26. July 2020 · Comments Off on The Next New Book… · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

After That Fateful Lightning, of course. The book with the WWII setting, which picks up with a pair of cousins, granddaughters of characters in The Quivera Trail and Sunset and Steel Rails.

Chapter 1 – To The Far Exotic East

At mid-morning, in a tropical lagoon, Peggy Becker – no, she was now Mrs. Thomas Morehouse – stepped carefully off the ramp from the magnificent flying boat which had brought her and her new husband a thousand miles and more across the Pacific Ocean and onto the floating dock, which rocked gently in a vivid blue ocean bay, only slightly less blue than the sky above, framed by the distant eminence of Diamond Head, slashing up into that horizon like a vast sleeping stone lion. A brilliant sea bird, the Pan-Am four-engine Clipper had settled into the crystal-blue waters, as if no more than slightly wearied after a day and a nighttime flight from San Francisco. The dock abutted a lush green lawn shaded by graceful coconut palm trees – a vision of tropical beauty only slightly marred by the view in the other direction; a grim and functional view of docks and mooring places for a crowding of grey-painted naval vessels, whose masts and gun muzzles gave to lie to a vision of a peaceful Pacific island paradise.  

“Tommy,” she exclaimed to her new husband, as he took her arm. “It’s absolutely beautiful here – I love it already.”

“Wait until you see Ipoh Perak,” he replied. “It’s a garden of Eden in comparison.”

Peggy was tall and model-slender, an athletic girl with stick-straight hair the color of ripe wheat-straw, hair which defied every attempt to curl it in accordance with the current fashion. Her countenance was oval, pleasingly featured, accented with sky-colored blue eyes and shapely lips which owed little to brilliant red lipstick in accentuating their kissable attraction. Attraction to Tommy Morehouse most of all; Tommy was wiry and charming, as tall as his wife, but possessed of a personal magnetism which drew the attention of everyone in any room where he appeared.

Peggy had not quite figured it out – that attraction. Any room where Tommy appeared – he was instantly the star, for all that he wasn’t tall for a man and didn’t look anything like a movie star. Tommy was … Tommy was Tommy; grey eyes and undistinguished brown hair – dunduckety, was how one of the Vining cousins had described him; lanky and angular, rather like an English version of a young Abraham Lincoln. Her cousin Vinnie Stoneman had attempted an explanation. ‘Tommy looks at you and talks to you as if you are the most singular and fascinating person in the room. He does this with everyone, and the thing is – he is completely sincere. Tommy loves people, he is interested in every single person he meets. And that is why most everyone loves him in response.”

Peggy had fallen for him almost from the moment of meeting, an encounter at a family dinner with her grandparents, in their big old house in the oldest part of Alamo Heights. A distant cousin of the family, her father had said vaguely, English and kin to Great-Aunt Lottie’s husband in some degree, by way of explaining the presence of a stranger among the scattering of cousins, uncles and aunts in Granny Jane’s parlor on a rainy January Sunday.

“He’s returning from home leave in England, the long way around,” Daddy explained. “Quite pleasant when I spoke to him on the telephone; he had all kinds of questions. He works in Malaya, overseeing a rubber plantation.”

“Boring! And yet another cousin,” seventeen-year-old Ivy grumbled. “Don’t we ever meet anyone who isn’t a cousin?”

“He’s not bad looking at all,” Peggy murmured, and her heart had skipped a beat as hers and Tommy’s eyes met. He had been leaning up against the upright parlor piano, talking to Grandpa Sam – something to do with the property up north in the Palo Duro country.

It was an instant connection, as if they had known each other always – or as Vinnie observed humorously – as if they had known and loved each other in a previous life. Surely one couldn’t in this modern day, fall in love at first glance? But Peg and Tommy had. The talks between them – about the family ranch in the Hill Country where Peggy had spent most of the years growing up, the property that he managed in the Malayan foothills – were as meaningful and momentous as the companionable silences. Barely a week later he proposed; a month and a half later, married and boarding Pan American’s luxurious China Clipper, resting now like a motorized water-lily leaf in San Francisco Bay.

“How long are we going to stay here, then,” Peggy asked, as Tommy took her elbow. The morning breeze smelt a little of aviation fuel, with an overlay of salt water – but teased a little now and again with the scent of flowers; ginger, plumeria, jasmine and gardenia. She inhaled, relishing the fresh air and the flowers, palm leaves rustling in an endless dance overhead.

“A week here, and a week or two again in Manila,” Tommy replied, as half a dozen young women rushed forward, their arms filled with flower garlands, dark hair flowing unbound around their shoulders. They wore colorful bandeaus around their breasts, shell necklaces and more garlands of live flowers woven into their hair and around their necks, and shin-length skirts composed of some long fiber that looked like green raffia.

“Aloha!” the women chorused, flinging a garland around the neck of every departing passenger. “Aloha! Welcome to Hawai’i! Aloha!”

“I love this place, already!” Peg exclaimed again; the garland brought a richer scent of flowers to her than the erratic breeze. “I cannot imagine a place more different than Texas.”

“Indeed,” Tommy grinned. “Certainly, more different than Oxfordshire. A bit more like Malaya, though. Come on, Peggy – the hotel where we are staying is right on the beach. I believe, though,” he confessed as he and the other passengers took their places in a handful of taxis and a small bus tricked out in the colors and emblem of PAA – Pacific Air Ways. “That this is a welcome laid on by the airline … certainly very considerate of them to do so.”

“I don’t care – I love Hawaii anyway,” Peg replied. “And I’m certain that I’ll love Longcot Plantation even more. Tell me about the house again. I love to hear you talk about it.”

“It’s in the foothills above Ipoh,” Tommy began with a wry smile, for this was a story told many times, like a fairy story to a child at bedtime. “Over seventy hectares of mature rubber trees – my father and my grandfather began planting them when the coffee crop failed, back before the War. The house is not a large one – two stories tall, and on tall pilings to catch the breezes. It has deep porches all around. Every room of it opens onto a porch, through tall French doors. The afternoon heat, y’know…”

“I know about heat,” Peg replied, knowingly. “Summer in Texas means living in an oven … although it always seemed to be cooler in the Hills. I’m used to heat, Tommy.”

“Mumma – my mother started a garden when she married Father,” Tommy continued. “She has always said that the soil was so rich, it was a matter of planting a seed or a sprig, and then having to leap backwards as it grew so fast that it might hit you in the eye!”

