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The Last Cavaliers: Two
By Gilbert Morris
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Gilbert Morris
All rights reserved.
Flora Cooke glared at her full-length reflection in the cheval mirror. So far, in the endless preparations for a young lady of good family to ready herself for a ball, she had put on her chemise, knickers, and stockings and then had pulled on the great bell-shaped crinoline. She pushed it to one side, and it swung airily back and forth, never touching her legs. "Ding, dong," she said whimsically.
The nineteen-year-old girl in the mirror was plain, Flora knew very well. But she was so lively, so quick and intelligent, and of such willing wit that she was well known as a "charmer." She did have some good physical attributes, too; her chestnut-brown hair was shiny and thick and took a curl very well, and she had that very unusual combination, for brunettes, of having royal-blue eyes. Her brows were perfect arches, and her long, thick lashes were the envy of many women. Her complexion was like the most delicate magnolia blossom. Though she was not conventionally pretty, Flora had always had her share of male admirers.
And another reason for that, Flora knew, was because of her figure. From a skinny, awkward thirteen-year-old with blemishes covering her face, she had bloomed into a delicate, small woman with a tiny waist and hands and feet, sweetly rounded shoulders, a long graceful neck, and a perfect bosom. She had the classic hourglass figure, while being as dainty as a porcelain figurine.
She was still contemplating her reflection with some satisfaction when her maid, Ruby, came in holding her new ball dress, a peach-colored taffeta confection. The neckline was low, the sleeves off the shoulder, as was fashionable for evening wear, and Ruby had just finished starching and ironing the eight cotton, lace-trimmed ruffles in the wide skirt. Carefully she laid the dress out on Flora's bed then turned to her, hands on hips. "Miss Flora Cooke, am I standin' here looking at you with no corset on?" Ruby snapped, her eyes flashing. She was a shapely girl, an ebony black with wide, liquid, dark eyes, only two years older than Flora herself.
"You are," Flora answered absently. "Mm, the dress looks heavenly, Ruby!" She picked up a ruffle and rubbed it between her fingers, savoring the crisp feel of the thick taffeta and the still-warm stiffness of the cotton ruffle underneath.
"Don't you be gettin' around no subject with me," Ruby sniffed. "Why am I standin' here looking at you with no corset on? You know you ain't going to no ball without no corset on like a Christian woman."
"I am a Christian woman, and I am going to the ball with no corset, and you know I don't need one, so help me get my dress on," Flora said. "We need to hurry and do my flowers and my hair. You know it just won't do for me to be late. Father would probably order a squad up here to drag me downstairs."
Ruby proceeded to help Flora put on the dress, which was quite a process. The skirt itself was fifteen yards of taffeta and six yards of cotton ruffle. It was heavy, it was stiff, and putting it over Flora's head practically amounted to throwing a canvas tent over her.
As Flora struggled to find the neck opening and the sleeves, through the crackling of the fabric she could hear Ruby muttering, "They is Christian women with corsets, and they is Christian women with no corsets.... Leastenways she got bloomers on. Mebbe they go next ... liken as if Colonel Cooke would allow a dragoon ... ten-foot pole near you...."
Finally the dress was in place, and Ruby buttoned up the twenty-three buttons in the back. Though of course Ruby would never admit it, Flora did not need a corset to pull in her waist. A man's hands could span it easily.
Flora carefully spread her skirts so she could sit at the dressing table for Ruby to do her hair. Sitting while wearing a crinoline was tricky. They were cages, in effect, wide cotton petticoats with whalebone or sometimes even very light steel sewn into slowly widening circles. The sewn-in ribs were stiff to hold out the circular shape of the very wide skirts but still thin enough to bend so the wearer could sit down, and they had enough tensile strength to regain their shape when standing. However, when sitting down, if a lady did not learn how to spread her heavy overskirts out—in a graceful manner, of course—to distribute the weight correctly, the entire hoop could simply balloon in a great circle up over her head. At boarding school, Flora and her friends had often played this game, laughing like pure fools at the sight but still fervently learning how to do it correctly so that this abomination would never happen to them, especially, heaven forbid, in public.
Early that morning, Ruby had rolled the ends of Flora's hair tightly around little rags. Now she began to carefully remove them, leaving little ringlets. Then she parted her hair in the middle, pulled it back, and began to secure it at the base of her neck, with the springy curls falling down her back. On the grounds of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, many of the officers' little houses had gardens, and Flora had found a friend who had a camellia bush with peach-colored flowers. She had gathered enough that morning to arrange in her hair and have a small bouquet at her breast. With their shiny, dark-green leaves, they adorned Flora's hair and complexion perfectly.
As Ruby began to arrange them in her hair, Flora watched her carefully in the tri-mirror mounted on the dressing table. Her eyes narrowed. "Don't just poke them in there any old way, Ruby. Arrange them elegantly," she chided her. "I want to look just perfect tonight."
