My dearest Miss Vining!” he exclaimed, advancing and abeam with smiles, deftly evading a newsboy with his basket of fruit and sheaf of newspapers. The Reverend bowed over her hand, all honest and friendly affection. “Mrs. Vining, Mr. Brewer – good day to you all! My dear old friend Mr. Peter Vining tells me that you are departing with him on a journey of some time!”
“To visit kin,” Minnie couldn’t help but smile, and hoped that she was not pinkening – for Annabelle would tease her privately over that. “We will be in Richmond for almost two months – the length of summer. We felt the need of a change of scenery, and I am …”
“Tired of Boston?” Reverend Slocomb kept her gloved hand still imprisoned within his. Minnie felt the warmth of his regard, the appeal of his consideration and resisted the impulse to simper like a schoolgirl. Meanwhile, Cousin Peter Vining, advancing at a somewhat slower pace, leaning as he did on his trusty cane, flashed a boyish grin at the party.
“Belle, dear – Minnie! Richard, you young scamp! Here I am, better late than never. They were afraid I would be late for the train, pestiferous invention, yet better than marching all the way! Had you despaired of my arrival?”
Minnie flashed a brief smile at the Reverend Slocomb, sliding her hand out of his with a grace that obliviated any lack of manners. Cousin Peter Vining was over the allotted age of fourscore and ten and increasingly lame from toes lost to frostbite in the bitter cold of a winter encampment when he was a mere lad in the Revolution, although otherwise wiry and spry. Yet, in defiance of those years, and unlike the Reverend Slocomb, Cousin Peter still contrived to appear younger than his calendar age. It was in his eyes, Minnie had always thought – the lively interest and energy of her father’s younger cousin. Cousin Peter was raised in Milford in Delaware, and at the age of seventeen had followed Washington with stubborn devotion, marched south with the Delaware regiments and fought at Cowpens. The spirit of independence burned with a white-hot fervor in Cousin Peter – perhaps that kept him still young, after all those travails in his youth. It was his oldest daughter Susan, and her husband who had invited them all for a long visit – Minnie privately hoped that Cousin Peter was yet strong enough to endure the journey without damage to his health, for all that they had planned to do it in leisurely stages, and rest for a day or so between.
“An adventure!” Cousin Peter kissed Minnie’s hand, and then Annabelle’s. “I have never outgrown a taste for adventure! And Susan is my dearest child, and I long to see her again, one more time. She has six handsome children, and she sent me the loveliest letter some weeks ago – her eldest, Lydia, is collecting a button-string; a button from each of her relations! We can indulge Lydia with the very finest and most personal buttons, I daresay.”
“We can, indeed,” Minnie pushed back her bonnet sufficiently so that she could also kiss Cousin Peter on his age-withered cheek. “And we can present them personally, of course. I am anticipating this visit with such longing! It is not that I am tired of Boston,” Minnie added, with a sideways smile at the Reverend Slocomb. “But one longs, sometimes, for other vistas … other sights! I decline to rusticate away, to the point where I do not dare set foot outside my own doorstep, lest I encounter some unfamiliar sight and swoon out of fright at the strangeness of it all.”
“You were the perfect dutiful daughter, ministering to Ly, and then to Horace and George in these last years,” Cousin Peter murmured, his voice husky with suppressed emotion. “Eh – and you are well-deserving of a holiday, my dear Minnie.”
“A perfect saint,” the Reverend Slocomb added. “A model of daughterly and sisterly devotion – we shall miss your presence at our devotions, and in the good work performed by the good ladies of the congregation, Miss Vining. Hurry back to Boston, as soon as you may … your return will be an event much longed-for … I speak personally, of course. Although I am certain that the other ladies will welcome you home …”
“I am certain that they will,” Annabelle pursed her lips, just barely amending the cynical smirk in which they had originally arranged themselves. “We well know the degree of respect in which Miss Vining is held by the good ladies of the Beacon Street Church.”
Minnie just barely held herself back from sticking out her tongue at Annabelle – her oldest and dearest friend, who knew well where to jab the sharp needle of her teasing. An affectionate tease, for the most part – but Annabelle’s aim was as always, unerring.
“I have no apprehension when it comes to telling ladies like Lolly Bard when they are being silly geese,” Minnie retorted. “And that appears to be the source of the intelligence that I am respected among them,”
“Touche, Aunt Minnie,” Richard Brewer grinned. “A hit, a very palpable hit … I believe that is now our carriage, and now is the time to mount it – that is, if we wish to gain favorable seats for our party.”
“Lead the way,” They made their farewells to the Reverend Slocomb; Richard embraced his son – who seemed now merely sullen – and Sophia, bravely stifling tears. What he murmured to them was private, not for the ears of anyone else. In a spirit of rebellion, Minnie left the black veil hanging back over her shoulders, as Richard offered her his arm, and Cousin Peter did the same with Annabelle. Richard snapped his fingers at the porter with his barrow, already taking up the long handles, as another porter lingered, asking if he could be of service. Now was the moment of departure.