“She lives in … Australia now?” Peg wanted to refresh her memory of Tommy’s family – none of whom were able to attend the ceremony, due to Tommy’s impulsive haste and the long distance from Texas between his remaining family and friends; his side of the church had been practically deserted on their wedding day. His parents and half-sister were stiff figures in black and white photos, formal or caught on casual snaps on a small simple Brownie camera, pictures which he just happened to have carried with him on his ‘home leave’. Neither of his parents really looked like Tommy. It was if he were a changeling child, deposited by the fae in the Morehouse family cradle, in faraway Malaya.

The taxi in which they were riding was skirting the harbor – a shining stretch of water on one side, and a precipitously-rising range of mountains on the other, mountains clad in lush greenery, attended by blue skies in which a range of clouds floated, like something arranged by a scenic painter. Peg spared a look outside the windows; now they were passing by the fringes of the naval base; nothing there but grim concrete and industrial metal, broken now and again by exuberant outcrops of palm trees and banks of lush plants. Yes, things grew in the tropics, as Tommy’s mother said of her garden. Stand back, or it will hit you in the eye.

But always beyond that vista of cranes, docks and steel was the ocean, dark and brooding, even in the morning sunshine now slanting over those mountains, a deep blue ocean trimmed with the white of cresting waves.

“Yes,” Tommy replied, and even though he spoke with typical English stoicism, Peg sensed the grief and loss which her husband must have felt. “Father was gassed in the War. Never entirely fit and well again afterwards. He died in 1921. I was at school then, of course. I was twelve – being sent Home even before the War. It wasn’t thought healthy for us English children to be kept in the East after about five or so. And Mumma married Stanley a few years later. Stanley’s a good sort of chap. He was an agent for some enterprise which had an office in Kuala Lumpor. They met at one of the Club do’s – can’t recall the occasion, since I wasn’t there. Of course. Social life in Malaya revolves around the local club.”

“He’s not a wicked stepfather?” Peg smiled sideways at her husband, and he covered her hand with his and smiled in return. “No, he’s not. Stanley’s a jolly decent sort. He makes Mumma happy, and now he and Mumma and Mavis all live in Brisbane. They all write to me without fail, every week. Now, your turn. Tell me about your home.”

“You never got to see it, in all the rush of the wedding,” Peg replied, with regret. “I’m sorry for that – because I loved the place so. Daddy managed it for Great-Uncle Dolph, and Ivy and I lived there on weekends and holidays. We boarded at St. Mary’s Hall, during the week.”

“Boarding school,” Tommy had a particular wry grin on his face. “How very English of you all.”

The taxi had now passed the outlaying establishments of the naval base, and now traveling along a good road; houses and small enterprises set in lush green plots and among thickets of tropical trees and vines. The green mountains rose up precipitously on the horizon to their left, and out to the right, between buildings, houses and stands of trees, the deep blue Pacific beckoned. Tommy had arranged for a week-long stay at the splendid pink hotel on the very beach, before continuing their journey.

“It was school – and we had to be there,” Peg was indignant. “A very good school, I will have you know! Anyway – the Becker ranch was established by my … I think, great-grandfather. Maybe another grand on top of that. I can’t be certain, as it was simply ages ago. Anyway, he built a stone house for his wife, or the woman that he hoped would be his wife, and it was the first and oldest stone house anywhere in the neighborhood. That’s the family story, anyway. There’s a carving over the front door, of a bird in the nest of an apple tree and the date 1847…”

“Practically modern, then,” Tommy commented.

Peg was indignant all over again. “No, you beast! For Texas that is old, as old as the hills! The great-great-grand had land for his service as a soldier, and later Great-Uncle Dolph and his kin went into trailing cattle, all up the long trail to Kansas. Daddy says that this was how they made the original fortune after opening a general store after the War Between the States, and lucky we were to hold on to it, too.” Peg settled against Tommy’s shoulder with a sigh. “I loved the place. I wish I could have shown it to you. A lovely old house with gardens all around, and a walled apple-orchard supposed to have been planted by Great Uncle Dolphs’ father. And Great Uncle Dolph planted an avenue of red-bud trees, all along the drive from the gate to the Home Ranch. His wife designed and set out the gardens. She was English, you know. It’s a lovely place … when we have home leave once again, I can show it to you. We learned to ride there, Ivy and I, but she is better in the saddle than I am, and Cousin Vinnie is better than either of us.”

“Your cousin who was your chief bridesmaid,” Tommy replied with a nod and a brief look of satisfaction at having recalled the names and the web of relations. “And quite an excellent dancer, too – I did several turns around the floor with her, at the reception dance. Did she also grow up on the family ranch with you?”

“Oh, no,” Peg replied. “The Stonemans own a big place in New Mexico – they visited now and again, for family things. I can’t recall the exact connection, it’s terribly complicated, I think she is a second cousin, but I love her like a sister. Now, the funny thing, and the new thing that I have just remembered is that Stoneman isn’t their real name – they changed it from Steinmetz about twenty years ago.”

“To sound less Jewish?” Tommy ventured, and Peg giggled.

“No, silly – to sound less German. Because of the War! All the Beckers and the Stonemans came from Germany, about a hundred years ago! Vinnie’s father decided around 1915 or so that he didn’t really want the grief of being considered foreigners and hostile foreigners at that. They were American, and that was an end to it, and if it took changing the name to something less tiresomely Germanic, then he could go to the courthouse and change it and solve all their problems.”

“I understand that our very own dear royals had the same problem,” Tommy chuckled – a rather cynical sound, and at Peg’s baffled expression, he enlarged. “Saxe-Coburg and Gotha was formerly the family name, since Prince Albert the blessed, espoused of our own good Queen Victoria was of the old German nobility. They changed it to Windsor and vacated all their German titles after Kaiser Wilhelm and his filthy Huns dropped bombs on England during the War.”

“You see? Problem solved,” Peg replied, thinking privately that she had been so blessed in her impulsive choice of husband. She nestled into his shoulder and watched the passing landscape in blissful silence for the remainder of the journey into town from the Pacific Airways landing dock. The taxi was descending into the city now, a space of wide avenues, which now and again crossed over watery canals and ocean inlets. “Are we going to dance at the Royal Hawaiian? I expect they have a band…”

“For a certainty, they do,” Tommy kissed her hand. “Every dance with me, Mrs. Morehouse?”

