For the Epilogue to SHADES OF GRAY, Go HERE.
Andrea Hunter stared at the back of the boy—young man really—as he leaned against the white column on the porch, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, hands in his pockets, left leg crossed over right, so much like his father it was uncanny.
“Angelina’s coming,” he said to no one in particular.
Andrea watched the small blur in the distance turn into a horse and rider. They approached from the east, jumping any obstacle in their path before sliding to a stop in front of the house. Andrea stood from her rocking chair on the porch and eyed the heaving horse and rider. “You shouldn’t ride like that young lady.”
“Well, you used to.” Angelina grinned mischievously.
“Who told you that?” Andrea turned to her son. “Daniel Hunter. What nonsense are you telling Angelina?”
“It weren’t him, Mistis Hunter,” Angelina answered, dismounting and tying the horse. “Mamma tol’ me. She tol’ me back during the wah that you—”
“Well, it was different back then.” Andrea watched the two smile at one another as if sharing a secret joke. “Remind me to tell Gabriella to mind her own business.”
The topic of war caused Andrea’s thoughts to wander back through the mist of time. Her gaze drifted to the hill, where two tombstones now graced the somber landscape, standing as silent testament to the close bond shared by brothers—united again after fighting for what they believed in so many years ago.
Alex had been gone six months now, but the empty halls of the house still carried the echo of his strong voice and the memory of his manly form. They always would, for he was as much a part of Hawthorne as the columns and beams that built it.
Through the war he had fought and lived, and with her by his side, had fulfilled his grandfather’s dream of turning Hawthorne into a world-class breeding establishment. For almost twenty years they had shared a life of joy and peace that left the painful recollections of the war years nothing but a misty memory.
Andrea’s hand went to the locket he had given her the previous year. The interior held his image and the solitary piece of flag he had fought so bravely beneath. Engraved without was March Bravely On. It was if he had known his end was near—but how could he? The illness that had swept him away had come swiftly and without warning. He had died peacefully in her arms, his gray eyes locked on hers to the end. Gone was his strong presence, his reassuring voice, his gentle hands and comforting strength—but the memory of him had not faded. Would never fade.
Andrea’s eyes drifted back to the young man and the girl by his side. It seemed a hundred years ago that Angelina was born a slave child here, perhaps a thousand years ago, so distant did that time seem to be. Now Angelina and Daniel were like brother and sister, the existence of the institution of slavery existing only as stories from their elders—not as memories.
“Mamma ran out of sugar.” Angelina came striding up the steps, still out of breath.
“You know where it is. Help yourself,” Andrea said absently to the girl, who was already through the door and in the house. Her thoughts drifted again to the past, to a time when the rolling, emerald fields of Hawthorne had been new to her…
“Mother.” Daniel knelt down by the chair and placed his hand on hers. “There’s a wagon coming up the lane. Can’t tell who it is.”
Andrea stood and watched the two-horse team pull up to the house and stop. The wagon’s lone occupant, a gray-bearded man, stared for a moment without speaking, looking first at Andrea, then over her shoulder at Daniel, blinking all the while as if shedding away the years.
“Mr. Carter! What a nice surprise.”
“Surprise?” He lowered himself gently off the wagon and gave her a hug. “You received the invitation did you not?”
Andrea’s smile faded. “Yes I received the invitation, but I-I do not wish to attend.” She nodded toward her son. “I suppose Daniel has grown since last you saw him.”
Carter grasped Daniel’s outstretched hand, his eyes sweeping over the youth who stood a full foot taller than his mother. “Just like his sire.”
“Too bad if I drove all this way for nothing” he said, turning back to Andrea. “Fannie was looking forward to having you spend the night and then going to the picnic bright and early tomorrow.”
“What picnic, Mother?” Daniel interrupted.
“It’s a reunion, son. The men from your father’s Command are getting together after twenty years.
“Mother, may we go?” Daniel looked hopeful, but then frowned and turned to Carter. “She never goes anywhere,” he said, as if telling the man something he didn’t already know.
“War’s over, Mrs. Hunter.” Carter cocked his head and stared hard at Andrea.
“For some it is. As you well know, in Virginia, the Rebellion dies hard.”
“And you are a Virginian are you not?”