"Mm-hmm," Ruby said knowingly. "Just gonna aggravate them soldiers, ain't you? Knowing that Colonel Cooke—"
"I know, I know," Flora interrupted her, "wouldn't let 'em get a ten-foot pole near me. You're wrong, you know, Ruby. Father is perfectly fine with me socializing with soldiers. After all, he's been one his whole life, and I've been around them my whole life. And besides, I don't want to aggravate them, whatever that means."
"You'm knows right well what it means, Miss Flora. Don't I see you right here right now in that there mirror, smiling and practicin' taking 'em with your eyelashes?"
Ruby had a habit of quoting Scripture, usually incorrectly, and Flora was fairly certain that this reference had something to do with a proverb about women and their eyelids, but already Ruby had moved on. She was now more carefully arranging the flowers in Flora's hair, and she talked constantly. "Miz Lieutenant Blanton's flowers sure are pretty with your dress, Miss Flora, if I do say so, and I was talking to her girl Lizzie, and you know what? Lizzie says that she heard Miz Blanton talkin' about her brother Leslie Spengler marryin' their cousin! Their own cousin! And him from a good family, as good as yourn is!"
"It's only his fourth cousin, Ruby. It's hardly—"
"I don't keer. It ain't right. What about that handsome Finch boy, prancin' around in his showy uniform? Is he gonna marry up wif Miss Leona? That man what always wears those big tall hats—stovepipes, they call 'em, and don't they look just like that and silly besides. What's been chasin' after her ain't as good-looking, but he's got money, Miss Leona's maid, Perla, says. I think Miss Leona Pruitt better look ahead, 'cause without no money, the mare don't go. Leastenways you ain't gonna have to worry about that, Miss Flora. Some rich man in Phillydelphia is gonna snatch you right up soon as you go to capturvatin' them—"
"I think you mean 'captivating' them, and I do no such thing," Flora said haughtily.
"—captivatin' 'em, and you do do such a thing, begging your pardon, miss," Ruby said sassily.
Flora's brow lowered, and she started to argue with Ruby, but something stopped her.
Flora had been brought up in a world of men. She had been born in Jefferson Barracks, in Fort St. Louis, and had lived in one army fort or barracks or encampment since then. Her father, a career army officer, had been at posts all over the United States, including Indian fighting in the far West. Now he was colonel of the Second U.S. Dragoons, the commanding officer of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
Her mother had died when she was young, and her father had brought her up as a young lady, sending her to a prestigious boarding school in Detroit. Flora had graduated that spring of 1855, an accomplished and elegant young lady, and had come to visit her father for a couple of months before going to stay with her St. George relatives in Philadelphia to make her social debut.
Still, for most of her life, she had been surrounded by men, and she knew they liked her. They were attracted to her, but it was none of her doing. She didn't encourage them or flirt with them.
Or did she?
"Well," she now said good-humoredly to Ruby, "maybe I do."
* * *
When she was finished dressing, Flora went downstairs to the parlor.
Her father sat in a straight-back rocking chair by the window, reading the U.S. Army Ordnance Manual. All he ever read were the Bible and military manuals. He looked up and smiled, a mere quick softening of his thin lips. "You look very lovely, my dear."
"Thank you, Papa," Flora said, pleased. She seated herself on the sofa. "Thank you for the new dress. Thank you for all of them. And especially for the riding habits." Flora was an avid horsewoman.
"You're welcome, my dear, and seeing you tonight makes all that money that I've spent on those fripperies worthwhile." Although the words were light, he had reverted to his stern manner.
Colonel Philip St. George Cooke was every inch a soldier, a cavalryman. A handsome man, he had thick silver hair, intense, dark eyes, and a dashing, neatly trimmed mustache and short beard. He had a military bearing, always holding himself erect and always precise in his movements and speech. He was a rather humorless man, though not ill-tempered. He was simply austere.
Now he said in his somber manner, "Flora, there is something I must tell you before we go to the ball. This morning Gerald Small came to see me."
Surprised, Flora asked, "Mr. Small was here this morning?"
"No. He came to my office. He said he had to see the quartermaster, so he thought he would just stop by on his way. Rather unorthodox, I think ... considering the topic."
Flora rolled her eyes. "Please don't tell me I was the topic. Oh Papa ... I was? Oh, how like him! To just 'stop by on his way' to a business meeting to make a romantic gesture!"
"Flora, perhaps he is not the most romantic of men, as you say, but he does come from a good family, and he is a fine, upstanding young man. The Smalls are very good people of business, and he is going to be a very wealthy man."
With exasperation Flora said, "Papa, we are not talking about investing money with him. Please do not tell me that he asked for my hand. Even though he's been calling for the last month, he's never made any sort of overture such as that. He's usually too busy talking about his silly sawmill."
"No, Flora, it was not that he was asking my permission before he even asked you," Colonel Cooke replied. "He was just, in the most gentleman-like manner, inquiring if his attentions toward you were viewed favorably by me."
She stared at him. "I was wrong. This is a business deal. What did he do next, suggest that you discuss prices?"