“Of course!” Peg promised. That was one of the silly things that she loved about her husband – that he was a good dancer. They fitted together, on the floor, the music binding them, every move, turn and gesture a magic thing, as if they sensed it without words. Now the taxi approached the grand hotel, a sprawling and eccentric edifice the color of pink cotton candy, set in groves of palm trees and gardens, with the dark blue pacific rolling in upon a sugar-white strand beyond. It was a palatial hotel, even the name reflected it. “What a lovely place for our honeymoon trip!” Peg sighed in absolute bliss. Everything was perfect. Her wedding, her husband, and now their lives together could not fail to fall short of such a perfect beginning.

28. October 2019 · Comments Off on Another Snippet of the Work in Progress: That Fateful Lightning · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

(Miss Minnie Vining has returned to Boston from a long stay with kinfolk in Richmond, Virginia, early in the 185ies. She is enjoying a night of rest in her own home.)

Minnie, exhausted and bone-weary from several days of uninterrupted travel on the cars, retired early, and slept soundly that first night upon returning home to Boston, although she did experience a particularly vivid dream, of being carried in Pres Devereaux’s arms, while he protested his love for her. In that odd, unsettling manner of dreams, she found herself arrayed in a white dress and a veil over her hair, standing in a church, protesting that she didn’t want to be married, and Miss Beauchamp from the Richmond train standing next to her, saying,

“But he is your husband now, so of course you must obey him.”

“No!” Minnie exclaimed, and threw her bouquet on the floor, and tore the veil from her head. “No, I detest veils, and I will never obey!”

“You’ll be sorry,” Miss Beauchamp promised as she turned into Susan’s domineering housekeeper, black Hepzibah. “You shouldn’t overtax yourself!”

“I won’t!” Minnie replied, defiantly, and somewhere a clatter of horse hoofs on the cobbles resounded like a thunderclap and she woke, sitting straight up in bed. The light of a pale dawn leaked around the edges of the window curtains. Minnie regarded the familiar walls of her own bedroom with relief and wondered what had led to that particular dream.

She had no intention of obeying – obeying anyone – as if she were a being with no thoughts or desires of her own. From downstairs came the faint clatter of iron potlids on the great cookstove in the basement of the tall old house, and the indistinct voices of Mrs. Norris and Jerusha; the reassuring tenor of life as it had always been in Papa-the-Judges’ house. Minnie slid out from the covers and dressed; a plain toilette, and her hair in a simple and heavy knot at the back of her neck. The tall clock in the hallway struck the hour of eight as she hurried down the stairs, through the parlor and into the dining room, where the double-rank of elegant chairs flanked the dining table on either side.

“I’ll have breakfast in the parlor,” she called into the stairwell, reconsidering the lonely dignity of sitting in the dining room by herself. She supposed that she should sit at the head of the table now that she now owned that portion of Papa-the-Judge’s estate; a bleak honor, indeed. When she was a girl, the dining room had often been a crowded, lively place, with Papa-the-Judge at the head chair, and her brothers, their friends, Annabelle, Cousin Peter and his family … no, the dining room was the refuge of shades and memories. Best to close the doors between the parlor and the dining room, crowded as the latter was with the ghosts of brothers and friends.

Perhaps she might invite Annabelle, Sophie and Richard to dine, on some later occasion.

“Very well, Miss Minnie,” Mrs. Norris called in return. A moment later, Bertha came up the steps from the cellar kitchen, slightly out of breath between the hurry up the narrow utility stair and the weight of the tray with a teapot, a rack of newly toasted bread, and a plate of scrapple and scrambled eggs upon it. Bertha set the tray on the unfolded stand, which stood before the largest window in the parlor, that which gave a view out onto the street, and into the meadows and solitary stands of lonely trees in the Common.

There was talk of building a public garden adjacent to the Common, Minnie had heard through gossip with various friends.

That would be nice, she thought again, as she attended to her breakfast, after expressing her gratitude to Bertha and her sister, over her hunger for breakfast and a good stout cup of strong tea, without having to be diplomatic over the breakfast table. “And I will wish to consult with your sister about menus for the week, and the marketing. There is no need to fix a supper for me, this evening; I will be dining at the Brewers’ tonight. Richard has said that he will send the coach for me…”

Bertha cleared her throat. “Shall I bring up more tea … and some cakes, when Mrs. Bard arrives? She left her card yesterday, saying that she had something of importance which she wanted to discuss with you …”

“I remember,” Minnie sighed. “I will receive her visit, since I have no plans for the day, other than to write letters, and an account of our stay in Richmond and my visit to the slave markets for Mr. Garrison’s newspaper. I hope that Mrs. Bard will be concise as to the purpose of her visit. She is otherwise the most tedious woman of my acquaintance…”

Tem had been even more scathing; ‘That woman is too good for this earth,’ he declared on many occasions. ‘She deserves to be under it, inspiring the roses and daisies.

It did not escape Minnie’s observation that Bertha smothered a small burst of laughter at her own observation.

“Very well, Miss Minnie – I will bring a tray of tea and cakes to the parlor when Mrs. Bard is received.”

“Thank you, Bertha,” Minnie answered, and consumed the remainder of her breakfast, feeling a mix of relief at being home … and yet a small portion of boredom. Today she would write letters, begin an account of that visit to the Richmond slave markets – but what then? What should she do with herself now, as a woman of active years, possessed of an independent income, an interest in public matters, especially regarding those victims of the peculiar institution, and no small feeling of obligation towards those others less blessed by fortune; no, there were no feelings of guilt over being thus favored, but such a standard had been bred into her bones and encouraged since birth.

Sufficient unto the day, Minnie told herself. And I hope that I may dissuade Lolly Bard from lingering too long. Today she was given over to letters, words and memories of that appalling venture into the Shockoe Bottom district – and to firmly suppress any feelings of belated love for Pres Devereaux. She would rather think of him as a guide and worthy opponent.

She had too much to do, to bother with romance.