The Daughter Unit and I spent most of Saturday morning in the lovely little town of Wimberley, Texas. Wimberley is situated on a particularly scenic stretch of the Blanco River, in the hills to the west of San Marcos. It’s closer to Austin than to San Antonio and seems to have become even more of a weekend tourist draw, since we first visited it in the late 1990ies. Then there were just a handful of little shops catering to tourists, and one restaurant with had memorable hamburgers and an outside deck which overlooked the riverbank, all grown with cypress trees, great and green. There were a fair number of hippie artisan types; potters, glass-blowers, metal-fabricators and the like, plus the usual number of antique shops, which tended more towards the ‘quaint old country junk’ side of the scale. On the first Saturday of the month, Wimberley stages a mammoth open-air market – something we’ve been to a number of times. It’s supposed to be the oldest and biggest one in Texas.
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I scribbled the last words of Luna City #8 early Thursday afternoon. Left it all in suspense on the final page, as is usual with the Luna City series; resolve all the main story lines, wander down a few amusing byways as regards the (created) local history, explore the lives or experiences of characters, set up hints regarding the next installment, and then leave it all on a (temporary) cliff-hanger. (It should be available by the end of June or early July, BTW.)

Yes, I’m evil that way. I want readers to buy the next
installment, ‘kay? Just so they can find out what will happen next. Look, this
has been the stratagem of story-tellers since the very art of story-telling
began.

And then I set to work earnestly on the next … for which I
had already scribbled two scene-and-character-setting chapters, and several
pages of notes about mid-19th century female abolitionists, and ordinary
women who took up the challenge of being battlefield nurses when the pustule of
the peculiar institution burst in 1860-61 and plunged most of the somewhat
united American states into a bitter and brutal war. They say that civil wars
are the worst. It’s as if the hatred is all the more bitter when it’s not some
alien and foreign invader burning crops, raping women, and stealing away the
best, brightest and most noble of youthful manhood, along with the harvested
crops: it’s all the more stinging when it’s kin and ex-friends doing all of the
above. I guess that it is the aspect of personal betrayal that makes it all the
worse.

It was all very complicated, you see. Human society, the
interactions that we have with those of our kind most usually is more
complicated that the political theorists and historians can comprehend. Just as
a brief example – a recent bio of Audrey Hepburn revealed that her mother was
quite the Hitler enthusiast … until the war began, Holland was occupied, and a
near and dear relation was executed by the Nazis. So – serious reconsideration
of sympathies, all the way around on the part of Mother-of-future-gamine-star.

Back to my original thought – the next book, set in the lead-up to, and during the Civil War, as seen through the eyes of a female abolitionist and later on, a volunteer nurse. Minnie Vining. She was briefly mentioned in Daughter of Texas and Deep in the Heart, and at slightly more length in Sunset and Steel Rails, so that I must ret-conn her character and story-arc from those brief appearances and fill out such experiences which were hinted at in those books. Only daughter among four sons of a long-established and respectable Boston family, a family whose experiences in the American Revolution were also hinted at … and why am I writing all my family saga backwards?  Starting from the 1830ies in Texas and filling it all in, backwards and forwards from that point? Eh … sounds like a personal problem.

So here it is – the next historical is a Civil War novel – a bit of a change in focus for me. Of the previous books, only one is set during that period, and that in the Texas Hill Country, where most key developments and events happened far offstage, and most main characters in it sincerely wished not to participate in the war effort in any way. The other books are set either before and on the frontier, or at some remove afterwards. This next one, with a working title of That Fateful Lightning goes straight into the weeds of the anti-slavery movement; how it came to be that the question of slavery roiled feelings throughout the decade before the war, and it how it came to be that partisans on both sides were more than willing to take up arms against kin, former friends, neighbors and total strangers.