“What I am and what people say are two different things,” Andrea replied, knowing stories that had begun as gossip and rumor during the war had, over the years, turned to legend, then fact. “And what I was and what people think are equally diverse.”
“As you wish, Mrs. Hunter,” Carter said, “but I believe the Colonel would wish you to attend.”
“Mother, can we?”
Andrea looked at her son sternly. “Go inside Daniel, and see what is keeping Angelina.” Andrea gazed into his eyes and knew she had gotten her message across: Keep Angelina in the house until I say it is all right to come out.
She waited until she heard the door close behind her. “Mr. Carter, I care not how they should treat me at this gathering. I have stood friendless in the midst of enemies before. But I’ll not have my son abused and devoured as food for gossip because of the allegiance or supposed heritage of his mother.”
“No one will dare mistreat that boy as long as I draw breath,” Carter said calmly.
Andrea took a step toward him. “I say it not for his protection, I say it for theirs.”
“I understand.” Carter swallowed hard, and dabbed his brow with a handkerchief.
Andrea drew a deep breath as her eyes gazed back to that lonely hillside. “Then against my better judgment, I will accept your invitation. You will allow me the honor of a few minutes to prepare?”
“Of course, ma’am. Carter tried to conceal his smile. “Fannie will be thrilled.”
– – –
Andrea and Fannie were chattering away when Carter pulled the horses into a great expanse of field that served as picnic grounds. Though it was early enough that dew still lay heavy on the grass, the meadow was already packed with horses and wagons and people of every age and description. Andrea gazed in wonderment at the assemblage of veterans and their offspring, and then looked at Carter with an amused smile. She had never seen so many children belonging to so many white-bearded men in her life!
But as Carter took her hand to help her down from the wagon, her gaze drifted over his shoulder to the hills that lay beyond. For a moment she imagined she heard his voice rising above the roar of guns. And when her eyes met Carter’s briefly, he nodded in understanding of a time when they had both heard those hills ring with the sound of her husband leading a charge.
“Mother, I’m going to go look around.” Daniel smiled at Andrea, winked at Carter, and took off though the morning mist.
When Fannie and Carter became engaged in greeting old friends, Andrea stood idly by watching the rush of activity. “Momma.” Andrea looked around to see if anyone was going to claim the little girl who stared up at her with large, brown eyes. When no one stepped forward, she bent down and picked her up. “I’m afraid I’m not your momma, little one.”
“Hey, Will! You lose one of your flock?” a man walking by yelled to someone behind her.
Andrea turned around, smiling, with the child clinging to her neck. The gentleman referred to was likewise engaged in a conversation and had his back to her. But at the sound of his name he turned. “Oh, I beg your pardon, ma’am,” he said, holding his arms out for the child.
Andrea was midway through the exchange when their eyes met—and the past collided with the present. “Captain Pierce.” His name escaped Andrea’s lips before she could stop it.
“It’s Will.” He stared into her eyes, and bowed politely with the child in his arms. “William Benjamin Pierce, at your service.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Andrea looked down. “Mr. Pierce.”
“No need to apologize. You may call me Captain Pierce if you wish. Old habits are hard to break.” He smiled graciously, his handsome face seeming to glow. “I’d give you a hug, but my hands are full.” The child began to struggle in his powerfully built arms.
Andrea watched another young lady, perhaps seventeen, tug on Pierce’s shirt from behind. “Father, may I go over by the brook?”
“Yes Ellie, but where is Esther? And Alexander? And here, can you take Lillian to your mother first?”
Andrea’s smiled widened. “Four children?”
Pierce grinned and sat the youngest on the ground. “Yes. This is Lillian and my eldest daughter, Ellie. Ellie, I would like you to meet the Colonel’s wife.”
“The Colonel’s wife?” The girl looked at her father in disbelief.
“Yes, the one and only.” He turned back to Andrea. “Please come and meet my wife.” He took her by the arm, not giving her the option of declining. “We have a picnic table in the shade where we keep the flock.”
Charlene!” he yelled, dragging Andrea the last couple of yards. “I’d like you to meet Mrs. Hunter.”
A woman who had been bending over peeling a banana for a young girl straightened slowly. “The Colonel’swife?”
“Yes, the Colonel’s wife.” Pierce sounded exasperated. “I apologize,” he said to Andera. “I fear your name is a bit of a legend in my household. They do not believe you are a mere mortal of flesh and blood.”