When Minnie had finished with breakfast, she didn’t wait for Bertha or Mrs. Norris to come and retrieve the tray. She walked across the hallway into Papa-the-Judges’ library and study, a magnificent room with tall bookshelves on every wall, save that of the front, where a deep window embrasure and built-in seat commanded a view of the common. This apartment now was entirely her own, as was every other room. Here, her brother Tem had chosen to spend his last days and hours, sleeping fitfully on a day-bed chaise moved into the corner, and in his more alert hours, dictating a stream of letters to Minnie, sitting with her pen in hand, and inkpot at the ready, at the elaborate slant-front desk which had been Papa-the-Judges’. With his riches earned from investing in the China trade, the tall secretary desk was a magnificent thing; dark golden maple wood adorned with contrasting inlay, full of niches, shelves, drawers large and small, some of them secret … of course, Minnie knew the hidden catches to all the secret spaces within the desk. Papa-the-Judge had trusted her, implicitly. She uncapped the ink-bottle, dipped her trustiest pen into it, and began to write …

My dear Miss Van Lew … we are safely returned at last from our long visit…   

Minnie had finished that letter, one to Susan, enclosing a second for Cousin Peter, and begun on her account of visiting the Shockoe Bottom, when Bertha tapped discretely on the door to the study.

“Mrs. Bard is here, Miss Minnie – I showed her into the parlor. I’ll bring up the tea directly.”

“Thank you, Bertha,” Minnie wiped her pen nib clean and corked the ink bottle with a sigh. “I’ll be in directly.”

She performed a quick assessment of her appearance in the gilt-trimmed Spanish looking glass hanging in the entryway, and set a hospitable smile on her face, before opening the parlor door.

“Mrs. Bard,” she exclaimed. “How kind of you to call! Mrs. Norris told me you had left your card yesterday.”

Eulalia Bard was Minnie’s age; short, plump and pretty still, with round blue eyes in a girlish face, and soft tendrils of light brown hair curling between her cheeks and the brim of her bonnet. She had several children, all grown, and was the widow of a man who had been, as Lolly often insisted, very important in railways. She had settled in Boston after the death of her husband, to be near the home of her oldest son. Over the previous three or four years, Minnie and Annabelle had listened to Lolly Bard chatter about her husband and her boys’ every excellence, to the point of tedium. The other ladies in the Congregationalist parish tolerated her with mixed fondness and exasperation; while feather-headed in the extreme, her heart and sympathy were in the right place. She had never a bad word to say to or of anyone, save those who owned slaves. For Lolly Bard, silly and charming – was at least as adamant as Tem Vining had been, regarding the Abolition cause. Minnie had often wondered if Lolly had set her cap at Tem Vining as a potential suitor, but Tem’s feelings towards her, even before his health declined, had been one of waspish exasperation.

“We were expecting your return weeks ago, dear Miss Vining,” Lolly Bard had put down her bulging reticule on the settee, but as was proper, had not removed her shawl or her gloves. “And … I had hoped that we were sufficiently close enough friends that you would call me Lolly, and I might use your first name.”

“Then I suppose that we should,” Minnie agreed – anything to rush Lolly Bard’s visit so that she could return to her writing. “I have sent for tea to be served, if you would care to partake with me.”

“I did not wish to interrupt what you might be doing,” Lolly make a not very convincing protest. “Since we have only just returned… please do not trouble yourself.”

“It is no trouble,” Minnie yielded, well-resigned and knowing that Lolly would take her time approaching any discussion of whatever it was which had so worried her. “I was writing letters, and an account of a visit to the slave market in Richmond, which I intend to forward to the Reverend Slocomb, and perhaps to Mr. Garrison for publication in the Liberator, but I needed to rest my hand after so long a stint with pen and ink.”

“You write with so fine a hand,” Lolly replied, innocent of any artifice. “As fine as any scrivener or secretary. Your little notes are a pleasure to read, indeed. My own writing … Dear Mr. Bard would say that he had pleasure unending from any of my letters, for it would take him months to decipher what I had written to him when he was away, overseeing the building of his railway.”

At that moment, Bertha carried in the tea-tray, laden with teapot, sugar-bowl, creamer, china cups and saucers, and a three-tiered tray of small cakes and tartlets which were the pride of Jerusha’s kitchen. She set it on the folding stand which had supported Minnie’s dinner tray the previous evening, and tactfully withdrew. Minnie poured out the tea and wondered when Lolly would come to the point of her visit, or how very much longer this process might take. She really wanted to return to her writing.

“Here is your tea, Lolly – you have some matter of concern to discuss with me?” Minnie ventured, and Lolly accepted the china cup with a sigh, and added sugar and cream to it.

“It’s the Reverend Slocomb,” Lolly confessed, after a stir and a sip. “Minnie, dear, I am most awfully concerned. I fear that in his … injudicious affections, that he has let our cause down, most horribly.”

Minnie repressed her impatience and replied, “I have heard talk of … a lawsuit was it? A suit for divorce. He was making protestations of love to a married woman…I cannot think that such may be true…”

“But it is,” Lolly replied, in all earnest. “He has been pledging love to Caroline Forbes for simply months, and she has been returning it. No, it is not gossip, for I have observed them on many occasions, with mine own eyes; their affection is not a thing about which I can be mistaken. It is most distressing – surely, she is old enough to know better than to be so flagrantly indiscreet; and now that Mr. Forbes has petitioned for a divorce! How could the Reverend be so thoughtless as to compromise his own moral standing in our cause? She will be cut off from her children, and he … from the pulpit and leadership within the church! How can he be so recklessly indiscreet, Minnie! The scandal of an adulterous connection taints every word he has ever spoken. How can he take any position of moral authority with any credibility, now! Mark my words, the husband of every woman in his congregation will be wondering if he is speaking words of love to their wives, and with justification! He and Caroline will become pariahs in society, in Boston and everywhere else.”

“I am certain that the situation cannot be as public as you declare…” Minnie began, and Lolly replied,

“But it is already become an open scandal in Boston, and very soon everywhere else! The newspapers have already gotten ahold of it … you would not have known, since you were traveling; doubtless you will not have already seen the libelous speculation in the Southern newspapers. It is horrible, Minnie – the things that have been published regarding Reverend Slocomb, and to the embarrassment of our congregation, they are mostly true! How could he have done this, to us, and to our cause?”

“A man,” Minnie replied, sore to her heart with a sense of betrayal, as she had taken the Reverend Slocomb to be at least an honest and moral man. “Only a man, my dear Lolly – and prone to fits of irrationality in their affections. The stories that Papa-the-Judge related to me touched on every imaginable vice, large and small. I confess that I am disappointed in the character of the Reverend Slocomb! But I cannot divine the purpose of this visit, Lolly – is there some action that you wish me to take, in regard to his matter?”