I expect also to delve full into the eccentric operations of
Civil War battlefield hospitals. I already have a tall stack of reminiscences
by women who served in such hospitals, and in providing the necessary by
organizing fund-raising bazars and extensive shipments of home comforts to men
in the field. It may have been an almost natural thing for so many women to
take up nursing at that time. In the days before antibiotics and notions of
sterile bandages, women ordinarily spent a fair amount of time nursing the sick
anyway; children, husbands, brothers and sisters. Taking up a temporary career
as a war nurse was a natural extension. Organizing fresh bread, clean sheets,
and tempting invalid meals on an industrial scale – must have been just another
logical reach for someone already accustomed to doing so on a home-sized level.
I have been mildly boggled to find out how the pre-war Army medical
establishment, which was a tiny organization suitable to a tiny peacetime military,
came to depend so heavily on the various local Sanitary Commission volunteers
when it came to dealing with the huge numbers of casualties once the lead began
to fly in earnest.

I honestly don’t know how long this will take me: maybe as early as the end of this year, perhaps into next year, say mid-2020. But in the meantime, enjoy the other historicals, the Lone Star Sons volumes, and of course – Luna City.

So this is one of those historic dates that seems to be slipping faster and faster out of sight, receding into a past at such a rate that we who were born afterwards, or long afterwards, can just barely see. But it was such an enormous, monumental enterprise – so longed looked for, so carefully planned and involved so many soldiers, sailors and airmen – of course the memory would linger long afterwards.

Think of looking down from the air, at that great metal armada, spilling out from every harbor, every estuary along England’s coast. Think of the sound of marching footsteps in a thousand encampments, and the silence left as the men marched away, counted out by squad, company and battalion, think of those great parks of tanks and vehicles, slowly emptying out, loaded into the holds of ships and onto the open decks of LSTs. Think of the roar of a thousand airplane engines, the sound of it rattling the china on the shelf, of white contrails scratching straight furrows across the moonless sky.

Think of the planners and architects of this enormous undertaking, the briefers and the specialists in all sorts of arcane specialties, most of whom would never set foot on Gold, Juno, Sword, Omaha or Utah Beach. Many of those in the know would spend the last few days or hours before D-day in guarded lock-down, to preserve security. Think of them pacing up and down, looking out of windows or at blank walls, wondering if there might be one more thing they might have done, or considered, knowing that lives depended upon every tiny minutiae, hoping that they had accounted for everything possible.

Think of the people in country villages, and port towns, seeing the marching soldiers, the grey ships sliding away from quays and wharves, hearing the airplanes, with their wings boldly striped with black and white paint – and knowing that something was up – But only knowing for a certainty that those men, those ships and those planes were heading towards France, and also knowing just as surely that many of them would not return.

Think of the commanders, of Eisenhower and his subordinates, as the minutes ticked slowly down to H-Hour, considering all that was at stake, all the lives that they were putting into this grand effort, this gamble that Europe could be liberated through a force landing from the West. Think of all the diversions and practices, the secrecy and the responsibility, the burden of lives which they carried along with the rank on their shoulders. Eisenhower had in his pocket the draft of an announcement, just in case the invasion failed and he had to break off the grand enterprise; a soldier and commander hoping for the best, but already prepared for the worst.

Think on this day, and how the might of the Nazi Reich was cast down. June 6th was for Hitler the crack of doom, although he would not know for sure for many more months. After this day, his armies only advanced once – everywhere else and at every other time, they fell back upon a Reich in ruins. Think on this while there are still those alive who remember it at first hand.

With the garage nearly cleared out – at least as far as we
can walk around in the place blind-folded and not injure ourselves through
falling on or over something dangerous – the time came to tackle another messy
chore.