“Me? You mean because I married Alex?”
“No … you because you are… you.”
Andrea shrugged, then turned her attention toward the crowd as she searched for signs of Daniel.
“You look like you’ve lost someone,” Pierce said.
“Yes, my son. He wanted to explore a little.”
“I don’t know where the years went.” Pierce sighed. “I’m sorry I didn’t stay in touch.”
Andrea smiled. “I see you’ve been quite busy. No need to apologize.”
“I went out West right after the war. Didn’t really keep in touch with anyone. But Carter was a little forceful about attending this reunion.” He gazed over her shoulder, and his eyes grew wide. “Well I’ll be damned!”
Andrea turned to follow his gaze.
“I beg your pardon, but it appears my daughter has found your son. He is not hard to recognize.”
Andrea smiled when she saw the young lady leading Daniel by the arm toward her family. “Father, I would like you to meet Daniel. He says his father fought with this Command.”
Pierce stood quietly while Ellie turned to make other introductions. “And this is my mother. And this is Mrs. Hunter, the Colonel’s wife,” she said proudly. “My father knowsher.”
“So do I,” Daniel said. “That’s my mother.”
Ellie’s face turned pale, then bright red. “You did not tell me—” She looked at Daniel in astonishment. “Oh my, then your father—”
The boy shrugged and sat down on the edge of the picnic table. “I believe I’ve heard your name in stories about my father, Mr. Pierce.”
“I hope in a good light.” Pierce looked at Andrea and chuckled. “Your father and I did not always see eye to eye.”
“Yet your father respected him and relied on him immensely,” Andrea said.
“So you fought with my father?” Daniel’s eyes glowed with interest.
“I was a captain.” Pierce’s gaze fell on Andrea again. “I fought under your father. I fought with your mother.”
“In more ways than one!” Another voice joined the conversation. Andrea turned around at the presence of a hand on her shoulder. “Boz!”
“It’s Nelson, ma’am. Nelson Boswell. And you remember Gus Dorsey.” Andrea gave both an enthusiastic hug.
“You were saying,” Daniel said, his head cocked to one side, “my motherfought with Mr. Pierce?”
Pierce looked at Andrea. “Surely he’s knows all about— You’ve told him about—”
“She speaks not of her past,” Daniel volunteered. “Never. And Father rarely did either.”
“There is nothing to speak of. My husband fought for what he believed a pure and holy duty,” Andrea said. “Anything I did for the Confederacy was for purely selfish reasons. I do not like to compare the two.”
“But I’d like to hear, Mother.” Daniel sat firm with arms crossed, informing her he was not going to budge—and informing everyone else that not all of his traits had been inherited from his father’s side.
“If you men are going to tell war stories, go over under the trees,” Charlene interrupted, shooing them away. “I have work to do.”
– – –
The men, many of them with their sons, remained huddled in a circle in a grove of trees, talking noisily and laughing loudly. Some of their voices carried, and Andrea smiled at how affectionately they spoke of Alex as they fondly recalled scenes of the past.
“They were firing on us hot and heavy,” she heard one say, “and we were both dismounted watching the action, when he turns to me and says in his low voice, ‘Harris it’s getting a little warm up here. Move over to the other side of your horse in case a bullet comes this way.’ I thought he was joking and told him, ‘but Kulnel, that’s the direction the bullets is coming from.’ And he says, ‘I’m well aware of that, Harris, but good horses are a lot more scarce in Virginia right now than good men.’”
Hoots of laughter swelled among the group causing other men to drift toward the gathering.
“Gus, you remember that time you rode in and told the Colonel there was an entire brigade coming our way?” Gus nodded and laughed. “And the Colonel said, ‘Good.’” At that point all of the men who were gathered around joined in, repeating the words that Hunter had spoken that day. “The more that are looking for us, the less that are fighting!”
The men laughed, but they now knew how right he had been. Who could tell how many lives he had saved? Literally tens of thousands of Union soldiers had been kept guarding supply lines, railroads and outposts that if not for Hunter, would have been in active service in the front.
“What I can’t believe is how the Kulnel always kept where we were going a secret,” Hanson said.
“Yea, well, I almost got him to tell me once,” a man named Riley said.
