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IN HER BLUE-WALLED BEDROOM on the second floor of Hopemont, her family’s redbrick mansion on the Ohio River, Janet Todd sat at a gleaming seventeenth-century marquetry desk writing a letter. Through the French doors that led to the upper porch overlooking the tree-lined front lawn flowed a current of thick warm air. For a month the temperature had hovered around 100 degrees. But Janet seemed immune to the disarray this sort of heat induced in most people. There was not a trace of a wrinkle in her white muslin dress, nor in the overskirt of white lace. Her glossy black hair retained its luxurious wave.
Janet fingered the blue-and-white bow sprinkled with red stars—a variation on the Confederate flag—that she was wearing in her hair. This was not a letter she was eager to write. She took a deep, slow breath and dated it: July 4, 1864. For several minutes she sat there mournfully pondering the numbers. Once the Fourth had been a day that everyone in America celebrated with pride.
Dearest Adam, she began.
She pondered these words and tore the paper into shreds. Seizing another piece of paper from one of the many cubicles on the back of the desk, she dated it and began again:
The money and the guns have been guaranteed by our friends in Richmond. It is imperative that you or General Morgan bring your division into the battle beside us. I hope he will be well enough to accompany you. But his presence is not a necessity. In fact, it might be better if he remained behind. His last visit to these parts did not win him many friends.
The Sons of Liberty are not the bravest fellows in the world. They have avoided military service in either army for three years. But they are very angry men and they will rise and fight if there are trained soldiers on hand to support them.
Orders to undertake this mission will arrive from Richmond. I am merely trying to reinforce them. I’ve been told General Morgan has a dislike of obeying orders from anyone. But this one comes from the very highest authority, I assure you.
If we take and hold Keyport and the rest of Hunter County, it will release a wave of fury that will oust the tyrants in Indianapolis. With Indiana in our hands, Kentucky and other states will swiftly follow us.
I have hopes of persuading a certain Union major—a West Pointer, no less, with a name that reverberates in the East—to join us. He has been wounded twice and is thoroughly sick of the way the war is being fought by the Union Army’s butchers. His late father was a U.S. senator from New Jersey, a Democrat and warm friend of the South.
Janet paused, her pen hovering above the page, while more words rushed through her mind.
What would you say if I resorted to the ultimate persuasion? Will you despise me? I know what your answer will be. My response is: so be it. This war has destroyed so many things. Why shouldn’t it destroy love itself?
Janet was tempted to write it, tempted to end once and for all the charade that she was waiting for outsize Adam Jameson to return from the war and marry her. Three years ago, he had used the war to extract a promise from her that she would never have given him under ordinary circumstances. But she had to pretend to be Adam’s faithful sweetheart for a few more months. She finished the letter with words that were almost as meaningful to her:
However great the risk, you must come. Nothing matters now but victory. Only victory will rescue our dead from a fate worse than death itself—to have died in vain.
With deep affection,
She sealed the letter and called, “Lucy!”
“Yes, Mistress?” Lucy said, stepping through the French windows from the porch.
Lucy wore a calico dress that she had cinched at the waist with one of Janet’s cast-off leather belts. On her ears she wore a set of cheap jade earrings Janet had given her last Christmas. Janet found these attempts at style mildly amusing. It never occurred to her that by some standards Lucy was attractive. The light-devouring blackness of Lucy’s skin barred the idea from her mind.
“Take this letter to the Confederate Post Office. Tell them it should go express to Saltville, Virginia. Hurry. We’ve got to leave for Keyport the minute you come back.”
“I’ll run all de way, Mistress,” Lucy said.
Instead of dashing out the door, Lucy hesitated, bit her thumb, and said, “’Fore we go, Miz Janet, could you look into my mammy’s cabin? She’s awful low this mornin’. She sure could use a visit and maybe some of dat medicine de doctor lef’ with you.”
“I’ll go see her while you’re gone,” Janet said.
“Oh, thank you, Miz Janet. I’m off and runnin’.”
This time Lucy darted out the bedroom door and down the stairs. In seconds she was racing across Hopemont’s green lawn, ignoring the fierce July sun. Janet watched her with an unstable mixture of approval and concern. The Confederate Post Office was in a cave on the riverbank, two long hot miles away. She did not want Lucy to collapse from heat prostration.