The garage freezer. This was an item which – since I bought
it in (gulp) the early 1990ies – has served heroically ever since. It’s an
up-right; no, my parents’ first freezer was a chest-style, and was it ever a
pain, getting down to the bottom of that item. Mom and Dad resorted to a system
of stacked heavy-duty stacked plastic baskets, which was all very nice and
efficient, except that you had to shift at least three or four of them if you
were going on a deep snorkel for some wanted item. So, when I finished up in
Northern Utah after twelve years overseas, I bought an upright freezer through
the good offices of the BX and thought myself fortunate. When previously
stationed stateside, the BX didn’t offer major appliances. Something about
local furniture and appliance merchants in Sacramento screaming bloody murder
at not being able to gouge military members for household items … eh. Old news.
Anyway – I caught the food-preservation fever in Utah. Something about a place
where fifty and a hundred-pound bags of sugar and flour are freely available at
commercial outlets that are not Sams’ or Costco. Must be something in the
water, I guess.

Anyway, we’ve been going systematic about frozen purchases,
since I came into possession of a vacuum-sealer at a yard sale a few years ago
and doing a brisk round at the end of the month for … foodstuff to last the
whole month-long. We had a good system going … but it came time to defrost and
clean out the garage freezer, since the layers of frost became insupportable.
As in ‘couldn’t shove in another blessed thing not without a crowbar and
ice-pick.’

I really hesitated about this project, since I knew (from
the last time I had ventured this project) that it would a) make a mess from
melted ice all over the garage, and b) put us through the trouble of taking out
the not-inconsiderable quantities of frozen stuff IN the freezer, and keeping
it safe and deeply frozen until time came to return it to the original resting
place. On the up-side, we would really be able to inventory and re-sort the
collected deep-frozen items. Yes, dear readers – we took the plunge, although
the Daughter Unit had to run out and purchase an additional Styrofoam cooler
and a couple of insulated bags at the nearest available HEB once it became
clear that the contents of the freezer would overwhelm the current collection
of coolers and insulated bags.

The melted ice-water did run a good way into the garage, and
we were put to the effort of mopping it up… totes expected. But a good way into
this process, I realized that one of the large plastic storage tubs was THE
EXACT SIZE TO FIT INTO THE BOTTOM OF THE FREEZER!!!ELEVENTY!!! Where it could
collect the ice-melt without any fuss and overflow into the garage. Gee … wish
I could have noted that earlier in this project. Noted for the next time,
though.

So – that expedient is on the schedule for the next time we
perform this exercise. The last big chunk of frost, adhering to the top inside
of the freezer unit came away allofasudden in mid-afternoon, about two hours before
I had expected it to melt and fall away into the commodious waiting bin.

But all to the good. We could turn the freezer on again, and
show everything away … a small thing, in my schedule of household upgrades …
but a decidedly needful one.

And yeah – the storage bin as a catchment for the ice, the
next time we defrost. SO noted.

Yes, there was so much frost, it ate up about a fifth of the available space

The House that Amazon Built

Some years ago, when the world was young and all, Oh Best
Beloved, the proprietor of a generalist blog (Blogger News Network) that I
contributed content for, and who also paid me by the word for occasional professional
content, came up with a means for his stable of contributors to score free
books and movies. Seriously, that’s how it all started; and how could one say
no to free books and movies, seeing how much new movie DVDs and hardcover books
cost? He worked up an agreement with publicity firm which would provide review
copies of movies … and we would do reviews for Blogger News Network. At a
slightly later date, I began doing this for a couple of different on-line
enterprises; book reviews mostly. Before Barnes & Noble, and Amazon evolved
to the point of getting positively twitchy about duplicate reviews, we were
also in the habit of posting slightly edited versions of our reviews on those
sites. Later, B&N and Amazon came to frown on this practice, and I stopped
doing it – for a reason which will soon become clear.

It came about, Oh Best Beloved, that one day in 2011 after I
had been doing this for a couple of years (for the free book and movie swag,
mostly) I received an email from something called the Amazon Vine, noting that
I had apparently received a boatload of helpful up-votes on my reviews, and
that was sufficient by their somewhat mysterious metrics to be invited to
become a Vine Reviewer. Well, it sounded interesting, and possibly
remunerative, and why not? The publicity company providing movie DVDs hadn’t
offered anything interesting in simply ages – I think show business in general
was going through a bad patch – and the book review places were going through a
similar dry period. So, I accepted the invitation, outlined my preferences: for
books, mostly, computer and office supplies, and stuff for the house and
garden, sometimes gourmet food items. I still have no idea of why Amazon
offered me this interesting little sideline gig, by the way – other than the
boatload of helpful votes on the earlier reviews.