Everyone looked over at him with questioning eyes. “It was winter sixty-four, I think, freezing cold, sleeting, boot-sucking muddy—”
“Ah, the Kulnel’s favorite weather,” someone said, and the others laughed again.
“Anyhow, I rode up and said, ‘So Kulnel whar we headin’?’ Well, he pulls his haws to a complete stop, leans over, puts his hand on my shouldah and says, ‘Riley, can you keep a secret?’ And of course I says, ‘Yes suh!’ And he says, ‘So can I. Don’t ever ask me that again!’”
The group roared with laughter, making the old woods ring.
– – –
Andrea was in high spirits when Pierce took her arm to escort her to the program later, while Charlene stayed behind to care for the younger children. She found herself seated beside Carter in the front row, with Daniel beside her and Ellie and Pierce settling in to his left.
When all had gathered, Carter walked up onto the stage to offer an official greeting to his friends and their families. Andrea gazed at Carter and then to the large object covered by drapes, and began to figure out his motives for making her attend.
“…We felt it our duty to share with future generations the embodiment of all that is noble and pure and honorable in a man,” she heard Carter saying. “It is therefore with great pleasure that I unveil to you this day, a tribute in imperishable stone that will stand for all time as an enduring testament to the devotion, the valor and virtue of a legend.”
With Carter’s final words a curtain fell, and the audience gasped and then roared with thunderous applause. Andrea sat mesmerized, staring in wondrous admiration at the sight of a daunting life-sized statue of her husband rising in mythical splendor from the soil of the green meadow. It was just as she wished to remember him—reins taunt, Colt drawn, staring out over the horizon in the very direction of the battlefields where he had fought.
Andrea never blinked as she took in every detail of the statue that reflected in meticulous detail her husband’s strength and grace. His strong, powerful hand held firmly the reins, while his spurs were turned distinctly into his horse of stone. Her eyes drifted up to his face, chillingly and accurately portrayed. His jaw was set determinedly and his unforgettable eyes appeared to be literally blazing—as if gazing fearlessly into the eyes of Death. It was him: rugged, stalwart, impregnable as a mountain. She could not help but tremble in its presence, so true was the likeness to that which was once flesh and bone.
When the applause died down, Carter cleared his throat again. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have the additional honor to be blessed with the attendance of Colonel Hunter’s widow, whose presence here proves with certainty that Southern and Northern hearts are indeed forever linked in a common destiny.”
A solemn hush pervaded the sunny field, followed by a round of sparse and intermittent applause, as well as a few hushed whispers of utter dismay that a Yankee would be singled out among the crowd on this somber and glorious day.
“And I am hoping she would be kind enough to say a few words.”
Andrea looked up at him in horror and shook her head, but Carter stepped down and took her hand, giving her no choice but to follow. Stumbling blindly to the podium, she feared to gaze again at the image of the godlike spirit behind her, yet dreaded even more to gaze out at the staring, scrutinizing faces of the crowd.
When Carter left her side, Andrea stared down at the podium and then at the sky and then at her toes. “Good afternoon,” she finally said.
“I scarcely know what to say, but I am… I am deeply humbled by your resolve to pay tribute to the virtue and patriotism of my husband… my late husband.” Andrea’s eyes rose and fell on Carter who just smiled and nodded encouragement, and then on Pierce who simply winked. She took another deep breath, lifted her head, and began.
“As you can well imagine, I am more than a little apprehensive about standing before you today, for as most of you are aware, my heart, spirit and loyalty resided with the Union.”
Andrea spoke the words with sentiment and passion now as her nerves began to ease. She held her head held high, her resolute and rebellious eyes scanning the crowd.
“On the other hand, perhaps no one can have greater admiration for the brave soldiers of the Confederacy than those who opposed them and learned firsthand of their chivalrous conduct. I’m sure Colonel Hunter would be very proud of this tribute, and I know you must all feel, as I do, his presence with us here today.” At that moment a slight breeze stirred Andrea’s hair, and her cheeks turned rosy with emotion. With shoulders squared, she gazed into the distance as if receiving divine strength from that which no one could see.
“It has been a pleasure for me to mingle today with the remnants of this proud and gallant Command and to stand beside those who preferred death to dishonor. And though your Cause was not my own,” her eyes fell briefly on Pierce, “I can stand here today with unsurpassed admiration in the memory of your deeds.”