Lucy and Janet had been born on the same day. That coincidence had prompted Colonel Gabriel Todd to make Lucy his daughter’s body servant. Janet and Lucy had been raised together, sleeping in the same bedroom, eating at the same table while they were children. Colonel Todd believed this was the best way to create devotion between mistress and servant. As he saw it, Lucy was almost as fortunate as Janet in this conjunction of their stars. She was destined to be a house servant, to eat decent food and sleep in a warm room for the rest of her life. She would never be sold, because her mistress could not imagine life without her.
“Janeykins!” The ragged voice reverberated in the hall. “Janeykins!” The choice of Janet’s baby name was a bad sign. Her mother only used it when she was distraught.
In her bedroom, decorated with the ornate mirrors and sensuous gilded furniture she had bought in France on her honeymoon, Letitia Breckinridge Todd sat in dimness and shadow, the drapes drawn. “You’re going to Keyport?”
“Yes. I feel—I feel a need to enjoy myself, Momma.”
“I want more laudanum.”
“Momma, I told you—you must break your dependence on that drug. Dr. Kennedy has warned you—”
“My hip—my hip is a mass of pain.”
Four years ago, Letty Todd had been pretty enough and lively enough to play the belle on their annual visits to the races at Lexington, even though she had sons and a daughter of marrying age. Letty had been a fiery participant in the family’s political debates, ready and eager to endorse secession, especially when her first cousin, John Cabell Breckinridge, the former vice president of the United States, became a Confederate general. Letty had played no small part in persuading most of the Todds and the Breckinridges to side with the South. Gleefully pitting herself against the influence of Mary Todd Lincoln, she had emerged a clear winner.
Now Letty Todd sat here in semidarkness, drugging herself into hypochondria. Besides laudanum, her only consolation was expensive visits from her spiritualist, Mrs. Virginia Havens, who claimed the power to help her communicate with her beloved dead.
“I’ll speak to Dr. Yancey when I get to Keyport. But if he says no, you’ll just have to endure it, Momma.”
“You’re as cruel as your father.”
“It’s for your own good, Momma. Now excuse me. I have to go see Lillibet. She’s too sick to leave her cabin. As you may have noticed from the meager breakfast you got.”
“She hasn’t been the same since your father sold Maybelle. I sensed that was a mistake at the time. Remember how she reacted when he tried to sell Luther and Tom? They’re different, the house servants. More like us.”
“Should I give her the medicine Dr. Kennedy prescribed? It doesn’t seem to help.”
“Try some brandy. More than once I’ve found that a veritable elixir.”
Janet descended the majestic spiral staircase that was Hopemont’s claim to architectural fame. The house had been designed by the greatest architect of his era, John Latrobe. In the main floor rooms hung splendid crystal chandeliers, the equal of the ones Latrobe had created for the White House in Washington, D.C. On the outer walls climbed ivy cut from Shakespeare’s garden in Stratford-upon-Avon. The shutters were reeded so delicately, they seemed almost an illusion. Touring English and French writers often mentioned Hopemont’s Georgian majesty in their travel books.
In the dim dining room, Janet poured two or three ounces of brandy into a glass and mixed it with water. On the walls hung portraits of her grandparents and her Virginia-born great-grandparents, the first comers to Kentucky. All of them gazed at her with the complacent pride of people accustomed to prevailing in life and in love, in peace and in war. Would this be the first generation of Todds to admit defeat? Never, Janet vowed.
Outside, the heat was so ferocious, it was like walking into a gigantic furnace. There was not a scintilla of wind. The drought that began on the first of June continued to torment men, women, animals and plants. Janet put up her blue parasol and trudged the quarter of a mile down the dusty road to the slave quarters.
The twenty-five cabins formed a little town, with a main street along which several children scampered after a squawking rooster. Each house had a garden beside it, where the owners raised vegetables they sold either to the kitchen at Hopemont or at the market in nearby Owensboro. A half-dozen calico-clad women were hard at work in these plots, hoeing, hacking away weeds, watering lettuce and other green produce. At the end of the street, Hopemont’s parched corn and wheat fields stretched for a mile to a fringe of woods. The long furrows were empty. Colonel Todd gave his slaves a day off on the Fourth of July. Most of the men were visiting friends or wives on nearby plantations, arranging parties that would begin at sundown. No one loved a party more than black folk, Janet mused.
Janet turned into Lillibet’s cabin. Hopemont’s cook lay on her narrow bed, her gray hair streeling down both sides of her mournful face. The single room, with the planked wooden floor, was as scrupulously neat as her kitchen at Hopemont. Lillibet was forty-five, but she looked like an old woman. Janet felt a twinge of guilt as she gazed down at her.
“Oh, Miz Janet, I was prayin’ you’d come,” Lillibet said.