Over the next couple of years, I scored the occasional
interesting book, a cover for the Kindle reader, a surge protector, a
battery-operated motion-sensing flood-light for the back yard … nice, but
nothing really to go bananas over. If there was a high-value item in my Vine
queue, it was usually gone by the time I asked for it. For the first few years
it continued that way. I did consider myself outstandingly fortunate to get a
rather nice 17-inch laptop computer, and a couple of months later, a Canon
Maxify printer. That was about a good as it got for me, being a Vine Voice. It
seems though, about eighteen months ago, that the powers that be at Amazon
rejiggered the Vine algorithms again. Since then, it’s been a veritable flood
of household and home renovation items. A couple of interior light fixtures, an
outdoor light fixture, a couple of ceiling fans, a very nice Moen kitchen
faucet, an Amazon-brand bathroom sink faucet, a beveled-edge mirror, along with
a number of kitchen appliances … the mirror, the bathroom faucet and one of the
light fixtures were set aside and installed as part of the master bath
renovation. The biggest of the ceiling fans went into the living room, and my
daughter and I installed the exterior light fixture ourselves. (Not for nothing
was the Daughter Unit a USMC field wireman.) The other features are set aside
for the kitchen renovation in a couple of years. I am not totally mercenary
about this – I only ask for the items that we can really, genuinely use – but
looking around the house lately, anyone knowing where some of the features came
from could be forgiven for thinking that it’s the House that Amazon Built.      

This is something that has been developing over the last … decade or so. Maybe a bit longer, since when the Daughter Unit came home from the Marines with all her worldly possessions and parked most of them in the garage. A garage into which a lot of domestic detritus had flowed in addition, starting with some excess furniture, held against the day when the Daughter Unit ever had her own establishment, the camping gear from when we did indeed camp … and a number of boxes of stuff which may not even have been properly unpacked from when I bought the house in the spring of 1995 and a grateful USAF-hired subcontractor in the moving profession parked them within. My final delivery of PCS delivery of household goods, after eight moves over twenty years. I ought to take pictures of the boxes, as they are unearthed. (This is not anywhere near a record in the military world. I managed to remain at one place for six years, practically a lifetime homesteading, as these things go.) To all this was added various gleanings by myself and the Daughter Unit – but I swear, until about a decade ago, we could – with a bit of a squeeze – get two cars into the garage.
Until the garage door crapped out, and I could not afford to have it replaced at that time. And then … well, Fibber McGee’s closet had nothing on the garage. It was to the point where stuff was just lost within. A kind of domestic storage black hole, although if we opened the door from the hallway into it, there was nothing like the noisy, prolonged cavalcade of stuff falling. It was at a point where there was barely a path from the door to the freezer, and that was when the hot-water heater gave up the ghost last year. I still think that the hot-water heater should have been retained in a utility-plumbing museum someplace, for it was proved by the plumbers who replaced it, to have been the original install to the house, and had faithfully provided hot water for thirty years, when it rightfully could have been forgiven for collapsing after ten or so.
Anyway, in that grand final collapse, the hot-water heater flooded the near regions of the garage, and I lugged out several trashcan-loads of ruined and moldy stuff over the days that followed – mostly those shoes and clothes in which my daughter was no longer interested in. When the Daughter Unit returned from California this spring – we agreed to sort out the garage, now that the door and automatic lifting mechanism was on my schedule to be replaced. We have now been working on that project since Monday. Much has to be sorted, and inevitably, much of it consigned to the trash, or to the local Goodwill outlet, although we did make a side trip yesterday to a local recycling enterprise with the back of the Montero loaded with what could be construed as metal or technological scrap with a metal component. Based on our last visit there, the Daughter Unit suggested an over-under. She placed a bet on over $15, but I went for under $10. We got a whole $1.50 for the trouble.
Goodwill, though – any more trips to the nearest Donation Station, we will be on a first-name basis with the unloading-assistance people. Clothes – mostly hers, outgrown, unneeded. The futon mattress, hopefully to be reunited with the frame, which went to Goodwill last month. (Yes, it took that long to wade through the detritus in the garage to get to it.) Extraneous appliances – how on earth did we finish up with two or three coffee makers when only one of us drinks coffee? The old yoghurt-maker, from when I was a newly-minted sergeant with a toddler, living in Mather AFB enlisted housing, on a shoe-string budget, when my biggest monthly bill be for the day-care center, and I cut corners in all kinds of ways, including brewing yoghurt from milk and a couple of dollops of the previous batch. An extraneous blender, a couple of framed pictures which once ornamented the Daughter Unit’s room … and a whole raft-load of old magazines. I had subscriptions to Gourmet, the Smithsonian, and a selection of others; most of them I passed on to other readers (my next-door neighbor in Athens, Kyria Penny adored reading my old Atlantic and Harpers issues), or disposed of, once read, but like back issues of the National Geographic – those magazines accumulated. And accumulated. And accumulated. Well – nice, readable, interesting magazines, and once one has paid for them … well, anyway, it was time to do a clean sweep. I never once went out to the garage to look up back issues and keeping them seemed distinctly hoarderish to me. So – out they have gone, piled up in garbage bags next to the recycle bin.
We did a culling of the boxes of books out there, as well, as well as some stuff that once I was sentimental about – like the framed posters I had on the walls of my barracks room, an age ago. A handful of books are reprieved, the rest packed into bags and wished on the good people of Goodwill, and the posters are for the chop. Yesterday, we emptied and demolished a pair of cheap utility shelves – one from Spain, where it used to hold the kitchen things, the other inherited from Dave, the Computer Guy. Gone, waiting for trash collection, their contents culled, repacked and re-shelved if we decided to keep. Today – emptied and moved the two shelves that we will be keeping, and re-shelved stuff. The bags full of trash await collection. Next week, we’ll call on Neighborhood Handy Guy and his pick-up truck, to help us ferry a couple of box springs and mattresses (one of the box springs is unused!) and the bicycles – the old three-speed that I took to Korea for the year to serve as my basic transport, and the kid’s bicycle that the Daughter Unit had in Spain. Sentiment is all very well, but these bikes were ordinary, nothing otherwise special – and we need the space in the garage.
My ambition, actually – is to be able to walk across the garage with my eyes closed, and not trip over anything. The purpose for all this is so that we can get the garage door replaced, and be able to park at least one of the cars inside, by the time that I finish paying Neighborhood Handy Guy for the bathroom renovation.