A hush spread over the field as the audience held onto her every word, and all that could be heard was the gentle flapping of the Southern Cross as it fluttered in the breeze over Andrea’s head.
“Despite my allegiance, I do not hesitate to laud your heroic devotion to your state and principles, as today we cast our eyes back to your noble and daring achievements. For I know that you fought and defended your homes, not in the spirit of anger or of hate, but in fulfillment of duty and a conviction for honor.” She paused. “As did I.”
She lifted her eyes and stared out into the audience again, biting her cheek, and clasping her hands together to keep them from shaking. “When I look out over this field, I see the faces of the men who witnessed the Colonel’s knightly valor, not from afar—as many who adored him did—but beside him. You were there at all times with him, without complaint and without hope of reward, undaunted and fearless in your deeds of unprecedented and noble daring, obeying his every command in the heat and hell of battle, even when asked to follow him, countless times, into the very jaws of death.
The audience remained silent, though it now seemed more out of deference to her words than a deliberate act to not acknowledge who was speaking them.
“Today, as you cast your eyes on the sacred emblem of the Confederacy, on the flag around which you rallied and beneath which brave comrades breathed their last, you can stand tall in the knowledge that your valor, your gallantry, your dauntless spirits have won for the South a glory that the wealth of the world could not purchase in all the tide of time.”
Here Andrea paused, though had she wanted to she could not have continued. The hills suddenly trembled with a long, loud, rolling yell of unearthly proportions as the aging warriors failed to suppress their patriotic devotion any longer.
When they had quieted, Andrea leaned forward and made eye contact with as many of the veterans as she could. “Believe me when I tell you, gentlemen, that the Colonel felt it his splendid privilege to serve beside you. To the end he thought of you, for you were as dear to his heart as the liberty and soil he defended. Please accept my deepest appreciation for your affectionate regard for him, and know that he left this earth profoundly pleased, truly proud and sincerely grateful to have had the good fortune, and indeed the supreme honor, to call you his men.”
Never did the old hills reverberate with heartier cheers, as it seemed an electric current surged through the crowd. Not a dry eye remained on the field, save perhaps a few dozen Virginian women who felt it their sacred duty to despise anything remotely Yankee, and believed it a horrible desecration of the gallant Colonel’s sacred memory to be honored by one. It might be the Christian thing to do to forgive wrong, but it was not the Christian thing to honor wrong.
– – –
Pierce saw Andrea standing alone beneath the towering monument, staring at the polished marble as dappled shadows from the lowering sun flickered across the inscription.
“It appears you approve.”
“I do not need a monument to be reminded of the worth of my husband, Mr. Pierce.” She turned around then, as if sorry she had spoken so abruptly. “I mean, I would rather have the man than a piece of stone honoring him.”
“But now future generations can know of the honorable services he rendered,” Pierce said. “And our nation can be forever reminded of the sacrifice and dedication of one of our Southern heroes.”
Andrea nodded with a wistful smile as she tried to change the subject. “I’ve been wishing to take a walk by the stream before we depart. Would you care to accompany me, Mr. Pierce?”
“You are welcome to call me Will,” he said, frowning at her obvious diversion. “And I would be most honored to escort you.”
Walking down the hill toward the sound of running water, neither spoke. Andrea turned around once to gaze at the memorial as the light of early sunset cast it in a red fiery blaze of glory. She turned then and sighed as she stared out over the fields where battle scars and graves had long since been covered over by Mother Nature. Looking at Pierce as if just remembering he was there, she proceeded down the hill. She had taken only a few steps when she stumbled slightly. Pierce reached out for her arm to steady her.
“Damn this leg,” Andrea said under her breath. “Oh, sorry for my language. Please pardon me.”
Pierce smiled and let her go. “No harm done. The old riding injury acting up, I suppose.”
Andrea had continued walking again and looked back over her shoulder. “Riding injury?” Then she laughed softly as if remembering a joke, and continued walking. “Oh, yes, the riding injury.”
Pierce touched her arm. “It was not?”
Andrea stopped and turned, then smiled awkwardly. “Yes, of course it was.”
“I don’t believe you now,” he said, studying her face. “You wouldn’t lie to an old friend.”