Cooke frowned, and that was a stern thing indeed. "Flora, I'm surprised at you. That is crude, not at all something that I would expect a daughter of mine to say."
She was defiant for a moment, but then she dropped her head. "I'm sorry, Papa," she said quietly. "You're right, of course. I beg your pardon, and I will attempt never to be crude again. It's just that Mr. Small is so—so businesslike. He is not romantic at all. He rarely does speak of anything but business matters. And besides, you do want me to go to Philadelphia, don't you? To enter society? I thought you didn't want me to be stuck here with a penniless soldier or some nouveau riche merchant settler."
Cooke's eyes softened slightly. "I don't know why we're arguing about him anyway. I knew you wouldn't have him. And Flora, believe me when I tell you that I want what's best for you. And I want you to have the kind of life and man and marriage that you want, whether it is here or in Philadelphia society. But Flora, do you know exactly what it is that you want?"
"Maybe." Flora shrugged. "But Father, I don't—I want—that is—" She stopped awkwardly. Her father had been a good parent, in his way. He loved her dearly, Flora knew that. But there were some things that she could never explain to him, could never make him understand.
Flora, in her secret heart, wanted a man to love her with a heat and a passion that would match her own. Though she was still an innocent, she knew that she could have deep and intense love—emotional, spiritual, and physical—for the man of her dreams. He would be dashing and careless and courageous, and she would start falling in love with him as soon as she met him. She had no face in her mind. Truth to tell, she didn't care what he looked like. She just had a vague sense of a man with a commanding presence, with spirit and daring. But how could she tell her father—the stolid, unimaginative soldier—of her dreams?
Suddenly she smiled affectionately at him. "Papa, I will tell you what I don't want. I don't want to spend the rest of my life talking about sawmills. Now, sir, you look very smart and officer-like in your uniform. Will you consent to escort me to the Independence Ball?"
* * *
Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Flora reflected on the way to the ball, was not nearly so bleak as many of the army outposts were. It was finely situated on the gentle bluffs overlooking the Missouri River, in the easternmost part of the territory. The endless plains and prairies were only a few miles away, but Fort Leavenworth was still in fertile country, with the Missouri River to the east, the Little Platte River just to the south, and countless streams and tributaries crossing the green unsettled lands in between.
A small town had sprung up, mainly because Fort Leavenworth was the eastern terminus for the Santa Fe Trail and the Oregon Trail, and so the fort had assumed great importance. The town—appropriately called Leavenworth—had been born to support the settlers moving west and the fort itself. Although it had only formally incorporated in 1854, it was already thriving and growing quickly.
Accordingly, the fort had more and better accommodations and appointments than most. One of these was the Rookery, a fine two-story home with a wide veranda where the commanding officer lived. Another was the meetinghouse, a large hall where town meetings were held, where the troops assembled for instructions or visiting lecturers, and where festivals were held. One of these was the July 4th Independence Ball; this was the second annual one, she had learned, and the entire army post and most of the town's citizens were expected to attend.
Escorted by her father, Flora entered the ballroom and hungrily ran her eyes over the floor, delighted as always with the kaleidoscope of color created by the women's dresses. Scarlet, emerald green, pink, and purple, all shades and hues, blended wonderfully as the couples danced a waltz. It was exactly the sort of thing that Flora delighted in, for she loved color, excitement, crowds, dancing, and music.
As soon as they came in, Gerald Small rushed to Flora's side. With a stiff smile, she offered him her gloved hand and he bent over it, a sort of deep dip as if he were bobbing for apples. As the thought occurred to Flora, her smile widened and her eyes sparkled. Gerald Small obviously mistook this for gladness to see him, and with some surprise, he returned her smile. It was an automatic, spare sort of smile, as if it was practiced. Flora suspected that it might be.
Formal greetings were exchanged, then Colonel Cooke went to speak to a group of the older officers in a corner of the room, while Gerald began to shepherd Flora to the chairs lining the walls. With an inner sigh, she allowed him to lead her.
Gerald Small was, like his name, a short, compact man, with ash-blond hair and mild blue eyes. His features, too, were small, with a thin, straight nose and short lips in a rather sharp-boned face. He always dressed stylishly, and tonight he wore a fawn-colored pair of trousers and a dark brown coat with a bowtie drooping fashionably down from around his neck.
They reached the chairs and sat down. Gerald pulled his chair close to Flora, looked deep into her eyes, and said in a low voice, "I thought I was going to be late, for I have been literally in despair trying to find a skilled saw filer. I had heard that a man coming in the latest wagon train from Chicago was such a man. I questioned the wagon master and several of the trail hands and thought that perhaps this might have been one of the settlers named Odom, but when I finally located Mr. Odom, what do you think I found?"
Already Flora was having trouble concentrating on this deadly boring conversation, but she managed to reply, "I don't know, Mr. Small. What did you find?"
Excerpted from The Sword by Gilbert Morris. Copyright © 2011 Gilbert Morris. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
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