“Yes,” Lolly replied, setting down her teacup with an air of resolution. “The Reverend Slocomb was to deliver a public lecture regarding the evils of the slave system … at the beginning of next month, in a hall hired for the purpose. For the reason of public scandal, he cannot … we were wondering if you would do the lecture instead?” “Me … a public lecture?” Minnie was utterly taken back.

06. June 2018 · Comments Off on A Luna City 7 Story · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book, Luna City

Or, half of one, anyway. Titled Memorial Day. (I’m easing back on writing for the moment, being taken up with some other projects, including research for the next couple of historicals. And the household stuff, of course.)

Memorial Day

Jess Abernathy-Vaughn, being of that pale tint of skin which burned and freckled rather than tanned, lounged under the shade of a dark and ultra-violet-ray protective umbrella, planted at a rakish angle, deep into the beach sand at the Gulf-shore side of Galveston Island. She was also slathered with the highest SPF-level sunscreen available over the counter. In spite of not being a fan of sunbathing until one looked more like a leather saddlebag, she was truly enjoying this holiday. A second honeymoon, everyone called it, now that she and Joe had been legally wed for more than a year, and their son was now almost ten months old, and well-able to withstand the baby-sitting ministrations of his great-grandparents, living in the high-ceilinged apartment on the second floor of the ancestral hardware store on Main Square. She watched Joe – as fit and muscular as a classical Greek bronze of an athlete – mastering the use of a boogie-board in the indifferent surf with the same single-minded attention that he brought to every enterprise which took his interest. It killed Joe to not be the best at anything, so he applied himself relentlessly; football, soldiering, law enforcement – and of late, to dedicated fatherhood.

“We’ll be happy to have a baby in the house, once again!” Martha Abernathy exclaimed, even before Jess had ventured the casual boat of her suggestion – that she and Joe spend a luxurious weekend at a Galveston resort destination – onto the tranquil sea of familial relations over the Memorial Day holiday weekend. “Do make the reservations, Jess – you need to take a break now and again! It’s good for a marriage, to make a little time for yourself and your man. Don’t trouble yourself in the least, worrying about Little Joe!”


“Your grandmother has been longing to get her hands on our boy,” Joe grinned when Jess had first tentatively broached the question of a holiday in the sun, surf and sand. That was the evening in Spring Break week, and he had just come home from a tedious day of upholding the law in Luna City, and on the stretch of Route 123 which adjoined the municipality. “Let’s do it, Babe – go back for a weekend, and try and recall the people that we were before becoming a life-support-system for the rug-rat. I’m trying my best to be patient until the day that we can throw the ol’ pigskin around, but I need a break, too.”

Jess sighed. “I can hardly wait until he can cook … Richard swears that he will start teaching him to make a lovely proper mayonnaise as soon as he knows how to handle a whisk…”

“When will that be?” Joe spun his white work Stetson onto the old-fashioned coat-and-hat-rack which stood by the front door of the old cottage on Oak Street and collapsed with a sigh onto the overstuffed sectional sofa – an overstuffed and sprawling thing which took up altogether too much space in the old-fashioned front room, but which was too comfortable to give up entirely. Jess dropped their cooing offspring onto Joe’s mid-section and he yelped, “Ooof! What have you been feeding him, Babe – bricks?”

“Growing boy,” Jess replied, with a remarkable lack of feeling. “You entertain the Soup-Monster for a while I fix supper – tell him mad tales of all the dirtbags you have arrested, and all the speeders you have ticketed … I’ve been talking to him all day about the necessity for retaining receipts for cash business expenses. Among other topics of note.” (Soup-Monster was her nickname for her son, taken from Marsupial Monster, from the early days when she carried him in a baby-sling across her chest.)

“Sounds deathly dull,” Joe replied. Jess sighed with heavy sarcasm as she opened the deep-freeze unit in a corner of the kitchen.

“Attention to such minutia pays the bills for our incredibly lavish life-style,” she called in reply and Joe responded with a hearty horse-laugh. Jess smiled. It pleased and satisfied her to know that she could make Joe laugh. He was wrapped too tight, sometimes – too earnest, too serious entirely. Now, Jamie – she had always been able to make Jamie laugh.

Yes, that pan of frozen lasagna … and a mixed salad to go with, once the lasagna was warmed and bubbling in the oven. Say an hour or so; Jess was also tired; a full day of seeing to her various clients in Luna City, Karnesville and Beeville, driving hither and yon, with Little Joe uncomplaining in his car seat. He was a good baby, for all that. But now and again she really missed the days when she and Joe went out for burgers or pizza as impulse took them, or drove into San Antonio for a meal at one of the Riverwalk restaurants, a table on one of the outside terraces, overlooking the river, the lights that twinkled like fireflies in those monumental cypress trees lining the artfully-channelized river, while live music spilled from one of the other places, and she and Joe people-watch in the twilight, as swifts and grackles swooped into their night roosts. All that without the labor of hauling the Soup-Monster and the heavy freight of his impedimenta – the diaper bag, the stroller, the baby-car-seat and all that along with them.

No – a weekend of leisure in Galveston would be just the ticket. Jess covered the lasagna with tinfoil, turned the oven to 350 and went to join her menfolk, just as Little Joe grinned at his father, an open and uninhibited grin which revealed all of two new baby teeth in his lower jaw. Jess’s heart turned over in her chest – the child looked so like Joe, it was uncanny, even to his tiny nose, which gave a hint of the ancestral Vaughn beakiness, even now. A miracle, the blending of her blood, flesh and bones with Joe’s – and yet, Little Joe was his own person, even at the age of eight months! A whole, new, original, and miraculous little person … again, Jess thanked with her whole heart for Miss Letty’s wise advice.

“Supper in about fifty minutes,” she said, as he settled onto the sectional next to Joe. “Give me twenty minutes, I’ll feed the Soup-Monster and put him down to sleep, so that we can have supper in peace.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Joe replied. “And the weekend thing, too. Let’s go for it, Babe. We need a break, some R-and-R, you know. Be good for the Monster to learn how to wind the grands around his little finger.”