“Lucy told me you were feeling poorly.”
“What a pretty dress. Is that new?”
“I bought it last Christmas in Cincinnati. This is the first chance I’ve had to wear it. No one gives parties anymore.”
“It’s real pretty,” Lillibet said.
“What’s wrong?” Janet asked.
“It’s my legs, Miz Janet. I just ain’t got no strength in my legs.”
“The longer you stay in bed, the worse that will get. I brought you some good French brandy. Sip it slowly over the next hour or two and then see if you feel better. Try to stand up and walk a bit. Will you promise me?”
“I’ll try, Miz Janet.”
“It’s the Fourth of July, you know. My father was hoping you’d cook him some of your special beaten biscuits and fried chicken.”
“Maybe I can, Miz Janet.”
“Drink the brandy now and you’ll feel better. I’m sure of it.”
Janet leaned over and kissed Lillibet’s sweaty cheek. She inhaled the odor of blackness. They were different from white people. But they were similar, too. Their hearts could be damaged or broken. They had hopes and fears—above all the fear of being sold, to begin life again among strangers. Who wouldn’t dread such a fate? It was not a frequent fear among Hopemont’s slaves, thank God. But when it happened, it often left scars. By now everyone had noticed Lillibet’s spells occurred mostly on days that reminded her of her lost daughter. Maybelle had been born on the Fourth of July.
Suddenly Janet was a thousand miles away from this hot cabin, sitting on the broad veranda of the United States Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York. The year was 1857. It was a sunny August day, but the air was deliciously cool. As they had done in many previous years, the Todds had traveled north to escape Kentucky’s brutal summer heat.
Janet was eighteen years old, wearing a sea green walking dress created by a new Paris designer named Worth. Her mother, equally well gowned, sat beside her, waiting for Gabriel Todd and his sons to take them to the races. On Janet’s right sat a pert young blond woman in another Worth gown of burnt orange. The dresses created a sort of bond between them. In a Massachusetts accent, the stranger introduced herself as Isabelle Eustis.
Isabelle seemed agreeably surprised to discover Worth’s gowns were being sold in Louisville. Janet’s mother laughed and joined the conversation, eager to tell the young lady that the latest fashions had been a hallmark of genteel life in Kentucky in her own girlhood.
On Isabelle Eustis’s right sat a small, severe older woman who listened to their remarks with pursed lips and a cold stare. She leaned toward them and asked, “Excuse me. Do you own slaves?”
“Why … yes,” Janet said
The woman stood up. “Isabelle!” she said. “Come with me immediately.”
Dismay coursed across Isabelle’s oval face. “Momma!” she pleaded.
“Come with me! We don’t converse with slave owners. No respectable person would tolerate them in her home.”
Isabelle rose and followed her mother down the veranda. Janet felt shame—and anger—throb in her body and mind. She heard her mother say, “Don’t mention this to your father. He’ll go home directly.”
Those painful words, the violent emotions, were as raw now as they had been on that long-ago August day. Perhaps even more intense, standing in the center of this slave cabin, thinking of how many hundreds of hours her mother and she had spent caring for these people when they were ill, calming their fears, soothing their animosities toward one another, sharing their griefs and hopes. Own slaves. The words had left an invisible brand on Janet Todd’s soul, a wound that still festered.
Back on Hopemont’s wide front porch, Janet realized Lucy was too sensible to run two miles to the Confederate Post Office in this heat. The minute she reached the main road, she had undoubtedly slowed to a walk that meant the trip would take at least a half hour. Janet strolled around the house into the garden.
Gray-haired, broad-shouldered Colonel Gabriel Todd, wearing a rumpled white suit and string tie, was stepping into the octagonal gazebo. Janet instantly knew her father was returning from a visit to the family graveyard, a quarter of a mile from the house in the opposite direction from the slave quarters. There, in the shade of a huge cottonwood tree, he had bowed his head before two tombstones—memorials to her brothers, John Randolph Todd and Andrew Lee Todd. At the bottom of each stone was the Latin motto: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.
Horace, noblest of the Roman poets, had written that line on his farm north of Rome, while his slaves cultivated his grape arbors and his wheat. It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country. Horace had been Gabriel Todd’s model. He had absorbed his ripe wisdom and his mellow rhythms in his years at Transylvania University in Lexington. He saw himself on Hopemont’s broad veranda writing hexameters in praise of those doughty ancestors who had settled Kentucky along with the Boones and the Callaways and the Bullitts. There would be odes to the beauty of the Ohio, to the nobility of the ancient oaks that surrounded Hopemont like hieratic sentinels, yes, even elegies on the brave red men who had resisted the white invasion with musket and hatchet. He had seen himself as a man who would respond with ready courage if his country called him—and his sons would imitate his example.