“All right, if you insist on knowing, I was a guest at Libby,” she said indifferently, as if speaking of a prestigious hotel. She grasped his arm for support and started walking again. “But I did not ask for your company to speak of the war.”
Pierce followed and reluctantly pressed her no more. But in his mind he tried to put together pieces of the impenetrable mystery of her past, the details of which she would never reveal and whose secrets were most likely known only by her husband, whose lips were sealed in death.
When they arrived at the water, they both stood silently on the bank a moment, their gazes locked on a leaf floating lazily downstream in the current of the pool.
“Alex would have been very proud of you today,” Pierce finally said.
Andrea looked up at him, her cheeks glowing with color. “Thank you for thinking so.”
He bent down, picked up a stone, and sent it skimming across the surface. “You know, there were those who thought you two would never last.”
Andrea watched the rock skip across the pool of water and then tried one of her own. “And what did you think of the union, Mr. Pierce?” She linked her arm in his as they began walking again.
“I could not have wished a more perfect match for a man I admired more than anyone in the world,” he said without thinking. Looking down at Andrea’s brimming eyes, he stopped and pulled her to face him. “I’m sorry. I did not mean to upset you.” He gently wiped away a tear with the back of his finger, and then offered her a handkerchief when another took its place. “I know his loss is hard on you.”
“It’s just that I’ve tried so hard to put the memories of the war behind me,” Andrea said, blotting away the tears, “and today… they all came rushing back.”
“Sometimes I wonder if we are really better off forgetting,” Pierce said, putting his arm around her waist as they began to walk again. “There’s a part of me that wants to remember… wants everyone to remember… the struggle … the sacrifice.”
Andrea sighed deeply as the statue came into sight. “Yes. How can we really ever forget those terrible, beloved days? They are the very fiber of us.”
Pierce nodded and gazed toward two young people sitting on a blanket beneath the memorial’s towering heights. “Who knew what would result from that fateful day when our destinies became intertwined,” he said musingly.”
Andrea smiled as she watched her son help young Ellie to her feet and head back down the hill. “There are things precious and imperishable,” she whispered, “that only God can foresee.”
– – –
“Mother.” Daniel watched his mother’s eyes open slowly. “Mother,” he said again.
“Yes, dear?” She turned her head toward him but her eyes appeared unfocused.
“I believe you were dreaming, Mother,” he said, “about the memorial.”
Andrea’s eyes met his then drifted over to his wife, Ellie, standing beside him.
“Yes,” she smiled weakly. “I guess it’s the fever. Funny, I remembered every moment of it.” She struggled to take a breath. “That was where you and Ellie met. Do you remember?”
“Yes, we remember,” Daniel said smiling at his wife. “But that was years ago.”
Her eyes closed again as if trying to remember something or account for the time lost. “Yes, I suppose it was,” she said. “Where is Alexandria?”
“I’m right here Nana.” The little girl stood on tiptoe, poking her nose over the side of the bed between her parents.
“Well, come up here and talk to me.” Andrea patted the covers.
Daniel helped his green-eyed bundle of energy up. “Why are you in bed so early, Nana?” Alexandria asked.
“I told you, Alexandria,” Daniel said. “Nana is not feeling well.”
“Maybe I can make you feel better.” Alexandria laid her head upon her grandmother’s chest and Andrea wrapped her arms around the child. But the little girl did not stay quiet long. She reached for the locket around Andrea’s neck and opened it. “There’s the Kulnel,” she said, staring at the faded image of Alex in uniform and speaking as if she knew him well. “My grandpapa.”
Daniel looked at the wistful smile on his mother’s face and knew she was thinking the same thing as he. This child would have had her grandfather wrapped tightly around her little finger.
Alexandria closed the locket and replaced her head on Andrea’s chest. “I wish he were here.”
“He’s very close, dear,” Andrea said. “He’s waiting for me.”
Alexandria sat up. “Can I see him?”
“Yes, some day. But for now, you must be a good girl for your mother and father.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Alexandria glanced at her father. “I am being a good girl, right, Papa?”
“Yes, you are being good today.”
Andrea must have noticed the tone of her son’s voice. “I fear she has inherited more of my traits than you would care her to have.”