“Share the blessings,” Jess leaned her head against Joe’s substantial shoulder, the one with the uniform patch embroidered with the city logo of the Luna City Police Department sewn upon it. Another brief moment of pure contentment; Gram and Grumpy had insisted that such in retrospect would be considered the happiest times of their lives. Jess had of late begun to see that her grandparents were right about that.


Now she watched Joe abandon the mild surf, the boogie-board under his arm, striding up through the receding surf, which cast a brief swath of lacy bubbles across the white sand. He collapsed with a brief grunt onto the spread beach towel at her side. Jess spared a covert and concerned glance at him. She’d bet anything his knees were giving him hell again. Good thing she had packed a bottle of extra-strength Motrin. She would mildly suggest that he take a few before they went out for dinner, and hope that he would take the suggestion.

“How’s the water?” She asked. Joe chuckled.

“Salty and wet, Babe.”

“It’s the ocean, it goes without saying.”

Joe lay back in the shade with a sigh. “Thought about where to go for dinner? I’ve an appetite for fish tacos. That place on Seawall with the two big-ass balconies overlooking the Gulf would suit me fine. OK with you?”

“Perfect,” Jess agreed. “A bit noisy, but we can go early… it’s an anniversary for us, you know. We can celebrate.”

“Oh?” Joe raised an eyebrow, and Jess grinned.

“The first time we seriously kissed … and umm. Other stuff.”

“Oh, that.” Now Joe grinned, reminiscently. “After the Memorial Day pig-roast at the V, you had too much to think, and I walked you home? Yeah, I remember.” The grin widened into an expression of outright lewd reminiscence. “Hoo, boy – do I remember, Babe! I was so damned glad you didn’t punch me in the nuts when I made the first move…”

“Joseph P. Vaughn, you are no gentleman!” Jess exclaimed with an attempt at a Scarlett O’Hara exaggerated Southern accent and swatted at her husband with her discarded tee-shirt top. Which launched a good quantity of sand at him – but he just chuckled again and lay back on his spread beach towel.

“No regrets though, Babe?” he said, and Jess shook her head.

“No regrets, Joe.”

14. May 2018 · Comments Off on So Here It Comes… · Categories: Chapters From the Latest Book

So … even as I am starting research on the American Revolution-era novel, I am moved to start on another —  about Minnie Templeton Vining, who was a peripheral character in Daughter of Texas, and in Sunset and Steel Rails.

A blue-stocking and a crusader, and … stuff. At mid-century, where there were a lot of things going on.

Enjoy. I don’t quite know where this will finish out … but Minnie is a ferocious abolitionist. And perhaps has other involvement in the Underground Railroad. It all depends…


Chapter 1 – A Lady of Leisure


A week after the reading of her father’s will, Minnie Templeton Vining sat in the old-fashioned parlor of her father’s tall house on Beacon Street with her sister-in-law Annabelle, while an errant spring breeze stirred the curtains … as well as the festoons of black crepe which adorned the façade of the Vining mansion. Narrow windows of the austere classical style that had been the height of architectural fashion early in the century now overlooked the broad avenue and leafy avenues and meadows of the Common and the public gardens beyond. The room within was furnished in the old manner; chairs, tables and shelves made in the austere style of two generations past, of polished wood sparingly ornamented, for the late Lycurgus Agrippa Vining resisted any change in the mansion in which he had ruled over as absolute dictator for half a century. The paintings and portraits, blue and white China trade porcelain, ranks of books in solid leather bindings, somber dark-red brocade upholstery, and very old-fashioned crewel-embroidered curtains – all testified at least as much to the wealth and pride of the family as to their magnificent disinclination to follow mere fashion … and thereby waste any portion of that wealth on transiently popular fripperies.

“So the house and a substantial income are yours to control absolutely!” Annabelle marveled, as she added sugar to the cup of tea which Minnie had poured from a silver pot which was one of the Vining’s treasured possessions, coming as it had from the workshop of the great Boston silver artisan, Paul Revere. In one of the account books in the old Judge’s study and library was preserved a bill made out in Revere’s own spidery handwriting, for that very teapot and a dozen silver spoons to be adorned with acorns and oak leaves.

“Indeed,” Minnie set down the teapot with a gentle clinking sound and took up her own refreshed cup. She was a confirmed spinster, being something somewhere in her fourth decade; a woman of decidedly firm opinions – and yet attractive to the eye for all of that, at least to those who entertained a taste for fine-boned features, and arresting blue-grey eyes, animated by a formidable and unsparing intelligence. “Cousin Peter is to be my trustee – but he is too sensible a man to attempt any thought of treating with me as if I were a silly child in need of correction and protection.”

“I should say not!” Annabelle chuckled. “One might very well try to rope and ride one of those wild bison creatures of the plains. Your dear brother – my late husband – told me such a tale of the President of Texas shooting one of those dreadful beasts in the streets of the capitol of that benighted place!” The humor briefly departed from Annabelle’s pleasant countenance. She was a slender woman of about forty years, the same age as Minnie – and like Minnie, garbed in the darkest black of mourning for father and father-in-law. They had been friends since their earliest childhood, indulged by their parents, friends of the heart, as well as of marital and distant blood connections. And Annabelle was a Saltinstall connection, which counted for something in Boston.

“My brother had many tales to tell of his travels,” Minnie acknowledged, although she held deep in her heart the one which she would never distress Annabelle by telling – of that low-bred woman in farthest Texas, the one who had cohabitated with her youngest brother, and bred four nasty brats with him, or perhaps some other man, no matter what her brother claimed was a proper marriage in that benighted place. That was a deathbed secret and confession she would take to her own grave, rather than distress Annabelle with revealing it. Annabelle was his wife in the eyes of the law and of Boston. That woman in Texas was a nobody and of no character at all. Annabelle – dear, innocent Annabelle – deserved a measure of peace of mind, if not happiness, in the wake of a marriage-not-marriage to a husband who was never present in Boston but always gone on interminable ocean voyages and travels in a vain attempt to recover his health.

“Telling the absolute truth can often be a brutal cruelty,” her father, Judge Vining was wont to say. “Consider well the costs of relieving your own conscience, Minerva, if that cost comes at the expense of another’s peace of mind and happiness.”