Gabriel Todd’s poetry was an excellent imitation of Horace, good enough to appear in more than one Kentucky and Indiana newspaper. When his country called him to defend her rights in the war against Mexico in 1846, he marched at the head of a regiment and came home with an honorable wound. The Mexican War had been the high point of Gabriel Todd’s life, the reason his fellow citizens had sent him to the state legislature as a senator. What could be more nobly Roman? Like Cincinnatus, George Washington’s hero, the soldier returned peaceably to his farm and then devoted his accumulated wisdom to his country as a lawmaker.
But the violent antagonisms of America’s politics had dissipated this good dream. When the animosity sundered the Union, the dream had become a nightmare. As war loomed in 1861 Gabriel Todd had been one of the many Kentuckians who abhorred the extremists of both sides. He had deplored the idea of seceding from the Union—but he was equally disgusted with the Yankee abolitionists whose rancorous hatred of the South made secession justifiable to many people. As one of the leaders of the state legislature, Colonel Todd had joined the governor in persuading their fellow politicians to declare Kentucky neutral.
Both North and South had been stunned by this unexpected stance. Both sides piously promised to respect the declaration—and promptly broke their word in the name of military necessity. Gabriel Todd soon found neutrality an impossible chimera. Once the Union regiments routed the Southern army and set up a military dictatorship in Kentucky, he lost all sympathy for Lincoln and his government. A Democrat like his father and grandfather, Colonel Todd saw the moralizing industrializing Republicans of the upper Midwest and New England as destroyers of the personal liberty and independence every follower of Thomas Jefferson held dear.
Gabriel Todd did not object when his sons decided to join the Confederate Army. But they had died like too many young Kentuckians, uncertain of the country for which they fought. John Randolph Todd’s letters from Alabama, where he had married the daughter of a cotton planter with ten thousand acres and over five hundred slaves, were a litany of disillusion. As a Kentuckian, he had little in common with the radical secessionists of the Deep South, who talked of conquering the North and enslaving the white factory workers. Yet he had become an officer in the regiment his pugnacious fatherin-law had raised. John had died two years ago in that explosion of blood and death called Shiloh. His younger brother, Andrew, had died in General John Hunt Morgan’s ruinous cavalry foray into Indiana last year.
Death. More than once, Janet had to remind herself that her brothers had succumbed to its terrible finality. They were not away at college or on an extended vacation or living elsewhere with a wife. At times the knowledge seemed to be an effluvia rising in her throat, cutting off her breath. She struggled to remember them as if they were alive.
Thoughtful, earnest Jack, with his love of Sir Walter Scott’s poetry and Charles Dickens’s prose. Although he was six years older than Janet, he had always treated her with respect, encouraging her to read good books and discussing politics with her as if she were an adult. He confessed to her that his sojourn at Yale had convinced him slavery had to be eliminated eventually.
Ebullient, hot-tempered Andy, three years younger, had encouraged Janet’s tomboyish tendencies at first, then sternly tried to eliminate them when she reached her teens. He wanted his “little sister” to marry well, he said—and he even had his eye on the man she might attract, if she concentrated on becoming a Southern belle. Andy never failed to bring her an expensive present—a new pocketbook or a half-dozen pairs of English stockings—if he had a good weekend at the Lexington races.
Janet trembled. It was hopeless. Memory could not give her brothers even a half-life in its feeble world. They were dead. Vanished. As if they had never existed, except for those tombstones, which Gabriel Todd had insisted on raising, even though both were buried far away. Janet stood there, thinking of the hundreds of other plantations and thousands of more modest homes where Southern parents and sisters and wives mourned their dead in the same anguished way, struggling to keep them alive in memory’s pathetic glow. Recently the Louisville Journal had estimated the South had lost 150,000 men, the North 300,000—and the slaughter continued unabated, devouring lives like a monstrous, insatiable Moloch.
Gabriel Todd sat in the gazebo most of the day, steadily consuming a quart of bourbon to dull the pain of his lost sons and an almost lost war. By dinnertime he was often incapable of carrying on a conversation. But at this hour of the morning, he was reasonably coherent.
“Janet!” he called. “Give your ancient father a kiss for old times’ sake.”