“Grandpa Pierce says I’m just like you,” Alexandria said proudly. “He said when you were young, you were as fearless and stubborn as a Yankee—”
“Alexandria!” Her mother and father yelled in unison, trying to stop her.
“—mule,” she finished.
Andrea’s eyes lifted to her daughter-in-law. “Please tell your parents I was thinking of them today.”
Ellie gazed at Daniel with look of confusion. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Mother, don’t talk like this. I believe you are getting stronger every minute.” Daniel only hoped his voice did not betray him, because she looked weary and weak.
“I’m very tired today.” Andrea took a raspy breath. “Ellie, you will take good care of my son.”
Ellie looked at her husband with an expression of sadness and fear, her mother-in-law’s words causing the former—the commanding tone of her voice the latter. “Yes, ma’am.”
Daniel cleared his throat and pulled his wife away from the bed. “Will you send for the doctor?” he whispered, his voice filled with concern.
Ellie nodded. “Come with me Alexandria.” She backed out of the room on her errand, her eyes never leaving her mother-in-law until she was out the door.
“Son, will give you this to Ellie?” Andrea removed the Hawthorne medallion from her neck. “She is a part of Hawthorne now.”
Daniel sat down on the edge of the bed. “Mother, please don’t—”
“And this,” she continued, ignoring him. “I would like Alexandria to have this to remember her grandfather—always.” Andrea likewise handed him the locket that had not left its place next to her heart since the day her husband had presented it to her. Then, without hesitating a moment, she slipped Daniel’s ring from her finger, though her eyes were now closed from the effort. “Here, son. Your Uncle Daniel would be honored for his namesake to have this.”
Daniel reluctantly took the ring and watched his mother’s fingers move to her left hand. “Bury me with this one,” she said weakly of her wedding band. “He put it on.”
“Oh, Mother, please don’t talk like this,” Daniel sobbed, taking her hand in both of his. “I don’t wish you to leave!”
Andrea’s eyes were open now and staring at the flickering shadows created on the ceiling by the gas lamp beside her bed. “He has been waiting long enough.”
Daniel took a deep breath and spoke softly, placing his hand on her shoulder. “You mean, you have been waiting long enough.”
Andrea turned her head slowly to meet the eyes of her son. “You understand, don’t you, dear?”
“I know you have not the will to go on.” His eyes were moist with tears as he bent down and kissed his mother’s cheek. “You are sure you will see him?”
Andrea smiled peacefully, her eyes closed again. “Yes, I can see the stream.”
“And Father is there?”
“But you always dream of that. Yet, he is always on the other side, and you can never cross.”
“But tonight,” Andrea said, a smile beginning to light up her face, “tonight there is a bridge.”
Daniel held her hand and watched her take a deep struggling breath. Opening her eyes again, she turned her head to look him in the eye. Daniel waited breathlessly for her to speak, but her gaze shifted to somewhere over his shoulder, and her eyes began to dance and blaze with a sparkling look of vitality. Her lips turned upward into a joyful grin that was both shy and radiant. Cheeks that had been sallow, bloomed with an adoring blush, and she literally glowed with a light so bright that Daniel turned to see from where the illumination was coming.
By the time Daniel turned back, a peaceful smile had settled upon her face.
She was gone. Gone where her soul longed to be.
– – –
Twenty miles away, Isaac Carter stole away from a dinner party and retreated to a far window.
“Something wrong?” William Pierce came up behind him, sipping from a glass of brandy.
“I believe she has passed on,” Carter said calmly. “They are reunited.”
“Why do you say such a thing?” Pierce’s voice was full of distress. “I know she is very ill, but—”
“She did not die of the fever, Mr. Pierce,” Carter said knowingly. “She succumbed to a wound of the heart.”
Just then two dazzling flashes of lightning lit the sky, streaking and forking with brilliant intensity toward each other, until they touched and exploded into a violent roll of thunder that shook the windows in their casings and seemed to cause the entire house to tremble.
“Strange time of year for a thunderstorm.” Will stared out the window at the incredible celestial display with a puzzled look on his face, while other guests joined him to witness the strange autumn weather. “And that with no rain.”
“It’s no storm,” Carter said, with a hint of a smile on his face.
“Sparks are flying in heaven.”
He turned back around to face Pierce and repeated the words, taking silent reassurance in the rapture of united spirits.
“Sparks are flying in heaven.”