“He did, indeed,” Annabelle smiled, ruefully. Her husband – Minnie’s youngest brother – was dead some eight years past, in this very house. The consumption took him, painfully, on his final return. Minnie did not like to think of that even now, or the embarrassing situation which had brought him home for that one last time. “You were such an angel, Minnie – nursing him through those last awful days. Need I say again how grateful I was for that? It was all such a tangle – Sophia having just married, and in such difficulty with her first child. It was all that I could do to attend on my dearest little girl, night and day … I feared so much for her! Richard was a treasure in her travails, of course – but a husband is not so attentive as a mother – or a sister would be!”

“It is what we do, my dear – for those whom we love,” Minnie replied, whereupon her sister-in-law sighed.

“So we do, Minnie,” and her expression brightened with genuine curiosity. “Now – that you are a spinster of independent means, and your dear father is enjoying his heavenly reward; what will you do with yourself, and this establishment?”

Minnie set down her teacup and regarded the parlor; hers and hers alone, to do with as she thought fit. This was a heady feeling, and Minnie longed to stretch her wings and soar, soar on the pleasant updraft of a generous income and control over it, after two decades and more of being bound by obligation to family. Truth to tell, she had not minded all that very much. Papa-the-Judge (for so she always thought of him) may have been a magisterial and terrifying parent to his sons, employees, and those brought before him at the Bar, but his only daughter had always had an especially affectionate bond with her father. Her mother – dead in childbirth with her – had been the Judges’ second wife for a brief time.

“A clever woman,” Papa-the-Judge had often said, on those rare occasions when he had been moved to speak of such personal things. “Bold as brass, fearless – she was a spy in the late war, Minnie – did I tell you of that?”

“Yes, you did, Papa – often,” Minnie had replied.

During his last days on this earth, Papa-the-Judge had often patted her hand, at the conclusion of maundering about in his reminiscences, and promised, “Well, then, Minnie – you are to be well-provided for, my girl, since you aren’t inclined to matrimony. I’ll have Peter as your advisor, but he’s a sensible man. Have seen too it, y’see. The only intelligent female child of my blood … the image of your mother. She was a spy, you know. Carried messages for Doctor Warren’s network, back in the day when the bloody Lobsterbacks. Bold as brass, although she was only a bit of a child when I first lay eyes on her … she would want to see you holding to your own independency”

“I know, Papa,” Minnie would answer. She knew very well that she was the image of her mother. There was a small framed portrait painted on ivory in Papa-the-Judge’s monumental desk, secreted in one of the small drawers, which Minnie knew the secret to opening. When she was younger, she had often compared the painted features to her own, reflected in the small elaborate glass mirror which hung opposite the window in Papa-the-Judge’s study. And in any case – Cousin Peter, and others who had known her mother had often commented on the likeness.

No, she would not change the parlor, or Papa-the-Judge’s library, or even all that much about the house. All too dear and familiar, and now it was all to be hers, to order as she liked … but Minnie felt a restlessness in her. It was, she thought, like one of Annabelle’s songbirds, looking out from an elaborate silver cage, to which the door was open, wanting to spread her wings … yet wondering if she yet dared.

Yes. She did. Minnie sipped from her own teacup, and then set it down again with a tiny, decisive clink against the saucer.

“I have decided to go traveling,” she announced. “Oh, not terribly far, Annabelle – just as far as Charleston, and then for a stay in Richmond in Virginia. Cousin Peter has kin by marriage in Charleston. His daughter and her husband ministers – he is in orders, you know –  to a very respectable parish in Richmond. They have written, extending their hospitality. I am of a mind to accept. Would you like to accompany me? I would welcome your companionship.”

“For how long, do you plan to remain abroad from Boston?” Annabelle regarded Minnie with an anxious expression, and Minnie smiled in a manner calculated to reassure.

“Not terribly long – for the length of the summer, and return in time to celebrate Little Richie’s birthday, of course. It is …” and Minnie sighed. “My dear, I long to escape these walls for a time, and refresh my soul by gazing on new vistas. I beg you to accompany me, for the sake of respectability. And …” she shot her sister-in-law a severe glance. “It would be energizing for the both of us. We are both allowed a certain considerable degree of freedom by our status as widow and spinster? Why not explore, as far as we are allowed by the strictures of decent society? Why should we be kept mewed up in our little tiny parlors, like falcons wearing blinding hoods, when we might soar?”

“Because …” Annabelle began, irresolutely, and Minnie couldn’t keep herself from snorting.

“Because, fiddlesticks. I have a purse and the inclination, and I want to do something other than sit in my parlor, see that the maids dust the furniture properly and take calls on my at-home day. There is a larger world and great causes to fight for, Annabelle – shouldn’t we begin claiming parts of it for our own, rather than just live as silly simpering angels in the house?” She fixed her sister-in-law with her most ferociously-determined expression, and – as Minnie had been certain that she would – Annabelle crumbled.

“Of course, I will accompany you,” her sister-in-law yielded with a sigh. “But … have you set a date for commencing this … this project of yours. And … I suppose I shall not require any winter things in my trunks…”

“Next month, I think,” Minnie replied, in secret relief. “I shall have to see to the arrangements, and consult with Cousin Peter, of course. But oh!” she smiled and took Annabelle’s hand in her joyful embrace. “It will be such fun!”


(The historic WWI Battle of Belleau Wood is a part of the background in A Half Dozen of Luna City … and for your edification – an essay on it, which will feature in the latest Luna City chronicle.)