She strolled into the gazebo and kissed him on the lips. He clutched her against him and she breathed his unwashed body odor and the sweetly sour smell of the bourbon on his breath. Why did her mind record these realistic details? It was so unfeminine. Somewhere in the creative process God had become confused and given Janet Todd a man’s brain and a woman’s body. “Tell me some good news,” he said as he released her. Janet smiled and recited:
“‘Report of fashion in proud Italy
Whose manner still our tardy apish nation
limps after in base imitation.’”
An answering smile brought Gabriel Todd’s wide creased face aglow. He responded to those lines from Shakespeare’s Richard II with another quotation from the same play:
“‘For gnarling sorrow hath less power to bite
The man who mocks at it and sets it light.’”
Janet smiled and replied:
“‘Teach thy necessity to reason thus
There is no virtue like necessity.’”
Janet and her father had been playing this quotation game for over a decade. Shakespeare was another of Gabriel Todd’s literary passions. On their summer trips north, they had never failed to stop in New York to see a performance by one of the great actors of the day, such as Edwin Booth in Macbeth. More than once they had gone down the river to Louisville to see a traveling troupe perform Romeo and Juliet or The Merchant of Venice.
With no warning, Janet’s mind lurched out of control. Shocking words rampaged through it. Has Richard II become your favorite play because it’s about a man who thought he was a king and slowly discovered he was a noble fool?
No! That thought was not only unworthy; it was untrue. Gabriel Todd had done his utmost to undo the blunder of declaring Kentucky neutral. He had helped to create this conspiracy to win the war with an uprising by the Democrats of the West. He had taken the idea to his old friend from Mexican War days, Confederate president Jefferson Davis, in Richmond. Colonel Todd had persuaded the members of the Kentucky delegation in the Confederate Congress to support it. He had recruited his own daughter to become the movement’s courier.
“I’ve written to Adam Jameson,” Janet said. “He seems to be in command of Morgan’s cavalry at the moment. I told him this time we’ll have the money and the guns waiting for our volunteers.”
Hopemont’s butler, stooped, big-nosed old Joseph, appeared with a bottle of bourbon and a frosted glass of cracked ice on a tray. He put them on the folding table beside Gabriel Todd and departed without a word. Her father poured a hefty splash into the glass and sipped it reflectively.
“I want to end this filthy war as soon as possible. I want to see you here, with children at your skirts, before I die. You’ll have five thousand acres in your name. I’m not pleading Adam Jameson’s case if he doesn’t stir your feelings, but—”
Janet turned away, a gesture that made it clear she had no interest in the subject. “I’m not sure what you’ll get for dinner,” she said. “Lillibet’s taken to her bed again.”
“I wish you hadn’t sold Maybelle, Father.”
“I thought it was for the best, Janet,” he said. “I was tryin’ to put temptation out of reach of your brothers. She was just too seductive. I’ve been in too many houses where the father has to watch his mulatto grandchildren pickin’ his corn or servin’ his supper.”
“So you’ve told me.”
Was he also putting temptation out of his own way? Janet wondered. Jack Todd had been married and gone to Alabama when Maybelle was sold in 1861. Her brother Andy made no secret (to Janet, at least) of finding less than respectable women in Louisville and Cincinnati.
Incredible, the way the mind—at least her mind—thrust such ugly questions to the forefront. Would she have cared if her father took Maybelle for his mistress? Her skin was a creamy brown, suggesting that somewhere in the past a male Todd had enjoyed her grandmother or great-grandmother. More than one rumor about slave mistresses was whispered behind fans at Kentucky parties.
“You women don’t realize how fortunate you are, not bein’ subject to such … such …”
As if he personified the unmentionable subject Gabriel Todd was trying to simultaneously evade and describe, Major Paul Stapleton leaped into vivid life in Janet’s head. He was standing on the ferry dock, smiling in a curiously confident way. His short-brimmed officer’s kepi was tilted forward on his head, suggesting a recklessness that the smile reinforced. The strong-boned sunburned face was dominated by eyes that could go from oval innocence to knowing slits in an instant, an epitome of his disconcerting blend of boyishness and maturity. He had his hands on his hips, suggesting a certain impatience with her. Yet his smile suggested he was sure she would satisfy his unspoken desires, sooner or later.
It may be sooner than you think, Major.
There it was again, that rebellious mind of hers, asserting a brazen indifference to conventional morality. Janet walked to the door of the gazebo and said, “Where the devil is Lucy? She promised me she was going to run all the way to the post office.”
Copyright © 2001 by Thomas Fleming
Posted September 2, 2013