The first of two projects for 2019 – part of the grand Five-Year Plan for improving Stately Hayes Manor is nearly accomplished. That is, the renovation – in one portion down to the very wall studs – of the master bathroom. (The second will be clearing out the garage and installing a new garage door.) This was an utterly bland, undistinguished pair of small rooms, completed in contractor-grade fittings, tile and features sometime in 1985. I most particularly hated the tub and the tile enclosure surrounding it, for the tile seemed to be incapable of ever being scrubbed clean, as the grout between the tiles shot through with mold. The tub finish was also disintegrating. I had refinished it once myself, to cover up a patch where the porcelain had worn through to metal, but even the refinished portions had become incapable of being cleaned. The dressing area was filled across one wall with a vanity and single sink set into a fake stone countertop – also nearly incapable of being cleaned, without being sand-blasted, and a wall-to-wall mirror. Both of these features made the dressing are seem small and cramped.
So, after refinishing the small bathroom last spring, the master bath was on my list; and I began collecting pictures on Pinterest and from other sources, of bathroom spaces which appealed to me and were readily doable: newer and smaller vanity, a walk-in shower with a glass door instead of a tub, and definitely a newer toilet with a more efficient and powerful flush … and as for the rest, a kind of refined country, early 20th century look emerged from the collection of pins and pics. A pattern of tile which went on sale for less than $3.00 a square foot on Wayfair set the colors … and in mid-January I started clearing out what I could. Over January, Neighborhood Handy Guy and his hard-working #1 Minion finished demolishing that which I could not manage myself … and the new elements began going in: anaglypta wallpaper from Wayfair on ceiling, woodwork, bead—board paneling, and floor tile from Lowe’s, a pair of light fixtures from Amazon … all the necessary bits and bobs. The woodwork got painted white, the upper walls blue, to match – and as of this week, it is all but done. I did the painting and wallpaper, NHG and #1 Minion did the rest. Behold the before, during and after!