The Deathly Woods

1918 was not the year that the 19th century died; died in all of its boundless optimisms and earnest faith in advancement of the human condition. For Europe – cynical, cultured, hyper-superior old Europe – that could be said to happened two years earlier, along the Somme, at Verdun, in the tangled hell of barbed wire, poisoned gas and toxic, clay-like mud, the burnt ruins of the centuries-old Louvain university and it’s priceless library, destroyed by German ‘frightfulness’ tactics in the heat of their first offensive. Perhaps the 19th century died as early as 1915. It depended on which front, of course, and the combatants involved, still standing on their feet, but wavering like punch-drunken, exhausted pugilists. One may readily theorize that only blood-drenched enmity kept them propped up, swinging futilely at each other, while the lists of casualties from this or that offensive filled page after page of newsprint; all in miniscule typeface, each single name – so small in print, yet a horrific, tragic loss for a family and community hundreds of miles from the Front.
All this was different for Americans, of course; sitting on the sidelines, gravely concerned, yet publicly dedicated to neutrality, and firmly at first of the conviction that Europe’s affairs were not much of Americas’ business. But softly, slowly, slowly, softly – American sympathies swung towards the Allies, even though there were enough first- and second-generation Americans among German and Irish immigrants to have swung American public opinion among non-Anglo or Francophile elements towards maintaining a continued neutrality. After all, it was a war far, far, away, and nothing much to do with us … at first. But events conspired; the brutality of the Huns in Belgium (documented by American newspapers), unrestricted submarine warfare which extended to American shipping (and, inevitably, American casualties), and finally, the publication of the Zimmerman Telegram – and in the spring of 1917, President Wilson formally requested of Congress that a declaration of war on Imperial Germany be considered and voted upon. Said declaration was passed by an overwhelming margin, and by summer of that year, American troops were arriving in France – first in a trickle, then a flood.
The Belleau Wood was a forested tract thirty or so miles northeast of Paris; a hunting preserve in a stand of old-growth European forest, the refuge of wildlife, and for those whose favored recreation was hunting them. At the northern edge of the forest was two-story octagonal hunting lodge; built of stone, it was a place to shelter hunters for a night, during momentary bad weather, or a hearty meal, mid-hunt. Until the spring of 1918, it had been relatively untouched by a war which had turned acres and acres of French and Belgian farmland into muddy, barbed-wire entangled wastelands – many of which are still poisoned and unsafe, a hundred years after the end of that war. That forest tranquility ended when the expected German spring offensive slammed into the Allied lines – lines which now included the Americans – and punched through to the Marne River. The Germans had hoped to break through before the sufficient of the American Expeditionary Force arrived to make a difference in the wars’ outcome.
Late in May, German forces reached the Paris-Metz main road – and if they managed to break across the Marne and reach Paris, that one last throw of the dice would pay off for Germany; perhaps in victory, or perhaps in a negotiated and face-saving settlement with the equally exhausted and embittered French and British.

An experienced career soldier, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing commanded the US. Expeditionary Force. He had rejected British and French demands that the Americans be parceled out piecemeal among Allied units, and essentially fight under the command of French and British officers. This would not do – likely Black Jack was polite yet forceful about it. (His nic came from him having commanded a troop of black cavalry early in his career as a young officer.) The AEF’s 3rd Division went into the line to counter the German advance at Chateau Thierry – the 3rd Division, which included a brigade of Marines, had initially been held in reserve – was brought forward in a hurry. The Marines were pretty much seen as a second-class by the Army brass, according to some accounts: good enough to do rear-guard and support duty, and only thrown into what was expected to be a quiet sector because every able-bodied American serviceman was needed, in the face of the German spring offensive. Checked by stiff resistance at Chateau Thierry, the German advance poured into the woods, where the 3rd Division had just arrived. Retreating French troops, exhausted from the fight to keep from being overrun, urged the Americans to do likewise, whereupon one of their officers is supposed to have riposted, “Retreat, Hell – we just got here!”
Of course, the newly-arrived American troops were keen as mustard; champing at the bit, as it were – especially the Marines, few of whom were of the career old breed. Many were recent volunteers. Up until that moment, the Marines had been a rather small, and somewhat specialized service; more inclined to security on board naval ships and at US embassies abroad, perhaps a small punitive expedition where American interests were concerned in South America and the Caribbean; a military constabulary, rather than hard-charging infantry. Still, it was a service that took pride in having been founded by an act of the Continental Congress in 1775, recruiting at the Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, beating the official establishment of the US Army by more than a decade. (Yes, there was a Continental Army during the Revolution, but it was more like state militias seconded for service in the colonies’ united cause. The US Army wasn’t quote-unquote officially established until the 1780s. Upon this kind of minutia are friendly service rivalries built.)

Throughout the month of June 1918, the Marines fought with bitter tenacity through the deathly woods; sharpshooting at first, with deadly effect, and eventually to point-blank, then with bayonet, knives, and hand-to-hand. They kept the Germans from moving out of the wood, and then fought them back, yard by yard, trench by trench. The trees in the forest, the boulders at their feet were shattered by artillery and machine-gun fire. The stench from the bodies of the dead – too many to bury, under the existing conditions in the early summer heat – revolted the living to an unimaginable degree. And still – they went on, clawing back the wood to Allied control. More Marines were killed in that single month than had been killed in action since their founding in 1775. The Corps would not face another butcher’s bill to equal it until the taking of Tarawa, a quarter of a century later, and half the world away. It was a special kind of hell, this fight in a 200-acre French woodland, fought by relatively untried young troops, motivated by pride in service, by devotion to comrades, and by the leadership – which in many instances devolved onto NCOs, and even individual Marines, like Sergeant Dan Daly, a scrappy Irish-American career Marine (who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor – twice, for actions in the Boxer Rebellion, and then again in Haiti). In legend he is said to have rallied the troops with a shout of “For Chrissake, men, come on; do you want to live forever?!” (Or similar phrasing. The war correspondent Floyd Gibbons later wrote that he had heard a similar expression shouted by a senior NCO, and the legend attached itself to Dan Daly.)
In the end, the Germans were driven from the woods, at a horrific cost; 10,000 casualties among the Marines, including nearly 2,000 dead. There is no definitive record of German dead, although there were around 1,600 Germans taken prisoner. But the Marines had clawed back the deathly woods, blunted the last-ditch German offensive … and in November of that year, Germany threw in the towel. By agreement, it all came to a temporary end on the eleventh hour, the eleventh day, the eleventh month. Such were the enmities and resulting bitterness that the armistice held only for the time that it took for a baby boy born in that year to grow up and serve in his turn. The shattered forest was christened anew after the battle; it has been named since then; now it is called the Wood of the Marine Brigade and an adjunct to a American war cemetery. The American 4th Brigade was recognized by the French government by the award of a military honor, the Croix de Guerre. To this day, active-duty Marines serving in the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments are authorized to wear the French fourragere – an elaborate garnishment of looped and braided cords – on their left shoulder as part of their dress uniform, in honor of that unit’s service in the Deathly Wood, a hundred years ago. And to this day, successfully completing Marine Corps basic training means completing the “Crucible” – a 54-hour marathon march on short rations and little sleep, featuring grueling marches, obstacle course and team-driven combat-problem-solving exercise – some of which was drawn on the experience of the fighting in the deathly woods, a hundred years ago.